Birding in Tankwa Karoo National Park

Last week I blogged about our camping trip to the Tankwa Karoo National Park.  As I said, we were blown away by the beautiful scenery, but that isn’t the only charm of this tiny arid park.  The bird life is also exciting and Rob was able to get some nice photos of the local avian residents.  So, before I start, let me ask you this – when is a tent not a tent?  When it’s a bird hide, of course!  Rob took his camera and wandered off along the dry river bed near the campsite, hoping to get photos of birds and animals, while I sat reading in our tent.  Imagine my surprise and delight when loads of birds came into our camp.  They didn’t see me and I had a wonderful couple of hours watching them unnoticed from our tent.  When Rob came back he immediately set up his camera and captured the shots that follow.

Southern double-collared sunbird

Most campsites have resident birds that are relatively tame, and this site was no exception.  A beautiful Familiar chat was quite at home around the tent, as was his constant companion, a Cape bunting.  They seemed to hang out together which was rather nice to watch.

Familiar chat

At times they were joined by two other buntings and happily pecked around on the ground for crumbs and insects.

Cape bunting

Two of the more colourful visitors were a Bokmakierie and this female African paradise flycatcher.  She came back often and wasn’t put off by the clicking of Rob’s camera at all.

African paradise flycatcher

Acting as if they owned the place was a pair of Cape spurfowl.  They wandered around and at times even got under our feet.  What beautiful feather markings these birds have.

Cape spurfowl

It being the Karoo, it wasn’t surprising that we were visited by a Karoo prinia.  These rather shy birds are not that easy to photograph as they flit about restlessly and hardly seem to sit still for a moment.

Karoo prinia

We placed a bowl of water on the ground hoping to see the birds drinking or bathing, but in spite of the heat and the desert-like conditions they weren’t interested in it at all.  It wasn’t in vain though, as we were soon visited by a field mouse that spent ages slaking its thirst.  It was so enchanted by this unexpected new water source that it disappeared into the bush and came back later with three more of its family.  They all drank as if they hadn’t seen water for years.  We tried this in the Central Kalahari once and our generosity had unintended consequences.  We had lots of birds drinking and bathing, but we also had a visit from a puffadder that wanted some water as well.  Not wanting to encourage snakes, we moved the water a long way from the campsite itself.

Karoo lark

Karoo larks, robins and batis’s were also spotted from out tent.  Later in the day we took a drive to a rather large dam where there was an abundance of waterbirds, but we couldn’t stay there for very long as there was no shade and the heat was a bit over-bearing.  If SANParks wanted any suggestions for improvements at Tankwa, I would happily recommend they erect a small shelter at the dam where people could sit in shade and watch the birds.

Next week I will chat about our drive up the stunning Gannaga Pass.

Time Out in Tankwa

You know when you pass a sign that reads “Absolutely Nothing From Here” that you’re heading into a remote area.  Rob and I had a chuckle when we saw that, but instead of putting us off we were eagerly anticipating the vast empty plains and vistas of the Tankwa Karoo National Park that sits on the border of both the Northern and Western Cape.  We’ve always loved the arid Namibian landscape, so as the trees and houses gave way to barren wide open spaces we really felt like we were being welcomed by the silence and the beauty of this region.

You've been warned!!

We drove in from the Oudtshoorn area, taking the R46 and then the R355 towards Calvinia.  It was hot and we looked forward to camping in dry conditions over the Easter weekend.  The campsite that we were allocated was perfect for our ground tent and we had good shade the whole time that we were there.  A bonus was having our own ablution block with piping hot showers, thanks to a nearby solar panel.  Water tanks high on the hill above us gave shade to a troop of baboons and their calls serenaded us at all times of the day.

Our campsite in Tankwa Karoo Nat Park

Tankwa Karoo Park is not for folks who need to be entertained by animals or gadgets.  There is no electricity or cellphone reception in the park and very few animals, apart from the odd Eland, Gemsbok or Zebra.  This area, known as the Succulent Karoo, is for pure nature lovers, especially those interested in rare, endemic and endangered mammals, plants and birds.  In Spring the when the wild flowers bloom they cover the plains with a welcome mat of amazing beauty.

Amazing scenery in Tankwa

Previously home to the San/Bushmen, the Tankwa area gets its name from the Tankwa River, and is thought to mean “thirstland” or “place of the San”.  Apart from many crumbling old houses that were once occupied by trekboers (farmers), we came across some forlorn looking graves that had been taken over by Nature – their markings worn away by the sand, wind and time.

Deserted graves in Tankwa

Many would find this landscape bleak, but it is actually a photographers paradise with photo opportunities aplenty, especially if one heads up the beautiful Gannaga Pass (which I will write about separately).

Lonely road

It’s not only the scenery that is dramatic and exciting, the sunsets and stars at night are incredible.  Tankwa is only 140kms away from Sutherland, home to SALT (Southern African Large Telescope) one of the largest telescopes in the world.  This alone tells you how clear the skies are in this area at night.

Evening in Tankwa

Besides camping and birding, we were on a mission to find an elusive Aardvark, but apart from seeing some abandoned holes, we were out of luck.  I will blog next time about the birds that we saw.

Needless to say, this soul-expanding area is amazing and one that will definitely see us again – most probably when the flowers are in bloom.

Inquisitive Burchell’s Coucal

When Rob and I were in the Kruger National Park earlier this year we came across a number of  Burchell’s Coucals.  It was the rainy season and there were more about than usual.  The one I’m blogging about today was sitting quite far away which made it difficult for Rob to get a good photograph.  We sat patiently watching the bird for a  while hoping that it would move into a better position.  Imagine our delight and surprise when the bird actually decided to watch us instead and flew to within a few meters of our car!

Young Burchell's Coucal

It’s not often than one has an inquisitive bird that comes to say hello so readily.  In South Africa we call these Coucal’s “rain birds” because they usually start calling loudly shortly before it rains.  Their rain predictions are extremely accurate too! They are normally quite shy and and prefer to take refuge or move about deep in the bushes.

Young Burchell's Coucal

This is obviously a juvenile bird as it doesn’t have the dark markings of an adult.

Young Burchell's Coucal

Having one come right out into the open and close to our car was rather exciting and Rob was able to get a couple of good photos after all.

Saddle-billed Storks – My Favourite

It’s always nice to come across storks in nature and one that really excites us, not only for its size, but also its beauty, is the Saddle-billed stork.  It is the largest of the storks, standing about 150cm tall, and looks magnificent when it takes to the air, with a wingspan of approx. 2.5 meters.  These storks are listed as endangered in South Africa, which makes a sighting of them rather special.

Saddle-billed stork - Moremi, Botswana

Saddle-billed storks are easily identifiable by the red and black bands across their bills and the yellow saddle, made of leathery skin, straddling the top of their bills.  Males and females look almost identical in their black and white plumage, but it is actually easy to tell the sexes apart as the female has bright yellow eyes as opposed to the male’s which are a dark colour.

Saddle-billed stork- Kruger National Park

Males also have yellow wattles that hang just below the head at the base of the bill and they are slightly larger and heavier than the females. The female has an exposed red patch on her chest that darkens during the breeding season.

Mother and chick - Saddle-billed storks

Looking at our pictures it would appear that they are all of females – unless this rather motley-looking juvenile is a little boy!

Juvenile Saddle-billed stork

Their habitat is mainly in wetlands and along rivers and lakes as their diet consists mostly of fish, frogs, crabs and the occasional bird or small reptile.  They are territorial and are usually found singly or in pairs.  Mating is for life and they never breed in colonies.  Together they build a stick nest at the top of a tree close to water.  The nest is deep enough to conceal the bird sitting on the two to three eggs that are laid.  Incubation takes about six to seven weeks and chicks are ready to fledge  two to three months later.

Saddle-billed stork- Kruger National Park

As I said, it’s a treat seeing these birds and well worth spending some time watching them gracefully going about their business along the water’s edge.

Long-tailed widowbird – What a display!

I’ve always had the utmost admiration for Long-tailed widowbirds – when they’re in their full plumage, that is.  Watching them fly laboriously over the grasslands displaying their magnificent tail feathers is a wondrous sight to see.  However, after seeing the recent photos of a woodpecker carrying a weasel on its back, my admiration is somewhat diminished!  Just kidding – I still love these gorgeous birds and never tire of watching them in their quest to attract the females of the species.

Long-tailed widowbird

On our recent trip to Wakkerstroom (in Mpumalanga, South Africa) we saw many of these birds and spent time enjoying the spectacle of their mating ritual.  It is hard to believe, when you see them decked out in their full mating regalia, that when they are not breeding, the males are rather dowdy and almost identical to the females.  Then it’s only their black flight feathers and red epaulets that distinguish them from the ladies.

Long-tailed widowbird

For obvious reasons, flying is kept to a minimum when they are breeding, and they spend a lot of their time then sitting on fences or sturdy branches or bushes (most probably to catch their breath).

Long-tailed widowbird

Long-tailed widowbirds are polygynous, meaning that they mate with many females during a season, which explains why are seen with quite large flocks.

Long-tailed widowbird

They mainly eat seeds, but insects, berries and nectar also form part of their diet.  Nest are built just off the ground in thick grass.

Long-tailed widowbird

Next time you’re fortunate enough to see them, spare a thought for all the effort that is being taken to attract a female.

Wakkerstroom – a Birders Paradise

Apparently you cannot call yourself a serious birder in South Africa until you’ve been to Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga.  It’s an IBA (Important Bird Area) and with its diverse habitats, the opportunity exists to see over 370 bird species, with nine endemics.  We wanted to add the title “serious birders” to our names and see a few lifers, so stopped off in Wakkerstroom en route to the Kruger National Park in early February.  And we weren’t disappointed.  Everything they boast about the place is absolutely true – from the beautiful wetland areas, to the grasslands and forests abuzz with bird activity.  This tiny little village certainly is situated in a birders paradise and well worth a visit.

Bush blackcap

We stayed in a comfortable little cottage called The Gables and hired a knowledgeable guide, Lucky, through BirdLife South Africa.

Bird guide - Lucky

Lucky was so keen to fill our wish list that he kept us going for about eleven hours non-stop and we covered a distance of over 250kms in our quest to see some of the endemics of the area.  At the end of the day we were exhausted, but happy with our total of 98 species.  We probably could have seen more if we hadn’t driven around so much, but Lucky knew where the different birds could be found and some required a  lot of driving to locate.  His enthusiasm and pleasure when he spotted them was infectious, and as an added bonus, we got to see the scenery of the area, which at this time of the year is really spectacular.  Knowledge of the area is key to finding the rare birds and it would be crazy not to use the talents of the local guides.

White-bellied koorhaan

It’s great to see all the different birds, but sometimes rather difficult to photograph them from the car, especially when the birds are not perched in trees.  When we returned home and looked at our photos we noticed that many of the birds were sitting on fences.  Rob really doesn’t like taking photos of birds on poles or fences, but sometimes there is no choice.  Pictured below are Amur falcons, which were there in large numbers.

Male and Female Amur falcons

Of all the habitats we saw, perhaps the most rewarding for us were the grasslands.  Apart from the numerous birds, they were bedecked with wild flowers of every description.  But, as always, it was our feathered friends that really delighted us.

Cape longclaw

Long-tailed widowbirds were everywhere, displaying their magnificent tails to the ladies, while Red bishops and Yellow-crowned bishops added colour to the long grass.  We saw both the rare Rudd’s lark and Botha’s lark, thanks to Lucky’s efforts.  Crowned and Blue cranes strutted elegantly through the long grass and we also saw Koorhaans and Southern bald ibis’s.  Space doesn’t permit me to mention them all, but I will blog about more of the birds in the weeks ahead.

Spotted flycatcher

It was disappointing not to see the Flufftails that are found in the area, and also the Yellow-breasted pipits, but that is all the more reason for us to pay Wakkerstroom another visit sometime in the near future.

Rhinos – Rare and Poached

I’m sure that most of the folks who read our blogs are animal and bird lovers, so I guess I’m preaching to the converted here when I say that our war against rhino poachers needs all the soldiers we can muster.  We’ve recently spent time on a birding weekend in the Kruger National Park with some SANParks Voluntary Rangers (from the West Rand Region) and we heard about their fund-raising efforts for, amongst other things, the protection of rhinos in the national parks.  I should imagine that every killing must make the authorities feel like they are taking three steps forward and two steps back.

White rhinoceros

Funnily enough, in spite of the vast numbers that are being poached at the moment, we were fortunate enough to come across a number of rhinos on our short visit to Kruger.  These bulky, prehistoric-looking animals lumber around peacefully unaware of the price they have on their heads (literally) and what danger they’re in from unscrupulous poachers.  The threat comes from poachers of all nationalities, but it would seem mainly from Mozambicans who have easy access to the Park.

White rhinoceros

I’m always devastated when I hear of South Africans being caught poaching, or masterminding poaching operations, as I feel they are destroying our heritage and should know better.  The Asians who call for rhino horn are far removed from the area so are not impacted by what is going on here.  That is no excuse however.

White rhinoceros

The Rhinose Foundation that collects money for the conservation of rhinos, has decided that an effective way to tackle the problem is to get the Asians to see for themselves what their predilection for rhino horn is doing in Africa.  They use much of their funding to bring delegations from Asia to the Park to witness first-hand the death and destruction that is taking place here and to take back the message to their people that this must stop before it’s too late.  Hopefully by educating famous people, like singers or TV personalities who have large fan bases, they can spread the word and make a change back home.

White rhinoceros

Members of the South African Parliament are also being brought in to see what is happening so that they can go back and promulgate harsher laws against poachers.  One can only hope that this will be effective in the long term.

White rhinoceros

Last year 1216 rhinos were poached in South Africa.  Three weeks into February 2015 and already 166 have been killed.  Who knows if the beautiful rhinos featured in our photos here will still be alive in a month’s time.  What a sad thought that is and what a tragedy for future generations if we don’t win this battle.

Leopard Sighting in Kruger National Park

Have you ever visited a game reserve and had one of those days when you drive around for hours and see very little in the way of animals?  We had such a morning on a visit to the Kruger National Park this month.  Being early February it was oppressively hot and all sensible animals and birds were sheltering in deep shade out of sight.  After about five hours of driving along the Crocodile River Road and seeing very little other than birds, we decided to go three kilometers further and then turn around and head back to our camp at Berg-en-Dal.  It was at this point that I slowed the car right down to look into an interesting tree and I spotted a leopard climbing up the trunk.  Rob was on the passenger side where the leopard was and his camera was ready.

Leopard - Kruger National Park

What a bonus this sighting was, as leopards are nocturnal and definitely the most elusive of the Big 5 animals.

Leopard - Kruger National Park

This particular leopard was not terribly happy about us stopping so close by and only remained in the tree for about a minute before climbing down and disappearing into a thick wooded area where it was quickly lost to view.

Leopard - Kruger National Park

The whole encounter was over in a flash, but it left us very excited and feeling extremely privileged to have had the sighting all to ourselves.  All too often you have to vie with numerous other people to see an animal and sometimes you miss being in the perfect place for a photograph.  We were just so lucky!

Leopard - Kruger National Park

Leopards prefer dense, riparian vegetation, which makes spotting them rather difficult if they aren’t actually walking along the road. If they are walking away from you, it isn’t the ideal way to photograph them as you can see.

Leopard - Kruger National Park

We’ve had a few sightings of leopards in the wild over the years, but this has to have been the most exciting one yet.  Well done to Rob for capturing some lovely shots of this beautiful animal.

Bishops and Monkeys

I always feel so sorry for the birds and animals that are driven away from their habitats by urbanisation.  We take over their areas and then complain when they come into our homes and gardens foraging for food.  Fortunately Durban has some amazing parks and public gardens in many suburbs and the famous Durban Botanical Gardens is a haven for some of these poor displaced creatures.  Rob and I often go to this oasis in the concrete jungle to photograph the birds and enjoy the beautiful trees and flowers.  On a visit this month we were privileged to see Southern red bishops in their striking breeding colours.

Southern red bishop

The Lotus plants growing in the little lake provide a lush backdrop for photographs, as well as a perfect place for the bishops to build their nests.  I could sit here for hours just watching these busy little birds as they go about their business.

Southern red bishop Southern red bishop

If you want to read more about them, click here for Rob’s post which gives details about the birds.

Southern red bishop

It’s not only the Southern red bishops that are the attraction at the Durban Botanical Gardens – we also quite fancy visiting the charity kiosk to indulge in tea and scones or crumpets after watching the birds.  We had an audience as we relaxed with a cuppa – this monkey and her baby were looking for an opportunity to grab a scone if they could.

Mother and baby monkey

Feeding the monkeys is forbidden, but that doesn’t prevent them from trying to look cute enough to win you over enough to break the rules.

Swee Waxbills at Kirstenbosch

When we lived in Namibia we were fortunate enough to come across a number of different kinds of waxbills and were always delighted when the colourful Blue and Violet-eared waxbills came to feed in our garden.  We don’t see enough of these sweet little birds in our garden here in Durban for some strange reason, so imagine how pleased we were to have a chance to photograph Swee waxbills (Coccopygia melanotis) during our visit to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town in December.  We also saw Common waxbills whilst we were there, but, as their name suggests, they are fairly common, so our focus was on the Swees.

Swee waxbill

We followed a happy pair flitting about in the flowers, calling to each other with gentle ‘swee swee‘ sounds.  They are easy to tell apart as the male’s cheeks and ear coverts are black, whilst the female has a pale grey face.  Both have reddish orange tail markings and distinctive black upper and red lower mandibles.

Swee waxbill Swee waxbill

They are mainly seed-eaters, but also forage on the ground or on plant stems for small insects and larvae.  They’re mainly found in small groups or pairs, which are monogamous and territorial.  When they are ready to breed (between October and April) the building of the nest is a team effort, with the male bringing in the material.  According to Roberts Birds of S A, larger clutches of eggs are sometimes laid by two different males (between three and nine eggs) at one day intervals.  Both parents are involved in the incubation and the feeding.

Swee waxbill

It certainly was a treat to see these lovely little birds in such a nice setting and to be able to add a few more photos to our collection.