Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Wildlife Photography - Leopards only!

First luck after 24 hours of searching. Drinking at dusk. 
We recently hosted a photographic safari specifically aimed at building our guests leopard portfolio. In the words of one of the participants “if you want to get professional images, one has to approach it like a professional”. In other words, disregard the temptation to search for and photograph anything else. Rather put all efforts into finding a specific subject, even if it means missing out on other chances.

One of the most eventful mornings on safari. A large male took an impala kill off this female who then followed his for a few kilometers through the bush. At one point he dropped his kill allowing the female to take it back. Her luck didn't last long as the male eventually took it back and disappeared into the bush. We followed the female who then linked up with her two cubs. 

Looking at the results of such a safari, potential guests and other photographers can easily miss the many hard hours of frustration, patience, and a host of factors that need to come into play in order to get these images. All the images in this blog have been taken during the course of one 8 day safari. In stead of just showcasing the “best of” images I’d rather make use of this blog to explain the many facets that needs to come into play on a safari aimed at photographing Africa’s most elusive large cat.
Never to miss an easy meal this female made the most of catfish stuck in a drying, muddy pool. 

The first aspect to consider is to pick an area that delivers consistently great leopard viewing. At Africa Unlocked, we travel more than Not only do the area need to have a healthy population but the cats need to be accustomed to game-drive vehicle. When I started guiding back in 1997 seeing one leopard on a safari was an accomplishment. Nowadays leopards can be seen on several times during the course of a few days. The main reason for this is the care that has been taken and still is in order to ensure such relaxed sighting. Guides and trackers, each of them highly professional in their conduct have, over the years approached leopards in a sensitive manner which allowed the cats to become used to game drive vehicles. Some leopard have seen a game drive vehicle since they first opened their eyes and knowing that is poses no threat are now totally oblivious to its presence. Allowing people to view and photograph natural behavior like never before.

Classic image of a leopard on its kill. 
These ethics are still maintained today. Vehicles are limited to only two at a time which not only limits the disturbance to the animal but also to the environment. No jostling for position where twenty cars (or 60 which I have had the misfortune to see) try and get a good view before the animal eventually takes shelter. Sightings in the Greater Kruger are relaxed and of unparalleled quality compared to many places elsewhere in Africa.

The importance of other guides and trackers’ on such a safari cannot be overstated. If one were only to rely on ones own ability of finding leopard, sightings would be significantly less common. Teams of professional guides are all in radio communication with one another and the collective effort culminates in the frequency and consistency of sightings. Should one vehicle find a leopard, it is a general courtesy to allow others to share in the sighting on a rotational basis.

Leopard move. They are not always draped over a branch in golden light. When following a leopard as it patrols its territory is may get very tricky just to keep up with it. In such instances photo opportunities are almost impossible and we often stay a short while before allowing the next vehicle into a sighting.  Guests question these decisions but it’s important to know that a friendly gesture towards another guide will be reciprocated at another sighting later on.    

Another remarkable sighting of a large resident male walking "down the barrel" towards us after dark. 
Leopards are found in three ways.

1 - Simply bumping into one is as lucky as one can get. Pure luck with no skill involved. It happens from time to time but much less than one would think.

2 - The second is when a leopard is in a known area such as on a fresh kill. If there is enough meat left the animal will stay for a few days and heading into that area allows one to find it, either on its kill or in the vicinity.

3 - The third and most common method in which leopard are found is by traditional tracking. Bush roads are often preferred walkway. This makes it easy to determine the age of the tracks as a leopard track on top of a vehicle track enables one to determine how long ago it was if the last vehicles movements are known.  Highly skilled trackers pick this up and if the tracks are deemed fresh enough are followed. This may take hours and although the cats are often found it may well end in disappointment, especially if the animal were highly mobile and walked further than initially thought.  It may also happen that it walks into an area we are unable to traverse such as another land owners property at which time the search will be called off.

The fresher a track or the more recent an animal have been seen in an area, the easier it is to pick it up again. It does happen however that there are no fresh tracks or sign to follow. One must take into account that our safaris are all in unfenced and wild area. The animals that we are after are still wild and can roam huge distances, which in reality still can make it tricky to find.  The success rate on our safaris are very high but its important for our guests to have realistic expectations and the willingness to stick to a tried and tested recipe that works.

In summary: If these images look appealing and you would like to get similar ones, we invite you to join us and let our tried and tested methods get you the shot. 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Birding Safaris

African Barred Owlet - South African Lowveld. 
During 2018 we kept a rough list of every species of bird seen on our safaris through several African countries. Although we didn’t twitch actively, in other words, seriously attempted to run after as many species as possible we did manage to record no less than 425 bird species. Birding is a most rewarding past time and anyone who have an interest in them would know that they make the bush come alive. Indeed, birders are never bored on safari.  There is great reward in identifying a cryptic species for the first time or catching up with a rare or seldom seen vagrant. Similarly, getting a great photograph or watching birds interacting around the feeding table is equally satisfying. Our approach to birding though is a combination of all of this and during the course of 2018 we added a few new species to our personal lists while spending quality time observing and photographing great bird behavior. Amongst all of these highlights are the time spent with nesting African Barred Owlets and these observation are scheduled to be published in a leading bird magazine sometime in the near future. Keep a lookout for it.

Here are some of our favorite destinations:

The Southern Kalahari. This semi desert region is known for its abundance of raptors of all shapes and forms as well as host of desert adapted birds.  A morning spent at a waterhole will reveal a host of seed eaters ranging from finches to sandgrouse coming in to quench their thirst. Falcons and eagles fall in tow launching attacks on the drinking flocks.

Bateleur taking off after quenching its thirst at a Kalahari waterhole. 
Male Burchell's Sandgrouse taking off with water drenched breast. 
Mariepkop at 200 meters above sea level it rises 1500 meters above the rest of the landscape. 
Mariepskop Mountain on the eastern Blyde River Canyon where one can catch up with seldom seen forest species. There are few other places where one can access three biomes (moist savannah, tropical forest and mountain heathland or Fynbos) within an easy hours drive.
Rare treat when a Golden-rumped Tinkerbird comes in for a closer view 

Female Narina Trogon - unusual to find this species out in the open like this. 
African Wood Owl.
The Pafuri woodlands along the Levhuvhu river.
Pafuri region of the Kruger National Park. The Kruger itself with a staggering 550 + recorded species, is a remarkable birding destination in ots own right but its the far north where the birds peak. Many species reach the limit of their distribution and the great variety of unique vegetation creates habitat for numerous species not easily encountered elsewhere.
Juvenile Pygmy Kingfisher - Pafuri.
Striated Heron chicks - South Africa. 

Orange breasted Pytilia - Pafuri. 

Uganda’s Albertine Rift straddling western Uganda and Rwanda is a hotspot of endemism. Here more than 40 species of birds occur that is found nowhere else on the planet. While the forest habitat makes it difficult to locate birds, the reward is high.

Abyssinian Ground-hornbill. 
The holy Grail of the wetlands. The unique and enigmatic Shoebill.
Hueglin's Francolin. 

Female brown-throated Wattle-eye.

The Okavango Delta – one of the worlds most pristine wetlands. Abundance, visibility and rarity of species works together and makes it clear why this is a globally protected wetland.

Okavango Mokoro trip.

Okavango Special - Slaty Egret
Dickinson's Kestrel
Little Sparrowhawk. 

Lizzard Buzzard.