Seek out the top photo hides in South Africa

ABEM98 Black-shouldered kite in flight, Intaka
Black-shouldered kit in flight

Specialist hides, where you often pay a premium to photograph, are springing up at the moment like fungi after a flood. All good stuff perhaps, but let’s not forget, in these straitened times, there are still quite a few top-notch public hides that are perfectly positioned for getting excellent shots and most of them are a bargain. Here are a few of our personal favourites from our many visits to South Africa:

Intaka Island

ABWH157 Little bittern
Little bittern, Intaka

Shop ’til you drop or photograph birds to your heart’s content at this hidden Cape Town oasis with Table Mountain for a backdrop. This compact, and cleverly thought-out, urban wetland area has been created right at the heart of the Century City development so you can hop on a boat to the nearby shopping mall for brunch after a busy morning photographing various kingfishers, shy bitterns, ducks, geese, ibis and even the odd raptors that sometimes pass by.

ABKK38 Malachite kingfisher with beetle
Malachite kingfisher with beetle, Intaka

Best bit:  When we’ve visited,  when passing through the Mother City, natural perches were extremely well-placed for photography.

Our tip: Go early, and mid-week, if you want the best spot for photography – this tiny hide is popular and can be very busy on weekends.

Giants Castle Vulture Hide

ABEV79(D) Bearded vulture adult and squabbling subadults
Bearded vulture with sub-adults, Giants Castle

We haven’t been to this perennial favourite for a while – probably because it’s regularly booked out these days. Where else can you go eyeball to eyeball with bearded and Cape vultures as they soar effortlessly on the thermals against the stunning Drakensberg mountains of KwaZulu-Natal in a precariously placed eyrie of a cliff-top hide.

ABEV71(D) Bearded vulture subadult
Juvenile bearded vulture, Giants Castle

Best bit: A morning in this amazing state park-run hide is a wonderful experience even if you don’t pack camera gear and simply sit there absorbing the avian aerobatics and fly-pasts.

Our tip: Booking well ahead goes without saying, but if possible book out the whole hide (it’s not expensive) so you’ve got plenty of room and can use whichever camera portholes are best on the day.

Kumasinga Hide

AMHRW193 White rhinos in aggressive confrontation
White rhinos confront each other, Kumasinga

Staying in KwaZulu-Natal, this dry season hide that sits over a tree-lined waterhole in Mhkuze game reserve is no secret to photographers and bird-watchers alike. Since its recent refurbishment, however, we reckon it’s now even better for photography. Perhaps we were just lucky on our last visit, but the place was heaving all morning with nyala, wildebeest, impala, zebra, rhino, baboons, warthogs, the odd ellie or two and even comical terrapins.

AAT02 Marsh terrapins (African helmeted turtles)
Comical marsh terrapins, Kumasinga

Best bit: Photo opportunities here are rich and rewarding and you’re beautifully close to the busy morning animal activity  with the perfect orientation for the light.

Our tip: Be alert to what’s going on behind you when you’re there. There can sometimes be good opportunities for contre-jour shots in the very early morning on the less busy side of the hide.

Mata Mata Restcamp Hide

AMPL327 Lioness and cubs at water
Wary lioness with cubs, Mata Mata

We can’t resist including this one from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park because we’ve so many awesome memories of big cats coming to drink here by night and day. Of course you don’t need to be inside this purpose-built hide on stilts; you can watch the wildlife just as easily from the (sometimes flimsy-feeling!) camp fence, but the hide makes photographing with big telephotos that bit easier as there’s a handy ledge to support your lens and no wire to get in the way.

AMPL339 Lion drinking
Majestic male visits Mata Mata camp waterhole for a drink

Best bit: You’re right at camp so can pop down from the hide to turn your chops on the braai while you’re photographing the lions.

Our tip: If cats have been seen around camp in the morning, or are sitting up on the distant dunes in the afternoon, you may want to forgo an evening drive and sit patiently in the hide – they’ll generally move down to the waterhole for a drink just before sundown.

AMPL338 Young lions
Eyeing up the campers? Young lions from the Mata Mata hide

So these are just a few of our favourite ‘public’ hides for photography. Perhaps you have your own favourites?

Puffin chicks get health check-ups on the Farnes

BCE10 Puffin chick removed temporarily from burrow for ringing
Puffin chicks don’t have the characteristic bright beak of their parents

We’ve just been over to the Farne Islands – one of Britain’s best spots to get great photographs of breeding seabirds – for a final visit of the summer. This time it was to take a peak ‘behind-the-scenes’ on Inner Farne, before the day visitors arrive. We spent the morning, puffins zooming by our heads continuously, with National Trust ranger Laura Shearer. She was  busy ringing, weighing and measuring these characterful, bright-billed birds and their downy, penguin-lookalike, chicks before they leave the Farnes and head off back to sea.

Seabird conservationists say they’ve had a bumper breeding season on Britain’s north-east coast this summer. When we visited to photograph, the Farnes team was expecting to announce ‘a cracking breeding season’ across all the species nesting on the islands. ‘It appears a similar story is emerging at other east coast colonies too, which is tremendous news for our embattled seabirds,’ said head ranger David Steel. ‘It’s been a tough few years (especially in the northern isles) and so it’ll be good to report some positive news when the final population counts are made’.

Laura surprises two parent puffins at home in their burrow

In order to ring a puffin chick or adult bird Laura must first locate them in their underground nesting burrows. This is no easy feat. ‘There are thousands of burrows. Not all of them will be occupied, so you have put your hand right down and have a feel around to see if they are occupied or not,’ she says.

‘It’s not an easy job. When you stick your hand down the burrow you risk putting it straight into the sharp beak of a puffin or into the second chamber which is their toilet!’

Laura’s been doing the job for three seasons now. At the start of each she gets a new hat which will be completely iced in guano by the time the birds leave at the end of the summer.

BCE15 Weighing puffin chick
It’s not easy spending months away from family and friends but Laura loves the island life

‘There’s eight of us that live here throughout the breeding season, plus our head ranger,’ she tells us as she pops a fluffy puffin chick on the weighing scales. ‘These people become your whole life and your support group, because you spend all day, everyday, with them.

BCE13 Weighing puffin chick
This puffin chicks gets a check over and is weighed and ringed

There are times when it is tough out here. You can get isolated, you’ve literally abandoned all your friends and family, so it’s really good to have the support from the rest of the team to help you pick up the pieces and keep going.’

BCE24 Puffin pair removed from burrow for ringing
Laura has her hands full with two adult birds. Soon they’ll leave the island until next spring

Some 80,000 puffins come to the Farnes to breed each year. They are just one of a number of breeding seabird species Laura and her colleagues monitor closely over the summer.

According to the National Trust this year’s breeding season has been helped along by the good weather and the availability of lots of sand-eels (the main diet of puffins). Seabirds have been having a difficult time in recent seasons particularly in Scotland. The sand-eel population crashed in recent years leaving many birds too weak to breed. Conservationists say rising sea temperatures and trawling on a large scale are largely to blame for the problem and have been calling for the setting up of marine protected areas…