Kruger in Winter – The Happy Couples

When we visit Kruger National Park, my focus is – as my Blog title suggests – mostly on the birding. That said, I enjoy all aspects of our premier game reserve, but it is often the birds that end up grabbing most of my attention.

During our winter visit in July this year we had many memorable animal and bird sightings and my photographic passion was well fed by the opportunities that arose. Most of the birds I photographed were species that I have previously been able to capture digitally, but the beauty of photography, and especially bird photography, is that there is always a chance of a better photograph, or perhaps a photo which displays the bird from a different angle or actively doing what birds do.

After our week in Kruger in July, I uploaded the many photos to Adobe Lightroom, my photo management and editing software of choice, and worked through the photos that I had taken, applying my customary edits and crops.

I realised that a few of the species I had photographed were of those species that show marked differences between the male and female and I had managed to get reasonable images of both. Another species was accompanied by juvenile birds showing features not yet as fully developed as in the adults. All show interesting differences and I thought I would make them the subject of this post ……

Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark (Eremopterix leucotis / Rooiruglewerik)

Preferring semi-arid short grassland and savanna, this species is fairly uncommon in Kruger but we have found it in the same area a couple of times – about halfway along the Satara-Olifants road.

They spend a lot of their time on the ground, feeding on grass seeds and insects. While the male is very distinctive with its rich chestnut back and white ear patch, the female is a lot paler and on its own can easily be confused with some of the other Lark species.

In this instance there was a small flock of Sparrowlarks not far from the road in an area with very little bush cover so I was able to fairly easily photograph both male and female, although I cannot guarantee that the two shown are actually a couple….

Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark (Female) (Eremopterix leucotis smithi), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark (Male) (Eremopterix leucotis smithi), Olifants area, Kruger Park

Namaqua Dove (Oena capensis / Namakwaduifie)

The Namaqua Dove is fairly easy to spot, even at a distance or flying past rapidly – its long tail and slim build distinguishes it from all other doves in the Southern African region. Once you get close enough to view it through binoculars, the male’s distinctive black face, throat and upper breast stand out along with its yellow/orange bill, while the female lacks those same features, having a plain grey body and a darker bill.

It is a nomadic species, preferring arid and semi-arid savannah and feeds on seeds of grass, sedges and weeds.

Coincidentally, we came across what appeared to be a family group of Namaqua doves not far from the Sparrowlarks, in a similarly arid area along the Satara-Olifants road

Namaqua Dove (Female) (Oena capensis / Namakwaduifie), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Namaqua Dove (Male) (Oena capensis / Namakwaduifie), Olifants area, Kruger Park

Double-banded Sandgrouse  (Pterocles bicinctus /  Dubbelbandsandpatrys)

The black and white forehead band and narrow black and white breast band of the male distinguish the male from the female, which lacks both features, having a barred breast and no forehead markings

This is a fairly scarce species, mostly terrestial, found in savannah woodland and is known to be monogamous, so this pair we came across can safely be presumed to be a “couple”. We found them in the area just west of Olifants camp, not far from the river.

Once found they are quite accommodating to the photographer and not easily spooked if you approach carefully and position the car to get the best vantage point, while watching their movements.

Double-banded Sandgrouse (Female) (Pterocles bicinctus multicolor), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Double-banded Sandgrouse (Male) (Pterocles bicinctus multicolor), Olifants area, Kruger Park

Then there are the less marked but interesting differences between adult and juvenile birds …

Retz’s Helmetshrike (Prionops retzii / Swarthelmlaksman)

I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of Retz’s Helmet-shrikes in Pretoriuskop camp during a morning walk, making their way busily and noisily through the trees. They are fairly common but often inconspicuous when out on a game or birding drive, as they move through the trees almost constantly and their dark colouring makes them difficult to spot. It’s a lot easier to spot them when in flight between trees.

While the adults are overall mostly black and brown with glossy shades and the distinctive red wattle around the eyes, the juvenile is more grey-brown and lacks the red wattles.

Groups consist of on average 5 birds, their preferred habitat is broadleaved woodland and they feed on insects and spiders.

Retz’s Helmet-Shrike (Prionops retzii / Swarthelmlaksman), Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park
Retz’s Helmet-Shrike (Juvenile) (Prionops retzii / Swarthelmlaksman), Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park

Kruger in Winter – Aloes, Sunbirds, Butterflies and Friends

We were changing camps during our winter visit to Kruger – this time from Lower Sabie where we had spent just one night, to Pretoriuskop, where we were booked for 2 nights. Being around 100 kms apart, at Kruger speeds with stops at sightings, we were counting on around 3 to 4 hours of easy travelling.

The Lower Sabie – Skukuza “highway” was as busy as always with large knots of vehicles at sightings, including a lion spotted moving through the bush on the river side, providing brief glimpses as it passed openings between the trees.

We decided to take a break at Skukuza, the largest and busiest of Kruger’s camps and a favourite of overseas tourists. We bought take away coffees and muffins, then found a nice sunny spot with a view – of the tourists passing by in their many shapes, sizes and degrees of dress sense. It’s a form of entertainment, guessing the origin of the tourists based on their choice of “safari gear” – some in designer khaki, others in strange combinations of camouflage clothing paired with dark apparel, many looking totally out of place.

Once we tired of that game, I started looking around the gardens and noticed a bright yellow sunbird at one of the flowering aloes, an irresistible subject for a bird photographer, so I leapt up (well that’s what it felt like, others may say I stood up quickly) and rushed over to get myself positioned near the aloe with the light from behind and shoot a few photos until I had some reasonable ones of the Collared Sunbird.

Collared Sunbird (Hedydipna collaris / Kortbeksuikerbekkie) Skukuza, Kruger Park

The adjoining aloes had attracted yellow butterflies and I set about capturing a few images of these colourful creatures as they fed on the aloe nectar.

It was only when I reviewed the photos, zooming in to check the sharpness of the detail, that I noticed I had captured a tiny flying insect “passenger”, clinging to its butterfly host then flying off to find another.

Butterfly : African Migrant (Catopsilia florella), Skukuza, Kruger Park

Zooming in to see what that dot on the wing edge is, revealed a tiny flying insect, not more than 1 mm long, clinging to the butterfly

The insect takes off :

Modern digital cameras are quite amazing in the detail they can capture!

Excited with this butterfly I looked around for others and amongst the leaf litter I found …………… well you can decide if there is anything to see in this next photo

The photo below compared with the one above, demonstrates how well camouflaged a butterfly can be when its wings are closed and in the right surrounds, despite its bright colouring when fully open

Butterfly : Speckled sulphur-tip (Colotis agoye agoye), Skukuza, Kruger Park

Kruger in Winter – Lazy Birding

One of the great pleasures of birding in Kruger National Park is that you don’t necessarily have to go on a game drive to find a variety of birds. Birding the camp on foot is often a very productive way of building up a list of bird sightings and, if you are fortunate, you may be allocated a rondavel or chalet with surrounds that bring the birds to you.

Most of Kruger’s camps attract many birds with their well developed trees and gardens, as well as the bush that surrounds the camps, and there is no better way to enjoy the diverse bird life than sitting on your small stoep, sustained by regular injections of appropriate beverages, watching the passing show of birds and occasional animals.

As I mentioned in my last post, we were lucky to get a booking in Olifants camp for 5 nights during the last week of the winter school holidays – prime time in Kruger – and were doubly lucky to get a rondavel with “River view”, which are very sought after.

When we arrived at Olifants and drove to our rondavel after checking in, we were thrilled to see just how good our “river view” was – a view that started with the fence a couple of metres away, then dense bush and trees all the way down the steep slope to the river far below, where we could already make out an elephant or two and some hippos in the pools that form amongst the rocky course of this iconic river.

The River View from our stoep

Over the next 5 days, between the customary game drives, we spent as much time as possible on our small stoep, from early morning coffee to sundowner time, just chilling, reading and seemingly not concerned with our immediate surroundings, but ready at any moment to check out a nearby bird in the bush or more distant ones flying across the river below.

Seen from the Stoep…..

Here are some of the birds that came by to visit us, all taken from our stoep:

Orange-breasted Bushshrike (Chlorophoneus sulfureopectus / Oranjeborslaksman), Olifants camp
Jameson’s Firefinch (Female) (Lagonosticta rhodopareia / Jamesonse vuurvinkie), Olifants camp
Dark-capped Bulbul (Pycnonotus tricolor layardi subspecies / Swartoogtiptol), Olifants camp
Spectacled Weaver (Ploceus ocularis / Brilwewer), Olifants camp
Acacia Pied Barbet (Tricholaema leucomelas/ Bonthoutkapper), Olifants camp
White-throated Robin-Chat (Cossypha humeralis / Witkeeljanfrederik), Olifants camp
Brown-crowned Tchagra (Tchagra australis / Rooivlerktjagra), Olifants camp
Green-winged Pytilia (Juvenile) (Pytilia melba / Gewone melba), Olifants camp
Tawny-flanked Prinia (Prinia subflava / Bruinsylangstertjie), Olifants camp
Long-billed Crombec (Sylvietta rufescens / Bosveldstompstert), Olifants camp

And others….

The bush in fron of our rondavel was alive with bird life for most of the day and we saw many more than those photographed above, including the likes of …..

Black-headed Oriole

Brown-headed Parrot

Golden-tailed Woodpecker (who decided to “shadow-box” a supposed rival in our car’s external mirror on the day we packed to move on)

Grey-headed Bush-shrike

And to round off, a couple of non-bird visitors………

Tree Squirrel
Wasp? Not really sure but an attractive insect

Kruger in Winter – Looking at Wildlife

It’s a strange thing, this love of Kruger National Park – come the winter months with the highveld air getting drier and colder as we move into June and July, my thoughts involuntarily turn toward the bushveld wilderness where we have spent so many relaxing times.

Gerda knows by now to expect me to express my longing, sometimes subtly, other times more direct – “ooh, I wish we were in Kruger” or “did you hear so and so are in Kruger, lucky devils” or words to that effect. Then when she says “don’t you want to book a week for us?”, I naturally react with surprise and reply “what a good idea”.

And that’s how we found ourselves on the road to Olifants camp in early July this year. Surprisingly, we had found space in a standard Olifants camp rondavel in the last week of the school holidays, after finding the rest of July all but fully booked up in our preferred camps. We were lucky to get 5 nights in Olifants and another 3 nights in Lower Sabie and Pretoriuskop.

We go to Kruger to relax ……. and to look at wildlife, This time around I had this odd feeling they were looking at us – animals and birds alike – what do you think?

The Horned Animals

Buffalo, Olifants area, Kruger Park
Blue Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Waterbuck, Olifants area, Kruger Park

Unhorned and harmless

Bushbuck, Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park
Steenbok (Raphicerus campestris), Olifants area, Kruger Park

The Cute Youngsters

Baboon, Olifants area, Kruger Park
Spotted Hyena pup, Tshokwane area, Kruger Park

The Smaller Animals

Tree Squirrel, Olifants area, Kruger Park
Dwarf Mongoose, Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park

A Predator

Cheetah, Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park

The only Disinterested Animal

White Rhino, Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park

Even a Reptile

Water Monitor, Olifants area, Kruger Park

And Birds, of Course

Trumpeter Hornbill (Male) (Bycanistes bucinator / Gewone boskraai), Lower Sabie camp, Kruger Park
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Burchell’s Coucal (Centropus burchellii / Gewone vleiloerie), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Swainson’s Spurfowl (Pternistis swainsonii / Bosveldfisant), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Greater Blue-eared Starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus / Groot-blouoorglansspreeu), Tshokwane, Kruger Park
Tawny-flanked Prinia (Prinia subflava / Bruinsylangstertjie), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Chinspot Batis (Male) (Batis molitor), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Swainson’s Spurfowl (Juvenile) (Pternistis swainsonii), Olifants area, Kruger Park

And a tree knot looking like an Owl, looking at us

Owl-faced tree, Olifants area, Kruger Park

So if you find yourself in Kruger, or any other Park, looking at wildlife, I’m sure you will find them looking at you as well

At the Bird Feeder

It never fails to amaze me how quickly birds of the seedeater variety react to my replenishing the feeder in our garden, usually descending on it en masse within half an hour of filling it.

This happened again recently after I had been away and had not filled the feeder for some weeks – the first birds were there in no time at all. I suspect they “do the rounds” of all potential feeding sites each day, otherwise how would they know? And there must be some system of communication that informs other birds of different species of the presence of food.

Whatever the case, it is always interesting to see which species turn up – often the same mix but sometimes a non-regular puts in an appearance.

Here is a selection of the birds that came to the feeder in the space of a couple of days recently –

Sparrows

Two of the four South African Sparrows are regulars in the garden – the House Sparrow, despite its name, does not come to the garden, preferring to scrounge for scraps at the local shopping centre’s parking area

Cape Sparrow (Male) (Passer melanurus / Gewone mossie)
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow (Passer diffusus / Gryskopmossie)
Cape Sparrow (Female) and Grey-headed Sparrow

Finches

Both of the Amadina finches are fairly regular visitors and the males provide a splash of colour with their vivid red “cut-throat” and head. They also feed on insects and termites where they can

Cut-throat Finch (Male) (Amadina fasciata / Bandkeelvink)
Cut-throat Finch (Female) (Amadina fasciata / Bandkeelvink)
Red-headed Finch (Male) (Amadina erythrocephala dissita / Rooikopvink)
Red-headed Finch (Female) (Amadina erythrocephala dissita / Rooikopvink)

Weavers

There are four weaver species in the residential estate that we live in, thanks mainly to the two small dams that form part of it. Two of them are regular visitors to the garden, being Southern Masked Weaver and Village Weaver, while the Cape Weaver is very seldom seen in the garden and the Thick-billed Weaver not at all

The regular weavers are, at first glance, quite similar but have a few distinguishing features – the black forehead of the Southern Masked Weaver versus the yellow forehead of the Village Weaver, the plainer mottled back of the Southern Masked Weaver versus the heavily blotched back of the village Weaver (not visible in these photos)

Southern Masked Weaver (Male breeding) (Ploceus velatus race tahatali / Swartkeelgeelvink)
Village Weaver (Male breeding) (Ploceus cucullatus race spilonotus / Bontrugwewer)

The photo below shows the difference in the forehead colours

Village and Southern Masked Weavers

Looking at the photos I had taken, I noticed that the Village Weaver had an elongated bill – this is an abnormality that occurs in various bird species. This individual did not seem to have a problem feeding

Village Weaver (Male breeding) (Ploceus cucullatus race spilonotus / Bontrugwewer)

Lovebirds

Over the last 3 to 4 years a feral population of Lovebirds has established a presence in our residential estate, probably being cage bird escapees originally. They most closely resemble the Black-cheeked Lovebird that occurs in Zambia but are quite hybridised, with some birds being almost entirely yellow. I am split between appreciating their bright colouring and disliking the fact that feral birds are spreading in the eastern suburbs of Pretoria

Feral Lovebird – Yellow-collared/Black-cheeked

Mannikins

These cute little birds appear in small flocks, twittering away happily

Bronze Mannikin (Lonchura cucullata / Gewone fret)

Which all goes to show you don’t have to travel far from home to find interesting birds

Australian Adventure – The Birds of Australia – 3

Concluding the summary of the birds seen during our trip to Australia earlier this year, listed by general habitat ……

Fields and Farmlands

Whether out walking or on a drive, we found that open fields, parklands and farmlands attracted numerous species, most likely looking for that tasty worm or insect as they moved in small and large groups across the terrain

Eastern Cattle Egret (Bubulcus coromandus) – this common bird only arrived in Australia in 1948 but is now widespread over most of the country except the northwest and interior (which is vast). Looks identical to the Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) of southern Africa and has the same habits.

Masked Lapwing (Vanellus miles) – there is something about Lapwings that makes them one of my favourite groups of birds, and this attractive species is no exception. I think it has to do with their pleasing proportions, their neat appearance and the fact that they spend much of their time at ground level, like all respectable humans do. The Masked Lapwing has distinctive yellow wattles, much like the Wattled Lapwing (Vanellus senegallus) and White-crowned Lapwing (Vanellus albiceps) of southern Africa. It’s distribution is mainly over the eastern half of Australia. According to the reference book the one found in Victoria and photographed here is the subspecies novaehollandiae, told by the black hind neck and sides of the breast, as well as smaller wattles

White-faced Heron (Egretta novaehollandiae) – the most commonly seen heron in Australia, this species is found near water according to the reference books, but the few times I saw it was in fields such as the photo following.

Australasian Swamphen (Porphyrio melanotus) – now you may be wondering why I have shown this species under “Fields and farmlands” rather than lakes and rivers. Being used to seeing its southern African cousin skulking amongst waterside vegetation, I expected to have only fleeting glimpses of this species, if at all, so it was a surprise to encounter groups of them in parks and fields, walking about in the open and as common as our Hadedas.

Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca) – found across most of Australia, this Ibis is equally at home in and near water or in parks and pastures. Said to be nomadic, with young birds dispersing, usually northwards, up to 1200 km

Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides) – a common endemic, this raven is similar in appearance to the other all black ravens and crows that make up the family Corvidae. I was able to narrow this one down by looking at distribution, habitat and the finer details such as the shaggy “beard” that sets the Australian Raven apart.

Straw-necked Ibis (Threskiornis spinicollis) – An endemic and Australia’s most common Ibis, which we can vouch for as we saw it in numbers wherever we travelled in Victoria.

Cape Barren Goose (Cereopsis novaehollandiae) – this endemic Goose has a limited distribution on offshore islands and the adjacent mainland in the far south of Australia. We came across it on Philip Island during our visit to the site of the Penguin Parade

Raptors, Swallows and others

Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) – an endemic and well-known species, the Kookaburra belongs to a grouping of 7 dry land “tree kingfishers” with the Laughing Kookaburra being the largest of them. Pairs produce an iconic chorus of loud “laughter” in the mornings which is unmistakeable and eerie at the same time as they are not always visible. They are mainly found in the eastern third of Australia as well as the southwestern corner – their natural habitat is forest edges, woodlands and parks but we saw them a few times perched on roadside telephone wires.

Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus axillaris) – so that’s why the southern African Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus caeruleus) was recently renamed Black-winged Kite! Presumably to differentiate it from the Australian species of the same name but different genus. The look and habits of this endemic are very similar to the one we know from SA, hovering and dropping onto prey, which is more often than not the introduced house mouse

Welcome Swallow (Hirundo neoxena) – the only swallow I saw and in small numbers except for one afternoon when a hundred or more were foraging for insects over Lake Guthridge in Sale, swooping and diving above the surface of the water

Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus) – common over most of Australia, I had several sightings of this handsome raptor, often in effortless wheeling flight over farmlands and wetlands. The photo below was taken while walking on Sale Common, just after I saw the Kite landing in a tall tree

Grey Butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus) – Yet another endemic species, widely distributed over Ausralia except for the northern third. I came across this species just once while walking to the local supermarket – it was calling from within a dense tree and all I had was my cellphone to capture an image, thus the poor quality photo. Their name comes from their habit of hanging larger prey in a tree fork, then dismembering it with their sharp hook-tipped bill (much like some of the Shrike family of southern Africa)

Grey Shrike-thrush (Colluricincia harmonica) – we had just the one sighting of this common species during a drive out of Apollo Bay. It popped up onto the fence where it waited for me to get my camera in position, then just before releasing the shutter it flew down to the ground and off into the nearby bush leaving me mildly frustrated yet glad I had seen it

Azure Kingfisher (Ceyx azureus) – another one that eluded my camera – we were on the Sale Canal cruise when I was the first to spot it down river, the azure colour standing out against the green background. Next moment it flew up to the boat and perched on an open branch just long enough for everyone on the boat to see it, then flashed off upriver leaving me holding my camera in despair. Classed as moderately common, it is found along the northern and eastern parts of Australia

Nankeen Night-Heron (Nycticorax caledonicus) – this mostly nocturnal species (asleep but wary during the day as you will see from the photo below) occurs over most of Australia, roosting in colonies near water. They leave the colony in unison and forage during the evening and before dawn for fish and other aquatic prey

Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) – the name wagtail is a tad misleading as it is in fact classified under the Fantails and is the largest of the fantail family. They are well-loved and for good reason with their chirpy attitude and cute sideways wagging of the fanned tail – they would have easily taken to the Twist dance of the 60’s (which is also the only one I could master). Apparently fearless in defence of their nest, they will take on all-comers and are often seen chasing away eagles

Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax) – we had just one brief sighting of this eagle as it soared above the road while driving to Philip Island. It is classed as common and its distribution covers all of Australia. The largest of Australia’s raptors, it is easily distinguished by the wedge-shaped tail

The Colourful Birds (Like, Everywhere!)

Australia is famous for its colourful species such as Parrots, Cockatoos, Lorikeets and such like, and rightly so – they are literally everywhere, often in surprising numbers and are a feature of birding in this amazing country. It’s also an interesting fact of nature that the more colourful the bird, the less attractive their song seems to be – not always true of course but many of those that we encountered produced the most grating, unattractive calls.

Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus) – this was the first of the colourful birds that we saw and we enjoyed almost daily sightings of them in the suburbs

Galah (Eolophus roseicapella) – this common endemic is a ground feeder and all of our sightings were of it walking about on lawns, when not in flight to the next grassy area

Little Corella (Cacatua sanguinea) – classed as locally common, we came across large flocks on a few occasions, as shown in the featured photo at the top of this post. They are found over most of Australia and are also ground feeders

Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans) – a common endemic which is confined to the southeastern corner of Australia and favours tall eucalyptus trees. The crimson colouring is quite breathtaking in its intensity and combined with the rich blue on the wings and tail makes for a spectacular bird

Eastern Rosella (Platycercus eximius) – another common endemic and like the above, confined to the southeastern corner of Australia. Despite the vivid colours it is surprisingly well camouflaged when among foliage – we had just one clear sighting on Raymond Isand

Australian King Parrot (Alisterus scapularis) – this endemic parrot is found in the southeastern parts of Australia and migrates to coastal plains in winter from its favoured habitat of mountain forests, parks and gardens

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (cacatura galerita) – this noisy and conspicuous species is impossible to overlook, occuring in large flocks and often foraging on the ground or gathering in trees in surburbia. South Africans of a certain age (let’s leave it at that) will remember the NBS adverts that featured this bird demonstrating how it can raise and lower its bright yellow crest

And that concludes the pleasurable task of listing all the birds seen during our visit to Australia – roll on the next visit!

Australian Adventure – The Birds of Australia – 2

Continuing the summary of the birds seen during our trip to Australia earlier this year, listed by general habitat ……

Lakes and Rivers

Sale in Victoria, our base for the time we were in Australia, is blessed with a sizeable lake – Lake Guthridge – which is bordered on the one side by a main road and on the other by parkland and botanical gardens. A smaller lake – Lake Guyatt – adjoins it and the nearby river and Sale Canal all add to the abundance of water within walking distance of the house, providing plenty of opportunity to view the birds that favour these habitats.

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) – A familiar species, almost identical to the Red-knobbed Coot we know so well in SA, the only obvious difference being the absence of the red knob. Found over most of Australia, there were huge flocks on Lake Guthridge at times

Dusky Moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa) – Another very familiar looking species, with small differences between it and the Common Moorhen of southern Africa, such as reddish instead of yellow legs and the lack of the white wing flashes. Australian distribution is limited to the eastern half of the continent.

Dusky Moorhen, Sale, Victoria

Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) – An Australian endemic, this is a species that has been successfully “exported” to South Africa and for years we had a pair on one of the small dams in our residential estate in Pretoria, brought there by one of the well-meaning residents. Good to look at but I am never comfortable having exotic species in places that they don’t belong. So it was a pleasure to see so many of these elegant birds in their natural environment and the sight of a group of them flying off to their roost at dusk, long necks outstretched, black bodies contrasting with white underwing will long remain in my mind.

Pacific Black Duck (Anas superciliosa) – this is the most abundant of Australia’s ducks, found in pairs or small flocks on most open waters. The iridescent speculum shows in flight or, if you are lucky as I was, while preening

Chestnut Teal (Anas castanea) – Australian endemic, common in southwestern and southeastern Australia, we encountered this distinctive medium-sized duck regularly on lakes and rivers

Blue-billed Duck (Oxyura australis) – I only had one sighting of this distinctive Australian endemic during our visit to Raymond Island, but that was enough to have it imprinted on my mind. Said to be moderately common, it is found mainly in southeastern Australia. It is a completely aquatic diving duck almost unable to walk on land and remains well out from shore

Maned Duck (Chenonetta jubata) also known as the Australian Wood Duck – Yet another endemic, this duck is unusual in that it prefers walking about on the grassy banks of the river or lake rather than taking to the water. We had several sightings of these ducks and never saw them in the water

Australasian Grebe (Tachybaptus novaehollandiae) – a small cute Grebe found over most of Australia but restricted to sheltered fresh water

Freckled Duck (Stictonetta naevosa) – such a cool name for a duck! It could easily be the name of a pub in one of those cosy villages in England. I was probably lucky to spot this endemic duck on the lake fringes on the last day of our visit to Australia, as the book gives its status as “Rare” with patchy distribution across eastern Australia

Australasian Darter (Anhinga novaehollandiae) – widespread across Australia and moderately common, it is also known as the “snake-bird” for the same reason as its African cousin – it swims with body submerged and its snake like head and long neck visible

Australian Pelican (Pelicanus conspicillatus) – A species which is hard to miss and surprisingly common on larger bodies of water, swimming and dipping in unison in their characteristic manner. Despite their large size, but perhaps because of their 2,3m wingspan, they are adept at riding updrafts of warm air to heights of up to 3000m and travelling long distances.

Yellow-billed Spoonbill – (Platelea flavipes) – A common endemic, found across most of Australia. Like all spoonbills it wades in shallow muddy waters, slowly sweeping the water with its spatula-like bill for fish, shrimps and crustaceans

Eastern Great Egret (Ardea modesta) – On the face of it this egret is identical to the Great Egret that we know from Southern Africa, but the books show its species name as ardea modesta, whereas the SA species goes under the name ardea alba, so clearly the boffins have decided there is enough evidence to separate it. Strictly speaking the SA species should perhaps be known as the Western Great Egret.

Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) – largest of the Australian cormorants and also widespread on rivers, dams, lakes and estuaries

Little Black Cormorant (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris) – common on inland waters across most of Australia

Little Pied Cormorant (Microcarbo melanoleucus) – smallest of the Australian cormorants, often abundant on lagoons, dams and lakes

Coastal

We spent most of our time inland but a week-long road trip included the Great Ocean Road and Philip Island near Melbourne, which afforded some opportunities to find species which prefer coastal habitats

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaeholandiae) – the most common gull in Australia, this striking bird is found along the coast as well as on inland lakes

Pacific Gull (Larus pacificus) – classed as moderately common, this endemic gull is found along the southern and eastern coast of Australia. We had just one sighting of a juvenile gull

Australasian Gannet (Morus serrator) – I was excited to find this species offshore at Cape Otway Light station, having previously seen its African and North American “cousins”, all very similar looking. It was too far offshore for a decent photo so I have added one from the reference book

Sooty Oystercatcher (Haematopus fuliginosus) – I was hoping to see this species during our Great Ocean Road trip and was thrilled to find a pair on a rocky stretch of the coast. It is classed as moderately common and found along Australia’s coastline

Crested Tern (Thalasseus bergii) – The only tern seen during our trip happened to be one that I am very familiar with, as it is the most common tern seen when we spend time at our Mossel Bay home

Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor) – I have written about the “Penguin Parade” in previous posts so won’t repeat that here. Suffice to say that this species is a major tourist attraction and money-spinner for the authorities that control the viewing experience on Philip Island.

Australian Adventure – The Birds of Australia – 1

Our trip to Australia was primarily to spend time with family, but being the avid birder that I am, I was particularly looking forward to seeing and identifying as many Australian birds as circumstances would allow. Keen birders will know that thrill that comes with visiting a new part of your home country and it is doubly so when you visit a new country, specially one known for its variety of birds.

My first thrill was being presented with a fine Australian Bird book by Stephan and family on arrival and I was soon into it, marking up with a green highlighter all the birds that could reasonably be found in the State of Victoria.

For the first few days birding was limited to what I could pick up in the small garden and the surrounding neighbourhood, as well as on short trips into town. Once I got to know the area better I took longer walks to the local parks and lakes which expanded the birding opportunities greatly. Thereafter it was a matter of “taking my (birding) chances” when they arose.

So, just to sort the 68 bird species that I saw into some sort of order, I decided to list them by general habitat, starting with……

Gardens and suburbia

Common Myna – It just had to be the first bird on my list – that brashest of all species, strutting about the garden and stealing Maggie’s food (she being the family pet dog). They occur in abundance all along the east coast of Australia and are a declared pest, having been introduced in 1860 in a failed attempt to control insects. Little did they know……. The bird book actually suggests that you “destroy nests, trap and dispose of birds where possible” which is what a lot of people in South Africa would like to do!

Common Myna, Sale, Victoria

Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina) – a much more pleasant species with a pleasing voice – known for and named after the melodic “curre-wong” sound that one hears from afar. Common endemic which occurs along the east coast and inland areas of Australia, forming flocks in winter.

Pied Currawong, Sale, Victoria

Common Starling (Sternis vulgaris) – another species introduced into Australia, also in the 1860’s and also declared a pest, (We could learn from the Aussies). Abundant in the SE of Australia (No photo)

Red Wattlebird (Anthochaera caranculata) – an attractive species that we came across in parks, woodlands and gardens in several places. A common endemic and the largest honeyeater in Australia, which occurs from east to west along the southern side of Australia. Nomadic, with small to large groups following flowering events. This bird reminded me of the Cape Sugarbird which comes into our garden in Mossel Bay, both in appearance and actions. It’s named for the red wattles that hang on the sides of its face but are not always noticeable.

New Holland Honeyeater (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae) -I first came across this bird in the park and subsequently saw it a few times in gardens. I was immediately entranced by its bold colouring and active nature. A common endemic whose reliance on nectar makes it protective of its chosen source and it will energetically chase other birds that may venture too close. That intimidating eye should be enough warning on its own!

Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) – another species introduced in the 1860’s, its distribution is limited to the south east corner of Australia

Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Female), Apollo Bay

Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen) – widespread and common, this distinctive large bird is found in suburbia and just about everywhere else. It has a variety of calls, often melodious and complex. There is a “computer-generated sound” quality to their calls at times

Magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) – One of my favourite visitors to the garden, where it forages for insects on the ground, this striking bird is common across Australia.

Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) – introduced from China, this dove is present in coastal eastern Australia.

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula) – yet another introduced species from the 1850’s but its distribution is limited to the south east corner of Australia. Visits the garden and, typically thrush-like, forages amongst the leaf litter. Not easy to photograph as they are very skittish.

Crested Pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes) – I enjoyed the few sightings of this species which looks unlike any other dove/pigeon with its prominent thin upright crest. Occurs over most of Australia and an endemic to boot!

Common Bronzewing (Phaps chalcoptera) – we had just one sighting of this handsome pigeon, while viewing Koala Bears on Raymond Island. An Endemic, it occurs across Australia but is a shy and wary species

Parks, fields and farmland

Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) – the familiar “Blue-wren” of southeastern Australia, this endemic species can be tricky to see as it works its way briskly through dense thickets. One has to be patient and follow its movement until it hops into view, usually briefly. In non-breeding plumage it is far less colourful but still an attractive species to see

Superb Fairywren, Lake Guyatt Sale

Brown Thornbill (Acanthiza pusilla) – endemic species that forages in mid to upper foliage and also requires some patience in order to get a photo. Distribution covers the southeatern coastal and inland areas of Australia

Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala) – the name is apparently based on its raucous “pee-pee-pee” call but I never heard it call despite several encounters in parks. Endemic and a vigorous defender of territory.

Grey Fantail (Rhipidura albiscapa) – a common endemic which occurs over most of Australia, this species did its best to elude my binos and my camera as it actively made its way through the lower canopy, frequently fanning its tail (Photo from Complete Guide to Australian BIrds)

Grey Fantail

Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris) – another common endemic, this is one of the more distinctive and handsome birds that I came across and found to be quite accommodating in perching in an open position for a reasonable photo. Found in the southeastern parts of Australia, its fine, long, down-curved bill identifies it as a nectar feeder.

The second part of The Birds of Australia will cover the birds of Lakes and Rivers, Coast and Sea – not to be missed!

Australian Adventure – The Last Day, Melbourne

After close to 6 weeks in Sale, Victoria, of which one week was taken up by a very pleasurable road trip exploring the Great Ocean Road, we felt ready to return home, nevertheless sad to say our goodbyes to Stephan and Liesl and Jocelyn and Christopher.

Up at 5am for final packing to catch the 6.55am train from Sale to Southern Cross station in central Melbourne – a relaxing and comfortable train in plush first class seats – this is the way to do it!

The 6,55am train arrives at Sale station in the mist

At Southern Cross we found our way to the baggage hall which we found had a facilty to store our bags for the day while we discovered some of Melbourne. This was also the moment for bureacracy to go a little mad as the baggage attendant weighed our bags before accepting them for storage (no transport involved, mind you) and finding them, to his apparent horror, to be almost one kg over their 20kg limit, insisted we remove some articles (our books did it) to reduce the weight, which he then placed on top of the bags and took them through a door into the storeroom all of 3 metres away. We did as instructed and left him muttering about the personnel at Sale station who had allowed this gross flouting of the baggage rules.

After that bizarre encounter we found a coffee shop and, suitably calmed and refreshed, we set off to find the Hop-on, Hop-off city bus terminal with the help of Google maps which even showed us which tram to take (thanks Stephan for showing me this useful feature). The tram trip was a mini-adventure in itself despite being just three stops and with some walking we found the terminal at Federation Square.

Bus terminal at Federation Square, Red Bus waiting

It’s always good to see a city at pavement level, warts and all, while walking the streets and seeing the citizens going about their normal business – we passed by the gracious St Paul’s Cathedral and the historic Flinders Street Station, both nicely preserved. The trams are an efficient way of getting around the city and as a bonus are free in the central city.

We boarded the Red Bus for the two hour round trip with 14 stops at points of interest, only disembarking at one as we still had to get ourselves out to the airport hotel that afternoon. This gave us a good overview without any real “wow” moments. The inner city as seen from the lower level of a bus looks much like most other modern cities, but once we moved further out there was enough to keep us interested …….

  • Melbourne University with its vast sports fields
  • Melbourne Star Observation Wheel in the Docklands precinct
  • The iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground / MCG which Aussies like to call the “G”. It draws big crowds (90 – 100,000) for some of the major sports events including that incredibly popular sport called “Footie” or Australian Rules Football.
  • Glimpses of Little Italy and Chinatown on the city fringes

We disembarked at Fitzroy gardens and walked through lovely parkland with autumn leaves falling (do they say “fall leaves falling” in the States?) and covering the vast lawns with a multi-coloured carpet.

In one section was Captain Cook’s cottage, which the blurb said is the oldest building in Australia – but there’s a catch to that – it was originally built in 1755 in Yorkshire, England by the parents of Captain James Cook and was brought to Melbourne in 1934. Apparently each brick was numbered, packed into barrels and then shipped to Australia where it was reconstructed in the gardens.

Captain Cook’s cottage, Fitzroy Gardens

While trying to get a photo without other tourists posing in front, I was curious about the people in period dress wandering about in the small garden – they turned out to be volunteers who “add to the memorable experience” and provide period clothing for tourists to dress alike and have photos taken, at a cost of course (I must apologise at this point for not enthusing about this potential “memorable experience” which I decided to forego)

Captain Cook’s cottage

We were peckish by this time and headed to the garden cafe where we were told that lunch was “finished”, so we ended up having tea and “party pies” – tiny vegetable pies – plus a slice of banana/walnut bread, which was an odd lunch but rather nice.

Then it was time to catch the red bus again, where it had dropped us off earlier and after a short wait one appeared. It wasn’t long before we were back at Federation Square and we retraced our steps to Southern Cross station, collected our bags (and put the books back in them) and found the Skybus to take us to the airport and our hotel for the night. All that remained was the flight back to South Africa the next day. It had been a busy but worthwhile day and a good way to round off our Australian adventure. We had seen but a glimpse of Melbourne and resolved to see more of it when the opportunity arose.

Melbourne Airport – early morning view from our hotel

Australian Adventure – Victoria : Philip Island

We left our overnight accommodation in Geelong after a hearty breakfast – destination Queenscliff. With plenty of time before our reserved ferry trip, we had coffee at a cafe, then drove to the ferry terminal and on to the ferry. 40 minutes later we drove off at Sorrento (no not the Italian one) and set off on the long route around the top of the bay and southwards to Philip island, which is accessed via a bridge across the narrow channel between the mainland and the island.

The rain had followed us for most of the day, varying between light drizzle and road-drenching downpours. We stopped at a farm cafe for warming soup and a break from driving and were treated to the sight of a flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows taking refuge from the heavy rain under a parked vehicle.

Eurasian Tree Sparrows sheltering from the heavy rain
Eurasian Tree Sparrows

We reached Philip Island around 4 pm and headed straight to the accommodation that Stephan had booked for the weekend – they arrived a bit later and we discussed our plans for the next day, Saturday, besides the Penguin Parade for which we had booked tickets the previous week. We decided a visit to the Chocolate Factory would satisfy the kids – the actual ones and the grown-ups who like to be kids sometimes.

Chocolate Factory

Next morning after a slow and lazy start we headed across the island to the Chocolate Factory, not knowing quite what to expect. The entrance tickets set the tone – edible chocolate ones – and we spent a very entertaining hour or more going from one exhibit to the next, some of them interactive and full of fun.

After a good curry lunch we headed back to the house to get ready for the main outing of the day – the Penguin Parade. On the way we passed a small reserve and spotted our first Wallabies – when I stopped to take a photo through the fence, a small head cutely popped out of its pouch!

Penguin Parade

The only thing we knew about the Parade was that it would be outside and we should dress warmly so, kitted out with jackets, scarves and beanies, we drove the few kms or so to the Philip Island Nature Park. By now we had come to know that top tourist attractions in Australia are very popular and the already full parking area confirmed this.

We walked to the main centre, a large building with shops, restaurants, toilets and an auditorium, past an even larger centre under construction, then on down the boardwalk towards the beach area to take up our position on the boarded seating along with numbers of other people hoping for a sighting of the Little Penguins. Our view was limited to a stretch of the beach, a rocky area and a pathway where the penguins would be passing by, we were told.

Penguin Parade boardwalks and seating areas – we were in the seating closest to the camera

It all seemed very organised and unlike any “birding” experience that I could think of, nevertheless I was fascinated by it all and looking forward to seeing these penguins, well named “Little Penguin” as they are the smallest of their species. They are just 35-45cm long and are also known as Fairy Penguin. It is the only resident penguin in Australia.

I was disappointed to hear that photography was not allowed “for the protection of the penguins” – I couldn’t help wondering what the long-term effect may be of up to 2000 people viewing the parade every evening, sitting under lights and crowding the boardwalks as the birds make their way to their roosts. Fortunately one can download photos from an app which is what I did and the photos which I have used here do represent the experience

The Rangers on duty told us what to expect, predicting the time that the first penguins would emerge from the sea after their day of foraging the open seas, in some 45 minutes time. While we waited, a couple of Little Penguins that had been left behind entertained the crowd before the “main show” started at the predicted time, with the first raft of penguins swimming in, scrambling up the rocky area, hesitating, then heading up the network of main and branch pathways in batches of 2 to 20 at a time.

They were beyond cute as they waddled by, bent forward like old folk and rather awkward out of the water, but moving surprisingly quickly. More rafts of penguins swam in, turning into waddles as they moved inland, some up to 3kms to their roosts. All in all several hundred penguins passed our position while we watched fascinated by the spectacle.

We walked back slowly to the main centre along the crowded boardwalk and watched some of the groups of penguins waddling by almost within touching distance, with many already at their chosen spots in the grassy dunes, some apparently courting. All that remained to be done was some shopping and the short drive back to the house.

Quite a special experience despite sharing it with so many others.

Next morning before heading back to Sale, we enjoyed a Mother’s day brunch at a local restaurant in Cowes, then took a walk along the beachfront and pier – a nice way to round off our visit to Philip Island and our week long road trip. I squeezed in some birding while the others enjoyed the seaside atmosphere

Adventurous Birding, Atlasing and Travel