28 Oct Magical Bird Photography in northern Kenya
Welcome to issue 25 of the Flack’s photography newsletters.
Eileen, Joshua and I have just returned home after an incredible three weeks in Kenya. After three years of Covid cancellations we finally made it to El Karama Lodge in Laikipia County, which is an hour from Nanyuki and approximately 5 hours (traffic allowing) north of Nairobi.
El Karama has a special place in our hearts as it is where Eileen’s late Dad; Basil, grew up and it is where we spent a week with him and Rosemary eleven years ago. The initial visit was part of a three week adventure with three 4x4s and 12 family members. Since this first experience at El Karama we have longed to return; to show Joshua Granddad’s farm, to spend more time with the wonderful owners; Murray and Sophie Grant, and to become completely immersed in this unique part of the Kenyan wilderness.
The purpose of the trip also included two exciting assignments; firstly, to put together a world class bird photography portfolio for the lodge and secondly, to help train the lodge’s exceptional guides on how to cater for photographers and specifically bird photographers.
A huge, heartfelt thank you to all the wonderful people at El Karama! We just loved our time together! It is the people we meet, the connections we make and the memories we share that makes life truly meaningful!
The Destination Behind the Birds
Magical Bird Photography at El Karama Lodge in Kenya
El Karama is a 14 000 acre wildlife conservancy that shows how effective livestock management, an award winning, tourist- focused eco lodge and a wilderness conservancy can thrive side by side. The lodge itself is serene, exclusive and solar powered and is nestled on the banks of the Ewaso (Uaso) Nyiro river. For anyone interested you can find out more on their website: elkaramalodge.com
Besides the obvious family connection to El Karama, we can comfortably say that we share so much in common with the lodge’s ethos and the values that permeate its running. Conservation is at the centre of things at El Karama; with the primary focus being to preserve the area’s unique habitat and the iconic animals that call it home. People are valued and celebrated. There is a heart to uplift and encourage and a heart to give back and make a positive difference. There is an expectancy and excitement of things to come and a feeling of ownership and responsibility. Although culture requires constant nurturing and focus, it is clear that El Karama is investing in the things that matter and that there is a collective heart to keep going and leave a proud legacy behind them.
The conservancy lies in dry bush country north of Mount Kenya (which you can see each day when the clouds allow) and supports a wonderful diversity of habitats.
Lavinia Grant’s book; “A Small Piece of Africa”, beautifully describes the richness of El Karama’s land; from rivers and gulleys that provide life giving water, support towering fever trees and pockets of thick undergrowth; to the vibrant, wildlife-rich dams and to serene grasslands and open bush that hold a patchwork of acacia woodlands, termite mounds and magnificent Shepherd (or Boscia) trees.
This diversity of habitat attracts a plethora of exciting bird species with over 400 species having been recorded on the farm over the last 40 years. The area boasts some of Africa’s most iconic and beautiful birds; including the likes of Vulturine Guineafowl, Secretarybird, Kori Bustard, Ruppel’s Vulture, Golden Pipit, Von der Decken’s Hornbill, White-bellied Go-away Bird, Superb and Hildebrandt’s Starlings, Rosy-patched Bush-shrikes, Hilderbrandt’s Francolin, Rufous Chatterer, Black-lored and Brown Babblers, Martial and Fish eagles, Augur Buzzards, Yellow-necked Spurfowl and Purple Grenadiers.
Besides the Birdlife, El Karama also supports four of Africa’s big five; lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo, with their neighbour Ol Pajeta Conservancy having a healthy population of rhinoceros. As much as it is always exciting to witness these famous African mammals, it is the conservancies iconic Kenyan game that are just as if not more intriguing. These include Thomson’s Gazelle, Gravy’s Zebra, Reticulated Giraffe, Gerenuk and the endmeic Laikipia Hartebeest. The farm also boasts some exciting smaller mammals including Aardwolf, Aardvark, Caracal and Gunther’s Dik-dik.
Photographing El Karama’s Iconic Bird Species
It was the combination of these fascinating mammal species and the exceptional birding that first captured my imagination eleven years ago. While Sophie and Murray have been pouring their energy into creating a leading eco lodge (amongst many other things), I have been honing my skills as a professional bird photographer, which from this perspective, made this second trip all the more purposeful and exciting.
Three years ago Sophie and I discussed the idea of building a visual portfolio of the birds of El Karama, which would not only drive awareness for these special birds and help educate the many children that pass through the Lodge’s bush school, but also encourage clients to come to the lodge to see for themselves. Since then I have been dreaming about Buff-crested Bustards creeping around in their barren, red-soil habitats; backlit Vulturine Guineafowl moving through their Acacia and Boscia-rich landscapes; D’Arnauds barbets calling from their “Drepanolobium” perches and Kori and White bellied bustards roaming the open plains and framed by Kenya’s classic big skies.
The time had now finally arrived! As we touched down in Nairobi and started to make the journey towards El Karama, the lack of sleep and excitement of finally being in Kenya kick started the usual nerves I feel when setting off to achieve my often audacious photographic goals and ambitions. Would El Karama be like I remembered? Would I be able to capture many of the images I had visualised? Would I be able to teach the guides anything at all? During my 43 years on planet earth I should know that these doubts are par for the course and that I should quickly ignore them and trust in the process ahead. Unfortunately it is always hindsight that is perfect sight and for the first few days they normally get the better of me as I try to make things happen and push hard to get the images that will tell the stories I hope to share.
Thankfully I have started to catch myself earlier than usual and stop the thoughts settling in. This means making a concerted effort to slow down and trust in the unrushed and peaceful way that providence takes its shape. It is when I am relaxed, listening and letting things happen organically that I find the most meaningful moments happen; be it amazing encounters with birds or deep connections with people.
At first we found ourselves trying to explore all reaches of the farm in a day, trying to track down too many of the species that would be needed for the assignment at hand. We were often driving during the best hours for photography (between 6am and 08h30) as opposed to being at the best spots for key birds and moving slowly through their habitat to capitalise on the golden light. We were also going to areas in the morning that we later found out were far better to get to in the afternoon. I guess this is all part of the early trip jitters as well as getting to know a new environment; understanding how light falls, where landscapes are the most conducive for photography, where certain birds are best located and how these birds habitually behave.
Fortunately for me I had an exceptional field and bird guide; Robinson Emungasi, by my side and as I relaxed and we started to teach each other our different skill sets, we started to find our rhythm and learn how to maximise each day. As Robbie shared his knowledge of birds and terrain with me, I shared all I knew about light, positioning and composition. Soon we began to intuitively pick up what was going through each other’s minds and immersed ourselves in the experience. This led to some terrific moments in the field!
The first of these occurred with a Kori Bustard on what is called the “Game Plain” at El Karama. We had watched him display early one morning only to realise that the light was too harsh and the landscape and background not dramatic enough for an impactful image. On our second afternoon game drive with Murray, however, we found the same bustard and soon learnt that the late afternoon conditions could make for some dramatic images.
With a vision in mind, we spent a few afternoons plugging away to see if all the necessary elements would align. After lots of leopard crawling, learning the behaviour of the Bustard and predicting cloud formations, it finally happened! First, we were able to capture some unique, backlit images and then to top it all off we were given my favourite and featured image of the same Kori Bustard walking across a big, moody Kenyan sky with a backdrop of beautiful, blue-tinged mountains. Hooray!
With a few images under the belt and some idea of where certain iconic birds hung out, we started to become far more strategic in our efforts. One bird that was high on the list was the awesome D’Aranud’s Barbet. We had seen four birds near the lodge on two occasions and had learnt that they would call from two specific perches in their territory. The day before we had got decent images of the birds displaying in the morning but the light for the best photographic perch was not ideal. That afternoon, as we departed the lodge, Robbie asked what I wanted to focus on. I replied by saying “whatever he felt was best”. His response was to go back to the Barbet’s territory as he believed that the light for the perch in question would be perfect in the afternoon. He was right and we ended up with displaying Barbets in fantastic light and enjoyed one of the stand out moments of the trip. It was so rewarding to see how both of us had started to grow in our knowledge and skills as the days progressed.
As we improved our approach the floodgates began to open from a photographic perspective and we started to get excellent moments with riverine birds such as Red-fronted Barbets, White-bellied Tits and Grey-headed and Striped Kingfishers. The open plains began to bear fruit in the late afternoons with exceptional moments with Northern Ant-eating Chats, Isabelline Wheatears, Fischer’s Sparrow-larks and even Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse.
We also started to pick up some of the classic Acacia specials such as Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Grey-capped Social Weaver, Chestnut Sparrow and Mountain Gray and Nubian Woodpeckers. As the portraits and more creative images started to take shape, we also photographed some of the less common or trickier species such as Banded Parisoma, White-headed Buffalo Weaver and Golden Pipit.
The most exciting find, however, was a new bird for the conservancy; an African Silverbill, which I noticed while driving past the causeway at Murera’s dam with one of El Karama’s most experienced guides and who we met on our first safari; Joseph Marara. I spotted a waxbill-looking bird out the corner of my eye and something said stop and take a photograph as it just looked odd. At first we thought it was possibly a young Finch or Waxbill of some variety, but when we returned to the lodge and spent some time questioning what it could be, it became clear that it was something totally different. A first for me and a first for El Karama!
After two exceptional weeks with Robinson, we had seen Vulturine Guineafowl on a few occasions, but my dream of photographing them in backlit conditions had not yet come to fruition.
Why backlit? For me not every subject works for backlighting as you need a bird that cannot be mistaken for any other and you need a bird whose feathers or stature create something unique when light shines behind them. Vulturine Guineafowl provide both of these features in spades!
Hence, I mentioned to Andrew Lelei, a guide who has been at El Karama for ten years and my new co-pilot, that this was still one of my main targets. As favour would have it, we arrived early one morning at Ol Mara dam; one of the Guineafowls favourite drinking spots, to find a flock that had recently quenched their thirst. Andrew’s exceptionally driving and positioning of the vehicle led to some of my favourite images from the trip. The worries from my first few days now seemed so unnecessary and unwarranted!
Bird Photography “set ups” at El Karama
Besides being out in the field with the El Karama guiding team, one of my main objectives was to demonstrate to the lodge what could be done with some basic photographic setups. Africa is miles behind the Americas and Europe when it comes to providing proper hides and set ups for bird photography and I was confident that this was not because African birds were different, but rather because we haven’t invested enough time and effort into creating these opportunities for visiting guests. The focus, not surprisingly, is on big game and predators, and hence birds or bird photography is often a secondary thought.
The lodge gardens host some brilliant species, who have become accustomed to being fed at two main feeders twice a day. Although the feeders are wonderful for guests and the birds, they haven’t been designed with professional photography in mind. While the camp was relatively quiet, Joshua and I found some suitable branches and created a makeshift “set-up” under a shady tree. Within hours we had achieved some super portraits of some excellent Kenyan birds including Von der deckens and Red-billed Hornbill, Rufous Chatterer, Brown Babbler, Yellow-throated Petronia, Wattled, Ruppel’s, Hildebrandts, Superb and Greater Blue-eared Starling, White bellied Go Away bird and Chestnut, Baglafecht, Speke’s and Vitelline Masked Weaver. This small foray into “perch photography” got me very excited about what could be done at the lodge going forward.
After spending time walking around the lodge grounds with Sophie Grant, the owner and managing director of El Karama, I am excited to say that not only is there massive potential but we have a few initial plans to take full advantage of it. Expect to see some creative set-ups at El Karama in the future as we test the locations and get things just right. Set-ups may seem easy, but a lot goes into selecting the right perches, light conditions, foregrounds and backgrounds. I personally am excited to see what this next phase will produce!
What makes El Karama special and different?
Here are just a few things that stood out for me:
- Exclusive, low traffic, flexible and unique: I love finding places that are off the beaten track; where there are less people and more adventures to be had. The exclusive nature of El Karama and the fact that there are usually only three game vehicles that patrol its 14,000 acre expanse, means there is low traffic and little chance of interruption. This together with the flexibility of an owner-run establishment make it ideal for bird photography, which thrives on early morning starts, the ability to stay out when the conditions are good and being in serene isolation.
- Iconic birds in good numbers: As previously mentioned the conservancy has an incredible bird list for its 14,000 acres. It is, however, not the volume of species that draws me to this location, but rather the iconic nature of the birds that are there. Seeing Vulturine Guineafowl, D’Arnaud’s Barbet, Buff-crested Bustard, Hildebrandt’s Francolin and so many others within a relatively short distance from the lodge was remarkable.
- Diversity of habitats, epic landscapes, big skies and eye level trees: As described, the conservancy has a diversity of habitats; from rivers and dams lined with fever trees, to beautiful open plains and grasslands, to pockets of Acacia and Combretum woodlands. On a clear day your morning drives are met with Mount Kenya in the background and in the evening the surrounding hills glow with a bluish tinge. The trees are also relatively low making for excellent eye level perches. These factors make for some unique photographic conditions and the possibility of an award-winning image or two.
- The excitement of big and iconic game sharing your space: Big game and predators are also in abundance, not to mention good numbers of the iconic Kenyan game listed. Much like anyone touring Africa, I love having my bird photography interrupted by lions feeding on a buffalo, cheetah roaming the open plains or a herd of elephant coming down to drink at a nearby waterhole. It makes for more excitement and awesome memories, not to mention a wonderful diversity of images.
- Close proximity to excellent photography locations: The locality of the camp is fantastic. It is right next to the Ewaso Nyiro river, which means birdlife abounds and the possibility of brilliant bird photography “set ups” exist. It also means it is easy to get to the key birding spots within 10 to 20 minutes of leaving camp in order to maximise the morning light. This shouldn’t be underestimated as the light in Africa can get harsh quickly.
- A wonderful focus on family and children: To top it off, the Lodge also caters specifically for families with children, and given Eileen and my love for our 8 year old son, this was such a blessing. Joshua had the time of his life; building mud structures, making soup with David and Jane in the kitchen, tracking lions with Joseph and John, beading with Andrew and Robbie as well as a host of other memorable and confidence building activities.
- Great ethos and values: It is, however, the lodge’s ethos and its entrenched values that excite my heart the most!
As with all trips there are some things that get left undone. One of those is spending more time staking out the resident African Finfoot. I learnt a lot about his modus operandi during my time, including what time he comes past the lodge and in what direction he travels, but despite finding an eye level location and camouflaging myself in a portable hide, I just didn’t get the final product. That said, I did photograph him jumping onto rocks as he sped his way down the river and past me.
The beauty of things left unfulfilled is that you have something to look forward to when you go back. There is no doubt the Flacks will do exactly this, as El Karama will remain etched in our hearts forever and we have made some draft plans to do more with Murray and Sophie in the months ahead. More on this in the future!
Awarded in Bird Photographer of the Year
In September 2022, my image; the Doting Couple, won the Bronze Award in the portrait category of Bird Photographer of the Year, placing it amongst the top 30 images in the world. What an incredible suprize and honour!
BPOTY is the world’s leading bird photography competition with over 20,000 entries received. The competition is in its 7th year and celebrates the world’s best bird photography, whilst supporting conservation efforts through imagery and financial support.
I was also incredibly fortunate to have four of my other entries commended in the competition and part of the competition’s year book, which celebrates the top 250 odd entries. I was particularly excited to see that my image of a Striped Flufftail taken at Mbona Nature Reserve was deemed worthy of this honour as well as two images from my home estate in Balgowan!
To see all the Bird Photographer of the Year winners from 2022: www.birdpoty.com/bpoty-2022-winners
Highly Honoured in Nature’s Best Africa 2022
Incredibly, more good news was announced yesterday by the Nature’s Best “African Wildlife Photo Awards”! My image of two Crested Guineafowl has been highly honoured in the “African Wildlife Portraits” category of this year’s competition. The image will be on display in the Nairobi National Museum in Kenya during November 2022 before heading to Zimbabwe, Tanzania and China.
Congratulations to all the other winners and highly honoured photographers, whose images can be seen here: 2022 Mkapa Awards Exhibition
Judge for South African Photographer of the Year 2022
Earlier this year I was asked to be one of the judges for the inaugural South African Photographer of the Year.
I am honoured to join such an esteemed panel of judges and be associated with a competition of this nature. You can read up about all of my fellow judges here: southafricanpoty.com/judges/
I have previously written about why I think competitions are worth entering and there is no doubt that SAPOTY is one to consider if you are passionate about South Africa, conservation, the power of photography to tell stories and the desire to learn and grow.
You can enter the competition using the following link and stand a chance to win your share of R250,000 worth of prizes: southafricanpoty.com
I hope this newsletter has captured some of the magic of El Karama in Kenya and got you up to date with some of my latest news and announcements.
As always, I look forward to your feedback and sharing more with you in the months ahead.
Yours in bird photography,