Saturday, June 25, 2016

South Africa, Part 1: Cape Town to Karoo NP

Africa. The “cradle of humankind”. A new continent. A chance to expand the total number of bird families in our life lists. A destination that’s been in our bucket list for quite some time. Finally, in the Fall of 2015, we made it a reality.
Africa is an immense continent. Just how immense didn’t strike home until we saw a graphic depicting how 13 countries that included the lower 48 states, China and India, and the whole of Eastern Europe, fit over Africa’s surface. For good measure, the UK fit nicely over Madagascar. Like we said, immense.
Understand that to bird Africa properly, one would have to take up to as many as ten  separate trips. So. Where to begin. Following months of planning, we opted to focus on the country of South Africa. This afforded us the opportunity to see the southern coast (penguins and a pelagic trip), sample two of the largest game preserves (Karoo and Kruger), plus explore a good portion of the Great Escarpment. Loads of geologic wonders. Vineyards. Herds of elephants. Lions, tigers and…hold on. Wrong continent. Just lions. Much of the scenery and wildlife we’ve seen in countless nature documentaries, we now would experience in real time; in real life.
South Africa has a population of around 53 million people speaking eleven “official” languages with “Afrikaans” being the most popular. Developed from the Dutch colonial days, Afrikaans accounted for many tongue-twisting words, phrases and road signs, to those of us unfamiliar with the Dutch language. English, the fourth most commonly spoken language (many commercial businesses used English), is the legacy left by the British Empire.
The country is comprised of nine provinces and is slightly larger in area than Columbia, South America. Its geography ranges from high mountains to sparse scrub to semi-arid grasslands, to rugged coastal plains.

The ZAR (South African Rand) is the principle currency of South Africa. At the time of our trip, the Rand was weak against our U.S. dollar. Roughly speaking, our dollar was 40% stronger so overall, our trip cost less than originally expected.
South Africa's electrical voltage is 230 volts/50 HZ (U.S. is 120 volts/60HZ). This required using massive three-pronged plug adapters and also transformers to safely run electrical devices (phones, iPods, laptops, etc.). In fact, if one were to travel all over Africa, one would need several different kinds of plug adapters (but always the same transformer).

Trip in three segments
first segment rout overview
Ours was a custom tour put together by Tropical Birding and pretty much followed their set departure itinerary. It was broken down into three segments. We began on the Western Cape (Cape Town, a pelagic trip, and Karoo National Park). Then an in-country flight to Johannesburg where we explored the Waakerstroom area and the vast Kruger National Park. Our third segment consisted of an optional seven day extension to the coastal regions north of Durban and driving into up into the Drakensburg Escarpment (Sani Pass and the Kingdom of Lesotho - passports required). The only tweaks in the itinerary were that three of our group had elected to skip the pelagic trip (they would bird elsewhere on land that day) and two of our group could not participate in the seven day extension due to work schedules.

Chris and Dean
Including us, we numbered ten in all. Of the eight others, almost all had traveled with us in the past. Harold (“Howard”) Ginke had been with us in Costa Rica. Melissa Bruder had traveled along in Ecuador and Costa Rica. Risé Foster-Bruder was with us in Ecuador and Costa Rica. Pat Brust was on a trip to Trinidad-Tobago with Carol. Chris and Dean Hitchcock were with us in Costa Rica and again on our most recent trip to Colombia. Marge Hill, Carol’s sister has been on most of our trips to Ecuador and Costa Rica and Mexico. Jose Padilla was the only person not present on any of our previous trips but had been to Africa before (as had Melissa and Risé). We knew Jose from birding in Florida where he resides. The size of our group necessitated the use of two 10-passenger vans, each with a Tropical Birding guide who also served as drivers.

Tom, Carol
Since our RV would be parked in Dale in October, it made the most sense to fly out of Appleton along with Harold who lives in Neenah. The first leg took us to Detroit where we were joined by Melissa and Marge (also flying out of Wisconsin). The next leg was to Amsterdam (hey, another new continent!) where during our layover we netted four life birds while watching from airport waiting areas. The longest leg was to Cape Town. Total flying time including layovers was just short of 19 hours. None of us had the luxury of Business Class or First Class seating. Cattle class with cramped leg room. But we were well fed and kept entertained by a seemingly endless supply of movies when not trying to fit in some fit-less sleep.
Jose, Lisle
Traveling west to east as we did, we lost a pretty good chunk of time. By the time we cleared immigration, customs, and arrived at our Cape Town accommodations it was almost midnight. Others in our group had arrived earlier in the day or in the case of the Hitchcock’s and Jose, a whole day earlier. We do this to have a buffer day to take into account unforeseen travel delays (and there have been some on the past). As an enticement we plan our free day to include sightseeing or simply use the time to get acclimated. We would catch up with everyone in the morning but for now, a few hours of sleep on a flat surface took precedent.

Hadada Ibis on the rooftops
Excited to be in Africa we could not help but awake early the next morning. Hot beverage of choice in hand, and with Hadada ibises raucously calling from nearby rooftops,  we all gradually assembled on the large deck outside our room, talking about the day’s main attraction: a visit to the world class Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. After a light breakfast provided by our hosts at the Harfield Guest Villa, we set off for the gardens in a hired taxi van.

paved walkways at Kirstenbosch
“Fynbos” is a term used to describe the types of endemic vegetation that characterizes South Africa. Consisting of heath, protea, composite, iris and lily families, these plants support a wide variety of wildlife. They do well in a nutrient-poor climate, a climate marked by cold wet winters and hot dry summers. We were eager to explore the thousands of specimens typical of the Fynbos biome that we anticipated to be on display.

formal beds
Founded in 1913, Kirstenbosch has the distinction of being the first botanic garden in the world to be included within a Natural World Heritage site. Nestled at the eastern foot of Table Mountain National Park, there are several trails coursing through the vast 90 acre property. When not hiking around the gardens, there are plenty of other attractions: a Tea Room, a restaurant, a massive indoor conservatory, and a superb gift and bookshop to sample. And it’s also an excellent place to go birding.

King Protea
Cape White-eye
While not the “official” first day of our tour, we began to build our South Africa bird checklist. A nesting Spotted Eagle-Owl chick near the gift shop, Cape Bulbul, Karoo Prinia, Cape White-eye, Olive Thrush, and Cape Sugarbird. Without a guide and confronted with new families of birds, we spent a lot of time thumbing through our hefty copies of “Birds of Southern Africa" (4th ed.) bird field guide. There’s something extremely satisfying about pouring through a field guide ID'ing birds in new families on one’s own. It also reminded us of why we needed professional guides!

Cape Sugarbird
Double-collared Sunbird
There are no hummingbirds in Africa (indeed there are none to be found outside the Americas) but a great substitution is the family of Nectariniidae: the sunbirds. Southern Double-Collared Sundbird was just the first of many of this nectar feeding family we would encounter over the next month.
Our principle Tropical Birding guide for this trip was Andrew Spencer. We had first met Andrew during our two-month volunteer gig at Tandayapa Bird Lodge in Ecuador (2010). In addition to his guiding skills, Andrew is also an accomplished recorder/collector of bird songs/calls (checkout Xeno-Canto for his many contributions). He met us near the main entrance after we’d been exploring the grounds for a few hours, just in time for a spot of lunch at the Tea Room. After filling us in on what to expect over the next several days, he was off to check on more tour arrangements while we continued our garden exploration before returning to the Harfield.

most of the group at Kirstenbosch entrance
Meals during our tour were varied. Many times we stopped for lunch or dinner at a restaurant or pub where we were introduced to a variety of new foods…and wines and micro-brews. Other times we depended upon box breakfasts, lunches, or snacks picked up along the way in order to maximize our time in the field. Suffice it to say, we did not go hungry. The Harfield didn’t provide evening meals as a rule so each night we were in Cape Town, we ventured out to a different dining venue.

Harfield table setting, part of the breakfast spread, and corner bar/wine selection
Our principle mode of transportation throughout the tour was in two 10-passenger vans. Andrew was always the driver/guide in the lead van. Our second Tropical Birding guide was Lisle Gwynn. Now living in Great Britain he for a time had lived in South Africa. However, a last minute conflict (he had been tasked to temporarily fill in for a guide on another Tropical Birding tour who had taken ill) had prevented Lisle from initially joining us. Eventually he would join the tour but for now, our temporary replacement guide/driver substitute was Pablo Cervantes. Pablo was another connection to our days at Tandayapa. He had been the lodge's manager at the time. While not a birding guide per se, Pablo’s forte is leading Tropical Birding’s photography tours. Of note: vehicles in Africa drive on the opposite side of the road. Pablo clearly wasn’t used to driving in this environment which made for some, shall we say, interesting moments.

our Toyota vans allowed us to be more mobile
Although these were roomy 10-passenger vans, they also had to accommodate all our luggage whenever we moved from one overnight location to another. Seating could be cramped at times with some limited views. To best accommodate riding in the vans, we  split into two groups of five. Every other day, groups swapped vans in order to be in the lead van with Andrew. Within each van, an equitable rotation was established to allow everyone an opportunity to sit up front plus have as many opportunities as possible at a good window seat. We had talked about the possibility of doing the tour in open safari-style vehicles but given many situations where there would be extreme heat or exposure to inclement weather (rain, dust, wind), the air conditioned vans turned out to be the best option.

Cape Town with Table Mountain as a backdrop
Our first “official” tour day was to have been a pelagic trip however, Mother Nature dictated that is was a no-go. Always flexible, we instead set out to explore the Cape Peninsula immediately around Cape Town (something we would have done on the day following the pelagic anyway).

Lisle digitally captured Carol's 2,000th life bird - African Fish-Eagle
Cape of Good Hope route
With an emphasis on coastal birding, we headed south from Cape Town through the Kaapse Pass to the coastal town of Kommetjie on the Atlantic Ocean side of the peninsula. Within ten minutes of our arrival we scored all five species of cormorant on the checklist (Cape, Bank, Long-tailed, Great, and Crowned). We also added Gulls (Hartlaub’s and Kelp), Great White Pelican, Gray Heron, African Oystercatcher, Blacksmith Lapwing, and African Fish-Eagle. Carol, who had been carefully keeping track as she neared her milestone 2,000th life bird rejoiced when the fish-eagle turned out to be number 2,000!

Cape of Good Hope coast
From Kommetjie we worked our way down the middle of the peninsula to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve and eventually to Cape Point. The wild and rugged reserve is a section of Table Mountain National Park. The phrase “spectacular scenery” hardly seemed adequate. Like visiting the Grand Canyon, you really needed to be their in person to appreciate the grandeur.

The flora was windswept, a coarse, scrubby example of fynbos vegetation. On our journey into the reserve we saw one of the many ungulate mammals we would encounter during our tour - Bontebok.
There is a misconception that the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Point) is the southern most tip of Africa. While the Cape of Good Hope, is the “most south-western point” of Africa, Cape Aguilhas, some 90 miles further east-southeast, is Africa’s true southernmost tip.
To reach the higher Cape Point promontory there are walking trails, or, one can ride on the Flying Dutchman Funicular. The line runs from the lower Cape Point car park and visitor center, up a steep incline through dense fynbos to the upper lighthouse. It was the first commercial funicular (tram-like vehicles on rails) of its kind in Africa. It takes its name from the legend of the Flying Dutchman ghost ship. The fabled phantom ship legend apparently began here when a Dutch man-of-war was lost with every soul on-board off the Cape of Good Hope in the late 1700’s. Since we were wishing to bird, we forsake the crowded funicular and walked up. From cliff-side vantage points we failed to see any ghost ships but did spy southern wright whales and cape fur seals.

Malachite Sunbird
Cape Siskin was our main target endemic and in spite of windy conditions, we had several excellent looks. Stunning Malachite Sunbirds, White-necked Ravens, a Rock Kestrel, Rock Martins, Speckled Pigeons, Black Sawings, Cape Wagtails, and Cape Weavers were added. After a potty stop at the visitor center, we headed down toward the east side of the peninsula that bordered False Bay. A pull-out just south of Boulder Bay gave us our first good looks at African penguins, or as they are more commonly known, “Jackass” penguins, owing to their donkey-like braying calls.

Boulder Beach, African "Jackass" Penguin
Taxonomically, this was a new bird family (we added a total of 43 new bird families over the course of our tour). Jackass Penguins are roughly 28 inches tall. Their distinctive black and white coloring is a vital form of camouflage called counter-shading – white for underwater predators looking upward and black for predators looking down onto the dark water. On land they’re nothing short of cute as hell.

Black-winged Stilt
Cape Grassbird
From there we birded our way along False Bay before swinging back to the north. Our northern most stop were the settling ponds associated with the town of Strandfontein’s waster treatment plant. Any birder worth his or her salt understands just how birdy waste treatment ponds can be! Spur-winged geese, Cape Shoveler, Ducks (Yellow-billed, Red-billed, Maccoa), Southern Pochard, Cape Teal, Little Grebe, Black-headed Heron, Little Egret, Black Kite, Red-knobbed Coot, African Swamphen, Black-winged Stilt, African Jacana, Great Crested Tern, Southern Boubou, Cisticolas (Levailant’s, Zitting), Southern Fiscal, Cape Grassbird, and Southern Masked Weaver were tallied. There were also warblers. Old World Warblers (Lesser Swamp, Little-Rush). These and other warbler species we would see lacked brightly colored non-basic plumage. On the whole, pretty drab and dull. No wonder Europeans are so fascinated with our neotropical migrant warblers when visiting the Americas!
By beating most of the late afternoon rush hour traffic back to the Hartfield we had time to walk to a nearby popular watering hole, the Banana Jam Cafe. Purported to have the best selection of craft beers in South Africa, it did not disappoint. Then we were off to another restaurant (Avenue Grill) for our evening meal.

As with all of our bird tours, the evening meal routine typically includes a happy hour (or half hour in some instances), tallying our daily checklist, and getting our marching orders for the next day. In this case we learned that the next day's weather was now in our favor; that the pelagic trip was a go!
Next morning we were up bright and early. An early start to deal with construction congested traffic we would encounter on our way to the Simon’s Town harbor where we would be boarding our boat. Three in the group were not taking the pelagic. Marge, Pat and Harold, accompanied by Andrew, spent the day birding onshore. Originally they would have been accompanied by Lisle but since Lisle was otherwise indisposed, and Pablo isn’t a bird guide, Andrew guided the three landlubbers. Pablo drove us to the harbor and accompanied us on-board. We really didn’t need a Tropical Birding guide since the pelagic company had provided both a boat and guide, a guide intimately familiar with the seabirds we hoped to encounter.

start of the pelagic
The term “pelagic” is defined as “pertaining to, or living in the open sea”. There are a number of birds that spend most of their adult life at sea. If one wants to see them, one has to put to sea.

‘And a good south wind sprung up behind; The Albatross did follow…’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Our past experiences with pelagic trips have been, shall we say, less than idyllic. To begin, pelagic trips are expensive. Pelagic trips can be very long (traveling several miles off shore). Pelagic trips don’t guarantee that you’ll see the species you’re hoping to see - merely the chance to see them. Pelagic trips often encounter rough seas (seasickness and salt spray on optics), dense fog (very limited visibility), and honestly, a lot of disappointment when target species aren’t seen. One might have to sign on to do multiple trips over a period of days in order to experience just ONE good trip. We’ve joined pelagic excursions off both coasts of the United States. Our last pelagic was off Cape Hatterass. It had turned into a shoulder and arm numbing 11-hour marathon of hanging on for dear life in a pitched sea, drenched in salt water and with not many birds to show for our effort. Off the California coast we had encountered dense fog for an entire day. With that history, we approached this pelagic with more than just a little trepidation. However, by the end of the trip we were absolutely thrilled beyond our wildest dreams.

Tropical Birding had arranged for Barrie Rose, THE premier guide to be our pelagic guru. Barrie’s background included being involved with Southern Seabird Solutions Trust, part of an alliance with representatives of the seafood industry and government dedicated to seabird conservation and safe (mainly commercial) fishing practices. Barrie had spent years aboard commercial fisheries ships overseeing responsible fishing practices and as a result, has a good working relationship with the area’s commercial fishing ship captains. Barrie had a great sense of humor and was also a very patient person, willing to repeat bird names over and over and over along with each bird’s key field markings. All this interspersed with local history accounts and stories of past pelagic highs (and some lows). UPDATE: Sadly, we have since learned that Barrie, at the age of 60, died in December 2016 during a fishing trip following a fatal fall from a cliff - the same cliff where he had experienced a near death experience with some years back. As all his friends have mentioned, Barrie died what he loved doing - fishing.

Barrie Rose

getting under way and breakfast (Pablo, Carol, Chris, Melissa)
The importance of Barrie’s relationship with local fisheries ships quickly became evident. Barrie (and our boat’s captain) were in radio contact with area commercial fishing vessels. You see, the exact time and place you want to be is nearby when the boats start hauling in their lines and nets and begin processing their catches hundreds (if not thousands) of seabirds gather for the possibility of a free meal.

rounding Cape Point, heading to sea, and miles later catching up with a fishing boats
The sky was clear with a light breeze as our craft's twin outboards powered us out of False Bay and around Cape Point, out into the Atlantic Ocean. Over the course of our day-long voyage, across miles of ocean, we encountered numerous seabirds, arriving at just the right moment when the commercial fishing ships were attracting seabirds in huge numbers. Calms seas afforded easy observation. Hundreds of seabirds flew and floated very near our boat as Barrie constantly pointed them out. What a change from our previous pelagic trips where one MIGHT get a distant glimpse of a speck of a bird disappearing between high swells. We got to discuss at our leisure various field markings that differentiated the Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross from the Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. Repeated looks at White-capped, Black-browed, and a few Wandering Albatross. Giant-Petrels (Southern and Northern), Petrels (Cape, White-chinned), Great Shearwater, Wilson’s and Black-bellied Storm-Petrels, Brown Skua, and Arctic Terns. The trip’s highlight, though, was a Spectacled Petrel with several satisfying looks.

White-chinned Petrel
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross
Cape Gannet
Black-browed Albatross
White-chinned petrels, Great shearwaters squabble with a Yellow-nosed (Indian) Albatross
On-board snacks and beverages, calm seas and clear skies with ship-side visits by inquisitive and playful bottle-nosed dolphins. By far this was our best ever pelagic. One that had restored our faith that one CAN have a great pelagic experience, even as we also suspected that this was like playing the slots. A big win every once in a while keeps you coming back for more (but the bar has been set very high for any future pelagics).
Meanwhile, on shore, our three non-pelagic group members had an exciting day foraging for, and finding, several endemics as well as re-encounters with African Penguins. A lively sharing our various birding experiences that evening as we dined at "Da Vincis on 2nd".

West Cape route
Back together again as a whole group, we departed early the next morning (again to beat Cape Town traffic) into an area noted in the Cape Birding Route Guide as the “West Cape”. Funny how things pop into one’s head - like a seemingly appropriate quote from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, ‘The gullsâ gab and rabble on the boat-bobbing sea ... scamper of sanderlings, curlew cry ... he got a little telescope to look at birds…'.

We again had opportunities to bird seaboard habitat - coastal wetlands, salt lagoons - plus grasslands, and scenery back-dropped by stately granite “inselbergs”, prominent steep-sided hills of solid rock, rising abruptly and seemingly out of nowhere from the low plains. This was the first day we managed to set our eyes on South Africa’s official bird, the Blue Crane. Anyone who’s visited the International Crane Foundation (Baraboo, Wisconsin) might have seen one there, but here, in the wilds of South Africa, we got to watch them in their natural habitat which seemed to include mixing with domestic livestock. Both the Xhosa and Zulu tribes in Africa revere the Blue Crane. Zulu royalty were the only ones allowed to wear Blue Crane feathers, and Xhosa warriors were only allowed to wear Blue Crane feathers into battle.

Blue Crane - South Africa's national bird
Many of the bird species we sought were not as large and easily identifiable as the cranes. There were many LBJ’s (little brown jobs) we needed to add to our list because several were endemic or near-endemic. These included families of Larks, Pipits and Cisticolas. Our West Coast drive was the beginning of adding several Lark family species (Cape Clapper, Karoo, Cape, Red-capped, Large-billed). We soon learned that when the guides stopped our vans in or near short grass areas, that we would soon be out scavenging for these LBJ’s that blended so well with their habitat. Then there were “Old World” Flycatchers. “Old World” a phrase we hear again and again since up until now we’ve been birding in what is considered the “New World” (the Americas). Flycatchers like Karoo-Scrub Robin, African Stonechat, Southern Anteater Chat, and Sicklewing Chat.

a lot of lining up and looking for LBJ's
We roadside birded our way to the West Coast National Park roughly sixty miles north of Cape Town, just north of the town of Yzerffontein. The park’s 106 square miles, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, is a Birdlife International Important Bird Area (IBA) with a thriving population of flamingos (Lesser and Greater).
After numerous distant glimpses, we got our first close looks at Chacma Baboons as they interacted within their troops. Roadside warning signs cautioned against leaving your vehicle’s unattended (open doors and/or windows) as baboons have learned that there are treasures to be had inside. Very strong and powerful, once a baboon is in your vehicle, they are very unlikely to leave until they are good and ready and can do a lot of damage “rearranging” your vehicle’s interior.

baboons and zebra
It was here too we got our first looks at Zebras. South Africa has two distinct species: Plains and Cape Mountain Zebras (these were the latter). And there were Common Ostrich although we were told that these birds were likely to have escaped from Ostrich farms and to wait until later when we would see “wild” Ostrich.

Geelbeck Restaurant and Cape Weaver
Banded Martins and Pearl-breasted Swallows overhead while White-backed Mousebirds and African Pied-Starlings were found in the vegetation around the park’s Geelbeck Restaurant grounds where we had stopped for lunch. Cape Weaver birds weaving intricate nests and stealing bits of unattended food from our table made for quite a floor show.

marsh boardwalk West Coast NP
We added a Bustard. A Black Bustard to be precise. Bustard is a family of birds that make their nests on the ground and prefer walking or running to flying. Taxonomists (don’t confuse the term with taxidermists - they stuff animals where taxonomists can be quite stuffy) frequently like to tinker with bird names. At one time many of the Bustard species were known as “Korhaans”. Now they are all Bustards. Wary and difficult to approach in open habitats, over the course of our tour we managed to find all ten species listed in our South Africa checklist. They vaguely reminded us of grouse. Tall grouse with very long legs.
Leaving the park we birded our way north to Langebaan Lagoon, cruised the Paternoster Road and stopped at the Veldrif Salt Ponds. African Spoonbills, Plovers (Kittlit’s, Common-ringed, Chestnut-banded), Crowned Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, Terns (White-winged, Whiskered), Pied Kingfisher, and colorful Bishops (Southern Red, Yellow).

Andrew had his way of photographing the Puff Adder...
...while I preferred to digiscope from a bit further back
Pin-tailed Whydah was a bird species frequently seen in grassland, scrubs and savanna. Males were unmistakable with their red bills, black-and-white bodies and strikingly long (easily twice the length of their bodies) tail feathers. Time and again we witnessed elaborate courtship displays as males hovered over females, their tail on full display. Whydah are  a brood parasite species meaning that like cuckoos, they don’t build their own nest but lay their eggs in another bird’s nest (mainly nests of waxbills).

and it wasn't limited to just sauce for a braai prepared meat
We eventually headed back south toward Cape Town. In honor of our last night at the Harfield, our hosts did up a traditional South Africa braai (barbecue). Various meats, some with monkey gland sauce.  Despite the name, the sauce does not involve monkeys in any way. Comprised of chopped onion, garlic and ginger, with a combination of chutney, soy sauce, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, and wine, it certainly had a different flavor that not everyone warmed to (in part because of the name).
The Harfield was full to capacity that night with yet another Tropical Birding tour group. Women from the Chicago area were being guided by Illinois native Josh Engel. As it happened, we would bump into Josh’s group a few more times during our travels.

Cape Town to Swellendam
After five days of exploring the Western Cape it was time to move on. We assembled for a very early departure and with luggage and box breakfasts aboard, we put Cape Town in our rear view mirrors. We headed across the sandy, low-lying flats that lie east of Cape Town, toward a barrier of mountains that interrupts the landscape. These are the Hottentots Holland, so named by early Dutch settlers who considered them the homeland of the indigenous Khoikhoi (‘men of men’) peoples, then known as Hottentots.

coastal scene to Sir Lowry's Pass, scanning the scree, Cape Rockjumper
Stopping at Sir Lowry’s Pass (the scenery along this section of coast reminded us of driving along Highway 1 in southern California), we hiked for a short distance along a rocky slope past piles of scree (broken rock fragments) in search of one of our main target endemics, the Cape Rockjumper, a ground-nesting bird that frequently perches on rocks. A few were heard calling way up slope. In an effort to draw them closer, Andrew scaled a section of scree while playing calls. Rockjumpers are not at all shy and within a matter of minutes, one appeared quite close. Other birds at the stop included Speckled Mousebird, a dazzling back-lit Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Crow, African Stonechat, Cape Rock-thrush, Familiar Chat, and Brimstone Canary.

African Darter
vineyards in the Little Karoo
Gray-winged Francolin
Coming down out of the pass we drove through the coastal towns of Roois Els and Betty Bay (Great Crested Grebe, African Darter), turning inland across the Aguilhas Plain and the fertile Overberg, a gently undulating coastal plain that today lies predominantly under wheat. Along the way we added Cape Griffin (essentially a vulture), Verreaux’s Eagle, Denham’s Bustard, Southern Tchagra (intriguing name - one of the bushrikes), Auguilas Lark, and a Gray-winged Francolin. Francolin are in the broad Genus Galliformes. Related to pheasants and partridge, they spend most of their time foraging on the ground for insects, vegetable matter and seeds. Most species of Francolin exhibit spurs on their tarsi, hence the older moniker of “Spurfowl”. By mid afternoon we had explored some of the roads in the De Hoop Nature Preserve before arriving at De Wagenhuis Guesthouse outside of Swellendam.
the guesthouse and our spacious living quarters
Swellendam is where early European settlers started their new lives on the southern most tip of Africa. In 1794 local Magistrate Anthony Faure built the impressive Cape Dutch homestead ’Rotterdam’ (the most historic home of the Overberg), with several surrounding buildings. Here he bred horses as well as sheep for wool. Some of his sheep were later used to begin the sheep industry in Australia. The large stables, stores, and the site of the old wagon house - De Wagenhuis - remain historically significant. The guesthouse, a newer building, is built on the same footprint as the old stables. Instead of horses it now sleeps up to fourteen people in seven luxurious rooms. Each of our overnight lodging accommodations throughout the entire tour proved to be individually unique but this stop was more unique than most.
Coming as we do from living in an RV, our room was over the top spacious. A king bed in a room with a vaulted ceiling, an expansive sitting area (we could have entertained our entire tour group), and a bathroom with a hot tub, multiple sinks, and one entire tiled wall with two rain-like producing shower heads. A massive rock rose up out of the bathroom floor. The bathroom alone was as spacious as our kitchen/dining/living room in our RV. Too much!
Just enough time left in the day for happy hour, the daily checklist, a sumptuous home cooked meal before we fell, exhausted, into bed.

Museum Trophy Room building, photo op of Ian (looks like a Porche 550 Spyder)
The current owners of De Wahenhuis, Andrew and Anneke Farser-Jones are farmers. Indeed, the property is still a working farm producing citrus and milk. Andrew’s grandfather, Ian Fraser Jones, raced for the Porsche Factory in the late 1940’s to the early 1960’s. He'd started racing in an MGA (my first car was a 1958 MGA). He also raced Jaguar, Lotus, and even a Corvette. There is a large building dedicated as the “Museum Trophy Room” which holds all of grandpa Jones’s hunting and motor-racing trophies. We had the opportunity the next morning before we departed to visit the museum. The motor-racing memorabilia was utterly fascinating. All the dead animals, not so much.

Swellendam to Wlderness
Kingfisher Country House
On our way out of town we birded through part of the nearby Bontebok National Park. Cardinal Woodpecker, Pied Barbet, Olive Bushrike, Rameron Pigeon, and Piping Cisticola. Just before lunch time we arrived at the Kingfisher Country House. Owing to the fact that Josh Engle’s group of ladies from Chicago were already staying there, there was room for only five of our group. We (Tom and Carol, Harold, Pat and Melissa…essentially the group always together in a van) dropped off our luggage. Pablo then drove us into the nearby town of Wilderness to meet the other half of our group who were staying at a different location. Lunch at an Italian restaurant, the “Pomodoro. This was also the day that Lisle finally joined our tour. After lunch we greeted Lisle and bid farewell to Pablo as he departed to join another Tropical Birding tour.

Saying goodbye to Pablo (second from right)
There were numerous locations to bird around the Wilderness area. Trails to hike, river and lake habitats to scour, and a few hides for wildlife observation. At one such hide we laid in wait for a flufftail. Related to rails and finfoots, flufftails are highly secretive and rarely seen. Our quarry at the hide was the Red-chested Flufftail. One was heard calling incessantly. Using playback, it was enticed nearer the boardwalk where we were all huddled waiting for it to pop into the open. It did. Briefly. Twice. It fluttered across the boardwalk from dense reeds on one side into dense reeds on the other side. It reminded us of looking for Tapaculos in Central and South America, another skulking family of small birds that are very vocal and equally difficult to see. The flufftail looks we had were just enough to make it a “seen” and not just a “heard only” mark on the checklist.

Red-chested Flufftail
hosts Sue and Phil
Fork-tailed Drongo - Tom's 2,000th life bird milestone
Since neither of the places where we were lodged provided meals beyond breakfast, we gathered in town for happy hour, dinner (“The Girls” restaurant), and checklist routine. Our plans for the next day included birding a number of different nearby locations.
We gathered for breakfast at Kingfisher Guest House where owners Phil and Sue Millard had put out a sumptuous spread.
If we had any fears of not seeing any Turacos on this trip they were quickly laid to rest. Turacos have prominent crests, long tails and are noted for their peculiar and unique pigments giving them their bright iridescent green and red feathers. They are in the family Musophagidae which literally means “banana-eaters”. And they do love their bananas. Sue handily demonstrated this when she had a Knysna Turaco eating out of her hand while she stood along the veranda's railing. It was off this same veranda that a milestone 2,000th life bird for Tom was ticked: a Fork-tailed Drongo. The name makes it sound a lot more fascinating than what it actually looks like but hey, not all milestones can be African Fish-Eagles!

Knysna Turaco
That day we birded Kingfisher Guest House grounds, Rondel’s Hide, Brown-headed Kingfisher Trail, Malachite Fisher Hide, Half-collared Kingfisher Trail, Victoria’s Bay, and part of Belviderekerk Wilderness Park. We added Ducks (White-backed, African Black), Waxbill (Swee, Common), White-starred Robin, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler, Olive Woodpecker, Black-bellied Starling, Green-back Camaroptera, Spotted Thick-knee, Red-necked Francolin, Long-crested Eagle, Doves (Red-eyed, Lemon) and a surprise sighting of White-backed Night-Heron. You know you’re onto something when both guides start running and shouting, “c’mon, c’mon, quickly - this way!”. But the star of the day for us was a blindingly stunning Malachite Kingfisher. Alas, our search for an African Finfoot went for naught. But an African Paradise-Flycatcher helped salve our wounds. That evening we returned to Wilderness for happy hour, dinner (“Flava Café"), and top off our checklist.

Long-crested Eagle
Lisle's digital snap of a Malachite Kingfisher
Swartberg Pass overlook
The next morning, with our luggage aboard we tried briefly once more for a Half-collared Kingfisher but only managed a ‘heard only’ with a very quick fly-by missed by all but Andrew. After a stop in the city of George to stock up on breakfast snacks (monkey gland sauce flavored potato chips - yum!) to augment what Kingfisher House had given us in the form of a box breakfast, we headed northward, eventually turning onto a switchback gravel road that took us over Swartberg Pass. This historic pass connects the Little Karoo ostrich capital of Oudtshoorn to the placid Great Karoo town of Prince Albert.

Wilderness to Karoo NP
Swartberg Pass, Ground Woodpecker
The twenty mile road passed through habitat that quickly changed from arid scrub and ravine-side thicket to moist, mist-wreathed mountain fynbos. The pass crested the Swartberg range at an altitude of 5200 feet before dropping precipitously through another series of dramatic switchbacks, ingeniously supported by dry-stone walls. Fortunately for us the weather was bright and sunny (and a bit windy). Rain can make the road quite treacherous. Becoming progressively more arid, we emerged into the Karoo proper through a kloof (a deep ravine) presided over by agonizingly contorted rock layers, example of astonishing anticlines and synclines, formed by massive volcanic geological upheavals.
It was in these rocks that we found our first Ground Woodpeckers. One of only three ground-dwelling woodpeckers in the world, they inhabit barren, steep, and boulder-strewn slopes. Loud and raucous, they will peer over or around rocks at intruders which is exactly the behavior we witnessed.

Brown-hooded Kingfisher
A fun stop in the town of Prince Albert at the Lazy Lizard Family Restaurant (killer soups!) for lunch where we also stumbled upon a very cooperative Brown-hooded Kingfisher perched along the roadside.
After Prince Albert we continued further north toward our next destination, Karoo National Park near the town of Beaufort West. We followed/birded the tarred road leading from the park entrance to the park’s headquarters and the rest camp where we spent the next two nights.

Karoo NP chalet complete with kitchen
As parks go, Karoo is fairly new having only been founded in 1979. The park’s 290 square miles consist mainly of semi-desert. It’s partly in the Lower (Little) Karoo and the Upper (Great) Karoo. It serves as a sanctuary for several herds of springbok, gemstock, Cape mountain zebra, common ostrich, red heartbeest, eland, kudu, and black-backed jackal.

The landscape is punctuated with “kopje” or “koppies” as they are more commonly known. Kopje are long flat-topped hills (they reminded us of buttes in our American west). Volcanic magma forced upward was the basis of how these were first formed.  Over time it has been erosion that has sculpted these iconic flat-topped hills to form protruding “dolerite sills”. After we checked into our Dutch style chalets, we had time to sample some of the wildlife along park roads. Herds of ostrich with males vying for territory. Glimpses of black-backed jackal. Booted Eagle, Pale-Chanting-Goshawk, and Short-toed Rock-Thrush.

Common Ostrich
another fantastic Lisle capture: Black-backed Jackel
Another of the park’s attractions was the opportunity to join a guided night-drive to go spotlighting for some mammals. There wasn’t an opening on the first night for the entire group to get onto a tour so we had to split up. Three of us (Harold, Carol and I) volunteered to join the tour that evening. Barely having time to eat in the camp’s restaurant (excruciatingly slow service) we were the last to climb aboard an open air safari-style vehicle along with several other lodge guests (including some of Josh’s group from Chicago). Then we headed out into the chilly night air.
Our guide seemed quite knowledgeable. He kept up a running commentary about the park’s history and inhabitants but sadly, it turned out to be like taking a pelagic: you pays your money and you takes your chances. For us, aside from learning a bit about the park's history, the evening turned out to be a boring bust. The next evening when the rest of the group ventured out, they didn’t fare a whole lot better better. Perhaps the night drives at Kruger National Park would be better.
However, the days spent in and around Karoo more than made up for the lack of night activity. With box breakfasts in hand we explored roads inside and outside the park. While inside the park we were not allowed out of our vehicles except for stopping within specific gated picnic or observation areas. A flip-flop from going to a zoo where we were the ones in the cage while the wildlife roamed free looking at us in our enclosures.

Vervet Monkey
Kori Bustard
During a breakfast break inside one of these enclosed areas, Ingenious Vervet monkeys managed to steal some of the food from a picnic table while we were occupied looking at birds. Male Vervets, for anyone who cares to know, have strikingly bright blue testicles. We added Bustards (Kori, Ludwig’s, Karoo), Double-banded Courser, Spike-heeled Lark, and a surprisingly good look at a passing flock of Black-eared Sparrow-Larks.

alas, our best look at Meercats were in a gift shop
We’d hoped to get better looks at Meercats (Suricats) at some point during the tour but the best we could muster was a brief look at a group running away while we were moving in our vans. We had much better luck seeing species of Mongoose (Small Gray, Yellow).
Birding around the rest camp environs netted Red-faced Mousebird, Little Swift, Dideric Cuckoo, Fairy Flycatcher, Yellow-rumped Eremomeia, Canary (Black-headed, White-throated, Protea), Pale-winged Starling, and Black-fronted Bulbul. Of note (at least to us who lived in an RV) were the unusual compact designs of several campers in the park’s campground. Several designs would be of great interest to people we know in the United States wishing to tow a small RV behind a mid-sized SUV.

Karoo NP back to Cape Town
a road sign sure to perk up birders on a long drive
We might have stayed longer at Karoo, but, our itinerary dictated that we be back in Cape Town for the next tour segment. Our a 7-hour drive was punctuated with potty stops and lots of naps. Our lunch stop at a "Spur Steak Ranches", a chain serving burgers, steaks and schnitzel, was bizarre. The chain uses a theme based on an overly clichéd take on "Native American." The restaurant's official logo is an Indian chief in a feathered headdress. The décor was a jumble of teepees, tomahawks and totem poles. The men’s room, though, had large windows strategically placed over the urinals overlooking a watering hole with hippos, zebras, and giraffes. Not at all a scene with which Geronimo would have been familiar. Totally surreal.

Journey's Inn
Back in Cape Town, and after the rental vans were turned in, we processed through the airport and boarded a flight bound for Johannesburg. Three hours later, we transferred to a new set of 10-passenger vans, and just after nightfall, checked into the Journey’s Inn Africa Guest House, only five minutes from the airport. Unfortunately, by the time we had arrived we’d missed our opportunity for an evening meal at the inn. We quickly adapted to plan B and drove to a nearby chain restaurant. It was sans happy hour, but, we still managed our daily bird checklist (rather thin owing to our long drive). Back at the inn, the swimming pool looked inviting, but, we retired early so as to be rested for another early departure to head deeper into Zululand.

NOTE: To view more of Lisle's extraordinary South Africa wildlife photography click HERE and for his photos from Nambia-Botswanna click HERE

Swee Waxbill
African Mourning Dove
African Penguin
Spotted Eagle-Owl juvenile
Cape Bulbul
Gray Heron
Great Cormorant
Greater Double-banded Sunbird male and female
Greater Flamingo
Hadada Ibis
Knysna Turaco
Laughing Dove
Namaqua Dove
Spotted Eagle-Owl adult
Pied Kingfisher
group on Swartberg Pass

1 comment:

  1. Well done my friends, well done!!! Wow, that African Fish Eagle shot is stunning! So many cool photos - the Blue Crane, Rockjumper, Turac - I can't pick a favorite. Although I'd lean towards that yummy desert Tom is eyeing up ;-D