May 2016: we’ve just completed our 5th South Australian Zoo Volunteers’ safari, a re-run of April 2015’s highly successful itinerary. We had some cracking sightings of all kinds of wildlife, though of course it was the big predators that stole the show. Predators aside, there was many a magical moment enjoying nature in general, and being ‘birdos’ as they call us, we tried to convert them into birdwatchers (mixed results, though we are chipping away at the regular participants!). This was one of those magical moments, a Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis) fishing at Sunset Dam, caught up in the reflection of the sky. Note the ‘less is more’ approach – zooming out a bit to incorporate the bird in context, using rules of thirds. Stay tuned for more photos from this tour…
For any birder, owls rank up there among the most desirable of birds to be seen, such that certain birding companies run dedicated ‘owl tours’, involving plenty of after dark birding in order to bag Southern Africa’s 12 species, or as many of them as possible at least. That’s quite a task indeed, and dawn to dusk and beyond type birding is certainly not for everyone. So, for those who don’t mind getting up early (or who will at least put up with it in order to pursue their passion!), but who don’t lean toward long night drives, is it possible to see owls? Well, yes, you can still see owls, and with a bit of luck may be able to rack up 6 species on a tour, maybe more if you choose your locations with owls in mind. On a normal Southern Kruger National Park tour one can bag five species, providing that your guide has sharp eyes and a knack for finding owls on daytime roosts, while a short little after-dinner cruise in small towns such as Wakkerstroom can add number 6 your list – Spotted Eagle-Owl being quite common in such places. A little knowledge helps as well, as some species have preferred roosting areas, some of which are within the grounds of certain camps (African Scops Owl almost a guarantee in Satara Rest Camp in the Kruger). Of course luck also plays a big role: sometimes you get to three or four species but just can’t get any further, other times you reach six but just can’t find number seven. Time of year also helps: the increased density of foliage in summer makes it harder all round. And in the spring, which coincides with decreased foliage density, many species are breeding, making for increased activity levels as they attempt to put food into the mouths of young. And looking for owls while on game drives changes the way you search for things, honing your skills until you are able to find all manner of small, interesting creatures – snakes, Bushbabies, Chameleons, Nightjars and so forth. Take a look at the album for some recent sightings of owls and other cryptic creatures.
Ayers’s Hawk-Eagle (Hieraatus ayersii), Kruger National Park, November 2015. This bird is something of an enigma, not often seen and not well studied. Distribution and movement patterns are not well known, though odd sightings are reported from much of north-eastern South Africa, even though the core breeding range is thought to be in the Miombo Woodland regions of South-Central Africa. It’s a specialist bird hunter, and reportedly one of the most agile of all the eagles. This one was bathing in a puddle along the roadside just north of Shingwedzi Camp, and flew up into a small tree to pose for a few photos before taking to flight. It’s a well, marked individual, making it easy to identify (pale birds aren’t as easy!). A real cracker of a sighting…
It’s reputed to be the most numerous bird on earth. Flocks can number in the millions, creating black swarms that can devastate a field of grain crop in a single feeding session. Nesting colonies can cover hectares of land, attracting all manner of predators out to make the most of the bounty. Yes, it’s the diminutive Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea), smaller than a sparrow, generally brown with an orange to red beak, while the breeding males sport black and red faces. Individually they don’t add up to much, but in large numbers they are an impressive sight indeed. On a recent holiday in the Warmbaths area of South Africa’s Limpopo Province, I was out on a mountain bike searching for a bird hide I’d been told about. When I found the hide on the edge of a small pond, I took vague notice that the reeds in the pond were all bent over, looking like a hail storm had rolled through, though being winter that wasn’t a possibility. In the late afternoon I took my family out on a game drive, and when we arrived at the pond we were confronted by an astounding sight: the place was absolutely bursting at the seams with roosting Queleas, the combined chirping creating an incredible noise, like the roar of Man United fans at Old Trafford. We didn’t want to disturb them too much and so didn’t spend a lot of time there, but I returned early the next morning to watch them leave for their feeding grounds. They started to leave before sunrise, peeling off in clouds and always heading due south. The clouds gradually diminished in size and eventually one could start to hear the calls of Black Crake, Common Moorhen, Lesser Swamp Warbler and other denizens of the pond as the din of the Queleas diminished. I wondered why they left in sub groups, and then realised that, due to the numbers, those perched lower down on any given reed had to wait their turn to be able to move to the top of the reed for a successful take-off. Well, if the morning experience was incredible, I was even more blown away in the afternoon, when I arrived just as they began to return from their feeding grounds. The flocks of perhaps hundreds of thousands at a time would fly in from the south (just seeing these flocks in flight was an awesome experience) to land in the thorn trees surrounding the pond, more and more arriving as the sun set. Eventually they decided it was time to settle in the reeds, and this is when I realised I was seeing one of the natural history highlights of my life. Massive flocks of birds would swirl around the pond, flying right over the hide I was in, with the noise and wind produced by the millions of beating wings literally blowing my hair back. Flock by flock they would settle in the reeds, with the noise gradually shifting from beating wings to chirping until all of them had found a place to perch for the night, the chirping continuing undiminished (I wondered if they chirped all night long?). The South African Bird Atlas Project mapping shows that Quelea distribution is on the increase across Southern Africa, especially in the Western and Eastern Cape regions, perhaps as a result of increased areas under grain cultivation. So big flocks are probably becoming a more often seen phenomenon, though this was the largest and most concentrated gathering of Queleas I’ve ever seen (the big breeding congregations I’ve seen in the Kruger tend to be spread out over a number of hectares, where’s this flock was concentrated in a tiny area).
With darkness upon me it was time for me to leave, creeping away so as not to disturb the birds and hoping to bump into an Aardvark or Aardwolf on the way home. I likened the Quelea experience to watching an Amur Falcon roost in Creighton with the venerable Malcolm Gemmel of Button Birding. That’s pretty impressive, with thousands of the migratory raptors roosting in a couple of Plane Trees in the local sports ground. They seem to exhibit the same behaviour, swirling around overhead until they decide it’s time to come in and land. They also chirp and twitter as they do so, but the total number of Amurs at that roost would probably only constitute one or two of the flocks of Queleas at the pond roost, that’s how impressive it was. To get an idea of what it was like, watch our video on YouTube, and make sure to have the sound up to reasonable levels.
Kit review: Vortex Viper HD 10 X 42 Binoculars.
I think that the big name, big price binocular manufacturers have some serious competition on their hands. The middle range binoculars seem to be closing the gap, so it is now a valid question to ask: why pay three times as much when you aren’t necessarily getting a pair of binoculars that are three times better? Of course no one will argue that the big names such as Swarovski, Leica and Zeiss aren’t superb pieces of equipment, but does the price warrant the purchase? I recently got a pair of Vortex Viper HD 10 x 42’s, and am suitably impressed. Now the original argument was that the expensive binoculars came with lifetime warranties, whereas mid-range binoculars usually didn’t. But with the Vortex lifetime warranty, the gap closes even further. The Vortex Vipers are among the smallest of 10 x 42’s on the market, and certainly go easy on the neck and shoulders during a full day’s birding. They feel solid, the construction is good and the various elements have all the hi-tec requirements of a first-rate pair of binoculars. I’m not going to bore you with the specs, such as the BaK4 prisms and dielectric coatings, Aargon gas filling etc, as you can read all about that on the Vortex website, but I can say that these are great binoculars to use in the field. They come with a decent neck strap, rear-end caps and what I refer to as a rusk guard (the cover which prevents rusk / biscuit crumbs from collecting in the eye pieces when you are having your morning coffee break in the field), and basically are a real pleasure to use. See more at http://www.vortexoptics.com/product/vortex-viper-hd-10×42-binocular.
Photo of the day: Martial Eagle, Kruger National park, March 2014.
We encountered this impressive raptor – the Lion of the Bird World – on our way northwards from Satara to Olifants Rest Camp one morning. Perched in a long-dead Leadwood Tree, which itself could have been here standing sentry over the grassy plains for hundreds of years after it died, the Martial was just beginning its day. Although the hour was dedicated to preening, one could note the intensity in its eye, telling you that a Monitor Lizard’s movement 500 meters away would not go unnoticed; a Guineafowl moving out of cover somewhere across the plain would be a marked bird. The dilemma for us involved that insatiable urge for better photographs. We all want that pin-sharp in-flight shot as the bird takes off, and by all means this was the moment for it: good light and an unobstructed view. Patience was the only critical point – how long do you sit and wait, holding a heavy lens up and anticipating flight at any moment? A shuffle of feathers (snap!), defecation – is takeoff imminent? No, back to preening that one feather just so. Well, we eventually made the call to move on, somewhat reluctantly, and never once looking in the rear view mirror to see if it took off just after we left. But the beauty of the Kruger is the unknown – a minute less here or there means a Leopard encounter up the road, and indeed, that’s exactly what happened. And that’s what keeps us rapt, the unpredictability of it all.
Sunset Dam is a legendary spot. Many Kruger aficionados will probably state that it’s their favourite waterhole in the whole of the park. It holds a massive population of Hippo’s, despite the fact that the Sabie River is only a few hundred meters away. The river also holds a fair number of these semi-aquatic behemoths, but nothing like the numbers in the dam. Perhaps the lack of flow and more stable water levels in the dam are reason for this, but either way, if you want to see Hippo’s up close and personal, this is THE spot. Not that you’d want to get too personal with a Hippo…
In fact, there are so many here that their dung enriches the water with excessive nutrients, which results in soupy green water due to the algal bloom. In certain cases there can be blooms of extremely toxic algae, which can result in the death of any animal which ingests the algae while drinking. For this reason numerous other dams, such as Siloweni Dam, have been destroyed in recent years.
Sunset Dam is also home to a large number of Nile Crocodiles, ranging from arm-length tiddlers to monsters three or four meters long which probably weigh several hundred kilograms. Indeed, this is one dam you definitely don’t want to end up in.
Birds are also plentiful here. It’s a great place to see White-crowned Lapwing, a river specialist which is restricted to the Sabie, Olifants, Levuvhu and Limpopo Rivers and is regularly seen at the water’s edge where the cars stop. A dead tree in the water is a nesting site for Red-billed Buffalo Weavers, Village Weavers and Lesser-masked Weavers. A scan along the shoreline will turn up Water Thick-Knees at rest, while Giant, Pied and Malachite Kingfishers can also be seen in the vicinity. Yellow-billed Storks are also common here, as is the ubiquitous Grey Heron.
In terms of mammals there are always loads of Impala hanging about, and these are prey for Lions, Leopards, Cheetah, Wild Dog, Spotted Hyena and the reptilian giants in the water of course, while Elephant and Buffalo often arrive during the heat of the day to bathe and wallow.
The great thing about Sunset Dam, besides the birds and wildlife, is that it is located just outside the gates of Lower Sabie Rest Camp, so you can always spend the first and last moments of the day there, and can also pop out quickly during the heat of the day to see what’s happening.
This panoramic shot was taken in July 2013, on a warm winter’s day when the water is considerably colder that the air, meaning that the Hippo’s, around 18 in this group, spend much of the day out on the banks enjoying the sun. Since taking this panorama I’ve learned a bit more about taking panoramas. For great, high-res panoramas set your lens to around 50mm, and, for a horizontal panorama such as this, orientate your lens vertically (in portrait orientation), and take a series of shots overlapping by around 15 – 20% as you pan across the scene, which you can render through something like Photoshop Photomerge. That way you’ll end up with a large panorama with as much detail as possible.