Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The more time I have, the faster it goes.

My nemesis, Time, has been stalking me again this week. Whether it was the wrong sort of time, unfortunate timing, or simply, not enough time, our week has been dogged by clock-watching, speeding and incidents of, “you’ve just missed it”. This picture of a Wood Sandpiper for example, is brought to you instead of the Leopard that we would have seen if we hadn’t stopped.
My buddy, Martin, joined me for a trip to Johannesburg in South Africa. Martin is my lucky talisman when it comes to finding big cats. For example, he has a 100% record of finding lions, 75% for Cheetah and Leopard, and 100% for wild Tigers too! It was a long trip and we saw lots of stuff, so, if you are sitting comfortably, I shall begin.
I had planned the trip too tightly and almost immediately it became clear that we would have to drop a couple of sites. We started at Marievale, a superb wetland sanctuary southwest of JNB International Airport. Then on day two, we travelled to the Kruger National Park by way of Dullstroom’s grasslands and the montane forest at Mount Sheba. The whole of day three was spent in Kruger and we returned back to catch the flight home on day four after an early morning drive out of the National Park. All these sites are described in detail on the excellent website http://www.birdingsa.co.za/

Day 1;
Martin’s suitcase didn’t arrive and we wasted a couple of hours waiting and filling forms before we were able to collect the car and start for Marievale. South Africa is preparing their infrastructure for the World Cup next year which involves lots of road works and thus, traffic. We didn’t arrive at Marievale until gone midday.
We stopped along the agricultural approach roads and our list was already mounting. Long-tailed Widows were very obvious with their exuberant breeding plumage easily identified from distance. One sat close to the road for our first pictures. A wet area beside the road held Ruff, Three-banded Plover, Cape Wagtail and Levaillant’s Cisticola. Dry areas where the vegetation had been allowed to go to seed were full of Southern Masked Weaver, Red Bishop and Red-billed Quelea.
When we reached Marievale our first stop was at Otter Hide. To my great delight and as if to prove that the naming of hides is not just on a whim, Martin spotted an otter. It was a Spot-throated Otter that was certainly aware of our presence, but seemed cautiously accepting. The birds seen from the hide were Reed Cormorant, Squacco Heron, Red-knobbed Coot and a reed warbler that started a disagreement that is not yet resolved.Southern Masked Weaver
One of the constants of a trip with Martin is that at least one bird will cause an identification argument between us that will continue through the whole itinerary. Despite numerous views we simply could not decide what we were looking at. The reed warbler looked like being our issue of the week.
There is a good deal of reed-bed and water to explore before the entrance gate is reached and we worked our way along the road stopping for Goliath Heron, African Spoonbill, Red-billed Teal, Hotentot Teal, Yellow-billed Duck, Cape Shoveller and Southern Pochard.
A Red Bishop male who was just coming in to his breeding plumage looked like the Prince of Darkness out of the depths of HadesInside the sanctuary, we stopped at the Duiker Hide. White-throated Swallows sat on the cormorant posts with an African Darter. Out on the water a pair of Great Crested Grebes was courting and some White-breasted Cormorants and Black-winged Stilts were hauled up on a far off, raised mud-bank. A causeway crosses the water and leads to the Shelduck Hide on the far bank. The causeway has always been a very productive area and today, gave us our second otter. It could have been the same one. It acted in a very similar manner, cautious, but curious. It was very active not staying on the surface for more than a couple of seconds before diving and resurfacing a few meters away. Yet it made no attempt to escape our attentions.Reed warbler calls and songs re-ignited our discussions and 2 warblers of different sizes only served to confuse us further.
At the Shelduck Hide, Martin had his moment of the day. A Black Heron, though quite distant, was fishing in it’s own unique way. The heron pulled it’s wings over it’s head to shade the water and enable it to see it’s prey below. At this, Martin let out an emotional sigh and admitted that he had been waiting to see that for a very long time. Our fieldguides disagreed as to whether the bird was a heron or an egret, but this would not detract from Martin’s satisfaction.
Returning towards the causeway to start our way home, we had a good crop of chats including Mountain Chat, Stonechat, Cape Robin Chat and Capped Wheatear.
A pair of Blacksmith Plover was excitedly dive-bombing a Yellow Mongoose and chased it off. Possibly it had been trying to raid their nest, or had just unluckily wandered too close.
Beyond the causeway, something caught my eye and a look through my binoculars showed a short-muzzled fox-like canid. It appeared to be looking at us over the rim of a den, nervously peeking out, then, ducking back below the mounds of loose soil. We were able to take photos and look up in our mammal book to find that it was a Cape Fox. So that was 2 new mammals today that were not squirrels.

Bird species 64
Little Grebe 4, Great Crested Grebe 3, White-breasted Cormorant 3, Long-tailed Cormorant 15, African Darter 1, Black-headed Heron 2, Goliath Heron 1, Purple Heron 5, Black Heron 1, Cattle Egret 30, Squacco Heron 10, Little Bittern 1, Sacred Ibis 25, Hadada Ibis 30, Glossy Ibis 2, African Spoonbill 1, Egyptian Goose 2,Yellow-billed Duck 30, Red-billed Duck 6, Hotentot Teal 4, Cape Shoveller 3, Southern Pochard 6, Black-shouldered Kite 3, Tufted Guineafowl 8, Black Crake 2, African Swamphen 1, Common Moorhen 5, Red-knobbed Coot 45, Blacksmith Lapwing 16, Wattled Lapwing 2, Three-banded Lapwing 2, African Snipe 3, Whiskered Tern 6, White-winged Tern 1, Red-eyed Dove 2, Ring-necked Dove 12, Laughing Dove 20, African Palm Swift 12, Little Swift 120, White-rumped Swift 30, Malachite Kingfisher 1, Pied Kingfisher 2, Plain Martin 40, White-throated Swallow 6, Greater Striped Swallow 15, Cape Longclaw 2, Cape Wagtail 8, Levaillant’s Cisticola 3, Cape Robin-chat 2, Common Stonechat 40, Mountain Wheatear 2, Capped Wheatear 2, Levaillant’s Cisticola 3, African Reed Warbler 3, Lesser Swamp Warbler 1, Common Fiscal 12, Common Myna 20, Cape Glossy Starling 1, Mossie 18, Southern Masked Weaver 40, Red-billed Quelea 4, Red Bishop 16, Long-tailed Widowbird 60, Common Waxbill 10
Mammal species 3
Cape Fox 1, Yellow Mongoose 1, Spot-throated Otter 2.

Day 2;
Today started at 03.30. Slightly bleary, we started our long drive towards the Kruger National Park. It started getting light shortly beyond Pretoria and was bright before we reached Dullstroom. There is a local dam and campsite behind the village which we looked at quickly. More water meant more reed warblers and so it started again. I have visited the grasslands beyond Dullstroom before and knew it to be a wonderful, but long drive around the suggested circuit. Time here had to be shared with Mount Sheba, so we could not do it the justice it deserved, but during a short foray into the grasslands, Martin found me a couple of lifers in a Red-winged Francolin and a small flock of Bald Ibis. His own burgeoning South Africa list was enhanced with Jackal Buzzard, Senegal Lapwing, Cape Crow, African Pied Starling, Mossie and Cape Canary.
We stopped in for breakfast by a pool in Lydenberg. Alpine Swifts and Red-breasted Swallows joined the White-throated Swallows and Greater Striped Swallows, swooping across the pond, while African Rock Martins swooped across the lawns.
Another debit on our time sheet was the fact that Martin’s bag never did arrive and he needed to do everybody a favour by getting some new underwear. This delay cut even further into our Sheba visit which ended up being less a birding visit and more like a surgical strike.

Bird species; 52
Little Grebe 1, White-breasted Cormorant 2, Long-tailed Cormorant 6, Black-hesded Heron 3, Cattle Egret 40, Squacco Heron 2, Sacred Ibis 6, Bald Ibis 4, Hadeda Ibis 12, Egyptian Goose 6, Spur-winged Goose 4, Yellow-billed Duck 4, Black-shouldered Kite 6, Yellow-billed Kite 2, African Fish Eagle 1, Steppe Buzzard 2, Jackal Buzzard 3, Red-winged Francolin 1, Swainson’s Francolin 2, Tufted Guineafowl 60, Red-knobbed Coot 3, Blacksmith Lapwing 4, Senegal Laowing 2, Crowned Lapwing 3, Wattled Lapwing 2, Grey-headed Gull 5, Speckled Pigeon 1, Red-eyed Dove 4, Ring-necked Dove 8, Laughing Dove 12, African Palm Swift 12, Alpine Swift 2, White-throated Swallow 2, African Rock Martin 2, Greater-striped Swallow 8, Cape Wagtail 2, Cape Robin-chat 2, Common Stonechat 20, Malachite Sunbird 2, Common Fiscal 20, Fork-tailed Drongo 12, Cape Crow 6, Common Myna 6, African Pied Starling 4, Red-winged Starling 2, Mossie 4, Southern Masked Weaver 20, Long-tailed Widowbird 20, Common Waxbill 6, Cape Canary 1, Yellow-fronted Canary 2.
Mammal species; 2
Blesbok 50, Yellow Mongoose 1

On the way in to Mount Sheba, we passed cisticolas which would only have started more time-consuming discussion. Potential Drakensberg Prinias were left to sing their song un-spotted. We did stop quickly a couple of times on the road down through the forest and on the rocky slopes above the resort. We picked up Cape Batis, Black-chested Prinia and Common Bulbul
We yomped quickly round the open areas of the resort accommodations, picking up White-eye, Cape Canary, Natal Francolin and Samango Monkey as we went. We had not seen the real target bird for this site which was the Knysna Turaco, so we nipped into the forest for about 5 minutes. We thought we could hear one calling, but could easily have mistaken it’s guttural croaking for a Samango Monkey. Luckily, there were two turacos in good view and we were joined by a Starred Robin as we watched. Just before we left, we noticed that an Olive Bush-shrike was feeding in a wattlebrush tree beside the car. At the time I didn’t realise that it was a lifer.

Bird list; 19
Natal Francolin 6, Tufted Guineafowl 6, Knysna Turaco 2, African Rock Martin 4, Greater Striped Swallow 6, Cape Longclaw 2, Common Bulbul 4 White-starred Robin 1, Cape Robin-chat 1, Common Stonechat 6, Black-chested Prinia 1, Cape Batis 1, Greater Double-collared Sunbird 1, Cape White-eye 15, Olive Bushshrike 1, Red-winged Starling 6, Pin-tailed Whydah 1, Cape Canary 2, Yellow-fronted Canary 2Mammal list; 3
Chacma Baboon 6, Samango Monkey 6, Grey Rhebok 2There was no time to enjoy it anyway.
There followed a mad dash down the escarpment, onto the lowveld and through the Phabeni Gate into Kruger National Park. We had reserved accommodation at Lower Sabie and would not have time to dawdle if we were to reach there before Rocter, the gate guard, closed up for the night. But it is not easy to pass up sightings of Buffalo, Elephant and White rhino, especially when the Red-billed Ox-peckers were catching the light so well. We found 3 of the “Big 5” within 20 minutes of entering the park, with 4 Elephant sightings.. If it weren’t for the Elephant on the road close to camp, we would have only been a matter of moments late, but there was no way through a herd of mothers with small calves who were walking along the tarmac with no regard for Rocter’s knocking-off time. Not wishing to come between an elephant cow and her suckling calf, we had to wait for an opportune moment to pass and suffer the wrath as Rocter had to unlock the gates for us when we eventually arrived.
Bird list for Kruger has been combined for the whole stay.

Day 3;At last we would have a chance to relax and not be pressed by the clock. An early start would ensure that we had all the time in the world to enjoy the park and to watch the wonderful birds and animals in it. If only that were true.
It was already light and we started the day with Speckled Mousebird, Black-collared Barbet and Red-capped Robin-chat. Out on the river, we could see African Jacana and Egyptian Goose.
After “emergency breakfast”, we started by visiting the Sunset lake just outside of the camp once Rocter had opened the gates at 05.30. Grey Herons were already up and fishing, as was an African Fish Eagle which went through an aerobatic display to catch it’s breakfast.
We crossed the Sabie River via the bridge to the southeast of the camp. An African Harrier Hawk was perched just upstream. During the evening, we had heard some distressing noises coming from just downstream of the camp and wondered if a buffalo had been injured. It would have attracted predators from near and far, but there were no signs to support our theory.
We turned off the tarmac onto an unmade road that would eventually lead us north towards Skukuza camp were we planned to have “proper breakfast”.
A Ratel, or Honey Badger grunted across the road just in front of us. This was my “special moment” that I had waited a long time for. The Ratel is a pugnacious animal, unafraid of other much larger animals and well equipped to defend itself against anything foolish enough to threaten it. The absence of such a character on my mammals list has long been a source of some chagrin and I was thrilled to be able to fix that omission. As it stumbled off towards the rising sun, it flustered a Bronze-winged Courser that had not seen it coming.
Low down in a bush on the left of the road was a bird which caused another identification issue and had us discussing tchagras. The small shrike was obviously from the Tchagra genus, but appeared to be Tchagra tchagra, or the Southern Tchagra. Kruger Park is just too far north for this species and it was in the wrong habitat. The checklist provided by the park does not mention it. So we were left with the realistic conclusion that we were looking at one of the others. With no markings on the back that we could see, we were flummoxed.
Further along, we saw a car pulled up by the side of the road. They happily informed us that we had just missed a cheetah which had been sitting up on an anthill. It had dropped down into the long grass just moments before and was nowhere to be seen.There was a chance that it may have been heading towards a nearby dam and since that dam had a lookout point, so did we.
There was no cheetah there, but a large herd of Zebra came down to drink while we scanned around.
A Mocking Cliff Chat came up to greet us, obviously used to handouts from visitors. The Southern Grey-headed Sparrows were also very approachable. Far off in an acacia tree sat a young Martial Eagle and a small flotilla of White-faced Ducks drifted across the open water.
One Hippo in particular stayed separate from the rest of the herd. I noticed a tiny head surface beside her and wondered if she was keeping the baby out of the rough and tumble that was likely among the press of the larger bodies of the herd.
The rest of the widely spread Zebra herd were still filtering across the road as we made our way northwards towards the promise of “proper breakfast”. Shortly after we left the Zebra, we encountered a large Elephant moving along quite swiftly in the direction that we had just come from. We surmised that he was probably heading for the dam and may make a spectacular photo opportunity, but we were not keen to retrace our steps on the chance that he would perform for us. It was a very big dam and he would approach from the opposite end, about a kilometre from the viewing point.
We stopped for a small herd of Impala, one of which was playing host to a Red-billed Ox-pecker. Further on the Lilac-breasted Roller sat for us. Martin surprised me by suggesting a few improvements that could be made. To a Lilac-breasted Roller? He thought the head too big.
As we approached Skukuza, proper breakfast was fast becoming elevenses, so we decided to stay for lunch while we were there. We had to cross back over the river to get to Skukuza and a herd of male Impala were drinking from a pool beside the bridge. The reflections were too much to resist.
The restaurant at the camp was a popular place for animals to come and watch humans feed. The Vervet Monkeys probably scrounged from the visitors and the birds found pickings on the ground around the tables. We fell among two stools on the Starlings. There were Greater Black-eared Starlings, of that we were sure, but there were also some with magenta coloured bellies which would indicate that they were the southern, lesser version. Once again the park checklist failed to mention the southern lesser and it too was a long way from home. So now we had 3 issues to discuss as soon as we had a moment.
A thatched roof provided shade for diners and a roosting place for bats. A notice in the shade informed us that these were either, Peter’s or Wahlerg’s Bats, probably both. Of course, we can count neither.
After lunch, Martin indulged me while I sought out a few dragonflies in a decorative pond in the camp. Then we visited a hide at Lake Panic. Here we heard that we had just missed a pair of lionesses that had sauntered past the hide. So instead of lions, here is a photo of a dragonfly.
The hide was jammed with people hoping that the lions would come back, but it was a beautiful place to be. Goliath Heron, Grey Heron, Openbill Stork, Pied Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Brown-hooded Kingfisher and Water Dikkop were all here in a very pretty setting. Well worth a visit if ever you are passing. As we left, vehicles were queuing up to get in.
Our route would take us back to Lower Sabie Camp at a nice moderate pace, but again we got distracted and held up and ended up having to get through some miles to avoid nasty looks from Rocter on the gate. Our distractions this time included a Steppe Eagle, a Striped Cuckoo and a very obliging Red-billed Hornbill. We also added African Hawk-eagle, Black Cuckoo-shrike, Southern Black Tit and Eastern Hooded Oriole to our list. A giraffe adopted the classic drinking pose for us at a small waterhole and a pair of White Rhinos turned back towards us by the roadside.
We stopped at the Sunset Dam just seconds from the camp. We had arrived with only 2 minutes to spare.

Day 4;
By now, it had become obvious that our calculations concerning the relationship between distance and time were ridiculously inaccurate. So we decided to head for the nearest gate to enable us to get back to Johannesberg in time for the flight home. In the worst case scenario, I wanted to be on the road by 10.00. Any later and we were in danger of staying for an extra, unscheduled night and my boss would be cross to say the least. We reckoned that we could afford a very quick look at a spot on the river just 5 kms upstream before heading towards the gate. That direction took us past Sunset Dam where Martin spotted a dead hippo covered in big crocs. We had not seen any crocs here during the previous looks and assume that they must have migrated up from the river when they heard about the hippo. Spotted Hyaenas were hoping to get in on the action too. We spent a few moments taking pictures of the crocs and then a Wood Sandpiper. I am ruing that decision now. A few hundred meters up the road, a cluster of cars had stopped to look at a leopard. Of course by the time we arrived, it had slunk into the reeds and disappeared for good. It was a slightly deflating end to the trip, but we still had to get out of the park. A Yellow-billed Hornbill sat well for us this morning at a hide on the way to Crocodile Bridge Gate. A Crested Barbet was obviously used to human contact and approached very close.
With time bearing down hard now, I was becoming reluctant to stop. But a Steenbok with eyes the size of tennis balls was irresistible and I had been hoping to get a picture of a big Kudu bull all week. Shortly before the gate, I eventually managed that.
At 10.00 exactly, we left the park, but our bird list wasn’t complete yet, we managed to add to it while travelling at speed beyond Nelspruit. A White-collared Raven was on the ground by the road and topped out 4 great days and brought our final tally to 173 bird for the trip, not forgetting 26 mammals.

Bird list; 118
Long-tailed Cormorant 6, Grey Heron 3, Black-headed Heron 1, Goliath Heron 5, Great Egret 1, Little Egret 1, Cattle Egret 8,Hamerkop 1, Yellow-billed Stork 3, Saddle-billed Stork 2, African Openbill 1, Marabou Stork 1, Hadeda Ibis 4, Glossy Ibis 1, African Spoonbill 1, White-faced Whistling Duck12, Egyptian Goose 12, Yellow-billed Duck 6, Yellow-billed Kite 2,African Fish Eagle 2, Hooded Vulture 4, African White-backed Vulture 20, White-headed Vulture 3, Brown Snake Eagle 6, Bateleur 10, African Harrier Hawk 1, Tawny Eagle 2, Steppe Eagle 1, African Hawk-eagle 1 Martial Eagle 2, Crested Francolin 20, Swainson’s Francolin 4, Natal Francolin 8, Stilt 4,Tufted Guineafowl 100, Black Crake 1, African Jacana 3, Black-winged Stilt 4, Water Thick-knee 8, Bronze-winged Courser 1,Blacksmith Lapwing 12, Three-banded Plover 2, Wood Sandpiper 1, Common Sandpiper 2, Ruff 2, Red-eyed Dove 6, Ring-necked Dove 40, Laughing Dove 40, Emerald-spotted Wood Dove 6, Brown-headed Parrot 1, Grey Go-away Bird 24, Levaillant’s Cuckoo 1,Burchell’s Coucal 1, African Palm Swift 12, Little Swift 120, White-rumped Swift 20, Speckled Mousebird 6, Grey-headed Kingfisher 1, Brown-hooded Kingfisher 3, Striped Kingfisher 1, Malachite Kingfisher 1, Giant Kingfisher 3, Pied Kingfisher 4, White-fronted Bee-eater 8, Rufous-crowned Roller 1, Lilac-breasted Roller 8, African Hoopoe 2, Green Woodhoopoe 20, Southern Ground Hornbill 3, Grey Hornbill 6, Southern Red-billed Hornbill 15, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill 20, Crested Barbet 2, Black-collared Barbet 2, Cardinal Woodpecker 1 European Swallow 8, White-throated Swallow 4, Wire-tailed Swallow 8, Greater Striped Swallow 20, African Pied Wagtail 2, African Pied Wagtail 2, Cape Wagtail 6, Black Cuckoo-shrike 2, Common Bulbul 20, Olive Thrush 3, Cliff Mocking Chat 3, Cape Robin-chat 4, Rufous-capped Robin-chat 1, Tawny-flanked Prinia 6 Cape Crombec 4, Southern Black Flycatcher 6, Arrow-marked Babbler 40, Southern Black-tit 3, Eastern Black-headed Oriole 2, Common Fiscal 12, Magpie Shrike 20, White-crowned Shrike 2, Brubru 2, Black-backed Puffback 4, Black-crowned Tchagra 3, Curly-crested Helmetshrike8, Fork-tailed Drongo 20, White-necked Raven 1, Common Myna 20, Cape Glossy Starling 30, Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling12, Meve’s Glossy Starling, 2 Burchell’s Glossy Starling 8, African Pied Starling 6, Red-billed Ox-pecker 25, House Sparrow 6, Mossie 8, Red-billed Buffalo-weaver 6, Southern Masked Weaver 20, een-winged Pytilla 3, Jameson’s Firefinch 1, Red-breasted Cordonbleu 8, Cape Canary 2, Yellow-fronted Canary 1.
Mammal list; 20
African Elephant 24, White Rhinoceros 7, Cape Buffalo 12, Kudu 35, Brindled Wildebeest 200, Burchell’s Zebra 400, Impala 800, Banded Mongoose 3, Ratel 1, Giraffe 40, Bushbuck 4, Steenbuck 3, Hipopotamus 60, Hyaena 4, Vervet Monkey 16, Chacma Babboon 8, Warthog 12, Grey Duiker 1, Bushbuck 5, Common Reedbuck 2

For other Pilanesberg posts on Redgannet try the following;


For more posts from Johannesburg,try these links;
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2010/08/moreletakloof-johannesburg-jnb.html (Moraletakloof)
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2010/08/tswaing-crater-johannesburg-jnb-south.html (Tswaing Crater)
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2010/03/zaagkuildrift-road-jnb-south-africa.html (Zaggkuildrift Road)
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2010/08/do-elephants-grieve.html
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2009/06/delicious-dilemma.html (Marievale, Pilanesberg NP and Rietvlei Nature Reserve)
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2010/09/pilanesberg-johannesberg-jnb-south.html (Pilanesberg)

There are other posts from South Africa here;
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2010/01/cape-town-specials.html (Cape Town, Heldeberg, Paarl, Sir Lowry's Pass and Betty's Bay)

Other posts from the great continent of Africa;
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2009/07/back-to-where-it-all-began.html (Nairobi NP, Kenya)
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2010/04/to-pish-or-not-to-pish-dire-warnings.html (Lekki Conservation centre, Lagos, Nigeria)
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2010/05/sheraton-hotel-lagos.html (Lagos, Nigeria)
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2010/05/millenium-park-abuja-nigeria.html (Millenium Park, Abuja, Nigeria)
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2009/03/my-trip-this-weekend-is-scheduled-to-be.html (Nigeria)
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2010/01/even-bad-days-are-good.html (Achimota Forest, Labadi Beach, and Aburi Botanical Gardens, Accra, Ghana)

Dragonfly posts are available at;
http://redgannetsdragonflies.blogspot.com/2010/01/cape-town-south-africa.html (Cape Town)
http://redgannetsdragonflies.blogspot.com/2010/01/i-have-been-languishing-in-temperate.html (Accra, Ghana)