Christmas in Kruger : Come on in – the Water’s Fine!

One very unexpected sighting during our Christmas week in Kruger, was this Hyena enjoying a swim in a shallow waterhole not far from the road

Hyenas are not natural swimmers but are known to take to water to cool off in very hot conditions – so we could not blame this one for seeking refuge from the extremely hot weather that we experienced during our visit

I was actually envious of the Hyena and was tempted to join it in the water – such a pity Kruger regulations don’t allow you to get out of your vehicle except at designated spots….. (See footnote)

It seemed quite content and had no inclination to leave the waterhole so we continued with our drive. Perhaps he was taking a summer holiday break from all those things Hyenas have to do – fighting Lions, chasing Vultures away from carcasses, etc

Footnote : Actually on second thoughts, the swimming pool at Mopani camp is a better option all round for me – no chance of a Crocodile or other creature surprising you

Christmas in Kruger : Down by the Bridge …..

A Watery morning around Mopani ….

KNP – Mopani

It was the start of our Christmas in Kruger week and we were nicely settled in our rondavel in Mopani Camp, so much so that we chose to spend most of the first day in camp, enjoying the shady stoep with its theatre-like patch of bush and rocks directly in front which attracted all sorts of bird and other species. The stifling heat also played a role in keeping us in the camp for the day in a state of semi-stupor.

Come the second day and I was keen to do some exploring of the surrounding areas, particularly as I had started to record the birds in that particular pentad and wanted to maximise the birding and atlasing experience by surveying as much of the surrounding areas as Kruger’s roads would allow

Gerda was content to enjoy the restful atmosphere of the camp, so I set off on my own, binoculars at the ready and keyed up for those surprises that await the intrepid Kruger explorer (actually tourist but explorer sounds more exciting)

Overnight thunderstorms had kept us awake at times, with some of the lightning strikes feeling very close, loud enough to have us jerking upright in bed. There was plenty of standing water in the countryside around the camp as I made my way slowly to the main road and headed south.

After heavy rains, KNP – Mopani
KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop)

I stopped to view a Swainson’s Spurfowl near the road, which was in full voice at this early hour. They have a raucous call, akin to someone being murdered, I’ve heard it said, a call which carries long distances on a quiet morning and this one was giving its all.

Swainson’s Spurfowl (Pternistis swainsonii / Bosveldfisant), KNP – Mopani

After about 2 kms on the road towards Letaba, a road known as the Shongololo Loop branches off to the right and this was the road I was hoping to explore – I was glad to see the gravel road was still open despite the heavy rains, which can quickly turn such roads into a muddy quagmire. Nevertheless I had a good look down the road before turning off and, not seeing anything other than some deep looking standing water, set off feeling a tad adventurous but confident in my SUV’s ability to handle such conditions

KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop)

The first stretch was quiet, then I crested a rise and around the next bend came across a low water bridge with water flowing across and what looked like several large birds that had taken up position on the concrete bridge.

Birds on a bridge

KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

I stopped opposite one vehicle that was already there and had a look through the binos at the birds on the bridge – it was obvious that the herons, storks and thick-knees were using the conditions to do a bit of effortless fishing for a change – no stalking or stealth involved. The water flowing over the bridge was clearly bringing with it fish and other aquatic life, creating an easy “take-away” opportunity for the birds waiting in the ankle deep flow.

KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

Over the next 15 minutes or so, various birds took up position on the bridge then moved off to the river itself, including Yellow-billed Stork, Green-backed (Striated) Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Water Thick-knee, African Jacana, Black Crake and even a Goliath Heron.

Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop – Low water bridge)
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)
Striated Heron (Butorides striata / Groenrugreier), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)
Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax / Gewone nagreier), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

Water Thick-knee (Burhinus vermiculatus / Waterdikkop), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)
African Jacana (Actophilornis africanus / Grootlangtoon), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

I drove across the bridge and parked on the opposite side where I enjoyed coffee and rusks while continuing to watch the interaction, then carried on along the Loop to the bird hide at the Pioneer dam a little way further, which was overflowing and causing the bridge to be under water.

Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath / Reusereier), KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop – Low water bridge)
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

Hippo antics

In the deeper water on one side of the bridge, a pair of Hippos were doing their best to draw my attention away from the birds with some typical hippo antics

Croc gets in on the action too

Returning along the same road, I came to the bridge again, only to find that a sizeable Crocodile had taken up position on the bridge – bang in the middle, jaws at the ready and just waiting for a fish or two to be drawn in by the fast flowing water. I had seen this before where a croc lay in wait on one side of a low water bridge but this was the first time I had found one on the bridge itself.

Crocodile, KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)
Crocodile, KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

After a while I edged the car forward and the croc dutifully stood up and walked to the edge where he slid into the river and swam off slowly, no doubt intending to return to the same convenient fishing spot once I had gone.

Crocodile, KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

That was enough excitement for the morning so I headed back to Mopani camp with stories to relate to the family.

Christmas in Kruger : A Bit(tern) of a Surprise

“Christmas in Kruger – it’s going to be very hot!”

Well that was more or less everyone’s reaction when we mentioned our plans for a Christmas break in Kruger National Park. “Yes, we know” was our standard answer, followed by “but the chalets have air-conditioning and so does our car” – this served only to raise a sceptical look or two and we tried hard to convince ourselves that it would all be fine.

As it turned out, we managed to survive the sometimes extreme heat and humidity for which the lowveld is renowned at this time of year – midsummer in South Africa – by spending as much time as possible in air-conditioned areas or shady spots with a cooling breeze and only venturing out during the cooler parts of the day. In fact we elected to stay in camp a lot more than we usually do during visits to Kruger.

Kruger’s Surprises

Kruger always has a surprise or two and I thought I would highlight some of the surprise encounters, starting with what, for me at least, was the highlight of the week. As so often happens with birding, the encounter was dependent on a series of events which were impossible to foresee – here’s how it happened ………

After spending a night in the Magoebaskloof Hotel, where we rendezvoused with daughter Geraldine and family, we made our way the next morning to the entrance gate at Phalaborwa, passing through Tzaneen on the way and stopping at one of the many farm stalls to stock up on some of the locally grown tropical fruit – bananas, paw-paws, mangoes (not for me, can’t stand the taste) and litchies.

The Road to Mopani

At the Phalaborwa gate we dealt with the formalities and proceeded to Mopani Rest Camp – Kruger had it’s summer clothes on – green and lush as far as we could see. We didn’t dawdle. wanting to get to Mopani and settle in, but a report on SA Rare Birds the previous evening of a Striped Crake near Letaba meant I could not resist doing a detour of about 50 kms which would take me past the spot and I would be able to try for this potential rarity / lifer.

There were 3 or 4 vehicles at the small seasonal pan just south of Letaba and we joined them, asking if any had seen this secretive bird – it turned out that none had, despite spending some time there, but we decided to spend a half an hour or so, scanning the shallow water and vegetation along its edges for any sign of the Striped Crake.

Seasonal Pan outside Letaba

It refused to show and we were about to leave when I spotted a crake-like bird on a log above the water, partially hidden by foliage – success! Or was it? I tried desperately to get some photos to help confirm the ID of the crake, but the results were poor due to the interference of foliage and the shady conditions under the trees.

Later I was able to confirm that it was a Crake by downloading the images onto my laptop and zooming in on the detail, but not the rarity I had hoped for – nevertheless it was an African Crake, also a ‘lifer’ for me so I was more than satisfied.

But that wasn’t the last of the seasonal pan near Letaba ……

Mopani to Satara

After 4 nights in Mopani, it was time to move on – to Satara Rest Camp some 140 kms south – not very far by normal standards but in Kruger it translates into a 4 to 5 hour drive, so we planned a stop for lunch at Olifants camp.

Along the route we enjoyed sightings of some of Kruger’s iconic creatures –

Elephant, KNP – Mopani – Satara
Giraffe, KNP – Mopani – Satara
Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus / Gewone troupant), KNP – Mopani – Satara
Southern Ground-Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri / Bromvoël), KNP – Mopani – Satara

We also stopped briefly at Letaba for coffee and a ‘comfort break’ and on the way from there to Olifants, we decided to make a brief stop at the seasonal pan we had visited on the first day, just south of Letaba, despite their being not a single other car there – well, you never know, do you?

We had hardly stopped, still had the engine running, when my heart skipped a beat – a small, unfamiliar crake-like bird was no more than 5m away from me in the shallow water, among the tree roots and tangled vegetation! No, not the Striped Crake but just as good in my book – it was a Dwarf Bittern, a lifer and a bird that I have wanted to find for a long time.

I was ecstatic and spent the next 10 minutes or so watching as it moved slowly and stealthily, foraging in the shallows for its next meal – the sequence of photos says it all.

Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba

Dwarf Bittern
Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba
Dwarf Bittern
Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba
Dwarf Bittern
Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba

After two years of not adding a singe lifer to my Southern Africa list, I had found two in the space of four days – what a nice Christmas present!

My Photo Picks for 2020

With the new year in its infancy, it’s time to select a few photos which best represent our 2020. In some cases, selection is based on the memory created, in others I just like how the photo turned out, technically and creatively. Despite the restrictions brought upon all of us by Covid 19, we still managed to travel, although it was limited to the borders of South Africa. 

The Places

Birding and bird atlasing takes me to many places that would not otherwise feature on our travel map – here’s a selection ….

Balmoral area – The new Kusile Power Station early morning

Herbertsdale area near Mossel Bay

Irrigation Dams near Pienaarsrivier, Birding Big Day 2020 – thousands of Queleas rising into the air

Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens, Johannesburg – I fitted in a visit while Gerda was attending a class nearby

Voelklip beach, Hermanus on an overcast, rainy day

Pearly Beach, beyond Gansbaai

The Point, Mossel Bay on a moody winter’s day

Early morning walk to a secluded cliffside spot for coffee on the rocks, Mossel Bay

Mossel Bay at dusk – from the boardwalk

Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Crocodile River, Verlorenkloof

Magoebaskloof

Kruger National Park – Mopani (Shongololo Loop)

Kruger National Park – Olifants River

The Birds

Cory’s Shearwater / Calonectris diomedea / Geelbekpylstormvoël, Mossel Bay Point

Rock Kestrel / Falco rupicolus / Kransvalk, Gouritsmond

Yellow-billed Duck (Anas undulata / Geelbekeend) (Adult with Juvenile), Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Greater Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris afer / Groot-rooibandsuikerbekkie), Great Brak River

Fork-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis / Mikstertbyvanger), Albertinia

Reed Cormorant (Microcarbo africanus / Rietkormorant), Rondevlei Wilderness

African Oystercatcher / Haematopus moquini / Swarttobie, Franskraal

Cape Spurfowl ( Pternistis capensis / Kaapse fisant), Mossel Bay

Yellow Bishop (Euplectes capensis / Kaapse flap) (Female), Mossel Bay

Cape White-eye (Zosterops capensis / Kaapse glasogie) (Race virens capensis), Mossel Bay

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris / Europese spreeu), Mossel Bay

Laughing Dove Spilopelia senegalensis Lemoenduif, Mossel Bay

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris chalybeus Klein-rooibandsuikerbekkie (Male), Mossel Bay

Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer / Kaapse suikervoël), Mossel Bay

Red-necked Spurfowl (Pternistis afer / Rooikeelfisant) (race castaneiventer), Verlorenkloof

Olive Bushshrike (Chlorophoneus olivaceus / Olyfboslaksman), Verlorenkloof

White-throated Swallow (Hirundo albigularis / Witkeelswael), Verlorenkloof

Familiar Chat (Cercomela familiaris / Gewone spekvreter) (race hellmayri), Verlorenkloof

Thick-billed Weaver (Amblyospiza albifrons / Dikbekwewer) (Male) (race woltersi), Pretoria

Tawny-flanked Prinia (Prinia subflava / Bruinsylangstertjie) (Adult feeding Juveniles), Pretoria

Lesser Masked Weaver, Limpopo

Diderick Cuckoo, Kruger – Mopani

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Kruger – Mopani area

Yellow-billed Stork, Kruger – Mopani area

Red-billed Oxpecker, Kruger – Mopani area

Martial Eagle, Kruger – Shingwedzi River

Dwarf Bittern, Kruger – Pan outside Letaba

Woodland KIngfisher, Kruger – Muzandzeni

The Wildlife

Banded Mongoose, Roodeplaat dam Nature Reserve

Spotted-necked Otter (Hydrictis maculicollis) , Marievale Bird Sanctuary

Cape Fur Seal, Cliffside walk, Mossel Bay

Bottlenose Dolphin, Cliffside walk, Mossel Bay

Rock Hyrax, Cliffside walk, Mossel Bay

Tree Squirrel, Kruger – Mopani

Giant Plated Lizard, Kruger – Mopani (the photo does not give an idea of scale – this lizard is a veritable giant at over 1m long!)

Crocodile, Kruger – Mopani (Shongololo Loop)

Wildebeest adult with youngsters, Kruger – Nwanetsi Road

Kudu, Kruger – Satara area

The Other Stuff

Monkey beetle, Mossel Bay

Butterfly : Garden Inspector (Junonia archesia / rotsblaarvlerk), ,Langvlei Wilderness

Tree Agama, Rooiwal area near Pretoria

Moon over Verlorenkloof (image taken with Iphone magnified through Swarovski scope)

Confusing, provocative road sign – until you realise the village’s name is Nobody and the sign is directing to the Total filling station!

Butterfly in flight – Magoebaskloof

And to end off …… me and my pal Saartjie (who belongs to the Leonards but I get to borrow her now and again)

Mossel Bay Cliffside walk

Here’s a close-up of the better looking one….

Cliffside walk, Mossel Bay

Birding Big Day – November 2020 – The Finish

What’s it all about ?

Continuing the story of Birding Big Day (BBD), which is held every year on the last Saturday in November – the event is all about seeing how many bird species can be identified in a 24 hour period from midnight to midnight. Teams are allowed a maximum of 4 participants, of which a majority must agree on each species identification, whether by sight or call.

Birdlasser, the amazing birdlisting and atlasing app developed in South Africa, keeps track of every sighting of every team and can be easily accessed during the day to see where the team stands in comparison with the other 300 plus teams across the country.

Our team was set up by Koos Pauw and included myself, Martin Slabbert and Thinus van Staden to make up our team of four. A target of 200 species was decided upon by the team – only time would tell if this was achievable on the day.

Weather forecasts were looking promising and we hoped they would prove to be accurate, however at this time of year on the highveld extreme heat and afternoon thundershowers are the norm so we weren’t assured of a full day’s uninterrupted birding

This turned into quite a lengthy story so to keep it manageable I have split it into 3 stages – The Start, The Middle and The Finish.

Borakolalo to Rooiwal (Hour 12 and 13)

A testing time lay ahead as we headed away from Borakolalo towards our final target spot – Rooiwal Waste Water Treatment Works. Slow traffic, substandard roads and many rural villages along the way, clogged with random traffic, pedestrians and animals, proved frustrating as the minutes and hours ticked away, eating into the remaining daylight hours.

Koos remained calm and patient behind the wheel, despite very little to raise our spirits, until an unexpected wetland near the road was cause for a rapid stop. Shouts of Abdim’s Stork went up, followed by White Stork and finally a Black Heron was spotted.

Moretele area, Birding Big Day 2020 (Look carefully – Abdim’s Storks just visible)

With renewed enthusiasm we carried on and another hour later found the road which would take us to Rooiwal

Highlights (apart from the wetland specials mentioned above) :

Ashy Tit seen just after leaving Borakolalo

White-rumped Swift (at last!)

Rock Dove – yes even this mundane species which is fond of people becomes a highlight when you are getting anxious

Total Species : 183 after 13 hours – our slowest rate of the day, adding just 7 species in two hours

Rooiwal Waste Water Treatment Works (Hour 14)

At last, we turned off the slow road and found ourselves on Piet-my-Vrou Street, which augured well as it is the Afrikaans name for Red-chested Cuckoo.

Koos was right in his assessment that this road would take us through a stretch of highveld habitat, differing from any of the other habitats we had encountered so far – Long-tailed Widowbird in longish grass provided the proof.

Long-tailed Widowbird

30 minutes later we arived at Rooiwal, initially driving the rough track that runs through the adjoining open veld with pans, then entering the treatment works for a rapid ‘whip around’ to see what we could add to our already substantial (by our standards) list.

Highlights :

African Stonechat in the open grasslands

African Stonechat (male)

Many Grey-headed Gulls enjoying the several ponds of the treatment works

Cape Teals equally at home on the ponds

Cape Teal (Anas capensis / Teeleend), Rooiwal

White-fronted Bee-eaters – first of the day at the treatment works

Red-collared Widowbirds as we drove away from Rooiwal

Total species : 194 after 14 hours – getting closer to our target but with time running out we still had some work to do

Back to Pretoria for the Final Push (Hour 15 and 16)

With just 6 species to go, we left Rooiwal and were soon back on the N1 heading to Pretoria, our last hope for a grand finish!

The consensus was that we still had not picked up some of the typical ‘suburban’ birds that are common in the leafy suburbs that we know so well. So we made our way first to Meyerspark to the east of the city and explored some of the open spaces between the houses and local businesses

This proved to be a good strategy as we slowly added to our total and excitement mounted with each new species.

Every bird added was a highlight :

195 – Red-winged Starling perched on a tall building

196 – Violet-backed Starling in tall trees adjoining a small business complex

197 – Cape White-eye in the same trees

Cape White-eye

198 – Bronze Mannikins feeding on a sidewalk lawn

199 – Crested Barbet feeding on an adjoining lawn

The light was fading fast as we headed up a hill past a block of flats with lush gardens – as we stopped to listen, a Kurrichane Thrush appeared in the lower branches of a tree – 200 up !!!

In high spirits we headed through the adjoining suburb of Murrayfield where we added 2 more for luck – Cut-throat Finch and Fiscal Flycatcher – then back to where it had all started in The Glades. There was just time to stop at the dam where we had started some 16 hours earlier and find the Cape Weaver that I know nests there – sure enough it was present and became our last bird of the day.

These photos were taken in The Glades, but not on the day

Cut-throat Finch (Male) (Amadina fasciata / Bandkeelvink), Wapadrand Pretoria
Cape Weaver (Ploceus capensis / Kaapse wewer), The Glades

A final separate count the next day showed just one species had been seen but not recorded, so our final count was 204. This was good enough for 40th position out of over 300 teams, so we were extremely pleased with our effort

The results, Birding Big Day 2020

Phew, what a day!

Birding Big Day – November 2020 – The Middle

What’s it all about ?

Continuing the story of Birding Big Day (BBD), which is held every year on the last Saturday in November – the event is all about seeing how many bird species can be identified in a 24 hour period from midnight to midnight. Teams are allowed a maximum of 4 participants, of which a majority must agree on each species identification, whether by sight or call.

Birdlasser, the amazing birdlisting and atlasing app developed in South Africa, keeps track of every sighting of every team and can be easily accessed during the day to see where the team stands in comparison with the other 300 plus teams across the country.

Our team was set up by Koos Pauw and included myself, Martin Slabbert and Thinus van Staden to make up our team of four. A target of 200 species was decided upon by the team – only time would tell if this was achievable on the day.

Weather forecasts were looking promising and we hoped they would prove to be accurate, however at this time of year on the highveld extreme heat and afternoon thundershowers are the norm so we weren’t assured of a full day’s uninterrupted birding

This turned into quite a lengthy story so to keep it manageable I have split it into 3 stages – The Start, The Middle and The Finish.

Kgomo-Kgomo (Hour 7)

This was our status at 9.58 am after 6.5 hours – 26th position and looking strong (Team Tuis-Bes)

9.58 am Birding Big Day 2020

As we approached the village of Kgomo-Kgomo at the end of the Zaagkuildrift road, the habitat changed to more open, dry countryside. We turned east towards the bridge over the wetlands, which had received a fair amount of water during recent rains. Some time was spent on the bridge scanning the wetlands, while passing locals from the village greeted us in friendly fashion – no doubt used to seeing birders in action at this well-known birding spot.

Highlights :

The somewhat drier habitat near the village produced Cape Penduline Tit and Scaly-feathered Weaver (Finch), while high overhead a soaring Black-chested Snake-Eagle caught our attention and was quickly ID’d.

Black-chested Snake=Eagle

Great Sparrow also made it onto our list – a scarce bird and one of our birds of the day. We wondered again why this particular sparrow is so scarce, while sparrows in general are such common birds

The wetlands held numerous waders and swimmers such as Black-winged Stilt, Wood Sandpiper, Little Egret, Cape Shoveler and Little Grebe and we added Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and Brown-throated Martin.

Black-winged Stilt

Total species : 152 after 7 hours – still looking good for our target

Borakolalo (Hour 8 to 11)

It was 10.25 am when we left Kgomo-Kgomo, full of confidence for a good total, but we knew we were approaching the dreaded “middle of the day” lull when birds seem to go into hiding. New species were becoming more difficult to find, so we used the time to get to our next target spot of Borakolalo Nature Reserve as quickly as possible, stopping only when a potential new species was spotted and to spend about ten minutes at the one dam that we passed

We arrived at Borakolalo Nature Reserve 45 minutes later and spent the next two and a half hours exploring the tracks through the bushveld area and along the shoreline of the dam. Our first glimpse of the dam itself confirmed our one fear – the water level was exceptionally high and not at all suitable for the many waders that usually frequent the muddy shores. This was emphasized when we later passed by the dam wall which was overflowing and sending a surge of water down the sloping wall into the river below

Borakolalo NP, Birding Big Day 2020

So that left us with the ‘swimmers’, many of which we had already logged – our only chance of adding new species was to cover the bushveld habitat as thoroughly as possible. It was slow going, using the strategy of stopping every couple of hundred metres or so and scanning the bush and sky for birds. We continued with this until we had exhausted most possibilities and headed back to the main entrance to assess our strategy for the rest of the day.

Highlights :

At this stage of the day just about every sighting becomes a highlight and there was no shortage of desirable birds that made it onto our list

African Cuckoo, calling hauntingly as we stopped at a roadside dam, quickly traced to a nearby tree

Sabota Lark, as always, singing from the very top of a tree

Sabota Lark (Calendulauda sabota / Sabotalewerik)

African Fish-Eagles for – um – Africa,,,,, We saw up to 5 of this iconic species at a time, soaring above the dam looking for their next meal no doubt.

Red-crested Korhaan calling, several times at different spots in the reserve – the unmistakeable, loud kyip-kyip-kyip that they emit at regular intervals.

We did not encounter many animals but a Giraffe was good enough to cross the road ahead of us and as a bonus had some Red-billed Oxpeckers in attendance

Red-billed Oxpecker

A raptor flew off low just ahead of us and we leapt out to ID it – not too difficult to see that it was a Wahlberg’s Eagle, with a longish, squared-off tail

One of our frequent stops produced a small bird party with Southern Black Tit, White-crowned Helmet-Shrike and Yellow-fronted Canary in the nearby trees

Just after hearing a Pearl-spotted Owlet at one stop, a large bird flew at speed between the trees and we were able to track it to a distant tree – it was a Great Spotted Cuckoo

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Heading out of the reserve, we picked up Golden-tailed Woodpecker and Red-headed Weaver before leaving Borakolalo

Our rate of new species had slowed down drastically to between 5 and 8 per hour, to be expected during the middle of the day lull, nevertheless disappointing as we had envisaged more waterbirds to help us get to our target.

Total species : 177 after 11 hours – so near yet so far from our target of 200…..

Our next planned spot was Rooiwal – a Waste Water Treatment Works about 40 kms north of Pretoria, where we hoped to find the balance of the species to take us to our target

Birding Big Day – November 2020 – The Start

What’s it all about ?

“In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” (Alfred Lord Tennyson) – ummmm, well, actually in my case it’s birding and specifically Birding Big Day (BBD), which is held every year on the last Saturday in November – an event not to be missed by keen, occasionally competitive birders such as myself and fellow atlaser Koos Pauw. Oh, and that bit about a young man’s fancy – well that’s stretching the truth to be honest….

The annual event is all about seeing how many bird species can be identified in a 24 hour period from midnight to midnight. Teams are allowed a maximum of 4 participants, of which a majority must agree on each species identification, whether by sight or call.

Birdlasser, the amazing birdlisting and atlasing app developed in South Africa, keeps track of every sighting of every team and can be easily accessed during the day to see where the team stands in comparison with the other 300 plus teams across the country.

And so it was that Koos set up the team, inviting Martin Slabbert and Thinus van Staden, two younger, keen birders to make up the team of four. We met in the week prior to the event to discuss the route and an indicative timeline we would follow – vital to the success of the day’s endeavours, but we knew we should have some flexibility on the day to cater for the unexpected …

A target of 200 species was decided upon by the team – do-able but seemingly optimistic, considering Koos and I had never done more than 185 species in a day over many previous BBD’s. But I was hopeful, even confident that the introduction of two younger members to the team would take us to the 200 mark …. only time would tell. Koos and I refined the route during the last week and we were all set for Saturday 28th November.

Weather forecasts were looking promising and we hoped they would prove to be accurate, however at this time of year on the highveld extreme heat and afternoon thundershowers are the norm so we weren’t assured of a full day’s uninterrupted birding

This turned into quite a lengthy story so to keep it manageable (and hopefully readable) I have split it into 3 stages – The Start, The Middle and The Finish. So here goes with the Start of the day…..

Pre-dawn Pretoria (Hour 1)

I was up at 2.15 am to prepare for the day and was ready when Koos arrived at 3.20 am, having picked up Martin and Thinus on the way. A short drive through The Glades (the estate where our home is located), stopping at the two small dams to shine our torches on the water, got our list going before heading out.

A short detour through Murrayfield on the way to the highway saw us stopping at a bridge to check for Finfoot (seen recently at that spot) without success, then we were speeding north on the N1 highway to our “dawn chorus” spot.

Highlights :

Thick-billed Weaver revealed by torchlight in the reeds at the Glades dam (Glades photos were taken a few days earlier in daylight)

Thick-billed Weaver (Amblyospiza albifrons / Dikbekwewer) (Male) (race woltersi), The Glades

Red-chested Cuckoo calling monotonously from 2.30 am

Mallard and Yellow-billed Duck out and about on the Glades dam, visible by torchlight

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos / Groenkopeend), The Glades
Yellow-billed Duck (Anas undulata / Geelbekeend), The Glades

Total species : 11

Pienaarsrivier Irrigation Dams (Hour 2 &3)

It took 45 minutes to travel the 70 kms to Pienaarsrivier and the irrigation dams that Thinus had suggested as our dawn starting point. Once we arrived at the dams and the surrounding wetlands, it was already light enough to see that this would prove to be an excellent spot to start the day in earnest – the pre-dawn sky was filling with birds on the move and the wetlands were busy with waders and swimmers.

Irrigation Dams near Pienaarsrivier, Birding Big Day 2020

Parked on the main dam’s earthen wall we had a good view of the action all around and birds were added rapidly – so much so that I struggled to keep pace logging them on the BIrdlasser app as they got called out, at the same time scanning the wetlands with binos and scope to verify ID’s and search for new ones.

This action kept us busy for the best part of two hours as we progressed slowly around the main dam and the adjoining wetlands and fields. This was the most productive part of the day and highlights were many –

Highlights :

The call of a Great Reed Warbler (probably newly arrived from its European breeding grounds) emanating from dense reeds

At 5 am, thousands of Red-billed Queleas rising up out of the adjoining fields and covering the dawn sky. Wave after wave of Queleas followed – a few hundred thousand at a guess – off to feed in the surrounding areas

A tiny sandbank in the middle of one pond held a variety of waders of differing size just too far to be certain of their ID but the scope views confirmed them – Little Stint, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, with an African Black Duck on the side

As the skies lightened, terns appeared – both of the regular fresh water species – Whiskered and White-winged Terns

The unusual sight of a flock of 12 Black-crowned Night-Herons flying overhead – none of us had seen so many at one time of this mostly solitary species

Three Kingfishers spotted within 4 minutes as we circled the dam – Woodland, Pied and Brown-hooded Kingfishers all presented themselves to be counted

Cries of “bumblebee” from the younger half of the team had me puzzled for a second until I realised they were referring to the Yellow-crowned Bishops buzzing around the long grass, looking a lot like giant bumblebees with their black and yellow colouring and manner of flight

Yellow-crowned Bishop (Euplectes afer / Goudgeelvink)

Total species : 79 after 3 hours

Irrigation Dams to Zaagkuildrift (Hour 4)

Before leaving the irrigation dams, Thinus suggested a walk through longish grass to a wetland area not accessible by vehicle. What a good idea it turned out to be as we added one very special wader and a handful of other species before heading to the start of our second major focus area – the famous (among birders) Zaagkuildrift Road that starts just outside the village of Pienaarsrivier and meanders west to the Kgomo-Kgomo floodplain

Irrigation Dams near Pienaarsrivier, Birding Big Day 2020
Wetlands at Irrigation Dams near Pienaarsrivier, Birding Big Day 2020
Start of Zaagkuildrift, Birding Big Day 2020

Highlights :

Exploring the wetlands on foot we found African Swamphen and then the ‘bird of the day’ – Lesser Moorhen

African Purple Swamphen

Zaagkuildrift road starts with grasslands on both sides and we quickly picked up Rufous-naped Lark, Northern Black Korhaan and Desert Cisticola, followed by Wing-snapping Cisticola, which performed a display flight in front of us.

Rufous-naped Lark

Total species : 98 after 4 hours

Zaagkuildrift Road to Kgomo-Kgomo (Hour 5 & 6)

Zaagkuildrift road requires slow progress to make the most of the birding on offer, which is plentiful and to be found in the road, at puddles, in the roadside bush and trees, on the fences, in adjoining fields and even in the air.

It was still just 7.36 am when we passed 100 species and our spirits were high. But we had seen many of the common species by now, so the tempo of adding new species was bound to slow down, evidenced by the rate of new species per hour slowing from our initial 35 per hour to 23 in hour 5 and then just 10 in hour 6.

We stuck to the ‘main’ road which despite being a gravel surface is in good condition, our only deviation being the side road which birders know as “Crake Road” – we had progressed about half a km along this road when we came upon a bakkie (utility vehicle) standing in the middle of the narrow road with some agitated looking farm personnel peering underneath. Clearly it was going nowhere for an indeterminate time so we had to abandon any further exploration of the road and reversed out (no room to turn) and continued along the main route.

Highlights :

Plenty of the typical “bushveld” species were present, including 3 species of Waxbill (Blue, Black-faced and Violet-eared) plus a few similarly small birds such as Green-winged Pytilia, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Jameson’s Firefinch and Neddicky

Blue Waxbill (Uraeginthus angolensis / Gewone blousysie)

Marico and White-bellied Sunbirds seen within minutes of each other

Marico Sunbird

Hamerkop at the spruit on Crake Road – the only species we added on this road

Hamerkop patiently waiting for prey

Total species : 131 after 6 hours

It was still only 9.30 am with a lot of day left, so we were feeling optimistic about reaching our target. However we knew that the dreaded “middle of the day” lull lay ahead and weren’t going to count our chickens – or birds – before they hatched, as it were.

More about that in the next post!

Atlasing – September 2020 : Lushof Lodge

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in September 2020 – in this case using an overnight stop to make the most of the birding on offer…

Heading home – at last!

After more than 5 months in Mossel Bay – a lot longer than our initial plan of 3 to 4 weeks – we decided to return to our other “home” in Pretoria. Mossel Bay’s charm and many advantages had worked their way into our minds and it was with some reluctance that we headed northwards, but Covid-19 had kept us away from our main home for too long and we knew it was time to get back.

We set off on a Friday, fully loaded, around 9 am and travelled the familiar route via George, Graaf-Reinet and Colesberg to our overnight accommodation at Lushof Lodge, some 50 km beyond Colesberg. Along the way we enjoyed take-away coffee and a picnic lunch – all part of the “new normal” way of doing things.

Lushof Lodge, which we last visited in January 2011, was as we remembered – set on a farm with a stream running through, lined with verdant growth. The accommodation was a comfortable cottage which we had all to ourselves, set on a hill overlooking an expanse of fields and veld and we were well looked after by Lise, the bright and friendly hostess and her staff.

The orange block shows the location of the pentad which includes Lushof Lodge, about 50 kms north-east of Colesberg

Lushof Lodge (Pentad 3025_2530)

By the time we had settled in and acquainted ourselves with the cottage, it was 5.30 pm and there was just enough time for a birding walk down to the stream, which forms a small dam on one side of the entrance road and a wetland covered in reeds on the other.

The dam was good for Common Moorhen while the wetland held a few African Reed Warblers, with Red Bishops occupying the reeds and a Kurrichane Thrush exploring the edges. The tall trees alongside were home to a Cardinal Woodpecker, which first revealed its presence with a soft tok-tok-tok as he poked at the branches in search of some protein.

Southern Red Bishop, Lushof Lodge

Returning up the short hill to the cottage I scanned the slopes of the hill above it and soon saw Speckled Mousebirds moving in straggling fashion from tree to bush, then heard a Grey-backed Cisticola and quickly picked it up as it flitted from one low bush to another. For good measure a Blue Crane called but I could not track it down in the gathering dusk.

Orange River White-eye, Lushof Lodge

That seemed to be it for the day and a bit later we settled down to a hearty Karoo lamb meal, brought to the cottage by Lise and her daughter. But there was one more surprise later on – when I peered outside briefly just before going to bed, a Rock Martin roosting under the roof overhang stared back at me and became species 20 on my pentad list .

Saturday Morning 5 September

An early night meant I could get a good night’s rest and still be up at 6 am to have a coffee in the crisp morning air outside our cottage, while adding to the previous afternoon’s list.

View from Lushof lodge

I was able to add another 9 species before heading off on a lengthy walk around the farm, including Cape Bunting, Yellow Canary, a calling Brubru (also widely known as the “telephone bird” because of its trilling, repeated call) and a Familiar Chat doing its ‘familiar’ sequence of perch, fly down to the ground, catch something small and return to the perch with a couple of wing flicks straight after landing.

Familiar Chat

Venturing away from the farmstead, I followed a track along the stream and heard two very different birds – first a Lesser Swamp Warbler hidden somewhere in the dense riverine vegetation, then a Blue Korhaan greeting the new day from somewhere up ahead. From the latter call I guessed the habitat must open up further on to be suitable for the latter species – indeed it did a couple of hundred metres further, affording an expansive view across fields and plains, but there was no sign of the Korhaan, which had probably moved on or concealed itself in the grass (which they are masters at doing)

Lushof Lodge

I headed back to spend some time in the lush area close to the farmhouse, with the river and wetland as focus points. Common Starlings and a Cape Wagtail caught my attention and then a flash of colour signaled the arrival of a Malachite Kingfisherin an overhanging tree, ready to spot and dive for a small fish, frog, crab or insect.

Malachite Kingfisher

Before returning for breakfast, which we had arranged to be brought to the cottage at 8 am, I had a look around the area beyond the stream and soon added Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler) and White-throated Canary. I tried to capture the latter species on camera as I knew it was a different sub-species (orangensis) from those I am used to seeing in the Southern Cape. I had limited success getting a clear photo, but they were better than nothing.

White-throated Canary (Crithagra albogularis / Witkeelkanarie) (race orangensis), Lushof Lodge

By the way if you think it’s a bit extreme not being satisfied with photographing bird species but trying to photograph all the subspecies as well, I confess I have had this “collectors” affliction since a young age and it seems to be getting worse….

After a substantial breakfast (to see us through the last day’s driving, you know) it was time to pack the car one last time, while still keeping an eye out for any birds to add. Fortunately so, as a Booted Eagle and a pair of SA Shelducks flew overhead within minutes of each other.

Booted Eagle, Lushof Lodge

On the road out we picked up Namaqua Dove and White-backed Mousebird, the dam near the highway held Blacksmith Lapwing and the adjoining grass boasted an Eastern Clapper Lark, giving us its version of goodbye as it performed its display flight in the air.

White-backed Mousebird, Lushof Lodge

The Stats

We left with a total of 48 species recorded which, considering the time of year, is a good indication of the quality of Lushof Lodge as a birding spot.

Of special note – this was only the third full protocol card completed for this pentad in 10 years, the previous two having been done by myself and Koos Pauw in 2010/11. A very under-atlased pentad!

11 new species were added to the pentad records –

  1. Brubru
  2. Cape Bunting
  3. Grey-backed Cisticola
  4. Blue Crane
  5. African Hoopoe
  6. Malachite Kingfisher
  7. Blue Korhaan
  8. Karoo Prinia
  9. South African Shelduck
  10. House Sparrow
  11. Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler)

Atlasing – August 2020 : Ruiterbos

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in August 2020 ….. in this case to two pentads in the Ruiterbos area north of Mossel Bay, which turned out to be as contrasting as two pentads adjoining each other can be

Ruiterbos Area – 25 August

Still using my earlier analysis of pentads in the southern Cape which had not yet been atlased in 2020, I noticed that the Ruiterbos area had one pentad not atlased since 2018 and with very low species totals recorded, which piqued my interest – nothing like a challenging pentad to make things interesting! Low totals, I have found, are usually due to limited diversity of habitat (all birds are particular to a specific habitat) or limited means of access to parts of the pentad, preventing the atlaser from getting to all the habitats. In some instances both of the above can apply, which results in really low totals.

I decided to target the challenging pentad as well as the one directly south of it, which seemed to hold more promise. Both are within about 45 minutes of home – the maps below show the location of the former…

The Route

With sunrise gradually coming earlier each day in late August, just a week away from Spring day, I set the alarm a bit earlier and left home at 6.15 am. I followed the R328 regional road to Oudtshoorn, passing Brandwag village and turned left at Ruiterbos Farm stall then travelled a couple of Kms along this quiet road before reaching the start of the first pentad at around 7 am.

Sunrise, Ruiterbos area

Pentad 3355_2155

Birding got off to a brisk start with calls of several species welcoming the new day – a cool, fresh morning with little cloud. Blue Crane, Bokmakierie, Cape Grassbird, Grey-backed Cisticola, Red-necked (Cape Turtle) Dove, even Hadada Ibis all joined the chorus.

Cape Grassbird (Sphenoeacus afer / Grasvoël) (Race afer), Ruiterbos area

Not much further along the gravel road I stopped at two adjacent fields which showed how differences in usage of farming land can have a noticeable impact on the species to be found. The first was covered in lush green lucerne and was seemingly reserved for the “big boys” – Egyptian and Spur-winged Goose and Blue Cranes were prominent. The adjacent field had short patchy grass with a scattering of stones and cowpats – clearly used for grazing of cattle and the realm of the smaller guys – Lapwings (Crowned), Larks (Red-capped) and Pipits (Plain-backed).

Plain-backed Pipit (Anthus leucophrys / Donkerkoester), Ruiterbos area
Red-capped Lark (Calandrella cinerea / Rooikoplewerik) (Race cinerea), Ruiterbos area

Descending into a valley, I passed a fruit farm which had entire fields draped in protective shade cloth, mostly to keep insects out I would guess, but equally proficient at keeping birds away, creating a very sterile environment.

Ruiterbos area

I did not dawdle and proceeded out of the valley into the hills beyond – what a contrast – suddenly the hills were alive with bird sounds, which were music to my ears (why do I feel a song coming on?). The next twenty minutes were bountiful, with 3 species of Sunbird (Southern Double-collared, Orange-breasted and Malachite), Cape Buntings and Cape Canaries twittering away, Stonechat and an African Olive Pigeon (New record).

Klaas’s Cuckoo (new record) announced its presence with its well-known “Meitjie” call and I wondered if it was an early arrival or perhaps one of those that had overwintered in the area, as they are known to do. A Cape Batis became my first record of this species for the year.

Cape Batis

After an hour and a half in the pentad, I had logged 34 species – a good start, and being close to the second “challenging” pentad, I decided to tackle it while birds were still active and come back to the first pentad a bit later. This would hopefully maximise my chances of getting a reasonable total in the second pentad which, from the stats, was going to produce a low bird-count card, for reasons as yet unknown.

Ruiterbos area

I returned later in the morning to complete a second “shift” in this pentad, carrying on where I had stopped before. I was now out of the prime birding area, into flatter countryside with less bush, but was still able to add regularly to my atlas card with the likes of Rock Kestrel, Victorin’s Warbler and African Black Swift (New record).

Victorin’s Warbler, Ruiterbos area

I managed to get a reasonable photo of the Rock kestrel – I had seen it returning with a small prey to its perch on top of a utility pole and guessed it would be pre-occupied while devouring it, which would allow a closer approach than usual. I was right and it only flew off again when the prey was ripped apart and swallowed.

Rock Kestrel (Falco rupicolus / Kransvalk), Ruiterbos area

Along the last stretch before exiting the pentad,another photo opportunity arose – this time an Olive Bushshrike (New record). I heard it calling from a particularly bushy area alongside the road and once I thought I had found the spot where it was concealed (which they are very good at doing) I tried some “pishing” which is a useful way of getting some species to pop out momentarily.

The Bushshrike obliged for just a few seconds, curious as to what was making this sound which birds associate with danger and I was able to snatch a few images – my best of this species to date!

Olive Bushshrike (Chlorophoneus olivaceus / Olyfboslaksman) (Race olivaceus), Ruiterbos area

The pentad had produced 50 species in all, and some very special ones at that.

Pentad 3350_2155

This was the pentad that had me wondering about the low totals logged by others. I soon found out why – apart from the first km or so which runs through open hills, the rest of the only access road ran through a commercial pine plantation, habitat which is notoriously sterile when it comes to bird life. The open stretch held Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia, Red-necked Spurfowl and African Pipit.

African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus / Gewone koester), Ruiterbos area

Entering the plantation, birding – and indeed life itself – seemed to slow down…

Paardekop Plantation, Ruiterbos area
Paardekop Plantation, Ruiterbos area

It was nevertheless a most pleasant environment to be in, despite being less than attractive for most bird species – exceptions were Black-headed Orioles, Cape Canaries, Cape Bulbul, and Cape White-eye, all of which I found easily and repeatedly, mostly at the fringes of the plantations.

At one stop, Greater Double-collared Sunbirds were curious bystanders but most stops were met with dead silence and no discernable movement, so each species added was quite precious as I slowly built on the list.

After two hours birding in the invigorating pine-scented air, I found I had reached 20 species, amazingly the second best total for the pentad out of 15 cards completed to date! I later found that I had added 3 new species to the pentad records, being Hadada Ibis (!), Speckled Pigeon and Black Sawwing.

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%

Adventurous Birding, Atlasing and Travel