Monthly Archives: February 2019

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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From the Savanna to the Montane Forest

We woke up bright and early, and left Dinonyane after a quick breakfast. The Nylsvley Nature Reserve was only 10 minutes away, and we were soon exploring this beautiful protected preserve. This region is a flood plain, and is often inundated during wet summers. Now in mid-winter much of the area was dry. We birded the main part of the reserve, and then headed over to the Vogelfontein (or “bird pool”) where we saw several herds of antelope and some cool birds congregating around the remnant water sources. Fumbling through my mammal book, I eventually identified some blue wildebeests, steenbok, and the magnificent sable antelope. Avian highlights included our first Hamerkop and Marabou Stork, a flock of Alpine Swifts, and three species of cisticolas. Our checklist for Nylsvley totaled 66 species.

Levaillant’s Cisticola – photo by Neil Hayward

About noon we left Nylsvley behind, and continued our journey east. We checked out the Polokwane Game Reserve, which was a great afternoon stop. The network of dirt roads provided easy access to all parts of the reserve. I enjoyed watching the herds of zebra and ostriches wandering over the grasslands and through the trees.

Common Ostrich – photo by Neil Hayward

A Pale Chanting-Goshawk paid us a quick visit, and we were entertained by a Brubru and some Boubous, a couple of Cape Crombecs, and one Jameson’s Firefinch. Our Polokwane checklist complete, we headed east again away from the setting sun to our evening destination, Kurisa Moya.

Pale Chanting-Goshawk – photo by Neil Hayward

Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge is nestled in the lush montane forests at the northern terminus of the Drakensberg mountain range. At about 4000 feet elevation, this area is notably colder and wetter than the savanna and grasslands we had been visiting to the west. Our forest cabin was rustic, cozy, and very comfortable. It’s off the grid, but a couple of solar panels charge a small battery during the day, providing access to a couple of modest LED lights at night. Our hosts delivered us a hot and delicious dinner right to our doorstep.

For the next day and a half, we explored the extensive grounds of Kurisa Moya, the nearby Woodbush Forest Reserve, the town of Magoebaskloof and its environs, and Debengeni Falls. The cool mountain forests, rushing streams, and misty mountaintops were a dramatic departure from the dusty grasslands full of zebra and antelope that we had left just a day before. The birds were totally different, too. We enjoyed seeing Narina Trogon, Cape Parrot, African Wood-Owl, Lemon and Tambourine Doves, and Mountain Wagtail. Just off the trail near our cabin we heard the hoarse barking of a turaco. A moment later a pair of Knysna Turacos appeared at the top of a small tree, barely 25 feet away. Watching them through my binoculars literally took my breath away.

Knysna Turaco – photo by Neil Hayward

Neil and I made a conscious decision to forego the use of local guides for most of our South Africa trip. A big part of the fun of birding for me is finding and identifying the birds for myself. However, at the suggestion of our friendly hosts at Kurisa Moya, we hired one of their guides, David Letsoalo, to guide us to some of the more challenging local areas to explore. David was brilliant, extremely knowledgeable, and a super kind and patient guy. Without him, we would have surely missed seeing a number of really interesting species, like Bat Falcon (they eat bats on the wing!) and the super skulky Barratt’s Warbler.

Bat Falcon – photo by Neil Hayward

Late in the afternoon, we were bouncing our SUV up a steep, boulder-strewn hillside when we reached a grade that seemed impassable. We knew that there was good habitat for Gurney’s Sunbird just up ahead, but our vehicle didn’t seem up to the task of traversing the gravelly incline. David mentioned that most cars have more engine torque accessible in reverse gear than in any of the forward ones. Neil and I exchanged a nervous glance. Was he suggesting that we turn our little SUV around, and try to climb up this very steep and rocky hillside… backwards? Neil, not one to back down from a challenge or walk away from a potential lifer, gamely maneuvered the car around, and gunned the engine. I watched from well off the road, cowering behind a boulder with my fingers covering most of my eyes as our vehicle rocketed up the jeep track backwards and disappeared around the corner. A strangled cry a moment later indicated that either Neil was shouting triumphantly from the top or dangling dangerously off of a cliff. Fortunately, it was the former, and we were soon on our way again. Twenty minutes later, we were watching a Gurney’s Sunbird in the telescope.

Neil and David at Debengeni Falls

The mountains around Kurisa Moya were spectacular, and the birding was fantastic. Our two checklists for Magoebaskloof and Kurisa Moya didn’t have as many species as Zaagkuildrift Road, but there were some memorable ones. Still, after another night in the forest cabin, I was ready to move on. The biggest reason I was antsy to get going: our next destination was world-famous Kruger National Park.

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Our South African Birding Adventure Begins

The acceleration of take off pushed me back in my seat, as the Emirates Boeing 777 lifted off of the runway at SeaTac and began the fourteen and a half hour flight to Dubai. The small screen in the headrest in front of me showed our current position, heading, and altitude. I wondered where the shortest route to Dubai would take us. I knew that Dubai was a city in the UAE on the Persian Gulf. What direction would we travel to get there? Dubai is south of us, and basically halfway around the world regardless of whether you are travelling east or west. On a flat map of the earth, the most direct flight looks like it should go southeast, flying over Kansas, the Atlantic Ocean, and Algeria, before arriving in Dubai. This exercise illustrates one of the many problems with trying to depict the surface of a sphere on a two dimensional map. In reality, we followed the great circle route from Seattle to Dubai, heading due north. We flew directly over the north pole, bathed in the endless July sunlight, and the remote islands of Svalbard. We passed over western Russia and Iran, before skimming over the Persian Gulf and landing in the blinding heat of the Arabian desert.

In Dubai, I met up with Neil (arriving from Boston), and we spent a four hour layover eating dinner/breakfast (it was 8pm in Dubai, 9am in Seattle), walking through the vast array of duty-free shops, and, of course, talking about our upcoming trip. After another eight hour flight on Emirates, we landed safely in Johannesburg about 6:00am local time (two calendar days after I left).

Two hours and three cups of coffee later, we exited the main highway onto Zaagkuildrift Road, northeast of Johannesburg. Despite being bleary-eyed and jet-lagged from 30 straight hours of travelling, I could feel the adrenaline start to pump through my body in anticipation of my first morning of South African birding. The weather was cool, in the mid-50s, and the sky was a spectacularly brilliant blue. On my magic birding spreadsheet, Zaagkuildrift Road was one of the most impressive birding locations in the region, with over 100 species commonly reported on day visits in July, and almost 400 species recorded there over the years. I hopped out of the car, listening intently. There was absolute silence. I scanned the dry grassland and gently rolling scrub; it appeared completely bird-free. I had a moment of uncertainty. Was this really the place? Did I get something wrong in my analysis? Was it fool-hardy to believe that I could plan and lead my own birding trip to South Africa?

Then I heard a rustle from deep in the grass. An insect was making a sharp sit noise. Wait, was that a sit, or more like a zit? It actually sounded a little like…

Zitting Cisticola – photo by Neil Hayward

… a Zitting Cisticola! A second later it hopped up on a strand of barbed wire, and Neil snapped a photo. With that, we were off and running. Zaagkuildrift turned out to be a terrific introduction to the savanna birds of Limpopo province.

We spent the next seven hours driving along Zaagkuildrift Road, stopping frequently to enjoy the abundant bird life it had to offer. We watched the ridiculous antics of the charismatic Yellow-billed and Red-billed Hornbills. We stopped to watch a couple of polymorphic Gabar Goshawks streak and twist across the sky.

Yellow-billed Hornbill – photo by Neil Hayward

A flash of black and yellow alerted us to a Crested Barbet that perched momentarily on a fence post.

Crested Barbet – photo by Neil Hayward

A family of White-crowned Shrikes huddled together for warmth, eyeing us suspiciously.

White-crowned Shrikes – photo by Neil Hayward

We drove on, past small ponds and stands of trees. I was amazed at the diversity of species we encountered. I was also amazed at how well my studying was paying off. I could put a name to almost everything we saw, or at least could find it quickly in the field guide to confirm the ID. By mid-afternoon the temperature had risen into the mid-70s. In seven hours we had only made it about 20 km down the road. By this time both the adrenaline rush and my caffeine buzz had left me, and my body began to have a serious conversation with my mind about how it hadn’t slept properly in a couple days. Although it was only 3pm in South Africa, it was 6am Seattle time, and I felt like I had been up all night. My stomach grumbled as I realized my last six meals were either on an airplane or at an airport, and I hadn’t eaten a anything substantial since I was in Dubai. There were still a few hours of useful daylight left, and Neil was keen to keep birding. I reminded him that we had 14 more days to go, and he relented, pausing only to snap a few photos of the cool weaver nests we had been admiring.

Weaver nests – perhaps belonging to Southern Masked-Weavers?

We drove to Dinonyane Lodge, where we had a delicious dinner and completed our checklist for Zaagkuildrift Road.  Seventy two species was not bad for my first outing in South Africa! I fell into bed and was instantly asleep.

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Preparing To Be Your Own Bird Guide

I know lots of people who have gone on organized birding tours with professional tour companies. VENT, Wings, Eagle-Eye, Rockjumper, Field Guides, and Topical Birding are just some of the many outfits that offer full service tours and guiding. There are lots of reasons to go with a guided tour, and most of the stories I’ve heard from my friends who have participated in these types of trips have been nothing but positive. All of that being said, the trip that Neil and I were planning wouldn’t be that kind of adventure. No one would be figuring out all of the logistics ahead of time, driving us to the next location, or carrying the scope. Perhaps most importantly, no one would be pointing out and identifying the birds for us. That would all be up to us. And on a trip where we might conceivably encounter north of 400 different species, this would be a challenge as great as figuring out where to stay or how to get there.

To prepare for this aspect of the trip, I started with my trusty field guide (Birds of Southern Africa, 4th edition) and my custom checklist. Normally I buy at least a couple different field guides when I’m travelling to a totally new region of the world, but this one from Princeton Field Guides seemed excellent and comprehensive, and there were no other comparable books that were easily obtainable in the US at that time. Birds of Southern Africa, 4th edition, includes over 950 different species. My custom checklist suggested that I should learn about 450 species from the eastern and northern halves of the country. So my first order of business was to make small blue pen marks in my field guide next to the species that I should be learning in advance of our trip.

During this process, I discovered the unfortunate truth about cisticolas. Cisticolas are a genus of small, insect-eating Old World warblers. They seem to spend most of the time skulking about in dense vegetation, and when they do appear, they are often quite a challenge to identify due to their striking similarities with one another. There seemed to be a rather extensive number of them on my list of birds to learn. Thirteen to be precise. They are often identified at least in part by their calls and songs, and this perhaps explains why so many of them are named for their vocalizations. I studied the Wailing Cisticola and the Rattling Cisticola. Also the Croaking and Zitting Cisticolas. And… wait, there’s a Tinkling Cisticola? Also, their cousins, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Ayres’ Wing-snapping Cisticola, and the Lazy Cisticola. When I finally made it through the entire cisticola genus, I turned the page and saw the Burnt-necked Eremomela and all of his cisticola-like friends. My kids found me later that night on the floor of the living room in the fetal position, croaking and wailing softly. This was going to be harder than I thought. Luckily, it was about this time that my buddy Neil came through in a huge way. One afternoon I found a medium-sized Priority Mail box on my front porch; inside were hundreds of 4×6 note cards. The front of each one featured one of the birds we had to learn for our trip. Its name was on the back.

Cisticola Study Time!

Neil had made us two batches of custom flash cards, and sent one to me in Seattle. This was just what I needed to kick start my studying regime. Fortunately, I had begun learning my birds about six months in advance, so I had time to get myself back on track. I also made a few photo quizzes for myself using pictures I downloaded from Google Images. Between the field guide, flash cards, and photo quizzes, I made some good progress in the months leading up to our departure. As my visual ID prowess increased, I began to become a little concerned that I would need to learn some songs and calls as well, especially for the hard-to-ID species like the cisticolas. I downloaded the iOS version of the Sinclair field guide (called Sasol eBirds in the app store) for my phone. It included images, range maps, written descriptions, and most importantly vocalizations. I amused my cats (and myself) for hours trying out different calls, like the sustained trill of the Crested Barbet.

I had grand ambitions of building an entire electronic song study guide from the Xeno-Canto website, but this just didn’t happen. I mostly contented myself with trying to learn some common species, the cisticolas, and some night birds.

Beyond learning the birds, I did some general reading up about South Africa in my Rough Guide and on the internet. I read over the US State Department website about travel to South Africa, and checked to make sure my passport was still valid. I called Verizon to get a one-month international data plan for my phone, and the credit card company to let them know I would be travelling to South Africa. I also sprayed my birding clothes with permethrin, and visited the Hall Health Travel Clinic at the University of Washington. The Travel Clinic is a fantastic community resource for anyone in the Seattle area who is planning on traveling abroad, especially to developing countries or to places where communicable or mosquito-borne diseases are prevalent. An appointment at the clinic includes an extensive consultation with a physician specializing in travel medicine. You can also get any vaccines you need right in the office, and pick up travel-related prescriptions at the in-house pharmacy. Although the clinic primarily serves the UW community, it is open to the general public. You usually need to call several weeks in advance to get an appointment. South Africa is a pretty low risk country for infectious diseases, but I did pick up some malaria pills and a course of antibiotics.

As the days ticked down, my excitement began to build. Would this trip live up to my expectations? Would all of our planning pay off? Would we actually be able to identify any cisticolas in the wild? Answers to these questions and more in the next installment!

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Planning an International Birding Trip

So Neil and I had decided to go to South Africa on our birding trip (as I discussed in my last post), but we had no idea where to go or what there was to see. The next step was to gather information. A lot of information. For this phase of the trip planning, it’s helpful if you like to play with data. The first thing I did was order Princeton Field Guide’s Birds of Southern Africa, 4th edition, by Sinclair et al.

This book has seen some wear and tear…

I love this book. It has thorough coverage of the entire region, outstanding artwork, informative text, and a great layout (with drawings, text, and range maps for each bird organized together on facing pages). The first thing I did was just flip through the book, looking for “cool birds,” and noting in which part of the country they could be found.

Wanna see some awesome barbets? Check out the northeast quadrant of the country!

I also ordered the Southern African Birdfinder book by Cohen et al. It covers all of South Africa, in addition to several neighboring countries like Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.

One of the things I really liked about this book was the huge (3 ft x 2 ft) foldout map that came with it, showing all of the hotspots listed in the book. The map really helped to give me some perspective on South African geography.

The Birdfinder book was definitely helpful, but certainly not sufficient. It has about 200 pages to cover South Africa’s nearly half a million square miles. At almost twice the size of Texas, South Africa is a vast country covering a huge multitude of habitats. I needed more information, and I turned once more to eBird. The trusty Explore Hotspots feature suggested that popular birding areas with high species diversity included the northeastern part of the country and the southwest near Cape Town.

As I didn’t have time to cover the entire country, I decided to focus my attention on the northeast quadrant. I liked the look of those orange and red pixels. Zooming in, I could see many different promising hotspots. What was that really dark red one about 200 km northeast of Johannesburg? Nylsvley Nature Reserve! According to eBird, 385 species have been recorded there.

Notice that there are buttons in the dialog box to see Bar Charts and View Details. The Bar Charts button takes you to an annotated list of species, showing each one’s relative abundance every week of the year.

You can change the dates to include only species that are there during certain times of the year, say the austral winter between June and August. But the coolest feature is located at the bottom of the bar chart. There is an option to Download Histogram Data in the bottom right corner.

Once you download the data from eBird, you can copy it into the spreadsheet of your choice. Now the real fun begins! I averaged the frequency of observations for each species for all of the weeks from June through August for Nylsvley Reserve.

So we really shouldn’t have been surprised to see Ostriches at Nylsvley – they are recorded there on 28.4% of eBird lists during the austral winter. I guess I was just surprised to see them IN MY FACE.

I poked around the map of northeastern South Africa using eBird’s Explore Hotspots feature until I had a couple dozen sites picked out, and downloaded all of their data into a single Excel workbook. I cross-referenced this list of possible sites with the Birdfinder book, and made sure to add any locations recommended by the authors. I put each hotspot in its own separate tab. Then I made a master checklist of every common species in South Africa (thanks to eBird for that as well). By using the VLOOKUP function, I was able to see the frequency for each species at each different location on the master list tab.

I used the MAX function to determine the best place to see each bird. A column using the SUM function gave me a rough idea how common and widespread each species was. Using these columns, I created a custom abundance code for each species at these couple dozen selected locations. I let “1” be the code for the most common 100 species, “2” be the code for the next 100 most common species, and so on. This gave me a shorthand way think about how “findable” each species is, for studying and planning purposes. I added conditional formatting which highlighted in orange better than average places to see each bird. By summing the total probabilities for each site, I could also get a rough idea about how important each site was, and how long I might want to spend at each place.

Not being familiar with South Africa previously, I decided that I needed to see visually where all of these new hotspots were. The map from the Birdfinder book was helpful, but it didn’t include all of the new locations I found on eBird. Also, I didn’t know how long it would take to get from place to place. Neil and I used the “My Map” feature on Google to create a custom map showing the locations of all of the promising hotspots we had found.

Google My Map showing NE South Africa

Google maps also helped us figure out how long it would take to drive from one birding site to the next. I was a little skeptical about how accurate these drive times would be, but they turned out to be excellent estimates.

We also needed a place to spend the night. Neil suggested that if we drank enough coffee, we could bird 24 hours a day for several weeks straight. I insisted that we sleep at least some every night. He grudgingly agreed. Google once again helped us find places to stay near the locations we wanted to go birding.

Apparently Dinonyane Lodge is just minutes away from Nylsvley – and 3.8 stars for about $51/night!

I cross-referenced the accommodation suggestions I found with TripAdvisor and the accommodation’s own website (if they had one). South Africa was surprisingly inexpensively. Every place that Neil and I stayed was clean, safe, and quite comfortable, and we usually spent between $20 to 35 each per night. You could frequently get a delicious hot meal for $2 to 4. I was pleasantly surprised by both the quality and value to be had in food and accommodations throughout the country.

By this point, we were constructing a tentative daily itinerary for our trip.

The itinerary starts to take shape

Then we hit a bit of a snag. We had planned to stay at least four nights in world famous Kruger National Park, but the dates for our arrival there coincided with the week of Nelson Mandela’s birthday (July 18). Mandela is, of course, a national hero in South Africa, and many South Africans go on holiday to celebrate his birthday. Some of the rest camps where we wanted to stay overnight in Kruger, like Satara and Skukuze, were completely booked up. This was a real problem, since the only place to stay in all of vast Kruger Park is the official rest camps, operated by South African National Parks (SANParks). I was really surprised by the unavailability of places to stay, given that our trip was still almost six months away. In the end, flexibility and persistence paid off. We snagged one of the last few “bungalows” available at Letaba and Oliphants rest camps, and I continued to check for openings at the other rest camps on a daily basis. One day I spied an opening at Skukuze, and grabbed that one, too. We were almost set.

As our itinerary on the ground firmed up, we were also shopping for car rentals and flights. Neil reserved us a great all wheel drive small SUV that would be perfect for our epic road trip across the southern tip of Africa. Using Expedia, Kayak, and Google Flights, I figured out that I could get a ONE STOP flight from Seattle to Johannesburg (with a layover in Dubai) for about $1100 round trip on Emirates. Not too bad! I was even more impressed when I discovered that South Africa is pretty much on the exact opposite side of the world as Seattle. There is a cool website that allows you to find the antipode (direct other side of the world) of your current location. It turns out if you tunnel directly down through the center of the earth starting at my house, you pop out in the Indian Ocean southeast of South Africa.

Here’s a trivia question for you geography buffs out there. If you fly the shortest route from Seattle to Dubai (the great circle route), what direction do you head leaving Seattle? The answer will appear in a future post!

Our major planning was nearly complete at this point. Neil surprised me by sending me a beautiful custom spiral-bound book for our trip.

It included all manner of checklists, logs, maps, accommodation and travel details, info from the internet, etc. In addition to having all of our critical info in the same place, it provided a fun place to record our sightings every evening in South Africa over a couple of beers.

At this point, we had answered some of the most important questions surrounding our trip: Where to go? Where to stay? How to get there? What will we see? But there was one major bit of preparation that remained: How will we identify what birds we are hearing and seeing? Since our trip would be almost entirely self-guided, it would be up to us to learn about 450 South African birds by sight (and a smaller number by sound as well). This enterprise would turn out to be challenging and full of hard work, but also fun and interesting. I will detail more about this process in my next post.

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Filed under Birding, South Africa