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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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A Day in the Life of a Snail Kite


I am a Snail Kite.   I live in southwest Florida, not too far from Fort Myers and the Gulf Coast.  This post is a bit about me, and what I did yesterday morning for the first hour after sunrise.

Snail Kite

Check out my awesome hooked bill.  I use it to eat my favorite food: apple snails.  I love me some snails!

This is my home: Harns Marsh.

Harns Marsh2

I live here with my bird buddies, including a whole herd of Limpkins.  Limpkins are dang noisy this time of year, filling the whole marsh with their spooky courtship yodeling.  Here are two Limpkins that I sometimes hang out with:


Best Limpkin

The first thing I did after I woke up was to get breakfast.  I chose an apple snail. That’s what I have for breakfast every morning.  First, I snagged one out of the marsh and took it up to my feeding wire.

Snail Kite with snail

Then I used my fancy bill to pull the juicy snail right out of its shell.  I don’t need the shell anymore, so I just dropped it into my shell collection which I keep down below my perch.

Snail Kite drops shell

Then I gobbled up the snail meat.  Yum!  Tastes kinda like chicken.

After breakfast, I saw that my lady friend was nearby, so I went over for a quick visit.

Snail Kite Copulation

We’re expecting baby kitelets later this spring.  Then I flew around the canal area a bit, showing off for this crazy bird watcher.  I got tired, so I landed in one of my favorite trees.  But I forgot that this mockingbird was building a nest nearby.  He got all up in my grill, and kept dive-bombing me until I backed off.

Snail Kite Harassed by Mocker

Stupid mockingbird.  I don’t eat mockingbird babies!  I only eat apple snails.  Mmmm, snails… maybe I should get a few more for a snack?  Then later on I’ll swing my and visit my friend, the Burrowing Owl, to see if he’s in a better mood than yesterday.

Burrowing Owl Cape Coral

Nope, I guess he’s still pissed about the old “apple snail shell down the owl burrow” trick.  Heh heh, that was a good one, though.

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Duck Farms and Raptor Ranches

I’m in California’s Central Valley for a few days, exploring a region of the country that I have not yet visited this year.  Many people know the Central Valley as one of the nation’s agricultural hotspots.  It produces almost a tenth of all of the fruits and veggies grown in the US, supplying much-desired produce especially during the cold winter months when much of the country is snowbound.  Apparently it’s especially suited for growing almonds, as the Central Valley produces 70% of the world’s almond supply.  Who knew?

In the far northern valley where I am now (northwest of Sacramento), many of the farm fields are fallow or flooded for the winter.  But that doesn’t mean that they are idle or empty.  Three million ducks and almost a million geese use the valley as a wintering site, and many of them spend much of their time in these muddy or flooded fields.  Raptors who breed further north also come down to feed on the abundant rodent population (rats and mice are so numerous here in part because they feed on the grain crops that grow in the spring, summer, and fall).  So during the winter, the farms and ranches of the central valley switch from growing asparagus, corn, and tomatoes to growing ducks, geese, hawks, and owls.


Here is picture of a Northern Shoveler.

Northern Shoveler

Shovelers have huge, spatula-shaped bills that they swing back and forth in the water, straining out small aquatic invertebrates.  In 30 minutes of walking approximately half a mile down a rural road in Yolo County, I passed an estimated 3000 Shovelers.  No, I didn’t count each one.  But you can count a group of ten ducks, and then see what that looks like.  Then you can count to a hundred by counting ten groups of roughly ten ducks each.  And so on.  And that’s not including the other ducks present: Buffleheads, Gadwall, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Scaup, Green-winged Teal, etc.

Bird of prey are also out in force.  I’ve seen 11 species of hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls in only two days.  Like this charming Burrowing Owl, who posed on a fence post before yakking up a owl pellet:

Burrowing Owl

Or this adult Cooper’s Hawk, who rested nonchalantly in a bare tree:

Cooper's Hawk

Or this White-tailed Kite who huddled on a power line in the cold morning dampness:

White-tailed Kite

Or this Red-shouldered Hawk who stared down at me from a lamp post:

Red-shouldered Hawk

In addition to birding backroads along farms and ranches, I visited a number of National Wildlife Refuges including Colusa and Sacramento.

Sacramento NWR

These refuges control the water levels inside the refuge to create good wintering habitat for waterfowl (generally, broad expanses of shallow water interspersed with some mud or vegetated areas for resting and roosting).  A treat for me was watching these Ross’s Geese, the smaller cousin of the Snow Geese we have back home in western Washington state.

Ross Geese
While most of the birds here are relatively common to this area, I did see one rare one – another lost bird from Eurasia.  This one is called a Tufted Duck.  It looks like a Scaup, but it has an all black back.  And if you look really closely, you can see the hint of a tuft on the back of his head.

Tufted Duck Lake Merritt

This one was too sleepy to take much notice of me, but he did open one yellow eye to give me the once over.

Up next: the search for more owls.

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Hawk Mountain

Hawk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania is one of those famous places in bird watching circles that all serious birders eventually visit.  September is a good time to go there, so I worked it into this trip.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a private reserve in the Appalachian mountains, near the town of Kempton, PA.  It is well known as a hawk watching site, and volunteers there keep an active count of the number of raptors which pass by the ridge.  In an average fall season (September to November), counters tally about 18,000 hawks, eagles, and falcons!

I paid my entrance fee, and hiked the mile or so through the woods up to the North lookout, which is the principle hawk watching location.  The hike up was quite pleasant; the forest was beautiful, and the sunny morning had a touch of autumn crispness.  I stopped to study an eastern Hairy Woodpecker, which was bright white and black – as opposed to our pacific northwest Hairy, which is light gray and black.

Along the trail were numbered markers, but no corresponding interpretative signs.  Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has gone all 21st Century, using QR codes to store the trail marker information.  If you are not familiar with QR codes, you can see an example of one in the photo below (it’s the pixelated square).

QR codes are like traditional bar codes, but they are able to store information in a more dense way (in 2-D instead of just 1-D).  They are readable with a bar code scanner, or with any smart phone that has a camera and a bar code reader app (I use Red Laser on my iPhone).  Advertisers often use QR codes to encode web addresses (URLs) so that interested customers can use their phones to go immediately to an ad’s website.  But out in the woods on Hawk Mountain, you might not get cell service.  No problem!  QR codes can encode lots of different kinds of information, not just URLs.  When you scan the QR code above, your phone’s app decodes the information and reveals the clear text (no internet connection needed):

Pretty cool, if you have a smart phone.  But kind of a bummer that not everyone can read the “signs.”  Gives me some ideas for a science lesson though when I get back to Lakeside….  By the way, you can check out more about QR Codes on Wikipedia (that page has some cool example pics!).

Back to the hawks!  Why is Hawk Mountain such a good place for observing raptors?  Well, these birds of prey are moving south, and they want to do so in the most efficient way possible.  Unlike many songbirds, most raptors tend to migrate during the day, taking advantage of rising air thermals.  The sun warms the land below, creating updrafts – especially along mountain ridges.  The raptors can use these updrafts to rise high in the air and to carry them along on their journey.  Here’s a sign from the trail:

So if you position yourself on a mountain ridge from mid-morning to mid-afternoon and look north, you have a good chance of seeing some migrating hawks.  Finding my first one was easy!

Finding the next ones were a little more challenging.  I made it up to the North lookout, and found a rock to sit on not far from the official counters.  There were already dozens of other people hawk watching.

Hawk watching is different than most other kinds of bird watching because most of the time the birds are quite distant.  You usually can’t see most of the normal field marks – the color of the legs and tail, the exact pattern on the underwings, the shape of the bill, the color of the eyes, etc.  Most of these birds stream by quite quickly, and they might be a mile away or more.  So you have to learn how to ID the birds based on overall shape (often in silhouette) and other clues like how fast they flap.

If you see them from below, some raptors have thin, “sharp” wings like falcons, while others have broader, “fatter” wings like the buteo hawks (e.g. Red-tails and Broad-wings).  Ospreys tend to make an “M” shape with their wings and bodies.

If you see them from the side, some birds like Turkey Vultures fly with a definite obtuse dihedral angle (their wings make a “V” shape).  Other birds, like eagles, will appear almost flat.

Other clues can help.  Size is not one of them, since a Bald Eagle at a great distance is the same apparent size as a much smaller Kestrel which is closer.  But flapping behavior can be a good clue.  Some birds mostly soar, flapping very little.  Others flap a lot.  Some tend to flap in patterns: flap-flap-glide.  In general, bigger birds flap more slowly than smaller ones (Golden Eagles have much bigger wing areas than Cooper’s Hawks, so they get much more thrust per flap).

All of these clues are important, because much of hawk watching comes down to “lump identification” – as I discussed in a previous post.  Actually “speck identification” is a little more accurate.  Here are some photos for you to try to ID for yourself (birds in the pictures are about the same apparent size and resolution I saw in my binoculars).


I was intrigued by the idea of hawk watching, but I have to say that after a couple hours of speck identification I decided that I like my birds big and close and in my face.  Yep, hawk watching has an elegance and intellectual appeal, but that’s not mostly why I go birding.  I did get to see some cool kettling – “kettles” are large groups of hawks that are rising together on the thermals.

Pretty cool, huh?  (You must think it’s pretty cool if you are STILL reading this post about hawk watching!)  The biggest kettle I saw had over 50 hawks.  The biggest ones that form in a season might contain thousands.  By the way, if you are ready for the IDs for the last three pictures they are: Bald Eagle (see the white head?), Red-tailed Hawk, and a kettle of Broad-wings.

After a couple hours on the mountain, I was ready to head down.  The counters had already tallied well over 200 raptors before lunch (and 1600+ the day before!).

After Hawk Mountain it is on to Connecticut for a couple of days, and then my September trip to the East Coast will be winding down.


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Geography is Destiny

Florida seems like a obvious destination for a bird watcher.  Maybe you can also imagine Arizona, California, or Maine.  But New Jersey?  Yep, I’ve traveled all the way to Joisey (unofficial slogan: howyadoin‘?) to watch birds.  But why?  The answer lies in the geography of New Jersey, specifically the southeastern part of the state that juts out into Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.  At the tip of this finger of land sits Cape May, one of the most famous birding locations in the US.

What’s so special about Cape May?  In a word: migration.  Many of “our” songbirds, hawks, and shorebirds only spend a few short months with us during the summer breeding season.  When falls arrives with its shorter days and cooler temperatures, these estival visitors wander south to the topics (or all the way to the austral temperate and polar zones in some extreme cases!).

Given a choice, most birds prefer to migrate over land.  As they head south down this peninsula, these migrating birds get more concentrated as the land narrows.  At the tip, the intrepid ones press on and fly across the bay to Delaware.  But many of them see a few dozen miles of open water in front of them and scream “Oh $&!*” (or some bird equivalent) and fall out of the sky near the tip to rest, feed, and call their insurance agent to make sure their life insurance policy is paid up.  If you are a bird watcher, the tip is where you want to be as the birds drop in for a short stop before continuing off across the water.  So that’s why I’ve traveled here to spend the last few days exploring the area around Cape May County.

If you are a really Serious Birder, you spend dawn and the hours following at the observation towers at a place called Higbee Beach not far from the southern tip of Cape May.  Here you can watch hundreds of 4-inch birds fall from the sky.  They zip by at 20 mph or more, often visible for only a few seconds, at ranges of up to 300 yards.  And you can hear these Serious Birders call out the birds as the blast past (“Prairie Warbler!  Baltimore Orioles!  Redstart!  Flock of nuthatches!”)

I hung out on the dike for a while, but to be honest I couldn’t even find all of the birds in my binoculars, let alone ID most of them as they powered by.  So I wandered down to the woods, fields, and meadows just inland from the dike where you can often study the birds at close range for longer than a second or two.

The number of birds varies with the wind and weather conditions, but I had pretty good luck this week, tallying 17 species of warblers alone.

Cape May is also famous for its hawk watch, in which scores of dedicated volunteers count the number and type of each hawk, falcon, and eagle which pass by overhead.  Some of these folks can ID a hawk from several miles away, when it is literally only a speck in the sky, by the subtleties of its shape and movements.

Another thing that is special about Cape May is the large population of Horseshoe crabs who live here.  In fact, many shorebirds time their spring migration to arrive at Cape May exactly the same time the Horseshoe crabs are laying their eggs.  The shorebirds then feast on the crab eggs, refueling on their long flight from South America to northern Canada or Alaska.

I enjoyed watching this Mute Swan swim near the Cape May Lighthouse.  Mute Swans are not native to North American, and are famously aggressive to other native waterfowl.  As such, they are often considered pests.  But they are beautiful.

I even picked up a left-over World Series of Birding t-shirt at the NJ Audubon center.  What, you didn’t know there was a World Series of Birding?  No, of course I am not making this up.  Look here for details.  I’ve never been able to go, since it is always in early May.  In fact, I’ve never been to New Jersey before (unless you count driving on a short stretch of I-95 or stopping at the Newark airport).  Prime birding time here is May and September (the north and southbound migrations), when I am usually busy teaching.

Well, right now it’s past my bedtime.  More later…


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