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Birds Archives

White-backed Vulture Preparing to Land

White-backed vulture preparing to land
Caption: White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus) coming in to land to join others feeding on kudu carcass, Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana.

Camera: Canon EOS 50D; Lens: Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM telephoto; Focal length: 400mm; Aperture: f/5.6; Shutter speed: 1/1600; ISO: 400

Photographing birds in flight is not one of my strong points. Ideally you need a high-quality telephoto lens with wide maximum aperture that is fast focusing and image-stabilized, mated to a camera body that can fully utilize these attributes. So, if you’re a Canon shooter, something like a Canon EF 500mm f/4 on a 1D Mk IV or 7D body would be a good set-up for birds in flight.

I don’t own that sort of gear, so must make-do with my Canon 50D and 400mm f/5.6, which is actually not a bad combination. The lens, although not stabilized, is relatively light so can be hand-held, while it’s also fast focusing. But I’m getting on in years and my reflexes simply aren’t quick enough, while I’ve never had the steadiest of hands. I guess, because of this, I also don’t practise enough, which is essential to perfect one’s birds in flight technique.

However, there are times when photographing birds in the air is greatly simplified. One of the best of these is when vultures arrive to feed on a carcass. Even if there’s a crowd of vultures squabbling over animal remains, there’re always late-comers who fly in, hoping for a share. And it’s these ones that are relatively easy to photograph as they slow down and drop their undercarriages in preparation for landing.

The photograph above and the two below were all taken while watching a large group of white-backed vultures feeding on the remains of a kudu killed earlier by lions.

White-backed vulture in flight with undercarriage lowered

White-backed vulture in flight with undercarriage lowered

White-backed vulture in flight, motion blur

White-backed vulture in flight, motion blur using slow shutter speed

The pic above was taken at a slow shutter speed while panning the camera to convey the bird’s rapid descent as it comes in to land. On my Canon 50D, I have configured one of the Custom settings to allow for this type of motion blur photography.

With one click of the dial, I can change from Aperture Priority to Shutter Priority, drop the ISO to 100, set the shutter speed to 1/25 and the autofocus to AI Servo (follow focus). This can save a huge amount of time when an opportunity suddenly arises that’s suitable for using a slow shutter speed.

Juvenile Broad-billed Roller

Broad-billed roller perching on branch, Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana Caption: Juvenile Broad-billed Roller (Eurystomus glaucurus) perching on branch, Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana.

Camera: Canon EOS 50D; Lens: Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM; Focal length: 400mm; Shutter speed: 1/3200; Aperture: f/5.6; ISO: 400

The broad-billed roller is the smallest of the rollers found in southern Africa, and the only one with a yellow bill. The adult broad-billed roller has colorful cinnamon-brown underparts and lilac-purple below.

The juvenile bird also has a yellow bill but the breast and belly are a rather dull grayish blue.

The broad-billed roller is a fairly common resident, arriving in southern Africa towards the end of September or early October. However, it’s upstaged in the region by its more famous relative, the lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus), which is sighted more often and is the favorite of many because of its spectacular coloring (below).
Lilac-breasted Roller on branch

Malachite Sunbird in Breeding Plumage

Malachite Sunbird in Breeding Plumage Caption: Malachite Sunbird (Nectarinia famosa) in splendid iridiscent green plumage poses on a wild pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina), Curry’s Post, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

To see the malachite in non-breeding colors, check out Malachite Sunbird on Aloe.

Malachite Sunbird on Aloe

Malachite sunbird in non-breeding plumageCaption: Male Malachite Sunbird (Nectarinia famosa) in non-breeding colors perching on Aloe flower, Currys Post, KZN Midlands, South Africa

Camera: Canon EOS 50D; Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM; Focal Length: 400mm; Shutter speed: 1/320; Aperture: f/5.6; ISO: 400.

Great Egret in Flight

Great Egret in flight, Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
Caption: Great Egret (Egretta alba) flying low over the water, Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia.

Camera: Canon EOS 50D; Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM; Focal Length: 400mm; Shutter speed: 1/500; Aperture: f/5.6; ISO: 400.

Formerly known in southern Africa as the Great White Egret, this large heron is found across most of the world’s tropical and warm temperate regions, including parts of North America, southern Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Other names by which this bird is known include White Egret, White Heron, American Egret, Large Egret, and Common Egret — all rather confusing, but probably a result of its distribution across so many different parts of the world.

The above photograph was taken from a motor boat while exploring some of the Zambezi River’s many channels during a brief visit to Mwambashi River Lodge in the Lower Zambezi National Park. I took a Manfrotto tripod on board which was fitted with a poor man’s gimbal head, the Manfrotto 393 Heavy Duty Telephoto Lens Support (also called Bogen 3421).

Manfrotto 393 gimbal head

The Manfrotto 393 (left) is around $180 from Amazon, compared to the $600-odd you’d pay for a Wimberley gimbal head. I guess if you can afford a $9,000 Canon or Nikon 600mm lens, then 600 bucks for a top-of-the-range gimbal head is well within budget, but regrettably I’m not in that league and my longest lens is a Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L telephoto.

This lens is not image-stabilised, so it’s essential to use a support and, for my purposes, the Manfrotto 393 works just fine, with either a Canon EOS 50D or EOS 1D Mk II body. For a comprehensive review of this head, see Manfrotto 393 gimbal head by Richard Peters Photography.

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