Category Archives: Birding Spots

Atlasing Tales – Bushfellows Game Lodge, Limpopo

The Atlasing* destination

On a cold May morning in 2017 we set off from Pretoria, making our way to the R573, known as the “Moloto Road” and one with a reputation for heavy traffic during the commuting hours and many accidents, often due to the irresponsible driving habits of a minority. Koos was driving his new vehicle and being very careful, so it took us close to 2 hours to get to our destination – Bushfellows game lodge, near Marble Hall – where he had arranged with the owner Gary and manager Mandy for us to spend some time atlasing.

The day turned into a tale of interaction between avian and reptilian species with very different endings….. and we got to see a couple of animals that were unexpected.

Pentad 2500_2910 (the rectangle on the map below) :

The atlasing* started slowly with a few species recorded along the road as we made our way through the pentad to the lodge, including several Brown-hooded Kingfishers (Bruinkopvisvanger / halcyon albiventris) hunting insects from fence posts along a concrete irrigation canal.

Approaching the lodge, the birdlife increased in numbers and we headed to the office to announce ourselves and meet Mandy. Introductions done, we walked the lodge gardens in separate directions to make sure our atlasing records would not be duplicated, ending up at the small dam where we enjoyed the coffee and snacks we had brought with us.

Snake encounter No 1

A commotion from a medium-sized tree drew my attention and I soon found the source – Long-billed Crombecs (Bosveldstompstert / Sylvietta rufescens) and Cape White-eyes (Kaapse glasogie / Zosterops capensis) were clustered in the canopy and were clearly agitated. Previous experience of this phenomenon had me searching for the reason – sure enough, a Boomslang lay twisted around the branches.

Boomslang
Boomslang
Boomslang – the large eye is typical

The snake was bobbing its head back and forwards in a curious fashion as the birds got closer and braver – I later checked my reference book regarding this behavior and found that this is a ploy of the boomslang to draw birds closer and so have a better chance of nabbing one. Interestingly, I also discovered that although the boomslang is highly venomous, very few boomslang bites on humans have been recorded due to its less aggressive nature.

In this instance there was no sign of an impending small bird meal for the snake and I left them to carry on with their natural instincts.

This was followed by a viewing of the resident Lion, Wild Dogs and Rooikat in their separate enclosures, all animals rescued from a worse fate than their current captivity and undergoing rehabilitation.

Wild Dog (captive), Bushfellows Game Lodge

Mandy offered to have a ranger drive us through the game farm area which we accepted with alacrity and we spent the next hour and a half birding in style from the back of an open game-drive vehicle.

Ranger taking us for drive, Bushfellows Game Lodge

The arid bushveld was pleasingly productive as we spotted several of the species typical of this habitat – Crested Francolin (Bospatrys / Dendroperdix sephaena), Chestnut-vented Titbabbler (Bosveldtjeriktik / Sylvia subcaerulea), Kalahari Scrub-Robin (Kalahariwipstert / Erythropygia paena), Common Scimitarbill (Swartbekkakelaar / Rhinopomastus cyanomelas) and Blue Waxbill (Gewone Blousysie / Uraeginthus angolensis).

Species that are less common as a rule, but true to the habitat were Bushveld Pipit (Bosveldkoester / Anthus caffer), Southern Pied Babbler (Witkatlagter / Turdoides bicolor), White-crowned Shrike (Kremetartlaksman / Eurocephalus anguitimens ) and Cape Penduline Tit (Kaapse kapokvoël / Anthoscopus minutus).

Crested Francolin
Blue Waxbill
Bushveld Pipit
White-crowned Shrike

Snake encounter No 2

On our way out, about halfway down the long entrance road to the lodge, we spotted a Brown Snake-Eagle perched on a tall dry tree, which they typically use to scan the surrounding veld for potential prey. Always an exciting species to come across, we approached cautiously but the Snake-Eagle was having none of it and flew off into the distance, more or less in the direction we were heading.

Brown Snake-Eagle

Fortunately we encountered it again as we approached the main entrance gate to the lodge, this time flying up from an adjacent field clutching a long snake in its claws and landing on top of a utility pole. As we watched in fascination, it grabbed the limp snake’s head, popped it into his mouth and proceeded to swallow it whole, looking for all the world like a connoisseur sucking in a long strand of thick spaghetti. Within a few seconds the snake had disappeared and I’m almost sure I saw the eagle burp in satisfaction.

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 2500_2910

We added the 3rd and 4th Full Protocol cards for the pentad, turning its status to light green in the process. Our combined tally for the day was 78 species of which no less than 28 were new records for the pentad.    Total species for the pentad now 128

Some of the new/notable species added:

Glossy Ibis

Bushveld Pipit

Common Scimitarbill

Sabota Lark

Jameson’s Firefinch

Southern Pied Babbler

Bearded Woodpecker

* Atlasing : 

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

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

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

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

95 Years old – I’ll be dammed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Into the Wilderness – A Forest, A Big Tree and a Ghostly Dove

Forest Magic

There’s nothing like a walk in a natural forest to heighten the senses – once you have walked a short distance into the forest, the background sounds of daily life are gradually reduced and eventually all you can hear are the sounds of the forest itself. The bird calls become prominent and even the rustle of leaves as a bird or small creature moves through the canopy or the forest floor can suddenly be heard.

If you are lucky enough to have a patch of forest to yourself, you can almost feel a bubble forming around you as you enter a private world with just the forest sounds, the smell of the trees and the soft feel of the leaf-strewn pathway for company.

This was my experience during a recent visit to the Woodville “Big Tree” forest near Hoekwil in the Southern Cape. The forest lies beyond the Wilderness (not the actual kind, this is a village near George much favoured for holiday homes and as a retirement spot) just off the old George – Knysna road with the main attraction being the massive Yellowwood tree a stone’s throw from the parking area and picnic spot. Estimated to be over 800 years old and standing 31m tall it is more than impressive and one can only wonder how pristine our country was when it was a mere sapling, long before any human interference.

How we came to be there

Gerda and I had decided to explore the Garden Route beyond George for the day and she was the one who suggested we head for the Wilderness  for lunch at one of the popular restaurants in the small village centre, followed by a drive through the countryside east of Wilderness.

We set off in perfect weather, sunny and warm with just a whisper of wind and enjoyed a pleasant light lunch of tapas – chunks of hake and calamari with tasty side sauces. From there we took  a slow drive to Woodville forest  via Hoekwil and we were soon at the parking area. I found a shady parking spot and left Gerda contentedly knitting (making sure there were picnic goers and a forest warden nearby – you always have to be wary in our beloved country) while I explored the forest trail beyond the Big Tree.

The Trail

The trail is fairly easy and an hour is more than enough time for a slow walk while stopping to listen and look around. In the back of my mind was the thought that I still had not seen a Lemon Dove, despite being very close to them on a few occasions – so I stopped a few times to play their call, initially with no response.

By this time I had seen a number of forest specials such as Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler (Geelkeelsanger), Chorister Robin-Chat (Lawaaimakerjanfrederik), African Paradise Flycatcher (Paradysvlieëvanger) and Cape Batis (Kaapse Bosbontrokkie)

Woodville Big Tree Forest Walk
African Paradise Flycatcher, Woodville
Cape Batis

About a third of the way along the trail, I was near a large fallen tree when I heard a rustle behind me. Turning, I saw a dove-like bird fleetingly as it flew across the trail and my heart skipped a beat or two – could this be the one I had hoped for?

I crept back as quietly as possible until suddenly a bird flew out of the leaf litter right next to the trail and for a few seconds perched on an open branch, not 3m away.  It was a Lemon Dove (Kaneelduifie) and I may have let slip an expletive in my excitement as we eyed each other face to face. Desperate for a photo of this beauty I slowly went to lift my camera but at that moment the dove decided to vanish, literally, and flew back across the trail. I was convinced it had not gone far and stood at the point where I expected to find it again, scanning the forest floor and trees for several minutes but to no avail – it had disappeared like a ghost in the night.

Lemon Dove (Roberts Bird Guide app)
Lemon Dove Distribution (Roberts app)

Roberts Bird Guide describes the Lemon Dove as “Secretive and difficult to see, especially when it freezes to avoid detection”, which I can verify from this experience.

Buoyed by this sighting, I walked along the rest of the trail in a state of happiness, taking in all the various sights and sounds right down to the interesting fungi growing on trees and stumps. A rustle in the undergrowth and a harsh churring call drew my attention and after some chasing of shadows amongst the dense foliage I was pleased to track down a Terrestial Brownbul (Boskrapper).

Terrestial Brownbul

Towards the end of the trail another call, like an owl hooting while being shaken, had me wondering until I dredged my memory cells and came up with Olive Pigeon (Geelbekbosduif) – a quick play of its call on my Roberts app confirmed the ID. I left the forest to the repeated call of a Red-capped Robin-Chat, which I later suspected was a Chorister Robin-Chat mimicking its cousin, but who knows?

So my short walk produced one lifer that I had long hoped for as well as a pleasing selection of forest specials, all of which left me with a big smile and something to share with Gerda, patiently waiting in the car.

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.