Trip report: South Africa Photo Journey (September 2014) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Ken Behrens.

South Africa is a fabulous destination for bird, wildlife, and landscape photography. Of course Kruger National Park with its huge mammal diversity, including all of the “Big 5”, is well known. But there is much more to South Africa than that famous park. In fact, the most scenically beautiful and distinctive parts of the country are found away from the Kruger lowlands. South Africa offers a completely different set of experiences on top of Kruger’s world-class wildlife photography. The locations on this photo safari were carefully chosen by Tropical Birding’s experienced guides as those most productive for photography. Although South Africa does not have the Neotropics’ abundance of bird feeders or blind setups, by visiting the right locations, and approaching them with the assistance of a guide who knows the locations and wildlife intimately well, photographers can come away from this country with a “haul” of photographs that matches or exceeds that from any other destination.

Despite being fairly short, this tour succeeded in ensuring that everyone came away with excellent photos of birds, mammals, other animals, and landscapes. We saw or heard 341 species of birds. Of those we photographed 272. And of those 272 photographed species, 183 were photographed well by at least one member of the group. That means that everyone on the trip went home with good photographs of a minimum of 100-150 species of birds. Those included a bunch of francolins and wading birds, 19 species of raptors, several kingfishers, bee-eaters, and rollers, multiple hornbills, loads of spritely warblers, 8 sunbirds, and a diverse set of weavers. And many of these photographed birds were far from the normal “safari fare”, including handsome Cape endemics like Cape Grassbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird; Karoo specialties like Rufous-eared Warbler; Highveld species like Red-winged Francolin and Buff- streaked Chat; and uncommon Kruger birds including Shelley’s Francolin, Bearded Scrub-Robin, and White-throated Robin-Chat. A couple of hours spent at a Jackass Penguin colony near Cape Town was certainly one of the highlights of the tour, as was a visit to the Cape Gannet colony at Lambert’s Bay on the West Coast. We saw 43 species of mammals, of which 38 were photographed. These included normal Africa staples like impala, common zebra, and giraffe, plus South African specialties including bontebok, blesbok, and Sharpe’s grysbok. Kruger was very good to us in the predator department. We had more lions than we could keep track of, one superb leopard sighting (plus a couple of bonus sightings), several spotted hyenas, and even saw a couple of cheetahs. Unlike many safaris, we certainly didn’t ignore small mammals; it was a pleasure to photograph species like spot-necked otter, dwarf mongoose, four-striped grass mouse, and tree squirrel. At the end of the trip, most of the participants opted for the Big Cat Extension, a couple of extra days at the legendary Kirkman’s Camp. They were treated to fantastic photographic opportunities with loads of species including wild dogs, white rhino, buffalo, leopard, and lion.

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