The wonderful thing about visiting South Africa’s National Parks is that there is just about always something new to see. This was the case during our recent trip to visit two of the Eastern Cape’s gems – Addo Elephant National Park and Mountain Zebra National Park – I will be posting more about our trip but thought I would share this video which I took while on a late afternoon game drive in Addo.
I had never seen Ostriches drinking at a waterhole and it didn’t occur to me that they cannot slurp it up like an elephant, so have to first scoop the water into their mouth, then lift their long neck and swallow.
I think you will agree it is a fascinating sight …. the one on the left was initially rather aloof, but deigned to join in briefly towards the end
What it lacks is some appropriate music to accompany the video as those elegant necks go up and down – I am open to suggestions …..
One very unexpected sighting during our Christmas week in Kruger, was this Hyena enjoying a swim in a shallow waterhole not far from the road
Hyenas are not natural swimmers but are known to take to water to cool off in very hot conditions – so we could not blame this one for seeking refuge from the extremely hot weather that we experienced during our visit
I was actually envious of the Hyena and was tempted to join it in the water – such a pity Kruger regulations don’t allow you to get out of your vehicle except at designated spots….. (See footnote)
It seemed quite content and had no inclination to leave the waterhole so we continued with our drive. Perhaps he was taking a summer holiday break from all those things Hyenas have to do – fighting Lions, chasing Vultures away from carcasses, etc
Footnote : Actually on second thoughts, the swimming pool at Mopani camp is a better option all round for me – no chance of a Crocodile or other creature surprising you
It was the start of our Christmas in Kruger week and we were nicely settled in our rondavel in Mopani Camp, so much so that we chose to spend most of the first day in camp, enjoying the shady stoep with its theatre-like patch of bush and rocks directly in front which attracted all sorts of bird and other species. The stifling heat also played a role in keeping us in the camp for the day in a state of semi-stupor.
Come the second day and I was keen to do some exploring of the surrounding areas, particularly as I had started to record the birds in that particular pentad and wanted to maximise the birding and atlasing experience by surveying as much of the surrounding areas as Kruger’s roads would allow
Gerda was content to enjoy the restful atmosphere of the camp, so I set off on my own, binoculars at the ready and keyed up for those surprises that await the intrepid Kruger explorer (actually tourist but explorer sounds more exciting)
Overnight thunderstorms had kept us awake at times, with some of the lightning strikes feeling very close, loud enough to have us jerking upright in bed. There was plenty of standing water in the countryside around the camp as I made my way slowly to the main road and headed south.
I stopped to view a Swainson’s Spurfowl near the road, which was in full voice at this early hour. They have a raucous call, akin to someone being murdered, I’ve heard it said, a call which carries long distances on a quiet morning and this one was giving its all.
After about 2 kms on the road towards Letaba, a road known as the Shongololo Loop branches off to the right and this was the road I was hoping to explore – I was glad to see the gravel road was still open despite the heavy rains, which can quickly turn such roads into a muddy quagmire. Nevertheless I had a good look down the road before turning off and, not seeing anything other than some deep looking standing water, set off feeling a tad adventurous but confident in my SUV’s ability to handle such conditions
The first stretch was quiet, then I crested a rise and around the next bend came across a low water bridge with water flowing across and what looked like several large birds that had taken up position on the concrete bridge.
Birds on a bridge
I stopped opposite one vehicle that was already there and had a look through the binos at the birds on the bridge – it was obvious that the herons, storks and thick-knees were using the conditions to do a bit of effortless fishing for a change – no stalking or stealth involved. The water flowing over the bridge was clearly bringing with it fish and other aquatic life, creating an easy “take-away” opportunity for the birds waiting in the ankle deep flow.
Over the next 15 minutes or so, various birds took up position on the bridge then moved off to the river itself, including Yellow-billed Stork, Green-backed (Striated) Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Water Thick-knee, African Jacana, Black Crake and even a Goliath Heron.
I drove across the bridge and parked on the opposite side where I enjoyed coffee and rusks while continuing to watch the interaction, then carried on along the Loop to the bird hide at the Pioneer dam a little way further, which was overflowing and causing the bridge to be under water.
In the deeper water on one side of the bridge, a pair of Hippos were doing their best to draw my attention away from the birds with some typical hippo antics
Croc gets in on the action too
Returning along the same road, I came to the bridge again, only to find that a sizeable Crocodile had taken up position on the bridge – bang in the middle, jaws at the ready and just waiting for a fish or two to be drawn in by the fast flowing water. I had seen this before where a croc lay in wait on one side of a low water bridge but this was the first time I had found one on the bridge itself.
After a while I edged the car forward and the croc dutifully stood up and walked to the edge where he slid into the river and swam off slowly, no doubt intending to return to the same convenient fishing spot once I had gone.
That was enough excitement for the morning so I headed back to Mopani camp with stories to relate to the family.
“Christmas in Kruger – it’s going to be very hot!”
Well that was more or less everyone’s reaction when we mentioned our plans for a Christmas break in Kruger National Park. “Yes, we know” was our standard answer, followed by “but the chalets have air-conditioning and so does our car” – this served only to raise a sceptical look or two and we tried hard to convince ourselves that it would all be fine.
As it turned out, we managed to survive the sometimes extreme heat and humidity for which the lowveld is renowned at this time of year – midsummer in South Africa – by spending as much time as possible in air-conditioned areas or shady spots with a cooling breeze and only venturing out during the cooler parts of the day. In fact we elected to stay in camp a lot more than we usually do during visits to Kruger.
Kruger always has a surprise or two and I thought I would highlight some of the surprise encounters, starting with what, for me at least, was the highlight of the week. As so often happens with birding, the encounter was dependent on a series of events which were impossible to foresee – here’s how it happened ………
After spending a night in the Magoebaskloof Hotel, where we rendezvoused with daughter Geraldine and family, we made our way the next morning to the entrance gate at Phalaborwa, passing through Tzaneen on the way and stopping at one of the many farm stalls to stock up on some of the locally grown tropical fruit – bananas, paw-paws, mangoes (not for me, can’t stand the taste) and litchies.
The Road to Mopani
At the Phalaborwa gate we dealt with the formalities and proceeded to Mopani Rest Camp – Kruger had it’s summer clothes on – green and lush as far as we could see. We didn’t dawdle. wanting to get to Mopani and settle in, but a report on SA Rare Birds the previous evening of a Striped Crake near Letaba meant I could not resist doing a detour of about 50 kms which would take me past the spot and I would be able to try for this potential rarity / lifer.
There were 3 or 4 vehicles at the small seasonal pan just south of Letaba and we joined them, asking if any had seen this secretive bird – it turned out that none had, despite spending some time there, but we decided to spend a half an hour or so, scanning the shallow water and vegetation along its edges for any sign of the Striped Crake.
It refused to show and we were about to leave when I spotted a crake-like bird on a log above the water, partially hidden by foliage – success! Or was it? I tried desperately to get some photos to help confirm the ID of the crake, but the results were poor due to the interference of foliage and the shady conditions under the trees.
Later I was able to confirm that it was a Crake by downloading the images onto my laptop and zooming in on the detail, but not the rarity I had hoped for – nevertheless it was an African Crake, also a ‘lifer’ for me so I was more than satisfied.
But that wasn’t the last of the seasonal pan near Letaba ……
Mopani to Satara
After 4 nights in Mopani, it was time to move on – to Satara Rest Camp some 140 kms south – not very far by normal standards but in Kruger it translates into a 4 to 5 hour drive, so we planned a stop for lunch at Olifants camp.
Along the route we enjoyed sightings of some of Kruger’s iconic creatures –
We also stopped briefly at Letaba for coffee and a ‘comfort break’ and on the way from there to Olifants, we decided to make a brief stop at the seasonal pan we had visited on the first day, just south of Letaba, despite their being not a single other car there – well, you never know, do you?
We had hardly stopped, still had the engine running, when my heart skipped a beat – a small, unfamiliar crake-like bird was no more than 5m away from me in the shallow water, among the tree roots and tangled vegetation! No, not the Striped Crake but just as good in my book – it was a Dwarf Bittern, a lifer and a bird that I have wanted to find for a long time.
I was ecstatic and spent the next 10 minutes or so watching as it moved slowly and stealthily, foraging in the shallows for its next meal – the sequence of photos says it all.
After two years of not adding a singe lifer to my Southern Africa list, I had found two in the space of four days – what a nice Christmas present!
Our main Christmas dinner was enjoyed on Christmas Eve in Mopani Camp, with the cooler weather brought on by constant light summer rain during the day making it a most pleasant evening. We joined Andre and Geraldine and daughters at their large family chalet, and their friends who were also in Mopani made up a jolly group, with each family contributing a dish or two to turn it into a really delightful dinner.
We had not made any specific arrangements for Christmas day itself, other than the inevitable leftovers (just as delicious) for the evening meal. We started the day in lazy mode, sitting on the stoep and observing the passing show of birds and other small wildlife.
Shingwedzi Christmas Picnic
When Andre and Geraldine suggested that we drive to Shingwedzi Camp, some 62 kms to the north, for a braai (barbeque) at the day visitor’s area, it seemed like the ideal way to spend the day in relaxed, yet active, fashion. We quickly got ourselves ready, packed a picnic basket and set off in mild weather, reaching Shingwedzi just after 1 pm.
We didn’t dawdle, but still found plenty of game to view in passing along the way
We found the day visitor’s area already crowded (yet socially distanced), but were fortunate to find one empty picnic table and the camp personnel helpfully brought a portable braai to our table. Andre got stuck in and braai-ed burger patties while a large leguaan moved between the tables looking for scraps, waddling along and flicking its tongue in true serpent fashion. Soon the buns were buttered and loaded with tomato, lettuce, onions and sauce, ready to receive the patties and we tucked into our simple but delicious meal
All in all a very unique Christmas Day lunch for us!
An ice cream on a stick from the small shop was our dessert, after which we set off on the road back to Mopani, taking our time.
Dinner for One ….. Martial Eagle
We were hardly out of Shingwedzi, driving next to the lightly flowing, broad river, when I spotted a commotion amongst a small flock of Starlings gathered in and around one of the large trees that line this stretch of the river.
I pulled off the road and stopped under the tree to have a look at what may be causing their agitation – glancing up I looked straight into the piercing eyes of a Martial Eagle, which was engrossed in the task of devouring an unidentifiable, partly hidden prey from which he was ripping chunks of meat.
Apart from an occasional withering stare, the Eagle ignored us, despite us being a few metres away, and carried on with its festive meal while we enjoyed the luxury of being able to observe this magnificent raptor at close quarters
The road back to Mopani had a few further interesting sightings….
And last but not least ….. well actually it is the least in terms of size –
This is one Christmas day that we will fondly remember
With the new year in its infancy, it’s time to select a few photos which best represent our 2019. In some cases, selection is based on the memory created, in others I just like how the photo turned out, technically and creatively.
If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!
The highlight of our travels during the past year was without doubt our trip to Australia to visit our son and family and to do a bit of touring through the State of Victoria. Other than that we did not venture far afield but managed to tame our travel itch with several local trips and extended visits to our second home town of Mossel Bay in the Southern Cape.
The year started and ended in our second home town of Mossel Bay. Walks along the seafront boardwalk are always a highlight with scenes like this to enrich the soul
The Wilge River Valley, about an hour’s drive from Pretoria, is a popular birding spot amongst Gautengers and delivers many species in summer as well as attractive landscapes
The Vlakfontein grasslands north-east of Pretoria are a favourite atlasing area for me – away from the hectic traffic of Gauteng
The Delmas area south-east of Pretoria is another favourite atlasing area, however traffic is a challenge – this early morning shot was taken in winter when the skies are a lot smokier – good for dense colour but nothing else
The road to Cape Otway Lighthouse in Victoria, Australia – we did not realise just how much forest Australia has – well the bit of Victoria that we saw anyway
The very popular tourist spot called the Twelve Apostles along the Great Ocean Road to the west of Melbourne, Australia certainly lived up to its reputation as a “must see and photograph” – quite a dramatic scene created by weathered columns of rock
The beautiful beach at Cowes, Philip Island, just south of Melbourne
A special rainbow while walking in Sale, Victoria Australia
The early morning train approaches in mist to take us from Sale to Melbourne
The Klein Karoo is another favourite atlasing area despite low bird numbers – it has a special attraction of its own. This photo was taken south of Oudtshoorn, Western Cape
With visits to Kruger National Park and Karoo National Park, as well as our time in Australia, we enjoyed some usual and unusual wildlife sightings
The Other Stuff
I love to photograph just about anything that moves, within nature and outside it occasionally. Here’s a few examples
And just for fun, a non-moving subject …..
I have not included any of the many bird photos that I took during the year – they will be included in a separate “My Birding Year 2019” post
During a recent visit to the Cape Town area we took the opportunity to spend a day out with Johan and Rosa (Gerda’s sister) during which we travelled firstly to Bloubergstrand, then further west to the West Coast National Park.
Blouberg proved to be a good choice for an alfresco mid-morning tea accompanied by scones (rather dry ones) with a view of the beautiful bay and beyond to Table Mountain in the distance. We had fortunately chosen a perfect day for it – sunny but not too hot with a slight breeze. So nice to see the bay after many years.
Leaving Bloubergstrand behind, we proceeded at a gentle pace to the entrance gate to the West Coast National Park, an hour or so up the coast. The drive from the gate to the restaurant at Geelbek was punctuated by some stops for light birding.
Roberts Birding app describes the reserve’s habitat as follows – “The reserve comprises large areas of coastal strandveld and a large tidal lagoon, with extensive tidal mudflats, saltmarsh and reedbeds.”
After a lazy lunch at an outside table, I took a walk to the nearby bird hide, with its views across the mudflats and the vast lagoon, while the others sat in the car under a shady tree and chatted. Also chatting loudly was a Yellow-billed Kite in the tree above the car, with a bevy of smaller birds responding in kind.
I didn’t want to leave them for too long, so I spent about 40 minutes walking to the hide and back along the raised boardwalk – hardly enough time to do justice to this exceptional birding spot but I managed to see and photograph a surprising number of wader and other species in this short time.
Flamingoes were plentiful, with both Greater and Lesser species being well represented.
Other prominent waders included Black-winged Stilt, the beautifully delicate Pied Avocet, Kittlitz’s Plover, Little Stint, Ruff, Grey Plover, Common Greenshank, Whimbrel and Curlew Sandpiper. Those I managed to photograph are the following –
A pair of Cape Teals with their dark pink bills huddled at the edge of the marshes.
At the hide itself, many more flamingoes were visible along with some of the same waders, while a couple of Greater Crested Terns flew past low and slow in their customary manner.
With my birding itch satsified by this quick fix, we headed slowly to the secondary gate on the Langebaan side, hoping for a sighting of some game, which had eluded us so far. Not far from the exit gate we came across a herd of handsome Eland
When we visit Kruger National Park, my focus is – as my Blog title suggests – mostly on the birding. That said, I enjoy all aspects of our premier game reserve, but it is often the birds that end up grabbing most of my attention.
During our winter visit in July this year we had many memorable animal and bird sightings and my photographic passion was well fed by the opportunities that arose. Most of the birds I photographed were species that I have previously been able to capture digitally, but the beauty of photography, and especially bird photography, is that there is always a chance of a better photograph, or perhaps a photo which displays the bird from a different angle or actively doing what birds do.
After our week in Kruger in July, I uploaded the many photos to Adobe Lightroom, my photo management and editing software of choice, and worked through the photos that I had taken, applying my customary edits and crops.
I realised that a few of the species I had photographed were of those species that show marked differences between the male and female and I had managed to get reasonable images of both. Another species was accompanied by juvenile birds showing features not yet as fully developed as in the adults. All show interesting differences and I thought I would make them the subject of this post ……
Preferring semi-arid short grassland and savanna, this species is fairly uncommon in Kruger but we have found it in the same area a couple of times – about halfway along the Satara-Olifants road.
They spend a lot of their time on the ground, feeding on grass seeds and insects. While the male is very distinctive with its rich chestnut back and white ear patch, the female is a lot paler and on its own can easily be confused with some of the other Lark species.
In this instance there was a small flock of Sparrowlarks not far from the road in an area with very little bush cover so I was able to fairly easily photograph both male and female, although I cannot guarantee that the two shown are actually a couple….
Namaqua Dove (Oena capensis / Namakwaduifie)
The Namaqua Dove is fairly easy to spot, even at a distance or flying past rapidly – its long tail and slim build distinguishes it from all other doves in the Southern African region. Once you get close enough to view it through binoculars, the male’s distinctive black face, throat and upper breast stand out along with its yellow/orange bill, while the female lacks those same features, having a plain grey body and a darker bill.
It is a nomadic species, preferring arid and semi-arid savannah and feeds on seeds of grass, sedges and weeds.
Coincidentally, we came across what appeared to be a family group of Namaqua doves not far from the Sparrowlarks, in a similarly arid area along the Satara-Olifants road
The black and white forehead band and narrow black and white breast band of the male distinguish the male from the female, which lacks both features, having a barred breast and no forehead markings
This is a fairly scarce species, mostly terrestial, found in savannah woodland and is known to be monogamous, so this pair we came across can safely be presumed to be a “couple”. We found them in the area just west of Olifants camp, not far from the river.
Once found they are quite accommodating to the photographer and not easily spooked if you approach carefully and position the car to get the best vantage point, while watching their movements.
Then there are the less marked but interesting differences between adult and juvenile birds …
I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of Retz’s Helmet-shrikes in Pretoriuskop camp during a morning walk, making their way busily and noisily through the trees. They are fairly common but often inconspicuous when out on a game or birding drive, as they move through the trees almost constantly and their dark colouring makes them difficult to spot. It’s a lot easier to spot them when in flight between trees.
While the adults are overall mostly black and brown with glossy shades and the distinctive red wattle around the eyes, the juvenile is more grey-brown and lacks the red wattles.
Groups consist of on average 5 birds, their preferred habitat is broadleaved woodland and they feed on insects and spiders.
We were changing camps during our winter visit to Kruger – this time from Lower Sabie where we had spent just one night, to Pretoriuskop, where we were booked for 2 nights. Being around 100 kms apart, at Kruger speeds with stops at sightings, we were counting on around 3 to 4 hours of easy travelling.
The Lower Sabie – Skukuza “highway” was as busy as always with large knots of vehicles at sightings, including a lion spotted moving through the bush on the river side, providing brief glimpses as it passed openings between the trees.
We decided to take a break at Skukuza, the largest and busiest of Kruger’s camps and a favourite of overseas tourists. We bought take away coffees and muffins, then found a nice sunny spot with a view – of the tourists passing by in their many shapes, sizes and degrees of dress sense. It’s a form of entertainment, guessing the origin of the tourists based on their choice of “safari gear” – some in designer khaki, others in strange combinations of camouflage clothing paired with dark apparel, many looking totally out of place.
Once we tired of that game, I started looking around the gardens and noticed a bright yellow sunbird at one of the flowering aloes, an irresistible subject for a bird photographer, so I leapt up (well that’s what it felt like, others may say I stood up quickly) and rushed over to get myself positioned near the aloe with the light from behind and shoot a few photos until I had some reasonable ones of the Collared Sunbird.
The adjoining aloes had attracted yellow butterflies and I set about capturing a few images of these colourful creatures as they fed on the aloe nectar.
It was only when I reviewed the photos, zooming in to check the sharpness of the detail, that I noticed I had captured a tiny flying insect “passenger”, clinging to its butterfly host then flying off to find another.
Zooming in to see what that dot on the wing edge is, revealed a tiny flying insect, not more than 1 mm long, clinging to the butterfly
The insect takes off :
Modern digital cameras are quite amazing in the detail they can capture!
Excited with this butterfly I looked around for others and amongst the leaf litter I found …………… well you can decide if there is anything to see in this next photo
The photo below compared with the one above, demonstrates how well camouflaged a butterfly can be when its wings are closed and in the right surrounds, despite its bright colouring when fully open
One of the great pleasures of birding in Kruger National Park is that you don’t necessarily have to go on a game drive to find a variety of birds. Birding the camp on foot is often a very productive way of building up a list of bird sightings and, if you are fortunate, you may be allocated a rondavel or chalet with surrounds that bring the birds to you.
Most of Kruger’s camps attract many birds with their well developed trees and gardens, as well as the bush that surrounds the camps, and there is no better way to enjoy the diverse bird life than sitting on your small stoep, sustained by regular injections of appropriate beverages, watching the passing show of birds and occasional animals.
As I mentioned in my last post, we were lucky to get a booking in Olifants camp for 5 nights during the last week of the winter school holidays – prime time in Kruger – and were doubly lucky to get a rondavel with “River view”, which are very sought after.
When we arrived at Olifants and drove to our rondavel after checking in, we were thrilled to see just how good our “river view” was – a view that started with the fence a couple of metres away, then dense bush and trees all the way down the steep slope to the river far below, where we could already make out an elephant or two and some hippos in the pools that form amongst the rocky course of this iconic river.
The River View from our stoep
Over the next 5 days, between the customary game drives, we spent as much time as possible on our small stoep, from early morning coffee to sundowner time, just chilling, reading and seemingly not concerned with our immediate surroundings, but ready at any moment to check out a nearby bird in the bush or more distant ones flying across the river below.
Seen from the Stoep…..
Here are some of the birds that came by to visit us, all taken from our stoep:
The bush in fron of our rondavel was alive with bird life for most of the day and we saw many more than those photographed above, including the likes of …..
Golden-tailed Woodpecker (who decided to “shadow-box” a supposed rival in our car’s external mirror on the day we packed to move on)
And to round off, a couple of non-bird visitors………