AFRICAN BIRDLIFE | Revelations in northern Kruger

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Taking paths less travelled and biding your time reveals hidden wonder in this birding mecca.

Northern Kruger National Park is a place I love. It is wild, remote and enchanting. With more than 350 bird species and 80 per cent of the park’s biodiversity, it is prime birding country. Combine that with jaw-dropping scenery and unique wildlife encounters and it makes for a spectacular adventure destination as well as a calming tonic for the soul. But what should you do when you get there? Head immediately to the Luvuvhu bridge to look for a Böhm’s Spinetail or the well-known Pel’s Fishing Owls, or hurry to the Pafuri picnic site for a breeding pair of Black-throated Wattle-eyes? What about the lala palms at Crook’s Corner to find Lemonbreasted Canaries, keeping an eye open for Southern Ground-Hornbills along the way? Or you could start at the Punda Maria camp and search for Eastern Nicators and Crested Guineafowls. Or drive along the Mahonie Loop to locate Bennett’s Woodpeckers, Dickinson’s Kestrels and Grey-headed Parrots. A night drive from Punda Maria may reveal a Pennant-winged Nightjar or, if you’re in the Makuleke Concession, a Three-banded Courser. And that’s just
scratching the surface.

The more time I spend in the area, the more I notice things that weren’t obvious before. I used to rush from one place to the next hoping to see a new species, but now I’ve slowed down and pay more attention to a bird’s behaviour, its unique attributes and its habitat. I have also recognised how birding and photography are as much about the people I meet as it is about the birds. Slowing down, being curious and taking time to soak in my surroundings have changed my approach, my priorities and how I find fulfilment in these incredible wildlife locations.

On taking a break from the corporate world at the end of 2021, I could have gone anywhere in Africa, but decided to go back to Punda Maria and Pafuri for three uninterrupted weeks. Within a couple of days of arriving, I realised that time is such a precious commodity. Instead of rushing in and out of the Pafuri picnic spot, I took my time, wandered around, sat on the well positioned benches. I discovered things that would have previously passed me by and was privileged to build a friendship with Mandla Ngomane, the picnic spot’s caretaker and an excellent birder. Our relationship started slowly, exchanging pleasantries at first and then a few observations about the Blackthroated Wattle-eyes that were buzzing around the picnic site. Mandla would spot them with his incredible sight and I would watch them, following their movements for hours. One morning I noticed that the male was carrying nesting material in his beak and flying to a certain area within the canopy of one of the huge trees that gives this area its welcoming shade. Early the next morning Mandla’s eagle vision helped him find their nest. We shared some wonderful moments with these birds; at one point we were standing chatting to one another when the male flew down to catch an insect and landed just a few feet from us. Once I had snapped a few images, Mandla and I turned to each other and chuckled with excitement – he knew this was a moment I’d been hoping for.

Over the following days I checked in regularly at the picnic site and, chatting with Mandla about a wide range of subjects, I quickly realised that he is fascinated by birds and their mannerisms and is always trying to identify new things about them. His curiosity has given him a trove of unique observations and it was his willingness to share them with me that radically changed the outcome of my photography.

One day we were chatting about Böhm’s Spinetails and how to photograph them in flight without a background of blue sky. Mandla asked,
‘Have you tried cloudy and windy conditions? That’s when they fly under the Pafuri bridge.’ It’s also when, he said, they fly around the tops of apple-leaf trees. As soon as there was a windy, cloudy day I travelled directly to the bridge and within an hour Böhm’s Spinetails were flying under the bridge below me. In no time I had my first photograph of one with the Luvuvhu River as a backdrop. And sure enough, the spinetails were flitting around the apple-leaf trees Mandla had mentioned. The images are a wonderful addition to my collection, yet they are only a small part of a truly memorable experience, enriched by friendship, storytelling and curiosity. None of this would have happened if either Mandla or I had been in a rush!

A year later I found myself in South Africa’s birding mecca again, this time on a project for The Outpost safari lodge in the Makuleke Concession. The objective was to see what we could achieve from a bird photography perspective within a five-night visit. Given the size of the task, I was almost overtaken by the desire to rush to the bridge, the picnic site, fever tree forests and the lala palms at Crook’s Corner to capture some of the known targets. Yet my co-pilot Warren Deyzel and I decided to do the opposite, and I’m so glad we did.

We explored some of the less wellknown areas of the concession, choosing to go slowly along tracks that were barely visible. One of the many highlights was exploring the three Ramsar wetland sites that are accessible via the concession’s road network: Banini, Spokonyole and Mkwadzi. I had neither heard of them nor seen any bird photographs taken at them. As a professional trails guide, Warren has a heart for exploration and this, combined with the ability to get off the vehicle when it was safe to do so, allowed us to discover a bird photographer’s paradise. Our first observation was the density of lala palms around Banini and Mkwadzi and we immediately thought that they must be a delight for Lemon-breasted Canaries.

I have never seen so many of these canaries in one place before. We sat quietly between the pans and the palms and marvelled at the comings and goings of a variety of bird species. Large flocks of bee-eaters, Southern Carmine and Blue-cheeked, were hawking insects at various locations; huge numbers of Amur Falcons gathered on dead trees before the long trip home; African Openbills and Marabou Storks were feeding in freshly filled waterholes next to the pans; and every 30 minutes or so we would catch a glimpse of a pair of Lemon-breasted Canaries coming down to drink or heading into one of the many palms. After discovering a canary nest site, we were taking images of the nest-builders from various angles when we were surrounded by Southern Carmine and Blue-cheeked bee-eaters hawking insects in all directions – I didn’t know where to point my camera first!

Our time in the wetlands also led to the discovery of breeding Mosque Swallows. We’d been watching them for a couple of hours when a pair landed on the sodden track in front of us and began collecting mud in their beaks. We got some wonderful images and then waited to see if they would return, soon realising that there were two pairs and that every 15 minutes or so they would come back to the same puddle and collect more mud. After understanding their behaviour, the light conditions and the best angle for photography, we returned the next day and were rewarded with some unforgettable moments as these exquisite swallows collected mud for their nests. Unprecedented as these birding moments were, they didn’t make the most impact on me in the Makuleke Concession. In fact, the most meaningful experience was spending an afternoon with Richard Sowry. Richard has dedicated his life to conserving and protecting the Kruger National Park and is currently the section ranger for the Pafuri region. Over lunch he told me about his love for the area and what he, his partners in the Makuleke Concession and the broader team of lodges, rangers and guides are hoping to achieve. I left incredibly inspired and encouraged, as Richard advocates unity of purpose and looks at conservation in a holistic manner, knowing that to conserve Africa’s wild places we have to uplift the communities that surround them. Their innovative thinking and strategy hold much hope for this unique part of Africa. I love the metaphor that ‘the world is a painting and each of us gets to paint our own pixel as best we can’. They deserve our support and I cannot wait to return and be a small part of it.

As our lunch was drawing to an end, Richard asked unexpectedly, ‘Would you like to photograph Mottled Spinetails at a nest site?’ This was definitely one of the easiest questions I have ever responded to and Richard guided Warren and me to the most wonderful scene. Without knowledge of their roosting site, Mottled Spinetails can be very difficult to find – I had only seen them once before. They nest inside hollows in baobabs, which I’d seen in photographs but never witnessed in person. Watching four birds flying just above us and then whizzing right past our eyes into a hollow was one of those unforgettable moments that the northern Kruger is known for. Richard had no idea that his offer to show us this magnificent baobab nest would fulfil another of my childhood dreams, and as we ended the day looking out onto a flooding fever tree forest, my heart and soul were truly full.

That latest trip to northern Kruger opened my eyes to this magical destination and its potential for groundbreaking bird photography. It has encouraged me to slow my pace even further, wonder about the birds that cross my path and make time for the slower, more adventurous routes and the people I meet. It also showed me that we have a wealth of remarkable people in our country who are keeping hope alive and making a significant difference to people and wildlife alike. We have so much to be thankful for and so many reasons to protect what we have.