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…
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.
The Sweni River is more of a seasonal creek than a traditional river. It rises in the west of the Kruger National Park and flows almost due east to join the Makongolweni River (another seasonal creek) close to the eastern border, where it turns due north and joins up with the N’wanetsi, yet another seasonal creek, before flowing through the Lebombo Mountains in a rugged gorge and out into the flat lands of Mozambique. Most of the time the Sweni consists of a river of dry sand interspersed with a few deep pools, some of which can last through the dry season. Occasional heavy rains turn these seasonal creeks into raging torrents, the evidence of which remains for years in flood debris stranded high up in trees lining the banks. In dry times however the deep, semi-permanent pools are a haven for birds and animals and attract a steady stream of visitors through the day and night. Overlooking one such pool close to the junction with the N’wanetsi, the Sweni Bird Hide can provide some fantastic wildlife viewing and is definitely worth a few hours, especially for the avid photographer. I usually visit the hide in the mid-morning, as the day begins to heat up. Recommended gear includes a bean bag support, a long lens to capture the action on the far bank, and perhaps a second body with a wider lens to capture more of the scenery and context. Birds such as Yellow-billed Storks, African Openbills, Green-backed, Grey and Goliath Herons, Blacksmith Lapwing, Pied and Giant Kingfishers will provide plenty of opportunity, with lots of scope for some awesome in-flight shots. On my last visit there I was in-tune with animal behaviour enough to spot a golden opportunity when an African Fish-Eagle appeared high in the sky overhead. Realising that is would probably put to flight the twenty or so Yellow-billed Storks which were resting on the sand bank opposite the hide, I told my photographic safari clients to get ready for some action, and sure enough the twenty large white birds took to flight suddenly and flew straight towards us and up and over the hide. After the Fish-Eagle had moved on they came back to roost on the sandbank, and I captured this shot with a herd of Elephants drinking in the background. Needless to say this session in Sweni Bird Hide was one of the highlights of the safari, and kicked off a day which saw one of my clients taking around 80GB worth of images! Now that’s a few images to sort through! Check out the Flickr album for more shots.