21 Birders attended the SAPPI Hide outing so the group was split in two. One group staying at the hide and the other doing the walk through the picnic area for about a kilometre around the Hide Dam. This proved to be excellent birding with the assistance of two members having scopes. The group from the hide eventually joined the walking group.
Birdlist for the day amounted to 52 including 3 ticks for myself . Thanks to all the knowledgeable Twitchers who made the day a success.
The day ended with Bacon rolls for those who wanted and a lovely picnic enjoyed by all.
A sequence of a yawning Pelican:
Pelicans in flight and landing:
A few people went back to the hide after the picnic and were lucky enough to see the Grey-crowned Cranes that were seen in a mating ritual earlier this month (and shown in an earlier post):
Our original plan was to stay 3 nights camping at each camp – Crocodile Bridge, then Satara, Tsendze Bush Camp, Balule, Skukuza and Berg-en-dal. Unfortunately this was cut short due to the flooding and we left after 3 nights at Crocodile Bridge and Satara and 2 nights at Tsendze.
The journey to the Swazi border and through Swazi passed off uneventfully and we made good time although there were a few potholes to be essentially missed between Big Bend and the turnoff to Siteki.
Between the exit from Swaziland and Komatiport there were 3 sets of roadworks – each quite long but we were lucky at each and did not have to wait long – perhaps because we were looking for an excuse to have a cup of tea from our picnic basket.
Altogether from home in Hillcrest, Durban to Crocodile Bridge took us less than 8.5 hours – about 640 kms with 4 essential stops including 2 for diesel.
Our main goal in the Crocodile Bridge area was to try and find the reported White-throated Bee-eaters along the S25. So off we set the first afternoon (after setting up camp). European Bee-eaters were aplenty and we saw the odd Carmine but no White-throated. Birds were plentiful however and in the three days there we notched up 135 different species – probably the most interesting being a Western Osprey, Lesser Grey Shrikes, Brown-hooded Parrots, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks, White-crowned Lapwings and several Garden Warblers. The Garden Warblers were heard in the Lower Sabie entrance, along the road to the S28 from Lower Sabie and then at the hide along the S28. None was seen clearly unfortunately.
Woodland Kingfishers were calling -it seemed from every tree, Red-backed Shrikes were numerous and European Rollers everywhere and of course the Rattling Cisticolas were giving their all in their various styles. This was true everywhere we visited.
An aside: We were unable to get onto the Lower Sabie decking overlooking the river because Mugg & Bean are revamping the restaurant. There was no indication as to when it was due to open.
Some bird photos:
Then there was the weather. First night pouring rain followed by an overcast and dribbly day and night. The second full day was cool, overcast but dry – until evening. We had dinner comfortably outside. Sitting there hearing the weather approach discussing this and that when a bushbaby suddenly appeared on the pole in front of us – not 3 feet away. So Tiny. Looking straight at us for a long time. We remained motionless transfixed – or whatever. Desperate to try and take a photo but fearful any movement would scare it away. It went to the ground beside us then appeared to fly a good 10 feet back in front of us and out of view – a truly amazing sight. “Flew” is the only word we could use to describe the action we saw.
Then the heavens let loose all night it seemed. A constant battering of water on our roof – for hours. Fortunately we had a second insulating layer over our rooftop tent and we remained dry. Packing up the next day was a challenge with the ground soaking wet – somehow we managed.
Off we headed for Satara via Lower Sabie and Tshokwane – overcast and cool and dry – luckily for us.
Just north of Crocodile Bridge is a small dam. From the bridge the dam wall can be seen with a pond or two – normally – beneath either side of the bridge. But when we got there it was a raging torrent!! The water level on the lower side was almost to the top of the dam!
About 10 kms short of Lower Sabie, just after the turnoff to the S28 (north), there is another bridge overlooking a tranquil pond or two if you are fortunate normally. Another raging torrent!! Never seen anything like it. An amazing transition from the day before.
As we continued north so the weather seemed to improve and we were hopeful that this would be the last of the torrential rain. Between Lower Sabie and Tshokwane we settle into a pleasant tootle alongside the open plains. We stop for a picture shoot of a pair of Red-breasted Swallows – not to be. They flew off as I was about to press the shutter – why does that always happen!
However in the distant view was what appeared to be a Black-shouldered Kite. Then we realised it was quartering the grassland – definitely a Harrier – an exciting Harrier- Montagu’s or Pallid? As it came closer we were able to see that it was a Pallid – unfortunately the photo we got was poor but clearly shows which it was. We would have loved to have chased it down the road but it was too much of a challenge to turn round with the trailer in tow.
Along the road we also saw Hooded and White-headed Vultures to compliment our viewings of the Lappet-faced and more common White-backed which we had seen earlier in several locations.
Before we get to Tshokwane we decided to deviate to Leeupan and Silolweni Dam on the way to Skukuza. Silolweni is closed due to blue-green algae. Leeupan – an old favourite – despite the rains was overgrown and not much water was visible – however six Southern Ground Hornbills made an appearance on the way in to the Pan.
Tea at Tshokwane and on to Satara. Little did we realise that the next day there would be a raging river of water across the main road at Tshokwane cutting the park in two.
We settle in to the Satara campsite – eventually finding a shady site. Soggy camping gear – yuk but despite the weather things soon dried out – smells and all!
All appears well with the world and we settle into peaceful sleep. Midnight and the heavens open once again. Our campsite is a soggy mess underfoot yet again! Thoughts of going home abound!
The morning starts with a glorious red sunrise – great light. I know….. Red sky in the morning etc.
Despite our doom and gloom we decide to try some birding and head along the S100 – having first dug a channel to drain our site!
Birding again, relaxation sets in and we enjoy the moment. Not too much activity then we pull into a short loop and stop. Activity in the large fig tree – but what is it. Yes, a Cuckoo – great. Which. Not sure. There it is – can we get a photo. Looking in to the sun – try anyway. Fortunately it moves and gives us a better sighting – African or Common Cuckoo? Much ado. We check the bill and get the distinct impression that it is quite yellow at the base – African we think. Then again is the plumage tatty or in good nick? I will leave you to decide. Tatty it means African. But the telling detail we believe is the barred undertail coverts. So finally we conclude Common. See what you think.
Ah but there is more. What is that – another Cuckoo and another. The tree must be teeming with caterpillars. The first a Jacobin. The next a male Diedrik’s but what is this – a female Diedrik’s or Klaas’s? Your choice – see photos into the sun unfortunately!
On we go – a pleasant loop to the north and along the way we find Amur Falcons, Lesser Kestrel – females, a Peregrine Falcon and an unidentified juvenile Goshawk – suspiciously like a Gabar to me – see photos.
Bliss – a night without a downpour.
The last full day at Satara we headed north for Timbavati picnic site. Great as virtually no traffic all the way to the turnoff from the main road heading towards Timbavati. Not a car had passed us.
After a while there are Sandgrouse on the road – several pairs – Double-banded. Out with the cameras as 2 cars draw up behind us – unbelievable. A quick few shots then we reluctantly let the cars past. Why does this always happen when you see something interesting we complain to each other.
Anyway we drive on and after no more than 1 km we observe some birds on the road bathing in a puddle at the road’s edge. We stop about 20 metres from them and notice that they are Magpie Shrikes and Wattled Starlings. At that point I get very excited and point out another bird – far more interesting than anything else we had seen so far. I carefully park the car across the road so we can observe unhindered through the open windows.
The bird calmly steps out a bit further into the road – still in the puddle and starts preening. Cameras shuttering, video taping and we watch the whole scenario for 20 minutes until it steps back into the rank grass. And to spite the axiom, not another car had arrived to spoil our day. It was a lifer for both Sally and me – see photos.
On we go to Ratelpan hide – very much on a high trying to ingest and appreciate what we had just witnessed.
The hide overlooked a subdued but still swift flowing Timbavati River. We enjoy a cup of tea and watch the few birds on the sand banks and round the hide. One bird, a Tawny-flanked Prinia was making his/her nest directly in front of us and we managed to get several photos of him/her in the nest.
Then on the way back to the picnic site we find some monkeys playing at the roadside. Splat joined in their fun. One little monkey happened to be pure white – quite human like.
At the picnic site we found an African Scops-Owl.
Then we headed for the other hide near N’wanetsi – Sweni Hide – followed by lunch at the picnic site. Lo and behold 3 friends from the bird club (BLPN) – David & Tessa White and Sarah Burns turned up at the same time – small world. Here we see a Grey-headed Sparrow with a bit of a white throat and hardly any flashing in its wings – but which one, surely not a Northern – you decide, see photo:
On the way back to the camp we stopped at our “Cuckoo” tree from the day before and find it harbouring an Eurasian Golden Oriole – unfortunately a photo escaped us.
And that was the end of our birding around Satara. Altogether we had seen and or heard 128 different bird species. Some photos including one of a Pink-fronted Red-backed Shrike – presumably getting ready for the breeding season back home.
Saturday morning and we discover that one of our intended camps – Balule was closed. So on our way to Tsendze Bush Camp we stop in at Letaba and alter our booking to stay there instead for those 3 nights. However this was not to be.
Excitement on the way north as we find an obliging Montagu’s Harrier perched quite close and a Eurasian Hobby at a little more distance – unfortunately both on the sunny side of the car making it difficult for decent photos.
We arrive in Tsendze in sweltering sunshine and hear about all the flooding chaos further south – the main road to Tshokwane under a raging river of water cutting the access to the park in two. The Olifants River in full flow.
That afternoon we take a drive to the Shipandani Hide. The causeway immediately before the hide is far more interesting with a number of different birds on it – the bullying Lapsmiths, a pair of Hamerkops, Black Crakes, Goliath Heron (having a swim) and a Croc right at the side waiting for his chance. The next afternoon there were also a pair of Black Storks, a Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, the Black Crakes had 2 chicks in open display on the causeway, a Green-backed Heron appeared, as did a Common Sandpiper, 2 crocodiles and the star, a Little Bittern.
On the way back we take the first River loop road and come across a short loop next to the Tsendze River. At first we thought it inactive birdwise but as we waited so the birds began to appear – and no-one else there to badger us along.
During the night we hear our first Fiery-necked Nightjar as well as a Pearl-spotted and a Barred Owlet.
We set off early the next day and head for the plains to the East of Mopani.
We come across Wattled Starlings in their hundreds and Sally gets a great picture of the head of a Swainson’s Spurfowl.
Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks are everywhere. And we are treated to good views of several Dusky Larks hopping along the road in front of us.
Shibavantsegele Lookout was another special place teeming with numerous different species, but the best bird we saw there was a Grey-headed Kingfisher.
Grootvlei Dam had a fair amount of water in it and we saw a number of new species including White-fronted and Kittlitz’s Plovers.
On return we stop at the Tihongonyeni waterhole situated in a vast open plain. An elephant is consuming from the water storage tank, loads of different game are about as well as many different bird species. It was as if it were winter with little water to be found elsewhere. Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks were everywhere as were Red-capped Larks, Lapsmiths, Egyptian Geese, the odd Kittlitz’s Plover and African Pipit.
We return via the Tropic of Capricorn and of course Splat has to have his photo taken there.
Back at camp, we found that our solar panel was working well after all. We realised that the 40 degree temperature of the previous day had had its toll on the freezer performance -taking it up to zero degrees C – and it was not as a result of failing batteries or poor charging. Big relief.
In all we saw 94 different species in the area. Some other photos from around Tsendze:
That night the heavens open again and we get up to be treated to a mud bath beneath us and the rain still coming down. After an attempt to drive out of the rain towards Shingwedzi we realise it is fruitless and we return to Mopani to postpone the rest of our booking for another day.
This is a tiresome process as each camp has to be called and each reservation attendant has different ideas about what has to be done. Eventually Berg-en-dal helps by postponing our 3 days there until October.
So after getting our gate pass from Mopani we return to Tsendze camp to pack up. The rain abates but the ground is even more waterlogged beneath the trailer. Despite this we manage somehow. Our biggest headache was the groundsheet as it was sodden. Where to put it? Not in the car. So on the roof of the trailer it goes – in its cloth bag and with two dustbin liners over it. We pray it does not leak too much and soak our matress. Throughout this process the birds gave us a tuneful farewell – Firefinches sang around us, a male and female Black Cuckooshrike made an appearance and a Black-headed Oriole sang to us.
On our way out we stop in at Letaba to see if we can deal with that booking and perhaps Skukuza. We found the duty manager and he was very helpful though a little confused about what should exactly be done. After three quarters of an hour we get something sorted and end up having to redo the whole thing over on return home.
We plan to return home via Phalaborwa and to the N11. The scenery and high altitude passes were great but the Potholes were man size in places. It reminded us of our early days travelling in Mozambique.
A funny story. At our stopover one of the other guests shows us a picture in the Die Beeld newspaper – shown a month previously and again that day. In the photo you see a lady in a bikini washing her hair, drinking champagne sitting waist deep in a pothole. The nearby warning sign read “Potholes” and beneath it someone had put a second notice saying the usual rules you find in public swimming pools – No Diving; No Jumping etc.
Anyway despite the weather we had a very enjoyable birding experience seeing some amazing birds. Altogether 191 different species were seen and or heard throughout the Park.
Lake St Bernard is situated in East Gruiqualand – between Underberg and Kokstad and found after 24 kms on the D609 (heading west). Cottage No. 3 is situated right at the Lake’s edge with great panoramic views of the lake surrounded by mountains. There are 2 other cottages well spread out on the site.
Most people come here for the trout fishing – the reason why our friends, Sally and Chippy decided to stop here on their way to St Francis. Chippy is passionate about his fishing. We were fortunate that they asked us to join them for the three days at LakeSt. Bernard.
Driving in to the Lake, on the D609 rough road, we came across a large wetland area with numerous Sakabulas – Long-tailed Widowbirds – struggling with their enormously long bulbous tales.
After unpacking and some lunch the two Sallys and I set off to explore the waterfront while Chippy prepared for his afternoon of fishing. There were a number of water birds about as well as the odd raptor.
On return we found Chippy stuck in the reeds casting his rod – and it was not long before he started landing the Rainbow Trout. Unfortunately it is “catch and release” otherwise we would have had 5 large trout for dinner.
Fishing is obviously quite an art with colourful flies “woolly buggers – green, white and red”, “Olive Red Eyed Damsels”, “Black Zonkers”, “White Death” to name a few all to catch the cockfish and hens. (You need to learn patience, a whole new language and have nimble big fat fingers to boot!).
The birds around the Lake were plentiful including dozens of Hadeda Ibis; Spur-winged and Egyptian Geese; Black-headed Herons; Blacksmith Lapwings (Lapsmiths for short); Pied Startlings; Ant-eating Chats as well as Banded Martins; Barn, Greater Striped and White-throated Swallows; Cape Longclaw; Cape Weavers; Jackal and Steppe Buzzards.
For us it was up early each day and in the vehicle to explore the area in search of birds. On the first morning out we visited the St Bernard’s Peak Mountain Lodge to check out the birds in their grounds – instead we ended up climbing part of the mountain behind the lodge – looking for the mountain specials. We were not disappointed as we saw Cape Vulture, Cape Rock-Thrush, Bokmakerie, Buff-streaked and what we think is a pair of Familiar Chats – or could they be Sickle-winged Chats – see photos.
In the afternoon we drove some of the by-roads and came across a secluded amphitheatre of mountains – green, imposing and enthralling. The rivers were flowing and there were wetlands everywhere.
On the way we came across this most unusual bird sitting by the road.
Grey-crowned Cranes entertained us, Amur Falcons were on all the power lines and we managed to see other lovely species including Yellow Bishop.
The final full day, Sally and I drove a bit further afield in search of alternate habitats but in this area the landscape was pretty constant for miles. However we did come across another large lake with Whiskered Tern, White-backed Ducks, Cape Shoveller and tens of Red-knobbed Coots. Further on we came upon a Black-shouldered Kite with his catch and on the way back a Drakensberg Prinia calling like mad.
We did come across a couple of unusual birds – an Amur Falcon with a blonde head and a Common Fiscal (we believe) with a dark front.
In all we saw and or heard 75 different bird species.
Finally it was time to leave – up early as usual. Sally and Chippy headed south for St Francis and their house on the northern bank of the Krom river (Hudsonian Godwit land at present).
For us it was back to Durban and to prepare for our departure for the Kruger two days later – Crocodile Bridge and maybe a chance to find the White-throated Bee-eaters if they are still there.
On the way out we were treated to the sight of a Diedrick’s Cuckoo in the misty wetlands – also a sunny Cape Longclaw.