South Africa with Avocet Tours ~ Part 1

Here begins the journey of Avocet Tours through the wilderness of South Africa. The tour officially began on October 3, but I didn’t arrive until the 4th, so I’ll pick up the blogging right there. Enjoy!

October 5                 At 7 AM we met for breakfast, and soon thereafter we were off for an exciting day of birding. Views as we neared False Bay and the resort town of Muizenburg were gorgeous. We stopped at a roadside gas station along the N2 motorway to get some water and to use the facilities and in a reed bed next to the parking area we had great views of Southern Red Bishop, and Yellow Bishop. Also here were male and female Cape Sparrows. Our first weavers of the tour, Cape Weaver and Southern Masked Weaver were nice additions to our list here as well. As we drove through the town of Gordon’s Bay, Mariana pointed out Fork-tailed Drongo, Common Fiscal and Cape Rock Thrush on the fence line along the edge of the road.

Some lovely scenery at Rooiels, where we saw Cape Rockjumper, and Ground Woodpecker! Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth
Some lovely scenery at Rooiels, where we saw Cape Rockjumper, and Ground Woodpecker! Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth

Rooiels was a fantastic spot, where amongst the proteas we had good looks at both male and female Cape Sugarbirds, the males with their extremely long tails. Karoo Prinia called incessantly from all around and we also picked up Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Bulbul, Orange-breasted Sunbird and Southern Double-collared Sunbird here at Rooiels. We scanned the rocky hillside and soon I had spotted a female type Cape Rockjumper. She was later joined by a male and we all had scope views of these exciting birds. Cape Bunting, with its nicely patterned black striped face was a treat to see, as was a Southern Fiscal, a shrike that is similar to a Fiscal Flycatcher, using its similar plumage to look passive and not dangerous. A lovely Cape Rock Thrush sat atop a chimney and let us look at it in the scope. Over the cliffs were several Alpine Swifts, as well as White-necked Raven and at least one Verrueux’s Eagle as seen briefly here. Another big treat here was the sighting of a Ground Woodpecker. Southern Rock Agama and Cape Skink were two lizards encountered here.

Southern Rock Agama at Rooiels, South Africa. October 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
Southern Rock Agama at Rooiels, South Africa. October 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We had lunch at ‘Something Els, which was a fantastic place. As we ate we watched several Rock Hyraxes out on the boulders. White-rumped Swift and Greater Striped Swallows,  as well as Rock Martins kept up patrolling the ski.

Finally at Stradfontein Sewage Lagoons we were treated to a host of new birds. Little Rush Warblers played hide and seek in the reeds. A Reed Cormorant perched in the water body next to the road. We had several good looks at Golden-headed Cisticola. We had our first ducks on the ponds here including Cape Teal, Red-billed Teal, Cape Shoveler, Southern Pochard, and the like.

Yellow-billed Duck and Cape Teal at Strandfontein, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth
Yellow-billed Duck and Cape Teal at Strandfontein, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth

There were great numbers of Swift Terns, with just a few Caspian Terns present too. An African Marsh Harrier made a quick pass by, as did an adult Black Sparrowhawk, the largest of the accipiters. Several Little Rush Warblers popped out of the bushes, along the marshy edge of the road. White-throated Swallows zipped back and forth in front of us, while Blacksmith Lapwings seemed to be everywhere. Least and Black-necked grebes were seen in fair numbers on the sewage ponds, while up to 3 different Purple Herons were a treat to see. A pair of African Pipits posed nicely alongside the road for us to have a good view, as did a pair of Water Thick-Knee. Cape Spurfowl tried to hide amongst the vegetation but had little luck, as they were seen often. Out in the heronry were several Black-crowned Night-Heron along with African Sacred Ibis.. One of the real treats here though, was seeing thousands of Greater Flamingos. Eventually we picked out at least half a dozen Lesser Flamingos.

Both Greater and Lesser flamingos at Strandfontein, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
Both Greater and Lesser flamingos at Strandfontein, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Mariana directed us to a low bush were Spotted Eagle-Owl had been seen and it didn’t take the bird long to fly across a little gully and disappear into nowhere. New for the mammal list here was a Small Gray Mongoose that ran along the pathway in front of us. We returned to Noordhoek and had a lovely dinner this evening at Barracuda in, in Fish Hoek.

October 6            Just before 6:30 AM, we collected our bagged breakfasts and began our drive to Simon’s Town where we caught up with local guide Barry Rose, and skip and The Skipper, who’s name eludes me currently. We boarded the Destiny, a small, but seaworthy vessel and steamed our way out towards Cape Point with the strong southern sun beating down on us. Birds we saw on the way down to the point included Cape Cormorant, African Penguin, Swift Tern, Kelp Gull and the like.

N. Giant Petrel off Cape Point, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
N. Giant Petrel off Cape Point, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Once we rounded The Cape, birdlife picked up significantly. We saw our first Sooty Shearwaters and White-chinned Petrels of the pelagic here. A Subantarctic Skua sailed by overead, for all to see. Farther and farther we carried on out into the open ocean, stumbling upon our first albatrosses, which turned out to be Shy Albatross. Cape, or Pintado Petrels, sailed by in large numbers.

A Subantarctic Skua sails by on our pelagic out of Cape Town, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
A Subantarctic Skua sails by on our pelagic out of Cape Town, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We saw both Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, Black-browed Albatross, Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, and s single Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. Great Shearwaters came by nice and close to check us out, especially when Barry began chucking chum out for the birds. Wilson’s Storm-Petrels sailed by in reasonable numbers, while just 2-3 Black-bellied Storm Petrels were a real treat to see.

The lovely Pintado Petrel off Cape Point, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
The lovely Pintado Petrel off Cape Point, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We saw at least 2 Humpback Whales, though they did not show off very much, merely spouting a couple of times before diving down into the depths and disappearing.  Also, we were right amongst a pod of about 1000 Long-beaked Common Dolphins here. We found a fishing trawler there, which was great, though most of the birds were already seen before.

Up to a thousand 'Long-beaked' Common Dolphins surrounded us while on a pelagic off Cape Town, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
Up to a thousand ‘Long-beaked’ Common Dolphins surrounded us while on a pelagic off Cape Town, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

The drive to Swellendam was pleasant, though a few people, myself included, had a little snooze. At the same gas station we had stopped at two days earlier we again picked up Southern Red Bishop, Yellow Bishop, Cape Weaver, and Glossy Ibis to name just a few species. We drove, via the N2, up and over Sir Lowry’s Pass.  We arrived into beautiful Swellendam at about 20 after 2 six and we went for a delicious meal at the Old Mill Restaurant.

October 7               At 6:45 this moring we met outside our quaint accommodation in Swellendam and birded the property while overcast skies and a light mist greeted us. The birds were very active this morning and we saw a number of new species. Some of the highlights included an African Goshawk, Bar-throated Apalis, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Laughing Dove and a Cardinal Woodpecker.

After a lovely and delicious breakfast we made our way to a dirt road through open agricultural fields not far from Swellendam. Our first stop was a productive one and we saw several open country birds such as Agulhas Long-billed Lark. Large-billed Lark, and Nancy saw Cape Clapper Lark.

Several lark species, such as this Large-billed Lark, seen near Swellendam, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
Several lark species, such as this Large-billed Lark, seen near Swellendam, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Blue Cranes, South Africa’s national bird, seemed to be all over the fields. Some were even dancing to one another. Mariana spotted a distant ‘white plastic bag’ that turned into a Denham’s Bustard. Beautifully patterned Capped Wheatears sat on fenceposts, and Cape Longclaws also showed nicely.

Dancing Blue Cranes, S.A.'s national bird! Swellendam. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
Dancing Blue Cranes, S.A.’s national bird! Swellendam. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We paused by some large eucalyptus trees where African Spoonbill, and Black-headed Herons were nesting. Overhead were Alpine Swifts zipping about, alongside Greater Striped Swallows. An Africa Stonechat sat obligingly on a telephone wire, and high overhead we watched as up to 10 Cape Vultures, an endangered species, circled in the thermals. Mariana spotted a Puff Adder, a poisonous pit viper, as it crossed the road. We all gingerly approached the snake and had a good look at it. For the daily mammal list we found Yellow Mongoose and Large Gray Mongoose along this road.

A poisonous Puff Adder crossed the road in front of us near Swellendam, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
A poisonous Puff Adder crossed the road in front of us near Swellendam, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We paused to fuel up and have lunch in a small town near the entrance to De Hoop Nature Reserve. As we ate lunch, an African Hoopoe showed off to some, while in the sky above we got several Little Swifts. Once in the reserve we picked up Yellow Canary and Brimstone Canary, a particularly large billed member of the canary family. Overhead an African Fish Eagle sailed by, but disappeared all too fast. Nancy spotted our only Black Harrier of the day, a gorgeous adult coursing over the fynbos. A tiny chameleon crossed the road in front of us, and Chris spotted it just before our van ran over it. We hopped out and watched the little creature as it slowly and safely crossed the road. Perhaps the highlight of the day was watching about a dozen Southern Right Whales playing in the Indian Ocean.

Up to 12 Southern Right Whales seen in Indian Ocean from De Hoop Nature Reserve, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
Up to 12 Southern Right Whales seen in Indian Ocean from De Hoop Nature Reserve, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

The whales which were particularly active, breaching and spouting not far from shore, were a real treat to watch. A pair of Bokmakierie were playing about right in front of us here as well.

The Bokmakierie is almost heart stopping it is so beautiful! De Hoop Reserve, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
The Bokmakierie is almost heart stopping it is so beautiful! De Hoop Reserve, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Cape Grassbirds and Speckled Mousebird put on a nice display here, while a female type Southern Boubou popped up in the bushes right in front of us as the cameras clicked. We took a short drive to the campground area of the reserve and saw numerous Bontebok and a few Common Eland here.

The Bontebok, which was once on the brink of extinction, has made a remarkable comeback. De Hoop, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
The Bontebok, which was once on the brink of extinction, has made a remarkable comeback. De Hoop, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We had great looks at an African Hoopoe here, then we turned around and began our return to Swellendam. We returned via a different road along which we saw a Spotted Eagle-Owl, and a Black-backed Jackal, the latter of which is quite like a cross between a Coyote and a fox. We made it back to our lodgings, then headed out for an enjoyable dinner at the Old Mill Restaurant.

Chris Charlesworth

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