Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Trip Report
KENYA Photo Safaris
October - December, 2004

This year's safaris were perhaps the 'best ever.' Photographically, using Digital Cameras may have made all the difference, as both Mary and I were able to push the envelope on creativity, as well as capturing some truly dynamic moments. And, as we always stress, PATIENCE pays off, and it really did this year with some incredible observations.

Caption: African white pelican 'water skiing' in for a landing at a creek inlet at
Lake Nakuru National Park. This shot was made at 1/40th of a second, panned
off a tripod along the water's edge. 600mm, 1.4X, 1.3 multiplication factor. Hard to
believe, but at 1/40th sec. the image is tack-sharp!

This year we did two safaris with 17 days afield for each. Both provided spectacular shooting, with the second safaris featuring a leopard kill (we photographed it catching a vervet monkey), a cheetah kill (stalking an oribi antelope), and a lion kill (a gnu)!
Obviously, when one thinks of a Kenya Photo Safari the subjects that come to mind are mammals, but as the first portion of this portfolio clearly shows, birds can be an extremely exciting aspect of the trip. Some of our favorite shots were of lesser flamingos either taking off or landing, as in both cases the birds run/slap across the water as they do so.

Caption: You can get out of the vehicles to shoot at Lake Nakuru, and at one of our
favorite shooting spots there several of us did near-water level shots as flamingos
ran across the water to take off. Extremely fast shutter speeds insured razor-sharp
images even though panning was done with a loose ball-head.

Above, top: African white pelican, white-headed buffalo weaver, lesser flamingo.
Above, middle: Amur falcon, lilac-breasted roller, little bee-eater.
Above, bottom row: Black-necked heron with lizard, Vitelline's masked weaver building a nest,
gray kestril eating termites.
Below: white-backed vulture, lesser flamingo, Nubian vulture.
All images are an equal mix of Mary's and Joe's shooting.

Caption: During a great vulture shoot, as scores of vultures flew directly at our cameras, we
did something different. The shooters in my vehicle had a 'contest' to see who caught
the definitive vulture image. That evening we added each of our four images to my
laptop and did a show. It was a lot of fun -- the winner didn't matter to any of us, but
it did motivate everyone to want to shoot more vultures! It was also the genesis
of something new we'll do in the future -- an end of the safari portfolio that we'll
do on our last evening. We did that this year and it was a huge hit!

The mammal shooting was sensational. Although all trips generally see all the animals one would expect, and these two trips certainly did, we also did exceptionally well with the cats. On the first safari we had 178 lion sightings, 8 leopards, and 34 cheetahs. The second safari didn't do as well ... only 173 lions, but we did have 12 leopards and 34 cheetahs!

Both trips had rhinos (both white and black), including a mother and calf black rhino on S1 and a male black rhino that did a short charge at our vehicle on S2. Elephants were especially good at Samburu, a particularly fortuitous fact since heavy rains hit Samburu after we left Samburu on S1, 'greening' up the park and surrounding areas which could draw elephants outside the park. The rains ended before we returned to Samburu on S2, and the elephants were back, and we had some great river crossings on both trips. Each safari is different and unique, and our elephant experiences certainly illustrate this clearly. On the first safari the Usao Nyiro River was low, and elephants waded, bathed, and splashed effortlessly in the shallow water. On the second safari the water level was much higher, and a whole new set of behaviors, including determined, purposeful crossings of the high water were the norm.

Each year the shooting only seems to get better, and I think one reason for this is our continual urging for photographers to simply be patient. If you 'let it happen' chances are it will happen, and you'll be rewarded with behavior and action, and not just 'record shots' or static images. Our first safari was wonderful, and when we recapped the trip at our final meal everyone stressed how important and instructive it was to simply be patient and let things develop. I told the group that I wished I could tape record their comments to play to our next group, so that they would hear from others the importance of that message. As it was, our advice was enough, and the second group was equally patient, and the results certainly showed.

Most of our shooting (95% or more) is done from the vehicles, with the only exception being the water birds at Nakuru and any reptile/bird shooting we may do at the lodges. There's not much of that for us, as downloading and keeping up with editing digital files eat up a lot of our free time (see Tip of the Month for my thoughts on digital storage for a safari)! Both Mary and I used Molar bags for shooting out of our vehicle's windows, and Vested Interest and/or Kinesis bean bags for shooting on top. One or two shooters used Molar bags on the roof top, and this works, provided you sit the bag just right. One shooter had trouble with this, prompting me to add this reminder that a Molar bag is designed for window use primarily. Although I carried a groofwinpod on the first safari, thinking I might use that as well, the Molar bag was just too handy, flexible, and useful. I am completely sold on it.

If you look at this portfolio and think, 'wow, what action!' please keep in mind that every one of these images was made on these two safaris, with two other photographers in both Mary and my landrovers. Most likely, those other four shooters have similar, or better, images, as no doubt did the shooters that were not in our vehicle on any given occasion. These shots represent both opportunity -- being with our subjects, being patient, and being alert, and readiness -- having our gear up and ready so that when peak action happened we were ready to snap. It was, it is, as easy as that!

And, as I said earlier, PATIENCE is the key. Sometimes action occured fairly quickly. For example, the leopard kill began when one of our vehicles spotted a mother leopard with her nearly-grown cub sitting on a log just yards from a game track. They stayed long enough for several of us to get some poses, then disappeared into the brush. We kept looking for them, hoping for more shots, when the excited alarm barks of a troop of vervet monkeys told us they, at least, knew where the leopards where. As it turned out, the mother leopard had surprised a monkey away from good cover and had 'treed' it at the top of a 10-12 feet tall bush. For about 10 minutes the leopard circled the bush, attempting periodically to climb through the dense shrub without success. Pretty easy to wait on something like this, and worth it, too, for the leopard finally lost patience and in a lightning move sprang to the top of the brush and snatched the monkey. Seconds later we were there, too, filming the cat as it dragged the monkey into the brush.

One day we encountered a mother cheetah with three nearly grown young as they were hunting. Nothing was in sight so, after a few minutes of shooting, we continued on to a lion kill where we later photographed scores of vultures swooping in to the carcass (see top images on this page). We left the cheetahs because we had filmed more than 25 by this time in the trip, by the way! Later, after the activity with the lions and vultures had finished, we returned to the cheetahs where we watched the cheetahs chase a family of warthogs into an abandoned burrow. Warthogs are tough, no-nonsense critters, and we were not surprised when the warthogs decided they had had enough and came charging straight out of the burrow and began chasing the cheetahs. The image in the upper right, above, shows one of the cheetahs as it jumps back in surprise as the warthog begins its chase.

Likewise, our lion shooting was so worthwhile because we stayed with the cats until the shooting was finished. There's no point in leaving a great subject, as you really never know if you'll find anything else to shoot. A cat-in-the-hand, or an eagle, or an elephant, or whatever the photo subject is, if it's a worthwhile subject it generally pays to stay with it until all the shooting opportunities are exhausted. It pays off.

Caption: an African fish eagle feeding on a gnu carcass, an immature Batelur eagle, Africa's
smallest falcon, the Pigmy falcon -- barely larger than a sparrow.

And speaking of eagles! Birds of prey are fairly easy to shoot, and on both safaris photographers photographed martial, Batelur, tawny, steppe, and African fish eagles, and some groups had black-chested snake and brown snake eagles, too, in addition to African swallow-tailed kites, shikras, black kites, augar buzzards, pallid and African marsh harriers, Gabar goshawks, dark chanting and pale chanting goshawks, and more.

I was lucky enough to get a gnu river-crossing with the folks in my vehicle on both trips -- a pretty lucky event this year since the migration was 'normal' and most of the herds had moved south by the second safari. Sometimes river crossings require hours of waiting, but this year we literally drove up to the river as two of the three crossings were about to occur. The third crossing did require a five minute wait, however.

Next summer Mary is having some neck surgery and because of the recovery period we had anticipated not going to Kenya next fall. But we can't help ourselves ... the shooting is too good. As I write this, less than a week after returning home, we do not have our dates set for next year, but we do anticipate doing either one 19 day safari, or two back-to-back 14 day safaris beginning in late October or early November. If you are interested, please contact our office to get on our first-alert notification list. We do anticipate the trips filling quickly.

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