Bird in Flight Photography & Giant’s Castle

When I first started taking photographs of birds I was focused on getting close-up portraits; the closer the better. At first this was incredibly difficult, as I was using Eileen’s 18 to 55mm lens, but with the purchase of my first birding lens; Canon’s 100 to 400mm f5.6, things got significantly easier. I then progressed to taking portraits with less clutter and clear backgrounds, and then tried my luck at action and flight photography. Capturing “birds in flight” at first eluded me, but after realising that it required a very different approach as well as different camera settings and skills, I eventually started to move from blurred birds to images that I was proud to call my own.

This next issue focuses on what I have learned along the way and takes you to one of South Africa’s best “bird in flight” photography destinations; set in the beautiful Drakensberg Mountains of KwaZulu Natal.

The Land of the Airborne Giants

What does a door key, a bucket of bones and a drive up a steep mountain slope have to do with bird photography? The answer: absolutely everything!

The name Giant’s Castle is synonymous with Vultures and “bird in flight” (or BIF) photography, and the way to experience it is to fetch your key to the Vulture Hide on arrival, wake up at 5am the next morning to collect your bucket of bones from the kitchen and drive up a steep 4×4 track behind the lodge to start your day in arguably the world’s best hide for photographing Bearded and Cape (Griffon) Vultures.

The newsletter’s featured image and one of the most breath-taking birds to grace our planet; a sub-adult Bearded Vulture glides above the Drakensberg Mountains and past the Vulture Hide at Giant’s Castle, South Africa. It doesn’t get any more awe-inspiring than this!

Eileen and I first visited Giant’s Castle in March some seven years ago. This was before Joshua; our adorable, now 5-year-old son was born, and we stayed in the honeymoon suite, which overlooks a scenic valley in front of the lodge. The place made an immediate impression on us with its spectacular vistas and brilliant biodiversity.

The gardens around the lodge were full of exciting birdlife and kept my camera entertained for hours. On one occasion I woke up early, grabbed my gear and snuck outside quietly so as not to wake Eileen. I was sitting in an opening listening to the dawn chorus when I noticed a bird with a black head and grey body heading towards me. It ended up feeding on what looked like miniature apples a few metres from our accommodation; a spectacular Bush Blackcap. Bush Blackcaps are one of the most sought-after birds in the area, as they are uncommon and endemic to South Africa and Swaziland. Sadly, they are also threatened due to habitat loss, and I felt very blessed to share such a prolonged and intimate time with one.

The Bush Blackcap that visited our accommodation at Giant’s Castle. The lodge’s grounds attract a variety of excellent species and can fascinate you for hours on end.

Within an hour of setting my eyes on this special species, I had good views of Olive Thrush, Brimstone Canary, Streaky-headed Seedeater, Chorister Robin-chat, African Dusky Flycatcher, Southern Boubou and Bar-throated Apalis. I was also very excited to find a Fairy Flycatcher flittering through the canopy at high speed. These exquisite Flycatchers are as pretty as they are active, and are always a treat to observe, albeit very frustrating to photograph. A motionless Fairy Flycatcher is the equivalent to a speedy Three-toed Sloth; not very likely!

The four-leaf clover of the bird world; a stationary Fairy Flycatcher, which I was very fortunate to photograph at The Cavern in the central Drakensberg. These petite Flycatchers are extremely active and hardly ever pose for a photograph! (Edited ~ removed small branch to the right of the flycatcher)

The gardens also attract a variety of sunbirds with Greater Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds being the most common. You should also keep your eyes out for Gurney’s Sugarbird, which can be found close to the lodge although more reliable along the entrance road; where there are good numbers of proteas.

An exquisite, male Malachite Sunbird perches precariously on a Natal Bottlebrush near the entrance to the Vulture Hide at Giant’s Castle.

The bird-rich gardens are not the only thing to get excited about, as there are also several great hikes that can be explored during the day. These hikes take you through rocky outcrops, grasslands, forests, rivers and riverine scrub, where you can see a variety of different bird species including: Cape Rock-thrushes, Mountain Wagtails, Half-collared Kingfishers, Yellow Bishops, Cape Grassbirds, Swee Waxbills, Cape Canaries, Yellow-throated Woodland Warblers, Cape Batises, Drakensberg Prinias and more.

After seeing the Blackcap in the morning, we went on one of the hikes to a nearby waterfall, and on the way back were fortunate to bump into a flock of Ground Woodpeckers foraging on the rocky hill slopes about a kilometre from the lodge. From a birder’s perspective, these large, olive-grey woodpeckers are interesting for a few reasons: firstly, they are the largest woodpecker our country has to offer, secondly they are one of only three ground-dwelling woodpeckers in the world, and thirdly and most importantly for birders, they are endemic to Southern Africa. Giant’s Castle must be one of the best venues in the world to find and experience this extraordinary bird!

Our largest woodpecker and an endemic species to Southern Africa; the Ground Woodpecker. (Top) This is one of the five Ground Woodpeckers that Eileen and I bumped into on our way back from a hike at Giant’s Castle. I was amazed at how close they let me sneak up to them and how curious they seemed at my presence. (Bottom) Another Ground Woodpecker photographed at sunrise on the entrance road to Giant’s Castle, during my second trip to this bird-rich destination.

If you are a passionate bird photographer, however, the gardens and hikes are for the middle of the day and the afternoon, as you will want to spend as many mornings as possible in the world-famous Vulture Hide. The only obstacle to this is ensuring that you book well in advance, as the hide has a long waiting list and is quickly booked up for the year ahead. On our first visit, we failed to realise the importance of this and had to settle for a very quick introduction to the hide by the lodge’s manager. We got a quick glimpse of an adult Bearded Vulture as it flew away from us and a lasting memory of how optimally placed the hide was and how we should come back as soon as possible.

An adult Bearded Vulture, sporting his black beard and golden colouration, soars past the Vulture Hide, with the beautiful Drakensberg mountains as a backdrop. The hide is frequented by all ages of Lammergeiers; from juveniles to sub-adults and adults. It is an experience that every bird photographer should experience many times over!

As is with life, there are so many other distractions and incredible places to explore, that I only got around to reserving the Vulture Hide and making my way back to Giant’s Castle three years later. The best time to visit the hide is during the winter months in South Africa; May, June and July. Although the weather is cold this time of year, these months coincide with the Vulture’s breeding cycle as well as more frequent visits to the hide in search of food. The sublime light in winter is also longer lasting, and this combination makes for perfect photographic conditions and opportunities.

I arrived at the reserve late on Friday evening and checked into my garden-side accommodation. I was so excited about the prospects of Lammergeier that I woke well before my alarm was due to go off, got changed in haste and went looking for my bucket of bones in the dark. I found it quickly and then drove up the steep road to the hide. I had totally forgotten that there were two hides at the top, and spent some time trying to open the door of the Bird Hide with the incorrect key before realizing my mistake and heading to the Vulture Hide. I am not known for my levels of intelligence in the morning and this morning was no different! At least my stupidity resulted in a “birdscape” of a Bearded Vulture soaring over his vast mountain kingdom.

One of the benefits of going to the wrong hide was that I got to see different perspectives of this incredible area. As luck would have it, and as I was trying to figure out where to go, my eyes caught the outline of a Bearded Vulture soaring over a typical, winter’s scene in the Drakensberg. The shape of this Vulture is unmistakable; with its paddle-shaped tail and broad wings.

If you are fortunate, the hide has had a recent cow carcass dropped off in front of it, but if not, you will have to hope that your bucket of bones is enough to draw the Vultures attention. The best approach is to leave the bones bunched together in a mound and then hope that the Jackals and other scavengers don’t make off with all of them before the Vultures glide in. This is all part of the fun and anticipation of this magnificent venue!

A pair of endemic Jackal Buzzards would come in to land each morning and steal a couple of the bones that had been laid out to attract the Vultures that share their Drakensberg home.

Hide photography is a game of being patient and alert, which means lots of waiting and watching. In the space of a few seconds, however, your camera shutter turns into the Mike Tyson of activity as a Bearded Vulture (or another target) soars into view. When it comes to your first Bearded Vulture flyby, you will never forget this moment! This huge bird of prey with its broad wings and paddle shaped tail glides straight towards you! It knows you are there and stairs you down with its piercing eyes, as it turns slowly sideways and glides within a few paces of your mountain-side window. I imagined it would be awesome but had little idea how awesome! It sounds a bit cliched, but this experience makes you feel very connected to these airborne giants as you share their airspace and come eye to eye with them.

A sub-adult Bearded Vulture glides straight towards the hide on a morning full of flybys from Vultures of all ages.

While waiting for these monster birds to arrive, you have many moments of peace and quiet interspersed with the occasional burst of activity: from Jackal Buzzards flying in to seize a few bones, to Ravens fighting with each other, to the ever opportunistic Jackals looking for a quick meal, and to Cape Vultures dropping in to share in the bounty.

A brute of a Cape Vulture swooped in and landed right in front of the hide, making for some great close-up portraits with a dramatic backdrop of clouds and mountains to boot.

On top of the scavengers and birds of prey, you also have the chance to photograph some of the smaller species that frequent the hide; including Speckled Pigeons, Red-winged Starlings, Buff-streaked Chats, Cape Robin-chats and Malachite Sunbirds. The environment around the hide can make for some interesting “habitat shots” (the focus of July’s newsletter), as well as close-up portraits.

I love looking for opportunities to take creative images that show off birds in a unique or different way. The mountain top tangles in front of the hide made for interesting shapes, colours and textures, so when a stunning, male Malachite Sunbird landed in them, I focused all my attention on trying to frame him in a way that would hopefully create focus and intrigue. I used a combination of leading lines, framing and contrast to create a composition that appealed to me.
The Malachite Sunbirds that frequented the Vulture Hide were some of the most accommodating I have had the pleasure of capturing. On this occasion I went for a portrait of the male and a Natal Bottlebrush and called the image “Nature’s Lollypop”.

The distant mountains in front of the hide provide a stunning background to all these photographic opportunities! In winter the background combines beautiful shades of brown, yellow and subtle greens, but it is also worth returning in summer when the greens are much brighter and more emphasized. The background also enables the perfect setting for practising your flight photography skills, as there is little to distract your camera’s auto focus from the birds swooping in. You also get to see the birds from some distance away, which allows you to track them effectively and ensure sharp focus on the head and eyes when they come closer. You really can’t ask for much more when your main purpose is to photograph large birds in flight.

A Cape Vulture flies straight towards me at the Vulture Hide at Giant’s Castle. The combination of sky and distant mountains makes for breath-taking backgrounds, as well as perfect “BIF” photography conditions.

Bird in Flight Photography

Camera and Lens: This issue’s featured image of a sub adult Bearded Vulture was taken from the Vulture Hide at Giant’s Castle with my canon 5d mkiv and 400mm f2.8 mkii lens. Ideally, but I hadn’t acquired them at the time, it would have been great to have my canon 600mm f4 and 100 to 400mm f5.6 lenses with me, as the photographic opportunities at the hide vary in distance, from very close to far away.

Camera Settings: AV mode | ISO 1000 | 1/2000s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | No Flash

Hints and Tips: Photographing birds in flight requires a significantly different skill set and camera settings to portrait photography. In most cases, your ability to track and focus on a fast-moving subject and maintain an acceptable shutter speed become critical, as you look to freeze the bird in front of you and ensure tack sharp focus on its head and eye/s.

Two White-throated Swallows caught in the act of courtship at Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel, South Africa. These swallows can be very tricky to capture, given their fast and acrobatic flight patterns. In cases like this, pre-focusing your lens is often critical in order to gain focus and get the image you are after.

My “bird in flight” basics ~ For flight photography I always set my Canon camera to AI Servo and high speed continuous. Unless I am looking to create an image with motion blur, I get my shutter speed above 1/1600s. For small, fast moving birds, however, I often push it above 1/4000s in order to sufficiently freeze the action. Depending on the background conditions, I either use Aperture Priority (AV) or Manual mode. Manual mode is best if the background you are shooting is likely to change colour, as it is the only mode that will keep the exposure constant when this happens.

I prefer to shoot at a f-stop ranging between 5.6 and 8 for medium to large sized birds, so that I have a good chance of getting the head and eye sharp, as well as much of the torso and wings. For smaller birds, I will sometimes go as low as f4 to get the shutter speed I am looking for.

From a focus point perspective, centre focus points are recommended. I then almost always go with Canon’s expand AF area (or the Nikon equivalent). In most cases, I set up my back button focus with these flight photography settings in place, and my front button with portrait settings (i.e. AI Focus and spot AF). This enables me to effectively photographn birds flying towards me, and then switch to taking portraits once the birds have landed.

Pre-focusing before the shot and bumping the focus ~ Where possible, it often helps to pre-focus your camera at a point in front of the hide, where you expect to start tracking the birds flying in and taking your first bunch of images. This significantly speeds up your ability to find the bird in your viewfinder and effectively focus on it. You can do this by focusing on an object (e.g. tree, branch or something on the ground) where you feel you will start tracking the birds in question. Regarding the White-throated Swallow image above, I pre-focused on the branch that the female was sitting on in order to get the desired image.

Once you are tracking the bird in your viewfinder, it can also help to “bump the focus” if you want your camera to maintain consistent focus on the bird and not fall off and focus somewhere else. This is done by holding the auto-focus button (be it back or front button) down intermittently while the bird approaches, as opposed to holding it down constantly. This keeps the bird in the viewfinder and almost focused, allowing you to quickly attain focus and press the shutter button when the time is right. Cameras with advanced auto-focus systems are starting to make this less relevant for those who can afford them.

Practice on swifts and swallows ~ When I know I am departing on a trip where flight photography will be the main focus, I often go to one of my local spots where there are large numbers of swifts and swallows and spend a few hours practising and improving my skills. To kick things off I try and find birds flying against clear, sky backgrounds to make focusing easier and then try my luck at more varied backgrounds. Flight photography is all about practice and although swifts may not be the best birds to start with, as the lack of success can be demoralising, I know if I can get it right with them, I am ready for the trip ahead.

I am not sure photographing swifts is the best for one’s confidence, as they are as frustrating to photograph as they are fast and aerobatic. That said, they make for great subjects if you want to improve your reflexes and tracking skills. I suggest starting with clear, sky backgrounds before moving to more varied ones.
Photographing small, fast flying birds with distracting backgrounds must be some of the hardest images to master. On this occasion I got lucky with a White-rumped Swift returning back to her nest site under the road-side bridge on Eendracht road near Suikerbosrand (south east Gauteng, South Africa).

Selecting the right bird and location ~ I sometimes set myself a goal of capturing specific birds in flight and make a project of it. More often than not I target birds that have predictable (if there is such a thing with birds) and repetitive flight behaviour such as displaying bishops, whydahs or widowbirds or birds at a feeding or nest site such as bee-eaters, sandgrouse or swallows. I then look to find a location where there is a relatively clear background so as not to distract the camera’s autofocus too much or create clutter in the photograph. Once I have decided on the bird and scouted the location, the next step is the usual patience and persistence. I like to think that every blind squirrel eventually finds an acorn and thus, keep going despite the often lack of success.

For small, fast-moving birds I often use a much lower fstop and higher ISO to get the frame rate above 1/4000s. This Yellow-crowned Bishop was captured displaying to a bevy of females in the grasslands that surround the small town of Devon in south east Gauteng, South Africa. I won’t tell you how many hours I “wasted” before getting this image! Camera settings: AV mode | ISO 800 | 1/4000s | f4 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | No Flash
This White-winged Widowbird was taken on Crake Road on the well-known Zaagkuildrift to Kgomo Kgomo birding route in South Africa. I found an area where a few males were displaying over an open grassland. This afforded many flight opportunities, and I was lucky to come away with this front on image, which shows the bird’s distinguishing features.

Creativity in Flight Photography ~ As much as I love getting flight shots in perfect light and showing off all the incredible features of the subject in question, I also love experimenting and pushing myself to try new things. Shooting in interesting light conditions such as having the sun in front of you (called “back-lit” photographs), or with creative or unique backgrounds, or a very slow shutter speed, can all produce exceptional results, which may move your photographs from not just being outstanding but also unique and arty.

The above two images show what can be achieved when you start to change things up a bit. I am still very much at the beginning of this journey and am enjoying the challenge of pushing boundaries when it comes to light and more arty compositions. (Top) A Black Heron glides over the wetlands at Marievale Bird Sanctuary (Nigel, South Africa) with early morning light providing a “back-lit” effect. (Bottom) A flock of White-faced Ducks fly past an unusual background of trees and clouds at Zibula Colliery near Delmas, South Africa.

I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed this issue and that it has encouraged you to go out and try your luck with “bird in flight” photographs. Our next newsletter should be exciting for both birders and bird photographers, as I will be exploring the world of rails and crakes and sharing some seldom seen behaviour. I will also be giving my thoughts on the controversial topic of post-processing and my leaning towards authenticity over perfection.

As always, thanks for your continued support and feedback, and please get in touch even if it is just to say hello!