Habitat Shots ~ The Colours of Northern Kruger

I enjoy most genres of bird photography but if pushed to pick a favourite it would have to be “Habitat Shots” or “Birds in their Environment” images. For me, these photographs not only capture the essence of a specific bird species but they also tell a far deeper story than a pure portrait or action shot.

I feel this is important as you want your audience to be transported to where you took the image, to acknowledge the connection between birds and the importance of safe guarding their environments and to learn something new or feel some sense of deeper connection with your subject.

I was asked recently, “What are you going to do with all your images?”. My answer is that I will continue to use them to support conservation of Africa’s incredible environments and the birds and mammals that live in them. Photography drives awareness, connection and an emotional response and I feel these three things can enable and support this worthwhile cause.

Hence, when I set out on a 16 day trip to Northern Kruger my heart’s desire was to try and capture images that could be used for exactly this purpose. I wanted images that would reveal not only the area’s incredible birdlife but also its unique habitats and would create an emotional connection with my audience. I knew my work would be cut out for me as the north is dominated by Mopane; a richly coloured, broad-leafed tree, which makes for magnificent backgrounds but is not known for its density of wildlife sightings. You have to work extremely hard for each image you take in Mopane!

Fortunately, the north also has stunning Sandveld as well as magnificent Riverine Forests that surround the area’s impressive rivers. Consequently, my time in Mopane was broken up with the dense, green vitality of the Luvuvhu and Mphongolo Rivers as well as the unique diversity of the Mahonie Loop.

I loved my time in all these environments and have returned home with many fantastic memories as well as a few photographs that, at least for me, capture a little bit of the “Luvuvhu, Mopane and Mahonie Magic”.

Habitat Shots
The Colours of Northern Kruger

Racket-tailed Roller

To kick off my series on “The Colours of Northern Kruger”, I thought I would start with my most cherished moment and image of the trip!

Before leaving for Pafuri I had been dreaming about taking an image of a Racket-tailed Roller interacting at its nest site. This seemed pretty silly at the time, as Racket-tailed Rollers are hard enough to see without asking for any more specifics. How on earth was this request going to be fulfilled?

Well, to be honest, I didn’t know either! The forecast looked even bleaker when I was chatting to Mandla Ngomane at the Pafuri Picnic Spot, as he hadn’t seen any sign of the Rollers for weeks. That said, he did mention that they used to use a nest site on the tar road to the Pafuri Gate. So at least there was a potential nest! I saw that as a major positive!

I can comfortably say that without daring to dream and the belief that it may come true, this image would never have happened! After taking this series of images, I was overwhelmed with emotion and had a small, yet manly, cry. It was such a personal and moving experience! I love how special moments in nature can do that!
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/1600s | f5.6 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 6182 x 4142 (12.4 MB)

This was the last of my photographic targets and hence, despite there being few recent sightings, I decided to track down the tree Mandla had spoken about and just try my luck. Approximately three days of trying my luck yielded nothing!

Fortunately, I told Carel Nkune from Pafuri Border Camp about my failed attempts and he suggested we try on one of the evening drives, as this would get us to the area just before sunset and that could possibly do the trick (given that the 6am to 8am slot wasn’t working). Low and behold, we arrived and discovered the birds in the general area! So I now had birds and a nest site in close proximity to one another. A colossal step in the right direction!

I hardly slept that night, partly because the adrenalin was still wearing off from getting sensational views of Pel’s Fishing Owl, but also because I was super excited to go back to the “Roller” spot first thing in the morning. My gut said that this could be my morning and so I left as the gates opened at 04h30 and made my way to the site.

I couldn’t have asked for a better welcoming committee as the Rollers were already displaying just a few hundred metres behind the nest’s location. Instead of trying to move into a different position, I set myself up at the perfect angle to take images of the nest cavity, poured a cup of coffee and waited. The birds continued to fly around and call for about 20 to 30 minutes. On more than one occasion I was tempted to leave my position to get better views, but my intuition said to stay put.

I almost spat my coffee out when a turquoise bird with multi-coloured wings flew in and started flapping at the nest hole! One of the Rollers had just landed and was trying to steady itself! Fortunately my camera was already aimed at the bird, so all I had to do was compose myself, squeeze the focus button and fire away!

A close up of the same, exquisite Racket-tailed Roller! The image quality of the Canon R5 is far superior to anything I have used before, making it by far my favourite camera for “habitat shots” to date.

Soon after this image was taken a Cape Glossy Starling flew down and chased the Roller away. This resulted in a flurry of activity as the Rollers and Starlings proceeded to fight and interact with each other. My dream had been realized, in fact, it had been “overly and abundantly” provided for!

Mopane and Magpies

The Mopane tree, which can take the form of a tall tree or small shrub, is found in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia and is immediately recognizable by its butterfly shaped leaves and kidney-like pods. The leaves are bright green when they first arrive on the scene but soon turn into an incredible kaleidoscope of autumn colours. From a photographic perspective this burst of colours provides magical scenes and sensational backgrounds. The trick, however, is to find birds in this colourful landscape, as Mopane is not known for its volume and density of bird or mammal sightings.

I found getting “habitat shots” in Mopane incredibly challenging. I discovered great birds and great habitats but to get the two together and achieve a pleasing composition was not for the impatient. Thankfully I love being in the bush and was happy to keep at it!

The below two images are my most loved “mopane habitat shots”. I feel they capture the magnificence of Mopane with its many shades of yellow, orange, green and red. Moreover, the Magpie Shrike’s long tail and pied colouration adds to the scene and ensures that the bird is still a key area of focus. The images are of the same Shrike on exactly the same tree. All I have done is change the position from where I was shooting, something I encourage all photographers to consider before they move on.

The Mopanie Magpie ~ A Long-tailed or Magpie Shrike calls from its magnificent Mopane perch on the Klopperfontein Dam road that takes you to the Pafuri region of the Kruger National Park.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/1250s | f5.6 | Evaluative Metering | Exp bias -1/3 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 6492 x 4330 (13.2 MB)
The second image of the same Magpie Shrike on the identical tree. I must have spent a good 20 minutes shooting this one scene. The Shrike was very accommodating and decided to stick around, which gave me ample time to try every possible angle. The first image was taken parallel with the bird, after which I reversed my car until I was happy with how the bird was framed and the overall composition of this second shot.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/1000s | f6.3 | Evaluative Metering | Exp bias +1 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 7364 x 4912 (19.7 MB)
An adult Great-spotted Cuckoo perches on the main tar road (H1-8) that takes you to Pafuri in the north of Kruger. Although the perch is cluttered, this image has grown on me for some reason. I like the various shades of Mopane in the background, the framing of the Cuckoo’s head and the multitude of patterns made from the mismatch of branches.
You cannot get a much more iconic scene in the northern Kruger National Park than two, backlit Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on a Zebra with a Mopane background! Yellow-billed Oxpeckers are only found in the north of the Park where they have made a recent comeback, while Mopane is the most common form of vegetation. The oranges, greens and yellows of Mopane make for amazing backgrounds!
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 2000 | 1/1250s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias -1/3 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 7458 x 4975 (14 MB)

The Magnificent Mahonie

The Mahonie Loop; named after the pod mahogany tree, of which there are many in the area, is situated in stunning Sandveld. Besides the exciting bird species, described in my previous newsletter, this biome is well known for having plants and mammals that are rare elsewhere in the park. From a mammal perspective you can find Sharpe’s Grysbok and Suni, while from a tree perspective you may stumble upon some Wild Syringas or Myrtle Bushwillows.

The following four images are my selected “small in the frame” bird images from the area. For this series, I have used the incredibly colourful and common birds of the Loop; the Lilac-breasted Roller, the Little Bee-eater, the Crested Barbet and the European Bee-eater, instead of the foliage, to give you a feel for this special biome. The beautiful greens and yellows of the Sandveld trees are great backdrops for these extravagantly coloured birds and these typical scenes transport me right back to the many afternoon game drives I was privileged to do while there.

A Lilac-breasted Roller takes off from a young Silver Cluster Tree (I think) on the Mahonie Loop near Punda Maria Rest-camp. These rollers were very common along the Loop and would provide an explosion of colours amongst the vivid greens and yellows of the surrounding Sandveld trees.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/3200s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias -1/3 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 7309 x 4875 (14.1 MB)
I would bump into these tiny Bee-eaters on all of my afternoon drives along the Mahonie Loop. The late afternoon light would make the surrounding trees sparkle and glow. Hence, when I found a Little Bee-eater backlit on a petite perch, I made sure I spent enough time with it to capture this magical, end of day scene.
The monotonous calls of the Crested Barbet could be heard regularly along the Mahonie Loop. I loved how their striking colours stood out against the vibrant greens of the area, and thus was excited to find one chomping a beetle with complimentary colours. Although it is probably a stretch to call this a “habitat shot” I felt it deserved its place in this series.
European Bee-eaters were out in force along the Mahonie Loop and this serene scene was a typical occurrence during the many hours spent traversing this 28 kilometre dirt track. I particularly liked how the colours of the leaves and the background matched the colours of the Bee-eater.

The Luvuvhu Magic

You haven’t fully experienced the magic of the Kruger National Park until you have driven the road from the Pafuri Bridge to Crook’s Corner. Steeped in history this self-drive route, which hugs the Luvuvhu River, is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful drives in the Kruger. The road meanders through mixed vegetation from dry Thornveld to Baobabs and Riverine Forest. The lush forest is adorned with magnificent trees; from Nyala Berry to Apple Leaf and Sycamore Fig. It is a photographer’s dream! The trees are towering, the greens are other worldly, the variety of light is mesmerizing and the birds and animal encounters are as diverse as they are jaw dropping. It’s called the “Luvuvhu Magic!”

The below image of a Trumper Hornbill is my preferred “habitat shot” from this magical area. It was taken on an early morning drive from the Pafuri Border Camp to the Pafuri Bridge and encapsulates much of the sense of awe one feels when travelling this self-drive route.

A Trumpeter Hornbill stops for a brief moment on one of the many magnificent trees that grace this part of the Kruger National Park, as the sun rises over the Luvuvhu River.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 6400 | 1/1250s | f4 | Evaluative Metering | Exp bias -2/3 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 7660 x 5109 (19 MB)

While staying at both Punda Maria and Pafuri Border Camp, I paid many visits to the Pafuri Picnic Spot. Besides being a welcome relief from the relentless heat, it also provided some of my best photographic moments as the site is full of some of the area’s special birds. I spent many mornings following a pair of Tropical Boubous around. They inhabit the lush vegetation on the banks of the Luvuvhu and I wanted to capture a scene that would transport me back to these moments. One of my favourites from my time with them can be seen below.

The greens of the Riverine Forest are so vibrant you could be mistaken for thinking they have been enhanced, but they are as vivid as they are real. I found this Tropical Boubou on his morning escapades through the Pafuri Picnic Spot; a top location for bird photography in northern Kruger, and wanted to capture some of the colours and mood of this fantastic site.

I also spent an entire day observing a pair of Black-throated Wattle-eyes build their nest high up in the canopy and defend it from any potential invaders. Besides coming away with some of my best portraits of these special birds, I managed one image that I thought gave a sense of their vivid green, canopy environment.

A male, Black-throated Wattle-eye perches for a very brief moment before flying off to fend off another potential nest invader at the Pafuri Picnic Spot in the Pafuri region of the Kruger National Park. I over-exposed the scene to reveal the vibrant colours of the Wattle-eye and his stunning canopy environment.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/1200s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 2/3 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 6509 x 4342 (11 MB)
“Tree Spurfowls” ~ This unusual scene of two Natal Spurfowl, which are normally always on the ground, caught my attention while driving from the Pafuri Picnic Spot to Crook’s Corner in the northern Kruger. I liked the dark, forest surrounds, that the birds were brilliantly lit up and that the behaviour captured was out of the ordinary. I can only guess that there was a predator close by!

The Mighty Mphongolo

Although I spent the majority of my time between Punda Maria and Pafuri, I did take two exciting excursions to the Mphongolo Loop, which is situated near Sirheni Camp and between Punda Maria and Shingwedzi. It is considered one of the most picturesque drives in the Kruger and winds through gallery Mopane woodland into some magnificent strips of Riverine Forest. This dust road is a tree-lover’s delight with huge Ebony Jackal-berries, Fever-trees, Acacias, Figs and Leadwoods on offer.

This scenic route afforded me the opportunity to capture a few more scenes of the magical landscapes of the north. Undoubtedly, this loop stood out for its unbelievable trees and the below image of a Grey Hornbill gives you a sense of their majesty.

Hornbills are a common feature of the Kruger National Park and I would often find Yellow-billed, Red-billed and Grey Hornbills on my outings. Hence, I was happy to have this Grey Hornbill pose for me on one of the many majestical trees that line the Mphongolo River near Sirheni Camp in the Kruger National Park.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1000 | 1/1600s | f5.6 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 2/3 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 7712 x 5144 (17.7 MB)
A Brown-hooded Kingfisher hunts from the banks of the Mphongolo River near Sirheni Camp in the Kruger National Park.
(Edited – removed small, out of focus bush to the right of the Kingfisher)

Bird Photography Portfolio in December’s Getaway Magazine

From a publication perspective, I was privileged to have the Getaway Magazine feature a 10 page portfolio of my bird photographs in their latest December issue.

Thanks so much to Anton Crone and the Getaway team for being such a pleasure to work with and doing such an awesome job!

This brings me to the end of the second of my three part series on Northern Kruger. I hope that it connected you to this special part of the world, that it made you feel a little of the emotions that I did while there and that it will encourage many of you to complete the long journey to Punda Maria and Pafuri and revel in a little bit of the “Magic” of the North.
A majestic Bateluer perches on a dead tree amongst the Mopane Woodlands near Sirheni Camp in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.

My next issue will be dedicated to one of Africa’s most unique birds; the bat-like Bohm’s Spinetail. Until then, keep safe and healthy, have a blessed festive season and I look forward to sharing what I discovered about these awesome Swifts when we meet next in 2022.

If you are a lodge or landowner looking to encourage birders and wildlife photographers to visit your location, please feel free to get it touch with me. I am currently on sabbatical and have some flexibility in 2022 to provide consultation and produce customized, photographic portfolios that drive awareness and foot flow in a time where the safari business needs it most.

Yours in bird photography,