During our visit to Franschhoek a week ago, we spent a very pleasant afternoon on a trip to Tulbagh, about 100 kms drive from Franschhoek, via the towns of Wellington and Paarl. It was a beautiful sunny day and the country scenery in this part of the Western Cape is particularly pleasing, with winter crops of canola and lucerne stretching to the horizon.
It was close to lunchtime and being peckish we stopped at the Grande Provence wine farm and had a light meal in their informal deli restaurant which set us up nicely for the day out.
On the road again, we soon passed through the outskirts of Paarl and Wellington, after which the landscape changed from vineyards to fields brimming with winter crops.
The canola fields are a real drawcard for photographers of all kinds and, like many, I find it hard to resist trying to get that ‘special’ shot but usually end up with the ‘standard’ landscape view of bright yellow canola fields with some contrasting mountains and sky/clouds in the background – still worth sharing I think …
At the spot where this photo was taken, there were also signs of the first Spring flowers at the roadside. It won’t be long before the countryside in parts of the Western and Northern Cape erupt with flowers
We had not visited Tulbagh for perhaps 25 years, so weren’t sure what to expect, but after driving down the main road, which looks like most other small town main roads, we were absolutely taken with the beauty of the architecture along Church street just a block away. I don’t know of any town in SA which has so many outstanding examples of Cape Dutch architecture in one street. We spent a pleasant half hour or more admiring the houses, some of which are now museums and art galleries, as we drove slowly down the road.
And the coffee ‘shop’ with a difference? Well on the way back, passing Hermon, we spotted a large sign announcing COFFEE and pulled off into a small parking area cut into a lucerne field where, lo and behold, an enterprising farmer had created the most unique coffee spot you could imagine
A couple of my recent longer posts have highlighted what I like to call “Stoepsitter birding” – which is the relaxed kind conducted mostly from a comfortable seat, preferably accompanied by suitable snacks and beverages to make sure the energy and spirit remains at a high level. Both were in favourite locations, one in Satara Camp in Kruger National Park, the other at Verlorenkloof Resort not far from Macahadodorp in Mpumulanga Province.
Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape has the honour of completing a trio of outstanding locations and places where Stoepsitter birding comes into its own.
The criteria are simple – suitable habitat to attract a variety of birdlife, a comfortable spot from which to observe the comings and goings of the birdlife, without disturbing them too much and the time and patience to devote yourself to this activity. It also helps if the birdlife and small wildlife is habituated to humans and happy to share their world with us, which for the most part is certainly the case in Addo.
Addo Elephant National Park
Our road trip in March this year included a three night stay in Addo, in a comfortable chalet with a view over a part of the Main Camp and a raised deck where we could spend a large part of the day (depicted in the heading image), while reserving the afternoons to venture out on game/birding drives.
The variety of birdlife that came to visit was exceptional, many of them drawn by the surrounding trees and shrubs which held a cornucopia of edible avian delights – nectar filled flowers, berries, small insects and suchlike.
Weavers were the most prominent and numerous birds that visited, represented by no less than three different species, all belonging to the Ploceus genus. Weavers can be difficult to ID in their winter non-breeding plumage, but there are still enough clues to narrow the identification down when faced with similar looking yellow birds.
Village Weaver (Bontrugwewer / Ploceus cucullatus)
The Village Weavers outnumbered the other two weaver species and were frequent visitors to the flowering trees right in front of our chalet. My limited botanical knowledge would make this a type of Coral Tree (Erythrina genus) with its bright scarlet flowers but I’m open to correction….. which I have received (see comments below) and I now know this is in fact a Weeping boer-bean (Schotia brachypetala / Huilboerboon) so called, apparently, due to the copious amounts of nectar during flowering which overflow and ‘weep’
In breeding plumage the Village Weaver is fairly easy to distinguish from other masked Weavers, but this male was in eclipse plumage, the “in-between” stage when they are in the process of transitioning to their duller non-breeding plumage. The red eye and spotted-backed appearance confirmed the ID
Cape Weaver (Kaapse wewer / Ploceus capensis)
In non-breeding plumage the Cape Weaver male is still fairly easy to identify with its white eye colour and heavy bill, although lacking the chestnut brown wash over the face and neck which it shows during the summer breeding months. This is also the largest of the yellow weavers, by length and mass, but size is not always a dependable way to ID a bird unless the other candidate is sitting right next to it.
The female is less distinctive with brown eyes but the heavy bill helps to separate it from other non-breeding female weavers.
Spectacled Weaver (Brilwewer / Ploceus ocularis)
The Spectacled Weavers are easily distinguishable with their black ‘spectacles’ and black bill, while the black bib says this is a male.
Two species of Sunbird were drawn to the nectar produced by the flowering trees, very different in appearance but equally striking as they went about the business of extracting the nectar with long down-curved bills and even longer tongues to probe the flowers.
There were several other species that visited the chalet surrounds, not all of which chose to pose for a photo, but those that did seemed quite happy to be ‘in the picture’. Here are the species that spend most time in the trees and shrubs –
This member of the Canary family (The Afrikaans name confirms it) is a great singer and fond of sitting in an exposed position, so is hard to miss, but can be confused with the similar looking White-throated Canary
Franschhoek, a small town some 90 minutes from Cape Town, is well known as the historical home of the French Huguenots, who settled in the area and turned it into a little piece of France.
We have been spending the last few days here at one of the many guest farms, surrounded by bare, gnarly vineyards in their mid-winter form and venturing out to explore the beautiful valley which lies between towering mountains.
There are stunning landscapes around every corner and some of the best preserved Cape Dutch architecture in the Western Cape, but what really caught my eye was this abandoned cottage, with the remnants of a small garden still visible, just a stone’s throw away from the impressive Huguenot Monument
Abandoned buildings, especially such as this, always set my mind to wondering about the people who lived there and called it home, perhaps several different families over many decades, far removed from the elegant homes that are a feature of modern day Franschhoek
After the recent cold and rainy weather in the Mossel Bay area, I was glad when the weather brightened this past week, allowing me the opportunity to get out for some bird atlasing. I headed west of Mossel Bay to an area I had targeted over the weekend and found myself on a gravel country road, quiet and with no other traffic, so I wasn’t expecting to encounter a road block ……
I don’t mind admitting it left me feeling a bit sheepish ……
On one of our recent outings to The Point, just 10 minutes away from our Mossel Bay home, we spotted a rainbow forming over the sea in the distance.
I snapped a shot while driving (very slowly) and hastened to find a spot to capture the rainbow before it disappeared. It did not have the full bow of a ‘proper’ rainbow but formed an almost vertical column disappearing into the low clouds hanging over the sea – quite unusual.
Once satisfied with the images I noticed a number of surfers in the sea – not unusual as this is a favourite surf spot, but the light was so perfect for photography that I could not resist trying my hand at some “surf’s up” images.
Further on we found a parking spot to enjoy our tea and watch the passing birds – the Cape Cormorants are regulars at the Point and once again the light was still good enough to capture a couple in flight, on their way to their roost somewhere further up the coast.
When we returned to our Mossel Bay home recently we were thrilled to find the Cape Weavers (Ploceus capensis/ Kaapse wewer) hard at work building nests right outside our upper floor living area. They provide endless entertainment with their constant activity, never stopping from dawn to dusk.
The post has been updated to include an image of the chicks being fed – they are growing fast
During our visit to Mountain Zebra National Park in March this year, we stopped at the main picnic area on the way to one of our drives and were drawn to have a closer look at the striking tree in the middle of the area.
Closer inspection showed just how unique this tree is and the Parks Board had wisely thought to provide a name plate for this impressive example
All in all a striking example of this tree species, I’m sure you will agree
Actually it was on a Wednesday – but all will become clear as you read on…..
Road Trip to Eastern Cape
Our Road Trip from Mossel Bay to the Eastern Cape was into the third day, after spending the first two nights in the Nature’s Valley area, where we explored a few places we had last visited many years ago.
Our next stop was Addo Elephant National Park, half a day’s drive further east, so there was no need to rush, except ……. well, there was the small matter of a possible rarity in the back of my mind …..
Now, some readers may know by now that I am an opportunistic twitcher rather than an obsessive one – if a rare bird is reported at a spot which is within reach of where I happen to be, I will consider making an attempt to see it, as long as it does not entail extensive travel and there is a reasonably good chance of actually finding the rarity.
So what rare bird was in the back of my mind?
Well, for some time before this trip, in fact since the end of November 2020, there had been reports of a Sooty Gull that had been spotted at various places along the eastern coast of South Africa, a species never recorded before in the region, so classified as a “Mega Rarity” by those who are driven by such things.
I had been following its gradual progress southwards with interest, secretly hoping that 1) it would remain in the area long enough until our road trip began and 2) it would settle at a spot which was within ‘twitching distance’ of our planned route to the Eastern Cape. After the initial sighting in Northern Kwazulu Natal, the gull was spotted at Kei Mouth in the Eastern Cape and spent some weeks there.
I became more interested when the bird was spotted at the Sundays River Mouth, east of Port Elizabeth, early in March 2021 and remained there for the couple of weeks prior to our road trip. That was just what I had been hoping for, as I estimated that the detour to its location would fit into our travel plans with time to spare.
Now where had this rarity come from? No one can tell for sure but it is thought it had somehow ‘drifted’ far south of its usual territory, which is the Middle East and southwards to Tanzania, Kenya and the northern most reaches of Mozambique. Also known as the Aden Gull or Hemprich’s Gull, it was a couple of thousand kms outside its normal range when first spotted in SA. It is partially migratory, moving southwards after breeding, so perhaps its internal ‘GPS’ went awry and took it much further south than intended.
Being a coastal bird and a scavenger, it is most often found near ports and harbours, inshore islands and the intertidal zone.
My journal tells the story ……
We left Nature’s Valley around 11 am with a drive of some 330 kms ahead of us – which took us all of 6 hours as it turned out! A quick stop at the Bread and Brew shop for pies to take to Addo and we were on our way. Initially the N2 National Road proved to be a good road with a broad shoulder, but from halfway it became more challenging with heavier traffic, several of the ubiquitous “Stop and Go’s” (one side of road closed at a time to allow construction work) and many slow heavy vehicles to get past.
I had discovered that morning that I had contrived to forget my camera’s battery charger at home and was desperately thinking how to find one for my particular camera in Port Elizabeth (PE) in a short space of time. Fortunately the first camera shop I phoned said they could help, but this meant a long, slow detour deep into the suburbs of PE to the shop. An hour or so and R700 (about $50) later I was the proud owner of a nifty universal battery charger and we set our sights on getting to Colchester, the town near the Sundays River Mouth.
Sundays River Mouth
After confirming the location on Google Maps, I had imagined driving through Colchester to the river mouth on a reasonable road, parking there and finding the Sooty Gull nearby – none of that happened!
We found Colchester some 30 kms east of PE, drove through to where the road to the mouth supposedly began and found ourselves on a road marked ‘Private’ and a locked gate blocking any further progress. I parked and went to enquire at the nearby Pearson Park office where I found a couple who confirmed that we were at the right place and told us “the entrance fee is R100”. It seemed odd that the river mouth had been privatised in this way but there was no time for a discussion and R100 seemed like a good investment for what I imagined to be a guaranteed lifer, so I paid the amount and, clutching the entrance ticket, returned to our car.
The gate opened and we proceeded along the road, initially tarred but soon it became gravel, very corrugated and worn, which had our small but fully loaded car bouncing along while I winced inwardly. The office couple had simply told us to “drive until you see parked cars”, which we did for several kms.
Some distance from the sea we found a parking area in between the low dunes, with two vehicles parked, one of which was about to leave, so I stopped them to enquire if they knew about ‘the bird’. They absolutely did as they were returning from a day’s fishing and they explained how I would find it on the beach “where those fishermen are, see?”. I didn’t want to admit that said fishermen were so far away that I couldn’t see them, thanked them as they drove off and set off myself on foot, munching on a take away chicken burger (there had been no time to stop for lunch), along the sand in the direction they had pointed.
At this stage it was already 3.30 pm and with the last stretch of road to Addo still ahead and of unfamiliar route and distance, I was becoming rather tense. I walked as quickly as the soft sand would allow, quickly seeking out the firmer sand along the edge of the estuary. After some 15 minutes of strenuous walking/ trotting I found myself closer to the beach. I could already see a few gulls pottering about on the sand – through the binos I could make out numbers of Kelp Gulls but of the Sooty Gull there was no sign and my heart sank just a tad.
Then, as I approached the last ridge in the sand before the beach and peered over it I spotted more gulls, one of which had a darker appearance. Lifting the binos to my eyes I let out a shout of “bingo!” or something similar – it was the Sooty Gull!
Relieved, I spent the next 10 minutes slowly approaching and photographing the gull as I went, until I was 10 to 15 metres away and felt that I was close enough, not wanting to spook the bird, which seemed quite accepting of my slow approach, only once lifting into the air for a few seconds before carrying on with its foraging.
This is the location where the gull was hanging out
Most satisfied with how things had turned out, I returned as hastily as possible to the parked car and my patient wife, sweating from the exertion but happy about the outcome. The rest of the trip to Addo was uneventful, but slow on the poor, bumpy and narrow roads and we were glad to arrive safely and in time before the gates closed, book in and find our chalet. Accompanied by a typical bush sunset, we could relax and savour a glass of red wine and the new lifer in beautiful surroundings.
What a challenge birding can be sometimes, yet what joy and satisfaction it brings.
How to find out about rarities
Just a footnote on news of Rarities in Southern Africa – for up to date news of rarities I highly recommended that you subscribe (at no cost) to the SA Rare Bird News by simply sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and asking to be added to the subscriber list
Sticking with the “stoepsitter” mode of birding as described in my recent post on the ‘Lawn Raiders’ of Verlorenkloof, here’s another version in a somewhat different location – Satara Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park.
(For the benefit of international readers “stoepsitter” is an Afrikaans term that translates roughly as one who spends much time on the stoep or verandah – but you knew that anyway, I’m sure)
It’s a well known fact amongst birders that, when visiting Kruger’s camps, time spent relaxing with binos on the stoep of your accommodation is bound to be rewarded with views of a variety of birds as they go about their daily business, on the grass, in the bushes and in the trees that most of the camps have in abundance.
That’s not to say one shouldn’t spend time getting out and about on game drives, exploring this national treasure of our wildlife, it’s just that when you want to relax in the rest camp, there’s no better place to do so than on the stoep of your rondavel or other accommodation.
Satara Rest Camp
During our December 2020 visit to Kruger, we spent four nights in Satara Rest Camp, one of which was in a fully equipped rondavel close to the perimeter fence, the other three in a more basic rondavel facing onto an expanse of grass with well established trees in close proximity.
This meant there was ample time for some serious stoepsitting, in between forays into the surrounding areas on game and birding drives and to visit the picnic spots for our traditional Kruger brunches (ooh, just typing that makes my mouth water and my nose prickle with the imaginary smell of a tasty brunch braai-ing on the pan).
The first afternoon and morning produced a fair sprinkling of interesting birds, before we changed rondavels, some of which I managed to photograph –
Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata / Europese vlieëvanger
A Spotted Flycatcher, a non-breeding Palaearctic migrant, was quietly going about its business on an outer branch with a view over an expanse of lawn, which in some camps has been allowed to grow “wild”, as you will see in the featured image at the top of this post.
Just a note on these “wild” lawns : it was initially jarring to see the lawns in such a wild state, having been used to manicured lawns in the camp for so many years, but I will admit that I now find this quite appropriate to the surroundings, as the contrast between the camp gardens and the natural habitat of the surrounding veld has been reduced – the ‘line has been blurred somewhat’. I like to think this was a conscious decision by the Park authorities.
Another migrant, the stunning Violet-backed Starling, but this one hasn’t got as far to migrate, being an intra-African migrant from tropical Africa.
And the missus was there, no doubt keeping an eye on handsome hubby to make sure he didn’t attract any competition. One of a number of species with significant, even dramatic, differences in plumage between male and female (known as dimorphism)
The Woodland Kingfisher is also a breeding intra-African migrant, strikingly coloured and always a joy to find. Although they were present in the camp, this photo was taken on one of our drives.
On the second morning we had to move to another rondavel, this time without a kitchen, but we had come prepared with a fold-up table, little gas cooker for the all-important boiled water for our tea and coffee and our picnic hamper that always accompanies our trips to Kruger. The camp has communal kitchens close by for the washing up etc .
Once settled in to the new accommodation, I continued with stoepsitter birding and soon noticed that one particular bird was almost constantly present on the stretch of grass in front of the rondavel. It was a Red-billed Hornbill, a common species found throughout Kruger. I assumed it had found a good spot to find the small insects that make up most of its diet and did not pay too much attention to it as it came and went at regular intervals.
Hornbills look ungainly with their huge bills, but they have an admirable ability to find and pick up insects with some precision
At one stage I kept watching the Hornbill after it had found an insect but not swallowed it, which led me to think it was feeding its young. It flew up to a large tree nearby and settled on the trunk where a branch had probably broken off years earlier as there was a large scar, visible about halfway up the left hand trunk in the image below.
The Hornbill then poked its bill through a small hole in the trunk and that’s when I realised what it was doing.
Red-billed Hornbills nest in natural cavities in trees, which the female inspects before selecting one. The entrance is usually just wide enough to allow entry and is then sealed from the inside by the female, using own faeces, leaving just a narrow slit and effectively holding her prisoner during the laying and incubation of the eggs.
Once eggs are laid, incubation takes up to 25 days, followed by another 16 to 24 days during which the female cares for the young, all the while being fed by the male. Then the female breaks her way out leaving the youngsters in the nest and joins the male in providing food for the chicks, while the youngsters then re-seal the opening until they in turn are ready to take on the world at the ripe old age of around 50 days.
That’s quite a partnership! I felt privileged to have been able to see them in action.
All of this kept the male busy the whole day, but he still found time to go and see his reflection in my car’s window and frustratingly shadow box with what he thought was a possible intruder.
Birding comes in different forms, sometimes challenging, requiring a dedicated effort, extendedtravel, perhaps some serious physical exertion, often in the face of less than favourable weather conditions.
However, it’s not always that way – some of the most relaxing and enjoyable birding is to be found in your immediate surroundings, whether at home or a holiday destination.
Which is precisely what we experienced during our recent visit to Verlorenkloof, a country resort that I have written about on a few occasions and one of our all-time favourite places to spend a breakaway week. We were fortunate to be invited by Koos and Rianda to join them in Croft No 3 (shown below) for the last week in May.
For those who don’t yet know, Verlorenkloof lies east of Dullstroom, but on the lower side of the escarpment which towers above the fertile valley in which the resort is situated. The red square on the map indicates the position of the pentad which includes Verlorenkloof resort.
The birding at Verlorenkloof is always exceptional, with my personal tally of species recorded in the area, after many visits over the last twelve years, standing at 195, so the expectations were high. These hopes were of course tempered by the knowledge that the last week in May is often a quiet time for birding, with none of the summer migrants present and many of the remaining species not in calling or displaying mode.
Oddly enough, for the first 3 or 4 days of our stay, the area around the Croft was very quiet with far fewer birds than we are used to, but over the last two days of our stay, following some light rain, the scene changed completely. Suddenly all of the usual visitors were there, searching the lawn for edible insects, worms and the like.
I was fascinated by the variety of mostly “ordinary” birds and their antics – each one displaying its own way of “raiding the lawn” and finding a tasty morsel while showing unique character traits and interacting with the other bird species doing more or less the same thing.
Enter the Darth Vader of the bird world – the menacing, glaring Red-winged Starling….. and they work in gangs, daring others to get in their way, descending en masse to grass level and prodding aggressively at the grass in search of a victim. But only after perching on the railing post in intimidating fashion.
The gang takes over ….
Common Fiscal (Fiskaallaksman / Lanius collaris)
Watching from a side tree, the Common Fiscal, aka Jacky Hangman aka the Butcherbird – what a reputation this small bird has, all because of its habit of impaling prey on a thorn or barbed wire! Its elegant appearance, as if dressed in formal attire, seems to project just the opposite impression.
Interestingly the Fiscal was quite composed, until the Fork-tailed Drongo arrived, when it flew from its perch and chased the Drongo until it retired to a far-off tree.
Another of the more timid birds, almost ever-present on the lawn, pottering about without bothering any of the others. But a bit of a celebrity nevertheless, being rated “uncommon to locally common” by Roberts – a regular at certain times at Verlorenkloof, but by no means guaranteed.
Familiar is the right name for this well-known species. Another bird that is present from dawn to dusk around the Croft, watching from its favourite post and “diving” down to catch its tiny prey in the matted grass, with each return to its perch marked by three wing-flicks. I wondered how a bird with such tiny eyes can spot its prey at up to 5 metres or more, pouncing on it unerringly and returning to its post to devour it.
Cape Rock Thrush (Kaapse kliplyster / Monticella rupestris)
Bringing some class to the scene (did I mention I also originate from the Cape?) the Cape Rock Thrush has a way of dominating with its handsome looks and determined approach – they are not around constantly, but “pop in” from time to time, watching carefully from the roof edge or stone wall before pouncing on an unsuspecting prey.
Now here’s everyone’s favourite bit player – demure, quiet, unobtrusive (for a moment I thought I was describing myself), spending much of the day perched in the shade on a thin twig, flying down to the grass to catch some small prey.
A somewhat unexpected visitor, trying its luck along with the regulars. Despite its bright colours, this is a bird more familiar due to its call, a far-carrying duet, than its appearance. It did not stay long but seemed to be drawn to the lawn by all the other bird activity.