It's a Great Day to Bird

Month: December 2015

South Africa’s Birds of Prey

On our way to Durban before catching our flight in the morning to Ethiopia we stopped by the Africa Birds of Prey Center to get an up close look at some of the raptors we saw (or missed) during our visit to Southern Africa and some raptors we hope to see in Ethiopia.


Pygmy Falcon




I love this bird’s name


Cape Eagle Owl – We saw this bird near Creighton, South Africa


Barn Owl


African Grass Owl


Crowned Eagle


Southern White-Faced Owl


Verreaux’s Eagle Owl


Don’t you just love the pink eyelids?


African Wood Owl. We saw this species on our Namibia tour.


Spotted Eagle Owl. We saw this species in Naimibia too.


Lanner Falcon


Brown Snake Eagle


Up Close and Personal


Hooded Vulture


Palm Vulture. We missed seeing this bird, which has a very restricted range.


Rock Kestrel


Rock Kestrel


Lanner Falcon


African Harrier Hawk


This one I guess can be quite friendly


Or maybe not ….


Of course I don’t blame the bird, I wouldn’t want to be caged up either


Yellow-billed Kite – probably the most prolific raptor in South Africa


Beautiful birds


Cape Vulture


African Hawk Eagle, I believe

I’m not sure what I think about raptor rehabilitation places.  While it does serve as an education tool, allowing people to see these raptors up close and maybe appreciate them more, I hate seeing the birds in cages.  The birds we saw cannot be released back into the wild due to debilitating injuries.

We also saw a very nice Amethyst Sunbird.  Wow, when the light reflected off the feathers on the bird’s throat – beautiful.


Next up …. Birding in Ethiopia

It is always A GREAT DAY TO BIRD

Sani Pass and Lesotho

We left East London having decided not to spend any time there birding.  We drove most of the day to our accommodations for the next four nights.  We stayed in a self-catering unit at Smithfield Guest House, a wonderful farmstead, located in Creighton.  Creighton isn’t much of a town, but driving into town we spotted two Grey-crowned Cranes in a burned field, so a great welcome.  Shortly after leaving town we spotted several male Long-tailed Widowbirds, their long tails flailing in the wind like long wands.  Beautiful birds.

At the guesthouse there were at least six Green Wood-Hoopoes.  A pair we spotted,  consistently visiting a hollowed out portion of tree, entertained us.  They must have a nest there.  Lots of good birds just in the immediate garden area outside of our room, including an African Harrier-Hawk.  I watched as a Fork-tailed Drongo took after the hawk and landed on its back for a moment.

The first morning we birded the farm area around Smithfield Guest House.  Lots of Widowbirds – including the Red-throated and White-winged Widowbirds.  Both life birds for me.  We also saw the Orange-bellied Waxbill, another life bird.  That brings the number of life birds up to 499 for this trip to date.


Male Long-tailed Widowbird


Green Wood-Hoopoe


Green Wood-Hoopoe in search of grub


Speckled Mousebird


Southern Boubou


Red-billed Queleas


Grey-Crowned Crane (in a field other than the burned field)


Levaillant’s Cisticola (I love Cisticolas)


Smithfield Farm


Misty morning – dew on spider’s web


Plain-backed Pipit – ???

We had to go to a nearby town to grocery shop and visit the ATM as our hosts only deal in cash.  So off we went in a fog – literally, driving by Zen.  By the time we got to Underberg where we stopped for lunch, shopping, and banking the fog had lifted – at least there.  We took a different route home hoping to see new birds.  Saw some old familiar ones – birds we hadn’t seen in a month or so.  Since we are hoping to see the Wattled Crane my keen eyes were open for any large bird.  So up on a hill I spotted something white.  Jack stopped along side the road and I brought my binocs up to my eyes but couldn’t quite identify the bird.  So we popped the trunk lid (or the “Boot” as they say in South Africa) and got out the scope.  I suspected we were looking at a Denham’s Bustard, and the scope confirmed my sighting.  What was puzzling was the “puffiness” of the bird’s chest.  The Denham’s Bustard will inflate its chest during the mating season.   This is a territorial display we were told.  We later saw another male with two females.  No chest plumping there, but on another hill a short while later we spotted an ambitious male with his chest feathers plumped up.  Both birds were too far away for decent photos, but it was fun to see the birds in mating regalia.


Denham’s Bustard


Red-chested Cuckoo -this bird’s call/song sounds like “Whip-poor-will”.  These birds are generally secretive so we were surprised to find this one out in the open

The dirt road back to our guest house was shrouded in fog and had lots of rocks and potholes.  We were never so glad to get back on paved ground.

The next day we got up at the crack of dawn for an early morning birding start.  At 5:00 am we left for Sani Pass and some Drakensberg specialists.  We weren’t disappointed.  We hired Button Birding (Malcolm Gemmel, a pleasant chap with good ears and eyes for a person nearing 70 years of age) to take us up Sani Pass – an elevation gain of over 1500 meters.  Sani Pass is the border between South Africa and the landlocked nation of Lesotho.  The way up is a rutted, steep, 4×4 highly advisable, dirt road, but once you cross into Lesotho you are on a newly (think Chinese) constructed highway.  We birded both sides – South Africa going up and then into Lesotho.  I got 11 new life birds, including as a dramatic finale the Eurasian (aka Great) Bittern.  Malcolm has only seen the bittern six other times in his long birding life.  He called another birding guide, Stuart, to come out and see the bird.  For Stuart the bittern was also a life bird and he’s from the immediate area.

The scenery up and over Sani Pass is spectacular – one of the most beautiful spots in Southern Africa that we visited.  The road, well let’s just say you wouldn’t want to take a car up the road unless it was four-wheel drive or you feel lucky.


Wetland enroute to Sani Pass


Surrounding hillsides on the road to Sani Pass


Drakensburg Prinia

We stopped for breakfast on the way up near some Protea trees.  Just after our arrival in flies the Guerny Sugarbird.  The male of the species does not migrate, whereas the female flies to the coast during the winter.  I don’t know how the male survives if the Protea flower isn’t blooming since that is its primary food source.


Protea flower favored by the Guerny’s Sugarbird


Guerny’s Sugarbird


Wailing Cisticola


Drakensberg Siskin


Ground Woodpecker


Drakensberg Rockjumper – I was surprised I got any photo at all as it was very windy out. Hard to hold the camera still to get a decent photo.

When we stopped for lunch in Lesotho I sneezed and Malcolm said “Bless you” to which I replied “With a Bearded Vulture” (aka Lammergeier).  I then looked up into the sky and there was the vulture.  About 20 minutes later we had an even better view when a Bearded Vulture flew parallel to the road, headed straight at us! What a view!


Bearded Vulture in flight

We had a great time – great birds, great scenery, great food, and a great guide.  Thank you Malcolm.

IMG_0190 IMG_0193 IMG_0216 IMG_0199 IMG_0209


The switchback road up Sani Pass


Lesotho plains


Over 10,000 feet in elevation


Wild, stark, beautiful


But life is rough here


At the top of the pass


And on our way back down

Next on the agenda for the following day was the search for the Cape Parrot, Blue Swallow, and Wattled Crane.  And speaking of cranes, we also saw four Southern Ground Hornbills.  I didn’t expect to see them here, and Malcolm was delighted.  He reported his sighting to the Southern Ground Hornbill Working Group.

Well no Cape Parrot – too foggy out.  We tried several different places and Malcolm heard, but did not see, the parrot.  I did get three life birds, including the Blue Swallow, which is a rare bird in South Africa – only found in two areas.  The swallows like to nest in Aardvark holes, eat bugs in the mist grasslands belts; and although it can nest three times in a season, the species numbers are still declining substantially.  They suspect a loss of habitat in the wintering grounds in the Congo.  We did go to a farm that hosts a single pair of swallows.  We weren’t there more than five minutes when I spotted an all blue swallow flying about.  Sure enough it was the Blue Swallow.  Malcolm was surprised we found it so quickly.  Two other life birds observed included the Orange Ground Thrush, which we saw high in a tree, and the Dark-capped Yellow Warbler.  The warbler and thrush were two species I really didn’t expect to see so nice bonus birds.

The next day was our last full day in South Africa.  I really am going to miss the birds.  I feel like I am just getting to know them well.  Our next stop is Ethiopia.  I will write the blog as we go along, but I suspect we won’t have internet service through most of the trip.  Therefore, I will post the blog once we get back to the states.


Black-shouldered Kite


East Cape of South Africa

The next day we headed back to Wilderness National Park to hike the “Half-collared Kingfisher Trail”.  This trail leads to a waterfall and is 7.2 km round trip.  The day was cool, but sunny and we made the hike along with about 50+ other souls.   Of course when you bird along the way you see a lot more people than if you had simply hiked the trail.

We heard then saw several Knysna Turacos.  I love these birds and this one did not disappoint.  The bird was huge.  Okay, maybe it disappointed a little when it wouldn’t come out so I could get a good photo.  Go figure.  Of course it didn’t help that we were on a suspended boardwalk so anytime some walked by there was no way I could hold my camera still and we all know most birds don’t stay still for long either.  I was just happy to see the bird.

We also got a good view of the Half-collared Kingfisher, which was a surprise.  We didn’t expect to see the bird because they are not common.  But the bird posed for us on a branch for a few seconds before flying off – stopped long enough for good views, but not long enough for a good photo, or any photo really.  Am I becoming obsessed with photographing birds?  I think so.

Also along the trail we spotted a Red-breasted Cuckoo, which is also a secretive bird.  It’s call sounds like “whip-poor-will”.  However, it was the bird’s flight to an adjacent tree that allowed us to see the bird at all since it wasn’t calling at that time.  So we were happy to see these three new birds, two which we really didn’t expect to see at all.

The following day we headed to a small little park called Yellowwood Park that our host told us about.  Great birding there and I finally got a decent look at the Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler.  Woohoo!!!  That was the bird I saw at Grootsvadersbosch Nature Reserve several days ago.  We heard the Scaly-throated Honeyguide but couldn’t find its favorite perch high in the trees.

In the afternoon we headed to the “Big Tree” hoping to find a Knysna Warbler and White-starred Robin.  No go for either bird.  Dang.  We did a nice 2 km hike, which was nice.

We tried to hike a trail called the Brown-hooded Kingfisher trail but after about 0.5 kms the trail was flooded so we had to turn around.  They must have had a lot of rain that day we had the downpours in Oudtshoorn.

We left Knysna and headed towards Jeffrey’s Bay, stopping at the Tsitsikamma National Park to hike a trail in search of birds.  Did see a fair number of birds, although no new ones.  We got a ways down the trail when we saw some baboons, so made a hasty retreat back to the car.  We hadn’t been back too long when the baboons came into the parking lot.  We noticed that one of them was missing its left hind leg and left hand.  Poor thing, as it kept its distance from the other baboons.  It laid down on the picnic table and gave us a wistful look.  But we didn’t succumb to its charms and didn’t give it any food.  But my heart went out to the poor creature.  We later saw a Rock Dassie that had a big wound on its side.  Must have gotten into a fight or been attacked by a baboon or dog.


Blacksmith Lapwing. I keep wanting to call it a Blacksmith Longspur.


Groots River. All the streams here seem to run brown following a rain.


Love this tree when I looked up


Knysna Turaco. I had hoped we would see this bird. I’m just surprised at how often we’ve seen it. Well not this specific bird, but the species.


Yikes, what is that?


This poor baboon was missing its left leg and its left hand. Also it kept its distance from the other baboons.


And then this Rock Dassie had been injured too. Poor thing.


Swift Tern. These terns are big.


How would you like to wake up to this view in the morning from your cottage or camp site?

We spent the night at Jeffrey’s Bay, which is known for surfing.  In the morning we took a walk on the beach and actually saw some dolphins surfing in the waves.  Fun to watch.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.   Lots of African Black Oystercatchers about too.

We then headed to the Gambos River Estuary to check out the shorebirds and waders.  Unfortunately we got there as the tide was coming in so didn’t get to see too many shorebirds.  We took a short walk on the beach.  To get there you had to cross the dunes, which I thought would be like slogging through the snow, but to my surprise the sand was hard and the walking easy.  Lots of small shells on the beach and a few sea jellies.

Our next stop was the Island Nature Reserve where we went searching for the White Starred Robin and the Brown Scrub Robin.  We did a short hike on the reserve trails, finally returning to the picnic area to check out the pond/bird bath.  As we were waiting, several Forest Canaries arrived, followed by – YES!!! the White Starred Robin.  The robin proceeded to take a bath, giving us good views.  However, since the bird bath was in among some trees, the lighting was bad for photos.  Plus the weather has been threatening rain all day long.


Speckled Pigeon


African (Black) Oystercatcher. These birds have been everywhere along the coast. Seem much more common than our Black Oystercatchers on the west coast and in Alaska.


We stayed in the little house and only a small portion of that.


Sea Jelly


Coastline at Gamboos River Estuary


Oystercatcher tracks


Kelp Gull on a nest


In search of birds high on the dunes


Skiing down the dunes, sort of


Wetland adjacent to the dunes. We were told by a local resident that the dunes are encroaching on the wetland.


Blacksmith Lapwing in flight. We were scolded by about 4 of these lapwings. Must have had nests nearby.


At the Island Nature Reserve we spotted two “Spotted Thick-knee” in the picnic area. I love these birds.

We are staying the next two nights in Port Elizabeth at a nice facility called Forest Hall.  The owners gave us a complimentary upgrade and I now have a bathtub.  Oh how I’ve been wishing to take a bath.  Hooray!!!  This place is really very nice.

One thing I’ve learned about the “Where to Find Birds in Southern Africa” book is you really need to read the descriptions.  I did a cursory read when deciding where to go and how much time to spend in a given area.   We are spending two nights in Port Elizabeth, although I think we could have spent only one.  There aren’t that many places to bird along the “East Cape” of South Africa.   While I have enjoyed the scenery, I’m not sure I would have come this way (it is a long way between Cape Town and Durban) on our trip.

We went to the Swartskoop Estuary today, but it was really hard to access the areas where the birds were located.  We then drove to the Cape Recife Nature Reserve, but not much there either, with the exception of TWO Spotted Eagle Owls in plain view. If only my camera hadn’t died yesterday (and it isn’t even a year old – of course I have been using it almost every day since we left Alaska).

So no photos for today.  I felt lost without my camera.  Tomorrow we will stop at a local store to see if they have any Canons in stock.

NOTE:  Although we are back from Africa, I thought since I would post a few more “belated” blogs about our travels.

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