During a visit to Chobe Game Reserve in April this year, I saw many of the birds that I have become accustomed to in this special slice of African wilderness. After substantial summer rains Chobe Riverfront was greener and more lush than I have ever seen it, and with the river in flood from the rains in the catchment area in Angola, the “River road” was slightly more river than road….
This meant I had to stick to the upper road for most of the way, not that this detracted from the experience in any way.
The highlight of the morning was being treated to a fly past by a family group of Bateleurs – male, female and juvenile – which swooped by in a great circle above my vehicle. They were good enough to repeat this a couple of times, allowing me the opportunity to view them from my vehicle and take a few in flight shots which perfectly showed the differences between them.
What a graceful picture they present when in their element in the air, making small adjustments to their wing’s plane in flight, flying with such precision and elegance that it is like watching a cirque de soleil performance.
This species is one of the delights of visiting the larger game reserves in the northern part of our region, particularly Kruger Park where they are relatively common and often the most numerous raptor in the air. However in all my years of birding I have never seen a “complete set” in one spot before.
The male is distinguished in flight by the broad, black trailing edge to its wings :
The female can be told by the much narrower, black trailing edge to its wings :
The juvenile has the same short tail and overall “giss” as the adults, but the plumage is in several shades of brown, seemingly designed to throw you off the track when identifying them, unless you see them in the company of the adults as I was fortunate to do.
I left Chobe with the sighting of these elegant birds imprinted on my mind.
When “Overseas Family” come to visit us in South Africa, it is always a big occasion which is eagerly anticipated, so we were thrilled when niece Sarah announced more than a year ago that she was bringing their family from Canada over to Southern Africa for a “Trip of a Lifetime” in March 2017. Even better was the news that my sister Sheila (Sam to them) would be joining them for the trip and brother Andrew would join them for the southern leg.
Our task was to organise the northern leg of the trip, which had to include Kruger National Park with Victoria Falls and Botswana being high on their wish list. We soon had a Kruger booking pinned down, together with a short stay on the Panorama route in Mpumulanga, which took care of most of week 1 of the two-week northern leg. A while later we secured a travel package which included a couple of nights each in Victoria Falls and Kasane Botswana which filled week 2, so we were all set.
The Highlights – Places, Sights, Food
The following is a brief diary of the two weeks, which I will no doubt expand on in further posts.
Monday 6th – Pretoria
The family arrived on Sunday evening (Alex, Sarah, Cassie and Rio) and Monday morning (Sheila) so Monday was a day of recovery and orientation for their travel-befuddled and time-zoned brains. Gerda prepared a nice supper with “just enough chicken” to go around (3 whole chickens with one in the wings just in case!)
Tuesday 7th – Pretoria to Satara Camp in Kruger
We set off for Kruger in the morning, loaded to capacity in our SUV plus luggage trailer. Mid-morning we stopped at Milly’s for the customary brunch and a good coffee, which set us up nicely for the rest of the day.
The journey took more or less the whole day and included an unexpected deviation in Kruger so we arrived at Satara just as the gate was closing at 6.05 pm (more on that story in another post!)
The evening braai allowed us time to reflect on the long day’s travelling and sights seen on the way to Satara, albeit a bit rushed!
Wednesday 8th – Satara to Nwanetsi
We had just two nights in Satara camp in Kruger so made the most of it with a long morning game drive on the Wednesday to Nwanetsi, where we prepared a genuine Kruger brunch. The afternoon nap time allowed everyone to rekindle their energy.
The route to from Satara to Phabeni Gate took almost the entire day, travelling at a slower and far more respectable pace, with stops at Tshokwane, Lower Sabie and the Lake Panic hide along the way. From Phabeni it was a short drive to Graskop and onwards to Thaba Tsweni Lodge for a two-night stay. The day was filled with interesting and exciting sightings with Kruger in superb condition after the good summer rains.
The evening meal was not in a restaurant as planned (we just could not face the trip to Graskop and back at night having seen the state of the road) , but a Chef’s Table conjured up by Gerda and Sarah with all the goodies packed by Gerda “just in case”.
Friday 10th – Panorama Route (Lite)
Sarah’s birthday was celebrated at Harrie’s Pancakes in Graskop, after a late start and a visit to Bourke Luck Potholes (the kind formed by eons of water and grit action on soft rocks) and a section of the Panorama Route. A cabbage bought for R5 from a farmer was turned into a delicious fried dish that evening by inventive Sarah.
Saturday 11th – Graskop to Pretoria
Our first stop after breakfast at the lodge was God’s Window for a walk to the viewpoints and up the path to the rain forest.
From there we headed homewards to a “meeting of the cousins” , only stopping for lunch at Milly’s.
Sunday 12th – Pretoria
More family time as the cousins and their progeny got to know each other, interspersed with some of Gerda’s home cooking and much excitement amongst the youngsters.
Monday 13th – Pretoria to Victoria Falls
Off to OR Tambo for the flight to Victoria Falls, where we landed just after 1 pm and we were soon at the Kingdom Hotel.
We did the “Sunset Cruise” (Luxury version) which was “super-cool” in Sarah’s words, seeing Hippos and Crocs up close, followed by a meal in the local Spur.
Tuesday 14th – Victoria Falls
After a good buffet breakfast we walked down to the Falls and meandered along the path with heavy spray drenching us in parts but not enough to spoil the views.
We whiled away the afternoon at the poolside and dinner was at Mama Afrika restaurant with a genuine African flavour.
Wednesday 15th – Victoria Falls to Kasane
Another sumptuous breakfast and a short visit to the adjoining historical Victoria Falls Hotel, then it was time for our transfer to Kasane by small bus. There we checked into the Chobe Safari Lodge and relaxed over a light lunch and swimming at the pool.
A walk to the riverside “Sundowner Spot” was the opportunity for G&T’s and a spectacular sunset, followed by the Lodge’s Buffet Dinner to round off the day.
Thursday 16th – Chobe National Park
An early morning game drive into Chobe and an afternoon boat cruise on the river took up most of the day, with enough time for relaxing in between.
Friday 17th – Kasane to Pretoria
Today was all about getting back to Pretoria, where Gerda had a special dinner planned to end the northern leg of the Canadian’s visit.
Tomorrow they fly to PE to meet up with Andrew, their “tour guide” for the southern leg.
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.
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
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
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
Writing this, I realised that I had done birding across 2 countries and 5 of SA’ s provinces during July!
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.
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
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
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
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am not sure how I will top 2016 as far as birding goes, but I will certainly give it a go!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
After that exciting start to the year I took a break in February to focus on other life matters and recommenced in…
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.
While in Kasane I visited Chobe Game Reserve and the Kasane Waste treatment works which both produced some excellent birding.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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
Kasane was the destination once again from the 1st to 3rd with another birding trip along the Riverfront section of Chobe Game Reserve.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
Wishing all who may read this a 2017 that meets all of your expectations!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Amazingly, three hours had passed without me noticing and we returned to the jetty where we had started – what an outing!
Just when you thought it was safe to go into 2016, here is another of those pesky “looking back at 2015” stories. Apologies but I just have to do it – so here is my review of my birding year, for what it is worth.
It has been another busy year of travel for Gerda and myself, in between maintaining our normal home routines, however this time around we did not do any “overseas” trips but confined ourselves to travel within South Africa. In addition my birding took me to Mozambique for a dedicated 2 week birding extravaganza and work-related trips took me to northern Botswana, where I was able to fit in some wonderful birding and game viewing – all in all it made for another interesting year…….
The year started, as it has over the past couple of years, in Mossel Bay where we have a second home and I used the opportunity to do some atlasing in the Golf Estate where our house is located and in the surrounding area. (reminder : “atlasing” is the recording of bird species in an area called a Pentad, defined by coordinates, about 8 x 8 kms in extent, with the data collected going to a database at the University of Cape Town)
Gerda joined me for a morning of atlasing near Albertinia, with breakfast and coffee stops to make it a pleasant outing for both of us.
From the 9th to 12th we did a short trip through the Western Cape, spending one night in Swellendam and two more visiting Johan and Rosa in Worcester. I managed to sneak in some atlasing as we went without turning up anything of note.
On the 16th it was time to leave Mossel Bay and return to Gauteng but not without making the most of the journey – two nights in Prince Albert in the Karoo and one in Hoopstad in the Free State made sure of that.
Undoubtedly the highlight of my birding year started on 29th January with a two week birding trip through Mozambique as part of a group of 10 in four vehicles. The full report appears in my posts from earlier in 2015 and it is difficult to isolate the highlights as every day was full of them, but here are a few that were really special and the “Lifers” that went with them :
Early morning on the Limpopo floodplain with Sedge Warblers and Rufous-winged Cisticolas
Birding on the mudflats at Imhambane and Lighthouse beach nearby – Lesser Sand Plover, Lesser Crested Tern and Crab Plover
Driving through dense woodland to the Panda area to view Olive-headed Weaver, Green Tinkerbird, Woodward’s Batis and Livingstone’s Flycatcher, amongst a plethora of other desirable species
Lunch stop in more dense woodland which was alive with bird life, adding Red-winged Warbler
Dragging a rope across pristine floodplains of the Rio Savane near Beira in hot, humid weather, hoping to flush some of the specials – Great Snipe was one reward
Photographing a warbler in the Rio Maria area, which turned out to be Basra Reed Warbler, a southern Africa megatick
Mphingwe camp and the surrounding pristine forests of the Catapu area which produced a multitude of magnificent lifers – Ayre’s Hawk-Eagle, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, Mangrove Kingfisher, Tiny Greenbul, White-crested Alethe, East Coast Akalat, Black-headed Apalis, Plain-becked Sunbird, and Broad-taled Paradise Whydah
A memorable trip to the Zambezi to view Bohm’s Bee-eater and several other special birds (not to mention the atrocious road and the failed propshaft bearing of my vehicle)
Mphingwe camp – enforced longer stay due to car repairs but also time to explore the surrounds and home in on some beautiful butterflies
A weekend in Cape Town revolved around the Cape Town Cycle Tour which I had entered – no time for any intensive birding but we did enjoy a walk through Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and some lightweight birding in Stellenbosch where we stayed in the Devon Valley Hotel
On the 14th I joined Koos Pauw for some interesting atlasing at the Baviaanspoort Water Treatment works (ie Sewage farm) where a pale form Steppe Buzzard had us postulating for some time.
27th saw us heading to Mossel Bay for the Easter holidays, with a stop over at Prior Grange near Springfontein – a favourite overnight spot in the Free State with some excellent birding on the farm and the surrounds
During our stay in Mossel Bay I confined my birding to the immediate area with one atlasing trip to Albertinia.
A short trip to the Western Cape included a stay in McGregor on the 12th and some exploration of the Robertson area and Greyton – I squeezed in some atlasing as we went
Back in Pretoria Koos and I atlased in the Kwamhlanga area on the 25th, which produced some surprisingly good birding – near a vlei we saw Lanner Falcon, African Quail-Finch and heard African Rail in quick succession. Soon after, in a hilly, rocky area along a side road, I was thrilled to find Short-toed Rock-Thrush posing beautifully in a dry tree, a lifer for me.
My first trip to Kasane in northern Botswana from 5th to 7th for a project I am involved in, was the first of many for the year and a chance to explore the natural delights of Chobe National Park in between work commitments. This trip was all about excellent game viewing experiences with enough birding to whet my appetite for later visits.
More atlasing on the 16th (Kwamhlanga area) and 25th (Delmas area) and 30th (Coalfields around Ogies), produced some memorable species.
Winter atlasing in the dry grasslands near Bronkhorstspruit on 6th was followed two days later by atlasing near Balfour after a two hour drive through early morning traffic.
The same day I visited Marievale Bird Sanctuary for some relaxed birding and photography at this wonderful venue, which I had all to myself, it being a Monday.
18th to 25th was Koos and Rianda’s timeshare week at Verlorenkloof, which we were once again invited to share with them, unquestionably our favourite place for superb birding and relaxation and it produced many highlights as usual.
Saturday 4th was time for more winter atlasing, this time south of Balmoral with the challenge being ID’ing the seed eating species in their drab winter plumage – the watchword is definitely “practice makes perfect”.
Another trip to Kasane, another chance to visit Chobe, followed on the 7th to 9th.
Our winter trip to Mossel Bay started on the 12th and we only returned on the 1st of August. Birding was confined to Mossel Bay for the first 10 days due to cold, wet weather which gave me the chance to atlas the Golf Estate thoroughly and watch the birds coming to our feeder.
Gerda joined me for a short trip to Klein Brak and the beautiful countryside, green and lush after the substantial rains
My only specific atlasing trip was along the Herbertsdale road with some good birding in the two pentads.
Our trip to Robertson to taste the culinary and birding delights followed – see my separate post on this trip.
A late winter trip to Kasane on the 4th to 6th produced some memorable game and bird sightings once again.
Koos and I atlased the De Wildt area on the 8th with some interesting sightings
Another Kasane trip on the 8th to 11th included a day trip to Victoria Falls to view the new airport under construction and an afternoon visit to the Falls
We managed to squeeze in a Chobe Riverfront drive with some stunning sightings being the reward
An atlasing trip on the 19th to dusty, sprawling Garankuwa north of Pretoria produced more than expected with lovely sightings of Fairy Flycatcher, Striped Kingfisher and others
One of the year’s highlights came up in October with a week long visit to Satara camp in Kruger, documented in several separate posts, followed by another highlight when our timeshare week at Verlorenkloof came up just afterwards from 16th to 20th, producing some of the best birding ever in this superb locality
Back to Kasane on 6th to 8th and more of Chobe Riverfront, but this time, accompanied by another keen birder – Derek Thomas, we did some proper atlasing in this amazing slice of Africa and in a new (for us) location – Kasane Water Treatment Works
The 13th saw me heading to Mkhombo dam area for an atlasing session, with a visit to the dam to see if some of the special birds seen during the preceding weeks were still around.
Before we knew it, we found the year was rapidly running out as we packed once again for the trip down to Mossel Bay for our end-of-year long visit. On the way we stopped over in Hoopstad for two nights, one on the farm where I was able to fit in some good birding walks and drives.
Our second stopover was at Karoo National Park where we enjoyed the quiet Karoo atmosphere and some good birding.
In Mossel Bay my first atlasing trip was to the area west of the village Ruiterbos in beautiful rolling countryside
The last visit to Kasane on 2nd to 4th was another opportunity to atlas in Chobe and in Kasane itself at some spots located by Derek
Back in Mossel Bay I saw the year out with some fine atlasing around Herbertsdale, Vöelvlei and Gouritzmond
We came across Elephant, Buffalo, Jackal, Sable Antelope and a pack of Wild Dogs …….. and that was before we entered Chobe National Park!
Kasane is a small town on the far northern border of Botswana, its claim to fame being that it is the gateway to Chobe, one of the great African game reserves. It is also an unpredictably wild town – elephants and other wild animals occasionally wander through the residential area, often at night and the locals are in the habit of setting off thunderflashes to scare them off.
Another visit this month to Kasane to visit the project in which I am involved, meant another opportunity to squeeze in a visit to Chobe – this time we set out to do an early morning drive through the Riverfront section, before the day’s business began.
We set off as the sky was starting to lighten and on the short drive to the entrance gate we came across a pack of Wild Dogs, who were seemingly on a mission as they trotted along the road. Being pack hunters they would be looking for prey that they could pursue in their relentless fashion, wearing it down until the prey becomes exhausted and vulnerable to the attacks of the pack. We had seen the same pack the previous afternoon, not far from the airport and were able to get really close to them as they lazed the afternoon away in the shade of a large roadside tree, which provided some relief from the hot sun but not from the many flies that were buzzing around their heads.
Entering Chobe, we proceeded along the sandy, bumpy track with regular sightings of the animals we have become accustomed to finding –
Elephants aplenty, including quite a few youngsters, not wandering far from Mom
Buffalo – circa 500+ on the Lechwe Flats
Hyenas – a pair were making their way back from the river into the bush as we passed by
The best sighting of the morning was reserved till last. We encountered two Lionesses, strong and healthy looking individuals, as they made their way to a pool to drink (although we could not see the pool which was concealed by a deep donga) and moments after discussing the possibility of a male being nearby, a handsome male with a full mane of hair appeared and also headed towards the donga.
What followed was without doubt one of the more interesting Lion encounters I have had the privilege of experiencing, as the two Lionesses and the Lion played out a brief but fascinating series of moves. Initially the two Lionesses did a circular dance-like move in unison, as if sizing each other up, then one of them walked off slowly to the water and disappeared into the donga, The remaining Lioness and the Lion seemed to greet and gently caress each other before she too moved off towards the water, leaving the male to rest on the sandy ground and regally take in his surroundings.
Both Lionesses eventually returned and settled in different spots a distance from the male, who studiously ignored both of them as if in a huff.
The morning light lent a pleasant glow to the scene and created perfect conditions for photography as the Lions performed, oblivious to their excited audience, which by now had grown to 5 or 6 safari vehicles which arrived a short while after we spotted the first one. The photos are in the sequence taken –
The birding was limited to the “large and obvious” species for the most part –
Plenty of Guineafowl
Francolins and Spurfowl – Crested, Swainson’s and Red-billed were present in numbers
Hornbills – Red-billed, Yellow-billed, Bradfield’s and Ground all well represented
Carmine Bee-eaters are back in numbers and prominent in the sky or perching in bare trees at a few spots
White-browed Robin Chat, extra bright in the golden early morning light
A family of Orange River Francolins was a pleasant surprise and I was able to get my first photos of the mostly secretive species before they scuttled off into the bush
A truly wonderful morning’s game and bird viewing in this magical part of Southern Africa!
The Riverfront section of Chobe National Park – one of the finest Game Reserve experiences in Southern Africa, if not the whole of Africa.
I count myself fortunate to still have a part-time consultancy job as a QS, and doubly fortunate to be involved in a sizeable building project at Kasane in the far north of Botswana, on the doorstep of Chobe National Park. The project requires monthly site visits and during the few days we – that’s the professional team – spend there, we have managed to squeeze in a quick trip through the Riverfront section of the Park – all part of team building, you understand.
Prior to these recent visits, I was last in Chobe (pronounced Cho-bee) in 2000 and had good memories of this unique Park, although the intervening years had rendered my memories a bit fuzzy. So I was more than eager to renew my acquaintance with this part of Botswana and the first trip through the Riverfront section in May 2015 brought those memories from 15 years ago flooding back.
Chobe Background (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Chobe National Park, in northern Botswana, has one of the largest concentrations of game in Africa. By size, it is the third largest park in the country, after the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Gemsbok National Park, and is the most biologically diverse. It is also Botswana’s first national park.
One of four main areas in Chobe,The Serondela area (or Chobe riverfront), situated in the extreme Northeast of the park, has as its main geographical features lush floodplains and dense woodland of mahogany, teak and other hardwoods now largely reduced by heavy elephant pressure. The Chobe River, which flows along the Northeast border of the park, is a major watering spot, especially in the dry season (May through October) for large breeding herds of elephants, as well as families of giraffe, sable and cape buffalo. The flood plains are the only place in Botswana where the puku antelope can be seen. Birding is also excellent here.
The flight from Jo’burg is about an hour and a half and takes you over the Mkgadikgadi pans, an amazing sight from the air.
Approaching Kasane, there is usually a good view of the Chobe River and it’s quite possible to spot Elephant even before you have landed.
So How much Game is there?
Chobe tends to exceed all your expectations – yes there are patches with not much going on, not visible anyway, but there are parts that take your breath away, like the lush floodplains filled with game almost as far as the eye can see – dominated by Elephant and Buffalo. Elephants occur here in such numbers that there are real concerns about the survival of the woodland, but Botswana has a strict anti-culling policy and so Elephant herds grow and spread unabated. Perhaps nature will intervene as it often does.
Apart from the frequent Elephant sightings, there are some other very special animals to be seen – (some of the snippets of information are from the excellent maps/brochures on Botswana by Veronica Roodt which I originally obtained for my 2000 visit)
Sable Antelope, one of the most beautiful antelope in Africa with their perfectly curved horns, which are used to defend themselves. Glossy black colouring means it is a bull, while cows and juveniles are brown
Leopard – we have been very fortunate in finding a young Leopard on two of our three visits so far, quite possibly the same individual which, on our last visit, had dragged its Impala meal into a tree. This is to prevent Hyena and other predators reaching it.
Kudu – males have those impressive twisted horns, females are hornless so the ears are more prominent
Puku – Chobe is the only place in Southern Africa where this uncommon species occurs, in small herds. Mostly found near water
Giraffe – tallest animal in the world at 5,5m. Valves in the jugular vein help to control blood pressure when they bend down to drink water. The oxpeckers love them, gathering in numbers on their long elegant necks
Zebra – no African Game Reserve would be complete without them – our kids loved to call them pyjama-donkeys when they were small, now the grandkids do it
Black-backed Jackal – Pairs form long-term bonds, as these two seem to have done
Wild Dog – if you are very lucky you may encounter one as we did, crossing the tar road in front of us, then dashing off as we slowed down. They usually move around and hunt in packs.
And the Birding?
For anyone starting birding, this must rate as one of the best places to visit – there are many larger species that are easy to see and even photograph if that is your thing. Identifying them is also fairly straightforward if you have one of the birding Apps or one of the many birding books available.
The short trips through Chobe that I have done so far have been exciting but too short and rushed to do any in-depth birding and I look forward to getting to grips with some of the more difficult to see species during future visits. Nevertheless there have been some very good sightings and photo opportunities of some of the “obvious” species – here’s a selection :
Ground Hornbill – no other reserve I have visited can boast as many of this iconic species
Red-billed Hornbill – there is a good chance you will encounter five Hornbill species during a visit – the one above plus the four smaller species being Red-billed as this one below, Yellow-billed, African Grey and Bradfield’s.
Yellow-billed Stork – occur regularly among the myriad birds that frequent the pools of the Chobe floodplain
Yellow-throated Petronia – an uncommon and not at all obvious species, this one happened to be perched near the Leopard with its half-eaten Impala
Kori Bustard – another species with a more than good chance of being spotted in the open areas with grass
Bateleur – often seen soaring high in the air, this juvenile was perched in a dry tree near the track. One unique feature is their short tail which allows it to walk backwards – useful when trying to catch a snake!
African Jacana – this one had a few youngsters in tow, cute little fluffy chicks with outsize legs
African Fish-Eagle – no great river in Africa is worthy of the name unless it is frequented by these magnificent birds of prey and Chobe has its fair share of them
Oxpeckers – the giraffes seem to attract the most oxpeckers but they are just as likely to be found on buffalo, kudu, impala
Green Woodhoopoe – often heard before they are seen, this species is less common
The Close of Day – Sunsets for Africa
I don’t think I have seen sunsets anywhere in the world that can compete with those over the Chobe river – tell me if you agree!