The three crane species that call South Africa home beguile with their beauty, but they have a vital message to share. If these birds disappear due to vanishing habitat, we all face a difficult time. Photographer Daniel Dolpire spent five years photographing cranes to document our precious wetlands.
In spring 2013, photographer Daniel Dolpire embarked on a journey to photograph South Africa’s three crane species: blue, wattled and grey crowned crane. Little did he know it would take him five years to photograph these birds and tell their story.
In The Sentinels, a 168-page coffee-table book, Daniel brings together intimate photographs of cranes as they travel, feed, breed and raise chicks. “It’s been an amazing personal journey,” he says of the project that saw him criss-crossing the country. A map in the book highlights the best places and times of year to see cranes in South Africa.
Daniel shares some of his most treasured photographs with Wild.
What is it about cranes that you find so captivating?
There is so much about cranes that make them fascinating and charming subjects. They are some of the most stately and spectacular of all birds. They boast striking plumage and their acrobatic dancing is a joy to witness. And then there’s that trumpeting call… such an evocative sound.
All three crane species are worth paying attention to. The blue crane is South Africa’s national bird and is found virtually nowhere else in the world. The majestic wattled crane is among the most endangered birds in the country. Perhaps the most beautiful of all, the grey crowned crane seems to be decreasing even faster than the other two.
What did it take to get the photographs?
Firstly there is the issue of the golden hour. The best images are taken in the early morning and late afternoon. But cranes leave their roost sites before the sun comes up and return only after sunset.
To track down and photograph these special birds at locations other than roost sites, I travelled thousands of kilometres across South Africa. The great difficulty is that cranes don’t let you get close to them. When I stopped the vehicle, the birds would be 75-100m away. But by the time I had my camera ready, they’d already moved 200m away!
The only way to get close enough was to make use of hides. My first one was made of plumbing poles and hay bales, and perched on the edge of a wetland.
Why “The Sentinels”? What does the title of the book mean to you?
Just like a sentinel keeps guard and provides early warning of danger, cranes are indicator species for the threatened habitats they live in. Wattled and grey crowned cranes live in wetlands in the eastern half of South Africa, but they are not the only ones who rely on this environment. All living things, humans included, depend on water, so it’s vital to restore and protect these habitats.
Perhaps more than any other living creatures, cranes evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water and air upon which their species – and ours, too, though we learn it very late – must ultimately depend for survival. – Peter Matthiessen