30 Oct Conservation & Unique Bird Photography in Southern Malawi
I have recently returned from an exciting trip to the southern parts of Malawi, where I had the privilege of travelling to the Thangadzi River Conservancy and the Elephant Marsh for a 6 night stay. I was kindly invited by Chris and De Matthews (thanks to a wonderful and fortuitous introduction by Kirk Lynch ) to help them weigh up options for the future of the reserve and while doing so put together a portfolio of bird images for the area.
When I first considered this newsletter I thought it would focus on the potential bird photography of the Elephant Marsh and the surrounding riparian woodlands, but after visiting the area and discussing its potential future with its custodians, it seems far more fitting to first speak about the conservation and community development vision before moving on to the birds. It is this vision that truly excites me, as I feel it may well provide some of the answers to a holistic and sustainable solution to conservation in Africa.
This newsletter hopes to do the vision and the incredible bird photography opportunities justice and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it.
The lodge is not officially open for commercial business, but if you are as excited, as you should be, to visit the areas as a passionate birder or bird photographer, then please let me know and I will keep you posted with the latest developments and/or put you in touch with the correct people on the ground. There are a number of exciting developments in the pipeline.
The Conservation Story and Vision
Having spent a good deal of time in the last two years listening to leaders and company’s talk about their strategies to develop communities and conserve natural heritage in Africa, it is clear that developing the local communities goes hand in hand with sustainable conservation. You can have the best anti-poaching team in the world but if you don’t involve and uplift the people living around our national parks the wheel will eventually turn and we will lose a war worth winning.
To do this, however, is a massively complicated undertaking, as the transformation of communities cannot be done in a disjointed and siloed manner. It requires unity of purpose and a holistic strategy. The process is also a long and enduring one that doesn’t meet the short 3 to 5 year time horizons most expect.
After meeting Chris and De on zoom in August and being invited to southern Malawi, my intuition told me that there was so much more to this area and their story and that I should definitely go. I am so grateful I did! Having spent quality time with both of them and some of their team members, I am so incredibly impressed with what they and their team at Agricane have achieved to date and the vision ahead. Out of the strategies I have heard, read about and seen in action, this story and this strategy is definitely one of them that holds much hope for things to come.
Although it is still in its early stages, the vision feels truly heartfelt and well-rounded and for me it adds the missing element that so many conservation initiatives are struggling to address; financial sustainability. The 3 pillared approach integrates Commercial Agriculture with Community Development and Environmental Sustainability.
The long term “conservation project” aims to conserve the Elephant Marsh, Thangadzi River Conservancy and eventually Mvabvi Game Reserve. This presents a complex mission but will provide sustainable environmental diversity to the Southern tip of Malawi.
The strategy, although much more detailed and complex than what I am going to articulate, involves a number of key points:
- Introducing a best practice “African Parks” type model to bring law and order to the conservancy through proactive anti-poaching and law enforcement.
- Along with Eco-tourism revenues, allow for the commercial gains from sugar cane farming to bolster a sustainable stream of income towards the conservation of the area.
- Within the commercial sugar cane venture is included an integrated area owned by a Community Trust and managed as part of the whole farm to provide the surrounding communities with ongoing infrastructural development that the government cannot afford. This also assists in financing an education foundation, which is the fundamental building block for sustainability.
- Employing people from the local community on the sugar cane farm, reserve and elsewhere to provide benefit for local people and a capacity building growth pole.
- Providing more sustainable food production, heating and fishing practices with the aim that the community will no longer have to illegally fish on the marsh, poach the conservancy’s wildlife or cut down the woodlands for charcoal.
Number 2 and 3 are the key differentiators in their approach, as the commercial operations are significant and have the ability to create ongoing finance and stop an unhealthy reliance on external funding for the long term.
This gives hope that once a number of once off projects, e.g. building a fishery to replace the illegal fishing on the marsh, have been financed and successfully implemented, that the area can continue to develop based on its own revenue generation.
I admit that I am still very naïve when it comes to all the intricacies involved in work of this magnitude, but based on logic and what I do know, this sounds like it ticks many of the relevant boxes. And with continued favour and unity, one can only hope that it provides a case study for others to replicate.
One of the quotes I loved from Chris was that “Africa has a way of reclaiming itself”. This can be seen in a very positive sense, in that, areas that were once destroyed, can rehabilitate and thrive, but it can also be seen in a very negative sense, that if all the good work you do is not sustainable things can quickly return to what they were. I hope Chris, De and their team will be given the runway to see the former come to light.
Unique and Exceptional Bird Photography
The Elephant Marsh lies on the flood plain of the Lower Shire River in southern Malawi and varies in size depending on the flow of the Shire and Ruo rivers. (According to Wikipedia it can range from 390 to over 1000 kilometres squared). The marsh was named by the famous explorer David Livingstone in 1859 after seeing over 800 elephants making their way through it on one of his visits. Although the Elephants are now gone, I can see how this incredible area captured David’s imagination. Thangadzi River Conservancy is a private reserve close to Bangula, which lies nextdoor to the Marsh and boasts a solid network of roads, a couple of hides and some very exciting riparian woodlands. To reach the lodge and marsh, it is a two hour flight from Johannesburg to Blantyre International Airport and a just over two hour drive to your chalet.
Having travelled to 11 African countries so far and done my fair share of bird photography in them, I have never been to a place quite like it. The Marsh is undoubtedly the unique selling proposition of the area, as it holds 1000s upon 1000s of waterbirds each year. Taking an air boat down its many channels is like being in what I can only describe as Malawi’s version of Eden. A continual flow of flamingos, pelicans, storks and ducks occupy the air space overhead while the lillied-strewn sidelines are peppered with a host of exciting gallinules, pratincoles, jacanas, moorhens, rallids and other waders. At first it is hard to know where to point your camera, but after a few deep breaths and a realisation that this is normal, you start focusing in on one flock and then one bird at a time.
I have been contemplating where else in Africa you may find such a spectacle? Perhaps the Chobe or Ockavango Rivers in places, Lake Nakuru or somewhere similar in Kenya, or Gorongoza in Mozambique? When combined with some excellent riparian woodland birding, I am not sure there is another location that can boast quite what Thangadzi River Conservancy and the Elephant Marsh have in spades.
The Riparian Woodlands of Thangadzi River Conservancy
Returning from a morning on the boat you are at least 1000 photographs down, only to be greeted at camp by the telltale calls of Green Malkoha, Grey and Variable Sunbird, Spectacled and Brown-throated Weaver, Bearded Scrub Robin and Black-throated Wattle-eye.
I had the Malkohas and Wattle-eyes as my neighbours throughout my stay, with the highlight being a Green Malkoha killing a tree frog a few metres away from my front porch. The death cries of the frog and the response from the surrounding birds gave his presence away. After watching him slowly move through the canopy and disappear into thick undergrowth about twenty metres away, I realised that he had bred successfully and that the frog was food for his young.
The Malkohas and Wattle-eyes were just the start though, as I soon found out that the most common raptor in the reserve was the Western Banded Snake Eagle; a very sought after bird of prey for birding enthusiasts in Africa. At least one of the eagles would visit the lodge each day to escape from the heat and quench his thirst.
With birds like this in such close proximity to my accommodation, it was hard to consider moving further afield, but the promise of seeing Red-throated Twinspots, Eastern Nicators, African Broadbills, Orange-wnged Pytilias, Speckle-throated Woodpeckers and Livingstone’s Flycatchers along the reserve’s road network was enough to get me to strap on my walking shoes and brave the outdoors.
The riparian woodland had a similar feel to parts of the Coutadas in Mozambique (near the Zambezi Delta), which makes sense as they are only approx 200 kilometres from one another. There are some differences, however, as what the area lacks in Akalats and Alethes it makes up for in the incredibly high density of Böhm’s Bee-eaters, which nest in holes on the ground a short walk from the lodge. While taking a video of one of the nest holes to show my son; Joshua and share with others, I suddenly saw movement and realised that I was looking at a baby Böhm’s bee-eater waiting for its mom and dad to bring its next meal. I will never forget that moment!
I also found many of the specials without much difficulty, picking up the twinspots on most of my walks as well as locating the Nicator and Flycatcher. I will, however, have to go back for the Pytilia and Woodpecker.
If that level of excitement is not enough, you also have to make a quick visit to Chris and De’s garden. I have never seen such confiding Collared Palm Thrushes, not to mention all the other friendly garden birds, which included White-browed Robin-chats, Black-throated Wattle eyes, Lesser Honeyguides, Wire-tailed Swallows, Terrestrial Brownbuls and many others. With the opportunity to erect feeders and set ups at the lodge, I am hoping we will see many more photographic opportunities in the not too distant future.
The Elephant Marsh
When you put the Elephant Marsh together with the Reserve’s surrounding woodlands you have something that I haven’t found anywhere else; exceptional water bird photography from a boat and some excellent “Woodland/Coutada” type photography close to camp.
Although the photography in the woodlands is very exciting, it is challenging, and a short stay can make it difficult to capture any truly noteworthy or unique images. There were, however, a few exceptions at Thangadzi, as the volume of Bohm’s Bee-eaters and the birds around the camp made for a more creative approach and some excellent moments.
The Marsh, however, provides the perfect antidote to the woodlands, as the photography from the lodge’s airboat is abundant and brilliant. In fact, it is probably the most fun I have had from a flight and action photography perspective and the potential for future options and innovation is very exciting.
At the right time of year (September, October and November is probably best) the marsh carries an inordinate amount of waterbirds. Some sources say that at any one time there are 20,000 plus birds in the area. These include everything from Ducks (fulvous, whitefaced, knob-billed, red billed and blue billed teal) to Pelicans (great and pink billed) to Flamingos (lesser and greater) to Open-billed Storks and all the types of Egrets, Ibises and Waders you can imagine. You also find some of the rarer species including Lesser Jacana, Allen’s gallinule, large numbers of Collared Pratincole and the occasional Gull-billed Tern.
What makes the photography extraordinary is, indeed, the sheer volume of birds. Consequently, I achieved the best portfolio of flight shots I have ever managed in a 5 day trip (not to mention that we only went on the air boat 3 times). For any photographers wanting to add to their waterbirds, flight and/or action portfolio, then the Elephant Marsh is an absolutely brilliant option.
The current lodge manager and guide; Liwonde and Robert respectively, are a strong team with Liwonde coming from Majete where he was the top field guide and Robert being revered as one of Malawi’s best bird guides. Collectively. they know where to find all the specials and Liwonde was a sponge when it came to learning how to change his guiding to suit serious wildlife photographers.
On our first trip up the Marsh the sun was in front of us and made things tricky, but we soon learnt to head out early, push up the marsh first and ensure that the sun was on our backs. This made for exceptional light and some amazing moments in the field.
Given the uncommercial nature of the Elephant Marsh and that not many birders or photographers have ever visited it, it should not be surprising to find some interesting birds amongst its vastness. On our third outing, De spotted an odd looking bird land a couple of hundred metres to the right of us. She immediately said “That looks different” and the search began. I got a glimpse of what looked like a Godwit between the reeds. Record shots would prove this to be a rare encounter with a Black-tailed Godwit and indeed, possibly the first image of one taken there to date. And all thanks to De’s excellent eyes and her knowledge of the local birds! I can only imagine what more time exploring the marsh and surrounding areas will discover!
Highlights from the Elephant Marsh
- Watching greater and lesser flamingos interacting and flying within close proximity to the boat;
- Slowly drifting towards good numbers of collared pratincoles and waders on the muddy shores surrounding the marsh;
- Observing the most amount of open-billed storks I have ever seen hunting for clams, black egrets using their parachute technique to fish and pied kingfishers hovering and diving in and out the water;
- Witnessing solid numbers of gull-billed, whiskered and white winged terns banking sharply in and out of the reeds;
- Chuckling at the effort it takes for Pink backed pelicans to get their huge bodies airborne; and
- Seeing countless African Jacanas walking on the lily covered surface and gliding back and forth.
When to go
July to end November with September, October and November being the peak months (given expected water levels).
Some considerations before going
- It is hot, very hot. It competed with the Coutadas in Mozambique on the hotness scale scoring a 9 out of 10 but fell short of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia where the only way to sleep was to take a lukewarm shower every 2 hours, stay wet and hope for a breeze.
- The area is fairly well populated with a number of villages in close proximity, making malaria a real threat. Be sure to consult a doctor and take the necessary medicinal precautions! I also always wear thin long sleeve shirts and long pants and layer on insect repellent, with the idea that prevention is the best strategy.
- Blantyre is a quick two hour flight from Johannesburg and the lodge is just over two hours from Blantyre international airport, which makes it a real pleasure getting there.
- They checked for yellow fever vaccination at the airport so if you are coming from South Africa check you have had yours and consult a travel doctor if from another country.
What to expect from the accommodation
The lodge has been thoughtfully constructed with a wonderful open plan dining room and lounge that looks onto an inviting swimming pool (which was an awesome reprieve from the heat) and the well positioned waterhole.
The 5 chalets are positioned on either side of the main lodge building and look down onto the waterhole, where Samanga monkeys and a variety of birds and game come down to drink. The chalets are well spaced, each can take two single or one double bed and each has a well-functioning and quiet ceiling fan. My chalet had both an inside and outside shower, wash basin and toilet and plenty of space for bags and clothes.
With the introduction of a chef and the potential for exciting garden “bird photography” set ups, the lodge has everything required to be a great base for a 5/6 night birding or bird photography trip.
Next Mentorship Programme Intake
My January 2024 intake has been filled and I have now opened and am accepting participants to my April 2024 intake. Please get in touch for a virtual coffee should this be of interest.
Next Creative Workshops
Having had a successful workshop in July this year, I have another workshop going ahead in the Natal Midlands from the 10th to the 13th November 2023. If you would like to be part of the next one, I still have space available for my April/May 2024 workshop in the Natal Midlands and for my October/November workshop at Tenahead Lodge & Spa .
Highly Honoured in Nature’s Best Photography Awards 2023
The winners of the Nature’s Best Photography International Awards were announced a few weeks back and I am incredibly honoured to be amongst them; having my image of two doting Purple-crested Turacos being “Highly Honoured” in the Birds category.
Thank you so much to Steve, Amanda and the judges and congratulations to all the other awarded photographers!
In the words of the NBP International Awards team: “Out of more than 15,000 amazing submissions from photographers in 58 countries, our judges, along with staff editors and quality control specialists, chose nearly 1,000 photos for the semi-final round of judging. After extensive review of all high-resolution and raw files, along with captions and related data research, the group of finalists was chosen.” Only 100 images were finally awarded.
To see the impressive gallery of winning images: naturesbestphotography.org
Judge for South African Photographer of the Year 2023
I am excited to be part of the South African Photographer of the Year judging team for another year! This competition stands for so much of what I love; South Africa, using our images to tell stories and raise awareness and supporting conservation of our natural heritage.
Thanks so much for including me William, Storm and the SAPOTY team.
I can’t wait to see this year’s entries!
Thanks so much to everyone who got this far. I hope you enjoyed this issue and am looking forward to hearing your feedback, so please get in touch.
Yours in bird photography,