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 Birding Companion

Niki, my trusted birding companion, accompanies me on all my birding trips and I have to admit I just cannot get along without her – she has eyes like a hawk which can help to identify those distant birds in a trice with just one quick glance and is content to endure hours of travel on sometimes bumpy, dusty roads with nary a complaint.

So I was deeply concerned when Niki started showing signs of weariness and a distinct lack of focus towards the end of 2018 and I resolved to book her into a clinic as soon as we were back in Gauteng in January 2019. Niki went to the clinic without complaint and I booked her in on a Monday, hoping that her stay would not be long – they sent a message later setting out the proposed treatment and estimated that she would have to stay for at least a week for the treatment to have the desired effect, which I replied was acceptable.

The week without Niki was difficult and my birding outing was just not the same without her on the seat beside me, but I knew it was something that had done. I resisted the temptation to visit Niki in the clinic, being so far from our house and patiently waited for the message to tell me I could come and fetch her.

At last the message came to my phone – she was ready to go home! Next morning I drove to the clinic and fetched Niki – what a relief to hold her in my arms again!

I could hardly wait for my next birding outing with Niki once again at my side and planned a trip to one of Gauteng’s prime birding destinations – Marievale Bird Sanctuary to put our combined skills to the test again.

Niki, also known as my Nikon D750 DLSR camera with Nikon 80-400mm lens, performed admirably – but I will leave you with a few photos from the morning at Marievale, so you can judge for yourself.

Spotted Thick-Knee / Gewone Dikkop (Burhinus capensis) in the reception parking area before getting into the Nature Reserve itself – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (OK just bright-eyed)

 

Blacksmith Lapwing / Bontkiewiet (Vanellus armatus)– despite its name suggesting a somewhat rougher individual, this is one bird that looks as if it could be an avian James Bond – elegant, formally attired, ready to order a martini “shaken, not stirred”

 

Wood Sandpiper / Bosruiter (Tringa glareola) – the only wader I came across during my visit – water levels were high after good summer rains so the hundreds of waders usually present were somewhere else

 

African Reed-Warbler / Kleinrietsanger (Acrocephalus baeticatus) – at one spot along the power-line track which has wetlands on both sides (shown in the featured image at the top of the post) I seemed to be surrounded by calling Warblers, with this species most prominent, calling vigorously and showing briefly amongst the reeds.

 

Red-knobbed Coot / Bleshoender (Fulica cristata) – the hides at Marievale are well looked after and afford great views of the comings and goings of several species, including this very common one

 

Squacco Heron / Ralreier (Ardeola ralloides) – demonstrating why it can be a difficult bird for beginners to identify, particularly in flight when it appears to be all-white and can easily be taken for a Cattle Egret. Once settled though it is an obvious species and in breeding plumage as it is here it shows the elongated feathers on the crest and neck, giving it an even more distinctive look

 

Common Moorhen / Grootwaterhoender (Gallinula chloropus) – another common water bird seen from the hide

 

Yellow-crowned Bishop / Goudgeelvink (Euplectes afer) – resembles a very large bumble-bee in flight display as it fluffs up its yellow back feathers and flies slowly and ponderously amongst tall reeds

 

Lesser Swamp Warbler Kaapse rietsanger (Acrocephalus gracilirostris) – one of the bolder warblers but more often heard rather than seen. This one popped onto a perch right in front of the picnic spot hide as I was chatting to a visitor from Scotland

 

Whiskered Tern / Witbaardsterretjie (Chlidonias hybrida) – almost always present at Marievale, this tern in breeding plumage (losing the black belly and much of the black crown when non-breeding) was hovering and plunge-diving in front of the hide, constantly on the search for food

 

 

 

Chobe River and Game Reserve – a Special Place

I have been fortunate during my working career to have been involved in construction projects which have taken me to some interesting, even exciting, parts of the world. Top of that list is Kasane, a small town on the Chobe River in the far north of Botswana, South Africa’s neighbour on its northern side and one of the nicest countries you will find just about anywhere.

Aerial view of the Chobe River while landing at Kasane

Nice because it is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with just 2,3m people at an average density of 3 people per square kilometre, and the vast majority are inherently friendly, decent people. The country is blessed with large tracts of unspoilt wilderness where you will find some of the last vestiges of the Africa that existed before human interference made its mark.

The Flood plain

My involvement in the Kasane Airport project, now complete and functioning well, meant I spent an accumulative 60 days or more in Kasane during monthly visits spread over 3 years and I used every opportunity to spend free time in Chobe Game Reserve and on the Chobe River, soaking up the incomparable African game-viewing and bird-watching on offer.

So where is this leading? Well, I made what is likely to be my last visit to Kasane in November 2018, during which I joined a “farewell” photographic safari both on land and on the river, which left me with a head full of special memories and a memory card full of treasured images.

Pangolin Safaris photographic boat trip

Leaving Chobe Game Reserve after the game drive that morning along the familiar sandy, bumpy track, through the Sedudu gate and out on to the tar road back to Kasane, it momentarily struck me that this was possibly the last time I would see this place and an almost tangible sadness washed over me for a few seconds, only to be replaced with the happy thought of all the memories I had gathered over more than 3 years, memories that I would love to share in the best way I can.

I have written several posts about some outstanding experiences in Chobe over the last few years, but there is so much more to tell, so expect a short-ish series of further posts over the next few weeks -or months featuring some or all of the following :

  • The iconic species, both animal and avian, that call Chobe home, from Elephants to Hornbills, Leopards to Fish Eagles
  • The bird atlasing trips that I squeezed into a busy schedule while in Kasane
  • Stylish photographic safaris with Pangolin Safaris
  • Whatever else pops up in my memory bank (aka my journals)
Elephants crossing the river
African Fish-Eagles are numerous along the Chobe River
Leopard in Chobe Game Reserve

Bradfield’s Hornbill

It’s scenes like this that had me going back for more

 

 

Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and surrounds, January 2019

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while *atlasing. (see end of post for more info on atlasing)

The Atlasing Destination

With an open palette of pentads not yet atlassed in 2019  I chose two pentad blocks around Herbertsdale in the southern Cape with the least Full Protocol cards to date – one covering Gondwana Game Reserve and the other including the village of Herbertsdale and the surrounding countryside.

The location of the pentads – the red shaded block on the map below and the block to its left :

Getting there

My route was planned to be a circular one, heading out and back on the R327 to this by now familiar area that I have atlassed frequently over the last several years.

I had put my faith in the usually dependable YR weather App which forecast that the overnight rain would clear up by early morning. Heading out at 5.30 am from Mossel Bay, I had a few doubts as the gloomy, rainy weather persisted until after 7 am, an hour into atlasing the first pentad, but then cleared up into a beautiful sunny day.

Pentad 3400_2150

Soon after entering the pentad block, I stopped at the Gondwana Game Reserve gatehouse to check if there were any restrictions on driving through the reserve on what is still a public road. The reply was “Yes you can drive through, but  you are not allowed to stop”. Now I am a birder and we like to stop frequently and unexpectedly, so I nodded vaguely and proceeded on my way through the reserve, not expecting to come across any other traffic at this early hour and on this rather remote road.

I saw a few animals but as it turned out, with rain still falling steadily, I did not have much reason to stop for birds, until I came across a small roadside dam with a Grey Heron standing like a statue in hunting mode, watching the water very intently. I could not resist stopping, whereupon two things happened almost simultaneously – a Black-crowned Night-Heron flew gracefully in and settled in the shallow water near the Grey Heron – and a Gondwana ranger in a bakkie (utility vehicle) appeared over the rise behind me slightly less gracefully and stopped next to my vehicle – with a smile on his face,it must be said.  He reminded me of the ‘no stopping’ request and suggested I move on, which I did after asking permission to take a quick photo of the Night-Heron and receiving same.

It’s quite understandable that reserves such as Gondwana are nervous or even slightly paranoid about potential poaching, having passed a grazing Rhino with full horn just a little earlier, however I’m sure the profile of the average poacher does not include meek, pensioner-age birders in SUV’s armed only with long-lens cameras. In any case, next time I will contact Gondwana beforehand for permission to bird.

Exiting the reserve a short while later through the northern gate, a subtle change in habitat – more bush and trees for a starter – resulted in a change in bird life in terms of numbers and almost immediately Malachite and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds were added to my list.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird

Further along the road I stopped to look around, only to be enticed to walk up an inviting track leading through a field filled with fynbos and protea species.

Gondwana area

The ericas were abundant and made extra attractive by drops of moisture clinging to leaves and flowers

Even the spider’s webs had gathered lots of rain drops

Southern Tchagra and Orange-breasted Sunbirds delighted me with their presence while a “Murder of Crows” – White-necked Ravens by name but also part of the Corvus genus along with all the other Crows – flew over and settled in an adjoining open field.

Orange-breasted Sunbird

Soon after, I reached the eastern boundary of the pentad and turned around with 29 species recorded so far, then took a branch road which headed into the more hilly northern section with another subtle change in habitat – still quite bushy along the road verge but more open fields and grassland behind. Suddenly I could hear Cape Clapper Lark displaying and saw the perpetrator soon after, furiously clapping its wings as it ascended, producing a loud, fast clapping sound followed by a drawn out sharp whistle on descent.

Competing with the Clappers and soon winning the “most prominent call” competition were Victorin’s Warblers, seemingly every 50 m or so for a few hundred metres – definitely a hot spot for this loud but elusive bird that just refused to show when I stopped to search for it, allowing nothing more than a brief glimpse through dense foliage.

Victorin’s Warbler, Herbertsdale area

More cooperative was the Bokmakierie I came across shortly after

Bokmakierie

Pentad 3400_2145

Although this pentad lies directly west of the first one, the lack of direct roads meant a longish drive  via the R327 to get to the northern boundary just outside the tiny but charming Herbertsdale village. The birding was immediately lively and the views from the hill leading into the village spanned the fertile valley below, albeit suffering under the drought that has so much of the country in its grip.

Herbertsdale area
Herbertsdale area

Driving slowly through the village a group of swifts and swallows were circling busily overhead, no doubt feasting in mid-air on the thousands of flying insects.

Barn Swallow

A couple of Alpine Swifts flew by,  big-bodied and lightning fast compared to the White-rumped and African Black Swifts that made up the majority of the flock,  so distinctive with their white underparts.

It’s a challenge getting a photo of the Alpine Swift, so this is the best I could manage on the day

Alpine Swift

Beyond Herbertsdale the road heads back towards Mossel Bay, past roadside farm dams which held a selection of water birds, including Black Crake, Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal while the call of Lesser Swamp-Warbler emanated from the fringing reeds. An irrigated field was literally swarming with low flying Barn Swallows  crisscrossing in the air while tens of Red Bishops searched the ground below them.

Patrolling the field at a height was a fierce-looking Peregrine Falcon – I imagined some doem-doem-doem music building up in the background to heighten the drama of the situation, but the Falcon was not in a hurry to hunt and I carried on after watching it for a while.

Peregrine Falcon

In contrast, this little guy – less than 10 cm long – was crossing the road so I helped him/her on its way, as you never know when a car might come by and people often do not see them in the road, causing unnecessary fatalities

Tortoise

Further stops produced Tambourine Dove calling and a group of Common Waxbills, then I came across a tree at the side of the road full of bright red flowers which was clearly irresistible for the sugar freaks of the bird world, drawing numbers of Malachite, Greater Double-collared and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds. That also signaled the end of the morning’s atlasing

The Statistics

Pentad  3400_2150 : A total of 30 Full Protocol (Minimum 2 hours) cards have been done to date with a low/high card count of 25/77 and a total of 154 species recorded to date; This was my first card for the pentad and my 42 species represented coverage of 27% of the total species. The only notable species was White-rumped Swift (7% reporting rate)

Pentad 3400_2145 : A total of 21 Full Protocol cards have been done to date with a low/high card count of 26/65 and a total of 144 species recorded to date; This was my fourth card for the pentad and my 51 species represented coverage of 35% of the total species. My total for the 4 cards increased to 90 species. New species recorded for the pentad were Black Crake, Peregrine Falcon and Lesser Swamp-Warbler

The Birdlasser pentad maps below show the route and sightings –

Gondwana area
Herbertsdale area

* Atlasing

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a defined area  called a “pentad”. Each pentad has a unique number based on its geographical position according to a 5 minute x 5 minute grid of co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, which translates into a square of our planet roughly 8 x 8 kms in extent.

As a registered observer / Citizen scientist under the SABAP2 program (SA Bird Atlas Project 2), all of the birding I do nowadays includes recording the species for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town.

Atlasing has brought a new dimension and meaning to my birding as it has to many other birders. The introduction a couple of years ago of the “Birdlasser” App has greatly simplified the recording and submission of the data collected.

 

My Birding Year 2018

 


My 2018 Birding Year

So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the last year along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited. Some of the trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.

January 2018

Mossel Bay is our home over the holiday season up to the third week in January, so I try to use this time to fit in as much atlasing as I can in the beautiful surrounding countryside.

Atlasing trips and the highlight species included :

  • the area beyond Herbertsdale – Black Storks at the Gouritz River
  • the town of George with a visit to the waste water treatment works as well as the forested area at the top of the town – Black Cuckooshrike, Black Sparrowhawk and Knysna Turaco
  • Wilderness and the Woodville Big Tree (covered in a separate post) – Lemon Dove, Chorister Robin
  • Friemersheim area north of Klein Brak – Olive Bushshrike, Swee Waxbill, Narina Trogon, Black-winged Lapwing
Friemersheim area
African Hoopoe, Friemersheim area
Black-winged Lapwing, Friemersheim area

A blustery day blew some seabirds inshore – a visit to the Point at Mossel Bay produced White-chinned Petrels, Gannets and Gulls galore, Terns and, amazingly, a Sooty Shearwater

 

February

Back in Pretoria I could catch up on some highveld atlasing with a visit to Mabusa nature reserve along with Koos Pauw – an outstanding day with both Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers seen and Great Reed Warbler heard.

Pallid Harrier (Juvenile), near Mabusa NR

I literally went into the bundu on occasion

Mabusa NR and area

Mid-month we used up some expiring RCI points to spend a weekend at Champagne Valley resort in the southern Drakensberg. Great birding in a magnificently scenic environment – highlights were Cape Vulture, House Martin, Bearded Vulture, Grey Crowned Crane and Long-crested Eagle

Black-backed Puffback (Juvenile), Champagne Valley Drakensberg
Amethyst Sunbird, Champagne Valley Drakensberg
Arrow-marked Babbler, Champagne Valley Drakensberg

March

Back to the Drakensberg, this time with brother Andrew visiting from the UK – some birding, more touring from our base at Drakensberg Sun resort

Work pressures meant no time for atlasing although I used the public holiday to do a couple of pentads around Delmas, where an Amur Falcon entertained me with its handling of a locust catch (covered in a separate post)

Amur Falcon feeding on grasshopper, Delmas south

April

For my 500th pentad I decided to atlas the area around Mkhombo Dam which proved to be a good choice (also covered in a separate post)

Marico Flycatcher, Mkhombo dam area
Black-faced Waxbill, Mkhombo dam area

The following weekend we visited family on Annasrust farm in the Free State near Hoopstad – one of the highlights of our year and a superb birding spot in its own right.

Massed Egrets, Spoonbills and Cormorants made for a spectacular sight on the river

Mixed roost, Annasrust farm Hoopstad
Common Sandpiper, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Late in April, with some RCI points not fully used and about to expire, we booked a week at Pine Lake Resort near White River, which also included a memorable day visit to Kruger Park

Pine Lake Resort
African Fish Eagle, Kruger Day Visit
Booted Eagle, Kruger Day Visit
White-browed Robin-Chat, Kruger Day Visit

May

My only atlasing trip in May was to Mabusa Nature Reserve and the surrounding area – many highlights including Flappet Lark, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah and Barred Wren-Warbler

June

Early June saw us in Mossel Bay for a brief visit – just one atlasing trip was squeezed in, covering the area north of Great Brak River

This Black-headed Heron posed on my neighbour’s roof

Black-headed Heron, Mossel Bay Golf Estate

We were hardly back in Pretoria when we set off for our annual visit to La Lucia near Durban where we have a timeshare apartment, with an overnight stay at the beautiful Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van ReenenMy early morning walk was a misty affair

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van Reenen

La Lucia was as restful as ever but the World Cup soccer proved to be a distraction, nevertheless I managed to fit in a mix of beach birding walks, a trip to my favourite urban forest – Pigeon Valley – and a visit to Shongweni Nature Reserve

We took up Gerda’s Vryheid family’s invitation to stop over on their farm near the town on our way back – a worthwhile detour if there ever was one! A pair of Crowned Cranes made the visit really special, although Anlia’s breakfast krummelpap (a coarse farm porridge) was a serious competitor for “best reason to visit”.

Crowned Crane, Onverwacht farm Vryheid
Southern Bald Ibis, Onverwacht farm Vryheid

July

Mid-month I was in Cape Town for a day and found myself free for the afternoon – so where does a keen birder go on a rainy day in this famous City? Naturally to the Strandfontein Sewage Works – birding was superb with a few hundred Flamingoes amongst many other water birds

August

Mid-winter atlasing trips around Gauteng kept me sharp during August, despite cold (- 3 deg C at one stage), windy conditions that kept me mostly in my car. Spike-heeled Larks were a feature of both trips, while African Harrier-Hawk was an exciting find.

Southern Fiscals are common just about everywhere but this subcoronatus sub-species is quite a special find

Common Fiscal (subcoronatus), Nigel area
Pin-tailed Whydah (female), Nigel area

September

A last-minute decision to spend a week in Kruger Park turned into a memorable, relaxing trip with plenty of wild life experiences (covered in several posts)

Crested Francolin, Sable Dam, Kruger Park
Wahlberg’s Eagle (Juvenile White crowned), Olifants River, Kruger Park
Sabota Lark, Kruger Park

An atlasing trip to the Delmas area later in the month produced a Blue Korhaan, scarce in these parts, as well as a couple of other terrestial species in the form of Orange River Francolin and Northern Black Korhaan

October

Time for our timeshare week at our favourite get away – Verlorenkloof, which produced fine birding once again and some interesting atlasing opportunities in the area.

African Stonechat (Male, Saxicola torquatus), Verlorenkloof

The most exciting sighting at Verlorenkloof was of an immature Crowned Eagle, which apparently was born and raised on the property, the nest still visible on top of a tall tree

African Crowned Eagle (Immature, Stephanoaetus coronatus), Verlorenkloof

Down at the river the Village Weavers were nest-building in loud and vigorous fashion

Village Weaver (Male, Ploceus cucullatus – spilonotus), Verlorenkloof

The tiny Swee Waxbill visited the undergrowth near our Croft

Swee Waxbill (Female, Estrilda melanotis), Verlorenkloof

The sought after Broad-tailed Warbler is a regular at Verlorenkloof during the summer months but does its best to frustrate any attempts to get a close photograph

Broad-tailed Warbler (Schoenicola brevirostris), Verlorenkloof

Back to the Cape in the last week of October for a short visit to Mossel Bay, followed by a quick visit to family in the western Cape town of Worcester, where I spent a morning enjoying the surprisingly good birding that was on offer in the adjoining hills.

Quarry road, Worcester

November

Further atlasing in the Mossel Bay area included trips to Herbertsdale and Gouritz River, before returning to Pretoria where we prepared for our return to Mossel Bay for a longer stay over December and January, as has become our custom over the last few years.

The road trip to the southern Cape included an overnight stop at Kuilfontein near Colesberg and a two night stay at Karoo National Park, both places providing some diverse atlasing opportunities

Karoo National Park
Short-toed Rock-Thrush, Karoo National Park

The following week saw me returning by air to Gauteng and onward to Kasane in northern Botswana for a final inspection visit to the airport project that I was involved in. I booked a boat-based and vehicle-based game drive during my stay, in order to make the most of this last visit to Chobe game reserve, both of which provided some amazing sightings and photographic highlights.

Cattle Egret, Chobe River Trip
Pied Kingfisher, Chobe River Trip
Chobe Riverfront Game Drive
Spur-winged Goose, Chobe Riverfront game drive
Hamerkop, Chobe Riverfront game drive

December

Back in Mossel Bay, it was time to get into relaxed mode and I looked forward to some atlasing of the area, including Mossel Bay itself.

Water Thick-knee, Mossel Bay GE

A Terek Sandpiper at Great Brak was a lifer for me

Terek Sandpiper, Great Brak River mouth
Little Egret, Great Brak River mouth

The only body of fresh water in Mossel Bay is a drawcard for numbers of birds

SPCA dam, Mossel Bay

This Cape Weaver decided to use the bird-feeder in our neighbour’s garden as a base frame for its nest – probably an inexperienced juvenile practicing his skills. He never did complete the nest.

Cape Weaver nest-building on feeder, Mossel Bay

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!