Tag Archives: Birding Botswana

My Birding Year 2017 (Part 2) – Atlasing, Twitching, An Island and more


Following on Part 1 of My Birding Year for 2017  ………  guess what, here’s Part 2!

So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the second half of 2017 along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited.

July

The first week saw me back in Kasane for a project visit and we managed to fit in a memorable drive through Chobe Riverfront where the game viewing took precedence, but the birdlife was hard to ignore, particularly the Carmine Bee-eaters

Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Chobe Riverfront
Greater Blue-eared Starling, Chobe Riverfront

Later on in the month I was back to atlasing in the area south of Bronkhorstspruit, some 50 km east of Pretoria, dominated by the drab midwinter “browns” of the highveld and providing some challenging birding in the form of very similar looking small birds in their winter plumage.

Southern Red Bishop (winter plumage), Bronkhorstspruit area
White-winged Widow (winter plumage), Bronkhorstspruit area

August

Another visit to Kasane, Botswana in the first week included a spectacular boat safari on the Chobe river with Pangolin Safaris in a specially equipped boat kitted out with swivel seats and pliable camera mounts. One of the owners of Pangolin Safaris, who goes by the nickname of “Guts”,  accompanied us and made sure we had some amazing photo opportunities of the wildlife and birds to be found along the river.

Six species in one frame (1 only just) – can you spot them? (see end of post for answer)
Glossy Ibis, Chobe River
Doing it in style with Pangolin Safaris on the Chobe River

One moment of sheer photographic magic came my way in the form of a lone African Skimmer passing by and showing how it got its name.

African Skimmer, Chobe River

The following weekend saw us visiting family in Potchefstroom once again – I took the two grandkids for a birding outing to nearby Boschkop dam and was again very pleased with the quality of birding at this venue, which is also quiet and safe for the kids to roam about a bit.

White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Boschkop dam, Potchefstroom
The birding team
Three-banded Plover, Boschkop dam, Potchefstroom

Next up was some atlasing in the grasslands north east of Pretoria – known as Vlaklaagte, which was good for birding but the gravel roads at this time of year are very dusty and the passing mining lorries tend to make it quite difficult to bird in peace – nevertheless a successful day’s atlasing.

Pied Starling, Vlaklaagte area
Dam, Vlaklaagte area
Buffy Pipit, Vlaklaagte area

A short winter visit to Mossel Bay in the second half of August provided the opportunity to explore the Karoo south of Oudtshoorn on a cold day – I added several species to my year list and atlased in areas not regularly covered so well worthwhile.

Cape Weaver, Mossel Bay
Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south
White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south

On Robinson Pass, my patience was rewarded when a Victorin’s Warbler posed briefly for a photo – a very difficult species to photograph so a nice bonus.

Victorin’s Warbler, Robinson Pass

September

My monthly visit to Kasane was likely to be one of my last as the project was heading to completion, so I made the most of the 3 days there and fitted in birding at every opportunity. The airport precinct and perimeter were particularly lively with up to 200 bee-eaters present along the fences.

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Kasane Airport area

An early morning drive through the Chobe Riverfront was as good as ever with some unusual species showing.

Burchell’s Sandgrouse, Chobe GR
Kori Bustard, Chobe GR

During the rest of the month I targeted some of the more remote areas of north-east Gauteng to do some atlasing, selecting pentads not yet atlased in 2017.

Rufous-naped Lark (Mirafra africana – subspecies transvaalensis, Vlaklaagte area
Spike-heeled Lark, Balmoral area

October

Our much anticipated trip to Mauritius to celebrate our “milestone” birthdays with the family was a highlight of the year from all points of view – the sheer joy of having our 3 children, their spouses and our 7 grandchildren with us in such a beautiful setting for a whole week was awesome (as they say).

Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius

I didn’t do any serious birding but the hotel gardens were good for a total of just 11 species, of which 6 were lifers to add to my world list (yes I’m a “lister”!)

Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Red Fody (Foudia madagascarensis), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Malagasy Turtle Dove (Nesoenas picturatus), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Zebra Dove / Barred Ground Dove (Geopelia striata), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius

In any case I was so busy enjoying the ambience, the family, the great meals and the snorkelling that birding was relegated to about 10th place (just for that week, mind)

Later in the month I visited Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel in Gauteng for a superb morning of birding in this prime waterbird location.

Lesser Swamp-Warbler, Marievale
White-backed Duck, Marievale

An unexpected atlasing trip with Koos on the 21st in the pentad covering the north-east corner of Pretoria was a delight, covering all areas from industrial to country estates.

November

My last visit to Kasane was also a busy one work-wise so not much opportunity for birding other than snatched moments in between other commitments – how I’m going to miss this place!

A weekend in Potchefstroom presented another chance to take Christopher (6) with me for some atlasing at Boschkop dam – plenty of highlights to make it interesting for both of us.

Marievale was my destination for the second time in 4 weeks when reports came through of Baillon’s Crake seen there. I dipped on the crake but still had a wonderful morning’s atlasing.

African Snipe, Marievale
Ruff (white headed form), Marievale

On the 22nd it was time to head south (how time flies!) to our Mossel Bay home – a two day road trip with an overnight stop at Kuilfontein guest farm near Colesberg, which provided some great birding and relief from the long driving sessions.

Malachite Sunbird, Kuilfontein near Colesberg

I hardly had time to recover in Mossel Bay when Birding Big Day was upon us and I invited Willie to join me for a long but fruitful day’s birding along some of the back roads of the surrounding countryside. We ended the day quite happy with 124 species and something like 120th place in the national challenge.

Common Ringed Plover, Klein Brak, BBD 2017
Red-necked Spurfowl, Brandwag area, BBD 2017

December

December as usual was given over to family matters with  a bit of atlasing squeezed in here and there. Apart from the good birding that Mossel Bay offers, most of my trips were in the direction of Herbertsdale, some 50 kms north-west of Mossel Bay, where the countryside is attractive and the roads quiet.

Pin-tailed Whydah (Male), Mossel Bay
Booted Eagle, Mossel Bay
White-rumped Swift, Mossel Bay
Steppe (Common) Buzzard, Mossel Bay area
Jackal Buzzard, Mossel Bay
Blue Cranes, north of Herbertsdale
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Scenery north of Herbertsdale

The last 3 days of the year were spent at a cottage in the hills beyond Calitzdorp, serious Little Karoo country and good for some of the Karoo specials. The cottage was Andre and Geraldine’s dream that became real, through a lot of hard work on their part.

Evening walk, Calitzdorp
Red-billed Queleas, Calitzdorp

Answer to “6 Species in one frame” – left to right :

Glossy Ibis (left, just in frame), Squacco Heron, African Darter (in front), African Spoonbill (rear, twice), Little Egret, Long-toed Lapwing

Phew glad I got that post out in January (only just) – a Birding Year story is no good whatsoever in February

 

 

My Birding Year 2017 (Part 1) – Atlasing, Twitching, Cruising and more


Another memorable Birding Year has come and gone – a year filled once again with travelling to many familiar places and some exciting new ones, atlasing at every opportunity, a number of new birds seen and enough experiences to fill my journal to the brim.

So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the year along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited. Some of the trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.

January

Our year kicked off in Mossel Bay, our home town for some of the year and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing / birdmapping in the area – Hartenbos and the adjoining inland in particular.

Agulhas Long-billed Lark in full song

On the 9th I had the unexpected thrill of finding a Pectoral Sandpiper, classed as a national rarity, which I duly reported to Trevor Hardaker who sent out a note to all subscribers to the SA Rare Bird News network – what a memorable day!

Pectoral Sandpiper, Hartenbos River weir
SA Rare Bird News report

We started our journey back to Gauteng on the 13th, first stopping over in charming Prince Albert for two nights. I managed to fit in some atlasing in the area including a pleasant trip along the Damascus road.

Familiar Chat, Prince Albert (Damascus road)

Our next stop for one night was at Garingboom guest farm near Springfontein in the Free State which also proved to be an interesting birding destination.

Amur Falcon, Garingboom Guest farm, Springfontein
SA Cliff Swallow, Garingboom Guest farm, Springfontein

Back in Pretoria, my first atlasing was centred around Mabusa Nature Reserve some 100 km north east of Pretoria which was a most enjoyable spot with some challenging roads and good birding

Mabusa Nature Reserve
Yellow-fronted Canary, Mabusa Nature Reserve
Bushveld Pipit, Mabusa Nature Reserve
Mabusa Nature Reserve

February

My first trip of the year to Kasane presented some great birding and atlasing opportunities in the summer lushness of Chobe Game Reserve.

Kasane Forest Reserve
White-crowned Lapwing, Chobe Game Reserve
Chobe Game Reserve
Double-banded Sandgrouse, Chobe Game Reserve

Back in Pretoria I did further atlasing in the Delmas area

Brown-throated Martin, Delmas area

We used our timeshare points for a weekend at Champagne Valley in the Drakensberg, which provided an opportunity for some atlasing in the area

Grey-crowned Crane, Drakensberg south
Drakensberg south
Gurney’s Sugarbird, Drakensberg south

March

Our Canadian family arrived on the 6th for a two week visit which included a Kruger Park visit and a trip to Vic Falls and Chobe Game Reserve

European Roller, Kruger Park
Green-backed Heron (Juvenile), Lake Panic in Kruger Park
White-fronted Bee-eater, Zambezi Cruise
Little Sparrowhawk (Juvenile), Chobe Safari Lodge

Getting back to normal after the excitement of touring with the family, we visited Potchefstroom, and I was happy to take grandson Christopher (6) with me for some birding at the local dam – I think he was more interested in my Prado’s little fridge filled with cold-drinks, but you have to start somewhere!

April

My monthly visit to Kasane, Botswana afforded another opportunity for some birding around Kasane and in Chobe Game Reserve – such a great destination which I try not to spoil with too much work….

Bronze-winged Courser, Kasane Airport perimeter
Western Yellow Wagtail, Kasane Sewage Works

Then it was time for our much anticipated “Flock at Sea” cruise from the 24th to 28th  arranged by Birdlife SA

Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise
Black-browed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
White-headed Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise

May

Another short autumn visit to Mossel Bay meant I could fit in some further atlasing in the Southern Cape

Grey-headed Gull, Mossel Bay
Cape Rock-Thrush (Male), Victoria Bay
Zitting Cisticola, Herbertsdale area

Later in the month Koos and I headed to Bushfellows Lodge near Marble Hall in Mpumulanga for a day’s atlasing (and some snake watching)

Just a week later we spent 4 days at Verlorenkloof also in Mpumulanga with Koos and Rianda, one of our favourite spots for relaxing and blessed with a variety of birding opportunities

Chinspot Batis, Verlorenkloof
Lower dam, Verlorenkloof
Red-throated Wryneck, Verlorenkloof

June

The month kicked off with a visit to Kasane but this time my birding was limited to a rather hurried morning trip into Chobe Riverfront

Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Chobe Game Reserve
Brown Snake Eagle, Chobe Game Reserve

On the 10th Koos and I braved the mid-winter cold and the notoriously dangerous Moloto road north of Pretoria to do some atlasing in NE Gauteng

Marico Sunbird, far north east 4DG

We closed out the half year with our “get away from it all” break in La Lucia near Durban at our timeshare resort – this was interrupted by a breakaway to northern Zululand to view a Malagasy Pond-Heron that had taken up residence at Phinda Game Reserve.

Phinda North KZN
Malagasy Pond-Heron, Mziki dam, Phinda North KZN
Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Phinda North KZN

In the latter part of the week I visited Pigeon Valley for some superb forest birding

Spotted Ground Thrush, Pigeon Valley Durban
Pigeon Valley Durban
Grey Waxbill, Pigeon Valley Durban

July to December will be covered in the next post – watch this space!

 

Chobe River Birding – Pratincoles, Storks and other delights

If you ever find yourself in Kasane wondering how to spend the morning, you can’t go far wrong by doing a boat trip on the Chobe River – a small boat is fine if you are alone or up to 3 or 4 people and various tour companies rent out such boats with drivers.

Last November (2016), I found myself in that position and chose to approach one of the local tour companies, based on my previous good experience with Richard as guide and driver – they were able to accommodate me early on the Friday of my visit, having assured me that Richard was available to take myself and colleague Deon out for the morning.

This time around however, the trip did not start well – we waited for almost half an hour for someone to appear at reception and were then told Richard was “not there” and David would take us out. On enquiring about his birding skills I was told “I’m a beginner”, which did not fill me with enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, we set off in the aluminium boat, comfortable and with camera at the ready as we headed in the direction of Seboba Rapids, where I hoped to find Rock Pratincole in particular, being a potential lifer for me. According to information I had gleaned from books and the internet, Rock Pratincoles are Intra-African migrants which typically frequent the rocks at the rapids from September to January, providing the conditions suit them and the river is not in flood.

There are just a handful of possible sites to see this bird in Southern Africa, all of them along the Zambesi and Chobe Rivers, so this would be my first and possibly last chance to “tick” this desirable bird.

Heading downstream towards the rapids, the first part of our trip was about as good as it gets with river-based birding, with constant sightings of birds as we glided along the smooth surface in perfect cool conditions.

Wire-tailed Swallows (Draadstertswael) and Rock Martins (Kransswael) swooped by as David steered the boat across to the opposite bank, where some large raptors were partially hidden in the long grass. I was puzzled about what they could be as they were not immediately recognisable at all, so I took numerous photos in order to help me confirm an ID later. An adult Long-crested Eagle (Langkuifarend) was nearby, perched in a tall tree, only serving to lead my thoughts in the wrong direction as it turned out.

Chobe River trip
Heading out

Later, using the time on the hour and a half flight back to Jo’burg and at home, I eventually solved the puzzle – Juvenile African Fish-Eagle (Visarend) ! Sometimes a tricky ID can really have you going in the wrong direction.

African Fish-Eagle (Juvenile) Chobe River trip
African Fish-Eagle (Juvenile)

Soon after, we approached the Seboba rapids and almost immediately found what I had been hoping for –  Rock Pratincoles (Withalssprinkaanvoël) , relaxing on the rocks on islets in the middle of the river. A lifer at this stage of my birding career is really special, particularly in such a perfect location, so I may even have let out a subdued whoop! We spent some time with them and getting good photos proved to be quite simple, as they seemed totally undisturbed by our presence, even when the boat bumped up against the islet a couple of metres from where they perched.

Rock Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Rock Pratincole living up to its name
Rock Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Rock Pratincole

Having proved yet again that a “scarce” bird that you have wanted to see for many years is suddenly common when you are in the right place, we continued our trip, checking the nearby bushy shoreline and the other islets, adding Black Crake (Swartriethaan), Pied Kingfisher (Bontvisvanger) and a juvenile Malachite Kingfisher (Kuifkopvisvanger) to the morning’s list. Yellow-billed Kites (Geelbekwou) were doing there usual low-level cruising along the shoreline, turning frequently to show their distinctive deeply forked tails and close enough to make out their yellow bills.

Malachite Kingfisher (Juvenile), Chobe River trip
Malachite Kingfisher (Juvenile)

Further along a Yellow-billed Stork (Geelbekooievaar) “crèche” was filled with what I guessed were mostly the “Class of 2016”, with just a single adult keeping watch nearby. The juveniles only obtain adult plumage after some 3 years, so these could have ranged in age from 1 to 3 years. The population in South Africa on its own, according to reference books, is only around 300 (although I find that hard to believe) so this group possibly represented a significant proportion of the overall population, even in southern Africa.

Yellow-billed Stork creche, Chobe River trip
Yellow-billed Stork creche, Chobe River
Yellow-billed Stork creche, Chobe River trip
Yellow-billed Stork creche, Chobe River
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River trip
Yellow-billed Stork – adult in charge

Turning upstream we hugged the river banks along the stretch which is the home of some well-known lodges – Mowana, Chobe Marina and Chobe Safari, all with lush vegetation and large trees, many of which overhang the greasy brown waters of the river. Another African Fish-Eagle, this time an adult, flew majestically overhead.

African Fish-Eagle, Chobe River trip
African Fish-Eagle

It’s not that easy to see the birds when they are ensconced in the depths of the riverside bush, but we did spot Black-crowned Night-Heron (Gewone Nagreier) , several Malachite Kingfishers and a community of nests with African Golden Weavers (Goudwewer) present. The strident, piercing call of Red-faced Cisticola (Rooiwangtintinkie) added to the birding pleasure.

African Golden Weaver nests, Chobe River trip
African Golden Weaver nests
African Golden Weaver (Male), Chobe River trip
African Golden Weaver (Male), Chobe River

From there the river widened out as we passed our favourite sundowner spot, before stopping briefly at the small cabin on a jetty where our guide signed us into the Chobe Game Reserve, while we watched an African Openbill (Oopbekooievaar) at close quarters nearby

African Openbill, Chobe River trip
African Openbill
Chobe River trip
Chobe River
Chobe River trip
Chobe River

Typical Chobe River habitat followed – flat islands covered in grass and marshy areas, inhabited by Cape Buffalo and Lechwe and in the water along the edge by Hippos and Crocodiles, all giving us the look as we puttered slowly by.

Lechwe, Chobe River trip
Lechwe, Chobe River
Crocodile, Chobe River trip
Crocodile
Crocodile, Chobe River trip
Crocodile
Hippo, Chobe River trip
Hippo, Chobe River

As usual the Egrets and Herons were plentiful, the larger Great Egret (Grootwitreier) and Goliath Heron (Reusereier) standing out above the rest. Long-toed Lapwings (Witvlerkkiewiet) were so numerous they were probably the most populous bird at that point.

Goliath Heron, Chobe River trip
Goliath Heron
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River trip
Long-toed Lapwing

We encountered African Skimmers (Waterploeër) a few times and marveled at their brightly coloured bill with the elongated lower mandible, which allows it to skim the water’s surface in flight and latch onto any small organism that may cross its path.

African Skimmer, Chobe River trip
African Skimmer
African Skimmer, Chobe River trip
African Skimmer, Chobe River

Collared Pratincoles (Rooivlerksprinkaanvoël) flew by, looking very Tern-like, then settled on the grassy flats of the island to join the resident Skimmers. Both of these species seem to have a relaxed attitude towards life as a bird, spending a lot of time resting on the ground with occasional sorties to find their next meal.

Collared Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Collared Pratincole, Chobe River

By this time a fresh wind was blowing upriver, creating ever-increasing wavelets. Suddenly our boatman seemed to have an inspiration as he revved the engine and headed upstream (with the wind) at speed, without telling us what he had in mind.

No problem, we thought, as we assumed he had a special spot with other bird species to show us, but no, it seems he just took us on a “joyride” – which turned out to be just the opposite when he suddenly turned the boat around and raced back. Small wavelets had by now turned into mini swells, enough to cause a bone-jarring, teeth-clenching, kidney-battering ride all the way back.  Climbing out at the jetty, I felt quite shaken and stirred – James Bond would not have approved.

Nevertheless it was a successful morning , which left us with many more memories to savour of this supreme stretch of unspoilt African river.

 

 

 

 

A family of Bateleurs

During a visit to Chobe Game Reserve in April this year, I saw many of the birds that I have become accustomed to in this special slice of African wilderness. After substantial summer rains Chobe Riverfront was greener and more lush than I have ever seen it, and with the river in flood from the rains in the catchment area in Angola, the “River road” was slightly more river than road….

Road meets river in Chobe

This meant I had to stick to the upper road for most of the way, not that this detracted from the experience in any way.

The highlight of the morning was being treated to a fly past by a family group of Bateleurs – male, female and juvenile – which swooped by in a great circle above my vehicle. They were good enough to repeat this a couple of times, allowing me the opportunity to view them from my vehicle and take a few in flight shots which perfectly showed the differences between them.

What a graceful picture they present when in their element in the air, making small adjustments to their wing’s plane in flight, flying with such precision and elegance that it is like watching a cirque de soleil performance.

This species is one of the delights of visiting the larger game reserves in the northern part of our region, particularly Kruger Park where they are relatively common and often the most numerous raptor in the air.  However in all my years of birding I have never seen a “complete set” in one spot before.

The male is distinguished in flight by the broad, black trailing edge to its wings :

Male Bateleur with broad black leading edge to wings

The female can be told by the much narrower, black trailing edge to its wings :

Female Bateleur with narrow black trailing edge to wings

The juvenile has the same short tail and overall “giss” as the adults, but the plumage is in several shades of brown, seemingly designed to throw you off the track when identifying them, unless you see them in the company of the adults as I was fortunate to do.

Juvenile Bateleur

I left Chobe with the sighting of these elegant birds imprinted on my mind.

My Birding Year 2016 (Part 2) – Twitching, Lifers, Atlasing and more

It was a memorable Birding Year for several reasons – many great places visited in pursuit of new birds, many amazing experiences, often when least expected, atlasing at every opportunity, all of which has left me more than satisfied and (hopefully) has boosted my birding and bird photography skills. It was also sprinkled with enough “Lifers” to make it a special birding year, most of which were not planned but rather just happened along the way.

Part two follows my birding journey from July through to December and is just a brief synopsis of my birding activities along with photos of the species encountered and places visited. Some of my trips are / will be covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.

July

The month kicked off with some mid-winter atlasing on the 2nd, in the Balmoral / Witbank area with Koos Pauw

On the 8th, in Kasane, Botswana for my monthly project visit, I did a spectacular birding trip by rented boat on the Chobe River, which was every bit as good as I had hoped

Chobe River Boat Trip
Chobe River Boat Trip
African Fish-Eagle, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Fish-Eagle, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip
Lappet-faced Vulture, Kasane
Lappet-faced Vulture, Kasane

Just three days later it was back to more normal birding / atlasing – this time east of Potchefstroom where we had gone to visit Stephan and family

And another two days later it was time for a truly memorable trip to Heilbron in the Free State to ” twitch”  the reported Burchell’s Courser with Koos, which we duly did, finding  along the way two other Coursers (Double-banded, Temminck’s) and a bonus lifer for me in the form of a Pink-billed Lark which Koos spotted

Burchell's Courser, Heilbron area
Burchell’s Courser, Heilbron area

The last week in July was spent in Mossel Bay where the Pincushions were in full bloom and attracting numbers of nectar feeders, which kindly posed for some colourful photos

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay

Writing this, I realised that I had done birding across 2 countries and 5 of SA’ s provinces during July!

August

My visit to Kasane from the 3rd to 5th allowed for some great birding again, visiting a riverside spot late afternoon where my colleagues went to fish and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing, photographing the Hartlaub’s Babblers and just enjoying the ambience as the sun set and hippos blew bubbles and snorted in the river

On the Friday morning before returning to SA I travelled to the Ngoma gate into Chobe Game Reserve and drove eastwards along the Riverfront road, atlasing all the way. I was rewarded with good views of Openbill, Great White Pelican, Tawny Eagle, Dickinson’s Kestrel and Slaty Egret amongst many others.

Brown-crowned Tchagra, Chobe Game Reserve
Brown-crowned Tchagra, Chobe Game Reserve
Slaty Egret, Chobe Game Reserve
Slaty Egret, Chobe Game Reserve (a very average photo, but my first of this scarce species)
Dickinson's Kestrel, Chobe Game Reserve
Dickinson’s Kestrel, Chobe Game Reserve

Mid August I fitted in some Monday atlasing, this time near Leandra where a farm dam was very productive with a nice range of waterfowl and one Caspian Tern

September

A family wedding took us to Vryheid and the farm of Pieter and Anlia Genis, where I was able to enjoy excellent birding in between the family festivities, with the assistance of Pieter and his rugged Bakkie (Pickup). The drive up to the plateau high above the farmhouse was as spectacular as ever and was good for a number of the area specials such as Black-winged Lapwing, Denham’s Bustard, Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat and Eastern Long-billed Lark

Onverwacht farm, Vryheid
Onverwacht farm, Vryheid
Black-winged Lapwing, Onverwacht farm, Vryheid
Black-winged Lapwing, Onverwacht farm, Vryheid

Another family event saw us in Potchefstroom two weeks later and I was able to squeeze in some atlasing early on the Monday morning before returning home to Pretoria

October

A visit to Kruger National Park in the first week of October with Andre and Geraldine and the girls was a highlight of the year, with the dry conditions limiting the bird numbers somewhat but each day proved to be full of interesting sightings.

Our home for the week was Olifants camp in the northern section of the Park.

African Harrier-Hawk, Afsaal area KNP
African Harrier-Hawk, Afsaal area KNP
Southern Ground Hornbill, KNP
Southern Ground Hornbill, KNP
Golden-breasted Bunting,  Olifants Balule road KNP
Golden-breasted Bunting, Olifants Balule road KNP
Hooded Vulture, S37 Trichardt road KNP
Hooded Vulture, S37 Trichardt road KNP
Brownheaded Parrot, Pretoriuskop KNP
Brownheaded Parrot, Pretoriuskop KNP

The rest of October was devoted to atlasing some of the birding “hotspots” around Pretoria and further afield.

Roodeplaat dam was good for two separate visits on consecutive Saturdays, one with Koos Pauw, both visits proving that this is one of the best spots for a relaxed morning’s birding with good roads and well-kept facilities.  The highlight was the constant calls of Tchagras, Titbabblers, Boubous, Scrub-Robins and others that accompanied the drives. The two birding sessions produced a remarkable 100+ species!

It was also the place where I saw the strangest bird of the year – one that had me completely flummoxed until I realised it was a fairly common Lesser Striped Swallow missing its tail. For a moment or two I thought I had discovered a new species of Spinetail!

Lesser Striped Swallow (tailless), Roodeplaat NR
Lesser Striped Swallow (tailless), Roodeplaat
Diederik Cuckoo, Roodeplaat NR
Diederik Cuckoo, Roodeplaat
Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Roodeplaat Dam
Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Roodeplaat Dam
Caspian Tern, Roodeplaat Dam
Caspian Tern, Roodeplaat Dam

Another attractive venue was Mabusa Nature Reserve, some 1.5 hours drive from Pretoria, but almost constant light rain put a damper on my visit and the slightly unscheduled arrival of our 7th grandchild had me rushing back to Pretoria a little earlier than planned. Definitely a spot to revisit on a sunny day.

A Terrapin in the middle of the drenched gravel road was proof of how wet it was – I have only ever seen them clinging to a rock in a river or dam

Terrapin, Mabusa NR
Terrapin, Mabusa NR
Mabusa NR
Mabusa NR on a wet day
Cape Glossy Starling, Mabusa NR
Cape Glossy Starling, Mabusa NR trying to look happy about the rain
African Pipit, Mabusa NR
African Pipit, Mabusa NR

Last up was a visit to the area around Settlers in the Bela Bela area of Limpopo province, where the highlight was meeting a farmer that I encountered on the road who invited me to visit the “Vulture restaurant” at a large Pig-farm nearby.

Greater Kestrel, Settlers area, Limpopo
Greater Kestrel, Settlers area, Limpopo
Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark, Settlers area, Limpopo
Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark, Settlers area, Limpopo

November

You would think I’d had enough of Chobe by now, but no, once again I arranged a boat trip along with a colleague while in Kasane and once again it was spectacular. My aim was to find Rock Pratincole which we did quite easily and had an up close and personal view to boot. I will do a separate post on this trip but suffice to say it was special.

Rock Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Rock Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River trip
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River trip

On the 9th another local hotspot demanded a visit when Green Sandpiper was reported from Rietvlei Nature Reserve near Pretoria (actually part of Pretoria). I did not find the Sandpiper but plenty of others kept me busy and fascinated, including a variety of antelope and other game. I still managed to make it to the office by mid-morning with 62 species counted.

Cape Longclaw, Rietvlei Dam
Cape Longclaw, Rietvlei Dam

Our annual “long stay” trip to Mossel Bay came around almost before we were quite ready and an overnight stop at Abbotsbury guest farm near Graaff-Reinet on the way there was my next opportunity for some Karoo birding on this delightful farm.

Red-eyed Bulbul, Abbotsbury near Graaff-Reinet
Red-eyed Bulbul, Abbotsbury near Graaff-Reinet

We were barely settled in Mossel Bay when Birding Big Day came up on the 26th and at the last moment I decided to enter the Birdlasser challenge despite not having a team, planned a route or being even vaguely prepared. As it turned out I had a great day doing a circular route in the surrounding area, with Gerda joining me in the afternoon, and recorded 112 species on the day – not too bad for the area.

December

On the road again – this time on a 5 day trip to the Western Cape mainly to visit family, but naturally I took every opportunity to do birding along the way. News of several rarities at Strandfontein Sewage Works had filtered through in the few days prior to the trip and, prompted by Gerda who knows I can’t resist the temptation of a new bird, we adjusted our itinerary to spend a night nearby the spot, which meant I could spend time there in the hope of finding them. As it turned out I added Temminck’s Stint, Red-necked Phalarope and American Golden Plover to my life list – my only dip was the Pectoral Sandpiper.

Temminck's Stint, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Temminck’s Stint, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Red-necked Phalarope, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Red-necked Phalarope, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Pied Avocet, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Pied Avocet, Strandfontein Sewage Works

Worcester was our base for 3 nights and on the return trip to Mossel Bay we stopped for an overnight stay at Jan Harmsgat guest farm

I felt that the rarities were following me when a Red-necked Buzzard was seen in Stilbaai, just and hour or so away from Mossel Bay, so on the 13th I went to look for it and ended up getting great views accompanied by some of the top birders in SA, who had driven a lot further to see this mega-rarity. One of them was the country’s leading seabird expert, Barrie Rose, with whom I had a chat as we were at school together. Barrie was tragically killed just a couple of weeks later  when he fell off rocks at Cape Point while fishing. Just another reminder how tenuous life can be.

Red-necked Buzzard, Stilbaai Twitch
Red-necked Buzzard, Stilbaai Twitch
Stilbaai Sewage Works
Stilbaai Sewage Works – a bird hide for the birds
Stilbaai twitch
Stilbaai twitch – RIP Barrie Rose (walking up the hill at the rear)

On the 22nd I atlased two pentads north and south of Herbertsdale, one of my favourite birding areas, which was also my last formal birding trip of the year.

During our lengthy stay in Mossel Bay I did regular atlasing in the Golf Estate, where 30+ species can be seen in an hour’s walk during Summer, as well as around town which has a few reliable birding spots such as the Point and the harbour area for seabirds and the small dam at the SPCA grounds for waterfowl.

Grey-backed Cisticola, Mossel Bay
Grey-backed Cisticola, Mossel Bay
African Black Swift, Mossel Bay
African Black Swift, Mossel Bay

I am not sure how I will top 2016 as far as birding goes, but I will certainly give it a go!

My Birding Year 2016 (Part 1) – Twitching, Lifers, Atlasing and more

It was a memorable Birding Year for several reasons – many great places visited in pursuit of new birds, many amazing experiences, often when least expected, atlasing at every opportunity, all of which has left me more than satisfied and (hopefully) has boosted my birding and bird photography skills. It was also sprinkled with enough “Lifers” to make it a special birding year, most of which were not planned but rather just happened along the way.

What follows is a brief (remember, brief is relative) synopsis of my birding activities along with photos of the species encountered and places visited. Some of my trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.

January

Our year kicked off in Mossel Bay, our home town for some of the year, including December and half of January, and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing / birdmapping in the area. This included one particularly memorable trip through the mountains on a back road north of Herbertsdale (actually an old wagon route)  where I saw just one other person in two hours and not a single other vehicle. The pentad (a block of 5 x 5 minutes of latitude and longitude) had never been atlased previously so was virgin territory.

Old Wagon route, Herbertsdale north
Old Wagon route, Herbertsdale north
Jackal Buzzard, Herbertsdale north
Jackal Buzzard, Herbertsdale north

Further atlasing on the 14th was limited by almost constant light rain, but was nevertheless interesting, producing some scarcer species such as Little Bittern doing its “sky-gazing” trick and a group of Amur Falcons, unusual in this part of SA. Parts of the gravel road were very slippery and called for close concentration.

Cattle Egret, Herbertsdale south
Cattle Egret, Herbertsdale south (spot the raindrops!)

Our customary “slow and easy” trip back to Pretoria started on the 16th with a short drive to Prince Albert for a two night stay, allowing time for some Karoo birding, then on to Prior Grange guest farm near Springfontein in the Free State, where I was able to fit in some early morning birding before our last push to Pretoria and home.

A report of a Caspian Plover near Hanover persuaded us to deviate for an hour or two to look for it – with the help of the farm owner we found it, as well as some other delights such as Blue Korhaan and Namaqua Sandgrouse

Namaqua Sandgrouse, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Namaqua Sandgrouse, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Caspian Plover, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Caspian Plover, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Blue Korhaan, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Blue Korhaan, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover

Back in Pretoria I was soon chasing further rarities when reports of a Red Phalarope at Mkhombo dam filtered through and I ended up visiting this exciting birding spot three times before the month was out, once on my own, once with George Skinner and once with Francois Furstenburg, the latter trip including some great birding along the Zaagkuildrift road.

Red Phalarope, Mkhombo Dam
Red Phalarope, Mkhombo Dam
Grey Plover, Mkhombo Dam
Grey Plover, Mkhombo Dam
123 Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Mkhombo Dam (925)
Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Mkhombo Dam

And to round off a memorable month, a Spotted Crake was reported outside the main gate to one of Johannesburg’s largest residential estates. It proved to be one of the easiest twitches ever as more than 1000 birders went to see it.

Spotted Crake, Waterfall Estate
Spotted Crake, Waterfall Estate

After that exciting start to the year I took a break in February to focus on other life matters and recommenced in…

March

The month started with a bang when I visited Kasane in Botswana for the project I am involved in and took the opportunity to “pop over” to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia to see the Yellow-throated Leaflove reported at a lodge near Katimo Mulilo, along with some of the other area specials and another lifer by way of an accommodating Schalow’s Turaco at the same lodge. The Leaflove was a new species for Southern Africa and created a lot of excitement amongst twitchers.

Yellow-throated Leaflove, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Yellow-throated Leaflove, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Schalow's Turaco, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Schalow’s Turaco, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge

While in Kasane I visited Chobe Game Reserve and the Kasane Waste treatment works which both produced some excellent birding.

Chobe NP
Chobe NP
Red-billed Spurfowl, Chobe NP
Red-billed Spurfowl, Chobe NP
African Openbill, Chobe NP
African Openbill, Chobe NP
Southern Carmine Bee-Eater, Chobe NP
Southern Carmine Bee-Eater, Chobe NP
Wood Sandpiper, Kasane Water Treatment
Wood Sandpiper, Kasane Water Treatment works

The following week I fitted in some atlasing, this time in and around Cullinan area east of Pretoria (where the famous Cullinan diamond was found)

The next weekend we visited Potchefstroom and I atlased in the area, focusing on the Boskop dam north-east of Potch which proved to be an excellent spot with a total of 72 species, the highlight being an African Rail walking along the dam edge for 50m or so before disappearing into reeds.

April

Back in Kasane for my monthly visit, the only birding I managed was at Senyati camp, which we visited late one afternoon and viewed the elephants coming to drink at the waterhole, along with a variety of bird life.

Then it was time for our long-planned trip of the year to celebrate 45 years of marriage – two weeks in Europe  , visiting Prague and Passau, with an eight-day Danube River Cruise sandwiched in between. Birding was limited to whatever crossed my path but was still good for a handful of Lifers added to my “World list”

Eurasian Jay, Prague
Eurasian Jay, Prague
Black Redstart, Cesky Krumlow
Black Redstart, Cesky Krumlow
Petrin Hill
Petrin Hill in Prague
Great Tit, Vienna
Great Tit, Vienna
Red Fox with fish catch
Red Fox with fish catch along the Danube River (OK it’s not a bird but rates as one of my sightings of the year)
Caspian Gull, Danube
Caspian Gull, Danube
Common House Martin, Danube
Common House Martin, Danube
Barn Swallow, Danube
Barn Swallow, Danube
Lesser Kestrel, Passau
Lesser Kestrel, Passau
Passau - views from the Castle
Passau – views from the Castle
Black-headed Gull, Passau
Black-headed Gull, Passau

May

My trip to Kasane Botswana from the 10th to 12th presented few opportunities for focused birding, nevertheless I was able to spend time in three spots that I have got to know fairly well – Kasane Waste Treatment works, Thebe lodge and Seboba Nature Park, all of which are reliable for a variety of species.

113 White-crowned Lapwing, Seboba Nature Park - Kasane (290)
113 White-crowned Lapwing, Seboba Nature Park – Kasane (290)
Marabou Stork, Kasane Water Treatment
Marabou Stork, Kasane Water Treatment
Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Thebe Safari Lodge
Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Thebe Safari Lodge
Blue Waxbill, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Blue Waxbill, Seboba Nature Park Kasane

On the 16th and again on the 23rd I got back to some “ordinary” atlasing in some of my favourite parts of eastern Gauteng – lying generally in the corridor between Bronkhorstspruit area and Delmas area. Good solid midwinter atlasing in these run-of-the-mill parts of Gauteng can be just as inspiring as birding some of the more recognised birding spots.

Brown-throated Martin, Delmas area
Brown-throated Martin, Delmas area

On the 26th and 27th we joined Koos and Rianda at our favourite getaway – Verlorenkloof estate near Machadadorp – which as usual did not disappoint with the quality of the birding

Verlorenkloof
Verlorenkloof
Mocking Cliff-Chat (Female), Verlorenkloof
Mocking Cliff-Chat (Female), Verlorenkloof

June

Kasane was the destination once again from the 1st to 3rd with another birding trip along the Riverfront section of Chobe Game Reserve.

Bradfield's Hornbill, Chobe Riverfront
Bradfield’s Hornbill, Chobe Riverfront

Winter atlasing in the Delmas area on the 6th included a visit to a farm dam courtesy of the farm owner who I tracked down – worth the trouble as the dam contributed 21 species to the list including both Flamingoes, Black-necked Grebe and Maccoa Duck

African Marsh-Harrier, Delmas area
Harrier in the mist (African Marsh-Harrier), Delmas area

Next up was our visit to La Lucia near Durban for a week, during which I enjoyed a Fathers Day feast of birding in Ongoye Forest, Mtunzimi and Amatigulu Reserve with local guide Sakhamuzi Mhlongo,  who found the Green Barbet that I had hoped to see. This species is restricted to this one single forest in Southern Africa.

Ongoye Forest
Ongoye Forest
Green Barbet, Ongoye Forest Reserve
Green Barbet, Ongoye Forest Reserve (Not a photo-friendly species at all!)
Ongoye Forest
Ongoye Forest
Square-tailed Drongo, Ongoye Forest Reserve
Square-tailed Drongo, Ongoye Forest Reserve
Yellow-throated Longclaw, Mtunzini
Yellow-throated Longclaw, Mtunzini
Amitigulu Nature Reserve
Amitigulu Nature Reserve, Sakhamuzi leading the way
Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Amitigulu Nature Reserve
Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Amitigulu Nature Reserve

On the way back to La Lucia I popped into the well-known birding spot at Sappi Stanger, which was lively with waterfowl and others

Sappi Mill Stanger / Kwadukuza
Sappi Mill Stanger / Kwadukuza
Cape and Hottentot Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza
Cape and Hottentot Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza
Cape Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza
Cape Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza

Before the week was done we did a quick trip to Pigeon Valley in Durban’s suburbs, where a few of the forest species were in evidence.

Red-capped Robin-Chat, Pigeon Valley
Red-capped Robin-Chat, Pigeon Valley

Atlasing the Delmas area once again on the 27th concluded the month’s diverse birding

July to December are covered in a separate post called ,,,,,,,,  wait for it ………..Part 2.

 

Kasane Botswana – Birding Spots in and around town

Kasane is a small town in northern Botswana, close to the Sududo Gate into Chobe National Park.

I would guess that most birders passing through Kasane are on their way from or to Chobe Game Reserve or further afield to Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia, the borders of which are all in close proximity.

As you drive around the town and the surrounding area, you realize that this is very much “Wild Africa”, a feeling which is reinforced by the signs on the main road past town that declare it a wildlife corridor. It is not unusual to encounter, as we did, Elephant, Wild Dogs, Hyena and Buffalo close to Kasane as we were on our way for a drive through the Riverfront section of Chobe (covered in my earlier blog) and before getting to the entrance gate!

The project in Kasane that I am involved in requires monthly visits to this small but interesting town and in the process I have discovered a few birding spots, with the assistance of my colleagues who know the town better, that are easy to visit for an hour or two in between other commitments.

I try to visit one of the birding spots during every visit and have built up a very basic knowledge of what to expect – the following notes are based on my limited knowledge and are not meant to be comprehensive, but can hopefully provide a starting point for the birder spending time in this special corner of Botswana.

Kasane Water Treatment Works

Location : On the eastern side of Kasane, off the intersection of the main road from town and the road to Zimbabwe

Description : The Treatment Works have the customary treatment ponds in a fenced off area – ask permission at the small office  just inside the gate if you want to walk around, but some of the ponds are visible from the tar road that runs alongside, so that you don’t necessarily have to enter the site. As always, the quality of birding varies with the level of the ponds.

In addition there is a fair-sized dam alongside the works and being outside the fenced off area, you can approach it by taking the track that leads off to the left as you approach the Treatment Works. Do be aware however, that elephants use the dam as a watering spot so keep an eye out for them.

Kasane water treatment works - elephants drinking in the distance!
Dam at Kasane water treatment works – elephants drinking in the distance!
Elephants drinking, Kasane Water Treatment
Elephants drinking, Kasane Water Treatment works dam

Bird life : Many water birds are attracted by the ponds and adjoining dam – all the usual ones such as Cormorants, Herons, Egrets and Ducks and depending on the time of year and water levels you can expect numbers of waders including African Jacana, Ruff, Black-winged Stilts and Wood Sandpipers. Smaller waders such as Three-banded Plover, Kittlitz’s Plover and Little Stint are common here.

Black-winged Stilt, Kasane Water Treatment
Black-winged Stilt
Egyptian Goose, Kasane Water Treatment
Egyptian Goose
Marabou Stork, Kasane Water Treatment
Marabou Stork – they congregate in the trees around the Treatment works at dusk
Red-billed Firefinch, Kasane Water Treatment
Red-billed Firefinch

Seboba Nature and Recreation Park

Location :This is a real gem which I covered in more detail in a separate post – suffice to say it is well worth a visit.

The small park lies along the river at the spot known as the Seboba rapids and has a nice mix of habitats and a variety of bird life.

I have covered this spot in a separate post : Kasane, Botswana –  Seboba Nature Park

Camping Site and Sundowner Spot

Location : Chobe Safari Lodge camping site on the outskirts of town on the western side

Description : The main attraction of this spot is the deck overlooking the Chobe river – treat yourself to one of the most spectacular African sunsets you are likely to see, as you enjoy a drink on the deck late afternoon. The channel in front of the deck gets quite crowded with boats in season, all loaded with tourists enjoying the sunset and its reflection, which transforms the Chobe waters into a deep red as you watch.

Sunset, Chobe Game Reserve
Sunset viewed from the deck at Chobe Safari Lodge camping area

Chobe Game Reserve

Bird life : while waiting for the sun to set and after it has disappeared beyond the horizon, listen for the bird life in the adjoining bushes which are favoured by the likes of White-browed Robin-Chat and Tropical Boubou, while the rank vegetation adjacent to the deck is home to Red-faced Cisticola whose ringing call is quite distinctive. There will more than likely be a Kingfisher or two in the vicinity and the floodplain on the opposite banks of the river is often occupied by tens if not hundreds of birds – Cormorants, Ibises, Openbills and the like. At certain times African Skimmers may be around flying in their unique way close to the water.

Glossy Ibis, Chobe Game Reserve
Glossy Ibises making their way down river at dusk
Afrcan Skimmer, Chobe Game Reserve
Afrcan Skimmers at sunset

Thebe Safari Lodge

Location : Compared to some of the well-known lodges in Kasane, Thebe caters mostly for more economical tour groups and particularly the large safari trucks full of younger tourists wanting an adventurous trip through Southern Africa’s wilder spots.

I have stayed there a few times and found the rooms comfortable and clean and, importantly, not “over-the-top” expensive as some of the more upmarket lodges tend to be

Description : The lodge grounds boast a variety of trees and shrubs which attract many birds and are a delight for the birder who chooses to take an early morning or late afternoon walk.

Bird Life : Birding around the grounds and gardens is excellent and best done by walking the property as thoroughly as time allows and covering all the habitats. Even before sunrise the bird calls will have you up and eager to get outside as the birds compete for “best call in garden”. Expect to hear and see Mourning Dove, Tropical Boubou, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, White-browed Robin and  Spectacled Weaver without too much trouble.

White-browed Robin-Chat, Thebe Safari Lodge
White-browed Robin-Chat, Thebe Safari Lodge
Tropical Boubou, Thebe Safari Lodge
Tropical Boubou, Thebe Safari Lodge

Bush lovers such as Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Red-billed Firefinch and Blue Waxbill are not difficult to find, while closer to and over the river there is a chance for various water birds doing a fly past and perhaps an African Pied Wagtail …. or two.

Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Thebe Safari Lodge
Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Thebe Safari Lodge
African Pied Wagtail, Thebe Safari Lodge
African Pied Wagtail, Thebe Safari Lodge (could that be the female on the right I wonder?)

Senyati Safari Camp

Location : This spot is not as close to Kasane as the spots described above, nevertheless it is close enough (20Km) to make it an easy place to visit even if time is limited. Take the road from Kasane to Kazangulu, some 10 Km away, then turn off on the A33 towards Pandamatenga and look for the camp turn-off after about 7 Km. Best time for birding is probably late afternoon but if you use their accommodation (self-catering) you can spend more time there in the morning.

Description : The main feature is the deck with a cash bar and seating overlooking the plains in front of the camp, stretching to the distant Zambesi River, with the focus point being an artificial waterhole which is frequented during the day by a variety of game and, of course, birds.

Senyati camp
Senyati camp
Senyati camp
Senyati viewing deck
Senyati camp
View of the waterhole and plains

There is also an underground tunnel which you can walk along to a ground level hide right next to the waterhole – quite exciting if there are elephants present as you are literally metres away from them!

Senyati camp
View from the ground level hide
Senyati camp
Senyati camp – view from the deck

Bird Life : My one visit so far produced a good list of species in a short time, including Arrow-marked Babbler, Red-billed Hornbill, Wood Sandpiper, Grey-headed Bush-Shrike, Knob-billed (Comb) Duck and Red-billed Spurfowl. The potential for some excellent birding at this spot seems good. Unfortunately I had left my camera at the guest house so had to make do with non-digital memories other than the above taken with my pocket camera (which I also occasionally use to phone)

 

 

Kasane, Botswana : Chobe River Birding

 

Of all the birding experiences you can have, the water-based ones seem to be the most memorable. I had been looking for an opportunity to do a boat trip on the Chobe River in northern Botswana for a year or more and in July this year I decided to make it happen.

There are a few boat rental companies in Kasane and I chose Kalahari Tours based on a colleague’s recommendation – they were able to accommodate me early on the Friday of my monthly visit and I arrived at the reception on the stroke of 7 am, armed with my binos, camera, snacks and a warm jacket to ward off the cool wind that was coming up.

The boat was of aluminium construction, sturdy looking, hopefully Hippo-proof and fitted with 2 rows of three comfy seats with a fold-down canopy over. I took up position in the middle seat of the front row, being the only guest that morning, doing my best to look as if this was my customary position in all boats I travelled in, and spread my gear on the adjoining seats.

Richard, Chobe River Boat Trip
Richard, boatman and bird guide extraordinaire

The boatman, Richard, took us out smoothly, initially downstream and around a wide bend in the majestic river, to the Seboba rapids where the river runs faster over unseen obstacles below the water. As we approached the rapids hundreds of Cormorants, Gulls and other large water birds were heading out from their roosts to feeding areas upstream.

Seboba rapids
Seboba rapids

There were still many birds roosting in the trees at the rapids, on the banks and on small islands in the middle of the river and Richard carefully approached as close as possible to allow intimate views of the birds and their youngsters.

Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River Boat Trip
Yellow-billed Stork
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River Boat Trip
Yellow-billed Stork family
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River Boat Trip
Yellow-billed Stork

Most visible were many Yellow-billed Storks with their fluffy grey and white youngsters crowded into one part of a tree. White-breasted Cormorants were numerous, some tending to nests in the tops of trees. My neck was already feeling the effects of trying to keep up with the action and the constant movement of the birds in and out of the trees, and up, down and across the river. We were literally surrounded by birds, in numbers second only to the masses that gather at trawlers on pelagic trips.

White-breasted Cormorant, Chobe River Boat Trip
White-breasted Cormorant

Amongst the massed Storks and Cormorants were many other species such as Purple Heron, African Spoonbill, Great Egret and Green-backed Heron.

Once I was sated with the spectacular bird life at the rapids, I indicated to Richard that we could proceed and he headed upstream, staying close enough to the banks to spot birds in the overhanging reeds, bushes and trees. His eyes proved sharper than mine as he spotted and pointed out everything from the tiny Malachite Kingfishers to their larger cousin the Giant Kingfisher, not to mention Brown-hooded Kingfishers.

Malachite Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Malachite Kingfisher
Giant Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Giant Kingfisher
Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Brown-hooded Kingfisher

Water Thick-knees skulking in the shade of the riverside bush are particularly difficult to spot but Richard’s sharp eyes found them easily. On our way upstream we passed by some of the well-known lodges with their decks overlooking the great river.

Chobe River Boat Trip
Chobe River Boat Trip

Wire-tailed Swallows swooped over our boat continuously and  a pair even decided that our boat would be a good vantage point as we glided along the smooth waters.

Wire-tailed Swallow, Chobe River Boat Trip
Wire-tailed Swallow gets a lift

Further upstream we entered the Chobe National Park and Richard docked briefly at a small hut to sign us in. From there we made our way slowly along the side channels with the Park on our left and the large mass of Impalila Island on our right.

African Fish-Eagle, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Fish-Eagle
Impala, Chobe River Boat Trip
Impala

With the water having subsided from its post-summer highs, the island was now occupied by many Buffalos – a safe haven for them away from the big cats.

African Buffalo, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Buffalo

Here and there we saw Hippos and a couple appeared in the river just ahead of us, causing Richard to give them a wide berth – Hippos are one animal you do not mess with in the river, or on land for that matter.

Hippo, Chobe River Boat Trip
Hippo – best avoided

A mid-sized Crocodile on the bank drew us nearer to have a look and we literally peered down its throat as the bow of the boat bumped up against the bank just in front of it. While admiring its rows of teeth and taking photos I was looking for any signs of movement as, by my calculations, one lunge would have seen it land in our boat, but fortunately crocs are content to just lie there (most of the time) and regulate their body temperature by opening their jaws wide. Must remember to take dental floss next time.

Crocodile, Chobe River Boat Trip
Crocodile up close and personal

The island was home to many bird species – Lapwings (White-crowned and Long-toed), Squacco Herons, Geese in large numbers (Spur-winged and Egyptian) African Openbills, all the “White” Egrets except Cattle Egret (Great, Yellow-billed and Little), Ibis’s galore (Glossy, Sacred), many White-faced Ducks and larger waders such as African Jacana and Black-winged Stilt. A veritable feast of birding.

Chobe River Boat Trip
Chobe Game Park
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River Boat Trip
Long-toed Lapwing
African Openbill, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Openbill
Red-billed Firefinch, Chobe River Boat Trip
Red-billed Firefinch

A smallish sandbar pretending to be an island was home to the bird highlight of the day – 50 or so African Skimmers using it as a roost in between sorties over the river, allowing a close approach to view these unique birds with their vivid colours. Their black and white plumage contrasts with their bright red bills, which look out of proportion but are perfectly designed for their function of skimming the surface of the water in search of small prey.

African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Skimmer
African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Skimmer

African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip

African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip

Pied Kingfishers are common throughout Southern Africa but never in numbers as we came across them along the river. I would guess we saw more than 100 during the trip and there were signs of them nesting in the sandy banks, where they occurred at a rate of one every 5m or so.

Pied Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Pied Kingfisher

The return trip was along the main channel, by now rippled by the fresh wind which had come up, but not enough to cause any discomfort. Along the way we added Red-billed Teal and Knob-billed Ducks to our sightings as well as a lone Red Lechwe in long grass on a waterlogged plain.

Red Lechwe, Chobe River Boat Trip
Red Lechwe

Amazingly, three hours had passed without me noticing and we returned to the jetty where we had started – what an outing!

Kasane, Botswana – Seboba Nature Park

Ever wondered what it would be like to have your own private Nature Reserve – one you can explore at your leisure, with a major African river on its doorstep?

That seems to be part of the deal when you visit the Seboba Nature Park in Kasane, northern Botswana. Introduced to it by a colleague, I have been fortunate to visit this idyllic spot a few times this year and each time I have been the only visitor. Clearly it is not always as quiet, particularly when school and other groups visit – it was probably a question of being lucky in choosing the times we did.

Seboba Nature Park is a small nature reserve located on the outskirts of Kasane, bordered on the one side by a stretch of the Chobe River and on the other by the tarred road into Kasane,  and was developed by the Botswana Government to support tourism in the area – by all accounts it has proved to be successful up to a point, but I would say it needs the support of tourism companies to persuade more tourists to visit.

The notice board and map near the entrance spells out its origin and some of the attractions, which include cultural villages, information centre, curio shop, dance arena and walking trails :

Seboba Nature Park Kasane

Seboba Nature Park, Kasane
Map of Seboba Nature Park, Kasane

There are paths from the parking area that meander down to the river’s edge and to the top of a low hill, called Commissioner’s Kop, which has a deck with tables and chairs and magnificent views up and down the river.

Deck on Commissioner's Kop
Deck on Commissioner’s Kop
View from deck over Chobe River
View from deck on Commissioner’s Kop

A raised boardwalk leads off the reception area and meanders through the riverine forest and bush, creating opportunities to see some of the variety of bird life and a few animals.

The boardwalk
The boardwalk

The boardwalk ends at the picnic site, but paths take you further through the dense bush should you want to be a little adventurous – it’s best to have a ranger accompanying you from here as the chances of “bumping into” wild life increase.

A small deck at the end of the boardwalk allows you to view the part of Chobe River known as the Seboba Rapids – a section of river with faster flowing water and small islands, some bedecked with trees and favoured by hundreds of birds for roosting and nesting.

Chobe River
Chobe River
Chobe River
Chobe River

Seboba is not a game park as such, but a wildlife corridor to the river has been maintained by leaving openings in the fence between the adjoining road and the park, which is regularly used by elephant and other wild life to gain access to the river, as they have for millennia in all likelihood.

One of my visits turned into a bit of an adventure and reminded me that the area is very much “Wild Africa”…….

After parking near reception, I slung my binoculars around my neck and my camera over my shoulder (two items which have become part of my outfit when birding) and headed down the track to the river. I could not help noticing the fresh-looking elephant tracks in the sand and equally fresh-looking elephant dung, which I had to step around in places, bush signs which had my senses on high alert.

The river was not far, so I carried on to the river bank and started birding, while looking around carefully all the while. Just then, one of the rangers came down the track to tell me there were elephants in the bushes to my right and suggested, with a hint of urgency, that I move away . I could see the elephants through a gap in the trees and decided the ranger had a point, so I followed his further suggestion that we head along the river, the ranger in front and me behind. We stuck to the river’s edge, which was flowing high, wide and strong from the rains in Angola some weeks prior.

We were now walking away from the elephants, so I was feeling a tad more relaxed and enjoying the solitude of the river and the adjoining thick bush – until I started thinking about crocodiles, having seen the warning notices. Besides that, we were now literally on the edge of the Chobe River, even treading in the water where the steep bank caused my shoes to slip here and there.

At least they warn you
At least they warn you

I casually asked the ranger whether crocodiles were present and he nodded to say yes – not a minute later a loud splash ahead of us announced the first croc as he was scared off by our approach. Further ahead we spotted a croc about 50m away, lying in the shallows next to the bank – we approached slowly and cautiously and as we got closer the croc slid silently into the river, swam behind a partly submerged tree and eyed us as we passed.

A croc is spotted not far ahead
A croc is spotted not far ahead
He has not seen us yet
He has not seen us yet
The croc slides into the river
The croc slides into the river as we get closer

All in all, an eventful and exciting walk that I had not planned for at all – Africa can make you feel very small and vulnerable at times!

The Birding

My primary purpose in visiting Seboba was, of course, to do some birding and the park did not disappoint. My first sighting on my first visit was Collared Palm-Thrush on the reception building’s roof – a most desirable species for Southern African birders. This set the tone for what could be expected and as I explored further the list grew, including a pleasing number of “specials” –

Along the boardwalk –

  • Grey-headed Sparrow, not scarce by any means but interesting because Kasane is one of the few places in Southern African region where both Southern and  Northern species occur. This one turned out to be the Southern species
  • Noisy Arrow-marked Babblers
  • Trumpeter Hornbills with their eerie “crying-baby” calls echoing through the woodland
  • Bradfield’s Hornbill
  • Broad-billed Roller
  • Woodland Kingfisher, its position  given away by its trilling call
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Woodland Kingfisher, Seboba Nature Park - Kasane
Woodland Kingfisher, Seboba Nature Park – Kasane

Commisioner’s Kop viewing point –

  • African Golden Oriole in its bright yellow plumage
  • African Green Pigeon – good at hiding behind foliage
  • Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove
African Golden Oriole, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
African Golden Oriole, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
African Green Pigeon, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
African Green Pigeon, Seboba Nature Park Kasane

Down by the riverside –

  • African Jacana
  • African Darter
  • Yellow-billed Stork
  • Pygmy Goose
  • African Openbill in the shallows, probing for molluscs
  • Reed and White-breasted Cormorants in numbers
  • Water Thick-knee, flying away low over the river when disturbed
  • White-crowned Lapwing, also prone to flying off but often landing a short distance further
Reed Cormorant, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Water Thick-knee, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
White-crowned Lapwing, Seboba Nature Park - Kasane
White-crowned Lapwing, Seboba Nature Park – Kasane
Reed Cormorant, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Reed Cormorant, Seboba Nature Park Kasane

Hillside and open areas –

  • White-browed Sparrow-Weaver
  • Blue Waxbill
  • Little Bee-eater
White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Seboba Nature Park - Kasane
White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Seboba Nature Park – Kasane
Blue Waxbill, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Blue Waxbill, Seboba Nature Park Kasane

This small park is well worth a visit even if for just an hour or two – the variety of habitats in a concentrated area can be covered in a short time, although the longer you can stay the better … oh and don’t wander around too much unless there’s a ranger nearby (which they tend to be)

Special thanks to Derek Thomas for showing me this spot, and others, in Kasane.

 

 

Chobe National Park – The Riverfront

The Riverfront section of  Chobe National Park – one of the finest Game Reserve experiences in Southern Africa, if not the whole of Africa.

Map of the Riverfront section of Chobe
Map of the Riverfront section of Chobe

I count myself fortunate to still have a part-time consultancy job as a QS, and doubly fortunate to be involved in a sizeable building project at Kasane in the far north of Botswana, on the doorstep of Chobe National Park. The project requires monthly site visits and during the few days we – that’s the professional team – spend there, we have managed to squeeze in a quick trip through the Riverfront section of the Park – all part of team building, you understand.

Prior to these recent visits, I was last in Chobe (pronounced Cho-bee) in 2000 and had good memories of this unique Park, although the intervening years had rendered my memories a bit fuzzy. So I was more than eager to renew my acquaintance with this part of Botswana and the first trip through the Riverfront section in May 2015 brought those memories from 15 years ago flooding back.

Chobe Background (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Chobe National Park, in northern Botswana, has one of the largest concentrations of game in Africa. By size, it is the third largest park in the country, after the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Gemsbok National Park, and is the most biologically diverse. It is also Botswana’s first national park.

One of four main areas in Chobe,The Serondela area (or Chobe riverfront), situated in the extreme Northeast of the park, has as its main geographical features lush floodplains and dense woodland of mahogany, teak and other hardwoods now largely reduced by heavy elephant pressure. The Chobe River, which flows along the Northeast border of the park, is a major watering spot, especially in the dry season (May through October) for large breeding herds of elephants, as well as families of giraffe, sable and cape buffalo. The flood plains are the only place in Botswana where the puku antelope can be seen. Birding is also excellent here.

Flying in

The flight from Jo’burg is about an hour and a half and takes you over the Mkgadikgadi pans, an amazing sight from the air.

Makgadikgadi Pans from the air
Makgadikgadi Pans from the air

Approaching Kasane, there is usually a good view of the Chobe River and it’s quite possible to spot Elephant even before you have landed.

Chobe River from the air
Chobe River from the air

So How much Game is there?

Chobe tends to exceed all your expectations – yes there are patches with not much going on, not visible anyway, but there are parts that take your breath away, like the lush floodplains filled with game almost as far as the eye can see – dominated by Elephant and Buffalo. Elephants occur here in such numbers that there are real concerns about the survival of the woodland, but Botswana has a strict anti-culling policy and so Elephant herds grow and spread unabated. Perhaps nature will intervene as it often does.

Mostly Elephant and Buffalo on the floodplain
Mostly Elephant and Buffalo on the floodplain

Apart from the frequent Elephant sightings, there are some other very special animals to be seen – (some of the snippets of information are from the excellent maps/brochures on Botswana by Veronica Roodt which I originally obtained for my 2000 visit)

  • Sable Antelope, one of the most beautiful antelope in Africa with their perfectly curved horns, which are used to defend themselves. Glossy black colouring means it is a bull, while cows and juveniles are brown
Sable Antelope
Sable Antelope

 

  • Leopard – we have been very fortunate in finding a young Leopard on two of our three visits so far, quite possibly the same individual which, on our last visit, had dragged its Impala meal into a tree. This is to prevent Hyena and other predators reaching it.
Leopard
Leopard

 

  • Kudu – males have those impressive twisted horns, females are hornless so the ears are more prominent
Kudu
Kudu

 

  • Puku – Chobe is the only place in Southern Africa where this uncommon species occurs, in small herds. Mostly found near water
Lechwe
Puku – unique to Chobe

 

  • Giraffe – tallest animal in the world at 5,5m. Valves in the jugular vein help to control blood pressure when they bend down to drink water. The oxpeckers love them, gathering in numbers on their long elegant necks
Giraffe at waterhole
Giraffe at waterhole
Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers taking a ride
Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers taking a ride

 

  • Zebra – no African Game Reserve would be complete without them – our kids loved to call them pyjama-donkeys when they were small, now the grandkids do it
Zebra on the plains
Zebra on the plains

 

  • Black-backed Jackal – Pairs form long-term bonds, as these two seem to have done
Black-backed Jackal
Black-backed Jackal

 

  • Wild Dog – if you are very lucky you may encounter one as we did, crossing the tar road in front of us, then dashing off as we slowed down. They usually move around and hunt in packs.
Wild Dog dashing across the road
Wild Dog dashing across the road

And the Birding?

For anyone starting birding, this must rate as one of the best places to visit – there are many larger species that are easy to see and even photograph if that is your thing. Identifying them is also fairly straightforward if you have one of the birding Apps or one of the many birding books available.

The short trips through Chobe that I have done so far have been exciting but too short and rushed to do any in-depth birding and I look forward to getting to grips with some of the more difficult to see species during future visits. Nevertheless there have been some very good sightings and photo opportunities of some of the “obvious” species – here’s a selection :

Ground Hornbill – no other reserve I have visited can boast as many of this iconic species

Ground Hornbill
Ground Hornbill

 

Red-billed Hornbill – there is a good chance you will encounter five Hornbill species during a visit – the one above plus the four smaller species being Red-billed as this one below, Yellow-billed, African Grey and Bradfield’s.

Red-billed Hornbill
Red-billed Hornbill

 

Yellow-billed Stork – occur regularly among the myriad birds that frequent the pools of the Chobe floodplain

Yellow-billed Stork
Yellow-billed Stork

 

Yellow-throated Petronia – an uncommon and not at all obvious species, this one happened to be perched near the Leopard with its half-eaten Impala

Yellow-throated Petronia
Yellow-throated Petronia

 

Kori Bustard – another species with a more than good chance of being spotted in the open areas with grass

Kori Bustard, said to be the heaviest flying bird in the world (5,5kg)
Kori Bustard, said to be the heaviest flying bird in the world (5,5kg)

 

Bateleur – often seen soaring high in the air, this juvenile was perched in a dry tree near the track. One unique feature is their short tail which allows it to walk backwards – useful when trying to catch a snake!

Bateleur (Juvenile)
Bateleur (Juvenile)

 

African Jacana – this one had a few youngsters in tow, cute little fluffy chicks with outsize legs

African Jacana with little ones
African Jacana with little ones

 

African Fish-Eagle – no great river in Africa is worthy of the name unless it is frequented by  these magnificent birds of prey and Chobe has its fair share of them

African Fish-Eagle
African Fish-Eagle

 

Oxpeckers – the giraffes seem to attract the most oxpeckers but they are just as likely to be found on buffalo, kudu, impala

Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers
Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers

 

Green Woodhoopoe – often heard before they are seen, this species is less common

Green Woodhoopoe
Green Woodhoopoe

 

The Close of Day – Sunsets for Africa

I don’t think I have seen sunsets anywhere in the world that can compete with those over the Chobe river – tell me if you agree!

Sundowners at the river

 

Elephant at sunset

Can’t wait for next time!