AFRICAN BIRDLIFE | In the Background


Photographing birds in their environment

The photographic genre of birdscape, habitat or ‘birds in their environment’ images surely ranks as one of the most difficult to master. In essence, these are photographs in which the bird is small in the frame and is taken in a setting that typifies the species’ natural environment and adds a bit of background information for the viewer.

It combines the art of landscape photography (lighting, textures, colours, gradients and compositions) with the challenges of bird photography (with creatures in flight, etc.). It also gives the photographer more creative licence as there is plenty of subjectivity and the images often evoke widely differing responses in people. The challenges it presents and the possibilities for personal photographic expression it provides are some of the main reasons I enjoy this category so much. It also gives a viewer greater insight into and an appreciation of the frequently overlooked lives of birds.

One of my favourite examples is a photograph I took during a trip to the Eastern Cape highlands. I spent hours traipsing after family groups of Drakensberg Rockjumpers, in cold and often uncomfortable conditions, before I got the shot I was looking for. The image draws you into the habitat of these endemic birds: rockstrewn mountainsides with lichen-covered boulders and a high-altitude background. It also reveals an aspect of their behaviour – jumping from one rocky perch to another as they search for food. It encapsulates the essence of habitat shots! There are two basic approaches to taking ‘birds in environment’ images. You can use your usual bird photography lens (usually one between 400mm and 600mm) and look for creative compositions showing the bird in its habitat, or you can attach your wide-angle lens, raise your f stop and hope you can sneak up very close to a bird that is surrounded by an attractive backdrop. In this article I am taking the former approach and providing a few examples of habitat shots to highlight how they can be created.

Patience and location
Some of the key ingredients are to be patient, be in the right place and persevere. I often initially look for settings that appeal to me: grasslands with eyecatching flowers, a tree or shrub with interesting textures and striking colours, or branches/vines that create a visually pleasing pattern. Once I have identified a potential site and confirmed that there are birds in the area, I set up camp and wait. Obviously this may take some time and involves a lot of luck. I followed this approach when capturing this image of a Red-collared Widowbird.

The grasslands of Rietvlei Nature Reserve were bursting with colourful flowers, birds were in full breeding mode and calling from raised perches, and the period of early morning light was extended by thin cloud. I stayed in one area for hours waiting for the right bird to land on any one of a number of perches I had identified. This male eventually obliged and I got the shot I had visualised.

Sunrise and framing
When exploring new areas I try to get a really early start to the day. Dawn is an ideal time to get backlit subjects and early sun rays can soften the lighting of your images, creating mood as well as interesting compositions and colours. I photographed this Ground Woodpecker (above) while driving up Sani Pass at first light. The sun had illuminated the hill in the background and the branches created a natural frame for the bird.

Branches and backgrounds
A perfect perch and an aesthetically appealing or creative background can elevate a habitat shot from ordinary to eye-catching. I am always on the lookout for interesting branches, perches and backgrounds, especially when I am in an area where an interesting or difficult- to-photograph species occurs. This all came together with this spectacular Marsh Owl. I was exploring the roadside route known as Zaagkuildrift to Kgomo-Kgomo when I noticed an owl perched out in the open. The whole scene, so evocative of an early morning in the bushveld, adds an extra dimension to the image.

Similarly, flowers and pleasing backgrounds can make a powerful combination in bird photography. Whenever I see an attractive bird feeding at a lovely flower, I look to see if I can perhaps find an angle or approach that could create an even more interesting image.

In this instance, a male Malachite Sunbird was a regular visitor to some flowers at our accommodation in Wakkerstroom. I really liked the juxtaposition of the colour of the flower and the green sunbird blending with the background.

Flight and habitat
On a scale of difficulty this must be the ultimate as it adds the challenges of flight photography to the mix. To have any chance of achieving success, unless the photograph is completely opportunistic, I keep an eye out for birds performing repetitive displays in appealing surroundings. Knowing which species are more inclined to perform this type of behaviour, for example, bishops, widowbirds and bee-eaters, is helpful. Ideally, the bird’s flight path needs to have a plain, distant background as this assists with focusing, and the foreground should either add information about the bird or provide visual appeal.

While exploring the farmlands around Devon, Gauteng, during the breeding season, I tried a number of spots to find exactly this set-up with the bumble beelike Yellow-crowned Bishops. It took a number of tries before I found the perfect scene: three males buzzing repetitively over a patch of seeding grass. After a number of hours of capturing nothing but blurred images, I eventually got the shot I was looking for.

Another example of this type of image is this one of a Verreaux’s Eagle soaring above the cliffs of the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens. In this instance, although I knew the eagles were in the area, the photograph was more opportunistic than planned!

Going to ground
Another approach to birdscape photography is to immerse yourself in your subject’s world and wait for that special moment when you can capture a scene that epitomises the species. One tactic is to be at eye level with the bird. For shy species like crakes and rails or grassland species such as larks and pipits, this inevitably means spending a great deal of time on your stomach and perfecting the art of leopard crawl! But the rewards become obvious as the images you take give a sense of perspective and draw you into the creature’s own world.

In Wakkerstroom, while I was searching for the elusive Near Threatened Rudd’s Lark, one landed in the road in front of me. Instead of trying to get a photograph while standing, I dropped to the ground and rolled into position. After a tense few minutes, the bird emerged from vegetation along the road verge and presented me with a special photographic opportunity. I love how small and vulnerable the lark looks in comparison to the tall grassland it inhabits. The dew on the grass stems and the early morning light add an extra dimension to the image.

Although different to larks and crakes in their behaviour, weavers and other nest-building birds can also present opportunities for habitat shots in which the bird appears small in the image. I staked out a Thick-billed Weaver that was in the process of building a nest; the bird’s new home just visible in the background combined with the building material held in his beak and the frame created by the reeds and light made for my favourite image of that trip.

Ultimately, my approach is simple: I spend time in nature doing what I love, then select the images that most inspire and excite me and hope that others will share those emotions.