Secretarybird

A large secretarybird stalks its prey in African grasslands, Namibia, Africa.
A large secretarybird stalks its prey in African grasslands, Namibia, Africa.
A large secretarybird stalks its prey in African grasslands, Namibia, Africa.

When I was little, I had a picture book about the wildlife of Africa. Due to my fascination with this book, the pages soon became dog-eared and worn. My favorite image was that of a large, strange looking bird. Half crane, half eagle, this creature looked like nothing I had even dreamed of. Even the name, “Secretarybird” seemed odd and out of place. Over the years, my obsession with this bird became a distant childhood memory.

When I suddenly saw this creature in the flesh, stalking through the brush just beyond the window of our van, these memories rushed back to me like a flood. Suddenly I was a wide eyed child staring at the worn page of this picture book – but this time the unworldly creation was moving! “Secretarybird!” I called out to the others in the van, surprising myself with unconscious recall.

The secretarybird stands up to 4.5 feet tall and is a mostly land-based bird of prey. Instead of swooping on its prey like most other hunters, it prefers to stomp on small prey (such as mice, hares, mongoose, crabs, lizards, snakes, and tortoises) with its large feet. There are two theories about how its name came about. One is that this bird resembled secretaries of old, who used to tuck their writing quill behind their ear. As this bird’s head feathers look like quills, this is origin seems plausible. The other main theory is that the name is derived from a French corruption of the Arabic saqr-et-tair, or hunter-bird.

A large secretarybird stalks its prey in African grasslands, Namibia, Africa.
A large secretarybird stalks its prey in African grasslands, Namibia, Africa.

Here is another secretarybird I saw later in the day. Here you can see it out in the open hunting in the short grass.

It was truly an amazing experience to see this bird in action only a few yards away. I had long forgotten this amazing animal from my past. As a child with a picture book, I never thought I’d actually see one out in wild Africa.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

Cuddling Lion Brothers

Two lion brothers sleep side by side in the fading shade of a tree, Etosha National Park, Namibia

On my first evening in Etosha National Park (and third evening in Africa), my traveling companions and I came across two lion brothers snoozing away the afternoon in the shade of the only tree for miles. Although it was still early in the afternoon, we decided to hunker down and wait them out. We were somewhat close to a waterhole, and wanted to see if the lions would wander that way as dusk settled. While we waited, we were treated to many poses as the restless lions moved around.

Two lion brothers sleep side by side in the fading shade of a tree, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Armed with both my 100-400mm and 800mm lenses, I had plenty of options for focal length (especially given that I couldn’t get out of the vehicle and move around!) As the lions were more or less stationary, I was able to combine my 800mm lens with the fantastic 50 megapixel Canon 5DSr for maximum reach.

A lion stands in the shade of a small tree, escaping from the hot afternoon sun, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Based on the length of their manes, these lions were definitely young, and seemed to enjoy each other’s company. At time ticked by, their main reason for movement was to get up and walk a few feet when the shadow of the tree had moved sufficiently to no longer provide enough shade.

A lion stands in the shade of a small tree, escaping from the hot afternoon sun, Etosha National Park, Namibia

As often happens with wildlife photography, we waited patiently for something to happen. Although the lions lazed about with no intention of getting up to go to the waterhole, we were eventually presented with a beautiful sunset over the grasslands of Etosha. To capture the landscape, I used my 100-400mm lens zoomed out to 100mm.

Two lions sleep in the fading shade of a single tree as the sky lights up an sunset, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

After a few more minutes, it grew dark enough that wildlife photography at any great focal length became impossible. I packed up my gear in anticipation of a long, sleepless night at the floodlit Okaukuejo waterhole (photos coming soon!)

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

Cheetah Conservation Fund

While they are being rehabilitated by the Cheetah Conservation Fund, cheetahs are regularly given exercise, as they are not actively hunting game.

Glancing a movement to its right, all the instincts of evolution sparked the cheetah into instant speed as it exploded after its prey. At an acceleration speed of zero to sixty miles per hour in only three seconds, the chase was immediately at full speed. The huge cat rounded a corner, sending clouds of dirt into the dry, African air, as it came directly toward me. Turning slightly once again, it thundered past, mere feet from me, shaking the ground with its massive paws.

While they are being rehabilitated by the Cheetah Conservation Fund, cheetahs are regularly given exercise, as they are not actively hunting game.
While they are being rehabilitated by the Cheetah Conservation Fund, cheetahs are regularly given exercise, as they are not actively hunting game.

It was my second morning in Namibia and I was at the Cheetah Conservation Fund, experiencing the thrill of cheetahs running no more than ten feet from me. Started in 1990, the CCF works to enhance the long-term survival of the cheetah and other key indigenous wildlife species on Namibian farmlands by developing a habitat improvement program that is both ecologically sound and economically viable. One of its conservation efforts involves fostering and rehabilitating cheetahs, some of which can be released back into the wild.

While they are being rehabilitated by the Cheetah Conservation Fund, cheetahs are regularly given exercise, as they are not actively hunting game.

In order to keep the cheetahs healthy, they exercise them by getting them to chase a piece of cloth on a wire. Once the cloth starts moving, the cheetah’s instincts take over and they race to catch the cloth. While their top speed is 70 miles per hour, they were probably reaching speeds of 30-40 miles per hour during this exercise. I was standing in the middle of one such exercise area, watching cheetahs race past – a thrilling experience.

As the fastest animal on earth, the cheetah is one of the few animals where all four feet come off the ground during its gait, Namibia, Africa.

As the fastest animal on earth, the cheetah is one of the few animals where all four feet come off the ground during its running gait. It is hard to appreciate this in person, but photographs can showcase this awesome feat.

A cheetah rests in the shade at the Cheetah Conservation Fund headquarters in Namibia. The CCF has as its mission to be the world’s resource charged with protecting the cheetahs and ultimately ensuring its future.

Another CCF conservation method that has saved many cheetah lives is their work with predator-friendly farming methods, such as the Livestock Guarding Dog Program. The CCF raises herding dogs from pups side by side with goats. This habituates the dogs to the goats and helps form a tight bond. The CCF then works with local farmers to use these dogs to herd their livestock, keeping the herd safe from the cheetah. This, along with education, helps reduce the number of cheetahs that are shot by ranchers each year.

A cheetah roams through open grass, Namibia, Africa.

Although I didn’t see these cheetahs out in the wild, it was a wonderful opportunity to get up close and personal with them. I got photographic opportunities for tight headshot portraits, as well as chances to photograph them running. I never would have had this kind of close proximity with free roaming cheetahs.

African Paradise Flycatcher

An african paradise flycatcher perches on a narrow branch for a few seconds, before flying away, Namibia, Africa
An african paradise flycatcher perches on a narrow branch for a few seconds, before flying away, Namibia, Africa
An african paradise flycatcher perches on a narrow branch for a few seconds, before flying away, Namibia, Africa

I just returned from an 11 day trip through Namibia. It was a wonderful trip full of new sights and sounds, many new species for me, and a lot of fascinating locations. Overall, I traveled nearly 2500 miles, mostly on dirt and gravel roads.

While there is much to come on this blog, I thought I’d start by posting one of the birds I saw during my first morning in country. After 36 hours of travel, I finally made it to Namibia. I woke early the next morning to see which new bird species I could photograph. It wasn’t long before this beautiful paradise flycatcher landed on a nearby branch and gave me magnificent views in warm morning light.

An african paradise flycatcher perches on a narrow branch for a few seconds, before flying away, Namibia, Africa
An african paradise flycatcher perches on a narrow branch for a few seconds, before flying away, Namibia, Africa

The African Paradise Flycatcher is the most comment flycatcher in the continent, as well as the largest. Usually found in ones or twos, this bird lives up to its name by eating passing insects, or flitting about in the branches looking for flies. For one of first new species sightings, I new I was off to a good start of my trip. Stay tuned for lots more, including tons of wildlife (of course!), as well as some dramatic landscape spots.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post: