Tuesday, 16 June 2009

A delicious dilemma

I started bird-watching during a holiday in Africa as something to do between watching mammals. Even in the Serengeti, there are slow moments when nothing is moving. As far as the eye can see, there is empty, flat grassland. During these lulls, Martin introduced me to the birds and it took off from there so to speak.
Returning to Africa always puts me into a quandary. Do I look for mammals or birds or both? Can you do justice to both?
During the northern summer, the southern hemisphere experience their winter. The birds breeding plumage is being kept for best and many families present themselves as dowdy, brown and sparrow-like. The cisticola family are tricky at the best of times. The weavers, widows and whydahs are unrecognisable from their summer selves and the larks and pipits perplex me whatever the season.
So my choice was made fairly easy really. I decided to immerse myself in the African wildlife, but not to give too much attention to the difficult identification problems. I.e., go looking for mammals, look for birds in the slow moments and ignore anything that is brown.
I left my colleagues at the airport. As they headed for their luxury hotel, I made for Marievale Bird Sanctuary.

Marievale is south-east of Johannesburg off the N17 Toll road. Turn south from the Springs/Nigel turnoff and continue 3 miles or so until the Marievale sign pointing left into a cornfield. It is well signposted from there. http://wiki.sabirding.co.za/Marievale_Bird.ashx
The morning was foggy with thick banks on the roads. When I arrived at Marievale, the mist was dense with occasional lighter patches. Through a relatively clear spot, I saw my first bird of the morning, a Black-winged Kite, ghostly grey in the mist. The road passes along a causeway, with water and reeds on both sides. Red-knobbed Coot are abundant here and were making plenty of noise. Reed cormorants were roosting and Dabchicks called through the fog. A black Crake darted across the road and a flock of Yellow-billed ducks came in to land on the water.
Along the causeway and the approach road, visibility was very poor, so I pressed on into the reserve, making for the Duiker Hide. Even here there was very little to see. Strategically placed posts and rails usually support cormorants and darters, but not today. At last the mist started to lift as I came out into the grasslands.
The reserve is fed by a small stream which spreads out, delta-like and forms extensive reed beds with open water areas. The wet part is surrounded by grasslands and sedges, with farmland beyond. African Stonechat are the most obvious inhabitants of the grasslands at this time of year, but my attention was caught by a shape in the distance. A Marsh Owl was quartering across the rough, tall grasses, occasionally banking and dropping into the grass. It was working it’s way towards me, but seemed wary of the car and kept a fair distance. A second owl appeared and began hunting. More proficient or luckier than the first, it caught a meal on it’s second attempt and flew off to eat it.
Another narrow causeway leads over the top end of the wetland and gives out onto a drier area. From the causeway, I could see more coots, Common Moorhen, Cape Wagtail, Cape Reed Warbler and Levaillant’s Cisticola. Long-tailed Widows can still be separated from the other sparrow-like winter birds by their large size and their remnant shoulder patches. There were a number of these gleaning by the side of the track. Common Waxbills were working their way through the rough sedge stems.
Shelduck Hide is at the furthest reach of the reserve. Dabchick and more coots were making lots of noise. The visibility was much better now and I could see out to the White-breasted and Reed Cormorants. Another Black Crake was searching the edge of the reeds.
As I returned towards the narrow causeway, I caught a flash of blue low down in the grass. A Malachite Kingfisher was peering into a tiny puddle. I tried to position myself to get a clear picture, but the grass was thick and high. I left him and moved out onto the causeway. Close by is a screen. I was going to set up in the screen and wait for the kingfisher to show, but he got there first. He landed just beyond the hide but still construed to be partially obscured by stalks. I tried to sneak quietly into the hide, but disturbed him and he flew on.
I returned to the car without the picture that I had hoped for. But the kingfisher was still around. Using the car as a mobile hide, I was able to approach as he perched close to the road. Then he dived and came up with a water insect. He perched so close to the car, I thought he was going to land on my wing mirror.
Back at Duiker Hide, it was now possible to see out onto the reserve where Egyptian and Spurwinged Goose were basking in the sunshine.
I was able to have a better look in the reeds alongside the approach road and the road causeway as I began home. Someone had told me that they had seen a Goliath Heron, but I missed it. I found an African Darter, some Red-billed Teal and Cape Shoveller. I was pleased to be able to re-affirm my conviction that little brown jobs were not going to be a productive use of my time. There was no sense in wasting time on dull brown birds when there are birds like the Malachite Kingfisher to watch and anyway, I am off to Pilanesberg tomorrow to look for some hairy stuff. I'm sure I will see a few feathers while I am there.


Species List; 40
Dabchick 6, White-breasted Cormorant 5, Reed Cormorant 7, African Darter 2, Black-headed Heron 1, Black-crowned Night-heron 1, African Sacred Ibis 200, Hadeda Ibis 1, Egyptian Goose 6, Spurwing Goose 4, Yellow-billed Duck 20, Red-billed Duck 3, Cape Shoveller 3, Black-shouldered Kite 6, Tufted Guineafowl 6, Black Crake 6, Common Moorhen 25, Red-knobbed Coot 400, Blacksmith Lapwing 10, Grey-headed Gull 200, Red-eyed Dove 16, Ring-necked Dove 60, Laughing Dove 12, Marsh Owl 2, African Palm Swift 1, Malachite Kingfisher 4, Plain Martin 15, Cape Longclaw 8, Cape Wagtail 3, Cape Robin-chat 1, African Stonechat 40, Levaillant’s Cisticola 6, Tawny-flanked Prinia 1 , Lesser Swamp Warbler 12, Common Fiscal 6, Common Myna 20, African Pied Starling 8, Lesser Masked Weaver 15, Long-tailed Widowbird 20, Common Waxbill 5.

The next morning, I was woken at 04.30 to start out for Pilanesberg National Park. http://wiki.sabirding.co.za/Pilanesberg.ashx It usually takes about 2 hours and I arrived shortly after the gates at Bakubung opened at 06.30 to be greeted by a Mocking Cliff Chat picking around my car.
The park is on the site of a collapsed volcano. It covers approximately 500 km square. A tarmac road (Kubu/Kgabo) runs from Bakubung Gate in the south, to Bakgatla Gate in the north-east, roughly bisecting the park. A second tarmac road (Tshwene Drive) runs east from Kubu/Kgabo to Manyane Gate. The rest of the roads are dirt, but well maintained.
The sun was just up and the light was still a little weak as I took the first turning off the tarmac. The Kgama Loop is dirt road and passes to the west of Lengau Dam.
I could hear the Baboons before I saw them. A large male was calling from the wall of the dam. Other adults approached in submissive postures while smaller animals cowered nearby.
The day continued promisingly with some Common Waterbuck, Impala and Brindled Wildebeest. Then I came across a small herd of Burchell’s Zebra. They were moving towards the road. I put myself into a position to be able to photograph them as they came out from behind the sparse acacia scrub. I was rewarded with a beautiful pose as they hesitated just before committing to cross the road. If this had been my only picture all day, I think I would have been happy!
At the junction, I turned north onto Ntshwe Drive. The birds were keeping me occupied now as the mammals thinned out. Along here were Swainson’s and Natal Francolins, Black-shouldered Kite, Short-toed Rock thrush and Familiar Chat. All the time, the “drink lager” song of the Cape Turtle Dove surrounded me. It is one of the most evocative sounds of the bush.
I continued north, crossing on to Nare Road. On a big meadow around a sharp bend, was a single bull Elephant. He was feeding calmly. So often an elephant, close to the road will attract quite a crowd. This morning, it seemed as if I was the only person who had ventured off the tarmac and I was able to sit and watch him for quite a while before he moved off.
There is one indulgence I always look forward to when I visit Pilanesberg, breakfast at Pilanesberg Centre. An old courthouse has been converted to cater to the tourists. As the name suggests, it is right in the middle of the park and it does a wonderful breakfast. With this thought in mind I let the Elephant go his way and I went mine. Pulling on to Sefara Link, I noticed a big block of grey colour about 200m across a shallow valley. Amongst the acacia scrub were 5 White Rhinos.
Barely slowing as I passed a small herd of Brindled Wildebeest, I came back onto the tarmac and turned south towards Pilanesberg Centre. Just a couple of hundred meters before I reached it, I was stopped by an Impala, close to the road and in good light.
This morning, despite having seen no traffic in the park, Pilanesberg Centre was full and the staff was stretched. My breakfast was disappointing, as was the centre itself. It has been “upgraded”, which so often takes away the endearing characteristics and replaces them with homogenised conformity. But the Warthog family is still there and still good for a close detailed photograph. A salt lick has been placed by the waterhole and attracted a giraffe.
Despite poor service and awful food, it can almost be forgiven when one is in such glorious surroundings.
Another draw for the Pilanesberg Centre is the sightings map. If people have seen any of the exciting animals, they are invited to stick pins in the map to indicate to others where they might find Lions, Giraffes or Elephants for example. There had been very little action this morning, with only half a dozen pins having been placed.
I wanted to sit out the middle of the day at a hide in the north-east of the park. So I took Tshwene Drive eastwards and joined Dithabaneng Drive. Extensive areas of the park have been burned recently and the grass is just starting to grow back. Green grass is a big draw for the plains animals and a good mixed bag of plains game were taking advantage of the fresh shoots. A Sabota Lark picked amongst the blackened stubble.
Burning is often part of the management program in wildlife parks such as Pilanesberg. It reflects the cycle of naturally occurring fires that renew and refresh the landscape. Fires set as part of a management policy are easier to control. An unfortunate incident occurred a few years ago when an unexplained fire ran out of control. 20 or so elephants became trapped in a gulley and were badly burned. The park management tried to treat them, but ultimately, they had to destroy the animals.
Birds find rich pickings here too. A brown Snake-eagle was scanning from the wing and a Lilac-breasted Roller, one of the most wonderfully plumaged birds in Africa, was hawking for insects from the top of an acacia. Just before reaching the hide, 8 giraffes crossed the road ahead of me. The light was wrong from my angle, so I tried to get ahead of them. As I pulled alongside I noticed that 3 of the giraffes were perfectly aligned. Trying to emulate the zebra shot from earlier, I almost pulled it off, but spoiled it by just catching the inside of the car door. Maletse Dam is home to nearly a dozen Hippos. They were hauled up on the bank near to the hide. One of them had many fresh cuts on it’s flank. Perhaps it had been attacked by lions. Hippo skin is very thick so the wounds were probably only superficial, but it did look sore. A family of waterbuck approached and one of them entered the water and swam across to the island on which the hide is built. This is the first time I have seen a Waterbuck do anything to earn it’s name. Usually, I see Waterbuck in the bush and Bushbuck by the water.
I spent a couple of hours in the hide. People came and went. A Red-billed Oxpecker, with a juvenile pecked about on the Hippos and a Black Crake fussed around the animals on the ground, possibly feeding on the flies and insects that find mammals so attractive. Up high, a Black-breasted Snake-eagle soared in the afternoon thermals.
The Waterbuck came very close to the hide. She was feeding in the reeds and looked up as some people entered the hide.
Rathlogo Hide is close to the tarmac road that runs south to northeast through the park. It is on the west side near the top. I moved here at about 14.30 and took some time to watch a male Waterbuck with a fine pair of deeply ridged, curved horns. He came down to the water to drink, then retreated to the long grass where he thrashed about with his horns. This is common behaviour among antelopes, known as bush or grass-horning and demonstrates a male’s aggressive mood and dominant status. People came and went again.
There is a tradition on safari that the “Big 5” should be sought. A moniker from the days when hunting was fashionable, the “Big 5”, Elephant, Rhinoceros, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard, were considered to be the hardest to shoot and therefore the par for a good hunter. Today, these animals are still considered to be the benchmark for a good photographic safari. This tends to demote the other animals to a lower division and interest wanes accordingly. Thus a Waterbuck, even a dominant male displaying his status, failed to capture the attention of people passing through.
The afternoon was passing quickly and the park would close it’s gates at 18.00. Soon the animals would start moving again after their midday siesta. I wanted to complete a figure of eight taking in the other 2 big dams, Makorwane and Mankwe.
The road was blocked on Tlou Drive by 3 vehicles and 2 White Rhino. Although I had 4 sightings of rhino today, with 11 animals altogether, none of them made for a good picture. Further along were the first Springbok of the day, some more giraffe and wildebeest. Approaching the dam, I noticed 3 large white birds, African Spoonbills, and low in the grass on the shoreline, a pair of Hamerkop. A Neddicky, called in chorus with a pair of Cape Turtle Doves.
The light was leaving the sky as I turned onto Mankwe Way and the last loop of the day. At the junction is a kopje, a mound of granite that characterises much of the African landscape. If I were a Leopard, this is where I would choose to live. I can never resist scanning the rocks with the absolute conviction that, one of these days, I will find a leopard, basking in the sunset. As usual, I had to stifle a sigh, but one day…..
Mankwe Way was quiet until I reached the most easterly point when the area suddenly came alive with Brindled Wildebeest, Zebra, Impala and giraffe.
A Slender Mongoose crossed the road ahead. Mongooses are often lucky for me and I often find something exciting shortly after seeing one. Sure enough, just around the corner, in the distance, I saw another bull Elephant.
I think that I have met this one before. He was very recognisable because his right tusk is missing. He once spooked my wife and son during a holiday in South Africa. We were driving on a narrow dirt road. We rounded a corner and he was walking down the middle of the road towards us. He showed no sign of stopping, so we had to reverse back around the corner, hoping that he would continue in a straight line and not follow us round the bend. But he did follow us and we ended up having to retreat nearly half a mile before being able to reverse into a side road and watch him plod past our windscreen.
Then I had to join the procession of cars heading south towards Bakubung Gate. Pilanesberg is big enough to contain many visitors without the feeling that we were all in an enclosed area. I had hardly seen any other tourists today except at Pilanesberg Centre and at the hides.
Close to the entrance to Sun City, there is a service area with a supermarket, fast food and petrol. I was able to fill up here for the 2 hour drive back to Midrand and a well deserved nap.

Species list; 68
Dabchick 6, White-breasted Cormorant 4, Reed Cormorant 3, African Darter 2, Grey Heron 1, Hamerkop 3, African Spoonbill 4, Egyptian Goose 20, Spurwing Goose 12, Yellow-billed Duck 40, Black-shouldered Kite 4, African Fish Eagle 1, Brown Snake-eagle 1, Black-breasted Snake-eagle 1, Crested Francolin 2, Natal Francolin 3, Swainson’s Francolin 4, Tufted Guineafowl 14, Black Crake 1, Red-knobbed Coot 4, Blacksmith Plover 8, Crowned Lapwing 1, Three-banded Plover 2, Speckled Pigeon 4, Red-eyed Dove 8, Ring-necked Dove 30, Laughing Dove 6, Grey Go-away-bird 15, African Palm Swift 6, Red-faced Mousebird 25, Brown-hooded Kingfisher 1, Pied Kingfisher 3, Little Bee-eater 1, Lilac-breasted Roller 4, African Hoopoe 1, African Grey Hornbill 4, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill 1, Rufous-naped Lark 1, Sabota Lark 4, Cape Wagtail 6, Common Bulbul 60, Groundscraper Thrush 4, Short-toed Rock-thrush 2, Mocking Cliff-chat 1, White-throated Robin-chat 1, Familiar Chat 8, Capped Wheatear 1, Tawny-flanked Prinia 1 Black-breasted Prinia 1, Mariqua Flycatcher 4, Southern Black Flycatcher 1, Arrow-marked Babbler 15, Common Fiscal 3, Brown-crowned Tchagra 4, Crimson-breasted Gonolek 1, Fork-tailed Drongo 1, Pied Crow 10, Cape Glossy Starling 4, Red-billed Oxpecker 5, House Sparrow 6, Mossie 2, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow 1, Lesser Masked Weaver 12, Green-winged Pytilia 1, Blue-breasetd Cordonbleu 10, Violet-eared Waxbill 2, Yellow-fronted Canary 8, Golden-breasted Bunting 4.

Mammal species list; 14
Slender Mongoose 3, Chacma Baboon 8, African Elephant 2, White Rhinoceros 11, Hipppotamus 11, Warthog 7, Impala 120, Kudu 2, Brindled Wildebeest 200, Springbok 25, Steenbok 1, Common Waterbuck 25, Burchell’s Zebra 50, South African Giraffe 28.

Reitvlei Nature Reserve http://wiki.sabirding.co.za/Rietvlei_Dam.ashx does not open to the public until 08.00 so I took advantage of a leisurely lie-in and set off at about 07.30. The reserve is reached from the R21 which runs south to north from Johannesburg O.R Tambo International Airport to Pretoria. The reserve is on the east side of the road at the Irene turn off. It is mostly grassland with a coupe of large dams. www.rietvlei-reserve.co.za There is a good head of game animals with a couple of rhino. In my more snobbish moments, I would not consider this to be “safari”. The animals have been stocked and do not have to survive the predations of lions etc. An injured animal will be treated, not left to the savagery of Mother Nature. Permanent water is assured.
However, time is limited today. I have to fly back to London later, so the attractiveness of a reserve is in its proximity rather than its wildness. I started with Blacksmith and Crowned Plover along the verges of the road. The verges were mowed a meter or two back from the edge of the road. This short grass was popular with the birds and it was possible to spot them from quite a distance away. Orange-throated Longclaw and Long-tailed widow were common. A short distance beyond the entrance gate is the first of the hides. I looks out onto the bigger dam. It was foggy again this morning so visibility was poor. As well as the usual Dabchick, White-breasted and Reed Cormorants, was a winter plumaged Great Crested Grebe. A red-knobbed Coot looked out of place feeding a couple of chicks. The fog, brown reeds, brown grass, winter plumages and the chilly mornings all contributed to the seasonal theme, yet here was a scene reminiscent of Spring.

In the taller grass and sedges, Tawny-flanked Prinias called, but did not show well. A number of cisticolas were certainly present in the grass, but it was difficult to tell which ones. Levaillant’s Cisticola is one of the few cisticolas that I can identify without having to refer to my field guides. It is usually found in damp areas, of which there were plenty.
The Fantailed or Zitting Cisticola is often easy to identify with its bright rump and chit-chit-chit flight song.
There were burned areas which had started to regrow and short green shoots were showing through. A Blesbok, free from worries, was taking a gentle nap. Actually, the Blesbok might start to show more alertness in the future as the park management has recently stocked the reserve with Cheetah.
The road leads across a stream with a small weir at the inflow end of the bigger dam. Here a pair of Egyptian Geese had taken up residence. Beyond them the plains had been burned over a large area. A Black-breasted Snake-eagle patrolled overhead, much to the annoyance of the Pied Crows who mobbed him each time he passed over. A secretary bird discomforted the crows as well. Rounding the top end of the charred meadow, I flushed 2 Northern Black Koorhan. A 3rd and 4th bird were out on the plain.
Sabota Larks liked the burned stubble. African Stonechat was conspicuous in the grass on the unburned side of the road and a Capped Wheatear sat well for a picture. On a post close to the picnic area was a dull brown bird that I thought I recognised. When she flew, the light patches in her wings confirmed that she was a Southern Anteating Chat.
The picnic area held very few birds. There were some Southern Masked Weavers and a small flock of Arrow-marked Babblers. The dam had cormorants, Dabchicks, Egyptian Geese and a single Spurwing Goose. A Grey-headed Gull wheeled above.
It had been a quiet morning, but still better than sitting in a luxury hotel. Can you think of anything worse? But as always happens the time came when the call of work and responsibility could no longer be ignored and back to the luxury hotel I turned.

Species List; 41
Southern Ostrich 12, Dabchick 4, Great Crested Grebe 1, White-breasted Cormorant 50, Reed Cormorant 6, African Darter 1, Egyptian Goose 6, Spurwing Goose 1, Yellow-billed Duck 8, Black-shouldered Kite 3, Black-breasted Snake-eagle 1, Secretarybird 1, Northern Black Koorhan 4, Swainson’s Francolin 1, Tufted Guineafowl 8, Common Moorhen 2, Red-knobbed Coot 20, Blacksmith Lapwing 4, Crowned Lapwing 9, Grey-headed Gull 1, Red-eyed Dove 4, Ring-necked Dove 7, Laughing Dove 4, African Palm Swift 6, Green Woodhoopoe 4, Rufous-naped Lark 1, Sabota Lark 3, Long-billed Pipit 5, Cape Longclaw 22, Common Bulbul 14, Southern Anteater Chat 2, African Stonechat 20, Capped Wheatear 1, Levaillant’s Cisticola 4, Zitting Cisticola 8, Tawny-flanked Prinia 2, Arrow-marked Babbler 15, Common Fiscal 12, Pied Crow 4, Mossie 8, Lesser Masked Weaver 12, Long-billed Widowbird 8.

A total of 96 birds is not a very good total for 3 sites in South Africa. I will do better next time!