After a week spent in freezing cold Dublin for work, our long-planned trip to the Kruger Park was a very welcome change. Well, maybe it wasn’t necessary to take it from one temperature extreme to the other but at least there were plenty of birds to be seen in the Park.
As was the case 2 years ago I was asked by the West Rand Honorary Rangers to assist with their annual birding and fund raising weekend in the Kruger Park. The fund raising activities span over a three week period and consist of an intense weekend of birding madness for anyone that can handle the pace. They are obviously short of guides as I manage to get an invite to assist each year when considering that the bushveld is a little far removed from my home patch. There is often a distinct possibility that a few of the participants will know more than me and will put me to shame when I get some call ID completely wrong. Having said that, I am always extremely grateful for the invite and this year I again jumped at the opportunity to help out.
I was asked to assist at Shingwedzi this time around (two years ago it was Punda Maria) and I decided it was also a good opportunity to spend a bit more time in the Park compared to two years ago when I probably spent more time travelling there and back than actually birding. To really spoil myself I booked two extra nights at Pafuri Camp in the far northern part of the park where I hoped to add one or two birds to my list.
I also decided that this trip was a good opportunity to reunite the team from the Golden Pipit twitch. I had one small addition in mind – this time my second son, Adam, would be joining my father, Tommy and I on his first “big boy” birding trip. It would entail long days with early starts and late finishes but there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to leave him behind this time around.
Tommy and Adam
When the time gets close to departure there are always a few hurdles to clear. The most significant of these are always the multitude of instructions from Jeanie:
Make sure you put suntan cream on the boys at least 3 times a day; ensure they have a decent daytime sleep; apply liberal amounts of tabard; make sure they take their malanil; watch that they do their homework; don’t let them go to bed without a good shower and toothbrushing and don’t let them leave the room in the morning unless they are wearing pants and shirts that match.
The list is exhausting but very well meaning, and sunburnt, poorly educated, smelly, Malari-infested kids with clashing fashion-sense would be the fastest way of ensuring that my birding trips would be curtailed for a very long time.
Well, we eventually arrived in Shingwedzi on a sweltering Friday afternoon just in time for the pre game drive briefing and it would take considerable adjustment to the extreme weather. I am probably prone to exaggeration when writing these blogs just to make them sound better but I have seldom endured more uncomfortable heat. Our first two days were dominated by temperatures reaching 43 degrees with equally uncomfortable humidity. It doesn’t usually take a lot to make me sweat (walking up the stairs to my desk at work has been known to push a bead or two) so I spent those first two days in a state of constant dampness. Even swimming at the Shingwedzi pool took little edge off the heat and each time we had walked back to our bungalow after our swim it felt as though there was not much point in having gone all the way there in the first place.
Despite the heat I was in “working” mode so I would have to “suck it up” and be on my best behavior.
The area around Shingwedzi is dominated by medium sized Mopane woodland with the Shingwedzi River adding quite a bit of variety. The Mopane is traditionally a little lifeless in terms of bird life but the river edges make up for it in a big way.
Early morning tea
Significantly, summer time in the Kruger Park is an amazing time for the migrant birds and the colourful species make the most appealing photographs. Southern Carmine Bee-eaters are abundant along with European and White-fronted Bee-eaters. The Kingfishers are another colourful group and we had good sightings of 6 species.
Southern Carmine Bee-eater
The rollers, bee-eaters and kingfishers take pride of place when it comes to sheer beauty but there were plenty of good bush birds to look at as well. Migrant warblers were few and far between but I did manage a pretty poor record shot of an Olive-tree Warbler, whilst some of the acacia specialists were far more confiding.
The best warbler of the lot was a very “perchy” Stierling’s Wren-warbler which we found in the tall Mopane woodland north of the Levuvhu River. This bird is surprisingly common in the area as its telephone-like call reverberates through the woodland all the time but getting a decent pic requires a little more effort.
The larger birds are hard to miss and form the easiest group to show to fledgling birders like Adam. The storks are always a winner, particularly the stunning Saddle-billed (contrasted with the rather unfortunate looking Marabou) but the number one bird on Adam’s list was Southern Ground Hornbill. Tommy and I saw a small group of these on one of our drives near Shingwedzi (which Adam had missed) so it was a great relief when we stumbled onto another small family group in the grasslands north of Shingwedzi. It remained as Adam’s favourite bird of the trip.
Saddle-billed Stork – female
Saddle-billed Stork – male
Southern Ground Hornbill
Southern Ground Hornbill – juvenile
The raptors naturally take pride of place on any Kruger trip. They are big, impressive and there are plenty of them. We saw a huge number of raptors which was contrary to some comments I had been hearing from other birders in the park. Not only was there an abundance of birds but there was a huge variety of them. There were eagles, buzzards, vultures, harriers, falcons, kestrels and goshawks all over the place. The most exciting of the lot was a single female Red-footed Falcon which flew over our heads near Bateleur camp to the south west of Shingwedzi. From what I have heard this bird is a very rare visitor to the park and I am grateful that I got a pic of it (as poor as it may be) to prove the sighting.
Lesser Spotted Eagle
We also had a moment of excitement with a largish falcon that flew languidly over our heads one evening. The light was terrible but I still decided to take some pics of the bird hoping I would get some features to make an ID possible at a later stage. I ruled out most of the smaller falcons due to its flight habits and also ruled out Peregrine due to the length of the wings. My dominant thought was that this bird could be an Eleonora’s Falcon which would obviously constitute a pretty outlandish record. At the time not much else came to mind. The pic has done the rounds a little with some of our local experts but the dominant opinion is that it is a European Hobby. There have been some disparaging remarks about the quality of the pic but I am certainly not sensitive about that as it is truly terrible. I have included the best of the lot here with a considerable disclaimer about the quality but there may be some people out there that have an opinion which I would be grateful to hear.
One of my favourite groups of birds are the cuckoos but having not spent too much time in the bushveld in summer time I had not had that much opportunity to get too many of them in a photograph. This time in the park was far from disappointing. In all we saw 7 species of migrant cuckoo (African, Common, Red-chested, Diederik, Jacobin, Levaillant’s and Great-spotted) with two additional heard only (Klaas’s and Thick-billed).
Great Spotted Cuckoo
The “heard” Thick-billed was particularly painful as I had targeted this bird for my list on this trip. I had never seen one before and Pafuri was a great opportunity to catch up with this bird. On our second last day we were rumbling through some mature Mopane woodland on our way to the Limpopo floodplain when we stopped to try and relocate a Greyheaded Kingfisher that had darted in front of the vehicle. Whilst we were peering through the leaves a cuckoo flew overhead with only Tommy getting any view at all. It turned out to be the Thick-billed Cuckoo identified as it called overhead. It then landed a short distance away and continued calling. It was close but not close enough for any kind of response and after 20 minutes of chasing a mystical fairy we had to give it up. It teased us a few more times but in the outer extremities of our hearing ability and we had to pack it in.
Since I am on the theme of painful experiences I have a story to tell about something a little worse than missing the cuckoo. Our first evening ended at 11pm after our evening night drive which yielded a few owls and nightjars.
There is always a little pressure to get some sleep before the very early 4am start for the main day of birding on the Saturday. I got back to the room at around 11:15 (having left the three other “boys” back at camp during the night drive to make sure they had enough strength for Saturday’s intensity) and climbed into bed looking forward to my 4 hours of sleep. I had just fallen into a deep slumber when I woke up with a searing pain in my right hand going into my fingers and lower arm. It felt like severe pins and needles and my immediate thought was a spider bite. I jumped out of bed and turned on the light. There scuttling on my pillow was a scorpion that had obviously been disturbed by my movement and had stung me on the hand.
Now, I have some ability to identify birds but scorpions are a different story. I had absolutely no idea what species this was and I didn’t have a good feel for the relative size of its pincers and tail. I have subsequently learnt that the old adage that big pincers and small tail means you can relax whilst small pincers and large tail requires far more attention.
This one looked to me like something to worry about. The pain was getting worse and I wasn’t sure how worried I needed to be. The only thing I could think of was to wake my father and make sure there was someone on hand to be available in case it got serious. I also decided it would be a good idea to catch the offending animal in case it needed to be identified at a later stage. Identification wasn’t the only motivating force here – I wasn’t likely to be able to sleep knowing that there was a rampant scorpion on the loose. Fortunately the boys were both sleeping in my father’s room so at least I didn’t need to worry about them.
It was surprisingly easy to catch with a glass and saucer but it was pretty frightening to see this angry little creature running around inside the glass with its tail raised, ready to inject more poison.
As it turned out the pain remained very localized and I never had any symptoms of headache and respiratory problems. The pain did mean that I had very little sleep which meant a slightly grumpy guide for the birding excursion.
It turns out the scorpion was a Eplectes Vittatus which is commonly found in wood piles and is the most likely culprit for human bites as wood is collected for fires. I was not quite sure what it was doing sharing my pillow but at least I was able to eliminate some of the severely poisonous Parabuthus species and relax for the rest of the weekend. The pain lasted for a while but it was nowhere near bad enough to stop me doing any birding!
The birding weekend with the honorary rangers was seemingly enjoyed by all and the heat eventually broke on the Saturday night as we were enjoying our final dinner with a massive thunderstorm. The bolts of lightning that preceded the actual rainfall were enough to put our final swim on hold.
The next morning we had an early start and made our way north to Pafuri. We passed through the grasslands north of Shingwedzi providing some welcome relief from the monotone of the Mopane. The birding became a lot more prolific in the grasslands with the early morning air dominated by another form of monotony – Monotonous Lark.
Lesser Grey Shrike
A ghostly Pallid Harrier was a true highlight and created a lot of excitement in the car as it wafted through the stunted trees and lush grassland. I was very excited to see this bird for only the third time in my life but deep down I was a little disappointed as I still need the similarly plumaged Montagu’s Harrier for my list.
Our only main stop on the drive north was for a recently discovered breeding pair of Senegal Coucals near the junction between the Punda Maria gate and the main north-south road. This extremely rare South African bird was found breeding next to the road by Tertius Gous a few weeks back. Using some pinpoint directions and a few decent tips on the call from fellow birders we were able to find a single bird in the grassland. The distinctively different call meant we did not even have to check the barring on the tail to separate it from the common Burchell’s Coucal. It even posed relatively nicely for some photos.
We arrived at Pafuri Camp during the heat of the day and a very welcome oasis it was. Pafuri Camp lies on the northern bank of the Levuvhu River in a section of the park that is run as a private concession. The Levuvhu vallley is traditionally considered the most prolific birding locality in the park with many species only just extending their range into South Africa.
The reason for the diversity and volume of species is due to the broad range of habitats that are found in a relatively small area. The dominant feature is the sluggish Levuvhu River that meanders from west to east towards the confluence with the Limpopo River at Crook’s Corner. The usually gentle stream was transformed into a raging torrent at midday on our second day there as the rain came down in abundance. The boys were delighted to have a chance to run around in the rain with their father’s blessing.
Flooding Levuvhu River
The river is flanked by tall riparian vegetation with figs, large acacias and fever trees giving plenty of perching sites for the area’s most sought after bird – Pel’s Fishing Owl. Pel’s is probably in the top 3 of most Southern African birder’s wish lists and the reason is split quite evenly between its relative scarcity and elusiveness and its sheer impressive beauty. We would target this bird but not as much as I would be targeting one of my all-time most wanted species – Three-banded Courser. This is a bird relatively easily found in dry woodland and scrub in Zimbabwe but the Pafuri area also has a reasonable density of these birds. It is a cryptic and crepuscular bird (most active at dusk) and having spent very little time in the right areas at the right time it was still a gaping void on my list.
Away from the river the vegetation consists of mixed woodland and tall Mopane which is certainly more productive and attractive than the stunted Mopane veld further south close to Shingwedzi. There are still regular sightings of Racket-tailed Roller in this area which is pretty close to one of the best birds of the area. Incidentally we would not see this bird despite a rather thorough search but it wasn’t a high priority as it was already on my Kruger list from about 20 years ago in the woodland closer to Punda Maria.
Tall Mopane woodland
Yet another habitat zone is the Limpopo floodplain which borders the concession in the north east. The floodplain is obviously partially acquatic with a smattering of water loving birds but most importantly the floodplain in this area has lala palms which is the exclusive abode for Lemon-breasted Canary which is yet another pretty good bird for the area. It was the one real special that we found with minimal fuss with a pair of the birds perching on top of the first palm that we scanned when arriving on the floodplain. Despite the ease with which it was found it proved elusive for a photograph and I was only able to snap a pretty poor picture of the female.
The Pafuri Camp is a little more upmarket than the average Kruger camp but with the relative scarcity of the big 5 it does not attract the high paying tourist and so is not priced completely beyond reasonability. We had also managed to get a decent rate and so we had a luxurious stay for what I believe was good value.
Tommy and Adam outside our tent
Our tent at Pafuri Camp
Tommy cooling off
Adam cooling off
Tommy at Pafuri Camp
Adam at Pafuri Camp
Tommy and Adam on game drive
Fever tree forest
Fortunately I had also indicated on our booking form that we would be focussing on the birds of the area so we were allocated Godfrey as our guide for the two days we were there and this was a boon of considerable magnitude. Godfrey grew up in the area and spent his younger days chasing birds with a catapult. Little did he know that those “hunting” skills would translate into exceptional bird guiding abilities. We had an amazing time with Godfrey as he took us to all corners to find the birds that we were looking for.
As mentioned the number one bird on my list was Three-banded Courser and Godfrey took on this task with serious determination. Each of our drives was focused on criss-crossing the stunted woodland that is home to this bird. Godfrey would drive slowly along the road checking the base of every small tree where these elusive birds spend the warmer parts of the day. When darkness fell the spotlight would come out and it would be swept from one side to the other focussing on the ground rather than the tops of trees.
Adam and Godfrey
Looking for Three-banded Courser
Godfrey tried everything and by the time our last evening rolled along it was still not in the bag. I am reasonably philosophical about these things and I was determined not to “over-focus” on one species. Here we were surrounded by the most awesome bird life – it would be a shame to get carried away by a courser.
We spent our last evening having sundowners at Crook’s Corner and shortly thereafter we were on our way back to the lodge for dinner – a good hour’s drive away.
Godfrey and the boys at Crook’s Corner
We had a brief stop for a pair of Great Spotted Cuckoos when Godfrey received a call from the lodge that there was a Pel’s Fishing Owl perched on a tree opposite the deck. If we wanted any chance of seeing it we had to take as direct a route back as possible and we had to forego anything else. As we stepped on the gas I said to Godfrey that we only stop for one bird – Three-banded Courser. The trip back was stressful with the thought of missing out on the Pel’s impossible to ignore. Tommy and Adam were strategizing how they could exit the vehicle in the most efficient manner and rush off to the deck to make sure they maximized their chances of seeing the bird. I was petrified they would get carried away in their excitement and chase the bird away sending them from being the “cute kids that love birds” to the “noisy, poorly behaved sprogs”. As I was lecturing them about their behaviour with no more than 10 minutes to getting to the lodge, Godfrey screeched to a halt in the fading light and with great excitement shone the spot light on a Three-banded Courser standing in the middle of the road.
Thoughts of the Pel’s went out the window and we spent the next 15 minutes getting some great views and trying to coax my flash into illuminating the bird enough to get a photo. We were literally 500m away from leaving suitable habitat and this was our absolutely last opportunity. What a relief.
Needless to say we got to the lodge in time to see some big smiles on the faces of the guests who had been lucky enough to see the Pel’s but we were predictably just too late. We sacrificed one great bird for another which I felt was a good trade.
Our time in the park was once again memorable. I grew up in Jo’burg and long weekends in Kruger were fairly frequent but since my settlement in Cape Town 20 years ago there have been fewer opportunities to get back to the bushveld. With the boys getting a little older I have been making some effort to get back to the bush to give them some of the same opportunities I had as a kid.
It seems as if the effort has been well worth it. The temperatures were extreme and the days were very long but the two of them handled this intensive birding trip so well. Tommy continues to delve into his birding with absolute passion and commitment whilst Adam’s attitude is a little bit more laid back – as long as he is with his older brother, his dad and his Grandpa Brian he is a happy little camper. It has been more rewarding than I could possibly have expected to have the two of them well entrenched in my birding life.
Tommy reached the significant total of 500 species on his Southern African life list with a White-winged Widow on the Limpopo floodplain. To think that I was 28 years old when I reached the same mark just goes to show how much he has been up to as a birder in his 2 short years of birding. Adam is less obsessed at this stage but I am sure he will be aiming to join his brother with a decent total in a few years’ time.
We managed a tally of 214 species in our 4 days whilst I only managed a single lifer but it was far more a case of quality rather than quantity. I am also very grateful that I get an invite by the rangers each year to spend time on the birding weekends as it gives me a great excuse to get up to the park. Long may it continue…
Sunset over the bushveld