South Africa with Avocet Tours ~ Part 2

October 8

A light rain greeted us this morning as we emerged from our rooms at the guest house in Swellendam. This didn’t stop us from doing a little birding before breakfast, and this was rewarding because amongst other things, we found a group of African Paradise Flycatchers!

After breakfast we made our way to Bontebok National Park, only about ten minutes away from Swellendam. The light rain continued off and on for a bit, but cleared up eventually and a cool breeze accompanied us for much of our time here. On the entrance road into the park we saw our first Pin-tailed Whydah of the trip, a lovely little finch-like bird with an excessively long tail. Our next new species came in the form of a pair of White-faced Whistling-Ducks that were resting near a little pond beside the road. We entered the park and briefly visited the little visitor’s center here, where in a large tree we watched a colony of Cape Weavers attending their hanging basket nests.

Colony of Cape Weavers were nesting at headquarters of Bontebok National Park, South Africa. Oct 2014.
Colony of Cape Weavers were nesting at headquarters of Bontebok National Park, South Africa. Oct 2014.

Once in the park, we bumped into a nice male Klaas’s Cuckoo that was sitting on a power line next to the road. Mariana pointed out a nice Pale Chanting Goshawk that was sitting on a pole, another new species for our trip list. Male Denham’s Bustards strutted their stuff through the open habitat, their inflated white breast feathers visible for a long distance. We saw several Black Harriers today as they coursed low over the ground.

Black Harriers were seen nicely at Bontebok National Park, S.A. Oct 2014. Photo Chris Charlesworth.
Black Harriers were seen nicely at Bontebok National Park, S.A. Oct 2014. Photo Chris Charlesworth.

From atop a nice viewpoint we scanned for Secretarybirds unsuccessfully, but did see a group of Bontebok and some Gray Rhebok down below on the flats. A Cape Clapper Lark was ‘clapping’ here as well, though we didn’t see it. Along the Breede River we took a short stroll and found an Olive Bushshrike, the bird of the day for some today.

A lovely Olive Bushshrike was a nice surprise along the Breede River in Bontebok National Park, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth
A lovely Olive Bushshrike was a nice surprise along the Breede River in Bontebok National Park, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth

Also in this area were Red-faced Mousebird, Neddicky, Bar-throated Apalis and an Acacia Pied Barbet. We carried on our drive and just as we were about to leave the park, Mariana finally spotted a group of Cape Mountain Zebra. We had excellent looks at five individuals, including one stripy youngster.

We were lucky to find a group of 5 Cape Mountain Zebras at Bontebok Park this morning. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth
We were lucky to find a group of 5 Cape Mountain Zebras at Bontebok Park this morning. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth

After picking up some food in Swellendam we made our way to Ceres, 2.5 hours to the west. The scenery along the way was spectacular with towering mountains, lush valleys, orchard, vineyards and reservoirs dotting the landscape. Once in Ceres we made our way to a nearby mountain pass where we searched for, but couldn’t find Protea Seedeaters. It was cold up here, with a bitter wind, so we put on our warmer clothes. Nevertheless, we did see a lovely Cape Sugarbird atop a protea feeding on nectar. Also here were Cape Canary, Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Bulbul, Karoo Prinia and Cape White-eye, so all was not lost. We arrived at our accommodations in Ceres in the late afternoon and had dinner at the restaurant before retiring for a night of rest.

Beautiful view of valley near Ceres, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
Beautiful view of valley near Ceres, South Africa. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.


October 9

An early departure at 6 AM was required today so as we could optimize our birding time at the Tankwa Karoo. The day began chilly, but eventually it did warm up under a nice bright sun. First thing we drove slowly past a pond near Ceres where we found our first Great Crested Grebes of the trip. Also here were Red-knobbed Coots, Gray Heron, White-breasted and Reed cormorants, and a Blacksmith Lapwing. As we drove up and over Theronsberg Pass the scenery was great, once again.

Arid, but beautiful scenery in the Tankwa Karoo, South Africa. Oct 2014. We found many different chat species here. Chris Charlesworth.
Arid, but beautiful scenery in the Tankwa Karoo, South Africa. Oct 2014. We found many different chat species here. Chris Charlesworth.

A light dusting of snow could be seen on the highest peak in the area. Upon arrival at our first stop, it didn’t take long to find our first new species, Mountain Wheatear. Mariana successfully found us a Namaqua Warbler here as well, a slightly less streaky version of the common Karoo Prinia. An immature Booted Eagle sat atop a rocky cliff and was briefly dive bombed by a passing Rock Kestrel. Brown-throated Martins coursed up and down a gully, with a little water in it.

We stopped for picnic breakfast at Skitteryskop where a cute little black dog came and begged for food, successfully, I might add. Our first European Bee-eaters were noted here, and we all agreed this species must be one of the highlight birds of the day. Chris found a Lesser Swamp Warbler on its nest amongst the reeds, and we all watched through the scope. On an unfortunate note, we found a road-killed White-backed Mousebird along the edge of the road here. Farther along the road, we searched, in vain, for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. We did find, however, Fairy Flycatchers, and Layard’s Tit-Babblers. Rock Hyraxes sat up on the rocky cliffs looking down at us as we explored the area.

The ‘chat fest’ then began, with Familiar Chat, Karoo Chat, Sickle-winged Chat, Tractrac Chat and the ubiquitous Cape Robin-Chat seen. Mammals seen out on the Karoo included Steenbok, a tiny, long-eared antelope, and Springbok. A Giraffe was noted along the edge of a game reserve. We popped into Padstal, a unique and funky little shop that had unfortunately burned down a few weeks earlier. Luckily for us, the shop was open and we stopped in for cold drinks, snacks, coffee and a bathroom break. From there we made our way up to a picnic area, just as ABA group were departing, and had our lunches. A stroll after we ate produced African Reed Warbler in a marshy area. On our return trip, we stopped at an area of acacia trees and found a male Pririt Batis, a nice find and a lifer for all on board, except Mariana of course. At Ayerskop we searched through the scrub, eventually finding one of our targets, a lovely Rufous-eared Warbler. Lucky Liz had a Karoo Eremomela visit her as she took a little rest in the van, but the rest of us were not present. We made the drive back to Ceres, the visited a river near our guest house where we easily found 2 African Black Ducks, and a bonus male Giant Kingfisher. It had been a great day indeed. After another enjoyable dinner at the guest house we retired for some much needed rest.

October 10

After a hearty breakfast at our guest house in Ceres, we loaded into the van and headed off into the mountains, bound for the West Coast National Park. Before we left the guest house, most people saw a Karoo Thrush hopping about near a water fountain. Our drive took us through a mountain pass, then into farm country around the settlements of Hermon and Malmesbury. Our ‘naturalizing’ only really began once we entered the West Coast Park, a lovely park, covered in low brushy habitat full of interesting plants and colorful flowers. All along the roadside were numerous Angulate Tortoises, some large and some small. The smaller tortoises had bold and intricate patterns on their shells while the larger and older individuals had more faded pale patterns on their shells. We came across a large and impressive specimen of a Puff Adder as it slowly slithered across the road.

The dangerous Puff Adder, West Coast National Park, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
The dangerous Puff Adder, West Coast National Park, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Unfortunately we also saw a road-killed adder, perhaps ran over on purpose, Mariana explained. Many people in this part of the world still have the mentality that the only good snake is a dead snake. To top the reptile list off, we also had a nice dark specimen of Cape Cobra! Black Harriers were particularly numerous in the park and we enjoyed watching several coursing low over the scrub throughout the day. One or two African Marsh Harriers were also thrown into the mix. The bush was full of the usual Gray-backed Cisticolas, Karoo Prinias, Karoo Scrub-Robins, Cape Buntings and the odd Bokmakierie. Some of the special birds we found included Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler, Long-billed Crombec, Namaqua Dove and Banded Martin.

We visited a hide in the morning where we saw our first South African Shelducks of the trip, as well as old friends such as African Sacred Ibis, Cape Shoveler and Little Grebe. In the reeds we saw Little Rush Warbler and Lesser Swamp Warbler. White-throated Swallows were nesting inside the hide as well. For lunch we paused at the visitor’s center where we had a picnic outside before making our way to another hide to view shorebirds. The tides were just right and we racked up quite a list of shorebirds including Marsh Sandpiper, Ruff, Kittlitz’s Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover, Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints, Black-winged Stilts, Pied Avocets, Ruddy Turnstones and more. Also impressive here were good numbers of Lesser Flamingos in with the Greaters.

South Africa Shelduck seen well at West Coast Nat. Park. S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
South Africa Shelduck seen well at West Coast Nat. Park. S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

We carried on towards yet another hide, pausing to drink in great views of another southern African endemic, Southern Black Korhaan. First we found a female with a chick, then saw a gorgeous male strutting through the grass.

We saw several species of korhaan on this trip, including Southern Black Korhaan at West Coast Nat. Park. S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
We saw several species of korhaan on this trip, including Southern Black Korhaan at West Coast Nat. Park. S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

Up on a hillside we spied Bontebok, Gray Rhebok and Red Hartebeest for the mammal list. We drove up to a viewpoint where an old shepherd’s cabin has been converted into a visitor’s center. The views here were spectacular. Hairy caterpillars were also quite spectacular here and we all took a few photos of these impressive looking insects. Our final birding stop was at another hide from which we saw our first Sandwich Terns of the tour, amongst other things. Two Cape Spurfowl got into quite the battle here, jumping up and down and quarrelling until a third spurfowl arrived and broke up the fight. We had excellent views of White-fronted Plovers here, along with more Kittlitz’s and one or two Common Ringed Plovers for comparison. After what had been a phenomenal day in the park we made the short drive to our guest house in the lovely beach town of Langebaan. Our final dinner with Mariana, down by the beach at Pearly’s was very enjoyable as well.

One of the many stunning views in West Coast National Park, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.
One of the many stunning views in West Coast National Park, S.A. Oct 2014. Chris Charlesworth.

October 11

Just before 7 AM we loaded up the van and then had breakfast with our hosts Jim and Kay, originally from Scotland. They bid us adieu and we drove a short distance to a rock quarry not far from Mikonos, a settlement that looks very much like the Greek town with the same name, with its low white buildings along a lovely ocean coast. At the quarry we were treated to views of a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles, one of which was sitting on the nest. Overhead here, we had our first African Black Swifts, a large all black swift with a forked tail. Some of us had another view of the Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler here. The only mammal species present was a Rock Hyrax watching us all from its perch on top of a giant boulder.

We then explored some grasslands along the road to the Saldanha Quarry where our targets were several species of larks. We first saw a couple of Large-billed Larks, a species we had already seen near Swellendam, but were happy to see again. We found a Karoo Lark, new for us, sitting on a fence post with food in its bill.

We had not found the Cape Long-billed Lark yet though, so Mariana suggested we try another road through some open agricultural habitat where viewing could be easier. We found the spot, pulled off on the side of the road and it didn’t take too long for us to find our target, a Cape Long-billed Lark! Feeling a sense of accomplishment, we made our way to an old farm store where we had lunch. On our way to the Cape Town Airport, Mariana took us to Blouberg Beach where we posed for photographs in front of Table Mountain. Once at the airport we said our goodbyes to Mariana, who had been a fantastic guide.

Our group posed for one last picture in front of Cape Town and Table Mountain. Oct 2014. Photo Mariana Delport.
Our group posed for one last picture in front of Cape Town and Table Mountain. Oct 2014. Photo Mariana Delport.

The flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg took just under two hours and we were met in the arrivals hall by Leon Marais, our guide for the next leg of our South African adventure. Leon drove us to our guest house, the Outlook Lodge, strategically situated on the eastern side of the city. We enjoyed a nice ‘Indian’ meal for dinner, then retired to our spacious rooms for the night.

Chris Charlesworth

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