For the first time since starting this blog a year and a bit ago when I set myself a target of 2 posts a month, I did not manage to publish twice in August – reason being we have been on tour in Canada and Alaska since 7 August and will be returning to SA on 10 September
We have had an amazing time so far with week 1 covering Calgary and the Canadian Rockies, week 2 on a cruise to Alaska and week 3 being in Ontario and on tour through several provinces of Canada east such as Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia
Once I have sorted and edited the many photos and caught up with my diary I’ll be adding some posts on these wonderful places – watch this space!
Posted from aboard a ferry between Digby Nova Scotia and St Johns New brunswick – the wonders of technology!
“Ernesto was proud to mention that a species of Gecko he discovered there was named after him and he was able to find it for us”
Nature Reserve at Varadero
TheReserva Ecológica Varahicacos protects a 3 km2 remnant of xeromorphic coastal scrub and mangrove at the tip of the 20 km. Hicacos Peninsula. Much of the peninsula, also known as the sun destination ‘Varadero’ to hundreds-of-thousands of international tourists, has been modified to accommodate scores of sprawling, all-inclusive resorts. It is also home to the newly described (2009) Cuban Croaking Gecko (Aristelliger reyesi), the only Aristelliger known from Cuba. Dίaz and Hedges (2009) named the species after its discoverer, local biologist and bird guide Ernesto Reyes. (Source : http://northshorenature.blogspot.com/2012/03/some-cuban-lizards.html)
Ernesto works most days as a conservation officer at this nature reserve, which was a short taxi-ride from our hotel, and he was only too happy to include a walk through the reserve at any time during our stay. Andre and I took him up on the offer a few days after Geraldine and I visited Zapata Swamps with Ernesto and were glad we did, as it added another dimension to the Cuban birding experience and a number of lifers to the trip list.
Ernesto was proud to mention that a species of Gecko he discovered there was named after him and he was able to find it for us :
Ernesto took us along a few of the paths that run through the wooded part of the Reserve and found a number of forest birds, many of which turned out to be Warblers of various combinations of black, brown, yellow and white. The new ones for our trip list and all lifers for me were :
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler (Interesting name)
All of them were too furtive and quick to get a photo for the record, so I took some photos of the Reserve’s other interesting features instead
Ponds at Varadero Water Treatment Works
For good measure Ernesto took us to the nearby Varadero water treatment works the same day, where we clambered through a gap in the fence and found a number of exciting birds in the network of ponds.
Common Moorhen (for a change, an “ordinary” bird)
Well-satisfied with our “bonus” trip to the Nature Reserve and Water Treatment works, we thanked Ernesto for his wonderful assistance, bade him goodbye and got a taxi back to our hotel, where we continued our lazy existence for the rest of our 11 day stay. When our memorable holiday came to an end, we were taken by bus back to Havana (all part of the package) where we caught the Virgin Atlantic flight back to Gatwick near London, followed by a taxi shuttle (which you can pre-book) to Heathrow for our overnight flight to Johannesburg.
” Ernesto did everything else extremely well and made sure that we had an incredible and fruitful day as he showed us one new bird species after another and knew exactly where to find the specials, including a number of Cuban endemics that birders would give their eye teeth to see”
Finding a Bird Guide
While planning our trip to Cuba in early 2011, I searched the internet (well, Google did all the work) for any birding opportunities in the 2 areas we were to visit, namely Havana and Varadero. In the process I came across a reference to Ernesto Reyes, who did bird guiding from the Varadero area, and sent him an email. He soon responded with suggestions and this led to me booking him for a day during our stay at Sol Palmeras resort hotel on the Varadero peninsula.
I looked forward to the chance to do some birding in Cuba, which was likely to be a once in a lifetime opportunity in such an exotic location, but wasn’t really sure what to expect. I purchased a Cuba bird guide which I had a good look at before leaving for Cuba, so that I would have an idea of what birds could be found in the various habitats, and this helped a lot.
Our main destination for the day was the Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata – the Zapata Swamps National Park, which is located south-east of Havana and south of Varadero where we were staying in a fine resort hotel. The Zapata peninsula is bordered on the east side by the infamous Bay of Pigs, the site of the failed attempt by American-backed forces to invade Cuba back in 1961. Along the way Ernesto had planned stops at various spots to find some of the Cuban specials.
My daughter Geraldine agreed to accompany me and we were ready in the early hours outside the hotel main entrance, breakfast packs in hand, waiting for Ernesto and his driver to collect us. It seems that very few Cubans have driving licences because so few are allowed to own cars and Ernesto, married with kids, was not a driver, although he did take over on some of the back roads and showed us how not to pull away and change gears. Ernesto did everything else extremely well and made sure that we had an incredible and fruitful day as he showed us one new bird species after another and knew exactly where to find the specials, including a number of Cuban endemics that birders would give their eye teeth to see.
From Varadero we headed to the southern side of Cuba, passing through small villages on the way, one of which had a main street with more horses and old-fashioned horse-drawn cabs than motor cars
An hour or two later we entered the Zapata National Park area where our first stop was at a forested area alongside the road – we walked a short distance along a wooded path before Ernesto stopped and started pointing out bird species.
This happened a few more times until we reached the Zapata swamps, where we drove to various points then walked further along paths between the waterways, pausing to greet fishermen who were catching supper.
At one point we came across a group of American birders who were touring in a large luxury bus and they immediately called us over to view a very special bird, the Zapata Wren, through their scopes. We were surprised to find Americans in Cuba, knowing of the frosty relationship that exists and sanctions applied by the US on Cuba – apparently they are able to get permission for special trips
Their guide was one Arturo Kirkconnell, who happened to be co-author of the Cuban field guide I had bought, Birds of Cuba and he was kind enough to sign it and write a short message, which made the day extra-special.
Lunchtime with the locals
Ernesto offered a choice of a “Tourist Stop” standard lunch or he could arrange with some local people who, like a growing number of Cubans, have small restaurants in their homes. We chose the latter and it was a very special experience, eating in humble surroundings and served Cuban fare by the family – nice to be able to support them.
One source describes it thus:
The Zapata Swamp is a mosaic of mangrove swamps and freshwater and saltwater marshes that form the largest and best-preserved wetland in the Caribbean. The swamp was designated a Biosphere Reserve in 1999 and forms a vital preserve for Cuban wildlife, a spawning area for commercially valuable fish, and a crucial wintering territory for millions of migratory birds from North America. More than 900 plant species have been recognized in the swamp, and all but three of the 25 bird species endemic to Cuba breed there
Also a feature of the Zapata Peninsula is the system of caves along the coast, some of which have caved in creating small lakes. We visited one such flooded cave in a small reserve a short distance from the beaches of the Bay of Pigs – the largest flooded cave in Cuba, 70m deep and crystal clear
It was a veritable feast of ‘lifers’ for me – no less than 49 during our one day trip to Zapata National Park and a further 14 in the space of a couple of hours spent at the Varadero Nature Reserve – but it’s not all about numbers, more about the experience of birding in such exotic and amazing locations.
The birds seen included the following – short descriptions are taken direct from my field notes :
Once again, where I was able to get a photo, the quality of the photos is very ordinary due to not having my “birding” lens on the trip (I won’t make that mistake again) so I had to make do with a standard zoom lens.
The forest was not as dense as some I’ve experienced – it was not too difficult to see the birds which Ernesto found. The rock underfoot looked volcanic or could be ancient coral.
Cuban Tody – small round colourful bird with a long thin bill
Yellow-faced Grassquit – male and female pair, small sparrow-like bird
Red-legged Honeycreeper – dark purple plumage, turquoise cap and red legs make it a very distinctive bird. Top of tree
Common Yellow-throated Warbler – the first of many warblers, all in combinations of yellow, black and brown
Stripe-headed Tanager – colourful small bird in the mid-stratum
Cuban Trogon – signature bird for Cuba and their National Bird. Loud call, easily seen, 5 sightings during the day
Great Lizard Cuckoo – secretive, large bird (Coucal size), light brown in colour. I just caught it on camera as it flew off.
More Warblers in quick succession (we would have had no chance of ID-ing them without Ernesto) – Yellow-headed Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Magnolia Warbler. Cuba lies on the migration route between North and South America for many of the Warblers and we happened to be there when many of them are visitors to this Caribbean island.
Northern Parula – another Warbler
Cuban Vireo – looks like our White-eyes, just 2m from us in the tree
Zenaida Dove – forest path, pair on the ground amongst leaf litter
and then, a surprise sighting………..
Barn Swallow – just like home
Zapata Wren – the US visitors were very excited about finding this rare endemic – brownish barred bird with long tail, singing vigorously in the reeds
Indigo Bunting – blue all over, short bill
La Sagra’s Flycatcher – mid stratum, crested appearance
American Redstart – male, mid stratum
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron – Flying overhead
Tawny-shouldered Blackbird – group of 5 – all black except for orange patches on shoulders, tree tops
Loggerhead Kingbird – large, flycatcher-like, crested appearance, low in branches
Double-crested Cormorant –
Pygmy Owl – much like our Pearl-spotted, similar in size, low in tree next to channel
Northern Waterthrush – mid stratum, most resembles our Prinias
Ernesto stopped at various spots along the way, often at places known to be home to some of the specials. We also stopped at one of the government-run “Tourist Stops” where you can have snacks and meals
Smooth-billed Ani – large, all-black Coucal-like bird – on the way to Zapata
Black-cowled Oriole – ponds near Tourist Stop, top of tree
American Kestrel – roadside pole
Purple Gallinule – ponds near Tourist Stop, walking on lilies
Purple Martin – overhead
West Indian Woodpecker – near Tourist Stop, pecking at nest-hole in Palm tree
Cuban Crow – scavenging in road
Cuban Parrot – near Tourist Stop, top of tree
Great Egret – probably same as Southern African species – ponds near Tourist Stop
Great Blue Heron – ponds near Tourist Stop
Osprey – flying over ponds near Tourist Stop
Red-legged Thrush – dirt road, on ground, wary
Northern Mockingbird – dirt road
Smallest Bird in the World !
The bird we desperately wanted to see, since realising it was a possibility – the amazing Bee Hummingbird – found by Ernesto on a dirt road off the main road. We watched, mesmerized, as it zipped from telephone wires to sparse trees across the road, almost quicker than the eye could follow, looking like a large bumble-bee. Sensational sighting! But I couldn’t get a decent photo…
Open Savannah with many palm trees
Northern Flicker – Woodpecker-like bird in top of palm tree
Fernandina’s Flicker – (just love the name!) Rare endemic in bare palm tree
Roadside Farm with a number of large trees
Killdeer – Lapwing-like, in short grass
Common Ground Dove – open ground
Cuban Parakeet – flock of up to 20 in large fig tree, most flew off at our approach, some returned for viewing and photo opportunities
Lesser Yellowlegs – very much like a Greenshank in size and appearance, yellow legs conspicuous
Little Blue Heron – pair at edge of paddies
Black-necked Stilt – much like our Black-winged Stilt
Crested Caracara – in distant tree – large raptor reminiscent of a Harrier-Hawk
Glossy Ibis – presumably same species as ours, flying overhead
Limpkin – on bank of paddy, large bird, long decurved bill
On the way back to Varadero we passed a country rodeo in progress – looked exciting
Ernesto and the driver dropped us off at the hotel in the evening, after a brief stop at his home in a nearby town to meet his wife and daughter who tried their best to converse in broken English and charmed us in the process.
For days after we reflected on an amazing day spent birding an area that I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see and experience for myself. It brought a lesson home to me – when it comes to birding (or anything else that grabs you) one should have no boundaries and take the chances when they arise, there is just so much out there to see and do!
Note : Thanks to Ronald Orenstein for his guidance on a couple of mis-identifications in my photos, now corrected
“We soon got into a decadent routine of sumptuous breakfast, lazing on the beach with an occasional sortie to the beach bar for refreshments, lunch in the casual restaurant near the beach, followed by an afternoon relaxing around the pool”
Getting to Varadero
The bus transfer from Havana to Varadero, where we were to spend the next 11 days in an “All-Inclusive” resort, was uneventful and quite pleasant as it provided a glimpse of the Cuban countryside. Cubans have clearly cottoned on to the opportunities (and hard cash) that tourism brings, which was brought home when we stopped for a refreshment break at a roadside café, where a local band immediately started playing and made it obvious they were looking for some reward. Well, good for them – nothing like a money-making opportunity in a communist state!
The road was not very busy and in good condition and we noticed that there were fewer of the “classics” to be seen and more ordinary cars once we had left Havana.
Along the way I kept a look out for any birds and soon realised that the Turkey Vulture was one of the most common birds, perhaps because they are so obvious due to their large size and habit of flying around in flocks. Apart from them, I spotted a Shiny Cowbird in farmland and a Double-crested Cormorant in the water on the bay side of the Varadero peninsula.
Hotel Sol Palmeras
Our hotel was just one of many big resort hotels strung out along the narrow Varadero peninsula, all of them appearing to be full of tourists from Europe and Canada enjoying the fine warm weather.
We soon got into the swing of things at the hotel, revelling in the “all-inclusive” deal as part of our Virgin Holidays package – we had no experience of this so thought we would end up paying over the top for extras such as special coffees, al a carte meals and beach activities but were very happy to find that ‘all-inclusive’ meant exactly that – great value for money!
We soon got into a decadent routine of sumptuous breakfast, lazing on the beach with an occasional sortie to the beach bar for refreshments, lunch in the casual restaurant near the beach, followed by an afternoon relaxing around the pool before girding our loins for the evening meal in the main buffet restaurant or one of the 5 themed ala carte restaurants.
The only stress was beating the Europeans to the best beach loungers in the morning! As in Havana, we found that staff and residents were amazed when they heard we were from South Africa.
Suffice to say the beach met all our expectations and the photos say it better than I can
We particularly enjoyed the gentle sea which was ideal for just swimming and lazing in the water or the more energetic rides in the paddle boats
Sunset was a magic time on the beach
I had arranged beforehand for a local bird guide to take me to some nearby birding spots, which I did halfway through our stay at the resort – the trip is deserving of a separate post which will follow this one.
What I can mention in this post are some of the interesting birds I found without too much trouble in the hotel gardens, often by standing on the room balcony which overlooked the lush tropical gardens or wandering through the pathways that meandered past the chalets forming part of the complex and the occasional bird spotted from the beach.
90 Percent of what I saw were ‘lifers’ for me so each bird was a real thrill, but none more so than the tiny Cuban Emerald, a species of Hummingbird, which I first spotted feeding on top of a tree with bright red berries and later saw a few times perched on branches in the gardens. The pictures of Hummingbirds in books have always fascinated me but I never imagined seeing them ”live” so this was special.
Others that I came across in the gardens were (with apologies for photo quality – I didn’t have my usual telephoto lens with me) :
Palm Warbler – feeding on the ground
Summer Tanager – an all-red bird active in the upper canopy of the trees
Gray Kingbird – seen frequently, once with a small lizard prey
Greater Antillean Grackle (now there’s an impressive name) – in the gardens and often scrounging scraps at the outdoor restaurant – reminiscent of our starlings. The unusual feature of this bird is its V-shaped tail, which may be unique to this species, giving it the appearance of an old-fashioned jet plane when in flight
Cuban Green Woodpecker – an attractive bird which was busy at a nest hole in a Cocos palm
Cape May Warbler – one of many Warblers seen on the trip, all of which seem to be varying combinations of black, brown and yellow – this one had black streaks on a yellow breast, distinctive brown cheeks and a yellow rump.
Royal Tern – flying low over the shallow turquoise sea, diving occasionally for food. This was a particularly beautiful sight early one morning as the sun was coming up
Brown Pelican – also flying low over the sea
Muscovy Duck – seen on the golf course of an adjoining resort
The ‘Puppy-dog Lizard’ which we saw in Havana was also to be found in the gardens – quite habituated to people
Time to Leave
On the way to the airport I took some photos of ‘plain and ordinary’ Cuban scenes as we passed by
We were sad to leave Cuba after a most memorable trip, our minds full of all the interesting people, places and experiences
“I couldn’t tear myself away from the hotel window which overlooked a vibrant scene in the streets below”
It was all our Son-in-law’s fault! No, really.
Andre got invited to a conference in Havana and decided to take Geraldine and the girls along and make a full-blown holiday of it, prompted I think by the fact that they had been to Granada in the West Indies before and Cuba was a Virgin Atlantic package and a 9 hour flight away from their then home in the UK. When Gerda and I heard about it and were invited to join them for the trip, it was quite an exciting thought but at the same time a cause for some apprehension – people from South Africa (ordinary ones outside the government, that is) just didn’t go to Cuba. But we are always up for some mild adventure and so the last week of March 2011 saw us flying to the UK for a short stay with Andre and Geraldine in Stafford in the English Midlands before heading to Gatwick for our flight to Havana.
I have been particularly eager to write about this trip, which was full of surprises and memories and very different from what we had in our minds – that’s the beauty of travel, opening up your mind to what’s out there and getting rid of all the preconceptions that tend to muddle your thoughts.
Apologies for a long post but there’s plenty to tell and show about this interesting city….
Our itinerary included 3 days in Havana, followed by 11 days at a beach resort in Varadero, located on a narrow finger-like peninsula which juts out of the north-western extremity of the island of Cuba. It would have been foolish to go to Cuba and not include some birding, and had found a local bird guide to set up a day trip from the beach resort to some reachable birding areas, but I had no real idea what he would cover and where we would go, knowing that Cuba is a large island – some 1000 kms long – and we would not be able to travel very far in one day. All our flights, accommodation and transfers were part of the Virgin Holidays package from the UK, which was very affordable – in fact we could not have beaten it travelling from SA to any other island resort such as Mauritius, even taking into account the additional cost of flying to the UK first.
This first post in this series covers just the Havana part of the trip, later posts will cover the rest of the trip.
First Impressions of Havana
The flight on Virgin Atlantic was OK as these long-haul flights go – being a daytime flight helped as we didn’t have to face trying to sleep in those hellish seats. Arriving in Havana, there were no hassles getting through passport control etc and finding our bus to take us to our hotel – all part of the Virgin Holidays package, which made our lives easier.
First impression on the way into Havana was that the roads were not very busy and the buildings were either plain and utilitarian or old, ornate and crumbling. The cars on the road included a sprinkling of the American classics from the 1950’s that Cuba is famed for along with other more modern cars.
Our hotel, Hotel Telegrafo, in the older part of the city, looked quite modern and attractive but the surrounding buildings were less so.
Once we got to our upper floor room I couldn’t tear myself away from the hotel window which overlooked a vibrant scene in the streets below, with colourful ‘classics’ passing by, interesting looking people hanging about in doorways and the crumbling roofscape turning deep orange as the sun set.
The Classic Cars
It’s proof of human ingenuity that so many of the 1950’s American cars have survived for so long – when you look closely you notice that most have had major transplant surgery with new chassis’, wheels and engines, while the owners have managed to retain the old bodies and chrome trims. Even the hooters have been modified to make a pleasant squeak rather than loud honking. Car ownership is complex in Cuba but the bottom line is ordinary Cubans are not allowed to buy new cars so these old classics are handed down in the family and most if not all serve as taxis for the people. Some are battered, others are well-kept – all are colourful reminders of a simpler era and I could not stop taking photos of these beauties. Here’s a selection of those wonderful Fords, Chevrolets, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and others –
Then there are the interesting number plates….. colours denote ownership status with yellow being ‘private’ (but licensed by the all-pervasive ‘Government’), blue is Government owned, orange, brown and black denote levels of government ownership.
With so few cars on the road, traffic is not an issue and only the centre city is relatively busy, but nothing like other major cities. It makes for a relaxed atmosphere in the city which, along with the complete lack of commercialism, creates a feeling of being transported back to the 1950’s or 60’s.
The hard years that Cuba has endured are evident in the state of the buildings in Havana, where the contrast is most stark between those that have been restored or maintained and those left to slowly deteriorate for 60 years or so. Many that we saw have fallen into such ruin that only the skeleton of the façade remains, the roof and inner structures having succumbed to total neglect.
On our walking tour of the city it was clear that restoration has been limited to the main squares, which have been beautifully restored, but walk a block away and the buildings are in a sorry state.
Despite this, the original Spanish-influenced architecture is still very evident – many buildings have internal courtyards to help cool the interiors. Look through once splendid front doors and you see grand staircases leading to the upper floors with elaborate wrought iron balustrades, some almost corroded to nothing.
Ornately carved stone cladding is common but unchecked weathering has worn away the beauty that it once projected.
We found Cubans generally friendly, apart from some waiters who were a bit surly, but then that’s the case wherever you go. Out on the streets it was obvious the people of Havana like to see what’s happening and sitting or standing in doorways seems to be a national sport – many will greet you as you walk past. Wherever we went the locals would ask where we came from and were amazed to hear that we were from South Africa, some even pointing to our skin and querying “but you are white?”
The overall impression is of not much activity amongst the general population and those that had something to do were fairly relaxed about doing it – this may just be the way things are done in this laid-back part of the world.
The Sights of Havana
On our first day in Havana we went for a walk down the main boulevard to the seafront and the promenade which overlooks the bay stretching into the distance one way and the Old Fort in the other direction.
Along the way we admired the classic cars and old buildings and just enjoyed being in such an exotic place. The longish walk and the warm conditions soon had us looking for a place to have lunch and we came across a pleasant restaurant which did the trick with beers and cold drinks to go with a plain but tasty pasta meal.
Later we ventured out again, this time taking some of the ‘back streets’ which took us to a square where we had coffee and viewed the restored church
Next morning it was time for our tour of Havana, which we had arranged just for the six of us. Our personal tour guide for the morning was one friendly and informative Cuban by name of Mora (who happened to be of African origin), previously a professor in English, who chose to become a tour guide because it was more financially rewarding with the tips she earned. She turned out to be an excellent guide taking us variously by kombi taxi, horse-drawn carriage and walking through the streets and squares of Havana – in 30 years of guiding we were the first South Africans she had taken and at the end of the tour she insisted on giving us a hug.
Our tour started with a trip by kombi to the old fort with stunning views across the bay to the city.
Then on to older style transport – horse and carriage for a clip-clop journey to the square called Plaza de San Fransisco.
From there we continued on foot along the streets to some of the other restored squares, stopping at a few interesting spots and for lunch at the restaurant that Hemingway favoured in his Cuban days.
The last part of the tour took in the upmarket area where most of the embassies are located, including the SA embassy, and the Revolutionary square where we could imagine Castro addressing the crowds.
That brought our tour to an end – all that was left to do was to visit the cigar factory where Andre was hoping to strike a bargain on some Cuban cigars – that’s a story on its own that I’ll fit in somewhere along the way…
The Birds of Havana
I really can’t say that I did Havana any justice from a birding point of view – it was just a case of a few incidental sightings as we toured the city. For the record I noted the following birds during our short stay in Havana – the underlined ones were ‘lifers’ for me. I had no telephoto lenses with me so decent photos were not possible.
Cattle Egret (just like the ones back home) – on the way from the airport
Rock Dove – in the city squares
House Sparrow – in the city
Magnificent Frigate bird – my first ‘lifer’ of the trip, seen flying over the city (a real surprise as I thought they were deep ocean birds)
Turkey Vulture – second ‘lifer’ and one of the birds we saw most frequently on our trip
Mourning Dove – perched on city roofs and in the parks
Eastern Meadowlark – in grassy fields near the Old Fort
Cuban Blackbird – ditto
Cuban Martin – nesting in a hole in a building façade
Those who have seen and read enough can stop here…
More Classics and old buildings
For those, like me, who can’t get enough of the American ‘classics’ and the beautiful old buildings, here are more photos of what we found in Havana – the cars :
– the buildings :
Unique Havana Moments
The Train Museum
Havana’s Train Museum, which is akin to a scrapyard, won’t be competing anytime soon with others I’ve seen (the National Train Museum in York, UK has to be the best) but certainly earns points for being unusual, and they don’t charge an entrance fee :
Oh, I might as well add the story of our trip to the Cigar Factory :
Andre was determined to take some real quality Cuban cigars back to the UK, but wasn’t keen (to say the least) to pay the very high prices charged in the more formal shops. And so he and I set off on a mission to find a bargain, starting with the Cigar factory not too far from the hotel – we ventured inside but could see straight away this wasn’t going to be the place for a bargain, as all the goods were priced with Euro and Dollar bearing tourists from Europe and Canada in mind.
Leaving the museum, we were approached by a local guy, harmless-looking, who sidled up and said ‘psst, wanna buy cheap cigar’ or something to that effect. Andre engaged him briefly and when he suggested we follow him to ‘his place’ Andre, to my slight horror, agreed to do so.
Well, he took us down the road, around a corner, down another road into a gritty part of town and then up a staircase to his small apartment where we were told to wait in a rather dingy sitting room. Minutes later our new-found friend brought in his ‘brother’ who looked more the part of a gangster, muscled, gold chains and all, and carrying a large bag which he proceeded to unpack, pulling out various boxes and types of cigars.
Not to be outdone, Andre brought all his negotiating skills to bear and I sat fascinated but very apprehensive as the scene unfolded in front of me, with the dealer getting more and more agitated as he saw his expected ‘killing’ fading away, while Andre calmly opened each box and inspected every cigar individually to make sure they were genuine. Eventually we walked out with the very best cigars for about a tenth of the price he started with and the dealer close to tears.
I must admit I descended the stairs from the apartment expecting a dagger in the back at any moment, but didn’t turn around and just walked away as fast as possible. Definitely one of the more memorable moments of my travels!
Having spent a few nights at Camdeboo and Mountain Zebra National Parks on this current trip, following our earlier visit to De Hoop Nature Reserve, we were looking forward to a further 3 nights at Addo National Park to complete the quartet of parks. So far we had found each one most enjoyable in its own way, with Mountain Zebra National Park top of our list for having provided the most “African” experience of the three.
The road to Addo – Thursday 1 May 2014
Leaving Mountain Zebra National Park behind us after checking out around 11 am, we headed for nearby Cradock to stock up at the local Spar, followed by a coffee at True Living cafe accompanied by the best carrot cake we’ve had in a long time (they bake on the premises so it’s as fresh as it can get)
From there we headed down the N 10 with a diversion to Somerset East to check out the local museum, which we discovered was closed on the public holiday, but it was interesting just to drive through this small historical Eastern Cape town that we would not otherwise have seen. By now it was lunchtime, so we found a roadside spot with large blue gums to provide some shade and ate our “padkos” rolls.
The next stop was a short one to view the Slagtersnek monument, just off the road beyond the small town called Cookhouse. The monument commemorates the spot where a number of Dutch rebels surrendered after being confronted by British forces on 18 November 1815, however we were disappointed to find the surrounds unkempt and apparently not cared for in a long time.
The road continued in winding fashion with lengthy road works making our progress slow, resulting in us only reaching Addo around 5 pm, but the scenery along the way was rewarding, reminding us of the lowveld in places with lush growth and fruit farms
Back in Addo
Our first visit to Addo was just over a year previously when Gerda and I had enjoyed a few days in the park after visiting PE, so we were familiar with the layout. Some of the photos and descriptions I have used in this post are from that visit.
We had booked a few months before but by then it was already close to full so we had to accept one night in a chalet followed by 2 nights in the Forest Cabins – not ideal but it meant we could try out the different accommodation units.
Settling into our chalet, some familiar calls resounded in the fading light – Sombre Greenbul with its piercing whistle, the loud “chip – ing” of Bar- throated Apalis and a pair of Bokmakieries performing a duet. A little later as it darkened a Fiery – necked Nightjar started its “Lord please deliver us” call – so evocative wherever you hear it but especially so in the bush.
Exploring Addo and beyond
While having our customary early morning coffee on the patio, a pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers made a noisy appearance in a nearby tree, followed by Grey-headed Sparrow and a Fiscal Flycatcher, the latter looking debonair in its crisp black and white plumage – about to ask for a ‘Martini – shaken not stirred’. Soon after, a Lesser-striped Swallow settled on the roof, making it easy to ID as opposed to when they are in the air, when it is more of a challenge to separate them from the Greater-striped Swallows.
Having a 3 hour gap before we could move into our Forest cabin, we decided to go in search of the grave of Percy Fitzpatrick, author of the classic story of Jock of the Bushveld, which we had heard was not far from Addo Elephant Park, off the road to Kirkwood. Passing through the village of Addo we spotted a building with the name ‘Percy Fitzpatrick Library’ and immediately stopped to find out more – good thing because the very helpful librarian was more than willing to chat about the library, the area and showed us a portfolio of historical photos in a large album kept by the library. She also pointed us in the right direction to the grave site and ‘Lookout’.
It didn’t take long to find both at the end of a dirt road with heavy encroaching bush both sides (bit nerve-wracking for those who don’t like getting the car scratched) and it was clear that not much is done to look after the site, which was completely overgrown and in a sorry state – another neglected opportunity to create something which I’m sure many tourists would enjoy visiting.
The ‘Lookout’, built to honour their son, turned out to be a stone structure with a short stair to take you to a lookout deck, with wonderful views across the countryside and the Sundays River below, but this too was in need of some TLC.
By the time we got back to the rest camp, it was past 1pm so we could move into our Forest Cabins, which turned out to be comfortable and cosy with a small bathroom, a private deck and use of a communal kitchen.
There was time for a swim at the pool, cold but invigorating, before setting off on a late afternoon drive. The thick bush on the route we followed wasn’t conducive to spotting any of the pachyderms that Addo is named and famed for, but at a viewpoint high up on a hill we looked down on a classic scene of more than a hundred Elephant in the distance.
Along the way the bush was good for several common species such as Cape Weaver, Common Fiscal in numbers, Bokmakierie and Karoo Scrub-Robin. A Denham’s Bustard in the more open area was a nice surprise.
I spent the next day mostly at Cape Recife in Port Elizabeth, looking for a Bridled Tern that had been seen there during the week, unfortunately without success.
Back at Addo there was time to relax before doing a last drive along the route where most of the dams and waterholes are and we came across numbers of game as well as a few new ‘trip birds’ such as Southern Tchagra, as always skulking in the bushes, and a far more brazen pair of Red-necked Spurfowl, common to Addo.
At the dams, SA Shelducks showed once again as did Little Grebe and some Thick-Knees (Dikkop is still a much better name). Hapoor dam, named after a famous elephant with a chunk of its ear missing, was a welcome sight with its wide open spaces surrounding the dam, ideal for game including Kudu and favoured by some Crowned Lapwings.
We hadn’t allowed ourselves much time so had to make haste (barely sticking to the 40km/h speed limit) back to the game area gate before it closed at 6 pm. The lone guard at the gate gave us a stern look but we had seen the same look each time we entered the game area so weren’t too fazed.
Jack’s Picnic Spot
We had visited this spot on our previous visit and found it to have a special charm with tables set into alcoves created in the bush, visited by cute little Four-striped mice and Red-necked Spurfowl, both of which latched onto any errant crumbs from our cheese and crackers picnic – not our usual style but we were in a rental car after flying to PE, so had to make do with a plastic shopping bag to carry our humble provisions. This picnic spot gets its name from an ailing Rhino which spent its last years at this spot in a protected environment – little did he know how vulnerable the next generations of Rhino would become with rampant poaching in our country to feed the Far East obsession with Rhino horn.
Most of the chalets and cabins have stoeps (patios) with views over the bush and are a great place to relax in the early morning and evenings – there is a constant stream of passing bird life to enjoy, most of which are tame and easy to photograph – Weavers (Cape and Southern Masked),Bulbuls (Cape and Dark-capped),Olive Thrushes and Bar-throated Apalises are most common with Malachite Sunbirds not far behind
The Small Stuff
Addo is famous for its elephants but we were fascinated by some of the smaller creatures and insects which make this park special and provide great entertainment. Several times we came across the Flightless Dung-beetle – one particular beetle was crossing the dirt road with his meticulously formed dung ball with a ‘Supervisor’ in close attendance all the way across, seeming to guide him and even assisting to get him back on his legs when he toppled onto his back at one point.
Such a pity that other visitors ignore the many signs asking them to watch out for Dung beetles which are so vulnerable when crossing the road, resulting in a lot of crushed beetles.
At another spot we watched a group of Meerkats as they scurried after food while their lone sentry stood watch like a Royal guardsman – right under the nose of a Pale Chanting Goshawk not 3 m above them, which they chose to ignore completely
The Bulbul puzzle
I mentioned seeing both Cape and Dark-capped Bulbuls, once side by side in the same tree – apart from the white ring around the eye of the Cape Bulbul, they are virtually identical but don’t seem to interbreed – how do they know?
Heading back home
We had enjoyed our month of much travelling and many highlights, but as always we were now looking forward to getting back home and settling into our normal routine. The trip back was once again spread over two days of about 600 km each, with an overnight stop at Oudekraal guest farm just south of Bloemfontein. It turned out to be a pleasant place with excellent food but somewhat overpriced compared to other guest houses we have tried over the years.
One thing I can never understand about guest farms is why the front house, gardens and rooms are well looked after, yet take a walk (as I always do) around the farmyard and surroundings and it’s often a mess – old scrap everywhere and generally untidy. This is the case with a number of places we have visited and again with Oudekraal. The overgrown tennis court was sad to see – even if no one uses it, just keep it looking decent.
As we left Oudekraal we spotted a Spike-heeled Lark alongside the road and stopped to view it, noticing with interest that it had a juicy insect in its beak. As we stopped it walked off quickly and we followed it for about 100m until it suddenly stopped and ducked towards a hidden nest where two very young chicks were waiting to be fed – what a lucky find! The nest was so well camouflaged that when I got out to take a photo (from a distance using the telephoto lens) I had to search for it again, despite being a few metres away.
And so we came to the end of a memorable month of traveling – can’t wait for the next trip!
Parts 1 and 2 covered our visits to De Hoop Nature Reserve and Camdeboo National Park. The latter was enjoyable from many points of view, not least having the small tented camp virtually to ourselves, but our overall impression was that it did not have the “feel” of a National Park, probably due its relatively small size and being in close proximity to the town of Graaff-Reinet. Our next destination – Mountain Zebra National Park, on the other hand, proved to be everything we look for in a major National Park and has the potential to become a major tourist attraction, especially when the current plans to extend it, and eventually have a protected area running from Camdeboo all the way to Mountain Zebra, come to fruition.
Getting there – Monday 28 April 2014
The park lies west of Cradock in the Eastern Cape and we reached the main gate off the R 61 road around 4.30pm, giving enough time for an unhurried drive of the remaining 12 kms to the main rest camp before the camp gates closed at 6 pm. On the way we had sightings of African Spoonbill, alone in a large pond, Familiar Chats and Ant-eating Chats at regular intervals and old “Fumanchu” aka Scaly-feathered Finch in small groups looking almost too small and cute to survive in an environment such as this. White-browed Sparrow-Weavers were chattering in small flocks not far from their scruffy looking nests, but a real surprise awaited as we found a Secretarybird perched in the top of a tree, perhaps on a nest.
We had only ever seen Secretarybirds on the ground, usually striding through long grass in search of a tasty lizard or snake (their scientific name sagittarius serpentarius hints at this dietary preference), so had never imagined them taking to a tree. My Roberts birding app mentions that they do indeed nest on top of thorny trees and pairs may roost on a prospective tree for several months before using it to build a nest – so I suppose in this instance it was simply getting ready to roost for the night. And that answers a question that has no doubt troubled you for a long time….
The landscape we travelled through was quite different to any other National Park we knew and we looked forward to seeing more of it the next day
The chalets were a welcome sight with comfortable beds and all the necessary facilities for self-catering. A fireplace meant we could make a wood fire for the cold evenings and enjoy a glass of red wine in the small lounge.
Tuesday 29 April – exploring the Park
Up early-ish for a game drive on the Rooiplaat Loop, starting with a steep climb up to a plateau where the views stretched forever.
The grassy slopes were home to several Sickle-winged Chats, flying between low bushes, wings flicking as they landed.
Blue Cranes seemed very much at home in the long wheat-coloured grass while overhead White-necked Ravens cruised the skies emitting their raucous cries.
Back at the rest camp, I added Streaky-headed Seedeater and Neddicky, both frequent visitors to the bush adjoining the camp roads, then a Chinspot Batis paid our chalet a visit and Pied Barbet called from a distant tree. Southern Double-collared Sunbirds kept busy as usual, twittering (the real kind, none were bent over cellphones) loudly and flashing their brightly coloured plumage in the midday sun.
The camp has a large swimming pool which the grandkids tried but the water was just too cold for their liking nevertheless the walk there was pleasant and a Rock Agama stood guard at the gate.
Later we took a short drive to the nearby picnic spots, set amongst big shady trees, the one with a formal swimming pool and the other with a rock pool fed from a mountain stream – both looked extremely inviting and perfect for a late morning brunch visit. Sadly time caught up with us and we didn’t get around to trying this out.
a Hoopoe in the late afternoon sunlight made a nice picture
On the way there a large flock of Pied Starlings made themselves known and at a large dam a lone Brown-hooded Kingfisher sat in the shade on a convenient branch, waiting for a meal opportunity to pass by – which despite its name would be a grasshopper or suchlike rather than something fishy.
On the way back a small herd of Buffalo caused a mild traffic-jam, one which is a lot easier to bear than the dreaded City kind.
Back at our chalet a braai on the stoep made a nice end to the day, with the call of a Spotted Eagle-Owl in the distance adding to the atmosphere.
Wednesday 30th April – last day
The last day of our short stay, so an early morning birding and game drive was in order, this time taking the route along the Kranskop Loop, but part of the way along the road was under reconstruction and I had to turn around. Views across the park were even more magnificent than the previous day and I stopped several times to take them in. Sometimes I’m tempted just to bear such views to memory and not spoil the moment taking photos, but hey, I’ve got a blog to think about, so I “forced myself” to take a few record shots.
Along the stretch that I was able to access, and despite a few construction lorries passing in both directions, birding was good and game plentiful, with some lovely sights of Kudu, Mountain Zebra, Springbok and Red Hartebeest.
Special birds in the grasslands, such as Eastern Long-billed Lark and Plain-backed Pipit made the birding exciting, with a sighting of a Verraux’s Eagle on a mountain-top radio mast a bonus. White-backed Mousebirds made up a “full house” of all the mousebirds (adding to the Speckled and Red-faced Mousebirds already ticked earlier in our visit).
After lunch we covered the open plains along the Ubejane Loop not far from the main gate, stopping at the pans and dams along the route. There we found Spoonbill again, patrolling the shallows with its typical stooped posture, constantly sweeping the water with its unique spatula shaped bill to pick up small organisms. Nearby SA Shelducks showed off their handsome plumage, while Black-winged Stilts busied themselves prodding the mud along the shallow edges.
Nearby a family of Ground Squirrels entertained us as they pranced around close to our vehicle, waving their long bushy tails every now and then – do they know how cute they are I wonder? Crowned Lapwings found the short grass to their liking as well.
This part of the park also held a number of Gemsbok which reminded us just how handsome these antelope are with their long straight horns. A couple of them were in a frisky mood, chasing each other around.
On the way back a pair of Pale-chanting Goshawks drew our attention as they defended their territory vigorously against a lone Pied Crow invader and soon saw him off.
What a nice Park!
The Mountain Zebra National Park has a lot going for it, not least the magnificent scenery and sweeping views across the valleys and plains that give it a real “Out of Africa” feel. It probably won’t satisfy the “Big five at all costs” visitors but will provide enough interesting sightings to keep the nature enthusiast happy during a 3 or 4 day stay – longer if you just want to relax in the pleasant surroundings.
Having “done” De Hoop and the wedding that took us there, we spent time at our home in Mossel Bay until Saturday 26th April 2014, when we took to the road again, this time to Camdeboo National Park which lies close to and almost surrounds the town of Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape province.
Graaff-Reinet is full of historical buildings, being the fourth oldest town in South Africa – in years past we made a point of booking a night or two in the town when on our way to the Southern Cape, but more recently we have limited our stops to a lunch or snack and coffee at the popular Polka cafe, which also has an array of bric-a-brac which women love to browse – and it’s a good place for the trainee women (aka the granddaughters) to spend some of their pocket-money.
Getting there – Saturday 26 April 2014
Leaving around midday in light rain, we took a slightly longer route from Mossel Bay, via Robinson Pass, Oudtshoorn and the small town of De Rust, where we stopped for a good coffee at the coffee shop followed by our padkos (a lovely South African word and habit, literally “road food”) of home-made chicken buns – padkos is always best when eaten by the side of the road in the shade of a big tree. Just after De Rust a right turn took us onto the R 341 which links the N 12 and N 9 National roads, then on to Graaff-Reinet with no further stops, as it was getting near to gate-closing time. After a fuel and fast-food stop (sometimes we cheat) we arrived at Camdeboo National Park with 15 minutes to spare and enjoyed our Steers burgers in the communal area before getting ourselves organised in our homely tents – compact living but cosy and equipped with a small fridge, kettle etc. Canvas is a poor insulating material so the night was cold outside and inside the tent, but the beds were comfy and a duvet and fleecy blanket kept us nice and warm both nights – with the exception of the obligatory middle of the night toilet excursion.
Sunday 27 April
Canvas is also not effective at sound insulation so you hear everything going on close by, which is a bit worrying when the creepy-crawlies get moving at night but only a pleasure when the morning chorus wakes you up – I lay in bed in the dawn hour “ticking” a few in my mind, including Cape Robin-Chat with its happy tune, Brown-hooded Kingfisher sounding excited, Pied Barbet calling nasally, Bar-throated Apalis “chipping” loudly as it moved through the bush and Hadeda Ibis doing its “bird with a fear of heights” imitation.
After this early chorus we drifted back to sleep, thinking it was still dark outside – that’s another thing about canvas, it doesn’t let light in and the window flaps were closed, so we ended up rising at the “gentleman’s hour” of 8.30am. Time to put some serious effort into birding and atlasing the camp and so I took an extended walk around the small camp and the adjoining caravan camp. The Lakeview Camp comprises just 4 tented units with a communal kitchen and ablutions – a setup we found much to our liking as it felt as if we had the whole place to ourselves (which we did save for one tent occupied by others). Importantly, the facilities are kept clean and neat at all times.
The walk produced a number of species with Cape Robin-Chat, Karoo Scrub-Robin and Familiar Chat most prominent, drawn by the quite dense bush surrounding the camp.
The call of a Pririt Batis resounded through the camp and I was able to track it down for a snatched photo.
Yellow-fronted Canary (at the edge of its range by the looks of it), Chestnut-vented Titbabbler and Southern Double-collared Sunbird (phew those are long names) were all nice additions to the growing list. Not to be outdone by the birds, Striped Mice and Karoo Bushrats inhabit the undergrowth, the latter occupying large rambling nests built of hundreds of dry sticks – as you walk around they pop up to have a look and then scurry off or dart back into their nests.
After tea it was time to explore the Park by car and we soon came across Anteating Chat, Fiscal Flycatcher and Red-billed Firefinch on the way to the bird hide which is not far from the camp.
The neat hide sits at a distance from the water’s edge, which probably moves closer when the Nqweba dam is fuller. It still provided the chance to ID the few visible water birds such as Yellow-billed Duck, Cape Shoveler, Darter and SA Shelduck while the surrounding grass / bush had Black-throated Canary, Amethyst Sunbird and Bronze Mannikin to keep things interesting.
Back at the camp, Greater Flamingo were just visible through a gap in the tall reeds that block most of the view of the dam (making the name of the camp “Lakeview” a tad misleading).
I was not entirely satisfied with my bird list up to then and took a late afternoon drive to the far side of the dam, ticking Ostrich and Hamerkop along the way as I crossed a stream, with Kudu browsing nearby.
At the viewpoint at the last stop on the road I had a good view across the water, which held Black Stork and Black-winged Stilt in the shallows and Kittlitz’s Plover and the ubiquitous Three-banded Plover at the muddy edge.
Heading back to the camp in the dusk, I came across a pair of Black-backed Jackals, the one nuzzling the other as I took some photos of this beautiful species. A few minutes later the sky turned a spectacular orange-red colour as the sun set.
With just 2 nights booked, we made the most of the facilities on our second evening, braai-ing in the boma and eating out under the stars, wrapped up against the cold early winter air. That night it was colder in the tent and we slept with our woollen hats pulled down over our ears.
Monday 28 April
Our short stay was over and we set about packing the vehicles while still enjoying the surroundings, as a Fish Eagle called in the distance, a pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers made their way through the camp followed by a flock of Common Waxbills. A trilling call jogged my memory but it took me a while to realise it was a Namaqua Warbler, who remained well hidden in the denser bush.
On the way out of Camdeboo, we visited the Andries Pretorius monument near the entrance –
On the road at last, we stopped briefly to check out a Rock Kestrel before heading into town for a coffee stop at Polka cafe, then on to the other, very different, part of Camdeboo which harbours the Valley of Desolation, with its steep access roads through beautiful landscape, culminating in viewing spots that provide quite breathtaking views. The first of these looks down over the town of Graaff-Reinet way below and the second provides sweeping views across the flat plains of the surrounding Karoo, framed by the craggy peaks of the nearby mountains.
This was also a good spot to enjoy our padkos burgers before heading back down the mountain road and on to our next destination near Cradock – Mountain Zebra National Park – which turned out to be a lot more impressive than we had expected. More of that in Part 3 of this series.
The thing about being “semi-retired” is that it gives you lots of time to travel and Gerda and I tend to make the most of it while we are able. With our second home being in Mossel Bay, we do like to spend as much time there as we can afford, without abandoning our Pretoria ties completely.
And so it happened that we decided to spend the Easter period this year in Mossel Bay – then, fortuitously, we received an invite to a wedding at De Hoop Nature Reserve over the weekend before Easter, and on top of that our daughter and son-in-law suggested we do a week’s touring through the Eastern Cape during the school break at the end of April, with 2 or 3 night stays at three National Parks – Camdeboo near Graaf-Reinet, Mountain Zebra a bit further east near Cradock and Addo Elephant Park not far from Port Elizabeth. Now that’s an offer that was difficult to refuse. We had been to Addo before – just last year for the first time – but the other three parks would all be first-time visits, which is something we are looking forward to.
Starting off – overnight in Springfontein
As often happens, we were loaded to the hilt when we left Pretoria (actually our VW Touareg was) – there are always surplus items from our main home which need transporting to Mossel Bay and this time was no different, plus our normal baggage. The trip to Mossel Bay is a two-day affair for us, so an overnight stop around halfway is always part of the planning. We have tried various B&B’s in the stretch between Bloemfontein and Colesberg / Hanover and they have all been quite acceptable – all you want is a comfortable bed, a clean shower that works properly and a decent dinner and breakfast and most have perfected those simple requirements. This time around we decided to try Prior Grange, a guest farm near Springfontein, as I had read that there was a Blockhouse from the Anglo-Boer war on the property and I was interested to see it.
Having left Pretoria a bit later than we had hoped, knowing we had over 600 km to travel, we nevertheless reached Prior Grange in good time and, after settling in, I drove the further 4 km to the hill on which the blockhouse was perched. According to Blackie de Swardt from Prior Grange, there were some 8000 of these block houses built by the Brits across South Africa, approximately 1000 yards apart so that they were visible to the next one, of which only 50 or so originals remain – he went to the trouble of rebuilding this one on the old foundations and well done to him, as it gives you a feel for what it would have been like to man these structures, watching over the railway line and the surrounding veld well into the distance.
At the same time I worked on a bird list for the pentad, which proved to be quite productive – Wattled and Pied Starlings were plentiful and a Desert Cisticola posed on the fence, while Cliff Swallows wheeled overhead near a culvert before settling in for the night. Common Waxbills twittered as they passed by in a flock and Barn Swallows swooped past, perhaps readying themselves for the long journey back north.
Next morning I was up at dawn to complete the 2 hours atlasing and walked to the dam just behind the main house. There I was met by a beautiful scene of dead still water in the soft morning light, reflecting the surrounding trees and disturbed only by the V-shaped ripples of the water birds enjoying the first light of day – I listed Red-billed Teal, Little Grebe, Cape Shoveler and a few handsome SA Shelducks.
White-throated Swallows skimmed the water and a group of Spotted Thick-Knees flushed like magic from the grassy verge when I got close. Then it was time for breakfast and the second leg of the long drive to Mossel Bay.
De Hoop Nature Reserve
We had just two days at our home in Mossel Bay before it was time to travel again – to De Hoop for the “Wedding Weekend” of Louis and Amelda (Rossouw). De Hoop lies south-west of Swellendam and less than 200 km from Mossel Bay so we didn’t rush to get away and stopped at Riversdale for lunch on the way at a farm stall, which has the only “dog pub” I’ve come across.
The last 50 km or so were on gravel and just before getting to the entrance gate to De Hoop we stopped for a photo of a pair of Blue Cranes which were mingling with some cattle at a watering hole – so intent was I on getting a good photo with my new lens that I didn’t notice I had stepped into …… (no, fortunately not what you were thinking) ….sticky yellow mud at the side of the road which immediately rendered my sandals unwearable. After checking in barefoot, Gerda kindly rescued my sandals by washing them and leaving them in the sun to dry – good as new again!
A Black-headed Heron flying off proved to be a good time to test my new lens’ ability to handle a Bird-in-flight – I was quite pleased with my new purchase.
From the entrance gate it was a short drive to the “Opstal” and by 5pm we were settled into our spacious and comfortable cottage – Black Oystercatcher cottage – which we would enjoy for the next three days. Birding started as we approached the complex of white-painted buildings and once we were settled in I took a walk to the Vlei, which I discovered is a large body of water trapped for centuries by the dunes bordering the nearby coastline and which has dried up completely in dry years, but right now seemed massive and full to the brim. On the walk to the vlei I came across some relaxed birds all of the “Cape” variety – Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Spurfowl and Cape Weaver – basking in the late afternoon sun.
At the vlei I found tens of Egyptian Geese, Coots and Great Crested Grebes back-lit by the fast setting sun, and a Grey Heron or two keeping watch at the edge of the vlei. Walking along the cliffs that border long stretches of the vlei, I noted a number of Rock Martins preparing to roost for the night, while a flock of Glossy Ibises flew overhead on their way to their preferred roosting site. All of the while I was aware of the biting horse flies which made it difficult to stand still for any length of time. The sun set in a blaze of red-orange reflected across the water.
Later on we enjoyed a fine dinner in the Fig Tree restaurant at the Opstal, which augured well for the rest of our short stay.
Exploring De Hoop
I had booked an extra day to allow time for some relaxed birding and atlasing, so only ventured out on Friday after a good lie-in to recover from an energy-sapping few days, starting with a slow drive past the short-grassed fields where several Capped Wheatears were showing and a flock of Pied Starlings were moving about in chattering fashion. Also present were Bontebok which are plentiful in the reserve and some colourful butterflies.
Heading towards the coastal dunes I was really pleased to come across a group of Cape (there it is again) Penduline-Tits, which I have only seen a handful of times in all my years of birding – as a bonus I was able to get a distant photo or two before they moved off again.
Further on, the vlei had encroached onto the road and, as the Opstal manager had told me last evening, there were a lot of birds taking advantage of the shallow water with plenty of food for all types. Spoonbills were prominent along with Darter, White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Teal, Little Grebe and a family of Cape Shovelers. Also in the scene were Pied Kingfishers hovering and diving now and then, Purple Heron flying in and landing gracefully near some Little Stints and Wood Sandpipers. On the opposite shore a few Great White Pelicans pottered about.
Carrying on along the road to the “Melkkamer”, a quiet inlet held Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe and an African Darter stretching its wings, while the roadside bush was quite productive with the customary fynbos species such as Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Grassbird, as well as Bar-throated Apalis noisilycompeting with Karoo Prinia for attention – if the latter two were schoolkids they would be the ones always being scolded for talking too much.
I turned around at the gate to the protected area and headed the opposite way to Koppie Alleen where I took a brief walk on the high dunes – the pentad ended just short of the parking area at Koppie Alleen, but not before I had seen a beautiful Black Harrier floating low above the dunes in their typical butterfly like way.
On the way I had an interesting sighting when I spotted a Cape Bunting in the road, only to discover it was “chasing” a large Puff Adder across the road and into the thick bush. Not for nothing then that signs have been erected warning visitors to brake in time for snakes in the road.
Saturday dawned bright and sunny – and warm for this time of year. The ceremony was only at 4 pm so there was time for further birding and I decided to return to Koppie Alleen to explore the beach which had looked enticing from high up on the dunes. The 15 km from the cottage took about 45 minutes with a brief stop at the vlei and I began to atlas the pentad at Koppie Alleen by 8.30 am, with Cape Bulbul featuring prominently in the fynbos on the long walk from the parking area down to the beach.
Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds flitted about busily and vociferously while a few Barn Swallows proved that they hadn’t begun their long trek northwards just yet. Maybe they’d heard about the long cold European winter and were holding out as long as possible.
The beach, once I got there, was deserted except for a few Kelp Gulls, White-breasted Cormorants, African Black Oystercatchers and a few Cape Wagtails – later on the beach would see a handful of visitors but right now it was just me and the wide expanse of sand and rocks. It seemed to be low tide,as the rocks in the inter-tidal zone were exposed, some with crystal clear pools of water trapped between them. It was nice to see no sign of the plastic litter that is a feature of much of the coastline nowadays, just thousands of pristine seashells left behind by the tides.
A little unexpectedly, a Yellow Canary and Familiar Chat joined me on the beach, then a small flock of waders flew past which I was able to ID as Sanderlings based on their small size, tail pattern and call.
A boardwalk over the dunes and higher rocks was very welcome in getting past the rocky barriers between the beaches.
Trekking back up the long and sandy road (time to hum the similar-titled Beatles song), a Jackal Buzzard and a Black Harrier helped to close out the pentad before I made my way back to the cottage, then on to lunch. The wedding ceremony was held out in the open overlooking the vlei – I had to wonder where else you can carry on birding during a wedding, as I watched a Bokmakierie close by and the waterfowl on the vlei in the distance.
The reception was equally “cool” being held under the massive Fig tree near the restaurant and as darkness fell the lights strung around the branches turned it into a veritable fairyland – with fairy princess and all. Needless to say the evening was enjoyed by all and the younger set danced till the early hours. The perfect weather was made for partying outdoors.
After breakfast on Sunday morning and goodbyes, we set out for our next stop – Stellenbosch with a quick look-in at De Mond Nature Reserve. More on that at another time.
This Saturday 26 April will see us starting the next leg of our Four Parks tour – starting with Camdeboo National Park at Graaf Reinet
Potchefstroom and the surrounding area does not immediately spring to mind when considering where to go birding, however it is one of those parts of South Africa that is quite rewarding if you “dig a little deeper” and the good thing about atlasing is it can be done anywhere.
Our son Stephan and his family – wife Liesl, kids Jocelyn and Christopher – have been resident in Potch for a few years now and we tend to visit them on a fairly regular basis, especially when one of the grandkids is having a birthday, as it’s an easy 2 hour’s drive from our home in Pretoria. When we visit it is usually for at least a weekend, so I always try and fit in some early morning atlasing and have atlased a number of pentads (5 x 5 minutes if measured by coordinates, about 8 x 8 km’s in actual size) over the past few years, most of which do not attract atlasers, making the effort seem that much more worthwhile.
So what’s Potch got?
It has a University (which my wife Gerda attended back in the late 1960’s so clearly a top university) and a nice “small town” feel – you don’t have to go very far for anything and traffic is not really an issue. It also has a Bird Sanctuary – the OPM Prozesky Bird Sanctuary – which I was aware of but didn’t get around to visiting until March 2013, probably because my experience of bird sanctuaries in general has been mixed.
OPM Prozesky Bird Sanctuary
I was glad that I ignored my better judgement and the lukewarm response of a few Potchers when I enquired about the bird sanctuary, and paid it a late afternoon visit. The sanctuary borders the suburbs on the southern side of Potch and adjoins the sewerage treatment works so the smell may be a problem for some but I found it entirely bearable during my 2 hour visit. I parked at the entrance where there is a small office, but as there was no one in sight I proceeded to walk towards the ponds. Encouragingly, there was a signboard erected by Birdlife Westvaal which provided some info on the sanctuary.
The sanctuary comprises a number of large ponds, some with neat bird hides, with wide pathways around and between the ponds which make for a pleasant walk, while keeping an eye out for birds in the sometimes dense undergrowth along the pathways. Where there are gaps in the vegetation you can look over the ponds which were well populated with Ducks (Yellow-billed Duck, South African Shelduck) and Teals (Cape Teal, Red-billed Teal). As I got too close for their comfort the Ducks and Teals took to the air and wheeled around, landing on a more distant part of the same pond or moving to an adjoining one.
As they flew past I was able to get photos of the Shelducks, Male and female showing how they differ in plumage, particularly from the neck up.
Sacred Ibises were also plentiful and doing their best to look elegant as they flew up and past me, though not quite managing it. The Afrikaans name Skoorsteenveër translates literally to “chimney sweep” – clearly from images of chimney sweeps in Europe of old, getting ready to wash after a day’s work, blackened by soot on the face, neck and arms, otherwise lily-white over their body.
There were not many waders present as suitable wading territory is limited, but the ubiquitous Three-banded Plover was present, not far from an African Purple Swamphen making his way carefully through the reed fringes. On a smaller pond, a hide allowed me to observe a Little Egret in action without disturbing it.
Moving away from the ponds, the bush and long grass held numbers of birds, among them Red-eyed Bulbul, Red-billed Firefinch and Black-throated Canary.
On the way back to my car I spotted Wattled Starlings high up in the trees, while a mixed flock of swallows entertained me with their swooping fly pasts – I noted Barn, Greater-striped and SA Cliff Swallows all enjoying each other’s company.
Back in the car I reflected on how pleased I was that I had taken the time to explore this worthwhile sanctuary – the fact that I was the only person there (as far as I could tell) during the 2 hours, attests to the fact that not many people know about it or frequent it. On the plus side I’m sure the birds enjoy the peaceful habitat for feeding and breeding opportunities and that’s surely what a sanctuary is all about.
Potch has some fine birding in the surrounding areas, but more about that later.