Unfortunately, with the current poaching epidemic, we can’t delve into too much detail regarding this magnificent sighting of two ‘Bhejane’ (pronounced ‘Bhe-jaan’), the Zulu name for this irascible critter. Suffice to say it was one of guide Leon’s best sightings ever, and certainly unexpected in the exact area it occurred. And of course, sadly, it was made all the more special when considering the plight of these creatures at the moment – current figures are roughly one killed every 8 hours somewhere in South Africa, all for the ‘traditional medicine’ trade in Asia, China and Vietnam specifically. Chilling stuff, and with this information creating a somewhat sombre mood for the clients at the time, despite the magnitude of the encounter, we pushed on to see what else the morning would bring us… Maybe see what you can do to help stop this slaughter.
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.
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
Nelspruit is our home town, nestled in the granite hills and koppies (rock outcrops) of eastern Mpumalanga Province. The area is somewhat affectionately known as the ‘Lowveld’, or ‘Low-lying fields’, though there’s not really a 100% accurate translation of the word ‘veld’ into English. This area is distinguished from the ‘Highveld’ above the escarpment to the west by its lower altitudes, varying from about 700 meters above sea level around Nelspruit to below 200 meters above sea level in parts of the nearby Kruger National Park. The region experiences warm to hot and humid summers, and cool to mild and dry winters. Nelspruit straddles the Nels and Crocodile Rivers, and is both an agricultural hub – the surrounding countryside lends itself well to citrus and nut production – and a service hub. In terms of services offered it draws people from southern Mozambique, Swaziland and other parts of Mpumalanga, and as such is a busy little city indeed. In fact, if you want to do well in life, become a medical specialist of some kind and settle in Nelspruit – your appointment book is bound to be booked up for months in advance. And being able to speak Portuguese will guarantee an even steadier inflow of clients…
Nelspruit is well situated as the gateway to some incredible parts of the country, such as the Kruger National Park, the Escarpment and Panorama Route, the trout country of Dullstroom, the beaches of southern Mozambique and even the charms of Swaziland. All of these destinations are between one and three hours drive from Nelspruit, making for plenty of available activities. Nelspruit is also a gem in its own right, sporting absolutely superb National Botanical Gardens, two local nature reserves, plenty of shopping for those so inclined, and also plenty of open space. In terms of size it’s deemed to be just right by many of the residents, as it’s big enough to have almost everything one would need in negotiating this modern lifestyle, but small enough to be able to get from one side to the other in less than 10 minutes, rush-hour notwithstanding. All in all it’s a wonderful place to live, and few are those who would rue the move to Nelspruit from other parts of the country (and especially the ‘big smoke’ of Gauteng).
So there you have it, Nelspruit in a nutshell, and we hope to see you in our little city sometime soon.
Note that Nelspruit is supposedly called Mbombela now.
Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mk 11.
Lens: Canon EF 17-40 mm f/4L USM.
A blend of two bracketed images to bring out the best of the lights and darks.
Location: Augusta Street Reservoir area.
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.