Tag Archives: Birding South Africa

The Call of Summer

There are numbers of migrant birds to southern Africa that herald the start of the Austral (Southern Hemisphere) summer from September each year, but two stand out as the icons of summer’s arrival and become the subject of excited messages on the various birding chat groups as they are spotted or heard for the first time in the early summer months

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica (Europese Swael)

One is the Barn Swallow, which has become the best-known of the migrant swallows, certainly because it outnumbers the others, is highly visible and occurs virtually across southern Africa.

Barn Swallow, Kendal area, Gauteng, South Africa

A staggering, estimated 20 to 40 million “Barnies” (as they are known to birders who like nicknames) migrate to Africa from western Europe and another 40 to 80 million from eastern Europe and Asia annually on their southward migration, many of which end up in southern Africa.

Barn Swallows, Roodeplaat Dam near Pretoria, South Africa

In southern Africa, during the summer months, they can be found just about anywhere outside the built up areas of cities, preferring moister, open areas such as grassland, pastures, cultivated fields and vleis and occurring in loose flocks of varying numbers.

Barn Swallow, Devon near Johannesburg , Gauteng, South Africa

Anyone who has witnessed Barn Swallows settling in their thousands into their roost at the end of the day, as we did many years ago near Umhlanga, will not forget this amazing sight.

I have been fortunate to see Barn Swallows in other parts of the world during our travels in the northern hemisphere summer, including Europe, Canada, Malaysia, Cuba and Egypt.

Barn Swallow, Annasrust farm Hoopstad, Free State, South Africa

Their status in southern Africa is ‘non-breeding Palaearctic migrant’ which means they breed ‘at home’ in the northern hemisphere, so we do not see any nesting behaviour, which is why I was particularly excited to find a nest tucked under a roof overhang during a trip to western Canada some years ago.

Barn Swallow on nest, Bow Lake, Alberta, Canada

Interestingly, these Barnies looked a little different to what we are used to seeing in SA – clearly these particular swallows would not be seen in our country as their migration path southwards would take them to South America.

Another encounter on a different continent, during a cruise on the Danube River, had me equally excited – it was April and Barn Swallows were flying above the river right next to our river cruise boat and I realised that they must have just arrived back from their return migration at the end of the Austral summer, with anything up to 10,000 kms ‘under their belt’.

Barn Swallow, Danube River at Linz, Austria

Which brings me to what inspired this post ……

Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius (Piet-my-vrou)

First some background –

My bird atlasing trip this past week took me to Ezemvelo Nature Reserve some 70 kms north-east of Pretoria, a small nature reserve comprising mainly rolling grasslands. Before arriving at the entrance gate at the entry time for day visitors, I had managed to complete 2 hours of atlasing in the pentad immediately west of Ezemvelo and was looking forward to spending time in the reserve, which I had last visited in 2013.

After completing the gate formalities, I headed to the Reception a few kms from the gate, paid for my day visit and parked at the nearby picnic spot, nicely located under large trees near a low tree covered hill and overlooking a small dam.

I literally had the whole place to myself – I’m sure it gets busier over weekends but on a weekday the only visitors are probably keen nature lovers such as myself, of that rather pleasant age when you, rather than others, decide how you are going to spend your day.

As I enjoyed coffee and rusks, I heard the familiar summer sound of a Red-chested Cuckoo – or Piet-my vrou (pronounced piet-may-frow) as most South Africans know it, a name based on the 3-syllable call which carries long distances and is often difficult to trace.

Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius (Piet-my-vrou), Ezemvelo

I would hazard a guess that, doves aside, this is one of the best known calls of all birds in South Africa, with farmers often referring to it, somewhat hopefully, as the “Rain Bird” because it’s arrival coincides with the hoped for start of the summer rains in large parts of SA.

The call I heard suddenly sounded very close and I walked to the nearby trees, camera in hand, to see if I could find it. This is a bird not easily seen as they tend to choose a branch in the depth of well-foliaged trees to perch on and call. I followed the call and was thrilled to find the Cuckoo after a short search and approached carefully, not wanting to scare it away.

Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius (Piet-my-vrou), Ezemvelo

I took a couple of photos, thrilled at getting this rare chance to photograph the species, but mildly disappointed that it refused to turn around and show its front. With a few photos under the belt I decided to try to get a video while it was calling and managed to complete a short clip before the bird flew off, leaving me very pleased with my first reasonable images of a Red-chested Cuckoo in 40 or so years of birding!

Here’s the video –

Red-chested Cuckoo (Piet-my-vrou)

Knock knock …… who’s there?

We are getting back into our Pretoria routine after 3 months in Mossel Bay, and I decided to go out atlasing in Roodeplaat Nature Reserve one morning this week. Heading into summer the weather in Pretoria is already warm with temperatures in the low 30’s and the skies are clear – some rain has fallen but the ‘big’ summer rains accompanied by the typical highveld thunderstorms have not yet arrived – hopefully they are not far off.

It was a good morning’s atlasing with 71 species logged on the Birdlasser app, including one which put on a brief display for me (well that’s what I like to think) ….

I was out of the car listening to a Lesser Honeyguide calling near the nature reserve offices, when I saw what looked like a woodpecker fly from a tree to a bare wooden utility pole. I could not make out what it was as it seemed to be purposely hiding from me so I approached carefully until I had a partial view and took a few record photos.

It then started pecking at the pole in a rhythmic fashion creating a loud drumming sound and I immediately wondered why, as there was no hope of anything edible to be found and the pole was completely unsuitable for nesting or similar purposes.

Here’s the short clip I filmed of the woodpecker, which I later identified as a Bearded Woodpecker, in action – do excuse the shakiness of the images – I had to film it at a distance on full zoom so as not to scare it away and the wind blowing didn’t help matters.

Best viewed in full screen mode ….

Bearded Woodpecker (Female) ‘drumming’ (Baardspeg / Dendropicos namaquus)

A read through of the species habits on the Roberts app on my phone provided the following insights into this behaviour – nothing to do with food or nesting it seems –

Presence often given away by loud, distinctive call, or by loud tapping (while foraging), or drumming.

Moves out of sight behind a branch in response to danger.

Both sexes drum frequently, mostly early morning; used in territorial advertisement and to establish contact with partner.

Drums in bursts of ca 1 sec at ca 12 strikes/sec, beginning fast, then slowing; usually on a high dead branch (same branch often reused); audible to 1 km.

Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa

It flew off after a while and I continued with my atlasing, pleased at having witnessed this behaviour and at having everything one wants to know about birds available on my iphone.

Spring Flowers – and Some Birding : Klein Welmoed, Stellenbosch

We don’t like to let an opportunity pass us by and, with the severe travel limitations that the Covid pandemic has brought upon all of us over the past year or so, it was an easy decision to extend our recent essential trip from Mossel Bay to the Western Cape, to include a visit to the West Coast during the ‘flower season’

Our plan was to spend four nights in the Stellenbosch area, conclude the ‘business’ part of the trip, see some of the family and spend some time with our eldest granddaughter Megan who is at University there, then continue to the West Coast town of Paternoster for some flower season touring.

After looking at various options we chose to stay at Klein Welmoed Guest House which is located on a working farm that lies off the main road between Somerset West and Stellenbosch. This turned out to be a good choice as we had a large cottage which comfortably accommodated ourselves and granddaughter Megan (she was only too happy to ‘escape’ from the university hostel for a few days) and the surrounding farm area proved to be ideal for exploratory walks when the opportunity arose.

Getting there

We had to check in by 2.30 pm so we left Mossel Bay earlier than usual and arrived at Klein Welmoed on time, after a drive that was made comfortable and relaxed by the light traffic and good weather, which allowed us to enjoy the picturesque route lined with farmlands and with a constant backdrop of mountains.

As soon as we were parked at the cottage and before unloading the luggage, I could not resist capturing some images of the beautiful view and the fields filled with arum lilies and other flowers.

The view from Klein Welmoed
Pastures filled with flowers

The Walks – Flowers, Birds …. and a few sheep

A late afternoon walk took me to the large dam along a pathway that was sodden in places – Cape Canaries were calling non-stop and Red and Yellow Bishops worked their way through the reeds, while on the dam Coots, Little Grebes and Cape Shovelers were busy making the most of the last light.

As I scanned the reeds on the other side a Purple Heron momentarily popped up and Little Rush Warbler called, ending the day on a high birding note

The dam at Klein Welmoed
Southern Red Bishop  Euplectes orix  Rooivink
Yellow Bishop  Euplectes capensis  Kaapse flap

After a filling breakfast, I set off for a lengthy walk with no set plan, just following paths that I came across. This initially took me past marshy areas with reeds, then skirted the orchards and vineyards that make up most of the farm.

View of Klein Welmoed from the pastures

There was plenty of birdlife in the reeds including a Karoo Prinia flitting in and out of the reeds, pausing to look at me for an instant, and Levaillant’s Cisticola calling and popping out briefly, but not long enough to snatch a photo – these birds require a quick draw!

Karoo Prinia  Prinia maculosa  Karoolangstertjie

A Pied Crow in flight caught my eye and as it was not too high I attempted an in flight shot which turned out OK

Pied Crow  Corvus albus  Witborskraai

I was pleasantly surprised to find rafts of white and yellow flowers next to the pathways and between the lines of trees in the orchards – this augured well for the ‘real’ flower spots we would be visiting later in the week.

Rafts of flowers in places
Blacksmith Lapwing  Vanellus armatus  Bontkiewiet

The orchards attracted a different set of birds including Cape White-eyes (pictured below), Fiscal Flycatcher and Fork-tailed Drongo

Flowers between the rows of trees in the orchards
Cape White-eye  Zosterops capensis  Kaapse glasogie

And the sheep ….. returning from my first late afternoon walk I noticed that one ewe had given birth to a lamb, which was still showing signs of the birth and I watched for a few minutes as the ewe prompted it to stand up on very wobbly legs. Just a day or so later the tiny lambs were eagerly following mommy

Dorper sheep (a South African breed developed by crossing Dorset Horn and Blackhead Persian sheep)

Addo Elephant National Park – Stoepsitting

Stoepsitter Birding – again!

A couple of my recent longer posts have highlighted what I like to call “Stoepsitter birding” – which is the relaxed kind conducted mostly from a comfortable seat, preferably accompanied by suitable snacks and beverages to make sure the energy and spirit remains at a high level. Both were in favourite locations, one in Satara Camp in Kruger National Park, the other at Verlorenkloof Resort not far from Macahadodorp in Mpumulanga Province.

Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape has the honour of completing a trio of outstanding locations and places where Stoepsitter birding comes into its own.

The criteria are simple – suitable habitat to attract a variety of birdlife, a comfortable spot from which to observe the comings and goings of the birdlife, without disturbing them too much and the time and patience to devote yourself to this activity. It also helps if the birdlife and small wildlife is habituated to humans and happy to share their world with us, which for the most part is certainly the case in Addo.

Addo Elephant National Park

Our road trip in March this year included a three night stay in Addo, in a comfortable chalet with a view over a part of the Main Camp and a raised deck where we could spend a large part of the day (depicted in the heading image), while reserving the afternoons to venture out on game/birding drives.

The variety of birdlife that came to visit was exceptional, many of them drawn by the surrounding trees and shrubs which held a cornucopia of edible avian delights – nectar filled flowers, berries, small insects and suchlike.

The Weavers

Weavers were the most prominent and numerous birds that visited, represented by no less than three different species, all belonging to the Ploceus genus. Weavers can be difficult to ID in their winter non-breeding plumage, but there are still enough clues to narrow the identification down when faced with similar looking yellow birds.

Village Weaver (Bontrugwewer / Ploceus cucullatus)

The Village Weavers outnumbered the other two weaver species and were frequent visitors to the flowering trees right in front of our chalet. My limited botanical knowledge would make this a type of Coral Tree (Erythrina genus) with its bright scarlet flowers but I’m open to correction….. which I have received (see comments below) and I now know this is in fact a Weeping boer-bean (Schotia brachypetala / Huilboerboon) so called, apparently, due to the copious amounts of nectar during flowering which overflow and ‘weep’

In breeding plumage the Village Weaver is fairly easy to distinguish from other masked Weavers, but this male was in eclipse plumage, the “in-between” stage when they are in the process of transitioning to their duller non-breeding plumage. The red eye and spotted-backed appearance confirmed the ID

Cape Weaver (Kaapse wewer / Ploceus capensis)

In non-breeding plumage the Cape Weaver male is still fairly easy to identify with its white eye colour and heavy bill, although lacking the chestnut brown wash over the face and neck which it shows during the summer breeding months. This is also the largest of the yellow weavers, by length and mass, but size is not always a dependable way to ID a bird unless the other candidate is sitting right next to it.

Cape Weaver male in partial non-breeding plumage, Addo Elephant Park

The female is less distinctive with brown eyes but the heavy bill helps to separate it from other non-breeding female weavers.

Spectacled Weaver (Brilwewer / Ploceus ocularis)

The Spectacled Weavers are easily distinguishable with their black ‘spectacles’ and black bill, while the black bib says this is a male.

The Sunbirds

Two species of Sunbird were drawn to the nectar produced by the flowering trees, very different in appearance but equally striking as they went about the business of extracting the nectar with long down-curved bills and even longer tongues to probe the flowers.

Amethyst Sunbird (Swartsuikerbekkie / Chalcomitra amethystina)

Amethyst Sunbird, Addo Elephant Park

Greater Double-collared Sunbird (Groot-rooibandsuikerbekkie / Cinnyris afer)

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Addo Elephant Park

Other Species

There were several other species that visited the chalet surrounds, not all of which chose to pose for a photo, but those that did seemed quite happy to be ‘in the picture’. Here are the species that spend most time in the trees and shrubs –

Red-winged Starling (Rooivlerkspreeu / Onychognathus morio)

Red-winged Starling, Addo Elephant Park

Fork-tailed Drongo (Mikstertbyvanger / Dicrurus adsimilis)

Fork-tailed Drongo, Addo Elephant Park

Streaky-headed Seedeater (Streepkopkanarie / Crithagra gularis)

This member of the Canary family (The Afrikaans name confirms it) is a great singer and fond of sitting in an exposed position, so is hard to miss, but can be confused with the similar looking White-throated Canary

Streaky-headed Seedeater (race humilis), Addo Elephant Park

Black-collared Barbet (Rooikophoutkapper / Lybius torquatus)

The Black-collared Barbet tends to be a tad shier than other species, keeping its distance in a bush and not venturing close to the chalet

Black-collared Barbet (race torquatus), Addo Elephant Park

Sombre Greenbul (Gewone willie / Andropadus importunus)

Then there’s the Sombre Greenbul, always heard, seldom seen – I managed to capture an image of this one as it made its way through dense shrubs

Sombre Greenbul (Andropadus importunus / Gewone willie), Addo Elephant Park

The species that spend more time on the ground also ‘popped by’ as they searched for grubs and insects in the gravelly ground around the chalet

Cape Robin-Chat (Gewone janfrederik / Cossypha caffra)

Cape Robin-Chat, Addo Elephant Park

The Cape Robin-Chat is not averse to hopping up onto a branch to survey the area

Cape Robin-Chat, Addo Elephant Park

Emerald-spotted Wood Dove (Groenvlekduifie / Turtur chalcospilos)

Easy to see where it gets its name from….

Emerald-spotted Wood Dove (race chalcospilis), Addo Elephant Park

Olive Thrush (Olyflyster / Turdus olivaceus)

Olive Thrush (race oliveaceous), Addo Elephant Park

Other Creatures

And here’s a couple of non-avian visitors to end off with…

Flightless Dung Beetle, Addo Elephant Park
Cape Grey Mongoose (Herpestes pulverulentus / Kaapse grysmuishond), Addo Elephant Park

How about a spectacular sunset, viewed from the stoep, to close out the day

Sunset, Addo Elephant Park

Twitching a Gull on Sundays

Actually it was on a Wednesday – but all will become clear as you read on…..

Road Trip to Eastern Cape

Our Road Trip from Mossel Bay to the Eastern Cape was into the third day, after spending the first two nights in the Nature’s Valley area, where we explored a few places we had last visited many years ago.

Our next stop was Addo Elephant National Park, half a day’s drive further east, so there was no need to rush, except ……. well, there was the small matter of a possible rarity in the back of my mind …..

Now, some readers may know by now that I am an opportunistic twitcher rather than an obsessive one – if a rare bird is reported at a spot which is within reach of where I happen to be, I will consider making an attempt to see it, as long as it does not entail extensive travel and there is a reasonably good chance of actually finding the rarity.

So what rare bird was in the back of my mind?

Well, for some time before this trip, in fact since the end of November 2020, there had been reports of a Sooty Gull that had been spotted at various places along the eastern coast of South Africa, a species never recorded before in the region, so classified as a “Mega Rarity” by those who are driven by such things.

I had been following its gradual progress southwards with interest, secretly hoping that 1) it would remain in the area long enough until our road trip began and 2) it would settle at a spot which was within ‘twitching distance’ of our planned route to the Eastern Cape. After the initial sighting in Northern Kwazulu Natal, the gull was spotted at Kei Mouth in the Eastern Cape and spent some weeks there.

I became more interested when the bird was spotted at the Sundays River Mouth, east of Port Elizabeth, early in March 2021 and remained there for the couple of weeks prior to our road trip. That was just what I had been hoping for, as I estimated that the detour to its location would fit into our travel plans with time to spare.

Extract from the SA Rare Bird News of 8 March 2021 with a report of the Sooty Gull

Sooty Gull

Now where had this rarity come from? No one can tell for sure but it is thought it had somehow ‘drifted’ far south of its usual territory, which is the Middle East and southwards to Tanzania, Kenya and the northern most reaches of Mozambique. Also known as the Aden Gull or Hemprich’s Gull, it was a couple of thousand kms outside its normal range when first spotted in SA. It is partially migratory, moving southwards after breeding, so perhaps its internal ‘GPS’ went awry and took it much further south than intended.

Being a coastal bird and a scavenger, it is most often found near ports and harbours, inshore islands and the intertidal zone.

The Journey

My journal tells the story ……

We left Nature’s Valley around 11 am with a drive of some 330 kms ahead of us – which took us all of 6 hours as it turned out! A quick stop at the Bread and Brew shop for pies to take to Addo and we were on our way. Initially the N2 National Road proved to be a good road with a broad shoulder, but from halfway it became more challenging with heavier traffic, several of the ubiquitous “Stop and Go’s” (one side of road closed at a time to allow construction work) and many slow heavy vehicles to get past.

The route (in blue) from Mossel Bay to Sundays River Mouth

I had discovered that morning that I had contrived to forget my camera’s battery charger at home and was desperately thinking how to find one for my particular camera in Port Elizabeth (PE) in a short space of time. Fortunately the first camera shop I phoned said they could help, but this meant a long, slow detour deep into the suburbs of PE to the shop. An hour or so and R700 (about $50) later I was the proud owner of a nifty universal battery charger and we set our sights on getting to Colchester, the town near the Sundays River Mouth.

Sundays River Mouth

After confirming the location on Google Maps, I had imagined driving through Colchester to the river mouth on a reasonable road, parking there and finding the Sooty Gull nearby – none of that happened!

We found Colchester some 30 kms east of PE, drove through to where the road to the mouth supposedly began and found ourselves on a road marked ‘Private’ and a locked gate blocking any further progress. I parked and went to enquire at the nearby Pearson Park office where I found a couple who confirmed that we were at the right place and told us “the entrance fee is R100”. It seemed odd that the river mouth had been privatised in this way but there was no time for a discussion and R100 seemed like a good investment for what I imagined to be a guaranteed lifer, so I paid the amount and, clutching the entrance ticket, returned to our car.

The gate opened and we proceeded along the road, initially tarred but soon it became gravel, very corrugated and worn, which had our small but fully loaded car bouncing along while I winced inwardly. The office couple had simply told us to “drive until you see parked cars”, which we did for several kms.

Some distance from the sea we found a parking area in between the low dunes, with two vehicles parked, one of which was about to leave, so I stopped them to enquire if they knew about ‘the bird’. They absolutely did as they were returning from a day’s fishing and they explained how I would find it on the beach “where those fishermen are, see?”. I didn’t want to admit that said fishermen were so far away that I couldn’t see them, thanked them as they drove off and set off myself on foot, munching on a take away chicken burger (there had been no time to stop for lunch), along the sand in the direction they had pointed.

Heading towards the beach
Looking back to where the car was parked, in the distance (my footprints show my progress)

At this stage it was already 3.30 pm and with the last stretch of road to Addo still ahead and of unfamiliar route and distance, I was becoming rather tense. I walked as quickly as the soft sand would allow, quickly seeking out the firmer sand along the edge of the estuary. After some 15 minutes of strenuous walking/ trotting I found myself closer to the beach. I could already see a few gulls pottering about on the sand – through the binos I could make out numbers of Kelp Gulls but of the Sooty Gull there was no sign and my heart sank just a tad.

Then, as I approached the last ridge in the sand before the beach and peered over it I spotted more gulls, one of which had a darker appearance. Lifting the binos to my eyes I let out a shout of “bingo!” or something similar – it was the Sooty Gull!

First glimpse of the Sooty Gull

Relieved, I spent the next 10 minutes slowly approaching and photographing the gull as I went, until I was 10 to 15 metres away and felt that I was close enough, not wanting to spook the bird, which seemed quite accepting of my slow approach, only once lifting into the air for a few seconds before carrying on with its foraging.

When seen with a Kelp Gull, the size and plumage differences are obvious
A closer view shows the red tip to the bill and the dark grey colouring which gave it the name “Sooty”
Sooty Gull, briefly in flight

This is the location where the gull was hanging out

Most satisfied with how things had turned out, I returned as hastily as possible to the parked car and my patient wife, sweating from the exertion but happy about the outcome. The rest of the trip to Addo was uneventful, but slow on the poor, bumpy and narrow roads and we were glad to arrive safely and in time before the gates closed, book in and find our chalet. Accompanied by a typical bush sunset, we could relax and savour a glass of red wine and the new lifer in beautiful surroundings.

What a challenge birding can be sometimes, yet what joy and satisfaction it brings.

How to find out about rarities

Just a footnote on news of Rarities in Southern Africa – for up to date news of rarities I highly recommended that you subscribe (at no cost) to the SA Rare Bird News by simply sending an email to hardaker@mweb.co.za and asking to be added to the subscriber list

Hornbills in Lockdown

Stoepsitter Birding

Sticking with the “stoepsitter” mode of birding as described in my recent post on the ‘Lawn Raiders’ of Verlorenkloof, here’s another version in a somewhat different location – Satara Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park.

(For the benefit of international readers “stoepsitter” is an Afrikaans term that translates roughly as one who spends much time on the stoep or verandah – but you knew that anyway, I’m sure)

It’s a well known fact amongst birders that, when visiting Kruger’s camps, time spent relaxing with binos on the stoep of your accommodation is bound to be rewarded with views of a variety of birds as they go about their daily business, on the grass, in the bushes and in the trees that most of the camps have in abundance.

That’s not to say one shouldn’t spend time getting out and about on game drives, exploring this national treasure of our wildlife, it’s just that when you want to relax in the rest camp, there’s no better place to do so than on the stoep of your rondavel or other accommodation.

Satara Rest Camp

During our December 2020 visit to Kruger, we spent four nights in Satara Rest Camp, one of which was in a fully equipped rondavel close to the perimeter fence, the other three in a more basic rondavel facing onto an expanse of grass with well established trees in close proximity.

This meant there was ample time for some serious stoepsitting, in between forays into the surrounding areas on game and birding drives and to visit the picnic spots for our traditional Kruger brunches (ooh, just typing that makes my mouth water and my nose prickle with the imaginary smell of a tasty brunch braai-ing on the pan).

The first afternoon and morning produced a fair sprinkling of interesting birds, before we changed rondavels, some of which I managed to photograph –

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata / Europese vlieëvanger

A Spotted Flycatcher, a non-breeding Palaearctic migrant, was quietly going about its business on an outer branch with a view over an expanse of lawn, which in some camps has been allowed to grow “wild”, as you will see in the featured image at the top of this post.

Just a note on these “wild” lawns : it was initially jarring to see the lawns in such a wild state, having been used to manicured lawns in the camp for so many years, but I will admit that I now find this quite appropriate to the surroundings, as the contrast between the camp gardens and the natural habitat of the surrounding veld has been reduced – the ‘line has been blurred somewhat’. I like to think this was a conscious decision by the Park authorities.

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata / Europese vlieëvanger), KNP – Satara

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu

Another migrant, the stunning Violet-backed Starling, but this one hasn’t got as far to migrate, being an intra-African migrant from tropical Africa.

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu) (Male), KNP – Satara

And the missus was there, no doubt keeping an eye on handsome hubby to make sure he didn’t attract any competition. One of a number of species with significant, even dramatic, differences in plumage between male and female (known as dimorphism)

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu) (Female), KNP – Satara

Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis / Bosveldvisvanger

The Woodland Kingfisher is also a breeding intra-African migrant, strikingly coloured and always a joy to find. Although they were present in the camp, this photo was taken on one of our drives.

Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis / Bosveldvisvanger), KNP – Satara – Muzandzeni

Moving home

On the second morning we had to move to another rondavel, this time without a kitchen, but we had come prepared with a fold-up table, little gas cooker for the all-important boiled water for our tea and coffee and our picnic hamper that always accompanies our trips to Kruger. The camp has communal kitchens close by for the washing up etc .

Southern Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus rufirostris / Rooibekneushoringvoël

Once settled in to the new accommodation, I continued with stoepsitter birding and soon noticed that one particular bird was almost constantly present on the stretch of grass in front of the rondavel. It was a Red-billed Hornbill, a common species found throughout Kruger. I assumed it had found a good spot to find the small insects that make up most of its diet and did not pay too much attention to it as it came and went at regular intervals.

Southern Red-billed Hornbill
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Hornbills look ungainly with their huge bills, but they have an admirable ability to find and pick up insects with some precision

Southern Red-billed Hornbill
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

At one stage I kept watching the Hornbill after it had found an insect but not swallowed it, which led me to think it was feeding its young. It flew up to a large tree nearby and settled on the trunk where a branch had probably broken off years earlier as there was a large scar, visible about halfway up the left hand trunk in the image below.

Satara Rest Camp
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

The Hornbill then poked its bill through a small hole in the trunk and that’s when I realised what it was doing.

Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Red-billed Hornbills nest in natural cavities in trees, which the female inspects before selecting one. The entrance is usually just wide enough to allow entry and is then sealed from the inside by the female, using own faeces, leaving just a narrow slit and effectively holding her prisoner during the laying and incubation of the eggs.

Cavity sealed from inside with small hole for feeding

Once eggs are laid, incubation takes up to 25 days, followed by another 16 to 24 days during which the female cares for the young, all the while being fed by the male. Then the female breaks her way out leaving the youngsters in the nest and joins the male in providing food for the chicks, while the youngsters then re-seal the opening until they in turn are ready to take on the world at the ripe old age of around 50 days.

That’s quite a partnership! I felt privileged to have been able to see them in action.

All of this kept the male busy the whole day, but he still found time to go and see his reflection in my car’s window and frustratingly shadow box with what he thought was a possible intruder.

Red-billed Hornbill seeing his reflection

Verlorenkloof – The Lawn Raiders

Birding comes in different forms, sometimes challenging, requiring a dedicated effort, extended travel, perhaps some serious physical exertion, often in the face of less than favourable weather conditions.

However, it’s not always that way – some of the most relaxing and enjoyable birding is to be found in your immediate surroundings, whether at home or a holiday destination.

Which is precisely what we experienced during our recent visit to Verlorenkloof, a country resort that I have written about on a few occasions and one of our all-time favourite places to spend a breakaway week. We were fortunate to be invited by Koos and Rianda to join them in Croft No 3 (shown below) for the last week in May.

Croft No 3
Croft No 3 Verlorenkloof

For those who don’t yet know, Verlorenkloof lies east of Dullstroom, but on the lower side of the escarpment which towers above the fertile valley in which the resort is situated. The red square on the map indicates the position of the pentad which includes Verlorenkloof resort.

The birding at Verlorenkloof is always exceptional, with my personal tally of species recorded in the area, after many visits over the last twelve years, standing at 195, so the expectations were high. These hopes were of course tempered by the knowledge that the last week in May is often a quiet time for birding, with none of the summer migrants present and many of the remaining species not in calling or displaying mode.

Oddly enough, for the first 3 or 4 days of our stay, the area around the Croft was very quiet with far fewer birds than we are used to, but over the last two days of our stay, following some light rain, the scene changed completely. Suddenly all of the usual visitors were there, searching the lawn for edible insects, worms and the like.

I was fascinated by the variety of mostly “ordinary” birds and their antics – each one displaying its own way of “raiding the lawn” and finding a tasty morsel while showing unique character traits and interacting with the other bird species doing more or less the same thing.

So here’s a selection of the Lawn Raiders

Cape Wagtail (Gewone Kwikkie / Motacilla capensis)

The ultimate “I’m not going to bother anyone” bird – demurely pottering about, occasionally finding something to its taste then carrying on as if it was nothing special

Red-winged Starling (Rooivlerkspreeu / Onychognathus morio)

Enter the Darth Vader of the bird world – the menacing, glaring Red-winged Starling….. and they work in gangs, daring others to get in their way, descending en masse to grass level and prodding aggressively at the grass in search of a victim. But only after perching on the railing post in intimidating fashion.

The gang takes over ….

Common Fiscal (Fiskaallaksman / Lanius collaris)

Watching from a side tree, the Common Fiscal, aka Jacky Hangman aka the Butcherbird – what a reputation this small bird has, all because of its habit of impaling prey on a thorn or barbed wire! Its elegant appearance, as if dressed in formal attire, seems to project just the opposite impression.

Interestingly the Fiscal was quite composed, until the Fork-tailed Drongo arrived, when it flew from its perch and chased the Drongo until it retired to a far-off tree.

Striped Pipit (Gestreepte koester / Anthus lineiventris)

Another of the more timid birds, almost ever-present on the lawn, pottering about without bothering any of the others. But a bit of a celebrity nevertheless, being rated “uncommon to locally common” by Roberts – a regular at certain times at Verlorenkloof, but by no means guaranteed.

Familiar Chat (Gewone spekvreter / Cercemola familiaris)

Familiar is the right name for this well-known species. Another bird that is present from dawn to dusk around the Croft, watching from its favourite post and “diving” down to catch its tiny prey in the matted grass, with each return to its perch marked by three wing-flicks. I wondered how a bird with such tiny eyes can spot its prey at up to 5 metres or more, pouncing on it unerringly and returning to its post to devour it.

Cape Rock Thrush (Kaapse kliplyster / Monticella rupestris)

Bringing some class to the scene (did I mention I also originate from the Cape?) the Cape Rock Thrush has a way of dominating with its handsome looks and determined approach – they are not around constantly, but “pop in” from time to time, watching carefully from the roof edge or stone wall before pouncing on an unsuspecting prey.

And this is called hitting the jackpot

African Dusky Flycatcher (Donkervlieevanger / muscicapa adusta)

Now here’s everyone’s favourite bit player – demure, quiet, unobtrusive (for a moment I thought I was describing myself), spending much of the day perched in the shade on a thin twig, flying down to the grass to catch some small prey.

Dark-capped Bulbul (Swartoogtiptol / Pycnonotus tricolor)

The Bulbuls lie somewhere between the extremes shown by other species – not aggressive but certainly determined and not hesitating to pounce on prey before the competition gets to it

Black-collared Barbet (Rooikophoutkapper / Lybius torquatus)

A somewhat unexpected visitor, trying its luck along with the regulars. Despite its bright colours, this is a bird more familiar due to its call, a far-carrying duet, than its appearance. It did not stay long but seemed to be drawn to the lawn by all the other bird activity.

Fork-tailed Drongo (Mikstertbyvanger / Dicrurus adsimillis)

Making just a single appearance, the Drongo had to put up with being chased by the Fiscal and ended up viewing the action from a distant tree, before flying in for a quick lawn raid then disappearing.

African Hoopoe (Hoephoep / Upupa Africana)

A real loner, the Hoopoe patrolled the quiet edges of the lawn, well out of the way of other species, head down and prodding with its long bill all the way.

Black-headed Oriole (Swartkopwieliewaal / Oriolus larvatus)

The Oriole just sat for a while on a branch with a view of the lawn, didn’t seem to want to get involved and flew off again.

Atlasing – September 2020 : Onverwacht, Vryheid

I haven’t posted about my bird atlasing travels for a while so now I’m …..

Catching up on the monthly look at where Atlasing took me in September 2020 ….. in this case to the farm of Pieter and Anlia, part of Gerda’s wide family and one of our favourite places to visit and enjoy traditional farm hospitality –

Onverwacht Farm – 26 to 30 September 2020

Getting there

We had been back in Gauteng for three weeks after an extended stay in Mossel Bay and with lockdown eased to Level 1 our thoughts, as they are wont to do, turned to travel. With a long weekend coming up, it was the ideal time to pay a visit to Pieter and Anlia on Onverwacht Farm, not far from Vryheid in central Kwazulu-Natal.

We had done most of the preparatory packing the day before, so were up at a reasonable hour and left mid-morning, travelling via Witbank, Hendrina, Ermelo and Piet Retief with tea and lunch breaks taken at the roadside, our ‘new normal’ way of doing longish road trips.

The drive was made somewhat taxing by the combination of many slow, large lorries encountered, the poor condition of the roads once we turned off the N4 and the depressing state of some of the towns along the way. However, our spirits were lifted when we reached the farm, saw the braai fire being prepared and the friendly greetings of the family.

The Pentad

I was not expecting to atlas outside the pentad in which the farm lies, but thanks to Pieter there was an opportunity to visit an adjoining pentad on a “Crane Safari” which turned into an exciting atlasing trip of its own. More about that in a follow-up post….

Pentad 2740_3035

My atlasing on the farm was spread over the four days of our stay, but was limited to short bouts of birding in between all of the other activities.

Saturday, late afternoon

On arrival and after settling in, I got the pentad list going with the birds on and around the dam, which lies a couple of hundred metres down the gentle slope in front of the house – all the usual suspects such as Cattle Egret, Egyptian Goose, Yellow-billed Duck, Coots and White-breasted Cormorant.

Onverwacht farm Vryheid
Yellow-billed Duck

Pieter pointed out a couple of large birds on a distant grassy slope and with my binos I could verify their ID – Grey Crowned Crane – a quite magnificent and stunning bird that I never tire of seeing and one of the specials of the area.

Grey Crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum / Mahem), Onverwacht farm Vryheid

The warm weather was rapidly dissipating in the face of a cold front that had arrived, so the braai fire was a warming spot to spend the last of the day, still on the lookout for new species. A chorus of cackling calls announced the presence of Green Woodhoopoes (Not recorded in the pentad before) in the tall pine trees next to the house and we soon saw them in the fading light, moving among the branches in a loose group of 6 or more.

Pleased with this new species for the pentad, I then heard the whoo – hooo of a Spotted Eagle-Owl (33%) and down at the dam a group of 3 Wattled Lapwings (22%) flew in and settled near the water in the fading light

Spotted Eagle-Owl
Sunday

The day was cold – even more so than the forecast 10 deg C due to the icy wind, so my birding was limited to a couple of short sorties into the large garden and surrounding farmstead, the wind chasing me back to the warmth of the house after 15 to 20 minutes.

Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Highlights were Southern Bald Ibis at the dam edge, Black Sawwings (44%) swooping by in their shiny black plumage with long forked tail streaming behind, Bronze Mannikins and Pied Starlings perched in trees and on poles.

Bronze Mannikin (Lonchura cucullata)

By day’s end my pentad total was a modest 31 without having ventured beyond the garden and surrounds.

Onverwacht farm Vryheid
Monday

Monday was devoted to the “Crane Safari” in an adjoining pentad, which I will cover in a separate post as it was such a special birding experience, but in the evening I heard the unmistakable, eerie call of a Barn Owl somewhere near the house.

Tuesday

And the surprises kept coming! Despite all sorts of challenges that Pieter had to attend to – stolen fencing and a broken torsion bar on the bakkie (utility vehicle) which left it standing at a crazy angle – Pieter still had time to arrange for son Janneman to take me to a nearby kloof on the farm, where he had seen signs of Bald Ibis breeding.

After another farm breakfast (my favourite ‘krummelpap’ again – a sort of crumbed porridge unique to SA) Jan and I set off on a birding tour of the farm, with our first stop some way up the lower slopes of the mountain escarpment that looms over the farm. There we clambered through a fence, then walked along a sloping ridge to a point where we could get a view of the krans (cliff face).

It didn’t take long to spot a Bald Ibis on a nest set back in the horizontal split in the rock face. A small waterfall trickled water down the face and Kiepersols, Aloes and other natural growth completed the handsome picture.

Bald Ibis breeding spot, Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Bald Ibis breeding spot, Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Nearby a Sombre Greenbul called and an African Olive Pigeon (not recorded in the pentad before) showed itself among the green tops of the trees. However the show of the day belonged to Bald Ibises and White-necked Ravens (also a new record for the pentad) chasing each other aerially, the Ravens seeming to harass the Ibises for unknown reasons until they retreated to the depths of the rock crevices.

The rest of the farm tour provided several other sightings of Rufous-naped Lark (33%), Buff-streaked Chat (55%), Yellow-fronted Canary and a pleasing Giant Kingfisher (22%) to round off my atlasing efforts for the visit.

My total species recorded in the pentad during the visit stood at 46 with 4 new species added to the pentad list and my total species after 6 cards completed over several years was now 132

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%

Christmas in Kruger : Down by the Bridge …..

A Watery morning around Mopani ….

KNP – Mopani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KNP – Mopani (Shongololo Loop)

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

Birds on a bridge

KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

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

KNP – Mopani (Low water bridge – Shongololo Loop)

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

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

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

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

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

Hippo antics

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

Croc gets in on the action too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kruger’s Surprises

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

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

The Road to Mopani

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

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

Seasonal Pan outside Letaba

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

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

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

Mopani to Satara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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