The following is a report of a trip that I made with a Bill and Sandra Watson to South Africa from 1-15 March, 1997. This was the first time that any of us had visited Africa, so most of the birds were new to us. We commenced our trip with a visit to Wakkerstroom, an area of grassland renowned for its endemics. Next, we headed north and travelled through the game-rich lowlands of Kruger National Park. We then journeyed south to a wet forest in an outlier of the Drakensberg Mountains, and finally visited a seasonally flooded wetland at Nylsvlei. The weather was fine and hot for most of the trip. The only rain that we encountered was during one afternoon at Wakkerstroom and in the mountains near Louis Trichardt and Tzaneen.
1 March - Flight to Johannesburg from Sydney. Picked up camper van and then drove to Witbank for the night. Stayed in a campground below a dam and adjacent to a nature reserve.
2 March - Witbank. Birded at nature reserve, then drove to Wakkerstroom. Stayed at Weaver's Nest Guesthouse.
3 March - Wakkerstroom. Birded at swamp near town, along Derdehoek Loop, then to Zaaihoek Dam.
4 March - Wakkerstroom. Jantjieshoek road to Dirkiesdorp, then roads north of Wakkerstroom.
5 March - Wakkerstroom in early morning, then long drive to Lower Sabie Camp, Kruger National Park.
6 March - Kruger National Park. Lower Sabie Camp at sunrise, then back to Crocodile Bridge before driving to Skukuza Camp. Night-drive from Skukuza.
7 March - Kruger National Park. Skukuza Camp, then drive to Letaba Camp for the night.
8 March - Kruger National Park. Letaba Camp, then drive back to Oliphants before driving north to Shingwedzi Camp for the night. Night-drive from Shingwedzi.
9 March - Kruger National Park. Shingwedzi Camp, then to Pafuri Picnic area before driving back to Punda Maria Camp for the night.
10 March - Kruger National Park. Punda Maria Camp, then drive around Mahonie Loop before returning to Punda Maria Camp for the night.
11 March - Kruger National Park. Punda Maria Camp, then to Pafuri Picnic area before returning to Punda Maria Camp for the night.
12 March - Kruger National Park. Punda Maria Camp, then drove out of park via Pafuri Gate towards Messina before turning south to Louis Trichardt. Spent night at Ben Lavin Nature Reserve.
13 March - Ben Lavin Nature Reserve before driving on to Magoebaskloof area before returning to Tzaneen area for the night.
14 March - Magoebaskloof Until mid-morning, then drove on to Nylsvley Nature Reserve. Spent night near Naboomspruit.
15 March - Nylsvlei Nature Reserve until noon, then back to Johannesburg where I caught a flight back to Sydney.
After a 12 hour flight from Sydney, we arrived at Johannesburg in the late-afternoon. We picked up a camper van near the airport, and while undergoing the contractual formalities, saw our first African birds including Fiscal Shrike, Cape Sparrow, Cape Wagtail, and Brownthroated Martins. We then drove for an hour and a half out to the town of Witbank where we spent the night in a campground near a large reservoir. It was dark by the time that we arrived.
We awakened to many new songs and what was to be a memorable day. The surrounding hillsides were covered with dry grassland, and the reserve was situated in a slightly wetter and lightly wooded gully below a dam. As soon as it was light enough to see, we began to find new birds everywhere. Cape Robins, three Streptopelia doves, three Canaries, Cape Sparrows and Spottedbacked Weavers were all common in the campground. A pair of Redwinged Starlings was seen as they perched atop a light platform near our campsite. In clumps of grass and thickets along the edge of the park, we found numerous Grassbirds, Tawny-flanked Prinias, Speckled Mousebirds, Bluebilled Firefinch, Red Bishops, Common Waxbills and others. Most spectacular was a male Greater Doublecollared Sunbird which was sighted as it foraged in a small tree.
We eventually entered the nature reserve and followed a track through the gully. A sign near the entrance of the reserve warned of the presence of Bilharzias (parasitic fluke) in the stream so we were careful when walking near the streambed. Along the track, we found a small quarry in which we saw a number of rock-dwelling species including Mountain Chat, Rock Bunting, Rock Pigeon, and Rock Martin. Overhead, swallows such as Greater Striped, European (Barn) and House Martin were numerous as were Little and Whiterumped Swifts. In about 3 hours of birding and a couple of kilometres of walking, we recorded nearly 50 species of birds.
Before setting out for Wakkerstroom, we stopped briefly above the dam. A Goliath Heron was sighted as is approached and then flew over the dam wall. Reed Cormorants, Egyptian Geese and Spurwinged Geese were all observed on the shoreline and Giant Kingfishers were seen hunting over the water. Also sighted on a nearby hillside were several antelope including Blesbok and Impala.
The drive to Wakkerstroom traversed many strip coal mines, agricultural lands and grasslands. Along the way, we stopped at a small lake surrounded by cornfields, but full of birds. Yellowbilled Duck, Redbilled Teal, Southern Pochard, Cape Shoveler, and Redknobbed Coots were all on the water while on the shoreline, we saw a Ruff, Marsh Sandpipers, Wood Sandpipers, Curlew Sandpipers, Greenshanks, Threebanded Plovers, and a pair of Blackwinged Pratincoles. Whitewinged Black and Marsh Terns hunted above the lake. Several fully coloured Masked Weavers and a Pintailed Whydah perched on a fenceline, and a male Pallid Harrier flew over a nearby field.
In the late afternoon, we left the sealed highway at Amherst and travelled along a gravel road towards Wakkerstroom. We stopped after a few kilometres to watch a swirling flock of about a hundred Eastern Redfooted Falcons which were hunting over a field. We then drove for a few more kilometres and found a flock of Blue Cranes feeding in a hay pasture. We climbed on top of the camper van so that we could get a better view, and then realised that a pair of the rare Wattled Cranes was also present in the flock. In the same area, we sighted several of the beautiful Blue Koorhans. A Marsh Owl appeared and hunted over a pasture on the opposite side of the road. Fading light finally forced us to continue on and we arrived at the Weaver's Nest Guesthouse in Wakkerstroom after dark.
Weaver's Nest is situated on a grassy hillside above a river and wetland. We began the day by birding in the gardens of the guesthouse where we saw many common species such as Cape Weavers, Cape Glossy Starlings, Diederik Cuckoo, Hadeda Ibis, and Greyheaded Sparrows. A single Black Harrier flew by, our only sighting of this unusually marked harrier on the trip. A walk through the grassland near the guesthouse produced sightings of Swainson's Francolins, Helmeted Guineafowl, and Fantailed Cisticolas. A loud double-noted call alerted us to the presence of a pair of Crowned Cranes which had left their roosting site in the wetlands and were flying along the river.
We next visited the large swamp (vlei) which is situated on the outskirts of town. The reeds were alive with birds, particularly Red Bishops and Masked Weavers. Levaillant's Cisticolas, Yellow Warblers, African Sedge Warblers, and several Acrocephalus warblers were commonly heard and occasionally glimpsed as they foraged in thick cover. Waterbirds were numerous including Yellowbilled Duck, Hottentot Teal and Redbilled Teal. We saw large numbers of African Cliff Swallows and Whiterumped Swifts which were nesting under a bridge next to the swamp.
Later, we drove out to an area of grassland along the Amersfoort Road where a couple of the Wakkerstroom specialties, Rudd's and Botha's Larks, are known to occur. Despite multiple attempts, we failed to locate either species since it was apparently too late in the year to find displaying males. We did see Redcapped Larks and a Longbilled Pipit. We also saw many Longtailed Widowbirds, the males of which flew with peculiar, floppy wing beats. Other common birds of these high elevational grasslands included Stonechats, Southern Anteating Chats, Grassveld Pipits, Orangethroated Longclaw, Ayre's Cisticolas, and Banded Martins. Mammals included the introduced Bontebok, Blesbok and a Black Wildebeast.
In the late afternoon, we drove east from Wakkerstroom across the KwaZulu-Natal border to the Zaaihoek Dam. The scenery was superb with rolling mountains that were almost completely covered in grassland. A Secretary Bird was one of the most interesting sightings along the way and we stopped to watch it walking on a grassy slope. We also saw a Greater Kestrel perched on a telephone pole. The hillsides below the Zaaihoek Dam were steep and covered with boulders. In this habitat, we recorded Rock Kestrels, Buffstreaked Chats, Mocking Chats, Mountain Chats, Cape Rock Thrushes and Rock Pigeons. Family groups of Rock Dassies (Hyrax) were often seen sunning on rockpiles along the road or on the surrounding slopes.
Today we drove east from Wakkerstroom and crossed over the scenic escarpment into lower elevational grasslands near the small town of Dirkiesdorp. While descending the escarpment, the road crossed a stream valley with dense thickets of low-growing trees. In this area we heard and saw Bokmakierie, Malachite Sunbirds, Greater Doublecollared Sunbirds, Redwinged Starlings and a Redthroated Wryneck. Overhead, we saw a flock of Alpine, Whitevented, and Black Swifts. As we continued the descent, we passed traditional Zulu villages which consisted of round, mud-bricked huts with thatched roofing. In the surrounding grasslands, we found a pair of Jackal Buzzards, Redshouldered and Redcollared Widows.
In mid-afternoon, we again returned to Wakkerstroom and met a local bird guide who intended to show us some of the specialties of the area that we had not yet located. A thunderstorm was approaching, so we had to rush to the various sites before the heavy rain arrived. We began by driving to a high plateau just east of the town where we methodically walked across a pasture in order to flush larks or pipits. After about 20 minutes of walking and a nearby strike of lightning, we flushed two Yellowbreasted Pipits. We had an excellent view of one of these birds while it stood for several minutes in the open at the base of a rock. Next, we headed back to the Amersfoort Road where we were shown a flock of Blackwinged Plovers and a male Montagu's Harrier. After this, we continued on to another pasture which had been heavily grazed but was apparently a favoured locality for both of the rare larks. Unfortunately, the thunderstorm was becoming intense and we only had a few minutes to search before lightening and hail forced our retreat. We did flush a number of larks but could not recognise these due to the strong winds and the dark sky. Blue Koorhans were well seen in the same pasture. It rained for the remainder of the day and we had dinner by candlelight at the guesthouse due to a power outage for the night.
At first light, I walked from the guesthouse to the wetlands to search for Palecrowned Cisticolas. While struggling through the tall grass, I eventually found a pair of the Cisticolas which were feeding young. I also flushed a Redchested Flufftail, a rail which is more often heard than seen. Later, I watched a pair of Crowned Cranes as they flew to a dead tree on the opposite side of the river. They began a display which included lots of bowing and calling while holding their wings outstretched. While I was enjoying this spectacle, a Malachite Kingfisher suddenly appeared and landed on a cattail only a few meters from me before darting away.
We departed Wakkerstroom in the early morning and commenced the long drive to Kruger National Park. We stopped briefly near Amersfoort where we had seen the cranes. This time, no cranes were found, but we saw Orangebreasted Waxbills, Golden Bishops, Redshouldered Widows, Stonechats, and a Spikeheeled Lark in a small roadside marsh. A pair of Blue Koorhans flushed noisily and flew off giving us great views of their rich blue and chestnut plumage. In the same area, we watched a Yellow Mongoose as it hunted along the edge of the road.
We arrived at Kruger National Park at about 4 pm and had two hours to travel 60 km to Lower Sabie Camp before its gates closed for the night. This proved difficult since we immediately encountered many exciting animals. Within a few kilometres of Crocodile Bridge, our entry point to the park, we found large herds of Impala as well as lesser numbers of Burchell's Zebras, Giraffes, Elephants, and Blue Wildebeast. We also saw an adult Martial Eagle, numerous Bateleur Eagles, Marabou Stork, three species of Hornbills, European BeeEater, European and Lilacbreasted Rollers and many others. Two snakes were sighted on the road including what we believe to be a Common Night-Adder (Causes rhombeatus) and a Boomslang (Dispholidus typus) near Crocodile Bridge.
At sunrise, we walked to the back of the camp where we could watch a stretch of the Sabie River. A troop of Chacma Baboons squabbled in the trees across the river, and we saw a few hippopotamus and crocodiles in the water. A female Thickbilled Weaver was sighted just beyond the fenceline and a Little Bittern was seen in flight and then perched in cattails along the shoreline of the river. We watched a tame Natal Francolin as it walked on the lawn within the camp.
As it became lighter, we began birding within the camp which proved to be excellent do to the many large trees. Some of the figtrees were fruiting and these received a steady stream of visitors, such as flocks of the Grey Louries, Plumcoloured Starlings, African Green Pigeons, African Blackheaded Orioles, and Grey Hornbills. In other large trees within the camp, we found a Gabar Goshhawk, Brownhooded Kingfisher, Yellowbreasted Apalis, Melba Finch, Blue Waxbills and Marico Sunbirds. On the ground around our camper van were Burchell's and Cape Glossy Starlings, Arrowmarked Babblers and African Pied Wagtails. Lesser Striped and Wiretailed Swallows perched on powerlines leading to the office.
After birding for an hour or so within the camp, we drove to the nearby Sunset Dam. The water was covered with hyacinth and on these we found African Jacanas. Other interesting birds included a pair of Saddlebilled Storks, African Fish Eagles, nesting Redbilled Buffalo Weavers, African Cuckoo, Woodland Kingfishers and Whitefronted BeeEaters. What appeared to be a patch of mud protruding from the water suddenly grew in size as a Hippopotamus surfaced for air. Also at the dam were Waterbucks and a large Water Monitor.
We next followed a dirt track along the eastern boundary of the park back to the Crocodile Bridge Camp. The habitat along the way was dry, open savannah. Raptors were numerous including Wahlberg's Eagle, Bateleur Eagles, Lesser Spotted Eagles, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Hooded Vultures, Whitebacked Vultures, and Whiteheaded Vultures. Also seen were Ostrich, Kori Bustards, European Rollers and many of the stunning Carmine BeeEaters. One of the highlights of this drive was the sighting of a White Rhinoceros which was grazing along with a few Zebra.
At Crocodile Bridge, we were able to get out of the car once again and walk around the well shaded camp. As with many camps in Kruger, Crocodile Bridge was shaded by large trees and situated on the banks of a river. In one of the fruiting trees, we saw a flash of colour which proved to be a Purplecrowned Lourie. We also saw a male European Oriole and a Striped Cuckoo in the same area. During this hot afternoon, a number of birds were attracted to a sprinkler on a lawn near the front gate, including Whitebrowed Scrubrobins, Sombre Bulbuls, Black Flycatchers, African Paradise Flycatchers and a pair of Chinspot Batis. We found another of the beautiful sunbirds, Whitebellied, in a flowering tree. Soon after departing the camp, we saw a Steenbok, one of the diminutive species of antelope.
We drove on to Skukuza Camp where we spent the night. Skukuza is the administrative headquarters of Kruger National Park and is also the largest camp. About an hour before dark, we left on one of the organised night drives. Large, semi-enclosed trucks are used for the drives which are accompanied by an armed ranger and driver . The drive proved to be excellent for both birds and mammals. At dusk, we saw a magnificent Greater Kudu bull with long, twisted horns. We also found a pair of Crested Francolins which were walking along the road and a Brown Snake Eagle which was perched on a roadside tree. After sunset, we saw many nightjars but we were only able to identify an European which was briefly captured by the ranger. Also seen was a Giant Eagle Owl, Spotted Eagle Owl, Bronzewinged Courser, Spotted Dikkops and Water Dikkops. On a granite outcrop, we saw several of the rock-dwelling Klipspringers (antelope). Other mammals on the drive included a litter of Spotted Hyaenas which lived in a drainage culvert, Large-spotted Genets, Bushbabies, Scrub Hare, and the ubiquitous Impala.
We again birded in the campground for the first few hours of the morning. The tree above our camper van proved to be a roosting site for Steelblue Widowfinches and Pintailed Whydahs. In the trees near the headquarters, we found three members of the African bush-shrike family including Brubru, Puffbacked Shrike, and Southern Boubou. We followed a loud song into a thicket near a pond and eventually had great views of a family of Hueglin's Robins. Whitethroated Robins were also heard and seen in drier thickets near the headquarters. Other birds near our campsite included Fantailed/Bluegrey/ Spotted Flycatchers, Blackcollared Barbets, Collared Sunbirds, Southern Black Tits, Lesser Masked Weavers, Kurrichane Thrush, Bleating Warblers, and a Little Sparrowhawk.
We left Skukuza before noon and drove north towards Letaba Camp. We detoured to Orpen Dam which is situated in a valley and surrounded by dry, rocky hillsides. A number of strange trees grew near the picnic site including tree Euphorbias. The water level in the dam was low and many crocodiles could be seen. Branches on trees near the water were weighted down by the hanging nests of Masked Weavers. On the shoreline, we observed a pair of Saddlebilled Storks, Water Dikkops, Common Sandpipers and Whitefaced TreeDucks. We apparently had just missed seeing a Cheetah which had visited the waterhole a little before our arrival.
We continued north and stopped briefly at the Setara Camp for a cool drink. Just outside of the gate, we found a large flock of White Storks which were feeding in a flooded area and a flock of 30 Marabou Storks which were soaring overhead. While sitting in the shade of the veranda of the restaurant, we watched an African Hoopoe and Crested Barbet bathing at a water display. Burchell's Glossy Starlings, Redbilled Buffalo Weavers and Arrowmarked Babblers all searched for scraps of food on and around the tables. Mammals included a herd of Eland just south of the camp.
Near Letaba Camp, we saw huge flocks of Redbilled Queleas and Wattled Starlings flying to roadside waterholes. Our arrival at Letaba camp was near sunset, but a brief walk along the boardwalk which overlooks the Letaba River produced Doublebanded Sandgrouse. These birds were calling and flew back and forth along the river before finally settling to drink. Hippopotamus were observed feeding on the grassy banks of the river, and Bushbucks fed on the lawns within the camp. A Spotted Hyaena walked just beyond the electric fence while surveying the campground.
At sunrise, we walked to the back of the camp where we could watch a large stretch of the Letaba River. We saw a flock of Marabou Storks and several Hippopotamus on the gravel banks across the river. A number of smaller birds were observed near the water including Chestnutbacked Finchlarks, Brownthroated Martins, Redbreasted Swallows, and Common Sandpipers. The loud song of Redfaced Cisticolas was often heard and the birds were occasionally seen as they sang from cattails growing in the river.
After departing the camp, we initially drove south along a dirt track on the banks of the Letaba River. This track passed through patches of riparian forest. In one such thicket, we played a tape of a Pearlspotted Owl and soon attracted in a mixed flock of passerines consisting of a Paradise Whydah, Southern Black Tits, Yellowbreasted Apalis, Jameson's Firefinch, Longbilled Crombecs, Chinspot Batis, and a Greyheaded Bush Shrike. A Pearlspotted Owl also flew in and began to call, which resulted in a frenzy of mobbing behaviour by the other birds. We had excellent views of the beautiful Greyheaded Bush Shrike which was particularly vigorous in its mobbing of the owl.
The track along the Letaba River eventually diverted to the Oliphants Camp which is nestled in the rocks of a steep hillside and overlooks the Oliphants River. Although it was hot and dry in Kruger, many of the rivers were muddy and rapidly flowing due to rain in the mountains outside of the park. This was true of the Oliphants River and virtually no open shoreline or waterside plants were visible. Many mammals could be seen in the shade of the trees on the floodplain below the camp. These included Zebras, Blue Wildebeests, Waterbucks and Giraffes. We also saw a Blackbacked Jackal as it trotted along a dirt track. A sprinkler on a lawn within the camp was again attractive to birds including Crested Barbets, Whitethroated Robin, Spotted Flycatchers and others
From Oliphants, we headed north along the main road towards Shingwedzi Camp. Just north of the turnoff to Letaba Camp, we saw a large flock of vultures gliding down to a sandbar in the Letaba River. We stopped and watched as Hooded, Whitebacked, Whiteheaded, and Lappetfaced Vultures bathed and then dried their opened wings before again taking to the air. We had terrific views of the departing birds as they spiralled in a thermal directly over our camper van. The huge Lappetfaced Vultures struggled the most to regain altitude and we could hear the wind rustling through their primaries as they passed overhead. While watching the vultures, we also saw a flock of passerines in the nearby shrubs including Southern Black Tits, Longbilled Crombecs, and a singing Olivetree Warbler which was eventually seen.
A little further to the north, we stopped when we saw several cars parked on the shoulder of the road. We initially could not see any animals but eventually realised that there were four Lions laying in the shade of trees within a few meters of the road. The park regulation requiring visitors to stay inside of their vehicles except in designated areas now seemed like a very good idea. The colour of the lions blended perfectly with the dry grass and brush. While we watched the Lions, a lone Buffalo scrambled out of a gully and ran across the road in front of us while looking back at the Lions. The Lions did not react.
As we approached Shingwedzi camp, we saw another of the dwarf antelopes, Sharpe's Grysbok, in the shade of a thicket. We arrived at Shingwedzi Camp in time for another night drive. This drive followed the Shingwedzi River to Kanniedood Dam where we saw an Yellowbilled Stork. Another interesting sighting was of several bull elephants which walked down to the river and began to bathe. One of the elephants would completely submerge itself. We stopped at the base of the Kanniedood Dam and walked with the ranger up the dam wall. Doublebanded Sandgrouse were again seen at twilight as they flew and called over the dam. Along the shoreline, we could see several Hippopotamus, Waterbucks and Crocodiles. Once it was dark, we continued on the drive. Both Water Dikkops and Spotted Dikkops were seen along the dirt tracks as were many nightjars but we could not identify these confusing birds. Five species of nightjars are known to inhabit this area. We had hoped to find a Leopard which the ranger said was often sighted in the thickets along the river but we were not successful. We did encounter an African Wild Cat which resembled a slightly larger version of the domestic cat and saw several of the strange rodents known as Springhaas.
The campground at Shingwedzi was dry and without a lawn or many large trees. Birds were still numerous. We watched Yellowbilled Hornbills and Greater Blue-Eared Glossy Starlings catch beetles which had been attracted to lights of one of the camp kitchens. A rattling call of a woodpecker soon was found to be from a Bennett's. Along a riparian thicket near the camp headquarters, we found several Hueglin's Robins and also a pair of Greencapped Eremomelas which were travelling with a mixed-species flock. A number of active Redheaded Weaver nests were situated in trees between the cabins, and a pair of Cutthroat Finches was seen at the top of a leafless tree.
We left the camp early and drove north towards the Pafuri Picnic area. This northern portion of the park was much quieter than the south and we often felt as if we had the park to ourselves. The habitat was a mixture of dense thorny shrubs and a rather monotonous area dominated by small mopane trees. Cape Buffalo and Elephants were common, but we did not see nearly as many large mammals as in the southern plains. Birds along the way were also not as diverse but included larger numbers of Secretary Birds, occasional Purple Rollers, and others.
We arrived at the picnic site of Pafuri early on a hot afternoon. The picnic site is situated in an area of dense riparian woodland along the Luvuhuu River. It is an area of great interest since a number of birds of Kruger are more easily found here than elsewhere in the park. We walked to the upper banks of the river and immediately saw several birds which were new to us. A flock of Trumpeter Hornbills flew along the river and then landed in a fruiting figtree. We found a pair of Broadbilled Rollers which hawked for insects from a treetop on the opposite bank. Whitecrowned Plovers were common on the sandbanks as were crocodiles. European, Carmine and Whitefronted BeeEaters were all abundant in the trees along the river.
We sat for awhile on a bench which overlooked the river and watched many birds fly to the water's edge to bathe and drink. Some of the species observed were Greenspotted Doves, Redfaced Mousebirds, Tropical Boubou, Yelloweyed Canaries, Steelblue Widowfinch, and Goldenbreasted Buntings. In a thicket next to the bench, we found a pair of Spectacled Weavers which were creeping among the vines, and a pair of Bleating Warblers. Around the picnic grounds, we saw Longtailed Glossy Starlings and Vervet Monkeys. We also found a flock of Redbilled Woodhoopoes in the trees near the carpark.
About 4 pm, we left Pafuri and drove back to Punda Maria Camp where we spent the night. Punda Maria camp is located on a thickly vegetated hillside in an area of sandy soil. We arrived about a half hour before dark and had a quick look around the dry campground. A Scarletchested Sunbird fed in a tree near our camper van and two Purple Widowfinches were observed at a birdbath in the barbeque area. In the garden near the headquarters, we saw one of the fast moving Sand Snakes (Psammophis sp.).
Soon after sunrise, I walked along the Paradise Flycatcher Nature Trail which follows the fenceline through woodland along the upper boundary of the camp. As the name implied, African Paradise Flycatchers were frequently sighted. One of the most beautiful birds seen was a Pygmy Kingfisher which perched quietly in a tree. Also found was a pair of Bluegrey Flycatchers.
Back in the campground, we saw several species of birds in the dense thickets which separated the campground from the cabins. Some of the birds encountered here were Eastern Bearded Robins, Whitethroated Robins, Terrestrial Bulbuls, and a Tropical Boubou. Around our campsite we watched Yellowthroated Sparrows, Redbilled Firefinches, Greyrumped Swallows, and a Bearded Woodpecker. We next walked along the lower boundary of the park and were accompanied for several minutes by a tame Warthog. The Warthog stopped periodically to pull out clumps of grass which it ate roots, soil and all. Along the fenceline, we heard a melodic song and eventually spotted a Blackcrowned Tchagra which was singing from the top of a shrub. Also seen in a tree in the same area was a pair of African Hawk Eagles.
We departed the camp at mid-morning and drove around the Mahonie Loop track which traverses a sandy but well vegetated area of rolling hills. Some of the birds that we found along the track included a flock of White Helmetshrikes, an immature Martial Eagle, Mosque and Redbreasted Swallows, and a Marabou Stork.
In the afternoon, we drove towards the Punda Maria gate and then turned onto a small track which led to a the Thulamila viewpoint. On the return drive, we spotted several Yellowbellied Bulbuls, a Striped Kingfisher and Little Green BeeEaters. We also found a bull Elephant which was standing in the middle of the road. We waited for several minutes until it walked off and disappeared into the thorny vegetation. As we drove by the area where it had been standing, we saw a Redbilled Woodhoopoe so we stopped to have a look at the bird. Suddenly, we heard the trumpeting of an Elephant and looked back to see the bull charging down the road towards us while bellowing and flapping its ears. It was a convincing performance and we quickly left the area and the Elephant in peace.
In the evening, we went on a night drive from Punda Maria. Soon after departing the camp, we stopped to look at an European Hobby which was perched in a treetop. After dark, we saw many nightjars and we were able to recognise another species, the Mozambique Nightjar, with its distinctive white outer tail feathers . African Scops Owls called from large trees on the Mahonie Loop but we were not able to spot the birds. We did see another Giant Eagle Owl with its unusual pink eyelids. Mammals included Elephants, Greater Kudus, Impalas, Bushbucks, Bushbabbies, Large-spotted Genets, an African Civet, Scrub Hare, and many Springhaas. Our driver amazed us when he suddenly stopped the vehicle, ran back to a shrub and then returned with a small Chameleon. He had spotted the lizard with only the aid of the headlights.
We drove to the Pafuri Picnic site shortly after sunrise. Along the way, the road crossed an area of tall mopane trees where we found two Littlebanded Goshawks. In the sandy flats nearer the main north-south road, we found several Doublebanded Sandgrouse dustbathing on the road and saw a Rock Kestrel perched on a power line. Near Pafuri, we found a large flock of Crested Guineafowls which were crossing the road.
Pafuri was full of birds. Around the borders of the picnic grounds, we heard and then saw Hueglin's Robins, Terrestrial Bulbuls, and a Wattled Flycatcher. An immature Crowned Eagle perched in a treetop on the opposite side of the river for nearly 30 minutes before vanishing into the forest. As the temperature climbed, vultures were seen rising in the thermals. While watching a Whiteheaded Vulture, we noticed several swifts which then dropped down to the river. These proved to be Bohm's Spinetails, a species which appears to be almost tailless. We heard a lot of splashing in the river below us but initially could not see the source of the commotion. Eventually, a crocodile drifted into view and it was in the process of crushing what appeared to be a large catfish.
Later, we travelled east from Pafuri along the Luvuhuu River through riparian woodland and an area with many large, yellow-barked Fever Trees. Some of the birds that we recorded here included a Black Cuckooshrike, many Yellowbellied Bulbuls, Woolynecked Storks, Redbilled Helmetshrikes, Redchested Cuckoo, and a Jacobin Cuckoo. Gorgeous Bush Shrikes were occasionally heard, but we could not see these secretive birds. Further along, the road looped back to the main north-south road and passed through dense, low-growing mopane scrub. Not many birds were found here, but we saw one mixed-species flock which contained White Helmetshrikes, many Redheaded Weavers including the only fully-coloured male that we encountered, and a pair of Whitebellied Sunbirds.
In mid-afternoon, we again tried the Pafuri Picnic area. Near the caretakers house, we found an interesting mixed-species flock which contained a Yellow White-Eye, a pair of Orangebreasted Bush Shrikes, Yellowbreasted Apalis, Greencapped Eremomela, and Bleating Warblers. A male African Golden Oriole was sighted as it flew from tree to tree along the river. A herd of the colourful Nyala antelope were also seen as they walked through the picnic grounds. Vervet Monkeys were again numerous about the picnic area and one succeeded in running off with a loaf of bread when we briefly walked to the car from our table.
Today, we awakened to cloudy and windy conditions. We began by driving the Mahonie Loop before departing Kruger via the Pafuri Gate. While on the Mahonie Track, we stopped and watched a flock of Ground Hornbills which walked across the road. A new bird for us was the Neddicky, another member of the Cisticola family. We also found a Pearlspotted Owl, a flock each of White and Redbilled Helmetshrikes, a pair of Lesser Spotted Eagles, and another pair of Bennett's Woodpeckers. Several Cape Parrots were seen in flight near Punda Maria Camp.
While heading north, we stopped briefly at Pafuri, but this time it was quiet. We did find a Tambourine Dove along the river, and a Scimitarbilled Woodhoopoe. As we continued towards the Pafuri Gate, we found a beautiful blue and green Chameleon which was crossing the road. It had an amazing ability to rapidly change colour when disturbed. It also hissed and displayed its yellow mouth lining when we moved it to the side of the road. Near Pafuri Gate, we saw a Black (Verreaux's) Eagle and a flock of Dusky Larks. The strange Baobab trees with their enormous trunks were common in this northern portion of the park.
From Pafuri Gate, we travelled west towards Messina. The countryside along this route was covered with large Baobabs but the understorey was heavily grazed. The birding highlight along the way was a Blackbreasted Snake Eagle but few other species were seen. We eventually reached the main highway which connects South Africa and Zimbabwe and then turned south towards Louis Trichardt. This area was dry and located in the rainshadow of the Soutpansburg Mountains. Small flocks of the social Whitecrowned Shrikes were seen a number of in this area. As we crossed the mountain, it began to rain and this grew heavier while descending to the town of Louis Trichardt. We decided to spend the night at Ben Lavin Nature Reserve which was located a few kilometres south of the city. This proved to be an adventure since the campsite was down a slippery, muddy road. We became stuck in the mud once along the way.
We awakened to wet weather but the clouds began to break by mid-morning and the day became fine. Ben Lavin was covered with dense shrubland but accessible via a number of trails. We found Southern Boubous to be particularly common here as were Melba Finches, Common and Blue Waxbills. Other birds included Marico Flycatchers, Whitewinged Whydahs, Black Cuckooshrikes, and Puffbacked Shrikes which were observed on our early morning walk. Most interesting was a calling Gorgeous Bush Shrike which we saw after a considerable effort.
We left Ben Lavin and then headed southeast towards Tzaneen and another isolated mountain range. Our intent was to drive along the old gravel road which passes through indigenous mountain forest near Magoebaskloof. Upon arrival, however, we found the road to be muddy and we were afraid that we would become stuck, so we stayed on the main highway. Most of the surrounding mountainside had been converted to Eucalyptus plantations. While driving up the mountainside, we found a picnic area which was surrounded by a remnant patch of native forest. As soon as we stopped, we heard several unfamiliar calls the most common of which we traced to Yellowstreaked Bulbuls and Squaretailed Drongos. Other birds included Kynsna Louries, Olive Woodpeckers, Black Sunbirds, Lesser Doublecollared Sunbirds, Barthroated Apalis, Cape White-Eyes and Cape Batis. Samango Monkeys were also observed feeding in the surrounding trees.
We continued the drive to the top of the escarpment and near the Magoebaskloof Hotel, we stopped when we spotted another patch of native forest. We found a trail which skirted the edge of the escarpment which we had just climbed and from which we could see into the valley and the treetops. Many interesting birds were sighted along this track. From the lookouts, we saw Forest Buzzards, Longcrested Eagles, several Kynsna Louries, Black Sawwing Swallows, Whitenecked Ravens and Rameron Pigeons. The track eventually descended into wet native forest which was draped with mosses and lichens. Here, we found a mixed-species flock consisting of Yellowstreaked Bulbuls, Sombre Bulbuls, Squaretailed Drongo, Grey Cuckooshrike, Olive Woodpeckers, and a male Blackfronted Bush Shrike. We heard a singing Chorister Robin but could never spot the bird. As we emerged from the forest, we saw several Forest Canaries, Swee Waxbills, Black Widowfinch, and heard a Barratt's Warbler.
In the evening, we drove back to a small town near Tzaneen where we spent the night in a municipal caravan park.
Low clouds covered the mountain in the morning, so we birded around the campsite while waiting for the clouds to lift. In the campground, we saw a couple of interesting birds including Kurrichane Thrush and Bronze Mannikins. We then drove up to the trail at the Magoebaskloof Hotel, and walked into the forest. With the thick cloudcover, most of the birds were quiet but Bill added a new species to the the list, a Yellowthroated Warbler. Bill also witnessed an attack by a Crowned Eagle on a troop of Samango Monkeys which had been feeding quietly in a treetop.
We departed Magoebaskloof by late-morning and commenced the drive to Nylsvlei Reserve near the town of Naboomspruit. The Nylsvlei Reserve is located in an area which often floods in the summer, and we were in time for this event. Upon arrival at the Reserve, we drove to the bird hide which was situated in the flooded area and bordered by scattered thorny acacias. While driving to this site, we saw a Cobra on the road which reared and then hurtled itself back into the grass. Also along the way were several Tsessebe Antelope and Warthogs. Many waterbirds were present as were a number of the dry country species. Near the hide, we found a Blackchested Prinia, Crimsonbreasted Shrikes, Rufousnaped Larks, and many nesting Whitebrowed Sparrow Weavers. Brownthroated Martins were present in large flocks and often perched on the cattails in the swamp. We had hoped to visit the bird hide, but this would have required wading and we were not certain of the status of Bilharzias in this area. Some of the waterbirds that we could see from vantage points on dryland included Purple Herons, Grey Herons, Cattle Egrets, Great Egrets and an African Fish Eagle.
In the evening, we drove to the nearby Vogelfontein farm where there was a larger expanse of open water. The farm also has a hide from which the surrounding wetlands may be surveyed. Unfortunately, wading would have been necessary to reach the hide, so we remained on the roadside and dikes. We flushed a couple of Black Crakes and a Little Bittern while walking along the dike which leads to the hide. Other birds included Blackcrowned Night Herons, Squacco Herons, Hammerkops and Whitefaced Treeducks. Ethiopian Snipe were seen on a number of occasions and one gave an aerial display. A single African Harrier was sighted as it hunted over a flooded field.
We spent the night in the hills near Naboomspruit where there are many resorts due to natural hot springs. A better choice would have been the campground within Nylsvlei but it was fully booked.
We drove back to Nylsvlei soon after sunrise. Most of the morning was spent walking through an area of thorny acacia trees which bordered the flooded portion of the reserve. Bush-birding was good and produced a number of species which were new to us. A group of Burntnecked Eremomelas was sighted as they flew from shrub to shrub. An almost inaudible, high-pitched song was tracked to a Barred Warbler which sang from the tops of the acacias. Finches were abundant including Melba, Scalythroated, Common Waxbill, Blackcheecked Waxbill, Blue Waxbill and two beautiful Violeteared Waxbills. Once again, we saw a couple of the brightly-coloured Crimsonbreasted Shrikes as they foraged on the ground. We saw Greybacked Bleating Warblers on several occasions in the thickets near the wetland. European (Barn) Swallows and Brownthroated Martins were abundant and mixed in these flocks were a few House Martins and Pearlbreasted Swallows. We also found a Pied Barbet, several Titbabblers, Threestreaked Tchagras, Sabota Larks, Redfaced Mousebirds and a Lesser Honeyguide.
All too soon, it was time to head back to Johannesburg where I caught an afternoon flight back to Sydney. Bill and Sandra spent another three weeks in southern Africa and travelled to the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and then north through Namibia before also returning to Australia.
Most of the following books and tapes may be purchased (inexpensively) at stores within Kruger National Park. I purchased the Wakkerstroom Guide through the African Bird Club.
KNP -- Kruger National Park.
NR - - Nylsvlei Reserve
BL -- Ben Lavin Nature Reserve
M -- Magoebaskloof
WB -- Witbank
WK -- Wakkerstroom
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