Photographing Bohm’s Spinetail in Northern Kruger

A very happy 2022 to you and your family! Welcome to issue 19 of my bird photography newsletters!

I believe that one of the key secrets to improving your bird photography (or any photography for that matter) is to fall in love with your subject! Loving something or someone significantly increases the time you want to spend with them, makes you curious to find out their likes and dislikes and encourages you to present them in their best light.

Spending significant time with your subject helps you identify their habits, for example; what time of day are they most active; what conditions are best suited to photographing them and when do they behave in a unique or different way. Being curious about your target encourages you to unearth reading material about it, speak to people who may know it better than you and try different approaches to see if you can uncover something original about it. Striving to photograph it in the best possible way pushes you to persevere, not to settle for the same images you have seen in books or on social media and to dream about what could be possible.

When you combine these factors, it is inevitable that your photography will improve and that your images will start to stand out from the rest.

The Story Behind the Shot
Photographing Böhm’s Spinetail in Northern Kruger

I can still clearly remember my first experience with Böhm’s Spinetail! I had invited David Letsoalo*; friend and incredible bird guide, to join me for a few days in northern Kruger, so we could both have a break from work and focus on photographing some of the incredible birds of the region. We had made the journey to Crooks Corner early in the morning and were heading to the Pafuri Picnic Spot when we heard the chitter chatter of Swifts above our heads. We looked up to see four white, cigar-shaped bodies with bat-like wings cruising ahead of us. “Böhm’s, Böhm’s, Böhm’s!”, we shouted. The excitement was at fever pitch as we followed in hot pursuit. They flew swiftly above the Baobab strewn landscape and finally slowed down to give us our first stationary views and a couple of memorable photographs.

My favourite image of this unique Swift! A Böhm’s Spinetail captured in flight as it glides low over the Luvuvhu River and under the Pafuri Bridge in northern Kruger.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 6400 | 1/3200s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 5272 x 3517 (6.7 MB)

Since that first encounter, I have always been intrigued by these unique birds. Who can’t fall in love with birds that look like day-time bats, breed in Baobabs and have spines protruding out of their bottoms. Definitely not me! Hence, when I was heading to Punda Maria and Pafuri for a 16 day safari in November this year, one of my main objectives was to spend some quality time with these awesome Spinetails.

A close up of the same Böhm’s Spinetail gliding above the Luvuvhu River; showing off the incredible image quality of the Canon R5. Even with the camera’s exceptional autofocusing system, I found trying to capture images of these fast and erratic fliers incredibly challenging. Although I felt I had a chance of achieving the image I had visualised, I was still very surprised when it actually happened!
Image dimensions: 3295 x 2199 (4.0 MB)

I saw them again in the Zambezi Delta in December 2019 but the sightings were equally brief and the photographs were very similar to what I had seen when researching them; blue sky backgrounds and relatively grainy/pixelated birds. With 16 full days in my hands, I was hoping to find a reliable location that would give me significantly more time with them and hopefully enable photographs that would be a little different to the norm. My dream was to photograph a Böhm’s Spinetails with a non-sky background and ideally with the Luvuvhu River below it.

Another frame of a Böhm’s Spinetail heading straight below me and under the Pafuri Bridge in northern Kruger. I found using case 4 (for objects that accelerate and decelerate quickly) the most effective when tacking these erratic fliers. This combined with the R5’s incredible animal eye autofocusing system did the trick!

Böhm’s on the Pafuri Bridge

Knowing that these Spinetails were regular visitors to the Pafuri Bridge, I felt that was probably the best place to start my efforts. This proved to be a good strategy as I found the Bridge to be exactly what I was looking for; a reliable location where I could enjoy prolonged views of the birds. In sunny conditions the birds were best seen between 5am and 7am, while in overcast conditions they seemed to arrive a little bit later and were most prevalent between 7h30 and 9am. They could also be found in the late afternoon, but this was a challenging time to encounter them, as it left very little time to get back to camp before the gates closed.

If I learnt anything during my approximately 12 hours of observation (and even longer periods of staring at Little Swifts) is that you need to be patient and give yourself at least two hours on the Bridge. Nothing is guaranteed, but I found this approach worked every time and gave me some phenomenal sightings.

A Böhm’s Spinetail flitters past me at close quarters on the Pafuri Bridge in northern Kruger.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 6400 | 1/4000s | f5.6 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 4207 x 2806 (7.4 MB)

Separating Böhm’s from Little Swifts

At first it was difficult to separate the Spinetails from their Little Swift counterparts but after a few hours of observation it became increasingly easier. There were usually only 2 to 5 Spinetails amongst hundreds of Little Swifts.

The key was learning to identify the general “jizz/giss” of the Spinetails. Giss refers to the overall impression or appearance of a bird garnered from such features as shape, posture, flying style or other habitual movements, size and colouration. In my experience, the biggest tell-tale sign was their bat-like appearance in flight. When compared to Little Swifts, their bodies are much stumpier and their wings look longer and floppier. Moreover their underbellies are white (versus the black of Little Swifts), their flight is more erratic i.e. they glide less and flitter and change direction far more often. Once I had picked out an individual with these characteristics I could then focus my binoculars and/or camera on it and confirm the sighting.

One of the key features you want to see, given that the bird is named after them, is the tiny spines that jut out of their stumpy tails. Unfortunately, these can only be seen on very close observation.

A close encounter with a Böhm’s Spinetail on the Pafuri Bridge in the far north of the Kruger National Park. I was very fortunate to experience these birds flying in very close proximity to me. Some of the birds would even fly well within my minimum focusing distance.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 6400 | 1/5000s | f5.6 | Spot Metering | Exp bias +2 | no Flash
A close up crop of the previous image showing the spine-like protrusions (all 9 of them) from the Bohm’s tail and from which it gets its name.

Böhm’s Spinetail in cloudy, windy weather

While in Pafuri I also visited the Pafuri Picnic Spot where I had the pleasure of getting to know its caretaker and passionate birder; Mandla Ngomane. Mandla is extremely generous with his knowledge and besides showing me the Black-throated Wattle-eyes, shared with me much of what he had observed over his many years in the Park.

He taught me that Böhm’s Spinetails fly low down in cloudy, windy conditions and flitter around the fringes of the trees that line the banks of the Luvuvhu River. Equipped with this information, I was encouraged to spend time looking for them during overcast mornings.

As luck would have it, I found four birds and was able to take a fortunate image of one of the Spinetails doing exactly what Mandla described; flittering around an Apple Leaf Tree between the Pafuri Bridge and the picnic spot.

Just as Mandla Ngomane described to me; a Böhm’s Spinetails flying low down, on an overcast and windy day, and flittering around an Apple Leaf Tree between the Pafuri Bridge and the Pafuri Picnic Spot.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/8000s | f5.6 | Spot Metering | Exp bias +1 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 5197 x 3467 (6.9 MB)

Not only this, but I also learned that the Spinetails are far more likely to fly under the bridge in these same conditions. Indeed, my flight shots taken with the Luvuvhu River in the background were all achieved with this knowledge in hand.

I can now comfortably say that the Spinetails are far more camera friendly when it is overcast and windy. So much so that I not only had the birds flying under the bridge but also flying eye level and right past me. I have one photograph of a Spinetail flying directly at me and right over the top of a parked safari vehicle. I am not sure the occupants realised what an incredible moment we had just witnessed.

Spinetails and Mirrorless Cameras

The images I achieved of these Spinetails would not have been possible with my previous DSLR cameras. Mirrorless cameras are a major step up for bird and wildlife photographers and I would encourage you, if you can, to make the switch sooner rather than later.

The ability of the new Canon R5 to lock onto these speedy Spinetails using its animal eye autofus system was very impressive! Don’t get me wrong, it was still very challenging, but at least I felt I had a chance.

I used AI Servo and case 4; for objects that accelerate or decelerate quickly, to track these fast and erratic fliers. I tried all the cases but found this to be the most effective albeit difficult to quantify the differences.

A Böhm’s Spinetails flies straight at me while I was standing on the Pafuri Bridge. Given the speed and erratic nature of these bird’s flight, I was blown away by the ability of the Canon R5 to lock onto the subject and maintain focus. With my previous cameras an image like this was just about impossible!
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/8000s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias +1 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 3532 x 2357 (6.2 MB)
A Böhm’s Spinetails flies low down and past some Riverine Forest on the banks of the Luvuvhu River in northern Kruger. It was such a treat to see these birds from all angles; above me, below me, straight at me and adjacent to me.

Latest from the Field ~ Buff-spotted Bonanza!

On my return from the Kruger National Park, I got to spend the most fantastic few hours with a magnificent Buff-spotted Fluuftail! What a treat! I have previously only photographed Flufftails on my own and without the use of any form of feeding. I guess that will always be my preference!

A portrait of a Buff-spotted Flufftail photographed near Howick in the Natal Midlands. What an awesome experience; to see a Flufftail at such close quarters.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens

However, when I heard that Rich and Kim Lindie had successfully set up a feeding station at their house (only 30 minutes from mine) and one of the regular attendees was a Buff-spotted Flufftail, I thought I would go and experience something a little different.

What a cracking bird! He would make an appearance from around 05h30 to 09h00 and come in 3 or 4 times during this time period. He would then repeat this in the afternoon from about 16h30 til 18h30.

I am really glad I did, as I was not only treated to amazing views of this stunning bird but also got to have a great conversation with Rich and meet his family. Birding is so much more than just birds! Thank you Rich and Kim for your awesome hospitality and kindness. It was my first experience of this nature and it was an awesome one!

Within 18 months of arriving in the Natal Midlands I have been blessed to see and photograph three species of Flufftail at incredibly close quarters. What a dream come true! (Left: Striped Flufftail at Mbona Nature Reserve; Middle: Red-chested Flufftail near Balgowan; and Right: Buff-spotted Flufftail near Howick)

This brings me to the end of my third and final newsletter on Northern Kruger. I truly hope you have enjoyed the journey!

If you have a moment, please drop me an email and let me know if there are any subjects you would like me to cover in my future newsletters or any other feedback you may have. My next newsletter will be focused on Orange Ground Thrush and Benvie Gardens!

Yours in bird photography,