Wednesday 3 July 2013

Pilanesberg NP, Johannesberg, South Africa, June 2013

“I adore Pilanesberg National Park”. There, I’ve said it.
This visit gave me even more to wax lyrical about. As if more than 500 square kilometres of acacia scrub, rocky, rolling hillsides, kopjes, dams and grassland, aren’t enough, today I broke my Leopard jinx and found my first Pilanesberg Panther.

It was not the greatest Leopard sighting ever, but I let out an involuntary whoop just the same and perhaps even a little bit of wee. It was a great day all round with 6 separate Elephant sightings including a tiny week-old calf, very close encounters with White Rhinos and a glorious morning spent at the hide at Mankwe Dam.

There is enough for half a dozen posts and I will struggle to get it all into one. This will be a quick summary of the day and I might post a few more specific ones later, or at 10,000 Birds.

I arrived at the park’s southern Bakubung Gate (Google Earth ref; 25 20 22.36S 27 3 48.50E), completed the formalities by 06.45 and headed straight up the main tarmac road that passes through the park and exits at the Bakgatla Gate in the northeast.
The light was still very low, but the sun just began to light the tops of the mountains as I stopped to look at Lengau dam on the left.

Many Sacred Ibis had roosted here over night and were just beginning to stir. Yellow-billed Ducks and African Black Ducks made a quick circuit before skimming back onto the water. My first mammal of the day was a young Kudu.

I was surprised by how common the Grey Lourie (or Go-away-bird) was this visit. 
They seemed to be a constant presence and this one set the standard for a morning of very close approaches.

As I stopped to check my favourite kopje for Leopards, a Glossy Starling dropped into the bush beside me and began gorging itself on the berries.

No Leopards yet, but just around the corner were a pair of White Rhinos that taxed the minimum focus range of my camera. They were accompanied by a couple of Red-billed Oxpeckers and a Fork-tailed Drongo which will make a separate post for in the near future.

It was breath-taking to hear them chomping on the dry grass and snorting when a stiff stalk poked the sensitive membranes up a nostril.

I had turned off the main road and was headed down towards the hide on Mankwe Dam (Google Earth ref; 25 15 58.27S 27 7 5.14E). A tiny Cardinal Woodpecker flushed from a roadside snag as a Steenbok watched from close by.

The hide was alive this morning. Three species of Kingfishers, African Snipe, Jacana and Three-banded Plover were seen before I even reached the entrance.

From inside the hide I was able to watch the African Spoonbill as it scythed through the water, the shallows allowed me to see the African Darter going about its business underwater and the African Snipe had come closer in to make a better subject.

Where to put all the photos?

Malachite Kingfishers ambushed their prey from low perches amongst the reeds.

Pied Kingfishers hovered above their target, but rested on open snags until they spotted a potential meal.

There was so much going on that I was very reluctant to leave and barely made it to the car park before the Arrow-marked Babblers caught my attention.

Pilanesberg Centre is the visitor centre for the park with a restaurant, and gift shop. A salt lick attracts animals to an open area in front of the verandah. A herd of Wildebeeste were kicking up the dust here this morning and a few giraffe could be seen in the distance working their way in.

A strong fence keeps the naughty elephants out and prevents them from getting too close to the diners. The thick cables that make up the fence are favourite perches for many of the birds that take advantage of humans' wasteful and untidy nature.

Marico Flycatchers hawk for small insects that invariably follow herds of wildebeeste and Yellow-billed Hornbills give great views.

On the ground, Warthogs and Sabota Larks picked through the short grass.

From mid-morning, the excitement slowed a little. A highlight was a bone-sucking Giraffe. Was this an attempt to increase its calcium intake?

Porcupines need a lot of calcium to produce their spines and are known to gnaw bones to get it. A second giraffe was salivating spectacularly and appeared not to be able to close its mouth. I suspected that it was also chewing a bone and was concerned that I might have to step in with the Heimlich manoeuvre at any moment.

A Springbok stood for pictures along the northern shore of the dam.

It is winter in South Africa at the moment, but the day still reached a respectable 20C. The nights are chilly, but the warmth of midday was enough to encourage the animals to seek a little shade and a few moments rest. 
I passed around the northeastern part of the park and was returning towards Mankwe Dam along the main road from Manyara Gate when a Black-tipped Mongoose crossed the road. Since I was introduced to the superstition in India, I have held that a mongoose sighting will bring good luck. A second mongoose a few moments later promised an exciting afternoon, if you believe that kind of thing.

I wanted to follow the winding road that passes through some likely looking kopjes; great Leopard habitat. It was still early afternoon and the chances of finding Leopards at this time of day were slim, but I was hoping that my mongooses might swing things in my favour.

I scoured the kopjes around the first two bends and was almost put off at the third when the road became very rough and I wondered if it would be passable

With a bit of a run-up, I made it up the slope just as the Leopard stepped off the road on the next curve. I was thrown into a quandary. Should I stop and watch, or drive closer and risk spooking it? I took a rotten shot through the windscreen as it moved across the corner and headed out of sight.

It took a cursory look over its shoulder as I caught up, then crossed a tiny patch of sunlight before melting into the bushes and rocks of the kopje.

Suddenly the road condition was unimportant and I quickly reversed. The rutted, winding road doubled back on itself and I hoped to see the cat again as it came out of the kopje on the other side. I waited quietly for ages and checked the dust in the road for prints.

Nothing. I was the only car to have passed this way for about 30 minutes, so her tracks would have been obvious in the deep dust. She must have decided that it was too early to be up and settled down in the shade of the rocks for a nap.

Timing is everything. On safari as well as when you are birding, a moment taken here or there can put you in the right place at the right time through no skill or knowledge on your part, just luck.
Was a Leopard worth 2 mongooses, or did I still have one to use up?

If I had not stayed for a while hoping to see the cat again I would have sailed past Sheena and her tiny baby before they came into sight over a rise. 

The herd of Elephants were feeding on their way to the dam. The large female with the radio collar is known as Sheena and her baby had been born just one week earlier.

It looked very confident for such a young age and played excitedly with the other calves. His mother appeared very relaxed and they nonchalantly passed my car within a tail’s swish.
A researcher arrived and we chatted between the vehicles. She told me the family history, the age of the new-born and pointed out various members of the herd.
I am wondering if I heard correctly. Both mother and calf appeared to be so casual and unperturbed and he looked so big and sure of himself, that I can't help thinking that he was older than a week.

While the older calves used their trunks to throw dust over their backs, the tiny one had not yet mastered control of his trunk and was unable to follow their example. Instead, he launched himself into the drift of dust at the side of the road and wriggled. That was worth his weight in mongooses.

The rest of the evening could not live up to the excitement of the afternoon, except for watching from the Eagle’s Nest picnic site (on the hillside at Google Earth ref; 25 16 10.92S 27 7 35.85E) as the elephants continued towards the dam, meeting up with a few more as they went.

Some Zebras became very bold as the sun sank behind the hilltops in the west and the light began to fade.
It was dark by the time I reached the Bakubung Gate again at 18.00. It was only then that I realised that I had not ventured to the west of the road at all. The whole day had been to the east and I had not even covered half of the park.

Birds seen; 78

Ostrich 1, White-faced Whistling Duck 4, Egyptian Goose 8, Spur-winged Goose 3, African Black Duck 5, Yellow-billed Duck 2, Helmeted Guineafowl 12, Crested Francolin 20, Natal Francolin 8, Little Grebe 25, White-breasted Cormorant 20, Long-tailed Cormorant 10, African Darter 4, Hamerkop 1, Grey Heron 3, Great Egret 1, Little Egret 1, Sacred Ibis 200, African Spoonbill 1, Osprey 1, African Fish-Eagle 3, Brown Snake-Eagle 1, Verreaux’s Eagle 3, Black Crake 2, Blacksmith Plover 10, Three-banded Plover 7, Black-winged Stilt 3, African Jacana 1, African Snipe 2, Red-eyed Dove 15, Ring-necked Dove 6, Laughing Dove 4, Grey Go-away-bird 35, African Palm-swift 2, Red-faced Mousebird 20, Malachite Kingfisher 2, Giant Kingfisher 1, Pied Kingfisher 7, Lilac-breasted Roller 2, Eurasian Hoopoe 1, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill 2, Black-collared Hornbill 1, Cardinal Woodpecker 1, Crimson-breasted Gonolek 2, Fork-tailed Drongo 6, Pied Crow 5, Sabota Lark 5, Pearl-breasted Swallow 5, Common Bulbul 40, Rock-loving Cisticola 2, Tawny-flanked Prinia 2, Rufous-vented Warbler 4, Arrow-marked Babbler 7, Marico Flycatcher 7, Kalahari Scrub-robin 3, Red-backed Scrub-robin 3, White-throated Robin-chat 5, White-browed Robin-chat 3, Stonechat 2, Familiar Chat 2, Capped Wheatear 1, Groundscraper Thrush 1, Kurrichane Thrush 3, Common Myna 2, Cape Glossy Starling 15, Red-billed Oxpecker 8, Cape Wagtail 6, African Pied Wagtail 1, African Pipit 1, Golden-breasted Bunting 5, Yellow-fronted Canary 25, Cape Sparrow 15, African Petronia 1,  Southern Grey-headed Sparrow 4, Village Weaver 5, Common Waxbill 20, Blue-breasted Cordonbleu 6, Green-winged Pytilia 1.

African Elephant, White Rhinoceros, Leopard, Brindled Wildebeeste, Impala, Zebra, Steenbok, Giraffe, Hippopotamus, Springbok, Black-tipped Mongoose, Baboon, Warthog, Ground Squirrel, Dassie, Reedbuck, Waterbuck, Eland, Kudu, Mountain Reedbuck.

For previous posts from Pilanesberg, follow the links below;

Visit the dedicated Africa Page for more from South Africa, Including; Mount Sheba and Kruger NP.