South Africa - Mpumalanga Highlands and Kruger National Park - September 2008

Published by Lawson's Birding (leon AT lawsons-africa.co.za)

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Photos with this report (click to enlarge)

Black Rhino
Black Rhino
Senegal Lapwing
Senegal Lapwing
Red-billed Oxpecker
Red-billed Oxpecker

Tour Leader: Leon Marais

Total Distance Travelled: 1700 km

Temperature Range: 10'C – 35'C

Altitude Variation: 260 – 2100 meters above sea level

Total Number of Birds Seen: 273

Total Number of Mammals Seen: 33

Trip Report Compiled By: Leon Marais

Trip Breakdown

Day 1: Saturday 6th September 2008 ~ Dullstroom
Route: Johannesburg International Airport to Dullstroom.
Distance: 260 km.
Weather: Warm, dry and windy.

Day 2: Sunday 7th September 2008 ~ Dullstroom
Route: Dullstroom area.
Distance: 115 km.
Weather: Cool to start, becoming warm and windy later.

Day 3: Monday 8th September 2008 ~ Blyde
Route: Dullstroom, Lydenburg, Mount Sheba, Pilgrim’s Rest, Vaalhoek Road to Blyde Aventura.
Distance: 193 km.
Weather: Very hot, dry and windy.

Day 4: Tuesday 9th September l 2008 ~ Satara, Kruger National Park
Route: Blyde Canyon, Abel Erasmus Pass, Stryjdom Tunnel, Orpen Gate to Satara Rest Camp.
Distance: 210 km.
Weather: Very hot, dry and windy.

Day 5: Wednesday 10th September 2008 ~ Satara, Kruger National Park
Route: Satara region.
Distance: 115 km.
Weather: Cool and windy, overcast.

Day 6: Thursday 11th September 2008 ~ Skukuza, Kruger National Park
Route: Satara to Skukuza via Tshokwane Picnic Site.
Distance: 241 km.
Weather: Cool with very light rain (‘mizzle’) for most of the day.

Day 7: Friday 12th September 2008 ~ Pretoriuskop, Kruger National Park
Route: Skukuza to Pretoriuskop.
Distance: 59 km.
Weather: Cool and overcast.

Day 8: Saturday 13th September 2008 ~ Departure
Route: Pretoriuskop to Johannesburg
Distance: 507 km.
Weather: Partly cloudy and warm.

Day 1: Saturday 6th September 2008 ~ Dullstroom.

We had a bit of a late start due to flight times but were on our way east before midday. We had two stops en-route to Dullstroom, the first at a large colony of South African Cliff Swallows at a road bridge, where we also saw our first Long-tailed Widowbirds (not yet in full breeding plumage but still sporting reasonably long tails), Black-headed Heron and Black-throated Canaries (the latter of which we didn’t see again on the tour). A little further on we stopped at a roadside pan that was teeming with Red-knobbed Coots and duck species such as White-backed Duck (15+), Southern Pochard, Maccoa Duck, Red-billed Teal, Yellow-billed Duck, White-faced Duck, Cape Shoveler and Great Crested Grebe. Moving on we headed into Dullstroom, where we checked in to the inn, seeing a rather vocal Bokmakierie right next to us as we stopped in the parking lot.

After freshening up we went on a walk through the town and up to the municipal dams on a wonderful sunny afternoon, before heading back to town for some rest and dinner at the famous ‘Fibs’ restaurant. Birds recorded for the day included Cape Vulture, Long-crested Eagle, Black Sparrowhawk, African Harrier-Hawk, Namaqua Dove, Speckled and Red-faced Mousebirds, Africa Hoopoe, Black-headed Oriole, Olive Thrush, Cape Robin-Chat, Bar-throated Apalis, Southern Boubou, Cape Sparrow, Cape Weaver and Cape Canary.

Daily Total: 64.
Trip Total: 64.
Bird of the day: White-backed Duck.
Mammal total for the day: 0.

Day 2: Sunday 7th September 2008 ~ Dullstroom.

As usual on this tour we began the day with an early morning, pre-breakfast trip up to the Veloren Valei Nature Reserve not far out of town. It was rather cool and breezy, especially on the high ground, but nevertheless we had some good birding moments. We managed to locate a couple of Gurney’s Sugarbirds flitting about in a stand of Protea trees, but had to settle on fairly distant scope-views of this species. As we arrived on the plateau top we encountered several groups of Red-winged Francolins, pairs of Sentinel Rock Thrush all over, Wattled lapwings, Eastern Long-billed Larks, Mountain Wheatears, Buff-streaked Chats, African Pipits, Cape Longclaws and Pied Starlings, among others. We also saw some scattered herds of the endemic Blesbok but unfortunately didn’t find any Denham’s Bustards, one of the major target species for the area. We then headed back to town for breakfast, or ‘brunch’ rather, and had some time to look around the town before heading out on a long afternoon excursion. This route took us through the tiny hamlet of Tonteldoos and back to Dullstroom via the Veloren Valei Nature reserve. The area was still rather dry, having had no late rains this year, and was still a little quiet as far as bird activity went. We did however manage to see a Southern Bald Ibis flying in the distance, and tracked it down to get reasonably good scope-views after it landed (and another one flew right overhead as soon as we had got back into the car!). A little further on we spotted some birds at a shallow pan, which included Grey Crowned Crane and African Spoonbill. On the way back to town through the Veloren Valei we recorded Red-capped Lark, Rock Kestrel, Jackal Buzzard and a few others – but still no Denham’s! Before finishing off the day we went to stake out the Cape Eagle-Owl spot at the municipal dams, and despite some encouragement from the local conservation officer had no luck. We left as it got dark, heading back to the inn for a little rest and then dinner at a French Bistro.

Daily Total: 62.
New Birds:32.
Trip Total:96.
Birds of the day: Southern Bald Ibis.
Mammal total for the day: 5.

Day 3: Monday 8th September 2008 ~ Blyde River Canyon

On day 3 we left Dullstroom early and drove for an hour-and-a-half to Mount Sheba, an old but wonderful hotel on the edge of the escarpment. Here we engaged in some forest birding, which was difficult but produced White-starred Robin, Chorister Robin-Chat, Olive Woodpecker, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Terrestrial Brownbul, Sombre Greenbul and, away from the forest, other species such as Cape Grassbird, Red-winged Starling and Rock Martin. We had a good breakfast and then headed on to the Blyde Canyon, a few hours’ drive away. As we emerged in the open area on the inland side of the escarpment we spotted a huge Denham’s Bustard in flight. Unfortunately it quickly disappeared behind a ridge, but we rapidly disembarked and ran across the plain where we flushed a Black-backed Jackal and then had good views of a pair of bustards in flight, which made for one of the two best birding moments of the tour. As the sun climbed higher it got very hot, so we basically headed straight on to the canyon without too many stops. After taking in the views at the scenic spots we checked in at the resort and then had a break before some tea and an afternoon walk in the resort grounds. The heat of the afternoon made for rather subdued birding and we didn’t manage to record too many new species. Other birds for the day included Black-chested Snake-Eagle, Little Sparrowhawk, Cape Rock-Thrush, Familiar Chat, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Cape Batis, Lazy Cisticola, Neddicky, White-crested Helmet-Shrike, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Thick-billed Weaver and Streaky-headed Seed-Eater.

Daily Total: 50.
New Birds:23.
Trip Total:119.
Birds of the day: White-starred Robin.
Mammal total for the day: 7.

Day 4: Tuesday 9th September 2008 ~ Satara, Kruger National Park

We began the day, which looked set to be a scorcher, with a walk down to the lower viewpoint in the resort grounds. The morning proved to be far more productive than the previous afternoon and we had some great birding. Notable species recorded include Alpine Swift, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Black-collared Barbet, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Lesser-striped Swallow, Kurrichane Thrush, White-throated Robin-Chat, Mocking Cliff-Chat, Ashy Flycatcher, Striped Pipit, White-bellied Sunbird and Swee Waxbill, among others. We also had great close-up views of Vervet Monkey and Chacma Baboon. The highlight of the morning however was calling up a stunning male Narina Trogon along the forested stream below the lower viewpoint, and this proved to be bird of the trip by vote. After a well-deserve breakfast we departed for the Kruger National Park. On the way we stopped at the Taita Falcon eyrie alongside the main road on the Abel Erasmus Pass. The local site guide Michael wasn’t there to show us the bird and we had to search for it ourselves – though we were helped by two of the local ladies from the curio stalls. After a long while of searching we eventually found one of the pair, and had the usual scope views of it on a ledge several hundred feet up. Heading on we reached the gate to the Kruger National Park at midday and drove the 50km’s through the park to Satara Rest Camp in 35 degree plus heat. The plus side was that it was a very dry heat so as long as we were out of the direct sunshine it was bearable. The drive produced the usual array of Kruger birds, such as hornbills, rollers and raptors. We eventually arrived in camp in the late afternoon and had time to rest and shower before meeting up for dinner. Birds for the day included Common Ostrich, Saddle-billed Stork, White-backed and White-headed Vultures, Wahlberg’s and Martial Eagles, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Red-crested Korhaan, Water Thick-Knee, Brown-headed Parrot, Purple Roller, Southern Ground Hornbill, Red-breasted Swallow, Red-capped Robin-Chat, Mountain Wagtail, Southern White-crowned Shrike and others.

Daily Total: 98.
New Birds:65.
Trip Total:184.
Birds of the day: Narina Trogon.
Mammal total for the day: 15.

Day 5: Wednesday 10th September 2008 ~ Satara, Kruger National Park

We awoke to a warm, still dawn and, after a quick cup of coffee, headed out into the park as the gates opened at 6:00 AM. We drove north-east to the arid Mavumbye plains area, which surprisingly was much quieter than it had been on previous September tours. Nevertheless we did rack up some great birds, which included Lappet-faced Vulture, Tawny Eagle, Brown Snake-Eagle, Natal Francolin, Swainson’s Spurfowl, Pearl-spotted Owlet (with amazing false eyes on the back of its head), White-rumped Swift, Southern Ground Hornbill (in total we saw three groups of three individuals of this species on the tour), Sabota Lark, Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark, Wire-tailed Swallow, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Black-crowned Tchagra, Marico Sunbird, Green-winged Pytilia, and Jameson’s Firefinch, among others. We stopped at Gudanzi dam where we saw, in between the pods of Hippopotami and a herd of Elephants taking a drink and a splash, a host of waterbirds such as Spurwinged Goose, Yellow-billed and Saddle-billed Storks, Goliath Heron, African Openbill, African Jacana, Malachite Kingfisher and others, as well as a Kori Bustard strutting among a herd of Impala. We returned to camp via the Nwanetsi road, where we saw herds of Elephants and Cape Buffalo at close quarters and narrowly missed seeing several Lions (according to other visitors).

After breakfast we took a walk around the camp, which was quite productive. We saw two of the African Scops Owls that roost in the camp as well as African Goshawk, African Mourning Dove, Crested Barbet, Lesser Honeyguide, Orange-breasted and Grey-headed Bush-Shrikes, Burchell’s, Cape Glossy and Greater Blue-eared Starlings and Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, among others. In the afternoon we took another drive, this time heading down to the Sweni Waterhole, where some lions had been seen in the morning. We didn’t find any lions, but came across a large herd of several hundred Cape buffalo. We returned to camp in time to go on the sunset drive, which produced Fiery-necked Nightjar, two male Cheetah and several Lions bringing down a Buffalo bull.

Daily Total: 87
New Birds:39.
Trip Total:223.
Bird of the day: Kori Bustard.
Mammal total for the day: 18.

Day 6: Thursday 11th September 2008 ~ Skukuza, Kruger National Park

Once again we embarked on an early morning, pre-breakfast drive, with the heat of the previous day having given way to cool, overcast and windy conditions. We started off by checking on the buffalo kill previous evening, and found at least 8 Lions, including three adult males, feeding on the carcass. New birds were few and far between, and included Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Bearded Woodpecker and Golden-breasted Bunting (of course these were the only new birds, but we did see plenty of birds we’d already seen and ticked). After breakfast back at camp we drove south to Skukuza, our next camp. After arriving we had a walk in the camp grounds. The day remained cool and windy, and new birds seen for the day included Yellow-throated Petronia, Retz’s Helmet-Shrike, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Green-backed Cameroptera, Mosque Swallow, Grey-rumped Swallow, White-browed Robin-Chat, African Palm Swift, African Green Pigeon, Hooded Vulture, Gabar Goshawk, Little Egret, Woolly-necked Stork and African Black Duck.

Daily Total: 108.
New Birds:18.
Trip Total:241.
Bird of the day: African Black Duck.
Mammal total for the day: 18.

Day 7: Friday 12th September 2008 ~ Pretoriuskop, Kruger National Park

With the wind having dropped and a very fine rain, or ‘mizzle’, falling, we took a pre-breakfast drive along the Sabie River, making it as far as the Nkuhlu Picnic Site before turning around and heading back to Skukuza for breakfast. New birds for the morning included Purple-crested Turaco, Burchell’s Coucal, Golden-tailed Woodpecker and Black Saw-wing. After breakfast we took a brief walk around camp, mainly to seek the Bearded Scrub-Robins that can sometimes be found scratching in the leaf litter in certain parts of the gardens, but we didn’t manage to find any. We did have great views of Purple-crested Turaco, as well as Village and Lesser-masked Weaver in front of the cafeteria. We then drove on to Lake Panic Bird Hide, where we saw Black-crowned Night Heron, Green-backed Heron, Great Egret, Grey and Goliath Herons, Black Crake, Pied Kingfisher, Little Bee-eater and mammals such as hippopotamus, greater Kudu, Elephant and Bushbuck. En-route to Pretoriuskop we recorded new birds such as Yellow-throated Longclaw, Croaking Cisticola, White-winged Widowbird, Yellow-bellied and Green-capped Eremomelas and Grey Penduline Tit. We had a run of excitement too with a big Elephant bull, a male Cheetah and a White Rhino bull in quick succession. After checking in at the camp we had time for an afternoon drive, recording Black Stork and Lizard Buzzard as final new birds for the day.

Daily Total: 110
New Birds:20.
Trip Total:261.
Bird of the day: Purple-crested Turaco.
Mammal total for the day: 21.

Day 8: Saturday 13th September 2008 ~ Departure

For our last activity we had a short morning drive before breakfast and departure. New bird species included Senegal Lapwing, Pale Flycatcher, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Flappet Lark and Red-headed Weaver. We also saw several White Rhino, and the highlight for the morning was an impressive, one-eared Black Rhino bull (only my second sighting of this species in the Kruger National Park) with a Black-bellied Bustard close by. With early flight departures we left the park at 9:00 AM, with the only new bird for the trip a White-fronted Bee-eater at a shopping centre in Nelspruit and White-winged Tern, Common Moorhen, Glossy Ibis and Cape Teal at a pan not far from the airport.

Daily Total: 74.
New Birds:12.
Trip Total:273.
Bird of the day: Black-bellied Bustard.
Mammal total for the day: 11.

Total endemics / near endemic birds: 33.
Total Mammal species: 33.

Summary:

As usual this tour was thoroughly enjoyable and delivered a rich and varied wildlife experience, superb scenery and a healthy total bird list. The weather however was not the best, with heat, wind and dryness for much of the tour resulting in a slightly later start to the spring season. Nevertheless we managed to rack up a total of 652 recorded bird sightings of the 273 species, and 95 sightings of the 33 recorded mammal species. Thanks to all participants for their enthusiasm and hard work, which made for a fantastic trip in one of South Africa’s most diverse regions. The two highlights for the tour turned out to be, according to vote, the Narina Trogon at the Blyde River as first and chasing after the Denham’s Bustard near Mount Sheba as close second.

Notes on the endemic and near-endemic species seen on this tour:

1: Southern Bald Ibis (E): there are chances of seeing this species from day 1 through to the morning of day 4, with the best chances on day 2. This bird is seen on most trips, even if only in flight.

2: Cape Shoveler (E): there are chances on of seeing this water bird on days 1 and 2 and 8, in other words while on the highveld. It’s nearly always seen on day 1 of the tour.

3: Cape Vulture (E): there are chances of seeing this bird from day 1 through day 4, with the best chances around the Blyde River Canyon region. Not always recorded.

4: Jackal Buzzard (E): this is a mountain-region bird, and there are very good chances of seeing it on days 1, 2 and 3. Nearly always seen.

5: Natal Francolin (NE): a common bird, seen throughout the tour.

6: Swainson’s Spurfowl (NE): a common savannah species, best seen on days 4 and 5 of the tour. Very good chances of seeing it.
7: Knysna Turaco (E): a montane forest bird which can be seen on days 3 and 4. The best chances are at Mount Sheba, but it depends on the presence of fruiting trees in the forest. Seen on most tours; we only heard it on this tour.

8: Burchell’s Coucal (NE): a widespread species, most often seen in the Kruger National Park on days 4 to 8. Common; so far it’s never been missed on the tour itinerary.

9: Sabota Lark (NE): a savannah species, with the best chances of seeing it on days 4 and 5, as well as the others days spent in the Kruger. Fairly common and conspicuous; very good chances of seeing it.

10: Eastern Long-billed Lark (E): a highveld species which can be seen on days 1 and 2, with the best chances in the Veloren Valei Nature Reserve on the morning of day 2. Conspicuous when calling; not always seen.

11: Greater Striped Swallow (E): a highveld species best sought on days 1 and 2. Relatively common; very good chances of seeing it.

12: South African Cliff Swallow (E): a highveld species best sought on day 1. Relatively common, but you have to go to a known roosting site to see them well.

13: Cape Rock Thrush (E): a medium-altitude bird best sought on days 3 and 4. Relatively common in the resort grounds around the Blyde Canyon and the Bourke’s Luck Potholes; very good chances of seeing it.

14: Sentinel Rock Thrush (E): a high altitude species best sought in the Veloren Valei Nature Reserve on the morning of day 2. Perches conspicuously on rocks; very good chances of seeing it.

15: Mountain Wheatear (NE): a high altitude species, the best chances of seeing it are on days 1 and 2. fairly common and conspicuous; very good chances of seeing it.

16: Buff-streaked Chat (E): a rock-dwelling species of higher altitudes, and again the best chances of seeing it are on days 1 and 2. Common and conspicuous in the Veloren Valei Nature Reserve; very good chances of seeing it.

17: Ant-eating Chat (E): a species of medium to higher altitudes, favouring open grasslands with termitaria and animal burrows. Very good chances of seeing it on days 1 and 2.

18: Chorister Robin-Chat (E): a forest species best sought at Mount Sheba on day 3. Relatively common but can be difficult to see in the forest habitat; not always seen.

19: White-throated Robin-Chat (E): a species of thick tangles in medium and lower altitudes. The best chances of seeing it are on days 3 and 4, while walking in the resort grounds at the Blyde River Canyon, and along the Sabie River on day 12.

20: Cape Grassbird (E): a medium and higher altitude species favouring tall grassy areas with bush clumps; can be seen on days 1 to 4. conspicuous when calling; not always seen.

21: Cape Batis (E): generally a forest bird, but in September can often be found out of forests in thicker bush habitats in around the Blyde Canyon and even in the Kruger National Park. Best sought at Mount Sheba on day 3; relatively common, good chances of seeing it.

22: Cape Longclaw (E): a higher altitude bird, common in the grasslands around Dullstroom. Very good chances of seeing it.

23: Southern Boubou (E): a vocal, widespread bird favouring thickets and tangles. Can be seen throughout the tour; fairly good chances of seeing it.

24: Bokmakierie (E): a bird of more open habitats seen only on the highveld on this itinerary. Best chances of seeing it are around Dullstroom on days 1 and 2. Fairly common; fairly good chances of seeing it.

25: Southern White-crowned Shrike (NE): a bird of drier savannah, perches conspicuously on branches. Best chances of seeing it are in the Satara region on days 4 and 5. Not always seen.

26: Pied Starling (E): a bird of higher altitudes, common in and around Dullstroom. Very good chances of seeing it.

27: Burchell’s Starling (NE): a savannah bird, common in the Kruger National Park. Very good chances of seeing it.

28: Gurney’s Sugarbird (E): a narrowly-distributed species found in association with Protea and Aloe species at higher altitudes. Finding it often depends on finding flowering trees. Seen on most but not all tours.

29: Southern Double-collared Sunbird (E): generally a forest sunbird, best sought at Mount Sheba on day 3. common; very good chances of seeing it.

30: Greater Double-collared Sunbird (E): a high and medium altitude bird, best sought on days 1 through 4. very common at the Blyde River Canyon resort; very good chances of seeing it.

31: Cape White-eye (E): a very common and very widespread species.

32: Cape Sparrow (NE): a highveld species usually seen on day 1 and 2; very good chances of seeing it.

33: Cape Weaver (E): on this itinerary the bird is best sought on days 1 and 2, with suburban gardens in Dullstroom a good place to find it.

34: Swee Waxbill (E): a bird of intermediate habitats best sought while walking in the resort grounds at the Blyde River Canyon on days 3 and 4. Not always seen.

Species Lists

Foa a full bird and mammal list have a look at the Lawson's Trip Reports Page (link to report_:

Lawson's Trip Reports: 2008-09 Mpumalanga Highlands and KNP Birding and Wildlife Tour