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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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Dancing Chickens and Skulking Rails

Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

I woke up extra early on Saturday, and drove for 50 miles along a nearly abandoned two-lane road through the dark Texas night to the only national wildlife refuge named for a chicken.  I know, right?  A chicken?!  It’s a pretty special chicken, though.

Attwater’s Prairie Chicken is a genetically unique subspecies (or race) of the Greater Prairie Chicken.  While most Greater PC’s live up in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, a small population of them has evolved to live here on the Texas coastal plain.  Hunting and cattle grazing have caused their numbers here to plummet, and there are currently only about 50 Attwater’s Prairie Chickens left in the wild (plus a few more in a small captive breeding program).  And every wild Attwater’s PC lives here on this modest refuge.

Normally, it’s almost impossible to see a Prairie Chicken here (I tried back in February and didn’t see one).  While part of the refuge is open to the public, the Prairie Chickens live in the northern sector which is normally closed to everyone except for researchers and refuge staff.  But for two mornings a year, for 1-2 hours each morning, the park rangers at Attwater allow limited access to view some incredibly endangered dancing chickens.

Prairie Chickens and some of their grouse relatives engage in a behavior known as lekking or lek mating.  In the spring, male Prairie Chickens gather in a communal area (known as a lek) and perform a complex display which involves inflating large air sacs on their neck, raising feathers (known as pinnae) on their head, and dancing and jumping into the air.  Females gather at the lek as well, and use the performances to select a worthy mate.

If I got up early enough, I might get a chance to see Attwater’s Prairie Chickens dancing on their lek.  I arrived to the refuge at 6:25 am.  The tours were supposed to start at 7:00 am.  There were already 30 people in line ahead of me to catch a van.  I got in line, and watched the eastern sky brighten.

Pre Dawn at Attwater

I made it into the third van for the 10 minute trip to the northern part of the refuge.  Once there, I joined a group of eager birders and nature enthusiasts on a small raised platform, about 200 yards from the lek area.  The lek was a small flat area where the chickens had trampled the vegetation a bit.  You can almost see it just the to the right of the base of the windmill in the picture below.  We waited.

Lek Site

Soon, a male Attwater’s Praire Chicken appeared, and began to strut, “boom”, and dance.  A little while later, two rivals joined him.  While it was too far away for me to get photos, I got great looks through my telescope.  So did everyone else.

Chicken watchers

I did take a few pictures of some photos hanging in the refuge office to give you an idea of what I saw:

Chicken photo

Chicken photo2

My favorite picture is an amazing color drawing by local 4th grader, Diamond Flores.

Festival Poster Winner

You can also find some amazing lekking behavior on YouTube – here’s a very cool video showing Lesser Prairie Chickens at a lek (it’s only 47 seconds).

No one knows what’s in store for the future of Attwater’s PC.  The wildlife biologists and other staff at the refuge are working hard to sustain and grow the tiny population here, but there are many challenges.  The adult birds have a mortality rate of about 50% per year, mostly due to hawks and other predators. The chicks are also vulnerable to predators, and may be competing (not very successfully) with introduced fire ants for ground insects in the weeks and months after hatching.  New releases from the captive breeding flock bolster the wild population, but right even with these additions the numbers of PC’s at Attwater are barely holding stable.  Hopefully the dedication and hard work of the refuge staff will eventually pay off with a healthy and expanding population in the years to come.

After a successful morning at Attwater NWR, I decided to try my luck at another almost-impossible-to-see species: Yellow Rail.  While Attwater’s Prairie Chickens are critically endangered and found only in a restricted area, they practically scream for your addition during the lekking season.  Rails are exactly the opposite.  They are relatively common, and are widespread in many marshes along the Texas coast.  But Yellow and Black Rails in particular are extremely secretive.  They are small wetland birds who always stay hidden in dense marsh grass, and never willingly allow themselves to be seen.  Yellow and Black Rails are the hardest common, dirual (active during the day) birds to actually see in North America.  But there’s one way to see them.  And it’s at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, about 90 minutes drive from Attwater.

Anahuac NWR

Anahuac has a very healthy population of Yellow Rails that spend the winter here in Texas, and summer up in Minnesota (where I heard one last June).  A couple of times each spring, the refuge holds “Yellow Rail Walks.”  Basically you get a couple of dozen people to walk around in the rails’ habitat and wait for a rail to pop up out of the grass and fly a short distance before it disappears back into the grass.  The only problem is that the rail’s habitat is thigh-high marsh grass growing in deep sucking mud covered in up to a foot of brackish water.  Yep, rail seekers get seriously messy.

The rail walk organizer had also brought some milk jugs filled with rocks that he tied together with a rope.  The milk jugs help to “beat the bushes” and encourage the rails to flush instead of just running through the legs of the participants.  Rails have incredibly skinny bodies, and can squeeze through very narrow openings in the rushes – hence the expression, “thin as a rail.”

We headed out into the marsh.  It was wet.  And muddy.  And a real workout walking through that mud.

Rail Walk

We saw our first Yellow Rail within 10 minutes.  They have very distinctive white wing patches that can be seen as they flutter away to safety.  We continued to slog through the mud and grass for another half an hour or so.  Final tally: seven Yellow Rails and one Black Rail.  And I was only wet and muddy from the chest down!

Before leaving Anahuac, I toured another part of the refuge.  Here I saw a third rail species, King Rail.  King Rails are often pretty shy, but compared to Yellow and Black Rails this fellow was practically an exhibitionist.  I even managed a photo:

King Rail

I also came across some baby alligators in a small pool, probably just out of the nest.  Too cute!

Baby Alligators

I rewarded myself with dinner at the local BBQ joint, which was very satisfying.

BBQ dinner

And as the sun set, I drove back to my hotel for a hot shower and 90 minutes of trying to use the hair dryer to get my only pair of shoes back to a wearable state.

Anahuac Sunset

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Rare Bird Alert!

I woke up at 4am this morning, so that I could be at the Sax-Zim bog at dawn.

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Sax-Zim bog is one of the coolest places to bird in Minnesota.  It is a spruce bog in St. Louis County, and home to many special birds that are hard to find anywhere else.  I had a very enjoyable morning, tromping around in the bog.  My best birds were Sharp-tailed Grouse, Connecticut Warbler, and Dickcissel.  The warbler was tough – I had to go deep into the bog (which required a complete change of clothes later, and 2 hrs with a hair dryer making my only pair of shoes wearable again – but it was totally worth it.  There were many amazing plants in the bog too – but unfortunately my botanical knowledge is next to zero.  I did take a picture of some cool bog flowers.

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I did stumble across a few rare birds today.  “Rare” has all kinds of meanings to a birder, depending on the context.  Whopping Cranes and Kirtland’s Warblers are rare because there just aren’t very many of them left.  The global population of Whopping Cranes is probably a few hundred individuals.  They are critically endangered.  So in that sense, they are “rare birds” – but it’s not too hard to see one if you go to Aransas NWR in Texas in the winter.  Connecticut Warblers are not critically endangered, but their population is not that big, and they only live in pretty inaccessible places.  It’s maybe the third-hardest warbler to see in the US (of the 50+ species that breed here regularly).  Other birds are common in some parts of the world, but just not here in the United States.  Rufous-capped Warbler is a really rare bird for the USA, but go a couple hundred miles south and they are everywhere.  I saw them almost every day in Costa Rica a few years ago.  And then there are the rare birds that are common in places in the US, but just not exactly where you are right now.  For example, the Dickcissels that I saw today in the bog are abundant over much of the midwest right now, but they rarely range this far north.  I could only find one record online for Dickcissel in Sax-Zim bog, and that was from 1991.  So this was my “rarest bird” of the day.  I took a snapshot by holding my point & shoot camera up to my spotting telescope:

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The quality isn’t great, but it’s recognizable.  It’s helpful to document rare birds with photos if you are able.  I have a “real” camera and lens set to shoot birds, but I didn’t bring it on this trip because it is really big and heavy.  

Tonight I spent an hour at McGregor Marsh after dark listening to Yellow Rails.  One was click-clicking away, calling out to his fellow rails (and the fireflies and the stars).  Time for bed…

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