Another early morning start provided us with some exceptional sightings of birds and animals in the Skukuza area of Kruger today. As we drove out of the camp, a pair of Spotted Hyenas sat next to the road and posed for several groups of onlookers. Leon impressed us again with his excellent spotting skills as we pointed out a Flap-necked Chameleon in a tree next to the road. Our first new bird for the day was a nicely patterned White-throated Robin-Chat, followed by White-crowned Lapwings down in the sandy areas along the Sabie River. A Gorgeous Bushshrike, now known as Four-colored Bushshrike, was hard to spot, but eventually seen by all. It was deemed the bird of the day by many. Other highlight birds were Green Wood-Hoopoes, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, a Green-winged Pytilia and an African Goshawk, the last of which was had caught itself a Smith’s Bush Squirrel for breakfast.
Somehow, Leon spotted a pair of White-faced Scops Owls roosting in a tree beside the road. The little owls swung back and forth in the spindly tree as the wind blew. The usual suite of mammals appeared this morning with Kudu, several Hippos, groups of Vervet Monkeys and a lot of Impala seen. Leon pointed out a Tree Agama hiding in a hole in a tree trunk.
Back at the camp, we had breakfast before departing for our next camp, Pretoriuskop. Before we left we had a look down the river where a buffalo carcass was sitting, but unfortunately, no carnivores were indulging themselves on this ‘fast food’ meal.
We stopped at a waterhole and saw several very impressive Saddle-billed Storks, along with a great big Nile Crocodile that hauled himself right up and out of the murky water. An Elephant, that obviously had just enjoyed a mud bath made its way up onto the shore.
A few shorebirds here included Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and Black-winged Stilt. A Hamerkop foraged on the far side of the pond. New for our growing list of raptors today was an impressive African Hawk-Eagle. Up in the trees we spied several African Green Pigeons, which we agreed was quite an attractive pigeon indeed. As we paused to look up and down a river we saw a Giant Kingfisher, along with an African Fish-Eagle. Several more bizarre Southern Ground Hornbills strutted through the grass. More mammals, though we had already seen them, included White Rhino, Plains Zebra, Giraffe, Waterbuck and the tiny and cute Steenbok.
One last look at a waterhole provided us with our first African Jacanas of the trip, as well as views of Black Crakes, and a lovely little Malachite Kingfisher.
To finish off the day we followed up on a tip given to Leon by one of his associates about a Leopard with kittens. We drove up to the rocky outcropping and sat and waited. Nothing happened, though we did see some Giant Plated Lizards loafing around on the rocks. We took a drive around the rock one last time, and I spotted the female Leopard in the bush not too far from the road. We sat and watched and eventually she came in and her tiny little kittens showed themselves. It was a very special moment, though we left quickly so as not to disturb her. On the way to camp, we made another short detour to look for yet another Leopard, this one on a Kudu kill.
We found her, and she, being the shy cat she is, slinked off into the grass and peered at us from a distance. All in all it was a very good day, once again. We checked into our rondavels in Pretoriuskop and had a little time to relax before heading out on a sunset drive.
The weather was lovely for our night drive, though a little cool in the open air safari vehicle. We first went up to have a look at the Leopard and her kittens not far from Pretoriuskop. It wasn’t hard to find them and the female was not happy we were there. She even charged the vehicle bearing her teeth and everything. We got out of there quickly.
The usual Elephants, White Rhinos, Giraffes, Kudu, Impala, Steenbok and African Buffalo were seen, but the only new mammal we added was Scrub Hare, of which we saw several. New for the bird list was a Black-bellied Bustard that flushed from the side of the road when the spotlight illuminated it, and several Barn Owls that we saw in the beam of the light. We got back to camp, had a quick dinner, and headed for our rooms to get some much needed rest.
We had one last morning in Kruger Park, in the vicinity of Pretoriuskop so we met shortly after dawn and went out before breakfast. Bumping along in ‘Mustang Sally’, our open air safari vehicle, it was chilly, but luckily we had brought some warmer clothes and there were nice blankets provided on our seats. As we drove along, our first new species came in the form of a small and rather drab looking bird called a Yellow-throated Petronia. Leon pointed out our first Flappet Lark of the tour, and our first looks at African Cuckoo were obtained as one sat in a bare tree next to the road and called. Neddicky, Croaking Cisticola and Lazy Cisticolas were noted this morning, and honestly they all pretty much looked the same, except perhaps for the darker and grayer Neddicky. We never could figure out just where the name Neddicky had derived. One of my favorite finds of the day was an adult Lizard Buzzard showing nicely in the morning sun. A nice Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, new for us, foraged on the ground, while on the rocks above we watched as Klipspringer stared us down. Other mammals noted included the usual African Buffalo, Kudu, Giraffe, Common Duiker, Vervet Monkey, Southern Reebuck and a lovely little group of Dwarf Mongoose.
After breakfast we swapped vehicles back into a passenger type van, loaded up our luggage and made our way out of the park via the Numbi gate. After leaving the park we were immediately engulfed in scenery around the town of Hazyview. This is a rather impoverished area with some quite rundown looking areas. We had to take a detour right through town as there was some road work going on.
The drive to Wakkerstroom took a fair bit of time over mountain passes, and through pine plantations. It seemed most South Africans who were interested in nature were very unhappy about the state of the country’s vegetation, with way too many foreign plant species taking hold, especially plants and trees of Australia. There were large plantations of eucalyptus and pine trees, neither indigenous to South Africa, along many of our routes. These trees are used for pulp and paper and some for construction of homes. Once we arrived in Wakkerstroom we were immediately charmed by our guest house, the Wakkerstroom Country Inn.
Before dinner we took a little jaunt down to the Wakkerstroom Wetlands and saw a nice array of birds as the sun set. An African Rail dashed about, but too quickly for many members of the group. The more obliging Black Crake walked about in the open though. Eurasian Spoonbill made an appearance, which was nice, since we had not seen too many of these impressive birds on the tour. Little Bitterns were seen well in the reeds and a distant pair of South African Shelducks were only our second seen on tour. In the reeds Leon pointed out an African Yellow Warbler, a rather drab little birds, hopping from reed stem to stem. Wood Sandpiper and African Snipe probed away in the mud for food, while a Pied Kingfisher hovered over a pool of water. We were surprised to see a pair of Spot-throated Otters here, new for our mammal list. On our way to dinner we saw several Spotted Eagle-Owls on telephone poles and wires alongside the road. After a nice meal at a local restaurant, we returned to our cottages and got some r & r.
This morning we were joined by local guide Norman, who led us out in the direction of Amersfoort into open country, home to several rare and endangered species of larks. On the way out we first saw a group of gorgeous Blue Korhaans, an endemic bird related to bustards.
The first new lark we found was Spike-heeled Lark. Next, Norman spotted a Rudd’s Lark, an endangered species with less than 5000 estimated on earth. A small covey of Gray-winged Francolin briefly interrupted our lark search, as did the appearance of a few African Quail-Finches! Back on track with larks, Norman spotted us a Pink-billed Lark and described how we would know if we found one of the rare and similar Botha’s Larks in the area. Bam! There it was, Botha’s Lark. We had done well indeed so we rewarded ourselves with a lovely breakfast out on the grasslands surrounded by rare larks. On the way back into town we saw a Secretarybird on a field below, as well as our first Black-winged Lapwing of the trip. Only our second Ground Woodpecker was seen, though it wasn’t a very good look as it disappeared in flight over a ridge. A mammalian highlight was certainly a group of Meerkats watched as they peered at us and ran away from the gleaming white van.
We then headed off to bird along the Groenvlei Loop where we got another mammal species, the shaggy looking Mountain Reedbuck. Finally, a Spotted Thick-Knee was seen here as well, which was great because all our previous thick-knees had been Water. The scenery was lovely along this route with open farm areas, river valleys and distant mountains. We saw Blue Cranes, Gray Crowned Cranes, and dozens of what had become known as ‘widowy-bishops’. This evening we took a drive at dusk just in case we might spot a Marsh Owl. We did indeed spot a Marsh Owl, but it was a mile away and was just a silhouette, so we decided we couldn’t very well count that. Later, we had dinner at a different place where we all agreed the food was very good. Several times I heard people rave on how good the food was in South Africa. I have to agree.
At dawn we tried one more time along the Amersfoort Road where we hoped for a Marsh Owl…no luck. Some nice birds seen though included Red-capped Lark, Crowned Lapwing, Blue Korhaan, Ant-eating Chat, and Wing-snapping Cisticola. Oh boy, the cisticolas sure have interesting names. Mammals were numerous again with sightings of Springbok, South Africa’s national animal, and more Meerkats.
One last stop at the Wakkerstroom Wetlands was a success as we got good looks at African Rails as we had coffee and rusks. African Snipe probed away in the mud once again, while Little Rush Warbler and Lesser Swamp Warbler called. An African Reed Warbler was very nice to see and photograph here this morning.
We had a great view of a male Hottentot Teal here. After breakfast we loaded up the van and started the journey to St Lucia. This journey took us through tiny villages and towns full of people, many of which were school children in smart looking uniforms. There was a lot of poverty out there as we entered Kwazulu-Natal. As we neared St Lucia itself we saw a Woolly-necked Stork fly over our van, and we then screeched to a halt to get the scope onto a Long-crested Eagle on a telephone pole alongside the road. Wow, great bird.
Our visit to the Igwalagwala Forest and the St Lucia Estuary was excellent this evening. On the mudflats we scoped out the shorebirds which included Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Black-bellied Plover, Terek Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Common Ringed Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit and more. In the forest we enjoyed views of a stunning Purple-banded Sunbird, as well as great looks at Livingston’s Turaco, a stunning bird. Rudd’s Apalis showed nicely and was a lifer for all present, except Leon.
White-eared Barbets called from the woods and popped out on a branch for scope views. We finally identified a Square-tailed Drongo after unsuccessfully trying to turn Black-bellied Starlings and Southern Black-Flycatchers into drongos. After a lovely dinner we drove around town in search of Hippos, but found none. We did see a Greater Galago or bushbaby as it traveled through a garden.
Greeting us in the garden next to our lodge this morning were a trio of Crested Guineafowl, strange looking chicken-like birds that Leon explained had calls reminiscent of disco beats. We spent our morning at the iSimangaliso Park near St Lucia. This is a great park with indigenous lowland forest, water holes, sand dunes, and open pastures. The birding, as well as the mammal watching here, was good. Impala, Plains Zebra, Blue Wildebeest and African Buffalo were seen in pretty good numbers here, with small numbers of White Rhinoceros being seen. We spent a lot of time exploring cisticolas in this park today, eventually identifying a good number including Rattling, Rufous-winged, Pale-crowned and arguably a Zitting cisticola. Two new hornbills were great to add to our life lists this morning, Trumpeter Hornbill, a strange bird that sounds like a crying baby when it calls, and several Crowned Hornbills. Dark-backed Weaver, Red-capped Robin-Chat and Brown Scrub-Robin were all new additions to the trip list, as was a flock of drab female Red-headed Weavers. ‘Where are the males?’ somebody asked. ‘Females count too’, I retaliated. Raptors here included Black-chested Snake-Eagle and Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, two rather impressive birds.
We returned to St Lucia and had breakfast, then made our way back to the Igwalagwala Forest to search for an African Wood-Owl that Leon’s co-worker had found earlier that day. As a light rain fell, Leon and I scoured the trees while the group waited out the weather in the van. I returned to the van and summoned them once we found the bird. Also new here today was a lovely Green Malkoha, and a Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher.
To finish off the day of exploring we took a cruise on the St Lucia Estuary searching, in particular, for good numbers of Hippos. We were not disappointed and saw dozens of hippos in the murky water. Some were massive old adults and there were a number of small young hippos as well. Some were just sleeping and others were opening their massive mouths, yawning and calling loudly.
A large Nile Crocodile was approached closely from the boat as he rested on the shore. In the bird department we saw several interesting species including a very obliging Giant Kingfisher, as well as Gray-hooded Gulls, Yellow (African Golden) Weavers, Lesser Masked Weavers and a Goliath Heron.
At dusk, an estimated 8-10,000 Barn Swallows filled the sky overhead. We went straight for dinner at Alflredo’s and then took a short, hippoless detour through St Lucia before returning to our lodge for the evening.
Before leaving St Lucia we took one last drive through the town, and found ourselves a group of Thick-billed Weavers and a Bronze Mannikin. Another Green Malkoha was nice to see, but I had my camera focused on a Vervet Monkey that was showing off how impressive his teeth were.
One last stroll through the Igwalagwala Forest produced Narina Trogon, the previous day’s African Wood-Owl again, as well as our first Southern Brown-throated Weavers. We tried to track down a loudly calling Eastern Nicator, but couldn’t pinpoint where the call was coming from. Terrestrial Brownbul, a drab and shy forest bird, showed itself briefly, and we had more looks at Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatchers. Gray Sunbird and Olive Sunbird were seen, both looking decidedly drab compared to other local sunbirds.
At the estuary we walked out along the boardwalk and got caught in a rain shower. There were some birds out on the mud nonetheless, if one could stand the rain. Common Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Ruff, White-fronted Plover and more shorebirds were picking about in the muck. In the mangroves along the boardwalk we watched Black-throated Wattle-Eyes, and wondered where the ‘black throats’ on these decidedly white-throated birds was. We then left St Lucia and drove south along the coast to the town of Mtunzini. The town, Leon explained, was up in arms over a large mining company who had begun operations right on the border of the town. We visited the Rafia Palm Reserve where it didn’t take too long to spot our target, a Palm-nut Vulture sailing overhead. A quick look in the Siyaya Nature Park produced a lifer for our guide Leon, a Mangrove Kingfisher! Great bird and we all saw it well before it disappeared into the mangroves. We had a stunning view of the beach and the Indian Ocean here before returning to Mtunzini where we had lunch at the Fat Cat.
Once in Eshowe, we checked into our rooms and gathered to visit the Dlinza Forest. It was a dark and gray afternoon and by 5 pm under the large and leafy trees in the forest, it was not easy to see birds. We trudged along a trail through the indigenous forest searching the ground for a bird thrashing about in the leaf litter. Trusty Leon found our target, a Spotted Ground-Thrush. What a lovely bird, in the ‘zooethera’ family. We also got great views of Chorister Robin-Chats in these woods as they hopped about on the forest floor and posed for scope views. Our mammal target in this forest also cooperated, the region’s smallest antelope, a Blue Duiker. ‘Where’s the blue?’ somebody asked, and Leon explained Blue Duikers could vary from a rusty color to a grayish blue color. With one last surprise up his sleeve, Leon led us to a hide in the forest near the parking lot where we watched for about 5 minutes as a Lemon Dove approached and fed. After a delicious dinner at a local restaurant in a fort, we got some rest before one last morning of birding in South Africa.
This morning at 5:00 AM some of us met outside our rooms and made our way back into the Dlinza Forest to climb up to a canopy walkway and tower. We had hoped to see Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon here, but they did not appear this morning. While watching the sun some up over the forest we did get one new bird though, Gray Cuckooshrike. Below in the woods we could hear a lot of things, including Narina Trogon, Red-fronted Tinkerbird and Trumpeter Hornbill. We returned to pick up the rest of our group at the guest house and we drove to Mtunzini to pick up our local guide Sakumzini, who took us up into the Ogoye Forest where Green Barbets can be found. Unfortunately the barbets weren’t interesting in showing themselves to us today, but we did enjoy some nice forest birding before beginning the drive to Durban where we said goodbye to Leon and caught an afternoon flight from King Shaka Airport to O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg. Our tour had officially ended this afternoon and we tallied up our trip list over dinner at the Protea Airport Hotel. We had seen over 440 bird species on our trip, and up to 60 species of mammals! What a great trip, with fantastic birds and mammals, as well as excellent company, good guides and an overall pleasant experience!