The Classic South African Safari

27 01 2015

I am heading out on the Classic South African Safari in the next couple of weeks, and thought there is no better way to prepare for a photographic safari, than to have a look through the archives and find some images taken on previous safaris from the same place at the same time of year to get me in the mood for what is to come.

February can be a tricky month to photograph wildlife in South Africa, because it is nearing the end of the rainy season, so the vegetation is quite dense, and you often have to deal with that annoying piece of grass that chose to grow right in front of the leopards face as she poses on a fallen tree! On the other side of the coin though it is green and lush, as compared to the dusty harshness of winter, which makes the setting so much more beautiful. It is also quite hot at this time of year, so it is always a good idea to keep an eye in the trees for resting leopards looking to escape the heat. The elephants too feel the heat, and will have a good splash around in the water and mud to keep themselves cool, which makes for some great images. Another real highlight at this time of year is that the migratory birds have not yet left on their northward journey to escape the South African winter. Many very colourful species will be around, hopefully in front of our cameras!

I always enjoy this time just before a great safari, thinking about what we might see and what images we will return with. Lets hope the animals come out and play; look out for a follow up blog post…

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A good start to the year

20 01 2015

Over twenty thousand greater flamingos in one salt lake is never a bad way to start the photographic year! Well actually, they start arriving at the salt lakes in November, but the big numbers only really start to appear in January, and when they arrive, the show really starts.

It s quite difficult to get into a good position for photography, because the salt lake is quite big, although only a few feet deep at the most. This means that the birds can feed at any point in the lake often leaving them out of reach of even the biggest lenses. Every now and again though, you can get a small group of flamingos that have separated themselves, and wandered a little closer to shore, or as I like to call it, within photographic distance. The second challenge becomes apparent quite quickly; which birds do I aim at? When there are a thousand plus birds to choose from in each small group, it can be difficult to find the right compositions. The ‘spray and pray’ technique of just photographing as much as possible in all directions doesn’t really work, because inevitably in all you shots you will have birds cut in half at the edges. The trick I find is to go back as often as possible, and see what the pretty pink birds are up to. Once you have worked out their patterns, the potential images start increasing, and with a little luck, you can actually get a nice little group shot, or even an individual!

As with all wildlife photographers, I would love to be able to get closer and see what kind of shots that would produce, but until I can work that out, I will keep photographing from the banks and see what new images I can make.

To join me on safari, click here!





Always the bad guy

5 11 2014

Always the bad guy, always hated, always the cowardly scrounger – the spotted hyena has caught a tough rap over the years. Partly because of the Lion King, but mostly because every time the hero gets a meal, those pesky hyenas are in there like a shot to steal it!

It must be said, that I like hyenas. I think they are very well designed, and excellent at their job – possibly better than most other predators roaming the savannah in Africa. It does not mean, however, that they don’t frustrate me endlessly! I have had many sightings of leopard/lion/cheetah actively hunting, and closing in on their quarry when a bumbling hyena stumbles into the sighting to see if there is anything on the go, chasing away the prey and ruining the hunt.

Photographing hyenas can be particularly exciting. They move freely through the bush looking for other predators, so the chance to see and photograph large predator interaction is quite high. We have all seen the classic battles between hyenas and lions (don’t lie, you always support the lions), but to actually be there witnessing the battle first hand is wonderfully exciting, and great for wildlife photography. Their relationship with leopards is slightly trickier, where one-on-one the hyenas usually win, but it does sometimes go the other way. You always need to keep the camera ready, because a short, sharp and often violent scuffle could break out at any moment.

There is another side to hyenas though. Their behaviour around their den sites is highly contrasting to their business personas. They are very caring and nurturing mothers (the males play no role, and are treated like lepers in medieval times), and show their young ones the sort of patience that a paint-drying-wall-watcher displays while in the middle of their hobby. The cubs are cute as you like, and their little personalities show right from the first time they leave the den to explore their immediate little world. To me, they often make the best photographs, because they become comfortable with the safari vehicles quite quickly, and are often very playful.

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Grumpy old men

15 10 2014

Imagine a seriously grumpy old man that weighs in at a ton-and-a-half, runs at forty kilometers per hour (twenty five miles an hour) (keep in mind that Usain Bolt’s top speed – between meters sixty and eighty – is forty-four kilometers per hour) and has an incredible ability to destroy anything in front of it, and you have the wonderful black rhino.

These massive beasts are quite peaceful when they are left alone, but when confronted, they have a tendency to shoot first, shoot some more, shoot again, and then only think about asking some questions… This behavioral trait of theirs, can make it quite difficult to get decent photographs of them, as it is often difficult to get close enough, safely. The other major factor limiting their time in front of our cameras, is poaching. They (together with the white rhinos) have unfortunately been poached into the ‘critically endangered’ IUCN category, which makes them a little rarer than rare.

On a recent photographic safari however, we were lucky enough to spend some quality time in the company of these quality characters. We spent a good deal of time with each of the rhinos we saw, giving us great photographic opportunities – something I have seldom had with black rhinos, and something I can not wait to do again! One rhino in particular put on a great show, as he had found a scent (either of a female, or a rival male), and he was on a mission to find the scent’s owner. He moved back and forth, often right in front of us, and took some time to leave his scent behind, letting all the other rhinos know who was in charge. This kept our cameras clicking away, and put some solid smiles on our faces!

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A real treat

7 10 2014

When you go on a photographic safari in Africa, it is usually the big animals that steal the show. Finding the smaller, more shy antelopes is not on everyone’s to-do list, so they are not often on the business end of a camera. On a recent safari however, we went in search of one of the rarest antelopes in South Africa, the diminutive but adorable suni.

Standing thirty to forty centimetres at the shoulder (12 – 17 in) these little antelope are quite difficult to find. We spent a good deal of time searching the thick undergrowth where they like to spend the day hiding from predators (they are more active at night which doesn’t really help us either). Being so small in Africa means there are a lot of safety concerns, because even the eagles are bigger than you, and because of this, they rely heavily on their camouflage, and don’t move until the last second when they flee into the thickets. We searched an area of forest called Sandveld Forest, where they are known to occur, and managed to see a flash of movement as they ran away on a couple of occasions. On our second day of trying, we spotted a beautiful female standing in the open, sort of. It took a bit of creative manoeuvring to get the camera through the initial wall of leaves, but eventually we got to get a clear look, and managed two or three photos before she went bounding off into the forest. The males look almost the same, but have short, sharp, straight horns.

It is the first time I ever been lucky enough to get photographs of a suni antelope. It needs no explaining how happy I am.

To join me on safari, click here!





Good light and good times

30 09 2014

So often on safari you find yourself in the most glorious afternoon or morning light with no animals to photograph. The opposite also applies, where you find yourself with a leopard, tiger or any other animal for that matter, and the light is horrible. Only on a few occasions, do all the right variables come together and produce a magical sighting!

We were on a photographic safari recently, and had the good fortune of spending a couple afternoons with a small family of cheetah. The mother and three eighteen month-old cubs were on the move, looking for something to chase. The mother had a different agenda to her three boys. She had the unenviable job of trying to feed four large cheetahs, while the young lads were just keen to chase anything, and try their luck at hunting. They had caught and killed their own prey before, but that must have been luck, because from the chases that we saw it didn’t look like they knew their trade very well.   The family spotted a herd of wildebeest and zebra at the far end of an open area – perfect terrain, but not perfect prey. The zebras were way too large, even if all four cheetahs pooled their efforts, so they were out the game. All except two of the wildebeest were fully-grown, also effectively taking them out of the question. The only real options for the hungry cheetahs were the two sub adult wildebeest hanging around the edges of the herd. All four cheetahs were stealthily moving in, when two of the young males started chasing each other. The mother sat down patiently, and waited for them to finish their game of tag. Eventually, they remembered what they doing, and re-focused on the matter at hand. They covered the distance between themselves and their quarry with ease, almost fooling us into thinking they were on the right track when all three just burst with excitement and ran at the herd. They had no real plan, they just ran. They chased the confused wildebeest all over the clearing, in all directions. As embarrassing as their attempt was, it was wonderful for photography, because for around ten minutes (a cheetah chase usually only last about 10 seconds if you are lucky) we had three cheetah chasing wildebeest around, in the open, in the afternoon sun! The shutters went crazy trying to pick up as much of the action as possible – this was camera heaven!

They came nowhere close to actually catching any of the wildebeest, but they would have learnt a few hunting lessons, number one being patience.

To join me on safari, click here!





High in the mountains

24 09 2014

Birds are not the easiest subjects to photograph. They are never close enough, often very small and move very quickly making it difficult to get them in focus. Now when you are trying to photograph magnificent and extremely rare bearded vultures, you have altitude to deal with as well (these birds are only really found 2000 meters [6562 feet] above sea level). Luckily there is a solution…

Tucked away into the Drakensburg Mountains in South Africa, is a hide that gives you a great opportunity to photograph these unique vultures, as well as a host of other very cool birds. Sitting high up on the ridge of a valley, you couldn’t be better positioned to watch the birds soaring, sometimes only a few meters away from you. My camera was sent into overdrive, as the birds would come past using the thermals to scout out their next meal.

The bearded vulture is an unusual feeder. It is the only known living bird that feeds on bone marrow. It will eat carrion like the other vultures, but specialises in eating bones. They will take a piece of bone that is too big for them to swallow high up into the air, and skilfully drop it onto the rocks below, breaking it up into smaller more manageable bits. This art form takes several years to perfect, and the young birds will do this frustratingly over and over until they eventually get it right.

Riding the thermals in amongst the bearded vultures, are the large cape vultures. These birds are equally impressive as their bearded friends with a wingspan reaching 2.6meters (8.5 feet)! These true vultures are not quite as shy as the bearded vultures, and are quite prepared to land on the rocks in front of the hide, and see if there is any meat on the bones that have been left out for them. They are the largest bird in the area and don’t really have too many concerns, but once they have landed, they have to contend with a sneaky black-backed jackal who has worked out that everyday bones have been left out for the birds. It is very entertaining watching the jackal try to outsmart the vultures, and every so often the jackal realises the vultures are keeping up with its game and charges in, sending the big birds frantically flapping away. Our cameras enjoy this interaction a lot more than the vultures do. Between all the vultures and jackals, there are a host of other birds that keep the cameras working all morning long, giving plenty of great photographic opportunities.

To join me on safari, click here!








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