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Jackals are famously adaptable predators, but a few individuals in the South African Kalahari Desert have taken it to a new level with a rather unusual hunting technique: they snatch doves out of the air in mid-flight! If you’re a fan of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa, then you’ve probably already heard of the famous jackals who hunt doves at the Cubitje Quap waterhole 10 kilometers north of Nossob Camp. But you probably didn’t realize that another group of jackals have developed the same skill at an even easier-to-reach location: right in Nossob Rest Camp at the waterhole hide!
We spent several days camping at Nossob and instead of charging out for a drive at sunrise like most campers, we lingered and waited to see what happened. We were practically alone at the waterhole blind and discovered, to our amazement, that two jackals were perfecting their dove-hunting skills right in front of our eyes. Here is a break-down of what’s happening, how to see it, and how to get some awesome photos of these incredible jumping jackals.
Where & When to See the Jumping Jackals
Where: That’s an easy one. Just stroll over to the bird hide overlooking the waterhole at Nossob Camp (in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa) directly across from the reception building. It is a large structure with several benches inside and a long horizontal opening through which to watch the waterhole. If you want to see a live view of this waterhole you can check out the Nossob webcam on the SANparks website. The Nossob webcam shoots right from this blind!
When: The best time is from sunrise until about 3 hours later. We visited in January when the sun rises around 6 AM. As soon as the sky begins to brighten, the Cape Turtle Doves start to gather at the waterhole. By around 6:30 there are many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, circling noisily with fluttering wings and twittering calls. They fill the trees around the waterhole and weigh down the branches with their great numbers.
Then they all take turns nervously alighting at the edge of the water to drink.
If you stick around for a couple hours you will see a few of the smaller Namaqua Doves begin to arrive, followed by large flocks of Burchell’s Sandgrouse.
Many jackals will come and go the entire time but if you are lucky, you will catch the special pair that we’ve seen several mornings in a row.
Jackal Hunting Techniques
Of course we don’t know if these are the same individuals who work the Cubitje Quap waterhole, or perhaps offspring or relatives who have learned the technique from the original dove hunters. But it would be fascinating to study how this hunting method is being passed on.
The jackals we watched had two basic techniques. One was a jumper and the other a pouncer. Of the two, Pouncer was far more successful but Jumper was a lot more entertaining to watch. Here’s how it works.
Jumper. One jackal, the jumper, was working hard to perfect his leap-and-grab technique. Jumper usually lies to the left of the waterhole near the tree that holds the spotlight.
Since I’m not sure of the sexes I’ll call this one a he and the other a she. Jumper waits several minutes for a group of doves to collect along the near edge of the waterhole. Then he wiggles his butt as he gets his rear feet into position for a run. He charges forward and leaps off the concrete edge of the waterhole with his mouth open, throwing his head in various directions and sometimes snapping twice in a single leap!
We watched at least fifteen attempts but the best he managed was a mouthful of tail feathers. It was definitely close enough that he considered it worth trying over and over again.
Pouncer. The other jackal was a little more calm and collected. Pouncer bides her time and waits at the back of the waterhole ducking down behind the high concrete edge and peeking over to see what birds are arriving. Then she explodes over the edge and dives down onto unsuspecting doves, sometimes pinning them right down into the water. We watched her successfully catch a Cape Turtle Dove with this technique!
But even more effective was a surprise-attack/pounce variation. Pouncer and Jumper would both trot away into the river bed as if they were leaving, but a minute later they would stop to look back and watch the flock circle and land at the water again. Then Pouncer would charge back in toward the waterhole using two trees for cover, dive over the same high edge and pounce on any unsuspecting birds she might encounter there. This method worked twice and surprised all of us each time (including the birds)! The first time she caught a Cape Turtle Dove and the second a Namaqua Dove.
Neither jackal was successful at catching a Sandgrouse though they tried many times.
How to Photograph the Jumping Jackals (Camera Gear, Settings, & Shooting)
While the jackals were perfecting their techniques for catching doves, I was perfecting my techniques for capturing the action. Here’s what worked for me.
After trying several lenses, I found that the best lens was a 100-400mm zoom. I use the Canon 100-400 mm lens. In my experience, a super telephoto (a 500mm in my case) was too long to capture all the action in the frame. My best results were at focal lengths of about 200mm. A zoom lens like this is great for trying out a few different focal lengths: wider to see the huge explosion of birds, narrower to catch some more detail.
The camera body you use can also effect your success rate. I’m still shooting an older Canon EOS T3i but to get my best results I snagged Cristina’s new camera, a Canon EOS 80D. This one has a much higher frame rate (7 frames per second) and a sensor that performs better at high ISO settings. Why would you want to use a higher ISO when shooting in direct sunlight? Because you can use it to leverage a faster shutter speed and a smaller aperture and increase your chances of getting a sharp photo.
There are two ways to go about this. You can use manual settings until you find the perfect combination and then stick with it. Or you can use some of the auto exposure settings and experiment within them, which is what I chose to do, mainly because light levels are changing constantly as the sun rises and shadows come and go. For Canon cameras the three most commonly used auto exposure modes are P (full program mode) Av (Aperture priority) and Tv (Shutter priority). I spent most of my time between Av and Tv trying different apertures and shutter speeds, all the while adjusting my ISO to make them work.
Shutter Speed. In order to freeze the intense action of flying jackals, snapping jaws, and fluttering wings, a high shutter speed is critical. If you want to fully stop this action you need a shutter speed of at least 1/3000 of a second. The frame below was shot with a shutter speed of 1/3200 of a second and you can see it does a pretty decent job of freezing doves in flight and the water drops in the air.
A shutter speed of 1/5000 works even better but with fast flyers like the sandgrouse you might still get a tiny bit of a blur.
If you intentionally want to blur the wings to give a sense of motion, you can drop it to around 1/640 of a second. As you can see in the frame below, this shutter speed is far too slow to freeze the doves in flight but still manages to do a decent job of stopping the jackal at the peak of his leap.
Depth of Field and Focus. The second important goal is to get your subject in focus. Because you never know exactly where the jackal will be at the peak of action, it is helpful to use the smallest aperture (ie. the highest f-stop number and therefore the deepest depth of field) that you can get away with while maintaining the necessary shutter speed. For me that meant apertures between f/5.6 and f/8.0. But in order to pull off a combination of super high shutter speed and somewhat small aperture, I needed to use a high ISO, which is where newer cameras like the 80D come in handy. The 80D sensor is much better at reducing noise at higher ISO’s. If you’re shooting for print, you may not want the image noise levels associated with using higher ISO settings, but if you’re primarily shooting for the web like me, it is surprisingly tolerable up to levels even as high as 1600 ISO.
If you feel pretty confident about your focus point, then you can open your aperture all the way up to its maximum and get away with a lower ISO, but you’ll have to deal with a lower depth of field and a lower chance of having the jackal at critical focus. See ‘shooting’ below for tips on setting your focus point.
Frame Rate. Next, set your camera to a high frame rate so you are shooting the most frames per second that your camera can handle. That gives you the best chance of finding one with a good composition amidst the chaos.
Exposure Adjustment. Finally, if you’re using an auto exposure mode like shutter priority, you may want to use your exposure adjustment setting to crank it up about 2/3 of a stop. In this location you will be shooting toward the rising sun, which is great for rim lighting, but it can also cause your subject to look a bit too dark. If you want to catch details on jackal’s faces and bird feathers, over-exposing just a bit can be helpful. Now it’s time to shoot!
Getting the right focus point is the biggest challenge. I recommend using basic spot focusing (like you probably do most of the time) and focusing on the exact spot where you expect the peak of the jackal action is likely to occur.
Focus on some doves at the edge of the waterhole, keep your shutter button down half way to hold that focus point, and then pan over to watch your jackal of interest. These waiting periods might kill your batteries quickly, especially if you have the stabilizer on your lens engaged (which probably isn’t necessary at these high shutter speeds.) But now it’s time to be patient. Watch for signs that the jackal is getting ready to make a run. A butt-wiggle is a dead giveaway. This occurs when the jackal is aligning its rear legs under its body in preparation for a run. Another is ear posture. They tend to lean them backward as they are preparing for an attack. Finally watch for a general tensing of the muscles and an intense steady look in the eyes. If you see these things, get ready for action!
At the first sign of motion, press the shutter release all the way down and keep it down to shoot as many frames as your camera can manage. Follow the jackal through the leap and try to frame the waterhole at the very bottom of the frame because you never know just how high he’ll leap! Why not just use manual focus? Because you may be alternating between two different jackals (they often take turns) and watching for signs of who will jump next. Using auto focus allows you to focus on one of your two peak action points quickly and then pan back to that jackal to wait for action.
Tips & Techniques
Manual settings. Based on my results using auto exposure settings, I would recommend the following as a good starting point if you want to try manual settings and a similar lens/body setup to what I was using (Canon 80D and 100-400mm zoom lens). As the sun rises higher your can try faster shutter speeds and smaller apertures.
Shutter Speed: 1/3200
Frame Rate: 7 fps
Focus Mode: Auto
Focal Length: 200mm
Shooting from the blind has its own set of challenges. The opening can be just a little too high above the shelf for a good elbow prop, and the bench can seem just a little too low for looking comfortably through your viewfinder without stretching your neck like a giraffe. I brought a bean bag with me but found it more useful under my butt to raise me up than for supporting my camera. Then I could hand-hold my camera with my elbows on the shelf. If this gets too tiring, you can try leaning your camera on the edge of the opening.
If you want to shoot video, another good option is to set up your tripod where there isn’t a bench and to stand watching your screen.
Shoot with the highest frame rate your camera is capable of (60 fps at full HD in the case of the 80D) so that you can slow it down during editing to see the action better. As with still photos, you can crank up the ISO to allow higher shutter speeds and smaller apertures. Higher ISO noise tends to be even less noticeable in video than in photos so don’t be afraid to use it! Use the same focus technique as above, by pre-focusing where you believe the peak action will be.
Ta-daa! You’re ready to photograph the jumping jackals of Nossob! Be sure to take a quick look through your shots after each jump to see what’s working. It also gives you a chance to whisper WHOOOOAH! and show off your best frames to your partner.
This whole process can last for hours and may just be the most fun you ever have at a waterhole!