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 ...


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