Tag Archives: Birding South Africa

Kruger unplanned – the Birds

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

Kruger National Park is seen by many birders, including this one, as one of the most desirable places to visit and indulge their passion in an incomparable natural environment –

Our week was full of interesting sightings and memorable moments covering the full spectrum of wild life, birds aplenty, glorious landscapes – here is a selection of some of the standout birding moments –

First night in Olifants

With the evening braai done, we were relaxing on the stoep, sipping our coffee and enjoying a handsome moon rise, when Gerda was first to hear a distant grumpy sound and suggested it was an Owl. We identified the call as that of a Verraux’s Eagle-Owl and I went to investigate when it seemed to be getting closer, finding it in a nearby tall tree, illuminated by neighbouring visitors who had a powerful torch handy.  Besides its trademark pink eyelids, this is one impressive Owl, with a length of 62cm (think 6 months old  child) and capable of taking prey the size of a half-grown Vervet Monkey or a Warthog piglet but also content to hunt tiny Warblers and insects.

The envy of many a woman with those eyelids

Balule Low Water Bridge

Our second day in Kruger and also my birthday – the main reason for us being there as my wish was to wake up on my birthday to a Kruger sunrise. The day started in perfect weather – sunny yet cool to warm. Gerda wasn’t up to an early start so I made coffee and set off to atlas the Olifants pentad over the next two hours returning in time for morning tea.

The drive was a slow one to Balule where I spent some time on the low water bridge, a great birding spot in its own right, then returned to Olifants camp along the S92 road, thereby completing a full circuit.

A v-shaped formation of Cormorants flying high above the river set the tone as I started the drive and at the bridge a Malachite Kingfisher flashed its bright colours as he darted between the reeds.

Parked on the bridge, I chalked up Black Crake, African Jacana, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Green-backed Heron amongst others, in quick succession.

Black Crake, Balule, Kruger Park

What makes this such a good spot is the low water level at this time of year, creating small ponds, streams and sandbanks across the full width of this large river, ideal for a mix of water birds, waders and birds just coming to drink at the water’s edge.

Olifants River Bridge

Gerda joined me for an afternoon drive which took us to the main bridge over the Olifants river, a few kms south of the camp turn-off. She ended up “chatting” to a curiously tame Cape Glossy Starling who perched on the railing then, when I got out of the car (permitted on some of the longer bridges), hopped onto the door mirror and seemed to reach out to Gerda with its happy chirping. Perhaps he thought he was on Twitter and was just tweeting the latest news.

Bird’s eye view of Olifants River, Kruger Park
Glossy Starling does Twitter with Gerda

While on the lookout for birds I spotted a raptor in a dry  tree near the end of the bridge and was immediately puzzled by its odd appearance – mostly dark brown but with a white crown – nothing like any bird I had seen before. I took a number of photos to help with an ID whereupon the raptor flew off, only to be replaced moments later in exactly the same spot by an adult Wahlberg’s Eagle – reminiscent of a quick-change magic act!

Wahlberg’s Eagle (Juvenile intermediate morph)
Wahlberg’s Eagle (adult brown morph)  – compare the pose with the juvenile above!

That led me to think the first one was a juvenile Wahlberg’s Eagle but my Roberts App – usually a comprehensive source of bird information –  made no mention of the white cap feature and further searching on the internet came up with one other photo that resembled this one – it was referred to as an “intermediate morph” presumably meaning that it was overall a dark morph but with the white crown of the light morph. Just a tad bizarre!

Spring Day Atlasing

While atlasing along the river towards Letaba, I stopped at one of the turn-offs leading to a viewpoint, when I noticed a Little Bee-eater hawking from a branch then, as they often do, returning to the same spot to look for the next opportunity. As it returned for a third time I focused on it and at the same time noticed it had caught something, so I rattled off a series of shots as it prepared to swallow its prey, hoping for a special photo, although I knew I was not close enough and would have to crop the photos quite substantially to get frame-fillers.

Well I was initially thrilled at the sequence I had caught digitally, but disappointed that my camera had seemingly let me down by not focusing sharply – a rare occurrence with my Nikon. The photos below are the best of the bunch and reasonably focused, but could have been winners, if only I had been closer …..

Little Bee-eater – insect hawked and securely held
Softening it up
Getting it into position
Down she goes
Ooh, that was rather good what?  ( clearly a cultured bird)

Nevertheless an exciting moment.

Some other birds

Here is a selection of some of the other photos from the week’s birding –

Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Olifants, Kruger Park
Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Balule, Kruger Park
Mocking Cliff-Chat, Olifants, Kruger Park
Yellow-breasted Apalis, Sjukuza, Kruger Park

 

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)

Annasrust Farm – A River Outing

One of the highlights of our visits to Annasrust Farm, near Hoopstad in the Free State, is the river cruise that Pieter likes to lay on for us.  During our April 2018 weekend visit to their beautiful farm, Pieter and Marietjie once again arranged to take us out on a late afternoon cruise and we duly set off around 4.30 pm from the riverside landing spot and headed out onto the smooth waters of the Vaal River on their purpose-built raft – basically a large platform on pontoons with a roof over, driven by a large outboard motor.

The Vaal River forms part of the Bloemhof dam at this point – Wikipedia has the following to say on the dam : The dam was commissioned in 1970, has a capacity of 1,269,000,000 cubic metres and has an area of 223 square kilometres, the wall is 33 metres high. It is fed with the outflow from the Vaal Dam (located upstream in Gauteng) as well as rain collected in the Vaal, Vet, Vals and Sand River catchment areas.

Gerda and I sat right in front with glorious views of the river, the slowly setting sun and the varied bird life already into their end of day activities – flying about restlessly, perhaps watching the other birds to see where they’re heading, possibly even wondering what this bunch of humans on the raft are up to… that sort of thing.

Sundowner cruise – enjoying the view
Doing it in style

Some of this activity was along the shoreline – Cormorants aplenty, groups of Spur-winged Geese and solitary Goliath Herons standing sentry at regular intervals as we cruised smoothly along. The setting sun made for picture-perfect scenes as the rays created multi-coloured patterns from behind the clouds lining the horizon.

Sundown approaching as we glide out onto the mighty river

Several birds passed the boat in graceful flight

Great Egret
White-breasted Cormorant skimming the water
White-winged Tern (Transitional plumage)

Passing a mid-river island, we saw signs of large colonies of various roosting and breeding bird species along its length. Approaching the colonies, the numbers of birds present were amazing – Darters, Cormorants, Spoonbills, Grey Herons, Yellow-billed Storks and, almost more than all the rest, Great Egrets.

Approaching a part of the massive mixed roost
Mixed roost
Mixed roost

I have seen individual colonies of most of these species at one time or another in the past, but never this variety in one place. The trees that made up the roosts were stained white from the bird’s presence and every available perch seemed to be occupied while numbers wheeled overhead, then dove down and pushed and shoved their way in with flailing wings and legs. Quite a sight to behold!

These photos give an idea of the extent of the colonies – just imagine the racket generated by all these birds to get an inkling of the full experience.

White-breasted Cormorants

At roost
White-breasted Cormorant With young at nest
Youngster at nest
White-breasted Cormorant

African Spoonbills

African Spoonbill
African Spoonbill (Juvenile)

African Darters

African Darter (with young)

Great Egrets

Mixed roost
Great Egrets
Great Egret

By now the sun was heading inexorably to its meeting with the horizon and Pieter took us back along the river to the spot where we had departed from (ooh, there I’ve done it again – the worst of english grammar crimes, ending a sentence with a preposition – but then, I love living on the edge)

Sundowner cruise

Close to the berth I spotted a Common Sandpiper at the water’s edge………

Common Sandpiper

Just to round off a magnificent outing, Pieter took a detour on the way back to the farm-house to show us the deep orange sunset against a backdrop of some picturesque trees. Only in Africa ……

Sunset, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Now, if only I can get a job as game ranger on the farm……….

 

Annasrust Farm – A Walk or Two

The north-eastern part of Free State Province is known as one of the major maize, sunflower and wheat farming areas with its deep sandy soils and seemingly endless vistas across the flat landscape.

By kind invitation of Pieter and Marietjie, part of Gerda’s extended family, we spent a glorious weekend on their farm Annasrust near Hoopstad in April this year, together with our son Stephan and family – pretty much the perfect venue for a relaxing yet stimulating stay, raised to an even higher level by the company, it has to be said.

Annasrust farm is not your average Free State farm, lying as it does on the southern shores of the Vaal River (which forms part of the Bloemhof dam at that point) and stocked with a variety of game which enjoy the largely undisturbed plains, making it more of a mini Game Reserve than a farm.

Morning walk, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

With its varied habitats, the farm presents plenty of exciting birding opportunities, which started as we drove from the entrance gate to the farmstead through grasslands interspersed with patches of woodland. Once we had greeted our hosts Pieter and Marietjie and had settled in our house – did I mention we had a house to ourselves? – I recorded the species seen on the way in –

  • several Northern Black Korhaan rising up out of the long grass and flying off in a wide circle, croaking their objection to being disturbed
Northern Black Korhaan
  • Ant-eating Chat perched on a termite mound
  • Sociable Weavers at their enormous communal nest (more fully described in my earlier post Sociable Weaver)
Sociable Weaver, Annasrust farm
  • the usual doves and Helmeted Guineafowl and a Spotted Thick-knee which seemed to be awaiting our arrival in the middle of the road, only giving way at the last moment

My plan was to do some early morning birding over the two-day stay, leaving the rest of the day for family activities and any ad hoc birding opportunities that may arise. The only decision needed was whether to head out on foot, limiting the area I could cover, or to take the Prado and explore further and wider. In the end I chose the walking option, one of my favourite forms of exercise and one that trumps any other way of getting close to nature in such beautiful surroundings

Saturday morning

Early morning at the farm house
Heading out for a morning walk

Sunrise was at 6.30 am and I was on my way a few minutes later – almost immediately I heard a soft piping call – vaguely familiar and I scanned the tall blue gum trees near the house. I soon found the responsible bird – a Gabar Goshawk which was seemingly agitated by a group of cackling Green Woodhoopoes who had dared to trespass in his territory.

The more familiar call of Rufous-naped Lark – a clear, plaintive “tswee – twooo” – accompanied me as I walked along the sandy track lined with long grass both sides, wet with morning dew.

Rufous-naped Lark

A bushy tree some way ahead drew my attention – the whitish blob did not fit the pattern of the rest of the tree and through my binos it turned almost magically into none other than a Pearl-spotted Owlet – I had scarcely begun my walk and already had a highlight of the morning. I cursed the fact that I hadn’t taken my camera and turned to go and get it, just as the Owlet disappeared.

This tiny member of the Owl family has to rate as one of the cutest birds around – all fluffy and round with those penetrating yellow eyes and if you’re lucky it will perform its party trick of turning its head 180 degrees to show you the back of its head, complete with false “eyes”.

I found these photos in my archive from 2007 which show the front and back “eyes”

Pearl-spotted Owl
Pearl-spotted Owl

The walk continued with regular sightings of some less common arid bushveld species –

  • Kalahari Scrub-Robins calling, but difficult to spot amongst the foliage
  • Barred Wren-Warbler emitting its trilling call that can be heard at a distance despite its small size
  • Groundscraper Thrush perched high up in a tree and calling melodically for minutes on end
  • Pririt Batis with its descending, drawn out series of short whistles, heard initially then seen later

An isolated outbuilding which seemed not to be in use, had attracted a pair of Ashy Tits, not seen by me in a few years, while Scaly-feathered Finches occupied a nearby tree along with an excited pair of Neddickys.

Morning walk, Annasrust farm

And being a game farm there were other sightings of a few of the animals that roam the grasslands ………….

Giraffe, Annasrust farm
Springbok, Annasrust farm
Nyala, Annasrust farm

By now I had been walking for an hour and a half and could feel breakfast and coffee beckoning so turned back and headed for the farmstead, where I took off my shoes which were wet through from the dew and caked with the sand from the tracks and left them in the sun to dry out.

Breakfast was duly enjoyed with the family – a feast of fruit platters conjured up by Gerda and Liesl, followed by a baked egg and bacon dish which really hit the spot. The rest of the day was given over to long chats, a midday snooze and a stunning late afternoon river cruise (more about that in the next post)

Sunday morning

I was up early and out again for another extended walk, this time my plan was to do a circular route past the old house, down to the river and back along the riverside fence where I would look for the most direct route homewards.

Morning walk, Annasrust farm Hoopstad
Camelthorns – they make good toothpicks
Spot the butterfly!

Initially the birds I encountered were mostly the same as the previous morning, then Zitting Cisticola showed, fluttering over the long grass and Cape Penduline Tit made a welcome appearance, moving restlessly among the bushes.

Zitting Cisticola, Annasrust farm

Before reaching the river I added White-browed Sparrow-Weavers to the list and at the river the shallow flats were a moving feast of birds with Yellow-billed and Little Egrets and Cape Teals prominent amongst many others and White-winged Terns flying in elegant fashion just above the water, turning and retracing their path every 50 metres or so.

The river, Annasrust farm
Dragonfly, Annasrust farm

Walking along the fence, two grazing horses followed me on the other side – hoping for a treat perhaps? I don’t usually have an affinity for horses, so tried to ignore them but they followed me all the way to where I turned for home.

Reluctant Horse whisperer!

Two hours of walking had left me quite weary and caffeine deprived, so I took the shortest route back to the house where the family were slowly emerging and I was in good time to join them for much-needed coffee.

Later that day we reluctantly left this bit of paradise and headed back to Pretoria – the slow drive out of the farm and along the first stretch of road past Hoopstad was good for a few interesting species  to round out a memorable weekend –

  • Shaft-tailed Whydah
  • Long-tailed Paradise Whydah
  • Lesser Kestrels in numbers on the overhead wires
  • Namaqua Doves
  • A lone White Stork

I can recall reading an article many years ago on a visit to the Free State in which the writer suggested a weekend in the Free State is like a week in the country – I would tend to agree.

 

 

Atlasing Tales – Bushfellows Game Lodge, Limpopo

The Atlasing* destination

On a cold May morning in 2017 we set off from Pretoria, making our way to the R573, known as the “Moloto Road” and one with a reputation for heavy traffic during the commuting hours and many accidents, often due to the irresponsible driving habits of a minority. Koos was driving his new vehicle and being very careful, so it took us close to 2 hours to get to our destination – Bushfellows game lodge, near Marble Hall – where he had arranged with the owner Gary and manager Mandy for us to spend some time atlasing.

The day turned into a tale of interaction between avian and reptilian species with very different endings….. and we got to see a couple of animals that were unexpected.

Pentad 2500_2910 (the rectangle on the map below) :

The atlasing* started slowly with a few species recorded along the road as we made our way through the pentad to the lodge, including several Brown-hooded Kingfishers (Bruinkopvisvanger / halcyon albiventris) hunting insects from fence posts along a concrete irrigation canal.

Approaching the lodge, the birdlife increased in numbers and we headed to the office to announce ourselves and meet Mandy. Introductions done, we walked the lodge gardens in separate directions to make sure our atlasing records would not be duplicated, ending up at the small dam where we enjoyed the coffee and snacks we had brought with us.

Snake encounter No 1

A commotion from a medium-sized tree drew my attention and I soon found the source – Long-billed Crombecs (Bosveldstompstert / Sylvietta rufescens) and Cape White-eyes (Kaapse glasogie / Zosterops capensis) were clustered in the canopy and were clearly agitated. Previous experience of this phenomenon had me searching for the reason – sure enough, a Boomslang lay twisted around the branches.

Boomslang
Boomslang
Boomslang – the large eye is typical

The snake was bobbing its head back and forwards in a curious fashion as the birds got closer and braver – I later checked my reference book regarding this behavior and found that this is a ploy of the boomslang to draw birds closer and so have a better chance of nabbing one. Interestingly, I also discovered that although the boomslang is highly venomous, very few boomslang bites on humans have been recorded due to its less aggressive nature.

In this instance there was no sign of an impending small bird meal for the snake and I left them to carry on with their natural instincts.

This was followed by a viewing of the resident Lion, Wild Dogs and Rooikat in their separate enclosures, all animals rescued from a worse fate than their current captivity and undergoing rehabilitation.

Wild Dog (captive), Bushfellows Game Lodge

Mandy offered to have a ranger drive us through the game farm area which we accepted with alacrity and we spent the next hour and a half birding in style from the back of an open game-drive vehicle.

Ranger taking us for drive, Bushfellows Game Lodge

The arid bushveld was pleasingly productive as we spotted several of the species typical of this habitat – Crested Francolin (Bospatrys / Dendroperdix sephaena), Chestnut-vented Titbabbler (Bosveldtjeriktik / Sylvia subcaerulea), Kalahari Scrub-Robin (Kalahariwipstert / Erythropygia paena), Common Scimitarbill (Swartbekkakelaar / Rhinopomastus cyanomelas) and Blue Waxbill (Gewone Blousysie / Uraeginthus angolensis).

Species that are less common as a rule, but true to the habitat were Bushveld Pipit (Bosveldkoester / Anthus caffer), Southern Pied Babbler (Witkatlagter / Turdoides bicolor), White-crowned Shrike (Kremetartlaksman / Eurocephalus anguitimens ) and Cape Penduline Tit (Kaapse kapokvoël / Anthoscopus minutus).

Crested Francolin
Blue Waxbill
Bushveld Pipit
White-crowned Shrike

Snake encounter No 2

On our way out, about halfway down the long entrance road to the lodge, we spotted a Brown Snake-Eagle perched on a tall dry tree, which they typically use to scan the surrounding veld for potential prey. Always an exciting species to come across, we approached cautiously but the Snake-Eagle was having none of it and flew off into the distance, more or less in the direction we were heading.

Brown Snake-Eagle

Fortunately we encountered it again as we approached the main entrance gate to the lodge, this time flying up from an adjacent field clutching a long snake in its claws and landing on top of a utility pole. As we watched in fascination, it grabbed the limp snake’s head, popped it into his mouth and proceeded to swallow it whole, looking for all the world like a connoisseur sucking in a long strand of thick spaghetti. Within a few seconds the snake had disappeared and I’m almost sure I saw the eagle burp in satisfaction.

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 2500_2910

We added the 3rd and 4th Full Protocol cards for the pentad, turning its status to light green in the process. Our combined tally for the day was 78 species of which no less than 28 were new records for the pentad.    Total species for the pentad now 128

Some of the new/notable species added:

Glossy Ibis

Bushveld Pipit

Common Scimitarbill

Sabota Lark

Jameson’s Firefinch

Southern Pied Babbler

Bearded Woodpecker

* Atlasing : 

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a defined area  called a “pentad”. Each pentad has a unique number based on its geographical position according to a 5 minute x 5 minute grid of co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, which translates into a square of our planet roughly 8 x 8 kms in extent.

As a registered observer / Citizen scientist under the SABAP2 program (SA Bird Atlas Project 2), all of the birding I do nowadays includes recording the species for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town.

Atlasing has brought a new dimension and meaning to my birding as it has to many other birders. The introduction a couple of years ago of the “Birdlasser” App has greatly simplified the recording and submission of the data collected.

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while atlasing.

95 Years old – I’ll be dammed!

My birding travels have taken me to many places over the years, places that no ordinary person (read non-birder) would consider visiting.

Yesterday’s outing was not meant to be a birding outing but turned into a very interesting day, full of surprises……

We are spending this week at our timeshare apartment in La Lucia near Durban and Gerda was keen to visit a wool shop she has ordered wool from via internet from time to time. Cleverly, she threw in an enticement for me to take her to Kloof, where the shop is located, by suggesting we could visit a birding spot after the wool shop stop, knowing I could hardly resist such an offer.

I already had a place in mind – Shongweni Nature Reserve – which I have been curious about since first reading the Roberts write-up on this birding spot many years ago. Described as “one of the better birding spots in Durban” and located about 30 km from Durban off the N3, it seemed to fit the bill for an exploratory visit – the further note that “the reserve is spoilt slightly by the surrounding tribal land and access route” had me equally curious.

The wool shop turned out to be at the owner’s house in the upmarket suburb of Kloof and we found it with the help of google maps. I had brought along a book to read while waiting but when I saw the surroundings, my spirits lifted – across the road from the house was a grassy, bushy conservancy area, cared for by the neighbourhood and looking very promising.

The conservancy area in Kloof
Lush gardens with conservancy area across the road

The variety of bird life I discovered there and in the surrounding gardens with their well-developed trees and tropical gardens was nothing short of amazing. In just 45 minutes I had recorded 24 species of a variety I could hardly have guessed at, including several that would please all but the most blasé birders –

  • Purple-crested Turaco calling regularly
  • Bronze Mannikins – literally by the dozen on the lawns, flying up into low bushes when disturbed
  • Yellow-fronted Canaries in full song
  • A Black-headed Oriole pair with their familiar liquid calls
  • Dark-capped Yellow Warbler amongst the long grasses
  • Trumpeter Hornbill high up in the trees (not many suburbs can boast this bird)
  • White-eared Barbets
  • Collared Sunbird in a palm tree
  • Spectacled Weavers
  • Southern Black Flycatchers hawking insects

As I said, an amazing list for suburbia! The bubbling bird life left me, well, bubbling (not my normal state by any means)

Oh and did I mention the Verraux’s Eagle that soared gracefully overhead?

Gerda appeared almost too soon and feeling coffee deprived we set off and stopped at the first coffee shop we came across, then reset the gps to take us to Shongweni – the route took us further north until we turned off at Assagay and shortly after onto a side road through hills covered with green sugar cane fields.  This attractive landscape stopped abruptly as we passed through a rural village along with the customary roaming goats, dogs, chickens and cattle, not to mention the residents treating the road as an extension of their living area, wandering about with no regard for passing vehicles.

I had slowed to a crawl for the couple of kms through the village, until at the end of the village the reserve’s  gate suddenly appeared. The surprised look on the gate man’s face as we approached seemed to suggest they did not get many visitors and the casual attitude towards the small entrance fee made me insist on a receipt.

From the gate we wound downhill on a badly potholed road with not much sign of the bird life described in the write-up. As it turned out the birding became secondary as we got closer to the dam wall and discovered it dated back to 1923 – in fact by coincidence it was inaugurated on 21 June 1923, exactly 95 years ago today.

Plaque commemorating the inauguration on 21 June 1923
The wall with turreted structure
An old entrance at the bottom of the wal

With birding all but forgotten, I spent time taking a few photos of the unique dam structures and surrounds. The pictures speak for themselves – suffice to say we were both fascinated by the old-fashioned look of the dam wall, with stone turrets rounding it all off in grand style.

The main wall, overflowing gently
The sluice valves have not been used in a long time
The buttressed end of the wall
The water quality leaves a lot to be desired

The area below the wall felt like something out of Jurassic Park with abandoned buildings and heavy undergrowth.

Below the wall
Craggy cliffs opposite the wall
Abandoned ” Chemical Mixing” house
Inside the Chemical Mixing house

By the way, all photos were taken on my pocket Apple camera (which I sometimes find useful for phoning and other tasks)

On our way out the gate man advised us that he would not be working there for long – hadn’t we heard the dam was the subject of a land claim and would soon be handed back to “the community”? – we explained we were from Pretoria and had not heard this, but were not necessarily encouraged by this news.

 

Feathered Feast on father’s day (Part 2)

 

Father’s Day Treat

Continuing the story of my Father’s day birding treat while on holiday in La Lucia near Durban a couple of years ago ……..

Umlalazi Nature Reserve

With two hours of superb forest birding at Ongoye Forest Reserve behind us and Green Barbet duly seen and photographed, the next stop on bird guide Sakhamuzi’s itinerary was the Umlalazi Nature Reserve adjacent to the town of Mtunzimi.

We drove straight to the riverside along a winding sandy road and parked at the picnic spot where we enjoyed the all-important first cup of coffee accompanied by rusks while keeping an eye out for interesting bird life in the vicinity.

Umlalazi

Top spot went to a Mangrove Kingfisher perched on a low branch overhanging the water – a bird I had tried for a few times in various locations near Durban without success, then saw my first one the year before in the forests of Mozambique.

Mangrove Kingfisher, Mtunzini
Mangrove Kingfisher, Umlalazi NR

Curiously, the Mangrove Kingfisher occupies two quite different habitats – during the non-breeding season, from March to September, they inhabit mangroves while October to March sees them moving to forests to breed, estuarine forests in the Eastern Cape in the case of the Kwazulu-Natal population and lowland forests in the case of the Mozambique population, often far from water.

This is one of the Mangrove Kingfishers we came across in the forests of Mozambique

Their diet is equally curious, ranging from crabs – seawater crab in winter and freshwater crab in breeding season – to fish and even insects and lizards when crabs are not available. They are not averse to snatching the odd fish from ornamental ponds, a habit they share with other Kingfishers, much to the frustration of pond owners. Mind you, installing an ornamental pond and expecting a Kingfisher not to feed off your ornamental fish is like putting a fillet steak on the lawn and hoping your dog won’t eat it.

Noisy Black-bellied Starlings drew our attention to the tree which held several of them, as well as Yellow Weavers.

Black-bellied Starling, Umlalazi NR

Little Swifts and Palm Swifts swirled overhead, while a “big and small” act of Kingfishers played out on the lagoon as a Giant Kingfisher (364 g) made a large splash in pursuit of its prey while its diminutive cousin Malachite Kingfisher (just 17 g – ie one twentieth of the weight of the Giant) hardly created a ripple as he dove in at the water’s edge. All part of the magic and variety of birding.

After a half hour or so of absorbing the beauty and avian treasures of the surroundings, we headed slowly back to the entrance, stopping for a couple of special species along the way – Rufous-winged Cisticola in a patch of grassland and a handsome, posing Yellow-throated Longclaw on top of a nearby bush.

Yellow-throated Longclaw, Mtunzini
Yellow-throated Longclaw, Umlalazi NR

Amatigulu Nature Reserve

Last but by no means least on Sakhamuzi’s itinerary of nature reserves was another small reserve – Amatigulu, not far from where I had picked him up earlier and a stone’s throw from his house just outside the reserve. Once through the gate and the formalities of signing in etc, which Sakhamuzi took care of, we drove through grassland and coastal forest on an ever-deteriorating track down to the lagoon and found a parking spot at the picnic site.

I had mentioned to Sakhamuzi the fact that Green Twinspot was on my wish list for the day and he made a special effort to find this species which has somehow eluded me to date. He took us along a slightly overgrown path through the dense forest in search of it, but other than a brief glimpse of what he said was a Green Twinspot flying across the track and disappearing into dense bush, it remained elusive. Oh well, something to look for another day.

Amitigulu Nature Reserve – forest

A Scaly-throated Honeyguide made up partly for the dip on the Twinspot and was good enough to pose for some record photos – a lot better than previous ones I had managed to take.

Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Amitigulu Nature Reserve

White-eared Barbets were plentiful, as they were at the other reserves, and a Black-throated Wattle-Eye made a brief but welcome showing. Others we came across were Olive Sunbird, Spectacled Weaver, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird and Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher – all desirable species for any keen birder.

By this time we were heading into the afternoon and it was time to say goodbye to Sakhamuzi who had shown me a lot during the course of the morning.

Sappi Mill at Stanger/Kwadukuza

Back on the N3 highway, I pointed the Prado southwards but seeing I had some time in hand, decided to have a “look-in” at Sappi Mill wetlands, adjacent to the paper mill near Stanger/Kwadukuza, a spot I last visited perhaps 10 years ago. It was a worthwhile stop with a neat hide and good views for 180 degrees and more over the wetlands.

Sappi Mill Stanger / Kwadukuza

Immediately in front of the hide is a small island with trees which serves as a roost for many Cormorants, accompanied by a variety of waterfowl.

Sappi Mill Stanger / Kwadukuza

All 3 common Teals were present – Cape, Hottentot and Red-billed Teals – as well as a few African Swamphens, a flock of White-faced Ducks, Wooly-necked Storks (which are particularly common in Kwazulu-Natal), African Spoonbills and a calling African Rail.

Cape and Hottentot Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza

A Yellow Wagtail had been reported from this site in the last week and I looked out specially for this scarce bird, but to no avail.

The rest of the drive back to La Lucia was uneventful but full of good thoughts about my memorable day.

 

Feathered Feast on father’s day (Part 1)

While holidaying in La Lucia near Durban a couple of years ago, atlasing of the surrounding pentad kept me comfortably in touch with my birding passion – nothing spectacular, although the walks along the long stretch of beach immediately in front of the resort, where we have had a timeshare unit for many years, are always interesting with a mix of Gulls, Terns and Cormorants being the main source of birding entertainment. When the seas are high and stormy there’s even a chance of spotting an Albatross far out to sea,  but identifying them at that distance is very difficult unless you can pick up one of the features that separate the species.

La Lucia beach

Father’s Day Treat

I suspect Gerda saw the signs of me itching for some more exciting birding and with Father’s day coming up she suggested I “take a day off” and do a day trip to Ongoye Forest, knowing that there was a special bird or two to be ticked there (my subtle prompts worked like a charm). I didn’t need much encouragement and soon contacted a local guide, Sakhamuzi Mhlongo and arranged the trip for the upcoming Father’s Day.

Setting out in the dark before dawn, a couple of minor calamities delayed my departure, the first of which was a leaking hot water flask which sent me back to the apartment to get a refill of the essential hot water for my coffee later on, then I managed to miss a turn-off in the dark while trying to get to the highway and ended up in Verulam before I could find a place to turn around.

With my nerves somewhat on edge (it’s hard being a control freak) it took the beauty of a rosy dawn appearing over the lush green hills as I drove northwards and Louis Armstrong doing ” Rock my Soul” on the I-pod plugged into the sound system to bring me back to a semblance of my normal calm self and ready for the day ahead. By 7 am I reached the rendezvous, picked up Sakhamuzi and headed further up the N3  before taking the turn-off at Mtunzimi and heading west towards Ongoye.

Ongoye Forest Reserve

Soon we were at the entrance which, unlike the often impressive ones of many of the larger reserves, was just an open gate in the fence.

Ongoye Forest

By now the road was a track which wound through grassland covered hills towards the forest area, where we parked and ventured on foot into the forest itself.

Sakhamuzi leading the way into Ongoye Forest

I soon realised that Sakhamuzi has a real talent for bird call imitations, as he repeatedly did a near perfect Green Barbet call – no app necessary when you have him at your side! At least one bird responded, but it was still well concealed as we craned our necks and scanned the canopy to find it. However it didn’t take long to trace the call and locate a pair of Green Barbets feeding high up in the canopy, showing themselves briefly now and again.

The Green Barbet has the unenviable distinction of having probably the smallest distribution of any bird in Southern Africa, found only in the 3200 ha Ongoye forest, so any keen birder wanting to see it has only one choice of where to go, unless you happen to be in Tanzania.

It also means that this species is extremely vulnerable, being dependant on this relatively small patch of forest for its continuing existence in Southern Africa – a habitat the size of a typical mid-size farm. It is classified as Endangered in the 2015 Eskom Red Data Book of Birds published by Birdlife SA.

Ongoye Forest

Once I was happy with my sighting (which happened to be my 750th species in Southern Africa) I tried to get a photo, which is always a challenge in the forest against a strong back light, made doubly so by the Barbet’s habit of remaining high in the canopy and not sitting still for longer than a second or two. I eventually had a few photos in the bag which I hoped to be able to edit into something vaguely recognisable and we decided to move on after two hours in this unique birding locality.

Green Barbet, Ongoye Forest Reserve

Of course there is much more to Ongoye than this species as the forest and surrounding grasslands and bush are rich in several other desirable species, amongst them the distinctive Brown Scrub Robin, White-eared Barbet, Trumpeter Hornbill, Grey Cuckooshrike, Yellow-throated Longclaw and others. Striped Pipit on the way out was a surprise bonus.

Trumpeter Hornbill, Ongoye Forest Reserve

Forest birding is quite different from any other habitat – it’s more about audibility of the birds than their visibility. The canopy dwellers are often particularly vocal and the forest rings with multiple calls from the raucous wail of Trumpeter Hornbill to the gentle chop ….. chop of the Green Barbet and the quicker popping of the Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird.

They are joined intermittently by Square-tailed Drongo (strident tweets), Purple-crested Turaco (loud kor-kor-kor), Olive Sunbird (liquid tip-tip-tip), Black-bellied Starling (harsh jumble), Collared Sunbird and others. Seeing them clearly is tricky as mentioned above.

Square-tailed Drongo, Ongoye Forest Reserve

Next stop was Mtunzimi …….. but more about that and the rest of the trip in Part two

Atlasing Tales – Mkhombo : 500 Not out

Formal bird atlasing * (see end of post) has become my priority when planning a birding outing and I was looking forward to completing my 500 th “Full Protocol” atlasing card, having completed 499 by the end of March this year.

With Monday 2 April this year being a public holiday, it seemed the ideal time to reach  this milestone and I targeted two pentads to the west of Mkhombo dam, a little more than an hour’s drive north of Pretoria, which I suspected would provide good birding in attractive surroundings and should be lush and green after the recent good rains in the area north of Pretoria.

I was up at 4.20 am (after hitting the snooze button twice without even realizing it), collected good friend and equally keen atlaser Koos Pauw and headed north on the N1 highway, already busy on the homeward side with returning holiday and Moria pilgrimage traffic. The Rust der Winter turnoff soon loomed and before long we were on quiet country roads as the light grew stronger – a detour took us in the wrong direction initially but we were soon into the first pentad for the day.

Pentad 2505_2840

The dusty rural village we had entered was not very inspiring as a place to start our atlasing but just outside the village the habitat changed to patches of arid bushveld which, once we had stopped to investigate, proved irresistible for atlasing. All it took was to hang around at a selected spot long enough to allow the species to show – and show they did – all the species that favour the drier bushveld habitat : Yellow-billed Hornbills flying in their ponderous fashion from tree to tree, Crimson-breasted Shrikes with their redder than red breast colouring contrasting with jet black uppers. This area rates as excellent for Shrikes judging by the variety we encountered, with White-crowned Shrikes, Red-backed Shrikes, Lesser Grey Shrikes and even Magpie Shrikes all easily seen during the morning.

White-crowned Shrike
Red-backed Shrike

In between sightings we were able to identify several birds on their calls, familiar ones such as Acacia Pied Barbet, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Rattling Cisticola and the ubiquitous Go-Away Bird uttering its nasal “go away” call at every opportunity. With the obvious birds recorded on our list we started picking up the smaller, “passer-by” species – Amethyst Sunbird, Chinspot Batis, White-bellied Sunbird, Black-faced Waxbill and Green-winged Pytilia (Melba).

Chinspot Batis
Black-faced Waxbill – amongst the thorns
Green-winged Pytilia

The species we came across most frequently were Marico Flycatcher and Scaly-feathered Finch (love its Afrikaans name Baardmannetjie – literally small bearded man, alternatively Koos calls it Fu-man-chu). In the villages Pearl-breasted Swallows dominate amongst the swallows for reasons unknown – perhaps they just like being around humans like many other bird species.

Marico Flycatcher

The village we drove through looking for the species that seem to favour this habitat, was suffering from some “land-grabbing”, but not the sort that dominates our  news from time to time – here the only tar road bisecting the village was slowly being “grabbed” by the surrounding sandy earth and undergrowth, so much so that there was barely a single lane width of the two-lane tar road still visible – so much for maintenance.

With our two hours of atlasing done (the minimum for a “Full Protocol” card), we headed to the main target for the morning, being Mkhombo Nature Reserve which lies to the west of the main dam.

Pentad 2505_2845

Entering the reserve’s gate, which lies a distance off the main road and is not signposted, we were met by the hoped-for pristine bushveld and sandy tracks with some thorny bushes encroaching in places – a tad worrying when the first screeches of thorn against duco rattled the control-freak side of my nature, but after some initial teeth-clenching I decided to ignore it – after all, why have a bush-capable SUV if you don’t want to go into the bush with it.

Mkhombo Nature reserve
Mkhombo Nature Reserve

We had the place to ourselves and enjoyed Koos’s hard-boiled eggs (well actually a chicken produced them, he just boiled them) and coffee in the tranquil surroundings while continuing with atlasing, then proceeded slowly along the sandy roads, branching off here and there for a view of the dam, which was pretty much non-existent other than a small pond or two. No other water was visible, just a vast expanse of green vlei grass covering the muddy plain as far as the eye could see, confirming how little rain the area had experienced over the last couple of years since we were last there.

We were rewarded with Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters in a nearby tree, while Great and Yellow-billed Egret as well as Grey Heron were ID-able once I had the scope up  and focused on the distant scattered birds. All three local Lapwings – Crowned, Blacksmith and Wattled – were visible, in separate groups but mingling where they overlapped,  then I spotted a mixed flock of large birds in flight, morphing into Spurwinged Geese and Knob-billed Ducks as they landed in a hidden patch of water, with just their top halves showing.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

We had completed two hours and made our way back to the gate then homewards, which took a lot longer than planned as we encountered heavy holiday traffic all the way back.

I basked in the pleasure of a milestone reached – here’s to the next 500!

* Atlasing : 

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a defined area  called a “pentad”. Each pentad has a unique number based on its geographical position according to a 5 minute x 5 minute grid of co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, which translates into a square of our planet roughly 8 x 8 kms in extent.

As a registered observer / Citizen scientist under the SABAP2 program (SA Bird Atlas Project 2), all of the birding I do nowadays includes recording the species for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town.

Atlasing has brought a new dimension and meaning to my birding as it has to many other birders. The introduction a couple of years ago of the “Birdlasser” App has greatly simplified the recording and submission of the data collected.

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while atlasing.