Northern Zululand – A Summer Odyssey.

Northern Zululand – A Summer Odyssey.

Trip Report by Paul & Sally Bartho

29 Dec 2013 to 11 Jan 2014

Sally and I decided to spend the New Year camping away from home. Northern Zululand was our destination. Our program:

  • 3 nights in Bonamanzi
  • 4 nights in Mkuze
  • 4 nights  in Ndumo
  • 3 nights  in St. Lucia

Bonamanzi.

At Bonamanzi we stayed in Campsite 5 and joined friends who were already there. Campsite 5 is huge and can accommodate 4 camp groups easily – however there is only one toilet/shower and one wash-up area. As pensioners it cost us R90 pppn.

In Bonamanzi as you may know you are able to walk anywhere on the property except in their Game viewing area. This is great for birding. However elephants do use the area as well. One morning when driving to the office we found a huge branch across the road and elephant tracks confirming who was the culprit for this roadblock. Beware.

The first night we had a lot of rain. So the next morning we (our friends and ourselves) decided to visit Hluhluwe rather than bird in the rain around the campsite. It continued raining.

Taking the shortcut to the freeway we went through numerous muddy pools past the Hakuna Mutata accommodation until we got to the bridge. The approach to the bridge was up a short steep bank which looked muddy and badly cambered – so down I went into Low range 4×4 and up we went – well actually did not make it. About a third of the way up the Fortuner slowly drifted off the road onto the trees on the left. Fortunately I was able to reverse out of trouble without damaging the car. Now the long way round to Hluhluwe.

The rain persisted. However we decided to look for the Finfoots (Finfeet?) which our friends had seen the previous day. Taking the immediate right turn as you enter the park we drove round to where they had seen them basking next to the river crossing – no luck! About the only excitement we had were 7 White Rhino crossing the road in front of us. They were the first aminals we saw since entering! Aminals were scarce and the birding was not much better. Eventually we decided to return to Bonamanzi for lunch. Altogether we had seen 35 species of birds in the 3 hours we were in Hluhluwe.

The following day we walked around the camp area and went on a drive to explore other parts of Bonamanzi. In one section we had heard an African Broadbill on a couple of occasions (Pathway E to F). Later we went back with our friends and another couple who had arrived to see if we would have any better luck.

Sally mentioned to Irene that you needed to look on cross branches about head height in the bush. We had not gone more than 20 metres when Irene spotted a Broadbill – unbelievable. I managed to get a few poor shots which you can see in the gallery below. On the way back I popped into the bush to see if I could get a few better shots – no luck finding the Broadbill but I did surprise a Narina Trogon – see pics in Gallery.

After that we visited the office area and drove back in the dark spotting a Shikra on the road munching on its prey – unconcerned with the car’s headlights on him. Poor pictures in the gallery.

Bonamanzi yielded 89 species plus one UI (Unidentified) Raptor – have a go there is a pic in the gallery. Most of the Cuckoos were heard as well as the Green Malkoa. A Black Cuckooshrike in magnificent breeding plumage gave a great display round the campsite – yellow gape and epaulets very strident. A Red-fronted Tinkerbird and a Bearded Scrub-Robin also gave us great displays in the campsite.

Mkuze.

Surprisingly the tent was dry as we packed to leave Bonamanzi. We headed for the new gate to enter Mkuze. On the way we passed Muzi Pan. The water level was so high that it was a raging torrent beneath both bridges along the Muzi Pan dam wall. Not surprisingly there were few bird species about – we saw only 9 in the 10 minutes we stopped there. The Knob-billed Duck being the most interesting.

Mkuze Campsite. Still has water problems – the boreholes run dry regularly and the water is unfiltered so not only is it inadvisable to drink but the silt that comes with it is damaging all their taps – water leaks all the time.

Trying to book a campsite at Mkuze is often difficult because of this. Also they try to restrict the number of bookings to 10 campsites as that is all their one staff member can handle. They have over 30 potential sites. When we arrived on 31st December one man was still trying to cut the knee high grass in 50% of the sites!

On top of this the Ezemvelo Parks Board have fixed the campsite rate at R230 for 3 people – an increase from R180 last year (almost 30%) with no improvement in facilities and no way to get a rate for 2 people. Like Sodwana who charge for 4 people irrespectively, this is a total rip off.

During the 3 full days in Mkuze we never managed to find the newly released Lions perhaps because they are still happy to return to their boma where they were kept originally and also because all the rain the grass was high everywhere.

Some of our more interesting bird sightings include:

  • Black bellied Bustard
  • Lemon-breasted Canaries
  • Cuckoos vociferously calling – Black, African Emerald, Diedrik’s, Klass’s, Jacobin, Levaillant’s and Red-chested. A pair of the latter  chasing each other round the main office.
  • Namaqua Doves
  • Lesser Spotted Eagle.
  • Burn-necked Eremomelas
  • Grey Go-away-bird
  • a juvenile Greater Honeyguide around our camp being fed by Black-bellied Starlings.
  • Woodland Kingfishers
  • Common Quail obligingly walking ahead of us on the road to KwaMalibali Hide
  • Red-backed Shrikes – everywhere
  • Neergaard’s Sunbird – always a pleasure
  • Grey Penduline-Tits in the trees above our campsite
  • Red-throated Wrynecks

At the end of our visit we had identified 140 bird species – the pans were very full discouraging many water birds otherwise we would have expected many more.

Ndumo.

Ndumo is always a special place to visit and the local guides have a reputation of excellence. It is always a pleasure to take advantage of the early morning walks which at R110 pp is really good value.

Again we had 3 full days in the Reserve. On one of these days we spent the morning in Tembe Elephant Park.

Tembe was full of elephants – fortunately in the open swamp area so we could easily see them and not be chased by them as happened twice the last time we visited.

Although it felt like birding was quiet, we managed to identify 66 species in the 4 hours we were there. We were rewarded with sightings of an African Cuckoo-Hawk juvenile and an African Harrier-Hawk – the only place where  we saw each of them. The other special sighting was of a pair of Woodward’s Batis. No Plain-backed Sunbird.

The rest of our time spent in Ndumo.  We went on a morning drive and 2 early morning walks and of course explored the Reserve on our own. In all we identified 142 species including an Eurasian Hobby.

On the last morning I went on the Southern Pongola walk. There were 3 of us and our guide, Sontu. His skills are superb. On the walk we heard the Narina Trogon and an African Golden Oriole – however the highlight was spotting a Black Coucal in the wetland area.

St Lucia

Sugarloaf Campsite in St Lucia was our base for 3 nights. It is a huge camp with 100 sites ideally located right by the sea. It was only about 20% full and the fishermen were well behaved. Watch it on weekends as they can be quite raucous. The three nights was R432 for both of us – very reasonable.

We birded in 3 areas: Eastern and Western Shores and around the campsite.

Western Shores is the newly opened area of the iSimangaliso WetlandPark. It has been very well developed. The habitat is predominantly flat open grassland with outcrops of woodland and forest. There is currently a lot of freestanding water with many wetland areas. There is one hide and a boardwalk to a lookout point overlooking LakeSt Lucia. The picnic site is large, shady and well situated. We spent almost 6 hours there covering the whole road network.

As we approached the hide a herd of elephants – about 15 – saw us and calmly walked away allowing us access. Then at the hide, just as we were about to leave, Sally saw a raptor flying over the pan in front of the hide. Small head and quite barred underside. We got excited. Sally immediately pronounced what she thought it was. The bird then landed in one of the large broad-leafed trees opposite us about 100 metres away. Out came the scope and luckily the bird was not secretly hidden within. On further inspection we had a clear sighting of its head and tail and it was clear that Sally was correct. A lifer for me – a European Honey-Buzzard.

I include some pictures of the habitat and a few of the birds we were lucky enough to photograph. In all we saw 72 species in the 5.5 hours we were there.

Eastern Shores. Similar in habitat to the WesternShores but more hilly with coastal forest and the sea and shore. There are 2 bird hides and several lookout points and picnic sites as well as a number of side loops off the main road to CapeVidal. In the past we have seen both White and Black Rhino and Leopards (one right next to the car park for the large new Mafazana hide).

On the Vlei Loop we saw our first raptor – a Southern-banded Snake-Eagle. It was sitting prominently in a bare tree with the sun directly behind it. We had to work hard to get the right angle to see it clearly enough to identify it.

At the Mafazana hide Sally spotted 2 Saddle-billed Storks on top of a distant tree. We wondered if they were starting to breed early!

The other sighting worth mentioning was surprisingly that of a Lilac-breasted Roller. It was the first and only sighting of one on our whole 2 week trip – most unusual.

In all we identified 73 species in the 6 hours we were there.

St. Lucia, Sugarloaf Camp and the immediate shore.

On setting up camp the monkeys arrived. There were also a couple of Grey Duiker close by. It was hilarious to watch them interact. One approached the other and the next minute they were all chasing each other around the site. Other aminals seen in the camp included Bushbuck, Red Duiker and interestingly Reedbuck – often paying little attention to us Humans.

Right next to the camp is the boardwalk to the sea and the mouth of LakeSt Lucia. Hippos and Crocs were very evident – just waiting for one of the fishermen to get too close.

On the first afternoon after setting up our camp we headed for a walk on the beach. We were surprised by a Palmnut Vulture which flew over our heads  and landed on the inland side of the beach at the mouth of LakeSt. Lucia. We approached slowly watching it nibbling on the base of some of the spindly grass protruding from the muddy edges of the lake – managing to get with 15 metres of it. An unexpected waterbird!

Campsite birding was very good. One R-C R-C (Natal Robin or as Sally says Cossypha Natalensis) joined us for a sundowner doing good imitations of an African Emerald Cuckoo. An African Goshawk landed in the tall pine trees above us to sing his good-bye as we prepared to leave. But probably the highlight was a wonderful view of a male Green Twinspot in vivid plumage.

In all we recorded 57 species in and around the campsite including the walk along the waterfront.

Sadly we returned home to a chilly welcome in a not so sunny Hillcrest.

In total we identified 235 species on our two week odyssey.

If anyone would like a copy of our excel spreadsheet showing which birds we identified in each of the 9 different reserves we visited, then click here to contact me.

Hope you enjoyed the read.

Paul & Sally Bartho

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Darwin and the Top End Summary

Darwin and the Top End Summary

Well our trip to the Top End of Australia ended just over a week ago and we are still trying to assess what we have seen.

366 species have been recorded in the area – however quite a number are either vagrants or migrants which we had no chance to see.  Realistically there were about 280 species we could have seen.

All in all we saw some 185 different species of which 49 were Australian lifers for Sally and 56 for me. Most of these lifers are only to be found in the north of Australia.

However the satisfying part for both of us was that we were able to get photos of most of the new birds we saw. In many instances the photos enabled us to identify or confirm our identification.

Rather than list the lifers we saw, the following gallery does the job for me. A few new birds escaped before the camera could get a shot in – the most disappointing being the Black-tailed Treecreeper, the Red-browed Pardalote, the Green-backed Gerygone and the Little Curlew.

That concludes our Darwin escapade. Hope you have enjoyed the read and photos.

Paul & Sally Bartho

Cape Vidal and St. Lucia. 25th to 30th August 2013.

Cape Vidal and St. Lucia. 25th to 30th August 2013.

Sally and I went to Cape Vidal campsite for 2 nights followed by 3 at Sugarloaf campsite in St. Lucia. We endured strong wind for all 5 days. Our tent extension was defrocked one night in Cape Vidal and on the last day when we were in Umfolozi.

Despite the wind the weather was pleasantly sunny and not too hot.

The campsite in Cape Vidal was infested with Vervet and Samango monkeys. Turn your back on them at your peril as they will take any food within your arm’s reach if you are not looking – and sometimes even when you are! It is well shaded and mostly flat and sandy. Beware – it is expensive as they charge for 4 people even if there are only 2 of you. It cost the 2 of us R252 a night and that was with a 40% discount! Sugarloaf cost us R324 for the 2 of us for 3 nights (also with a 40% discount).

The Loop road past Lake Bengazi is closed as part of the road has been washed away – apparently sometime ago and there is no sign that it is being repaired.

Sugarloaf Campsite in St. Lucia is located right at the end of the road  to the boardwalk beside the estuary leading to the beach. Unfortunately it is a preferred fisherman’s campsite and so to be avoided at the weekends despite it having 100 campsites.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park (Eastern Shores) is one of our preferred parks close to Durban. It has a good variety of game and is known for its leopard sightings. We go for the birds and we were not disappointed this time with excellent sightings of Southern-banded, Black-chested and Brown Snake-Eagles; adult and juvenile Cuckoo Hawks; Collared Pratincoles; etc…

(If you click on an image it will enlarge and you will be able to scroll through the rest of the pictures in that gallery. To return to the text move the mouse cursor to the top left of the screen and click on the “X” when it appears).

St. Lucia also did not disappoint with a good variety of waterbirds including African Black Oystercatcher, a sea paddling Pied Avocet, Kittlitz’s, White-fronted, Three-banded and Curlew (in partial breeding plumage) Sandpipers, Ruff, Wood and Marsh Sandpipers, Caspian and Swift Terns, Grey-headed Gulls.

However “la piece de la resistance” was a Sooty Tern amongst a group of other Terns, Gulls and Avocets. It was sheltering on the leeward side of the wind in the estuary.

If you visit St. Lucia do take a walk along the Gwalagwala Trail early morning. Park in the Office car park. Listen for Woodward’s Batis and Green Malkoha.

The campsite too has a good variety of birds.

We spent one day in Umfolozi and were not disappointed despite the extensive burnt areas in the park.

The Bhejane Hide is still under construction so our only alternative was the Mfafa Hide. Recently it has been the source of a number of leopard and lion sightings – however for us it was a number of interesting small birds and a rather large Rock Monitor.

Some photos taken around the Park:

Probably our best viewing area was at the bend of the Umfolozi river at the end past the Cengeni Gate. Here we saw quite a number of raptors: a Lanner Falcon on the river bed, a couple of Lanner Falcons dive bombing a Tawny Eagle with a little help from a pair of African Harrier Hawks and a Yellow-billed Kite not to be left out of the action, Bateleur, Brown Snake-Eagle. There was also a good view of a Southern Ground-Hornbill across the river.

Finally to cap the day we had the following sighting on the way back past the Cengeni Gate. It was no more than 20 metres from us but totally camouflaged. Look at the photos first without enlarging and you will see how easy it is to be missed 

Now click on the images and enjoy what we were able to see with the help of our binoculars.

Altogether we saw 88 Species in iSimangalizo (Eastern Shores); 71 species in and around the campsite in St Lucia and 61 species in Umfolozi.

Sunrise in windy Cape Vidal
Sunrise in windy Cape Vidal

Photos care of Sally and Paul Partho.

Larking About in Namibia. Part 2.

Larking About in Namibia. Part 2. 

After five days camping at Kunene River Lodge we headed for Etosha.  We left on Saturday 22nd June. Our plan for Etosha was 2 nights at Namutomi followed by 3 nights at Halali.

Etosha as expected was very expensive. Not just the campsites but also the daily charge for 2 people and the car. Namutomi was R440 and Halali R290 per night plus the  daily charge of R130!! Our mistake, we should have camped just outside the Park.

Namutomi  was run down. The only saving grace was the flat grassy campsite.

The Park was exceptionally dry and very dusty. The man-made waterholes were the main source of interesting birding. And of course this is where the animals congregated.  The natural springs and fountains near the Pan’s edge were all dry.

We circled the Dikdik Drive 3 times looking for the Black-faced Babblers without success – we did see lots of Dikdik though.

The highlights were the waterbirds and the raptors.

Halali campsite is flat and reasonably shady – not that the shade was so important in winter time. It has a very good waterhole and viewing platform. In the evenings after a day out in the Park, it was rewarding sitting there and watching the interaction of the various animals which came – many Elephant and surprisingly at the same time, Black Rhinos (see photos). While we were there one Elephant cheekily intentionally sprayed water over a Black Rhino.

We spent one day in the area around Halali – mainly going from one waterhole to another. At the Goas Waterhole we had an interesting time watching the elephants and many different birds coming in to drink. It was here that we fleetingly saw an interesting bird which we could not identify at the time – see if you can – check the few photos I did manage to get.

More Photos taken around Halali:

The second full day that we had at Halali was spent Larking About just north of Okaukuejo. This was our challenge in Etosha – to test our skills at identifying as many Larks as we could and this was the best area to find them.

To make life simpler, we listed all the possible Larks we could find in the area (excluding summer visitors) and wrote down the key features for identifying each one. There were 9 possibles in all and only one of these with a long decurved bill. This certainly helped and we were reasonably confident with our ID in most instances.

It was on this road out to Okondeka that we saw a number of other interesting birds – Double-banded Courser, Northern Black and Red-crested Korhaans and Ludwig’s Bustards.

Another highlight towards the end of this road near Okondeka was a pride of about 20 lionesses all lying down tightly together. They were being followed by a film crew who were waiting patiently for them to do something! They were set in for a long wait.

A mound of Lionesses - about 20 all cuddled together
A mound of Lionesses – about 20 all cuddled together

Five dusty days in the cold of Etosha were enough. We set off for Erongo and Brandberg on the way down to Swakopmund.

Part 3 to follow. Erongo Mountains and Brandberg.

Larking About in Namibia

Larking About in Namibia

June & July 2013

Sally and Paul Bartho

Over the next week there will be a serial report-back on our birding expedition to Namibia.

The series will include pictures of places we stayed and birds we were lucky enough to photograph in each place.

Please email me if you interested in receiving detailed reports including our route and tracks, accommodation contact details, accommodation assessment. Also available is our Bird List in Excel format. You are able to see what birds we saw or heard in each place as well as where specific birds were seen.

The journal begins:………..

At very short notice we decided to go to Namibia. Our preparation was frantic over a 2 week period. Bird Lists to prepare, accommodation and route decisions and bookings, banks and credit cards, car & health insurance, knowledge of border crossing requirements, etc.

Our main goal was to get to Kunene River Lodge to see the Angola Cave-Chat with Peter Morgan – and to be there before the start of the school holidays. Of course we also intended to find as many of the Namibian specials as possible – in particular those we had not seen before.

We departed on Tuesday 11th June spending the first night in a Hunting Lodge in Botswana, Phuduhudu south of Lobatse. We entered Botswana through the quiet border post Ramatlabama. As we were staying only one night and needed an early start the next day, we stayed in one of their fancy chalets – which at R200 per person was very reasonable. Our birding began around the camp.

The next day we were up early. It was freezing outside. From there we took the Trans Kalahari highway to the Mamuno border post into Namibia. Again a pleasant crossing. Zelda was the campsite we were headed for. Once there we put up our 3 Second tent on grass with power to run our electric blanket. The cost to camp was exceptionally reasonable considering the facilities available. To cap it all their buffet dinner was tasty & value for money. On site were a number of interesting orphaned animals to see including Leopard, Cheetah and a huge porcupine.

The following morning we spent a bit of time enjoying Zelda before our short hop to our next campsite near Windhoek airport – Odekaremba at 1800 metres.

Ondekaremba has a small campsite with 4 spots. We had a site at the top of a hill on the only bit of level ground. It was open to the biting wind and the ground so hard it was exceedingly difficult to get the pegs into. Our ablution was very rustic and hot water only available when the staff got the donkey working – tepid water at best first thing. On top of that it was very expensive. We would be loathe to stay there again – except the birding round the camp was very good.

We had booked for 3 nights to give us a break from the long journeys and to have a base to bird around Windhoek while we were in the area.

We visited both Avis Dam and Daan Viljoen. Avis Dam was the more interesting but Daan Viljoen produced the first lifer for me – Rockrunner – Sally had seen it previously.

Sunday 16th we headed north stopping over in Kamanjab Rest Camp in our 3 Second tent again. For one night it is not worth the effort after a long days driving, to put up the trailer only to take it down again early the next day.

We were the only people in the camp. The facilities were good and clean. We managed a walk round the camp grounds late afternoon. As usual most of the birds were to be seen around the camp area – including Bare-cheeked Babblers and White-tailed Shrikes – in numbers.

The next day we arrived at Kunene River Lodge – staying for 5 nights. We had been before and it remains an oasis along the stretch of the river. Birds in camp were plentiful and special.  Cinderella Waxbills, Rufous-tailed Palm-Thrush, Swamp Boubou, White-tailed Shrikes to name a few.

No sooner had we set up camp than we were on an sunset cruise heading for the rapids up river. On the way back we stopped on the banks for sundowners. A Pearl-spotted Owlet greeted us.