It was with excitement and expectation that we hit the road before dawn to spend the day in one of North West provinces’ nature gems, the Borakalalo National Park. Borakalalo is situated 60 km north of Brits and consists of 13000 ha of woodland and open bushveld - in a remote and peaceful area of unusual beauty and diversity set in Kalahari veld and woodland country, along the banks of the Moretele River and the 800 ha Klipvoor Dam. Birdlife is particularly abundant with over 350 species recorded, including 11 eagle and 18 smaller raptors.
It was these 350 species of birds that we had in mind. We were keen to seek out the African Finfoot and possibly catch a glance of the White backed Night Heron and of course to capture these on our Sony Alphas. I had chosen 2 Alpha bodies and lenses for this trip and batteries were charged and kit packed and now we were on our way. My strategy was to use the A99 full frame camera with the Sony 500mm F4 lens for distance birds and the faster crop body A77 (12fps) with the Sony 70-400mm F4-5.6 for any birds in flight or faster moving action.
We arrived just after 7am and stopped at the first picnic spot for some most welcome coffee and rusks. We recorded 21 bird species from the entrance gate to the picnic spot but I was still looking for a great photographic opportunity. Whilst drinking our coffee I noticed a Grey Hornbill flying two and fro to a specific tree and realized that it must be feeding at a nesting site. We moved closer and sure enough there it was, the tell tale tiny hole with a feeding slit in the middle. The male was bringing food and feeding to the female and youngsters through this hole. We decided not to go to close in case of disturbing the birds but it was nonetheless a nice sighting.
We spent the rest of the morning chalking up quite a few more species and even though we followed the river on foot for quite a distance, the Finfoot were nowhere to be seen. By this time the Sony’s had captured a few birds for our collection including the Woodland and Pied Kingfishers on the hunt for food but nothing really special. We decided to stop for some lunch and unpacked our basket at the next picnic site. It was wonderfully quiet except for the occasional chorus of different bird calls when suddenly the silence was broken by the gregarious loud Kuk-uk-uk-uk-uk call and vocalizations of the Green Wood Hoopoe (Phoeniculus purpureus). I immediately grabbed the A77 which had the 70–400mm mounted on it and stalked up to where the sound was coming from. There were 3 of them and by the time I got close, they were nowhere to be found. This happened a few times and then I spotted what they were up to. They too were feeding a nest. They would fly down to this one certain tree (one at a time) and in a flash they would disappear into a nesting hole. I retreated, fetched the tripod and at a distance of about 30m away, I set the camera up so as to capture them entering and leaving the nest. It was in the middle of the day and the light was harsh with a high contrast between the sunshine and shady areas. The nest was under a branch and the light for photography was very tricky. This is where the advantage of having a Sony SLT camera came in. The viewfinder is electronic with real live view so you can fine tune your exposure settings and get exactly the correct exposure before you push the shutter release. The other advantage of the SLT technology is that once locked on, you don’t lose focus because it has constant focus even though you are shooting away. To confirm my focus area I pushed the rear AF/MF button and focus peaking showed up on the screen to confirm my exact focus area.
We sat watching these guys come and go for at least the next 2 hours capturing many beautiful images. This had been the highlight of the day’s trip and whilst we saw and captured quite a few more birds the rest of the afternoon, this had been my “special” sighting that I had photographed. The tricky lighting made the images possible because of the Sony SLT technology.