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GREAT BUSHVELD BIRDING

Posted on the 2nd January 2012

BUSHVELD BIRDING:  KRUGER and NORTH WEST

(Richard and Christene Masson spent some time up north and this trip report makes for compelling reading and viewing: a wonderful selection of images Richard. - Ed.)

November 2011

The title Bushveld Birding takes some liberties as the area covered in this late November trip ( our annual holiday) included Swaziland (mountains, grasslands and forests), Southern Kruger, the North West and a morning at Rietvlei Nature Reserve close to Pretoria which is grassland. Christine, my wife, did the planning and I could not have asked for a better birding itinerary. We started with a weekend visit to family in the Ezelwini Valley in Swaziland, then a week at the Ngwenya Lodge, just outside the Crocodile Bridge Gate followed by five days at the Dikhololo Resort which is adjacent to some fine birding hotspots. On route back to Cape Town we stopped over with friends in Pretoria, which gave me the opportunity to visit Rietvlei.

Thick-billed Weaver

 

Black-bellied Bustard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All in all, I photographed 237 different birds during the month, (which for the record includes my sightings from a weekend trip to Pilanesberg Game Reserve in early November but for which I have compiled a separate account). I do not class myself a twitcher ticking off birds but I have resolved to keep a “Camera Life List”. Some 4 years ago, when my photography passion began to gravitate naturally towards birds, I set myself an objective to photograph 400 different birds. The basis of my “Camera Life List” is the 271 bird’s indexed in my first limited edition (one copy) book titled “An Exultation of Birding” and I was delighted that of the 237 birds photographed during November, 79 were “camera lifers”. I am hopeful that once I have added these and the Overberg birds taken over the past year, I will not be far off the 400 mark. I have noted from our Overberg Birding web-site that the Hardakers have a section recognising photographer’s lists and perhaps theirs is something I should aspire to. The numbers I quote are estimations as my ability to confidently identify birds still has some way to go so it is likely there are duplications and wrong ID’s. I asked Anton to assist on 3 of the raptor ID’s and I scored nought out of 3 – you will see comments later.

Crested Barbet

 

African Paradise-Flycatcher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 In Swaziland time was a limiting factor, with only a morning available, which I spent in the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in the Ezulwini Valley. There are plenty of animals including the Roan Antelope, but no “Big Five” so tourists are permitted to cycle and hike the numerous trails unaccompanied. The birding was excellent and exceeded my expectations with habituated birds found in the reserves varied habitats which include grasslands, mountains, indigenous and exotic forests, dams and a well wooded rest camp. The grasslands had many cisticolas - the bird spotter’s challenge and the only one I could positively identify was the Zitting and perhaps Levaillant’s. Fan-tailed and White-winged Widowbirds, Yellow-throated Longclaw and White-fronted Bee-Eaters were in abundance. Grassland “specials” were the Black-bellied Bustard and Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk (I would have been disappointed if the photo ID showed it to be a Steppe Buzzard but after referring to Anton it was identified as a juvenile rufous morph phase of a Black Sparrowhawk). This reminds me of Ulrich Oberprieler’s Raptor Identification course lesson 1 – “Raptors are not Kingfishers” – emphasising that you should not look at colour when identifying raptors. At the dams, huge crocodiles and lots of hippos were to be seen with African Fish-Eagle, Black Crake, a Heronry (mostly Sacred Ibis – they are everywhere), Water Thick-knee, Blacksmith Lapwings, Southern Red Bishops and the weaver species. In the rest camp, specials for me were sightings of Violet-backed Starling, Green-backed Cameroptera and Thick-billed Weavers. The usual robins, thrushes, puffbacks, cuckoos, sparrows, sunbirds, canaries, weavers, Paradise Flycatchers, Pied Wagtails and swallows were also numerous. We left Swaziland via Pigg’s Peak and the Jeppe’s Creek border post, intending to stop for an hour at the Malolotja Nature Reserve to try and find the Blue Swallow, but unfortunately the rain was bucketing down so that will have to keep for another visit.

Red-billed Firefinch

 

Bearded Scrub-Robin

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ngwenya Lodge, situated on the banks of the Crocodile River, is ideally situated for access to Southern Kruger and is itself an incredible birding spot, especially at this time of the year with frenetic breeding going on. The gardens are alive with birds and their nests including sunbirds, paradise flycatchers, robins, thrushes, weavers, hornbills and long-billed crombec with parent birds either incubating or feeding young. During my walks I would visit 4 different African Paradise Flycatcher's nests, of which 2 were in the process of construction and 2 with both birds incubating eggs. New birds photographed included Bearded Scrub-Robin, White-bellied and Marico Sunbirds, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Red-billed Firefinch, Terrestrial Brownbul, Grey-headed Bush-Shrike and the Grey Tit-Flycatcher. The Diderick Cuckoos were very active and vocal around the hundreds of weaver’s nests. African Goshawk was found late one evening in a thick wooded area and Black Sparrowhawk displaying during the day in the skies overhead. The Lodge has a number of man-made dams incorporated into gardens which attracts many water species including the expected ducks and geese, egrets, an African Openbill, herons and warblers, all which are available for close up and personal viewing.

African Openbill

 

Tawny Eagle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not a day passed without me visiting the park. Unfortunately the first 2 days were overcast and rainy making photography difficult when shooting against the sky and I was regularly over-exposing by 1 up to 2 stops with the resultant washed-out backgrounds. Due to the rain the raptors were effectively grounded (treed) and Tawny Eagles were common (not relying on colour when identifying raptors was borne out by the Tawny Eagles which ranged from tawny through to dark brown and mottled colours) plus we had good sightings of the Wahlberg’s and Steppe Eagle, Bateleur, Brown Snake Eagle, African Hawk Eagle, African Harrier Hawk, Fish-Eagles, Amur Falcon and Gabar Goshawk. Lappet-faced Vultures were also regularly encountered.

Grey Heron

 

Yellow-billed Stork

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of my highlights was witnessing the maiden flight of a White-backed Vulture. I spotted the vulture which appeared to be sleeping (or evading the rain) with head tucked under its wing close to a leopard kill that was about to be stolen by hyenas – a fascinating bush encounter, but I was more interested in the vulture! On one of my returns to the site I was rewarded to see the bird preparing for its first flight by flexing it wings and jumping off its perch. This continued for over half an hour, culminating in a flight of about 20 metres to a nearby tree, where it landed clumsily.

White-backed Vulture

 

Saddle-billed Stork

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adjacent to the Lower Sabie Rest Camp is the Sunset Dam which offers incredible wild life viewing. From this one spot you can watch Squacco and Grey Herons hitching rides and fishing on the backs of hippos (a Grey Heron hitching a ride actually caught a fish mid air – as the hippo moves through the dam the water around boils with fish and the heron plucked the fish out the air), see Saddle-billed and Yellow-billed Storks foraging in the shallows and an abundance of Common, Marsh and Wood Sandpipers along with Black Crake, Black-winged Stilt, Ruff and African Jacanas and Water Thick-knee along the shore edge as well as inland Blacksmith Lapwing and Three-banded Plover and a real special, the White-crowned Lapwing. Also seen were White-faced Whistling, Yellow-billed and African Black Duck, Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, a host of Masked-Weavers nesting communally in a dead tree in the water and Egyptian Geese breeding on top of the buffalo weaver’s nests. A Purple Heron caught a large tilapia and I was surprised at the ease with which it swallowed the fish whole!

The bridge over the Sabie River was productive too, despite the traffic. A Giant Kingfisher and Wire-tailed Swallow sat on the bridge edge only metres from the car quite unperturbed by our presence and afforded a fantastic photo opportunity. Highlights from this site included watching a Green-backed Heron catch a swallow fledgling (probably Wire-tailed). It was trying to swallow the bird whole but it proved quite a task – it would swallow, then regurgitate the bird for some further rock bashing, wet it and try again but after 25 minutes it still had not managed to consume it. A Hamerkop and Black Crake showed interest and approached the heron but like me, eventually lost interest and moved on.

Magpie Shrike

 

Green-backed Heron

 

 

 

 

 

 

On one occasion we had stopped to admire a Goliath Heron perched majestically on some rocks and as we moved off spotted a large brown otter in a rock pool, herding and wolfing down small fish and managed to get some great shots of his feasting.

I was a bit perplexed by the fact that by the fourth day not one lark or pipit had been photographed and I began actively looking for them - unsuccessfully. I am not sure if there is an explanation for their apparent absence (other than the condition of my approaching 60 year old eyes). However Cisticolas were regularly encountered and I tried out a new identification strategy. Having recently acquired the Newman / King “LBJ’s" Made Simple” book and DVD the strategy was to locate a bird, listen to it sing and then play through all the calls on the disc and try and confirm the bird. A good try, but as there are about 26 cisticolas on the disc it was frustrating and merely served to reinforce my resolve to invest in one of the audio products where one can restrict the options to the 5 or 6 birds you are likely to encounter in the region. The only certain identification was a Rattling Cisticola and possibly the Rufous-winged.

White-crowned Lapwing
White-throated Robin-Chat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other specials in Kruger were a Red-crested Korhaan displaying right next to the road completely unconcerned by our presence and a Green-backed Heron in the Crocodile River which I photographed off the one way bridge. Purple Rollers, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove and Red-billed Queleas were photographed for the first time while Jacobin Cuckoos were frequently seen, including a black morph and Levaillant’s Cuckoo which we encountered on two occasions. Bearded, Golden-tailed and Cardinal Woodpeckers were successfully photographed and the very vocal Woodland Kingfisher prominent on exposed branches as was a Brown-hooded Kingfisher which posed obligingly for the camera. The feisty Crested Francolins were all displaying and we watched a pair of cocks “fighting”, clashing their chests up against each other and grappling with their claws causing feathers to fly! The ubiquitous Magpie Shrikes proved to be photogenic posing in good light with the perfect background whilst displaying.

 
Grey-headed Bush-Shrike

 

Black-headed Oriole

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we left Ngwenya for Dikhololo in the North West, I insisted we detour via Carolina as on the way to Swaziland we had seen numerous Long-tailed Widowbirds, but as it had been raining, no photography was possible. I did not want to miss the opportunity of photographing them so detour we did via a secondary rather poor road, adding hours to our journey and finally had some success in getting some not so great photos. We should not have bothered because they are far more common and habituated in Rietvlei Nature Reserve but at the time I had no plans to go there! Dikhololo is a resort 35 kilometres north of Brits and the birding in the area is outstanding. As there is no dangerous game, one can walk freely through the reserve which is a plus for birders. I would drive until I found a likely spot, leave the car and walk through the bushveld. This produced the usual batises, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babblers along with some first-timers – Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Greater Honeyguide, African Wattled Lapwing and Spotted Flycatcher. There had been a Black-headed Oriole calling continuously and at last light I was able to approach close to the bird without disturbing it.

White-fronted Bee-eater

 

 
Woodland Kingfisher

 

 

 

 

 

 

To provide some guidance for the trip, I used both Callan/Spottiswoode/Roussouw’s Southern Africa Birdfinder and Marais Peacock’s Gauteng Birding and the suggestion in the latter that Dikhololo was a good place to find Mocking Cliff-Chat led to another highlight. I declared a particular afternoon a “find the cliff chat” project and was rewarded, but not as I planned! Having climbed in my opinion the most likely kopje, I caught glimpses of a bird I thought was the cliff chat and sat patiently for over half an hour waiting for them to re-appear but nothing showed. Despondently I climbed down the kopje using a different route and there at the base were a pair of Mocking Cliff-Chats feeding on the rock faces completely unconcerned about my presence and photographs were assured.

On consecutive days I spent the mornings at Vaalkop Dam, Roodekoppies Dam and Borakalalo National Park. At Vaalkop and Roodekoppies dams, the new birds seen were Black-winged Pratincole, Hottentot Teal, Black Heron (which was hunting fish with the wings in the characteristic umbrella shape shading the water), Blue-cheeked Bee-Eater, Jameson’s Firefinch, Southern Black Tit and Whiskered Tern. A Brown-hooded Kingfisher with prey posed for me and there were literally hundreds of White-breasted and Reed Cormorants, White-winged Tern plus the usual ducks, teals and egrets. To get to the dams one passes through farmland and to be seen are Yellow-crowned and Red Bishops, White-winged and Fan-tailed Widowbirds and many Red-billed Queleas. In terms of the whole trip the standout for this area was the number of Camera Lifers. I imagined after 10 days of intensive birding that the numbers of new birds would begin to drop off but the North West produced the highest number of camera lifers.

Mocking Cliff-Chat

 

Green Wood-Hoopoe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Borakalalo National Park was a bit rushed but worth the effort. The wetland birds were abundant with plenty of cormorants, ducks, herons and egrets. Greenshank and Spoonbill were evident and Fish Eagles (including a nesting pair) were seen at regular intervals. New birds photographed were African Pied Babbler and Lesser Grey Shrike. A picnic brunch was enjoyed under a tree housing a nesting Green Wood-Hoopoe and the adjacent tree housed nesting Cape Glossy Starlings. Woodland Kingfishers were very vocal all around.

For the return trip to Pretoria I decided to travel via Kgomo Kgomo on the renowned Zaagkuildrift Road along the Pienaarsrivier. I left at 5am and experienced some hellish roads for my small hired car to negotiate. As it was end November it was very dry and I was driving West to East directly into the sun but again it was well worth it. Amusingly, I was stopped by a local farmer who informed me he had been tracking me, thinking I might be a rustler as cattle had been stolen – apparently the erratic tracks of a birder going from side to side, stopping, reversing etc would fit the behaviour of the persons he was seeking! Specials for the morning were a number of Long-tailed Paradise-Whydahs followed by a Long-billed Crombec feeding on an irruption of small flying ants, Black-chested Prinia, Black-faced Waxbill, Northern Black Korhaan, Scaly-feathered Finch, displaying Burchell’s Starling and displaying Rufous-naped Lark. All in all however the birds seen were too many to name and the mentioned are the ones most obliging for the camera!

Long-tailed Paradise Whydah

 

 
Black-chested Prinia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our flight out to Cape Town was scheduled to leave at 3pm and as the dearly beloved was booked for pampering I decided to spend the morning at Rietvlei Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Pretoria. As it is predominantly grassland there is not a huge variety of birds, but those that are abound and are good for photography. Widowbirds were everywhere and I succeeded with my first photos of a Red-collared Widowbird. Nesting Secretarybirds were seen as well as some close to the road hunting through the grass. Greater Kestrels (I had identified them as Lesser Kestrels, but Anton confirmed them as Greater Kestrels resulting in my 0/3 on raptors I referred to him) were seen in some dead gumtrees and later on an anthill. Larks and pipits were common and firsts were the Dusky Lark and Plain-backed Pipit. Rufous-naped Larks were again in full song and displaying close to the road and the Cape Longclaw was common along with the Banded Martin and at the dam the expected waterbirds were found. Before leaving the reserve I spent some time in a hide photographing a Whiskered Tern and got into conversation with a fellow birder who turned out to be Ron Cook, one of the artists for Roberts Bird Book who was there to observe the Whiskered Tern which was his current project. I thought it rather poignant that the curtain close to my November of birding should be in the camaraderie of a stranger but nonetheless, a fellow birder.

Long-tailed Widowbird
Red-collared Widowbird



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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