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:
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 …..
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)
And to round off, a couple of non-bird visitors………
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
Unhorned and harmless
The Cute Youngsters
The Smaller Animals
The only Disinterested Animal
Even a Reptile
And Birds, of Course
And a tree knot looking like an Owl, looking at us
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
Verlorenkloof, as regular readers will know, is our favourite spot for a really relaxing getaway and we look forward to our annual timeshare week in October each year immensely. October 2018 was no different with lazy days, some walking, some birding and atlasing and just enjoying the company of old friends …. errrr, friends of long standing that is. (At our age one can get sensitive about 3-letter words such as “old”).
The croft (the fancy name for the house-like accommodation at Verlorenkloof) sleeps 10. although 6 is more comfortable, so it is a great opportunity to invite some close friends along for the week.
Perhaps the best part is the time spent on the patio, where we take breakfast and lunch and enjoy regular doses of tea, coffee or cold drinks to while away the hours. The patio overlooks a sloping lawn which merges with the natural grass and shrubs stretching across the hill and down to the stream, which is flanked by luxuriant reeds and ferns.
Beyond the grass and the stream, the lower grassy slopes of the mountain begin and continue up to a height where the rocky, almost vertical face of the mountain proper takes over, soaring to the escarpment edge a few hundred metres above. Oh, and to add to the variety of habitats, the mountain face is cleaved into densely forested kloofs at its intersections.
All of this provides the opportunity for a multitude of bird species to be attracted to the area and to take up residence. Many of them announce their presence at various times of the day, peaking in the early morning as the sun rises to welcome a new day. The mountain seems to act as an amplifier and the scene before you is reminiscent of a natural amphitheatre, with some of nature’s best songsters providing an aural experience that is hard to beat.
The selection of photos that follows is from our October 2018 week and is just a sampling of the rich bird life at Verlorenkloof, limited to those species which I was able to get close enough to for a reasonable photo or which, by chance, crossed my path while I had my camera close by.
English, Afrikaans and scientific names are given with the gender and subspecies added where applicable …….
Familiar Chat / Gewone spekvreter (Cercomela familiaris – hellmayri subspecies) is a regular visitor to the area around the croft where it hawks insects from a vantage point such as a small rock or low branch, returning to the same spot with a flick or two of the tail as it lands, in its “familiar” way
Yellow Bishop (Male, non-breeding) / Kaapse flap (Euplectes capensis – approximans subspecies) – later in the summer the male acquires its breeding plumage of overall black with yellow shoulders and rump
African Stonechat (Male) / Gewone bontrokkie (saxicola torquatus – stoneii subspecies) – another conspicuous, widespread species which favours grasslands and perches prominently on tall bushes and plants.
African Crowned Eagle (Immature) / Kroonarend (Stephanoaetus coronatus ) – it was a thrill to find this impressive raptor at Verlorenkloof. This immature eagle is probably the same one that was seen by Koos Pauw earlier in the year when it was still in the nest, which he pointed out to me on top of a large tree part of the way up the mountain slope
Cape Grassbird / Grasvoël (Sphenoaecus afer – natalensis subspecies) – singing its heart out in its customary fashion, just a little shy for a full monty photo
Village Weaver (Male) / Bontrugwewer (Ploceus cucullatus – spilonotus subspecies) – it’s a treat to see this species in action, doing its best to attract a female for some “breeding” with much vigour, swaying its body and fanning its wings. A flock had taken over a tree alongside the river and filled it with nests
Kurrichane Thrush / Rooibeklyster (Turdus libonyanus) – a shy, solitary bird that likes to forage quietly amongst the shrubs
Swee Waxbill (Female) / Suidelike swie (Estrilda melanotis) – cute species that moves in small groups through the bushes
Thick-billed Weaver (Male) / Dikbekwewer (Amblyospiza albifrons – woltersi subspecies) – busy building a nest in the reeds alongside the bridge over the river. Unlike other weavers which start with a ring as a basis, this species starts with a cup and builds up from it, using thin strips gleaned from bulrush leaves to construct the fine, tightly woven nest
Bronze Mannikin / Gewone fret (Lonchura cucullata) – fairly common in the bushes and reeds near the croft
Broad-tailed Warbler / Breëstertsanger (Schoenicola brevirostris) – An uncommon species that I have not seen anywhere other than at Verlorenkloof – it prefers rank grass and has a distinctive sharp metallic call which tells you it is nearby, but is an expert at concealing itself from view, so getting a photo requires a mix of patience and luck
Fan-tailed Widowbird (Male in breeding plumage) / Kortstertflap (Euplectes axillaris) – also a “fan” of tall moist grassland which Verlorenkloof has in abundance
Wing-snapping Cisticola / Kleinste klopkloppie (Cisticola ayresii) – not seen at Verlorenkloof itself but in an adjoining pentad while atlasing – my first photographic record of this species
There are a few shy animals as well, such as this Grey Duiker
I’m already looking forward to our October 2019 week!
I have been fortunate during my working career to have been involved in construction projects which have taken me to some interesting, even exciting, parts of the world. Top of that list is Kasane, a small town on the Chobe River in the far north of Botswana, South Africa’s neighbour on its northern side and one of the nicest countries you will find just about anywhere.
Aerial view of the Chobe River while landing at Kasane
Nice because it is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with just 2,3m people at an average density of 3 people per square kilometre, and the vast majority are inherently friendly, decent people. The country is blessed with large tracts of unspoilt wilderness where you will find some of the last vestiges of the Africa that existed before human interference made its mark.
The Flood plain
My involvement in the Kasane Airport project, now complete and functioning well, meant I spent an accumulative 60 days or more in Kasane during monthly visits spread over 3 years and I used every opportunity to spend free time in Chobe Game Reserve and on the Chobe River, soaking up the incomparable African game-viewing and bird-watching on offer.
So where is this leading? Well, I made what is likely to be my last visit to Kasane in November 2018, during which I joined a “farewell” photographic safari both on land and on the river, which left me with a head full of special memories and a memory card full of treasured images.
Leaving Chobe Game Reserve after the game drive that morning along the familiar sandy, bumpy track, through the Sedudu gate and out on to the tar road back to Kasane, it momentarily struck me that this was possibly the last time I would see this place and an almost tangible sadness washed over me for a few seconds, only to be replaced with the happy thought of all the memories I had gathered over more than 3 years, memories that I would love to share in the best way I can.
I have written several posts about some outstanding experiences in Chobe over the last few years, but there is so much more to tell, so expect a short-ish series of further posts over the next few weeks -or months featuring some or all of the following :
The iconic species, both animal and avian, that call Chobe home, from Elephants to Hornbills, Leopards to Fish Eagles
The bird atlasing trips that I squeezed into a busy schedule while in Kasane
Stylish photographic safaris with Pangolin Safaris
Whatever else pops up in my memory bank (aka my journals)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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:
Southern Pied Babbler
* 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.
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 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)
Collared Sunbird in a palm tree
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.
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 area below the wall felt like something out of Jurassic Park with abandoned buildings and heavy undergrowth.
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.
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 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)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spectacled Weavers (Brilwewer / Ploceus ocularis), which I had heard earlier, also came to the stream for a bathe.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
And in the garden a Greater Double-collared Sunbird showed off its bright red and green colouring.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
Other interesting species that occur here and that we came across in small numbers were :
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.
This is also an area of plantations, generally sterile as far as birding goes but good for a moody photo…..
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.