Tag Archives: Birding Southern Africa

My Birding Year 2018

 


My 2018 Birding Year

So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the last year along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited. Some of the trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.

January 2018

Mossel Bay is our home over the holiday season up to the third week in January, so I try to use this time to fit in as much atlasing as I can in the beautiful surrounding countryside.

Atlasing trips and the highlight species included :

  • the area beyond Herbertsdale – Black Storks at the Gouritz River
  • the town of George with a visit to the waste water treatment works as well as the forested area at the top of the town – Black Cuckooshrike, Black Sparrowhawk and Knysna Turaco
  • Wilderness and the Woodville Big Tree (covered in a separate post) – Lemon Dove, Chorister Robin
  • Friemersheim area north of Klein Brak – Olive Bushshrike, Swee Waxbill, Narina Trogon, Black-winged Lapwing
Friemersheim area
African Hoopoe, Friemersheim area
Black-winged Lapwing, Friemersheim area

A blustery day blew some seabirds inshore – a visit to the Point at Mossel Bay produced White-chinned Petrels, Gannets and Gulls galore, Terns and, amazingly, a Sooty Shearwater

 

February

Back in Pretoria I could catch up on some highveld atlasing with a visit to Mabusa nature reserve along with Koos Pauw – an outstanding day with both Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers seen and Great Reed Warbler heard.

Pallid Harrier (Juvenile), near Mabusa NR

I literally went into the bundu on occasion

Mabusa NR and area

Mid-month we used up some expiring RCI points to spend a weekend at Champagne Valley resort in the southern Drakensberg. Great birding in a magnificently scenic environment – highlights were Cape Vulture, House Martin, Bearded Vulture, Grey Crowned Crane and Long-crested Eagle

Black-backed Puffback (Juvenile), Champagne Valley Drakensberg
Amethyst Sunbird, Champagne Valley Drakensberg
Arrow-marked Babbler, Champagne Valley Drakensberg

March

Back to the Drakensberg, this time with brother Andrew visiting from the UK – some birding, more touring from our base at Drakensberg Sun resort

Work pressures meant no time for atlasing although I used the public holiday to do a couple of pentads around Delmas, where an Amur Falcon entertained me with its handling of a locust catch (covered in a separate post)

Amur Falcon feeding on grasshopper, Delmas south

April

For my 500th pentad I decided to atlas the area around Mkhombo Dam which proved to be a good choice (also covered in a separate post)

Marico Flycatcher, Mkhombo dam area
Black-faced Waxbill, Mkhombo dam area

The following weekend we visited family on Annasrust farm in the Free State near Hoopstad – one of the highlights of our year and a superb birding spot in its own right.

Massed Egrets, Spoonbills and Cormorants made for a spectacular sight on the river

Mixed roost, Annasrust farm Hoopstad
Common Sandpiper, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Late in April, with some RCI points not fully used and about to expire, we booked a week at Pine Lake Resort near White River, which also included a memorable day visit to Kruger Park

Pine Lake Resort
African Fish Eagle, Kruger Day Visit
Booted Eagle, Kruger Day Visit
White-browed Robin-Chat, Kruger Day Visit

May

My only atlasing trip in May was to Mabusa Nature Reserve and the surrounding area – many highlights including Flappet Lark, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah and Barred Wren-Warbler

June

Early June saw us in Mossel Bay for a brief visit – just one atlasing trip was squeezed in, covering the area north of Great Brak River

This Black-headed Heron posed on my neighbour’s roof

Black-headed Heron, Mossel Bay Golf Estate

We were hardly back in Pretoria when we set off for our annual visit to La Lucia near Durban where we have a timeshare apartment, with an overnight stay at the beautiful Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van ReenenMy early morning walk was a misty affair

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van Reenen

La Lucia was as restful as ever but the World Cup soccer proved to be a distraction, nevertheless I managed to fit in a mix of beach birding walks, a trip to my favourite urban forest – Pigeon Valley – and a visit to Shongweni Nature Reserve

We took up Gerda’s Vryheid family’s invitation to stop over on their farm near the town on our way back – a worthwhile detour if there ever was one! A pair of Crowned Cranes made the visit really special, although Anlia’s breakfast krummelpap (a coarse farm porridge) was a serious competitor for “best reason to visit”.

Crowned Crane, Onverwacht farm Vryheid
Southern Bald Ibis, Onverwacht farm Vryheid

July

Mid-month I was in Cape Town for a day and found myself free for the afternoon – so where does a keen birder go on a rainy day in this famous City? Naturally to the Strandfontein Sewage Works – birding was superb with a few hundred Flamingoes amongst many other water birds

August

Mid-winter atlasing trips around Gauteng kept me sharp during August, despite cold (- 3 deg C at one stage), windy conditions that kept me mostly in my car. Spike-heeled Larks were a feature of both trips, while African Harrier-Hawk was an exciting find.

Southern Fiscals are common just about everywhere but this subcoronatus sub-species is quite a special find

Common Fiscal (subcoronatus), Nigel area
Pin-tailed Whydah (female), Nigel area

September

A last-minute decision to spend a week in Kruger Park turned into a memorable, relaxing trip with plenty of wild life experiences (covered in several posts)

Crested Francolin, Sable Dam, Kruger Park
Wahlberg’s Eagle (Juvenile White crowned), Olifants River, Kruger Park
Sabota Lark, Kruger Park

An atlasing trip to the Delmas area later in the month produced a Blue Korhaan, scarce in these parts, as well as a couple of other terrestial species in the form of Orange River Francolin and Northern Black Korhaan

October

Time for our timeshare week at our favourite get away – Verlorenkloof, which produced fine birding once again and some interesting atlasing opportunities in the area.

African Stonechat (Male, Saxicola torquatus), Verlorenkloof

The most exciting sighting at Verlorenkloof was of an immature Crowned Eagle, which apparently was born and raised on the property, the nest still visible on top of a tall tree

African Crowned Eagle (Immature, Stephanoaetus coronatus), Verlorenkloof

Down at the river the Village Weavers were nest-building in loud and vigorous fashion

Village Weaver (Male, Ploceus cucullatus – spilonotus), Verlorenkloof

The tiny Swee Waxbill visited the undergrowth near our Croft

Swee Waxbill (Female, Estrilda melanotis), Verlorenkloof

The sought after Broad-tailed Warbler is a regular at Verlorenkloof during the summer months but does its best to frustrate any attempts to get a close photograph

Broad-tailed Warbler (Schoenicola brevirostris), Verlorenkloof

Back to the Cape in the last week of October for a short visit to Mossel Bay, followed by a quick visit to family in the western Cape town of Worcester, where I spent a morning enjoying the surprisingly good birding that was on offer in the adjoining hills.

Quarry road, Worcester

November

Further atlasing in the Mossel Bay area included trips to Herbertsdale and Gouritz River, before returning to Pretoria where we prepared for our return to Mossel Bay for a longer stay over December and January, as has become our custom over the last few years.

The road trip to the southern Cape included an overnight stop at Kuilfontein near Colesberg and a two night stay at Karoo National Park, both places providing some diverse atlasing opportunities

Karoo National Park
Short-toed Rock-Thrush, Karoo National Park

The following week saw me returning by air to Gauteng and onward to Kasane in northern Botswana for a final inspection visit to the airport project that I was involved in. I booked a boat-based and vehicle-based game drive during my stay, in order to make the most of this last visit to Chobe game reserve, both of which provided some amazing sightings and photographic highlights.

Cattle Egret, Chobe River Trip
Pied Kingfisher, Chobe River Trip
Chobe Riverfront Game Drive
Spur-winged Goose, Chobe Riverfront game drive
Hamerkop, Chobe Riverfront game drive

December

Back in Mossel Bay, it was time to get into relaxed mode and I looked forward to some atlasing of the area, including Mossel Bay itself.

Water Thick-knee, Mossel Bay GE

A Terek Sandpiper at Great Brak was a lifer for me

Terek Sandpiper, Great Brak River mouth
Little Egret, Great Brak River mouth

The only body of fresh water in Mossel Bay is a drawcard for numbers of birds

SPCA dam, Mossel Bay

This Cape Weaver decided to use the bird-feeder in our neighbour’s garden as a base frame for its nest – probably an inexperienced juvenile practicing his skills. He never did complete the nest.

Cape Weaver nest-building on feeder, Mossel Bay

My Photo Picks for 2018

With the new year in its first week, it’s time to select a few photos which best represent our 2018. In some cases, selection is based on the memory created, in others I just like how the photo turned out, technically and creatively  

If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!

The Places

This was an unusual year for us, in that for the first time in several years we did not journey outside Southern Africa once during the year.  But we made up for that with plenty of local trips, such as –

Champagne Valley resort in the Drakensberg

Champagne Valley Drakensberg

Annasrust Farm Hoopstad (Free State)

Sunset, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Pine Lake Resort near White River (Mpumulanga Province)

Pine Lake Resort

Mossel Bay – our second “Home” town

Mossel Bay coastline

Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van Reenen

La Lucia near Durban (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

La Lucia beach

Shongweni Dam (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Shongweni Dam

Onverwacht Farm near Vryheid (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Controlled burn on Onverwacht Farm

Kruger Park Olifants camp

Bungalow roof, Kruger Park

Herbertsdale area (Western Cape) – atlasing

Herbertsdale area

Karoo National Park near Beaufort West (Western Cape)

Karoo National Park

Kuilfontein Guest Farm near Colesberg (Northern Cape)

Kuilfontein, Colesberg – the drought has hit this area badly

Verlorenkloof (Mpumulanga)

Verlorenkloof – view from upper path

Lentelus Farm near Barrydale (Western Cape)

Lentelus Farm near Barrydale

The Wildlife

With visits to Kruger National Park, Karoo National Park and Chobe Game Reserve in Botswana, there was no shortage of game viewing opportunities and it turned out to be a great year for Leopards

Kruger National Park

African Wild Dog, Kruger National Park
Zebra, Kruger Park
Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

Karoo National Park

Waterhole scene, Karoo National Park
Klipspringer, Karoo National Park

Chobe Game Reserve

The eyes have it

Chacma Baboon, Chobe River Trip
Hippo, Chobe River Trip

Wild but beautiful

Leopard, Chobe Riverfront game drive
Leopard, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Who needs a horse when you have a mom to ride on

Chacma Baboon, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Oh, and the news is hippos can do the heart shape with their jaws – they don’t have fingers you see

Hippo, Chobe River Trip

The Birds

Bird photography remains the greatest challenge – I am thrilled when it all comes together and I have captured some of the essence of the bird

Great Egret flying to its roost

Great Egret, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

White-fronted Bee-eaters doing what they do best – looking handsome

White-fronted Bee-eater, Kruger Day Visit

White-browed Robin-Chat

White-browed Robin-Chat, Kruger Day Visit

The usually secretive Green-backed Camaroptera popping out momentarily for a unique photo

Green-backed Camaroptera, Kruger Day Visit

African Fish-Eagle – aerial king of the waters

African Fish Eagle, Kruger Park

Kori Bustard – heaviest flying bird

Kori Bustard, Kruger Park

Little Bee-eater

Little Bee-eater, Olifants, Kruger Park

Black-chested Snake-Eagle

Black-chested Snake=Eagle, Kruger Park

Crowned Hornbill – he’ll stare you down any day

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park

Kittlitz’s Plover

Kittlitz’s Plover, Gouritzmond

Large-billed Lark in full song

Large-billed Lark, Herbertsdale area

Village Weaver – busy as a bee

Village Weaver, Verlorenkloof

Thick-billed Weaver – less frenetic, more particular about its nest-weaving

Thick-billed Weaver, Verlorenkloof

African Jacana with juveniles

African Jacana, Chobe River Trip

Juvenile African Jacana – a cute ball of fluff with legs longer than its body

African Jacana, Chobe River Trip

Reed Cormorant with catch

Reed Cormorant, Chobe River Trip

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Chobe River Trip

White-crowned Lapwing

White-crowned Lapwing, Chobe River Trip

 

Wishing all who may read this a 2019 that meets all of your expectations!

My Birding Year 2017 (Part 2) – Atlasing, Twitching, An Island and more


Following on Part 1 of My Birding Year for 2017  ………  guess what, here’s Part 2!

So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the second half of 2017 along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited.

July

The first week saw me back in Kasane for a project visit and we managed to fit in a memorable drive through Chobe Riverfront where the game viewing took precedence, but the birdlife was hard to ignore, particularly the Carmine Bee-eaters

Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Chobe Riverfront
Greater Blue-eared Starling, Chobe Riverfront

Later on in the month I was back to atlasing in the area south of Bronkhorstspruit, some 50 km east of Pretoria, dominated by the drab midwinter “browns” of the highveld and providing some challenging birding in the form of very similar looking small birds in their winter plumage.

Southern Red Bishop (winter plumage), Bronkhorstspruit area
White-winged Widow (winter plumage), Bronkhorstspruit area

August

Another visit to Kasane, Botswana in the first week included a spectacular boat safari on the Chobe river with Pangolin Safaris in a specially equipped boat kitted out with swivel seats and pliable camera mounts. One of the owners of Pangolin Safaris, who goes by the nickname of “Guts”,  accompanied us and made sure we had some amazing photo opportunities of the wildlife and birds to be found along the river.

Six species in one frame (1 only just) – can you spot them? (see end of post for answer)
Glossy Ibis, Chobe River
Doing it in style with Pangolin Safaris on the Chobe River

One moment of sheer photographic magic came my way in the form of a lone African Skimmer passing by and showing how it got its name.

African Skimmer, Chobe River

The following weekend saw us visiting family in Potchefstroom once again – I took the two grandkids for a birding outing to nearby Boschkop dam and was again very pleased with the quality of birding at this venue, which is also quiet and safe for the kids to roam about a bit.

White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Boschkop dam, Potchefstroom
The birding team
Three-banded Plover, Boschkop dam, Potchefstroom

Next up was some atlasing in the grasslands north east of Pretoria – known as Vlaklaagte, which was good for birding but the gravel roads at this time of year are very dusty and the passing mining lorries tend to make it quite difficult to bird in peace – nevertheless a successful day’s atlasing.

Pied Starling, Vlaklaagte area
Dam, Vlaklaagte area
Buffy Pipit, Vlaklaagte area

A short winter visit to Mossel Bay in the second half of August provided the opportunity to explore the Karoo south of Oudtshoorn on a cold day – I added several species to my year list and atlased in areas not regularly covered so well worthwhile.

Cape Weaver, Mossel Bay
Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south
White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south

On Robinson Pass, my patience was rewarded when a Victorin’s Warbler posed briefly for a photo – a very difficult species to photograph so a nice bonus.

Victorin’s Warbler, Robinson Pass

September

My monthly visit to Kasane was likely to be one of my last as the project was heading to completion, so I made the most of the 3 days there and fitted in birding at every opportunity. The airport precinct and perimeter were particularly lively with up to 200 bee-eaters present along the fences.

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Kasane Airport area

An early morning drive through the Chobe Riverfront was as good as ever with some unusual species showing.

Burchell’s Sandgrouse, Chobe GR
Kori Bustard, Chobe GR

During the rest of the month I targeted some of the more remote areas of north-east Gauteng to do some atlasing, selecting pentads not yet atlased in 2017.

Rufous-naped Lark (Mirafra africana – subspecies transvaalensis, Vlaklaagte area
Spike-heeled Lark, Balmoral area

October

Our much anticipated trip to Mauritius to celebrate our “milestone” birthdays with the family was a highlight of the year from all points of view – the sheer joy of having our 3 children, their spouses and our 7 grandchildren with us in such a beautiful setting for a whole week was awesome (as they say).

Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius

I didn’t do any serious birding but the hotel gardens were good for a total of just 11 species, of which 6 were lifers to add to my world list (yes I’m a “lister”!)

Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Red Fody (Foudia madagascarensis), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Malagasy Turtle Dove (Nesoenas picturatus), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Zebra Dove / Barred Ground Dove (Geopelia striata), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius

In any case I was so busy enjoying the ambience, the family, the great meals and the snorkelling that birding was relegated to about 10th place (just for that week, mind)

Later in the month I visited Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel in Gauteng for a superb morning of birding in this prime waterbird location.

Lesser Swamp-Warbler, Marievale
White-backed Duck, Marievale

An unexpected atlasing trip with Koos on the 21st in the pentad covering the north-east corner of Pretoria was a delight, covering all areas from industrial to country estates.

November

My last visit to Kasane was also a busy one work-wise so not much opportunity for birding other than snatched moments in between other commitments – how I’m going to miss this place!

A weekend in Potchefstroom presented another chance to take Christopher (6) with me for some atlasing at Boschkop dam – plenty of highlights to make it interesting for both of us.

Marievale was my destination for the second time in 4 weeks when reports came through of Baillon’s Crake seen there. I dipped on the crake but still had a wonderful morning’s atlasing.

African Snipe, Marievale
Ruff (white headed form), Marievale

On the 22nd it was time to head south (how time flies!) to our Mossel Bay home – a two day road trip with an overnight stop at Kuilfontein guest farm near Colesberg, which provided some great birding and relief from the long driving sessions.

Malachite Sunbird, Kuilfontein near Colesberg

I hardly had time to recover in Mossel Bay when Birding Big Day was upon us and I invited Willie to join me for a long but fruitful day’s birding along some of the back roads of the surrounding countryside. We ended the day quite happy with 124 species and something like 120th place in the national challenge.

Common Ringed Plover, Klein Brak, BBD 2017
Red-necked Spurfowl, Brandwag area, BBD 2017

December

December as usual was given over to family matters with  a bit of atlasing squeezed in here and there. Apart from the good birding that Mossel Bay offers, most of my trips were in the direction of Herbertsdale, some 50 kms north-west of Mossel Bay, where the countryside is attractive and the roads quiet.

Pin-tailed Whydah (Male), Mossel Bay
Booted Eagle, Mossel Bay
White-rumped Swift, Mossel Bay
Steppe (Common) Buzzard, Mossel Bay area
Jackal Buzzard, Mossel Bay
Blue Cranes, north of Herbertsdale
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Scenery north of Herbertsdale

The last 3 days of the year were spent at a cottage in the hills beyond Calitzdorp, serious Little Karoo country and good for some of the Karoo specials. The cottage was Andre and Geraldine’s dream that became real, through a lot of hard work on their part.

Evening walk, Calitzdorp
Red-billed Queleas, Calitzdorp

Answer to “6 Species in one frame” – left to right :

Glossy Ibis (left, just in frame), Squacco Heron, African Darter (in front), African Spoonbill (rear, twice), Little Egret, Long-toed Lapwing

Phew glad I got that post out in January (only just) – a Birding Year story is no good whatsoever in February

 

 

My Birding Year 2017 (Part 1) – Atlasing, Twitching, Cruising and more


Another memorable Birding Year has come and gone – a year filled once again with travelling to many familiar places and some exciting new ones, atlasing at every opportunity, a number of new birds seen and enough experiences to fill my journal to the brim.

So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the year along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited. Some of the trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.

January

Our year kicked off in Mossel Bay, our home town for some of the year and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing / birdmapping in the area – Hartenbos and the adjoining inland in particular.

Agulhas Long-billed Lark in full song

On the 9th I had the unexpected thrill of finding a Pectoral Sandpiper, classed as a national rarity, which I duly reported to Trevor Hardaker who sent out a note to all subscribers to the SA Rare Bird News network – what a memorable day!

Pectoral Sandpiper, Hartenbos River weir
SA Rare Bird News report

We started our journey back to Gauteng on the 13th, first stopping over in charming Prince Albert for two nights. I managed to fit in some atlasing in the area including a pleasant trip along the Damascus road.

Familiar Chat, Prince Albert (Damascus road)

Our next stop for one night was at Garingboom guest farm near Springfontein in the Free State which also proved to be an interesting birding destination.

Amur Falcon, Garingboom Guest farm, Springfontein
SA Cliff Swallow, Garingboom Guest farm, Springfontein

Back in Pretoria, my first atlasing was centred around Mabusa Nature Reserve some 100 km north east of Pretoria which was a most enjoyable spot with some challenging roads and good birding

Mabusa Nature Reserve
Yellow-fronted Canary, Mabusa Nature Reserve
Bushveld Pipit, Mabusa Nature Reserve
Mabusa Nature Reserve

February

My first trip of the year to Kasane presented some great birding and atlasing opportunities in the summer lushness of Chobe Game Reserve.

Kasane Forest Reserve
White-crowned Lapwing, Chobe Game Reserve
Chobe Game Reserve
Double-banded Sandgrouse, Chobe Game Reserve

Back in Pretoria I did further atlasing in the Delmas area

Brown-throated Martin, Delmas area

We used our timeshare points for a weekend at Champagne Valley in the Drakensberg, which provided an opportunity for some atlasing in the area

Grey-crowned Crane, Drakensberg south
Drakensberg south
Gurney’s Sugarbird, Drakensberg south

March

Our Canadian family arrived on the 6th for a two week visit which included a Kruger Park visit and a trip to Vic Falls and Chobe Game Reserve

European Roller, Kruger Park
Green-backed Heron (Juvenile), Lake Panic in Kruger Park
White-fronted Bee-eater, Zambezi Cruise
Little Sparrowhawk (Juvenile), Chobe Safari Lodge

Getting back to normal after the excitement of touring with the family, we visited Potchefstroom, and I was happy to take grandson Christopher (6) with me for some birding at the local dam – I think he was more interested in my Prado’s little fridge filled with cold-drinks, but you have to start somewhere!

April

My monthly visit to Kasane, Botswana afforded another opportunity for some birding around Kasane and in Chobe Game Reserve – such a great destination which I try not to spoil with too much work….

Bronze-winged Courser, Kasane Airport perimeter
Western Yellow Wagtail, Kasane Sewage Works

Then it was time for our much anticipated “Flock at Sea” cruise from the 24th to 28th  arranged by Birdlife SA

Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise
Black-browed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
White-headed Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise

May

Another short autumn visit to Mossel Bay meant I could fit in some further atlasing in the Southern Cape

Grey-headed Gull, Mossel Bay
Cape Rock-Thrush (Male), Victoria Bay
Zitting Cisticola, Herbertsdale area

Later in the month Koos and I headed to Bushfellows Lodge near Marble Hall in Mpumulanga for a day’s atlasing (and some snake watching)

Just a week later we spent 4 days at Verlorenkloof also in Mpumulanga with Koos and Rianda, one of our favourite spots for relaxing and blessed with a variety of birding opportunities

Chinspot Batis, Verlorenkloof
Lower dam, Verlorenkloof
Red-throated Wryneck, Verlorenkloof

June

The month kicked off with a visit to Kasane but this time my birding was limited to a rather hurried morning trip into Chobe Riverfront

Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Chobe Game Reserve
Brown Snake Eagle, Chobe Game Reserve

On the 10th Koos and I braved the mid-winter cold and the notoriously dangerous Moloto road north of Pretoria to do some atlasing in NE Gauteng

Marico Sunbird, far north east 4DG

We closed out the half year with our “get away from it all” break in La Lucia near Durban at our timeshare resort – this was interrupted by a breakaway to northern Zululand to view a Malagasy Pond-Heron that had taken up residence at Phinda Game Reserve.

Phinda North KZN
Malagasy Pond-Heron, Mziki dam, Phinda North KZN
Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Phinda North KZN

In the latter part of the week I visited Pigeon Valley for some superb forest birding

Spotted Ground Thrush, Pigeon Valley Durban
Pigeon Valley Durban
Grey Waxbill, Pigeon Valley Durban

July to December will be covered in the next post – watch this space!

 

My Photo Picks for 2017 – Part 2

Here’s a further selection of my favourite photos taken during 2017 – from our travels, holidays and birding trips 

If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!

The Birds (Continued)

Southern Ground Hornbill, Chobe Game Reserve, Botswana
Kelp Gull, Vleesbaai, Western Cape
Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Chinspot Batis, Verlorenkloof in Mpumulanga
White-fronted Bee-eater, Verlorenkloof
Capped Wheatear, Chobe Riverfront
Yellow-billed Stork, Phinda Game Reserve in North Kwazulu-Natal
Pied Kingfisher, Phinda
Red-capped Robin-Chat, Pigeon Valley Durban
Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Chobe Riverfront
Malachite Kingfisher, Chobe River
Reed Cormorant, Chobe River
Little Egret, Chobe River
African Spoonbill, Chobe River
Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Chobe River
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River
Pied Starling, Vlaklaagte near Bronkhorstspruit, Gauteng
Mountain Wheatear (female), near Oudtshoorn
Hottentot Teal, Marievale Gauteng
Booted Eagle, Mossel Bay
Fork-tailed Drongo, north of Herbertsdale, Western Cape

The Reptiles

Mole snake, Delmas area
Boomslang, Bushfellows Game Lodge near Marble Hall
Skaapsteker (?) near Mossel Bay
African Crocodile, Chobe River

The Butterflies

Guineafowl (Hamanumida daedalus), Mabusa Nature Reserve in Mpumulanga
Poplar leopard butterfly (Phalanta phalanta aethiopica), Vic Falls NationalPark
Butterfly, Mossel Bay (No ID yet – can’t find it in the book)

Mauritius

Air Mauritius sunset
Snorkeling – Geraldine
Snorkeling – Moorish idol
Snorkeling
Snorkeling – the view from the sea
Sunset, Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius -early morning

Flock at sea cruise

Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise
Cape Town harbour early morning

Other stuff

Snail, Boschkop Dam near Potchefstroom
Fine flowers, Verlorenkloof
Sea shell, Mossel Bay

Wishing all who may read this a 2018 that meets all of your expectations!

My Photo Picks for 2017 – Part 1

Here’s a selection of my favourite photos taken during 2017 – from our travels, holidays and birding trips – chosen from my collection of over 2500 photos for the year. Each one has a story attached which I have tried to capture in a few words………..

If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!

The Places

Kasane Forest Reserve – lush after good summer rains
Early morning, Delmas area – on my way to do some bird atalsing
Champagne Valley – a weekend in the Drakensberg
Drakensberg grassland
Bourkes Luck Potholes – on tour with our Canadian family
Thaba Tsweni lodge – near Sabie, Mpumulanga
Victoria Falls National Park – more touring with the canadians
The bridge at Vic Falls National Park
Kingdom Hotel Vic Falls
Chobe sunset, Kasane – incomparable
Flock at Sea Cruise – back in Cape Town Harbour early morning
Sandbaai near Hermanus
Victoria Bay surfer action
Top dam, Verlorenkloof – our favourite breakaway spot
Kasane, Sundowner spot
Bronkhorstspruit area – another early morning of bird atlasing
Spring Day in Mossel Bay
Kuilfontein near Colesberg
Atlasing north of Herbertsdale, near Mossel Bay
Mossel Bay golf estate – our home for part of the year
Gamkakloof near Calitzdorp – Klein Karoo
North of  Herbertsdale

The Wildlife

Klipspringer, Prince Albert
Chacma Baboons, Chobe Game Reserve
Zebra, Chobe Game Reserve
Hippo, Chobe Game Reserve
Lions, Phabeni area, Kruger National Park
Hippo, Zambezi Cruise
Impala, Chobe game drive – M for McDonalds
Chacma Baboon (Juvenile), Chobe game drive
African Elephant greeting, Game cruise Chobe
Lion, Chobe Riverfront
Chobe Riverfront
Black-backed Jackal, Chobe Riverfront
Hippo, Chobe River
Cape Buffalo, Chobe River
African Elephant, Chobe River
African Elephant, Chobe River
African Elephant, Chobe River

The Birds

Familiar Chat, Prince Albert
Amur Falcon, Garingboom Guest farm, Springfontein
Long-tailed Widow, Mabusa Nature Reserve
Double-banded Sandgrouse, Chobe Game Reserve
Common Sandpiper, Delmas area
European Roller, Satara-Nwanetsi
White-fronted Bee-eater, Zambezi Cruise
African Fish-Eagle, Game cruise Chobe
Bronze-winged Courser, Kasane Airport perimeter
Lilac breasted Roller, Chobe Game Reserve
Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Chobe Game Reserve

Part Two includes more birds, the reptiles, butterflies and other stuff

 

Wishing all who may read this a 2018 that meets all of your expectations!

Chobe River Birding – Pratincoles, Storks and other delights

If you ever find yourself in Kasane wondering how to spend the morning, you can’t go far wrong by doing a boat trip on the Chobe River – a small boat is fine if you are alone or up to 3 or 4 people and various tour companies rent out such boats with drivers.

Last November (2016), I found myself in that position and chose to approach one of the local tour companies, based on my previous good experience with Richard as guide and driver – they were able to accommodate me early on the Friday of my visit, having assured me that Richard was available to take myself and colleague Deon out for the morning.

This time around however, the trip did not start well – we waited for almost half an hour for someone to appear at reception and were then told Richard was “not there” and David would take us out. On enquiring about his birding skills I was told “I’m a beginner”, which did not fill me with enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, we set off in the aluminium boat, comfortable and with camera at the ready as we headed in the direction of Seboba Rapids, where I hoped to find Rock Pratincole in particular, being a potential lifer for me. According to information I had gleaned from books and the internet, Rock Pratincoles are Intra-African migrants which typically frequent the rocks at the rapids from September to January, providing the conditions suit them and the river is not in flood.

There are just a handful of possible sites to see this bird in Southern Africa, all of them along the Zambesi and Chobe Rivers, so this would be my first and possibly last chance to “tick” this desirable bird.

Heading downstream towards the rapids, the first part of our trip was about as good as it gets with river-based birding, with constant sightings of birds as we glided along the smooth surface in perfect cool conditions.

Wire-tailed Swallows (Draadstertswael) and Rock Martins (Kransswael) swooped by as David steered the boat across to the opposite bank, where some large raptors were partially hidden in the long grass. I was puzzled about what they could be as they were not immediately recognisable at all, so I took numerous photos in order to help me confirm an ID later. An adult Long-crested Eagle (Langkuifarend) was nearby, perched in a tall tree, only serving to lead my thoughts in the wrong direction as it turned out.

Chobe River trip
Heading out

Later, using the time on the hour and a half flight back to Jo’burg and at home, I eventually solved the puzzle – Juvenile African Fish-Eagle (Visarend) ! Sometimes a tricky ID can really have you going in the wrong direction.

African Fish-Eagle (Juvenile) Chobe River trip
African Fish-Eagle (Juvenile)

Soon after, we approached the Seboba rapids and almost immediately found what I had been hoping for –  Rock Pratincoles (Withalssprinkaanvoël) , relaxing on the rocks on islets in the middle of the river. A lifer at this stage of my birding career is really special, particularly in such a perfect location, so I may even have let out a subdued whoop! We spent some time with them and getting good photos proved to be quite simple, as they seemed totally undisturbed by our presence, even when the boat bumped up against the islet a couple of metres from where they perched.

Rock Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Rock Pratincole living up to its name
Rock Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Rock Pratincole

Having proved yet again that a “scarce” bird that you have wanted to see for many years is suddenly common when you are in the right place, we continued our trip, checking the nearby bushy shoreline and the other islets, adding Black Crake (Swartriethaan), Pied Kingfisher (Bontvisvanger) and a juvenile Malachite Kingfisher (Kuifkopvisvanger) to the morning’s list. Yellow-billed Kites (Geelbekwou) were doing there usual low-level cruising along the shoreline, turning frequently to show their distinctive deeply forked tails and close enough to make out their yellow bills.

Malachite Kingfisher (Juvenile), Chobe River trip
Malachite Kingfisher (Juvenile)

Further along a Yellow-billed Stork (Geelbekooievaar) “crèche” was filled with what I guessed were mostly the “Class of 2016”, with just a single adult keeping watch nearby. The juveniles only obtain adult plumage after some 3 years, so these could have ranged in age from 1 to 3 years. The population in South Africa on its own, according to reference books, is only around 300 (although I find that hard to believe) so this group possibly represented a significant proportion of the overall population, even in southern Africa.

Yellow-billed Stork creche, Chobe River trip
Yellow-billed Stork creche, Chobe River
Yellow-billed Stork creche, Chobe River trip
Yellow-billed Stork creche, Chobe River
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River trip
Yellow-billed Stork – adult in charge

Turning upstream we hugged the river banks along the stretch which is the home of some well-known lodges – Mowana, Chobe Marina and Chobe Safari, all with lush vegetation and large trees, many of which overhang the greasy brown waters of the river. Another African Fish-Eagle, this time an adult, flew majestically overhead.

African Fish-Eagle, Chobe River trip
African Fish-Eagle

It’s not that easy to see the birds when they are ensconced in the depths of the riverside bush, but we did spot Black-crowned Night-Heron (Gewone Nagreier) , several Malachite Kingfishers and a community of nests with African Golden Weavers (Goudwewer) present. The strident, piercing call of Red-faced Cisticola (Rooiwangtintinkie) added to the birding pleasure.

African Golden Weaver nests, Chobe River trip
African Golden Weaver nests
African Golden Weaver (Male), Chobe River trip
African Golden Weaver (Male), Chobe River

From there the river widened out as we passed our favourite sundowner spot, before stopping briefly at the small cabin on a jetty where our guide signed us into the Chobe Game Reserve, while we watched an African Openbill (Oopbekooievaar) at close quarters nearby

African Openbill, Chobe River trip
African Openbill
Chobe River trip
Chobe River
Chobe River trip
Chobe River

Typical Chobe River habitat followed – flat islands covered in grass and marshy areas, inhabited by Cape Buffalo and Lechwe and in the water along the edge by Hippos and Crocodiles, all giving us the look as we puttered slowly by.

Lechwe, Chobe River trip
Lechwe, Chobe River
Crocodile, Chobe River trip
Crocodile
Crocodile, Chobe River trip
Crocodile
Hippo, Chobe River trip
Hippo, Chobe River

As usual the Egrets and Herons were plentiful, the larger Great Egret (Grootwitreier) and Goliath Heron (Reusereier) standing out above the rest. Long-toed Lapwings (Witvlerkkiewiet) were so numerous they were probably the most populous bird at that point.

Goliath Heron, Chobe River trip
Goliath Heron
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River trip
Long-toed Lapwing

We encountered African Skimmers (Waterploeër) a few times and marveled at their brightly coloured bill with the elongated lower mandible, which allows it to skim the water’s surface in flight and latch onto any small organism that may cross its path.

African Skimmer, Chobe River trip
African Skimmer
African Skimmer, Chobe River trip
African Skimmer, Chobe River

Collared Pratincoles (Rooivlerksprinkaanvoël) flew by, looking very Tern-like, then settled on the grassy flats of the island to join the resident Skimmers. Both of these species seem to have a relaxed attitude towards life as a bird, spending a lot of time resting on the ground with occasional sorties to find their next meal.

Collared Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Collared Pratincole, Chobe River

By this time a fresh wind was blowing upriver, creating ever-increasing wavelets. Suddenly our boatman seemed to have an inspiration as he revved the engine and headed upstream (with the wind) at speed, without telling us what he had in mind.

No problem, we thought, as we assumed he had a special spot with other bird species to show us, but no, it seems he just took us on a “joyride” – which turned out to be just the opposite when he suddenly turned the boat around and raced back. Small wavelets had by now turned into mini swells, enough to cause a bone-jarring, teeth-clenching, kidney-battering ride all the way back.  Climbing out at the jetty, I felt quite shaken and stirred – James Bond would not have approved.

Nevertheless it was a successful morning , which left us with many more memories to savour of this supreme stretch of unspoilt African river.

 

 

 

 

Touring with Canadians – Part 5 : Chobe

The Story so far..

The previous posts on this “Trip of a Lifetime” to Southern Africa by our Canadian family, covered the time spent in Kruger National Park, the nearby Panorama route and the first leg of our trip to Victoria Falls and Chobe Safari lodge in Kasane, Botswana.

Kasane lies in northern Botswana just 80 kms west of Vic Falls and has become well-known to me after a dozen or more visits over the last couple of years for a project in which I’m involved.

With our visit to Victoria Falls behind us, the transfer to Kasane including the Zimbabwe/Botswana border formalities at the border post just outside Kasane went fairly quickly and smoothly and we found ourselves settled in at Chobe Safari Lodge with time to relax for the rest of the afternoon at poolside.

Chobe Safari Lodge
Chobe Safari Lodge
Chobe Safari Lodge
Chobe Safari Lodge
Chobe Safari Lodge
Chobe Safari Lodge

Sundowners

One of my favourite “sundowner” spots is the riverside bar deck in the Chobe Safari camping area right next to the lodge and this is where I took our small group late afternoon.

Sundowner spot
Sundowner spot
Sundowner spot
Hit me again, barman

The weather obliged, making for a sensational sunset and the chance to savour our G and T’s while we watched the spectacle unfold.

Sundowner spot
Sundown
Sundowner spot
Gone but not forgotten

Later we made our way to the restaurant for the buffet dinner which was more than pleasant.

Chobe Game Drive

The game drive we had booked for the following morning started at 6 am when we met Bogatsi, our driver and guide for the morning, at the reception. With a vehicle to ourselves, we had plenty of room and we set off to the Sedudu gate just a few kms from the lodge.

Entering the reserve, we headed down the sandy, bumpy track (some call it the “African massage”) towards the river, through pristine woodland, which opens up at one point to allow a wide vista of the river in the distance. Just driving along the Chobe Riverfront route is an experience in itself, particularly for visitors from the northern hemisphere, with any game being a bonus.

Naturally, game sightings are welcome and there was enough to keep everyone interested, despite not having the added excitement of any big cat sightings, which were more than likely close by but hidden by the bush, still quite dense at the tail end of summer.

African Elephant, Game cruise Chobe
African Elephants

Hippos were plentiful in the pools adjoining the main river, munching on the partly submerged grasses as only hippos can do, giving us the eye and an occasional yawn or two.

Hippo, Chobe game drive
Hippo, Chobe game drive

Hippo, Chobe game driveHippo, Chobe game drive

Other game we came across –

  • the inevitable and numerous Impalas, still enjoyable to see after so many sightings
Impala, Chobe game drive
Impala, Chobe game drive
  • Kudu
Kudu, Game cruise Chobe
Kudu, Chobe game drive
  • numbers of Baboons
Chacma Baboon (Juvenile), Chobe game drive
sChacma Baboon (Juveniles), Chobe game drive
  • Buffaloes, one of which had an interesting interaction with a Hippo emerging from a pool, the two eyeing each other cautiously before passing by and continuing with their lives.
Hippo meets Buffalo, Chobe game drive
Hippo meets Buffalo, Chobe game drive
Hippo meets Buffalo, Chobe game drive
That hippo has big teeth, think I’ll keep going

Our guide made a point of showing us the distinctive marking on the rear end of Impalas, intimating that this was where McDonalds got the inspiration for their famous “M” logo.

Impala, Chobe game drive
Cheeseburger with fries please

There was no shortage of bird sightings, but the birding tends to take a back seat (where I happened to be as it turned out) when on a game drive such as this, unless the majority on the vehicle are into birding. Nevertheless we chalked up a few special sightings :

  • a majestic Verraux’s Eagle Owl high in the branches of a tall tree
  • Long-tailed Paradise Whydah with its spectacular tail
Long-tailed Paradise-Whydah, Chobe game drive
Long-tailed Paradise-Whydah, Chobe game drive
  • African Fish Eagles seemingly every km or so along the riverfront
  • Red-backed Shrikes
  • Black Heron performing its “umbrella” shading act to help it find aquatic prey
  • Little Bee-eaters hawking insects in a small clearing

We continued along the river at a slow pace until we reached the picnic spot at Serondela, where coffee was served, after which we returned along the upper road to the exit gate and back to the lodge. It was time for lunch, some time to relax at poolside while the kids swam and before we knew it, it was time to board the river boat for the sun downer cruise.

Chobe Game Cruise

The cruise turned out to be more than I expected – having had the experience of small boat trips along the river in the past, I imagined a large boat with 40 or so passengers would not be anything like as enjoyable. Well, I was pleasantly surprised, with the boat hugging the banks of the river wherever possible and stopping for up close and personal views of everything from birds to crocodiles and hippos, as well as a group of elephants.

The weather played its part, with warm rather than hot conditions and just a light breeze causing hardly a ripple as we cruised gently along and into the Chobe game reserve, wending our way through the channels between the grassy flood plains which attract herds of animals during the winter months.

Here is a portfolio of some of the sightings ……..

Game cruise Chobe
Just cruisin …..
Crocodile, Game cruise Chobe
Crocodile, Game cruise Chobe
African Elephant, Game cruise Chobe
African Elephant, Game cruise Chobe
African Elephant, Game cruise Chobe
African Elephant greeting each other

African Elephant, Game cruise Chobe

Buffalo, Game cruise Chobe
Sacred Ibis and Cape Buffalo, Game cruise Chobe
Hippo, Game cruise Chobe
Hippo, Game cruise Chobe
African Fish-Eagle, Game cruise Chobe
African Fish-Eagle, Game cruise Chobe
Little Sparrowhawk (Juvenile), Chobe Safari Lodge
Little Sparrowhawk (Juvenile), – Not on the cruise, this one was a great find in the gardens of the Chobe Safari Lodge
African Harrier-Hawk, Game cruise Chobe
African Harrier-Hawk, Game cruise Chobe
Hamerkop, Game cruise Chobe
Hamerkop, Game cruise Chobe

The stay at Chobe Safari Lodge was just two days in extent but seemed much longer, with lovely game experiences on land and on water and enough time in between to relax by the pool. A fitting conclusion to a successful couple of weeks touring with “the Canadians”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Touring with Canadians – Part 4 : Victoria Falls

The Story so far..

The previous posts on this “Trip of a Lifetime” to Southern Africa by our Canadian family covered the time spent in Kruger National Park and the nearby Panorama route .

Now for the real Africa!

I had booked a package a few months prior for our small group, which seemed to meet their desire of experiencing Victoria Falls and Chobe Game Reserve. The package included the flight from Jo’burg to Vic Falls and 2 nights in the Kingdom Hotel, followed by a road transfer to Kasane for a further 2 nights in the Chobe Safari Lodge`, ending with a flight back to Jo’burg from Kasane.

Kasane lies in northern Botswana just 80 kms west of Vic Falls and has become well-known to me after a dozen or more visits over the last couple of years for a project in which I’m involved.

The Trip

In years gone by it would have been a major undertaking to get to the north-west corner of Zimbabwe in order to experience this natural wonder of the world – nowadays regular flights from Jo’burg to the modern airport some 20 kms outside town get you there in just one and a half hours flying time.

We left home in Pretoria on Monday 13th March 2017 with time to spare, so once we had made our way through check-in and the security and passport formalities at OR Tambo, we could enjoy a Mugg and Bean breakfast before boarding the flight.

We landed at 1.15 pm at Vic Falls airport and our transfer was waiting to take us to the Kingdom hotel, where two comfortable rooms awaited us.

Relaxing at the Kingdom Hotel

On the way we made a short stop to organise bookings for the afternoon excursion – a sundowner cruise on the Zambezi.

Sundowners on the Zambezi

There was time to chill before our 4.30 pm pick-up to take us to the river cruise dock upstream from the falls, where we boarded the Zambezi Royal for a “luxury cruise”, which turned out to be “super cool” in Sarah’s words. It’s worth paying the extra for the luxury of your own table and personal service on the spacious, smooth-riding boat, with drinks and gourmet snacks included ( canapés is what the grand people call them, I think).

Boarding the Zambesi Sundowner cruise

As the boat departed we sipped sparkling wine, nibbled on the canapés and tried our best to look the part – there were a couple of other, somewhat more crowded boats passing by at the time, so we had to let them know what they were missing.

Zambezi Sundowner cruise – the spacious boat
Zambezi

The boat headed upstream along Africa’s fourth longest river, with Siloka island on the right, skirting the riverside vegetation. The cruise manager kept us informed on what we were seeing and I was pleasantly surprised at his bird knowledge and spotting ability, with good sightings of White-fronted Bee-eater, Water Thick-Knee, Purple Heron, Pied Kingfisher and others. At each sighting he got the captain to take us close to the river bank for a close-up view.

Purple Heron
White-fronted Bee-eater
African Pied Wagtail

It did not take long to find the first Hippos and they obliged with their trademark big yawns,  showing us their massive jaws and fearsome looking teeth as we approached. We found more pods of hippos as we made our way up river, some with Red-billed Oxpeckers in attendance.

Hippo giving us the eye
Hippo
Hippo

These avian scavengers are tolerated by a variety of animals due to the ‘service’ they provide of  taking care of irritating ticks and other parasites. One Oxpecker was determined to stay put, clinging to the nose of a hippo despite its “customer” opening its jaws wide  , but eventually it got too uncomfortable for him and he flew off, only to land on the next available hippo.

Hippo with Oxpeckers taking a ride
Too much jaw for this Oxpecker!

A large Crocodile, resting on the bank and partly concealed by the long grasses, caused some excitement amongst the passengers as the captain edged the boat up to the bank to allow everyone to get a good view.

Crocodile
Crocodile
Zambezi Cruise

We continued for an hour or more until all that remained was to watch the sun slowly set as the sky turned different shades of orange and grey over the Zambezi as we enjoyed a beer of the same name.

Zambezi
Zambezi Cruise, Zambesi beer

All in all, a great way to start our visit to this world-famous corner of Zim! Just not sure how we can keep up the high level of excitement that the sightings and doings have caused amongst the Canadians.

A Walk in the Rain Forest

If it’s Tuesday it must be ….  time to ‘do’ the Falls, which is what the Canadians had come to see, after all.

After a good hotel breakfast in the large, open air dining room, we first walked to the nearby shopping area for a couple of essentials (a hat and sunscreen for me) trying not to make eye contact with the vendors with their billion dollar notes and wooden bowls etc. From there we headed back down the road past our hotel and along a pretty flower lined pathway that ended near the Falls entrance.

Kingdom Hotel Vic Falls
Kingdom Hotel Vic Falls
On the way to the Falls – something’s caught their eye
Flower along the path to the Falls

You would think that entrance to one of the seven ‘natural wonders of the world’ would be quick and automated, but no, the cashier laboriously writes out an invoice in long hand for each purchase of a ticket. Just a tad frustrating, but nothing could spoil the experience that awaited.

Victoria-Falls-Footpath-Guide

 The views were as breath-taking as my previous visit 18 months ago, more so for our visitors seeing it for the first time, but compared to my earlier visit there was a lot more water gushing in shiny brown torrents over the edge and into the steaming turmoil below. What power!

Devil’s Cataract (2 on the map)
Livingstone’s statue (1 on the map)
All the Canadians
Vic Falls

We meandered along the pathways, with the spray from the falls varying between barely noticeable droplets to the equivalent of a light summer rainstorm and by the time we reached the bridge at the furthest end of the walk we were pretty much drenched.

The rain forest
Viewpoint

There are a number of viewpoints along the way, each one numbered and each presenting the falls from a different perspective, all of them spectacular. The roar of the falls accompanies you as you make your way from one viewpoint to another.

Main falls

Birds were rather scarce other than a few in the rain forest, such as White-browed Robin-Chat, Tropical Boubou and Paradise Flycatcher. Butterflies made for a splash of fluttering colour amongst the greenery of the rain forest and a group of Mongoose moved through the undergrowth.

Garden inspector butterfly
Poplar leopard butterfly
Banded Mongoose

Our last stop before turning back was at the bridge viewpoint with its grand view of the man-made structure from the colonial era that is still impressive.

The bridge (16 on the map)

Back at the entrance, tired after the longish walk, we enjoyed a thirst quencher and Alex ordered a toasted sandwich which a beyond cheeky monkey decided to plunder, appearing out of nowhere and giving us all quite a fright. The restaurant brought a replacement and the “monkey guard” appeared with a catapult which settled things down again.

The afternoon was spent relaxing and for the evening meal we decided to try the nearby (nothing’s very far in this town) Mama Afrika restaurant which had a delightful African flavour and atmosphere enhanced by a jazz band and a short power outage.

Mama Africa restaurant

Some Birding

The next morning was our last in Vic Falls – I decided to take an early morning walk through the extensive gardens of the hotel and along some of the paths that lead to the Falls. It turned into an interesting walk when one William, curio seller, decided he had nothing better to do and accompanied me, showing me the quieter paths, where he also spotted and pointed out a few birds, although he didn’t know their names. In return I told him some of the names, showed him their illustrations on my Roberts App and played the calls – I could see he showed an interest and I suggested he learn more about the local birds so that he could perhaps help tourists with a birding bent in future. He asked that, if I came back to Vic Falls, I bring him a bird book to learn from – who knows, maybe that will happen – I would certainly love to help him.

William – prospective bird guide

The hotel grounds were good for Emerald Cuckoo which called frequently during our stay, Black-collared Barbet, Red-winged Starlings aplenty and Pied Wagtails at the pool. Village Weavers were nest-building in the reeds at one of the hotel ponds – at first I thought they were Lesser Masked-Weavers as the black on their heads extended well down their necks, unlike any Village Weaver I had seen before.  Checking my Roberts app I realised that they were a sub-species of the Village Weavers (Ploceus cucullatus) we are accustomed to in South Africa, with the scientific name ploceus cucullatus nigriceps and occurring in the northern parts of our region.

Path to the Falls
The smoke that thunders
Village Weaver (Male race nigriceps)

After joining the others for another sumptuous, relaxed breakfast, we had some time to kill so walked to the adjoining Vitoria Falls Hotel, still magnificent in its colonial splendour. You almost expect Rhodes himself to appear on the verandah at any moment in his pith helmet and join you in gazing at the classic view of the bridge in the distance, framed by the gorge and forever shrouded by the misty spray.

Vic Falls Hotel
Bridge view from Vic Falls Hotel

Soon after our bus arrived to transfer us to Kasane for the next leg of our trip……..  more about that soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flock at Sea 2017 – Mostly Birding at Sea

Two weeks ago we were on the MSC Sinfonia, around 200 nautical miles (in kms that’s .. um .. very far) south of Mossel Bay, now we’re back in that town and have had time to reflect on what turned out to be a truly memorable trip, for many reasons. Here’s my take on it……

The Build-up

Ever since booking our places on the “Flock at Sea 2017” cruise some 9 months prior, Gerda and I had been looking forward to the experience of a 4 night cruise aboard the MSC Sinfonia, along with almost 2,000 other birders – a  “cruise to nowhere” out of Cape Town with the main aim of seeing as many sea birds as possible in three and a bit days, cruising in the waters off the southern coast of South Africa.

A facebook page created for the event and regular Birdlife SA emails provided essential information, building to a crescendo in the final weeks and days leading to embarkation day – 24 April 2017.  There was also no shortage of seabird ID advice including a set of ID sheets depicting the birds most likely to be seen which I printed and put in my trip file.

Faansie Peacock was also good enough to produce and share a wonderful, concise set of “cartoon-like” sketches of the probable species, with notes on the features to look for, which I printed and carried with me folded in a pocket for reference – these proved to be super-useful for a quick check when a number of species were spotted in quick succession.

Flock at Sea Cruise

 

The Cruise

This was not entirely a new experience for me, having had the privilege of doing two pelagic trips out of Simonstown ( near Cape Town) in the past, however the  mode of transport was very different this time – a large cruise liner with close to a couple of thousand other passengers and 700 or so crew, versus a small ex-patrol vessel with about 15 people on board and one or two crew.

We had travelled from Mossel Bay the day before embarkation, staying overnight in the Commodore hotel at the Waterfront, so it was a short drive to Berth E at Duncan Dock, where I dropped Gerda off with our baggage, parked in the nearby parkade and returned to the quay to join the already long queue….. for the next couple of hours while the previous load of passengers disembarked very slowly due to IT problems at Immigration (or so we understood). This was not necessarily a bad thing – it gave us time to get acquainted with others in the queue, meet up with some old friends and take in the buzz of 1,945 keen birders all looking forward to the next few days.

The long queue at Berth E

Once boarding commenced, it all went quite rapidly and a couple of further queues later we had taken care of all the formalities and could enjoy a late lunch in the buffet restaurant and settle into our cosy cabin.

The queue snaking through the terminal
At last!
Our cosy cabin

The emergency drill followed and by 4.30 pm we were departing from Cape Town harbour and heading out into Table Bay in perfect weather, the ship leaving a trail of churned sea and the classic view of Table Mountain receding slowly as we stood on the rear deck, enjoying the moment. I couldn’t help thinking of Sir Francis Drake’s comment – he called it “a most stately thing and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth” – and who can argue with that!

The emergency drill
Flock at Sea Cruise departs
Leaving Cape Town
Leaving Table Bay – first sunset

First birds encountered were those favouring the shallower waters close to land – White-chinned Petrel, a skein of Cape Cormorants flying by in their typical V – formation, Cape Gannets and the first Albatross – a Black-browed sitting on the sea.

Later, dinner was in the Galeone Restaurant at the table to which we had been allocated, along with our dinner-table companions for the cruise, Herman & Magda Sauer and Ben & Carolien Prinsloo.

The next 3 days were busy, with our time divided between meals – breakfast in the room, buffet lunch and sit-down dinner, birding from the decks, attending talks and spending time just relaxing with Gerda.

Birding at Sea

  Day One (Tuesday)

The birders who were up early enough on the first morning were treated to sensational birding, the highlight being a Light-mantled Albatross, classed as a mega-rarity in Southern Africa. Unfortunately I missed out on this opportunity and had to be content with the 3 lifers I saw later on during the day – certainly a thrill but dampened somewhat by hearing what I had missed during the first few hours.

The rear decks seemed to be the place to be, crowded with  keen birders on every available level, to the extent that I had to wait patiently for some to disperse before finding a place at the rail. At other times I spent time on the bow decks and on the side decks which provided a different perspective.

All hands / birders on deck!
The stern deck

Regular sightings of birds flying into the calmer wake of the ship were announced by the experts and were met by a hum of excitement by the layers of birders, followed by clicking of the many cameras. Albatrosses were plentiful, including Wandering, Southern Royal and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, with Sooty and Great Shearwaters  and a White-headed Petrel (my first lifer for the trip) in the mix. On our way back to the cabin a Sooty Albatross flew by for my second lifer of the morning, albeit a view diffused by the glass sides at that spot.

Returning in the afternoon to the still crowded stern decks, I added a further lifer when an Antarctic Prion glided past the wake and an imposing Northern Giant Petrel swept by in grand fashion.

  Day Two (Wednesday)

I made sure I was in position early morning, which was a lot quieter birding-wise, nevertheless Shy Albatross and Soft-plumaged Petrel showed well. After a quick breakfast in the cabin I was back on the stern decks where chumming was being done using large frozen blocks of chum, to little effect it seemed, other than another White-headed Petrel which performed beautifully in the wake along with a Northern Giant Petrel.

Late afternoon saw me in position once again on the rear deck for some further birding, when a double rainbow developed and soon stretched across the horizon in a display that was nothing short of amazing – it also reminded me of  those half-moon shaped “orange slice” sweets we used to have as a treat when we were kids.  As a bonus, at that moment a clutch of Albatrosses glided gracefully across the face of the rainbow, turning it into a quite magical scene, impossible to reproduce in an ordinary photo.

 

Amazing double rainbow
Albatrosses gliding by the rainbow

As if this was not enough, it was followed by a sunset to dream about as the ship slowly continued on its way into the night.

Sunset at sea

The wind had come up strongly, which made for interesting, slightly drunken walks down those long passages, a challenging shower experience and a night of being bounced gently in our bed as the Sinfonia battled against 80 km/h winds and high swells – thank goodness for stabilizers!

  Day Three (Thursday)

Down the long passage and onto the stern deck, where several birds were hanging around the wake – Shy and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Great-winged Petrel, Great Shearwater and White-chinned Petrel were all prominent, plus a couple of new species appeared when Cape Gannets were seen nearby and a lone Subantarctic Skua flew in close to the ship. After breakfast I added Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross to my list before heading to the theatre for a highlight of the trip – the talk on Albatrosses by Peter Harrison.

The lo..o..o..n.n.ng passages
View from the top deck

This was followed by lunch where after we headed to our cabin for a bit of a break from all the activity………..  not for long, as I glanced through the cabin window and noticed an Albatross passing by, then another…. and another. So I grabbed my gear and headed to deck seven starboard to find a continuous stream of seabirds passing by – my guess was that they were heading towards the trawler we had seen earlier, “towing” in its wake a flock of many hundreds of birds.

Trawler with Flock of birds – at sea

The stream continued steadily for more than an hour during which time a few hundred Albatrosses, Gannets, Petrels, Shearwaters and Storm Petrels passed from bow to stern, many doing an airborne pirouette and a pas de deux before going on their way – apart from the thrill of the lifers on Day One, this was for me the absolute birding highlight of the trip. Just a pity all the Birdlife guides were attending the AGM, so there was no one to confirm the ID of some of the trickier birds that passed by, including some Storm Petrels in the distance.

All this excitement needed a short nap to recover, by which time the wind had died, the sea had gone quiet with hardly a swell and the birds had all but disappeared.

However that was not quite the last of the birding – after dinner at 10.30 pm I went to deck 6 starboard where it was said Great Shearwaters were feeding and sure enough there they were, up to seven visible at a time, feeding near the ship’s side, drawn to it by the lights.

My Bird List for the Trip

So what birds did I see? Some really good ones actually……….

  Albatrosses

Black-browed Albatross was the most frequently seen Albatross :  black back, broad black edging to the white underwings, orange bill

Black-browed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Black-browed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Black-browed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Black-browed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise

Shy Albatross was next most numerous : black back, narrow black edging to the white underwings, bluish bill

Shy Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Shy Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise

Wandering Albatross seen several times on the first day : largest of the Albatrosses, white back, mostly black upper wings fading to white nearer body

Wandering Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Wandering Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Wandering Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Wandering Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise

Southern Royal Albatross seen once on day one : white back, black wings with white patches (No Photo)

Sooty Albatross seen once on day one (Lifer!) : all dark with white crescent around eyes

Sooty Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Sooty Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross seen a few times during trip : black back, black edging to white underwings, white face with black bill

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise

Atlantic Yellow-nose Albatross seen just once : as for last species but grey face (No Photo)

  Petrels

White-chinned Petrel seen regularly throughout trip : large dark seabird with pale bill and white “chin” at base of bill

White-chinned Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise
White-chinned Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise

White-headed Petrel seen a couple of times (Lifer!) : smaller seabird with dark bill, white face with dark mask around eyes

White-headed Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise
White-headed Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise

Northern Giant Petrel seen a couple of times : large dark seabird with heavy bill

Northern Giant Petrel (Juvenile), Flock at Sea Cruise

Great-winged Petrel seen regularly throughout trip : medium-sized dark seabird, dark bill

Great-winged Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise
Great-winged Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise

Soft-plumaged Petrel seen just once : smaller seabird with light body, grey neck band, dark bill

Soft-plumaged Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise

   Shearwaters

Sooty Shearwater seen a few times : small dark seabird with silvery underwing, dark bill

Great Shearwater seen regularly throughout trip : small seabird with light body, mottled wings, black cap and dark bill

Great Shearwater, Flock at Sea Cruise
Great Shearwater, Flock at Sea Cruise

  Other Species

Cape Gannet seen regularly during trip : unique giss – easily identifiable

Cape Gannet, Flock at Sea Cruise

Antarctic Prion seen once during trip (Lifer!) : small pale blue-grey seabird with dark “lazy” M across upper wings

Antarctic Prion, Flock at Sea Cruise

Subantarctic Skua seen a few times on last day : large, dark seabird with white underwing flashes

Subantarctic Skua, Flock at Sea Cruise

The Talks

I had planned to attend more but the birding was just too attractive, so in the end I limited it to three of the talks :

Dale Morris on Bird Photography – he showed us an impressive set of his images along with tips on getting that different shot, more art-like compared to the usual “bird on a stick”, as he put it.

Faansie Peacock on Digital Painting – fascinating and inspiring enough to persuade me to try it at the earliest opportunity (I have ordered a graphics tablet as a starter)

The end result of a 40 minute digital painting session – and he made it look easy!

Peter Harrison on Albatrosses – Ocean Nomads – the person introducing him used phrases such as “inspiring”, “best speaker he had ever heard”, “brings tears to your eyes” which I was wont to dismiss as hyperbole, but once his mesmerizing talk was done, I realised he was spot on. Certainly one of the best speakers I have heard and yes, I had a tear welling at times during his talk, which had me literally spellbound and on the edge of my seat for the full hour.

Albatrosses have always held a certain magic for me, which Peter Harrison took to a new level – I will never view Albatrosses quite the same again.

And it’s Over!

We docked before sunrise in Cape Town harbour, only to be met by the most beautiful scenes of the harbour bathed in the early morning hues, turning ordinary dockyard scenes into those worthy of hanging on your walls.

Cape Town Harbour at sunrise
Cape Town Harbour at sunrise

A fitting end to a spectacular and memorable trip! Thanks and Well done to Birdlife SA!