At 6 AM we met outside our guest house and walked through a rather up market section of Benoni, an eastern suburb of Johannesburg, to the Korsman Bird Sanctuary. As we walked we were bombarded by a pair of angry Blacksmith Lapwings that were obviously nesting in the area. African Olive Pigeons showed nicely for us as we strolled along as well. Leon pointed out our first Red-throated Wrynecks of the tour and we located a suspected nest hole in a tree alongside the reservoir. On the reservoir were several duck species including our first Maccoa Ducks, a relative of the North American Ruddy Duck. Some of us, but not all, got onto a Hottentot Teal, but this attractively patterned duck was a little shy and disappeared too quickly. Wading birds here included a Little Bittern, as well as several Squacco Herons, and some Glossy Ibis.
We have finally left behind the omnipresent (at least on the Cape) Karoo Prinia, which has been replaced by the Tawny-flanked Prinia which we saw this morning in the grasses along the edge of the reservoir. Also, we are no longer seeing Cape Bulbuls, but now have acquired Dark-capped Bulbuls. Two different Crested Barbets were new additions to our bulging trip list, and we also saw our first and only Red-headed Finches this morning.
After breakfast, we loaded up the van and made our way out of Johannesburg towards Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city. We spent much of the rest of the day exploring the Rietvlei Nature Reserve. Aside from the birds, the park is fantastic for mammal viewing and we saw such species as White Rhinoceros, Plains Zebra, Blesbok, Black Wildebeest, Springbok, Common Waterbuck, Red Hartebeest, Southern Reedbuck, Common Eland and Black-backed Jackal. The White Rhino pictured below shows its horn has been cut. This unfortunate measure has had to be taken at many reserves in Africa to deter poachers.
One of the favorite birds of the day for many of us was Long-tailed Widowbird. The male widowbirds are similar in appearance to a Red-winged Blackbird, but they are adorned with a ridiculously long tail that hangs down and sways in the wind. Another contender for bird of the day was Cape Longclaw, a species we had seen farther south in the cape, but had exceptional views of today.
Ostrich were numerous in the park, along with several lapwings, African Wattled Lapwing, Crowned Lapwing and Blacksmith Lapwing. Amongst the numerous African Pipits in the grasslands we picked out a Plain-backed Pipit and our first Rufous-naped Lark. African Stonechats were particularly common today, and we also had our first Ant-eating Chat of the trip. We had coffee/tea and rusks down by a small lake which was very pleasant. The morning cloud and mist began to burn off just as we were sipping our warm drinks. We had a Black-chested Prinia here, new for our list, as well as an ‘old friend’, the Neddicky. In the distance we spied an African Fish Eagle sailing above a large reservoir, the first time some of us had set eyes on this species during our tour. Leon led us to an area good for Northern Black Korhaan and it didn’t take long for us to find up to three males strutting their stuff in the grass.
As we made our way out of the park, we picked up one more new species, Black-throated Canary.
Making our way north, we paused at a roadside station to pick up some lunch and refreshments before carrying on towards Dullstroom. We stopped along the Carolina Road, however, to add South African Cliff Swallow to our lists, as Leon knew where a colony was nesting under a bridge. As a bonus here, an African Snipe flushed from a wet area just below the road. As we went through the town of Belfast, which has obviously seen better days, we turned towards Dullstroom and along this route we climbed higher and higher in elevation to over 2000 meters. Along this road we saw a Common Duiker, a small antelope of the grasslands of this region. Just before Dullstroom we took a detour down the road to Uitvlugt which runs through open fields. We had hoped to possibly see Meerkats here, but had no luck. We did see a Yellow Mongoose though. A number of open country species were noted along this road including African Stonechat, Ant-eating Chat, African Pipit, and Cape Longclaw.
New for us were two Oribi, small tawny colored antelopes with whitish bellies. We arrived in Dullstroom around 6 PM, checked into our rooms and had a nice dinner in the adjoined pub.
We assembled outside of the Dullstroom Inn at 6 AM and headed off to do some high elevation, sub-alpine birding. It was overcast and we encountered a few spits of rain on our morning outing, but by the time we were making our way back towards the inn for breakfast, the weather was again sunny and warm. We explored the Veloren Valei Nature Reserve this morning, an open area of grassland interspersed with rocky outcroppings. The common species up here included Cape Canary, Common Fiscal, Pied Starling, African Stonechat, Long-tailed Widowbird, African Pipit and Cape Longclaw. A few of the more exciting bird species we located up here included Buff-streaked Chat, Mountain Wheatear, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Red-winged Francolin, Natal Spurfowl, Eastern Long-billed Lark and the range restricted Yellow-breasted Bunting.
Leon spotted a rare Wattled Crane in a distant field and we all marveled at this impressive bird through the scope. Another stunning bird was the tiny Golden-breasted Bunting. Mammals were few and far between at that elevation (over 2000 meters), but we did see good numbers of Blesbok, Gray Rhebok and a few Oribi. A much welcome pause for coffee, tea and rusks kept a smile on our faces.
After breakfast back at the inn, we headed out, leaving Dullstroom behind. We explored the Tonteldoos Road, meaning ‘tinderbox’. This road took us through more open, fairly high elevation, where we saw many of the same species we had seen earlier in the day. New additions to our list included a pair of Southern Bald Ibis, another South African endemic, and two groups of Gray-crowned Cranes. Our first Common Buzzard of the trip was seen, as were the usual Jackal Buzzards. Mammals along this road included Yellow Mongoose and Southern Reedbuck. We then basically made our way towards Mount Sheba, stopping briefly in Mashishing to use bathrooms and pick up a snack or cold drink. We paused amongst some proteas along the way to look for Gurney’s Sugarbird, but had no luck. Once at our lodgings at Mt. Sheba we decided to go for a walk, but it was cut short by an approaching thunder storm. The sky opened up with rain and some hail just as we arrived back at our rooms. After the rains stopped, the mist rolled in and hampered with any plans for afternoon birding. A four course meal was offered in the dining room and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. Hoping for better weather tomorrow morning as there are several bird species found in the surrounding afro-montane forest that we have yet to see.
This morning we were socked in at Mount Sheba with a thick fog, which made birding quite difficult. Nonetheless, we attempted to do some birding around the lodge. A flock of lovely little Swee Waxbills were very nice to see and were actually close enough to not be hidden in fog. Several Knysna Turacos were seen, though they mostly remained as silhouettes against the foggy sky. Their croaky frog-like calls were distinctive however. Another new bird we managed included one or two Yellow-throated Woodland Warblers. Before we headed to breakfast, a pair of Drakensberg Prinias showed nicely.
After breakfast we had one last walk around Mt. Sheba, finding little groups of Syke’s Monekys, otherwise known as Samangos.
We took a stroll down into some nice woodland where we briefly saw an Olive Woodpecker, as well as an Olive Bushshrike, our second of the tour. On our drive up and out of Mt. Sheba, the road was covered in rocks and debris from the previous evening’s rainstorm. We spotted Blesbok, Common Duiker and Red Duiker on this drive. Once back on the pavement we headed to Pilgrim’s Rest, an old historic town on the gold rush trail. Here, we stopped and grabbed some food and a refreshment for the drive.
Blyde River Canyon, which Leon explained is the world’s third largest canyon, was a stunning and picturesque place, despite being busy with admiring tourists. We had a new bird here as well, Mocking Cliff Chat. Way down on the river, I spotted a Nile Crocodile on a sandbar, while Leon pointed out a colorful little Sekhukune Flat Lizard. As we made our way through Abel Erasmus pass, several Cape Vultures sailed overhead.
By about 2:30 PM we entered Kruger National Park at the Orpen Gate. We quickly switched vehicles, abandoning our passenger van for an open air safari vehicle named Mustang Sally. New birds came left, right and center as we made our way to Satara Camp where we would spend the next two nights. There were over a dozen Magpie Shrikes, decked out in black and white with an impressive long tail. Burchell’s Starlings were common, as were Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Fork-tailed Drongos, Arrow-marked Babblers and Little Swifts. New mammals came fast and furious too, with African Elephant, African Buffalo, Common Warthog, Kudu, Hippopotamus, Nyala and Dwarf Mongoose added. Highlights in the mammal department though were two of the big cats. We watched three female Lions resting in the shade along a dry river bed. Another excellent sighting was a Cheetah sitting in the grass not far from the road. We watched in awe as the cat slowly followed several Kudu, a rather optimistically large meal for her if she did decide to pursue one.
More stunning birds followed, with both Purple and Lilac-breasted rollers, Retz’s Helmetshrike, Green Woodhoopoe, Chinspot Batis, Mosque Swallow, and Burchell’s Coucal added. Raptors seen included White-backed Vulture, Tawny Eagle, African Fish Eagle and several Martial Eagles, one of which we watched as it devoured a guineafowl in a tree next to the road.
Once we arrived at Satara we got settled in our rondawels, or ‘round houses’, then went for dinner. After dinner several of us took a stroll around camp in the dark and saw an African Scops Owl! What a spectacular day indeed!
Early this morning we gathered for coffee and rusks before heading out at 5:30 AM when the camp gates opened. Before we left camp, we tallied our first mammals of the day in the form of a group of Banded Mongoose and an African Wildcat! Our first Black-collared Barbets called raucously as we viewed from Mustang Sally, our open air safari vehicle. Driving north from Satara through open grassy habitat we searched high and low for Kori Bustard with no luck. We did find one of our most wanted species however, a Secretarybird sitting atop its nest tree. We later watched two more Secretarybirds as they strode through the grass in search of snakes and lizards.
Another impressive species we saw this morning was the giant Southern Ground Hornbill, all black with bright red facial skin. It was a great morning for mammals with Elephants, Giraffes, Zebras, Blue Wildebeest, Steenbuck, Waterbuck, Southern Reedbuck, Common Warthog, Kudu, Hippos, Slender Mongoose, White Rhinoceros, and perhaps the most exciting for some, three different Honeybadgers. Raptors seen this morning included Black-chested Snake-Eagle, Brown Snake-Eagle, Bateleur and back at camp a Little Sparrowhawk. At a creek crossing we watched a lovely Black Crake as it fed in the rapids, while a pair of African Firefinch sipped water from a muddy shore.
Our first Black-crowned Tchagra was a welcome addition to the list, as was Spectacled Weaver, Red-crested Korhaan, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Sabota Lark and both Desert and Rattling cisticolas. Baby blue colored Blue Waxbills were somewhat numerous this morning, as were Swainson’s and Crested spurfowls. Another highlight, though not seen that well, were a pair of Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls sitting near a nest. All in all, it was a very good morning!
Back at Satara Camp we had breakfast then had a little siesta before heading out for another drive. Not long after we left camp, Leon spotted a pair of Kori’s Bustards, one of the largest flying bird species in the world, according to some. Around a small water reservoir we saw several White-backed Vultures and one lone Lappet-faced Vulture, new for us. Next on the agenda was the highlight for many of us today. We watched a Leopard in the crook of a large tree as it sat atop its kill, an Impala, which it had draped over a branch. Other interesting mammal sightings included a large herd of African Buffalo.
In the evening we took a sunset drive from Satara, seeing very little before it actually got dark. Once it did get dark and we started using the spotlights, we saw quite a bit. A family group of Spotted Hyenas, including three curious little ones, were spectacular to watch. At a watering hole we saw a large group of Elephants stroll by, and there was also a White Rhinoceros here. The eye shine of a Nile Crocodile was noted in the water. Nancy alerted us to the possibility of a flock of sandgrouse, and yes she was correct. About 25 Double-banded Sandgrouse were along the shore of the watering hole, a nice find! An African Wildcat was located in the spotlight and continued to hunt in the grass oblivious to its onlookers. Two Civets were seen, looking somewhat reminiscent of our raccoons back home. A Lesser, or Small-spotted Genet was watched as were several Lesser Galagos, otherwise known as Lesser Bushbabies. Our driver, Tevin, spotted a Cape Porcupine as it scurried away. As we drove along we heard one or two African Scops Owls. It was a very successful night drive by all accounts.
After some heavy overnight rains and thunderstorms we met outside for coffee and tea before the camp gates opened up. Leon led us to an area of bush and trees where we hoped to find a number of new species and we were not disappointed. Bearded Woodpecker and Golden-tailed Woodpecker were great to see, along with other passerine species like Southern Black Tit, Green-backed Camaroptera, Brubru, Burn-necked Eremomela, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Southern Black Flycatcher, Gray Tit-Flycatcher, Black-backed Puffback and Common Scimitarbill, to name a few. A stunning Orange-breasted Bushshrike was a nice addition to the list. A Lilac-breasted Roller sat right next to our vehicle and posed for dozens of photographs.
We could hear a Leopard calling down in the ravine, but it never did show itself. The usual mammal species were seen, Giraffe, Plains Zebra, Blue Wildebeest, Waterbuck, Warthog and the ever present Impala. We had both Red-billed and the rarer Yellow-billed oxpecker on the mammals here. A Water Monitor, a rather large lizard, sat in the crook of a large tree for us this morning.
After loading up the trailer with our luggage we had one final breakfast at Satara before leaving camp and beginning the roughly 90 km journey to our next camp at Skukuza. A previously visited waterhole produced some more goodies such as a mud bathing elephant, and a nice Nile Crocodile that hauled up on shore as we watched. Two adult Saddle-billed Storks were a real treat to see here, along with a Hamerkop. At yet another waterhole we had two immature type Saddle-billed Storks as well as a few shorebirds such as Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and White-necked Stilt.
Our first African Pied Wagtails were noted here too. At Tshokwane we made a pit stop, for restrooms and refreshments. In the parking area were several Greater Blue-eared Starlings. Chacma Baboons peppered the roadway as we traveled along today. At a rocky outcropping, Leon pointed out a pair of Klipspringers, agile little antelopes of cliffs and rocky habitats. A Dark-chanting Goshawk sat atop a tree and was our first officially for the list. Another waterhole had a single Yellow-billed Stork.
By about 3:30 in the afternoon we were checked into our rondavels in the Skukuza Camp. As we waited for Leon to check us in, we spotted several new species from the reception area such as the colorful Violet-backed Starling, a Scarlet-chested Sunbird, some Yellow-fronted Canary and White-bellied Sunbird. After a brief thundershower we went for a walk around camp finding such gems as Bearded Scrub-Robin, Collared Sunbird, White-browed Robin-Chat, Yellow-bellied Greenbul and Chinspot Batis.
Along the Sabie River we could see Cattle and Little egrets, Striated Heron and a dead Buffalo. After our walk we had a little time to kick back before dinner. On our way to dinner, Leon spotted a Greater Galago, or ‘Greater Bushbaby’ in the trees next to the dining area. Another exceptional day in Africa.