Through the Lens: Luangwa's Cranes

03rd April 2018

Cranes are surely Nature's most elegant birds. There is a bird centre in Johannesburg which enables visitors to see many of the world's 11 species of Cranes very close up - which is wonderful - but nothing compares to seeing them wild and free in their natural habitat.

Although "wild and free" is magical, when talking about Cranes, it does present some challenges, since they are extremely shy birds! I have developed a range of techniques for photographing them which have helped me create images of them over the years. In 2017, I finally got a photo that I am really pleased with!

Crowned Cranes on safari in South Luangwa National Park with Edward Selfe
This was one of the earliest shots I took of a Cronwed Crane. It was one of a pair that lived near a camp in the central area of the park, so was more confiding than some! I watched it for a long time, waiting until there was no-one else around and it started to approach me as it foraged. I waited - barely breathing - for around and hour until it was about 50m from my vehicle. I took a short burst of shots, and it lifted its head, clocked me and turned away. Patience was the key with this one!

Crowned Cranes on safari in South Luangwa National Park with Edward Selfe
Cranes are long-term pair breeders, sticking with a partner for life, or so long as both survive. It's therefore fitting to show cranes as a pair, and they certainly look elegant together. However, they forage in open grassland, making approaches difficult, and one always has its head up while the other feeds. So catching them with both heads up is hard. In this case, I got lucky: as they moved away from a troop of baboons, they moved across in front of me. The soft evening light gives a beautiful mood.

Crowned Cranes on safari in South Luangwa National Park with Edward Selfe
During the dry season, they congregate in large flocks for courtship and mating. If they have plenty of space, this can be a great time to see them as their numbers are impressive. But if they are confined - as they were in this Mopane woodland slat pan - they can be very jumpy. If one bird gets twitchy, it sets off the whole flock and they launch in to the air in a wave of black and white wings! I love the energy in this image, but I would prefer a bit of space in front and behind the flock in flight, rather than half-birds!

Crowned Cranes on safari in South Luangwa National Park with Edward Selfe
At the salt pans in the Nsefu Sector, hundreds of birds can be found coming in from the surrounding areas at around 8.00 in the morning. You can almost set your watch by it! A couple of the birds always hang out near where the road crosses the pan and have become slightly more accustomed to vehicles. We were able to get close enough to these two for some nice shots as they preened each other and wound their necks together in the pre-courtship behaviour.

Crowned Cranes and chicks on safari in South Luangwa National Park with Edward Selfe
One rainy season, I got extremely lucky. I know where a pair always nest, way out in an inaccessible area of flooded grassland. I went to have a look for them and found no sign. As I moved off, one adult was moving through the grass with a couple of chicks! At this stage I was 200m away and enjoyed watching them with my binoculars. The adult was stamping on the ground with a high stepping action, presumably to flush insects and frogs for the chicks to catch. As they meandered back towards their flooded grassland home, they crossed the road and I was ready for them! This is one of my favourite Luangwa photos of all.

Crowned Cranes on safari in South Luangwa National Park with Edward Selfe
After many years of taking shots of flocks of cranes as they landed in the salt pans in Nsefu, I decided to try a different approach last year. Standing away from the vehicle, I focused on groups of cranes as they approached the pans. Many of the flocks were too large or too small, but occasionally a perfectly sized group would cross through my viewfinder. I tracked them until they were at the right height to be framed against the stark carcasses of long-dead Mopane trees, and snapped a burst of shots. Among them, I found this perfect frame where the group is composed nicely and the tree is a point of reference without breaking the bond of the group. I chose a black and white conversion as the harsh bright sky was not flattering. Despite losing the beautiful colours of the cranes, I like the stark mood of the shot, and it's one of my favourites.

However, I still feel I have more Crane photo opportunities to explore, so I'll out there again this year, seeking new ideas and waiting for the Cranes to get used to my presence....maybe!

Thanks for reading and enjoy your photography!

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