95 Years old – I’ll be dammed!

My birding travels have taken me to many places over the years, places that no ordinary person (read non-birder) would consider visiting.

Yesterday’s outing was not meant to be a birding outing but turned into a very interesting day, full of surprises……

We are spending this week at our timeshare apartment in La Lucia near Durban and Gerda was keen to visit a wool shop she has ordered wool from via internet from time to time. Cleverly, she threw in an enticement for me to take her to Kloof, where the shop is located, by suggesting we could visit a birding spot after the wool shop stop, knowing I could hardly resist such an offer.

I already had a place in mind – Shongweni Nature Reserve – which I have been curious about since first reading the Roberts write-up on this birding spot many years ago. Described as “one of the better birding spots in Durban” and located about 30 km from Durban off the N3, it seemed to fit the bill for an exploratory visit – the further note that “the reserve is spoilt slightly by the surrounding tribal land and access route” had me equally curious.

The wool shop turned out to be at the owner’s house in the upmarket suburb of Kloof and we found it with the help of google maps. I had brought along a book to read while waiting but when I saw the surroundings, my spirits lifted – across the road from the house was a grassy, bushy conservancy area, cared for by the neighbourhood and looking very promising.

The conservancy area in Kloof
Lush gardens with conservancy area across the road

The variety of bird life I discovered there and in the surrounding gardens with their well-developed trees and tropical gardens was nothing short of amazing. In just 45 minutes I had recorded 24 species of a variety I could hardly have guessed at, including several that would please all but the most blasé birders –

  • Purple-crested Turaco calling regularly
  • Bronze Mannikins – literally by the dozen on the lawns, flying up into low bushes when disturbed
  • Yellow-fronted Canaries in full song
  • A Black-headed Oriole pair with their familiar liquid calls
  • Dark-capped Yellow Warbler amongst the long grasses
  • Trumpeter Hornbill high up in the trees (not many suburbs can boast this bird)
  • White-eared Barbets
  • Collared Sunbird in a palm tree
  • Spectacled Weavers
  • Southern Black Flycatchers hawking insects

As I said, an amazing list for suburbia! The bubbling bird life left me, well, bubbling (not my normal state by any means)

Oh and did I mention the Verraux’s Eagle that soared gracefully overhead?

Gerda appeared almost too soon and feeling coffee deprived we set off and stopped at the first coffee shop we came across, then reset the gps to take us to Shongweni – the route took us further north until we turned off at Assagay and shortly after onto a side road through hills covered with green sugar cane fields.  This attractive landscape stopped abruptly as we passed through a rural village along with the customary roaming goats, dogs, chickens and cattle, not to mention the residents treating the road as an extension of their living area, wandering about with no regard for passing vehicles.

I had slowed to a crawl for the couple of kms through the village, until at the end of the village the reserve’s  gate suddenly appeared. The surprised look on the gate man’s face as we approached seemed to suggest they did not get many visitors and the casual attitude towards the small entrance fee made me insist on a receipt.

From the gate we wound downhill on a badly potholed road with not much sign of the bird life described in the write-up. As it turned out the birding became secondary as we got closer to the dam wall and discovered it dated back to 1923 – in fact by coincidence it was inaugurated on 21 June 1923, exactly 95 years ago today.

Plaque commemorating the inauguration on 21 June 1923
The wall with turreted structure
An old entrance at the bottom of the wal

With birding all but forgotten, I spent time taking a few photos of the unique dam structures and surrounds. The pictures speak for themselves – suffice to say we were both fascinated by the old-fashioned look of the dam wall, with stone turrets rounding it all off in grand style.

The main wall, overflowing gently
The sluice valves have not been used in a long time
The buttressed end of the wall
The water quality leaves a lot to be desired

The area below the wall felt like something out of Jurassic Park with abandoned buildings and heavy undergrowth.

Below the wall
Craggy cliffs opposite the wall
Abandoned ” Chemical Mixing” house
Inside the Chemical Mixing house

By the way, all photos were taken on my pocket Apple camera (which I sometimes find useful for phoning and other tasks)

On our way out the gate man advised us that he would not be working there for long – hadn’t we heard the dam was the subject of a land claim and would soon be handed back to “the community”? – we explained we were from Pretoria and had not heard this, but were not necessarily encouraged by this news.

 

Feathered Feast on father’s day (Part 2)

 

Father’s Day Treat

Continuing the story of my Father’s day birding treat while on holiday in La Lucia near Durban a couple of years ago ……..

Umlalazi Nature Reserve

With two hours of superb forest birding at Ongoye Forest Reserve behind us and Green Barbet duly seen and photographed, the next stop on bird guide Sakhamuzi’s itinerary was the Umlalazi Nature Reserve adjacent to the town of Mtunzimi.

We drove straight to the riverside along a winding sandy road and parked at the picnic spot where we enjoyed the all-important first cup of coffee accompanied by rusks while keeping an eye out for interesting bird life in the vicinity.

Umlalazi

Top spot went to a Mangrove Kingfisher perched on a low branch overhanging the water – a bird I had tried for a few times in various locations near Durban without success, then saw my first one the year before in the forests of Mozambique.

Mangrove Kingfisher, Mtunzini
Mangrove Kingfisher, Umlalazi NR

Curiously, the Mangrove Kingfisher occupies two quite different habitats – during the non-breeding season, from March to September, they inhabit mangroves while October to March sees them moving to forests to breed, estuarine forests in the Eastern Cape in the case of the Kwazulu-Natal population and lowland forests in the case of the Mozambique population, often far from water.

This is one of the Mangrove Kingfishers we came across in the forests of Mozambique

Their diet is equally curious, ranging from crabs – seawater crab in winter and freshwater crab in breeding season – to fish and even insects and lizards when crabs are not available. They are not averse to snatching the odd fish from ornamental ponds, a habit they share with other Kingfishers, much to the frustration of pond owners. Mind you, installing an ornamental pond and expecting a Kingfisher not to feed off your ornamental fish is like putting a fillet steak on the lawn and hoping your dog won’t eat it.

Noisy Black-bellied Starlings drew our attention to the tree which held several of them, as well as Yellow Weavers.

Black-bellied Starling, Umlalazi NR

Little Swifts and Palm Swifts swirled overhead, while a “big and small” act of Kingfishers played out on the lagoon as a Giant Kingfisher (364 g) made a large splash in pursuit of its prey while its diminutive cousin Malachite Kingfisher (just 17 g – ie one twentieth of the weight of the Giant) hardly created a ripple as he dove in at the water’s edge. All part of the magic and variety of birding.

After a half hour or so of absorbing the beauty and avian treasures of the surroundings, we headed slowly back to the entrance, stopping for a couple of special species along the way – Rufous-winged Cisticola in a patch of grassland and a handsome, posing Yellow-throated Longclaw on top of a nearby bush.

Yellow-throated Longclaw, Mtunzini
Yellow-throated Longclaw, Umlalazi NR

Amatigulu Nature Reserve

Last but by no means least on Sakhamuzi’s itinerary of nature reserves was another small reserve – Amatigulu, not far from where I had picked him up earlier and a stone’s throw from his house just outside the reserve. Once through the gate and the formalities of signing in etc, which Sakhamuzi took care of, we drove through grassland and coastal forest on an ever-deteriorating track down to the lagoon and found a parking spot at the picnic site.

I had mentioned to Sakhamuzi the fact that Green Twinspot was on my wish list for the day and he made a special effort to find this species which has somehow eluded me to date. He took us along a slightly overgrown path through the dense forest in search of it, but other than a brief glimpse of what he said was a Green Twinspot flying across the track and disappearing into dense bush, it remained elusive. Oh well, something to look for another day.

Amitigulu Nature Reserve – forest

A Scaly-throated Honeyguide made up partly for the dip on the Twinspot and was good enough to pose for some record photos – a lot better than previous ones I had managed to take.

Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Amitigulu Nature Reserve

White-eared Barbets were plentiful, as they were at the other reserves, and a Black-throated Wattle-Eye made a brief but welcome showing. Others we came across were Olive Sunbird, Spectacled Weaver, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird and Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher – all desirable species for any keen birder.

By this time we were heading into the afternoon and it was time to say goodbye to Sakhamuzi who had shown me a lot during the course of the morning.

Sappi Mill at Stanger/Kwadukuza

Back on the N3 highway, I pointed the Prado southwards but seeing I had some time in hand, decided to have a “look-in” at Sappi Mill wetlands, adjacent to the paper mill near Stanger/Kwadukuza, a spot I last visited perhaps 10 years ago. It was a worthwhile stop with a neat hide and good views for 180 degrees and more over the wetlands.

Sappi Mill Stanger / Kwadukuza

Immediately in front of the hide is a small island with trees which serves as a roost for many Cormorants, accompanied by a variety of waterfowl.

Sappi Mill Stanger / Kwadukuza

All 3 common Teals were present – Cape, Hottentot and Red-billed Teals – as well as a few African Swamphens, a flock of White-faced Ducks, Wooly-necked Storks (which are particularly common in Kwazulu-Natal), African Spoonbills and a calling African Rail.

Cape and Hottentot Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza

A Yellow Wagtail had been reported from this site in the last week and I looked out specially for this scarce bird, but to no avail.

The rest of the drive back to La Lucia was uneventful but full of good thoughts about my memorable day.

 

Feathered Feast on father’s day (Part 1)

While holidaying in La Lucia near Durban a couple of years ago, atlasing of the surrounding pentad kept me comfortably in touch with my birding passion – nothing spectacular, although the walks along the long stretch of beach immediately in front of the resort, where we have had a timeshare unit for many years, are always interesting with a mix of Gulls, Terns and Cormorants being the main source of birding entertainment. When the seas are high and stormy there’s even a chance of spotting an Albatross far out to sea,  but identifying them at that distance is very difficult unless you can pick up one of the features that separate the species.

La Lucia beach

Father’s Day Treat

I suspect Gerda saw the signs of me itching for some more exciting birding and with Father’s day coming up she suggested I “take a day off” and do a day trip to Ongoye Forest, knowing that there was a special bird or two to be ticked there (my subtle prompts worked like a charm). I didn’t need much encouragement and soon contacted a local guide, Sakhamuzi Mhlongo and arranged the trip for the upcoming Father’s Day.

Setting out in the dark before dawn, a couple of minor calamities delayed my departure, the first of which was a leaking hot water flask which sent me back to the apartment to get a refill of the essential hot water for my coffee later on, then I managed to miss a turn-off in the dark while trying to get to the highway and ended up in Verulam before I could find a place to turn around.

With my nerves somewhat on edge (it’s hard being a control freak) it took the beauty of a rosy dawn appearing over the lush green hills as I drove northwards and Louis Armstrong doing ” Rock my Soul” on the I-pod plugged into the sound system to bring me back to a semblance of my normal calm self and ready for the day ahead. By 7 am I reached the rendezvous, picked up Sakhamuzi and headed further up the N3  before taking the turn-off at Mtunzimi and heading west towards Ongoye.

Ongoye Forest Reserve

Soon we were at the entrance which, unlike the often impressive ones of many of the larger reserves, was just an open gate in the fence.

Ongoye Forest

By now the road was a track which wound through grassland covered hills towards the forest area, where we parked and ventured on foot into the forest itself.

Sakhamuzi leading the way into Ongoye Forest

I soon realised that Sakhamuzi has a real talent for bird call imitations, as he repeatedly did a near perfect Green Barbet call – no app necessary when you have him at your side! At least one bird responded, but it was still well concealed as we craned our necks and scanned the canopy to find it. However it didn’t take long to trace the call and locate a pair of Green Barbets feeding high up in the canopy, showing themselves briefly now and again.

The Green Barbet has the unenviable distinction of having probably the smallest distribution of any bird in Southern Africa, found only in the 3200 ha Ongoye forest, so any keen birder wanting to see it has only one choice of where to go, unless you happen to be in Tanzania.

It also means that this species is extremely vulnerable, being dependant on this relatively small patch of forest for its continuing existence in Southern Africa – a habitat the size of a typical mid-size farm. It is classified as Endangered in the 2015 Eskom Red Data Book of Birds published by Birdlife SA.

Ongoye Forest

Once I was happy with my sighting (which happened to be my 750th species in Southern Africa) I tried to get a photo, which is always a challenge in the forest against a strong back light, made doubly so by the Barbet’s habit of remaining high in the canopy and not sitting still for longer than a second or two. I eventually had a few photos in the bag which I hoped to be able to edit into something vaguely recognisable and we decided to move on after two hours in this unique birding locality.

Green Barbet, Ongoye Forest Reserve

Of course there is much more to Ongoye than this species as the forest and surrounding grasslands and bush are rich in several other desirable species, amongst them the distinctive Brown Scrub Robin, White-eared Barbet, Trumpeter Hornbill, Grey Cuckooshrike, Yellow-throated Longclaw and others. Striped Pipit on the way out was a surprise bonus.

Trumpeter Hornbill, Ongoye Forest Reserve

Forest birding is quite different from any other habitat – it’s more about audibility of the birds than their visibility. The canopy dwellers are often particularly vocal and the forest rings with multiple calls from the raucous wail of Trumpeter Hornbill to the gentle chop ….. chop of the Green Barbet and the quicker popping of the Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird.

They are joined intermittently by Square-tailed Drongo (strident tweets), Purple-crested Turaco (loud kor-kor-kor), Olive Sunbird (liquid tip-tip-tip), Black-bellied Starling (harsh jumble), Collared Sunbird and others. Seeing them clearly is tricky as mentioned above.

Square-tailed Drongo, Ongoye Forest Reserve

Next stop was Mtunzimi …….. but more about that and the rest of the trip in Part two

Atlasing Tales – Mkhombo : 500 Not out

Formal bird atlasing * (see end of post) has become my priority when planning a birding outing and I was looking forward to completing my 500 th “Full Protocol” atlasing card, having completed 499 by the end of March this year.

With Monday 2 April this year being a public holiday, it seemed the ideal time to reach  this milestone and I targeted two pentads to the west of Mkhombo dam, a little more than an hour’s drive north of Pretoria, which I suspected would provide good birding in attractive surroundings and should be lush and green after the recent good rains in the area north of Pretoria.

I was up at 4.20 am (after hitting the snooze button twice without even realizing it), collected good friend and equally keen atlaser Koos Pauw and headed north on the N1 highway, already busy on the homeward side with returning holiday and Moria pilgrimage traffic. The Rust der Winter turnoff soon loomed and before long we were on quiet country roads as the light grew stronger – a detour took us in the wrong direction initially but we were soon into the first pentad for the day.

Pentad 2505_2840

The dusty rural village we had entered was not very inspiring as a place to start our atlasing but just outside the village the habitat changed to patches of arid bushveld which, once we had stopped to investigate, proved irresistible for atlasing. All it took was to hang around at a selected spot long enough to allow the species to show – and show they did – all the species that favour the drier bushveld habitat : Yellow-billed Hornbills flying in their ponderous fashion from tree to tree, Crimson-breasted Shrikes with their redder than red breast colouring contrasting with jet black uppers. This area rates as excellent for Shrikes judging by the variety we encountered, with White-crowned Shrikes, Red-backed Shrikes, Lesser Grey Shrikes and even Magpie Shrikes all easily seen during the morning.

White-crowned Shrike
Red-backed Shrike

In between sightings we were able to identify several birds on their calls, familiar ones such as Acacia Pied Barbet, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Rattling Cisticola and the ubiquitous Go-Away Bird uttering its nasal “go away” call at every opportunity. With the obvious birds recorded on our list we started picking up the smaller, “passer-by” species – Amethyst Sunbird, Chinspot Batis, White-bellied Sunbird, Black-faced Waxbill and Green-winged Pytilia (Melba).

Chinspot Batis
Black-faced Waxbill – amongst the thorns
Green-winged Pytilia

The species we came across most frequently were Marico Flycatcher and Scaly-feathered Finch (love its Afrikaans name Baardmannetjie – literally small bearded man, alternatively Koos calls it Fu-man-chu). In the villages Pearl-breasted Swallows dominate amongst the swallows for reasons unknown – perhaps they just like being around humans like many other bird species.

Marico Flycatcher

The village we drove through looking for the species that seem to favour this habitat, was suffering from some “land-grabbing”, but not the sort that dominates our  news from time to time – here the only tar road bisecting the village was slowly being “grabbed” by the surrounding sandy earth and undergrowth, so much so that there was barely a single lane width of the two-lane tar road still visible – so much for maintenance.

With our two hours of atlasing done (the minimum for a “Full Protocol” card), we headed to the main target for the morning, being Mkhombo Nature Reserve which lies to the west of the main dam.

Pentad 2505_2845

Entering the reserve’s gate, which lies a distance off the main road and is not signposted, we were met by the hoped-for pristine bushveld and sandy tracks with some thorny bushes encroaching in places – a tad worrying when the first screeches of thorn against duco rattled the control-freak side of my nature, but after some initial teeth-clenching I decided to ignore it – after all, why have a bush-capable SUV if you don’t want to go into the bush with it.

Mkhombo Nature reserve
Mkhombo Nature Reserve

We had the place to ourselves and enjoyed Koos’s hard-boiled eggs (well actually a chicken produced them, he just boiled them) and coffee in the tranquil surroundings while continuing with atlasing, then proceeded slowly along the sandy roads, branching off here and there for a view of the dam, which was pretty much non-existent other than a small pond or two. No other water was visible, just a vast expanse of green vlei grass covering the muddy plain as far as the eye could see, confirming how little rain the area had experienced over the last couple of years since we were last there.

We were rewarded with Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters in a nearby tree, while Great and Yellow-billed Egret as well as Grey Heron were ID-able once I had the scope up  and focused on the distant scattered birds. All three local Lapwings – Crowned, Blacksmith and Wattled – were visible, in separate groups but mingling where they overlapped,  then I spotted a mixed flock of large birds in flight, morphing into Spurwinged Geese and Knob-billed Ducks as they landed in a hidden patch of water, with just their top halves showing.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

We had completed two hours and made our way back to the gate then homewards, which took a lot longer than planned as we encountered heavy holiday traffic all the way back.

I basked in the pleasure of a milestone reached – here’s to the next 500!

* Atlasing : 

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

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

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

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

Mongolian take-away

Long-distance Migration

Thousands of Amur Falcons grace Southern Africa with their presence from around late November each year, departing during April/May. The journey it undertakes to escape the harsh winter of its breeding grounds in Mongolia, northern China and North Korea is astounding, beginning with an initial migration to northeast India where they gather in staging areas before commencing the long flight to Africa. They can cover up to 1000 kms per day during this stage.

The map below shows the route followed by one individual with a 5 gram tracking device attached :

amur falcon migration

Familiar Summer Visitors

Amur Falcons are a familiar sight when birding/atlasing in the north-eastern parts of South Africa, particularly in the grassland areas, where they regularly perch on power lines and telephone lines in numbers, ever on the lookout for their favoured prey – termite alates and grasshoppers. Less common in the southern parts although I have come across them in the Southern Cape not far from our second home in Mossel Bay.

During March this year I had been out atlasing in the grasslands south of Delmas and had seen a few Amur Falcons along the way. Heading homewards around midday along a gravel back road, the Amur Falcons were suddenly numerous, probably drawn by a good supply of insect food – most were perched on low fences and posts due to the lack of overhead power and other lines along the road.

This seemed like too good a photographic opportunity to pass up, with the Falcons being more or less level with my line of sight and with fairly good light conditions for the time of day – the cloud cover served to soften the harsh sunlight.

The only problem was the skittish nature of these small raptors – as soon as I slowed and stopped they would fly off, only to tease me by perching on the fence a short distance further. I was on the verge of giving up when a female Amur flew down and perched on a fence post just ahead, clearly with some sort of prey in her talons.

I crawled my SUV closer, hoping its diesel engine would not scare the falcon away, but she was so pre-occupied with her catch that she just gave me a glance and carried on pecking at the grasshopper she had just caught – this gave me the opportunity to rattle off a series of shots, including a few as she flew off.

Amur Falcon – lunch is ready
Looks tasty
Let’s try this
Not sure I like being watched

By this time the Amur was clearly a bit uncomfortable with my attention and she flew off, gaining height rapidly while still clutching the grasshopper until I could barely see her. The photos revealed the magnificent patterns of feathers on the upper- and under side.

Amur Falcon showing off her fine wing and tail feathers
Amur Falcon – under-wing and tail patterns just as impressive
And off she goes, still giving me a wary look, still clutching the grasshopper

It’s encounters such as this that make birding the amazing pastime it is.

 

Perilous Plastic Pollution

I’m not in the habit of using my blog for any sort of crusade, but this article in the latest “WILD” online newsletter published by SA National Parks struck a chord with me and it’s worth sharing some of the thoughts on plastic pollution – surely one of the bigger threats to our wonderful natural world :

With thanks to Wild Magazine for permission to copy their blog : http://wildcard.co.za

The war against plastic pollution is far from over and its devastating destruction reaches beyond our oceans. As avid travellers to southern Africa’s many national parks and reserves, be inspired by Earth Day on 22 April and ditch plastic for good. By Arnold Ras

Earth Day, celebrated on 22 April, encourages all humans to change their attitude towards plastic consumption. Made to last forever, plastic piles up in the environment, because only a small percentage is recycled and the rest cannot biodegrade.

You can make a difference. Exploring the wilderness as a conscious, responsible and say-no-to-plastic visitor is not as challenging as you might think. By swapping single-use plastics with some nifty products, you too can fight the plastic pandemic.

What the straw?

What’s nicer than enjoying the mind-blowing view from the Olifants Rest Camp deck while sipping on something cold? Whether you’re in the popular Kruger National Park or enjoying some downtime at a wildlife reserve in Swaziland, have a straw-free drink. Admittedly, there’s a childlike appeal to drinking from a straw – it might take you back to long ago picnics next to the water or a game drive with loved ones at sunset. If you can’t imagine drinking without sipping, make sure your straw is biodegradable. You can find straws made from eco-friendly materials such as bamboo, paper or glass at select retailers or online. Carry your own straw(s) with you so you’re always prepared.

Scary fact: Every day, yes, every day, half a million straws are used around the world.

Fill it up!

Many of South Africa’s national parks and reserves are famous for their awe-inspiring hiking trails. But imagine tackling one without a drop of drinking water. The African sun is no one’s playmate and staying hydrated is key. Why consume water from disposable bottles when you can simply refill a re-usable, durable and stylish water bottle that safeguards the planet? By drinking from recyclable stainless steel or aluminium, renewable bamboo or glass, you’re not only making a difference, but leading by example. When purchasing a wiser water bottle, read the packaging to ensure the product is BPA-free, non-toxic and non-leaching (doesn’t give off chemicals).

Scary fact: Ever thought how much humanity weighs? Well, every year, the global amount of plastic produced is roughly the same weight as humanity in its entirety.

Picnic without plastic

When it comes to picture-perfect picnic spots at Wild destinations, the list is simply endless. Sit next to the Augrabies Falls, marvel at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers in Mapungubwe, or step back in time in the Cederberg. All you have to do is pack a scrumptious picnic basket. A picnic basket is the ideal alternative to carrying lunch items in plastic bags. Prepare dishes at home and pack in re-usable containers. And for those interested in investing in green cutlery and crockery: do some online exploring to find everything from plates and bowls to knives and spoons crafted from wood or bamboo. Either way, remember to take back home what you brought into a protected nature or wildlife environment. Even better, join a recycling initiative in your residential area and put your waste to good use.

Scary fact: Every minute, almost two million single-use plastic bags are distributed around the world.

‘It’s not mine…’

That chocolate wrapper you’re standing on, the juice bottle under a thorn tree or the empty crisp packet pushed around by the wind… It might not be yours, but picking it up won’t kill you. Doing your bit to reduce plastic use is simply not enough. It’s just as important to stop plastic from polluting our favourite places. If picking up others’ trash is not your thing, consider this statistic from the United Nations: “There is more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way.” Remember, others’ devil-may-care attitude towards plastic is not only threatening the future of our natural heritage, but your very existence too.

Scary fact: Yearly, eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean – and it’s only getting worse.

Do yourself a favour and Google “plastic pollution in South Africa”. You will think twice before using a plastic bag or asking for a straw the next time you visit one of our country’s wild treasures.

Cosmos time

No, this is nothing to do with a philosophical discussion of the universe, just a reflection on how pleasing it is to do birding / atlasing at this time of year, particularly in the eastern parts of our country where the cosmos flowers come into full bloom during late summer, heading into autumn.

These attractive flowers form massed displays along the roadside, spreading into unattended fields in places, creating a beautiful pink and white carpet with an occasional purple flower popping out at random.

Unlike the amazing indigenous flowers of Namaqualand, renowned for their magnificent displays in spring, the cosmos is an introduced plant species native to South America, which came to South Africa during the Anglo-Boer war at the end of the 19th century as a “stowaway” in the bales of feed imported from Argentina to feed the thousands of horses used by the British.

Since then they have become a feature of the landscape, particularly in the open grasslands of south-western Mpumulanga province, so much so that the provincial tourist body describes the area as Cosmos Country. It also happens to be the energy belt of South Africa with numerous coal mines feeding the ravenous power stations that are never very far from view.

So expect to see stunning displays of cosmos flowers contrasting with the heavily disturbed, ugly landscape typical of the coal mining areas.

 

Cosmos time, Delmas south
Cosmos time, Delmas south

 

Cosmos time, Delmas south
Cosmos time, Delmas south

 

Delmas south
Some butterflies are attracted to cosmos such as this Painted Lady

 

Cosmos time, Delmas south
The name Cosmos was chosen due to the perfect symmetry of the petals

 

Cosmos time, Delmas south
Cosmos display

Such a lovely accompaniment when out birding!

 

Central Drakensberg – Revisited

Following on our visit to Champagne Valley in February this year, we found ourselves heading back to the same area scarcely a month later – reason being my brother Andrew came to visit from Devon in the UK where he has been for some 20 years. This time we had traded in some timeshare points for a midweek at Drakensberg Sun, a resort we last visited some 19 years ago, so what memories we had were vague to say the least. How nice to re-visit a place that we enjoyed so long ago and find it well-kept and just as attractive after so many years!

Monday

On the Monday morning that Andrew was due to arrive from London, we were up early to do some last packing and head through the morning traffic to OR Tambo to meet him just after 8 am. All went according to schedule and by 9 am we were on the N3 heading south towards Heidelberg, where we decided to stop for a coffee and pain au chocolat “filler” at the Mugg and Bean – Andrew declared it the best cappuccino he had enjoyed in a long time. So easy to please some people!

On to Harrismith in surprisingly light traffic with fewer lorries than we have become accustomed to – mental note to travel this route on a Monday in future. We broke the journey once more at Harrismith for brunch and by mid afternoon had reached our destination.

Chalet 213 was our allocated home for the next few days – it turned out to be in the “back row” of two rows of chalets a short distance from the hotel, separated by extensive gardens and with a large pool and a dam as the main features. Getting our luggage and self-catering provisions down the awkward steps outside the chalet and then down and up to the different levels inside proved to be quite strenuous for us semi-pensioners (another mental note to book the front chalets if ever we return) and once done we made haste to the pool for a refreshing swim in the humid weather.

The steps to the chalet

Tea revived us enough to take a walk around the gardens –

Dark-capped Bulbul
Southern Fiscal
Speckled Mousebird
A river runs through it
Andrew out walking

Later we enjoyed a delicious bobotie and salads which we had bought freshly cooked at our local Super Spar the previous day and which was the perfect way to end the day with the minimum amount of cooking effort. We had thought of watching the Oscars on TV that evening but a heavy thunderstorm passed through the area and put paid to that idea as it temporarily disrupted the power and affected TV reception for the rest of the evening. This was a blessing in fact as we were all quite weary and happy to get an early night.

Tuesday

Still in “take it easy” mode, we slept later than usual and even Andrew, early riser most times, slept in to catch up on lost sleep on the flight over. After a fruit brekkie we set off on a drive without any fixed plans other than a stop at the Valley Bakery nearby, set hidden away behind plantations but well worth finding, as we had on a previous visit. Relaxed surroundings and a really good roast chicken wrap, followed by cappuccino and pasteis de nata (Portuguese custard tart) made for the ideal way to catch up on news with Andrew and just enjoy the ambiance for a couple of hours.

The road took us further to Winterton for some stocking up and on the way back we popped into The Hand Woven Rug Co for a look at their attractive products, including some interesting colourful rugs woven from leather off-cuts. The quirky signage outside and in added to the interest.

The Handwoven Rug Co

Back at our chalet it was time for a walk down to the dam and surrounds – wide lawns leading to the water’s edge in places and to reed beds in others. A variety of birds were doing their thing –

Yellow-billed Ducks in the shallows looking rather aloof and scudding away at my approach;

Yellow-billed Duck, Drakensberg Sun

Common Moorhens dipping at unseen organisms in the water;

Common Moorhen, Drakensberg Sun

Thick-billed Weavers by the dozen busily moving up and down, out and back, never far from their perfectly woven nests strung between sturdy reeds.

Thick-billed Weaver, Drakensberg Sun

It made me realise that the human weavers we had seen earlier, good as they were, are amateurs by comparison with these little brown experts!

We closed out the day with a braai of chops and wors and chatted well into the night – so nice to catch up with family after a couple of years.

Wednesday

I set off early to the hotel reception to enquire about walking the Forest trail – the hotel insists that anyone wanting to walk the trails check-in first and pay a small deposit, presumably to give them some record and control of hikers. My aim was to do a portion of the trail or possibly the whole one, with the objective of looking for a bird that has eluded me until now, the Bush Blackcap, a bird of the forests in these elevated parts. It was not to be as the staff had decided the trail was too slippery and dangerous after the night’s heavy rain – a wise precaution but disappointing.

Having set out to do some birding I walked the gardens and along the dam edge, then took a short drive along the road back to the R600, adding to my growing pentad list with the likes of Cape Grassbird, Lesser-striped Swallow, Fan-tailed Widowbird and Jackal Buzzard.

The gardens
A coulourful splash amongst the grasses
Locust – colourful but in a blend-in fashion

A substantial breakfast awaited back at the chalet, after which we headed off on an exploratory drive towards Monk’s Cowl, branching off at side roads that looked interesting.

One such road took us past an interesting looking building where we decided to have a closer look. We were the only visitors and a small fee of R20 allowed entry to the inside of the old Trading Store, which we were told was transported lock, stock and barrel from Lesotho some 12 years ago by the owner of the farm. The inside was filled with old-fashioned provisions, as if waiting for the next customer to come in and order from the assistant behind the counter – fascinating and absolutely unique. What a gem and another example of the quirky attractions that lie hidden in South Africa’s countryside.

Trading store ex Lesotho
Trading store
The packed interior
Old provisions on the shelves – now does that take you back or what?
Old display cabinets – I feel like asking for a tickey’s worth of sweets!

Thursday

Another rainy morning meant no chance to try for the Blackcap along the forest walk so we enjoyed a fruit brekkie in between packing. Not wanting to exhaust ourselves lugging everything back up the long flight of steps to the road above, I approached one of the security guards to assist – he was more than willing and had all our luggage and provision crates at the car in no time. Quite a relief for all of us!

We had planned a few stops, the first one being Scrumpy Jacks for their delectable cheesecake accompanied by good coffee. It was the same one we had tried for the first time a month ago but this time it was drizzled with a dark berry dressing – oh so good!

Cheesecake delight!

Once again we took the “old” road via Winterton and Bergville to Harrismith where we joined the N3 highway back to Gauteng and we were back home by late afternoon.

The road home

After not visiting the Drakensberg area for close on 20 years we have ” re-discovered”  this beautiful part of our country during  3 visits in the last 12 months or so – and we’ll be going back next year I’m sure.

 

Czech it out – Prague : Hills and a Palace

The further story of our 4 day stay in Prague, Czech Republic, prior to our “bucket list” Danube River Cruise in April 2016 ……

Into the (Petrin) Hills

We slept a little later this morning, recharging our batteries after a busy couple of days of traveling and touring. Our plan, as recommended by friends who had done a similar trip, was to take the funicular to the top of Petrin Hill, walk through the parkland to the Palace and from there make our way back down to the Charles Street Bridge. Well, it didn’t quite work out fully as planned, but we certainly walked a lot and saw many sights. After all, travel tends to be more interesting when it doesn’t go entirely according to plan – and that’s coming from someone who plans things to the last detail!

The day began in earnest, after a relaxed breakfast brought to our room by the ever-friendly staff at our hotel, at around 11 am with a walk to the nearest tram stop, which I had located on a map during a swot up of the commuting options. Two tram rides later we found ourselves, somewhat miraculously as we were guessing where to get off the tram, at the lower funicular station. The short ride to the top of Petrin Hill was through forested slopes with brief glimpses of the city beyond.

Prague – the view from the funicular

I have been fascinated by all things mechanical since childhood, especially those involving transport of some sort, and I’m always on the lookout for the chance to take a ride on unusual forms of transport, so the combination of trams and funicular was right up my street … or track in this case, and anyone observing me would probably have seen the boyish joy in my expression as we ascended the hill.

No, not the one we rode on – ours was a bit more modern. This is the 1891 version

Petrin Park

At the top we emerged from the station into an extensive park with wide lawns, gardens, many trees and shrubs and a curious mixture of structures here and there – an old Observatory, a House of Mirrors, a small church and a steel observation tower in the style of the Eiffel tower but on a much smaller scale.

Petrin Hill
Petrin Hill – the Observatory
Petrin Hill

A restaurant beckoned us for a hot chocolate and feeling suitably refreshed by this injection of goodness we set off to find the Palace. Pathways through the park were pleasantly shady and birdsong accompanied us as we meandered along, creating such a relaxed feeling that we may not have fully concentrated on where we were heading (mistake!).

Branches in the pathway required a quick decision as to which would be the shortest route to the Palace, but without signposts we knew we were guessing, but were nevertheless confident that we would find the right path eventually.

Petrin Hill
Petrin Hill
Petrin Hill

Downhill all the way

It soon became obvious we were on the wrong route, but by this time it was already too late to turn back as we had descended part of the hill and we found ourselves having to negotiate ever steepening downward paths and hundreds of steps – not good news for our rather aged knees. Realising that we would have to see it through, we negotiated one set of steps after another and just to prove there’s no stopping a birder or his intrepid wife, we stopped every now and then to view the few birds that caught our eye.

Great Tit, Prague
Great Tit
Common Chiffchaff, Prague
Common Chiffchaff
Common Chaffinch, Prague
Common Chaffinch
Wood Pigeon, Prague
Wood Pigeon

In the depths of one wooded area a cute squirrel with furry ears was an equally pleasant surprise.

Petrin Hill
Petrin Hill – Eurasian Red Squirrel (in winter coat)

By the time we got to the bottom we were virtually back at the lower station of the funicular, still in good spirits but decidedly weary. Not knowing how to get to the castle, we headed in the direction we thought it was – fortune guided us past a small restaurant called U Svatého Václava where we took sustenance in the form of Goulash soup, which perked us up no end and off we went again. Just around the next corner we asked directions of a friendly Prague-ite and were glad to hear the palace was “oh, about 7 minutes walk up that hill”, pointing to an ominously steep-looking, winding, narrow street with no visible end.

The long walk to the castle

And up again

Well, Bruce Fordyce (famous South African marathon athlete) in his prime would have done it in that time, but for us it was a long trek on our already tired legs and uphill all the way. We only just made it to the top with very little left in our tanks.

What we found after this strenuous walk was a large complex of various buildings rather than one identifiable “Palace”. The complex was handsomely designed, enclosing halls, offices, stables, a lane of residences, extensive gardens and the impressive St Vitus cathedral. However the combination of tired legs and a rather exorbitant entry fee put us off going inside the cathedral and instead we were content with a slow amble around the palace precinct.

Prague Castle – St George’s Square
Prague Castle – St George’s Basilica
Prague Castle – the Courtyard
Prague view from the Castle

The curious thing I find about some ancient cathedrals, as with St Vitus, is the gargoyles (rainwater spouts) at all the corners featuring some strange figures often with really grotesque forms – they just seem so out-of-place on a building supposedly designed to bring inner peace……. here are some examples of those found on St Vitus.

St Vitus Cathedral has an interesting history – the foundation stone was laid on the Hradčany Hill in 1344 at the behest of Charles IV, the future king of Bohemia and Holy Roman emperor. The architect Petr Parléř gave the cathedral its late Gothic style, but construction was not completed until 1929.The martyred Prince Wenceslas I (the “Good King Wenceslas” of the Christmas carol) was interred in 932 in the Church of St. Vitus, predecessor to the cathedral dedicated to the same saint

Prague Castle – St Vitus Cathedral
Prague Castle – St Vitus Cathedral
Prague Castle – St Vitus Cathedral
Prague Castle – St Vitus Cathedral

Eventually, after treating ourselves to a take-away coffee which we enjoyed on a nearby bench like true tourists, we found our way to the tram stop where we soon caught the right trams to within a short walking distance of the Old Town Square and the comfort of our hotel for a welcome rest.

So what happened to the Charles Street bridge visit, I hear you ask? Well, we saw it from the tram, lined on both sides with tourists, and having seen and experienced so much else we weren’t too fussed about not actually standing on it and taking a selfie like a zillion other people.

Taking to the streets

Dinner was a street affair, at one of the many food stalls along one side of the square – a Czech sausage (klobása – much like a frankfurter) with a side of a potato and sauerkraut mixture.

The latter was far too much for us, mainly due to not understanding what quantity we were ordering, but we noticed a “gentleman of the road” standing nearby with his dog and he was more than happy to take our leftovers. Funny how sometimes you feel things happen for a reason, even something as simple as ordering too much food – end result was we fed a hungry soul.

Our visit to Prague was over and the Danube trip lay ahead – we were happy that we had decided to spend the time to experience this handsome and interesting city.

Map of Prague

Central Drakensberg – Champagne Valley

For no other reason than to utilise our expiring RCI points, we booked a long weekend getaway from 9th to 12 th February this year at Champagne Valley Resort near Winterton in the area known as the Central Drakensberg.

Friday

We departed from home in Pretoria at around 9.30 am, late enough to avoid the peak hour traffic as we made our way through Johannesburg’s eastern side and headed south on the N3 towards Harrismith, where we had arranged to meet up with Koos and Rianda for a “padkos” brunch of hard-boiled eggs, frikadels (courtesy of Woolies) and jam sandwiches. Padkos is long-standing South African tradition, translating literally to “food for the road” and tastes even better when you stop at one of the large roadside service centres where there are umpteen choices of take-away and sit-down fast food restaurants – a nose-thumbing at conventional practices. (Just to show we’re flexible we stopped at the same spot for a Wimpy breakfast on the way back)

We reached Champagne Valley by 3.30 pm after a fairly relaxed drive from Harrismith, the scenery progressively becoming greener and prettier as we got closer to the central Berg area. On checking in we were allocated a chalet overlooking the dam with pleasing views of the Drakensberg range in the background and we quickly settled in. I had a refreshing swim in the crystal clear pool then joined the others on the stoep for beverages as we all spotted a few birds to get our list going in true keen birder/atlaser fashion.

Champagne Valley chalet

By sundown there were 18 species on my list including a Black-headed Oriole calling sweetly, Cape and Village Weavers busying themselves on the lawns, as well as Common Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot and White-faced Duck on the dam.

Village Weaver (Male)
Cape Turtle-Dove

Saturday

After a late rise (after all we were there to relax and are of the age where a crack of dawn start is not always first choice) we were back on the stoep in pleasant but humid weather to savour our first coffee along with Gerda’s health rusks. Before long we were entertained by no less than 3 different raptors – Cape Vulture at high altitude soaring majestically in wide circles, a Yellow-billed Kite cruising just above the tree tops delicately adjusting its flight path with twists of its distinctive broad V-shaped tail and a Bearded Vulture so high that I could only ID it from a magnified photo. They were joined by a group of White-necked Ravens calling from aloft in their croaky fashion.

Cape Vulture

Yellow-billed Kites were a feature of the weekend as we came across them several times in different localities. What struck me when looking at the photos I had taken of one individual was its rather un-fierce look which I deduced was because of its dark eyes and fluffy feathers on the head, creating a look unlike most large raptors with their piercing eyes.

Yellow-billed Kite
Close-up of the Yellow-billed Kite – a less than fierce look unlike most raptors

Mid-morning Koos and I braved the humid weather for a walk around the resort, starting with a walk through the grassland area along a mown path then wading through knee-high grass pods down the gentle slope until we found another path to take us back to the resort proper.

Champagne Valley grassland

Grassland species such as Fan-tailed and Red-collared Widowbirds, Zitting Cisticola and Streaky-headed Seedeater were active and visible, while an unusual “chip-chu” call had us puzzled until we discovered an Amethyst Sunbird calling from a tree – not the call we are used to, so something new added to our birding knowledge.

Fan-tailed Widowbird
Amethyst Sunbird

A passing Martin caught my eye and the white rump said Common House-Martin – one of those birds seen infrequently, although we came across a few more in flocks of Swallows during the weekend.

By the time we got back to the chalet I was drenched in sweat from the humidity and mild exertion – a cold drink was most welcome and stoep-based birding became the order of the day.

Late afternoon we drove to Monk’s Cowl camp, stopping  on the way to see if we could coax a Bush Blackcap to show itself, but to no avail. Nevertheless we had good sightings of Steppe Buzzards and Yellow-billed Kites, a Dusky Indigobird and a Black-backed Puffback with a Juvenile in tow.

Dusky Indigobird
Black-backed Puffback (Juvenile)

Sunday

Another relaxed morning for me starting with a quiet walk along the edge of the dam where odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) were almost more numerous than the avifauna so I spent a pleasant hour or so chasing them down and taking a few photos.

Dragonfly
Dragonfly

Late morning we set off on a drive along the R600 towards Winterton with the main purpose of popping into Scrumpy Jacks for coffee and a taste of their recommended cheesecake. On the way Koos pointed out the Long-crested Eagle he had seen on his earlier walk, perched in the open for all to see.

Long-crested Eagle

Soon after we arrived at the small farmstall with a few tables outside, a parking area fairly muddy from earlier rains and a notice on the flimsy gate to “please close the gate to protect the dog”. The only visible animal in the garden was a large pig with an even larger pot belly dragging on the ground – presumably the “dog” referred to in the notice. It seemed a strange pet to allow near guests – such as us – coming for coffee and honey-baked cheesecake, however we did not let it detract from the treat.

Said coffee and cheesecake did the trick of turning on the switch in the brain that says “I am contented with life” and we ventured further down the R600 with the intent of doing a “bit of birding”. At the signpost indicating “Bell Park Dam 8 km ” we turned left – this was a route Koos and I had explored a year ago and it turned out to be a good choice again as we were soon into rolling grasslands and farms planted with tall green mielies (corn). Amur Falcons were numerous, perched at regular intervals on the roadside wires, sometimes in small groups, scanning the fields for their next grasshopper or termite alate meal.

The attractive farm dam where we had seen Grey-crowned Cranes landing the year before, was occupied by various waterfowl including SA Shelduck, Spur-winged Goose and a complement of the usual Egyptian Geese and Red-knobbed Coots plus a lone Grey Heron.

Farm dam in the distance

We continued in the same slow fashion past the Bell Park dam wall with cascading overflow creating a nice picture, then turned off onto the road leading to the dam’s entrance gate. After a brief leg-stretch accompanied by yet another Yellow-billed Kite eyeing us from his perch on top of a pole, we decided to turn back and head for the resort.

Farmlands with mountains in the background
The road to Bell Park dam

On the way back Koos spotted a flock of Geese and was elated when he found two Grey-crowned Cranes amongst them. A small Cisticola like bird in the top of a tree had us puzzled for a while with its grey breast and white belly, until we decided it was a form of Neddicky – later reference to Roberts showed that there are no less than 7 subspecies of Neddicky in southern Africa so I deduced that a wide variance in appearance can be expected. (another snippet of added knowledge).

Neddicky

Amazingly our “bit of birding” had been so absorbing that we found we had spent the required 2 hours in the pentad for a “Full protocol” card – and we all had an enjoyable afternoon of birding in a beautiful environment along a quiet road – what more can one ask for?

Monday

Time to return to Pretoria – Arrow-marked Babblers visited the chalet while packing and I couldn’t resist a quick photo…..

Arrow-marked Babbler

By 9 am we were on our way, this time choosing the scenic route via Winterton and Bergville then via the spectacular Oliviershoek pass to Harrismith. What a good choice it turned out to be – the scenery was quite stunning for most of the way, certainly the greenest we have ever seen this part of our country, both cornfields and grasslands alike, stretching into the distance in checkered patterns.

We’ll be back! Sooner than you can imagine – in a couple of weeks we return to the same area but a different resort when my brother visits from the UK.

Exploring Southern Africa's Natural Wonders and beyond