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  • Writer's pictureWill Taylor

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

African bird wildlife: Exploring the Vibrance and Diversity


One aspect of a safari that many of our guests do not expect – is how quickly the birds of Africa grab their attention. Most rangers and safari guides are avid birders and are happy to point out different species as you go along. Birds fill a gap on a game drive between sightings of large mammals and all the megafauna of Africa that most people concentrate on. Often, when you stop to watch birds, other things happen! I remember clearly once when I was taking a game drive at Mala Mala Game Reserve, stopping to take a picture of a beautiful Southern Carmine Bee-Eater, and as my guests and I were admiring it, a leopard chased a female bushbuck in front of our vehicle and killed it! We had no idea that either leopard or bushbuck was in the long grass and would never have witnessed that spectacular sighting without the bird!

Most game lodges have bird species lists available for guests, and this stimulates another of our human traits – Competition! It is so much fun to see how many different species of birds you can tick off on your safari. When I have groups of friends on safari – we often split our vehicles up on a specific drive and have a fierce competition to see who gets the most species – with a prize giving, a trophy, and very loud bragging rights at the end.

The sheer number of species and array of colors, shapes, forms and behaviors of birds offers a lifetime of entertainment. And for photographers, birds are spectacular – if challenging – subjects.

I have had a lifelong fascination with birds – from growing up in the Zimbabwean bush to doing my Master’s degree under the late great Gordon Maclean – one of South Africa’s preeminent Ornithologists. As my career in conservation and guiding advanced, birds became my favorite photographic subject.

Here is a selection of a few of my favorite bird portraits, to illustrate the color, vibrance and difference of these wonderful creatures – starting with the very shot of the bee-eater mentioned above. These pictures were taken while on safari with guests, making for treasured memories - some of you might recognize a photo or two!

 

A southern carmine bee-eater on a branch.
Southern Carmine Bee-Eater

A beautiful migrant that arrives in southern Africa during the summer months. They nest in large colonies of holes dug in the banks of rivers, and one can spend hours here snapping shots of them in flight.

 

A grey crowned crane in the wild, focusing on the head and neck.
Grey Crowned Crane

A spectacular bird of the wetlands and open plains. I never tire of the fantastic colors of their faces and that funky hairdo! This shot was taken in the Maasai Mara in Kenya with friends from Dallas, Texas.

 

A lilac-breasted roller with its wings spanning on a tree trunk
Lilac-Breasted Roller

A bird that very quickly becomes a firm favorite of our visitors because of its vibrant colors and confiding nature. This is not my greatest shot of a roller, but it is memorable as I was with dear friends, and on seeing the bird’s behavior while perched, I suspected it had a nest nearby. As we watched, it flew to a hole in a tree nearby to feed its chicks.

 

A southern ground hornbill taking flight off a branch.
Southern Ground Hornbill

A large bird that lives in small social groups and marches around the veld catching rodents and reptiles. One of the things I love about bird photography is freezing moments in time, such as this take-off - with the detail of feathers and wing structure quite evident. This shot was taken in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

 

Helmeted Guineafowl in wildflowers.
Helmeted Guineafowl

It is a common game bird found in large flocks and often overlooked despite being a spectacular bird close-up. This picture is particularly significant to me as the bird is standing in wildflowers during a time along the west coast of the Cape when huge spectacular blooms of wildflowers take place. We always try and catch the right time to get up there and get shots of wildlife in the flowers.

 

Hiding in the long grass, a black crake feeds a chick.
Black Crake feeding a Chick

Sometimes in bird photography, it is not the clarity of the portrait or the spectacular composition of the shot but the capturing of a rarely seen behavior. I actually took this shot while sitting on the deck of tent number one at Jao Camp in the Okavango Delta. This mother crake was scurrying around collecting food when suddenly, she ran up a log, and this cute little bundle of fluff came out to grab a morsel before heading back into cover.

 

White-Fronted Bee-Eaters sitting on tree branches.
White-Fronted Bee-Eater

The spectacular colors and the grouping of these three Bee-Eaters made for a beautiful shot. A flock of these birds were foraging over a grass thicket on the banks of the Sand River at Mala Mala. They catch their prey on the wing and often return to the same perch to eat and rest before the next foray. Knowing an animal’s behavior lets one predict where a good shot might occur.

 

A saddle bill in the wild
Saddle Bill

One of the largest African bird species, the Saddle Bill, is found along permanent river courses throughout Africa, usually in pairs. This male bird is identifiable by the black eye and the small yellow wattle under his chin. The female has a yellow eye and no wattles. They have a wingspan of nearly 3 meters! I love this portrait because of the delicate drop of water at the end of the powerful bill.

 

Close up of hooded vulture face.
Hooded Vulture

A close-up shot of a hooded vulture shows the startling colors of this fantastic scavenger. This shot was taken of a captive bird at the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation, which has an excellent program for the rehabilitation of poisoned or wounded vultures.

 

A tiny karoo prinia sitting on a rope.
Karoo Prinia

This tiny but feisty Karoo Prinia visited me early one morning at the Lekkerwater Lodge in the De Hoop Nature Reserve. He was intent on battling his reflection in the window and launched attacks from the rope railing on the stairs.

 

A Rufous Naped Lark in the wild.
Rufous Naped Lark

Owl on a branch.
Barred Owlet

 

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