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.
It was October 2012 and I was starting to get used to having more time for my own pursuits, particularly birding. Mondays seemed the obvious choice for a regular day off as it extends the weekend and prevents (or postpones) those “Monday blues”. The only decision is – where to go? Not too difficult with the wide choice of birding venues within an hour or two from Pretoria and there’s always atlasing to do and a new Pentad to visit. On this particular morning I decided to visit Marievale, having last been there around 5 years previously – I wasn’t sure what to expect by way of facilities and security but was pleasantly surprised to find the hides and the picnic spot in a clean and looked-after state. The approach roads and those within the sanctuary are not great so a high-clearance vehicle is preferable.
For those not familiar with this spot, Marievale Bird Sanctuary is a protected area in Gauteng, South Africa covering about 10 square Km on the Blesbokspruit, a perennial river which is flanked by extensive wetlands on either side. There have been some comments recently about pollution of the water but to my untrained eye it looked clear and the presence of so many birds seemed to attest to the quality.
As it turned out, I had the whole of Marievale to myself on that Monday morning for the entire 4 to 5 hours that I was there, which is great when you are intent on photographing the birds without being disturbed, or irritating others. The various ponds and the surrounding vegetation make the perfect backdrop and with the help of the hides and using your own vehicle as a moving hide, it is possible to get “up close and personal” with the variety of water birds on view.
On the day I visited Marievale the whole scenario was so perfect and the bird life I encountered so accommodating that it seemed like a staged production in a way ………
“OK people, ….er birds, I’m your Director today and we’re running late, so let’s get this show on the road – it’s past 8am and I think our one-man audience has got lost, but I’m sure he will be here any moment now. Right, a little bird just told me he’s been doing the pentad next door to us and he’s now approaching the entrance to Marievale.
Now, let’s not overdo it in the first stretch, we need to save some good ones for later – we’ll just get him warmed up with a few run o’ the mill birds – Coots you can start the show followed by the Yellow-billed Ducks plus a Moorhen or two. Little Grebe and African Purple Swamphen, you’re up next and let’s get those Warblers warbling. I’m willing to bet he pulls out the bird-calls gadget to check them – yes, I was right and he’s got them sorted : African Reed Warbler, Little Rush Warbler and Lesser Swamp Warbler. Nice chorus, guys.
Right, now for the Teals – Red-billed you go first then Hottentot can come in a bit later and for good measure let’s have a Whiskered Tern doing a fly past or two. Greater Flamingo, have you got over my “break a leg” comment yet? You know that it’s just a good luck saying in our business …… anyway, just stand in the shallows looking elegant – OK, fly if you must, it will make a good action photo.
This is going well so far everyone, keep it up! Now he’s at the picnic spot hide so, Pied Avocet, this is your chance to show off your classic beauty close to the hide – just stop diving for a few seconds so that he can get a decent photo.
OK, he’s off into the Reserve proper and you know how close to the road the water gets, which means close-up action photos, so let’s do this right – that means you Cape Shoveler and you Ruff – what’s that, you want Wood Sandpiper to join you? Fine.
This is also your chance, Black-winged Stilt and African Snipe, to show yourselves off in the good light.
What do you say we throw in a Squacco Heron right next to the road and Glossy Ibis I want you to pose gracefully in the grass as he passes by – yes that’s just right!
And now for the grande finale which I’m sure will surprise him – as I had hoped he’s stopped at the “Bus-stop” hide, so I want you, Reed Cormorant, to show yourself off on that convenient perch in the water, then African Darter it’s over to you to do your diving and spearing act right in front of the hide and make sure you show the speared fish nicely, then juggle it around a bit and swallow all in one smooth action – yes, beautiful!
Well done everyone – great show!”
I left Marievale with reluctance – can’t wait to get back there in the Summer months again.
We used our timeshare points from another resort to book a week at Sanbonani near Hazyview, Mpumalanga in the first week of July 2012 – we were joined by our daughter Geraldine, husband Andre and Megan and Maia, 2 of our granddaughters, for what turned out to be a wonderful family week in the warm Lowveld. The resort, which is a short distance from Hazyview and 10 minutes away from the Phabeni Gate into the Kruger Park, lies in a V-shaped property bounded by the Sabie River on the one side and a smaller tributary on the other and boasts spacious grounds and a small forest of trees.
The self-catering units are comfortable and well-appointed and perfect for our needs, with a patio, overlooking the river, which became the ideal spot for our morning coffee, our evening braai and much of the in-between times. A large Wonderboom fig tree (Ficus Salicifolia according to my tree book) overhanging the patio proved to be irresistible for many of the birds in the area and there was a constant to-ing and fro-ing of birds eager to feast on the wild figs which were in abundance on the tree.
This is an ideal spot for relaxed “don’t-have-to-go-anywhere” birding as we built up an extensive list of Bushveld and Riverine forest birds without going beyond the patio – 42 species in all – hey that’s 5% of the total species in South Africa! Highly recommended for birders of all levels of expertise, as the close-up views allow you to really get to grips with and enjoy the variety of species, literally on your doorstep. An added bonus is the proximity of the Kruger Park with Phabeni Gate just 10 to 15 minutes away, however being school holidays it was quite busy when we were there and arriving at the gate just before opening time, we found ourselves at the back of a longish queue – but that’s another story (watch this space).
The facilities in the resort, such as the large swimming pools, tennis courts and the putt-putt course mean that there is enough to keep you busy and active besides the birding and we also enjoyed venturing out to Hazyview and in particular the Perry’s Bridge shopping centre, with its interesting array of small boutique-style shops, located on the outskirts. The bakery has some special goodies to enjoy with coffee.
A selection of the birds seen from the patio :
There were plenty of other species in the resort grounds of which I did not get good photos, such as Dark-capped Yellow-Warbler, Green-backed Camaroptera, Golden-tailed and Cardinal Woodpeckers, Dusky Flycatcher, Shikra, Black Saw-wing, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Collared Sunbird and White-browed Robin-Chat. The river held Green-backed Heron and Reed Cormorant, amongst others :
While braai-ing in the evenings we enjoyed the night sounds of the lowveld including the calls of 2 owls – Southern White-faced and Wood Owl. The moon happened to be full on a couple of the evenings which added atmosphere to the experience.
There’s no question that a week in the lowveld in winter is full of delights and leaves you feeling like Superman :
West Rand Honorary Rangers (WRHR) in conjunction with SA National Parks have been organising birding weekends in Kruger National Park during the less popular months (read “very hot”) since the late 1990’s and we have enjoyed many wonderful moments since those days, being among the first to participate in these events. A recent addition to the WRHR repertory is the Punda Mania event during November, billed as a “hardcore” birding event. Prompted by George Skinner, we (George, myself, Koos Pauw and Pieter Rossouw) entered into the Punda Mania event from 15 to 18 November 2012. We set off from Pretoria around 8am on Thursday 15th November and reached Punda Maria gate to the Kruger Park about 1.30pm after an uneventful drive.
From there it was a short drive to Punda Maria to check in, ticking the typical Kruger Park birds as we went. Once settled into the classic accommodation alongside the entrance road, we met with the rest of the birders, the Honorary and KNP rangers and Joe Grosel, the leader for the weekend, who Koos and I had met a number of years ago during a Limpopo Bird Count event. Joe led us through the itinerary for the weekend and gave an excellent talk on the natural highlights of the area around Punda Maria and up to Pafuri. This included a description of the variety of habitats to be encountered, which are many and contribute to the famed diversity of bird species to be found in this part of Kruger.
As the sun headed for the horizon we were off on a very special “night(jar) drive” which took us to a patch of open ground not far from the camp, used as a “lek” during a 6 week window each November and December by the much sought after Pennant-winged Nightjars.
After sun-downers, the group stood quietly in anticipation of the Nightjars arrival, which was like clockwork during the mating season according to Joe and we had no reason to doubt him. We were not disappointed, as these special birds produced an enthralling display in front of us, swooping by like enormous butterflies with their long wing-pennants creating an eerie silhouette against the darkening skies. There was one female and 2 males, one of which settled on the gravel road in front of the group a couple of times just to add to the spectacular sighting. We headed back to camp feeling privileged to have witnessed something seen by few birders and what proved to be the highlight of the weekend before we had really started!
Friday, very early, we were given a “photographic treasure hunt” to complete during the morning’s drive, while our focus was mainly on adding to our growing bird list for the weekend. This had a great boost when we reached the bridge over the Luvuvhu River and were allowed to walk the bridge and enjoy the abundant bird life in the river and surrounding bush – renowned as a birding hot spot and it fully lived up to this reputation.
A majestic African Fish-Eagle kept watch over the river from atop a tall tree, while in the river Spectacled and Lesser-masked Weavers went about their business in the reeds and the ubiquitous Wire-tailed Swallows rested on the bridge railings – I have been visiting this spot on and off for close to 40 years and have come across these swallows perched on the bridge railings every time. They are a great subject for photography as they allow a close approach.
A Crowned Hornbill made an appearance in the trees adjoining the bridge, along with Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike and Dusky Flycatchers. Yellow-bellied Apalis and Grey-Tit Flycatchers added to the variety of birds on show. From there we traveled to the Pafuri picnic site, one of my favourite spots for a mid-morning brunch in the Kruger, but found it relatively quiet birding-wise, although we did add White-crowned Lapwing in the river bed and Yellow-bellied Greenbul and Retz’s Helmet-Shrike in the trees. Further along the river, Crook’s Corner was equally quiet with no sign of the Pel’s Fishing-Owl sometimes located here and very little water in the river, the only birds of note being a lone African Openbill and a Greenshank.
The very hot conditions meant that an afternoon nap in the cool chalet beat all other options. Later on some quiet garden birding in the area opposite the chalets produced a Little Sparrowhawk hunting among the trees. This was followed by the next arranged event which was a “Botanical treasure hunt” or “looking for stuff in trees” as George put it, where we had to ID and find the likes of a “snuff-box” tree, a Kudu Berry and a Leopard Orchid, which we duly did and in the process I came across a tree frog about 3m up on a bare branch which was something new for me.
After a good dinner the rangers took us on an evening drive which produced a Square-tailed Nightjar as well as an unusual mammal in the guise of a Sharpe’s Grysbok.
Saturday, just as early, we departed for a morning of atlasing in two pentads north of the Punda Maria camp which are normally not accessible by the general public and had only been atlased once or twice previously. The area we covered proved to be very hot and extremely dry – lists produced were not extensive but of course that is the whole point of atlasing – to record the species present or not present at any given time of the day and season. A selection of birds spotted follow below :
The trip included a stop at the Nyala Wilderness Trail base camp, which I remembered from a trail done back in 1999 – a Barred Owl calling had us searching for it and we eventually found it amongst the high branches. On the way back to Punda Maria we ticked a few more including White-throated Robin-Chat. Back at the camp it was nap-time again followed by a walk to the hide on the edge of the camping area, which overlooks a waterhole outside the fence.
The waterhole was alive with various game and birds coming to find some relief from the hot,dry conditions – game included Elephant, Zebra, Nyala, Impala and a lone Warthog. Marabou Storks strode back and forwards like down-and-out gentlemen – still elegant in posture but rather tatty and unattractive. A Grey-headed Kingfisher made several sorties from a nearby perch to the water and back, while in the muddy shallows Violet-backed Starlings mingled with doves, canaries and bulbuls.
I watched with interest when a Bateleur arrived at the waterhole and proceeded to go through a lengthy routine of walking with some purpose into the muddy area and drinking leisurely from a small pool, taking a minute or so between sips and seeming to savour each mouthful (beakful?) After about 10 repeats of this he walked to the drier edge of the waterhole and threw open his large wings to soak up the heat, followed by a forward fall onto his belly to get sun on the back of the wings as well, or so I surmised. Perhaps he had seen the movie with the penguins sliding on their bellies on the ice and thought he would give it a try!
After some time in this pose he stood up carefully, scanned the skies and then took off. This whole procedure was quite unusual behaviour, I thought – later research using my bird books at home did confirm that the wing-spreading action is well-known but I could find no mention of the “belly-flop” action.
That evening it was time for a drive to view the Pennant-winged Nightjars displaying once again, followed by the final dinner and prize-giving to close off what had proved to be a memorable weekend.
The Sunday drive back to Gauteng provided an opportunity to visit a couple of birding spots such as the Entabeni forest and Muirhead Dams where we spent some time exploring and looking for the area specials, some of which are shown below :
All in all a memorable weekend amongst a group of super-keen birders and another success for the West-Rand Honorary Rangers who, along with other branches who have followed their lead, are now one of the leading birding trip organisers in South Africa, contributing valuable funds to conservation – well done to them!
Our group for the trip comprised George and Barbara Skinner, Koos Pauw and myself – two late withdrawals reduced the party to four instead of the planned six, plus our two guides for the trip, Gary Douglas and Jonathan (Jonno) Francis. These two, operating as Douglas and Francis Safaris, have been highly praised in birding circles and deservedly so, for their exceptional knowledge of all things natural, their amazing ability to find the specials and their absolute determination to make your trip the best one ever – all accompanied by good humour, excellent food and unbridled enthusiasm. “Guys come quickly, you’ve got to see this!!” became the signal to rush over to one or the other to view the latest sighting, by which time they often had a scope trained on the bird for outstanding views.
What follows will never do justice to the fantastic experience of birding with them, but for the record, here goes:
Day 1 : We were collected by Jonno at HarareAirport and immediately started our Trip List with Abdim’s Stork plus a few other common birds as we were taken to the Francis home, our base for the next 2 days. We were hardly out of the vehicle when Jonno shouted Whyte’s Barbet and there was our first lifer before we had even considered seeing one! After a quick lunch we set off for the Harare Botanical Gardens where we had a busy couple of hour’s birding, collecting Green-backed Honeybird, which had Jonno in an extreme state of excitement, something we experienced a number of times over the following days. The gardens are unlike most others of our experience – no manicured lawns and flower beds with “keep off” signs, just a wonderful collection of plants and trees allowed to go their natural course for the most part. The feeling is of being in wild forest country rather than the middle of Harare.
Later the same day, when the rest of our group arrived, we were off to Rainham Dams near Harare where we spent the time until sunset combing the water and adjoining vleis for the specials – Black Coucal, Senegal Coucal were easily spotted and a Western Marsh-Harrier did a majestic fly-past, while Variable and Copper Sunbirds showed in the bushes.
Day 2 : An early trip to one of Harare’s vleis in search of Streaky-breasted Flufftail, which had arrived following substantial rains according to Gary and Jonno. After a few attempts at surrounding the spots from which the calls were emanating, 2 were persuaded to flush and fly a short distance, affording good views. We ended up with very wet shoes, a few ticks of the biting kind and a number of the birding variety, including excellent views of Rosy-throated Longclaw, Pale-crowned Cisticola, Cuckoo Finch and Yellow-mantled Widowbird.
Back to the house for dry shoes and an energizing breakfast, watched over by Red-billed Firefinch, then off to prime Miombo Woodland in the Christon Bank area which produced great views of Collared Flycatcher, Cabanis’s Bunting, Miombo Tit amongst a busy bird party of around 20 species which gave us non-stop ticking opportunities. Further along, a second stop was as good and included Red-faced Crombec, Grey Penduline-tit and stunning views of Spotted Creeper as it went from branch to branch. A young Boomslang in a small bush was a surprise sighting and had us walking with slightly less abandon as we wondered where his closest relatives were residing.
A late afternoon visit to the Botanical gardens for those who did not get there the previous day produced a good crop of birds including a stately Ovambo Sparrowhawk high up in a tree and, just as we were leaving, the call of a Buff-spotted Flufftail had us excited but it refused to be tempted into the open for a sighting before darkness fell.
Day 3 : Another early start to get our shoes wet in another of Harare’s “amazing vleis” (could this be the title of a birder’s anthem?) – the gradual encroachment by allotment farmers creating a patchwork of mielies right across the vlei were disturbing, nevertheless good sightings of Great Reed-Warbler, African Reed-Warbler, Little Rush-Warbler and Orange-breasted Waxbills perked up our spirits. Red-chested Flufftails were heard calling but attempts to flush them failed.
After another hearty breakfast, accompanied by the resident nesting Paradise Flycatchers, we headed off to one of Harare’s Sewerage farms which proved to have an abundance of birds such as Abdim’s Storks, White-backed Vultures and Black Kites. The verdant green kikuyu pastures were filled with prime cattle, hundreds of Cattle Egrets and tens of Yellow Wagtails, making for a memorable scene as they all moved in unison against the brilliant green grass backdrop – who says Sewerage farms are ugly? Exiting the farm we found a Dark-capped Yellow Warbler in a roadside bush and picked up a Black-chested Snake-Eagle on a distant pylon.
Late afternoon saw us in more beautiful Miombo woodland north of Harare – this time to look for Wood and Tree Pipits in particular – an obliging Tree Pipit caused much excitement, followed by a White-breasted Cuckooshrike, but the Wood Pipit would have to wait. We came to the conclusion that Miombo woodland makes for excellent birding apart from the special birds – it is easy to access, the trees are not too tall and there are no thorny bushes to impede progress.
Day 4 : An enormous day from all points of view! We set off from Harare just after 6am and headed south towards Marondera. A breakfast stop at Gosho Park provided another opportunity for Miombo birding which produced stunning views of Miombo Rock-Thrush, a Freckled Nightjar that flushed from the rocky outcrops and other specials such as Redfaced Crombec, Black-eared Seedeaters, Spotted Creeper and a Wood Pipit to make up for the previous day’s dip.
A vlei selected by our expert guides a bit further along had us sweating as we trudged through the long grass, but the excitement ran high when first a Black-rumped Buttonquail and then our target species of Locustfinch flushed, flew a short distance and dived back into the grass, affording good views to the group.
Our next stop for lunch was a well-chosen rocky outcrop with wonderful views and equally wonderful birding – by now we were starting to appreciate just how good our two guides were as they spotted one special bird after the other, in between naming every tree, butterfly, squirrel that we queried. We hardly had time to enjoy the tasty Pit(t)a burgers between viewing the birds on offer : Yellow-bellied Waxbill, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, Robert’s Warbler, Singing Cisticola, Bronzy Sunbird plus others.
And there was more to come before the day ended…. a brief detour towards Nyanga National Park to search for Blue Swallows was successful at the second stop and a Blue-spotted Dove flew up as we passed and eyed us from an open branch close to the road.
Finally we proceeded to our overnight stop at Far and Wide Resort near Mutarazi Falls where the last half hour of a stunning day was spent at a viewpoint overlooking the Honde Valley 1000m (yes, one kilometre vertically!) below and to top it all Scarce Swifts appeared as we enjoyed a sundowner.
Day 5 : An early walk in the forested area surrounding the resort produced glimpses of Barrat’s Warbler and good views of Stripe-cheeked Greenbul but the one that really bowled us over was a Red-faced Crimsonwing feeding at the edge of the path.
Sightings of Bronze-naped Pigeon and Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler rounded off the early morning.
Most of the rest of the day was spent travelling to Aberfoyle with several stops along the way to enjoy the views and further specials such as Grey Waxbill and Livingstone’s Turaco. On arrival at Aberfoyle there was hardly time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings as various birds put in an appearance – Eastern Sawwing swept gracefully past us and an African Broadbill was spotted sitting quietly on a nearby branch. Palmnut Vultures flew by and a Green-backed Woodpecker had us running to the spot where Jonno and Gary had set up the scope to view it. Red-throated Twinspot andYellow-rumped Tinkerbird put in a welcome appearance during the afternoon.
Day 6 : A slower day’s birding, to allow us all to recharge, started with a dawn trip to the nearby marsh on the estate to find the Anchieta’s Tchagra, which we duly did. Half-collared Kingfisher and Silvery-cheeked Hornbill were added to the list on the way back. On our return, Pallid Honeyguide caused excitement in the gardens of the country club, after which we walked a stretch of the golf course to view some of the spectacular butterflies present. Lunch was at the river which flows through the estate and the humidity persuaded us to take a dip in the cold clear waters, followed by a siesta. Having heard the Buff-spotted Flufftail calling from the forest adjoining the club, we spent the late afternoon tracking it and persuading it to show, once again to no avail.
Day 7 : Another full day travelling, this time our destination was Vumba in the highlands, with more magnificent scenery along the way – various stops produced several lifers for all : Zambezi Indigobird in a dry tree next to the road, a pair of Augur Buzzards soaring in the wind, fleeting glimpses of Magpie Mannikins as they flew across the road and a Black-winged Bishop amongst mielies, looking for all the world like the familiar Southern Red Bishop until he flew a short distance, displaying the paddle-shaped black wings that our guides had warned us to look out for.
Near our destination we stopped in a heavily forested area where we had an incredible encounter with a Swynnerton’s Robin which we struggled to see in the dense undergrowth until it made its way slowly and deliberately towards where our group was anxiously crouching, where it was an arm’s length away – it eyed us for a while until it wandered off, leaving us shaking our heads at the jaw-dropping views of this uncommon bird.
Once settled in our accommodation we spent the last hour of the day in the adjoining forest which quickly produced Orange Ground Thrush and glimpses of Lemon Doves as well as Olive Sunbird.
Day 8 : After a forest walk and breakfast, our last full day was spent driving the route to Burma Valley and back, enjoying the picturesque scenery in the misty conditions. Highlights along the route included a Lanner Falcon posing imperiously in a tree, good sightings of Magpie Mannikin and an Emerald Cuckoo on an open branch. Our guides once again found a couple of specials in Cinnamon-breasted Tit and Pale Batis in adjoining trees.
Day 9 : The last day held a few more surprises in store for us before boarding the plane at Harare International for the trip back to Gauteng. As we were departing Seldom Seen a Black-fronted Bush-Shrike was heard and shortly after well seen by all. With a long way to travel and limited time for stops, our guides concentrated on finding a few more lifers for us at selected spots along the way back to Harare. We were fortunate to find both Boulder Chat and Thrush Nightingale at one of these spots along with a handsome Shikra, while another small dam produced a pair of Pygmy Geese and a bonus of a fly-past of a group of Mottled Swifts.
A final walk through a vlei by half our group (the rest had an earlier flight and unfortunately had to rush ahead) intent on flushing something special, struck gold when a pair of Blue Quail flushed in front of us, topping off what had turned into the birding trip of a lifetime.
We ended off with a trip list well over 300 and lifers ranging between 48 and 72 for the members of our group. My own lifers count was a stunning 60!