Orange Ground Thrush & Benvie Gardens

Welcome to my 20th newsletter and the fifth since the start of my break from the corporate world. It has been such an incredible privilege to take some time out from work and pour my energy into my family, my health and the wonderful world of birds and photography.

In the last month I got to speak to a chapel full of boys and girls about the “Wonder of Birds and the God of Wonder”. It was such a special time for me and it was wonderful to see how the beauty of birds and their perfect design can excite the hearts of our future generation. One of my best moments was when the youngest members of the audience started hooting like Striped Flufftails!

With a lot more flexibility and time on my hands, I have also been able to focus on some exciting photographic projects and look forward to sharing these with you as they unfold. One of these projects was directed at one of my favourite birding destinations and one of my most cherished birds; Benvie Gardens and Orange Ground Thrushes respectively.

I hope you enjoy the photographic story that follows.

The Destination Behind the Birds
Orange Ground Thrush & Benvie Gardens

I was first introduced to Orange Ground Thrushes by David Letsoala some 12 years ago when I visited Woodbush Forest. I still remember David calling the bird closer by whistling its contact call. I was mesmerized by his incredible knowledge and skills and was even more surprised when the bird popped up right in front of us. It remains one of my most memorable birding moments! Unfortunately like most sightings of Ground Thrush, it was before sunrise and the light did not allow for any decent photographs.

An Orange Ground Thrush takes a break from collecting worms on the forest floor to perch in his typical forest environment at Benvie Gardens, Karkloof, South Africa. This is undoubtedly my favourite image of a Ground Thrush, as it reveals its habitat and brings back fun memories of a family trip with Eileen and Joshua some three years ago.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 6400 | 1/400s | f4 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

Their love for dusk and dawn is part of their mystery, as these near-threatened thrushes are crepuscular and live a life in the shadows of their forest environments. Just a quick look at their big eyes gives you hint as to their nature.

Hello big eyes! An Orange Ground Thrush looking for earthworms beneath the grassy lawns of Benvie Gardens in the Karkloof. This Thrush came so close that he eventually wondered well within my minimum focusing distance.
A typical portrait of an Orange Ground Thrush captured at Benvie Gardens. This is the same ringed male that can be seen feeding his chick later in the newsletter and by the look of his beak you can see that he has been busy digging for worms.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 6400 | 1/1000s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

This first magical encounter started my fascination with this shy Thrush and resulted in many return visits to Magoebaskloof to try and improve on my images. This, however, was a lot easier said than done, as although my images improved with each visit the photography was challenging and the images never reached the standard I was hoping for.

A stretch of typical forest habitat at Benvie Gardens. There is a pair of Ground Thrush that breed each year in this forest patch, which have allowed me to capture some of my best “birds in their environment” images of these magical thrushes.

While researching locations that may provide better photographs I stumbled across the name of Benvie Gardens and some incredible images taken within its bounds. One article I read described this 130 year old garden with the words; “if heaven had a garden it would be called Benvie”, and this gives you a sense as to its magnificence and splendor. I always knew this was a place I needed to visit, but never got around to going until John Robinson got in touch with me to write an article on African Pitta and Coutada 11 in Mozambique. This fateful phone call led to my first stay at Benvie in June 2019, where I was joined by my wife; Eileen and son; Joshua.

This image was taken in the same forest patch as portrayed in the previous image and shows one of the adult Thrushes carrying a worm home to his new born brood.

Looking back on John’s first contact I am so grateful for it, as it has led to some amazing experiences in the field with him and an opportunity to spend time with a fantastic gentleman and birder. Much of what has been written in this newsletter has been gleaned from John’s 24 years of observing these birds and my many photographs would not have been possible without him and his wife; Jen’s kindness and hospitality! (John and Jenny Robinson are the custodians of Benvie on behalf of the Geekie family.)

During my first trip to Benvie I had to work really hard to come away with a few portraits of these shy Thrushes. I got some usable images at the many feeding stations that are strewn throughout the garden, but wasn’t satisfied! I really wanted to capture them in their natural, forest environment and wasn’t going to achieve this on the well-trodden paths. Fortunately John knew of a breeding pair that nested on the boundary of the garden and in a beautiful patch of forest. And it was here and only on my return trip in late September that I finally took the “habitat shot” I was after and that is the featured image of this newsletter.

My first satisfactory portrait of an Orange Ground Thrush taken on my first visit to Benvie some three years ago. This bird is the same male Thrush I captured feeding his chick in October 2021. “A bird of firsts”.
Another image from the exquisite forest patch at Benvie Gardens. My little bit of advice to photographers visting Benvie is to rather travel the less trodden paths and put in the hours to get something different rather than purely focus on the feeders and the regular haunts.
A stereotypical pose of the same Orange Ground Thrush that appears in the featured image. The bird had a nest in a stretch of forest near to the road and would visit a wet, muddy patch nearby to find worms for his young family.

Despite this image fulfilling one of my bird photography ambitions, I still wanted to experience the garden at the peak of the Thrushes’ breeding season in October, November and December. I hoped to experience a little bit of the fascinating stories John had told me about during these active periods.

We had previously visited the numerous nests that the Thrushes had built in recent seasons and I was amazed at the sheer density of them. In one stretch of river there were at least four nests within 50 odd metres of each other. This is truly remarkable as according to my previous experience and readings this close proximity to one another was not to be expected. Surely this must be the best place in the world to observe these incredible birds?!

Benvie has a rich and incredible history that speaks of amazing trees being planted some 130 years ago. One of their most famous trees is this exquisite and endangered Dawn Redwood. Knowing that it was one of the garden’s special trees, I hoped to find an Orange Ground Thrush on it, and on this beautiful, summer’s morning I did!

Thus, when Eileen, Joshua and I moved to Balgowan and within 45 minutes of Benvie, capturing a breeding season in the gardens was one of the projects that was high on my wish list. After chatting to John about the project and the possibility of writing a newsletter on the subject, he kindly offered to keep a look out for active nests.

His first call came earlier than I expected, as he had found an active nest site in the first week of September that he wanted me to check out. Amazingly, John’s earliest record of the Thrush breeding was discovered in May! This gives a good indication of how well suited this area is for them. John’s first call led to a flurry of further calls and visits and we had soon located 7 active nest sites by the end of October.

The location of the very first nest site that John showed me; midway up in one of the many Japanese Cedars (which the thrush seem to favour) that tower above the garden’s main house. (The nest is centrally positioned in this image and was found on one of the branches jutting out to the left of the centrally positioned Cedar)

After scouting out a number of the potential nest sites, there was only one that would allow decent photographs without disturbing the birds. This happened to be the first nest that John had found and also the first successful brood. It was such a privilege to watch the birds move from incubating the eggs, to feeding the small chicks and then finally to seeing the little guys run around on the ground after them.

An image of a typical cup-shaped nest (and a close up of the nest mentioned in the previous image), revealing Mommy Thrush with her two infants. Orange Ground Thrush usually have two babies, which are fed a diet consisting of primarily earth worms. Both Mom and Dad do the feeding. The nest is made of moss and lined with roots and leaves. What is interesting is that it is a living nest; with the moss continuing to grow during and after breeding is complete.
This male Ground Thrush is the Dad of the two chicks pictured above and is a frequent visitor to the feeding tray right next to John and Jen’s house. They have food all year round, which is probably why they are the most prolific breeders of the Benvie birds.
And here is another image of Dad, secretively moving towards the nest site to feed his two hungry chicks. As he readied himself to fly into the nest the female quietly departed, allowing him to take her place.

My best experience, however, was going to take place in mid October and during the “open garden” season at Benvie. I had a close friend and fellow birder; Skye Hartog, visiting me from Johannesberg and I had asked John if we could spend a couple of nights at the farm house to give us the best chance of observing the birds.

We arrived on a severely hot Friday afternoon and went for a walk in the garden to stretch our legs and consider the plan for Saturday morning. To my complete astonishment, as I was showing Skye a couple of the nest sites, we saw a small bird hopping along after its parent. It was a tiny, baby Ground Thrush!!! We could not believe our eyes and soon discovered two separate chicks, one following Dad and waiting for worms to be delivered and the other following Mom and doing the same.

A baby Ground-thrush waiting for Dad to deliver some worms on the open lawns of Benvie Gardens.

The next two days with the birds were full of first time moments for both of us. We watched them being fed copious amounts of earth worms, we witnessed Dad pulling a poop sack out of baby’s bum and we experienced the frequency of food delivery and the antics of the babies if things were taking too long. In a nutshell, we couldn’t have asked for anything more!

My old friend from my first ever visit to Benvie collecting earth worms for his demanding chick. The summer rains soften the soil allowing the Ground Thrush to successfully dig for their earthworm prey. John also suspects that the well mown lawns make it easier for the birds to find worms and hence, why there are so many breeding in the garden itself.
Another image of the same bird collecting worms at Benvie Gardens, Karkloof, South Africa.
The male Ground Thrush feeding his offspring. This is the first time I have witnessed this with Orange Ground Thrush and how fitting it was that the bird feeding his chick was the first bird I photographed some three years ago.
Just incredible! At this point, I was glad I wasn’t an adult Orange Ground Thrush.

This experience definitely put a massive tick to my Orange Ground Thrush project and is something I will cherish for many years to come! Thanks again to John and Jen for making it possible!

Photographic Competitions

As you may know from previous newsletters, I enter a couple of top International photographic competitions each year; Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPOTY); Bird Photographer of the Year (BPOTY), and Nature’s Best. (I branched out for the first time this year and also entered Nature Photographer of the Year (NPOTY)). I also encourage others to do the same as I feel that preparing for these competitions and seeing the previous and current entries is such helpful input into growing as a photographer and is also a ton of fun. It is not only inspiring but it has also taught me to be more self critical and more adventurous.

Although I had a number of entries short-listed, the below results are the two noteworthy ones from 2021.

My image of a Malachite Sunbird taken in my neighbour’s garden was a highly honoured finalist in Nature’s Best African Wildlife Photography Awards. It was on display in the Nairobi National Museum in Kenya in late October/November.

My image of a Diederick’s Cuckoo taken at Nambithi Game Reserve in December 2019 was commended in BPOTY and appears in their annual book together with the top 300 images from the competition.

Well, if you haven’t been to Benvie Gardens I hope this newsletter will push you over the edge to go and experience one of South Africa’s most magnificent gardens and the birds that call it home! And, if you have been too shy or reluctant to enter a photographic competition, I encourage you to give it a go. You just never know!

Be sure to check out my next newsletter where I will be sharing some of my latest, unpublished work and talking about creativity in bird photography.

Yours in bird photography,