Tag Archives: Birding Kruger National Park

Christmas in Kruger : Down by the Bridge …..

A Watery morning around Mopani ….

KNP – Mopani

It was the start of our Christmas in Kruger week and we were nicely settled in our rondavel in Mopani Camp, so much so that we chose to spend most of the first day in camp, enjoying the shady stoep with its theatre-like patch of bush and rocks directly in front which attracted all sorts of bird and other species. The stifling heat also played a role in keeping us in the camp for the day in a state of semi-stupor.

Come the second day and I was keen to do some exploring of the surrounding areas, particularly as I had started to record the birds in that particular pentad and wanted to maximise the birding and atlasing experience by surveying as much of the surrounding areas as Kruger’s roads would allow

Gerda was content to enjoy the restful atmosphere of the camp, so I set off on my own, binoculars at the ready and keyed up for those surprises that await the intrepid Kruger explorer (actually tourist but explorer sounds more exciting)

Overnight thunderstorms had kept us awake at times, with some of the lightning strikes feeling very close, loud enough to have us jerking upright in bed. There was plenty of standing water in the countryside around the camp as I made my way slowly to the main road and headed south.

After heavy rains, KNP – Mopani
KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop)

I stopped to view a Swainson’s Spurfowl near the road, which was in full voice at this early hour. They have a raucous call, akin to someone being murdered, I’ve heard it said, a call which carries long distances on a quiet morning and this one was giving its all.

Swainson’s Spurfowl (Pternistis swainsonii / Bosveldfisant), KNP – Mopani

After about 2 kms on the road towards Letaba, a road known as the Shongololo Loop branches off to the right and this was the road I was hoping to explore – I was glad to see the gravel road was still open despite the heavy rains, which can quickly turn such roads into a muddy quagmire. Nevertheless I had a good look down the road before turning off and, not seeing anything other than some deep looking standing water, set off feeling a tad adventurous but confident in my SUV’s ability to handle such conditions

KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop)

The first stretch was quiet, then I crested a rise and around the next bend came across a low water bridge with water flowing across and what looked like several large birds that had taken up position on the concrete bridge.

Birds on a bridge

KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

I stopped opposite one vehicle that was already there and had a look through the binos at the birds on the bridge – it was obvious that the herons, storks and thick-knees were using the conditions to do a bit of effortless fishing for a change – no stalking or stealth involved. The water flowing over the bridge was clearly bringing with it fish and other aquatic life, creating an easy “take-away” opportunity for the birds waiting in the ankle deep flow.

KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

Over the next 15 minutes or so, various birds took up position on the bridge then moved off to the river itself, including Yellow-billed Stork, Green-backed (Striated) Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Water Thick-knee, African Jacana, Black Crake and even a Goliath Heron.

Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop – Low water bridge)
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)
Striated Heron (Butorides striata / Groenrugreier), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)
Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax / Gewone nagreier), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

Water Thick-knee (Burhinus vermiculatus / Waterdikkop), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)
African Jacana (Actophilornis africanus / Grootlangtoon), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

I drove across the bridge and parked on the opposite side where I enjoyed coffee and rusks while continuing to watch the interaction, then carried on along the Loop to the bird hide at the Pioneer dam a little way further, which was overflowing and causing the bridge to be under water.

Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath / Reusereier), KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop – Low water bridge)
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

Hippo antics

In the deeper water on one side of the bridge, a pair of Hippos were doing their best to draw my attention away from the birds with some typical hippo antics

Croc gets in on the action too

Returning along the same road, I came to the bridge again, only to find that a sizeable Crocodile had taken up position on the bridge – bang in the middle, jaws at the ready and just waiting for a fish or two to be drawn in by the fast flowing water. I had seen this before where a croc lay in wait on one side of a low water bridge but this was the first time I had found one on the bridge itself.

Crocodile, KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)
Crocodile, KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

After a while I edged the car forward and the croc dutifully stood up and walked to the edge where he slid into the river and swam off slowly, no doubt intending to return to the same convenient fishing spot once I had gone.

Crocodile, KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

That was enough excitement for the morning so I headed back to Mopani camp with stories to relate to the family.

Christmas in Kruger : A Bit(tern) of a Surprise

“Christmas in Kruger – it’s going to be very hot!”

Well that was more or less everyone’s reaction when we mentioned our plans for a Christmas break in Kruger National Park. “Yes, we know” was our standard answer, followed by “but the chalets have air-conditioning and so does our car” – this served only to raise a sceptical look or two and we tried hard to convince ourselves that it would all be fine.

As it turned out, we managed to survive the sometimes extreme heat and humidity for which the lowveld is renowned at this time of year – midsummer in South Africa – by spending as much time as possible in air-conditioned areas or shady spots with a cooling breeze and only venturing out during the cooler parts of the day. In fact we elected to stay in camp a lot more than we usually do during visits to Kruger.

Kruger’s Surprises

Kruger always has a surprise or two and I thought I would highlight some of the surprise encounters, starting with what, for me at least, was the highlight of the week. As so often happens with birding, the encounter was dependent on a series of events which were impossible to foresee – here’s how it happened ………

After spending a night in the Magoebaskloof Hotel, where we rendezvoused with daughter Geraldine and family, we made our way the next morning to the entrance gate at Phalaborwa, passing through Tzaneen on the way and stopping at one of the many farm stalls to stock up on some of the locally grown tropical fruit – bananas, paw-paws, mangoes (not for me, can’t stand the taste) and litchies.

The Road to Mopani

At the Phalaborwa gate we dealt with the formalities and proceeded to Mopani Rest Camp – Kruger had it’s summer clothes on – green and lush as far as we could see. We didn’t dawdle. wanting to get to Mopani and settle in, but a report on SA Rare Birds the previous evening of a Striped Crake near Letaba meant I could not resist doing a detour of about 50 kms which would take me past the spot and I would be able to try for this potential rarity / lifer.

There were 3 or 4 vehicles at the small seasonal pan just south of Letaba and we joined them, asking if any had seen this secretive bird – it turned out that none had, despite spending some time there, but we decided to spend a half an hour or so, scanning the shallow water and vegetation along its edges for any sign of the Striped Crake.

Seasonal Pan outside Letaba

It refused to show and we were about to leave when I spotted a crake-like bird on a log above the water, partially hidden by foliage – success! Or was it? I tried desperately to get some photos to help confirm the ID of the crake, but the results were poor due to the interference of foliage and the shady conditions under the trees.

Later I was able to confirm that it was a Crake by downloading the images onto my laptop and zooming in on the detail, but not the rarity I had hoped for – nevertheless it was an African Crake, also a ‘lifer’ for me so I was more than satisfied.

But that wasn’t the last of the seasonal pan near Letaba ……

Mopani to Satara

After 4 nights in Mopani, it was time to move on – to Satara Rest Camp some 140 kms south – not very far by normal standards but in Kruger it translates into a 4 to 5 hour drive, so we planned a stop for lunch at Olifants camp.

Along the route we enjoyed sightings of some of Kruger’s iconic creatures –

Elephant, KNP – Mopani – Satara
Giraffe, KNP – Mopani – Satara
Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus / Gewone troupant), KNP – Mopani – Satara
Southern Ground-Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri / Bromvoël), KNP – Mopani – Satara

We also stopped briefly at Letaba for coffee and a ‘comfort break’ and on the way from there to Olifants, we decided to make a brief stop at the seasonal pan we had visited on the first day, just south of Letaba, despite their being not a single other car there – well, you never know, do you?

We had hardly stopped, still had the engine running, when my heart skipped a beat – a small, unfamiliar crake-like bird was no more than 5m away from me in the shallow water, among the tree roots and tangled vegetation! No, not the Striped Crake but just as good in my book – it was a Dwarf Bittern, a lifer and a bird that I have wanted to find for a long time.

I was ecstatic and spent the next 10 minutes or so watching as it moved slowly and stealthily, foraging in the shallows for its next meal – the sequence of photos says it all.

Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba

Dwarf Bittern
Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba
Dwarf Bittern
Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba
Dwarf Bittern
Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba

After two years of not adding a singe lifer to my Southern Africa list, I had found two in the space of four days – what a nice Christmas present!

Christmas in Kruger : Dinner for One

Our Christmas dinner

Our main Christmas dinner was enjoyed on Christmas Eve in Mopani Camp, with the cooler weather brought on by constant light summer rain during the day making it a most pleasant evening. We joined Andre and Geraldine and daughters at their large family chalet, and their friends who were also in Mopani made up a jolly group, with each family contributing a dish or two to turn it into a really delightful dinner.

We had not made any specific arrangements for Christmas day itself, other than the inevitable leftovers (just as delicious) for the evening meal. We started the day in lazy mode, sitting on the stoep and observing the passing show of birds and other small wildlife.

Shingwedzi Christmas Picnic

When Andre and Geraldine suggested that we drive to Shingwedzi Camp, some 62 kms to the north, for a braai (barbeque) at the day visitor’s area, it seemed like the ideal way to spend the day in relaxed, yet active, fashion. We quickly got ourselves ready, packed a picnic basket and set off in mild weather, reaching Shingwedzi just after 1 pm.

We didn’t dawdle, but still found plenty of game to view in passing along the way

Impala, KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi
Impala, KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi

Zebra, KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi

Red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus / Rooibekrenostervoël), KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi

We found the day visitor’s area already crowded (yet socially distanced), but were fortunate to find one empty picnic table and the camp personnel helpfully brought a portable braai to our table. Andre got stuck in and braai-ed burger patties while a large leguaan moved between the tables looking for scraps, waddling along and flicking its tongue in true serpent fashion. Soon the buns were buttered and loaded with tomato, lettuce, onions and sauce, ready to receive the patties and we tucked into our simple but delicious meal

All in all a very unique Christmas Day lunch for us!

An ice cream on a stick from the small shop was our dessert, after which we set off on the road back to Mopani, taking our time.

Dinner for One ….. Martial Eagle

We were hardly out of Shingwedzi, driving next to the lightly flowing, broad river, when I spotted a commotion amongst a small flock of Starlings gathered in and around one of the large trees that line this stretch of the river.

I pulled off the road and stopped under the tree to have a look at what may be causing their agitation – glancing up I looked straight into the piercing eyes of a Martial Eagle, which was engrossed in the task of devouring an unidentifiable, partly hidden prey from which he was ripping chunks of meat.

Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus / Breëkoparend), KNP – Shingwedzi

Apart from an occasional withering stare, the Eagle ignored us, despite us being a few metres away, and carried on with its festive meal while we enjoyed the luxury of being able to observe this magnificent raptor at close quarters

The road back to Mopani had a few further interesting sightings….

Mosque Swallow (Cecropis senegalensis / Moskeeswael), KNP – Shingwedzi
Chameleon, KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi
Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina / Gevlekte arend), KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi

And last but not least ….. well actually it is the least in terms of size –

Dung Beetle, KNP – Mopani – Shingwedzi

This is one Christmas day that we will fondly remember

My Photo Picks for 2020

With the new year in its infancy, it’s time to select a few photos which best represent our 2020. In some cases, selection is based on the memory created, in others I just like how the photo turned out, technically and creatively. Despite the restrictions brought upon all of us by Covid 19, we still managed to travel, although it was limited to the borders of South Africa. 

The Places

Birding and bird atlasing takes me to many places that would not otherwise feature on our travel map – here’s a selection ….

Balmoral area – The new Kusile Power Station early morning

Herbertsdale area near Mossel Bay

Irrigation Dams near Pienaarsrivier, Birding Big Day 2020 – thousands of Queleas rising into the air

Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens, Johannesburg – I fitted in a visit while Gerda was attending a class nearby

Voelklip beach, Hermanus on an overcast, rainy day

Pearly Beach, beyond Gansbaai

The Point, Mossel Bay on a moody winter’s day

Early morning walk to a secluded cliffside spot for coffee on the rocks, Mossel Bay

Mossel Bay at dusk – from the boardwalk

Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Crocodile River, Verlorenkloof

Magoebaskloof

Kruger National Park – Mopani (Shongololo Loop)

Kruger National Park – Olifants River

The Birds

Cory’s Shearwater / Calonectris diomedea / Geelbekpylstormvoël, Mossel Bay Point

Rock Kestrel / Falco rupicolus / Kransvalk, Gouritsmond

Yellow-billed Duck (Anas undulata / Geelbekeend) (Adult with Juvenile), Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Greater Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris afer / Groot-rooibandsuikerbekkie), Great Brak River

Fork-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis / Mikstertbyvanger), Albertinia

Reed Cormorant (Microcarbo africanus / Rietkormorant), Rondevlei Wilderness

African Oystercatcher / Haematopus moquini / Swarttobie, Franskraal

Cape Spurfowl ( Pternistis capensis / Kaapse fisant), Mossel Bay

Yellow Bishop (Euplectes capensis / Kaapse flap) (Female), Mossel Bay

Cape White-eye (Zosterops capensis / Kaapse glasogie) (Race virens capensis), Mossel Bay

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris / Europese spreeu), Mossel Bay

Laughing Dove Spilopelia senegalensis Lemoenduif, Mossel Bay

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris chalybeus Klein-rooibandsuikerbekkie (Male), Mossel Bay

Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer / Kaapse suikervoël), Mossel Bay

Red-necked Spurfowl (Pternistis afer / Rooikeelfisant) (race castaneiventer), Verlorenkloof

Olive Bushshrike (Chlorophoneus olivaceus / Olyfboslaksman), Verlorenkloof

White-throated Swallow (Hirundo albigularis / Witkeelswael), Verlorenkloof

Familiar Chat (Cercomela familiaris / Gewone spekvreter) (race hellmayri), Verlorenkloof

Thick-billed Weaver (Amblyospiza albifrons / Dikbekwewer) (Male) (race woltersi), Pretoria

Tawny-flanked Prinia (Prinia subflava / Bruinsylangstertjie) (Adult feeding Juveniles), Pretoria

Lesser Masked Weaver, Limpopo

Diderick Cuckoo, Kruger – Mopani

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Kruger – Mopani area

Yellow-billed Stork, Kruger – Mopani area

Red-billed Oxpecker, Kruger – Mopani area

Martial Eagle, Kruger – Shingwedzi River

Dwarf Bittern, Kruger – Pan outside Letaba

Woodland KIngfisher, Kruger – Muzandzeni

The Wildlife

Banded Mongoose, Roodeplaat dam Nature Reserve

Spotted-necked Otter (Hydrictis maculicollis) , Marievale Bird Sanctuary

Cape Fur Seal, Cliffside walk, Mossel Bay

Bottlenose Dolphin, Cliffside walk, Mossel Bay

Rock Hyrax, Cliffside walk, Mossel Bay

Tree Squirrel, Kruger – Mopani

Giant Plated Lizard, Kruger – Mopani (the photo does not give an idea of scale – this lizard is a veritable giant at over 1m long!)

Crocodile, Kruger – Mopani (Shongololo Loop)

Wildebeest adult with youngsters, Kruger – Nwanetsi Road

Kudu, Kruger – Satara area

The Other Stuff

Monkey beetle, Mossel Bay

Butterfly : Garden Inspector (Junonia archesia / rotsblaarvlerk), ,Langvlei Wilderness

Tree Agama, Rooiwal area near Pretoria

Moon over Verlorenkloof (image taken with Iphone magnified through Swarovski scope)

Confusing, provocative road sign – until you realise the village’s name is Nobody and the sign is directing to the Total filling station!

Butterfly in flight – Magoebaskloof

And to end off …… me and my pal Saartjie (who belongs to the Leonards but I get to borrow her now and again)

Mossel Bay Cliffside walk

Here’s a close-up of the better looking one….

Cliffside walk, Mossel Bay

Kruger in Winter – The Happy Couples

When we visit Kruger National Park, my focus is – as my Blog title suggests – mostly on the birding. That said, I enjoy all aspects of our premier game reserve, but it is often the birds that end up grabbing most of my attention.

During our winter visit in July this year we had many memorable animal and bird sightings and my photographic passion was well fed by the opportunities that arose. Most of the birds I photographed were species that I have previously been able to capture digitally, but the beauty of photography, and especially bird photography, is that there is always a chance of a better photograph, or perhaps a photo which displays the bird from a different angle or actively doing what birds do.

After our week in Kruger in July, I uploaded the many photos to Adobe Lightroom, my photo management and editing software of choice, and worked through the photos that I had taken, applying my customary edits and crops.

I realised that a few of the species I had photographed were of those species that show marked differences between the male and female and I had managed to get reasonable images of both. Another species was accompanied by juvenile birds showing features not yet as fully developed as in the adults. All show interesting differences and I thought I would make them the subject of this post ……

Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark (Eremopterix leucotis / Rooiruglewerik)

Preferring semi-arid short grassland and savanna, this species is fairly uncommon in Kruger but we have found it in the same area a couple of times – about halfway along the Satara-Olifants road.

They spend a lot of their time on the ground, feeding on grass seeds and insects. While the male is very distinctive with its rich chestnut back and white ear patch, the female is a lot paler and on its own can easily be confused with some of the other Lark species.

In this instance there was a small flock of Sparrowlarks not far from the road in an area with very little bush cover so I was able to fairly easily photograph both male and female, although I cannot guarantee that the two shown are actually a couple….

Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark (Female) (Eremopterix leucotis smithi), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark (Male) (Eremopterix leucotis smithi), Olifants area, Kruger Park

Namaqua Dove (Oena capensis / Namakwaduifie)

The Namaqua Dove is fairly easy to spot, even at a distance or flying past rapidly – its long tail and slim build distinguishes it from all other doves in the Southern African region. Once you get close enough to view it through binoculars, the male’s distinctive black face, throat and upper breast stand out along with its yellow/orange bill, while the female lacks those same features, having a plain grey body and a darker bill.

It is a nomadic species, preferring arid and semi-arid savannah and feeds on seeds of grass, sedges and weeds.

Coincidentally, we came across what appeared to be a family group of Namaqua doves not far from the Sparrowlarks, in a similarly arid area along the Satara-Olifants road

Namaqua Dove (Female) (Oena capensis / Namakwaduifie), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Namaqua Dove (Male) (Oena capensis / Namakwaduifie), Olifants area, Kruger Park

Double-banded Sandgrouse  (Pterocles bicinctus /  Dubbelbandsandpatrys)

The black and white forehead band and narrow black and white breast band of the male distinguish the male from the female, which lacks both features, having a barred breast and no forehead markings

This is a fairly scarce species, mostly terrestial, found in savannah woodland and is known to be monogamous, so this pair we came across can safely be presumed to be a “couple”. We found them in the area just west of Olifants camp, not far from the river.

Once found they are quite accommodating to the photographer and not easily spooked if you approach carefully and position the car to get the best vantage point, while watching their movements.

Double-banded Sandgrouse (Female) (Pterocles bicinctus multicolor), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Double-banded Sandgrouse (Male) (Pterocles bicinctus multicolor), Olifants area, Kruger Park

Then there are the less marked but interesting differences between adult and juvenile birds …

Retz’s Helmetshrike (Prionops retzii / Swarthelmlaksman)

I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of Retz’s Helmet-shrikes in Pretoriuskop camp during a morning walk, making their way busily and noisily through the trees. They are fairly common but often inconspicuous when out on a game or birding drive, as they move through the trees almost constantly and their dark colouring makes them difficult to spot. It’s a lot easier to spot them when in flight between trees.

While the adults are overall mostly black and brown with glossy shades and the distinctive red wattle around the eyes, the juvenile is more grey-brown and lacks the red wattles.

Groups consist of on average 5 birds, their preferred habitat is broadleaved woodland and they feed on insects and spiders.

Retz’s Helmet-Shrike (Prionops retzii / Swarthelmlaksman), Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park
Retz’s Helmet-Shrike (Juvenile) (Prionops retzii / Swarthelmlaksman), Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park

Kruger in Winter – Lazy Birding

One of the great pleasures of birding in Kruger National Park is that you don’t necessarily have to go on a game drive to find a variety of birds. Birding the camp on foot is often a very productive way of building up a list of bird sightings and, if you are fortunate, you may be allocated a rondavel or chalet with surrounds that bring the birds to you.

Most of Kruger’s camps attract many birds with their well developed trees and gardens, as well as the bush that surrounds the camps, and there is no better way to enjoy the diverse bird life than sitting on your small stoep, sustained by regular injections of appropriate beverages, watching the passing show of birds and occasional animals.

As I mentioned in my last post, we were lucky to get a booking in Olifants camp for 5 nights during the last week of the winter school holidays – prime time in Kruger – and were doubly lucky to get a rondavel with “River view”, which are very sought after.

When we arrived at Olifants and drove to our rondavel after checking in, we were thrilled to see just how good our “river view” was – a view that started with the fence a couple of metres away, then dense bush and trees all the way down the steep slope to the river far below, where we could already make out an elephant or two and some hippos in the pools that form amongst the rocky course of this iconic river.

The River View from our stoep

Over the next 5 days, between the customary game drives, we spent as much time as possible on our small stoep, from early morning coffee to sundowner time, just chilling, reading and seemingly not concerned with our immediate surroundings, but ready at any moment to check out a nearby bird in the bush or more distant ones flying across the river below.

Seen from the Stoep…..

Here are some of the birds that came by to visit us, all taken from our stoep:

Orange-breasted Bushshrike (Chlorophoneus sulfureopectus / Oranjeborslaksman), Olifants camp
Jameson’s Firefinch (Female) (Lagonosticta rhodopareia / Jamesonse vuurvinkie), Olifants camp
Dark-capped Bulbul (Pycnonotus tricolor layardi subspecies / Swartoogtiptol), Olifants camp
Spectacled Weaver (Ploceus ocularis / Brilwewer), Olifants camp
Acacia Pied Barbet (Tricholaema leucomelas/ Bonthoutkapper), Olifants camp
White-throated Robin-Chat (Cossypha humeralis / Witkeeljanfrederik), Olifants camp
Brown-crowned Tchagra (Tchagra australis / Rooivlerktjagra), Olifants camp
Green-winged Pytilia (Juvenile) (Pytilia melba / Gewone melba), Olifants camp
Tawny-flanked Prinia (Prinia subflava / Bruinsylangstertjie), Olifants camp
Long-billed Crombec (Sylvietta rufescens / Bosveldstompstert), Olifants camp

And others….

The bush in fron of our rondavel was alive with bird life for most of the day and we saw many more than those photographed above, including the likes of …..

Black-headed Oriole

Brown-headed Parrot

Golden-tailed Woodpecker (who decided to “shadow-box” a supposed rival in our car’s external mirror on the day we packed to move on)

Grey-headed Bush-shrike

And to round off, a couple of non-bird visitors………

Tree Squirrel
Wasp? Not really sure but an attractive insect

Kruger in Winter – Looking at Wildlife

It’s a strange thing, this love of Kruger National Park – come the winter months with the highveld air getting drier and colder as we move into June and July, my thoughts involuntarily turn toward the bushveld wilderness where we have spent so many relaxing times.

Gerda knows by now to expect me to express my longing, sometimes subtly, other times more direct – “ooh, I wish we were in Kruger” or “did you hear so and so are in Kruger, lucky devils” or words to that effect. Then when she says “don’t you want to book a week for us?”, I naturally react with surprise and reply “what a good idea”.

And that’s how we found ourselves on the road to Olifants camp in early July this year. Surprisingly, we had found space in a standard Olifants camp rondavel in the last week of the school holidays, after finding the rest of July all but fully booked up in our preferred camps. We were lucky to get 5 nights in Olifants and another 3 nights in Lower Sabie and Pretoriuskop.

We go to Kruger to relax ……. and to look at wildlife, This time around I had this odd feeling they were looking at us – animals and birds alike – what do you think?

The Horned Animals

Buffalo, Olifants area, Kruger Park
Blue Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Waterbuck, Olifants area, Kruger Park

Unhorned and harmless

Bushbuck, Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park
Steenbok (Raphicerus campestris), Olifants area, Kruger Park

The Cute Youngsters

Baboon, Olifants area, Kruger Park
Spotted Hyena pup, Tshokwane area, Kruger Park

The Smaller Animals

Tree Squirrel, Olifants area, Kruger Park
Dwarf Mongoose, Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park

A Predator

Cheetah, Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park

The only Disinterested Animal

White Rhino, Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park

Even a Reptile

Water Monitor, Olifants area, Kruger Park

And Birds, of Course

Trumpeter Hornbill (Male) (Bycanistes bucinator / Gewone boskraai), Lower Sabie camp, Kruger Park
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Burchell’s Coucal (Centropus burchellii / Gewone vleiloerie), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Swainson’s Spurfowl (Pternistis swainsonii / Bosveldfisant), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Greater Blue-eared Starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus / Groot-blouoorglansspreeu), Tshokwane, Kruger Park
Tawny-flanked Prinia (Prinia subflava / Bruinsylangstertjie), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Chinspot Batis (Male) (Batis molitor), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Swainson’s Spurfowl (Juvenile) (Pternistis swainsonii), Olifants area, Kruger Park

And a tree knot looking like an Owl, looking at us

Owl-faced tree, Olifants area, Kruger Park

So if you find yourself in Kruger, or any other Park, looking at wildlife, I’m sure you will find them looking at you as well

Kruger unplanned – Skukuza to Lower Sabie

Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year ……..

Skukuza

Our preference would have been to spend the entire week in Olifants camp in the northern part of Kruger, but last-minute booking meant we were limited to a maximum of 5 nights in Olifants and had to find accommodation in one of the other camps for the remaining 2 nights. We chose  Skukuza, the largest camp in Kruger and also a bit of a trip down memory lane as some of our first trips to Kruger had included stays in this  camp, which is geared to cater for large numbers of tourists and even boasts a conference centre nowadays.

On the way to Skukuza from Olifants we had a few interesting encounters, including a stately Verraux’s Eagle Owl, perched amongst branches in a roadside tree and peering from under those famous pink eyelids at the few cars that had stopped with a rather disdainful expression.

Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
Verraux’s Eagle-Owl, initially not terribly interested in our presence

Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
Verraux’s Eagle-Owl, deigning to look vaguely in our direction

Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
The famous pink eyelids

As we drove further, I spotted a soaring raptor high above and braked to get a view of it and rattle off some photos to help with the ID – it turned out to be a handsome Black-chested Snake-Eagle, probably out on the hunt for its next slippery meal.

Black-chested Snake=Eagle, Kruger Park
Black-chested Snake-Eagle

Then a bird of a different kind landed loudly in the road ahead of us just as we were approaching Tshokwane picnic spot – a “whirly bird” helicopter with a team of the anti-poaching unit on board, who had also stopped for a cold drink to boost them on their mission. May they be successful in curbing the atrocity of Rhino poaching!

Whirly bird, Kruger Park
Whirly bird at Tshokwane

Further on, a large herd of Cape Buffalo was grazing on both sides of the road, with some crossing the road to join the main group – I noticed some Cattle Egrets around and one hopped on the back of a Buffalo to hitch a ride as he crossed over in front of us, comically balancing like a surfer riding a wave, then flying off as the buffalo became too wobbly for its liking.

Buffalo herd, Kruger Park
Buffalo herd, Kruger Park

Cattle Egret on Buffalo, Kruger Park
Cattle Egret hitching a ride on Buffalo

Cattle Egret on Buffalo, Kruger Park
Cattle Egret decides its safer to fly

One feature we enjoyed after self-catering for the first 6 nights, was a candlelight dinner on the newly constructed deck overlooking the Sabie River and with a view of the iconic steel railway bridge in the background (as shown in the heading photo above). Admittedly not quite in keeping with the quintessential Kruger experience, but for us it made a nice change and the meal turned out to be excellent. The visit to the river below us of a small herd of elephants when we were halfway through our meal added some excitement to the unique location of the restaurant.

Skukuza deck, Kruger Park
Skukuza deck, Kruger Park

Skukuza deck, Kruger Park
Skukuza deck at night

Skukuza to Lower Sabie

When it came to deciding on a game drive for the one full morning we would be there, we settled on doing the drive that we knew would be busy but hopefully filled with good sightings, and we were not disappointed. The road between Skukuza and Lower Sabie camps is renowned for its big cat sightings, making it a drawcard for tourists who often spend just a couple of days in Kruger.

We set off from Skukuza well after gate opening time, hoping to avoid the early morning scramble and found the road to be reasonably quiet and devoid of other vehicles for the first stretch, allowing us to stop frequently for game and birds, without much disturbance.

Kudu, Kruger Park
Kudu with Red-billed Oxpeckers hanging on

Mkhulu picnic spot is located about halfway along the road to Lower Sabie and is the ideal spot for a brunch, positioned as it is on the banks of the Sabie river and shaded by grand old trees which seem to have been there forever. While preparing our meal on the skottel, a female Cardinal Woodpecker entertained us and our fellow picnickers as it hammered away at a cavity in a nearby overhanging tree, not letting up despite a growing audience just metres away beneath the tree, all pointing cameras at her.

Cardinal Woodpecker (female), Mkhulu,  Kruger Park
Cardinal Woodpecker (female), Mkhulu

Further avian entertainment was provided by Paradise Flycatchers and Purple-crested Turacos in an enormous Wild fig tree and as we packed up to venture further a Crowned Hornbill, unusual for this part of Kruger, flew in and promptly lay flat on the dusty ground for a minute or so, dust-bathing. Many birds do this to maintain their plumage – the dust absorbs excess oil and keeps the feathers from becoming too greasy. I was just too late to capture this behaviour on camera so had to be content with a few conventional “bird on a stick” poses.

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park
Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park
Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu

Leaving Mkhulu, the road seemed busier and the way a couple of full safari vehicles passed us at speed (relative to our slow pace of course) suggested that they were on a mission – probably involving a “big cat” or two, at a guess. So we speeded up a tad while making sure we stayed within the 50 km/hour limit and followed the other vehicles. It wasn’t long before we came upon the first “scrum” of vehicles which told us there was something of interest.

The object of their interest turned out to be a Leopard, just visible on the far side of the river, resting in the shade of the riverside vegetation.

Leopard, Sabie River, Kruger Park
Leopard, Sabie River

A couple of kms further along the road, Lions were using the rocky outcrop next to the river as a vantage point and we endured another scramble of vehicles, manoeuvring to try to get a decent view.

Lion, Kruger Park
Lion, Kruger Park

Last stop before Lower Sabie was a brief one at the Sunset dam to view the resident hippos and the many birds lining the shore and wading in the shallows.

After enjoying coffee on the deck at Lower Sabie, we headed back to Skukuza without further stops to give us time for some relaxation on the stoep of our rondawel, more than satisfied with our morning’s outing.

 

Kruger for a Day – Five minutes of Bird Photography heaven

“Skulking and inconspicuous”

“Shy and inconspicuous, keeping to dense cover”

“Fairly secretive”

Despite what some people close to me may suggest, none of these descriptions refer to me –

they are in fact extracts from Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, describing the habits of three bird species which are more often heard rather than seen. So, to be presented with an opportunity to photograph all three of them in quick succession, with another more conspicuous species thrown in for good luck, is a chance in a thousand and I took it with open arms……… and an open lens.

As is often the case, the opportunity arose unexpectedly – we were on a day trip through Kruger in April this year, wending our way slowly on a circular route from Phabeni gate via Skukuza to Numbi gate, and decided to stop at the Skukuza Day Visitors area for a picnic lunch. (See my previous post on “Painted Wolves and a Weary Lion” for more on the trip). The morning had gone well with a variety of birds seen and a rare sighting of a pack of Wild Dogs as the highlight, but by now we were looking forward to a break.

We chose a shady table in a bushy section and greeted the only other group using the area as we passed their equally secluded spot.

Skukuza day visitors area

While the provisions were being laid out, I pottered about to see what bird life was around at this time of day, usually a quieter time for birding. At the swimming pool several Barn Swallows, Rock Martins and Greater Striped Swallows were swooping about enthusiastically and I heard an African Fish Eagle call from the river – not seeing much else I was content to join the others for lunch. The refried boerewors from last night’s braai accompanied by traditional braaibroodjies went down a treat along with coffee.

Skukuza day visitors picnic spot

When it came time to pack up, I wandered off to investigate some rustling and faint bird sounds that seemed to be coming from  nearby bushes and did a quick recce of the surrounding area. By this time our picnic neighbours – the only other people in the area – had left and as I passed their spot I saw some movement in the bushes close to their table.

Using the concrete table as a rather inadequate concealment, I crept closer and sat crouched on the bench, with my camera on the table and checked that it was set up for the shady conditions – aperture priority, high ISO setting for adequate shutter speed, white balance on shade.

Almost immediately a Sombre Greenbul (Gewone Willie / Andropadus importunes) hopped onto an exposed branch and looked straight at me, while I whipped my camera into position and rattled off 3 or 4 shots before it moved on and out of sight – the time as recorded in the photo metadata was 12:24:47.

Sombre Greenbul

Sombre Greenbul

A minute later a White-browed Robin-Chat (Heuglinse janfrederik / Cossypha heuglini) popped out into view and I followed its progress through the foliage for the next two minutes, snapping it in different poses.

White-browed Robin-Chat

White-browed Robin-Chat

By now my adrenaline level was rocketing and I could not believe my luck when yet another skulker appeared in the form of a Terrestial Bulbul (Boskrapper / Phyllastrephus terrestris), a species that usually spends a lot of time scratching around in the leaf litter, but had now decided to pose in full view on a small branch – time 12:29:08.

Terrestial Brownbul

Terrestial Brownbul

By this time I was battling to hold the camera steady as my hands were shaking from the excitement but the photography gods were really out to test my mettle when less than a minute later a Green-backed Cameroptera (Groenrugkwekwevoel / Camaroptera brachyuran) suddenly appeared from nowhere and did the same branch-walking act for my pleasure – time 12:29:50.

Green-backed Camaroptera

Green-backed Camaroptera

So in the space of 5 minutes and 3 seconds I had bagged pleasing photos of 3 skulkers and one other desirable bird and left me with a life-long memory of a very special birding moment.

 

Kruger for a day – Painted wolves and a weary Lion

Kruger National Park …………   just writing those words brings an immediate sense of anticipation ……

especially when you have made as many visits as we have and enjoyed such a diversity of wonderful bush experiences.

It was in April this year, while spending a week at Pine lake Resort near White River, that we decided to visit Kruger for one of the days. And as usual there were unexpected sightings, both on the animal front as well as the birds ……..

We started the day early, hoping to be at Phabeni gate as close to the 6.00 am opening time as possible – as it turned out we were a tad slow in leaving the resort and the drive there took longer than anticipated due to the nature of the road and some slow traffic. When we arrived at Phabeni we were met by a longish queue of vehicles and were told apologetically that “the computers are down and we are processing visitors manually” by the gate staff. This resulted in a long wait before we could at last enter Kruger and make our way along the Doispane road (S1).

We took all of four hours to travel the 40 or so Kms to Skukuza camp and then onwards to the day visitors picnic area just beyond the camp. There were lots of stops along the way to admire the wildlife and ID the birds seen and heard.

An early sighting was Retz’s Helmetshrike, always in a group of several and handsome as ever in their all black plumage and contrasting bright red bill and eye ring.

The usual Lilac-breasted Rollers, Magpie Shrikes and Red-billed Hornbills showed prominently at regular intervals to keep our spirits high. Raptors we saw included Bateleurs in numbers, Brown Snake-Eagles, African Fish-Eagles (5) and a pale form Booted Eagle.

African Fish Eagle, Kruger Day Visit
African Fish Eagle

About halfway along the road we stopped to have a look at the Nyaundwa Dam just off the road – this is always a good spot for the classic Kruger scene of animals coming to drink while keeping alert for the predators. Several shorebirds patrolled the dam edges – amongst them Wood Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilts, Common Greenshanks and Three-banded Plovers – while the resident Hippos had a few Red-billed Oxpeckers in attendance. Several Water Thick-knees viewed the proceedings from the sandy banks with what seemed to be disdain.

Kruger Day Visit
Nyaundwa dam

Kruger Day Visit
Nyaundwa dam

Shortly after we enjoyed one of the game highlights of the day when we came across a small pack of Wild Dogs, or “Painted Wolves” as they are sometimes known. One gave a display of territorial marking that we have not witnessed before, when he came right up to our vehicle and proceeded to urinate profusely several times while turning a full circle, so close I could have touched him with a broomstick – if I had such a thing handy. It crossed my mind that he may be just another Land Rover fan fed up with the superiority that us Toyota Land Cruiser owners tend to display …….. who knows.

Kruger Day Visit
African Wild Dogs in the long grass

African Wild Dog, Kruger Day Visit
African Wild Dog

African Wild Dog, Kruger Day Visit
African Wild Dog 

Our next sighting was a little further down the road where a knot of vehicles surrounded something lying at the edge of the road. It was an old Lion, looking as if he was on his last legs, his hips showing under his aged, battered looking skin. When he lifted his head to look at us, it seemed to be an effort and his eyes were dull with none of the fierce glint that he would have shown in his youth. I could have taken a photo but decided against it, simply out of respect for an old timer with not many days to live, at a guess.

We arrived at the Skukuza Day Visitors picnic area which is a few kms beyond Skukuza itself and has a number of pleasant picnic sites set amongst the bushes. It was quiet, being a Monday out of peak season and we had the place to ourselves except for one other small group so we found a nice shady spot and enjoyed leftovers from the previous night’s braai, reheated on the skottel (like an old ploughshare and heated by gas)

In between I scouted around the area and found some very photogenic White-fronted Bee-eaters perched on some low branches – many bird photographer’s favourite because of their bright colouring and their habit of posing openly, without being too skittish.

I was very happy with the results ….

White-fronted Bee-eater, Kruger Day Visit
White-fronted Bee-eaters

White-fronted Bee-eater, Kruger Day Visit
White-fronted Bee-eater

The birding highlight of the day came my way as were packing up to leave the picnic area, when I spotted some movement in the bushes nearby – more about the incredible photographic opportunity in a follow up post (how’s that for keeping you in suspense?)

Our last stop before heading towards the Numbi gate was at the well known (amongst birders) Lake Panic hide overlooking the lake of that name, not far from Skukuza. Initially it looked quiet but we found out from the few people already there that we had missed the earlier drama of a crocodile taking an Impala which had ventured too close to the water as it came to drink. Two large crocs were still wrestling with the unfortunate Impala, presumably already dead, its horns projecting above the water every now and then as the crocs twisted and turned in the water.

Crocodiles after kill at Lake Panic, Kruger Day Visit
Crocodiles after kill at Lake Panic

Crocodiles after kill at Lake Panic, Kruger Day Visit

The water level was the lowest I have ever seen it at this spot, not even reaching the hide – bird life was limited to a couple of Pied Kingfishers, a Black Crake and a Burchell’s Coucal.

Our exit route was via Numbi gate then through busy rural villages for some 20 kms before reaching White River and the road back to Pine Lake Resort (which is also worth a post – watch this space)