It seems like I do these blogs in spurts. I hadn’t done one for ages and now there are two in quick succession. I actually wasn’t going to blog about our recent few days in the Lowveld but I decided that there were too many things to reminisce about so I might as well put it down in writing.
The reason for the trip was a celebration of my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday. She picked the Lowveld as her venue of choice so we were all very happy to oblige and join her. Unfortunately, I could not join for the first phase of the trip as I was wrapping up a few deadline commitments at the office, but I was very happy to be spending at least 5 days in the bush with the family.
We had our share of drama along the way with Jean and I both losing our driver’s licences that created an untold amount of admin with car rental and flight boardings. We also misjudged the time getting back to the airport from Hoedspruit and it meant a rather focused direct route over more potholes than I have ever seen before and, in so doing, our trailer’s suspension seemed to fall apart. We winced at every bump and dip in the road as the trailer bounced and thudded behind us. Ultimately we made it with plenty of time to spare, but not without a few thoughts about spending another night away from home.
It is also always very interesting to throw three sisters, their husbands, a mother-in-law and nine cousins together for a week and see what that melting pot creates. I would be lying if I said it was all plain sailing. We have a crazy family but I don’t think we are unique in that sense.
With all that behind us I can focus on a few of the highlights of our trip. We spent four nights at the Kruger Park Lodge in Hazyview and used it for a base to explore the southern part of the park as well as to take the kids to the Blyde River Canyon. We were also extremely fortunate to be treated to a night at Thornybush Game Lodge through a contact of my sister-in-law’s. It was our last night out and it was a very privileged and special way to end the trip.
The forays into the park were focused on spotting some game for the kids so birding stops were relatively limited. There were a few birds to photograph but they were mostly the big ones!
Believe it or not there were also one or two photos taken of mammals and reptiles.
I wasn’t complaining about birding at Kruger Park Lodge, though, as I spent every afternoon walking around the golf course feasting on fantastic photographic opportunities with some of the habituated resident birds.
I have never been disappointed with the birding opportunities on golf courses around the country and this one was no exception.
There was plenty of common stuff but there was the fair share of special birds as well. The first surprise for me was the huge number of Grey-rumped Swallows flying over the fairways. I learnt something new about these birds – they are apparently more abundant during winter in South Africa and abundant they were. I spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to photograph them and still managed to fail in getting a decent shot.
I was even handed an opportunity on a golden platter as I noticed one of the birds land on the ground and completely disappear. Knowing that birds do not have David Copperfield-like abilities I discovered that it had been swallowed up by a small nesting hole on the hard ground (no pun intended). I decided that what goes in must come out, so I positioned myself near the hole and waited for it to come out. Despite three bites at the swallow-like cherry I didn’t get one decent image in the fading afternoon light. At least I was able to get a shot of the nest…
Another very special bird we managed to find was a Brown-backed Honeybird. I am not sure if this bird is becoming more common in Southern Africa or are we just getting better at identifying it. I waited about 25 years to find my first one and since then they seem to pop up all over the place. This one also seemed to appear out of nowhere but unlike most sighting of this bird that have been pretty brief and substandard, this viewing couldn’t have been more relaxed. Whilst we stood and watched, it worked its way around an entire acacia tree, occasionally stopping at a particular spot and hammering away at the bark picking up insects and grubs along the way. The angle for a pic was a little awkward but it was a far side better than any previous sighting I had had before.
But, for me, the best bird of Kruger Park Lodge was a twifer for me. Lifers are obviously first time sightings whilst twifers are second time sightings (I say “obviously” but have to acknowledge that that is a bit of birding jargon made up by my good mate, Lombie). Anyway, the entire family was busy cooking a hearty breakfast and I was doing what I do so well, which is avoiding chores by disappearing for a spot of birding. After a few minutes I noticed a flock of Mannikins fly up from a small reed-fringed pan. The lodge was positively packed with Bronze Mannikins so I almost didn’t give these a second look but they just seemed a little bigger than the Bronze version. So,when my bins got onto them it was pretty bleeding obvious that these were Magpie Mannikins. This was another bird that had taken me forever to see until my trip to the Honde Valley last year where they were pretty easy to find, but seeing them here in the Lowveld was very special. I quickly called the boys and we were fortunate to spend a few minutes taking a few pics. My photos were terrible so I have taken the liberty of using one of Tommy’s pics which was far better than any of mine.
When submitting my atlas card for the Hazyview pentad I did note that there was a 10% reporting rate for the Magpie Mannikins so I realized that were not actually as special as I had originally thought. Anyway, it was a full lifer for both Tommy and Adam so they were pretty delighted.
Speaking of lifers, this was a pretty momentous trip for Adam. Tommy reached his 500th bird about two and a half years ago with a White-winged Widowbird at the age of 8 years and about 150 days. Although Adam is probably not as competitive as Tommy he still had harboured thoughts of reaching his 500th bird at a younger age than Tommy. That ship sailed for Adam in about March this year but it did not stop him on his quest for 500. He was more determined than ever.
At their relatively young age I do quite a lot of their list maintenance for them making sure that dodgy ticks don’t make their way onto their lists and also to help them along in keeping track of where they are. I had a feeling that this could be the trip for him to reach his important milestone but since he had visited the Kruger on a few occasions in the past it was not going to be easy. When I arrived to join the family I decided to look over his list from their first few days in the area. He had amassed a list of 72 species but there were no lifers on his list yet. Having looked at his list he was on 495 and we would have some work to do. The Grey-rumped Swallows were number 496, an African Openbill at Sunset Dam near Lower Sabie was 497, a Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird in some acacias near our bungalow at Kruger Park Lodge was number 498 and the Magpie Mannikins were 499. We were so very close.
We picked one morning to head in the opposite direction of the park and visit the Blyde River Canyon and its numerous touristy spots. Visiting such different habitat gave me hope that this could be it. I even knew exactly which bird it was most likely to be.
God’s Window was spectacular but pretty birdless. We would barely add any species here let alone a lifer for Adam. The next proposed stop was supposed to be Bourke’s Luck Potholes, but, on arrival, we were turned away by a solid iron gate, behind which was the remains of the tourist centre, either burnt to the ground by a fire or torn to pieces by looting locals. Perhaps a combination of both? It was a disappointing sight bearing in mind the lengthy geological history of the potholes that I had given the family in the car on the way there.
Our last remaining stop was the Three Rondavels viewpoint which would be our last stop on our day trip. We got there and set about doing the touristy thing by visiting the escarpment edge and taking in the magnificent views.
This site also seemed sadly run-down but nothing had changed the beauty of the views. It was also pretty birdless here and we were about to head back to the car when Adam spotted a bird bounding over the rocks. It took me a split second to know that this was number 500. It was exactly the bird I had expected to fill that spot on Adam’s list – a Mocking Cliff-chat. So much the better that he was the one to spot it. As is typical with these wonderful birds it gave us some amazing viewing and photographic opportunities and we had a few celebrations at the edge of the world. A great achievement by Adam. He was still some way behind his brother but time may heal that.
We were to add one other species to Adam’s list before we had to put the pencil away. This one was a special one for me too as it represented a photographic lifer.
On our final morning of the trip we were woken up at Thornybush at 5:30 by the rangers to get ready for our 6am game drive departure. It was still virtually the middle of the night and it did not surprise me to hear the distinctive deep pulsing whistle of an African Barred Owlet. Even better was the fact that the call was coming from just outside our bungalow. I didn’t hesitate for a second. I grabbed my camera, a useless head torch and ran into the kids’ room and called Tommy and Adam. This would be a lifer for both of them. We rushed outside and with a bit of scanning in the branches of the trees we managed to find the plump little thing sitting on a branch no more than 6 or 7 metres away. It was a good thing too as my torch was barely good enough for braaiing, never mind owl-spotting. There was no danger of causing any retinal damage to this beautiful creature. So bad was the lighting on the owlet that my camera couldn’t even auto-focus in the darkness and it required a steady hand and manual focus to try get a few shots. It seems as if trial and error seems to work with such obliging subjects as I would focus as carefully as I could given the poor light conditions, take a pic, review it and see it was a fraction out of focus and then turn the barrel a little further and repeat the process all over again. After 10 or 11 shots I eventually got a decent one.
Another comment to make regarding this little episode was the fact that this was the second time I had been caught prowling the darkness wearing nothing but my sleep shorts trying to get a photograph of an owl. About 7 or 8 years ago I was in the same uncompromising position trying to get a photo of an African Wood-owl in Newlands. At least there was no ADT Security patrol at Thornybush to question my motives whilst holding a torch, a pair of binoculars and a telephoto lens in the middle of the night.
Moving a little away from birding for a bit, I would have to acknowledge that I am not hugely into my mammals. I have a well documented life long passion for birds and a healthy novice interest in reptiles and frogs but when it comes to mammals I have not really embraced them. I learnt a few years ago that of the 5500 odd species of mammals on the planet, about 2400 are rodents and 1250 are bats, both of which are pretty hard to get any view of. That reduces the universe considerably. What’s the point of looking for stuff when you have to exclude two thirds of the available species? Having said that, though, one of my all time favourite animals in the world is a leopard.
Having missed the awesome sighting the family had a few days before I joined them, I was even more determined that our time spent at Thornybush would produce one of these spectacular cats. After all, that’s what these places do – they find the big cats (often at the expense of most other interesting things). On arrival at Thornybush I imposed my will on our ranger, Jacques, and expressed my absolute requirement to see a leopard. I told him we had seen all the birds we needed to and we needed to be single-minded about our quest. Well, he took that literally and worked exceptionally hard to oblige. It wasn’t more than an hour into our game drive when he and his tracker, Moses, managed to find the female leopard that had been seen a few times in the previous few days. We spent an amazing half an hour following her through the bush and despite the density of the thornveld I still managed to capture a few decent photos of her. It was pretty special.
Our final game drive of the trip was in pretty chilly conditions as the cold front that had dumped snow on most of the Western Cape mountains started rolling in and just about everything was lying low, besides 2 young male and 2 young female lions who were on the move. Another cat that I was pleased to photograph.
Our time at Thornybush had been brief but we had been pampered very nicely and all that was left was the hair-raising drive back to Jo’burg to catch our 5pm flight back to Cape Town. We all made it in one piece despite the dodgy suspension of the trailer, the worst road known to mankind and a very tight time schedule that barely allowed for a wee stop for the kids.
Our time in the bush was such a great break away after a very stressful time at work. We celebrated two big milestones – Goggo Annetjie’s 70th birthday and Adam’s 500th bird.