Early one morning, a little after successfully avoiding the traditional mad “first out the gate” rush out of Satara Camp, we decided to take a leisurely drive towards Orpen Gate. Before turning off towards Orpen, we decided to continue south for a short distance to take a look for action at a largish pond in the N’wanetsi River, located below the bridge where the tar road crosses the river’s course.
From the bridge we saw two beautiful Saddle-billed Storks fishing in the pond, and in order for me to get the best shooting position possible we decided to drive on past the bridge, make a U-turn and then position the car on the bridge as close as possible to the railings.
While making the U-turn, a huge bull elephant silently emerged from the riparian vegetation to the right of the road and ambled slowly in the direction of the pond to the left of the bridge. Once the elephant had crossed the road and lumbered down to the pond, we parked the car on the bridge as planned. The elephant was busy drinking at the far end of the pond, obscured somewhat by the trees.
We fixed our attention on the two storks as they waded in the pond below us, totally focussed on catching their breakfast.
We could not have asked for a better setting and lighting conditions, and we got stuck into taking some of our best ever images of these wonderfully elegant birds.
After some minutes spent admiring the storks’ fishing prowess, we heard loud but distant grunting from the East. Lion?!
I reversed the car for about 50 meters, and then we heard the grunting again, but this time from a bit closer than before. I parked the car on the right hand verge and we waited, encouraged by the regularly repeating grunts coming closer and closer.
A short loud moan focused our gaze in the direction of a huge male lion as it majestically emerged from the tall golden grass just over a hundred meters from us, back-lit by the slowly rising sun.
The huge cat steadily padded directly towards us, giving off the occasional grunt or short roar. We heard more grunting and short roars from the direction in which the lion had appeared, and we knew we would be enjoying a repeat performance if all goes to plan!
The huge cat crossed the road just in front of our car, pausing for just a few seconds to take a casual look at us. It’s absolutely intimidating looking eyeball-to-eyeball at a 200 kg plus male lion just 3 meters away, with only a thin sheet of glass between you and him. Silvia started to lower her window to take some close-up shots – she was closer to him. I was not at all keen and blocked her by activating the override button…. with the consequential daggers being stared at me – even more intimidating than the lion’s stare earlier.
As the first lion walked off down into the densely vegetated riverbed to our left, Silvia noticed the appearance of a second male lion following the exact same route as the first. He was as large as the first, but with a lot less scarring on his face. This cat followed the exact same procedure that the first male had set, including the brief arrogant stare from his honey coloured eyes.
Once the second lion had followed the first into the vegetation, a third lion announced his impending arrival. After a while he too appeared on the exact same route as the first two; slower, much older and far more battle-scarred – we thought probably their father. He slowly walked past us grunting softly, ignoring us totally as he too disappeared into the bush. Arrogant sod!
The elephant bull had in the interim also moved on, as had the storks, leaving us no option but to drive on towards Orpen in the hope of further wonderful sightings
Bird watching in Panama is very much like driving through the Kruger and constantly being confronted by “Big 5” hunters. Instead of constantly having to reply to “have you seen lions?”, in Panama the question that you are confronted with is more like “donde estan los quetzales?”
In my estimation, the Resplendent Quetzal is one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful bird in the world. Naturally, birders from all over the planet visit Boquete and the Chiriqui Highlands in their droves during the nesting season between February and April, in order to just get a glimpse of this relatively common but very elusive bird in the glory of it’s breeding plumage.
Silvia and I have seen them quite often, but have only had a single opportunity to photograph them at close quarters, and that on a miserable day in late February 2020 with dense cloud cover. We had nothing better do that day than to go check out a pretty vague tip we had been given by friends who had been taken to see quetzals by a local tourist guide.
It took some time and effort to eventually find them high up in the hills in dense cloud forest vegetation. “Cloud forest” means just that 80% of the time, a tropical forest cloaked in dense cloud. Even though the male quetzal was sitting motionless on its tree perch less than 10 meters away from where I was kneeling, the conditions for photography were pretty grim considering the absence of sunlight to penetrate and light up the dark canopy. It was frustrating having to shoot at low speeds and ISO setting upwards of 6’400, knowing full well that graining of the final images would not be very pretty despite the excellent noise reduction capabilities of the DxO editing software I use.
Then, totally unexpectedly, a gap appeared in the cloud cover, allowing the sun to light up the forest and the quetzal for a few moments, providing a window to shoot at much friendlier speeds and ISO levels.
The result is this first semi-decent quetzal image that I can use for my blog.
Since then, Panama along with the rest of the world was forced into a plague induced lockdown. In our case we had to wait over a year before we could again venture out into the rainforest.
During the year-long “incarceration” on our Boquete estate, Silvia and I had lots of time to reflect on our lives and ask the questions “what really makes me/us happy?” and “what is really important to me/us?”. We both admitted to ourselves and each other that we were not truly happy in Panama, and came to the realization we were only happy and content when we were in the bush and with our friends in South Africa.
Silvia and I have now relocated to George, South Africa. It was not an easy process, but, absolutely worth it.
I must confess that one of the birds that’s been on my “bucket list” for some considerable time is the Nerina Trogon, which is a close relative of the Resplendent Quetzal. I’m still hoping to find one when next we visit the Lowveld. I admit I have often been heard asking around, “have you seen a Nerina Trogon?”
On countless times, while driving around in the Kruger, a specific rock, tree or feature has brought back special previous encounters with the citizens of the bush, providing much fun recounting these experiences to one another.
One afternoon on our way back to camp at Biyamiti on the Crocodile River Road, just before arriving at the bridge over the Biyamiti River, Silvia and I raved about the beautiful close-up images we had taken of a White-fronted Bee-eater sitting on the branch of a dead Leadwood stump not 5 meters from the edge of the bridge two days previously.
As we slowly approached the bridge we automatically looked out for the dead tree and were very surprised to see that the exact same branch was again occupied by a beautiful bird, this time a Brown-headed Kingfisher.
It was magical déjà vu. The kingfisher was totally relaxed, just as the bee-eater had been, allowing us to slowly approach until we were directly opposite him.
Our cameras were put to good use until we had enough good photographic material. Thereafter we had some quiet time, just sitting and watching the bird.
However, time never stands still, and neither does the traffic in the Kruger. The line of cars waiting on both approaches to the single-lane bridge had become so long that we soon realized we just had to move on.
Two basically identical experiences at the same time of day, with just one very minor variation in the “details”.
Late in May 2019, we spent a wonderful morning slowly driving up to the Babalala picnic-spot along the road which meanders along the Mphongolo River past Sirheni bushcamp.
For the entire 31 km length of the loop road, we experienced literally hundreds of thirsty elephants chaotically competing for water at the few pools left in the quickly drying river bed, accompanied by loud trumpeting amid huge dust clouds. This will feature as a separate story in a future blog episode.
After enjoying being able to stretch our legs at Babalala and chatting with others that had also had a similar experience that morning, we decided to drive back down to camp at Shingwedzi on the same road we had come.
Of course the drive back entailed nervously threading our way through an almost endless succession of elephantine roadblocks – the herds had moved away from the water and were now foraging in the riparian forest through which the road meanders.
We spotted a smallish herd of eland in the river bed to our right, wanting to leave the river bed in our direction. They were pretty well spooked by the many elephants in the vicinity and thus very nervous. As they had noticed us, the eland milled around on the river bank for a while and then disappeared into the thickets slightly ahead of us. We had also stopped, as there were elephants in the vegetation on either side of the road a little way ahead of us, and I didn’t want to drive on until I had assessed their general demeanour and intentions.
There was suddenly lots of loud trumpeting and the sound of heavy bodies crashing through the vegetation coming from the general direction of the thickets where the eland had previously disappeared into. This heralded the entire eland herd thundering out of the vegetation in single file and galloping over the road in front of us. The first shot I could get in was an instinctive shot of the lead eland as it took off mid-road in a magnificent leap into the Mopane bushes lining the left verge of the road.
The remainder of the herd followed in short order, racing over the road – not one of them bothering to attempt to entertain us with another one of those giant leaps which they are so famous for.
During our traditional “post-mortem” sundowner drinks on our bungalow’s veranda later that afternoon, we could clearly see on the laptop screen why the lead eland had been able to jump so high and far.
It had grown wings – proof enough that eland do in fact drink “Red Bull”!
During our visit to the Kruger in 2017, one of the day trips we made from Olifants Camp entailed driving out towards Phalaborwa Gate, spending an hour or two at the Sable Dam bird hide, and then returning to camp. I personally prefer visiting Sable Dam well before midday, as the sun is behind you when looking out over the dam from the hide.
Sable Dam was very quiet when we got there, and while we spent about an hour in the hide we did not see very much. We decided to drive back to the main tarred road following the tracks through the Mopane thickets along the dam’s shoreline.
At one of the vantage points overlooking the shoreline, we disturbed a large flock of cattle egrets at the water’s edge. We took a few shots of them as they took off to go settle on the other side of the narrow inlet. We decided to wait there for a while hoping to get more shots of these wonderfully elegant birds in flight, but it was apparently their siesta time.
We saw that there was quite a large dust cloud developing over the dense Mopane bushveld behind the egrets, and soon realised why when an advance party of around 20 huge buffaloes emerged from the trees and lumbered down to the water to wallow in its cool wetness.
The dust cloud was progressively getting closer and we started hearing the bellowing of many more thirsty buffaloes underway. As we became aware of the herd’s smell, a steady stream of these huge behemoths suddenly emerged from the trees to join their colleagues already in the water.
After a while, there were well over five hundred buffaloes milling about, taking turns drinking their fill. It was almost as if a huge conveyor belt was steadily disgorging thirsty buffaloes at the waters edge to replace the sated animals that moved off to rest on the slopes of the dam. There was much pushing and shoving going on, but it seemed pretty well organized and every buffalo got a turn to drink.
Once the drinking orgy was over, while one or two pairs of bulls sparred half-heartedly with each other in the shallows, the majority of the beasts lay down closely together to form a sea of horns spreading from the shoreline back into the Mopane thickets.
After a short rest, the leading buffaloes got up and slowly starting walking back into the bush they had emerged from half an hour earlier. The others followed suit, and 15 minutes later it was all over.
We had sufficient time for a leisurely drive back to camp, including a stopover at Letaba Camp to enjoy an ice cream while taking in the wonderful panoramic view over the river bed spread out in front of the restaurant patio.
Just another perfect day in Africa
Silvia and I first visited Panama in late February and early March of 2017.
While based at a B&B in Boquete, we made a number of day trips down to the wonderful beaches on the shores of the Gulf of Chiriqui.
The 12 km long grey sandy beach at Las Lajas was highly recommended to us as we were looking to experience a typical Panamanian beach catering mainly to the locals. When we got to Las Lajas, before hitting the beach we decided to drive along the dirt road running parallel to the beach some 200m from the shoreline, in the hope of seeing some of the abundant bird- and wild-life Las Lajas has to offer.
We were not disappointed. We spotted quite a number of different bird species including the ubiquitous Turkey Vultures and numerous Frigate Birds lazily flying overhead. We enjoyed watching a splendid cinnamon coloured Savanna Hawk in the distance, as it repeatedly swooped down from a small tree to catch insects– we were in heaven even if the action was too far away to take any photos.
Our first opportunity to shoot anything meaningful presented itself when we found an adolescent Great Black Hawk less than successfully trying to forage for prey in tallish grass around 10 meters off the road. After some time, the heat from the direct sun must have gotten too much for the hawk as it flew off and settled on a branch in a nearby shady tree.
I took a few shots of the hawk in the new location, but was not too happy as the lighting in the dense shade was pretty poor despite the sun shining strongly overhead. Not really optimum conditions to get pin-sharp images.
I had started taking the camera away from my face in order to put it on my lap when suddenly all hell broke loose. The Great Black Hawk was under attack from the same Savanna Hawk which we had been observing earlier a few hundred meters back on the opposite side of the road.
After about 5 seconds it was all over. The victorious Savanna Hawk flew off to a nearby coconut palm while the Great Black Hawk disappeared quickly into the dense undergrowth.
I was pretty upset, as I was convinced that I had yet again missed out on a special opportunity to photograph a unique interaction between two different species of raptors – I genuinely had no immediate recollection of actually having taken any shots of the fight.
Silvia assured me that I had in fact shot a rapid sequence of photos of the fight, which we confirmed while reviewing the last sequence of photos on the review monitor. Somehow I must have instinctively returned the camera viewfinder to my eye and simultaneously pressed and held the shutter button down until it was all over.
The final quality of the images was not as good as I would have liked, but at least I had something to show this time.
African Oystercatchers are one of my favourite species of bird to photograph. To me their pitch black plumage with crimson accents strategically provided by their legs, beaks and eye lids makes them exceptionally photogenic. Combined with the correct background, crashing surf for instance, you just can’t go wrong.
I “discovered” these magnificent creatures after my parents retired to Mossel Bay. When visiting them over the Christmas holidays with my family, one of the highlights for me would be to go “hunting” for Oystercatchers on the beach at Dana Bay and the rocks of Fransmanshoek.
Silvia and I went Oystercatcher “hunting” in the Dana Bay dunes a few years back, and were frustrated by numerous pairs of these nervous birds flying off before we could get even close to a distance which would allow for semi-decent shots.
We had basically given up and had started walking back slowly through the dunes towards the car park when we saw a flock of 6 Oystercatchers flying towards us over the breakers on the right, making as if they wanted to land. As there was a row of dunes between us and the shoreline, we quickly dropped down behind the dune and waited for the birds to settle before carefully looking up over the top.
What a wonderful sight as they paraded down the beach right in front of where we were lying ….
During our visit to Scotland in 2016 we were very pleasantly surprised to find Eurasian Oystercatchers almost everywhere, even miles inland from the nearest coast. We spent two weeks hiking on the Isle of Skye and the North of mainland Scotland. The sheer cliffs of Noss Head at the northernmost point of Scotland are home to many of these beautiful birds.
We also had the privilege of fitting in a visit to the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth between many wonderful rounds of golf at the wonderful Crail Golf Club. The Isle of May is home to thousands of nesting pairs of Puffins during May and June, as well as a substantial Oystercatcher population.
As previously mentioned in one of my first blog articles, we have regularly encountered American Oystercatchers on our visits to the beaches in the Gulf of Chiriqui. These aren’t as skittish as their European and African cousins. The dark volcanic sand beaches are a perfect stage on which to present these exquisite birds.
Hopefully I’ll still get to photograph some of the 5 species of Oystercatchers to be seen around Australia and New Zealand.
As a wildlife photographer, once in a while one is confronted by a wonderful dilemma – deciding which of two available views to publish.
I’ll just leave it up to you.
The low level bridge over the Sabie River close to Skukuza Camp is a really peaceful place to enjoy the sunrise and consider one’s place in the universe.
It’s absolutely worthwhile spending a magical few minutes sitting quietly and listening to the river coming back to life.