Birds at Work

Diverse birdlife is a sign of a healthy environment, and birds fulfil vital roles in plant pollination, eating insects and invertebrates, disposing of carrion, and providing alarm signals to game. The African bush is filled with birds, with exotic plumage and fascinating calls, and ranging from flocks of small canaries, to solitary fish eagles, soaring alone high in the sky.

If you are like me, you first go on safari to see the big animals, but you go again for the smaller animals, the landscapes and the birds. However, birds are maddening to photograph. When in flight, they move quickly, and are far away. Even roosting or on the ground, they are always moving their head, are ridiculously skittish, and fly off at the slightest sound, usually half a second before you press the shutter.

A good photograph of a bird should give some context, showing behaviour within the environment; flock behaviour, nest building, feeding, or interacting with each other or with animals. As with a lot of nature photography, giving some context for the subject makes for a more interesting image, as with the malachite kingfisher at the top of this blog, scanning the water below looking for its next meal.

Birds in the bush tend to be stillest in the early morning, when they are cold and need to preserve all their energies, but interesting compositions are more likely in the late afternoon, when they have reasonable levels of energy and are doing interesting things.

The first priority is to get the technical aspects right, as these are different from photographing animals. Birds are small and often far away, so you need a long telephoto lens and probably a crop sensor camera. I don’t compose too tightly, but instead rely on cropping the image in post processing, to avoid the risk of the bird leaving the frame completely before I have time to press the shutter. If your camera has 3D focus tracking, then use it. I also sometimes use burst mode to maximise the chances of getting at least one image where everything is in focus and the bird’s head or wings are at their most aesthetically pleasing. Getting everything in focus is even more challenging when you are trying to capture a flock of birds. These carmine bee eaters were soaking up the late afternoon sun before returning to their nests in the side of the nearby river bank. Bird plumage can look very different depending on the light direction, so it is worth trying to move around to get different viewpoints.

Birds are never completely still, so a high shutter speed, ideally over 1/2000 second, is critical, both to freeze the action and to allow for potential camera shake with a long telephoto lens. However, I shoot in aperture priority mode to control the composition, so I need to use a high ISO sensitivity setting to get the correct exposure. The objective is to get the shutter speed as high as I can for the aperture I want. My approach is to set the ISO number as high as I can safely go for my camera while still getting clear low noise images. I ignore the ‘Hi’ settings, and come at least three stops down below the highest number given. The D7100 has ISO 6400 as its highest number, so I normally use a maximum ISO of 800 (6400 divided by 2 three times), which is low compared to the latest cameras available.

I spotted this Gymnogene, looking down at me from a palm tree in Botswana as he preened his feathers. It was dusk and the bird was still, so I could slow the shutter speed down to 1/60. I still had to push the ISO to 4000 to get enough light into the camera, which resulted in a grainy image needing more post processing than normal. However, the combination of the palm leaves and the typical dark pigmented shapes in the wing feathers made it worth the effort.

Weaver birds build their nests under slim overhanging branches to guard against snakes. They are great to photograph, partly because they are very predictable, and this is one occasion where you can set up a tripod and wait patiently to capture the birds returning to their nests. The birds are also very photogenic, and their bright yellow plumage provides a strong contrast to the background vegetation.

Red billed hornbills use their strong bills to hammer away at termite mounds and reach the termites inside. This one wasn’t interested in me at all, and was quite happy to stay put for several minutes, but because he was on the side of the mound, there was no scope for changing viewpoint to improve the lighting. So although this is interesting subject matter, the image lacks the ideal light and shade balance.

Oxpeckers can often be seen riding on the backs of buffalo, hippos and giraffes, picking off ticks and parasites. This behaviour was thought to be mutually beneficial, but recent research suggests that the oxpecker is more like a parasite, not only eating ticks but also deliberately keeping wounds on the animal open so they can drink the host’s blood. The oxpeckers do provide another benefit to the host mammal in flying off noisily whenever predators are close. This buffalo appears oblivious to the squabbling oxpeckers, their bright red beaks in sharp contrast to his dull black hide.

Like the oxpecker, the cattle egret picks ticks and eats flies around large mammals. They are often seen riding on the animals, but it is rare to see the buffalo being so obliging to the egret.

The lilac breasted roller used to be the national bird of Botswana, due to its beautiful colouring. These birds are extremely challenging to capture in flight, but will often perch obligingly at the top of a nearby bush for a few seconds at a time.  An enlarged image of the bird gives a completely different composition, showing the iridescence and the extraordinary colours of the feathers.

The penguins at Boulders Beach just south of Cape Town provide endless amusement with their anthropomorphic behaviour. Access to the beach is more restricted than it used to be, so the viewpoint is a little higher than one would like. However, if you pick your spot, are prepared to lie flat on the walkway to the amusement of passing tourists, and are willing to wait for the right composition uncluttered by the tens of other penguins on the beach, then you will be suitably rewarded.