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.
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 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
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.
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!
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
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.
The orchards attracted a different set of birds including Cape White-eyes (pictured below), Fiscal Flycatcher and Fork-tailed Drongo
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 –
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 email@example.com and asking to be added to the subscriber list
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.
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.
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)
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.
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 .
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.
Hornbills look ungainly with their huge bills, but they have an admirable ability to find and pick up insects with some precision
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.
The Hornbill then poked its bill through a small hole in the trunk and that’s when I realised what it was doing.
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.
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.
Birding comes in different forms, sometimes challenging, requiring a dedicated effort, extendedtravel, 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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….
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
By day’s end my pentad total was a modest 31 without having ventured beyond the garden and surrounds.
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.
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.
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%
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That was enough excitement for the morning so I headed back to Mopani camp with stories to relate to the family.
“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 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.
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 –
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.
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!
Our main Christmas dinner was enjoyed on Christmas Eve in Mopani Camp, with the cooler weather brought on by constant light summer rain during the day making it a most pleasant evening. We joined Andre and Geraldine and daughters at their large family chalet, and their friends who were also in Mopani made up a jolly group, with each family contributing a dish or two to turn it into a really delightful dinner.
We had not made any specific arrangements for Christmas day itself, other than the inevitable leftovers (just as delicious) for the evening meal. We started the day in lazy mode, sitting on the stoep and observing the passing show of birds and other small wildlife.
Shingwedzi Christmas Picnic
When Andre and Geraldine suggested that we drive to Shingwedzi Camp, some 62 kms to the north, for a braai (barbeque) at the day visitor’s area, it seemed like the ideal way to spend the day in relaxed, yet active, fashion. We quickly got ourselves ready, packed a picnic basket and set off in mild weather, reaching Shingwedzi just after 1 pm.
We didn’t dawdle, but still found plenty of game to view in passing along the way
We found the day visitor’s area already crowded (yet socially distanced), but were fortunate to find one empty picnic table and the camp personnel helpfully brought a portable braai to our table. Andre got stuck in and braai-ed burger patties while a large leguaan moved between the tables looking for scraps, waddling along and flicking its tongue in true serpent fashion. Soon the buns were buttered and loaded with tomato, lettuce, onions and sauce, ready to receive the patties and we tucked into our simple but delicious meal
All in all a very unique Christmas Day lunch for us!
An ice cream on a stick from the small shop was our dessert, after which we set off on the road back to Mopani, taking our time.
Dinner for One ….. Martial Eagle
We were hardly out of Shingwedzi, driving next to the lightly flowing, broad river, when I spotted a commotion amongst a small flock of Starlings gathered in and around one of the large trees that line this stretch of the river.
I pulled off the road and stopped under the tree to have a look at what may be causing their agitation – glancing up I looked straight into the piercing eyes of a Martial Eagle, which was engrossed in the task of devouring an unidentifiable, partly hidden prey from which he was ripping chunks of meat.
Apart from an occasional withering stare, the Eagle ignored us, despite us being a few metres away, and carried on with its festive meal while we enjoyed the luxury of being able to observe this magnificent raptor at close quarters
The road back to Mopani had a few further interesting sightings….
And last but not least ….. well actually it is the least in terms of size –
This is one Christmas day that we will fondly remember
Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in September 2020 – in this case using an overnight stop to make the most of the birding on offer…
Heading home – at last!
After more than 5 months in Mossel Bay – a lot longer than our initial plan of 3 to 4 weeks – we decided to return to our other “home” in Pretoria. Mossel Bay’s charm and many advantages had worked their way into our minds and it was with some reluctance that we headed northwards, but Covid-19 had kept us away from our main home for too long and we knew it was time to get back.
We set off on a Friday, fully loaded, around 9 am and travelled the familiar route via George, Graaf-Reinet and Colesberg to our overnight accommodation at Lushof Lodge, some 50 km beyond Colesberg. Along the way we enjoyed take-away coffee and a picnic lunch – all part of the “new normal” way of doing things.
Lushof Lodge, which we last visited in January 2011, was as we remembered – set on a farm with a stream running through, lined with verdant growth. The accommodation was a comfortable cottage which we had all to ourselves, set on a hill overlooking an expanse of fields and veld and we were well looked after by Lise, the bright and friendly hostess and her staff.
Lushof Lodge (Pentad 3025_2530)
By the time we had settled in and acquainted ourselves with the cottage, it was 5.30 pm and there was just enough time for a birding walk down to the stream, which forms a small dam on one side of the entrance road and a wetland covered in reeds on the other.
The dam was good for Common Moorhen while the wetland held a few African Reed Warblers, with Red Bishops occupying the reeds and a Kurrichane Thrush exploring the edges. The tall trees alongside were home to a Cardinal Woodpecker, which first revealed its presence with a soft tok-tok-tok as he poked at the branches in search of some protein.
Returning up the short hill to the cottage I scanned the slopes of the hill above it and soon saw Speckled Mousebirds moving in straggling fashion from tree to bush, then heard a Grey-backed Cisticola and quickly picked it up as it flitted from one low bush to another. For good measure a Blue Crane called but I could not track it down in the gathering dusk.
That seemed to be it for the day and a bit later we settled down to a hearty Karoo lamb meal, brought to the cottage by Lise and her daughter. But there was one more surprise later on – when I peered outside briefly just before going to bed, a Rock Martin roosting under the roof overhang stared back at me and became species 20 on my pentad list .
Saturday Morning 5 September
An early night meant I could get a good night’s rest and still be up at 6 am to have a coffee in the crisp morning air outside our cottage, while adding to the previous afternoon’s list.
I was able to add another 9 species before heading off on a lengthy walk around the farm, including Cape Bunting, Yellow Canary, a calling Brubru (also widely known as the “telephone bird” because of its trilling, repeated call) and a Familiar Chat doing its ‘familiar’ sequence of perch, fly down to the ground, catch something small and return to the perch with a couple of wing flicks straight after landing.
Venturing away from the farmstead, I followed a track along the stream and heard two very different birds – first a Lesser Swamp Warbler hidden somewhere in the dense riverine vegetation, then a Blue Korhaan greeting the new day from somewhere up ahead. From the latter call I guessed the habitat must open up further on to be suitable for the latter species – indeed it did a couple of hundred metres further, affording an expansive view across fields and plains, but there was no sign of the Korhaan, which had probably moved on or concealed itself in the grass (which they are masters at doing)
I headed back to spend some time in the lush area close to the farmhouse, with the river and wetland as focus points. Common Starlings and a Cape Wagtail caught my attention and then a flash of colour signaled the arrival of a Malachite Kingfisherin an overhanging tree, ready to spot and dive for a small fish, frog, crab or insect.
Before returning for breakfast, which we had arranged to be brought to the cottage at 8 am, I had a look around the area beyond the stream and soon added Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler) and White-throated Canary. I tried to capture the latter species on camera as I knew it was a different sub-species (orangensis) from those I am used to seeing in the Southern Cape. I had limited success getting a clear photo, but they were better than nothing.
By the way if you think it’s a bit extreme not being satisfied with photographing bird species but trying to photograph all the subspecies as well, I confess I have had this “collectors” affliction since a young age and it seems to be getting worse….
After a substantial breakfast (to see us through the last day’s driving, you know) it was time to pack the car one last time, while still keeping an eye out for any birds to add. Fortunately so, as a Booted Eagle and a pair of SA Shelducks flew overhead within minutes of each other.
On the road out we picked up Namaqua Dove and White-backed Mousebird, the dam near the highway held Blacksmith Lapwing and the adjoining grass boasted an Eastern Clapper Lark, giving us its version of goodbye as it performed its display flight in the air.
We left with a total of 48 species recorded which, considering the time of year, is a good indication of the quality of Lushof Lodge as a birding spot.
Of special note – this was only the third full protocol card completed for this pentad in 10 years, the previous two having been done by myself and Koos Pauw in 2010/11. A very under-atlased pentad!