Half-collared Kingfisher

Northern KwaZulu Natal ~ The Place of Birds

Welcome to my first newsletter of the year! Happy, happy 2023! The more time I spend on planet earth, the more thankful I am for nature, for wildlife, for passions and for the gift of life. Every day brings with it a new sunrise and new opportunities! I hope this year is an incredible one for you and your loved ones and that you have the chance to do what is on your heart, to make a difference and to love and be loved.

My first newsletter of 2023 is going to be a relatively short one. I have just got back from an exciting trip up the north coast of KwaZulu Natal where I spent time investigating some potential photography workshop locations as well as having the privilege to build a portfolio of bird images for Mavela Game Lodge in Manyoni Private Game Reserve. I hope you enjoy a few of my favourite images from the trip and the story that surrounds them.

I also want to use this opportunity to announce my first local, wildlife photography workshop for 2023. I have always loved teaching and seeing others reach their potential and this workshop combines this passion with my love for wildlife photography and birds.

Story Behind the Shot
Knowing bird calls and behaviour

My visit to Mavela Game Lodge in mid January was a welcome return to the South African bush, as well as the start of an exciting, albeit daunting, photographic project! We had set ourselves the difficult task of trying to show off some of the incredible birdlife that Manyoni has to offer in a 4 night stay. This would have been difficult enough without the weather adding to the challenges, as we had heavy winds and rain that disturbed at least one full day of photography.

Fortunately, I was not alone and had the brilliant Scelo Masuku, Dan Stevens and Martenique Swanepoel to help me locate some of the iconic and special birds of this spectacular reserve. “Manyoni” means “Place of the Birds” in isiZulu and the name doesn’t lie. The reserve holds a number of exciting biomes including dense forests, open grasslands and stunning knob thorn woodlands. Connected to these habitats are some of the most mouth-watering bird species South Africa has to offer, with Pink-throated Twinspots, Gorgeous Bush-shrikes, Eastern Nicators, Crowned Eagles, Black Coucals, Purple-banded Sunbirds, Striped Kingfishers, African Pygmy Kingfishers, Flappet Larks and Scaly-throated Honeyguides being just some of the awesome avian characters on offer. The reserve also consistently produces some fantastic suprizes; such as the Golden Pipit or Pipits that seem to unexpectedly arrive on its doorstep from time to time.

Photography in Manyoni and Mavela takes place primarily from a vehicle or on foot if you are in the beautiful lodge grounds and hence, unlike hide or set-up photography, nothing is guaranteed. You can sometimes go out for a day or two and have very little to show for your efforts and hence, you have to work hard, anticipate the behaviour of your subjects, take the opportunities that present themselves and trust for providence to take its course.

This trip, like many others, emphasized how important it is to know your bird calls (or at least have someone with you that does) as well as the importance of being curious and learning bird behaviour. I have been fortunate to meet many excellent bird guides in my time and have learnt so much from their expertise and in-depth knowledge and this trip to Manyone was no different as the below story will reveal.

While out searching for the Black Coucals that had been seen the week before, Scelo Masuku and I had been scouting the known spots for over two hours. Scelo’s ears had amazingly picked up their call; a call I didn’t even hear, so we knew they were around but were battling to pin down their location. There was a brief break in the weather, as it had been bucketing down with rain, when Scelo suddenly announced he had heard them call again. How he heard them I don’t know, but after turning off the engine and remaining dead still, I finally heard the bird’s very feint, repetitive, two syllable song. Scelo seemed to have a good sense of where it was originating from and knew of a road that could take us closer to the source. We slowly made are way through typical coucal habitat; thick, damp, high grass with the occasional thorn thicket or shrub scattered in between, and after a good two or three kilometres of driving, Scelo calmly announced: “There it is”. Without a fathom of a doubt I would never have found them without Scelo’s assistance. Besides being an exceptional guide at a very young age, it is Scelo’s unquenched curiosity to learn and understand bird behaviour that makes his guiding future an incredibly bright and exciting one. I was inspired to learn more!

Thanks so much to Scelo, Dan, Martenique and the whole Mavela team for a wonderful time and hopefully a good start to showing off some of the magnificent birds that call Manyoni Private Game Reserve their home! If anything, the resultant photographs demonstrate the incredible potential for bird photography in this spectacular reserve! (To see the full portfolio of images please have a look at my latest social media posts as well as those coming from Mavela Game Lodge soon.)


Exciting Photography Workshop

I am excited to announce the opportunity to join me for a unique wildlife photography workshop in the heart of the beautiful Natal Midlands.

Given the wonderful response to my Mentorship Programme and my desire to teach photography not only online but also in person, I will be hosting a photographic workshop from the 30th June to the 3rd July. The duration will be for 3 nights / 4 days and we will build the foundations for you to be able to take great bird and wildlife images.

This is a unique and exclusive opportunity to join me in my own backyard and be taught (just about) all I know about photography and especially, composition, design and creativity. It will allow time for practical application, lots of fun and I will be able to show you how I scout locations and where some of my more recognised images were taken.

If this is of interest, please email richard@theflacks.co.za. I will be sending out all the relevant information, including timing and pricing, in the coming weeks.

The workshops will be held near my home in Balgowan (KwaZulu-Natal) where there is both beautiful accommodation, wholesome food and exquisite natural surroundings. Winter is a beautiful time to visit the area and the environment presents some wonderful photographic opportunities, as can be seen by the photographs included in this email. You will be given plenty of opportunities to practice what you have learnt in the spectacular biomes that are available on the property; including Afromontane forest, wetland, dam and high altitude grasslands.

The workshop will cover similar content to my mentorship programme, but will be tailored to a group setting. It will be an intimate gathering of a minimum of four and a maximum of six participants. Although the online, one-on-one mentorship programme enables a more focused learning environment where you are the sole focus and receive in depth feedback on your work and approach, this group environment will allow for lots of fun, immediate practical application (weather permitting) and the ability to learn from others.

From a high level summary perspective, the workshop will cover the following: We will start the course with an interactive session where we get to know one other. Like most things in life, great workshops rely on a sense of belonging and team and this is what our first session is all about; creating a homely, comfortable space where we can share and interact.

The next session focuses on the essentials for taking good photographs. I will start right at the beginning and assume that you know none of them. This will ensure we all begin the next session with the same foundation stones in place. I will not only share with you my insights from the past 14 years of photography but also provide case studies in terms of how these essentials have been applied in my own work and can be applied in yours.

These sessions will be interspersed with some guided as well as solo walks in our beautiful surroundings, where we will have time to put what we have learned into practice as well as identify what to look for in photographic locations and opportunities.

We then move into a session where I unpack composition and design. This is something I am incredibly passionate about and can’t wait to share. I believe it is one of the keys to unlocking your potential and taking great photographs. I don’t believe that you have to be born with an eye for art or photography or that composition and design is about how you feel or what you think looks the part. On the contrary, I believe anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort can become good at it and that it is based on mathematics, geometry and some well proven approaches.

This session will lead nicely into the subject of creativity, where we look at what tools we have available to be creative as well as what are some of the practices we can put in place that will help us be more creative. We will have time to be still and give the creative process a chance to grow and develop. By adding creativity to a solid understanding of composition and design, you stand a good chance of moving your images from good to great.

We will then wrap things up with a short session on my post processing workflow and the tools I use. I don’t like being stuck behind a computer screen and hence, this session will give you a look into how I go about putting the finishing touches on my photographs. We will then consider what I look for when judging competitions as well as what goes into selecting a portfolio and or competition entries. For those who are courageous enough, we will also spend some time giving feedback on the photographs of participants. Constructive feedback is an awesome learning opportunity and something I have truly valued along my own journey. It is also essential if you want to start improving your eye for detail.

What this workshop is not about: This workshop will not cover how to use your camera or how to set up your camera for bird or wildlife photography. Although there will be time for application, the purpose of the workshop is teaching and not creating photographic opportunities. Hence, although you may get lucky while exploring the surrounds, the objective is not to achieve a portfolio of great images (like you would achieve on a photographic tour). The workshop will also not cover the very technical parts of post processing nor will it automatically turn you into a professional photographer. That said, it promises to teach you what you need to know in order to, given the necessary patience and practice, become the best photographer you can be and a very well rounded one at that.

Note: I may consider offering a two or three night extension to the workshop, for a maximum of three participants, where we will travel to one of my favourite destinations in KwaZulu-Natal to practice what we have learned and indeed, hopefully walk away with a portfolio of memorable images! Please indicate in your enquiry if you would like to receive the details in this regard.

If you would like to discuss this with me over a virtual coffee, please add this to your email enquiry and I will set up a 30 minute zoom or google meets session for us. I look forward to hearing from you!

Yours in bird photography,