Category Archives: Birding Spots

My Atlasing Month – March 2020 (Part 1 )

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in March 2020 …..

Another busy atlasing month during which planned – and unplanned – trips saw us travelling across South Africa, initially to Mpumulanga province for a midweek breakaway, followed not long after by a lengthy trip through Gauteng, Free State and Western Cape provinces on our way from Pretoria to Cape Town and then eastwards to eventual lockdown in Mossel Bay, a trip of some 1850 kms spread over 4 days.

Verlorenkloof – 2 to 6 March

Expiring timeshare points were put to good use with a last-minute midweek booking at Verlorenkloof, between Macahadadorp and Lydenburg, our favourite resort which we have been visiting since 2004. Over the years we have got to know the resort intimately, which helps when it comes to birding and atlasing, as you tend to know what to expect before actually seeing it.

Pentad 2525_3015

The pentad covers the resort, adjoining farmland, trout fishing dams, a river that meanders through the lower part of the resort and grasslands. Habitats are varied, as covered in some detail in previous posts such as https://mostlybirding.com/2016/05/04/verlorenkloof-birding/ and are centered around the croft, which for this break was No 6.

Grasslands, Verlorenkloof

Birding began, as usual, in the vicinity of the spacious croft with species coming and going while we enjoyed the ambience of the patio with good friends Koos and Rianda, bathed in just enough sunlight to keep the late summer temperatures at a comfortable level. The comers and goers included African Paradise and Spotted Flycatchers, Red-winged Starlings in abundance, a lone Grey Cuckooshrike – too quick for a photo – and in the evening a Fiery-necked Nightjar.

Chinspot Batis, Verlorenkloof

The Fiery-necked Nightjar displayed an uncanny sense of time, starting to call at the same time, give or take a couple of minutes, for 4 evenings in a row, usually just after we had started our braai fire. Perhaps it was the flames of the fire that inspired it – being a Fiery-necked Nightjar after all!

The birding highlight of our stay, initially spotted by Koos, was the colony of Cape Vultures which appeared late on the first afternoon high up against the escarpment, cruising slowly and effortlessly in a long lazy loop, utilising the warm updraft to good effect before settling on projecting ledges.

I took this photo at a distance of possibly a kilometre, using my spotting scope at its maximum 60 x zoom and holding my iphone over the viewing lens. The resulting photo needed some editing and manipulation but gives a reasonable idea of the craggy mountain top and the roosting vultures (those whitish blobs)

Cape Vulture roost, Verlorenkloof

With the help of the spotting scope we were able to estimate the colony at some 60 individuals, so it is clearly a significant colony of this endangered species. During previous visits we have spotted Cape Vultures in flight on a couple of occasions, but never in these numbers and never roosting within view, so we came to the conclusion that this was a newly formed colony.

Our late afternoon walks and short drives to the reception building for coffee were opportunities to bird the woodland and grassland, the latter producing regular sightings of Broad-tailed Warbler, a scarce and desirable species for many a birder. When logging the species on Birdlasser I found that it had undergone a name change, now being known as Fan-tailed Grassbird.

Fan-tailed Grassbird (Schoenicola brevirostris)

Other species included Lazy Cisticola and Croaking Cisticola which, true to its name, sounds like a frog with laryngitis. Tall reeds held tens of Widowbirds – Red-collared, Fan-tailed and White-winged – and Bishops – Red and Yellow-crowned.

Lazy Cisticola (Cisticola aberrans / Luitinktinkie), Verlorenkloof

The fishing dams (it’s a trout fishing resort as well) were fairly barren at first but with some patience we found Yellow-billed Duck, Moorhen and Little Grebe.

One of the dams

Aerially, it was as busy as always with Rock Martins, White-rumped Swifts and Greater Striped Swallows never far from view around the croft. Further afield, Barn Swallows, White-throated, Lesser-striped, Pearl-breasted (8%) and Grey-rumped Swalows patrolled their preferred patch, ever searching for the next feed.

The gravel access roads to and from the resort are best for the bush and tree species with the likes of Southern Black Flycatcher, Brubru (5%), Yellow-fronted Canaries, Mousebirds and others.

Southern Black Flycatcher, Verlorenkloof

One lazy afternoon a family group of Red-necked Spurfowl weaved through the longer grass around the croft, affording glimpses of their main features.

Red-necked Spurfowl (Pternistis afer / Rooikeelfisant) (Race castaneiventer), Verlorenkloof

Koos and I dedicated one morning to atlasing the northern reaches of the pentad on the way to another pentad further afield – another 19 species were added in about two hours of frequent stops, with highlights being Willow Warbler, the tiny Orange-breasted Waxbills that move around in flocks, Dusky Indigobird (4%), Giant Kingfisher, a calling Red-winged Francolin – too furtive to spot and Yellow-crowned Bishop. All very pleasing additions to my already advanced list.

Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima / Reusevisvanger) Verlorenkloof

A handful of birds (if you have just 4 fingers) on our last morning on the way home took my total for the pentad to 97 including a lone Amur Falcon (7%) – not my highest 5 day total for this pentad but quite satisfying for late summer when many of the migrants have either left or are not calling.

This was my 16th atlas card for the pentad and took my personal total for the pentad to 191 species (out of a total for all atlasers of 292 species), which illustrates the amazing diversity of bird life in the area, bearing in mind a pentad covers around 8 x 8 kms of the planet.

The Other Stuff

Verlorenkloof is not just about birding, being a botanist’s delight as well as a haven for many other of nature’s treasures – here’s a selection of photos which touch on the variety of flora and fauna to be found –

This beauty I would guess is a type of wild Iris of sorts


Just look at this delicate flower, found in long grass near one of the paths

Wild flower, Verlorenkloof

Even an ordinary moth looks delicate and special

Moth, Verlorenkloof

Kiepersol trees are plentiful

Kiepersol, Verlorenkloof

Verlorenkloof has wild life too – but don’t expect a Big 5 experience

Scrub Hare (Lexus saxatillis), Verlorenkloof

Even a reptile or two – this one brought home to me once again just how well wild life can blend into its environment – a raptor would have great difficulty seeing this reptile from above as it matches the colours of the rock to a tee

Rock Agama (I beieve) Verlorenkloof
Rock Agama, Verlorenkloof

And to finish, here’s another example of a spotting scope / iphone combination to take a photo of a three-quarter moon

Verlorenkloof

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%

Fun in the Forest – Fungi, Frogs and Fangs

You would think that a walk in the forest, with the intent to do some casual birding, would be a safe, relaxing pursuit …. despite having grown up with fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and the like where all kinds of monsters lurked among the trees. Well, that’s what I thought when we went on a day trip in January this year to the Woodville “Big Tree”, near Hoekwil in the southern Cape and I persuaded Gerda to walk the trail through the pristine forest that surrounds the Tree.

Alert readers (that’s all of you, I’m sure) may remember my story of the ghostly dove in this same forest -(https://mostlybirding.com/2018/02/06/into-the-wilderness-a-forest-a-big-tree-and-a-ghostly-dove/) – I was expecting a similar experience of secretive birds with soft calls, but as it turned out, the birds were scarce. And yet there were plenty of other interesting, even exciting things that had us stopping frequently along the trail ……

Fungi

The forest holds a remarkable variety of fungi of different shapes and colours, some of which I photographed – unfortunately I have no idea of their names as this is one part of nature that I have no expertise in at all (and I don’t own a field guide). Nevertheless I was fascinated by their variety

Here are two in one photo – the whitish ones shaped like funnels and the large flat brown one to the left of the photo.

Another photo of the whitish funnel shaped fungi, this time with my hand included to give an idea of size

Another example of a large disc shaped fungus – about the size of a large dinner plate

And lastly this delicate umbrella shaped fungus – it has the appearance of the mushrooms we eat, but this one could easily be of the poisonous variety. It was about the size of a large mug

Frogs

Well, frog singular, actually – it leapt into the undergrowth as we approached and I was just able to get a partly concealed photo as it did its best to remain hidden from view. I am hesitant to put a name to it (but we can call it Freddie the Frog if you like) as my frogs reference book is under lockdown in Pretoria while we are likewise under lockdown, but in Mossel Bay. However an App that I downloaded points to it being a Raucous Toad (Sclerophrys rangeri) based on colour, markings and distribution

(Possible) Raucous Toad

Fangs

The major excitement of the day was provided by none other than a dark green, almost black, snake that slithered across the track a few metres in front of us. It was a Boomslang – known to be docile rather than aggressive – but scary nonetheless. It was around 1,5m long and I was happy to grab a photo or two from what I felt was a safe position on the opposite side of the track to where it was weaving its way through the leafy green undergrowth. After a couple of heart-pumping minutes trying to follow its progress, it disappeared from view and we continued on our way along the forest path, now a tad more alert for any movement around us.

Feathered friends

Birds were scarce, other than in the vicinity of the Big Tree itself and, as expected in forest habitat, it was all about the calls – as we commenced the walk, there were some calls that I could not immediately identify, but I eventually decided it had to be Olive Bushshrikes, which have a variety of calls.

On the other hand, the shrill “Willie” calls of Sombre Greenbuls were more obvious, their calls following us all the way along the walk. Black-headed Oriole and Terrestial Brownbul each called once during our walk and the cry of a distant African Fish-Eagle confirmed its presence – probably at a dam beyond the forest perimeter. On the way out, at last, a Cape Batis hopping about in the branches actually showed itself, making our day in the forest just a little more pleasurable.

Flora

And for good measure (and the chance for one more alliterative heading) this flower caught my eye – I believe its name is Scadoxus puniceus, commonly known as the paintbrush lily

Which all goes to show that birding just has to be the best pastime – you never know what is around the next corner.

I hope that the current lockdown period finds you in a safe and comfortable place …….

My Atlasing Month – February 2020 (Part Three)

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in February 2020 …..

I thought it best to split it into three parts as it has been a busy atlasing month during which I made a point of visiting some of Gauteng’s prime birding spots for my atlasing pursuits in the hope that it would get my birding year off to a cracking start (it worked!)

Marievale Bird Sanctuary – 26 February

This week’s choice of atlasing destination was Marievale Bird Sanctuary, situated near Nigel in south-eastern Gauteng and about 100 kms drive from our Pretoria home. I had intended to do two pentads – Marievale itself plus an adjoining pentad outside the nature reserve. After spending more time in Marievale than planned, I struggled to find an access road into the second pentad and found myself driving in circles, thanks to some confusing directions from my navigation system. A short session of “test atlasing” of a stretch of the very busy road that I eventually found, convinced me that it would be a wasted effort and a frustration, as it was by now the middle of the day – a very quiet time for birding – and I did not fancy dodging traffic for two hours.

Pentad 2620_2830

Marievale is famous for its extensive, shallow open waters and wetlands, reedbeds and surrounding grasslands. It is also well served with bird hides and a picnic spot – all well maintained and you are guaranteed to see an excellent variety of waterfowl, wetland and grassland species in a morning’s birding.

Marievale Bird Sanctuary

After a slow drive from home through early morning traffic, despite starting out at 5.30 am and following some back roads, I started atlasing as soon as I entered the pentad in its north-eastern corner, still on the R42 main road between Delmas and Nigel. It took 20 minutes to get to the Marievale entrance road, by which time I had logged 21 species seen along the road – I made sure to pull off onto the wide grass verge wherever possible, as the road proved to be quite busy. Black-winged Kite, Glossy Ibis and Spotted Thick-Knee were pleasing to see as well as two Widowbird species – Fan-tailed and Long-tailed.

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus / Glansibis), Marievale Bird Sanctuary

I spent a while at the entrance complex which has a deck overlooking some wetlands and quickly added Red-billed Teal, Cape Shoveler and Hottentot Teal, taking my total to 31 by the time I accessed the reserve proper.

My next focus was on the “powerline road” – a maintenance track below the main overhead powerlines that run through a section of the wetlands. The track is narrow and lined with reeds in places, affording views of the ponds and small lakes, most of which have abundant bird life. The reeds are a favourite haunt for warblers which provide a soundtrack of birdsong as you drive along, windows open to hear all the calls. Lesser Swamp Warblers competed with African Reed Warblers for the title of “most prolific warbler” which ended pretty much in a draw.

The shallower ponds were alive with waders, including elegant Greater Flamingoes, Wattled Lapwings, Black-winged Stilts and Spoonbills; deeper ponds were filled with waterfowl such as Teals, Yellow-billed Ducks and SA Shelducks.

African Spoonbill (Platalea alba / Lepelaar), Marievale Bird Sanctuary

At one spot an African Swamphen and a Moorhen emerged from the reeds and went about their business while I tried to get them in the same frame, each nicely posed – a tall ask indeed.

African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis / Grootkoningriethaan) with Common Moorhen, Marievale Bird Sanctuary

On my return trip along the track a flash of colour caught my eye – a Malachite Kingfisher, often plentiful at Marievale but on this day it was the only one I found. A Natal Spurfowl (0.5%) crossed the track ahead of me – not usually regarded as a scarce bird but this was one of only a handful of records for Marievale.

Malachite Kingfisher (Alcedo cristata / Kuifkopvisvanger), Marievale Bird Sanctuary

With my total now standing at 52 after two hours of atlasing I knew the pace of adding new species would slow, but I was expecting 70 plus based on my previous visits to Marievale and continued along the main access road to the picnic spot, where I enjoyed coffee and a sandwich in the hide, before entering the northern part of the reserve.

The next two hours added just 18 species but took me to my target of 70 species and was quite satisfied with my citizen scientist contribution for the day. The only mild disappointment was the lack of small waders, barring a Little Stint, due to the higher levels of the ponds and dearth of muddy flats following the good summer rains.

A Squacco Heron in the middle of the track kept me fascinated for about ten minutes while it tried to manoeuvre a small fish into a swallowing position, pushing and pulling it on the ground then picking it up in its bill and flipping it about to get it in position, dropping the fish again and repeating the moves over and over. This went on until the heron grew tired of my attention and stalked off into the reeds, fish in bill.

Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides / Ralreier), playing with its food
And off he goes into the reeds

On the way out I found a Common Buzzard (6%) and an Amur Falcon to round off a superb morning of atlasing.

The highlight of the morning? Undoubtedly an unusual mammal that I had never seen up close before – but more about that on another occasion …….

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%

My Atlasing Month – February 2020 (Part Two)

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in February 2020 …..

I thought it best to split it into three parts as it has been a busy atlasing month during which I made a point of visiting some of Gauteng’s prime birding spots for my atlasing pursuits in the hope that it would get my birding year off to a cracking start (it worked!)

Wilge River Valley – 19 February

My choice of pentads for the week was centred around the beautiful Wilge River Valley which lies about an hour’s drive north-east of Pretoria. Getting there is simple and includes the N4 National road up to the R25 turn-off at Bronkhorstspruit, then northwards to the Zusterstroom turn-off. From the turn-off the tar road soon changes to gravel, continuing eastwards across the pentad, flanked by a stream on one side and scenic cliffs on the other. Both sides are lined variously with bush, forest and woodland, changing to farmland beyond the valley.

Wilge River Valley

I was anticipating a good day’s birding with most of the summer migrants still present, although some of them are a lot more secretive during the late summer months before departing northwards. Red-chested Cuckoos, which are almost monotonously vocal during November to January are mostly silent in late February.

Pentad 2535_2855

My first stop was at a small farm dam close enough to the road to scan for bird life – also the only dam I came across during the morning. Yellow-billed Ducks (8%) and a lone Little Grebe (5%) paddled about on the water, while Pied Starlings (7%) flew about somewhat aimlessly (I’m sure they didn’t think so), Long-tailed Widowbirds floated delicately just above the long grass in that unique summer display that they have perfected and the calls of Rufous-naped Lark and Cloud Cisticola provided an appropriate soundtrack to it all. Who needs a concert when you have it all provided free by nature?

Finishing my first coffee, I proceeded slowly along the road, closing the windows to avoid the dust clouds created by the occasional passing vehicle, stopping frequently to get out and scan the surroundings and the air while listening for any calls. I have learnt that this is by far the best way to atlas, as birds I probably would not have noticed if I remained in the car suddenly pop up, fly by or call and become part of the statistics. My list grew steadily, albeit a bit slower than I had anticipated, with regular Puffback and Orange-breasted Bush-shrike calls reminding me that this habitat suited them perfectly.

Wilge River

Highlights along the way :

  • Red-breasted Swallows perched at the roadside had me stalking them to get better light – photographing against an overcast sky is never ideal and seldom results in a decent photo
  • A Dusky Indigobird (1.5% ) also grabbed my attention for a while, but once again I struggled to get decent light without spooking the bird – some manipulation with Lightroom saved the day and I was reasonably pleased with the result
  • As I drove I kept hearing a call which was familiar but not immediately recognised by me – this happens a lot with calls especially when you have not heard a species for some time. I started seeing one Cinnamon-breasted Bunting after another and then it clicked that it was their call I was hearing. Bird calls can be a real challenge so linking a mystery call to a species is a particular thrill of atlasing.
  • A Prinia like bird, but with a rufous cap could only be a Lazy Cisticola and a warbler calling from dense bush had me checking the warbler calls to confirm my suspicion that it was a Garden Warbler, another Palaearctic summer migrant – despite being a few metres away and calling loudly, there was not a movement to be seen, so I had to be content with its mellow call
Red-breasted Swallow (Cecropis semirufa / Rooiborsswael)
Dusky Indigobird  (Vidua funerea / Gewone blouvinkie)
Cinnamon-breasted Bunting ( Emberiza tahapisi / Klipstreepkoppie)

At one stop I noticed a dead Nightjar in the road, clearly hit by a passing vehicle – its wing was conveniently spread revealing a pattern of white spots which I later used to ID it as Freckled Nightjar (9%). Unfortunately they are in the habit of settling on gravel roads at night and become blinded by the vehicle lights until it is too late.

A stop at the river where it crosses the road, produced Little Rush and African Reed Warblers calling from the reeds which have taken over the river at that point. Further on, just before reaching the eastern pentad boundary, I spotted a Woodland Kingfisher on an overhead wire and a Black-winged Kite on an exposed branch, both looking for their next meal.

Turning north, I re-entered the pentad in a completely different habitat of grassland, patches of bush and wetlands with tall reeds. The wetlands were too distant for my binoculars so I set up my scope and came up with a trio of Widowbirds – White-winged, Fan-tailed and Red-collared, plus Red Bishops, all of which favour this habitat.

I was at the boundary of the pentad on its northern side, about to exit it and resigned to not reaching my target of 70 species, when a Cattle Egret and Levaillant’s Cisticola saved the day. By now it was late morning and I decided to do the pentad directly north of the first one.

Pentad 2530_2855

This was a far less diverse pentad, comprising mostly grassland with some wetland patches at the start. A Greater Kestrel on a utility pole was my first record, and also happened to be a new species for the pentad, always an exciting moment. The wetlands held the same widowbirds and bishops as the first pentad and a stream crossing had a variety of birds but not much new other than Red-breasted Swallows and Tawny-flanked Prinias

Grasslands

Soon I was back on the main R25 tar road, which was under construction for most of its length through the pentad and I did not linger or try to stop as it would have been quite dangerous, so I turned off at the first gravel side road that came up. This was fortuitous as it took me along a quiet farm road through more grassland where the power lines had many European Bee-eaters and a multitude of Common House-Martins

I stretched my stay in the area, knowing there was no further scope for atlasing elsewhere in the pentad, until I had done the minimum two hours, by which time I had recorded a modest 31 species on my Birdlasser app.

Rufous-naped Lark  (Mirafra africana / Rooineklewerik)

I couldn’t resist photographing this Citrus Swallowtail butterfly when I came across it near the stream crossing

Although I was finished with atlasing, my birding was not quite done – I had heard about a rarity seen at the Bronkhorstspruit Dam which was on my route home so decided to see if it was still around. Indeed it was and I saw only my second Red Phalarope through my scope in the middle of the large dam from where a group of birders had gathered – too far for a photo. This lovely Yellow-billed Duck and young duckling passing by made up partially for that….

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%

My Atlasing Month – February 2020 (Part One)

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in February 2020 …..

I thought it best to split it into three parts as it has been a busy atlasing month during which I made a point of visiting some of Gauteng’s prime birding spots for my atlasing pursuits in the hope that it would get my birding year off to a cracking start (it worked!)

Lemoenfontein near Beaufort West – 1 to 2 February

Lemoenfontein Game Lodge near Beaufort West was our first overnight stop on our 1 300 km trip from Mossel Bay back to our main home in Pretoria. We had not stayed there before and were more than happy that we had followed our friend’s recommendation, as we enjoyed a comfortable room and excellent meals served on the grand open verandah overlooking the expanse of the surrounding Karoo landscape. The lodge dates back to the mid 1800’s and I could imagine hunting parties enjoying the same view in those days.

The approach road to Lemoenfontein Game Lodge near Beaufort West
Heavy rain drenching the arid Karoo near Beaufort West as we approached Lemoenfontein

My usual strategy for atlasing the minimum two hours at overnight stops is to split it into one hour’s birding after arrival in the afternoon and a further hour’s birding before breakfast the next morning. Our arrival at Lemoenfontein was accompanied by a heavy downpour which started outside Beaufort West and only let up once we had settled into our room. That still left just enough time for a short walk along the trail that skirts the lower slopes of the mountain, enough to find some of the Karoo specials such as Layard’s Warbler, Grey-backed Cisticola and Lark-like Bunting.

Lemoenfontein

My pre-breakfast walk the next morning was in the opposite direction including a section of the access road and added to my modest list with Pale-winged Starlings and a Pale Chanting Goshawk most prominent, taking my pentad total to just 23 species

The view all the way to Beaufort West

Pretoria – “Home” Pentad – 6 to 8 February

Getting back to Pretoria after more than two months away takes some adjusting – South Africa’s infamous “load shedding”, a “soft” term for regular power cuts, was with us again and added to the challenge. So I chose to ease into my Gauteng atlasing routine by starting with my home pentad – the pentad that includes the suburb where we live and a large chunk of south-eastern Pretoria.

The habitat is mostly urban gardens and housing estates such as the one where our home is located, which has a couple of dams favoured by various waterfowl, while the pentad is also blessed with three reasonably sized nature reserves with varying habitats, so opportunities for birding are good. Atlasing the busy general urban areas is challenging as sudden stops can lead to accidents, so I prefer to head to a quieter, protected area for the bulk of the atlasing and any birds spotted along the way and identifiable without slowing down or stopping are a bonus.

I started the atlasing of my home pentad with a long walk around Moreletakloof Nature Reserve – the warm, humid weather had me sweating profusely and I was glad I had taken a water bottle along. There are various trails through the reserve and I followed one through dense woodland down to the stream, then through more open grassland and woodland up to the dam, which was only partially visible through the dense reeds which cover a large part of it.

Moreletakloof
The Reserve has a few Zebras

From the dam I headed further up the main trail then turned back towards the parking area and main gate. Palm and Little Swifts and Greater Striped Swallows were constantly visible in the air, while highlights of the walk were African Green Pigeon, Glossy Ibis flying over, Spotted Flycatcher and the resident Common Ostriches which I watched carefully as they can be dangerous when breeding. I left the reserve with a list of 38 species and headed to my next planned stop at Struben Dam, some 20 minutes away through busy traffic and some dead traffic lights affected by load shedding.

At Struben Dam, a small nature reserve favoured by fishermen, I walked the path that circles the small dam, almost baulking at a heavily flowing stream crossing, but one giant leap – well that’s what it felt like to my ageing body – got me across safely. The dam has numbers of Yellow-billed Ducks, Coots and Egyptian Geese, while the vegetated fringes are good for Weavers, Bishops and Warblers. A small island in the middle of the dam had a Striated (Green-backed) Heron and an African Darter was searching the water for its next meal, spear-like bill at the ready. Calls that I could identify were Lesser Swamp Warbler in the reeds and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird from a distant tree. After a liitle more than a half hour I had to return home, by which time I had added another 12 species taking my total to 50.

Struben dam
This Barbel came slithering past as I looked for a spot to “jump” the stream

I completed the atlasing over the next two days in The Glades, our home estate and ended with a satisfying 62 species, including a Purple Heron which made a brief appearance at one of the dams. While I was at the dam late one afternoon and after heavy rain earlier in the day, I noticed an emergence of alates (the winged version of termites) and watched fascinated as they quickly attracted a few hundred swallows and swifts which were expertly snatching them in flight at full speed as they fluttered from their underground chambers. Nature’s own take-away protein bar.

Roodeplaat Dam – 12 February

This week my choice of pentad fell on Roodeplaat Dam, a large dam and nature reserve immediately north of Pretoria’s northernmost suburbs and one of the best birding spots within half an hour’s drive of our home. I had planned to do two pentads, but as the day progressed I sensed that the pentad would be a particularly generous one in terms of species atlased. As it turned out, my decision paid off and I managed to chalk up my highest ever one day pentad total.

The entrance

I left home before sunrise as usual and by just after 6 am I started atlasing on the Kameelfontein road that skirts the eastern side of the reserve. Early traffic speeding past persuaded me to head for the safety and quiet of the reserve and at the entrance gate I logged Crowned Lapwing, Rufous-naped Lark and Red-chested Cuckoo while waiting for my entrance ticket, then headed into the reserve at snail’s pace, taking in the early morning freshness of the air and beauty of the mix of woodland and grassland habitats that make up large parts of Roodeplaat.

It took all of an hour of steady atlasing to get to Seekoegat (“Hippo wallow”) and the first glimpse of the dam, with many stops along the way to view the abundant bird life including the likes of Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler), White-browed Scrub-Robin, Black-chested Prinia and Diderick Cuckoo. A patch of reeds held many Widowbirds with both White-winged and Red-collared well represented.

I parked in the shade at Seekoegat and scanned the waters of this quiet corner of the dam, in the process finding Striated (Green-backed) Heron, Glossy Ibis, Grey Heron and a lone Yellow-billed Stork. The latter was a first record for the pentad after some 900 separate atlasing sessions by many observers over the ten years that the SABAP2 programme has been running, so was deservedly the bird of the day in my view.

Passing through a wooded area I found Spotted Flycatcher, a summer migrant to our part of the world, mainly from Scandinavia. Carrying on I stopped at a small pan with a bird hide and watched Wattled Lapwings, Wood Sandpipers and a Little Grebe going about their business. More woodland produced Black-crowned Tchagra, Chinspot Batis and Red-backed Shrike, another Palaearctic migrant, common in our bushveld in summer.

Spotted Flycatcher
Red-backed Shrike

The hide at the picnic area provides views across the dam, which is a popular rowing venue, even on a weekday morning as I found, with coaches in small boats giving instructions to rowers with their loud-hailers. Some Reed Cormorants, many White-winged Terns and a Little Egret did not seem perturbed by the activity but I suspect other birds were hiding in other parts of the dam to get away from it. Unfortunately water levels after the rains were too deep for waders to be attracted to the dam edges.

The third hide I visited was the more remote one at the northern end of the dam but there was not much to see, although I did add Blue Waxbill, Dusky Indigobird and Orange-breasted Bush-shrike while traversing the more arid woodland to get to the hide.

A Banded Mongoose at the side of the road
Vervet Monkey

After 4 hours I left the Reserve, with a total of 75 species logged and suddenly it made sense to carry on atlasing the same pentad rather than start a new one – a record one day pentad total (for me) seemed entirely possible. I travelled further along the Kameelfontein road, turning off at Rif road which climbs slowly to a higher area with more rocky habitat and found several new birds such as Long-billed Crombec, Cut-throat Finch, Black-throated Canary and lots of Cinnamon-breasted Buntings.

An atlasing bonus – having a road to yourself (but choose the road carefully)
Red-billed Quelea

I was particularly happy to find and photograph a Black Cuckooshrike male, a species I have not seen for a couple of years.

Black Cuckooshrike

Village Weaver took my total to 90 for the pentad after a total of 6 hours of atlasing – certainly my highest one day atlasing total – could 100 be possible? After another hour of very slow birding I was ready to call it a day, but just before leaving the pentad I stopped to view the last river which was flowing strongly, and promptly added 4 species – Black Ducks flying off on one side and Moorhen and Red-billed Teal in a dammed up ond on the other side, while a Natal Spurfowl called loudly – was he saying cheerio?

I was tempted to turn back to see if I could find 3 more but common sense told me 97 is just about as good as 100 and I headed homewards, rather pleased with my efforts.

West Coast National Park – Day Visit

During a recent visit to the Cape Town area we took the opportunity to spend a day out with Johan and Rosa (Gerda’s sister) during which we travelled firstly to Bloubergstrand, then further west to the West Coast National Park.

Blouberg proved to be a good choice for an alfresco mid-morning tea accompanied by scones (rather dry ones) with a view of the beautiful bay and beyond to Table Mountain in the distance. We had fortunately chosen a perfect day for it – sunny but not too hot with a slight breeze. So nice to see the bay after many years.

Bloubergstrand on a perfect day

Leaving Bloubergstrand behind, we proceeded at a gentle pace to the entrance gate to the West Coast National Park, an hour or so up the coast. The drive from the gate to the restaurant at Geelbek was punctuated by some stops for light birding.

Roberts Birding app describes the reserve’s habitat as follows – “The reserve comprises large areas of coastal strandveld and a large tidal lagoon, with extensive tidal mudflats, saltmarsh and reedbeds.”

After a lazy lunch at an outside table, I took a walk to the nearby bird hide, with its views across the mudflats and the vast lagoon, while the others sat in the car under a shady tree and chatted. Also chatting loudly was a Yellow-billed Kite in the tree above the car, with a bevy of smaller birds responding in kind.

Yellow-billed Kite (Milvus parasitus / Geelbekwou)

I didn’t want to leave them for too long, so I spent about 40 minutes walking to the hide and back along the raised boardwalk – hardly enough time to do justice to this exceptional birding spot but I managed to see and photograph a surprising number of wader and other species in this short time.

West Coast NP – the boardwalk to the Geelbek hide

Flamingoes were plentiful, with both Greater and Lesser species being well represented.

Other prominent waders included Black-winged Stilt, the beautifully delicate Pied Avocet, Kittlitz’s Plover, Little Stint, Ruff, Grey Plover, Common Greenshank, Whimbrel and Curlew Sandpiper. Those I managed to photograph are the following –

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus / Rooipootelsie), West Coast NP
Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta / Bontelsie), West Coast NP
Kittlitz’s Plover (Charadrius pecuarius / Geelborsstrandkiewiet), West Coast NP
Little Stint (Calidris minuta / Kleinstrandloper), West Coast NP
Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola / Grysstrandkiewiet), West Coast NP
Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea / Krombekstrandloper), West Coast NP

A pair of Cape Teals with their dark pink bills huddled at the edge of the marshes.

Cape Teal (Anas capensis / Teeleend)

At the hide itself, many more flamingoes were visible along with some of the same waders, while a couple of Greater Crested Terns flew past low and slow in their customary manner.

West Coast NP – the view from the hide
Greater Crested (Swift) Tern (Thalasseus bergii / Geelbeksterretjie)

With my birding itch satsified by this quick fix, we headed slowly to the secondary gate on the Langebaan side, hoping for a sighting of some game, which had eluded us so far. Not far from the exit gate we came across a herd of handsome Eland

Eland, West Coast NP

All in all a day well enjoyed!

Kruger in Winter – Lazy Birding

One of the great pleasures of birding in Kruger National Park is that you don’t necessarily have to go on a game drive to find a variety of birds. Birding the camp on foot is often a very productive way of building up a list of bird sightings and, if you are fortunate, you may be allocated a rondavel or chalet with surrounds that bring the birds to you.

Most of Kruger’s camps attract many birds with their well developed trees and gardens, as well as the bush that surrounds the camps, and there is no better way to enjoy the diverse bird life than sitting on your small stoep, sustained by regular injections of appropriate beverages, watching the passing show of birds and occasional animals.

As I mentioned in my last post, we were lucky to get a booking in Olifants camp for 5 nights during the last week of the winter school holidays – prime time in Kruger – and were doubly lucky to get a rondavel with “River view”, which are very sought after.

When we arrived at Olifants and drove to our rondavel after checking in, we were thrilled to see just how good our “river view” was – a view that started with the fence a couple of metres away, then dense bush and trees all the way down the steep slope to the river far below, where we could already make out an elephant or two and some hippos in the pools that form amongst the rocky course of this iconic river.

The River View from our stoep

Over the next 5 days, between the customary game drives, we spent as much time as possible on our small stoep, from early morning coffee to sundowner time, just chilling, reading and seemingly not concerned with our immediate surroundings, but ready at any moment to check out a nearby bird in the bush or more distant ones flying across the river below.

Seen from the Stoep…..

Here are some of the birds that came by to visit us, all taken from our stoep:

Orange-breasted Bushshrike (Chlorophoneus sulfureopectus / Oranjeborslaksman), Olifants camp
Jameson’s Firefinch (Female) (Lagonosticta rhodopareia / Jamesonse vuurvinkie), Olifants camp
Dark-capped Bulbul (Pycnonotus tricolor layardi subspecies / Swartoogtiptol), Olifants camp
Spectacled Weaver (Ploceus ocularis / Brilwewer), Olifants camp
Acacia Pied Barbet (Tricholaema leucomelas/ Bonthoutkapper), Olifants camp
White-throated Robin-Chat (Cossypha humeralis / Witkeeljanfrederik), Olifants camp
Brown-crowned Tchagra (Tchagra australis / Rooivlerktjagra), Olifants camp
Green-winged Pytilia (Juvenile) (Pytilia melba / Gewone melba), Olifants camp
Tawny-flanked Prinia (Prinia subflava / Bruinsylangstertjie), Olifants camp
Long-billed Crombec (Sylvietta rufescens / Bosveldstompstert), Olifants camp

And others….

The bush in fron of our rondavel was alive with bird life for most of the day and we saw many more than those photographed above, including the likes of …..

Black-headed Oriole

Brown-headed Parrot

Golden-tailed Woodpecker (who decided to “shadow-box” a supposed rival in our car’s external mirror on the day we packed to move on)

Grey-headed Bush-shrike

And to round off, a couple of non-bird visitors………

Tree Squirrel
Wasp? Not really sure but an attractive insect

Kruger in Winter – Looking at Wildlife

It’s a strange thing, this love of Kruger National Park – come the winter months with the highveld air getting drier and colder as we move into June and July, my thoughts involuntarily turn toward the bushveld wilderness where we have spent so many relaxing times.

Gerda knows by now to expect me to express my longing, sometimes subtly, other times more direct – “ooh, I wish we were in Kruger” or “did you hear so and so are in Kruger, lucky devils” or words to that effect. Then when she says “don’t you want to book a week for us?”, I naturally react with surprise and reply “what a good idea”.

And that’s how we found ourselves on the road to Olifants camp in early July this year. Surprisingly, we had found space in a standard Olifants camp rondavel in the last week of the school holidays, after finding the rest of July all but fully booked up in our preferred camps. We were lucky to get 5 nights in Olifants and another 3 nights in Lower Sabie and Pretoriuskop.

We go to Kruger to relax ……. and to look at wildlife, This time around I had this odd feeling they were looking at us – animals and birds alike – what do you think?

The Horned Animals

Buffalo, Olifants area, Kruger Park
Blue Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Waterbuck, Olifants area, Kruger Park

Unhorned and harmless

Bushbuck, Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park
Steenbok (Raphicerus campestris), Olifants area, Kruger Park

The Cute Youngsters

Baboon, Olifants area, Kruger Park
Spotted Hyena pup, Tshokwane area, Kruger Park

The Smaller Animals

Tree Squirrel, Olifants area, Kruger Park
Dwarf Mongoose, Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park

A Predator

Cheetah, Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park

The only Disinterested Animal

White Rhino, Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park

Even a Reptile

Water Monitor, Olifants area, Kruger Park

And Birds, of Course

Trumpeter Hornbill (Male) (Bycanistes bucinator / Gewone boskraai), Lower Sabie camp, Kruger Park
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Burchell’s Coucal (Centropus burchellii / Gewone vleiloerie), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Swainson’s Spurfowl (Pternistis swainsonii / Bosveldfisant), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Greater Blue-eared Starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus / Groot-blouoorglansspreeu), Tshokwane, Kruger Park
Tawny-flanked Prinia (Prinia subflava / Bruinsylangstertjie), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Chinspot Batis (Male) (Batis molitor), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Swainson’s Spurfowl (Juvenile) (Pternistis swainsonii), Olifants area, Kruger Park

And a tree knot looking like an Owl, looking at us

Owl-faced tree, Olifants area, Kruger Park

So if you find yourself in Kruger, or any other Park, looking at wildlife, I’m sure you will find them looking at you as well

Birds of Verlorenkloof (October 2018)

Verlorenkloof, as regular readers will know, is our favourite spot for a really relaxing getaway and we look forward to our annual timeshare week in October each year immensely. October 2018 was no different with lazy days, some walking, some birding and atlasing and just enjoying the company of old friends …. errrr,  friends of long standing that is. (At our age one can get sensitive about 3-letter words such as “old”).

The croft (the fancy name for the house-like accommodation at Verlorenkloof) sleeps 10. although 6 is more comfortable, so it is a great opportunity to invite some close friends along for the week.

Perhaps the best part is the time spent on the patio, where we take breakfast and lunch and enjoy regular doses of tea, coffee or cold drinks to while away the hours. The patio overlooks a sloping lawn which merges with the natural grass and shrubs stretching across the hill and down to the stream, which is flanked by luxuriant reeds and ferns.

Beyond the grass and the stream, the lower grassy slopes of the mountain begin and continue up to a height where the rocky, almost vertical face of the mountain proper takes over, soaring to the escarpment edge a few hundred metres above. Oh, and to add to the variety of habitats, the mountain face is cleaved into densely forested kloofs at its intersections.

All of this provides the opportunity for a multitude of bird species to be attracted to the area and to take up residence. Many of them announce their presence at various times of the day, peaking in the early morning as the sun rises to welcome a new day. The mountain seems to act as an amplifier and the scene before you is reminiscent of a natural amphitheatre, with some of nature’s best songsters providing an aural experience that is hard to beat.

Verlorenkloof – view from upper path

Verlorenkloof lower dam

The selection of photos that follows is from our October 2018 week and is just a sampling of the rich bird life at Verlorenkloof, limited to those species which I was able to get close enough to for a reasonable photo or which, by chance, crossed my path while I had my camera close by.

English,  Afrikaans and scientific names are given with the gender and subspecies added where applicable …….

Familiar Chat / Gewone spekvreter (Cercomela familiaris – hellmayri subspecies) is a regular visitor to the area around the croft where it hawks insects from a vantage point such as a small rock or low branch, returning to the same spot with a flick or two of the tail as it lands, in its “familiar” way

 

Yellow Bishop (Male, non-breeding) / Kaapse flap (Euplectes capensis – approximans subspecies) – later in the summer the male acquires its breeding plumage of overall black with yellow shoulders and rump

 

African Stonechat (Male) / Gewone bontrokkie (saxicola torquatus – stoneii subspecies) – another conspicuous, widespread species which favours grasslands and perches prominently on tall bushes and plants.

 

African Crowned Eagle (Immature) / Kroonarend (Stephanoaetus coronatus ) – it was a thrill to find this impressive raptor at Verlorenkloof. This immature eagle is probably the same one that was seen by Koos Pauw earlier in the year when it was still in the nest, which he pointed out to me on top of a large tree part of the way up the mountain slope

 

Cape Grassbird / Grasvoël (Sphenoaecus afer – natalensis subspecies) – singing its heart out in its customary fashion, just a little shy for a full monty photo

 

 

Village Weaver (Male) / Bontrugwewer (Ploceus cucullatus – spilonotus subspecies) – it’s a treat to see this species in action, doing its best to attract a female for some “breeding” with much vigour, swaying its body and fanning its wings.  A flock had taken over a tree alongside the river and filled it with nests

 

Kurrichane Thrush / Rooibeklyster (Turdus libonyanus) – a shy, solitary bird that likes to forage quietly amongst the shrubs

 

Swee Waxbill (Female) / Suidelike swie (Estrilda melanotis– cute species that moves in small groups through the bushes

 

Thick-billed Weaver (Male) / Dikbekwewer (Amblyospiza albifrons – woltersi subspecies) – busy building a nest in the reeds alongside the bridge over the river. Unlike other weavers which start with a ring as a basis, this species starts with a cup and builds up from it, using thin strips gleaned from bulrush leaves to construct the fine, tightly woven nest

 

Bronze Mannikin / Gewone fret (Lonchura cucullata– fairly common in the bushes and reeds near the croft

 

Broad-tailed Warbler / Breëstertsanger (Schoenicola brevirostris) – An uncommon species that I have not seen anywhere other than at Verlorenkloof – it prefers rank grass and has a distinctive  sharp metallic call which tells you it is nearby, but is an expert at concealing itself from view, so getting a photo requires a mix of patience and luck

 

Fan-tailed Widowbird (Male in breeding plumage) / Kortstertflap (Euplectes axillaris– also a “fan” of tall moist grassland which Verlorenkloof has in abundance

 

Wing-snapping Cisticola / Kleinste klopkloppie (Cisticola ayresii– not seen at Verlorenkloof itself but in an adjoining pentad while atlasing – my first photographic record of this species

There are a few shy animals as well, such as this Grey Duiker

Grey Duiker

 

I’m already looking forward to our October 2019 week!

 

Chobe River and Game Reserve – a Special Place

I have been fortunate during my working career to have been involved in construction projects which have taken me to some interesting, even exciting, parts of the world. Top of that list is Kasane, a small town on the Chobe River in the far north of Botswana, South Africa’s neighbour on its northern side and one of the nicest countries you will find just about anywhere.

Aerial view of the Chobe River while landing at Kasane

Nice because it is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with just 2,3m people at an average density of 3 people per square kilometre, and the vast majority are inherently friendly, decent people. The country is blessed with large tracts of unspoilt wilderness where you will find some of the last vestiges of the Africa that existed before human interference made its mark.

The Flood plain

My involvement in the Kasane Airport project, now complete and functioning well, meant I spent an accumulative 60 days or more in Kasane during monthly visits spread over 3 years and I used every opportunity to spend free time in Chobe Game Reserve and on the Chobe River, soaking up the incomparable African game-viewing and bird-watching on offer.

So where is this leading? Well, I made what is likely to be my last visit to Kasane in November 2018, during which I joined a “farewell” photographic safari both on land and on the river, which left me with a head full of special memories and a memory card full of treasured images.

Pangolin Safaris photographic boat trip

Leaving Chobe Game Reserve after the game drive that morning along the familiar sandy, bumpy track, through the Sedudu gate and out on to the tar road back to Kasane, it momentarily struck me that this was possibly the last time I would see this place and an almost tangible sadness washed over me for a few seconds, only to be replaced with the happy thought of all the memories I had gathered over more than 3 years, memories that I would love to share in the best way I can.

I have written several posts about some outstanding experiences in Chobe over the last few years, but there is so much more to tell, so expect a short-ish series of further posts over the next few weeks -or months featuring some or all of the following :

  • The iconic species, both animal and avian, that call Chobe home, from Elephants to Hornbills, Leopards to Fish Eagles
  • The bird atlasing trips that I squeezed into a busy schedule while in Kasane
  • Stylish photographic safaris with Pangolin Safaris
  • Whatever else pops up in my memory bank (aka my journals)

Elephants crossing the river

African Fish-Eagles are numerous along the Chobe River

Leopard in Chobe Game Reserve

Bradfield’s Hornbill

It’s scenes like this that had me going back for more