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.
High up on Black Mountain in Lesotho a Basotho herdsman and his two hounds join us for lunch. Here, at over 3000 meters-above-sea-level, life for the Basotho herdsmen is tough. Anywhere else and I would have been adamant that we not throw our leftover food such as chicken bones and scraps out but rather take them with us to be disposed of properly. Here however it’s only right to throw them onto the ground, where a dog or even a Bearded Vulture can get a meal out of them. Even a single thigh bone is a bonus for this dog. The herdsman in the background received some of our leftover food. We are sure he was grateful, but there was almost no way to communicate with him. He spoke some dialect of Sotho, and even our guide, Malcolm Gemmel, who is fluent in Xhosa, could not understand a word he said. These men (there are almost no women up here) live under very basic conditions. Their attire comprises several blankets draped over the body, a balaclava, long socks and rubber gumboots, and that’s about it. How they survive the freezing winters up here is a mystery to me. They live in low stone houses with earth sod roofs – anything else will just get blown off in the gales that tear across the open ground. They make a living by tending herds of sheep and goats, which are usually owned by a ‘big boss’ from Mokhotlong, the nearest town some distance to the west. All in all it’s a very interesting trip up into the mountains of Lesotho. The birds are great (Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Bearded Vulture etc), the scenery is unbelievable and the cultural aspect is extremely interesting. Definitely worth a trip! Malcolm Gemmel of Button Birding (www.buttonbirding.com) does day trips up Sani Pass, while for extended birding trips which include Sani Pass contact Lawson’s (www.lawsons-africa.co.za).
See more photos on Flickr to the right.
Caribbean Estates Travel Guide: Photography, fishing, birding and other things to do.
Location: It’s not where you may think it is! Caribbean Estates is a time-share and residential estate on KwaZulu-Natal’s ‘South Coast’, which extends from Durban southwards to the Mthamvuna River, beyond which lies the ‘Wild Coast’ of the Eastern Cape / former Transkei. Caribbean Estates lies on the northern bank of the Mthamvuna River, opposite the Wild Coast Casino complex. Access is directly off the R61 to Bizana, a few kilometres south of the main traffic light as you go through Port Edward.
Co-ordinates: Latitude: 31° 4’33.20″S; Longitude: 30°11’50.03″E
The estate is designed with a ‘plantation’ style of architecture, and is as such an attractive and aesthetically pleasing development. The estate grounds include large patches of coastal forest, a habitat type which is pretty rare to the north where rampant urban development has taken place. The forest patches are home to a wide range of bird species, as well as small mammals such as Vervet Monkies and the diminutive Blue Duiker, an inhabitant of closed-canopy forests (see more under ‘Birds and Wildlife’). There are several small dams and canals winding through the estate, which attract a range of water birds such as ducks and herons. Please note that these are unfenced, as are the swimming pools, so keep an eye on young children as these constitute a drowning threat. The grounds are sandwiched between the coast on the eastern side, the Mthamvuna River to the south and the R 61 to Bizana to the west. Note that the chalets on the western side of the estate are very close to the road and the main bridge over the river, which generates high volumes of traffic noise. The chalets closer to the entrance gate are situated on a small dam, which attracts lots of ducks and geese as well as the many resident Peacocks.
There’s direct access to both the beach and the river from the estate, which is great for photographers, birders and anglers. The Sunrise Beach Trail, which leads one out onto the spectacular beach, has a gate which is closed after dark in the evenings and opens early enough so that you can get out onto the beach first thing in the morning. There is access to the river mouth itself via the Wagon Trail, and access to the river via the River Ramble and Tasselberry Lane. Bear in mind that there are security warnings at the access points to the beach warning you against visiting the beach alone, especially after dark, and thus it’s undertaken at your own risk. I spent a lot of time out there on my own, but did so with full awareness of the warnings and had no problems.
My main interest here were the seascapes, and I was pleased to find some fantastic rock formations on the northern end of the beach. My tactic involved a recce to the rocks on my first full day there, to scope out scenes and compositional elements. The following morning I headed down before sunrise for a photo session, but unfortunately the sky was overcast and the light flat and dull. Nevertheless this served as a good practice session, and the following morning the sunrise was good enough to get excited about. The previous morning’s session also proved to be invaluable in that I realised that the sun would rise over the rocks straight up the beach rather than straight out to sea where I had expected it to. This proved to be something of a compositional conundrum, in that most weathering lines and fractures in the rock are perpendicular to the coast, which creates pleasing lead-in lines to the colour and flare of the rising sun. With the sun rising straight up the beach most lines were thus cutting straight across the frame, making it difficult to find a really good spot from which to take photos. I tried various spots and eventually settled on two circular pools on a large, flat section of the rocks, with somewhat pleasing results despite the more cluttered skyline. I returned again after lunch to try and catch the high tide, which wasn’t really high enough to create the scenes I had hoped for. For the third time that day I returned in the late afternoon, which actually delivered some of the best results. So basically the rocks are a really nice photographic location, where one could spend a lot of time exploring different angles and compositions.
Putting the wide lens aside, the White-faced Ducks and Egyptian Geese which frequented the little dam in front of our chalet also provided some good photographic opportunities. They are quite tame, and allow fairly close approach if you move slowly and carefully. They spend a lot of time around the edge washing and bathing, which can make for some great photographic opportunities in the magic hour of the late afternoon. There are plenty of man-made structures around, so it’s not easy to get a wild-looking shot, and in some cases it just makes more sense to include the human element in the composition. Ditto with the Peacocks, such unbelievably striking birds as they are they just seem fake… If you have a long enough lens, i.e. 400 mm +, the pair of Malachite Kingfishers which hang out around the dam, feeding on the hordes of tiny Mosquito Fish, can provide some superb opportunities and a good close-up of this brilliant little bird is always a winner.
Speaking of the birds, Caribbean Estates offers some good birding opportunities. Of course birding is seasonal, so my time there is only a snapshot of one week in the year. April is not the best birding month on the calendar but I still managed to record 51 bird species for my SABAP 2 Atlas Project submission, which is not the biggest list ever but still O.K for a casual birding session. The three trails through the grounds take you through some nice coastal forest patches, which could be really productive in summer. Birds to look out for here include Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Olive Sunbird, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher, Red-capped Robin-Chat and so forth, while in early summer a nocturnal mission may produce Buff-spotted Flufftail. Early mornings are undoubtedly the best time to be out birding, and between the birding, fishing and photography your mornings are going to be the busiest part of your day! The beachfront and lagoon can also add to your bird list with some marine species such as African Black Oystercatcher, Kelp Gull, Swift Tern, White-breasted Cormorant and others, while a scope aimed out to see might turn up a Cape Gannet or White-chinned Peterel, with a bit of luck. Mammals in the grounds include Blue Duiker and Vervet Monkey. As always when monkeys are about, you need to keep an eye on them as they launch raiding sorties into the residential areas every now and then and certainly have a keen eye for bananas.
Caribbean Estates offer some great saltwater fly-fishing opportunities, though needless to say on my visit in April 2012 I did a lot of casting and not too much catching. The fly-fishing can be divided into surf and estuary. The surf can produce Pompano and Shad, the former with a Crazy Charlie pulled through the waves, the latter with anything that moves when they are ‘running’. Look for pockets and holes where the water is slightly deeper and if you can, work the rising tide.
The estuary mouth is also best fished on the cusp of high tide, or at least it was during our stay. On our first few days the wind was very strong, blowing first down the beach and then up the beach, making it almost impossible to fish the tide /river interface zone. Fortunately the dunes provided a gap in the wind so we could fish a bit further up river, but despite a lot of effort there were no rewards here. Once the wind dropped we were however able to fish where we wanted to, which was right where the mouth constricts as it empties out into the sea. At around the high tide period there was a clear division between the blue sea water rushing in and the brown river water coming down, and for a limited time period until about 45-minutes after high tide there was a lot of fish action here. Splashes and flying bait fish indicated predatory fish on the hunt, and eventually, after a lost fly and several takes, I managed to land two small Kingies. High tide is definitely the time to be out there, and all the better if it coincides with sunset or sunrise when the low-light conditions might just bring out the bigger fish. Given more time we may have had more rewards, but at least I could leave with two Shad and two Kingfish caught and released. If you are a bit tired of the salt then there are some good Bass dams in the area, such as at Clearwater Trails Centre not far away.