Tag Archives: Birding Southern Africa

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!

My Birding Year 2016 (Part 2) – Twitching, Lifers, Atlasing and more

It was a memorable Birding Year for several reasons – many great places visited in pursuit of new birds, many amazing experiences, often when least expected, atlasing at every opportunity, all of which has left me more than satisfied and (hopefully) has boosted my birding and bird photography skills. It was also sprinkled with enough “Lifers” to make it a special birding year, most of which were not planned but rather just happened along the way.

Part two follows my birding journey from July through to December and is just a brief synopsis of my birding activities along with photos of the species encountered and places visited. Some of my trips are / will be covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.

July

The month kicked off with some mid-winter atlasing on the 2nd, in the Balmoral / Witbank area with Koos Pauw

On the 8th, in Kasane, Botswana for my monthly project visit, I did a spectacular birding trip by rented boat on the Chobe River, which was every bit as good as I had hoped

Chobe River Boat Trip
Chobe River Boat Trip
African Fish-Eagle, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Fish-Eagle, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip
Lappet-faced Vulture, Kasane
Lappet-faced Vulture, Kasane

Just three days later it was back to more normal birding / atlasing – this time east of Potchefstroom where we had gone to visit Stephan and family

And another two days later it was time for a truly memorable trip to Heilbron in the Free State to ” twitch”  the reported Burchell’s Courser with Koos, which we duly did, finding  along the way two other Coursers (Double-banded, Temminck’s) and a bonus lifer for me in the form of a Pink-billed Lark which Koos spotted

Burchell's Courser, Heilbron area
Burchell’s Courser, Heilbron area

The last week in July was spent in Mossel Bay where the Pincushions were in full bloom and attracting numbers of nectar feeders, which kindly posed for some colourful photos

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay

Writing this, I realised that I had done birding across 2 countries and 5 of SA’ s provinces during July!

August

My visit to Kasane from the 3rd to 5th allowed for some great birding again, visiting a riverside spot late afternoon where my colleagues went to fish and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing, photographing the Hartlaub’s Babblers and just enjoying the ambience as the sun set and hippos blew bubbles and snorted in the river

On the Friday morning before returning to SA I travelled to the Ngoma gate into Chobe Game Reserve and drove eastwards along the Riverfront road, atlasing all the way. I was rewarded with good views of Openbill, Great White Pelican, Tawny Eagle, Dickinson’s Kestrel and Slaty Egret amongst many others.

Brown-crowned Tchagra, Chobe Game Reserve
Brown-crowned Tchagra, Chobe Game Reserve
Slaty Egret, Chobe Game Reserve
Slaty Egret, Chobe Game Reserve (a very average photo, but my first of this scarce species)
Dickinson's Kestrel, Chobe Game Reserve
Dickinson’s Kestrel, Chobe Game Reserve

Mid August I fitted in some Monday atlasing, this time near Leandra where a farm dam was very productive with a nice range of waterfowl and one Caspian Tern

September

A family wedding took us to Vryheid and the farm of Pieter and Anlia Genis, where I was able to enjoy excellent birding in between the family festivities, with the assistance of Pieter and his rugged Bakkie (Pickup). The drive up to the plateau high above the farmhouse was as spectacular as ever and was good for a number of the area specials such as Black-winged Lapwing, Denham’s Bustard, Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat and Eastern Long-billed Lark

Onverwacht farm, Vryheid
Onverwacht farm, Vryheid
Black-winged Lapwing, Onverwacht farm, Vryheid
Black-winged Lapwing, Onverwacht farm, Vryheid

Another family event saw us in Potchefstroom two weeks later and I was able to squeeze in some atlasing early on the Monday morning before returning home to Pretoria

October

A visit to Kruger National Park in the first week of October with Andre and Geraldine and the girls was a highlight of the year, with the dry conditions limiting the bird numbers somewhat but each day proved to be full of interesting sightings.

Our home for the week was Olifants camp in the northern section of the Park.

African Harrier-Hawk, Afsaal area KNP
African Harrier-Hawk, Afsaal area KNP
Southern Ground Hornbill, KNP
Southern Ground Hornbill, KNP
Golden-breasted Bunting,  Olifants Balule road KNP
Golden-breasted Bunting, Olifants Balule road KNP
Hooded Vulture, S37 Trichardt road KNP
Hooded Vulture, S37 Trichardt road KNP
Brownheaded Parrot, Pretoriuskop KNP
Brownheaded Parrot, Pretoriuskop KNP

The rest of October was devoted to atlasing some of the birding “hotspots” around Pretoria and further afield.

Roodeplaat dam was good for two separate visits on consecutive Saturdays, one with Koos Pauw, both visits proving that this is one of the best spots for a relaxed morning’s birding with good roads and well-kept facilities.  The highlight was the constant calls of Tchagras, Titbabblers, Boubous, Scrub-Robins and others that accompanied the drives. The two birding sessions produced a remarkable 100+ species!

It was also the place where I saw the strangest bird of the year – one that had me completely flummoxed until I realised it was a fairly common Lesser Striped Swallow missing its tail. For a moment or two I thought I had discovered a new species of Spinetail!

Lesser Striped Swallow (tailless), Roodeplaat NR
Lesser Striped Swallow (tailless), Roodeplaat
Diederik Cuckoo, Roodeplaat NR
Diederik Cuckoo, Roodeplaat
Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Roodeplaat Dam
Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Roodeplaat Dam
Caspian Tern, Roodeplaat Dam
Caspian Tern, Roodeplaat Dam

Another attractive venue was Mabusa Nature Reserve, some 1.5 hours drive from Pretoria, but almost constant light rain put a damper on my visit and the slightly unscheduled arrival of our 7th grandchild had me rushing back to Pretoria a little earlier than planned. Definitely a spot to revisit on a sunny day.

A Terrapin in the middle of the drenched gravel road was proof of how wet it was – I have only ever seen them clinging to a rock in a river or dam

Terrapin, Mabusa NR
Terrapin, Mabusa NR
Mabusa NR
Mabusa NR on a wet day
Cape Glossy Starling, Mabusa NR
Cape Glossy Starling, Mabusa NR trying to look happy about the rain
African Pipit, Mabusa NR
African Pipit, Mabusa NR

Last up was a visit to the area around Settlers in the Bela Bela area of Limpopo province, where the highlight was meeting a farmer that I encountered on the road who invited me to visit the “Vulture restaurant” at a large Pig-farm nearby.

Greater Kestrel, Settlers area, Limpopo
Greater Kestrel, Settlers area, Limpopo
Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark, Settlers area, Limpopo
Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark, Settlers area, Limpopo

November

You would think I’d had enough of Chobe by now, but no, once again I arranged a boat trip along with a colleague while in Kasane and once again it was spectacular. My aim was to find Rock Pratincole which we did quite easily and had an up close and personal view to boot. I will do a separate post on this trip but suffice to say it was special.

Rock Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Rock Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River trip
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River trip

On the 9th another local hotspot demanded a visit when Green Sandpiper was reported from Rietvlei Nature Reserve near Pretoria (actually part of Pretoria). I did not find the Sandpiper but plenty of others kept me busy and fascinated, including a variety of antelope and other game. I still managed to make it to the office by mid-morning with 62 species counted.

Cape Longclaw, Rietvlei Dam
Cape Longclaw, Rietvlei Dam

Our annual “long stay” trip to Mossel Bay came around almost before we were quite ready and an overnight stop at Abbotsbury guest farm near Graaff-Reinet on the way there was my next opportunity for some Karoo birding on this delightful farm.

Red-eyed Bulbul, Abbotsbury near Graaff-Reinet
Red-eyed Bulbul, Abbotsbury near Graaff-Reinet

We were barely settled in Mossel Bay when Birding Big Day came up on the 26th and at the last moment I decided to enter the Birdlasser challenge despite not having a team, planned a route or being even vaguely prepared. As it turned out I had a great day doing a circular route in the surrounding area, with Gerda joining me in the afternoon, and recorded 112 species on the day – not too bad for the area.

December

On the road again – this time on a 5 day trip to the Western Cape mainly to visit family, but naturally I took every opportunity to do birding along the way. News of several rarities at Strandfontein Sewage Works had filtered through in the few days prior to the trip and, prompted by Gerda who knows I can’t resist the temptation of a new bird, we adjusted our itinerary to spend a night nearby the spot, which meant I could spend time there in the hope of finding them. As it turned out I added Temminck’s Stint, Red-necked Phalarope and American Golden Plover to my life list – my only dip was the Pectoral Sandpiper.

Temminck's Stint, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Temminck’s Stint, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Red-necked Phalarope, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Red-necked Phalarope, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Pied Avocet, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Pied Avocet, Strandfontein Sewage Works

Worcester was our base for 3 nights and on the return trip to Mossel Bay we stopped for an overnight stay at Jan Harmsgat guest farm

I felt that the rarities were following me when a Red-necked Buzzard was seen in Stilbaai, just and hour or so away from Mossel Bay, so on the 13th I went to look for it and ended up getting great views accompanied by some of the top birders in SA, who had driven a lot further to see this mega-rarity. One of them was the country’s leading seabird expert, Barrie Rose, with whom I had a chat as we were at school together. Barrie was tragically killed just a couple of weeks later  when he fell off rocks at Cape Point while fishing. Just another reminder how tenuous life can be.

Red-necked Buzzard, Stilbaai Twitch
Red-necked Buzzard, Stilbaai Twitch
Stilbaai Sewage Works
Stilbaai Sewage Works – a bird hide for the birds
Stilbaai twitch
Stilbaai twitch – RIP Barrie Rose (walking up the hill at the rear)

On the 22nd I atlased two pentads north and south of Herbertsdale, one of my favourite birding areas, which was also my last formal birding trip of the year.

During our lengthy stay in Mossel Bay I did regular atlasing in the Golf Estate, where 30+ species can be seen in an hour’s walk during Summer, as well as around town which has a few reliable birding spots such as the Point and the harbour area for seabirds and the small dam at the SPCA grounds for waterfowl.

Grey-backed Cisticola, Mossel Bay
Grey-backed Cisticola, Mossel Bay
African Black Swift, Mossel Bay
African Black Swift, Mossel Bay

I am not sure how I will top 2016 as far as birding goes, but I will certainly give it a go!

My Birding Year 2016 (Part 1) – Twitching, Lifers, Atlasing and more

It was a memorable Birding Year for several reasons – many great places visited in pursuit of new birds, many amazing experiences, often when least expected, atlasing at every opportunity, all of which has left me more than satisfied and (hopefully) has boosted my birding and bird photography skills. It was also sprinkled with enough “Lifers” to make it a special birding year, most of which were not planned but rather just happened along the way.

What follows is a brief (remember, brief is relative) synopsis of my birding activities along with photos of the species encountered and places visited. Some of my 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, including December and half of January, and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing / birdmapping in the area. This included one particularly memorable trip through the mountains on a back road north of Herbertsdale (actually an old wagon route)  where I saw just one other person in two hours and not a single other vehicle. The pentad (a block of 5 x 5 minutes of latitude and longitude) had never been atlased previously so was virgin territory.

Old Wagon route, Herbertsdale north
Old Wagon route, Herbertsdale north
Jackal Buzzard, Herbertsdale north
Jackal Buzzard, Herbertsdale north

Further atlasing on the 14th was limited by almost constant light rain, but was nevertheless interesting, producing some scarcer species such as Little Bittern doing its “sky-gazing” trick and a group of Amur Falcons, unusual in this part of SA. Parts of the gravel road were very slippery and called for close concentration.

Cattle Egret, Herbertsdale south
Cattle Egret, Herbertsdale south (spot the raindrops!)

Our customary “slow and easy” trip back to Pretoria started on the 16th with a short drive to Prince Albert for a two night stay, allowing time for some Karoo birding, then on to Prior Grange guest farm near Springfontein in the Free State, where I was able to fit in some early morning birding before our last push to Pretoria and home.

A report of a Caspian Plover near Hanover persuaded us to deviate for an hour or two to look for it – with the help of the farm owner we found it, as well as some other delights such as Blue Korhaan and Namaqua Sandgrouse

Namaqua Sandgrouse, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Namaqua Sandgrouse, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Caspian Plover, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Caspian Plover, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Blue Korhaan, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Blue Korhaan, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover

Back in Pretoria I was soon chasing further rarities when reports of a Red Phalarope at Mkhombo dam filtered through and I ended up visiting this exciting birding spot three times before the month was out, once on my own, once with George Skinner and once with Francois Furstenburg, the latter trip including some great birding along the Zaagkuildrift road.

Red Phalarope, Mkhombo Dam
Red Phalarope, Mkhombo Dam
Grey Plover, Mkhombo Dam
Grey Plover, Mkhombo Dam
123 Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Mkhombo Dam (925)
Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Mkhombo Dam

And to round off a memorable month, a Spotted Crake was reported outside the main gate to one of Johannesburg’s largest residential estates. It proved to be one of the easiest twitches ever as more than 1000 birders went to see it.

Spotted Crake, Waterfall Estate
Spotted Crake, Waterfall Estate

After that exciting start to the year I took a break in February to focus on other life matters and recommenced in…

March

The month started with a bang when I visited Kasane in Botswana for the project I am involved in and took the opportunity to “pop over” to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia to see the Yellow-throated Leaflove reported at a lodge near Katimo Mulilo, along with some of the other area specials and another lifer by way of an accommodating Schalow’s Turaco at the same lodge. The Leaflove was a new species for Southern Africa and created a lot of excitement amongst twitchers.

Yellow-throated Leaflove, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Yellow-throated Leaflove, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Schalow's Turaco, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Schalow’s Turaco, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge

While in Kasane I visited Chobe Game Reserve and the Kasane Waste treatment works which both produced some excellent birding.

Chobe NP
Chobe NP
Red-billed Spurfowl, Chobe NP
Red-billed Spurfowl, Chobe NP
African Openbill, Chobe NP
African Openbill, Chobe NP
Southern Carmine Bee-Eater, Chobe NP
Southern Carmine Bee-Eater, Chobe NP
Wood Sandpiper, Kasane Water Treatment
Wood Sandpiper, Kasane Water Treatment works

The following week I fitted in some atlasing, this time in and around Cullinan area east of Pretoria (where the famous Cullinan diamond was found)

The next weekend we visited Potchefstroom and I atlased in the area, focusing on the Boskop dam north-east of Potch which proved to be an excellent spot with a total of 72 species, the highlight being an African Rail walking along the dam edge for 50m or so before disappearing into reeds.

April

Back in Kasane for my monthly visit, the only birding I managed was at Senyati camp, which we visited late one afternoon and viewed the elephants coming to drink at the waterhole, along with a variety of bird life.

Then it was time for our long-planned trip of the year to celebrate 45 years of marriage – two weeks in Europe  , visiting Prague and Passau, with an eight-day Danube River Cruise sandwiched in between. Birding was limited to whatever crossed my path but was still good for a handful of Lifers added to my “World list”

Eurasian Jay, Prague
Eurasian Jay, Prague
Black Redstart, Cesky Krumlow
Black Redstart, Cesky Krumlow
Petrin Hill
Petrin Hill in Prague
Great Tit, Vienna
Great Tit, Vienna
Red Fox with fish catch
Red Fox with fish catch along the Danube River (OK it’s not a bird but rates as one of my sightings of the year)
Caspian Gull, Danube
Caspian Gull, Danube
Common House Martin, Danube
Common House Martin, Danube
Barn Swallow, Danube
Barn Swallow, Danube
Lesser Kestrel, Passau
Lesser Kestrel, Passau
Passau - views from the Castle
Passau – views from the Castle
Black-headed Gull, Passau
Black-headed Gull, Passau

May

My trip to Kasane Botswana from the 10th to 12th presented few opportunities for focused birding, nevertheless I was able to spend time in three spots that I have got to know fairly well – Kasane Waste Treatment works, Thebe lodge and Seboba Nature Park, all of which are reliable for a variety of species.

113 White-crowned Lapwing, Seboba Nature Park - Kasane (290)
113 White-crowned Lapwing, Seboba Nature Park – Kasane (290)
Marabou Stork, Kasane Water Treatment
Marabou Stork, Kasane Water Treatment
Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Thebe Safari Lodge
Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Thebe Safari Lodge
Blue Waxbill, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Blue Waxbill, Seboba Nature Park Kasane

On the 16th and again on the 23rd I got back to some “ordinary” atlasing in some of my favourite parts of eastern Gauteng – lying generally in the corridor between Bronkhorstspruit area and Delmas area. Good solid midwinter atlasing in these run-of-the-mill parts of Gauteng can be just as inspiring as birding some of the more recognised birding spots.

Brown-throated Martin, Delmas area
Brown-throated Martin, Delmas area

On the 26th and 27th we joined Koos and Rianda at our favourite getaway – Verlorenkloof estate near Machadadorp – which as usual did not disappoint with the quality of the birding

Verlorenkloof
Verlorenkloof
Mocking Cliff-Chat (Female), Verlorenkloof
Mocking Cliff-Chat (Female), Verlorenkloof

June

Kasane was the destination once again from the 1st to 3rd with another birding trip along the Riverfront section of Chobe Game Reserve.

Bradfield's Hornbill, Chobe Riverfront
Bradfield’s Hornbill, Chobe Riverfront

Winter atlasing in the Delmas area on the 6th included a visit to a farm dam courtesy of the farm owner who I tracked down – worth the trouble as the dam contributed 21 species to the list including both Flamingoes, Black-necked Grebe and Maccoa Duck

African Marsh-Harrier, Delmas area
Harrier in the mist (African Marsh-Harrier), Delmas area

Next up was our visit to La Lucia near Durban for a week, during which I enjoyed a Fathers Day feast of birding in Ongoye Forest, Mtunzimi and Amatigulu Reserve with local guide Sakhamuzi Mhlongo,  who found the Green Barbet that I had hoped to see. This species is restricted to this one single forest in Southern Africa.

Ongoye Forest
Ongoye Forest
Green Barbet, Ongoye Forest Reserve
Green Barbet, Ongoye Forest Reserve (Not a photo-friendly species at all!)
Ongoye Forest
Ongoye Forest
Square-tailed Drongo, Ongoye Forest Reserve
Square-tailed Drongo, Ongoye Forest Reserve
Yellow-throated Longclaw, Mtunzini
Yellow-throated Longclaw, Mtunzini
Amitigulu Nature Reserve
Amitigulu Nature Reserve, Sakhamuzi leading the way
Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Amitigulu Nature Reserve
Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Amitigulu Nature Reserve

On the way back to La Lucia I popped into the well-known birding spot at Sappi Stanger, which was lively with waterfowl and others

Sappi Mill Stanger / Kwadukuza
Sappi Mill Stanger / Kwadukuza
Cape and Hottentot Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza
Cape and Hottentot Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza
Cape Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza
Cape Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza

Before the week was done we did a quick trip to Pigeon Valley in Durban’s suburbs, where a few of the forest species were in evidence.

Red-capped Robin-Chat, Pigeon Valley
Red-capped Robin-Chat, Pigeon Valley

Atlasing the Delmas area once again on the 27th concluded the month’s diverse birding

July to December are covered in a separate post called ,,,,,,,,  wait for it ………..Part 2.

 

My Photo Picks for 2016

Here’s a selection of my favourite photos taken during a busy 2016 – from our travels, holidays and birding trips – chosen from my collection of over 3000 photos for the year. Each one has a story attached which I have tried to capture in a few words………..

If you have a favourite, do let me know by adding your comment!

The Places

Prince Albert - NG Church
Prince Albert – NG Church with old Model T waiting for bride
Mkhombo Dam
Mkhombo Dam – lush bushveld
The road to Katima Mulilo
The road to Katima Mulilo in Caprivi – on way to twitch Yellow-throated Leaflove
Victoria Bay
Victoria Bay
Prague - Old Town Square
Prague – the handsome Old Town Square from hotel window
Cesky Krumlow - the Castle
Historic town of Cesky Krumlow in Czech Republic – the Castle
Sunset
Sunset on Danube Cruise
Passau - views from the Castle
Passau in Germany – views from the Castle
Pentad 2600_2845
Closer to home in Gauteng – a highveld landscape while bird atlasing
La Lucia beach
Umhlanga beach – our midwinter break
The Point, Mossel Bay
The Point, Mossel Bay in winter
Sundown, Chobe River Kasane
Sundown, Chobe River Kasane
Chobe Game Reserve
Chobe Game Reserve – showing the effects of drought

The Wildlife

Lone muddy Buffalo, Chobe NP
Lone muddy Buffalo with hopeful Cattle Egret, Chobe Game Reserve
Tree Squirrel, Chobe NP
Tree Squirrel, Chobe Game Reserve
Senyati camp
Waterhole at Senyati camp near Kasane Botswana
Petrin Hill - Eurasian Red Squirrel (in grey winter coat)
Petrin Park in Prague – Eurasian Red Squirrel (in grey winter coat)
Warthog, Chobe Riverfront
Warthog, Chobe Riverfront – ugly can also be beautiful
African Buffalo, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Buffalo, Chobe River Boat Trip
Steenbok, KNP
Steenbok, KNP
Waterbuck, Olifants KNP
Waterbuck, KNP
Elephant, KNP
Relaxed Elephant, KNP
Leopard, Timbavati KNP
Leopard, Timbavati KNP
Elephants in dry river bed, KNP
Elephants digging for water in dry river bed, KNP
Vervet Monkeys, Pretoriuskop KNP
Vervet Monkeys, Pretoriuskop KNP
Zebra, Pretoriuskop KNP
Zebra, Pretoriuskop KNP

The Birds

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Mkhombo Dam
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Mkhombo Dam
Flamingos, Mkhombo Dam
Flamingos, Mkhombo Dam
Queleas and Whydahs, Mkhombo Dam
Queleas and Whydahs, Mkhombo Dam
Brown-crowned Tchagra, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Brown-crowned Tchagra, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Swainson's Spurfowl (Juvenile), Delmas area
Swainson’s Spurfowl (Juvenile), Delmas area
Mocking Cliff-Chat (Male), Verlorenkloof
Mocking Cliff-Chat (Male), Verlorenkloof
White-crowned Lapwing, Chobe Riverfront
White-crowned Lapwing, Chobe Riverfront
Lilac-breasted Roller, Chobe Riverfront
Lilac-breasted Roller, Chobe Riverfront
Black-headed Heron, Delmas area
Black-headed Heron, Delmas area
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River Boat Trip
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River Boat Trip
74 Malachite Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip (90)
Malachite Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Purple Roller, Kasane
Purple Roller, Kasane
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
White-faced Duck, Leandra area
White-faced Ducks in a row, Leandra area
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Olifants KNP
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Olifants KNP
Klaas's Cuckoo, Olifants KNP
Klaas’s Cuckoo, Olifants KNP
Three Banded Plover (Juvenile), Herbertsdale area
Three Banded Plover (Juvenile), Herbertsdale area

Other Stuff

Frogs, Zaagkuildrift Road
Bullfrog, Zaagkuildrift Road
Flame Lily, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Flame Lily, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Prague - shop windows
Prague – shop window
Melk Abbey - the Church
Melk Abbey in Austria – the Church
Passau - shop window
Passau – shop window
Butterfly, Verlorenkloof
Butterfly, Verlorenkloof
Nursery flowers
Flower with bee – Nursery in Pretoria
Butterfy, Chobe Riverfront
Butterfy, Chobe Riverfront
Marabous roost at sunset, Kasane
Marabous roost at sunset, Kasane
Industrial sunrise, Leandra area
Industrial sunrise, Leandra area
Butterfly ? , Onverwacht farm, Vryheid
Butterfly , Onverwacht farm, Vryheid
Rolling clouds near Oudtshoorn
Rolling clouds near Oudtshoorn
Hello there!
Hello there! Thick-Knee has spotted some gnomes
Silhouette (Johan)
Silhouette – Swaer Johan attending to their exotic birds

Wishing all who may read this a 2017 that meets all of your expectations!

Kasane Botswana – Birding Spots in and around town

Kasane is a small town in northern Botswana, close to the Sududo Gate into Chobe National Park.

I would guess that most birders passing through Kasane are on their way from or to Chobe Game Reserve or further afield to Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia, the borders of which are all in close proximity.

As you drive around the town and the surrounding area, you realize that this is very much “Wild Africa”, a feeling which is reinforced by the signs on the main road past town that declare it a wildlife corridor. It is not unusual to encounter, as we did, Elephant, Wild Dogs, Hyena and Buffalo close to Kasane as we were on our way for a drive through the Riverfront section of Chobe (covered in my earlier blog) and before getting to the entrance gate!

The project in Kasane that I am involved in requires monthly visits to this small but interesting town and in the process I have discovered a few birding spots, with the assistance of my colleagues who know the town better, that are easy to visit for an hour or two in between other commitments.

I try to visit one of the birding spots during every visit and have built up a very basic knowledge of what to expect – the following notes are based on my limited knowledge and are not meant to be comprehensive, but can hopefully provide a starting point for the birder spending time in this special corner of Botswana.

Kasane Water Treatment Works

Location : On the eastern side of Kasane, off the intersection of the main road from town and the road to Zimbabwe

Description : The Treatment Works have the customary treatment ponds in a fenced off area – ask permission at the small office  just inside the gate if you want to walk around, but some of the ponds are visible from the tar road that runs alongside, so that you don’t necessarily have to enter the site. As always, the quality of birding varies with the level of the ponds.

In addition there is a fair-sized dam alongside the works and being outside the fenced off area, you can approach it by taking the track that leads off to the left as you approach the Treatment Works. Do be aware however, that elephants use the dam as a watering spot so keep an eye out for them.

Kasane water treatment works - elephants drinking in the distance!
Dam at Kasane water treatment works – elephants drinking in the distance!
Elephants drinking, Kasane Water Treatment
Elephants drinking, Kasane Water Treatment works dam

Bird life : Many water birds are attracted by the ponds and adjoining dam – all the usual ones such as Cormorants, Herons, Egrets and Ducks and depending on the time of year and water levels you can expect numbers of waders including African Jacana, Ruff, Black-winged Stilts and Wood Sandpipers. Smaller waders such as Three-banded Plover, Kittlitz’s Plover and Little Stint are common here.

Black-winged Stilt, Kasane Water Treatment
Black-winged Stilt
Egyptian Goose, Kasane Water Treatment
Egyptian Goose
Marabou Stork, Kasane Water Treatment
Marabou Stork – they congregate in the trees around the Treatment works at dusk
Red-billed Firefinch, Kasane Water Treatment
Red-billed Firefinch

Seboba Nature and Recreation Park

Location :This is a real gem which I covered in more detail in a separate post – suffice to say it is well worth a visit.

The small park lies along the river at the spot known as the Seboba rapids and has a nice mix of habitats and a variety of bird life.

I have covered this spot in a separate post : Kasane, Botswana –  Seboba Nature Park

Camping Site and Sundowner Spot

Location : Chobe Safari Lodge camping site on the outskirts of town on the western side

Description : The main attraction of this spot is the deck overlooking the Chobe river – treat yourself to one of the most spectacular African sunsets you are likely to see, as you enjoy a drink on the deck late afternoon. The channel in front of the deck gets quite crowded with boats in season, all loaded with tourists enjoying the sunset and its reflection, which transforms the Chobe waters into a deep red as you watch.

Sunset, Chobe Game Reserve
Sunset viewed from the deck at Chobe Safari Lodge camping area

Chobe Game Reserve

Bird life : while waiting for the sun to set and after it has disappeared beyond the horizon, listen for the bird life in the adjoining bushes which are favoured by the likes of White-browed Robin-Chat and Tropical Boubou, while the rank vegetation adjacent to the deck is home to Red-faced Cisticola whose ringing call is quite distinctive. There will more than likely be a Kingfisher or two in the vicinity and the floodplain on the opposite banks of the river is often occupied by tens if not hundreds of birds – Cormorants, Ibises, Openbills and the like. At certain times African Skimmers may be around flying in their unique way close to the water.

Glossy Ibis, Chobe Game Reserve
Glossy Ibises making their way down river at dusk
Afrcan Skimmer, Chobe Game Reserve
Afrcan Skimmers at sunset

Thebe Safari Lodge

Location : Compared to some of the well-known lodges in Kasane, Thebe caters mostly for more economical tour groups and particularly the large safari trucks full of younger tourists wanting an adventurous trip through Southern Africa’s wilder spots.

I have stayed there a few times and found the rooms comfortable and clean and, importantly, not “over-the-top” expensive as some of the more upmarket lodges tend to be

Description : The lodge grounds boast a variety of trees and shrubs which attract many birds and are a delight for the birder who chooses to take an early morning or late afternoon walk.

Bird Life : Birding around the grounds and gardens is excellent and best done by walking the property as thoroughly as time allows and covering all the habitats. Even before sunrise the bird calls will have you up and eager to get outside as the birds compete for “best call in garden”. Expect to hear and see Mourning Dove, Tropical Boubou, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, White-browed Robin and  Spectacled Weaver without too much trouble.

White-browed Robin-Chat, Thebe Safari Lodge
White-browed Robin-Chat, Thebe Safari Lodge
Tropical Boubou, Thebe Safari Lodge
Tropical Boubou, Thebe Safari Lodge

Bush lovers such as Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Red-billed Firefinch and Blue Waxbill are not difficult to find, while closer to and over the river there is a chance for various water birds doing a fly past and perhaps an African Pied Wagtail …. or two.

Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Thebe Safari Lodge
Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Thebe Safari Lodge
African Pied Wagtail, Thebe Safari Lodge
African Pied Wagtail, Thebe Safari Lodge (could that be the female on the right I wonder?)

Senyati Safari Camp

Location : This spot is not as close to Kasane as the spots described above, nevertheless it is close enough (20Km) to make it an easy place to visit even if time is limited. Take the road from Kasane to Kazangulu, some 10 Km away, then turn off on the A33 towards Pandamatenga and look for the camp turn-off after about 7 Km. Best time for birding is probably late afternoon but if you use their accommodation (self-catering) you can spend more time there in the morning.

Description : The main feature is the deck with a cash bar and seating overlooking the plains in front of the camp, stretching to the distant Zambesi River, with the focus point being an artificial waterhole which is frequented during the day by a variety of game and, of course, birds.

Senyati camp
Senyati camp
Senyati camp
Senyati viewing deck
Senyati camp
View of the waterhole and plains

There is also an underground tunnel which you can walk along to a ground level hide right next to the waterhole – quite exciting if there are elephants present as you are literally metres away from them!

Senyati camp
View from the ground level hide
Senyati camp
Senyati camp – view from the deck

Bird Life : My one visit so far produced a good list of species in a short time, including Arrow-marked Babbler, Red-billed Hornbill, Wood Sandpiper, Grey-headed Bush-Shrike, Knob-billed (Comb) Duck and Red-billed Spurfowl. The potential for some excellent birding at this spot seems good. Unfortunately I had left my camera at the guest house so had to make do with non-digital memories other than the above taken with my pocket camera (which I also occasionally use to phone)

 

 

Kasane, Botswana : Chobe River Birding

 

Of all the birding experiences you can have, the water-based ones seem to be the most memorable. I had been looking for an opportunity to do a boat trip on the Chobe River in northern Botswana for a year or more and in July this year I decided to make it happen.

There are a few boat rental companies in Kasane and I chose Kalahari Tours based on a colleague’s recommendation – they were able to accommodate me early on the Friday of my monthly visit and I arrived at the reception on the stroke of 7 am, armed with my binos, camera, snacks and a warm jacket to ward off the cool wind that was coming up.

The boat was of aluminium construction, sturdy looking, hopefully Hippo-proof and fitted with 2 rows of three comfy seats with a fold-down canopy over. I took up position in the middle seat of the front row, being the only guest that morning, doing my best to look as if this was my customary position in all boats I travelled in, and spread my gear on the adjoining seats.

Richard, Chobe River Boat Trip
Richard, boatman and bird guide extraordinaire

The boatman, Richard, took us out smoothly, initially downstream and around a wide bend in the majestic river, to the Seboba rapids where the river runs faster over unseen obstacles below the water. As we approached the rapids hundreds of Cormorants, Gulls and other large water birds were heading out from their roosts to feeding areas upstream.

Seboba rapids
Seboba rapids

There were still many birds roosting in the trees at the rapids, on the banks and on small islands in the middle of the river and Richard carefully approached as close as possible to allow intimate views of the birds and their youngsters.

Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River Boat Trip
Yellow-billed Stork
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River Boat Trip
Yellow-billed Stork family
Yellow-billed Stork, Chobe River Boat Trip
Yellow-billed Stork

Most visible were many Yellow-billed Storks with their fluffy grey and white youngsters crowded into one part of a tree. White-breasted Cormorants were numerous, some tending to nests in the tops of trees. My neck was already feeling the effects of trying to keep up with the action and the constant movement of the birds in and out of the trees, and up, down and across the river. We were literally surrounded by birds, in numbers second only to the masses that gather at trawlers on pelagic trips.

White-breasted Cormorant, Chobe River Boat Trip
White-breasted Cormorant

Amongst the massed Storks and Cormorants were many other species such as Purple Heron, African Spoonbill, Great Egret and Green-backed Heron.

Once I was sated with the spectacular bird life at the rapids, I indicated to Richard that we could proceed and he headed upstream, staying close enough to the banks to spot birds in the overhanging reeds, bushes and trees. His eyes proved sharper than mine as he spotted and pointed out everything from the tiny Malachite Kingfishers to their larger cousin the Giant Kingfisher, not to mention Brown-hooded Kingfishers.

Malachite Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Malachite Kingfisher
Giant Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Giant Kingfisher
Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Brown-hooded Kingfisher

Water Thick-knees skulking in the shade of the riverside bush are particularly difficult to spot but Richard’s sharp eyes found them easily. On our way upstream we passed by some of the well-known lodges with their decks overlooking the great river.

Chobe River Boat Trip
Chobe River Boat Trip

Wire-tailed Swallows swooped over our boat continuously and  a pair even decided that our boat would be a good vantage point as we glided along the smooth waters.

Wire-tailed Swallow, Chobe River Boat Trip
Wire-tailed Swallow gets a lift

Further upstream we entered the Chobe National Park and Richard docked briefly at a small hut to sign us in. From there we made our way slowly along the side channels with the Park on our left and the large mass of Impalila Island on our right.

African Fish-Eagle, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Fish-Eagle
Impala, Chobe River Boat Trip
Impala

With the water having subsided from its post-summer highs, the island was now occupied by many Buffalos – a safe haven for them away from the big cats.

African Buffalo, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Buffalo

Here and there we saw Hippos and a couple appeared in the river just ahead of us, causing Richard to give them a wide berth – Hippos are one animal you do not mess with in the river, or on land for that matter.

Hippo, Chobe River Boat Trip
Hippo – best avoided

A mid-sized Crocodile on the bank drew us nearer to have a look and we literally peered down its throat as the bow of the boat bumped up against the bank just in front of it. While admiring its rows of teeth and taking photos I was looking for any signs of movement as, by my calculations, one lunge would have seen it land in our boat, but fortunately crocs are content to just lie there (most of the time) and regulate their body temperature by opening their jaws wide. Must remember to take dental floss next time.

Crocodile, Chobe River Boat Trip
Crocodile up close and personal

The island was home to many bird species – Lapwings (White-crowned and Long-toed), Squacco Herons, Geese in large numbers (Spur-winged and Egyptian) African Openbills, all the “White” Egrets except Cattle Egret (Great, Yellow-billed and Little), Ibis’s galore (Glossy, Sacred), many White-faced Ducks and larger waders such as African Jacana and Black-winged Stilt. A veritable feast of birding.

Chobe River Boat Trip
Chobe Game Park
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River Boat Trip
Long-toed Lapwing
African Openbill, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Openbill
Red-billed Firefinch, Chobe River Boat Trip
Red-billed Firefinch

A smallish sandbar pretending to be an island was home to the bird highlight of the day – 50 or so African Skimmers using it as a roost in between sorties over the river, allowing a close approach to view these unique birds with their vivid colours. Their black and white plumage contrasts with their bright red bills, which look out of proportion but are perfectly designed for their function of skimming the surface of the water in search of small prey.

African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Skimmer
African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Skimmer

African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip

African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip

Pied Kingfishers are common throughout Southern Africa but never in numbers as we came across them along the river. I would guess we saw more than 100 during the trip and there were signs of them nesting in the sandy banks, where they occurred at a rate of one every 5m or so.

Pied Kingfisher, Chobe River Boat Trip
Pied Kingfisher

The return trip was along the main channel, by now rippled by the fresh wind which had come up, but not enough to cause any discomfort. Along the way we added Red-billed Teal and Knob-billed Ducks to our sightings as well as a lone Red Lechwe in long grass on a waterlogged plain.

Red Lechwe, Chobe River Boat Trip
Red Lechwe

Amazingly, three hours had passed without me noticing and we returned to the jetty where we had started – what an outing!

Bird in the Lens – Sociable Weaver

The Sociable Weaver, chosen by Birdlife South Africa as their “Bird of the Year” for 2016, is unique in many respects and more than worthy of its selection.

It is also a bird that has fascinated me ever since I first saw their massive nest structures on Camelthorn trees in the Free State, long before my interest in birding began. This was in the early 1970’s when I moved to Bloemfontein, Free State and developed two loves – for my wife and for the wide open spaces of the Free State, represented by the family farm near Hoopstad.

Although the farm we used to visit every couple of weeks is no longer in the family, the same massive Sociable Weaver nest sits securely in the same Camelthorn tree in the family cemetery, watching over the generations of the family who have found their final resting place in its dappled shade.

Sociable Weaver, Boskop Dam (Potch)

Why Unique?

Apart from being endemic to Southern Africa, the Sociable Weaver’s nest is the largest built by any bird in the world, large enough to house more than a hundred pairs of birds, often of several generations (why am I thinking of the Dallas Ewings right now?). They construct these enormous nests of stiff grasses, forming chambers at different distances from the outside face, which provide protection from the temperature extremes of Southern Africa’s arid zones.

Described as being like “giant haystacks”, the nests are constructed in trees or on artificial structures such as telephone and electricity poles, windmills and the like and have become an icon of the arid areas of Southern Africa.

Sociable Weaver nest near Hoopstad
Sociable Weaver nest near Hoopstad
Closer view of nest
Closer view of nest showing construction from stiff grass and some of the entrance holes

Species Names

Scientific : Philetairus socius – from the Greek philos = love and hetairos = companion

Afrikaans: Versamelvoël

Indigenous : Thantlagane(NS),  Kgwêrêrê  (Tw)

German : Siedelweber

French : Républicain social

Portuguese : Tecelão-sociável

Dutch : Republikeinwever

Sociable Weaver, Hoopstad
Sociable Weaver, Hoopstad

Sociable Weaver, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Distribution

Distribution is across north-western South Africa, south-west Botswana and northwards across Namibia and is strongly associated with the arid savannahs of the southern Kalahari region.

The SABAP2 distribution map looks like this :

SABAP 2 Distribution map
SABAP 2 Distribution map

Identification

The nest is unmistakable, so once you have found the nest the birds will not be far away. Although classed as Weavers they are more Sparrow-like in appearance, small (14cm) and fairly drab-coloured to match the dry browns of the habitat they prefer. Their outstanding features are the black chin contrasting with a light-coloured front and face, black barred flanks and scalloped back

Images

Sociable Weaver, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Sociable Weaver, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Sociable Weaver, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Sociable Weaver, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Other Stuff

Several other species “borrow” nest chambers for their own breeding – such as  mud-nesting wasps, nesting Pygmy Falcons, Red-headed Finches and Rosy-faced Lovebirds. Others use them as roosts including Ashy Tits, Familiar Chats, Acacia Pied Barbets and  Pearl-spotted Owlets. So the great nest becomes a “bird hotel” for many, even snakes like visiting for a nestling or egg take-away.

There is certainly nothing else quite like it in the bird world.

Additional sources :

Robert’s Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa

Latin for Birdwatchers (Roger Lederer and Carol Burr)

Wikipedia

Birdlife SA Media Release – Bird of the Year 2016

 

Kasane, Botswana – Seboba Nature Park

Ever wondered what it would be like to have your own private Nature Reserve – one you can explore at your leisure, with a major African river on its doorstep?

That seems to be part of the deal when you visit the Seboba Nature Park in Kasane, northern Botswana. Introduced to it by a colleague, I have been fortunate to visit this idyllic spot a few times this year and each time I have been the only visitor. Clearly it is not always as quiet, particularly when school and other groups visit – it was probably a question of being lucky in choosing the times we did.

Seboba Nature Park is a small nature reserve located on the outskirts of Kasane, bordered on the one side by a stretch of the Chobe River and on the other by the tarred road into Kasane,  and was developed by the Botswana Government to support tourism in the area – by all accounts it has proved to be successful up to a point, but I would say it needs the support of tourism companies to persuade more tourists to visit.

The notice board and map near the entrance spells out its origin and some of the attractions, which include cultural villages, information centre, curio shop, dance arena and walking trails :

Seboba Nature Park Kasane

Seboba Nature Park, Kasane
Map of Seboba Nature Park, Kasane

There are paths from the parking area that meander down to the river’s edge and to the top of a low hill, called Commissioner’s Kop, which has a deck with tables and chairs and magnificent views up and down the river.

Deck on Commissioner's Kop
Deck on Commissioner’s Kop
View from deck over Chobe River
View from deck on Commissioner’s Kop

A raised boardwalk leads off the reception area and meanders through the riverine forest and bush, creating opportunities to see some of the variety of bird life and a few animals.

The boardwalk
The boardwalk

The boardwalk ends at the picnic site, but paths take you further through the dense bush should you want to be a little adventurous – it’s best to have a ranger accompanying you from here as the chances of “bumping into” wild life increase.

A small deck at the end of the boardwalk allows you to view the part of Chobe River known as the Seboba Rapids – a section of river with faster flowing water and small islands, some bedecked with trees and favoured by hundreds of birds for roosting and nesting.

Chobe River
Chobe River
Chobe River
Chobe River

Seboba is not a game park as such, but a wildlife corridor to the river has been maintained by leaving openings in the fence between the adjoining road and the park, which is regularly used by elephant and other wild life to gain access to the river, as they have for millennia in all likelihood.

One of my visits turned into a bit of an adventure and reminded me that the area is very much “Wild Africa”…….

After parking near reception, I slung my binoculars around my neck and my camera over my shoulder (two items which have become part of my outfit when birding) and headed down the track to the river. I could not help noticing the fresh-looking elephant tracks in the sand and equally fresh-looking elephant dung, which I had to step around in places, bush signs which had my senses on high alert.

The river was not far, so I carried on to the river bank and started birding, while looking around carefully all the while. Just then, one of the rangers came down the track to tell me there were elephants in the bushes to my right and suggested, with a hint of urgency, that I move away . I could see the elephants through a gap in the trees and decided the ranger had a point, so I followed his further suggestion that we head along the river, the ranger in front and me behind. We stuck to the river’s edge, which was flowing high, wide and strong from the rains in Angola some weeks prior.

We were now walking away from the elephants, so I was feeling a tad more relaxed and enjoying the solitude of the river and the adjoining thick bush – until I started thinking about crocodiles, having seen the warning notices. Besides that, we were now literally on the edge of the Chobe River, even treading in the water where the steep bank caused my shoes to slip here and there.

At least they warn you
At least they warn you

I casually asked the ranger whether crocodiles were present and he nodded to say yes – not a minute later a loud splash ahead of us announced the first croc as he was scared off by our approach. Further ahead we spotted a croc about 50m away, lying in the shallows next to the bank – we approached slowly and cautiously and as we got closer the croc slid silently into the river, swam behind a partly submerged tree and eyed us as we passed.

A croc is spotted not far ahead
A croc is spotted not far ahead
He has not seen us yet
He has not seen us yet
The croc slides into the river
The croc slides into the river as we get closer

All in all, an eventful and exciting walk that I had not planned for at all – Africa can make you feel very small and vulnerable at times!

The Birding

My primary purpose in visiting Seboba was, of course, to do some birding and the park did not disappoint. My first sighting on my first visit was Collared Palm-Thrush on the reception building’s roof – a most desirable species for Southern African birders. This set the tone for what could be expected and as I explored further the list grew, including a pleasing number of “specials” –

Along the boardwalk –

  • Grey-headed Sparrow, not scarce by any means but interesting because Kasane is one of the few places in Southern African region where both Southern and  Northern species occur. This one turned out to be the Southern species
  • Noisy Arrow-marked Babblers
  • Trumpeter Hornbills with their eerie “crying-baby” calls echoing through the woodland
  • Bradfield’s Hornbill
  • Broad-billed Roller
  • Woodland Kingfisher, its position  given away by its trilling call
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Woodland Kingfisher, Seboba Nature Park - Kasane
Woodland Kingfisher, Seboba Nature Park – Kasane

Commisioner’s Kop viewing point –

  • African Golden Oriole in its bright yellow plumage
  • African Green Pigeon – good at hiding behind foliage
  • Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove
African Golden Oriole, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
African Golden Oriole, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
African Green Pigeon, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
African Green Pigeon, Seboba Nature Park Kasane

Down by the riverside –

  • African Jacana
  • African Darter
  • Yellow-billed Stork
  • Pygmy Goose
  • African Openbill in the shallows, probing for molluscs
  • Reed and White-breasted Cormorants in numbers
  • Water Thick-knee, flying away low over the river when disturbed
  • White-crowned Lapwing, also prone to flying off but often landing a short distance further
Reed Cormorant, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Water Thick-knee, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
White-crowned Lapwing, Seboba Nature Park - Kasane
White-crowned Lapwing, Seboba Nature Park – Kasane
Reed Cormorant, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Reed Cormorant, Seboba Nature Park Kasane

Hillside and open areas –

  • White-browed Sparrow-Weaver
  • Blue Waxbill
  • Little Bee-eater
White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Seboba Nature Park - Kasane
White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Seboba Nature Park – Kasane
Blue Waxbill, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Blue Waxbill, Seboba Nature Park Kasane

This small park is well worth a visit even if for just an hour or two – the variety of habitats in a concentrated area can be covered in a short time, although the longer you can stay the better … oh and don’t wander around too much unless there’s a ranger nearby (which they tend to be)

Special thanks to Derek Thomas for showing me this spot, and others, in Kasane.

 

 

Leaflove Story – a Sudden Twitch

Leafloves?

As I mentioned in my previous post about twitching (https://mostlybirding.com/2016/02/23/a-twitch-or-two/), I hardly consider myself to fall into the category of keen twitchers, those hardy, sometimes mildly bonkers birders who let nothing stand in the way of seeing rare birds that turn up in Southern Africa.

Such was the case when a pair of Yellow-throated Leafloves (interesting name!) turned up and started nesting at a riverside lodge near Katima Mulilo in Namibia, some 200 kms south of their normal distribution in Zambia and northwards. Suddenly the Southern African region had a brand new bird added to the regional list!

The reports started coming through in mid February 2016 of this unexpected pair of birds in the gardens of the Caprivi Houseboat Safari Lodge near Katima Mulilo and there was soon a gold-rush like invasion of keen twitchers heading to this remote part of Southern Africa via plane and car from various places in South Africa and Namibia.

The Twitch

I watched with interest the messages coming through from Trevor Hardaker and the SA Rare Bird Facebook page, knowing that I would be going to Kasane in northern Botswana for a project I am involved in, during the 1st week in March. I also had a look at the map and realized that Katima Mulilo fell nicely within my “twitch limit” of around 2 hours drive, being about 120 kms from Kasane with a border crossing from Botswana to Namibia to negotiate along the way. So, if the Leafloves hung around until then, I planned to “pop over” the border for a quick visit and hopefully a new tick on my life list for Southern Africa.

Tuesday 1st March

Come Tuesday,  I caught the daily flight from Joburg to Kasane – a day early for my site visit so that I could spend a night in Katima Mulilo (KM) and be back in time for the project commitments the following day. I had arranged for a bakkie (pickup) to be available and shortly after landing I set off for KM via Ngoma border post. The border formalities went smoothly, perhaps because I was the only customer in an hour or two.

From Kasane to Ngoma the public road (tarred) bisects the northernmost section of Chobe Game Reserve and the landscape is pristine woodland all the way.

The road to Katima Mulilo
The road to Katima Mulilo

Once into the Caprivi in Namibia, the scenery changes to more open, patchy woodland interspersed with small settlements and small-scale agriculture.

I arrived at the lodge by 4.30 pm and settled into the rustic accommodation on the river in unit No 5, which is right alongside the tree where the Leafloves were nesting.

Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
The rustic cabin at Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
The rustic cabin at Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
View from the cabin
View from the cabin

I immediately saw one of the young chicks peering over the edge of the nest and within minutes the parents were in the vicinity and at the nest, bringing morsels and calling in a Babbler-like manner although less harsh.

Nest site, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Nest site, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Yellow-throated Leaflove nestling
Yellow-throated Leaflove nestling
Yellow-throated Leaflove
Yellow-throated Leaflove

The rest of the afternoon was spent re-visiting the nest site in the hope of getting better views / photos and exploring the small property with its jungle-like gardens and river views.

River views, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
River views, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
River views, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
River views, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge

It proved to be really challenging trying to get the Leafloves in my camera’s viewfinder for long enough to get a decent photo, as they seemed intent on hiding in the shadiest part of the foliage at every opportunity and when they did show themselves briefly, it was in an opening high up in the trees with bright light behind them.

Yellow-throated Leaflove
Yellow-throated Leaflove

Other birders had arrived earlier and a few more arrived after me – we enjoyed a good evening meal together and then made our way to mosquito-netted beds in the rustic cabins, happy to be able to add the Leaflove to our life lists.

Wednesday 2nd March

In the morning the others were already gathered at the coffee and rusks and I tagged along with the small group as they set off for a birding walk along the dirt road outside the lodge, which turned out to be quite busy with early morning commuters on their way to places unknown.

Morning walk near the lodge
Morning walk near the lodge

White-bowed Robin-Chat and Tropical Boubou were competing for loudest call as we walked and there was no shortage of other interesting species, such as :

  • Paradise and Grey-tit Flycatchers
  • Village Indigobird on the very top of a tree
  • Namaqua Dove perched on overhead wires
  • Brubru working its way through the foliage of a large tree
  • Little Sparrowhawk perched on an open branch
  • Copper Sunbird female peering from its nest in the roadside bush
  • Brown-crowned Tchagra posing beautifully on a nearby branch
  • Greater Blue-eared Starlings
  • African Golden Oriole – bright yellow against the green foliage
Copper Sunbird (Female) at nest
Copper Sunbird (Female) at nest
Flame Lily
Flame Lily
Brown-crowned Tchagra
Brown-crowned Tchagra

After the walk it was breakfast time followed by some further garden birding. A Schalow’s Turaco was calling and I followed the sound to find this lifer – a pair were moving about in the dense foliage of a tall tree, making it challenging to get a decent view or a photo. Fortunately I heard them again as I was leaving and found one on an open branch, almost inviting me to photograph this handsome species.

Schalow's Turaco
Schalow’s Turaco
Schalow's Turaco
Schalow’s Turaco

The trip back to Kasane was uneventful, other than coming across a trio of elephants along the road traversing Chobe.

The road through Chobe
The road through Chobe

Another successful twitch and memories of a brief but busy trip that will stay with me for a long while.

 

 

Bird in the Lens – Hamerkop

What happened to “Bird of the Week” ?

I was overly optimistic when I started a series of blogs titled “Bird of the Week” – what was meant to evolve into a weekly study of a specific bird species has seen me publish just two such blogs in the past few months. No excuses other than being too busy working, birding and blogging on other subjects that I felt compelled to get down in writing.

The caption I have now adopted is more flexible and I will be producing a series of similar “Bird in the Lens” blogs from time to time (now that’s vague enough not to be accused of misleading anyone). So here goes with the next species…….

HAMERKOP

Species Names

  • Hamerkop  (English and Afrikaans)      One of just two SA species with the same name in English and Afrikaans. (The other one? Bokmakierie) Sometimes translated to the English equivalent “Hammerhead” but no one I know uses that name
  • uThekwane, Uqhimgqoshe (Indigenous)
  • Hammerkopf(German)
  • Ombrette d’Afrique (French) – rather nice sounding name
  • Hamerkop  (Dutch)
  • Scopus Umbretta  (Scientific)   The beauty of scientific names is that they are common throughout the world no matter what country or the language spoken. The first part – Scopus – is the Genus which  is derived from the latin for “broom of twigs” – so named for the huge nest of twigs that the Hamerkop builds, up to 1,5m across  . The second part – Umbretta – is the species name which in this case means shade or shady, probably to describe its uniquely shaped crest, head and bill, which give it an umbrella-like appearance.

Where to find it

The Hamerkop is found right across Southern Africa with the exception of the very arid areas. Distribution is also widespread in the rest of Africa, but it is never common and always elicits a “hey look, there’s a Hamerkop” when seen.

My first sighting was in Kruger National Park in the late 1970’s, long before I took up birding seriously.

It is usually found near water and hunts at the water’s edge, sometimes venturing into the shallows to snatch its prey from the edge of the water. Prey is mostly toads whose distribution is very similar to the Hamerkop, suggesting that Hamerkops depend on toads for food.

The distribution map below is from SABAP2

SABAP Hamerkop

 

Look ……..  and Listen

There is very little chance of confusing this species with any other, although I have been misled once or twice by a Hadeda flying over at a distance. The anvil-shaped head and overall brown colouring are instantly recognisable as belonging to the Hamerkop.

This is a medium-sized bird, up to 56cm long and weighing up to 500g.

The call is not an identifier as it is mostly silent.

Punda Maria
Punda Maria

Photography

Not a difficult bird to photograph, once you have found one near water, as it will not move around much if engrossed in hunting for a frog or other small prey.

Photos taken from the low water bridge between Skukuza and Tshokwane in Kruger National Park :

Hamerkop, Bridge near Skukuza

Hamerkop, Bridge near Skukuza

Hamerkop, Bridge near Skukuza

Other Stuff

Conservation status is listed as “Not threatened”. Where many species are suffering due to habitat loss, the Hamerkop is actually benefiting from irrigation schemes in arid areas. This is a survivor amongst bird species. It also features prominently in indigenous folklore, is regarded in awe and is generally unmolested.

Lifespan is 20 years or more.

Nests are massive structures built up out of hundreds of sticks and when completed they are decorated with anything that comes to hand …….. or beak – from cattle manure to dish cloths. One of my colleagues had the nickname Hamerkop given to him by the office general assistant, apparently due to his habit of hoarding all kinds of things at his home.

 

References

Roberts Birds of Southern Africa

Birdlife International

Birds of Africa South of the Sahara

SABAP2 (Maps)

Latin for BIrdwatchers (Roger Lederer and Carol Burr)