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KGALAGADI TRIP - OCTOBER 2009

Posted on the 12th March 2010

Elaine and myself spent ten days in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park recently

Fourteen chicks!  All images: Anton Odendal
(October 2009). The main purpose of our visit was to extent our collection of photographs of the so-called “western species” for our talks and training courses. We are known as Kruger National Park fanatics (see “the March trip report” at http://www.westerncapebirding.co.za/news.php?article=120 ) and several of our friends ragged us for going on a “dorslandtrek”. It is interesting to hear birders being critical of the birding potential of the Kgalagadi. Friends of our who returned from the park recently felt that there was very little to see and even expressed dismay at what they described as a flawed official bird checklist of the park. They stated that the list showed some 300 odd species, while the distribution lists according to the Roberts Bird Guide indicate that only 199 species occur there. We also spoke to a birder during the Stanford Bird Fair who stated that there are no birds or animals at Kielie Krankie and this made us even more concerned as we were scheduled to spend two evenings at this bush camp. We further chatted to four birders from the Pretoria area who were on their way home on our first evening at Tweerivieren and they also expressed disappointment at the relative lack of birds in the Kgalagadi when compared to Kruger. One lady even stated that “we only saw one immature BATELEUR in all the time we spent here”.

Rainbow bokke

We were enjoying ourselves tremendously and even had a great time birding when we stopped over for lunch at the Malopo Lodge some sixty kilometers outside the park. The road has now been tarred all the way to the entrance gate and we recalled how we battled with that stretch of road on our previous visits. We decided not to do our normal day-by-day reporting, but to rather describe why we believe that the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a MUST for all serious birders to visit. For this reason we also posted several photo galleries on this website and will keep on updating these as we gradually download images. (see the photo galleries on Augrabies, Tweerivieren, Nossop, Mata Mata and Kielie Krankie).

Marico Flycatcher

Our first lasting impression of birding in this part of the world is the great number of species that differ markedly from their counterparts in the south and east of the country. The AFRICAN RED-EYED BULBUL is the first that comes to mind when it is compared to the Cape Bulbul in the south and the Dark-mantled Bulbul in the north and east. The same applies to the beautiful ORANGE RIVER WHITE-EYE (it only occurs at Augrabies and not Kgalagadi). There are many other examples that one could discuss in this regard. The DUSKY and MARICO SUNBIRDS of this region seem far more drably colored when compared to the birds that we are used and the western race of the COMMON FISCAL here comes with an impressive white eyebrow. The western race of the FAMILIAR CHAT is significantly paler than the bird that we are used to in the Overberg and the same applies to the KALAHARI SCRUB-ROBIN when compared to its Karoo cousin. The KAROO LONG-BILLED LARK has a richer and deeper chestnuttish sheen on the wing when compared to the Overberg variation and so one could go on. Try as we might, we couldn't pick a male Shaft-tailed Whydah despite seeing many females. We often saw these females in association with its preferred host the VIOLET-EARED WAXBILL. Our greatest past time during our visit was to study these differences, particularly when comparing photographs during the evenings and we promptly decided to develop an illustrated talk on such differences. A last comment on this issue: I have a real weakness for African Dusky Flycatchers and simply can't stop photographing them. In the Kgalagadi the same happened in that after a few days Elaine chirped “Don't you think you now have enough images of MARICO FLYCATCHERS?” We believe that studying these interesting differences alone makes a visit to the Kgalagadi worth the effort.

Lanner Falcon

Our second lasting impression relates to the birds of prey of the Kalahari and here there are so many stories to tell that I am sure that one could start a separate website just for this purpose. We saw so many SECRETARYBIRDS they eventually became “hou verby birds”. Elaine has always been besotted with the pale TAWNY EAGLES that one finds in the Kalahari and on this trip we again found several of them. The birds posted on the photo galleries clearly illustrate the vast differences varying from dark brown through to the pale birds. Our tawny highlight certainly was four of these birds mobbing an adult VERREAUX'S EAGLE-OWL outside Mata Mata early one morning. Our target birds to get on digital on this trip were GREATER KESTREL, RED-NECKED, PYGMY and LANNER FALCONS and SOUTHERN WHITE-FACED SCOPS-OWL and we were fortunate in getting several opportunities to photograph all of these birds on many occasions. The variations of coloration of immature SOUTHERN PALE-CHANTING GOSHAWKS in the park really fascinated us and here once again we came away with hundreds of images. We also particularly enjoyed studying an immature OVAMBO SPARROW-HAWK. We figured that the relative openness of the landscapes in the Kgalagadi affords one the chance to study these birds at leisure.

Lappet-faced Vulture

Our two best experiences? We were showing some novice birders around in Mata Mata and were concentrating on VIOLET-EARED WAXBILLS, GOLDEN-TAILED WOODPECKERS and the (yellow-bellied) BLACK-CHESTED PRINIA when a PEARL-SPOTTED OWLET flew into the woodpecker's huge camelthorn tree and then simply vanished. I studied the tree for more than an hour and then the “one-eyed” owlet pocked its face out of one of the woodpecker nesting holes. It is amazing to think that these little hunters are able to survive out there with only one eye. The changing of the guard at the nest was particularly interesting in that I have never heard the soft chirping little sound that they make when communicating with each other, while one is in the nest and the other outside. One should mention that we also found VERREAUX'S and SPOTTED EAGLE-OWLS, BARN OWL and AFRICAN and SOUTHERN WHITE-FACED SCOPS-OWL in the Mata Mata area – not to shabby.

The waterhole at Cubitje Quap some ten kilometers north of Nossop remains our favorite spot in the whole of the Kgalagadi and needless to say we spent time there first thing in the morning, last thing before sunset and even one day with a picnic basket over lunch. In total we saw 61 species in the area around the waterhole, but man the raptors! The LANNER FALCONS seem to be causing havoc for the seed-eaters, doves and sand-grouses on a continual basis, keeping in mind that some RED-NECKED FALCONS, OVAMBO SPARROW-HAWKS and even BLACK-SHOULDERED KITES pass through the area every now and then. There were thousands of mice messing around between the bushes, thus increasing the action around the waterhole. Add to this tawny's, BLACK-CHESTED SNAKE-EAGLE, four young BATELEURS preening in one massive tree and the vultures roosting in the trees around the waterhole and this makes for raptor heaven. No birds in the Kalahari? What a joke.

Cheetah kill

Our third lasting impression relates to things non-feathered. I don't normally do things such as lions and tigers as this interferes with one's birding time. Funny that GROUND SQUIRRELS got me going on things mammalian. These guys can keep one occupied for hours and trying to get the perfect “umbrella shot” became quite a mission. We finally decided that the GEMSBOK is die mooiste bok op aarde and spent a lot of time trying to get images of a variety of animals in those bizarre arid landscapes that the Kalahari offers. We spent a surprising amount of time (by our standards) watching lions and cheetahs waiting for those BIG shots and lots of interesting moments with strange goggos and creepy-crawlies. The CAPE COBRAS are genuinely geelslang in this part of the world and we found the COMMON BARKING GECKOES particularly at Nossop and Kielie Krankie very entertaining. The highlight in this regard is fortunately easy: I went out on my own on the last Saturday afternoon in view of trying to get a few more species for the 350 bird photo challenge, when I stumbled upon a CHEETAH with two youngsters that had just killed a SPRINGBOK. I spent ninety compelling minutes studying their nervous feeding behavior and rattled off more than 100 photographs! The Kalahari has the habit of turning bird-watching fanatics into lovers of all living things. In total we saw three cheetahs with satellite transmitters around their necks – there is clearly lots of research being thrown at this endangered cat in the Kalahari.

Baardmannetjie

We have found that on all birding trips that we go on some bird or sometimes birds will jump out of the bush and leap into one's soul and this leads us to our fourth lasting impression. The Kalahari has so many unique bird species that we came away with five new birds that are now part of our collective minds and this in no particular order. SCALY-FEATHERED FINCH, no BAARDMANNETJIE! Elaine has been nagging me for clean images of these birds for many years, with the result that I had to stop to get pics whenever we saw them. If one keeps in mind that there are millions of these little birds all over the Kalahari, then you should be able to imagine how many times we had to slam on brakes for them. They are energetic, busy, nervous as it comes, but amazing little birds to watch. CRIMSON-BREASTED SHRIKE: We were sitting at the fire on our first night at Tweerivieren when two of these birds settled in a tree some distance away. I was there first thing in the morning and started photographing their preening rituals that surprisingly kept on for more than thirty minutes. The variety of theirs calls and vocalizations were spell-bounding. From here they started working the bushes and shrub-like stuff and stayed in close contact and communication throughout the next two hours. They allowed me to come really close to them – sometimes to close to focus my camera. The one bird got hold of a piece of orange ski-rope close to the caravan park and spent a long time “fighting with and killing” the object. Its partner eventually had to drag it away with a new range of nervous vocalizations. And then the one bird disappeared into a bush – it went in and never came out. And I found her on her nest! I assume that she must have laid her eggs that morning as they spent the night and the best part of three hours of the morning away from the nest. One of the birds was still sitting on the nest when we returned to Tweerivieren a week later. Do yourself a favor and spend some time with two of these birds when you have the time.

Kalahari Scrub-Robin

KALAHARI SCRUB-ROBIN: We were at the mentioned Cubitje Quap waterhole and Elaine asked me to get a picture of the DIEDERIC CUCKOO. What Diederic Cuckoo? I asked and we started searching the bushes for this elusive and highly vocal bird. To our amazement we found the local robin on the mimic – thereafter we had several incidents when we found this bird mimicing a variety of birds. At Kielie Krankie it came onto the grid of the braai several times a day and sat on “the top of the dune” doing its thing. What he looses in coloration compared to the Dark-capped and Cape Robin-Chats he certainly makes up in terms of vocalization and mimicry. Great bird. NORTHERN BLACK KORKAAN: I have always had a soft spot for the loud noise and strange courtship behavior of the bustards and korhaans, the Red-crested Korhaan with its up-and-down courtship display being the most funny of all. The Kalahari korhaans though are simply crazy – if one drives on any of the two connecting dune veld roads between the two river beds in Kgalagadi at this time of year, one is confronted with displaying males often a male every 800 to 900 meters. These guys are silly, crazy, often confiding and very photogenic. I found it impossible to get pictures of the females.

CHESTNUT-VENTED TIT-BABBLER: I only have one photograph of this bird that illustrates both the vent and the facial and chest characteristics. It was therefore one of my missions for the trip to get more pics of these birds and I chased them in every camp where we stayed. They are busy, busy, busy and make it just about impossible to get all the features in one pic. It is surprising to hear how many of little birds are great songsters. Willem Pearson, the outstanding attendant at Kielie Krankie, pointed out the variations in this bird's remarkable repertoire. I still only have one decent identification photograph of the Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler (more than 100 attempts later).

Dunes near Mata Mata

We could tell similar stories about a variety of birds such as SOCIABLE WEAVER, GREATER KESTREL, SWALLOW-TAILED BEE-EATER, WHITE-BROWED SPARROW-WEAVER, ASHY TIT and many larks and other LGJ's, but time unfortunately does not allow for this.

The Kalahari is an experience – one goes there to live life and see life forms that are simply different, alternative and awe-inspiring. This is not for birders wanting to do quantity of species seen, but a place where one takes it slowly and goes for the quality of great experiences in an unique piece of natural wilderness. For those wanting to experience birds in a qualitative way the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is certainly a five star birding destination.

SANParks has a great website – find all information on the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (and others) at www.sanparks.org.za

Anton and Elaine

 

Northern Black Korhaan

 

Crimson-breasted Shrike

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