South Africa: Escarpment and Kruger National Park - September 2014

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

Participants: K. and D. Wilson, Leon Marais (guide)

Comments

See the full report at www.lawsons-africa.co.za.

Tour Summary

Temperature Range: 15 - 38°C.

Total Birds Seen: 298.

Total Mammals Seen: 48.

Birds of the Trip: Northern Black Korhaan, Blue Crane, Sentinel Rock Thrush, African Finfoot, Knysna Turaco, Narina Trogon, Half-collared Kingfisher, Secretarybird, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, African Scops Owl, Southern White-faced Scops Owl, Southern Ground Hornbill, Kori Bustard, Little Sparrowhawk, Striped Kingfisher, Purple-banded Sunbird, African Rail (to mention but a few!).

Note: The species mentioned in the report are only some of the species seen at each locality.

Trip Breakdown

Day 1: Friday 12th September 2014 ~ Tonteldoos.


The trip kicked off officially at O. R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg as Kate and Dean came through into the arrivals terminal from their early morning arrival flight from Heathrow. We then packed the vehicle and made our way to Rietvlei Nature Reserve, a 3 870 hectare reserve which protects a portion of Highveld Grassland, a habitat type which is becoming increasingly rare due to rampant urbanization, agriculture and mining. We had some good birding and mammal viewing during our morning session, which included a walk-past by four White Rhino, these individuals having had their horns removed to deter poachers. We then stopped at the Marais Dam picnic site for a snack and cup of coffee (and fed the shoal of large Sharptooth Catfish swimming below the hide with a rusk – a local biscotti-like baked snack – or two), before heading on to the Acacia Loop in search of Northern Black Korhaan, seeing at least four individuals. Other birds seen included Common Ostrich, Black-crowned Night Heron, Hamerkop, African Darter, Black-shouldered Kite, Black Crake, Spotted Thick-knee, Blacksmith, Crowned and African Wattled Lapwings, African Snipe, Red-faced Mousebird, African Grey Hornbill, Bokmakierie, White-throated Swallow, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Black-chested Prinia, Cape Robin-Chat, Fiscal Flycatcher, Cape Weaver and others. Mammals seen included Meerkat, Yellow Mongoose, Hippopotamus, Eland, Black Wildebeest, Red Hartebeest, Blesbok, Southern Reedbuck and Springbok. With a good wildlife session under the belts already we then made our way to Middleburg and meandered on to Highlands Country Lodge near the small hamlet of Tonteldoos, arriving just in time for a cold beer in the early evening, followed by our first day’s checklist duties and then a nice lamb stew dinner prepared by Gwen, our somewhat eccentric hostess. This was a new venue, as there was a Harley Davison festival on in our usual first night’s stop in the town of Dullstroom, and everything was booked up. It turned out to be very nice, with a wonderful setting and very well-appointed accommodation. If the ‘driveway’ to get to the lodge wasn’t so rough we may have opted for a short night drive, but the thought of bumping and grinding our way back to the road was enough to sway us towards an early night instead…

Route: Johannesburg to Rietvlei Nature Reserve and on to Tonteldoos.
Weather: clear and hot.
Birds of the day: Northern Black Korhaan, Bokmakierie.

Day 2: Saturday 13th September 2014 ~ Mount Sheba.

We met up at 05h30 for a long morning drive, doing the Dullstroom / Tonteldoos loop road, which takes anything up to four and a half hours, making for a very late breakfast indeed (though the coffee / rusk stop on the Veloren Valei plateau helped keep us going). But it was well worth it, with some great birds seen, including Grey Crowned and Blue Cranes, Red-winged Francolin, Pearl-breasted Swallow, Wing-snapping Cisticola, Cape Grassbird, Cape Longclaw (check that orange throat!), Buff-streaked Chat, Mountain Wheatear, Ant-eating Chat, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Malachite Sunbird and Long-billed Pipit. Mammals seen include both live and dead specimens of one of the Rock Rabbit species, which we thought was a Natal Red Rock Rabbit, even though this was out of range in terms of its known distribution. We also saw Suricates / Meekats again, high up on the Veloren Valei plateau, as well as the usual Blesbok, Grey Rhebok and a distant Oribi. After a quick stop in Dullstroom to see if the Harely Davison contingent were behaving themselves we completed the loop and had our brunch before packing and departing for Mount Sheba, on old-style hotel situated on the slopes of the escarpment where rising air from the hot savannah to the east often creates wet and misty conditions. Fortunately the weather remained clear and warm (for a change!) and after checking in we took a birding walk in the hotel grounds, getting the forest birding off to a good start. Species seen for the afternoon included flocks of Swee Waxbills feeding on the lawns, Red-necked Spurfowl, Knysna Turaco (this species looks as if it’s just visited a make-up artist), Olive Bushshrike, Southern Boubou, Grey Cuckooshrike, Sombre Greenbul, Gurney’s Sugarbird (on the journey to Mount Sheba), Olive Thrush, White-starred Robin, Chorister Robin-Chat and Southern Double-collared Sunbird, among others. The local Samango Monkey troop was also present, and in the late afternoon we headed back to the chalets in time to get ready for dinner.

Route: Tonteldoos / Dullstroom loop, and on to Mount Sheba.
Weather: clear and hot.
Birds of the day: Blue Crane, Knysna Turaco, Gurney’s Sugarbird.

Day 3: Sunday 14th September 2014 ~ Blyde River Canyon.

Today we kicked off with a morning walk in the resort grounds, which was very enjoyable indeed, despite a bit of a slog back to the lodge via Marco’s Mantle trail. Birds seen included Lemon Dove, Knysna Turaco, Narina Trogon, Olive Woodpecker, Cape Batis, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Drakensberg Prinia, Red-backed Mannikin and many species we’d seen the previous afternoon. The only significant bird we missed out on was Orange Ground Thrush (heard but not seen), but otherwise we had a fantastic time at Mount Sheba, and after a big breakfast we made our way on to our next port-of-call. On the way out of Mount Sheba we stopped and took a quick walk up to the escarpment edge, seeing Black-winged Lapwing and Wailing Cisticola as new species, in addition to the spectacular views. We then stopped in the historical mining town of Pilgrim’s Rest for a cooldrink and bathroom stop, and on leaving spotted a pair of Crowned Eagles displaying overhead. On the Vaalhoek Road we did some more birding, seeing Red-throated Wryneck, Rock Kestrel, Rufous-naped Lark, Greater Striped Swallow, Arrow-marked Babbler, Cape Rock Thrush and other species before checking out the Three Rondavels View Site, with terrific views of the lower Blyde River Canyon. We then headed on to the lodge for a short rest before a birding walk in the resort grounds as a final activity for the day. Other species seen included the ubiquitous Helmeted Guineafowl, Natal Spurfowl, Yellow-billed Kite, Jackal Buzzard, African Palm, African Black and White-rumped Swifts, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Black-collared Barbet, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Black-crowned Tchagra, Black-backed Puffback, Black-headed Oriole, White-necked Raven, Southern Black Tit, Brown-throated and Rock Martins, Lazy Cisticola, Bar-throated and Yellow-breasted Apalises, Long-billed Crombec, Cape White-eye, Mocking Cliff Chat, Striped Pipit and many others. New mammals seen included Rock Hyrax, Chacma Baboon, Mountain Reedbuck and Oribi. All in all a fantastic day and in the evening we walked down to the restaurant for dinner and list duties before calling it a night.

Route: Mount Sheba to the Blyde Canyon via the Vaalhoek Road.
Weather: clear and hot.
Birds of the day: Narina Trogon, White-starred Robin, Crowned Eagle.

Day 4: Monday 15th September 2014 ~ Olifants Rest Camp, KNP.

Today we met up for an early cup of coffee and a rusk and once again started off with a walk in the resort grounds, a nice opportunity to stretch the legs and see some great birds. Highlights included an African Finfoot on the Kadisi Stream (“Get down! There it is!” - a first record here for Leon the guide), Narina Trogon, African Cuckoo Hawk, Cape Vulture, Mountain Wagtail, Black Cuckooshrike (two males, one sporting the yellow shoulder patches, the other without), the ‘never-sit-still’ Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, White-throated Robin-Chat and Greater Double-collared Sunbird, among others. We then had a big Forever Resort’s breakfast before packing the vehicle and departing for the Kruger National Park. Our route took us down the Abel Erasmus Pass and on to Orpen Gate (with a stop on the lower Blyde River where we recorded Half-collared Kingfisher), where we grabbed a quick snack before pushing on to Satara Rest Camp, our half way stop. We then headed northwards, arriving at Olifants Rest Camp in the late afternoon for a well-deserved break after a long but rewarding day. Species seen on the journey included a Southern Bald Ibis foraging in a field next to the road near Lydenberg, as well as a plethora of typical Kruger species: Swainson’s Spurfowl, Yellow-billed and Saddle-billed Storks, Goliath Heron, Secretarybird, African Fish Eagle, Bateleur, Tawny and Wahlberg’s Eagles, Red-crested Korhaan, Grey Go-Away Bird, Purple and Lilac-breasted Rollers, Southern Red and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Southern Ground Hornbill, Retz’s Helmet-Shrike, Magpie Shrike, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Cape Glossy and Burchell’s Starling, Golden-breasted Bunting and others. On the mammal side we kicked off the Kruger experience with species such as Elephant, Lion, Dwarf Mongoose, Black-backed Jackal, White Rhino, Burchell’s Zebra, Giraffe, Steenbok, Impala and so forth – not a bad start indeed! After settling in to our chalets we headed down to the view point overlooking the Olifants River, from where we spotted species such as Black-winged Stilt, Grey Heron, Great White Egret, Egyptian Goose (by the hundreds…) as well as Elephants, Hippo’s and other game species. With the sun setting we called it a day and later met up in the camp’s restaurant, which had thankfully just acquired a licence to sell liquor three days earlier, so we could have a cold beer or two with our dinner to soothe our parched throats…

Route: Blyde Canyon to Olifants Rest Camp.
Weather: clear and very hot.
Bird of the day: Southern Bald Ibis, Half-collared kingfisher, African Finfoot, Secretarybird.

Day 5: Tuesday 16th September 2014 ~ Olifants Rest Camp, KNP.

On our first full day in Kruger we left camp as the gates opened at 06h00 and made our way to the Olifants / Letaba River confluence view point, where we had a cup of coffee while surveying the marvellous scene in the early morning light, and were visited by a couple of hungry Cape Glossy Starlings searching for crumbs. We then completed the long loop via the Letaba River and H1-5 tar road, seeing species such as Martial Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, Brown-headed Parrot, Burchell’s Coucal, Little Bee-eater, Southern Ground Hornbill, Sabota Lark, Marico and White-bellied Sunbirds, Green-winged Pytilia, Red-billed Firefinch, Blue Waxbill and many others. Back at camp we had a leisurely breakfast overlooking the Olifants River, and then headed back to the rooms for a quick freshen up before a long afternoon drive via Roodewal (‘Red Wall’, referring to the red volcanic dykes running through the area) and the Timbavati Picnic Site. Unfortunately it was a bit quiet on the big cat front (a very hot day indeed), but we had great general game viewing and some cracking birds, such as Verreaux’s Eagle Owl (finally a reward after hours of consistent tree scanning!), Pearl-spotted Owlet, Woolly-necked Stork, four species of vulture (Hooded, White-backed, Lappet-faced and White-headed), Gabar Goshawk, White-crested Helmet-Shrike, Grey-headed Bush Shrike, Southern White-crowned Shrike, and many others. We had a stop at the Ratel Pan bird hide, where Yellow-billed Storks, Grey Herons and a Great White Egret were fishing among the Hippo’s and Crocodiles, and then pushed on to the picnic site for a loo stop before making our way back to camp in time for the sunset drive, which produced Kori Bustard, Lion, Springhare, Scrub Hare, African Wild Cat, Large-spotted Genet, Side-striped Jackal and other species. We then met up for dinner and a chance to discuss the highlights of the sunset drive, which was deemed to be very enjoyable indeed, especially considering that there were only six participants on the vehicle!

Route: various routes in the Olifants area.
Weather: very hot and clear.
Birds of the day: Kori Bustard, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Lappet-faced Vulture, African Hawk-Eagle.

Day 6: Wednesday 17th September 2014 ~ Skukuza Rest Camp, KNP.

Today we packed the car and left camp at 06h00, driving along the Olifants River and then stopping on the bridge for a cup of coffee, where we were awed by literally thousands of Little Swifts flying around the bridge, making for a spectacular coffee stop indeed. As we were finishing up someone stopped and told us about a Leopard further up the tar road, so we finished up and went to have a look, arriving just in time to get a glimpse or two of it slinking off to disappear down the river bank. Never mind, as there would be other Leopards to come and while hanging around to see if it would reappear we spotted Bearded Woodpecker and Common Scimitarbill as new birds for the list. Moving on, we had a long drive down to Satara, seeing a nice Pearl-spotted Owlet, with good views of the false eyes on the back of its head (which way is he facing??), as well as a pair of Southern White-faced Scops-Owls roosting deep in a small tree next to the road, owl species number three for the trip so far. At Satara we bagged owl species number four with an African Scops Owl roosting in a tree in the parking lot, not exactly a challenge to find but a great bird for the list anyway. We then had a good Mugg & Bean breakfast, and continued with the rest of the journey, encountering a massive bush fire on the western side of the road, which was fortunately burning away from the road so the main front of the fire was far away and posed no danger to us (there were reportedly four major fires in the park at the time, as a result of the intense heat and dryness). On the high water bridge over the Sabie River we had our second African Finfoot sighting (it’s supposed to be rare and elusive!), with a spectacular male bird swimming close to the bridge, right in the middle of the day. We arrived at Skukuza in the mid-afternoon, and had time to have a short rest before a late afternoon drive down the river before ending back at camp as the gates closed at 18h00. We then had dinner and did our list before calling it a night in anticipation of an exciting day to come.

Route: Olifants to Skukuza.
Weather: very hot and dry.
Birds of the day: Pearl-spotted Owlet, Southern White-faced Scops Owl, African Scops Owl.

Day 7: Thursday 18th September 2014 ~ Skukuza Rest Camp, KNP.

Once again we met up for a cup of coffee at 05h45 before departing on a long morning drive down to Lower Sabie Rest Camp. We had planned to go all the way down via the tar road on the southern bank, but at the high water bridge we saw some cars stopped on the bridge and went over to see what they were looking at (seeing the Finfoot again down on the water below the bridge). It turned out that there were Lions on both sides of the bridge, albeit at some distance, and once we got past the other cars we decided to change plans and head down via the dirt road on the northern side instead. This took us a bit closer to one of the groups of Lions, and further on we came across two Spotted Hyenas in the road. One proceeded to attempt to enter a drainage pipe running under the road, and suddenly the silence was broken by one of the strangest and most startling sounds one can hear in the African bush – a Porcupine rattling its quills in defence. Obviously the pipe was already occupied by a Porcupine or two, and so the Hyena decided it was better to go to sleep next to the road rather than underneath it – Porcupine: 1; Hyena: 0!. Moving on, we had a wonderful stop in a magical spot overlooking the river, shaded by a thicket of Natal Mahoganies and massive Jackalberry and Red Ivory trees, where a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl looked down on us from above, a pair of Giant Kingfishers chased each other all around us and both Greater Kudu (a herd of 8 large males) and Nyala browsed quietly in the shade. Moving on, we had a wonderful sighting of a White Rhino and her calf, our fifth owl species in the form of a Barn Owl hiding in a hole in a large Jackalberry tree, and a wonderful fly-past by a sub-adult Saddle-billed Stork. At Lower Sabie we had breakfast on the deck, under somewhat smoky conditions due to the fires still burning to the north and east, with the river in front of camp teeming with Elephants, Buffalo, Hippo’s, birds and other creatures. We then made our way back to camp for a rest, having a Lion sighting or two along the way, before an afternoon drive out to Transport Dam to see Malachite Kingfisher. We then returned to camp and had an early dinner, with a Spotted Hyena pair skulking along the fence while we were eating. After dinner we took a walk around the camp with our torches, and saw a Small-spotted Genet as a new species for the list.

Route: various routes in the Skukuza / Lower Sabie region.
Weather: very hot and clear (but smoky!).
Birds of the day: Giant Kingfisher, African Finfoot, White-crowned Lapwing.

Day 8: Friday 19th September 2014 ~ Pretoriuskop Rest Camp, KNP.

After our usual 05h45 coffee / tea session we left camp on a final drive from Skukuza, heading west to the Lake Panic Bird Hide, where we spent an hour watching birds such as Grey Heron, African Darter, Pied Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Black Crake, African Jacana, Village Weavers and so forth going about their daily business. Moving on, we were heading towards the nursery and golf course when Kate spotted two small cats in the thick scrub on our left, which turned out to be a pair of Leopard cubs, playing while their mother was out hunting. Well done Kate – an extra piece of bacon for you at breakfast! Unfortunately, without the adult Leopard there, they were quite skittish and soon moved off into impenetrable bush, but nevertheless it was a wonderful find indeed. At the nursery we did a bit of birding on foot, recording Bearded Scrub Robin, Collared Sunbird, Brown-hooded Kingfisher and many others before moving over to the golf club for a fry-up breakfast overlooking the 9th green. We then drove back to Skukuza to do a bit of birding in the camp, as the White-browed Robin Chat had thus far eluded us. We were successful, and also saw a clan of Banded Mongooses running through the camp and then found a pair of Greater Galagos roosting in a tree, not to mention the superb views of brilliant Purple-crested Turacos. It was then time to move on to our last stop on the tour, with a Leopard in a Marula Tree next to the road as the game viewing highlight of the journey. We arrived in camp and then had time for a rest before a quick walk around the camp and an afternoon drive along Fayi Loop and around Shabeni Outcrop. New birds for the day included African Harrier-Hawk (a mating pair), Dark Chanting Goshawk, Lizard Buzzard, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Grey Penduline Tit, Flappet Lark, Croaking Cisticola, Green-backed Cameroptera, White-browed Robin Chat, Pale Flycatcher, Grey Tit-Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Petronia, Common Waxbill and Yellow-throated Longclaw.

Route: Skukuza to Pretoriuskop.
Weather: cool and cloudy.
Birds of the day: African Harrier-Hawk, Purple-crested Turaco, Malachite Kingfisher.

Day 9: Saturday 20th September 2014 ~ Departure.

It’s always good to end a trip with a highlight, and our final morning was memorable indeed. They day dawned grey and surprisingly cold, for the Kruger anyway. We still had several birds we needed for our list, and so set off on some of the loops and circular roads around the camp. As luck would have it, while watching an African Harrier-Hawk in flight, we heard a Lion roaring from behind us somewhere and promptly turned around to go and see if we could find him. We located him a short distance away, moving through the bush on the eastern side of Mnungu Koppie. We saw he was coming out towards the road and got into position for a cracking walk-past, getting some superb views and photos as he walked right past the car. We then used a loop road to get ahead of him for a second walk-past, and then followed him until he disappeared into the bush. We were the only vehicle at the sighting, and what a great way to wind down our Kruger experience! The birds were still coming though, and after breakfast we recorded Striped Kingfisher and a few others to give our list a boost before exiting the park. We then made our way to Nelspruit for a quick visit to the Loweveld National Botanical Gardens, where the cool, overcast and still conditions were perfect for birding. Within about 45 minutes we added no fewer than five new species (Ashy Flycatcher, African Paradise Flycatcher, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Olive and Purple-banded Sunbirds) to the list before the drive to Johannesburg. With a half-hour or so to spare we stopped at the Korsman Bird Sanctuary for a final birding session (giving us the highest daily total for the tour of 97 species), pushing the list up to an impressive 298 species with birds such as Maccoa Duck, Cape Shoveler, Southern Pochard, African Rail, Purple Swamphen, Glossy Ibis and Olive Pigeon. We then drove the short distance to the airport, where the trip came to an end and we said fond farewells after a most enjoyable ‘Escarpment and Kruger National Park Birding and Wildlife Safari’.

Route: Pretoriuskop to Johannesburg.
Weather: cool and overcast in the morning, partly cloudy and mild in the afternoon.
Birds of the day: Striped Kingfisher, Purple-banded Sunbird, African Rail.

Summary:

All in all this was a fantastic trip, with a relatively large total bird list of just under 300 species, which is excellent for the time of year. And it wasn’t only about quantity, as the quality of the sightings was also outstanding. Once again the itinerary proved to be superb, with plenty of habitat variety between stops without long days of travelling. Coupled with the superb mammal viewing and other wildlife, this trip was once again a definite winner. Thanks to Kate and Dean for travelling with us, and we hope to host them again in the not-too-distant future.

To see photos visit the Lawson’s Flickr site: Lawson's Escarpment and Kruger, September 2014.