Jewels of our Waterways by Basie van Zyl

Gerry van der Walt All Authors Leave a Comment

Basie van Zyl produced an amazing image to win the July 2012 Wild Eye Nature Photography Competition.

In this, the first of a two-part post, Basie shares the experiences, challenges and photographic journey that left him with a collection amazing images and great insight into the behaviour of the beautiful Malachite Kingfishers.

A big shout out to Basie for sharing his story with us!

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Chapter 1 Explore to Discover

As the twilight pushes through onto the horizon; replacing the darkness with light, I make my way to a recent discovery.

A discovery that only nature can fully reveal. One that has to be earned with respect for nature and by tuning into all one’s senses. A discovery that must be handled with care and will enable the explorer to decode the fine tuned secrets and balances in and around the subjects.

A discovery that can be cloaked with the perceived disorder in nature, yet expertly ordered by minute signs and happenings in a time zone far from our own.

The discovery of a Malachite Kingfisher’s nest.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

As I make my way down the winding footpath, eyes fixed on the sandbank and the water’s edge a couple of kilometres ahead, various questions pop into my mind. Numerous answers thereof follow close behind.

I toss them forwards and backwards sketching scenarios and planning strategies, always returning to the same question: How many days before the chicks fledge?

During the past three years I have photographed many nesting sites and have been fortunate enough to document and photograph two Malachite Kingfisher nests under the warm African sun. I know what it takes.

A well paced endurance race with many obstacles and challenges come to mind.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterway

 I instantly page through my mental blue prints and pause for a moment at all the P’s on page one.

Prospecting, Preparation, Planning, Patience, Persistence and lots of Passion. With only prospecting in the bag and the feeling – ”of a kid in a candy store” – in my heart I quickly remind myself of the discipline and ethics required in these situations.

My unwritten rules with the well being of my subjects being foremost. The journey will lead me into the unknown, into the mysterious lives of these super fast, colourful birds in their most secretive and vulnerable places.

With my heavy camera bag, hastening my breath with each step, I near the area as the sun reflects soft yellow rays onto the flat edges of Table Mountain. Nearing the sandbank I pause for a moment to catch my breath.

My mind blanks out the distant sounds of the morning traffic in the human time zone.

My inner-clock is carefully adjusted to tick on nature’s time. It is slow, very slow, how things happen in nature but often seen through our eyes, it can pass by very quickly.

My quest is to create order from the perceived confusion and disorder in nature.

The Meet and Greet Approach: Day 1

On approaching the nesting area, my movements become slower.  I settle down in the tall grass some 15 meters from the holes in the sandbank.

My watch reflects 06h15 when the first soft yellow light slowly begins to creep down the sandbank which drives the shadows away. Brown-throated Martins glide like butterflies on the cool morning breeze pushing in from the sea.

Floating in and out of their nesting holes, showing their agility while hunting for insects.

The Malachite Kingfisher’s nest hole which I discovered while prospecting the area on previous explorations is well hidden high on the sandbank. It is covered under branches of a fallen tree blending in well with the Martin’s nesting holes.

From my vantage point I start deploying my preparation & planning phase.  Firstly I need to determine the light angle on the perch protruding from the tree.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

The same perch where I saw these beautiful birds the previous day. This is their launchpad to the nesting hole high up on the sandbank. White stains on the perch reveal the secret.

I cover my tripod and equipment with a camouflage net while scanning the area for their presence.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

At 07h23 one of the parents announce their arrival on the perch with a fresh fish for breakfast.

After a scan of the sky for predators the kingfisher launches high and disappear into the nest. My heart jumps for joy and the Martins seem happy with me.

At 07h59 the second parent arrives.

A quick glance in my direction confirmed that my presence has been detected, the first step to break the ice for our special relationship to come.

As quickly as they arrived they depart, low and fast over the water, tight to the edge of the reeds, again searching for food at their favourite spots.

Once they left the nest I move in closer to the sandbank about 10 meters from the perch. From here I observed another 7 feeding sessions every 30 minutes or so.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

I knew from previous experiences by studying the size of the fish and intervals between feeding sessions that my discovery should present me with at least 7 days of photographic opportunities.

I retreated from the area at 11h00 with only a couple of recording shots but with a smile on my face and joy in my heart, for this special secret mother nature has revealed to me and the journey ahead.

The Cape Doctor: Day 2

Early to bed and early to rise has always been difficult for me as a photographer.

I know there will be future mind battles to fight. Always those two voices. One driving me out of bed with the promise of a special image for the day. The other trying to convince me of windy conditions ahead or maybe just to sleep a little late.

This morning though I arose at 03h30 with a spring in my step. Preparing, planning and checking the equipment and then the long 2.5km walk to the nesting area. The Cape Doctor, as the South Easterly wind is known in the Cape, is really pumping today with banks of clouds rolling in over our Table.

The Malachites are very skittish in the conditions and approach the nest from all directions often landing wherever the wind blows them.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

The strong wind creates small waves on the water. Surely extremely difficult conditions in which to catch fish. The evidence is in the longer intervals between feeding sessions this morning.

At 09h30 I call it a day, I have only managed a few perched shots with much more weepers than keepers.

Under Cover: Day 3

This morning I approach the nesting area with perfect weather conditions on the horizon.

Not a breath of wind and calming mirror-like waters. From a distance I can hear the Malachite’s neighbours announcing a special day to come.

What will I discover today?

Will I learn more and possibly get a better insight into their secretive behaviour?

It is Saturday and I have planned to spend the whole day in this area. Today I will attempt to get some meaningful shots in the sweet morning light and then construct a makeshift hide closer to the perch. I found a suitable area the previous day, on the edge of the sandbank.

At 06h22 the first Malachite appears on the perch.  Appear, would certainly be the correct description. These super fast kingfishers don’t fly to a perch they just appear on a perch.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

The flight of the Malachite Kingfisher is rapid with their short rounded wings whirring until they only appear a mere blur of rufous and blue.

The one that lands on the perch in front of me is a beautiful specimen. It looks like a male. Deep metallic blue, turquoise and rufous colours. The colours sparkle in the sunlight enhanced by the water droplets from the dive for fish just seconds before.

Click click, click click click….. I warm the shutter with slow bursts, patiently working my way into their hearts and territory. The kingfisher settles comfortably on the perch and scans the area for predators before launching high towards the nest.  My first jewel in sweet light and a mere 7 meters away from me !

The rush was off and I knew they will soon start to fully accept my presence in their territory.

23 feeding sessions later, with some great keepers to boot, it was time for serious work. The hide construction has to be done during the harsh hours of the day. I knew from experience that feeding sessions will now taper down.

I plant some thick dry branches for the four corners of the hide, then tie some supporting branches onto the frame. I use thinner foreign branches for the roof, interweaving leave branches to complete the hide.

Covering the front of the hide with a piece of shade cloth and camouflage netting completes the task.

Thereafter it was time for sandwiches and coffee to replenish the energy. After taking refuge from the African sun in the shade of a large tree I start the long walk back.

My preparation & planning certainly coming together.

The Paper Trail: Day 4

I am a little tired this morning. The meager hours of sleep in the past couple of days has taken it’s toll.

I spent some hours the previous night sorting my images and recording the feeding times on a spreadsheet.

Making sense of this vital information for better decision making in the days to come will be the primary objective.

Behavioural questions of which the answers will follow soon. This knowledge will also act as reference material for future nesting sites.

It is this first-hand insight in the behaviour of Malachite Kingfishers that drives me forward on my quest each day. This knowledge is fresh, priceless and ”just Google it” won’t suffice.

The makeshift hide is looking inviting this morning and I settle down just after sunrise.

At 06h45 the Malachite Kingfisher announces his arrival on the perch with a fish. The light is soft and the colourful feather detail of the kingfisher jumps out in my viewfinder.

The fish is still alive, twisting and turning in the kingfisher’s bright orange beak.  A slight head turn combined with the distant smooth caramel background of the sandbank completes a perfect shot.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

30 minutes later the slender built female lands on the perch. The feathers around her legs fluff in the breeze like a ballerina’s dress. She looks proud and confident so the chicks must be doing well.  My mind instinctively speculate.

Will I see a fledgling soon? There’s no time for day dreaming when the male suddenly appears on the perch with a dragonfly larvae .

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

These insects are normally caught during the warmer hours of the day. So I realize how fortunate I am for this opportunity in sweetlight and fire away for some great shots. I record another 14 feeding sessions and make my way back along the footpath at 10h00.

Mind Games: Day 5

This morning I woke up with mind games swirling in my head. How many perfect perched shots is enough? When would the right time be to start attempting in flight kingfisher shots?

As many a bird photographer would know, opportunities for close up photography of Malachite Kingfishers on an open perch, especially with a fish in it’s beak in sweet light, are hard to come by. It will always be a special opportunistic shot.

I know that in setting up my equipment for in flight shots I would forfeit the perched shots. I can’t prepare for both.

I also know that the sheer speed of the Malachite Kingfisher can easily send you on your way home empty handed. A long walk home in the wake of lost opportunities for perched shots, I eventually make the decision.

I have to attempt my first shots of this super fast kingfisher in flight. Launching from the perch and flying towards the nest will create the opportunity. It’s the kind of shots I have attempted before with very limited success.

Shutter speeds of 1/3200th of a second have rendered some sharp images on previous occasions.

The reaction time with which the cable release must be triggered as well as establishing the focus plane, will be some of the many challenges to overcome.

At 06h24 I record the first feeding session. I wait patiently for the light to allow for a faster shutter speed.  The first couple of attempts only reveal tail feathers on the camera’s screen and I adjust the camera accordingly.

The angle of the perch towards the nesting hole high on the sandbank is steep. The launch is high and sudden, at lightning fast speed.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

26 Feeding sessions later, with some great looking keepers, I make my way home.

Speed is Everything: Day 6

This morning the Malachites are coming in thick and fast. The menu consists of various species of small and large fish with aquatic insects in between. I record 13 feeding sessions between 05h58 and 09h00. Food on the table every 14 minutes!

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

They are incredibly successful hunters and their presence in an area is often the sign of a well balanced environmental ecosystem. New information brings forth new answers to mind, as I reflect on similar feeding patterns I have seen before.

The chicks will be big by now, bigger than their parents before they fledge. Building up the energy and stamina for the outside world are priority number one.

Growing up fast means fledging soon, resulting in less vulnerable time against predators around the nest for all the kingfishers.  Every little bit of Malachite Kingfisher behaviour is fast.

From the turn and bobbing of the head, in estimating the distance of the prey and calculating the refraction of the water, up until the moment they swallow the fish head-first in one quick gulp.  Super fast.

They will  fish from a low twig or reed stem. Diving and returning to their spot in a blink of an eye with their prey.

Malachite Kingfishers are territorial and will rotate between 4 to 6 special fishing spots. They move from spot to spot every 20 to 45 minutes depending on the availability of fish and the prevailing weather conditions.

They prefer areas with shallow, warmer water often covered with water grass or floating reeds and debris that create the perfect environment and hiding place for small fish and insects.

The reaction time needed to photograph such behaviour must match that of the Malachite Kingfisher. A photographer’s reaction time can only be honed with many hours of practise. It is in situations like this that everything will come together.

It’s my second day attempting in flight shots. The quick successive feeding sessions give me ample opportunities.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

With the knowledge of yesterday I manage to capture a couple of great looking in flight shots.

Great looking in the sense that the kingfishers are at least in the frame. Sharpness and detail will have to be confirmed at home.

I don’t bother looking too much at my shots in the field. It can quickly become a bad habit and will result in missed opportunities.

A quick glance to check exposure and possible focus adjustment. That’s it.

Today the erratic breeze presents a new challenge. The line and angle of flight changes all the time depending on the intensity and direction. It’s a hit and miss affair but the rewards are well worth it, as there are not many in flight shots of them in circulation.Today I have to stay longer and make use of every opportunity that comes my way. At around 12h13 after 32 feeding sessions and 6 hours of absolute concentration, I am totally drained.

With more than 300 shots to boot, I hit the footpath and look forward to sorting the shots and recording the feeding sessions. The many hours of sitting and waiting in anticipation in the hide on full alert and the lack of sleep of the past 6 days have been testing. On top of that I am feeling a little bit down tonight. I made a shocking discovery after downloading my images.

Some of the great looking in flight shots I managed to capture appear to have blurry traces on the feather detail. On closer inspection I discovered the light spot in the kingfisher’s eye to show a short line and not a definite spot.

A sure sign of a too slow shutter speed, means that my chosen shutter speeds of between 1/3200th and 1/5000th of a second is  not fast enough to freeze the action.

Its not normal in flight behaviour I have encountered before. The height of the launch and distance to the nest require lots of power and speed from the kingfishers.

I will have to adapt my strategy in the days to come with higher shutter speeds. This will mean shallower depth of field and higher than normal ISO settings. The stakes and challenges have certainly doubled.

Predators and Neighbours: Day 7

Today I am looking forward to execute my new strategy.

Though disappointed, I am fortunate to have discovered the shutter speed problem and the opportunity to rectify it.

This morning I approach the nest with confidence. I know my persistence and passion will carry me through.

During the past 6 days the Malachite Kingfishers attracted many a friend and foe. The perch is a popular launch pad for various neighbours nesting in the area or just passing by. Weavers, Wax-bills, Brown-throated Martins and the not so friendly Pied Kingfishers.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

I have seen the rivalry for the same food sources between these kingfishers many times before.

This morning they are once again in the area and are noisily chasing the Malachites around. The Malachite clings onto his fish and makes a roundabout flight until the Pied Kingfishers move on.   It is fascinating behaviour to observe from the protection of the hide.

While admiring the resilience of this tiny, 13cm, kingfisher returning to the nest, the area suddenly becomes very quite.

Even the gliding Martins have vanished.

Suddenly a large shadow falls over the hide. Instinctively I peep through the leaves to identify the source.

Silently and from nowhere the Kestrel swoops down on the water and the unsuspecting Malachite Kingfisher perched low in the reeds.  I hold my breath while it hangs in the breeze scanning every inch of the reed bank.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

I can hear the desperate alarm calls of the other Malachite and pray out loud for it’s protection.

Should I get out of the hide and chase the Kestrel? Will I startle the Malachite instead right into the Kestrel’s talons ?

Must I allow nature to take its course and be ready to photograph a kill?  What will happen to the chicks in the nest?

With all these thoughts flashing through my mind, for a split second which felt like an eternity, the Kestrel disappeared.

The area was silent once again.

I waited in anticipation for the Malachites to return to the perch.

I waited and waited.

One hour went by, then two.

Will this project have a sudden and sad ending just when everything is going so well?

End Chapter 1…  Stay tuned for part 2.

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Basie van Zyl

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