Saturday 20 August 2016

South Africa - August 2016 : Part 2

6th August - Day 3:

Southern Double-collared Sunbird singing in the morning sun

Our last morning at Cape Town before flying back to Johannesburg. Brian was taking us to the world famous Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, we met him at 7:45am as the garden don't open it's gate until 8am. It was a very short journey through town and soon we arrived at the car park of Kirstenbosch. The garden is situated right at the foot of Table Mountain, founded in 1913 to preserve some of South Africa's unique flora, cultivating indigenous plants and flowers. The botanical garden is very popular amongst tourists, often becoming busy through the day, so getting there early was the key to good birding in the area.

Main entrance at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Garden interior looking towards Table Mountain

Flowering heather, surely a sign of Spring in South Africa

We paid our entrance fee and were soon inside looking at Helmeted Guineafowls strolling the lawns, a species that I've only had experiences with seeing them on sale in markets in Hong Kong, it's nice to finally see them in their natural range and habitat. Karoo Prinias were again very common here, one basking in the morning sun was particularly photogenic. Southern Double-collared Sunbirds were everywhere, both males and females easily seen along the garden's footpath, either feeding on nectar or singing on an exposed perch.

Helmeted Guineafowl

Karoo Prinia

Southern Double-collared Sunbird - male

Southern Double-collared Sunbird - female 

Southern Boubous were calling inside dense foliages, one decided to give itself up for a good but rather distant view. Cape Batises were also active, a female came particularly close at eye-level, giving wonderful views of it's chest patterns. A rather shy Olive Thrush eyed us from it's perch in the shadows, it took off after I had a few shots.

Southern Boubou

Cape Batis - female

Olive Thrush

Further up the garden, Brian pointed to us a small brownish bird that we recognised as a Flycatcher, it was an African Dusky Flycatcher, identified by it's conspicuous white eye-rings. We managed to sneak up closer to the bird and got some good shots. Suddenly, Brian shouted "Harrier-Hawk!", we all turned out heads away from the Flycatcher, only to see a large raptor gliding at the far side of the tall trees, soon out of sight. We waited a little longer and soon the large raptor re-emerged from the trees, gliding casually at a distance, I fired a few shots and managed a record shot of the bird. Another raptor soon followed in form of an African Goshawk.

African Dusky Flycatcher

African Harrier-Hawk

African Goshawk

We walked along the footpath under some tall trees with closed canopy, it was then Brian pointed upwards and sure enough we saw two large Owls roosting quietly! A pair of Spotted Eagle Owls! This resident pair is one of the star bird of Kirstenbosch, usually allowing good views to visiting birders, and we were not disappointed. We managed to find a clearing with a good view with no obstacle between us and one of the owl, the owl gave us a few looks and stares which gave me the shots that I wanted, after a good ten minutes observing the pair, we left them to roost in peace.

Spotted Eagle Owl - one of the star species at Kirstenbosch

A few Natal Spurfowls patrolled the lawn leisurely, a male was displaying and courting to a female, fanning it's wings and dancing around it's lady friend. This provided a few minutes of entertainment, but soon the female walked away with the male following behind her, I wasn't sure whether he succeeded in winning her heart or not.

Cape Spurfowl - mating rituals

The bird that surely did won our hearts though was the male Malachite Sunbird, a very large sunbird completely covered in metallic green and blue feathers! It's long tail was equally impressing, the bird measuring up to 25cm all together is easily the largest sunbird I have seen (if you don't count Spiderhunters as sunbirds). It was soon 9:45am, as we had to get to the airport by 10:30, we thought we shouldn't stay that long, although I would have loved to stay a little longer to soak in the amazing view of Table Mountain. An African Olive Pigeon (or Rameron Pigeon as I prefer to call it) perched on a tall tree to see us off, a Speckled Pigeon at the main gate was our last bird at Kirstenbosch.

Malachite Sunbird

African Olive Pigeon - I still prefer the name Rameron Pigon

Speckled Pigeon

We farewelled Brian at the airport terminal and boarded a domestic flight to Johannesburg at 1pm, the flight was short but allowed us to catch an hour of sleep. The land became less green the further east we flew, demonstrating the climate difference and uniqueness of the cape area to the rest of South Africa!

View of Cape Town from above

Ariel views of Johannesburg

We were informed through whatsapp by Yuen that they have arrived at the lodge we were to stay for the night, luggage reclaim was quite smooth and we were at the arrival hall in just about thirty minutes. There was a pickup service for guests at the lodge, and we were soon picked up by the driver along with Yuen. Aero Guest Lodge was situated just 5 minutes drive from the airport, in a residential area at Kempton, it's a small lodge but have a good range of services including a small swimming pool.

Aero Guest Lodge

We saw Captain with his camera snapping away at birds in the garden even before we unloaded our luggage! My father and I wasted little time and soon joined him birding around the lodge's garden. Despite being in an urban suburb, the garden at Aero Guest Lodge was surprisingly birdy! We soon had a flock of Speckled Mousebird feeding at close-range, a single male Southern Masked Weaver was making a nest on a palm tree in the garden, being away from a proper colony had us guessing it to be a young bird still polishing it's weaving skills.

Speckled Mousebird

Southern Masked Weaver - male advertising it's nest

A pair of Crested Barbets fed on a tree just outside the lodge's wall, giving quite good views. This was a species I have wanted to see for so long, and did not expect my first encounter with it to be in a suburban garden! Perhaps the most unexpected drop in was a Black-headed Heron that suddenly perched on top of the pine tree in the garden! Cape White-eyes were quite common here too, we noticed them to be the eastern race of virens, differs to the Cape race by it's olive coloured underparts.

Crested Barbet

Black-headed Heron - can't really see it's main feature from this angle

Cape White-eye - race virens with olive underparts

We enjoyed a wonderful meal at the lodge that night, roast pork chops were a crowd favourite. Finally together with our friends, we shared our stories from Cape Town, and I think we successfully persuaded Captain to seriously consider planning another visit to Cape in the near future. We were formally introduced to the rest of the group including Captain's wife Rosita and their daughter, Rosita's sister Jessica and her daughter Erica plus her cousin Sammy, along with my parents, myself and Yuen make up this adventurous group ready to take on Kruger National Park!

7th August - Day 4:

More of a travelling day, but little did we know we were in for some pretty nasty surprises...More of that later, but first we had a blast birding at Aero Guest Lodge's garden early morning. Cape Robin-Chats were extremely confiding here, we got better views of this species here then anywhere else. Another common bird here were Karoo Thrushes, this endemic is a common garden bird much similar to the Blackbird, they even make a few calls that sounded like them.

Cape Robin-Chat

Karoo Thrush - a common endemic garden bird

A Rameron Pigeon sitting on top of our lodge came as a bit of a surprise, it gave much closer views then we did at Kirstenbosch, really a very good looking wood pigeon. An African Hoopoe was spotted in a distant tree, they are sometimes considered a race of Eurasian Hoopoes, but difference in their richer chestnut colours and lack of white sub-terminal band in their primaries.

African Olive Pigeon

African Hoopoe

Cape Sparrows are very common in suburban Johannesburg, and we had quite a few of these smart looking sparrows in the garden. Sexual dimorphism is apparent in this species, with males having a black facial mask and females somehow looking a bit like a oversized House Sparrow. Yuen and I were spotted a finch type bird perched on top of a tree, large bill shape and streaky underparts had us baffled about it's identity. After flipping through our field guides a few times, we came to the conclusion that it was a female Thick-billed Weaver. A good thing we saw it too as it turned out to be our only encounter of this species on this trip.

Cape Sparrow - male

Cape Sparrow - female

Thick-billed Weaver

At 9am, Captain, Yuen, my Father and I headed out to the airport car rental to pickup our pre-booked vehicles, we planned to get the car and drive back to the lodge to pick up the other guys as well as the luggages before some shopping at the local supermarket. However, we sensed something was wrong when we saw a huge line at the Hertz counter. When it was finally our turn, we realize what the problem was; the company had ovbiously overbooked and ran out of available vehicles for everyone.

This was a very nasty surprise, and the next hour or so had us fumbling about the car rentals trying to find extra vehicles. We were fortunate that Hertz had one Volkswagen Jetta for us (although we booked a Toyota Rav4), but they failed to deliver Captain and Yuen their 16 seater Toyota Quantum. In the end, we had to put up with having just a VW Jetta with two small 1.3 Toyotas...Not the most ideal situation and start for our trip to Kruger, but at least we had cars.

We finally set off at 12pm, Captain only brought along two walkie-talkies, making communication between vehicles a big challenge for this trip. The three cars had to try and keep in formation constantly, we tried to go as quickly as we possible could, making up the lost time. A stop at one of the service station had us added Pied Starling to our trip list.

Pied Starling

We drove from N12, changing to the N4 which led all the way to Crocodile Bridge Gate. We didn't arrive at Crocodile Bridge Safari Lodge just outside of the gate until 7:30pm, it was all dark by that time. Alan the own of the lodge was very kind and offered us some hot soup to go with our toasts. After the simple supper, we spent time outside star gazing, a luxury that we don't usually get in Hong Kong due to light pollution. The milky way was as bright as we have ever seen which gave a more pleasant ending to what was a hectic day.

Milky way at Crocodile Bridge Safari Lodge

8th August - Day 5:

Alan warned us that the gate will be very crowded because it was a South African public holiday (what were the chances?), we decided to head into the park early. We didn't have much time for birds at the lodge, only getting a pair of African Pied Wagtail by the pool. We had an early breakfast and headed out at 6:30am, it was very fortunate that the lodge was situated immediately outside the park's gate, we were able to "jump queue". However, we did not realize the difference between the right and the left queue, we stayed in the left queue not realizing the right queue was quicker and for those who already pre-booked.

Morning lights at the lodge

African Pied Wagtail - a bird associated with water, like a swimming pool.

Queueing outside Crocodile Bridge Gate...

Time waiting in the queue was not wasted however and birding continued. African Palm Swifts zooming past us above constantly. A single tree next to the road produced a good number of birds including African Dusky Flycatchers, Sombre Greenbuls, a male Collared Sunbird and a Yellow-breasted Apalis. A few African Sacred Ibis flew past and a pair of Black-collared Barbets perched in the distance.

African Palm Swift

Sombre Greenbul

Collared Sunbird

Yellow-breasted Apalis

African Sacred Ibis

Black-collared Barbets with Laughing Dove

It was nearly 8:45am when we finally got through the gate. Captain was already doing some birding at the rest camp, getting Brown-hooded Kingfisher and Black-headed Orioles. As I was heading to where the guys were birding after having parked the car, I accidentally tripped up on my own shoe-laces, which had me landing nearly head first onto the pavement! I suffered some bruises and grazes on my hand but otherwise no major injuries, it was also fortunate that I was not carrying any camera equipment with me at the time, only my 20 year old pair of binoculars suffered some external "injuries". I missed a few birds the guys were watching due to this unfortunate accident.

We refueled and finally headed out into the interiors of Kruger, following the H4-2 main road towards Lower Sabie. Soon after we got going we stopped at the roadside after seeing some movement in the bushes, surely a small mixed feeding flock was in action! Being not particularly familiar with African birds, I wasn't sure where to look first. First bird that I took notice were the Fork-tailed Drongos, constantly hawking for insects from their perch. A more brightly coloured bird caught my attention, it was an Orange-breasted Bushshrike; a family of birds completely new to me. Another species closely related to Bushshrikes, a Black-crowned Tchagra foraged in the undergrowth, it's black cap separates it from the Brown-crowned Tchagra. A White-crowned Shrike also moved with the flock, occasionally landing on the ground to pick up insects.

Fork-tailed Drongo

Orange-breasted Bushshrike

Black-crowned Tchagra - they sometimes run on the ground like a roadrunner!

White-crowned Shrike

One of the first mammal you will likely see at Kruger will be Impalas, they are the most common species of antelope within the park and is no doubt a main staple diet for many predators like Lions or Leopards. You will see them in their dozens and sometimes even in hundreds. You will soon start noticing a small bird that often hitches on the animals backs, they are Red-billed Oxpeckers, a species related to the Starlings which specialises with gleaning off any parasites or insects that bothers their host, in particularly game animals.

One of many Impalas to come

Red-billed Oxpecker on an Impala

A little further ahead we spotted a large eagle soaring in the hot air current, we came to the conclusion that it was a Tawny Eagle with it's broad wings, unbarred tail, heavy bill and pale eyes. At a bridge crossing we came upon another species of iconic African raptor in form of a pair of African Fish Eagles, they resembles Bald Eagles of North America in colouration but are obviously smaller, non-birders often confuses the two species.

Tawny Eagle

African Fish Eagle

We encountered our only parrot of the trip soon after, a Brown-headed Parrot fed quietly on it's own, it was rather inconspicuous and we would not have seen it if we were not driving so slowly. A large and colourful Burchell's Starling also had us stopped our car shortly for a better look, we later found it to be quite common in Kruger and you will often see pairs in open grassveld or wooded savanna. We also spotted a Little Bee-eater in the distance, this season proved to be a bad time for watching Bee-eaters, as the only two resident species were not particularly active and mostly stayed closer to rivers, which meant views were often very far. A Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill also made an appearance, this is probably the most common species of Hornbills at Kruger.

Brown-headed Parrot

Burchell's Starling

Little Bee-eater

Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill

A herd of distance Elephants had us watching them across the river. I noticed a few small birds on the ground not far off our parked car, turned out they were Blue Waxbills! Another species I wanted to find, they have one of the most unusual colouration of all waxbills, it was a shame the view was a bit distant. An Emerald-spotted Wood Dove perched also in the distant, their overall appearance reminds me of Emerald Doves in Hong Kong, only with much less emeralds on their backs. A small bird fluttered about in the undergrowth, it soon revealed itself to be a Rattling Cisticola, which also turned out to be our only Cisticola species encountered (or positively identified) at Kruger.

African Elephants

Blue Waxbill

Emerald-spotted Wood Dove

Rattling Cisticola

Another extremely prominent bird that is common throughout Kruger is the Magpie Shrike, they are hard to miss with their black and white plumage and an extremely long tail that is longer then any other shrike species that occurs in Africa. A few Vervet Monkeys kept us entertained along the way, until we met one of the Big Five of Kruger; the African Buffalo, indeed a magnificently huge beast!

Magpie Shrike

Vervet Monkey

African Buffalo

We soon arrived at Lower Sabie for lunch where we met up with Captain and the rest of the group. The platform outside the restaurant was a great look out point for animals and birds, most notably a herd of basking Hippopotamus near the deck. Tawny-flanked Prinias frequents the bushes along the footpath. My Father and I saw a greenish looking Bushshrike from the deck and could not nail it's ID on the spot, we later came to the conclusion that it's a female Olive Bushshrike! Good thing we spotted it because it was our only record of this species. Cape Glossy Starlings were also quite common around the rest camp's car parks and gardens.

Viewing deck at Lower Sabie


Tawny-flanked Prinia

Olive Bushshrike - female

Cape Glossy Starling

After lunch at Mugg & Bean (which seems to now be the only restaurant available at Kruger...), we headed out once again, this time heading north on the H4-1. Our first stop was Sunset Dam along the main road, it's a perfect stop which overlook the dam and scan for any animals activities. Nile Crocodiles were very apparent and we saw many basking along the bank. Large white birds sitting near a few Hippos were Yellow-billed Storks. A few Greater Kudu came for a drink and allowed quite close views, as were the Impalas. A White-crowned Lapwing provided close-up views near the water's edge, as did the much smaller Three-banded Plover.

Sunset Dam

Nile Crocodile - the reason you don't want to go near the water...

Yellow-billed Stork and Hippos

Greater Kudu

Impalas drinking, I kept anticipated a crocodile striking, but it never happend...

White-crowned Lapwing

Three-banded Plover

The drive followed the River Sabie and we found plenty of animals active along this watercourse, a large dark looking bird wading in the river was an African Openbill, a smaller Wooly-necked Stork was also present. We soon came upon a large queue of cars, at Kruger if you see cars stopped by the roadside, it usually means that people were looking at something interesting. We were not disappointed and were soon looking at a pride of Lions basking on a rock! A Lioness provided the best views, with two other hidden behind a crevice on her right hand side. After getting some good views we moved on, only to soon hit another long queue, we realised it could be something major; we were right! A Leopard have been spotted resting in a tree next to the main road! Everyone was trying to fight for a spot where they could see the elusive animal. We only managed some obscured views from behind branches, but it was a view none the less! Leopards are probably the most sought after mammal species at Kruger, as they are one of the most difficult to see, usually hiding away in trees during the day, often out of sight. We were indeed quite lucky to encounter this individual on our first day at Kruger!

African Openbill

Wooly-necked Stork

The real Lion Rock!

Leopard - an obscured but otherwise satisfactory view

Rangers soon arrived to sort out the traffic jam created by the Leopard, the animal though couldn't care less and continued it's afternoon nap, seemingly oblivious to the attention and trouble it had created below. We moved on and encountered a few soaring raptors, including an adult Bateleur and a flock of Hooded Vultures. a group of Baboons were a bit of an anti-climax to the mammals department, but they were quite entertaining to watch.

Bateleur - the most common raptor at Kruger

Hooded Vulture

Baboons - the second most common primate at Kruger, first being humans...

The other group decided to head back a little earlier then us to do some shopping in town for dinner and our car was to stay a little longer. They took a smaller route of S28 back to Crocodile Bridge Gate, while we stuck to the main road. On the way back we had a pair of Red-breasted Swallows, we encountered a few separate flocks of Natal Spurfowls, Crested Francolins as well as Swainson's Spurfowls, sometimes crossing the road in front of us forcing us to stop our car. Herds of Plain Zebras grazed next to the road, while Giraffes pulled the green leafs off Acacia trees with their tongue and lips.

Red-breasted Swallow

Natal Spurfowl

Crested Francolin

Swainson's Spurfowl

Plain Zebras


Back at Sunset Dam, a lot of Water Thick-knees appeared at the water's edge, along with a closer Yellow-billed Stork. The best bird though was an African Jacana that came extremely close to the side of our car, allowing really good views, I managed to get some good photos of it, although they are very common around wetlands and rivers at Kruger, they are usually miles away. A few White-crowned Shrike also allowed close views on the side of the road. Also feeding on the side of the road were a few Warthogs, although not the most prettiest of animals, they have gained popularity and "fame" as Pumbaa the warthog, in reality they look much less friendly.

Water Thick-knee with Yellow-billed Stork

African Jacana

White-crowned Shrike


We encountered a herd of Elephants feeding right beside H4-2, where we stopped to observe them. It's an amazing experience to witness such a powerful and large animal at such close quarters, they make a very low and booming noise that gave me goosebumps! As we were quietly observing them, we suddenly realised that out of nowhere, a very large bull stood a mere few meters behind our car, right on the road! That's when we realises it's probably a good time for us to leave them in peace. Elephants are known to be one of the most dangerous animals to encounter in the national park, although accidents with these animals are in general rare, there's been cases of cars being trampled on and crushed by Elephants. A large herd of Impalas crossing the road and a herd of feeding African Buffalos ended our first day at Kruger.

African Elephants - an animal you must respect!

Impalas crossing

African Buffalos

When we got back to the lodge, we learnt that the other group had been extremely lucky and encountered a pride of Lion crossing the road, plus an extremely close views of a Kori Bustard on the S28! One of my main target species of Kruger! Hearing such news made me quite jealous, but as with birding anywhere else in the world, a bit of luck was required, you simply have to be at the right place at the right time! Luckily I managed to sleep it off that night despite how gutted I felt.

To be continued...

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