South Africa Aug 19—Sep 03, 2016

Posted by David Wolf

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David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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Unique in so many ways, South Africa is the temperate tip of a tropical continent, with its own special fauna and flora, and culture and history. It is also the most developed country on the continent, with great facilities for touring. Our 2016 tour took full advantage of all of this, as we visited three very different regions of this complex country, explored unique habitats and saw birds and animals unknown elsewhere, and thoroughly enjoyed all of it, including the outstanding food, great wines, and excellent accommodations. Special thanks go to Patrick and Mary Louise Cardwell for making VENT’s return tour to South Africa such a grand success!

Cape Sugarbird

Cape Sugarbird— Photo: David Wolf

 

The first half of our trip was spent in the southwestern Cape, initially working out of Cape Town, surely one of the world’s most attractive cities. Cut off from the rest of Africa by a ring of mountains, this region has a delightful Mediterranean climate, with cool wet winters and warm dry summers, or, as we experienced it, somewhat chilly nights and very pleasantly warm days. It was a bit disappointing to be weathered-out of our pelagic trip, but instead we spent an exhilarating first day becoming acquainted with a huge variety of African waterfowl and other waterbirds. Our second day found us awed by the scenery at the Cape of Good Hope, where the cold waters of the Atlantic meet the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean. Added attractions were our first Cape landbirds, gorgeous Bontebok antelope, and coastal waterbirds like cormorants and African Oystercatchers.  Later that afternoon we visited world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, this year celebrating its 100-year centennial. Here we found the protea garden alive with sunbirds of 4 species, while Cape Sugarbirds sat just a few feet away from us and Cape Francolins skulked on the forest edge. Most amazing of all was a Lemon Dove sitting motionless in the deep shade, yielding scope views for all of this rarely seen species.

West Coast National Park

West Coast National Park— Photo: David Wolf

 

From here we spent a diverse day working our way up the West Coast from marshy ponds, beaches, and rocky promontories to a flower-filled route through inland wheatfields and a preserved patch of damp prairie. Bands of white flowers on the low hills and ridges made them look snow-covered, while Sicklewing Chats and Capped Wheatears decorated the fence posts. Blue Cranes at close range were simply elegant! Landbirds were not abundant in this region, but a surprising number were endemics that are found nowhere else in the world. Just witness how many of their names are preceded by “Cape.” A full day in the West Coast National Park produced the most amazing wildflower show that any of us had ever seen, with great swaths of bold color painting the hills and valleys, and a plethora of special flowers hiding amidst the coastal fynbos. Here too we had great success with our big three quest birds for the day, beginning with calling and displaying male Black Bustards. Then it was the gorgeous Black Harrier that cruised below us as we scanned from a rocky hilltop, while the final gem was a very responsive pair of Gray-winged Francolins that almost came up to the bus as we were leaving the park. The day wasn’t over yet, however, as we ended with a pair of huge Verreaux’s Eagles at a nest site. Through the course of the day we also spotted a great selection of antelope, from small Steinbuck and Bush Duikers to huge Eland, the largest of the antelope.

African Penguin

African Penguin— Photo: David Wolf

 

Next we moved inland through vast agricultural lands and rugged mountains to the flat plains on their dry inland side, known as the Tankwa Karoo. This vast semi-desert is characterized by the dominance of succulent plants specially adapted to irregular rainfall and often harsh conditions. This year it was drought-stricken. Without the stimulus of rain the birds were few and far between, but with patience and persistence we found most of the regional specialties, topped by the pair of well-camouflaged Karoo Bustards right beside the dusty road, “trapped” between us and a fence. Also noteworthy were the pairs of beautiful South African Shelducks on the few remaining stock ponds, while a late afternoon “game drive” at Inverdoorn introduced us to the safari experience, as well as a special show from their Cheetah rehabilitation program.

African Wild Dog

African Wild Dog— Photo: Patrick Cardwell

 

After passing through the beautiful wine country (oh yes, we sampled some) and rolling fields, one of them dotted with Denham’s Bustards, we suddenly descended to the coast again, east of Cape Town at the lovely seaside resort of Hermanus. On our whale-watching trip here we were awed by a super-close Southern Right Whale and calf, while not far down the road we spent quality time with close-up African Penguins and four species of nesting cormorants. Then it was a most successful hike for perhaps the most iconic of the Cape endemics, the elusive Cape Rockjumper. Our first looks were brief and distant, as they popped up momentarily and then disappeared, but as we walked back towards the bus, they tired of the game and eventually yielded great looks for all.

Leopard

Leopard— Photo: Patrick Cardwell

 

From the southwestern Cape we shifted gears dramatically and flew across this huge country to Sukuza, in the heart of the Greater Kruger Conservancy. From the air we could see a vast expanse of leafless woodland and bare reddish ground between the trees, all of it looking quite desiccated. It was hard to imagine much life in this environment, and a heat-of-the-day drive to Notten’s Camp did little to dispel this first impression, but boy were we wrong! Our first game drive later that afternoon, as the day cooled down, set us straight, with one amazing sighting after another. The huge male White Rhino was great, as were the giraffe with baby and beautiful antelope like the Nyala and Greater Kudu, but simply amazing was a huge pack of African Wild Dogs, a highly endangered animal that is rarely encountered anywhere. This pack had 13 adults and 10 pups! When first observed they were lying around in the shade, but before long the adults got restless and trotted off in teams to hunt, while the curious pups wanted to follow, but were not allowed to do so by their “baby-sitters.” We were incredibly lucky to see them, as these rare animals roam over a huge area.

Southern Bald Ibis

Southern Bald Ibis— Photo: David Wolf

 

This first exciting game drive set the pattern for our days here in the Sabi-Sands area of the Greater Kruger region, where every excursion brought fantastic sightings of game and birds. The next morning we were up and out early, and we discovered that this is when the birds are really active here.  Some were conspicuous, like hornbills and rollers, while others roamed in active mixed-flocks composed of the likes of helmetshrikes, bushshrikes, tits, flycatchers and more. By the end of the day we had seen a huge variety of birds of the broadleaf woodlands. Throughout the area, we never knew when we might round a bend and find some exciting animal in front of us, and by the end of our first full day we had seen all of “The Big Five.” The elephants and giraffes were great, but the cats stole the show, with lionesses and cubs at a freshly-killed buffalo in the morning, and that most elusive of cats, the Leopard (with a cub), in the afternoon. Then, with the sun low in the sky, we came across two handsome black-maned lions acting typically lazy. But, the day wasn’t over yet, as an evening drive back to camp after “sundowners” produced a rarely-seen African Civet and then great looks at cute Lesser Galagos (bushbabies) and a fabulous Southern White-faced Owl that just sat and sat for us. The next day was just as exciting, including two more Leopards, and the area continued to produce for us right up to our last drives on our final morning, when White-headed Vulture, Coqui Francolin, and Rufous-crowned Roller were especially nice additions to our already lengthy bird list. It was hard to say goodbye to our hosts at the very exclusive, peaceful, and well-appointed Notten’s Camp.

Botha's Lark

Botha’s Lark— Photo: Patrick Cardwell

 

The final swing of our journey was an optional extension to the Wakkerstroom area, right in the heart of some of the best “sour veld” left in the world. Like our Great Plains, these temperate grasslands have been extensively altered for agriculture, and many of the birds and animals unique to them are in trouble. Here we readily found Southern Bald Ibis probing in the burned grasslands, often quite close at hand, while in the course of a full day’s explorations we encountered the iconic Secretary-bird three times, and at sunset finally caught up with another premier specialty, the Blue Bustard. Thanks to some serious pre-trip scouting by Lucky, our local guide, we also found the small endemics of the region. The Botha’s Lark may not be the most impressive bird seen on the trip, but it may well be the most endangered—and we had a pair practically at our feet! More elusive were the Rudd’s Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit, but our team stomp across the grasslands in order to flush them gave us some exercise after all of the good eating. Throughout the area we laughed at the comical Yellow Mongooses and Meerkats, while the waterbirds sprinkled here and there included such African classics as the Gray Crowned-Crane and Hamerkop. All too soon it was time to say goodbye to friends with ongoing travel plans and then return to Johannesberg for the long trip home, our minds reeling with memories of all that we had seen and done.