Category Archives: Birding Spots

Chobe River Birding – Pratincoles, Storks and other delights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chobe River trip
Heading out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collared Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Collared Pratincole, Chobe River

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Pigeon Valley – Forest birding in the suburbs

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

Pigeon Valley is located in the middle of old Durban suburbs

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

Pigeon Valley Durban

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

Spotted Ground Thrush, Pigeon Valley

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

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

Spotted Ground Thrush, Pigeon Valley

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

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

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

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

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

Dusky Flycatcher

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

Spectacled Weaver
Spectacled Weaver

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

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

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

Bronze Mannikins – knit one, slip one, knit one

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

On a Farm in Africa

I (wish I) had a farm in Africa……….

Having a farm in Africa is not quite as romantic as the well-known film of some years ago made it out to be. It takes a lot of courage and hard work to make a success of a farm and the dependence on favourable weather conditions can fray the nerves, to say the least.

Nevertheless it would be many people’s dream come true to have a farm in Africa – the next best option is having family with a farm and we count ourselves fortunate to be in that position. It also helps if said family are the hospitable kind and they don’t come more hospitable than Pieter and Anlia Genis, Pieter being my wife Gerda’s nephew and Anlia being, well, Anlia.

Their farm lies in a hilly part of northern Kwazulu-Natal province of South Africa, not far from Vryheid and some of the sites of fierce battles that took place in the late 1800’s, variously between the forces of the British, Boers and Zulus who were all fighting for control of this part of Southern Africa.

Onverwacht farm, Vryheid

We visit the farm whenever the opportunity arises, although less frequently than we would like and our most recent visit, coinciding with the first weekend of our Spring in September 2016, was to attend a family wedding in Vryheid. I used the time before and after the nuptials to fit in some birding in this quite special environment and as usual it delivered several species that are not easily seen elsewhere.

Exploring the Farm gardens and surrounds

Onverwacht farm, Vryheid

Saturday’s session was less than half an hour in the vicinity of the farm-house, highlighted by a Bald Ibis flying past, Black-headed Oriole calling regularly with liquid whistles, White-throated Swallow and a lofty Yellow-billed Kite, no doubt fresh back from its migration to other parts of Africa.

Bald Ibis
White-throated Swallow

Very prominent were the Village Weavers in numbers in the pine trees behind the house, chattering away in their excitement at the arrival of Spring and a chance to do some nest-building and wooing of the female weavers.

Village Weaver

And in the garden a Greater Double-collared Sunbird showed off its bright red and green colouring.

Greater Double-collared Sunbird

Sunday’s birding was a lot more exciting, starting with an hour-long slow walk around the dam not far from the house and followed by a drive up the mountain to the plateau, courtesy of “bird-guide” Pieter, who has become very adept at knowing where certain species occur on his farm.

The dam circuit was a slow and easy walk from the house down to the dam and skirting the edge all the way around.

The dam as seen from the farm house
The dam

Brown-throated Martins and Black Saw-wings flew low over the water along with an occasional White-throated Swallow. Amongst the usual Yellow-billed Ducks and Red-knobbed Coots, a bevy of White-backed Ducks stood out but kept their distance, making it difficult to get a decent photo.

White-backed Duck

A Giant Kingfisher flew out of a waterside tree as I approached, calling ka-ka-ka, and landed on the far side of the dam.

Walking along the dam wall, I disturbed several reed-dwellers – Levaillant’s Cisticolas, Tawny-flanked Prinias, Neddickys and Southern Red Bishops aplenty. Lesser Swamp-Warbler peeked out of the reeds just long enough to grab a photo.

Levaillant’s Cisticola
Southern Red Bishop
Lesser Swamp Warbler

Going Up

After a more than substantial farm breakfast, including my favourite “krummelpap” – a crumbly porridge in warm milk and dressed with biltong and cheese, Pieter suggested a birding drive, which I agreed to rapidly. We were soon on our way  up the mountainside on to the plateau in the 4 x 4 bakkie (pickup), expertly driven by Pieter on tracks which are at times rough enough and steep enough to have this brave birder’s heart in his mouth.

The plateau lies some 300 metres above the farm-house and once we had ascended to the top we spent the next couple of hours looking for the species that favour the rock-strewn grassy habitat, rocking and rolling along the rough tracks that wind between the rocky areas.

View from the plateau

Surprisingly the most common bird was Buff-streaked Chat – up to a dozen pairs in all – followed by Eastern Long-billed Larks and Cape Longclaws, all moving about this unique landscape with its almost unearthly feel – thousands of rocks seemingly strewn about in a random manner, interspersed with fine grass and shrubs and relatively flat despite being “on top of the mountain”

On the plateau – rocks for Africa!
Eastern Long-billed Lark (from far away)
Cape Longclaw

Other interesting species that occur here and that we came across in small numbers were :

  • Black-winged Lapwing
  • Denham’s Bustard
  • Blue Crane
  • Red-capped Lark
Black-winged Lapwing
Black-winged Lapwing
Denham’s Bustard

After exploring the length and breadth of the farm’s extent at this higher level, we headed back down the steep incline, edging slowly around the hairpin bends, some with a steep drop-off to one side, which require some careful manoeuvring.

We came across Ground Woodpeckers, whose habitat according to Roberts includes road cuttings, which is precisely where we found them – how specific is that!

We ended with a drive through corn fields adjacent to a stream and found a single Spoonbill, then made our way back to the farm-house for more of the hospitality for which farmers are deservedly famous.

On a previous trip we had the pleasure of seeing Grey Crowned Cranes in the fields, albeit at a distance. They must rate as one of the most spectacular large birds in Southern Africa and to see them “dancing” as part of their courtship ritual is unforgettable.

Grey Crowned Crane

This is also an area of plantations, generally sterile as far as birding goes but good for a moody photo…..

Plantation, Onverwacht farm

Atlasing Stats

From an atlasing point of view it was a successful outing with 55 species recorded, 5 of which were new to the pentad (refer to my recent “Atlasing Tales” posts for an explanation of these terms). The pentad number is 2740_3035 (the red square on the map) and this was the 7th Full Protocol card. My contribution has been 4 FP cards so far, with a species count of 123.

Can’t wait for our next visit!

 

Kasane Botswana – Birding Spots in and around town

Kasane is a small town in northern Botswana, close to the Sududo Gate into Chobe National Park.

I would guess that most birders passing through Kasane are on their way from or to Chobe Game Reserve or further afield to Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia, the borders of which are all in close proximity.

As you drive around the town and the surrounding area, you realize that this is very much “Wild Africa”, a feeling which is reinforced by the signs on the main road past town that declare it a wildlife corridor. It is not unusual to encounter, as we did, Elephant, Wild Dogs, Hyena and Buffalo close to Kasane as we were on our way for a drive through the Riverfront section of Chobe (covered in my earlier blog) and before getting to the entrance gate!

The project in Kasane that I am involved in requires monthly visits to this small but interesting town and in the process I have discovered a few birding spots, with the assistance of my colleagues who know the town better, that are easy to visit for an hour or two in between other commitments.

I try to visit one of the birding spots during every visit and have built up a very basic knowledge of what to expect – the following notes are based on my limited knowledge and are not meant to be comprehensive, but can hopefully provide a starting point for the birder spending time in this special corner of Botswana.

Kasane Water Treatment Works

Location : On the eastern side of Kasane, off the intersection of the main road from town and the road to Zimbabwe

Description : The Treatment Works have the customary treatment ponds in a fenced off area – ask permission at the small office  just inside the gate if you want to walk around, but some of the ponds are visible from the tar road that runs alongside, so that you don’t necessarily have to enter the site. As always, the quality of birding varies with the level of the ponds.

In addition there is a fair-sized dam alongside the works and being outside the fenced off area, you can approach it by taking the track that leads off to the left as you approach the Treatment Works. Do be aware however, that elephants use the dam as a watering spot so keep an eye out for them.

Kasane water treatment works - elephants drinking in the distance!
Dam at Kasane water treatment works – elephants drinking in the distance!
Elephants drinking, Kasane Water Treatment
Elephants drinking, Kasane Water Treatment works dam

Bird life : Many water birds are attracted by the ponds and adjoining dam – all the usual ones such as Cormorants, Herons, Egrets and Ducks and depending on the time of year and water levels you can expect numbers of waders including African Jacana, Ruff, Black-winged Stilts and Wood Sandpipers. Smaller waders such as Three-banded Plover, Kittlitz’s Plover and Little Stint are common here.

Black-winged Stilt, Kasane Water Treatment
Black-winged Stilt
Egyptian Goose, Kasane Water Treatment
Egyptian Goose
Marabou Stork, Kasane Water Treatment
Marabou Stork – they congregate in the trees around the Treatment works at dusk
Red-billed Firefinch, Kasane Water Treatment
Red-billed Firefinch

Seboba Nature and Recreation Park

Location :This is a real gem which I covered in more detail in a separate post – suffice to say it is well worth a visit.

The small park lies along the river at the spot known as the Seboba rapids and has a nice mix of habitats and a variety of bird life.

I have covered this spot in a separate post : Kasane, Botswana –  Seboba Nature Park

Camping Site and Sundowner Spot

Location : Chobe Safari Lodge camping site on the outskirts of town on the western side

Description : The main attraction of this spot is the deck overlooking the Chobe river – treat yourself to one of the most spectacular African sunsets you are likely to see, as you enjoy a drink on the deck late afternoon. The channel in front of the deck gets quite crowded with boats in season, all loaded with tourists enjoying the sunset and its reflection, which transforms the Chobe waters into a deep red as you watch.

Sunset, Chobe Game Reserve
Sunset viewed from the deck at Chobe Safari Lodge camping area

Chobe Game Reserve

Bird life : while waiting for the sun to set and after it has disappeared beyond the horizon, listen for the bird life in the adjoining bushes which are favoured by the likes of White-browed Robin-Chat and Tropical Boubou, while the rank vegetation adjacent to the deck is home to Red-faced Cisticola whose ringing call is quite distinctive. There will more than likely be a Kingfisher or two in the vicinity and the floodplain on the opposite banks of the river is often occupied by tens if not hundreds of birds – Cormorants, Ibises, Openbills and the like. At certain times African Skimmers may be around flying in their unique way close to the water.

Glossy Ibis, Chobe Game Reserve
Glossy Ibises making their way down river at dusk
Afrcan Skimmer, Chobe Game Reserve
Afrcan Skimmers at sunset

Thebe Safari Lodge

Location : Compared to some of the well-known lodges in Kasane, Thebe caters mostly for more economical tour groups and particularly the large safari trucks full of younger tourists wanting an adventurous trip through Southern Africa’s wilder spots.

I have stayed there a few times and found the rooms comfortable and clean and, importantly, not “over-the-top” expensive as some of the more upmarket lodges tend to be

Description : The lodge grounds boast a variety of trees and shrubs which attract many birds and are a delight for the birder who chooses to take an early morning or late afternoon walk.

Bird Life : Birding around the grounds and gardens is excellent and best done by walking the property as thoroughly as time allows and covering all the habitats. Even before sunrise the bird calls will have you up and eager to get outside as the birds compete for “best call in garden”. Expect to hear and see Mourning Dove, Tropical Boubou, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, White-browed Robin and  Spectacled Weaver without too much trouble.

White-browed Robin-Chat, Thebe Safari Lodge
White-browed Robin-Chat, Thebe Safari Lodge
Tropical Boubou, Thebe Safari Lodge
Tropical Boubou, Thebe Safari Lodge

Bush lovers such as Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Red-billed Firefinch and Blue Waxbill are not difficult to find, while closer to and over the river there is a chance for various water birds doing a fly past and perhaps an African Pied Wagtail …. or two.

Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Thebe Safari Lodge
Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Thebe Safari Lodge
African Pied Wagtail, Thebe Safari Lodge
African Pied Wagtail, Thebe Safari Lodge (could that be the female on the right I wonder?)

Senyati Safari Camp

Location : This spot is not as close to Kasane as the spots described above, nevertheless it is close enough (20Km) to make it an easy place to visit even if time is limited. Take the road from Kasane to Kazangulu, some 10 Km away, then turn off on the A33 towards Pandamatenga and look for the camp turn-off after about 7 Km. Best time for birding is probably late afternoon but if you use their accommodation (self-catering) you can spend more time there in the morning.

Description : The main feature is the deck with a cash bar and seating overlooking the plains in front of the camp, stretching to the distant Zambesi River, with the focus point being an artificial waterhole which is frequented during the day by a variety of game and, of course, birds.

Senyati camp
Senyati camp
Senyati camp
Senyati viewing deck
Senyati camp
View of the waterhole and plains

There is also an underground tunnel which you can walk along to a ground level hide right next to the waterhole – quite exciting if there are elephants present as you are literally metres away from them!

Senyati camp
View from the ground level hide
Senyati camp
Senyati camp – view from the deck

Bird Life : My one visit so far produced a good list of species in a short time, including Arrow-marked Babbler, Red-billed Hornbill, Wood Sandpiper, Grey-headed Bush-Shrike, Knob-billed (Comb) Duck and Red-billed Spurfowl. The potential for some excellent birding at this spot seems good. Unfortunately I had left my camera at the guest house so had to make do with non-digital memories other than the above taken with my pocket camera (which I also occasionally use to phone)

 

 

Kasane, Botswana : Chobe River Birding

 

Of all the birding experiences you can have, the water-based ones seem to be the most memorable. I had been looking for an opportunity to do a boat trip on the Chobe River in northern Botswana for a year or more and in July this year I decided to make it happen.

There are a few boat rental companies in Kasane and I chose Kalahari Tours based on a colleague’s recommendation – they were able to accommodate me early on the Friday of my monthly visit and I arrived at the reception on the stroke of 7 am, armed with my binos, camera, snacks and a warm jacket to ward off the cool wind that was coming up.

The boat was of aluminium construction, sturdy looking, hopefully Hippo-proof and fitted with 2 rows of three comfy seats with a fold-down canopy over. I took up position in the middle seat of the front row, being the only guest that morning, doing my best to look as if this was my customary position in all boats I travelled in, and spread my gear on the adjoining seats.

Richard, Chobe River Boat Trip
Richard, boatman and bird guide extraordinaire

The boatman, Richard, took us out smoothly, initially downstream and around a wide bend in the majestic river, to the Seboba rapids where the river runs faster over unseen obstacles below the water. As we approached the rapids hundreds of Cormorants, Gulls and other large water birds were heading out from their roosts to feeding areas upstream.

Seboba rapids
Seboba rapids

There were still many birds roosting in the trees at the rapids, on the banks and on small islands in the middle of the river and Richard carefully approached as close as possible to allow intimate views of the birds and their youngsters.

Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River Boat Trip
Yellow-billed Stork
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River Boat Trip
Yellow-billed Stork family
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River Boat Trip
Yellow-billed Stork

Most visible were many Yellow-billed Storks with their fluffy grey and white youngsters crowded into one part of a tree. White-breasted Cormorants were numerous, some tending to nests in the tops of trees. My neck was already feeling the effects of trying to keep up with the action and the constant movement of the birds in and out of the trees, and up, down and across the river. We were literally surrounded by birds, in numbers second only to the masses that gather at trawlers on pelagic trips.

White-breasted Cormorant, Chobe River Boat Trip
White-breasted Cormorant

Amongst the massed Storks and Cormorants were many other species such as Purple Heron, African Spoonbill, Great Egret and Green-backed Heron.

Once I was sated with the spectacular bird life at the rapids, I indicated to Richard that we could proceed and he headed upstream, staying close enough to the banks to spot birds in the overhanging reeds, bushes and trees. His eyes proved sharper than mine as he spotted and pointed out everything from the tiny Malachite Kingfishers to their larger cousin the Giant Kingfisher, not to mention Brown-hooded Kingfishers.

Malachite Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Malachite Kingfisher
Giant Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Giant Kingfisher
Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Brown-hooded Kingfisher

Water Thick-knees skulking in the shade of the riverside bush are particularly difficult to spot but Richard’s sharp eyes found them easily. On our way upstream we passed by some of the well-known lodges with their decks overlooking the great river.

Chobe River Boat Trip
Chobe River Boat Trip

Wire-tailed Swallows swooped over our boat continuously and  a pair even decided that our boat would be a good vantage point as we glided along the smooth waters.

Wire-tailed Swallow, Chobe River Boat Trip
Wire-tailed Swallow gets a lift

Further upstream we entered the Chobe National Park and Richard docked briefly at a small hut to sign us in. From there we made our way slowly along the side channels with the Park on our left and the large mass of Impalila Island on our right.

African Fish-Eagle, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Fish-Eagle
Impala, Chobe River Boat Trip
Impala

With the water having subsided from its post-summer highs, the island was now occupied by many Buffalos – a safe haven for them away from the big cats.

African Buffalo, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Buffalo

Here and there we saw Hippos and a couple appeared in the river just ahead of us, causing Richard to give them a wide berth – Hippos are one animal you do not mess with in the river, or on land for that matter.

Hippo, Chobe River Boat Trip
Hippo – best avoided

A mid-sized Crocodile on the bank drew us nearer to have a look and we literally peered down its throat as the bow of the boat bumped up against the bank just in front of it. While admiring its rows of teeth and taking photos I was looking for any signs of movement as, by my calculations, one lunge would have seen it land in our boat, but fortunately crocs are content to just lie there (most of the time) and regulate their body temperature by opening their jaws wide. Must remember to take dental floss next time.

Crocodile, Chobe River Boat Trip
Crocodile up close and personal

The island was home to many bird species – Lapwings (White-crowned and Long-toed), Squacco Herons, Geese in large numbers (Spur-winged and Egyptian) African Openbills, all the “White” Egrets except Cattle Egret (Great, Yellow-billed and Little), Ibis’s galore (Glossy, Sacred), many White-faced Ducks and larger waders such as African Jacana and Black-winged Stilt. A veritable feast of birding.

Chobe River Boat Trip
Chobe Game Park
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River Boat Trip
Long-toed Lapwing
African Openbill, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Openbill
Red-billed Firefinch, Chobe River Boat Trip
Red-billed Firefinch

A smallish sandbar pretending to be an island was home to the bird highlight of the day – 50 or so African Skimmers using it as a roost in between sorties over the river, allowing a close approach to view these unique birds with their vivid colours. Their black and white plumage contrasts with their bright red bills, which look out of proportion but are perfectly designed for their function of skimming the surface of the water in search of small prey.

African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Skimmer
African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Skimmer

African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip

African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip

Pied Kingfishers are common throughout Southern Africa but never in numbers as we came across them along the river. I would guess we saw more than 100 during the trip and there were signs of them nesting in the sandy banks, where they occurred at a rate of one every 5m or so.

Pied Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Pied Kingfisher

The return trip was along the main channel, by now rippled by the fresh wind which had come up, but not enough to cause any discomfort. Along the way we added Red-billed Teal and Knob-billed Ducks to our sightings as well as a lone Red Lechwe in long grass on a waterlogged plain.

Red Lechwe, Chobe River Boat Trip
Red Lechwe

Amazingly, three hours had passed without me noticing and we returned to the jetty where we had started – what an outing!

Kasane, Botswana – Seboba Nature Park

Ever wondered what it would be like to have your own private Nature Reserve – one you can explore at your leisure, with a major African river on its doorstep?

That seems to be part of the deal when you visit the Seboba Nature Park in Kasane, northern Botswana. Introduced to it by a colleague, I have been fortunate to visit this idyllic spot a few times this year and each time I have been the only visitor. Clearly it is not always as quiet, particularly when school and other groups visit – it was probably a question of being lucky in choosing the times we did.

Seboba Nature Park is a small nature reserve located on the outskirts of Kasane, bordered on the one side by a stretch of the Chobe River and on the other by the tarred road into Kasane,  and was developed by the Botswana Government to support tourism in the area – by all accounts it has proved to be successful up to a point, but I would say it needs the support of tourism companies to persuade more tourists to visit.

The notice board and map near the entrance spells out its origin and some of the attractions, which include cultural villages, information centre, curio shop, dance arena and walking trails :

Seboba Nature Park Kasane

Seboba Nature Park, Kasane
Map of Seboba Nature Park, Kasane

There are paths from the parking area that meander down to the river’s edge and to the top of a low hill, called Commissioner’s Kop, which has a deck with tables and chairs and magnificent views up and down the river.

Deck on Commissioner's Kop
Deck on Commissioner’s Kop
View from deck over Chobe River
View from deck on Commissioner’s Kop

A raised boardwalk leads off the reception area and meanders through the riverine forest and bush, creating opportunities to see some of the variety of bird life and a few animals.

The boardwalk
The boardwalk

The boardwalk ends at the picnic site, but paths take you further through the dense bush should you want to be a little adventurous – it’s best to have a ranger accompanying you from here as the chances of “bumping into” wild life increase.

A small deck at the end of the boardwalk allows you to view the part of Chobe River known as the Seboba Rapids – a section of river with faster flowing water and small islands, some bedecked with trees and favoured by hundreds of birds for roosting and nesting.

Chobe River
Chobe River
Chobe River
Chobe River

Seboba is not a game park as such, but a wildlife corridor to the river has been maintained by leaving openings in the fence between the adjoining road and the park, which is regularly used by elephant and other wild life to gain access to the river, as they have for millennia in all likelihood.

One of my visits turned into a bit of an adventure and reminded me that the area is very much “Wild Africa”…….

After parking near reception, I slung my binoculars around my neck and my camera over my shoulder (two items which have become part of my outfit when birding) and headed down the track to the river. I could not help noticing the fresh-looking elephant tracks in the sand and equally fresh-looking elephant dung, which I had to step around in places, bush signs which had my senses on high alert.

The river was not far, so I carried on to the river bank and started birding, while looking around carefully all the while. Just then, one of the rangers came down the track to tell me there were elephants in the bushes to my right and suggested, with a hint of urgency, that I move away . I could see the elephants through a gap in the trees and decided the ranger had a point, so I followed his further suggestion that we head along the river, the ranger in front and me behind. We stuck to the river’s edge, which was flowing high, wide and strong from the rains in Angola some weeks prior.

We were now walking away from the elephants, so I was feeling a tad more relaxed and enjoying the solitude of the river and the adjoining thick bush – until I started thinking about crocodiles, having seen the warning notices. Besides that, we were now literally on the edge of the Chobe River, even treading in the water where the steep bank caused my shoes to slip here and there.

At least they warn you
At least they warn you

I casually asked the ranger whether crocodiles were present and he nodded to say yes – not a minute later a loud splash ahead of us announced the first croc as he was scared off by our approach. Further ahead we spotted a croc about 50m away, lying in the shallows next to the bank – we approached slowly and cautiously and as we got closer the croc slid silently into the river, swam behind a partly submerged tree and eyed us as we passed.

A croc is spotted not far ahead
A croc is spotted not far ahead
He has not seen us yet
He has not seen us yet
The croc slides into the river
The croc slides into the river as we get closer

All in all, an eventful and exciting walk that I had not planned for at all – Africa can make you feel very small and vulnerable at times!

The Birding

My primary purpose in visiting Seboba was, of course, to do some birding and the park did not disappoint. My first sighting on my first visit was Collared Palm-Thrush on the reception building’s roof – a most desirable species for Southern African birders. This set the tone for what could be expected and as I explored further the list grew, including a pleasing number of “specials” –

Along the boardwalk –

  • Grey-headed Sparrow, not scarce by any means but interesting because Kasane is one of the few places in Southern African region where both Southern and  Northern species occur. This one turned out to be the Southern species
  • Noisy Arrow-marked Babblers
  • Trumpeter Hornbills with their eerie “crying-baby” calls echoing through the woodland
  • Bradfield’s Hornbill
  • Broad-billed Roller
  • Woodland Kingfisher, its position  given away by its trilling call
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Woodland Kingfisher, Seboba Nature Park - Kasane
Woodland Kingfisher, Seboba Nature Park – Kasane

Commisioner’s Kop viewing point –

  • African Golden Oriole in its bright yellow plumage
  • African Green Pigeon – good at hiding behind foliage
  • Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove
African Golden Oriole, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
African Golden Oriole, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
African Green Pigeon, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
African Green Pigeon, Seboba Nature Park Kasane

Down by the riverside –

  • African Jacana
  • African Darter
  • Yellow-billed Stork
  • Pygmy Goose
  • African Openbill in the shallows, probing for molluscs
  • Reed and White-breasted Cormorants in numbers
  • Water Thick-knee, flying away low over the river when disturbed
  • White-crowned Lapwing, also prone to flying off but often landing a short distance further
Reed Cormorant, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Water Thick-knee, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
White-crowned Lapwing, Seboba Nature Park - Kasane
White-crowned Lapwing, Seboba Nature Park – Kasane
Reed Cormorant, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Reed Cormorant, Seboba Nature Park Kasane

Hillside and open areas –

  • White-browed Sparrow-Weaver
  • Blue Waxbill
  • Little Bee-eater
White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Seboba Nature Park - Kasane
White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Seboba Nature Park – Kasane
Blue Waxbill, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Blue Waxbill, Seboba Nature Park Kasane

This small park is well worth a visit even if for just an hour or two – the variety of habitats in a concentrated area can be covered in a short time, although the longer you can stay the better … oh and don’t wander around too much unless there’s a ranger nearby (which they tend to be)

Special thanks to Derek Thomas for showing me this spot, and others, in Kasane.

 

 

Verlorenkloof Estate – a Guide to Birding

Verlorenkloof Estate

Apart from being our favourite place to spend a relaxing week away from it all, Verlorenkloof Estate offers a variety of habitats that make for superb birding opportunities, whether walking, cycling or driving.

The website of the estate describes it better than I can :

“Verlorenkloof Estate is a well established and highly regarded shareblock development and self catering holiday resort on the eastern escarpment in the heart of the trout triangle in Mpumalanga.

Accommodation is in 23 self catering crofts. Each croft is privately situated, thoughtfully designed, fitted, maintained and serviced to a very high standard, making this the best self catering accommodation in Mpumalanga
. 

The surrounding 1600 hectare estate offers many layers of outdoor activities, all in a safe, settled rural environment known for its extraordinarily beautiful and richly biodiverse natural landscapes.”

Finding the Birds

Each time we visit the estate, usually in May or October, we spend a good part of the day birding and over the years have got to know the estate and its variety of habitats well enough to know which species can be expected at a particular spot. The Birding Tips that follow are my view of how to make the most of the time spent at Verlorenkloof if Birding is your preferred pastime.

Birds are season dependent, so not all the migrant species will be present during the non-summer months. Conversely if you visit the estate in the peak summer months there are likely to be many more migrants than we are used to finding.

  1. Around the Crofts

A lot of quality birding can be done in the vicinity of the Crofts and will vary depending on which particular one you are staying in as they are widespread over the property – Croft 2 and 3 are well-known to us. It’s rewarding to spend as much time on the patio as the weather allows and to simply look and listen. An almost constant flow of bird life will pass by, settling in and on the surrounding bush and trees for you to pick them out with your binoculars, in between enjoying a hot or cold beverage or two.

Scan the trees for Dark-capped Bulbul, Sombre Greenbul, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Crested Barbet, Arrow-marked Babbler and less frequently Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird and Willow Warbler.  Cape Wagtail, African Stonechat, Cape Rock-Thrush and Yellow-throated Petronia frequent the grassed areas while Red-winged Starling and Buff-streaked Chat like hanging out on the roof of the croft.

Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Verlorenkloof
Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird
Cape Wagtail, Verlorenkloof
Cape Wagtail
African Stonechat (male), Verlorenkloof
African Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus) – Gewone bontrokkie
Cape Rock-Thrush, Verlorenkloof
Cape Rock-Thrush (Montecola rupestris) Kaapse kliplyster
Yellow-throated Petronia, Verlorenkloof
Yellow-throated Petronia
Red-winged Starling, Verlorenkloof
Red-winged Starling
Buff-streaked Chat
Buff-streaked Chat

2. Kloofs and Lower Mountain Slopes

Verlorenkloof
Croft from the lower slopes
Verlorenkloof
Verlorenkloof

If you feel energetic enough, take a walk up the pathway that winds its way up the lower slopes from Croft 2, starting at the weir, although you can spend more time on the patio if you are within hearing distance of the calls which echo down from higher up. Either way you are likely to see/hear Purple-crested Turaco, Narina Trogon, African Hoopoe, Black-collared Barbet, Red-eyed Dove (constantly) , Southern Boubou, Black Cuckoo (monotonously and mournfully), Black-headed Oriole, African Olive Pigeon (late afternoon), Black-backed Puffback, Speckled Pigeon, Klaas’s Cuckoo and Black-crowned Tchagra.

African Olive-Pigeon, Verlorenkloof
African Olive-Pigeon

3. Forested Kloofs

Verlorenkloof
Verlorenkloof
Waterfall trail, Verlorenkloof
Resting spot on the Waterfall trail, Verlorenkloof
Waterfall, Verlorenkloof
Waterfall, Verlorenkloof

Once you have birded the lower slopes, carry on up the slope and follow the path through the first patch of indigenous forest. Stop frequently, sit quietly on a rock or tree stump and listen for the calls of the forest species – Black-throated Apalis and Cape Batis are curious and often the first to appear. Judicious playing of their calls may bring others closer – Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Chorister Robin, White-starred Robin are all common here.

Cape Batis, Verlorenkloof
Cape Batis
Blue-mantled Flycatcher, Verlorenkloof
Blue-mantled Flycatcher
Chorister Robin-Chat, Verlorenkloof
Chorister Robin-Chat (Cossypha dichroa) – Lawaaimakerjanfrederik

The fringes of the forest are good for Greater Double-collared Sunbird and you are bound to hear or see Olive Bush-Shrike, while Southern Black Tit and African Paradise Flycatcher are sometimes present.

4. The Streams

Lower Dam, Verlorenkloof
A River runs through it

The estate is blessed with several streams that flow down from the surrounding heights and run through the estate into the river which courses through the valley. The reeds and vegetation alongside these waterways are favoured by numbers of birds such as Cape Grassbird, Croaking Cisticola, Spectacled and African Golden Weavers, Southern Red Bishop, Thick-billed Weaver, Yellow-fronted Canary, Cape Canary, Brown-hooded Kingfisher and Dark-capped Yellow Warbler.  Just spending time near the streams sorting out the various calls of these species is an hour or two well spent.

African Golden Weaver (Ploceus xanthops) - Goudwewer
African Golden Weaver (Ploceus xanthops) – Goudwewer

African Golden Weaver, Verlorenkloof

Thick-billed Weaver, Verlorenkloof
Thick-billed Weaver
Thick-billed Weaver, Verlorenkloof
Thick-billed Weaver nest – impeccably constructed
Yellow Canary, Verlorenkloof
Yellow-fronted Canary
Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Verlorenkloof
Brown-hooded Kingfisher (Halcyon albiventris) Bruinkopvisvanger

5.  The Riverside

Along the river it’s a hive of activity in early summer with tens of Village Weavers building nests and generally creating a storm of sound with their chattering calls. Elsewhere Southern Masked-Weavers are slightly less noisy but just as active. The riverside is also favoured by Common Waxbill and Tawny-flanked Prinia with many Barn Swallows using it as a convenient thoroughfare. Just be careful not to disturb any fishermen enjoying the solitude of the River Beat.

Village Weaver
Village Weaver
Common Waxbill, Verlorenkloof
Common Waxbill

6.  Grasslands

Mountain bike trail, Verlorenkloof
Verlorenkloof
, Verlorenkloof
Long grass is a feature of Verlorenkloof

Large tracts of the estate consist of grassland, which are alive with birds at certain times of the day. Apart from the regulars such as Drakensberg Prinia and Lazy Cisticola, with its long tail held upright just like a Prinia, Red-collared Widowbird and the ubiquitous African Stonechat, one of the stars of the Estate is undoubtedly the Broad-tailed Warbler, a sought-after species for most birders. Its curious pinging call announces its presence and then it’s a cat and mouse game to get a good view of it, usually concealed among the long grass stalks.

Drakensberg Prinia, Verlorenkloof
Drakensberg Prinia (Prinia hypoxantha) Drakensberglangstertjie
Red-collared Widow, Verlorenkloof
Red-collared Widow
Broad-tailed Warbler, Verlorenkloof
Broad-tailed Warbler

This is also the favoured habitat of two other Widowbirds – White-winged and Fan-tailed, plus Yellow bishop, Fiscal Flycatcher and Levaillant’s Cisticola in the damper areas. Also favouring the long grass, but terrestrially are Natal Spurfowl and Red-winged Francolin while the shorter grass is good for Helmeted Guineafowl, Swainson’s Spurfowl and Southern Bald Ibis.

White-winged Widowbird, Verlorenkloof
White-winged Widowbird (Euplectes albonatus) – Witvlerkflap
Natal Francolin, Verlorenkloof
Natal Spurfowl
Bald Ibis, Verlorenkloof
Southern Bald Ibis (Geronticus calvus) Kalkoenibis

7.  Aerial Species

There is no shortage of aerial species such as Swallows, both Greater and Lesser-striped often seen perched near the stream as you head to the mountain crofts, sometimes joined by several Grey-rumped Swallows.

Greater Striped Swallow, Verlorenkloof
Greater Striped Swallow
Lesser Striped Swallows, Verlorenkloof
Lesser Striped Swallow (Cecropis abyssinica) – Kleinstreepswael
Grey-rumped Swallow, Verlorenkloof
Grey-rumped Swallow

All the regular Swifts are present – Little, White-rumped, Alpine, African Black and African Palm Swifts, while Martins are represented by Rock and Brown-throated Martins.

8.  The Dams

Lower Dam, Verlorenkloof
Lower Dam, Verlorenkloof
, Verlorenkloof
Fishing dam, Verlorenkloof

The dams are primarily for the fishermen, but when not occupied a few water birds take up residence, including Red-knobbed Coot, Reed Cormorant, Little Grebe and Yellow-billed Duck. In the fringing reeds around the dams there is a chance to listen for Warblers such as Little Rush-Warbler and African Reed-Warbler, while the banks are favoured by Sacred Ibis, Common Moorhen, Blacksmith Lapwing and the ubiquitous Egyptian Geese. This is also a good spot for White-throated Swallow.

Blacksmith Lapwing, Verlorenkloof
Blacksmith Lapwing

9.  Back Roads

Verlorenkloof
A back road
Verlorenkloof
A colourful outbuilding

After exhausting the possibilities of all the above habitats, there is still more on offer along the roads and tracks that run to, from and through the Estate, which can be covered by car or, if you are up to it, by mountain bike. Dust can be a problem so keep windows closed whenever another vehicle approaches. Take it super slow, stop a lot and you are likely to be rewarded with species such as Black Saw-wing, Pearl-breasted Swallow, Southern Black Flycatcher, Pin-tailed Whydah, Pied Starling, Amethyst Sunbird, Malachite Sunbird, Brubru, Steppe Buzzard and even Long-crested Eagle if you are lucky.

Pin-tailed Whydah, Verlorenkloof
Pin-tailed Whydah
Pied Starling, Verlorenkloof
Pied Starling

Spend some time around the dairy and adjacent farmhouse where you can add House Sparrow, Laughing Dove, Red-throated Wryneck, Groundscraper Thrush and Southern Fiscal. The tall Eucalyptus trees on the road down from reception often house a flock of White-fronted Bee-eaters.

White-fronted Bee-Eater
White-fronted Bee-Eater

I can almost guarantee you will leave Verlorenkloof in a relaxed and satisfied frame of mind after a weekend or week spent in this beautiful environment.

 

 

Karoo National Park – Just for a Night

“The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between…………”
Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth   

OK I’ve never heard of him either, but this line from his book nicely sums up our approach to travel – we like to take it slow and easy on our longer road trips, and we love visiting new places, be they towns not visited before or just a guest house on the way that we have not used before.

Last November, when we travelled to Mossel Bay for our annual long stay, we decided to make an overnight stop at the Karoo National Park near Beaufort West, in the heart of the Karoo, before tackling the last stretch to Mossel Bay.

We have stayed in many of our National Parks at one time or another but never in this particular one – one night is not much on which to judge a place but we made the most of our short time there and came away more than impressed.

The Park

Map of Karoo NP

Proclaimed in 1979, the rest camp was opened in 1989 and the park now covers around 90,000 hectares which can be explored along the park’s 130 kms of scenic drives. The Park holds a variety of wildlife including Lion and several antelope species such as Eland, Springbok, Red Hartebeest and Klipspringer.

Animals such as Aardwolf, Bat-eared Fox, Caracal and Brown Hyena occur here, all sought after species for those who like finding the more unusual species, although being nocturnal species they are not easily seen.

The varying altitudes and Karoo habitat make for an environment which provides a home to animal and plant species not generally found elsewhere.

Exploring the park

Once settled in our chalet, around 5 pm,  I took a short drive in the immediate vicinity of the chalets and found a bird hide overlooking a small pond with dense reeds, where I was able to spend quality time viewing the bird life. The reeds were alive with Weavers and Bishops, which afforded close-up views as they went about their business, chattering away like excited teenagers on a school outing. In the water were Little Grebe, Grey Heron and Moorhen.

Southern Masked-Weaver
Southern Masked-Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
Southern Red Bishop
Southern Red Bishop (Female)
Southern Red Bishop (Female)

A short drive down the main entrance road, bordered on both sides by typical Karoo scrub, produced a few of the species that favour this habitat, such as Karoo Scrub-Robin (love its Afrikaans name of “Slangverklikker” which translates to “Snake detector”), Rufous-eared Warbler, Lark-Like Bunting, Grey-backed Cisticola and a lone Karoo Long-billed Lark on top of a small bush, calling with its distinctive loud descending whistle.

Karoo Longbilled Lark
Karoo Longbilled Lark

As the sun set I headed back to the comfortable chalet with its million dollar view of the surrounding mountains.

Karoo Natl Park-6 Karoo Natl Park-5

We had not made any provision for self-catering and made our way to the Park’s restaurant for a most enjoyable meal, served by the super-friendly staff (no, I don’t get paid for this, they really are great). While eating we heard the churring sound of a nightjar – either European or Rufous-cheeked which are similar sounding.

White-necked Raven
White-necked Raven

Next morning, before breakfast I ventured a bit further, taking the Klipspringer Pass that winds its way up into the surrounding mountains, affording wonderful views of the surrounding Karoo landscape.

Karoo Natl Park-10 Karoo Natl Park-8

Scanning the ridges at one point I was thrilled to find a Short-toed Rock-Thrush – a species I had only seen for the first time a few months earlier – this is something that happens time and again – takes years to find a particular species but once the ice is broken you see it easily. Close by a Klipspringer was standing elegantly on a rocky ledge, unperturbed by the sheer drop below.

Short-toed Rock-Thrush (taken long-distance - excuse the quality)
Short-toed Rock-Thrush (taken long-distance – excuse the quality)
Klipspringer
Klipspringer

Up on the plateau the views were outstanding and enjoying them with me were African Pipit, Mountain Wheatear and Karoo Long-billed Lark (again). On the way back down the twisty road a pair of Verraux’s Eagles cruised far below and settled on the rocks.

Karoo Natl Park-14

Klipspringer, Karoo National Park

African Pipit
African Pipit

After breakfast it was time to leave – our stay had been too short, albeit long enough to rate this as a well-run, friendly and desirable place to spend a few days – even the outside brass taps were shiny, a sure sign of excellent management!

The last birds to greet us on the way out were Pririt Batis – such a distinctive call – and Ostrich, which I was happy to tick, being in a National Park.

A Week in Kruger – Satara to Muzandzeni

The Route

This lesser known route is not renowned for its big five sightings but there is every chance of seeing a variety of game, with the added pleasure of getting off the beaten track for a while and enjoying a picnic spot that you will often have all to yourselves.

The route starts by heading south from Satara camp for about 10 kms where you turn right (west) on to the S 126 which marks the start of the gravel road to Muzandzeni picnic spot, a drive of about 22 kms which should take an hour or more, including stops to view game and birds as you come across them.

This stretch winds along the Sweni river for much of the way, but don’t expect there to be water during the winter months and early summer before the rains set in. The roadside scenery is dominated by many large trees, interspersed with open areas which look ideal for the big cats to use as hunting grounds.

After a break at Muzandzeni, whether for coffee/tea, or a full-blown brunch, the best way back to Satara is to complete the circle by heading north along the S 36 gravel road which joins up with the H7 Orpen-Satara tar road after about 10 kms and from there it’s an easy 20 km run along the H7 back to Satara, with a recommended stop at the Nsemani dam which usually has something of interest.

Habitat

This description from the krugerpark.co.za website sums up nicely what to expect along the Sweni river road (S 126):

“The Sweni River Road is a surprisingly tropical landscape given that it is so far south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Many old Kruger hands insist that it is the Sweni that marks the start of the north rather than the Olifants River. Southern Lala-palms and combretums dominate the grassy floodplains between the river and the road, giving the bush a distinctly Zimbabwean feel”

An extract from the Kruger Park map book shows the route :

Muzandzeni-14

The Drive

We made our way slowly along the S 126 to Muzandzeni, stopping for a number of raptors, including a pair of preening Bateleurs close to the road, which we sat and observed for some time, and a pale form of Wahlberg’s Eagle perched in a tall tree.

Bateleurs preening
Bateleurs preening
Bateleur
Bateleur
Wahlberg's Eagle (Pale form)
Wahlberg’s Eagle (Pale form)

Vultures and particularly nesting Vultures were a feature of this drive as we encountered at least 4 different nests with Vultures in attendance. Vultures that we identified included the common White-backed Vultures, of which there were many, as well as the scarcer Lappet-faced, Hooded and White-headed Vultures.

The average visitor to Kruger probably won’t spend much time looking at vultures, other than to see if they are near a kill, but the chances of seeing four Vulture species on one drive are slim, so I for one was very appreciative of these sightings.

White-backed Vulture
White-backed Vulture
White-backed Vulture
White-backed Vulture
Hooded Vulture
Hooded Vulture

Rounding off the raptor feast was a large Tawny Eagle, always impressive to look at and ruggedly good-looking.

Tawny Eagle
Tawny Eagle

Game was a bit sparse compared to some of the other drives we had done around Satara but we nevertheless enjoyed some good sightings of small groups of the more common species, including Kudus backlit by the early morning light, a lone Steenbok resting in the grass and a few Dwarf Mongeese (oh-oh should have seen that coming, now I’ve got to figure out the plural of Mongoose – it’s actually Mongooses!)

Kudu beautifully backlit by early morning son
Kudu beautifully backlit by early morning son
Dwarf Mongoose
Dwarf Mongoose

Mosque Swallows were a nice surprise – in my experience they are usually only seen a lot further north in Baobab country.

Mosque Swallow
Mosque Swallow

Muzandzeni Picnic spot

The picnic spot has a remote feeling to it – like being in the “middle of nowhere” – don’t be surprised if an Ellie or two passes by on the way to the nearby waterhole, also favoured by Zebra amongst others.

Muzandzeni
Muzandzeni
Zebra, Muzandzeni
Zebra, Muzandzeni
Zebra juvenile, fluffy stripes and all
Zebra juvenile, fluffy stripes and all

Our brunch was leftover steak from the previous night’s braai, cut into strips and fried on the skottel with onions and tomato, then plied onto a hamburger bun – delicious!

Muzandzeni brunch
Muzandzeni brunch – leftovers never tasted so good!

Back to Satara

Heading back we were on the lookout for the lions at a buffalo kill that we had heard about from Andre’s brother Eddie, visiting from Holland, and sure enough they were at the spot he had described, near an almost bare buffalo carcass.

With the temperature nudging 38 degrees C, we were happy to head back to Satara for a relaxing rest of the day, having extracted the maximum enjoyment from yet another Kruger drive.

Steenbok
Steenbok taking to the shade

A surprise awaited us at the rondavel, in the form of a Fruit Bat , hanging under the thatched overhang – quite a cute looking bat don’t you think? Like a teddy bear with wings.

Fruit Bat, Satara
Fruit Bat, Satara

Sources :

Krugerpark.co.za

Sanparks Guide to Kruger National Park

A Week in Kruger – Satara to Timbavati

Timbavati  x 3

With part of our family group otherwise engaged (Andre and Megan had returned to Joburg for a schools competition) and the remainder taking the opportunity to spend some quality time in Satara, I used the opportunity on two mornings to do some birdmapping (that’s the new terminology for “atlasing”) at my own pace ie driving at an ultra-slow pace and stopping frequently, which is the best way to birdmap / atlas effectively but can be frustrating for those not involved in the process.

Both birdmapping  drives took me to Timbavati picnic spot for a coffee and rusks break and when Andre and Megan returned it was the destination of choice once again, making it three visits in all during the week.

The Routes

There are a few options when heading to Timbavati, which lies north-west of Satara, and the choice of route will depend on how much time you wish to spend driving and whether you prefer tar or gravel roads, the latter being a lot slower but often more productive.

One option is to take the H7 tarred road west towards Orpen, then turn off northwards onto the S40 gravel road at the Nsemani dam about 7 kms from Satara and follow this road to Timbavati.

Travelling further along the H7 will take you to turn-off to the S39 gravel road, which meanders along the Timbavati River for much of the way – a longer route but well worthwhile.

The other option is to head north from Satara towards Olifants along the H1-4, then take a left at the S127 which winds through arid bushveld for about 9 kms to the picnic spot. This route means less driving on gravel but is not as productive game-wise (and birding-wise) as the first options

Whichever route you choose it makes sense to take one of the other routes back to Satara so that you cover the greatest area and increase your chances of interesting sightings along the way.

Habitat

The S39 and S40 roads take you through mixed woodland with the S39 staying close to the Timbavati river, although during the dry season the river will be dry for most of the way other than a few pools left after the long dry winter

River Scene, Timbavati Road
River Pool, Timbavati Road

The open plains are generally better for game while the mixed woodland provides good birding opportunities as well as the chance for some close encounters with game.

An extract from the Kruger Park map book shows the routes :

Satara to Timbavati routes
Satara to Timbavati routes

The Game

Game is not as abundant along the S39 and S40 as it is on the open plains east of Satara, however small groups of game are often encountered grazing or pursuing some other activity quite close to the road, affording good close-up views

On my first trip I came across two Lions at the Giravana water hole, just chilling as they are wont to do.

Lion, Girivana, Timbavati Road S40
Lion, Girivana, Timbavati Road S40
Lion, Girivana, Timbavati Road S40
Lion, Girivana, Timbavati Road S40

Regular sightings of some of my favourites kept things interesting – Giraffe, Kudu and Blue Wildebeest amongst others

Giraffe
Giraffe
Kudu
Kudu
Kudu
Kudu
Blue Wildebees
Blue wildebeest

No drive would be complete without coming across a monkey or two……

Vervet Monkey
Vervet Monkey, always so alert

Surprise of the one trip was a brief Leopard sighting, seen crossing the river and disappearing into the thick bush before I could get a camera focused on him.

The Birding / Birdmapping

Taking it slow and easy to make the most of the available birds, I built up some healthy lists as I passed through the various pentads (roughly 8 x 8 kms square) on the way to Timbavati, spending a bit more time in some of the pentads which I had identified earlier as lacking some birdmap attention in 2015.

Highlights were many :

  • Gabar Goshawk swooping across the road and “attacking” a spider’s nest and apparently feeding on the contents
Gabar Goshawk
Gabar Goshawk
  • Black- and Brown-crowned Tchagras in quick succession in the roadside bushes
  • Kori Bustard pair in the long grass
Kori Bustard, Timbavati Road
Kori Bustard, Timbavati Road
  • Flock of White-winged Widowbirds still in their winter plumage
  •  Red-billed Oxpeckers on a Zebra
Red-billed Oxpecker
Red-billed Oxpecker
  • Sabota Larks perched on top of trees and singing cheerfully
  •  Black Crake patrolling a small pool
Black Crake
Black Crake
  • A handsome Tawny Eagle perched high up in a tall tree
  • Red-crested Korhaan calling in its distinctive fashion right next to the road, boldly showing its black front then turning to show just how well camouflaged it can be in the dry grass
Red-crested Korhaan - front view while calling - can hardly miss him
Red-crested Korhaan – front view while calling – can hardly miss him
Red-crested Korhaan - viewed from the back - now he is well camouflaged
Red-crested Korhaan – viewed from the back – now he is well camouflaged
  • Purple Roller
Purple Roller
Purple Roller

Closer to Timbavati a Grey-Tit Flycatcher was moving through the canopy, emitting its typical high-pitched trilling call which I had only just got to grips with on this trip, having heard it several times in Satara as well.

Grey-Tit Flycatcher
Grey-Tit Flycatcher

More proof that many birds are extremely habitat specific was the numbers of European Bee-Eaters in one spot but nowhere else to be seen.

Timbavati Picnic Spot

The two mornings that I spent birdmapping, I arrived at Timbavati when it was quite busy – full of happy groups of visitors enjoying a brunch in this special setting overlooking the river, albeit dry at this time of year.

On the morning that we visited as a family we arrived a little earlier and had the place to ourselves for a while. Andre and Geraldine  soon had the gas going and the skottel frying merrily and it wasn’t too long before we were tucking into another delicious brunch.

Timbavati picnic spot
Timbavati picnic spot, before the visitors descend on it for brunch
Timbavati brunch in preparation
Timbavati brunch in preparation
Timbavati still has the same chairs I remember from our first visits more than 40 years ago!
Timbavati still has the same chairs I remember from our first visits more than 40 years ago!

On the way to Timbavati we had taken the Olifants road then turned left onto the S127 – not much game was encountered but one lone, large elephant had us reversing a short way until he started feeding on the road verge and we grabbed the chance to get past safely. Interesting was the way he pulled out green bushes using his trunk and front leg in a sideways kicking motion to dislodge them from the hard dry ground.

Birding was slow that morning until we reached the picnic spot where several birds were vying for “loudest call” honours. Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike was a clear winner with its piercing but tuneful call from a nearby tree, but others were almost as active especially Crested Francolin and Natal Spurfowl trying to outdo each other with their equally raucous calls as they wandered around amongst the tables.

Back to Satara

On the return trip to Satara along the S127, a flock of Chestnut-backed Sparrowlarks made for an unusual sighting, as did a pair of tiny, colourful Quailfinches quenching their thirst at a small pool below a bridge on the tar road.

We had briefly diverted to Piet Grobler dam not far from the picnic spot, where a lone Yellow-billed Stork and Black-winged Stilt were new additions to the trip list, taking it to 126 species.

Yellow-billed Stork, Timbavati Road
Yellow-billed Stork, Timbavati Road
Timbavati Road
Timbavati Road

Back at Satara it was time for a snooze and some relaxation to get us through the hot afternoon, with the temperature heading to the mid 30’s again.

Sources :

Krugerpark.co.za

Sanparks Guide to Kruger National Park