October 18, 2011

Bird Photography on Your Southern African Safari

If you are a bird photographer then a southern African safari has much to offer you, not only in the prime summer months, but also in the winter months!

Here we discuss our birding experiences in four of southern Africa's most famous game reserves to help you choose your destination.

Kruger National Park
The Kruger Park's diverse range of habitats is responsible for a bird list of over 550 bird species, while the availability of food in these habitats ensures that many species occur in abundance.

The Park is especially good for large raptors which are rare sightings outside of large conservation areas, while many other scarce and migrant species are attracted to the Kruger's unspoilt wilderness.

Birding is good throughout the Kruger but the far north tends to be the most productive bird photography area. One of the best-known birding hotspots in the north is the Pafuri picnic site where you could find a whole lot of 'specials' that are not found in the rest of the park.

Commonly seen Pafuri specials include Lemon-breasted Canary, Wattle-eyed flycatcher, Yellow White-eye, Greyheaded Parrot, Mottled Spinetail, Crested Guinea-fowl and African Finfoot. Less common but occasionally seen, are Dickinson's Kestrel, Thickbilled Cuckoo, Pel's Fishing Owl, Goldenbacked Pytilia, Rackettailed Roller, Whitebacked Night Heron, Narina Trogon and Yellowspotted Nicator.

These specials should be looked for all along the Luvuvhu river and not just at the picnic site. This Pafuri area has such good bird specials because it is close to the Mozambique coast and the Limpopo River, which acts as a migration corridor for birds that are normally found further to the north and east.

The bridge over the Luvuvhu River and Crook's Corner can be particularly rewarding with sightings of the rare Pel's Fishing Owl.

The other sixteen Picnic sites are also worth walking around as the birds are used to humans and allow you to get close to them.

There are eleven bird hides located throughout the park of which we have found Lake Panic hide near Skukuza camp and Sweni hide near Satara camp to provide the best bird photography opportunities.

All the main camps and bushveld camps are excellent for birding - some cottages have bird baths in front of them, which attracts many different birds while at night you should look for the resident owls and nightjars!

Whether you are driving along the roads or sitting at your bungalow, you will have the opportunity to see and photograph hundreds of different birds, some of the more common ones being Rollers, Drongos, Storks, Starlings, Doves, Guinea-fowl, Francolins, Hornbills, Bee-eaters, Kingfishers, Swallows, Vultures, Eagles and Owls.

Pilanesberg Game Reserve
The Pilanesberg is good for birding with over 350 species being recorded. When we first started visiting the Pilanesberg we used to see raptors but during the last few years eagle and vulture sightings have been very scarce. The park is, however, superb for its water birds.

There are a few bird hides that have been constructed on the edges of waterholes and dams that provide excellent game and bird photography opportunities.

Lake Mankwe, for example, is a prime spot where you can photograph Kingfishers (Malachite, Giant, Pied), Cormorants, Spoonbills, Herons, Fish Eagles, Osprey and a host of other water bird species. The lake is large so you are able to photograph birds in flight as they fly from the shore to land on the dead trees in front of the hide.

Birding is also very good in the camps where you stand a better chance of seeing some birds, such as the Crimson-breasted Shrike.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Even though the Kgalagadi offers a wide range of birds (over 280 bird species have been recorded) it is most well-known for its birds of prey.

There are three main birding environments in the park; the dune roads, the Nossob and Auob riverbeds, and the three main camps. Most bird species are found throughout the park but some tend to be more common in one of these three environments.

Check the trees in the three main camps for owls and other bush-veld species. Most of our raptor sightings have been at the waterholes along the Auob and Nossob river roads.

Even if you are staying at one of the wilderness camps you should also be rewarded with good bird sightings, depending on which camp you are at. We have seen Secretary Birds, Martial Eagles, Lanner Falcons, Goshawks, Sand-grouse and Owls from our dune cabins at the wilderness camps.

Etosha National Park
Bird photography in Etosha can be good in winter but is best in the summer months from when the rains start, normally October, until April. Over 412 bird species have been recorded in Etosha.

Namutoni - The waterhole is not great for mammals but it can produce some good bird sightings including Caspian Plover, Red-billed Queleas and Greater Painted-snipe.

In camp keep a look-out for the Palm Swift, Sunbirds, Starlings, Barn Owls and Red-faced Mouse-birds. Fisher's pan, which is just behind the camp, can produce some nice summer migrants such as Black-necked Grebe, Lesser and Greater Flamingos, Yellow-billed Stork, African Openbill, and Saddle-billed Stork.

Halali - This camp is our favorite for birds. you may see Bare-cheeked Babblers, Violet Wood-hoopoes, Carp's Tit, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills and Southern White-faced Scops Owls - all in camp.

At the Moringa waterhole we have seen Doves, Pygmy Falcons, Fork-tailed Drongos and at sunset huge flocks of Namaqua Sandgrouse with Owls later in the night.

Okaukuejo - In camp there is a Sociable Weaver nest in a tree right at the waterhole wall and the Weavers will keep you entertained for hours. You can see many birds either at the waterhole or in the camp.

By day keep a lookout for Namaqua Sandgrouse, Red-billed Queleas, Lanner Falcons, Gabar Goshawks, Red-billed Teals, Southern Pied Babblers, Crimson-breasted Shrikes, Violet-eared Waxbills, African Hoopoe, Groundscraper Thrush, Dusky Sunbirds, Acacia Pied Barbets, Golden-tailed Woodpeckers, and large flocks of Double-banded Sandgrouse.

At night watch for Pearl-spotted Owlets, Verreaux's Eagle-owls, Barn owls, and Rufous-cheeked Nightjars

Bird Photography Gear
Photographic equipment for bird photography is virtually the same as what is needed for wildlife photography - long lenses, good support in terms of tripods, bean bags, and gimbal heads, plus good long-lens technique to ensure sharp photographs of birds in flight. We use the Nikon 80-400mm VR zoom lens plus the Nikon 600mm f4 (non-VR) lens for our bird photography. You could also use a 300mm f2.8 or 300mm f4 plus a tele-converter to get good results.

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