A Nature Photographer’s Journey to Coming Clean

Egyptian Geese by Nelis Wolmarans

Nelis Wolmarans is a born and bred South African nature photographer, whose images have covered the pages of numerous publications across the globe. Currently, as a private guide, it allows him to explore with and introduce his clients to some of the most iconic safari destinations on the African continent. He is a frequent contributor to Owendeutsch.com.

Armed with only a handful of privately guided safaris in my pocket, I was pretty new in the game but desperately eager to learn and give it my all.

Nature photographer’s secret to identifying bird species

Back in September of 2015, I was about to pick up a very serious nature photographer, Owen Deutsch, at Cape Town International Airport and sadly, my birding knowledge left a lot to be desired. Armed with one of the best birding applications on my cell phone; I was as ready as I could be. I had devised a very clever (I liked to think so) strategy that would hopefully keep my integrity in place and ensured I still had a job after this safari ended. The plan was that should we “stumble” upon a bird which I would be unable to ID, I would then simply tell Owen to keep shooting and to focus on obtaining the best possible images whilst the bird was still visible. I would then quickly work my way through this birding app whilst Owen was photographing and then name the bird as if I had known the species all along. Pure genius, what could go wrong?

Black-bellied Bustard by Owen Deutsch

The Need for a Quick Study on Bird Species

The strategy was severely tested as soon as I realized that Owen needed the name of the bird on the spot to enable him to add a voice-note to every image. I immediately developed an intense dislike for Nikon for adding this otherwise brilliant feature to their camera bodies. Not only was I to name the bird family, but also the specific species, its sex and whether adult or not. Basically, one level short of being able to tell Owen what it had consumed for its last meal. No pressure here whatsoever. I prayed for my phone battery to make it through every day. At night I would lie in my bed until the early morning hours; studying up on likely bird species for the areas we were to visit the following morning. Adrenaline was fast becoming my best friend.

I realized that keeping up this appearance was not going to be sustainable; I was incredibly stressed, this was affecting my usually calm demeanor and I knew that I had to come clean. Our stop-over for the night was a very cozy little hotel in Langebaan. At dinner that night, I had finally built up the courage. We sat down, and I said to Owen; “We need to chat.”

African Penguin by Nelis Wolmarans

A Birding Confession

“I have to come clean, I have probably only known about a quarter of the birds that we have photographed thus far and sadly I did not foresee my birding knowledge improving during the remainder of our safari. I can only promise you my best and that we will add the voice-notes to the images afterward once we have confirmed the species.” Owen sat with a cheesy grin on his face, he then leaned over across the table, looked me dead in the eye and said, “I knew what you were doing but enjoyed watching you frantically page through your phone too much to say anything.” He laughed at me. I felt a wave of emotions come over me, one of them being relief and the others a mix of embarrassment, annoyance with myself and huge gratitude to Owen for being so understanding and having such a great sense of humour about it all. From my side, a great lesson learned.

The rest of the safari went very well, we managed to capture a number of great images and most of all, a much-cherished friendship evolved.

African Sacred Ibis by Owen Deutsch