Friday 30 August 1991

SOUTH AFRICA August 1991: Natal & Transvaal

17 August 1991.  We were up at dawn and birding in the forest along the river at Enseleni, a small riverine forest reserve that was very good for African Finfoots.  We quickly saw at least 3 and possibly 5 but an early departure was delayed by a calling Gorgeous Bush Shrike found by Paul but which took Nick and me two hours to get views of.  We drove on to Thalzhinkhla Pan at Richard's Bay where we met local birders Peter Outhwaite and Andrew Sutherland.  We were very kindly taken for walk around the Sharks Board grounds by Andrew.  They consisted of scrub, secondary forest and the edge of a mangrove swamp and we were warned to lookout for crocs).  Andrew then took us to look for African Pigmy Geese nearby although that was unsuccessful.  We returned to Andrew's house where he very hospitably put us up for night.  His kindness and that of other South African birders we met made us regret not having had time to write ahead to seek advice and assistance from local birding contacts.  82 species seen, the highlight of the day being at least 3 and possibly 5 African Finfoots along river at Enseleni.
African Finfoot at Enseleni
Egyptian Geese and enormous nest
18 August 1991.  We visited various sites around Richard's Bay with Andrew (including Thalzhinkhla Pan and the harbour) before driving up N2 & R618 to St. Lucia where Woodward's Batis was seen on the nature trail (having failed earlier at Dukuduku Forest).  A brief look at St. Lucia Airfield and back to N2 where we said goodbye to Andrew, a very generous helpful guide/host.  We continued north to Mkuzi, turning off N2 towards False Bay and taking the dirt road north where we stopped frequently to look for Lemon-breasted Canary without success.  We arrived at Mkuzi at 16:30hrs and spent the last hour at Kwamalibala.  Camped at Mkuzi.  125 species seen, the highlight of the day being 2 Woodward's Batis at St. Lucia.

19 August 1991.  All day at Mkuzi.  A superb national park with plenty of animals and a camp site just inside the entrance although neither it nor the curio shop by the headquarters sold food.  We found the best areas to be Kubube & Kumsinga (Pink-throated Twinspots in adjoining scrub), Nsumu Pan and the Fig Forest (the latter is one of the few places where one is allowed out of a vehicle).  Pel's Fishing Owls are regularly seen in the fig forest but none of the wardens we spoke to knew of a roost site.  Fiery-necked Nightjars were very vocal at dusk.  Visited Kubube, Kumasinga, Ensumo, Fig Forest, Airstrip & Enxwala.  107 species seen, the highlight of the day being Eastern Bearded Scrub Robins around Kumasinga car park.

Crested Guineafowl
Martial Eagle
Blacksmith Plover
Wire-tailed Swallow
African Reed Warbler
20 August 1991.  All day at Mkuzi.  We visited the Fig Forest, Ensumo, Emantuma trail, Kumasinga, Kubube & Enxwala.  We obtained permission to stay out on Beacon Road until 20:00hrs to look for Bronze-winged Courser but were perhaps too early in the season?  112 speces seen, the highlight of the day being a superb Leopard spotlighted beside Beacon Road by Paul for 10 minutes, almost immediately after he’d found an African Wood Owl.  Paul had brilliantly spotlighted an Owlet-Nightjar on Mt. Lewis in Queensland in 1986 but this double put that feat into the shade.
bridge to the Fig Forest
Mkuzi Fig Forest
Trumpeter Hornbill
Yellow-billed Hornbill
Purple-crested Turaco
Burchell's Coucal
Brown-headed Kingfisher

female Black Cuckoo-shrike
Eastern Nicator
Eastern Bearded Scrub Robin
stunning bird!
21 August 1991.  We packed up our tents and left Mkuzi when the gates opened (06:00hrs) and drove back south down dirt road to False Bay as it was getting light.  We parked by the entrance gate and spent most of the morning on the Mpophomeni Trail.  The trail goes through fairly open forest for about 9 kms although a longer return is possible)  The highlight for us was a male African Broadbill immediately before the trail forks to return while Gorgeous Bush Shrike was common on the early part of the trail (I saw 4).  We left False Bay at 13:00hrs driving back up the dirt road to Mkuze town where we briefly looked for White-browed Robin Chat in hotel garden (failed).  We then drove north along N2 & R29 to Piet Retief and turned west off R29 at Panbult on the dirt road to Amersfoort.  Unfortunately it was dark before any decent habitat was reached and we drove on to Amersfoort where we camped in the free municipal camp site.  66 species seen, the highlight of the day (and probably the trip) being a very confiding male African Broadbill on Mpophomeni Trail.
Gorgeous Bush Shrike (photo by Paul Noakes)
African Broadbill
a very pleasant surprise and something I'd hoped to see on previous trips to Kenya
22 August 1991.  All morning was spent in high grassland along the Amersfoort-Panbult road and down side roads to the south.  This area was apparently a good site for the very localised Rudd's & Botha's Larks.  We were not sure of their habitat preferences and birded from road and explored all different habitats on foot but failed on the larks.  Early morning was a good time to find Blue Korhaans, in the more open and slightly rocky areas.  We left the area at 13.00hrs and drove north up R36 to Carlina and along R33 & R540 to Dullstroom.  We visited sites to the north of Dullstroom hoping to see Pale-crowned Cisticola and Yellow-breasted Pipit but without success although we did see Sentinel Rock Thrush and Buff-streaked Chat.  We stayed by conifers to the south of town until 19:00hrs in the hope of a Cape Eagle Owl but failed again (too much traffic on road?).  We then drove east along R540 & R37 to Sabie where we camped.  42 species seen, the highlight of the day being 5 Blue Korhaan's along the Amersfoort-Panbult road.
Wattled Plover
Blue Korhaans
Crowned Crane in a harvested crop field
village near Amersfort
23 August 1991.  We left Sabie at dawn and drove to Kruger NP entering by the Paul Kruger Gate.  The Kruger was (and hopefully still is) a superb National Park with good facilities (camp sites, rondavells, restaurants & shops), although we found that prior booking is probably essential even in winter.  Weekends get very busy and so are best avoided.  Birding can be very frustrating as it is prohibited to leave ones vehicle apart from in camps and at a few picnic areas although with the number of dangerous animals around this is probably not unreasonable.  Offenders are liable to a fine and/or instant ejection from the park.  More annoying is the fact that all camp gates are locked from half an hour before dusk to half an hour after dawn so there is no chance of driving after dark.  Other visitors stopping to ask what we were looking got rather annoyingl.  Good birding can be had anywhere, especially by water, all rivers and waterholes are worth checking.  We drove steadily north stopping at Satara and Olifants where we were told that we couldn't camp.  We continued on to Letaba arriving at 17:00hrs, shortly before lockdown at 17.30hrs.  After much persuasion we were allowed to camp for one night despite not having a reservation. Quite a success, given how inflexible some officials were,as the campsite was quite full.  91 species seen, the highlight of the day being an African Scops Owl in the spotlight for c30 minutes at Letaba campsite, superb.
Giraffes in the Kruger
Southern Dwarf Mongoose
Crested Francolin
Dark Chanting Goshawk
Goliath Heron
Lappet-faced Vulture and Maribou, not a great size difference!
fast running Black Crake
slow moving Double-banded Sandgrouse, although my photo still leaves much to be desired
Red-billed Hornbill

South African Black Flycatccher
(very) Long-tailed Shrike
Southern White-crowned Shrike
African Scops Owl above our tent (photo Paul Noakes)
24 August 1991.  We packed up and were in the queue to leave Letaba when the gates opened at 06:30hrs, reminiscent of Wacky Races with a varied selection of vehicles scattering in every direction.  We slowly drove north to Punda Maria where thankfully no reservations needed, but the ground was rock hard making for a difficult pitch, and uncomfortable night.  One the way we made a successful detour for a Verreaux's Eagle Owl (in riverine trees off the S46 SW of Letaba) that a family had told us they’d seen the previous day and an unsuccessful one for Dickinson's Kestrel (on S564 kms south of Babalala).  Both Double-banded Sandgrouse & Buff-crested Bustard were common along the roadside in the northern half of the park. 94 species seen, the highlight of the day being seven Double-banded Sandgrouse on roadside (2 single males, a pair and a pair with young).
Grey Hornbill
Mourning Dove
Verreaux's Eagle Owl
Nick met a family at Letaba Campsite who mentioned seeing a large roosting owl nearby.  On learning it had pink eyelids we headed straight there the next morning ...
Burchell's Glossy Starling
Fork-tailed Drongo
25 August 1991.  We had a brief look round camp at Punda Maria before the gates opened at 06:30hrs.  We then drove north along the HI-8 towards the Luvuvhu River but about 20 kms short Paul spotted a small owl roosting in the roadside scrub we were driving past.  We reversed and manoeuvred the car into a position where the owl could be seen without being too obscured It soon became apparent that there were two roosting owls there.  White-faced Scops – another brilliant find by Paul.  We did briefly leave the car for better views, making sure we were close enough to dive back in should anyone/thing approach.  Fortunately nothing did.  We continued on to the Luvuvhu Bridge stopping at waterholes en route.   We drove both east and west alongside the river, stopping at Pafuri Picnic site (one of few places we were allowed out of car).  We saw White-crowned Plovers at the river but no roosting Pel’s Fishing Owls of which there was an outside chance of, perhaps one roosting owl speices was our quota.  We returned to Punda Maria for 17:30hrs and another night on the hard ground.  118 species seen, the highlight of the day being the pair of White-faced Scops Owls roosting in roadside scrub beside the main road.

White-faced Scops Owl
one of two brilliantly spotted by Paul as we drove north in the Kruger
Double-banded Sandgrouse
Liliac-breasted Roller

Rufous-crowned Roller
in flight
Striped Kingfisher
Kurrichane Thrush
26 August 1991.  We left Punda Maria at 06:30hrs, driving the S99 loop road but seeing similar birds to previously.  We drove back south to Letaba again failing to find Dickinson's Kestrel.  At 17:00hrs we left the Kruger on the R71 at Phalaborwa and drove to Tzaneen where we camped in a noisy campsite.  106 species seen, the highlight of the day again being Double-banded Sandgrouse still impressive crouching on roadside (17 seen in total).
Buff-crested Bustard
White-backed Vultures
Crowned Hornbill
Double-banded Sandgrouse

not the last photos I thought I took but at least a films worth were lost due to not loading a film properly, annoying but at least it is a superb species to finish on
27 August 1991.  We left Tzaneen at dawn and drove short distance to Forest Drive, a small area of indigenous forest surrounded by conifers accessible by dirt road.  First we visited Debenjeni Falls then continued up the dirt road to De Hoek Forest Station making a few stops in remnant native forest.  Above De Hoek we parked beside road at start of main area of forest, after a couple of false starts finding it, and walked to the top and back.  Unfortunately we found nowhere where it was possible to get of the track.  We saw two small bird flocks and both had a pair of Black-fronted Bush Shrikes in them. We left Forest Drive at the Woodbush entrance and continued along R71 to Pietersberg, stopping on the bypass immediately to NW of R37 turning for Short-clawed Lark.  We drove north up R521 to Langjang NP 20kms to north of Vivo.  The last couple of hours of daylight were spent walking & driving around Langjang although we slightly misjudged the time it took to leave the reserve falling foul of the ’reserve must be left at dusk’ ruling.  We discovered that this was strictly adhered to when a search party was dispatched to find us when we were not back promptly.  This seemed to us rather paranoid as there are no dangerous mammals at Langjang and one is allowed to walk anywhere in the park.  We spent the night at the tented camp at Langjang (having phoned from Pietersberg, where we stocked up with food, for permission to stay here).  88 species seen, the highlight of the day being 4 Black-fronted Bush Shrikes along the road above De Hoek forest station.

28 August 1991.  We spent the morning driving & walking around Langjang.  We saw Groundscraper Thrush, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Pied Babbler & Barred Camaroptera on the lawn at the headquarters and reserve Kalahari Scrub Robin, Violet-cheeked Grenadier, Great Sparrow & Swallow-tailed Bee-eater on the reserve.  We left at noon returning to Pietersberg on R521 and then drove south-west to Nylsvlei on N1, arriving to spend last half hour of daylight at Vogelfontein.  We visited Warwick Tarboten, who we’d earlier phoned, and he allowed us to sleep in his garage.  I discovered that the film I’d been shooting for the past two days hadn’t wound on properly and all were lost.  Very annoying as I’d several of Baobab trees which look quite spectacular with no leaves on in winter.  100 species seen, the highlight of the day being a group of three Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters in scrub at Langjang NP.

29 August 1991.  All day in Nylsvlei area, concentrating on Sericea, Deelkraal, Vogelfontein and Hartbeestlaagte.  We were told that more species have been recorded in this area than in any other of comparable size in Southern Africa.  This is (partly) due to Warwick Tarboten's unrivaled knowledge of the locality and it was a shame he was busy and unable to spend any time birding with us.  Vogelfontein was the best place for wetland species during our visit.  We saw Coqui Francolin twice on the approach road and Lesser Galago soon after dusk – its bright orange eyes bounding around in roadside vegetation was superb.  We spent a second night in Warwick's garage.  110 species seen, the highlight of the day being a male Coqui Francolin beside the road near Nylsvlei (the species having narrowly missed this honour twice in the Kruger).

30 August 1991.  We left Nylsvlei after a brief look at Deelkraal.  We attempted to find Striped Pipit on the slopes of Kranskop but failed after much effort getting there through thick scrub.  Winter probably isn’t the best time of year to look.  We continued down N1 to Pretoria stopping in Botanical Gardens in outskirts, a tip off from Warwick as a good place to look for Red-breasted Wrynecks which we’d not encountered so far.  We found a pair of wrynecks on the edge of the open parkland to centre-left of the entrance close to the large rocky outcrop.  We continued along R21/R22 for brief look at Benoni Pans.  Leeupan was to west of and viewable from R23 south of Benoni and backed on to a rubbish dump.  It was a large, open, fairly shallow pool which provided us with our only Lesser Flamingo and White-winged Black Tern of the trip, and a reasonable selection of ducks and waders.  Rondebult was a small nature reserve south of R554 where a few hides overlooked a reed fringed pool.  We saw little here other than an injured Blue Crane (presumably in care). We continued on to Jan Smuts Airport where we handed back the car and were rather disappointed to be hit with a charge for it being dirty.  What did they expect after 4 weeks on variable roads?  We checked in for our 17:45hrs flight to Heathrow (via Nairobi) which, like all good flights, was uneventful.  84 species seen, the highlight of the day being two Red-breasted Wrynecks in Pretoria Botanical Gardens (many thanks Warwick).

Many thanks to Nick and Paul for being such excellent companions and to all those who helped us in South Africa and made our trip such an enjoyable one.

[blogged February 2013]