Birds and other wildlife in Southern Africa
September 23rd - October 15th 2005
Authors: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
This holiday was a long time in the planning. We wanted to combine lots of bird watching with other wildlife and an element of sightseeing. We decided against a headlong rush to tick all the endemics, near endemics and rarities, trusting that visiting a range of habitats and occasionally using the services of a guide would produce a good range and variety of species. We started off with a modest target of 300 birds, which we achieved easily. There is lots of excellent information available on the Internet and elsewhere. We subscribed to the CapeBirdNet listserver (see ) which gave us a few invaluable contacts and allowed us to 'twitch' a couple of local rarities around Cape Town and picked up some excellent trip reports from the usual sites (fatbirder, birdtours.co.uk, travellingbirder, etc.) and by early 2005 had our itinerary pretty much worked out). We wanted to do a pelagic from Cape Town, neither of us having seen albatrosses, we wanted to visit the Kruger, we fancied excursions into Lesotho and Swaziland and having heard comedian Ross Noble's description of the antics in Hermanus during the whale festival, we wanted to see the Whale Crier too. Having made some decisions on the above, the rest of the holiday fell neatly in to place.
As usual we started off trying to book as much as possible on the Internet, but struggled to find inexpensive flights. We had been in correspondence with Malcolm & Gail Gemmill of Button Birding () having been seduced by the glowing trip reports from just about everyone who has bothered to provide feedback on their set-up. Gail put us in touch with a South African travel agent who was able to save us about £200 on flights (leaving from Heathrow, via Zurich and Johannesburg to Cape Town and returning from Johannesburg via Zurich) on the best price we could find. We sent her details of our full itinerary and she was also able to either save us money or get a room upgrade for the same price on several of our destinations, so we handed a chunk of the trip organisation to her. We could certainly have found cheaper flights had we waited until nearer the dates of travel, but we wanted to ensure that we could secure reservations in a number of places, so decided to bite the bullet and spend the money up front.
We had a total budget of £6500 to include everything from leaving Heathrow to getting back there. We under spent by between £1100 and £1200, but could have spent much less. We stayed in a couple of quite expensive places and chose quite a few decent bottles of wine. We also stayed in some much more down market accommodation and found it to be consistently excellent - clean, well maintained and with working plumbing and hot water. At current prices and exchange rates it should be possible to spend rather less and still have an excellent time.
Major items of expenditure were as follows:
Return flights - LHR - CPT - £1045
Flights - CPT - Durban - 99
Car Hire - CPT - 99
Care Hire - Durban - 711
Misty Beach Chateau - 165
Button Birding - 530
Cape Town Pelagic - 176
Flights, the pelagic and accommodation were for 2. The car in Cape Town (4 nights - Class A) was booked by our travel agent, through Avis. The car from Durban, dropping off in Johannesburg was booked over the Internet with Budget. We ended up with a Volkswagen Sharan, having decided to opt for a larger vehicle with plenty of room and an elevated driving/passenger position. The consensus view seems to be that for places like the Kruger National Park, a foot or so of extra height can be useful when viewing game in open grassy areas. We would tend to agree with this view.
South Africa is a big country. Internal flights via Kulula.com are fairly inexpensive and almost certainly quicker in the case of transfers from, say Cape Town to Durban or Johannesburg than driving. Major roads and motorways are mostly excellent and driving standards are usually quite high. Most motorways are toll roads. The tolls are typically quite small - between ZAR 2.5 and ZAR 12 but collected quite frequently with toll plazas every 50 km or so. Keep plenty of change available if you're planning on driving a long distance on a toll route, such as the Durban to St. Lucia road. Distances on road signs are in kilometres and most people drive on the left-hand side most of the time. On narrower roads, slower moving vehicles will often try to move over and let faster vehicles past. Similar driving conditions apply in Lesotho and Swaziland. At major junctions there are often speed bumps to slow people down (or wake them up!).
Border crossings between South Africa and Lesotho and Swaziland were efficient and straightforward. This might change a bit at busy periods. Allow at least 30 minutes for Swaziland, a little less for Lesotho, although it might be an idea to expect longer delays and then be grateful if you get through quickly. There are forms to sign and a small fee for vehicles. South African Rand are widely accepted in both countries. At the Swazi border posts there were helpful officials around who seemed to target tourists and point them in the direction of the correct counters, explaining where to park, who to pass documentation to, etc.
Some useful tips
Malaria can be a problem in some of the areas we visited, but most places on our route are malaria free. Consult your physician. Much of southern Africa has been subject to a prolonged drought, which may explain why we saw so few mosquitoes, even when sitting outdoors at night in the Kruger.
Beer drinkers might be disappointed with the range currently on offer in most of South Africa, but cider drinkers will be pleased to learn that there is a thriving market for their tipple. Savannah Dry is widely available and a perfect dust settler after a long and often hot day's birding.
If this is your first visit to the region, consider taking some kind of camcorder. We picked up a fairly low spec Sony digital camcorder for under £300 from Amazon. We were able to get some reasonable footage of lots of birds and mammals.
If you are a photographer and have 'gone digital', expect to take a lot of photos. We took well in excess of 4000 in the period. At high resolution, that's a lot of data, so it is worth considering a suitable portable storage medium. There are lots on the market and they will probably work out much cheaper than buying dozens of memory cards. There is a risk of having all ones eggs in the same basket though, because for a couple of hours we thought we'd lost ours, with 2 weeks worth of photos. Might be an idea to find a PC from time to time and make some back up discs.
Telescopes proved useful. On balance, if you have a 'scope, then we would say that it's worth taking with you.
We expected to see plenty of mammals in South Africa, but hadn't anticipated seeing a new UK mammal on the way to the airport. Nonetheless, as we were driving down the M40 in South Oxfordshire a Muntjac appeared at the side of the road. We were quite excited but from checking on the Internet, this species is quite common in the area.
We arrived in Cape Town early afternoon, a frustrating 30+ minutes late after about 14 hours of travel. We then had a bit of a delay picking the car up because they didn't have all the paperwork. We'd already picked up a few species whilst transferring at Johannesburg airport, with the first bird seen being Cape Sparrow, but the first species positively identified being a flyover Hammerkop. Driving from the airport we saw up a few more easy/large species.
We were staying at Boulder's Beach, near Simon's Town so we decided to drive straight to our hotel, drop off our gear and get out to use the last few hours of daylight. Looking at the map, this looks an easy drive. If done correctly it should take about an hour, but we somehow managed to take a wrong turn and wasted another 30 minutes recovering from our mistake. The best bet is probably to head for the coast as quickly as possible and follow it round.
When we finally reached the coast road we stopped to get a few images of Hartlaub's and Cape Gulls, adding Cape Canary into the bargain (these birds were around the beach car park next to the first roundabout after turning right onto the coast road. We then drove through a few small coastal towns before reaching Boulder's Beach, a few kms beyond Simon's Town.
We booked in to the Boulder's Beach Lodge, a hotel that we would heartily recommend (in fact our assessment of the hotels is going to get a bit boring, because we have little but praise for every place we stayed). If you've got this far, you probably realise that Boulder's Beach is famous for one thing - penguins. We chose the lodge for it's proximity to these birds and we weren't disappointed. We saw our first before we'd even got out of the car.
We dropped (literally) our rucksacks off in the room and were straight out again, to get a better look at the penguins and other birds. We found our first Egyptian Geese - the only species we saw every single day (Hadeda Ibis was seen every day except the day of arrival) in the car park and a Cape Robin showing very well in the bushes there as well and after some very close encounters with penguins set of in the car south towards the Cape of Good Hope.
The drive south passes through a few small villages and lots of much wilder country. We had a few stops for birds and a mongoose (first mammal of the trip) and by the time we got to the gates for the Cape Point Reserve they were closed. We birded the fynbos around the gate for half an hour, getting excellent views of Orange-breasted and Malachite Sunbirds and then drove slowly north, stopping wherever we saw birds. Blacksmith Plovers, various Cormorants, African Black Oystercatchers and other common but interesting birds were found quite easily, although Cape Bulbuls took a bit more work. Near to the Reserve gates we found a small herd of Cape Mountain Zebras. These lovely animals are all descended from a single tiny herd rescued by a Cape farmer who realised that habitat loss, hunting etc. had brought them near to extinction.
Back at the hotel we 'phoned Ross Wanless of 'Zest for Birds' to discover to our dismay that the next day's pelagic trip had been cancelled as a result of poor weather. Needless to say, we were disappointed, but safety has to be paramount on excursions like this and there was a chance that the weather would improve for Sunday.
For our evening meal we did the longish drive to Cape Town via the Chapman's Peak road and easily found the famous V&A Waterfront. If you're thinking of visiting, it might be best to find one of the underground car parks because the free car parks were overflowing and we wasted 20 minutes trying to find a space before spotting the ramp. Parking charges are low compared to Western Europe. We ate in the excellent Cape Town Fish Market restaurant. This was, with a decent bottle of South African fizz, much the most expensive meal of the trip but was worth the effort and the expense (actually only £48 on the credit card bill). We found out about it from the useful site that has details of a range of places to eat around the region.
Early morning was spent with the penguins and after breakfast we set off for Cape Point. We paused to look at the Mountain Zebras again and then drove south, stopping wherever we saw birds. Cape Sugarbirds seemed thin on the ground but those we did find were quite obliging, despite being blown about by the strong winds pummelling the peninsular.
Our first Ostriches were on the beach near the Cape of Good Hope and several other birds were seen, but most of the avian interest was at sea, presumably because the weather was keeping terrestrial birds in cover.
We had a fallback in case the pelagic was a no go and so made our way to the V&A waterfront where we were met by a South African birder who we had contacted via CapeBirdNet. He had very kindly agreed to arrange for access for us to the port area and to escort us to a major (about three each decade) local rarity. We followed in the car and then were driven through various security checkpoints and down a long pier where we quickly located our target, about half a mile away at the end of another pier. Another 10 minute drive and some more checkpoints saw us at the end of this pier, where a Greater Sheathbill posed obligingly for photographs, albeit in rather poor light conditions. A Bank Cormorant was also present here. The Sheathbills in Cape Town will certainly be ship assisted, with this bird having appeared shortly after the arrival of a cargo vessel from Argentina.
Flushed with success at having seen such an unusual bird, we drove through the centre of Cape Town to the Strandfontein Sewage Works. This is a quite excellent site and nowhere near as noxious as it sounds (although perhaps it has bad days). If anything, the wind had worsened and the reed bed areas were virtually impossible to bird - any warblers foolhardy enough to be out in the open were swinging Tarzan-like on windblown reeds. However larger birds were very much in evidence with plenty of ducks, herons, pelicans and flamingos. Pride of place went to a trio of Lesser Flamingos that we worked quite hard to find, with strong support from a beautiful African Fish Eagle - a bird that was to become very familiar over the next few weeks. To a local birder, our best discovery might well have been a Squacco Heron that we glimpsed near the security checkpoint. Although fairly common in the north of the region, we were given to understand that this was quite unusual at Strandfontein.
Access is quite simple. A Google search should provide a number of hits with access info and maps. Approaching from the airport side you come first to a causeway between two pools. There are plenty of birds in this area and we managed to identify our first Levaillant's Cisticola here but better birding can be had by driving across the causeway towards the treatment plant buildings and signing in at the gatehouse. The access gate is locked behind you, so make sure you check what time you're expected to be out! We were ravenous by the time we left Strandfontein, having failed to be anywhere to eat at suitable times, so sacrificed the last bit of daylight in favour of finding a chip shop in, appropriately, Fish Hoek. Very English looking from the outside, but with a rather more exotic menu. We opted for snoek and chips and if my memory serves me correctly, mushy peas.
Another 'phone call to Ross confirmed our fears. No pelagic would run, so no albatrosses, no Pintado Petrels for us.
We had dinner at the restaurant attached to the Boulder's Beach Lodge. It was pretty good and a very good price. We were fast developing a taste for South African wines.
Early morning was spent with the penguins again then we said goodbye to Boulder's Beach and set off on a rather roundabout route to Hermanus. We had been advised by our Sheathbill contact that Kommetije, on the west coast south of Cape Town, was a good sea watching spot so we made our way there with a few stops en route. We set up scopes on the beach near the lighthouse but the waves were pretty big and our position not very elevated, so viewing wasn't great. The commonest bird was probably Sooty Shearwater which was present in hundreds and we both quickly got on to distant albatrosses but had to accept that our lack of experience combined with the split second views we had before the birds were obscured by the next wave was going to stop us getting a positive ID. We were ready to pack up and move on but suddenly noticed a large brown bird not far off shore. We quickly got the scopes on to it and were able to get a good enough view to confirm our first suspicion - Southern Great Petrels. It wasn't much like the petrels we're used to 'up north' and it's clear that confusion between this and Northern Great Petrel is likely, but this was a very pale-headed bird indeed.
Our next stop was only a little further on, when we halted to have a look at the terns and waders on the shore and rocks at Kommetije. Antarctic terns were the most interesting species here although we might have missed a species or two from the hundreds of birds present.
After lunch we headed for Hermanus. The drive took longer than expected. We checked in to the very upmarket Misty Beach Chateau, which is much nicer than its rather twee name suggests and got straight out onto the cliffs with the scopes. After much searching we came across our first Southern Right Whale, about 2 miles across the bay, beating its tail repeatedly on the surface of the sea. A stroll in the dimming light along the sea front produced a few gulls including some Grey-headed Gulls in various plumages and lots of Dassies (Rock Hyraxes).
Dinner was at Dros in Hermanus. Don't have a starter if you're having the Eisbein. Don't have the Eisbein if you think you might like to try to stand up at the end of the meal.
We did a little birding on the cliffs in front of Misty Beach Chateau and then popped into Hermanus for a bit of shopping and to get some stamps. Afterwards we drove the short distance to the Fernkloof NR, which is a stunning place with hillsides covered in flowering plants. We were hoping to look for Cape Rockjumper but quickly realised that we'd made a major error in not bringing any drinks with us. The sun was hot and the reserve is quite exposed so we turned back after less than 2 kms. Quite a lot of good birds, though, included close up views of Cape Sugarbird, Malachite Sunbird and Cape Grassbird.
We fancied eating at a place called Bientang's Cave in Hermanus that we'd found on the internet. Great food and superb views across the bay. We'd been sitting for about 10 minutes when we realised that there were whales out in the bay. They were a fair distance off but were surfacing frequently and as we dined they drew closer. We counted 4 or 5. By the time we'd finished, a couple of the whales were close to the shore and seemed to be slowly heading west, the direction of Misty Beach Chateau. We jumped in the car, parked at the hotel and grabbed the scopes, camera etc. and crossed the road to the cliff tops. The whales had got there before us, and to our surprise there were about 20 of them, mostly packed in to the small bay in front of the hotel. We watched and listened to them for ages and completely forgot any plans to go birding in the afternoon. This might be a commonplace sight in Hermanus, but for us it was something unique.
We were due to fly to Durban in the mid-afternoon and had a leisurely start for us, with breakfast followed by a stroll along the cliffs into Hermanus. We then set off back towards Cape Town to catch our flight, stopping on the way to look at any birds we saw. We harboured an idea that we might pause at Sir Lowry's Pass for a final stab at Cape Rockjumper, but with stops on the way the journey took much longer than expected and we got to the airport with minutes to spare at check-in. The birding highlight en-route was a single Blue Crane just south of the town of Caledon - the only Blue Crane we saw during the trip.
We arrived at Durban airport in a light drizzle and picked up our rental car, a Volkswagen Sharan. It took us a while to get underway because the car, which had less than 1000 km on the clock, had a faulty light on the dashboard. After agreeing with the rental company that they'd record the fault, we set off south west down the motorway for Creighton in what had become torrential rain. We missed our turn off, got stuck behind several large vehicles and arrived at Creighton well after dark. Anybody intending to visit Button Birding (and we have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending that all birders in the area do so) will probably realise that there are two obvious ways to get there from Durban. The route via Pietermaritzburg is probably better than the route along the coast.
On arrival at Button Birding, which is signposted for the final few kilometres of the route and easy to find, we received a warm welcome from Gail and Malcolm Gemmill and were shown to our room and given a chance to freshen up before dinner. Dinner at the Gemmills is a wonderful experience. Gail is an exceptional chef with a wide repertoire. Meals are served in the farmhouse dining room and there is a good choice of South African wines and beers to go with the food.
We were introduced to Button Birding's other client, a Costa Rican bird guide who originated from France, and made plans for the next few days. Jean-Claude had a number of target birds, we had none because we simply wanted to see whatever was available, so we agreed to an early start the following morning, aiming to be near the Sani Pass shortly after dawn.
It was well before dawn when we left Button Birding in Malcolm?s Land Rover and we made good time towards Lesotho, stopping occasionally for any roadside birds we saw along the way. It was noticeably chilly as we climbed into the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains New species were being seen frequently and by the time we reached a large dam beyond Underburg we we?d seen over 110 species in South Africa. The dam was excellent and with Malcolm directing, we stood in the sub-zero temperature and light (fortunately!) breeze and worked right to left across the lake and surrounding grasslands. There were about 25 species visible, ranging from the (for us) very familiar, such as Ruff, Greenshank and Common Sandpiper, through the interesting (Marsh Sandpiper, Hammerkop) to the downright exotic (Grey Crowned Crane and Pied Starling).
The drive up the Sani Pass is well-known to all local travellers for the condition of the road (only 4WD drive vehicles are allowed through the border post) and to birdwatchers because several interesting or uncommon species can be seen there. We started off pretty well with African Yellow Warbler, Gurney?s Sugarbird and superb views of Ground Woodpecker before the border post but Bush Blackcap refused to put in an appearance. After the post, but still in South Africa, Malcolm was delighted to get exceptional and prolonged views of Barratt?s Warbler, a species that many of his clients want to see and which is a notorious skulker. We climbed the pass, stopping from time to time for birds in chilly conditions with mist, fog and occasional snow flurries and we were delighted to see our first Orange-breasted Rockjumpers at about 2700m asl.
After passing through the Lesotho customs post at the top of the Sani Pass, we drove the short distance to the Sani Top Chalet to book in and claim our rooms. The chalet is the highest pub in Africa at nearly 2900 m asl. Rooms are cosy, with shared facilities and food is served in the bar.
After checking in, we set off into Lesotho in search of Lammergeiers. Unsurprisingly, at this altitude many of the birds found are different to those lower down and were therefore new to us. Sentinel Rock Thrush are common around the chalet and as we moved away from the escarpment we left the clouds and fog behind and found ourselves in bright sunlight, ticking Sickle-winged Chat, Bald Ibis and Thick-billed and Red-capped Larks in quick succession. We then stopped for lunch underneath a sun-kissed cliff that contained a Lammergeier?s nest and before very long one of these magnificent birds drifted past. Ignoring the nestling that kept giving partial views, this was the first of seven Lammergeier sightings over the next two days.
Whilst we were sitting (Malcolm provides deck chairs and cool beer for the lunch break as well as more of Gail?s marvellous creations) we were joined by a couple of Basuto shepherds who stood for a while silently watching us. Malcolm offered them some of our lunch and we asked them for permission to take a few photographs. We?re normally a bit wary of taking photos of this sort for a bit of ?local colour? but Malcolm explained that they would be hoping that we would ask, in exchange for a gift of currency. These shepherds are some of the poorest people in Africa and hence in the whole world, so any extra cash they can get comes in very handy.
It is perhaps in Lesotho and especially in the person of these shepherds that the reality of Africa is truly embodied. In the 30 or so miles we had driven from the border we had passed two small settlements, no other vehicles and very few people. The people here have no access to electricity or other power sources and exist on what little their livestock can provide. Night time temperatures often drop to below freezing and pastures are poor. Living up here is tougher than most westerners can imagine and those that visit can quickly return to the safer, warmer, healthier environments over the border.
Having finished lunch, we headed back to Sani Top, stopping wherever we saw birds and to take photographs of the stunning, empty upland scenery. More Lammergeier were seen, along with Southern Grey Tit, Lanner and Layard?s Titbabbler.
Back at the chalet we spent some time watching the Sloggett?s Ice Rats that are quite abundant in the area. These are cuddly-toy cute with apparently very short limbs that spend much of their time sitting up for a better view. As the sun set we heard several calls from a Cape Eagle Owl from the cliffs opposite but we were unable to locate it with Jean-Jacques? spotlight. A hearty meal and a couple of bottles of cider were followed by an early night.
We awoke to find several millimetres of frost on the inside of the bedroom window, got dressed as quickly as possible and staggered outside for a look around before breakfast. With the temperature well below freezing we got a close look at some of the birds living around the chalet, the most interesting being the Sentinel Rock Thrushes that are common in the area. One bird we saw had a drop of condensation on the end of its bill that looked like a just-melted icicle.
A drive after breakfast allowed us to confirm that the birds we had been calling Familiar Chats during the previous day were, in fact Sickle-winged Chats and we finally found the elusive Mountain Pipit and Fairy Flycatcher before starting back down the Sani Pass.
The descent produced much the same selection of birds as the ascent, albeit frequently easier to find and identify in the bright sunlight. Malcolm stopped several times to search in vain for Eland but was able to locate a pair of Grey Rhebok, our first ever antelopes, high on an upland pasture.
We passed through the border controls on the South African side and a little further along the road halted to admire a Long-crested Eagle on a telegraph pole, when we heard a call that Malcolm immediately identified as a Red-chested Cuckoo. The call came from the grounds of Sani Backpackers, and whilst Malcolm went to check that we were ok to enter the property, we found the bird and added Bokmakerie and Southern Boubou to the list.
On our return to Button Birding in the late morning we took some time to freshen up and then investigated the great birdlife in the gardens. There is a large nesting colony of weavers and a pair of Hadeda Ibis was resident in the tree adjacent to the guest rooms. Small birds are numerous in the trees and bushes and around the many bird-feeders and we were able to obtain close views of Amethyst Sunbirds and Cape Glossy Starlings.
Button Birding takes its name from the Black-rumped Buttonquail and Malcolm was keen to find this species for us so he took us to one of his favoured sites. Unfortunately the field had recently been burned and no buttonquails were present, although we did find Denham?s Bustard and Black-winged Plover amongst other species.
We then moved on to the rather nice Ntsikeni Reserve where we found an excellent range of species including Olive Bush Shrike, Grey Cuckooshrike, Orange-throated Longclaw and Wattled Crane. We came across a vehicle that had run off the road and was stuck in a dry ditch. There was no room to get by so Malcolm stopped to help with the Land Rover and sent us on ahead with instructions to find Yellow-breasted Pipit. We did as instructed and by the time Malcolm arrived had also had distant views of a harrier-like raptor. It was either Pallid or Montagu?s but we didn?t get enough on it to be certain.
After a long drive over very rough and trackless ground, Malcolm stopped the car, set up the deck chairs and produced the cold drinks and we used the last hour of daylight relaxing with a view of a Cape Vulture nest site. Although there were a couple of large nestlings in residence, no adult birds appeared and we had to be content with yet another Lammergeier as the sun slowly sank behind the hills.
We returned to Creighton for another wonderful evening meal and the promise of yet another early start and some exciting birds in the morning.
Malcolm?s main target in the Xumeni Forest was the rare Orange Thrush and we made good time on the empty roads, stopping only to identify a Spotted Eagle Owl on a telegraph pole.
The forest is one of those magical birding spots in the early morning. Birdsong was everywhere and we quickly added new species to our list, including some pretty good ones. Knysna Louries were high in the trees and hard to see, as was a Narina Trogon. More obliging was another Grey Cuckooshrike and we picked up the Bush Blackcap that had eluded us two day earlier. Cape Parrots arrived in numbers from their roost sites and various warblers, bulbuls, finches and sunbirds were seen. Malcolm finally picked up the song of Orange Thrush and after some intense concentration we eventually got several glimpses of a single bird flitting between shadows inside the forest.
Breakfast was in the garden back at Creighton, surrounded by birds and afterwards we set off for another Buttonquail site, this being Jean-Jacques last day in the area. Yet again, this site had been burned and despite considerable effort, we failed again, although there was some compensation in the form of a pair of Oribi. There was plenty to compensate us, though and before the day was out we had easily passed 200 species for the trip.
When we?d said farewell to Jean-Jacques we took an afternoon walk from the house with Malcolm and collected Martial Eagle, Greater Honeyguide (something of a target bird, as we?d missed these in The Gambia), African Hoopoe and Red-billed Woodhoopoe along with a good supporting cast.
The day was rounded off with yet another failed attempt to find the Buttonquail and an equally unsuccessful try for Grass Owl that included a rather physical tramp through a marshy meadow, where the grass was frequently shoulder height. We were not particularly concerned about our failures, though, because we kept finding excellent birds to keep us interested. A final stop, with the now obligatory deckchairs and cider, was made to look for owls. We finally got excellent, prolonged close-up views of a Cape Eagle Owl but the wait was made worthwhile by sightings of Red-throated Wryneck, Red-winged Francolin and Black Saw-wing, whilst a pair of Grey Duikers were flushed from the bushes and a Black-backed Jackal called in the distance.
We had another early start on our last morning at Creighton to do some more forest birding. New species were getting harder to come by, but the forest was alive with birds and we soon started hearing the call of Orange Thrush. After about 20 minutes of waiting quietly, and getting brief glimpses of the bird it finally started showing well and then flew down and along the trail, passing within a few feet of us. We returned to Creighton for a final breakfast and on the way Malcolm?s sharp eyes picked out a Brimstone Canary in a field.
Our stop at Button Birding was one of the highlights of the holiday. Malcolm is an exceptional guide and we added 122 new species to our trip list in our 3 and a bit days there ? and that despite missing out on some of the areas (and Malcolm?s) specialities. We would recommend a visit to Button Birding without hesitation.
We set off on the long journey to St. Lucia, hoping to get there before dark as we wanted to take the sunset ?hippo cruise?. We were slightly surprised to see an African Goshawk sitting atop a telegraph pole near to where we?d failed to find Grass Owl the previous evening.
The drive from Creighton to St. Lucia was uneventful. The roads are good and traffic was light everywhere except in the area around Durban. The main coast road is a toll road, but the tolls are inexpensive by European standards. Have plenty of change and small notes available. We arrived in the village in mid-afternoon, booked ourselves onto the sunset cruise and a night drive, checked in to Kingfisher Lodge and still had time to have a quick stroll around the small Gwala Gwala reserve. We took a while to decide on our accommodation for St. Lucia as there were a number of choices that sounded good. We picked Kingfisher because it had a waterside location and was near the reserve (they actually share a car park). No doubt there are other good places to stay but most birders, especially those new to the area, will be satisfied with Kingfisher Lodge. The rooms are pleasant and cool, the breakfasts are good and the grounds have plenty of potential for birds. Indeed we got several new species from the breakfast table during our two mornings there.
After our brief look at Gwala Gwala, where the beautiful Natal Robin was amongst the 5 new birds that we recorded, we walked down to the jetty to board the hippo cruise. We had a brief moment of entertainment when we realised that the wooden jetty was on fire. Someone had discarded a cigarette that had lodged in one of the timbers under the main deck. The timbers had been treated with something like pitch and after a while there was a considerable amount of smoke and a few flames. For fine minutes there were interludes of high comedy as tourists tried to use their bottled mineral water to douse the flames and a steady stream of locals went back and forth to the river to refill the bottles. After a while someone had the sense to find a bucket on one of the boats moored at the jetty and a minor tragedy was averted.
The change of habitat meant that it was quite easy to pick up new species, although most of them were familiar ones, with Spotted Dikkop being the only lifer for us. We had a close up view of a Giant Kingfisher and most of the herons, egrets and storks seemed pretty unconcerned by the tourist boat as it passed close by with the PA system churning out the commentary. Hippos are quite common in the area and we got a good look at a group in the water.
We had time for a meal in the wonderfully named ?Fishy Pete?s?(the place looks a bit down-market from the front ? the first section is a take away chip shop ? but it had been recommended by the manager of Kingfisher Lodge and her advice was sound) before being picked up from the hotel for the night drive. The drive was to take us into the Cape Vidal reserve and, like the other night drives we were to take later in the holiday was in a tall, open-sided all terrain vehicle. From a wildlife perspective the drive was excellent. The guys on the spotlight were pretty competent and the guide didn?t concentrate on the large mammals but was happy to point out birds, insects and amphibian as well. Bird highlights were Kurrichane Buttonquail and Fiery-necked Nightjar as well as roosting Pygmy and Malachite Kingfishers and amongst the mammals, Broad-tailed Bush baby, Blotched Genet and Stripe-sided Jackal probably took pride of place, whilst reptiles were represented by a delightful Flap-necked Chameleon. The day?s wildlife experience was completed by the large number of Moreau?s Tropical House Geckos that had congregated around the lights outside the room before bedtime.
We?d earmarked this day for a drive to Cape Vidal, exploring the associated park on the way. There is a daily limit on the number of cars allowed into the park, so we decided to be at the gates shortly after opening time. A Lemon Dove at Kingfisher Lodge was a good start to the day and soon after we were in the park with it pretty much to ourselves. There wasn?t much to see, bird wise, despite the area having a pretty good reputation. We stopped at Mission Rocks and had a stroll along the beach were we found our first Tawny-Flanked Prinia, a species that was to be seen frequently thereafter. An odd looking tern resting on the beach seemed to be in rather poor health, with the upper mandible of the bill being too long and somewhat down curved and the crown appearing brownish rather than black. There was a large dark patch on the wing as well so this was probably a common tern. Sanderlings were the only waders to be seen.
We moved on to Cape Vidal where there we lots of Black/Yellow-billed Kites and a few birds around the cafeteria and chalets. Black-bellied Starling is listed as our 399th species in the bird list, but should really be the 241st. We were watching the bird coming to drink at a small pool and took photographs, but then a pair of Red-backed Mannikins arrived and distracted it and it was not until we went through our photographs, all 4700 of them, thanks to the wonder of digital photography and portable storage media, that we realised that we?d completely overlooked this one. We did not identify any other representatives of this species during the remainder of the holiday.
We actually managed a brief swim in the Indian Ocean, despite the fact that there are no shark nets at Cape Vidal (we didn?t go very far out) and after drying off, decided to drive slowly back through the park and book ourselves onto another night drive and the whale viewing trip scheduled for tomorrow morning. There were still few birds about although we did locate a small group of Woolly-necked Storks. On one of the loop roads we were blocked by a vehicle (the road is one way and single track) and the passenger got out and told us that there was a bushfire ahead and they weren?t sure whether to turn back. We didn?t fancy driving several miles against the flow of admittedly light traffic so told them we would carry on. They let us by and then followed us at a discreet distance, presumably reasoning that if we could get through, they would be able to and if we couldn?t then at least they?d have an interesting story to tell about the two foolhardy English people who didn?t have the sense to avoid the fire. In the event, although a lot of smoke was being produced, the fire was quite small, moving slowly and a fair distance from the track, so we were able to get past safely.
The birds in the park were not great, but the rest of the wildlife was, with several White Rhinos being the most exciting sitings and a supporting cast of Samango Monkey (an uncommon species, numerous around the Cape Vidal buildings) and various antelopes, zebras etc.
There was no night drive scheduled, so we paid for the whale watching trip (about ?90 for both of us) and bought some takeaway fish and chips from Fishy Pete?s. We took them down to the point where the St. Lucia River meets the ocean, although at this time the river mouth had been sealed off by a sand bank. This is a good spot for a bit of cholesterol-fuelled birding and the presence of hippos and crocodiles make it all the more interesting, especially when you?re aware that at least two fishermen had disappeared in the locality in the previous year, with the cause of their disappearance being attributed to crocodile attack. There were lots of good birds, most of which we had seen before, often at quite close quarters. Herons, egrets, geese, kingfishers, raptors, gulls and wagtails were all represented.
With about an hour or more to go before sunset, we decided to spend some more time in Gwala Gwala, where we managed to add a few new species to our list, without anything too unusual turning up. On the drive back from the river to Kingfisher Lodge we noticed a commotion at the side of the road ahead. At first we though that they were pigeons but as we got closer we realised that it was a large (30+) group of Banded Mongooses. We were able to get quite close to these attractive creatures before they all disappeared back into the undergrowth. Other tourists we spoke to had also seen Banded Mongooses here, so this may well have been quite a common occurrence.
Our whale watching trip started from the beach near to where we?d been scoffing our chips the day before, although the meeting point as at the booking agent in the village and we were taken down to the boat in the same vehicle that had been used for the night drive. We boarded the boat and set off at speed. The waves inshore meant that it was a pretty rough ride and we had to hold on tight. As we left the land behind it became easier to look at the surroundings and it was clear that there were a few birds about. Cape Gannets were easy to identify, terns rather more difficult and by the time the first Sooty Shearwater came into view, the guide had realised that we were interested in birds. The boat stopped a few miles offshore and the guide explained how the whale watching would work, with all sightings being called out by reference to the hours on the clock with the stern being 6 o?clock, the prow 12 and so on. CC had seen some dolphins a few hundred metres away so we went over to investigate, and as the boat was moving slowly got an excellent close-up view of what the guide claimed was a Flesh-footed Shearwater. A quick check of the field guide confirmed this as an accurate ID, but for us this was soon bettered by another close encounter, this time with an albatross. The guide shouted ?Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross? and we got a decent look at this bird and were able to check the field guide before a second bird appeared about 20 minutes later. For CC at least, this made the trip worthwhile and the Bottle-nosed Dolphins and prolonged views of several different Humpback Whales just added to the enjoyment.
When everyone had had satisfactory views of the whales, the boat returned quickly to land and the last bit of fun for the tourists was a very rapid approach to the beach, with the vessel, which was flat-bottomed, running several metres up the sand, allowing us to dismount dry-shod. It was possible to but a DVD of the trip from the tour company and so we decided to get this and were very pleased to note that the second albatross was filmed. The albatrosses were the 250th species of the trip.
Both the hippo and whale tours were taken with Advantage Tours at who can easily be found on the main road through St. Lucia village.
Breakfast was taken on the lawn at Kingfisher Lodge, where a few new birds were seen, including Yellow-streaked Bulbul and Eastern Olive Sunbird and we then went for a stroll around Gwala Gwala where we were delighted to find both Livingstone?s Turaco and the uncommon Grey Tit-flycatcher. We then headed off for our next destination, stopping at the bridge over the St. Lucia River to finally identify Lesser Striped Swallows and then returning to Advantage Tours when we realised we?d forgotten to pick up the DVD.
Zululand Tree Lodge was one of the more luxurious places that we stayed. We had booked it for two nights because it was a short drive from St. Lucia and was adjacent to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi reserve, the place where the White Rhino was saved from extinction. We picked this place because all the rooms (individual chalets) are built on stilts raised about 8 ? 10 feet above the ground. We were taken down to our room and were rather surprised to find several Nyala wandering about near the swimming pool. After unpacking our essentials we stepped out onto the balcony which overlooks a fever tree forest and heard a rustling sound. Right below us, less than 20 feet away, was an adult Warthog. Wild animals are an almost constant presence in and around the lodge, presumably because many of the creatures in the park have learned that there are good food and water sources and that the humans there represent no threat. The bar and dining area are situated around a water hole but sadly this was dry when we visited, because of the prolonged drought, or we might have seen even more animals at close quarters there.
We took a game drive around the reserve in the afternoon and saw Bronze-winged Courser and Black-crowned Tchagra and back at the lodge found several Common Scimitarbills in the trees. After an excellent evening meal we had an early night and went to sleep listening to the blood-curdling cries of the Bushbabies in the Fever Trees.
The day started with an escorted game drive to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi reserve and we were soon tearing down the main road in the open safari vehicle. The park has good numbers of game and we were able to get good close-ups of a number of interesting species such as buffalo and White Rhino. Perhaps the most impressive sight was a herd of giraffes that we came upon as we rounded a bend at the head of a broad valley. There were possibly 20 annals quite widely dispersed, strolling down the valley, with the nearest only a few metres away and the most distant over a kilometre from us. It was an almost prehistoric scene. We picked up a few good birds including Purple Roller , Red-billed Oxpecker and Crowned Hornbill, but most exciting and perhaps controversial was a decent view of what could only have been a Blue Swallow. There seems to be little to confuse this species with, as it is all glossy blue and has very long tail streamers, but our guide had not seen one here before (it was hawking over a pond with a large mixed flock of hirundines) and Malcolm Gemmill had told us that we were too early for the birds that breed in very small numbers on his patch. An early migrant? Who knows? The bird flew off before we could even snatch a photo, but we remain convinced of the identification.
Another fairly uncommon bird, but almost disappointing in comparison was a single Black Stork that we saw spiralling down to land. We were hoping that it would be the considerably commoner Abdim?s Stork, a species we had not seen before, but the large red bill ruled that species out. We did not see Abdim?s Stork during the holiday.
We returned to the lodge for a good breakfast and then decided to spend the rest of the day on our own, rather than join an organised tour. We headed of to Charters Creek on the shore of Lake St. Lucia. Although built on the lake shore, the long dry spell has caused the waters to recede and the lake was about half a kilometre distant when we visited. After setting up the telescopes and ticking Pink-backed Pelican we decided to try to walk across the mud to get a closer look at the few waders we could see that could not be identified because of the haze and the distance. It was easy to find the waters edge ? we simply followed the hippo prints!
The walk in the very powerful sunlight turned out to be worthwhile because we found a handful of species that weren?t seen anywhere else on the trip, although Curlew and Caspian Tern were hardly new birds to us, but the single Kittlitz?s Plover was the only representative of a species we?d expected to be quite numerous.
Driving around this area where a number of quite superb reserves can be found with a range of habitats, supporting large populations of many species of birds, animals and plants it?s hard not to be a little disappointed by the huge swathes of commercial forests ? mostly eucalypts in the St. Lucia area but other types of trees elsewhere. The eucalypts in particular seem devoid of much life. They are virtually bird free which probably means they don?t support much of an insect population and so on. Timber is big business in South Africa but in some places it seemed out of control. One person we spoke to told us that a native wasp was causing considerable damage in some commercial pine forests and he feared that a likely response to this threat would be spraying with pesticide ? a solution that will indiscriminately damage what little life there is in these forests and would be highly likely to have an effect on nearby more productive habitats.
Back at the lodge in the late afternoon, we had decided to have a wander around to look for more forest species but stopped at the bar for a well-earned Savannah Dry. That was as far as we got. We noticed a couple of young Vervet Monkeys playing near the swimming pool. They must have been acting as a diversion, because before we even guessed what was happening, three adult monkeys had dropped down from the roof and made straight for the drinks table, where they quickly prised the lid off the sugar container and helped themselves to as many sachets of sugar as they could carry. These sachets were distributed amongst the rest of the troop and all faults of forest birds were forgotten as we settled down to watch the sugar-fuelled antics of the younger monkey who were using the poolside furniture, fences, buildings and trees as an adventure playground.
Amusing as it was, it is this sort of response to the presence of man and in particular to the relatively easy opportunities to find food that comes with proximity to humans that leads to animals being branded vermin and pests. It is tempting to feed them, but this really shouldn?t be encouraged.
A morning wander around the grounds of the lodge produced a Wahlberg?s Eagle overhead and a Yellow-bellied Eremomela before we set of on another short drive to the Ghost Mountain Inn at Mkhuze.
The Mkhuze National Park was a destination that we had selected quite early on in the planning of the holiday and the Ghost Mountain Inn had been chosen as much for its splendid name as anything else. We have no complaints about it. The rooms were clean, large and comfortable and the evening meal and breakfast were both very good. It represents pretty good value for money and is not a bad option for anyone staying in the area. There are even a few birds in the grounds (Heuglin?s Robin, White-fronted Bee-eater, Klaas?s Cuckoo) and it is adjacent to a wetland and reed bed that we didn?t have time to give even a second glance to, and which probably deserved better). Compared to most of the other places we stayed, our criticism might be that it was a little bland and corporate feeling. On reflection we might have been better staying in the park itself, where there are self-catering chalets adjacent to a cafeteria with limited opening hours.
Having dropped our luggage off in the room we drove straight down to the reserve, about 45 minutes away. On arriving at the park offices, about 15-20 minutes drive from the entrance we immediately started to find new bird species, with good numbers of Blue Waxbills and Red-billed Firefinches foraging around the car parking area. We paid our money, booked a place on the following morning?s Fig Forest walk and set of into the main sections of the park, heading for the xxxxx pan.
[ater. st stop was at the xxxx watehole where a rather good hide overlooks a muddy wallow with, sadly very litle he cam very gooOur first stop was at the xxxx watehole where a rather good hide overlooks a muddy wallow with, sadly very little water. Despite this, there were quite a lot of birds visiting, along with a few small mammals. Best of the birds were a Scaly-throated Honeyguide and superb close-ups of Purple Crested Lourie. There were bats roosting under the eaves in the hide. On the way back to the car we were very pleased to find a Pink-throated Twinspot. On final reckoning, this turned out to be our 300th species in southern Africa.
The xxxxx pan is one of the premier birdwatching spots in the park and there are a couple of hides/viewing platforms there. Unfortunately by the time we got there the wind strength had increased dramatically and the sky had turned an ominous shade of grey, making viewing very difficult. Our telescopes were virtually useless, which is a pity because there were a lot of birds on and around the pan, and we almost certainly missed a couple of wader species that we might otherwise have identified.
We were out before sunrise to meet the guide for the Mkhuze Fig Forest walk. This is a well known site for African Broadbill, as well as several other good species. Broadbills had been seen in two areas on the previous day, but we were unlucky. We also heard but did not see Rudd?s Apalis and despite the disappointment of missing the Broadbill we totted up 14 new species on the walk, 11 of which were lifers and in total 17 new birds before breakfast. A Gabar Goshawk kept an eye on us from the top of a tree and a Blue Mantled Flycatcher put on a pretty display for us. Of particular interest was a small Black Mamba that one of the guides spotted sitting right in the path in front of us. It was far from fully grown, but still very venomous.
The road to Swaziland from Ghost Mountain Inn was a quiet one with the main excitement being at the Mkhuze petrol station where chaos reigned supreme. At one point we found ourselves sitting in the car at the pump, boxed in by another vehicle that had arrived later than us and the petrol tanker that was making a delivery. We could see at least 3 people within 10 metres who were smoking cigarettes. Compared to this, the Black Mamba hardly represented a threat at all.
Border formalities were quite simple and there were officials on hand to explain which papers needed to be signed, reviewed, stamped etc. and within a short while we were driving across the very dry, flat southern part of the country. We stopped for some lunch at a rather strange ?cultural resort? where we located a Pallid Flycatcher and a Woodland Kingfisher whilst waiting for the meal and then pressed on to the Mlilwane National Park in the centre of the country. Driving in Swaziland is much the same as in South Africa. The roads are of a reasonable quality and in the south at least, often broad and straight, meaning that overtaking is usually quite easy. There wasn?t much traffic, so it wasn?t often necessary.
Mlilwane is a smallish park not far from the country?s capital, Mbabane. We found it easily after passing through the busy town of Manzini and it is quite well sign-posted. By the time we arrived a steady drizzle had set in and we checked in and were shown to our quarters for the next two nights, a beehive hut in an area not far from the parks main offices. As we approached the offices we were quite impressed by the statue of the hippopotamus that was situated outside the park?s cafeteria and it was only when it turned around and started to walk back to the lake that we realised why it had looked so lifelike.
The beehive huts are excellent and should not be missed by anyone staying in the area. They are circular and made of thatch, with concrete floors, a bed and a small amount of furniture. A shower room/WC is tacked on at the back. Entrance is through a low (about one metre high) door which is closed by sliding a sheet of wood across the gap. This can be padlocked if required, for security. The huts are arranged in traditional style in a circle.
We managed a quick drive around some of the tracks in the park were we came across plenty of game and a few birds, before finishing the day in the cafeteria, watching hundreds of herons, egrets and ibises fly in to a large waterside tree to roost, whilst hippos and crocodiles drifted lazily around and bush pigs foraged on the lakeside. A nightjar flew by a few times and as far as we could tell this was a Mozambique Nightjar ? possibly a female as there was no obvious white in the tail, but we couldn?t hear any calls that might have confirmed this.
Birding started very early when CC was awoken at about 3 a.m. by a calling owl. There seemed to be two different species calling. One was easily identified as African Wood Owl but the other was not a call on the CD of common southern African bird calls that we had bought. CC generously woke JD up and, naturally, both birds stopped calling. A check of the field guide in the morning strongly suggested Pel?s Fishing Owl but when we asked in the rangers? office we were told that they were unaware of any in the area.
After rising at a more reasonable hour we went for breakfast at the cafeteria, where the birds and animals from the evening before were complemented by lots more species. White-throated Swallows appeared to be nesting in the building and a small bird was skulking around in the Papyrus patch nearby. JD managed to get some reasonable photos and we were subsequently able to confirm that this was an African Reed Warbler.
The day had started of rather damp and humid and visibility wasn?t great, with low clouds and a fine mist in the air. We decided to go for a drive around the reserve and there was plenty to keep us interested. There were lots of antelope including Gnu and Blesbok and plenty of birds. We had been given a map of the reserve that had a couple of tracks marked out as ?do not use when wet?. We found what we thought was one of these roads, just over the metal ?trolley tracks? and followed it until we got to the top of a hill overlooking a marshy valley, where we parked and continued on foot to have a look at an area of low scrub and pools. We found European Whitethroat, Greater Double Collared Sunbird and Little Bee Eater here and flushed a hare. We returned to the car and decided to follow the next track as it seemed to pass through some interesting habitat in the vicinity of Reilly?s Rock, where we thought there might be some different species.
We dropped down a steep slope, rounded a bend and came upon a rather deep looking stream. We didn?t fancy driving across it, as the mud in the water meant that the bottom was invisible, but the track was too narrow to turn around, so we tried reversing up the hill. After about 5 attempts we realised that this wasn?t practical. The surface of the track was turning to mush and the rear wheels were sliding all over the place. We realised that this was the track that should be avoided in the rain (we checked the map later and the first track that we?d driven down wasn?t even marked).
The only option seemed to be to go forward so we spent a pointless 10 minutes trying to remove some of the caked on mud from the tyres and then JD took off her boots and waded through the stream, trying to find any deep spots that might cause us even worse problems. The depth didn?t get much worse than knee-high, so we decided to proceed.
Once through the water, we drove 100 metres or so and then came, surprise, surprise, to another steep slope. This one didn?t look quite so bad (it wasn?t all chewed up by spinning tyres, for a start) and was more or less straight, so JD got out and CC reversed to get a bit of momentum up and then went for it in low gear.
It was close, but the steepest part of the slope was near the top and the combination of the wet surface and the loss of momentum meant that we got to within about 5 metres of safety before the rear wheels began to loose all traction. We rolled back, gathered our resolve and had another go. This attempt was, of course, worse because the surface had broken up in places first time round.
Having pulled the car over, in case anybody in an amphibious vehicle needed to get past and set of walking in the hope that we could find a park ranger in a Land Rover to give us a tow. We eventually found a large cottage tucked amongst the trees (this cottage is available for private group hire and would make a fascinating retreat for a few days). We found one of the park staff and told him what had happened and he came back with us to have a look (with only a slightly bemused expression on his face).
Sometime around here, the drizzle ceased and the sky brightened ? no too the point of sunlight, but we realised that the mist in the air now was evaporation due to the higher temperature. The surface of the track did look a little drier so the ranger suggested that we give it one more try before calling for assistance. We had a look at the track and picked out a few places to try to avoid and then CC repeated the first attempt. As he got near to the point of failure the car started to slow down and there was a fair bit of sliding and wheel spin, but somehow progress was maintained and the car was suddenly up the slope and onto level ground. This was not an experience that we would want to repeat in a hire car but we managed to get through it with little more than a thick coating of mud on the lower third of the (white) vehicle and some rather ugly tyre marks on the track. There?s probably a moral here somewhere, but we?re at a loss to know what it is.
We?d managed to waste about two hours on this ?experience?, during which time we?d seen no birds or mammals. We decided to return to restaurant for a rest (we don?t really believe in ?chilling out?, but there?s a time for just about everything) and then finished the day with a late afternoon walk on local tracks ? for some reason, driving didn?t seem all that appealing.
There?s actually no need to leave the rest camp area because there are no fences, so the wildlife tends to come to you anyway. There seemed to be ostriches and bush pigs around most of the time. If the campfire, which seemed to be kept going permanently, was free of people the bush pigs would be around in moments. They seemed to try to snuggle as close to the flames as they could and would lie there looking very content, if undisturbed. They soon cleared off if it looks like the ostriches wanted to warm their feathers, though.
In addition there are plenty of birds to see and seed is put out on several bird tables to encourage them.
CC was woken by calling owls again at about 3 p.m. and this time they continued calling after JD was disturbed. CC got dressed, grabbed the flashlight and set off for the lakeside. By the time he got to the water?s edge the calling ? two birds calling and responding to each other, had stopped. A repeated search of the trees using the torch revealed no tell tale pairs of eyes, although the crocodiles out in the water were as reflective as the cats-eyes on British roads. Fortunately the calls were captured on tape and compared with Pel?s Fishing Owl, which is what we?d been hearing.
The day started with sunshine and a drive before breakfast got us a flock of 20 or so White-faced Ducks on an island near the causeway across the dam, and some close views of a Pygmy Kingfisher. We then embarked on the longish drive to the Kruger National Park.
The drive through Swaziland was rather pleasant and the overall impression was that, despite the poverty and the well-known but hard to comprehend health problems, this is a peaceful and friendly country. Roads continued to be of a reasonable standard and even a long stretch of road works presented few problems.
When we reached the Malatoja reserve in pretty good time we decided to make an unscheduled stop. This is a truly beautiful reserve set high in the mountains in the north west of Swaziland. We had been quite taken with Mlilwane, despite the questionable weather, but when we saw Malatoja we began to think that we might have done better by having a night in both locations.
We got a map from the reserve office and set off. We seemed to have the reserve to ourselves. There was not a soul in site, but antelopes, zebras and dassies were in abundance. We drove on well maintained tracks at altitude, along broad grassy ridges and around hills, stopping from time to time when something or other grabbed our attention. The air was clear, the sun was shining and the green hillside combined with this to give the place a spotless, pristine feel. We reached a steep downward section of track after several languid miles and mindful of yesterday?s adventures decided not to take the car somewhere we might not be able to return from. We retraced our route and then took a spur road out to a wonderful viewpoint overlooking a forested valley. It was here where we saw what was, surprisingly, the only new bird that we saw in the whole park ? an overhead peregrine that flew past a couple of times. There were birds calling in the rocks above the viewpoint, but they were all in silhouette and the temperature was rising so we agreed to forego the pleasures of a scramble.
Heading back to ?civilisation? we came upon a section of track that had not caused us any problems on the way down. The track was essentially a scar where the grass and some topsoil had been removed. This short length was on a steepish bend and consisted mainly of small rather rounded pebbles on bedrock. Clearly we hadn?t learned much of a lesson because after two tries and lots of skidding and spinning wheels we realised that we were stuck ? again.
Half an hour and a few well placed rocks later we had managed to traverse the tricky 5 metres and then succeeded in getting back to the park entrance unscathed.
Back on the road, we continued northwards, stopping for a pleasant lunch in a restaurant with a view in a lay-by a short distance past the town of Pigg?s Peak. The day was progressing and we weren?t sure how long the border crossing would take so we put our foot down for a while, dropping down the mountains towards the lower altitudes and South Africa.
The border wasn?t to bad and we then drove straight through to the Kruger National Park entrance at Crocodile Bridge, stopping only to refuel as we weren?t sure about the availability of petrol in the park. We arrived in the park with plenty of time to spare, checked in and then continued to our first overnight stop in the park at Lower Sabie Rest Camp. We were ticked off by the guard at the rest camp gates because we had missed the curfew (5 p.m. at this time of year), mainly because we?d stopped several times to look at the Long-tailed Magpie Shrikes and two species of Francolins that were new to us, not to mention the dwarf mongooses and the huge numbers of Impala.
It is possible to spend the night in several different ways in the Kruger and the cost varies considerably between the luxurious private lodges and safari camps and the campsites. Most of the rest camps have huts and we?d opted to stay in these. We weren?t really sure what to expect, because prices in these huts were quite modest, so we were pleasantly surprised. The construction of the huts varies from camp to camp, but all the ones we stayed in were reasonably spacious, had double beds, clean linen, showers and hot water. Most of the camps have cafeterias and restaurants and the huts have braai facilities. The restaurant food is pretty reasonable, with several choices usually available including impala and kudu steaks, at reasonable prices.
In addition, the camps are oases for smaller wildlife, with lots of birds around, presumably because of the readily available food supplies, as well as small antelopes. They are frequently positioned with good views over rivers, dams etc. so the larger wildlife is also close by.
Our evening meal was good (Kudu stew) and as we were quite tired from a long day we decided to turn in early. When we got back to the hut there was a large and very noisy cicada outside. As soon as we opened the door, this flew into the hut and continued to call. CC went to look for something with which to catch and release it without causing any damage and received a severe shock when something much bigger flew up from near the floor at the head of the bed, passing inches from his nose. It started to flutter around the room and we realised that it was a medium sized bat. We opened the bathroom door and it flew up to the roof supports where it looked quite comfortable, so we returned to Operation Cicada. With the insect safely extracted we went back into the bathroom where the Batty looked quite settled, to get ready for bed.
We had no way to remove it, so we decided to leave it where it was with the door shut. A few minutes after getting in to bed, whilst we were working through our day list, JD noticed a strange shape appear under the door. It was Batty who has presumably got lonely in the bathroom. It did a few circuits of the room and then settled on the curtains where we left it for the night, going to sleep with thoughts of rabies and midnight bombing raids. It was in the same place when we awoke the next morning. You can certainly get close to nature in the Kruger.
Morning in the rest camp produced plenty of birds, mostly species we has already seem and the first new bird of the day was Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling. We were accompanied various weavers, starlings and bulbuls at breakfast and some of these birds have been so accustomed to people that they will land on the tables and any unoccupied chairs whilst they are dining. Over the fence there were plenty of water birds about, even though the river had stopped flowing because of the drought. Plenty of pools remained to provide hunting spots for herons.
A Long-billed Crombec was found foraging in a tree and a number of highly contrasting birds not far from the restaurant turned out to be Violet-backed Starlings. This species seems to have suffered at the hands (pen?) of the taxonomists because its previous name was the much more attractive Plum-coloured Starling. I?m sure that there is good reason to try to introduce consistency in bird names (if you go by one naming convention, after visiting South Africa we could have three White-throated Robins on our life list, all three being completely different birds from three different parts of the world) but it seems a shame to lose such wonderfully descriptive names. Clearly it?s a personal opinion, but the latest Roberts list seems to have this effect several times.
Our next overnight stop was to be Olifants Rest Camp so we packed the car after breakfast and set off. We had not got far when we noticed some small birds resting on a dam wall. On closer inspection these turned out to be Grey-rumped Swallows and we were able to get some photographs at quite close quarters. Over the wall there was a biggish Water Monitor sunning itself on a rock.
Shortly after the dam we entered much drier habitat, where birds were quite thin on the ground. We saw a few hornbills and Magpie Shrikes but we were rather surprised to see a Racket-tailed Roller in a roadside tree. This species is normally only to be found much further north, on the border with Zimbabwe, but is pretty distinctive and hard to mistake for any other bird.
Our first stop of the day was at the Mlondozi Dam Picnic site where we found a range of water birds and one of our target birds, Mosque Swallow. We?d been disappointed to miss this species in Gambia in 2004. We then drove the Muntshe loop and stopped at the Orpen Dam. The water birds and constant stream of mammals coming to drink from the dam were interesting, but surprisingly it was the smaller birds around the rather good hide/shelter that held our attention. A Red-backed Shrike was quite familiar but the Jameson?s Firefinches foraging in the dust at the far end of the hide definitely weren?t. We got a few photos of these and their tiny size can be assessed by comparing them to the carelessly discarded cigarette ends. The unpleasant consequences of litter aside, it seems little short of criminal to throw away cigarettes in this arid park.
A very confiding Yellow-bellied Greenbul was hopping around the shelter looking for scraps pretty much the whole time we were there and Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Chin-spot Batis and Yellow-breasted Apalis were all highly visible.
The first Arrow-marked Babblers were seen on the road to Sitara camp, where we stopped for lunch and we picked up Bateleur on this stretch of road as well. Back on the main road we came across several cars pulled over at the side of the road and as we drew closer we realised that they were watching a small herd of African Elephants. We were to see many more over the next few days (with over 12,000 elephants, the park is rather over-stocked) but our very first ones were something special. The experience was slightly marred because in their anxiety to get a better view (these elephants were about 20 metres from the road and out in the open) some drivers seemed quite willing to stop their cars directly between a parked car and the animals. Fortunately it is only a small minority to whom this does not seem extremely bad manners and we weren?t adversely affected by it, but the two cars in front of us were, and one FWD vehicle somehow managed to get themselves at an angle across the road, simultaneously blocking the view and making it impossible for the affected driver to move forwards!
We booked ourselves on the night drive when we arrived at Olifants camp, where we were able to watch a Mozambique Nightjar in reasonable light before boarding the safari truck. A strong wind had got up and we didn?t see very much for the first hour or so, with Spring Hares being an unexpected bonus. Two of these amusing animals were well seen by everyone as they hopped off into the scrub. As the drive progressed, things started to improve and a Black-backed Jackal caught everybody?s attention. Plenty of antelope started to appear and then we found a couple of hippopotamus on a long walk to their feeding grounds and looking rather out of place in the forest.
The driver started heading back for the camp, but the vehicle came to an abrupt halt when the guide shouted that there was a leopard in the road ahead. This is the animal that most people want to see on the night drives and our excitement turned to astonishment when, rather than rushing off into hiding as we expected the big cat turned round and headed down the road towards us. It drew level with the truck before turning off the road and climbing the bank, stopping several times to look back at us over its shoulder. To finish off the night the guide then found another predator, a Common Genet, for us to admire.
We found a few birds around the camp and then set off to explore some of the tracks between Olifants and nearby Letaba, our next stop. A small brown bird at the roadside turned out to be a Sabota Lark and as we sat in the car with the field guide, trying to nail the i.d. a female Red-crested Korhaan strolled out of the bush and crossed the road right in front of us.
The Engelhard Dam turnaround was a bit of a disappointment ? we had expected more birds ? but we did find a small group of Brown-hooded Parrots. Lunch was at Letaba Rest Camp and we first heard and then saw African Mourning Doves here. There was also a party of White-backed Mousebirds outside of their normal range. There were plenty of birds to share lunch with ? and in the case of the Grey Lourie this was the literal truth because seconds after we left the table one of these birds had alighted on it and was trying to take the remains of JD?s beef burger before the waiting staff removed. Particularly welcome were the Red-headed Weavers that were quite common here and rather more attractive in real life than in the field guide.
After lunch we explored some of the areas north of Letaba. Anybody researching a visit to the KNP will rapidly come to realise that leaving the car in most areas outside the rest camps is not permitted. This rule is relaxed at the picnic sites and on some of the larger bridges. The main road crosses a bridge north of Letaba and we parked and had a look around. There were three stork species along the river, Yellow-billed, Marabou and new to us, Saddle-billed and two kingfisher species, Pied and Giant. The Giant Kingfisher was perching at the top of one of the concrete bridge supports and was so intent on the fish in the pool below that it didn?t seem to notice us at all, despite the fact that we could have reached out and touched it. We had a good opportunity to admire its impressive bill which is built to despatch some decent sized prey.
Mokhanzi Picnic site didn?t produce anything new but we located a White-headed Vulture perched in a tree not far from the road. For us, at least, many of the vultures are quite hard work and we spent about 10 minutes watching this bird before we were certain of the ID. Other travellers in the park have a tendency to stop when they see another parked vehicle and about 5 sets of drivers and passengers were disappointed to discover that we were only looking at a vulture, rather than something ?more exciting?.
White-throated Robin Chat was seen just north of the camp, towards the end of the day and we had now, by our reckoning seen or identified over 360 species, well in excess of our original target and the magical 400 was looking a possibility, with some different habitat still to explore.
Of all the camps we either stayed in or stopped at, Letaba was probably the one we liked the most and certainly for the armchair naturalist it seemed to have the most to offer. There were plenty of common but interesting passerines about and it was noticeable that most of them were so used to human presence that they mostly ignored us. As a result it was quite easy to get close to a number of species that weren?t even that interested in raiding our plates. Bird watchers should certainly consider having a wander around after dark because we heard at least a couple of African Scops Owls calling (any birders from further north who are familiar with European Scops Owl will have no problem identifying this species. Although their voices are quite dissimilar there is a quality about the African birds? call that will bring the European version to mind quite quickly and realised that there were large numbers of Water Dikkops foraging around under the trees coming to within a few metres of the huts. These were still around after dawn the following morning, looking for scraps under braais and looking rather out of place. There were also lots of mammals and to get into our hut we had to displace a pair of bushbuck who had made themselves comfortable on the doorstep. We saw more squirrels at Letaba than anywhere else.
Most visitors to the Kruger want to see the so called ?Big 5? ? namely, Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo. We only had lion to tick off, but we were aware that the far north of the park is not particularly renowned for the larger predators, so we dragged ourselves away from the antelopes, squirrels, dikkops, starlings, francolins, pigeons, doves and others that could be found in a 10-minute walk around the camp, not to mention the elephants, waterbuck, baboons, cane rats, giraffes etc. that were just outside the fences and checked the map for recent sightings. All the camps have maps like these that have colour-coded records of the whereabouts of the big 5 and other ?popular? species like wild dogs, cheetah and hyena over the previous two days. We made a note of a couple of areas where lions had been seen the day before and planned our route to Punda Maria around these.
This turned out to be the worst day of the entire holiday for new bird species with only Brown Snake Eagle and White-crested Helmet Shrike. We?d seen Brown Snake Eagle in The Gambia and we?d speculated that a flock of birds we?d seen in flight just south of the Swaziland border had been Helmet Shrikes and this much better sighting confirmed that. We didn?t see any lions either.
That said, we saw plenty of wildlife during the day, including many elephants, often down to only a few metres and some of the prettier antelopes like Steinboks and Sharp?s Grysboks to complement the endless herds of Impala.
It was getting quite late when we arrived at Punda Maria but the temperature was still rather high. It had peaked at 42.5 Celsius in the mid-afternoon, according to the car?s thermometer, and it stayed above 30 for a long time after that.
Punda Maria is a popular destination for birders in the Kruger. It has a less spectacular setting than the other camps we visited, being in a heavily forested area. It is much more relaxed and less formal than the other parks and the huts are rather delightful ? a couple of rows of pretty little thatched cottages.. There?s a big campsite but it caters for fewer visitors than most of the better known camps.
Several people had advised us to try the Pafuri loop and all the indications said that very early morning is the best time to find birds so we were through the gates about a minute after they opened. We?d barely been travelling for three minutes and the light was still that pale grey that you often get just before sunrise in hot places when we saw an animal coming up the road towards us. CC commented ?That looks very relaxed?. JD responded rather more prosaically ?It?s a lion!?. And it really was. CC stopped the car, JD grabbed the camera and managed a couple of shots through the windows as it turned off into the bush, not even bothering to give us a second glance. Half a minute earlier or later and we would have missed it.
We drove for about 20 minutes towards Pafuri and could hardly believe our luck when we came into a fairly open area (most of this part of the park seems to be well wooded) and saw a second lion rushing in our direction. It crossed the road a few metres in front of us and disappeared quickly into denser vegetation. We were now feeling quite pleased with ourselves.
Several people had told us that we had to visit Pafuri and that it would be some of the best birding that we?d find in South Africa, so perhaps disappointment was inevitable. The area is certainly worth visiting and we added 7 new species to our list in the course of the morning, including one species that hadn?t been recorded in the Punda Maria log book (they have a pretty good one in the cafeteria that should be consulted by anyone staying there) but overall there didn?t seem to be many birds about. However most of the birds we did see gave good to excellent views and there was a lot of game about as well so it?s not fair to be too critical).
Shrikes were much in evidence, with White-crested Helmet Shrike and Brown-crowned Tchagra both being spotted on the road to Pafuri, the latter showing particularly well and watched from the car for several minutes. Pride of place goes to the male Black-fronted Bush Shrike that we found quite high in the trees at the edge of the Pafuri campsite. It took us quite a while to identify this species but it eventually put on quite a show for us. A striking member of an attractive family. A Tropical Boubou completed a quartet of shrikes.
After deciding that there wasn?t much to be found at Pafuri we drove around the area, following just about any track that looked driveable and were rewarded with some tremendous views of both game and birds. Openbill and Saddlebilled Storks, Lizard buzzard and White-crowned Lapwing were all recorded.
Back at the rest camp we took the, for us, unusual step of going for a swim in the small and rather pleasant pool. In the 40 degree heat this was a pleasant interlude. We found White-bellied and Marico Sunbirds drinking at one of the small ponds near the camp?s main road and a Slender Mongoose was seen crossing the road and heading towards the camp site.
Having enjoyed the night drives in St. Lucia and Olifants we booked ourselves on to the Punda Maria drive that left the camp at 5 p.m. At ZAR140 each, about the price of a couple of cinema tickets in the UK, this provided over three hours of some of the best wildlife watching we have ever had. No less than 20 types of mammals, including Civet, Greater Spotted Genet, Lesser Bushbaby, Marsh Mongoose and Leopard were seen and we had the opportunity to really register the calls of Mozambique and Fiery-necked Nightjar and African Scops Owl. The last two birds were also seen at close range, with the owl being found in a roadside tree as we were looking at a Grysbok and the nightjar remaining on the road as we drove by.
The leopard gave even better views than the one at Olifants, which was something of a relief to CC who had switched the record facility of his video camera off instead of on when it came close to the vehicle. This second cat was seen near a waterhole, where it was very active and remained in view for a long time.
In an uncharacteristic fit of enthusiasm we decided to wait until we were on the road to have breakfast and instead managed another early start to drive another highly recommended route, the Mahonie Loop. This starts a short distance from the camp?s entrance and like Pafuri proved to have little to offer. We added yet another shrike ? this time the reasonably Common Orange-breasted Bush Shrike and the more familiar (from The Gambia) Blue-spotted Wood Dove to our list, but not much more. We did find a foraging party of Dwarf Mongooses that decided that something a few metres from the edge of the road was worth excavating, thereby providing us with entertainment for at least a quarter of an hour. Of the several mongoose species we saw, these were perhaps the cutest (and they have some stiff competition), looking not unlike slightly worn out soft toys, with dark button eyes.
The loop completed we headed out of the park and towards our final stop, Dinonyane Lodge near the Nylsvlei Nature Reserve. Just outside the park gate a donkey played host to a Yellow-billed Oxpecker ? the only one we saw during the holiday. We were quite surprised at how uncommon oxpeckers seemed to be. Perhaps there is just so much game that they are spread very sparsely amongst them.
We?d sort of hoped to grab some breakfast along the road from Kruger, probably quite soon after leaving the park, as we?d been out and about for several hours before setting of south westwards, but we didn?t really see anywhere that looked likely. On reflection we saw a few signs to establishments that were a few miles off the main road and they might have been worth the detour. We?d been on the N1 for quite some distance when we finally pulled in to a place called Lalapanzi Lodge, a short distance from Pietersburg, and we were ravenous. The heat had increased during the morning and we asked if food was being served and were shown through the hotel into a very pleasant courtyard with a large lawn surrounded by thatched cottages. The cottages were part of the lodge?s accommodation and the whole effect was very picturesque. Pie and mash was on the menu and we readied ourselves for a disappointment, having seen it on several menus already, always to be told that it was off. Twenty minutes later we were tucking into a delicious and substantial breakfast in what appeared to be an idealised Barsetshire village, listening to the calls of African Hoopoes and numerous Grey Louries.
We couldn?t really do Lalapanzi justice, as it was an unscheduled stop and we were hoping to get some more birdwatching done before the end of the day, but if the appearance, food and staff are anything to go by, anybody looking for somewhere to stay in the area could do a lot worse.
Dinonyane took a little finding. We came of the N1 at the junction north of Nylstroom and decided to head into town. We didn?t see any signs and eventually ended up in the library, where we didn?t get much help. For the first time in three weeks our Excel sheet with contact numbers, addresses and details let us down ? we hadn?t printed anything useful off. We decided to head back to the motorway and try again, thinking that we could always ask in one of several hotels and lodges that we?d passed. Having had no luck along the way, when we got back to the junction we followed the minor road north, back towards Pietersburg and after several miles found a right turn with a sign for the Nylsvlei reserve. We followed this road and found Dinonyane easily.
Nylsvlei was recommended to us by a Czech birding acquaintance, so Jiri, if you read this, thank you. Dinonyane looked like the best bet for exploring the area and it is probably, along with Button Birding, the place that we would recommend most highly. The lodge itself is pleasantly laid out and the rooms are airy and of a reasonable size. They are making an effort to target the bird watching market and they deserve all the luck and attention they can get. We stayed for two nights and despite having already seen over 380 species when we arrived we were able to pick up 3 new species in the gardens. One of these species was Cut-throat Finch ? another of the birds that we?d missed in The Gambia. We were also very pleased Green-winged Pytilia (we prefer Melba Finch) which seemed to be present in the gardens most of the time. A stroll around the lodge area in the morning could easily yield 30+ species in an hour.
The staff at Dinonyane were very friendly and helpful and meals were pretty good too. In addition, prices were quite excellent to the extent that the Lodge probably represented the best value for money of anywhere that we stayed.
As usual, we checked in quickly and then got back in the car to drive the short distance to the Nylsvlei Reserve. The area is in the flood plain of a river and is well known for holding phenomenal numbers of water birds at the right time of year. We knew in advance that there was very little water to be found, so we were prepared for the worst, but we were pleasantly surprised. It took us a while before we started to find birds, but they were certainly present, and in some numbers. In the main part of the reserve we added White-browed Sparrow Weaver, Crowned Lapwing and Northern Black Korhaan to the trip list and got close views of many species that we?d already seen.
During an early breakfast in the Lodge gardens we were entertained by the Melba and Cut-throat finches along with Marico Sunbirds and African Green Pigeons. It was hard to sit and concentrate on our bacon and eggs with so much avian activity. We then set of straight for the reserve and drove some of the tracks we had missed the previous afternoon. We picked up a couple of new pipits, Acacia Pied Barbet and Bennett?s Woodpecker and heard what we thought might be Shelley?s Francolin, before heading off towards Nylstroom to have a look at the Waterberg Kloof area that we had seen sign posted the day before. We should perhaps have asked for some local hints at the lodge, because the next few hours were pretty unproductive. The best area we found was around the bridges a short distance from the main road. We located Hammerkop and Green-backed Heron here and also saw several large and stunning swallowtail-type butterflies apparently drinking from the mud.
After lunch and a bit of shopping in Nylstroom we returned to Nylsvlei to have a look at the second section of the reserve, the area called Vogelfontein. It is necessary to go to the main reserve office to obtain access details. At the time we were there, this was definitely the most interesting part of the reserve, with lots of game wandering about as well as some really good birds.
We arrived at the small car park just after another bird watcher, who waited for us just inside the reserve, admitting that he?s noticed our scopes and thought we might let him borrow one if we saw anything interesting. John was from Canada and was in South Africa for an environmental conference so he was grabbing a couple of days birding before the hard work started. We were of course pleased to let him use the scopes and stood chatting for a few minutes at the junction of a couple of raised banks overlooking a scrape. These minutes made quite a difference. We were getting quite good views of several common waders including Marsh Sandpiper and African Snipe, when JD suddenly exclaimed ?Owl!?. We turned to see an African Marsh Owl flying by, just a few metres away. It settled in a nearby pasture and we were able to get good views of it through the scopes.
Turning back to the scrape, a new bird had appeared on the water and we were thrilled to discover that this was a Lesser Moorhen, a species we?d pretty much given up on. A few minutes later, three more Marsh Owls were in the air, again very close by before settling in to the same pasture that the first bird had landed in, where they disappeared into the long grass.
The three of us returned to the lodge for dinner and we were joined by Stephanie for a couple of bottles of wine (let he recommend the bottle ? she seems to know her stuff). We?d picked up a large hard-backed notebook in Nylstroom and started of the lodge?s first bird sightings log. We hope they keep it going and that maybe one day we?ll return to check it out.
Our last day started early (of course) when we met John for a stroll around the gardens. Our trip list was now up above the 390 mark so the Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird we located was very welcome, despite the fact that it was not a ?life? bird for us. European Bee-eaters were heard and eventually seen and a small flock of Plum-coloured Starlings were observed. In our limited experience, this species seems to have a definite preference for trees with few leaves, although they seem to remain quite still for long periods so perhaps they are overlooked.
The Nylsvlei Reserve was our next destination and John agreed to show us the site where he?d found a Crimson-breasted Shrike on the previous afternoon. This striking bird put in an appearance but not until we?d noted a Barred Wren-warbler in the bush the shrike had occupied the day before. Another visit to Vogelfontein failed to provide any new birds for us but was enjoyable nonetheless, but we were beginning to feel peckish so returned to Dinonyane for breakfast.
We packed for the final time, said our goodbyes to John and the Dinonyane staff and then headed of south. Our flight was in the early evening so we didn?t have to rush. We decided to try and find a birding site in the direction of Johannesburg. A couple of map-reading errors left us on the wrong side of Johannesburg with only a couple of hours to go before check-in, so we scrapped our plans and headed off to the airport. For the first time in South Africa we found that the road signs were inadequate. A petrol stop enabled us to ask for directions but we obviously misunderstood them and ended up on the edge of a trading estate, rather than a motorway, so we started to follow signs for the centre of Pretoria reasoning that we should be able to pick up airport signs on the way back out again. The strategy worked and before too long we were on the motorway and heading in the right direction. The closest we got to an addition to the bird list was an eagle sized raptor that flew across the road, mobbed by crows. Its appearance, at 100 kph (or thereabouts) matched that of African Black Eagle, but the habitat seemed unlikely.
Johannesburg airport was reached with a little time to spare, check-in formalities were completed with ease and before very long we had set off on the long return journey home.
Southern Africa lived up to all our expectations and more. The combination of some guided sessions and quite a lot of time spent bird watching on our own suited us well. We certainly saw some species with guides that we would have missed otherwise, but we enjoyed the periods spent identifying birds on our own. When we left the country, we thought we had identified about 393 different species, either on our own or with the help of guides. Checking photographs and working through the records eventually got us up to 399 which left us pondering whether to include Feral Pigeon/Rock Dove, but a final sweep made us realise that European Bee-eater had not been given a number, despite having been seen several times over the last few days of the holiday, so we ended up with a round 400, with one species completely unidentified despite having been photographed and filmed at Hermanus.
For Europeans, the wealth of wildlife is astonishing. From the mongoose crossing the road on the first day via the whales in Hermanus, the Black Mamba in Mkhuze and bats in the Kruger to the Scrub Hare under a bush in Nylsvlei on the final morning, there always seemed to be something to see. We were unfortunate to be unable to take the pelagic trip from Simon?s Town, but we have an excuse to return.
In the following list, the first number relates to the order in which the birds were seen and the number in brackets is the Robert's Number.
1 Cape Sparrow (803)
2 Red Winged Starling (769)
3 Brown-throated Martin (533)
4 Little Swift (417)
5 Hammerkop (81)
6 Cape Crow (547)
7 Common Starling (757)
8 Cape Gull ()
9 Hartlaub?sGull (316)
10 Cape Canary (872)
11 Pied Crow (548)
12 Rock Kestrel (181)
13 Cape Wagtail (713)
14 African Penguin (3)
15 Cape Robin-Chat (601)
16 Egyptian Goose (102)
17 Orange-Breasted Sunbird (777)
18 Malachite Sunbird (775)
19 African Black Oystercatcher (244)
20 White-necked Raven (550)
21 Helmeted Guineafowl (203)
22 Cape Bulbul (566)
23 Blacksmith Lapwing (258)
24 Cape Cormorant (56)
25 House Sparrow (801)
26 Speckled Pigeon (349)
27 Cape White-eye (796)
28 Karoo Prinia (686)
29 Grey-headed Gull (315)
30 Fiscal Flycatcher (698)
31 Cape Gannet (53)
32 Cape Sugarbird (773)
33 Jackal Buzzard (152)
34 White-breasted Cormorant (55)
35 Familiar Chat (589)
36 Common Ostrich (1)
37 Common Whimbrel (290)
38 White-fronted Plover (246)
39 African Sacred Ibis (91)
40 Swift Tern (324)
41 Greater Sheathbill (912)
42 Crowned Cormorant (59)
43 Bank Cormorant (57)
44 Greater Flamingo (96)
45 Southern Pochard (113)
46 Black-necked Grebe (7)
47 Yellow-billed Egret (68)
48 Cape Teal (106)
49 Red-knobbed Coot (228)
50 Common Moorhen (226)
51 Cattle Egret (71)
52 Levaillant's Cisticola (677)
53 Cape Shoveler (112)
54 Maccoa Duck (117)
55 Black-winged Stilt (295)
56 Great White Pelican (49)
57 Red-billed Teal (108)
58 African Pipit (716)
59 Southern Masked-Weaver (814)
60 African Black Duck (105)
61 Squacco Heron (72)
62 Pied Kingfisher (428)
63 African Fish-Eagle (148)
64 Black-shouldered Kite (127)
65 Hadeda Ibis (94)
66 Lesser Flamingo (97)
67 Little Grebe (8)
68 Great Crested Grebe (6)
69 Cape Turtle-Dove (354)
70 Grey Heron (62)
71 Black-headed Heron (63)
72 Olive Woodpecker (488)
73 Southern Double-collared Sunbird (783)
74 Cape Spurfowl (195)
75 Common Fiscal (732)
76 Rock Martin (529)
77 Greater Striped Swallow (526)
78 Black Harrier (168)
79 Sooty Shearwater (37)
80 Water thick-knee (298)
81 Southern Giant-Petrel (17)
82 Laughing Dove (355)
83 Sandwich Tern (326)
84 Common Tern (327)
85 Antarctic Tern (329)
86 Alpine Swift (418)
87 Subantarctic Skua (310)
88 Cape Weaver (813)
89 White-throated Swallow (520)
90 Cape Grassbird (661)
91 White-rumped Swift (415)
92 Common Waxbill (846)
93 Yellow Bishop (827)
94 Olive Thrush (577)
95 Karoo Scrub-Robin (614)
96 Fork-tailed Drongo (541)
97 Blue Crane (208)
98 Pin-tailed Whydah (860)
99 Glossy Ibis (93)
100 Common Myna (758)
101 Black Kite (126)
102 Buff-streaked Chat (588)
103 Red-eyed Dove (352)
104 Bronze Mannikin (857)
105 Yellow-billed Duck (104)
106 African Stonechat (596)
107 Long-tailed Widowbird (832)
108 White Stork (83)
109 Spur-winged Goose (116)
110 Reed Cormorant (58)
111 Red-billed Quelea (821)
112 Common Greenshank (270)
113 Common Sandpiper (264)
114 Wood Sandpiper (266)
115 Marsh Sandpiper (269)
116 Ruff (284)
117 Whiskered Tern (338)
118 White-backed Duck (101)
119 African Spoonbill (95)
120 Grey Crowned Crane (209)
121 Pied Starling (759)
122 Long-crested Eagle (139)
123 Drakensberg Prinia (0)
124 Dark-capped Yellow Warbler (637)
125 Speckled Mousebird (424)
126 Greater Double-collared Sunbird (785)
127 Gurney's Sugarbird (774)
128 Ground Woodpecker (480)
129 Cape Rock-Thrush (581)
130 Dark-capped Bulbul (568)
131 Barratt's Warbler (639)
132 Orange-breasted Rock-jumper (612)
133 Sentinel Rock Thrush (582)
134 Large-billed Lark (512)
135 Southern Bald Ibis (92)
136 Drakensberg Siskin (875)
137 Red-capped Lark (507)
138 Cape Bunting (885)
139 Grey Tit (551)
140 Yellow Canary (878)
141 Bearded Vulture (119)
142 African Rock Pipit (721)
143 Layard's Tit-Babbler (622)
144 Lanner Falcon (172)
145 Grey-winged Francolin (190)
146 Wailing Cisticola (670)
147 Cape Eagle-Owl (400)
148 Sickle-winged Chat (591)
150 Fairy Flycatcher (706)
150 Mountain Pipit (901)
151 Bokmakierie (746)
152 Red-chested Cuckoo (377)
153 Southern Boubou (736)
154 African Harrier-Hawk (169)
155 Cape Glossy Starling (764)
156 Amethyst Sunbird (792)
157 African Black Swift (412)
158 Denham's Bustard (231)
159 White-winged Widowbird (829)
160 Wing-snapping Cisticola (667)
161 Black-winged Lapwing (257)
162 Olive Bush-Shrike (750)
163 Sombre Greenbul (572)
164 Grey Cuckooshrike (540)
165 Cape Batis (700)
166 Golden-breasted Bunting (884)
167 Yellow-breasted Pipit (725)
168 Cape Longclaw (727)
169 Wattled Crane (207)
170 Senegal Lapwing (256)
171 Cape Vulture (122)
172 Southern Ground-Hornbill (463)
173 Spotted Eagle-Owl (401)
174 Knysna Turaco (370)
175 Black-headed Oriole (545)
176 African Olive-Pigeon (350)
177 Spotted Flycatcher (689)
178 Cape Parrot (362)
179 Bush Blackcap (565)
180 Terrestrial Brownbul (569)
181 Narina Trogon (427)
182 Southern Black Tit (554)
183 Collared Sunbird (793)
184 Forest Canary (873)
185 Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler (644)
186 Bar-throated Apalis (645)
187 Orange Ground-Thrush (579)
188 Streaky-headed Seedeater (881)
189 Neddicky (681)
190 Fan-tailed Widowbird (828)
191 Red-collared Widowbird (831)
192 Southern Red Bishop (824)
193 Rufous-naped Lark (494)
194 Village Weaver (811)
195 Black-bellied Bustard (238)
196 Croaking Cisticola (678)
197 South African Shelduck (103)
198 Southern Grey-headed Sparrow (804)
199 Zitting Cisticola (664)
200 Yellow-fronted Canary (869)
201 Cloud Cisticola (666)
202 Martial Eagle (140)
203 Greater Honeyguide (474)
204 Yellow-throated Petronia (805)
205 Green Wood-Hoopoe (452)
206 African Hoopoe (451)
207 Spectacled Weaver (810)
208 African Palm-Swift (421)
209 Orange-breasted Waxbill (854)
210 Three-banded Plover (249)
211 African Snipe (286)
212 Little Rush-Warbler (638)
213 Red-throated Wryneck (489)
214 Red-winged Francolin (192)
215 Black Saw-wing (536)
216 Black-backed Puffback (740)
217 Swee Waxbill (850)
218 African Dusky Flycatcher (690)
219 African Firefinch (840)
220 Red-necked Spurfowl (198)
221 Brimstone Canary (877)
222 African Goshawk (160)
223 White-browed Scrub-Robin (613)
224 Yellow-billed Stork (90)
225 Red-capped Robin-Chat (600)
226 Square-tailed Drongo (542)
227 Yellow Weaver (817)
228 African Pied Wagtail (711)
229 Great Egret (66)
230 Pied Avocet (294)
231 Little Egret (67)
232 Goliath Heron (64)
233 Spotted Thick-knee (297)
234 African Pygmy-Kingfisher (432)
235 Malachite Kingfisher (431)
236 Fiery-necked Nightjar (405)
237 Kurrichane Buttonquail (205)
238 Lemon Dove (360)
239 Tawny-flanked Prinia (683)
240 Red-backed Mannikin (858)
241 Woolly-necked Stork (86)
242 Sanderling (281)
243 Ruddy Turnstone (262)
244 Curlew Sandpiper (272)
245 Giant Kingfisher (429)
246 White-eared Barbet (466)
247 Groundscraper Thrush r (580)
248 Green-backed Camaroptera (657)
249 Flesh-footed Shearwater (36)
250 Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross (14)
251 African Marsh-Harrier (165)
252 Thick-billed Weaver (807)
253 Yellow-streaked Greenbul (570)
254 Olive Sunbird (790)
255 Livingstone's Turaco (0)
256 Grey Tit-Flycatcher (693)
257 Lesser Striped Swallow (527)
258 Kurrichane Thrush (576)
259 Red-faced Mousebird (426)
260 Brown-hooded Kingfisher (435)
261 Crested Francolin (189)
262 Bronze-winged Courser (303)
263 Brubru (741)
264 Common Scimitarbill (454)
265 Black-crowned Tchagra (744)
266 Purple Roller (449)
267 Red-billed Oxpecker (772)
268 Gorgeous Bush-Shrike (747)
269 Burchell's Coucal (391)
270 Striped Kingfisher (437)
271 Crowned Hornbill (460)
272 Blue Swallow (521)
273 Black-collared Barbet (464)
274 White-bellied Sunbird (787)
275 Grey Go-away Bird / Grey Lourie (373)
276 Grey-headed Bush-Shrike (751)
277 Purple-crested Turaco (371)
278 Black Stork (84)
279 Scarlet-chested Sunbird (791)
280 Red-breasted Swallow (524)
281 Half-collared Kingfisher (430)
282 African Paradise-Flycatcher (710)
283 Pink-backed Pelican (50)
284 Eurasian Curlew (289)
285 Caspian Tern (322)
286 Kittlitz's Plover (248)
287 African Green-Pigeon (361)
288 Wahlberg's Eagle (135)
289 Yellow-bellied Eremomela (653)
290 Lilac Breasted Roller (447)
291 White-browed Robin-Chat (599)
292 Lesser Masked-Weaver (815)
293 Red-billed Firefinch (842)
294 Blue Waxbill (844)
295 Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove (358)
296 Yellow-bellied Greenbul (574)
297 Yellow-breasted Apalis (648)
298 Chinspot Batis (701)
299 Scaly-throated Honeyguide (475)
300 Pink-throated Twinspot (838)
301 Barn Swallow (518)
302 African Openbill (87)
303 African Jacana (240)
304 White-winged Tern (339)
305 Little Stint (274)
306 Flappet Lark (496)
307 Crested Guineafowl (204)
308 White-backed Vulture (123)
309 Rudd's Apalis (649)
310 Cardinal Woodpecker (486)
311 Dark-backed Weaver (808)
312 Trumpeter Hornbill (455)
313 Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird (471)
314 Golden-tailed Woodpecker (483)
315 Grey Sunbird (789)
316 Gabar Goshawk (161)
317 Red-fronted Tinkerbird (469)
318 Klaas's Cuckoo (385)
319 Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher (708)
320 Tambourine Dove (359)
321 Bearded Scrub-Robin (617)
322 Red-billed Hornbill (458)
323 Lizard Buzzard (154)
324 White-fromted Bee-eater (443)
325 Wire-tailed Swallow (522)
326 Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (459)
327 Burchell?s Starling (726)
328 European Roller (446)
329 Woodland Kingfisher (433)
330 Pale Flycatcher (696)
331 Mocking Cliff-Chat (593)
332 Black Crake (213)
333 African Darter (60)
334 Green-backed Heron (74)
335 Purple Heron (65)
336 Crested Barbet (473)
337 Little Bee-eater (444)
338 Common Whitethroat (620)
339 Square-tailed Nightjar (409)
340 African Wood-Owl (394)
341 Pel's Fishing-Owl (403)
342 White-faced Duck (99)
343 Peregrine Falcon (171)
344 Swainson?s Spurfowl (199)
345 Natal Spurfowl (196)
346 Magpie Shrike (735)
347 Greater Blue-eared Starling (765)
348 Long-billed Crombec (651)
349 Plum Coloured / Violet-backed Starling (761)
350 Grey-rumped Swallow (531)
351 Racket-tailed Roller (448)
352 Mosque Swallow (525)
353 African Grey Hornbill (457)
354 Red-backed Shrike (733)
355 Jameson?s Firefinch (841)
356 Arrow-marked Babbler (560)
357 Bateleur (146)
358 Marabou Stork (89)
359 Sabota Lark (498)
360 Red-crested Korhaan (237)
361 Brown-headed Parrot (363)
362 African Mourning Dove (353)
363 White-backed Mousebird (425)
364 Red-headed Weaver (819)
365 African Hobby (174)
366 Saddle-billed Stork (88)
367 Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (440)
368 White-headed Vulture (125)
369 White-throated Robin-Chat (602)
370 African Scops-Owl (396)
371 Brown Snake-Eagle (142)
372 White-crested Helmet-Shrike (753)
373 Brown-crowned Tchagra (743)
374 Broad-billed Roller (450)
375 Grey-backed Camaroptera (948)
376 Black-fronted Bush-Shrike (749)
377 Tropical Boubou (737)
378 Diderick Cuckoo (386)
379 White-crowned Lapwing (259)
380 Marico Sunbird (779)
381 Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike (748)
382 Blue-spotted Wood-Dove (357)
383 Yellow-billed Oxpecker (771)
384 White-browed Sparrow-Weaver (799)
385 Crowned Lapwing (255)
386 Northern Black Korhaan (941)
387 Cut-throat Finch (855)
388 Green-winged Pytilia (834)
389 Plain-backed Pipit (718)
390 Long-billed Pipit (717)
391 Bennett's Woodpecker (481)
392 Acacia Pied Barbet (465)
393 European Bee-eater (438)
394 Coqui Francolin (188)
395 Marsh Owl (395)
396 Lesser Moorhen (227)
397 Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird (470)
398 Barred Wren-Warbler (658)
399 Crimson-breasted Shrike (739)
400 Black-bellied Starling (768)
401 Yellow-Throated Longclaw (728)
402 Chorister Robin-chat (598)
This is not yet a complete list
Black Backed Jackal
Slogett?s Ice Rat
Dassie / Rock Hyrax
Cape Mountain Zebra
Cape Fur Seal
Southern Right Whale
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