Tag Archives: Mountain Zebra

Mountains, Zebras and a Pipit on the Rocks!

Our road trip to the Eastern Cape in March this year included a 3 night stay in Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock, only our second stay in this “off the beaten track” National Park, but enough to cement it as one of our ‘new favourite’ parks to visit. What it lacks in Big Five game, other than some introduced lions which are not easily seen and a small herd of Cape Buffalo, it makes up with other animals not generally seen elsewhere including the Zebra after which the park is named and interesting antelope species.

On the birding front, the park is known for its drier habitat species and I was looking forward to doing some atlasing and adding to my year list without much expectation for anything unusual – but as all birders know – ‘always expect the unexpected’ and a bird that had eluded me for many a year was about to become the highlight of our visit ….

What also sets this park apart is the ambience – peaceful yet wild with panoramic views once you reach the plateau, which is at an altitude of about 1400 m, a couple of hundred metres above the main camp. The camp has around 25 comfortable chalets with patios which overlook the plains and distant hills, an ideal spot for some ‘stoepsitter’ birding.

We left Addo mid-morning, initially heading east towards Paterson and joining the N10 National Road heading northwards to Cradock, where we stopped at a coffee shop for a light lunch, then drove the last 12 km to the Mountain Zebra National Park gate. The main camp (pictured in the heading image) is another 12 km along a rather corrugated gravel road which thankfully changed to tarmac for the last stretch.

The reception was efficient and friendly and we soon found our chalet No 20 almost at the top of the gently sloping road that runs through the camp and got ourselves settled in.

After a brisk walk, the air was suddenly chilly with the sun setting behind the surrounding hills, so I donned a jacket and headed to the stoep for a bit of late afternoon birding. The stoep furniture did not match the rest of the chalet in terms of comfort – in fact I’ll go so far as to say the chairs are possibly the heaviest, most uncomfortable ones I have ever come across. However I didn’t let this small detail bother me and carried one of the living room cushioned chairs outside for that all important sundowner time.

Stoep chairs designed to keep you away from them !

The view made up in no uncertain terms for the furniture and with beverage in hand I scanned the surroundings, soon finding a few species typical of the more arid landscape

View from the stoep, Mountain Zebra NP
Red-headed Finch (Amadina erythrocephala / Rooikopvink) (male race erythrocephala), Mountain Zebra NP
White-browed Sparrow-Weaver (Plocepasser mahali / Koringvoël), Mountain Zebra NP

Next morning was very relaxed – being Sunday we were up late-ish and most of our morning was spent on the stoep. Apart from the species already shown, other prominent species were Familiar Chat, Red-eyed Bulbul, Red-winged Starling, Acacia Pied Barbet, Bokmakierie and several others.

Striped Mice crept cautiously out of the low bushes to grab a morsel in front of the stoep, scurrying back to safety at the slightest movement. Using very slow hand/camera movements I was able to get a few shots of these cute creatures. They are also known as four-striped mice based on the four characteristic black longitudinal stripes down their back.

Striped Mouse (Rhabdomys pumilio), Mountain Zebra NP

Another striped creature, this time a lizard, put in an appearance alongside the mice, each not taking much notice of the other, probably after small insects that wouldn’t necessarily be on the mice’s menu. With its distinctive stripes, I thought this would be an easy species to identify but the Reptile book I have groups lizards into a few main groups without providing photos of each regional one so I was only able to narrow it down to what I thought was a Mountain Lizard

Lizard – unsure of species but possibly a type of Mountain Lizard

After lunch we set off on a drive on the Rooiplaat Loop, the most popular circular drive and about 25 km out and back. Before ascending to the plateau we spent some time at the picnic spot near the main camp (also mentioned in my earlier post on the Honeythorn Tree) where a few birds were active, including a lone African Hoopoe – such a handsome bird and always a treat to see, even though they are quite common.

African Hoopoe (Upupa africana / Hoephoep), Mountain Zebra NP

A short way further on we came across a group of Vervet Monkeys including a mother and youngster who posed like pros in the lovely shaded light – I am always drawn to their eyes which look so bright and intelligent.

Vervet Monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus / Blouaap), Mountain Zebra NP
Vervet Monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus / Blouaap), Mountain Zebra NP

A short climb up the tar road took us to the plateau where the grassland stretched to the horizon, with pockets of game visible in the distance – the return leg took us closer to some of them so I used the opportunity to get some pleasing images, particularly of the Mountain Zebra foal with its parent.

The plateau, Mountain Zebra NP
Bontebok, Mountain Zebra NP
Springbok, Mountain Zebra NP
Mountan Zebra, Mountain Zebra NP
Mountan Zebra, Mountain Zebra NP

The birds were not plentiful but several of those we came across were species not regularly seen outside of this particular habitat – three species of Lark on the ground (Eastern Long-billed, Spike-heeled and Red-capped Larks), Scaly-feathered Finch and Neddicky in the few trees and a glimpse of Grey-winged Francolin just showing in the long grass.

This handsome Jackal Buzzard was no doubt on the lookout for prey –

Jackal Buzzard (Buteo rufofuscus / Rooiborsjakkalsvoël), Mountain Zebra NP

Larks are a favourite of mine – not the most striking of birds, in fact just the opposite, but that is their attraction and finding them in grassland habitat feels like a real accomplishment, often followed by some serious research to confirm the ID.

Eastern Long-billed Lark (Certhilauda semitorquata / Grasveldlangbeklewerik) (race algida), Mountain Zebra NP

We had completed the full circuit of Rooiplaats Loop and started descending the road which winds down from the plateau when I heard a call which caused me to brake sharply – it went like this

Gerda said “what is it, why did you stop so suddenly” – my reply, in an elevated state of excitement, was something like “oh boy, this is a bird I’ve been trying to find for a looooong time”

We were into perfect habitat for what I thought it was – rocky hillsides with large boulders – and after a quick scan I found it on one of the boulders – African Rock Pipit!

Rock Pipit habitat, Mountain Zebra NP

The Pipit. a lifer for me, was perched on the boulder and emitting its distinctive, repetitive call every few seconds and I was doubly pleased to be able to get a few decent photos of it in action

African Rock Pipit (Anthus crenatus / Klipkoester), Mountain Zebra NP
African Rock Pipit (Anthus crenatus / Klipkoester), Mountain Zebra NP

To celebrate we went to the park’s restaurant for dinner that evening and, unsure what to expect, were very pleasantly surprised to find brisk service, good food and friendly personnel to round off an outstanding day.

Four Parks and a wedding (Part 3) – Mountain Zebra

The Story so far…

Parts 1 and 2 covered our visits to De Hoop Nature Reserve and Camdeboo National Park. The latter was enjoyable from many points of view, not least having the small tented camp virtually to ourselves, but our overall impression was that it did not have the “feel” of a National Park, probably due its relatively small size and being in close proximity to the town of Graaff-Reinet. Our next destination – Mountain Zebra National Park, on the other hand, proved to be everything we look for in a major National Park and has the potential to become a major tourist attraction, especially when the current plans to extend it, and eventually have a protected area running from Camdeboo all the way to Mountain Zebra, come to fruition.

Getting there – Monday 28 April 2014

The park lies west of Cradock in the Eastern Cape and we reached the main gate off the R 61 road around 4.30pm, giving enough time for an unhurried drive of the remaining 12 kms to the main rest camp before the camp gates closed at 6 pm. On the way we had sightings of African Spoonbill, alone in a large pond, Familiar Chats and Ant-eating Chats at regular intervals and old “Fumanchu” aka Scaly-feathered Finch in small groups looking almost too small and cute to survive in an environment such as this. White-browed Sparrow-Weavers were chattering in small flocks not far from their scruffy looking nests, but a real surprise awaited as we found a Secretarybird perched in the top of a tree, perhaps on a nest.

White-browed Sparrow-Weavers are plentiful
White-browed Sparrow-Weavers are plentiful

 

Secretarybird perched in tree, Mountain Zebra NP
Secretarybird perched in tree, Mountain Zebra NP

We had only ever seen Secretarybirds on the ground, usually striding through long grass in search of a tasty lizard or snake (their scientific name sagittarius serpentarius hints at this dietary preference), so had never imagined them taking to a tree. My Roberts birding app mentions that they do indeed nest on top of thorny trees and pairs may roost on a prospective tree for several  months before using it to build a nest – so I suppose in this instance it was simply getting ready to roost for the night. And that answers a question that has no doubt troubled you for a long time….

The landscape we travelled through was quite different to any other National Park we knew and we looked forward to seeing more of it the next day

The chalets were a welcome sight with comfortable beds and all the necessary facilities for self-catering. A fireplace meant we could make a wood fire for the cold evenings and enjoy a glass of red wine in the small lounge.

The chalet
The chalet

 

The chalets have a small stoep with braai
The chalets have a small stoep with braai

Tuesday 29 April – exploring the Park

Up early-ish for a game drive on the Rooiplaat Loop, starting with a steep climb up to a plateau where the views stretched forever.

Looking down at the rest camp from the plateau
Looking down at the rest camp from the plateau

 

View across the grassland with Bontebok
View across the grassland with Bontebok

Heading up the hill
Heading up the hill

The grassy slopes were home to several  Sickle-winged Chats, flying between low bushes, wings flicking as they landed.

Sickle-winged Chat
Sickle-winged Chat

Blue Cranes seemed very much at home in the long wheat-coloured grass while overhead White-necked Ravens cruised the skies emitting their raucous cries.

Blue Cranes at home in the grass, Mountain Zebra NP
Blue Cranes at home in the grass, Mountain Zebra NP

Blue Crane, Mountain Zebra NP
Blue Crane, Mountain Zebra NP

Back at the rest camp, I added Streaky-headed Seedeater and Neddicky, both frequent visitors to the bush adjoining the camp roads, then a Chinspot Batis paid our chalet a visit and Pied Barbet called from a distant tree. Southern Double-collared Sunbirds kept busy as usual, twittering (the real kind, none were bent over cellphones) loudly and flashing their brightly coloured plumage in the midday sun.

The camp has a large swimming pool which the grandkids tried but the water was just too cold for their liking nevertheless the walk there was pleasant and a Rock Agama stood guard at the gate.

The pool in the rest camp
The pool in the rest camp

Rock Agama
Rock Agama

Later we took a short drive to the nearby picnic spots, set amongst big shady trees, the one with a formal swimming pool and the other with a rock pool fed from a mountain stream – both looked extremely inviting and perfect for a late morning brunch visit. Sadly time caught up with us and we didn’t get around to trying this out.

Leonardii Mosselbayi discovered at the picnic spot - clearly expanding their distribution to the Eastern Cape
Leonardii Mosselbayi discovered at the picnic spot – clearly expanding their distribution to the Eastern Cape

a Hoopoe in the late afternoon sunlight made a nice picture

African Hoopoe at the picnic site
African Hoopoe at the picnic site

On the way there a large flock of Pied Starlings made themselves known and at a large dam a lone Brown-hooded Kingfisher sat in the shade on a convenient branch, waiting for a meal opportunity to pass by – which despite its name would be a grasshopper or suchlike rather than something fishy.

Brown-headed Kingfisher
Brown-headed Kingfisher

On the way back a small herd of Buffalo caused a mild traffic-jam, one which is a lot easier to bear than the dreaded City kind.

African Buffalo traffic jam
African Buffalo traffic jam

African Buffalo, Mountain Zebra NP
Who, me? African Buffalo, Mountain Zebra NP

Back at our chalet a braai on the stoep made a nice end to the day, with the call of a Spotted Eagle-Owl in the distance adding to the atmosphere.

Wednesday 30th April – last day

The last day of our short stay, so an early morning birding and game drive was in order, this time taking the route along the Kranskop Loop, but part of the way along the road was under reconstruction and I had to turn around. Views across the park were even more magnificent than the previous day and I stopped several times to take them in. Sometimes I’m tempted just to bear such views to memory and not spoil the moment taking photos, but hey, I’ve got a blog to think about, so I “forced myself”  to take a few record shots.

Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park

Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park

Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park

 

Along the stretch that I was able to access, and despite a few construction lorries passing in both directions, birding was good and game plentiful, with some lovely sights of Kudu, Mountain Zebra, Springbok and Red Hartebeest.

Look at my horns! Kudu
Look at my horns!
Kudu

Kudu, Mountain Zebra NP
Kudu, Mountain Zebra NP

Mountain Zebra, in the Park created for them
Mountain Zebra, in the Park created for them

Mountain Zebra foal (aaaaaaaah)
Mountain Zebra foal (aaaaaaaah)

Springbok, Mountain Zebra NP
Springbok, Mountain Zebra NP

Red Hartebeest, Mountain Zebra NP
Red Hartebeest, Mountain Zebra NP

Bontebok
Bontebok

Special birds in the grasslands, such as Eastern Long-billed Lark and Plain-backed Pipit made the birding exciting, with a sighting of a Verraux’s Eagle on a mountain-top radio mast a bonus. White-backed Mousebirds made up a “full house” of all the mousebirds (adding to the Speckled and Red-faced Mousebirds already ticked earlier in our visit).

White-backed Mousebird
White-backed Mousebird

After lunch we covered the open plains along the Ubejane Loop not far from the main gate, stopping at the pans and dams along the route. There we found Spoonbill again, patrolling the shallows with its typical stooped posture, constantly sweeping the water with its unique spatula shaped bill to pick up small organisms. Nearby SA Shelducks showed off their handsome plumage, while Black-winged Stilts busied themselves prodding the mud along the shallow edges.

Vlei, Mountain Zebra NP
Vlei, Mountain Zebra NP

Nearby a family of Ground Squirrels entertained us as they pranced around close to our vehicle, waving their long bushy tails every now and then – do they know how cute they are I wonder? Crowned Lapwings found the short grass to their liking as well.

Ground Squirrel (Xerus inauris), Mountain Zebra NP
Ground Squirrel (Xerus inauris), Mountain Zebra NP

Ground Squirrel
Ground Squirrel

Crowned Lapwing, Mountain Zebra NP
Crowned Lapwing, Mountain Zebra NP

This part of the park also held a number of Gemsbok which reminded us just how handsome these antelope are with their long straight horns. A couple of them were in a frisky mood, chasing each other around.

Gemsbok, Mountain Zebra NP
Gemsbok, Mountain Zebra NP

Gemsbok
Gemsbok

On the way back a pair of Pale-chanting Goshawks drew our attention as they defended their territory vigorously against a lone Pied Crow invader and soon saw him off.

What a nice Park!

The Mountain Zebra National Park has a lot going for it, not least the magnificent scenery and sweeping views across the valleys and plains that give it a real “Out of Africa” feel. It probably won’t satisfy the “Big five at all costs” visitors but will provide enough interesting sightings to keep the nature enthusiast happy during a 3 or 4 day stay – longer if you just want to relax in the pleasant surroundings.

Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park

Mountain stream
Mountain stream

The rock formations are a feature of some parts of the park
The rock formations are a feature of some parts of the park

I swear this meeting is like a bunch of monkeys
I swear this meeting is like a bunch of monkeys

Next stop Addo Elephant National Park!