Wednesday, 25 September 2013

African Birds - Part 2

Carmine Bee Eater
Carmine Bee Eaters
We came across this group, five or six in all, flitting around at ground level.
This one was using elephant poo as a vantage point.
Carmine Bee Eater (in flight)
Little bee eater
Malachite kingfisher
Canon EF 300mm f2.8 + 2X Extender 1/1250s @ f9, ISO 640
Malachite kingfisher
A tiny little bird the size of a mouse. We got great shots of it from the boat. 
With the engine off, you can slowly glide into the reed beds without disturbing the wildlife
Canon EF 300mm f2.8 + 2X Extender 1/1250s @ f9, ISO 640
Pied kingfisher
These tiny birds are quite common along the banks of the Chobe river. If you see one, there'll probably be another nearby.
Canon EF 300mm 2.8 lens with 2X Extender, 1/1600s @ f10, ISO 500
Giant Kingfisher
This is the giant kingfisher. It's quite uncommon in the Chobe region so I was especially lucky to get this snap before it flew off.
EF 300mm f2.8 lens with 2X Extender (i.e. 600mm).  1/2000s @ f5.6, ISO 400.
African Fish Eagle
These magnificent raptors can be seen throughout Southern Africa - usually perched high up on a vantage point such as a dead tree. This guy was drinking from the Chobe river and illustrates how good it is to shoot from a small boat. We cruised to about three metres from the bird and beached the dingy. This gave us an eye-to-eye view of the eagle for 15 minutes or so - it was not fazed by our presence

Tawny Eagle This is a large raptor seen in the game parks of Zimbabwe and further afield. Notable for its all over light to dark brown plumage.

Grey Heron in flight
Like most moving subjects, capturing any bird in flight is a tough ask. The Canon EOS 5D MkIII has awesome AF capabilities, far superior to the MkII, so, once focused and locked onto a subject, providing you can hold the subject in the AF area and have AF Servo set, it  holds focus with a high degree of accuracy
Collared Pratincole
Pratincoles are unusual among waders in that they typically hunt their insect prey on the wing like swallows, although they can also feed on the ground.
Purple Heron
This large heron was spotted on the banks of the Chobe river one afternoon - although quite large, it is also shy so moved almost every time we can within shooting range. Most photo blogs say that for good bird shots, you need a 500mm lens at least. This was shot using a 600mm focal length. Canon EF 300mm f2.8 lens with +2X Extender, f9 @ 1/4000s, ISO 800
Lilac-breasted Roller
This bird is quite common throughout Southern Africa and makes a great shot because of its brilliant colour, especially when in flight (but that's very hard to capture!).
African Skimmer
This is a weird-looking bird that flies very fast along the surface of lakes and rivers literally trolling for fish. The lower part of its bill is kept underwater till it finds a fish which is then very quickly snapped up. Shooting these on the wing is very hard as the birds fly fast and low over the water.
Cape Glossy Starling
These are quite common in Zimbabwe and Botswana. Its iridescent plumage is very distinctive but it is also quite hard to get a good image of them as the light is often wrong and the bird merely looks like a European Starling with little or no colour

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Hot on the trail of the King/Queen of Beasts

We were driving to a waterhole for our sundowners (how we will miss those!) when our noses were assaulted by the unmistakeable aroma of decomposing elephant. It was indescribable. Our guide stopped the vehicle and consulted with his colleague following behind - they knew of the elephant carcass and suspected that lions might have commandeered it. A quick check of the road revealed distinct (to them) tracks of several lions heading into the bush in the direction of the stench.

A hurried decision was made to escort the most intrepid of us into the bush to see the carcass and reccy for lions.
We were given strict instruction NOT to run, squeal or make any unnecessary noise and to walk in single file so we looked like one entity. The lead guide, Peter, (channelling Steve Irwin) carried a loaded double-barrelled elephant rifle and Nicholas brought up the rear with his own weapon at the ready.
The leaf litter was dried to a crisp so walking quietly was tricky. We crept towards the overpowering stink of decomposing elephant. After 25 metres we could clearly hear the low and very menacing growl of one, or more lions, clearly now aware of our presence.

Here we are setting off in single file but still making enough noise to wake the dead.
Peter sights the first lion, about 30 metres ahead, and cautions us to hold still. Three lions, probably juveniles, run off to the left and disappear into the scrub (not hard to do seeing that we could barely see anything in this thick, scrubby vegetation).
It was clear to me that I was NOT going to get the definitive lion shot on this occasion - if we were going to live at all (I think we were all just a bit nervous) so I decided to pop off a few snaps to document what we were doing. Peter has his firearm at the ready in case the remaining lion decided to do a 'mock' charge. How do you tell it's a mock charge, I ask. It's the one where no one gets mauled. OK, at this point, I'm looking around for a climbable tree...
The stink of the dead elephant is quite appalling - a rotting carcass is bad enough but when it's the size of an adult elephant, the pong is serious. It was thought that this might have just died of natural causes - usually either old age or more likely, of anthrax.
That's about as far as we got. I saw the three lions rush off, stage left - frightened by our presence but the one lioness (or was it two) remaining let out quite a fierce roar. Low and very menacing. Clearly the stinky elephant was hers and she was not going to give it up. Peter made the wise decision to get us all to back off and we slowly edged backwards towards the road and out of immediate danger. Interestingly these guides instilled in us a strong feeling of confidence/safety in what, on the surface, could have been a totally foolhardy exercise. Their collective firepower helped a bit, but at the end of the day, you do rely entirely on the experience of your guides to keep you 100% safe.
One thing I DO KNOW about Africa. Never run! If you run, you are lunch...

Monday, 23 September 2013

The Eternal Elephant

Elephants are probably my favourite animal - if I had to name one. All are of interest in Africa, and not just the predictable big five. I have learned more about elephants on this trip to Africa than on any of my others - perhaps because I have had more time on this trip to ask questions, but also because the guides at one camp, The Hide in Zimbabwe's Hwange national Park, were exceptional in both their enthusiasm and the depth of their knowledge. As we arrived a few days ago, it was the close of the animal census.
Two volunteers had sat counting the number of elephant that came to the Hide's large waterhole. At the end of the count, there were 452 visitors the waterhole. We saw the last bunch, arriving in family groups of 12 to 15 to 25 at a time. A truly amazing sight. The oldest in each group would signal to the rest of the family when it was time to go with a deep, chest rumble that can travel for hundreds of metres, if not kilometres. Once one group moved off, another magically appeared out of the gloom and sploshed into the water. The babies were especially neat, frolicking in the mud then flicking dust and sand onto their backs to keep the bugs off.

One of several in a herd feeding on the banks of the Chobe river. A water safari from a small six-seat tinny is a great way to creep up on wildlife - elephants and especially small birds.

A younger elephant leads the way as the family negotiate a narrow strip of
land surrounded by the Chobe river.

Sunset at the waterhole. Hwange Nat Park.
The dominant male leads the family, all suitably cloaked in dust and mud, back into the bush. This was my best shot from this sequence, with the lead elephant clearly out in front and highlighted by shooting at f4 @ 1/800s with my 300mm lens + 1.4X converter.
On average an elephant can suck up eight litres of liquid in its trunk. The trunk is also lined with pressure sensors that, along with similar sensors in the soles of the feet, detect vibrations. These are used to warn of possible danger - these receptors bypass eyes and nose and go straight to the brain - so the animal can sense danger even if it cannot see or smell warning signs.

While sitting in the Hide's own small hide, I got a bit bored. There were a few small birds, mostly ring-necked doves, poddling about on the water's edge. I looked away for a few seconds and then looked back and there was an elephant drinking from the water hole. They are very quiet. Within a minute twelve more arrived and were happily jostling for space at the water's edge.

Within a few minutes my long 300mm lens was completely useless and an increasing number of elephants came to the waterhole to drink. It was a great sight. Best tip when shooting elephants? Set the Exposure Compensation to minus one f-stop, maybe even minus 1.3 or 1.7 to compensate for the dark subject matter. If you don't, your elephants are likely to appear light grey. This can be fixed at the edit stage but it's always better to get it right from the start.

The Hide, Hwange Nat Park
(used to be called Wankie National Park)
Once the elephants have drunk enough to slake the immediate thirst, they frolic in a mud wallow to cake their skin, thus providing protection from the heat, bugs and moisture loss.
Elephants are also excellent swimmers.

Lion Hunt in Hwange

Bored or tired, one of the males that sat under a tree while the five females (plus cub) initiated the attack strategy (all pics, except the vultures, by Natalie)

Witnessing a 'kill' in Africa is one of the things most visitors say they want to experience. But somewhat ironically, once seen, many then say they could have done without the "reality". It can be a messy, brutal and not necessarily fast process. I decided to take the option of spending the afternoon in the one of the two hides at The Hide, a game resort in Hwange Nat Park in Western Zimbabwe. It's an awesome location and a place full of game and elephants! Elephants everywhere. On the day we arrived, the park was conducting a census. They counted 452 elephants at the Hide's waterhole. It was spectacular. Anyway, I got settled in to the hide and Nat went off on a game drive. 

This is probably the more experienced lioness beginning the hunt - adopting that typical cat-like pose when prey has been sighted.

Finally the buffalo is dead and the lions take turns in tearing into the flash. We returned the next day to find upwards of 200 white-backed vultures fighting over the remains of the carcass...

Not many animals were showing themselves. We drove out quite a distance alongside the railway line, glimpsing the odd hornbill and steenbok (fairly common sightings). Nicholas, our guide, had an idea that something might be going down in a sparsely vegetated area some distance off so that's where we headed. Through his binoculars, Nicholas glimpsed movement. "There are lions" he said. There were two male lions sitting under a tree not far off. We approached, cautiously.. We stopped to take snaps, then Nicholas noticed several more lions and a small group of buffalo. "They're hunting" said Nicholas. Sure enough the elder lioness was clearly stalking the buffalo.

The other lionesses, accompanied by a young cub were approaching the buffalo from the other direction. The males showed no interest from their post under the tree. Then it all started. The lioness cut one of the buffalo from the pack. It tried to charge the threat but one of the lionesses jumped on its back and pretty soon six lions joined in the fray. The cub circled at a safe distance. The buffalo fought valiantly but eventually, with the aid of one male lion that pounced on its back, was brought to the ground.
The process was confronting to watch as more than once the buffalo managed to get back on its feet and run even after being savagely bitten and slashed. It was interesting to note that the lions kept well away from its horns and it was the sheer weight of attackers that eventually defeated the buffalo. It took at least 20 minutes to finish the job.

Finally brought to a standstill, the buffalo succumbs to the overwhelming animal firepower of six hungry and determined lions
Shot from a distance in fast fading light with the Canon EF 100-400mm (at full magnification and ISO 4,000), you can still get a good impression of the drama unfolding. Bear in mind these images were shot from a jeep using only a monopod for stability.
Aftermath of the hunt. 200+ vultures eventually move in to clean up what the lions did not finish.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Baboon Business

Here are some shots taken mostly from a small (tinny) boat cruising down the Chobe river - although you do feel a bit exposed, especially as the river is infested with large (2.5m+) crocs, hippos and swimming elephants, it's a really good way to photograph small birds in the reeds and anything else that wanders down for a drink in the river.  Now the collective noun for a group of baboons is a troupe or a congress.  Here are a few snaps we made one evening a couple of days ago.  I thought these would need some appropriate captions...

"Now where exactly did you say that flea problem was?"

A tiny young baboon trying to get some milk before the mother moves off

A baby this small makes almost no difference to the mobility of the mother

Baboons are very social animals and , like humans, have disputes that are loud, often quite intimidating but thankfully, short-lived...

"Ooooh Yuk, How long have you had that?"

"Bloody contact lenses"

"Would you like your parting on the left or on the right Sir?"

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Day 13: Walvis Bay Flamingoes

Driving from Sossusvlei into Swakopmund takes you over some quite rugged country on gravel roads. It’s about 380kms and takes most of the day. Hard, hot, nervous driving if you are not familiar with unsealed driving conditions. Twenty kilometres from the coast you suddenly hit black top – it’s a weird experience as the vehicle suddenly stops complaining and the tyres run virtually silent on the smooth surface. The main road passes through Walvis Bay (pronounced in Africaans, 'Vaalfish' Bay) so we pootled into the town to check out the flamingoes that were supposed to inhabit the only natural harbor on this part of the coast.  

Soon found ourselves sitting on the board walk in front of 50,000 flamingoes feeding on the mud flats. It’s an impressive site. We even found a spot where they came close to the shore so we could get reasonably good snaps of them feeding. Drive south out of Walvis Bay and you end up in the salt pans – hectares of low lying ponds full of sea water slowly evaporating to form salt beds that were being commercially harvested. There were a few flamingoes here – and at the salt pans north of Swakopmund too, but it was also a sad place. There is ample evidence of predation – loads of dead flamingoes amid multiple jackal tracks.

For a predator, the massed formations of birds wading in six inches of salty soup must be heaven on earth. One can only wonder how the salt, piled high in glistening mountains waiting to be trucked out of town, is cleaned of all the dead bird carcasses, droppings and goodness knows what else before it appears on our supermarket shelves. The smell of decay around the edges of these briny lagoons was quite unpleasant.  I’m considering a salt-free diet from now on.
There are two types of flamingo visible here: the greater and the lesser flamingo. Standing at one metre and 60-70cms respectively, these birds are naturally white in colour and only attain that typical pinkish hue from ingesting large amounts of algae in the food chain. It’s weird because some birds look like Barbie accessories they are soooooo pink, almost red in colour while others, presumably sickly or undernourished specimens, appear ghostly white in colour. The birds in the salt pans were significantly more wary than those in Walvis Bay (presumably because of the jackals) so we couldn’t get that close for a good shot, even with a 300mm + 2X Extender.
We drove back into town and spent an hour or two watching them from the seafront as they snuffled up and down the shoreline in the mud and algae.