With the new year barely out of the starting blocks, it’s once again time to select the photos which best represent our travels and nature experiences during 2021, plus a few others that appeal to me for various reasons. Despite the ongoing restrictions brought upon all of us by Covid 19, we still managed to travel fairly extensively, although it was limited to the borders of South Africa.
I’m hoping you will find some of my favourite images to your liking – if you do, please take a moment to mention them in the comments at the end of the post.
During a normal birding year, I take a couple of thousand images of birds – this past year, for various reasons, I did not get out in the field birding and atlasing as much as I would normally have done, nevertheless when it came to choosing images I was happy to find that it was as challenging as ever.
With the new year in its infancy, it’s time to select a few photos which best represent our 2020. In some cases, selection is based on the memory created, in others I just like how the photo turned out, technically and creatively. Despite the restrictions brought upon all of us by Covid 19, we still managed to travel, although it was limited to the borders of South Africa.
Birding and bird atlasing takes me to many places that would not otherwise feature on our travel map – here’s a selection ….
The Other Stuff
And to end off …… me and my pal Saartjie (who belongs to the Leonards but I get to borrow her now and again)
Ahhh, 2020 is already moving ahead apace and I am just finalising my “My Birding Year” post for the past year …. how time flies as you get older!
Before getting into a summary of my birding exploits for 2019, I asked myself – what were my birding expectations at the beginning of the year and how far did I go in achieving what I set out to do? I decided that they were …..
Atlasing – my first priority nowadays and I aim to atlas one day per week – I generally managed to do so and my species list atlased for the year reached 426 spread across southern Africa, a more than satisfactory outcome in my book – not for personal glory but rather an indicator that my atlasing efforts were well spread across many parts of the country
Birding outside southern Africa – knowing we would be visiting Australia for the first time in April and May was an exciting prospect and the country and its bird life were an absolute treat
Lifers – most birders are driven by the desire to add new lifers to their lists and I am no different, however I have found that this aspect of birding is becoming less important with my focus shifting to citizen science activities such as atlasing. Nevertheless I cannot deny being thrilled each time I added a lifer – I saw just one lifer in southern Africa during the year but made up for that with 68 new birds added to my “world list” from our Australia trip
Photography – I find bird photography in particular to be an ongoing challenge and am always on the lookout for that special one (photograph, not Jose Mourinho the manager of my favourite football team).
Rather than get into a lengthy month by month description as per previous years I thought I would let the photos do most of the talking with a short note here and there to add some background
As with recent years, it all started in the Southern Cape, around Mossel Bay and further afield
Marievale Bird Sanctuary remains one of the best and most pleasant places to bird in Gauteng with its well-kept hides and fluctuating water levels
A short stay at Pine Lake Resort near White River was an opportunity to bird the resort itself and to do a day trip to nearby Kruger Park
Mabusa Nature Reserve is a quiet, less visited reserve some 100 kms from home and I love spending time atlasing there
Then in April came our first trip to Australia, covered in some detail in earlier posts so I don’t want to repeat myself – suffice to say we had an exciting time discovering what this fine country is all about and finding many new, often spectacular, birds. This is a selection of some of the standout birds that I found (or they found me, I’m never sure) …
Back home over the winter months, I focused on atlasing an area north-east of Pretoria, which proved to be challenging at times, having to contend with the traffic on tar roads and the dust on the gravel back roads
A last-minute booking saw us spending a week in Kruger Park – the best place to do some quality birding
More Gauteng atlasing followed during the winter months
We do look forward to our week at the Verlorenkloof resort in Mpumulanga, and with reason – it’s a perfect place to combine relaxation with some excellent birding
On one of my atlasing outings, I spent a pleasant morning at Rietvlei Nature Reserve, not far from home
I joined a team of 3 other keen birders for the annual Birding Big Day at the end of November. We ended up with 184 species for the day and a pleasing 50th place countrywide. There was only time for a quick snatched photo of the team heading through bush at one of our many stops
We closed out the year in Mossel Bay, where Sugarbirds visit our garden
With the new year in its infancy, it’s time to select a few photos which best represent our 2019. In some cases, selection is based on the memory created, in others I just like how the photo turned out, technically and creatively.
If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!
The highlight of our travels during the past year was without doubt our trip to Australia to visit our son and family and to do a bit of touring through the State of Victoria. Other than that we did not venture far afield but managed to tame our travel itch with several local trips and extended visits to our second home town of Mossel Bay in the Southern Cape.
The year started and ended in our second home town of Mossel Bay. Walks along the seafront boardwalk are always a highlight with scenes like this to enrich the soul
The Wilge River Valley, about an hour’s drive from Pretoria, is a popular birding spot amongst Gautengers and delivers many species in summer as well as attractive landscapes
The Vlakfontein grasslands north-east of Pretoria are a favourite atlasing area for me – away from the hectic traffic of Gauteng
The Delmas area south-east of Pretoria is another favourite atlasing area, however traffic is a challenge – this early morning shot was taken in winter when the skies are a lot smokier – good for dense colour but nothing else
The road to Cape Otway Lighthouse in Victoria, Australia – we did not realise just how much forest Australia has – well the bit of Victoria that we saw anyway
The very popular tourist spot called the Twelve Apostles along the Great Ocean Road to the west of Melbourne, Australia certainly lived up to its reputation as a “must see and photograph” – quite a dramatic scene created by weathered columns of rock
The beautiful beach at Cowes, Philip Island, just south of Melbourne
A special rainbow while walking in Sale, Victoria Australia
The early morning train approaches in mist to take us from Sale to Melbourne
The Klein Karoo is another favourite atlasing area despite low bird numbers – it has a special attraction of its own. This photo was taken south of Oudtshoorn, Western Cape
With visits to Kruger National Park and Karoo National Park, as well as our time in Australia, we enjoyed some usual and unusual wildlife sightings
The Other Stuff
I love to photograph just about anything that moves, within nature and outside it occasionally. Here’s a few examples
And just for fun, a non-moving subject …..
I have not included any of the many bird photos that I took during the year – they will be included in a separate “My Birding Year 2019” post
Verlorenkloof, as regular readers will know, is our favourite spot for a really relaxing getaway and we look forward to our annual timeshare week in October each year immensely. October 2018 was no different with lazy days, some walking, some birding and atlasing and just enjoying the company of old friends …. errrr, friends of long standing that is. (At our age one can get sensitive about 3-letter words such as “old”).
The croft (the fancy name for the house-like accommodation at Verlorenkloof) sleeps 10. although 6 is more comfortable, so it is a great opportunity to invite some close friends along for the week.
Perhaps the best part is the time spent on the patio, where we take breakfast and lunch and enjoy regular doses of tea, coffee or cold drinks to while away the hours. The patio overlooks a sloping lawn which merges with the natural grass and shrubs stretching across the hill and down to the stream, which is flanked by luxuriant reeds and ferns.
Beyond the grass and the stream, the lower grassy slopes of the mountain begin and continue up to a height where the rocky, almost vertical face of the mountain proper takes over, soaring to the escarpment edge a few hundred metres above. Oh, and to add to the variety of habitats, the mountain face is cleaved into densely forested kloofs at its intersections.
All of this provides the opportunity for a multitude of bird species to be attracted to the area and to take up residence. Many of them announce their presence at various times of the day, peaking in the early morning as the sun rises to welcome a new day. The mountain seems to act as an amplifier and the scene before you is reminiscent of a natural amphitheatre, with some of nature’s best songsters providing an aural experience that is hard to beat.
The selection of photos that follows is from our October 2018 week and is just a sampling of the rich bird life at Verlorenkloof, limited to those species which I was able to get close enough to for a reasonable photo or which, by chance, crossed my path while I had my camera close by.
English, Afrikaans and scientific names are given with the gender and subspecies added where applicable …….
Familiar Chat / Gewone spekvreter (Cercomela familiaris – hellmayri subspecies) is a regular visitor to the area around the croft where it hawks insects from a vantage point such as a small rock or low branch, returning to the same spot with a flick or two of the tail as it lands, in its “familiar” way
Yellow Bishop (Male, non-breeding) / Kaapse flap (Euplectes capensis – approximans subspecies) – later in the summer the male acquires its breeding plumage of overall black with yellow shoulders and rump
African Stonechat (Male) / Gewone bontrokkie (saxicola torquatus – stoneii subspecies) – another conspicuous, widespread species which favours grasslands and perches prominently on tall bushes and plants.
African Crowned Eagle (Immature) / Kroonarend (Stephanoaetus coronatus ) – it was a thrill to find this impressive raptor at Verlorenkloof. This immature eagle is probably the same one that was seen by Koos Pauw earlier in the year when it was still in the nest, which he pointed out to me on top of a large tree part of the way up the mountain slope
Cape Grassbird / Grasvoël (Sphenoaecus afer – natalensis subspecies) – singing its heart out in its customary fashion, just a little shy for a full monty photo
Village Weaver (Male) / Bontrugwewer (Ploceus cucullatus – spilonotus subspecies) – it’s a treat to see this species in action, doing its best to attract a female for some “breeding” with much vigour, swaying its body and fanning its wings. A flock had taken over a tree alongside the river and filled it with nests
Kurrichane Thrush / Rooibeklyster (Turdus libonyanus) – a shy, solitary bird that likes to forage quietly amongst the shrubs
Swee Waxbill (Female) / Suidelike swie (Estrilda melanotis) – cute species that moves in small groups through the bushes
Thick-billed Weaver (Male) / Dikbekwewer (Amblyospiza albifrons – woltersi subspecies) – busy building a nest in the reeds alongside the bridge over the river. Unlike other weavers which start with a ring as a basis, this species starts with a cup and builds up from it, using thin strips gleaned from bulrush leaves to construct the fine, tightly woven nest
Bronze Mannikin / Gewone fret (Lonchura cucullata) – fairly common in the bushes and reeds near the croft
Broad-tailed Warbler / Breëstertsanger (Schoenicola brevirostris) – An uncommon species that I have not seen anywhere other than at Verlorenkloof – it prefers rank grass and has a distinctive sharp metallic call which tells you it is nearby, but is an expert at concealing itself from view, so getting a photo requires a mix of patience and luck
Fan-tailed Widowbird (Male in breeding plumage) / Kortstertflap (Euplectes axillaris) – also a “fan” of tall moist grassland which Verlorenkloof has in abundance
Wing-snapping Cisticola / Kleinste klopkloppie (Cisticola ayresii) – not seen at Verlorenkloof itself but in an adjoining pentad while atlasing – my first photographic record of this species
There are a few shy animals as well, such as this Grey Duiker
I’m already looking forward to our October 2019 week!
Niki, my trusted birding companion, accompanies me on all my birding trips and I have to admit I just cannot get along without her – she has eyes like a hawk which can help to identify those distant birds in a trice with just one quick glance and is content to endure hours of travel on sometimes bumpy, dusty roads with nary a complaint.
So I was deeply concerned when Niki started showing signs of weariness and a distinct lack of focus towards the end of 2018 and I resolved to book her into a clinic as soon as we were back in Gauteng in January 2019. Niki went to the clinic without complaint and I booked her in on a Monday, hoping that her stay would not be long – they sent a message later setting out the proposed treatment and estimated that she would have to stay for at least a week for the treatment to have the desired effect, which I replied was acceptable.
The week without Niki was difficult and my birding outing was just not the same without her on the seat beside me, but I knew it was something that had done. I resisted the temptation to visit Niki in the clinic, being so far from our house and patiently waited for the message to tell me I could come and fetch her.
At last the message came to my phone – she was ready to go home! Next morning I drove to the clinic and fetched Niki – what a relief to hold her in my arms again!
I could hardly wait for my next birding outing with Niki once again at my side and planned a trip to one of Gauteng’s prime birding destinations – Marievale Bird Sanctuary to put our combined skills to the test again.
Niki, also known as my Nikon D750 DLSR camera with Nikon 80-400mm lens, performed admirably – but I will leave you with a few photos from the morning at Marievale, so you can judge for yourself.
Spotted Thick-Knee / Gewone Dikkop (Burhinus capensis) in the reception parking area before getting into the Nature Reserve itself – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (OK just bright-eyed)
Blacksmith Lapwing / Bontkiewiet (Vanellus armatus)– despite its name suggesting a somewhat rougher individual, this is one bird that looks as if it could be an avian James Bond – elegant, formally attired, ready to order a martini “shaken, not stirred”
Wood Sandpiper / Bosruiter (Tringa glareola) – the only wader I came across during my visit – water levels were high after good summer rains so the hundreds of waders usually present were somewhere else
African Reed-Warbler / Kleinrietsanger (Acrocephalus baeticatus) – at one spot along the power-line track which has wetlands on both sides (shown in the featured image at the top of the post) I seemed to be surrounded by calling Warblers, with this species most prominent, calling vigorously and showing briefly amongst the reeds.
Red-knobbed Coot / Bleshoender (Fulica cristata) – the hides at Marievale are well looked after and afford great views of the comings and goings of several species, including this very common one
Squacco Heron / Ralreier (Ardeola ralloides) – demonstrating why it can be a difficult bird for beginners to identify, particularly in flight when it appears to be all-white and can easily be taken for a Cattle Egret. Once settled though it is an obvious species and in breeding plumage as it is here it shows the elongated feathers on the crest and neck, giving it an even more distinctive look
Common Moorhen / Grootwaterhoender (Gallinula chloropus) – another common water bird seen from the hide
Yellow-crowned Bishop / Goudgeelvink (Euplectes afer) – resembles a very large bumble-bee in flight display as it fluffs up its yellow back feathers and flies slowly and ponderously amongst tall reeds
Lesser Swamp Warbler Kaapse rietsanger (Acrocephalus gracilirostris) – one of the bolder warblers but more often heard rather than seen. This one popped onto a perch right in front of the picnic spot hide as I was chatting to a visitor from Scotland
Whiskered Tern / Witbaardsterretjie (Chlidonias hybrida) – almost always present at Marievale, this tern in breeding plumage (losing the black belly and much of the black crown when non-breeding) was hovering and plunge-diving in front of the hide, constantly on the search for food
I have been fortunate during my working career to have been involved in construction projects which have taken me to some interesting, even exciting, parts of the world. Top of that list is Kasane, a small town on the Chobe River in the far north of Botswana, South Africa’s neighbour on its northern side and one of the nicest countries you will find just about anywhere.
Aerial view of the Chobe River while landing at Kasane
Nice because it is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with just 2,3m people at an average density of 3 people per square kilometre, and the vast majority are inherently friendly, decent people. The country is blessed with large tracts of unspoilt wilderness where you will find some of the last vestiges of the Africa that existed before human interference made its mark.
The Flood plain
My involvement in the Kasane Airport project, now complete and functioning well, meant I spent an accumulative 60 days or more in Kasane during monthly visits spread over 3 years and I used every opportunity to spend free time in Chobe Game Reserve and on the Chobe River, soaking up the incomparable African game-viewing and bird-watching on offer.
So where is this leading? Well, I made what is likely to be my last visit to Kasane in November 2018, during which I joined a “farewell” photographic safari both on land and on the river, which left me with a head full of special memories and a memory card full of treasured images.
Leaving Chobe Game Reserve after the game drive that morning along the familiar sandy, bumpy track, through the Sedudu gate and out on to the tar road back to Kasane, it momentarily struck me that this was possibly the last time I would see this place and an almost tangible sadness washed over me for a few seconds, only to be replaced with the happy thought of all the memories I had gathered over more than 3 years, memories that I would love to share in the best way I can.
I have written several posts about some outstanding experiences in Chobe over the last few years, but there is so much more to tell, so expect a short-ish series of further posts over the next few weeks -or months featuring some or all of the following :
The iconic species, both animal and avian, that call Chobe home, from Elephants to Hornbills, Leopards to Fish Eagles
The bird atlasing trips that I squeezed into a busy schedule while in Kasane
Stylish photographic safaris with Pangolin Safaris
Whatever else pops up in my memory bank (aka my journals)
With the new year in its first week, it’s time to select a few photos which best represent our 2018. In some cases, selection is based on the memory created, in others I just like how the photo turned out, technically and creatively
If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!
This was an unusual year for us, in that for the first time in several years we did not journey outside Southern Africa once during the year. But we made up for that with plenty of local trips, such as –
Champagne Valley resort in the Drakensberg
Annasrust Farm Hoopstad (Free State)
Pine Lake Resort near White River (Mpumulanga Province)
Mossel Bay – our second “Home” town
Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
La Lucia near Durban (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Shongweni Dam (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Onverwacht Farm near Vryheid (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Kruger Park Olifants camp
Herbertsdale area (Western Cape) – atlasing
Karoo National Park near Beaufort West (Western Cape)
Kuilfontein Guest Farm near Colesberg (Northern Cape)
Lentelus Farm near Barrydale (Western Cape)
With visits to Kruger National Park, Karoo National Park and Chobe Game Reserve in Botswana, there was no shortage of game viewing opportunities and it turned out to be a great year for Leopards
Kruger National Park
Karoo National Park
Chobe Game Reserve
The eyes have it
Wild but beautiful
Who needs a horse when you have a mom to ride on
Oh, and the news is hippos can do the heart shape with their jaws – they don’t have fingers you see
Bird photography remains the greatest challenge – I am thrilled when it all comes together and I have captured some of the essence of the bird
Great Egret flying to its roost
White-fronted Bee-eaters doing what they do best – looking handsome
The usually secretive Green-backed Camaroptera popping out momentarily for a unique photo
African Fish-Eagle – aerial king of the waters
Kori Bustard – heaviest flying bird
Crowned Hornbill – he’ll stare you down any day
Large-billed Lark in full song
Village Weaver – busy as a bee
Thick-billed Weaver – less frenetic, more particular about its nest-weaving
African Jacana with juveniles
Juvenile African Jacana – a cute ball of fluff with legs longer than its body
Reed Cormorant with catch
Wishing all who may read this a 2019 that meets all of your expectations!
Despite what some people close to me may suggest, none of these descriptions refer to me –
they are in fact extracts from Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, describing the habits of three bird species which are more often heard rather than seen. So, to be presented with an opportunity to photograph all three of them in quick succession, with another more conspicuous species thrown in for good luck, is a chance in a thousand and I took it with open arms……… and an open lens.
As is often the case, the opportunity arose unexpectedly – we were on a day trip through Kruger in April this year, wending our way slowly on a circular route from Phabeni gate via Skukuza to Numbi gate, and decided to stop at the Skukuza Day Visitors area for a picnic lunch. (See my previous post on “Painted Wolves and a Weary Lion” for more on the trip). The morning had gone well with a variety of birds seen and a rare sighting of a pack of Wild Dogs as the highlight, but by now we were looking forward to a break.
We chose a shady table in a bushy section and greeted the only other group using the area as we passed their equally secluded spot.
While the provisions were being laid out, I pottered about to see what bird life was around at this time of day, usually a quieter time for birding. At the swimming pool several Barn Swallows, Rock Martins and Greater Striped Swallows were swooping about enthusiastically and I heard an African Fish Eagle call from the river – not seeing much else I was content to join the others for lunch. The refried boerewors from last night’s braai accompanied by traditional braaibroodjies went down a treat along with coffee.
When it came time to pack up, I wandered off to investigate some rustling and faint bird sounds that seemed to be coming from nearby bushes and did a quick recce of the surrounding area. By this time our picnic neighbours – the only other people in the area – had left and as I passed their spot I saw some movement in the bushes close to their table.
Using the concrete table as a rather inadequate concealment, I crept closer and sat crouched on the bench, with my camera on the table and checked that it was set up for the shady conditions – aperture priority, high ISO setting for adequate shutter speed, white balance on shade.
Almost immediately a Sombre Greenbul (Gewone Willie / Andropadus importunes) hopped onto an exposed branch and looked straight at me, while I whipped my camera into position and rattled off 3 or 4 shots before it moved on and out of sight – the time as recorded in the photo metadata was 12:24:47.
A minute later a White-browed Robin-Chat (Heuglinse janfrederik / Cossypha heuglini) popped out into view and I followed its progress through the foliage for the next two minutes, snapping it in different poses.
By now my adrenaline level was rocketing and I could not believe my luck when yet another skulker appeared in the form of a Terrestial Bulbul (Boskrapper / Phyllastrephus terrestris), a species that usually spends a lot of time scratching around in the leaf litter, but had now decided to pose in full view on a small branch – time 12:29:08.
By this time I was battling to hold the camera steady as my hands were shaking from the excitement but the photography gods were really out to test my mettle when less than a minute later a Green-backed Cameroptera (Groenrugkwekwevoel / Camaroptera brachyuran) suddenly appeared from nowhere and did the same branch-walking act for my pleasure – time 12:29:50.
So in the space of 5 minutes and 3 seconds I had bagged pleasing photos of 3 skulkers and one other desirable bird and left me with a life-long memory of a very special birding moment.