As evidenced by the exceptional range of bird and animal imagery in his new book, An Intimate African Journey, South African photographer and Travel Africa columnist Lou Coetzer proves how a deep understanding of wildlife behaviour – as well as strong technical ability – can help you to capture some of nature’s extraordinary moments.
African jacana chicks are precocial, being able to swim, dive and feed soon after hatching. The ungainly juveniles balance precariously on the edge of a leaf, sinking slowly, until they are overcome by the rising water. Only then do they reluctantly set off, swimming frantically for the next leaf
Botswana’s rainfall peaks from November to February, filling the Chobe River to capacity and often overflowing its banks. The heavy rains fill every cavity in the surrounding landscape and the abundance of standing water causes a decrease in the numbers of large animals coming down to the river to drink. The crocs in turn are deprived of their usual quotas of big prey to hunt at the riverbank. Ever the opportunists, these predators of prehistory turn the situation to their advantage. The fast-flowing waters of the deeper river make it difficult to hunt fish, but the steeper riverbanks allow them to sneak up to smaller, unsuspecting prey. Numerous small species of game, birds and even the occasional, nervous squirrel milling about serve as convenient snacks.
I grew up with Africa’s amazing sunrises and sunsets, but somewhere along the way I stopped really looking at them. Perhaps I was too focused on taking advantage of the golden light that each provided. That was until one winter evening on the Chobe River a few years ago, when I suddenly realised that every other boat had stopped for its passengers to point their cameras at something. It soon dawned on me that the subject was a magnificent sunset. I promised myself to never again take any sunrise or sunset for granted. Since then I have disciplined myself not only to chase the magic light that Africa’s sun provides, but also to stop and enjoy the beauty of sunrises and sunsets that are like none other in the world.
African fish eagles are intensely territorial. They will immediately intercept any invader or predator that dares to intrude on their turf. At the end of the Chobe flood season, around mid-May, the water level drops quite rapidly. With this subsidence, big catfish that are stranded in the newly formed mud will go into hibernation. After the first heavy rains of the new season in November, the water levels slowly rise. The catfish then surface from their seasonal slumber. During this transition, while the waters are still low, the fish find themselves trapped and vulnerable. Their frenzied thrashing about in the mud attracts large numbers of birds of prey. On one occasion we observed a greedy juvenile fish eagle struggling to lift a huge catfish out of the shallow water, only to find itself defending its trophy from a concerted attack by a marabou stork.
Research has found that the relationship between territorially dominant hippo bulls and other bulls can be totally benign and even friendly, provided that the other bulls are subordinates. When territorial fights do occur they are, according to Mammals of the Southern African Sub-region, ‘ritualised frontal combats with splashing of water demarcating the boundary’. I’m sure that’s fine if you are a hippo!