Birding the Bénoué
ISSUE 7 | October 2020

Welcome to issue #7 of The Flack’s Photography newsletters.

I don’t know about you, but I am seriously missing adventures in far off lands, and hence I thought I would focus this next newsletter on one of my more adventurous escapades; birding on the banks of the Bénoué River in North East Cameroon.

THE DESTINATION BEHIND THE BIRDS
Bénoué National Park – north east Cameroon

It was getting dark! And not a good dark like when you are sitting around the campfire reminiscing about the day and staring at the night sky. This was a bad dark like when you are lost in the middle of nowhere and wished it was dawn not dusk! Both tyres lay defeated on the ground next to us, a snake had just disappeared under the makeshift game vehicle and we were huddled in the cabby waiting to be rescued.

We waited in silence, not because we wanted to, but because I spoke very little French and John; my mechanic turned guide, spoke no English at all.

We had managed to use sign language to encourage Florent; the third and last passenger, to run to the nearest village some 10 kilometres away and find help, as he at least knew the way. He had been gone for a good 3 hours already, and, while the night sounds serenaded us, I was starting to wander whether he had been successful.

This newsletter’s featured image; an iconic Egyptian Plover photographed on the banks of the hippo-infested Bénoué River in north east Cameroon. This diminutive Plover was my main target amongst a feast of Central African specials one can encounter in this part of Cameroon.

I had given up on the radio, which had been my safety blanket should things go wrong, until things went wrong and we realised it didn’t work. Considering Frans, our tour guide and host, knew that the vehicle we were using was a little worse for wear, you would have thought that he would have double checked that the radio was functional, and that John knew how to use it? Alas, he didn’t and John didn’t, and now we were as far as I had ever been from our camp with two flat tyres, a broken radio and a tiny dose of fear and apprehension.

A few hundred kilometres north of our location was a strong hold for the Boko Haram; a terrorist group, who were not known for their generosity towards foreigners. As much as they were a few hours’ drive away, it is amazing how a dark, African evening can turn one’s thoughts from romantic ideals to “I am going to get captured and never see my family again” in the matter of nanoseconds.

We had driven some distance from camp in search of a small dam, where Four-banded Sandgrouse; the most common game bird in the area, were known to frequent at dusk. We had found it and were not disappointed, as the Sandgrouse came in their droves and were joined by a host of Doves; Vinacious, Red-eyed and African Collared Doves, as well as many different seedeaters including: Bush Petronia, West African Seedeater and Northern Grey-headed Sparrow.

The target of our adventurous game drive; the Four-banded Sandgrouse. At least I came away with a picture!

It is times like this that I sometimes wish that my passion for birding and bird photography had not taken me to a remote wilderness in search of avian riches. Fortunately for us the front lights of a vehicle were not approaching terrorists, but rather the team from camp coming to save us. Never again will a beer in camp taste so good!

We were camped on the banks of the Bénoué River on the eastern border of the Bénoué National Park in north east Cameroon. We had survived a night in the humid town of Doula (Cameroon’s commercial capital), flown the 2 hours to the town of Garoua, avoided a machine-gun-wielding soldier and travelled a further 5 hours to finally arrive at our destination 7 days earlier.

The view from our camp on the banks of the Bénoué River in Cameroon. In between the family of hippos you would find one of Africa’s most sought after specials; the Egyptian Plover.

Was the journey worth it? Absolutely! Africa is in my blood! I love it and its remote places, and although the travel can be challenging, the risks are most often manageable and what awaits you is adventure and remote wilderness as well as cultures, experiences and wildlife that cannot be found anywhere else on earth.

Bénoué National Park covers over 1800 square kilometres and is a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve. It was first gazetted as a faunal reserve in 1938 and then made a Cameroonian National Park in 1981. The park lies a touch north of the equator and little south of the Sahara, which gives you a good indication of what you are in for from a climate perspective. We were there in late January, which is at the end of winter and in the middle of Cameroon’s long dry period. Even in late winter the temperatures reach a healthy 35 degrees centigrade.

The close proximity to the Sahara desert also adds to the experience, as the Harmattan wind; a dry desert wind, blows massive amounts of sand from the north east across the country creating a typical mist. For passionate bird photographers this makes for challenging conditions, as the morning and evening light is not strong enough to break through the mist and you are often left to work with diffuse mid-morning and midday light.

From a birding perspective, the park is an important bird area and holds approximately 300 bird species; almost 1/3rd of Cameroon’s 970 total. The environment is largely savannah and miombo-like woodlands with dense forest and riverine woodland surrounding the banks of the river. These habitats hold some very sought after Central African specials, which, as normal, were the focus of my photographic ambitions!

A portrait of the iconic, Egyptian Plover taken right in front of our camp on the banks of the Bénoué river in north east Cameroon.

Based on my pre-trip research, the river’s rocky edges and sandbanks are frequented by one of Africa’s most iconic birds and the featured image of this newsletter; the Egyptian Plover. This was the species I most wanted to see and photograph but was not sure how difficult it would be to locate. After arriving at our camp at night, I excitedly woke up at the crack of dawn and made my way down to the river’s edge to see if there was any suitable habitat for this striking species. The sun was rising, an African Fish eagle called from close quarters and a small bird was foraging along the river edge. Imagine my surprise when I raised my binoculars and discovered that the small bird darting back and forth was my first target; an Egyptian Plover, right in front of our camp!

What I didn’t understand at the time was how challenging it was going to be to get an eye-level photograph of this exquisite bird. Besides the area being thick with lions, the river in front of the camp had a resident family of hippos as well as a four metre crocodile. This made my early morning, leopard crawling expeditions even more exciting, as I had to keep one eye on the hippos and the crocodile and the other on the Plover. And I wasn’t the only one who had to be aware of my surroundings, as the local African Fish Eagle was a menacing opponent to any birds looking to fish in the river’s shallows.

I was fortunate to witness the resident African Fish Eagle conduct a surprise attack on a Saddle-billed Stork, who had just caught a fish in the rock pools in front of our camp.

Egyptian Plovers aside, the river was an incredible place from which to bird. A variety of raptors used the river as a flight path and hunting ground; from the diminutive Grey Kestrels and Red-breasted Goshawks to the more hefty Grasshopper Buzzards and Western Marsh Harriers. Northern Carmine and Red-throated Bee-eaters hawked insects along the river’s banks while Spur-winged and White-crowned Lapwings noisily defended their sandbank territories. Vibrant bursts of colour, in the form of Senegal Parrots or one of the two Turaco species; Violet and White-crested, could be seen dashing from one side of the river to another, while Bar-breasted and Black-bellied Firefinches came down to drink at the river-side puddles.

A White-crowned Lapwing defends his territory, with the expected noise and aggression, along the beautiful Bénoué River, surrounded by sandbanks and spectacular trees.
We were lucky to have a flock of these Red-throated Bee-eaters take residency around our camp, making for some great portraits of this abundant and beautiful Bee-eater.
Settings: AV mode | ISO 800 | 1/320s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

As much as the river held some incredible species and sightings, our camp’s garden and surrounds were by far the most productive area for birding and photography. I spent many hours exploring all the well-worn paths that had been carved through the thick river-side vegetation, stunning woodlands and surrounding savannah, and was thoroughly rewarded for my efforts.

The trees surrounding the river were bold and spectacular and held some incredible birdlife; including this Violet Turaco.

A major highlight was discovering a breeding pair of one of Central Africa’s most sought after skulkers; the peculiar Moho or Oriole Warbler. I found them within a hundred metres of our camp and was able to spend many hours watching them forage under the thick, tangled forest-like canopy they call home. With their oriole-like colours, long shaggy tails, warbler-like looks and noisy, thrush-like foraging manners, they must rank as one of Africa’s more enigmatic species.

The Moho or Oriole Warbler that I found in the thick riverside tangles a few 100 metres from my bedroom. The camera settings will give you a good idea how challenging it was trying to photograph these elusive birds. I was very lucky that this image came out sharp.
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1000 | 1/80s | f4.5

The most challenging bird of the thick tangles and dark understory, however, was the rare, Blackcap Babbler. The description given to this species as “elusive” is no understatement and I have yet to meet a more evasive and alert babbler. I encountered them on at least 5 occasions, but was only able to catch them in my binoculars once with no time for a photograph.

These striking Red-throated Bee-eaters were common along the river but were also found in the extensive miombo-like woodlands of north east Cameroon.

For those interested in unusual bird families, the camp’s riverside garden did not dissapoint. While “pishing” under a dense canopy in the heat of the day, in an attempt to draw a pair of Red-winged Grey Warblers closer, a Grey-headed Oliveback jumped out into the open no more than two metres away from me. With only three species of Oliveback found in the world, this was a great find! To get full frame shots of this special bird was fantastic, but when the Oliveback was joined by a male and female Brown-throated Wattle eye, an African Blue Flycatcher and a male Beautiful Sunbird, I couldn’t believe my luck!

An unexpected find; a Grey-headed Oliveback found right in front of the camp’s kitchen in the heat of the day. There are three species of Oliveback in the world, with all three found in Africa.

Fruiting trees near our camp were a hotspot for Starling and Barbet species with Purple Glossy, Long-tailed, Greater and Lesser Starlings being regular, noisy visitors while Bearded and Vieillot’s Barbets being infrequent and more aloof.

One of my main targets; a Bearded Barbet pays a visit to one of the fruiting trees near to our camp in north east Cameroon. It is named after the black, feathery whiskers resembling a beard around its heavy bill, and is one of the biggest of the barbets.

Other regular sightings around camp included Pied Flycatchers, Senegal Coucals, Northern Puffbacks, a variety of Sunbirds (including Variable, Beautiful, Western Violet-backed and Pygmy) and Black-headed Gonoleks, while careful scanning of the taller woodland trees would occasionally bring a Violet Turaco, Fine-spotted Woodpecker or Bruce’s Green Pigeon into view.

A Senegal Coucal I stumbled across while hunting down a flock of Bearded Barbets who had come to feed on the garden’s fruiting trees.

While the river and our campgrounds provided such a wonderful density and diversity of bird species and many photographic opportunities, the miombo-like woodland, which covered much of the surrounding area, was quite the opposite. The birds were few and far between, and when you did find a flock or bird party, they were often at a considerable distance and quick to depart. I have visited many wilderness areas in Africa, but the birds in the woodlands of north east Cameroon must be the most skittish I have come across. This made for tough yet rewarding birding!

Every so often, a spectacular Abyssinian or Blue-bellied Roller would break the mould and give you an unexpected, close-up view, a White-fronted Black Chat would begin chirping from a nearby tree or a Stone Partridge would suddenly appear out of the dense grass. Long distances of nothing but dust and heat would be broken by a marching Northern Ground Hornbill, a skulking White-cheeked Francolin (the same size as our Coqui Francolin but much paler), the quiet presence of a diurnal Bronze-winged Courser or the contrasting white and black of a Senegal Batis.

This Bronze-winged Courser, a diurnal bird species, was one of the unexpected suprizes we encountered while patiently birding the extensive miombo-like woodlands that surrounded are camp.

One of the more interesting species we encountered was first found sitting on the back of a goat, which belonged to one of the local villages dotted across the area. This large, black bird with its long tail and purplish eye is named after its call; Piapiac, and is an African member of the crow family as well as the only member of the genus Ptilostomus. They feed in flocks of ten or more birds and can often be seen following and sitting on the backs of goats and cattle, feeding on the insects that they disturb. I also saw them following a herd of Western Cob and demonstrating this same behaviour. Undoubtedly one of the standout birds of the trip! To see an image of this species and over 900 other African species, feel free to visit my website at www.theflacks.co.za.

One of the two breath-taking rollers that grace the miombo-like woodlands; an Abyssinian Roller, perches out in the open and surprisingly close to our make-shift game vehicle.

Despite hours of searching all the known habitats, I unfortunately dipped on 4 of the “specials” of the area, namely the nomadic Emin’s shrike and Rufous-rumped Lark, the awe-inspiring Standard-winged Nightjar and the shy Adamawa Turtle Dove. Some members of our group discovered a single nightjar deep in the woodlands, and although everyone in our group believed they had seen the Dove, it was always flying at full speed away from us and the views were too fleeting to be sure. The shrike and the lark, on the other hand, were no-where to be found!

I guess that is what makes birding exciting and keeps you going back for more! Next time, however, I will just make sure I check that the radio works!

TIPS & SETTINGS FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS
Making Memories

Camera and Lens: This issue’s featured image of an Egyption Plover was taken with my Canon 7d mkii and 400mm f2.8 mkii lens.

Camera Settings: AV mode | ISO 640 | 1/3200s | f4 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

Image Size: 4584 x 3056

Some of my images are more prized than others and not necessarily for their aesthetic qualities. I am often more influenced by the memories and emotions that a photograph evokes and how effectively it transports me back to the scene that was in front of me.

I still remember the four-metre crocodile lying on the opposite bank, the family of hippos playing in the shallow waters, the African Fish Eagle perched in his favourite riverside tree and the multitude of rocks interspersed with green grass and narrow sandbanks. I also remember the excitement of stalking the Plover while keeping my eye on mommy and baby hippo behind it!

A full frame image of my fellow companions while stalking the Egyptian Plovers on the banks of the Benoue River; mommy and baby Hippopotamus. This image was taken shortly after photographing the featured image. Good thing for telescopic lenses!

BIRDS IN THE NEWS
$660,200 raised for the conservation of Africa’s Wildlife

In August 2020, I was proud to be one of the wildlife photographers that supported the “Prints for Wildlife” campaign. The campaign ran from the 26th July to the 26th August and raised an incredible $660,200 to protect Africa’s wildlife and its vital landscapes.

More than 80 globally renowned wildlife photographers came together for the campaign and donated over 100 limited edition prints. 100% of the proceeds, after printing and handling, was given to the African Parks Network so that they could continue to protect wildlife and deliver benefits to local communities during the COVID pandemic.

My print of a Lesser Swamp Warbler was offered as a limited run of only 50 prints in aid of this fantastic cause.

Thank you so much to everyone who supported us in helping to protect wildlife, supporting conservation and assisting the people whose lives depend on it more than ever.

With Christmas around the corner and for those who are interested in buying some of my fine art prints, please visit www.theflacks.co.za/shop to see the full selection.

My image of a Swamp Warbler surrounded by images from some of the other contributors to the “Print for Wildlife”campaign, which raised $660,200 for African Wildlife.

JOIN ME LIVE, 20th OCTOBER
Pushing the boundaries in your Bird Photography

Birdlife South Africa has kindly asked me to present one of their latest webinars on “How to push the boundaries in your bird photography”.

To hear my thoughts and personal journey in this regard:
Register here: https://www.birdlife.org.za/blsa-conversations, or
Watch live on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BirdLifeSouthAfrica

I am really excited to share my passion on this subject and hope to see you there. 7pm (South African Time) | 20 October 2020

Writing this newsletter reminded me how much I appreciate Africa’s wild areas and the adventures that come with them. Hopefully my ramblings brought back some memories of your own escapades or will encourage you to consider your first African safari. One thing is for sure, once you have tasted of its treasures, there is little that can stop you going back for more.

“Africa – You can see a sunset and believe you have witnessed the Hand of God. You watch the slope lope of a lioness and forget to breathe. You marvel at the tripod of a giraffe bent to water. In Africa, there are iridescent blues on the wings of birds that you do not see anywhere else in nature. In Africa, in the midday heat, you can see blisters in the atmosphere. When you are in Africa, you feel primordial, rocked in the cradle of the world.” (Jodi Picoult)


loading..