Jewels of our Waterways by Basie van Zyl (part 2)

Gerry van der Walt All Authors Leave a Comment

Last week Basie van Zyl, an award winning amateur bird photographer from Bellville near Cape Town in South Africa, shared the first part of the story of how he captured the winning image in the July 2012 Wild Eye Nature Photography Competition.

Today he continues that story and shares his thoughts and emotions as he finally got the image he was looking for – his Royal Flush!

Grab a cup of coffee, check out the first chapter and then enjoy the conclusion of a story of passion and true dedication to the art of wildlife photography.

* * *

Chapter 2

Show and Tell:  Day 8

After the ordeal of yesterday I approach the nest with mixed feelings. I relax somewhat when one of the parents announces his arrival with a catch. Minutes later the second parent arrives and I take a couple of lazy shots with relief flowing through me.

I am so happy to see them both. It’s the slender built female with an aquatic insect this time.

She looks slightly nervous as she scans the sky.  I wondered if it was her who was pinned down in the reeds by the Kestrel the previous day. The feeding sessions once again continue at a furious pace.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of our Waterways

I record the three fastest sessions. 5 in 28 minutes, 8 in 46 minutes and 4 in 9 minutes.

On average a fish every 5minutes just emphasize the superb hunting skills of these kingfishers.  At this feeding rate I assume there must be at least three chicks.

This morning the parents behave slightly different. At first I thought it was the Kestrel attack aftershocks. Then I hear it. Every time they land on the perch they make a coarse deep throated crrrr sound.

It’s a familiar sound that I have heard before when parents swap positions in the nest.

Something to the effect of saying ”I am here, its my turn, watch out I’m coming in”.  The Malachites also hang around much longer on the perch before disappearing into the nest. They also regularly combine the crrr sound with rapid up and down wing movements…. and then I knew.

They are signalling for the chicks to come out and fetch their fish. I am holding my breath with anticipation!

Is it time? Will the juveniles come out soon ?  Will I be able to get the shot?

Patience Pays: Day 9

The twilight announces a crisp morning and a clear sky as I make my way down the foot path. I have high expectations for today. I know that I have to be focused and on high alert all the time.

Perseverance and patience is the key to lock and freeze that split second of time in the camera. In terms of Malachite Kingfisher photography it means, if you see it you have missed it !

The morning starts like all the other with some bumper to bumper feeding sessions by both parents just after sunrise.  I must constantly remind myself not to become complacent or loose focus on the task at hand.

After preparing for the in flight shots I nearly missed the perched kingfisher with a frog clutched in his beak.  I have never seen a frog on the menu before.

At around 07h00 I capture a breathtaking shot of the Malachite in flight with an aquatic insect; launching straight towards me with a great head angle and full wingspread.  The 1/8000th of a second shutter speed froze the action perfectly. A five star shot for sure. I can’t stop looking at it on the camera screen and decide to replace the compact flash card with another.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of our Waterways

I record 6 more feeding sessions…and then it suddenly slows down. Can it be the Kestrel on his hunting route again?

30 minute intervals become 45. They often visit the perch without food. The parents seem quite relaxed though.

They chase each other in circles through the reeds and spend more time preening close to the water’s edge.

I know that patience will now be the key. That kind of photographic patience to envisage the end result, through all the mental turmoil and challenges, until the moment of being rewarded with a stunning image.

In my book this patience will be rewarded most of the times.

The Royal Flush – Day 10

Since the later part of yesterday morning the fish were much smaller with more aquatic insects and even a frog on the menu. Smaller fish and insects means less food and in effect less oils and fat. The change in diet will slim up the young Malachites and prepare them for the fledgeling stage. The intervals between feeding sessions are much longer with only 6 feedings this morning since sunrise. This feeding behaviour boils down to  ”It’s time to find your own food soon”.

The thought of possibly seeing the juvenile today circled speculatively in my mind.

Its just after 08h15 when the parents arrive, both with fish, and within seconds of each other. They settle down together on a perch some distance away from the nest. This is new behaviour and I quickly shift in behind the camera.

While taking a couple of shots I suddenly pick up movement from the corner of my eye.

Its another Malachite,…its the juvenile on the other side of the sandbank!  He must have slipped out when I was watching the parents.

At 08h18 the juvenile lands on the perch in front of me for the first time.  A mere 5 meter from me!

What a little beaut ! With his black beak pointing inquisitively to the sky and the tiny black feet firmly on the perch.  The russet colours appear dark with the perfectly stacked combination of metallic blue and turquoise feathers shining in the morning sun.

I let him settle for a couple of seconds and then fire short rapid bursts. Just holding back not to disturb him.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of our Waterways

He stretches his wings and scratches his head a couple of times while looking around curiously at his new world. Then suddenly it all happened, all in just 7 minutes of super fast non stop action, most of it too fast for the eye to see.

The young Malachite flies to the perch where his parents have been minutes before. Without warning and to my greatest surprise, he dives down into the water for a maiden splash and returns to the perch in front of me.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of our Waterways

The water droplets shine like jewels around his neck.

Then I hear the incoming parent. The fledgling lifts his wings and hunch down aggressively when the parent lands.

I can’t get both in the frame and wait patiently for the parent to shift closer, inch by inch.  I suddenly realize I should focus on the juvenile and not the parent and shift the camera back to the juvenile. I lock focus and instinctively fire.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of our Waterways

15 frames in two seconds and the parent was gone.

What happened? I thought.

I peep over the camera just in time to see the parent bank low over the water and then returns to the tip of the perch.  She slowly shift in next to the juvenile with his beak wide open by now…

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of our Waterways

….and then…. a slip of concentration.

The ”shutter fever” grabs hold of me and the camera suddenly looses focus for a second. With the focus regained I am just in time to capture the proud juvenile with spread wings and his fish trophy.  7 minutes, 226 shots later and with a splitting headache I fall back against the hide.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of our Waterways

How could I have missed the fish transfer moment!  I sit up straight just in time to see the buffer light dim.  I stare over to the perch and postpone the moment of truth to check the images on the camera.

What did I get and what did I miss?

I quickly scroll through them and pause at a great looking shot.  The parent is hanging in the air with the fish in her beak and the juvenile in front of her opening his beak to receive his price. I then realize she was showing the fish and then flying towards the water to show him where it came from.  Feeding and training behaviour in split second action.

Nature at it’s best !

For me in terms of kingfisher photography this image will be my Royal Flush.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of the Waterways

I have always dreamt of capturing a Malachite Kingfisher in flight, or flying with a fish or even the ultimate feeding session, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine an image with all those dreams rolled in one.

Truly my Royal Flush!

All the patience and persistence paid off, I thought as I hit the footpath with a fast pace and a smile on my face. What a special day. Today presented some of my ultimate sightings and bird behavior events that I have ever witnessed let alone the humbling honor to photograph it.

The Odds of Diving – Day 11

This morning I really struggled to get up. Those voice battles in my mind again. ”You got the shots you were looking for, what more do you want ?” and then the other ”the juvenile on the perch…it can happen again”.

My mind was made up the moment I hit the footpath. I have been in photographic situations like this before where everything you shoot turns into gold. Embrace this opportunity, I say to myself, stick to your decisions and follow them through.

Once again decisions, shall I go for dive shots or will the juvenile appear again ?

In just visualizing the shots from the previous day I instantly feel the goosebumps. I have done it! I thought. Mind blowing split second action locked and preserved forever. I have to move on and try for diving shots today.

The last couple of days the Malachites are taking regular splash baths when they exit the nest. Sometimes whirring from the nest straight into the water and then on their way to the fishing grounds again.

Sometimes they perch on the water’s edge and splash up to three or four times before proceeding with preening rituals. The nest chamber must really be dirty by now with debris of fish bones and insect pieces.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of our Waterways

Just after sunrise I quickly pitch my small tent-hide on the water’s edge. The camera is set up and I push the lens through the hole in the side. Minutes later the first Malachite arrives. I shift into position with my eyes fixed on the water.

Seconds later I let rip at the instant of the splash. It’s a difficult shot, an extremely difficult shot. Those who have tried will know. The depth of field for a telephoto lens on a 5 meter focusing distance is a minute 4 cm. Just to focus where the kingfisher splash won’t be good enough. When leaving the water they must practically fly right into the focus plane.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of our Waterways

The protective nictitating membrane of the kingfisher can also easily spoil a perfect shot.  They seldom splash in exactly the same spot. I quickly learn not to follow them from splash to splash.

I set up on one regular spot and hope for the best. Today I spent many hours with very little to show. Only a handful of keepers but with new knowledge for another day.

Another day ? I wondered, It’s been 11 days, I am really tired and drained.

At 10h30 I am on my way home with mixed emotions.

Should I come back the next day?

Is the party over?

Will I see more fledglings ?

Torn Between Two Lovers – Day 12

After the excitement of the past couple of days I drag my feet on the footpath and reach the nesting area just after sunrise. The 5 km walk every day has become my brainstorming time, often used to plan the shooting day ahead.

I settle down in my home from home just after 06h00. The area appears quiet with some flyby’s from the parents. The feeding patterns are once again irregular with small fish and aquatic insects on the menu.

There’s no urgency this morning and I wonder if some of the fledglings have been sent on their way to find their own territory.

Instinctively new questions arise.

I guess decoding all the Malachite’s secrets and patterns cannot be revealed in such a short period of time.

I will surely miss the Malachites but not as much as I have missed my wife the last 12 days, I thought.   Getting up very early in the mornings and trying to go to bed with the birds don’t leave much time for conversation.

I make a reluctant decision, I have to go.

What a privilege and experience to photograph these jewels of our waterways, I thought, making my way down the footpath. I turn back one last time.

Until we meet again.

Basie van Zyl - Jewels of our Waterways

Interesting Facts

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  • Photographic Days: 19
  • Non-photographic days: 5
  • Photographic hours: 90
  • Sleep hours: 75
  • Kilometers Walked: 70
  • Shots taken: 5814
  • Keepers to boot: 387
  • Most shots in a day: 535
  • Least shots in a day: 15
  • Most shots in a sequence: 226
  • Most keepers in a day: 125
  • Total 5-star shots for this period: 18
  • Total feeding sessions recorded for the period: 342
  • Average feeding sessions per day: 39
  • Least feeding sessions in a day: 8
  • Fastest consecutive feeding sessions: 4 in 9 minutes
  • Most consecutive feeding sessions in a day: 21 in 4 hours
  • Types of food: 3
  • Predator and other attacks: 4
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This is my shortened diary of 14 days at a Malachite Kingfisher’s nest.  Close up Malachite Kingfisher photography, especially in flight and diving shots, are extremely difficult to capture even with the high ISO and frame rate capabilities of today’s digital cameras and the availability of fast telephoto lenses.

The small size of the kingfisher and their sheer speed in flight combined with their secretive behaviour make them difficult subjects to photograph.

Basie’s Links:

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Basie van Zyl

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Comments 0

  1. Laura

    Incredible story, dedication and images Basie. Thankyou for sharing it with us! Its been such a pleasure to read, and see how you feel about your photographic subject and the time you spent to get the images.

  2. Deb Weston

    Loved both chapters. Very inspirational and really enjoyed the stats you added at the end. Thank you for taking the time away from your photography to write this story.

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