Monday 30 December 2013

Theosophical Gardens, Chennai, India, December 2013

The Botanical Gardens in Chennai sounded like a great place to visit and a couple of conversations with Chennai residents, suggesting that the gardens are slightly unkempt, raised my anticipation. Sadly, as so often happens, neither concierge nor taxi driver could decide where to go looking for the gardens, so I had to fall back on what I know and take a visit to the Theosophical Society instead.

I am told that the grounds cover 260 acres (this figure probably includes Besant Gardens on the other side of Besant Avenue) with the Adyar River running along the northern edge. Despite the very attractive mature woodland, I was strangely drawn towards the river.The water is not accessible though with only occasional glimpses of the islands through the bank side bushes. I had foolishly squandered my visit looking for common birds that I have seen well and frequently on very recent trips to India.

The grounds of the Theosophical Society are only open briefly during the day, so it is important to make the most of a visit. The only passerine seen along the river was a flock of Yellow-billed Babblers.

On my way back to comply with the 16.00 closure, a few woodland birds were seen. In a huge Banyan Tree, which I am given to believe is 450 years old, male Asian Koels seemed to tolerate each other amongst the huge glut of fruit.

A handful of Rose-ringed Parakeets made the trees sound as if they were full of birds. One bird had me reaching for the field guide. At first I thought it was an Ashy Minivet, but it would have been way out of range and no pale outer retrices were visible. I settled reluctantly on the P. c. pallidus form of the Small Minivet as there were no other candidates.

Some beautiful old colonial buildings can be seen as they slowly fall into disrepair amongst the trees. The groundsmen have resisted the inclination to domesticate the woodland with only a couple of roundabouts and meditation areas showing any signs of a gardener's touch. The paved roads are kept clear and occasional patches of undergrowth are cleared by a man with a bush knife and a bullock cart. This relaxed approach leaves a very natural feel.
The grounds are open for 90 minutes in the morning between 08.30 and 10.00, then again in the afternoon for two hours from 14.00 'til 16.00. There is no charge for admission. Two gates are guarded; one just on the southern side of Adyar Bridge at Google Earth ref; 13 0 37.44N 80 15 33.84E)  and the other on Besant Avenue.

Birds seen; 20

Great Egret 1, Little Egret 5, Indian Pond-Heron 2, Black Kite 1, Shikra 1, White-breasted Waterhen 1, Yellow-wattled Lapwing 1, Red-wattled Lapwing, 6, Black-winged Stilt 8, Common Sandpiper 1, Rose-ringed Parakeet 15, Asian Koel 8, Coppersmith Barbet 5, Small Minivet 1, Black Drongo 1, Rufous Treepie 3, House Crow 30, Yellow-billed Babbler 8, Long-billed Sunbird 2.

For a previous post from The Theosophical Society, follow the link below;

Visit the dedicated India Page for more posts from Chennai.
Birding Bird-watching Birdwatching in Chennai, Madras, India.
Bird list for Theosophical Society.

Wednesday 25 December 2013

The Lions of Krugersdorp

Krugersdorp Game Reserve can be found about 40 minutes to the west of Johannesburg. It is a large expanse of grassland with a spring feeding lush meadows.

It has a good head of game which is protected within its 1500 hectares (3750 acres). Most are antelope species with Gemsbok, Impala, Springbok, Red Hartebeest, Blesbok and Eland. There are also Zebra, Vervet Monkeys and Giraffe.

There used to be White Rhino, but I hear that these are no longer to be found in the reserve. However, one can still find Black Wildebeest, Connochates Gnou, which is otherwise unlikely to be seen living naturally in the wild. Also known as the White-tailed Wildebeest, The Black Wildebeest, was hunted for hides and its numbers fell to around 300 by 1938. A concerted breeding effort has brought numbers back, but their genetic pool is very shallow and their former range in the highveld has been paved.

Most people pass them by without knowing their story as they head for the lion enclosure. The Krugersdorp Pride has a large enclosure in which to live, but they can be difficult to find even in this restricted space. No wonder I can never find them when they are allowed to roam free. This morning I was accompanied by PJ, and we missed the lions on our first pass, so we took a turn around the meadows and returned just after 12.00.

The lions get their weekly feed on Sunday at 12.00, so I was confident that we would see them at our second attempt. Sure enough, they were found, surrounded by cars, at the feeding station at the far end of their enclosure where the weekly feed had been left for them.

The pride consisted of a large male lion with a few females and large cubs. They did not fight as lions so often do over food, but fed cheek to cheek until they had eaten enough, then stopped for a drink or slunk back into the shade.

One of the interesting birds seen here was an African Quailfinch which, according to all my field guides, takes the latin binomial, Ortigospiza atricollis. eBird disputed the bird last time I submitted it, but did not put forward an alternative. Hence the picture.
There was once a rather fine aviary here which was built by putting a net across a small quarry. This has fallen into disrepair as at December 2013, but new management may try to restore it.

Birds seen;
Ostrich 2, Egyptian Goose 2, Helmeted Guineafowl 8, White Stork 1, Black-headed Heron 1, Cattle Egret 8, Sacred Ibis 30, Hadada Ibis 4, Black-shouldered Kite 1, Blacksmith Plover 4, Crowned Lapwing 3, Wattled Lapwing 1, Ring-necked Dove 5, African Grey Hornbill 1, Common Fiscal 4, Rufous-naped Lark 1, Common Bulbul 10, Common Myna 2, Cape Wagtail 2, African Pipit 3, Orange-throated Longclaw 4, Southern Masked-weaver 4, Red-billed Quelea 5, White-winged Widowbird 5, Red-collared Widowbird 1, Long-tailed Widowbird 12, African Quailfinch 1, Pin-tailed Whydah 2.

Krugersdorp Mammals seen;
Black Wildebeest, Springbok, Zebra, Red Hartebeest, Giraffe, Gemsbok, Blesbok, Lion, Waterbuck, Eland, Black-faced Vervet Monkey.

Krugersdorp is open from 08.00 and charges an entrance fee of R100. The entrance gate can be seen on the Rustenberg Rd to the southwest of the town at Google Earth ref; 26 6 22.51S 27 43 26.5E 

Krugersdorp is close enough to include in a morning with Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens at Google Earth ref; 26 5 11.53N 27 50 40.55E. We dropped in for lunch to find the car park overflowing. This was a Sunday lunch-time in the childrens' holidays and Nelson Mandela was laid to rest this morning. The restaurant there was not too busy however as most people were picnicking or meandering towards the waterfall.

We actually concentrated more on lunch than birds, but PJ did seem quite taken with “Nessi”, the young Verreaux’s (Black) Eagle. I’ll make a birder of her yet.

Nessi is due to fly any day soon and Africam sponsor the cliff mounted monitoring system that streams live pictures to their website. Even if you are not interested in an eagle fledging, the sound of water and frogs is very soothing to have on as background sound.

There were still a few birds to see and a Tawny-flanked Prinia teed itself up nicely for us.
A Karoo Thrush took advantage of the watered gardens to probe the soft lawns for worms.

Birds seen;

Helmeted Guineafowl 6, Verreaux’s Eagle 3, Red-eyed Dove 1, Ring-necked Dove 3, White-rumped Swift 2, African Palm Swift 4, Speckled Mousebird 2, Southern Boubou 1, Bokmakerie 1, Common Fiscal 1, Common Bulbul 1, Tawny-flanked Prinia 1, Karoo Thrush 1, Common Myna 4, Red-winged Starling 4, White-breasted Sunbird 1, Cape Sparrow 6, Red Bishop 1, Southern Masked-weaver 30

For previous posts from Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens, follow the links below;

Visit the dedicated African Page for more from JNB, including;
Birding,bird-watching, Bird watching, Johannesburg, Safari, South Africa, Krugersdorp, Lions

Monday 23 December 2013

Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, December 2013

Pilanesberg National Park was busy today. A weekend during the school holidays is always likely to be busy, but rightly so, Pilanesberg is a wonderful place. It covers over 500 square kms so even the main roads were quiet enough to allow a bird watcher to stop and enjoy the bird song of a southern spring. The hides were popular with families but the children were, without fail, very well behaved.

I was late at the gate which had been open for an hour already. Southern Masked-weavers had formed a colony beside the booth and were my first birds of a list that included 95 species. An unmade road turns off from the tarmac a short way beyond Bakubung Gate. A Groundscraper Thrush vied with a Zebra for my attention, but the Zebra won.

Lark song filled the air with the Rufous-crested Lark immediately recognisable; a clear 3- noted slur with a flap of the wings for added interest.

I was surprised to see a flock of Maribou Storks (what is the venary term for Maribou Storks? Perhaps a vigil?). One confronted a juvenile African Fish Eagle which had come to ground beside Lengau Dam. There was a slight altercation before the eagle backed off and left the stork to gulp down a disembodied wing. African Fish-Eagles will take ducks and have often been seen hunting through large flocks of flamingo. This young eagle may have taken to supplementing its diet until it can perfect its hunting technique to catch its more traditional diet. In North America (please correct me if I am wrong), Bald Eagles feed either exclusively on fish or feather, but seldom mix the two. I wonder if African Fish Eagles make similar diet choices.

In the distance a group of 5 White Rhino grazed peacefully on the lush grass. There has been some rain and the park looked as green as I have ever seen it.  I headed back onto the main road and made for the hide at Mankwe Dam. The water level was lower than my last visit, so the kingfishers didn’t put on such a show, but a Barn Owl was seen, roosting in the thatch.

At the Pilanesberg Centre, a group of young male Impalas had been attracted by the salt lick. They gather in groups like this when they are driven from their parental herds and spend time amongst their peers, sparring and practicing their claims to be a breeding male. A shoving session broke out and provided an exciting distraction over breakfast.

I had intended to take a gentle drive up to the hill overlooking the dam and spend the heat of the day taking it easy at the Fish Eagle Picnic Site. On the way, I spotted a large bull Elephant moving away from the dam and was able to get ahead of him as he came to the road. He looked quite grumpy and I was pleased to be ahead of him in case his temper flared. 

A notice at the picnic site (which is enclosed by a mesh fence to cage the humans in the animals’ habitat), informed me that it was shut due to an Elephant infestation. Sure enough a section of the fence had been trampled making it possible for any humans inside to escape into the wild.

The hide at Dithabaneng took preference as my rest stop for the heat of the day, but elephants were to thwart that idea too. A small herd of around a dozen were seen very close to the road with a very tiny calf. This looked like the same herd that I had seen on my last visit, but the baby was, if anything, even smaller. On both occasions, I found the herd in the same area of the park and in both cases, the mother cow was radio-collared. I will try to compare the photos from the two encounters.

I had been having difficulty catching the light this week and during this encounter, my pictures were all ridiculously over-exposed, so I have converted this shot to monocolour in an attempt to save it.

In the middle of the road a tiny snake coiled and writhed. I suspect that it might have been run over by a car. Any suggestons for a name will be eagerly received.I have in on good authority from various members of the Snakes of South Africa Group, that this fella is a Striped Skaapsteker,Psammophalax tritaeniatus. Thank you to Kobus Seegers, Jacobus Ferreira, Rian Stander, Daniel Louw and an enthusiastic stab from Wendy Fox.
At Rothlogo Dam a Hippo had hauled up directly beneath the viewing opening, allowing the closest view I might ever wish to have of a wild one.

Rains have come to Johannesburg, and the animals have been birthing there for a while already. The Impala lambs in Pilanesberg, 120 miles to the west of the city, are much smaller as the rain came later and the mothers retained their young until conditions were suitable.

A fantastic storm raged on the way home. Lightning flashed across the sky, but I couldn’t catch it as well as I had hoped. The hills of the Magaliesberg held the rains in the east, so this might be the reason why the animals here are younger than the ones to the west. 

Birds seen; 95

Ostrich 3, White-faced Whistling Duck12, Egyptian Goose 65, Spur-winged Goose 2, African Black Duck 1, Yellow-billed Duck 6, Helmeted Guineafowl 30, Natal Francolin 6, Swainson’s Francolin 1, Little Grebe 8, Marabou Stork 45, Yellow-billed Stork 2, Great Cormorant 6, Long-tailed Cormorant 35, African Darter 5, Hamerkop 1, Grey Heron 1, Goliath Heron 1, Great Egret 2, Little Egret 5, Cattle Egret 6, Striated Heron 1, Sacred Ibis 80, Hadada Ibis 1, African Spoonbill 3, Black-shouldered Kite 1, African Fish-Eagle 1, Western Steppe Buzzard 1, Amur Falcon 20, Blacksmith Plover 50, Crowned Plover 3, Three-banded Plover 10, Black-winged Stilt 4, African Jacana 5, Common Sandpiper 1, Common Greenshank 1, Wood Sandpiper 1, Speckled Pigeon 1, Red-eyed Dove 1, Ring-necked Dove 20, Laughing Dove 3, Grey Go-away Bird 4, Red-chested Cuckoo 1, Dideric Cuckoo 7, Barn Owl 1, Little Swift 20, White-rumped Swift 6, African Palm-swift 25, Malachite Kingfisher 1, Pied Kingfisher 6, European Bee-eater 15, Eurasian Hoopoe 2, African Grey Hornbill 1, Chinspot Batis 1, Red-backed Shrike 4, Lesser Grey Shrike 10, Common Fiscal 1, Magpie Shrike 2, Fork-tailed Drongo 2, Pied Crow 6, Rufous-naped Lark 15, Sabota Lark 2, Barn Swallow 15, White-throated Swallow 6, Pearl-breasted Swallow 2, Lesser-striped Swallow 20, Rufous-chested Swallow 2, Common Bulbul 4, Cape Crombec 1, Willow Warbler 2, Bar-throated Apalis 1, Rock-loving Cisticola 8, Rufous-vented Warbler 2, Mariqua Flycatcher 4, Spotted Flycatcher 1, Kalahari Scrub-robin 2, Red-backed Scrub-robin 2, Groundscraper Thrush 1, Common Myna 10, Cape Glossy Starling 3, Violet-backed Starling 5, Red-winged Starling 5, Red-billed Oxpecker 5, Cape Wagtail 6, African Pipit 1, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting 5, Golden-breasted Bunting 8, Black-throated Canary 35, House Sparrow 2, Cape Sparrow 10, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow 3, Southern Masked-weaver 60, Red Bishop 8, White-winged Widowbird 2, Common Waxbill 6.

Mammals seen; 18

African Elephant 18, White Rhino 10, Hippopotamus 4, Giraffe 22,, Zebra 120, Blue Wildebeeste 200, Tsessebe 6, Slender Mongoose 1, Yellow Mongoose 1, Waterbuck 20, Springbok 45, Cape Dassie 1,  Impala 250, Steenbok 3, Chacma Baboon 25, Warthog 20, Kudu 14, Eland 4.

For previous posts from Pilanesberg, follow the links below;

Visit the dedicated Africa Page for more posts from Johannesburg, including; Walter Sisulu Botanic Gardens, Marievale Bird Sanctuary and Moraletakloof.

Birding, Bird-watching, Bird watching, Self-drive, Safari, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa

Thursday 19 December 2013

I have been watching out for the Pied Wagtails as the weather gets colder. They have been roosting, at least for the last couple of years, in the trees at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

This year the maintenance contractors at the airport gave the trees a severe pruning and I wondered if the wagtails would still find it an attractive place to roost. They had shown a marked preference for the thinnest of branches, but the trees had been reduced to stumps by enthusiastic loppers.

A few whippy branches remain on the trees and the birds have returned. I first noticed them on December 12th. I had associated the arrival of the birds with temperatures well below zero, but this year they have appeared before the extreme cold snap.

There are enough whippy branches left on the trees to give roosting room for a flock of 1000 plus wagtails, but I wonder if that is as many as we have seen in the previous years. Perhaps it will build as the weather gets colder and the flock will spill over into the next stand of trees if the roosting room runs out.
Someone suggested that the contractors had done a shoddy job, but I prefer to think that the few, thin roosting branches were left by a considerate tree surgeon with the wagtails in mind.

If you wish to see the local form of the White Wagtail, they roost outside London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 at the southern end of the building in the sheltered trees at Google Earth ref; 51 28 14.52N 0 29 21.66. They come in from the surrounding area around dusk and stay until the early light. The terminal buildings give them protection on all sides and must be a relief from the cold on the bitterest of nights.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Marievale Bird Sanctuary, Johannesburg, December 2013

To the southeast of Johannesburg is Marievale Bird Sanctuary, a large expanse of reed beds, grass and rank weeds. It is the site of a former water treatment plant and if that doesn’t make it sound attractive, 76 bird species were sighted there today through the heat of the afternoon. Waterbirds obviously played a large part in that total with other species that are often closely associated with water.

My heart sank when I arrived to find a barrier, with a no entry sign, blocking the approach road. The day was slow to start and I didn’t arrive ‘til midday. I wasn’t expecting much, but I had hoped to get into the reserve at least. The barrier is manned 24 hours by a guard who allowed me through without any bother, which made me question the purpose of the barrier.

My list had begun just before reaching the sanctuary as I stopped by a wet patch along Engineers Road (at Google Earth ref; 26 20 19.49S 28 27 30. 84E). A brace of White-faced Whistling Duck were seen here along with Banded Swallow, Yellow-crowned Bishop and the ubiquitous Red Bishop.

The first birds to catch my attention after passing through the barrier were the Greater Flamingos. They can often be seen feeding on either side, close to the road. I scanned across the open water and small islands here and noted Grey-headed Gull, Whiskered Tern and White-winged Tern. There were very few ducks today. Species such as Red-billed Duck, Hottentot Teal and Yellow-billed Duck were seen, but in much lower numbers than previous visits.

I turned left at the junction and stopped to watch a Squacco Heron as it gulped down a fish. Plain Martins were taking a rest on some dead reed stems and I was able to get a picture.

The picnic area to the right was very busy with an office party, so I continued to the north part of the reserve and let myself through the gate at Google Earth ref; 26 21 13.86S 28 30 59.83E. The gate is unlocked from 06.00.
There has been a lot of rain in the area and the reserve was quite wet. The first hide was inaccessible as deep puddles blocked the way, but I was happy enough to stop outside and watch a flock of Amur Falcons

Many of them were perched on the utility wires, or hovered above the grassland looking for dragonflies which they ate on the wing, like Hobbies. A male perched fetchingly on a fence. My exposure compensation and colour saturation was poor today. The bill and legs should have shown as a much deeper red.

The road leads round the reed beds, through the rank vegetation where Hirundines and weavers aplenty were seen. Barn Swallows, Greater Striped Swallows, Southern Masked-weaver, Long-tailed Widowbird and Fan-tailed Widowbirds were all present along this stretch. A Great Reed Warbler showed well.

The road crosses a causeway towards the Shelduck Hide. This was also flooded and I ended up with wet boots in an attempt to get into it. The area around it was productive though. A Malachite Kingfisher perched on a wall to watch a tiny puddle and a Black Egret roosted beside the bank. Great Cormorant, African Darter and Great Crested Grebe were added to the list here and a flock of Glossy Ibis flew in.
The road ends here and it was necessary to return the way I had come. There were plenty of African Stonechats in the grasslands. African Pipit and Orange-throated Longclaw were also seen from here.

Birds seen; 76

White-faced Whistling-Duck 2, Egyptian Goose 5, Spur-winged 2, Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Duck 2, Hottentot Teal 3, Helmeted Guineafowl 4, Swainson’s Francolin 2, Little Grebe 10, Great Crested Grebe 8, Greater Flamingo 9, Great Cormorant 4, Long-tailed Cormorant 35, African Darter 1, Little Bittern 1, Black-headed Heron 4, Purple Heron 4, Intermediate Egret 1, Black Egret 2, Cattle Egret 30, Squacco Heron 6, Glossy Ibis 60, Sacred Ibis 30, Hadada Ibis 6, Black-shouldered Kite 1, African Marsh Harrier 1, Amur Falcon 39, Black Crake 1, Purple Swamphen 2, Eurasian Moorhen 10, Red-knobbed Coot 150, Blacksmith Plover 30, Crowned Lapwing 1, Common Ringed Plover 2, Three-banded Plover 1, Little Stint 1, Ruff 3, Grey-headed Gull 6, White-winged Tern 10, Whiskered Tern 2, Speckled Pigeon 10, Ring-necked Dove 40, Laughing Dove 3, White-browed Coucal 2, Little Swift 6, White-rumped Swift 2, African Palm Swift 30, Malachite Kingfisher 6, Pied Kingfisher 1, Lesser Grey Shrike 2, Common Fiscal 10, Pied Crow 1, Plain Martin 20, Bank Swallow 60, Barn Swallow 60, White-throated Swallow 6, Greater Striped Swallow 4, Common Bulbul 1, Great Reed-warbler 6, Bar-throated Apalis 1, Tinkling Cisticola 3, Stonechat 50, Common Myna 4, Cape Wagtail 12, African Pipit 2, Orange-throated Longclaw 6, Black-throated Canary 4, Cape Sparrow 25, Southern Masked Weaver 60, Red-billed Quelea 3, Red Bishop 150, Yellow-crowned Bishop 40, Fan-tailed Widowbird 3, Long-tailed Widowbird 30, Common Waxbill 120, Pin-tailed Whydah 2.

Despite lots of puddles on the roads, my normal saloon car did not have any trouble negotiating the reserve. The roads are unmade, but normally passable even in the wet. The signs from the R51 between Springs and Nigel have been taken down. So have the signs that direct visitors around the Engineers Corps.  In the absence of better directions, turn east onto the road signed for the Engineers corps at Google Earth ref; 26 20 12.63S 28 27 17.16E.  Turn right onto a mud road after 3kms. Drive southeast for 2kms then turn left. After another km or so, bear right. Don’t worry if you can’t see the stadium marked on Google Earth, it is a very low-lying affair. You should now be able to see a large pile of rocks and will very shortly find yourself at the barrier.

Previous posts from Marivale Bird Sanctuary can be found at the links below;

Visit the dedicated African Page for more posts from Johannesburg, including; Tswaing Crater and Kruger National Park.

Birding, Birdwatching, Bird watching, Marievale Bird Sanctuary, Johannesburg, South Africa

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Johannesburg, December 2013

It was an interesting weekend to be in South Africa. The people still smiled quickly and danced and sang through their loss. Businesses were open and life went on. 

The media concentrated on Mandela’s legacy of freedom and forgiveness and it was clear that the light of his influence still burned brightly.

It will take a couple of days to collate and write the birdy posts from my visit, so please enjoy these pictures until then.

To the southeast of the city is a large area of reed beds known as Marievale Bird Sanctuary. Follow the link to previous posts.

A day in Pilanesberg brought 95 species of birds as well as Zebras, Rhinos and Elephants. Follow the link for a previous post if you can't wait for a few days.

The lions were seen in Krugersdorp Game Reserve to the west of Johannesburg.

“Nessi”, the juvenile Black Eagle at Walter Sisulu Botanic Gardens, is due to fledge very soon.  Africam operate Fledgewatch, a live streaming camera to view the nest. Go see a previous post here.

 Links will be made to the relevant posts once they are published.