The last two years have been hectic, difficult and extremely busy, but  fortunately two opportunities came up in August to spend time with, and photograph fish eagles. I decided to share some of the shots as well as insights gained from this in this blog. The first opportunity came on the 9th of August while on a business trip to Hectorspruit in Mpumalanga. I made a quick visit to a farm dam to check on a fish eagle that my son in law and I have watched previously. I saw the bird flying from his perch on an electricity pole to a hunting perch on the other side of the dam and moved around too but were too late to see the catch. I did however manage to get a couple of shots of the eagle eating the large Tilapia that he caught. I also noted terrapins around the tree stump feeding off scraps dropped in the water, a sure sign that this perch was regularly used for this purpose. The lesson here is that fish eagles are creatures of habit and by studying them you can position yourself in the right position at the right time in order to photograph their activity.

 

500mm 1/1250 f7.1 ISO 280

500mm 1/1250 f7.1 ISO 280

We planned a trip to Kgalagadi, Augrabies and Namaqua national park for late August/early September but unfortunately had to cancel it due to a heavy workload. We could however fit in a week in Punda Maria(northern Kruger) in late August  to get some much needed rest. I have been watching a waterhole east of Punda Maria since 2006 and has been planning to photograph fish eagles taking barbel trapped in the mud for a very long time. This drama repeats itself every year when this pool in the seasonal Shisha river dries up at the end of winter. This results in hundreds of barbel being trapped in the mud, providing food, not only for the resident fish eagle pair and their offspring, but also to other creatures able to get through the mud.  When visiting in 2015 the pool still had water and thus not giving the desired results. In 2016 we were a week too late as the party was over when we arrived late in August because, due to the drought, the pool dried up earlier than expected. This year our timing were spot on as our changed plans worked out very well in the end. In the end I spent 6 days at the drying pool before all was over. During this time I had some fantastic sightings but also had to deal with  all kinds of lighting, from very dark overcast early mornings to harsh midday light, sometimes shooting into the sun but then again on occasion I experienced some very good lighting.  On my arrival on the 25th of August I counted at least a hundred fish squirming desperately in the mud.

500mm 1/2000 f7.1 ISO 720

 

The resident female and a juvenile bird were, as usual, dominating the pool, chasing away all competing birds as soon as they arrive.

Juvenile chasing intruding adult.  500mm 1/1250 f7.1 ISO 1800

 

My day would normally start at sunrise, leaving camp as soon as the gates opened. Sometimes when I arrive one or both eagles would already be at a hunting perch close to the pool but on other mornings they could  be seen about a hundred meters downstream, high up in a fever tree. Their early morning calls echoing over the bushveld, overpowering the other sounds of the bush.

 

 

300mm 1/300 f11 ISO 640

 

Juvenile bird calling from a hunting perch, a Mopane tree close to the pools edge. 500mm 1/2000 8 ISO 2200

 

The first two days were challenging due to rain and heavy overcast conditions. This image shows the conflict in such conditions between shutter speed, depth of field and ISO. In this instance(photograph below) ISO lost out as I decided on 1/1600 @ f5.6, but at ISO 11400 still acceptable on the Nikon D4.

 

500mm 1/1600 f5.6 ISO 11400

 

 

500mm 1/1250 f7.1 ISO 280

 

Some attempts were unsuccessful but still yielded fantastic photographic opportunity.

 

500mm 1/2000 f7.1 ISO 900

Other attempts were spot on.

 

500mm 1/2000 f7.1 ISO 560

Sometimes the pray were too big and  especially the young bird could not make it to the safety of the fever tree and had to land on the ground.

500mm 1/2000 f7.1 ISO 560

500mm 1/2000 f7.1 ISO 500

 

 

500mm 1/2000 f7.1 ISO 450

 

Once his fish was stolen by a rival bird that came up so unexpectedly that he did not notice before it was too late. Sadly I also did not expect it, ending up with a couple of blurred images of the rival bird flying away with the prey.

Mostly they would fly to the fever tree to consume the meal, calling over and over again in satisfaction.

 

500mm 1/2000 f5.6 ISO 2000

 

Each bird would normally  catch one fish each in the morning and another in the afternoon. This means that if you missed the shot you will have to wait for the next feeding. I had to watch them very carefully as they might sit for more than an hour watching  the squirming mass intensely, only to suddenly swoop down from the perch to make the catch. On one occasion I momentarily looked away at a Kudu bull emerging from the bush and was just in time to get a shot(above) of the bird flying towards the fever tree with its catch. Two hours of intense watching wasted by a brief loss of concentration!

 

Succesful catch by the juvenile in strong directional  light, unfortunately from the wrong direction casting shadows in his face. 500mm 1/2000 f5.6 ISO 1400

500mm 1/2000 f7.1 ISO 500

 

500mm 1/2000 f7.1 ISO 560

500mm 1/2000 f7.1 ISO 560

  

Very early on the  morning of the 27th there was a visitor, trying his best to get to the spoils, but the mud  still preventing him to get near.

500mm 1/1000 f5.6 ISO 1600

 

When I got to the pool early on the 31st it was all over. All of the barbel were gone and the mud in the pool lay still, reflecting the early morning light with no sign of the drama that played out here during the last days of August 2017. During the night the local Hyena clan raided the pool and cleaned it out. Making a good wildlife image is mostly about being at the right place at the right time and one must make the best of the opportunities presented to you as  it might be all over tomorrow.

240mm 1/640 f5.6 ISO 320

 

People say that I was lucky to get these images, so does luck play a part? Certainly there is an element of luck involved in wildlife photography, but in actual fact this images took 3 years of dreaming, planning, patience and preparation. During the last 3 years I made several visits to this pool, noting the dynamics of the drying river. Nothing in nature is fixed according to a calendar. The drought of 2016, for instance, resulted in less water in the river to begin with and  extremely high temperatures during August resulting in the pool drying up much earlier. After the cancellation of the Kgalagadi/Namaqualand trip in early August, I drove the 120 kilometers to check on the pool on the 6th of August trying to predict when the right time would be to visit the pool. I calculated that the last week of August should be the best time and planned accordingly. Since arriving on the 25th I made 12 trips to the pool and spent approximately 25+ uncomfortable hours in the car with my eye glued to the viewfinder, watching every move of the two birds and battling all kinds of weather and lighting conditions, making hundreds of images and missing just as many. From this experience the following is important to take note off:

  • It is possible to plan a specific image or outcome in wildlife photography, even in a reserve like Kruger. It is however more difficult than is the case in private reserves as the restrictions of staying in your vehicle, staying in demarcated areas, gate opening and closing times might put a serious limitation on the photographer. This means that you, for example, might not be able to choose your position relative to your subject, background or direction of the light.
  • In a reserve like Kruger you will not be able to manipulate the environment, background or your subject. It is not possible to remove unwanted elements or to get your subject to act or move according to your wishes. This is contrary to what happens in certain areas where fish eagles are fed and thus set up for photography by baiting.
  • Within the given constraints the photographer needs to know his subject and the specific environment in order to still be able to predict when and how action will take place in order to get a good image.
  • Knowing your equipment is of the utmost importance as everything happens quickly and adjustments needs to be made in split seconds.
  • I work in manual mode, allowing me to choose the shutter speed as well as aperture with ISO set to auto. In this instance I found that 1/1600 to 1/2000 was fast enough. If possible I try to increase depth of field by using a higher fstop in order to get as much of the bird in focus as possible.
  • Understandably continuous focus should be selected although I prefer to use this with only a single focus point as this gives me more control on where my focal point will be.
  • I use continuous shutter release mode in order to shoot at between 5 and 11 fps. In this instance I found 5 frames per second to be more than adequate.
  • I prefer to use backbutton focus.
  • Positioning yourself to be able to follow the bird in the viewfinder from its perch, only pressing the shutter at the appropriate time, will enhance success. It is very difficult to find the diving bird in the viewfinder and fix focus when it suddenly emerges from nowhere. I therefore keep the bird in the viewfinder at all times.
  • By carefully studying them you will learn to predict when a fish eagle is ready to strike. Subtle body movements show when they are ready to launch, although they do not always follow through as they might lose sight of the favoured prey. In this particular instance it seemed to me that they do not randomly strike at the mass of exposed bodies but seemed to pick the smaller fish.
  • Remember - Patience creates the opportunity!

 

As for the question of luck? I will leave that for you to decide! 

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Comment by Pietman Muller on September 17, 2017 at 7:51

1/2000 @ F5.6

500mm

ISO 1600

Comment by Pietman Muller on September 17, 2017 at 7:49

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