Following on Part 1 of My Birding Year for 2017 ……… guess what, here’s Part 2!
So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the second half of 2017 along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited.
The first week saw me back in Kasane for a project visit and we managed to fit in a memorable drive through Chobe Riverfront where the game viewing took precedence, but the birdlife was hard to ignore, particularly the Carmine Bee-eaters
Later on in the month I was back to atlasing in the area south of Bronkhorstspruit, some 50 km east of Pretoria, dominated by the drab midwinter “browns” of the highveld and providing some challenging birding in the form of very similar looking small birds in their winter plumage.
Another visit to Kasane, Botswana in the first week included a spectacular boat safari on the Chobe river with Pangolin Safaris in a specially equipped boat kitted out with swivel seats and pliable camera mounts. One of the owners of Pangolin Safaris, who goes by the nickname of “Guts”, accompanied us and made sure we had some amazing photo opportunities of the wildlife and birds to be found along the river.
One moment of sheer photographic magic came my way in the form of a lone African Skimmer passing by and showing how it got its name.
The following weekend saw us visiting family in Potchefstroom once again – I took the two grandkids for a birding outing to nearby Boschkop dam and was again very pleased with the quality of birding at this venue, which is also quiet and safe for the kids to roam about a bit.
Next up was some atlasing in the grasslands north east of Pretoria – known as Vlaklaagte, which was good for birding but the gravel roads at this time of year are very dusty and the passing mining lorries tend to make it quite difficult to bird in peace – nevertheless a successful day’s atlasing.
A short winter visit to Mossel Bay in the second half of August provided the opportunity to explore the Karoo south of Oudtshoorn on a cold day – I added several species to my year list and atlased in areas not regularly covered so well worthwhile.
On Robinson Pass, my patience was rewarded when a Victorin’s Warbler posed briefly for a photo – a very difficult species to photograph so a nice bonus.
My monthly visit to Kasane was likely to be one of my last as the project was heading to completion, so I made the most of the 3 days there and fitted in birding at every opportunity. The airport precinct and perimeter were particularly lively with up to 200 bee-eaters present along the fences.
An early morning drive through the Chobe Riverfront was as good as ever with some unusual species showing.
During the rest of the month I targeted some of the more remote areas of north-east Gauteng to do some atlasing, selecting pentads not yet atlased in 2017.
Our much anticipated trip to Mauritius to celebrate our “milestone” birthdays with the family was a highlight of the year from all points of view – the sheer joy of having our 3 children, their spouses and our 7 grandchildren with us in such a beautiful setting for a whole week was awesome (as they say).
I didn’t do any serious birding but the hotel gardens were good for a total of just 11 species, of which 6 were lifers to add to my world list (yes I’m a “lister”!)
In any case I was so busy enjoying the ambience, the family, the great meals and the snorkelling that birding was relegated to about 10th place (just for that week, mind)
Later in the month I visited Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel in Gauteng for a superb morning of birding in this prime waterbird location.
An unexpected atlasing trip with Koos on the 21st in the pentad covering the north-east corner of Pretoria was a delight, covering all areas from industrial to country estates.
My last visit to Kasane was also a busy one work-wise so not much opportunity for birding other than snatched moments in between other commitments – how I’m going to miss this place!
A weekend in Potchefstroom presented another chance to take Christopher (6) with me for some atlasing at Boschkop dam – plenty of highlights to make it interesting for both of us.
Marievale was my destination for the second time in 4 weeks when reports came through of Baillon’s Crake seen there. I dipped on the crake but still had a wonderful morning’s atlasing.
On the 22nd it was time to head south (how time flies!) to our Mossel Bay home – a two day road trip with an overnight stop at Kuilfontein guest farm near Colesberg, which provided some great birding and relief from the long driving sessions.
I hardly had time to recover in Mossel Bay when Birding Big Day was upon us and I invited Willie to join me for a long but fruitful day’s birding along some of the back roads of the surrounding countryside. We ended the day quite happy with 124 species and something like 120th place in the national challenge.
December as usual was given over to family matters with a bit of atlasing squeezed in here and there. Apart from the good birding that Mossel Bay offers, most of my trips were in the direction of Herbertsdale, some 50 kms north-west of Mossel Bay, where the countryside is attractive and the roads quiet.
The last 3 days of the year were spent at a cottage in the hills beyond Calitzdorp, serious Little Karoo country and good for some of the Karoo specials. The cottage was Andre and Geraldine’s dream that became real, through a lot of hard work on their part.
Answer to “6 Species in one frame” – left to right :
Glossy Ibis (left, just in frame), Squacco Heron, African Darter (in front), African Spoonbill (rear, twice), Little Egret, Long-toed Lapwing
Phew glad I got that post out in January (only just) – a Birding Year story is no good whatsoever in February
Another memorable Birding Year has come and gone – a year filled once again with travelling to many familiar places and some exciting new ones, atlasing at every opportunity, a number of new birds seen and enough experiences to fill my journal to the brim.
So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the year along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited. Some of the trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.
Our year kicked off in Mossel Bay, our home town for some of the year and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing / birdmapping in the area – Hartenbos and the adjoining inland in particular.
On the 9th I had the unexpected thrill of finding a Pectoral Sandpiper, classed as a national rarity, which I duly reported to Trevor Hardaker who sent out a note to all subscribers to the SA Rare Bird News network – what a memorable day!
We started our journey back to Gauteng on the 13th, first stopping over in charming Prince Albert for two nights. I managed to fit in some atlasing in the area including a pleasant trip along the Damascus road.
Our next stop for one night was at Garingboom guest farm near Springfontein in the Free State which also proved to be an interesting birding destination.
Back in Pretoria, my first atlasing was centred around Mabusa Nature Reserve some 100 km north east of Pretoria which was a most enjoyable spot with some challenging roads and good birding
My first trip of the year to Kasane presented some great birding and atlasing opportunities in the summer lushness of Chobe Game Reserve.
Back in Pretoria I did further atlasing in the Delmas area
We used our timeshare points for a weekend at Champagne Valley in the Drakensberg, which provided an opportunity for some atlasing in the area
Our Canadian family arrived on the 6th for a two week visit which included a Kruger Park visit and a trip to Vic Falls and Chobe Game Reserve
Getting back to normal after the excitement of touring with the family, we visited Potchefstroom, and I was happy to take grandson Christopher (6) with me for some birding at the local dam – I think he was more interested in my Prado’s little fridge filled with cold-drinks, but you have to start somewhere!
My monthly visit to Kasane, Botswana afforded another opportunity for some birding around Kasane and in Chobe Game Reserve – such a great destination which I try not to spoil with too much work….
Then it was time for our much anticipated “Flock at Sea” cruise from the 24th to 28th arranged by Birdlife SA
Another short autumn visit to Mossel Bay meant I could fit in some further atlasing in the Southern Cape
Later in the month Koos and I headed to Bushfellows Lodge near Marble Hall in Mpumulanga for a day’s atlasing (and some snake watching)
Just a week later we spent 4 days at Verlorenkloof also in Mpumulanga with Koos and Rianda, one of our favourite spots for relaxing and blessed with a variety of birding opportunities
The month kicked off with a visit to Kasane but this time my birding was limited to a rather hurried morning trip into Chobe Riverfront
On the 10th Koos and I braved the mid-winter cold and the notoriously dangerous Moloto road north of Pretoria to do some atlasing in NE Gauteng
We closed out the half year with our “get away from it all” break in La Lucia near Durban at our timeshare resort – this was interrupted by a breakaway to northern Zululand to view a Malagasy Pond-Heron that had taken up residence at Phinda Game Reserve.
In the latter part of the week I visited Pigeon Valley for some superb forest birding
July to December will be covered in the next post – watch this space!
It was a memorable Birding Year for several reasons – many great places visited in pursuit of new birds, many amazing experiences, often when least expected, atlasing at every opportunity, all of which has left me more than satisfied and (hopefully) has boosted my birding and bird photography skills. It was also sprinkled with enough “Lifers” to make it a special birding year, most of which were not planned but rather just happened along the way.
Part two follows my birding journey from July through to December and is just a brief synopsis of my birding activities along with photos of the species encountered and places visited. Some of my trips are / will be covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.
The month kicked off with some mid-winter atlasing on the 2nd, in the Balmoral / Witbank area with Koos Pauw
On the 8th, in Kasane, Botswana for my monthly project visit, I did a spectacular birding trip by rented boat on the Chobe River, which was every bit as good as I had hoped
Just three days later it was back to more normal birding / atlasing – this time east of Potchefstroom where we had gone to visit Stephan and family
And another two days later it was time for a truly memorable trip to Heilbron in the Free State to ” twitch” the reported Burchell’s Courser with Koos, which we duly did, finding along the way two other Coursers (Double-banded, Temminck’s) and a bonus lifer for me in the form of a Pink-billed Lark which Koos spotted
The last week in July was spent in Mossel Bay where the Pincushions were in full bloom and attracting numbers of nectar feeders, which kindly posed for some colourful photos
Writing this, I realised that I had done birding across 2 countries and 5 of SA’ s provinces during July!
My visit to Kasane from the 3rd to 5th allowed for some great birding again, visiting a riverside spot late afternoon where my colleagues went to fish and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing, photographing the Hartlaub’s Babblers and just enjoying the ambience as the sun set and hippos blew bubbles and snorted in the river
On the Friday morning before returning to SA I travelled to the Ngoma gate into Chobe Game Reserve and drove eastwards along the Riverfront road, atlasing all the way. I was rewarded with good views of Openbill, Great White Pelican, Tawny Eagle, Dickinson’s Kestrel and Slaty Egret amongst many others.
Mid August I fitted in some Monday atlasing, this time near Leandra where a farm dam was very productive with a nice range of waterfowl and one Caspian Tern
A family wedding took us to Vryheid and the farm of Pieter and Anlia Genis, where I was able to enjoy excellent birding in between the family festivities, with the assistance of Pieter and his rugged Bakkie (Pickup). The drive up to the plateau high above the farmhouse was as spectacular as ever and was good for a number of the area specials such as Black-winged Lapwing, Denham’s Bustard, Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat and Eastern Long-billed Lark
Another family event saw us in Potchefstroom two weeks later and I was able to squeeze in some atlasing early on the Monday morning before returning home to Pretoria
A visit to Kruger National Park in the first week of October with Andre and Geraldine and the girls was a highlight of the year, with the dry conditions limiting the bird numbers somewhat but each day proved to be full of interesting sightings.
Our home for the week was Olifants camp in the northern section of the Park.
The rest of October was devoted to atlasing some of the birding “hotspots” around Pretoria and further afield.
Roodeplaat dam was good for two separate visits on consecutive Saturdays, one with Koos Pauw, both visits proving that this is one of the best spots for a relaxed morning’s birding with good roads and well-kept facilities. The highlight was the constant calls of Tchagras, Titbabblers, Boubous, Scrub-Robins and others that accompanied the drives. The two birding sessions produced a remarkable 100+ species!
It was also the place where I saw the strangest bird of the year – one that had me completely flummoxed until I realised it was a fairly common Lesser Striped Swallow missing its tail. For a moment or two I thought I had discovered a new species of Spinetail!
Another attractive venue was Mabusa Nature Reserve, some 1.5 hours drive from Pretoria, but almost constant light rain put a damper on my visit and the slightly unscheduled arrival of our 7th grandchild had me rushing back to Pretoria a little earlier than planned. Definitely a spot to revisit on a sunny day.
A Terrapin in the middle of the drenched gravel road was proof of how wet it was – I have only ever seen them clinging to a rock in a river or dam
Last up was a visit to the area around Settlers in the Bela Bela area of Limpopo province, where the highlight was meeting a farmer that I encountered on the road who invited me to visit the “Vulture restaurant” at a large Pig-farm nearby.
You would think I’d had enough of Chobe by now, but no, once again I arranged a boat trip along with a colleague while in Kasane and once again it was spectacular. My aim was to find Rock Pratincole which we did quite easily and had an up close and personal view to boot. I will do a separate post on this trip but suffice to say it was special.
On the 9th another local hotspot demanded a visit when Green Sandpiper was reported from Rietvlei Nature Reserve near Pretoria (actually part of Pretoria). I did not find the Sandpiper but plenty of others kept me busy and fascinated, including a variety of antelope and other game. I still managed to make it to the office by mid-morning with 62 species counted.
Our annual “long stay” trip to Mossel Bay came around almost before we were quite ready and an overnight stop at Abbotsbury guest farm near Graaff-Reinet on the way there was my next opportunity for some Karoo birding on this delightful farm.
We were barely settled in Mossel Bay when Birding Big Day came up on the 26th and at the last moment I decided to enter the Birdlasser challenge despite not having a team, planned a route or being even vaguely prepared. As it turned out I had a great day doing a circular route in the surrounding area, with Gerda joining me in the afternoon, and recorded 112 species on the day – not too bad for the area.
On the road again – this time on a 5 day trip to the Western Cape mainly to visit family, but naturally I took every opportunity to do birding along the way. News of several rarities at Strandfontein Sewage Works had filtered through in the few days prior to the trip and, prompted by Gerda who knows I can’t resist the temptation of a new bird, we adjusted our itinerary to spend a night nearby the spot, which meant I could spend time there in the hope of finding them. As it turned out I added Temminck’s Stint, Red-necked Phalarope and American Golden Plover to my life list – my only dip was the Pectoral Sandpiper.
Worcester was our base for 3 nights and on the return trip to Mossel Bay we stopped for an overnight stay at Jan Harmsgat guest farm
I felt that the rarities were following me when a Red-necked Buzzard was seen in Stilbaai, just and hour or so away from Mossel Bay, so on the 13th I went to look for it and ended up getting great views accompanied by some of the top birders in SA, who had driven a lot further to see this mega-rarity. One of them was the country’s leading seabird expert, Barrie Rose, with whom I had a chat as we were at school together. Barrie was tragically killed just a couple of weeks later when he fell off rocks at Cape Point while fishing. Just another reminder how tenuous life can be.
On the 22nd I atlased two pentads north and south of Herbertsdale, one of my favourite birding areas, which was also my last formal birding trip of the year.
During our lengthy stay in Mossel Bay I did regular atlasing in the Golf Estate, where 30+ species can be seen in an hour’s walk during Summer, as well as around town which has a few reliable birding spots such as the Point and the harbour area for seabirds and the small dam at the SPCA grounds for waterfowl.
I am not sure how I will top 2016 as far as birding goes, but I will certainly give it a go!
It was a memorable Birding Year for several reasons – many great places visited in pursuit of new birds, many amazing experiences, often when least expected, atlasing at every opportunity, all of which has left me more than satisfied and (hopefully) has boosted my birding and bird photography skills. It was also sprinkled with enough “Lifers” to make it a special birding year, most of which were not planned but rather just happened along the way.
What follows is a brief (remember, brief is relative) synopsis of my birding activities along with photos of the species encountered and places visited. Some of my trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.
Our year kicked off in Mossel Bay, our home town for some of the year, including December and half of January, and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing / birdmapping in the area. This included one particularly memorable trip through the mountains on a back road north of Herbertsdale (actually an old wagon route) where I saw just one other person in two hours and not a single other vehicle. The pentad (a block of 5 x 5 minutes of latitude and longitude) had never been atlased previously so was virgin territory.
Further atlasing on the 14th was limited by almost constant light rain, but was nevertheless interesting, producing some scarcer species such as Little Bittern doing its “sky-gazing” trick and a group of Amur Falcons, unusual in this part of SA. Parts of the gravel road were very slippery and called for close concentration.
Our customary “slow and easy” trip back to Pretoria started on the 16th with a short drive to Prince Albert for a two night stay, allowing time for some Karoo birding, then on to Prior Grange guest farm near Springfontein in the Free State, where I was able to fit in some early morning birding before our last push to Pretoria and home.
A report of a Caspian Plover near Hanover persuaded us to deviate for an hour or two to look for it – with the help of the farm owner we found it, as well as some other delights such as Blue Korhaan and Namaqua Sandgrouse
Back in Pretoria I was soon chasing further rarities when reports of a Red Phalarope at Mkhombo dam filtered through and I ended up visiting this exciting birding spot three times before the month was out, once on my own, once with George Skinner and once with Francois Furstenburg, the latter trip including some great birding along the Zaagkuildrift road.
And to round off a memorable month, a Spotted Crake was reported outside the main gate to one of Johannesburg’s largest residential estates. It proved to be one of the easiest twitches ever as more than 1000 birders went to see it.
After that exciting start to the year I took a break in February to focus on other life matters and recommenced in…
The month started with a bang when I visited Kasane in Botswana for the project I am involved in and took the opportunity to “pop over” to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia to see the Yellow-throated Leaflove reported at a lodge near Katimo Mulilo, along with some of the other area specials and another lifer by way of an accommodating Schalow’s Turaco at the same lodge. The Leaflove was a new species for Southern Africa and created a lot of excitement amongst twitchers.
While in Kasane I visited Chobe Game Reserve and the Kasane Waste treatment works which both produced some excellent birding.
The following week I fitted in some atlasing, this time in and around Cullinan area east of Pretoria (where the famous Cullinan diamond was found)
The next weekend we visited Potchefstroom and I atlased in the area, focusing on the Boskop dam north-east of Potch which proved to be an excellent spot with a total of 72 species, the highlight being an African Rail walking along the dam edge for 50m or so before disappearing into reeds.
Back in Kasane for my monthly visit, the only birding I managed was at Senyati camp, which we visited late one afternoon and viewed the elephants coming to drink at the waterhole, along with a variety of bird life.
Then it was time for our long-planned trip of the year to celebrate 45 years of marriage – two weeks in Europe , visiting Prague and Passau, with an eight-day Danube River Cruise sandwiched in between. Birding was limited to whatever crossed my path but was still good for a handful of Lifers added to my “World list”
My trip to Kasane Botswana from the 10th to 12th presented few opportunities for focused birding, nevertheless I was able to spend time in three spots that I have got to know fairly well – Kasane Waste Treatment works, Thebe lodge and Seboba Nature Park, all of which are reliable for a variety of species.
On the 16th and again on the 23rd I got back to some “ordinary” atlasing in some of my favourite parts of eastern Gauteng – lying generally in the corridor between Bronkhorstspruit area and Delmas area. Good solid midwinter atlasing in these run-of-the-mill parts of Gauteng can be just as inspiring as birding some of the more recognised birding spots.
On the 26th and 27th we joined Koos and Rianda at our favourite getaway – Verlorenkloof estate near Machadadorp – which as usual did not disappoint with the quality of the birding
Kasane was the destination once again from the 1st to 3rd with another birding trip along the Riverfront section of Chobe Game Reserve.
Winter atlasing in the Delmas area on the 6th included a visit to a farm dam courtesy of the farm owner who I tracked down – worth the trouble as the dam contributed 21 species to the list including both Flamingoes, Black-necked Grebe and Maccoa Duck
Next up was our visit to La Lucia near Durban for a week, during which I enjoyed a Fathers Day feast of birding in Ongoye Forest, Mtunzimi and Amatigulu Reserve with local guide Sakhamuzi Mhlongo, who found the Green Barbet that I had hoped to see. This species is restricted to this one single forest in Southern Africa.
On the way back to La Lucia I popped into the well-known birding spot at Sappi Stanger, which was lively with waterfowl and others
Before the week was done we did a quick trip to Pigeon Valley in Durban’s suburbs, where a few of the forest species were in evidence.
Atlasing the Delmas area once again on the 27th concluded the month’s diverse birding
July to December are covered in a separate post called ,,,,,,,, wait for it ………..Part 2.
As I mentioned in my previous post about twitching (https://mostlybirding.com/2016/02/23/a-twitch-or-two/), I hardly consider myself to fall into the category of keen twitchers, those hardy, sometimes mildly bonkers birders who let nothing stand in the way of seeing rare birds that turn up in Southern Africa.
Such was the case when a pair of Yellow-throated Leafloves (interesting name!) turned up and started nesting at a riverside lodge near Katima Mulilo in Namibia, some 200 kms south of their normal distribution in Zambia and northwards. Suddenly the Southern African region had a brand new bird added to the regional list!
The reports started coming through in mid February 2016 of this unexpected pair of birds in the gardens of the Caprivi Houseboat Safari Lodge near Katima Mulilo and there was soon a gold-rush like invasion of keen twitchers heading to this remote part of Southern Africa via plane and car from various places in South Africa and Namibia.
I watched with interest the messages coming through from Trevor Hardaker and the SA Rare Bird Facebook page, knowing that I would be going to Kasane in northern Botswana for a project I am involved in, during the 1st week in March. I also had a look at the map and realized that Katima Mulilo fell nicely within my “twitch limit” of around 2 hours drive, being about 120 kms from Kasane with a border crossing from Botswana to Namibia to negotiate along the way. So, if the Leafloves hung around until then, I planned to “pop over” the border for a quick visit and hopefully a new tick on my life list for Southern Africa.
Tuesday 1st March
Come Tuesday, I caught the daily flight from Joburg to Kasane – a day early for my site visit so that I could spend a night in Katima Mulilo (KM) and be back in time for the project commitments the following day. I had arranged for a bakkie (pickup) to be available and shortly after landing I set off for KM via Ngoma border post. The border formalities went smoothly, perhaps because I was the only customer in an hour or two.
From Kasane to Ngoma the public road (tarred) bisects the northernmost section of Chobe Game Reserve and the landscape is pristine woodland all the way.
Once into the Caprivi in Namibia, the scenery changes to more open, patchy woodland interspersed with small settlements and small-scale agriculture.
I arrived at the lodge by 4.30 pm and settled into the rustic accommodation on the river in unit No 5, which is right alongside the tree where the Leafloves were nesting.
I immediately saw one of the young chicks peering over the edge of the nest and within minutes the parents were in the vicinity and at the nest, bringing morsels and calling in a Babbler-like manner although less harsh.
The rest of the afternoon was spent re-visiting the nest site in the hope of getting better views / photos and exploring the small property with its jungle-like gardens and river views.
It proved to be really challenging trying to get the Leafloves in my camera’s viewfinder for long enough to get a decent photo, as they seemed intent on hiding in the shadiest part of the foliage at every opportunity and when they did show themselves briefly, it was in an opening high up in the trees with bright light behind them.
Other birders had arrived earlier and a few more arrived after me – we enjoyed a good evening meal together and then made our way to mosquito-netted beds in the rustic cabins, happy to be able to add the Leaflove to our life lists.
Wednesday 2nd March
In the morning the others were already gathered at the coffee and rusks and I tagged along with the small group as they set off for a birding walk along the dirt road outside the lodge, which turned out to be quite busy with early morning commuters on their way to places unknown.
White-bowed Robin-Chat and Tropical Boubou were competing for loudest call as we walked and there was no shortage of other interesting species, such as :
Paradise and Grey-tit Flycatchers
Village Indigobird on the very top of a tree
Namaqua Dove perched on overhead wires
Brubru working its way through the foliage of a large tree
Little Sparrowhawk perched on an open branch
Copper Sunbird female peering from its nest in the roadside bush
Brown-crowned Tchagra posing beautifully on a nearby branch
Greater Blue-eared Starlings
African Golden Oriole – bright yellow against the green foliage
After the walk it was breakfast time followed by some further garden birding. A Schalow’s Turaco was calling and I followed the sound to find this lifer – a pair were moving about in the dense foliage of a tall tree, making it challenging to get a decent view or a photo. Fortunately I heard them again as I was leaving and found one on an open branch, almost inviting me to photograph this handsome species.
The trip back to Kasane was uneventful, other than coming across a trio of elephants along the road traversing Chobe.
Another successful twitch and memories of a brief but busy trip that will stay with me for a long while.
Just when you thought it was safe to go into 2016, here is another of those pesky “looking back at 2015” stories. Apologies but I just have to do it – so here is my review of my birding year, for what it is worth.
It has been another busy year of travel for Gerda and myself, in between maintaining our normal home routines, however this time around we did not do any “overseas” trips but confined ourselves to travel within South Africa. In addition my birding took me to Mozambique for a dedicated 2 week birding extravaganza and work-related trips took me to northern Botswana, where I was able to fit in some wonderful birding and game viewing – all in all it made for another interesting year…….
The year started, as it has over the past couple of years, in Mossel Bay where we have a second home and I used the opportunity to do some atlasing in the Golf Estate where our house is located and in the surrounding area. (reminder : “atlasing” is the recording of bird species in an area called a Pentad, defined by coordinates, about 8 x 8 kms in extent, with the data collected going to a database at the University of Cape Town)
Gerda joined me for a morning of atlasing near Albertinia, with breakfast and coffee stops to make it a pleasant outing for both of us.
From the 9th to 12th we did a short trip through the Western Cape, spending one night in Swellendam and two more visiting Johan and Rosa in Worcester. I managed to sneak in some atlasing as we went without turning up anything of note.
On the 16th it was time to leave Mossel Bay and return to Gauteng but not without making the most of the journey – two nights in Prince Albert in the Karoo and one in Hoopstad in the Free State made sure of that.
Undoubtedly the highlight of my birding year started on 29th January with a two week birding trip through Mozambique as part of a group of 10 in four vehicles. The full report appears in my posts from earlier in 2015 and it is difficult to isolate the highlights as every day was full of them, but here are a few that were really special and the “Lifers” that went with them :
Early morning on the Limpopo floodplain with Sedge Warblers and Rufous-winged Cisticolas
Birding on the mudflats at Imhambane and Lighthouse beach nearby – Lesser Sand Plover, Lesser Crested Tern and Crab Plover
Driving through dense woodland to the Panda area to view Olive-headed Weaver, Green Tinkerbird, Woodward’s Batis and Livingstone’s Flycatcher, amongst a plethora of other desirable species
Lunch stop in more dense woodland which was alive with bird life, adding Red-winged Warbler
Dragging a rope across pristine floodplains of the Rio Savane near Beira in hot, humid weather, hoping to flush some of the specials – Great Snipe was one reward
Photographing a warbler in the Rio Maria area, which turned out to be Basra Reed Warbler, a southern Africa megatick
Mphingwe camp and the surrounding pristine forests of the Catapu area which produced a multitude of magnificent lifers – Ayre’s Hawk-Eagle, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, Mangrove Kingfisher, Tiny Greenbul, White-crested Alethe, East Coast Akalat, Black-headed Apalis, Plain-becked Sunbird, and Broad-taled Paradise Whydah
A memorable trip to the Zambezi to view Bohm’s Bee-eater and several other special birds (not to mention the atrocious road and the failed propshaft bearing of my vehicle)
Mphingwe camp – enforced longer stay due to car repairs but also time to explore the surrounds and home in on some beautiful butterflies
A weekend in Cape Town revolved around the Cape Town Cycle Tour which I had entered – no time for any intensive birding but we did enjoy a walk through Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and some lightweight birding in Stellenbosch where we stayed in the Devon Valley Hotel
On the 14th I joined Koos Pauw for some interesting atlasing at the Baviaanspoort Water Treatment works (ie Sewage farm) where a pale form Steppe Buzzard had us postulating for some time.
27th saw us heading to Mossel Bay for the Easter holidays, with a stop over at Prior Grange near Springfontein – a favourite overnight spot in the Free State with some excellent birding on the farm and the surrounds
During our stay in Mossel Bay I confined my birding to the immediate area with one atlasing trip to Albertinia.
A short trip to the Western Cape included a stay in McGregor on the 12th and some exploration of the Robertson area and Greyton – I squeezed in some atlasing as we went
Back in Pretoria Koos and I atlased in the Kwamhlanga area on the 25th, which produced some surprisingly good birding – near a vlei we saw Lanner Falcon, African Quail-Finch and heard African Rail in quick succession. Soon after, in a hilly, rocky area along a side road, I was thrilled to find Short-toed Rock-Thrush posing beautifully in a dry tree, a lifer for me.
My first trip to Kasane in northern Botswana from 5th to 7th for a project I am involved in, was the first of many for the year and a chance to explore the natural delights of Chobe National Park in between work commitments. This trip was all about excellent game viewing experiences with enough birding to whet my appetite for later visits.
More atlasing on the 16th (Kwamhlanga area) and 25th (Delmas area) and 30th (Coalfields around Ogies), produced some memorable species.
Winter atlasing in the dry grasslands near Bronkhorstspruit on 6th was followed two days later by atlasing near Balfour after a two hour drive through early morning traffic.
The same day I visited Marievale Bird Sanctuary for some relaxed birding and photography at this wonderful venue, which I had all to myself, it being a Monday.
18th to 25th was Koos and Rianda’s timeshare week at Verlorenkloof, which we were once again invited to share with them, unquestionably our favourite place for superb birding and relaxation and it produced many highlights as usual.
Saturday 4th was time for more winter atlasing, this time south of Balmoral with the challenge being ID’ing the seed eating species in their drab winter plumage – the watchword is definitely “practice makes perfect”.
Another trip to Kasane, another chance to visit Chobe, followed on the 7th to 9th.
Our winter trip to Mossel Bay started on the 12th and we only returned on the 1st of August. Birding was confined to Mossel Bay for the first 10 days due to cold, wet weather which gave me the chance to atlas the Golf Estate thoroughly and watch the birds coming to our feeder.
Gerda joined me for a short trip to Klein Brak and the beautiful countryside, green and lush after the substantial rains
My only specific atlasing trip was along the Herbertsdale road with some good birding in the two pentads.
Our trip to Robertson to taste the culinary and birding delights followed – see my separate post on this trip.
A late winter trip to Kasane on the 4th to 6th produced some memorable game and bird sightings once again.
Koos and I atlased the De Wildt area on the 8th with some interesting sightings
Another Kasane trip on the 8th to 11th included a day trip to Victoria Falls to view the new airport under construction and an afternoon visit to the Falls
We managed to squeeze in a Chobe Riverfront drive with some stunning sightings being the reward
An atlasing trip on the 19th to dusty, sprawling Garankuwa north of Pretoria produced more than expected with lovely sightings of Fairy Flycatcher, Striped Kingfisher and others
One of the year’s highlights came up in October with a week long visit to Satara camp in Kruger, documented in several separate posts, followed by another highlight when our timeshare week at Verlorenkloof came up just afterwards from 16th to 20th, producing some of the best birding ever in this superb locality
Back to Kasane on 6th to 8th and more of Chobe Riverfront, but this time, accompanied by another keen birder – Derek Thomas, we did some proper atlasing in this amazing slice of Africa and in a new (for us) location – Kasane Water Treatment Works
The 13th saw me heading to Mkhombo dam area for an atlasing session, with a visit to the dam to see if some of the special birds seen during the preceding weeks were still around.
Before we knew it, we found the year was rapidly running out as we packed once again for the trip down to Mossel Bay for our end-of-year long visit. On the way we stopped over in Hoopstad for two nights, one on the farm where I was able to fit in some good birding walks and drives.
Our second stopover was at Karoo National Park where we enjoyed the quiet Karoo atmosphere and some good birding.
In Mossel Bay my first atlasing trip was to the area west of the village Ruiterbos in beautiful rolling countryside
The last visit to Kasane on 2nd to 4th was another opportunity to atlas in Chobe and in Kasane itself at some spots located by Derek
Back in Mossel Bay I saw the year out with some fine atlasing around Herbertsdale, Vöelvlei and Gouritzmond
We had participated in two of these special weekend birding events in previous years, based in Punda Maria camp, and had enjoyed the vibe of a group of keen birders and the unbeatable location of the event, taking in a large chunk of the northern part of Kruger Park. The scoring is probably not meant to be that important, but people and in particular keen birders are competitive animals and it certainly adds to the spirit of an event such as this.
So being the optimistic lot that we are and in anticipation of some special birding experiences, we once again put our names down for the event planned for November 2014.
George Skinner and I left Pretoria early and followed the familiar route to Punda Maria. George had arranged with well-known bird guide Samson Mulaudzi to meet him near the Entabeni Forest, which we duly did around 10.45 am and we proceeded into the forest area, hoping for a few specials. Both Lesser and Scaly-throated Honeyguides were easily located by call and the latter was seen flying and trying its best to stay out of sight in the canopy as it did a wide circle around us.
From there we drove close to the river to a spot where Half-collared Kingfisher was quickly located, then to the spot where Bat Hawk has been nesting for more than 10 years and we soon found it perched high in the tall trees, just off the gravel road. This was a lifer for me, thanks to Samson!
Satisfied with this short birding sortie, we carried on to Punda Maria gate an hour or so away, arriving at the camp at 2.20 pm, to be greeted by the West Rand Honorary Rangers (HR’s) team of William, Monika and Norma who all feel like old friends the third time around.
The Event Starts
Check-in and finding our comfortable bungalow did not take long and by 3pm we were back in the air-conditioned restaurant for the briefing led by Monika, who explained the HR’s role and wonderful sponsorship spread over a variety of efforts in many of the National Parks.
Then it was Joe Grosel’s turn to highlight the attractions, features and different habitats of this special part of the Kruger National Park, from Giant Rats to Racket-tailed Rollers, his passion for the area clearly showing.
Once done with the briefing, it was time for the first late afternoon drive and we had hardly left the gate when we were surrounded by a bird party gathered in and around a large tree – I could barely keep up listing the species on Birdlasser, my new bird atlasing App.
Destination PWNJ Lek
As in previous years, a highlight of this event is the visit to the Lek where the rare Pennant-winged Nightjar does its display flight at dusk – this was our destination once again and there was a swell of anticipation as the 40 – odd (the number not the birders, although some of them are pretty odd as well) birders sipped our Strettons G & T’s and waited for the action in the gathering dusk. Well, as Joe put it, it was like the Springbok’s loss to the Irish the previous weekend – disappointing – as the PWNJ’s kept their distance with just one doing a rapid fly past, but nevertheless tickable for my atlas list.
On the way back to the camp we came across a magnificent Giant Eagle-Owl, imperious on his perch in a large tree.
Dinner was a bring and braai and we headed to bed with thoughts of the treasure hunt and a long day’s birding the next day.
Up (very) early after a 3.30 am alarm, to be ready for the treasure hunt drive at 4.15 am. The treasure hunt entails deciphering cryptic clues into a list of 14 bird, animal and tree species, then finding and photographing each one before returning to the camp by the cut-off time of 12.30 pm, for adjudication by Joe Grosel.
Once every one was on the safari truck, we made our way to Pafuri area, not encountering much of interest until the light allowed us to see the surrounding bush a bit clearer, starting with Black-chested Snake-Eagle and followed by good numbers of birds. A brief diversion to Kloppenheim area added some water-reliant species such as Squacco Heron, Water Thick-Knee, Common Moorhen (unusual in the Kruger), Black Crake and Three-banded Plover.
Onwards to the Luvuvhu bridge at Pafuri for the usual feast of birding and back to the Pafuri area itself with a lengthy stop at Crook’s Corner, which provided a good boost to our growing list of bird species recorded. A feature of the day’s birding was the number of bird parties we encountered, some called up by Ranger/Driver Jobe who uses his skill at imitating the Pearl-spotted Owlet to draw the birds nearer. On a few occasions we had between 10 and 15 species in close proximity to the vehicle and had to work hard to keep up with ID-ing them all.
At the Pafuri picnic spot, Norma and her colleagues had prego rolls ready which went down a treat, while we continued to scan the area for as yet un-ticked species.
By then it was late morning and we had found most of the target species, so it was time to head back to camp to be in time for the cut-off – on the way we came across our final target species – Crested Francolin, which had amazingly eluded us till then. Our only slip-up was choosing the wrong Euphorbia species to photograph.
Some of the species we had to find and photograph :
After this intense species-hunting, it was time for a siesta until the next round of clues – this time covering targets in the camp itself, which turned into quite a challenge, but again we managed to get all of them photographed between 4 and 6 pm, almost coming short on the Passer Domesticus (House Sparrow) once again, but a last-minute rush to find a “proper” one saved the day.
A slightly dazed Pygmy Kingfisher which had flown into a restaurant window, drew some attention away from the goings on in the camp
All that remained was the dreaded Quiz which went a little better than previous years but once again some hasty decisions cost us valuable points, leaving us with only the atlasing session the next day to catch up to the leading teams.
Our atlasing session turned into a marathon, starting at just after 4 am and ending at 3 pm when we eventually returned to the camp. Each team was allocated a “good” pentad and a “poor” pentad to atlas, the good one being in a lush bushveld area and including a stretch of river while the poor pentad was in a dry area dominated by Mopane bush. What we were not told was that only the “poor” pentad total would count towards the scoring and so we focused our attention and time on the “good” pentad, leaving the “poor” pentad for later in the day when birds generally take cover from the heat.
At least we enjoyed some excellent early morning birding in the windless, overcast conditions and in prime bushveld, which included the new Nyala Wilderness Trail camp on a bend of the Luvuvhu river with views over the river and the koppies beyond. This was also the cue to enjoy coffee and rusks in this beautiful location.
After a short drive further we alighted from the vehicle again to take a walk along a stretch of the river, which produced a few species including a highly debated Wagtail which photos showed was a Pied Wagtail despite arguments to the contrary. Then an even shorter drive to a viewpoint over the river which we knew from previous visits to Punda Maria, with wonderful views over the river below.
We continued atlasing productively until we left the pentad after about 2.5 hours of recording and headed south towards the “poor” pentad some distance away, which we entered after 12.00 pm after some heavy debate about where we were in relation to the map provided by Sanparks. Inexperience at working with co-ordinates, which are essential for atlasing, meant there was a total misconception on the part of our driver as to where the pentad boundary was and we found ourselves a full pentad (about 8 km) out of position in a north-south direction.
After much lively discussion and some input on my part (as the only regular atlasser in our team), we did eventually find the pentad boundary, but the map versus co-ordinates debate continued unabated, also due to non-existent roads being shown on the map. The area we found ourselves in was single habitat – Mopane bush with no pans or any other water, so atlasing was slow and quite laborious in the heat of the day and we were relieved when we had completed the minimum 2 hours of atlasing and could head back to the camp. On the way back a Coqui Francolin surprised us as he crossed the road in front of our vehicle.
The Final Curtain
A last visit to the lek was spectacular, with the male Pennant-winged Nightjar performing majestically, floating back and forward just above tree height and settling on a rock for a minute or two.
As usual the Honorary Rangers and Sanparks put on a fine closing out dinner and prize-giving but unfortunately our team had fallen out of the running completely.
Nevertheless a great event that added to our appreciation of this part of Kruger, although three in a row is probably enough for the time being.
Those brave souls who have read the 3 part story of our trip through Mozambique, will know that we had to cut it short due to a propshaft bearing that collapsed under the punishment meted out by a certain rutted road, leaving us temporarily stranded at Mphingwe camp, just south of the Zambezi river. This is the conclusion of the story – how we got the vehicle repaired, our enforced longer stay at Mphingwe and our experiences getting home. Finally, I have included my overall Impressions of Mozambique.
Day 11 : Coutada 12 Birding (Squeezing in)
I woke up early and rather despondent this Sunday morning, not knowing how we were going to get ourselves and the vehicle back home. There seemed to be just 2 options – fix the car here and drive home or get home by other means and arrange to repatriate the car – neither would be simple but it would be a lot easier if we could just drive the car back ourselves.
To take our minds off the problem and encouraged by the others in the group, we squeezed the whole team into the remaining 2 vehicles and set off to do mostly forest birding in the Coutada 12 area, along with some woodland birding, hoping to clinch some of the difficult (for the time of year) specials. Thanks are due to Owen and Sue for making room for us in their vehicle, which turned a potentially depressing day into another great day of birding. In fact I was able to add another 3 lifers to my list :
Short-winged Cisticola perched high up on a dry tree
The very distinctive and colourful Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike, which was followed moments later by a group of their close cousins, Retz’s Helmetshrike
Orange-winged Pytilia in woodland
Other significant birds we came across (any one of them would be a great sighting for the average SA birder) :
Martial Eagle circling overhead
Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher
Narina Trogon – flying right over our heads
In the forests we tried the “waiting for the bus” routine again, hoping that some of the shy species would be curious and come and join us, but we only came up with Tiny Greenbul, which called frequently and then played hide-and-seek with us, affording a brief glimpse or two
Back at Mphingwe we enjoyed a last dinner with the full group, as those still mobile would be heading to Zimbabwe the next day. Our fate lay squarely in the hands of Joe, the resident mechanic looking after the sawmill, who would look at the Touareg in the morning and confirm our options. We had a date with him for 6.30 am at the sawmill.
Day 12 : Solving the Car Problems and Time for Contemplation
We took the car to the sawmill just after 6 am for Joe to have a look and once we had it up on the ramp, his recommendation was simple and quick – get the part and he will fix it.
So we set about getting the part, which meant driving cautiously and slowly up to the tar road – anything over 30 km/h and the knocking would start – and towards the nearest tower for a cellphone signal, where I spent some time phoning various people in SA to arrange for the part to be supplied and paid for. That was the easier part – getting the part to Mphingwe seemed to be a real problem until Pat, the wife of Mphingwe’s owner Ant White, suggested her daughter, based in Johannesburg, would be prepared to collect the part from Pretoria and fly to Beira the following day, where after Pat would arrange for it to be transported by “Runner” (one of their employees from Beira) on a “Shapa” (local min-bus taxi) to Mphingwe. These people are nothing short of amazing! With luck the part would be here in two days. The only proviso was that I would pick up the cost of her air ticket to Beira and back, which I did with alacrity and relief. The benefit to them was an opportunity for mother and daughter to have a day or two together in Beira, so definitely a winning solution all round.
At the same time Neithard was making arrangements to get both his damaged vehicle and himself and Kathrin back to Pretoria, which was looking like a lengthy affair.
By lunchtime our arrangements were done and we could relax for the rest of the day. I took a walk along the Suni Trail which winds through the forest and had a magical time with the many butterflies, which posed for some beautiful photos in the soft dappled light of the forest.
Birds were not plentiful in the immediate vicinity of the camp but some nice specials occur including Crested Guineafowl (aka The Rockers – which will make sense if you’ve ever heard a group of them doing their call, which sounds like a rock band warming up, plus their wild hairstyle), Black-bellied Starling and Yellow-bellied Greenbul. The resident Emerald-spotted Wood-Doves and Tambourine Doves provide a constant soothing background sound with their calls right through the day.
The evening meal was memorable for a great sirloin steak and good conversation with Neithard and Kathrin, all of us in the same boat at that stage, in rough waters and no paddle in sight.
Day 13 : Waiting for the Part and some birding at Mphingwe
A day of waiting, while the vital spare part travels from Pretoria to Mphingwe near Caia in Mozambique via Jo’burg (by plane to) Beira (by Shapa to) Mphingwe all courtesy of Pat and her daughter Carrie, or Wonder Woman as I was now regarding her. Our hopes were that it would arrive the next morning and be fitted without a problem – what if it was the wrong part?
To pass the time George and I took a long birding walk along the Suni Trail, diverted to the track down to the sawmill and returned via the main dirt road back to the camp.
This helped to push the pentad total (I hadn’t given up atlasing) up to 31 with some exciting species such as
All in all some excellent birding and plenty of Butterflies
The rest of the day was relaxed with another good dinner to close out the day.
Day 14 : Replacing the part – an all day event
We took the Touareg down to the sawmill just after 6 am and left it with Joe who had assured us it would be a quick job. Well it didn’t turn out that way as an “hour or so” job turned into a whole day affair as Joe and his men had to dis-assemble and re-assemble the propshaft bearings to get the centre carrier bearing in place, in the process having to fashion special tools to fit the VW components.
So we postponed our departure until the next day, hoping an early start would get us to Beit Bridge in the day.
We got through the day with much sitting around, reading and contemplating – the only birds that raised any interest were a pair of Crested Guineafowl making their way through the camp and a Bateleur and what looked like a Long-crested Eagle soaring high overhead.
With plenty of time on our hands, there was a chance to appreciate the smaller wildlife and the camp was full of interesting lizards, bugs, ants and others – the shower and toilet block was a magnet for them and I counted over 20 species of insects, moths and dragonflies during one “sitting”. A couple of small black snakes had to be persuaded to leave the toilet including one which was curled up under the hollow seat!
Day 15 and 16 : The long and winding road home
We set off at our planned time of 5 am in near dark, gradually getting lighter as we progressed slowly along the potholed road to Inchope. The first 260 km took all of 4 and a half hours as I drove gingerly around and through the badly potholed sections.
From Inchope to the Zimbabwe border was a little better, but there was a constant stream of trucks to contend with and some hazardous overtaking manoeuvres were the only way to make some progress. It was a relief to get onto the Zim roads which are generally in a good condition, albeit narrow.
We proceeded through Mutare and Masvingo (Fort Victoria in the “old days”) where we decided to carry on to the Lion and Elephant Motel another 2 hours away, as it was only 4.30 pm. With the light fading, I didn’t see a 60 km/h sign along the way and was stopped by a cop who tried the by now familiar scare tactics – according to him we would have to appear in court the next morning and he was clearly looking for some “persuasion” to help us avoid this fate. I stood my ground refusing to play along and eventually he wrote a R200 fine which I paid and we proceeded on our way. I was only too glad to get away from that spot, having smelt alcohol on his breath.
The motel was a welcome sight some time later, after 14 hours of driving the 950 kms from Mphingwe.
Next morning we were up early and at the Beit Bridge border post where yet another pair of cops looked for some reward for letting us through, after a veiled threat of having to search the vehicle for drugs – “but the guy who does the search will only be here at 10 am” implying a 4 hour wait for us.
Once again we refused to play along but “rewarded” them with a couple of our remaining snack bars which they took in disgust and waved us on.
The rest of the trip home was uneventful other than another speeding ticket – think I was just too tired to spot the signs by then – and we got back to Pretoria around 1 pm, thankful that Joe had done a good job on the Touareg, which had made it without further problems.
Impressions of Mozambique
With our trip cut short by car trouble we spent about 10 days birding in a diverse range of habitats and places including
Wetlands and floodplains
Tidal flats and estuaries
Birds were plentiful and the Moz specials were there, although it proved quite difficult to get a good view at times. I was very pleased with the 30 lifers that I chalked up and with the general quality of birding overall.
On a long trip like this the quality of the roads becomes important and this is where Moz is a less attractive birding destination, unless you are prepared to risk damage to your vehicle, don’t mind dodging potholes for long stretches and can remain relaxed despite some atrocious road conditions. We drove many different roads and experienced every imaginable road condition :
Good tar roads limited to the south of Moz
Severely potholed tar roads further north with the Inchope – Caia road being the worst
Sand roads varying from reasonable to poor, but still preferable to potholed tar
Rutted, rock hard gravel roads – such as the one that caused 2 of the vehicles damage
Rain in places added to the stress of driving
Villages and towns we passed through often have hawkers both sides of the road and buses, trucks and cars parked anywhere and everywhere so require particular caution
The vast majority of people are obviously poor but friendly and we saw some back-breaking tasks being performed for probably very little compensation. I did not pick up any feeling of aggression from the “have-nots” in the way we often experience it in SA.
Bicycles are an important form of transport and we were amazed to see the loads that get transported – 3 or 4 heavy bags of charcoal and in one case cement get transported long distances in this way.
Strings of people along the roads near towns are a common sight as taxis are few and money tight.
Chicken is a popular item on menus and often the safe choice. Surprisingly fish was scarce, even at the coast. Our best meals were at Mphingwe where we had superb sirloin steaks and all meals were tasty. The local beers were good – Manica and 2M (Dosh M). Our other meals were self-prepared and simple – rusks early morning with coffee, snack bars in between and tuna, pork in tins, sardines, cheese etc on cracker bread and the like for lunch. Being able to boil water for coffee/tea wherever we stopped long enough was a real boon.
We expected hot and humid and we got exactly that – winter may be a better option as being in a constant bath of sweat is not enjoyable and can detract from the pleasure of the surroundings and bird life.
Occasional rain brought some respite from the oppressive heat, but not for long.
The tour is not about luxury accommodation – what you get is fairly basic but comfortable in rustic surrounds – a clean bed, simple bathroom (communal at Mphingwe) aircon (except Mphingwe) and the important mosquito nets
There is no question that having a guide with the expertise in birding and the knowledge and experience of Mozambique is invaluable and trying to do this trip without Etienne would have resulted in dipping on many of the special birds.
Personally, I would have liked to have spent more time photographing some of the birds, but this would only be possible if a specific photography trip was arranged, as it requires a very different approach – ie spending a lot more time in certain locations rather than trying to cover as much ground as possible.
We had set out to cover some of the best summer birding spots of southern Mozambique during a 15 day birding trip and, in the 6 days covered by Parts 1 and 2, we had already seen a lot of special birds. This Part 3 includes further birding of the Rio Savane area outside Beira, then we continue northwards to Mphingwe and the assorted delights of lowland forests plus a hazardous trip to the Zambesi River to look for a highly sought after species of Bee-eater.
Etienne Marais (Indicator Birding : http://birding.co.za ), our group leader and guide for the trip, with his passengers Corné Rautenbach, Edith Oosthuizen and Bruce Dyer who had all flown up from Cape Town for the trip, Owen and Sue Oertli from Johannesburg, Neithard and Katharina Graf von Durkheim from Pretoria, Myself (also Pretoria) and George Skinner (Johannesburg, but at the time I write this has “emigrated” to Dullstroom).
In describing the trip I have again borrowed from the itinerary which Etienne had drawn up and distributed prior to the trip and which sets it out nicely on a day by day basis ……….
Day 7 Beira to Mphingwe
“After some early morning birding in the Rio Savane area, we depart northwards on the Dondo-Muanza road. This drive is long and the road poor – but it offers excellent birding in the woodlands en route
Overnight : Mphingwe Camp (the cabins are simple wood structures which are pleasantly furnished and beautifully situated within the woodland. The restaurant offers a limited but good menu and early morning coffee is usually provided 30 minutes before departure time.”
Rendezvous time at our lodge in Beira was 5 am for breakfast, but the staff had misunderstood and we had to wait a short while until they were ready.
Immediately after breakfast, we left and headed back to the Rio Savane area for further attempts to find some of the secretive species.
The 40 km of sandy road leading to the Rio Savane was busier this morning and we once again marveled at the local men, riding old-fashioned “dikwiel” bicycles, trying to earn a few Meticals by delivering long bags of charcoal to agents somewhere in town (ie 80 km or more there and back) – there were many of these fit men (some older men too) visible on the road, carefully steering their bikes with their heavy loads mounted crosswise behind the seat.
Various stops on the way through the lush fields of grass produced Osprey, Lizard Buzzard, several Black-chested Snake-Eagles again, 5 or 6 African Marsh-Harriers (where else is this species a “trash bird”?) and many Yellow-throated Longclaws.
Giant Kingfisher was a new one for the trip, as was a pair of Wattled Cranes with a youngster at the far end of one field.
The bridge where we looked for Seedcracker yesterday was busier today with White-browed Robin, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Spectacled Weaver and Black-throated Wattle-Eye (first and only sighting of this species on the trip) all busily going about their daily routine in and amongst the dense bushes.
We followed this with a couple of “rope trick” attempts, hoping to flush a Blue Quail, but to no avail and we returned sweating to the vehicles but energized for the long (in terms of time) trip to Mphingwe.
We did 9 hours of driving in all for the day, covering some 480 km on the way to Mphingwe along the EN1 National road, which for long stretches is in a shocking state, so it was a case of constant vigilance and a drunken style of driving, swerving back and forth to avoid the worst potholes. Passing Gorongosa National Park, we stopped to take in the view of the Gorongosa mountain in the distance.
Once settled in at Mphingwe, we enjoyed a superb dinner – simple food well cooked.
We had arrived to heavy rain and hoped that the weather would play along the next day, which promised to be special.
Day 8 and 9 Catapu Area
“We have three full days in the Catapu area which includes the Zambesi River and associated wetlands, the Zangue floodplain, Coutada 12 and Catapu itself. The time will be managed according to the birds we see and what the priorities are. Catapu provides access to excellent patches of lowland forest…. In late summer large numbers of Cuckoos are often present.
Overnight : Mphingwe Camp.”
We had our first exposure to proper lowland forest birding, doing a long circuit on day 8 and a shorter out-and-back trip on day 9.
The forest was pristine and stretched for tens of kms and it seemed that wherever we stopped there was bird life aplenty to be seen. Once off the tar road, which also provided excellent roadside birding but was rendered a little hazardous by passing trucks and buses, we made frequent stops along the quiet sandy roads, each stop providing opportunities to see and hear the numerous specials.
Some of these were fairly easily found and seen, such as :
Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah – up until then this species had an almost mythical feel for me, but in fact we saw it a few times during the two days, proving once again that many “rare” species change to common when you are in the right spot
Black-winged Red Bishop (the old name of Fire-crowned Bishop still suits it better)
Grey-headed Parrot in small flocks, calling in typical squawky parrot fashion
Thrush Nightingale – calling melodiously from a roadside bush but refusing to show itself, as they are wont to do
Cuckoos, both Common (European) and African – each time we came across one of these it generated some discussion as to which one it was – they are very alike with only the subtlest of differences in bill colouring. At least once we wondered whether the species we were looking at could be of the Lesser/Madagascar species but could not come to a conclusion.
Zambezi Indigobird – seen a few times
Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike – raised the pulse rates of a few in the group, being a lifer and quite a dramatic bird
Then it was the turn of some of the more difficult species as we tried to get a glimpse of Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo which was calling stridently close by, but concealing himself in the tall trees to the extent that all we could see was a dark shape flitting about, until he kindly flew across the road high above our heads, allowing the briefest of glimpses.
At certain stops, Etienne took us into the forest where the relatively clear understory allowed easy access, found a suitable clearing and had us sit down in a crescent to wait for target species to react to calls played on a remote speaker. It’s a wonderful way to do forest birding, in surroundings that couldn’t be more peaceful and the combination of sitting in a comfy camp chair, surrounded by trees with dappled sunlight filtering through the canopy, with no sound but the soft calls of forest birds , tends .. to .. make .. you … quite drowsy ….. ….. zzznnnggggzzzzznnnnggg (oops, it’s happening again) and at least one of our group succumbed for a while, head bowed and snoring quietly!
In this way some of the group got brief glimpses of White-chested Alethe (I think I was the only one to actually see it), Tiny Greenbul, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher and better views of East Coast Akalat. While waiting, a Mangrove Kingfisher came and sat on a branch literally above our heads.
The calls we heard ranged from Square-tailed Drongo to Narina Trogon, in between the vociferous calls of Tiny Greenbul, very vocal but hard to see.
At other spots we waded through shoulder height grass and into wooded areas and were rewarded with sightings of Cabanis’s Bunting, Short-winged Cisticola amongst others.
All of this wonderful birding (and some butterflies) made up for the fact that I started suffering around lunchtime with an aching body and tummy problems which got progressively worse as the day wore on – some sort of bug had got to me.
Back at Mphingwe, I skipped dinner and on one of my trips to the toilet block in the dark, while pointing my torch at the pathway to see where I was going, I hit my head against the protruding edge of the corrugated iron roof, cutting the top of my head quite severely in the process. It’s well-known that your head bleeds profusely when cut and this was very much the case with me – blood poured down my face and over my glasses until I could get hold of a towel to wrap around my head and soak up some of the worst of it. But enough of the gory detail – suffice to say I sought assistance and it came in the form of Mandy, ex nurse now working at Mphingwe and resident there, who worked some magic, cleaning the wound and applying strategic plasters that held it together. The slight scar I have will forever remind me of that evening.
The camp staff cut off the offending, dangerously protruding roof the next morning, so others won’t have to worry about suffering the same fate.
Day 10 Via Sena to Rademan’s Farm and back
Day 10 was a day of mixed fortunes, to say the least. I was not on top of the world after last night’s drama, but my head was not too uncomfortable and my tummy manageable so I clocked in with the others for the day’s outing. We left after early morning coffee at around 5.30 am and did a short recce along the road in the vicinity of the turn-off to Mphingwe, but heavy mist made it difficult to spot much, other than a Harrier-Hawk and an initially puzzling raptor which turned out to be an African Goshawk.
Then we moved on to Caia 30 km away for two of the vehicles to fill up with petrol, which had been unobtainable for a day or two – they had to be content with roadside “take away” petrol at inflated prices as the regular petrol station had run out. From Caia we took the road to Sena along a road which fast turned out to be the worst kind for a vehicle – rough and rutted dirt that shook the vehicles to their core for the whole 80 kms. I was concerned about what it may do to my vehicle but pressed on at speed in order not to lose contact with the rest of the group, hoping that everything would hold together.
There was a good reason for taking on this poor road – our destination was the farm where we hoped to find Bohm’s Bee-eater (remember Inspector Closeau’s “bomb”) – a highly sought after bird in the Southern African region. Part of the way there, Etienne stopped at a small graveyard with a few large Palm trees and heavy surrounding bush – ideal habitat for another desirable species, Collared Palm-Thrush, and, true to their name, there they were.
A Blue-spotted Dove made a brief appearance to add to the moment and as we were on the verge of leaving a large raptor flew over the nearby tall trees and settled in the top of one, then took off to soar high over our heads, causing much camera activity amongst the group. It turned out to be Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, despite our attempts to turn it into the Western variety, nevertheless a desirable tick.
Arriving at the farm at last, shaken but not stirred, we were immediately “greeted” by our target species, Bohm’s Bee-eater, in the garden of one homestead on the way to the main farm-house, hawking insects from open branches. Thrilled with this special sighting we recovered enough composure to check out the Yellow Wagtail nearby (thunbergi race).
Etienne had the owner’s permission to use their verandah even though they were not at home, which we gladly did, enjoying breakfast with a view of the Zambesi at the bottom of the garden and several species in the trees. I wonder where else would you be able to view six species of Bee-eater in one location? Apart from Bohm’s there were White-fronted, Little, Carmine, Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters.
A walk around the garden and birding a patch of dense undergrowth nearby added a number of species with highlights being :
Great Reed-Warbler calling constantly from the undergrowth
Goliath Heron flying overhead
Rufous-bellied Heron over the river
Thrush Nightingale and Basra Reed-Warbler calling from the same clump of bushes but remaining concealed despite our attempts to flush them
Willow Warbler foraging in the trees
Eventually we gathered ourselves for the return journey along the same bone-rattling and car-shaking road – we hadn’t gone very far when my heart sank as I felt and heard a knocking from the transmission tunnel next to my seat, gradually getting worse until I was forced to drive at snail’s pace for the last 30 kms, but fortunately made it back to Mphingwe. Neithard and Kathrin in their Pathfinder were less fortunate as the fan had dislodged itself and caused the radiator to lose all its coolant, so the remaining 2 vehicles had to help get them back to the camp. A disastrous end to an amazing day’s birding! One consolation was a Moustached Grass-Warbler in long grass next to the road, a lifer for me.
The next day was Sunday so any attempts to repair the Touareg would have to wait until Monday, when Joe, an experienced Mechanic and responsible for keeping Mphingwe’s sawmills in operating condition, undertook to assess the damage and see what could be done.
That took care of the rest of the planned trip for George and myself, as the group was due to travel to Zimbabwe on Monday and we were not sure how and when the vehicle would be repaired or how we would get back home, all of 1500 kms away.
Part 4 will conclude this particular trip story – will we make it back home? Tune in next time to find out.
Map of the route
Exploring Southern Africa's Natural Wonders and beyond