Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Life is a safari vehicle....... You just never know!

Impala rams in debate
Late April, early May heralds the start of the impala rutting season in Southern Africa. Males evaluate each other, establish a pecking order; settle disputes and in need, make their point at horn's-end. To the victor a harem of willing ladies....

Late April, early May also ushers in mostly cooler weather, our favourite time of year to visit one of the many world-class lodges for three or four nights of 5-star luxury. Deciding on somewhere different for a change, away from the more illustrious venues in the Sabi Sands, we decided on Makalali's Emtomeni (Jackalberry tree) camp & we weren't disappointed. More on that later.

You never know what you gonna get....
'Safaris' for our foreign visitors or 'game-drives' for locals are conducted in open-air vehicles. Any sighting off the beaten track is pursued off-road, in thorny-bush & without conscience ...

Thrust onto an intimate vehicle for ten, parties of strangers, Lek-like, evaluate each other, establish a pecking order and in need, settle disputes at wit's -end..

A tool of discouragement.. ?
First-time foreign guests view the battle-scarred .458 cal. rifle, in easy reach of the ranger, as the tool of discouragement against unsolicited visits by paid-up members of the Big-5. They're wrong.

Those of us who know these things understand the unwritten significance of the gun .. We're reminded that the sanctity of the vehicle is to be respected; that the front-seat is the property of the driver - allocated at the driver's pleasure and that bank balance, schooling - both secondary & tertiary, locale of domicile, social circle & mode of transport to & from the lodge are not negotiable leverage. Seating's pecking order is on a 1st-come, first-seated basis, always! Drivers have been / are instructed to cool the heals of Gucci-clad combatants who get emotionally involved...

There is also the added attraction of a readily-accessible weapon to neutralise the locally-contrived Eton-accent in the far back-seat, adamantly claiming 'springbok' in thick acacia bush... & in so doing ease the general suffering; so to speak.

Camp 3 - Emtomeni [Alisha on deck]
Makalali is Big 5 country; split into 4 uniquely distinct luxury camps, independently managed but centrally catered. Accommodation is refined & unobtrusive; the cuisine tasty, abundantly bountiful and always freshly prepared.

Private mid-afternoon siesta deck.. Unique.

The service is all Makalali* ..! Indeed a '*place of rest'. Camp, kitchen & field -staff, drawn largely from local communities, are well-trained, respectful in a high-end environment & quietly confident - a skill that isn't bought but earned. 

Where it counts most, out in the field, Makalali plays lead safari.. Lions are lazy; elephants exuberant; rhinos razzle; buffalo bellow & leopards leap! Vehicle radios consistently report a suite of Big 5 sightings from which only the very best will do. Bush-pig, pangolin & aardvark are occasionally on the menu too. Makalali is a veritable scrapbook.

A three hour dawn-drive yields the lot; the evening too. Leopard, lion, hyena, elephant, hippo & African civet regularly patrol the midnight walk-ways between camps, chalets and the dining boma itself.  Walking alone, at night, by starlight, is respectfully discouraged..

'Phantom' - one of two brothers & dominant

A brother's bond - Refined in blood

'Kalahari Jnr.' - royal blood line. His father killed by 'Phantom & 'Miljon'. 
Kudu steak for breakfast - a cheetah coalition
As far as trackers & field-rangers go we had two of the best. Humble by nature, honest in promise & competent in practice, Amos & Rams, the two gentlemen assigned to 'Ingwe' ['Leopard'] our vehicle, will forever be the abiding memory. Those of us fortunate to see genius in one of its many guises will never forget Rams quietly going about his business tracking two hunting cheetah through throat-high grass and in virtually impenetrable bush, on foot, unarmed and ultimately successful when the tracks appeared a figment of his imagination. 

'Washed thatch' - a true African spice
Whilst the week's sightings are etched in rhyme, the torrential rain we stoically endured, some 30 minutes away from camp, on Saturday morning & in an open vehicle, will forever be remembered. Hairdressers, no doubt, are mincing still...

There is something to be said for a mid-morning fire in an African April. We tend to overlook small mercies but the ambiance is novel, welcomed and usually plays the perfect backdrop against which rainbows dazzle.

Ambiance - a 1000 words

Soaked to the sole

Bon voyage my recalcitrant South African backseat companion. The vehicle had you beaten. Humility is a lesson harshly learn't. Red wine negates the accent & rain is only water. You might, perhaps, respect the freedom of the wild & recall the wisdom of our American friends who patiently tutored you against your callous ignorance. Yes life is a safari vehicle - you just never know ...

Monday, 15 April 2013

Lessons in the sand

Phudufudu Tented Camp - Borakalalo NP 
Water outlet - Klipvoor Dam [Moretele River]
Staring into the dying coals, open to the elements and without an umbrella against the liquid splattering which rained down from the tree above, I coolly contemplated my son's drubbing on the rugby-field.

Our belated sunset arrival at Borakalalo's Phudufudu Tented Camp, post-match & a half-whistle earlier would have rattled most. Even so, we'd been here before and were soon settled in. Not long thereafter we shared a traditional bushveld dinner prepared over an open fire.

We intended to walk the banks of the Moretele River early next morning for African Finfoot which we needed for our 800 Challenge. We'd seen Finfoot here many times, knew the best spots and were, therefore, quietly confident. As it turned out we weren't wrong. We ticked good views before the sun's first rays had warmed the chill and at least an hour before a well-earned gas-cooked egg & bacon breakfast. [..which is why I roll more than I rock these days!]

En route the spillway & on other short excursions nearby, we noted nesting Meyer's Parrots, Brown-backed Honeybird, Ovambo Sparrowhawk & Shikra. The day's birding would prove successful but for two targeted birds which we failed to find but I digress. Breakfast was still a restless night away.

African Finfoot
Back at the fire the violence above heaped scorn on my scowling melancholy. The monkeys, gassed to the eyeballs and without any notable sign of remorse, rained down the contents of their bowels in shrieking paranoia. It was abundantly clear that the troop in the trees was, quite literally, getting the living sh-one-t squeezed from all orifices in leopard-induced paranoia.

They are, as we know, liars, damned liars & statistics will prove as much! There was no leopard; they were not 'bigger-than-us' & my irritation boiled over! Hurling obscenities as only a cheated father can, I went to bed. Early next morning the clear pug-marks of a large male leopard littered the sandy soils all around the tent.
Ovambo Sparrowhawk

'They were bigger-than-us, Dad...!'

Yes, they were..

Monday, 8 April 2013

River-dance.......! Ten years & two left feet.

Lower Sabie - by night
We'd heard that Leeupan, an ephemeral pan, someway north of Skukuza in South Africa's Kruger National Park, was the temporary home for a family of African Pygmy Goose & an Allen's Gallinule.

We needed both for the challenge but we were neither concerned nor in a hurry to make the trip. Both species are readily common elsewhere. That all changed, however, rather abruptly, as soon as we'd processed another reliable reporting of River Warbler in & or near Lower Sabie, east of Skukuza.
Allen's Gallinule
River Warbler is a drab sod; largely nondescript and a skulking species, more common under the right conditions than the manual admits. It's also our bogey-bird, bar none; a veritable nemesis! We've dipped on R. Warbler too often to accurately recall and we have, for all intent & purposes, elevated this master of stealth to virtual mythical status.

Sanity would dictate that we leave well-enough alone. Even so, history will show that we've lived a legacy of spontaneity and how could we deny ourselves the joy of another fruitless chase...
African Pygmy Goose
First order of business, African Pygmy Goose & Allen's Gallinule. Those who know these things will  claim that assumption is usually the mother of the proverbial..

I must admit I hadn't lost any sleep contemplating the possibility of dipping on all three species. Nevertheless, some two hours after first arriving at Leeupan we were, in fact, facing the almost farcical proposition of dipping on all three. Sheer luck, a cavorting hippo and a generous dose of perseverance, akin a Bieber-stalker, put us on both the geese & the gallinule. Flushed from their 'twitcher-shelters' on the far side of the pan, both the goose party (8 goslings) and the gallinule spent a short while in full view, in close proximity and on our side of the pool.     Veni, vedi, vice! 

River Warbler - singing post  [marked in yellow]
At 5am the following morning we vacated our cots, bright eyed & bushy-tailed, sharpened our hearing & embarked on our quest for River Warbler or bust...

In the time we took over two scones & a cup of tea we had to concede that the two birds reported in camp were conspicuously silent .. Faced with a pensive foreboding & a prudent sense of deja vu, we exited camp, a tad glum & turned west. Precisely 2.3 km westward on the H4-1 & at 6:15 am; a little way down the immediate bank of the Sabi river - the once-heard, never-forgotten call of a male River Warbler.. Suffice to say we spent the next two hours holding vigil and for our years of pain & suffering and the repeated iterations to bemused Big-5 adventurers of 'ag nee, it's only a bird...' we were rewarded with 4 incredible sightings of the same individual!

Forget playback. It doesn't work. From our elevated view here's what we observed. For those who don't know this bird spends most of its time on the ground, in the thickest muck imaginable. After a brief bout of calling, mid-bush (1 meter or so above ground level) the bird would free-dive vertically, head-foremost & bungee-like to ground level where it would disappear from view for a variable time before returning to the same perch to call and repeat the process. This he did four times over the next two hours. Truly amazing.

It's difficult to describe our emotions - surely elation; some relief & perhaps too, a small measure of sadness, a contradiction in terms if ever there was. The mystique, fragile & the myth disrobed! For ten years we'd been led a merry dance; the steps of which had proved, 'till now, too painful to accept. We'd been weighed, measured & found wanting! A drab sod no more... What a beauty!

800 Challenge: 1st Quarter review [Stats & sundries]

No. of species - monthly count

No. of species - monthly count

January 373
February 151
March 128

The declining month on month (M/m) trend is in line with expectations. The more readily-found or common species [easily accessed and or geographically convenient] are added to the list first.

1st quarter target - 675*. Result - 652 [*Zimbabwe trip postponed to 2nd half of 2013]

Species - 1st quarter regional split

Species - 1st quarter regional split

The regional split denotes where a specific species was first seen. Subsequent sightings around the region are not recorded. The bulk of the records stem from areas readily accessed from home. Based elsewhere there is no doubt that the 1st quarter regional split would be skewed elsewhere.

Gauteng 124
Limpopo 66
North West 32
Northern Cape 55
Mpumalanga 224
KZN 65
Western Cape 74
Eastern Cape 0
Free State 7
Namibia 5

Lifers: monthly & regional split
No. of Lifers - monthly count

As expected the bulk of new species seen (ie: lifers / 1st sightings ever) were recorded further afield from home-base. The majority of the lifers recorded were pelagic species (out to sea) - a pleasing result & one of the goals of the 800 Challenge as set out in our founding blog.

1st Quarter - Carbon Footprint [Kilometers traveled - estimates per Google Earth]

Kilometers traveled - 1st quarter 
Per boat or ship 2675
Per plane 8495
Per vehicle 8075

Sundry stats for interest: [1st quarter]
  • No. of kilometers traveled per species (aggregated across the whole) - 29 km.
  • No. of kilometers traveled per lifer (aggregated across the whole) - 2405 km.
  • No. of vagrant species - 9
  • No. of vagrants twitched - 8 
  • Species dipped (targeted specifically: geographiclly inconvenient ie: from home-base) - 5
    • Knysna Warbler
    • Victorin's Warbler
    • Elegant Tern
    • African Broadbill
    • Grey Waxbill
  • Time spent in the field - 936 hours
    • Hours per species - 1 hour 25 minutes
    • Hours per lifer - 117 hours
  • Remaining no. of species targeted over quarters 2; 3 & 4 across the region [excluding vagrants]
    • RSA - 63 (including pelagic species)
    • Namibia & Botswana - 75
    • Mozambique - 37
    • Zimbabwe - 35 

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Spotted Dick for Easter!

There's a certain satisfaction I derive from finding new and interesting....accommodation. Back in the eighties & early nineties a simple tent, tin mug, a cake of soap (usually), potato smash (ugh!) and a bottle of something or other would suffice. Now a little wiser and whenever possible, I prefer clean sheets, crockery and an a la carte menu. That's not to say we don't rough it when necessity knocks. We're quite comfortable in a roof-tent; only these days the 80 litre fridge hums quietly on the custom-made slide, feather pillows aid our slumber and both hot & cold water is automatically on tap. It's rough but not as you know it ...

If you're prepared to commute to & from a central base to any particular birding site, there's no need to forego sundowners & a chilled glass. Finding the right accommodation-fit can, nevertheless, be an ordeal in itself and therein lies some of the more amusing misadventures of our challenge.

Having hastily cancelled our scheduled 2-week trip to Zimbabwe we were left with little option but use the time wisely, elsewhere. The first week we spent in the Northern Cape; the second we thought we'd use to mop-up some of the specials we'd missed on an earlier trip to KZN. This week coincided with the Easter long-weekend which posed an interesting logistical conundrum. Mass migration from here & elsewhere clogged routes, filled hotels & depleted cellars. No room at the inns or even the stables..
La La Nathi Guesthouse (Harrismith)

Our itinerary included three base stops: Harrismith (OFS - Drakensberg); Pietermaritzberg & St Lucia. For the Drakensberg we found shelter at La La Nathi Guesthouse in Harrismith and what a gem it turned out to be. Slick service & a 4-star rating underpinned a joie de vivre that makes bricks & mortar special. Hilton's B&B (Pietermaritzberg), unrewarding & largely disappointing, was, however, a walk back in time to the sites of many school calamities & misadventures; interesting in itself.

If this is ostensibly a birding blog & more specifically a report-back on our 800 Challenge why all the bumph on accommodation? Two reasons. Firstly, a year is fleeting & when pushed for time short excursions or reccies are the de rigueur. That's always a logistical headache although a Travel Exec (Alisha) at home has its perks. Acceptable accommodation options per region, on hand, is therefore a necessity. Secondly, there are very few traveled birders who can't recall an occasion where logistics / accommodation diminished the birding experience itself. Life's bloody short as it is.

Bonamanzi Tree House - special in the springtime
Drakensberg Crag Lizard
Drakensberg Rockjumper
Spotted Ground Thrush
What matters most here, however, are the birds & what a long-weekend we had. First stop Witsieshoek - Sentinel Peak (Phuthaditjhaba).

There are, of course, equally reliable spots elsewhere for the high-montane specials inclusive of Bearded Vulture, Mountain Pipit, Drakensberg Siskin & Drakensberg Rockjumper. Given that we were pushed for time and perhaps influenced by the nearby N3, we selected Witsieshoek & Sentinel Peak as our first port of call. In need, nearby Golden Gate would provide an alternative if we dipped on any special. 

We weren't disappointed and recorded a clean sweep of the targeted species. On the long, long winding road up to the peak, if truth be told, we saw...nothing. Returning via the same road a mere half hour later revealed ... everything. What was the difference? Temperature. Cold up; warm down. A lesson. The early worm can elude the bird, especially in the mountains.

Our second stop had us targeting Red-headed Quelea at Darvill Wastewater Works in PMB. Heavy rains the night before & some soft drizzle on the morning we tried for the birds mean't we left somewhat soggy, down-hearted & empty-handed. Fortunately we had other options and found a few nbr. birds further up the North Coast's N2 at our more reliable site near Tinley Manor.

Mtunzini - KZN
Raphia Palms - observation boardwalk
The key species we were targeting this trip was undoubtedly Spotted Ground Thrush; a beautifully cryptic thrush; largely unobtrusive & a certain favourite. If you're inclined to use playback put your Roberts' away. At this time of the year you'd be wasting battery-life & unnecessarily expanding your carbon footprint.. A very soft, almost inaudible tsssssp is the charm.

Better than Spotted Dick (not contagious - it's a traditional steamed pudding) this Spotted perler was chocolate-egg enough for me. A Pesach jig-of-joy if ever there was!
St Lucia estuary

Red-backed Shrike - safe travels!

En route St Lucia for our third & final stop before joining the returning great unwashed & the inevitable road-rage-induced-fisticuffs (Easter Monday Madness), we stopped in Mtunzini for lunch, Palm-nut Vulture & Black-throated Wattle-eye. If you've never been to Mtunzini to see the Raphia Palms do yourself a favour and pop in. You won't be sorry. It's truly spectacular.

It's said familiarity breeds contempt & perhaps that's true for us when it comes to St Lucia / Cape Vidal. I would imagine that the vista, unaided by our feathered friends, is memorable enough. For us, however, it's all business & it's always about the birds. We were after 15 species for our challenge; banked 10 & dipped on 5. Of the 5 two are considered vagrants & one a winter visitor. The other two; Grey Waxbill & African Broadbill, we dipped on; inexplicably...
Trumpeter Hornbill

If you've heard the wet-nappy-like wailing of the Trumpeter Hornbill you've got some idea of how we felt...  Two dips & a good licking are simply too much ...


Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Bushmanland's hotter than a shearer's armpit...

Where locals would no sooner hang you by the shorts than offer you 'met-ys..Ja!' for so much as a wink at lovely Bo-Peep and where skies cry crimson at dusk & at dawn; this is truly the land of contrast. Here a lung-full of sky is as pure as it gets.

Big skies - miserly trees
Set aside as a stand-by route, where the endemics & specials are present all-year round, we'd hoped to go elsewhere whilst the summer sun held the migrants in thrall.

Some bad timing and a political side-show meant we'd had to postpone our trip to Zimbabwe in favour of somewhere else and where better than the Northern Cape, South Africa's thirstland province in the far north west.

At first glance the landscape appears desolate & forgotten. People are few and at midday it's the devil's very own as the sun unleashes the fury of hell on mad-dogs & Birdmen alike. Later when dusk falls and the first glass washes away the dust caked deep in your soul you're reminded of the evening chill, no less than 30 degrees below the mid-afternoon peak. At the sun's death and for a brief moment the desert holds its breath; a hush falls over this land. Then life returns in-sync & on-cue as the yapping of the tormented & the barking of geckos prove life exists here, abundantly.

The long, long road to nowhere
Out in the field the roads are as dusty as they are long & measure length in time-traveled rather than in metric. The going's tough & it's not for those with low clearance but for birders it's nothing short of miraculous. Here birds are patently special, perfectly adapted & completely at ease.

The first thing newcomers will notice is the Lilliput-like 'fence' most farms boast. These tailor-friendly, vertically-challenged mesh & barb hindrances make trespassing, ...practical. Birds too like these, hide & shelter under these and nonchalantly brave the altitude to get to the other-side usually to avoid 'a better pic'..  It's a small victory then to stride over this no-mans' land without so much as a grunt!

Lilliput fence - 'jackal'-proof?

Usually our first leg on any N.Cape odyssey includes a trip to Kimberley for the two local pipits, Long-tailed & Kimberley. Some controversy exists around the validity of these two species and although early in argument these two species may well be 'decommissioned'.. or they might not be. Even so, for accuracy's sake, we've removed these two from our targeted species-list for the 800 Challenge.
Our 1st stop therefore was a little further west near Kakamas ie: the Augrabies Falls, where we spent two nights cleaning up on raptors, warblers, sunbirds & tits. Whilst so much more needs to be said here my words wouldn't do justice. It's truly awesome. In early evening tens, if not hundreds of thousands of bats emerge from their roosting places to continue the feast. It's a mammalogist's dream...

By day raptors soar high above the canyon-depths but, remarkably, within arm's-length & covert to cheek from the observation-platforms which dot the canyon peaks along its length. For raptorphiles there are arguably few better sites, if any, for both diversity & proximity.

Bat for breakfast - Rock Kestrel
Pygmy Falcon

Further afield, ie: Pofadder; aptly enshrined as THE one-post-two-donkeys town, the order of the day are the Alaudidae or larks.

Most birders make the pilgrimage to Brandvlei to find the local specials which I find noble if not a little unnecessary. With patience; some fortitude; a tolerance of 40+ degree temps; a good book & 5 litres of drinking water each, the mohamedians always come to the mountain.. By that I mean find a water trough in the most desolate terrain imaginable and wait for the birds to come to you...

Like good politicians Sclater's, Large-billed, Stark's, Karoo Long-billed, Pink-billed & even 'Bradfield's' usually indulge at the trough. The Black-eared Sparrow-Lark needs more attention but in the right places these too are usually bagged. A short jog down the road towards Springbok is normally reliable for both Red & Fawn-coloured Lark. Pofadder may be a faded one-pony town but it's reliably THE mecca for larks, sparrow-larks & coursers alike.

Burchell's Courser
Black-eared Sparrow-Lark

Sclater's Lark

Stark's Lark
If you're diligent most of the region's specials can be seen in, near or within close proximity of Pofadder itself. Even so, some require further effort further afield which means go-west-my-son and in one case necessitates a trek to the furthest north-westerly reaches of South Africa itself, the eerily weird Alexander Bay.

Karoo Long-billed Lark - undercover
Cape Long-billed Lark - cryptic
For this leg of the trip we always stay in Springbok, the region's almost-21st-century-town. Nandos, KFC and air-conditioning are not inconspicuously cryptic.. For those who take note of these things littering is taken seriously. Other than the weighty bunch in your wife's purse you'd be pushed to find any plastic perched on any fence, anywhere.. It's an oasis for the footsore and a launch-pad further north for birders and travelers alike.

Whilst we're talking the validity of species and particularly the potential 'split' of 'Damara' from Black-headed Canary, our subjective 'at-face-value' observations confirmed the presence of 'Damara' Canaries only. During our brief time spent here we noted not a single 'Black-headed' type specimen. They say blood is thicker than water but it seemed that whilst DNA might prove Damara a ssp. of Black-headed, the Black-headed, like wise-men, had in fact followed the water.. someplace east.

The other bone of contention is Barlow's Lark and their promiscuous habits.. Hybridising with Karoo Lark, the common-folk in the south, places doubt on the ancestry of the birds usually targeted around Port Nolloth. To circumvent the thin vs. thick bill debate, a visit to Alexander Bay in the far north west, where the Barlow's run true, is essential. In the right areas the birds are easily found. Alexander Bay itself is also never forgotten once seen.

Barlow's Lark - Alexander Bay [Regally pure]
Below is a mildly gratuitous photograph of a N. Cape favourite. It's Lilliput-like tiny, as are the fences; has a big heart, like the local people; is a shrewd nest-builder disguising the entrance with hidden tunnels, just like the local diamond-seekers who tunnel the coastal sands & shores and gathers in strength to attack an enemy just as you would be attacked if ever you had the temerity to bring a salad to a big-sky braai where the staple diet is meat, without ys... Ja!

800 Challenge year-to-date: - mid-600s. 

My personal favourite - Cape Penduline Tit