23 – 28 June 2021
A member feature report by Nicolette & Ticky Forbes
(clicking on photos will bring up a bigger image)
Shall we go?
The announcement that a bird turning up just south of Kruger which had never been recorded in South Africa, and in fact not recorded in the southern hemisphere, got me thinking this would be a perfect excuse to visit Kruger for a few days. Ticky took a little more convincing (but not much) and on the spur of the moment on Tuesday we decided to go, and left Durban on Wednesday afternoon, after cleaning up some work commitments.
Having left in the afternoon getting to Kruger in one run was not possible so we decided to get as far as we could in the light and then stopover somewhere. Our target was Marloth Park and the shortest route from home was via the N2 through Eshowe and then onto the R66 to Vryheid, Paulpietersburg, Mkhondo (Piet Retief) and then a sidestep through Amsterdam (don’t blink you will miss it), a right at Warburton and then Barberton, and onto the N4 through to Marloth Park.
Sunset comes more quickly in winter so by 17h00 we needed to find a stopover. We prefer avoiding staying in towns wherever possible and we were happy to find a rather lovely self-catering establishment, Penbi Game Ranch, only 3km off the R33 road between Vryheid and Paulpietersburg. This was a convenient, clean and comfortable stop and not a major detour from our route. In the lodge’s own words “typical northern KwaZulu-Natal terrain” with water frontage on the Bivane River. Unfortunately we couldn’t spend time exploring on this visit as we arrived around sunset and left before sunrise but we could see that the surroundings were dominated by some interesting grassland and we saw Steenbok, Zebra and Wildebeest on the way to the chalet. The ranch also states it has Eland, Kudu, Red Hartebeest, Giraffe and Buffalo, with over 1,000 head of game including the endangered Oribi. After a good, and very chilly, nights rest (made bearable by electric blankets on the bed) we left again before sunrise to get to THE bird. But who is this magnetic creature…
Who is Sylvia, what is she…
“Who is Silvia? what is she,
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair, and wise is she;
The heaven such grace did lend her,
That she might admirèd be.
Is she kind as she is fair?
For beauty lives with kindness.
Love doth to her eyes repair,
To help him of his blindness;
And, being helped, inhabits there.
Then to Silvia let us sing,
That Silvia is excelling;
She excels each mortal thing
Upon the dull earth dwelling;
To her let us garlands bring”
– William Shakespeare
from Two Gentlemen of Verona
A slight side-step. The significance of the song from Two Gentlemen of Verona which is included on the left? When I was still lecturing at the Biological Sciences Department, University of Natal Durban (now UKZN), I used to lead end- of-year trips to the Kruger National Park. One of the traditions that got established was that a poem was read, from a large tome that was taken on each trip, as we all sat around the fire after dinner in the evening. Each student, got to choose which poem they read and if they wished to they could explain why they had chosen that particular verse. One of these poems was Who is Silvia? A lovely closing of the circle on this trip back to the Kruger area – because the bird that had everyone twitching was a Lesser Whitethroat – a Sylvia warbler – Sylvia curruca.
This particular Sylvia warbler had a few people confused as they tried, unsuccessfully, to look it up in the sub-region field guides to get more information. However, as a first time record for the southern hemisphere the bird is not listed in any sub-region fieldguides. If however, you had the Chamberlain’s guide to Birds of Africa, south of the Sahara by Ian Sinclair and Peter Ryan or one of the British or European guides you would have been able to get more information.
The Lesser Whitethroat is a small warbler with a grey head and brownish tones across the mantle and tail. Its underparts are contrastingly lighter with the clear white throat which makes for an apt common name. There are only two whitethroats in the world. The other is the Common Whitethroat, which does visit our region and has by contrast a lighter grey head, rufous wing panels and has in common the same key feature of a white throat.
This bird occupies a wide range of habitats enjoying denser vegetation cover and works through hedges, shrubs and trees rapidly while foraging.
Currently six subspecies of Lesser Whitethroat are recognised, two of these are illustrated here, but these six are subject to change with more detailed genetic investigations.
Bird drawings from Aymí, R. and G. Gargallo (2020). Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.
The Lesser Whitethroat has a wide breeding range across Europe and Asia and is a long distance migrant, which migrates, mainly nocturnally, to its non-breeding grounds in north Africa, southern Middle-East and Asia around July, August and September reaching winter areas in October.
The bird which has now reached us has exhibited reverse migration meaning that it has moved in the opposite direction from its usual pattern. It should be at its breeding grounds by now, but instead has come south making a whole lot of twitchers happy and requiring the official South African bird list to be updated once again.
So did we find our Sylvia?
Our drive from Penbi Game Ranch to Marloth Park on the southern border of the Kruger National Park took a little longer than we planned. Like most birders we lost an hour or two stopping at dams and pans and other areas where birds might be to add to our trip list. The end result of this is that the foursome of BE KZN members, Mike White at the wheel, Jenny Norman, Zach Simpson and our newest member Wade Lee (welcome to the club Wade I know you will enjoy it and not only learn but you will add lots of value) that had left Durban at 4am that morning ended up arriving at the same time as us at Gate 1 of Marloth Park. We all drove through to the Amazing Kruger View Restaurant which is the area where the bird had first been spotted and seemed to have taken up residence. It took about 10 mins and as Wade, Zach and I were moving towards the playground area a bird flew into the tree in front of us. Wade’s sharp eyes quickly picked it up and said “that’s it”. This was immediately followed by barely restrained calls from Zach and Nicky to Mike, Ticky and Jenny which had them scurrying to the tree and everyone was on it – relief! The bird had a favourite circuit that it seemed to follow between the gate and the scrubby vegetation to the left of the playground and so a good length of time was spent watching and attempting to photograph (not easy) this busy little bird.
Zach Simpson’s Facebook post and photos can be seen by clicking the link below: https://www.facebook.com/zach.simpson.56614
This was followed by a celebratory drink together and a late snack at the restaurant for some – Zach couldn’t keep still and managed to pick up 4 lifers around the restaurant. We then went through to our respective accommodations – the foursome went to theirs to braai and Ticky and I to have dinner at our lodge. We stayed overnight at the Kruger Riverside Lodge, a small boutique fully catered establishment. It was clean, comfortable, well appointed and thoughtfully laid out with an attentive host in Peter. The food was well prepared and very tasty and we had an excellent dinner and breakfast.
Mike, Jenny, Wade and Zach (reluctantly) were returning to Durban the next day but we all managed a quick visit back to view the Lesser Whitethroat again. Ticky and I headed off to spend a further three nights in Kruger.
The spectacular Kruger National Park
Kruger was, incredibly, almost fully booked so our only option in the south, if we wanted a self-catering chalet, was Pretoriuskop which I have never stayed at before and Ticky only once when he was 14. We entered through Crocodile Bridge and stayed three nights and explored each day along the roads linking Skukuza, Lower Sabie, Afsaal, and Malelane. I generally stay further north in Kruger so it was nice to explore the south a bit more thoroughly and see some of the sites, like Sunset Dam (more crocodiles around one dam than I have seen before) and Lake Panic, which I have often seen mentioned on the sightings Facebook page and WhatsApp groups.
In three days, including the Marloth Park afternoon and morning, we managed a total of 127 bird species – not bad for winter birding considering quite a bit of photography of birds, lots of mammals (and trees) was also fitted into this time. Some of the birding highlights – the Lesser Whitethroat goes without saying – we also enjoyed were winter foraging parties comprising Yellow-breasted Apalis, Arrow-marked Babbler, Chinspot Batis, Black-backed Puffback and Black Flycatcher.
In addition, many of the ground birds were still showing well although not as numerous as during our recent March trip the highlight being a covey of Coqui Francolin spotted by Ticky, but also many encounters with Crested Francolin, Swainson’s and Natal Spurfowl but only two pairs of Double-banded Sandgrouse. Sunbirds were enjoying the aloes which were flowering wildly with White–bellied and Scarlet-Chested Sunbird being very vocal and obvious. Along with the amazing numbers of Nile crocodile around Sunset Dam were quite a number of Yellow-billed Stork and a few African Spoonbill. The day before we got to the dam an African Skimmer was reported to be feeding and resting on the shoreline. Unfortunately when we checked the next day there was no sign of the bird.
Magpie Shrike, White-crested Helmet-shrike and Lilac Breasted Roller were encountered often on the drives and a single White-crowned Shrike added another species. Raptors were not plentiful but we recorded Tawny Eagle, Brown Snake Eagle, African Harrier Hawk with the highlight being one of the last birds we added to our list, a loudly chanting, juvenile Dark Chanting Goshawk. Only the second time we have atlassed this species since 2015.
We had some fantastic and good quality game sightings. A total of 23 species of mammals kept cameras clicking, batteries going flat and cards reaching capacity. Highlights were a honey badger, cheetah (two separate sightings) and the most amazing time with some of a clan of hyena at their den. Pups of three different cohorts were delightful to watch and despite numerous trips to Kruger I have not seen a whole range of ages like that at one den. The parental care from the adults attending to these youngsters was also wonderful to watch and we went back to the den morning and evening on all three days we were there.
I really enjoy just being with elephants and we had single animals, trios and larger family groups in a host of different situations.
It was lovely to see that there was still water flowing in the larger rivers and many of the pans also had water in them. One of the more incredible sights was also watching a group of 11 giraffe come down to the edge of a river to drink.
Its always too short
In this case it was a short trip brought on by a poor, lost little bird. This was not a lifer for Ticky and I having seen this species in the UK but it was an addition to our South African lists. I am not always sure from a personal perspective about the merits of getting lifers from a bird that is in the wrong place or been blown off course by foul weather. I have often thought I prefer to see a bird in its own habitat, doing what it usually does and not potentially lost and disorientated. For that reason I don’t chase every vagrant that turns up. This is something I am sure I will keep thinking on and debating internally. It was however a great stimulus to jolt us into getting to the bush, with birds and other wild animals, and that was definitely sustenance for the soul which re-energised us to yet again tackle the everyday issues of work and household chores.
And we will give the elephants the last word – just listen to that trumpet! (turn up the volume)