Photographing African Pittas in Mozambique

Thanks to everyone who subscribed and provided feedback on our first issue of the Flack’s Photography newsletter. It was great to receive some encouragement as well as useful advice! I also hope and trust that you remain safe and healthy during these unprecedented times!

I may be a little different to many birders or bird photographers in Africa, as I pay little attention to geographical boundaries or life-lists when deciding where I will go next to photograph birds. I normally select a couple of key species that I have been dreaming of aiming my camera at, and then look to find the destination where they are most abundant, and where there is the best chance of getting good photographs of them in their natural habitat. I also like a challenge and therefore often pick birds that are difficult to photograph or have rarely been photographed. This appeals to my adventurous side, and invariably leads me to some remote and unique destinations.

One such location is the Zambezi River Delta in Mozambique, where I have spent many days in search of some of Southern Africa’s most exciting and difficult to photograph bird species. This next issue is dedicated to this incredible “Destination behind the Birds” and showcases some of the fascinating species that call this habitat home!

Location, location, location! ~ Coutada 11 & 12, Mozambique

Birding is a bit like buying property; the value you derive has a lot to do with the location, and as far as birding venues go, the Zambezi River Delta, which lies between Mwanza to the south and the Zambezi River to the north in Mozambique, is right up there with some of the best birding real estate in Africa.

The featured image & “The Holy Grail” of African birding; the African Pitta, stands alert on its display perch two kilometres from Mungari Camp in Coutada 11, Mozambique. This portrait was a dream come true and was taken on our first full day of our 5 night trip.

This special location is a short, 45 minute flight from Beira in Central Mozambique (which is closer to Johannesburg than Cape Town, with an estimated flight time of 1 hour 40 minutes from Johannesburg), and holds four of the nine Coutadas; 10, 11, 12 and 14. The Coutadas range from 2000 to 4000 square kilometres in extent and are “wildlife utilisation areas”, which are operated as hunting concessions on 5 to 10 year leases. The most important of these, for visiting birders and bird photographers, are Coutada 11 and 12, each including a rich diversity of habitats, and an avian checklist that makes the heart rate of even the most experienced birders quicken.

From a pure birding perspective, the two key habitats are lowland forest and miombo woodland, but the Coutadas also hold floodplains, savannah and seasonal pans.

Coutada 12 holds some of the best miombo woodlands Southern Africa has to offer, where you will find the likes of Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike, Racket-tailed Roller, Red-winged Warbler and Southern Hyliota. This image was taken outside the main entrance of our camp in Coutada 12, where I located all these species and more.

Given the heroic efforts of the anti-poaching units in the area, wildlife has once again returned, and you are often treated to some great sightings; from the tiniest of antelope; Suni, Red Duiker and Blue Duiker, to the most majestic of horned antelope; Sable and Nyala, to inquisitive Oribis and Reedbuck, and to large herds of Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest, Cape Buffalo and Plains Zebra. The floodplain, which is about a two hour drive from Mungari Camp in Coutada 11, is a spectacle in its own right. It may not be the Masa Mara, but the number of game grazing its open grasslands is impressive, as is the birdlife, with African Cuckoo-hawk and Red-necked Falcon seen on my last visit there.

An unusually accommodating Red Duiker photographed in the garden of Mungari camp, which is situated in prime, lowland forest; and a female and male Oribi photographed on the way to the floodplain.

When it comes to bird species, the Zambezi Delta is famous for the “The Coutada 3”; African Pitta, East Coast Akalat and White-chested Alethe. Seeing these three birds in a week-long trip would be the equivalent of seeing a ground pangolin, a black-footed cat and a melanistic civet in the same time period (well, almost!). To add to the bird fiesta, you can also bump into the near mystical Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo or a Vanga flycatcher or a Speckle-throated Woodpecker. Its basically a 5 Michelin star smorgasbord of the best Southern African bird species an avid bird photographer can hope for!

Two of “The Coutada 3”, the legendary African Pitta and the elusive East Coast Akalat. I still need to go back for an upgrade on my White-chested Alethe images.

Coutada 12 | Nyala Safaris Camp | October 2015

On my first trip to the Zambezi River Delta, I stayed at the Nyala Safaris Camp set in the heart of Coutada 12’s miombo woodlands. It was October, the hottest month in the Coutadas, where temperatures can easily reach the high 40s (degrees Celsius) and where showering at midnight, to keep cool, is expected. Before embarking on this nail-biting adventure, I read all I could about the area and the feathered spectacles on offer, but was horribly unprepared for some of the areas lesser known inhabitants. I had no idea that the lowland forests are also a hot spot for tsetse flies. If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting one, all I can say is don’t wear short sleeve shirts or shorts on the back of a game vehicle! Tsetse flies are to man what the Roadrunner was to the Coyote; a constant source of pain and anguish! Fortunately, my passion for bird photography outweighs any inconvenience high temperatures, tsetse flies or late afternoon visits by snakes can muster. I now, however, pack long sleeve shirts, long pants, gaiters and as much insect repellent as my bags will allow.

From my research it seemed that most birders visited the area in December and not October, as they wanted to have the opportunity to see “The Coutada 3” in a single visit. This is considered almost impossible in October, as the African Pitta is thought to arrive around December and only starts calling after the first rains. (And I say almost impossible as we got a very quick glimpse of a Pitta during this October trip but were unable to relocate it, without its telltale call). It was also apparent that most birding took place on the entrance road to Coutada 12, and that very little birding had occurred beyond this first tract of lowland forest. This made the trip even more exciting, as I would have full access to both Coutada 11 and 12 and would be going at a time when few birders had gone before.

What first struck me about the area, besides the beauty and expanse of the forests and woodlands themselves, was the abundance of East Coast Akalat! I had always heard how difficult these diminutive robins were to get out in the open, but it seemed that in October they were far more accommodating than in December. This may be for several reasons, but the two that made most sense to me was, firstly, that the area is much drier and the forest far less lush in October. Consequently, there was less foliage to conceal the birds and far more open spaces and light for them to move into. Secondly, October is when the Akalats start to pair up and are actively looking for mates, while December is when they have already paired up and likely to be nesting. This may have contributed to their increased willingness to come out and pose for the camera.

The East Coast Akalat is a range restricted bird that is relatively common, albeit very difficult to photograph, in the dark interior of Coutada 11 and Coutada 12’s lowland forest environment. October, the hottest and driest month in the Delta, is an excellent time to try for this species.

The second thing I noticed was how common Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrikes were, especially around the miombo woodlands at camp. Although I saw both Retz and White-fronted Helmetshrike, Chestnut-fronted was by far the more numerous of the three species. Besides these incredibly special Helmetshrikes, the woodland around the camp was also excellent for a variety of other specials including; Western Violet-backed Sunbird, Stierling’s Wren Warbler, White-breasted Cuckoo-shrike and Southern Hyliota. You do, however, need to prepare yourself for a lot of “neck-craning” as the woodland trees are tall, and several of the species mentioned are found flitting around their canopies.

The grassy understory of these tall trees proved to be the home of Red-backed Warblers and Red-faced Cisticolas, which although not as colourful as the previous species, made up for it in character and photographic opportunities.

Red-faced Cisticolas (top) and Red-winged Warblers (bottom) were some of the special LBJs (little brown jobs) we encountered on our trip in October 2015. The Red-winged Warbler is a special of the area and was consistently found in mature miombo where there was tall grass.

My best sighting at camp, however, was finding the nest of a Green-backed Woodpecker right behind my thatched hut. These diminutive Woodpeckers have a smaller head and a stubbier bill than their common cousins, but beware not to confuse them with Golden-tailed Woodpeckers, which is something I did on my second trip to the area. (They also have spotted as opposed to striped necks, breasts and underbodies, but who can tell when you are so excited!)

A male, Golden-tailed Woodpecker (left) also showing a “green” back and its smaller, stubbier billed cousin; the Green-backed Woodpecker (right). Both Woodpeckers were photographed in the camps’ gardens, the Golden-tailed at Mungari and the Green-backed at Nyala Safaris. 

There is something truly unique and remarkable about birding in an area that is both wild and remote, and one in which anything could happen (good and bad), and any special bird species could suddenly pop into view. It keeps you on a 24/7 adrenalin rush as you put in the many hours required to locate some of the trickier species. You have constant FOMO (fear of missing out), well at least I do, which keeps you persevering through the many hours of “nothingness” that you often experience in both the miombo woodland and lowland forest environments.

You find yourself walking off the main road through thick, unforgiving lowland forest, you are hot and bothered, your camera gear is catching on stuff, you have been cursing tsetse flies under your breath and imagining holidays lazing on the beach with your family, when suddenly the unexpected happens! You move into a forest opening, after failing horribly to photograph the forever-moving Livingstone’s Flycatcher, when a weird looking, batis-like bird with an interesting hairstyle stares down at you from its dead, tree perch. Holy Vanga! No way! There in all its mythical glory sits a female Vanga Flycatcher eating a moth, completely oblivious to the fact that it may just have made the odd looking, camera wielding creature below it, pee itself from pure, unadulterated excitement.

It is moments like this that make the Coutadas different from the usual birding destinations. It is the blood, sweat and tstetses combined with that something unexpected and truly special, that makes you want to keep on going back for more.

This high-key photograph is more for the birders than the bird photographers, as Vanga Flycatchers are highly sought after in the Southern Africa region. This is the female Vanga in the story and was photographed in a forest opening in Coutada 11 with Gebre and Sakkie van Zyl (who were amazing guides and companions).

Coutada 11 | Mungari Camp | December 2019

With the fond memories of my first trip still very much alive, it didn’t take John Robinson much convincing to get me to agree to accompany him on another trip to the Coutadas in December 2019. John had recently launched his birding company; Robinson Birding, and asked if I would join him on one of his trips and write an article for Airlink’s inflight magazine; Skyways.

My only concern was that the main subject of the article was meant to be the African Pitta, and I only had 5 days to find it and get images that were article worthy! The African Pitta has been dubbed as the “Holy Grail” of African birding, and there is good reason for this. It is as spectacular, as it is hard to find! What other bird has a stubby tail, a bright red rump and tummy and a green back, dotted with exquisite turquoise blotches? What bird celebrates its livelihood by jumping in the air, spreading its wings and making a delightful “Whoop!”? What bird hangs out in dark, lowland forest and can only be found when it calls? What bird only calls after it rains? What bird is more difficult to photograph than the Yeti? Yes, indeed, the main subject of the article I was meant to write. Good thing I agreed to join John then! I mean what could go wrong!?

As the trip approached, the anxiety of not photographing this dream bird, turned to sheer excitement at the adventure ahead. I had a number of unanswered prayers when it came to birding in the Coutadas; Would I finally get a glimpse of a Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo? Or capture a Tiny Greenbul at eye-level? Or finally find a Livingstone’s Flycatcher that is willing to stay still for longer than a nanosecond?

I didn’t get a glimpse of a Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, but I did get to photograph a Lowland Tiny Greenbul at eye level. For those that don’t know this particular species, this is equivalent to seeing a Polar bear in the Sahara desert!

I had packed my long sleeve shirts and long pants, I had ample supplies of tstetse fly preventing and killing medicine, I had charged all my camera batteries and I had finally decided what selection of lenses to take. This was going to be my first long distance trip with my new canon 600mm mkiii lens and I accompanied it with my 100-400mm f5.6 and 16-35mm f2.8. I had all angles covered and was as good as ready to go!

The flight to Beira was effortless and passport control was smooth and uneventful (which is not always the case). I then boarded a small plane with Pete; the pilot, who was going to take us to the landing strip adjacent Mungara Camp; my home for the next 5 nights. There were a few nervous moments as the plane came within a few kilometres of our destination, as Pete thought that the stormy weather might prevent us from landing. I almost cried big man tears there and then, while Pete’s silent demeanour kept me guessing. Fortunately the weather abated and we were welcomed by John and the Mungara Camp team. I was finally in Pitta country!

There was little time to hang about, as John had seen the Pitta in the morning, and, given its unpredictability, was keen to see if we could catch up with it before the light started to fade. It had taken 8 full days of hardcore searching for John’s last group to locate this cryptic bird, and it was down to the last few minutes of their tour before they were able to lay eyes on it. And I was lucky enough to arrive that very same day! Bad weather, however, brought our first outing to an abrupt end, and we decided to wait until morning to try again. In hindsight this was perfect, as it allowed Malcolm and Gail Gemmel, the two other guests (and old friends from Creighton, KwaZulu Natal), to arrive that evening, and join us for our first real attempt at the Pitta in the morning.

We woke before most vampires go to bed; around 4am and were at the Pitta spot before sunrise. All of us knew what we were hoping to hear; just one Pitta “Whoop!” would do it. The first few minutes were deathly silent, except for the sound of leaves underfoot. And then the “Holy Grail” belted out its famous call, and what were slow and steady paces turned to fast, determined strides as we narrowed in on the sound.

I can confidently say this was one of the most exciting moments in my bird photography journey. Not only was my Skyway’s article saved, but I got to witness a truly remarkable event; an African Pitta whooping, jumping in the air, flapping its wings and then proudly returning to its display perch. It was the closest I have come to feeling like David Attenborough!

My David Attenborough moment and another take on the jewel of the lowland forests; the African Pitta.

While Malcolm, Gail and John moved on to try and find some of the other lowland forest specials, I spent every moment I could with this remarkable bird. So much so, that even after two mornings of saturating views, I still went back on my own to soak up more of its magic. Although I missed out on some great forest and miombo bird sightings, I would not have swapped my time with this bird for anything else, and it was my last outing which was undoubtedly the best one.

I was dropped off just outside the “Pitta” forest before sunrise, hoping that I could relocate the bird, spend some alone time with it and if luck would have it capture a “Habitat Shot”, in that, an image that showed off the bird and its natural environment. After walking no more than a few hundred metres I spotted the Pitta hopping along on the forest floor. Instead of trying to approach it, I quickly sat down on the narrow forest path and silently watched it. It moved slowly towards me jumping on various roots and branches as it closed the gap between us. After getting within a few paces it selected a low-level branch as a lookout point, and allowed me to capture a number of full frame images. It then proceeded to climb higher into the canopy and display directly above my head. As far as memorable birding moments go this will be hard to beat!

Undoubtedly the star of the show and a moment I will never forget! An African Pitta hops up onto a low hanging branch in one of Coutada 11’s lowland forest habitats, as I sat alone on the forest floor quietly observing it.

Birding from Mungari Camp, however, is not just about Pittas. In fact, the grounds of the camp itself offer some of the best birding you can find on the African continent. When your garden list, after a 5 night trip, consists of African Broadbill, White-chested Alethe, East Coast Akalat, Red-throated Twinspot, Lowland Tiny Greenbul and Narina Trogon, you know you have come to the right place. For any photographers looking to capture these species, I am not sure there are better places than this Coutada 11 camp, and I don’t get paid anything for saying that. Being someone who prioritises getting quality images over the number of species I see and photograph, this camp was very well-positioned and made for some excellent opportunities (including the Narina Trogon images in my first newsletter).

Two images of an African Broadbill; a very sought after sand-forest species, taken in the same location as the African Pitta, and giving a feel for the forest light and conditions. 

Moreover, within just a couple of kilometres from camp, you are able to quickly locate many other sought-after species including Woodward’s and Pale Batis, Livingstone’s Flycatcher, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, Livingstone’s Turaco, Bohm’s Spinetail and many more.

A Woodward’s Batis stops for a few seconds in the canopy of a lowland forest, before continuing to follow after the bird party that was passing through. This Batis is one of the two “special” Batises that can be found in the Coutadas, with the other being the Pale Batis.

Tips and settings for photographerstaking photographs in lowland forest

Camera and Lens: This issue’s featured image of an African Pitta was taken hand-held with my canon 5d mkiv and 600mm f4 mkiii lens.

Camera Settings: AV mode | ISO 6400 | 1/320s | f4 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | No Flash

Hints and Tips: Taking photographs in lowland forest can be extremely challenging! The light is often less to non-existent, and where there is light it is normally dappled or confusing. The forest is also thick with tangles and trees, making movement and getting into the right position very difficult. Added to this, most of the birds are found high up in the canopy, making eye level shots almost impossible and creating a fair share of neck stiffness for the next day. The more secretive of them also prefer shade to sun, making clear shots with enough light even more challenging. Considering all these frustrating elements I thought it would be helpful to share a few tips on how to improve your images in these taxing conditions.

Selecting the right camera and lens ~ As much as many photographers believe it is their skill that creates the image, I think the camera and the lens creates the level playing field on which this statement holds true. In the case of forest birding, it is near impossible to get quality, print-worthy images if you don’t have a camera and lens combination, which can handle low light conditions. For example, as much as my 7d mkII was a wonderful camera (and the camera I used in 2015) it is no match for the 5d mkiv I now use for these low light environments. (And yes, before we have a clash of the brands, as much as I am a Canon user, I do believe that Nikon has the upper hand at present when it comes to high ISO).

You also need a lens which is 400mm or greater, and that ideally has a low fstop, as opening up your aperture is often a requirement in these conditions. For many years I used my Canon 400mm Mkii f2.8 lens, which performed brilliantly in low light, but have now moved to the new 600mm Mkiii f4 lens, due to its extra reach, lighter weight and slightly improved image quality. I do, however, miss the lower fstop of my 400.

This full frame image of an African Pitta provides a great example of how tough lowland forest conditions can be for bird photographers. It was taken at ISO 6400, f4, 1/20s and Exposure bias 0.3. And I even resorted to using my flash! If anything, I should have pushed my ISO further as a shutter speed of 1/20s is not enough and I usually look to get it over 1/200s!

Pushing your ISO limits ~ I think many photographers (including myself on occasion) have become fixated with low ISO. The lower the better! Although this makes sense from an image quality perspective, I think it is a mistake to focus on this when it comes to low light, forest conditions. Based on my experience, trying to maximise your ISO in the forest, often leads to disappointment, as the smallest of movement from the bird can result in a blurry image. Rather up the ISO, get your shutter speed above 1/200s, get some sharp, beautiful images with a bit of noise, and then consider lowering it. You will often find, even at ISOs of 1600 to 6400, that you can still achieve sharp and exquisite images, which are print-worthy and possibly the best of a seldom seen species. And if you are worried about the additional noise, there are many ways to reduce this through basic and advanced post processing techniques, including the recent use of artificial intelligence to remove noise completely. All the images in this newsletter, however, use basic post processing methods only, as I tend to prefer authenticity over perfection. But to give justice to my opinion on post processing, you will have to wait for one of my future newsletters! It is a controversial and hot topic!

To flash or not to flash ~ Whenever I bring up “flash” with my photographer friends, there is a wide range of opinions and tastes that come to the forefront. Some use it all the time as they think it creates the perfect, almost “studio model” image, while others believe it should be used but not noticeable, while others feel it should be avoided at all cost and takes away from the natural look and feel of the image. I tend to be an ambient light fan and lean more towards the purist side of the argument; avoiding flash like the coronavirus (had to bring that in somewhere).

That said, I do believe flash has its place and can be used in specific circumstances to deal with low or harsh light conditions; such as using it for fill flash when a bird is in the shade or where it is your only option to get a useable image.

When using flash, however, I would just encourage you to be careful how you apply it and do your best to ensure your image maintains a natural look. Subtlety is key here and many photographers battle to get the balance right or get carried away, and unfortunately, at least in my opinion, create images that look unnatural, “over-flashed” or washed out. If I were forced to choose, I would say no to flash and live without it. I love light and how the lack or availability of it can create emotion, contrast and art, but prefer it to be natural.

This is the exact same bird and scene, but with fill flash used in the first image (left) and no flash in the second image (right). As much as the use of flash brings out the red of the belly, the second image will always be my favourite as it best captures the scene that was in front of me and comes across as more authentic. 

Staying put ~ I am often too excited to stay put and end up spending many frustrating moments following bird parties rather than letting the birds come to me. With that confession out the way, there is a lot to be said for planning and patience, especially in forests. Forest birds are known for creating bird parties, especially in winter, and following along after each other. Thus, if you can predict the direction in which they are moving you can get ahead of them, and position yourself with the light behind you and in a location where the canopy opens up or where there are some clear branches for the birds to land on. I have had more success using this approach, and thus, would recommend you consider being in front of the party and not in it.

Timing your photographic trip ~ From a photographic standpoint, and to avoid disappointment, it is important to identify the birds you most want to photograph and then select the best season to visit based on this list. As much as December is the ideal month to photograph the African Pitta, it is not the ideal time to obtain photographs of exquisite species such as Broad-tailed Whydahs, Black-winged Bishops and Zambezi Indigobirds. Unfortunately and suprizingly these birds are in their non breeding regalia in December, and thus better seen and photographed from February to June when they are actively breeding. Winter is often a better time to achieve quality photographs of specific species (e.g. Vanga Flycatcher, Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike and Western Violet-backed Sunbird ), as many are more easily located in bird parties during these months and/or are less secretive post their breeding season. The winter climate is also more conducive to birding and photography, as the temperatures are milder and the sun less harsh. And finally, photographers may want to avoid January to March as these are the highest rainfall months, and not ideal for photography or getting around.

Our tour party in December 2019 from left to right; Malcolm Gemmel, Gail Gemmel, Nik Nak; our local bird guide, and John Robinson. This photograph was taken straight after our first sighting of the African Pitta, 2 kilometres from Mungari Camp in Coutada 11, Mozambique.

“Special” Birds you can see in Coutada 11 & 12

“Special” birds observed on my trips to the Coutadas in October 2015 and December 2019 ~ click on the links to see available images: East Coast Akalat, White-chested Alethe, Black-and-White or Vanga Flycatcher, African Pitta, Livingstone’s Flycatcher, African Broadbill, Black-headed Apalis, Lowland Tiny Greenbul, Western Violet-backed Sunbird, Copper Sunbird, Plain-backed Sunbird, Southern Hyliota, Green-backed Woodpecker, Southern Banded Snake-eagle, African Cuckoo-hawk, European Honey Buzzard, Red-throated Twinspot, Eastern Nicator, Stierling’s Wren Warbler, Miombo or Lesser Blue-eared Starling, Red-faced Crombec, Red-winged Warbler, Collared Palm Thrush, Olive or Madagascar Bee-eater, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Racket-tailed Roller, African Golden Oriole, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Greater Painted Snipe, Mangrove Kingfisher, Narina Trogan, Chestnut-fronted Helmet-shrike, Retz Helmet-shrike, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Bat Hawk, Pale Batis, Woodward’s Batis, Grey-headed Parrot, Bohm’s Spinetail, Black-winged Bishop and Silvery-cheeked Hornbill.
Missing from my list but also on offer include: Thick-billed Cuckoo, Lesser Seedcracker, Zambezi Indigobird, Black-eared Seedeater, Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah and Speckle-throated Woodpecker.

I hope this first “Destination behind the Birds” was as interesting as it was exciting to experience in person! I will always remember these times, the people I shared them with and the birds and photographs, which bring them to life as if they were yesterday.

Our next newsletter will be focused on one of Africa’s prettiest and equally difficult birds to photograph; the Green Twinspot and will provide insights into what is known as  “setup” or “perch” photography.

Thanks for your continued interest in The Flack’s Photography newsletter. I would love to hear from you, so please send me any feedback or suggestions that you think may help.