Tag Archives: Birding South Africa

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

 

 

 

Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and surrounds, January 2019

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while *atlasing. (see end of post for more info on atlasing)

The Atlasing Destination

With an open palette of pentads not yet atlassed in 2019  I chose two pentad blocks around Herbertsdale in the southern Cape with the least Full Protocol cards to date – one covering Gondwana Game Reserve and the other including the village of Herbertsdale and the surrounding countryside.

The location of the pentads – the red shaded block on the map below and the block to its left :

Getting there

My route was planned to be a circular one, heading out and back on the R327 to this by now familiar area that I have atlassed frequently over the last several years.

I had put my faith in the usually dependable YR weather App which forecast that the overnight rain would clear up by early morning. Heading out at 5.30 am from Mossel Bay, I had a few doubts as the gloomy, rainy weather persisted until after 7 am, an hour into atlasing the first pentad, but then cleared up into a beautiful sunny day.

Pentad 3400_2150

Soon after entering the pentad block, I stopped at the Gondwana Game Reserve gatehouse to check if there were any restrictions on driving through the reserve on what is still a public road. The reply was “Yes you can drive through, but  you are not allowed to stop”. Now I am a birder and we like to stop frequently and unexpectedly, so I nodded vaguely and proceeded on my way through the reserve, not expecting to come across any other traffic at this early hour and on this rather remote road.

I saw a few animals but as it turned out, with rain still falling steadily, I did not have much reason to stop for birds, until I came across a small roadside dam with a Grey Heron standing like a statue in hunting mode, watching the water very intently. I could not resist stopping, whereupon two things happened almost simultaneously – a Black-crowned Night-Heron flew gracefully in and settled in the shallow water near the Grey Heron – and a Gondwana ranger in a bakkie (utility vehicle) appeared over the rise behind me slightly less gracefully and stopped next to my vehicle – with a smile on his face,it must be said.  He reminded me of the ‘no stopping’ request and suggested I move on, which I did after asking permission to take a quick photo of the Night-Heron and receiving same.

It’s quite understandable that reserves such as Gondwana are nervous or even slightly paranoid about potential poaching, having passed a grazing Rhino with full horn just a little earlier, however I’m sure the profile of the average poacher does not include meek, pensioner-age birders in SUV’s armed only with long-lens cameras. In any case, next time I will contact Gondwana beforehand for permission to bird.

Exiting the reserve a short while later through the northern gate, a subtle change in habitat – more bush and trees for a starter – resulted in a change in bird life in terms of numbers and almost immediately Malachite and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds were added to my list.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird

Further along the road I stopped to look around, only to be enticed to walk up an inviting track leading through a field filled with fynbos and protea species.

Gondwana area

The ericas were abundant and made extra attractive by drops of moisture clinging to leaves and flowers

Even the spider’s webs had gathered lots of rain drops

Southern Tchagra and Orange-breasted Sunbirds delighted me with their presence while a “Murder of Crows” – White-necked Ravens by name but also part of the Corvus genus along with all the other Crows – flew over and settled in an adjoining open field.

Orange-breasted Sunbird

Soon after, I reached the eastern boundary of the pentad and turned around with 29 species recorded so far, then took a branch road which headed into the more hilly northern section with another subtle change in habitat – still quite bushy along the road verge but more open fields and grassland behind. Suddenly I could hear Cape Clapper Lark displaying and saw the perpetrator soon after, furiously clapping its wings as it ascended, producing a loud, fast clapping sound followed by a drawn out sharp whistle on descent.

Competing with the Clappers and soon winning the “most prominent call” competition were Victorin’s Warblers, seemingly every 50 m or so for a few hundred metres – definitely a hot spot for this loud but elusive bird that just refused to show when I stopped to search for it, allowing nothing more than a brief glimpse through dense foliage.

Victorin’s Warbler, Herbertsdale area

More cooperative was the Bokmakierie I came across shortly after

Bokmakierie

Pentad 3400_2145

Although this pentad lies directly west of the first one, the lack of direct roads meant a longish drive  via the R327 to get to the northern boundary just outside the tiny but charming Herbertsdale village. The birding was immediately lively and the views from the hill leading into the village spanned the fertile valley below, albeit suffering under the drought that has so much of the country in its grip.

Herbertsdale area

Herbertsdale area

Driving slowly through the village a group of swifts and swallows were circling busily overhead, no doubt feasting in mid-air on the thousands of flying insects.

Barn Swallow

A couple of Alpine Swifts flew by,  big-bodied and lightning fast compared to the White-rumped and African Black Swifts that made up the majority of the flock,  so distinctive with their white underparts.

It’s a challenge getting a photo of the Alpine Swift, so this is the best I could manage on the day

Alpine Swift

Beyond Herbertsdale the road heads back towards Mossel Bay, past roadside farm dams which held a selection of water birds, including Black Crake, Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal while the call of Lesser Swamp-Warbler emanated from the fringing reeds. An irrigated field was literally swarming with low flying Barn Swallows  crisscrossing in the air while tens of Red Bishops searched the ground below them.

Patrolling the field at a height was a fierce-looking Peregrine Falcon – I imagined some doem-doem-doem music building up in the background to heighten the drama of the situation, but the Falcon was not in a hurry to hunt and I carried on after watching it for a while.

Peregrine Falcon

In contrast, this little guy – less than 10 cm long – was crossing the road so I helped him/her on its way, as you never know when a car might come by and people often do not see them in the road, causing unnecessary fatalities

Tortoise

Further stops produced Tambourine Dove calling and a group of Common Waxbills, then I came across a tree at the side of the road full of bright red flowers which was clearly irresistible for the sugar freaks of the bird world, drawing numbers of Malachite, Greater Double-collared and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds. That also signaled the end of the morning’s atlasing

The Statistics

Pentad  3400_2150 : A total of 30 Full Protocol (Minimum 2 hours) cards have been done to date with a low/high card count of 25/77 and a total of 154 species recorded to date; This was my first card for the pentad and my 42 species represented coverage of 27% of the total species. The only notable species was White-rumped Swift (7% reporting rate)

Pentad 3400_2145 : A total of 21 Full Protocol cards have been done to date with a low/high card count of 26/65 and a total of 144 species recorded to date; This was my fourth card for the pentad and my 51 species represented coverage of 35% of the total species. My total for the 4 cards increased to 90 species. New species recorded for the pentad were Black Crake, Peregrine Falcon and Lesser Swamp-Warbler

The Birdlasser pentad maps below show the route and sightings –

Gondwana area

Herbertsdale area

* 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.

 

My Birding Year 2018

 


My 2018 Birding Year

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

January 2018

Mossel Bay is our home over the holiday season up to the third week in January, so I try to use this time to fit in as much atlasing as I can in the beautiful surrounding countryside.

Atlasing trips and the highlight species included :

  • the area beyond Herbertsdale – Black Storks at the Gouritz River
  • the town of George with a visit to the waste water treatment works as well as the forested area at the top of the town – Black Cuckooshrike, Black Sparrowhawk and Knysna Turaco
  • Wilderness and the Woodville Big Tree (covered in a separate post) – Lemon Dove, Chorister Robin
  • Friemersheim area north of Klein Brak – Olive Bushshrike, Swee Waxbill, Narina Trogon, Black-winged Lapwing

Friemersheim area

African Hoopoe, Friemersheim area

Black-winged Lapwing, Friemersheim area

A blustery day blew some seabirds inshore – a visit to the Point at Mossel Bay produced White-chinned Petrels, Gannets and Gulls galore, Terns and, amazingly, a Sooty Shearwater

 

February

Back in Pretoria I could catch up on some highveld atlasing with a visit to Mabusa nature reserve along with Koos Pauw – an outstanding day with both Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers seen and Great Reed Warbler heard.

Pallid Harrier (Juvenile), near Mabusa NR

I literally went into the bundu on occasion

Mabusa NR and area

Mid-month we used up some expiring RCI points to spend a weekend at Champagne Valley resort in the southern Drakensberg. Great birding in a magnificently scenic environment – highlights were Cape Vulture, House Martin, Bearded Vulture, Grey Crowned Crane and Long-crested Eagle

Black-backed Puffback (Juvenile), Champagne Valley Drakensberg

Amethyst Sunbird, Champagne Valley Drakensberg

Arrow-marked Babbler, Champagne Valley Drakensberg

March

Back to the Drakensberg, this time with brother Andrew visiting from the UK – some birding, more touring from our base at Drakensberg Sun resort

Work pressures meant no time for atlasing although I used the public holiday to do a couple of pentads around Delmas, where an Amur Falcon entertained me with its handling of a locust catch (covered in a separate post)

Amur Falcon feeding on grasshopper, Delmas south

April

For my 500th pentad I decided to atlas the area around Mkhombo Dam which proved to be a good choice (also covered in a separate post)

Marico Flycatcher, Mkhombo dam area

Black-faced Waxbill, Mkhombo dam area

The following weekend we visited family on Annasrust farm in the Free State near Hoopstad – one of the highlights of our year and a superb birding spot in its own right.

Massed Egrets, Spoonbills and Cormorants made for a spectacular sight on the river

Mixed roost, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Common Sandpiper, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Late in April, with some RCI points not fully used and about to expire, we booked a week at Pine Lake Resort near White River, which also included a memorable day visit to Kruger Park

Pine Lake Resort

African Fish Eagle, Kruger Day Visit

Booted Eagle, Kruger Day Visit

White-browed Robin-Chat, Kruger Day Visit

May

My only atlasing trip in May was to Mabusa Nature Reserve and the surrounding area – many highlights including Flappet Lark, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah and Barred Wren-Warbler

June

Early June saw us in Mossel Bay for a brief visit – just one atlasing trip was squeezed in, covering the area north of Great Brak River

This Black-headed Heron posed on my neighbour’s roof

Black-headed Heron, Mossel Bay Golf Estate

We were hardly back in Pretoria when we set off for our annual visit to La Lucia near Durban where we have a timeshare apartment, with an overnight stay at the beautiful Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van ReenenMy early morning walk was a misty affair

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van Reenen

La Lucia was as restful as ever but the World Cup soccer proved to be a distraction, nevertheless I managed to fit in a mix of beach birding walks, a trip to my favourite urban forest – Pigeon Valley – and a visit to Shongweni Nature Reserve

We took up Gerda’s Vryheid family’s invitation to stop over on their farm near the town on our way back – a worthwhile detour if there ever was one! A pair of Crowned Cranes made the visit really special, although Anlia’s breakfast krummelpap (a coarse farm porridge) was a serious competitor for “best reason to visit”.

Crowned Crane, Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Southern Bald Ibis, Onverwacht farm Vryheid

July

Mid-month I was in Cape Town for a day and found myself free for the afternoon – so where does a keen birder go on a rainy day in this famous City? Naturally to the Strandfontein Sewage Works – birding was superb with a few hundred Flamingoes amongst many other water birds

August

Mid-winter atlasing trips around Gauteng kept me sharp during August, despite cold (- 3 deg C at one stage), windy conditions that kept me mostly in my car. Spike-heeled Larks were a feature of both trips, while African Harrier-Hawk was an exciting find.

Southern Fiscals are common just about everywhere but this subcoronatus sub-species is quite a special find

Common Fiscal (subcoronatus), Nigel area

Pin-tailed Whydah (female), Nigel area

September

A last-minute decision to spend a week in Kruger Park turned into a memorable, relaxing trip with plenty of wild life experiences (covered in several posts)

Crested Francolin, Sable Dam, Kruger Park

Wahlberg’s Eagle (Juvenile White crowned), Olifants River, Kruger Park

Sabota Lark, Kruger Park

An atlasing trip to the Delmas area later in the month produced a Blue Korhaan, scarce in these parts, as well as a couple of other terrestial species in the form of Orange River Francolin and Northern Black Korhaan

October

Time for our timeshare week at our favourite get away – Verlorenkloof, which produced fine birding once again and some interesting atlasing opportunities in the area.

African Stonechat (Male, Saxicola torquatus), Verlorenkloof

The most exciting sighting at Verlorenkloof was of an immature Crowned Eagle, which apparently was born and raised on the property, the nest still visible on top of a tall tree

African Crowned Eagle (Immature, Stephanoaetus coronatus), Verlorenkloof

Down at the river the Village Weavers were nest-building in loud and vigorous fashion

Village Weaver (Male, Ploceus cucullatus – spilonotus), Verlorenkloof

The tiny Swee Waxbill visited the undergrowth near our Croft

Swee Waxbill (Female, Estrilda melanotis), Verlorenkloof

The sought after Broad-tailed Warbler is a regular at Verlorenkloof during the summer months but does its best to frustrate any attempts to get a close photograph

Broad-tailed Warbler (Schoenicola brevirostris), Verlorenkloof

Back to the Cape in the last week of October for a short visit to Mossel Bay, followed by a quick visit to family in the western Cape town of Worcester, where I spent a morning enjoying the surprisingly good birding that was on offer in the adjoining hills.

Quarry road, Worcester

November

Further atlasing in the Mossel Bay area included trips to Herbertsdale and Gouritz River, before returning to Pretoria where we prepared for our return to Mossel Bay for a longer stay over December and January, as has become our custom over the last few years.

The road trip to the southern Cape included an overnight stop at Kuilfontein near Colesberg and a two night stay at Karoo National Park, both places providing some diverse atlasing opportunities

Karoo National Park

Short-toed Rock-Thrush, Karoo National Park

The following week saw me returning by air to Gauteng and onward to Kasane in northern Botswana for a final inspection visit to the airport project that I was involved in. I booked a boat-based and vehicle-based game drive during my stay, in order to make the most of this last visit to Chobe game reserve, both of which provided some amazing sightings and photographic highlights.

Cattle Egret, Chobe River Trip

Pied Kingfisher, Chobe River Trip

Chobe Riverfront Game Drive

Spur-winged Goose, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Hamerkop, Chobe Riverfront game drive

December

Back in Mossel Bay, it was time to get into relaxed mode and I looked forward to some atlasing of the area, including Mossel Bay itself.

Water Thick-knee, Mossel Bay GE

A Terek Sandpiper at Great Brak was a lifer for me

Terek Sandpiper, Great Brak River mouth

Little Egret, Great Brak River mouth

The only body of fresh water in Mossel Bay is a drawcard for numbers of birds

SPCA dam, Mossel Bay

This Cape Weaver decided to use the bird-feeder in our neighbour’s garden as a base frame for its nest – probably an inexperienced juvenile practicing his skills. He never did complete the nest.

Cape Weaver nest-building on feeder, Mossel Bay

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