Monday, 20 November 2017

Things will never be the same

On 8th November my wife gave birth to our first child, Freya, 10 days earlier than expected. Amazing, daunting, and life-changing! Things will never be the same again, including my birding... However, I have managed two short trips out since then.

The first, on 15th, saw my mother-in-law almost pushing me out of the front door so I could go and do some birding; I think really she just wanted some one-on-one time with her daughter and new granddaughter - but I wasn't complaining! I headed first to Girton Pits to do my WeBS count. The highlight was a 1st W female Scaup on the Sailing Lake, not the most obvious one I've ever seen and requiring a closer approach to confirm it. In addition, there were no fewer than 3 Cetti's Warblers singing in various places, 2 squealing Water Rails, and 2 Yellow-legged Gulls (and adult and a 1st W). 

It was then on to the patch, where the western side of Wharf Pit was being remodelled. Water levels here were extremely low, and the pit held 8 Redshank and a Dunlin - there were another 5 Redshank and 3 Dunlin on Mons Pool. Further evidence that it has been a good year locally for Cetti's Warblers came in the form of three more in song, and there were 3 Water Rails suggesting something of an influx. A Barn Owl hunting over Besthorpe Meadow wrapped things up. 

Today, and I was allowed another few hours out. I wanted to check out Cotham Landfill, and spent just over two hours there. Around 700 Herring Gulls were present, along with c.75 GBBGs and 7 LBBGs, and best a 2nd winter Caspian Gull. There were also 5 darvic ringed Herring Gulls, and 1 GBBG. The Herrings were all ringed yellow on their left leg with the code Y:xxx, so ringed at a landfill near York. The GBBG was black on right, JW131; the 1st winter GBBG I had here earlier in the winter was ringed black JX157, and originated from Vardo in northern Norway - today's is no doubt from the same scheme. 


2nd W Casp
2nd W Casp
Y:296 
Cotham Landfill - not much room left...

Thursday, 2 November 2017

South Africa part 1 - Kruger and Wakkerstroom

As a child I was enthralled by African wildlife documentaries, by the huge landscapes of the Serengeti, Masai Mara and Ngorongoro, and the throngs of animals that filled them. Ever since, I have wanted to go to Africa to see the places and the animals featured in these programmes, but had somehow never quite got round to it. I'd always envisaged that such a trip would be to somewhere in East Africa - Kenya or Tanzania, or maybe Zambia. Earlier in the year, planning for a safari trip finally began; however, Kenya (and by extension Tanzania) was soon ruled out, as Amy had already been there. Uganda emerged as a strong contender, but ultimately proved to be too expensive (if both Gorillas and Chimps were going to be included as well as safari). Finally, South Africa came to the top of the pile, despite my initial reservations - it wasn't East Africa! However, we have friends out there, it represented reasonable value for money, and the safari experience would undoubtedly be good. And whilst this was going to be a non-birding holiday (as if such a thing exists), the birding also looked promising...

And so, early in August, we left Heathrow on a direct (and bloody expensive) overnight BA flight to Johannesburg. Touching down early the following morning, Hadada Ibis and Helmeted Guineafowl were ticked from the plane as we taxied in - we were finally here! Once we'd cleared customs we were straight on the road heading east. A range of stuff (mainly obvious and easy to ID) was seen from the car over the next couple of hours, including Cape Turtle Dove, Black-shouldered Kite, Red-knobbed Coot, Hammerkop, Fiscal Shrike, African Sacred Ibis, Cape Sparrow, Grey-headed Gull, Cape Crow, African Stonechat and Ostrich. A stop at a service station with a small 'game viewing' area produced 100s of Speckled Pigeons, 2 Blacksmith Plovers, a Cape Wagtail, and a pair of Red-headed Finches (not seen elsewhere), amongst other things. 


Helmeted Guineafowl (in Kruger)
Cape Turtle Dove (in Kruger)

Arriving at our first stop at Dullstroom, things didn't get off to a good start; I thought this would be a fairly quick stop to pick up some of the high grassland specialities of this part of southern Africa. However, the track off the main road quickly deteriorated and became very rough and rutted, and after only a short while we were forced to abandon. A female Buff-streaked Chat and the only Streaky-headed Seedeater of the trip were some recompense, but I'd already struck out on my only chance of the endemic Gurney's Sugarbird, generally found further south in the Drakensberg Mountains, and on Wattled Crane. The first African Pipits and Levaillant's Cisticolas of the trip were also seen here, and our first mammals - a Blesbok and five Hartebeest.


African Pipit (in Kruger)
Hartebeest

Giving up and leaving Dullstroom (mindful that I'd get a second try at most of the missed birds when we got to Wakkerstroom in a few days time), a Kestrel sp (Rock or Greater) eluded identification, but a Southern Bald Ibis was unmistakable. Continuing, we had a brief detour to one of the viewpoints that look out over Blyde's Canyon, Africa's second largest (and the world's largest 'green') canyon - fairly epic. Nice birds here were Red-winged Starlings and Mocking Cliff Chats around the buildings, a couple of Familiar Chats in the scrub, and Pied Crows and several huge-billed White-necked Ravens overhead. A small party of Chacma Babboons was also present.


Blyde's Canyon, looking towards the Three Rondavels
Familiar Chat
Female Mocking Cliff Chat
The final leg of our 5 hour drive saw us entering savanna habitat, and passing private game reserves. Birds included the first Lilac-breasted RollersFork-tailed Drongos, and a Black-headed Oriole (as well as several un-ID'd fly-acrosses), along with a Smith's Bush Squirrel, a small group of Bushbuck, a Chacma Baboon, and two Vervet Monkeys. We eventually arrived at our tented bushcamp just outside Manyeleti Game Reserve, as the sun was setting, and minutes before our check-in time passed. After settling in to our tent, we enjoyed the first of four communal evening meals, hearing what other guests had seen earlier in the day, before sitting around the camp fire with a cold beer. Our long journey began to catch up with us, so we retired, drifting off to sleep with the night-time sounds of the bush in our ears, including roaring lions. Tomorrow was going to be good!


Lilac-breasted Roller

Manyeleti is a private game reserve that abuts the western side of Kruger National Park, and is unfenced from it. It is big (230 square kilometres), and supports the Big Five, so our expectations were high when we were up and out at 6am the next morning for our first game drive. And we weren't to be disappointed over the next three hours or so. Although game seemed a little thin on the ground, we came across a pride of four lions within the first few minutes, with another 12 later on. Other mammals included c.30 Buffalo, two Warthogs, several small parties of Impala, a small group of Plains Zebra, a Bush Duiker, a family of Dwarf Mongooses, a single Wildebeest, and as we were leaving the reserve, a party of five African Elephants. It was fantastic to be weaving along dirt tracks through the bush looking for wildlife - pretty much my idea of heaven


Our tent at Wild Olive Tree Camp
Our tent at Wild Olive Tree Camp
A track through Manyeleti
Another Manyeleti track
The view from the jeep
Habitat in Manyeleti
Warthog
Lions and jeep
Lions
Lions
They're behind you
Dwarf Mongoose

As well as the mammals, a good selection of birds was seen, including a skulking Common Buttonquailtwo huge Red-breasted Swallowsplenty of shiny Greater Blue-eared and Burchell's StarlingsRed-billed Oxpeckers hitching lifts on the backs of various animals, both Southern Yellow-billed (big) and Southern Red-billed (little) Hornbills, several groups of Swainson's Spurfowls  and Crested Francolins, an intricately-marked Crested Barbet, a party of Green Wood-hoopoe, a single African Hoopoe, several huge White-backed Vultures (airborne and sat atop trees) and at the smaller end of the scale, lots of Red-billed Quelea and a Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. Other highlights were Crowned Lapwing, Laughing Dove, Pearl-spotted Owlet, African Palm Swift, Grey-headed Kingfisher,  Magpie Shrike, Black-crowned Tchagra,  and a Square-tailed Nightjar heard at dawn. 


Crested Francolin
Magpie Shrike
Common Buttonquail
Crested Barbet
Burchell's Starling

After our morning game drive, we chilled out at camp, and I did some birding, adding Sombre GreenbulSpeckled and Red-faced MousebirdsGrey Go-Away-Bird, Black-backed Puffback, White-bellied Sunbird,  Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, Southern Boubou, Yellow-fronted Canary, Tambourine and Namaqua Doves, Black-collared and Acacia Pied Barbets, Black Cuckooshrike, Dark-capped Bulbul, Bearded Scrub Robin, a gaudy Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Red-billed FirefinchBlue Waxbill, some snazy Green-winged PytiliasGolden-breasted Bunting and best in the looks stakes, a stunning White-throated Robin Chat outside the tent. It was also fun watching the local Vervet Monkeys. 

Acacia Pied Barbet
White-bellied Sunbird
Grey Go-Away-Bird
Red-billed Firefinch
Black-backed Puffback
Vervet Monkey

We then finished our first full day with an afternoon/evening game drive, departing at 4pm. We again saw lions, this time totalling 21 (including 10 cubs), a lolloping Spotted Hyena, c.100 Buffalo, two Defassa Waterbuck, two Wildebeest, three Dwarf Mongooses, several groups of Impala, and after dark, a Scrub Hare and three Elephants. However, best was a sleeping Leopard, which we watched at ridiculously close range before giving up our viewing location to another safari jeep - Manyeleti only allows three jeeps to view an animal at a time, to avoid hassling them too much. New birds were a Red-crested Korhaan (aka the Suicide Bird because of its display flight, when it plummets head-long towards the ground, something we saw on another drive) and three Little Bee-eaters


Dozing Leopard
Leopard
Wildebeest
Spotted Hyena
Red-crested Korhaan
Golden evening light
The sun going down
Scrub Hares

The following day we were up early for a self-drive into Kruger NP through the Orpen Gate, conveniently located just a few kilometres from our camp. This was eleven of the best hours of my life (no exaggeration), during which we drove almost as far as the Mozambique border and back again. We got off to a flying start with three Southern White Rhinos (two adults and a half grown youngster) before we'd even reached the gate, meaning that we had already seen the Big Five, and before we'd seen a Giraffe. This was quickly rectified, with plenty of the latter seen during the day, as well as two Black-backed Jackals, over 50 Elephants (including a herd of c.30 with young, and some at very close range...), five cute little Steenbok, several small groups of Kudu and Hippos (in the Sweni River and at a water hole), as well as lots of Impala, Zebra and Buffalo, small numbers of Wildebeest and Warthogs, a party of Chacma Baboons, Slender Mongooses around one of the water holes, and a few Smith's Bush Squirrels. 


Southern White Rhino
Black-backed Jackal, scarpering
Impala
Elephants
Ellies
Giraffes
Giraffe
Buffaloes
Burchell's Zebra
Steenbok - tiny
Chacma Baboon
An Ellie by the car
30 feet away...

Kruger is pretty amazing - from a landscape perspective is perhaps not the most stunning, but the scale is incredible - it just goes on and on, c.355km north to south (that's the equivalent of Newark to Edinburgh) and around 65km east to west. On its own, it is over 19,000 square kilometres in area, and it's even bigger when all the private game reserves on its western boundary are added in (another 1,800 square kilometres). It is also contiguous with the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique - and one day the whole lot and more will be part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park.  

The main roads in Kruger are tarmacked, which slightly spoils the aesthetic, but does make getting around easy - there are also unsurfaced tracks which you can take as well, and which are like driving over corrugated roofing, making progress much slower but somehow more satisfying. The habitat varies, with dense bush, open savanna, riverine woodland, rivers and water holes. The distribution of animals was certainly patchy, as would be expected, but there was always something to see, and at times we didn't know where to look as there was so much going on. Just fantastic.


The Satara road in Kruger...
...which goes on...
...and on!
A Kruger track
The Timbavati River - mainly dried-up
The Sweni River, just 3km from Mozambique
Savanna as far as the eye can see, and beyond

The birds were good too; many were the same as I'd already seen in Manyeleti, but additions included plenty of Rattling Cisticolas, an Arrow-marked Babbler, a little group of Southern White-crowned Shrikes, a Common Scimitarbill, a family party of Double-banded Sandgrouses, single Lizard Buzzard, Brown Snake Eagle, Tawny Eagle and African Fish Eagle (a bucket list bird for me), several Bateleurs (what a bird!), two African Grey Hornbills, a few Three-banded Plovers around several of the waterholesWhite-rumped Swifta big party of Little Swifts over Satara Camp, where a lunch break produced  Southern Grey Sparrow, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Red-billed Buffalo-weaver and Wattled Starling, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-lark, and at the Sweni River, single African Pied WagtailWater Thick-knee, Green-backed Heron, Grey Heron, and Pied Kingfisher. Other birds included Common Myna, Long-billed Crombec and Southern Black Tit.


Rattling Cisticola
Arrow-marked Babbler
Southern White-crowned Shrike
Double-banded Sandgrouse
Red-billed Buffalo-weaver at Satara Camp
Being naughty and feeding the birds - a Southern Red-billed Hornbill
White-backed Vultures plus chicks
Bateleur
Ostrich
Black-shouldered Kite
African Grey Hornbills
On foot in Kruger - exciting!
Towards the end of the day

Our third day was another spent in Manyeleti, again with morning and evening game drives and some birding around the camp in between. Our morning drive was just the two of us. Our driver, Fortune, took us to a different area, more open and where Cheetahs are sometimes seen. Not today, but we saw a nice selection of game during the morning, including three male Lions, a beautiful slinky female Leopard, two Elephants, a Spotted Hyena, four Hippos in a waterhole, and a Steenbok, plus Warthog, Impala, Wildebeest, Zebra and Buffalo. 


The electrified fence forming the western boundary of Greater Kruger
Off-roading
Here be Cheetahs, but not today
Hippo
'Ferrari Safari' after news came through of a Leopard
Female Leopard
Female Leopard
Zebras
The drive was relatively quiet bird-wise, but included Brown-headed Parrot, Alpine Swift, Sabota Lark, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-lark, Pearl-breasted Swallow, Marico Sunbird and Red-billed Buffalo-weaver, plus many of the other by-now familiar savanna species. 


Sabota Lark

At camp I spent some time at the 'pond', which was attracting some fancy butterflies, as well as a few birds dropping in to drink including Golden-breasted Buntings (which are stunning); elsewhere I had nice views of Bearded Scrub Robin, and both Black-collared and Crested Barbets


Guineafowl (butterfly, obviously)
Babault's(?) Blue
Golden-breasted Bunting

And then it was time for our last game drive; we found the three male Lions again, stalking a herd of Buffalo, and two Elephants. As sunset approached, we stopped for a sundowner - beer and crisps. Being out of our jeep and on foot as the sun went down and the bush came alive with cicadas was brilliant. Darkness falls quickly, and as the African stars came out (which have to be seen to be believed), an African Scops Owl started calling, unseen. We then did some spot-lighting, which revealed a Spotted Hyena and a Southern Galago, and around 10 Bush Hares. Best, however, was a Southern White-faced Owl. Other birds seen whilst it was still light included 2 Temminck's Coursers, several Senegal Lapwings and the only White-crested Helmet-shrike of the trip. 

Temminck's Courser
Beer and crisps as the sun goes down
Wattled Starlings
Sunset
Southern White-faced Owl, plus an ex-rodent

And that was the end of our Kruger experience; top notch. No Cheetahs, and no Wild Dogs, but a reason to come back. I missed a few special birds too (which I didn't see elsewhere), such as Natal Spurfowl, Kori Bustard, Knysna Touraco, Southern Ground-hornbill and honeyguides of several species; also reasons to come back. We left Manyeleti early the following morning, sad to be going - but we had lots still to come. 


Heading back towards the Highveld at dawn

First was another long drive, this time south towards the small town of Wakkerstroom. Not far from Manyeleti, at the Abel Erasmus Pass, I was allowed a quick stop to try for Taiti Falcon, this apparently being about the best place on the planet to see this species. After half an hour I was getting back into the car when I clocked a small falcon over the opposite hillside - Taita Falcon! A rather unexpected success given the time constraints. 


The Abel Erasmus Pass
"Place of Taita Birds Falcon" - stand here and scan!
All you need to know about Taita Falcon
The road to Wakkerstroom...
... unchanging for hours

The remainder or the drive was fairly uneventful, with a few birds seen - Jackal BuzzardGiant Kingfisher and Knob-billed Duck being new, along with a herd of Springbok. We got to Wakkerstroom just after midday, where we met our guide, Lucky, who I'd booked through the local BirdLife office. We then embarked on 4.5 hours of top notch birding. The area around Wakkerstroom is famous for its upland grassland birds, and is the place to go for three species in particular - Rudd's Lark, Botha's Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit, all of which have very restricted ranges (the larks especially). 

A small, pink-billed and big-headed Botha's Lark was seen almost straight away after a long bumpy drive (to Daggakraal?), whilst a Rudd's Lark and a Yellow-breasted Pipit were tracked down without too much difficulty at Fickland Pan, although the Pipit was flighty and didn't really want to be photographed. Burned areas seemed to be particularly favoured by birds (or maybe they were just easier to see), and also produced confiding Spike-heeled Larks, much less confiding Red-capped Larks, several Cape Longclaws and a few Grey-winged Francolins


The 'road' north of Wakkerstroom
Botha's Lark habitat
Botha's Lark
Birding with Lucky
Rudd's Lark
Yellow-breasted Pipit
Cape Longclaw
Spike-heeled Lark
Grey-winged Francolin
Other quality species encountered as we drove the tracks north of the town included a Southern Bald Ibis, three Sentinel Rock Thrushes, lots of Ant-eating Chats and African Stonechats, three Buff-streaked Chats, several Mountain Wheatears, four rather distant Blue Cranes, three lanky Secretary Birds (brilliant!), several Blue Korhaans (either distant or obscured in long grass), quite a few Wing-snapping Cisticolas, several Pied Starlings, plus Long-tailed Widowbirds, and a Maccoa Duck on Fickland Pan. 


The Fickland Pan
Buff-streaked Chat
Ant-eating Chat
Secretary Bird - very cool!
Southern Bald Ibis
Blue Korhaan, a bit distant
Sentinel Rock Thrush
Pied Starling
Wakkerstroom habitat
The grasslands at Fickland Pan

There were some nice mammals on offer to, with several Meerkat families, several Yellow Mongooses, a Slender Mongoose, a party of Rock Hyrax and a large group of Blesbok.  


Meerkat
Yellow Mongoose

Returning to town, we saw a couple of Bokmakieries and two Red-throated Wrynecks, and then spent a little time looking over the wetland, adding Reed CormorantAfrican SpoonbillLittle GrebeEgyptian GooseSouth African Shelduck, Yellow-billed DuckCape Shoveler, an African Harrier HawkCommon MoorhenAfrican Swamphen, two Grey-crowned CranesAfrican SnipeLevaillant's Cisticola, and Cape Weaver.

Bokmakierie
Wakkerstroom
African Swamphen

The next morning I got up early to revisit the town's wetlands, birding from the road and one of the hides. I was first greeted by the sight of a group of c.30 Blue Cranes roosting on a reservoir below the guesthouse we were staying in (with several seen leaving roost a little later on). New or notable birds included two each of Purple Heron, Black-headed Heron, Squacco Heron and Black-crowned Night-heron, a Spur-winged Goose, three South African Shelduck, a pair of Hottentot Teal, three Black Crakes, a heard-only African Rail, several African Swamphens, and lots of Little Grebes, Yellow-billed Ducks, Red-knobbed Coots and Moorhens. Waders included Three-banded and Blacksmith Plovers and several African Snipe. In addition, c.10 Brown-throated Martins were overhead, and other passerines included a a Red-eyed Dove, a stunning Cape Robin Chat, several Lesser Swamp Warblers, both Wing-snapping and Levaillant's Cisticolas, Pied and Common Starlings, a few Cape and lots of Southern Masked Weavers, plus a confusing selection of Widowbirds, which looked to be both Fan-tailed and Red-collared


Roosting Blue Cranes
Our guesthouse
A frosty start
Wetland hide
The view from the hide
Wetlands from the road
Yellow-billed Duck
Black Crake
Southern Masked Weaver
Levaillant's Cisticola

Bird tours tend to spend more time in this area, and I can see why, as it would have been nice to try for some of the other specialities of the area, such as Ground Woodpecker, Red-winged Francolin, Black-bellied and White-bellied Bustards and various larks including the endemic Melodious. But after breakfast we had to embark on the next leg of the trip, which required a four hour drive down to the coast at St Lucia...