Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Day 2: Bonamanzi Morning

Wednesday, July 26, 2006
The full moon in South Africa looked upside down to me. It was, because I was on the other end of the planet.

I awoke before light and stepped out into the cool wintry air. Smoke from the camp's fires lightly scented the gentle morning breeze, and the bush around the camp was coming to life for another day. The sky still held a bright full moon which was pretending that it was the sun. It wasn;t long before the real sun, angry at this imposter, burst above the eastern horizon and began stomping its way across the sky.

Stepping out of my cabin, a round building with a thatched roof, known as a rondoval, a traditional African building style, my attention was drawn to the nearby waterhole, just 50 yards to the north. The sunlight was just beginning to reach the treetops, so the golden hour for digiscoping was drawing nigh.
Rondoval #3, my cozy home at Bonamanzi.

African jacanas and a pied wagtail were working the edges of the water. On the far shore a malachite kingfisher was perched, but too far away to digiscope well. I shot him anyway. (But I did not shoot the deputy.) Movement in the edge of the bush on the far side of the waterhole caught my eye. It was a buck impala, eating leaves off a small tree. He seemed interested in coming to the water for a drink, but hesitated to do so.

Buck impala at the Bonamanzi water hole.

The rest of our group was beginning to gather in the growing light. I walked around the edge of the lake, being sure to stay at least a large croc-length away from the water, when I detected motion on the far, sunlit end of the waterhole. It was a large warthog, complete with tusks. He wasted no time in coming down to the water for a drink. I focused the scope and snapped his menacing image.
The hogger of warts comes to slake his thirst.

A good friend of mine, who in the years since I met him in the mid-1980s, has become a world-class bird photographer, once told me the most important thing to do when you are taking pictures is simply to wait. This advice came to me, watching the warthog, and it paid dividends. I was being summoned to our group, but something made me stay put just a while longer. Out of the brush came one, then another, nyala, an endemic South African antelope species. Then a large buck nyala came to join them and I got the picture that was worth waiting for.

Perhaps my favorite African digiscoped image: warthog and nyala.

Our group congealed and began a morning bird walk around the grounds of the camp, and out into the surrounding bush.
From Left: Christian, Gerald, Walter (behind), Kevin waiting for the next bird.

It was still cool, but the sun was beginning to assert itself. I was thankful to be here on this beautiful morning with nothing to do but look at birds, animals, and landscapes I've rarely, if ever, seen. I took a series of deep breaths, firmly centering myself in the here and now. Then I was ready to rock.
Brown-hooded kingfisher.

Our group of seven digiscopers and two in the video crew lined up on a dike, intent on shooting a cooperative brown-hooded kingfisher. The amount of fumbling, beeping, and light cursing soon sent the videoheads on their way. Swarovski had arranged to have the crew along to document the event for a short piece to air on European TV. Jstvan and Tommy are veteran nature documentary filmmakers, having done work for Discovery, BBC, and PBS, among others. They were great company the entire trip and always seemed to have the right gear at the right time (including medicine for a nasty rash I suffered from later in the trip).

One of our group, Walter Schulz, publisher of a new German bird magazine, Vogel, found his digital camera did not work with the set-up Swarovski had provided him. I heard him say this out loud, disappointment in his voice, so I gave him my spare camera, a Canon PowerShot A520. He used it successfully for the rest of the trip and returned it safe and sound when we were leaving South Africa. I thought about the many times I'd been helped out of a desperate situation on a trip, and was glad I could help Walter.

Most of the morning we chased small, flitting birds, getting good birding looks (orange-breasted bush shrike, yellow-breasted apalis, Rudd's apalis, and a flyover juvenile gymnogene--a weird hawk species) but not good digiscoping looks. That was fine with me. The key to digiscoping is to find the cooperative birds--ones that will sit still for you.

This was a lucky grab shot of a golden-rumped tinker barbet. He never sat still.

At the end of our first hour afield we hit the digiscoping jackpot. A yellow-billed stork flew into view and teed up in front of us on a dead tree. The sun was at our backs, the air was clear and cool (heat haze kills many a good shot), our gear was all working, and we shot and shot. If someone had appeared with a cup of hot coffee and a danish at that point, I might have fainted from sheer joy. The stork took off and flew toward us, landing in better light and posing. We moved closer, the stork showed itself from all angles.

Yellow-billed stork, early in a series of shots.
Yeah, baby! Yeah! Make sweet LOVE to the camera!

When I got this shot I had to surpress a squeal of delight. OK. Our work here is done.

We spent the rest of the morning strolling around within a half-mile from camp, taking pix, noting new species, watching for crocs near the water holes. I got a few more decent pictures.

Black-eyed bulbul. Totally ubiquitous in South Africa.

Spectacled weaver, one of the really lovely weavers. Too bad about the shadow.

Then it was time for breakfast back in camp, and a bus trip to a nearby, and world famous, destination Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, Africa's oldest game reserve. Hluhluwe (pronounced shloo-shloo-wee) was one of my favorite stops on my 2002 trip--full of birds, and the only place I have ever seen wild African elephants. I was really revved to get back there.

But before we could leave, we had to find Petros, our driver. This took the better part of two hours, a delay we used to take more bird and animal pix around the Bonamanzi grounds. I got good images of water dikkop, black-eyed bulbul, a fruit-eating buck nyala, and several giant crocodiles, which were sunning on an island, behind a protective fence.
Water dikkop sitting down on his haunches.

Three-banded plover racing away from the paparazzi.

Kevin McGowan and I were talking digiscoping technique while we walked the grounds and he mentioned that changing the exposure on his camera had helped him avoid overexposing things in the bright sunlight of midday. This intrigued me. On my 2002 South Africa trip I had taken a few hundred digiscoped images and many of them were washed out, or overexposed. In fact some were more overexposed than a pregnant Britney Spears, which is saying something. The digiscoping lobe of Kevin's brain is large and well-developed, so between the two of us, we figured out how to stop things down by -2/3 (or two clicks) on my Canon Powershot, using the P or Program channel on the settings wheel. I tried it out on a foraging cattle egret in the noon sun--a perfect candidate for overexposure. No blow-out. For the rest of the trip, I toggled between AUTO and P depending on the lighting conditions. It made a HUGE difference. Thanks again, Kevin!

Finally, we heard Christian yelling for us to get on the bus. Our wait was over. Little did we know, the delay was setting us up for an unforgettable afternoon of wildlife watching. Had we not been delayed, I am sure our timing, and thus, our experience, would have been very different.

I'll take you along to Hluhluwe in my next post.


On July 26, 2006 at 3:23 PM Rondeau Ric said...

You know you should think about becoming a writer or something.

Love your descriptions, some of those photos are truly amazing.
I'll come to your Travelogue, just tell me wehn and where!

On July 26, 2006 at 4:49 PM Anonymous said...

Egad! These are terrific shots, and your storytelling takes me there shooting with you!

On July 26, 2006 at 6:57 PM Anonymous said...

Absolutely fantastic photography and narrative, so much fun to follow along with you!! Thanks!!!

On July 26, 2006 at 9:11 PM Susan Gets Native said...

The stork series and the yellow bum on the bulbul floored me! Awesome.

On July 26, 2006 at 10:29 PM Anonymous said...

Your details and pix have me stoked to make a pilgrimmage there with my better half one day. Favorite bird pic? The golden-rumped tinker barbet - great shot for a fidgety bird. The Rondoval #3 pic makes me wonder how well one might sleep in a round abode. Where do you put your head? - S.F.

On July 28, 2006 at 11:38 PM Bill of the Birds said...

Dear All:
Thanks for your kind words.
SF: the quandary is when inside a rondoval, being asked to sit in the corner. Actaully the accoms at Bonamanzi are quite comfortable--I highly recommend Bonamanzi as a birding destination. In case you couldn't already tell that from my ravings.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment....