Drakensberg Bird Photography at its Best

I hope this finds you happy and healthy! We have just passed through the heart of winter in the Natal Midlands and are beginning to see the signs of spring. Each season brings with it its own charm and I hope to show you some of my autumn and winter photography efforts in the coming months.

In this next newsletter, however, I am going to take you to one of my favourite bird photography destinations in the Eastern Cape of South Africa; Tenahead Lodge & Spa, and give you some insights into how I go about achieving my “Iconic African Birdscapes”.

Tenahead Lodge & Spa is also going to be hosting one of my “creative photography” workshops in October/November 2024 and have put together an exciting package for this purpose. Please read to the end if you want to find out more.

THE DESTINATION BEHIND THE BIRDS
Tenahead Lodge & Spa

At the beginning of the year I was invited by Birdlife South Africa and Canon (South Africa) to host a three hour workshop as part of Birdlife’s annual conference called “Flock to the Wilderness”. (See a short write up in the “latest news” section below). On the way home from the event I decided to visit one of my favourite destinations, if not my favourite, for photographing the special birds of the infamous Drakensburg Mountains.

This epic mountain range not only attracts our most passionate landscape photographers; given its sheer beauty and death defying scenery, but also hosts some of South Africa’s and Lesotho’s most treasured, feathered endemics. The stars of the show are undoubtedly the unique Drakensberg Rockjumpers; who are one of only two species that make up this special family, but this high-altitude paradise includes many other sought-after birds, including the likes of Drakensberg Siskins, Mountain Pipits, Yellow-breasted Pipits. African Rock Pipits, Sickle-winged Chats, Ground Woodpeckers, Sentinel Rock Thrushes, Bearded Vultures, Cape Vultures, Verreaux’s Eagles, Black Harriers. Southern Bald Ibises, Cape Eagle Owls and Grey-winged Francolins.

 

The specific destination I selected is at the very top of South Africa’s third highest pass; Naude’s Nek. It is the highest lodge in South Africa and is described as “a heavenly place between earth and sky”. Eileen, Joshua and I first visited Tenahead Lodge & Spa some 5 odd years ago as a short stop over on the way back from the Transkei and were blown away by the tranquillity, intimate setting (with only 7 lodge rooms), breath-taking vistas, welcoming staff and brilliantly prepared 5 course dinners. Yes, 5 course dinners are included in the stay, which means you definitely want to hike each day if you hope to return the same shape and size as you arrived.

 

 

The only downside of this latest trip was that Eileen and Joshie weren’t with me, as Joshua was in the middle of his school term and the duration was going to be longer than a week. The trip, however, reminded me how much has changed for us since we were first at Tenahead and how blessed we have been as a family. Since our first visit, we have moved to the Midlands, Joshua is loving his school; Clifton Notties, and Eileen and I are doing our best to follow our passions and dreams.

I have also been blessed to see my photography journey grow in momentum during this time and on this trip had the privilege of putting together a commercial portfolio for the lodge itself. One of the other key objectives was to use the time to focus on my own, personal photographic project; “Iconic African Birdscapes”. (See the origins of the project here: My Most Exciting Photograph to Date)

I could have chosen anywhere on route, but Tenahead has a number of unique characteristics that make it stand out as a bird photography destination. Firstly, the main targets for my Birdscape project; the Drakensberg Rockjumpers, can be found in abundance very close to the lodge. When I say very close you can find one family group within a few paces of your lodge room and 3 or 4 other families within 2 kilometres of the lodge parking lot. The number and accessibility of the species means your chance of getting stand out images is significantly higher than anywhere else I have been. The birds are also accustomed to hikers, which gives you the opportunity to sneak closer than is normally the case. This doesn’t just apply to the Rockjumpers as the siskins, rock-thrushes, woodpeckers and francolins are all in close proximity and friendlier than most.

 

Secondly, as mentioned previously, the lodge sits at the top of our third highest pass, some 2500 metres above sea level and is surrounded by iconic mountain ranges. It’s grounds arguably sport more impressive vistas than the actual Naude’s Nek viewpoint; making it a dream for “habitat” or “birds in their environment” images.

Thirdly, and based on my previous experiences, the lodge is well run, the food is exemplary and the rooms are truly spectacular with views of the Bell River (which runs through the property).

Finally, although summer is best for birding (as it brings with it the summer migrants, including mountain pipits and breeding black harriers) I have always wanted to visit the lodge in winter in the hope that it may snow while I am there.

 

 

As you can see, I had high expectations going into this trip, which is often not a good thing! As anyone in marketing will tell you, in order to go beyond just satisfying a customer you need to exceed his expectations and given what I was hoping for this wasn’t going to be easy.

GETTING THERE

I left the Wilderness Hotel around 03h30 in the morning, as it would take me at least 7 hours to get to Barkley East and then I knew I would have a long and slow climb to Rhodes and then the lodge. I wanted to give myself plenty of time as it had been raining the day before (with more rain expected) and the road from Barkley East to Rhodes is fine when dry but entertaining when wet. Although high clearance and 4×4 is an excellent idea when heading up the pass, the latter only really becomes necessary when rain, ice or snow come into play.

I never felt in anyway unsafe on the road to Rhodes and up the pass, but at times I did think I may need to call in the help of a local tractor should I get stuck. At least I can now say I have traversed the pass in all weather conditions; rain, snow and dry. Fortunately, no tractors were required and after around three hours I was being welcomed by Grace and the team at Tenahead. (Note: For those who don’t love the adventure of exciting road trips, there is the option of arranging transport from and to nearby airports.)

 

ACHIEVING MY NEXT “ICONIC AFRICAN BIRDSCAPE”

My first afternoon and the next day were focused on identifying where all the family groups of Rockjumpers were hanging out and where I felt the landscapes around them could produce the birdscapes I was looking for. I found two potential sites where the movements of the birds coincided with some incredible backdrops; one a few hundred metres from my front door and the other approximately two kilometres away and on the Lodge’s entrance road.

 

The first key lesson when it comes to taking birdscapes is to spend enough time looking for the right location. Because the images combine awesome birds with iconic landscapes, you cannot settle for one without the other, and at least for me, finding the iconic landscape is often harder than finding the bird or birds to go with it. In the 5 days I was staying at Tenahead I walked over 50 kilometres, investigating the best locations and then returning to them at the right time of day to try and get the images I had been visualising. Being intentional, selective and focused are key ingredients to success when it comes to “Iconic African Birdscapes”!

The second thing to consider, once you have a potential location, is where the sun will be when you go back. You may find the bird and the landscape but you also need to have the sun and weather conditions play ball. The problem with this and having Rockjumpers as your protagonist, is that they can be quite habitual in their movements and hence, although the location may be in their territory, they may not be where you want them to be for the light and conditions to work. Ideally, you want to find the birds where you hope to photograph them at the right time of day, so you can go back with a high probability of success.

As you can imagine, given these first two considerations, getting this all to come together is like searching for a “one-eyed Sloggart’s ice rat in a snow storm”. And even when it does happen, only then does the patience and perseverance really begin.

With two potential options available, I first persevered with the Rockjumpers closer to my front door. Call me lazy! My planning and thought process eventually paid dividend as I got some unique images of the birds as a storm blew in. That said, I couldn’t get close enough to the birds to achieve my vision. There were no hiding places or cover near their favourite perches (largely boulders and cliff faces) and given the nature of the habitat there were numerous options for them to select from. This made any planning very difficult.

Fortunately, I had found a Rockjumper at my second location that I had spotted hanging out on a specific perch. What excited me about this specific perch is that it was the highest boulder in a clump of rocks, had an incredible backdrop and was clearly one that he was accustomed to standing on (given the white droppings nearby). The light would also work for my vision and now I just had to hope that this was a perch that he habitually used in the morning. I had seen him the previous morning standing on it around 9am and hence planned to get there the next day at a similar time. (Note: The light in winter is still good for images up until around 10am (as sunrise is only after 7am), which made a difference for this particular image.)

On arrival I approached the perch and spent a good 20 minutes working out where I could conceal myself to get the best shot of the bird and the backdrop. I needed to be a maximum of 5 to 10 paces from the perch as I would be shooting between 100mm and 200mm and hence would need to be close enough to get the bird to have equal weight with the landscape. Settling for a depression between a few large boulders I got comfortable and then tested my camera settings on the perch. I usually choose between f10 and f14 (selecting f13 on this occasion) and took a few shots to get the right composition for my “hopeful” subject.

There were some Siskins nearby singing their hearts out but no sign of the male Rockjumper. After some time had passed I heard his distinct call disseminating from a hundred or so metres below my hiding spot. All that was left to do now was wait! Minutes passed, uncertainty set in and then I caught a glimpse of him coming my way. He slowly made his way towards my hiding place and then climbed up onto a nearby rock. He looked around and then looked directly at me. I just hoped I was well hidden. All he had to do now was hop on two more rocks and he would be where he was the day before.

Seconds felt like hours. A Siskin broke cover and flew overhead. The Rockjumper stood still, then sprung forward. Animal eye auto focus did its magic, I moved the camera to get the composition I wanted, pressed the shutter and exhaled. After two days of hiking, plotting and planning, I finally had the shot I was after.

LATEST NEWS

 

Creative Workshop at Tenahead

 

I am excited to announce that River Hotels has put together a special “Creative Workshop” package for 6 nights / 7 days to Tenahead Lodge & Spa.

The package includes your accommodation, food, non-alcoholic beverages, the conference facilities and my creative workshop. (It excludes alcoholic beverages and transport to and from the venue). To get a sense of what a workshop with me entails please visit this link to read about my workshops in the Natal Midlands: Workshops

In a nutshell, I will do my best to teach you all I know about photography, giving you practical applications of theory as well as homework for your time at Tenahead or when you get back home. The time to complete the workshop is longer than usual, as we have included a half day in the field for each participant (with me providing private tuition), as well as a full day; free of teaching, to put what we have learnt into practice. I will be available to help you analyse your images and for you to ask me any questions during this time.

The total cost is R40,500 per person for the 6 nights. (For any local or international visitors who require transport from a nearby airport, this is available at an additional cost).

This is truly a “bucket-list” venue and a wonderful opportunity to combine a visit with some fun-filled photography tuition. The wonderful thing about Tenahead, for all those who love being alone in the mountains, is that there is plenty of space, places to walk and birds for everyone to focus on.

Please contact me on richard@theflacks.co.za to receive the full details. Currently we are finalising the exact dates but are looking at the following options:

  • 23 – 29 October 2024
  • 6 – 11 November 2024
  • 13 – 19 November 2024

 

Please let me know your preferences as early as possible, as we will be bedding things down in the next few weeks.

Bookings will be done via reservations@riverhotels.com should you want to confirm your place.

“I attended the workshop with Richard from 30 June to 3 July at Bosh Hoek. The setting, the lodge, the food, the atmosphere, superb. What lifted it above other workshops was the host, Richard. His knowledge of photography and birds, and his willingness to share was outstanding. His kindness and deep love of what he does shone through in all that he shared. I loved the theory, and the walks with Richard around Bosch Hoek were so informative and special. Richard, thank you so much – and it was so special to meet your family too. I am a fan for life.”
(Des V, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa)

Canon Photography Workshop at the Flock to Wilderness

 

I was kindly invited by Birdlife South Africa and Canon to host a three hour bird photography workshop in the Wilderness. I was given the privilege to talk on a subject that is close to my heart; “How to build our confidence as photographers so we can reach our potential as artists”.

The talk challenged some of the status quo in wildlife photography circles and hoped to inspire and encourage fellow photographers to learn about composition and design and how to lay the table for creative success, so they can confidently produce the photographs that they love.

Birdlife South Africa and Canon

I also spent some time with Roger Machin from Canon and got to be part of an interactive discussion with him on the future of mirrorless and all things cameras and photography. Thanks so much to Melissa Whitecross for the photograph!

And thanks so much to Canon and Birdlife South Africa for having me! It was a real privilege!

The above print of my bearded vulture image was also auctioned at the event and raised R6500 for conservation.

BBC Wildlife & African Birdlife Magazines

 

I was privileged to have an article in the BBC Wildlife Magazine in May this year. Thanks so much to Tom, Catherine and the team.


And then was equally excited to have one of my images grace the cover of African Birdlife for their July/August edition. It also included a 12 page article on the wonders of northern Kruger. What a blessing and thanks so much to Anton and the African Birdlife team.

 

That is it from me! I hope you enjoyed this latest edition of my photography newsletters and, as always, I look forward to hearing from you.

For anyone considering my online mentorship programme, I have two openings left for my January 2024 intake, so please get in touch as soon as possible to secure your spot.

 

I CANNOT DO JUSTICE TO THE DIFFERENCE IT MADE

Richard designed my sessions entirely around my individual needs and through his excellent understanding, knowledge and coaching skills, he enabled me to find the right photography path to follow. I cannot do full justice to the difference he has made to my confidence and my photography. He’s such a lovely person as well. I cannot thank him enough.
Fiona S (London, United Kingdom)

 

Yours in bird photography,

Tags: