The first 10 days of our July stay in our second home town were characterised by cold, wet weather almost every day – typical Cape winter weather you might say, but the locals insist it is exceptional for Mossel Bay, which is punted as having one of the mildest climates in SA.
It hasn’t been conducive to going atlasing in the early morning, so I have taken the lazy option of doing most of my birding and atlasing in the Golf Estate where our house is located with short visits to some selected spots in the Mossel Bay area to find the species not occurring in the estate itself.
The Patio Option
Our enclosed patio looking over the golf course and the sea has proved to be the ideal spot for viewing the birds that visit our small garden, particularly when they perch in the neighbour’s trees, which are at eye level a just a few metres from the first floor patio.
Regular visitors include the usual Doves (Laughing, Cape Turtle- and Red-eyed) and Sparrows (Cape and Grey-headed) while Streaky-headed Seedeaters have been prominent for the first time that I can recall.
A Cape Weaver started building his nest with a neat ring of grass as the frame for the ball-shaped nest to follow, but unfortunately abandoned it at that point.
The honeysuckle hedge below the patio was not in flower but we still had both Southern and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds visiting, probably on their way to the many flowering Aloes in the estate, which are at their colourful best in the winter months.
Others dropping by were both of the common species of Mousebird, Speckled and Red-faced and both presented nice photo opportunities.
The ubiquitous Cape Sugarbirds are abundant in the estate and seem to be in a state of excitement most of the time – just shows what a fancy long tail does to you.
Then there are the Bulbuls with the familiar Cape Bulbul not at all shy to show himself, while the Sombre Greenbul remains hidden in the bushes but makes up for it with his piercing call “which sounds a bit like “Willie” (which is also the Afrikaans name for it)
A Yellow Bishop was a surprise visitor, as I had only ever seen them in the Fynbos which fills the nature reserve area between the last row of houses and the rocky headlands along the shoreline. It was in its duller winter plumage, heavily streaked and giving a glimpse of bright yellow back as it flew off.
Feeding the masses
I bought a bird-feeder and some seed at Agri, our local co-op and installed it below the patio, hoping for some seed-eating visitors. Well, it was packed with birds the next day – Sparrows, Seedeaters (they used to be called Streaky-headed Canaries), Bishops and Weavers all vying for a spot. In the frenzy some seed fell to the grass below and was quickly taken by the Doves and even the Cape Spurfowl which are very common in the estate.
When the weather allowed, I did some walking around the estate and down into the nature reserve area of Fynbos. The latter was alive with Yellow and White-throated Canaries flitting about, plenty of Sunbirds and a Bokmakierie or two.
And the scenery was special – most of the fynbos was in flower creating beautiful spreads of tiny purple, pink and white flowers against the backdrop of grey skies and cobalt ocean beyond the cliff edge.
For a few minutes the icy wind was forgotten and I took some photos with my pocket camera (which I sometimes use for communication as well – they should call it an I-Camera rather than an I-Phone)
Other fynbos favourites were out and about – Karoo Prinia vociferous as always and Southern Boubou skulking in the bushes, while Bar-throated Apalis moved about restlessly, calling chit-chit-chit all the while.
Let’s go down to the Sea again …….
Seabirds are always a feature of birding in Mossel Bay and there were plenty in numbers if not species. Kelp Gulls are common, even over the estate which they use as a direct route to their roosts along the cliffs.
Down at the Point there were numbers of Swift Terns flying past just off the rocky shoreline, some harried by Subantarctic Skuas, large all brown seabirds with distinctive white wing flashes, hoping for a dropped morsel. Their Afrikaans name Roofmeeu translates directly to “Robbing Gull” which describes their habit of pestering other seabirds until they drop or disgorge some of their food.
During the first week there were signs of the annual “sardine run”, when millions of these small fish move up the east coast of South Africa in massive shoals, drawing all kinds of sea- and bird-life along with them. From the patio we could see some of them enjoying take-aways :
schools of dolphins numbering in the hundreds
a few whales breaching – they are annual visitors to the bay
Cape Gannets galore, turning and diving straight down in their typical fashion
Winter is certainly a worthwhile time to visit Mossel Bay, but let’s face it, Spring and Summer are a lot better from most points of view! Can’t wait to return later in the year!
On the statistics front, my total bird list during this visit was 110 species of which about 60% were in the estate itself and the rest during side trips in and around Mossel Bay and a two-day “culinary and birding trip” to the Robertson area (watch this space for more on that subject)
This trip was a long time coming – George Skinner, my longstanding friend, with whom I have enjoyed some memorable birding trips and moments, had been nudging me in the direction of Mozambique for a couple of years, but circumstances had not allowed me to join him on one of these trips. Then in late 2014, George passed on details of a trip on offer in early February 2015 by Indicator Birding, which would cover some of the best summer birding spots of southern Mozambique – it looked very tempting and after “clearance for take off” from my dear wife Gerda, it was game on.
The trip was due to start on Thursday 29th January 2015, so we returned from our annual long stay in Mossel Bay a little earlier than planned, to allow time to see to some work commitments (yes, I actually do some consulting work in between birding and blogging) and make the necessary preparations for the trip, which included making sure my vehicle was in good shape for approximately 5000 kms of driving in conditions which at that stage were unknown to me, but bound to be challenging in places (little did I know what was in store).
And so the day arrived for departure, the VW Touareg was loaded with the necessities for a road trip of 15 days – an all-important fridge for cold water and other drinks, a crate full of breakfast, lunch and in-between snacks and goodies, a nifty little gas stove for preparing boiling water for tea and coffee, a few bottles of good wine stuck into various available corners of the load space and, of course, a bag full of bush clothes and all the other paraphernalia that goes with a trip dedicated to birding – books, cameras, spotting scope, etc. Dinners were planned to be taken at restaurants at or near our overnight stops, which was a good way to avoid having to take even more self-catering equipment and food and gave us more time for bird watching until dusk, without having to rush back and prepare meals.
I had a “Dr Livingstone goes into darkest Africa” feeling about the trip prior to departure – a country I had not visited before, news headlines of the recent flooding in parts of Moz (although we were assured it was all north of the Zambezi where we would not be going), the stories of corrupt and aggressive border officials that constantly do the rounds, etc – but nothing was going to put me off at this stage.
Etienne Marais (Indicator Birding : http://birding.co.za ), our group leader and guide for the trip, had proposed meeting at Milly’s near Machadadorp, for breakfast and introductions to the other group members, which we duly did, reaching this popular roadside stop at 7 am. There we met the group which was spread over four vehicles – Etienne with his passengers Corné Rautenbach, Edith Oosthuizen and Bruce Dyer who had all flown up from Cape Town for the trip, Owen and Sue Oertli from Johannesburg, Neithard and Katharina Graf von Durkheim from Pretoria, Myself (also Pretoria) and George Skinner (Johannesburg, but at the time I write this has “emigrated” to Dullstroom).
In describing the trip I have borrowed from the itinerary which Etienne had drawn up and distributed prior to the trip and which sets it out nicely on a day by day basis ……….
Day 1 RSA to Xai-Xai
“After meeting early morning we drive up to Xai-Xai and stay at Honeypot camp. This gives us easy access to the superb Limpopo floodplain nearby”
After breakfast at Milly’s we headed off in convoy towards the Lebombo border post, stopping just short of it to fill up with fuel and change some of our Rands to Meticals. We approached the Moz side of the border with some apprehension, having heard so many stories, but in the end it all went smoothly and we studiously ignored the many “helpers” and touts who pester you from the moment you enter the border post area.
We had made good time and were through the border formalities by 12 noon, but from there it was slower going, especially once we got to the “bypass” (a euphemism if there ever was one) around Maputo which is still under construction and only partly complete, so we had to negotiate the incomplete sections along atrocious dirt roads clogged with traffic. The rest of the trip was through beautiful countryside interrupted only by small typically African towns.
Not much birding was done, but we did stop to view both European and African Hobby in the same trees, just outside the town of Macia.
We reached Honeypot camp just outside Xai-Xai (non-SA readers note it’s pronounced shy-shy) at 5 pm after 12 hours on the road and celebrated with a cold local beer, which tasted especially good. A short spell of birding the camp produced the first Olive Sunbird and a Peregrine Falcon sitting high up on a radio mast, then it was supper time in the camp’s restaurant and early to bed to prepare for our first serious birding the next day.
Day 2 Xai-Xai to Imhambane via Panda Woodland
“Today we do a long circular route (370km) which will ensure an excellent variety of birds. Our first stop is on the wetlands of the Limpopo Floodplain. We then head across the floodplain and inland towards the Panda area. Once we have finished our woodland birding we head north to Imhambane. Overnight : Areia Branca Lodge, Barra Peninsula.”
Etienne had us up early for departure (which became the pattern for the trip) by 5am and we headed for our first stop in rainy weather at the wetlands of the Limpopo floodplain, very close to our overnight stop.
Very soon we were adding our first water birds of the trip, from the road that skirts the floodplain. African Openbill, African Jacana, Little Egret and Little Stint were immediately obvious in the reed-lined ponds not far from the road, while several Squacco Herons and Black-crowned Night-Herons flew by overhead in the soft, cloud-filtered morning light. A Sedge Warbler (my first lifer of the day) was heard by Etienne and made a brief appearance among the reeds, raising excitement levels as much as the early hour allowed (considering we were still coffee-deprived at that point). Fan-tailed Widowbirds flew nervously back and forth while the group scanned the wetlands and the skies for further species.
Excitement increased another notch when a Rufous-winged Cisticola was spotted and became my second lifer for the day, as it was for several of our group. Further into the wetland Common Greenshank, African Spoonbill and the colourful flash of a Malachite Kingfisher were spotted. The rain was moving in and getting increasingly heavy so we moved on to the next spot some distance along the road where we got out for a walk along a pathway that led into the wetlands and between the ponds.
We soon discovered the path was designed to attach the maximum amount of sticky cotton mud to the soles and sides of our shoes and, as the layers grew, our feet became progressively heavier and we became a little taller – no amount of shaking could get rid of it until we got back to the road and washed most of it off, using the puddles formed by the rain. The feeling was a bit like being a 4-year-old kid who tries on daddy’s shoes and clumps down the passage.
However, the muddy walk was well worthwhile, as we added several desirable species, including Hottentot Teal, White-backed Duck, African Pygmy Goose and Whiskered Tern.
The next 280kms or so was all on sandy roads and tracks, traversing “real Mozambique” – lovely green countryside with regular wetlands and stretches of Miombo woodland – parts of Mozambique that the casual tourist to this country will probably never experience, so we were pleased to be able to do so.
Our first stop after the floodplains was alongside the road to enjoy breakfast and coffee in typical bush.
Setting off again, it was soon time for the major excitement of the day, when Etienne stopped at a bird party amongst Acacia trees with a sprinkling of lichen (aka “Old Man’s Beard”) and we were immediately rewarded with a mega-tick and lifer for most of us, in the form of Olive-headed Weaver, which only occurs in an isolated patch near Panda.
In the excitement we almost missed the rest of the bird party but soon caught up with most of them, including delights such as Neergard’s Sunbird and Red-faced Crombec. Further on we stopped in the road to view a Flappet Lark displaying energetically and a Lemon-breasted Canary was seen by some but my view was too brief and poor to make out any detail so I did not tick it at that stage.
A vlei alongside the road was an opportunity for a brief stop, but it turned out to be bone dry – this didn’t stop Bruce and Corné from finding a Reed Frog clinging to a reed, unperturbed by the sudden attention and bevy of cameras.
Our lunchtime stop was off the road along a rough track, after which we set our sights to complete the long run to Barra Peninsula, arriving after a total of almost 9 hours driving at our overnight stop at Areia Branca Lodge right on the estuary.
Before settling in, we walked across the wide expanse of mudflats to view the waders present near the water’s edge and found several such as Greater Sand Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Grey Plover, Whimbrel, and plenty of the smaller Plovers – Common Ringed -, Kittlitz’s – and White-fronted Plover, Sanderling and others. Our timing was a bit late for greater numbers of waders so we hoped the next day would bring more.
The evening meal was at a nearby beach restaurant – no fish available (!), but the limited choice of other dishes did the trick and the beers were good, so we left satisfied.
A feature of the trip was the “calling up” of the day’s bird list at the dinner table every evening, while we waited for our orders – a practical arrangement and one which adds greatly to the camaraderie of the group.
Day 3 Imhambane Area
“The area is best known for the numbers of shorebirds which are present in summer. We aim to bird the end of Barra Peninsula in the middle of the day. Birding is usually best at high tide (roosting sites) or in the receding tides. Fresh water wetlands may host some rarities, while bush and swamp edge birding is not too shabby. In the afternoon we take a short drive up to Morrongulo Lodge – which will serve as the springboard for a visit to the habitat where Green Tinkerbird occurs. Overnight : Morrongulo Beach Resort”
Up at 4.30am and on the mudflats of the estuary right in front of the lodge just a half hour later as it grew lighter.
There was plenty of action in the shallows near the water’s edge – Lesser Crested Tern were prominent, accompanied by the waders seen yesterday afternoon, plus the likes of Curlew Sandpiper and Lesser Sand (Mongolian) Plover, a lifer for me and some of the group.
After an hour or two of superb birding we were sated and on the verge of leaving when I spotted a (very) distant Crab Plover on the far side of the estuary through the scope, which caused some excitement amongst the group as it was a lifer for most of us.
By 7 am we were done and made our way back to the lodge for breakfast and to get ready to leave, which we managed to do by 8.30am but not before viewing a Lemon-breasted Canary in the palm trees in the lodge gardens, spotted by Etienne – my third lifer for the morning and very pleasing after yesterday’s non-view plus all the times I have hoped to find one in the Pafuri area of Kruger, without success.
Before leaving the Barra Peninsula, we ventured along a track with thick sand in places, to the lighthouse and the beach below, where we encountered not a single other soul but an interesting looking Tern roost near the water’s edge a couple of hundred metres away.
It had been raining lightly on and off, while the temperature and humidity remained high as we approached the Terns, standing and preening in a long line 2 or 3 abreast.
Four species of Tern were evident – from small to large :
the cute Little Tern, looking like the baby sibling of the other Terns
Common Terns with black bill (some in breeding plumage with red bill and legs)
Lesser Crested Terns, handsome birds in their clean white and black plumage, prominent crest and orange bill
Swift Tern, noticeably larger than the others (Etienne called them Greater Crested Tern) with large yellow bill.
Mingling with them were Sanderling and White-fronted Plover.
Moving on, we headed back to the EN 1 and northwards, past the turn-off to our overnight stop at Morrenguro, towards the area known for the last 2 years for Green Tinkerbird. The last 10 kms were along a sandy track through bush and woodland which at times narrowed so much that the foliage brushed the car on both sides, raising a few grimaces, but after the first few squealing sounds of branch against paintwork, I resigned myself to the fact that some damage was inevitable and in any case “dis aardse goed”.
The rest of the afternoon, after a quick “in the bush” lunch, was spent trying to find, by hearing or sight, said Green Tinkerbird and we came close, having heard it at a distance, but eventually had to call it a day and head back along the track to the EN1. From there we backtracked to Morrengulo Beach Resort for supper and our overnight accommodation right on the beach – real beachcomber style with no windows and the sound of the sea to send you to sleep.
Dinner was crayfish, bought from vendors at Imhambane and prepared by the resort kitchen – served with chips! Not bad but rather tasteless – I think they overcooked the delicacy we entrusted to them.
Tomorrow we resume the search for Green Tinkerbird – more about that in Part 2. (This is a bit of suspense-building, just like those short films they used to show before the main feature on a Saturday morning at Scala cinema in Claremont in my distant youth – the hero is on a runaway train approaching a bridge destroyed by the baddies – will he escape in time? – come back next Saturday and find out!!)
At this time of year the favourite articles in newspapers and elsewhere are those looking back at the past year, covering everything from general news to politics to sport and plenty of others, so unfortunately I am following suit by looking back at my busy birding year – the good news is that, as usual, you are free to skip the boring verbiage and check out the photos, some of which you may even find of interest.
It has been a busy year for Gerda and myself from many points of view – we have never done as much travelling, both locally and internationally, as we have over the last 12 months and at times we’ve felt it was too much and decided not to be quite so ambitious in future, but it certainly made for an interesting year…….
The year started, as it has over the past couple of years, in Mossel Bay where we have a second home and I used the opportunity to do some quality atlasing in the Southern Cape on three separate days – 6th, 14th and 24th(“atlasing” is the recording of bird species in an area called a Pentad, defined by coordinates, about 8 x 8 kms in extent, with the data collected going to a database at the University of Cape Town). The rolling hills of the area surrounding the small town of Albertinia, just 50 kms from Mossel Bay, and further south towards Gouritzmond, were my targets over this period, as they have not been atlased very frequently to date.
We did a quick trip to the Western Cape from the 15th to 21st, visiting the family and enjoying some diverse birding in Kommetjie, Worcester, Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens and the Hex River Valley. See my post on “Western Cape Quickie” for the details of this trip.
Shortly after getting back to Mossel Bay we returned home to Pretoria, over-nighting at Kuilfontein Guest farm outside Spingfontein in the Free State, which was a nice opportunity to fit in the minimum 2 hours of atlasing required for a “Full Protocol” card.
The month was concluded in grand birding style, starting on the 29th, with a trip to Punda Maria in the far north of Kruger National Park, one of the prime birding spots in South Africa, for the annual Birding weekend run by the West Rand Honorary Rangers. We combined this with the “Pel’s Pursuit” also run by the Honorary Rangers – unfortunately it did not result in us seeing the sought after but elusive Pel’s Fishing Owl. On the way to Punda Maria we stopped at Entabeni forest to see if we could spot the Bat Hawk that frequents the area, but dipped on that one as well.
After all that hectic birding in January, February was a much quieter month, as we got back to our Pretoria routine – a couple of atlasing outings on the 11th and 22nd took me to the area around Delmas and Devon in the south-east of Gauteng, familiar territory where I have done a fair amount of atlasing previously and which always has a surprise or two.
More atlasing on the 10th and 21st, this time covering the area north-west of Potchefstroom while visiting son Stephan and family who live there, as well as the Vlaklaagte area north of Bronkhorstspruit
Time to travel again and we set off on an extended trip (covered in detail in my earlier posts on “Four Parks and a Wedding”) to the Southern and Eastern Cape – the places we visited and spent a few days in each were :
De Hoop Nature Reserve on the coast south of Swellendam – 10th to 13th
Camdeboo National Park on the outskirts of Graaff-Reinet – 26th to 28th
Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock – 28th to 30th
Addo National Park an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth – 30th to 4th May
In between we visited De Mond Nature Reserve for some estuarine birding and I spent time atlasing the Gouritzmond area including a first visit to Vöelvlei
While in Addo, I heard about a Bridled Tern at Cape Recife near Port Elizabeth and took an early morning drive on the 3rd to see if I could spot it, but it wasn’t to be seen, although it had been seen the previous day and was seen for a couple of days thereafter – luck of the draw!
Our return trip to Pretoria on the 4th meant another overnight stop opportunity to do some atlasing – this time at Oudekraal Guest farm near Bloemfontein.
During the rest of the month I managed to fit in a couple of days of atlasing, firstly on the 16th covering the coal mining belt around Kendal in Mpumulanga, not an attractive area but no shortage of interesting birds, then more of Potchefstroom on the 26th when we paid a short visit to Stephan and family.
Koos and Rianda invited us to visit Verlorenkloof resort during their timeshare week, which we did on the 30th for a couple of days, enjoying some superb mountain and forest birding
The 16th saw us travelling to Durban for our timeshare week at La Lucia just north of Durbs – La Lucia and the adjoining Umhlanga Rocks are good for beachfront and garden birding and I also fitted in visits to two special birding spots in Durban itself, Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve and Durban Bayhead Nature Reserve which adjoins and is almost part of Durban harbour, both excellent birding venues.
I closed out the month with an atlasing session around Verena which lies north-east of Bronkhorstspruit.
From the 5th to 11th we enjoyed a week at Sanbonani timeshare resort near Hazyview in the Mpumulanga lowveld with Stephan and family – a superb birding venue and 10 minutes away from the Kruger Park, which we visited twice during the week.
On the 19th I atlased in the Leandra area – scruffy in parts but productive for birding.
Our long-awaited and -planned trip to North America began on the 7th and took us to :
Calgary and the Canadian Rockies – 9th to 15th
Seattle – 15th to 17th
Cruise to Alaska and the Inside Passage – 17th to 24th
Eastern Canada – 25th to 31st
Continuation of our Canada trip – 1st to 6th after which we returned home
Further atlasing in the Vlaklaagte area on the 22nd and near Potchefstroom on the 29th saw out the month
Back in Potchefstroom for Stephan’s birthday, I atlased an area north-east of Potch on the 20th
Borakalalo Nature Reserve which lies north-east of Brits in the North West province (now that’s a bit confusing) was the venue for a morning’s birding on the 24th, after hearing about the presence of a Pacific Golden Plover. This time I was lucky enough to see it easily and well and celebrated by atlasing the area and enjoying a picnic with Gerda who went along for the ride.
Just a few days later, on the 29th, I tried for the Pectoral Sandpiper seen there during the previous few days, but dipped on this vagrant. Nevertheless I had a wonderful day of close-up birding and photography of the abundant water birds that gather there.
On the 7th I targeted a few pentads in the rural area near Mkhombo dam, not often visited by atlasers. The area can best be described as scruffy and arid but still produced a few surprises.
Then it was time to return to Punda Maria from the 13th to 16th for the “Punda Mania” birding event which is the 3rd one that George Skinner and I have done together and was as intense and challenging as before.
Straight after that Gerda and I travelled to Matekula Country Estate, which lies 35 kms beyond Machadadorp, to join Alastair and Anne plus a few friends for a couple of days at this venue.
Almost before we were ready, we found the year was rapidly running out as we packed once again for the trip down to Mossel Bay for our end-of-year long visit. On the way we stopped over at Abbotsbury Guest farm near Graaff-Reinet – a lovely place with some good Karoo birding.
Time for some final atlasing for the year starting with Mossel Bay itself which I do a few times while staying here. On the 5th it was the turn of Riversdale which is very poorly atlased to date and I added loads of species to the records.
Then on the 26th I atlased the area north of Albertinia which produced very good totals and some specials.
We joined Andre and Geraldine on a day trip to Calitzdorp on the 27th and I was thrilled to find a Cape Siskin in the Robinson Pass on the way there – a bird I have been trying to track down for some years and a great way to round off the year.
“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.
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.
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 :
Some of the other makes :
This was Gerda’s favourite :
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
“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”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Sanderling (which was a lifer for me)
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.
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)
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.
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.
White-breasted Cormorants were prominent along the water’s edge, waddling about then taking off in rapid direct flight as I approached.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
Having “done” De Hoop and the wedding that took us there, we spent time at our home in Mossel Bay until Saturday 26th April 2014, when we took to the road again, this time to Camdeboo National Park which lies close to and almost surrounds the town of Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape province.
Graaff-Reinet is full of historical buildings, being the fourth oldest town in South Africa – in years past we made a point of booking a night or two in the town when on our way to the Southern Cape, but more recently we have limited our stops to a lunch or snack and coffee at the popular Polka cafe, which also has an array of bric-a-brac which women love to browse – and it’s a good place for the trainee women (aka the granddaughters) to spend some of their pocket-money.
Getting there – Saturday 26 April 2014
Leaving around midday in light rain, we took a slightly longer route from Mossel Bay, via Robinson Pass, Oudtshoorn and the small town of De Rust, where we stopped for a good coffee at the coffee shop followed by our padkos (a lovely South African word and habit, literally “road food”) of home-made chicken buns – padkos is always best when eaten by the side of the road in the shade of a big tree. Just after De Rust a right turn took us onto the R 341 which links the N 12 and N 9 National roads, then on to Graaff-Reinet with no further stops, as it was getting near to gate-closing time. After a fuel and fast-food stop (sometimes we cheat) we arrived at Camdeboo National Park with 15 minutes to spare and enjoyed our Steers burgers in the communal area before getting ourselves organised in our homely tents – compact living but cosy and equipped with a small fridge, kettle etc. Canvas is a poor insulating material so the night was cold outside and inside the tent, but the beds were comfy and a duvet and fleecy blanket kept us nice and warm both nights – with the exception of the obligatory middle of the night toilet excursion.
Sunday 27 April
Canvas is also not effective at sound insulation so you hear everything going on close by, which is a bit worrying when the creepy-crawlies get moving at night but only a pleasure when the morning chorus wakes you up – I lay in bed in the dawn hour “ticking” a few in my mind, including Cape Robin-Chat with its happy tune, Brown-hooded Kingfisher sounding excited, Pied Barbet calling nasally, Bar-throated Apalis “chipping” loudly as it moved through the bush and Hadeda Ibis doing its “bird with a fear of heights” imitation.
After this early chorus we drifted back to sleep, thinking it was still dark outside – that’s another thing about canvas, it doesn’t let light in and the window flaps were closed, so we ended up rising at the “gentleman’s hour” of 8.30am. Time to put some serious effort into birding and atlasing the camp and so I took an extended walk around the small camp and the adjoining caravan camp. The Lakeview Camp comprises just 4 tented units with a communal kitchen and ablutions – a setup we found much to our liking as it felt as if we had the whole place to ourselves (which we did save for one tent occupied by others). Importantly, the facilities are kept clean and neat at all times.
The walk produced a number of species with Cape Robin-Chat, Karoo Scrub-Robin and Familiar Chat most prominent, drawn by the quite dense bush surrounding the camp.
The call of a Pririt Batis resounded through the camp and I was able to track it down for a snatched photo.
Yellow-fronted Canary (at the edge of its range by the looks of it), Chestnut-vented Titbabbler and Southern Double-collared Sunbird (phew those are long names) were all nice additions to the growing list. Not to be outdone by the birds, Striped Mice and Karoo Bushrats inhabit the undergrowth, the latter occupying large rambling nests built of hundreds of dry sticks – as you walk around they pop up to have a look and then scurry off or dart back into their nests.
After tea it was time to explore the Park by car and we soon came across Anteating Chat, Fiscal Flycatcher and Red-billed Firefinch on the way to the bird hide which is not far from the camp.
The neat hide sits at a distance from the water’s edge, which probably moves closer when the Nqweba dam is fuller. It still provided the chance to ID the few visible water birds such as Yellow-billed Duck, Cape Shoveler, Darter and SA Shelduck while the surrounding grass / bush had Black-throated Canary, Amethyst Sunbird and Bronze Mannikin to keep things interesting.
Back at the camp, Greater Flamingo were just visible through a gap in the tall reeds that block most of the view of the dam (making the name of the camp “Lakeview” a tad misleading).
I was not entirely satisfied with my bird list up to then and took a late afternoon drive to the far side of the dam, ticking Ostrich and Hamerkop along the way as I crossed a stream, with Kudu browsing nearby.
At the viewpoint at the last stop on the road I had a good view across the water, which held Black Stork and Black-winged Stilt in the shallows and Kittlitz’s Plover and the ubiquitous Three-banded Plover at the muddy edge.
Heading back to the camp in the dusk, I came across a pair of Black-backed Jackals, the one nuzzling the other as I took some photos of this beautiful species. A few minutes later the sky turned a spectacular orange-red colour as the sun set.
With just 2 nights booked, we made the most of the facilities on our second evening, braai-ing in the boma and eating out under the stars, wrapped up against the cold early winter air. That night it was colder in the tent and we slept with our woollen hats pulled down over our ears.
Monday 28 April
Our short stay was over and we set about packing the vehicles while still enjoying the surroundings, as a Fish Eagle called in the distance, a pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers made their way through the camp followed by a flock of Common Waxbills. A trilling call jogged my memory but it took me a while to realise it was a Namaqua Warbler, who remained well hidden in the denser bush.
On the way out of Camdeboo, we visited the Andries Pretorius monument near the entrance –
On the road at last, we stopped briefly to check out a Rock Kestrel before heading into town for a coffee stop at Polka cafe, then on to the other, very different, part of Camdeboo which harbours the Valley of Desolation, with its steep access roads through beautiful landscape, culminating in viewing spots that provide quite breathtaking views. The first of these looks down over the town of Graaff-Reinet way below and the second provides sweeping views across the flat plains of the surrounding Karoo, framed by the craggy peaks of the nearby mountains.
This was also a good spot to enjoy our padkos burgers before heading back down the mountain road and on to our next destination near Cradock – Mountain Zebra National Park – which turned out to be a lot more impressive than we had expected. More of that in Part 3 of this series.
The thing about being “semi-retired” is that it gives you lots of time to travel and Gerda and I tend to make the most of it while we are able. With our second home being in Mossel Bay, we do like to spend as much time there as we can afford, without abandoning our Pretoria ties completely.
And so it happened that we decided to spend the Easter period this year in Mossel Bay – then, fortuitously, we received an invite to a wedding at De Hoop Nature Reserve over the weekend before Easter, and on top of that our daughter and son-in-law suggested we do a week’s touring through the Eastern Cape during the school break at the end of April, with 2 or 3 night stays at three National Parks – Camdeboo near Graaf-Reinet, Mountain Zebra a bit further east near Cradock and Addo Elephant Park not far from Port Elizabeth. Now that’s an offer that was difficult to refuse. We had been to Addo before – just last year for the first time – but the other three parks would all be first-time visits, which is something we are looking forward to.
Starting off – overnight in Springfontein
As often happens, we were loaded to the hilt when we left Pretoria (actually our VW Touareg was) – there are always surplus items from our main home which need transporting to Mossel Bay and this time was no different, plus our normal baggage. The trip to Mossel Bay is a two-day affair for us, so an overnight stop around halfway is always part of the planning. We have tried various B&B’s in the stretch between Bloemfontein and Colesberg / Hanover and they have all been quite acceptable – all you want is a comfortable bed, a clean shower that works properly and a decent dinner and breakfast and most have perfected those simple requirements. This time around we decided to try Prior Grange, a guest farm near Springfontein, as I had read that there was a Blockhouse from the Anglo-Boer war on the property and I was interested to see it.
Having left Pretoria a bit later than we had hoped, knowing we had over 600 km to travel, we nevertheless reached Prior Grange in good time and, after settling in, I drove the further 4 km to the hill on which the blockhouse was perched. According to Blackie de Swardt from Prior Grange, there were some 8000 of these block houses built by the Brits across South Africa, approximately 1000 yards apart so that they were visible to the next one, of which only 50 or so originals remain – he went to the trouble of rebuilding this one on the old foundations and well done to him, as it gives you a feel for what it would have been like to man these structures, watching over the railway line and the surrounding veld well into the distance.
At the same time I worked on a bird list for the pentad, which proved to be quite productive – Wattled and Pied Starlings were plentiful and a Desert Cisticola posed on the fence, while Cliff Swallows wheeled overhead near a culvert before settling in for the night. Common Waxbills twittered as they passed by in a flock and Barn Swallows swooped past, perhaps readying themselves for the long journey back north.
Next morning I was up at dawn to complete the 2 hours atlasing and walked to the dam just behind the main house. There I was met by a beautiful scene of dead still water in the soft morning light, reflecting the surrounding trees and disturbed only by the V-shaped ripples of the water birds enjoying the first light of day – I listed Red-billed Teal, Little Grebe, Cape Shoveler and a few handsome SA Shelducks.
White-throated Swallows skimmed the water and a group of Spotted Thick-Knees flushed like magic from the grassy verge when I got close. Then it was time for breakfast and the second leg of the long drive to Mossel Bay.
De Hoop Nature Reserve
We had just two days at our home in Mossel Bay before it was time to travel again – to De Hoop for the “Wedding Weekend” of Louis and Amelda (Rossouw). De Hoop lies south-west of Swellendam and less than 200 km from Mossel Bay so we didn’t rush to get away and stopped at Riversdale for lunch on the way at a farm stall, which has the only “dog pub” I’ve come across.
The last 50 km or so were on gravel and just before getting to the entrance gate to De Hoop we stopped for a photo of a pair of Blue Cranes which were mingling with some cattle at a watering hole – so intent was I on getting a good photo with my new lens that I didn’t notice I had stepped into …… (no, fortunately not what you were thinking) ….sticky yellow mud at the side of the road which immediately rendered my sandals unwearable. After checking in barefoot, Gerda kindly rescued my sandals by washing them and leaving them in the sun to dry – good as new again!
A Black-headed Heron flying off proved to be a good time to test my new lens’ ability to handle a Bird-in-flight – I was quite pleased with my new purchase.
From the entrance gate it was a short drive to the “Opstal” and by 5pm we were settled into our spacious and comfortable cottage – Black Oystercatcher cottage – which we would enjoy for the next three days. Birding started as we approached the complex of white-painted buildings and once we were settled in I took a walk to the Vlei, which I discovered is a large body of water trapped for centuries by the dunes bordering the nearby coastline and which has dried up completely in dry years, but right now seemed massive and full to the brim. On the walk to the vlei I came across some relaxed birds all of the “Cape” variety – Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Spurfowl and Cape Weaver – basking in the late afternoon sun.
At the vlei I found tens of Egyptian Geese, Coots and Great Crested Grebes back-lit by the fast setting sun, and a Grey Heron or two keeping watch at the edge of the vlei. Walking along the cliffs that border long stretches of the vlei, I noted a number of Rock Martins preparing to roost for the night, while a flock of Glossy Ibises flew overhead on their way to their preferred roosting site. All of the while I was aware of the biting horse flies which made it difficult to stand still for any length of time. The sun set in a blaze of red-orange reflected across the water.
Later on we enjoyed a fine dinner in the Fig Tree restaurant at the Opstal, which augured well for the rest of our short stay.
Exploring De Hoop
I had booked an extra day to allow time for some relaxed birding and atlasing, so only ventured out on Friday after a good lie-in to recover from an energy-sapping few days, starting with a slow drive past the short-grassed fields where several Capped Wheatears were showing and a flock of Pied Starlings were moving about in chattering fashion. Also present were Bontebok which are plentiful in the reserve and some colourful butterflies.
Heading towards the coastal dunes I was really pleased to come across a group of Cape (there it is again) Penduline-Tits, which I have only seen a handful of times in all my years of birding – as a bonus I was able to get a distant photo or two before they moved off again.
Further on, the vlei had encroached onto the road and, as the Opstal manager had told me last evening, there were a lot of birds taking advantage of the shallow water with plenty of food for all types. Spoonbills were prominent along with Darter, White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Teal, Little Grebe and a family of Cape Shovelers. Also in the scene were Pied Kingfishers hovering and diving now and then, Purple Heron flying in and landing gracefully near some Little Stints and Wood Sandpipers. On the opposite shore a few Great White Pelicans pottered about.
Carrying on along the road to the “Melkkamer”, a quiet inlet held Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe and an African Darter stretching its wings, while the roadside bush was quite productive with the customary fynbos species such as Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Grassbird, as well as Bar-throated Apalis noisilycompeting with Karoo Prinia for attention – if the latter two were schoolkids they would be the ones always being scolded for talking too much.
I turned around at the gate to the protected area and headed the opposite way to Koppie Alleen where I took a brief walk on the high dunes – the pentad ended just short of the parking area at Koppie Alleen, but not before I had seen a beautiful Black Harrier floating low above the dunes in their typical butterfly like way.
On the way I had an interesting sighting when I spotted a Cape Bunting in the road, only to discover it was “chasing” a large Puff Adder across the road and into the thick bush. Not for nothing then that signs have been erected warning visitors to brake in time for snakes in the road.
Saturday dawned bright and sunny – and warm for this time of year. The ceremony was only at 4 pm so there was time for further birding and I decided to return to Koppie Alleen to explore the beach which had looked enticing from high up on the dunes. The 15 km from the cottage took about 45 minutes with a brief stop at the vlei and I began to atlas the pentad at Koppie Alleen by 8.30 am, with Cape Bulbul featuring prominently in the fynbos on the long walk from the parking area down to the beach.
Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds flitted about busily and vociferously while a few Barn Swallows proved that they hadn’t begun their long trek northwards just yet. Maybe they’d heard about the long cold European winter and were holding out as long as possible.
The beach, once I got there, was deserted except for a few Kelp Gulls, White-breasted Cormorants, African Black Oystercatchers and a few Cape Wagtails – later on the beach would see a handful of visitors but right now it was just me and the wide expanse of sand and rocks. It seemed to be low tide,as the rocks in the inter-tidal zone were exposed, some with crystal clear pools of water trapped between them. It was nice to see no sign of the plastic litter that is a feature of much of the coastline nowadays, just thousands of pristine seashells left behind by the tides.
A little unexpectedly, a Yellow Canary and Familiar Chat joined me on the beach, then a small flock of waders flew past which I was able to ID as Sanderlings based on their small size, tail pattern and call.
A boardwalk over the dunes and higher rocks was very welcome in getting past the rocky barriers between the beaches.
Trekking back up the long and sandy road (time to hum the similar-titled Beatles song), a Jackal Buzzard and a Black Harrier helped to close out the pentad before I made my way back to the cottage, then on to lunch. The wedding ceremony was held out in the open overlooking the vlei – I had to wonder where else you can carry on birding during a wedding, as I watched a Bokmakierie close by and the waterfowl on the vlei in the distance.
The reception was equally “cool” being held under the massive Fig tree near the restaurant and as darkness fell the lights strung around the branches turned it into a veritable fairyland – with fairy princess and all. Needless to say the evening was enjoyed by all and the younger set danced till the early hours. The perfect weather was made for partying outdoors.
After breakfast on Sunday morning and goodbyes, we set out for our next stop – Stellenbosch with a quick look-in at De Mond Nature Reserve. More on that at another time.
This Saturday 26 April will see us starting the next leg of our Four Parks tour – starting with Camdeboo National Park at Graaf Reinet
We love Cape Town and the surrounds and take every opportunity to visit – so it was an easy decision when Gerda suggested we “pop down” from Mossel Bay, where we spend the December/January holidays, to say ‘hello’ to the fairest Cape and visit family at the same time. It’s just less than 400 kms with lots of pleasant scenery on the way along good roads and we tend to stop often so 4 hours turns into a comfortable and non-taxing 6 hours for us. Always on the lookout for birding and bird atlasing opportunities, I was eager to start the new year with a Western Cape outing or two……. or even three as it turned out.
We didn’t have too many fixed plans for the 4 days but Gerda wanted to visit her ex-Pretoria hairdresser, now resident in Kommetjie, which would give me a couple of hours to atlas the area. Kirstenbosch is always part of our itinerary and we would surely spend at least 2 hours there, enough to complete a “full Protocol” atlas card. Our last stop was to be Worcester for a couple of days with the family and I was sure I could fit in a pentad or two in the early mornings, knowing how hot it can get in that part of SA in January – not conducive to middle of the day birding.
It almost worked out that way …..
Kommetjie (Pentad 3405_1815)
Having dropped Gerda off at the hairdresser, I set off to explore the pentad covering Kommetjie (a pentad being 5 x 5 minutes in degrees latitude/longitude or about 8 x 8 kms in extent) – about 90% of this pentad is in fact in the sea, so atlasing is limited to a part of Kommetjie jutting into the pentad in the south-east corner. I stopped at the first beach area I came across and was immediately struck by the numbers of seabirds flying past and, looking for their source, noticed huge colonies of them further out on the exposed rocks. Swift Terns and Hartlaub’s Gulls were especially abundant, numbering in the hundreds if not a thousand or more and making quite a sight.
Walking along the sandy paths towards the next-door bay, I noticed other seabirds in between the massed Terns and Gulls, including African Black Oystercatchers and Little Egrets – the latter not strictly a seabird but I have often found them in this type of habitat. A number of Cormorants were in attendance, mostly Cape and White-breasted Cormorants but also a few Bank Cormorants with their all black faces – I looked for the white in their rumps but it was not showing, so checked my Roberts bird book (on my Ipad) which confirmed that it only shows when Bank Cormorants are breeding.
Both African Sacred and Hadeda Ibises were foraging amongst the seaweed-littered rocks, while Barn Swallows swooped low overhead probably catching flying insects attracted to the seaweed litter – never an opportunity missed!
A few White-fronted Plovers were exploring the rocks and seaweed as well, running to the white sandy areas when I approached – I was struck by how amazingly well camouflaged they are against the bright sand when they stand still – I had to look twice to find them even though they were just 5 to 10 metres away.
A short distance down the road I stopped at a vlei which the board informed me was called Skilpadsvlei (Tortoise Vlei) but found it was undergoing rehabilitation and had no water. It’s apparently home to the Western Leopard Toad (Amietophrynus pantherinus) which occurs in restricted parts of the Western Cape. However a short walk around the vlei did produce Red-winged Starlings and Rock Martins doing fly-bys plus a Cape Canary in the long grass.
By this time Gerda was done and I joined her for coffee and a light lunch at a very pleasant outdoor restaurant. From there I closed out the 2 hours minimum time required for a “full protocol” atlas session with a drive to the nearby Slangkop lighthouse and through the suburbia of Kommetjie, adding a few of the regulation western Cape birds in the process and stopping to admire the great views. I ended with a list of 30 species for the pentad – not a large number compared to other pentads, but a stunning area to go atlasing.
Kirstenbosch (Pentad 3355_1825) ….. well almost
The next day we had planned an excursion to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, one of our favourite places to visit, with a walk and lunch in mind. That morning I woke up to a very upset stomach and flu-like aches and pains and wasn’t up to doing much at all. We did go to Kirstenbosch hoping to catch a “golf cart” guided tour, but our timing was out so we just sat in the restaurant and had tea – no scones for me this time!
Saturday was spent getting to Worcester via Tokai (to visit my brother and sister-in-law) and along the coastal road past Strandfontein, where there were Kelp Gulls by the hundred along the beach and kite surfers enjoying the windy conditions that pulled them at high speed across the breaking waves – what a spectacular sport! Then we proceeded through Stellenbosch to Helshoogte on the way to Franschoek for a lunchtime stop at our other favourite venue – Hillcrest Berry farm. There we enjoyed a light lunch and tea with magnificent views of the mountains across the valley and the vineyards spread like patchwork over the lower slopes.
Worcester / Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens (Pentad 3335_1925)
In complete contrast to Kommetjie, the area around Worcester, just 110 kms from Cape Town, presents typical Karoo habitats, although not as stark and barren as further inland in the “real” Karoo, as well as suburbia and farms with extensive vineyards.
I started out at 6h30, still too early for the Botanical Gardens which I discovered only open at 7h00, so I drove around suburbia and up a lonely road which dead-ended at a quarry. Once I gained entry to the Gardens, I drove to the upper parking area and took a walk through the various desert-like biomes represented there, with displays of desert and semi-desert plants – fortunately there is enough signage to inform you on what you are seeing – a good thing when your knowledge of trees and plants is as limited as mine. I do know Quiver trees from our trip to Namaqualand last year and there were a number of magnificent specimens to admire.
The Gardens have an interesting history, having been established at a site near Matjiesfontein in 1921 but due to serious water supply problems it was moved to its current site in Worcester in 1945, along with many of the unique plants, some of which are still present in the gardens, including the Quiver trees mentioned above.
Birds are plentiful throughout the Gardens but restricetd in the number of species, with the feature birds being Bokmakierie calling vociferously in the early morning, White-backed Mousebirds and Red-faced Mousebirds flying about in groups between the larger bushes and trees, Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds enjoying the flowering aloes. Common Fiscals and Acacia Pied Barbets added to the mix with their distinctive calls, the Barbets outdoing all the others with their piercing, nasal call heard at a distance.
Overhead White-rumped Swifts and Greater-striped Swallows competed for flying insects. Exiting the gardens, a winding road took me up the hill to Brandwacht which is mainly vineyards with large farm dams, the latter quite productive around the fringes with the likes of Yellow bishop, Common Waxbill, Stonechat and Familiar Chat helping to boost the pentad list to 43 for the 2-3 hours spent atlasing.
Worcester / Hex River Valley (Pentad 3330_1930)
Just north of Worcester lies the Hex River valley and the pentad I had targeted for my third and last atlasing outing of the trip, comprising mostly mountains with the N1 national road bisecting them through the valley, with the flat sections along the river taken up by vineyards and the lower slopes of the mountains covered in fynbos. This is a very attractive part and some of the last vineyards before getting into the flatter and drier Karoo further down the N1.
My first stop was at the Seekoeigat Padstal (Farm stall) where I kicked off with some regulation birds such as Red-winged Starling, Steppe (Common) Buzzard and White-rumped Swift amongst others. At the first opportunity I turned off, glad to get off the busy N1 with large trucks thundering past each time I slowed and pulled over to check out a bird seen fleetingly. This was a far more peaceful birding environment and quickly produced Pied Barbet, African Stonechat, Bar-throated Apalis, African Hoopoe and several Southern Double-collared Sunbirds.
Returning reluctantly to the N1 and continuing cautiously through the cutting that makes its way through the mountains, I spied a pair of White-necked Ravens. Further on a broader verge allowed a safe roadside stop with a view down the slopes to the river below, where I spotted Cape Rock-Thrush, Cape Spurfowl, Cape Robin-Chat and Cape … sorry Karoo Prinia. A bit further on I was able to get closer to the river where an unexpected Giant Kingfisher was watching over one of the deeper pools in the river and not far from him a Cape Bunting was hopping about on the railway tracks.
The next turnoff took me into prime farming area with vineyards on both sides of the road – nice to look at with bunches of grapes just about ready for harvesting but quite a sterile environment for birding so I didn’t dawdle too long and returned to the N1 for the last stretch before reaching the northern boundary of the pentad. There I found a large dam some way off the road but close enough to make out a few cormorants and coots plus a good old “gyppo” or Egyptian Goose. Turning back, I spotted a raptor soaring high above and was able to ID it as a Booted Eagle, which seems to have a fondness for the Western Cape as I have seen several in my trips around this province.
All in all a nice variety of birding and habitats about as far removed from each other as you can get, each one with its own beauty and attraction.
This is the follow-on to Part 1, which covered the first 5 days of the road trip. In this Part 2, Don and Gerda Reid and Koos and Rianda Pauw continue the next 5 days of their Birding and Flowers trip, taking in the prime flower-spotting areas of Namaqualand and adding to the growing “trip list” of birds seen along the way.
Day 6 (24th August 2013) :
Still in Port Nolloth, we woke up to a beautiful scene, with the lagoon in front of the beach house as smooth as a mirror, reflecting the small groups of Greater Flamingos (Grootflamink) as they showed themselves off to great effect. Mingling with the flamingos were Little Egret (Kleinwitreier), Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls (Kelp- en Hartlaubse meeu), Cape and Bank Cormorants (Trek- en Bank-kormorant) and a charming family of South African Shelduck (Kopereend) – Mom & Dad + 2 youngsters following eagerly.
On the sand in front of the house, Common Starlings (Europese spreeu) and Cape Wagtails (Gewone kwikkie) were busy feeding while Swift Terns (Geelbeksterretjie) flew overhead in small flocks and an African Black Oystercatcher (Swarttobie) worked the shoreline for a tasty morsel or two. Not far from them a lone White-fronted Plover (Vaalstrandkiewiet) trotted about after unseen prey and offshore at a distance I was able to pick up a Cape Gannet (Witmalgas) with the help of my newly acquired spotting scope.
Walking along the beach and across the flat rocks, we found ourselves on another beach with a larger lagoon/bay, which held a single Pied Avocet (Bontelsie) and the largest flock of Black-necked Grebes (Swartnekdobbertjie) we have ever seen – probably 60 or more.
Koos and I then set off on a drive to complete the minimum 2 hour atlasing period and to see if we could find the sought-after Barlow’s Lark (Barlowse lewerik) which is a Port Nolloth “special” and said to be found not far from town on the road to Alexander Bay. Well, we followed the lead given by Birdfinder and tried hard for a sighting, but eventually decided we would have a better chance in the early morning, when they were more likely to show themselves and perhaps call. We had some compensation by way of Cape Long-billed Lark (Weskuslangbeklewerik), another lifer for me, which we found in the scrub-covered dunes after hearing its typical descending whistle, a sound we were to hear a number of times in the following days.
We discovered a small wetland closer to town, signposted Port Nolloth Bird Sanctuary, that held a variety of bird life, dominated by Lesser and Greater Flamingos – possibly the same ones seen earlier feeding in the lagoon – but also holding Cape Teal (Teeleend), Avocets, Cape Shoveler (Kaapse slopeend) and large numbers of Hartlaub’s Gulls. From there we followed the map to the large, mostly bone-dry, pan further north which was home to more Hartlaub’s Gulls (100+) but not much else.
Having done our Citizen Scientist (no, it’s not a sect) duties for the day we spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying the beach view, ever-changing with the tides and winds. Later we tried the local Italian restaurant “Vespettis” which served up a decent meal after which Koos called up the daily bird list to add to our growing trip list.
Day 7 (25th August 2013) :
We were due to vacate the beach house by 10am, but first we had an important mission to accomplish – find the Barlow’s Lark. A chilly dawn saw Koos and I in the same area as the day before, stopping frequently and searching for any signs of the Lark amongst the low scrub clinging to the dunes. A rather intimidating sign on the fence reminded us that we were skirting a restricted mining area! We drove slowly for a few Kms northwards but kept coming up with Tractrac Chats and Cape Long-billed Larks whenever movement was spotted – not that these were birds to dismiss, as they were both lifers for me in the preceding days, but we were hoping desperately for a Barlow’s Lark, which was our main reason for choosing Port Nolloth as a stopover in the first place. After an hour or more of searching we decided to turn around and as we did so we heard a different-sounding call and leapt out of the car to find the source – yes, you guessed it, there was a Barlow’s Lark on the telephone wire and he obliged by flying up above our heads and commencing a display flight, which involves a lot of hovering in the air while calling continuously, then descending rapidly to a low bush for a minute or so before repeating the sequence several times, while we watched enthralled. It reminded me of the Melodious Lark’s display that I had seen earlier in the year but without the variety of mimicked calls. Apart from the thrill of adding another lifer, the whole display was a bit of birding magic and we both agreed this was one of those special moments to be treasured.
A little later we left Port Nolloth and headed back to Springbok with a good feeling about our short visit to this small coastal town. Before reaching Springbok we branched off to the town with the unusual name – Nababeep (“Rhinoceros place” in the old Khoi language) and stopped to view the spectacular displays of yellow and orange daisies which carpet the roadside and extend up the hillsides.
From there it was a short drive to Kamieskroon where we found the road to Namaqua National Park for our next night’s stop. Rock and Greater Kestrels (Kransvalk & Grootrooivalk) and Pale Chanting Goshawks (Bleeksingvalk) are regular occupants of the roadside poles in these parts, in addition to the ubiquitous Crows. Approaching the park we could see the flowers blanketing the landscape from a long way off and as we got closer the beauty of the flower display was almost overwhelming. We tore ourselves away from the scene to check in and let the ladies explore the “Padstal” after which we made our way slowly to the chalet in the “Skilpad” section of the park, admiring the variety of flowers and birding along the way, with Sunbirds and Larks being most prominent.
On arrival at the chalet a Grey Tit (Piet-tjou-tjou-grysmees) immediately made his presence known with his loud and distinctive call – another lifer added! A short walk produced a busy pair of Layard’s Titbabblers (Grystjeriktik), several Malachite Sunbirds (Jangroentjie) and Karoo Scrub-Robin (Slangverklikker). In no time it was dusk and time to braai, re-live the special day and get some rest.
Day 8 (26th August 2013) :
Early morning mist had cleared by the time we left and we enjoyed the circular route through the flowering landscape back to the office to hand in our keys before venturing further. At the office I spotted a Ludwig’s Bustard (Ludwigse pou) doing a fly past allowing me the pleasure of clocking up lifer No 700 for Southern Africa, which earned a few “high-fives”.
Having made the most of our short stay we had decided to head further into Namaqua park, along the road to Soebatsfontein (Afrikaans for “pleading fountain”), marked as 4 X 4 only but by no means a rough road and well worth doing, as we were to find out. The road to Soebatsfontein winds its way through the mountain ridges, and the wonderful scenery makes it one of the best roads I have driven. Along the way Cape Clapper Larks (Kaapse klappertjie) did their distinctive display flight as did the Karoo Larks. Cape Buntings (Rooivlerkstreepkoppie) were plentiful with a few Black-headed Canaries (Swartkopkanarie) adding to the mix. While we were enjoying roadside coffee and the delicious melktert (custard tart) from the park’s shop we were entertained by yet another displaying Lark, this time Red-capped Lark (Rooikoplewerik), flying up from a termite mound while calling, then plummeting rapidly before repeating a few minutes later.
Our lunchtime stop was about halfway along the road near the ruins of an old farmstead, which was probably built with mud bricks which by now had partly dissolved giving it a “Timbuktu-like” appearance. During the drive we had seen a good selection of raptors including Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoel), Verraux’s Eagle (Witkruisarend), Booted Eagle (Dwergarend) and a Black-chested Snake-Eagle (Swartborsslangarend).
Once we reached the small village of Soebatsfontein we took the dirt road to Kamieskroon, then via the N7 to the turn-off to No-Heep farm where we had booked accommodation for the next 2 nights. On arrival the owners showed us to the charming old farmhouse nearby, with solar-powered lights and gas for cooking, fridge and hot water. There was time for a short walk to explore the surroundings before dusk descended – in the fading light a Verraux’s Eagle and a Booted Eagle were still vying for prime patrolling spot along the nearby mountain ridge.
Day 9 (27th August 2013) :
After a relaxed breakfast I set off for a lengthy late-morning walk up towards the mountain where the Eagles had been patrolling the previous evening. The morning shift now comprised a handsome Jackal Buzzard and a Rock Kestrel doing patrol duty along the same stretch of mountain ridge, the former coming in quite low to show off his rich rufous and black and white colouring as he cruised past. At ground level, Karoo Larks were displaying energetically, while Cape Buntings and Grey Tits carried on with their daily routines. Common Quail (Afrikaanse kwartel) stuck to the rule “be heard and not seen” as they crept unseen through the grass, given away only by their pip- pip- pip call. Up on the lower slopes of the rocky hillside, a Grey Tit played hide and seek with me – responding to my playing his call but remaining wary and partly hidden in the branches of a tree, making photography difficult.
A small lizard with a very long tail attracted my attention and I waited patiently for it to come out into the open – my reference book later confirmed it to be a Sand Lizard. A Karoo Prinia (Karoolangstertjie) on top of a handsome Quiver tree, a feature of the area, made a memorable picture in my mind but he didn’t hang around long enough to turn it into a digital image. Further on, a Rufous-eared Warbler (Rooioorlangstertjie) popped up on a bush nearby and eyed me carefully, then disappeared into the bushes. Our only other activity for the day was a late afternoon drive along the farm roads leading north of No-Heep, with more spectacular scenery to enjoy along the winding road through beautiful mountain landscape.
Day 10 (28th August 2013) :
Another travelling day – this time we were headed to a guest farm near Niewoudtville (the locals pronounce it Nee-oat-ville) which is famous for its variety of bulb flowers at this time of year. The route took us back to Kamieskroon where we stopped to find the War monument – as it turned out it was in the church grounds. From there we continued south on the N7 to VanRhynsdorp where we turned east and drove through the flat, almost barren plains known as the “Knersvlakte” (literally the “Grinding flatlands”), so named by the pioneers of this part of South Africa because of the sound of the wagon wheels grinding on the stony, gritty surface.
The plains ended in an intimidating mountain escarpment with a diagonal gash up the side which, as we got closer, turned into a steeply angled road with dramatic views back over the Knersvlakte. As we reached the top we found ourselves in quite different countryside at a substantially higher altitude and soon passed through Niewoudtville, with a quick stop to admire the roadside flowers, on our way to De Lande farm some 13 Km further along a dirt road. At this stage the road was still dry and comfortable to drive on, but this was to change over the next couple of days.
Once settled at De Lande in the “Sinkhuisie” or “Tin House”, we took a walk to stretch the legs and do some initial birding in this new locality. Immediately the presence of Mountain Wheatears was noticeable as they hopped about around and under the car, almost seeming to want to say “hello”. A Black Harrier (Witkruisvleivalk) glided past in his customary low flight over the scrub and disappeared into the distance. Down at the farm dam dusk was approaching and a row of tall blue gums was being populated by growing numbers of Black-headed Herons (Swartkopreier), Sacred Ibises (Skoorsteenveer) and Cape Crows (Swartkraai) as they came in to roost – the trees were altogether quite crowded. The weather had turned and it was by now completely overcast and decidedly cold but this was more than compensated for by the heaters in the house and the warm welcome and superb dinner we enjoyed that evening, served in the main house a stone’s throw away.
The next couple of days were to be a test of the vehicles and our tenacity, but more of that in Part 3 – stay tuned…….
One of the enjoyable aspects of planning a trip is the pleasant anticipation that goes with it. A few years ago Gerda and I were intent on doing a birding trip through the Northern parts of South Africa to coincide with the time that the Namaqualand flowers are usually at their best, but circumstances stood in the way and we had to cancel at the last moment. Koos and Rianda Pauw, who we were to join for that trip, did the trip on their own and their stories afterwards only served to make us more determined to do the trip at a future date. When Koos & Rianda suggested “going for it” in 2013, Gerda and I jumped at the chance and immediately started planning the route, accommodation etc in order to make sure we would get bookings at the preferred spots during the popular flower-viewing season which runs from mid-July to mid September.
The anticipation was heightened by the fact that we would be travelling through parts of South Africa that we had not experienced before, with places and towns to see for the first time. The bonus was the prospect of seeing the famed Namaqualand flowers for ourselves, not to mention the possibility of a number of “lifers” (birds not seen before) along the route. Then there is the all-important atlasing of bird species which we intended to do at each overnight stop as a minimum.
Note that this Part 1 of the trip does not include the main Namaqualand flower areas, which will only be included in later Parts – you have been warned!
Afrikaans names of bird species have been added where the bird is first mentioned, because many birders in South Africa know the birds by their Afrikaans names and the names are often charming and more descriptive.
Day 1 (19th August 2013) :
After much intense packing and arrangements, we set off just after 2pm and headed west along the N14 National road to our first overnight stop via Krugersdorp, Klerkskraal, (blink and you’ll miss it) Ventersdorp and Coligny, at which point we turned south to the farm Ouplaas near Ottosdal in the North-West Province, arriving late afternoon. Coert and Magdalena welcomed us warmly to their guest house and turned out to be excellent hosts and the accommodation proved comfortable enough. They served a tasty four course dinner that, along with the décor, took me back 30 years – soup starter, then a fish salad followed by the main course with roast lamb and veg, then a rich pudding and coffee in tiny, fancy cups.
Day 2 (20th August 2013) :
An early morning walk was a good start to the day and an ideal time to do some atlasing of the bird species to be found in the area – the garden was fresh and cool and lush compared to the dry surroundings.White-browed Sparrow-Weavers (Koringvoël) are one of the signature birds of the area and are plentiful everywhere, made evident by the untidy nests in many a tree – some were busy nest-building at the entrance gate closely attended by Crimson-breasted Shrikes (Rooiborslaksman) in their bright red plumage. Bird calls livened up the garden, announcing the presence of Pied Barbets (Bonthoutkapper), Cape Robin-Chats (Gewone janfrederik), Red-throated Wryneck (Draaihals) and Orange River White-eyes (Gariepglasogie) in between the background calls of Laughing, Red-eyed and Cape Turtle-Doves (Lemoen- Grootring- en Gewone Tortelduif).
The roads near the farmstead produced Bokmakierie, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler (Bosveldtjeriktik), Neddicky (Neddikkie) and Kalahari Scrub-Robin (Kalahariwipstert) and on the way back a Brubru (Bontroklaksman) announced himself with his telephone-ring-like call. With atlasing duties done it was time for a leisurely breakfast after which we headed out to Barberspan some 80km away, first stopping at the farm’s own dam, which had looked promising from a distance. It proved to be a worthwhile stop as we added Lesser Flamingo (Kleinflamink) and a Goliath Heron (Reusereier) in the shallows as well as an early Wood Sandpiper (Bosruiter) and Kittlitz’s Plover (Geelborsstrandkiewiet) along the edge.
From there we made our way to Barberspan which we reached just after midday and immediately started atlasing Pentad 2630_2535 covering the north-east quadrant of the very large pan. Birds were plentiful, visible at a distance from the adjoining road – both Greater and Lesser Flamingos were working the shallows along with another Goliath Heron and the usual Geese, Egyptian and Spur-winged (Kolgans, Wildemakou). Once we entered the Bird Sanctuary itself, we added species at a constant pace with a Common Scimitarbill (Swartbekkakelaar) being a highlight, before heading through the low grass surrounding the pan where we encountered Spike-heeled Lark (Vaktelewerik) and African Quail-Finch (Gewone Kwartelvinkie) amongst others.
Moving along the shoreline on the roadway skirting the pan, we found Black-winged Stilts (Rooipootelsie), African Snipe (Afrikaanse Snip), African Swamphen (Grootkoningriethaan), Wood Sandpiper and newly-arrived Ruff (Kemphaan), all mixing with the Flamingos. From there we moved to the picnic spot for our traditional “wors-braai” and continued to enjoy the coming and going of the birds that frequent the area, such as Pied Barbet, Tit-Babblers, Cape Glossy Starling (Kleinglansspreeu) and a charming Fairy Flycatcher (Feevlieëvanger) flitting about busily in the upper branches of the shady trees. Sparrow-Weavers were abundant and by far the dominant bird of the area and a pair of Yellow Mongoose skirted the picnic area and eyed us as we braai-ed. Our mid-afternoon meal of boerewors (traditional sausage) on a roll with side salad was simplicity itself but perfect in the peaceful surroundings and with the added pleasure of having the entire spot to ourselves.
Well satisfied with the birding and our catering efforts, we left Barberspan Bird Sanctuary, but before heading back to our guest farm we decided to have a “quick look” at Leeupan a couple of kms north of Barberspan. By this time the sun was getting low and causing a glare on the pan so not much was visible, but just as we were about to turn around Koos spotted a large bird in the veld on the opposite side of the road and excitedly called us to have a look. It turned out to be a real surprise – an Eurasian Curlew (Grootwulp) in the veld hundreds of metres from the water. I managed to get a few long-distance photos which I later submitted to the SA Rare Bird Report which duly mentioned our find and described it as an “interesting inland sighting”. This exciting find capped an excellent day all round.
Returning to the guest house we came across a Spotted Eagle-Owl (Gevlekte ooruil) silhouetted against the already dark skies.
Day 3 (21st August 2013) :
We spent virtually the whole day travelling the 700 Km to Augrabies National Park, via towns such as Delareyville, Vryburg, Kuruman, Olifantshoek, Upington, Keimoes and Kakamas – all towns we had never seen before, but unfortunately we did not have time to stop and explore any of them – maybe next time. This was partly due to the “stop and go” method of road reconstruction now familiar to all South Africans, which is very time-wasting and adds significantly to a day trip when there are 7 or 8 of them to negotiate in one day. We arrived at Augrabies by late afternoon and settled into the lovely chalet, after which we enjoyed a good meal in the park restaurant. By this time we were getting into the swing of packing and un-packing our loaded vehicles and the whole process was much quicker.
Day 4 (22nd August 2013) :
After a good night’s rest we had a leisurely breakfast before taking a walk around the camp and along the extensive network of board walks which lead to the various viewing decks, in the process building up an interesting array of birds for our ongoing daily and trip list, which Koos was keeping up to date in admirable fashion.
We soon saw that Pale-winged Starlings (Bleekvlerkspreeu) and Pied Wagtails (Bontkwikkie) were the signature birds of the camp with Orange River White-eyes being almost as prominent. Over the gorge below the falls, a short walk from our chalet, many Alpine Swifts (Witpenswindswael) appeared to be reveling in the spray thrown high into the air by the tumbling torrent of water and with some patience I managed to get some photos of these fast-flying Swifts, which look for all the world like miniature jet-fighters as they swoop past. According to Koos, this is one of his favourite birds.
A feature of the viewing areas is the localized Augrabies Flat Lizard (Platysaurus broadleyi – in case you were wondering) with its bright colouring – it apparently depends on the black flies that congregate in their millions along the Orange River and they also feed on the figs from the Namaqua Fig Tree. Dassies were plentiful and in the vegetation that skirts the board walks I heard African Reed and Namaqua Warblers (Kleinrietsanger, Namakwalangstertjie) but both stayed out of sight. The call of an African Fish-Eagle (Visarend) was loud enough to be heard above the constant rumble of the falls.
The camping area was alive with Starlings, Thrushes, Scrub-Robins and Bulbuls. At the outdoor section of the well-run restaurant, a Dusky Sunbird (Namakwasuikerbekkie) announced himself loudly as we enjoyed a cappuccino and on the walk back we checked the skies and found other Swallows (Greater-striped / Grootstreepswael), Martins (Brown-throated / Afrikaanse oewerswael)) and Swifts (Little, African Palm- / Kleinwindswael, Palmwindswael) had joined the abundant Alpine Swifts catching flying insects in the air.
After lunch we went for a drive through the park proper to the viewpoint called Ararat, which has spectacular views up and down the river gorge. Despite the short trip to the viewpoint we managed to spot some good specials including a group of Namaqua Sandgrouse (Kelkiewyn), Swallow-tailed Bee-Eaters (Swaelstertbyvreter) hunting from low branches, numerous Lark-like Buntings (Vaalstreepkoppie), Pied Barbet and then my first lifer for the trip – a lone Pygmy Falcon (Dwergvalk), a raptor so small and un-fierce-looking that it elicited a “shame” from us. At the viewpoint we enjoyed a picnic coffee while enjoying the view and scanning the gorge for birds – a Verraux’s Eagle (Witkruisarend) in the distance and Reed Cormorants (Rietduiker) far down in the river were our reward.
Back at the chalet it was time to braai the evening meal and prepare for our next long stretch down to the west coast at Port Nolloth
Day 5 (23rd August 2013) :
We had targeted an 8am departure knowing we had another lengthy drive ahead to Port Nolloth and wanting ti fit in some roadside birding along the “back road” between Pofadder and Aggenys, as described so well in the “Southern African Bird Finder” book which many birders use to plan their birding trips. We duly left just after 8am and stopped briefly in Pofadder to fill up our vehicles with diesel, where after we followed the book’s directions to the P2961 secondary road which was to take us through a part of Bushmanland known for some of the sought-after “specials” of the area. Our first stop was just 1,6 Km along the road as directed, where we found Karoo Long-billed Lark (Karoolangbeklewerik) and Tractrac Chat (Woestynspekvreter) (another lifer for me) without too much trouble. Spike-heeled Larks were spotted a couple of times and a group of Namaqua Sandgrouse obligingly waited for us at the roadside to allow close-up views, before scurrying away into the scrub.
We progressed slowly along the dusty road, stopping frequently in search of the special Larks of the area but without much further success as it was by now the middle of the day when birds are less visible. At one point we took what we thought was the turn-off to the Koa dunes where Red Lark is known to be found, but we realized after some time that the landmarks were not as described in the book and retraced our steps back to the “main” road and continued until we came across other Gauteng birders in search of Red Lark who advised us on the correct route. We duly followed their directions and found the Koa dunes close by where we spent a good hour-and-a-half scanning and listening but to no avail as the lark eluded us – perhaps another day? By this time it was getting late so we made haste to Port Nolloth via Springbok and Steinkopf, arriving as the sun was setting over the town and our overnight destination at McDougall’s Bay a few Kms south of the town. The beach house accommodation was right on the beach with a small rock-protected lagoon directly in front of the house, with a variety of birds present to whet our appetites for the following day.
Just as significantly, we had started seeing scattered patches of flowers in the veld as we approached Springbok, which augured well for the days ahead. So far each day had been an adventure with new places seen, new birds added to our growing trip list and regular roadside stops for coffee and refreshments without the hassle of heavy traffic to disturb the sense of tranquility that we were developing.
Part 2 will cover the rest of our stay in Port Nolloth, including a sighting that was one of the highlights of our trip, and our journey through the Namaqualand flower areas.