Bird photographers and birders

This post shows some of the sights, scenes and ideas gleaned from our travels through North KwaZulu Natal, specifically Ndumo National Park, Tembe Elephant Park and Cosy Bay Estuary. I will describe the trip the four day trip in two posts.

This first post is about Ndumo National Park. It is about 60 kilometres south east of Jozini nestled in the coastal plain below the Lebombo mountains which stretch down to the Pongola Dam. It is about a seven hour drive from Johannesburg. Part of the attraction of coming to this part of the world was the exceptional birding that is possible in Ndumo. We stayed at the Ndumu River Lodge which is about 18 kilometres south-west of Ndumo park, The road to get there will give you an “african massage”, it is under repair and the detour is rough. The roads in Ndumo National park are also reasonably rough not like the sand roads you will find in close by Tembe Elephant Park.

Ndumo is the Zulu word for ‘famous’ This park boosts about 430 birds which can be seen in the park. Obviously this varies depending on the time of the year. The bird count is  lower in winter, as would be expected. The park is a roughly 10,100 hectare reserve with its northern border bounded by the Usutu river. The Pongola river joins the Usutu river in the east of the park. The Lebombo mountains can be seen in the distance off to the west.

You will see one bird related  image in this post for a good reason. There are three hides in Ndumo. The Diphini hide no longer exists, The Nyamithi hide is at the northern end of the Nyamithi pan but only overlooks a small patch of water cut off from the main pan by a bank of reeds. The walkway to the hide is damaged and in serious need of repair. The one good hide is the Ezulweni hide. You are requested to park your car in the parking area which is about 450 metres from the hide, which is an issue if you have a lot of photographic kit. After speaking to the park management we got permission to park closer to the hide in the afternoon. The Ezulweni is a morning hide, meaning the sun shines from behind the hide in the morning. The sun is full frontal in the afternoon. The hide is in a good state of repair. It is ideal for birders but not for bird photographers. Most of the bird action is on the far side of the pan which is some 300 metres away or more. Bird identification is possible but the bird photography is difficult because of the distance.

Ndumo AM 20-Jun-14 0040

We saw many water birds such as darters, reed cormorants and yellow-billed storks, spoonbills and few species of lapwing. We did not get to see the Senegal Lapwing. We did see a flock of Pink-backed Pelicans from a distance.

Ndumo AM 20-Jun-14 0049

We saw no birds immediately around the hide so after a few hours decided to go and explore the park.

I had never really thought much about the difference between birders and bird photographers before this trip to Ndumo. It struck me while I was sitting in the Ezulweni hide what some of the differences were:

Both birders and bird photographers identify birds but bird photographer needs go well beyond ticking off the seen bird on a list.

  • Bird photographers need to be reasonably close to the bird, even with a 600mm prime lens. The smaller the subject, the closer the photographer needs to be to the subject.
  • The direction of the light is an important element in the quality of the light. I assess the quality of light using three metrics – the direction, the colour, and intensity or contrast. To get a reasonable image you will need at least two of these metrics working for you and preferrably all three.
  • Bird photographers need to understand bird behaviour in order to get an unusual or striking image, and often to just get the image. To be able to anticipate a bird’s behaviour, to be in the right place at the right time, a photographer must get to know whether the bird is male or female, whether it is breeding or territorial and what it feeds on. All of these factors will help a photographer anticipate the shot.
  • Photographers use three raw materials – light, time and distance. All are free but the optimum use of these raw materials is critical.
  • Bird hides are often built high off the ground and a reasonable distance from the water, which is good for birders but not for photographers. The high perspective is usually not going to produce the best shot. Horizontal eye to eye perspective is ideal. If the distance to the subject is toofar, the resulting image will probably require too much cropping, which if the light is not good will create pixelation and image noise detracting from its quality.
  • Photographers are also very fussy about backgrounds. The bush is thick in Ndumo which makes bird photography challenging.

Photographing birds is a wonderful way to get to learn more about them because you need to see them up close and secondly you need to get to understand their behaviour to be able to anticipate the shot.

On the road back out from the Ezulweni hide there was an open patch of ground with lots of dried bones scattered all around. The Nyala females and calves were munching on the bones, presumably for the calcium. I have see Giraffe doing this in Etosha.

Ndumo AM 20-Jun-14 0022

There is extreme sexual dimorphism in Nyala. Males have two long manes, one is a dorsal mane stretching from the upper neck, down the spine to the tip of the tail and the second from the chin, down the throat to the chest and stomach.  The golden yellow-brown of the lower legs in adult bulls is unique.  Nyala ewes are much smaller weighing only 54-68 kg and have a shoulder height of 82-106 cm.  They are a bright, chestnut-brown and lack the furry coat of the bull.  Nyala lack the scent-marking pre-orbital glands of most other antelope species.

Nyala females and young of both sexes are very beautiful, being a chestnut, rusty-red with white vertical stripes on their bodies. The young Nyala are similarly coloured to the females. The young Nyala males look like females and so do not provoke aggression from the males usually enabling them to stay in the herd with the females until they are about a year old.

Interestingly, we saw many Nyala and no Kudu in the park. Kudu seem to prefer drier savanna. The Nyala prefers thick woodland dense riverine vegetation. The Nyala is an intermediate feeder both grazing and browsing.

In 1896, FC Selous journeyed from Matabeleland in Zimbabwe to Ndumo to collect specimens of Nyala for the Natural History Museum in London.

Ndumo AM 20-Jun-14 0023

Just higher up the road we were fortunate enough to see a Palm-nut Vulture which was feeding on what looked to be a still-born Nyala calf. That was an unusual and special sighting but the light was not good and it was too far away to get anything more than a record shot. We did not get to see the variety of birds as we were had hoped. To get the best birding experience, it seems to me that a birder would be wise to get the services of one of the very knowledgable bird guides who will take you from the main camp down to the Pongola river.

‘It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes claim upon mens’ hearts,

as for that subtle something,

that quality of air ,

that emanation from old trees,

that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.’

 – Robert Louis Stevenson

An unexpected treat in the park were the trees. Driving up toward Red Cliffs, the road takes you through groves of Sycamore fig trees. Usually you see the odd Sycamore along a river but here there is a large grove of them. The dappled light and these unusually shaped tree trunks in the grove create the feeling of being in a Harry Potter-like forest.

Ndumo AM 20-Jun-14 0050

We can’t see wind, only the things it moves. Likewise, we can’t hear wind unless it’s flowing past something that makes it vibrate; this causes it to adopt various sonic guises depending on what it interacts with. Trees provide some of the most common and admired ways for wind to make itself heard. This sound has been termed psithurism.

“I hear the wind among the trees
Playing celestial symphonies;

I see the branches downward bent,

Like keys of some great instrument.

 – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – “A day of Sunshine”

The  next image is taken from the picnic site at the Red cliffs which overlooks the Usutu river with the Lebombo mountains in the distant background.

Ndumo AM 20-Jun-14 0057

After leaving the Red Cliffs, we travelled back towards the main camp. On our way we stopped to watch a Giraffe calf which was standing in the middle of the road. As soon as we tried to get closer to photograph the calf these four Giraffe came galloping out of the bush pushing the calf into the adjacent bush. While I was not surprised, I had never seen Giraffe acting in such a protective way.

 Ndumo PM 20-Jun-14 0064

Ndumo PM 20-Jun-14 0076

There are few things more magical than finding yourself under a canopy of trees in a tree tunnel on some warm summer day dappled with sunlight. These tree tunnels are sure to enchant anyone fortunate enough to pass under their boughs.  It seems likely that magical spaces like these must have inspired architects through the ages to design the gorgeous vaulted ceiling of a gothic cathedral or other grand arches. Many ancient societies considered trees to be sacred and maintained holy groves of old trees, and with places this beautiful, it’s not hard to understand why.

Ndumo PM 20-Jun-14 0083

The next image is an panorama taken from the Ezulweni hide. It shows the view across the Nyamithi pan of the fever trees lining the far side of the pan. It was a very beautiful and restful scene. We were unable to drive to the other side of the pan because the bridge over the river at the north east end of the pan was broken and unpassable. It was a great pity because we might have been able to get much closer to the plethora of bird life on that side of the pan.


Winter is a good time to visit the park if you are the kind of person who melts in the heat. It was cool at around 5 degrees centigrade early in the morning but by 14h00 the temperature had climbed to 29 degrees centigrade.

Ndumo has a long standing reputation for brilliant birding. but the bird photograph in this park is challenging.

Wise words from an old friend to remind you of why it is so good for the soul in the bush!

“May the sun bring you

new energy by day,

May the moon softly restore

you at night,

May the rain wash away

your worries,

May the breeze blow new

strength into your being,

May you walk gently through

the world and know its beauty and the days

of your life.

 – Apache Blessing

Explore, seek to understanding, marvel at its inter-connectedness and then let it be.

Have fun


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