Birding Photography

Why going on a birding safari in South Africa should be on your bucket list.

Thanda Safari has an inspiring variety of hundreds of bird species and we cater for all levels of birders, as well as for bird photography. Our guides are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about birding, and we also have a specialist wildlife and birding photographer in our team. Let us know in advance if you are specifically wanting a birding safari so that you can be paired with them. We recommend you book as a group of six or more, or you can request a private birding safari at an extra cost. The general game drives on safari tend to focus on the Big Five and the huge variety of fauna and flora on the reserve, including birds, but birders always need more time at bird sightings. Thanda safari also offers walking safaris during which you will see many birds but these are not birding specific.

Bird watching while on safari and what you should bring along.

Birds are some of the most fascinating inhabitants of the bush. They come in so many shapes and sizes, and several have exquisite colouring. Many people who come on safari are introduced to bird-watching for the first time and become lifelong birders.

The most important item you need for bird watching on safari is a good set of binoculars as the birds are usually not close enough to admire their immaculate detail.

Another important item for bird watching while on safari is a good bird app or book such as Roberts Birds of Southern Africa or Sasol’s Larger Illustrated Guide to Birds of Southern Africa. The Roberts bird app is excellent and it is available on iOS and Android. It includes great photos, bird calls and plenty of additional information.

There is also a free app from Cornell University in the US, called Merlin Bird ID. You download the regional map and it will ID birds for you from your photos. It has a global database of over 7500 bird species, but to ID your bird photos you will need to take them with a regular camera that has a telephoto lens, as smartphones don’t zoom in close enough for birds.

What you need to know when going for bird photography while on a safari.

If you are keen on a bird watching safari or bird photography safari, you can let the Thanda Safari reservations team know in advance so that they can discuss the options with you. Thanda Safari also offers a special photography vehicle called the Green Mamba (separate bookable item) for up to five guests (a regular safari vehicle has nine guest seats) led by Thanda’s resident wildlife photography specialist and guide, Christian Sperka, and specialist birding tracker, Bheki Ngubane. The vehicle is kitted out for photography. Christian provides binoculars for each guest, bean bags and a sound system to play bird calls. The cost is R2600 for one game drive for up to five people or R5000 for two game drives.

If you would like to learn about bird photography, Christian will teach you and share all sorts of bird photography tips. You do need the right camera equipment, including a long telephoto lens of 500mm or more. The camera to use on a birding safari depends on your budget and Christian can advise.

Keep an eye out for those golden moments with special birds.

Out of the 250-plus regularly sighted bird species on Thanda Safari, 31 are migrants from the northern hemisphere and are residents in the reserve during the summer months, which are the best months for a bird watching safari and bird photography here.

Three of the best-loved birds are the strikingly-coloured Lilac-breasted Roller, European Roller and Purple-crested Turaco. Guests are fascinated by the different vulture species and wide range of eagles; the most frequently seen eagles on Thanda Safari are the Wahlberg’s, Tawny and Brown Snake-Eagle. Big birds, including the eagles, vultures, storks and secretary birds are favourites amongst Thanda’s guests.

Here is a list of ten ‘Thanda Safari - Special Birds’ of interest:

Rudd’s Apalis
Gorgeous Bushshrike
Southern Banded Snake Eagle
Crested Guineafowl
Senegal Lapwing
Eastern Nicator
Red-capped Robin-Chat
Bearded Scrub-Robin
Purple-crested Turaco
Pink-throated Twinspot

For Big Five visitors and birding beginners, Thanda Safari’s guides normally concentrate on the large birds, such as the raptors and storks, and on some of the colourful and commonly seen birds. This list includes:

- Barbets
- Buzzards
- Burchell’s Coucal (Rain-bird)
- Owls
- Eagles
- Geese
- Guineafowl
- Herons
- African Hoopoe
- Hornbills
- Ibis
- Kingfisher
- Kites
- Oxpecker
- Rollers
- Starlings
- Turacos
- Weavers
- Whydahs

What is the best camera and setting for bird photography?

To choose the best camera setting for bird photography you need to distinguish between birds that are perched and birds in flight. For birds that are perched, the same rules apply as for any other wildlife photography, with a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second or more and centre-point focus. If the bird is in flight, then your shutter speed should be at least 1/2000th of a second and all focus points.

Generally, the best times for birding are the first few hours after sunrise and a few hours before sunset. If you are a good birder then you get up really early! Heavy winds and/or heavy rains are not good for birding. Waterholes are good for sightings and at Thanda we have identified many areas to look for specific types of birds, including in long grass, short grass, riverine forests and thickets.

Large birds like eagles and vultures are much more likely to be seen on a sunny day, flying and riding the thermals.

When certain trees are blooming, they have lots of nectar and then the birds that feed on nectar are abundant (like sunbirds). One of these trees on Thanda is the weeping boer bean – a tree that flowers with beautiful bright red flowers with so much nectar it drips out of the tree. The sausage tree with its purple flowers also attracts many birds.

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