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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Filed under Birding, South Africa

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