Category Archives: Special Sightings

Fun in the Forest – Fungi, Frogs and Fangs

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

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

Fungi

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

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

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

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

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

Frogs

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

(Possible) Raucous Toad

Fangs

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

Feathered friends

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

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

Flora

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

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

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

Marievale – An Unexpected Sighting

In my most recent post ( https://mostlybirding.com/2020/03/31/my-atlasing-month-february-2020-part-three/) I mentioned my encounter with an unusual mammal while atlasing / birding at Marievale Bird Sanctuary, but thought I would dedicate a special post to this most exciting sighting. If you have seen an Otter close up in the wild before, read no further – for those that have not ….. well, read on.

Marievale Bird Sanctuary

Just as a reminder, Marievale, with its extensive, shallow open waters and wetlands, reed beds and surrounding grasslands, is well known among birding enthusiasts as a place where you are pretty much guaranteed to see an excellent variety of waterfowl, wetland and grassland species in a morning’s birding.

I was atlasing (bird-mapping) along the “power line road” – a maintenance track below the main overhead power lines that run through a section of the wetlands. The track is narrow and lined with reeds in places, affording views of the ponds and small lakes, most of which have abundant bird life. After heavy rains the track becomes inundated and impassable, but at most times of the year it is drive-able as long as your vehicle has reasonably high clearance and you don’t mind the potential light scratches that may be caused as you squeeze your vehicle between the reeds and vegetation on both sides.

Once committed to the track, the only places to turn around are where the track has been widened at each of the pylons and I used one such spot for a coffee break, after which I headed back along the track toward the paved main access road. Still alert for any new bird species to record for atlasing purposes, I was passing a smaller pond when I noticed movement in the water and a glimpse of a dark shiny body. Dismissing it as a fish I was about to proceed when suddenly a small head popped up out of the water and looked at me – I knew immediately what it was and let out a gasp of excitement – an Otter!

As I watched, I saw that there was more than one otter, but they surfaced for just a second or two then dived below the surface, disappeared for a half minute, then popped up again in a different part of the pond. I got out of the car and carefully crept around the back to where I could watch their antics and hopefully get a photo or two. This game of cat and mouse – or man and otter – went on for a good ten minutes or more as one or both otters popped up to look at me curiously then slithered off below the surface only to pop up metres away, with me trying to anticipate where they would appear.

My only previous sighting of an otter was a distant one many years ago, while birding a farming area not far from Marievale, so this was for me a very unexpected and special moment.

Initially when I wrote this post I identified the otter as a Cape Clawless Otter, but was prompted by a comment (see below) to research a bit further and came to the conclusion that this was the much smaller Spotted-necked Otter. Wikipedia provides the following info :

The spotted-necked otter (Hydrictis maculicollis), or speckle-throated otter, is an otter native to sub-Saharan Africa.

The spotted-necked otter is a relatively small species, with males measuring 71 to 76 cm (28 to 30 in) from nose to rump, and weighing 5.7 to 6.5 kg (13 to 14 lb), while females are 57 to 61 cm (22 to 24 in) and 3.0 to 4.7 kg (6.6 to 10.4 lb). The tail is long and muscular, measuring 39 to 44 cm (15 to 17 in) in both sexes. Like many other otters, it is sleek and has webbed paws for swimming.

Although considerable variation exists among individuals, their fur is usually reddish to chocolate brown and marked with creamy or white blotches over the chest and throat. The head is broad with a short muzzle, small rounded ears, and a hairless nose pad. The teeth are adapted for consuming fish, with large sharp upper canine teeth, curved lower canines, and sharp carnassial teeth.

Below is a selection of the photos I was able to take of this endearing animal.

Spotted-necked Otter (Hydrictis maculicollis),, Marievale Bird Sanctuary

A Swim to Remember

It was going to be just another late afternoon swim at Santos beach, a favourite in Mossel Bay for the visitors that stream into the town over the holiday season, stretching its resources to the limit. Late afternoon is usually when the crowds have thinned out, the sun is less fierce and you can actually swim without bumping into others.

By the time we got to the beach on this particular afternoon, it was cloudy with a cool breeze and a light spatter of rain – driving there, the usual comments of “it’s raining, we are going to get wet” were being bandied about, raising a few chuckles. It all worked in our favour as, by the time we had parked and walked across the cool sand to deposit our towels and gear near the water, there was but a handful of people in the water and we joined them eagerly.

The sea was calm, quite chilly, but we were soon in and enjoying the refreshing conditions, not expecting the natural extravaganza that was to unfold before us.

I noticed some terns gathering further out and plunge diving, so I guessed that there were fish around. Soon a few gulls joined the terns, settling on the sea in the same spot. Then we saw dark forms in the water quite close to where we were swimming, the forms changing shape as we watched, moving about like black ghosts.

Kelp Gull

Suddenly, a large, black, shiny seal surfaced nearby, causing a missed heartbeat or two….. it’s well known that these waters are favoured by large sharks which have a predeliction for these meaty creatures. We watched it move about nearby, then swim into deeper waters, half expecting a shark to rise out of the water and grab it with mighty jaws.

There was clearly food available for predators and seabirds alike – the numbers of terns and gulls was increasing by the minute, literally as we watched from our waist-deep position in the water. Moving closer to shore, until we felt a tad safer, we watched enthralled as the bird numbers grew further. Terns were plunge diving less than 10 metres from us and when the dark shapes we had seen earlier rose to the surface and magically turned into a mass of tiny silver fish, the terns took it in turn to fly in, dip down gracefully to scoop a fish or two, then fly off and let the next bird in line repeat the process.

Swift Tern (Thalasseus Bergii)

The Swift (Greater Crested) Terns were so adept at this that many emerged with 3 or 4 of the fish held sideways in their bills – much like the famous Puffin images that one sees. A fisherman informed us that the fish were anchovies – something was causing them to rise to the surface, creating a brief maelstrom of silver bodies and turning the surface of the sea into a frothy jumble. The terns were queueing up to take part in the bonanza, like tiny planes coming in to land on an aircraft carrier.

Swift Tern (Thalasseus Bergii)

By now the shoals of anchovies were so close to shore that some were being caught by the small waves and washed up onto the sand, where they were left in tiny desparation until kids came to scoop them up and throw them back in the water – their lucky day, except if they were taken in the seabird feeding frenzy of course.

As we slowly left the water, picked up our belongings and headed to where the car was parked, there were perhaps a couple of hundred seabirds filling the sky above the sea. More proof, if needed at all, that amazing experiences happen when least expected – this one will remain with me for ever.

Footnote : I did not have my camera with me, something which I initially regretted as I could have taken some memorable shots, but thinking about it I decided it was for the best – not everything has to be recorded digitally – that’s why we have a brain…

Fire Lily

Nature is full of surprises – more so when you come across something amazing when you least expect it. We were on a holiday season outing from Mossel Bay with friends Koos and Rianda, which included a lunch at one of our favourite spots – Eight Bells Mountain Inn. This is an old-fashioned family resort located in the lower part of the Robinson Pass between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn, with well-developed gardens and a very peaceful ambience.

After a filling lunch of Ostrich burgers and apple pie, we ventured further up the pass, stopping at a few spots where the gravel shoulder widens to allow you to pull off and enjoy the views across the hills and down to the coast in the distance. At each stop we checked the surroundings for any sign of bird life, hoping for some of the special species that inhabit the mountain slopes, but were a little disappointed to find very few birds.

At the last stop before turning around to head back down the pass, we had a good look around and found a few birds but nothing too unusual. However, while scanning the lower mountain slopes in the distance, I noticed what looked like red flowers standing out against the green growth and my binoculars confirmed this.

We just could not resist getting closer for a better view and perhaps a photo, even though we had only our cellphones with us, so Koos and I set out across the slopes through the low bush, more or less following the path of the baboons we had seen a few minutes earlier. The results of this effort were certainly worth thetrouble as we reached the first of the flowers – bright red in colour and beautifully shaped.

Later, Gerda consulted her fynbos books and was able to identify the plant species as one of the Fire Lilies – so called due to their rapid flowering response to natural bush fires. This particular plant species is commonly known as the George Lily (Cyrtanthus elatus) with a limited natural distribution along the southern coast of the Western Cape, but is now grown world-wide for its cut flowers.

So here’s a photo or two – one of the flower and one of the incredible view from the same spot.

The view with Mossel Bay in the distance

As a bonus we found the sought after Victorin’s Warbler at a spot further down the pass, the same place where I have found it on two previous occasions. As usual, it played hide-and-seek amongst the bushes while calling loudly and constantly, frustrating our attempts to get a decent view of the bird despite being about 3 metres away from us!

Klein Karoo Weekend

Sometimes less is more – less planning, less time away, definitely means less stress – our recent, unplanned visit to an eco-estate near Calitzdorp in the arid Klein Karoo falls into that category. Our daughter and son-in-law have a delightful cottage set on the slopes of the kloof that runs through the estate, which they use for getaway weekends and we were more than happy to join them on a weekend in September.

We were up at 5 am on the Saturday morning and left Mossel Bay before 7 am, reaching our roadside coffee spot on the Volmoed road about an hour later. No ordinary stop this – even along the road the Karoo invites you to relax, and relax we did with plunger coffee, boiled eggs and muffins while enjoying the Karoo landscape around us, watched over by Greater Striped Swallows perched nearby and with cool sunny weather adding to the pleasure of the moment.

Coffee stop
Saartjie, the family pet, gets a chance to explore the roadside bush

After a brief stop at Bella di Karoo padstal for some provisions, we carried on to Calitzdorp, which was hosting a succulent festival – a few side streets were closed off and filled with stalls selling all manner of succulents and filled with people meandering about enjoying the atmosphere.

It was lunchtime when we eventually got to the estate, just in time for a fine lunch of country bread, cheese and jam enjoyed on the covered stoep, after which we all relaxed for most of the afternoon in our various ways.

The cottage just after completion

Andre and Geraldine have done wonders with the garden around their cottage, filling it with hardy plants that can survive the hot summers and cold winters in this arid part of the country and I noticed that one particular succulent ground cover was covered in small white flowers and was attracting a multitude of butterflies.

This was too good an opportunity to miss, so I promptly took my camera and positioned myself on the ground near the action and spent a happy half hour or so just watching the comings and goings of the butterflies, bees and other insects, capturing them on the camera where I could. I was very pleased with the results and with the help of my butterfly books was able to identify three species of butterfly.

Bees were also in on the action….

Not to mention the dragonflies that were active…

Dragonfly: Common Thorntail (Ceratogomphus pictus)

All of this action set me up nicely for a lengthy nap, followed by a walk along the river, which for a long time had been bone dry but now had a trickle of water after recent rains. I enjoyed the bird calls emanating from the riverine bush as I walked – a boost to my rather meagre list of birds for the visit.

Part of the trail along the river

Supper was wildswors (venison sausage) braai-ed over coals – simply delicious! Sunday morning was equally lazy and relaxed with light rain falling on and off – what a pleasure in these dry parts!

Come Sunday afternoon it was time to return home – the journey was marked by two highlights…..

A spectacular, perfect rainbow framing the road ahead as we drove.

Rainbow, Calitzdorp trip

A Southern Black Korhaan alongside the road, causing me to brake sharply as I knew I had never been in a position to photograph this species. Before turning back, I retrieved my camera from its bag on the back seat and made sure the settings were correct, then turned the car and drove carefully and slowly to where I had seen the Korhaan, staying on the opposite side of the road so as not to spook it.

The Korhaan moved away quite quickly as I approached, using a roadside ditch and small bushes to keep itself concealed. I followed on the other side of the road, camera at the ready as I watched for approaching vehicles at the same time as keeping an eye on the bird, which showed briefly between bushes. This carried on for a while until the distance between bushes allowed some clear shots, with the Korhaan eyeing me with extreme suspicion.

Mission accomplished and with a feeling of satisfaction at having “captured” this rather elusive species on camera, we continued to Mossel Bay.

Many years ago I read a report on a destination in the Free State that the writer described along the lines of – “a weekend in so-and-so is like a week in the country”. This description came back to me after our one-night weekend in the Klein Karoo – we all felt as if we had enjoyed a week in the country.

Kruger in Winter – The Happy Couples

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 ……

Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark (Eremopterix leucotis / Rooiruglewerik)

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….

Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark (Female) (Eremopterix leucotis smithi), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark (Male) (Eremopterix leucotis smithi), Olifants area, Kruger Park

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

Namaqua Dove (Female) (Oena capensis / Namakwaduifie), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Namaqua Dove (Male) (Oena capensis / Namakwaduifie), Olifants area, Kruger Park

Double-banded Sandgrouse  (Pterocles bicinctus /  Dubbelbandsandpatrys)

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.

Double-banded Sandgrouse (Female) (Pterocles bicinctus multicolor), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Double-banded Sandgrouse (Male) (Pterocles bicinctus multicolor), Olifants area, Kruger Park

Then there are the less marked but interesting differences between adult and juvenile birds …

Retz’s Helmetshrike (Prionops retzii / Swarthelmlaksman)

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.

Retz’s Helmet-Shrike (Prionops retzii / Swarthelmlaksman), Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park
Retz’s Helmet-Shrike (Juvenile) (Prionops retzii / Swarthelmlaksman), Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park

Kruger unplanned – a Brief Encounter

The look says it all – I am one of the most beautiful creatures in the world and also one of the most dangerous, so don’t even think about messing with me.

We were on the road between Skukuza, where we had spent two nights, and Phabeni gate which exits near the town of Hazyview. After a week’s stay in Kruger, which had met all our expectations of interesting sightings and perfect relaxation, we were in “wind-down” mode and already thinking about the coming week’s commitments as we drove at regulation speed towards the gate and back to normal life.

Approaching a slow bend in the road we spotted a sizeable animal in the road and my first thought was “what’s that large dog doing in the road?” Clearly my mind was already back in suburban mode – then I remembered where we were and my heart leapt at what it might be and I may have even let an expletive slip out…..

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

We slowed and stopped a reasonable distance from the Leopard, just as it started to walk across the road and slowly head off into the veld and further until he was behind the rows of bushes and no longer visible. He was grunting grumpily as he walked off and gave us the briefest of glances as we revelled in this special sighting, shared with just one other vehicle that had been close behind us for a few kms.

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

What a nice way to end a memorable stay in Kruger!