Successful Stalking – September 2008

Shot of the Month – September 2008

I am always striving to get the “perfect” photo that captures the essence of the subject at hand.  For each type of animal I have the image in my head and I am eternally looking for it to appear before me.  This photo of a Malachite Kingfisher comes very close to that unattainable goal.

I have long marveled at this tiny burst of color with wings.  They are small, fast and usually seen only briefly, typically at far distance rendering any thought of a photo as useless.  My portfolio was woefully lacking a good shot of this fellow.

Malachite kingfishers live along bodies of water, typically rivers.  I rarely had an opportunity to photograph them.  This shot was the highlight of a trip that I made to Zambia a few years ago.  Overall the trip was not great for photography—generally I had seen few animals, even fewer predators and I was rather depressed about it all.

At my last stop of the safari I spent a few days at a camp on the edge of the Zambezi River.  The game drives were producing little so I decided to take an afternoon off and explore the river.  I had seen a couple of malachite kingfishers on a previous outing and I decided to stalk them and see if I could get something worthwhile.

For the next three hours my “pilot” and I cruised slowly among the reeds looking for a flash of color.  It was a cloudy day and a bit windy.  I was not pleased about the dull light but it actually proved to be a blessing—the subdued light allowed the colors of the bird to really pop out.

So, there I was lying down in the middle of the small boat.  I had several bean bags stacked up on the small metal bench I was supposed to sit on while my 300-800 mm lens rested across the bags pointing forward.  When we saw a bird we would bring the boat around and head either straight for him or within a few feet of him.  As we approached the bank I would have the pilot turn off the engine so we could coast in.  This stopped the vibration from the motor allowing me to shoot, and hopefully made us stealthier and less likely to scare the bird away.

Crouched down in the bottom of the boat I had a very narrow angle of movement with the lens.  As we got closer I would try and shift around and keep the bird in the viewfinder as long as I could.  Eventually we would slide into the bank and/or into the reeds.  Sometimes the wind would blow us off course.  As we approached I would be shooting feverishly, continually adjusting the focal length of the lens until I was either too close or the subject flew away.

Sometimes the wind would rock the boat or cause mini waves.  The lens was always ready to detect the slightest movement and many shots were blurred.  Invariably there would be plants, leaves, branches and other obstacles between me and my quarry.

We would approach, shoot, shoot, shoot….bang into the bank…bird flies away.  Repeat.

Repeat

Repeat. Repeat.  Repeat….

A huge lens in a small boat on a windy day trying to shoot a very, very small bird hiding among the long leaves and reeds on the bank of a river.  Not a recipe for success, but very effective in causing cramps, sore neck, watery eyes, and the assorted cursing of “un-niceties.”

It only takes one great shot to make it all worthwhile.  And this it.  This image really captures the spectacular beauty of the malachite kingfisher.  His stunning blue and aqua cap.  And those red feet—startling.  His beautiful fluffy orange chest all brought into sharp relief with a lovely green backdrop.  And all this is in focus and is very sharp and crisp.  Did I mention that I was using a lens that magnifies the slight hint of the possibility of movement?  On a small boat?  Windy?

Another small miracle—well two really: the bird itself, and actually getting this image.

I have learned over the years that every safari gives you something special.  Sometimes it just appears before you and other times you have to try something different and be willing to adapt to the opportunities you find.  And often you have to be prepared to work for it.

In this case it worked out brilliantly.