Recently, I went over to my friend Dylan Vasapolli’s house. He lives in the far, far south of Jo’burg (more like in the northern Free State), and I had to refuel on the way there. Anyways, we spent the day clumsily skinning a dead Barn Owl (which I intend to use on my occasional talks to schools etc.). We used the hand not covered in owl guts to sip some beers as we worked. In the background, we were transferring photos from Vas’s computer to my hard drive. Dylan had very kindly agreed that I may use his images on my blog, for talks and elsewhere – thanksĀ  buddy! The only catch was that his pictures were not labeled, so I ended up spending the first week after moving into the new house in Langebaan, renaming photos. A tedious job, but it did force me to practice a lot of identification. But at the end of the day, having worked through almost 5000 pictures, I am simply blown away by the quality and range of Dylan’s images. So as my way of saying thank you, I give you my favourite Dylan Vasapolli pictures. Enjoy. By the way, the pretentious abstract names are my doing, not Dylan’s :)

After the storm

A wet and bedraggled Western Banded Snake Eagle in Malawi. I just love the atmosphere of this image…with one or two small glistening drops suggesting that a storm had recently passed. A nice touch is the millipede climbing across the soaked tree bark, quite oblivious to the ferocious (but currently rather dejected-looking) predator above itA wet and bedraggled Western Banded Snake Eagle in Malawi. I just love the atmosphere of this image…with one or two small glistening drops suggesting that a storm had recently passed. A nice touch is the millipede climbing across the soaked tree bark, quite oblivious to the ferocious (but currently rather dejected-looking) predator above it. The out-of-focus trees in the background may be indigenous palms – typical of the tropical riverine habitat of this sought-after eagle. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Atlantic abundance

On a pelagic trip south of Cape Town, Dylan came upon this pod of Long-beaked Common Dolphins, with a mass of Cory’s Shearwaters in attendance. Shearwaters are known to follow pods of dolphins…when the mammals corral fish into a tight ball just below the surface, the fish come within reach of the birds. However, the shearwaters appear to eat mainly scrap pieces of fish and are probably of little competition the dolphins. What a magical experience! By the way, you can read an excellent article on the separation of Cory’s Shearwater and Scopoli’s Shearwater here…authored by the man himself. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Feeling blue

This magnificent creature is a Blue Dacnis, Dacnis cayana, which Dylan photographed in Panama. The alternative name Turquoise Honeycreeper is misleading, as this species is not a honeycreeper but instead a member of the Tanager family. This is a social species (note the second bird just visible on the right – a female), which gleans insects and forages for fruit in forest and woodland habitats. Males are spectacular blue with a dark throat and mask, but females are predominantly green with a blue head. I love the blue on blue of this image – would make a nice wallpaper on your PC to inspire you on blue days! Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Dream

Vas seems to have an inexhaustible supply of sheer luck. In this case, he came across this roosting female African Finfoot on the Zambezi River in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. He was there to twitch a pair of Yellow-throated Leafloves which had recently been discovered breeding in the gardens of a safari lodge – a new species for the Southern African subregion. Not only it this an incredible image of an elusive and generally rare species, but it has an intimacy and sense of connection that I’m sure instilled a lifelong memory for the photographer – hey Vas? I also love the duality of the one side of the bird’s face being illuminated and the other side in total darkness. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Haunted

Not all bird images always have to be close-up portraits. While birding on the high-altitude grasslands of the Nyika Plateau in northern Malawi, this aptly named Pallid Harrier materialized over an area of bracken ferns. Presented here at a wider scale, uncropped, I think this image of Dylan’s creates a powerful vision and spooky atmosphere, with the ghostly male harrier levitating over the vegetation in eerie silence. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Life in Africa

For many years, the exquisite little Bohm’s Bee-eater Merops boehmi, was considered locally extinct in the Southern African region, which is traditionally defined as the area south of the Zambezi River. Historically there were some records from central Mozambique before a civil war broke out and halted access into that country; after the war ended, the race was on to rediscover Bohm’s in the region. There were some records from the north bank of the Zambezi in 2001, and then a transient sighting from Gorongosa National Park. Then, finally, a family party was discovered that seemed to be hanging around, at Sena on the Zambezi (incidentally, probably the hottest place on the planet). Many birders have since made the pilgrimage to go and see these charming aerial insectivores, myself included. This vibrant yet earthy colours of this image speak of Africa in the rainy season. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Boom!

In birding, there is nothing more exciting that “flushing” some rare bird from a tropical wetland. The Eurasian Bittern, Botaurus stellaris, of the Afrotropical subspecies capensis, is a seldom-seen wetland denizen. The species was formerly widespread in Southern Africa, with breeding records from the Western Cape and central South Africa. There are still one or two Bittern records from isolated marshes and wetlands that have escaped degradation, but most birders now connect with the species on Mozambique’s coastal plain. Dylan described how the birds’ loud booming carried over the wetland where he was encamped that night. When this bird went up, he was ready. Completing the picture here is a dragonfly that happened to be in the background – almost creating the illusion that the bittern is hunting this fast-flying insect on the wing! The bird has bright turquoise-blue colouration around its bill, which is presumably an indication of active courtship and breeding activities. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Seeing things from a new angle

Sometimes a change of perspective can set things in a whole new light. Metaphorically, this Black-and-yellow Tanager, Chrysothlypis chrysomelas, from Panama embodies this statement for me. This gorgeous bird is the sole member of its monospecific genus, and is quite a special find: it has a limited distribution range in Central America, from Costa Rica to Panama. The creative angle of this image is intriguingly disorientating, with the radiating spokes of the plant completing a perfect composition. The many insect-damage holes in the leaf surfaces, with just a hint of the blue sky beyond, completes the picture. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Come rain or shine

Sharing a few minutes of your life with a trogon, is time you couldn’t spend any better. Despite their colouring book plumage, colourful bill and cheek patches, and long flashy tails, these phantoms simply vanish into the forest gloom. This is achieved partly through their habitat of turning their green backs to the observer, thus hiding the bulk of their explosive colours, and sitting perfectly still for many minutes on end. This species is a male of the range-restricted Bar-tailed Trogon Apoloderma vittatum, photographed in Malawi. If you look closely you might notice some streaks of rain blurring past the bird – an accompanying video shows a steady drizzle. I also love how the bird is partly obscured by some vegetation in the immediate foreground. I can just picture how Dylan crept through the undergrowth, soaked in rain, and eventually found a gap through the branches to fire off this shot. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Dinosaur on the hunt

Now and then a bird will adopt a pose or exhibit a behaviour that betrays its dinosaurian lineage. To me this image of a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Neomorphus geoffroyi, immediately conjures up such thoughts. One could easily imagine this beast stalking through peat bogs or cycad forests in the Cretaceous. The scale also enforces this – presumably this is a rather small scorpion, but it makes the bird look positive massive. A hulking vicious predator stalking through the dark undergrowth. Dylan took this image in Panama, in January 2016. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Walking on water

Dylan admits that he has a soft spot for pelagic species. Fortunately he frequently gets opportunities to photograph these threatened oceanic scavengers when guiding clients on seabird trips from Cape Town. This gorgeous adult Shy Albatross seemingly lives up to its name…taking flight upon the approach of the boat…by laboriously running across the water until airborne. This perfectly timed, low-angle shot is not only dynamic and action-packed, but the splash of yellow on the bird’s bill-tip provides just the right amount of focus. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Magnificent Magnolia

The Magnolia Warbler, Setophaga magnolia is a member of the New World’s wood-warbler family, Parulidae. These birds are not related to the various Old World ‘warbler’ families such as the Sylviidae, Acrocephalidae, Locustellidae and Phylloscopidae. This is probably not much of a surprise – whereas our warblers are drab to the point of anonymity, breeding male wood-warblers are heart-stoppingly beautiful. Dylan returned from a trip to Ohio with a whole memory card full of species: Magnolia, Black-burnian, Black and white, Cape May, Chestnut-sided, Hooded, Nashville, Orange-crowned, Palm, Blue-winged, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Bay-breasted, Yellow, Wilson’s and even the rare Kirtland’s. Not bad Vas, not bad at all. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Old man’s beard

This stringy green plant is a lichen called “Old man’s beard” for obvious reasons; it is in the genus Usnea and the family Parmeliaceae. Around the small village of Panda in southern Mozambique, the small pockets of remaining miombo woodland are absolutely festooned in the stuff. And therefore the isolated population of Olive-headed Weaver, which builds its next exclusively of these lichens. It would seem that this is also the case in this Neergaard’s Sunbird, Cinnyris neergaardi, a very localised coastal plain endemic. Because the entire nest is constructed of living lichens, it is essentially invisible. Impressive spotting Dylan! Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Freefall

The sought-after Racket-tailed Roller Coracias spatulatus can be difficult to track down in its mature woodland habitat. These rollers are far less conspicuous than most of their congeners, and tend to perch quietly inside the canopy instead of on wires and exposed dead twigs. However, when they start displaying, that all changes. As demonstrated here, the birds perform impressive aerial maneuvers: it flaps upwards, calling loudly, then stalls and performs a death-defying downward nosedive only to level out and then change to the “rolling” flight after which these birds are named. This one was photographed in central Mozambique. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

Dylan Vasapolli, affectionately known as “Vas” by his friends is an all-round great guy. His passion for birds and birding, and his general energetic and enthusiastic approach to life, is contagious. He’s a phenomenal field birder, certainly one of the sharpest birders I’ve ever met, with machine-like reflexes and senses. I’ve had the privilege of doing a number of trips with him – including staring at a cliff for four-and-a-half hours in the hope of a Ruppell’s Vulture appearing (it did, eventually). Dylan has decided to make birding his profession, and now guides tours throughout South Africa and neighbouring countries for Birding Ecotours. Dylan’s motto is “If you bird, you will see stuff” – truer words have never been spoken. If you don’t put in the work (getting up early, driving, walking through the bush etc.), you simply won’t see as much. The results are proportional to the effort. Inspirational words! In fact, you’ll see them quoted on the bottom left of my website. You can read an interview with Dylan here.