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.

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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!