An example from Elephant Plains, August 2015 – ODP Safaris

“Really? Which pride? Hmmmm… What’s ‘vis’ like?”

Visibility is often a deciding factor when we have to make a decision on whether or not to follow up on a sighting that another ranger has called in in the Sabi Sands.

“Five out of five as a regular sighting or five out of five for photography?” Louis, our ranger, asks the ranger who called in the sighting. He wants to make 100% sure that we’re not wasting our time driving across the whole concession to photograph the Nkuhuma lion pride. He knows that my six clients and I have little interest photographing sleeping lions, even if they are lying in the open. We’re looking for action, good light, and all the other things that make for great wildlife photographs.

So how do you rate a sighting? Does a pile of comatose lions lying in the middle of an open patch of dirt deserve a five out of five, or do they lose points for being in dreamland?

My system

Five never seems to be enough to cover the many different influential factors, so I rate sightings out of ten.

 

These are the ten factors I consider when rating a sighting:

Visibility – This is an obvious one. We all want to see the leopard or lion clearly. So, if it’s hiding in tall grass or has its face obscured by a termite mound, it gets a zero. To score the point, it has to be completely (or at least mostly) in the open.

Proximity – It’s one thing if the animal is in the open, but if it’s still the size of a pea when you look at it through a pair of binoculars, it’s not particularly exciting. To score a point for proximity, the animal has to be clearly visible with the naked eye, allowing you to count the ticks on its ears through your Bushnells.

Numbers – Bigger is usually better, but numbers usually trump size. Just ask a male lion surrounded by twelve angry hyenas! If a sighting consists of a herd, pack or pride as opposed to a single individual, it scores an extra point.

Action – This is where lions seldom come to the party. Only once they start yawning, stretching or cleaning themselves do I consider awarding them a point for action. Elephants and baboons on the other hand, seldom disappoint in this department, because they are always busy feeding or playing.

Intra-specific Interaction – A sighting can only score this point if it has already scored for both Numbers and Action, for Intra-specific Interaction refers to social behaviour between members of the same species. We’re talking necking giraffes, mating lions or even something as simple as rutting impalas clashing horns.

Inter-specific Interaction – This is rare and refers to interaction between different species, for example, a cheetah chasing down a springbok or a crocodile launching itself out of the water to catch an unsuspecting kudu. It doesn’t have to be a hunt or kill, though. A young elephant bull chasing away a pair of Egyptian geese from a waterhole also counts.

Vocalisation – Most nature lovers will agree that the grunt of a hippo or the classic bushveld call of a fiery-necked nightjar releases the same happy juices that the sight of a black-maned lion does, and therefore I award a point for any sighting that includes animal noises.

Longevity – A pair of cheetahs dashing across the road right in front of you, hot on the heels of a flying impala, easily scores points for Visibility, Proximity, Numbers, Action, Inter-specific Interaction and possibly even Vocalisation if the antelope sounds the alarm while it’s being pursued. But I’m sure you’ll agree, if it’s over in a split second, it leaves you empty and longing for more. So in order to climb the ladder to a perfect ten, the sighting has to last more than ten minutes at least.

Light – This is where the photographer in me starts judging. I’m looking for gorgeous golden light or striking backlight. If it’s flat or harsh, it won’t score a point.

Photographic Opportunities – Finally, I look at how many good photo opportunities I get at the sighting. Take Salayexe and her cub, two of Elephant Plains’ most relaxed leopards, for example: On a couple of our drives in August we were parked right next to them, but because of various factors (poor light, lots of movement and lots of obstructions) we just couldn’t get good photos on those occasions. To score a point, I need some money shots!

Here’s an example of my favourite sighting during our August 2015 safaris at Elephant Plains: 

 

We followed a herd of 500-odd buffalo when a pride of lions suddenly appeared out of nowhere, attacking the older individuals at the back of the herd. But the buffalo had other plans! The strongest bulls, and even some of the brave cows, formed an impenetrable wall and fought back, preventing the cats from reaching the young and the weak. The action lasted from 07:03 to 08:49, right in front of us!

It’s easy to see why this sighting scored a solid ten out of ten!

PS: We’d love to hear how you rate sightings when you’re on safari. Take a moment to leave a comment below…

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