From a bridge approaching the Visitors Centre we spotted a pair of Rollers nesting in a hole just below an active Storks nest in the same dead tree. Lots of Greylag Geese occupied a flooded area by the road, and a Great Spotted Cuckoo was being closely watched by an attendant Magpie.
Inspired by Mick Richardson's photos and report from Tablas de Damiel Elena and I drove there on Friday to see for ourselves. I had hesitated before, expecting it to be dried up and over exploited for irrigation, which is the dreary story for most natural water resources in Spain. We were very pleasantly surprised however. It had been virtually destroyed in the 60s & 70s but great efforts have been made since then to restore the water levels and now it is a little wetland paradise for birders.
From the Visitors Center there are a number of marked trails, yellow, red and blue. They are freely accessible at any time, early morning being the best. The Yellow Trail is particularly productive as it follows a superb boardwalk through the shallow wetland giving superb views of reedbed and ponds with surrounding low trees and bushes. The clear waters are teeming with fish. Purple, Grey and Night Herons are easily seen, as are egrets and a variety of waterfowl, especially Red Crested Pochard and Great Crested Grebe.
A variety of Raptors can be seen overhead, these include Marsh and Montagu's harrier, Osprey, Common Buzzard and Kestrel. I also spotted a Bonellis Eagle along the road to the Reserve from Daimiel.
A Southern Smooth Snake slithered out of the water and across the wooden debris by the riverside.
A young Barn Swallow flexing its wings while perched over the boardwalk along the Yellow Trail.
Reed Warblers and Great reed Warblers could be heard at all times in the reedbeds. Occasionally they would be visible through the tall grass stems allowing some photography.
Tablas de Daimiel is a superb little National Park/Reserve and is well worth a visit by birders. get there early and if possible avoid weekends at it can get very busy with busloads of schoolchildren and tourists. In the quiet hours around sunrise it is idyllic.
Elena and I enjoyed our visit to the Sierra de Loja so much we decided to go back for another look. The landscape up here is rocky and some might say bleak but we like the wildness, the light and the birds. It is relatively untouched by humankind except for a few grazing sheep and the placement of a number of wind turbines on the highest reaches. The views can be spectacular and I particularly enjoy spending a day without seeing another soul, except for a solitary shepherd and a couple of extremely capable mountain bikers at the very top, I take my hat off to them.
One of the birds we enjoyed seeing so much is the "Common" Rock Thrush. Formerly known as Rufous-tailed it is now officially "Common". I guess it distinguishes it from others such as the Blue Rock Thrush, but it is by no means common. For a start it is only normally found at altitudes above 1500 m. and in warmer climates. So relatively few people ever get to see one.
Common or not Rock Thrushes are a delight to watch. On our previous trip we strangely only saw males, not that I am complaining because they are by far the most striking to look at, but where were the females? perhaps they are incubating eggs or tending chicks in the nest, who knows? but it was reassuring to finally see a female or two. It was fascinating to watch the couple's behaviour. The male would take up a watchfull higher vantage point as the female foraged on the ground nearby, mainly for nesting material that we observed. Occasionally the pair would be harassed by other males who would chase the female and squabble with the attendant male. This led me to believe there may be a shortage of female birds, sad for all those young and frisky males without partners. Here's a shot of a female gathering nest material.
Rock Thrush males likes to make vertical flights. They shoot straight up in the air, usually singing loudly, then drop straight down again. It is amusing to watch them appear over a ridge in this manner as if shot up from a gun. I imagine it is some kind of display for the benefit of admiring females.
It was a very pleasant place to spend a few hours in the sun. Five Griffon Vultures were wheeling in a thermal over the ridge, Red-billed Choughs, Linnets, Black redstarts, Rock Buntings, Rock Sparrows, Black and Black-eared Wheatears were moving all around us. Red-legged partridges roamed the rocky terrain and liked to perch on conspicuously high rocks, Groups of Ibex roamed the slopes and I spotted a bright green Ocellated Lizard scurry across the track in front of the car.
We did see a few Blue Rock Thrushes up here too. I did not manage to get any decent shots unfortunately but here's a couple of archived shots for illustrative purposes.
On the way down from the Sierra I snapped a couple of quick photos of a Stonechat. Now I am not in the habit of photographing such a common bird but something about this one caught my eye. For a start it was perched quite high up in a tree in woodland, not on a low shrub or rock in open ground as usual. Second it did not look quite right, the orange on the breast was more of a central patch than an overall colour, and third the hint of pale feathers behind the eye. This bird did not have quite the same "Jizz" as a normal Stonechat. Looking in Collins Field Guide I see there is an Eastern species, saxicola torquatus maurus that fits this description, and it states that "Stragglers to W. Europe show hints of pale buff eyebrows". Could this be one of those "Eastern Stonechat Straggers"? I like to think so.
A couple of visits to Sierra Loja in Granada Province, and a walk around the Guadalhorce in Malaga produced a few nice birding moments and photographs. Perhaps the highlight was watching Rufous-tailed Rock Thrushes up in the highest part of Sierra Loja.
The Rock Thrush is a summer visitor from Sub-Sahara, it inhabits and breeds here on steep rocky mountain slopes and alpine meadows above 1500 meters. Sierra Loja is one such location.
The male in Spring is a very handsome bird with a blue/grey head clearly demarcated from the orange breast and belly. Females are supposedly more anonymous in vermiculated and striped browns, but interestingly we observed perhaps four or five pairs, all of which looked like males, strange.
I was interested to see a nice male Montagu's Harrier up here, probably the same bird spotted by Kevin Wade and Ricky Owen a few days earlier. This is essentially a lowland species but I suspect the attraction up here is the number of ground nests and in particular Partridges, which are very numerous.
This bird seems to have been successful in finding a Red-legged Partridge Chick, easy pickings perhaps for a bird with such amazing eyesight and flying agility.
There are a number of other species to be seen in this habitat. Not least the Rock Bunting which is very common. I like this shot of one singing its heart out on a lichen encrusted rock.
The bird below I initially thought was a Spectacled Warbler. Bob Wright who was with us at the time thought Whitethroat. I am still undecided. Bob has more experience than me, so this, plus the relatively low forehead and rather strong legs has persuaded me it's a Whitethroat, but I am not 100% on it.
A shopping trip to IKEA gave us the opportunity for a walk around the Guadalhorce Reserve near Malaga Airport. This does not have the variety or number of birds of a few years ago but the exercise was welcome and we did see some nice Kentish Plovers which appeared to be nesting on the beach. This would be unfortunate because here they will be subject to a lot of human and canine disturbance on warm sunny days. How can you tell a bird to stick to their protected area?
The Sanderling below had me confused. They are normally very active, scurrying around dodging the surf along the waterline in small flocks. This bird was solitary and very passive, it hardly moved. Perhaps it was not well but anyway I really like the beautiful marbled wing and back Spring plumage . I posted it on Facebook as a Little Stint but John Cantelo kindly corrected my error.
Between South Africa and Morocco I did not do much birding around home, it seems quite flat as the number and variety of birds has declined drastically over the last few years and there is not much about to stir the blood. However I did get to the Charca de Suarez a couple of times and had a look at the Dipper site on the Rio Guadalfeo, so here are a few shots from those visits.
The Ferruginous Duck is classified as Near Threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Hunting, loss of habitat, drought due to climate change are some of the reasons. It was nice to see few at the Charca de Suarez in March/April.
I don't get to see many Sedge Warblers so although this is not a very good photograph I post it for the record. Charca de Suarez in April.
The Common Sandpiper is as its name suggests, very common, but I like this shot from the Charca taken in good light and fairly close.
Four Booted Eagles at once over the Charca and I captured two in this shot including the solitary dark morphed bird.
I found this Dipper inspecting the nest site on the Rio Guadalfeo but the water level is down to about half from the previous year so I'm not sure if they will actually nest this year. We shall see. The prolonged drought combined with the increase in irrigation for the explosive spread of horticulture under plastic in Andalucia has denuded water supplies drastically. The famaous Chillar River walk in Nerja will be a thing of the past from this year, all the water is being diverted to Lake Vinuela which is very low.
The Grey Wagtails at the Rio Guadalfeo make a pleasant sight as always, one of the most colourful and attractive species in Europe.
Our ferry from Motril to Tanger Med was running five hours late due to strong winds in the Straits over past few days. We eventually arrived at the Maison d'hotes Berbari near Asilah at 3 am but were ushered in and taken care of. This was our bedroom....
....and this the view of the courtyard from our breakfast table, breakfast was outstanding by the way and this country hotel was delightful, hard to find along a long dirt road but well worth the effort. We stayed two nights at a bargain rate of 50 euros per night.
We watched storks nesting in the grounds...
...and along the dirt road picked up several birds including this Bonelli's Warbler enjoying a morning bath in a puddle.
Asilah is a very picturesque Moroccan town with a thriving artistic community and a superb Medina (Old town). This was not specifically a birding trip and we stayed two days here enjoying the atmosphere and the food, which was excellent.
However I did have a target bird to find and we moved on to Moulay Bousel Ham by the Merja Zerga Biological Reserve just a bit further down the coast. This is a tidal lagoon with surrounding marshland. The lagoon hosts 100 bird species, between 15,000 and 30,000 ducks overwinter here, and it regularly holds 50,000 to 100,000 waders.
We stayed at the excellent Vila Nora hotel from where we arranged our guide Hassan Khalil who would to try to find our target species, Asio capensis. The Marsh Owl is a resident species here. A few sites like this in Northern Morocco are the only places one can see this species north of the Sahara Desert.
Hassan told us that the Owl no longer roosted near the campsite in Moulay Bousalhem, to have a chance of seeing one it would be necessary to venture out into the marshes around the head of the estuary. So that evening we drove about 10 or 15 kilometers out of town and took a rough track through some farmland, then set off on foot into the marshes. At first we saw no sign of the owl but I was very pleased to see so many Montagu's Harriers, at one point I counted ten of them all wheeling around quartering the marshes for rodents and large insects..
As we wandered through the marshes we enjoyed the Harriers and I took some photographs. As time passed and we covered more ground however it became apparent that we would probably not be lucky enough to see an owl before complete darkness set in. As the sun went down and the light faded almost completely we accepted defeat and were about to leave when Hassan thought he heard something. He gave it one last attempt and moved towards the sound and a stunning Marsh Owl flew up from its roost amongst the tall grass tussocks, and settled on a fencepost. I set my ISO and aperture to maximum (6400 at f4) and moved slowly towards the bird, taking pictures as I went.
The shot above conveys no impression of the actual light at the time. It was almost completely dark but with that high ISO setting any light would be utilised and I was getting shots at 1/20th of a second or slower. The Owl was wonderful, such a powerful and enigmatic presence. Moments like this are the essence of bird watching for me. Below is another of these low-light shots as I got quite close to the bird. Again the photo gives a completely false impression of the light but the effect of using such a high ISO imparts a soft, almost dreamlike imaget which I find quite appealing, a reminder of the feeling of being out in the wild marshes at night & coming face-to-face with this magnificent wild creature.
Hassan was keen to try again early the following morning in better light, so he and I arrived again at sunrise for another attempt. The shepherd below watched us in mild bewilderment, no doubt wondering about the strange behaviour of some foreigners. Anyway there was no sign of the owl but Hassan is not one to give up easily so we moved on to another location and with the help of a young shepherd who knew where the birds were we eventually found one which again flew conveniently onto a fencepost, allowing me to get some technically better shots from fairly close range. Superb.
It is easy to see the improvement in quality of the photos below taken in good light. The low-light shots though have value, they are a reminder of a special birding moment and convey a different feel which is nice to look back on.
After our sojourn in the marshes we returned to our hotel for a leisurely breakfast on the terrace overlooking the Atlantic where we formulated our plan for the rest of the day. We would take a look at a small lake that Hassan knew of some distance from the town, then later in the afternoon we would take a boat trip around Merja Zerga Lagoon to view waders and seabirds.
The lake turned out to be superb, quite a long way out of town and there were a bunch of boys playing football close to the shore, so many of the birds had moved across to the far banks. We could see many Whiskered and Gull-billed Terns, Marsh and Montagu's Harriers, Purple, Grey, Squacco and Night Herons, Red Knobbed Coots, three Grebe speces including G. Crested, many ducks including Red Crested Pochard and much more. However we were looking into the sun at this time and with the boys there most birds were some way off, so we decided to return in the morning when the light would be better and hopefully less disturbance.
After the lake we had a siesta before embarking on Hassan's boat for a trip around the Laguna. There were all manner of Waders present, too numerous to list them all but I enjoyed seeing so many Curlews. We were all pleased to see Lesser Crested Terns too along with Little and Caspian Terns, the Lesser Crested bring a few birders in as they are uncommon, which is good business for Hassan.
Always great to see Curlew, but this place was once the haunt of the now famous Slender Billed Curlew and many birders are still hopeful that they will discover it here once again. Alas it is highly unlikely. After a long period of steady decline the slender-billed curlew is extremely rare and possible extinct. This were thought to be fewer than 50 adult birds left in 2007 and I don't think any have been seen since then. As a result it is now listed as critically endangered and is almost certainly the first European bird species to become extinct since the last great auk died in 1852. Hassan has a copy of the last photo taken here by a British ornithologist, I forget which year it was but there will probably never be another one.
Here's another bird that I always enjoy seeing, the Slender-billed Gull. A very elegant member of the Gull family, quite unlike most of its relatives.
After our fascinating trip around the lagoon we thanked Hassan & hoped we would see him again. he is a good and hard working guide who cares about the birds and the state of the wildlife of his native Morocco..
The Common Bulbul is easily seen here, this shot taken from the terrace of our hotel. I was surprised to hear their very sonorific song. Sometimes the plainest of birds have the sweetest song.
Next morning we had decided to have another look at the freshwater lake Hassan showed us earlier. It should be quiet at this early hour and the sun would be behind us. Sure enough it was an idyllic scene spoilt only by the dreadful plastic litter strewn everywhere. The advance of the plastic greenhouse has been an environmental disaster, it's bad enough in Spain but here they seem to have no concept at all about looking after their environment, the countryside has become a huge rubbish tip.
Happily I spotted a magnificent male Marsh Harrier engaged with its partner in nest building amongst the reeds at one end of the lake. There were lots of birds about but I only had eyes for this one. The male Marsh harrier is a very handsome bird indeed, much more spectacular than its rather plain mate, and they are extremely difficult to photograph, being very shy and wary of humans.
I saw this as a great opportunity to get some decent photographs of a much admired bird, I could get reasonably close to the nest site without being seen as there was plenty of cover, so I made my way carefully to as close as I dare and for the next hour sat watching the pair bringing nest material and searching for prey.
Eventually I had my fill and collected a few good shots, so we made our way back to the car and set off for Fez and a bit of tourism. Our Moroccan birding was over for a while but I'm sure we will be back. It had been fun.
This is a list of species that I can identify from photographs or otherwise positively remember. I'm sure we saw many more but could not identify them all, particularly the hirundines and little brown jobs (LBJ's). The total is 175 species.
After leaving Kruger we headed back to Pretoria which is close to Johannesburg and the airport, but we wanted to check out the famous Botanical Gardens and the birds that could be seen there. We did stop at one private reserve on the way, the name of which I have forgotten as it was not very productive, but the Botanical Gardens were spectacular. Here's a shot of Stephen modelling what the well equipped birder is wearing this year. Nice eh?
The Sacred Ibis was given its name by the ancient Egyptians who revered the bird as a symbol of one of their gods. The Ibis were said to kill mythical winged serpents & prevent them from entering Egypt. Unfortunately they no longer inhabit Egypt, they breed in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Iraq. I guess the winged serpents must be getting in then?
This is a Yellow-Billed Duck. It's a duck with a yellow bill. Not much more to add really, it's quite a nice looking dabbler which is threatened by hybridisation with the common Mallard, but it is still quite abundant in Southern and Eastern Africa.
This little brown job is a Tawny-flanked Prinia. Quite common in sub-Saharan Africa it is related to the cisticolas.
Can't help liking this shot of a Lesser Grey Shrike showing off its pink tinted breast.
...and here's a new one, a Red-faced Mousebird, captured in a tree bearing some very vicious looking thorns. Later we would watch small flocks of these flying directly from tree to tree in earch of fruits and berries. A very attractive sight with those red striped faces and very long tails weaving their way through the branches of fruiting trees.
This one is a White-crowned Lapwing, otherwise known as the White-crowned or White-headed Plover. It is a striking looking wader with a very distinctive yellow wattle below a bright white forehead. The yellow wattle matches the leg coloration nicely and in flight the black and white tail and wings contrast well with the rest of the soft grey-brown plumage.
The next one has a similar name but is another species of lapwing, it is the Crowned Lapwing. Not easily mistaken for its White-crowned cousin as it has red legs and bill, white underparts and quite different head markings. It is the most numerous of sub-Saharan Lapwings.
This very large antelope is a Kudu. I could write some biological or scientific facts about Kudus but frankly the most interesting thing I know about them is that some Afrikaaners enjoy the sport of "Kudu Dung Spitting" (yes you did read that correctly). They hold an annual Kudu Dung Spitting Championships and I can reliably inform you that an individual called Shaun van Rensburg spat Kudu shit a World record distance of 15.56 meters in 2006. I am not shitting you.
The next two images are a couple of Boubous. No, not mistakes, that is what they are called. The first one is a Southern Boubou and the second is a Tropical Boubou. They are actually Bushshrikes buy have been named Boubous after their call which can sound like the word.
Boubous are renowned for their passion for singing duets. No I am not kidding. I am going to quote a passage from Wikipedia about the Tropical Boubou. I am not given to quotes, particularly long-winded ones, but this just cracked me up.
Like many bush-shrikes, they have a wide vocal repertoire that includes duets in which two individuals give notes alternately in so rapid a sequence that they sound like one bird. Males probably start most duets, and their notes are mostly low-pitched whistles and/or harsh croaks; females' notes are typically higher whistles and/or "harsh tearing or rattling sounds". But although the birds' vocalizations are somewhat harsh, they are still able to create a wide range of frequencies and males provide the higher voice in certain duets.
Duets usually consist of one exchange, two or three calls in total. But up to seven exchanges have been recorded. A duet may be repeated up to 75 times, and in experiments where the birds were confronted with taped vocalizations, they could be enticed to up to 200 duets. A dozen or more duet types exist, and some seem to confer specific information, forming a Morse-code-like sort of language. Examples of typical duet sequences include hoooooo-ho-ho, hoho-u-ho, hoo-hii-hoo, haw-Weeer-haw, hoou-Weer-hoou, houhou-Weeer and bobobobo-Weeer. LOL, side splitting stuff!
The article goes into much more detail about duet calls and responses and I didn't completely understand everything but I think I get the gist of it, which is that these blighters like singing duets, or even trios, and these duets and trios all have different meanings, it's like singing in morse code. Cool eh?
The Hadada Ibis is a fairly common African species. It's another example of a bird being named after its call. It is welcomed on golf courses and bowling greens as it probes for and eats the larvae of moths and beetles that feed on the grass roots. It is thought the bird can hear them chewing below the surface.
The Southern Masked Weaver has red eyes which avoids confusion with all other Weavers except the slightly larger Village Weaver which has a darker, more mottled back and a longer dagger-like bill.
Here are a couple of Cormorants. The White-breasted Cormorant is the subject of debate amongst ornithologists, but it is generally accepted now as a separate species from the Great Cormorant (P. Carbo) that is common in Europe and across most of the World.
No question that the Reed Cormorant is a separate species. Much smaller than the common Great Cormorant and only found in Sub Saharan Africa & Madagascar.
Next is another photo of a Black-collared Barbet. Not the first shot of this species, which we saw quite often, but this one is interesting because of the large insect prey in its bill.
These are both members of the Weaver family, the Southern Bishop above is another bird I have posted previously, but this is a rather good shot of a handsome red male on a reed in one of the ponds of the Botanical gardens. The next is one I have not posted before. The distinctive Thick-billed Weaver builds very neat, dome shaped nests on reed stems in the Garden ponds here. It is also known as the Grossbeak Weaver for obvious reasons.
The Bronze Manikin is a very small member of the Munia family that is locally abundant in areas of grassland in sub-Saharan Africa. It is a considerable pest to seed and grain farmers just like the even more abundant Red-billed Quelea. Efforts to control their numbers are generally unsuccessful.
The African Paradise Flycatcher is a very attractive bird. The female and young birds lack the very long tail of the adult males but they are still very striking in appearance with an interesting hairstyle. They are largely insectivorous and dart out from their perch to capture passing insects, just like shrikes. This rufous morph female was in a stand of large trees in the Botanical Gardens.
Our first thought when we spotted this interesting bird was "Wryneck", because of that scaly appearance, however on closer examination we could see that this clearly was not a wryneck, the field guide showed us it is a female Cut-throat Finch. The male of this species has a bright red band across the throat, hence the name.
The Cape Wagtail below is a rather mundane species and in fact I continue this South Africa blog with some common birds that are not particularly eye-catching but which are separate species. The blog would not be complete without recording all the species that I managed to photograph.
The African Hoopoe is of course a very close relative of our Eurasian Hoopoe (upapa epops) but scientists now agree that upapa africana is a separate species. I must say that those I saw here were not as handsome or as beautiful as ours in Spain. Could just be the condition of the birds we came across but they all looked a bit scrawny and less colouful to me.
I was quite surprised to see a group of Spotted Thicknees in the Botanical Gardens. Thicknees are close relatives of our Stone Curlew which you wouldn't expect to see in a public park, they are very shy indeed. Perhaps the Spotted Thicknees think we can't see them because their camouflage is so effective? However those big yellow eyes are a dead give-away.
I finish off the blog with a couple of the more interesting birds of the Gardens. The Helmeted Guineafowl is a wild bird that has virtually domesticated itself. It can be seen in suburbs of cities such as Cape Town where flocks roam the quieter streets and roost on the roofs of bungalows. They can walk more than 10 kms in a day and are strong runners. The flock can fend off cats and smaller dogs and they will eat virtually anything organic. Guineafowl sold as meat in supermarkets are usually this species.
Finally another look at the handsome Paradise Flycatcher, showing off its nice blue bill and orbital rings and the prominent white wingbars, which indicate that this one is an adult female.
Our trip to South Africa, and specifically to Kruger National Park had been amazing. The importance of protected areas such as the Park cannot be over-stated. As the human population continues to increase exponentially leaving very little room or natural habitat on this planet for other species, a few protected environments will be the only hope for the biodiversity that is otherwise being destroyed by the remorseless spread of homo-sapiens.
After a restful night in Satara Rest Camp we photographed one or two of the birds that were to be seen in and around the gardens, including this superb Bearded Woodpecker, only our second Woodpecker of the trip.
Next we checked out the area outside and around Satara, including the S100 N'wanetsi River Road which is famous for the number and variety of Game and wildlife sightings, perhaps the best in the Park.
We were not disappointed. It was still early morning when we came upon a family of Common Buttonquail. Stephen was lucky to be on the right side of the car and he photographed the female fending off an aggressive snake, fantastic shots. I did manage to capture the male leading his offspring across the road after the thwarted snake attack. he does look a bit stressed out.
This species was once common in Southern Spain where it was known as the Andalucian Hemipode. Hunting and habitat loss have rendered it almost certainly extinct here now and it is increasingly scarce in N. Africa, it might even have gone from there too but they are notoriously difficult to see, being very small and well hidden in its grassland and scrub habitat. It rarely flies and does not flush easily. Anyway we were very lucky indeed to have this wonderful sighting of a quite charming little species. It is interesting that the male incubates the eggs and rears the chicks, the female plays a hunter-gatherer role.
The Red-billed Buffalo Weaver is a fairly common and very large member of the Weaver family. We saw many of them and their colonial nest sites which consist of an enormous mass of thorny twigs. These twigs are divided into separate lodges, each with multiple egg chambers. Each chamber has a smaller nest, typically built by the female and which are composed of grass, leaves, and roots. The whole nest is usually found in a thorny tree or in a windmill near areas inhabited by humans. It is interesting to note that when humans depart from a particular area, so do the Red-billed Buffalo weavers, they prefer the proximity of human habitation.
The Brown Snake Eagle is fairly small as eagles go. It is a fierce predator of snakes though, having good protection against venomous bites including very thick-skinned legs. They will take cobras and other highly venomous species.
Here are a couple of shots of a Purple Roller with an interesting looking insect. It must be a species of grasshopper or cricket which is camouflaged to look like blades of grass. The camouflage didn't work on this occasion.
Here's another look at a female Double-banded Sandgrouse. I wish I had captured a better image of the male with its distinctive double banded head markings, but it was not to be.
The Lanner Falcon is often bred in Europe for falconry as it is easy to keep and train. It can be mistaken for the similar Saker Falcon but the Lanner has a reddish/brown back to the head. They are sometimes crossed with peregrines (perilanners) and they hunt smaller birds on the wing. They have also been observed hunting bats, whch requires considerable speed and agility.
Eventually we made our way to the largest camp in the Kruger, Skukuza. This is more of a small town than a rest camp but they had no accommodation available, so they booked us into Pretoriuskop, another restcamp nearby and the oldest in Kruger.
Before we transferred to Pretoriaskop however we enjoyed some hide watching at nearby Lake Panic. This is a superb spot overlooking a lake which is created by an earthen dam across the Sabie River. It's an idyllic place from which to watch birds for an hour or two, with the added bonus of hippos and a few crocs thrown in.
My favourint esighting from the hide was this stunning Malachite Kingfisher which perched conveniently on a dead treestump in fairly close proximity.
The Malachite Kingfisher is a river species that fishes but also eats insect prey. It was fun watching it snapping at some of the flying insects around its perch.
African Jacanas were wandering aroung the lily pads looking very smart with their pale blue face shields.
A Striated Heron flew in and stood nicely on a dead tree stump. I have photographed this species in S E Asia and in fact it is one of the most widespread of all herons, being found across west Africa to Japan and Australia, and in South America.
A few White-faced Whistling Ducks were swimming around the edges of the lake, mainly remaining under cover of the fringe vegetation, avoiding the attention of predators.
.On the opposite bank a Water Thick-knee bathed in the sunshine. Lake Panic defied its name, we found it was a very pleasant and peaceful place to spend an hour with some nice birds to add to our expanding list.
This was our last night in Kruger National park. We would head back towards Johannesburg in the morning. I took a picture of one of the Helmeted Guinea-fowl that hung around the bungalows in Pretoriuskop hoping for scraps from the guests. Then we retired for the night ready for a long drive next day.
We left after breakfast and exited the Park through Nunbi Gate. I took one last shot of an Impala with a Red-billed Oxpecker on its left ear. Then it was time to go. Kruger had been superb but all good things come to an end.
After checking into Punda Maria Rest Camp we ventured out to look at the border area and the Limpopo River, Stephen was hoping to cross the border into Mozambique or Zimbabwe but there did not seem to be any open crossing points so we abandoned that idea. We found Crooks Corner where the three countries meet, this was once a refuge for all kinds of crooks, from gun runners to ivory hunters who dodged the law by hopping into different jurisdictions while on the run.
Now Crooks Corner it is an interesting point of geography, good to visit but we could go no further, so we made our way back along the Limpopo River towards Pafuri.
We found the very pleasant Pafuri Picnic Site, located by the river and in the shade of some very large acacia and other deciduous trees.. We met Frank Mabasa who runs the site and is also known as an excellent bird guide, so we booked him for the following morning, then made our way back to Punda Maria.
Next day, after a quick cup of tea and a light breakfast we exited Punda Maria at the gate opening time of 6 am and picked Frank up half an hour later. The road to the picnic site at dawn was lovely, with various animals out enjoying the early rays of sunshine, including a family of Baboons and a very large family group of Banded Mongoose. It was fun watching the youngsters in the difuse light, playing and frolicking around under the watchful eye of the adults.
The usual verge-birds were out including this attractive Natal Spurfowl...
...and a nice green Sahel Chameleon crossed the road ahead of us with very haltering and deliberate steps. It was quite robotic.
Red-backed Shrikes and Lesser Grey Shrikes were quite numerous along the dirt roadside....
..........and a nice Lappet-faced Vulture gave us good views while perched in a dead tree.
I picked up more good shots of the very beautiful White-fronted Bee-eater at fairly close proximity.
At the Picnic Site Frank introduced us to a few of the birds in the trees here before we set off on bird safari. This Orange-breasted Bushshrike was one of the best.
....and we finally saw our first Woodpecker of the trip, a Golden-tailed Woodpecker. We had been speculating on why we had not seen any woodpeckers at all when this chap showed up. I was beginning to wonder if there actually were any woodpeckers in the Park at all until now. We set off in our car with Frank pointing out various birds along the way.
At one point Frank became quite animated. Looking into the sky at all the hirundines and swifts swirling around he had spotted a Bohm's Spinetail. Otherwise known as the Bat-like Spinetail this is quite a rare and highly unusual species of swift. It has no tail except for a couple of needle-like projections, is tiny, about half the size of a house sparrow, and is quite easily identified in flight as it flies with a fluttering, erratic manner just like a bat. I managed to get a poor shot but as usual Stephen captured a superb image with his 7D Mk.11.
We spent some time searching in vain for the Racket-tailed Roller which is often seen along the river here, but no luck unfortunately. However the Lemon-breasted Canary is a fairly rare species and we did see a flock of them.
The Red-billed Firefinch is supposed to be common but this was the only one I saw on the entire trip and fortunately did manage to catch a quick shot through some quite dense thicket. I think it had spotted me too.
The raptor below is a very pale morph Wahlberg's Eagle one of Africa's most common eagles, although they are usually dark brown. This one is almost white.
In fact we found a roosting pair of the more common dark morph Wahlberg's Eagle as we crossed a bridge over a small river. The contrast between the light and dark morphs is quite dramatic, a similar phenomena to the Booted Eagles we get in Spain.
After this we passed another local guide with a group from the nearby private safari lodge who informed us that he had spotted an Arnot's Chat. This is quite a rarity in these parts so we scanned carefully the trees alongside the road until Frank found it. It's always nice to see a new bird to add to ones life list and this was a good one.
The next one was also a lifer, the Golden-breasted Bunting gave us brief views but enough to capture a recognizable image. And here it is.
The Green-winged Pytillia is a colourful little bird that we had seen before. it's quite a common species in sub-Saharan Africa but this was my first opportunity to get a half decent photograph, for which I was thankful.
Eventually we left Frank back at Pafuri Picnic site, and knowing now that there was nowhere to stay up here on the border except the private Safari Lodge, which was very expensive. So we decided to head back Punda Maria for the night.
Next day we had a decent breakfast & considered our options. We could exit the Park and try another region such as the Drakensberg Mountains, but that was such a long journey so we decided to make our way back South within the Park to explore some of the areas we had missed on our way up here.
Although we were constantly on the lookout for more and new bird species to photograph there were always opportunities for the common species, Here's another decent shot of a lovely Purple Roller, and there were always game and animal sightings to be enjoyed. Another Zebra Crossing for example.
We picked up another Weaver, this one is a Southern Masked Weaver, distinguished from the Village Weaver by the black face extending above the bill The two species are otherwise virtually identical, both with red eyes.
Earlier I posted a male Chinspot Batis but here is a female with that lovely chestnut brown breast band, a nicer looking bird than her male counterpart.
We stopped for large flocks of Red-billed Queleas, also known as the red-billed weaver or red-billed dioch. This is the world's most abundant wild bird species, with an estimated adult breeding population of 1.5 billion pairs. They swarm in huge flocks across much of Africa.
They are considered a huge pest. Intensive farming and an increase in cereal crop production throughout Africa resulted in an explosion in their numbers; according to some estimates quelea populations have increased anywhere from 10 to 100 times since the 1970s. They are sprayed, bombed, burned, netted and persecuted in every concievable way, all to no avail. They raise three broods each year. I can't help thinking "Good on'em"
The White-browed Scrub Robin is a fairly common and unremarkable bird in sub-Saharan Africa. Well here it is for the record.
The Brubru is an attractive little member of the Bushshrike family. It likes large trees where it hunts its insect prey. It is quite a solitary and territorial bird. The Red-backed Shrike is a true Shrike of course and I post another shot of one here because it is not a bad image.
Swainson's Spurfowl or Francolin, is a member of the pheasant family. It is very common here where hunting is not permited. In unprotected areas however it is considered a delicacy and is taken for the pot.
The Spectacled Weaver is a sharp looking bird. It's the only weaver in which the female helps build the nest. It is distinguished by its very sharp pointed black bill, other weavers have thicker horn coloured bills.
The Speckled Mousebird below was a quick snapshot into a dense bush and I was not expecting to be able to identify whatever it was that was moving. However the image is not too bad of a bird that we didn't see anywhere else. It has a very long tail and an interesting hairstyle. If you look closely at this picture you will see it is reaching up with one leg to grab the berries that it feeds upon, must be quite dexterous to do that.
The male Village Indigobird below is quite interesting. It is a brood parasite and the eggs are laid only in the nests of the Red-billed Firefinch. The eggs are white and only slightly larger than the Firefinches. 2 to 4 eggs are added to those already laid by the Firefinch and the young do not kill or eject the hosts eggs or young.
Next is another Stork. This is an African Openbill, named as are all openbills for the gap between the upper & lower mandibles. This one has a nice glossy metalic plumage that shines in good light.
We took the opportunity to photograph another Namaqua Dove. It's really not like any other dove I know, it is almost like a young artists impression of a bird with a long tail and an arbitrarilly stuck-on beak.
The Elephant below seemed like a fine specimen with substantial tusks, worth a photograph.
The Tropic of Capricorn is clearly marked with this plaque alongside the road, so we took the opportunity to record it.
And at this stop I was lucky to record an action sequence of this adult Wattled Starling feeding its hungry and demanding fledgling.
The youngster's large bright-yellow open gape is like a magnet to the parent bird.....
....and the proffered tidbit is accepted greedily. This is more than just food, it is afirmation of the parent-child bond. It satisfies more than just a hungry belly.
The adult male Wattled Starling develops unfeathered yellow skin on the head, and black forehead and throat wattles, as seen below. The adult bird above is a female showing some of these characteristics but to a much lesser extent.
We continued South making good progress, stopping occasionally to capture anything of interest. This is not a great shot of a Hyena, but it's the best I could do. We did not see many of them.
The little bird below is just one of many Larks we saw. This one is a Rufous-naped Lark I think.
Eventually we made it to Satara Rest Camp with not much time to spare. The gates close at 6 pm and no-one is supposed to be outside the camps at night without authorisation. However we had made a lot of progress and were ready for another day tomorrow when we would look at an area we had not covered previously.
From Olifants Rest Camp we set off a little later than usual due to needing a lie-in. We had been travelling constantly and spending long hours seeking out wildlife and in particular opportunities to photograph birds, making the absolute most of our precious time here. It was time to catch up on some sleep.
We continued to head North. We would reach the Northern Park boundary which was the Limpopo River, across which was Zimbabwe to the North, and Mozambique to the East. It was becoming more difficult to find new species, there were plenty of birds about but mostly those we had seen before. However good photo opportunities are not to be passed up. The Yellow-billed Hornbill above was too good to miss, being in interesting light and framed by a wreath of butterfly shaped leaves.
This Martial Eagle was a fabulous sighting. Yes we had seen them before but to capture one with the remains of a big monitor lizard was superb. It took off from the first roost, clutching its meal in those huge talons, only to land in another, more open tree, giving us fabulous views and photo opportunities.
The Martial Eagle is a magnificently large raptor with a menacing appearance. It is Africa's largest eagle, considerably bigger and heavier than a golden eagle with a wingspan of up to 2.6 metres. It occasionally preys upon the adult Kori Bustard, which may well be the heaviest flying animal alive today. It's an awesome sight.
I've also captured this Magpie Shrike with a menacing expression. Large insects and small animals beware.
The Black-crowned Tchagra on the other hand looks fairly innocuous, but once you spot that hooked beak it becomes apparent that this is another member of the Shrike family, hunters of insects and small prey.
Here's another hunter, the Little Sparrowhawk is a beautiful small raptor, this one was sat in a tree outside our bungalow when I came out first thing in the morning, what a great start to the day.
Not long into our daily drive we spotted a Montagu's Harrier and I was able to get a couple of good flight shots. This is a familiar bird from Spain of course, I have photographed it before in Extremadura, but it was great to see it here where there is no threat from gamekeepers, poison bait, habitat destruction or any other form of human persecution.
Here's a species we had not photographed before. This is a Chinspot Batis. An attractive insectivorous species quite common in sub-saharan Africa. This one is a male, the female is similar but has a nice chestnut breast-band and chinspot, hence the name.
Below is a shot of a Burchell's Coucal. It was holding its wings out to warm its back in the first rays of sunshine, which made it difficult for photography. Still, at least the eye is illuminated.
This is the only Parrot I can recall seeing on this trip. The Brown-headed Parrot is a nice looking bird. The most interesting thing I can say about it is that Vladimir Putin is known to own one. Just saying!
That afternoon we reached Shingwedze Restcamp. This is in the Northern half of the park where there are fewer people and cars. It was an excellent area for Game viewing and it was near this Camp that we saw the only leopard of the trip. It ran across the road in front of the car, heading for the river. Unfortunately neither of us was quick enough to get a photo. The Wildebeest here though stood still for us to get a good look at what is a magnificent beast. Huge and powerful, you need to get close to one in the flesh to fully appreciate the size and strength of the animal. Too much for even the biggest Lions although young Wildebeest are a favourite prey for the big cats if they can pick one off away from the herd.
Elephants cross the roads regularly, they have no fear of people or vehicles, they know there is very little threat to them and poaching is not a major problem here, it is too well policed.
The following morning we opted for another pre-dawn excursion, hoping to see something different. In the event the most spectacular sight was the incredible full moon that cast a wonderful silver glow over the African veldt.
This could be a new species of nightjar for us, it looks very much like the Square-tailed Nightjar illustrations in the Field guide, so that's what I'm calling it. Interestingly this species doesn't have a square tail at all, weird.
There was also a pair of Giant (Vereaux's) Eagle Owls perched in the open so we took more photos of this handsome silvery-grey species by the light of a silvery moon, lovely.
As the sun came up we began to see the roadside, or "Verge birds" as I call them. They emerge from the grass, venturing out to pick up seeds that have fallen onto the hard surface & make easy pickings. The Harlequin Quail is one of these. Aptly named it is a really attractive little quail and a delight to see.
Another vergebird is the Crested Francolin. In truth it appears to be a very common bird and can be seen in a variety of locations, but the early morning roadside is almost a dead cert for it.
The Plum-coloured Starling is a highly sexually dimorphic species. That is to say there are strong differences between males and females as you can see in the two photos below. Hard to imagine they are the same species. It is also known as the Violet-backed Starling.
I have posted two shots of the next new species. This is the White-crested Helmetshrike. Two shots because I like it. Another of the shrike family this one is almost cute with those big yellow ringed eyes in a wooly grey head.
I post the Woolly-necked Stork here purely for the record. It's not a very good shot of not a great looking bird. I have actually seen this stork before in Vietnam and was somewhat surprised to find it here. It was considered quite uncommon there and it is in fact listed as officially "Vulnerable" to extinction, so is definitely worthy of a mention.
Here's a decent shot of a Village Weaver on the nest, well it's not on the nest exactly, it's under it. They are accessed from the bottom.
It's a Woodland Kingfisher again, but it's a nice close-up shot . This is a tree kingfisher, never eats fish because there aren't any in the trees, only bugs.
It was with great pleasure that we found a small group of Green Wood Hoopoes.The word "green" distinguishes it from the Violet Wood Hoopoe, a similar looking bird but which lacks the irridescent green back feathers. A superb looking bird I was very happy with this shot.
And this is another African Grey Hornbill, looking good at the top of a small tree.
We were close to the Limpopo River now which is why we started to see Meve's Starling. They only live around major tropical drainage systems such as the Limpopo, Sabi and Zambezi Rivers.
And we were fortunate to get more good views of another Martial Eagle, so here it is.
At the end of the day we reached Punda Maria, the most Northerly of the Park's Rest camps, situated not far the Limpopo River and the border with Zimbabwe. We checked in, had a snack then went out to explore the area up around the border.