MICHAEL GRAHAM – MARCH 2010

Day 1 – 4th March
It’s 0300 and time to get up and head for Cape Town Airport for the flight to Durban at 0630. This is the early start of many early starts during the following 10 days. The flight is 25 minutes ahead on of schedule on arrival so off to a good start. A nice breakfast at Amanzimtoti on the way South to Oribi and we are set but the weather looks “ify�. Still we are optimists and there are good birds to be seen. Before we get to Oribi we make a couple of diversions to Umdoni Park and Andrew Pickles home and garden. Umdoni is small but diverse and we pick up on Little Sparrowhawk and Crowned Eagle plus Barbets, Apalis and Bulbuls. By now the weather has turned very wet but we don’t give up and head for Andrew Pickles home. Bronze and Magpie Mannikins are there. He showed us great pictures of birds that he has ringed at his garden. The rain persists as we head to Oribi. Let’s hope for better weather tomorrow. Still 29 species and 2 lifers.

Day 2 – 5th March
Only seems like yesterday we were up at 0300 and we are up early again at 0500. We head down into the Gorge. First bird is a lifer, Mountain Wagtail at the river but no Finfoot. Birds are plentiful and we pick up on Brown Robin, Yellow-throated Warbler, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Green Twinspot to name but a few. The weather is better and the Gorge at Oribi offers up many Swifts and Swallows plus a really good view of Crowned Eagle in flight from above.

We head off for Creighton via Kokstad now so eyes peeled as we motor North West. It is a good road and species are plentiful including Forest Buzzard, Long-crested Eagle, Crowned Crane, Amur Falcon, Buff-streaked Chat, Black Harrier, Lanner Falcon, and South African Cliff Swallow. Almost 90 species for the day and 4 lifers. The aroma from Gail’s cooking is wonderful and we look forward to a nice meal after a long day. Malcolm will want an early start again tomorrow despite yesterday’s long day.

Day 3 – 6th March
An early start AGAIN as we have to head for Ntsikeni Nature Reserve for the elusive Eurasian Bittern. It is foggy but the Reserve is clear when we get there. We head out to the vlei with chairs and breakfast. No sign or sound or the Bittern but Montagu’s Harrier turns up plus Verreaux’s Eagle. We hear African Rail but can’t tempt it out of cover. Wattled Crane are there too. The Cape Vulture colony is worth a visit as there are a number of chicks on the rock ledges. Still no sign of the Bittern so we return to Creighton.

Day 4 – 7th March
Another very early start as we head off to Xumeni Forest for Orange Ground Thrush. Nothing, every bird but seems to be out foraging for breakfast. Barratt’s Warbler, Cape Parrot, Rameron Pigeon, Forest Canary. We do 2 or 3 runs along the forest road for the Ground Thrush. Not a peep.

We head back to Creighton to walk the 2 kilometres of railway line from the town to Malcolm’s farm. It is a busy little area of long grasses and reeds. White-winged Widowbird, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Red-billed Queleas but what we needed and found was Orange-breasted Waxbill. Beautiful colours.

Breakfast at last and then out to some of the farms on Malcolm’s patch. Bald Ibis, Black-winged Lapwings (around 200 of them in a field), Drakensberg Prinia and Village Weaver. The best part of the day was Corncrake. Malcolm has only seen 3 in 30 years but you need to know where to look. I’m not allowed an afternoon nap as I must position myself in the garden for the Buff-spotted Flufftail. There are a pair of them and they can come from either of 2 directions to feed on the dropped seeds off the feeding table. Calm turns to chaos when my wife finds a snake in her vanity case. We eventually chase it from the bedroom into the flower bed. Shortly afterwards it surprises a Fluff-tail. My first sighting, now I have to be really observant. I get to see them 5 times and manage a picture too. Never saw the snake again, they tell me it was harmless!!! Dusky Indigobird makes a brief appearance. Malcolm’s cleaned his 4×4 and we are set for the journey tomorrow. So far we are over 140 species and 10 lifers.

Day 5 – 8th March
We head towards Durban and final shopping for our trip plus a breakfast. We work our way up to Malala Lodge on the outskirts of Bonamanzi. Grey Waxbill is our first target in Bonamanzi – nothing, not even a call. We try everywhere, particularly it’s known habitats. Still, we get Chinspot Batis, Green-backed Camaroptera, Yellow-bellied Bulbul, Gorgeous Bush-shrike. We head back for dinner. Fiery-necked Nightjar calls near our chalet.

Day 6th – 9th March
Malcolm must be on drugs, how does he do all these early starts??? It isn’t coffee. We are in Bonamanzi at 0530 looking for Grey Waxbill again. Nothing. But the Reserve is bird rich and there is plenty to keep us going. Bearded Robin, Ashy Fly-catcher, Black Tit, Cisticolas, Weavers and more. We meet up with Bernie, a guide we met the previous year, to ask her about Pink-throated Twinspot and Pennant Nightjar. Nightjar hasn’t been seen for a year but she gives us locations for the Twinspot. We head off and manage to get a good sighting near the staff quarters keeping an eagle eye open for leopard which have apparently got into the reserve by jumping the fence. We try False Bay for birds. It is dead because of the water quality. One Kittlitz and a Goliath Heron but the associated dirt roads were good, with Broad-billed Roller, European Roller, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and African Harrier Hawk.

So, not a bad day and a nice sighting of Rufous-cheeked Nightjar at the chalet at dusk.

Day 7 – 10th March
It’s 0530 and I’m sat in a chair outside the chalet looking at the bird bath waiting for Twinspot. Nothing except for Natal Robin, Golden-tailed and Cardinal Woodpecker. Malcolm tries around the camp for Twinspot. He finds a pair in an Acacia Tree, not a known habitat. By the time I get there they are gone.

We head off for Ndumo after breakfast via the Rafia Palm Monument where we hope to find Palm-Nut Vulture. Nothing. We search all the sites and none to be found.

Ndumo is bird-rich and great place to visit. Just in from the main entrance is the famous Bateleur nest. This nest has been occupied by the same pair for over 20 years and is the southernmost breeding pair in SA. Mum was there. This is a Reserve that requires stealth, patience and time. The roads are good and birds plentiful. There had been a lot of rain there and roads to one of the wetlands was impassable. Still, it didn’t stop us from picking up on Yellow-billed Stork, Green-backed Heron, Lesser Swamp Warbler and Kingfishers. There is a huge nesting colony of YB Storks, Cormorants and Pelicans there but beware the crocs!!! Ndumo has a Vulture Restaurant and the choice meal of the day was Giraffe. White-backed Vulture sheltered from the heat but a Palm-Nut Vulture sat in the trees. At last, but not where we expected to see it. Unfortunately, we were down wind of the carcass and I have to say that it isn’t a pleasant smell.

Day 8 – 11th March
Still no owls have been sighted but we have heard Scops, Wood, Spotted, Barn and Barred Owlet. Can’t seem to find Sunbirds either, probably because trees are flowerless.

It’s 0500 and we are off on the 4×4 route. It is a tight track but things look promising. We get a great view of Southern Banded Snake Eagle and also a very pale European Honey-Buzzard. The female Black Cuckoo-shrike is stunning in black and yellow. Prinias and Babblers, some sunbirds and Francolins take us to Red Cliffs where we see Black Saw-wing and the Fish Eagle at a nest and Giant Kingfisher. No sign of Pels Fishing Owl which is reported to be here.

We head for Tembe in the afternoon, hoping for Neergard’s Sunbird. We draw a blank again, but do get Croaking Cisticola and Paradise Whydah plus a Steppe Buzzard wandering in long grass looking lost.

Day 9 – 12th March
A relatively late start to-day at 0530 as we pick up our Ndumo guide. He has my lifer list and groans. We make a good start with Burn-necked Eremomela, Grey Penduline Tit, Narina Trogon and Trumpeter Hornbill. Down at the river in Shokra amongst the fig trees we see Squacco Heron, Spectacled Weaver and Red-fronted Tinkerbird. Oxpeckers seem to be scarce but we do see 3 Red-billed in a tree plus Green-winged Pytillia, Woodland Kingfisher and Grey Sunbird.

Water was at a premium in Ndumo after a rhino dug up the water pipe the first evening. Still we managed, the swimming pool acted as a bath and tea was replaced with wine!!!

After breakfast it was off to Wakkerstroom via Pongola. Pongola is a hunting reserve so Malcolm got permission to look for just 2 birds. We found Peregrine Falcon at the railway bridge as expected. Their chicks of last year had been ravaged by an African Harrier Hawk but the parents had stayed and hopefully will breed again. Striped Pipit became a non-starter as the high rainfall had changed it’s habitat from short grass to long grass and it had obviously moved on.

We arrived at Wetlands, our accommodation for 2 nights, by late afternoon. It was Malcolm’s wife Gail’s birthday so we ate out in a very nice bistro in Wakerstroom that evening.

I had arranged through BLSA for a local guide to join us the following morning with a pick-up at 0600. “Lucky� was a godsend as we would never have seen what we did without him. He too was given my life-list and photo list and we set off. Bush Black Cap and Sharp-billed Honeyguide were soon crossed off the list, followed by Red-winged Francolin, Barrows Korhaan, Botha’s Lark, African Rock Pipit and Rudd’s Lark. He saw, but we missed, Blue Korhaan. However, the best sighting was the Leucistic Barn Swallow. Not just one but two on a telephone wire. Perfectly white with normal eye and bill colouring. If I only remember one thing it will be these 2 birds. In the afternoon we went to the Wetlands. This is a great area. African Shelduck, Pochard, Red-billed Teal, Cape Shoveler, Little Bittern, Hottentot Teal, Purple Swamp-hen, Whiskered Tern. Our main target was African Snipe which we found in numbers. One would have been sufficient. They are easily spooked and a photograph is largely impossible.

I watched the Bald Ibis come to roost in the evening. Why they have chosen a Gum Tree is beyond me. Some 160 birds roost each evening just outside of Wakerstroom on the Piet Retief Road.

Day 11 – 14th May
Our last day. No let-up in the early mornings. We only have a few hours as we must be back for breakfast and then set off for Joburg via the scenic route and the flight home to Cape Town.

We had only gone 100 metres and a lifer in the garden, Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk. We went to the Wetlands again and found a solitary African Snipe which was kind enough to give me the opportunity of a photo.

Our last few birds on the way to Joburg were Horus Swift, Greater Kestrel and Curlew Sandpiper.

It was a great 10 days with Malcolm. I didn’t get all that I was looking for but that means I must go back again. Our final count was 272 species and my personal lifer-list was 23.

Good work Malcolm. My lifer list now approaches 600 after only 4 years. Things get more difficult from now on as I “specialise� to find the elusive birds.