West Rand Honorary Rangers (WRHR) in conjunction with SA National Parks have been organising birding weekends in Kruger National Park during the less popular months (read “very hot”) since the late 1990’s and we have enjoyed many wonderful moments since those days, being among the first to participate in these events. A recent addition to the WRHR repertory is the Punda Mania event during November, billed as a “hardcore” birding event. Prompted by George Skinner, we (George, myself, Koos Pauw and Pieter Rossouw) entered into the Punda Mania event from 15 to 18 November 2012. We set off from Pretoria around 8am on Thursday 15th November and reached Punda Maria gate to the Kruger Park about 1.30pm after an uneventful drive.
From there it was a short drive to Punda Maria to check in, ticking the typical Kruger Park birds as we went. Once settled into the classic accommodation alongside the entrance road, we met with the rest of the birders, the Honorary and KNP rangers and Joe Grosel, the leader for the weekend, who Koos and I had met a number of years ago during a Limpopo Bird Count event. Joe led us through the itinerary for the weekend and gave an excellent talk on the natural highlights of the area around Punda Maria and up to Pafuri. This included a description of the variety of habitats to be encountered, which are many and contribute to the famed diversity of bird species to be found in this part of Kruger.
As the sun headed for the horizon we were off on a very special “night(jar) drive” which took us to a patch of open ground not far from the camp, used as a “lek” during a 6 week window each November and December by the much sought after Pennant-winged Nightjars.
After sun-downers, the group stood quietly in anticipation of the Nightjars arrival, which was like clockwork during the mating season according to Joe and we had no reason to doubt him. We were not disappointed, as these special birds produced an enthralling display in front of us, swooping by like enormous butterflies with their long wing-pennants creating an eerie silhouette against the darkening skies. There was one female and 2 males, one of which settled on the gravel road in front of the group a couple of times just to add to the spectacular sighting. We headed back to camp feeling privileged to have witnessed something seen by few birders and what proved to be the highlight of the weekend before we had really started!
Friday, very early, we were given a “photographic treasure hunt” to complete during the morning’s drive, while our focus was mainly on adding to our growing bird list for the weekend. This had a great boost when we reached the bridge over the Luvuvhu River and were allowed to walk the bridge and enjoy the abundant bird life in the river and surrounding bush – renowned as a birding hot spot and it fully lived up to this reputation.
A majestic African Fish-Eagle kept watch over the river from atop a tall tree, while in the river Spectacled and Lesser-masked Weavers went about their business in the reeds and the ubiquitous Wire-tailed Swallows rested on the bridge railings – I have been visiting this spot on and off for close to 40 years and have come across these swallows perched on the bridge railings every time. They are a great subject for photography as they allow a close approach.
A Crowned Hornbill made an appearance in the trees adjoining the bridge, along with Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike and Dusky Flycatchers. Yellow-bellied Apalis and Grey-Tit Flycatchers added to the variety of birds on show. From there we traveled to the Pafuri picnic site, one of my favourite spots for a mid-morning brunch in the Kruger, but found it relatively quiet birding-wise, although we did add White-crowned Lapwing in the river bed and Yellow-bellied Greenbul and Retz’s Helmet-Shrike in the trees. Further along the river, Crook’s Corner was equally quiet with no sign of the Pel’s Fishing-Owl sometimes located here and very little water in the river, the only birds of note being a lone African Openbill and a Greenshank.
The very hot conditions meant that an afternoon nap in the cool chalet beat all other options. Later on some quiet garden birding in the area opposite the chalets produced a Little Sparrowhawk hunting among the trees. This was followed by the next arranged event which was a “Botanical treasure hunt” or “looking for stuff in trees” as George put it, where we had to ID and find the likes of a “snuff-box” tree, a Kudu Berry and a Leopard Orchid, which we duly did and in the process I came across a tree frog about 3m up on a bare branch which was something new for me.
After a good dinner the rangers took us on an evening drive which produced a Square-tailed Nightjar as well as an unusual mammal in the guise of a Sharpe’s Grysbok.
Saturday, just as early, we departed for a morning of atlasing in two pentads north of the Punda Maria camp which are normally not accessible by the general public and had only been atlased once or twice previously. The area we covered proved to be very hot and extremely dry – lists produced were not extensive but of course that is the whole point of atlasing – to record the species present or not present at any given time of the day and season. A selection of birds spotted follow below :
The trip included a stop at the Nyala Wilderness Trail base camp, which I remembered from a trail done back in 1999 – a Barred Owl calling had us searching for it and we eventually found it amongst the high branches. On the way back to Punda Maria we ticked a few more including White-throated Robin-Chat. Back at the camp it was nap-time again followed by a walk to the hide on the edge of the camping area, which overlooks a waterhole outside the fence.
The waterhole was alive with various game and birds coming to find some relief from the hot,dry conditions – game included Elephant, Zebra, Nyala, Impala and a lone Warthog. Marabou Storks strode back and forwards like down-and-out gentlemen – still elegant in posture but rather tatty and unattractive. A Grey-headed Kingfisher made several sorties from a nearby perch to the water and back, while in the muddy shallows Violet-backed Starlings mingled with doves, canaries and bulbuls.
I watched with interest when a Bateleur arrived at the waterhole and proceeded to go through a lengthy routine of walking with some purpose into the muddy area and drinking leisurely from a small pool, taking a minute or so between sips and seeming to savour each mouthful (beakful?) After about 10 repeats of this he walked to the drier edge of the waterhole and threw open his large wings to soak up the heat, followed by a forward fall onto his belly to get sun on the back of the wings as well, or so I surmised. Perhaps he had seen the movie with the penguins sliding on their bellies on the ice and thought he would give it a try!
After some time in this pose he stood up carefully, scanned the skies and then took off. This whole procedure was quite unusual behaviour, I thought – later research using my bird books at home did confirm that the wing-spreading action is well-known but I could find no mention of the “belly-flop” action.
That evening it was time for a drive to view the Pennant-winged Nightjars displaying once again, followed by the final dinner and prize-giving to close off what had proved to be a memorable weekend.
The Sunday drive back to Gauteng provided an opportunity to visit a couple of birding spots such as the Entabeni forest and Muirhead Dams where we spent some time exploring and looking for the area specials, some of which are shown below :
All in all a memorable weekend amongst a group of super-keen birders and another success for the West-Rand Honorary Rangers who, along with other branches who have followed their lead, are now one of the leading birding trip organisers in South Africa, contributing valuable funds to conservation – well done to them!