Chobe River Photography

I have just returned from a five-day photographic workshop with Coetzer Nature Photography. I have been  to the Chobe with Coetzer Nature Photography numerous times before and absolutely love it. Lou Coetzer is the owner/manager of the photographic safari company. The company operates two boats on the Chobe River, each specifically rigged for eight photographers. These boats provide an ideal platform for enthusiasts like myself who are looking to improve the quality of their wildlife images. A big thank you to Lou Coetzer and Neal Cooper for all your advice and knowledge of the river. It was a wonderful, productive week.

I intend posting a different set of shots each week in May from the recent Chobe River trip. For a photographer, the opportunities and challenges on the river are endless. The Chobe River floods in April to June each year. The current flooding started to subside in early May.  The flood waters cover almost all of the islands in the river and spreads out over a vast area. The subsiding flood waters provide ample feeding grounds for Elephants, Hippo and water birds. With the falling water level, the islands in the river have just started to emerge, leaving numerous channels to navigate through. The photographic boat is relatively flat-bottomed allowing us to get into places most other conventional boats can not access. This meant that we could venture into areas to get unique shots.

The floods change much along the river. We have greater access to areas which are seasonally dry in summer. This improves the  photographic opportunities  for mammals such as Elephants, Sable, Giraffe, Buffalo, Baboons, Impala and the cats (which we did not see this last trip).

Herons and Egrets have a great time as the river starts to subside because there is so much food for them. The next shot is of a Little Egret having just caught a small fish is busy re-aligning it to gulp down.

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There were mornings on the Chobe River when the air and water was serenely still. This creates a glass-like surface on the river. This reflective water surface creates opportunities for some colourful and interesting shots of water lilies.

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Jacanas are polyandrous meaning that the females have many mates and the males raise the young. We were fortunate enough to see a Jacana male with four young chicks. The chicks climb under the male’s wing for protection and he often picks them up this way and runs to safety. In the shot below, one chick is trying desperately to climb under Dad’s wing, but it is fully occupied. Soon after this shot, the exposed chick moved under its father’s left-wing.

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These Jacana chicks are no more than two to three inches tall. They were already feeding themselves but still needed Dad for protection.

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The chicks are born ready to fend for themselves. I don’t know how old this chick is but it is very young and is already looking for food on its own. Nature is remarkable in so many ways.

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Black Crakes are skittish birds and will not usually allow you to get close, so a long lens is required to get a decent shot. These Crakes have striking colours with red eyes and legs, a vivid yellow beak and black feathers. They seem to feed on much the same type of insects as the Jacanas but are not nearly as brave. They stick close to the reeds and hide in them at the slightest sign of danger.

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Jacana Alley is the favourite place for photographing Jacana’s, Crakes and sometimes Gallinules. Lou keeps drumming into us that the background is as important as the subject. Usually when the Jacanas are walking on top of the lily pads the backgrounds are messy. It takes patience and timing to get a clean background.

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Allen’s Gallinules are not common. We came across a two pairs in Jacana Alley. The front shield above the bird’s bill was not a distinct green or blue, indicating its non-breeding status.

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There were times on the river,  particularly early in the morning when the water surface looked like a mirror. It is hard to describe the beauty and tranquility when cruising down the river in what seems to be heaven on earth.

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We came upon a spot where a group of Fork-tailed Drongos were bathing themselves. They would dive down from a high tree next to the river, fully immersing themselves before flying back up to the tree to groom. We had a great time trying to photograph these small birds diving into the water – it was not easy!

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This Cattle Egret managed to find a lizard which it beat to death then spent some time manoeuvring it to be able to shallow it whole.

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We often saw a troop of Baboons down at Elephant Valley. The youngsters were playing and the older ones grooming. The also seem to love picking through the drying Elephant dung looking for undigested seeds. Interestingly, the dung beetles which are attracted by the Elephant dung provide an attractive food source for Sacred Ibis and small crocodiles.

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Late one afternoon at Puku Flats beyond Chobe Game Lodge and Elephant Valley, we saw three Giraffe walking with purpose through the shallow flood waters kicking up a spray of water as they walked.  The shot of a Giraffe below made a great silhouette.

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Squacco Herons are ubiquitous along the Chobe River, usually being flushed out as we pass by in the boat. This gives us many opportunities to get shots of them flying.

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Probably because of the seasonal flood, there were many water lilies and they make irresistible photographic subjects because they are so beautiful and colourful.

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We only saw one Malachite Kingfisher the whole trip. This was probably because the water is still so high  leaving no place for them to nest. There were many Pied Kingfishers, a few Giant Kingfishers and we saw a Half Collared Kingfisher on one occasion, but we could not get a shot of it.

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A few Carmine Bee-eaters are still around frequenting the reed beds where all the Egret and Squacco Herons are feeding. These birds flush out insects which the Carmine Bee-eaters catch and swallow in flight. As an Egret lands in the reeds a few Carmines speed over to that spot to catch the insects which were disturbed.

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One hot afternoon, we came across five bull Elephant crossing from the mainland onto one of the reed islands to feed. Yes, it is still hot there in the middle of the day and in the afternoons and coolish in the evenings, but not cold. It is quite clear that the Elephant of all ages love the water and frolic and play, diving under the water, mock fighting and climbing all over each other – even the old boys!

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Another afternoon four bull Elephant were walking along the edge of one of the islands in the middle of the Chobe disturbing large flocks of Collared Pratincoles.

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We had a great bunch of photographers on the boats. We are up and ready for a cup of coffee and rusk at 6h30 each morning waiting for the sun to rise sufficiently to light up the reed beds. Each afternoon we would go out around 14h30 for three and a half hours of photography. The intriguing aspect about the river is that you never see the same thing, doing the same thing in the same place. There were different photographic opportunities each time we went out.

More to come next week from a wonderful week on the Chobe River.

Have fun

Mike

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