Tour Info: South Luangwa – a world-class destination for bird photographers

20th April 2016
The South Luangwa National Park proudly boasts a bird list totalling more than 450 species. This is certainly impressive, but perhaps more relevant is the incredible fact that it’s possible to see more than 100 species in a day! As a destination for birders, it must be high on all bucket-lists with particular focus on the park’s healthy populations of Pel’s fishing owl, Southern Carmine bee-eaters and numerous Eagles and raptors.

A Barn Owl in flight, captured using a flash gun on a night drive safari.
A Pel's Fishing Owl surveying the scene from a low branch over a flooded stream.

Bird photography is one of the most rewarding and popular of all photographic interests, because birds are widespread and beautiful subjects. But it’s also one of the most challenging disciplines, requiring expensive telephoto lenses, endless patience and habituated subjects. The Luangwa Valley brings bird photography within reach of all photographers because the birds are abundant, relatively approachable and beautiful to look at. In such a rich habitat, brightly-coloured birds such as bee-eaters and kingfishers can be found almost “on every corner”. This offers lots of great photographic opportunities and when one situation doesn’t work out, another will be sure to turn up soon after!

Woodland Kingfisher, African Fish Eagle and Southern Carmine Bee-eater - very different in their looks but all challenging and beautiful to photograph.

With a professional photo guide leading your safari, who can identify and locate most bird species by call alone, your chances of finding and photographing the Luangwa’s avian treasures are much improved. They will know which lagoons are favourites for Pel’s fishing owls, or knowing what time of day to visit a particular colony of Carmine bee-eaters to ensure that the light is at its best to capture the frenetic nest-building activities. Equally, amongst the noise of the early morning bush residents, a guide will hear a squirrel's rapid descending alarm call that indicates a large raptor is on the move; in these early hours, this might well bring you to a pair of African Hawk Eagles, hunting co-operatively for game birds, or a Martial Eagle ruffling feathers and beginning to warm up after a chilly night.

An African Goshawk feeds on a squirrel kill and a Martial Eagle shreds a meal of Helmeted Guineafowl.

The diversity and availability of bird life is fantastic but being able to capture great shots is another thing entirely. Safaris have been conducted in the Luangwa for close to 50 years so many of the bird species have become very relaxed around visitors. Approaching sightings in a vehicle provides a useful hide, giving resting places for cameras and concealing the human shape that wild creatures instinctively fear - this all means that we are able to get closer to sightings than in many parks which is great for photographers who aren't lucky enough to have very long telephoto lenses!

An African Masked Weaver constructs a nest for his mate; two Southern Carmine Bee-eaters scout the skies above for any sign of insects; at the nest site - a flurry of colourful confusion when a perceived danger causes the colony to take flight; strutting their stuff - Mum (or Dad) takes the young Crowned Crane chicks out to learn about hunting for food; resplendent against the golden grasses of late dry season, one of the famous Lilac-breasted Rollers basks in the afternoon light; curiously bold, this Crowned Crane approached us rather than turning away, a highly unusual event!

All in all the Luangwa is a very special destination for photographers who love to take great images of birds of all shapes, sizes and colours. There is an impressive density of bird life which is readily accessible across a wide variety of habitats, and there is something special in every season.

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