28 October 2009

Into the Heart of Kruger II…(South Africa): October 7, 2009

Driving deeper into the park we came upon various weird and wonderful wildlife from Angulate Toroises, to Elephants, Waterbuck, Blue Wildebeest, masses of Impala, and yet more White Rhinos. Stopping at a huge Baobab tree (see photo) provided a nice sideshow, although as we arrived back at the highway to continue our journey some large black shapes resting in the shade at the roadside turned out to be a party of the frankly bizarre Southern Ground Hornbill (see photos). Later on the journey we found an extremely tame Red-crested Korhaan (see photo) wandering along the roadside, that really should have had a “Korhaan Crossing” road sign to warn us of it! We ended the day with a fairly uneventful night drive out of Letaba Camp, which should have been renamed the Springhare Safari, as these strange creatures bounced off the sides of the road everywhere. A few hefty looking Hippos were worth a look too though, as at this cool hour they had wandered away from their usual watery hiding places.

Into the Heart of Kruger I…(South Africa): October 7, 2009

After a decent “fry up” (fried breakfast), we checked around Skukuza Camp for birds, before making our way into the heart of Kruger and eventually Letaba Camp. Skukuza Camp has patches of denser brush and in some of these we found the striking Heuglin’s Robin-Chat (see photo), and a pair of smart White-throated Robin-Chats (see photo). On the long drive between camps we came upon birds and game dotted along the “park highway”, and there really were very few moments when there wasn’t something going on. One magical highlight included a side visit to a waterhole after a tip-off from someone we bumped into along the way, where Burchell’s Zebras wandered to the pool to drink right next to a huge Giraffe that drank alongside. Meanwhile in the background to all of this was a recent bloody Kudu carcass in the middle of the water, which was attracting the attentions of a number of Spotted Hyenas. It really was a classic African safari experience (see photo).

Hyena Sunrise...(Kruger NP, South Africa): October 7, 2009

Just after the sun came up we were in the van and patrolling around the Skukuza area of Kruger NP, with one thing in mind, find some big game. No sooner had we left the camp when we were met with the sight of a couple of cars stopped at odd angles on the road, like something had caused them to stop suddenly. A quick glance on the side of the road and all became clear: a family “mob” of Spotted Hyenas were playing and wrestling with each other on the roadside just yards away from the thrilled people in their cars. We just had to get involved. We slowly edged our way up to the pack, wound down the windows and let rip with the cameras. The hyenas were completely untroubled by the admiring groups of us staring at them, with some of the younger animals even showing equal fascination towards us, at one time sidling up nonchalantly to the vehicles and sniffing their tires! What a way to start our full day in Kruger. You’d think it would all be downhill from there, although there was plenty more to come. Before breakfast we also packed in an encounter with a pair of beastly White Rhinos too, (their flat-bottomed upper lips identifying them from the pointed lipped Black Rhinos that also patrol this park).

27 October 2009

Camping it up in Kruger...(South Africa): October 6, 2009

Leaving the highland grasslands of Wakerstroom behind we traveled north into "real" Africa, or more specifically the bushveld of Kruger NP, one of Africa's finest park, that is packed with both birds and game (for game wait for later posts to come). Within minutes of arriving at the park the floodgates opened, and we were being inundated with new birds and animals, with some of the very best birding being right in the park camps, where the birds are tame and conspicuous, and ready for a hand out! Hordes of hungry Greater Blue-eared Glossy-Starlings (see photo) patrolled one of the camps, along with Southern Yellow-billed and Red-billed Hornbills (see photo of the former), and Francolins swept the ground for scraps too: Crested and Natal Francolins (see photo of the latter). For a while we chased around a calling Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike with extremely limited success, only for a pair of these beautiful birds to show to us once we piled into the van right by the car park! Also in the same camp was the bark-like African Scops-Owl (see photo) that was not at all difficult to find due to a largish sign planted below the tree challenging all to find their owl, which was roosting (rather conspicuously I should add) in the open tree above! At another camp we arrived to find a gorgeous Golden-breasted Bunting (see photo) panting in the mid-morning heat by the sign for the camp, and after a hearty feed we watched as a Purple-crested Turaco floated lazily in the air over the river and landed slap bang in the camp beside us, the large scarlet wing flashes in flight drawing us to it immediately. A truly magical first day in one of Africa's top wildlife venues.

20 October 2009

Larking about in Wakkerstroom…(South Africa): October 5, 2009

Having flown in from Cape Town to Johannesburg the afternoon before we made our way to the quiet, and even quaint, town of Wakkerstroom, southeast of Jo’burg. This small town has a distinctly English feel, coming complete with a church spire and surrounded by rolling grassy hills, (in stark contrast to some of the dingy looking townships we had passed by on the way).

These grassy hills are a boon for larks and pipits that abound at Wakkerstroom, and were what we had come for (among a myriad of other birding possibilities). The area is special for birders as it has extensive areas of highland grassland that in many other areas have been destroyed through intensive farming practices, and so here provide a vital haven for some of these high altitude grassland specialists. Before we had even reached the town we started picking up some top draw species, not least a number of Blue Korhaans stalking through the windswept grasses. We picked up our local man, aptly named Lucky, and we set about putting his name to good use. Through his impressive local knowledge of the myriad of grassy fields he targeted some of the top birds in the area, and shockingly we walked away with both the scarce Yellow-breasted Pipit, and the rare Rudd’s Lark within just a few hours after our arrival, along with the more common but no less impressive Orange-throated Longclaw (see photos). The former both endemic species that are confined to such high altitude grasslands. A number of stately Grey-crowned Cranes, complete with golden “head-dresses” and broad white wing panels, pacing the fields were a little more conspicuous.

Wakkerstroom is full of surprises, and even here (seemingly in the middle of nowhere), we managed to eat in a superb little local restaurant where the walls were adorned with the work of over twenty local artists depicting everything from the rolling grassy hills of Wakkerstroom itself, to the majestic Oryx wandering the red Kalahari sands of Namibia, while our steak dinners arrived in a burst of flames (literally). A dramatic end to a good days birding!

19 October 2009

Into the Karoo...(Karoo NP, South Africa): October 2, 2009

Leaving the rocky crags of Swartberg behind and the rich swathe of Afromontane rainforest on the coast at Wilderness we moved into a markedly different landscape-the almost barren looking Karoo. Stunted shrubs and low-lying vegetation were in marked contrast to our previous few days birding. The place is great for both birds and also an under appreciated mammal venue. The good birds of the day included an unobtrusive African Rock Pipit working its way through the boulders, an extremely confiding Layard's Tit-Babbler (see photo), a Lark-like Bunting doing its best to look anything but a bunting, a Short-toed Rock-thrush, a few Karoo Korhaans, and finally a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler relented, and decided to co-operate with us and hopped around on the burnt orange boulders just a few feet away.

Mammals were good too with some Klipspringers (see photo) encountered along the way, perched on the very tips of their hooves as is their odd and unique way, and the night drove produced one of the animals of the trip with a superb Aardwolf loafing across the Karoo in the spotlight, in additon to a Caracal, and a single Gemsbok (Oryx). We also wondered where the hell all the Cape Mountain Zebras had been that magically appeared out of the ether post-darkness, even chomping on vegetation just acros from our cabins, that had been mysteriously hidden (in this open terrain) during daylight hours!

16 October 2009

Swartberg Pass…(South Africa): October 1, 2009

This day was all about spectacular mountain scenery. We finished our time in Wilderness during the morning where we blazed a trail through rich Afromontane forest, (that held a couple of Olive Bush-shrikes and a nice Narina Trogon), although by the end of the morning we had climbed out of this coastal forest belt, and moved inland and upwards into the Swartberg mountains. Low alpine fynbos vegetation took over the landscape (that brought us a couple of fynbos specials in the form of Victorin’s Warbler and the scarce Protea Seedeater), which became dramatically craggy, with steep rocky outcrops, and breathtaking vistas. Just the kind of treeless landscape that you would not expect to find a woodpecker, although that is what we had come here for. Southern Africa has a strange endemic species of woodpecker that exists in areas devoid of trees, in dramatic landscapes like this one at Swartberg Pass. It is aptly called the Ground Woodpecker, and it does indeed spend most of its time on the ground or hanging out on rocks, one of just a handful of ground-dwelling woodpeckers on the planet (along with Campo and Andean Flickers of South America). After jumping out of the car we noticed a Cape Rockjumper perched up on a jagged boulder looking down on us, and after a bit of searching we found one magnificent Ground Woodpecker. The scenes above are taken from the 1 436m (4 875ft) high pass, (that was constructed by convicts in 1888), although the woodpecker shot was taken at the arid Karoo NP the following day.

10 October 2009

Into the Wilderness...(South Africa): September 30, 2009

Next stop on this absorbing tour of South Africa's top birding spots and prime game reserves was the touristy town of Wilderness. While most go there for the cool forests and scenic coastline, we were there for a good set of birds. As soon as we arrived at our quaint, faintly English, guesthouse we were met by the seriously friendly and accommodating proprietors, Sue and Phil, and also a hearty set of birds checking out their feeders. For our few days on site we enjoyed fresh muffins and hearty breakfasts while birds buzzed in and out from their feeders, while we feasted on a variety of wonderful home-baked goods nearby. Top among the veranda birds were a number of tame Knysna Touracos (see photos), a vision in lime green, that suddenly turns scarlet in flight due to huge flashes of crimson in their wings. Other notable visitors were Chorister Robin (see photo), Forest Canary, Southern Boubou, a rowdy rabble of scavenging Fork-tailed Drongos with a passion for cheese, Terrestrial Brownbul, Cape Robin-Chat, Red-necked Spurfowl (see photo), Sombre Bulbul, Red-eyed Dove, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Swee Waxbill (see photo), and I am sure a few I have forgotten along the way. Quite a performance. One thing I cannot fathom though, the place is called Wilderness, although it could not be nearer civilisation. mean there was always a hearty game pie on the menu wherevere we chose to dine!

03 October 2009

The Forgotten Korhaans...(South Africa): September 28, 2009

Sorry, forgot to post the photo of a pair of Karoo Korhaans on the Agulhas Plains a few posts back. Here they are at last! 11 of these endemic bustards were seen prowling the plains during that lark-packed afternoon en-route to De Hoop.

De Hoop Wildlife...(South Africa): September 28, 2009

In the late afternoon, after a frantic spell of non-stop shutter action during the marvellous photo opportunities on our journey to Malagas, we finally arrived at De Hoop, and started seeing some of the "megafauna" that the area is rightly famed for. Despite avian distractions like a couple of stately Secretarybirds prowling the plains, and a testosterone fuelled display by a closeby Stanley's Bustard, we took in a few of the animals feeding out in the late afternoon sun: several herds of Elands roamed the fringes of the reserve (see photo), and our first striped-up animals made an appearance with several Cape Mountain Zebras, in addition to the striking forms of ten or more Bontebok quietly feeding just before the sun set on what had been a great day, for delicious gamey pies, a flurry of new and fascinating birds, and a few big animals to boot. You just have to love South Africa!

Agulhas Plains to De Hoop...(South Africa): September 28, 2009

A fantastic afternoon was spent digesting a tasty springbok pie, and making our way from Swellendam to De Hoop. The Overberg Wheatlands were laden with birds, larks hopped on and off fence posts along the way, bustards strutted proudly through the huge wheat fields (including 11 different Karoo Korhaans-see photo, and a chest-pumping male Stanley's Bustard in full display), and South Africa's national bird, the majestic Blue Crane (see photo) was out in numbers. By the end of the day we had tallied up over 100 of these regal birds alone. Here are a few more highlights: the generously endowed Agulhas Long-billed Lark, and a Capped Wheatear.

Farewell to Capetown...(South Africa): September 28, 2009

We finally left windy Capetown behind today and headed off east towards the Agulhas Plains. In the afternoon, after a hearty lunch of Springbok Pie with Cape Robin-Chats (see photos) and Fiscal Flycatchers (see photo) flitting around our Swellendam restaurant garden, we headed off onto the Algulhas Plains for a plethora of larks, and a bunch of bustards...(see next post)