South Africa Trip Report
Dec 11-27, 2010
Cape Town is probably one of the most spectacularly situated cities in the world. The blue oceans of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans encircle the rocky headlands and craggy mountains stretch north of the carpet of vineyards. But during December and January the weather can be unpredictable and usually involves a lot of strong winds. This we discovered as soon as we got off the plane and the resulting high seas pretty well put an end to our pelagic trip. Even with moving some of our itinerary around, we still never made it out to sea.
There are many great birding places around Cape Town and it’s very hard to choose which sites are the best locations to visit in just a few days of birding. Strandfontein Sewage Works is a must for the freshwater wetlands and pools and our visit, despite the wind, was very productive. Highlights had to be the miscellany of herons and egrets, White Pelicans, African Marsh Harrier, a selection of ducks including a pair of very attractive South African Shelduck. After our somewhat interesting diversion through some of the local shanty towns we went around the eastern side of False Bay culminating in a visit to the beautiful Harold Porter Botanical Gardens. Some of the local specialties, such as Cape Siskin can be quite easy to see in these very attractive gardens, but unfortunately some of the upper parts of the reserve had been burned preventing our access to the forests near the dam. A walk at nearby Rooiels was also very windy and this kept the Cape Rockjumpers hidden amongst the rocks, but several beautiful Orange-breasted Sunbirds were easier to see despite being almost blown away!
The wind also blew and blew as we crossed the mountains into the Karoo (with Ground Woodpeckers and Rock Hyrax on the way), an area of dry thornscrub and desert, making birding very difficult. Despite this fact, this was a beautiful, if austere habitat with some of the most range-restricted birds in the country. Thick-billed Larks were feeding alongside the road and Karoo Scrub-Robins worked the dense vegetation and several very cute Fairy Flycatchers were working the acacias. Certainly a highlight was the very distinctive Black-headed Canary that came to the feeders at Klein Cedarburg, as was the graciousness of our hosts and the great food.
West Coast National Park is home to on of the greatest concentrations of shorebirds in South Africa and a must visit for a whole range of wintering shorebirds, including Marsh Sandpiper, Eurasian Curlew and thousands of Curlew Sandpiper. A single Terek Sandpiper entertained us at one of the hides (blinds) as it ran around in a bizarre manner on the mud and we can’t forget the hundreds of Greater and Lesser Flamingos that add so much to the scene of wildlife in Africa.
Before heading onto Durban and the tropical east we had to visit the most convenient African Penguin colony in the Cape. The Simonstown penguins are more “urban” than those on the eastern side of False Bay as they seem to co-habit with swimmers and tourists from all over the world. Despite this, the penguins are a delight and always wonderful to watch and enjoy. The Cape of Good Hope is not the southern most point on the African continent (Cape Agulhas is farther south) but the wind just howled. Because we could not get offshore to look for pelagic birds we had to be happy with staring out to sea in a Force 5 gale- with only a few distant Cape Gannets to keep us happy! Oh well.
Durban was hot and humid and a little wet as we drove north towards Creighton- our base for the next few nights. The scenery was beautiful as the road snaked its way through Kwa Zulu Natal. A chance stop along the roadside at Nandala Ranch was fortuitous as we got the opportunity to bird inside this private ranch. We did not have a lot of time, but did manage to see Long-crested and Short-toed Eagles and a herd of Zebra. Our time at Smithfield Guest House was terrific with excursions throughout the local area. Our full day in the Creighton area was terrific with countless cisticolas (!), a trek for the Black-rumped Button-quail, the beautiful and endangered Blue Swallow, and Black-bellied and Denham’s Bustards. We finished the day at Xumeni Forest for Orange Ground-Thrush, Knysna Turaco, Bar-throated Apalis and the endangered Cape (Brown-headed) Parrot. This remnant forest was fascinating with the tall Podocarpus and Yellow-wood trees and most birds we found were species endemic to these mid-montane forests. The whole next day was a real adventure; taking 4-wheel vehicles up the rugged Sani Pass into Lesotho. The birding was excellent all of the way up with many highlights including Buff-streaked Bushchat, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Bush Blackcap and Orange-breasted Rockjumper. Our few hours in Lesotho were quite different! The local sheep-herders still wore traditional clothing and looked as if we had stepped back several hundred years. Our last day in the Creighton area was very special with an early morning excursion to Ntsekeni Nature Reserve- one of the excellent new reserves in the area. This unique refuge with its shallow marshy area is home to several pairs of Wattled Cranes. They were a little distant but we still had amazing views of these endangered birds along with some very elusive Yellow-breasted Pipits.
The drive to Eshowe was uneventful, but our arrival in the town was certainly atmospheric with huge trees and forest dominating the town. Unusual but with White-eared Barbets and Golden-tailed Woodpeckers in the garden of the B & B- it could not have been too bad! Dlinza Forest was surprisingly quiet (as some forest fragments can be) both that evening and even early the next morning. Our walk through the forest was beautiful with Red Duikers scurrying around, a brief Scaly-throated Honey-guide and an odd red feather that floated down to the ground while we were standing there. Yes, we knew it was probably a breast feather from a Narina Trogon, but despite a lot of searching, we never actually found the bird! The walk through Dlinza forest was beautiful, but not the birdiest place we had visited. However, sitting atop the tower was quite exhilarating with birds appearing and disappearing over the canopy. Our target bird, the Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, was not that tough and we had great views of several as they sat in bare limbs above the canopy. Our drive north towards Mkuze and Rhino River was uneventful except that, as usual, we arrived late for dinner! Being in our “own” fenced private reserve means we can have a mini game drive on our way to and from the lodge- and over the next few days we had great views of White Rhino, African Buffalo, and even a few snakes on the road at night. Mkuze Game Reserve was excellent with a pretty good selection of game and bountiful birds including African Spoonbill, Jacobin Cuckoo, European Roller, Bennett’s and Cardinal Woodpeckers. An afternoon excursion (out of the park) to the excellent wetland, Muzi Pan produced the uncommon African Pygmy Goose, as well as a plethora of waterbirds. Local birders had found a Buff-breasted Sandpiper here a few days earlier, but with all of the African species here, it was hard to find the enthusiasm for an American vagrant. The drive back to Rhino River Lodge (late for dinner again!) produced several nightjars, including 2 Pennant-winged for van 2. An all day trip to St Lucia was next; a spot that is renowned for its great birding and a morning wandering around on the trails in the town preserve did produce the Gorgeous (yes, that’s its name!) Bush-Shrike, Red-capped Robin-Chat, the endemic Rudd’s Apalis, Yellow-bellied Greenbul and Livingstone’s Turaco (for some lucky folks). A beer overlooking the river was a great way to watch the hippos and produced our first Goliath Heron of the trip.
On our way north towards Kruger National Park, we made an unscheduled stop at Pongola, where a Golden Pipit had been reported over the past few days. We stood at the very spot for about 45 minutes, but alas, the bird was a no-show. Our compensation was a flock of the bizarre, yet entertaining Long-tailed Shrikes.
It was a long and fairly exhausting drive to Phalaborwa on the western border of Kruger, but there was a dinner awaiting us at a pub in the town. There’s nothing (well for some of us) a cold beer at the end of the day, plus of course we were all looking forward to spending the next couple of days in the world-famous Kruger National Park.
Kruger is huge and in 2 days we only had the opportunity to see just a portion of the park. The rains had just started and the normally dry and dusty conditions were wet and green. This did make some of the mammals a little difficult to see, but the overall nature of the park was spectacular. Of course the big mammals stole the show with Elephant, Common Waterbuck, Impala, Bushbuck and African Buffalo all being seen regularly. Birds were abundant with the following highlights, Saddle-billed Stork, Comb Duck, Little (Small) Buttonquail, Red-crested Bustard, and Double-banded Sandgrouse, plus the normal supporting cast of bee-eaters, rollers, and hornbills. Instead of the cultural evening, which was cancelled before our arrival, we had a braai (barbeque) and an evening/night game drive. We had a very rainy afternoon the previous day so many of the gravel roads were closed. Despite this, we had an excellent couple of hours of wildlife-viewing. Spotted Hyena, Leopard, African Wild Cat, and both Fiery-cheeked and Freckled Nightjars being seen from the respective vehicles. Our Bed and Breakfast was perfectly situated for a quick drive to the park gate and our hosts made our stay very comfortable and enjoyable, but pretty soon our trip had come to an end and we had to drive back to Johannesburg for our return flights. Even on the drive back to Johannesburg we were able to add a couple of “trip birds”- a pair of Black-throated Canaries and a small flock of White-browed Sparrow-weavers- such is the richness of South Africa.