Wednesday, April 13, 2011

THE SERENGETI ANGELS OF DEATH

I am not sure when my fascination with Vultures started as I have always been an avid admirer of the feathered species without becoming a die-hard birder. I do remember a roadkill incident some twelve odd years ago on the Bulawayo Road heading back to South Africa. Perched atop the carcass was a victorious looking fiend who was warding off all others with his beak and talons. A spectacular sight and sadly at the time, my trusty old Canon A1 with its short 125mm lens proved completely inadequate to the task.

Since then I have scoured the Southern African landscape for “good” vulture pics to no avail and when, last year, I finally was heading for the Masai Mara I knew my time had come. The general look of disbelief on the face of my driver/guide when I said I had come to photograph the vultures was enough for me to know that I was in for a treat. Wilson, the guide, derisively scoffed at my request and said that there was plenty of that but wasn’t I there for the “crossings”?  During my week there I steered poor Wilson in the direction of the vultures many a time and while others were photographing the hordes of wildebeest there I was, with my lens pointed in the opposite direction, towards the nearest vulture fracas.

This was a great opportunity to learn firsthand about the behaviour of these Angels of Death. If its action shots that get you going you need look no further than this majestic bird. The flight into the kill is as good as it gets. This is followed by flapping wings, hissing and biting all in order  to gain superiority at the kill. It is a ferocious affair and camera speed and trigger finger need to be fast in order to catch the action in sharp focus. Compositional opportunities abound like none other as the birds constantly jostle for the optimum position to partake in the feast. However, on this occasion, it was followed by huge disappointment when I discovered that middle of the day haze causes problems I had not heard of before and so many moving subjects really challenged my knowledge of the focusing system of my Canon 7D. Certainly not a point and shoot affair!
Unexpectedly in February I find myself in the seat of a Kenya Airways plane heading off to East Africa again and this time I know that the vultures of the Serengeti will be waiting for me. If only there are enough “kills” I will, once again, get the opportunities to address the technical issues.

What I don't know is that I am heading into a killing spree of note and that the vulture activity in the Ndutu Serengeti area is going to be the ultimate feast far beyond my wildest imagination.
The first vulture activity presents itself on day one but our arrival is badly timed and we move in when the fighting has already ceased and the pecking order is already sorted out. The best time to arrive from a photographic point of view is when the kill is still fresh and the predators are around. The vultures will then start arriving and when the predators move off they will hop skip and jump towards the kill and the action will then start. Day two out on the plains and this ideal situation develops right in front of our eyes and we are able to photograph vulture after vulture flying in and then watch (or photograph) the resulting high activity as one after the other the vultures try to dominate the “best” bits. The most impressive show is as they land and their wings are stretched wide. A couple of hops towards the carcass and a new confrontation will ensue.


Godwin, our driver/guide enlightens us to the hierarchy around vulture kills and I learn that the first arrivals at a kill will normally be the hooded vultures. Their beaks are sharp and they are able to open up the carcass quickly and efficiently. Fast on their tails, in East Africa, will be the Whitebacked Vultures and the Ruppel’s Griffons who are the gory guys. Bloodied necks and heads are commonplace amongst them. They are also the biggest proponents of the fight. They attack one another ferociously while spreading their magnificent wings in an effort to intimidate. Last but not least the Lappet faced Vulture with his mighty beak will move in and demolish the carcass.  

At this first sighting I am able to start practicing following the bird with my lens and find it a mighty difficult operation even though I have the magical panning plate to aid me. I know that I am not getting the shot I want.
Four different kills during the four days present us with some wonderful activity. Several other kills that take place either too late or too early are frustrating and probably the biggest “miss” is a Lappet faced Vulture taking down a baby Thompson’s Gazelle. All we see is the end of the feast!
However, after much practice and many failures things finally come together on the last day. We are delayed with our departure because of a failure of communications and we decide to go down to the river to wait it out. The lions have been super busy the night before and the river banks are littered with carcasses that are fresh and untouched.  We position ourselves in just the right spot, which of course is the choice of our wunderkind Greg du Toit of C4 images The photofest is about to begin.

The scenario laid out in front of us is two fresh kills, the sun behind us and the dark green clumps of river reed in the background lit up delicately by the early morning sun. A gooseflesh moment. As the birds sweep in, the lens is able to pick it up, have time to focus and the shutter can fire. A coming together of the sublime moment when camera and subject are in perfect harmony. Vultures land on one kill and then decide that the kill next door looks more delicious. A quick take off and landing right in front of the lens. If one opportunity is missed two seconds later the next arrives. The excitement is tangible and Godwin joins in the fun spotting the new arrivals so that we can hone in on them. As each new arrival swoops in and they are picked up in the lens there is a great feeling of accomplishment to know that the shot has happened even without a check in the highly inadequate little screen at the back of the camera.
Even Greg, who many may know, is not a bird photographer, is enthusiastically pointing his lens in the direction of these magnificent creatures. He is prompted to say that this is the reason he is not a bird photographer is that it is all too easy!!
And finally, the satisfaction at the download. Sharply focused shots in the plural. Not just one but many more.  After editing these images I follow it up with an email to C4 Images and my place is booked for next year’s trip!

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