Cairns and Cassowaries

The cheapest and most convenient flight from Sydney to Cairns was on Jetstar, the low-cost “sister” carrier to Qantas.  Jetstar is a distinctly “no frills” airline.  The gate agents weigh your carry-on to see if you have exceeded the strict 7 kg limit; if you have, hefty penalties apply.  There is no entertainment or Wi-Fi on the flight, but you can get water – if you pay extra for it.  Despite the relative lack of amenities, I had no complaints about my Jetstar experience.  The gate agents and flight attendants were polite and professional, the plane was new and clean, and we touched down in Cairns (pronounced like “Cans” if you’re an American) right on time.

Kuanda Rainforest

Kuranda Rain Forest, just outside of Cairns

Cairns is a bustling tourist hub of about 150,000 people right on the coast in Far North Tropical Queensland.  At about 17 degrees south latitude, it experiences sweltering, wet summers and warm, drier winters.  We had perfect weather (highs in the low 80s and dry) most days.  Cairns is a popular birding destination in its own right, and also serves as a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef (to the east), Daintree National Park (to the north), the Atherton Tablelands (to the southwest).  The city is flanked by pristine rainforest on several sides.

Barron Falls

Barron Falls, just NW of Cairns

After we picked up our rental car, we headed straight for the Cairns Esplanade, the walking path that runs for several miles along the water from the city center to a productive patch of mangroves at its northern terminus.  Although the austral summer (e.g. winter in the Northern Hemisphere) is much more productive for shorebirds along the Esplanade, we still managed to rustle up Pied Oystercatcher, Black-fronted Dotterel, Far Eastern Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, and the ubiquitous Masked Lapwing.

Cairns Beach at the Esplanade

Cairns Beach at the Esplanade

Other highlights were Torresian and Sacred Kingfishers, Varied Honeyeaters, a Pacific Reef Heron, and a relatively shy Mangrove Robin.  We would return a couple more times to the Esplanade, picking up Beach Thick-knee and several other species.

After strolling the Esplanade (well, I strolled; Neil intermittently power-walked and peered through his telescope intently) we decided to head down to Etty Bay to search for the largest bird in Australia.  The Southern Cassowary is a rare resident of tropical rainforests in northern Queensland and New Guinea.  Adults can reach 6 feet in height and weigh nearly 200 pounds.  Although it cannot fly, the cassowary is not a bird to be trifled with.  It has powerful legs and a dagger-like toe that can eviscerate would-be predators or hapless birders.

As we approached Etty Bay, I picked up on some subtle signs that cassowaries might be close by.

Cassowary Sign

As we rounded a curve, I caught a glimpse of a large black and blue shape near the edge of the forest.  “Whoa!  Did you see that?!” I hollered at Neil.  His eyes remained on the road and his foot on the accelerator.  He calmly replied, “yep.”

I gave him a hard look.  “It was a large statue of a cassowary, right?” he responded.  The car drove on around another curve.  Panic was rising in my chest as I blurted, “That was not a STATUE of a cassowary!  That.  Was.  A.  Cassowary!”  Neil spared a glance at me, took in my wide eyes and open mouth, and decided that I wasn’t pulling his leg.  The car fishtailed as Neil deftly made a U-turn at speed, and we were hurtling back down the winding hill.  When a mammoth dark shape appeared on the right, Neil pulled the car off to the side of the road 25 meters away.  We took a good long look at the cassowary.  It gave us a glance, and then went back to lounging near the forest.  We carefully got out of the car and crept a little closer, mindful to stay a respectful distance away.

Southern Cassowary

Southern Cassowary – photo by Neil Hayward

The cassowary remained nonchalant, the sunlight gleaming off its horn-like casque.  Its brilliant blue neck extended and then pulled back, its pink wattles swinging in the breeze.  For ten minutes we just marveled at it.  Neil snapped some terrific photos.  We returned to the car, buzzing, and continued onwards towards Etty Bay to see if we could find any other cassowaries.

The beach at Etty bay had picnickers, volleyball players, and beachcombers.  I doubted we would run into any other cassowaries down here.  Until I saw a footprint in the sand.

Cassowary footprint

A very large footprint.  With three toes.  Raising my binoculars, I scanned again.  My eyes alighted on a dark shape stepping out of the rain forest.  It was coming towards me.  I backed out of the way as the prehistoric monster sidled by.  It was not coming for me after all.  It was headed directly for…

Cassowary Picnic Basket

Cassowary Loots the Picnic Basket – photo by Neil Hayward

an unattended picnic basket.  Deftly removing a tea towel covering the food, the cassowary proceeded to pull out a huge bunch of bananas.  In a flash, it ripped off a banana, threw it in the air, and swallowed it whole.  Seconds later another followed, and then another.  It was six bananas in when the owner of the picnic basket arrived and tried to shoo the cassowary away.  The cassowary stood up and stared at the woman, as if to say, “really, what do you intend to do?”  It then proceeded to eat the rest of her bananas, poke around in the basket to see if there was any other ripe fruit, and then slowly amble away.

After having our fill of cassowaries (we spotted an immature bird on the way out), we returned to Cairns.  At this point, I was starving.  Neil asked if I liked pies, “Because, if you do, I know a place.”  The ‘place’ turned out to be a gas station with a Pie Face fast food chain inside.  Let’s just say that after we sampled their “food,” there were only two smiles in the car as we pulled away.

Pie Face

Returning to Cairns, we decided to follow up on a hot lead.  A pair of uncommon Rufous Owls was being reported in a park… which turned out to be immediately adjacent to our hotel – the Reef Palms!  It took us a couple of tries to catch up to them, but eventually we had smashing looks at the owls both in the evening twilight as we watched them court each other and during midday in their roost tree.  You couldn’t quite see them from our room, but you could catch a glimpse of them from inside the hotel at the bottom of the stairs.

Neil looking at owls

They were truly magnificent.  We ended up having great luck with owls on this trip (with five species seen well and another heard only), but these might have been my favorites.

Rufous Owls2

A Pair of Rufous Owls

Getting ready for bed that night, it was hard to imagine that I had actually woken up in Sydney that morning, 1500 miles away.  “Surely we can’t keep up this pace for the entire trip,” I thought as I drifted off to sleep.  I was wrong.

 

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Triumph and Disappointment in NSW

Although it was cold and dark the next morning when we left the hotel, a rosy glow was already gracing the eastern sky.  I was anxious to get going, but first Neil needed to finish fighting the barista at the local coffee shop.  “No, a LARGE cup,” Neil insisted.  The barista put back the 8 oz cup and picked up a 12 oz one.  “Don’t you have anything bigger?” Neil asked as he craned his neck to see around the side of the espresso machine.  “Ah, mate, you want a JUMBO cup,” replied the tired looking man behind the counter.  “Yes, that’s exactly what I want!” Neil exclaimed.  “Yeah, we don’t carry Jumbo cups,” the man responded.  “They do make ’em, though: 16 ounces – it’s like half a liter!”  Neil gave me an exasperated glance as he handed over his bank card.  I chuckled under my breath as he grabbed his flat white and we headed for the car.  Soon we were hurtling west on the M5 motorway towards my second-favorite birding spot in New South Wales, the Australian Botanic Gardens at Mount Annan.

The ABG is a naturalist’s delight.  It has more than a dozen specialty gardens spread out over 1000 acres.  Between the visual beauty and the rich diversity of bird life present, I totally forgot to snap photos of the place!  We ended up spending over five hours there, and racked up 54 species including 9 species of honeyeaters.  One of my favorites were the Bell Miners, which live in dense colonies and give a loud and persistent “BLINK” call, not unlike a bell.  There are some interesting theories explaining why Bell Miners live in colonies.  One is that they “farm” psyllids, a group of insects which feed on eucalyptus.  The young psyllids, called nymphs, form a sweet, sugary shell called a lerp to protect themselves.  The miners sometimes eat the lerps but not the nymphs themselves, and chase away other forest birds which might eat the psyllid nymphs and adults.  There is even some evidence that colonies of Bell Miners can cause whole stands of eucalypts to die when the psyllids that eat them multiply relatively unchecked.  This phenomena is called Bell Miner Associated Dieback.

While I did not get any photos of the Bell Miners, their nosy cousins, the Noisy Miners, visited me at the cafe and tried to steal my scones.

Noisy Miner

Noisy Miner wants my scones

After some fortifying scones and a flat white, we returned to the Banksia Garden in search of the Swift Parrots.  Swift Parrots are critically endangered, with perhaps only 2000 individuals remaining in the wild.  They breed in Tasmania and migrate to mainland Australia in the winter.  Uncommon anywhere, they are especially rare in this area of New South Wales.  However, a small flock of them had been seen intermittently for the last week or so feeding on the Banksia flowers in the southwest corner of the park.  After half an hour amongst the Banksia, we caught a glimpse of a parrot flock blasting through the trees.  These green streaks were indeed quite swift as they wheeled and twisted in a tight group through the canopy, and it was hard to get a good look at them.  They finally settled in the treetops, and we got brilliant scope views of some 25 Swift Parrots (more than 1% of the global population!).  They were the ninth parrot species for the day, joining such other beauties as Australian King Parrot, Crimson & Eastern Rosellas, Galahs, and Red-rumped Parrots.

Soon enough, the Swift Parrots zipped away to check out another corner of the gardens, and our attention was drawn to a brightly colored songbird across the trail.  I re-directed my scope just in time to see a magnificent male Variegated Fairywren in full alternate plumage.

Variegated Fairywren

Variegated Fairywren – photo by Neil Hayward

“Bird of the trip,” I whispered to Neil as he snapped away with his birding camera.  People often ask me what my favorite bird is, and I never had a good answer before.  Now I do: it’s that particular male Variegated Fairywren in the Banksia Garden of the ABG.

After we had our fill of parrots, honeyeaters, and fairywrens, we started working our way towards the exit.  At the north end of the gardens, we stopped by the lakes and picked up a group of Buff-rumped Thornbills and a very handsome male Rose Robin.  Driving home on the M5, we were feeling quite satisfied with our day.  We wanted to turn in early because we were scheduled to get up hours before dawn the next morning for a pelagic birding trip out to the deep ocean off the coast of Sydney.  Near our hotel however, we were graced with an unsettling omen: a white car with a “no birds” logo emblazoned upon both doors.

No birds

But why not?

The car turned out to be a prescient warning.  When Neil checked his messages back at the hotel, we received some unpleasant news.  The weather offshore was quite rough, with high winds and deep swells.  Our pelagic trip had been canceled.  I was devastated.  We had adjusted the timing of our whole trip to coincide with the July pelagic trip out of Sydney.  I was hoping to spend the next day seeing albatrosses, petrels, prions, and shearwaters.  Now we were left with an extra, unscheduled day in NSW.  What to do?  We spent a little time searching the internet for a backup plan, and decided to spend the day at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, about 45 minutes north of Sydney.

Ku-ring-gai Chase is a huge protected area, almost 60 square miles.  We started at the Chiltern Trail, where we ran into a delightful local birder named Robert Griffin, with whom we spent the next two hours.  Highlights of the Chiltern Trail included White-cheeked, White-eared, and Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters.  Later on we stopped at West Head, which was spectacularly beautiful but not tremendously birdy.

Neil at West Head

Neil at West Head in Ku-ring-gai Chase NP

We made a stop at Warriewood Wetlands on the way back to town, and ended the day at Long Reef Aquatic Reserve, a finger of land that extends into the Pacific Ocean just northeast of Sydney.  At the ocean watch near the tip, we watched a dozen Black-browed Albatrosses bank and soar over the waves, circling over the cormorants, gulls, and shorebirds roosting on the offshore islets.  It was not nearly as good as a pelagic trip, but I didn’t leave Australia without seeing at least a few seabirds.

Long Reef Aquatic Reserve
Long Reef Aquatic Reserve (those specks are albatrosses)

We returned to Miranda and packed up our things.  We had an early flight out to Cairns the next morning, our first taste of tropical Queensland.  Four days in NSW had netted us 125 species; not as many as we would have seen had our pelagic trip run, but not too bad for mid-winter in the Sydney metro area.

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An Australia Birding Adventure Begins

The pre-dawn air was cold and still as I made my way through the wrought-iron gates into Centennial Park in southeast Sydney.

Gates to Centennial Park

This was my rendezvous point with Neil Hayward, my “Big Year” birding buddy. We met in Nome, Alaska during our North American Big Years in 2013. Then we birded Costa Rica in July of 2015 (Big Year Birders II) and South Africa (BYB III) in July of 2017. Now we were embarking on BYB IV: Australia. It was early July, mid-winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and we had planned a two and half week trip spanning New South Wales, Queensland, and the Northern Territory.  My family had joined me for a warmup trip in June, and I had just packed them on a plane back to Seattle the night before.  Now I was ready to spend a few weeks with Neil sampling a whole continent’s worth of avifauna.

Black Swans were already browsing the vast lawns, and Rainbow Lorikeets munched on the flowering trees and shrubs.

Centennial Park just after dawn

Immature Rainbow Lorikeet

The flying foxes were making a tremendous racket as they returned to their day roosts high in the paperbarks.  I picked out Long-billed and Little Corellas as the sun crept higher and began to take the chill out of my fingers.  Soon I saw Neil, his lovely wife Gerri, and half-pint mini-me son, Henry.  We spent a few minutes catching up, and then were off to see the other specialties of Centennial Park.  In short order, we picked up a resident Powerful Owl roosting high in a tree and an out-of-range Freckled Duck loafing on one of the islands in a small lake.  The Tawny Frogmouths were playing hard to get until Gerri expertly spotted a sleepy one nestled next to a tree trunk in Lachlan Swamp.  After a couple hours at Centennial Park, we drove west to Bicentennial Park.

Bicentennial Park is located on the shores of Homebush Bay, and is part of Sydney’s Olympic Park (developed in preparation for the 2000 Olympic Games).  Highlights here were Red-necked Avocets, Chestnut Teal, and Brown Quail.  We put together a decent list in less than 90 minutes, and then headed off for pizza dinner.  Gerri and Henry were flying home that night, and after dropping them off at SYD, we made our way south to Miranda where we would be spending the next few nights.

The next morning before dawn we set out for Royal National Park, one of the best birding spots in New South Wales.  We began our day at the Mt. Bass fire trail, which was advertised as being good for birds of the open country heath. 

Photo Jul 10, 2 42 28 PM

While there were no Chestnut-rumped Heathwrens or Southern Emuwrens in evidence, we did pick up some very handsome singing Tawny Honeyeaters.  After a quick stop at the Ironbark Flat visitor’s center to pay our entrance fees and say hi to some Sulfur-crested Cockatoos, we were off to one of my favorite places on earth.

Sulfur-crested Cockatoo

Lady Carrington Drive, named for the wife of a former governor of NSW, is a 10 km trail running through the heart of Royal NP.  Originally designated as a “carriageway,” it was officially opened by Lady Carrington herself in 1886.  Nowadays it is a scenic trail for hikers, cyclists, and birders who want to explore the prime eucalypt forest and riparian habitat.

Photo Jul 10, 3 47 56 PM

We walked south from the trail’s northern terminus for several hours, constantly serenaded by the ubiquitous Yellow-faced Honeyeaters.

Lady Carrington Drive

Highlights included our first Scarlet Myzomelas of the trip, terrific views of perched Topknot Pigeons, scads of Eastern Spinebills, and two obliging Rockwarblers. 

Photo Jun 23, 5 29 24 PM

Despite diligently searching, we did not pick up the Superb Lyrebird, as expected.  After a spot of lunch back at Ironbark Flat, we headed south.  The southern terminus of Lady Carrington was largely birdless in the listless heat of the day, with the noted exception of a spectacular Bassian Thrush.

Photo Jul 10, 8 13 13 PM

We ended the day at Curra Moors in a final attempt to pick up some heathland species.  On the way down the path, I noted the characteristic song of an Eastern Whipbird coming from deep inside a nearby bush.  Despite being one of my favorite sounds of the Australian forest, I continued down the trail thinking about my tired feet and the general lack of Heathwrens.  The Whipbird sang again, but it didn’t sound quite right.  An instant later, a Yellow-faced Honeyeater sang from inside the same bush.  Then a bird I didn’t recognize.  Then a Laughing Kookaburra.  Then the drunk Whipbird again.  I stopped in my tracks.  Something was not right.  What was wrong with that Whipbird?  And was it hosting a bird party inside that bush?  And why is a Kookaburra lurking deep inside the undergrowth?  Unless… 

“Neil!” I hissed.  He was, as usual, already quite a ways down the trail, but he heard me and turned around.  I pointed furiously at the bush in the mid-distance.  The Kookaburra was laughing again, but stopped abruptly only to be replaced by a honeyeater, then something else I didn’t recognize, then the drunk Whipbird again.  Unless I was very much mistaken, we were actually listening to one of the best avian mimics in the world, the Superb Lyrebird.  (Perhaps you have seen this one singing for Sir David Attenborough?)  We crept closer to the bush, but couldn’t get a clear view of the bird.  When we were within five meters, the singing suddenly stopped.  Silence descended.  We walked over to the bush, but it was deserted.  Then, down the trail, we heard it again: drunken Whipbird, honeyeater, Kookaburra.  The Lyrebird was singing again.  We retraced our steps, and listened to this incredible mimic go through its entire repertoire, which included at least six or seven different species.  The concert went on and on but the star performer stayed just out of sight.  Finally, at the end of a particularly magnificent passage, there was an explosion of feathers as the Lyrebird bounded down the hill, leaping fallen branches and other debris like an Olympic hurdler.  In less than 20 seconds it had disappeared completely into the late afternoon heath.  Neil and I grinned as we made our way back up the hill to the car.  It was a concert we would not soon forget.

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Arrival at the Indian Ocean: Birding St. Lucia and iSimangaliso

On the afternoon of Day 12 of our South African birding adventure, we drove into St. Lucia. This is not the island nation of Saint Lucia in the eastern Caribbean. This is St. Lucia, a tiny tourist town (population 1100) in KwaZulu-Natal on the shores of the Indian Ocean in eastern South Africa. I fell in love with it at once. The main street had a welcoming and low-key vacation vibe. A warm ocean breeze stirred the palm trees outside the coffee shop, where we drank coffee and ate pastries. There was both WiFi and cell service, and Neil and I took the opportunity to send reassuring texts to our families after a number of days of radio silence. And after five or six meals in a row of granola bars, dried fruit, and sandwiches (and wondering if I should buy some sketchy looking warthog chops to cook with my bare hands over the braai), we were greeted by a number of real restaurants. We had reserved a room at St. Lucia Wilds for two nights, which was a perfectly nice place to stay with a quiet setting, clean and comfortable accommodations, friendly hosts, and a very reasonable rate.

Over the course of the next two days, we explored the lush coastal forests and estuaries around St. Lucia. One of our first stops was the beach just east of town. We marveled at the roaring surf of the Indian Ocean, and watched several humpback whales cruise just offshore.

There were a healthy number of new birds to add to our list as well, including some stately Pink-backed Pelicans, Cape Gannet, Kittlitz’s Plover, and Yellow-billed Stork.

Pink-backed Pelicans – photo by Neil Hayward

We visited the nearby Igwalawala nature trail several times, and enjoyed seeing the multitude of forest birds that were drawn to the fruiting figs, including Trumpeter Hornbill and both Purple-crested and Livingstone’s Turaco.

Trumpeter Hornbill – photo by Neil Hayward

On Day 13, we spent most of the day at iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This spectacular reserve protects a swath of lowland forest and coastline stretching north from St. Lucia all the way to the border with Mozambique. We drove the main road that snakes between Lake St. Lucia on the west and the ocean to the east all of the way up to Cape Vidal. In the misty forest at the Cape we saw several Woodward’s Batis, a bird that is rarely found in South Africa outside
iSimangaliso Park. Along the Grassland Loop road, a highlight was Collared Pratincole.

Neil has all of his optics at the ready
Woodward’s Batis – photo by Neil Hayward
Collared Pratincole – photo by Neil Hayward

Coming back in the late afternoon, I was gazing sleepily out the window when a couple of dark shapes in the distance caught my attention. “Stop!” I shouted to Neil, and our SUV fish-tailed slightly on the muddy road as Neil executed his patented full-stop emergency birding maneuver. It wasn’t birds that had caught my attention, but a trio of White Rhinoceroses including a young calf ambling through a wet meadow. Although we had seen lions, leopards, cheetahs, water buffaloes, giraffes, zebras, elephants, hippos, vervet monkeys, jackels, hyenas, meerkats, and whales, we had totally dipped on rhinos. Problems with poachers had led rangers and park officials throughout the country to be tight-lipped about rhino sightings, and in some cases rhinos were even relocated to more remote, more protected areas. But at last, here at iSimangaliso we found them. After watching the rhino family for half an hour or so at a respectable distance, we continued our drive back to St. Lucia.

White Rhinos – photo by Neil Hayward
White Rhinos – photo by Neil Hayward

The St. Lucia area provided a very satisfying conclusion to our trip. I was a little worried that everything after Kruger would be anti-climactic, but the last few days were a wonderful way to wrap things up. We submitted eBird checklists from False Bay, St. Lucia Estuary, and iSimangaliso Park.

Now it was time for us to drive back to Johannesburg. I needed to catch a flight back to Seattle, and Neil was meeting his family for a little vacation time in Cape Town. We stopped by Mtunzini to look for Palm-nut Vultures, and the Dlinza Forest in Eshowe. The aerial boardwalk through the trees was quite impressive, but our bird list at Dlinza was pretty meager.

All told, I saw 333 species in 14 days traversing northeast South Africa. Neil picked up some bonus species around Cape Town, and ended his trip close to 400. It was an absolutely amazing experience that exceeded my expectations in every way.

So what’s next? That whole story will have to wait for future posts this summer. But this arrived in the mail at my house last month:

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Into KwaZulu-Natal: Birding Mkuze Game Reserve

Leaving Wakkerstroom, we continued our trek southeast towards the Indian Ocean. Soon we crossed over into KwaZulu-Natal province, the traditional home of the Zulu people. The land became greener and more lush, with wet savanna and lowland forest becoming more common as we approached the coast.

Our first stop was the Mkuze Game Reserve. We had booked two nights in a little cabin at Mantuma Camp. Mkuze, or as it is sometimes spelled, Mkhuze or even uMKhuze, was another quality stop. This game reserve covers about 150 square miles of wet savanna, sand forest, fig forest, and wetlands. There are four large “hides” that you can visit near watering holes where animals and birds come to drink and bathe.

Zebra, visiting one of the hides at Mkuze

Like at Kruger, humans are restricted to certain areas while the animals roam freely. We were advised to stay in our vehicle when not at the rest camp or at one of the hides or official viewpoints or picnic areas.

Qaphela!

While we didn’t see many top predators at Mkuze, there were plenty of large herbivores to keep us occupied.

Nyala – photo by Neil Hayward

One of the highlights of the trip was a ranger-led walk through the fig forest in the southern part of the reserve. This part of the park is strictly off-limits unless you are accompanied by ranger. Patrick, our ranger guide, met us early one morning at the trail head, carrying a very large gun. He started us off with a safety briefing: “Stay with me. Stay behind me. If I tell you to freeze, you freeze. If I tell you to run, you run.” Neil and I exchanged nervous glances, but we followed Patrick over the bridge and into the depths of the fig forest.

The canopy walkway in the fig forest

The fig forest was one of the birdiest areas of the preserve. We enjoyed seeing African Green-Pigeon, Klaas’s Cuckoo, and African Paradise-Flycatcher. In the afternoon we visited the hides again and the extensive estuary area in the south. I wanted to go swimming with the sharks, crocodiles, and hippos, but Neil thought that was a very bad idea.

One of the less optimal things about Mkuze was the relative lack of food. Our cabin had a small kitchen for “self catering,” but we didn’t bring that much food with us. A local woman ran a little snack stand near the center of camp for a few hours each day, and we were able to get sandwiches there. The reserve also had a little shop, but it was mostly empty of foodstuffs during our visit. I briefly entertained the idea of buying some warthog chops or kudu patties, but that sounded a bit ambitious considering our lack of equipment or other supplies.

Mmmmm… Kudu cheese wors….

Even though it is enormously unfair, I couldn’t help comparing Mkuze to Kruger where we were a few days earlier. In most comparisons, Mkuze came up short. Of course Kruger is a world-famous national park, and Mkuze is a local preserve that is 50 times smaller. In fairness, we did see over 30 new species for our trip at Mkuze, including Neergaard’s Sunbird, Senegal Lapwing, and Brown Snake-Eagle.

The Brown Snake-Eagle has armored feet and legs to protect itself from its favorite meal: snakes – photo by Neil Hayward

We submitted eBird checklists for our first afternoon at Mkuze, the Mkuze fig forest and hides, and our last morning in Mkuze. After two days of thoroughly exploring the reserve, I was definitely ready to move on. I was eager to catch my first ever glimpse of the Indian Ocean.

Sunset over the wet savanna at Mkuze

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Wakkerstroom Interlude

After spending five glorious days in Kruger National Park, our South African trip was more than half over. We were on our way to the Indian Ocean town of St. Lucia, but were planning on taking several days to get there. The first stop was Wakkerstroom, a tiny hamlet in the far south of Mpumalanga. At 1800 feet elevation, this area is rolling hills and arid grassland. It was much colder than Kruger, with freezing overnight temperatures and afternoon highs in the low 60s. This was rural country, with cattle farms and isolated small communities. We reserved two nights at the very pleasant Wetlands Country House and Sheds. Neil looked at me quite skeptically when I told him that I had booked a nice shed for us to stay in. In actuality, Shed #3 was a lovely cottage with two soft beds, a wood burning fireplace, full-sized bathroom, and small kitchen.

One of our two days in Wakkerstroom we spent with local bird guide, Lucky Ndube. During our visit to South Africa, we were largely birding on our own without a guide. But Lucky promised to show us some of the very hard-to-get grassland specialties of the region, including some rare larks and several species of bustards. Lucky was true to his word, and we had a productive day tracking down three species of bustards and a whopping seven species of larks (including rarities like Botha’s and Rudd’s Lark). We also saw some other cool species like Blue Cranes, Black-winged Lapwing, and Sentinel Rock-Thrush.

Blue Bustard – photo by Neil Hayward
A scruffy Botha’s Lark – photo by Neil Hayward
Sentinel Rock-Thrush – photo by Neil Hayward

We spent the other day doing local birding on the grounds of the Wetlands Country House, and at the Wakkerstroom Wetland Reserve, a marsh on the edge of town. We filed two eBird checklists, one for the general Wakkerstroom area, and one for the Wakkerstroom Wetlands. Neil got very excited about a pair of Rufous-necked Wrynecks we found in the trees right outside our shed, and regaled me with stories about the Eurasian Wrynecks he used to see as a child in England.

Red-throated Wryneck – photo by Neil Hayward

Lucky had mentioned that often times Gray Crowned-Cranes come back to the marsh to roost at sunset, so Neil and I headed there in the late afternoon. We saw some ducks, shorebirds, and an African Rail, but no cranes. The sun set, and it became quite cold and dark. I told Neil I was ready to give up. He wanted to “give it five more minutes.” I proceeded to go on a five minute mini-rant about how “giving it five more minutes” after waiting for two hours never, ever in the history of birding, proved productive. My mini-rant was rudely interrupted at about the four minute mark by two Gray Crowned-Cranes, which glided majestically down from the nearby hills and landed a short distance away in the darkening marsh. Neil was quietly smug, and I chagrined, but we both drove back to our shed very happy.

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Birding Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park is one of the wonders of the natural world. Stretching for 220 miles along South Africa’s border with Mozambique, it is one of the greatest natural preserves for charismatic megafauna in southern Africa. Named as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve, its 7500 square miles make it just slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. Kruger is a special place reserved for wildlife. There are only nine entrances to the park, and a limited number of roads run through it.

African Elephants – photo by Neil Hayward

The only places you are allowed to get out of your vehicle in the entire park are at official rest camps or at specially designated viewpoints. The rest camps are surrounded by high fencing and barbed wire to keep the animals out and the guests safe. If you are spending the night in the park, you must have a reservation at a lodge or rest camp, and you must arrive before sunset. When the sun goes down, the gates are locked. Unless you take a night tour with the park rangers, you may not leave the rest camp until sunrise. As we entered the main gate at Phalaborwa, we definitely got the sense that the animals were in charge here – and they knew it.

Cape Giraffe – photo by Neil Hayward

Elephants lumbered across the road at regular intervals. Giraffes munched on treetops nonchalantly. Hippos sighed and snorted in the shallow rivers, daring you to come too close. A cheetah stretched out languidly in a dusty clearing, watching us through half-closed lids. Water buffalo slept in the shade under the mopane trees, as a leopard kept watch from its perch in the thick branches of an ancient buffalo thorn.

African Leopard – photo by Neil Hayward

It was a little like a reverse zoo, in which the animals roamed free and stopped to check out the humans trapped inside their cars or their little fenced enclosures. I loved every minute of it. We drove around just staring at the huge packs of zebras, kudu, and impala racing across the landscape. Sometimes antelope in the road, or a mama lion and her cubs at a watering hole brought traffic to a complete standstill. One time we stopped to watch a bull elephant push over and uproot a mopane tree with his head. It was surreal and wonderful and amazing. As the sun began to sink towards the horizon, we headed to Letaba Camp.

Letaba Rest Camp is located right about in the middle of Kruger, on the banks of the Letaba River. Neil and I checked into our little bungalow, and then headed over to the restaurant for dinner.

Letaba Rest Camp

As usual, we had mostly neglected to eat while being absorbed with wildlife watching all day, and so we ate one dinner, and then a second one out on the deck of the cafe. Our table overlooked the river, and on several occasions our meal was interrupted by elephants taking a bath or Woolly-necked Storks stalking fish in the shallows.

View from the Letaba Restaurant

Exhausted, we headed back to our bungalow, dodging falling sausage fruit along the way.

We spent the next four days exploring as much of central and southern Kruger as possible. And while the mammals were amazing, the birding was also spectacular.

Martial Eagle – photo by Neil Hayward
Lilac-breasted Roller – photo by Neil Hayward
Black Crake – photo by Neil Hayward

In addition to going out on our own during daylight hours, we also signed up for a couple of night drives and a sunrise drive. These drives are led by Kruger park rangers, and last a couple of hours. They are the only way you can see the wild areas of Kruger before sunrise or after sunset. The open safari vehicles they use are elevated off the ground to allow better viewing, and hold about twenty people. The night drive was amazing. We got to see some of Kruger’s nocturnal birds and mammals, including Square-tailed Nightjars, Water Thick-knee, and a Spotted Eagle-Owl. The highlight was witnessing an epic battle between a crocodile and a hyena, fighting over a dead baboon. I wondered how long I would last on foot in Kruger park at night before I got eaten by something – probably less than half an hour.

Golden-breasted Bunting – photo by Neil Hayward
Blue Waxbill – photo by Neil Hayward

We spent the next two days around Letaba, driving north as far as the Mopani Rest Camp and the Tropic of Capricorn Loop (where we were delighted with great views of Secretarybird). The mornings started cool, and we often had a light jacket on until after breakfast. The afternoons were invariably filled with bright sunshine and temps in the upper 70s or low 80s.

After a couple days in central Kruger we drove south and east, spending our third night in the park at Oliphants Rest Camp. Oliphants is perched on a rhyolite cliff, offering dramatic views of the Oliphants River and the valley below. We spent the next day exploring Oliphants in the morning, and then drove to Satara Camp for a midday brunch. Chocolate chip pancakes were available at almost every rest camp for pretty much every meal, and I was enjoying them at least once a day for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. In the afternoon we explored the area around Satara and the Tshokwane Rest Stop, and then headed south to Skukuze in the late afternoon.

Scarlet-chested Sunbird – photo by Neil Hayward
African Hoopoe – photo by Neil Hayward
Giant Kingfisher – photo by Neil Hayward

Skukuze Rest Camp is the largest rest camp in Kruger, and serves as the park’s administrative headquarters. It has over 200 huts and bungalows, a more formal restaurant with expanded food offerings, an extensive gift shop, a museum, and even a swimming pool. Needless to say, while we explored the camp a bit, we didn’t take time away from birding to have a swim. While it was nice in some ways to have a few more facilities at Skukuze, I actually preferred staying at Letaba and Oliphants, which seemed less crowded and developed.

Sunrise over the Sabie River at Skukuze

After a good night’s rest at Skukuze, we awoke refreshed and ready for our last day in Kruger. A stop at Pretoriuskop turned out to be amazing, with Purple-crested Turacos, Dark Chanting-Goshawk, Retz’s Helmetshrike, Groundscraper Thrush, and the fabulously-named Gray Go-away-bird. We had lunch there, and then began our long drive to our next destination, the tiny village of Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga province.

Burchell’s Zebra – photo by Neil Hayward
Red-billed Oxpeckers, preening an Impala – photo by Neil Hayward

Our five days in Kruger went by in a flash, and were the highlight of my entire trip to South Africa. We completed several eBird checklists during our time there: Letaba, Letaba to Mopani, Letaba to Oliphants, Oliphants to Skukuze, and Pretoriuskop. It was very hard to do short, specific checklists since there was no cell service outside of the rest camps, and we lacked a detailed map. Between camps there are very few landmarks, and almost no places you can leave your car. Next time, I’ll try to do better. And I hope there will be a next time, because this is someplace I very much want to return with my family and kids.

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