Another Eyeful of Flies

    Another Eyeful of Flies

    Another Rhino eye full of flies…!

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    An Eyeful of Vulturine

    An Eyeful of Vulturine

    A Vulturine Guineafowl eye’s me out. Native to the forests of central Africa these bush turkey-like birds are the biggest of the Guineafowl family.

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    Crowning Glory

    Crowning Glory

    The absolutely stunning crowning glory of a Grey Crowned Crane.

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    Keeping an Eye Out for Lunch

    …Yuup..that looks like a tasty piece of Impala over there!

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    A Critically Endangered Lemur Eye

    A Critically Endangered Lemur Eye

    Like humans, each Lemur has a very distinct personality and it is this personality that determines where it fits in the social hierarchy of its troop. Unfortunately Lemurs are considered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to be the world’s most endangered mammals.

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    Call of the Wild

    Call of the Wild

    There is nothing more Africa than the haunting call of the African Fish Eagle!

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    Blog Roll

    The Flight of the Bumblebee Bird

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    Yellow Bishop Birds have to be one of the great South African grassland birds. Looking a little like overgrown bumble bee’s these bishops along with their red cousins bring a dash of color to the fields of grass throughout the highveld.

    Being small, with deeply contrasting feathers yellow bishops are not the easiest to photograph with short lenses as you need to get fairly close to be able to pick up any feather detail. Having a bigger lens than I was able to fly with would have been an advantage. But sometimes you do what you have to do with what you got and hope for the best.

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    It took a good few hours of frustratingly chasing birds through waist high grass, before it finally dawned on me that like red bishops, male yellow bishops regularly return to a favorite perch. Once I’d figured this out it was a case of slowly advancing on the perch until I was close enough to photograph and not chase the birds off. More often than not the temptation to take another step and then another one too many was my downfall and the birds would take off before I could focus and shoot.

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    Fortunately the birds are slow flyers, with an erratic forward hovering type flight action than you typically see and looking every bit a big yellow bee rather than a bird getting away from a camera. So as luck would have it I managed a few birds-in-flight shots that I was pleased to come away with.

    So, if you are a birder and in South Africa during the summer, take your camera and pick up your car and head out to one of the local grassland bird sanctuaries and shoot some bee’s!!

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    Beautiful Bees

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    There are many bird species that are eye catching, but one the most eye catching has to be Bee Eaters. It does not matter where in the world they are, these bird’s are stunning. And from a photography perspective the great thing about them is they are posers and generally allow you to get close enough for good shots.

    This last trip to South Africa was an opportunity to put a few more gigs of nice bee eater shots in the files, so I thought why not feature them in a blog.

    Just on the outskirts of Pretoria and only a 40 minute drive from Johannesburg is Rietvlei Nature Reserve a 3,800 hectare nature park supporting 270 species of birds and a variety of wildlife. It’s a great location to photograph both grassland and waterbirds. And obviously a superb place to get good White Fronted Bee Eater shots, especially along the edges of the rivers where there are a lot of insects and dragonfly’s. The birds are so prolific it’s basically a Bee Eater for Dummies photo location.

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    During the rainy season the grasslands of Rietvlei are lush and rich with flowers providing opportunities to add color by mixing and matching the birds with various blooming plants.

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    For birders Kruger national Park has to be one of the world’s top photography locations. The size of the park and great diversity of flora and fauna means supports a huge diversity of species, and if you are not photographing animals there is always a bird or two catching your eye. This last trip in late December and early January meant the park was full of migratory birds not seen during the cooler dryer months and we were very pleased to have the opportunity to photograph Southern Carmine Bee Eaters, European Bee Eaters, Little Bee Eaters and of course White Fronted. On some occasions we had all four species perched and feeding together…..happy days!

    Southern Carmine Bee Eaters are really beautiful. These and Malaysia’s Chestnut Headed species are my favorites, so whenever we saw them we had to stop and put away another few hundred shots…..but what the hell, it’s like eating oysters, why stop at six if you can pig out on a dozen!

    When you have so many good shots in the files, The problem is choosing which ones to post. So, it’s a tough day in the office today!

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    The female Southern Carmine is a dull orange but still a very nice looking bird.

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    European Bee Eaters are migrants from Southern Europe and North Africa that winter down in the warmer climates of southern Africa. They are also very colorful birds, but somehow a little more shy and quicker to fly than the other species. So my shots of this bird were not as prolific and not as good as the others.

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    Little Bee Eaters like their name suggests are the smallest of Africa’s bee eater species. Very similar in head and chest color to Swallow Tailed Bee Eaters they are also very, very attractive. My dream shot would be to get a bunch of these all sitting together on a branch, but that’s a dream that will have to wait for the next trip to see whether it gets booked.

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    So if you are a birder who likes a whole lot of honey, head to South Africa and poke your lens in the direction of it’s bee eaters. You simply cannot fail to come away with some  great shots worth posting!!

     

     

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    Kruger in the Wet

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    Kruger in the rainy season is a totally different experience to the dry season. The wet season may be a time of plenty for the wildlife but it’s a time of drought when it comes to good photography opportunities.

    The bush throughout the park during this time of year is a lush green with small pools of water everywhere. Consequently the animals disperse over a wide area, and what is available to photograph is often obscured by dense vegetation.  In the northern reaches of the park where animal densities are generally lower than in the south the Mopani bush is very thick and you have to work hard to find suitable photo opportunities. With hindsight we should have missed the top end all together and planned a more central and southern centered trip. But hindsight only comes with hindsight.

    Letaba and Sirheni

    Crossing into the middle section of park from Phalaborwa on the first day it was hot, very hot. The Mopani was green but the underlying grass was all dry which gave us hope for a good few days. It was a hope that quickly turned to excitement when less than ten kilometers from the gate we came across a male and two female lions resting in the shade of a Mopani tree right next to the road….things were looking up.

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    But as usual with us what goes up quickly comes down because shortly after checking into Letaba, our camp for the first night, it started to rain and continued raining on and off for the next five days. Not at all what we wanted. But as luck would have it, just as we crossed the Letaba bridge early the next morning the light changed and we were greeted by the sight of a magnificent double rainbow to our front and a spectacular sunrise to our right.

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    Our main base for the northern part of our trip was Sirheni Bush Camp. It’s a nice camp but with the rain came muddy washed out roads and the whole time we were there they were wet and muddy. The constant rain the first few days was miserable for everyone and everything. Most of the side roads in the middle and northern sections of the park were closed. This meant game viewing options were limited, but balanced out by some interesting sightings in the form of a Serval Cat in the middle of the road early one morning and a totally wet and bedraggled juvenile Bateleur Eagle below.

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    Early one morning after a night of constant drizzle we came across a troop of Baboons that were really wet and feeling very sorry for themselves. Some were huddled in groups under trees trying their best to keep each other warn. Others were huddled in tight balls fast asleep and not moving.

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    Later as the day wore on we came across another troop which were really enjoying themselves. While some groomed, a group of youngsters were having a ball chasing each other through a big puddle just like a bunch of naughty kids.

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    Sirheni at this time of the year is great for birding and the camp was awash with Paradise Flycatchers. Some simple quiet observation quickly identified a frequently attended branch. Focusing the lens  revealed a nest under construction. After this there was no more frustrated chasing of birds up and down the camp. I just lent back in the shade of the nearest lodge wall and waited for the birds to come to me. Just the type of photography of fidgety birds that I like.

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    Also within the camp were some Red Headed Weaver nests and another great opportunity not to be missed.

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    Sadly, the downside of Sirheni is the fact that the dam downstream from the camp was washed away during the February 2014 floods, so the nice water frontage the camp is famous for is now just all sand and reeds. But it’s still a quiet and restful place and the accommodation is excellent.

    Side Trip to Pafuri

    On the third day of our Sirheni stay, thinking we would escape the rain  we woke up at 4.00am and were out the gate at 5.00, with some lucky beans in our pockets heading up to Pafuri with the idea to do some birding with Frank Mbasa at the Pafuri rest stop. Two and a half hours of wet driving later we arrived to find all the Luvuvu river side roads to the Pafuri rest stop and Crooks Corner closed. The lucky beans were not working! The bush about a km to the Luvuvu bridge has been totally devastated by the Feb 2014 floods (the same ones that took out Shingwedzi and Sirheni) and repairs to the road are still going on. I don’t know if Pafuri is yet to re-open after the floods or was just closed for that day because of all the rain. Hopefully it was just a temporary closure, because the Pafuri rest stop is one of the best in the park.

    Reluctant to turn round and drive back we hung around the bridge area photographing Swallows and some White Fronted Bee Eaters. All the while we could hear a Hyena but couldn’t see it. Then all of a sudden we spotted it chasing two Waterbuck behind some thick bush next to the river. The waterbuck emerged a few seconds later, but there was no sign of the Hyena. Presumably it decided to give up the chase. We also decided to give up on Pafuri and started back towards Punda Maria.

    Just south of the Punda Maria turn-off the rain stopped and our luck changed as we arrived on a bunch of Carmine and European Bee Eaters feasting on insects. Let’s face it, you can’t ask for better looking birds when it comes to these two species, and there were no complaints from my side. The Carmines were particularly good posers and not at all fussed by our driving up close. The Europeans were more complicated and preferred a greater distance. But what the hell, beggars can’t be choosers! What followed was one and a half hours of non-stop Bee Eater action and 24 Gigs of good stuff in the pocket!

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    A bit further down the road in the vicinity of the Babalala rest stop we stopped to photograph some Waterbuck testing their male stupidity when a car heading south driven by a French guy pulled up and asked how much further he had to go to get to the Pafuri gate. We just had to laugh when we saw his face as we told him not only was he heading in the wrong direction and had to go the other way, but he was at least a hundred km’s or so from the gate.  It turned out he had taken a loop road and lost his bearings, which just goes to show what happens when you grow up driving on the wrong side of the road. Considering we were not far from the Babalala rest stop and it was already after 4.00pm it would be interesting to know if he made it back to Pafuri before the gate closed.

    For a day that started out dull it ended with a laugh and a good haul of nice shots in the camera!

    Talamati & Surrounding

    From Sirheni we moved south to the Talamati and Satara area. While the bush was still very lush and green as we headed south it opened up and with it the sightings and photo opportunities improved significantly.

    Talamati is a camp well known for its excellent accommodation and superb wildlife photo opportunities from the two spotlight lit camp hides and surrounding side roads. But it’s a reputation that is based on the dry season, not the wet. Sadly the nice camp and good accommodation was offset by very bad roads. One particular 10km section to the south of the camp was so bad it was almost un-driveable except for heavy duty 4×4’s. Needless to say we only drove this once because I was worried I would have to hand back a vehicle to Avis minus doors and other stuff if I drove it twice.

    But Talamati delivered a few surprises. The first one was in the form of two Green Bush Snakes just meters apart and only a few meters from the lodge veranda. These snakes are often mistaken for Green Mambas and this was our first thought. A closer look at the head shape and eyes through the camera lens, and we relaxed.

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    We also had a great and very funny Cheetah sighting which I’ll write about in a later blog, but as a teaser here’s one of the nice shots of this animal taken by Lynette.

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    A lot of the Talamati day hours were spent riding the main road between Orpen and Satara hoping and hoping we would see the 36 pack wild dog family that inhabits the area and which everyone, except us had been seeing. But it was not to be. Long sections of the road are quite open, so when things got boring and we came across an interesting tree we stopped to try our hand at photographing the landscape and it’s moods.

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    Interestingly while we were at Talamati we were stopped early each and every morning by anti poaching rangers checking we were normal camp visitors and not poachers heading home after a night of illicit business in the bush. After the second day, we became firm friends and started exchanging info on sightings. Clearly, when you see this level of activity it is evident that poaching is a very serious problem. In fact over the time we were in Kruger we saw rangers in a number of places in the bush as well as quite a large number of military vehicles. So the authorities efforts to clamp down on the problem is visible which is a good thing.

    I would definitely recommend the camp in the dry season but not in the wet. But, whilst pickings were slim, it was not all bad.

    Satara

    The next stop Satara as usual lived up to its reputation as a superb wildlife viewing base that resulted in a number of great lion and other sightings. We had hardly unpacked when we heard about a Buffalo kill by the large lion pride that hangs around Satara just up the road. Unfortunately we were a day too late and the kill site was just inhabited by vultures. Another afternoon in the far western edge of Kruger in the Lebombo region we came across a huge pride of lions resting just off the road.

    Satara is always good for wildlife, and arguably the best camp in Kruger for lions and buffalo. But this trip the best part of our Satara stay was the opportunity to photograph the family of African Wild Cats that inhabits the camp. I don’t know how many times we have stayed in this camp and until this trip we never knew it had a resident group of wild cats. At first when we first saw a cat near our hut we thought it was a long legged domesticated Moggie belonging to one of the staff. But as soon as the neighbors cameras came out we realized that there was more to the cat than first met the eye.

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    As we drove the roads round Satara and to the south the number of elephant viewing increased and we had a few occasions when the thick bush obscured the animals until we were right on them. One time we saw an old bull with no tusks and on a few other occasions came across bulls with only one tusk. Similarly the further south we went the greater the number of Rhinos we saw. On one day alone we saw sixteen separate Rhino and one with a magnificent horn, that would have been close to a meter long. Absolutely wonderful!!

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    Lower Sabie

    No trip to Kruger should be without a few days at Lower Sabie. This time we booked tented accommodation. The tents are located in an area aside and away from the main camp, each with their own piece of bush. It’s a nice idea, but one that is spoiled by poor maintenance. While Kruger management talks about upgrading services it is failing to maintain facilities in the camps and the roads which surround them. Keeping kettles and hot plates in good working order is basic stuff. As with any business, fail the basics and you fail, full stop! The same goes for road maintenance. Simply grading a road is not maintenance unless it’s watered and compacted.

    I don’t know how many times during the trip we drove down a steep recently graded incline of loose gravel already badly eroded by rainwater. Now, if I’d had a 4×4, no sweat. It would be adventure. But when you are in a normal car after 2 weeks you get tired of navigating roads so rough your teeth are falling out. If Sanparks can’t fix the problem they should simply close roads like this to normal traffic but keep them open for 4×4’s and then the engineer responsible for road maintenance can continue sleeping his life away !!

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    A recently “repaired” section of road

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    The tented accommodation at Lower Sabie is nice, but was spoiled by poor maintenance of basic facilities.

     

    But one good development since the last time we were there a few years back is the replacement of the useless old restaurant operators at Letaba, Satara and Lower Sabie by new Mugg & Bean outlets. So, at least in these camps it’s now possible to have a good meal for a reasonable price. Good stuff Sanparks…but now do us a favor and get rid of the useless operators in the other camps especially those running Punda Maria.

    Bitching aside, one of my favorite photographic locations in the Lower Sabie area is Sunset Dam. Over the years this waterhole has never failed to deliver good Hippo and other photographs, and this trip was no exception. The Hippo were not as accommodating as they sometimes are, preferring to stay on the other side well out of camera range, but when two lion decide to walk along the edge of the water and then flop down right next to your car who cares about Hippo!

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    As with every trip in the past we spent hours at Sunset photographing Pied and Giant Kingfishers fishing from a dead stick 3m from a good parking spot and a bunch of weavers and a pair of Purple Herons busily building their nests nearby.

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    If it was not Sunset dam, it was the roads around Lower Sabie that delivered unexpected gems. From the bridge came a Leopard, Hippos in the water on the dam side and also downstream of the rapids, as well as a myriad of different species of Swallows.

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    From the roads round the camp we got huge herds of Buffalo and Elephant and two lion sightings. One of the issues with thick bush is sometimes on narrow gravel roads you are right on the elephants before you see them. In this case you have to make a quick decision whether to back off or just keep going and hope that there are no others further along. Be quick with the lens and the proximity can yield some nice gems.

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    One of our best lion sightings of the trip was of two young male lions that ambled along the main road from Crocodile Bridge to Lower Sabie for seven kilometers causing untold traffic chaos as cars leaving Lower Sabie and others arriving from Crocodile Bridge piled up. Fortunately for us we were an early arrival and were perfectly placed when they finally decided to turn off and walk right up to our car. So close I could have reached out and touched them…just perfect!

    Although they were still young animals you could already see evidence of harsh bush living. One was missing the end of his tail and the other blind in one eye and battered. Obviously being at the top of the food chain is no walk in the park!

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    It was also just outside of Lower Sabie, after a heavy rain shower that I managed some great photos of a Fish Eagle drying himself off at the top of a dead tree not too far off the road. So, despite poor camp maintenance Lower Sabie once again delivered the goods!

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    Biyamiti

    The final leg of our trip was a few days at Biyamiti, one of the best of Krugers bush camps. Again, superb accommodation was let down by a poor road that spoiled the mood every time we left the camp. Anyone who has driven this road knows it’s a sandy gravel affair characterized by quite steep hills with creek crossings at the bottoms. On the second day a grader graded the road with the logic that scraping and spreading the gravel solves the problem when in fact all it does is makes it almost impossible to climb steep hills in a non 4×4. The upside, I’m now an expert in driving a hired Toyota on crappy roads. So no worries!

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    But good sightings make for a good mood and you quickly forget the bad stuff. The good sightings were a fleeting but nice sighting of five Wild Dogs that agitated an already edgy bull elephant in must, our first in more than thirty years being one of the highlights of our trip.

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    We also had a good lion sighting with six females sleeping on the road early one morning and on the birding side of things, we came away with some interesting photos of a Three Banded Plover feeding on the very edge of water flowing over the Biyamiti weir. How it did not get swept over I’ll never know. Simple things maybe. But simple things that kept us happy.

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    The absolute highlight of the Biyamiti leg of the trip and one of the best of the trip overall was that of a huge flock of thousands and thousands of Quelias on the main road just north of Crocodile Bridge. Quelias are legendary for their large swarming flocks but it’s a long time since we saw something this big. In fact it’s by far the biggest flock I think we have ever seen. It’s hard to describe what a flock of thousands and thousands of Quelia stretching for hundreds of meters looks like and a single camera frame just does not do them justice. In fact it is very difficult to photograph birds like this. So, what do you do. You pick a spot and you shoot and hope for the best. Fortunately in between rain showers a big bunch of birds settled to dry out on a bush very close to where we were parked resulting in some great shots going into the bag.

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    As mentioned before, Biyamiti has to be one of the best small camps in Kruger. The layout of the camp overlooking the Biyamiti river and the quality of accommodation is absolutely superb. It’s no wonder it’s always booked out and getting reservations in the camp is so difficult. One warning. The resident troop of Vervets are expert thieves. Leave anything laying around even for a few minutes and it’s gone!

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    The view out over the Biyamiti river.

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    Living the Biyamiti high life…fantastic!

     

    Biyamiti camp itself is not without interest. One evening I managed some nice photos of a Chameleon and the next a baby Tortoise barely an inch in size that wandered in front of our hut. It’s stuff like this, like the snake in Talamati that make a trip. Of course the lions and leopards are what it’s all about, but the small stuff is equally fascinating.

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    Leaving Biyamiti on the way out back to Johannesburg we came across the resident troop of baboons fooling around in the cool of early morning, and Lynette shot this absolutely nice frame of a very young baboon intrigued by the camera and us watching it.

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    It was a very fitting end to a very wet but relaxing trip. Hitting the main road it took me nearly an hour to get to 100km/hr. For a speeder this is a sign of a good holiday!

    Summary

    Summing up what can I say. If you are a local anytime is a good time to visit Kruger. If you are an overseas visitor the rainy season is not the best time to visit this park. July to October when the bush is dry and the scarcity of water draws the animals together would be preferable and more productive. But in saying this, if you are a birder then I feel the wet season is when the variety of species is strongest and every thing is in their breeding colors.

    If I were to come again during this period I would go for a heavier vehicle because a small light car is just not good enough for the badly rutted and rough rain season roads. During the dry season, basically any vehicle can be used.

    Although game densities this time of the year are reduced by the dispersing of game due to availability of water Krugers wildlife didn’t disappoint. One of the great things about Kruger is that it’s a park where provided you are prepared to hit the road early and slowly and methodically trawl its roads and tracks you have a high chance of seeing something good every day and the big five more than once and numerous times over a week. Besides the big stuff, there is also always lots of small gems whether they be antelope or insects to look at and it is a park with phenomenal bird life, especially in the north.

    Kruger’s accommodation is generally good and clean and camps within the park safe. Booking is easy and can be done online directly with Sanparks (www.sanparks.org) I recommend you book directly yourself and avoid travel agents or tour companies. Kruger is a national park where self drive is absolutely possible and is safe.

    However, I have to say that having visited many times over the years there is a sense that standards are dropping. Some of the facilities in some camps need to be replaced and maintenance and daily management is clearly an issue. For personal friendly service and advice the small camps are by far the best. If you want service, then just forget the big camps like Skukuza….sadly service is just not a concept that camp staff there understand.

    In general the game rangers do a good job on game drives. Obviously drives out of the small camps is much more personal than is possible in the bigger camps where more people need to be accommodated and larger vehicles are used. Over the years I have had some really good, almost personally focused drives by rangers that really know their stuff. And of course. No trip should miss at least one night drive.

    My utmost respect goes to the rangers on anti poaching patrol. Clearly its a huge problem, but those guys are doing a superb job. The good thing is now you see them, either in their vehicles checking you are not up to illicit stuff or sitting on the side of the road at the end of their patrol waiting pick-up or standing in an elevated spot scanning the surrounding bush. They are doing a great job and need to know the public support their efforts!

    Will we be back again. Certainly!

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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    Boys Will Be Boys

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    Watching a troop of baboons is like watching a big dysfunctional family that has no choice but to function as a group in order to survive. It’s a parade of macho manpower, women picking fleas and gossiping, young adults chasing girls and young girls enticing young males and naughty kids running wild. It has all the hallmarks of a family soap opera with plots, sub-plots, scandal and abuse.

    So, spot a troop of baboons and you just have to stop and watch the show!

    On this last trip to Kruger it had just stopped raining when we came across a troop of baboons drying themselves off next to the road. As usual the males were hanging their stuff out hoping to entice the hot young females, the older mothers were picking fleas and socializing and the kids were being kids chasing each other through the trees; basically typical extended baboon family activity. But what was really interesting to see was a small group of youngsters enjoying playing in a big pool of rainwater.

    Until now we had the impression baboons hated water. But, when you are young and stupid…what the hell…boys have got to be boys and in the bush there is nothing better than a puddle to play in.

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    Of course, in every group of personalities there is one guy who is smarter than the rest. So while some were distracted by the water one young guy ducked off to try his luck with a sexy young female in the middle of the road.

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    It only takes one look at the expression on her face to understand what she told him to do with himself!

     

     

     

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    The Art of Building a Grass House

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    There are two things that never fail to get my attention, a bunch of Baboons messing around, and Weaver Birds busy building their nests. Give me any one of these and I’m a happy chap.

    What’s fascinating about weaver birds is how they manage to intricately thread and weave strands of grass into a perfectly secure cylindrical dome home that is waterproof. What they do with their short beaks is a feat most humans would fail armed with appropriate tools. During the mid summer months weavers are busy everywhere. Their chatter and constant fluttering of wings a sure give away to the location of their new homes and t his last trip to South Africa over Christmas was a perfect opportunity to update the files with new shots of a variety of weavers.

    For the first blog I chose a series of shots of a pair of Village Weavers busy constructing a nest at Sunset Dam near Lower Sabi in Kruger. The nest was well positioned near the water and easily photographed from the car window. What is great about Sunset Dam is there is always an abundance of animals and birds to photograph. Irrespective of the time of year or time of day you usually come away with something worth keeping for the time spent quietly sitting an waiting next to the water, and this trip was no different.

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    I always have a difficulty differentiating between Village Weavers and Southern Masked Weavers. The breeding colors of males of both species is very similar, and the only way I can differentiate between the two is via the females. No females and I’m buggered. Having said this, I’m no way a bird expert so even now there is a possibility I’m wrong.

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    Anyway the great thing about these birds is that they are very colorful and always photograph well. When they are busy they are busy,  and it’s not usually more than a few minutes between their flying off before they return to the nest. So they are great birds to practice getting flight shots. You obviously get a lot of misses and half shots but sooner or later you score a clean one which is very satisfying.

    What I particularly like about this series is that I managed to get some nice frames of both the male and female together at the nest. Mostly it’s the male that does the nest building, and it’s the female that gives approval. If it’s not up to scratch he starts all over again and it’s not unusual to see two or three or even more recently constructed nests in the same bush or tree. So they are fussy females!

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    The great thing about this series of shots was that it is very easy to see how intricately the birds weave the knots that secure the nest to the branch. Obviously if this part is not done right the integrity of the whole nest is questionable. But how they manage to do this with relatively small beaks is simply amazing.

    Wonderful birds that are always wonderful photographic subjects!

     

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    Bower Power

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    I don’t think there is a bird photographer in the world that does not want to photograph a Bowerbird in it’s bower. So, when you get the chance, you grab it with both cameras! Closely related to Birds of Paradise, Bowerbirds are absolutely stunning and a must have in any bird portfolio.

    This past weekend we decided to head up to Lamington National Park, a great birding location about an hour inland from the Gold Coast. The drive us is winding and in many parts narrow with great views out over forested hills. Once up you arrive at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat, an absolutely great rainforest birding location that is home to a few species of Bowerbirds that are easily to photograph. Better still, down near the picnic spot is a well maintained Satin Bowerbird bower. The resident male was busy attending to his showpiece. The area around the bower was decorated by a collection of bright blue objects ranging from blue feathers to pieces of plastic, bottle tops, and even a few blue straws. Any loose leaves or sticks messing up the bower were quickly and efficiently dispatched in the hope that they would not discourage the females interested in the display.

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    Male Satin Bowerbirds are absolutely wonderful looking birds with dark blue-black glossy plumage and bright purple eyes. Females are an attractive green, also with bright purple eyes. The Bower, a curved grass structure with a tunnel through it’s center. It is an absolutely amazing feat of engineering considering it is sitting on hard ground. We watched as the bird delicately replaced a few strands  that had come unstuck. The purpose of the bower is purely to attract a female mate. Obviously, like modern humans, the man that can build and clean a house gets a girl easier than the guy who is messy. Unlike humans, actual Bowerbird nesting is done elsewhere in the form of a bowl of sticks in a dense bush or tree away from prying eyes!

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    Another species of Bowerbird frequently seen at Lamington is the striking Regent Bowerbird. The male has a really an absolutely splendid yellow and black plumage. The female is a dull mottled brown, more plain than it’s satin cousin, but still beautiful non the less.

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    The difficulty in photographing Regent Bowerbirds is the stark contrast in feathers; dark black and bright yellow is just too difficult for the camera to swallow. Add low light to the problem and all you can hope for is the bird sits still long enough to allow you to make the right adjustments.

    But what a fantastic experience it was. Got to go back again sometime soon!

     

     

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    Don’t Mess with the Stilt Boss!

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    The past few early mornings have been spent patrolling Buckley’s Hole on Bribie Island in the hope of some unusual stuff. With the exception of a nesting pair of Black Winged Stilts which vigorously chased any bird coming within 10 meters and a dead fish which very nearly made me puke it was a pond filled with the usual stuff.

    I like Buckley’s because it usually offers a chance for some good birds-in-flight photography, and this time round was no exception with some very nice Royal Spoonbill flight shots going in to the camera. But it was the stilts which really stole the show. They aggressively attacked any bird; ducks, spoonbills, ibises and even grebe’s that came within ten meters of the nest. So it was more or less a case of setting up and sitting down to wait and watch for something to happen.

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    I started off in a nice spot right low at the waters edge; perfect for everything. While setting up I smelt a rotten smell, but thought it was the exposed mud and just ignored it. But every time the wind shifted the smell was really bad. Nothing much was happening so I decided to have my breakfast of tea and a rusk and just had the rusk in my mouth when an almighty rotten stink settled down on me. It was bad, too bad to be mud, so holding my mug and rusk I stood up to see what could be the cause of the smell. Then I saw it, about 2m away from me in the reeds was a big dead fish crawling with maggots……! I don’t have to tell you what happened next. The tea, rusk, previous nights dinners, lunch and everything else I had eaten for two days was rushing up my throat as I stumbled out of the reeds onto the path. It was Bad!!!

    Needless to say after that clandestine exit every bird within a hundred meters was instantaneously gone. Then to make matters worse while recovering the camera the tripod legs got caught on a stump sending me and the kit sprawling. Fortunately the ground was soft sand, but everything now needs to be cleaned.

    Anyway after a while life in the pond returned to normal and the resident waterbirds eventually worked their way towards the stilts nesting site giving a great opportunity to photograph its defense.

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    The best series of shots were those between Stilts. For these birds, territorial fights are high jumping, legs kicking Karate stuff. While it made for great photography it would have been even better if the rotten fish was not polluting the best photography location! I’d like to say I stuck it out and swallowed the stench in the name of art, but it was just too rich a sight and smell for me. So you are stuck with photos from the second best angle!

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    Stilts are delicate graceful birds and I would call their fighting more a rigorous threatening dance than an all out damaging fight. But it’s an interesting event to photograph. In order to catch the birds it’s necessary to watch the aggressive bird and when you sense there will be action immediately focus on it, because the whole scene is over within a few seconds. Fortunately it’s quite easy to see a change in the birds demeanor from quietly feeding to purposely walking towards the opposing target. After that it’s a jumping flight with both legs and beak used in attack. Even much bigger birds like Spoonbills quickly got the message and left the nest area.

    So, once again Buckley’s Hole delivered!

     

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    The Possum and the Python

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    Very rarely do you get to witness nature raw. But today was one of those rare days. We never even had to travel thousands of kilometers into the bush. It happened right next door. Unbelievable!

    It started out like any other Friday, until Lynette out in the backyard frantically called me after seeing a big snake catch something in a tree and then fall to the ground in the next door neighbors yard. Looking over the fence we could see what turned out to be a Carpet Python wrapped around a Ringtail Possum which was wriggling and making frantic sounds as it desperately tried to escape. But it soon became apparent that there was no way the possum was going to escape the death grip of the python. As the python slowly choked the possum it looked at me with pleading eyes to get it free. But it was beyond help. Shortly afterwards it gave up the struggle and closed its eyes and succumbed to the inevitable.

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    What transpired next was the slow process of the python swallowing the possum whole. At first it seemed that it was going to be an impossible feat as the possum was many times bigger than the snake. But, it articulated it’s jaws and gradually, millimeter by millimeter managed to swallow the possums head. After that it was a case of the snake using its strength to crush the bones of the possum and then using it’s muscles progressively swallow and ingest the remainder of the animal. Barely an hour later it was all over bar the tail. After a short rest, that too dissapeared and the event was over and done with.

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    After a very brief rest the snake started to move off behind a tree. Knowing that once the snake settled it would not move for a while and assuming the neighbors would not like to come home and be told there was a 2m python in the yard we decided to catch it and relocate it in the bush next to the creek behind the complex.

    Witnessing such an event is a once-in-a-lifetime event. You see this stuff on TV, but somehow seeing it unfold live in front of your eyes is a totally different experience. On one hand it’s sad to see an animal die in front of you. On the other hand it’s a privilege to watch the scene as it unfolds. And to see this all, in the middle of suburbia is quite incredible.

    Fortunately the camera was ready to capture the event and share it with you.

     

     

     

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    Fly Baby Fly

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    It’s early summer in Australia and it’s bird breeding season in our back yard. For the past few weeks we have been observing a Brown Honeyeater nest in a dead Fir tree. About a week and a half back the first signs of two nestlings became apparent when they started poking their heads up every time a parent landed with food. Ever since then they have progressively got bigger and gained feathers.

    The whole nesting experience has been an interesting one to observe. The first sign of unusual behavior was when the two adult birds began stripping spiders nests in the trees along the edge of our small yard and constantly fly in and out of the dead Fir. It was not long before Lynette’s sharp eyes  spotted the well camouflaged nest taking shape; a small cup of leaves suspended and glued together with spider silk. The nest is so well camouflaged that it blends perfectly with the surroundings. If it were not for the regular bird traffic in and out of that part of the tree we would never have been able to spot the nest. Simply put, it is a perfect example of engineering using readily available natural materials. How the birds know to use spiders silk to suspend and glue the nest together is quite amazing. It really is a wonderful example of how nature works!

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    The past few days has been particularly interesting as the chicks took their first tentative steps towards bird freedom by standing up on the edge of the nest and flexing their wings in preparation for the big leap of faith every bird must eventually take in order to survive. Their growth and progress from featherless to fluffy has been quite amazing to watch, and we expect that within the next few days they will leave the nest. At first, without tails to aid their balance the birds were very very close to falling out the nest as they precariously perched on the edge and flexed their wings and preened their feathers for the first time, all the while anxiously watched by the parents.

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    Finally, today was the day the birds took off. After two days of precariously balanced on the edge of the nest flexing their wings and preening baby feathers they are gone. The bolder of the two hopped out of the nest onto an adjacent branch and then flew off up into a nearby tree, leaving a bewildered sibling behind wondering whether to chance following or to hang tight. Ten minutes later it too was off up into the tree, closely shepherded and encouraged by the two noisy adults.

    This last shot below is the last frame of the two of them before leaving the nest.

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    So, a sad day for us because now there is nothing to watch, but a happy day that both survived predators and managed to take flight within a short time ending up together in the same tree and not scattered in different directions.

    With such a start they should have a good chance of survival.

     
     

     

     

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    The Need for Speed

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    Once in a while you get lucky and what starts as a bummer of a day turns out to be full of welcome surprises!

    The past few days the wonderfully mild Brisbane winter was turned  upside down by a front of crappy cold wet Melbourne weather that made its way up the coast and screwed up the weekend for everyone in Brisbane! After weeks of alternating between traveling and re-working the images for the new upgraded wildeyeview website (www.wildeyeview.com) I was looking forward to a few days of photography. But the cold wet rainy weather looked like putting a damper on that. Fortunately, by mid morning today it cleared enough to be able to go outside and we decided to take a walk down along the creek behind out apartment complex.

    And that’s where the weekend turned from a bummer to being one of the best in terms of interesting photographs taken for a long while.

    The rain had flooded a low area of concreted pathway and the local Welcome Swallows were loving it. Hundreds were swooping in, dipping and stopping to fill their mouths with mud for building nests. Now, I’m not dumb enough to look a posing swallow in the mouth and walk past without trying to get a few shots so I settled down in the middle of the path about 5m back from the edge of the water to see what I could get. It was easier said than done.

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    The Swallows were more than welcoming and were actually not at all fussed by my presence, flying in and settling down to fill their mouths with soft mud. Photographing a bird on the ground is easy stuff and in five minutes I had enough swallows with mud in the mouths shots that I needed. What was difficult was photographing them as they landed or took off or swooped overhead. These birds are fast…dammed fast. It didn’t take too long to figure out that not only did I need to sharpen my trigger finger, but also needed to get the shutter firing at maximum speed and then find a way to pre-focus on a spot and get the timing right.

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    After a few hundred useless frames with either nothing in them or a blurred edge of a wing or foot I figured I needed a better approach. After watching the birds for a while it seemed that some seemed to routinely return to the same patch of soft mud. So I repositioned myself as low as I could to get the widest horizontal view of the various patches of mud. Then I upped the ISO to 1600 and set the aperture at f5.6 which gave me a shutter speed between 1/2,000 sec and 1/4,000 sec depending on how the light changed.

    After that it was a question of anticipating when the bird was likely to take off which was at best a hit and miss thing as more often than not I pressed the shutter after the bird departed. After a while, I changed tactics and started firing short bursts as the birds mouth got filled with mud. This resulted in more success, although the number of dud frames still far outweighed anything captured. But at least we we were starting to get something.

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    The best chances came when groups of birds arrived and descended at the same time. This meant they needed to swoop past and then hover before landing. Looking over the lens and not through the eyepiece I managed a few fluke frames with very sharp images, but it was still a process of shooting off volume to get something worth sieving out and keeping. At the end of the day I reckon I fired off about a thousand frames to end up with five or six nice shots and about ten others that were also not too bad.

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    The moral of the story…you want to photograph swallows…you need speed. If you are a fraction of a second too slow on the shutter the birds are gone and all you get is a blank frame. If your shutter is not fast enough it’s just blurred. This was probably the most annoying, knowing you had the bird in the frame, but didn’t work the camera properly and it was a chance blown, never to occur again.

    But it was fun!

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    The Little Bird Creating a Big Flap

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    This is the Yellow Bittern creating a huge stir among Australian birders. Native to Asia no one knows how this little guy ended up in a creek pond of an upmarket suburban housing estate in Brisbane.

    According to media reports this is the first sighting of this bird in mainland Australia for as long as anyone can remember, which explains why the road in front of the pond is crammed with cars and at any one time upwards of ten birders and bird photographers are stalking the banks of the pond. However, much to the relief of the non-birder residents across the road from the pond the circus is likely to end soon as there has not been a sighting since last Thursday.

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    What was very interesting about this sighting was the fact the Bittern was not at all shy and openly stalked the pond vegetation less than 10m from the camera resulting in my coming away with tons of good shots of it going about it’s business oblivious of it’s fame.

    To be honest, I find the reaction of  the presence of this bird in Australia is quite amusing. Having spent years photographing in Asia I would not normally give two seconds to it. But being down here sort of obliged me to get off the couch and go down and make an effort to press the shutter. Having said that, I was pleased I did because I met a number of interesting people and got loads of tips about good birding sites that I would otherwise never have learned about. So I suppose I should at least thank the vagrant immigrant for that!

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    Reading one of the on-line reports about the sighting it seems some bird watchers witnessed the other resident Bittern in the pong; a Little Bittern  having a territorial dispute with this yellow trespasser. Unlike the yellow bittern, the little bittern is very shy and only periodically sticks its head out from the dense reeds in the center of the pond. Now for me, this is a much more interesting bird to photograph as I have not got shots of it before, and in it’s own right is a bird seriously under threat. Unfortunately the distance from the bank to the reeds was quite far and I had to use a converter on the lens to get anything worthwhile. Unfortunately when you do this you have to live with the lack of detail. But, now I know where this bird lives, I will be back to try and get more shots of it some other time.

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    For anyone interested in checking out the pond the GPS Coordinates are 27 deg 12′ 35.9″S, 153 deg 01′ 19.9″E. The Eremaea Birdlines website at  http://www.eremaea.com/BirdlineRecentSightings.aspx?Birdline=7  is a good link as it has frequent updates on this as well as other sightings.

    Happy Birding!

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    When Africa Blooms in Australia

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    What a sight it is to see African Aloes in full bloom down under in Australia. The aloe section of the Brisbane Botanical Gardens is presently a mass of splendid nectar laden flowers and the local birds are more interested in getting a suger high than worrying about cameras. It’s a splendid mix of bright colors that every nature photographer just has to take advantage of while the going is good. In Africa the aloes attract a constant stream of Sunbirds, In Australia it’s Lorikeets and Honey Eaters. Both differ but are equally beautiful. In Africa the birds feathers shimmer whereas in Australia its a brash splash of color with the common denominator the aloe flowers.

    We came away with so many good shots it was difficult to decide what to start with. But given that I think that the colorful Rainbow Lorikeets are everywhere I should start with them. What can I say about these birds…obviously god spilled the paint when he was working on them and they must have protested loudly. But the outcome was an incredibly colorful and extremely noisy member of the parrot family. Lorikeets are also unbelievably fast in flight and almost impossible to photograph on the wing, so getting a few nice open wing shots of them as they came into land on the aloes was very pleasing. They may be as common as sparrows around here, but lets face it they are really attractive birds.

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    Next up is another very common local bird the Noisy Miner. Places and things in Australia are named very simply, usually directly describing the sight, plant or object and the Noisy Miner is no exception. It is a very gregarious and vocal member of the honeyeater family with large and varied repertoire of songs, calls, scoldings and alarms. Compared to the Lorikeets it is a dull bird, however it is not unattractive and perched on and within the aloes proved to be quite a photogenic subject.

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    This following shot of a Miner was taken with water sprinklers going in the background. Lets just say the effect is a little different!

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    The third poser in this bird and aloe blog was a pair of Blue-faced Honeyeaters. These are extremely beautiful birds, but birds I have found very difficult to photograph as I just can’t seem to catch them in a reasonable pose. Either they fly off before I’m ready or they are partially hidden behind branches or some other obstruction. So, getting a chance to photograph them from a relatively close position in a more open and colorful setting was a big bonus. The problem was that the resident colony of Miners was constantly harassing the honeyeaters and whilst I took many shots, none of those of the male with his distinctive blue eye patch came out, so sorry for this.

    Later in the day while watching the Miners we realized they had a nest with young in a tree very close to the aloes and this is why they didn’t want any other birds around.

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    To close off the blog, I decided to insert one shot I took with the 300mm of the flower of an aloe from Madagascar, which when processed almost looks like a studio shot. In fact the black background was very dark foliage of tree’s in shadow behind the plant.

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    The moral of this story…if you are in either Africa or Australia and there are aloe plants within your vicinity get out the camera because they are in bloom and the birds are out!

     

     

     

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    Shine The Light On Me

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    For the second time in as many weeks, this morning I found myself photographing into strong early morning backlight on todays trip to Buckley’s Hole on Bribie Island.

    Normally I sit down near the waters edge on the eastern side of the hole, but today the birds were all on the opposite side, so hoping to get some flying shots I upped-sticks and set up again on the other bank. The trees along the eastern edge of the pond cast a dark shadow across the water which complicated things because half of the water was dark and the other half bathed in strong sun.The first few shots I took were complete rubbish; varying between either strongly over exposed to completely under exposed. I tried spot metering, but it didn’t help. So I decided to hell with it all. I was just about to pack up when a Silver Gull flew over me and made a big circle heading right in front of where I was set up. Tracking it down into the dark patch I figured it was going to be too dark but fired away anyway as it came into land.

    As it landed the gull stuck its head underwater, leveled up and immediately took off with me tracking and shooting as it lifted up into the light and headed back out towards the sea.

    Quickly looking at the shots I was pleased to see they were sharp and almost perfectly exposed…Happy Days!

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    OK…so its a gull…but what the hell, gulls are birds, right!

     

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    Yes Sir!

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    If you were asked to describe the colors of Australia in three words they would have to be Olive Green, Sky Blue and Red Earth. But when it comes to Australia’s psittacines or parrots their range of colors is astounding.

    So you can imagine how it was driving round a bend in Bowra to come face to face with a pair of Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos. They were named in honor of  Major Sir Thomas Mitchell a Scottish surveyor and explorer responsible for some of the early mapping of Australia. Describing these birds Mitchell wrote  “Few birds more enliven the monotonous hues of the Australian forest than this beautiful species whose pink-colored wings and flowing crest might have embellished the air of a more voluptuous region”.  Words, so true even today. They are absolutely stunning birds that bring a dash of color to the earth tones of inland Australia.

    Expecting them to fly off I very slowly got out the car and tentatively aimed the lens at them. Surprise, surprise they didn’t budge so I slowly advanced briefly stopping every few meters to fire off a few shots before moving forward some more until I was about ten meters away. Eventually they flew off, circling round allowing me to get a few flying shots besides those of them feeding on the ground.

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    Feeding together with the major Mitchell’s were a pair of Galas a grey and pink cockatoo whilst common is also a very nice looking bird. The few times I have tried to get close to photograph these birds they have taken flight early so this time round I never managed any flying shots. But to complete this piece I decided to add in a flying shot previously taken.

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    The third cockatoo species photographed in Bowra were Little Corellas; incredibly noisy birds. The difficulty photographing white birds like this is always getting the light right. I always struggle with this and whatever adjustments I make in the camera always seem inadequate. If it were the days of film I would be bankrupt buying film, but lucky for me these days we have Photoshop which allows me to shoot as many bad shots as I can for basically no cost and then refine the off-spec camera adjustments into something more suitable for uploading into the blog.

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    I was hoping the trip out west would have resulted in some shots of more of Australia’s parrot species but it was not to be. But then there’s always next time…who knows!

     

     

     

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    Big Birds in the Land of Big Sky

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    One of the most striking things about Australia is the contrast between it’s blue sky, olive green plants and deep orange-red soil. But most of all it’s a land of big sky. Big sky made all the more bigger and colorful by the absolute lack of pollution and more stunning by the big birds that live in this land. So, what better a topic for a blog than one about the big birds in the land of big sky!

    Our recent trip out to Bowra in the west of Queensland was a trip through the land of big sky into the land of big birds. Unfortunately the sad fact about the roads into the outback is that they are literally littered with dead wallabies and kangaroos taken out by road trains and big trucks. Basically these animals are dumb and have not been able to adapt to traffic. They have absolutely no road sense. Instead of running off into the bush they seem to just head in the direction they are facing, and if this is towards the road, then it’s towards the road they hop. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that given the number of dead animals you pass on what are very low trafficked roads that the risk of hitting one is high. Our vehicle has no protective roo bars so we were very cautious and slowed right down whenever we spotted any as we just could not afford to wreck the car a few hundred km’s from the nearest town. But even then we had our share of near misses. One time after slowing right down near a group of kangaroos which were about 20m off to the side of the road and were actually at the point of passing them they took flight and hopped right in front of us. This tells me they are a dumb species with a death wish. I also now understand why every vehicle out there except ours had strong protective bars fixed to the front!

    The rotting carcasses are easy pickings for a myriad of ravens and raptors that take to the early morning skies scavenging for breakfast. It also seems that the bigger the carnage and the more rotten the carcass the greater the bird life. On a few occasions we came across huge Wedge Tailed Eagles feeding on dead carcasses and stopped and staked out the site hoping for the birds to return, but after half an hour the stench and flies were just too much to stomach and we just left. But I think that on a cool day a proper set up upwind from a suitable carcass would prove to be a very productive photographic location. Maybe next time!

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    Anyway, despite not being able to get any shots of Wedge Tailed Eagles which are absolutely magnificent birds with a massive wing span we did come away with some good shots of Whistling Kites circling low overhead some of the roadkill; sightings that made the rotten smell and flies almost bearable.

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    The grasslands of the Bowra sanctuary itself is a great location to photograph Black Kites which effortless circle overhead unconcerned by your presence beneath them. I have photographed these birds elsewhere but somehow the ones at Bowra are special.

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    Probably the most common of Australia’s birds of prey is the Brown Falcon and you see these everywhere in Bowra and along the roads perched on an exposed branch waiting the opportunity to swoop down on it’s prey of small rodents, lizards and invertebrates such as caterpillars and grasshoppers.

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    Coming from Africa it’s hard not to compare Australia’s bush with that of Africa. The fact is without wildlife, and I don’t count a few kangaroos as wildlife, Australia’s bush is quite boring. So it was quite fantastic to come across a pair of Australian Bustards in the shimmering early morning light of a patch of grassland. I love these birds and having more or less all the African bustards on file getting a few photos of these Australian ones made the whole trip worthwhile.

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    Another great Australian outback bird; almost is Ostrich-like in appearance is the Emu. I’ve sen these in local sanctuaries in Brisbane, but seeing them in the wild is something special. If looks are anything to go by, rough looking faces and feathers indicate life in the outback is hard for these birds. Surprisingly with one exception when a pair walked right past our vehicle, I found these to be quite shy birds that walked away every time we slowed down or tried to get close. They are also obviously more intelligent and have better road awareness than kangaroos, as we never saw a single dead emu on any road!

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    In closing all I can say is that Australia is definitely a land of big sky and big birds, both of which make for great photography!

     

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