Wednesday 24 August 2016

South Africa - August 2016 : Part 5

11th August - Day 8

This was our last morning at Kruger. Letaba's wooded gardens seems quite promising to us, we were anticipating the possible woodland birds that could turn up, as well as the mixed feeding flocks that we would likely encounter. We were however quite disappointed with the little amount of birds that turned up. Our first birds of the morning were a few Kurrichane Thrushes within the camp grounds, actively foraging on the ground just in front of the lodges. They can be easily recognised by their bright orange bill and black maler stripes. Other birds seen but not photographed were Long-billed Crombecs, Orange-breasted Bushshrikes and Black-backed Puffbacks, all high up in the trees.

Kurrichane Thrush

Seeing that the wooded gardens produced so little birds, we headed towards the river to try our luck. There were quite a lot of Natal Spurfowls feeding on the lawn near the restaurant. A few birds busily foraged in the undergrowth near the fence including a Brown-crowned Tchagra that only allowed a few clear photographs to be taken of it's diagnostic crown. A pair of Red-billed Firefinch were probably our best birds of the morning, sexual diamorphic is clear in this species, with males having a completely red face and breast. A Crested Barbet perched on the fence for as long as we wanted, making sure everyone had a good photograph of it. A pair of African Tree Squirrels preened each other affectionately, a scene too adorable to ignore.

Birding at Letaba - a bit of a disappointment

Natal Spurfowl (photo credit to my Father)

Brown-crowned Tchagra

Red-billed Firefinch - male

Red-billed Firefinch - female

Crested Barbet - a real showoff

African Tree Squirrel

We headed back to our lodge for breakfast, a herd of Bushbucks decided to join us for the occasion. They were very tamed and would take food from your hand if you offer, don't worry though, we did not feed them anything unfit for Bushbucks, only fresh picked leafs that they couldn't reach from the tree above!

Bushbucks at Letaba Rest Camp

We planned to exit Kruger through the Phalaborwa Gate, we took the H9 and hardly made any stops along the way, partly because we didn't want to get to our next stop of Blyde River Canyon too late in the evening, plus there really wasn't too much to see. A few African Buffalos and Plain Zebras next to the road were the few mammals that we did stop to enjoy, knowing these would be our last looks at these amazing creatures. As for birds, we only encountered a few Blacksmith Lapwings which provided some good photo opportunity at last. We also had a Tawny Eagle perched quite far away, a Lesser Striped Swallow perched alone was a new addition to our trip. The best species encountered along this stretch were obviously a flock of White-crested Helmetshrikes, one of my target species, they were unmistakable when in flight, gliding from one tree to another in a rather Laughingthrush like fashion.

African Buffalos

Plain Zebra

Blacksmith Lapwing

Tawny Eagle

Lesser Striped Swallow - have bolder stripes compared to the Greater Striped Swallow

White-crested Helmetshrike

We didn't stay long at the gate's entrance and headed into the town of Phalaborwa for lunch, where we finally had our first meal that was not at Mugg & Beans for the first time in days! Just outside the restaurant we managed to add Bronze Mannikin onto our list. After some shopping at the local supermarket, we headed back onto the road towards Blyde River Canyon. We took the R40 before turning onto the R530 and later R36, the roads were very straight but potholes made the journey a little bumpy.

Bronze Mannikin

We proposed to make a stop at the J. G. Strijdomtunnel, the famous stop for birders to look for the few remaining pairs of Taita Falcon in South Africa. The tunnel is also famous for the curios shops at the south end of the tunnel, the store owners will all try their best to persuade you to buy carved wooden animal figures or other african arts and crafts. We all managed to find some souvenirs for our trip, my Mother in particularly bought a large wooden ornamental Giraffe to take home! With shopping aside, us birders scanned the sky for any soaring raptors while the others enjoyed the scenic view, we managed to get a single Cape Vulture and a pair of Verreaux's Eagle circling above the hills, both very distant but recognisable views. We moved on from the tunnel and stopped a few kilometres ahead, an area of over grazed farmland was supposedly a good area for Southern Bald Ibis, unfortunately we came up empty handed.

View at J. G. Strijdomtunnel

Cape Vulture

Verreaux's Eagle

Supposedly good place for Southern Bald Ibis

It was just about 3:30pm when we arrived at Blyde River Canyon Forever Resort, one of the many establishments of forever resorts around South Africa. We got our keys for our pre-booked lodges and unloaded our luggage, the lodges were fairly comfortable with green lawns surrounding the area. A few Cape Wagtails were there to welcome us.

Blyde River Canyon Forever Resort

Cape Wagtail

Seeing that we still had plenty of sunshine left, Captain suggested that we head out to a few view points along the R532. As we drove along near the settlement of Leroro I saw a large black bird flying adjacent to our car, Captain also noticed the bird and asked what it was. I first thought it was a crow but thought to myself that the overall feel was all wrong as it resembled a Cormorant in flight. I picked up my binoculars by that time and soon shouted "Bald Ibis!".

The bird landed behind the houses and out of sight. My Father slammed on the break pretty soon, Yuen who was driving behind us did the same. We were soon out of the car, crossed the road and walked up the gentle slope towards the houses. There were a few cattle grazing on the grass, we soon relocated the bird feeding in front of a house next to a cow. The shutters of our camera really reflected how excited we all were as the bird walked slowly across the footpath in front of us twice! The owner of the house soon came out of his house to see what had brought along four asian men to his front lawn, obviously not a sight he will see on a daily basis! I am pretty sure we were probably the first Hong Kongers to ever set foot in this neighborhood!

Although Southern Bald Ibises are locally common resident in South Africa, they do have a very limited distribution range, it's estimated that this amazing looking endemic Ibis have a global population of just 8,000 individuals, therefore listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. We all had satisfied views and walked back to our cars, not before we had a group high-five! a group of primary school kids saw us along the way and eyed us curiously.

Walking up to look for the Ibis!

Southern Bald Ibis - one of the weirdest yet most spectacular Ibis I have seen

We drove all the way to God's Window without stopping, the viewpoints there provided a spectacular view over looking the canyon. Blyde River Canyon is one of the world's largest canyons, and it could be the world's largest "green canyon" being covered in subtropical foliages. Either way it is an amazing natural wonder to behold! There wasn't a lot of birds, but a pair of Bar-throated Apalis provided great views.

God's Window

Bar-throated Apalis

At the car park, a pair of White-necked Raven foraged near the rubbish bin, this is the largest species of Crow in South Africa, measuring up to 56cm, they are often mentioned to be one of the cleverest birds in the world. One of the bird found what looks to be chips in a bag and fed it to the it's mate, it just shows that even such robust and powerful creatures have a soft side to them. Seeing that we hardly had any day time left, we gave up on the view point at the Pinnacle Rock and headed back to the resort.

Good news that evening was that Sammy was finally recovering from his cold, looking much  healthier! On the other hand, Captain who accidentally treaded on some spiky plants as he went for a stretch along the roadside earlier in the day was in serious pain for reasons unclear to us. It was likely that whatever plant that pricked him had some kind of poison or venom on it that made the tiny puncture all red and sore. There was little that we could do but to hope his conditions will be better tomorrow.

White-necked Raven - a pair of love birds more like!

To be continued...

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