Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Kruger's silent Hippolais - Upcher's anyone?

We kicked off the 800 Challenge (herein-forever-after '800C') in the Kruger National Park, by default rather than by design. 2012 had come and gone and whilst most revelers were seeing the Old Year out, we were tucked up in bed, blissfully unaware of the festivities and the driving rain.

4:30 am - Lower Sabie (KNP) 1 Jan 2013
There is something about the dawn chorus in the KNP, particularly in summer. Most will say that the dawn chorus in good forest habitat is the epitome of birding but for me, at least, the Southern Ground Hornbill's du du dududu / hu hu huhu is early-morning Africa at its best. Listening to that, along with the raucous calls of Crested Francolin, with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and a hot-cross-bun-flavoured rusk (absolute poison but bloody brilliant) in the other, is why we bird. It's a catharsis for the soul and puts a little perspective on the hum-drum of life we take far too seriously.

Having set our 800C criteria to exclude ID by call / song neither Hornbill nor Francolin made the list until much later. Nevertheless we were off to a decent start aided and abetted by our proximity to the Sabi River. From our patio in Lower Sabie camp the first bird 'in the bag' was Little Swift (nesting under the eaves). By day-end we'd seen 128 species including a wing-tagged Marabou Stork (number: S188). Highlights for day 1 were Lesser Kestrel, Croaking Cisticola, Pallid Harrier, White-crowning Lapwing, Monotonous Lark, Steppe Eagle and a single Greater Kestrel, our first in the KNP. Other notables included Eurasian Hobby, Great Spotted Cuckoo and a very confiding male Coqui Francolin.

6:20pm - High-water bridge Sabie River (Lower Sabie)

Although we were happy with our first day's haul we had to be careful not to let the 'dips' take precedence over the highlights. We'd spent a good deal of the day looking for three particular birds ie: Black Coucal, which we haven't seen in the Park but had been reported recently on the S128; Madagascar Cuckoo, which we'd seen in the park recently and Thick-billed Cuckoo, a bogey-bird for us until we had good views of an adult bird near the Bume river on the S108 a week before.

We dipped on all three and learn't a lesson (I think..). Spending too much time looking for a specific bird, even in good habitat, wastes valuable time... There is more than enough time to stress about the dips later in the year and why stress today when you can put it off to tomorrow..!

By day 4 we'd broadly covered the southern and central sections of the Park, seen 186 species and improved our photos of Retz's Helmetshrike & Stierling's Wren-Warbler. A case of diminishing returns given that we'd seen 128 on day 1.. Although the veld is lush and in places standing-water is still visible, particularly from recent rains, the Red-billed Quelea flocks are smaller than usual, raptors less conspicuous and quails almost entirely absent. Nevertheless, we did record Lanner Falcon, Harlequin & Common Quail, Lesser Spotted Eagle and Eurasian Hobby. As always we checked the Sabie for African Finfoot and Lower Sabie camp for the crepuscular Bat Hawk but dipped on both.

We can't, as yet, lay claim to any 'mega' or even a rarity. Good birds yes, but rarities not. We can however claim our first sighting of Common Reedbuck in the park on the same S128 where we'd searched for Black Coucal; a side-bet perk we hadn't expected but suspect will play a big part as we continue our journey. Strangers; people we'd met along the way, intrigued by the challenge, are no longer strangers and now follow our blog.

Here's one for the fundis. When is a silent Hippolais an Upcher's and not an Olive-tree? We found a Hippolais warbler with continuous [some might say, exuberant] tail-wag early on the 3rd of January on the S39 2.5km north of Ratelpan Hide. I'm not familiar with Upcher's at all so I'm loath to even make the inference. Even so, anyone in the area more familiar with the distinguishing characteristics might want to keep an eye out for the bird. As always, getting a photo, any photo, proved impossible given that we were confined to the vehicle.

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