Tag Archives: Birding South Africa

My Atlasing Month – January 2020

Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, is the mapping of distribution and relative abundance of birds in a given area, using data gathered by a group of several hundred volunteer “citizen scientists” across southern Africa. Volunteers select a geographical “pentad” (roughly 8 x 8 km and based on co-ordinates) on a map and record all the bird species seen within a set time frame. This information is uploaded to the database managed under the Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2) and is used for research and analysis. I have been a volunteer Citizen Scientist since 2010.

That’s the formal description of what takes up most of my birding time nowadays and I thought it is time that I included more of my atlasing activities in this blog. I have previously made the mistake of being over-optimistic about the frequency of posting on a particular subject, so I won’t fall into that trap – the title of this post may provide a clue to my intentions but let’s see how it goes….

So, let’s have a look at where atlasing took me in the first month of 2020…

Klein Brak River

Klein Brak River is a small village close to Mossel Bay in the Southern Cape and was my choice for my first formal atlasing outing for the year on 8th January, given the luxury of having an open pallete of pentads not yet atlased in 2020 to choose from. The pentad includes the village, the road to Botlierskop game farm and the Geelbeksvlei road, all of which had provided good birding in the past.

Starting in Klein Brak village at 6 am, my list grew rapidly in cool conditions, ideal for both bird and man (armed with binos). I drove through the residential area checking out the gardens and ended up at a wide section of the river which gives the town its name – there I set up my scope and scanned the river. Birds were not plentiful but those that were visible were interesting waders and waterbirds with Cape Teal, Common Greenshank, Common Ringed Plover, Little Egret and a Grey Plover that, for a while, had me hallucinating about Golden Plovers until I came to my senses.

Grey Plover / Pluvialis squatarola / Grysstrandkiewiet, Klein Brak River

A Pied Kingfisher was active over the water and his Brown-Hooded land-based cousin could be heard nearby in a garden. Moving on, I left the village behind and passed through cultivated farmland, where a short grassed area held both Crowned and Black-winged Lapwings moving about together. Both are Vanellus species and share looks and habits, seeming to enjoy each other’s company.

Lapwings – Black-winged and Crowned, Klein Brak River
African Stonechat / Saxicola torquatus / Gewone bontrokkie (Juvenile), Klein Brak River

The road led to the Gannabos road where I turned right towards Botlierskop and spent some time stopping at every shady tree (it was heading over 30 degrees C) to explore the surroundings and the bush, as this stretch has proven to be good for forest birds. Olive Bushshrike and Paradise Flycatcher obliged by calling first then showing themselves fleetingly, Common Waxbills twittered in the roadside bush and even an African Fish-Eagle called from somewhere close by.

The road to Botlierskop – welcoming shady spots to stop and bird
Common Buzzard / Buteo buteo / Bruinjakkalsvoël, Klein Brak River

At the Botlierskop farm dams I found a lone Spoonbill and several White-faced Ducks and heading back a handsome Jackal Buzzard watched me pass by. The Geelbeksvlei road was fairly quiet except for a popular fishing spot where I used the scope to ID a Little Stint and Kittlitz’s Plover, while a Yellow-billed Kite did its low-flying thing overhead. taking my total to a pleasing 67 species for the pentad.

Bee on red flower, Klein Brak River
Fiscal Flycatcher / Sigelus silens / Fiskaalvlieëvanger, Klein Brak River

Gouritsmond Area

When I checked my pentad map, I noted that I had never atlased the pentad west of the town of Gouritsmond at the mouth of the Gourits River, so it became my main target for the day.

Gouritsmond lies south-west of Mossel Bay and I set off early on the 24th January – the journey was slowed by several “not to be missed” birding and photo opportunities along the road, including –

  • ponds alongside the road formed by recent rains – my first stop to view one was opposite the PetroSA refinery plant and attracted a grave looking official who stopped behind me, got out and walked to my car to enquire as to what I was doing while checking what I had in the car, and “did I know PetroSA is a National Key Point so no photography is allowed”. I responded that I was observing the birds and he looked me over and walked off again, presumably happy that my profile was not that of a threat to the National Key Point. Many Gulls and Sacred Ibises were present and a Little Stint was pottering about amongst them.
  • .Cape Grassbird on top of a roadside bush, singing away near a small pond before the Vleesbaai turnoff.
Cape Grassbird / Sphenoeacus afer / Grasvoël, Gouritsmond road
  • Rock Kestrel (Immature) in perfect morning light on top of a fence post.
Rock Kestrel / Falco rupicolus / Kransvalk, Gouritsmond road
  • Agulhas Long-billed Lark on a small rock in a field, close enough for some fine photos
Agulhas Long-billed Lark / Certhilauda brevirostris / Overberglangbeklewerik, Gouritsmond road

Once I entered Gouritsmond I drove along the Beach road to the start of pentad 3420_2145 and followed the coastal road, bounded on the one side by wide stretches of rugged rocks, lapped by the green ocean beyond, and on the other side by coastal bush and grassed fields.

Scene along the Beach Road west of Gouritsmond

Seabirds were few – Kelp Gull, African Black Oystercatcher and Ruddy Turnstone (just visible through the scope), the balance were birds of the bush, fields and sky. It was slow going and with the minimum 2 hours done and no prospect of adding many more to my modest total of 32 species, I proceeded back to the town to pentad 3420_2150 and commenced atlasing once again.

Scene along the Beach Road west of Gouritsmond

I made a good start along the coastal road with similar species to the first pentad, them made my way slowly through the town’s residential area and out to the waste water treatment works, which has been upgraded with neat ponds and easy viewing from the surounding fence. Numbers of waterbirds had made this their home and Cape Teal, Yellow-billed Duck and Egyptian Goose were all prominent.

My next and final stop was the boat launch site up river from the mouth and I set up the scope to scan the distant banks for waders, coming up with Whimbrel, White-fronted Plover, Ruff and Common Ringed Plover.

There was no sign of the Kittlitz’s Plover that had entertained me at this same spot in 2018 -see my earlier post https://mostlybirding.com/2018/12/15/kittlitzs-plover-a-winning-performance/

West of Mossel Bay along the N2

My last chance for atlasing out of Mossel Bay, before returning to Pretoria, came up on the 29th January and I targeted two pentads directly west of Mossel Bay, both never atlased by me before.

I started with pentad 3410_2155 which is bordered by PetroSA on the north side and stretches to the sea on the south side, although various private estates block access to the coastal area itself and I had not made any arrangements for such access so I was limited to the inland areas. I started along the N2 National road which runs east-west through the pentad and was predicably busy but has a wide tarred shoulder which allowed me to stop with relative safety.

Mossel Bay west

After the recent good rains there was enough water in farm dams and shallow pans, especially on the south side of the N2, which had attracted a variety of waterbirds – Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal, Spurwinged Goose, Cape Shoveler and Little Grebe.

Shortly after, I turned south onto the Gouritsmond road, which had less traffic but the road is a narrow one with a gravel shoulder sloping off at an angle that makes it difficult to pull off comfortably, so I had to look for farm gate turn-offs to be able to stop safely. There was enough to see at each stop to keep my list growing and at one stop my attention was drawn to a pair of Blue Cranes walking in a grassy field and, for a change, close enough to the road to allow for some reasonable quality photography of these elegant birds.

Blue Cranes, Mossel Bay west

Suddenly they started a courtship dance that left me entranced but determined to record as much of it on my camera – it was so special that it deserves a separate post, suffice to say it was a birding highlight of our lengthy stay in Mossel Bay!

Blue Crane courtship dance, Mossel Bay west

Further on, where the road bends away to the west, I stopped to view a small pond and the surrounding bush and found a variety of birds such as Yellow Canary, White-throated Canary, Red Bishops and Levaillant’s Cisticola, Red-capped Lark in the road (as is their habit) was my 3rd Lark for the day, after Large-billed and Agulhas Long-billed.

Back on the N2, I proceeded further west to pentad 3410_2145, where I turned off at the first gravel road heading south – the road cuts through the pentad and reaches its southern bounday at the bone-dry Voelvlei, which last had water a number of years ago – when it does have water it is a spectacular birding spot but in times of drought is a rather depressing sight.

The route there proved to be less bird friendly with farmland and hills and I worked hard to get to a modest list of 26 without a single waterbird, but a trio of Denham’s Bustards flying over was an exciting highlight.

Denham’s Bustard

What makes birding/atlasing special is coming across other wild life in the process – these beetles were attracted to a flowering bush and caught my eye with their tan colouring –

Brown Monkey Beetle

All in all, a satisfying start to my atlasing for the year…..

My Birding Year 2019

Ahhh, 2020 is already moving ahead apace and I am just finalising my “My Birding Year” post for the past year …. how time flies as you get older!

Before getting into a summary of my birding exploits for 2019, I asked myself – what were my birding expectations at the beginning of the year and how far did I go in achieving what I set out to do? I decided that they were …..

  • Atlasing – my first priority nowadays and I aim to atlas one day per week – I generally managed to do so and my species list atlased for the year reached 426 spread across southern Africa, a more than satisfactory outcome in my book – not for personal glory but rather an indicator that my atlasing efforts were well spread across many parts of the country
  • Birding outside southern Africa – knowing we would be visiting Australia for the first time in April and May was an exciting prospect and the country and its bird life were an absolute treat
  • Lifers – most birders are driven by the desire to add new lifers to their lists and I am no different, however I have found that this aspect of birding is becoming less important with my focus shifting to citizen science activities such as atlasing. Nevertheless I cannot deny being thrilled each time I added a lifer – I saw just one lifer in southern Africa during the year but made up for that with 68 new birds added to my “world list” from our Australia trip
  • Photography – I find bird photography in particular to be an ongoing challenge and am always on the lookout for that special one (photograph, not Jose Mourinho the manager of my favourite football team).

Rather than get into a lengthy month by month description as per previous years I thought I would let the photos do most of the talking with a short note here and there to add some background

As with recent years, it all started in the Southern Cape, around Mossel Bay and further afield

Grey Heron, Mossel BAY
Bokmakierie, Gondwana area
Gondwana area – an inviting path through fynbos

Marievale Bird Sanctuary remains one of the best and most pleasant places to bird in Gauteng with its well-kept hides and fluctuating water levels

The powerline track, Marievale
Wood Sandpiper, Marievale
Squacco Heron, Marievale
Yellow-crowned Bishop, Marievale

A short stay at Pine Lake Resort near White River was an opportunity to bird the resort itself and to do a day trip to nearby Kruger Park

Pine Lake Resort, White River
Dusky Lark, Kruger Day Visit – this is one of the scarcer Lark species so it was athrill to find it near one of the dams
Green Pigeon, Kruger Day Visit

Mabusa Nature Reserve is a quiet, less visited reserve some 100 kms from home and I love spending time atlasing there

Spike-heeled Lark, Mabusa Nature Reserve, Mpumulanga

Then in April came our first trip to Australia, covered in some detail in earlier posts so I don’t want to repeat myself – suffice to say we had an exciting time discovering what this fine country is all about and finding many new, often spectacular, birds. This is a selection of some of the standout birds that I found (or they found me, I’m never sure) …

Magpie-lark, Sale, Victoria
Laughing Kookaburra, Raymond Island, Victoria
Australian Grebe, Sale, Victoria
Masked Lapwing, Sale
Eastern Spinebill, Lake Guyatt Sale
Dandenong Ranges – forest path
Crimson Rosella, Sassafras
New Holland Honeyeater, Apollo Bay
Crested Tern, Great Ocean Road
Little Corella, Philip Island
Australian Pelican, Lake Guyatt Sale

Back home over the winter months, I focused on atlasing an area north-east of Pretoria, which proved to be challenging at times, having to contend with the traffic on tar roads and the dust on the gravel back roads

African Snipe (Gallinago nigripennis), Kusile area
Pied Starling (Lamprotornis bicolor), Bronkhorstspruit area
White-bellied Sunbird (Cynnyris talatala), Bronkhorstspruit area
Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina), Bronkhorstspruit area

A last-minute booking saw us spending a week in Kruger Park – the best place to do some quality birding

African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Trumpeter Hornbill (Male) (Bycanistes bucinator / Gewone boskraai), Lower Sabie camp, Kruger Park

More Gauteng atlasing followed during the winter months

Temminck’s Courser (Cursorius temminckii / Trekdrawwertjie), Cullinan area
Capped Wheatear (Oenanthe pileata / Hoëveldskaapwagter), Delmas area
Cape Longclaw (Macronyx capensis / Oranjekeelkalkoentjie) (Subspecies colletti), Suikerbosrand

We do look forward to our week at the Verlorenkloof resort in Mpumulanga, and with reason – it’s a perfect place to combine relaxation with some excellent birding

Purple-crested Turaco (Tauraco porphyreolophus / Bloukuifloerie). Verlorenkloof
Verlorenkloof
Cape Rock Thrush (Female) (Monticola rupestris / Kaapse kliplyster), Verlorenkloof
Lazy Cisticola (Cisticola aberrans / Luitinktinkie), Verlorenkloof

On one of my atlasing outings, I spent a pleasant morning at Rietvlei Nature Reserve, not far from home

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica / Europese swael), Rietvlei NR
Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida / Witbaardsterretjie), Rietvlei NR

I joined a team of 3 other keen birders for the annual Birding Big Day at the end of November. We ended up with 184 species for the day and a pleasing 50th place countrywide. There was only time for a quick snatched photo of the team heading through bush at one of our many stops

Birding Big Day

We closed out the year in Mossel Bay, where Sugarbirds visit our garden

Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Oudtshoorn south

West Coast National Park – Day Visit

During a recent visit to the Cape Town area we took the opportunity to spend a day out with Johan and Rosa (Gerda’s sister) during which we travelled firstly to Bloubergstrand, then further west to the West Coast National Park.

Blouberg proved to be a good choice for an alfresco mid-morning tea accompanied by scones (rather dry ones) with a view of the beautiful bay and beyond to Table Mountain in the distance. We had fortunately chosen a perfect day for it – sunny but not too hot with a slight breeze. So nice to see the bay after many years.

Bloubergstrand on a perfect day

Leaving Bloubergstrand behind, we proceeded at a gentle pace to the entrance gate to the West Coast National Park, an hour or so up the coast. The drive from the gate to the restaurant at Geelbek was punctuated by some stops for light birding.

Roberts Birding app describes the reserve’s habitat as follows – “The reserve comprises large areas of coastal strandveld and a large tidal lagoon, with extensive tidal mudflats, saltmarsh and reedbeds.”

After a lazy lunch at an outside table, I took a walk to the nearby bird hide, with its views across the mudflats and the vast lagoon, while the others sat in the car under a shady tree and chatted. Also chatting loudly was a Yellow-billed Kite in the tree above the car, with a bevy of smaller birds responding in kind.

Yellow-billed Kite (Milvus parasitus / Geelbekwou)

I didn’t want to leave them for too long, so I spent about 40 minutes walking to the hide and back along the raised boardwalk – hardly enough time to do justice to this exceptional birding spot but I managed to see and photograph a surprising number of wader and other species in this short time.

West Coast NP – the boardwalk to the Geelbek hide

Flamingoes were plentiful, with both Greater and Lesser species being well represented.

Other prominent waders included Black-winged Stilt, the beautifully delicate Pied Avocet, Kittlitz’s Plover, Little Stint, Ruff, Grey Plover, Common Greenshank, Whimbrel and Curlew Sandpiper. Those I managed to photograph are the following –

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus / Rooipootelsie), West Coast NP
Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta / Bontelsie), West Coast NP
Kittlitz’s Plover (Charadrius pecuarius / Geelborsstrandkiewiet), West Coast NP
Little Stint (Calidris minuta / Kleinstrandloper), West Coast NP
Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola / Grysstrandkiewiet), West Coast NP
Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea / Krombekstrandloper), West Coast NP

A pair of Cape Teals with their dark pink bills huddled at the edge of the marshes.

Cape Teal (Anas capensis / Teeleend)

At the hide itself, many more flamingoes were visible along with some of the same waders, while a couple of Greater Crested Terns flew past low and slow in their customary manner.

West Coast NP – the view from the hide
Greater Crested (Swift) Tern (Thalasseus bergii / Geelbeksterretjie)

With my birding itch satsified by this quick fix, we headed slowly to the secondary gate on the Langebaan side, hoping for a sighting of some game, which had eluded us so far. Not far from the exit gate we came across a herd of handsome Eland

Eland, West Coast NP

All in all a day well enjoyed!

Klein Karoo Weekend

Sometimes less is more – less planning, less time away, definitely means less stress – our recent, unplanned visit to an eco-estate near Calitzdorp in the arid Klein Karoo falls into that category. Our daughter and son-in-law have a delightful cottage set on the slopes of the kloof that runs through the estate, which they use for getaway weekends and we were more than happy to join them on a weekend in September.

We were up at 5 am on the Saturday morning and left Mossel Bay before 7 am, reaching our roadside coffee spot on the Volmoed road about an hour later. No ordinary stop this – even along the road the Karoo invites you to relax, and relax we did with plunger coffee, boiled eggs and muffins while enjoying the Karoo landscape around us, watched over by Greater Striped Swallows perched nearby and with cool sunny weather adding to the pleasure of the moment.

Coffee stop
Saartjie, the family pet, gets a chance to explore the roadside bush

After a brief stop at Bella di Karoo padstal for some provisions, we carried on to Calitzdorp, which was hosting a succulent festival – a few side streets were closed off and filled with stalls selling all manner of succulents and filled with people meandering about enjoying the atmosphere.

It was lunchtime when we eventually got to the estate, just in time for a fine lunch of country bread, cheese and jam enjoyed on the covered stoep, after which we all relaxed for most of the afternoon in our various ways.

The cottage just after completion

Andre and Geraldine have done wonders with the garden around their cottage, filling it with hardy plants that can survive the hot summers and cold winters in this arid part of the country and I noticed that one particular succulent ground cover was covered in small white flowers and was attracting a multitude of butterflies.

This was too good an opportunity to miss, so I promptly took my camera and positioned myself on the ground near the action and spent a happy half hour or so just watching the comings and goings of the butterflies, bees and other insects, capturing them on the camera where I could. I was very pleased with the results and with the help of my butterfly books was able to identify three species of butterfly.

Bees were also in on the action….

Not to mention the dragonflies that were active…

Dragonfly: Common Thorntail (Ceratogomphus pictus)

All of this action set me up nicely for a lengthy nap, followed by a walk along the river, which for a long time had been bone dry but now had a trickle of water after recent rains. I enjoyed the bird calls emanating from the riverine bush as I walked – a boost to my rather meagre list of birds for the visit.

Part of the trail along the river

Supper was wildswors (venison sausage) braai-ed over coals – simply delicious! Sunday morning was equally lazy and relaxed with light rain falling on and off – what a pleasure in these dry parts!

Come Sunday afternoon it was time to return home – the journey was marked by two highlights…..

A spectacular, perfect rainbow framing the road ahead as we drove.

Rainbow, Calitzdorp trip

A Southern Black Korhaan alongside the road, causing me to brake sharply as I knew I had never been in a position to photograph this species. Before turning back, I retrieved my camera from its bag on the back seat and made sure the settings were correct, then turned the car and drove carefully and slowly to where I had seen the Korhaan, staying on the opposite side of the road so as not to spook it.

The Korhaan moved away quite quickly as I approached, using a roadside ditch and small bushes to keep itself concealed. I followed on the other side of the road, camera at the ready as I watched for approaching vehicles at the same time as keeping an eye on the bird, which showed briefly between bushes. This carried on for a while until the distance between bushes allowed some clear shots, with the Korhaan eyeing me with extreme suspicion.

Mission accomplished and with a feeling of satisfaction at having “captured” this rather elusive species on camera, we continued to Mossel Bay.

Many years ago I read a report on a destination in the Free State that the writer described along the lines of – “a weekend in so-and-so is like a week in the country”. This description came back to me after our one-night weekend in the Klein Karoo – we all felt as if we had enjoyed a week in the country.

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 – Aloes, Sunbirds, Butterflies and Friends

We were changing camps during our winter visit to Kruger – this time from Lower Sabie where we had spent just one night, to Pretoriuskop, where we were booked for 2 nights. Being around 100 kms apart, at Kruger speeds with stops at sightings, we were counting on around 3 to 4 hours of easy travelling.

The Lower Sabie – Skukuza “highway” was as busy as always with large knots of vehicles at sightings, including a lion spotted moving through the bush on the river side, providing brief glimpses as it passed openings between the trees.

We decided to take a break at Skukuza, the largest and busiest of Kruger’s camps and a favourite of overseas tourists. We bought take away coffees and muffins, then found a nice sunny spot with a view – of the tourists passing by in their many shapes, sizes and degrees of dress sense. It’s a form of entertainment, guessing the origin of the tourists based on their choice of “safari gear” – some in designer khaki, others in strange combinations of camouflage clothing paired with dark apparel, many looking totally out of place.

Once we tired of that game, I started looking around the gardens and noticed a bright yellow sunbird at one of the flowering aloes, an irresistible subject for a bird photographer, so I leapt up (well that’s what it felt like, others may say I stood up quickly) and rushed over to get myself positioned near the aloe with the light from behind and shoot a few photos until I had some reasonable ones of the Collared Sunbird.

Collared Sunbird (Hedydipna collaris / Kortbeksuikerbekkie) Skukuza, Kruger Park

The adjoining aloes had attracted yellow butterflies and I set about capturing a few images of these colourful creatures as they fed on the aloe nectar.

It was only when I reviewed the photos, zooming in to check the sharpness of the detail, that I noticed I had captured a tiny flying insect “passenger”, clinging to its butterfly host then flying off to find another.

Butterfly : African Migrant (Catopsilia florella), Skukuza, Kruger Park

Zooming in to see what that dot on the wing edge is, revealed a tiny flying insect, not more than 1 mm long, clinging to the butterfly

The insect takes off :

Modern digital cameras are quite amazing in the detail they can capture!

Excited with this butterfly I looked around for others and amongst the leaf litter I found …………… well you can decide if there is anything to see in this next photo

The photo below compared with the one above, demonstrates how well camouflaged a butterfly can be when its wings are closed and in the right surrounds, despite its bright colouring when fully open

Butterfly : Speckled sulphur-tip (Colotis agoye agoye), Skukuza, Kruger Park

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

At the Bird Feeder

It never fails to amaze me how quickly birds of the seedeater variety react to my replenishing the feeder in our garden, usually descending on it en masse within half an hour of filling it.

This happened again recently after I had been away and had not filled the feeder for some weeks – the first birds were there in no time at all. I suspect they “do the rounds” of all potential feeding sites each day, otherwise how would they know? And there must be some system of communication that informs other birds of different species of the presence of food.

Whatever the case, it is always interesting to see which species turn up – often the same mix but sometimes a non-regular puts in an appearance.

Here is a selection of the birds that came to the feeder in the space of a couple of days recently –

Sparrows

Two of the four South African Sparrows are regulars in the garden – the House Sparrow, despite its name, does not come to the garden, preferring to scrounge for scraps at the local shopping centre’s parking area

Cape Sparrow (Male) (Passer melanurus / Gewone mossie)
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow (Passer diffusus / Gryskopmossie)
Cape Sparrow (Female) and Grey-headed Sparrow

Finches

Both of the Amadina finches are fairly regular visitors and the males provide a splash of colour with their vivid red “cut-throat” and head. They also feed on insects and termites where they can

Cut-throat Finch (Male) (Amadina fasciata / Bandkeelvink)
Cut-throat Finch (Female) (Amadina fasciata / Bandkeelvink)
Red-headed Finch (Male) (Amadina erythrocephala dissita / Rooikopvink)
Red-headed Finch (Female) (Amadina erythrocephala dissita / Rooikopvink)

Weavers

There are four weaver species in the residential estate that we live in, thanks mainly to the two small dams that form part of it. Two of them are regular visitors to the garden, being Southern Masked Weaver and Village Weaver, while the Cape Weaver is very seldom seen in the garden and the Thick-billed Weaver not at all

The regular weavers are, at first glance, quite similar but have a few distinguishing features – the black forehead of the Southern Masked Weaver versus the yellow forehead of the Village Weaver, the plainer mottled back of the Southern Masked Weaver versus the heavily blotched back of the village Weaver (not visible in these photos)

Southern Masked Weaver (Male breeding) (Ploceus velatus race tahatali / Swartkeelgeelvink)
Village Weaver (Male breeding) (Ploceus cucullatus race spilonotus / Bontrugwewer)

The photo below shows the difference in the forehead colours

Village and Southern Masked Weavers

Looking at the photos I had taken, I noticed that the Village Weaver had an elongated bill – this is an abnormality that occurs in various bird species. This individual did not seem to have a problem feeding

Village Weaver (Male breeding) (Ploceus cucullatus race spilonotus / Bontrugwewer)

Lovebirds

Over the last 3 to 4 years a feral population of Lovebirds has established a presence in our residential estate, probably being cage bird escapees originally. They most closely resemble the Black-cheeked Lovebird that occurs in Zambia but are quite hybridised, with some birds being almost entirely yellow. I am split between appreciating their bright colouring and disliking the fact that feral birds are spreading in the eastern suburbs of Pretoria

Feral Lovebird – Yellow-collared/Black-cheeked

Mannikins

These cute little birds appear in small flocks, twittering away happily

Bronze Mannikin (Lonchura cucullata / Gewone fret)

Which all goes to show you don’t have to travel far from home to find interesting birds

Birds of Verlorenkloof (October 2018)

Verlorenkloof, as regular readers will know, is our favourite spot for a really relaxing getaway and we look forward to our annual timeshare week in October each year immensely. October 2018 was no different with lazy days, some walking, some birding and atlasing and just enjoying the company of old friends …. errrr,  friends of long standing that is. (At our age one can get sensitive about 3-letter words such as “old”).

The croft (the fancy name for the house-like accommodation at Verlorenkloof) sleeps 10. although 6 is more comfortable, so it is a great opportunity to invite some close friends along for the week.

Perhaps the best part is the time spent on the patio, where we take breakfast and lunch and enjoy regular doses of tea, coffee or cold drinks to while away the hours. The patio overlooks a sloping lawn which merges with the natural grass and shrubs stretching across the hill and down to the stream, which is flanked by luxuriant reeds and ferns.

Beyond the grass and the stream, the lower grassy slopes of the mountain begin and continue up to a height where the rocky, almost vertical face of the mountain proper takes over, soaring to the escarpment edge a few hundred metres above. Oh, and to add to the variety of habitats, the mountain face is cleaved into densely forested kloofs at its intersections.

All of this provides the opportunity for a multitude of bird species to be attracted to the area and to take up residence. Many of them announce their presence at various times of the day, peaking in the early morning as the sun rises to welcome a new day. The mountain seems to act as an amplifier and the scene before you is reminiscent of a natural amphitheatre, with some of nature’s best songsters providing an aural experience that is hard to beat.

Verlorenkloof – view from upper path

Verlorenkloof lower dam

The selection of photos that follows is from our October 2018 week and is just a sampling of the rich bird life at Verlorenkloof, limited to those species which I was able to get close enough to for a reasonable photo or which, by chance, crossed my path while I had my camera close by.

English,  Afrikaans and scientific names are given with the gender and subspecies added where applicable …….

Familiar Chat / Gewone spekvreter (Cercomela familiaris – hellmayri subspecies) is a regular visitor to the area around the croft where it hawks insects from a vantage point such as a small rock or low branch, returning to the same spot with a flick or two of the tail as it lands, in its “familiar” way

 

Yellow Bishop (Male, non-breeding) / Kaapse flap (Euplectes capensis – approximans subspecies) – later in the summer the male acquires its breeding plumage of overall black with yellow shoulders and rump

 

African Stonechat (Male) / Gewone bontrokkie (saxicola torquatus – stoneii subspecies) – another conspicuous, widespread species which favours grasslands and perches prominently on tall bushes and plants.

 

African Crowned Eagle (Immature) / Kroonarend (Stephanoaetus coronatus ) – it was a thrill to find this impressive raptor at Verlorenkloof. This immature eagle is probably the same one that was seen by Koos Pauw earlier in the year when it was still in the nest, which he pointed out to me on top of a large tree part of the way up the mountain slope

 

Cape Grassbird / Grasvoël (Sphenoaecus afer – natalensis subspecies) – singing its heart out in its customary fashion, just a little shy for a full monty photo

 

 

Village Weaver (Male) / Bontrugwewer (Ploceus cucullatus – spilonotus subspecies) – it’s a treat to see this species in action, doing its best to attract a female for some “breeding” with much vigour, swaying its body and fanning its wings.  A flock had taken over a tree alongside the river and filled it with nests

 

Kurrichane Thrush / Rooibeklyster (Turdus libonyanus) – a shy, solitary bird that likes to forage quietly amongst the shrubs

 

Swee Waxbill (Female) / Suidelike swie (Estrilda melanotis– cute species that moves in small groups through the bushes

 

Thick-billed Weaver (Male) / Dikbekwewer (Amblyospiza albifrons – woltersi subspecies) – busy building a nest in the reeds alongside the bridge over the river. Unlike other weavers which start with a ring as a basis, this species starts with a cup and builds up from it, using thin strips gleaned from bulrush leaves to construct the fine, tightly woven nest

 

Bronze Mannikin / Gewone fret (Lonchura cucullata– fairly common in the bushes and reeds near the croft

 

Broad-tailed Warbler / Breëstertsanger (Schoenicola brevirostris) – An uncommon species that I have not seen anywhere other than at Verlorenkloof – it prefers rank grass and has a distinctive  sharp metallic call which tells you it is nearby, but is an expert at concealing itself from view, so getting a photo requires a mix of patience and luck

 

Fan-tailed Widowbird (Male in breeding plumage) / Kortstertflap (Euplectes axillaris– also a “fan” of tall moist grassland which Verlorenkloof has in abundance

 

Wing-snapping Cisticola / Kleinste klopkloppie (Cisticola ayresii– not seen at Verlorenkloof itself but in an adjoining pentad while atlasing – my first photographic record of this species

There are a few shy animals as well, such as this Grey Duiker

Grey Duiker

 

I’m already looking forward to our October 2019 week!

 

My Birding Companion

Niki, my trusted birding companion, accompanies me on all my birding trips and I have to admit I just cannot get along without her – she has eyes like a hawk which can help to identify those distant birds in a trice with just one quick glance and is content to endure hours of travel on sometimes bumpy, dusty roads with nary a complaint.

So I was deeply concerned when Niki started showing signs of weariness and a distinct lack of focus towards the end of 2018 and I resolved to book her into a clinic as soon as we were back in Gauteng in January 2019. Niki went to the clinic without complaint and I booked her in on a Monday, hoping that her stay would not be long – they sent a message later setting out the proposed treatment and estimated that she would have to stay for at least a week for the treatment to have the desired effect, which I replied was acceptable.

The week without Niki was difficult and my birding outing was just not the same without her on the seat beside me, but I knew it was something that had done. I resisted the temptation to visit Niki in the clinic, being so far from our house and patiently waited for the message to tell me I could come and fetch her.

At last the message came to my phone – she was ready to go home! Next morning I drove to the clinic and fetched Niki – what a relief to hold her in my arms again!

I could hardly wait for my next birding outing with Niki once again at my side and planned a trip to one of Gauteng’s prime birding destinations – Marievale Bird Sanctuary to put our combined skills to the test again.

Niki, also known as my Nikon D750 DLSR camera with Nikon 80-400mm lens, performed admirably – but I will leave you with a few photos from the morning at Marievale, so you can judge for yourself.

Spotted Thick-Knee / Gewone Dikkop (Burhinus capensis) in the reception parking area before getting into the Nature Reserve itself – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (OK just bright-eyed)

 

Blacksmith Lapwing / Bontkiewiet (Vanellus armatus)– despite its name suggesting a somewhat rougher individual, this is one bird that looks as if it could be an avian James Bond – elegant, formally attired, ready to order a martini “shaken, not stirred”

 

Wood Sandpiper / Bosruiter (Tringa glareola) – the only wader I came across during my visit – water levels were high after good summer rains so the hundreds of waders usually present were somewhere else

 

African Reed-Warbler / Kleinrietsanger (Acrocephalus baeticatus) – at one spot along the power-line track which has wetlands on both sides (shown in the featured image at the top of the post) I seemed to be surrounded by calling Warblers, with this species most prominent, calling vigorously and showing briefly amongst the reeds.

 

Red-knobbed Coot / Bleshoender (Fulica cristata) – the hides at Marievale are well looked after and afford great views of the comings and goings of several species, including this very common one

 

Squacco Heron / Ralreier (Ardeola ralloides) – demonstrating why it can be a difficult bird for beginners to identify, particularly in flight when it appears to be all-white and can easily be taken for a Cattle Egret. Once settled though it is an obvious species and in breeding plumage as it is here it shows the elongated feathers on the crest and neck, giving it an even more distinctive look

 

Common Moorhen / Grootwaterhoender (Gallinula chloropus) – another common water bird seen from the hide

 

Yellow-crowned Bishop / Goudgeelvink (Euplectes afer) – resembles a very large bumble-bee in flight display as it fluffs up its yellow back feathers and flies slowly and ponderously amongst tall reeds

 

Lesser Swamp Warbler Kaapse rietsanger (Acrocephalus gracilirostris) – one of the bolder warblers but more often heard rather than seen. This one popped onto a perch right in front of the picnic spot hide as I was chatting to a visitor from Scotland

 

Whiskered Tern / Witbaardsterretjie (Chlidonias hybrida) – almost always present at Marievale, this tern in breeding plumage (losing the black belly and much of the black crown when non-breeding) was hovering and plunge-diving in front of the hide, constantly on the search for food