The end of my adventures in the park were spent heavily in photography. At this point I was settling into a pretty comfortable approach from the beginning of the day to the end. As I seen a large variety of animal species by this time I was better able to take advantage of encounters in a photographic mindset. The big 5 had been knocked off my list and I could now enjoy freely, the last of my travel time as I neared the end of Kruger.
On the evening of the second last day I found myself traveling back to my campsite nearing the 6:30pm curfew time when all public vehicles are to be off of the roads due to the massive risks and dangers lurking in the Africa's nighttime hours. This day I traveled far into the bush and seen next to no other tourists throughout the better part of the day. As I reached my vehicle and began moving back to camp I seen my first Black Rhino. She was close to 500 meters away and together with her was a very young calf. I immediately stopped the jeep and reached for the camera in the back seat. As pulled it onto my lap I realized my wide-angle lens for landscapes was still attached and had to be replaced with a telephoto. I began rushing to change the lenses as I noticed the two Rhinos begin running straight for my vehicle. I didn't realize how quickly these massive animals were able to move and while I was attempting to set up my shot from outside of the vehicle, before I knew it, they were legitimately right on top of me. At no less the 25 meters away I was forced to abandon my photographic pursuit and escape to the false safety of my vehicle. I quickly closed the door and floored the gas pedal only to harshly stall the jeep. With this enormous mother Rhino honestly charging to 15 feet away the hard sound of the vehicles acceleration to the clucking of the stalling engine was enough to deter the pair from continuing the charge. They abruptly ended their pursuit as a storm of dust weathered over my vehicle and they quickly turned and ran back to their starting point.
This experience was a major lesson I've learned many times in many different areas of the world. As a wildlife photographer I honestly do my very best to respect the well-being of all animals I encounter. It is extremely easy to get caught up in the feeling of necessity to create images, especially when you know you have a chance of a lifetime presented to you. As I pulled away that evening I spent the ride back to camp in awe of how foolish and selfish I could still be in my photographic journey. As photographers it is so important to understand our role in a wild habitat. It is so important to understand the risked that are involved by not understanding your subjects. Always take time to study the animals you plan to photograph so you have an idea of their behaviors. This was my first up-close encounter with a mother Black Rhino who was in complete determination to protect her calf. She was an amazing creature who taught me many serious lessons. I know it's very easy to negatively criticize people with stories like this but I'm sharing it here in hopes that it can be a lesson to others. Animals are killed every year in Africa because tourists get far too close to them and end up driving the wildlife into aggressive states.
The year prior to my arrival in Africa there had been 2 elephants shot dead because they attacked vehicles carrying tourists who got far too close. Literally not moving out of the path of these massive beasts until they were right on top of them with tusks driving through the sides of both vehicles. Although if the story ended differently for me it would have possibly been days before anyone ventured into the area I was located and the rhino likely being miles away by that time. Regardless, wherever it is on the planet that you decide to go and photograph animals, the most important thing you can do for your safety, and the safety of your subjects, is to do your research before arrival.
However, issues with unsafe animal encounters go far beyond tourists. While in Kruger I was a witness to a guide coxing an elephant towards his safari jeep which was loaded with paying tourists. The guide who looked to be a well off white man, continued to rev his engine, screaming obscenities at the creature as the elephant approached the vehicle. At the time I was forced to stop my vehicle behind 4-5 others because this pompous fool was in full ego-mode and had to put on a show for everyone. The elephant came to the side of his vehicle as the man continue to aggravate the poor creature. The elephant then went to the front of the jeep and locked tusks with the front grill. The moment this occurred the tour guide released the brake and went to battle with the elephant as it forcefully pushed forward. The vehicles tires created a cloud of smoke black enough to see for miles as he filled his ego with an act he's obviously been doing for years. This incident was reported along with video evidence of the whole scene, and I can only hope that something was actually done in the way of justice. The moral of this story is that, the next vehicle this elephant approaches may just be a few senior tourist enjoying a wholesome drive through the park to stop and view the beauty of Africa's wildlife, and before they know it, the trained and annoyed elephant drives it's tusks through the side of their vehicle and is later, inevitably, shot dead.
My last few nights in Kruger where spent on night game drives with a park ranger. These trips revealed much of what happens in Africa after dark. Eagle Owls were common and the predator animals seemed to own the grounds. I had opportunity to sit with a group of 5 male lions just after they fed themselves on a recent kill that I did not see. Hyena and leopard where animals you can count on seeing on these night cruises as the guides know exactly where to go.
As I drove through the heat of the night in Africa, I couldn't imagine another place I'd rather be. The interactions I had at Kruger National Park are going to be cherished, deep inside my soul, for my lifetime. The only plans I have made since I left this heavenly place, is to someday in the not so-far-future, take my wife and daughter back to experience this place called Africa.
The most memorable trip for me would have to be a 4 week journey through the country of South Africa. This was something I had dreamed of doing since I was a child, and in 2014 I had the opportunity to go. This was a time in my life where a lot of personal things were in change, and looking back on this trip, it was all in perfect timing. I can remember the trance of unbelief I sat in on the plane for a solid 20 hours, and the inner rush that poured through me as I walked out of the airport onto the African soil for the first time. At this point I really had no idea what I was in for and my only ambition was to document this voyage to the very best of my abilities.
My plan for the 4 weeks was to rent a vehicle and obviously head straight to Kruger National Park. I would begin at the northern point of the park and travel south for a week and a half documenting as much wildlife encounters as possible. Once I made it to the southern tip I would head south east, tucking around Swaziland's border to arrive in St. Lucia. Here I would spend as much time as needed before traveling west to Creighton, stopping as desired along the way, and then finishing my travel in The Kingdom of Lesotho before making the voyage back to Johannesburg to end the adventure. This was my target plan and basically exactly what I did.
Arriving in Kruger
I spent the first 4-5 days documenting as many bird species as possible and taking ID images of just as many. This really took me back to my basic roots in photography where I photographed things only to identify and record them later. The first part of this trip reminded me a lot of my previous trip to Australia where the landscapes were large, open and vast making it hard to create good images of birds, along with the fact that you are not to exit your vehicle at any point or for any reason while traveling alone in KNP. So creating a decent ID image is what I focused on for the first week or so until I reached different environments. My eyes were always open for the big cats but at this moment in time a lion, leopard or cheetah were still very fairy-tale-like creatures to be able to see in a wild place; and it was a solid week before I was able to view and photograph my first big cat.
First Lion Sighting
With no other vehicles in site on the long stretch of road I was traveling I truly took this moment in and will always remember these two incredible felines. I had different lion encounters along my way but this one has stood out to me in the years since my return. This was the road and place where I left my heart in Africa. As they departed from the scene they sunk slowly into the grasses until they disappeared into a camouflaged unity with their natural surroundings.
Animal tracking on Africa's earth
Africa has so many animals that are readily seen that it truly has a different haven then any other place on earth I've been. While other places like the Amazon jungle have a massive variety of wildlife, Africa's medium to large animals make themselves very well known. The further I traveled the more I seen and the deeper I went the more abundant life was. I found myself alone, with entire areas to myself and wildlife to explore, learn and take Africa deeply in. There are very strict guidelines throughout the park to stay in vehicles but the more secluded I became, the more I ventured outside of my closed quarters. I have tracked animals on foot for years throughout North, Central and South America, so when being told to stay inside a vehicle when I see tracks in abundance on every river bed I drive across and I'm in a place called Africa; every piece of me wanted to stay outside of my jeep.
Leopard tracks seemed to be very common along river sides as well as Nile Crocodile and crossing ungulates. To have the opportunity to examine the many different tracks Africa's earth has to offer was very educational and mind-numbing experience. Caution for safety was on my mind more then ever before and an extremely humble respect for all that is superior to man-kind was at the top of my head. The strange thing is, I have traveled many miles on foot through dense american jungles not knowing what lies 10 feet ahead. I have spent countless hours in the Australian forest searching for animals I know to have deadly bites. Walking through a piece of African open savanna or along a river bank where I can see for miles inflicted a completely new sense of the sort of respect you gain when you know, without a doubt, that you are right around the bottom of the food chain. All in all, this was a much needed change of experience that I was in need of at this point in my life.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my voyage through South Africa as I continue my travels through Kruger National Park and southward to ST. Lucia!!
North America's Warblers come in all sorts of vibrant colors. These small passerines are possibly the most exciting birds to photograph in this part of the world. The are very quick, active and each sing its own original song that can be differentiated with a trained ear.
Every spring season here in the maritimes these beautiful birds make their way back for the breeding season. As they find their mates and territory that they will call home for the summer, they arrive in mixed groups, which makes the first few weeks for the birdwatcher very exciting. Photographing these birds is always a challenge but is a great practice to hone your skills and learn to identify this varied bird species. A certain warbler species can be found by knowing its preferred habitat. They are very reliable in taking up residence in a common area and there has been plenty of observational research completed to provide information for anyone in search of a specific species. Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroats are consistently found together near water and swamp/marsh environments. Black-throated warblers (blue and green) can be found in mixed forests singing their distinct songs.
When I plan to photograph warblers I most often choose a specific background that works well and go from there. They respond well to song recordings so that is an option. I don't use this method often as I feel it stresses birds quite a bit. Although certain bird studies that I've been involved in for many years require such a technique for drawing birds in so I always take the opportunity to capture a few images during these studies. Warblers tend to stay busy through the day unless they are taking a rest period, so most often I set up on a tripod with a gimbal head and take as much time needed in a certain area. When these birds are active they move quick and often so camera motion stability is key to sharp photos. I like to shoot against a background that has all the important elements of a good image. Battling light and a chaotic scene in post editing is a nightmare and usually doesn't work in the end. This requires spending more time in a certain area and waiting for birds to come into your scene. When you find an area with feeding warblers the chances of them spending some time in your selected area is good. Patience obviously plays a huge role in capturing images using this method, but I often resort to this when photographing forest birds because the outcome is guaranteed, quality photos.
Learning warbler songs will help a great deal when spending time locating birds. I remember starting out in bird photography and chasing very common birds around for hours before I could get my binoculars on it to identify them. Knowing the sounds will save you a lot of needless searching and free up your day to chase the species your looking for. When you are in the field always take time to visually study the way different warblers move around. This will help aid in understanding how to properly setup for the photo shoot. Many warblers stay high in the tree canopy so choosing a proper location to achieve proper angles is often a good idea. Redstarts are one of these birds that I find can stay high in the forest top singing their variable songs for hours, so locating this species from a raised platform with trees on much lower ground will give you better opportunity to see and photograph this species. Over the years I have investigated my surrounding community enough to know places where I can get easy access to the forest canopy. By revisiting these places often I get a chance to photograph a variety of birds that use the area over time. One of my favorite spaces is a bridge that runs over a large river close to my house. Here I have great access to the very top of 40-60 foot high mixed forest. Over the years I've encountered many bird species using this area ranging from Bald Eagle to Belted Kingfisher to many different small passerines.
Warblers don't feed much from bird feeders as they are built for catching insects, so deciding to spend the day photographing this bird family means spending the day in the wild. I'd recommend gearing up for a days adventure on your favorite trails, spending time setting up at different locations along the way, practicing patients. The time you spend waiting and watching is time spent analyzing and studying nature and this is where photography started for me. Warblers have a lot of very interesting behaviors and survival techniques that are best understood by honest observation. As always, explore, learn and conserve wildlife of all sorts and allow nature to give you new understanding with every encounter.
Robbie P. Gallant
As a naturalist, I spend a great amount of time in personal study. Discussion and research is key to exploring new and intelligent ideas and furthering our understanding of our natural surroundings.