MICHAEL GRAHAM – 16 SEPTEMBER 2009

12th. After a pleasant flight up from Cape Town and an overnight stay close to Johannesburg Airport, Malcolm pick Margaret and I up shortly after 0815 for our 7 hour drive to Punda Maria Camp. Traffic was light and we made good time. On arrival at the park gate it was out with the binoculars and cameras the 9 day extravaganza had begun. My aim was to get 20 “lifers” if possible and see as many species as was possible.

We got off to a good start with the 3rd bird sighted being a Bronze Mannikin, a “lifer”. I only count positive I.D.’s for my life-list, recognised calls but no sighting go down as a miss. The road to the camp and the camp itself was busy with birds and for the few hours of daylight that we got after arrival we managed 23 species including Bennett’s Woodpecker, Golden Breasted Bunting, Blue Waxbill and Arfican Fire-finch.

13th. It is 0330 and Malcolm knocks on the bedroom door. He can’t sleep as a pair of Verraux’s Eagle Owls are keeping him awake. Do I want to find them??? Not really I reply as 0515 is not far away and I’m sure we’ll see others.

Malcolm loves the early starts as I know from previous experience and by 0600 we are on the road after a quick look around the camp and waiting for the gate to open. Wahlberg’s Eagle is first to appear, then some sunbirds, Long-billed Crombec and Green-backed Cameoptera, White-throated Robin, Grey-headed Bush Shrike and White-browed Scrub Robin. Back for breakfast, 10 species already. The ladies join us as we do the Mahoni Loop. An interesting sight as we leave camp, a Black-collared Barbet regurgitating fruit seeds and sticking them on the bark of a branch. More good birds as we drive the loop anti-clockwise. Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Red-headed Weaver, Rattling Cisticola, Yellow-throated Petronia, Retz’s Shrike, Mosque Swallow, Brown-headed Parrot, Martial Eagle and Purple Turaco. Lunch on the loop was enjoyable and we are back early afternoon so Malcolm can have his cat-nap. We have another run out at 1600 but must be back by 1700 as we are looking for Pennant-winged Nightjar with Sue-Marie, a SANParks Guide. We pause at an area of burnt scrub and there are large feeding parties of White-browed Sparrow Weaver, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Temmink’s Courser and White-crested Helmet Shrike. Our trip out with Sue-Marie isn’t wasted although Pennant-winged Nightjar did not show. We did get to see African Scops Owl, Fiery-necked Nightjar, Double-banded Courser and Grey-headed Parrot in transit to their roosting site. Another good day, 50 species and 4 “lifers”.

14th. It’s 0515 again and we are all up ready for gate opening at 0600. To-day is a long haul to Pafuri Picnic Site to meet up with Frank Mabaso who will guide us at the Picnic Area for the specials. Still, we have many trees and shrubs to inspect before we get there and no doubt progress will be slow. We pick up on water birds to start with, Dikkop, Plovers, Wood Sandpiper are all at Luvuvhu River Bridge. Flocks of Red-billed Quelia, a Cinnamon-breasted Bunting and a lone White-backed Vulture nesting are there too. Breakfast at the Picnic Site is very welcome and we meet up with Frank who looks after the site and does bird-guiding as well. This site is a must-visit. 6 “lifers” in almost as many minutes, Bohm’s Spinetail, Ashy Flycatcher, Green-capped Eremomela, Black Wattle-eye, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Yellow White-eye. Frank not only knows what tree they are in but which leaf they sit on!!!

We head off to Crook’s Corner with sightings of Bee-eater, Hooded Vulture and Lesser Honeyguide on the way. The lookout point is deserted of people but there are plenty of good birds including Pied Kingfisher, Green-backed Heron, Burnt-necked Eremomela, and Variable Sunbird (a “lifer” for Malcolm too). This was a good day with 36 species and 10 “lifers”. The fillet steak from the braai and a glass of wine (Whisky for Malcolm) went down very well in the evening.

15th. Shifting camps to-day and whilst packing the vehicle an Eastern Nicator graces the trees right outside the chalet, not often do you get a close-up of this bird. It is a fairly long trip to Bateleur Bush Camp, so we make tracks early and take breakfast at Babalala Picnic Site. Birds are a bit scarce to-day but good sightings of Pale Chanting Goshawk, Neddicky, Cut-throat Finch, Melba Finch and African Harrier-Hawk.

Bateleur Camp is small and very clean with a newly installed Bird-hide and Waterhole. A Ground-scraper Thrush calls from a tree above the Bird-hide and as dusk arrives Double-banded Coursers fly in to collect water on the breast feathers to feed the young. Rufous-cheeked Nightjar calls and then duly arrives along with a Verraux’s Eagle Owl which comes to drink. Only 13 species to-day but still managed 2 “lifers”. It will get progressively harder to pick up the species and lifers as time passes. Still, Malcolm is confident and his knowledge of calls will stand us in good stead.
16th. It’s that time again, 0515 as the cell-phone alarm calls. To-day we are off to Shingwedzi and the Kanniedood Dam via Red Rocks. So water birds should be common. Red Rocks and the Shingwedzi River do not give us too many sightings. Water is a premium and rivers are bone dry. There is more water on the moon. Rooibosrandt Dam is empty but Silverfis offers up Black Crake, Sandpipers, Fish Eagle, Giant Kingfisher, Storks, Jacana and Grey Heron.
Kanniedood Dam has good water and there are good numbers of birds including Spoonbill and Darter. I chat with another birder at Shingwedzi Camp who tells me that North of Shingwedzi Camp on the Mphongolo Loop is a Verraux’s Eagle Owl on a nest but before we get to see that we are treated to a display by a Purple-banded Sunbird who doesn’t like his reflection in a car door mirror. No wonder his beak is bent!!! Heuglin’s Robin was nice to see to-day but the display from a Red-crested Korhaan that flies up, rolls over and then falls like a stone in a ball was really exceptional. Only 17 species to-day but I still managed 1 “lifer”.

17th. I don’t think Malcolm has any other time on his watch but 0515. No wonder we are in bed a 2100 each night. Another run up past Red Rocks and the Shingwedzi River. We get a good sighting of Gabar Goshawk at an artificial waterhole and stopping at a small piece of water find a pair of Greater Painted Snipe. This is a really good spot as water is scarce and this bird looked like it was to evade us. Malcolm hasn’t seen one for 20 years he reckons. Another raptor, Black-breasted Snake Eagle this time. Raptors are quite scarce and I guess with the dryness rodents etc. are in short supply. A Yellow-billed Kite graces the sky and more waders are added to the list with Goliath Heron, Open-billed Stork and Kittlitz Plover. A Ground Hornbill family ends our day.

Bateleur Camp offers good birding right outside the chalets with Barbet, Starling, Hornbills, Shrikes, Turacos and Woodpeckers. Keep your shoes on though as Scorpions are here also.

18th. Time to shift again down to Shimuwini Bush Camp with a stop at Mooiplaas Picnic Site for breakfast. The weather has broken and the hot sunny days have given way to cloud, wind and lower temperatures. Smells like rain but there isn’t any. A quick visit to Silverfis but only a Little Egret as another species. We check out Pioneer Dam at Mopani, nothing exciting except a sleeping crocodile with a giant catfish in its jaws. A Black-crowned Tchagra, Rufous-naped Lark, Ruff and White-fronted Plover help to bring the day count to 9. The weather is not helping. Shimuwini camp is on the Letaba River, the water looks clean and clear.

19th. We head for Letaba and Engelhard Dam. Brown Snake Eagle, 2 of them close to the camp struggling to stay perched in the strong wind. At last a Malachite Kingfisher at the water plus a Squacco Heron, one in breeding plumage. Red-faced Cisticola ( a “lifer”) and Little Stint make up the days haul. Only 6 new species and the weather is still poor.

20th. Early to rise AGAIN and the weather has improved slightly. We do the gravel roads to Letaba/Oliphants and back via Masorini. Some good birds to-day. What a wonderful call the Stierling’s Warbler has, tiny bird but so loud. This was a real bonus. Lots of Maribou Stork on the river at Oliphants Camp. The camp was busy with birds too and a walk around the grounds is a must. Back on the road and again some good sightings with Collared Pratincole, Kurrichane Button Quail, Marico Flycatcher, Mocking Cliff Chat and finally a Rock Kestrel. Kestrels were nowhere to be seen, 2 in 9 days, one of which was unidentified.

21st. Time to go, it’s 0600 again and we have a long haul to Johannesburg Airport from the Phalaborwa Gate.
It’s been a very good 9 days. 189 species, 21 “lifers”. Malcolm has done us proud yet again. His knowledge of locale and bird calls is superb, his company is great and Mr Button Birding does himself proud.

By the way, we did see animals in Kruger including Leopard (1), Hyena (2), Lions (8) plus the usual herds of elephant and giraffe. Birding is a great way to see animals as well.

Thanks Malcolm.
See you again in February.