The decision to go to the Drak Gardens was made the day before we left. I had never been there and Sally always wanted to go back. We chose a great weekend to go. It had just snowed – and the mountains were well capped. The weather was beautiful, sunny and clear for our whole stay – icy cold when windy and at night but T-shirt weather during the day.
The campsite is just before entering the Drak Gardens boom gate. It was wonderfully grassy and green with loads of shade if you wanted it. The ablutions were very good with really hot water.
There is another campsite in the Park itself – Hermit’s Campsite – near the Garden Castle Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park office – but it is not electrified. It’s advantage is that it is right at the start of all the walks in the park.
Our intention was to walk in the Berg and bird along the way. Birding was quiet but what we did see and hear was different from the usual birds we normally see. Some of the specials included Bokmakierie, Buff-streaked Chats, Cape Rock-Thrushes, Malachite Sunbirds, Yellow Bishops and Ground Woodpeckers. Sally kept her ears open for any chance of hearing Rockjumpers to no avail and we did not see nor hear any Gurney’s Sugarbirds. Our bird list can be seen by clicking here – some 50 species.
Map of walks: We wanted to head for Pillar Cave but started heading towards the Three Pools.
On our first morning we got lost trying to find where we wanted to go. A riverside walk. However we headed in the wrong direction towards the Three Pools – a steep climb. Very quickly we realised our mistake and trundled back down and followed the river until we found a path which we correctly assumed was the Mlambonia river walk.
On and on we climbed thinking that at some stage we would get near the river – but although that was the river walk it was some way higher than the river itself with steep slopes down towards it.
We got as far as the first river crossing after about 2 hours and decided not to go any further. The crossing looked quite interesting and mildly challenging but we had had enough and took a break there watching other parties of Germans trying to cross – ever hopeful of a photo of someone losing their footing.
One group thought they new best and decided to take an alternative route but we did not stay to see their probable outcome – floating down the river.
We headed back.
The Watsonias were out in full everywhere.
Before we left the next day we took a drive around the area and went back to the start of the walk we did the day before to explore an area by the river. Here we saw virtually all the specials we had seen the day before as well as about 6 Horus Swifts flying overhead and occasionally darting into one or other of the holes in the river bank.
This was a most enjoyable few days with fantastic weather.
On the spur of the moment Sally and I decided to revisit St Lucia – ever hopefully of finding the specials we missed 2 weeks previously. The specials being the Eurasian Oystercatcher and the Gull-billed Tern.
We stayed at Sugarloaf campsite – taking advantage of the discount available. We do enjoy this campsite as the birdlife within is amazing. It is also very handy being right beside the boardwalk to the beach. Birds are always about the campsite – we had a pair of Brown-Scrub Robins and a Red-capped Robin-Chat entertain us this time.
Arriving early we set up camp quickly and went for a stroll along the beach and also next to the estuary. It did not take us long to realise that there were no Oystercatchers about. Terns were present on the mud flats but mostly Swift Terns with the occasional Little and Caspian Terns among the Pied Avocets and Grey-headed Gulls.
Later on I went back without success. Bumped into several other birders on the search as I was heading back to the camp – suggested to them to sit and wait and perhaps get lucky – as Sally and I had done 2 weeks earlier with the Sooty Tern.
Later on Sally and I put up the scope at the start of the boardwalk – scouring the sides of the estuary. As we did so, one of the people I had chatted to earlier said he had taken my advice and waited with the Terns on the mud flats when out of nowhere the Gull-billed Tern appeared and he had a great photo of it too. Perhaps I should have taken my own advice!!! They had seen it at about 17h00.
The next morning we got up early – ever hopeful and headed for the same mud flat. On first inspection there were very few Terns there and a number more further away with someone watching with their camera handy.
Off we went and could not decide which set of Terns to check out first. So as we passed the first set we decided to check out the close ones first. It was 06h00.
Sally peruses with the scope and almost immediately spots the Gull-billed Tern – alone with about five or six Swift Terns.
Masses of other small waders were feeding nearby – Curlew Sandpipers, White-fronted and Kittlitz’s Plovers, Common Ringed Plovers, Sanderlings, the occasional Ruddy Turnstone, Marsh Sandpiper, Pied Avocets etc.
We crept down to get a closer look but far enough away to make sure we did not upset the birds and send them scattering. The mud flat was between two sets of reeds – those on our left were at least 2 metres tall – I say this because later we noticed a Hippo walking our path and into the reeds where it disappeared completely. As it was there was a not so small Crocodile basking on the shore close to where we were watching the Terns. Scary thoughts, more vigilance and alertness is required. Try not to be remembered as a Dead Birder.
While watching, all the birds took to the air for no apparent reason except that a Grey Heron had just landed amongst them. Of course all the Terns went too. We kept our eyes on the Gull-billed Tern and it looked as though it was on its way up the coast but it turned and came back – landing from where it left. We ended up spending 45 minutes with the bird until it flew off heading inland.
While we were there, we had kept a look out for other birders to call them over but no-one showed – shame. As we walked away about 6 Collared Pratincoles appeared on the mud flats – they must have been there all the time – shows how fixated we were.
Now for the Eurasian Oystercatcher – such a good looking bird.
However it was not till our last afternoon that we spotted any – three, but all African Black Oystercatchers – no Eurasian.
On Saturday we walked almost 14 kms up and down the beach and over 16 kms on Sunday according to my FitBit!! Hard work on soft sand and sore leg muscles later.
Monday was overcast, wet and windy so we headed into Eastern Shores instead after a cursory look at the mudflats with the scope – virtually nothing around.
Changes have been taking place in the park and at long last the the broken bridge on the road beside Lake Bhangazi has been repaired. The bird hide at Mafazana Pan has a new entrance. There was water in the iMboma Pan and numerous hippos and a pair of visiting Rhinos. as well as birds.
A new entrance to Eastern Shores is being built where the old one was and it causes chaos when more than 6 cars are waiting to get in – up to a three quarters of an hour wait. We got lucky on our third day of attempting as we were not prepared to hang around. We chose a Monday morning at 07h00.
Birds were calling it seemed all day long – including Narina Trogons, Green Malkoha and Nicator.
On the way back along the Red Dunes loop we stopped for a cuppa at the Lookout point. While enjoying our tea a Black-chested Snake-Eagle glided about us and was soon being bombed by a bird we could not identify. Initially we thought it to be a Buzzard but its tail is all wrong. What is it?
Animals were plentiful – Nyala, Zebra, Wildebeest, Giraffe, Eland, Buffalo, Reedbuck, the occasional Warthog and Duikers, few Impala and a lone Tsetsebe.
The last night the drizzle arrived and we had a wet pack up in the morning – fortunately most of the pack up was done the previous evening.
Our highlight on this visit was the Gull-billed Tern.