Habitat Shots & Drakensberg Rockjumpers

I hope July’s newsletter finds you safe, happy and healthy!

With the continued impact of the coronavirus being felt around the world and the tourism industry taking some of the heaviest blows, I decided to focus this newsletter on one of the key reasons many birders come to South Africa; our endemic bird species and specifically our endemic Rockjumpers. With only two Rockjumper species in the entire world, these birds are extra special! This combined with their bold colours, breath-taking habitats and unique behaviour place them at the top of many international birder’s bucket lists.

South Africa is home to both species of Rockjumpers; Cape and Drakensberg. Their names originate from where they are found; the Cape Rockjumper only occurs in the mountain fynbos of the Western Cape, while the Drakensberg Rockjumper finds its home in the high altitude grasslands and rocky outcrops of the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa and Lesotho.

This next “story behind the shot” focuses on the latter of the two species, and takes you, at least in my opinion, to one of the best alpine, bird photography destinations in South Africa. This location is also one of the most beautiful areas that I have had the fortune of birding and has increased my passion for “birds in their environment” images or what I prefer to call “habitat shots”.

High Altitude Rock Jumping!

It was my birthday, the 31st of March, and I was in my happy place; on top of a mountain, away from the crowds, and searching for one of Africa’s most sought after endemics. My sole mission was to capture a male Drakensberg Rockjumper in his mountain kingdom; an image that would hopefully show off his beauty as well as his distinctive, boulder strewn surrounds.

The newsletter’s featured image and one of South Africa’s most sought after endemics; the one of a kind, Drakensberg Rockjumper. This male posed perfectly in early morning light on the scree slopes of Naude’s Nek, and made for one of my favourite “habitat shots” of the trip. Every time I see it, I am transported back to this unique environment with its pitted boulders, green scrub and escarpment views.

Eileen was kindly looking after Joshua, who was three years old at the time, so that I could take advantage of the early morning light and the birds’ morning rituals. We had spent the last 4 nights at the top of one of South Africa’s highest passes; Naude’s Nek in the Eastern Cape, and were staying at Tenahead Mountain Lodge, an exquisite venue, that promised some of the best high-altitude birding one could hope for. You literally wake up on the doorstep of the Rockjumper’s family home, with every outing promising an encounter with these special, alpine birds.

Having spent many hours at the top of the Sani Pass; one of Southern Africa’s top birding destinations, I had already been privileged to see Drakensberg Rockjumpers on several occasions. My most memorable moment was spending a morning with a pair of them nest-building at the foothills of the Sani Mountain Lodge in Lesotho. The birding was exhilarating with so many incredible endemics and specials on offer, including: Gurney’s Sugarbirds, Broad-tailed Warblers, Barrat’s Warblers, Drakensberg Siskins, African Rock Pipits, Sickle-winged Chats, Ground Woodpeckers, Mountain Pipits, Bearded Vultures and Sentinel Rock-thrushes.

A once in a lifetime image of a Broad-tailed Warbler taken at the base of Sani Pass on my 4th visit to the area. The road towards the pass holds some incredible species including this difficult to locate Warbler and his even more secretive cousin; the Barrat’s Warbler.
An endemic Drakensberg Siskin photographed at the top of the more regularly visited Sani Pass. These small birds were also very common at Tenahead Mountain Lodge, where I would locate them on all my outings.

Both escarpment destinations should be visited, sport spectacular vistas, inspire creativity and share just about all the jaw-dropping bird species you can find in these high-altitude paradises. But if I was forced to select only one to go back to, I would go with a few more nights at Tenahead Mountain Lodge. I found that the convenient and luxury accommodation, combined with the confiding nature of the birds and the awe-inspiring landscapes, added a special dimension to my time birding there and was evident in the resultant photographs. So, if Sani Pass is our top Drakensberg birding destination, then Naude’s Nek may well be our best bird photography destination for the same high-altitude habitat.

A male Drakensberg Rockjumper collects nesting material below the Sani Mountain Lodge in Lesotho. Although Rockjumpers have been known to move to slightly lower elevations in winter, certain pairs remain resident at altitudes above 3000m metres, enduring extreme weather conditions and temperatures.
The second member of the Rockjumper family and a drawcard for many local and international birders; a male Cape Rockjumper in his typical mountain fynbos habitat at the top of the Swartberg Pass near Prince Albert in the Western Cape.

Running after birds at the top of Naude’s Nek takes a bit of getting used to; the air is thin (as the pass is over 8500 feet above sea level) and the rocky slopes are often steep and unforgiving. I had been following a family group of Rockjumpers for four days already; I had sussed out their habits, got to grips with the different light conditions, grazed my knees more times than I care to remember and had finally stopped sounding like Darth Vadar; having adjusted to the altitude.

I was also relieved that I had finally managed to achieve my first “birdscape” of a male, Rockjumper the day before. The weather had been overcast, which held off the harsh light, and the bird was framed by yellow flowers and boulders. Despite having this image in the bag, I was still looking for photographs that would portray a more typical scene; a Rockjumper perched on a sentinel boulder or revealing its steep, scree surrounds.

The image mentioned in the story; a male Drakensberg Rockjumper stands proud in his alpine habitat, framed by bright yellow flowers and boulders. This photograph was taken a few hundred metres from the front door of Tenahead Mountain Lodge, where these birds are very accommodating.

The weather had been unpredictable with mist and rain often being the order of the day, but this morning was perfect! The sun was peeking over the mountain behind the Lodge; the sky was starting to resemble that crystal blue colour of high-altitude passes and the cool air was crisp and clear.

I managed to locate the Rockjumper clan relatively quickly as they had a few habitual spots where they would start their day. The birds seemed more relaxed than normal, perhaps because of the change in weather, or because they were now more accustomed to their 6 foot 3 human shadow. Whatever the reason, the “jumpers” weren’t walking away from me as determinedly as usual and were allowing me to sneak closer. I had circled around them so that I could have the sun behind me and height in my favour, and crept ever closer until I knew I was within striking distance of a full frame habitat shot. The environment was just what I wanted; the typical rocky slope with a mountain and sky background. Now all that I needed was the male to stand out in the open and face the slopes below him. Rock n jumping roll! 180 seconds and 200 images later I felt I had one of the images I was looking for!

Feeling chuffed with my efforts, I was more than happy to retire to breakfast, but the early bird was still catching worms, and the Rockjumper family had more in store for me. It was as if my persistence and patience was being rewarded with increased intimacy and an opportunity to share a breakfast run with these special birds. They moved slowly up the valley, crossed the road that led to the lodge and came to rest on a typical boulder-rich slope with massive potential for the photograph I had visualised.

And there he was, the male Rockjumper, posing on a sentinel boulder, staring over his shoulder and seeming to say; “Is this good enough?”. This image ended an incredible morning in one of the most picturesque settings I have had the privilege of birding! If only it wasn’t in the middle of nowhere and didn’t require a marathon effort to get there (at least for those living in Johannesburg or Cape Town)!

My final image from my breakfast run with the Rockjumper family at the top of Naude’s Nek, and an image that appeared in my article entitled “In the Background ~ Photographing birds in their environment” for African Birdlife. The Lodge is approximately 10 hours from Johannesburg and is best reached with a 4×4 vehicle given the unpredictable conditions of the pass.

As much as these “habitat shots” were my main focus, I was also lucky to capture these birds demonstrating their unique “rock jumping” behaviour. If you have ever had the chance to observe them, it is not hard to understand where they get their name from, as the birds have a curious way of propelling themselves from one boulder to the next. It looks as if they are gliding over the surface as they drive themselves forward, with a combination of claw and wing action.

A female Drakensberg Rockjumper caught in the act of rock jumping, as she propels herself down the rocky slope in front of Tenahead Mountain Lodge. I was really chuffed and lucky to have this image short-listed in the “Bird Behaviour” section of Bird Photographer of the Year (BPOTY) 2020.

Besides the Rockjumpers, Naude’s Nek attracts the same endemics and specials as the more famous Sani Pass, and not just in the way of birds. The Sloggart’s Ice Rat is one of the cutest rodents I have ever seen, and is a sure sign that you have reached the top of one of these Drakensberg passes. As far as the birds go, you only have to walk up the road from the lodge and you will be greeted by a handful of endemics; siskins, chats, rock-thrushes, pipits and more.

Arguably South Africa’s cutest rodent; the Sloggart’s Ice Rat stands out in the open to catch the morning sun at Tenahead Mountain Lodge. These endemics can be found in the parking lot of the lodge and are a fun distraction from bird photography if you feel like a change.

Tenahead also has a Vulture feeding station where both Cape and Bearded Vultures can be found scavenging from a vantage point on the escarpment. I didn’t make it to the feeding station, but from a bird of prey perspective I did lay eyes on Black Harriers, Secretarybirds and Jackal Buzzards. When it comes to Vultures I have, however, been fortunate to visit Giant’s Castle on a few occasions and would argue that the hide there is the best venue in South Africa to see and photograph these awesome birds. This cracking destination will be the focus of my next issue; “The Land of the Airborne Giants”, and is one not to be missed, especially if you love “birds in flight” photography and Vultures.

A juvenile Bearded Vulture perches on his favourite boulder below the Vulture Hide at Giants Castle, South Africa. This threatened species is spectacular to see at such close quarters, and there is no doubt that Giants Castle is the best location in South Africa to photograph them. I look forward to sharing more on this incredible “destination behind the birds” in August’s issue.

“Habitat Shots” Photography Series (Part 1)
High Altitude Habitats

Camera and Lens: This issue’s featured image of a male Drakensburg Rockjumper was taken handheld with my canon 5d mkiv and 400mm f2.8 mkii lens.

Camera Settings: AV mode | ISO 800 | 1/5000s | f4.5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias -0.3 | No Flash

For high altitude birding, where you are often on steep slopes, the light can move from direct, early morning light to shade within a few seconds. For these conditions I usually keep my ISO around the 800 mark or higher and adjust my exposure accordingly. In the case of direct sunlight, I often drop the exposure by 2 or 3 points to avoid over exposure.

The image’s dimensions are almost full frame; 5907 by 3937. To get a full frame habitat shots like this, with my 400mm lens, I usually have to leopard crawl within 3 to 4 paces of the bird in question.

Introduction to “Habitat Shot” photography: Since “Birds in their environment” images are my absolute favourite, and I continue to learn more and more about them as my journey continues, I didn’t think I could do this genre justice in a single newsletter, and hence will provide my tips over a number of issues. This is Part 1 of the Habitat Shot Photography Series entitled; “High Altitude Habitats”.

My definition of “habitat shots” and why I enjoy them: “Habitat shots”, birdscapes or “birds in their environment” images must rank as some of the most difficult photographs to master. They are small in the frame photographs of birds taken in a setting that exemplifies (or eludes to) their natural environment, and hopefully tell a story to the audience. This genre of bird photography combines the art of landscape photography; texture, lighting, perspective and composition, with the challenges of bird photography; fieldcraft, movement, focus and eye contact. They also allow for more creative expression than the more standard bird portrait and flight images.

Many photographic competitions define these images as landscape images taken with a wide-angle lens, where the landscape takes the main stage and the bird (or birds) often appears as a very small, less important part of the image. This is different to my interpretation, which sees the bird remaining as the focal point and comprising around 1/6th to 1/12th of the frame. These pictures are often taken with a fixed 400 to 600mm lens, but, if you can get close enough, a wide-angle lens (or wide-angle lens linked to a trigger system) can also be used.

I personally find habitat shots the most satisfying to take given this combination of challenge and creativity. They provide context and tell a narrative, and for these reasons are my favourite photographs to attempt.

One of my favourite “birds in their environment” images of a Verreaux Eagle gliding over a steep valley at Walter Sisulu Botanical Garden near Roodepoort, South Africa. The photograph combines the use of background colours and contrast to frame the bird, as well as a change in perspective, to create an appealing composition. I was very fortunate to have this image commended by the judges in BPOTY 2019 and appear in their yearbook.

What makes a great habitat shot ~ I have often heard the expression, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and I think it is very true for “habitat shots”. Art is subjective and what appeals to one person doesn’t necessarily appeal to another. Hence, I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question, and I tend to encourage photographers to take images that they love and cherish first, and then worry about what others think later. That said, I think there are some fundamentals that separate good “habitat shots” from average ones and will share some of my thoughts on this question in the series that follow.

Hints and Tips: To kick things off here are some hints and tips for taking “habitat shots” in alpine locations like Sani Pass and Naude’s Nek.

Not every image showing a bird in its environment is a “habitat shot” ~ I think the first thing to acknowledge is that not every image that gives a bird space and provides a feel for its environment is a good “habitat shot”. In my ten years of photography I have literally taken millions of images. One good morning expedition will see me take close to 1000 images. Yet I only have around 100 images in my “birds in their environment” portfolio and only about 70 that have stood the test of time and I consider my favourites. Part of the creative process is sifting through 1000s of images and selecting the ones that you truly love and that stand out from the rest. Most years I only find about 5 to 10 of these! If you are interested in my current portfolio you can find it here: Habitat Shots

The top image is of a Rosy-throated Longclaw photographed in the damp, long grass of the Nebila Peninsula near Hluhluwe, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. This image uses an eye-level perspective, a low depth of field and contrast to help the Longclaw stand out in its grassy habitat. It also uses the rule of 3rds to make the composition an appealing one. The second image was taken by my long-time birding companion; Skye Hartog, and shows yours truly doing my best not to be noticed while leopard crawling towards the longclaw. (In hindsight a green raincoat would have worked better)

Some basics when the bird is your focus ~ Given that the bird is the main subject of the image, you should do your best to ensure the photograph engages with it. One important way to do this is through eye contact. This is often best obtained by being eye level with the bird, which means lots of leopard crawling over small boulders and rough terrain for Rockjumpers or getting wet and muddy if it is Rosy-throated Longclaws. You also need the bird to be facing you or horizontal to you, as a bird looking away or at an odd angle doesn’t make for a good image (most of the time). Even a slight head turn means you more than likely need to try again.

In most cases, you also want to separate the bird from the landscape so that it jumps out at the audience. There are many ways to make a bird “pop” in an image including a low depth of field (blurring the background or foreground), creative lighting and framing. I will deal with some aspects of framing below.

A window into the world of the bird ~ A “habitat shot” should tell a narrative about the bird you have selected and give the audience a window into its world. What makes your bird different? Behaviour that is specific to it? For example; fanning its tail like a Fan-tiled Widowbird in breeding season or hovering over an open grassland like a Black-shouldered Kite. Specific trees, flowers or landscapes that remind you of it? For example; lush, damp, green grass for Rosy-throated longclaws, scree slopes for Rockjumpers or proteas for Sugarbirds. A characteristic pose that exemplifies it? For example, standing proud at the top of an escarpment like an African Rock Pipit, cocking its tail like a Karoo Prinia or skulking away in the shadows like a Knysna Warbler.

You ideally need the image to transport your audience to where you were and have them experiencing what you observed first-hand. They should smell the fynbos so to speak or in the case of Drakensberg Rockjumpers visualise the sun rising over the escarpment and feel the ruggedness of the terrain, as you focus on the bird world’s version of a Barbary Sheep.

A Spotted Prinia cocks his tail as the sun rises on his Karoo scrub environment near Prince Albert in the Western Cape, South Africa. The Prinia’s pose is typical of this species and the violet, pink and olive colours of the background, as well as the low shrub he is standing on, takes me back to this very early morning scene and those unmistakable, Karoo hues. In this example, I have broken the rule of 3rds and gone for a perfectly centred bird. Why? Well, because I prefer it like this, and hope others will too!
For illustrative purposes, here is a different composition of the same image where I follow a more traditional composition. The dimensions of the image are 4081 x 2722; so still good for relatively large prints, but I prefer the first!

Know the rules of composition but don’t be afraid to break them if you like the result ~ The basic elements of composition; balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, focus, proportion and unity, are used to organise or position the visual components of a photograph or painting in a way that is pleasing to the photographer or artist and, hopefully, the viewer.

This subject requires many newsletters to cover and is one that I will revert to in the issues that follow. From a photographer’s standpoint, I really encourage you to delve into the worlds of art and design, as these fascinating fields of study help expand your photographic thought process, especially when it comes to how you crop and compose your images.

There are many well-known guidelines that speak to composition and provide an excellent place to start or further your journey including; the rule of thirds, symmetry and centred composition, diagonals and triangles, foreground detail and depth, leading lines, patterns and textures, filling the frame, the rule of odds, negative space, minimalism and simplicity, isolating the subject, frame within the frame, changing the perspective, using complimentary colour combinations, the rule of space, the left to right rule, balancing elements, juxtaposition, golden triangles and my favourite the golden ratio or “Fibonacci Spiral”. If you weren’t convinced already, you now know why it will require many more newsletters to cover!

For this issue, I thought I would begin by zooming in on one aspect of composition; focus, in that, providing the viewer a place to rest their eyes or what is known as a focal point. I think this is a critical part of “habitat shots” and bird photography, as the focal point is almost always the bird and you want the audience’s gaze to focus on it. When checking the focal point of an image, I sometimes close my eyes and when I open them, try to quickly ascertain what grabs my attention first. If it is not the bird, then I may consider different compositions or even question the merits of the photograph itself. Another way to do this, is to focus all your attention on the bird and see if anything draws your attention away from it. I find these techniques very useful, as they start training your eye to be more critical and pick up any minor distractions or considerations.

The rule of 3rds is a widely used compositional guideline for locating the focal point. The rule divides the image evenly into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and the subject of the image is placed at the intersection of those dividing lines, or along one of the lines itself. This is a great help when attempting to create satisfactory compositions, but don’t be afraid to break it, as there are many other ways to get the viewer to rest their eyes on the bird in question, including framing.

Framing with light, contrast, backgrounds and foregrounds ~ Framing the bird is an excellent way to draw the viewer’s eye to your focal point, and there are many ways to do this. One way is to use branches, flowers or other natural objects to frame the bird; for example, the image of a Rockjumper surrounded by yellow flowers and boulders that provide a natural frame. Another way is to use the background colours to frame the bird and provide contrast so that it makes the bird pop, as can be seen in the case of the Verreaux’s Eagle image. You can also use a very low depth of field (f2.8 to f4) to blur the foreground and background so that only the bird is in focus, such as the final Drakensberg Siskin image below.

A male Drakensberg Siskin sits attentively amongst a sea of boulders at the top of Naude’s Nek in the eastern Cape, South Africa. I used a very low fstop to blur both the foreground and the background in order to frame and isolate the bird, and make it the central figure in the story.

When growing up my Dad always used to say to me; “Do what you love and do it to the best of your ability”. This statement resonates with me when it comes to my passion for bird photography and the type of images I strive for; it is a continuous journey of taking and composing images that I love, combined with a relentless pursuit to improve on them.

I hope this issue has encouraged you to go out and create images that inspire you, but also to delve into the world of composition, so you can understand its elements and guiding rules and then decide how best to use them.