Canadian Adventure : Part 2 – More of The Rockies and Cheers to Calgary

The Story so far…

Our whirlwind trip through the Canadian Rockies had been exciting so far, after just a day and a half – it seemed much longer as we had crammed a lot into it already, but even better stuff was to come as we headed to Jasper.

Jasper National Park
Jasper National Park

The rest of Tuesday : Athabasca Glacier – a Highlight!

Not long after leaving beautiful Bow Lake behind us, we turned off at a busy parking area for a memorable trip on to the enormous Athabasca Glacier – certainly the highlight of our trip so far. Tickets had been purchased along with the Banff Gondola tickets the previous day, but we still had to wait for an hour or so to get on a bus for this popular excursion, which is enjoyed by up to 3000 people per day during peak season, which is where we found ourselves, so we had a snack in the cafeteria while waiting.

 

Alex and Cassie on the bus
Alex and Cassie on the bus
Don and Gerda on the bus
Don and Gerda on the bus

A “normal” bus took us to the departure point for the glacier tour, where we switched to special balloon-tired vehicles, specially built for the purpose and capable of taking on 18 degree gravelled slopes (doesn’t sound much but quite hairy when you are looking up or down at them from the inside of the vehicle) and slippery glacier “roads” with ease. They are said to cost $1,2 million each!

Athabasca Glacier
Athabasca Glacier
Quite a bus
Quite a bus
Serious stuff!
Serious stuff!
It's climbing an eighteen degree slope on gravel!
It’s climbing an eighteen degree slope on gravel!
Big soft tyres handle the ice with ease
Big soft tyres handle the ice with ease

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The perky driver kept us informed and entertained along the way, even handling the banter from a bunch of Harley-Davison bikers on the bus, who had plenty to say, and soon we were standing on the glacier itself, tasting the icy crystal clear run-off water which was gushing out of the ice and just enjoying the sensation of standing on a veritable mountain of ice which was probably as thick as the Eiffel Tower is high, if not more. All in all, nothing short of spectacular!

On the glacier
On the glacier
The icy run off water tastes good
The icy run off water tastes good
Sarah and Rio with Gerda
Sarah and Rio with Gerda
More run off water
More run off water

I just had a concern that allowing these vehicles and so many people onto the glacier on a daily basis must be contributing to its demise, where it is already receding at the rate of some 10 m per year, nevertheless we were glad we were able to experience such a unique excursion.

Gerda and Don on the glacier
Gerda and Don on the glacier
This is what they used for glacier trips in the old days
This is what they used for glacier trips in the old days

Jasper National Park

Leaving the ice fields behind us, we drove a short distance before stopping to view the tumbling Sunwapta Falls which lie in Jasper National Park.

Sunwapta Falls
Sunwapta Falls

Next stop was the town of Jasper itself and once checked in at the Best Western, we made our way to the town centre and the Raven Bistro which Gerda had read about in some publication – it turned out to be a good choice with comfortable chairs (more important than many realize), great creative food and friendly service. My steak, accompanied by a unique thin, very tasty sauce was superb as were the other dishes including Gerda’s lamb dish which was declared to be sensational by the team.

Great place!
Great place!
A steak to remember
A steak to remember
The lamb dish
The lamb dish

Back at the hotel the kids were put to bed and we enjoyed a glass of wine with Sarah and Alex out in the garden, chatting beyond midnight (Sarah comes into her own at these late hours).

Wednesday 13 August : More falls, lakes and other good stuff

Sarah had arranged a late check out so we had until midday to enjoy the $9.95 breakfast which included my favourite for a change – oatmeal!

Best Western hotel, Jasper
Best Western hotel, Jasper

We spent some time exploring Jasper town around the station and surrounding streets and found it more than pleasant with a real small town feel.

Old steam loco in Jasper - nicely maintained
Old steam loco in Jasper – nicely maintained

 

For those who want more info
For those who want more info
Jasper street scene
Jasper street scene
Gerda in Jasper
Gerda in Jasper

First stop on the road back to Calgary was at the Athabasca Falls where the wide milky water rushes into a narrow gorge creating a mini “smoke that thunders”. Three hawks caught my eye in the top of a high tree – the light was too bright in the background to make them out clearly but the photos I took helped to ID them (probably) as Swainson’s Hawks.

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Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls

Further along we stopped briefly at a viewpoint above another scenic lake where some tame Chipmunks (yes real ones) came right up and perched on my sandals for a moment.

Real live Chipmunk
Real live Chipmunk
Roadside lake
Roadside lake
Roadside lake
Roadside lake
Lake at roadside
Lake at roadside
Lake at roadside
Lake at roadside

The Rockies were quite magnificent today – not spoilt by haze and we especially enjoyed the stop at Bow Summit where we took a walk up the road and along forest paths to the lookout with an incredible view down at yet another glacier-fed lake nestled between the slopes far below. Meanwhile Gerda and Sarah were enjoying themselves finding and identifying flowers and berries at the stops.

Bow Summit
Bow Summit

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Bow Summit
Bow Summit
Wild strawberries
Wild strawberries

On the birding front a Clark’s Nutcracker in the parking area broke the short drought of lifers for me.

Pitstop
Pitstop
Our ride to the Rockies
Our ride to the Rockies
Someone else's ride - Buick Eight "Woody" from the 50's
Someone else’s ride – Buick Eight “Woody” from the 50’s

Next, and the last stop for the day, was Lake Louise, a stunningly attractive lake with a background of mountains and glaciers setting it off to perfection. A number of people were on the lake in small boats, while others sat at the water’s edge, like us fascinated by the special beauty of the scene.

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The gardens with the lake in the background
The gardens with the lake in the background
Boats are popular on the lake
Boats are popular on the lake
Lake Louise - Cassie having a paddle
Lake Louise – Cassie having a paddle
Lake Louise - just spectacular!
Lake Louise – just spectacular!

Complementing the scenery was the Chateau Hotel with its unique architecture and lush, colourful gardens fronting it right down to the turquoise water of the lake.

Lake Louise
Lake Louise

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The gardens of the Chateau Hotel at Lake Louise
The gardens of the Chateau Hotel at Lake Louise – Cassie in the foreground
The gardens with the lake in the background
The gardens with the lake in the background
View from the Chateau Hotel
View from the Chateau Hotel
Canada help! I can't remember what this is
Canada help! I can’t remember what this is

Reluctantly tearing ourselves away we travelled the final hour and a half back to Calgary and the new familiarity of the Najm residence

 

Thursday 14 August : Last day in Calgary

A quiet day (well, relatively) to recover, nicely set in motion with a slap-up Canadian breakfast of eggs, crispy bacon, pancakes and sausages. It was abundantly clear Sarah was going all out to prove her constant mantra that “The West is Best” and we were rapidly coming to that same conclusion – however (patience, Sarah) we thought it would only be fair to give the East a chance to “state their case” when we eventually got there, before bestowing the “Best” title on either the West (ie Calgary and the Rockies) or the East (ie Ontario and the other parts of eastern Canada we were to discover).

Not having had the chance to see a bit of Calgary, Alex set out to change that and took us on a quick drive into the country along roads which bisected verdant farmlands, giving us a glimpse of typical cultivated lands in this part of Canada. Swainson’s Hawks were the most common bird around, favouring the round bales of hay to perch on.

Farmland just outside Calgary
Farmland just outside Calgary (can you see the Hawk on the hay bale?)
Pump jack at work near Calgary
Pump jack at work near Calgary

We were hardly back at the house when Sarah took a break from preparing a special dinner (told you she was going all out) to take us on a driving tour of Calgary, covering all four “quadrants” – Calgary comes across as an organised, busy, spacious city with plenty of open space and considerate drivers – a very comfortable place to live I imagine.

Another surprise awaited us at the house as Sarah and Rachel had arranged an early birthday celebration for the two of us (our birthdays are just 13 days apart and were coming up in the next few weeks) with hats and masks, banners, balloons, bubbly and all. Clearly the Denner girls like arranging parties!

Surprise birthday party
Surprise birthday party

The evening was spent enjoying a superb dinner of four courses prepared by Sarah and Alex with wine pairings to savour and remember.

A laminated menu - this lady has class!
A laminated menu – this lady has class!
The starter
The starter
Sarah's delightful dessert
Sarah’s delightful dessert

Thanks Sarah and Alex, not to mention Cassie and Rio, for making our week “in the west” so unforgettable!

 

Friday 15 August : Seattle here we come

Travelling time again! Up early (poor Sarah, not her forté) to get to the airport for our 8.50 am flight to Seattle, which ended up being beyond stressful, only because we weren’t thinking – at check-in they wanted to charge $70 for our extra bag and, prompted by the check-in clerk, we decided to take it as carry on baggage, only realising once we got to security (USA heavy style) that the bag was full of “non-allowables”. With dry throats and pounding hearts (airports do this to us) we tried to work out what to do and eventually I decided to work my way back through security and passport control to the check in which, thanks to sympathetic personnel (maybe it was my wild pleading eyes) I was fortunately able to do, much to our relief. But it left us shattered and cursing the hassles involved in long-distance air travel.

The Air Canada flight was short and just more than an hour after taking off we were in Seattle where, after collecting our baggage, we got ourselves a bagel and a large cup of tea to calm our troubled spirits, before finding a limo to take us to the Silver Cloud Hotel on Broadway. We  had some  time to relax before Lynette and Jakobus van Dyk were due to arrive to  join us for the next few days in Seattle and on the Alaska Cruise …..but more about that soon.

 

Canadian Adventure : Part 1 – Calgary and the Rockies

Sarah had arranged a surprise on arrival in Calgary, in the form of an official tourist welcome with white cowboy hats for both of us, a ceremony in the Arrivals hall to pledge allegiance to Calgary and a certificate to prove it. What a nice way to be introduced to “The West”…

Some Background to our latest Adventure

Gerda and I had been wanting to visit Canada for some years and, spurred on by family in Canada, we decided that 2014 would be the year we finally ticked this box – not least because my sister and brother-in-law had visited South Africa the previous year  from Canada and told us we “had to” come and visit them in Ontario at the earliest opportunity.

When nieces Sarah and Rachel, both of whom live in Calgary on the western side of Canada, heard about our trip, they made it clear that Calgary would “have to” (it’s a Denner thing) be part of our itinerary and Sarah in particular tempted us with her plans to show us the Canadian Rockies, all of which was an offer we definitely could not refuse.

Just to make such a long trip worthwhile, we decided to include an Alaskan cruise in the itinerary – something we had heard about from friends and which promised to make the trip really special.

And so our trip developed into four “stages” – week 1 in Calgary and the Rockies, week 2 on a cruise ship to Alaska, week 3 touring Nova Scotia and week 4 on the farm near Ottawa with Sheila (Sam as she is known) and John.

Getting there

The easy bit was purchasing the air tickets – the actual trip to Calgary was a series of ups and downs, literally and mentally.

To start with, we arrived at OR Tambo airport Johannesburg well before our flight to Heathrow on Thursday 7th August, which was scheduled for 8 pm, only to find it was delayed by 12 hours and would depart next morning at 8 am. SAA put us up at a nearby hotel and we duly caught the flight next morning. On the positive side, a daytime flight is a lot more bearable than an overnight flight as it is not essential to try to sleep. The result was we missed our connecting flight to Calgary and had to overnight at a hotel near Heathrow (also paid for by SAA) to catch the next day’s flight – such are the joys of modern-day travel.

After breakfast the next day (Saturday 9th) we returned to Heathrow for the 9 hour flight to Calgary, which departed from the brand new “Queen’s Terminal” which impressed with its modern architecture and spacious security area with state-of-the-art systems, largely automated to make the experience a tad more bearable.

The brand new Queen's Terminal at Heathrow
The brand new Queen’s Terminal at Heathrow
Queen's Terminal
Queen’s Terminal
Now that's a "draadkar"! (just a giant version of the cars made from wire that African kids love to push around the village)
Now that’s a “draadkar”! (a giant version of the cars made from wire that African kids love to push around their villages)

Welcome to Calgary!

Despite arriving 1 day later than planned, and unbeknown to us, niece Sarah had arranged a surprise on arrival in Calgary, in the form of an official tourist welcome with white cowboy hats for both of us, a ceremony in the Arrivals hall to pledge allegiance to Calgary and a certificate to prove it. What a nice way to be introduced to “The West” and a lovely group of volunteer ladies who arrange it all.

The White Hat ceremony at Calgary airport - what a nice welcome!
The White Hat ceremony at Calgary airport – what a nice welcome!

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We immediately felt at home when we got to Alex and Sarah’s house in Dalhousie, where we met their offspring Cassie and Rio. They were in the final throes of preparing for their big “pig roast” which they have hosted for the past 5 years. By this time we were quite tired after a long day which was extended by some 8 hours of time difference, but after a nap we regained some energy and joined the party, which by now was gathering momentum, meeting lots of interesting and friendly Canadians from the neighbourhood and further afield.

The "Pig Roast" in full swing
The “Pig Roast” in full swing

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By 10 pm (6am the next morning for us) we called it a day and collapsed into bed while the party continued well into the early hours – even the fire brigade turned up, responding to a call about a fire in the yard!

The Morning After….

Next morning (Sunday) was a quiet one – amazingly everything was cleared up by the time we surfaced – Alex and Sarah were up till 4am clearing most of it and finished the rest in the morning. We took it nice and easy on the outside deck with coffee, more coffee and leftover dessert cake and were joined by Derek and Karen from next door – seems they have a very friendly neighbourhood going here.

Lunch was cheeseburger and fries from a fast food place that had queues of people waiting outside 2 windows to be served – good filling food and we tried the poutine, which is a Canadian dish that we came across a few times, comprising fries, a gravy-like sauce and topped with cheese curds.

Feeling a little bloated after this healthy lunch, I took a walk through the neighbourhood to a nearby park – birds were not plentiful but I did spot a Swainson’s Hawk cruising the skies, other than that it was Magpies, Crows and House Sparrows.

Back at the house it was more chilling followed by a walk to the local shopping centre where we had a look at the local retail offerings and had a cappuccino at the Starbucks located inside Chapters bookstore. The perfect weather was holding, so we sat outside and chatted until late evening, mostly about what we could expect to see over the next 3 days touring the Rockies.

Sarah and Gerda chilling on the deck
Sarah and Gerda chilling on the deck
Moon over Calgary
Moon over Calgary
Cars for rental on the street - pay via phone, get a code to activate the car and drive off!
Cars for rental on the street – pay via phone, get a code to activate the car and drive off!

Monday 11 August – off to Banff

We awoke to warmer weather and a busy day of travel ahead, but initially the day was quite relaxed, plenty of time to pack our bags for 3 days on the road and enjoy “Lebanese eggs” for breakfast, courtesy of Alex – a tasty dish of fried eggs and yoghurt eaten out on the deck.

There was even time to check out the local bird life along the back paths and I was pleased to find Chickadees and Thrushes – but more about the birding in a future post.

Rachel, my other Canadian niece who we last saw in SA back in 2000, joined us for the first part of the trip, which we did in her car so it was an ideal opportunity to catch up on the intervening years.

We left around midday and headed west to Banff with one stop at Canmore to say hi to Rachel’s sister-in-law Kirsty, who has a charming house right on the Bow river

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The famous Canadian Pacific trains pass through Canmore
The famous Canadian Pacific trains pass through Canmore
Canmore street (being redone)
Canmore street (being redone)

We spent some time admiring the view of the Bow River from the house

Bow River
Bow River at Canmore – how’s this for a view from the front garden

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We followed this with a pop-in to the local knitting store (for Gerda’s benefit)  and an iced coffee at the local coffee shop. Canmore has a nice small town feel to it.

Canmore
Canmore
Canmore
Canmore
Coffee shop in Canmore
Coffee shop in Canmore

From there it was a short drive to Banff through increasingly scenic countryside with beautiful mountain backdrops as we approached the Rockies.

Banff National Park
Banff National Park

 

Before entering Banff, Rachel took a short detour to show us Lake Minnewanka, the largest lake in the Rockies, probably because it is also a dam which was constructed back in 1941. This was the first of the large lakes we were to see, which did not have the turquoise colour of the glacier-fed lakes that we came across later in the trip – nevertheless an impressive sight.

Lake Minnewanka near Banff
Lake Minnewanka near Banff

Next a visit to Banff Springs Park where we took a short walk along the pathways and board walks with views of lakes and wetlands, bordered by pine forests

Banff Springs Park
Banff Springs Park
Banff Springs Park
Banff Springs Park

Our Best Western hotel was easy to find on the main street and we checked in, then headed straight to the Bison restaurant for an excellent meal.

Cassie kept busy at the restaurant
Cassie kept busy at the restaurant

Summer evenings are long and light until late in this part of the world, so we decided to squeeze in a visit to the Banff Gondola (no it’s not a boat – that’s what they call a cable car in these parts).

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Banff Gondola
Banff Gondola – going up Sulphur Mountain
Enjoying the gondola ride
Enjoying the gondola ride
Rachel with Rio and Cassie in the gondola
Rachel with Rio and Cassie in the gondola

We were just in time to catch the last gondolas going up for the day and had to rush a bit when we got to the upper station, as the last one was due to depart for the lower station in about half an hour. Nevertheless this gave us enough time to get to the watch tower at the pinnacle and enjoy the spectacular, albeit hazy, views before heading back down.

Gerda at the upper station
Gerda at the upper station elevation 2,281 metres – the plaque says “Pretoria 15,844 kms”

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The last climb to the pinnacle
The last climb to the pinnacle
Sulphur Mountain
Sulphur Mountain
Banff far below
Banff far below
From the pinnacle
From the pinnacle

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Alex and Sarah had decided the day was not done yet, so off we went to the Bow Falls for a view at the spot where the Bow River tumbles  over a 9m drop, which we managed just in time as dusk was well advanced. From there it was a short drive to the famous Banff Springs hotel for late night coffee and a look at this impressive hotel, before returning to our more ordinary, but very pleasant, hotel in town for a good night’s rest.

Bow Falls at dusk
Bow Falls at dusk
Banff Springs hotel
Banff Springs hotel
Coffe on the patio
Coffee on the patio

Tuesday 12 August

By now we were getting into the swing of things and the fact that non-stop action was the order of the day, but Alex and Sarah and the kids were looking after us so well that it was non-stop pleasure as well!

Breakfast was at Melissa’s Restaurant which, according to Alex and Sarah, served the best breakfast in town – hard for us to judge, but we could vouch for the Eggs Benedict being the best we’ve had and to go with it there was a great atmosphere plus friendly service, so we would have to agree.

Melissa's Restaurant
Melissa’s Restaurant

Well satisfied, we strolled back along the main street to our hotel and could see that Banff is very much a tourist-driven town, but none the worse for it, with neat architecture that has a real Swiss feel to it, especially with the mountain peaks always visible in the background.

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Banff street scene
Banff street scene
Even the sidewalk is attractive
Even the sidewalks are special in Banff
Love those big trucks - this one has "doolies" (double rear wheels)
Love the big trucks that are so common in Canada – this one has “doolies” (double rear wheels)

Once checked out we said goodbye for the time being to Rachel, who had to return to work, and headed along the road to Jasper for our next planned stop at the Icefields.

Part of the way there we stopped at Bow Lake to admire the scenery – and what scenery it was! This lake is fed by glaciers which are visible high up the mountain in the background, imparting the special colour to the water and the lake in turn feeds the Bow River which we had seen at a few places en route and which, according to Alex, runs all the way across Canada to the eastern side and eventually into the Hudson Bay.

Bow Lake
Bow Lake
Bow Lake
Bow Lake
Cassie and Rio at Bow Lake
Cassie and Rio at Bow Lake
Bow Lake
Bow Lake

This was a good spot for the kids to expend some energy and for us to stretch our legs and just enjoy the setting – my usual quest for birds turned up a White-crowned Sparrow and Alex found a pair of nesting Barn Swallows under the eaves of the small shop, which was interesting as we only ever see them as non-breeding visitors from the Northern Hemisphere.

This is where I am going to cut off this post and continue the story in the next post, which will cover the rest of our Rockies trip, crammed full of great experiences as it was, and the last day or so in Calgary. The highlight of the trip was still to come when we had a spectacular and unique trip up onto the Athabasca Glacier….

St Francis Bay & Cape St Francis : Blessed with beauty

“The rapidly setting sun was throwing golden reflections across the river channels, making for a magical scene, as the numerous Terns present restlessly took off for a circuit over the wide estuary, settling en-masse on narrow strips of exposed sand

〈Health warning : this post contains descriptions and photos of cars in addition to the usual birding stuff〉

The story so far…

As a follow on to our visit to Port Elizabeth and part of our 10 day trip to the Eastern Cape in April 2013, we chose to spend a few days in St Francis Bay, a small town south-west of PE, which we had never found an opportunity to visit and decided that this was the time to see what it was about. The birding spot descriptions in Roberts VII app were also enticing, promising a variety of waders in particular, so I was looking forward to some scouting around in search of something unusual and perhaps even a lifer for my trouble.

Getting there

We had enjoyed a couple of  days in Addo Elephant Park (covered in an earlier blog post) and left around 10.30 am to cover the short distance to St Francis Bay – with plenty of time on our hands we decided to take a slightly longer route to include Uitenhage, home to the Volkswagen factory in South Africa and very much the driving force (no pun intended, but it works anyway) behind the town. I had heard about a VW Heritage Centre being part of the factory complex and was curious to visit it – my passion for all things motoring comes second to birding but only just, so I don’t like to pass up an opportunity to take in a motor museum or a motoring event.

VW Heritage Centre in Uitenhage
VW Heritage Centre in Uitenhage
Old Studebaker bakkie
Old Studebaker bakkie

Suffice to say the VW Heritage Centre was well worth the trouble and covers most of the history of VW in SA, as well as other makes which were assembled at the same facility, such as DKW, Auto-Union and Studebaker.

A selection of VW’s on view :

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Some of the other makes :

DKW
DKW
Audi
Audi
Studebaker
Studebaker – and a Volvo hiding away

This was Gerda’s favourite :

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After the museum visit and a light lunch at a friendly Coffee Shop, we left Uitenhage and completed the journey to St Francis Bay, where we found our guest house without too much trouble, a short drive from the village centre.

St Francis Bay

We had booked the guest house online before our visit to the Eastern Cape and it met all our expectations – we were the only guests for the few days we spent there and got chatting (well Gerda did, she’s the chatty one) to Joan who owns and runs the guest house in a quietly efficient manner including preparing a full breakfast. In the evenings we followed her advice and tried the local restaurants, which were of a high standard and most enjoyable.

It is always exciting visiting a place for the first time, especially from a birding point of view, not knowing what to expect and with the chance of a surprise waiting just around the corner.

I wasted no time on arrival and followed Joan’s advice to drive to the Kromme River estuary before sunset for a bit of initial exploration –  and atlasing of course. It being low tide, the birds I could see were at quite a distance in the middle of the estuary, so I removed my shoes and socks and waded through the shallow part of the channel to get to the exposed sand banks in the middle of the estuary for a better view.

Turnstone leading 3 Grey Plovers (the black armpits are a feature of the Grey Plover)

Many waders were present, including myself at that point, and some of the smaller species such as Sanderling, Common Ringed Plover and Ruddy Turnstone, as well as a selection of larger waders with Whimbrel, Grey Plover and African Black Oystercatcher being most prominent.

Grey Plover
Grey Plover
Grey Plovers and a Ruddy Turnstone
Grey Plovers and a Ruddy Turnstone
Whimbrels and Plovers
Whimbrels and Plovers

The rapidly setting sun was throwing golden reflections across the river channels, making for a magical scene, as the numerous Terns present restlessly took off for a circuit over the wide estuary, settling en masse on narrow strips of exposed sand. Most were Common Terns with a few Swift Terns mingling with them, but standing out with their larger size and bright yellow bills

Sunset on the Kromme River estuary
Sunset on the Kromme River estuary

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Next morning

After a hearty breakfast, we headed into the village to find the knitting shop that Gerda had  heard about from Joan – while she spent an hour or so indulging her passion, I carried on with mine and expanded my atlasing coverage to include as much of the town and residential area as possible.

Not too many species were added and I was really shocked by the state of the roads in the town, which were in a sad state of disrepair and obvious neglect – potholes everywhere and no sign of any attempt to fix anything.

Later we were even more disturbed when we took a drive through the part of St Francis that suffered a massive fire in November 2012, destroying about 70 thatched roof houses which were in the “canalled” area near the river – nothing worse than seeing so many homes razed to the ground, with many bare properties up for sale probably out of despair at the massive loss suffered. Apparently the fire was the result of a braai fire which got out of control in windy conditions and the local fire brigade proved to be useless in the face of it.

But back to more pleasant memories….

Cape St Francis

We took the road to Cape St Francis, a separate town a short distance south of St Francis Bay (all very confusing when you are not in the know), stopping at Port St Francis (now it’s really confusing) on the way to have a look at the small harbour located there. In Cape St Francis we drove to the sea front and stopped to scan the shoreline and sea – a surprise awaited in the form of an African Penguin close inshore and I was once again struck by the agility it was displaying in the rough seas amongst the rocks, diving under the waves as they came rushing in – it hardly seems like a bird species in those conditions. No African Penguins had been listed before in the pentad so it is clearly not a regular sighting in the area.

African Penguin at home in the rough sea
African Penguin at home in the rough sea

Kittlitz’s Plover and White-fronted Plover were both present along the grassed area

On the way out we popped into Sea Point Nature Reserve at the southernmost point of the bay and took a walk along the rocky path beyond the lighthouse, where a few Oystercatchers and Cormorants were visible, while a Cape Gannet flew by offshore and a Bokmakierie proudly claimed his territory in the fynbos.

Lighthouse at Cape St Francis
Lighthouse at Cape St Francis

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Sea Point Nature Reserve
Sea Point Nature Reserve

There were still a couple of hours of daylight left as we returned to our guest house, so we paid a second visit to the estuary where I was thrilled to find a pair of Bar-tailed Godwits on the exposed sand flats – another lifer!

The following day was the last of our Eastern Cape trip and with our flight back to the “big smoke” only being at 6pm we took the “road less travelled” back to PE, via Humansdorp and the surfing hotspot of Jeffreys Bay, stopping frequently along the way.

Phew, and if I get this posted now it means I have posted twice in September, sticking (only just) to my target of two posts a month

 

Port Elizabeth : A breath of Fresh Air

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

The background

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

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

Port Elizabeth Impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cape Recife Nature Reserve

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

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

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

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

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

Cape Recife
Cape Recife

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

Common Ringed Plover

Common Ringed Plover
Common Ringed Plover

White-fronted Plover

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

Sanderling (which was a lifer for me)

Sanderling, Cape Recife
Sanderling, Cape Recife

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanderlings
Sanderlings
White-fronted Plovers
White-fronted Plovers

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Swartkops River Estuary

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

Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary

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

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

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

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

Terns at Swartkops Estuary
Terns at Swartkops Estuary

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

Domestic Geese
Domestic Geese have made their home at Swartkops Estuary

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

 

Forthcoming Attractions

For the first time since starting this blog a year and a bit ago when I set myself a target of 2 posts a month, I did not manage to publish twice in August – reason being we have been on tour in Canada and Alaska since 7 August and will be returning to SA on 10 September

We have had an amazing time so far with week 1 covering Calgary and the Canadian Rockies, week 2 on a cruise to Alaska and week 3 being in Ontario and on tour through several provinces of Canada east such as Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia

Once I have sorted and edited the many photos and caught up with my diary I’ll be adding some posts on these wonderful places – watch this space!

Posted from aboard a ferry between Digby Nova Scotia and St Johns New brunswick – the wonders of technology!

Back soon

A Taste of Cuba – Birding with Ernesto : Varadero

“Ernesto was proud to mention that a species of Gecko he discovered there was named after him and he was able to find it for us”

 

Nature Reserve at Varadero

The Reserva Ecológica Varahicacos protects a 3 km2 remnant of xeromorphic coastal scrub and mangrove at the tip of the 20 km. Hicacos Peninsula. Much of the peninsula, also known as the sun destination ‘Varadero’ to hundreds-of-thousands of international tourists, has been modified to accommodate scores of sprawling, all-inclusive resorts. It is also home to the newly described (2009) Cuban Croaking Gecko (Aristelliger reyesi), the only Aristelliger known from Cuba. Dίaz and Hedges (2009) named the species after its discoverer, local biologist and bird guide Ernesto Reyes. (Source : http://northshorenature.blogspot.com/2012/03/some-cuban-lizards.html)

 

Ernesto works most days as a conservation officer at this nature reserve, which was a short taxi-ride from our hotel, and he was only too happy to include a walk through the reserve at any time during our stay. Andre and I took him up on the offer a few days after Geraldine and I visited Zapata Swamps with Ernesto and were glad we did, as it added another dimension to the Cuban birding experience and a number of lifers to the trip list.

Ernesto was proud to mention that a species of Gecko he discovered there was named after him and he was able to find it for us :

Ecological Reserve at Varadero
Ecological Reserve at Varadero
Cuban Croaking Gecko (Aristelliger Reyesi) named after its discoverer and our bird guide, Ernesto Reyes
Camouflaged Cuban Croaking Gecko (Aristelliger Reyesi) named after its discoverer and our bird guide, Ernesto Reyes

Ernesto took us along a few of the paths that run through the wooded part of the Reserve and  found a number of forest birds, many of which turned out to be Warblers of various combinations of black, brown, yellow and white. The new ones for our trip list and all lifers for me were :

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler (Interesting name)

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

All of them were too furtive and quick to get a photo for the record, so I took some photos of the Reserve’s other interesting features instead

Rocks are actually ancient coral reefs
Rocks are actually ancient coral reefs
Cuban Brown Curlytail (Leiocephalus cubensis)
Cuban Brown Curlytail (Leiocephalus cubensis)
My lovely assistant, Andre (someone had to carry the bird book)
My lovely assistant, Andre (someone had to carry the bird book – but note this is not a dumb blonde, he’s a Neurologist)
"Tourist Skin" tree - so called because it peels like the European visitors after a few days in Varadero's sun
“Tourist Skin” tree – so called because its thin red bark peels – just like the European tourists do after a few days in Varadero’s sun (Actual name is West-Indian Birch, I believe)

Ponds at Varadero Water Treatment Works

For good measure Ernesto took us to the nearby Varadero water treatment works the same day, where we clambered through a gap in the fence and found a number of exciting birds in the network of ponds.

Water treatment works at Varadero
Ponds at the Varadero Water treatment works

Tri-coloured Heron

White-chinned Pintail

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shovelers
Northern Shovelers take to flight

Blue-winged Teal

Common Moorhen (for a change, an “ordinary” bird)

Laughing Gull

White Ibis

American Coot

Coot and White Ibis
American Coot and White Ibis sharing a patch next to one of the ponds

 

Well-satisfied with our “bonus” trip to the Nature Reserve and Water Treatment works, we thanked Ernesto for his wonderful assistance, bade him goodbye and got a taxi back to our hotel, where we continued our lazy existence for the rest of our 11 day stay. When our memorable holiday came to an end, we were taken by bus back to Havana (all part of the package) where we caught the Virgin Atlantic flight back to Gatwick near London, followed by a taxi shuttle (which you can pre-book) to Heathrow for our overnight flight to Johannesburg.

 

A Taste of Cuba – Birding with Ernesto : Zapata Peninsula

” Ernesto did everything else extremely well and made sure that we had an incredible and fruitful day as he showed us one new bird species after another and knew exactly where to find the specials, including a number of Cuban endemics that birders would give their eye teeth to see”

Finding a Bird Guide

While planning our trip to Cuba in early 2011, I searched the internet (well, Google did all the work)  for any birding opportunities in the 2 areas we were to visit, namely Havana and Varadero. In the process I came across a reference to Ernesto Reyes, who did bird guiding from the Varadero area, and sent him an email. He soon responded with suggestions and this led to me booking him for a day during our stay at Sol Palmeras resort hotel on the Varadero peninsula.

I looked forward to the chance to do some birding in Cuba, which was likely to be a once in a lifetime opportunity in such an exotic location, but wasn’t really sure what to expect. I purchased a Cuba bird guide which I had a good look at before leaving for Cuba, so that I would have an idea of what birds could be found in the various habitats, and this helped a lot.

Turkey Vultures are everywhere
Turkey Vultures are everywhere – and a Martin caught flying by!

The Trip

Our main destination for the day was the Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata – the Zapata Swamps National Park, which is located south-east of Havana and south of Varadero where we were staying in a fine resort hotel. The Zapata peninsula is bordered on the east side by the infamous Bay of Pigs, the site of the failed attempt by American-backed forces to invade Cuba back in 1961. Along the way Ernesto had planned stops at various spots to find some of the Cuban specials.

My daughter Geraldine agreed to accompany me and we were ready in the early hours outside the hotel main entrance, breakfast packs in hand, waiting for Ernesto and his driver to collect us. It seems that very few Cubans have driving licences because so few are allowed to own cars and Ernesto, married with kids, was not a driver, although he did take over on some of the back roads and showed us how not to pull away and change gears. Ernesto did everything else extremely well and made sure that we had an incredible and fruitful day as he showed us one new bird species after another and knew exactly where to find the specials, including a number of Cuban endemics that birders would give their eye teeth to see.

Zapata peninsula lies south east of Havana
Zapata peninsula lies south east of Havana

From Varadero we headed to the southern side of Cuba, passing through small villages on the way, one of which had a main street with more horses and old-fashioned horse-drawn cabs than motor cars

Country scenes
Country scenes
Country transport
Country transport
Country scene
Country scene

 

An hour or two later we entered the Zapata National Park area where our first stop was at a forested area alongside the road – we walked a short distance along a wooded path before Ernesto stopped and started pointing out bird species.

Forest road
Forest road
Forest flowers
Forest flowers

This happened a few more times until we reached the Zapata swamps, where we drove to various points then walked further along paths between the waterways, pausing to greet fishermen who were catching supper.

Zapata Swamps
Zapata Swamps
Zapata Swamps
Zapata Swamps
Just to prove I was there
Just to prove I was there

At one point we came across a group of American birders who were touring in a large luxury bus and they immediately called us over to view a very special bird, the Zapata Wren, through their scopes. We were surprised to find Americans in Cuba, knowing of the frosty relationship that exists and sanctions applied by the US on Cuba – apparently they are able to get permission for special trips

Ernesto and Geraldine about to meet up with an American group of birders in the Zapata Swamps
Ernesto and Geraldine about to meet up with an American group of birders in the Zapata Swamps

Their guide was one Arturo Kirkconnell, who happened to be co-author of the Cuban field guide I had bought, Birds of Cuba and he was kind enough to sign it and write a short message, which made the day extra-special.

Lunchtime with the locals

Ernesto offered a choice of a “Tourist Stop” standard lunch or he could arrange with some local people who, like a growing number of Cubans, have small restaurants in their homes. We chose the latter and it was a very special experience, eating in humble surroundings and served Cuban fare by the family – nice to be able to support them.

The "home" restaurant, the sign confirms they are approved by the government
The “home” restaurant, the sign confirms they are approved by the government
Ernesto and Don with the driver and the husband and wife who run the home restaurant
Ernesto and Don with the driver and the husband and wife who run the home restaurant
Classic in the country
Classic in the country

Zapata Swamps

One source describes it thus:

The Zapata Swamp is a mosaic of mangrove swamps and freshwater and saltwater marshes that form the largest and best-preserved wetland in the Caribbean. The swamp was designated a Biosphere Reserve in 1999 and forms a vital preserve for Cuban wildlife, a spawning area for commercially valuable fish, and a crucial wintering territory for millions of migratory birds from North America. More than 900 plant species have been recognized in the swamp, and all but three of the 25 bird species endemic to Cuba breed there

Also a feature of the Zapata Peninsula is the system of caves along the coast, some of which have caved in creating small lakes. We visited one such flooded cave in a small reserve a short distance from the beaches of the Bay of Pigs – the largest flooded cave in Cuba,  70m deep and crystal clear

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The flooded cave
The flooded cave
Geraldine braves a rickety bridge
Geraldine braves a rickety bridge
Crystal clear water allows you to see the fish quite easily
Crystal clear water allows you to see the fish quite easily
These red crabs migrate to the beaches by the thousand at certain times
These red crabs migrate to the beaches by the thousand at certain times

The birds

It was a veritable feast of ‘lifers’ for me – no less than 49 during our one day trip to Zapata National Park and a further 14 in the space of a couple of hours spent at the Varadero Nature Reserve – but it’s not all about numbers, more about the experience of birding in such exotic and amazing locations.

The birds seen included the following – short descriptions are taken direct from my field notes :

Once again, where I was able to get a photo, the quality of the photos is very ordinary due to not having my “birding” lens on the trip (I won’t make that mistake again) so I had to make do with a standard zoom lens.

  Zapata Forest :

The forest was not as dense as some I’ve experienced – it was not too difficult to see the birds which Ernesto found. The rock underfoot looked volcanic or could be ancient coral.

Cuban Tody – small round colourful bird with a long thin bill

Yellow-faced Grassquit – male and female pair, small sparrow-like bird

Red-legged Honeycreeper – dark purple plumage, turquoise cap and red legs make it a very distinctive bird. Top of tree

Red-legged Honeycreeper
Red-legged Honeycreeper

Common Yellow-throated Warbler – the first of many warblers, all in combinations of yellow, black and brown

Stripe-headed Tanager – colourful small bird in the mid-stratum

Cuban Trogon – signature bird for Cuba and their National Bird. Loud call, easily seen, 5 sightings during the day

Cuban Trogon
Cuban Trogon

Great Lizard Cuckoo – secretive, large bird (Coucal size), light brown in colour. I just caught it on camera as it flew off.

Great Lizard Cuckoo disappearing over the forest
Great Lizard Cuckoo disappearing over the forest

More Warblers in quick succession (we would have had no chance of ID-ing them without Ernesto) – Yellow-headed Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Magnolia Warbler. Cuba lies on the migration route between North and South America for many of the Warblers and we happened to be there when many of them are visitors to this Caribbean island.

Northern Parula – another Warbler

Cuban Vireo – looks like our White-eyes, just 2m from us in the tree

Cuban Vireo
Cuban Vireo

Black-whiskered Vireo

Black-whiskered Vireo
Black-whiskered Vireo

Zenaida Dove – forest path, pair on the ground amongst leaf litter

and then, a surprise sighting………..

Surprise in the forest
Surprise in the forest

  Zapata Swamps

Barn Swallow – just like home

Zapata Wren – the US visitors were very excited about finding this rare endemic – brownish barred bird with long tail, singing vigorously in the reeds

Indigo Bunting – blue all over, short bill

La Sagra’s Flycatcher – mid stratum, crested appearance

La Sagra's Flycatcher
La Sagra’s Flycatcher

American Redstart – male, mid stratum

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron – Flying overhead

Tawny-shouldered Blackbird – group of 5 – all black except for orange patches on shoulders, tree tops

Loggerhead Kingbird – large, flycatcher-like, crested appearance, low in branches

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant

Pygmy Owl – much like our Pearl-spotted, similar in size, low in tree next to channel

Northern Waterthrush – mid stratum, most resembles our Prinias

 

  Roadside Stops

Ernesto stopped at various spots along the way, often at places known to be home to some of the specials. We also stopped at one of the government-run “Tourist Stops” where you can have snacks and meals

Tourist Stop - Ernesto in conversation with a birding personality
Tourist Stop – Ernesto in conversation with a birding personality

Smooth-billed Ani – large, all-black Coucal-like bird – on the way to Zapata

Black-cowled Oriole – ponds near Tourist Stop, top of tree

American Kestrel – roadside pole

Purple Gallinule – ponds near Tourist Stop, walking on lilies

Purple Gallinule
Purple Gallinule

Purple Martin – overhead

West Indian Woodpecker – near Tourist Stop, pecking at nest-hole in Palm tree

West-Indian Woodpecker at a nest-hole
West-Indian Woodpecker at a nest-hole

Cuban Crow – scavenging in road

Cuban Crow
Cuban Crow

Cuban Parrot – near Tourist Stop, top of tree

Great Egret – probably same as Southern African species – ponds near Tourist Stop

Great Egret
Great Egret

Great Blue Heron – ponds near Tourist Stop

Osprey – flying over ponds near Tourist Stop

Red-legged Thrush – dirt road, on ground, wary

Northern Mockingbird – dirt road

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

  Smallest Bird in the World !

The bird we desperately wanted to see, since realising it was a possibility – the amazing Bee Hummingbird – found by Ernesto on a dirt road off the main road. We watched, mesmerized, as it zipped from telephone wires to sparse trees across the road, almost quicker than the eye could follow, looking like a large bumble-bee. Sensational sighting! But I couldn’t get a decent photo…

The sensational Bee Hummingbird
The sensational Bee Hummingbird – 5 to 6cm long

  Open Savannah with many palm trees

Open Savannah with palms
Open Savannah with palms

Northern Flicker – Woodpecker-like bird in top of palm tree

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker (Female)
Northern Flicker (Male)
Northern Flicker (Male)

 

Fernandina’s Flicker – (just love the name!) Rare endemic in bare palm tree

  Roadside Farm with a number of large trees

Killdeer – Lapwing-like, in short grass

Common Ground Dove – open ground

Cowboys are alive and well in Cuba
Cowboys are alive and well in Cuba

Cuban Parakeet – flock of up to 20 in large fig tree, most flew off at our approach, some returned for viewing and photo opportunities

Cuban Parakeet
Cuban Parakeet

Rice paddies

Rice paddies
Rice paddies

Lesser Yellowlegs – very much like a Greenshank in size and appearance, yellow legs conspicuous

Little Blue Heron – pair at edge of paddies

Rice paddies
Rice paddies

Black-necked Stilt – much like our Black-winged Stilt

Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt

 

Crested Caracara – in distant tree – large raptor reminiscent of a Harrier-Hawk

Glossy Ibis – presumably same species as ours, flying overhead

Limpkin – on bank of paddy, large bird, long decurved bill

On the way back to Varadero we passed a country rodeo in progress – looked exciting

A rodeo was on the go
A rodeo was on the go

  Ernesto and the driver dropped us off at the hotel in the evening, after a brief stop at his home in a nearby town to meet his wife and daughter who tried their best to converse in broken English and charmed us in the process.

For days after we reflected on an amazing day spent birding an area that I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see and experience for myself. It brought a lesson home to me – when it comes to birding (or anything else that grabs you) one should have no boundaries and take the chances when they arise, there is just so much out there to see and do!

 Note : Thanks to Ronald Orenstein for his guidance on a couple of mis-identifications in my photos, now corrected

A Taste of Cuba – The Birds and the Beaches

“We soon got into a decadent routine of sumptuous breakfast, lazing on the beach with an occasional sortie to the beach bar for refreshments, lunch in the casual restaurant near the beach, followed by an afternoon relaxing around the pool”

Getting to Varadero

The bus transfer from Havana to Varadero, where we were to spend the next 11 days in an “All-Inclusive” resort, was uneventful and quite pleasant as it provided a glimpse of the Cuban countryside. Cubans have clearly cottoned on to the opportunities (and hard cash) that tourism brings, which was brought home when we stopped for a refreshment break at a roadside café, where a local band immediately started playing and made it obvious they were looking for some reward. Well, good for them – nothing like a money-making opportunity in a communist state!

The road was not very busy and in good condition and we noticed that there were fewer of the “classics” to be seen and more ordinary cars once we had left Havana.

Along the way I kept a look out for any birds and soon realised that the Turkey Vulture was one of the most common birds, perhaps because they are so obvious due to their large size and habit of flying around in flocks. Apart from them, I spotted a Shiny Cowbird in farmland and a Double-crested Cormorant in the water on the bay side of the Varadero peninsula.

Varadero lies east of Havana
Varadero lies east of Havana
The Varadero peninsula is like a long finger jutting out from the northern shores of Cuba
The Varadero peninsula is like a long finger jutting out from the northern shores of Cuba

Hotel Sol Palmeras

Our hotel was just one of many big resort hotels strung out along the narrow Varadero peninsula, all of them appearing to be full of tourists from Europe and Canada enjoying the fine warm weather.

The entrance road to Sol Palmeras Hotel winds through lush tropical gardens
The entrance road to Sol Palmeras Hotel winds through lush tropical gardens
The hotel was opened by Fidel Castro himself back in 1990
The hotel was opened by Fidel Castro himself back in 1990

We soon got into the swing of things at the hotel, revelling in the “all-inclusive” deal as part of our Virgin Holidays package – we had no experience of this so thought we would end up paying over the top for extras such as special coffees, al a carte meals and beach activities but were very happy to find that ‘all-inclusive’ meant exactly that – great value for money!

We soon got into a decadent routine of sumptuous breakfast, lazing on the beach with an occasional sortie to the beach bar for refreshments, lunch in the casual restaurant near the beach, followed by an afternoon relaxing around the pool before girding our loins for the evening meal in the main buffet restaurant or one of the 5 themed ala carte restaurants.

The pool area set amongst the palms
The pool area set amongst the palms
Pool area at Sol Palmeras hotel
Pool area at Sol Palmeras hotel
Gerda and the Leonards enjoying our favourite casual restaurant down near the beach
Gerda and the Leonards enjoying our favourite casual restaurant down near the beach
The more formal poolside restaurant served some good Cuban food and local bands added to the vibe
The more formal poolside restaurant served some good Cuban food and local bands added to the vibe

The only stress was beating the Europeans to the best beach loungers in the morning! As in Havana, we found that staff and residents were amazed when they heard we were from South Africa.

The Beach

Suffice to say the beach met all our expectations and the photos say it better than I can

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The beach at Varadero

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We particularly enjoyed the gentle sea which was ideal for just swimming and lazing in the water or the more energetic rides in the paddle boats

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The Leonards launch a paddle boat

Sunset was a magic time on the beach

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The Birds

I had arranged beforehand for a local bird guide to take me to some nearby birding spots, which I did halfway through our stay at the resort – the trip is deserving of a separate post which will follow this one.

What I can mention in this post are some of the interesting birds I found without too much trouble in the hotel gardens, often by standing on the room balcony which overlooked the lush tropical gardens or wandering through the pathways that meandered past the chalets forming part of the complex and the occasional bird spotted from the beach.

View from the balcony of our room
View from the balcony of our room

90 Percent of what I saw were ‘lifers’ for me so each bird was a real thrill, but none more so than the tiny Cuban Emerald, a species of Hummingbird, which I first spotted feeding on top of a tree with bright red berries and later saw a few times perched on branches in the gardens. The pictures of Hummingbirds in books have always fascinated me but I never imagined seeing them ”live” so this was special.

Others that I came across in the gardens were (with apologies for photo quality – I didn’t have my usual telephoto lens with me) :

Palm Warbler – feeding on the ground

 

Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler

Summer Tanager – an all-red bird active in the upper canopy of the trees

Summer Tanager
Summer Tanager

Gray Kingbird – seen frequently, once with a small lizard prey

Gray Kingbird
Gray Kingbird

 

Greater Antillean Grackle (now there’s an impressive name) – in the gardens and often scrounging scraps at the outdoor restaurant – reminiscent of our starlings. The unusual feature of this bird is its V-shaped tail, which may be unique to this species, giving it the appearance of an old-fashioned jet plane when in flight

Greater Antillean Grackle joining us at lunch
Greater Antillean Grackle joining us at lunch
The V-shaped tail is really unusual
The V-shaped tail is really unusual

Cuban Green Woodpecker – an attractive bird which was busy at a nest hole in a Cocos palm

Cuban Green Woodpecker
Cuban Green Woodpecker

Cape May Warbler – one of many Warblers seen on the trip, all of which seem to be varying combinations of black, brown and yellow – this one had black streaks on a yellow breast, distinctive brown cheeks and a yellow rump.

Royal Tern – flying low over the shallow turquoise sea, diving occasionally for food. This was a particularly beautiful sight early one morning as the sun was coming up

Brown Pelican –  also flying low over the sea

Muscovy Duck – seen on the golf course of an adjoining resort

The ‘Puppy-dog Lizard’ which we saw in Havana was also to be found in the gardens – quite habituated to people

The well-named "Puppy-dog Lizard
The well-named “Puppy-dog Lizard” with its cute curly tail

Time to Leave

On the way to the airport I took some photos of ‘plain and ordinary’ Cuban scenes as we passed by

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We were sad to leave Cuba after a most memorable trip, our minds full of all the interesting people, places and experiences

 

A Taste of Cuba – Havana : locked in the 1960’s

“I couldn’t tear myself away from the hotel window which overlooked a vibrant scene in the streets below”

Why Cuba?!

It was all our Son-in-law’s fault! No, really.

Andre got invited to a conference in Havana and decided to take Geraldine and the girls along and make a full-blown holiday of it, prompted I think by the fact that they had been to Granada in the West Indies before and Cuba was a Virgin Atlantic package and a 9 hour flight away from their then home in the UK. When Gerda and I heard about it and were invited to join them for the trip, it was quite an exciting thought but at the same time a cause for some apprehension – people from South Africa (ordinary ones outside the government, that is) just didn’t go to Cuba. But we are always up for some mild adventure and so the last week of March 2011 saw us flying to the UK for a short stay with Andre and Geraldine in Stafford in the English Midlands before heading to Gatwick for our flight to Havana.

I have been particularly eager to write about this trip, which was full of surprises and memories and very different from what we had in our minds – that’s the beauty of travel, opening up your mind to what’s out there and getting rid of all the preconceptions that tend to muddle your thoughts.

Apologies for a long post but there’s plenty to tell and show about this interesting city….

The Plan

Our itinerary included 3 days in Havana, followed by 11 days at a beach resort in Varadero, located on a narrow finger-like peninsula which juts out of the north-western extremity of the island of Cuba. It would have been foolish to go to Cuba and not include some birding, and had found a local bird guide to set up a day trip from the beach resort to some reachable birding areas, but I had no real idea what he would cover and where we would go, knowing that Cuba is a large island – some 1000 kms long – and we would not be able to travel very far in one day. All our flights, accommodation and transfers were part of the Virgin Holidays package from the UK, which was very affordable – in fact we could not have beaten it travelling from SA to any other island resort such as Mauritius, even taking into account the additional cost of flying to the UK first.

This first post in this series covers just the Havana part of the trip, later posts will cover the rest of the trip.

First Impressions of Havana

The flight on Virgin Atlantic was OK as these long-haul flights go – being a daytime flight helped as we didn’t have to face trying to sleep in those hellish seats. Arriving in Havana, there were no hassles getting through passport control etc and finding our bus to take us to our hotel – all part of the Virgin Holidays package, which made our lives easier.

Havana Airport
Havana Airport

First impression on the way into Havana was that the roads were not very busy and the buildings were either plain and utilitarian or old, ornate and crumbling. The cars on the road included a sprinkling of the American classics from the 1950’s that Cuba is famed for along with other more modern cars.

100_4904_edited-1 "Classic" American cars

Our hotel, Hotel Telegrafo, in the older part of the city, looked quite modern and attractive but the surrounding buildings were less so.

Hotel Telegrafo
Hotel Telegrafo

Once we got to our upper floor room I couldn’t tear myself away from the hotel window which overlooked a vibrant scene in the streets below, with colourful ‘classics’ passing by, interesting looking people hanging about in doorways and the crumbling roofscape turning deep orange as the sun set.

The roofscape in the evening
The roofscape in the evening
From the hotel room
From the hotel room
"Classic" American cars below the hotel
“Classic” American cars below the hotel
From the hotel room
From the hotel room
View from the hotel room
View from the hotel room

The Classic Cars

It’s proof of human ingenuity that so many of the 1950’s American cars have survived for so long – when you look closely you notice that most have had major transplant surgery with new chassis’, wheels and engines, while the owners have managed to retain the old bodies and chrome trims. Even the hooters have been modified to make a pleasant squeak rather than loud honking. Car ownership is complex in Cuba but the bottom line is ordinary Cubans are not allowed to buy new cars so these old classics are handed down in the family and most if not all serve as taxis for the people. Some are battered, others are well-kept – all are colourful reminders of a simpler era and I could not stop taking photos of these beauties. Here’s a selection of those wonderful Fords, Chevrolets, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and others –

"Classic" American cars "Classic" American cars "Classic" American cars "Classic" American cars

Then there are the interesting number plates….. colours denote ownership status with yellow being ‘private’ (but licensed by the all-pervasive ‘Government’), blue is Government owned, orange, brown and black denote levels of government ownership.

"Classic" American cars "Classic" American cars

With so few cars on the road, traffic is not an issue and only the centre city is relatively busy, but nothing like other major cities. It makes for a relaxed atmosphere in the city which, along with the complete lack of commercialism, creates a feeling of being transported back to the 1950’s or 60’s.

A main boulevard in Havana
A main boulevard in Havana
Typical side street
Typical side street
Not so busy street
Not so busy street near our hotel – could be the 1950,s

The Buildings

The hard years that Cuba has endured are evident in the state of the buildings in Havana, where the contrast is most stark between those that have been restored or maintained and those left to slowly deteriorate for 60 years or so. Many that we saw have fallen into such ruin that only the skeleton of the façade remains, the roof and inner structures having succumbed to total neglect.

An older building
An older building

On our walking tour of the city it was clear that restoration has been limited to the main squares, which have been beautifully restored, but walk a block away and the buildings are in a sorry state.

Despite this, the original Spanish-influenced architecture is still very evident – many buildings have internal courtyards to help cool the interiors. Look through once splendid front doors and you see grand staircases leading to the upper floors with elaborate wrought iron balustrades, some almost corroded to nothing.

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Ornately carved stone cladding is common but unchecked weathering has worn away the beauty that it once projected.

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Capitol building, Havana
Capitol building, Havana

The People

We found Cubans generally friendly, apart from some waiters who were a bit surly, but then that’s the case wherever you go. Out on the streets it was obvious the people of Havana like to see what’s happening and sitting or standing in doorways seems to be a national sport – many will greet you as you walk past. Wherever we went the locals would ask where we came from and were amazed to hear that we were from South Africa, some even pointing to our skin and querying “but you are white?”

Beggar with a difference
Beggar with a difference – really chatty
Havana  local - Enjoying a cigar
Havana local – Enjoying a cigar
This cool dude was just watching people go by
This cool dude was just watching people go by

The overall impression is of not much activity amongst the general population and those that had something to do were fairly relaxed about doing it – this may just be the way things are done in this laid-back part of the world.

 

The Sights of Havana

On our first day in Havana we went for a walk down the main boulevard to the seafront and the promenade which overlooks the bay stretching into the distance one way and the Old Fort in the other direction.

The promenade and seafront
The promenade and seafront
Wide boulevards are a feature
Wide boulevards are a feature
The main boulevard
The main boulevard
Megan taking a break
Megan taking a break
Brief rest on the promenade
Brief rest on the promenade
The Old Fort
The Old Fort

Along the way we admired the classic cars and old buildings and just enjoyed being in such an exotic place. The longish walk and the warm conditions soon had us looking for a place to have lunch and we came across a pleasant restaurant which did the trick with beers and cold drinks to go with a plain but tasty pasta meal.

Lunchtime
Lunchtime
View from the Restaurant
View from the Restaurant
Geraldine brushing up on Spanish
Geraldine brushing up on Spanish

Later we ventured out again, this time taking some of the ‘back streets’ which took us to a square where we had coffee and viewed the restored church

Havana - old church
Havana – old church

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one of the restored squares
one of the restored squares
Maia and Megan taking in the Havana vibe
Maia and Megan taking in the Havana vibe

Next morning it was time for our tour of Havana, which we had arranged just for the six of us. Our personal tour guide for the morning was one friendly and informative Cuban by name of Mora (who happened to be of African origin), previously a professor in English, who chose to become a tour guide because it was more financially rewarding with the tips she earned. She turned out to be an excellent guide taking us variously by kombi taxi, horse-drawn carriage and walking through the streets and squares of Havana – in 30 years of guiding we were the first South Africans she had taken and at the end of the tour she insisted on giving us a hug.

Outside the Hotel Telegrafo, Havana
Outside the Hotel Telegrafo, Havana

Our tour started with a trip by kombi to the old fort with stunning views across the bay to the city.

View from the Old Fort, Havana
View from the Old Fort, Havana

View from the Old Fort, Havana

Then on to older style transport – horse and carriage for a clip-clop journey to the square called Plaza de San Fransisco.

The Leonards go in style
The Leonards touring Havana in style

Plaza de San Fransisco Plaza de San Fransisco

Plaza de San Fransisco
Restored buildings on the Plaza de San Fransisco

From there we continued on foot along the streets to some of the other restored squares, stopping at a few interesting spots and for lunch at the restaurant that Hemingway favoured in his Cuban days.

The restaurant frequented by Hemingway in his Havana days
A night out in Havana (the band seemed to have come from the old age home)
City garden
City garden
Nice looking restaurant
Nice looking restaurant

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The last part of the tour took in the upmarket area where most of the embassies are located, including the SA embassy, and the Revolutionary square where we could imagine Castro addressing the crowds.

Revolutionary Square
Revolutionary Square
Che Guevera images are everywhere
Che Guevera images are everywhere

That brought our tour to an end – all that was left to do was to visit the cigar factory where Andre was hoping to strike a bargain on some Cuban cigars – that’s a story on its own that I’ll fit in somewhere along the way…

The Birds of Havana

I really can’t say that I did Havana any justice from a birding point of view – it was just a case of a few incidental sightings as we toured the city. For the record I noted the following birds during our short stay in Havana – the underlined ones were ‘lifers’ for me. I had no telephoto lenses with me so decent photos were not possible.

  • Cattle Egret (just like the ones back home) – on the way from the airport
  • Rock Dove – in the city squares
  • House Sparrow – in the city
  • Magnificent Frigate bird – my first ‘lifer’ of the trip, seen flying over the city (a real surprise as I thought they were deep ocean birds)
  • Turkey Vulture – second ‘lifer’ and one of the birds we saw most frequently on our trip
  • Mourning Dove – perched on city roofs and in the parks
  • Eastern Meadowlark – in grassy fields near the Old Fort
  • Cuban Blackbird – ditto
  • Cuban Martin – nesting in a hole in a building façade
Mourning Dove
Mourning Dove
Cuban Martin
Cuban Martin
Magnificent Frigatebird, Havana - poor photo but just for the record...
Magnificent Frigatebird, Havana – poor photo but just for the record…

Those who have seen and read enough can stop here…

 

More Classics and old buildings

For those, like me, who can’t get enough of the American ‘classics’ and the beautiful old buildings, here are more photos of what we found in Havana – the cars :

"Classic" American cars "Classic" American cars 100_4950 "Classic" American cars "Classic" American cars "Classic" American cars

– the buildings :

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Unique Havana Moments

Street entertainers
Street entertainers
The revolution is still big news
The revolution is still big news
The Chocolate Museum where we had a decadent hot chocolate
The Chocolate Museum where we had a decadent hot chocolate
The girls being watched by someone
The girls being watched by someone
This dog found a cosy space to snooze
This dog found a cosy space to snooze
Fallen flower on a palm frond
Fallen flower on a palm frond
They call this the 'Puppy Dog Lizard' due to its curly tail
They call this the ‘Puppy Dog Lizard’ due to its curly tail
Flea market - all home-made goods
Flea market – all home-made goods
A Toy shop - no Toys'Rus in Havana
A Toy shop – no Toys’rUs in Havana
Pavement art shop
Pavement art shop

 

The Train Museum

Havana’s Train Museum, which is akin to a scrapyard, won’t be competing anytime soon with others I’ve seen (the National Train Museum in York, UK has to be the best) but certainly earns points for being unusual, and they don’t charge an entrance fee :

Train "museum" central Havana Train "museum" central Havana Train "museum" central Havana Train "museum" central Havana Train "museum" central Havana Train "museum" central Havana

 

Oh, I might as well add the story of our trip to the Cigar Factory :

Andre was determined to take some real quality Cuban cigars back to the UK, but wasn’t keen (to say the least) to pay the very high prices charged in the more formal shops. And so he and I set off on a mission to find a bargain, starting with the Cigar factory not too far from the hotel – we ventured inside but could see straight away this wasn’t going to be the place for a bargain, as all the goods were priced with Euro and Dollar bearing tourists from Europe and Canada in mind.

Leaving the museum, we were approached by a local guy, harmless-looking, who sidled up and said ‘psst, wanna buy cheap cigar’ or something to that effect. Andre engaged him briefly and when he suggested we follow him to ‘his place’ Andre, to my slight horror, agreed to do so.

Well, he took us down the road, around a corner, down another road into a gritty part of town and then up a staircase to his small apartment where we were told to wait in a rather dingy sitting room. Minutes later our new-found friend brought in his ‘brother’ who looked more the part of a gangster, muscled, gold chains and all, and carrying a large bag which he proceeded to unpack, pulling out various boxes and types of cigars.

Not to be outdone, Andre brought all his negotiating skills to bear and I sat fascinated but very apprehensive as the scene unfolded in front of me, with the dealer getting more and more agitated as he saw his expected ‘killing’ fading away, while Andre calmly opened each box and inspected every cigar individually to make sure they were genuine. Eventually we walked out with the very best cigars for about a tenth of the price he started with and the dealer close to tears.

I must admit I descended the stairs from the apartment expecting a dagger in the back at any moment, but didn’t turn around and just walked away as fast as possible. Definitely one of the more memorable moments of my travels!

Cigar factory, Havana
Cigar factory, Havana

 

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

The Story so far….

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

The road to Addo – Thursday 1 May 2014

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

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

Roadside lunch stop
Roadside lunch stop

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

Slagtersnek monument
Slagtersnek monument

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

Addo Reception
Addo Reception

Back in Addo

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

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

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

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

Exploring Addo and beyond

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Elephant, Addo NP
Elephant, Addo NP

Elephant, Addo NP

African Elephant, Addo NP
African Elephant, Addo NP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack’s Picnic Spot

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

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

 

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

Stoep Sitting

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

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

Cape Weaver, Addo NP
Cape Weaver, Addo NP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

The Small Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

The Bulbul puzzle

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

Heading back home

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

Oudekraal guest farm

Oudekraal guest farm
De Oude kraal guest farm

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

Final surprise

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

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

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

Adventurous Birding, Atlasing and Travel