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…
I was leading a birding tour with some American birders in September and we were staying at Satara Rest Camp. For our full day’s morning program we made our way down to Sweni Waterhole, the Sweni Road being one of my favourite routes in the area. It was very dry and I suspected that the waterhole would draw in a lot of game. Approaching the water we ran into a large herd of Buffalo, all grazing peacefully. We were spotting Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on the bovids when I noticed a number of cars parked at the waterhole. ‘Hey guys’, I said, ‘looks like there’s something a bit more interesting at the waterhole’. So we made our way over and immediately spotted the bright crimson of the open carcass, with a big furry head next to it. Lions on a kill! And there were plenty of Buffalo in the immediate area too, some of which were showing interest in the Lions. I tried to park at the waterhole, but with the other cars and the bushes there was no way to get a view there, so I had to pull back a bit for a broader view of the scene. But the clients were happy and we sat back to watch the action. We could see that the Buffalo were on the offensive, a group of ‘Dagga Boys’ pushing as a group towards the carcass with heads swinging and much snorting. The Lion at the carcass at the time was also growling loudly, hissing and spitting at the Buffalo, determined to finish eating their fallen comrade. But still they came, and eventually he decided to give ground, running straight towards us with a few bulls giving chase. Interestingly, one bull at the carcass hooked horns with it and began tossing it around in anger. My take was that he could still smell the Lions strongly, and anything that smelled of the enemy was a target. At this point a few Black-backed Jackals moved in, one of them seeming to hold off a Buffalo bull on his own, much to the delight of the Americans (though I suspect the Buffalo wasn’t actually too concerned about a weeny Jackal). All the while there was plenty of game looking on, waiting for things to quieten down so they could come and drink. Eventually the Buffalo began to move off, and Lions appeared from all over to finish their spoils – five males in total, quite a potent force indeed (to put it mildly). All in all it was a fantastic sighting, one of my best ever in fact.
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.
On a recent safari in northern KwaZulu-Natal, the conditions were extremely hot and dry. In fact, the region hadn’t had any significant rain for at least two months, which is not unusual in the dry season, but can spell disaster in the wet season, when it’s supposed to rain. As bad as this was for animals and people alike, it made for terrific game viewing. Due to the poaching threat I’d rather not mention the specific location here, but at a particular hide we spent a morning having some of the most thrilling game viewing I’ve had in a long time. The hide is sited over a small pool of water, and when its dry, such as it was at the time of our visit, it attracts game from all over the surrounding area. Without cease there was a constant procession of different game species streaming in from all directions, some in herds and groups, others as individuals or loners. The species seen included Zebra, Blue Wildebeest, Warthog, Impala and Nyala, with at least six White Rhinos hanging around in the immediate vicinity. For hours they coming and going went on, only interrupted by a big male Lion crashing the party (in the space of a minute the waterhole was suddenly but temporarily deserted). One of the highlights was this Rhino cow leading her calf to the water, with the dried red mud on their flanks making for a nice colour contrast. All in all a superb morning and we were lucky as a cold front arrived that afternoon and there was rain overnight. Visitors to the hide on the following day probably never saw a single animal…
A quick guide the Kruger National Park:
Where is it?
The Kruger National Park is situated in the extreme north-east of South Africa, making up a large portion of South Africa’s border with Mozambique. It runs from about 25 Degrees South along the Crocodile River in the south to about 22 Degrees South along the Limpopo River in the north.
How big is it?
The Kruger National Park itself is approximately 20 000 square kilometres / 7600 square miles in size. That’s comparable to Wales. If you include the adjoining private reserves to the west and the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique to the east, then you get to an incredible figure of around 35 000 square kilometres / 13 500 square miles! The park is 380 km in length and averages 54 km wide.
A very brief history:
The park was proclaimed in 1898 by the President of the Transvaal Republic, Paul Kruger. It was originally known as the Sabie Game Reserve and was much smaller in size. In 1926 it was joined to the Shingwedzi Game Reserve to the north to become the Kruger National Park. The first motorists were allowed to enter the park in 1927, for an entrance fee of 1 Pound. Pretoriuskop in the south-west was the first area open for day visitors (there were no overnight facilities initially) and it was proposed that they be charged for photographs in order to raise revenue and that only revolvers were to be permitted, for reasons of personal protection!
What can I see there?
The Kruger has an incredible number and diversity of species: 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals, more or less. Of course for most tourists the big mammals such as Elephant, Lion, Rhino, Giraffe and Hippo are the main attraction, but for those with a broader interest there is plenty more to see. The birding is superb, to say the least, with daily figures in the summer reaching up to 120 species and over. Combine this with unexpected and exciting encounters with the big mammals, and you have a wildlife destination that is hard to beat.
What is the habitat like?
The Kruger falls into a woodland savannah biome. Far from being uniformed however, the aspect, rainfall regimes and underlying geology result in around twenty specific vegetation types. These vary from the Pretoriuskop Sourveld of the south west, characterised by tall ‘thatching’ grass, dense vegetation and marshy areas, to the open Knob-thorn Savannah of the south-central regions and the extensive Mopane Veld of the north. In general it is much less open than what many visitors expect (due to the fact that most African wildlife documentaries are filmed on the grassland savannahs of East Africa). Each vegetation type has specific birds to look out for, and to really get a feel for the park one should visit at least three camps / regions.
When to visit?
It is a great place to visit at any time of the year. If you want to maximise the birding however, then mid to late summer is best, from late November to the end of March. This is when resident birds are breeding and Palearctic and Intra-African migrants are present. If you want to maximise the mammal viewing, then you need to be there in the dry season, July to November, and if you want a compromise between the two then October and early November is the time for you. As I said though, any time is a good time in Kruger!
How long should I stay for?
Here we are assuming that you are the typical Lawson’s client, in that you are passionate about all forms of wildlife and don’t get tired of going out in search of wildlife for a large portion of the day (i.e.: long morning and afternoon drives with optional rest periods during the hottest part of the day). Thus our recommended length of stay, considering that you will probably be on an extended tour and will thus be visiting other parts of the country as well, is around 5 to 6 nights, split between three rest camps (typically Satara, Skukuza or Lower Sabie, and Pretoriuskop). This combination gives you a good spread of habitats and bird species and still allows you to devote enough time out of your 12 day vacation to see other places. However, one can easily spend more time in Kruger and in fact we have clients who spend three weeks per year just in the Kruger, usually doing a south-to-north or north-to-south trip during that time. Many other birding and wildlife tours will include only two or three nights in Kruger, but we don’t think that gives you enough time to do it properly (and we like to do things properly!).
What weather can I expect?
The Kruger has discernable seasons. Summers (November – April) are generally hot and humid. Expect average daily highs of around 32 ºC (though it can peak in the high 30’s), and lows of 19 – 20 ºC. This is the rainy season. Rain can come in the form of afternoon / evening thundershowers or extended light rain. Occasionally unusual weather phenomena can result in very heavy rain over an extended period, and local flooding is possible under such conditions.
Winters (June – August) are mild and dry (the cool dry season), with very low humidity. Expect average daily highs of around 25 – 30 ºC and lows of around 10 ºC. It can go down as low as 3 or 4 ºC however, so be prepared for it, especially if you are doing open vehicle safaris! September – October is another season altogether (the hot dry season), which combines the temperatures of summer with the dryness of winter.
Which areas are the best?
There are 16 main camps, 5 bushveld camps, 2 bush lodges and 8 private lodges in the park, so there’s plenty of choice. Game viewing is generally better south of the Olifants River while the far north has the most bird species, but this does not make a huge difference, especially to the first-time visitor. The south-central region is my personal favourite, but you can have an incredible experience anywhere.
What tour should I join?
If you are a birder our Barbets, Bee-eaters and Big Game set-departure is based on a five night Kruger stay. Our Hornbills and Hyraxes set-departure includes time in the Kruger as well as some other great parks and is a winner for wildlife. Our Photographing the Predators set-departure includes the Kruger and the neighbouring Sabi Sand Game Reserve and is great for predator viewing, general game viewing and photography. Our Wildlife of the Cape and Kruger includes two of South Africa’s iconic regions, the Western Cape Region and the Greater Kruger National Park (includes a stay at private lodge). Our Cranes, Rollers and Raptors set-departure includes the Kruger as part of an extended Eastern South Africa and Swaziland birding experience, and lastly, for something a bit different, our Eagles, Elephants and Baobabs set-departure includes the northern Kruger national park, a region less visited and well worth it. See www.lawsons-africa.co.za for more info.
Why we love the Kruger National Park:
Ease of access: it’s easy to get there and to get around. Roads are very good.
Logistics: bookings, accommodation etc are organised and efficient.
The subtle variety of habitats, changing all the time as you drive along.
Easy birding: many of the birds are perch hunters, sitting right out in the open.
Excitement of mammal encounters: you just never know when a Lion or Leopard is going to pop out in front of you.
On a personal level I love building up an intimate knowledge of the park and sharing that with others
It was a day for Lions. After spending over a week birding in the northern parts of South Africa, including some time in the far northern Kruger National Park, we were ready for some big cat action. While the advantage of the far northern Kruger is that it is less busy in terms of tourists, it’s also not quite as good for big cats, and on this trip we only started encountering cats when we hit Satara in the south / central region of the park. On our first morning drive from Satara we encountered a pride of ten Lions at Nsemani Dam, catching them early in the morning while they were still very active (a sighting of Lions doing something is worth ten sightings of Lions sleeping). Later on in the morning we encountered a pride of seven at Sweni waterhole, spending some time with them before heading back to camp for breakfast when our stomachs started protesting the hour. And in fact, while we were having our breakfast they killed a Zebra, showing again that if you have the patience to spend a lot of time with animals such as Lions, you will be rewarded with some action eventually. That afternoon we went down to watch the Lions still feeding on the Zebra, and while we were watching them a Pearl-spotted Owlet zipped in to land on a branch in front of us, carrying a freshly caught Little Swift, just another kill to add to the day’s growing tally. That night Alice and Gerard went on a night drive, and saw a third pride of Lions (which we had seen briefly during the day) feeding on another victim, this time a Blue Wildebeest.
The next morning was the day we were due to leave the park, and to make the most of it we decided to leave camp as the gates opened and make our way to Tshokwane for breakfast, and from there head south to exit at Phabeni Gate. And thus began the three hours of magical game viewing.
Not far south of the camp we saw what looked like a large liver lying next to the road, untouched by scavengers, and a bit further on found a pride of Lions with their two kills from the night – an unfortunate Buffalo cow and her calf. The cow had not been fed on at all, and one or two Lions were chewing on the remains of the calf, the rest of the pride already full-bellied and passed out in patches of growing shade all over the place. After much deliberation we worked out the route of the night drive and surmised that the ‘missing’ liver belonged to the Wildebeest that had been killed by the Lions (which they had seen on the night drive), and this was the same pride which had made a subsequent double kill of Buffalo cow and calf, and were thus too full to even start feeding on the Buffalo cow. Talk about making the most of things!
Moving on we had to sit in a small traffic jam as the Sweni Pride were camped in the road just over the Sweni Bridge, and their position meant that no cars could get past and we basically had to wait until they moved off. But as is the random nature of game viewing, this put us on schedule for a series of wonderful highlights further down the road.
Next up was a large male Leopard walking through an open area a little distance from the road. The beauty of this time of the year is that the areas which were burned during September were by now covered in a carpet of short green grass, which attracts many grazers and makes for excellent visibility. With good binocular views we followed him for a while and then realised he was heading towards another road running perpendicular to the road we were on, and so went up ahead to set up an intercept for closer views. Parking on the slope to allow for maximum visibility we sat and waited in line with his projected path, only to see him pop out a little distance ahead of us at the junction, the sneaky bugger! But he was in no rush and we eased down to get right up next to him as he marked his territory and ambled along on his morning patrol. More than chuffed, we set off after he disappeared into the bush, wondering what we would encounter next. Our thoughts didn’t have too much time to develop however as we came across a female Cheetah and two cubs lying in the road, with no other cars in sight. Soon after we stopped they moved off into some sparse scrub on our right, and a most comical scene unfolded. Mr. Black Backed Jackal came trotting down the road towards us, so nonchalantly that we could picture him whistling a merry tune as he went. This did not go unnoticed by the Cheetahs, and when they saw him veer off the road towards them they set up a 3-point ambush. Straight into the ambush the Jackal trotted, only to look up and see three Cheetahs converging on him at full speed. The cats were just toying with him however, and with his nonchalance gone and a carefree morning put right out of his mind he was last seen disappearing at high speed straight back down the road he had wandered up. And so enthralling was this experience that afterwards we all realised that we had completely forgotten to take photographs of the Jackal chase, instead just enjoying the scene through our binoculars and leaving it burned into our grey matter.
Next up was a lone Spotted Hyena and another Black-backed Jackal (partner of the victim of the Cheetah ‘attack’) scrapping over the remains of a Buffalo kill, with a Hooded Vulture looking on and the rest of the Buffalo herd grazing close by, unperturbed by the scavengers fighting over the remains of one of their brethren. By then it was time for coffee and breakfast at Tshokwane, and a chance to digest the three magical hours we had just experienced. Moving on we had a large White Rhino bull and a herd of Elephants having a bit of an altercation over the rights to a small pool of water, plus numerous other sights, scenes and sounds, before finally and somewhat unwillingly leaving the park via Phabeni Gate. Well, all good things must come to an end, and one thing is for sure: you can never get enough of the Kruger National Park!