There’s nothing like a walk in a natural forest to heighten the senses – once you have walked a short distance into the forest, the background sounds of daily life are gradually reduced and eventually all you can hear are the sounds of the forest itself. The bird calls become prominent and even the rustle of leaves as a bird or small creature moves through the canopy or the forest floor can suddenly be heard.
If you are lucky enough to have a patch of forest to yourself, you can almost feel a bubble forming around you as you enter a private world with just the forest sounds, the smell of the trees and the soft feel of the leaf-strewn pathway for company.
This was my experience during a recent visit to the Woodville “Big Tree” forest near Hoekwil in the Southern Cape. The forest lies beyond the Wilderness (not the actual kind, this is a village near George much favoured for holiday homes and as a retirement spot) just off the old George – Knysna road with the main attraction being the massive Yellowwood tree a stone’s throw from the parking area and picnic spot. Estimated to be over 800 years old and standing 31m tall it is more than impressive and one can only wonder how pristine our country was when it was a mere sapling, long before any human interference.
How we came to be there
Gerda and I had decided to explore the Garden Route beyond George for the day and she was the one who suggested we head for the Wilderness for lunch at one of the popular restaurants in the small village centre, followed by a drive through the countryside east of Wilderness.
We set off in perfect weather, sunny and warm with just a whisper of wind and enjoyed a pleasant light lunch of tapas – chunks of hake and calamari with tasty side sauces. From there we took a slow drive to Woodville forest via Hoekwil and we were soon at the parking area. I found a shady parking spot and left Gerda contentedly knitting (making sure there were picnic goers and a forest warden nearby – you always have to be wary in our beloved country) while I explored the forest trail beyond the Big Tree.
The trail is fairly easy and an hour is more than enough time for a slow walk while stopping to listen and look around. In the back of my mind was the thought that I still had not seen a Lemon Dove, despite being very close to them on a few occasions – so I stopped a few times to play their call, initially with no response.
By this time I had seen a number of forest specials such as Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler (Geelkeelsanger), Chorister Robin-Chat (Lawaaimakerjanfrederik), African Paradise Flycatcher (Paradysvlieëvanger) and Cape Batis (Kaapse Bosbontrokkie)
About a third of the way along the trail, I was near a large fallen tree when I heard a rustle behind me. Turning, I saw a dove-like bird fleetingly as it flew across the trail and my heart skipped a beat or two – could this be the one I had hoped for?
I crept back as quietly as possible until suddenly a bird flew out of the leaf litter right next to the trail and for a few seconds perched on an open branch, not 3m away. It was a Lemon Dove (Kaneelduifie) and I may have let slip an expletive in my excitement as we eyed each other face to face. Desperate for a photo of this beauty I slowly went to lift my camera but at that moment the dove decided to vanish, literally, and flew back across the trail. I was convinced it had not gone far and stood at the point where I expected to find it again, scanning the forest floor and trees for several minutes but to no avail – it had disappeared like a ghost in the night.
Roberts Bird Guide describes the Lemon Dove as “Secretive and difficult to see, especially when it freezes to avoid detection”, which I can verify from this experience.
Buoyed by this sighting, I walked along the rest of the trail in a state of happiness, taking in all the various sights and sounds right down to the interesting fungi growing on trees and stumps. A rustle in the undergrowth and a harsh churring call drew my attention and after some chasing of shadows amongst the dense foliage I was pleased to track down a Terrestial Brownbul (Boskrapper).
Towards the end of the trail another call, like an owl hooting while being shaken, had me wondering until I dredged my memory cells and came up with Olive Pigeon (Geelbekbosduif) – a quick play of its call on my Roberts app confirmed the ID. I left the forest to the repeated call of a Red-capped Robin-Chat, which I later suspected was a Chorister Robin-Chat mimicking its cousin, but who knows?
So my short walk produced one lifer that I had long hoped for as well as a pleasing selection of forest specials, all of which left me with a big smile and something to share with Gerda, patiently waiting in the car.
Following on Part 1 of My Birding Year for 2017 ……… guess what, here’s Part 2!
So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the second half of 2017 along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited.
The first week saw me back in Kasane for a project visit and we managed to fit in a memorable drive through Chobe Riverfront where the game viewing took precedence, but the birdlife was hard to ignore, particularly the Carmine Bee-eaters
Later on in the month I was back to atlasing in the area south of Bronkhorstspruit, some 50 km east of Pretoria, dominated by the drab midwinter “browns” of the highveld and providing some challenging birding in the form of very similar looking small birds in their winter plumage.
Another visit to Kasane, Botswana in the first week included a spectacular boat safari on the Chobe river with Pangolin Safaris in a specially equipped boat kitted out with swivel seats and pliable camera mounts. One of the owners of Pangolin Safaris, who goes by the nickname of “Guts”, accompanied us and made sure we had some amazing photo opportunities of the wildlife and birds to be found along the river.
One moment of sheer photographic magic came my way in the form of a lone African Skimmer passing by and showing how it got its name.
The following weekend saw us visiting family in Potchefstroom once again – I took the two grandkids for a birding outing to nearby Boschkop dam and was again very pleased with the quality of birding at this venue, which is also quiet and safe for the kids to roam about a bit.
Next up was some atlasing in the grasslands north east of Pretoria – known as Vlaklaagte, which was good for birding but the gravel roads at this time of year are very dusty and the passing mining lorries tend to make it quite difficult to bird in peace – nevertheless a successful day’s atlasing.
A short winter visit to Mossel Bay in the second half of August provided the opportunity to explore the Karoo south of Oudtshoorn on a cold day – I added several species to my year list and atlased in areas not regularly covered so well worthwhile.
On Robinson Pass, my patience was rewarded when a Victorin’s Warbler posed briefly for a photo – a very difficult species to photograph so a nice bonus.
My monthly visit to Kasane was likely to be one of my last as the project was heading to completion, so I made the most of the 3 days there and fitted in birding at every opportunity. The airport precinct and perimeter were particularly lively with up to 200 bee-eaters present along the fences.
An early morning drive through the Chobe Riverfront was as good as ever with some unusual species showing.
During the rest of the month I targeted some of the more remote areas of north-east Gauteng to do some atlasing, selecting pentads not yet atlased in 2017.
Our much anticipated trip to Mauritius to celebrate our “milestone” birthdays with the family was a highlight of the year from all points of view – the sheer joy of having our 3 children, their spouses and our 7 grandchildren with us in such a beautiful setting for a whole week was awesome (as they say).
I didn’t do any serious birding but the hotel gardens were good for a total of just 11 species, of which 6 were lifers to add to my world list (yes I’m a “lister”!)
In any case I was so busy enjoying the ambience, the family, the great meals and the snorkelling that birding was relegated to about 10th place (just for that week, mind)
Later in the month I visited Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel in Gauteng for a superb morning of birding in this prime waterbird location.
An unexpected atlasing trip with Koos on the 21st in the pentad covering the north-east corner of Pretoria was a delight, covering all areas from industrial to country estates.
My last visit to Kasane was also a busy one work-wise so not much opportunity for birding other than snatched moments in between other commitments – how I’m going to miss this place!
A weekend in Potchefstroom presented another chance to take Christopher (6) with me for some atlasing at Boschkop dam – plenty of highlights to make it interesting for both of us.
Marievale was my destination for the second time in 4 weeks when reports came through of Baillon’s Crake seen there. I dipped on the crake but still had a wonderful morning’s atlasing.
On the 22nd it was time to head south (how time flies!) to our Mossel Bay home – a two day road trip with an overnight stop at Kuilfontein guest farm near Colesberg, which provided some great birding and relief from the long driving sessions.
I hardly had time to recover in Mossel Bay when Birding Big Day was upon us and I invited Willie to join me for a long but fruitful day’s birding along some of the back roads of the surrounding countryside. We ended the day quite happy with 124 species and something like 120th place in the national challenge.
December as usual was given over to family matters with a bit of atlasing squeezed in here and there. Apart from the good birding that Mossel Bay offers, most of my trips were in the direction of Herbertsdale, some 50 kms north-west of Mossel Bay, where the countryside is attractive and the roads quiet.
The last 3 days of the year were spent at a cottage in the hills beyond Calitzdorp, serious Little Karoo country and good for some of the Karoo specials. The cottage was Andre and Geraldine’s dream that became real, through a lot of hard work on their part.
Answer to “6 Species in one frame” – left to right :
Glossy Ibis (left, just in frame), Squacco Heron, African Darter (in front), African Spoonbill (rear, twice), Little Egret, Long-toed Lapwing
Phew glad I got that post out in January (only just) – a Birding Year story is no good whatsoever in February
Another memorable Birding Year has come and gone – a year filled once again with travelling to many familiar places and some exciting new ones, atlasing at every opportunity, a number of new birds seen and enough experiences to fill my journal to the brim.
So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the year along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited. Some of the trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.
Our year kicked off in Mossel Bay, our home town for some of the year and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing / birdmapping in the area – Hartenbos and the adjoining inland in particular.
On the 9th I had the unexpected thrill of finding a Pectoral Sandpiper, classed as a national rarity, which I duly reported to Trevor Hardaker who sent out a note to all subscribers to the SA Rare Bird News network – what a memorable day!
We started our journey back to Gauteng on the 13th, first stopping over in charming Prince Albert for two nights. I managed to fit in some atlasing in the area including a pleasant trip along the Damascus road.
Our next stop for one night was at Garingboom guest farm near Springfontein in the Free State which also proved to be an interesting birding destination.
Back in Pretoria, my first atlasing was centred around Mabusa Nature Reserve some 100 km north east of Pretoria which was a most enjoyable spot with some challenging roads and good birding
My first trip of the year to Kasane presented some great birding and atlasing opportunities in the summer lushness of Chobe Game Reserve.
Back in Pretoria I did further atlasing in the Delmas area
We used our timeshare points for a weekend at Champagne Valley in the Drakensberg, which provided an opportunity for some atlasing in the area
Our Canadian family arrived on the 6th for a two week visit which included a Kruger Park visit and a trip to Vic Falls and Chobe Game Reserve
Getting back to normal after the excitement of touring with the family, we visited Potchefstroom, and I was happy to take grandson Christopher (6) with me for some birding at the local dam – I think he was more interested in my Prado’s little fridge filled with cold-drinks, but you have to start somewhere!
My monthly visit to Kasane, Botswana afforded another opportunity for some birding around Kasane and in Chobe Game Reserve – such a great destination which I try not to spoil with too much work….
Then it was time for our much anticipated “Flock at Sea” cruise from the 24th to 28th arranged by Birdlife SA
Another short autumn visit to Mossel Bay meant I could fit in some further atlasing in the Southern Cape
Later in the month Koos and I headed to Bushfellows Lodge near Marble Hall in Mpumulanga for a day’s atlasing (and some snake watching)
Just a week later we spent 4 days at Verlorenkloof also in Mpumulanga with Koos and Rianda, one of our favourite spots for relaxing and blessed with a variety of birding opportunities
The month kicked off with a visit to Kasane but this time my birding was limited to a rather hurried morning trip into Chobe Riverfront
On the 10th Koos and I braved the mid-winter cold and the notoriously dangerous Moloto road north of Pretoria to do some atlasing in NE Gauteng
We closed out the half year with our “get away from it all” break in La Lucia near Durban at our timeshare resort – this was interrupted by a breakaway to northern Zululand to view a Malagasy Pond-Heron that had taken up residence at Phinda Game Reserve.
In the latter part of the week I visited Pigeon Valley for some superb forest birding
July to December will be covered in the next post – watch this space!
Here’s a selection of my favourite photos taken during 2017 – from our travels, holidays and birding trips – chosen from my collection of over 2500 photos for the year. Each one has a story attached which I have tried to capture in a few words………..
If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!
Part Two includes more birds, the reptiles, butterflies and other stuff
Wishing all who may read this a 2018 that meets all of your expectations!
24 December 2017 – 7.42 pm : Knysna Warbler / Bradypterus sylvaticus (Knysnaruigtesanger) becomes my latest lifer – number 765 on my Southern Africa life list and the 9th addition to my life list for 2017. Location : Mossel Bay Golf Estate
Those are the bare facts and as I was not able to get a photo of this elusive bird, the post could end right here……… but there is more to the story than that of how I came to find this bird.
Firstly, some information on this species, starting with an extract from Roberts Birds of Southern Africa :
Status – Uncommon to rare and localised endemic; regarded as vulnerable
Habitat – Dense tangled thickets on edge of forests and along watercourses
General Habits – Very secretive; presence usually revealed only when calling
The Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa adds to this :
The Knysna Warbler is endemic to the region and has a highly restricted and fragmented distribution….
The SABAP2 distribution map below shows the current distribution of the Knysna Warbler, spread along the southern coastal regions of SA :
Going into more detail the map below is of the pentads in the Mossel Bay area, the coloured ones showing where Knysna Warbler has been recorded during the 10 years that records have been gathered – yellow, orange and green indicate a lower number of sightings, while blue, pink, red and purple indicate more frequent sightings. Uncoloured pentads are where the species has not been recorded yet. So for example there has been only one previous record in Mossel Bay (the yellow block) in 10 years
Estimates put the total population at less than 2500 individuals with a status of Vulnerable
None of which explains why this species, which occurs in areas I have visited frequently during the 30 or so years that I have been birding, has eluded me until now. That’s birding – no certainties, lots of surprises.
I can only recall one occasion some years ago, during a visit to the Big Tree near Knysna, when I heard the distinctive trilling call from deep in the surrounding forest bush, but was unable to locate the bird at all
I have been very aware of this gap in my birding life list for some time and was determined to put in a special effort to fill this gap during our current December 2017 / January 2018 visit to Mossel Bay. A local birder offered to show me some spots known to be reliable for Knysna Warbler but I had not yet got around to taking up the offer.
The story of my unexpected find starts with a family walk around the golf estate on Christmas eve, around 7 pm in the evening and still light. Gerda and I set off with daughter Geraldine and Andre as well as the two granddaughters – first to leave the group was Megan who had her running shoes on and with the abundant energy of youth went running off like an Impala.
At the top of the hill Gerda and Geraldine returned home to put the final touches to the Christmas eve dinner, leaving myself, Andre and Maia to continue, heading for the clubhouse with the intention of doing a full circuit of the estate. A little further along the road it started drizzling lightly and with dark-ish clouds chasing in from the sea, I suggested a shortcut over the golf course to get home – problem was Maia was barefoot and with access to the golf course being across a stretch of veld with the possibility of thorns, she and Andre decided to turn around and walk back along the paved road we had just come on. This left me to continue on my own with the weather threatening and dusk approaching ….
I increased my pace a tad and at the bottom of the next hill I took a path on to the golf course and headed towards the edge of the 14th fairway and the path homewards. The rain had stopped and the dark clouds seemed to be moving away from me so I slowed my pace and listened to the birds calling from the dense bush that lines this part of the estate – the usual Mousebirds, Apalises and others were still active.
Then a different call attracted my attention and had me wondering out loud what it could be – my auditory memory kicked into overdrive and I just knew this was a call that I needed to get a handle on, familiar yet strange at the same time and certainly one I had not heard on the estate before.
The warbler like call started slowly then sped up into a drawn-out rapid trilling conclusion, with the clarity of a whistle with a pea in it – after some deep thought I went to the Roberts app on my iphone and looked up western cape then warblers. As soon as I saw Knysna Warbler it hit me like a wet snoek and I pressed the play on the bird’s call – bingo, that’s what it was!
This illustration is from Roberts Birds of Southern Africa :
Next challenge was to try and see it, so I got as close as I could to the bush from where it seemed to be calling and searched in the fading light. It sounded so close I felt I should be able to reach out and touch it, but it is a master at remaining hidden, not even stirring a leaf to give a clue to its position.
After spending 20 minutes or so searching, the best sighting I could get was of a small drab bird flitting from one dense bush to the next, but I decided this was the best I was going to do and left it calling non-stop, even though it was by now almost dark.
In any case this is an example of a bird whose call is much prettier than the bird itself, so I was quite content with my sighting / hearing and very happy to be able to add it to my life list at last.
So after agonising about where I should go to find this species, it popped up virtually on my doorstep – considering the circumstances that led to my finding it, I was left with the feeling that this was how it was meant to be.
After a long day’s driving, there is nothing I look forward to more than going walkabout and doing some birding. When travelling from Pretoria to our “other home town” of Mossel Bay, we like to make at least one overnight stop, and during our recent trip we decided to try a new (for us – it’s been there a long time) guest farm near Colesberg called Kuilfontein, just 11 kms beyond the town and close to the N1 national road.
Our route included a slight detour to allow for a mid-morning stop at son Stephan’s house in Potchefstroom in the North West Province. He was at work but Liesl was on hand to refresh us with coffee and banana bread before we pressed on. This part of the trip left me with mixed emotions as we passed through several small towns along the R30 route, which traverses the farmlands and goldfields at the heart of South Africa. The summer rains had not yet come and the wind was whipping up the fallow farmlands creating small dust storms, while the mining areas were equally dusty but from the mine dumps being scoured by those same winds.
This is not unusual after the winter and before the rains come (which they did subsequently) so one accepts that the landscape is not particularly attractive at this time of year. What really got to me was when we approached the towns along the way and on the way out again – the plastic bag litter strewn across the fields seems to be the norm nowadays (not just confined to these parts but more noticeable here) – very disheartening and with a bit of effort so simple to rectify you can’t help wondering why nothing seems to be done about it.
Anyway enough complaining and back to the pleasant part of the day.
We reached Kuilfontein farm at 5.30 pm after driving some 760 kms and by 6 pm we were settled in our charming cottage room.
With the prospect of a good one and a half hours of daylight available, I set off with a spring in my step to explore the farm, wondering what I would find.
Starting around the main house, I followed the entrance road which is like a long verdant tunnel with trees both sides almost meeting overhead. There were Sparrows and Doves aplenty, joined by Starlings (Pied, Cape Glossy and Red-winged) and several Cape Robin-Chats to make the walk interesting.
A group of three Korhaans caught my eye in the fields and turned out to be Blue Korhaans – they have a curious way of walking, crouching so that when they are in longish grass, just their rounded backs and the top of their heads are visible, giving them the appearance of fast-moving tortoises as they move about.
By dinner time I had recorded 25 species and called it a day – can’t be late for the Lamb pie!
After an early night and a good rest I was up before 6 am the next morning and was soon out for part two of my Kuilfontein birding, this time covering some new ground which soon delivered with Bokmakierie, Pied Barbet and Cape Clapper Lark amongst others.
From a vantage point on the top of the earth dam wall (bone dry) I could see far across the Karoo scrub – in the background the distant hills were washed blue / pink by the early morning rays. Two elegant Blue Cranes were just discernible in a distant field and as I scanned the horizon three Korhaans flushed about a 100 m away and flew off while calling what sounded to my ears like a very guttural “doctor no, doctor no, doctor no”. I couldn’t help chuckling at the thoughts that my interpretation of their call brought to my head.
It turned out That they were Karoo Korhaans and replaced the Blue Korhaans from the previous evening as my favourite sighting of the short stay.
Soon after, near the entrance gate at the end of the long entrance driveway, another call drew my attention and looking upwards I saw three Namaqua Sandgrouse flying by while calling “kelkiewyn” (pronounced “kelkyvane”) which is also their Afrikaans name. As I watched them they turned in a wide circle in the sky, almost as if acknowledging my presence, then carried on flying into the distance.
Time had also flown by and I headed back for breakfast, adding White-throated Swallow, Wattled Starling, Red-winged Starling and Fiscal Flycatcher on the way back. At the cottage a Malachite Sunbird was moving about amongst the Aloes lining the pathway, the emerald sheen of its feathers glinting in the sun. The garden sprinklers were on so the aloes had drops of water
After breakfast we greeted host Penny, who has the knack of making you feel like part of the family, and headed off on the next leg of our trip, but not before adding Steppe (Common) Buzzard and Red Bishop on the way to the N1.
As always I was atlasing (recording the bird species for submission to the database at the University of Cape Town) and was surprised and very pleased when I discovered that my “full protocol card” (minimum two hours of atlasing) was only the fourth one for the pentad, “turning it green” in atlasing parlance – this is a way of tracking how many times a pentad has been atlased, green indicating that at least four cards have been submitted to provide a statistical base.
Pentad : 3045_2455
Full protocol cards : fourth for the pentad.
Total species recorded : 45 – out of 86 for the pentad to date which equates to a coverage of 53% of the species recorded to date
Pentad location :
New species recorded for the first time in the pentad :
We had been planning Birding Big Day (BBD) – which took place on 25 November 2017 – for months, working out a route with stops planned to the minute and covering as much of the allowed 50 km radius as possible while making sure we included as many habitats as we could in the 24 hours ……….. Well that’s what we should have done to do any justice to the day; in fact our planning consisted of my jotting down a few “must visit” spots that I knew of close to Mossel Bay, the day before BBD. These included the Golf Estate, the harbour and Point, Herbertsdale road, Hartenbos waste water treatment works, Klein Brak area and the Hartenbos river. Any others would be added on a “play it by ear” basis as the day progressed.
Having only arrived in Mossel Bay from Pretoria the day before, there was not much time to gather ourselves but the prospect of a full day’s birding was enough to motivate me and I looked forward to having Willie Boylan, old friend and occasional birder, join me as the other half of our two man team – the Harried Hawks.
I had set the alarm for 4.15 am having suggested that Willie join me at 5 am, which he duly did and we immediately started our birding big day with a slow walk down the hill to the belt of coastal fynbos that lies between the residential area of the estate and the cliffs that drop away to the sea below
The weather was perfect and remained that way throughout the day – sunny yet cool with no cloud to speak of and a light wind. Doves were already vocal while the drawn out trilling call of Cape Grassbirds greeted the first rays of the sun. Yellow Canaries were active and plentiful along with Yellow Bishops with their standout black and yellow colouring.
The African Black Swifts that roost along the cliffs were up and about, joined by a lone Kelp Gull on its way to the sea. After scanning the bush for quite a while we felt we had exhausted the coastal fynbos possibilities, so we set off by car and exited the estate with 31 species, just about a quarter of our target of 125 for the day, with one hour down. As can be expected this was by far the best hour of the day.
We took it slow along the road bordering the St Blaize trail and soon spotted a Tern roost on the rocks far below – I set up the scope and was mildly disappointed to find they were all Swift Terns as I had been hoping for one or two other Tern species. Early morning joggers were curious and when told what we were up to they wished us luck. As we were packing up the scope a Southern Tchagra, always a difficult species to spot, showed briefly in the bush just below the road.
On to Church street and the harbour area where we quickly added Grey-headed and Hartlaub’s Gulls as well as Mallard, but the Point was a disappointment being very quiet – none of the usual Cormorants or Terns – were we too early for them?
By 7 am with two hours done and a total of 46 we headed through town and out on to the Cape road, deviating briefly to explore the bush along the outskirts of town at the small industrial area which turned out to be quite lively with Bokmakierie, Red Bishop, African Pipit and Pied Starling.
The light traffic meant we reached the Herbertsdale turnoff not long after where we almost immediately found some of the expected species. Large-billed Lark was first up with its “squeaky hinge needs oil” sounding call, but for a change wasn’t joined by Agulhas Long-billed Lark – hopefully we would get it later.
We added the likes of Karoo Prinia, Diderick Cuckoo, Grey-backed and Cloud Cisticola before reaching the small farm dam alongside the road which had just a few Yellow-billed Ducks and a couple of Common Moorhens.
By now we were in need of coffee and rusks, so we turned off onto the quieter (we thought) Klipkop road to find a peaceful spot but we were harried by 4 x 4 enthusiasts heading to an off-road event along the same road so in the end we had to venture further beyond the venue entrance before stopping. While enjoying the caffeine boost a Rock Kestrel came to greet us as did a Brimstone Canary on the nearby fence, while in the distance we could just make out some cattle with Cattle Egrets in attendance.
This is where the “play it by ear” factor kicked in for the first time as we decided to carry on with Klipkop road rather than head back to the tar road and soon we had Steppe Buzzard and White-necked Raven on our list, but not much else as we passed through the undulating hills and headed towards Hartenbos,
Our first stop at the Hartenbos river produced Black-winged Stilt, Red-billed Teal and White-faced Duck before continuing to the Waste water treatment works which we hoped would give our list a nice boost. It delivered as hoped and we added 9 species including Cape Teal, Cape Shoveler, Little grebe on the ponds, a Lesser Swamp Warbler calling and a couple of aerial birds in Brown-throated Martin and Pearl-breasted Swallow. By now it was 10.30 am and we had recorded 88 species, pleasing enough but I imagined it was going to be much slower going from there on.
In fact the next two hours produced just 10 species as we covered both Klein Brak and Great Brak river mouths, nevertheless including some less common birds such as African Black Oystercatcher, Little Egret, Greenshank, White-fronted and Common Ringed Plovers as well as a soaring Jackal Buzzard.
Time for our next route decision – this time we decided to make our way through Great Brak village and turn off west onto the road which would take us back to Klein Brak, but along the secondary road north of the N2. Our first stop along this stretch was at another waste water treatment works, the ponds visible from the road, which produced Pied Avocet, Three-banded Plover and a calling Little Rush Warbler.
Before reaching Klein Brak we turned right and took the Botlierskop road, just after spotting a Spoonbill in a marshy area before the bridge. Two “Olive” birds were our reward along this road – Olive Pigeon and Olive Bush-Shrike. As we passed a small obscure track we noticed another group of birders higher up on the embankment – turned out this was the “202 Ostriches” team who set a new Western Cape BBD record that day. We decided not to disturb them but to take a look later on our way back (the road was closed further on). In fact we discovered later on that the embankment was the wall of a large dam which held White-backed Duck and a lone African Darter – nice one to know about for future reference.
The 202 Ostriches passed us and stopped to say hi but were clearly hyped up and we didn’t want to hold them up – at that point they were on 160 species compared to our 101. Our next target was the Geelbeksvlei road – the vleis mostly dry but with a few water channels which held Hamerkop, Little Stint and Pied Kingfisher. Greater Honeyguide was calling “Victorrrrr” in the same spot I had heard it before while cycling the road.
The next hour was the longest of the day as we headed back into the undulating hills from the Brandwag turnoff, only finding our next species at the end of the hour after stopping at a farmstead near the road with a large Jacaranda tree in full bloom, which was alive with sunbirds including Amethyst and Greater Double-collared. They came as a timely boost to our pensioner aged team as our energy was being rapidly sapped although spirits were still high as we headed back towards Mossel Bay along the Gondwana road.
Almost simultaneously we spotted Denham’s Bustard followed a minute later by Red-necked Spurfowl crossing the gravel road, raising our spirits a notch or two again. A Forest Buzzard on a dry tree was worth turning off for but flew off before I could position the car for a photo.
At the next junction with the R327 tar road we crossed over and carried on towards Kleinberg and the N2 national road – this road was also quiet until we reached the mill where we found Red-capped Larks in the road and a few House Sparrows on the fence, the latter having eluded us all day despite popping into a couple of filling stations en route, often their preferred hangout.
Heading towards Mossel Bay along the N2, another bird that had eluded us – Agulhas Long-billed Lark – caught my ear and a quick stop confirmed the ID. Black-shouldered Kite was the last to be added on the road and we headed back to the estate, tired but happy with our total standing on 123, just two short of our target. It was 5.30 pm and there would still be daylight for an hour and a half at least, but we both agreed to call it a day, although Willie was happy to accept any further species I may spot once he left.
After a short recovery, I felt somehow compelled to find two more birds and took another short walk which happily produced a Cape Rock-Thrush, then while I was relaxing on the balcony with the light fading and a celebratory glass of wine in hand, still keeping an eye on passing birds, a Peregrine Falcon of all things obliged by flying past – 125 done!
Next day I checked the BBD Birdlasser page which showed 124 against our team’s name – the difference turned out to be the Domestic Goose which we had recorded at Great Brak estuary but which had been disallowed. Makes sense although when atlasing it is a recordable species. So 124 was our final total. All in all it was a great day’s birding with some slow progress in the middle third of the day – better planning and ranging wider to cover more habitats would have improved our total – good thing there’s a next time to look forward to!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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”.
Cars outside these shops were equally exclusive – Bentley (ooh, I want one), Lamborghini and the like.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Exploring Southern Africa's Natural Wonders and beyond