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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the end of our 4 nights in Letaba, we headed south towards Orpen and the nearby Tamboti Tented camp for the next 7 days of our Kruger Park visit. Tamboti lies a couple of km’s off the main Orpen – Satara tarred road, along a river course which is dry for most of the year. All of the units are tented, with some having their own private bathrooms and others sharing an ablution block – we had chosen one with a bathroom and an outside kitchen, more like a chalet with canvas walls than an actual tent. The whole unit is raised above the ground and has a deck which overlooks the river bed – really comfortable as long as you realise that in winter canvas walls provide very little insulation from the cold nights, so warm blankets and a warm body next to you are highly recommended for a good night’s sleep.
Early morning coffee and rusks on the patio is all part of our ritual when visiting Kruger and Tamboti was no different once we had dragged ourselves out of the warm cocoon of the bed and onto the deck to get the kettle boiling in the chilly morning air – it took some cajoling to get a slightly reluctant Gerda to join me but once we had a steaming mug to hand, the sights and sounds of the awakening bush and the crisp, fresh air made it all worthwhile.
A slow walk around the camp with binos and camera was next on the schedule and it was soon evident that there was plenty of bird life working their way through the dry bush – Southern Boubou was particularly prominent and vocal, while both Red-billed and Yellow-billed Hornbills showed themselves, the latter having caught a large centipede which he deftly worked into his long curved bill until just the legs were showing and soon disappeared altogether.
The bush between the units, set well apart, was home to many other species, some of which I was able to capture digitally –
Besides the numerous birds, other visitors to our unit included the usual mischievous Vervet Monkeys, which you always have to keep an eye on if you value your fruit and bread, which they will grab in a flash and jump onto the nearest branch. An unexpected “robber” in the guise of a Tree Squirrel gained access to our tented unit via a tiny gap in the canvas and got into one of the biscuit tins while we were out one morning so after that we kept all our food in crates, weighed down with heavy items. A few Dwarf Mongooses (Mongeese? No, don’t think so) were also regulars around the tent, looking for food amongst the leaf litter and there is often a Gecko or Lizard to observe, in and around the tent.
Once we had spent a day or so relaxing in camp we were keen to get out on the road for a game and birding drive – the road to Satara is usually good for a variety of game, especially as you get closer to Satara and was fully up to expectations –
The nice thing about being a birder in Kruger is that whenever you stop for a bird, as often as not an animal is spotted and vice versa, so there is never a shortage of interesting sightings. The area close to Satara is also one of the best for spotting Ostrich – yes, you can see hundreds at a time on farms around Oudtshoorn and every second farm across SA has a few in the fields, but there is just nothing like seeing the real thing in one of the National Parks – they just look more handsome and genuine than the farm-raised Ostriches.
Then a group of White-crested Helmet-Shrikes drew our attention – I have this theory that says these birds must be able to count, as you always see them in a group of 7 or 8 – how else would they know when to allow a newcomer to the group or get rid of an unwanted member? Anyway that’s a theory that probably needs some more work to make it believable.
Satara camp is one of the Kruger camps that has managed to retain a lot of its old-style atmosphere, despite being the second busiest camp and very popular with tour groups. The restaurant doesn’t serve those glorious burgers and pies that were worth looking forward to, but the stoep and the view across the lawns with the grand old trees in the middle, full of Buffalo-Weavers and like-minded species, is still there. Fortunately, the aloes in Satara were also in full bloom and attracted a variety of birds –
Near the reception the resident African Scops-Owl was still attracting knots of tourists and is probably one of the most photographed birds in Kruger but maintains a rather disdainful attitude towards his fame –
The picnic spot for day visitors is set to one side and attracts a steady stream of avian and butterfly visitors to entertain while you picnic –
During a walk around Satara I came across a couple of species which allowed a close approach – a Bennett’s Woodpecker was so engrossed with inspecting the lower leaves of a large Aloe that he paid no attention as I crept closer to get some nice sharp photos and a Black-headed Oriole was equally unconcerned when I got up close and personal.
The loop that lies south of the Orpen-Satara road is good for a morning’s drive, bypassing Talamati Bushveld camp and with Muzandzeni picnic spot ideally placed for a brunch break. On the way there is a good chance of spotting game and at the picnic spot there is always a gathering of birds and Tree-squirrels to keep the grandkids busy.
Late afternoon in the camp is time to get the evening meal together, rounding off another day in our private paradise –
Time to look back at the 7 months since I started the blog in July 2013 ……
Well, I’m loving it simply because it brings some of my favourite pastimes together – birding, keeping journals of our travels, and photography. I’m also happy to report that “views” passed the 1000 mark last week and are averaging 10 per day, with people from almost 40 countries having visited the blog (some by chance, such as the one looking for a wedding venue at Gosho park in Zimbabwe). These figures are quite unimpressive compared to many blogs, but I’m encouraged that the numbers seem to be growing steadily. Anyway enough of that and on with this fortnight’s episode :
Kruger Park in the winter
Winter is widely acknowledged as the best time for game viewing in Kruger and I wouldn’t disagree, but having made as many summer visits I find each season has its pros and cons. Summer from a birding aspect is tops, as the migrants are present and generally birds are at their most colourful, being in breeding plumage. Winter is often better for game viewing as the animals are more easily seen and are tempted to spend more time near water in the dry season.
Winter is also the time when many of the aloes are flowering, making for attractive displays and, most importantly for birders, attracting a variety of bird life. Some of the best flowering aloe displays are in the camps and at their peak are crowded with birds feeding on the nectar.
When we visited Kruger in August 2011, it seemed to be prime time for flowering aloes and we came across many beautiful flowering specimens, especially in the camps, which were often buzzing with activity as various bird species, bees and other insects made the most of the nectar bonanza. We stayed in 2 camps : Letaba in the middle of the park for 4 days and in Tamboti, which is a tented camp close to the Orpen camp and gate on the western side of Kruger, for a further 7 days. We also visited some of the other camps on our day trips, including Satara, Olifants and Skukuza and we spent time at a couple of the wonderful picnic spots where we made our customary brunch stop, cooking up a storm on the gas-fired “skottels” (a large concave metal frying pan, based on the old plough disks that were used for this purpose in days gone by) that are hired out.
Our little “group” was made up of myself and Gerda, Andre and Geraldine (Son-in-law and daughter), their 2 daughters Megan and Maia and Andre’s parents (and our Brother and Sister-in-law of course) Tienie and Pieta Leonard. We have spent many a pleasant time with them in Kruger over the years we have known each other, Tienie being an Honorary Ranger and all of us being keen “Kruger Park-ers”
Letaba and surrounds
This is one of our favourite camps in Kruger, with its lush gardens and large old trees providing lots of shade, and the added bonus of bordering the Letaba River with views across to the distant bank and a good chance of seeing game as they make their way to and from the river. There is almost always an elephant or two (or more) in view near the river, along with buffalo and various other game.
It was mid-afternoon as we entered the park through the Phalaborwa gate and on our way to Letaba we were very lucky to come across a pack of Wild Dogs – seen very infrequently and such special animals.
Along the same stretch we spotted two well-camouflaged terrestrial bird species – Double-banded Sandgrouse and a Red-crested Korhaan, both close to the road and quite confiding. Both have colouring that blends in with the surrounding bush and soil, particularly in winter.
We settled into our bungalow accommodation at Letaba, while the others in our group went for the tented units a short walk from where we were. Over the next few days we followed our usual Kruger Park routine – some mornings we opted for a relaxing day in camp with an optional short game drive later on, other mornings we set out early for a game/birding drive with a brunch stop at one of the picnic spots and a lazy drive back to the camp for an afternoon siesta.
Letaba is well-suited to spending time in the camp, walking the gardens and along the river where many bird species have their own established routines :
On the lawns and amongst the leaf litter, Arrow-marked Babblers and Kurrichane Thrushes allow a close approach, hardly noticing as I fired away with my camera
In the trees, there was plenty of action ranging from Bearded Woodpeckers to Tree Squirrels and even a couple of charming granddaughters :
Other birds around the bungalows and tents were Blue Waxbills and the ubiquitous Greater Blue-eared Starlings, found throughout the park and mostly habituated to humans.
Not to mention the bird with the funky hairstyle –
The beautiful Impala Lily is a feature of the northern camps in Kruger in the winter months –
But to get back to the main theme of this post, the array of flowering Aloes is a magnet to many bird species, more than I had imagined, as I thought they would attract only the nectar-loving species such as sunbirds and perhaps a Bulbul or two. The following photos are a selection of the birds I came across enjoying the Aloes, by no means comprehensive :
The area around Letaba and up to Olifants camp, where we drove on one of the days, is rich in game with Elephant and Buffalo being regular sightings. The viewpoint from Olifants camp overlooking the River is always a treat and brings home the value of preserving natural areas such as Kruger – the view of the river far below and the open bush beyond, with Elephants, Giraffes and other game making their way slowly to the river, has not changed in the more than 40 years we have been visiting the park.
On our drives we came across some of the more spectacular bird species – Kori Bustard, which is a ground-dwelling bird which can fly and is renowned as the largest bird in the world capable of flight, the colourful and lanky Saddle-billed Stork which is usually found in shallow rivers but which we saw in flight, a regal looking Fish Eagle and a Temminck’s Courser, not common and always exciting to see.
At the end of our 4 nights in Letaba, we headed south towards Orpen and the nearby Tamboti Tented camp for the next part of our Kruger Park holiday, but that’s another story….
We love Cape Town and the surrounds and take every opportunity to visit – so it was an easy decision when Gerda suggested we “pop down” from Mossel Bay, where we spend the December/January holidays, to say ‘hello’ to the fairest Cape and visit family at the same time. It’s just less than 400 kms with lots of pleasant scenery on the way along good roads and we tend to stop often so 4 hours turns into a comfortable and non-taxing 6 hours for us. Always on the lookout for birding and bird atlasing opportunities, I was eager to start the new year with a Western Cape outing or two……. or even three as it turned out.
We didn’t have too many fixed plans for the 4 days but Gerda wanted to visit her ex-Pretoria hairdresser, now resident in Kommetjie, which would give me a couple of hours to atlas the area. Kirstenbosch is always part of our itinerary and we would surely spend at least 2 hours there, enough to complete a “full Protocol” atlas card. Our last stop was to be Worcester for a couple of days with the family and I was sure I could fit in a pentad or two in the early mornings, knowing how hot it can get in that part of SA in January – not conducive to middle of the day birding.
It almost worked out that way …..
Kommetjie (Pentad 3405_1815)
Having dropped Gerda off at the hairdresser, I set off to explore the pentad covering Kommetjie (a pentad being 5 x 5 minutes in degrees latitude/longitude or about 8 x 8 kms in extent) – about 90% of this pentad is in fact in the sea, so atlasing is limited to a part of Kommetjie jutting into the pentad in the south-east corner. I stopped at the first beach area I came across and was immediately struck by the numbers of seabirds flying past and, looking for their source, noticed huge colonies of them further out on the exposed rocks. Swift Terns and Hartlaub’s Gulls were especially abundant, numbering in the hundreds if not a thousand or more and making quite a sight.
Walking along the sandy paths towards the next-door bay, I noticed other seabirds in between the massed Terns and Gulls, including African Black Oystercatchers and Little Egrets – the latter not strictly a seabird but I have often found them in this type of habitat. A number of Cormorants were in attendance, mostly Cape and White-breasted Cormorants but also a few Bank Cormorants with their all black faces – I looked for the white in their rumps but it was not showing, so checked my Roberts bird book (on my Ipad) which confirmed that it only shows when Bank Cormorants are breeding.
Both African Sacred and Hadeda Ibises were foraging amongst the seaweed-littered rocks, while Barn Swallows swooped low overhead probably catching flying insects attracted to the seaweed litter – never an opportunity missed!
A few White-fronted Plovers were exploring the rocks and seaweed as well, running to the white sandy areas when I approached – I was struck by how amazingly well camouflaged they are against the bright sand when they stand still – I had to look twice to find them even though they were just 5 to 10 metres away.
A short distance down the road I stopped at a vlei which the board informed me was called Skilpadsvlei (Tortoise Vlei) but found it was undergoing rehabilitation and had no water. It’s apparently home to the Western Leopard Toad (Amietophrynus pantherinus) which occurs in restricted parts of the Western Cape. However a short walk around the vlei did produce Red-winged Starlings and Rock Martins doing fly-bys plus a Cape Canary in the long grass.
By this time Gerda was done and I joined her for coffee and a light lunch at a very pleasant outdoor restaurant. From there I closed out the 2 hours minimum time required for a “full protocol” atlas session with a drive to the nearby Slangkop lighthouse and through the suburbia of Kommetjie, adding a few of the regulation western Cape birds in the process and stopping to admire the great views. I ended with a list of 30 species for the pentad – not a large number compared to other pentads, but a stunning area to go atlasing.
Kirstenbosch (Pentad 3355_1825) ….. well almost
The next day we had planned an excursion to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, one of our favourite places to visit, with a walk and lunch in mind. That morning I woke up to a very upset stomach and flu-like aches and pains and wasn’t up to doing much at all. We did go to Kirstenbosch hoping to catch a “golf cart” guided tour, but our timing was out so we just sat in the restaurant and had tea – no scones for me this time!
Saturday was spent getting to Worcester via Tokai (to visit my brother and sister-in-law) and along the coastal road past Strandfontein, where there were Kelp Gulls by the hundred along the beach and kite surfers enjoying the windy conditions that pulled them at high speed across the breaking waves – what a spectacular sport! Then we proceeded through Stellenbosch to Helshoogte on the way to Franschoek for a lunchtime stop at our other favourite venue – Hillcrest Berry farm. There we enjoyed a light lunch and tea with magnificent views of the mountains across the valley and the vineyards spread like patchwork over the lower slopes.
Worcester / Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens (Pentad 3335_1925)
In complete contrast to Kommetjie, the area around Worcester, just 110 kms from Cape Town, presents typical Karoo habitats, although not as stark and barren as further inland in the “real” Karoo, as well as suburbia and farms with extensive vineyards.
I started out at 6h30, still too early for the Botanical Gardens which I discovered only open at 7h00, so I drove around suburbia and up a lonely road which dead-ended at a quarry. Once I gained entry to the Gardens, I drove to the upper parking area and took a walk through the various desert-like biomes represented there, with displays of desert and semi-desert plants – fortunately there is enough signage to inform you on what you are seeing – a good thing when your knowledge of trees and plants is as limited as mine. I do know Quiver trees from our trip to Namaqualand last year and there were a number of magnificent specimens to admire.
The Gardens have an interesting history, having been established at a site near Matjiesfontein in 1921 but due to serious water supply problems it was moved to its current site in Worcester in 1945, along with many of the unique plants, some of which are still present in the gardens, including the Quiver trees mentioned above.
Birds are plentiful throughout the Gardens but restricetd in the number of species, with the feature birds being Bokmakierie calling vociferously in the early morning, White-backed Mousebirds and Red-faced Mousebirds flying about in groups between the larger bushes and trees, Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds enjoying the flowering aloes. Common Fiscals and Acacia Pied Barbets added to the mix with their distinctive calls, the Barbets outdoing all the others with their piercing, nasal call heard at a distance.
Overhead White-rumped Swifts and Greater-striped Swallows competed for flying insects. Exiting the gardens, a winding road took me up the hill to Brandwacht which is mainly vineyards with large farm dams, the latter quite productive around the fringes with the likes of Yellow bishop, Common Waxbill, Stonechat and Familiar Chat helping to boost the pentad list to 43 for the 2-3 hours spent atlasing.
Worcester / Hex River Valley (Pentad 3330_1930)
Just north of Worcester lies the Hex River valley and the pentad I had targeted for my third and last atlasing outing of the trip, comprising mostly mountains with the N1 national road bisecting them through the valley, with the flat sections along the river taken up by vineyards and the lower slopes of the mountains covered in fynbos. This is a very attractive part and some of the last vineyards before getting into the flatter and drier Karoo further down the N1.
My first stop was at the Seekoeigat Padstal (Farm stall) where I kicked off with some regulation birds such as Red-winged Starling, Steppe (Common) Buzzard and White-rumped Swift amongst others. At the first opportunity I turned off, glad to get off the busy N1 with large trucks thundering past each time I slowed and pulled over to check out a bird seen fleetingly. This was a far more peaceful birding environment and quickly produced Pied Barbet, African Stonechat, Bar-throated Apalis, African Hoopoe and several Southern Double-collared Sunbirds.
Returning reluctantly to the N1 and continuing cautiously through the cutting that makes its way through the mountains, I spied a pair of White-necked Ravens. Further on a broader verge allowed a safe roadside stop with a view down the slopes to the river below, where I spotted Cape Rock-Thrush, Cape Spurfowl, Cape Robin-Chat and Cape … sorry Karoo Prinia. A bit further on I was able to get closer to the river where an unexpected Giant Kingfisher was watching over one of the deeper pools in the river and not far from him a Cape Bunting was hopping about on the railway tracks.
The next turnoff took me into prime farming area with vineyards on both sides of the road – nice to look at with bunches of grapes just about ready for harvesting but quite a sterile environment for birding so I didn’t dawdle too long and returned to the N1 for the last stretch before reaching the northern boundary of the pentad. There I found a large dam some way off the road but close enough to make out a few cormorants and coots plus a good old “gyppo” or Egyptian Goose. Turning back, I spotted a raptor soaring high above and was able to ID it as a Booted Eagle, which seems to have a fondness for the Western Cape as I have seen several in my trips around this province.
All in all a nice variety of birding and habitats about as far removed from each other as you can get, each one with its own beauty and attraction.
Billed as a Team Birding Challenge, this is a special event for birders keen to spend time in one of the top birding spots in South Africa, at a time of year when the majority of migrants are present. Under the direction of Joe Grosel and with the assistance of the SANParks Honorary Rangers (HR’s) from the West Rand Region as well as guides from SANParks, the group of some 40 people is taken through a series of challenges which focus on birding but also include other aspects of nature such as mammals, trees, insects and the odd reptile. This was the 3rd such event and the second that I have attended and “knowing the ropes” helped to make this version even more enjoyable (for me anyway) than the previous one.
Our group of 4 (Myself, George Skinner, Pieter Rossouw and Pieter Lombaard) left Pretoria early-ish to make sure we would be in time for the start of activities at 15h00 on Thursday 14 November 2013, with enough time for a hearty brunch at our usual stop near Polokwane, after which we turned off towards Giyani and reached Punda Maria gate by 13h30. In our air-conditioned cocoon we had noticed the temperature rising as we traveled north but only felt the 37º C heat when we got out to stretch our legs at the gate, much like the blanket of hot air in your face when you open a hot oven door except it envelops your whole body. From there we drove slowly to Punda Maria camp, arriving just in time for the rendezvous with the rest of our team for the weekend and the vehicle to take us to the Visitor Centre for the briefing. We joined up with 2 other couples – Brian and Joy Falconer-Smith and Elouise and Christo Kalmer – to make up our team, the Shrewd Shrikes, and were pleased to see that Jobe, our guide from last year, was again allocated to our vehicle. William Dunn, our HR representative completed the team line-up.
The birding from the gate to the camp was slow, being the hottest time of day and we were wilting along with the animals and panting bird life that was to be seen. An African Firefinch in the low bushes, Red-billed Oxpeckers on a group of Impalas and Yellow-fronted Canary in the upper branches of a tree kept us interested.
The Challenge and first Activity
At the initial briefing, Monika O’Leary, organiser of the weekend, introduced the proceedings, then Andy Branfield described what the HR’s do with the funds generated by these events and finally Joe Grosel took us through the various habitats in this northern part of Kruger and the animal and bird species that find these habitats to their liking. The Challenge details were spelt out and, as before, points would be awarded for bird species ID’d, mammal species seen (which our team only discovered at the final dinner!) plus the treasure hunts and quizzes as well as the atlasing and team spirit.
The drive to the Visitor Centre had produced Tawny Eagle as the bird life started to liven up. During the talks the continuous calls of Monotonous Larks and Woodland Kingfishers competed with the speakers, as if beckoning us all to “come have a look”.
Then it was time for the first sunset drive with the main destination being the ‘lek’ frequented by Pennant-winged Nightjars in the early summer months – we had enjoyed them on 2 occasions during the previous Punda Mania but this is not the sort of sighting you are likely to tire of. The drive was punctuated by a few good sightings such as European Golden Oriole and Great Spotted Cuckoo, a pair of African Hawk Eagles in a treetop and a Pale Flycatcher almost hidden amongst the bushy undergrowth and trees. The only negative was the road chosen to get to the lek, supposedly a short-cut but which can best be described as abominable as we bounced over endless rocks, taking so long that we arrived with minutes to spare for the Pennant-winged Nightjar display, which was nevertheless as magical as before. Apart from the main attraction, an African Scops-Owl and Red-chested Cuckoo made themselves heard from nearby trees. A bring-and-braai back at the camp closed out the day.
Friday 15 November 2013
An enthusiastic Red-chested Cuckoo was already calling when our alarm went off at 03h45 and we left the camp at 04h30 as the first light of dawn approached, heading north to Pafuri in the northernmost section of Kruger. We were soon adding birds at a steady pace, but were also working at the cryptic clues for the Treasure Hunt part of the weekend, which involves taking photos of birds, animals and trees, based on solving the clues put together by Joe. At least I now have a reason for doing those cryptic crosswords, apart from keeping the mind active. It didn’t take long to resolve the clues which boiled down to 2 mammals (Nyala, Elephant) 2 Trees (Nyala Tree, Ironwood Tree) and 11 birds (from memory they were White-fronted Bee-eater, Mosque Swallow, Red-crested Korhaan, Water Thick-Knee, Meve’s Starling, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Any Red Data species, Bateleur, Sabota Lark, Crested Francolin, Goliath Heron, but correct me if any are wrong) so from there on it was just a matter of finding the actual species to photograph.
The drive took us to the far north-east corner known as Crook’s Corner, where we spent some time enjoying the bird life in the Limpopo river and surrounding bush. On the way we spent quality time at Klopperfontein dams where we were able to stretch our legs and enjoy coffee, while watching the myriad Swallows, Martins and Swifts including many House Martins and a few Grey-rumped Swallows. Lark-like Buntings were moving about busily near the water and a Shaft-tailed Whydah made a brief fly-past, while Water Thick-Knees flew across low over the water. In the Pafuri area we saw our first Meve’s Starling moving amongst the low branches and higher up a Burnt-necked Eremomela worked his way through the foliage.
A surprise ‘sighting’ was the 4 ‘illegals’ from Mozambique that we came across near Pafuri, making their way through the Kruger on foot (one was barefoot) – they looked quite weary and despondent at being found and our guide contacted the camp to pick them up but we didn’t find out what happened to them.
The Limpopo River at Crook’s Corner had enough water to support Green-backed Heron and Pied Kingfisher as they hunted in their particular ways, while White-fronted Bee-eaters hawked insects from an overhanging dead branch. From the surrounding bush the regular calls of Orange-breasted and Grey-headed Bush-Shrikes could be heard, a Tropical Boubou made a brief appearance and Chinspot Batis, Red-billed Firefinch and Purple-crested Turaco were all welcome sightings. Overhead numbers of White-backed Vultures circled lazily and an African Cuckoo-Hawk appeared from nowhere and disappeared just as quickly
Our next stop was the Pafuri picnic spot, one of my favourite spots in Kruger, where a brunch had been set up by the busy HR’s. This was also the chance to add more species, with White-crowned Lapwing being an easy sighting in the river, Red-faced Cisticola calling from the riverine bush and an obliging Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove posing for photos meant we could tick off another on the treasure hunt list.
Back on the road we came across a lone Secretary Bird before heading back to Punda Maria – just a pity we didn’t have enough time to visit the bridge over the Luvuvhu which usually delivers a plethora of bird species, but a special sighting on the way back made up for this. Joe led us to a spot along the road, lined by tall Mopane trees, where Arnot’s Chat were known by him to breed and a brief playing of their call brought a male and female to investigate and eye us from a roadside tree, affording magical views of this sought-after bird.
Then it was back to the camp to report back on our photos taken for the treasure hunt, for which we managed to get a full house. A short while later we were at it again, this time following more cryptic clues to items around the camp itself, which we completed successfully except for Passer Domesticus (House Sparrow) which we could not decipher. The Cicada was easy enough to unravel but quite difficult to find, camouflaged as it was against the bark of the Mopane trees in the camping area.
During the pursuit of the items we came across Bearded Scrub-Robin along the Flycatcher trail and spent some time at the hide overlooking a water hole just outside the camp fence, popular with everything from Elephants to Eremomelas. A Broad-billed Roller was showing off his skills as he swooped down from a nearby tree and skimmed the surface, as if showing the Bee-eaters present that he could do it just as well as them.
After the report back, dinner was served followed by a short night drive, during which we added Fiery-necked Nightjar and Barred Owlet to our list.
Saturday 16 November 2013
An early start again – advisable in the extremely hot conditions. By this time we were getting accustomed to the extreme heat and the prospect of atlasing some remote areas of Kruger was something I was looking forward to – the area we were allocated to atlas turned out to be located in a little visited but beautiful part of Kruger, covering lush bushveld and riverine habitats. This, for me, was the highlight of the weekend – going down those usually forbidden roads with those no-entry signs and knowing there will be no other vehicles is part of what makes these events really special. Bird life was plentiful and the pentad list was rapidly added to in the allotted time.
The pentad list kicked off with an Eastern Nicator which made an exciting change from my usual atlasing, followed by some other specials such as Tawny Eagle, Wahlberg’s Eagle cruising above us, Green Pigeons in the taller trees and both Little and European Bee-Eaters hawking insects at low level.
A magnificent Baobab tree full of greenery was alive with birds, having a number of Red-billed Buffalo-Weavers and Red-headed Weavers using it as a nesting base. Even the arrival of a couple of Common Mynas could not spoil this classic scene.
The area atlased included stretches of the Levuvhu River and we made a few stops at convenient spots for walks along the river, watched by pods of Hippo in the cool waters and disturbing Green-backed Herons and Water Thick-Knees which took off and flew across to the opposite side as we progressed along the bank.
One stop was at the temporary Nyalaland Trail camp, located at an ideal spot above the river while the flood-damaged permanent camp is under reconstruction. The river walks added Pale Flycatcher, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher and White-crowned Lapwings amongst others, the latter calling excitedly and flying up and down the river. The bush away from the river was equally rewarding with Bennett’s Woodpecker, Striped Kingfisher and Black Cuckooshrike being some of the more notable sightings.
On the way back we heard what we thought to be Southern Hyliota calling and excitedly searched for this uncommon bird, only to find a White-browed Scrub-Robin imitating its call!
Back at the camp it was time to recharge with a nap, followed by a repeat of the late afternoon drive to the Pennant-winged Nightjar lek which was a lot more relaxed this time around.
Then all that remained was the dreaded Team Quiz (which again proved to be our downfall) and the final dinner and prize-giving. Oh well, there’s always the hope that the HR’s will present this event next year again, in which case the Shrewd Shrikes can have another go at improving our score.
Congrats to the West-Rand Honorary Rangers once again for presenting a really interesting and worthwhile event – long may they continue!
Thanks to Dr PeteZac Zacharias for providing the correct name for the Sekelbos (Dichrostachys cinerea) with its beautiful flowers, which I had wrong in the photo caption
A message received from Birdlife SA is worthy of a special Post on my blog.
A couple of years ago I was fortunate, along with scores of keen birders, to have a brief sighting of this enigmatic bird at a high altitude wetland near Dullstroom in Mpumalanga, South Africa, some 200Kms from Pretoria. We trudged through the shorter grass on the edge of the wetland while a group of about 12 people with the help of tracker dogs thrashed there way through the longer grass to try and flush the flufftail. After lots of walking and hoping, one did flush briefly and we were able to view it at a distance before it dove back into the cover of the long grass. So little is known about it, but it is a fascinating little bird which seems to migrate between Ethiopia and South Africa – but no one really knows! There are estimated to be just 250 birds remaining, with about 50 of these in South Africa. If they all got together in one place, standing side by side they would probably fit in a medium sized bathroom!
The media release is copied below :
South African flufftail on brink of extinction
Johannesburg, 28 November 2013:
The White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi is the latest addition to the growing number of the world’s birds which are threatened with extinction. The tiny and secretive flufftail, one of nine flufftail species in Africa, is now listed as Critically Endangered, one step away from extinction. The White-winged Flufftail is only known to occur in South Africa and, nearly 4000 km away, in Ethiopia.
Ornithologists are of the opinion that fewer than 250 adult White-winged Flufftails remain in the wild and that the South African population is estimated to number less than 50 birds. These estimates, combined with the emergent threats of habitat degradation and habitat loss, saw BirdLife South Africa and the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, two BirdLife International partners at the opposite ends of the continent, motivate for the uplisting of the White-winged Flufftail to globally Critically Endangered. This category represents the highest risk of extinction in the wild. White-winged Flufftail is the second South African bird species to be listed as globally Critically Endangered, with the other being the Tristan Albatross.
According to BirdLife International: “destruction and degradation of its high altitude wet grassland habitat, including wetland drainage, conversion for agriculture, water abstraction, overgrazing by livestock and cutting of marsh vegetation, have driven it to this precarious state. Urgent action is now needed in both Ethiopia and South Africa to better understand the species’ ecology and to address these threats and save it from extinction”. The preferred high altitude wetland habitat in South Africa, which is mostly limited to Mpumalanga, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, is threatened by mining, pollution from industrial effluents, domestic and commercial sewage, acid mine drainage, agricultural runoff and litter. The three Ethiopian wetlands where the birds are known to occur and breed are threatened by overgrazing and grass-cutting.
There is growing concern for the future of the White-winged Flufftail. “BirdLife South Africa and the Middelpunt Wetland Trust (MWT) have rolled out a number of research projects during 2012 and 2013 to focus on the conservation of the White-winged Flufftail”, according to Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, Conservation Manager at BirdLife South Africa. She added that “it is only with a better understanding of the connection between South Africa and Ethiopia, the flufftail’s movements and its habits, that we can implement correct conservation measures”.
A survey of suitable wetland habitat in South Africa is currently underway and will contribute to a better understanding of the extent of its occurrence in our country. Smit-Robinson further explains, “the analyses of blood and feather samples will shed light on whether the birds move between Ethiopia and South Africa or whether the two populations are in fact isolated”.
According to Malcolm Drummond, founding trustee of the MWT, solely established for the conservation of the White-winged Flufftail and its habitat, the Trust has long understood the importance of protecting habitat for the species in South Africa and Ethiopia. “As a means of gaining the support of the local community at Berga wetland in Ethiopia, where the flufftail breeds, the MWT has provided financial support over the past ten years for the building of a primary school for 700 pupils”. In return, the site support group patrols the wetland during the breeding season to prevent grazing and grass cutting.
The research and conservation work on the White-winged Flufftail is supported by the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme through funding from Eskom, the BirdLife Species Champion for the White-winged Flufftail.
Our good friend’s daughter, Jessie van Dyk, now resident in Toronto, Canada, was to get married on Saturday 9th November and she and a group of her Canadian friends and new family had come to South Africa the week before to spend a few days at Ngwenya Lodge near Komatipoort, prior to the wedding. We were invited to join the group from Monday to Thursday and it wasn’t a difficult decision to accept with the hope that we could provide some support to Jacobus and Lynette van Dyk. Having Canadian family myself (a sister and brother-in-law plus 2 nieces) we were looking forward to meeting some of their compatriots and we had the pleasure of meeting most of them on the Sunday that they arrived, before leaving for Ngwenya the next day.
The big disappointment is that not one of them wore a red-checked woolly shirt or a Mountie style hat – in fact they all looked quite decent and civilized, just like us!
While the excited group of some 20-plus went by bus, we made our way separately by car, with our customary stop at Millies near Machadadorp for trout pie and coffee. The trip of just over 400 Kms was uneventful but the “stop-and-go” between Nelspruit and Komatipoort delayed us by a good 40 minutes.
The chalets we were allocated are set around calm dams, while other chalets overlook the Crocodile River, which also forms the southern boundary of Kruger National Park. Water Monitors frequent the bush around the dams and are quite habituated to people, loping around the chalets in the hope of picking up morsels of food. Much smaller in size but just as reptilian are the colourful lizards in the gardens and around the chalets.
Bird life is plentiful and I was able to list 70 species during our stay, including a few in Kruger itself, despite not having much birding time in between the social activities. Bright yellow Village Weavers and Lesser Masked-Weavers are most prominent in front of the chalets where a number of the trees next to the water are bedecked with their carefully woven nests. The calls of Dark-capped Bulbuls, White-browed Robin-Chats, Green-backed Camaropteras and Sombre Bulbuls are heard throughout the day and act as a gentle wake-up call in the mornings.
A walk around the lodge gardens mid-morning added many birds to the list with Violet-backed Starlings showing their spectacular colouring in the top of the trees and the sound of African Reed-Warblers emanating from the waterside bushes. Trees are a mix of indigenous and exotic with Fever trees being quite prominent. At the hide overlooking the river it was fairly quiet on the mammal front, with just a lone African Buffalo wading in the river.
Numerous birds in the water and riverside bush boosted my list by a dozen in 20 minutes with specials such as Lappet-faced Vulture circling above, Water Thick-Knee patrolling the water’s edge in search of a meal and a Black Crake showing briefly among the exposed rocks.
A Taste of Kruger
Social interaction with the Van Dyks and their guests from Canada and Belgium took place over brunch and dinner and gave us all the chance to find out a little about them, their homes and family. They were all keen to see some of Kruger Park, being so close to the Crocodile Bridge gate, and I offered to do a game drive on the Tuesday afternoon from 3 pm which was taken up by some of the group, knowing that we were all due to do an organised game drive the following morning in Safari vehicles with guides. Between the 2 drives we were lucky enough to see all of the “Big 5” – in fact the Wednesday morning game drive accomplished that on its own with the help of the guides who communicate with each other and share special sightings. The Tuesday afternoon drive was almost as successful, chalking up 4 of the Big 5.
Two separate sightings of Lion, plenty of Elephants, a large herd of Buffalo and Rhino spotted at a distance, kept everyone on the edge of their seats during the drive and just as we were due to turn around and head back to Ngwenya our guide had a radio call during which I heard the word “Ingwe” and immediately knew we were in for a special sighting. Our guide didn’t say a word but headed at speed in the direction of Lower Sabie camp then past it to the bridge over the Sabie river where a magnificent Leopard was lazing on a rocky ledge, unconcerned by the many vehicles jostling for a good view of this most impressive of the big cats. After moving into a good viewing position, we spent some time watching him rolling around and yawning, then we headed to Lower Sabie for a comfort break and from there back to Ngwenya.
Plenty of other game was seen on the drives, including the ubiquitous Impala but also numbers of Giraffe, Zebra, Wildebeest, Warthogs, Kudus and a few Waterbuck with their distinctive white ring on the backside – many had youngsters in their group especially the Warthogs which seemed to have had a good crop of babies, which looked a bit like very large rodents. The bush and veld were looking beautiful after the first summer rains, but the dense bush does make it more difficult to spot animals even when close to the road. The game drives were thoroughly enjoyed by all, even ourselves who have done so many drives in Kruger, never tiring of visiting this special part of South Africa.
With the focus on game, the birding took a back seat, but I managed to keep the list ticking over with some of the typical Kruger Park birds that did not need stopping to ID them – Pin-tailed Whydahs were active near the gate and Rattling Cisticolas were making themselves heard at regular intervals, while Bateleurs and White-backed Vultures soared overhead. Francolins and Spurfowl occupied the road edge and scattered as we approached, their features distinct enough to easily make out Swainson’s and Natal Spurfowl as well as Crested Francolin as we passed by.
Canadians do the Braai
Come Wednesday evening and the visitors decided they would do the braai – this time at the lodge’s boma. We had to admit as proud South Africans that they did a great job and we enjoyed juicy steaks with salads and traditional pap – now if only we can get them to pronounce “pap” correctly (as in “pup”)
Then it was time to say goodbye for the time being, until the big event on Saturday.
This is the follow-on to Parts 1 and 2 , which covered the first 10 days of the road trip. In this Part 3, we (Don & Gerda Reid and Koos & Rianda Pauw) tackle the last stretch of our Birding and Flowers trip, taking in more of the prime flower-spotting areas of Namaqualand and heading south to Cape Town, from where we were to start the return journey via Bontebok National Park to Mossel Bay for a longer stay at our home there, before returning to Pretoria and completing the full circle.
Day 11 (29th August 2013) :
We had arrived at De Lande guest farm, not far from Niewoudtville, the previous day and were nicely settled in the “Sinkhuisie” just a stone’s throw from the main house. After a hearty breakfast in the main house we wondered whether to venture out into the rainy weather, but having come all the way to this part of South Africa, did not want to waste the opportunity and so we set off for Papkuilsfontein some 10Km further down the gravel road. By this time it had been raining for 12 hours and the road, which unfortunately had just been scraped and leveled by the local authorities, had turned to slush and it became an anxious trip as my vehicle, a VW Touareg, slipped and slid in all directions on the greasy surface, despite being in 4 x 4 mode – something like a fried egg in a non-stick frying pan. Mud splatter from the unavoidable pools of water obscured the windscreen and it was a battle to see where we were heading. Amazingly there were still some hardy birds about to keep our list going and make something of our bird atlasing efforts, with Southern Red Bishops , Yellow Bishops, Cape and Yellow Canaries carrying on their activities alongside the road. Under the circumstances the Touareg handled the conditions well but looked quite bedraggled when we stopped at Papkuilsfontein farm.
The rain had by this time abated and we had a chance to bird around the gardens, while Gerda and Rianda explored the gift shop, followed by tea and delicious cake in the “Waenhuis” restaurant where a welcome fire was blazing in the hearth.
After some consultation with the farm owners, Willem and Mariette van Wyk, we followed their suggested route, which traverses the farm down towards the river, past the cottages which they rent out. Approaching the cottages, we were rewarded with a wonderful sight of yellow “cat’s tail” flowers carpeting the fields, with the backdrop of the stone cottages and the ruins of an old homestead giving the scene a feeling of being in the middle of a beautiful landscape painting. Tearing ourselves away, we carried on for a few Kms into more rocky countryside with a variety of natural flowers and plants vying for attention with their range of colours and forms.
The scenery almost made us forget to do some birding for a while but we nevertheless kept at it, the highlights being an African Harrier-Hawk and our first Cape Spurfowl of the trip. The trip back to De Lande was a bit less harrowing, having now got the hang of the road conditions – however, it was getting even colder and, once back in the warm “Sinkhuisie”, we only ventured out to have dinner at the main house, which was another round of excellent “comfort cuisine” – including the best roast potatoes we’ve had in a long while.
Day 12 (30th August 2013) :
My birthday today and some surprises were in store!
We were up early to pack and load the vehicles for a quick getaway after breakfast, so that we would not be rushed on the longish drive to Simon’s Town (near Cape Town) and have time for a celebratory lunch on the West coast along the way. The temperature gauge in the car showed 3°C and a watery sun was trying its best to break through the low clouds. It was just after 8h00 when we got to the breakfast table at the main house, only to be greeted by rain which quickly turned to sleet and then, magically, it started snowing heavily. This prompted everyone in the dining room to rush out and take photos and just feel the large flakes drifting down and settling on the garden and on our clothes – a unique experience in South Africa and particularly this part, where the 27-year-old waitress informed us she had never seen snow in her life. Within 20 minutes the garden and our vehicles were covered in a layer of snow which was very photogenic, but we couldn’t help thinking of the 13Km of slushy gravel road we had to negotiate to get to the nearest tar road and wondered what added dimension the snow would bring to the experience.
We had breakfast a little faster than usual, stopping just short of gulping it down, then set off with some trepidation along the, by now, very slippery road with snow falling and our windscreen wipers trying to keep our windscreens clear, while we studiously followed the ruts left by earlier vehicles as we had been advised. Snow buildup on the car’s roof cascaded over the windscreen each time I braked and we took it very slowly to avoid a mishap. We made it to Niewoudtville without incident, found a toilet in the local tourist centre and set off on the rest of our journey. In the fields, the cattle and sheep had a layer of snow on their backs and even a group of Blue Cranes were sprinkled with snow. The snow interspersed with rain continued all the way to Vanrhynsdorp and only abated as we turned back onto the N7 heading south towards Cape Town. At Clanwilliam we followed the directions given by the chef at De Lande and took the road west to get us to our planned lunch venue at Paternoster.
It turned out to be a good choice of route as we soon saw the coast and followed the road south, bypassing the coastal towns of Elands Bay, Dwarskersbos (no idea where that name comes from) and Velddrif. A few tempting bodies of water, such as Verlorevlei and Berg River estuary, caught our eye but there was not enough time to stop and explore, so we had to be satisfied with some snatched sightings as we went past. Lunch at Voorstrandt restaurant in Paternoster was a pleasant interlude and we enjoyed the fish on offer, so much so that one of our group (who shall remain nameless) had fish for dessert as well! From Paternoster we returned to the main road for the last stretch into Cape Town and through peak hour traffic to Simon’s Town for our 3 night stay at the Quayside Hotel, which we were pleased to find has large comfortable rooms and wonderful views over the harbour and the bay beyond. The reception staff didn’t bat an eyelid at the amount of baggage they had to cart up the stairs including our portable freezer/fridge, which was fortunately a lot lighter than when we started. By this time we were “plain tuckered out” and after a light meal in the nearby restaurant, we were glad to get some rest.
Day 13 (31st August 2013) :
The pelagic (deep-sea birding) trip we had planned and booked for today was postponed to the next day, Sunday, due to the stormy weather in the Cape and so we decided to brave the cold-ish weather and threatening rain by going to Kirstenbosch, the world-famous (and rightly so) Botanical Gardens which lie on the lower eastern slopes of Table Mountain. The road from Simon’s Town to Kirstenbosch winds along the coast initially and we could see that the sea was rough, which did not bode well for the pelagic trip the next day, however we focused on the day’s mission which was to cover as much of Kirstenbosch as we could, recording the species for our next bird atlas cards.
First stop was the famous tea room for traditional (in our family) tea and scones, which were as good as ever, while the others enjoyed various items from the menu. Memories of my childhood outings to Kirstenbosch, some 50+ years ago came flooding back and I couldn’t help reminiscing about our mother, who always enjoyed her Kirstenbosch outings, and her last trip to have her ashes spread in the upper gardens. Well satisfied with our scones and tea/other good things. we set off for a walk up the gardens which were as magnificent as ever and alive with Sunbirds, (Southern Double-collared and Malachite), Cape Robin-Chats in every second bush, Canaries in song (Cape and Forest), Cape White-eyes busily flitting about in the upper branches and Karoo Prinias making themselves heard on the tops of bushes.
In the more forested areas Sombre Bulbuls were announcing their presence with their loud sharp calls while keeping hidden from view and Cape Batis appeared fleetingly among the foliage. A special sighting was a large Spotted Eagle-Owl, pointed out to us by another group, which had taken up a position in a large tree and looked about imperiously, ignoring the excited chatter of the smaller birds which were in a mild state of frenzy.
Of course Kirstenbosch is about the flora and at this time of year in particular the pincushions are in full bloom, giving a spectacular and colourful display of the different varieties.
After a lengthy walk and a good cup of coffee, we took the “long way home” back to Simon’s Town, via Hout Bay and along the Atlantic seaboard into town, then through the southern suburbs to Muizenberg and Fish Hoek, eventually arriving at our hotel in time for dinner.
Day 14 (1st September 2013) :
We were up early for breakfast at 6am before heading to the pier just below our hotel, where we were to meet the Zest for Birds team ahead of the pelagic birding trip into the deep waters south of the Cape Peninsula. This is deserving of its own posting so I won’t cover it here except to say that it was a spectacular trip with some amazing sightings. We left just after 7am and returned around 4pm, by which time we were quite exhausted from the intensity of the whole experience and the rough weather and sea conditions – we had just enough energy to drag ourselves to the nearby restaurant before collapsing in bed. There is nothing comparable in birding to this experience – a bombardment of all your senses that leaves you elated but exhausted at the end of the day. A small sampling of photos from the day are included here.
Day 15 (2nd September 2013) :
Time to move on to our next and final stopover before Mossel Bay – the Bontebok National Park near Swellendam, an easy 2 to 3 hours drive from Cape Town. We enjoyed a late breakfast in the hotel, greeted the genuinely friendly staff of the Quayside Hotel and were on our way. I stopped at Fish Hoek to get the wheels cleaned of the dried mud, collected during our trip to Papkuilsfontein, which was causing severe imbalance at speed and was happy that cleaning the wheels made all the difference.
After yesterday’s rough and windy seas, today was the complete opposite and I couldn’t help wishing we had been blessed with this weather for the pelagic trip – hopefully next time? By the time we reached Houw Hoek pass it was lunchtime and it was an easy decision to stop at the roadside farmstall for a simple but delicious lunch with good coffee. From there it was a short hop to Swellendam and the nearby Bontebok National Park – on the way in a Dusky Indigobird caught my eye where it sat on the roadside wire – an unusual sighting for the area which produced an “Out of Range” form when I later submitted the atlas card. Further on a Black Harrier flew low over the scrub as we approached the park reception. After checking in we proceeded to the riverside chalets for a 2 night stay – the wooden chalets are set on a bend in the Breede River which was in flood from the recent heavy rain and snow in the catchment area and it stayed that way during our stay. The partly submerged trees and pathways were an indication of just how high the river was compared to its normal state.
Once we were settled in, it was time to explore the gardens and surrounding bush, which were alive with the calls of several species as they went about their late afternoon business – Cape Robin-Chats, Fiscal Flycatchers, Cape Weavers, Speckled and Red-faced Mousebirds were all prominent as was a flock of 100 plus Common Waxbills. On the grass a turf war (literally) was happening as Southern Boubou chased a Fiscal Flycatcher and a Speckled Pigeon bullied the Waxbills.
Day 16 (3rd September 2013) :
The early part of the day was spent enjoying the peaceful ambiance of the chalets and surrounds and was highlighted by a Booted Eagle flying low over the chalets as he hunted for prey. Then it was time for an exploratory drive of the park which is not extensive and can be covered in a couple of hours. The drive took us to the viewpoint further up the river and along the way we enjoyed sightings of Cape Sugarbird, Cape Canary, a displaying Clapper Lark of the Agulhas subspecies and several Sunbirds. At the picnic spot the variety of flowers were an attraction, with one deciding to open its petals as we stood and watched! Grassbirds were prominent while a Fish Eagle called in the distance. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and braai-ing the evening meal.
Day 17 (4th September 2013) :
We left Bontebok National Park in beautiful calm, sunny weather with all the local species coming out to greet us, including the Pin-tailed Whydah which had spent most of the time energetically trying to impress the females with his freshly developed breeding plumage and active fluttering. We spent some time in Swellendam admiring the old church dating from 1802 and the many well-preserved Cape Dutch houses and enjoying a coffee stop at one of the local restaurants. The last stretch to Mossel Bay was uneventful and took us to the end of our journey for the time being.
All in all, this was a trip that was chock-full of wonderful experiences , one which will provide good memories for a long time of places visited and sights seen, not to mention birds listed, lifers added and plenty of bird atlasing done.
The only questions now are …….. where to next time and how soon?
This is the follow-on to Part 1, which covered the first 5 days of the road trip. In this Part 2, Don and Gerda Reid and Koos and Rianda Pauw continue the next 5 days of their Birding and Flowers trip, taking in the prime flower-spotting areas of Namaqualand and adding to the growing “trip list” of birds seen along the way.
Day 6 (24th August 2013) :
Still in Port Nolloth, we woke up to a beautiful scene, with the lagoon in front of the beach house as smooth as a mirror, reflecting the small groups of Greater Flamingos (Grootflamink) as they showed themselves off to great effect. Mingling with the flamingos were Little Egret (Kleinwitreier), Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls (Kelp- en Hartlaubse meeu), Cape and Bank Cormorants (Trek- en Bank-kormorant) and a charming family of South African Shelduck (Kopereend) – Mom & Dad + 2 youngsters following eagerly.
On the sand in front of the house, Common Starlings (Europese spreeu) and Cape Wagtails (Gewone kwikkie) were busy feeding while Swift Terns (Geelbeksterretjie) flew overhead in small flocks and an African Black Oystercatcher (Swarttobie) worked the shoreline for a tasty morsel or two. Not far from them a lone White-fronted Plover (Vaalstrandkiewiet) trotted about after unseen prey and offshore at a distance I was able to pick up a Cape Gannet (Witmalgas) with the help of my newly acquired spotting scope.
Walking along the beach and across the flat rocks, we found ourselves on another beach with a larger lagoon/bay, which held a single Pied Avocet (Bontelsie) and the largest flock of Black-necked Grebes (Swartnekdobbertjie) we have ever seen – probably 60 or more.
Koos and I then set off on a drive to complete the minimum 2 hour atlasing period and to see if we could find the sought-after Barlow’s Lark (Barlowse lewerik) which is a Port Nolloth “special” and said to be found not far from town on the road to Alexander Bay. Well, we followed the lead given by Birdfinder and tried hard for a sighting, but eventually decided we would have a better chance in the early morning, when they were more likely to show themselves and perhaps call. We had some compensation by way of Cape Long-billed Lark (Weskuslangbeklewerik), another lifer for me, which we found in the scrub-covered dunes after hearing its typical descending whistle, a sound we were to hear a number of times in the following days.
We discovered a small wetland closer to town, signposted Port Nolloth Bird Sanctuary, that held a variety of bird life, dominated by Lesser and Greater Flamingos – possibly the same ones seen earlier feeding in the lagoon – but also holding Cape Teal (Teeleend), Avocets, Cape Shoveler (Kaapse slopeend) and large numbers of Hartlaub’s Gulls. From there we followed the map to the large, mostly bone-dry, pan further north which was home to more Hartlaub’s Gulls (100+) but not much else.
Having done our Citizen Scientist (no, it’s not a sect) duties for the day we spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying the beach view, ever-changing with the tides and winds. Later we tried the local Italian restaurant “Vespettis” which served up a decent meal after which Koos called up the daily bird list to add to our growing trip list.
Day 7 (25th August 2013) :
We were due to vacate the beach house by 10am, but first we had an important mission to accomplish – find the Barlow’s Lark. A chilly dawn saw Koos and I in the same area as the day before, stopping frequently and searching for any signs of the Lark amongst the low scrub clinging to the dunes. A rather intimidating sign on the fence reminded us that we were skirting a restricted mining area! We drove slowly for a few Kms northwards but kept coming up with Tractrac Chats and Cape Long-billed Larks whenever movement was spotted – not that these were birds to dismiss, as they were both lifers for me in the preceding days, but we were hoping desperately for a Barlow’s Lark, which was our main reason for choosing Port Nolloth as a stopover in the first place. After an hour or more of searching we decided to turn around and as we did so we heard a different-sounding call and leapt out of the car to find the source – yes, you guessed it, there was a Barlow’s Lark on the telephone wire and he obliged by flying up above our heads and commencing a display flight, which involves a lot of hovering in the air while calling continuously, then descending rapidly to a low bush for a minute or so before repeating the sequence several times, while we watched enthralled. It reminded me of the Melodious Lark’s display that I had seen earlier in the year but without the variety of mimicked calls. Apart from the thrill of adding another lifer, the whole display was a bit of birding magic and we both agreed this was one of those special moments to be treasured.
A little later we left Port Nolloth and headed back to Springbok with a good feeling about our short visit to this small coastal town. Before reaching Springbok we branched off to the town with the unusual name – Nababeep (“Rhinoceros place” in the old Khoi language) and stopped to view the spectacular displays of yellow and orange daisies which carpet the roadside and extend up the hillsides.
From there it was a short drive to Kamieskroon where we found the road to Namaqua National Park for our next night’s stop. Rock and Greater Kestrels (Kransvalk & Grootrooivalk) and Pale Chanting Goshawks (Bleeksingvalk) are regular occupants of the roadside poles in these parts, in addition to the ubiquitous Crows. Approaching the park we could see the flowers blanketing the landscape from a long way off and as we got closer the beauty of the flower display was almost overwhelming. We tore ourselves away from the scene to check in and let the ladies explore the “Padstal” after which we made our way slowly to the chalet in the “Skilpad” section of the park, admiring the variety of flowers and birding along the way, with Sunbirds and Larks being most prominent.
On arrival at the chalet a Grey Tit (Piet-tjou-tjou-grysmees) immediately made his presence known with his loud and distinctive call – another lifer added! A short walk produced a busy pair of Layard’s Titbabblers (Grystjeriktik), several Malachite Sunbirds (Jangroentjie) and Karoo Scrub-Robin (Slangverklikker). In no time it was dusk and time to braai, re-live the special day and get some rest.
Day 8 (26th August 2013) :
Early morning mist had cleared by the time we left and we enjoyed the circular route through the flowering landscape back to the office to hand in our keys before venturing further. At the office I spotted a Ludwig’s Bustard (Ludwigse pou) doing a fly past allowing me the pleasure of clocking up lifer No 700 for Southern Africa, which earned a few “high-fives”.
Having made the most of our short stay we had decided to head further into Namaqua park, along the road to Soebatsfontein (Afrikaans for “pleading fountain”), marked as 4 X 4 only but by no means a rough road and well worth doing, as we were to find out. The road to Soebatsfontein winds its way through the mountain ridges, and the wonderful scenery makes it one of the best roads I have driven. Along the way Cape Clapper Larks (Kaapse klappertjie) did their distinctive display flight as did the Karoo Larks. Cape Buntings (Rooivlerkstreepkoppie) were plentiful with a few Black-headed Canaries (Swartkopkanarie) adding to the mix. While we were enjoying roadside coffee and the delicious melktert (custard tart) from the park’s shop we were entertained by yet another displaying Lark, this time Red-capped Lark (Rooikoplewerik), flying up from a termite mound while calling, then plummeting rapidly before repeating a few minutes later.
Our lunchtime stop was about halfway along the road near the ruins of an old farmstead, which was probably built with mud bricks which by now had partly dissolved giving it a “Timbuktu-like” appearance. During the drive we had seen a good selection of raptors including Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoel), Verraux’s Eagle (Witkruisarend), Booted Eagle (Dwergarend) and a Black-chested Snake-Eagle (Swartborsslangarend).
Once we reached the small village of Soebatsfontein we took the dirt road to Kamieskroon, then via the N7 to the turn-off to No-Heep farm where we had booked accommodation for the next 2 nights. On arrival the owners showed us to the charming old farmhouse nearby, with solar-powered lights and gas for cooking, fridge and hot water. There was time for a short walk to explore the surroundings before dusk descended – in the fading light a Verraux’s Eagle and a Booted Eagle were still vying for prime patrolling spot along the nearby mountain ridge.
Day 9 (27th August 2013) :
After a relaxed breakfast I set off for a lengthy late-morning walk up towards the mountain where the Eagles had been patrolling the previous evening. The morning shift now comprised a handsome Jackal Buzzard and a Rock Kestrel doing patrol duty along the same stretch of mountain ridge, the former coming in quite low to show off his rich rufous and black and white colouring as he cruised past. At ground level, Karoo Larks were displaying energetically, while Cape Buntings and Grey Tits carried on with their daily routines. Common Quail (Afrikaanse kwartel) stuck to the rule “be heard and not seen” as they crept unseen through the grass, given away only by their pip- pip- pip call. Up on the lower slopes of the rocky hillside, a Grey Tit played hide and seek with me – responding to my playing his call but remaining wary and partly hidden in the branches of a tree, making photography difficult.
A small lizard with a very long tail attracted my attention and I waited patiently for it to come out into the open – my reference book later confirmed it to be a Sand Lizard. A Karoo Prinia (Karoolangstertjie) on top of a handsome Quiver tree, a feature of the area, made a memorable picture in my mind but he didn’t hang around long enough to turn it into a digital image. Further on, a Rufous-eared Warbler (Rooioorlangstertjie) popped up on a bush nearby and eyed me carefully, then disappeared into the bushes. Our only other activity for the day was a late afternoon drive along the farm roads leading north of No-Heep, with more spectacular scenery to enjoy along the winding road through beautiful mountain landscape.
Day 10 (28th August 2013) :
Another travelling day – this time we were headed to a guest farm near Niewoudtville (the locals pronounce it Nee-oat-ville) which is famous for its variety of bulb flowers at this time of year. The route took us back to Kamieskroon where we stopped to find the War monument – as it turned out it was in the church grounds. From there we continued south on the N7 to VanRhynsdorp where we turned east and drove through the flat, almost barren plains known as the “Knersvlakte” (literally the “Grinding flatlands”), so named by the pioneers of this part of South Africa because of the sound of the wagon wheels grinding on the stony, gritty surface.
The plains ended in an intimidating mountain escarpment with a diagonal gash up the side which, as we got closer, turned into a steeply angled road with dramatic views back over the Knersvlakte. As we reached the top we found ourselves in quite different countryside at a substantially higher altitude and soon passed through Niewoudtville, with a quick stop to admire the roadside flowers, on our way to De Lande farm some 13 Km further along a dirt road. At this stage the road was still dry and comfortable to drive on, but this was to change over the next couple of days.
Once settled at De Lande in the “Sinkhuisie” or “Tin House”, we took a walk to stretch the legs and do some initial birding in this new locality. Immediately the presence of Mountain Wheatears was noticeable as they hopped about around and under the car, almost seeming to want to say “hello”. A Black Harrier (Witkruisvleivalk) glided past in his customary low flight over the scrub and disappeared into the distance. Down at the farm dam dusk was approaching and a row of tall blue gums was being populated by growing numbers of Black-headed Herons (Swartkopreier), Sacred Ibises (Skoorsteenveer) and Cape Crows (Swartkraai) as they came in to roost – the trees were altogether quite crowded. The weather had turned and it was by now completely overcast and decidedly cold but this was more than compensated for by the heaters in the house and the warm welcome and superb dinner we enjoyed that evening, served in the main house a stone’s throw away.
The next couple of days were to be a test of the vehicles and our tenacity, but more of that in Part 3 – stay tuned…….
One of the enjoyable aspects of planning a trip is the pleasant anticipation that goes with it. A few years ago Gerda and I were intent on doing a birding trip through the Northern parts of South Africa to coincide with the time that the Namaqualand flowers are usually at their best, but circumstances stood in the way and we had to cancel at the last moment. Koos and Rianda Pauw, who we were to join for that trip, did the trip on their own and their stories afterwards only served to make us more determined to do the trip at a future date. When Koos & Rianda suggested “going for it” in 2013, Gerda and I jumped at the chance and immediately started planning the route, accommodation etc in order to make sure we would get bookings at the preferred spots during the popular flower-viewing season which runs from mid-July to mid September.
The anticipation was heightened by the fact that we would be travelling through parts of South Africa that we had not experienced before, with places and towns to see for the first time. The bonus was the prospect of seeing the famed Namaqualand flowers for ourselves, not to mention the possibility of a number of “lifers” (birds not seen before) along the route. Then there is the all-important atlasing of bird species which we intended to do at each overnight stop as a minimum.
Note that this Part 1 of the trip does not include the main Namaqualand flower areas, which will only be included in later Parts – you have been warned!
Afrikaans names of bird species have been added where the bird is first mentioned, because many birders in South Africa know the birds by their Afrikaans names and the names are often charming and more descriptive.
Day 1 (19th August 2013) :
After much intense packing and arrangements, we set off just after 2pm and headed west along the N14 National road to our first overnight stop via Krugersdorp, Klerkskraal, (blink and you’ll miss it) Ventersdorp and Coligny, at which point we turned south to the farm Ouplaas near Ottosdal in the North-West Province, arriving late afternoon. Coert and Magdalena welcomed us warmly to their guest house and turned out to be excellent hosts and the accommodation proved comfortable enough. They served a tasty four course dinner that, along with the décor, took me back 30 years – soup starter, then a fish salad followed by the main course with roast lamb and veg, then a rich pudding and coffee in tiny, fancy cups.
Day 2 (20th August 2013) :
An early morning walk was a good start to the day and an ideal time to do some atlasing of the bird species to be found in the area – the garden was fresh and cool and lush compared to the dry surroundings.White-browed Sparrow-Weavers (Koringvoël) are one of the signature birds of the area and are plentiful everywhere, made evident by the untidy nests in many a tree – some were busy nest-building at the entrance gate closely attended by Crimson-breasted Shrikes (Rooiborslaksman) in their bright red plumage. Bird calls livened up the garden, announcing the presence of Pied Barbets (Bonthoutkapper), Cape Robin-Chats (Gewone janfrederik), Red-throated Wryneck (Draaihals) and Orange River White-eyes (Gariepglasogie) in between the background calls of Laughing, Red-eyed and Cape Turtle-Doves (Lemoen- Grootring- en Gewone Tortelduif).
The roads near the farmstead produced Bokmakierie, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler (Bosveldtjeriktik), Neddicky (Neddikkie) and Kalahari Scrub-Robin (Kalahariwipstert) and on the way back a Brubru (Bontroklaksman) announced himself with his telephone-ring-like call. With atlasing duties done it was time for a leisurely breakfast after which we headed out to Barberspan some 80km away, first stopping at the farm’s own dam, which had looked promising from a distance. It proved to be a worthwhile stop as we added Lesser Flamingo (Kleinflamink) and a Goliath Heron (Reusereier) in the shallows as well as an early Wood Sandpiper (Bosruiter) and Kittlitz’s Plover (Geelborsstrandkiewiet) along the edge.
From there we made our way to Barberspan which we reached just after midday and immediately started atlasing Pentad 2630_2535 covering the north-east quadrant of the very large pan. Birds were plentiful, visible at a distance from the adjoining road – both Greater and Lesser Flamingos were working the shallows along with another Goliath Heron and the usual Geese, Egyptian and Spur-winged (Kolgans, Wildemakou). Once we entered the Bird Sanctuary itself, we added species at a constant pace with a Common Scimitarbill (Swartbekkakelaar) being a highlight, before heading through the low grass surrounding the pan where we encountered Spike-heeled Lark (Vaktelewerik) and African Quail-Finch (Gewone Kwartelvinkie) amongst others.
Moving along the shoreline on the roadway skirting the pan, we found Black-winged Stilts (Rooipootelsie), African Snipe (Afrikaanse Snip), African Swamphen (Grootkoningriethaan), Wood Sandpiper and newly-arrived Ruff (Kemphaan), all mixing with the Flamingos. From there we moved to the picnic spot for our traditional “wors-braai” and continued to enjoy the coming and going of the birds that frequent the area, such as Pied Barbet, Tit-Babblers, Cape Glossy Starling (Kleinglansspreeu) and a charming Fairy Flycatcher (Feevlieëvanger) flitting about busily in the upper branches of the shady trees. Sparrow-Weavers were abundant and by far the dominant bird of the area and a pair of Yellow Mongoose skirted the picnic area and eyed us as we braai-ed. Our mid-afternoon meal of boerewors (traditional sausage) on a roll with side salad was simplicity itself but perfect in the peaceful surroundings and with the added pleasure of having the entire spot to ourselves.
Well satisfied with the birding and our catering efforts, we left Barberspan Bird Sanctuary, but before heading back to our guest farm we decided to have a “quick look” at Leeupan a couple of kms north of Barberspan. By this time the sun was getting low and causing a glare on the pan so not much was visible, but just as we were about to turn around Koos spotted a large bird in the veld on the opposite side of the road and excitedly called us to have a look. It turned out to be a real surprise – an Eurasian Curlew (Grootwulp) in the veld hundreds of metres from the water. I managed to get a few long-distance photos which I later submitted to the SA Rare Bird Report which duly mentioned our find and described it as an “interesting inland sighting”. This exciting find capped an excellent day all round.
Returning to the guest house we came across a Spotted Eagle-Owl (Gevlekte ooruil) silhouetted against the already dark skies.
Day 3 (21st August 2013) :
We spent virtually the whole day travelling the 700 Km to Augrabies National Park, via towns such as Delareyville, Vryburg, Kuruman, Olifantshoek, Upington, Keimoes and Kakamas – all towns we had never seen before, but unfortunately we did not have time to stop and explore any of them – maybe next time. This was partly due to the “stop and go” method of road reconstruction now familiar to all South Africans, which is very time-wasting and adds significantly to a day trip when there are 7 or 8 of them to negotiate in one day. We arrived at Augrabies by late afternoon and settled into the lovely chalet, after which we enjoyed a good meal in the park restaurant. By this time we were getting into the swing of packing and un-packing our loaded vehicles and the whole process was much quicker.
Day 4 (22nd August 2013) :
After a good night’s rest we had a leisurely breakfast before taking a walk around the camp and along the extensive network of board walks which lead to the various viewing decks, in the process building up an interesting array of birds for our ongoing daily and trip list, which Koos was keeping up to date in admirable fashion.
We soon saw that Pale-winged Starlings (Bleekvlerkspreeu) and Pied Wagtails (Bontkwikkie) were the signature birds of the camp with Orange River White-eyes being almost as prominent. Over the gorge below the falls, a short walk from our chalet, many Alpine Swifts (Witpenswindswael) appeared to be reveling in the spray thrown high into the air by the tumbling torrent of water and with some patience I managed to get some photos of these fast-flying Swifts, which look for all the world like miniature jet-fighters as they swoop past. According to Koos, this is one of his favourite birds.
A feature of the viewing areas is the localized Augrabies Flat Lizard (Platysaurus broadleyi – in case you were wondering) with its bright colouring – it apparently depends on the black flies that congregate in their millions along the Orange River and they also feed on the figs from the Namaqua Fig Tree. Dassies were plentiful and in the vegetation that skirts the board walks I heard African Reed and Namaqua Warblers (Kleinrietsanger, Namakwalangstertjie) but both stayed out of sight. The call of an African Fish-Eagle (Visarend) was loud enough to be heard above the constant rumble of the falls.
The camping area was alive with Starlings, Thrushes, Scrub-Robins and Bulbuls. At the outdoor section of the well-run restaurant, a Dusky Sunbird (Namakwasuikerbekkie) announced himself loudly as we enjoyed a cappuccino and on the walk back we checked the skies and found other Swallows (Greater-striped / Grootstreepswael), Martins (Brown-throated / Afrikaanse oewerswael)) and Swifts (Little, African Palm- / Kleinwindswael, Palmwindswael) had joined the abundant Alpine Swifts catching flying insects in the air.
After lunch we went for a drive through the park proper to the viewpoint called Ararat, which has spectacular views up and down the river gorge. Despite the short trip to the viewpoint we managed to spot some good specials including a group of Namaqua Sandgrouse (Kelkiewyn), Swallow-tailed Bee-Eaters (Swaelstertbyvreter) hunting from low branches, numerous Lark-like Buntings (Vaalstreepkoppie), Pied Barbet and then my first lifer for the trip – a lone Pygmy Falcon (Dwergvalk), a raptor so small and un-fierce-looking that it elicited a “shame” from us. At the viewpoint we enjoyed a picnic coffee while enjoying the view and scanning the gorge for birds – a Verraux’s Eagle (Witkruisarend) in the distance and Reed Cormorants (Rietduiker) far down in the river were our reward.
Back at the chalet it was time to braai the evening meal and prepare for our next long stretch down to the west coast at Port Nolloth
Day 5 (23rd August 2013) :
We had targeted an 8am departure knowing we had another lengthy drive ahead to Port Nolloth and wanting ti fit in some roadside birding along the “back road” between Pofadder and Aggenys, as described so well in the “Southern African Bird Finder” book which many birders use to plan their birding trips. We duly left just after 8am and stopped briefly in Pofadder to fill up our vehicles with diesel, where after we followed the book’s directions to the P2961 secondary road which was to take us through a part of Bushmanland known for some of the sought-after “specials” of the area. Our first stop was just 1,6 Km along the road as directed, where we found Karoo Long-billed Lark (Karoolangbeklewerik) and Tractrac Chat (Woestynspekvreter) (another lifer for me) without too much trouble. Spike-heeled Larks were spotted a couple of times and a group of Namaqua Sandgrouse obligingly waited for us at the roadside to allow close-up views, before scurrying away into the scrub.
We progressed slowly along the dusty road, stopping frequently in search of the special Larks of the area but without much further success as it was by now the middle of the day when birds are less visible. At one point we took what we thought was the turn-off to the Koa dunes where Red Lark is known to be found, but we realized after some time that the landmarks were not as described in the book and retraced our steps back to the “main” road and continued until we came across other Gauteng birders in search of Red Lark who advised us on the correct route. We duly followed their directions and found the Koa dunes close by where we spent a good hour-and-a-half scanning and listening but to no avail as the lark eluded us – perhaps another day? By this time it was getting late so we made haste to Port Nolloth via Springbok and Steinkopf, arriving as the sun was setting over the town and our overnight destination at McDougall’s Bay a few Kms south of the town. The beach house accommodation was right on the beach with a small rock-protected lagoon directly in front of the house, with a variety of birds present to whet our appetites for the following day.
Just as significantly, we had started seeing scattered patches of flowers in the veld as we approached Springbok, which augured well for the days ahead. So far each day had been an adventure with new places seen, new birds added to our growing trip list and regular roadside stops for coffee and refreshments without the hassle of heavy traffic to disturb the sense of tranquility that we were developing.
Part 2 will cover the rest of our stay in Port Nolloth, including a sighting that was one of the highlights of our trip, and our journey through the Namaqualand flower areas.