It was October 2012 and I was starting to get used to having more time for my own pursuits, particularly birding. Mondays seemed the obvious choice for a regular day off as it extends the weekend and prevents (or postpones) those “Monday blues”. The only decision is – where to go? Not too difficult with the wide choice of birding venues within an hour or two from Pretoria and there’s always atlasing to do and a new Pentad to visit. On this particular morning I decided to visit Marievale, having last been there around 5 years previously – I wasn’t sure what to expect by way of facilities and security but was pleasantly surprised to find the hides and the picnic spot in a clean and looked-after state. The approach roads and those within the sanctuary are not great so a high-clearance vehicle is preferable.
For those not familiar with this spot, Marievale Bird Sanctuary is a protected area in Gauteng, South Africa covering about 10 square Km on the Blesbokspruit, a perennial river which is flanked by extensive wetlands on either side. There have been some comments recently about pollution of the water but to my untrained eye it looked clear and the presence of so many birds seemed to attest to the quality.
As it turned out, I had the whole of Marievale to myself on that Monday morning for the entire 4 to 5 hours that I was there, which is great when you are intent on photographing the birds without being disturbed, or irritating others. The various ponds and the surrounding vegetation make the perfect backdrop and with the help of the hides and using your own vehicle as a moving hide, it is possible to get “up close and personal” with the variety of water birds on view.
On the day I visited Marievale the whole scenario was so perfect and the bird life I encountered so accommodating that it seemed like a staged production in a way ………
“OK people, ….er birds, I’m your Director today and we’re running late, so let’s get this show on the road – it’s past 8am and I think our one-man audience has got lost, but I’m sure he will be here any moment now. Right, a little bird just told me he’s been doing the pentad next door to us and he’s now approaching the entrance to Marievale.
Now, let’s not overdo it in the first stretch, we need to save some good ones for later – we’ll just get him warmed up with a few run o’ the mill birds – Coots you can start the show followed by the Yellow-billed Ducks plus a Moorhen or two. Little Grebe and African Purple Swamphen, you’re up next and let’s get those Warblers warbling. I’m willing to bet he pulls out the bird-calls gadget to check them – yes, I was right and he’s got them sorted : African Reed Warbler, Little Rush Warbler and Lesser Swamp Warbler. Nice chorus, guys.
Right, now for the Teals – Red-billed you go first then Hottentot can come in a bit later and for good measure let’s have a Whiskered Tern doing a fly past or two. Greater Flamingo, have you got over my “break a leg” comment yet? You know that it’s just a good luck saying in our business …… anyway, just stand in the shallows looking elegant – OK, fly if you must, it will make a good action photo.
This is going well so far everyone, keep it up! Now he’s at the picnic spot hide so, Pied Avocet, this is your chance to show off your classic beauty close to the hide – just stop diving for a few seconds so that he can get a decent photo.
OK, he’s off into the Reserve proper and you know how close to the road the water gets, which means close-up action photos, so let’s do this right – that means you Cape Shoveler and you Ruff – what’s that, you want Wood Sandpiper to join you? Fine.
This is also your chance, Black-winged Stilt and African Snipe, to show yourselves off in the good light.
What do you say we throw in a Squacco Heron right next to the road and Glossy Ibis I want you to pose gracefully in the grass as he passes by – yes that’s just right!
And now for the grande finale which I’m sure will surprise him – as I had hoped he’s stopped at the “Bus-stop” hide, so I want you, Reed Cormorant, to show yourself off on that convenient perch in the water, then African Darter it’s over to you to do your diving and spearing act right in front of the hide and make sure you show the speared fish nicely, then juggle it around a bit and swallow all in one smooth action – yes, beautiful!
Well done everyone – great show!”
I left Marievale with reluctance – can’t wait to get back there in the Summer months again.
We used our timeshare points from another resort to book a week at Sanbonani near Hazyview, Mpumalanga in the first week of July 2012 – we were joined by our daughter Geraldine, husband Andre and Megan and Maia, 2 of our granddaughters, for what turned out to be a wonderful family week in the warm Lowveld. The resort, which is a short distance from Hazyview and 10 minutes away from the Phabeni Gate into the Kruger Park, lies in a V-shaped property bounded by the Sabie River on the one side and a smaller tributary on the other and boasts spacious grounds and a small forest of trees.
The self-catering units are comfortable and well-appointed and perfect for our needs, with a patio, overlooking the river, which became the ideal spot for our morning coffee, our evening braai and much of the in-between times. A large Wonderboom fig tree (Ficus Salicifolia according to my tree book) overhanging the patio proved to be irresistible for many of the birds in the area and there was a constant to-ing and fro-ing of birds eager to feast on the wild figs which were in abundance on the tree.
This is an ideal spot for relaxed “don’t-have-to-go-anywhere” birding as we built up an extensive list of Bushveld and Riverine forest birds without going beyond the patio – 42 species in all – hey that’s 5% of the total species in South Africa! Highly recommended for birders of all levels of expertise, as the close-up views allow you to really get to grips with and enjoy the variety of species, literally on your doorstep. An added bonus is the proximity of the Kruger Park with Phabeni Gate just 10 to 15 minutes away, however being school holidays it was quite busy when we were there and arriving at the gate just before opening time, we found ourselves at the back of a longish queue – but that’s another story (watch this space).
The facilities in the resort, such as the large swimming pools, tennis courts and the putt-putt course mean that there is enough to keep you busy and active besides the birding and we also enjoyed venturing out to Hazyview and in particular the Perry’s Bridge shopping centre, with its interesting array of small boutique-style shops, located on the outskirts. The bakery has some special goodies to enjoy with coffee.
A selection of the birds seen from the patio :
There were plenty of other species in the resort grounds of which I did not get good photos, such as Dark-capped Yellow-Warbler, Green-backed Camaroptera, Golden-tailed and Cardinal Woodpeckers, Dusky Flycatcher, Shikra, Black Saw-wing, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Collared Sunbird and White-browed Robin-Chat. The river held Green-backed Heron and Reed Cormorant, amongst others :
While braai-ing in the evenings we enjoyed the night sounds of the lowveld including the calls of 2 owls – Southern White-faced and Wood Owl. The moon happened to be full on a couple of the evenings which added atmosphere to the experience.
There’s no question that a week in the lowveld in winter is full of delights and leaves you feeling like Superman :
West Rand Honorary Rangers (WRHR) in conjunction with SA National Parks have been organising birding weekends in Kruger National Park during the less popular months (read “very hot”) since the late 1990’s and we have enjoyed many wonderful moments since those days, being among the first to participate in these events. A recent addition to the WRHR repertory is the Punda Mania event during November, billed as a “hardcore” birding event. Prompted by George Skinner, we (George, myself, Koos Pauw and Pieter Rossouw) entered into the Punda Mania event from 15 to 18 November 2012. We set off from Pretoria around 8am on Thursday 15th November and reached Punda Maria gate to the Kruger Park about 1.30pm after an uneventful drive.
From there it was a short drive to Punda Maria to check in, ticking the typical Kruger Park birds as we went. Once settled into the classic accommodation alongside the entrance road, we met with the rest of the birders, the Honorary and KNP rangers and Joe Grosel, the leader for the weekend, who Koos and I had met a number of years ago during a Limpopo Bird Count event. Joe led us through the itinerary for the weekend and gave an excellent talk on the natural highlights of the area around Punda Maria and up to Pafuri. This included a description of the variety of habitats to be encountered, which are many and contribute to the famed diversity of bird species to be found in this part of Kruger.
As the sun headed for the horizon we were off on a very special “night(jar) drive” which took us to a patch of open ground not far from the camp, used as a “lek” during a 6 week window each November and December by the much sought after Pennant-winged Nightjars.
After sun-downers, the group stood quietly in anticipation of the Nightjars arrival, which was like clockwork during the mating season according to Joe and we had no reason to doubt him. We were not disappointed, as these special birds produced an enthralling display in front of us, swooping by like enormous butterflies with their long wing-pennants creating an eerie silhouette against the darkening skies. There was one female and 2 males, one of which settled on the gravel road in front of the group a couple of times just to add to the spectacular sighting. We headed back to camp feeling privileged to have witnessed something seen by few birders and what proved to be the highlight of the weekend before we had really started!
Friday, very early, we were given a “photographic treasure hunt” to complete during the morning’s drive, while our focus was mainly on adding to our growing bird list for the weekend. This had a great boost when we reached the bridge over the Luvuvhu River and were allowed to walk the bridge and enjoy the abundant bird life in the river and surrounding bush – renowned as a birding hot spot and it fully lived up to this reputation.
A majestic African Fish-Eagle kept watch over the river from atop a tall tree, while in the river Spectacled and Lesser-masked Weavers went about their business in the reeds and the ubiquitous Wire-tailed Swallows rested on the bridge railings – I have been visiting this spot on and off for close to 40 years and have come across these swallows perched on the bridge railings every time. They are a great subject for photography as they allow a close approach.
A Crowned Hornbill made an appearance in the trees adjoining the bridge, along with Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike and Dusky Flycatchers. Yellow-bellied Apalis and Grey-Tit Flycatchers added to the variety of birds on show. From there we traveled to the Pafuri picnic site, one of my favourite spots for a mid-morning brunch in the Kruger, but found it relatively quiet birding-wise, although we did add White-crowned Lapwing in the river bed and Yellow-bellied Greenbul and Retz’s Helmet-Shrike in the trees. Further along the river, Crook’s Corner was equally quiet with no sign of the Pel’s Fishing-Owl sometimes located here and very little water in the river, the only birds of note being a lone African Openbill and a Greenshank.
The very hot conditions meant that an afternoon nap in the cool chalet beat all other options. Later on some quiet garden birding in the area opposite the chalets produced a Little Sparrowhawk hunting among the trees. This was followed by the next arranged event which was a “Botanical treasure hunt” or “looking for stuff in trees” as George put it, where we had to ID and find the likes of a “snuff-box” tree, a Kudu Berry and a Leopard Orchid, which we duly did and in the process I came across a tree frog about 3m up on a bare branch which was something new for me.
After a good dinner the rangers took us on an evening drive which produced a Square-tailed Nightjar as well as an unusual mammal in the guise of a Sharpe’s Grysbok.
Saturday, just as early, we departed for a morning of atlasing in two pentads north of the Punda Maria camp which are normally not accessible by the general public and had only been atlased once or twice previously. The area we covered proved to be very hot and extremely dry – lists produced were not extensive but of course that is the whole point of atlasing – to record the species present or not present at any given time of the day and season. A selection of birds spotted follow below :
The trip included a stop at the Nyala Wilderness Trail base camp, which I remembered from a trail done back in 1999 – a Barred Owl calling had us searching for it and we eventually found it amongst the high branches. On the way back to Punda Maria we ticked a few more including White-throated Robin-Chat. Back at the camp it was nap-time again followed by a walk to the hide on the edge of the camping area, which overlooks a waterhole outside the fence.
The waterhole was alive with various game and birds coming to find some relief from the hot,dry conditions – game included Elephant, Zebra, Nyala, Impala and a lone Warthog. Marabou Storks strode back and forwards like down-and-out gentlemen – still elegant in posture but rather tatty and unattractive. A Grey-headed Kingfisher made several sorties from a nearby perch to the water and back, while in the muddy shallows Violet-backed Starlings mingled with doves, canaries and bulbuls.
I watched with interest when a Bateleur arrived at the waterhole and proceeded to go through a lengthy routine of walking with some purpose into the muddy area and drinking leisurely from a small pool, taking a minute or so between sips and seeming to savour each mouthful (beakful?) After about 10 repeats of this he walked to the drier edge of the waterhole and threw open his large wings to soak up the heat, followed by a forward fall onto his belly to get sun on the back of the wings as well, or so I surmised. Perhaps he had seen the movie with the penguins sliding on their bellies on the ice and thought he would give it a try!
After some time in this pose he stood up carefully, scanned the skies and then took off. This whole procedure was quite unusual behaviour, I thought – later research using my bird books at home did confirm that the wing-spreading action is well-known but I could find no mention of the “belly-flop” action.
That evening it was time for a drive to view the Pennant-winged Nightjars displaying once again, followed by the final dinner and prize-giving to close off what had proved to be a memorable weekend.
The Sunday drive back to Gauteng provided an opportunity to visit a couple of birding spots such as the Entabeni forest and Muirhead Dams where we spent some time exploring and looking for the area specials, some of which are shown below :
All in all a memorable weekend amongst a group of super-keen birders and another success for the West-Rand Honorary Rangers who, along with other branches who have followed their lead, are now one of the leading birding trip organisers in South Africa, contributing valuable funds to conservation – well done to them!
Our group for the trip comprised George and Barbara Skinner, Koos Pauw and myself – two late withdrawals reduced the party to four instead of the planned six, plus our two guides for the trip, Gary Douglas and Jonathan (Jonno) Francis. These two, operating as Douglas and Francis Safaris, have been highly praised in birding circles and deservedly so, for their exceptional knowledge of all things natural, their amazing ability to find the specials and their absolute determination to make your trip the best one ever – all accompanied by good humour, excellent food and unbridled enthusiasm. “Guys come quickly, you’ve got to see this!!” became the signal to rush over to one or the other to view the latest sighting, by which time they often had a scope trained on the bird for outstanding views.
What follows will never do justice to the fantastic experience of birding with them, but for the record, here goes:
Day 1 : We were collected by Jonno at HarareAirport and immediately started our Trip List with Abdim’s Stork plus a few other common birds as we were taken to the Francis home, our base for the next 2 days. We were hardly out of the vehicle when Jonno shouted Whyte’s Barbet and there was our first lifer before we had even considered seeing one! After a quick lunch we set off for the Harare Botanical Gardens where we had a busy couple of hour’s birding, collecting Green-backed Honeybird, which had Jonno in an extreme state of excitement, something we experienced a number of times over the following days. The gardens are unlike most others of our experience – no manicured lawns and flower beds with “keep off” signs, just a wonderful collection of plants and trees allowed to go their natural course for the most part. The feeling is of being in wild forest country rather than the middle of Harare.
Later the same day, when the rest of our group arrived, we were off to Rainham Dams near Harare where we spent the time until sunset combing the water and adjoining vleis for the specials – Black Coucal, Senegal Coucal were easily spotted and a Western Marsh-Harrier did a majestic fly-past, while Variable and Copper Sunbirds showed in the bushes.
Day 2 : An early trip to one of Harare’s vleis in search of Streaky-breasted Flufftail, which had arrived following substantial rains according to Gary and Jonno. After a few attempts at surrounding the spots from which the calls were emanating, 2 were persuaded to flush and fly a short distance, affording good views. We ended up with very wet shoes, a few ticks of the biting kind and a number of the birding variety, including excellent views of Rosy-throated Longclaw, Pale-crowned Cisticola, Cuckoo Finch and Yellow-mantled Widowbird.
Back to the house for dry shoes and an energizing breakfast, watched over by Red-billed Firefinch, then off to prime Miombo Woodland in the Christon Bank area which produced great views of Collared Flycatcher, Cabanis’s Bunting, Miombo Tit amongst a busy bird party of around 20 species which gave us non-stop ticking opportunities. Further along, a second stop was as good and included Red-faced Crombec, Grey Penduline-tit and stunning views of Spotted Creeper as it went from branch to branch. A young Boomslang in a small bush was a surprise sighting and had us walking with slightly less abandon as we wondered where his closest relatives were residing.
A late afternoon visit to the Botanical gardens for those who did not get there the previous day produced a good crop of birds including a stately Ovambo Sparrowhawk high up in a tree and, just as we were leaving, the call of a Buff-spotted Flufftail had us excited but it refused to be tempted into the open for a sighting before darkness fell.
Day 3 : Another early start to get our shoes wet in another of Harare’s “amazing vleis” (could this be the title of a birder’s anthem?) – the gradual encroachment by allotment farmers creating a patchwork of mielies right across the vlei were disturbing, nevertheless good sightings of Great Reed-Warbler, African Reed-Warbler, Little Rush-Warbler and Orange-breasted Waxbills perked up our spirits. Red-chested Flufftails were heard calling but attempts to flush them failed.
After another hearty breakfast, accompanied by the resident nesting Paradise Flycatchers, we headed off to one of Harare’s Sewerage farms which proved to have an abundance of birds such as Abdim’s Storks, White-backed Vultures and Black Kites. The verdant green kikuyu pastures were filled with prime cattle, hundreds of Cattle Egrets and tens of Yellow Wagtails, making for a memorable scene as they all moved in unison against the brilliant green grass backdrop – who says Sewerage farms are ugly? Exiting the farm we found a Dark-capped Yellow Warbler in a roadside bush and picked up a Black-chested Snake-Eagle on a distant pylon.
Late afternoon saw us in more beautiful Miombo woodland north of Harare – this time to look for Wood and Tree Pipits in particular – an obliging Tree Pipit caused much excitement, followed by a White-breasted Cuckooshrike, but the Wood Pipit would have to wait. We came to the conclusion that Miombo woodland makes for excellent birding apart from the special birds – it is easy to access, the trees are not too tall and there are no thorny bushes to impede progress.
Day 4 : An enormous day from all points of view! We set off from Harare just after 6am and headed south towards Marondera. A breakfast stop at Gosho Park provided another opportunity for Miombo birding which produced stunning views of Miombo Rock-Thrush, a Freckled Nightjar that flushed from the rocky outcrops and other specials such as Redfaced Crombec, Black-eared Seedeaters, Spotted Creeper and a Wood Pipit to make up for the previous day’s dip.
A vlei selected by our expert guides a bit further along had us sweating as we trudged through the long grass, but the excitement ran high when first a Black-rumped Buttonquail and then our target species of Locustfinch flushed, flew a short distance and dived back into the grass, affording good views to the group.
Our next stop for lunch was a well-chosen rocky outcrop with wonderful views and equally wonderful birding – by now we were starting to appreciate just how good our two guides were as they spotted one special bird after the other, in between naming every tree, butterfly, squirrel that we queried. We hardly had time to enjoy the tasty Pit(t)a burgers between viewing the birds on offer : Yellow-bellied Waxbill, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, Robert’s Warbler, Singing Cisticola, Bronzy Sunbird plus others.
And there was more to come before the day ended…. a brief detour towards Nyanga National Park to search for Blue Swallows was successful at the second stop and a Blue-spotted Dove flew up as we passed and eyed us from an open branch close to the road.
Finally we proceeded to our overnight stop at Far and Wide Resort near Mutarazi Falls where the last half hour of a stunning day was spent at a viewpoint overlooking the Honde Valley 1000m (yes, one kilometre vertically!) below and to top it all Scarce Swifts appeared as we enjoyed a sundowner.
Day 5 : An early walk in the forested area surrounding the resort produced glimpses of Barrat’s Warbler and good views of Stripe-cheeked Greenbul but the one that really bowled us over was a Red-faced Crimsonwing feeding at the edge of the path.
Sightings of Bronze-naped Pigeon and Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler rounded off the early morning.
Most of the rest of the day was spent travelling to Aberfoyle with several stops along the way to enjoy the views and further specials such as Grey Waxbill and Livingstone’s Turaco. On arrival at Aberfoyle there was hardly time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings as various birds put in an appearance – Eastern Sawwing swept gracefully past us and an African Broadbill was spotted sitting quietly on a nearby branch. Palmnut Vultures flew by and a Green-backed Woodpecker had us running to the spot where Jonno and Gary had set up the scope to view it. Red-throated Twinspot andYellow-rumped Tinkerbird put in a welcome appearance during the afternoon.
Day 6 : A slower day’s birding, to allow us all to recharge, started with a dawn trip to the nearby marsh on the estate to find the Anchieta’s Tchagra, which we duly did. Half-collared Kingfisher and Silvery-cheeked Hornbill were added to the list on the way back. On our return, Pallid Honeyguide caused excitement in the gardens of the country club, after which we walked a stretch of the golf course to view some of the spectacular butterflies present. Lunch was at the river which flows through the estate and the humidity persuaded us to take a dip in the cold clear waters, followed by a siesta. Having heard the Buff-spotted Flufftail calling from the forest adjoining the club, we spent the late afternoon tracking it and persuading it to show, once again to no avail.
Day 7 : Another full day travelling, this time our destination was Vumba in the highlands, with more magnificent scenery along the way – various stops produced several lifers for all : Zambezi Indigobird in a dry tree next to the road, a pair of Augur Buzzards soaring in the wind, fleeting glimpses of Magpie Mannikins as they flew across the road and a Black-winged Bishop amongst mielies, looking for all the world like the familiar Southern Red Bishop until he flew a short distance, displaying the paddle-shaped black wings that our guides had warned us to look out for.
Near our destination we stopped in a heavily forested area where we had an incredible encounter with a Swynnerton’s Robin which we struggled to see in the dense undergrowth until it made its way slowly and deliberately towards where our group was anxiously crouching, where it was an arm’s length away – it eyed us for a while until it wandered off, leaving us shaking our heads at the jaw-dropping views of this uncommon bird.
Once settled in our accommodation we spent the last hour of the day in the adjoining forest which quickly produced Orange Ground Thrush and glimpses of Lemon Doves as well as Olive Sunbird.
Day 8 : After a forest walk and breakfast, our last full day was spent driving the route to Burma Valley and back, enjoying the picturesque scenery in the misty conditions. Highlights along the route included a Lanner Falcon posing imperiously in a tree, good sightings of Magpie Mannikin and an Emerald Cuckoo on an open branch. Our guides once again found a couple of specials in Cinnamon-breasted Tit and Pale Batis in adjoining trees.
Day 9 : The last day held a few more surprises in store for us before boarding the plane at Harare International for the trip back to Gauteng. As we were departing Seldom Seen a Black-fronted Bush-Shrike was heard and shortly after well seen by all. With a long way to travel and limited time for stops, our guides concentrated on finding a few more lifers for us at selected spots along the way back to Harare. We were fortunate to find both Boulder Chat and Thrush Nightingale at one of these spots along with a handsome Shikra, while another small dam produced a pair of Pygmy Geese and a bonus of a fly-past of a group of Mottled Swifts.
A final walk through a vlei by half our group (the rest had an earlier flight and unfortunately had to rush ahead) intent on flushing something special, struck gold when a pair of Blue Quail flushed in front of us, topping off what had turned into the birding trip of a lifetime.
We ended off with a trip list well over 300 and lifers ranging between 48 and 72 for the members of our group. My own lifers count was a stunning 60!