Posted on the 22nd January 2015

For my annual bush and camping week from 21 to 30 November last year I visited three of our national parks, Addo and Mountain Zebra in the Eastern Cape and Nature’s Valley in Western Cape and spent 3 nights in each. Traditionally, I take this time to visit Kgalagadi, however Dearly Beloved had asked I not return thereunless she can join me, and these were a good alternative choice and still within reasonable driving distance. (It was decided to break this long report into three shorter reports, each with it's own photographs. - Ed).

I found Mountain Zebra stunning - if I have been a bit deprecating about Addo, quite the opposite applies to this park. Perhaps it is my preference for more arid environments. Although every afternoon thunderstorms built up, “thunder and lightning very, very frightening”, by large the rain missed us although the few raindrops that did fall were as big as pancakes on the dry earth.
Mountain Zebra is in a mountainous regionand is described as being part of the Karoo. The Wilgerboom River runs through the park and contains thick riverine acacia habitat. The mountain and upland plains are generally grass and Karoo shrublands which is preferred by most of the game on display in the park.

African Rock Pipit
Spike-heeled Lark










This is real LBJ country and I was rewarded with close up views of most of my target species – African Rock Pipit, Long-billed Pipit, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Spike-heeled Lark and Eastern Clapper Lark. African Pipit were very common. Cloud Cisticola displayed often and their identity was confirmed by the response to the song playback from my “tab”.
It is not only about LBJ’s though and there were many and varied sightings of interest. Soon after entering the park, 3 Secretarybirds were seen chasing each other round a knob thorn tree. Feathers were flying and my photos later revealed that 2 adult birds appeared to be attacking and chasing off a juvenile. I conjecture that either this was forced weaning of the young bird, or unfortunately the juvenile had intruded on the adult’s territory. The young Secretary Bird disappeared over a hill with the other 2 in hot pursuit so I did not witness how the saga ended.
I spent more than half an hour with a Brown-hooded Kingfisher that had caught, of all things, a scorpion It would bash the scorpion against the bark of an acacia tree, toss it in the air, and then continue the bashing, “softening up” it’s prey. From the photos it appears the sting was already removed when I first found the bird. The tail was eaten first and eventually after much more bashing, the entire scorpion was consumed.
On an afternoon drive up one of the mountain roads, a Ground Woodpecker was flushed and flew down the mountainside towards the Wilgerboom River 500 metres below. What was interesting was that it entered a hole in a sandbank in the river and I see from subsequent reading that they indeed do nest in excavations in stream and riverbanks. The other notable fact was that on leaving the nest, the bird settled in the upper branches of a dead tree, which is the first time I have seen a Ground Woodpecker not on the ground. It remained in the tree until I left. Sadly, the photos evidencing these events are not great quality, but they do tell the story.

Young Red-throated Wryneck
Brown-hooded Kingfisher










I encountered and photographed Red-throated Wrynecks twice, one a juvenile. I use the Robert’s App Birding Sites program and it was noteworthy that they do not reference Wryneck’s as present on their Mountain Zebra bird list. I had good views of all 3 buntings including Cinnamon-breasted which on two occasions were present on the steep concrete road going up the mountain. Raptors were plentiful, most common being Jackal Buzzard, Rock Kestrel, Lanner Falcon and Pale Chanting Goshawk. I believe I saw Cape Eagle Owl again, but this was at dusk and the bird was in flight so without a photo, I will not claim it.
Some of the arid species that were regularly encountered included Scaly-feathered Finch, Red-headed Finch, Rufous-cheeked Warbler, Karoo Scrub Robin, Ant-eating Chat, Bokmakierie, Pin-tailed Whydahs, Pied Starlings, Familiar and Sickle-winged Chats and Neddicky. There were a number of Blue Cranes which I’m sure are good sightings for the area. In one particular spot, Northern Black Korhaan was always present and very vocal and Spotted Thick-knees were also in the same field. On the dams there were Little Grebe, White-faced Whistling Duck, Reed Cormorant, White-breasted Cormorant, African Shelduck, Three-banded Plover and Coots and Moorhens.

White-faced Ducks
Cape Bunting










The Camp-site was also fruitful with habituated birds. Karoo Prinia and Bar-throated Apalis were common and Acacia Pied Barbet were visible and vocal. All 3 Mousebird species were seen, along with the expected Swallows and Swifts. Rock Martin were nesting above the men‘s loo door and 3 fledglings were still roosting there every night. After dark, Barn Owl and Spotted Eagle-Owl were heard. I keep reminding myself to begin keeping lists, but the above should illustrate how productive Mountain Zebra is even without mentioning the more common starlings, robin chats, weavers, canaries and the like.
I believe the Big Bird-Guide in the Sky bestows blessings on us birders. There were 2 examples of these blessings from this trip. As is my habit, when I arrived at Mountain Zebra just before noon, I traced the shadows from the tree at my chosen site, stuck the stick in the ground and boiled the kettle for a cup of tea whilst sitting back to see which way the sun would be setting. An Acacia Pied Barbet was calling from a tree nearby and I took my camera to photograph it. It was midday and the photos were so-so. In accordance with Anton’s “mossie syndrome”, I paid little attention to the bird in the background, probably assuming it was a Streaky-headed Seedeater. My geography exercise paid dividends and I found I did not know my North from my South and that my chosen site would be in full sun for the afternoon siesta. I therefore moved 2 sites down, adjacent to the tree in which the barbet had been sitting. Whilst lying on the bed for my nap the next afternoon, I again saw the “nondescript” bird and realised it was not a seedeater. After watching it for a while, I noticed a hole in the tree which was probably an old barbet’s nest. A fledgling then stuck its head out of the nest. It took me some time to establish what the bird was. On the trail I met a retired couple from Port Elizabeth (whilst watching the African Rock Pipit) and when telling them about this new find, she said “it sounds like the name of a sea-shell” and her husband said “no, more like the name of a flower”. It was in fact a Yellow-throated Petronia and probably the last bird I expected to see (here or ever). Had I not moved camp-sites, I would not ever have realized that in the first photo of the barbet with the out of focus bird in the background, I had captured an image of a lifer for my photo list.

Acacia Pied Barbet with "mystery bird"
Yellow-throated Petronia










The second experience was at Nature’s Valley. It was 4:30 in the morning of the last day of my trip and I was gearing myself for an early departure for the long drive back to Stanford. On my way down I had stayed in Forest Hut 4 and I requested this on the return trip, but the receptionist informed me I would be in Number 3 and recommended this as a better site. Tea seems to play a part in these blessings - I was enjoying an early morning cuppa on the front deck overlooking my little patch of river, the light was just beginning to brighten and in the reflection off the still water, I could see a kingfisher. The kingfisher dived into the pool twice and each time settled back on its perch and although still too dark for a photograph, I could see it was a Half-collared Kingfisher. I watched it for more than half an hour before it flew upstream. The only other time I have seen this kingfisher was when we took the ferry up the Keurbooms River with the objective to find this bird.Here I merely sat on my front deck.
These 2 sightings must count as blessings as they were entirely dependent on the camp sites I ended up at. It was a fitting end to a wonderful birding and camping trip. 

Three Secretarybirds
















Eastern Long-billed Lark
Ant-eating Chat











STEPHEN SMUTS (posted: 2015-01-27 16:46:26)
Thanks so much for this. My wife and I will be at the park overnight on 7th February. Thanks to this great writeup, I\'m sure we will wish our stay was much longer.