Third Time Lucky?
We had participated in two of these special weekend birding events in previous years, based in Punda Maria camp, and had enjoyed the vibe of a group of keen birders and the unbeatable location of the event, taking in a large chunk of the northern part of Kruger Park. The scoring is probably not meant to be that important, but people and in particular keen birders are competitive animals and it certainly adds to the spirit of an event such as this.
So being the optimistic lot that we are and in anticipation of some special birding experiences, we once again put our names down for the event planned for November 2014.
George Skinner and I left Pretoria early and followed the familiar route to Punda Maria. George had arranged with well-known bird guide Samson Mulaudzi to meet him near the Entabeni Forest, which we duly did around 10.45 am and we proceeded into the forest area, hoping for a few specials. Both Lesser and Scaly-throated Honeyguides were easily located by call and the latter was seen flying and trying its best to stay out of sight in the canopy as it did a wide circle around us.
From there we drove close to the river to a spot where Half-collared Kingfisher was quickly located, then to the spot where Bat Hawk has been nesting for more than 10 years and we soon found it perched high in the tall trees, just off the gravel road. This was a lifer for me, thanks to Samson!
Satisfied with this short birding sortie, we carried on to Punda Maria gate an hour or so away, arriving at the camp at 2.20 pm, to be greeted by the West Rand Honorary Rangers (HR’s) team of William, Monika and Norma who all feel like old friends the third time around.
The Event Starts
Check-in and finding our comfortable bungalow did not take long and by 3pm we were back in the air-conditioned restaurant for the briefing led by Monika, who explained the HR’s role and wonderful sponsorship spread over a variety of efforts in many of the National Parks.
Then it was Joe Grosel’s turn to highlight the attractions, features and different habitats of this special part of the Kruger National Park, from Giant Rats to Racket-tailed Rollers, his passion for the area clearly showing.
Once done with the briefing, it was time for the first late afternoon drive and we had hardly left the gate when we were surrounded by a bird party gathered in and around a large tree – I could barely keep up listing the species on Birdlasser, my new bird atlasing App.
Destination PWNJ Lek
As in previous years, a highlight of this event is the visit to the Lek where the rare Pennant-winged Nightjar does its display flight at dusk – this was our destination once again and there was a swell of anticipation as the 40 – odd (the number not the birders, although some of them are pretty odd as well) birders sipped our Strettons G & T’s and waited for the action in the gathering dusk. Well, as Joe put it, it was like the Springbok’s loss to the Irish the previous weekend – disappointing – as the PWNJ’s kept their distance with just one doing a rapid fly past, but nevertheless tickable for my atlas list.
On the way back to the camp we came across a magnificent Giant Eagle-Owl, imperious on his perch in a large tree.
Dinner was a bring and braai and we headed to bed with thoughts of the treasure hunt and a long day’s birding the next day.
Up (very) early after a 3.30 am alarm, to be ready for the treasure hunt drive at 4.15 am. The treasure hunt entails deciphering cryptic clues into a list of 14 bird, animal and tree species, then finding and photographing each one before returning to the camp by the cut-off time of 12.30 pm, for adjudication by Joe Grosel.
Once every one was on the safari truck, we made our way to Pafuri area, not encountering much of interest until the light allowed us to see the surrounding bush a bit clearer, starting with Black-chested Snake-Eagle and followed by good numbers of birds. A brief diversion to Kloppenheim area added some water-reliant species such as Squacco Heron, Water Thick-Knee, Common Moorhen (unusual in the Kruger), Black Crake and Three-banded Plover.
Onwards to the Luvuvhu bridge at Pafuri for the usual feast of birding and back to the Pafuri area itself with a lengthy stop at Crook’s Corner, which provided a good boost to our growing list of bird species recorded. A feature of the day’s birding was the number of bird parties we encountered, some called up by Ranger/Driver Jobe who uses his skill at imitating the Pearl-spotted Owlet to draw the birds nearer. On a few occasions we had between 10 and 15 species in close proximity to the vehicle and had to work hard to keep up with ID-ing them all.
At the Pafuri picnic spot, Norma and her colleagues had prego rolls ready which went down a treat, while we continued to scan the area for as yet un-ticked species.
By then it was late morning and we had found most of the target species, so it was time to head back to camp to be in time for the cut-off – on the way we came across our final target species – Crested Francolin, which had amazingly eluded us till then. Our only slip-up was choosing the wrong Euphorbia species to photograph.
Some of the species we had to find and photograph :
After this intense species-hunting, it was time for a siesta until the next round of clues – this time covering targets in the camp itself, which turned into quite a challenge, but again we managed to get all of them photographed between 4 and 6 pm, almost coming short on the Passer Domesticus (House Sparrow) once again, but a last-minute rush to find a “proper” one saved the day.
A slightly dazed Pygmy Kingfisher which had flown into a restaurant window, drew some attention away from the goings on in the camp
All that remained was the dreaded Quiz which went a little better than previous years but once again some hasty decisions cost us valuable points, leaving us with only the atlasing session the next day to catch up to the leading teams.
Our atlasing session turned into a marathon, starting at just after 4 am and ending at 3 pm when we eventually returned to the camp. Each team was allocated a “good” pentad and a “poor” pentad to atlas, the good one being in a lush bushveld area and including a stretch of river while the poor pentad was in a dry area dominated by Mopane bush. What we were not told was that only the “poor” pentad total would count towards the scoring and so we focused our attention and time on the “good” pentad, leaving the “poor” pentad for later in the day when birds generally take cover from the heat.
At least we enjoyed some excellent early morning birding in the windless, overcast conditions and in prime bushveld, which included the new Nyala Wilderness Trail camp on a bend of the Luvuvhu river with views over the river and the koppies beyond. This was also the cue to enjoy coffee and rusks in this beautiful location.
After a short drive further we alighted from the vehicle again to take a walk along a stretch of the river, which produced a few species including a highly debated Wagtail which photos showed was a Pied Wagtail despite arguments to the contrary. Then an even shorter drive to a viewpoint over the river which we knew from previous visits to Punda Maria, with wonderful views over the river below.
We continued atlasing productively until we left the pentad after about 2.5 hours of recording and headed south towards the “poor” pentad some distance away, which we entered after 12.00 pm after some heavy debate about where we were in relation to the map provided by Sanparks. Inexperience at working with co-ordinates, which are essential for atlasing, meant there was a total misconception on the part of our driver as to where the pentad boundary was and we found ourselves a full pentad (about 8 km) out of position in a north-south direction.
After much lively discussion and some input on my part (as the only regular atlasser in our team), we did eventually find the pentad boundary, but the map versus co-ordinates debate continued unabated, also due to non-existent roads being shown on the map. The area we found ourselves in was single habitat – Mopane bush with no pans or any other water, so atlasing was slow and quite laborious in the heat of the day and we were relieved when we had completed the minimum 2 hours of atlasing and could head back to the camp. On the way back a Coqui Francolin surprised us as he crossed the road in front of our vehicle.
The Final Curtain
A last visit to the lek was spectacular, with the male Pennant-winged Nightjar performing majestically, floating back and forward just above tree height and settling on a rock for a minute or two.
As usual the Honorary Rangers and Sanparks put on a fine closing out dinner and prize-giving but unfortunately our team had fallen out of the running completely.
Nevertheless a great event that added to our appreciation of this part of Kruger, although three in a row is probably enough for the time being.