Punda Mania 2013 – Sizzling Hot Birding

About Punda Mania

Billed as a Team Birding Challenge, this is a special event for birders keen to spend time in one of the top birding spots in South Africa, at a time of year when the majority of migrants are present. Under the direction of Joe Grosel and with the assistance of the SANParks Honorary Rangers (HR’s) from the West Rand Region as well as guides from SANParks, the group of some 40 people is taken through a series of challenges which focus on birding but also include other aspects of nature such as mammals, trees, insects and the odd reptile. This was the 3rd such event and the second that I have attended and “knowing the ropes” helped to make this version even more enjoyable (for me anyway) than the previous one.

Getting There

Our group of 4 (Myself, George Skinner, Pieter Rossouw and Pieter Lombaard) left Pretoria early-ish to make sure we would be in time for the start of activities at 15h00 on Thursday 14 November 2013, with enough time for a hearty brunch at our usual stop near Polokwane, after which we turned off towards Giyani and reached Punda Maria gate by 13h30. In our air-conditioned cocoon we had noticed the temperature rising as we traveled north but only felt the 37º C  heat when we got out to stretch our legs at the gate, much  like the blanket of hot air in your face when you open a hot oven door except it envelops your whole body. From there we drove slowly to Punda Maria camp, arriving just in time for the rendezvous with the rest of our team for the weekend and the vehicle to take us to the Visitor Centre for the briefing. We joined up with 2 other couples  – Brian and Joy Falconer-Smith and Elouise and Christo Kalmer – to make up our team, the Shrewd Shrikes, and were pleased to see that Jobe, our guide from last year, was again allocated to our vehicle. William Dunn, our HR representative completed the team line-up.

The birding from the gate to the camp was slow, being the hottest time of day and we were wilting along with the animals and panting bird life that was to be seen. An African Firefinch in the low bushes, Red-billed Oxpeckers on a group of Impalas and Yellow-fronted Canary in the upper branches of a tree kept us interested.

The Challenge and first Activity

At the initial briefing, Monika O’Leary, organiser of the weekend, introduced the proceedings, then Andy Branfield described what the HR’s do with the funds generated by these events and finally Joe Grosel took us through the various habitats in this northern part of Kruger and the animal and bird species that find these habitats to their liking. The Challenge details were spelt out and, as before, points would be awarded for bird species ID’d, mammal species seen (which our team only discovered at the final dinner!) plus the treasure hunts and quizzes as well as the atlasing  and team spirit.

Visitor Centre, Punda Maria
Visitor Centre, Punda Maria
Joe and Monika at the introduction
Joe and Monika at the introduction
The Challenge
The Challenge

The drive to the Visitor Centre had produced Tawny Eagle as the bird life started to liven up. During the talks the continuous calls of Monotonous Larks and Woodland Kingfishers competed with the speakers, as if beckoning us all to “come have a look”.

Tawny Eagle
Tawny Eagle
Monotonous Lark, Punda Maria
Monotonous Lark, Punda Maria

Then it was time for the first sunset drive with the main destination being the ‘lek’ frequented by Pennant-winged Nightjars in the early summer months – we had enjoyed them on 2 occasions during the previous Punda Mania but this is not the sort of sighting you are likely to tire of. The drive was punctuated by a few good sightings such as European Golden Oriole and Great Spotted Cuckoo, a  pair of African Hawk Eagles in a treetop and a Pale Flycatcher almost hidden amongst the bushy undergrowth and trees. The only negative was the road chosen to get to the lek, supposedly a short-cut but which can best be described as abominable as we bounced over endless rocks, taking so long that we arrived with minutes to spare for the Pennant-winged Nightjar display, which was nevertheless as magical as before. Apart from the main attraction, an African Scops-Owl and Red-chested Cuckoo made themselves heard from nearby trees. A bring-and-braai back at the camp closed out the day.

Waiting for a view of Pennant-winged Nightjar
Waiting for a view of Pennant-winged Nightjar
Pennant-winged Nightjar at the lek
Pennant-winged Nightjar at the lek
Flap-necked Chameleon, Punda Maria
Flap-necked Chameleon, Punda Maria

Friday 15 November 2013

An enthusiastic Red-chested Cuckoo was already calling when our alarm went off at 03h45 and we left the camp at 04h30 as the first light of dawn approached, heading north to Pafuri in the northernmost section of Kruger. We were soon adding birds at a steady pace, but were also working at the cryptic clues for the Treasure Hunt part of the weekend, which involves taking photos of birds, animals and trees, based on solving the clues put together by Joe. At least I now have a reason for doing those cryptic crosswords, apart from keeping the mind active. It didn’t take long to resolve the clues which boiled down to 2 mammals (Nyala, Elephant) 2 Trees (Nyala Tree, Ironwood Tree) and 11 birds (from memory they were White-fronted Bee-eater, Mosque Swallow, Red-crested Korhaan, Water Thick-Knee, Meve’s Starling, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Any Red Data species, Bateleur, Sabota Lark, Crested Francolin, Goliath Heron, but correct me if any are wrong) so from there on it was just a matter of finding the actual species to photograph.

Treasure hunt : Mosque Swallow, Punda Maria
Treasure hunt : Mosque Swallow, Punda Maria
Treasure hunt : Sabota Lark, Punda Maria
Treasure hunt : Sabota Lark, Punda Maria
Crested Francolin, Punda Maria
Crested Francolin, Punda Maria

The drive took us to the far north-east corner known as Crook’s Corner, where we spent some time enjoying the bird life in the Limpopo river and surrounding bush. On the way we spent quality time at Klopperfontein dams where we were able to stretch our legs and enjoy coffee, while watching the myriad Swallows, Martins and Swifts including many House Martins and a few Grey-rumped Swallows. Lark-like Buntings were moving about busily near the water and a Shaft-tailed Whydah made a brief fly-past, while Water Thick-Knees flew across low over the water. In the Pafuri area we saw our first Meve’s Starling moving amongst the low branches and higher up a Burnt-necked Eremomela worked his way through the foliage.

Klopperfontein KNP
Klopperfontein KNP
Treasure hunt : Water Thick-knee, Klopperfontein KNP
Treasure hunt : Water Thick-knee, Klopperfontein KNP

A surprise ‘sighting’ was the 4 ‘illegals’ from Mozambique that we came across near Pafuri, making their way through the Kruger on foot (one was barefoot) – they looked quite weary and despondent at being found and our guide contacted the camp to pick them up but we didn’t find out what happened to them.

'Illegals' near Pafuri
‘Illegals’ near Pafuri

The Limpopo River at Crook’s Corner had enough water to support Green-backed Heron and Pied Kingfisher as they hunted in their particular ways, while White-fronted Bee-eaters hawked insects from an overhanging dead branch. From the surrounding bush the regular calls of Orange-breasted and Grey-headed Bush-Shrikes could be heard, a Tropical Boubou made a brief appearance and Chinspot Batis, Red-billed Firefinch and Purple-crested Turaco were all welcome sightings. Overhead numbers of White-backed Vultures circled lazily and an African Cuckoo-Hawk appeared from nowhere and disappeared just as quickly

Coffe stop
Coffe stop
Crook's Corner KNP
Crook’s Corner KNP
Crook's Corner KNP
Crook’s Corner KNP
Treasure hunt : Nyala, Pafuri KNP
Treasure hunt : Nyala, Pafuri KNP
White-backed Vulture, Pafuri KNP
White-backed Vulture, Pafuri KNP

Our next stop was the Pafuri picnic spot, one of my favourite spots in Kruger, where a brunch had been set up by the busy HR’s. This was also the chance to add more species, with White-crowned Lapwing being an easy sighting in the river, Red-faced Cisticola calling from the riverine bush and an obliging Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove posing for photos meant we could tick off another on the treasure hunt list.

Back on the road we came across a lone Secretary Bird before heading back to Punda Maria – just a pity we didn’t have enough time to visit the bridge over the Luvuvhu which usually delivers a plethora of bird species, but a special sighting on the way back made up for this. Joe led us to a spot along the road, lined by tall Mopane trees, where Arnot’s Chat were known by him to breed and a brief playing of their call brought a male and female to investigate and eye us from a roadside tree, affording magical views of this sought-after bird.

Arnot's Chat (Male), Punda Maria
Arnot’s Chat (Male), Punda Maria
Arnot's Chat (Female), Punda Maria
Arnot’s Chat (Female), Punda Maria
African Buffalo, Punda Maria
African Buffalo, Punda Maria
Levaillant's Cuckoo, Punda Maria
Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Punda Maria

Then it was back to the camp to report back on our photos taken for the treasure hunt, for which we managed to get a full house. A short while later we were at it again, this time following more cryptic clues to items around the camp itself, which we completed successfully except for Passer Domesticus (House Sparrow) which we could not decipher. The Cicada was easy enough to unravel but quite difficult to find, camouflaged as it was against the bark of the Mopane trees in the camping area.

During the pursuit of the items we came across Bearded Scrub-Robin along the Flycatcher trail and spent some time at the hide overlooking a water hole just outside the camp fence, popular with everything from Elephants to Eremomelas. A Broad-billed Roller was showing off his skills as he swooped down from a nearby tree and skimmed the surface, as if showing the Bee-eaters present that he could do it just as well as them.

Burchell's Zebra, Punda Maria
Burchell’s Zebra, Punda Maria
Treasure hunt : Striped Skink, Punda Maria
Treasure hunt : Striped Skink, Punda Maria

After the report back, dinner was served followed by a short night drive, during which we added Fiery-necked Nightjar and Barred Owlet to our list.

Saturday 16 November 2013

An early start again – advisable in the extremely hot conditions. By this time we were getting accustomed to the extreme heat and the prospect of atlasing some remote areas of Kruger was something I was looking forward to – the area we were allocated to atlas turned out to be located in a little visited but beautiful part of Kruger, covering lush bushveld and riverine habitats. This, for me, was the highlight of the weekend – going down those usually forbidden roads with those no-entry signs and knowing there will be no other vehicles is part of what makes these events really special. Bird life was plentiful and the pentad list was rapidly added to in the allotted time.

The pentad list kicked off with an Eastern Nicator which made an exciting change from my usual atlasing, followed by some other specials such as Tawny Eagle, Wahlberg’s Eagle cruising above us, Green Pigeons in the taller trees and both Little and European Bee-Eaters hawking insects at low level.

A magnificent Baobab tree full of greenery was alive with birds, having a number of Red-billed Buffalo-Weavers and Red-headed Weavers using it as a nesting base. Even the arrival of a couple of Common Mynas could not spoil this classic scene.

Baobab with nests, Punda Maria
Baobab with nests, Punda Maria

The area atlased included stretches of the Levuvhu River and we made a few stops at convenient spots for walks along the river, watched by pods of Hippo in the cool waters and disturbing Green-backed Herons and Water Thick-Knees which took off and flew across to the opposite side as we progressed along the bank.

White-crowned Lapwing, Luvuvhu River
White-crowned Lapwing, Luvuvhu River
Hippo, Luvuvhu River
Hippo, Luvuvhu River
Acacia, Luvuvhu River
Sekelbos flowers, Luvuvhu River

One stop was at the temporary Nyalaland Trail camp, located at an ideal spot above the river while the flood-damaged permanent camp is under reconstruction. The river walks added Pale Flycatcher, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher and White-crowned Lapwings amongst others, the latter calling excitedly and flying up and down the river. The bush away from the river was equally rewarding with Bennett’s Woodpecker, Striped Kingfisher and Black Cuckooshrike being some of the more notable sightings.

Allasing along the river
Allasing along the river
Levuvhu River
Levuvhu River
Gabar Goshawk, Pafuri KNP
Gabar Goshawk, Pafuri KNP
Striped Kingfisher, Punda Maria
Striped Kingfisher, Punda Maria
Grey-headed Kingfisher, Luvuvhu River
Grey-headed Kingfisher, Luvuvhu River

On the way back we heard what we thought to be Southern Hyliota calling and excitedly searched for this uncommon bird, only to find a White-browed Scrub-Robin imitating its call!

Back at the camp it was time to recharge with a nap, followed by a repeat of the late afternoon drive to the Pennant-winged Nightjar lek which was a lot more relaxed this time around.

Pennant-winged Nightjar site
Pennant-winged Nightjar site
Shrewd Shrikes
Shrewd Shrikes

Then all that remained was the dreaded Team Quiz (which again proved to be our downfall) and the final dinner and prize-giving. Oh well, there’s always the hope that the HR’s will present this event next year again, in which case the Shrewd Shrikes can have another go at improving our score.

Congrats to the West-Rand Honorary Rangers once again for presenting a really interesting and worthwhile event – long may they continue!

Thanks to Dr PeteZac Zacharias for providing the correct name for the Sekelbos (Dichrostachys cinerea) with its beautiful flowers, which I had wrong in the photo caption

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