Thursday 31 July 2014

Pilanesberg NP, Johannesburg, July 2014

My day dawned as I drove through the pass at Hartebeestpoort and the sun slowly brightened the sky. By 07.20, I had reached Bakubung Gate at the southern edge of Pilanesberg NP, 2 hours west and a bit north from Johannesburg. The roads of the park had been repaired since my last visit, but they were still rutted and rough. Nevertheless, it always surprises me how far one can get on pitted roads in a two-wheel-drive car.

The birds were quiet and even the whistles of the Crested Lark, so often a feature of a drive in the park, were absent this morning. Mammals too were reticent to come out to be seen. Hippos in the first dam were to be expected, but very little else was around. Particularly missed were the Elephants and the other big 5 animals. I like to promote a holistic approach to safari, but the star turns do bring a frisson to the day that was missing on this occasion.

Nevertheless, the bird list slowly began to build and included Hamerkop, Rufous-vented Warbler and Eastern Clapper Lark before I pulled in to the hide at Makorwan Dam. Here an African Black Duck, Blacksmith Plover and Pearl-breasted Swallow were seen.

On the dirt trails that cross the western side of the park, the usual mix of Wildebeest, Impala and Zebra were found along with African Pipit, Tawny-flanked Prinia and Blue Waxbill,
At Pilanesberg Centre there were lots of cheeky birds as usual with Grey Go-away-birds, Marico Flycatchers and Crested Francolins seen at close range.

Namaqua Doves kept their distance from the terrace, but the expected Yellow and/or Red Hornbills did not materialise.

One of my strange, unfounded superstitions is that a mongoose sighting will bring good luck, so a really good look at a Slender Mongoose in the car park of the Pilanesberg Centre filled me with optimism for the rest of the day.
Hoping to turn the slow burn into an explosive burst, I headed for Mankwe Dam and the wonderful hide that reaches out over the water. Even here things were slow, but the resident Barn Owl did not look worried.

I am always astonished by the size of the fish that herons or cormorants consider to be consumable. This Grey Heron had a lot on its plate.

At last I started to find a few animals and a small herd of Giraffe fed very close to the edge of the road.
I spent lunch time at Fish Eagle Picnic Site, a high vantage point overlooking the large lake. African Spoonbill could be seen in the distance but apart from the Little Grebes there were very few waterbirds compared with previous trips. The water levels were very high today and the birds and animals were not forced to stay close to permanent water, so I guess they took the chance to roam where the fancy took them.

It was well into the afternoon before I eventually found a pair of White Rhino and I had had to venture beyond my usual hot spots to get them. 

I returned to my usual haunts for the rest of the afternoon and was rewarded when a White Rhino suddenly appeared from nowhere and pulled up to the edge of the dam for an early evening drink.
A few birds were also added from here with White-faced Duck, African Hawk-Eagle and most notably, a Giant Kingfisher.

It was just a little bit further down the road that shortly afterwards a male and a female Lion were seen at the bottom of a slope, hiding in the long grass. As the light faded a small herd of young Kudus ventured close to the road and a Magpie Shrike sat out for a quick snatched photo.

Before leaving the park, I managed to get snarled up in a Leopard scrum. Despite the park being quiet as far as animals were concerned, there were plenty of people and vehicles and they all appeared to be clustered together on the road ahead. Four large open safari trucks hogged both carriageways in an attempt to see the cat, effectively blocking out any self-drive punters.

Bird list for Pilanesberg; 75

White-faced Whistling Duck 7, Egyptian Goose 15, African Black Duck 1, Yellow-billed Duck 10, Helmeted Guineafowl 60, Crested Francolin 8, Natal Francolin 3, Little Grebe 50, Great Cormorant 25, Long-tailed Cormorant 15, African Darter 6, Hamerkop 5, Grey Heron 1, Great Egret 3, Sacred Ibis 180, African Spoonbill 3, Black-shouldered Kite 1, African Fish-Eagle 2, Black-breasted Snake-Eagle 1, African Hawk-Eagle 1, Blacksmith Plover 12, Crowned Lapwing 2, Three-banded Plover 3, Speckled Pigeon 1, Ring-necked Dove 15, Laughing Dove 4, Namaqua Dove 3, Grey Go-away-bird 25, Barn Owl 1, Speckled Mousebird 8, Red-faced Mousebird 12, Malachite Kingfisher 1, Giant Kingfisher 1, Pied Kingfisher 4, Green Woodhoopoe 4, Crested Barbet 1, Crimson-breasted Gonolek 3, Magpie Shrike 2, Fork-tailed Drongo 3, Pied Crow 3, Eastern Clapper Lark 1, Sabota Lark 1, Pearl-breasted Swallow 4, Common Bulbul 35, Bar-throated Apalis 2, Rattling Cisticola 1, Tinkling Cisticola 1, Piping Cisticola 4, Tawny-flanked Prinia 2, Black-chested Prinia 2, Rufous-vented Warbler 1, Pale Flycatcher 10, Kalahari Scrub-Robin 4, White-throated Robin-Chat 1, White-browed Robin-Chat 1, Stonechat 1, Mocking Cliff-Chat 1, Familiar Chat 15, Capped Wheatear 4, Kurrichane Thrush 1, Karoo Thrush 1, Common Myna 2, Cape Glossy-Starling 8, Red-billed Ox-pecker 1, Cape Wagtail 2, African Pipit 1, Golden-breasted Bunting 2, Yellow-fronted Canary 20, Black-throated Canary 6, House Sparrow 5, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver 1, Red-billed Quelea 15, Common Waxbill 3, Blue-breasted Cordonbleu 30, Green-winged Pytilia 4.

Pilanesberg National Park is run by North West Parks and their website can be used to check the prevailing conditions in the reserve.
Opening times vary during the year. For the most part if you work on 06.00 to 18.00 you won't be far out.Exact gate times can be seen at the web link above.
To drive from Johannesburg will take a little over 2 hours. Sun City shares the volano and can be used as a good direction finder for Pilanesberg NP.
Self-drive safari is the customary way of getting around, but ranger-led open sided safari vehicles operate from the camps at each gate. Again, see the website.
There is no fuel available in the park, but filling stations are conveniently sited close to the gates.
There are toilet facilities at each of the rest stops and hides and refreshments, including hot food at the Pilanesberg Centre in the middle of the park.

Please follow the links below to previous posts from Pilanesberg.

Visit the dedicated Africa Page for more posts from South Africa.
 Birdwatching, birding, safari, South Africa.

Suikersbosrand, Johannesberg, South Africa, July 2014

This tour of Suikersbosrand was much more relaxed than my previous visit, except for the last 30 minutes when I realised that I had not allowed for the time change and the park was about to shut. Despite some nice views of Eland, Bontebok, Black Wildebeest and Zebra, the hot-spot of the visit was the picnic site where an ants’ nest was attracting birds to feed.

Just inside the park gate is a small pond on the left at Google Earth ref; 26 27 48.57S 28 13 17.34E. It is the northern end of a larger damp patch and had some floating weeds that allowed some White-backed Ducks to rest without being blown into the bank by the strong wind.
This was a good start to the day, but I shan’t trouble you with the photograph which will remain in my private collection of shaky, blurry, out-of-focus record shots.
I had come straight from the airport and stopped at the visitor centre car park to get changed out of my uniform. Here I was able to note Grosbeak Weaver, Southern Grey Sparrow and Mountain Wheatear as I tried to wriggle into my safari silks.

As is often the case, the start of the circuit was quiet. The high grass often obscures the view and a chap is limited to birds that flush from the edges of the road; in this case, Cinnamon-breasted Buntings, Orange-throated Longlaws and Ring-necked Doves. Stonechats clung to grass stems and sturdier perches close to the road.

I seldom see mammals before the dam at the bottom of the circuit and Southern Anteating Chats usually appear beyond the water.
A few herds of antelope were seen on the approach to the Holhoek Picnic Site at Google Earth ref; 26 32 26.03S 28 13 34.08E. This rest stop is situated at the bottom of an acacia-covered slope and was easily the hottest spot in the park and should not be missed by birders in Suikersbosrand. 

Stone tables and chairs are set out for picnickers and an ants’ nest was overflowing from the base of one of the chairs. This attracted Mocking Cliff-Chats, Cape Robin-chats, Cape Rock-Thrushes and Fiscal Flycatchers to feast on the insects.

This is where I spent most of my time found over 20 species without moving from the picnic table, including the Ashy Tit which was gleaning on the rough bark of a tree there.

A Piping Cisticola picked through the short grass and Rufous-vented Warblers searched for insects through the branches of low bushes.
The light was growing dim now and I had to press on to reach the park gates by chucking out time at 18.00. It was dark by the time I reached the gate just at the top of the hour and a movement caught my eye as the security guard came from his office to see me out. A pair of Barn Owls roost in the thatched roof of the security post and one made a pass through the gate a couple of times before landing on the roof.

Bird list for Suikersbosrand; 53

White-backed Duck 10, Yellow-billed Duck 8, Helmeted Guineafowl 30, Swainson’s Francolin 14, Little Grebe 5, Long-tailed Cormorant 1, Cattle Egret 1, Sacred Ibis 8, Hadada Ibis 3, African Spoonbill 1, Black-shouldered Kite 1, Black Crake 1, Eurasian Moorhen 3, Red-knobbed Coot 15, Blacksmith Plover 2, Ring-necked Dove 8, Laughing Dove 4, Barn Owl 2, Speckled Mousebird 8, Black-collared Barbet 2, Common Fiscal 8, Fairy Flycatcher 1, Ashy Tit 1, Black-fronted Bulbul 20, Bar-throated Apalis 2, Piping Cisticola 1, Tawny-flanked Prinia 2, Rufous-vented Warbler 7, Fiscal Flycatcher 13, Kalahari Scrub-Robin 3, Cape Robin-Chat 10, Cape Rock-Thrush 2, Stonechat 40, Southern Anteater Chat 15, Mocking Cliff-Chat 2, Familiar Chat 12, Mountain Wheatear 25, Capped Wheatear 12, Common Myna 2, Cape Wagtail 1, African Pipit 2, Orange-throated Longclaw 4, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting 5, Black-throated Canary 8, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow 4, Yellow-throated Petronia 15, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver 1, Cape Weaver 1, Southern Masked-Weaver 8, Red Bishop 3, Long-tailed Widow 1, Grosbeak Weaver 1, Green-winged Pytilia 2.

 A visit to Suikersbosrand will typically describe a circuit of 60kms. The drive is on a one-way road, so the full circuit must be completed once started. The picnic site at Holhoek is about half-way round. The park opens from 07.00 and visitors are required to leave by 18.00. An entrance fee of RSA 20 will give you all day in the park if you wish.

Suikersbosrand can be accessed from the N3 heading south from Johannesburg. Take the R550 west and the north entrance is signposted after 6kms at Google Earth ref; 26 26 16.32S 28 13 10.84E
A previous visit to Suikersbosrand can be seen at the link below;

Visit the dedicated African page for more sites in South Africa.

Birdwatching, Birding, Safari, South Africa.

Saturday 26 July 2014

South Africa - teaser, July 2014

Logistically, this was a much more successful trip than my last visit to South Africa. We arrived in plenty of time, I didn’t get mugged, parks were open and roads were clear (except for the bit with the Leopard). It wasn’t as species-rich as some trips, but 110+ birds, including 2 life ticks, was a reasonable total I felt.

The red-letter birds, a White-backed Duck and an Ashy Tit, came from a drive around the circuit at Suikersbosrand. This time I was not time stressed and was able to enjoy an ant nest overflowing and bringing in the birds at the picnic site.

The large animals were reticent to come out and be seen. A whole morning in Pilanesberg NP passed without a single Big 5 sighting. There were 3 "lucky mongooses" so I was expecting a big day but the White Rhinos and Lions didn't come 'til later in the afternoon which gave the day a “quiet” feel.

The last morning was spent trying to get pictures of the Black (Verreaux’s) Eagles that are nesting on the cliffs by the waterfall in Walter Sisulu Botanic Gardens. The male (I was reliably informed by the eagle watchers) caught a Hyrax and ate it without offering any to the female or the chick back on the nest (yet the relationship persists).

It will take a little time to delete all the rubbish photos and find a few usable ones, but I will make links to the respective posts once they are published.
If you need any information in the meantime, visit the dedicated Africa page for details of sites in South Africa.

Friday 25 July 2014

Olympic Forest Park, Beijing, July 2014

The Olympic Forest Park in Beijing turned out to be a treasure of green in the huge city. My colleague and I set off for the park together, but split up on arrival as he intended to run the 10 kilometer circuit round the park whereas I just wished to amble cluelessly through the green stuff looking for birds.

The Beijing Metro dropped us at the south gate of the park (Google Earth ref; 40 00 33.61N 116 23 10.04E ) where a large lawn swept down to a lake that is supposed to represent the head of a serpentine dragon that insinuates its way through the Olympic complex.

Black-billed Magpies were abundant and obvious while Eurasian Tree Sparrows kept catching my eye and diverting my attention. I wandered down towards the lake where a Coal Tit called and a Chinese Bulbul sat at the top of a willow. Then I heard the call of a Common Cuckoo. It was very unexpected and I really wanted to find it, so went back up towards the entrance to follow the call. I was feeling very pleased with myself after a distant look at the cuckoo at the top of a pine tree when a second call and then a third came from across the lake.

Cuckoos became the focus of the day after that and even a group of big cameras on the far side of the lake was deferred until later.

Perhaps there could have been as many as 15 Common Cuckoos calling and chasing each other around. Certainly there were at least 10, with 4 in sight at one time and others calling in the distance. It was a real cuckoo fest.

Part of the lake is fringed with reeds and large Oriental Reed Warblers were found there. A rope guide keeps hired rowing boats from coming too close to the reeds and Black-crowned Night Herons used it as a roosting and hunting perch. The group of photographers were taking pictures of the herons catching goldfish.

Google Earth does not give a good impression of the park. I guess that the satellite passed over during the winter. Most of the trees are leafless and the grass is brown. The margins of the lake look clear from reeds or any bank-side vegetation. The reality in this second week of July is a lush and leafy park, popular with the people, but not too crowded on a Thursday morning.

I was too taken with the cuckoos to venture very far around the park, but my colleague completed his 10K run and tells me that the northern part of the park has a more wild feel to it.

Birds seen at Olympic Forest Park; 17
Mallard 8, Little Grebe 4, Yellow Bittern 4, Grey Heron 1, Great Egret 1, Striated Heron 1, Black-crowned Night Heron 16, Eurasian Moorhen 4, Eurasian Collared Dove 1, Common Cuckoo 10, Common Swift 25, Eurasian Magpie 15, Barn Swallow 30, Coal Tit 1, Light-vented Bulbul 2, Oriental Reed Warbler 8, Eurasian Tree Sparrow 50.

The Olympic Forest Park is 680 hectares in two blocks separated by a motorway, but joined by an ecological corridor that bridges the road. It opens at 06.00 every morning and closes at 21.00 (please be out by 22.00) in the summer, an hour earlier (please be out by 21.00) in the winter. There is no entrance charge. There were restrooms and refreshment stalls at the entrance close to the metro station. Metro Station is Olympic Forest Park, South Entrance. Metro Fare is 2 Yuan.

Visit the dedicated Oriental page for more posts from Beijing and China.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Long Island, New York, July 2014

This blog has slipped so far behind that this entry refers to a time, way back, when England was still in contention for the World Cup in Brazil. It was a Long Island JFK and Corey came to pick me up from the hotel there. We headed out to the beach where a nesting colony of Black Skimmers, Common Terns and Piping Plovers on Nickerson Beach made for easy watching.

The nesting area is on the beach side of the dunes at Point Lookout. eBird is slightly cagey about the exact positioning of the colony, so I will follow suit and be discrete. This begs the question; why am I blogging about it? Redgannet is written to encourage people out into the open by telling them where to go and what they might see when they get there, so being a bit secretive goes against the grain. But look, I have all these pictures and need to offload them somehow.

Some of the Common Terns were feeding tiny chicks, while others were still sitting on eggs. Some inclement weather the night before may have disrupted a few of the families and adult birds called for chicks that did not reply. 

Hungry chicks, missing their own parents sought sustenance by any means. A displaced chick was chased off by an adult protecting its own part of the beach.

The Skimmers were not as advanced. They may have been on eggs further into the wispy beach grasses, but many roosted on the beach, showing little or no interest in reproduction.

A single Piping Plover flew up into the dunes. Here, their nests have been protected by wildlife rangers who cover them with a cage which allows the tiny plovers in and out but prevents Racoons from stealing eggs.
American Oystercatcher chicks were the furthest advanced and were almost as large as their parents. They were actively feeding or staying hidden amongst clumps of washed up seaweed.

The colony is in use from mid-April when the oystercatchers and plovers begin to arrive. The terns and skimmers wait for the warmer weather of May before they start to show.

 From here we went on to Oceanside Marine Nature Study Area. Corey was on a mission to find a life tick Saltmarsh Sparrow for me. A boardwalk passes out through saltmarsh that harboured a flushing Clapper Rail and a stalking Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

At the top of the path a pair of Osprey was nesting on a platform. As one bird watched the nest, the partner had been out fishing and came in with its catch as we approached.

Fleeting shapes in the grass eventually materialised into a Saltmarsh Sparrow as one popped up to be ticked. A subsequent bird sat long enough to get a record.

 Visit the dedicated USA and Canada page for more posts from New York. .