Bearded Vulture

My Most Exciting Photograph to Date

I hope this finds you healthy and happy!

In my last newsletter (Creativity in Bird Photography), I eluded to a new vision for habitat shots or “birds in their environment images” (at least new for me) and mentioned how William Steel and I would be collaborating to see if we could bring our ideas to life. When we first discussed the concept in February this year, we were incredibly excited by its potential but were somewhat daunted by its seemingly impossible goals.

We hoped to take images that would combine epic and/or iconic African landscapes with the birds that call these habitats their home. William will discuss the significance of this project in his own words and through his own lens, but for me these images not only show off Africa’s incredible birdlife but also the exquisite biomes that we need to conserve to ensure their survival. These photographs are different to my usual “habitat shots” as they give equal weighting to the beauty of the landscape and that of the bird.

From my perspective, these images are undoubtedly the toughest I have ever set out to achieve. You first have to find scenes that are captivating, dramatic and represent classic African panoramas or habitats. Then you have to find a bird that is willing to enter the shot and stand or fly into a specific space that allows for a pleasing composition.

This newsletter tells the “story behind my first shot” and my most exciting image to date (featured below); an image that I feel clearly illustrates the vision. I hope the excitement I felt while capturing this photograph translates through my words and that you enjoy the narrative that follows.

The featured image: “My Drakensberg” ~ An endangered Bearded Vulture soars over an iconic African scene high up in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa.
As I watched the storm clouds form and the light pierce through onto the wrinkly, mountainous valley below, I knew that this was the type of epic scene I had dreamed of capturing. All I needed was a Bearded Vulture to fly into it! Sometimes the seemingly impossible is made possible!
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 100 to 400mm f5.6 mkii lens (at 100mm)
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/4000s | f10 | Exp bias 1/3 EV
Image dimensions: 7013 x 4678 (19.3 MB) | Post processing using Lightroom

The Story Behind the Shot
My Most Exciting Photograph to Date

It was the week of my 43rd birthday and my wonderful wife; Eileen, had booked a two night trip to Giant’s Castle in the Central Drakensberg for my birthday present. The Drakensberg mountain range rises to more than 11,400 feet and extends roughly northeast to southwest for 700 miles parallel to the south eastern coast of South Africa. It is without a doubt the icon of high places in Southern Africa, and is the home to some incredible birds; including Bearded Vultures, Cape Vultures, Drakensberg Rockjumpers, Buff-streaked Chats, Jackal Buzzards, Verreaux Eagles, Ground Woodpeckers, Sentinel Rock Thrushes and many more.

The same scene and the same Vulture a few minutes before it flew into the exact location I hoped it would. You can just imagine my excitement! (The other bird is a Greater Striped Swallow)

Giant’s Castle, specifically, is famous for its Vulture Hide where you are able to sit eye to eye with Bearded and Cape Vultures as they soar a few metres from your viewpoint. Eileen had kindly booked the hide for the day and I couldn’t wait to make the 2 hour long journey from my home to the reserve.

Only a few weeks earlier I had been talking to fellow photographer; William Steel, about a new vision for “birds in their environment” images and the start of a new project to achieve it. This trip to Giant’s Castle was my first purposeful attempt to create what we had envisioned. I wasn’t holding my breath as these images would require a combination of patience, perseverance and providence and I saw the trip as a recce to stake out a couple of landscapes and to get a feel for what it would take.

The same scene and the same Vulture a few seconds after the featured image was taken. Shot at 100mm with my Canon 100 to 400mm lens, this Vulture was extremely close to where I was sitting!

My first attempt at an iconic, African “birdscape” occurred at the beginning of the Waterfall Hike. The view from the start of the hike is one of my favourite Drakensberg landscapes and I wanted to find a composition that would not only do it justice but also work with a bird in it. While walking down the path I spotted a male Buff-streaked Chat foraging near one of the benches along the trail. These Chats are classic, high altitude birds and I thought that this male would make a great subject for the shot I was considering. I quickly looked around for a potential perch for him to land on; where I would be able to get close to the bird as well as frame a beautiful, background composition.

An adult Bearded Vulture landing on his usual spot at Giant’s Castle in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, South Africa.

I spotted a rocky outcrop that was higher than any of the others and thought that this would be one of the places the bird would perch should it be alarmed or want to flaunt its wares to any surrounding females. So now I had a bird and a possible composition! All I needed was the right light, the right background conditions and my male Buff-streaked Chat to participate in the fun and “Bob’s your uncle”. Easy peasy lemon sqeezy!

The first purposeful attempt at taking an “African birdscape” photograph, which combines an iconic African landscape; the Drakensberg Mountains, and a bird; a male, Buff-streaked Chat.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 100 to 400mm f5.6 mkii lens (at 120mm)
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/1600s | f10 | Exp bias 0
Image dimensions: 8192 x 5464 (22.8 MB)

I found a place to sit down with my Canon R5 and 100 to 400mm lens at the ready. I had specifically chosen a higher ISO so I could use f10 and get more dept of field in the image. I took a few test shots at different magnifications and settings to make sure I was happy and then began the wait with as much infantile enthusiasm as I could muster. After the third group of tourists gave me odd looks I realised that two hours had already passed and decided to check into my room and come back for another session in the afternoon. I hoped the light would be more diffuse and the background more moody. I arrived back at around 2pmish with the desired conditions in place and settled in for another attempt.

The same perch and the same male, Buff-streaked Chat, but taken with my 600mm lens from exactly the same distance as the previous image.

This time the bird was more active and was moving between a few prominent perches within a hundred metres of each other. I decided to use a technique called “pishing” to see if that would draw the bird in, as this call mimics what birds do when they want to alert each other to danger. Basically it involves saying the word “pish” with your lips in a variety of different ways. This tactic immediately got the birds attention and he flew in, landed and walked along the top of my selected perch. Thanks to my camera’s autofus I got the shot. It took planning and four hours of waiting, but I was encouraged with the result. I felt it was a good start to the project and my first image that fit the brief (even though the bird was a little smaller and less framed than I would have liked). Hooray!

A Buff-streaked Chat photographed overlooking a breathtaking view at Mbona Nature Reserve. Mbona must be one of the most beautiful spots in the Karkloof and that is saying a lot!

Little did I know that this first image was soon going to be surpassed by one of my most significant bird photography moments to date. I woke up before sunrise the next day and made my way up the steep 4 x 4 road to the famous Giant’s Castle Vulture Hide.

The hide is undoubtedly one of my favourite places on earth! When I have been at my most stressed or when I have needed time to pray and get perspective, it has always been one of my “go to” locations. It is serene, spectacular and dramatic and it is hard to put into words the feeling one gets when a massive Bearded Vulture flies past you and looks you in the eye.

The morning was very slow going and although I had some wonderful sightings of a variety of species I didn’t achieve anything from a photography perspective. In fact, I spent a lot of time thinking, eating, drinking coffee, praying and writing poetry (the latter being something new to me). I had a strong sense that I should stay into the evening and see what photographic opportunities would present themselves. After almost 11 hours of waiting, storm clouds had formed on the horizon and the sun was beginning to drop down in front of me. The afternoon sunlight started to pierce the clouds in multiple places lighting up the valley below. It was epic and dramatic. It was exactly what I had been hoping for!

The beauty of the Drakensberg Mountains. Dramatic clouds. Spot lit valleys. And rugged and expansive vistas.

With a sense of childlike wonder, I prayed for a Bearded Vulture to arrive on the scene; “Lord, this is perfect, please bring a Bearded Vulture”. No more than 10 to 15 minutes passed and there he was; a majestic; sub adult Bearded Vulture drifting a few metres past my hiding place. My heart started to race as there was now both an iconic African landscape and an iconic bird right in front of me. He flew past me several times. His circular flight path widened. I could hardly believe my eyes. The “bone swallowing” Vulture was flying directly into the most beautiful scene!

Shooting at 100mm at f10, I could only hope that my R5’s animal eye autofocus system would lock onto the bird and follow it through the landscape. It did! I took as many frames as high speed continuous would allow! I still couldn’t believe it. I checked the back of my camera. The impossible had just become possible. Thank you Jesus!

I stayed for a few more minutes watching White-necked Ravens fly home to roost and then made the slow drive down to my chalet. What an incredible day and a moment I will never forget!

A Black and White conversion of the featured image; “My Drakensberg” ~ An endangered Bearded Vulture soars over an iconic African scene high up in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa. Thanks so much to William Steel for his constant encouragement as well as his input into the post processing of this image.

As always, it has been such a pleasure to share my stories and photographs with you! I hope I have been able to translate the excitement and awe I felt when experiencing them in the field. We are so incredibly blessed to have nature at our doorstep and to witness it on a daily basis. My hope is that by telling its story and revealing its sheer magnificence we will be encouraged to wonder at it, share it and safeguard it!

As always please write in with feedback or just to say hello. It is always great to hear from you!

Yours in bird photography,