The Wonder of Narina Trogons

Welcome to the first issue of The Flack’s Photography Newsletter! I am looking forward to hearing your feedback on the content, as well as what topics you would like me to cover in the future. Please share with your bird photographer friends and family. The more the merrier!

The newsletter is designed for bird photographers, but should appeal to wildlife photographers, birders and bird lovers alike. As much as it will be adorned with some of my favourite images, it is what social media is not and will provide focus, a depth of content and hopefully thought-provoking insights.

I trust that this first issue will also provide a welcome distraction from the coronavirus crisis that is causing havoc across the world and keeping most of us indoors. It has definitely made me even more grateful for the anchors in my life, for health, for family, for South Africa’s wide open spaces and for the privilege of bird photography.

What better way to kick things off than with the first “Story behind the Shot” being the exquisite Narina Trogon; one of Southern Africa’s most sought after species.

The Narina Trogon ~ Never say Never!

The Newsletter’s featured image and my favourite “Habitat Shot” of a Narina Trogon taken at Mungari Camp in Coutada 11, Mozambique in December 2019.

One of the first things I learnt about birding and bird photography is to “Never say Never”. Part of achieving success is forever hoping that the next 10 minutes of your life could be your best, and that they may produce the image you have been dreaming about since you first picked up a camera. There is undoubtedly a direct correlation between patience and perseverance and getting the photograph of your wildest imaginations.

Since I first picked up my wife’s canon 400d some 11 years ago, I knew I had to see and photograph a Narina Trogon. Besides being named after a well known ornithologist’s mistress; “Narina”, it is one of the most unique and colourful birds the country of South Africa has to offer. It has a heterodactyl toe arrangement (two toes face forward and two toes face backward on each foot) and is adorned with the same colours as Father Christmas and his elves. If that is not enough, its bare throat patch (only seen when calling) changes colour in breeding season, but more on that later.

A male and female Narina Trogon showing off their heterodactyl toe arrangement.

You mention the name of this species to beginner or experienced birders alike, and they can tell you exactly when and where they first saw one or if they have not yet had the pleasure, it is always high up on their bucket list.

My first sighting and photograph took place in the spectacular, fever tree forests of Ndumo Game Reserve on the border between South Africa and Mozambique. I will never forget the moment and even more so because I shared it with my beautiful wife; Eileen. The bird, however, was high up in one of the forest trees, and consequently the sighting and subsequent photograph had a lot of room for improvement, especially since I got more of its green bottom than its beautiful, crimson breast. Since that first experience, I have always hoped and dreamed of achieving a photograph of this species that would give justice to its beauty and its forest habitat.

A male Narina Trogon sits motionless in its typical, riverine forest habitat at Hluhluwe Game Reserve in Northern KwaZulu Natal.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of seeing dozens of Narina Trogons from Dlinza forest and Hluhluwe Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu Natal to Umdoni Golf Course in southern KwaZulu Natal to  Woodbush forest in Magoebaskloof. Every time I see one my heart skips a beat and I try to better my previous images.

Nothing would, however, prepare me for the luck that many years of perseverance was about to surface in early December 2019. It was around 10am, and we had just arrived back, after a very successful session with a nearby African Pitta, to Mungari Camp in the Zambezi Delta (more on this in my next newsletter) when I heard a very strange barking sound coming from one of the tents. The noise sounded like a cross between a distressed cat and an unhappy Wood Owl. Being very curious and armed with my camera (just in case) I walked to where I thought the noise was coming from and began to look around. I was starting to get frustrated, as I just couldn’t pinpoint the exact location of the sound, when I suddenly caught a flash of crimson not more than a few paces from me and about 3 metres off the ground. It was a male, Narina Trogon in all his magnificent splendour.

I almost pinched myself just to check that this was really happening, as the bird was looking directly at me and making no signs of moving away. This species is renowned for being elusive and shy, and normally, at the first sign of movement or danger, flies away or turns its green back on you to blend in with the surrounding green environment.

A typical sighting of this shy and elusive species, well camouflaged in its forest environment at Umdoni Golf course on the south coast of KwaZulu Natal.

Well, it didn’t! It just sat there. In fact, it sat there so long, my arms got tired from the thousands of images I took. They got so tired I eventually had to move off quietly to save myself from a guaranteed muscle spasm. This may well be the first time any photographer has purposefully moved away from a full frame Trogon!

To make matters even more astonishing it returned the next day at 10am, except this time instead of making its very strange Wood Owl impersonation, it gave its typical Trogon hoot. The Trogon’s normal call is a grating, repetitive low hoot that is used to defend its territory or attract a female partner. After walking away from the previous day’s sighting I made the most of this second opportunity. I even climbed an anthill to get eye-level with this “once in a lifetime” Trogon and take some close up images that revealed his lime-yellow throat patch. This bare, throat patch is usually covered with feathers and is only seen when the male is calling. In non-breeding season it is a bright lime-yellow colour, but it soon turns to turquoise blue when it is time for breeding. Nature is endlessly fascinating!

A male Trogon showing off its “non-breeding”, lime-yellow throat patch.

If you had told me in November 2019 that in a matter of weeks I would be standing on an anthill, eye-level and no more than 3 paces away from a Narina Trogon, taking full frame images of its throat patch, I would have said; “Never!”

Tips and settings for photographers

Camera and Lens: The Newsletter’s featured image was taken handheld with a canon 5d Mkiv camera and a 600mm f4 mkiii lens. The weight of the new 600 lens was extremely helpful given the circumstances. (Spasms would definitely have started earlier if I was using my older 400mm f2.8 lens)

Camera Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | Shutter speed1/640s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exposure bias 0

Hints and Tips: Opportunities like this one are not likely to re-occur and thus, it was important to make the most of it and not mess up the framing or the camera settings. With a bird like a Narina Trogon this is easier said than done, as it is incredibly easy to blow the bright crimson colours on the breast or the whites on the tail, and you still need to ensure you get enough detail out of the darker greens. Not only this but the light in camp on this day was very odd! It was 10am and hazy, and the bird was partially shaded by the surrounding trees.

Spot AF & Spot metering ~ Very early on I realised that the finer and more accurate the point of focus the higher the success rate for sharp, bird portraits. Thus, when setting up your camera take time to ensure you have activated all the focus points your camera has to offer. I almost always shoot using Spot AF (it looks like a square within a square), which gives you the most control on where your camera is focusing and allows you to focus on the bird’s head or eye. My default metering mode is Spot metering. This mode exposes for the exact point I am focusing on, and usually gives me the exposure I am looking for when it comes to birds (just beware of black or white or pied birds). It also stops dark or light backgrounds ruining the exposure of the bird in question.

More rather than less ~ My first bit of advice, when you have an accommodating bird like this one, is to go with the “more rather than less” approach. In that, take as many photographs from as many different positions with as many different settings as you can muster, until you find the composition and combination of settings that give you what you are looking for. At the end of the day, digital cameras were built for high volume image taking, so take advantage of what previous film photographers never had. If I hadn’t persevered with many different options for this Trogon, I would have been very disappointed, as the confusing light, which seemed much brighter than it was, meant that my initial ISO would have been far too low and would have resulted in many blurred images. My original location would also have missed out on some very pleasing and more arty compositions. By adjusting my ISO and checking the shutter speed, I was able to settle on ISO 1600 and 1/640s, which is enough of a shutter speed to get pin sharp images of perched birds, and a low enough ISO to enable high quality prints. Moreover, by moving into different locations, I eventually found a higher vantage point, which provided a clear, well-framed image and more pleasing eye contact. When it comes to once in a lifetime opportunities like this one, it is critical to remain calm and to experiment until you find the best possible image. You will only regret it if you don’t, which I can testify to from many frustrating experiences!

Focus and refocus ~ There are a number of techniques that allow you to improve the sharpness of your images, but for stationary birds like this one and when hand-holding my camera, I like to put the camera on AI focus and constantly focus and refocus on the target. To do this, you focus on something behind or in front of the bird and then refocus on the bird itself. As soon as your camera locks onto the subject, fire off one or two shots on high speed continuous. Then rinse and repeat. I find that this approach significantly increases my take home rate of pin sharp images.

I hope this first issue has been both interesting and informative, and that you have either learnt something new or been reminded of how incredible our natural world is and what a privilege it is to capture its beauty.

My next newsletter will be focused on one of Southern Africa’s most exciting birding destinations; the Zambezi Delta in Mozambique. I have had the privilege of birding out of the camps in both Coutada 11 and 12, and look forward to sharing my experiences with you as well as some of the incredible birds and animals you will encounter.