Chobe Photography – flying birds

This is the second of three weekly posts from my trip with CNP to the Chobe River in early May. This week’s theme is flying birds. The Chobe River is the backdrop. If you find birds fascinating, as I do, then the Chobe river will provide you with a wonderful playground. The variety of birds found along the Chobe River is astounding. The one key difference between mammals and birds, from a photographic point of view, is that birds are always doing something. Their interactions and even basic movement can be challenging to photograph. One of the most fun challenges on the boat is to get decent shots of flying birds, preferably as full in the frame as possible. This is not always that easy with the long lenses because it is quite a skill to just pick up the moving bird in the lens given its narrow field of vision.

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With flying birds and changing direction, quality and intensity of the light there is a constant balancing act adjusting ISO, shutter speed and F-stop trying to get the whole bird pin sharp, wing tips included. Birds like Storks and Egrets generally fly in a straight line, which makes getting the shot easier. Other birds, such as Gulls, Harriers, Yellow-billed Kites, Swallows and Swifts, Drongos and Bee-eaters, fly in a very erratic fashion which ups the difficulty many fold.

This next shot is of a Little Egret flying almost directly toward me. Importantly, the background was far behind the bird so was easy to blur and emphasise the flying Egret.

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The next shot is of a Yellow-billed Egret banking in front of me giving a great photographic opportunity. Again the background was far enough behind enabling the blurring to highlight the bird in flight.

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Egrets can be impressive photographic subjects when they are coming in to land. This Yellow-billed Egret is about to land on a sandbank. Under the wings, the airflow appears to be linear  with all the feathers smooth. When landing the wing angle changes allowing air to bled off the top of the wing causing some feathers to lift as the air speed slows. The Alula is clearly visible on the wing elbow. This group of feathers is thought to provide extra wing area at low speeds.

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The variety of bird life along the Chobe river is vast. A Fish Eagle’s wings are wide allowing it to fly at lower speeds. The next shot shows the power of this bird. There are plenty of fish in the river but they are not always that easy to catch. Fish Eagles are known to also prey on Herons and Ducks and will take a Mongoose or baby Crocodile if they can catch one – they are great opportunists.

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The next shot was taken when the wind was blowing strongly. This female Fish Eagle stopped to rest with some nesting material in one talon. She had to balance on one foot and lifted a wing just to keep her balance. After a short rest she flew up to her nest which was close by in one of the three Jackalberry trees alongside the River. Often when it is nest-building season, around this time of the year, Fish Eagles can be seen flying and trailing large strands of grass and reeds for lining on route to their nests.

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Every trip to the Chobe River and almost every day, we see a Marsh Harrier scouring the reeds beds for something to eat. They can be tricky to photograph as their flight path can be very erratic. They are not fussy feeders going for small reptiles, birds and even eggs.

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It is amazing how quickly these Marsh Harriers fly  and are able to cover vast distances in a morning. Invariably the photographic opportunity is a fly by.

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There are many Egyptian Geese on the Chobe River. They make great subjects for photographers to practice their flying bird photography, as they tend to fly is a straight line.

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It is always a thrill to see Bee-eaters. They are all incredibly colourful and superb fliers. In May, the last of the Carmine Bee-eaters are still around. Most have already migrated north to warmer climes. Small groups of remaining Carmines were feeding on insects disturbed by Herons and Egrets as they fly in and out of the reeds.

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Every time an Egret flew into the reed bed in front of us, a group of Carmine Bee-eaters would dart over to that spot to catch the insects which were disturbed. Trying to get a decent pin sharp shot of flying Carmines catching insects is really challenging – much practice is needed as is an understanding of the Carmine’s interactions.

One of the most impressive raptors, in my opinion, in the African Hawk Eagle. This is one aggressive hunter. It is a big bird but is capable of tight flying through the trees almost like a Goshawk and can also soar in thermals like an Eagle.

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The Black-winged Stilt is the long-legged model of the shoreline birds. It has a petite build and very long, pinkish red legs which are ultra thin.

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At this time of the year, there are massive flocks of Collared Pratincoles along the Chobe River. These are beautiful birds and elegant flyers. In the mornings, they appear to fly in what looks like swarms swinging this way and that. As an observer they seem to be flying for the pure joy of it.

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Another ubiquitous bird along the Chobe River shoreline is the Cape Turtle Dove. They fly down to drink to from the river’s edge from adjacent trees. They put their whole beak into the water to drink.  Smaller crocodiles try to catch these very quick birds, and are often lucky. This is a great way to practice your flying bird skills. Don’t be fooled, once these birds have slated their thirst, they take off like rockets, similar to Sandgrouse .

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We don’t often see African Harrier Hawks along the Chobe River. This trip we were lucky enough to see them on most days. These must be the most hated birds along the river as they feed on other birds chicks. They have long double-jointed legs that reach into normally inaccessible places. These birds are beautifully coloured  with a yellow face surrounding black eyes. Their wide wings allow them to fly slowly along the river bank looking for edibles.

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I hope you get a sense of how interesting flying birds are for photographers. The shape of the bird’s wing and its size gives many clues as to how it flies and consequently how it feeds. This in turn will give the photographer some insight as to how best to get that flying shot. Getting good flying bird shots comes with practice and techniques you pick up from other sharing photographers.

Next week, I will share a variety of bird and mammal shots taken along the Chobe River, some of which are of my favourite antelope, the Sable.

Try to get into the bush!

In all things nature there is something of the marvellous” – Aristotle

Have fun

Mike

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