Category Archives: Special Sightings

Hornbills in Lockdown

Stoepsitter Birding

Sticking with the “stoepsitter” mode of birding as described in my recent post on the ‘Lawn Raiders’ of Verlorenkloof, here’s another version in a somewhat different location – Satara Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park.

(For the benefit of international readers “stoepsitter” is an Afrikaans term that translates roughly as one who spends much time on the stoep or verandah – but you knew that anyway, I’m sure)

It’s a well known fact amongst birders that, when visiting Kruger’s camps, time spent relaxing with binos on the stoep of your accommodation is bound to be rewarded with views of a variety of birds as they go about their daily business, on the grass, in the bushes and in the trees that most of the camps have in abundance.

That’s not to say one shouldn’t spend time getting out and about on game drives, exploring this national treasure of our wildlife, it’s just that when you want to relax in the rest camp, there’s no better place to do so than on the stoep of your rondavel or other accommodation.

Satara Rest Camp

During our December 2020 visit to Kruger, we spent four nights in Satara Rest Camp, one of which was in a fully equipped rondavel close to the perimeter fence, the other three in a more basic rondavel facing onto an expanse of grass with well established trees in close proximity.

This meant there was ample time for some serious stoepsitting, in between forays into the surrounding areas on game and birding drives and to visit the picnic spots for our traditional Kruger brunches (ooh, just typing that makes my mouth water and my nose prickle with the imaginary smell of a tasty brunch braai-ing on the pan).

The first afternoon and morning produced a fair sprinkling of interesting birds, before we changed rondavels, some of which I managed to photograph –

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata / Europese vlieëvanger

A Spotted Flycatcher, a non-breeding Palaearctic migrant, was quietly going about its business on an outer branch with a view over an expanse of lawn, which in some camps has been allowed to grow “wild”, as you will see in the featured image at the top of this post.

Just a note on these “wild” lawns : it was initially jarring to see the lawns in such a wild state, having been used to manicured lawns in the camp for so many years, but I will admit that I now find this quite appropriate to the surroundings, as the contrast between the camp gardens and the natural habitat of the surrounding veld has been reduced – the ‘line has been blurred somewhat’. I like to think this was a conscious decision by the Park authorities.

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata / Europese vlieëvanger), KNP – Satara

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu

Another migrant, the stunning Violet-backed Starling, but this one hasn’t got as far to migrate, being an intra-African migrant from tropical Africa.

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu) (Male), KNP – Satara

And the missus was there, no doubt keeping an eye on handsome hubby to make sure he didn’t attract any competition. One of a number of species with significant, even dramatic, differences in plumage between male and female (known as dimorphism)

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu) (Female), KNP – Satara

Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis / Bosveldvisvanger

The Woodland Kingfisher is also a breeding intra-African migrant, strikingly coloured and always a joy to find. Although they were present in the camp, this photo was taken on one of our drives.

Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis / Bosveldvisvanger), KNP – Satara – Muzandzeni

Moving home

On the second morning we had to move to another rondavel, this time without a kitchen, but we had come prepared with a fold-up table, little gas cooker for the all-important boiled water for our tea and coffee and our picnic hamper that always accompanies our trips to Kruger. The camp has communal kitchens close by for the washing up etc .

Southern Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus rufirostris / Rooibekneushoringvoël

Once settled in to the new accommodation, I continued with stoepsitter birding and soon noticed that one particular bird was almost constantly present on the stretch of grass in front of the rondavel. It was a Red-billed Hornbill, a common species found throughout Kruger. I assumed it had found a good spot to find the small insects that make up most of its diet and did not pay too much attention to it as it came and went at regular intervals.

Southern Red-billed Hornbill
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Hornbills look ungainly with their huge bills, but they have an admirable ability to find and pick up insects with some precision

Southern Red-billed Hornbill
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

At one stage I kept watching the Hornbill after it had found an insect but not swallowed it, which led me to think it was feeding its young. It flew up to a large tree nearby and settled on the trunk where a branch had probably broken off years earlier as there was a large scar, visible about halfway up the left hand trunk in the image below.

Satara Rest Camp
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

The Hornbill then poked its bill through a small hole in the trunk and that’s when I realised what it was doing.

Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Red-billed Hornbills nest in natural cavities in trees, which the female inspects before selecting one. The entrance is usually just wide enough to allow entry and is then sealed from the inside by the female, using own faeces, leaving just a narrow slit and effectively holding her prisoner during the laying and incubation of the eggs.

Cavity sealed from inside with small hole for feeding

Once eggs are laid, incubation takes up to 25 days, followed by another 16 to 24 days during which the female cares for the young, all the while being fed by the male. Then the female breaks her way out leaving the youngsters in the nest and joins the male in providing food for the chicks, while the youngsters then re-seal the opening until they in turn are ready to take on the world at the ripe old age of around 50 days.

That’s quite a partnership! I felt privileged to have been able to see them in action.

All of this kept the male busy the whole day, but he still found time to go and see his reflection in my car’s window and frustratingly shadow box with what he thought was a possible intruder.

Red-billed Hornbill seeing his reflection

Millions of Birds

Let me start by saying : “I saw millions of birds this past weekend” – now I know what you’re thinking ….. just a bit of harmless hyperbole on my part, not unusual in these attention-seeking times. But what if I really did see millions of birds? What kind of bird gathers in those sort of numbers?

There is only one possible answer to that question and that is – the Quelea, or to be more precise in this case, the Red-billed Quelea.

Some background to this latest exceptional birding experience –

We were travelling back to Pretoria after a long stay in Mossel Bay and arrived in Hoopstad, Free State for our second overnight stop, primarily to pay a short visit to Gerda’s family. It was just after 3 pm when we arrived in the small town, the centre of the farming community in that part of the Free State. Piet and Marietjie kindly accommodated us and Piet invited me to join him on a quick trip to their farm some way out of town.

The farm lies on the southern side of the Vaal river, which forms one of its boundaries, and is a well-stocked game farm with a variety of game in a bushveld setting to rival the best that Southern Africa can offer, so for a lover of nature such as myself it is always a special treat to visit this piece of paradise, albeit briefly.

Annasrust farm, Hoopstad
Nyala, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

The day was waning as we approached the farm and our progress along the dirt road was punctuated by flocks of Queleas rising up out of the roadside grass at regular intervals, each flock numbering a couple of thousand at a guess. Piet remarked that he had seen many more flocks of larger size that same morning, so we were on the lookout for more Queleas, without realising what we would experience a bit later.

We did a quick tour of the farm, marveling at the numbers of game, ranging from Antelope to Zebra, with the standout animals for me being the incomparable Sable Antelope with their dark brown bodies and graceful, curved horns. (The photo below is from one of my Chobe trips as I did not have my camera with me)

Sable Antelope (Chobe Game Reserve)

After a brief stop at the farm house, occupied for the week by a group of hunters, we headed back to the main road, but hadn’t gone far when Piet pointed out what looked like a distant cloud of smoke stretching across the horizon. He stopped and we got out to have a better look and realised immediately that this was not smoke of course, but a huge flock of Queleas, visible against the rapidly darkening skyline, moving like a giant serpent across the horizon.

Queleas across the horizon

For the next ten to fifteen minutes – I didn’t time it so it could have been longer – the enormous flock grew in length and made its way to some distant, unknown roosting spot, probably along the river. There is no way of beginning to estimate numbers of birds in a flock of this magnitude, suffice to say “millions” is not an exaggeration.

At one stage the flock moved in an elongated tube-like formation directly over our heads and as we gazed up the sound of several thousand small wings filled the silence with an eerie soft humming, like nothing I had heard before.

As it was rapidly getting darker, we left the farm and headed back to Hoopstad, mulling over the impact that birds in these numbers could have on the area, which is one of the prime maize and wheat-producing areas in our country. Piet mentioned that some farmers had already decided not to plant their usual winter crops due to the risk of the crops being devastated by the Queleas.

Suddenly I realised that birds are not always to be regarded as “Threatened” by human behaviour but can also be “Threatening” to some of our food sources – a sobering thought.

Roberts VII Birds of Southern Africa has the following to say about Red-billed Queleas under Population and Demography :

  • Perhaps the most abundant bird on earth
  • The major pest of cereal crops in Africa
  • Population estimate post-breeding is 1 500 billion (so about 200 Queleas for every person on earth!)
  • Most abundant bird in Kruger National Park at 33.5 million
  • More than 100 million birds killed annually in control operations in South Africa – methods used are aerial spraying and explosions at roosts (but the latter is not favoured as other species get killed in the process)
  • Prey of Peregrine and Lanner Falcons
  • Drinking birds taken by predators including pelomedusid turtles (!), crocodiles, Marabou Storks and Striated Herons

All in all, this is an interesting bird, often for the wrong reasons. Despite this I always enjoy seeing them in small numbers as they are quite variable in appearance, some drab, others colourful.

Here are a few photos of those I have come across while atlasing –

Red-billed (Quelea quelea / Rooibekkwelea), Balmoral north
Red-billed Queleas, Calitzdorp area
Red-billed Queleas, Satara-Nwanetsi (Kruger National Park)
Queleas, Mkhombo Dam

A Crane Safari

Onverwacht Farm

During our September 2020 visit to the farm of Pieter and Anlia, described in my previous post, the opportunity arose for a very unique birding experience, all thanks to Pieter’s efforts in setting it up.

Pieter had arranged with friend Trevor, retired professional hunter and nature expert of note, to pick him up from a nearby farm so that he could guide us to a bird sanctuary on a farm south-west of Vryheid – Trevor had already given the outing a name – “Crane Safari” which was an obvious hint of what we were likely to see but not of the exceptional numbers we would encounter.

Firstly though, there were various urgent farm matters to attend to – amongst them, counting the cattle to make sure none had been ‘appropriated’ overnight, checking fences for signs of any further ‘recycling’ operations and taking the bakkie to town for some repairs to the suspension (damaged during a fruitless hunt for fence ‘recyclers’ who had struck during the night and removed a few hundred metres of fencing) – such is the existence of a farmer in these parts.

Pentad 2745_3035

We picked up Trevor, who I had met before several years ago, drove to Vryheid and then proceeded along the R33 towards Dundee for about 15 kms before turning off onto farm roads and arrived at the farm around 1.30pm. Trevor knows many of the farmers in the area and had arranged access to the farm and bird sanctuary.

From then on, for the next two hours, the birding was hectic as Trevor and Pieter spotted birds in quick succession while I tried to record them on the Birdlasser app and verify the ID.

We drove along the earth wall of the first dam, which was filled with hundreds of waterfowl, including a group of White-backed Ducks (new record for the pentad) and others of Greater Flamingos, Southern Pochards and Cape Shovelers (which I like to call “Sloppy Ducks” based on their Afrikaans name of Slopeende).

White-backed Duck (Thalassornis leuconotus / Witrugeend)
Cape Shoveler (Anas smithii / Kaapse Slopeend)

Several Black-winged Stilts patrolled the dam fringes and Trevor called an African Marsh Harrier which was flying low over the grassy verges.

Moving on, the large vlei lower down came into view and at the same time a huge flock of perhaps 150 Grey Crowned Cranes rose up in unison, creating a birding spectacle that few people can have witnessed. The flock circled the vlei then settled for a while, but as soon as our vehicle edged closer they rose as one again, repeating the spectacle over and over.

Grey Crowned Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid

I would guess that most experienced birders have seen a pair or perhaps a small group of Grey Crowned Cranes at some time, but to see such a large flock of this endangered species is truly remarkable.

Grey Crowned Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid
Grey Crowned Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid

Once we were closer to the vlei, with the Crowned Cranes now settled on the opposite side, we could see a few Glossy Ibises along the fringe and a superior looking Goliath Heron right in the middle. Shortly after, a lone Squacco Heron flew in and a Purple Heron rose up out of the reeds to complete the trio of “scarcer Herons”.

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus / Glansibis)
Vlei, Crane Safari near Vryheid

Between the dam and the vlei, lush grassland was good for Cape Longclaw, Spike-heeled and Red-capped Larks and African Stonechat.

Cape Longclaw (Macronyx capensis / Oranjekeelkalkoentjie)
Spike-heeled Lark (Chersomanes albofasciata/ Vlaktelewerik) – showing its main identifying features of short white-tipped tail and long slightly curved bill

Soon it was time for a lunch break – sandwiches of home made bread and last night’s leg of lamb leftovers along with coffee which went down a treat in the cold windy conditions. The lee side of the bakkie provided some shelter from the wind but we didn’t dawdle and were soon on our way again.

While we were enjoying lunch, a flock of Blue Cranes, some 100 strong, flew over the vlei and settled briefly before moving on – so we had seen large numbers of both of the Crane species found in these parts – mission accomplished, thanks to Trevor!

Later, we found a small group of Blue Cranes in a field, this time close enough for some photos …..

Blue Crane, Crane Safari near Vryheid
Blue Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid
Blue Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid

At the last dam before leaving this incredible birding spot, we saw a few waders at the water’s edge and approached carefully so as to get close enough to identify these sometimes difficult species. Fortunately they were all species that I have got to know well and I was able to record Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper (New record for the pentad), Little Stint and Kittlitz’s Plover – a real bonus after such a variety of waterfowl.

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax / Kemphaan), near Vryheid
Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea / Krombekstrandloper), near Vryheid

I hadn’t planned to do a “Full Protocol” (FP) card for the pentad in which the dams and vleis fell, but as it turned out the last bird recorded on the way out – a Southern Masked Weaver at a small stream – was precisely two hours after the first bird and I was more than happy to submit my list as FP (which requires a minimum two hours of survey time in a pentad).

Back at the ranch – well, the farmstead where Trevor and Collette live – we sipped warming Milo while Trevor pointed out a few of the garden species including Paradise Flycatcher and a flock of Olive Pigeons that swooped by.

It had been a memorable day’s birding and I was very pleased to have been able to complete a Full Protocol Atlas card. I recorded 40 species in the two hours, the seventh card for the pentad, and added two new species

Christmas in Kruger : Come on in – the Water’s Fine!

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

Christmas in Kruger : Down by the Bridge …..

A Watery morning around Mopani ….

KNP – Mopani

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.

After heavy rains, KNP – Mopani
KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop)

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.

Swainson’s Spurfowl (Pternistis swainsonii / Bosveldfisant), KNP – Mopani

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

KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop)

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

KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

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.

KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

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.

Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop – Low water bridge)
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)
Striated Heron (Butorides striata / Groenrugreier), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)
Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax / Gewone nagreier), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

Water Thick-knee (Burhinus vermiculatus / Waterdikkop), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)
African Jacana (Actophilornis africanus / Grootlangtoon), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

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.

Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath / Reusereier), KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop – Low water bridge)
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

Hippo antics

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.

Crocodile, KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)
Crocodile, KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

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.

Crocodile, KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

That was enough excitement for the morning so I headed back to Mopani camp with stories to relate to the family.

Christmas in Kruger : A Bit(tern) of a Surprise

“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’s Surprises

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.

Seasonal Pan outside Letaba

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 –

Elephant, KNP – Mopani – Satara
Giraffe, KNP – Mopani – Satara
Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus / Gewone troupant), KNP – Mopani – Satara
Southern Ground-Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri / Bromvoël), KNP – Mopani – Satara

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.

Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba

Dwarf Bittern
Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba
Dwarf Bittern
Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba
Dwarf Bittern
Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba

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!

Christmas in Kruger : Dinner for One

Our Christmas dinner

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

Impala, KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi
Impala, KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi

Zebra, KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi

Red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus / Rooibekrenostervoël), KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi

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.

Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus / Breëkoparend), KNP – Shingwedzi

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….

Mosque Swallow (Cecropis senegalensis / Moskeeswael), KNP – Shingwedzi
Chameleon, KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi
Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina / Gevlekte arend), KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi

And last but not least ….. well actually it is the least in terms of size –

Dung Beetle, KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi

This is one Christmas day that we will fondly remember

Strictly Crane Dancing

The Blue Crane is a unique bird for several reasons, not least of all for its striking good looks, but also for the fact that it is South Africa’s National bird and has appeared on stamp issues and has adorned the 5c coin since 1965 – initially a nickel coin, later a copper coin which inflation has rendered worthless except for small change.

It is also unique in being the world’s most range-restricted Crane (out of 15 Cranes worldwide). In the Southern African region (which encompasses South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique) it qualifies as an endemic and almost makes it to the vaunted rank of South African endemic, but for an isolated population in Namibia near the Etosha pan and small numbers in the extreme south-east of Botswana.

Despite a significant decrease in numbers in parts of South Africa, it has grown in numbers in the Western Cape where they favour cereal croplands, planted pastures and ploughed fields, roosting in shallow water bodies such as dams and pans.

Voelvlei (literally “bird pan”) near Mossel Bay is well known to birders in the southern Cape as a magnet for birds (when it has water), and during “wet” seasons up to 1 000 Blue Cranes have been counted roosting there – unfortunately Voelvlei is virtually bone dry at present, as it has been for the last 4 to 5 years – just another reminder of the drought the region has endured.

All of this is just an introduction to this very special bird and to lead into the performance that a pair of Blue Cranes entertained me with earlier this year…

It has to do with their totally unique form of courtship – no candlelit dinners, roses and champagne for them – much too obvious. Blue Cranes which – in the words that American TV dramas have taught us – have “feelings” for one another, do it with an elaborate courtship dance like no other.

Now, I had seen Cranes doing short dances from afar on a couple of previous occasions, but this performance took place about 100 meters / yards from where I was sitting in my vehicle and with the aid of my bridge camera I was able to capture some of the moves. I was busy atlasing along a stretch of road not far from the aforementioned Voelvlei, saw a group of Blue Cranes in the field and stopped to view them properly.

One pair had separated from the larger group and, sensing that they were about to perform, I grabbed my camera and waited – not for long as they launched into a beautiful courtship dance that had me ooh-ing and aah-ing while I clicked away.

Here is a sample of the full sequence I took without too many further words, as the images speak for themselves …..

So there you have it – worth 10’s from all the judges in my book. But don’t get carried away by their gracious looks – Blue Cranes are known to be aggressive during the nesting season to the extent that they attack cattle, tortoises, plovers, even sparrows …… oh and humans as well, drawing blood and tearing clothes – you have been warned!

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