Category Archives: Birding Spots

Port Elizabeth : A breath of Fresh Air

we were very pleasantly surprised by just how nice a place PE turned out to be – the size (not too big, not too small), friendly atmosphere, attractively upgraded beachfront area, clean appearance and general all-round good feel made it a pleasure to visit and drive around”

The background

We had not been to Port Elizabeth (known as “PE” to most South Africans) in the Eastern Cape for a very long time, perhaps 20 years or more, so we were unsure what to expect when we decided to spend 6 days there in April 2013, as part of a 10 day trip to the Eastern Cape. Our reason (excuse?) for going to PE was to support our son James and wife Minette along with their 2 young kids, as James had entered to do the “Ironman” Triathlon which takes place in PE each year. For those not in the know, the Ironman is an event that would horrify most of us who belong to the unfit brigade and even a lot of those who consider themselves fit – 3.8 Km of swimming in the open sea, a bike ride of 180 Km and a run of 42 Km!

While we were in PE it made sense to visit a couple of the birding spots listed on my Roberts VII App, and I selected two which looked really worthwhile – Cape Recife Nature Reserve and Swartkops River Estuary, both of which were within easy driving distance of Summerstrand, where we had rented accommodation for the stay.

Port Elizabeth Impressions

Memories of short visits to PE a long time ago were faded, but we weren’t particularly enthusiastic about our visit to the city as such, however we were very pleasantly surprised by just how nice a place PE turned out to be – the size (not too big, not too small), friendly atmosphere, attractively upgraded beachfront area, clean appearance and general all-round good feel made it a pleasure to visit and drive around.

Summerstrand beach
Summerstrand beach
View from the pier
View from the pier
Cormorants occupying rocks offshore
Cormorants occupying rocks offshore

Our accommodation was in a guest house in Summerstrand, close to the Ironman start and finish and with plenty of space for all 6 of us

Our accommodation in PE
Our guest house accommodation in PE
Jemma found a comfy spot to catch the sun
Jemma found a sunny spot at the guest house

The Ironman Triathlon was well-organized and supported and more or less dominated the Summerstrand area and surroundings for the whole weekend, pulling in visitors from all over South Africa and internationally as well.

Part of the Ironman route
Part of the Ironman route
James on the bike leg
James on the bike leg
The marathon at the end was tough
The marathon run at the end was tough, but he made it
Minette providing moral support
Minette providing moral support

Cape Recife Nature Reserve

This reserve lies at the southernmost point of Algoa Bay, comprising long stretches of sandy and rocky beaches, coastal dune scrub and fynbos. The rocks attract seven species of Tern at different times, some of which are resident, others visitors.

The reserve is easy to find, being signposted from Marine Drive, just 2.5 km from Summerstrand and there is a nominal entrance fee, which you pay at the Pine Lodge Resort on the left immediately before the manned entrance boom.

I drove there on the Friday afternoon and once into the reserve, I continued the atlasing which I had started on the Pentad boundary before the turn-off (Pentad 3400_2540). Along the first stretch of road that leads to the lighthouse,  I heard a number of Sombre Greenbuls giving their sharp “Willie”call and saw Barn Swallows, Fiscal Flycatcher, Karoo Scrub-Robin and several other common birds to get my list going. Further on, the beach came into view and I stopped at a gap in the dunes to check out the shoreline and was rewarded with a Little Egret working the rocks for morsels.

Cape Recife
Cape Recife
Little Egret - yellow feet showing nicely
Little Egret – yellow feet showing nicely

The road soon ended at the lighthouse where there is a parking area. Judging by the heavy earthmoving equipment parked nearby and signs of sand being repositioned, I guessed that some form of beach rehabilitation was underway, which was reinforced when I came across rows of old tires half buried in the sand as I made my way along the wide beach.

Cape Recife
Cape Recife

Just beyond the lighthouse, the beach stretched for a long distance, bordered on the sea side by rows of jagged rocks which effectively break up the waves, so that only shallow streams reach the inner beach, making it ideal for the waders present such as :

Common Ringed Plover

Common Ringed Plover
Common Ringed Plover

White-fronted Plover

White-fronted Plover, Cape Recife
White-fronted Plover, Cape Recife

Sanderling (which was a lifer for me)

Sanderling, Cape Recife
Sanderling, Cape Recife

Other birds enjoying the sandy flats were many Kelp Gulls, African Black Oystercatchers and a group of 3 Whimbrels , which hopped off the rocks and trotted off elegantly in the shallow water as I approached.

African Black Oystercatcher, Cape Recife
African Black Oystercatcher, Cape Recife
African Black Oystercatchers
African Black Oystercatchers
Whimbrel, Cape Recife
Whimbrel, Cape Recife
Whimbrels
Whimbrels

Less pleasing was the amount of litter in the form of plastic bottles and bags plus other debris, which is probably washed ashore from the bay, as the beach itself does not attract the usual gamut of holidaymakers, just hardy walkers, fisherman and birders who, by their nature, are not inclined to litter.

I noticed that some of the Oystercatchers were raising their one leg when standing still and limping slightly when walking – on closer inspection of my photos when I got back home, some of them were ringed with bands that appeared to be too tight, which was probably the reason for their discomfort. (I placed these photos on the SA Birding Facebook page in the hope that someone in the know would look into it)

African Black Oystercatchers with ring showing
African Black Oystercatchers with rings showing
Another ringed Oystercatcher
Another ringed Oystercatcher
This ring looks tight and may have been causing the Oystercatcher to limp
These rings look tight and may have been causing the Oystercatcher to limp

One part of the beach had rows of pebbles and shells along the high water mark, some of which – to my surprise – “came alive”, turning into plovers and Sanderlings as I got too close for their comfort, and moving off in unison. This just proved once again how well camouflaged they are in their natural environment.

Sanderlings
Sanderlings
White-fronted Plovers
White-fronted Plovers

The Terns present during my short visit were a contingent of Swift Terns occupying small rocks just offshore and a few Caspian Terns with their distinctive red bills, flying overhead and posing on the sandy flats.

Swift Terns, Cape Recife
Swift Terns, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife

White-breasted Cormorants were prominent along the water’s edge, waddling about then taking off in rapid direct flight as I approached.

White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Recife
White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Recife

Having completed the minimum 2 hours of atlasing and enjoyed some memorable birding, I slowly made my way back up the beach in the rapidly fading light past the lighthouse, partly silhouetted against the setting sun, to the parking area for the short trip back to the guest house.

 

Cape Recife
Cape Recife
Lighthouse at Cape Recife
Lighthouse at Cape Recife

Swartkops River Estuary

This is the other “must-visit” birding spot for visitors to PE. We visited the area on the Monday (Pentad 3350_2535) and found it about 20 minutes drive along the N2 towards Grahamstown, where we turned off at the Swartkops/John Tennant Road intersection. Once we were in Swartkops village, we turned right towards the riverside, which was accessible at certain points, but the sand flats exposed by the receding tide and favoured by many waders, Gulls and others were quite a distance away and a spotting scope would have been of great assistance – I only decided later in the year to treat myself to my first spotting scope and on this occasion had to make do with the binos.

Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary

Most of the birds were easy enough to ID but a couple of larger waders had me puzzled – a nearby tree helped me hold the binos steady and after straining my eyes for some time I was able to confirm a Greater Sand Plover, which happily was a lifer for me.

Having started on the Swartkops Village side we slowly made our way along the riverside until we came to a single lane bridge, which took us to Amsterdamhoek, a village which stretches along the other side of the estuary and has a long row of riverside houses which have clearly been there for many years, some renovated, others looking rather old and battered by the elements.

On the way a Harrier did a fly over across the marshy area next to the road, but unfortunately I was not able to confirm an ID although I suspect it was one of the “ring-tail” harriers such as Montagu’s or Pallid. My photos of this bird in flight were far off and hurried so were not conclusive at all.

The road through Amsterdamhoek ended at the river mouth, where many Terns were present, resting on long narrow sand banks exposed by the tide – most were Common Terns with a sprinkling of Swift Terns and a couple of Caspian Terns in between.

Terns at Swartkops Estuary
Terns at Swartkops Estuary

All of the birds present kept their distance, making it impossible to get close-up photos of them, with the exception of some Domestic Geese which appeared to have made the estuary their home – so here is the only decent bird photo I could get on the day!

Domestic Geese
Domestic Geese have made their home at Swartkops Estuary

All in all we found PE to be a really pleasant place for a visit and could easily go back there if the opportunity arises

 

Four Parks and a wedding (Part 4) – Addo Elephant Park

The Story so far….

Having spent a few nights at Camdeboo and Mountain Zebra National Parks on this current trip, following our earlier visit to De Hoop Nature Reserve, we were  looking forward to a further 3 nights at Addo National Park to complete the quartet of parks. So far we had found each one most enjoyable in its own way, with Mountain Zebra National Park top of our list for having provided the most “African” experience of the three.

The road to Addo – Thursday 1 May 2014

Leaving Mountain Zebra National Park behind us after checking out around 11 am, we headed for nearby Cradock to stock up at the local Spar, followed by a coffee at True Living cafe accompanied by the best carrot cake we’ve had in a long time (they bake on the premises so it’s as fresh as it can get)

From there we headed down the N 10 with a diversion to Somerset East to check out the local museum, which we discovered was closed on the public holiday, but it was interesting just to drive through this small historical Eastern Cape town that we would not otherwise have seen. By now it was lunchtime, so we found a roadside spot with large blue gums to provide some shade and ate our “padkos” rolls.

Roadside lunch stop
Roadside lunch stop

The next stop was a short one to view the Slagtersnek monument, just off the road beyond the small town called Cookhouse. The monument commemorates the spot where a number of Dutch rebels surrendered after being confronted by British forces on 18 November 1815, however we were disappointed to find the surrounds unkempt and apparently not cared for in a long time.

Slagtersnek monument
Slagtersnek monument

The road continued in winding fashion with lengthy road works making our progress slow, resulting in us only reaching Addo around 5 pm, but the scenery along the way was rewarding, reminding us of the lowveld in places with lush growth and fruit farms

Addo Reception
Addo Reception

Back in Addo

Our first visit to Addo was just over a year previously when Gerda and I had enjoyed a few days in the park after visiting PE, so we were familiar with the layout. Some of the photos and descriptions I have used in this post are from that visit.

IMG_1242

We had booked a few months before but by then it was already close to full so we had to accept one night in a chalet followed by 2 nights in the Forest Cabins – not ideal but it meant we could try out the different accommodation units.

Settling into our chalet, some familiar calls resounded in the fading light – Sombre Greenbul with its piercing whistle, the loud “chip – ing” of Bar- throated Apalis and a pair of Bokmakieries performing a duet. A little later as it darkened a Fiery – necked Nightjar started its “Lord please deliver us” call – so evocative wherever you hear it but especially so in the bush.

Sombre Greenbul, Addo NP
Sombre Greenbul, Addo NP
Bokmakierie, Addo NP
Bokmakierie, Addo NP
Bar-throated Apalis, Addo NP
Bar-throated Apalis, Addo NP

Exploring Addo and beyond

While having our customary early morning coffee on the patio, a pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers made a noisy appearance in a nearby tree, followed by Grey-headed Sparrow and a Fiscal Flycatcher, the latter looking debonair in its crisp black and white plumage – about to ask for a ‘Martini – shaken not stirred’. Soon after, a Lesser-striped Swallow settled on the roof, making it easy to ID as opposed to when they are in the air, when it is more of a challenge to separate them from the Greater-striped Swallows.

Grey-headed Sparrow, Addo NP
Grey-headed Sparrow, Addo NP
Striped Swallows, Addo NP
Striped Swallows, Addo NP

Having a 3 hour gap before we could move into our Forest cabin, we decided to go in search of the grave of Percy Fitzpatrick, author of the classic story of Jock of the Bushveld, which we had heard was not far from Addo Elephant Park, off the road to Kirkwood. Passing through the village of Addo we spotted a building with the name ‘Percy Fitzpatrick Library’ and immediately stopped to find out more – good thing because the very helpful librarian was more than willing to chat about the library, the area and showed us a portfolio of historical photos in a large album kept by the library. She also pointed us in the right direction to the grave site and ‘Lookout’.

It didn’t take long to find both at the end of a dirt road with heavy encroaching bush both sides (bit nerve-wracking for those who don’t like getting the car scratched) and it was clear that not much is done to look after the site, which was completely overgrown and in a sorry state – another neglected opportunity to create something which I’m sure many tourists would enjoy visiting.

 

Entrance to site where Percy Fitzpatrick and his wife are buried - the garden has run wild
Entrance to site where Percy Fitzpatrick and his wife are buried – the garden has run wild
The grave of Percy Fitzpatrick
The grave of Percy Fitzpatrick

The ‘Lookout’, built to honour their son, turned out to be a stone structure with a short stair to take you to a lookout deck, with wonderful views across the countryside and the Sundays River below, but this too was in need of some TLC.

IMG_1229

 

View over the countryside from 'The Lookout'
View over the countryside from ‘The Lookout’
View from The Lookout
View from The Lookout

 

By the time we got back to the rest camp, it was past 1pm so we could move into our Forest Cabins, which turned out to be comfortable and cosy with a small bathroom, a private deck and use of a communal kitchen.

Forest Cabin, Addo NP
Forest Cabin, Addo NP
Poolside flowers, Addo NP
Poolside flowers, Addo NP

There was time for a swim at the pool, cold but invigorating, before setting off on a late afternoon drive. The thick bush on the route we followed wasn’t conducive to spotting any of the pachyderms that Addo is named and famed for, but at a viewpoint high up on a hill we looked down on a classic scene of more than a hundred Elephant in the distance.

Elephant, Addo NP
Elephant, Addo NP

Elephant, Addo NP

African Elephant, Addo NP
African Elephant, Addo NP

Along the way the bush was good for several common species such as Cape Weaver, Common Fiscal in numbers, Bokmakierie and Karoo Scrub-Robin. A Denham’s Bustard in the more open area was a nice surprise.

Karoo Scrub-Robin, Addo NP
Karoo Scrub-Robin, Addo NP
Denham's Bustard, Addo NP
Denham’s Bustard, Addo NP

I spent the next day mostly at Cape Recife in Port Elizabeth, looking for a Bridled Tern that had been seen there during the week, unfortunately without success.

Back at Addo there was time to relax before doing a last drive along the route where most of the dams and waterholes are and we came across numbers of game as well as a few new ‘trip birds’ such as Southern Tchagra, as always skulking in the bushes, and a far more brazen pair of Red-necked Spurfowl, common to Addo.

Southern Tchagra, Addo NP
Southern Tchagra, Addo NP
Red-necked Spurfowl, Addo NP
Red-necked Spurfowl, Addo NP

At the dams, SA Shelducks showed once again as did Little Grebe and some Thick-Knees (Dikkop is still a much better name). Hapoor dam, named after a famous elephant with a chunk of its ear missing, was a welcome sight with its wide open spaces surrounding the dam, ideal for game including Kudu and favoured by some Crowned Lapwings.

Spotted Thick-Knee (Dikkop), Addo NP
Spotted Thick-Knee (Dikkop), Addo NP
4 in a row, Addo NP
4 in a row, Addo NP
Kudu, Addo NP
Kudu, Addo NP
Buffalo getting the spa treatment (on our previous trip)
Buffalo getting the spa treatment (on our previous trip)

We hadn’t allowed ourselves much time so had to make haste (barely sticking to the 40km/h speed limit) back to the game area gate before it closed at 6 pm. The lone guard at the gate gave us a stern look but we had seen the same look each time we entered the game area so weren’t too fazed.

Jack’s Picnic Spot

We had visited this spot on our previous visit and found it to have a special charm with tables set into alcoves created in the bush, visited by cute little Four-striped mice and Red-necked Spurfowl, both of which latched onto any errant crumbs from our cheese and crackers picnic – not our usual style but we were in a rental car after flying to PE, so had to make do with a plastic shopping bag to carry our humble provisions. This picnic spot gets its name from an ailing Rhino which spent its last years at this spot in a protected environment – little did he know how vulnerable the next generations of Rhino would become with rampant poaching in our country to feed the Far East obsession with Rhino horn.

Striped Mouse (Rhabdomys pumilio), Addo NP
Striped Mouse (Rhabdomys pumilio), Addo NP
Striped Mouse
Striped Mouse
Striped Mouse
Striped Mouse

 

Red-necked Spurfowl
Red-necked Spurfowl
Southern Boubou - took a liking to our rental car (on our previous trip)
Southern Boubou – took a liking to our rental car (on our previous trip)

Stoep Sitting

Southern Masked-Weaver, Addo NP
Southern Masked-Weaver, Addo NP
Olive Thrush, Addo NP
Olive Thrush, Addo NP

Most of the chalets and cabins have stoeps (patios) with views over the bush and are a great place to relax in the early morning and evenings – there is a constant stream of passing bird life to enjoy, most of which are tame and easy to photograph – Weavers (Cape and Southern Masked), Bulbuls (Cape and Dark-capped), Olive Thrushes and Bar-throated Apalises are most common with Malachite Sunbirds not far behind

Cape Weaver, Addo NP
Cape Weaver, Addo NP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cape Bulbul, Addo NP
Cape Bulbul, Addo NP
Malachite Sunbird, Addo NP
Malachite Sunbird, Addo NP

The Small Stuff

Addo is famous for its elephants but we were fascinated by some of the smaller creatures and insects which make this park special and provide great entertainment. Several times we came across the Flightless Dung-beetle – one particular beetle was crossing the dirt road with his meticulously formed dung ball with a ‘Supervisor’ in close attendance all the way across, seeming to guide him and even assisting to get him back on his legs when he toppled onto his back at one point.

Flightless Dung-Beetle with 'Supervisor'
Flightless Dung-Beetle with ‘Supervisor’ – the ball is almost golf ball size and they roll it with their hind legs while facing backwards, thus a supervisor helps a lot

Such a pity that other visitors ignore the many signs asking them to watch out for Dung beetles which are so vulnerable when crossing the road, resulting in a lot of crushed beetles.

At another spot we watched a group of Meerkats as they scurried after food while their lone sentry stood watch like a Royal guardsman – right under the nose of a Pale Chanting Goshawk not 3 m above them, which they chose to ignore completely

Suricate / Meerkat (Suricata suricatta), Addo NP
Suricate / Meerkat (Suricata suricatta), Addo NP
Pale Chanting Goshawk (Juvenile), Addo NP
Pale Chanting Goshawk (Juvenile), Addo NP
Pale Chanting Goshawk, Addo NP
Pale Chanting Goshawk, Addo NP

The Bulbul puzzle

I mentioned seeing both Cape and Dark-capped Bulbuls, once side by side in the same tree – apart from the white ring around the eye of the Cape Bulbul, they are virtually identical but don’t seem to interbreed – how do they know?

Heading back home

We had enjoyed our month of much travelling and many highlights, but as always we were now looking forward to getting back home and settling into our normal routine. The trip back was once again spread over two days of about 600 km each, with an overnight stop at Oudekraal guest farm just south of Bloemfontein. It turned out to be a pleasant place with excellent food but somewhat overpriced compared to other guest houses we have tried over the years.

Oudekraal guest farm

Oudekraal guest farm
De Oude kraal guest farm

One thing I can never understand about guest farms is why the front house, gardens and rooms are well looked after, yet take a walk (as I always do) around the farmyard and surroundings and it’s often a mess – old scrap everywhere and generally untidy. This is the case with a number of places we have visited and again with Oudekraal. The overgrown tennis court was sad to see – even if no one uses it, just keep it looking decent.

Final surprise

As we left Oudekraal we spotted a Spike-heeled Lark alongside the road and stopped to view it, noticing with interest that it had a juicy insect in its beak. As we stopped it walked off quickly and we followed it for about 100m until it suddenly stopped and ducked towards a hidden nest where two very young chicks were waiting to be fed – what a lucky find! The nest was so well camouflaged that when I got out to take a photo (from a distance using the telephoto lens) I had to search for it again, despite being a few metres away.

Spike-heeled Lark, De Oude kraal guest farm
Spike-heeled Lark, De Oude kraal guest farm
Very young Spike-heeled Larks on the nest
Very young Spike-heeled Larks on the nest

And so we came to the end of a memorable month of traveling – can’t wait for the next trip!

Four Parks and a Wedding (Part 1) – De Hoop

Where to this time?

The thing about being “semi-retired” is that it gives you lots of time to travel and Gerda and I tend to make the most of it while we are able. With our second home being in Mossel Bay, we do like to spend as much time there as we can afford, without abandoning our Pretoria ties completely.

And so it happened that we decided to spend the Easter period this year in Mossel Bay – then, fortuitously, we received an invite to a wedding at De Hoop Nature Reserve over the weekend before Easter, and on top of that our daughter and son-in-law suggested we do a week’s touring through the Eastern Cape during the school break at the end of April, with 2 or 3 night stays at three National Parks – Camdeboo near Graaf-Reinet, Mountain Zebra a bit further east near Cradock and Addo Elephant Park not far from Port Elizabeth. Now that’s an offer that was difficult to refuse. We had been to Addo before – just last year for the first time – but the other three parks would all be first-time visits, which is something we are looking forward to.

Starting off – overnight in Springfontein

As often happens, we were loaded to the hilt when we left Pretoria (actually our VW Touareg was) – there are always surplus items from our main home which need transporting to Mossel Bay and this time was no different, plus our normal baggage. The trip to Mossel Bay is a two-day affair for us, so an overnight stop around halfway is always part of the planning. We have tried various B&B’s in the stretch between Bloemfontein and Colesberg / Hanover and they have all been quite acceptable – all you want is a comfortable bed, a clean shower that works properly and a decent dinner and breakfast and most have perfected those simple requirements. This time around we decided to try Prior Grange, a guest farm near Springfontein, as I had read that there was a Blockhouse from the Anglo-Boer war on the property and I was interested to see it.

Prior Grange, Springfontein
Prior Grange, Springfontein
Prior Grange cottage - our home for the night
Prior Grange cottage – our home for the night

 

Having left Pretoria a bit later than we had hoped, knowing we had over 600 km to travel, we nevertheless reached Prior Grange in good time and, after settling in, I drove the further 4 km to the hill on which the blockhouse was perched. According to Blackie de Swardt from Prior Grange, there were some 8000 of these block houses built by the Brits across South Africa, approximately 1000 yards apart so that they were visible to the next one, of which only 50 or so originals remain – he went to the trouble of rebuilding this one on the old foundations and well done to him, as it gives you a feel for what it would have been like to man these structures, watching over the railway line and the surrounding veld well into the distance.

British Block house, Anglo-Boer War
British Block house, Anglo-Boer War
View from the blockhouse
View from the blockhouse

At the same time I worked on a bird list for the pentad, which proved to be quite productive – Wattled and Pied Starlings were plentiful and a Desert Cisticola posed on the fence, while Cliff Swallows wheeled overhead near a culvert before settling in for the night. Common Waxbills twittered as they passed by in a flock and Barn Swallows swooped past, perhaps readying themselves for the long journey back north.

Next morning I was up at dawn to complete the 2 hours atlasing and walked to the dam just behind the main house. There I was met by a beautiful scene of dead still water in the soft morning light, reflecting the surrounding trees and disturbed only by the V-shaped ripples of the water birds enjoying the first light of day – I listed Red-billed Teal, Little Grebe, Cape Shoveler and a few handsome SA Shelducks.

The dam at Prior Grange
The dam at Prior Grange

White-throated Swallows skimmed the water and a group of Spotted Thick-Knees flushed like magic from the grassy verge when I got close. Then it was time for breakfast and the second leg of the long drive to Mossel Bay.

De Hoop Nature Reserve

We had just two days at our home in Mossel Bay before it was time to travel again – to De Hoop for the “Wedding Weekend” of Louis and Amelda (Rossouw). De Hoop lies south-west of Swellendam and less than 200 km from Mossel Bay so we didn’t rush to get away and stopped at Riversdale for lunch on the way at a farm stall, which has the only “dog pub” I’ve come across.

IMG_1088

The last 50 km or so were on gravel and just before getting to the entrance gate to De Hoop we stopped for a photo of a pair of Blue Cranes which were mingling with some cattle at a watering hole – so intent was I on getting a good photo with my new lens that I didn’t notice I had stepped into …… (no, fortunately not what you were thinking) ….sticky yellow mud at the side of the road which immediately rendered my sandals unwearable. After checking in barefoot, Gerda kindly rescued my sandals by washing them and leaving them in the sun to dry – good as new again!

Blue Crane
Blue Crane

 

A Black-headed Heron flying off proved to be a good time to test my new lens’ ability to handle a Bird-in-flight – I was quite pleased with my new purchase.

Black-headed Heron
Black-headed Heron

From the entrance gate it was a short drive to the “Opstal” and by 5pm we were settled into our spacious and comfortable cottage – Black Oystercatcher cottage – which we would enjoy for the next three days. Birding started as we approached the complex of white-painted buildings and once we were settled in I took a walk to the Vlei, which I discovered is a large body of water trapped for centuries by the dunes bordering the nearby coastline and which has dried up completely in dry years, but right now seemed massive and full to the brim. On the walk to the vlei I came across some relaxed birds all of the “Cape” variety – Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Spurfowl and Cape Weaver – basking in the late afternoon sun.

Cape Robin-Chat, De Hoop NR
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Spurfowl, De Hoop NR
Cape Spurfowl

 

Cape Weaver, De Hoop NR
Cape Weaver

At the vlei I found tens of Egyptian Geese, Coots and Great Crested Grebes back-lit by the fast setting sun, and a Grey Heron or two keeping watch at the edge of the vlei. Walking along the cliffs that border long stretches of the vlei, I noted a number of Rock Martins preparing to roost for the night, while a flock of Glossy Ibises flew overhead on their way to their preferred roosting site. All of the while I was aware of the biting horse flies which made it difficult to stand still for any length of time. The sun set in a blaze of red-orange reflected across the water.

Sunset over De Hoop Vlei
Sunset over De Hoop Vlei

Later on we enjoyed a fine dinner in the Fig Tree restaurant at the Opstal, which augured well for the rest of our short stay.

Exploring De Hoop

I had booked an extra day to allow time for some relaxed birding and atlasing, so only ventured out on Friday after a good lie-in to recover from an energy-sapping few days, starting with a slow drive past the short-grassed fields where several Capped Wheatears were showing and a flock of Pied Starlings were moving about in chattering fashion. Also present were Bontebok which are plentiful in the reserve and some colourful butterflies.

Bontebok
Bontebok
False dotted-border (Belenois thysa thysa)
False dotted-border (Belenois thysa thysa)

Heading towards the coastal dunes I was really pleased to come across a group of Cape (there it is again) Penduline-Tits, which I have only seen a handful of times in all my years of birding – as a bonus I was able to get a distant photo or two before they moved off again.

Cape Pendiline-Tit, De Hoop NR
Cape Penduline-Tit

Further on, the vlei had encroached onto the road and, as the Opstal manager had told me last evening, there were a lot of birds taking advantage of the shallow water with plenty of  food for all types. Spoonbills were prominent along with Darter, White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Teal, Little Grebe and a family of Cape Shovelers. Also in the scene were Pied Kingfishers hovering and diving now and then, Purple Heron flying in and landing gracefully near some Little Stints and Wood Sandpipers. On the opposite shore a few Great White Pelicans pottered about.

De Hoop Vlei - over the road
De Hoop Vlei – over the road
Vlei at De Hoop
Vlei at De Hoop
Spoonbill, De Hoop NR
Spoonbill
Cape Shoveler, De Hoop NR
Cape Shoveler

Carrying on along the road to the “Melkkamer”, a quiet inlet held Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe and an African Darter stretching its wings, while the roadside bush was quite productive with the customary fynbos species such as Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Grassbird, as well as Bar-throated Apalis noisilycompeting with Karoo Prinia for attention – if the latter two were schoolkids they would be the ones always being scolded for talking too much.

Great Crested Grebe, De Hoop NR
Great Crested Grebe
Little Grebe, De Hoop NR
Little Grebe
African Darter, De Hoop NR
African Darter
Karoo Prinia, De Hoop NR
Karoo Prinia

I turned around at the gate to the protected area and headed the opposite way to Koppie Alleen where I took a brief walk on the high dunes – the pentad ended just short of the parking area at Koppie Alleen, but not before I had seen a beautiful Black Harrier floating low above the dunes in their typical butterfly like way.

On the way I had an interesting sighting when I spotted a Cape Bunting in the road, only to discover it was “chasing” a large Puff Adder across the road and into the thick bush. Not for nothing then that signs have been erected warning visitors to brake in time for snakes in  the road.

Puff Adder
Puff Adder

101_7340

 

Wedding Day!

Saturday dawned bright and sunny – and warm for this time of year. The ceremony was only at 4 pm so there was time for further birding and I decided to return to Koppie Alleen to explore the beach which had looked enticing from high up on the dunes. The 15 km from the cottage took about 45 minutes with a brief stop at the vlei and I began to atlas the pentad at Koppie Alleen by 8.30 am, with Cape Bulbul featuring prominently in the fynbos on the long walk from the parking area down to the beach.

De Hoop NR - Koppie Alleen
De Hoop NR – Koppie Alleen
Cape Bulbul, De Hoop NR
Cape Bulbul

Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds flitted about busily and vociferously while a few Barn Swallows proved that they hadn’t begun their long trek northwards just yet. Maybe they’d heard about the long cold European winter and were holding out as long as possible.

The beach, once I got there, was deserted except for a few Kelp Gulls, White-breasted Cormorants, African Black Oystercatchers and a few Cape Wagtails – later on the beach would see a handful of visitors but right now it was just me and the wide expanse of sand and rocks. It seemed to be low tide,as the rocks in the inter-tidal zone were exposed, some with crystal clear pools of water trapped between them. It was nice to see no sign of the plastic litter that is a feature of much of the coastline nowadays, just thousands of pristine seashells left behind by the tides.

Beach at Koppie Alleen
Beach at Koppie Alleen
African Black Oystercatcher
African Black Oystercatcher
Cape Wagtail, De Hoop NR
Cape Wagtail

A little unexpectedly, a Yellow Canary and Familiar Chat joined me on the beach, then a small flock of waders flew past which I was able to ID as Sanderlings based on their small size, tail pattern and call.

Yellow Canary, De Hoop NR
Yellow Canary
Familiar Chat, De Hoop NR
Familiar Chat

A boardwalk over the dunes and higher rocks was very welcome in getting past the rocky barriers between the beaches.

Beach at Koppie Alleen
Beach at Koppie Alleen
Just me and the birds
Just me, my Hi-tecs and the birds

Trekking back up the long and sandy road (time to hum the similar-titled Beatles song), a Jackal Buzzard and a Black Harrier helped to close out the pentad before I made my way back to the cottage, then on to lunch. The wedding ceremony was held out in the open overlooking the vlei – I had to wonder where else you can carry on birding during a wedding, as I watched a Bokmakierie close by and the waterfowl on the vlei in the distance.

Louis and the minister (his dad Johan)
Louis and the minister (his dad Johan) await the arrival of Amelda

The reception was equally “cool” being held under the massive Fig tree near the restaurant and as darkness fell the lights strung around the branches turned it into a veritable fairyland – with fairy princess and all. Needless to say the evening was enjoyed by all and the younger set danced till the early hours. The perfect weather was made for partying outdoors.

Louis and Amelda - all over bar the dancing
Louis and Amelda – all over bar the dancing
Louis and Amelda arrive at the reception in style
Louis and Amelda arrive at the reception in style
The reception under the grand old Fig tree
The reception under the grand old Fig tree

After breakfast on Sunday morning and goodbyes, we set out for our next stop – Stellenbosch with a quick look-in at De Mond Nature Reserve. More on that at another time.

This Saturday 26 April will see us starting the next leg of our Four Parks tour – starting with Camdeboo National Park at Graaf Reinet

 

 

 

Potchefstroom – Bird Sanctuary surprise

Why Potch?

Potchefstroom and the surrounding area does not immediately spring to mind when considering where to go birding, however it is one of those parts of South Africa that is quite rewarding if you “dig a little deeper” and the good thing about atlasing is it can be done anywhere.

Our son Stephan and his family – wife Liesl, kids Jocelyn and Christopher –  have been resident in Potch for a few years now and we tend to visit them on a fairly regular basis, especially when one of the grandkids is having a birthday, as it’s an easy 2 hour’s drive from our home in Pretoria. When we visit it is usually for at least a weekend, so I always try and fit in some early morning atlasing and have atlased a number of pentads (5 x 5 minutes if measured by coordinates, about 8 x 8 km’s in actual size) over the past few years, most of which do not attract atlasers, making the effort seem that much more worthwhile.

So what’s Potch got?

It has a University (which my wife Gerda attended back in the late 1960’s so clearly a top university) and a nice “small town” feel – you don’t have to go very far for anything and traffic is not really an issue. It also has a Bird Sanctuary – the OPM Prozesky Bird Sanctuary – which I was aware of but didn’t get around to visiting until March 2013, probably because my experience of bird sanctuaries in general has been mixed.

OPM Prozesky Bird Sanctuary

I was glad that I ignored my better judgement and the lukewarm response of a few Potchers when I enquired about the bird sanctuary, and paid it a late afternoon visit. The sanctuary borders the suburbs on the southern side of Potch and adjoins the sewerage treatment works so the smell may be a problem for some but I found it entirely bearable during my 2 hour visit. I parked at the entrance where there is a small office, but as there was no one in sight I proceeded to walk towards the ponds. Encouragingly, there was a signboard erected by Birdlife Westvaal which provided some info on the sanctuary.

OZM ProZesky Bird Sanctuary Potchefstroom
OPM Prozesky Bird Sanctuary, Potchefstroom

The sanctuary comprises a number of large ponds, some with neat bird hides, with wide pathways around and between the ponds which make for a pleasant walk, while keeping an eye out for birds in the sometimes dense undergrowth along the pathways. Where there are gaps in the vegetation you can look over the ponds which were well populated with Ducks (Yellow-billed Duck, South African Shelduck) and Teals (Cape Teal, Red-billed Teal). As I got too close for their comfort the Ducks and Teals took to the air and wheeled around, landing on a more distant part of the same pond or moving to an adjoining one.

SA Shelducks and Yellow-billed Ducks
SA Shelducks and Yellow-billed Ducks

As they flew past I was able to get photos of the Shelducks, Male and female showing how they differ in plumage, particularly from the neck up.

SA Shelduck, male following female (so what else is new?)
SA Shelduck, male following female (so what else is new?)

Sacred Ibises were also plentiful and doing their best to look elegant as they flew up and past me, though not quite managing it. The Afrikaans name Skoorsteenveër translates literally to “chimney sweep”  – clearly from images of chimney sweeps in Europe of old, getting ready to wash after a day’s work, blackened by soot on the face, neck and arms, otherwise lily-white over their body.

Sacred Ibis
Sacred Ibis (Skoorsteenveër)

There were not many waders present as suitable wading territory is limited, but the ubiquitous Three-banded Plover was present, not far from an African Purple Swamphen making his way carefully through the reed fringes. On a smaller pond, a hide allowed me to observe a Little Egret in action without disturbing it.

African Purple Swamphen
African Purple Swamphen
Little Egret
Little Egret

Moving away from the ponds, the bush and long grass held numbers of birds, among them Red-eyed Bulbul, Red-billed Firefinch and Black-throated Canary.

Red-eyed Bulbul
Red-eyed Bulbul
Red-billed Firefinch
Red-billed Firefinch
Black-throated Canary
Black-throated Canary

On the way back to my car I spotted Wattled Starlings high up in the trees, while a mixed flock of swallows entertained me with their swooping fly pasts – I noted Barn, Greater-striped and SA Cliff Swallows all enjoying each other’s company.

Back in the car I reflected on how pleased I was that I had taken the time to explore this worthwhile sanctuary – the fact that I was the only person there (as far as I could tell) during the 2 hours, attests to the fact that not many people know about it or frequent it. On the plus side I’m sure the birds enjoy the peaceful habitat for feeding and breeding opportunities and that’s surely what a sanctuary is all about.

Potch has some fine birding in the surrounding areas, but more about that later.

 

 

 

Ngwenya Lodge November 2013 : Warm-up for a wedding

Background

Our good friend’s daughter, Jessie van Dyk, now resident in Toronto, Canada, was to get married on Saturday 9th November and she and a group of her Canadian friends and new family had come to South Africa the week before to spend a few days at Ngwenya Lodge near Komatipoort, prior to the wedding. We were invited to join the group from Monday to Thursday and it wasn’t a difficult decision to accept with the hope that we could provide some support to Jacobus and Lynette van Dyk. Having Canadian family myself (a sister and brother-in-law plus 2 nieces) we were looking forward to meeting some of their compatriots and we had the pleasure of meeting most of them on the Sunday that they arrived, before leaving for Ngwenya the next day.

The big disappointment is that not one of them wore a red-checked woolly shirt or a Mountie style hat – in fact they all looked quite decent and civilized, just like us!

Getting there

While the excited group of some 20-plus went by bus, we made our way separately by car, with our customary stop at Millies near Machadadorp for trout pie and coffee. The trip of just over 400 Kms was uneventful but the “stop-and-go” between Nelspruit and Komatipoort delayed us by a good 40 minutes.

Ngwenya Lodge

The chalets we were allocated are set around calm dams, while other chalets overlook the Crocodile River, which also forms the southern boundary of Kruger National Park. Water Monitors frequent the bush around the dams and are quite habituated to people, loping around the chalets in the hope of picking up morsels of food. Much smaller in size but just as reptilian are the colourful lizards in the gardens and around the chalets.

Ngwenya Lodge, Komatipoort

Ngwenya Lodge - View from chalet
Ngwenya Lodge – View from chalet
Water Monitor, Ngwenya lodge
Water Monitor, Ngwenya lodge
Lizard, Ngwenya lodge
Lizard, Ngwenya lodge
Lizard, Ngwenya lodge
Lizard, Ngwenya lodge

Bird life is plentiful and I was able to list 70 species during our stay, including a few in Kruger itself, despite not having much birding time in between the social activities. Bright yellow Village Weavers and Lesser Masked-Weavers are most prominent in front of the chalets where a number of the trees next to the water are bedecked with their carefully woven nests.  The calls of Dark-capped Bulbuls, White-browed Robin-Chats, Green-backed Camaropteras and Sombre Bulbuls are heard throughout the day and act as a gentle wake-up call in the mornings.

Lesser Masked-Weaver
Lesser Masked-Weaver
Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Ngwenya lodge
Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Ngwenya lodge
White-browed Robin-chat
White-browed Robin-chat

A walk around the lodge gardens mid-morning added many birds to the list with Violet-backed Starlings showing their spectacular colouring in the top of the trees and the sound of African Reed-Warblers emanating from the waterside bushes. Trees are a mix of indigenous and exotic with Fever trees being quite prominent. At the hide overlooking the river it was fairly quiet on the mammal front, with just a lone African Buffalo wading in the river.

Violet-backed Starling
Violet-backed Starling

Numerous birds in the water and riverside bush boosted my list by a dozen in 20 minutes with specials such as Lappet-faced Vulture circling above, Water Thick-Knee patrolling the water’s edge in search of a meal and a Black Crake showing briefly among the exposed rocks.

Black Crake
Black Crake

A Taste of Kruger

Social interaction with the Van Dyks and their guests from Canada and Belgium took place over brunch and dinner and gave us all the chance to find out a little about them, their homes and family. They were all keen to see some of Kruger Park, being so close to the Crocodile Bridge gate, and I offered to do a game drive on the Tuesday afternoon from 3 pm which was taken up by some of the group, knowing that we were all due to do an organised game drive the following morning in Safari vehicles with guides. Between the 2 drives we were lucky enough to see all of the “Big 5” – in fact the Wednesday morning game drive accomplished that on its own with the help of the guides who communicate with each other and share special sightings. The Tuesday afternoon drive was almost as successful, chalking up 4 of the Big 5.

African Lion, Kruger NP
African Lion, Kruger NP
African Lioness, Kruger NP
African Lioness, Kruger NP
African Elephant, Kruger NP
African Elephant, Kruger NP
African Buffalo, Kruger NP
African Buffalo, Kruger NP
White Rhino, Kruger NP
White Rhino, Kruger NP

Two separate sightings of Lion, plenty of Elephants, a large herd of Buffalo and Rhino spotted at a distance, kept everyone on the edge of their seats during the drive and just as we were due to turn around and head back to Ngwenya our guide had a radio call during which I heard the word “Ingwe” and immediately knew we were in for a special sighting. Our guide didn’t say a word but headed at speed in the direction of Lower Sabie camp then past it to the bridge over the Sabie river where a magnificent Leopard was lazing on a rocky ledge, unconcerned by the many vehicles jostling for a good view of this most impressive of the big cats. After moving into a good viewing position, we spent some time watching him rolling around and yawning, then we headed to Lower Sabie for a comfort break and from there back to Ngwenya.

Leopard, Kruger NP
Leopard, Kruger NP
Leopard, Kruger NP
Leopard, Kruger NP
Hippo, Kruger NP
Hippo, Kruger NP

Plenty of other game was seen on the drives, including the ubiquitous Impala but also numbers of Giraffe, Zebra, Wildebeest, Warthogs, Kudus and a few Waterbuck with their distinctive white ring on the backside – many had youngsters in their group especially the Warthogs which seemed to have had a good crop of babies, which looked a bit like very large rodents. The bush and veld were looking beautiful after the first summer rains, but the dense bush does make it more difficult to spot animals even when close to the road. The game drives were thoroughly enjoyed by all, even ourselves who have done so many drives in Kruger, never tiring of visiting this special part of South Africa.

Giraffe
Giraffe
African Warthog, Kruger NP
African Warthog, Kruger NP
Chacma Baboon, Kruger NP
Chacma Baboon, Kruger NP
Burchell's Zebra, Kruger NP
Burchell’s Zebra, Kruger NP
Vervet Monkey, Kruger NP
Vervet Monkey, Kruger NP

With the focus on game, the birding took a back seat, but I managed to keep the list ticking over with some of the typical Kruger Park birds that did not need stopping to ID them – Pin-tailed Whydahs were active near the gate and Rattling Cisticolas were making themselves heard at regular intervals, while Bateleurs and White-backed Vultures soared overhead. Francolins and Spurfowl occupied the road edge and scattered as we approached, their features distinct enough to easily make out Swainson’s and Natal Spurfowl as well as Crested Francolin as we passed by.

Yellow-billed Hornbill
Yellow-billed Hornbill
Red-backed Shrike
Red-backed Shrike

Canadians do the Braai

Come Wednesday evening and the visitors decided they would do the braai – this time at the lodge’s boma. We had to admit as proud South Africans  that they did a great job and we enjoyed juicy steaks with salads and traditional pap – now if only we can get them to pronounce “pap” correctly (as in “pup”)

Canada shows us how to braai!
Barry, Frank and Jan show off their braai skills
The braai
The braai
The braai
The braai
Last advice from Father of the Bride?
Last advice from Father of the Bride?

Then it was time to say goodbye for the time being, until the big event on Saturday.

Marievale – the Production

Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Marievale Bird Sanctuary

It was October 2012 and I was starting to get used to having more time for my own pursuits, particularly birding. Mondays seemed the obvious choice for a regular day off as it extends the weekend and prevents (or postpones) those “Monday blues”. The only decision is – where to go? Not too difficult with the wide choice of birding venues within an hour or two from Pretoria and there’s always atlasing to do and a new Pentad to visit. On this particular morning I decided to visit Marievale, having last been there around 5 years previously – I wasn’t sure what to expect by way of facilities and security but was pleasantly surprised to find the hides and the picnic spot in a clean and looked-after state. The approach roads and those within the sanctuary are not great so a high-clearance vehicle is preferable.

For those not familiar with this spot, Marievale Bird Sanctuary is a protected area in Gauteng, South Africa covering about 10 square Km on the Blesbokspruit, a perennial river which is flanked by extensive wetlands on either side. There have been some comments recently about pollution of the water but to my untrained eye it looked clear and the presence of so many birds seemed to attest to the quality.

As it turned out, I had the whole of Marievale to myself on that Monday morning for the entire 4 to 5 hours that I was there, which is great when you are intent on photographing the birds without being disturbed, or irritating others. The various ponds and the surrounding vegetation make the perfect backdrop  and with the help of the hides and using your own vehicle as a moving hide, it is possible to get “up close and personal” with the variety of water birds on view.

On the day I visited Marievale the whole scenario was so perfect and the bird life I encountered so accommodating that it seemed like a staged production in a way ………

“OK people, ….er birds, I’m your Director today and we’re running late, so let’s get this show on the road – it’s past 8am and I think our one-man audience has got lost, but I’m sure he will be here any moment now. Right, a little bird just told me he’s been doing the pentad next door to us and he’s now approaching the entrance to Marievale.

Now, let’s not overdo it in the first stretch, we need to save some good ones for later – we’ll just get him warmed up with a few run o’ the mill birds – Coots you can start the show followed by the Yellow-billed Ducks plus a Moorhen or two. Little Grebe and African Purple Swamphen, you’re up next and let’s get those Warblers warbling. I’m willing to bet he pulls out the bird-calls gadget to check them – yes, I was right and he’s got them sorted : African Reed Warbler, Little Rush Warbler and Lesser Swamp Warbler. Nice chorus, guys.

Little Grebe
Little Grebe
African Purple Swamphen
African Purple Swamphen

Right, now for the Teals – Red-billed you go first then Hottentot can come in a bit later and for good measure let’s have a Whiskered Tern doing a fly past or two. Greater Flamingo, have you got over my “break a leg” comment yet? You know that it’s just a good luck saying in our business …… anyway, just stand in the shallows looking elegant – OK, fly if you must, it will make a good action photo.

Red-billed Teal
Red-billed Teal
Hottentot Teal
Hottentot Teal
Greater Flamingo
Greater Flamingo

This is going well so far everyone, keep it up! Now he’s at the picnic spot hide so, Pied Avocet, this is your chance to show off your classic beauty close to the hide – just stop diving for a few seconds so that he can get a decent photo.

Pied Avocet looking elegant
Pied Avocet looking elegant

OK, he’s off into the Reserve proper and you know how close to the road the water gets, which means close-up action photos, so let’s do this right – that means you Cape Shoveler and you Ruff – what’s that, you want Wood Sandpiper to join you? Fine.

Cape Shoveler
Cape Shoveler
Wood Sandpiper
Wood Sandpiper
Ruff
Ruff

This is also your chance, Black-winged Stilt and African Snipe, to show yourselves off in the good light.

Black-winged Stilt
Black-winged Stilt
African Snipe
African Snipe

What do you say we throw in a Squacco Heron right next to the road and Glossy Ibis I want you to pose gracefully in the grass as he passes by – yes that’s just right!

Squacco Heron
Squacco Heron
Glossy Ibis
Glossy Ibis

And now for the grande finale which I’m sure will surprise him – as I had hoped he’s stopped at the “Bus-stop” hide, so I want you, Reed Cormorant, to show yourself off on that convenient perch in the water, then African Darter it’s over to you to do your diving and spearing act right in front of the hide and make sure you show the speared fish nicely, then juggle it around a bit and swallow all in one smooth action – yes, beautiful!

Reed Cormorant
Reed Cormorant
African Darter with speared fish
African Darter with speared fish
African Darter preparing to swallow
African Darter preparing to swallow

Well done everyone – great show!”

I left Marievale with reluctance – can’t wait to get back there in the Summer months again.