It never fails to amaze me how quickly birds of the seedeater variety react to my replenishing the feeder in our garden, usually descending on it en masse within half an hour of filling it.
This happened again recently after I had been away and had not filled the feeder for some weeks – the first birds were there in no time at all. I suspect they “do the rounds” of all potential feeding sites each day, otherwise how would they know? And there must be some system of communication that informs other birds of different species of the presence of food.
Whatever the case, it is always interesting to see which species turn up – often the same mix but sometimes a non-regular puts in an appearance.
Here is a selection of the birds that came to the feeder in the space of a couple of days recently –
Two of the four South African Sparrows are regulars in the garden – the House Sparrow, despite its name, does not come to the garden, preferring to scrounge for scraps at the local shopping centre’s parking area
Both of the Amadina finches are fairly regular visitors and the males provide a splash of colour with their vivid red “cut-throat” and head. They also feed on insects and termites where they can
There are four weaver species in the residential estate that we live in, thanks mainly to the two small dams that form part of it. Two of them are regular visitors to the garden, being Southern Masked Weaver and Village Weaver, while the Cape Weaver is very seldom seen in the garden and the Thick-billed Weaver not at all
The regular weavers are, at first glance, quite similar but have a few distinguishing features – the black forehead of the Southern Masked Weaver versus the yellow forehead of the Village Weaver, the plainer mottled back of the Southern Masked Weaver versus the heavily blotched back of the village Weaver (not visible in these photos)
The photo below shows the difference in the forehead colours
Looking at the photos I had taken, I noticed that the Village Weaver had an elongated bill – this is an abnormality that occurs in various bird species. This individual did not seem to have a problem feeding
Over the last 3 to 4 years a feral population of Lovebirds has established a presence in our residential estate, probably being cage bird escapees originally. They most closely resemble the Black-cheeked Lovebird that occurs in Zambia but are quite hybridised, with some birds being almost entirely yellow. I am split between appreciating their bright colouring and disliking the fact that feral birds are spreading in the eastern suburbs of Pretoria
These cute little birds appear in small flocks, twittering away happily
Which all goes to show you don’t have to travel far from home to find interesting birds
Verlorenkloof, as regular readers will know, is our favourite spot for a really relaxing getaway and we look forward to our annual timeshare week in October each year immensely. October 2018 was no different with lazy days, some walking, some birding and atlasing and just enjoying the company of old friends …. errrr, friends of long standing that is. (At our age one can get sensitive about 3-letter words such as “old”).
The croft (the fancy name for the house-like accommodation at Verlorenkloof) sleeps 10. although 6 is more comfortable, so it is a great opportunity to invite some close friends along for the week.
Perhaps the best part is the time spent on the patio, where we take breakfast and lunch and enjoy regular doses of tea, coffee or cold drinks to while away the hours. The patio overlooks a sloping lawn which merges with the natural grass and shrubs stretching across the hill and down to the stream, which is flanked by luxuriant reeds and ferns.
Beyond the grass and the stream, the lower grassy slopes of the mountain begin and continue up to a height where the rocky, almost vertical face of the mountain proper takes over, soaring to the escarpment edge a few hundred metres above. Oh, and to add to the variety of habitats, the mountain face is cleaved into densely forested kloofs at its intersections.
All of this provides the opportunity for a multitude of bird species to be attracted to the area and to take up residence. Many of them announce their presence at various times of the day, peaking in the early morning as the sun rises to welcome a new day. The mountain seems to act as an amplifier and the scene before you is reminiscent of a natural amphitheatre, with some of nature’s best songsters providing an aural experience that is hard to beat.
The selection of photos that follows is from our October 2018 week and is just a sampling of the rich bird life at Verlorenkloof, limited to those species which I was able to get close enough to for a reasonable photo or which, by chance, crossed my path while I had my camera close by.
English, Afrikaans and scientific names are given with the gender and subspecies added where applicable …….
Familiar Chat / Gewone spekvreter (Cercomela familiaris – hellmayri subspecies) is a regular visitor to the area around the croft where it hawks insects from a vantage point such as a small rock or low branch, returning to the same spot with a flick or two of the tail as it lands, in its “familiar” way
Yellow Bishop (Male, non-breeding) / Kaapse flap (Euplectes capensis – approximans subspecies) – later in the summer the male acquires its breeding plumage of overall black with yellow shoulders and rump
African Stonechat (Male) / Gewone bontrokkie (saxicola torquatus – stoneii subspecies) – another conspicuous, widespread species which favours grasslands and perches prominently on tall bushes and plants.
African Crowned Eagle (Immature) / Kroonarend (Stephanoaetus coronatus ) – it was a thrill to find this impressive raptor at Verlorenkloof. This immature eagle is probably the same one that was seen by Koos Pauw earlier in the year when it was still in the nest, which he pointed out to me on top of a large tree part of the way up the mountain slope
Cape Grassbird / Grasvoël (Sphenoaecus afer – natalensis subspecies) – singing its heart out in its customary fashion, just a little shy for a full monty photo
Village Weaver (Male) / Bontrugwewer (Ploceus cucullatus – spilonotus subspecies) – it’s a treat to see this species in action, doing its best to attract a female for some “breeding” with much vigour, swaying its body and fanning its wings. A flock had taken over a tree alongside the river and filled it with nests
Kurrichane Thrush / Rooibeklyster (Turdus libonyanus) – a shy, solitary bird that likes to forage quietly amongst the shrubs
Swee Waxbill (Female) / Suidelike swie (Estrilda melanotis) – cute species that moves in small groups through the bushes
Thick-billed Weaver (Male) / Dikbekwewer (Amblyospiza albifrons – woltersi subspecies) – busy building a nest in the reeds alongside the bridge over the river. Unlike other weavers which start with a ring as a basis, this species starts with a cup and builds up from it, using thin strips gleaned from bulrush leaves to construct the fine, tightly woven nest
Bronze Mannikin / Gewone fret (Lonchura cucullata) – fairly common in the bushes and reeds near the croft
Broad-tailed Warbler / Breëstertsanger (Schoenicola brevirostris) – An uncommon species that I have not seen anywhere other than at Verlorenkloof – it prefers rank grass and has a distinctive sharp metallic call which tells you it is nearby, but is an expert at concealing itself from view, so getting a photo requires a mix of patience and luck
Fan-tailed Widowbird (Male in breeding plumage) / Kortstertflap (Euplectes axillaris) – also a “fan” of tall moist grassland which Verlorenkloof has in abundance
Wing-snapping Cisticola / Kleinste klopkloppie (Cisticola ayresii) – not seen at Verlorenkloof itself but in an adjoining pentad while atlasing – my first photographic record of this species
There are a few shy animals as well, such as this Grey Duiker
I’m already looking forward to our October 2019 week!
Niki, my trusted birding companion, accompanies me on all my birding trips and I have to admit I just cannot get along without her – she has eyes like a hawk which can help to identify those distant birds in a trice with just one quick glance and is content to endure hours of travel on sometimes bumpy, dusty roads with nary a complaint.
So I was deeply concerned when Niki started showing signs of weariness and a distinct lack of focus towards the end of 2018 and I resolved to book her into a clinic as soon as we were back in Gauteng in January 2019. Niki went to the clinic without complaint and I booked her in on a Monday, hoping that her stay would not be long – they sent a message later setting out the proposed treatment and estimated that she would have to stay for at least a week for the treatment to have the desired effect, which I replied was acceptable.
The week without Niki was difficult and my birding outing was just not the same without her on the seat beside me, but I knew it was something that had done. I resisted the temptation to visit Niki in the clinic, being so far from our house and patiently waited for the message to tell me I could come and fetch her.
At last the message came to my phone – she was ready to go home! Next morning I drove to the clinic and fetched Niki – what a relief to hold her in my arms again!
I could hardly wait for my next birding outing with Niki once again at my side and planned a trip to one of Gauteng’s prime birding destinations – Marievale Bird Sanctuary to put our combined skills to the test again.
Niki, also known as my Nikon D750 DLSR camera with Nikon 80-400mm lens, performed admirably – but I will leave you with a few photos from the morning at Marievale, so you can judge for yourself.
Spotted Thick-Knee / Gewone Dikkop (Burhinus capensis) in the reception parking area before getting into the Nature Reserve itself – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (OK just bright-eyed)
Blacksmith Lapwing / Bontkiewiet (Vanellus armatus)– despite its name suggesting a somewhat rougher individual, this is one bird that looks as if it could be an avian James Bond – elegant, formally attired, ready to order a martini “shaken, not stirred”
Wood Sandpiper / Bosruiter (Tringa glareola) – the only wader I came across during my visit – water levels were high after good summer rains so the hundreds of waders usually present were somewhere else
African Reed-Warbler / Kleinrietsanger (Acrocephalus baeticatus) – at one spot along the power-line track which has wetlands on both sides (shown in the featured image at the top of the post) I seemed to be surrounded by calling Warblers, with this species most prominent, calling vigorously and showing briefly amongst the reeds.
Red-knobbed Coot / Bleshoender (Fulica cristata) – the hides at Marievale are well looked after and afford great views of the comings and goings of several species, including this very common one
Squacco Heron / Ralreier (Ardeola ralloides) – demonstrating why it can be a difficult bird for beginners to identify, particularly in flight when it appears to be all-white and can easily be taken for a Cattle Egret. Once settled though it is an obvious species and in breeding plumage as it is here it shows the elongated feathers on the crest and neck, giving it an even more distinctive look
Common Moorhen / Grootwaterhoender (Gallinula chloropus) – another common water bird seen from the hide
Yellow-crowned Bishop / Goudgeelvink (Euplectes afer) – resembles a very large bumble-bee in flight display as it fluffs up its yellow back feathers and flies slowly and ponderously amongst tall reeds
Lesser Swamp Warbler Kaapse rietsanger (Acrocephalus gracilirostris) – one of the bolder warblers but more often heard rather than seen. This one popped onto a perch right in front of the picnic spot hide as I was chatting to a visitor from Scotland
Whiskered Tern / Witbaardsterretjie (Chlidonias hybrida) – almost always present at Marievale, this tern in breeding plumage (losing the black belly and much of the black crown when non-breeding) was hovering and plunge-diving in front of the hide, constantly on the search for food
This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while *atlasing. (see end of post for more info on atlasing)
The Atlasing Destination
With an open palette of pentads not yet atlassed in 2019 I chose two pentad blocks around Herbertsdale in the southern Cape with the least Full Protocol cards to date – one covering Gondwana Game Reserve and the other including the village of Herbertsdale and the surrounding countryside.
The location of the pentads – the red shaded block on the map below and the block to its left :
My route was planned to be a circular one, heading out and back on the R327 to this by now familiar area that I have atlassed frequently over the last several years.
I had put my faith in the usually dependable YR weather App which forecast that the overnight rain would clear up by early morning. Heading out at 5.30 am from Mossel Bay, I had a few doubts as the gloomy, rainy weather persisted until after 7 am, an hour into atlasing the first pentad, but then cleared up into a beautiful sunny day.
Soon after entering the pentad block, I stopped at the Gondwana Game Reserve gatehouse to check if there were any restrictions on driving through the reserve on what is still a public road. The reply was “Yes you can drive through, but you are not allowed to stop”. Now I am a birder and we like to stop frequently and unexpectedly, so I nodded vaguely and proceeded on my way through the reserve, not expecting to come across any other traffic at this early hour and on this rather remote road.
I saw a few animals but as it turned out, with rain still falling steadily, I did not have much reason to stop for birds, until I came across a small roadside dam with a Grey Heron standing like a statue in hunting mode, watching the water very intently. I could not resist stopping, whereupon two things happened almost simultaneously – a Black-crowned Night-Heron flew gracefully in and settled in the shallow water near the Grey Heron – and a Gondwana ranger in a bakkie (utility vehicle) appeared over the rise behind me slightly less gracefully and stopped next to my vehicle – with a smile on his face,it must be said. He reminded me of the ‘no stopping’ request and suggested I move on, which I did after asking permission to take a quick photo of the Night-Heron and receiving same.
It’s quite understandable that reserves such as Gondwana are nervous or even slightly paranoid about potential poaching, having passed a grazing Rhino with full horn just a little earlier, however I’m sure the profile of the average poacher does not include meek, pensioner-age birders in SUV’s armed only with long-lens cameras. In any case, next time I will contact Gondwana beforehand for permission to bird.
Exiting the reserve a short while later through the northern gate, a subtle change in habitat – more bush and trees for a starter – resulted in a change in bird life in terms of numbers and almost immediately Malachite and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds were added to my list.
Further along the road I stopped to look around, only to be enticed to walk up an inviting track leading through a field filled with fynbos and protea species.
The ericas were abundant and made extra attractive by drops of moisture clinging to leaves and flowers
Even the spider’s webs had gathered lots of rain drops
Southern Tchagra and Orange-breasted Sunbirds delighted me with their presence while a “Murder of Crows” – White-necked Ravens by name but also part of the Corvus genus along with all the other Crows – flew over and settled in an adjoining open field.
Soon after, I reached the eastern boundary of the pentad and turned around with 29 species recorded so far, then took a branch road which headed into the more hilly northern section with another subtle change in habitat – still quite bushy along the road verge but more open fields and grassland behind. Suddenly I could hear Cape Clapper Lark displaying and saw the perpetrator soon after, furiously clapping its wings as it ascended, producing a loud, fast clapping sound followed by a drawn out sharp whistle on descent.
Competing with the Clappers and soon winning the “most prominent call” competition were Victorin’s Warblers, seemingly every 50 m or so for a few hundred metres – definitely a hot spot for this loud but elusive bird that just refused to show when I stopped to search for it, allowing nothing more than a brief glimpse through dense foliage.
More cooperative was the Bokmakierie I came across shortly after
Although this pentad lies directly west of the first one, the lack of direct roads meant a longish drive via the R327 to get to the northern boundary just outside the tiny but charming Herbertsdale village. The birding was immediately lively and the views from the hill leading into the village spanned the fertile valley below, albeit suffering under the drought that has so much of the country in its grip.
Driving slowly through the village a group of swifts and swallows were circling busily overhead, no doubt feasting in mid-air on the thousands of flying insects.
A couple of Alpine Swifts flew by, big-bodied and lightning fast compared to the White-rumped and African Black Swifts that made up the majority of the flock, so distinctive with their white underparts.
It’s a challenge getting a photo of the Alpine Swift, so this is the best I could manage on the day
Beyond Herbertsdale the road heads back towards Mossel Bay, past roadside farm dams which held a selection of water birds, including Black Crake, Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal while the call of Lesser Swamp-Warbler emanated from the fringing reeds. An irrigated field was literally swarming with low flying Barn Swallows crisscrossing in the air while tens of Red Bishops searched the ground below them.
Patrolling the field at a height was a fierce-looking Peregrine Falcon – I imagined some doem-doem-doem music building up in the background to heighten the drama of the situation, but the Falcon was not in a hurry to hunt and I carried on after watching it for a while.
In contrast, this little guy – less than 10 cm long – was crossing the road so I helped him/her on its way, as you never know when a car might come by and people often do not see them in the road, causing unnecessary fatalities
Further stops produced Tambourine Dove calling and a group of Common Waxbills, then I came across a tree at the side of the road full of bright red flowers which was clearly irresistible for the sugar freaks of the bird world, drawing numbers of Malachite, Greater Double-collared and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds. That also signaled the end of the morning’s atlasing
Pentad 3400_2150 : A total of 30 Full Protocol (Minimum 2 hours) cards have been done to date with a low/high card count of 25/77 and a total of 154 species recorded to date; This was my first card for the pentad and my 42 species represented coverage of 27% of the total species. The only notable species was White-rumped Swift (7% reporting rate)
Pentad 3400_2145 : A total of 21 Full Protocol cards have been done to date with a low/high card count of 26/65 and a total of 144 species recorded to date; This was my fourth card for the pentad and my 51 species represented coverage of 35% of the total species. My total for the 4 cards increased to 90 species. New species recorded for the pentad were Black Crake, Peregrine Falcon and Lesser Swamp-Warbler
The Birdlasser pentad maps below show the route and sightings –
* Atlasing :
Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a defined area called a “pentad”. Each pentad has a unique number based on its geographical position according to a 5 minute x 5 minute grid of co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, which translates into a square of our planet roughly 8 x 8 kms in extent.
As a registered observer / Citizen scientist under the SABAP2 program (SA Bird Atlas Project 2), all of the birding I do nowadays includes recording the species for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town.
Atlasing has brought a new dimension and meaning to my birding as it has to many other birders. The introduction a couple of years ago of the “Birdlasser” App has greatly simplified the recording and submission of the data collected.
So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the last year along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited. Some of the trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.
Mossel Bay is our home over the holiday season up to the third week in January, so I try to use this time to fit in as much atlasing as I can in the beautiful surrounding countryside.
Atlasing trips and the highlight species included :
the area beyond Herbertsdale – Black Storks at the Gouritz River
the town of George with a visit to the waste water treatment works as well as the forested area at the top of the town – Black Cuckooshrike, Black Sparrowhawk and Knysna Turaco
Wilderness and the Woodville Big Tree (covered in a separate post) – Lemon Dove, Chorister Robin
Friemersheim area north of Klein Brak – Olive Bushshrike, Swee Waxbill, Narina Trogon, Black-winged Lapwing
A blustery day blew some seabirds inshore – a visit to the Point at Mossel Bay produced White-chinned Petrels, Gannets and Gulls galore, Terns and, amazingly, a Sooty Shearwater
Back in Pretoria I could catch up on some highveld atlasing with a visit to Mabusa nature reserve along with Koos Pauw – an outstanding day with both Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers seen and Great Reed Warbler heard.
I literally went into the bundu on occasion
Mid-month we used up some expiring RCI points to spend a weekend at Champagne Valley resort in the southern Drakensberg. Great birding in a magnificently scenic environment – highlights were Cape Vulture, House Martin, Bearded Vulture, Grey Crowned Crane and Long-crested Eagle
Back to the Drakensberg, this time with brother Andrew visiting from the UK – some birding, more touring from our base at Drakensberg Sun resort
Work pressures meant no time for atlasing although I used the public holiday to do a couple of pentads around Delmas, where an Amur Falcon entertained me with its handling of a locust catch (covered in a separate post)
For my 500th pentad I decided to atlas the area around Mkhombo Dam which proved to be a good choice (also covered in a separate post)
The following weekend we visited family on Annasrust farm in the Free State near Hoopstad – one of the highlights of our year and a superb birding spot in its own right.
Massed Egrets, Spoonbills and Cormorants made for a spectacular sight on the river
Late in April, with some RCI points not fully used and about to expire, we booked a week at Pine Lake Resort near White River, which also included a memorable day visit to Kruger Park
My only atlasing trip in May was to Mabusa Nature Reserve and the surrounding area – many highlights including Flappet Lark, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah and Barred Wren-Warbler
Early June saw us in Mossel Bay for a brief visit – just one atlasing trip was squeezed in, covering the area north of Great Brak River
This Black-headed Heron posed on my neighbour’s roof
We were hardly back in Pretoria when we set off for our annual visit to La Lucia near Durban where we have a timeshare apartment, with an overnight stay at the beautiful Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen
Oaklands Country Manor, near Van ReenenMy early morning walk was a misty affair
La Lucia was as restful as ever but the World Cup soccer proved to be a distraction, nevertheless I managed to fit in a mix of beach birding walks, a trip to my favourite urban forest – Pigeon Valley – and a visit to Shongweni Nature Reserve
We took up Gerda’s Vryheid family’s invitation to stop over on their farm near the town on our way back – a worthwhile detour if there ever was one! A pair of Crowned Cranes made the visit really special, although Anlia’s breakfast krummelpap (a coarse farm porridge) was a serious competitor for “best reason to visit”.
Mid-month I was in Cape Town for a day and found myself free for the afternoon – so where does a keen birder go on a rainy day in this famous City? Naturally to the Strandfontein Sewage Works – birding was superb with a few hundred Flamingoes amongst many other water birds
Mid-winter atlasing trips around Gauteng kept me sharp during August, despite cold (- 3 deg C at one stage), windy conditions that kept me mostly in my car. Spike-heeled Larks were a feature of both trips, while African Harrier-Hawk was an exciting find.
Southern Fiscals are common just about everywhere but this subcoronatus sub-species is quite a special find
A last-minute decision to spend a week in Kruger Park turned into a memorable, relaxing trip with plenty of wild life experiences (covered in several posts)
An atlasing trip to the Delmas area later in the month produced a Blue Korhaan, scarce in these parts, as well as a couple of other terrestial species in the form of Orange River Francolin and Northern Black Korhaan
Time for our timeshare week at our favourite get away – Verlorenkloof, which produced fine birding once again and some interesting atlasing opportunities in the area.
The most exciting sighting at Verlorenkloof was of an immature Crowned Eagle, which apparently was born and raised on the property, the nest still visible on top of a tall tree
Down at the river the Village Weavers were nest-building in loud and vigorous fashion
The tiny Swee Waxbill visited the undergrowth near our Croft
The sought after Broad-tailed Warbler is a regular at Verlorenkloof during the summer months but does its best to frustrate any attempts to get a close photograph
Back to the Cape in the last week of October for a short visit to Mossel Bay, followed by a quick visit to family in the western Cape town of Worcester, where I spent a morning enjoying the surprisingly good birding that was on offer in the adjoining hills.
Further atlasing in the Mossel Bay area included trips to Herbertsdale and Gouritz River, before returning to Pretoria where we prepared for our return to Mossel Bay for a longer stay over December and January, as has become our custom over the last few years.
The road trip to the southern Cape included an overnight stop at Kuilfontein near Colesberg and a two night stay at Karoo National Park, both places providing some diverse atlasing opportunities
The following week saw me returning by air to Gauteng and onward to Kasane in northern Botswana for a final inspection visit to the airport project that I was involved in. I booked a boat-based and vehicle-based game drive during my stay, in order to make the most of this last visit to Chobe game reserve, both of which provided some amazing sightings and photographic highlights.
Back in Mossel Bay, it was time to get into relaxed mode and I looked forward to some atlasing of the area, including Mossel Bay itself.
A Terek Sandpiper at Great Brak was a lifer for me
The only body of fresh water in Mossel Bay is a drawcard for numbers of birds
This Cape Weaver decided to use the bird-feeder in our neighbour’s garden as a base frame for its nest – probably an inexperienced juvenile practicing his skills. He never did complete the nest.
Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year ……..
Kruger National Park is seen by many birders, including this one, as one of the most desirable places to visit and indulge their passion in an incomparable natural environment –
Our week was full of interesting sightings and memorable moments covering the full spectrum of wild life, birds aplenty, glorious landscapes – here is a selection of some of the standout birding moments –
First night in Olifants
With the evening braai done, we were relaxing on the stoep, sipping our coffee and enjoying a handsome moon rise, when Gerda was first to hear a distant grumpy sound and suggested it was an Owl. We identified the call as that of a Verraux’s Eagle-Owl and I went to investigate when it seemed to be getting closer, finding it in a nearby tall tree, illuminated by neighbouring visitors who had a powerful torch handy. Besides its trademark pink eyelids, this is one impressive Owl, with a length of 62cm (think 6 months old child) and capable of taking prey the size of a half-grown Vervet Monkey or a Warthog piglet but also content to hunt tiny Warblers and insects.
Balule Low Water Bridge
Our second day in Kruger and also my birthday – the main reason for us being there as my wish was to wake up on my birthday to a Kruger sunrise. The day started in perfect weather – sunny yet cool to warm. Gerda wasn’t up to an early start so I made coffee and set off to atlas the Olifants pentad over the next two hours returning in time for morning tea.
The drive was a slow one to Balule where I spent some time on the low water bridge, a great birding spot in its own right, then returned to Olifants camp along the S92 road, thereby completing a full circuit.
A v-shaped formation of Cormorants flying high above the river set the tone as I started the drive and at the bridge a Malachite Kingfisher flashed its bright colours as he darted between the reeds.
Parked on the bridge, I chalked up Black Crake, African Jacana, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Green-backed Heron amongst others, in quick succession.
What makes this such a good spot is the low water level at this time of year, creating small ponds, streams and sandbanks across the full width of this large river, ideal for a mix of water birds, waders and birds just coming to drink at the water’s edge.
Olifants River Bridge
Gerda joined me for an afternoon drive which took us to the main bridge over the Olifants river, a few kms south of the camp turn-off. She ended up “chatting” to a curiously tame Cape Glossy Starling who perched on the railing then, when I got out of the car (permitted on some of the longer bridges), hopped onto the door mirror and seemed to reach out to Gerda with its happy chirping. Perhaps he thought he was on Twitter and was just tweeting the latest news.
While on the lookout for birds I spotted a raptor in a dry tree near the end of the bridge and was immediately puzzled by its odd appearance – mostly dark brown but with a white crown – nothing like any bird I had seen before. I took a number of photos to help with an ID whereupon the raptor flew off, only to be replaced moments later in exactly the same spot by an adult Wahlberg’s Eagle – reminiscent of a quick-change magic act!
That led me to think the first one was a juvenile Wahlberg’s Eagle but my Roberts App – usually a comprehensive source of bird information – made no mention of the white cap feature and further searching on the internet came up with one other photo that resembled this one – it was referred to as an “intermediate morph” presumably meaning that it was overall a dark morph but with the white crown of the light morph. Just a tad bizarre!
Spring Day Atlasing
While atlasing along the river towards Letaba, I stopped at one of the turn-offs leading to a viewpoint, when I noticed a Little Bee-eater hawking from a branch then, as they often do, returning to the same spot to look for the next opportunity. As it returned for a third time I focused on it and at the same time noticed it had caught something, so I rattled off a series of shots as it prepared to swallow its prey, hoping for a special photo, although I knew I was not close enough and would have to crop the photos quite substantially to get frame-fillers.
Well I was initially thrilled at the sequence I had caught digitally, but disappointed that my camera had seemingly let me down by not focusing sharply – a rare occurrence with my Nikon. The photos below are the best of the bunch and reasonably focused, but could have been winners, if only I had been closer …..
Nevertheless an exciting moment.
Some other birds
Here is a selection of some of the other photos from the week’s birding –
Despite what some people close to me may suggest, none of these descriptions refer to me –
they are in fact extracts from Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, describing the habits of three bird species which are more often heard rather than seen. So, to be presented with an opportunity to photograph all three of them in quick succession, with another more conspicuous species thrown in for good luck, is a chance in a thousand and I took it with open arms……… and an open lens.
As is often the case, the opportunity arose unexpectedly – we were on a day trip through Kruger in April this year, wending our way slowly on a circular route from Phabeni gate via Skukuza to Numbi gate, and decided to stop at the Skukuza Day Visitors area for a picnic lunch. (See my previous post on “Painted Wolves and a Weary Lion” for more on the trip). The morning had gone well with a variety of birds seen and a rare sighting of a pack of Wild Dogs as the highlight, but by now we were looking forward to a break.
We chose a shady table in a bushy section and greeted the only other group using the area as we passed their equally secluded spot.
While the provisions were being laid out, I pottered about to see what bird life was around at this time of day, usually a quieter time for birding. At the swimming pool several Barn Swallows, Rock Martins and Greater Striped Swallows were swooping about enthusiastically and I heard an African Fish Eagle call from the river – not seeing much else I was content to join the others for lunch. The refried boerewors from last night’s braai accompanied by traditional braaibroodjies went down a treat along with coffee.
When it came time to pack up, I wandered off to investigate some rustling and faint bird sounds that seemed to be coming from nearby bushes and did a quick recce of the surrounding area. By this time our picnic neighbours – the only other people in the area – had left and as I passed their spot I saw some movement in the bushes close to their table.
Using the concrete table as a rather inadequate concealment, I crept closer and sat crouched on the bench, with my camera on the table and checked that it was set up for the shady conditions – aperture priority, high ISO setting for adequate shutter speed, white balance on shade.
Almost immediately a Sombre Greenbul (Gewone Willie / Andropadus importunes) hopped onto an exposed branch and looked straight at me, while I whipped my camera into position and rattled off 3 or 4 shots before it moved on and out of sight – the time as recorded in the photo metadata was 12:24:47.
A minute later a White-browed Robin-Chat (Heuglinse janfrederik / Cossypha heuglini) popped out into view and I followed its progress through the foliage for the next two minutes, snapping it in different poses.
By now my adrenaline level was rocketing and I could not believe my luck when yet another skulker appeared in the form of a Terrestial Bulbul (Boskrapper / Phyllastrephus terrestris), a species that usually spends a lot of time scratching around in the leaf litter, but had now decided to pose in full view on a small branch – time 12:29:08.
By this time I was battling to hold the camera steady as my hands were shaking from the excitement but the photography gods were really out to test my mettle when less than a minute later a Green-backed Cameroptera (Groenrugkwekwevoel / Camaroptera brachyuran) suddenly appeared from nowhere and did the same branch-walking act for my pleasure – time 12:29:50.
So in the space of 5 minutes and 3 seconds I had bagged pleasing photos of 3 skulkers and one other desirable bird and left me with a life-long memory of a very special birding moment.
Kruger National Park ………… just writing those words brings an immediate sense of anticipation ……
especially when you have made as many visits as we have and enjoyed such a diversity of wonderful bush experiences.
It was in April this year, while spending a week at Pine lake Resort near White River, that we decided to visit Kruger for one of the days. And as usual there were unexpected sightings, both on the animal front as well as the birds ……..
We started the day early, hoping to be at Phabeni gate as close to the 6.00 am opening time as possible – as it turned out we were a tad slow in leaving the resort and the drive there took longer than anticipated due to the nature of the road and some slow traffic. When we arrived at Phabeni we were met by a longish queue of vehicles and were told apologetically that “the computers are down and we are processing visitors manually” by the gate staff. This resulted in a long wait before we could at last enter Kruger and make our way along the Doispane road (S1).
We took all of four hours to travel the 40 or so Kms to Skukuza camp and then onwards to the day visitors picnic area just beyond the camp. There were lots of stops along the way to admire the wildlife and ID the birds seen and heard.
An early sighting was Retz’s Helmetshrike, always in a group of several and handsome as ever in their all black plumage and contrasting bright red bill and eye ring.
The usual Lilac-breasted Rollers, Magpie Shrikes and Red-billed Hornbills showed prominently at regular intervals to keep our spirits high. Raptors we saw included Bateleurs in numbers, Brown Snake-Eagles, African Fish-Eagles (5) and a pale form Booted Eagle.
About halfway along the road we stopped to have a look at the Nyaundwa Dam just off the road – this is always a good spot for the classic Kruger scene of animals coming to drink while keeping alert for the predators. Several shorebirds patrolled the dam edges – amongst them Wood Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilts, Common Greenshanks and Three-banded Plovers – while the resident Hippos had a few Red-billed Oxpeckers in attendance. Several Water Thick-knees viewed the proceedings from the sandy banks with what seemed to be disdain.
Shortly after we enjoyed one of the game highlights of the day when we came across a small pack of Wild Dogs, or “Painted Wolves” as they are sometimes known. One gave a display of territorial marking that we have not witnessed before, when he came right up to our vehicle and proceeded to urinate profusely several times while turning a full circle, so close I could have touched him with a broomstick – if I had such a thing handy. It crossed my mind that he may be just another Land Rover fan fed up with the superiority that us Toyota Land Cruiser owners tend to display …….. who knows.
Our next sighting was a little further down the road where a knot of vehicles surrounded something lying at the edge of the road. It was an old Lion, looking as if he was on his last legs, his hips showing under his aged, battered looking skin. When he lifted his head to look at us, it seemed to be an effort and his eyes were dull with none of the fierce glint that he would have shown in his youth. I could have taken a photo but decided against it, simply out of respect for an old timer with not many days to live, at a guess.
We arrived at the Skukuza Day Visitors picnic area which is a few kms beyond Skukuza itself and has a number of pleasant picnic sites set amongst the bushes. It was quiet, being a Monday out of peak season and we had the place to ourselves except for one other small group so we found a nice shady spot and enjoyed leftovers from the previous night’s braai, reheated on the skottel (like an old ploughshare and heated by gas)
In between I scouted around the area and found some very photogenic White-fronted Bee-eaters perched on some low branches – many bird photographer’s favourite because of their bright colouring and their habit of posing openly, without being too skittish.
I was very happy with the results ….
The birding highlight of the day came my way as were packing up to leave the picnic area, when I spotted some movement in the bushes nearby – more about the incredible photographic opportunity in a follow up post (how’s that for keeping you in suspense?)
Our last stop before heading towards the Numbi gate was at the well known (amongst birders) Lake Panic hide overlooking the lake of that name, not far from Skukuza. Initially it looked quiet but we found out from the few people already there that we had missed the earlier drama of a crocodile taking an Impala which had ventured too close to the water as it came to drink. Two large crocs were still wrestling with the unfortunate Impala, presumably already dead, its horns projecting above the water every now and then as the crocs twisted and turned in the water.
The water level was the lowest I have ever seen it at this spot, not even reaching the hide – bird life was limited to a couple of Pied Kingfishers, a Black Crake and a Burchell’s Coucal.
Our exit route was via Numbi gate then through busy rural villages for some 20 kms before reaching White River and the road back to Pine Lake Resort (which is also worth a post – watch this space)
One of the highlights of our visits to Annasrust Farm, near Hoopstad in the Free State, is the river cruise that Pieter likes to lay on for us. During our April 2018 weekend visit to their beautiful farm, Pieter and Marietjie once again arranged to take us out on a late afternoon cruise and we duly set off around 4.30 pm from the riverside landing spot and headed out onto the smooth waters of the Vaal River on their purpose-built raft – basically a large platform on pontoons with a roof over, driven by a large outboard motor.
The Vaal River forms part of the Bloemhof dam at this point – Wikipedia has the following to say on the dam : The dam was commissioned in 1970, has a capacity of 1,269,000,000 cubic metres and has an area of 223 square kilometres, the wall is 33 metres high. It is fed with the outflow from the Vaal Dam (located upstream in Gauteng) as well as rain collected in the Vaal, Vet, Vals and Sand River catchment areas.
Gerda and I sat right in front with glorious views of the river, the slowly setting sun and the varied bird life already into their end of day activities – flying about restlessly, perhaps watching the other birds to see where they’re heading, possibly even wondering what this bunch of humans on the raft are up to… that sort of thing.
Some of this activity was along the shoreline – Cormorants aplenty, groups of Spur-winged Geese and solitary Goliath Herons standing sentry at regular intervals as we cruised smoothly along. The setting sun made for picture-perfect scenes as the rays created multi-coloured patterns from behind the clouds lining the horizon.
Several birds passed the boat in graceful flight
Passing a mid-river island, we saw signs of large colonies of various roosting and breeding bird species along its length. Approaching the colonies, the numbers of birds present were amazing – Darters, Cormorants, Spoonbills, Grey Herons, Yellow-billed Storks and, almost more than all the rest, Great Egrets.
I have seen individual colonies of most of these species at one time or another in the past, but never this variety in one place. The trees that made up the roosts were stained white from the bird’s presence and every available perch seemed to be occupied while numbers wheeled overhead, then dove down and pushed and shoved their way in with flailing wings and legs. Quite a sight to behold!
These photos give an idea of the extent of the colonies – just imagine the racket generated by all these birds to get an inkling of the full experience.
By now the sun was heading inexorably to its meeting with the horizon and Pieter took us back along the river to the spot where we had departed from (ooh, there I’ve done it again – the worst of english grammar crimes, ending a sentence with a preposition – but then, I love living on the edge)
Close to the berth I spotted a Common Sandpiper at the water’s edge………
Just to round off a magnificent outing, Pieter took a detour on the way back to the farm-house to show us the deep orange sunset against a backdrop of some picturesque trees. Only in Africa ……
Now, if only I can get a job as game ranger on the farm……….
The north-eastern part of Free State Province is known as one of the major maize, sunflower and wheat farming areas with its deep sandy soils and seemingly endless vistas across the flat landscape.
By kind invitation of Pieter and Marietjie, part of Gerda’s extended family, we spent a glorious weekend on their farm Annasrust near Hoopstad in April this year, together with our son Stephan and family – pretty much the perfect venue for a relaxing yet stimulating stay, raised to an even higher level by the company, it has to be said.
Annasrust farm is not your average Free State farm, lying as it does on the southern shores of the Vaal River (which forms part of the Bloemhof dam at that point) and stocked with a variety of game which enjoy the largely undisturbed plains, making it more of a mini Game Reserve than a farm.
With its varied habitats, the farm presents plenty of exciting birding opportunities, which started as we drove from the entrance gate to the farmstead through grasslands interspersed with patches of woodland. Once we had greeted our hosts Pieter and Marietjie and had settled in our house – did I mention we had a house to ourselves? – I recorded the species seen on the way in –
several Northern Black Korhaan rising up out of the long grass and flying off in a wide circle, croaking their objection to being disturbed
Ant-eating Chat perched on a termite mound
Sociable Weavers at their enormous communal nest (more fully described in my earlier post Sociable Weaver)
the usual doves and Helmeted Guineafowl and a Spotted Thick-knee which seemed to be awaiting our arrival in the middle of the road, only giving way at the last moment
My plan was to do some early morning birding over the two-day stay, leaving the rest of the day for family activities and any ad hoc birding opportunities that may arise. The only decision needed was whether to head out on foot, limiting the area I could cover, or to take the Prado and explore further and wider. In the end I chose the walking option, one of my favourite forms of exercise and one that trumps any other way of getting close to nature in such beautiful surroundings
Sunrise was at 6.30 am and I was on my way a few minutes later – almost immediately I heard a soft piping call – vaguely familiar and I scanned the tall blue gum trees near the house. I soon found the responsible bird – a Gabar Goshawk which was seemingly agitated by a group of cackling Green Woodhoopoes who had dared to trespass in his territory.
The more familiar call of Rufous-naped Lark – a clear, plaintive “tswee – twooo” – accompanied me as I walked along the sandy track lined with long grass both sides, wet with morning dew.
A bushy tree some way ahead drew my attention – the whitish blob did not fit the pattern of the rest of the tree and through my binos it turned almost magically into none other than a Pearl-spotted Owlet – I had scarcely begun my walk and already had a highlight of the morning. I cursed the fact that I hadn’t taken my camera and turned to go and get it, just as the Owlet disappeared.
This tiny member of the Owl family has to rate as one of the cutest birds around – all fluffy and round with those penetrating yellow eyes and if you’re lucky it will perform its party trick of turning its head 180 degrees to show you the back of its head, complete with false “eyes”.
I found these photos in my archive from 2007 which show the front and back “eyes”
The walk continued with regular sightings of some less common arid bushveld species –
Kalahari Scrub-Robins calling, but difficult to spot amongst the foliage
Barred Wren-Warbler emitting its trilling call that can be heard at a distance despite its small size
Groundscraper Thrush perched high up in a tree and calling melodically for minutes on end
Pririt Batis with its descending, drawn out series of short whistles, heard initially then seen later
An isolated outbuilding which seemed not to be in use, had attracted a pair of Ashy Tits, not seen by me in a few years, while Scaly-feathered Finches occupied a nearby tree along with an excited pair of Neddickys.
And being a game farm there were other sightings of a few of the animals that roam the grasslands ………….
By now I had been walking for an hour and a half and could feel breakfast and coffee beckoning so turned back and headed for the farmstead, where I took off my shoes which were wet through from the dew and caked with the sand from the tracks and left them in the sun to dry out.
Breakfast was duly enjoyed with the family – a feast of fruit platters conjured up by Gerda and Liesl, followed by a baked egg and bacon dish which really hit the spot. The rest of the day was given over to long chats, a midday snooze and a stunning late afternoon river cruise (more about that in the next post)
I was up early and out again for another extended walk, this time my plan was to do a circular route past the old house, down to the river and back along the riverside fence where I would look for the most direct route homewards.
Initially the birds I encountered were mostly the same as the previous morning, then Zitting Cisticola showed, fluttering over the long grass and Cape Penduline Tit made a welcome appearance, moving restlessly among the bushes.
Before reaching the river I added White-browed Sparrow-Weavers to the list and at the river the shallow flats were a moving feast of birds with Yellow-billed and Little Egrets and Cape Teals prominent amongst many others and White-winged Terns flying in elegant fashion just above the water, turning and retracing their path every 50 metres or so.
Walking along the fence, two grazing horses followed me on the other side – hoping for a treat perhaps? I don’t usually have an affinity for horses, so tried to ignore them but they followed me all the way to where I turned for home.
Two hours of walking had left me quite weary and caffeine deprived, so I took the shortest route back to the house where the family were slowly emerging and I was in good time to join them for much-needed coffee.
Later that day we reluctantly left this bit of paradise and headed back to Pretoria – the slow drive out of the farm and along the first stretch of road past Hoopstad was good for a few interesting species to round out a memorable weekend –
Long-tailed Paradise Whydah
Lesser Kestrels in numbers on the overhead wires
A lone White Stork
I can recall reading an article many years ago on a visit to the Free State in which the writer suggested a weekend in the Free State is like a week in the country – I would tend to agree.