A while ago I spotted an Ashy Flycatcher in my garden and wrote about ‘nailing it at last!’
This morning I got up at 5.40am, made a cup o’ coffee and settled on my lazyboy chair warmly dressed and covered in an old sleeping bag, binocs in hand. Lovely windless, cloudless morning.
And boy, what a parade!
I saw the Tambourine Dove above; More listed below.
Two drongos chased a Mother-of-Pearl butterfly over the grass and meadow, over the pool towards me and then right under my patio roof, where one of the drongos nailed it. It flew off to that same tree you see below and ate it, shedding the wings. Pieces of wing spiralled down slowly in the still air.
And then to top it off, for the first time here, I saw this at last – I’d heard of sightings down the valley, but I hadn’t seen him in my garden yet. Now I have!
Sunrise was behind them, so poor pics but nice and clear in my binoculars.
A Grey Cuckooshrike! Louis in the valley had been crowing and I’d been fuming. Now I’m his equal! Ha!
Saw: Weavers Spectacled and Thick-billed; Starlings Red-winged and Black-bellied; Sunbirds Olive and Amethyst; Greenbuls Sombre and Yellow-bellied; Dark-capped Bulbul; White-eye; Red-eyed Dove; Olive Thrush; Hadeda; Yellow-billed Kite; Purple-crested Turaco; Flycatchers Black and Dusky; Fork-tailed Drongo; Yellow-fronted Canary; Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird; Egyptian Goose; Speckled Mousebird; Barn Swallow; Barbets Black-collared and White-eared; Lesser Honeyguide; Black-backed Puffback; Black-headed Oriole;
‘Of all birds there are few which excite so much admiration as the Resplendent Trogon.’
‘Its skin is so singularly thin and the plumage has so light a hold upon the skin that when the bird is shot the feathers are plentifully struck from their sockets by its fall and the blows which it receives from the branches as it comes to the ground.’
Aah! Nothing like a bird in the hand . . even if it is missing a lot of feathers. This description is from an 1897 book, Birds Illustrated by Color Photograph found on gutenberg.org
But that was centuries ago, right? Well, this happened in 2015:
A scientist found a bird that hadn’t been seen in half a century. Locals led him up into the forest in the remote highlands of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where he and his team set up mist nets and secured a male Moustached Kingfisher with a “magnificent all-blue back” and a bright orange face. He exclaimed in delight, ‘Oh my god, the kingfisher,’ and he likened it to ‘a creature of myth come to life.’
And then he killed it — or, in the parlance of scientists, “collected” it.
When he was criticised for that crazy-ass terminal action he suddenly decided there were ‘thousands of them’ they were ‘not in danger.’ Ri-ight . . two’s company, one in fifty years is a crowd.
Right here in Natal in the 1980’s controversy also surrounded a collector shooting a rare white-winged flufftail for a museum collection.
There are other ways – alternatives; maybe better alternatives. A few years ago I read about a scientist who caught a rare bird, took careful photos, took blood and tissue samples and released it. I’m looking for the case – haven’t found it yet. That has to be a better way of doing things – at least initially, until one can work out just how fragile a remaining population is. Some collector scientists came back very strongly against a suggestion like this, and that seemed dodgy to me. Why not discuss new ways? Change will not come overnight, but less destructive alternatives should at least be explored, not dismissed.
Back around 1780 French-Dutch explorer Francois le Vaillant was begged by his local guide Piet not to shoot a bird he, Piet, had discovered for him. le Vaillant shot it and its mate. He then at least named the bird after Piet, based on its call: ‘Piet-me-wrouw’, the familiar three-note call of the Piet-My-Vrou Red-chested Cuckoo, Cuculus solitarius.
Jess and I spent two nights at Mkhuze. Looking very dry and animals were few and far between. Still, we saw lots of the usual dependables: giraffe, zebra, impala, hippo, nyala, wildebeest and – at last! – one elephant. A young bull right next to the road. Jess, who watches too much youtube of eles goring and flipping cars, did not want to hang around, so we drove past him.
Also Banded and Slender Mongooses. One band of Banded and two individual Slenders.
But lots of birds. I won’t give the boring – to me exciting – list (78 species) but I will tell this story. In Mantuma camp – here:
I went looking for pinkspots (pink-throated twinspots). Like this:
I followed their high-pitched trilling cricket-like sound and found them and more:
There they were, in a bird party in the grass! Blue waxbills, green-winged pytilias, grey-headed sparrows, yellow-throated petronias, yellow-fronted canaries, red-billed firefinches pecked alongside the pinkspots on the sandy soil. And in the tree directly above them a small flock of red-billed woodhoopoes, a dark-backed weaver and a golden-tailed woodpecker. Just that one bird party made the whole trip worthwhile. I stood twenty metres from them and watched through my Zeiss’ for ages. ‘Saturation Views’!
On my way back to the chalet I watched a black cuckoo-shrike give a full, relaxed display all round me. I didn’t know this jet-black bird could be so BLUE! In the sunlight his ‘black’ shone a beautiful cobalt blue. This picture I found on ethiobirds is the only one that captures it well. See the difference!
Finally got round to making a collage of some of the birds we saw up in Zululand a few years back. Aitch and I went for a breakaway luxury weekend. It was dry – very dry – and the lodge had a water feature running right under the sundeck. Every bird from miles around (as well as all the animals) had to come here to drink.
It was perfect! Aitch was not so strong, so we chose to skip the game drives and ensconced ourselves comfortably on the deck, binocs, camera and telescopes handy. Tea or beer or coffee or gin would arrive at regular intervals. Mealtimes we walked ten metres back into the dining room!
Today’s the third morning I’ve watched an urgent, furious ruckus in my front garden. A bird screaming its head off while furiously chasing another like a fighter jet in hot pursuit. So fast that I couldn’t get a good view as the target dashed in and out of the copse of trees and shrubs. I was facing into the sunrise which meant even when I got a half-decent glimpse it was of a silhouette with his beak open, screaming like a banshee. Interesting! Made me late for work!
I figured it was a black-collared barbet, and if so that would be a hole-nest parasite he’d be chasing – which would be a honeyguide. But I needed to see. Yesterday I got a good view of the pursuer: Red face and throat, stout beak. That was him alright.
Today I got a glimpse of the suspect: White outer tail feathers. Most likely a Lesser or Scaly-throated Honeyguide. I’ll try to make sure, but I don’t think he’ll be sitting still in plain view anytime soon. I wonder if it’s the male, and while the barbet is doing his over-zealous patrol, his lady friend is plopping her egg in the hole nest?!
I’m on their side – I hope they lay their egg in the barbet’s nest so a luta (the struggle) can continua!
Lunchtime high on the Momfo cliffs overlooking a great bend in the Mfolosi river. Our guides lit a fire and began to prepare our lunch. We shucked off our light daypacks and settled down for another ‘well-deserved’ break after our gentle amble up the hill.
From our high vantage point we had already seen a buffalo in the sandy river bed, a rhino on the far bank and a lioness hiding behind the reeds on the opposite bank. As we watched she stalked across the wide river bed towards some zebra. She lay down and waited once she was on the near bank. A few more lionesses and a lion walked across the sand to our left, crouching and flanking the zebra, who panicked and dashed off straight towards the first lioness. She pounced in a cloud of dust and she and her target disappeared behind the thorn bush. We strained to see what happened. Did they get their lunch?
After a while they all walked out looking a bit disgusted with themselves. So no, probably not.
While scanning with my telescope I took a good look at the rhino and called out excitedly to the rest. Hey, come and look! It’s uBhejane, not another white rhino like the many we’ve seen. We all had a good look and confirmed the jizz and the hooked lip of the rarely-seen ‘black’ rhino. What a sighting!
Scoping well left of the river up an adjacent valley I noticed baboons in two sycamore figs, the mfolosi tree that give the river and the park its name. Suddenly they started barking and swearing in fluent baboon-vloek, and a magnificent leopard appeared in view, staring up into the tree above him. I got the scope on him and called the others. He was most obliging and waited till all nine of us, including the two rangers had a good look before flicking his long tail and bounding up the tree, to increased pandemonium from the residents. We heard loud shrieks, even ruder words and then much barking and squealing. I watched for a long while to see if I could spot the leopard again. But we didn’t find out if he got his lunch either.
So as far as lunches go, we can only confirm that we definitely ate ours, and that it was the delicious traditional huge white bread sarmies with butter, tomato and raw onion with salt and black pepper, washed down with freshly-brewed Five Roses tea. Mmm mmmm!
Four of the Big Five for lunch. On foot! Actually, sitting on our bums at lunchtime. What a day! And the rhino was the real Big Five member, not the more placid white rhino. The big five idea originated in the days when they were considered the five most dangerous animals to hunt. The days when the way you “got” the big five was to kill them, not just to see them. We joked as we packed up to walk back to base camp that we now needed to see an ele on the way home to round off our lunch. Well, we did. It was almost ridiculous. But thrilling.
And that was not all . . .
The next day our walk took us on a different route. As we crossed the low Mfolosi in the blazing sun we asked our guides if we could swim. ‘Well, you can wallow,’ they said, ‘It’s not deep enough to swim.’ So wallow we did, King Fogg and I; and that’s how we came to spot the Big Six, adding the rare Pink-faced Ceramic-white Freshwater Mfolosi Beluga Whale to our tally of wondrous things spotted in that very special place, the wonderful Mfolosi Wilderness Area.
The next day we walked upon this sleeping pride, loafing on the riverbed. They scattered when they saw us, the male on the right leading the flee-ing, tail tucked ‘tween his legs! They’ve learnt not to trust those dangerous upright primates.
baboon-vloek – impolite baboon dialect used when worried
The Umfolosi Wilderness is a special place. Far too small, of course, but its what we have. I’m reading Ian Player’s account of how Magqubu Ntombela taught him about wilderness and Africa and nature. The idea of a wild place where modern man could go to escape the city and re-discover what Africa was like
My first trail was ca 1985, when I went with Dusi canoeing buddies Doug Retief, Martin & Marlene Loewenstein and Andre Hawarden. We were joined by a 19yr-old lass on her own, sent by her father, who added greatly to the scenery:
A good sport – took our gentle teasing well
We went in my kombi and some highlights I recall were:
Doug offering “bah-ronies” after lunch one day. We were lying in the shade of a tree after a delicious lunch made by our guides: Thick slices of white bread, buttered and stuffed with generous slices of tomato and onion, washed down with tea freshly brewed over a fire of Thomboti wood. Doug fished around in his rucksack and gave us each a mini Bar One (“bah-ronie”, geddit?). Best tasting chocolate I ever ate, spiced as it was with hunger and exertion.
After the 5-night trail we went for a game drive. Needing a leak after a few bitterly cold brews I left the wheel with the kombi trundling along amiably and walked to the side door of the kombi, ordering Hawarden to take over the driving. Not good at taking orders, he looked at me, waited till I was in mid-stream out of the open sliding door and leant over with his hiking stick and pressed the accelerator. The driverless kombi picked up speed and I watched it start to veer off-road, necessitating a squeezed premature end to my leak and a dive for the wheel.
Thanks a lot, Hawarden! Pleasure, he murmured mildly. Hooligan!
30yrs later Andre Hooligan Hawarden wrote:
“Hey, remember that cool walk we did in the game reserve when you had the tape recorder and we attracted the owl? Then next day we lay on the bank of the Umlofosi river and watched the vultures coming down for a lunch time drink and a snooze?
That was a wonderful experience. I’ve never forgotten it.”
We saw lots of bewilderbeast droppings and lots of bewilderbeasts – many with tiny calves, meals on wobbly hooves to the lions and cheetahs. The big male lion had helped himself to a giraffe calf, so fat pickings this summer. The lions were recently introduced to shake things up in Mkhuze, (apparently four in Nov 2013 and four in 2014) so the edible animals are on high alert, muttering to each other ‘there goes the neighbourhood.’
We watched two cheetah stalk the wildebeasts and then launch into a flat-out sprint, but they went off out of sight before any pouncing happened. Friends saw the lionesses bring down a wildebeast calf right in front of them at the waterhole. Lots of square-lipped rhino and a beautiful hunting wasp, all yellow and black rugby jersey colours. Wonderful Mkhuze birdlife as always, 106 species, with cuckoo hawk, nicator, grey-headed bush shrike, wattled lapwing and pygmy kingfisher being my highlights.
Then at last: A hook-lipped rhino! He stood obligingly while we took pictures.
He just stood there as placid as anything. I had told Jess if we were lucky enough to see one we’d probly just get a glimpse, so she should be ready with her camera! So there’s another reason to take everything your parents say with a great big sack of cerebos.
We had lovely weather, including rain, wind and too hot, but mostly perfect, as all the others were short duration and actually pleasant. It’s dry again, so the waterholes were busy. Three of the lady lions launched a run on a wildebees calf at the waterhole as I watched and the other voyeurs (among whom friend Geoff Kay) told of watching them kill and eat one the day before. Geoff had it on his camera. Old Geoff just the same: ‘You saw what? I saw better. You got what telescope? Mine’s longer. You saw an elephant? Last year I was here with Jurgen and we got charged by one.’ etc.
Actually we dipped on eles. Not one; and not a single turd neither. Not one. We drove 450km over the six days and the reward I offered of an ice cream to she who spotted an ele turd (not a whole ele, just a fresh-ish turd!) went unclaimed!
Reminded me of a Free State Reed-ism: “Not a leaf stirred. Not an elephant stirred (geddit?)”
Just back from a Five Days, Five Forests birding trip to Zululand: Nkandla, Entumeni, Dlinza, Ngoye mistbelt or scarp or afromontane forests; and St Lucia coastal forest. (note: this was in 2013)
My highlight was Ngoye, about which I’ve heard so much over the years. Especially after Aitch went without me: “Have you been to Ngoye Koos? Oh, no, I remember, you haven’t. So you haven’t seen the Woodwards Barbet then? I HAVE!” Only about a hundred times, she rubbed it in!
COMFORT This trip was just me and my guide. Sakhamuzi was lovely quiet company. Nights at the B&Bs and the Birders’ Cottage we cooked up a red meat storm, washed it all down with frosties and early to bed. On walks I took my binocs, telescope, rucksack and deckchairs. Mostly we simply found great spots like forest edges and parked. My guide Sakhamuzi was great and said (well, he would, wouldn’t he?) that he enjoyed sitting still. Said mostly birders want to rush from one spot to the next, talking all the time! I said he should get deckchairs and specialise in khehlas and gogos. ‘Charge a premium, carry a hebcooler and you’ll make your fortune, young man,’ was my advice to him! Find a fruiting tree, and let the birds come to your doddery customers.
I took plenty snacks and drinks in my rucksack, so the waiting was comfy, luxurious and munchy. Next time I’ll take some poncho or dark sheet to break the human outline – see if that fools the voëls.
We stayed two nights in the Birders Cottage in Ngoye. Perfect for getting up before five every morning and getting straight into the forest at first light. Saw and heard lots of birds which I’d seen before but had written BVD next to them (“better view desired”) and one great lifer. Yes, Aitch-In-The-Clouds, I did the see the barbet, so I laid that bogey-bird to rest!
The Green BarbetStactolaema olivacea used to be called Woodward’s Barbet – our sub-species is Stactolaema olivaceawoodwardi. Here’s a beautiful 1897 illustration of a pair of Woodward’s barbets, by J.G. Keulemans
Also a special in the forest is the oNgoye red squirrel, Paraxerus palliatus ornatus and I cant remember if we saw him! I’ll have to go back! Illustration by Joseph Wolf, Zoological Society of London 1864.
WHEELS Craig Naude’s magic silver and blue Mitsubishi Colt 4X4 V6 3000 was superb. That’s it above left in the grasslands above the forest. I needed first gear low ratio in places in the forest where the rutted tracks changed to slippery clay, and steep drops into stream beds meant equally steep climbs out of them, starting at snail’s pace. Boy heaven.
COASTAL FOREST At St Lucia we got into the forest at dawn, too, then walked on to the mouth of the estuary by 6.30am and low tide. Waders and terns remain confusing to me, and the sooty tern Sakhamuzi hoped to spot had trekked back to Mozambique. Pity, as it’s one of the easier ones to ID. Oh, well, as the baby tern said to the mother tern: Can I have a baby brother? Certainly, said the mother tern: ‘One good tern deserves another.’
On the way back we spotted a dwarf chameleon, which I now know was probably the endangered Setaro’s Dwarf Chameleon. No picture! Then we sat in the forest in comfort again and a Green Malkoha (old green coucal) obligingly flew into a tree and leisurely displayed his banana beak in full sunlight. No picture!
Driving back to the B&B a Lemon Dove (old cinnamon dove) sat on a track at the side of the road for so long we eventually drove off! First time I’ve ever done that. Usually you just glimpse them flying off at speed. Another early night after red meat and beer was enjoyed.
What a great break – the first real birding since before Aitch and I became child-infested. I’d forgotten what early mornings without scarecrows was like! We spent 32 days on our trip up to Malawi when the kids were 5 and 1 and only saw one bird, and that was a Zambian nkuku whose cousin was deliciously on our plates at a shisanyama at the roadside in Livingstone. I exaggerate. Slightly.
Bruce Soutar wrote: Pete – eye think this is a compliment – from Rooooth Garland: Please tell Piet I LOVE his stories and want to see more . . . He makes me smile, even though he’s a drunkard and no good at flying. Does he have a blogspot I can sign up for? XxPS: Sakumuzi is a huge Twinstreams fan . . . Lovely man. Ruth Garland – Sydney Australia
Ruth’s Dad was the legendary Ian Garland, whose exploits at Twinstreams in Zululand did heaps to save, propagate and teach about indigenous plants. Ruth’s exploits at Mbona in a low-flying kombi were a different chapter, which also did heaps to save and teach, but not propagate.
khehlas and gogos – Old men and Old ladies
gugile – ancient, as in buggered; decrepit; you know; don’t pretend you don’t know
voëls – birds
nkuku – chicken
shisanyama – red meat on red hot coals restaurant; not teetotal joints; licenced to sell alcohol, ‘Which’ – as famous birder Ian Sinclair said with a grin – ‘I’m licenced to drink’
My Bird List in Nkandla Forest:Lemon Dove; Dusky Flycatcher; Blue-Mantled Flycatcher;Knysna Turaco; Red-eyed Dove; Redbilled Wood-Hoopoe; Greater Double-collared Sunbird; Grey Cuckoo Shrike; Rameron Pigeon; Black-headed Oriole; Cape Batis; Black Saw-wing; HEARD: Dark-backed Weaver; Emerald Cuckoo; Chinspot Batis;
My Bird List in Entumeni Forest:Narina Trogon; Cape Batis; Olive Sunbird; Terrestrial Brownbul
My Bird list St Lucia and in St Lucia coastal forest: Woodwards Batis; Rudd’s Apalis; Yellow-bellied Greenbul; Green Malkoha – LIFER in South Africa for me – full sunlight saturation view; Grey Sunbird; Livingstone’s Turaco; Burchell’s Coucal; Whimbrel; Osprey; Grey Heron; Fish Eagle; Spoonbill; Yellow Weaver; Green Pigeon; Speckled Mousebird; Swift Tern; Black-winged Stilt; Avocet; YB Stork; Pink-backed Pelican; Little Tern; Three-banded Plover; Blue-cheeked Bee-eater;Lemon Dove – saturation close-up; Crested Guineafowl; Pied Wagtail; Cape Wagtail; Goliath Heron; Great White Egret; Little Egret; Thickbilled Weaver; White-breasted Cormorant; Palm Swift; Brown-throated Martin; Black or Common Swift; Chorister Robin-chat; Crowned Hornbill;
My Bird list in Ngoye Forest:Green Barbet – LIFER for me (yes, I know, Aitch); Yellow-streaked Greenbul; Tambourine Dove; Delegorgue’s Pigeon; Crowned Hornbill; Olive Woodpecker; GT Woodpecker; Orange-breasted Bush Shrike; Mountain Wagtail; Red-eyed Dove; Hadeda Ibis; Narina Trogon; HEARD: Wood Owl; Diederik Cuckoo;
Other creatures on the trip: Samango monkey; Red Squirrel; Thick-tailed Bushbaby (heard at night); Rainbow Skink; Banded Forester Butterfly;