NEWSLETTERS

Birding Balgowan
ISSUE 15 | September 2021

Eileen, Joshua and I shared our first anniversary in the Natal Midlands at the end of August. It is hard to believe that we have been away from Johannesburg for an entire year already! One of the many reasons for moving to the area was to be closer to nature and to walk out our front door and be immersed in it. Being outdoors has always been a tonic for our souls and besides being a great stress reliever, I had hoped that it would give me more opportunities to pursue my passion for wildlife photography and inspire more creativity in it.

In this regards, our beautiful home in Balgowan has been an incredible blessing and has over-delivered! Every day I wake up and am so thankful for where we are and the quality of life we enjoy.

To celebrate the last 12 months, I thought I would use this newsletter to provide an overview of some of my favourite birding and photographic moments, as well as the stories, thoughts and techniques behind the shots. All the images were taken within five kilometres of my front door and the majority within my extended “garden” on our estate. The estate has a mixture of habitats; including Afromontane forest, grasslands, dams, wetlands, streams and well-wooded areas, making for a great diversity of species and many environments in which to photograph. To date I have seen 152 species; the most exciting being Red-chested Flufftail, White-starred Robin, Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Crowned Eagle, White-starred Robin, Bush Blackcap, Black Sparrowhawk, African Marsh Harrier, Black Cuckoo, Klaas’s Cuckoo, South African Shelduck, Half-collared Kingfisher, Grey-crowned Crane, Little Bittern, Lemon Dove, African Rail and Red-fronted Tinkerbird.

I hope you enjoy the images and stories of this magical place, which we now call home.

THE STORY BEHIND THE SHOT
Birding Balgowan

What better way to kick things off than with a family of birds that the Natal Midlands is famous for; Cranes. The area boasts all three of South Africa’s cranes; Grey-crowned, Wattled and Blue, all of which come here to breed in the winter months.

“Low Key” Fashion Parade

“Fashion Parade” ~ Four Grey-crowned Cranes parade their stuff around my home estate near Balgowan, Natal Midlands, South Africa.

Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/6400s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

This image of four Grey-crowned Cranes was taken on one of my many early morning walks around our estate. I couldn’t believe my luck when the family of four landed right in front of me. After moving very slowly towards them, I lay down flat and just watched them forage and interact with each other.

At one point the four were bunched together, crossing a dark patch of trees with the sun behind them. I knew this would make for some arty, “low key” images and took as many frames as I could while they moved across this moody background. This photograph definitely sits within the “creative imagery” category as I used post processing to get the look I was after, using levels to blacken out the background and increasing the saturation and highlights to accentuate the bird’s beautiful colours.

Thanks so much to William Steel for giving me some great ideas on which images to select and how to best crop and post process them! William and I have spent 2021 sharing our images and stories with each other; with the goal of learning from and encouraging one another as well as stimulating creativity and improvement in our work. I can really recommend this type of constructive input, as it has been a ton of fun and has definitely pushed me to think differently about my photography and appreciate different styles and approaches.

“Two Crowns” ~ A pair of magnificent Grey-crowned cranes pose against a dark, backlit background near Balgowan, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Moody, Misty Mornings:

The Natal Midlands is also known for misty mornings, where cold conditions and beautiful winter light combine with wetlands, dams and small streams to create moody, photographic conditions.

The below image of a Black-headed Heron captures the magic of these mornings and was taken just as the sun started to rise over the estate.

“Morning Mist” ~ A Black-headed Heron stands motionless as the sun rises over our estate’s main dam near Balgowan, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 6400 | 1/3200s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

I hardly ever use man-made structures in my images, but I made an exception in this case, as I liked how the pier created leading lines that drew my eye to the Heron. The grey, misty conditions, the beautiful glow of the sun in the water, the pier’s reflection and the stark white neck of the Heron provided interest and intrigue, and encouraged me to walk around the scene, trying different compositions, until I found a frame that appealed to me.

As I continue to grow in my photography, I am conscious of not boxing myself into a specific mold or type of image. As much as I know what I love and will continue shooting my specific “Habitat Shot” images, I love experimenting and looking for different ways to show off Africa’s incredible birdlife and their unique environments.

Widowbird Creativity:

The grasslands around our home teem with Fan-tailed and Red-collared Widowbirds in summer. The birds are constantly flying up and down and displaying to nearby females that share their territories.

This allowed me to spend some quality time with them and push to get images with a difference. Although this project is very much a work in progress, as I failed with a few concepts, I was happy with the below “high key” image of a Red-collared Widowbird in full display mode. Hopefully with summer arriving I will have more time to achieve some of my other objectives with these spectacular birds.

“The Floating Widow” ~ A Red-collared Widowbird displays against an overcast sky on a grassy hill above our house. The cloudy conditions and increasing the exposure on my Canon R5 made for a striking “high key” image.

Short-listed in Bird Photographer of the Year 2021

Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/8000s | f5.6 | Spot Metering | Exp bias +0.2 | no Flash

For the above image, I purposefully went out mid-morning on a cloudy day to track down one of the local males. I used spot metering and over-exposed the image in the hope that the conditions and settings would give me the contrast I was looking for. I also used a high ISO to freeze the action and capture the bird in a typical, flight pose.

For more on photographing Widowbirds, Issue 12 – Improving your Widowbird Shots was dedicated to these awesome photographic subjects.

“Fairyland” ~ This is one of the concepts I have been working on with these exquisite Widowbirds. Based on the right timing and light conditions, one of the reedbeds close to my house creates an incredible bokeh behind flying birds. It looks like something out of fairyland! I am hoping to get a few more images in this style and specifically one with a more stereotypical display pose and light shining through the wings. Wish me luck, as this one is not for the faint-hearted!

Sunbirds and Sylvias:

One of the attractions of the Natal Midlands is that you are surrounded by magnificent farmlands and the wonderful farmers that reside on them. In our case, we even have ex-Protea farmers; Mark and Patty, living next-door to us. And yes, they have a garden full of amazing Proteas! One of my favourites is the Protea Sylvia, so when I noticed a stunning, male Malachite Sunbird visiting a patch of them, I knew I had to stake out Mark and Patty’s garden and hope for the best.

“Sunbird & Sylvia” ~ A magnificent Malachite Sunbird perches on a Protea Sylvia in my neighbour’s garden near Balgowan, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

“Set up” photography; whether you select to use natural perches or artificial ones, is an excellent way to achieve standout portraits. Issue 3 – Spots and Perches unpacks this approach in more detail. In this case, I identified a Protea Sylvia with a beautiful background and hid myself beneath a tree on the boundary line of the garden. All that was left to do was wait, and wait I did, until this exquisite, male Malachite Sunbird landed on my chosen perch and posed for the camera.

It is hard to beat a bright green bird on a beautiful Protea; with all its shades of pink and orange!

“Among the Proteas” ~ Another take on the gorgeous male, Malachite Sunbird that was visiting my neighbour’s garden, but this time with a little more habitat in the frame. Sometimes it is good to step back and take a wider perspective of your subject.
This Black-headed Oriole was a regular visitor to our “sugar water” feeder in winter. He would arrive first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon, allowing me to predict his movements and plan my photographic approach.

Backlit Bishops:

Issue 10 – Backlit Bishop goes into a lot of detail in terms of how I achieved the below image. It is one my my favourite shots from the last 12 months and one of my more ambitious projects.

“Backlit Bishop” ~ A Southern Red-headed Bishop displays in a small reedbed near Balgowan, as the sun sets directly behind him.

Short-listed in Bird Photographer of the Year 2021

Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/8000s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias -5 | no Flash

In brief, this image took a lot of planning and persistence. After spending many late afternoons watching this single Southern Red Bishop I worked out its routine, learnt what time of day made for the best lighting and figured out where I needed to stand to achieve the vision for my shot. The location was a small reedbed about 400 metres from my front door. What made it special was that the sun would set directly behind it, making for perfect conditions to experiment with light.

I really enjoyed how the back-lighting would illuminate the orange head and tail of the bishop and was lucky to catch this male in his typical display pose.

Calling Cuckoos and Forest Backgrounds:

I wasn’t expecting the exceptional number and variety of cuckoos that arrived at our estate during the summer months. It started with the arrival of Red-chested and Diederik’s Cuckoos and just got better from there; with Klaas’s, Black and African Emerald all joining the party.

“Forest Green” – A stunning Klaas’s Cuckoo perches out in the open, with Afromontane forest as its backdrop.

Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/800s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

Learning bird calls is a key ingredient to being an effective bird photographer. Although I am no expert, I always try to learn the calls of my photographic subjects, as this is often key to first noticing their presence and then locating them in the field. On this occasion I heard the telltale call of a Klaas’s Cuckoo while walking in the hills surrounding our home. If it wasn’t for my knowledge of its call, I would have been oblivious to its presence and would have missed out on some fantastic photographic moments. I spent many hours with this bird as it hawked insects, called and displayed from various perches on an open grassland, adjacent to some Afromontane forest. The forest created some wonderfully dark as well as complimentary backgrounds.

“Cuckoo Contrast” ~ Another take on the adult Klaas’s Cuckoo as it shows its striking white front against the dark background of Afromontane forest.

Small and Forest friendly:

I have always struggled to photograph certain small, forest birds, as they often take refuge in dark interiors or stay high up in the canopy. Forest Canaries and Yellow-throated Woodland Warblers are two excellent points in case. Prior to arriving in Balgowan I had only mustered very average images of these species.

Much to my excitement, the close proximity of our home to some beautiful sections of un-spoilt forest has meant that the Canaries are regular garden visitors and can be found with relative ease. Added to this the thick valleys of Ouhout trees that extend from the forest down to the lower lying grasslands attract forest bird parties and allow eye-level contact with many species, including the afore-mentioned Warblers. Consequently I have been spoilt with many great opportunities to photograph these special birds.

“Forest Dweller” ~ A shy, Forest Canary hides within the canopy a few metres from our home in Balgowan. I enjoyed how the thick interior and branches framed this striking Canary.
“Ouhout” ~ A Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler moves through a patch of “Outhout” trees near Balgowan, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Short-listed in Bird Photographer of the Year 2021

These tiny Warblers are almost impossible to photograph at eye-level, making this image more special than most.

“Epaulettes” ~ A Southern Double-collared Sunbird shows off his yellow epaulettes on the edge of an Ouhout forest near Balgowan. I normally hear these tiny birds before I see them and enjoy every encounter.

Other small to medium species found in our forest include; Bush Blackcap, Collared Sunbird, Cape Batis, Chorister Robin-chat, Green-backed Camaroptera, Terrestrial Brownbul and White-starred Robin.

Courting Kingfishers:

My previous newsletter, Issue 14 – Breeding Half-collared Kingfishers, provided extensive coverage of the incredible interactions I witnessed between a pair of Half-collared Kingfishers. I had the privilege of observing them mating, nest building and fishing along a beautiful stretch of river at the bottom of our estate. Unfortunately, as the water levels in the river dropped, the birds moved away from what I had hoped would be their nest site, and my sightings became increasingly few and far between.

“Little Red Feet” ~ A Half-collared Kingfisher sits on the side of a tranquil stream near Balgowan, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

My favourite images of the Kingfishers were taken when they perched on a beautiful boulder on the side of the river, before entering their nest hole. The above image is one of four Kingfisher photographs that form part of my Signature Print Collection: www.theflacks.co.za/shop.

Secretive Flufftails:

When Gavin, one of our fellow home owners in the estate, mentioned that he had heard a Flufftail close to the path that leads to the island on our main dam, I was hopeful that this may give me a unique opportunity to photograph this incredibly secretive bird. The path is hardly ever used and I felt I could set up my portable hide and possibly see the bird crossing between wetlands or skulking around the edge of its territory.

After a ton of perseverance and lots of muddy leopard crawling, this gorgeous male appeared for no more than two minutes before dashing back into cover. What an incredible moment!

“Mr Secretive” ~ A male Red-chested Flufftail peeks out from his wetland terrain before bolting back into cover as a Pied Kingfisher flies past. The only thing more secretive than a male Red-chested Flufftail is a female Red-chested Flufftail.
Another take on Mr Secretive! They are such tiny birds, and are often obscured behind the smallest of obstacles. While staking out this fantastic species, I also got to see some of our other wetland specials; including African Rail and Black Crake.

Friendly Neighbours & Sunset Ducks:

As much as Covid-19 has made it difficult to spend time with all our neighbours and to start building into our new community, we have been blessed with such a warm welcome and much kindness throughout the year.

On one such occasion, I was invited by Mike; another fellow homeowner, to go and check out a family of South African Shelducks he had seen on one of his bike rides. Mike brought beers and binoculars and I brought a camera and a truckload of enthusiasm. We spent a wonderful, late afternoon watching mom, dad and baby Shelducks swim around a random dam in the middle of a timber plantation. It is moments like this that have constantly reminded me of why we have chosen a different life; away from the hustle and bustle of the city and immersed in moments like this one.

“Sunset Ducks” ~ A baby South African Shelduck stays close to mom, as the sun sets over a small dam in the heart of a timber plantation near Curry’s Post, Natal Midlands, South Africa.
“The Protector” ~ A male South African Shelduck keeps a close eye on any potential threats to his family on a small dam in the Natal Midlands.

Nest-building Harriers:

If the previous sightings weren’t enough, I had even more exciting encounters in the last few days of August. As I was following a Malachite Kingfisher around a thick section of reeds, which cover the outskirts of our main dam, a large bird suddenly appeared and glided slowly, and close to the top of the reeds, right past me.

It was an stunning African Marsh Harrier! I stood dead still and watched it fly along the edge of the dam, swoop down and then re-appear with a large stick in its talons. It then, surprisingly, flew back towards me and swooped back down into the reeds a few metres away. I had just discovered the nesting site of one of my favourite raptors!

“Banking to Build” ~ An African Harsh Marrier banks to the right before diving down into her nest site to place another stick on the pile.
The same Harrier approaching her nest site, which is built just above the water level and between a thick cluster of reeds.

The next hour was action packed, as both adults continued to find branches along the banks of the dam and then drop them off at the nest. Luckily for me the nest site was just a few metres from the island I was on and right in front of the morning sun, making the sighting and photographic opportunities the best I have ever had of this species. Thank you home!

Article in African Birdlife: Specials Overload – Photographing birds between Zaagkuildrift and Kgomo Kgomo

Thanks to Eve and the African Birdlife team, I was excited to have another article published in their world class magazine in August. The article focused on one of Gauteng’s best birding locations; Zaagkuildrift to Kgomo Kgomo and was a lot of fun to put together, having spent over 10 years birding and taking photographs on this wonderful birding route.

 

In Search of Birding’s Holy Grail

With summer approaching, I was reminded of an incredible assignment I carried out in Mozambique in December 2019. John Robinson and Mark Haldane kindly invited me to write an article on the incredible birding that is possible in the Zambezi Delta and specifically at their camp in Coutada 11. We were very fortunate to find one of Africa’s most sought after species; the African Pitta, on our very first morning, making for an exceptional trip and an exciting article for Airlink’s Inflight Magazine; Skyways. If you are interested in visiting this birding mecca, please contact John directly on: [email protected] or visit his website at robinsonbirding.com to find out more. Trips depart in December; the best time to see the Pitta.

 

I really hope you have enjoyed this trip down memory lane and a celebration of our home in the Natal Midlands. As much as South Africa has deep challenges (and this year has been particularly unsettling), it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful countries in the world; where wildlife abounds and where adventures await. I love this country with all my heart. I love its people and I love being able to explore its wild places. It is a privilege to call it my home; a home where “light shines (and will continue to shine) in the darkness”.

This next year promises to be an incredibly exciting one! I have the amazing privilege of taking a sabbatical from work. It is a time to rest, a time for family, a time to dream and a time to pursue my passion for Africa’s wilderness and its amazing wildlife. From a bird photography perspective, my hope is to continue creating a body of work that celebrates Africa’s birds and their environments, drives awareness of their importance and encourages their conservation. I have some wonderful adventures planned and look forward to sharing them with you.

If you have any exciting opportunities for bird photography please get in touch, as I am always looking for new photographic assignments, projects and material for my newsletters, blogs and magazine articles.

I look forward to hearing from you!


 

Email: [email protected]
Website: www.theflacks.co.za
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