After a week or two’s hiatus from any birding activities whatsoever, this last weekend was a real return to some intensive lifer-searching for the Buckham boys. We were fortunate enough to have one or two days off to visit the Kruger National Park with my parents and my in-laws (most of them read this blog so it is hard to refer to them as the “outlaws”) so despite the relatively “birding-quiet” time of year we were cautiously optimistic about adding a significant bulk to Tommy’s list. Adam had also started to obsess about his list so we were constantly reminded during the weekend what number “lifer” we were on. At around 50 or so I think we all lost count and by the time we were done we had filled numerous pieces of paper with his ever-mounting list of additions.
We had a relatively late change to the “guest” complement for the weekend. When my parents originally booked the accommodation at Skukuza, our family size was well entrenched at the 5 of us (Jean, myself, Tommy, Adam and Jack) but during the intervening period our “circumstances” had unexpectedly changed a little. We found out a few months ago that we would be adding another child to our family (it is a good thing we have announced this little “surprise” to most of our friends and family as if you hadn’t already heard this news you would most likely be spilling your coffee on your computer keyboard right about now – yes, we’re a little crazy to be having four children but we find that our lives are not chaotic enough and so let’s add a little more). So, the long and the short of it is that Jean and my youngest child, Jack (soon to be second youngest), decided to avoid any malaria risk and stayed behind in Jo’burg. As my good friend Bruce said: “if Jean and Jack are being left behind, there is going to be a lot of birding”.
And so there was.
We left Cape Town on Wednesday afternoon, had a layover in Jo’burg and left at the crack of dawn on Thursday. We were a little unlucky in that our arrival in Jo’burg coincided with winter’s first sizable cold front and Thursday morning was a bit of a shock to the system for us Capetonians. It was pretty cold. I was nervous that the cold weather would stretch it’s icy blasts as far afield as the Lowveld but amazingly we were hardly hindered by any cold weather in the Park. In fact, the conditions at this time of the year were perfect with the lack of migrants being compensated for by far longer birding days with temperatures being bearable throughout the day allowing for us to utilize every second we had.
After a comfortable drive down the escarpment and then through Nelspruit, we arrived at the entrance to the Park at Paul Kruger gate. One wonders whether the name of the gate will ever be changed to something more consistent with the continual sweep of “out with the old, in with the new” but I suspect that one of the reasons we’ll always have the Paul Kruger gate is the fact that they will never be able to move the enormous bust of the man even if they wanted to – it has stood proudly for decades and I suspect it is going to be pretty entrenched for centuries to come (I should have a photo of this national landmark but excitement levels were too high to pause to take a photo of “Oom Paul”).
The crossing of the Sabie River marked the start to the birding and the lifers for Tommy and Adam came thick and fast. I think we had reached double figures before 10 minutes were up with some pretty ordinary birds like Wire-tailed Swallow, Grey Go-away Bird, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill and Bateleur but bearing in mind that our birding has been almost exclusively Cape-based explains the absence of these bushveld birds on Tommy’s and Adam’s lists.
We were solely based at Skukuza having secured the ABSA guest house as our accommodation for three nights and this proved extremely comfortable and convenient for our rather large group (we numbered 11 people in total with 6 adults and 5 children). The guest house was clearly built quite some time ago with the face-brick facade harking back to days gone by and clearly lower levels of focus on architectural enlightenment. Not one of the 6 bedrooms had a view of anything other than a face-brick wall which really does seem a pity bearing in mind the majesty of the riparian wilderness that lies no less than 20 metres away alongside the Sabie River. The dining area and kitchen makes a valiant attempt at getting closer to the river view but it still requires a little neck-craning to see anything other than a few more face-brick clad pillars. Clearly load bearing technology didn’t exist in those days, nor did plaster (yes, I have a small issue about face-brick).
Anyway, you didn’t come to this blog to read about my pet architectural dislikes. You presumably clicked on the link to read about birds (although some of my recent blogs may have given a different impression).
So, let’s talk about some of the birds.
My general avoidance of laundry lists makes this blog quite tricky as we did see a lot of good birds. Being close to mid-winter meant bird numbers were down but I was quite pleased with our total list of 120 species for the two and a half days out. We even managed one or two migrants which was a little unusual. Scanning my list points at 4 migrant birds in total including White-throated and Lesser-striped Swallows, Little Swift and most exciting of the lot, Osprey. The Osprey was a moment of impressive identification by Tommy. We had settled down for a sandwich at the Lower Sabie restaurant deck when Tommy announced the arrival of a raptor in his typical “top of his lungs” way. I glanced across the river and at a distance of over 150 meters I noted a raptor alighting a tree. Immediately Tommy told me it was an Osprey. I dismissed this out of hand due to time of year and relative scarcity but after several painstaking minutes of squinting through my bins into the afternoon sun and several identification-aiding photographs did I concede that Tommy was indeed correct right up front.
Our general birding pattern consisted of slow drives along the Sabie River with plenty of stops along the way whilst the non-birding vehicle took the more direct route from point to point. The non-birding group consisted (among others) of my 2 year old nephew and his bird-allergic mother so it made a lot of sense for them to be separated from us for a few hours at a time whilst we got our fix on some bushveld birds. We also paid a visit to Lake Panic bird hide which had come highly recommended but it turned out to be a little disappointing from a birding and photography perspective. I found it to be far too crowded for a peaceful stint of photography whilst we were also a little unlucky with the birds that presented themselves in front of us. The true sign of how quiet it was came from one of the regulars who commented that in all their visits to Lake Panic this was the worst they had ever seen it. Not exactly awe inspiring stuff. The most impressive aspect of the hide was the close proximity of the hippos that slowly cruised directly in front of the hide snorting water in fine plumes of spray in the late afternoon light.
Another recommendation from fellow birders was to pay a visit to the Skukuza Golf Club. This we did on two separate occasions, both during the late afternoon hours when the setting sun provided beautiful light conditions for photography. Much of the birdlife is habituated and there was no reason to be in a hide to get within a few meters of many of the waterside birds. Certainly better conditions to what we had experienced at Lake Panic. The adjoining nursery provided a setting for a lovely late afternoon walk but the activity was well down and I suspect we missed the best time of the day as well as the best time of year to make the most of this.
Strangely enough one of the true highlights of the weekend was not a bird at all but rather a mammal. On two separate occasions at two separate bridges we had exceptional views of a number of Cape Clawless Otters. As a youngster I visited the Park many, many times and not once do I remember seeing an otter. We had great views of one individual frolicking in the fast flowing river seemingly competing with a substantially more voluminous hippo for some river space.
The Kruger Park is a wonderful place and, as South Africans, we are truly fortunate to have access to a place like it. The great thing about Kruger is that it caters for all needs. The cat hunters are out in force and it is always amusing seeing reactions of other people to our constantly stationary vehicle. We have neglected to make the appropriate sign to paste on the back window reading “Birding, please pass” so we get a lot of enquiries as to what creature we are looking at. My dad is a bit naughty and he likes to have a bit of fun. Instead of saying “just looking at birds” he will throw something out like “it’s a Green-backed Camaroptera” which has them looking completely confused and none the wiser as to whether we are looking at anything worthwhile. We have had our fair share of fortune in year’s gone by as a result of stopping more frequently for birds. Many, many years ago whilst I was still a schoolboy we had stopped at a lay-bye near Letaba to look at a Saddle-billed Stork. Whilst watching the stork we heard an ear splitting screech and in a cloud of dust the stork took to the air and was replaced by a leopard in hot pursuit of a warthog. The kill took place right in front of our eyes – something we would never have seen had we dismissed the stork as being just a bird.
I suppose there are some downsides to Kruger. The traffic volumes can be pretty intense particularly on the main drag between Skukuza and Lower Sabie which must be the busiest road in the park. On our last evening we found ourselves on this stretch shortly before closing time. My father has this theory that one should always time the arrival at the gate to be 15 minutes before it actually closes to give oneself time for that “leopard that crosses the road in front of the car”. Any leopard crossing the road on this particular evening would have been flattened by the stream of traffic but dinkum we came round a corner with 20 minutes before closing time and 4 or 5 kilometers to go and we were confronted by a wall of car lights with lots of jostling for position – we were going to need our time buffer. We had just seen a single female lion alongside the river bed but this was likely to be something more significant. As predicted, it was a leopard no more than 10 meters from the road well ensconced in a pretty impenetrable thicket causing a lot of anxiety amongst the 20 cars that were trying to get a view. We squeezed past the traffic and, in the gloom, managed a glimpse of the animal before it got up and slowly slinked even deeper into the bush. Unfortunately the non-birding vehicle was about 5 minutes behind us and missed the show. My father’s theory seemed to be proved right.
Another downside to Kruger is that no matter how long you spend in the Park you will always feel that the time goes too quickly. We only had two and a half days and the time certainly raced by. With such a short time available we yet again tested Tommy’s longevity. I always knew that Adam was going to need his day-time sleep and that his attention span at his age was going to wane on several occasions but I was amazed at how Tommy lasted. On our last day in the Park we literally birded from dawn to dusk with virtually no breaks other than to eat (which we did a lot of thanks to the supreme catering skills of my mother, mother-in-law and sister-in-law) and to catch the last 15 minutes of the Stormers victory against the Brumbies. On that note, I was amazed at the access we had to DSTV whilst there but what was even more amazing was noticing the portable satellite dishes that are erected outside the caravans and tents in the campsite. What is the world coming to when a few days in the Park cannot be tolerated without TV (perhaps our camping travails would be eased if I erected a satellite dish outside our tent on our camping weekends!)
The drive back to Jo’burg gave us all an opportunity for regrouping and doing the list tallies as well as trawling through hundreds of pictures on my camera’s LCD screen to avoid too much sifting when getting back home. The one photo shocked me a little and also cast some doubt on my birding skills. Yet again I am not sure why I make this known on a public website as there are some people out there who think that I know what I am doing most of the time and this cannot be good for my reputation.
Anyway, here goes.
During the quiet mid-morning hours on our way to Lower Sabie Tommy (who else) spotted some distant soaring raptors. We were not allowed to leave any raptor unidentified lest it be a lifer and knowing full well that the boys needed most of the vultures I made sure I made every effort to identify these four soaring birds. I had found my camera to be an amazing ID tool (refer to the Osprey section of the blog), particularly for distant raptors so I fired off a few shots which I hoped would give me enough to pin the ID (I can hear the purists tut-tutting about the ticking standards we employ with the kids’ lists but it would curb their enthusiasm denying them a tick so I say “what the hell”). With impatience running high in the car waiting for my verdict I hazarded a guess at Hooded Vultures before looking at the pic. Knowing their relative abundance in comparison to White-headed and Lappet-faced I felt it was a good guess. The wedge-shaped tail seen clearly on the LCD screen moments later confirmed my suspicions and I confidently told the boys that they could add it to their life lists. No further thought was given to this trigger happy ID until the drive back. I zoomed in on the photo to decide whether I should keep it or not (it was a pretty miserable distant shot) when I was appalled to see my error. Staring me in the face was the clear two-toned blue and red bill of a White-headed Vulture. The bill shape was also completely wrong for Hooded. The only way to recover my popularity as “dad of the year” was to offer Tommy an additional lifer if he could ID the pic correctly. In no time at all we had an extra lifer for their lists. The real upside of the whole story (I’m clutching at straws as my birding credibility seems to have taken a bit of a knock) was that we had subsequent close-up views of a pair of Hooded Vultures so we got 2 for the price of one.
All too soon we were back in Jo’burg but the birding never stops. Tommy added one more bird to his list with a roadside African Wattled Lapwing. There was no time to stop though (lest we get swamped by more window-washing street vendors) so unfortunately Adam had to go without.
Having put down lots of words here are some pics of some additional birds we had on the trip:
It was a fantastic few days away and gave the boys their first Kruger experience which should feature on all families’ bucket list. It was, however, not a once off as we shall certainly return many more times in the future.