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 ……
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….
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
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.
Then there are the less marked but interesting differences between adult and juvenile birds …
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.
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:
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 …..
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)
And to round off, a couple of non-bird visitors………
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
Unhorned and harmless
The Cute Youngsters
The Smaller Animals
The only Disinterested Animal
Even a Reptile
And Birds, of Course
And a tree knot looking like an Owl, looking at us
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
Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year ……..
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 ….
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.
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)
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.
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
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
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
Writing this, I realised that I had done birding across 2 countries and 5 of SA’ s provinces during July!
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.
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
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
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
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am not sure how I will top 2016 as far as birding goes, but I will certainly give it a go!