Tag Archives: sunset

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.

Greater kudu – 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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The Colima Warblers of Big Bend

I will confess that I didn’t come to Big Bend just for the scenery.

Toll Mountain

I also came to search for the Colima Warbler.  There are about 52 regularly occurring species of wood warblers in the US and Canada (depending on how you count), and I have already seen 48 of them since June of 2012.  The three hardest to get are the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler (check), the south-of-the-border vagrant Rufous-capped Warbler (check), and the Colima.  Colima Warblers are not endangered like Kirtland’s, but almost all of their natural range lies south of the Rio Grande.  Perhaps a few dozen trickle across the border to breed in the high altitude mountains of Big Bend.  In order to see a Colima, though, you need to hike up to where they live.

Up there.

To Pinnacles Trail

It’s not a trek for the faint of heart.  The traditional spot to find Colimas is Boot Spring, about 9 miles roundtrip from the trailhead in the Chisos Basin.  The hike starts at over a mile above sea level, and climbs another 1800 feet or so, mostly in the first 3 miles.  Not being as physically fit as some hikers, I started before dawn so I could reach the Colima’s habitat while they would still be active and singing in the cool mid-morning hours.

I started up the Pinnacles Trail.  The turnoff to Boot Spring is just past the junction with the Colima Trail.

Pinnacles Trail Sign

On the way up I listened to many calling Gnatcatchers, and admired the blooming cacti.

Cactus

The trail is well-maintained, although it is steep and rocky in places, and the switchbacks near the crest are tiring.

trail

As I climbed, I could see out over the entire Chisos Basin area.  The morning sun bathed everything in a golden glow.

Halfway up Pinnacles Trail

I stopped to rest and eat a little trail mix, and a chummy group of Mexican Jays came down to request that I share some peanuts with them.  They were not pleased when I refused.

Mexican Jay

Looking up, I could see the Pinnacles formation.  The end of the strenuous climbing portion of my hike was in sight.

Pinnacles

Near the top, I heard a warbler singing!  It took me a few minutes to track it down, but then I saw it: a large brownish-gray warbler with orange undertail coverts.

Colima Warbler

That’s birder-speak for “it has an orange butt.”  Going a little higher, I got a slightly better view of the rest of him while he was busy singing.  Note the white eye-ring and the faint chestnut cap.

Colima Warbler

Yes, my point-and-shoot camera was not quite up to the job here, but I got a few ‘record shots.’

I climbed the rest of the way to the top, and ate a congratulatory granola bar while I enjoyed the view.

View from top

I hadn’t made it to Boot Spring yet, so I decided to keep going.  The trail leveled out a bit here, so the hiking was much easier.  And I could start to see the other side of the Chisos Mountains.

Other side of Mtns

After another mile or so, I saw Boot Rock (in the foreground):

The Boot

Boot Rock, of course, looks like an upside down cowboy boot – and gives its name to Boot Canyon and Boot Spring.  Boot Rock is a hoodoo, a tall vertical rock formation left behind when the softer rock around it weathered and eroded away.

Near Boot Spring I found many of the expected high elevation birds: tanagers, flycatchers, and vireos – but no more Colima Warblers.  It was later in the day by this point, so it’s possible they just weren’t singing as much anymore.  I also found this guy lounging in my path.  I believe it’s a Texas Alligator Lizard.  It was quite large, and not very reluctant to get out of my way.

Texas Alligator Lizard

I didn’t make it all the way to the South Rim, but my various exploratory excursions and back-tracking amounted to at least 11 to 12 miles, by my rough estimation.  My feet were killing me by the time I got back down, and I had managed to consume all 2.5 liters of water I brought with me.  I took a short nap, and got up in time for a big dinner and one more classic Big Bend sunset.

Sunset at Big Bend

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Big Bend National Park

Toll Mountain

Despite leaving Seattle over a week ago, this is my first blog post of my trip (and I’m going home tomorrow!).  My lack of productivity on the blog front is due to two factors.  The first is that I spent the first four days on an odyssey to Big Bend National Park, a place of spectacular geology and surprising biodiversity – and extremely limited internet availability.  The second factor is that I’ve spent the last couple days battling some of kind of nasty bug, which I thought might be Hantavirus or deadly Valley Fever, but my wife thinks is the stomach flu.  She’s probably right.  Again.  Thank goodness.

Anyhow, back to Big Bend.  Some places are in the middle of nowhere.  Not Big Bend.  In order to reach it, you have to first drive to the middle of nowhere, and then keep going for another couple hundred miles.  It’s at the End of Nowhere.  I’ve been lots of places during my travels this year with no cell phone service.  But I think Big Bend is the only place I’ve been with no cell service anywhere within 75 miles.

Big Bend Desert

Big Bend National Park encompasses an area over 800,000 acres, making it slightly smaller than Olympic NP and slightly bigger than Yosemite.  Yet not many people make it all the way out to Big Bend.  Olympic NP has 10 visitors for each one person who travels to Big Bend.  Great Smokey Mountains NP has 33.  I had to traverse four time zones just to get here: leaving Seattle (PDT), arriving Tucson (MST), driving through New Mexico (MDT), and finally traveling south through the Trans-Pecos region of Texas (CDT).  I was confused and exhausted arriving in Van Horn, TX for the night, as it was an hour later than I thought it should be.  It turns out that Texas has 254 counties, 252 of which are on Central Time and 2 of which are not.  Really, Texas?!

But the trip was worth it, for the scenery alone.

Big Bend Mtns

Big Bend Mtns

Big Bend Mtns

Knob

Unfortunately, these tiny pictures do not begin to do justice to the vastness of the landscape and the sheer magnitude of the mountains.

And then there was the wildlife.  I was constantly reminded that I was in Black Bear and Mountain Lion country.

Mountain Lion Warning Sign

Bear Country Sign

I love how we’re supposed to both “avoid carrying odorous food” and also “carry out trash and left-over food.”  I totally understand the reasoning for each, but don’t you think trash and leftovers might qualify as “odorous food”?

Returning from a hike, a ranger asked me if I’d seen any mountain lions.  I said no.  She said, “well, you can bet that one saw you!”  Then she pointed to the bear and lion tracker:

Bear and Mtn Lion Sightings

While unfortunately (or fortunately?) I didn’t run into any large carnivores, I did find plenty of wildlife.  Javelinas (Collared Peccaries) made an appearance every evening.

Javelina

A pair of Common Blackhawks were nesting near the Rio Grande.  My photo of the birds themselves didn’t come out (it was almost sunset), but here’s their personal sign:

Black Hawk Sign

A Greater Roadrunner sat high in a dead tree and sang his mournful territorial song:

Roadrunner in tree

This female Blue-throated Hummingbird was squeezing in one more snack before bed.

Blue-throated Hummer

And tarantulas scurried across the desert, out for their evening meal:

Tarantula

Hot on their tail, tarantula hawks roamed the desert.  The tarantula hawk is a type of parasitic wasp that uses tarantulas as its nursery.

Tarantula Hawk

The female tarantula hawk stings a tarantula, which paralyzes it but doesn’t kill it.  The wasp then drags the tarantula back to its burrow and lays an egg inside.  When the egg hatches, the wasp larva eats the tarantula alive.  Yikes!  Tarantula hawks usually don’t bother humans, but their sting has been rated the #2 worst insect sting in the world by the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.  I stayed away from the tarantula hawks.  Far away.

While I’m always a sucker for interesting fauna, I spent a little time checking out the flora as well.  Agaves are common in Big Bend.

Agave

These succulents flower only once, at the end of their lives, sending up a huge stalks to pollinate their flowers and disperse their fruit.

Agave Stalk

Although they are sometimes known as “century plants,” most species of agave only live a couple decades or so.

My first full day in Big Bend was a feast for the senses, and I had to drag myself back to my room after enjoying an amazing sunset.

Big Bend Desert at Sunset

Big Bend Sunset

I needed all of my energy for tomorrow’s epic hike, to see one of the smallest birds in one of the most distant corners of one of the most remote national parks in the country.

 

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