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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
We had a great time – great birds, great scenery, great food, and a great guide. Thank you Malcolm.
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.
ITS A GREAT DAY TO BIRD EVEN WHEN YOU ARE IN A FOG……