The Magnificent Makuleke Concession in Northern Kruger

Welcome to my 28th bird photography newsletter!

In this next issue I thought I would take you on a journey to one of my favourite bird photography destinations in Africa; the northern Kruger and for the first time; the Makuleke concession. Before we get there, however, here are just a few highlights and updates from my side.

Please get in touch with me if you have any questions or would like to set up a 30 minute online coffee to chat about all things birds and photography. I look forward to hearing from you!

LATEST NEWS
Upcoming Mentorship Programme Intakes and Workshops

As you may know I launched my online, one-on-one mentorship programme at the beginning of the year. The programme was born out of a desire to teach and encourage fellow photographers and has been such a blessing. I am absolutely loving being a small part of each photographer’s journey towards building confidence, reaching their objectives and pushing their own boundaries. Thank you to everyone who has enrolled and to all those who helped get the programme off the ground, especially my amazing wife; Eileen.

I have participants from all over the world joining me; from as close by as KwaZulu Natal and Johannesburg in South Africa to as far afield as Texas in the United States and Singapore in Asia. Each person is unique, with varying levels of experience and different backgrounds; from artists to landscape photographers, brand ambassadors, safari guides, passionate birders and conservationists. We all, however, share a common desire; to continue learning and improving our craft, as well as a deep love for the natural world. It has been such a privilege as well as a ton of fun!

I have also been really touched and encouraged by some of the feedback from my first intake of clients in 2023:

“I can’t tell you how happy I am that I decided to do the whole mentorship programme. Having attended numerous photographic tours I always felt that there was something missing in my images and that was creativity. I have learnt so much in such a short time. My approach at imagining how I want my images to turn out is so different … for the better. I never before would have thought of taking the picture of the cardinal in such a way. I just wish I had done the programme earlier and before going on specialist photography tours. I truly cannot recommend this program enough. And to top it off he is also a super nice guy to sit and chat with.”
(Yvette H, Texas, USA)

“I just completed Richard’s mentorship programme and thoroughly enjoyed it. He presented everything in such a professional way and I so enjoyed his passion and reason for doing what he does. He taught me so much through not only sharing his skills, knowledge and practical experience but also bringing it to life in my own work. It was such a privilege to spend the last few weeks with him. I can highly recommend the programme. I just wish I had done it a few years earlier!”
(Gielie S, Johannesburg, South Africa)

I have been given so much satisfaction from seeing fellow photographers start to recognise their own potential and what they are capable of achieving. We are all uniquely creative and when we know what we don’t know and are then able to put this knowledge into practice, we inevitably start to grow as artists.

Astonishingly, my first intake in March led to a quicker than expected second and third intake for July and September. Given the personal nature of the programme, I only take a few participants for each 3 month intake and hence, I have started a waiting list for my next intakes in January and April 2024. This will be used to fill any unforeseen cancellations, so please get in touch as soon as possible if you would like to know more and be part of the next ones. (I may also have one opening for September!).

The first step is a super relaxed virtual coffee with me (with zero strings attached) to discuss your love for photography and objectives. I felt this was an important initial step to ensure I am able to meet each participant’s personal expectations, help select the right way to work through the programme and get to know each other before any commitments are made. The details of the programme can be found on my website and you can fill out a quick enquiry form there. I will be starting the virtual coffees again in a few weeks’ time but please book now to secure your spot: theflacks.co.za/mentorship-programme.

The mentorship programme also led to my first photography (group) workshop, which is going ahead at the end of June. The details of my workshop/s can be found here: theflacks.co.za/workshops. The workshop is designed to help you move your images from good to great, to build confidence in your compositions and to help you identify the practices and tools that can set the table for creative success. It will take place at my home estate in the Natal Midlands, which will allow me to show you where and how I achieved some of my more recognised images.

I know that a number of people missed out on my first one, so I am considering another workshop for November/December 2023 as well as April/May 2024. Please get in touch with me and let me know what dates could work for you during these time periods. I will then try pin down the most suitable dates with the venue and hopefully accommodate as many participants as I can. (The minimum number is 3 and the maximum number is 6)

“Richard Flack has an unparalleled ability to create a learning environment that unlocks creativity, challenges the status quo of the photographic discipline, and allows for the reimagining of what is possible when capturing the natural world through your lens. His talent as a mentor, facilitator and teacher is matched by his awe-inspiring imagery, in-depth knowledge of composition and design, and his emotive storytelling behind each of the beautifully crafted images. In two hours, my own perspectives of what is possible in my personal photographic journey were reignited and my ideas behind how and why I take photographs were expanded to new horizons.”
(Melissa W, Johannesburg, South Africa)

The Destination behind the birds
The Magnificent Makuleke

Yes, magnificent indeed! Having spent endless hours photographing the iconic bird species of the Punda Maria and Pafuri regions of the Kruger National Park, I could not wait to explore the Makuleke concession on my most recent trip to this spectacular and remote wilderness destination.

The objective of the trip was to partner with The Outpost lodge and their head guide; Warren Deyzel, to see what the area could offer in terms of a specialist, bird photography destination. The following write up highlights some of our memorable encounters as well as a few of the photographs that this awesome location delivered during our 5 night trip.

The Makuleke concession not only gives you access to the riverine forest of the Luvuvhu River (which it shares with the Pafuri section of the Kruger National Park) but also provides private road access to incredible tracts of mature Mopane Woodland, magnificent fever tree forests, Baobab strewn hillsides, the Limpopo river and its riverine habitats, two breath-taking gorges (Lanner and Mutale) and three RAMSAR wetland sites. It is hard to think you can get better than Pafuri and Punda Maria combined, but if there was such a place it is the Makuleke concession. Indeed, the concession is only 2% of the size of the whole of the Kruger National Park yet holds over 80% of the entire park’s biodiversity, including between 350 and 400 bird species. Special birds include Pel’s Fishing Owl, Saddle-billed Stork, Bateleur, Ground Hornbill, Dickenson’s Kestrel, Racket-tailed Roller, Arnot’s Chat, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Three-banded Courser, Broad-billed Roller, Lemon-breasted Canary, Dusky Lark, Bohm’s and Mottled Spinetail and Grey-headed Parrot just to name a few.

Three RAMZAR wetland sites

Did I just mention three RAMZAR wetland sites; Banini, Mkwadzi and Spokonyoli? One of the standout memories of the trip was being able to explore these incredible wetlands; wetlands, which I had heard nothing about previously. Warren, being a professional trails guide, has a big heart for adventure and exploration, and in preparation for my visit had started to explore the roads less travelled in the concession. Many of these roads led to different parts of these three wetlands and on arrival he insisted we start with a drive to show me what he had found. I am so glad he did, as these wetlands produced many of our most exciting encounters and indeed, photographs.

Banini was a haven for three species of Bee-eaters; Carmine, Blue-cheeked and Little, and at various locations we found these stunning birds hawking insects next to the road or congregating in the nearby trees. On one occasion we had Mosque Swallows, Carmine Bee-eaters and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters all hawking insects within a 360 degree radius of our vehicle. It was hard to know what to do. Fortunately, I pointed my mirrorless camera at some bee-eaters and hoped for the best!

 

Every time we made our journey towards the different wetlands/pans, my pulse would start to quicken, as there was always an unexpected encounter or a new discovery that made for exhilarating photography. Knowing that we could also get off the vehicle and walk within 50 metres of it (given it was safe to do so and Warren gave the green light) added to the excitement, as angles are everything in bird photography and this extra freedom of movement enabled far better compositions and opportunities than being confined to a vehicle.

On one occasion, we spotted a handsome Tawny Eagle with prey in the distance. We approached slowly, took a few record shots and I then asked Warren if it was safe for me to get off the vehicle and use the cover of some nearby trees to move a little closer. Warren gave me the green light and I made a careful approach. The prey item turned out to be a black mamba and the flexibility to move around allowed me to compose it in the beautiful woodland surrounds. Besides Tawny Eagles and Bee-eaters we were also treated to visiting Dusky Larks and Great-spotted Cuckoos, flocks of Knob-billed Ducks, the occasional Open-billed and Marabou Storks as well as a host of waders and other birds of prey.

 

 

One of the early observations about the three wetlands is that they contained a very large number of Lala palms. Given that Lemon-breasted Canaries love these palms and are known from Crook’s Corner in the Pafuri section, I immediately thought that there would be a very good chance of finding them here too. We hadn’t been exploring the area for more than an hour when we encountered our first flock. This first flock led to many more sightings and ended with us discovering an active nest site for this sought after species.

While watching the comings and goings of canaries, our eyes were drawn to a pair of Mosque Swallows that were circumnavigating the pan. I have never been able to get decent images of these Swallows as they have normally been flying some distance above me or perched too far away. Fortunately, this pair decided to land a few metres from where we were parked and began collecting mud from a puddle in the road. Taking the time to observe them, we realised that they were repeating this behaviour every 20 minutes or so. Equipped with this knowledge, I positioned myself flat on my belly a few metres from the puddle and hoped for the best. As luck would have it, they weren’t bothered with my presence and I was able to get some unprecedented images of them.

 

A breeding site for Mottled Spinetails

If the wetlands were not enough, we also had the privilege of being taken to a breeding site for a flock of Mottled Spinetails by the current section ranger of Pafuri; Richard Sowry.

For those not familiar with these birds; they are the cousins of Bohm’s Spinetails (which I wrote a newsletter on some time back: theflacks.co.za/news/photographing-bohms-spinetail-in-northern-kruger), but are harder to find and hence, even more difficult to photograph.

Thanks to Richard’s kindness I fulfilled a bucket list desire; to see and photograph these unique birds around a large Baobab nest site. It was fascinating to observe their behaviour and watch them at close quarters as they whizzed above our heads and every so often darted into the large, “man-sized” entrance to their wooden abode.

 

As much as witnessing these incredible birds was a major highlight, the best part was spending an afternoon with Richard and hearing his heart for the northern Kruger. Richard has dedicated his life to conserving the Kruger National Park and we spoke at length about how holistic conservation practices (which include building unity among and uplifting local communities) are essential if we want to protect our natural heritage. His views were very congruent with mine and I left feeling both hopeful and encouraged. Having seen the incredible work that the African Parks Network is doing through much of Africa there is little doubt that there is still hope to protect our wild places, but we need to unite around the strategies that are working and that benefit both the wild places and the people that surround them.

A visit to the Pafuri Picnic Spot

No trip to the northern reaches of Kruger would be complete without a stop in at the Pafuri picnic spot and catching up with its brilliant, bird specialist and caretaker; Mandla Ngomane. This location never disappoints and within minutes we were treated to some of its special visitors.

The highlight was undoubtedly a flock of Retz Helmetshrikes; who were catching insects in the canopy and feeding their young. (Please look out for the July/August edition of African Birdlife should you want to learn more about this epic location and see an image of the juvenile Helmetshrike).

In the meantime, here are some images from the picnic site taken on this trip and my previous trip in November 2022. Time spent here can not only lead to seeing a number of the area’s special birds but also getting your best images of them. Some of the species I have seen here include; Black-throated Wattle-eye, African Yellow White-eye, Retz Helmetshrike, Tropical Boubou, African Cuckoo Hawk, Saddle-billed Stork, Heuglin’s Robin-chat, Ashy Flycatcher and Bearded Scrub Robin.

 

 

The mature Mopane Woodlands

One of the biomes that I hoped to spend some quality time in was the mature mopane woodlands that are in close proximity to The Outpost Lodge. These woodlands often feel deserted, but if you can afford to move slowly through them they can offer some very exciting birding and indeed, photographic opportunities. The Mopane makes for a stunning background of green in summer or a kaleidoscope of red, orange and yellow in winter.

Undoubtedly the stars of this habitat are the resident Arnot’s Chats and the exquisite Racket-tailed Rollers. I had spent some unforgettable time with the rollers on my last trip (https://theflacks.co.za/news/iconic-birds-big-cats-of-northern-kruger-national-park/) and consequently focused on the Chats this time, as I had been visualising a suitable “habitat shot” of them for over a year.

Thanks to Warren’s knowledge of their behaviour and whereabouts we found the Chats most days and were given some great moments with them. The adults had two juveniles in their company and we were privileged to watch them as they interacted and foraged on the woodland floor. On our second attempt, the female took flight and landed a few metres in front of me, perfectly framed by the surrounding woodland, and allowing for us to bank one of our photographic targets early on in the trip.

The riverine woodland – the “Luvuvhu and Limpopo Magic”

Having photographed Pel’s Fishing Owl, Three-banded Courser, Saddle-billed Stork, Bohm’s Spinetail and a number of the other “river” specials on my November 2022 trip (which are best found close to the Pafuri bridge and Picnic Spot), we decided to focus less of our time on the banks of the Luvuvhu and Limpopo Rivers. That said, they still delivered some of their usual magic.

 

 

 

One of Africa’s Premier Bird Photography destinations

In summary, there is little doubt that the Makuleke concession is an awesome destination for bespoke Bird Photography tours, and that a 5 night stay can produce an exciting portfolio of images. Easy access to key biomes, some of Africa’s most sought after bird species on your doorstep and the ability to alight from your vehicle when safe to do so, made for some wonderful moments. Thanks so much to The Outpost Lodge for making my stay such a pleasurable one and to Warren Deyzel for his excellent guiding!

 

As always, I hope you enjoyed this latest edition and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours in bird photography,

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