By Chris Wormwell
NOTE: Before you start to read this report, be warned that it contains some bad language and that all observation/opinions expressed are my own (I’m sure the rest of the crew remember some things differently, but this is the definitive version!).
So, after Keren's and my extremely enjoyable visit to South Africa at the same time of year in 2005, it was apparent that my birding mates (Dave Owen, Jonathan Lowes and Ray Banks) decided that the only way to stop us "rattling on" about it was to come with us for a repeat performance. This would be the first time Keren and I have ever returned to one of our destinations and to say we were wary of spoiling our memory of the first visit would have been putting it mildly.
Anyway, we decided on more or less the same schedule as last time, but also added a 3rd week by extending the time spent in Kruger National Park (KNP), a couple of extra days at the Cape and tagging-on 3 final days over at Knysna which was going to be somewhere new for us.
We left Manchester on Sunday 18th October at some ungodly hour in the morning and finally arrived at Johannesburg that same evening after a brief lay-over at Amsterdam. A representative of Africa Centre Hotel met us at the airport, which is where we would spend the night before flying up to Hoedspruit Airport on the edge of KNP the following morning.
Birding in the Africa Centre grounds
Anyway, after being stuck on a plane for several billion hours, it was nice to get showered, changed and head down to the bar for a few beers before retiring for the night. The talk was all about what we would see during the drive from Hoedspruit to our first camp, Mopani. The guys seemed to have forgotten that they were already in Africa and the following morning's birding just around the grounds of our current hotel would keep them busy enough!
The following morning found us birding around the gardens of the hotel just as it got light enough to ID birds visually - having already nailed Hadeda Ibis in the pitch dark (a tricky one that!). Slowly, species-by-species, the birds started to appear before us: Common Mynah, Speckled Mousebird, Cape Robin-chat, Dark-capped Bulbul, Cape Sparrow, assorted doves and pigeons (including my particular favourite, African Olive (Rameron) Pigeon) all had the boys ticking like maniacs whilst I stood back and enjoyed the spectacle of them running from one corner of the garden to the other as each of them called out another new bird's name.
As casual as I'm making my approach sound, there were new birds for me too - Karoo Thrush for one (which actually spent a couple of hours on the list as an Olive Thrush!) and Horus Swift for another.
Anyway, after a manic hour or so, we had to leave to catch our flight up to Hoedspruit where we would collect the two hire cars we had booked for the duration of our stay in KNP. A couple of hours later and we had arrived at Hoedspruit and signed all the necessary paperwork which allowed Jon and I to do the driving of the two vehicles - one (Jon's) was a Toyota Corolla Verso and the other (mine) was a Hyundai Tucson. Both vehicles were roomy and, on the whole, comfortable and did exactly what we needed to them to do. That said, the Hyundai had leather seats that were dreadful to sit on once the day warmed up and the less I say about the gearbox the better.
To facilitate communication between the cars, Keren and I had bought a couple of cheap walkie-talkies which proved to be invaluable (even if their claimed range of 3km was a bit on the ambitious side).
One thing I had tried to make clear to the boys was that we had a bit of a long journey to get up to the entrance of KNP at Phalaborwa Gate and thence on to Mopani and I made them promise not to keep stopping for every bird unless I, being the lead vehicle, stopped first.
We assembled our cameras, turned on the walkie-talkies and headed out of the airport gate. Almost immediately I heard a **crackle/buzz** from my walkie-talkie followed by **buzz Giraffe crackle on the crackle/buzz left**.
"Bollocks", I said to myself "I didn't think they'd see that"...So, we've not gone 20 feet from the airport gate and we're already stopped! Then a Yellow-billed Kite circled over which grabbed the boy's attention for a further few minutes..."Christ, we're never going to get there" sprang into my mouth but I managed to hold onto it. This would be one of those rare occasions when I had a thought and didn't express it!
Eventually we managed to get the show on the road and made good time to the entrance of the park. This was when the delays to the journey would really start and, no sooner had Keren gone into the reception office to book us in, than our cars emptied themselves of 3 tick-crazy birders in full headless chicken mode (and me) :
Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Groundscraper and Kurrichane Thrushes, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Rattling Cisticola and, one for me, Cut-throat Finch along with a very forgettable Bronze Manakin and some Yellow-fronted Canaries.
Now, something a bit weird has happened at this point as I distinctly remember photographing all these birds, but I can only find the shots of the two thrushes. Sodding technology (user error more likely)!!
Once Keren had completed the formalities, we had a little over 4 hours to get up to Mopani, so I relented in my draconian “no stopping” stance and let the boys take the lead in their car, thus allowing them to stop for any birds they thought “stop-worthy”. Mistake.
Still, in their defence, we did manage to amass a pretty good list of birds and mammals before arriving at Mopani – Including: 3x hornbill sp., 3x eagle sp., assorted larks, weavers, sunbirds, spurfowl/francolins, plovers (including another favourite, Blacksmith) etc etc and
the highlight for me – 2 adult Spotted Hyenas with their playful pup.
I think the trip list was on something like 101 species by the time we arrived at Mopani and hit the sack in an attempt to get plenty of rest for our first full day in KNP.
Entrance to Mopani Camp
Tuesday 20th. October 2009
So, rather than go dashing out into the park, we agreed that it would be a good idea to have a look round the camp and see what we could get on the reservoir-side trail below the restaurant deck.
Initially, the more obvious species were the hornbills and starlings but a fabulous Giant Kingfisher catching and eating a crab in the shallows of the reservoir was great entertainment. To be honest, I can remember very little of the rest of the walk alongside the boundary fence, but one thing does stand out and it came courtesy of another kingfisher of an altogether different size. Whilst picking our way through the long grass that crossed the path, a movement caught my eye in a fairly dense stand of mopani trees off to the right, . Expecting it to be just another starling or perhaps a Paradise Flycatcher, I looked through my binoculars and immediately located a tiny kingfisher that I was temporarily stuck to put a name to, so I just called the boys over with a pathetic, shout of “small kingfisher with a rufous face”. Their derision was all too obvious and all 3 of them replied in unison “Do you mean African Pygmy Kingfisher?” Anyways, I think they realised from my reply (not printable) that I was serious and this was a good bird for them (it was a lifer for me also). The bird performed beautifully for the next 20 minutes or so but I never really got close-enough to get great photos - unlike some people who were more than happy to go traipsing off into the scrub to get them...
The path eventually wound its way back into the environs of the camp and we slowly walked our way back to our hut, picking-up various species such as Chinspot Batis, Long-billed Crombec, Black-backed Puffback, Fork-tailed Drongo, Natal Francolin, Wattled Starling, Red-headed Weaver etc etc.
We eventually got into the cars and headed out into the park at around 08:00 and headed for Shingwedze camp using a circuitous route along the S50.
From this point, I’m just going to relay a few thoughts and impressions and try to convey a feel for birding in the southern section of the top-half of KNP.
The area of Mopani is about 2 two thirds of the way up the park and, at this time of year, very dry. The landscape can look like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust – dust devils swirl about between the bare Mopani trees (shrubs is a better word as they’re seldom more than a 10 feet high) and following another car on the ‘sand roads’ is a bloody nightmare. It’s so dusty that you have to leave a good 100yards between cars or it’s just like driving in a thick pea-souper back home.
Dust from the lead vehicle
Most of the birdlife is to be found on the ground as there is very little cover in the dead-looking Mopani trees. Just occasionally we came across a small feeding party of finches and weavers and we spent a lot of time working through these mixed flocks looking for new species for the list. Usually these flocks contained waxbills, firefinches (all 3 species) and Red-billed Quelia. Crowned Plover (Lapwing) were common as were Crested Francolin and Swainson’s Spurfowl. Those birds that did venture into the ‘trees’ were invariably Magpie Shrikes, Purple & Lilac-breasted Rollers and, scrabbling around beneath them, White-browed & Bearded Scrub-robins. The more secretive bush shrikes (Orange-breasted and Grey-headed) let their presence be known with their plaintive calls. Occasionally a tchagra would reveal itself as it dived for cover – these were usually of the Brown-headed persuasion.
Often, in the distance, a large raptor could be seen perched atop one of the very few larger trees and it was these birds that caused me some consternation – mainly because the guys in the other vehicle insisted on stopping to ‘suss-out’ each and every shitty brown eagle. Granted, they did occasionally turn up something a little different – a Brown Hawk-eagle here and a Martial Eagle there, but the vast majority of these perched brown blobs were Tawny or Steppe Eagles. The most obvious raptors were the Bateleurs – I reckoned at least 70% of the airborne birds of prey eventually turned out to be these.
One advantage of the leafless mopani bushes was that game viewing was a lot easier – Impala, Kudu, Nyala, Giraffe and of course Elephant were all easily spotted. Occasionally a Steenbok would step nervously away from the side of the road.
So, going back to our first drive in the park…eventually the habitat became greener as we approached the river basin around Shingwedzi and we started to see species that weren’t just scrabbling-around on the deck. Broad-billed Rollers, Marico, Collared and White-bellied Sunbirds, and doves. Lots of doves. Mostly Red-eyed and Mourning Doves, but there were a hell of a lot of Emerald-spotted Doves. As the trees started to get bigger, we started to pick up the occasional woodpeckers – these were all Golden-tailed and proved very difficult to get photos of as they, without fail, went up into the canopy making the shooting angle from the car something that could only be achieved by a contortionist. None of us are contortionists!
We stopped for lunch at Shingwedze camp and enjoyed watching the Greater-Blue-eared Starlings drinking from the bird bath and trying to steal crumbs from the side of our plates. The birdbath also attracted Red and Yellow-billed Hornbills, Grey Hornbills, Crested Barbets, the ever-present Dark-eyed Bulbuls and the always comical Grey Go-away Birds. Overhead Yellow-billed Kites lurked on lazy wing-beats and a couple of Martial Eagles were seen briefly in the distance.
Either I had too much caffeine (in the Coke) or, more likely, the Malarone (malaria meds) upset my Irritable Bowel Syndrome. So for the next few days the best I could manage was to drive or walk very short distances as, when I was stood upright, the most excruciating stomach cramps would double me over.
As a result this report will just have to concentrate on some of the highlights ‘cos my memory of the sequence of events is a little hazy and I’ll just have to try and list a few things that happened in a very vague order.
Birding from the deck of our bungalow in Mopani
My first memory is of driving north, perhaps on the day we moved up to Punda Maria (22nd October). We were on the main arterial road through the top end, my car was leading with Keren next to me and Dave sat behind her when Jon stopped his car – presumably to grill another shitty brown raptor or look at some more quelias, he never actually said. Anyway I’d gone no more than 50 yards when the walkie-talkie buzzed into life **bzzz/crackle fish-eagle bzzz/fart pix bzz/prp**. I assumed this meant he had seen a Fish Eagle close enough for photography, so I swung my car round and pulled up in front of Jon’s car nose-to-nose. I located the bird Jon was looking at and, yes, it was close enough for photography. As I leaned over to take my camera from Keren, a movement off to the right and behind Jon’s car caught my eye. I don’t know what planet I was on (I blame the illness), but I just started shouting “LION, LION, LION” and pointing in the animal’s general direction. I completely forgot about the walkie-talkie sat on the dashboard in front of me. Fortunately the windows of both cars were open and Ray deciphered the noise and excited gestures coming from our car and looked over his shoulder. It was at this point that I realised I’d made a bit of a blunder. Why was this single lion covered in spots and very “leggy”? Clearly Dave and everyone else realised at the same time and, before I had chance to correct my initial call, he subtly pointed out that “it’s a cheetah, you dick!” Obviously it was a cheetah; I have no idea why I said lion. Anyway, after some clever maneuvering, I got my car beyond Jon’s and managed to fire off a couple of shots as this fabulous animal headed off into the mopani scrub on the opposite side of the road. Unfortunately I was shooting into the sun and the photos don’t do it justice.
Shit Cheetah pic
Next up, I remember being well pissed-off by not being able to walk round the grounds of Punda Maria camp with the team and missing out on seeing a Purple-crested Turaco. I discovered this, when Keren came back to tell me where it was and I managed the 50 yard walk to the area by reception where they had seen it. Unfortunately the bird had long-since buggered off by the time I got there.
Now, at this point I distinctly remember looking at Dave’s godawful photos of the turaco on his camera (Keren’s are no better) when Ray, in the most relaxed manner imaginable said, “Hey Chris, isn’t this a Nicator working it’s way through these trees?” Over the previous few days I had taken any number of medications trying to relieve my ‘discomfort’ but nothing was working. But now Ray had cured me instantly with those few words. Eastern (Yellow-spotted) Nicator was one I really wanted to see and there one was right in front of me. My 10Kg camera set-up felt as light as a lollipop as I blasted away at the bird. Granted, the resulting shots aren’t anything special but, boy, I felt good for those 20 minutes the bird was on show. All too soon the nicator did a disappearing act (they’re renowned for it) and the stomach cramps returned. Psychosomatic?
Cottage at Punda
No visit to the top-end of KNP would be complete without a visit to Pafuri and Crook’s Corner. This area of riverine forest is alive with birds not found anywhere else in the park and, if you’re going to see a rarity this is probably where it will be.
That said and in all honesty, nothing special stands out in my memory from this particular visit. Don’t get me wrong, we added several new birds to the trip list (taking us to 200 after only 3 days); Bearded Woodpecker, Lesser Honeyguide, Tropical Boubou, Little Bee-eater and Meve’s Starling being particular highlights. Anyway we arrived at the picnic site and birded the area for a while which gave me the opportunity to meet “the Famous Frank Mabaso” (local birding expert based at the picnic site) and we arranged to meet up with him later. So, instead of just hanging around waiting for Frank to finish his duties we decided to take the Fever Tree Forest route to Crook’s Corner and do a bit of birding along the way, where we also added Lizard Buzzard, Spur-winged Goose, Tambourine Dove and White-crowned Lapwing.
Returning to Pafuri, Frank was waiting for us with negative news on one of our target species – Pel’s Fish Owl. Apparently he hadn’t heard them for a couple of months but he did promise us another speciality of the area – Black-throated Wattle-eye. Fortunately Frank knows where the birds are nesting and after a few minutes of neck-straining, (staring up into a tree), he manage to locate a pair of birds for us. I seriously doubt we would have located them ourselves. Fortunately, after a further few minutes, one of the birds dropped down into some nearby scrub allowing good, if distant, views – I even managed a poor record shot.
If you’re ever in the area, you really must seek-out Frank, he’s a great guy and a top-class birder – no-one knows the area better than him.
Birding with Frank at Pafuri
As I was still not fit for anything approaching strenuous walking I had to forego the guided Bush-walk we had booked but, being the magnanimous individual I am, I insisted the rest of the team carried on without me. All I could hope for was that they didn’t see anything good!
Fortunately, I was fit enough to do a circuit of the Mahonie Loop in the car on my own, which meant I could go at my own pace and stop when I wanted/needed (cramps allowing). So, on the morning of 24th. the guys (and gal) abandoned me at 04:45 for their bush walk – but not before they made so much noise, I had no chance of going back to sleep! There was nothing for it but to do Mahonie Loop as soon as the camp gates opened at 05:30.
The Mahonie Loop is a ‘sand’ road that encircles the camp for a distance of appx. 25km and is probably one of the best birding drives in KNP. And I was going to have it to myself. Nice. The birdlife this morning was extraordinary, I got not one, but two Purple-crested Turacos, White-crowned Helmet Shrike, Crowned Hornbill, Golden-breasted Bunting, Striped Kingfisher, Hamerkop, Saddle-billed Stork, a fabulous African Hawk-eagle (that sat obligingly in a roadside tree allowing for some fairly pleasing photographs to be taken), Black-headed Oriole, African Green Pigeon, Brown-headed Parrot and a host of other species that regulars to the area no doubt take with a pinch of salt.
As an extra bonus, when the crew returned, although they had seen lots of good stuff they didn’t see the Pel’s Fish Owl that had been suggested to them as a possibility whilst on the walk. Christ, I don’t think I could have coped with them seeing one of those! Oh, and they also came back with the best bit of news I’ve had for many a year. Read on...
Baobab Tree on Mahonie Loop
The next highlight was the evening game-drive. There was only one reason for us booking this particular activity - Pennant-winged Nightjar. In my opinion the best bird on the planet - I adore nightjars. For the previous few weeks I had been waiting anxiously for news that they had returned to the area but, as the time for the drive drew nearer, all the news was depressingly negative. “No sign yet”/“it’s usually later in October” were the discouraging comments I was hearing.
Going back to the team’s morning bush-walk and their aforementioned good news, they had been told by their guide that he had seen a “P-w N” the previous evening, so we "might get one on the evening drive". Now that’s what I call timing!
So, there we were, 9 of us outside reception (2 other Brit birders and a couple of errr… “other gents” – more of these two later) waiting to be taken out into the park in one of those canvas-top 4x4s. During the previous months I had been in touch with one of the guides from Punda called Su-Mari and hoped she would be our guide for the evening as she knew exactly what it was we wanted to see. She had also seen a couple of Bronze-winged Courser recently and these were something, I'd suggested, would not be unpleasant to get. Imagine my absolute delight when the vision of loveliness that presented herself as our guide for the evening was none other than Su-Mari who had just returned to work after a period of off-duty. More excellent timing. We couldn’t fail could we? Everything was falling into place.
We all took our positions in the vehicle (I grabbed prime spot directly behind the driver/guide and we entered the park to the south-west of the camp. Su-Mari did her best to keep us entertained with information about the habitat and flora we were amongst but, to be honest, the Brit birders onboard were single-minded in what they were interested in and just wanted to get to the site where we hoped to locate our quarry.
Eventually we pulled off the Mahonie Loop onto a narrow, “No Public Access” track and started to climb into a rocky area with scattered trees and shrubs (I have no idea what kind of scattered trees and shrubs – I suppose I should have been paying more attention!) just as the sun was starting to drop below the hills.
Su-Mari eventually got to where she wanted to be, turned the truck around and suggested we get out, stretch our legs and enjoy the bush at sunset with all the sites, sounds and scents it produces. It was a magical time of day – unless you have experienced it it’s very difficult to describe, but your senses seem to increase 10-fold and, coupled with the anticipation of seeing any nightjars, let alone Pennant-winged, well you’ll just have to imagine how I was feeling. After about 20 minutes, I reckoned the time/light was about right to really start to listen out for P-wN. We had already heard a Square-tailed Nightjar churring in the distance and had a couple of brief glimpses but Pennant-wings are a different kettle of fish altogether. They don’t churr. In fact, their “song” is very quiet and reminiscent of a cricket (?). So, there I was hands cupped to my ears, all my senses going at Warp9 and very aware of everything that was going on around me – a rustling leaf, a wing beats, the distant 'cough' of a Bush-buck, the breeze through the grass, the clink of a camera strap were all coming through loud and clear. Behind me the rest of the passengers were no doubt in a similar state of awareness and silence.
Well, most of the other passengers. You remember I mentioned the other two “gents”? Well, it appeared that they were a ‘couple’. Now, I’m not homophobic (I couldn’t care less what they do to each other) but I will not tolerate idiocy. The older of these two men was a right royal pain in the arse (Freudian slip, sorry). He walked to and fro crunching the leaves and gravel beneath his feet, went back and forth from the truck where he opened and closed the doors what seemed like a dozen times and continually whispered in his “partner’s” ear (I’d rather not think about what he was saying). What chance did I have of hearing a singing Pennant-winged Nightjar? I did my utmost to hide my boiling anger but, according to the rest of the crew, they could tell from my body language that all was not well and they expected some kind of reaction from me. I resisted though. I’m so proud of myself!
Eventually after about 40 minutes of the Gay Parade going on nearby and to my eternal gratitude, Su-Mari picked-out what she thought was a Pennant-wing singing in the distance, in the bottom of the valley. I thought I could hear it but wasn’t sure (I never would have picked it out myself).
“Mount up” came the command and we coasted down the slope in the truck. As we dropped down in to the valley, the song of the bird started to become more obvious and my excitement had me ready to go over the edge. Let’s not forget, nightjars are designed to be camouflaged and can be extremely difficult to locate when in song, so this was going to be a real challenge.
“There he is, on the road” called Su-Mari and, indeed, there he was. Just sat there in the middle of the dusty track, singing away. I couldn’t believe it. I asked Su-Mari for permission to swear and when I got the approval I just burst out with “FUCK ME”…Dave tried to convince the other passengers that I was suffering from Tourette’s syndrome! To be honest, the bird just looked like any other nightjar, but with the most ridiculously long white pennants laid out on the ground behind him. Bizarre. Utterly bizarre. Keren managed to take a very poor record shot before he took to the air. You know those Chinese kites with the streamers hanging off them? Well that’s what he reminded me of. I cannot begin to describe this bird in flight it is so utterly breathtaking. I’m sorry, but you’re just going to have to experience it to understand how I felt at this moment.
I’m not given to girlie shows of emotion, but I could have cried. It was so beautiful. Anyway, he flew around in front of us for about 5 minutes whilst Keren and Jon did sterling work keeping him in their spotlight. Su-Mari, I cannot thank you enough (despite your failure to get me Bronze-winged Courser!).
Eventually the bird disappeared into the scrub off to our left and we continued with the drive around Mahonie Loop. There were other nightjars too. I think Dave counted over a dozen Square-tailed - one of which flew up from the side of the road and smacked me on the shoulder before alighting in a bush. This prompted the following exchange “He’ll never wash that arm again” followed by “no change there then!”. We also got great views of 4 Fiery-necked Nightjars, an African Scop’s Owl, a White-faced Scop’s Owl and a Spotted Eagle Owl. Oh, we also saw several Sharp’s Grysbok and a Meller’s Mongoose.
What a night. I’ll never forget it.
Footnote: On a subsequent evening drive, Su-Mari got these shots which will give you some idea of what we saw.
So that was Punda Maria done and dusted. The next day we had a long drive before us as we headed down south to Letaba camp which would provide us with an overnight stay before continuing to the bottom-end and Lower Sabie camp.
Leaving Punda Maria camp at dawn
But the top-end hadn’t quite finished with us yet, thank you very much.
As we approached Babalala picnic site, my walkie-talkie buzzed into life **bzz/fart we’ve got a zzzt of lions on the left ppht** I immediately got onto a couple of lionesses walking alongside the road and pulled-up to watch, photograph and enjoy the spectacle. It’s not often in KNP that you get to have a pride of lions to yourself as they invariably attract a lot of attention. But we were in the far north and none of the “animal-brigade” tend to venture up that way – it’s just for the birds/birders! So, there we were crawling down the road and surrounded by lions and with our car windows well and truly closed shut.
One of the females decided to place herself between my car and Jon’s and walk down the road in the same direction. Fortunately for Jon, there was nothing in front of his car and he was able to go further down the road where they had a seen a couple of males disappear into the roadside scrub. I was going nowhere fast, my pace being dictated by the lioness walking in front of my bonnet. Keren and I were a bit disappointed not to have seen the males because by the time we could get past the lioness, they had gone out of view. Still, it would be churlish to complain. It’s only when you’re actually alongside a lion not 6 feet away that you begin to appreciate the size and majesty (to use a well-worn cliché) of these animals. Wonderful.
Eventually we pulled into Babalala picnic area for a cool drink and to do a spot of birding. That said, I can’t remember anything in particular that we saw there other than the usual hornbills, Arrow-marked Babblers and firefinches, but the hornbills are always great entertainment and full of character. In fact, so many of the birds have the ability to make you smile and even laugh – the aforementioned hornbills and babblers, Natal Francolins, ridiculously tame weavers, Grey-Go-away Birds and, my particular favourite comedians, Crested Barbets.
Babalala picnic site
The rest of the journey was long, slow and tedious. In the heat of the day, both Jon and I could feel ourselves getting very sleepy behind the wheel but, fortunately, at a point just north of Letaba, 5 distant grey lumps off to my right caught my eye. I’m sure my walkie-talkie was working perfectly at this point as when I called the guys with “Rhino, Rhino, Rhino” the 200yd gap between our cars closed very quickly indeed. Unfortunately the animals were quite distant but they were just what Jon and I needed to give us a wake-up call. After “filling our boots” with these magnificent animals, I pulled off and continued to head towards Letaba where a cold drink and a rest beckoned.
I swear we hadn’t been going more than 5 minutes when **bzz/fart Kori Kori bzzz Kori** came over the radio (I can’t be arsed to keep calling them walkie-talkies).
And why do we have to say everything 3 times?
Anyway, I turned round and headed back up to where Jon was parked. There was no need to ask where they were looking as the two zoom lenses poking out of their car’s windows gave me a hint. Also the fact that Kori Bustard is the World’s heaviest flying bird made spotting it less than difficult!! I think ‘stately’ is a good word to describe how these birds appear as they strut around the long grass. This particular bird was a real swine though in that he never once turned enough to give me a full profile shot. Dohhh.
So Letaba for a drink and a rest then.
A further couple of Kms down the road and it was Dave’s dulcet tones that piped over the radio **bzzz Chris, Chris, Chris, we’ve pphht got a Secretary Bird bzz**. I’m not sure he’s got the hang of this, but at least he said my name 3 times!
Another u-turn ensued (how was I missing all these bloody birds?) and the same procedure was followed – look at the lenses, and the fact that their car was leaning over to it’s left (they’re all big lads!) and “Robert is your father’s brother” (Bob’s your uncle). So, if Kori Bustard is stately, then Secretary Bird is well, hmmm…leggy? I can’t think of a suitable adjective. Not elegant, that’s for sure.
Again this bird was strolling around the long grass in the manner of a Kori but was altogether more obliging in presenting its profile to me. A smart bird and one that I know the lads were very pleased with.
So, Letaba for a drink and a rest then.
Nothing in particular stands out in my mind about the rest of this day. But I do know that, after we arrived, we went out again at some stage and to Englehard Dam - also that I had to return to the camp for a lie down leaving the rest of the crew and my caring wife to continue birding. So much for mopping my fevered brow!
26/10/09 - The journey south – stage 2
Another long and tedious drive with nothing spectacular to write about. However a couple of Kms north of Satara camp, I informed the guys that they should be looking out for Burchell’s Starling as this was a good area for them. I don’t think I’d even put the radio down when one appeared at the side of the road!
So, Satara for a drink and refuel then?
I pulled into the car park and waited for the guys to catch up – I assume they’d stopped to look at some shitty brown eagle or a flock of quelias perhaps? At this particular moment in time I was experiencing a very bad bout of stomach cramps so, when they did finally arrive, I told them we’d follow them to the shop shortly. They piled out of their car and headed off in the search of cold drinks but Keren, being the wonderful wife she is, stayed with me to mop my fevered brow. Right up until the moment she spotted a small group of people pointing their cameras into a tree in the car park! “I wonder what they’re looking at” she asked and duly trotted off to investigate. D’you know what? It sometimes pays to have a nosy wife.
A brief exchange of words with these people and she was waving me over to look at a delightful little African Scops Owl roosting just above the road! So, dilemma, do we go looking for the boys or do we fill our boots and then go find them? No contest. This bird was going nowhere; they’d see it eventually.
Of course, there were now 6 of us looking at this little bird and any gathering in Kruger always attracts attention. A car pulled up and this little-old-dear got out to look at the bird. After a couple of minutes she started to walk even closer to the sleeping critter and I stopped her and asked what she was doing “I’m going to wake it up so I can see his eyes” came the response. “No, you’re not. Step back and leave it alone you silly old bat” was my response (you wouldn’t think I work in customer services would you?). The guys returned armed with cold drinks and were very complimentary of what they thought was my “great find”. I suppose I could’ve claimed it, but I had to own up and admit that it was only because Keren is so nosy that we got to see it!
So, onward to Lower Sabie.
The rest of the journey south was uneventful – Keren was driving at this stage (she had taken over my driving duties because I wasn’t well again). Eventually we crossed the Lebombo Mountains and started to drop down to the Sabie River plains. I remember going past a ‘tour bus’, the occupants of which were staring into some dense undergrowth, but we couldn’t see exactly where they were looking so drove on. A little further down the road we stopped to look at a Burchell’s Coucal and the ‘tour bus’ caught up with us to tell us they had been watching a ‘fight’ between an elephant and 2 lionesses!! Dammit. Fortunately they also told us that they had heard of a Cheetah sighting about 5km further on, so we headed straight for the area. We could see the cars gathered from about 1km away – appx. 10 of them.
Being the patient sorts we are, we just pulled up at the back of them and waited for their number to dwindle which would allow us the opportunity to see the animals more clearly (we could see where they were but we our view was obscured by dense, roadside vegetation). After a few minutes, 2 or 3 cars pulled away and Jon and Keren spotted their opportunity and dived into the vacant spaces. Again, the view was slightly obscured but, following instructions from me (“forward 6 inches, back a couple of inches, STOP”), Keren managed to maneuver the car to a point where I had a small window in the bush to shoot through and I got some great shots.
After about 15 minutes, we pulled off to allow some other vehicles the chance to view the animals and we carried on to Lower Sabie. We stopped on the causeway just east of the camp but added nothing new to the list – just the usual Giant Kingfisher, Wire-tailed Swallow, Reed Cormorant, 3-banded Plover etc etc.
Looking towards the causeway from Lower Sabie
Once settled in to our accommodation (Keren and I were in a Safari Tent overlooking the river) the guys and Keren went for a wander around the grounds and picked-up a Spectacled Weaver for the list whilst I went for a lie-down. This stomach trouble was beginning to be a real nuisance as Spectacled Weaver would’ve been a lifer for me. Whilst they were still wandering round the camp, I started to feel a little brighter and sat on the balcony of our tent and scanned the river and surrounding bush. There was a lot of bird activity in a nearby fruiting tree, Green Pigeons, assorted weavers and barbets, Speckled Mousebirds, Brown-headed Parrots, Southern Boubous and Yellow-fronted Canaries. In the reeds at the edge of the river, I located a Great Reed Warbler and on the banks of the river itself the usual Egyptian Geese (yuck), White-faced Ducks, Jacanas, Black-winged Stilts, Wood Sandpipers and a single Marsh Sandpiper was new for the list Now at 225 species.
During the build-up to the trip we had discovered that there is a picnic site at Nkuhlu that sells pastys filled with buffalo steak and, given that we’re northerners with a taste for pies, Keren had earmarked the site for a visit to sample their wares. So, with Keren again driving our car, we headed straight to the Nkuhlu before they sold out!
On arrival at the picnic site, I was feeling a little better again and just had to try one of the ‘world famous’ pies – it would be the first thing I had eaten for 3 days.
Chris eating a Buff Pasty
We got our pastys, got ourselves a picnic table overlooking the river and started to eat and bird at the same time. The usual tame picnic site birds were in evidence – Yellow-billed Hornbills, Lesser Masked Weavers, Cape and Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starlings. In the trees which hang over the river, there were; Boubous, Collared, Marico and White-bellied Sunbirds, both species of Camaroptera and a fabulous Grey-headed Bush-shrike gave much better views than the one we had seen one previously. On the sandbanks of the river there were 3-banded, Crowned, White-crowned and Blacksmith Plovers but no sign of the supposedly ‘regular’ African Finfoot.
Feeling suitably re-fuelled (I couldn’t eat all mine but, with this crowd, nothing goes to waste), we decided to take the S30 loop road back towards N’Wagovila Hill view site. En route, we arrived at a bridge over the Sabie river crossing. Keren was following Jon at this point and, when he stopped to photograph something (I can’t remember what, it can’t have been significant), I asked her to pull past him and stop in the middle of the bridge so I could scan the dried river bed. There were a couple of cars and a tour-bus already parked on the bridge but they didn’t appear to be looking at anything in particular (occupants staring both left and right).
I started to scan the riverbed, but didn’t pick up on anything in the immediate vicinity so started to scan further upstream (downstream?). There was a strip of reeds running down the centre of the riverbed and as it started to thin out at it’s furthermost point (some 400 yds away), I thought I caught a glimpse of something moving. Obviously, even over this range, it wasn’t a bird. I stared hard at the point I thought I saw the movement and, within a couple of seconds, a shape started to materialise. It was clearly a cat but, at this stage, it was pretty much just a silhouette amongst the reeds. A few seconds later and I could see the head and shoulders in a gap in the reeds. Now, given that previously I have been over-excited at finding a big cat (see the Cheetah/Lion fiasco above!), I don’t know what came over me, but I was suddenly very calm and collected. “Keren, I’ve got a Leopard” I said. I think my over-excitement previously had somehow transmitted itself to her and the panic she displayed as I calmly passed my binoculars to her, was really funny to see. At the same time that Keren got onto the animal, I transmitted a message to the boys who were parked about 20 yards behind us “Leopard, Leopard, Leopard”. I swear I heard Jon’s tyres squeal just before Ray’s voice came over the radio “directions, please”. My directions were calm and precise and, even before I finished, they came back with “Dave’s got it, cheers”. By this time the Leopard was strolling in our general direction and even came out into full view onto some boulders before disappearing back into thick vegetation. It was at this point that I took a glance over my shoulder and could not believe what I was seeing. Keren and Jon were completely hemmed-in by vehicles! How on earth did they get to hear about it and get here so quickly? It was a complete and utter melee.
No sooner did a space appear than another car would dive into it. Keren was going to either have to be very brave or completely carefree - it was only a hire-car after all! Eventually I saw someone trying to barge their way into a gap in a large 4x4 but, as it was clearly their own vehicle, I instructed Keren to stick the front-end of our car in their path and they gave way, rather than dent their shiny truck!
Jon did exactly the same and we were free. I suggested ‘staking-out’ the far bank of the river as I had a gut-feeling that the Leopard would re-appear over there, so that’s what we did.
The bush over the far side was really quite dense but Keren managed to find a ‘window’ that hopefully the animal would walk past. Jon parked about 30 yards further on at another gap in the bush and we waited. Looking back at the bridge the scene, it was incredible – it was completely full of cars, tour-buses and coaches! Someone must’ve seen the animal heading our way as, within a couple of minutes, we were once again hemmed-in. 5 minutes later we got a brief view as it ‘ghosted’ through the bush not 10 yards away and headed to where Jon was parked. I let him know over the radio and, unbelievably, the bloody thing stopped right by his car out in the open. Jammy bastard, they were ecstatic.
Eventually the cat moved out of sight and we extricated ourselves from all the other cars and carried on our way. If we didn’t see anything else during the trip, I would go home a very happy bunny indeed.
Further along the S30, it was Jon’s turn to spot something special. OK, it wasn’t in the same league as the leopard, but it was something I didn’t expect to see.
At one point he pulled his car over to the right and started staring out of his window, within seconds the radio buzzed into life with “Coqui Francolin on the termite mound” and sure enough, there it was, ‘calling away’. A great find by Jon – I have no idea how he found it and my respect for him doubled on the spot! (it didn't last).
Nothing else springs to mind as being noteworthy, although we did add Mocking Cliff-chat in the car park at N’Wagovila Viewpoint along with a second, distant, White Rhino scattering dung at his midden and a soaring Secretary Bird added a touch of the ridiculous.
Leaving the viewpoint, Jon decided to continue on the S29 towards Lower Sabie whilst Keren and I decided to take the tarmac road back to camp. This, as it later proved, was probably my worst decision of the holiday as, when the boys eventually returned to camp, they informed us that they had found a family party of Bronze-winged Coursers in an area of ‘controlled’ burn’ scrub. Aaaaaggghh.
We were booked on an evening game-drive that evening, so I had no time to go back out and look for the birds but, as I wasn’t going to be doing the bush-walk the following morning, decided to use that time to search for these elusive birds.
From N'Wagovila Viewpoint
From a birding perspective, the evening game-drive out of Lower Sabie was never going to match the one out of Punda. That said, the guide was very informative and displayed a great sense of humour. Just as it went dark and the spotlights were handed-out and switched on, the couple behind me shouted “Stop!”. Just as they did, another movement to my right caught my eye “Fuck me, another bloody Leopard” I shouted. Dave again used his Tourettes Syndrome explanation to excuse my outburst, but no-one seemed to be listening! There, not 10 feet away, was a Leopard in full view. Totally fabulous. It’d taken me 48 years and various travels throughout Africa to see a Leopard and here I was looking at my second in just a few hours!
28/10/09 What? No Coursers?
The gang departed for their morning bush-walk at 05:00 again accompanied by my prayers that they wouldn’t see anything good!
Once the gates opened at 05:30 I headed straight off to the area that the boys reported the coursers from. It was a huge area, but from the description they gave me, all I had to do was find the congregation of Crowned and White-winged Plovers (more on this to follow). Approximately 3 Km before I got to the described area, I pulled over to scan the scrub and immediately got onto an animal I’ve always wanted to see – a Honey Badger was trotting through the scrub some 50 yards distant. I grabbed my camera and rattled off a few shots but the results are best described as “crap”. Still, I was ecstatic.
I crawled along the dusty road constantly scanning the burnt scrub and eventually started to see Crowned Plovers (Lapwings) and, at one point, I located a pair of Senegal Plovers. Surely these were the birds that the boys had reported as White-winged? I took a couple of record shots and continued to scan. I covered this stretch of track at least 5 times over 3 hours but to no avail – the coursers simply weren’t there. However, my patience was rewarded with a roadside Black-bellied Bustard and Little Bee-eater that both allowed for pleasing photographs to be taken.
Once back at camp, I explained my failure to see the coursers and that I was confident the other plovers they had seen were Senegal and not White-winged.
Let’s just say that a ‘discussion’ ensued but that once they had seen my pictures, they agreed to change their lists accordingly.
So, what to do for the rest of day? Well, obviously Buff Pastys had to be sampled again and from there Keren suggested we to continue on to Skukuza (the admin capital of the park), followed by lake Panic Bird Hide. We were all in agreement – I should add that I was now 100% fit with no sign of the stomach problems I’d experienced over the past week. I think stopping taking the malaria meds. was the right thing to do under the circumstances. I ate a full Buff Pasty without having to pass any leftovers on to the vultures in my crew! Much to their disappointment.
Lake Panic, what a place – a photographer’s dream! Alright, we didn’t add anything new to the list but the views and photos we got of common birds such as Water Dikkop, Green-backed Heron, Black Crake, Pied and Brown-hooded Kingfishers, White-faced Duck, African Openbill and African Jacana were very pleasing.
29/10/09 Memory lapse
D’you know, birdwise, even though I have the full itinerary in front of me, only three things stand out in my memory – my first ever Common Scimitarbill at Crocodile Bridge camp, the trip’s first Acacia Pied Barbet once we got back to Lower Sabie and photographing a Burchell’s Coucal under ‘trying’ circumstances.
But there’s a really good reason for this hole in my memory – it’s called draft Castle Lager!!!
It is apparent, looking back on it, that we were all in need of letting off some steam and were on the verge of being ‘birded-out’. The previous evening, the boys had discovered that you could buy pints of draft Castle Lager from the bar at Lower Sabie and, after a morning’s fairly fruitless birding, we all agreed that we should retire to the camp for the afternoon and partake in this refreshing beverage!
Now, we’re not big drinkers so, after ½ dozen pints we were all pretty plastered and in high spirits. It was at this point that the ever-vigilant Jon spotted a Burchell’s Coucal in the undergrowth below the restaurant deck and we attempted to photograph it. Once I remembered which end of my camera set-up to look through, I managed a single, in focus shot – given my state of inebriation at this point, it was something of a minor miracle.
Some of the worst decisions are made when you’re drunk, but we all decided to have a braai that evening and consumed even more alcohol. It was a great night and great way to end our stay in KNP.
The (drunken) crew on Lower Sabie restaurant deck
30/10/09 Goodbye my love, goodbye
I hate this. Leaving Kruger. Where have the last 11 days gone?
On the plus side, amongst the birds scavenging from the scraps of our braai the previous evening was a Spectacled Weaver!!
As we had very little spare time in the schedule and had to be at Nelspruit for our flight down to the Cape, we decided just to go straight to Crocodile Bridge and the bird the area immediately adjacent to the gate.
Jon discovered our last new bird of the trip when he asked; “why has this Ashy Flycatcher got a black tail”? Some discussion ensued and we eventually arrived at the correct ID of Grey Tit-flycatcher, an excellent find and another new bird for me.
The journey across to Nelspruit was uneventful, but it was nice to get on roads where I could put my foot down a little bit and build up a decent speed – the 50kph limit in Kruger is very necessary but also, to someone who enjoys driving, can be a little frustrating. We added Black-shouldered Kite to the list at 100kph!
We arrived at Cape Town airport and collected the vehicle that would be our transport for the next 10 days – a Chrysler Grand Voyager which was big enough to take all 5 of us and our luggage. Whilst waiting for the car to be handed over, we added Indian House Crow, Cape Bulbul and Cape Wagtail to the list.
As we had booked on a pelagic trip on the ZestII from Simonstown the following day, Keren rang Trevor Hardaker to confirm that it was going ahead and the response was in the affirmative. Everything was going so well, with absolutely no hiccups…
On arrival at my favourite hotel in the world, Afton Grove in Noordhoek, our host Chris Spengler informed us that we were very lucky to be going out on the ZestII the following day as several of his other guests had had their pelagics (on other boats) cancelled due to forecast bad weather.
31/10/09 Water water everywhere…
It was a cold wind that was blowing as we congregated on Simonstown quay to listen to John Graham give his safety briefing – the most important information it contained being “you’ll need waterproofs as it’s going to be a bit bouncy”.
“A bit bouncy”?? Jesus, talk about understatement! Despite donning our waterproofs, by the time we were level with Boulders Beach we were all absolutely freezing cold and soaked from the waist down. But we’re Brits and our maritime heritage shone through with none of us complaining – in fact we were having fun! My stand-out memory of the journey out to Cape Point comes courtesy of Jon (bless him!):
The sea had become a little calmer just before the point and the sun was out. In an attempt to dry himself out, Jon switched sides on the boat to the side that was receiving little or no spray. “I’m just going to spread out, soak up some rays and dry off a little” were his exact words as he reclined on the bench, arms outstretched and face pointed up at the sun. In all great slapstick comedy, the key word is timing. No sooner had Jon made his statement, than the boat was hit by a particularly malevolent wave and the subsequent spray seemed to be aimed directly at him. Keren, who was sat next to him at the time never got a drop! There was sea water running off his eyebrows, nose, beard, all down his front and onto his thighs. It was the funniest thing I’ve seen in many a year. It’s a good job I was already soaked-through so no one could see that I pissed myself laughing. Thanks, Jon.
Anyway, with the Cape Point lighthouse becoming a distant blur on the horizon behind us, we started picking-up pelagic birds crossing our wake (unfortunately into the sun), these were mostly Great Shearwaters, White-chinned Petrel and our first Shy Albatross. But it wasn’t until the skipper spotted a trawler on his radar and headed in it’s direction that numbers started to build up. Almost as soon as the trawler appeared as a dot on the horizon off our bows there was a discernible increase in birds – Pintado Petrel, Black-browed Albatross, Arctic Tern , Sabine’s Gull, and just as we approached the vessel the shout went up for an Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross.
One of John Graham’s tips, before we left the harbour, was that the best place to be, once we got amongst the birds, was on the raised deck in the middle of the boat. Now, I don’t know where Dave had got to at this point (it’s not a big boat) but he completely missed this bird as, no sooner had we got onto it, than it flew off never to return. He was still missing when I picked-up a Sub-Antarctic Skua sat on the water and this went the same way as the Indian Yellow-nose.
Eventually, however, he appeared and we all enjoyed the amazing spectacle of a pelagic feeding frenzy. It’s difficult to describe what this looks like; I just hope that some of the pictures convey the excitement. One thing I did discover though – a Canon 500mm F4 IS lens is way to big a beast to be wielding on a rocking boat as albatrosses and petrels skim past at arms length. I managed a few good shots but I was wishing for a smaller lens by the end of it all – I could’ve got so many more great shots.
All too soon we had to head back to Simonstown – it’s one of the problems in rough seas, it takes so long to get out to the trawlers that you get no more than 40 minutes at the site where all the action is. But totally worth it.
There were a couple of sickness casualties on the way back in – one of which was Jon who managed to swallow a gut-full of sea water at some point. So much for his maritime heritage!
That evening, once our legs got used to not swaying, we took a short walk round Kommetjie and got great shots of African Black Oystercatcher, Fiscal Shrike and Hartlaub’s Gull.
01/11/09 Windy again…
I can’t remember if we went directly to WCNP or if we did Darling farmlands first. I do remember the Blue Cranes at Darling (even though my one and only photo is bloody awful) and that we added 43 species to the trip list! Highlights amongst these were: Cape Francolin, White-backed Mousebird, a fabulous displaying Southern Black Korhaan near Darling, Blue Crane, White-fronted Plover, Black Harrier, Bokmakierie ( a lifer for me, how did I miss these last time?), Karoo Scrub-robin, Malachite Sunbird, Cape Longclaw and Lark-like Bunting (a “highlight? Are you sure?). The winds at WCNP were atrocious and my comment “it’s unbirdable” was thrown back into my face each and every time we added a new species. Honestly, this crew are so unforgiving! Unfortunately Geelbek hide was no good as it was high tide all the time we were there and Yzerfontein gypsum ‘quarry’ was closed because it was a Sunday. On the plus side, it meant that a return visit was required and hopefully the wind would have dropped.
02/11/09 Fynbos, the mountain and penguins
Our genial host at Afton Grove, Chris Spengler, recommended an area on his local patch called Silvermine as it would provide us with numerous fynbos specialities so this is where we headed soon after first light. The sun hadn’t risen above the mountain peaks as we wandered the trails through the fynbos and, after the temperatures we had been used to in Kruger, it was decidedly chilly. That said, within the first few yards, Keren located a lovely singing Cape Grassbird (I actually prefer these birds to sugarbirds), closely followed by Dave locating a pair of Orange-breasted Sunbirds feeding atop a protea bloom.
Once the sun started to hit the hill slopes we headed down into the valley and birded the trails around the visitor centre. Here we got more Malachite Sunbirds, another Bokmakierie (they’re as common as Leopards according to Jon!), Alpine and African Black Swifts flew overhead and scattered amongst them our first Black Saw-wings. A distant raptor perched in a tree was a relief not to be “shitty brown eagle” but a fabulous Jackal Buzzard. We also added, Neddicky, Fiscal Flycatcher and Olive Thrush. I liked this place and can thoroughly recommend it as a way of passing an easy hour amongst the fynbos.
Over at Kirstenbosch we got stunning views of the resident pair of Spotted Eagle Owls courtesy of some excellent field craft by Jon. Actually, I’m kidding – one of the gardeners pointed the bird out to him! Whilst not a new bird, I was inordinately relieved to see these particular owls as, the last time Keren and I were down at the Cape, we visited Kirstenbosch 4 times and never connected with them. We also added Forest Canary. Whoop-de-doo.
With the sun shining and no cloth on the mountain, we had to do the ‘tourist thing’ and get up there. As ever the top of Table Mountain was full of tourists but, when you see the views from up there, you can understand why. The last time I was up there, I got great shots of an Orange-breasted Sunbird and it was to the same section of footpath that I was again drawn. Lo-and-behold, in almost the same bush, I located a pair of these fabulous little birds. So, in defiance of the ‘stick to the paths’ instructions, I settled myself down to wait for them to provide me with another photo op. The trouble with walking around with my particular camera set-up is it attracts a lot of attention but, fortunately, I was able to blank-out all the comments from the passing tourists and concentrate on my task in hand. After about 20 minutes the male sunbird appeared right in front of me and proceeded to sing from a tiny bush out in the open. I hope you’ll agree that this shot is pretty good! Regardless, I’m very pleased with it.
So, whilst we were in ‘tourist mode’ we decided to “go and do the penguins”…
What can I say about this particular site? Well there’s a whole tourist-trap industry grown up around the area and you’ve got to wonder what would these people do if the penguins weren’t there. Seeing the birds themselves is hardly a taxing experiencing – go through the turnstile, walk down the boardwalk and look at the penguins – and to be honest, they don’t really do that much for me. Perhaps it’s the crowds of tourists they attract making it feel more like a zoo? I don’t know. All I can say is, I tend to ignore the birds on the beach and watch those in the surf instead – they look much less ‘plastic’.
Chris and Dave working at Silvermine
03/11/09 Rockjumpers and ducks
Since our last visit in 2005, it appears that Sir Lowry’s Pass is no longer a ‘safe’ option to visit so the only other site we had that was do-able with ease was Rooi-Els. According to the most recent gen I had, although the birds were present, they were very difficult to locate and were spending all their time at the base of the ‘cliffs’ that would involve some strenuous hill walking.
Before we visited Rooi-Els though, we went to Harold Porter Botanical Gardens in search of the elusive Victorin’s Warbler and African Black Duck. Needless to say, we didn’t get either of these birds but did manage to add Cape Batis, Cape Crow (where had they been until now?), Cape Rock Thrush, Cape Siskin and Swee Waxbill.
On top of these, we had fabulous views of several Cape Sugarbirds and Orange-breasted Sunbirds.
So, on to Rooi-Els.
We walked the track, as recommended in Callan Cohen’s book, but with no luck, but did add Cape Bunting. So the boys decided there was only one thing for it – walk the scree slopes in the hope of finding the Cape Rockjumpers. I must stress at this point that these guys a very experienced birders and would never have approached the birds so close as to cause disturbance. As it turned out, after an hour of tramping the hillside they never got even a sniff of the birds and came back down somewhat disheartened. Still, you can’t get everything first time eh?
They’ll just have to return to the Cape sometime in the future and try again.
As it was still only early afternoon, we decided to head back for Cape Town and visit Strandfontein Sewerage Works to boost our list with some of the missing waterfowl.
We found the site easily enough and almost immediately started racking up the new birds – Maccoa Duck, South African Shelduck, Cape Teal, Cape Shoveler, Red-billed Teal and some beautiful little Black-necked Grebes in breeding plumage. But, boy, they were nervy! As soon as we stopped the car the birds, which had previously been close to the water’s edge, would scatter to the centre and be as far away from us as possible. We tried parking at a distance a adopting stealth mode to approach them but they were having none of it. Hence all our photos are a bit disappointing. We also added African Purple Swamp-hen and Southern Pochard but, to be honest, with the exception of the Swamp-hens they were a pretty uninspiring bunch of birds and just became “numbers on a list”. As far as I’m concerned anyway!
Looking for Rockjumpers
04/11/09 Around the penninsula
This was one of those days where we didn’t really do very well – we thrashed Tokai Forest and got bugger-all apart from “Pepper-tick” rashes and, Christ, is it annoying! We then moved on to Kommetjie beach and finally managed to nail the endangered Bank Cormorants! Actually, I really like Kommetjie and could quite happily live there. So if anyone knows of a decent beachfront property for sale and has a job that would help me pay for it, please let me know!
Moving on we went to the Cape Point Nature Reserve. We started off at Olifantsbos beach but the wind was cold and annoying, so we didn’t stay that long. However, we did finally get to grips with a Familiar Chat – where had they been until now?
We ended up doing the tourist thing and having something to eat at the café at Cape Point and enjoyed the views and being entertained by the Red-winged Starlings but to be honest, this was definitely a bit of a ‘nothing day’.
Now, I’m looking at the list of birds as compiled by Ray and it’s telling me that we saw Streaky-headed Seed-eater but I have absolutely no recollection of this bird at all.
05/11/09 Geelbek beckons and a snake causes panic
Seeing as we badly-timed our last visit to Geelbek hide in WCNP, we decided a return visit would be in order.
Fortunately, this time, the wind had dropped considerably and the fynbos was no-longer “un-birdable”. However the main reason for our return were the waders that Geelbek would provide us with. We weren’t going to get any lifers but would definitely boost the trip list. Timing our visit to coincide with the falling tide and first bits of exposed mud we traipsed out along the boardwalk to the hide. Once we entered the hide we opened the shutters to be dismayed on 3 counts:
The tide was still well in and there was no exposed mud. “That’s fine” we thought, “we can just wait it out”.
The wind started blowing hard again and from a direction that sent it whistling through the hide.
It was pouring with rain, so even with the shutters closed we were getting soaked – it was like being back on the ZestII.
But we’re patient - actually I think stubborn is a better word. After a nut-freezing 2 hours the first signs of exposed mud began to appear and waders started to fly in. Great excitement was caused by a Grey Plover followed by a Greenshank and a few Sanderling and Turnstone. “Christ, 6½ thousand miles to see birds I can see from my front window back home” sprang into my mind. Not only were these birds tarred with the ‘over-familiarity brush’, they were so far away as to make photography pointless. “Bugger this”, I said,” I’ll wait for you back at the car” and walked back with the intention of grabbing 40 winks whilst I waited.
5 minutes later Keren joined me and, 10 minutes after that, the boys appeared – looking well and truly fed up.
I suppose we were getting to the stage where new birds were a bit thin on the ground and this was beginning to show in our moods, so we headed off up to the Seeberg hide in search of Grey-winged Francolin - a particularly elusive bird – or so they had proved so far.
Arriving on site we followed the instructions as published and wandered off into the scrub to the right of the approach road to the hide. Dave put up a couple of Cape Francolins which caused a brief moment of excitement and a pair of mating Angulate Tortoises made us laugh, but no sign of the Grey-wings. In an attempt to widen our field of search Jon and Ray had wandered off to our right and within 5 minutes had flushed 3 birds – 2 (the ones they followed with their binoculars) were Cape Francolins but the 3rd -the one I followed, was a Grey-wing. Unfortunately it landed in an area that was fenced off from the public so we couldn’t pursue it. Luckily, Ray picked-up another pair of Grey-wings that neither Jon nor Dave could see, so we again decided to fan out and hope that they could be relocated. We crossed the track where we had parked the car and wandered off into the scrub. After several minutes, we flushed 3 more Grey-winged Francolins and the rest of the crew were happy enough with their views to allow them to be ticked.
I was walking ahead of the other guys as we returned to the road when I heard a scream (sorry Dave, but that’s what it sounded like to me) “SNAKE!!!” followed by “Jesus look at the size of this thing” and then “Ray, you lucky sod, you almost stood on it”. I turned round and walked back to where they boys were stood and saw the biggest, blackest snake crawling away through the grass. This thing must’ve been 8 feet long – no exaggeration! Now, none of us are herpetologists so when Dave said it was a Black Mamba, well, who was I to argue? After a couple of minutes the snake disappeared under a bush and coiled itself up. Obviously we gave it a wide berth but managed to take some photographs – Jon was a bit reluctant when I asked him to step closer and take some shots with his lens as mine was too big! I’m telling you, this was one big mother of a snake and, armed with Dave’s layman’s knowledge, we were more than a bit wary. To be honest, something at the back of mind was telling me that something was wrong and Ray reminded me that Black Mambas were notoriously aggressive, but this fella wasn’t showing any signs of aggression. Still, what a beauty and a great tale that will no doubt become more exciting over the years…
Leaving WCNP we headed for Yzerfontein Gypsum mine to seek permission to look for the Chestnut-banded Plovers and, after walking the wrong way round the main pan for what seemed like an age, Jon suggested we have one last look in the opposite direction. We rounded a small headland and saw a sizeable flock of small waders that, after a cursory glance, the boys appeared to dismiss. I thought I’d give them a second look and almost immediately picked-out a bird that appeared to show a dark breast-band. “Dave, what d’you make of the second bird in from the left?” I asked. His response was somewhat of a surprise as instead of replying verbally he gave me a great big hug (I’m not convinced he didn’t kiss me on the cheek and squeeze my arse – although I made have dreamt that bit!). In all there were 3 of these fabulous little waders on the pan and, although they didn’t give great views, I’m quite pleased with my photos given the distance and heat-haze involved.
Back in Noordhoek, Dave had a look in a field-guide on the shelves of the local Pick’n’Pay and announced, “it’s alright guys, it was only a Spitting Cobra – the second most deadly snake in South Africa”. God, so what was all the fuss about then? Jeez.
Back at Afton Grove, Chris Spengler told us “it was probably a Mole Snake and completely harmless”…
Perhaps that bit will be left out of the story when it’s recited over the coming years…
So that was the Cape, probably my favourite part of the world.
Approach road to Seeberg Hide
06/11/09 Somewhere new
Onwards, then, to Knysna and the 5-hour drive to get there. As you can imagine, we didn’t really see much on the journey other than lots of Blue Cranes – I think Dave counted in excess of 50 birds in several small parties of 4 or 5max.
Actually, I was quite lucky in the fact that it was Jon’s turn to drive today, so I slept most of the way, hahaha!
We eventually arrived at our next base “Peace of Eden”, which lies on the edge of the forest just a few Km west of Knysna town itself, at 2pm and unpacked our gear for the last time. As we went to-and-fro from the car we even got brief views of a Knysna Turaco but it never really provided a great photo op. Our initial impressions were very favourable, the grounds were certainly idyllic and appeared to have great potential for some first light birding.
At this point, I should highlight that the reason for us choosing this particular accomodation was two-fold:
Knysna Turacos were reportedly plentiful and regularly seen in the grounds.
The owner, Howard Butcher, was billed by his wife as a local “birding expert and guide”
As we were all knackered after the long journey (not to mention the 18 days of non-stop birding previously) we decided to go somewhere nearby for a short look-see and our host recommended Jubilee Creek for some forest birding alongside the river. This turned out to be an excellent suggestion as, on the way there, we finally nailed a Forest Buzzard as it soared over the road.
We parked the car where instructed and took the track is it followed the river down-stream. At some point, Dave and I got separated from the rest of the crew but we knew they weren’t that far ahead of us. Now, I should point out before I carry on, that I hate forest/jungle birding – too few birds and crappy light for photography. But this was before I’d tried forest birding with Dave.
Say what you will about the big & daft galoot, he’s a top class birder and within 10 minutes he had “called-out” a bird I had never expected to see - a fabulous White-starred Robin. But where was the rest of the crew? We whistled and even shouted but got no response – “sod ‘em” we decided and continued down the path. Eventually we caught up with them and they were all staring into the canopy – “welcome to forest birding at neck-strain central” – what were they staring out? A Yellow-throated Woodland-warbler – jeez what a piece of crap compared to our White-starred Robin! We carried on down the path catching glimpses of birds here-and-there and hearing many more. Even Dave’s “skillz” failed to provide us with anything new so, after an hour or so we turned round and headed back whence we came. I was now in the front and almost immediately got onto a bird as it hopped onto the path in the gloom not 20 feet away. I gestured the gang forward and once they were in earshot I whispered “Chorister Robin-chat” and rattled off a couple of crappy shots before he disappeared into the undergrowth. Bloody awful jungle-light, I hate it. Smart bird though and another one I didn’t expect to get so quickly. Further along the path I also located a stunning male Greater Double-collared Sunbird but never managed any usable pics – bloody jungles! I’m not a celebrity, but GET ME OUTTA HERE….
07/11/09 Howard the expert birder…
Based on his wife’s recommendation, we booked a full day’s guided-birding with our host, Howard Butcher who, we hoped, would provide us with some very tricky-to-get new birds.
I suppose the alarm bells should’ve started ringing when we saw the huge number of books he loaded into the back of the car before we set off – 3 bird field-guides (“you won’t need those, Howard”), a book on reptiles (“if you must, Howard”), a couple of books on trees and plants (“don’t be daft, Howard”) and a book on grasses (“are you kidding, Howard?”).
Now, I’m not sure what sort of birders he’s guided before but it was clear he’d never met any as experienced or keen as us. He was completely out of his depth. So as not to get myself in trouble with the libel lawyers, I’m going to hold back a little on his perceived shortcomings. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a lovely guy, but I suspect he needs to rethink how he ‘markets’ himself.
Perhaps he was unlucky on the day, but all he managed to find us was a Black-bellied Starling and a Bar-throated Apalis – both new birds but, as we were to discover subsequently, readily available all over the area.
Perhaps we were expecting too much and, at the end of a 3-week tour, we’d seen a hell of a lot of stuff and it was unfair to have such high expectations from the man.
But you’ve got to ask what was the point of getting me to drive up a steep, rough track in the middle of nowhere to admire the view and what was the logic in taking us to a site he’d never visited before? That’s the kind of thing you should be doing on your own, not when you’ve got paying clients.
Anyway, we ended the day being annoyed at having wasted it.
I’ll say no more.
Oh, he also ate all my ginger biscuits!
The boys with Howard
08/11/09 The last full day.
One thing we did learn from Howard was the vast number of sites in the area that are available to the birder to cover. So, as it was our last full day we decided to have a second look at some of them and do them a bit more intensivlely than we had the previous day.
The first site we went to was a new one – Woodville “Big Tree” Forest Trail. O Joy, more forest birding. Actually, I really enjoyed this walk and we saw lots of good stuff, icluding two new birds – Olive Woodpecker (which buggered off almost immediately!) and another that I didn’t really expect, Lemon Dove (yet another that didn’t hang around for a decent photo). We also had great views of Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Knysna Turaco and assorted flycatchers and batis.
Moving on we went somewhere in the Sedgefield area and then onto one of the Kingfisher Trails in the “Wilderness National Park”. This latter site, more forest birding got us another 3 new birds – Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Scaly-throated Honeyguide and Red-chested Cuckoo. I suppose, if you’re familiar with South African birding, that this latter species comes as something of a surprise so late into our trip but, honestly, we’d heard loads but never once got see one until today. The same can be said for African Emerald Cuckoo but that one never made onto the list unfortunately.
The next site we covered was Rondevlei in the Wilderness National Park. I don’t know how it happened but Ray and I ended up not making it all the way down the path to the hide and ended up birding the bushes alongside the track. I got onto an all dark ‘warbler’ in some really dense scrub and my immediate reaction was “Knysna Warbler” but it never showed again despite intensive searching of the area. Minutes later Ray got onto a bird that was seen briefly on the outer edge of a bush which for all the world look like a Yellow-bellied Eremomela but again the bird disappeared before we could nail it’s ID.
Eventually Jon appeared on his way back to the car and commented on a singing Olive Bush-shrike “but I haven’t seen it” just as I got onto another bird in the “Knysna Warbler bush”. It was right at the back and only giving intermittent views but we managed to piece together a positive ID from the bits of plumage we saw (a wing, a tail, the mantle and, briefly, the face) – “female Olive Bush-shrike”. Both Jon and Ray got ‘tickable views’ but Dave arrived on the scene just too late.
As we were driving away from the site, Jon pulled the car to a sudden stop and called “Red-necked Spurfowl”, fortunately this bird hung around long enough for us all to see and even get some photographs (we weren’t in a forest you see!).
And that was the last new bird of the trip. Despite extensive searching and tape play-back we never did connect with a Victorin’s Warbler or a definite Knysna Warbler (2 of the birds that Howard reckoned he could show us!).
Where do I start?
KNP was just absolutely wonderful. The SANParks infrastructure is fantastic and the food in the camps, not to mention the amazing Buff Pastys, was, on the whole, superb. Obviously if you have ‘fussy eaters’ in your party some of them are going to be disappointed but you can’t please all the people all of the time. The boys and, if I’m being honest, me, did find the inability to just stop and get out of the car whenever we chose very frustrating at times but you soon realise why it’s not a good idea, you just have to grin and bear it. A few things stand out in my memory – the Pennant-winged Nightjar and the Leopards. These are memories that will go with me to the grave. There’s one other incident that I forgot to write about and is probably best left undescribed but, if I have to endure the mental picture, you have to endure it with me. Without going into too much detail; You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a semi-naked, 6-foot 8-inch, 19-stone giant armed only with a glass of water, chasing a troop of vervet monkeys away from his clean washing that he’d hung out to dry. Nor have you lived until you’ve seen that same giant running away like a little girl when the troop leader stood his ground and chased him back indoors. Thanks Dave, it was hilarious!
The Cape, my favourite part of the world was, of course wonderful (if a little chilly after the heat of Kruger) but the birding is completely different and definitely more ‘convenient’. Obviously, with the huge array of restaurants open to us, there was no problem finding somewhere to suit all tastes. That somewhere turned out to be “The Toad in the Village” just down the road from Afton Grove – great food, great beer and a lovely relaxed atmosphere. We ate there every night. If we made one mistake is was that we, possibly, stayed too long down there and should have added an extra day over at Knysna – especially as one of the days out east was a waste of time and money.
Knysna Hmmm. I know we had a bad experience with our chosen guide, but I really don’t think I’ll be paying the area a second visit. It just didn’t grab me like KNP and The Cape. Perhaps it was because there was a lot of forest birding, I don’t know. Knysna Waterfront, whilst having some great restaurants (you’ve got to try the steaks at Drydock), was a bit “americanised’ for my tastes and didn’t really have an African feel to it. Whatever that is.
The Logistics Everything went like clockwork and could not have been better.
If I was to gripe it, would be about our choice of vehicle down at the Cape and Knysna. The Chrysler Voyager intially looks like a very comfy and practical car. Perhaps it is for 4 people/birders but, if you’re stuck in the back, you’re basically buggered. There’s no speedy way out of the car and the smoked, unopening windows leave you with no chance of getting photos. On top of that the bloody thing bleeps at you for any number of reasons – I’m sure it beeped once when I turned the steering wheel! But that’s a very minor gripe and in no way detracts from the holiday.
I think the best decision we made was to take the walkie-talkies for when we were in 2 cars in Kruger. They got the boys and me a lot of new birds.
The Company If you’re going away with friends for 3 weeks, make sure you’re all really good friends and very tolerant of each others little foibles. Keren and I are very lucky in having 3 such great friends in Dave, Jon and Ray. Even so, I think towards the end of our stay in Knysna, relationships were starting to get a little strained. I suppose it’s inevitable when you’ve been living out of each other’s pockets almost 24/7 for 3 weeks.
So there you have it, 21 days & 388 species. I hope this report wasn’t too taxing to read and if you have any questions at all please don’t hesitate to contact me.
The Itinerary (compiled by Ray Banks)
Sun 18th Oct. Early morning flight from Manchester Airport via Amsterdam to Johannesberg. Arrived mid-evening and transported to the Africa Centre Hotel.
Overnight in Johannesberg.
Mon 19th Oct. Early morning birding around grounds of Africa Centre Hotel. Flight from Johannesberg Airport to Hoedspruit Airport. Pick up vehicles and drive to Phalaborwa Gate. Birding around gate area. Drive to Mopani Camp via the H9 and H14 roads. Overnight at Mopani Camp.
Tue 20th Oct. Birding around Mopani Camp area. Drive from Mopani Camp to Shingwedzi Camp on the S50 Shingwedzi Loop via several waterholes and the Nyawuts Hide. Drive back to Mopani Camp via the H1-6 stopping at The Tropic of Capricorn. Overnight at Mopani Camp.
Wed 21st Oct. Drive from Mopani Camp to Punda Maria via the Tshanga Lookout Point, the S56 Sirheni Loop calling in at Babalala Picnic Site and the Dzundzwini Loop. Birding around Punda Maria Camp late afternoon. Overnight at Punda Maria.
Thu 22nd Oct. Birding around Punda Maria Camp grounds. Drive around the S99 Mahonie Loop. Overnight at Punda Maria.
Fri 23rd Oct. Drive from Punda Maria to Pafuri via the S60, the H1-8 and the S63 to Pafuri Picnic Site, then onto Crooks Corner and back to picnic site. Return to Punda Maria Camp via Kloppenfontein Dam and the S60 Loop. Overnight at Punda Maria.
Sat 24th Oct. Early Morning Guided Walk. Birding around Punda Maria Camp grounds. Evening Game Drive for Nightjars etc. Overnight at Punda Maria.
Sun 25th Oct. Drive from Punda Maria to Letaba Camp via Longwe Lookout and Englehard Dam. Birding around Letaba Camp grounds. Overnight at Letaba.
Mon 26th Oct. Drive from Letaba to Lower Sabie Camp via Satara Camp for Lunch, then onto Tshokwane Picnic Area and Nkumbe Viewsite. Overnight at Lower Sabie.
Tue 27th Oct. Birding Lower Sabie Camp area, then drive to Nkuhlu Picnic area via the H4-1. Then onto the S30 Loop to N,Wagovila Hill and then a slow drive down the S29 Mlondozi Road Loop back to Lower Sabie. Evening Game Drive. Overnight at Lower Sabie.
Wed 28th Oct. Early Morning Guided Walk. Then drive to Nkuhlu Picnic Area, then onto Skukuza Camp. Drive to Lake Panic Hide and then back to Lower Sabie via the S29 Mlondozi Road Loop. Overnight at Lower Sabie.
Thu 29th Oct. Birding around Lower Sabie Camp area, then drive to Crocodile Bridge Camp via the S28 Loop to Duke’s Waterhole, Ntandanyathi Hide and Nhlanganzwani Hide. Return to Lower sabie Camp via causeway and Sunset Dam. Overnight at Lower Sabie.
Fri 30th Oct. Drive from Lower Sabie Camp via Crocodile Bridge Camp to Nelspruit Airport. Pick up car from Cape Town Airport and drive to Afton Grove. Overnight at Afton Grove.
Sat 31st Oct. Pelagic Trip. Birding Afton Grove garden area. Drive to Kommetjie Beach area. Overnight at Afton Grove.
Sun 1st Nov. Early morning at Afton Wetlands Walk. Drive to Darling Farmlands and Wildflower area, then onto West Coast National Park. Overnight at Afton Grove.
Mon 2nd Nov. Birding Silvermine and Sunbird trails. Then onto Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens followed by Table Mountain and Boulders Beach Penguin Colony. Overnight at Afton Grove.
Tue 3rd Nov. Drive to Harold Porter Botanical Gardens, then onto Rooi Els and Strandfontein Sewage Works. Overnight at Afton Grove.
Wed 4th Nov. Afton Grove Walk, then Tokai Forest Reserve. Followed by Kommetjie Beach and Cape Point Reserve. Overnight at Afton Grove.
Thu 5th Nov. West Coast National Park, then onto Yzerfontein Gypsum Quarry. Overnight at Afton Grove.
Fri 6th Nov. Drive from Afton Grove to Knysna via Coast Road and N2 to Peace of Eden. Birding in gardens of Peace of Eden. Walk along Jubilee Creek, Goudveld Forest. Overnight at Peace of Eden.
Sat 7th Nov. Birding around gardens of Peace of Eden. Day out with Howard Butcher around the Sedgefield, Wilderness and Knysna areas. Overnight at Peace of Eden.
Sun 8th Nov. Birding around Sedgefield, Wilderness and Knysna areas, including Woodville “Big Tree”, several kingfisher trails and hides. Overnight at Peace of Eden.
Mon 9th Nov. Woodbourne Lagoon area, breakfast in Knysna then drive to George Airport for flight to Johannesburg Airport. Flight back to Manchester via Paris arriving in Manchester early Tue morning.
The Bird List (240+ species photographed).