Tag Archives: Birding South Africa

Punda Mania 2014 – The Madness Continues

Third Time Lucky?

We had participated in two of these special weekend birding events in previous years, based in Punda Maria camp, and had enjoyed the vibe of a group of keen birders and the unbeatable location of the event, taking in a large chunk of the northern part of Kruger Park. The scoring is probably not meant to be that important, but people and in particular keen birders are competitive animals and it certainly adds to the spirit of an event such as this.

So being the optimistic lot that we are and in anticipation of some special birding experiences, we once again put our names down for the event planned for November 2014.

Thursday

George Skinner and I left Pretoria early and followed the familiar route to Punda Maria. George had arranged with well-known bird guide Samson Mulaudzi to meet him near the Entabeni Forest, which we duly did around 10.45 am and we proceeded into the forest area, hoping for a few specials. Both Lesser and Scaly-throated Honeyguides were easily located by call and the latter was seen flying and trying its best to stay out of sight in the canopy as it did a wide circle around us.

Entabeni Forest
Entabeni Forest
Bat Hawk, Entabeni Forest
Bat Hawk, Entabeni Forest

From there we drove close to the river to a spot where Half-collared Kingfisher was quickly located, then to the spot where Bat Hawk has been nesting for more than 10 years and we soon found it perched high in the tall trees, just off the gravel road. This was a lifer for me, thanks to Samson!

Satisfied with this short birding sortie, we carried on to Punda Maria gate an hour or so away, arriving at the camp at 2.20 pm, to be greeted by the West Rand Honorary Rangers (HR’s) team of William, Monika and Norma who all feel like old friends the third time around.

Punda Maria entrance gate
Punda Maria entrance gate

The Event Starts

Punda Maria chalets
Punda Maria chalets

Check-in and finding our comfortable bungalow did not take long and by 3pm we were back in the air-conditioned restaurant for the briefing led by Monika, who explained the HR’s role and wonderful sponsorship spread over a variety of efforts in many of the National Parks.

Then it was Joe Grosel’s turn to highlight the attractions, features and different habitats of this special part of the Kruger National Park, from Giant Rats to Racket-tailed Rollers, his passion for the area clearly showing.

Once done with the briefing, it was time for the first late afternoon drive and we had hardly left the gate when we were surrounded by a bird party gathered in and around a large tree – I could barely keep up listing the species on Birdlasser, my new bird atlasing App.

White-browed Robin-Chat, Punda Maria
White-browed Robin-Chat, Punda Maria
Brown-crowned Tchagra, Punda Maria
Brown-crowned Tchagra, Punda Maria

Destination PWNJ Lek

As in previous years, a highlight of this event is the visit to the Lek where the rare Pennant-winged Nightjar does its display flight at dusk – this was our destination once again and there was a swell of anticipation as the 40 – odd (the number not the birders, although some of them are pretty odd as well) birders sipped our Strettons G & T’s and waited for the action in the gathering dusk. Well, as Joe put it, it was like the Springbok’s loss to the Irish the previous weekend – disappointing – as the PWNJ’s kept their distance with just one doing a rapid fly past, but nevertheless tickable for my atlas list.

Sunset at the lek, Punda Maria
Sunset at the lek, Punda Maria

Punda Mania 2014-4

On the way back to the camp we came across a magnificent Giant Eagle-Owl, imperious on his perch in a large tree.

Verraux's Eagle-Owl
Verraux’s Eagle-Owl
And it's not eye make-up, all natural
And it’s not eye make-up, all natural

Dinner was a bring and braai and we headed to bed with thoughts of the treasure hunt and a long day’s birding the next day.

Friday

Up (very) early after a 3.30 am alarm, to be ready for the treasure hunt drive at 4.15 am. The treasure hunt entails deciphering cryptic clues into a list of 14 bird, animal and tree species, then finding and photographing each one before returning to the camp by the cut-off time of 12.30 pm, for adjudication by Joe Grosel.

Once every one was on the safari truck, we made our way to Pafuri area, not encountering much of interest until the light allowed us to see the surrounding bush a bit clearer, starting with Black-chested Snake-Eagle and followed by good numbers of birds. A brief diversion to Kloppenheim area added some water-reliant species such as Squacco Heron, Water Thick-Knee, Common Moorhen (unusual in the Kruger), Black Crake and Three-banded Plover.

Punda Mania 2014-31

African Wild Cat
African Wild Cat
Common Scimitarbill
Common Scimitarbill
Broadbilled Roller
Broadbilled Roller
Pit stop for our team
Pit stop for our team
Giant Kingfisher
Giant Kingfisher

Onwards to the Luvuvhu bridge at Pafuri for the usual feast of birding and back to the Pafuri area itself with a lengthy stop at Crook’s Corner, which provided a good boost to our growing list of bird species recorded. A feature of the day’s birding was the number of bird parties we encountered, some called up by Ranger/Driver Jobe who uses his skill at imitating the Pearl-spotted Owlet to draw the birds nearer. On a few occasions we had between 10 and 15 species in close proximity to the vehicle and had to work hard to keep up with ID-ing them all.

At the Pafuri picnic spot, Norma and her colleagues had prego rolls ready which went down a treat, while we continued to scan the area for as yet un-ticked species.

Pafuri picnic spot
Pafuri picnic spot
White-crowned Lapwing
White-crowned Lapwing
Bearded Scrub-Robin
Bearded Scrub-Robin
Ground Hornbill
Ground Hornbill
Great Egret
Great Egret

By then it was late morning and we had found most of the target species, so it was time to head back to camp to be in time for the cut-off – on the way we came across our final target species – Crested Francolin, which had amazingly eluded us till then. Our only slip-up was choosing the wrong Euphorbia species to photograph.

Some of the species we had to find and photograph :

Little Swift
Little Swift
Predator footprint
Predator footprint
Reptile
Reptile
Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove
Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove
Trumpeter Hornbill
Trumpeter Hornbill
Crested Francolin (only just)
Crested Francolin (only just)

After this intense species-hunting, it was time for a siesta until the next round of clues – this time covering targets in the camp itself, which turned into quite a challenge, but again we managed to get all of them photographed between 4 and 6 pm, almost coming short on the Passer Domesticus (House Sparrow) once again, but a last-minute rush to find a “proper” one saved the day.

Vervet Monkey, Punda Maria camp
Vervet Monkey, Punda Maria camp
Dark-capped Bulbul, Punda Maria camp
Paradise Flycatcher, Punda Maria camp
Dark-capped Bulbul, Punda Maria camp
Dark-capped Bulbul, Punda Maria camp
Passer Domesticus, Punda Maria camp
Passer Domesticus, Punda Maria camp

A slightly dazed Pygmy Kingfisher which had flown into a restaurant window, drew some attention away from the goings on in the camp

Pygmy Kingfisher, Punda Maria camp
Pygmy Kingfisher, Punda Maria camp

All that remained was the dreaded Quiz which went a little better than previous years but once again some hasty decisions cost us valuable points, leaving us with only the atlasing session the next day to catch up to the leading teams.

Saturday

Our atlasing session turned into a marathon, starting at just after 4 am and ending at 3 pm when we eventually returned to the camp. Each team was allocated a “good” pentad and a “poor” pentad to atlas, the good one being in a lush bushveld area and including a stretch of river while the poor pentad was in a dry area dominated by Mopane bush. What we were not told was that only the “poor” pentad total would count towards the scoring and so we focused our attention and time on the “good” pentad, leaving the “poor” pentad for later in the day when birds generally take cover from the heat.

At least we enjoyed some excellent early morning birding in the windless, overcast conditions and in prime bushveld, which included the new Nyala Wilderness Trail camp on a bend of the Luvuvhu river with views over the river and the koppies beyond. This was also the cue to enjoy coffee and rusks in this beautiful location.

 

Wahlberg's Eagle
Wahlberg’s Eagle
Honey Badger
Honey Badger
Red-crested Korhaan
Red-crested Korhaan
Arnot's Chat
Arnot’s Chat

After a short drive further we alighted from the vehicle again to take a walk along a stretch of the river, which produced a few species including a highly debated Wagtail which photos showed was a Pied Wagtail despite arguments to the contrary. Then an even shorter drive to a viewpoint over the river which we knew from previous visits to Punda Maria, with wonderful views over the river below.

We continued atlasing productively until we left the pentad after about 2.5 hours of recording and headed south towards the “poor” pentad some distance away, which we entered after 12.00 pm after some heavy debate about where we were in relation to the map provided by Sanparks. Inexperience at working with co-ordinates, which are essential for atlasing, meant there was a total misconception on the part of our driver as to where the pentad boundary was and we found ourselves a full pentad (about 8 km) out of position in a north-south direction.

After much lively discussion and some input on my part (as the only regular atlasser in our team), we did eventually find the pentad boundary, but the map versus co-ordinates debate continued unabated, also due to non-existent roads being shown on the map. The area we found ourselves in was single habitat – Mopane bush with no pans or any other water, so atlasing was slow and quite laborious in the heat of the day and we were relieved when we had completed the minimum 2 hours of atlasing and could head back to the camp. On the way back a Coqui Francolin surprised us as he crossed the road in front of our vehicle.

Baboon
Baboon

Punda Mania 2014-39

Coqui Francolin
Coqui Francolin

The Final Curtain

A last visit to the lek was spectacular, with the male Pennant-winged Nightjar performing majestically, floating back and forward just above tree height and settling on a rock for a minute or two.

G and T's at the Lek
G and T’s at the Lek
Pennant-winged Nightjar Lek
Pennant-winged Nightjar Lek
Pennant-winged Nightjar Lek
Pennant-winged Nightjar Lek
Pennant-winged Nightjar (Photo : George Skinner)
Pennant-winged Nightjar (Photo : George Skinner)

As usual the Honorary Rangers and Sanparks put on a fine closing out dinner and prize-giving but unfortunately our team had fallen out of the running completely.

Punda Mania 2014-28

Nevertheless a great event that added to our appreciation of this part of Kruger, although three in a row is probably enough for the time being.

Kruger Park Birding – Pafuri and Punda Maria

 

Destination : Far Northern Kruger Park

We had made our usual booking for the birding weekend in Kruger Park at the end of January 2014 and were lucky to be allocated the very popular and over-subscribed Punda Maria camp event. This time we added the “Pel’s Pursuit” event, which was to be presented immediately before the birding weekend and promised to be an exciting addition to the itinerary, involving a search for the elusive Pel’s Fishing Owl, which is one of the most sought after birds in Southern Africa and one which I still wanted to add to my “Life List”.

Both events were presented by the West Rand Honorary Rangers who have made these weekends extremely popular over the years.

Joining me on this trip were George Skinner, Nick Royce and Karl Rohrs, while we also connected with Vos and Veronica Vosloo who travelled independently from Kwazulu-Natal.

Birding on the Way

After travelling the familiar route to Polokwane and Makhado, with a breakfast stop at our usual spot, we turned off towards Punda Maria and made a brief detour to Muirhead dams (turn off is at the signboard “Royal Macadamia“), a good site for Pygmy Goose – instead we found a few White-backed Ducks, almost as scarce and always a pleasing sighting.

Muirhead Dam
Muirhead Dam
White-backed Duck, Muirhead dam
White-backed Duck, Muirhead dam

Next stop was Entabeni forest a short distance from the main road (turn off at Entabeni signboard and follow the “Picnic Spot/Hikers Hut” signs), where we hoped to spot the resident Bat Hawk with the help of bird guide Samson, but this species once again eluded me, possibly being in hiding after the heavy rainstorms that preceded our visit. Nevertheless, Red-backed Mannikin was a special sighting and worth the effort. A walk through the cool forest was a welcome but brief relief from the oppressive heat and humidity we had experienced so far.

Entabeni forest - lush after good rains
Entabeni forest – lush after good rains
Insect and offspring, Entabeni forest
Insect and offspring, Entabeni forest

An hour or so later we arrived at Punda Maria gate which marked the official start of the extended weekend events. Entering Kruger Park we were soon rewarded with a soaring Tawny Eagle and the familiar summer calls of Rattling Cisticola and White-browed Scrub-Robin. High above a Martial Eagle and White-backed Vultures patrolled the skies in majestic fashion.

Little Bee-Eaters hawking insects from low branches tried to outdo their larger European Bee-Eater cousins, while a Ground Hornbill went solemnly about his business, looking like a well-dressed undertaker as he plodded through the long grass. Soon we reached Punda Maria camp, our base for the weekend, and with a couple of hours remaining before the gates closed, we drove a section of the Mahonie Loop, which produced nice sightings of Wahlberg’s Eagle, Hamerkop, Carmine Bee-Eater and three species of Flycatcher  (Pale -, Southern Black- and Marico).

Pel’s Pursuit Event – Meeting the team

Next morning started with an introduction to the Pel’s Pursuit team and short talks by Witness on Community outreach programmes, Chris Patton on “Feathers of the North” – the special birds of the Northern Kruger and Tertius Gous on bird photography techniques, all of which were interesting and informative.

The facts
The facts

The rest of the day was at leisure so we decided to do a game and birding drive to Klopperfontein followed later by an afternoon drive around the Mahonie Loop.

The Park was very lush and green and the grass extra-long following the good rains in these parts – good to see but not conducive to easy game spotting. However our priority remained seeing as many bird species as possible, which is also affected by the lush landscapes as food is readily available at all levels of the food chain in these conditions. Nevertheless there were many highlights of the day’s drives, including :

  • 2 sightings of the scarce Grey-headed Parrot and hearing their metallic-sounding calls where they had gathered in a large Baobab tree
  • Several sightings of Dusky Indigobird
  • Tropical Boubou calling not far from the camp
  • A couple of encounters with Crowned Hornbill
  • A glimpse of Arnot’s Chat in the Mopane woodland
  • Grey-hooded Kingfisher spotted twice
  • A lone African Cuckoo seen just before returning to camp
Driving the Mahonie Loop near Punda Maria
Driving the Mahonie Loop near Punda Maria
Hamerkop patiently waiting for prey - frogs etc
Hamerkop patiently waiting for prey – frogs etc
Lesser Spotted Eagle (Probable)
Lesser Spotted Eagle (Probable)
Red-backed Shrike, Summer visitor to Southern Africa from Europe
Red-backed Shrike, Summer visitor to Southern Africa from Europe

Time to Pursue Pel’s

Friday morning saw us up at crack of dawn for a 5.30 am departure, only to find rain coming down heavily, which delayed our departure until 7 am in overcast weather. Our destination was the Levuvhu River and specifically some of the places along the river known for Pel’s Fishing Owl sightings. The drive was long and bumpy in parts, getting hotter and more humid as the clouds thinned out, until we reached a spot close to the river where our walk would begin.

We set off on the walk, sticking close to the river bank where we could, diverting upwards and over koppies where the river bank petered out, sweating profusely in the oppressive heat and extreme humidity, without any sign of the Pel’s. I was atlasing as we went, relying on our ranger David’s skills at ID-ing calls when they were unfamiliar to me. Some of our group were already struggling in the hot, uncomfortable conditions, so regular stops were made for refreshments and water. All in all, we did close to 4 hours walking, which in these conditions really tested our fitness levels – thank goodness for the beautiful, dense riverine forest in places, which provided some relief from the unrelenting sun.

Fish-Eagle and Martial Eagle eye each other
Fish-Eagle and Martial Eagle eye each other
The walk
The walk
Luvuvhu River flowing strongly
Luvuvhu River flowing strongly
The long walk in hot humid conditions tapped our energy
The long walk in hot humid conditions tapped our energy

The birding was good with some memorable sightings :

  • White-throated Robin calling in the dense bush
  • Meve’s Starling showing nicely in the tops of trees
  • Good sightings of Grey-hooded Kingfisher again
  • Colourful Collared Sunbirds in the canopy of the Riverine forest
  • Tropical Boubou in the canopy
  • Black-throated Wattle-Eye responding to taped calls
  • African Harrier-Hawk circling and jousting above the river
African Harrier-Hawk cruising above the Luvuvhu River
African Harrier-Hawk cruising above the Luvuvhu River
Brown Snake-Eagle
Brown Snake-Eagle

The river was flowing fast from the rains and was a caramel colour from the stirred-up mud and silt.

The drive back to the camp was a relief for all, as we enjoyed ice-cold drinks to lessen the heat strain from the long walk. Rain started falling which brought further relief, with no complaints about getting a bit wet in the open sided vehicle.

A pity that we did not encounter the Pel’s Fishing Owl after all the effort put in – that’s how it goes with birding – nothing is guaranteed, but fortunately there is always the probability of a next time to try again.

The Birding Weekend Starts

With the Pel’s Pursuit event done and dusted, it was time to meet the rest of the participants for the “Birding Weekend” starting with a relaxed late afternoon drive, during which several species were added to our weekend list, including a European Nightjar, followed by a braai to close out the day.

Next morning, Saturday, was a complete contrast from the hot and humid conditions of Friday – we awoke to rain at 2h30 (early starts are the order of the day with these events) and were ready to leave camp by 3h15 in the relentless rain, which accompanied us all the way to the Pafuri area an hour and a quarter later. The last stretch was particularly heavy and we were all quite damp by this time, only partly protected from the weather by the leaky canvas top and sides of the safari truck.

We parked and waited under the largest tree near the bridge over the Luvuvhu River for another hour in pitch darkness, wondering what had brought us to this place at this hour in these conditions – the simple answer is a passion for birding.

Once dawn broke, we could see how strongly the river was flowing – an impressive and slightly worrying sight, knowing the extent of previous flooding.

Dawn on Luvuvhu River after heavy rain
Dawn on Luvuvhu River after heavy rain

We spent some time on the bridge, checking the bird life as best we could and making an impromptu cup of coffee to raise the spirits (ours not others) then made our way slowly to Pafuri Picnic spot, fording the deep pools of water that had formed in the dirt road.

Spectacled Weaver at his nest over the Levuvhu River
Spectacled Weaver at his nest over the Levuvhu River
White-fronted Bee-Eater
White-fronted Bee-Eater

Highlights of the Pafuri area were :

  • Eurasian Hobby perched high in a tree
  • Yellow White-Eyes moving about busily
  • Greenshank working a large puddle in the road
  • Pytilias and Firefinches in the lower stratum
Green-winged Pytilia - fairly common in the Pafuri area
Green-winged Pytilia – fairly common in the Pafuri area
Blue Waxbill bathing
Blue Waxbill bathing
Natal Spurfowl
Natal Spurfowl

From the picnic spot it was a short but wet drive to Crook’s Corner where the Limpopo was flowing powerfully, evidenced by the large tree stumps being carried along swiftly by the swollen river. We spent time there enjoying several Bee-Eaters (Blue-cheeked-, White-fronted- and Little) as well as the many birds frequenting the adjoining bush – Red-faced Cisticola looking indignant at being disturbed, Common Scimitarbill, Meve’s Starling, Village Indigobird and African Harrier-Hawk overhead.

Spider Alley

Our Ranger, Richard, then took us on the long drive to an area east of Babalala, by which time the rain had abated and our spirits were a lot higher. The lunch stop alongside a pan with Little Grebe and Red-billed Teal in residence, was made special by the knowledge that very few have the privilege of visiting this area, which is not open to the public.

Nwambiya pan
Nwambiya pan
Red-billed Teal, Nwambiya
Red-billed Teal, Nwambiya
Richard capturing the beauty of the wild flowers
Richard capturing the beauty of the wild flowers
Marabou Stork, KNP
Marabou Stork, KNP
Fawn-coloured Lark
Fawn-coloured Lark

On the way there we had some “fun” traversing a stretch which could easily be called “Golden Orb Alley” – a narrow track through the dense bush which is favoured by Golden Orb Spiders to span their webs across at regular intervals. Every few hundred metres the open safari vehicle drove right through one of these massive webs and the resident spider, caught by the canvas roof edge, would descend into the vehicle right in front of the driver and our bird expert in the passenger seat, who happened to have a “thing” about large spiders. This caused some pandemonium a few times in the front of the vehicle, but our Ranger calmly collected them as they were dangling and deposited each one outside the vehicle without even slowing down.

Driving along "Golden Orb Alley"
Driving along “Golden Orb Alley”

Soon after, we all had a turn at jumping around in our seats as swarms of thousands of “miggies” (midges) hit the open vehicle as we drove at about 40 km/h – one swarm in particular brought us to a standstill as we tumbled out of the vehicle trying to get them out of eyes, nose and ears and to brush them off our clothes, turning it into a chaotic couple of minutes. No wonder this event is billed as “extreme birding”!

However all this discomfort proved to be worthwhile when, travelling along the border with Mozambique, our guides found Rudd’s Apalis and Pink-throated Twinspot in quick succession – both much sought after birds.

Pink-throated Twinspot, Moz border KNP
Pink-throated Twinspot, Moz border KNP

Bull Elephant vs Richard

From there we headed west back to the main Kruger road to Punda Maria camp through pristine grassland, stopping to enjoy close up views of Elephants along the way, for which, it became evident, Richard had a particular respect. One lone Bull got a bit shirty (correct spelling) and showed some aggression to the metal intruder but Richard had his match, revving the engine and advancing slowly and we were happy to see the elephant back off with ears flapping.

African Elephant daring us to come closer
African Elephant daring us to come closer
African Elephant - eyeing us
African Elephant – eyeing us

The evening braai was the chance to relax after a long day’s birding – G&T never tasted so good.

Sunday morning we returned to Pretoria with good memories of a superb weekend of birding one of the top spots in Southern Africa.

And just to round off this longish post…….

Stop me if you’ve heard this one

A joke my dad used to tell came back to me today – it is a gentle Scottish one told by a gentle Scottish man :

A Glaswegian named Jock, who is not feeling well, goes to see his doctor, one Dr McIntosh, who gives him a good check and prescribes some pills which he dispenses himself and hands to the patient with the instruction to “finish the course and bring me a urine sample in the same bottle”. Jock is a little puzzled by this request because he was complaining of a severe headache, but he follows the instruction and brings the urine sample when he next visits the doctor. The doctor has another look at him and prescribes further pills, with the same instruction to bring a urine sample in the same bottle.

When Jock visits Dr McIntosh a third time he is declared fit and well. Jock is curious and asks the doctor why he asked for urine samples when he didn’t seem to refer to them at all – Dr McIntosh replied in his broad Scottish accent “Well laddie, that way you get your bottles back!”

My Birding Year 2014

At this time of year the favourite articles in newspapers and elsewhere are those looking back at the past year, covering everything from general news to politics to sport and plenty of others, so unfortunately I am following suit by looking back at my busy birding year – the good news is that, as usual, you are free to skip the boring verbiage and check out the photos, some of which you may even find of interest.

It has been a busy year for Gerda and myself from many points of view – we have never done as much travelling, both locally and internationally, as we have over the last 12 months and at times we’ve felt it was too much and decided not to be quite so ambitious in future, but it certainly made for an interesting year…….

January

The year started, as it has over the past couple of years, in Mossel Bay where we have a second home and I used the opportunity to do some quality atlasing in the Southern Cape on three separate days – 6th, 14th and 24th(“atlasing” is the recording of bird species in an area called a Pentad, defined by coordinates, about 8 x  8 kms in extent, with the data collected going to a database at the University of Cape Town). The rolling hills of the area surrounding the small town of Albertinia, just 50 kms from Mossel Bay, and further south towards Gouritzmond, were my targets over this period, as they have not been atlased very frequently to date.

Grey-headed Gull, Mossel Bay
Grey-headed Gull, Mossel Bay
Gouritz River
Gouritz River
Cape Rock Thrush, Gouritz River
Cape Rock Thrush, Gouritz River
Denham's Bustard, Albertinia
Denham’s Bustard, Albertinia

We did a quick trip to the Western Cape from the 15th to 21st, visiting the family and enjoying some diverse birding in Kommetjie, Worcester, Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens and the Hex River Valley. See my post on “Western Cape Quickie” for the details of this trip.

Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Swift Tern, Kommetjie
Swift Tern, Kommetjie
Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens, Worcester
Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens, Worcester
Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Worcester
Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Worcester
Hex River Valley
Hex River Valley

Shortly after getting back to Mossel Bay we returned home to Pretoria, over-nighting at Kuilfontein Guest farm outside Spingfontein in the Free State, which was a nice opportunity to fit in the minimum 2 hours of atlasing required for a “Full Protocol” card.

Kuilfontein, near Springfontein in the Free State
Kuilfontein, near Springfontein in the Free State

The month was concluded in grand birding style, starting on the 29th, with a trip to Punda Maria in the far north of Kruger National Park, one of the prime birding spots in South Africa, for the annual Birding weekend run by the West Rand Honorary Rangers. We combined this with the “Pel’s Pursuit” also run by the Honorary Rangers – unfortunately it did not  result in us seeing the sought after but elusive Pel’s Fishing Owl. On the way to Punda Maria we stopped at Entabeni forest to see if we could spot the Bat Hawk that frequents the area, but dipped on that one as well.

Entabeni forest
Entabeni forest
Insect and offspring, Entabeni forest
Colourful grasshopper and offspring, Entabeni forest
Punda Maria
Punda Maria
Fish-Eagle and Martial Eagle eye each other
Fish-Eagle and Martial Eagle eye each other
Walk along Luvuvhu River
Walk along Luvuvhu River
White-fronted Bee-Eater, Pafuri
White-fronted Bee-Eater, Pafuri
Limpopo River in flood at Crooks Corner
Limpopo River in flood at Crooks Corner
Green-winged Pytilia, Pafuri
Green-winged Pytilia, Pafuri
Pink-throated Twinspot, Moz border KNP
Pink-throated Twinspot, Moz border KNP
African Elephant, Punda Maria
African Elephant, Punda Maria

February

After all that hectic birding in January, February was a much quieter month, as we got back to our Pretoria routine – a couple of atlasing outings on the 11th and 22nd took me to the area around Delmas and Devon in the south-east of Gauteng, familiar territory where I have done a fair amount of atlasing previously and which always has a surprise or two.

Cape Longclaw, Devon
Cape Longclaw, Devon
Amur Falcon, Devon
Amur Falcon, Devon
Red Bishop, Devon
Red Bishop, Devon
Black-winged Pratincole, Devon
Black-winged Pratincole, Devon

March

More atlasing on the 10th and 21st, this time covering the area north-west of Potchefstroom while visiting son Stephan and family who live there, as well as the Vlaklaagte area north of Bronkhorstspruit

Vlaklaagte early morning
Vlaklaagte early morning

April

Time to travel again and we set off on an extended trip (covered in detail in my earlier posts on “Four Parks and a Wedding”) to the Southern and Eastern Cape – the places we visited and spent a few days in each were :

De Hoop Nature Reserve on the coast south of Swellendam – 10th to 13th

De Hoop NR - Koppie Alleen
De Hoop NR – Koppie Alleen
Cape Robin-Chat, De Hoop NR
Cape Robin-Chat, De Hoop NR
Puff Adder, De Hoop NR
Puff Adder, De Hoop NR
De Hoop NR - where the birds go, there I am, not far behind
De Hoop NR – where the birds go, there I am, not far behind

Camdeboo National Park on the outskirts of Graaff-Reinet – 26th to 28th

Camdeboo - Lakeview tented camp
Camdeboo – Lakeview tented camp
Karoo Scrub-Robin, Camdeboo NP
Karoo Scrub-Robin, Camdeboo NP
Pririt Batis, Camdeboo NP
Pririt Batis, Camdeboo NP
Camdeboo NP - Valley of Desolation
Camdeboo NP – Valley of Desolation

Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock – 28th to 30th

Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra, in the Park created for them
Mountain Zebra, in the Park created for them
Blue Crane, Mountain Zebra NP
Blue Crane, Mountain Zebra NP
Secretarybird, Mountain Zebra NP
Secretarybird, Mountain Zebra NP
White-backed Mousebird, Mountain Zebra NP
White-backed Mousebird, Mountain Zebra NP
Ground Squirrel (Xerus inauris), Mountain Zebra NP
Ground Squirrel (Xerus inauris), Mountain Zebra NP

Addo National Park an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth – 30th to 4th May

Black-backed Jackal, Addo NP
Black-backed Jackal, Addo NP
Pale Chanting-Goshawk, Addo NP
Pale Chanting-Goshawk, Addo NP

In between we visited De Mond Nature Reserve for some estuarine birding and I spent time atlasing the Gouritzmond area including a first visit to Vöelvlei

De Mond NR
De Mond NR
Cormorants and Gulls, De Mond NR
Cormorants and Gulls, De Mond NR

May

While in Addo, I heard about a Bridled Tern at Cape Recife near Port Elizabeth and took an early morning drive on the 3rd to see if I could spot it, but it wasn’t to be seen, although it had been seen the previous day and was seen for a couple of days thereafter – luck of the draw!

Our return trip to Pretoria on the 4th meant another overnight stop opportunity to do some atlasing – this time at Oudekraal Guest farm near Bloemfontein.

Oudekraal guest farm
Oudekraal guest farm
Spike-heeled Lark nestlings, Oudekraal guest farm
Spike-heeled Lark nestlings, Oudekraal guest farm

During the rest of the month I managed to fit in a couple of days of atlasing, firstly on the 16th covering the coal mining belt around Kendal in Mpumulanga, not an attractive area but no shortage of interesting birds, then more of Potchefstroom on the 26th when we paid a short visit to Stephan and family.

Kendal Power Station
Kendal Power Station
Disused mine avenue, Kendal
Disused mine avenue, Kendal
Vlei in the mist, Potchefstroom
Vlei in the mist, Potchefstroom
White-browed Sparrow-Weaver (deformed bill), Potchefstroom
White-browed Sparrow-Weaver (deformed bill), Potchefstroom

Koos and Rianda invited us to visit Verlorenkloof resort during their timeshare week, which we did on the 30th for a couple of days, enjoying some superb mountain and forest birding

June

The 16th saw us travelling to Durban for our timeshare week at La Lucia just north of Durbs – La Lucia and the adjoining Umhlanga Rocks are good for beachfront and garden birding and I also fitted in visits to two special birding spots in Durban itself, Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve and Durban Bayhead Nature Reserve which adjoins and is almost part of Durban harbour, both excellent birding venues.

Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula Krameri), La Lucia
Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula Krameri), La Lucia
Kenneth Stainbank NR
Kenneth Stainbank NR
Collared Sunbird (Hedydipna Collaris), Kennethe Stainbank NR
Collared Sunbird (Hedydipna Collaris), Kennethe Stainbank NR
Brown Commodore (Junonia natalica natalica), Kenneth Stainbank NR
Brown Commodore (Junonia natalica natalica), Kenneth Stainbank NR
La Lucia beach
La Lucia beach
Cape Cormorant (Phalacrocorax Capensis), La Lucia
Cape Cormorant (Phalacrocorax Capensis), La Lucia
Sandwich Tern and White-breasted Cormorant, Durban Bayhead
Sandwich Tern and White-breasted Cormorant, Durban Bayhead
Black-throated Wattle-eye, Durban Bayhead mangroves
Black-throated Wattle-eye, Durban Bayhead mangroves
Durban Bayhead Nature Reserve
Durban Bayhead Nature Reserve
Durban Bayhead - boardwalk into the mangrove swamps
Durban Bayhead – boardwalk into the mangrove swamps

I closed out the month with an atlasing session around Verena which lies north-east of Bronkhorstspruit.

Misty morning, Verena
Misty morning, Verena
Coqui Francolin, Verena
Coqui Francolin, Verena
Black-shouldered Kite, Verena
Black-shouldered Kite, Verena

July

From the 5th to 11th we enjoyed a week at Sanbonani timeshare resort near Hazyview in the Mpumulanga lowveld with Stephan and family – a superb birding venue and 10 minutes away from the Kruger Park, which we visited twice during the week.

Kurrichane Thrush, Sanbonani
Kurrichane Thrush, Sanbonani
Black Cuckooshrike (Female), Sanbonani
Black Cuckooshrike (Female), Sanbonani
Rhino, Kruger NP
Rhino, Kruger NP
Little Bee-eater
Little Bee-eater
Red-billed Oxpecker, Kruger NP
Red-billed Oxpecker, Kruger NP

On the 19th I atlased in the Leandra area – scruffy in parts but productive for birding.

Shelley's Francolin,Leandra
Shelley’s Francolin,Leandra
Spike-heeled Lark, Leandra
Spike-heeled Lark, Leandra
Country bridge, Leandra
Country bridge, Leandra

August

Our long-awaited and -planned trip to North America began on the 7th and took us to :

Calgary and the Canadian Rockies – 9th to 15th

Black-capped Chickadee, Calgary
Black-capped Chickadee, Calgary
Barn Swallow (American) , Bow Lake Alberta
Barn Swallow (American) , Bow Lake Alberta
Clark's Nutcracker, Bow Summit
Clark’s Nutcracker, Bow Summit

Seattle – 15th to 17th

Glaucous-winged Gull, Seattle
Glaucous-winged Gull, Seattle

Cruise to Alaska and the Inside Passage – 17th to 24th

Tufted Puffin, at sea - the year's highlight!
Tufted Puffin, at sea – the year’s highlight!
Black-footed Albatross, at sea
Black-footed Albatross, at sea
Bonaparte's Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte’s Gull, Juneau
Steller's Jay, Skagway
Steller’s Jay, Skagway
Tufted Puffin, Glacier Bay
Tufted Puffin, Glacier Bay
Bald Eagle, Ketchikan
Bald Eagle, Ketchikan
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), Inside Passage Alaska
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), Inside Passage Alaska

Eastern Canada – 25th to 31st

Bald Eagle, Englishtown Nova Scotia
Bald Eagle, Englishtown Nova Scotia
Cormorants, Bird Island Nova Scotia
Cormorants, Bird Island Nova Scotia

September

Continuation of our Canada trip – 1st to 6th after which we returned home

Further atlasing in the Vlaklaagte area on the 22nd and near Potchefstroom on the 29th saw out the month

Eastern Clapper Lark, Vlaklaagte
Eastern Clapper Lark, Vlaklaagte
Black-shouldered Kite, Vlaklaagte
Black-shouldered Kite, Vlaklaagte
Southern Masked-Weaver, Potch area
Southern Masked-Weaver, Potch area
Suricate family, Potch area - very curious about my movements
Suricate family, Potch area – very curious about my movements

October

Back in Potchefstroom for Stephan’s birthday, I atlased an area north-east of Potch on the 20th

Borakalalo Nature Reserve which lies north-east of Brits in the North West province (now that’s a bit confusing) was the venue for a morning’s birding on the 24th, after hearing about the presence of a Pacific Golden Plover. This time I was lucky enough to see it easily and well and celebrated by atlasing the area and enjoying a picnic with Gerda who went along for the ride.

Pacific Golden Plover, Borakalalo NR
Pacific Golden Plover, Borakalalo NR
Southern Black Tit, Borakalalo NR
Southern Black Tit, Borakalalo NR
Black-winged Stilt, Borakalalo NR
Black-winged Stilt, Borakalalo NR

Just a few days later, on the 29th, I tried for the Pectoral Sandpiper seen there during the previous few days, but dipped on this vagrant. Nevertheless I had a wonderful day of close-up birding and photography of the abundant water birds that gather there.

Three-banded Plover, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Three-banded Plover, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Pied Avocet, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Pied Avocet, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Squacco Heron, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Squacco Heron, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Hottentot Teal, Marievale Bird Sanctuary
Hottentot Teal, Marievale Bird Sanctuary

November

On the 7th I targeted a few pentads in the rural area near Mkhombo dam, not often visited by atlasers. The area can best be described as scruffy and arid but still produced a few surprises.

Rufous-naped Lark, Mkhombo area
Rufous-naped Lark, Mkhombo area
Great Spotted Cuckoo, Mkhombo area
Great Spotted Cuckoo, Mkhombo area
White-throated Robin-Chat, Mkhombo area
White-throated Robin-Chat, Mkhombo area

Then it was time to return to Punda Maria from the 13th to 16th for the “Punda Mania” birding event which is the 3rd one that George Skinner and I have done together and was as intense and challenging as before.

Sunset at the lek, Punda Maria
Sunset at the lek, Punda Maria
Little Swift, Luvuvhu River bridge
Little Swift, Luvuvhu River bridge
Pygmy Kingfisher looking dazed (apparently flew into the restaurant window at Punda Maria camp)
Pygmy Kingfisher looking dazed (apparently flew into the restaurant window at Punda Maria camp)
Sunrise near Punda Maria
Sunrise near Punda Maria
Pennant-winged Nightjar, Punda Maria
Pennant-winged Nightjar, Punda Maria

Straight after that Gerda and I travelled to Matekula Country Estate, which lies 35 kms beyond Machadadorp, to join Alastair and Anne plus a few friends for a couple of days at this venue.

Almost before we were ready, we found the year was rapidly running out as we packed once again for the trip down to Mossel Bay for our end-of-year long visit. On the way we stopped over at Abbotsbury Guest farm near Graaff-Reinet – a lovely place with some good Karoo birding.

Abbotsbury guest farm near Graaff-Reinet - the cottage we had for our overnight stay
Abbotsbury guest farm near Graaff-Reinet – the cottage we had for our overnight stay
Karoo choir - hey you in the second row please face the front!
Karoo choir – hey you in the second row please face the front! Let’s do Silent Night in C Sharp

December

Time for some final atlasing for the year starting with Mossel Bay itself which I do a few times while staying here. On the 5th it was the turn of Riversdale which is very poorly atlased to date and I added loads of species to the records.

Then on the 26th I atlased the area north of Albertinia which produced very good totals and some specials.

We joined Andre and Geraldine on a day trip to Calitzdorp on the 27th and I was thrilled to find a Cape Siskin in the Robinson Pass on the way there – a bird I have been trying to track down for some years and a great way to round off the year.

More of the same next year? I certainly hope so!

All the best for the New Year!

 

 

St Francis Bay & Cape St Francis : Blessed with beauty

“The rapidly setting sun was throwing golden reflections across the river channels, making for a magical scene, as the numerous Terns present restlessly took off for a circuit over the wide estuary, settling en-masse on narrow strips of exposed sand

〈Health warning : this post contains descriptions and photos of cars in addition to the usual birding stuff〉

The story so far…

As a follow on to our visit to Port Elizabeth and part of our 10 day trip to the Eastern Cape in April 2013, we chose to spend a few days in St Francis Bay, a small town south-west of PE, which we had never found an opportunity to visit and decided that this was the time to see what it was about. The birding spot descriptions in Roberts VII app were also enticing, promising a variety of waders in particular, so I was looking forward to some scouting around in search of something unusual and perhaps even a lifer for my trouble.

Getting there

We had enjoyed a couple of  days in Addo Elephant Park (covered in an earlier blog post) and left around 10.30 am to cover the short distance to St Francis Bay – with plenty of time on our hands we decided to take a slightly longer route to include Uitenhage, home to the Volkswagen factory in South Africa and very much the driving force (no pun intended, but it works anyway) behind the town. I had heard about a VW Heritage Centre being part of the factory complex and was curious to visit it – my passion for all things motoring comes second to birding but only just, so I don’t like to pass up an opportunity to take in a motor museum or a motoring event.

VW Heritage Centre in Uitenhage
VW Heritage Centre in Uitenhage
Old Studebaker bakkie
Old Studebaker bakkie

Suffice to say the VW Heritage Centre was well worth the trouble and covers most of the history of VW in SA, as well as other makes which were assembled at the same facility, such as DKW, Auto-Union and Studebaker.

A selection of VW’s on view :

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Some of the other makes :

DKW
DKW
Audi
Audi
Studebaker
Studebaker – and a Volvo hiding away

This was Gerda’s favourite :

101_3356 101_3355 101_3354 101_3353

After the museum visit and a light lunch at a friendly Coffee Shop, we left Uitenhage and completed the journey to St Francis Bay, where we found our guest house without too much trouble, a short drive from the village centre.

St Francis Bay

We had booked the guest house online before our visit to the Eastern Cape and it met all our expectations – we were the only guests for the few days we spent there and got chatting (well Gerda did, she’s the chatty one) to Joan who owns and runs the guest house in a quietly efficient manner including preparing a full breakfast. In the evenings we followed her advice and tried the local restaurants, which were of a high standard and most enjoyable.

It is always exciting visiting a place for the first time, especially from a birding point of view, not knowing what to expect and with the chance of a surprise waiting just around the corner.

I wasted no time on arrival and followed Joan’s advice to drive to the Kromme River estuary before sunset for a bit of initial exploration –  and atlasing of course. It being low tide, the birds I could see were at quite a distance in the middle of the estuary, so I removed my shoes and socks and waded through the shallow part of the channel to get to the exposed sand banks in the middle of the estuary for a better view.

Turnstone leading 3 Grey Plovers (the black armpits are a feature of the Grey Plover)

Many waders were present, including myself at that point, and some of the smaller species such as Sanderling, Common Ringed Plover and Ruddy Turnstone, as well as a selection of larger waders with Whimbrel, Grey Plover and African Black Oystercatcher being most prominent.

Grey Plover
Grey Plover
Grey Plovers and a Ruddy Turnstone
Grey Plovers and a Ruddy Turnstone
Whimbrels and Plovers
Whimbrels and Plovers

The rapidly setting sun was throwing golden reflections across the river channels, making for a magical scene, as the numerous Terns present restlessly took off for a circuit over the wide estuary, settling en masse on narrow strips of exposed sand. Most were Common Terns with a few Swift Terns mingling with them, but standing out with their larger size and bright yellow bills

Sunset on the Kromme River estuary
Sunset on the Kromme River estuary

101_3461 101_3465

Next morning

After a hearty breakfast, we headed into the village to find the knitting shop that Gerda had  heard about from Joan – while she spent an hour or so indulging her passion, I carried on with mine and expanded my atlasing coverage to include as much of the town and residential area as possible.

Not too many species were added and I was really shocked by the state of the roads in the town, which were in a sad state of disrepair and obvious neglect – potholes everywhere and no sign of any attempt to fix anything.

Later we were even more disturbed when we took a drive through the part of St Francis that suffered a massive fire in November 2012, destroying about 70 thatched roof houses which were in the “canalled” area near the river – nothing worse than seeing so many homes razed to the ground, with many bare properties up for sale probably out of despair at the massive loss suffered. Apparently the fire was the result of a braai fire which got out of control in windy conditions and the local fire brigade proved to be useless in the face of it.

But back to more pleasant memories….

Cape St Francis

We took the road to Cape St Francis, a separate town a short distance south of St Francis Bay (all very confusing when you are not in the know), stopping at Port St Francis (now it’s really confusing) on the way to have a look at the small harbour located there. In Cape St Francis we drove to the sea front and stopped to scan the shoreline and sea – a surprise awaited in the form of an African Penguin close inshore and I was once again struck by the agility it was displaying in the rough seas amongst the rocks, diving under the waves as they came rushing in – it hardly seems like a bird species in those conditions. No African Penguins had been listed before in the pentad so it is clearly not a regular sighting in the area.

African Penguin at home in the rough sea
African Penguin at home in the rough sea

Kittlitz’s Plover and White-fronted Plover were both present along the grassed area

On the way out we popped into Sea Point Nature Reserve at the southernmost point of the bay and took a walk along the rocky path beyond the lighthouse, where a few Oystercatchers and Cormorants were visible, while a Cape Gannet flew by offshore and a Bokmakierie proudly claimed his territory in the fynbos.

Lighthouse at Cape St Francis
Lighthouse at Cape St Francis

IMG_0182

Sea Point Nature Reserve
Sea Point Nature Reserve

There were still a couple of hours of daylight left as we returned to our guest house, so we paid a second visit to the estuary where I was thrilled to find a pair of Bar-tailed Godwits on the exposed sand flats – another lifer!

The following day was the last of our Eastern Cape trip and with our flight back to the “big smoke” only being at 6pm we took the “road less travelled” back to PE, via Humansdorp and the surfing hotspot of Jeffreys Bay, stopping frequently along the way.

Phew, and if I get this posted now it means I have posted twice in September, sticking (only just) to my target of two posts a month

 

Port Elizabeth : A breath of Fresh Air

we were very pleasantly surprised by just how nice a place PE turned out to be – the size (not too big, not too small), friendly atmosphere, attractively upgraded beachfront area, clean appearance and general all-round good feel made it a pleasure to visit and drive around”

The background

We had not been to Port Elizabeth (known as “PE” to most South Africans) in the Eastern Cape for a very long time, perhaps 20 years or more, so we were unsure what to expect when we decided to spend 6 days there in April 2013, as part of a 10 day trip to the Eastern Cape. Our reason (excuse?) for going to PE was to support our son James and wife Minette along with their 2 young kids, as James had entered to do the “Ironman” Triathlon which takes place in PE each year. For those not in the know, the Ironman is an event that would horrify most of us who belong to the unfit brigade and even a lot of those who consider themselves fit – 3.8 Km of swimming in the open sea, a bike ride of 180 Km and a run of 42 Km!

While we were in PE it made sense to visit a couple of the birding spots listed on my Roberts VII App, and I selected two which looked really worthwhile – Cape Recife Nature Reserve and Swartkops River Estuary, both of which were within easy driving distance of Summerstrand, where we had rented accommodation for the stay.

Port Elizabeth Impressions

Memories of short visits to PE a long time ago were faded, but we weren’t particularly enthusiastic about our visit to the city as such, however we were very pleasantly surprised by just how nice a place PE turned out to be – the size (not too big, not too small), friendly atmosphere, attractively upgraded beachfront area, clean appearance and general all-round good feel made it a pleasure to visit and drive around.

Summerstrand beach
Summerstrand beach
View from the pier
View from the pier
Cormorants occupying rocks offshore
Cormorants occupying rocks offshore

Our accommodation was in a guest house in Summerstrand, close to the Ironman start and finish and with plenty of space for all 6 of us

Our accommodation in PE
Our guest house accommodation in PE
Jemma found a comfy spot to catch the sun
Jemma found a sunny spot at the guest house

The Ironman Triathlon was well-organized and supported and more or less dominated the Summerstrand area and surroundings for the whole weekend, pulling in visitors from all over South Africa and internationally as well.

Part of the Ironman route
Part of the Ironman route
James on the bike leg
James on the bike leg
The marathon at the end was tough
The marathon run at the end was tough, but he made it
Minette providing moral support
Minette providing moral support

Cape Recife Nature Reserve

This reserve lies at the southernmost point of Algoa Bay, comprising long stretches of sandy and rocky beaches, coastal dune scrub and fynbos. The rocks attract seven species of Tern at different times, some of which are resident, others visitors.

The reserve is easy to find, being signposted from Marine Drive, just 2.5 km from Summerstrand and there is a nominal entrance fee, which you pay at the Pine Lodge Resort on the left immediately before the manned entrance boom.

I drove there on the Friday afternoon and once into the reserve, I continued the atlasing which I had started on the Pentad boundary before the turn-off (Pentad 3400_2540). Along the first stretch of road that leads to the lighthouse,  I heard a number of Sombre Greenbuls giving their sharp “Willie”call and saw Barn Swallows, Fiscal Flycatcher, Karoo Scrub-Robin and several other common birds to get my list going. Further on, the beach came into view and I stopped at a gap in the dunes to check out the shoreline and was rewarded with a Little Egret working the rocks for morsels.

Cape Recife
Cape Recife
Little Egret - yellow feet showing nicely
Little Egret – yellow feet showing nicely

The road soon ended at the lighthouse where there is a parking area. Judging by the heavy earthmoving equipment parked nearby and signs of sand being repositioned, I guessed that some form of beach rehabilitation was underway, which was reinforced when I came across rows of old tires half buried in the sand as I made my way along the wide beach.

Cape Recife
Cape Recife

Just beyond the lighthouse, the beach stretched for a long distance, bordered on the sea side by rows of jagged rocks which effectively break up the waves, so that only shallow streams reach the inner beach, making it ideal for the waders present such as :

Common Ringed Plover

Common Ringed Plover
Common Ringed Plover

White-fronted Plover

White-fronted Plover, Cape Recife
White-fronted Plover, Cape Recife

Sanderling (which was a lifer for me)

Sanderling, Cape Recife
Sanderling, Cape Recife

Other birds enjoying the sandy flats were many Kelp Gulls, African Black Oystercatchers and a group of 3 Whimbrels , which hopped off the rocks and trotted off elegantly in the shallow water as I approached.

African Black Oystercatcher, Cape Recife
African Black Oystercatcher, Cape Recife
African Black Oystercatchers
African Black Oystercatchers
Whimbrel, Cape Recife
Whimbrel, Cape Recife
Whimbrels
Whimbrels

Less pleasing was the amount of litter in the form of plastic bottles and bags plus other debris, which is probably washed ashore from the bay, as the beach itself does not attract the usual gamut of holidaymakers, just hardy walkers, fisherman and birders who, by their nature, are not inclined to litter.

I noticed that some of the Oystercatchers were raising their one leg when standing still and limping slightly when walking – on closer inspection of my photos when I got back home, some of them were ringed with bands that appeared to be too tight, which was probably the reason for their discomfort. (I placed these photos on the SA Birding Facebook page in the hope that someone in the know would look into it)

African Black Oystercatchers with ring showing
African Black Oystercatchers with rings showing
Another ringed Oystercatcher
Another ringed Oystercatcher
This ring looks tight and may have been causing the Oystercatcher to limp
These rings look tight and may have been causing the Oystercatcher to limp

One part of the beach had rows of pebbles and shells along the high water mark, some of which – to my surprise – “came alive”, turning into plovers and Sanderlings as I got too close for their comfort, and moving off in unison. This just proved once again how well camouflaged they are in their natural environment.

Sanderlings
Sanderlings
White-fronted Plovers
White-fronted Plovers

The Terns present during my short visit were a contingent of Swift Terns occupying small rocks just offshore and a few Caspian Terns with their distinctive red bills, flying overhead and posing on the sandy flats.

Swift Terns, Cape Recife
Swift Terns, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife

White-breasted Cormorants were prominent along the water’s edge, waddling about then taking off in rapid direct flight as I approached.

White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Recife
White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Recife

Having completed the minimum 2 hours of atlasing and enjoyed some memorable birding, I slowly made my way back up the beach in the rapidly fading light past the lighthouse, partly silhouetted against the setting sun, to the parking area for the short trip back to the guest house.

 

Cape Recife
Cape Recife
Lighthouse at Cape Recife
Lighthouse at Cape Recife

Swartkops River Estuary

This is the other “must-visit” birding spot for visitors to PE. We visited the area on the Monday (Pentad 3350_2535) and found it about 20 minutes drive along the N2 towards Grahamstown, where we turned off at the Swartkops/John Tennant Road intersection. Once we were in Swartkops village, we turned right towards the riverside, which was accessible at certain points, but the sand flats exposed by the receding tide and favoured by many waders, Gulls and others were quite a distance away and a spotting scope would have been of great assistance – I only decided later in the year to treat myself to my first spotting scope and on this occasion had to make do with the binos.

Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary

Most of the birds were easy enough to ID but a couple of larger waders had me puzzled – a nearby tree helped me hold the binos steady and after straining my eyes for some time I was able to confirm a Greater Sand Plover, which happily was a lifer for me.

Having started on the Swartkops Village side we slowly made our way along the riverside until we came to a single lane bridge, which took us to Amsterdamhoek, a village which stretches along the other side of the estuary and has a long row of riverside houses which have clearly been there for many years, some renovated, others looking rather old and battered by the elements.

On the way a Harrier did a fly over across the marshy area next to the road, but unfortunately I was not able to confirm an ID although I suspect it was one of the “ring-tail” harriers such as Montagu’s or Pallid. My photos of this bird in flight were far off and hurried so were not conclusive at all.

The road through Amsterdamhoek ended at the river mouth, where many Terns were present, resting on long narrow sand banks exposed by the tide – most were Common Terns with a sprinkling of Swift Terns and a couple of Caspian Terns in between.

Terns at Swartkops Estuary
Terns at Swartkops Estuary

All of the birds present kept their distance, making it impossible to get close-up photos of them, with the exception of some Domestic Geese which appeared to have made the estuary their home – so here is the only decent bird photo I could get on the day!

Domestic Geese
Domestic Geese have made their home at Swartkops Estuary

All in all we found PE to be a really pleasant place for a visit and could easily go back there if the opportunity arises

 

Four Parks and a wedding (Part 4) – Addo Elephant Park

The Story so far….

Having spent a few nights at Camdeboo and Mountain Zebra National Parks on this current trip, following our earlier visit to De Hoop Nature Reserve, we were  looking forward to a further 3 nights at Addo National Park to complete the quartet of parks. So far we had found each one most enjoyable in its own way, with Mountain Zebra National Park top of our list for having provided the most “African” experience of the three.

The road to Addo – Thursday 1 May 2014

Leaving Mountain Zebra National Park behind us after checking out around 11 am, we headed for nearby Cradock to stock up at the local Spar, followed by a coffee at True Living cafe accompanied by the best carrot cake we’ve had in a long time (they bake on the premises so it’s as fresh as it can get)

From there we headed down the N 10 with a diversion to Somerset East to check out the local museum, which we discovered was closed on the public holiday, but it was interesting just to drive through this small historical Eastern Cape town that we would not otherwise have seen. By now it was lunchtime, so we found a roadside spot with large blue gums to provide some shade and ate our “padkos” rolls.

Roadside lunch stop
Roadside lunch stop

The next stop was a short one to view the Slagtersnek monument, just off the road beyond the small town called Cookhouse. The monument commemorates the spot where a number of Dutch rebels surrendered after being confronted by British forces on 18 November 1815, however we were disappointed to find the surrounds unkempt and apparently not cared for in a long time.

Slagtersnek monument
Slagtersnek monument

The road continued in winding fashion with lengthy road works making our progress slow, resulting in us only reaching Addo around 5 pm, but the scenery along the way was rewarding, reminding us of the lowveld in places with lush growth and fruit farms

Addo Reception
Addo Reception

Back in Addo

Our first visit to Addo was just over a year previously when Gerda and I had enjoyed a few days in the park after visiting PE, so we were familiar with the layout. Some of the photos and descriptions I have used in this post are from that visit.

IMG_1242

We had booked a few months before but by then it was already close to full so we had to accept one night in a chalet followed by 2 nights in the Forest Cabins – not ideal but it meant we could try out the different accommodation units.

Settling into our chalet, some familiar calls resounded in the fading light – Sombre Greenbul with its piercing whistle, the loud “chip – ing” of Bar- throated Apalis and a pair of Bokmakieries performing a duet. A little later as it darkened a Fiery – necked Nightjar started its “Lord please deliver us” call – so evocative wherever you hear it but especially so in the bush.

Sombre Greenbul, Addo NP
Sombre Greenbul, Addo NP
Bokmakierie, Addo NP
Bokmakierie, Addo NP
Bar-throated Apalis, Addo NP
Bar-throated Apalis, Addo NP

Exploring Addo and beyond

While having our customary early morning coffee on the patio, a pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers made a noisy appearance in a nearby tree, followed by Grey-headed Sparrow and a Fiscal Flycatcher, the latter looking debonair in its crisp black and white plumage – about to ask for a ‘Martini – shaken not stirred’. Soon after, a Lesser-striped Swallow settled on the roof, making it easy to ID as opposed to when they are in the air, when it is more of a challenge to separate them from the Greater-striped Swallows.

Grey-headed Sparrow, Addo NP
Grey-headed Sparrow, Addo NP
Striped Swallows, Addo NP
Striped Swallows, Addo NP

Having a 3 hour gap before we could move into our Forest cabin, we decided to go in search of the grave of Percy Fitzpatrick, author of the classic story of Jock of the Bushveld, which we had heard was not far from Addo Elephant Park, off the road to Kirkwood. Passing through the village of Addo we spotted a building with the name ‘Percy Fitzpatrick Library’ and immediately stopped to find out more – good thing because the very helpful librarian was more than willing to chat about the library, the area and showed us a portfolio of historical photos in a large album kept by the library. She also pointed us in the right direction to the grave site and ‘Lookout’.

It didn’t take long to find both at the end of a dirt road with heavy encroaching bush both sides (bit nerve-wracking for those who don’t like getting the car scratched) and it was clear that not much is done to look after the site, which was completely overgrown and in a sorry state – another neglected opportunity to create something which I’m sure many tourists would enjoy visiting.

 

Entrance to site where Percy Fitzpatrick and his wife are buried - the garden has run wild
Entrance to site where Percy Fitzpatrick and his wife are buried – the garden has run wild
The grave of Percy Fitzpatrick
The grave of Percy Fitzpatrick

The ‘Lookout’, built to honour their son, turned out to be a stone structure with a short stair to take you to a lookout deck, with wonderful views across the countryside and the Sundays River below, but this too was in need of some TLC.

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View over the countryside from 'The Lookout'
View over the countryside from ‘The Lookout’
View from The Lookout
View from The Lookout

 

By the time we got back to the rest camp, it was past 1pm so we could move into our Forest Cabins, which turned out to be comfortable and cosy with a small bathroom, a private deck and use of a communal kitchen.

Forest Cabin, Addo NP
Forest Cabin, Addo NP
Poolside flowers, Addo NP
Poolside flowers, Addo NP

There was time for a swim at the pool, cold but invigorating, before setting off on a late afternoon drive. The thick bush on the route we followed wasn’t conducive to spotting any of the pachyderms that Addo is named and famed for, but at a viewpoint high up on a hill we looked down on a classic scene of more than a hundred Elephant in the distance.

Elephant, Addo NP
Elephant, Addo NP

Elephant, Addo NP

African Elephant, Addo NP
African Elephant, Addo NP

Along the way the bush was good for several common species such as Cape Weaver, Common Fiscal in numbers, Bokmakierie and Karoo Scrub-Robin. A Denham’s Bustard in the more open area was a nice surprise.

Karoo Scrub-Robin, Addo NP
Karoo Scrub-Robin, Addo NP
Denham's Bustard, Addo NP
Denham’s Bustard, Addo NP

I spent the next day mostly at Cape Recife in Port Elizabeth, looking for a Bridled Tern that had been seen there during the week, unfortunately without success.

Back at Addo there was time to relax before doing a last drive along the route where most of the dams and waterholes are and we came across numbers of game as well as a few new ‘trip birds’ such as Southern Tchagra, as always skulking in the bushes, and a far more brazen pair of Red-necked Spurfowl, common to Addo.

Southern Tchagra, Addo NP
Southern Tchagra, Addo NP
Red-necked Spurfowl, Addo NP
Red-necked Spurfowl, Addo NP

At the dams, SA Shelducks showed once again as did Little Grebe and some Thick-Knees (Dikkop is still a much better name). Hapoor dam, named after a famous elephant with a chunk of its ear missing, was a welcome sight with its wide open spaces surrounding the dam, ideal for game including Kudu and favoured by some Crowned Lapwings.

Spotted Thick-Knee (Dikkop), Addo NP
Spotted Thick-Knee (Dikkop), Addo NP
4 in a row, Addo NP
4 in a row, Addo NP
Kudu, Addo NP
Kudu, Addo NP
Buffalo getting the spa treatment (on our previous trip)
Buffalo getting the spa treatment (on our previous trip)

We hadn’t allowed ourselves much time so had to make haste (barely sticking to the 40km/h speed limit) back to the game area gate before it closed at 6 pm. The lone guard at the gate gave us a stern look but we had seen the same look each time we entered the game area so weren’t too fazed.

Jack’s Picnic Spot

We had visited this spot on our previous visit and found it to have a special charm with tables set into alcoves created in the bush, visited by cute little Four-striped mice and Red-necked Spurfowl, both of which latched onto any errant crumbs from our cheese and crackers picnic – not our usual style but we were in a rental car after flying to PE, so had to make do with a plastic shopping bag to carry our humble provisions. This picnic spot gets its name from an ailing Rhino which spent its last years at this spot in a protected environment – little did he know how vulnerable the next generations of Rhino would become with rampant poaching in our country to feed the Far East obsession with Rhino horn.

Striped Mouse (Rhabdomys pumilio), Addo NP
Striped Mouse (Rhabdomys pumilio), Addo NP
Striped Mouse
Striped Mouse
Striped Mouse
Striped Mouse

 

Red-necked Spurfowl
Red-necked Spurfowl
Southern Boubou - took a liking to our rental car (on our previous trip)
Southern Boubou – took a liking to our rental car (on our previous trip)

Stoep Sitting

Southern Masked-Weaver, Addo NP
Southern Masked-Weaver, Addo NP
Olive Thrush, Addo NP
Olive Thrush, Addo NP

Most of the chalets and cabins have stoeps (patios) with views over the bush and are a great place to relax in the early morning and evenings – there is a constant stream of passing bird life to enjoy, most of which are tame and easy to photograph – Weavers (Cape and Southern Masked), Bulbuls (Cape and Dark-capped), Olive Thrushes and Bar-throated Apalises are most common with Malachite Sunbirds not far behind

Cape Weaver, Addo NP
Cape Weaver, Addo NP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cape Bulbul, Addo NP
Cape Bulbul, Addo NP
Malachite Sunbird, Addo NP
Malachite Sunbird, Addo NP

The Small Stuff

Addo is famous for its elephants but we were fascinated by some of the smaller creatures and insects which make this park special and provide great entertainment. Several times we came across the Flightless Dung-beetle – one particular beetle was crossing the dirt road with his meticulously formed dung ball with a ‘Supervisor’ in close attendance all the way across, seeming to guide him and even assisting to get him back on his legs when he toppled onto his back at one point.

Flightless Dung-Beetle with 'Supervisor'
Flightless Dung-Beetle with ‘Supervisor’ – the ball is almost golf ball size and they roll it with their hind legs while facing backwards, thus a supervisor helps a lot

Such a pity that other visitors ignore the many signs asking them to watch out for Dung beetles which are so vulnerable when crossing the road, resulting in a lot of crushed beetles.

At another spot we watched a group of Meerkats as they scurried after food while their lone sentry stood watch like a Royal guardsman – right under the nose of a Pale Chanting Goshawk not 3 m above them, which they chose to ignore completely

Suricate / Meerkat (Suricata suricatta), Addo NP
Suricate / Meerkat (Suricata suricatta), Addo NP
Pale Chanting Goshawk (Juvenile), Addo NP
Pale Chanting Goshawk (Juvenile), Addo NP
Pale Chanting Goshawk, Addo NP
Pale Chanting Goshawk, Addo NP

The Bulbul puzzle

I mentioned seeing both Cape and Dark-capped Bulbuls, once side by side in the same tree – apart from the white ring around the eye of the Cape Bulbul, they are virtually identical but don’t seem to interbreed – how do they know?

Heading back home

We had enjoyed our month of much travelling and many highlights, but as always we were now looking forward to getting back home and settling into our normal routine. The trip back was once again spread over two days of about 600 km each, with an overnight stop at Oudekraal guest farm just south of Bloemfontein. It turned out to be a pleasant place with excellent food but somewhat overpriced compared to other guest houses we have tried over the years.

Oudekraal guest farm

Oudekraal guest farm
De Oude kraal guest farm

One thing I can never understand about guest farms is why the front house, gardens and rooms are well looked after, yet take a walk (as I always do) around the farmyard and surroundings and it’s often a mess – old scrap everywhere and generally untidy. This is the case with a number of places we have visited and again with Oudekraal. The overgrown tennis court was sad to see – even if no one uses it, just keep it looking decent.

Final surprise

As we left Oudekraal we spotted a Spike-heeled Lark alongside the road and stopped to view it, noticing with interest that it had a juicy insect in its beak. As we stopped it walked off quickly and we followed it for about 100m until it suddenly stopped and ducked towards a hidden nest where two very young chicks were waiting to be fed – what a lucky find! The nest was so well camouflaged that when I got out to take a photo (from a distance using the telephoto lens) I had to search for it again, despite being a few metres away.

Spike-heeled Lark, De Oude kraal guest farm
Spike-heeled Lark, De Oude kraal guest farm
Very young Spike-heeled Larks on the nest
Very young Spike-heeled Larks on the nest

And so we came to the end of a memorable month of traveling – can’t wait for the next trip!

Four Parks and a wedding (Part 3) – Mountain Zebra

The Story so far…

Parts 1 and 2 covered our visits to De Hoop Nature Reserve and Camdeboo National Park. The latter was enjoyable from many points of view, not least having the small tented camp virtually to ourselves, but our overall impression was that it did not have the “feel” of a National Park, probably due its relatively small size and being in close proximity to the town of Graaff-Reinet. Our next destination – Mountain Zebra National Park, on the other hand, proved to be everything we look for in a major National Park and has the potential to become a major tourist attraction, especially when the current plans to extend it, and eventually have a protected area running from Camdeboo all the way to Mountain Zebra, come to fruition.

Getting there – Monday 28 April 2014

The park lies west of Cradock in the Eastern Cape and we reached the main gate off the R 61 road around 4.30pm, giving enough time for an unhurried drive of the remaining 12 kms to the main rest camp before the camp gates closed at 6 pm. On the way we had sightings of African Spoonbill, alone in a large pond, Familiar Chats and Ant-eating Chats at regular intervals and old “Fumanchu” aka Scaly-feathered Finch in small groups looking almost too small and cute to survive in an environment such as this. White-browed Sparrow-Weavers were chattering in small flocks not far from their scruffy looking nests, but a real surprise awaited as we found a Secretarybird perched in the top of a tree, perhaps on a nest.

White-browed Sparrow-Weavers are plentiful
White-browed Sparrow-Weavers are plentiful

 

Secretarybird perched in tree, Mountain Zebra NP
Secretarybird perched in tree, Mountain Zebra NP

We had only ever seen Secretarybirds on the ground, usually striding through long grass in search of a tasty lizard or snake (their scientific name sagittarius serpentarius hints at this dietary preference), so had never imagined them taking to a tree. My Roberts birding app mentions that they do indeed nest on top of thorny trees and pairs may roost on a prospective tree for several  months before using it to build a nest – so I suppose in this instance it was simply getting ready to roost for the night. And that answers a question that has no doubt troubled you for a long time….

The landscape we travelled through was quite different to any other National Park we knew and we looked forward to seeing more of it the next day

The chalets were a welcome sight with comfortable beds and all the necessary facilities for self-catering. A fireplace meant we could make a wood fire for the cold evenings and enjoy a glass of red wine in the small lounge.

The chalet
The chalet

 

The chalets have a small stoep with braai
The chalets have a small stoep with braai

Tuesday 29 April – exploring the Park

Up early-ish for a game drive on the Rooiplaat Loop, starting with a steep climb up to a plateau where the views stretched forever.

Looking down at the rest camp from the plateau
Looking down at the rest camp from the plateau

 

View across the grassland with Bontebok
View across the grassland with Bontebok
Heading up the hill
Heading up the hill

The grassy slopes were home to several  Sickle-winged Chats, flying between low bushes, wings flicking as they landed.

Sickle-winged Chat
Sickle-winged Chat

Blue Cranes seemed very much at home in the long wheat-coloured grass while overhead White-necked Ravens cruised the skies emitting their raucous cries.

Blue Cranes at home in the grass, Mountain Zebra NP
Blue Cranes at home in the grass, Mountain Zebra NP
Blue Crane, Mountain Zebra NP
Blue Crane, Mountain Zebra NP

Back at the rest camp, I added Streaky-headed Seedeater and Neddicky, both frequent visitors to the bush adjoining the camp roads, then a Chinspot Batis paid our chalet a visit and Pied Barbet called from a distant tree. Southern Double-collared Sunbirds kept busy as usual, twittering (the real kind, none were bent over cellphones) loudly and flashing their brightly coloured plumage in the midday sun.

The camp has a large swimming pool which the grandkids tried but the water was just too cold for their liking nevertheless the walk there was pleasant and a Rock Agama stood guard at the gate.

The pool in the rest camp
The pool in the rest camp
Rock Agama
Rock Agama

Later we took a short drive to the nearby picnic spots, set amongst big shady trees, the one with a formal swimming pool and the other with a rock pool fed from a mountain stream – both looked extremely inviting and perfect for a late morning brunch visit. Sadly time caught up with us and we didn’t get around to trying this out.

Leonardii Mosselbayi discovered at the picnic spot - clearly expanding their distribution to the Eastern Cape
Leonardii Mosselbayi discovered at the picnic spot – clearly expanding their distribution to the Eastern Cape

a Hoopoe in the late afternoon sunlight made a nice picture

African Hoopoe at the picnic site
African Hoopoe at the picnic site

On the way there a large flock of Pied Starlings made themselves known and at a large dam a lone Brown-hooded Kingfisher sat in the shade on a convenient branch, waiting for a meal opportunity to pass by – which despite its name would be a grasshopper or suchlike rather than something fishy.

Brown-headed Kingfisher
Brown-headed Kingfisher

On the way back a small herd of Buffalo caused a mild traffic-jam, one which is a lot easier to bear than the dreaded City kind.

African Buffalo traffic jam
African Buffalo traffic jam
African Buffalo, Mountain Zebra NP
Who, me? African Buffalo, Mountain Zebra NP

Back at our chalet a braai on the stoep made a nice end to the day, with the call of a Spotted Eagle-Owl in the distance adding to the atmosphere.

Wednesday 30th April – last day

The last day of our short stay, so an early morning birding and game drive was in order, this time taking the route along the Kranskop Loop, but part of the way along the road was under reconstruction and I had to turn around. Views across the park were even more magnificent than the previous day and I stopped several times to take them in. Sometimes I’m tempted just to bear such views to memory and not spoil the moment taking photos, but hey, I’ve got a blog to think about, so I “forced myself”  to take a few record shots.

Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park

 

Along the stretch that I was able to access, and despite a few construction lorries passing in both directions, birding was good and game plentiful, with some lovely sights of Kudu, Mountain Zebra, Springbok and Red Hartebeest.

Look at my horns! Kudu
Look at my horns!
Kudu
Kudu, Mountain Zebra NP
Kudu, Mountain Zebra NP
Mountain Zebra, in the Park created for them
Mountain Zebra, in the Park created for them
Mountain Zebra foal (aaaaaaaah)
Mountain Zebra foal (aaaaaaaah)
Springbok, Mountain Zebra NP
Springbok, Mountain Zebra NP
Red Hartebeest, Mountain Zebra NP
Red Hartebeest, Mountain Zebra NP
Bontebok
Bontebok

Special birds in the grasslands, such as Eastern Long-billed Lark and Plain-backed Pipit made the birding exciting, with a sighting of a Verraux’s Eagle on a mountain-top radio mast a bonus. White-backed Mousebirds made up a “full house” of all the mousebirds (adding to the Speckled and Red-faced Mousebirds already ticked earlier in our visit).

White-backed Mousebird
White-backed Mousebird

After lunch we covered the open plains along the Ubejane Loop not far from the main gate, stopping at the pans and dams along the route. There we found Spoonbill again, patrolling the shallows with its typical stooped posture, constantly sweeping the water with its unique spatula shaped bill to pick up small organisms. Nearby SA Shelducks showed off their handsome plumage, while Black-winged Stilts busied themselves prodding the mud along the shallow edges.

Vlei, Mountain Zebra NP
Vlei, Mountain Zebra NP

Nearby a family of Ground Squirrels entertained us as they pranced around close to our vehicle, waving their long bushy tails every now and then – do they know how cute they are I wonder? Crowned Lapwings found the short grass to their liking as well.

Ground Squirrel (Xerus inauris), Mountain Zebra NP
Ground Squirrel (Xerus inauris), Mountain Zebra NP
Ground Squirrel
Ground Squirrel
Crowned Lapwing, Mountain Zebra NP
Crowned Lapwing, Mountain Zebra NP

This part of the park also held a number of Gemsbok which reminded us just how handsome these antelope are with their long straight horns. A couple of them were in a frisky mood, chasing each other around.

Gemsbok, Mountain Zebra NP
Gemsbok, Mountain Zebra NP
Gemsbok
Gemsbok

On the way back a pair of Pale-chanting Goshawks drew our attention as they defended their territory vigorously against a lone Pied Crow invader and soon saw him off.

What a nice Park!

The Mountain Zebra National Park has a lot going for it, not least the magnificent scenery and sweeping views across the valleys and plains that give it a real “Out of Africa” feel. It probably won’t satisfy the “Big five at all costs” visitors but will provide enough interesting sightings to keep the nature enthusiast happy during a 3 or 4 day stay – longer if you just want to relax in the pleasant surroundings.

Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain stream
Mountain stream
The rock formations are a feature of some parts of the park
The rock formations are a feature of some parts of the park
I swear this meeting is like a bunch of monkeys
I swear this meeting is like a bunch of monkeys

Next stop Addo Elephant National Park!

 

Four Parks and a Wedding (Part 2) – Camdeboo

The Story so far

Having “done” De Hoop and the wedding that took us there, we spent time at our home in Mossel Bay until Saturday 26th April 2014, when we took to the road again, this time to Camdeboo National Park which lies close to and almost surrounds the town of Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape province.

Camdeboo NP map
Camdeboo National Park

Graaff-Reinet

Graaff-Reinet is full of historical buildings, being the fourth oldest town in South Africa – in years past we made a point of booking a night or two in the town  when on our way to the Southern Cape, but more recently we have limited our stops to a lunch or snack and coffee at the popular Polka cafe, which also has an array of bric-a-brac which women love to browse – and it’s a good place for the trainee women (aka the granddaughters) to spend some of their pocket-money.

Getting there – Saturday 26 April 2014

Leaving around midday in light rain, we took a slightly longer route from Mossel Bay, via Robinson Pass, Oudtshoorn and the small town of De Rust, where we stopped for a good coffee at the coffee shop followed by our padkos (a lovely South African word and habit, literally “road food”) of home-made chicken buns – padkos is always best when eaten by the side of the road in the shade of a big tree. Just after De Rust a right turn took us onto the R 341 which links the N 12 and N 9 National roads, then on to Graaff-Reinet with no further stops, as it was getting near to gate-closing time. After a fuel and fast-food stop (sometimes we cheat) we arrived at Camdeboo National Park with 15 minutes to spare and enjoyed our Steers burgers in the communal area before getting ourselves organised in our homely tents – compact living but cosy and equipped with a small fridge, kettle etc. Canvas is a poor insulating material so the night was cold outside and inside the tent, but the beds were comfy and a duvet and fleecy blanket kept us nice and warm both nights – with the exception of the obligatory middle of the night toilet excursion.

Camdeboo NP - entrance
Camdeboo NP – entrance
Camdeboo NP - Nqweba dam
Camdeboo NP – Nqweba dam
Camdeboo - Lakeview tented camp
Camdeboo – Lakeview tented camp

Sunday 27 April

Canvas is also not effective at sound insulation so you hear everything going on close by, which is a bit worrying when the creepy-crawlies get moving at night but only a pleasure when the morning chorus wakes you up – I lay in bed in the dawn hour “ticking” a few in my mind, including Cape Robin-Chat with its happy tune, Brown-hooded Kingfisher sounding excited, Pied Barbet calling nasally, Bar-throated Apalis “chipping” loudly as it moved through the bush and Hadeda Ibis doing its “bird with a fear of heights” imitation.

After this early chorus we drifted back to sleep, thinking it was still dark outside – that’s another thing about canvas,  it doesn’t let light in and the window flaps were closed, so we ended up rising at the “gentleman’s hour” of 8.30am. Time to put some serious effort into birding and atlasing the camp and so I took an extended walk around the small camp and the adjoining caravan camp. The Lakeview Camp comprises just 4 tented units with a communal kitchen and ablutions – a setup we found much to our liking as it felt as if we had the whole place to ourselves (which we did save for one tent occupied by others). Importantly, the facilities are kept clean and neat at all times.

Camdeboo - Lakeview camp communal area
Camdeboo – Lakeview camp communal area
Camdeboo tent
Camdeboo tent – on a sunny autumn afternoon
Camdeboo - Lakeview tented camp
Camdeboo – Lakeview tented camp
Camdeboo - the neat abluions
Camdeboo – the neat abluions
Camdeboo - the showers
Camdeboo – the showers

The walk produced a number of species with Cape Robin-Chat, Karoo Scrub-Robin and Familiar Chat most prominent, drawn by the quite dense bush surrounding the camp.

Karoo Scrub-Robin, Camdeboo NP
Karoo Scrub-Robin, Camdeboo NP

The call of a Pririt Batis resounded through the camp and I was able to track it down for a snatched photo.

Pririt Batis, Camdeboo NP
Pririt Batis, Camdeboo NP

Yellow-fronted Canary (at the edge of its range by the looks of it), Chestnut-vented Titbabbler and Southern Double-collared Sunbird (phew those are long names) were all nice additions to the growing list. Not to be outdone by the birds, Striped Mice and Karoo Bushrats inhabit the undergrowth, the latter occupying large rambling nests built of hundreds of dry sticks – as you walk around they pop up to have a look and then scurry off or dart back into their nests.

Striped Mouse (Rhabdomys pumilio), Camdeboo NP
Striped Mouse (Rhabdomys pumilio), Camdeboo NP
Karoo Bushrat (Otomys inisulcatus), Camdeboo NP
Karoo Bushrat (Otomys inisulcatus), Camdeboo NP

After tea it was time to explore the Park by car and we soon came across Anteating Chat, Fiscal Flycatcher and Red-billed Firefinch on the way to the bird hide which is not far from the camp.

Anteating Chat, Camdeboo NP
Anteating Chat, Camdeboo NP

The neat hide sits at a distance from the water’s edge, which probably moves closer when the Nqweba dam is fuller. It still provided the chance to ID the few visible water birds such as Yellow-billed Duck, Cape Shoveler, Darter and SA Shelduck while the surrounding grass / bush had Black-throated Canary, Amethyst Sunbird and Bronze Mannikin to keep things interesting.

Back at the camp, Greater Flamingo were just visible through a gap in the tall reeds that block most of the view of the dam (making the name of the camp “Lakeview” a tad misleading).

Camdeboo NP - Nqweba Dam
Camdeboo NP – Nqweba Dam viewed from the camp

 

I was not entirely satisfied with my bird list up to then and took a late afternoon drive to the far side of the dam, ticking Ostrich and Hamerkop along the way as I crossed a stream, with Kudu browsing nearby.

Camdeboo NP
Camdeboo NP
Vervet Monkey, Camdeboo NP
Vervet Monkey, Camdeboo NP
Kudu, Camdeboo NP
Kudu, Camdeboo NP
A river runs through Camdeboo
A river runs through Camdeboo

At the viewpoint at the last stop on the road I had a good view across the water, which held Black Stork and Black-winged Stilt in the shallows and  Kittlitz’s Plover and the ubiquitous Three-banded Plover at the muddy edge.

Camdeboo NP - Nqweba Dam
Camdeboo NP – Nqweba Dam

Heading back to the camp in the dusk, I came across a pair of Black-backed Jackals, the one nuzzling the other as I took some photos of this beautiful species. A few minutes later the sky turned a spectacular orange-red colour as the sun set.

Black-backed Jackal, Camdeboo NP
Black-backed Jackal, Camdeboo NP
Camdeboo NP - Sunset deluxe
Camdeboo NP – Sunset deluxe

With just 2 nights booked, we made the most of the facilities on our second evening, braai-ing in the boma and eating out under the stars, wrapped up against the cold early winter air. That night it was colder in the tent and we slept with our woollen hats pulled down over our ears.

Monday 28 April

Our short stay was over and we set about packing the vehicles while still enjoying the surroundings, as a Fish Eagle called in the distance, a pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers made their way through the camp followed by a flock of Common Waxbills. A trilling call jogged my memory but it took me a while to realise it was a Namaqua Warbler, who remained well hidden in the denser bush.

Common Waxbill, Camdeboo NP
Common Waxbill, Camdeboo NP
Cape White-Eye, Camdeboo NP
Cape White-Eye, Camdeboo NP
Lesser Air-Piper, Camdeboo NP
Lesser Air-Piper, Camdeboo NP

On the way out of Camdeboo, we visited the Andries Pretorius monument near the entrance –

Andries Pretorius monument, Camdeboo NP
Andries Pretorius monument, Camdeboo NP
Andries Pretorius monument
Andries Pretorius monument

On the road at last, we stopped briefly to check out a Rock Kestrel before heading into town for a coffee stop at Polka cafe, then on to the other, very different, part of Camdeboo which harbours the Valley of Desolation, with its steep access roads through beautiful landscape, culminating in viewing spots that provide quite breathtaking views. The first of these looks down over the town of Graaff-Reinet way below and the second provides sweeping views across the flat plains of the surrounding Karoo, framed by the craggy peaks of the nearby mountains.

Camdeboo NP - Valley of Desolation

Valley of Desolation - approach road
Valley of Desolation – approach road
Camdeboo NP - Valley of Desolation
Valley of Desolation – Graaf-Reinet far below
Leonards at the viewpoint
Leonards at the viewpoint
Camdeboo NP - Valley of Desolation
Gerda at the Valley of Desolation viewpoint
Camdeboo NP - Valley of Desolation
Camdeboo NP – Valley of Desolation
Red Hartebeest, Camdeboo NP
Red Hartebeest, Camdeboo NP

This was also a good spot to enjoy our padkos burgers before heading back down the mountain road and on to our next destination near Cradock – Mountain Zebra National Park – which turned out to be a lot more impressive than we had expected. More of that in Part 3 of this series.

 

 

 

Four Parks and a Wedding (Part 1) – De Hoop

Where to this time?

The thing about being “semi-retired” is that it gives you lots of time to travel and Gerda and I tend to make the most of it while we are able. With our second home being in Mossel Bay, we do like to spend as much time there as we can afford, without abandoning our Pretoria ties completely.

And so it happened that we decided to spend the Easter period this year in Mossel Bay – then, fortuitously, we received an invite to a wedding at De Hoop Nature Reserve over the weekend before Easter, and on top of that our daughter and son-in-law suggested we do a week’s touring through the Eastern Cape during the school break at the end of April, with 2 or 3 night stays at three National Parks – Camdeboo near Graaf-Reinet, Mountain Zebra a bit further east near Cradock and Addo Elephant Park not far from Port Elizabeth. Now that’s an offer that was difficult to refuse. We had been to Addo before – just last year for the first time – but the other three parks would all be first-time visits, which is something we are looking forward to.

Starting off – overnight in Springfontein

As often happens, we were loaded to the hilt when we left Pretoria (actually our VW Touareg was) – there are always surplus items from our main home which need transporting to Mossel Bay and this time was no different, plus our normal baggage. The trip to Mossel Bay is a two-day affair for us, so an overnight stop around halfway is always part of the planning. We have tried various B&B’s in the stretch between Bloemfontein and Colesberg / Hanover and they have all been quite acceptable – all you want is a comfortable bed, a clean shower that works properly and a decent dinner and breakfast and most have perfected those simple requirements. This time around we decided to try Prior Grange, a guest farm near Springfontein, as I had read that there was a Blockhouse from the Anglo-Boer war on the property and I was interested to see it.

Prior Grange, Springfontein
Prior Grange, Springfontein
Prior Grange cottage - our home for the night
Prior Grange cottage – our home for the night

 

Having left Pretoria a bit later than we had hoped, knowing we had over 600 km to travel, we nevertheless reached Prior Grange in good time and, after settling in, I drove the further 4 km to the hill on which the blockhouse was perched. According to Blackie de Swardt from Prior Grange, there were some 8000 of these block houses built by the Brits across South Africa, approximately 1000 yards apart so that they were visible to the next one, of which only 50 or so originals remain – he went to the trouble of rebuilding this one on the old foundations and well done to him, as it gives you a feel for what it would have been like to man these structures, watching over the railway line and the surrounding veld well into the distance.

British Block house, Anglo-Boer War
British Block house, Anglo-Boer War
View from the blockhouse
View from the blockhouse

At the same time I worked on a bird list for the pentad, which proved to be quite productive – Wattled and Pied Starlings were plentiful and a Desert Cisticola posed on the fence, while Cliff Swallows wheeled overhead near a culvert before settling in for the night. Common Waxbills twittered as they passed by in a flock and Barn Swallows swooped past, perhaps readying themselves for the long journey back north.

Next morning I was up at dawn to complete the 2 hours atlasing and walked to the dam just behind the main house. There I was met by a beautiful scene of dead still water in the soft morning light, reflecting the surrounding trees and disturbed only by the V-shaped ripples of the water birds enjoying the first light of day – I listed Red-billed Teal, Little Grebe, Cape Shoveler and a few handsome SA Shelducks.

The dam at Prior Grange
The dam at Prior Grange

White-throated Swallows skimmed the water and a group of Spotted Thick-Knees flushed like magic from the grassy verge when I got close. Then it was time for breakfast and the second leg of the long drive to Mossel Bay.

De Hoop Nature Reserve

We had just two days at our home in Mossel Bay before it was time to travel again – to De Hoop for the “Wedding Weekend” of Louis and Amelda (Rossouw). De Hoop lies south-west of Swellendam and less than 200 km from Mossel Bay so we didn’t rush to get away and stopped at Riversdale for lunch on the way at a farm stall, which has the only “dog pub” I’ve come across.

IMG_1088

The last 50 km or so were on gravel and just before getting to the entrance gate to De Hoop we stopped for a photo of a pair of Blue Cranes which were mingling with some cattle at a watering hole – so intent was I on getting a good photo with my new lens that I didn’t notice I had stepped into …… (no, fortunately not what you were thinking) ….sticky yellow mud at the side of the road which immediately rendered my sandals unwearable. After checking in barefoot, Gerda kindly rescued my sandals by washing them and leaving them in the sun to dry – good as new again!

Blue Crane
Blue Crane

 

A Black-headed Heron flying off proved to be a good time to test my new lens’ ability to handle a Bird-in-flight – I was quite pleased with my new purchase.

Black-headed Heron
Black-headed Heron

From the entrance gate it was a short drive to the “Opstal” and by 5pm we were settled into our spacious and comfortable cottage – Black Oystercatcher cottage – which we would enjoy for the next three days. Birding started as we approached the complex of white-painted buildings and once we were settled in I took a walk to the Vlei, which I discovered is a large body of water trapped for centuries by the dunes bordering the nearby coastline and which has dried up completely in dry years, but right now seemed massive and full to the brim. On the walk to the vlei I came across some relaxed birds all of the “Cape” variety – Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Spurfowl and Cape Weaver – basking in the late afternoon sun.

Cape Robin-Chat, De Hoop NR
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Spurfowl, De Hoop NR
Cape Spurfowl

 

Cape Weaver, De Hoop NR
Cape Weaver

At the vlei I found tens of Egyptian Geese, Coots and Great Crested Grebes back-lit by the fast setting sun, and a Grey Heron or two keeping watch at the edge of the vlei. Walking along the cliffs that border long stretches of the vlei, I noted a number of Rock Martins preparing to roost for the night, while a flock of Glossy Ibises flew overhead on their way to their preferred roosting site. All of the while I was aware of the biting horse flies which made it difficult to stand still for any length of time. The sun set in a blaze of red-orange reflected across the water.

Sunset over De Hoop Vlei
Sunset over De Hoop Vlei

Later on we enjoyed a fine dinner in the Fig Tree restaurant at the Opstal, which augured well for the rest of our short stay.

Exploring De Hoop

I had booked an extra day to allow time for some relaxed birding and atlasing, so only ventured out on Friday after a good lie-in to recover from an energy-sapping few days, starting with a slow drive past the short-grassed fields where several Capped Wheatears were showing and a flock of Pied Starlings were moving about in chattering fashion. Also present were Bontebok which are plentiful in the reserve and some colourful butterflies.

Bontebok
Bontebok
False dotted-border (Belenois thysa thysa)
False dotted-border (Belenois thysa thysa)

Heading towards the coastal dunes I was really pleased to come across a group of Cape (there it is again) Penduline-Tits, which I have only seen a handful of times in all my years of birding – as a bonus I was able to get a distant photo or two before they moved off again.

Cape Pendiline-Tit, De Hoop NR
Cape Penduline-Tit

Further on, the vlei had encroached onto the road and, as the Opstal manager had told me last evening, there were a lot of birds taking advantage of the shallow water with plenty of  food for all types. Spoonbills were prominent along with Darter, White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Teal, Little Grebe and a family of Cape Shovelers. Also in the scene were Pied Kingfishers hovering and diving now and then, Purple Heron flying in and landing gracefully near some Little Stints and Wood Sandpipers. On the opposite shore a few Great White Pelicans pottered about.

De Hoop Vlei - over the road
De Hoop Vlei – over the road
Vlei at De Hoop
Vlei at De Hoop
Spoonbill, De Hoop NR
Spoonbill
Cape Shoveler, De Hoop NR
Cape Shoveler

Carrying on along the road to the “Melkkamer”, a quiet inlet held Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe and an African Darter stretching its wings, while the roadside bush was quite productive with the customary fynbos species such as Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Grassbird, as well as Bar-throated Apalis noisilycompeting with Karoo Prinia for attention – if the latter two were schoolkids they would be the ones always being scolded for talking too much.

Great Crested Grebe, De Hoop NR
Great Crested Grebe
Little Grebe, De Hoop NR
Little Grebe
African Darter, De Hoop NR
African Darter
Karoo Prinia, De Hoop NR
Karoo Prinia

I turned around at the gate to the protected area and headed the opposite way to Koppie Alleen where I took a brief walk on the high dunes – the pentad ended just short of the parking area at Koppie Alleen, but not before I had seen a beautiful Black Harrier floating low above the dunes in their typical butterfly like way.

On the way I had an interesting sighting when I spotted a Cape Bunting in the road, only to discover it was “chasing” a large Puff Adder across the road and into the thick bush. Not for nothing then that signs have been erected warning visitors to brake in time for snakes in  the road.

Puff Adder
Puff Adder

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Wedding Day!

Saturday dawned bright and sunny – and warm for this time of year. The ceremony was only at 4 pm so there was time for further birding and I decided to return to Koppie Alleen to explore the beach which had looked enticing from high up on the dunes. The 15 km from the cottage took about 45 minutes with a brief stop at the vlei and I began to atlas the pentad at Koppie Alleen by 8.30 am, with Cape Bulbul featuring prominently in the fynbos on the long walk from the parking area down to the beach.

De Hoop NR - Koppie Alleen
De Hoop NR – Koppie Alleen
Cape Bulbul, De Hoop NR
Cape Bulbul

Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds flitted about busily and vociferously while a few Barn Swallows proved that they hadn’t begun their long trek northwards just yet. Maybe they’d heard about the long cold European winter and were holding out as long as possible.

The beach, once I got there, was deserted except for a few Kelp Gulls, White-breasted Cormorants, African Black Oystercatchers and a few Cape Wagtails – later on the beach would see a handful of visitors but right now it was just me and the wide expanse of sand and rocks. It seemed to be low tide,as the rocks in the inter-tidal zone were exposed, some with crystal clear pools of water trapped between them. It was nice to see no sign of the plastic litter that is a feature of much of the coastline nowadays, just thousands of pristine seashells left behind by the tides.

Beach at Koppie Alleen
Beach at Koppie Alleen
African Black Oystercatcher
African Black Oystercatcher
Cape Wagtail, De Hoop NR
Cape Wagtail

A little unexpectedly, a Yellow Canary and Familiar Chat joined me on the beach, then a small flock of waders flew past which I was able to ID as Sanderlings based on their small size, tail pattern and call.

Yellow Canary, De Hoop NR
Yellow Canary
Familiar Chat, De Hoop NR
Familiar Chat

A boardwalk over the dunes and higher rocks was very welcome in getting past the rocky barriers between the beaches.

Beach at Koppie Alleen
Beach at Koppie Alleen
Just me and the birds
Just me, my Hi-tecs and the birds

Trekking back up the long and sandy road (time to hum the similar-titled Beatles song), a Jackal Buzzard and a Black Harrier helped to close out the pentad before I made my way back to the cottage, then on to lunch. The wedding ceremony was held out in the open overlooking the vlei – I had to wonder where else you can carry on birding during a wedding, as I watched a Bokmakierie close by and the waterfowl on the vlei in the distance.

Louis and the minister (his dad Johan)
Louis and the minister (his dad Johan) await the arrival of Amelda

The reception was equally “cool” being held under the massive Fig tree near the restaurant and as darkness fell the lights strung around the branches turned it into a veritable fairyland – with fairy princess and all. Needless to say the evening was enjoyed by all and the younger set danced till the early hours. The perfect weather was made for partying outdoors.

Louis and Amelda - all over bar the dancing
Louis and Amelda – all over bar the dancing
Louis and Amelda arrive at the reception in style
Louis and Amelda arrive at the reception in style
The reception under the grand old Fig tree
The reception under the grand old Fig tree

After breakfast on Sunday morning and goodbyes, we set out for our next stop – Stellenbosch with a quick look-in at De Mond Nature Reserve. More on that at another time.

This Saturday 26 April will see us starting the next leg of our Four Parks tour – starting with Camdeboo National Park at Graaf Reinet

 

 

 

Potchefstroom – Bird Sanctuary surprise

Why Potch?

Potchefstroom and the surrounding area does not immediately spring to mind when considering where to go birding, however it is one of those parts of South Africa that is quite rewarding if you “dig a little deeper” and the good thing about atlasing is it can be done anywhere.

Our son Stephan and his family – wife Liesl, kids Jocelyn and Christopher –  have been resident in Potch for a few years now and we tend to visit them on a fairly regular basis, especially when one of the grandkids is having a birthday, as it’s an easy 2 hour’s drive from our home in Pretoria. When we visit it is usually for at least a weekend, so I always try and fit in some early morning atlasing and have atlased a number of pentads (5 x 5 minutes if measured by coordinates, about 8 x 8 km’s in actual size) over the past few years, most of which do not attract atlasers, making the effort seem that much more worthwhile.

So what’s Potch got?

It has a University (which my wife Gerda attended back in the late 1960’s so clearly a top university) and a nice “small town” feel – you don’t have to go very far for anything and traffic is not really an issue. It also has a Bird Sanctuary – the OPM Prozesky Bird Sanctuary – which I was aware of but didn’t get around to visiting until March 2013, probably because my experience of bird sanctuaries in general has been mixed.

OPM Prozesky Bird Sanctuary

I was glad that I ignored my better judgement and the lukewarm response of a few Potchers when I enquired about the bird sanctuary, and paid it a late afternoon visit. The sanctuary borders the suburbs on the southern side of Potch and adjoins the sewerage treatment works so the smell may be a problem for some but I found it entirely bearable during my 2 hour visit. I parked at the entrance where there is a small office, but as there was no one in sight I proceeded to walk towards the ponds. Encouragingly, there was a signboard erected by Birdlife Westvaal which provided some info on the sanctuary.

OZM ProZesky Bird Sanctuary Potchefstroom
OPM Prozesky Bird Sanctuary, Potchefstroom

The sanctuary comprises a number of large ponds, some with neat bird hides, with wide pathways around and between the ponds which make for a pleasant walk, while keeping an eye out for birds in the sometimes dense undergrowth along the pathways. Where there are gaps in the vegetation you can look over the ponds which were well populated with Ducks (Yellow-billed Duck, South African Shelduck) and Teals (Cape Teal, Red-billed Teal). As I got too close for their comfort the Ducks and Teals took to the air and wheeled around, landing on a more distant part of the same pond or moving to an adjoining one.

SA Shelducks and Yellow-billed Ducks
SA Shelducks and Yellow-billed Ducks

As they flew past I was able to get photos of the Shelducks, Male and female showing how they differ in plumage, particularly from the neck up.

SA Shelduck, male following female (so what else is new?)
SA Shelduck, male following female (so what else is new?)

Sacred Ibises were also plentiful and doing their best to look elegant as they flew up and past me, though not quite managing it. The Afrikaans name Skoorsteenveër translates literally to “chimney sweep”  – clearly from images of chimney sweeps in Europe of old, getting ready to wash after a day’s work, blackened by soot on the face, neck and arms, otherwise lily-white over their body.

Sacred Ibis
Sacred Ibis (Skoorsteenveër)

There were not many waders present as suitable wading territory is limited, but the ubiquitous Three-banded Plover was present, not far from an African Purple Swamphen making his way carefully through the reed fringes. On a smaller pond, a hide allowed me to observe a Little Egret in action without disturbing it.

African Purple Swamphen
African Purple Swamphen
Little Egret
Little Egret

Moving away from the ponds, the bush and long grass held numbers of birds, among them Red-eyed Bulbul, Red-billed Firefinch and Black-throated Canary.

Red-eyed Bulbul
Red-eyed Bulbul
Red-billed Firefinch
Red-billed Firefinch
Black-throated Canary
Black-throated Canary

On the way back to my car I spotted Wattled Starlings high up in the trees, while a mixed flock of swallows entertained me with their swooping fly pasts – I noted Barn, Greater-striped and SA Cliff Swallows all enjoying each other’s company.

Back in the car I reflected on how pleased I was that I had taken the time to explore this worthwhile sanctuary – the fact that I was the only person there (as far as I could tell) during the 2 hours, attests to the fact that not many people know about it or frequent it. On the plus side I’m sure the birds enjoy the peaceful habitat for feeding and breeding opportunities and that’s surely what a sanctuary is all about.

Potch has some fine birding in the surrounding areas, but more about that later.