Written by: Zach Vincent
I found out about blue swallow research from the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology where I completed my masters in 2008. They put me in touch with Dr Ian Little and we tried to set up a shoot to photograph the critically endangered blue swallow, one of South Africa’s rarest bird with only 35 pairs remaining.
It was tricky as bad weather had plagued the midlands and we really had very little hope of finding swallows on nests. Apparently there were only about four pairs around and as we all know with nature that great footage and sightings are never, ever guaranteed. I really wanted to cover the story as my main passion is extinction prevention, and identifying and broadcasting the causes of population declines in species.
A number of causes for the plight of the blue swallow are not unique to this species but are shared with other endangered grassland animals, such as the Oribi, a small antelope. Habitat loss and degradation are huge factors with the blue swallows and the tiny swallows are now described as an ‘island species’, searching for decent natural habitat amongst a sea of degraded hill tops, planted with pine for paper and maize for the beef industry.
We decided to go ahead with the shoot regardless. I had a two day window in which to shoot, where all the relevant parties could contribute. On our first day we did nest checks on private lands, including a Buddhist retreat and a dairy farm. We managed to find a fresh aardvark hole at the first site, which is great as the swallows use these burrows to build their nests underground. At the dairy farm we caught glimpses of a nesting pair making a second breeding attempt (blue swallows can parent more than one clutch of eggs per season).
I knew that this was no easy animal to film, but I had no idea of how difficult it would be: they are tiny! Little metallic blue birds become black spots in a viewfinder and they dart up and down, moving speedily, capturing their prey of flying insects.
At Impendle Nature Reserve, at our last stop for the day, the officer on duty climbed down into the darkness of a sinkhole and inspected a nest. The next second we heard him say, “There are 3 eggs, there is movement, I think one egg is in the process of hatching!”
Needless to say my cinematographic nerves began a rattle and hum and I was down the hole in seconds with a Gopro and a failing camera light (Murphy’s law!). Luckily I managed, in the subterranean darkness to get a few seconds of the hatching. It really was very special and beautiful, to see a critically endangered species emerging from it’s little shell throwing all of it’s tiny energy reserves into getting out out its egg and into life. There it was, dancing and writhing donning a perfect little shelmet (helmet + shell).
We didn’t stay long, we didn’t want to cause any unnecessary disturbance but the moment was captured, albeit a bit rough. I wanted to etch the species into the consciousness of the South African community, giving it a presence and character. This connection with the audience could save it from extinction as the community not only takes “ownership” of an indigenous species but feels connected to it and so less likely to brush it aside.
I really hope that enough people are touched by my work and that they mobilise themselves to contribute to the conservation and protection of this planet’s wonderful and breathtaking biodiversity.
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