Category Archives: Conservation

Where vultures dare

Cape vulture landing, Drakensberg
Endangered Cape vultures were the stars on day one of our hide session

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…  We’re bouncing along the top of a dry, grassy plateau in the Maluti Drakensberg in South Africa’s KZN province. It’s day three of our triple session in the famous vulture hide at Giant’s Castle in the Central Drakensberg and the large, sunny yellow bucket of bones we’re bringing up to these dizzy heights are rumbling deeply in the far corners of our 4×4. The far corners bit is important as the smell’s pretty stomach churning…

This has been the pattern for the last three mornings; set the alarm for just before dawn, grab a cuppa, and then swing by reception at the rest camp to pick up the bone bucket. As the sun creeps over the mountain tops we make the slow, winding climb to the hide; ogling the wraparound views of rust-coloured massif and the recession of rugged horizons stacked just like the shaded paper cut-outs you made in art class as a kid.

Giant's Castle vulture hide
Our cliff top perch for three days – the long-established ‘Lammergeyer Hide’ at Giant’s Castle

Hide photography is rather in vogue at the moment, but this cliff-top eyrie, its camera ports opening onto a magnificent berg vista, is a real old stager, yet it still holds its own against the shiny up-comers. The hide, in this precarious, jaw-dropping location, dates back to 1977, although there was a ‘Lammergeyer Hide’ in the mountains here some 10 years earlier (it had to be relocated as there wasn’t a handy cliff edge for the vultures to take off from).

The one we’re now hunkering into with cameras poised has been refurbed a couple of times in the years we’ve been visiting. It’s been around 10 years since we last dropped by. Things have been spruced up a little in the meanwhile. These days the rest camp kitchen will provide you with a packed breakfast if you’re staying over and have to forego the restaurant’s hot buffet to be in the hide at sun up. There’s even a loo up here now, but the place feels and looks pretty much as always – one of the world’s top spots to eyeball and photograph endangered bearded vultures and endemic Cape vultures cruising at altitude along regular flight paths and at wingtip level.

Bearded vulture on the wing
Bearded vultures riding the thermals topped the bill on the second day of our hide sessions

Sensational flight shots of these beautiful birds riding the thermals against the distant mountain backdrop are one thing, but the pulling power of this location is the chance to capture dynamic shots of the birds coming in to land with their wings and landing gear at full stretch. The hide is positioned perfectly for warm morning light and suits 100-400mm zooms for both landings on the cliff edge and anything that flies. A 500mm is also very useful for more distant flight shots and shots of the smaller stuff that will show up. The thrill never wanes as you marvel all over again at the power and grace of these birds, their aerobatic prowess and that hypnotic sound of their low whooshing wing beats as they almost brush past the end of our lenses.

Cape vulture landing
The Drakensberg mountains provide a fitting backdrop for the raptor landings

There is much frustration of course. Shadows of raptors soaring way above range tease us frequently; bearded vultures fly past repeatedly down below us, tantalisingly out of reach; the red winged starlings, snacking on the bone feast, fly off suddenly, suggesting something good’s coming in to land, but more often than not it turns out to be a white-necked raven. The aerial acrobats of which at least keep us amused when things go quiet.

But the highlights are plentiful too. On our first session the Cape vultures are stars. We have them flying over in number, in squadrons, and certainly get the chance to practise our ‘landing techniques’. They look amazing as they come down – all sharp beaks and talons. In all our previous visits we’ve never notched up a bearded vulture landing so we’re keen to get it right if they do. But all our beardies on the first day are cruise-bys.

On day two the beardies headline. We have adults and juveniles flying back and forth most of the morning – many really close to the hide. One of the juveniles has a bone clutched in his claws. But still no landings. We do get a jackal buzzard coming down to feed briefly, which is a highlight and one of the shots of the morning. When he takes off again he’s flying straight towards us. He’s so in our faces we only manage one sharp shot of him departing between us.

Jackal buzzard landing
A jackal buzzard landing briefly out of nowhere on day two required sharp reflexes

It’s now day three and its been a slow start. The usual suspects, the ravens and starlings, hog the dinner table as before. At one point a flock of bald ibis flies over, but we’re both too slow to catch focus and have to make do with the consolation that this is still a nice sighting. The occasional vulture cruises around and as yesterday we get several good eyeball to eyeball close views, and shots of them on the wing. A single Cape vulture lands, but the bearded vulture landing pictures we dream of are still just pie in the sky…for this trip at least.

It’s been great rediscovering this photographic ‘high point’ after such a long absence. That somebody had the vision to build a hide in such a difficult and lofty location as this in the first place, and the fact public access has been safeguarded and improved over the years, is a special treat for nature tourists from around the globe. But the bird-watchers and snappers who regularly book the place out are really just a small part of this hide’s story. The place really exists to help conserve two vulture species that continue to face the prospect of extinction from a growing range of threats, including poisoning (farmers and poachers), electrocution (power lines), and the practice of traditional medicine.

White-necked ravens in flight
White-necked ravens entertained us well with their constant aerobatic displays

This Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife-run hide provides a vital supplementary feeding site (vulture restaurant) that augments today’s dwindling food availability for these important scavengers. Carcases and pieces of bone, free from harmful veterinary drugs and agro chemicals, are put out regularly – mostly by hopeful photographers like ourselves in search of the perfect action shot. The bearded vulture (this remote and isolated population in the Maluti Drakensberg consists of around only 300 to 350 birds) eats bones almost exclusively. They break the bones by dropping them from high up and they can swallow pieces more than 20 cm long. They also require meat during the winter breeding season to feed their chicks. The extra scraps of fat and fragments of bone help boost the survival rate of young vultures in their first year after leaving the nest.

Placing bones at Giangt's Castle vulture restaurant
Each session begins with Steve putting the bones out on the precarious cliff ledge

So in paying your dues to come here and enjoy the world-class photo opportunities available, and by collecting your yellow bucket of smelly bones excitedly each morning, you’re doing your little bit for vulture conservation. These beleaguered birds need all the help they can get right now and so much of what we cherish in the wild depends on the sterling clean up operation these undertake.

We reckon that’s surely worth taking into consideration in the current debate that’s raging over baiting for photography? We’d certainly argue that as far as this awesome, and vulture-supporting, photographic hide goes the discussion’s definitely not as black and white as you might think…

Our blog gets its stripes in African media awards

It was a big fillip for our Beat about the Bush blog recently when our post from last year, the Marmite Moments of a Photography Couple,  reached a shortlist of three nominated for best blogger/vlogger on Africa in the first media awards hosted by the African Travel and Tourism Association (ATTA) in London.

The annual ATTA Media Awards have been set up to celebrate the best travel, conservation and tourism journalism on Africa – so you can imagine just how chuffed we both were to get nominated.

We couldn’t attend the awards bash in London earlier in the summer as we were – you’ve guessed it – away in the African bush.  But we’re determined the good news will kickstart us into posting here a bit more now. Unfortunately we’ve been a bit quiet in the last few months, partly due to being busy building up the new photographic safari side of our business…

But hey, now we’ve got a blogging reputation to keep up!

Pass the painted dog pinotage this way again

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) regurgitating food for pups, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 28 June 2016
Supper anyone? Feeding 13 ravenous wild dog pups is a full-time job

It’s been the year for spotted dogs… Back in June we were trying to keep tabs on 13 tearaway pups running rings around their adult wild dog babysitters and ceaselessly pestering returning pack members for food.  It was hard to believe, but there we were, with our guests on safari, right by the den of these incredibly scarce predators as the pack conducted its daily meet, greet and eat sessions with the next generation of dogs.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) chewing old impala horns, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
Capturing a great portrait means getting down and dirty

Arriving at the den site late afternoon to share time with the African continent’s second rarest apex predator is one of the highlights of 2016 for us.  It’s not every day you get the chance to get off a game-viewing vehicle and lie down to shoot such special subjects up close and at their level. The chance to get into the skin of your subjects and join their world for a while is what makes wildlife photography  so rewarding.

The patient, if uncomfortable and mildy-grubby wait, as a tangle of snoozy pups, safe within the confines of their shady den site, slowly re-awoke and ventured out on short exploratory missions to chew branches or play endless games of tug o’ war with shards of old animal bone was a privilege and a joy.  And the sudden explosion of noise and energy all around us when the adults returned to regurgitate food for the pups, when everything instantly became a blur of marbled fur, fangs, and frantically wagging tails is an experience we’ll never forget.

African wild dog pups (Lycaon pictus) feeding, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 28 June 2016
It’s special to photograph a successful breeding pack of these very rare predators

One of our favourite species, African wild dogs are among the world’s most endangered mammals with a population currently estimated at around 6,600. Most are to be found in southern Africa. The chance to spend time observing them on Zimanga game reserve as we did this year, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where there’s the chance of wonderful photographic access to the breeding pack is truly something special…

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pups from pack exploring, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
Fast forward a few months and now the pups were on the move with the adult dogs

Returning to Zimanga last month with our second group of photo safari guests we were obviously keen to catch up with the dogs and check how they’d fared. The news was mixed. The alpha female, and mother of the pups, had been killed by a crocodile, but the puppies were thriving and were as hyperactive as ever. Observing the group dynamics, it probably wasn’t going to be long before another dog from the pack stepped up to take on the role of alpha female, but my how those pups had grown!

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pups from pack at three to four months old, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
A brief pause for rest during the hunt

They were now regularly accompanying the adult pack members and yearlings on daily hunts; running through the bush, first this way, then that, only momentarily stopping to pose on a small mound of earth or prominent dam wall before haring off again.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) feeding on warthog (Phacochoerus africanus), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
The Zimanga wild dog pack enjoying a warthog dinner at dusk

One evening we found them making light work of a fresh warthog supper. It was interesting to see how the adult dogs let the pups eat first.

African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) confronting spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
The curious pups practise stalking a hyena cornered in the riverbed

And on one of the morning sessions we caught up with the pack in a dry riverbed in a stand-off with a spotted hyena they’d cornered. The hyena was a bit stuck.  Hemmed in by the prowling pack he’d wedged his back against a big rock for protection – fully aware that’s where he would be vulnerable to the chasing pack if he fled.  Eventually the dogs lost interest and the hyena took his chance. A step late, the pups raced madly up the steep sides of the bank in pursuit, but the hyena had got enough distance on them and was last seen disappearing over the horizon.

It was with such thrilling sightings in mind that we purchased a bottle of Painted Wolf Pinotage (Painted Wolf being another name for wild dogs, albeit not very accurate) for our first evening in Kruger National Park soon after. The winemaker donates a portion of the price towards wild dog conservation – www.paintedwolfwines.com  – if you want to find out more.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
Painted wolf wine did the trick in more ways than one

We were celebrating the end of a successful safari. A good red was the order of the day because temperatures had taken a sudden and unseasonal nosedive and with such an apt name it was soon safely off the shelves and in our basket. It went down well as we toasted our toes around the braai and looked forward to a few game drives in the Kruger to ‘wind down’.

Our choice of tipple turned out to be a lucky one too because in just a few short days in the reserve we ran into a pack of wild dogs on all but one of our morning and afternoon game drives.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) at rest, Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
We were lucky to see lots of the Kruger pups too

Anyone who has visited Kruger will know wild dogs are not your everyday, common or garden sighting. Running into them at all is a special treat, running into them repeatedly is something else. We certainly hadn’t expected to be photographing wild dogs again this year.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) at rest, Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
All eyes and Mickey Mouse ears – the Kruger pups wake up in the late afternoon

Like the ones on Zimanga the Kruger pack also had this year’s still-cute pups in tow (born around the same time as those in KZN as wild dogs den seasonally in the African winter).  And exactly like the pups on Zimanga they huddled together, sitting apart from the adults, fidgeting restlessly and squabbling endlessly – when not running amok of course.  We couldn’t get enough of them.

We’re crossing fingers (that’s holding thumbs if you’re in South Africa) that we might run into them again in Kruger in 2017 – as yearlings.  We may even buy another bottle of that red to boost our chances. We’re certainly looking forward to going back to Zimanga next year and seeing how the pack there is getting on.  There might even be some new puppies around then to terrorise and annoy the older dogs…and to photograph  of course.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pack member hunting, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
We’re already looking forward to following the Zimanga wild dog pack again

 

Remembering elephants – our pachyderm hit parade

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) playing in river, Chobe River, Botswana, June 2016
Trunk call to action. Sun-bronzed elephant bull on the Chobe river, Botwana

It’s just a few short weeks to the launch of the much-heralded ‘Remembering Elephants’ coffee table book, so what better excuse is there for taking a ‘scroll’ down memory lane and sharing  a few of our favourite elephant images from the files to whet your appetite until the publication date…

Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and calf, Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa, February 2014
The project will help secure this iconic species’ future

This unique project, in association with the Born Free Foundation, has proved a fantastic way to raise funds for elephant conservation at a time when, sadly, ivory poaching is still on the increase.  Some 65 leading professional wildlife photographers around the world have donated stunning elephant images for the project under the umbrella of ‘Photographers United’.

Elephants, Loxodonta africana, greeting, Addo national park, South Africa
This trunk greeting elephant shot from us will feature in the book which is out next month

We were really chuffed to be approached for one of our own elephant images which will be included in the book – particularly as the initiative  chimes well with the awareness-raising work we’ve been trying to do ourselves around the illegal wildlife trade, albeit in a small way, via our Project African Rhino campaign.  It’s good to know that wielding a camera can sometimes make a tangible difference for the subjects we’re pasionate about photographing.

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) at waterhole, Madikwe reserve, South Africa, February 2014
Elephants coming to a waterhole photographed from a sunken hide in South Africa

The current build-up and promotional support surrounding the launch has certainly got us doing our own bit of  ‘elephant remembering’.  Hope you enjoy our pachyderm hit parade here.

African elephant head and skin detail (Loxodonta africana), Kruger national park, South Africa, October 2014
Close up of a bull near Shingwedzi, Kruger, South Africa

We’ve had some superb encounters over the last couple of decades and even though we’ve been lucky enough to see several 1,000s in the wild in that time we never grow tired of them. There’s no disputing the fact elephants are one of the most engaging, fascinating, funny, awesome, rewarding, humbling and moving species to watch and photograph.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) at sunset, Chobe River, Botswana, June 2016
Rerembering elephants before it’s too late. Chobe bull at sunset

Let’s hope that the coming together of individual photographers for this important cause, the hard work behind the scenes in bringing a coffee table book like this into being, and the sheer heart for elephants behind the project will help to keep it that way for future generations.

African elephants (Loxodonta africana), Chobe National Park, Botswana, October 2014
Elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana, photographed from the river

Pre-launch sales and donations have to date raised more than £100,000 for targeted conservation projects to protect and save elephants; with the cost of printing and producing the book successfully covered by a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign.

Bull elephants (Loxodonta africana) at the waterhole in front of the lodge, Ol Donyo Wuas, Mbirikani Group Ranch, Amboseli-Tsavo eco-system, Chyulu Hills, Kenya, Africa, October 2012
Bull elephants and storm clouds, Ol Donyo Wuas, Chyulu Hills, Kenya

You can find out more about the ‘Remembering Elephants’ project, pre-order your copy of the book or purchase tickets for the special launch event on September 22 at the Royal Geographic Society’s HQ in London, at the project website remembering elephants.com.

African elephants (Loxodonta africana), Amboseli National Park, Kenya, October 2012
Parade of pachyderms in the mid-day sun, Amboseli, Kenya

The launch event will be introduced by Virginia McKenna of Born Free, followed by a talk from renowned wildlife photographer Art Wolfe and there’s even an auction of some of the images.

Elephant trunk (Loxodonta africana), Etosha national park, Namibia, May 2013
Elephant trunk against the light, Etosha, Namibia

If you can’t make the launch, but live near London, there’s also a ‘Remembering Elephants’ exhibition  taking place at  La Galleria in Pall Mall  from September 19 to October 1 .

Spread the word…

‘Hunny’ badger liking tortoise too much!

Honey Badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis), Kgalagadi Transfrontierl Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2014
‘I can smell tortoise, I can see tortoise, but I can’t taste tortoise.’

It’s not everyday you cross paths with one of these tough little guys in the wild – and when you do see a canny and cunning honey badger it’s more often than not a fleeting glimpse and hardly ever a photograph.  Nine times out of 10 they’re gone before you’ve got your camera ready.

So imagine our surprise when we met this chap one rainy morning just before sunrise in the Kalahari’s Nossob riverbed. We hadn’t been up long and were still feeling groggily half-asleep. As a result we were pretty slow to react when we spotted it.  We almost drove past making it necessary to turn right around – a manouevre we knew from experience was guaranteed to buy this wily predator just enough time to effect his escape.

Honey Badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis) eating leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, January 2016
Our honey badger getting to grips with a large leopard tortoise.

We couldn’t believe our luck when we saw the animal was still there after all our clumsy faffing about. What was keeping it so busy and so preoccupied it didn’t want to flee the scene even with our vehicle noisily bearing down on it?

‘He’s got a tortoise. He’s got a big tortoise and he’s eating it!’

Perhaps you have to be an African wildlife afficionado to fully appreciate just what a rare and exciting sighting this was.  Magic. Unless you happen to be a tortoise that is – and certainly that particular tortoise. Feisty, fierce but full of character it’s not your everyday animal that can get through such defences. A bit like opening a can of corned beef without the key or a tin-opener.

Honey Badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis) eating leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, January 2016
Winnie the Pooh with his jar of ‘hunny’?

Call us weird, but putting aside the harsh reality of the ‘red in tooth and claw’ aspects of this sighting,  we couldn’t help noticing similarities to that famous E H Shepherd illustration of a portly Winnie the Pooh with his paws in the ‘hunny’ pot as our badger delved deep into the tortoise shell to extract more of his tasty meal.

Given the honey badger was happy for us to gawp at him eating his breakfast in the rain we took lots of stills, shot some video and just watched.  The captures are not what we like to call ‘photographers’ photographs’; the light was poor, we had to use flash, and you can hardly call our results aesthetically pleasing, but the chance to  document a moment like this doesn’t come often. We probably won’t see this behaviour ever again.

It’s why we go to Africa.  In the hope that we might do!

Kalahari Big Cats – the Might and the Mane

We seemed to have the lion’s share of big cat sightings on our trip to the Kalahari last month. Always cool for cats, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park surpassed itself on this occasion and provided us with not one, but two sets of cute lion cubs to contend with, a camera-friendly female leopard posing on the red sand as if it were the red carpet, some cheetah cubs washing up after their dinner of springbok tartare and a bunch of muscular, black-maned male lions strutting their stuff up and down the Auob and Nossob riverbeds.

That all added up to some spectacular wildlife encounters and adrenaline-fuelled, feline photographic opportunities despite the 40 plus degree temperatures in the shade. You can imagine the two of us, hot and bothered, getting camera gear and gearstick in a tangle in our excitement to soak up (capture and expose correctly!) all those awesome big cat sightings.

It’s never easy trying to manoeuvre a vehicle speedily and efficiently into the best position for the light, relative to an often moving subject, at the same time as changing camera settings in a nano-second, in a small space, all the while  ensuring you’re well-braced for each shot. The results can’t ever reach up the the magic of the real-time moment, of course, but here, as they say, are just a few of the ‘mane’ highlights…

Leopard (Panthera pardus) female, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Most leopards are camera shy. Not her posing near her kill.
Lioness with cubs (Panthera leo) drinking in the Kalahari, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
A wedding anniversary photo bonus for us to find this mother and cubs.
Lion (Panthera leo), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Black maned males like this chap are the pride of the Kalahari.

 

Lioness with cub (Panthera leo) in the Kalahari, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
This little chap needs to walk off that full tummy as he goes to the water with mum.

 

Cheetah cubs ( Acinonyx jubatus), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
We found these spotty siblings relaxing in the shade after a springbok meal.
Lioness grooming cub (Panthera leo), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Watch it mum that’s a big tongue you’ve got!

 

 

Flying fish – catching salmon on camera

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) leaping on upstream migration, River Tyne, Hexham, Northumberland, UK, November 2015
Atlantic salmon – one of autumn’s specials in our neck of the woods

From surfing penguins in South Africa to…leaping salmon on the Tyne. There’s a definite watery theme to our photography at the moment. We’d hardly finished saying goodbye to the two oceans of the Cape peninsula last month than we suddenly found ourselves staring into yet more foaming waters – in this case the iconic north-east England river near our home.

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) leaping on upstream migration, River Tyne, Hexham, Northumberland, UK, November 2015
It’s a mystery why we hadn’t photographed the annual salmon spectacular before

We’d wanted to photograph the splash and flash of jumping salmon for a while. Although we live in the perfect place to do it – the Tyne is England’s prime salmon river and the annual salmon run’s an autumn highlight in these parts – it’s always ended up being one of those ‘doorstep’ subjects we’ve never quite got around to doing precisely because they’re so handy. You know the ones. You intend to have a serious go photographing them, and even note it down on your shooting list for the season. But then it drops off the bottom again because you tell yourself they’ll still be there again next year and it’ll be a good project to do then because you kid yourself you’ll have more time to devote it in 12 months.

Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, and sea trout (top, larger), Salmo trutta lacustris, smolts, Kielder Salmon Hatchery, Northumberland UK
Atlantic salmon and sea trout smolts we photographed at Kielder salmon hatchery

It’s a bit weird this particular local shot has eluded us for so long given the fact Steve’s a keen angler – any excuse to stare into a river and dream of finding a free day for some fly fishing is welcome in his book. That coupled with the fact we’d previously done a photo story on the fascinating work of the nearby Kielder dam salmon hatchery.

Atlantic salmon alevin and eggs, Kielder Salmon Hatchery, Northumberland UK
Atlantic salmon alevin and eggs, Kielder salmon hatchery

As a result we have photographs on file of all stages of the hatchery’s work from salmon eggs to smolts, but not a single image of a splashing wild salmon flip flopping in the river. You could well say it was the shot that got away.

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) leaping weir on upstream migration, River Tyne, Hexham, Northumberland, UK, November 2015
Awesome to see the salmon finally make it over the weir

This autumn we hadn’t even put the salmon on our shopping list of pictures. I think we completely forgot about it. It was only when we were passing by chance, and, attracted by the crowds of spectators gathered above the weir, leaned over to see for ourselves that we truly appreciated what a compelling and photogenic wildlife subject we had within our reach. Why had we left it so long? The sheer numbers of fish exploding out of the teeming waters was staggering, the energy of it all breathtaking, their migration story mind-blowing, their jewel colours against the dark pools of the river mesmerising. They really do look for all the world as though they’re flying. The challenge to capture them on camera was overwhelming. From nowhere the salmon were top of our ‘wish list’ and we rushed home at once to get the camera gear.

Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, hen selected for broodstock at hatchery, Kielder Salmon Centre, Kielder, Northumberland, UK
Atlantic salmon selected for broodstock at Kielder salmon hatchery

For a couple of days, while the water was high enough and when the light was bright enough to give us the requisite speed for sharp action shots and that all important glint of silver on our splashing subjects, we primed our cameras and trained our lenses on the salmon show.

Stripping eggs from Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, selected for broodstock at hatchery, Kielder Salmon Centre, Kielder, Northumberland, UK
Stripping eggs from Atlantic salmon, Kielder salmon hatchery

We very quickly discovered it was no use trying to predict where and when the salmon would leap. They’re just too fast. You need to pick your spot – just as a fisherman would.  So to catch our fish we trained our cameras on the busiest part of the weir where the highest number of fish and the biggest specimens appeared to make their leap of faith – making sure we had plenty of speed, a fast frame rate and enough depth of field. Then it was just a matter of waiting patiently for the magic moment when a salmon leaped into our view – a bit like waiting for that tug on the line. Click, click, click…

The technique seemed to work okay and we were quite pleased with our first attempts. If we don’t get back again to exploit the remaining window of opportunity this season we’ll definitely be back to try again next November.

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) leaping on upstream migration, River Tyne, Hexham, Northumberland, UK, November 2015
Keep your lens trained on a spot where the salmon regularly leap and wait…

Success seemed to be all about holding our nerve as we learned to our cost on more than one occasion. Because it felt stupid at first to narrow our view so much when salmon were leaping along the full length of the weir we kept being tempted to shift position. Don’t. Even though it’s hard to stay focused on the same spot when you start seeing lots of bits of salmon leaping in the corners of your frame, be patient, the fish will jump into your frame at some point. If you take your eye away from the viewfinder, and your finger off the shutter release for just a split second, it’s guaranteed the biggest, best salmon that day will jump perfectly, just where you want it in the frame…

David Kirkland of the Kielder Salmon Centre releasing Atlantic salmon smolts (Salmo sala ), into the North Tyne, Kielder, Northumberland, UK, April 2012
Releasing Atlantic salmon smolts into the North Tyne

How to save an elephant

Bull elephants (Loxodonta africana) at the waterhole in front of the lodge, Ol Donyo Wuas, Mbirikani Group Ranch, Amboseli-Tsavo eco-system, Chyulu Hills, Kenya, Africa, October 2012

We’ve been invited to take part in an exciting new project to raise much-needed cash to tackle the appalling elephant poaching crisis – and you can take part too.

‘Remembering Elephants’ is being described as a ‘Live Aid’ moment for wildlife photographers.  Some of the world’s best wildlife photographers (and us!) are donating images to produce a stunning hardback book of elephant images, which will be sold to raise funds for Born Free Foundation’s anti-poaching work.

With well over 100,000 elephants slaughtered in the past few years, this initiative can’t come soon enough.  If you want to help out, you can do so by pledging financial support to the Kickstarter campaign which aims to raise £20,000 to produce the book.  If successful, the project could raise £45,000 to go directly into elephant anti-poaching.  The Kickstarter campaign kicked off today, with a flying start,  but has only one month to reach its goal.  If you can afford to make a pledge, then every little helps, and there are some great rewards. Even if you can’t afford to pledge, please pass on the Kickstarter link to anyone you know.

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Well-spotted – Cheetah family posing at Phinda

Cheetah with cub (Acinonyx jubatus), Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
Cheetah with cub on a termite mound – a bucket list photo opp

We’re stuck in the office on a typical British summer’s day (cloudy with a chance of rain showers) wrestling with photo processing, marketing, boring admin and magazine deadlines. Each of us is waiting for the other to go downstairs and brew a mug of coffee or make that much-needed call to the boiler-repair guy. Who was it said wildlife photography’s a glamorous, well-paid job? At moments like these (and there are many) the mind easily drifts off to past photo opportunities and adventures. Like the time we finally got the chance to photograph that African savannah classic; a cheetah mum with cubs on the top of a termite mound…

Okay so perhaps it’s not cool to want ‘me-too’ pictures of a subject photographed tons of times before. But we’re not too proud to admit that sometimes we do. We can’t help it. Especially when there’s the chance to spend a morning photographing a fantastic feline, and her playful offspring, in good light in a great location – just as we dreamed about doing when we first started out in this game and saw great shots of cheetah by wildlife photographers we aspired to emulate.

The thing is that until that day we’d never had much luck with cheetah cubs. From the Kalahari to Kruger, the Karoo to the Kunene, we’d been fortunate to watch and photograph wild cheetah in some of southern Africa’s most spectacular locations, yet somehow cute little cubs just eluded us. So when our guide told us he was confident of finding us a mother with three quite small youngsters, we snapped to attention.

Steve Toon photographing cheetah, Phinda game reserve
Steve photographing one of Phinda’s cheetah with top guides Bernard and Daryl

We were staying at Phinda, the upmarket operator &Beyond’s private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. It was three years ago now, at the start of our Project African Rhino photo-journalism campaign. We were there to find out about the important rhino conservation work being carried out on the reserve (today &Beyond is part of a bold initiative to relocate around 100 white rhinos from South Africa, where they’re being hit really hard by poaching, to Botswana, a country with low density rhino populations and a good anti-poaching record).

The opportunity is too good to miss. We’d worked with specialist guide Daryl Dell and tracker Bernard Mnguni before, tracking leopards that were part of a long term research project on the reserve, and we knew teaming up with them again would be both fun and rewarding. Our trigger fingers were itching.

Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, killing young impala, Aepyceros melampus, Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa
The cheetah came crashing out of the bush and nailed the young impala right in front of us

Phinda’s always been a great place to see cheetah. On our last visit we’d had a cheetah explode from the trees by our vehicle and hunt down a young impala. Lots of research is carried out on the reserve’s cheetah, making them some of the most intensively monitored cheetah in South Africa. While we were there conservationists were collecting skin samples for DNA testing to gain a clearer picture of the familial relationships between the individual cheetah.

We headed out for the open terrain of marshland in the north of the reserve, where the cubs had been spotted the previous evening. Our search began by patrolling the track along the edge of the floodplain, Bernard on the tracker’s chair up front, scoured the sand for fresh spoor (pawprints).

It was Daryl who spotted her first – the tell-tale, compact, square head of a female cheetah poking out from a clump of grass. You needed a trained eye to pick her out, but there she was keeping on the look out for trouble, and seeming more than a little nervous. We turned off road and nosed the vehicle cautiously to within 20 metres or so. We could see right away why she was so wary: sprawled in the long grass by her side were three cubs, and by her feet, the remains of a fresh kill.

Cheetah female (Acinonyx jubatus), Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
Luck, and typical cheetah behaviour, was on our side as she climbed on the nearest mound

It was tempting to start photographing at that point, but the three were partially obscured by long grass and there was little chance of framing clean compositions. The background was cluttered and we were looking down too much. Daryl, who knows the place like the back of his hand, motioned to a low termite mound nearby and whispered to us that she just might go up there to check everything was safe before settling down for the day.  Cheetah often use vantage points like this to scan the terrain, but could we be that lucky? Many of the classic shots of cheetah on termite mounds you see are taken in East Africa and even there you need to be in just the right place at the right time. Picture perfect encounters are not as common as you might think. Could Daryl be right? Did we have a chance at photographing this classic cheetah behaviour we so wanted? And with cubs to ice the cake too?

The youngsters seemed more interested in snoozing than moving position, but we could see their mother was restless. After a few minutes we watched her get to her feet. She stood and looked around for what seemed like an age. Then she walked. She walked straight. Straight to the termite mound. Daryl grinned. I don’t think he could quite believe it either. In no time at all she was atop the mound, posing perfectly, lean and long-legged, fur glowing golden in the warm light of the newly risen sun.

Cheetah with cub (Acinonyx jubatus), Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
We now had our own classic encounter with cubs for a bonus

Over the next hour we were treated to the early morning rituals of a young cheetah family. All four were draped over the mound, like a scatter of fur rugs. The adult and two of the youngsters seemed content to rest in the warm sunshine, but one cub had other ideas.

Cheetah cub (Acinonyx jubatus) tormenting mother, Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
One playful cub tries to get the better of mum who just wants a rest
Cheetah cub (Acinonyx jubatus) tormenting mother, Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
If you can’t beat ’em…mum joins in the game with her cub

He played with his tail, then mum’s tail; then started pouncing on her head. She was tolerant at first but soon had enough. She quickly pinned him down and gave him a cat’s lick of a wash with her rasping tongue to calm him down. Freed from her grip, he turned his attention to the other two cubs, but they weren’t interested in playing, and eventually he too was comatose. Our fantastic photo session was at an end. To spend so much time in their world had been truly special – but now we had to rejoin our own.

Simon Naylor, reserve manager of &Beyond Phinda private reserve, at white rhino bomas, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, February 2013
Reserve manager Simon Naylor tells us why Phinda’s a top spot for cheetah

Back at the lodge reserve manager Simon Naylor told us that at that time Phinda’s cheetah had produced more than 100 litters and more than 250 cubs since the first 15 animals were reintroduced from Namibia in 1992-94. ‘It’s been one of the most successful cheetah reintroduction programmes in South Africa. Phinda was the first private reserve in KZN to reintroduce cheetah successfully,’ he told us. ‘It’s one of the best, if not the best place in South Africa to view wild cheetah,’ he added.

Right now we’d give anything to be back there… Now where’s that boiler repair man’s number?

Spice mix, superglue, a new zoom – must be safari time

AMHB62 Cape buffalo with redbilled oxpecker
We’re looking forward to putting our new telephoto zoom lens through its paces

Steve’s cleaning our cameras. His next job will be to make up some chilli and curry spice mix packs to add to our spice box (much easier to do now than faff about in the dark at camp).

Me? I’ve cleared the memory cards from earlier in the week, printed off our packing and food shopping lists and have just started gathering together assorted items for the ‘bits n bobs’ bag – a universal sink plug, a sewing kit, some superglue – weird but handy stuff that wouldn’t look out of place in Mary Poppins’ carpet bag.

AMHG333 Giraffe at crossroads
We’ll be visiting favourite Zululand reserves

We’re about to head off back to the bush on another African photo safari. With just a few days to go before our trip gets underway we’re starting to get excited about the things we might see and, better still, photograph. This time we’ll mainly be photographing in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, visiting old favourite corners of the Zululand bush and some new ones. We’ll report back on these later – hopefully with some of our results. Trigger fingers crossed we’ll have lots of great photo ops.

We’ll be visiting the newly built hides at Zimanga private reserve, as well as doing some game drives there. It’s on the itinerary of our new photo safaris for 2016 which we’re really chuffed about because this exciting new wildlife reserve is being set up with photographers, as well as wild animals, in mind (at last hides that take our needs into consideration!). We’ve just heard that the alpha female wild dog there is heavily pregnant which is brilliant news. Wild dogs, one of Africa’s rarest apex predators, den in the winter months, now fast approaching in South Africa. Sadly I think we’ll be there a tad too early, on this occasion, to see any playful wild dog pups.

AMPW74 African wild dog
Crossing fingers we’ll run into a wild dog pack in KwaZulu-Natal again

We’ll also be putting our new Canon EF 100-400mm zoom lens through its paces – trying this out in the bush for the first time. We’ve always resisted purchasing big telephoto zooms in the past, opting for the reliability and quality of fixed primes, but…never say never. The thing is there are plenty of times on safari when the ability to zoom out quickly, rather than grab another body or switch lenses would be the ideal. Our 70-200mm lens, for example, is often the perfect fit for ‘shooting’ elephants, and a firm favourite when we’re working in reserves where we can go off road and approach our subjects more closely.

AMHRW193 White rhinos in aggressive confrontation
We’re hoping the new zoom will plug a gap in our kit when close stuff suddenly kicks off

But on those lucky occasions when a lion, or lumbering rhino, walks right towards you through the veld – a quality 100-400mm would be just the ticket. We’re hoping we’ve now successfully plugged this gap in our defences. Certainly when we saw the positive reviews about optical quality this particular zoom was getting we felt the time was right to welcome one into our kit bag. We’ll let you know how it performs on our return and whether we’re now big zoom converts…

BOO56 Steve photographing rhino surgery
Steve photographing for Project African Rhino

Finally we’ll be hoping to find out more, too, about what’s happening on the conservation scene, with a particular focus on rhinos, for our Project African Rhino campaign. The project will have been running for three years next month. Where did that time go? When we began we thought after three years we’d probably wind it down, but clearly there’s too much terrible stuff still going on, and so much great work being done that we can’t just abandon the two African rhino species and the conservationists out there fighting for them.

BPS15 Ann photographing northern white rhino, Ol Pejeta
Our focus on the need to save rhinos from the threat of extinction continues

So far we’ve been really encouraged by all the feedback we’ve had while we’ve been raising awareness about the poaching and its fall-out  and we’d love it, if you like our work here, for you to check out our companion blog to this one and perhaps give our rhino project Facebook page the thumbs up too…

Next stop – Africa.