All posts by Don Reid

Quantity Surveyor with a long-standing passion for Birding and Photography and Travelling to interesting places to discover more about our Country and the World

My Photo Picks for 2018

With the new year in its first week, it’s time to select a few photos which best represent our 2018. In some cases, selection is based on the memory created, in others I just like how the photo turned out, technically and creatively  

If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!

The Places

This was an unusual year for us, in that for the first time in several years we did not journey outside Southern Africa once during the year.  But we made up for that with plenty of local trips, such as –

Champagne Valley resort in the Drakensberg

Champagne Valley Drakensberg

Annasrust Farm Hoopstad (Free State)

Sunset, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Pine Lake Resort near White River (Mpumulanga Province)

Pine Lake Resort

Mossel Bay – our second “Home” town

Mossel Bay coastline

Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van Reenen

La Lucia near Durban (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

La Lucia beach

Shongweni Dam (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Shongweni Dam

Onverwacht Farm near Vryheid (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Controlled burn on Onverwacht Farm

Kruger Park Olifants camp

Bungalow roof, Kruger Park

Herbertsdale area (Western Cape) – atlasing

Herbertsdale area

Karoo National Park near Beaufort West (Western Cape)

Karoo National Park

Kuilfontein Guest Farm near Colesberg (Northern Cape)

Kuilfontein, Colesberg – the drought has hit this area badly

Verlorenkloof (Mpumulanga)

Verlorenkloof – view from upper path

Lentelus Farm near Barrydale (Western Cape)

Lentelus Farm near Barrydale

The Wildlife

With visits to Kruger National Park, Karoo National Park and Chobe Game Reserve in Botswana, there was no shortage of game viewing opportunities and it turned out to be a great year for Leopards

Kruger National Park

African Wild Dog, Kruger National Park
Zebra, Kruger Park
Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

Karoo National Park

Waterhole scene, Karoo National Park
Klipspringer, Karoo National Park

Chobe Game Reserve

The eyes have it

Chacma Baboon, Chobe River Trip
Hippo, Chobe River Trip

Wild but beautiful

Leopard, Chobe Riverfront game drive
Leopard, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Who needs a horse when you have a mom to ride on

Chacma Baboon, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Oh, and the news is hippos can do the heart shape with their jaws – they don’t have fingers you see

Hippo, Chobe River Trip

The Birds

Bird photography remains the greatest challenge – I am thrilled when it all comes together and I have captured some of the essence of the bird

Great Egret flying to its roost

Great Egret, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

White-fronted Bee-eaters doing what they do best – looking handsome

White-fronted Bee-eater, Kruger Day Visit

White-browed Robin-Chat

White-browed Robin-Chat, Kruger Day Visit

The usually secretive Green-backed Camaroptera popping out momentarily for a unique photo

Green-backed Camaroptera, Kruger Day Visit

African Fish-Eagle – aerial king of the waters

African Fish Eagle, Kruger Park

Kori Bustard – heaviest flying bird

Kori Bustard, Kruger Park

Little Bee-eater

Little Bee-eater, Olifants, Kruger Park

Black-chested Snake-Eagle

Black-chested Snake=Eagle, Kruger Park

Crowned Hornbill – he’ll stare you down any day

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park

Kittlitz’s Plover

Kittlitz’s Plover, Gouritzmond

Large-billed Lark in full song

Large-billed Lark, Herbertsdale area

Village Weaver – busy as a bee

Village Weaver, Verlorenkloof

Thick-billed Weaver – less frenetic, more particular about its nest-weaving

Thick-billed Weaver, Verlorenkloof

African Jacana with juveniles

African Jacana, Chobe River Trip

Juvenile African Jacana – a cute ball of fluff with legs longer than its body

African Jacana, Chobe River Trip

Reed Cormorant with catch

Reed Cormorant, Chobe River Trip

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Chobe River Trip

White-crowned Lapwing

White-crowned Lapwing, Chobe River Trip

 

Wishing all who may read this a 2019 that meets all of your expectations!

A House Abandoned, A Mysterious Shoe

While atlasing along the back roads of the Little Karoo south of the small town of Van Wyksdorp, I was drawn to an abandoned house not far from the gravel road, all on its own and looking picturesque in the soft, filtered light of a cloud-covered sky.

I just could not resist taking a few photos with my iPhone and walked up the short slope to where the house stood, picking my way through low bushes and across the stony ground.

All went well as I carefully made my way around the old house, choosing my angles while stepping around the rubble, bent wire and various other remnants of a once simple but proud home, which was probably occupied by workers on a nearby farm.

I had done a full circuit of the house and was rounding the last corner when I was stopped in my tracks by what lay on the ground, the only real sign of the previous habitants. I picked it up to make sure it was what I thought it was – indeed, a small child’s orthopaedic shoe with steel leg brace, left behind as a poignant reminder of whoever had lived and played here. At a guess the shoe would have fitted a child of no more than 3 or 4 years old.

I could hardly concentrate on my birding for the next while as my mind conjured up all kinds of questions on what I had found – who did the shoe belong to, why did they leave, where are they now, why did they leave this one shoe and nothing else?

I’ll leave you to ponder these and other questions yourself.

Terek Sandpiper at Great Brak ….

Terek Sandpiper (Terekruiter / Xenus cinereus)

An easily identified wader or shorebird compared to others of its ilk, darn difficult to find in Southern Africa if my experience is anything to go by.

It’s been on my list of “birds to get” for far too long and I have tried to find it on a couple of occasions, without success. So, when a message appeared on the Mossel Bay Birding WhatsApp group – Terek Sandpiper at Great Brak – I made a quick decision to see if I could find it.

Being a summer migrant and occasional winter migrant (non-breeding) to the southern Cape town of Mossel Bay from our home in Pretoria, I was just a half hour’s drive from Great Brak River, so that would make it an easy decision, you would think. However, I had been bird atlasing since 5.30 am that morning in the Oudtshoorn area, returning home at 2.30 pm, so I already had 9 hours of driving/atlasing under my belt. This was followed by some domestic chores and a trip to the shops so by the time I read the message I was ready to put my feet up and relax for the rest of the late afternoon and evening.

The Terek Sandpiper message changed all that and after a quick reviving coffee I was off to beat the sunset, which was still an hour and a half away, but light was fading…..

By 6.30 pm I was at the spot along the Suiderkruis road which skirts the Great Brak river mouth and ends at a parking area adjoining a picnic spot where several groups seemed to be celebrating the end of their working year in loud style – not quite the accompaniment you want when searching for a lifer but I did my best to ignore the raucous goings on and remain focused on my mission.

Once parked, I got out to scan the sand banks in the middle of the river and could immediately see dozens of Terns and Gulls, but more importantly many smaller shapes moving about in the subdued light. Checking these with my binos made my heart sink momentarily as all I could make out were many groups of small shorebirds which all looked pretty much the same in the less than ideal light.

Even at full zoom, there was not much to be seen

I had to get closer, so I set off along the sandy edge of the river until I could get a better view of the sand banks – this turned out to be the right move and I carefully scanned the gathered hordes of small shorebirds, mostly Common Ringed Plovers, for something different.

Full zoom and cropped as far as I could push it, at least separated the Terek Sandpiper from the Plovers

I gasped audibly when I spotted it – the low-slung body on short, bright orange legs and with a long slightly upturned bill stood out like a beacon amongst the more rounded, upright Ringed Plovers with short bills.

Savouring the moment, I waded cautiously into the shallow, wide stream separating the sand bank from the shoreline to try to get a little closer for a photo, but the birds were on to me and promptly moved further away.

So I had to be content with a long-distance photo, which was quite a challenge in itself. The Terek was moving in unison with groups of Ringed Plovers and just getting it vaguely into the camera viewfinder was all but impossible at the distance I was.

So I resorted to getting a lock on its position through my binos then quickly swopping over to the camera, pointing it at the same spot and rattling off a few shots. This worked up to a point but the best of the shots was well below my usual standard, so I crept a bit closer and repeated the process.

At one point the Terek moved slightly away from the Plovers and I rapidly got in some shots while it was more or less isolated –

This was the closest I was going to get so I had to be content with a “record shot”

Deciding that this was about the best I could do and with the light conditions now very poor I trudged back to the car and set off homewards, very pleased with this long-awaited sighting.

Kïttlitz’s Plover – a Winning Performance

If there were Oscars for birds, I would propose a category called “Best performance by a bird defending its nest from a predator”

“And the winner is ……….. Kittlitz’s Plover” (cue loud applause)

So on what do I base this award?

Well, I was atlasing the area known as Gouritsmond, a small coastal town at the mouth of the Gourits River about a half hour’s drive from Mossel Bay. The Gourits River has its origin at the confluence of the Gamka and Olifants rivers, south of Calitzdorp in the Klein-Karoo and winds its way to the Indian Ocean across plains and through mountains.

Approaching the sea it widens into a broad estuary which is humming with activity in the holiday season, when the town expands its population by about 80%, but was dead quiet when I visited it on a weekday in October 2018 and I had the whole parking area at the boat launch site to myself, other than a waste van which came to empty the rubbish bin.

Braving the strong cold wind, seemingly unseasonal but those who live along the southern Cape coast will tell you to expect 4 seasons in one day, I ventured up and down the river’s edge with its wide muddy margin and took the opportunity to photograph the Plovers and other shorebirds present, of which the Kittlitz’s Plover was the least shy.

Kittlitz’s Plover, Gouritzmond

Every now and then I popped back to my car to escape from the cold wind, which my 3 layers of clothing were battling to defend. On one of my forays  along the shoreline, a Kittlitz’s Plover’s curious behaviour caught my attention – it ran off as I approached, then suddenly dropped flat on its belly, wings spread wide and flapping about as if mortally injured.

Kittlitz’s Plover in anti-predator mode, Gouritzmond
Kittlitz’s Plover in anti-predator mode, Gouritzmond

Stepping closer, I was about 3 metres away when it miraculously recovered, ran further and repeated the dramatic death scene while watching me with beady eyes. All the while it was leading me away, presumably from a nest which was not apparent, and I did not try too hard to find it for fear of giving the Plover a heart attack.

Kittlitz’s Plover in anti-predator mode, Gouritzmond
Kittlitz’s Plover in anti-predator mode, Gouritzmond

The Plover repeated this act each time I approached and the drama of its performance had me chuckling in delight and admiration for the ingenuity of the species.

Kittlitz’s Plover in anti-predator mode, Gouritzmond

In this way the Kittlitz’s led me for a way down the river margin, until I turned and retraced my steps towards the parking area, whereupon the Plover also turned and flew back so that he was just ahead of me and repeated the act once more.

That was enough teasing for the day and I returned to the car, with the Plover watching me go – I imagined he had a look of “why go now, we were just starting to have some fun”

The Roberts app describes this behaviour thus : “When predator present, performs distraction displays including injury feigning, waving one or both wings and fanning tail to attract predator’s attention, sometimes flopping forward along ground..”

Other Birds

Apart from the dramatic Kittlitz’s Plover, the shoreline was occupied by several other species who favour this habitat –

Common Ringed Plover, a polar migrant which is present in Southern Africa from September to April

Common Ringed Plover
Common Ringed Plover

Common Greenshank, a Palaearctic (Europe, Asia north of the Himalayas, North Africa) summer visitor, mainly from August to April

Common Greenshank, Gouritzmond

Common Whimbrel, non-breeding migrant with circumpolar origin, present from August to March

Common Whimbrel, Gouritzmond

Sanderling, non-breeding migrant from the arctic tundra, present from September to April

Sanderling, Gouritzmond
Sanderling, Gouritzmond

All of the above are long-distance migrants, whereas the Blacksmith Lapwing is a local resident, one that is found in most parts of Southern Africa – this individual is a good example of a juvenile, lacking the very distinctive markings of the adult, which often leads to incorrect ID such as Grey Plover and others

Blacksmith Lapwing (Juvenile), Gouritzmond

Another morning’s atlasing, another unique birding encounter

 

 

Kruger unplanned – just Chilling

The final chapter on our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year…..

Like others, we visit Kruger in the hope of having some interesting sightings of the multitude of animals that live in this superb park and being birders we love the variety of bird life that we encounter.

But there is another, simpler side to spending time in Kruger and the title of this post says it all – sometimes you just want to relax and not be out on the roads looking for the next big sighting

Time in the Camp

There’s a certain luxury to just sitting on the verandah of the rondavel, preferably with your choice of liquid refreshment, taking in the passing show of small wild life.

Early mornings are often the best time, when it’s cool and small animals and birds are most active, but mid to late afternoon can also be very productive and pleasant.

We spent one such afternoon fascinated by what was going on in the patch around our rondavel in Olifants camp, as many of the “regulars” put in an appearance during the afternoon :

  • a Natal Spurfowl mommy with 4 teeny bopper youngsters spent time scratching in the dry leaf litter and dust bathing
Natal Spurfowl, Olifants
Natal Spurfowl
  • Red-winged Starlings turned up hoping for handouts,
Red-winged Starling, Olifants (in case some sharp individual queries this, the photo was taken on another trip at the time of year when the Aloes are in flower)
  • as did some Red-billed Hornbills
Red-billed Hornbill
  • Tree Squirrels joined the Spurfowls in the leaf litter, finding titbits to eat, then cutely holding it with two tiny paws while nibbling
Tree Squirrel
  • The resident Striped Skink entertained us with its antics on the verandah wall – another skink passing by got the treatment as it dared to intrude on skink no 1’s territory – backs were reared and skink no 2 skirted widely around and made haste to get away. Thoughts of soccer’s “the Special One” crossed my mind for some reason.
Striped Skink, Olifants
  • Banded Mongoose in small groups, foraging in the soil and leaf litter, keeping in contact with each other with their continual high-pitched twitter.
Banded Mongoose

All of this action was played out to the accompaniment of background calls of Pearl-spotted Owlet, Brown-headed Parrot, White-browed Scrub-Robin and others as the afternoon wore on. Just another day in Olifants….

Tree Spotting

Another good way of whiling away the late afternoon as it gets cooler, is to take a slow walk around the camp. Olifants is ideal for tree spotting, aided by the nameplates on many of the trees, essential for tree dummies like us. Many years ago Gerda and I did a course on trees over a few evenings – very pleasant but not much of it stuck as we did not pursue the hobby thereafter, so we decided to refresh our memories from long ago in the hope that some of it would stick.

Some trees don’t need much in the way of serious observation to know what they are – one such is the famous Sausage Tree of which a good example stands outside the Olifants camp reception. We also saw large Sausage Trees in several spots during our drives and they stand out for several reasons, besides the obvious large pods shaped like enormous sausages which hang from its branches – the bright green foliage and purple flowers are further standout features of this unique tree, in case there is any doubt about the ID.

Trees 101 : Sausage Tree, Olifants

The bright green foliage is visible from a distance

The pods are potential killers if you happen to be hit by one when they drop – up to half a metre long and weighing up to 7 kg they can deliver a lethal blow or do some serious damage to you or your vehicle

The flowers of the Sausage tree have a pungent fragrance which attracts bats, insects and sunbirds, all of which help to pollinate it. They bloom at night on long rope-like stalks

Several other trees caught our attention while on our Trees 101 walk around the camp –

Trees 101 : Round-leaved Bloodwood, Olifants

This medium-sized deciduous tree occurs in bushveld in the northern parts of SA. This example is to be found in the picnic area

As the name suggests the leaves are unusually round

Natal Mahogany trees are one of the more handsome trees in Kruger – large evergreen trees with a dense spreading crown of deep green leaves. They are mostly found in riverine forest but also occur in bushveld

 

The Wild Fig tree is another prominent tree that is fairly easy to spot  as it attracts many fruit-eating birds, bats and even antelope.

 

An unusual and quite distinctive tree – small to medium-sized succulent tree occurring on rocky hill slopes. The leaves fall very early so the long thin branchlets are left bare creating a spider’s web effect

Interstingly the latex is toxic, used to repel or kill insects, nevertheless it is browsed by Black Rhinoceros

Trees 101 : Hedge Euphorbia, Olifants

And there ends Trees 101 as well as our unplanned Kruger visit – until next time

Kruger unplanned – a Brief Encounter

The look says it all – I am one of the most beautiful creatures in the world and also one of the most dangerous, so don’t even think about messing with me.

We were on the road between Skukuza, where we had spent two nights, and Phabeni gate which exits near the town of Hazyview. After a week’s stay in Kruger, which had met all our expectations of interesting sightings and perfect relaxation, we were in “wind-down” mode and already thinking about the coming week’s commitments as we drove at regulation speed towards the gate and back to normal life.

Approaching a slow bend in the road we spotted a sizeable animal in the road and my first thought was “what’s that large dog doing in the road?” Clearly my mind was already back in suburban mode – then I remembered where we were and my heart leapt at what it might be and I may have even let an expletive slip out…..

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

We slowed and stopped a reasonable distance from the Leopard, just as it started to walk across the road and slowly head off into the veld and further until he was behind the rows of bushes and no longer visible. He was grunting grumpily as he walked off and gave us the briefest of glances as we revelled in this special sighting, shared with just one other vehicle that had been close behind us for a few kms.

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park
Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

What a nice way to end a memorable stay in Kruger!

 

Kruger unplanned – the Birds

Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year ……..

Kruger National Park is seen by many birders, including this one, as one of the most desirable places to visit and indulge their passion in an incomparable natural environment –

Our week was full of interesting sightings and memorable moments covering the full spectrum of wild life, birds aplenty, glorious landscapes – here is a selection of some of the standout birding moments –

First night in Olifants

With the evening braai done, we were relaxing on the stoep, sipping our coffee and enjoying a handsome moon rise, when Gerda was first to hear a distant grumpy sound and suggested it was an Owl. We identified the call as that of a Verraux’s Eagle-Owl and I went to investigate when it seemed to be getting closer, finding it in a nearby tall tree, illuminated by neighbouring visitors who had a powerful torch handy.  Besides its trademark pink eyelids, this is one impressive Owl, with a length of 62cm (think 6 months old  child) and capable of taking prey the size of a half-grown Vervet Monkey or a Warthog piglet but also content to hunt tiny Warblers and insects.

The envy of many a woman with those eyelids

Balule Low Water Bridge

Our second day in Kruger and also my birthday – the main reason for us being there as my wish was to wake up on my birthday to a Kruger sunrise. The day started in perfect weather – sunny yet cool to warm. Gerda wasn’t up to an early start so I made coffee and set off to atlas the Olifants pentad over the next two hours returning in time for morning tea.

The drive was a slow one to Balule where I spent some time on the low water bridge, a great birding spot in its own right, then returned to Olifants camp along the S92 road, thereby completing a full circuit.

A v-shaped formation of Cormorants flying high above the river set the tone as I started the drive and at the bridge a Malachite Kingfisher flashed its bright colours as he darted between the reeds.

Parked on the bridge, I chalked up Black Crake, African Jacana, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Green-backed Heron amongst others, in quick succession.

Black Crake, Balule, Kruger Park

What makes this such a good spot is the low water level at this time of year, creating small ponds, streams and sandbanks across the full width of this large river, ideal for a mix of water birds, waders and birds just coming to drink at the water’s edge.

Olifants River Bridge

Gerda joined me for an afternoon drive which took us to the main bridge over the Olifants river, a few kms south of the camp turn-off. She ended up “chatting” to a curiously tame Cape Glossy Starling who perched on the railing then, when I got out of the car (permitted on some of the longer bridges), hopped onto the door mirror and seemed to reach out to Gerda with its happy chirping. Perhaps he thought he was on Twitter and was just tweeting the latest news.

Bird’s eye view of Olifants River, Kruger Park
Glossy Starling does Twitter with Gerda

While on the lookout for birds I spotted a raptor in a dry  tree near the end of the bridge and was immediately puzzled by its odd appearance – mostly dark brown but with a white crown – nothing like any bird I had seen before. I took a number of photos to help with an ID whereupon the raptor flew off, only to be replaced moments later in exactly the same spot by an adult Wahlberg’s Eagle – reminiscent of a quick-change magic act!

Wahlberg’s Eagle (Juvenile intermediate morph)
Wahlberg’s Eagle (adult brown morph)  – compare the pose with the juvenile above!

That led me to think the first one was a juvenile Wahlberg’s Eagle but my Roberts App – usually a comprehensive source of bird information –  made no mention of the white cap feature and further searching on the internet came up with one other photo that resembled this one – it was referred to as an “intermediate morph” presumably meaning that it was overall a dark morph but with the white crown of the light morph. Just a tad bizarre!

Spring Day Atlasing

While atlasing along the river towards Letaba, I stopped at one of the turn-offs leading to a viewpoint, when I noticed a Little Bee-eater hawking from a branch then, as they often do, returning to the same spot to look for the next opportunity. As it returned for a third time I focused on it and at the same time noticed it had caught something, so I rattled off a series of shots as it prepared to swallow its prey, hoping for a special photo, although I knew I was not close enough and would have to crop the photos quite substantially to get frame-fillers.

Well I was initially thrilled at the sequence I had caught digitally, but disappointed that my camera had seemingly let me down by not focusing sharply – a rare occurrence with my Nikon. The photos below are the best of the bunch and reasonably focused, but could have been winners, if only I had been closer …..

Little Bee-eater – insect hawked and securely held
Softening it up
Getting it into position
Down she goes
Ooh, that was rather good what?  ( clearly a cultured bird)

Nevertheless an exciting moment.

Some other birds

Here is a selection of some of the other photos from the week’s birding –

Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Olifants, Kruger Park
Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Balule, Kruger Park
Mocking Cliff-Chat, Olifants, Kruger Park
Yellow-breasted Apalis, Sjukuza, Kruger Park

 

Kruger unplanned – Skukuza to Lower Sabie

Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year ……..

Skukuza

Our preference would have been to spend the entire week in Olifants camp in the northern part of Kruger, but last-minute booking meant we were limited to a maximum of 5 nights in Olifants and had to find accommodation in one of the other camps for the remaining 2 nights. We chose  Skukuza, the largest camp in Kruger and also a bit of a trip down memory lane as some of our first trips to Kruger had included stays in this  camp, which is geared to cater for large numbers of tourists and even boasts a conference centre nowadays.

On the way to Skukuza from Olifants we had a few interesting encounters, including a stately Verraux’s Eagle Owl, perched amongst branches in a roadside tree and peering from under those famous pink eyelids at the few cars that had stopped with a rather disdainful expression.

Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
Verraux’s Eagle-Owl, initially not terribly interested in our presence
Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
Verraux’s Eagle-Owl, deigning to look vaguely in our direction
Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
The famous pink eyelids

As we drove further, I spotted a soaring raptor high above and braked to get a view of it and rattle off some photos to help with the ID – it turned out to be a handsome Black-chested Snake-Eagle, probably out on the hunt for its next slippery meal.

Black-chested Snake=Eagle, Kruger Park
Black-chested Snake-Eagle

Then a bird of a different kind landed loudly in the road ahead of us just as we were approaching Tshokwane picnic spot – a “whirly bird” helicopter with a team of the anti-poaching unit on board, who had also stopped for a cold drink to boost them on their mission. May they be successful in curbing the atrocity of Rhino poaching!

Whirly bird, Kruger Park
Whirly bird at Tshokwane

Further on, a large herd of Cape Buffalo was grazing on both sides of the road, with some crossing the road to join the main group – I noticed some Cattle Egrets around and one hopped on the back of a Buffalo to hitch a ride as he crossed over in front of us, comically balancing like a surfer riding a wave, then flying off as the buffalo became too wobbly for its liking.

Buffalo herd, Kruger Park
Buffalo herd, Kruger Park
Cattle Egret on Buffalo, Kruger Park
Cattle Egret hitching a ride on Buffalo
Cattle Egret on Buffalo, Kruger Park
Cattle Egret decides its safer to fly

One feature we enjoyed after self-catering for the first 6 nights, was a candlelight dinner on the newly constructed deck overlooking the Sabie River and with a view of the iconic steel railway bridge in the background (as shown in the heading photo above). Admittedly not quite in keeping with the quintessential Kruger experience, but for us it made a nice change and the meal turned out to be excellent. The visit to the river below us of a small herd of elephants when we were halfway through our meal added some excitement to the unique location of the restaurant.

Skukuza deck, Kruger Park
Skukuza deck, Kruger Park
Skukuza deck, Kruger Park
Skukuza deck at night

Skukuza to Lower Sabie

When it came to deciding on a game drive for the one full morning we would be there, we settled on doing the drive that we knew would be busy but hopefully filled with good sightings, and we were not disappointed. The road between Skukuza and Lower Sabie camps is renowned for its big cat sightings, making it a drawcard for tourists who often spend just a couple of days in Kruger.

We set off from Skukuza well after gate opening time, hoping to avoid the early morning scramble and found the road to be reasonably quiet and devoid of other vehicles for the first stretch, allowing us to stop frequently for game and birds, without much disturbance.

Kudu, Kruger Park
Kudu with Red-billed Oxpeckers hanging on

Mkhulu picnic spot is located about halfway along the road to Lower Sabie and is the ideal spot for a brunch, positioned as it is on the banks of the Sabie river and shaded by grand old trees which seem to have been there forever. While preparing our meal on the skottel, a female Cardinal Woodpecker entertained us and our fellow picnickers as it hammered away at a cavity in a nearby overhanging tree, not letting up despite a growing audience just metres away beneath the tree, all pointing cameras at her.

Cardinal Woodpecker (female), Mkhulu,  Kruger Park
Cardinal Woodpecker (female), Mkhulu

Further avian entertainment was provided by Paradise Flycatchers and Purple-crested Turacos in an enormous Wild fig tree and as we packed up to venture further a Crowned Hornbill, unusual for this part of Kruger, flew in and promptly lay flat on the dusty ground for a minute or so, dust-bathing. Many birds do this to maintain their plumage – the dust absorbs excess oil and keeps the feathers from becoming too greasy. I was just too late to capture this behaviour on camera so had to be content with a few conventional “bird on a stick” poses.

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park
Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu
Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park
Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu

Leaving Mkhulu, the road seemed busier and the way a couple of full safari vehicles passed us at speed (relative to our slow pace of course) suggested that they were on a mission – probably involving a “big cat” or two, at a guess. So we speeded up a tad while making sure we stayed within the 50 km/hour limit and followed the other vehicles. It wasn’t long before we came upon the first “scrum” of vehicles which told us there was something of interest.

The object of their interest turned out to be a Leopard, just visible on the far side of the river, resting in the shade of the riverside vegetation.

Leopard, Sabie River, Kruger Park
Leopard, Sabie River

A couple of kms further along the road, Lions were using the rocky outcrop next to the river as a vantage point and we endured another scramble of vehicles, manoeuvring to try to get a decent view.

Lion, Kruger Park
Lion, Kruger Park

Last stop before Lower Sabie was a brief one at the Sunset dam to view the resident hippos and the many birds lining the shore and wading in the shallows.

After enjoying coffee on the deck at Lower Sabie, we headed back to Skukuza without further stops to give us time for some relaxation on the stoep of our rondawel, more than satisfied with our morning’s outing.

 

Kruger unplanned – Olifants to Timbavati

Kruger has more Leopards than Warthogs – or that’s what the statistics are telling me, and statistics don’t lie ……….  do they?

So where on earth did that statistic come from?

Well, we spent a week in Kruger without seeing a single Warthog, yet we had two Leopard sightings during that same week, so on the face of it there is a better chance of seeing Leopard – and Lion which we saw several times – than Warthog.

Actually, as the week wore on, I became progressively more amazed that Warthogs were somehow eluding us – surely one of the animals that rate just below Impala on the “likely to see” list. It was quite bizarre that we did not find a single one and I still don’t know if there is a reason behind it – some sort of late -winter, early spring strike on their part perhaps?

Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year – there are several parts that make up the quintessential Kruger trip and without doubt the most important for all visitors is the wildlife encounters.

In between just enjoying the ambience of the camp and  a couple of bird atlasing trips, we did two specific and very contrasting game drives which were both filled with interesting sightings. The first of these was –

Olifants to Timbavati

We were into a pleasant routine of getting to bed early and waking early – something we don’t seem to be able to manage in our “normal” life. After coffee and rusks on our little stoep  with a view, we headed out and along the tar road, initially to the viewpoint high above the Olifants river, then further on to the bridge over the same river, where perhaps 100 or more Little Swifts were swooping back and forth under the bridge. It makes a pleasant change to be able to watch these aerial magicians from above rather than craning your neck to follow them in the air. It made me wonder why they fly under the bridge in this fashion – perhaps the goggas (bugs) gather in greater numbers there or are easier to catch, whatever it is the swifts carry on in this way all day.

Some way further on we turned right onto the S39 gravel road, which roughly follows the Timbavati river for about 28 kms. Suddenly the game proliferated with hundreds of Impala in places, a few Steenbok, typical plains game such as Zebra, Giraffe, Wildebeest and Buffalo, all of  which were quite relaxed and going about their daily routine.

Steenbok
Giraffe
Wildebeest

Small bird parties at regular intervals were reason to stop and identify the species – curiously the bird parties seemed to form each time we saw Sabota Lark with the likes of Blue Waxbill, Red-billed Queleas, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Long-billed Crombec, Black-backed Puffback and others close by.

Sabota Lark, Timbavati
Rattling Cisticola, Timbavati

Best of all, we came across an elegant Kori Bustard right next to the road, strutting about rather imperiously with head held like an aristocrat viewing the rabble. Two cars passed by without stopping and with no idea that they had missed viewing one of the most impressive birds in South Africa – also the heaviest flying bird in the world – so limiting when all that matters is the “big cat” sightings

Kori Bustard, about 1,35m tall, weighing around 12 kg
Kori Bustard

Not long after, a chatty guy in a Land Cruiser with family on board stopped us to ask where we had hidden all the lions. We chuckled and carried on, only to be stopped again by the same chap, now parked at the side of the road and gesticulating towards a nearby tree, where we soon saw the object of their excitement – a male lion resting not far from the road.

Lion, Timbavati

He was lazing with his back mostly towards us, so we could not get a good view of his features but we took this in for a while, then continued past the Piet Grobler dam and the hide overlooking the river ( no water so we did not bother to stop) and turned off at a viewing spot when we spotted a herd of elephants approaching from further up the dry river bed.

We watched as they came closer, ambling along the river bed in their slow, measured fashion one by one. Just then Gerda exclaimed “lions” and there they were, a male and two females further up on the opposite bank of the river, looking magnificent against the backdrop of the rocky bank and watching carefully as the elephants passed by below them.

Lions and Elephants, Timbavati
Lions and Elephants, Timbavati

One of the younger elephants decided to show the lions who’s the boss and momentarily turned towards them and made as if he was going to chase them up the river bank – the lions retreated and the satisfied elephant carried on following the herd, which had by now veered off and over the opposite bank. Another of those magic moments of interaction between the dominant species, which we were fortunate to enjoy with just one other couple in a sedan.

Lions, Timbavati
Lions, Timbavati

More than pleased with this sighting we proceeded to nearby Timbavati picnic spot for a slap-up brunch of paw paw with yoghurt and a “full english” breakfast done on the skottel. On the way back along the S127 Ntomeni road, White-crowned Shrikes suddenly featured, usually a sign that the habitat has subtly changed, while a pair of Gabar Goshawks flew across the road directly in front of us, one of them a  dark morph, entirely black except for white barred flight feathers, the other a pale morph, with mostly dove grey  colouring.

Back on the tar road H1 – 4, the only further interest was at the bridge where we had stopped earlier – a large group of vultures had gathered on the sand some way up the river, so I set up the scope and was able to identify White-backed, Lappet-faced and Hooded Vultures plus a Marabou Stork looking like a mournful gate-crasher.

That was enough action for the day so we took it easy back at the camp with tea, a snooze and an evening wors braai (sausage barbeque) to see out the day.

Birding for absolute beginners

I came across this article on one of the birding sites on facebook and thought to share it here. It is a wonderful and inspiring read for beginners and experienced birders alike.

BIRDING FOR ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS
Module 1 – Learning to be Observant
© Jill Masterton
Edited by Ian Grant of EverythingBirding.co.za

WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF BIRD WATCHING!

It’s very easy to do bird watching – you just need to sit somewhere quietly and any number of birds will turn up, or fly past, or perch in a tree nearby. Then all you have to do is look at them. Simple!

You don’t have to know which birds you are looking at, it’s fun just to watch their antics and to hear them communicating with each other and watch them feeding, preening or collecting nesting materials.

But being nosy humans, we have to spoil the simple fun of just bird watching by HAVING to know what kind of bird we are looking at. Crazy, isn’t it? And then, when we get better at this bird identification thing, we start trying to tick off all the birds in our books, and adding to the list at every opportunity. We are our own worst enemies!

So, in order to do bird identification, we actually have to learn the powers of observation. We need to really LOOK at the birds, LISTEN to the birds and LEARN to understand the different behaviours of birds.

One important factor to remember when starting or enjoying a hobby such as birding is that it is NOT a competition. Many ‘birders’ spoil their own enjoyment of just watching birds by having to go around aimlessly (almost manically) ‘ticking’ off yet another bird to add to their list. What enjoyment is there in that? To brag to your friends (who probably couldn’t give a continental anyway) that you now have seen and identified over 400 species INCLUDING the rare double-breasted mattress flapper! I often imagine these types as skulking along try to find a rare bird – eventually seeing it and immediately ticking it off in their books – and off immediately to find another – without even spending some time watching and enjoying the bird itself. Rather spoils the whole idea behind bird watching, doesn’t it?

So, enjoy yourselves, go at your own pace and share your experiences with others – don’t push your new-found hobby down other people’s throats – especially your family and friends. Enjoy birding for yourself. (And you may find, as I have, that even those who laughed at you will soon be joining you in your pursuits!)

LEARNING TO BE OBSERVANT

With birds, even if you have the best binoculars in the world, you will find that you’ve just got the bird sighted and it will fly off!

Therefore you usually only have a few seconds to take in a whole load of detail. Don’t despair, it is difficult for all of us, and with patience you will learn to quickly take in the following points and make positive identifications.

A good way to start is to try doing it in pairs (buddy system) – one looks at the bird through the binoculars and the buddy asks the questions below, and takes notes. Swap around, so that both buddies get to look and ask the questions.

1. WHAT SIZE IS IT?

I don’t know about you, but I was born on the cusp of the metric and imperial measuring systems. I know 30cms is about one foot, because the rulers are that size, but other than that, I find something like 17cms in length from beak tip to tail tip difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend.

So – I see a bird and I ask myself….

Is it smaller than a sparrow? Same size, or slightly bigger?

This is because I can visualise the size of a House Sparrow, because sparrows are familiar birds that I have known all my life.

The metric size of a House Sparrow as measured in a bird guide is 14-15cm.

What other birds do you know that are about the same size? Masked Weaver, perhaps? Yup – same size!

Then go up a step. Common Mynas (were called Indian Mynas) – pesky aliens, but also very familiar – 25 cms – about the same size as a Cape Glossy Starling – and a member of the Starling family.

Rocks Doves (Feral Pigeons) are familiar birds, measuring 33cm. Is the bird you are looking at about the same size as a pigeon? Black-shouldered Kite? Okay, just slightly smaller at 30 cms.

Interestingly enough, all the familiar birds I have mentioned are not indigenous birds but were introduced in to South Africa, and all are common in cities and suburbia, that’s why we know them so well.

You can choose your own list of familiar birds – and the trick is to type or write them and their measurements down on a piece of card and use this as a bookmark in your bird guide.

2. WHAT SHAPE IS IT?

Learn to distinguish the different shapes or outlines of the birds you are looking at. Does the bird have long legs or short legs, a long, medium or short tail? And what shape is its beak?

This is not easy, and it takes a bit of time, but with practise you’ll soon be able to see that different bird families have different-shaped beaks, or short sturdy legs or long thin ones. Some birds have short tails some birds have long tails. Some birds are tiny, some are large, and it’s the in-between birds that are the problem, so leave those until you are feeling more confident.

Nobody can miss the Long-tailed Widowbird (Longtailed Widow) with his flowing tail plumes, but he is much more difficult to identify in winter when he’s not in breeding plumage. Or the tiny sunbirds that look a bit like humming birds, but we don’t get humming birds in South Africa, so if it looks like a humming bird, it most likely is a sunbird.

No-one can really tell you how to learn to recognise outlines of birds. For myself I find it helpful to actually draw the outlines to get a feel for the shape of the birds. Ornithologists have the luxury of having stuffed birds to look at and touch. If you really do become more interested in birding, there is always the opportunity to learn how to do bird ringing – where you catch wild birds and ring them for research purposes. This will give you the opportunity to literally have a bird in the hand – and not in the bush! Visits to bird parks, zoos and museums are also very helpful places to familiarise yourself with the various bird families and sizes, and beaks, etc.

3. WHAT COLOUR IS IT?

There is now a helpful field guide available that actually groups the birds together using colours as the identifying criteria, as opposed to the standard guides that split the birds into waders, ocean-going birds, seed-eaters or insect-eaters, for example.

One thing that is very important with colour is to try and also note the colour on the beak, legs and feet. This can be a critical tool in identifying even a seemingly easy bird. For instance, look at the egrets. Most of us know what a Cattle Egret (often called a Tick Bird) looks like, but how would you distinguish a juvenile from a Little Egret? Apart from the Little Egret’s crest – LOOK at those feet! Bright yellow on the Little Egret – black on the Cattle Egret.

So, colour is more than the overall picture, it is detail that you are going to have to learn to see.

4. DOES IT HAVE A DISTINCTIVE PATTERN OR MARKINGS?

Now, I know you are probably perplexed by this – patterns on birds? Well some of them DO have patterns – look at the francolins, the Thick-knees (Dikkops) and the Guineafowl, the various species have different patterns from one another – look at the differences.

Look at the Woodpeckers. Now, it’s absolutely no use saying that you saw a woodpecker with a red head – most of the little blighters have red heads! So, what sets them apart, size, yes, location – mmm maybe, but pattern certainly? Look at their breast feathers and the patterns on the sides of their heads.

4. WHERE IS IT?

A great help to the fledgling birder is the distribution maps in the standard field guides. I find the guides that have the picture of the bird with the written description and the distribution map all together on the same page the easiest to deal with. If you see a Bulbul in Cape Town, it’s not a Dark-capped (Black eyed) Bulbul, they don’t occur there. It’s a Cape Bulbul – see how similar the bulbuls are, and how subtle the differences?

Habitat is another great help. If you’re looking at birds on the seashore they are often waders or ocean-going birds. Birds found in grasslands are usually seed-eating birds or terrestrial insect/rodent/reptile eaters. Birds hovering above grasslands are often raptors on the lookout for smaller birds or rodents for lunch.

Dams and rivers attract more waders and weavers and some kingfishers. But don’t let the names of birds dupe you – more kingfishers eat insects than they do fish! Therefore, you’ll probably see more kingfishers in woodland, hawking for insects from a branch, than you will see at a dam in a grassland biome. And I have seen more than one seagull strutting along an inland playing field in Gauteng, I can tell you!

5. WHAT TIME DID YOU SEE OR HEAR IT?

Learn the terms below

DIURNAL – Active during the day

NOCTURNAL – Active at night

CREPUSCULAR – Active at dusk and dawn – or in the half-light hours.

Therefore, if you see or hear a bird at night, look out for nocturnal birds in your bird book to help you with identification. Again, don’t be fooled into thinking that all owls are strictly nocturnal, African Scops-Owls (Scops Owls) and Pearl-spotted Owlets (Owls), for example, are not and are often heard calling by day!

6. WHAT IS THE BIRD DOING?

Is the bird hopping, walking, running, soaring, swimming, wading or climbing about in a tree?

Is it swooping, pecking the ground like a chicken, probing in the mud, catching insects, feeding in a tree or gathering nesting material?

7. WHAT SOUND IS IT MAKING?

This is possibly the hardest of all to learn, but the easiest way to positively identify a bird because they all have their own unique voices.

For me the easiest way to learn calls is to actually hear something calling and try and find the bird – I USUALLY remember it then. I also find videos of birds with their calls much easier than listening to tapes or CD’s – as you can actually see which birds are making which calls.

Start by learning the calls of birds in your own garden, or if you don’t have a garden, go to your nearest park or similar. By being observant and going out and looking at who is prattling away, you will find that very soon you will be able to identify quite a number of birds just by their sound.

Don’t be put off – you can probably already identify quite a number of birds by their call. How about the Hadeda Ibis? The African Hoopoe, the Red-chested Cuckoo (“Piet my vrou”) or the Crowned Lapwing (Plover) – so you are already on your way!

Another way to learn to identify birds by their calls is to put a verse to the call if you can, as in the Red-chested Cuckoo with its distinctive “Piet My Vrou” call. You’ll hardly ever see this bird – but you’ll hear him calling all the time in summer – even at night! How about the Grey Go-Away-Bird (Lourie) – shouting at you or your cat to “Go Awaaaay!”? Feel free to make up your own verses to calls!

Anyway, it’s not a train smash if you can’t learn calls, but it does help quite a lot with identification, and there are a few species of birds that are really only identifiable by their call, e.g. the nightjars/ pipits and larks.

BECOME ACQUAINTED WITH YOUR BIRD FIELD GUIDE

Look through your field guide often. Look particularly at the different groups of birds which are all conveniently located in the books close to each other.

Try and see the differences and the similarities, you will find identification a lot easier once you have managed to recognise what group a bird is in just from

a quick glance. I am afraid there are no short cuts to this process – you just have to keep on looking and looking and looking.

READ ABOUT BIRDS

Develop more than just a passing interest in birds. An excellent publication is Africa, Birds and Birding that has wonderful in depth articles about birds – breeding biology, behaviour, status and migration – as well as articles on great birding spots. It is such an attractive and informative magazine that it will soon pique your interest in birds even further so that your learning becomes enjoyable and not onerous.

GO BIRDING WITH A BUDDY

Try and go birding with somebody – preferably at about the same stage of birding as yourself. Try not to go with one of those know-it-all types as they will loudly proclaim what bird it is before you’ve even got it in your sights, and you will never learn to identify birds for yourself. Some bird guides are excellent and will let you try out your skills and help you along the way – pointing out the critical points for identification. If you have a friend who is knowledgeable about birds, ask them to take you along on a bird outing – you can always learn a lot, but ask them to let you try and identify the birds first.

Never be afraid to make a mistake or to ask for help. As I said in the beginning – bird watching is a hobby to be enjoyed wherever you are and for the rest of your life. It is not a competition to see how many species you can tick off!