Major sections:

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Maasai Mara Safari 2011 Day Two

If you haven't read about them already, you might want to start with Day Zero or Day One.

Sunday, 25 September 2011
Sunday provided a beautiful dawn and we stopped for sunrise shots at around 6:30am having left camp at about 6:15.  It's possibly a bit cliched, but no one's visit to the Mara is complete without a shot of a Balanites aegyptica against the sunrise, in this case with the addition of a Lappet-faced Vulture

Read more ...

Monday, 7 November 2011

Maasai Mara Safari 2011 Day One

If you haven't read it already, you might want to start with Day Zero.

Saturday, 24 September 2011
Next morning we deposited our non-camera bags in reception for them to start what turned out to be their 8 hour journey to the Mara.  After breakfast it was back into the matatus for the short transfer to Wilson airport.  Traffic was much more free-flowing on Saturday morning and the trip took about 15 minutes or so.  Most of our party only had our camera bags with us and we stood around trying to make them look as light as possible.  The baggage weight limit on the Safarilink flight to the Mara is 15kg which is why it's so important to send pesky necessities like clothes by road.  My own camera bag weighed 15.3kg, and those carrying more serious kit like Mark's 600mm, 200-400mm, 24-105mm and three bodies weighed in at well over 20kg.  After weighing a seemingly random selection of our bags all together they were happy to let us on board without any trouble.

Our plane, on arrival at Ol Kiombo
Once we were issued with our boarding cards (colour-coded laminated pieces of cardboard), it was then back into matatus for a short trip back half way around the airport perimeter from Safarilink's check-in building to the actual departures & arrivals building.  There's no posted list of departures in any specific order, so we ended up standing around on the tarmac watching the planes being prepared and the lucky yellow and then black boarding pass groups being led to their planes that were ready first.  Most of Safarilink's fleet seems to be Cessna 208 Caravans but which plane they actually use depends how many passengers they have for a particular destination on any given day.  There were enough people heading for our airstrip with us that we got to fly on a Bombadier Dash 8 with a capacity of 36 passengers.  The flight was quick (about 35 minutes) and smooth and before we knew it were on the ground at the Ol Kiombo airstrip and being met by our drivers from Entim.

From the moment you drive away from the airstrip it's immediately clear that the Mara is very different from any of the southern African game reserves I've visited.  Most obviously, the terrain is much more open than South African bushveld.  There are patches of riverine forest, but for the most part the area is predominantly open grassveld with isolated trees here and there. In fact, viewed from the air, it looks like trees are vastly outnumbered by termitaria.

The Mara from the air. The pock marks are bare areas around termite mounds.

Brian Halls, happy to be in the Mara.
The other major difference is that there are animals everywhere!  We were unlucky with our timing in that the bulk of the wildebeest migration had already left the Mara in early September this year, leaving just their flies behind. Despite the absence of 95% of the migrating beasties, it's still difficult to find anywhere where you can scan the full 360º of horizon around you without spotting wildlife of one form or another.  In our first hour in the Mara, en route to our camp, we'd already seen a leopard, parts of the local Entim lion pride and their already-abandoned breakfast of zebra which had become a vulture magnet.  Oh, and tons of wildebeest, zebra, Thomson's gazelle, impala, topi and giraffe of course, but since they're so plentiful they all tend to blend into the background, and stopping for them doesn't happen often unless they're doing something particularly interesting or presenting themselves in great photographic light.

The first leopard sighting
In my frame of reference any leopard sighting is generally special enough that you'd want to sit with the leopard for ages even if it's just sleeping under under a bush.  When we left our first leopard sighting after 3 or 4 minutes of watching it sleeping in fairly dense cover, I hoped it was because our driver was confident that the leopard wasn't going anywhere soon and that we'd have better sightings later, but I had my doubts.  Fortunately I needn't have worried, but more on the leopards later.

Some of the Entim lionesses & cubs. Note the lioness sleeping in the tree.

It's hard work being cute when flies interrupt your nap time.

Dozing mother & child, with visitors.

One of the two Entim pride males.

Ye Olde Lion Portrait.
The trip to the camp was also an opportunity to warm up the camera trigger finger and the photographic brain.  Not having had much of a chance to shoot much in the past few months I soon discovered that I'd become a bit rusty and so I had plenty of disappointments amongst my pics from the first day, mostly due to poor framing.  I was shooting too tight - clipping the tips off vultures' wings and cats' tails or not leaving myself enough room to fine-tune the composition in post.  Fortunately I caught most of my bad habits in the first day's pictures and mostly managed to avoid repeating them in the days that followed.

Marabou Storks & Rüppel's Vultures

White-backed Vulture on final approach - one of many clipped-wing shots while my brain was rusty.

Rüppel's Vulture touching down.  No crop problems this time. :)
We arrived at camp at around 11:30 to be met with a drink of orange juice and a very welcome cold towel. After our tents were assigned there was a bit of time to settle in and enjoy a first Tusker before we sat down  to a delicious three course lunch.

David & Aaron in the tent.

Lunch table & lounge tent.

Our tent exterior.
After lunch we had a bit more time to kill before we headed off on our afternoon safari at about 3:15.The highlight of the afternoon was a sighting of a male leopard who was initially lurking in cover and seemingly stalking a dik-dik.  Unluckily for the leopard, the dik-dik spotted him and gave him a wide berth and sounded the alarm.  The leopard stayed focused on where the dik-dik had been, so perhaps he was actually more interested in the impalas that in the vicinity or perhaps he just didn't want to acknowledge that the dik-dik had outmanoeuvred  him.

The leopard pretending not to notice that the dik-dik has noticed it.

No dik-dik for din-dins.

It's always hard to tell how long one spends at a great sighting.  It felt like 5 or 10 minutes, but judging by photo timestamps it was almost half an hour before the leopard gave up and broke cover, loping off between the many vehicles that had arrived by then.

We stayed with him for the next 20 minutes as he moved on a few hundred metres at a time, pausing to assess his hunting opportunities or just to shake off the flies that were clearly more annoying to him than the vehicles.

Along the way he treated us to an array of facial expressions that Jim Carrey would be proud of...

Eventually he'd had enough and took to a tree, which was our cue to move on.

By this time it was quite overcast - not the greatest photographic conditions.  On the one hand, shade is your friend when you're photographing birds with high contrast plumage that are difficult to expose correctly in bright light, but on the other hand too much shade means that you're battling to collect enough photons to excite your camera's sensor. Both this lapwing and starling are classic high-contrast challenges...

Spur-winged Lapwing @ ISO 1250

Rüppel's Starling @ ISO 3200

Thomson's fly magnet gazelle.

Gathering storm cell
By 5:30 it was raining, and most of the animals were lying low, but these elephants made for a nice dark background against which to capture falling raindrops.

Rain drops @ 1/250s with a pachyderm backdrop.

Elephant yoga
Near the elephants we found the two-mane coalition that runs the Entim pride looking rather sorry for themselves in the rain.  This turned out to be the only time we saw them together.

It's tough to look imposing when you're having a bad hair day.
By 6pm the light was fading fast and we headed back to camp, with short stops for some well-positioned elephant against the skyline and a few minutes with the Entim pride's young cubs we'd seen earlier in the day.

Twilight Tuskers (the non-alcoholic version).

Back at camp it was time to colonise a few square centimetres of table top to charge up and download before the first of many great Entim dinners.  All in all, a great start and a very full first half day in the Mara!

The charging table in the lounge running at about half peak capacity.

Ready for more? Next up: Day Two.  But first, don't forget to leave feedback below!

Read more ...

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Maasai Mara Safari 2011 Day Zero

 I've just returned from my first (and hopefully not my last) trip to the Maasai Mara, brilliantly organised by C4 Images & Safaris and led by Isak Pretorius and C4's co-founder Shem Compion. While it's still fresh in my mind I thought I'd write up a trip report for posterity.

Friday, 23 September 2011
The trip started with a 4:30am wake-up to get to Cape Town International with David Burstein & his son, Aaron, in time for our 6:15 flight to Johannesburg. There we met up with Mark Dumbleton and the rest of the Gauteng contingent for our 11:15 flight to Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on Kenya Airways. Kenya's an hour ahead of us at GMT+3 so it was 3:15pm when we arrived after our 4 hour flight.

Disembarking from our Boeing 737
At the airport David & I popped in to the Safaricom shop to pick up local SIM cards. If you're not about to travel to Kenya or aren't interested in the state of Kenyan cellular phone coverage, you'll probably want to skip this paragraph. If you are, then it's worth noting that Kenya's cell coverage is great (we had good fast 3G data coverage pretty much everywhere in the Mara) and much cheaper than in South Africa. At the moment on-network (ie Safaricom to Safaricom) calls cost KSh 3 (25 SA cents) per minute. Off-net calls are KSh 4 per minute and calls back to South Africa are 18 Shillings (R1.47) per minute. Data is very cheap by SA standards, especially if convert some of your prepaid credit to a data bundle. I bought a 500MB bundle for KSh 499 (R40.75) but the per MB price drops as you buy bigger bundles. For 8GB and up, you're paying about half a shilling (4c) per MB. Alternatively you can get a week's uncapped data for KSh 1000 (R81.67) or 30 days' uncapped for KSh 3000 (R245). Note that the Safaricom shop didn't take credit cards, so you'll need Shillings or US Dollars to buy a local SIM card. Like most places in Kenya that accept dollars, you'll find that you get your change in Shillings, and the exchange rate won't be great. The Safaricom shop effectively have me KSh 1760 for my US$20 note, which should be worth around KSh 1995 at the current interbank rate, so if you're likely to spending lots of Shillings while you're in Kenya then you might want to shop around the bureaux de change at the airport to find the best rate and convert your dollars or Rands there. I noticed one of them buying Rands at KSh 9 / ZAR, but that's even worse than Safaricom's US$ rate, since the interbank rate is currently 12.2 KSh / ZAR.

David & Mark en route to Nairobi, before we hit heavy traffic
From the airport we were transferred to our hotel in two matatus or mini-bus taxis. This was our first introduction to the chaos & congestion that passes for traffic in Nairobi. At rush hour the main arteries into and out of Nairobi are close to gridlocked, and you find yourself sitting for ages. When traffic does flow drivers think nothing of veering off road to create impromptu extra lanes, and negotiating intersections frequently seems to require forcibly pushing in front of other vehicles to make your turn. The biggest and presumably most important intersections and traffic circles seem to be manned, at least at rush hour, by a traffic cop at each entrance to the intersection. A couple of intersections have traffic lights, but I saw very little correlation between the colour of the lights and the movement of the traffic! In summary, Nairobi traffic is a bit of a nightmare, so it's best to make sure you have a reliable driver and plenty of time if you need to get anywhere on time.

Traffic approaching Nairobi city centre
We got to the Serena Hotel around 5:45pm and after checking in had about an hour to kill before we met for dinner at 7pm.  The Serena is one of Nairobi's top hotels and their dinner buffet was loaded with heaps of great food including pretty good sushi, prawns & lobsters in various forms, roast beef & yorkshire pud that wasn't all dry and boring like so many buffet carveries.  Dinner was also where I drank my first real Tusker, the beer that was to become the taste of Kenya for me.  Technically, I'd already had a Tusker on the flight up, but coming in a can and served in a plastic airline cup it just wasn't the same as the ice cold 500ml bottles of Tusker at the Serena and, later, in the Mara.  Truth be told, Tusker's not outstanding when put up against international competition, but in Kenya, and especially in the bush it's an iconic thirst quencher that can't be beaten.

Camel in the Serena hotel lobby
After dinner there was time to get the local SIM cards activated and tested, and to Skype home using the hotel's free wifi before hitting the sack at a respectable hour.

Ready for more? Next up: Day One.
Read more ...

Friday, 3 June 2011

Why everyone needs their own email domain

Photo credit: Horia Varlan
This post is part of what will ultimately be a series that includes a complete step by step guide to setting up your email from scratch.  Before I dive into that, though, I thought it might be a good idea to spell out why I think everyone should have their own email domain, just in case it isn't self-evident.

An Address for Life
Email providers come and go, and yours will likely change multiple times during your life, but there's no good reason why your email address should have to.  I've just done a quick analysis of the email addresses of my couple of hundred Facebook contacts to see what kind of email addresses they're using.  Now my friends may be somewhat more weighted towards tech-savvy folks than most, but there are still plenty of what I'd consider everyday users amongst them.  Breaking the list down into four broad categories, the results are:

  • Employer's domain: 28%
  • ISP's domain: 16%
  • Web mail provider's domain: 46% (Of those: 59% GMail, 19% Hotmail, 15% Yahoo, 3%
  • Personal domains: 10%

Let's tackle the first two classes of addresses.  If you're in that 44% of my friends, are you expecting to work for the same employer for the rest of your life and never retire, or to use the same ISP for the rest of your life?  I hope not!  That means you're inevitably going to have to change your address at some point in the future, and not just for Facebook but for typically tens to hundreds of sites and organisations that you interact with.  There's just no getting away from it and, in fact, I'd suggest you change your address as soon as possible, but only do it once.

I was actually quite impressed to see how many people rely on free web email providers, and particularly how many of those use GMail.  That's definitely a step in the right direction, but I think they could do better.  Don't get me wrong - I don't think there's anything wrong with GMail - I use and recommend it myself, but I don't ever give out my GMail address directly because I can't guarantee I'll always want to use them.  GMail suits me right now, but let's say Google decided to start charging for GMail, or they reduced the mail storage space they give away for free.  I know it's highly unlikely, but it's possible, and if that scenario or any other that prompted me to want to change email providers arose then I'd hate to be stuck in the same situation as all those people using employers or ISP's domains.

Those final 10% of my friends have done it right - they're using personal email domains that they (or members of their family) own and control.  They, like me, might be using GMail now, but if they want to use another provider, or host their own mail, they can do just that without having to update the email addresses they've given to Facebook, or their bank, or anyone else.

So, the permanence of a personal email domain is the most obvious and important reason to have your own domain, but there are couple of others that spring to mind too:

Spam Control
Spam is here to stay and though everyone's estimates vary widely, I'm inclined to believe those that say that spam accounts for over 90% of all email flowing between mail servers that's certainly true of mine.  Having your own domain isn't going to magically render your inbox free of spam, but coupled with using unique email addresses for each organisation you deal with you can eliminate a good proportion of the worst kind of spam - that which makes it through even really good spam filters like GMail.  GMail is great at killing the typical pharmaceutical spam, and even most of the online banking phishing mails, but when someone sells your address to some small-time South African business who thinks it's OK to buy an email address list and spam them, their volume of spam is generally too low to get caught by GMail, but still high enough to annoy me.  It's also the best defence against phishing, but it's actually worthy of its own post, so I'll save that for later.

Your mates won't care, but if you're using email for business purposes then the email address you choose to use can say a lot about you.  If I was dealing with John Smith, I'd treat mail from and mail from somewhat differently.  Of course if everyone has their own domain then it becomes harder to recognise the dogs, but your choice of address still says something about you.  If you're conflicted about picking john@mysurname.somedomain or then don't sweat it - register both and use each in the appropriate circumstances.

Web Presence
More and more we're all generating content all over the web, whether on Facebook or Flickr or Twitter or blogs or all of the above.  Even if the content remains distributed across multiple sites, using a simple web site with your personal domain to aggregate all the content you want to be associated with is a smart idea.

It's Easier (and Cheaper) than You Thought!
Most people don't even consider registering their own domains because they think it's difficult, or expensive, or just for geeks.  I hope I've made a case for why everyone needs their own domain.  If you disagree (or even agree), let me know through the comments.  In future posts I hope to show that it's a simple enough and cheap (or free) enough for anyone to set up for themselves.
Read more ...

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

How to find your Facebook friends on Twitter

A while ago I was looking for a way to find any of my Facebook friends who are also on Twitter.  A bit of Googling for "How to find your Facebook friends on Twitter" turned up a number of articles from around mid-2010 which suggested that for a while Twitter's Facebook application allowed you to do just that.  Unfortunately, that's no longer the case.

According to an article at, Facebook claimed at the time that they were working with Twitter to resolve the issue, but here we are almost a year later and the friend-finding functionality is still missing from the app.  Whether they'll admit it or not, I think it's fairly likely that Facebook is intentionally making life difficult for Twitter because they'd much rather have you communicating with your friends within the Facebook ecosystem.  Making it easy to connect with your Facebook friends on Twitter is therefore not in Facebook's best interests.

Another suggestion that came up in one of the pages in the results of my Google search was a third-party Facebook app called fb140 which apparently used to find any of your friends who had Twitter handles listed in their Facebook info.  That would have been useful if people bothered to update that info, but lots of my Facebook friends who I know are on Twitter haven't bothered to reflect that in their Facebook info.  Unfortunately, it appears fb140 is dead, so even its limited functionality is no more.

Fortunately, there is still a way to find your Facebook contacts on Twitter, although it's a bit of a roundabout route.  What you need to do is to use an intermediate address book provider to whom you can export your Facebook friends' details, and from whom Twitter will help you find contacts.  Here's the current list of services that Twitter will search for you:

Now the relationship between Google & Facebook is far from great so there doesn't seem to be an easy way to sync directly between Gmail & Facebook, but both Yahoo and Hotmail provide the easy Facebook contact import functionality we want.  AOL and LinkedIn may do too, but since I only need one that works I haven't explored those options.  Given a choice between sharing data with Yahoo or Hotmail, I tend to think Yahoo's the slightly more benign option, so that's what I'll use here.  

Step 1
If you already have a Yahoo account and you want all your Facebook friends in your Yahoo address book, you can obviously use your existing account, but for the sake of clarity let's assume you don't already have an account.  Your first step is to create a Yahoo mail account by visiting and clicking "Create New Account".  Don't worry about the extra email account you're creating - there's no need to use it for anything other than syncing your contacts, so you won't have yet another spam collection point to deal with.  You can bypass some of the sign-up questions by signing in with your Facebook credentials at this stage, but that doesn't automatically import your Facebook contacts into Yahoo, so it's not an automatic win.  It will also add the email address you use for your Facebook account as a secondary address on your new Yahoo account, which you may or may not want.
Step 2
Once you have your new Yahoo account set up, you want click on the Contacts tab, and then the "Import Contacts" button.  Next, click the Facebook icon.  A new window will open prompting you to log in to Facebook if you aren't already logged in, or simply asking if you want to share your contacts with Yahoo if you're already logged in.  Log in if necessary and click OK to allow the sharing.  You'll now have all your Facebook friends listed in your Yahoo contact list along with the email addresses they use for their Facebook accounts.

Step 3
Your next step is to log in to Twitter.  Click on the "Who to Follow" link in Twitter's main navigation, and then the "Find Friends" tabs as shown in the first picture in this post.  Click on the Yahoo button and you'll get a new Yahoo window asking you to sign in (if necessary) and then to authorise sharing of your Yahoo contacts with Twitter. Once you've clicked the "Agree" button, Twitter will take the list of email addresses it got from Yahoo and check to see if they have Twitter accounts.  (Remember Twitter can only find them if they used the same email address to sign up for both Facebook and Twitter, but that's a topic for another day.)  

For most of the people that do have Twitter accounts you'll see their Twitter avatars, bios and the usual Follow button that you'd expect in most Twitter people-search results, but for some of them you'll instead see a message saying "This person is on Twitter, but isn't yet findable by email. Let them know you'd like to follow them."  These are people who've unchecked the "Let others find me by my email address" option in their Twitter account settings.  For them, clicking the Follow button just greys out the button - it's not entirely clear whether clicking it actually lets them know you'd like to follow them or if Twitter expects you to manually email them to ask them.  If you've got an email from Twitter saying I want to follow you, please let me know!

Update after some more investigation:  Anyone who's actively unchecked the "Let others find me by my email address" option in their Twitter account settings will not be found at all.  The people who "aren't yet findable by email" are those that haven't updated their Twitter account settings since the "Let others find me by my email address" option was introduced.  If they visit their settings they'll see the box ticked by default, but until they actually save their settings Twitter's keeping them in a state of limbo where you can see that they have an account, but can't actually follow them directly.  I also confirmed that clicking the Follow button for these people does absolutely nothing.

If you're not sure about your own findability then I'd suggest you visit your Twitter account settings and click Save.  Assuming you're exposing your real name in your Twitter settings, I don't see any point in unchecking the "Let others find me by my email address" option - all you're doing is making it harder for your friends, who already know your email address, to connect with you on Twitter.

Step 4
Now, if you've found this article useful, please help spread the word so your friends can find their friends too.  All it takes is a click on one (or preferably more) of the buttons to the right.  I'd also appreciate your feedback via the comments form below.

Read more ...

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Kirstenbosch pics from 7 & 8 May 2011

Today started out seriously foggy, and ended up seriously smoggy, so these are all pics from last weekend.  A decade and a bit ago when I lived in Durban I used to lament the absence of discernable seasons, but Cape Town has no such problem.  There's a serious chill in the air in the early mornings and evenings, and in this part of the world there are even enough deciduous exotics to give the landscape a hint of orange:

I've very recently decoupled my cameras' auto-focus function from the shutter button and moved it to the dedicated AF-On button under my right thumb.  That puts you in control of when the lens refocuses and avoids a lot of unnecessary focus-hunting which can be hugely beneficial for bird photographers when you're following a little bird flitting through the bushes or hopping through the undergrowth.  It certainly helped with this Cape Robin-Chat:

Ultimately I'm pretty sure I'll stick with the change, but for now it's still not second nature.  I think it's going to take a bunch of practice before muscle memory takes over and I can trust my thumb to do the focus thinking for me.  In the meantime, I'm feeling the pain mostly in those quick spur of the moment shots where my focus has been a bit off, like this could-have-been-stunning Red-winged Starling:

and occasionally I've just totally failed to focus before hitting the shutter, as with this Egyptian Goose dislodging a shower of beautifully backlit water droplets.  Aarrgh!

While I was with the geese I caught this little guy mouthing off to his fellow goslings.  I think I would have preferred the shot without the sibling in front, but there's still something about his attitude that I really enjoyed:

It wasn't only the geese that benefitted from back-lighting.  These Erica glandulosa were glowing like little out of season Christmas lights:

Fortunately the light wasn't all harsh, and when I was facing the right way there was stunning blue sky to be had as a backdrop.  This vaguely Triffidesque beast is a Balloon Milkweed:

One of the great things about Kirstenbosch is that there's pretty much always something in fruit or flower or seed to keep the birds happy.  I didn't note the variety of grass, but this one's seeds are currently a magnet for little seedeaters like these Swee Waxbills (first Mr Swee, then Mrs Swee):

And sometimes background flowers just provide bokeh of an unexpected hue, although I'm not sure that purple realy works as a backdrop for this Karoo Prinia:

Heading up the hill towards the Erica gardens we came across a Cape Spurfowl crossing the lawn.  I find their strongly patterned plumage tends to present a challenge for auto-focus (Guineafowl are even worse) but I seem to have nailed it this time.  I like the attitude in the slightly raised crest and the spur prominently on display.  That actually helps me accept their renaming from Francolins to Spurfowl - there's nothing subtle about that weapon.

One of the birds that's quite easy to get close to at Kirstenbosch is the African Dusky Flycatcher.  For a couple of seconds at a time, between flights to earn their family name, they're happy to sit relatively close to you, but you have to act fast if you want to get the shot.  By the time I'd repositioned myself by the couple of centimetres it would have taken to get a more consistently bright or dim background this youngster (note the still prominently yellow gape) had flitted off.  If I'd been alone I might have waited for him to return, but that's generally not an option when I'm accompanied by my own hatchlings.

This adult landed right next to me.  So close, in fact, that I think I had to step back to get to the Bigma's minimum focussing distance.  This is a very nearly full frame shot:

and if you look at this original size crop from an adjacent exposure you can see the lawn, sky, me, and even my shadow reflected in the bird's eye.  This bird's only about 13cm long, and I'd guess that its eye diameter is around 4 or 5mm, so even on a tiny smartphone screen this is likely to be larger than life:

There were also quite a few Forest Canaries about, but none of them well positioned.  The first of these two was high above me against a bright sky, while the second stayed close for quite a while, but the only time it emerged into the open was for a few seconds atop this super-bright white rock.

And, finally, here's a sub-adult male Orange-breasted Sunbird, with just tiny flecks of the iridescence that'll make him such a pain to photograph when he's older:

Read more ...