Czech it out – Prague : the Old Town

We had heard good things about Prague and wanted to go and see for ourselves, so when planning a Danube river cruise in April 2016 (read about it in my earlier post Danube River Cruise – A Taster), we decided to precede it with a visit to this city and to make it worthwhile we thought a 4 night stay would give us enough time to explore at a relaxed pace and have time for a day tour out of Prague.

On the advice of a friend who had visited Prague a couple of times, we chose the Old Town Square Hotel right in the centre of the historic part of town, which is also the focus of most visitors to the city. This turned out to be an excellent choice as many of Prague’s attractions were within walking distance, while others could be reached after a short ride on the city’s user-friendly tram system. A bonus was being upgraded to a suite with a view of the square, the room being so spacious we could have swung a cat if we had brought one with us, with room to spare.

Prague - Old Town Square - north side
Prague – Old Town Square – north side as seen from our hotel room

Our first full day in Prague was the chance to explore the Old Town, so after a lazy in-room breakfast we set off on an extended walk.  By this time the Old Town Square was filled with visitors and buskers, as it was for the rest of our stay, and proved to be a constant source of entertainment.

Prague - bubble makers on Square
Prague – bubble makers on Square

A swing band was playing from early on in great style, elsewhere jugglers, fire-eaters and “living statues” were doing their thing, the latter rather comically taking a regular smoke break, while Segway riders and tour groups with pennant-waving leaders weaved their way through the throngs.

Prague - Dancing in the Square
Dancing in the Square to the swing band
Prague - Living statues
Prague – “Living statue” checking the takings during a break from posing (note the cigarette in hand)
Prague - Old Town Square
Prague – Old Town Square crowds
Prague - Old Town Square
Carriages are the only vehicles allowed in the square

The Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti) dates back to the tenth century, when it served as the market place for the thriving town, is traffic free except for horse drawn carriages and is ringed with historic buildings. It is one of the finest public spaces of any city we’ve seen and has a constant buzz of activity starting early morning and extending deep into the night.

Prague Old Town-2
Rococo stucco work on Kinsky Palace now used by National Gallery for art exhibitions
Prague Old Town-3
Kinsky Palace window detail
Prague Old Town-4
Old Town Square  – Art Nouveau building from 1898 now houses a ministry
prague - Old Town Square : Church of St Nicholas
Old Town Square : Church of St Nicholas dominates one corner
Prague - Old Town Square - facade dates from 1696
Old Town Square – facade dates from 1696

Most famous of the buildings is the Old Town Hall with its impressive astronomical clock which draws a crowd every hour, when the mechanical figures representing the twelve apostles become animated and “walk past” two small windows in a fascinating mini performance.

prague - Old Town Square with Town Hall
Old Town Square with Town Hall
Prague - Astronomical Clock
Prague – Astronomical Clock
Prague - Astronomical Clock
Prague – Astronomical Clock

We started our walking tour by making our way slowly along the Old Town route shown in our guide book, but ended up following our nose, drawn into side streets by interesting buildings and features.

Prague - street scenes
Prague – street scenes
Prague - street scenes
Flowers on the sidewalk
Prague - street scenes
An interesting facade
Prague - street scenes
Prague – street scenes

The older streets of Prague have rows of intensely handsome buildings, the like of which we have never before encountered in our many travels, aligned for uniformity of line and height but each one adorned with mouldings and decorative elements to make them unique.  We wondered if there is another city in the world with such beautiful classical architecture. No wonder Prague is known as the “Paris of the East”.

Prague - street scenes
Prague – street scenes
Prague - street scenes
Prague – a handsome building
Prague - street scenes
Unusual decoration on this building

Every now and then a noteworthy building caught our eye – religious buildings in particular such as cathedrals and churches. Particularly interesting was the Jewish Quarter with several synagogues which seemed to be drawing groups of tourists who were clearly of Jewish origin.

Prague - Maisel Synagogue
 Maisel Synagogue
Prague - old Synagogue
The old Synagogue

The old Jewish cemetery was crowded with tombstones, commemorating individuals buried in layers of up to 12 deep over the centuries past, apparently due to severe restrictions on the area that was allowed for burial in the Quarter.

Prague - old Jewish cemetery
The old Jewish cemetery

Shops along the way varied from tourist kitsch to exclusive and expensive – Gucci, Burberry, Prada and the like – no prices on display, probably based on the old adage that says “if you need to ask, you can’t afford it”.

Prague
Upmarket shopping street

Cars outside these shops were equally exclusive – Bentley (ooh, I want one), Lamborghini and the like.

Prague - Bentley coupe
Bentley coupe

Come lunchtime we were in need of something light to eat – Gerda had spotted an interesting restaurant, U Gomela, so we retraced our steps for a couple of blocks and popped inside. We decided to try their potato soup (Plolevka nabidka den) accompanied by a pilsner and finished off with the coffee and apfelstrudel special (Jablecny zavin) we had seen advertised on the board outside – a very tasty choice as it turned out.

Refreshed, we continued our meander, coming across all manner of interesting sights.

Prague - shop windows
Puppets in a shop window
Prague - Spring blossoms
Spring blossoms
Prague - making the local speciality
Making the local speciality pastry which gets filled with your choice of ice cream or whatever
Prague - Church of the Holy Spirit
Church of the Holy Spirit
Prague - street scenes
Old gent on a bike

There was even an opportunity for some birding – Chaffinch, European Jay and Blackbird all drew attention to themselves with their song and we were able to track them down in the trees lining some of the avenues – signs of approaching Spring.

By mid afternoon we felt we had done enough walking and found our way back to the hotel, having been out and about for the best part of the day, stopping only to check out the food stall offerings around the Square and settling for a giant pancake (palacinka)  which was so large we shared one.

Later, after a good rest, we decided to dine in the restaurant attached to our hotel – called the White Horse and located on an enclosed “outside area” with views of the square and all its activities and heated by large gas heaters to ward off the evening chill. The food was good without being special, but rather expensive, probably due to the prime location.

Prague - White Horse Restaurant
White Horse Restaurant on the Square

With day one in this glorious city behind us we looked forward to discovering more of it – day two turned into a mild adventure of sorts, but more of that in the follow up post.

Chobe River Birding – Pratincoles, Storks and other delights

If you ever find yourself in Kasane wondering how to spend the morning, you can’t go far wrong by doing a boat trip on the Chobe River – a small boat is fine if you are alone or up to 3 or 4 people and various tour companies rent out such boats with drivers.

Last November (2016), I found myself in that position and chose to approach one of the local tour companies, based on my previous good experience with Richard as guide and driver – they were able to accommodate me early on the Friday of my visit, having assured me that Richard was available to take myself and colleague Deon out for the morning.

This time around however, the trip did not start well – we waited for almost half an hour for someone to appear at reception and were then told Richard was “not there” and David would take us out. On enquiring about his birding skills I was told “I’m a beginner”, which did not fill me with enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, we set off in the aluminium boat, comfortable and with camera at the ready as we headed in the direction of Seboba Rapids, where I hoped to find Rock Pratincole in particular, being a potential lifer for me. According to information I had gleaned from books and the internet, Rock Pratincoles are Intra-African migrants which typically frequent the rocks at the rapids from September to January, providing the conditions suit them and the river is not in flood.

There are just a handful of possible sites to see this bird in Southern Africa, all of them along the Zambesi and Chobe Rivers, so this would be my first and possibly last chance to “tick” this desirable bird.

Heading downstream towards the rapids, the first part of our trip was about as good as it gets with river-based birding, with constant sightings of birds as we glided along the smooth surface in perfect cool conditions.

Wire-tailed Swallows (Draadstertswael) and Rock Martins (Kransswael) swooped by as David steered the boat across to the opposite bank, where some large raptors were partially hidden in the long grass. I was puzzled about what they could be as they were not immediately recognisable at all, so I took numerous photos in order to help me confirm an ID later. An adult Long-crested Eagle (Langkuifarend) was nearby, perched in a tall tree, only serving to lead my thoughts in the wrong direction as it turned out.

Chobe River trip
Heading out

Later, using the time on the hour and a half flight back to Jo’burg and at home, I eventually solved the puzzle – Juvenile African Fish-Eagle (Visarend) ! Sometimes a tricky ID can really have you going in the wrong direction.

African Fish-Eagle (Juvenile) Chobe River trip
African Fish-Eagle (Juvenile)

Soon after, we approached the Seboba rapids and almost immediately found what I had been hoping for –  Rock Pratincoles (Withalssprinkaanvoël) , relaxing on the rocks on islets in the middle of the river. A lifer at this stage of my birding career is really special, particularly in such a perfect location, so I may even have let out a subdued whoop! We spent some time with them and getting good photos proved to be quite simple, as they seemed totally undisturbed by our presence, even when the boat bumped up against the islet a couple of metres from where they perched.

Rock Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Rock Pratincole living up to its name
Rock Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Rock Pratincole

Having proved yet again that a “scarce” bird that you have wanted to see for many years is suddenly common when you are in the right place, we continued our trip, checking the nearby bushy shoreline and the other islets, adding Black Crake (Swartriethaan), Pied Kingfisher (Bontvisvanger) and a juvenile Malachite Kingfisher (Kuifkopvisvanger) to the morning’s list. Yellow-billed Kites (Geelbekwou) were doing there usual low-level cruising along the shoreline, turning frequently to show their distinctive deeply forked tails and close enough to make out their yellow bills.

Malachite Kingfisher (Juvenile), Chobe River trip
Malachite Kingfisher (Juvenile)

Further along a Yellow-billed Stork (Geelbekooievaar) “crèche” was filled with what I guessed were mostly the “Class of 2016”, with just a single adult keeping watch nearby. The juveniles only obtain adult plumage after some 3 years, so these could have ranged in age from 1 to 3 years. The population in South Africa on its own, according to reference books, is only around 300 (although I find that hard to believe) so this group possibly represented a significant proportion of the overall population, even in southern Africa.

Yellow-billed Stork creche, Chobe River trip
Yellow-billed Stork creche, Chobe River
Yellow-billed Stork creche, Chobe River trip
Yellow-billed Stork creche, Chobe River
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River trip
Yellow-billed Stork – adult in charge

Turning upstream we hugged the river banks along the stretch which is the home of some well-known lodges – Mowana, Chobe Marina and Chobe Safari, all with lush vegetation and large trees, many of which overhang the greasy brown waters of the river. Another African Fish-Eagle, this time an adult, flew majestically overhead.

African Fish-Eagle, Chobe River trip
African Fish-Eagle

It’s not that easy to see the birds when they are ensconced in the depths of the riverside bush, but we did spot Black-crowned Night-Heron (Gewone Nagreier) , several Malachite Kingfishers and a community of nests with African Golden Weavers (Goudwewer) present. The strident, piercing call of Red-faced Cisticola (Rooiwangtintinkie) added to the birding pleasure.

African Golden Weaver nests, Chobe River trip
African Golden Weaver nests
African Golden Weaver (Male), Chobe River trip
African Golden Weaver (Male), Chobe River

From there the river widened out as we passed our favourite sundowner spot, before stopping briefly at the small cabin on a jetty where our guide signed us into the Chobe Game Reserve, while we watched an African Openbill (Oopbekooievaar) at close quarters nearby

African Openbill, Chobe River trip
African Openbill
Chobe River trip
Chobe River
Chobe River trip
Chobe River

Typical Chobe River habitat followed – flat islands covered in grass and marshy areas, inhabited by Cape Buffalo and Lechwe and in the water along the edge by Hippos and Crocodiles, all giving us the look as we puttered slowly by.

Lechwe, Chobe River trip
Lechwe, Chobe River
Crocodile, Chobe River trip
Crocodile
Crocodile, Chobe River trip
Crocodile
Hippo, Chobe River trip
Hippo, Chobe River

As usual the Egrets and Herons were plentiful, the larger Great Egret (Grootwitreier) and Goliath Heron (Reusereier) standing out above the rest. Long-toed Lapwings (Witvlerkkiewiet) were so numerous they were probably the most populous bird at that point.

Goliath Heron, Chobe River trip
Goliath Heron
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River trip
Long-toed Lapwing

We encountered African Skimmers (Waterploeër) a few times and marveled at their brightly coloured bill with the elongated lower mandible, which allows it to skim the water’s surface in flight and latch onto any small organism that may cross its path.

African Skimmer, Chobe River trip
African Skimmer
African Skimmer, Chobe River trip
African Skimmer, Chobe River

Collared Pratincoles (Rooivlerksprinkaanvoël) flew by, looking very Tern-like, then settled on the grassy flats of the island to join the resident Skimmers. Both of these species seem to have a relaxed attitude towards life as a bird, spending a lot of time resting on the ground with occasional sorties to find their next meal.

Collared Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Collared Pratincole, Chobe River

By this time a fresh wind was blowing upriver, creating ever-increasing wavelets. Suddenly our boatman seemed to have an inspiration as he revved the engine and headed upstream (with the wind) at speed, without telling us what he had in mind.

No problem, we thought, as we assumed he had a special spot with other bird species to show us, but no, it seems he just took us on a “joyride” – which turned out to be just the opposite when he suddenly turned the boat around and raced back. Small wavelets had by now turned into mini swells, enough to cause a bone-jarring, teeth-clenching, kidney-battering ride all the way back.  Climbing out at the jetty, I felt quite shaken and stirred – James Bond would not have approved.

Nevertheless it was a successful morning , which left us with many more memories to savour of this supreme stretch of unspoilt African river.

 

 

 

 

Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and beyond

Wondering what Atlasing is?

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a specific 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 the 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.

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while atlasing.

Beyond Herbertsdale

Herbertsdale is a small, cosy town in the Southern Cape, conveniently close to Mossel Bay, our home town for part of the year. North of Herbertsdale lies the Langeberg (“Long Mountain”) range and the R327 tar road to changes to gravel soon after passing through the town, before winding its way through the mountains.

Along the R327 north of Herbertsdale
Along the R327 north of Herbertsdale

I had set out to atlas two of the more remote pentads in the area, both of them lying beyond the Langeberg. On the way there I warmed up with some ad hoc atlasing, and was happy to hear a Victorin’s Warbler (Rooiborsruigtesanger) calling in its distinctive way, followed by a Red-necked Spurfowl (Rooikeelfisant) in the short grass near the road and a Black Saw-wing  (Swartsaagvlerkswael) swooping gracefully by – three fairly uncommon species and more than enough to have me smiling as I stopped to enjoy the quiet of the mountains and a cup of roadside coffee.

Black Saw-wing (Swartsaagvlerkswael)
Black Saw-wing (Swartsaagvlerkswael)

By 7 am I entered the first target pentad  3350_2140 which is shown as the shaded square on the map below and which initially runs through the last section of the pass along a river, then emerges into flatter farmland and Karoo countryside before reaching the Gouritz River, where I took a short walk along the riverside.

Herbertsdale map 2

Returning to my vehicle, I took it very slow which helped to build up a decent list, including  Common House Martin (Huisswael), Plain-backed Pipit (Donkerkoester) in an open short-grassed field, Rock Kestrel (Kransvalk) perched quietly in a tree,   a very welcome Dusky Sunbird (Namakwasuikerbekkie) and a soaring Booted Eagle (Dwergarend). During the two hours (minimum duration for a “Full Protocol” card) I recorded 40 species, of which 20 were new records for the pentad, mainly because it had only been atlased twice before, nevertheless a great reward for my efforts.

Booted Eagle, (Dwergarend)
Booted Eagle, (Dwergarend)

An Old Wagon Route discovered

Then the real adventure started as I turned off at a road I had partially explored a few years ago, marked with a small, obscure sign with an old wagon picture on it.

My next target was pentad 3350_2145, shown as the shaded square on the map below, which had never been atlased before, known to Atlasers as a “virgin pentad” and much sought after by those with a bit of the pioneering spirit (which many South Africans seem to have in their genes).

Herbertsdale map 1

The road passed a lone farmhouse, then headed into the hills, becoming more barren as it wound its way over the rolling mountains, with some steep gradients and tricky corners requiring utmost concentration while moving.

Old Wagon route north of Herbertsdale
Old Wagon route north of Herbertsdale
Old Wagon route
Old Wagon route

Birds were beyond scarce – all I could do was to stop frequently and check for distant calls or a movement giving away the presence of a bird. I was relieved when a variety of aerial birds appeared and I could at least get my list going with Greater Striped Swallow (Grootstreepswael), Barn Swallow (Europese swael), Rock Martin (Kransswael) and White-rumped Swift (Witkruiswindswael).

The aerial birds such as Swallows, Martins and Swifts seem to enjoy hunting aerial insects together. Whenever I see a group of these graceful fliers I stop and scan as many of them as I can while they are still within a visible distance. More often than not the species first spotted leads to seeing two or three others, as  happened in this instance.

Greater Striped Swallow rootstreepswael)
Greater Striped Swallow (Grootstreepswael)

Patches of  Fynbos and Protea bush were the next most productive habitat, as I was able to spot some of the species common to the habitat, such as Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse suikervoël) swishing busily from one bush to the next, White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie) , Karoo Prinia (Karoolangstertjie) trying to match the  frantic activity of the Sugarbirds, Grey-backed Cisticola (Grysrugtinktinkie) calling in its distinctive fashion and Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Kleinrooibandsuikerbekkie) adding a splash of colour with its bright red breast band and iridescent green back .

Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse Suikervoel)
Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse Suikervoel)
White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie)
White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie)

, Herbertsdale north

When I stopped for a refreshment break near a mountain stream, an elderly gent, tasked with looking after a patch of Prickly Pears nearby and the only person I saw in the two hours, approached hesitantly, probably wondering what this obvious stranger to the area was up to – I shared my hard-boiled eggs and provita biscuits with him and we had a good chat about life in this remote area.

Lark-like Buntings (Vaalstreepkoppie) were unusually common, often a difficult species to find, while a soaring Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoël) made my heart soar just before exiting the pentad.

Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoel)
Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoel)

The road continued for a few Kms until it passed through a guest farm after which the landscape showed signs of “civilization” in the form of pine plantations and I eventually emerged onto the gravel road leading to the Oudtshoorn-Mossel Bay road and the way home.

I recorded just 21 species after two hours in this pentad, one of my lowest pentad totals ever, but all were new species for the pentad.

Memorable atlasing indeed!

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 3350_2140

3rd Full Protocol card for the pentad;   20 New species added to the pentad list;   Pentad total species now 52

New species added to the pentad list were : Cape Canary ; Blue Crane ; Namaqua Dove ; Red-eyed Dove ; Fork-tailed Drongo ; Egyptian Goose ; Cape Grassbird ; Little Grebe ; Helmeted Guineafowl ; Common House-Martin ; Hadeda Ibis ; Rock Kestrel ; Brown-hooded Kingfisher ; Crowned Lapwing ; Rock Martin ; Common Moorhen ; Plain-backed Pipit ; Cape Spurfowl ; Dusky Sunbird ; Common Waxbill

Pentad 3350_2140

1st Full Protocol card for the pentad;   21 New species added to the pentad list;   Pentad total species now 21

New species added to the pentad list were : Bokmakierie ; Larl-like Bunting ; Jackal Buzzard ; White-throated Canary ; Grey-backed Cisticola ; Cape Crow ; Red-eyed Dove ; Fork-tailed Drongo ; Rock Martin ; Red-faced Mousebird ; Neddicky ; Karoo Prinia ; Red-winged Starling ; Cape Sugarbird ; Southern Double-collared Sunbird ; Barn Swallow ; Greater-striped Swallow ; White-rumped Swift ; Common Waxbill ; Cape Weaver ; Cape White-eye

Atlasing Tales – Little Karoo near Oudtshoorn

Excuses, excuses…

Firstly, regular readers of this blog (yes, both of you) may be wondering why it’s been more than 3 weeks since my last post. I do try and post at least once a fortnight and have more or less managed to keep it up, but these past few weeks have been extra-busy with both Gerda and myself celebrating a milestone birthday. We decided early in the year to take our family – kids and grandkids, numbering 15 altogether including ourselves, to Mauritius for a week, which is where we were during the first week in October. More about that in a post very soon but for the time being this post is a further episode of Atlasing Tales (cue – loud clapping and cheering!!)

Back to Mossel Bay

During our late winter visit to Mossel Bay this past August, I was keen to do some atlasing of a couple of the pentads not yet visited in 2017 by any atlasers and eventually settled on two pentads in the Little Karoo near Oudtshoorn, with the added hope of adding some Karoo species to my year list. (For a further explanation of atlasing have a look at my earlier posts on the subject eg Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and beyond)

The location of the first pentad is shown on the map below, the second one is directly west of it –

The Little Karoo (better known in South Africa by the Afrikaans name “Kleinkaroo”) is separated from the Great Karoo (“Grootkaroo”) by the Swartberg Mountain Range which runs east-west almost parallel to the southern coastline of South Africa, from which it is separated by another east-west range called the Outeniqua-Langeberg Mountains. The Karoo is a semi-desert natural region of SA, with low rainfall, arid air, cloudless skies and extremes of heat and cold.

Getting there

It was raining lightly when I set off early morning from Mossel Bay and the wet roads had me making my way very carefully up the twisty Robinson Pass, which peaks out at 860 m above sea level and typically has a thick layer of mist or low clouds in the upper parts, as it did today.

Cresting the pass I glanced at the car’s temperature gauge which showed a chilly 5°C, so I welcomed the warmth of the car’s heater, but knew that I would be feeling it once I started atlasing, which one can only effectively do with the car’s windows open in order to be able to hear the birds calling, often the only way of identifying the species if you don’t see them. It was hard to imagine though, that the temperature would be the same 5° C on my way back through the pass at around 1.30 pm that afternoon!

By 7 am I was through the pass and the habitat changed rapidly to that of typical Little Karoo – few trees, many small shrubs and bushes and not much else.

Oudtshoorn south
A rainbow appeared when I made my first stop

Atlasing starts

Compared to other parts of the country, birding in the Karoo is slow and measured but immensely rewarding at the same time. When birds are scarce there is a certain pleasure in looking for and finding whatever may cross your path, very different from the abundant birds that other more bird-friendly habitats may provide. It’s a bit like sipping a special wine, taking your time and appreciating each drop, knowing there’s a limited amount and plenty of time.

A Karoo Lark (Karoolewerik ; Calendulauda albescens) drew my attention at my first stop, calling from a fence post then dropping to the ground. Its call was bright and cheerful despite the rather gloomy weather, but I suppose when you live in an arid area such as the Karoo, a bit of rainy weather is worth singing about!

Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south

Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south
Karoo Lark

Another Lark sitting on a small bush at a distance from the road had me wondering and I studied it as best as I could at that range, not being close enough to pick up the finer details that are important when trying to identify one of the LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs). It was streaky brown on the back, seemed to have  some light streaking on the breast – features that most of the larks possess so I was no closer to an ID. However when it turned its head the long decurved bill was a prominent feature, almost Bee-eater like in appearance which pointed towards Karoo Long-billed Lark (Karoolangbeklewerik / Certhilauda subcoronata) – some later study of Faansie Peacock’s excellent book on LBJ’s clinched the ID for me. When I submitted the card for the pentad it generated an ORF (Out-of-range form) for this species, which I still have to complete and submit in order to get the ID verified – all part of being a “Citizen Scientist”

The photo was taken previously in the Karoo National Park –

Karoo Longbilled Lark, Karoo National Park
Karoo Long-billed Lark

A gravel side road, signposted Kandelaarsrivier proved to be an interesting diversion and I followed it for a few kms not far from the mostly dry river course and past several farmsteads. Along the way I came across a group of Mountain Wheatears (Bergwagter / Oenanthe monticola) which were quite accommodating, allowing a close approach in my vehicle for some pleasing photos of this species which is usually at a distance.

Mountain Wheatear (female), Oudtshoorn south
Mountain Wheatear (female)
Mountain Wheatear (female), Oudtshoorn south
Surprising how much white is visible in flight

Both Speckled and White-backed Mousebirds (Gevlekte en Witkruismuisvoëls / Colius striatus and Colius colius) showed themselves at a spot further on – it’s interesting how they sometimes seem to stick close together yet don’t occupy the same tree.

I continued along the back roads past small villages and settlements, stopping to have a closer look at a handsome stone country church and exploring a side road which looked interesting but only took me to a rugby field, which could surely only be found in the Karoo – no grass, just a hard gravel surface. I had to wonder how they played such a physical game on this surface – they obviously breed some hard players in the area or they have very good medical care.

Rugby field, Oudtshoorn south

At another farmstead a group of White-throated Canaries (Witkeelkanarie / Crithagra albogularis) was busily gathering seeds from the ground, possibly spilled or perhaps from a nearby tree.

White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south
White-throated Canary – note the hint of yellow rump showing

White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south

Heading back towards the Robinson Pass I was soon into my second target pentad for the day … 3340_2200 and added Pied Starling (Witgatspreeu ; Lamprotornis bicolorCommon Starling (Europese spreeu ; Sturnus vulgaris) and Bokmakierie (Bokmakierie ; Telephorus zeylonus)fairly quickly. Another gravel road wound its way past a quarry, which also happened to be the destination of several lorries which kicked up clouds of dust each time they passed, making the conditions unpleasant for a while. Nevertheless between dust clouds I found a Karoo Chat (Karoospekvreter ; Cercomela schlegelii)and Pale Chanting Goshawk (Bleeksingvalk ; Melierax canorus)and heard the distinctive call of a Pririt Batis (Priritbosbontrokkie ; Batis pririt)

Once past the quarry I could stop and enjoy the peace of the surroundings again and soon added Cape Bunting (Rooivlerkstreepkoppie ; Emberiza capensis), Acacia Pied Barbet (Bonthoutkapper ; Tricholaema leucomelas)and Namaqua Warbler (Namakwalangstertjie ; Phragmacia substriata). Just before exiting the pentad Cape Crow (Swartkraai ; Corvus capensis)and Cape Spurfowl (Kaapse fisant ; (Pternistis capensis) were welcome additions. The landscape changed to more hilly country, providing some magnificent views….

From there it was a question of finding the shortest route back to the main road to Mossel Bay, which turned out to be a “gated” road through rolling hills, necessitating the “stop, open gate, drive forward, stop, close gate” procedure repeated four times along the way. Not at all onerous when your travelling through such rugged and handsome countryside with no other vehicles to be seen, it just adds to the “getting away from it all” feeling. I eventually got back to the tar road at the Paardebont turn-off where I turned right onto the road back home.

Gate along a wet road

The day’s excitement wasn’t done yet however – heading down the Mossel Bay side of the Robinson Pass, I stopped at the roadside picnic spot where I had found my first Victorin’s Warbler (Rooiborsruigtesanger ; Cryptillas victorini) a few years ago – as luck would have it I almost immediately heard one in the bush just below the road and soon found it threading its way through the dense undergrowth which is their preferred habitat.

After a couple of frustrating misses with my camera, I surmised which direction it was heading and went up ahead to wait for it to appear. This strategy worked as it briefly emerged from the bush and I rattled off a few shots while it called loudly. Eureka!

Victorin’s Warbler, Robinson Pass
View of Mossel Bay from Robinson Pass (taken on a sunnier day)

Well satisfied, I headed homeward

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 3340_2205

21st Full Protocol card for the pentad ;    Out of Range form received for Karoo Long-billed Lark ; Total species for the pentad now 141 ; my total for the 2 – 3 hours was 31 or 22% of the pentad total

Pentad 3340_2200

12th Full Protocol card for the pentad ;   Total species for the pentad now 111 ; my total for the 2 hours was 23 or 21% of the pentad total

 

Nest building 101 – Cape Weaver does his thing

Our recent short ‘end-of-winter’ visit to Mossel Bay was made interesting by a Cape Weaver (Kaapse Wewer / Ploceus capensis) who had chosen the neighbour’s tree for his nest for the new breeding season. Although not in our garden, the tree overhangs our small lawn and as luck would have it the branch that was chosen by the Weaver was no more than 2 m from our bedroom window and marginally more from our balcony.

By the time we spotted it, the initial ring had already been woven by the busy Weaver and I promptly set up my camera at our bedroom window, linked it to my iphone (using the clever Nikon app and the built-in wifi connection of my Nikon camera), then sat in the lounge where I would not be seen by the bird and clicked away whenever the Weaver appeared on my iphone screen. I love it when technology comes together!

This technique produced some clear shots of it arriving at the partial nest with a length of grass or piece of leaf and as it set about the intricate task of weaving it into the growing structure. Fascinating to watch as the nest slowly grew and took shape. Once the nest was more or less complete and well-shaped the Weaver shifted his attention to the thin branch to which it was attached, stripping it of leaves – we could only guess this was a strategy to prevent unwanted “visitors” from using the foliage to conceal their approach.

After a couple of days of frenetic activity the bird seemed satisfied – except nothing happened, no female took occupation and the nest just hung there, unoccupied. A very windy day tested the nest structure to the limit and it seemed to withstand the battering without damage.

Then a day before we were to leave, a second ring frame appeared, attached to the outer wall of the first nest and we once again watched fascinated as the same Weaver set about building a “semi-detached” extension to the nest. This is not something I have seen before although Weavers are known to build more than one nest, often several, usually in different locations in the same tree, before the female of the species indicates her acceptance and takes occupation. (Right now I am resisting the temptation to make some further comment about this behaviour, relating to the female of another species that I am familiar with….)

Unfortunately we could not stay to see the outcome of this new development – perhaps there will be some evidence of the outcome when we return in November.

Anyway, here is a selection of the photos I took surreptitiously of the Weaver

Monday

Arriving at the nest with fresh grass strand

Starter ring being constructed

Friday

Finishing off

Busy Weaver

A bit of displaying might impress her

Saturday, one week later

You think semi-detached will work better? – Yes, of course dear!

Now where does this one go again?

I really don’t like being watched while I’m weaving

Wonder if this one is going to be good enough?

Can’t wait to see what happened!

 

Spring Day in Mossel Bay

Spring Day is celebrated in South Africa (and the southern hemisphere) on 1st September, which is when the seasons ‘officially’ turn and the days are supposed to get warmer as winter comes to an end and we head towards summer again. No public holiday has been declared (yet?) but it’s just a day when many businesses encourage their staff to dress casually and people forget some of their problems or relegate them to the back of their mind for a while.

We were in Mossel Bay for two weeks leading up to the day and knowing how the weather can vary – up to 4 seasons in one day as our mother used to say of Cape Town –  I wasn’t expecting anything different from the typical August weather we had experienced so far. Chilly overcast days were followed by a chilly sunny days, followed by rainy, windy days and then the cycle more or less repeated itself.

So if you had the choice, what would your perfect day look like, weather-wise? If it was possible to choose the perfect Spring Day weather, I would make sure it was pleasantly sunny, the temperature would be not too hot, not too cold – say about 20 to 25 degrees C, there would be a whisper of a breeze to keep things fresh and there would be at most a few fleecy clouds to break the cobalt blue sky.

Well, apart from being a cloudless  day, Spring Day in Mossel Bay ticked all my boxes and turned out just about as perfect as it is possible to be.

Gerda had an appointment at the hairdresser in town mid-morning (all of 5 minutes from our house) so after dropping her off, I drove to the “Point” just a short distance away, parked and set off for a walk along the pathway which winds its way past seafront houses and apartments back towards the harbour.

The path leading from the tidal pool towards the harbour

Being the middle of the morning and out of season, it was quiet and I had the seafront virtually to myself, other than a few people walking their dogs,  a mother with her small kids at the swings and a lone fishermen on the rocks.

A lone fisherman enjoys the conditions

Scanning the seas I could make out two seals lazily swimming and flopping about just off the rocks, while a couple of surfers in black shiny wetsuits that matched the seals coats almost exactly were catching the smooth breaking swells, expertly guiding their boards along the line of rocks.

The tidal pool had hardly a ripple, the surface reflecting the historic St Blaize lighthouse in the background

The tidal pool which is crammed with kids in season
St Blaize lighthouse reflected in the tidal pool
The tidal pool
Looking back along the seafront pathway

I had my binoculars with me but didn’t really need them as all the birds I could see were large, familiar and easy to identify with the naked eye – Kelp Gulls wheeling overhead, skeins of Cape Cormorants flying close inshore and just above the waves, Swift Terns making their way to and from the harbour area and African Black Oystercatchers searching for food out on the rocks.

African Black Oystercatcher

The small stretch of sand between the rocks – I would hesitate to call it a beach – had a few newly washed up shells scattered about.

The views along the way were as perfect as the weather – Mossel Bay at its best – and my soul felt refreshed and calm just from taking in the natural beauty of the scene.

By the way, the photos (other than the Oystercatcher which was taken a day earlier with my “proper camera”) were all taken with my IPhone.

Spring Day in Mossel Bay
Spring Day in Mossel Bay
Spring Day in Mossel Bay

A memorable Spring Day walk!

 

Lions by the dozen – A Chobe encounter

Lions by the dozen?  Now that’s not your every day sighting!

Being in Kasane, northern Botswana in early July this year, with no specific commitments for the afternoon and with Chobe Game Reserve a stone’s throw away, it seemed like a good idea, to say the least, when my colleague Stuart suggested an afternoon game drive along the Riverfront section of Chobe.

Later in the day it’s preferable to first head west along the tar road towards Ngoma gate and then make your way back from there, which puts the setting sun behind you and makes it a lot easier for spotting, which we duly did.

By about 3 pm we were in Chobe, travelling along the river road in an easterly direction back towards Sedudu gate, the sun comfortably behind us and happy about the prospect of a couple of hours of prime game viewing ahead.

We were immediately rewarded with a group of elephants drinking in the river shallows, then making their way up the bank towards the bush.

Travelling along the sandy track, we encountered constant bird life in numbers that I cannot recall having seen before – the bumpy track was abuzz with Doves, Spurfowl, Guineafowl and others, to the point of almost running over them, while the pools formed by the receding river were crowded with waterfowl. But this drive was not about birding, for a change, so I had to suppress my desire to shout “STOP!” each time I spotted an interesting bird, hoping that my restraint would be rewarded with  exciting game sightings.

The “usual suspects” were all present – Kudu, Giraffe, Zebra, Impala, some groups of Banded Mongoose, plenty of Elephants and around 400-500 Cape Buffalo on the opposite side of the river, where they know they are safe from marauding lions.

But the sighting of the day, or even the year, belonged to a pride of Lions that we first saw in the distance, almost a kilometre away, when we stopped to check why a lone vehicle was stationery and what those beige blobs nearby may be.

Binoculars were raised to eyes in a flash and high fives ensued when we saw that they were indeed lions, prompting us to make our way along the riverside track with subdued haste, excitement building all the while.

We approached carefully so as not to disturb the scene and for the next 20 minutes enjoyed the sight of 4 adult lions and 8 juveniles interacting.

The adults were quite relaxed and lying around while the juveniles walked about trying their best to look like fierce lions but only succeeding in drawing a few ‘aaahs’ from us.

Lion cubs have white spots on the lower parts, while their initial greyish woolly coat changes to the adult tawny colour at about three months and the white spots gradually fade as the youngster ages. My guess is these cubs were between 6 and 12 months old.

A dozen lions, Chobe Riverfront July 2017

A dozen lions, Chobe Riverfront July 2017

A dozen lions, Chobe Riverfront July 2017

A Giraffe poking his long neck above nearby bush added a frisson of tension to the scene and moments later the lions sensed its presence as first one adult female then the others moved in its direction.

When the young male stood up as well, we noticed it had a pronounced limp from some previous injury to its leg – he gave a low growl and immediately the youngsters, eager to follow the adults, were “called back” and stayed near the limping male, who seemed to have been left in charge while the other adults went to suss out the chances of a giraffe dinner.

A dozen lions, Chobe Riverfront July 2017

A dozen lions, Chobe Riverfront July 2017

A dozen lions, Chobe Riverfront July 2017

A dozen lions, Chobe Riverfront July 2017

After a while, the adults returned, possibly having assessed the opportunity and decided against pursuing it further. By this time the day was starting to run out as the sun headed towards the horizon and we moved away to leave the scene to the several safari vehicles that were approaching, sated with one of the best lion sightings we have ever had.

 

Touring with Canadians – Part 5 : Chobe

The Story so far..

The previous posts on this “Trip of a Lifetime” to Southern Africa by our Canadian family, covered the time spent in Kruger National Park, the nearby Panorama route and the first leg of our trip to Victoria Falls and Chobe Safari lodge in Kasane, Botswana.

Kasane lies in northern Botswana just 80 kms west of Vic Falls and has become well-known to me after a dozen or more visits over the last couple of years for a project in which I’m involved.

With our visit to Victoria Falls behind us, the transfer to Kasane including the Zimbabwe/Botswana border formalities at the border post just outside Kasane went fairly quickly and smoothly and we found ourselves settled in at Chobe Safari Lodge with time to relax for the rest of the afternoon at poolside.

Chobe Safari Lodge
Chobe Safari Lodge
Chobe Safari Lodge
Chobe Safari Lodge
Chobe Safari Lodge
Chobe Safari Lodge

Sundowners

One of my favourite “sundowner” spots is the riverside bar deck in the Chobe Safari camping area right next to the lodge and this is where I took our small group late afternoon.

Sundowner spot
Sundowner spot
Sundowner spot
Hit me again, barman

The weather obliged, making for a sensational sunset and the chance to savour our G and T’s while we watched the spectacle unfold.

Sundowner spot
Sundown
Sundowner spot
Gone but not forgotten

Later we made our way to the restaurant for the buffet dinner which was more than pleasant.

Chobe Game Drive

The game drive we had booked for the following morning started at 6 am when we met Bogatsi, our driver and guide for the morning, at the reception. With a vehicle to ourselves, we had plenty of room and we set off to the Sedudu gate just a few kms from the lodge.

Entering the reserve, we headed down the sandy, bumpy track (some call it the “African massage”) towards the river, through pristine woodland, which opens up at one point to allow a wide vista of the river in the distance. Just driving along the Chobe Riverfront route is an experience in itself, particularly for visitors from the northern hemisphere, with any game being a bonus.

Naturally, game sightings are welcome and there was enough to keep everyone interested, despite not having the added excitement of any big cat sightings, which were more than likely close by but hidden by the bush, still quite dense at the tail end of summer.

African Elephant, Game cruise Chobe
African Elephants

Hippos were plentiful in the pools adjoining the main river, munching on the partly submerged grasses as only hippos can do, giving us the eye and an occasional yawn or two.

Hippo, Chobe game drive
Hippo, Chobe game drive

Hippo, Chobe game driveHippo, Chobe game drive

Other game we came across –

  • the inevitable and numerous Impalas, still enjoyable to see after so many sightings
Impala, Chobe game drive
Impala, Chobe game drive
  • Kudu
Kudu, Game cruise Chobe
Kudu, Chobe game drive
  • numbers of Baboons
Chacma Baboon (Juvenile), Chobe game drive
sChacma Baboon (Juveniles), Chobe game drive
  • Buffaloes, one of which had an interesting interaction with a Hippo emerging from a pool, the two eyeing each other cautiously before passing by and continuing with their lives.
Hippo meets Buffalo, Chobe game drive
Hippo meets Buffalo, Chobe game drive
Hippo meets Buffalo, Chobe game drive
That hippo has big teeth, think I’ll keep going

Our guide made a point of showing us the distinctive marking on the rear end of Impalas, intimating that this was where McDonalds got the inspiration for their famous “M” logo.

Impala, Chobe game drive
Cheeseburger with fries please

There was no shortage of bird sightings, but the birding tends to take a back seat (where I happened to be as it turned out) when on a game drive such as this, unless the majority on the vehicle are into birding. Nevertheless we chalked up a few special sightings :

  • a majestic Verraux’s Eagle Owl high in the branches of a tall tree
  • Long-tailed Paradise Whydah with its spectacular tail
Long-tailed Paradise-Whydah, Chobe game drive
Long-tailed Paradise-Whydah, Chobe game drive
  • African Fish Eagles seemingly every km or so along the riverfront
  • Red-backed Shrikes
  • Black Heron performing its “umbrella” shading act to help it find aquatic prey
  • Little Bee-eaters hawking insects in a small clearing

We continued along the river at a slow pace until we reached the picnic spot at Serondela, where coffee was served, after which we returned along the upper road to the exit gate and back to the lodge. It was time for lunch, some time to relax at poolside while the kids swam and before we knew it, it was time to board the river boat for the sun downer cruise.

Chobe Game Cruise

The cruise turned out to be more than I expected – having had the experience of small boat trips along the river in the past, I imagined a large boat with 40 or so passengers would not be anything like as enjoyable. Well, I was pleasantly surprised, with the boat hugging the banks of the river wherever possible and stopping for up close and personal views of everything from birds to crocodiles and hippos, as well as a group of elephants.

The weather played its part, with warm rather than hot conditions and just a light breeze causing hardly a ripple as we cruised gently along and into the Chobe game reserve, wending our way through the channels between the grassy flood plains which attract herds of animals during the winter months.

Here is a portfolio of some of the sightings ……..

Game cruise Chobe
Just cruisin …..
Crocodile, Game cruise Chobe
Crocodile, Game cruise Chobe
African Elephant, Game cruise Chobe
African Elephant, Game cruise Chobe
African Elephant, Game cruise Chobe
African Elephant greeting each other

African Elephant, Game cruise Chobe

Buffalo, Game cruise Chobe
Sacred Ibis and Cape Buffalo, Game cruise Chobe
Hippo, Game cruise Chobe
Hippo, Game cruise Chobe
African Fish-Eagle, Game cruise Chobe
African Fish-Eagle, Game cruise Chobe
Little Sparrowhawk (Juvenile), Chobe Safari Lodge
Little Sparrowhawk (Juvenile), – Not on the cruise, this one was a great find in the gardens of the Chobe Safari Lodge
African Harrier-Hawk, Game cruise Chobe
African Harrier-Hawk, Game cruise Chobe
Hamerkop, Game cruise Chobe
Hamerkop, Game cruise Chobe

The stay at Chobe Safari Lodge was just two days in extent but seemed much longer, with lovely game experiences on land and on water and enough time in between to relax by the pool. A fitting conclusion to a successful couple of weeks touring with “the Canadians”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pigeon Valley – Forest birding in the suburbs

After the excitement and effort that went into the Malagasy Pond Heron ‘twitch’, a relaxing morning’s birding / atlasing seemed like just the ticket to bring me down to earth, gently. We were back in our timeshare apartment in La Lucia near Durban and one of my favourite birding spots became my next focus of attention – Pigeon Valley Park, which is a small forested reserve of about 10 hectares in the middle of Durban’s older suburbs on the Berea Ridge.

Pigeon Valley is located in the middle of old Durban suburbs

I entered the gate around 10 am (talk about relaxed birding … none of this crack of dawn stuff this time) and within a couple of minutes had an Olive Sunbird (Olyfsuikerbekkie / Cyanomitra olivacea) fluttering about in the branches above my head and heard the drawn out, repetitive call of a Tambourine Dove (Witborsduifie / Turtur tympanistria) from deep in the forest.

Pigeon Valley Durban

This reserve is famous amongst birders for the reliability of seeing  Spotted Ground Thrush (Natallyster / Zoothera guttata) here during the winter months and I can attest to that, having seen it on two out of three of my previous visits. I was on the lookout for it as soon as I entered, scanning the ground between the trees and just 50 metres from the gate I found it in deep shadow, scratching amongst the brown leaf litter.

Spotted Ground Thrush, Pigeon Valley

I approached quietly and fired off a number of shots but could see that they were not coming out very well due to the poor light. Using a large tree as a concealment between myself and the Thrush, I edged closer and poked my head carefully around the side of the tree to observe its movements, hoping it would move into one of the tiny patches of sunlight filtering through the dense foliage above.

The Thrush obliged, briefly moving into a patch of sunlight as I crouched to get closer to the bird’s level, then got in a few shots when it looked up and directly at me for a second – success! If there had been someone else with me it would have been high fives, but I had to make do with a triumphant smile.

Spotted Ground Thrush, Pigeon Valley

Buoyed by this wonderful start I made my way slowly up the main path, where I briefly met two other birders who were on their way out – as it turned out they were the only other visitors that I came across in the two and a half hours I was there, so effectively I had the reserve to myself for that time – apart from those tending to the park.

I had the constant accompaniment of birds calling as I walked, most of which I could ID and many of which I saw during the walk. Those heard only included the ubiquitous Sombre Greenbul (Gewone Willie / Andropadus importunus ), Black-backed Puffback (Sneeubal / Dryoscopus cubla), Tambourine Dove, Bar-throated Apalis (Bandkeelkleinjantjie / Apalis thoracica), African Fish-Eagle (Visarend / Haliaeetus vocifer)- probably from a nearby dam – and Black Sparrowhawk (Swartsperwer / Accipiter melanoleucus ), which are known to breed in the reserve.

I spent some time at a tiny pool near the top of the main path, fed by a little stream trickling down from a source outside the reserve. As I sat quietly to one side, there was a constant movement of small birds coming and going, sipping the clear water, some bathing as well – lots of Cape White-eyes (Kaapse glasogie / Zosterops capensis), a pair of Cape Batises (Kaapse bosbontrokkie / Batis capensis), Red-capped Robin-Chat (Nataljanfrederik / Cossypha natalensis), Tawny-flanked Prinia (Bruinsylangstertjie / Prinia subflava)and an unexpected but very welcome surprise in the form of a Grey Waxbill (Gryssysie / Estrilda perreini), which I had only seen once before in Zimbabwe.

Red-capped Robin-Chat
Tawny-flanked Prinia
Grey Waxbill

All of this activity was observed by an African Dusky Flycatcher (Donkervlieëvanger / Muscicapa adusta) hawking insects from a nearby branch, then popping down to the water for a drink.

Dusky Flycatcher

Spectacled Weavers (Brilwewer / Ploceus ocularis), which I had heard earlier, also came to the stream for a bathe.

Spectacled Weaver
Spectacled Weaver

The bird I was hoping for, Green Twinspot, did not appear so I continued my walk along the perimeter of the reserve, then back to the entrance gate with regular sightings to keep it interesting –

  • Terrestial Brownbul (Boskrapper / Phyllastrephus terrestris) skulking in the lower stratum of the dense bushes, as they like to do
  • Southern Black Flycatchers (Swart vlieëvanger / Melaenornis pammelaina) and Fork-tailed Drongos (Mikstertbyvanger / Dicurus adsimilis) trying their best to confuse my ID abilities by appearing in the same trees, but a check of the tail tip and eye colour was enough to sort them out
Fork-tailed Drongo
  • Surprisingly, for me anyway, numbers of Thick-billed Weavers (Dikbekwewer / Ambliospiza albifrons) in the lower and upper stratum – I am used to finding them near water in reeds, but later reference to the Roberts app showed that they inhabit forests in the non-breeding season, a new discovery for me
  • Grey Sunbird (Gryssuikerbekkie / Cyanomitra veroxii) showing briefly
  • Several White-eared Barbets (Witoorhoutkapper /  Stactolaema leucotis) high up in the trees
White-eared Barbet
  • Golden-tailed Woodpecker (Goudstertspeg / Campethera abingoni)
Golden-tailed Woodpecker

And, just before leaving, a bevy of Bronze Mannikins (Gewone fret / Lonchura cucullata) huddled together on a branch made a charming sight

Bronze Mannikins – knit one, slip one, knit one

Without fanfare or wild expectations, the morning had turned into something memorable, to be savoured for days after. This is the sort of experience that makes birding the amazing pastime that it is.

A Sudden Twitch – Malagasy Pond-Heron

Malagasy Pond-Heron?

Sounds exotic …. and indeed it is, if you are a South African birder.

This is how I came to see this bird and put to rest a certain entry on my life list that has gnawed at my birding conscience for many years.

Rare birds have, for the last couple of years, made a habit of crossing my path, making themselves difficult to ignore if not irresistible.

I have this very arbitrary “rule” with regard to twitching rare birds which says that I only consider it if the bird is within 2 hours travelling time from wherever I am based at the time. I have had an incredible run of luck over the last two years in that I have been positioned to twitch rare bird species in places such as Katima Mulilo in Namibia (I was in nearby  Kasane Botswana at the time), Strandfontein Sewage works in Cape Town (I was visiting Cape Town), Stilbaai on the Southern Cape Coast (I was in Mossel Bay) and Mkombo dam in Limpopo Province (I was at home in Pretoria), all without breaking my rule.

When news broke via the SA Rare Bird News (SARBN) report produced so expertly by Trevor Hardaker, of a Malagasy Pond-Heron at Phinda Private Game Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal province (KZN) , I initially ignored it, Phinda being well beyond my travel limit at around 6 hours drive from Pretoria. But as the weeks passed and the Pond-Heron was still being seen, on top of which our timeshare week in Durban was approaching, I realised that Phinda, near the town of Hluhluwe in Zululand, would be a lot closer if we travelled from Durban – some 2 and a half hours drive by my estimate.

Suddenly it became do-able without exceeding my travel limit by much, and in any case we would be on holiday, so what better time to fit in a side trip to northern KZN, which we had last visited 15 or more years ago.

What made this twitch different was that it was only possible to look for the bird if you joined one of the game drives that various birders were booking through AndBeyond, who run a few lodges at Phinda and had permission from the concession owners at Mziki to access the dam where the Pond-Heron was seen.

I started looking out for a game drive opportunity that coincided with our first weekend at our timeshare unit ie 24 – 25 June. I soon found that the weekend drives were fully booked, but it seemed that no one had got as far as booking the Sunday afternoon drive…..

After some serious should I / shouldn’t I thoughts and with our Friday drive to Durban looming, I decided at the last moment to phone Phinda reservations, made a provisional booking and the game was on! Trevor Hardaker kindly sent out an email note on Friday morning to all SARBN subscribers and the calls started coming in as we commenced our drive on the N3 to Durbs. Some time after our halfway lunch stop at Harrismith, the game drive was fully taken up, Phinda’s invoice received and paid and details had been sent to the 5 other participants. It’s amazing what can be achieved with a smart phone on the go!

Off to Phinda

We were glad of the Saturday to recover at our timeshare apartment in La Lucia so that, come Sunday, we were ready to travel again – this time northwards up the N2 National road to Richards Bay, then on to Hluhluwe where we had a burger lunch before heading to the Phinda gate some 20 kms further.

Durban La Lucia to Phinda Game Reserve

I dropped Gerda off at the Phinda Mountain Lodge, on the way to Mziki Private camp where we were to be collected. Along the way game was plentiful including a Rhino family, one of them de-horned as an anti-poaching measure as is the trend nowadays, also Nyala, Zebra and Warthogs.

How do you like your Rhino – horned or de-horned?

Some interesting birds caught my eye, the pick being a Long-tailed Paradise Whydah with its impressive tail feathers almost too long to fit into the frame, followed closely by a striking Scarlet-chested Sunbird in the Aloes at the lodge.

When I arrived at Mziki camp entrance and parked in the demarcated spots (these Phinda folk are organised) the other twitchers were all there – not twitching as such, in fact quite calm, but looking forward to finding the bird that had brought us all to this place – Dave Minney, Johan Boshoff, Jon de Guisti, Trish Jonsson and Ken Jarvis. Just a few minutes later our game drive vehicle arrived with Zandri Benade at the wheel – the vehicle looked far too large for this petite young lady to handle, but as it turned out she drove it like a pro.

And so we set off, excited, to Mziki dam – which was literally “just down the road” and we reached it a few minutes later, where Zandri found the Pond-Heron a further few minutes later! Other groups had looked for up to two hours to find the Pond-Heron, but in our case – there it was – almost before we had a chance to build up some tension and excitement!

At least we could all relax in the knowledge that our long journeys had paid off and now we could just enjoy the bird. And enjoy it we did, for close to two hours, watching its every move while enjoying the peaceful setting and beautiful surroundings.

Initially the Pond-Heron was engrossed in its search for prey along the grassy edge of the dam, probing now and then in the shallow water then moving in stalker fashion, veeeerrrryy slllooowwwly and deliberately, hardly causing even a tiny ripple which may warn the fish, frogs and aquatic insects of its approach.

Zandri edged the vehicle closer, trying for better views and camera angles to take advantage of the lighting. The Pond-Heron played along nicely, posing in various positions and actions :

  • Stalking mode

  • Coy behind grass fronds

  • A short flight to show off its “whiter than white” OMO advert wings

  • Moving into the open with perfect light conditions, showing off its heavy streaking and yellow legs

  • Preening at water’s edge

  • Sipping water

  • Moving cautiously past a crocodile near the water, eyeing it in the process, while we all held our breath wondering if this would be the Pond-Heron’s last hurrah
Hmm who’s this then
Best keep away – those jaws look fearsome
  • Joining a Yellow-billed Stork and African Spoonbill foraging in the shallows

 

Threesome

While this was happening we were also entertained by other visitors to the water :

  • A handsome Nyala bull coming to drink, joined later by a female and a younger male
Nyala Bull
Nyala

 

  • Yellow-billed Stork flying in and joining the lone Spoonbill
Here I come
Arghhh .. brakes on
Made it
Oh oh here comes a stranger

 

  • Pied Kingfisher flying by with fish prey just caught, later continuing its familiar hovering search for the next one
Fuzzy photo but nice catch
Looking for the next one

The afternoon concluded with a celebratory drink and a toast, where after we all went our separate ways, thoroughly happy about the outcome and a very special lifer.

Oh and that bit about my birding conscience at the start of this post …

In fact my life list already included this rare species, based on a sighting 23 years ago at a small pond at Tshipise in the far north-east of SA. Can one trust a sighting from your early years of birding, when I had no appreciation of rarities as such? There have only been a handful of sightings in our region, mostly in Mozambique with just one previous sighting in South Africa itself, also in KZN at Ndumo July 2005 (according to Roberts) so what are the chances that I indeed saw this species in July 1994? Actually I am still mostly convinced that I did record the species at the time, but am glad I could put all doubts about including it in my life list to rest with this sighting.

 

 

 

Exploring Southern Africa's Natural Wonders and beyond