More Images from Our Arid Areas Birding Trip

I have received such nice comments from some readers that I thought I would share some more images from our recent trip

Arid Areas Birding – Part 6, Upington to Hermanus

We drove to Upington from the Kgalagadi and stayed in the very well-appointed River Place, on the banks of the Orange River.  Sitting on the lawn, we were wowed by the Orange River White-Eyes that came to drink at the pool, along with many Red-eyed Bulbuls and Karoo Thrushes.

From there we proceeded to Augrabies Park.  We could not get in to the park chalets, so stayed at a hotel just outside the gate.  We spent the day doing the game route with its various stops along the gorge below the falls and were, as always, gobsmacked by the erosive power of the river.  Our target birds were coursers and the elusive Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, but we were once again unable to locate either.  It was dry and hot, but we were getting used to the conditions.  It always puzzles us why they have Giraffes in a park with no trees, but there they were, bending low to browse from the shrubs.

The agricultural development along the Orange River is expanding and there are now huge areas of vines under shade cloth.  Being grape season, meant that the production of raisins was in full swing and there were vast cement slabs covered with grapes, set out to dry.

Our next stop was near Loxton in the middle of the Karoo.  We drove via Kenhardt (on tar) before tackling the long and dusty dirt road to Carnarvon and then on to Loxton.  The former is a poverty stricken relic of its former self – very sad to see – however, Loxton seems to have retained some of its former charm.  We stayed at Jakalsdans, a few kilometres south of the town, and had a very comfortable night in a beautiful cottage set in what must rate as one of the neatest farmyards in the country!  Our target birds continues to elude us with not a nightjar calling anywhere.  It was dry, but the farm had lovely avenues and well watered lawns and gardens.

Travelling south the next day we saw many small birds along the road, notably Black-headed Canaries, Sparrow-Larks and Buntings.  The drive down the Molteno Pass was beautiful and by the time we reached Beaufort West, the countryside was showing evidence of good rains, with water lying around and green veld where, a month or two previously, it had been parched!  We had intended going on to Ladismith, but a quick visit to the Karoo National Park changed our minds and we decided to spend a night there.  This gave us the opportunity to pursue a Karoo Korhaan and an African Rock Pipit, both of which we saw, so we were well pleased.

Next day we set out for Ladismith, taking the road to Prince Albert via Klaarstroom.  This allowed us to take on the beautiful Swartberg Pass – and it was wonderful!  We had not done it for years and were most impressed with the scenery.  We took the back road via Groenfontein to Calitzdorp, before the last stretch on tar to Ladismith, where we stayed at the lovely Mymering Estate, owned by my old school colleague, Andy Hillock.  It was a very pleasant stay and a fitting end to a wonderful trip before our return home the next day.

We had covered no less that 8000 kms – for the second time in 4 months!  Our trip bird list stood at 240 species, we had seen two lifers, and my Challenge total had risen appreciably.  We were very pleased with our efforts, but needed a break from the road!  It will be a while before we do 16000 kms in 4 months again!!

Arid Areas Birding – Part 5, Kgalagadi National Park

We entered the park through the Twee Rivieren Gate and proceeded to our first stop at Nossob Camp where we had a river front chalet for three nights.  There were the usual stops along the way to look at sleeping lions, a leopard half hidden under a bush and a stretching cheetah.  It was very hot and the few birds that we saw were gasping for air!

Mornings were spent at the waterholes around the Nossob area and the large flocks of Cape Turtle Doves and their pursuing Lanner Falcons were a sight to behold.  There were, of course, other smaller birds present, such at Yellow Canaries, Shaft-tailed Wydahs, Red-headed Weavers and the ubiquitous Lark-like Buntings, as well as the odd raptor.  Swallow-tailed Bee-Eaters provided bright flashes of colour, and various antelope wandered by.

From Nossob, we moved on to the wonderful Grootkolk bush camp, a place where one can really relax and watch the action around the waterhole.  During our short visit, it was dominated by a pair of Martial Eagles, whilst the action around our tent was mainly Sociable Weavers.  I had been searching for a Barn Owl for some years and on the day we moved on from Grootkolk to Gharagab Camp, we saw no less than 4 of them!

Gharagab is always a pleasure, and the drive there through the sand dunes is really enjoyable.  There had been some rain so the desert was looking quite green, with many Thunderbolt (Sesamum triphyllum) flowers in evidence.  We saw a couple of Honey Badgers digging for prey and they were attended by the inevitable Pale Chanting Goshawks, which prey on animals trying to escape from the Badgers.  Sadly, we did not have any close encounters with predators at the camp – these are always recorded in the Visitors’ Books but seem to happen only on nights when we are not present!

We spent another night – interrupted by a male lion making an awful racket outside our bedroom – at Nossob, before moving on to Twee Rivieren for one night. Our drive from there to Mata Mata the next morning produced a good showing of birds along the Auob river.  We spent three nights at Mata Mata.  Rain threatened but did not materialise, however, we were able to cool off by showering in our clothes and sitting on the deck in the breeze!  We saw a Groundscraper Thrush in the camp, having searched all of SA for one – what a relief!!

We met quite a few other birders from Hermanus in the Park and we all agreed that the drought appears to have caused quite a drop in the numbers of most birds, especially raptors.  Our Challenge list, did, however, benefit from the addition of a few more species, and we were glad to add a new lifer, in the form of a Rufous-cheeked Nightjar, seen and heard at Grootkolk


Arid Areas Birding – Part 4, Swakopmund to Ashkam

Leaving Swakopmund, we drove inland again on our way to Hohenstein Lodge.  We detoured via the Spitzkoppe, where we were able to enjoy the magnificent mountain scenery.  The white-tailed Shrike made its appearance, but we were disappointed not to see the Carp’s Tit, a local special.

Hohenstein Lodge is situated below the highest peaks of the Erongo Mountains and the cliffs loomed high above us.  At night there were pinpricks of light from the illegal crystal hunters who mine the dangerous slopes.  Hohenstein was comfortable, but very hot.  We were alone on our first night, but joined by 15 German tourists on the second night.  A drive through the Erongo Conservancy to Omaruru revealed some interesting countryside, but did not produce many birds, although we did see a couple of Monteiro’s Hornbills.

Our drive back south was interrupted by a puncture which we managed to get repaired in Usakos, despite there being no electricity!  Just south of Windhoek we popped into a side road to relieve ourselves and have a cup of coffee and were surprised by the sign on the road, banning peeing and pooping!!

We spent a night at Mariental at River Chalets, giving ourselves the opportunity to explore the irrigation settlement for birds.  It is always a good area and we saw a number of species, before sitting down to dinner at their roadhouse, which was packed, as it must be the only place to eat in the town.  We ended up enjoying some company as we invited another couple, who could not get a table, to join us.  Much wine was consumed!

Next day we took the road to the border at Rietfontein, before covering the last stretch to Ashkam, our overnight stop.  We had done all our shopping for our stay in the Kgalaghadi at Mariental, and were very disappointed to have all our fruit and vegetables confiscated at the border!  It seemed we would have to survive on Beer, Wine, Meat and Bread!

Arid Areas Birding – Part 3, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay

It was a pleasure arriving in Swakopmund and being able to enjoy some cooler weather after the inland heat.  Swakopmund is a sophisticated destination where one can stay in first class accommodation and enjoy very good food.  Added to that, the area, especially around Walvis Bay, is a birder’s paradise.

We had our first taste of what was to come with a visit to the salt pans north of the town, but the real bonanza was the area south of Walvis Bay!  This must rank as one of the birding wonders of the world, with thousands of waders wherever one looks!  Of course, we were not only interested in waders as we wanted to see the rare Dune Lark, but we were once again, not successful.  Sure, we could have hired a professional for around R3000 for the two of us, but we wanted to do it alone.  We did, however, see many Gray’s Larks.

The area is a real tourist destination and there were desert tours going in every direction, specially to Sandwich Harbour.  We decided not to spend the extra time driving there, although it might have produced our Dune Lark, and concentrated instead on the salt pans. It really was wonderful to see so many birds and we had quite a time trying to identify them all – needless to say, we failed in a number of cases.  Nevertheless, our Challenge list was starting to grow, after a long period of nothing new.

Of special interest was a Pacific Golden Plover.  I sent a small image to Trevor Hardacre and he suggested it was an American Golden Plover, but I had studied it for a long time and stick with my identification.

Arid Areas Birding – Part 2, Aus to Swakopmund

The drive from Aus to Savanna Farm, our next stop was uneventful.  We decided to go via Keetmanshoop as we were told that the gravel road from Seeheim to Grunau was really bad.  We have stayed at Savanna Farm previously and knew what to expect.  Strangely it was quite cool as a cold front was blowing through.

We wanted to see Rosy-faced Lovebirds and were not disappointed when a flock flew past.  Our drives around the farm also gave us the opportunity to see Stark’s Lark and a number of other species.  We were now in the land of the Sociable Weavers and their nests littered the skyline.

Our next stop was at the tented camp in the dunes at Teufelskrallen, near Kalkrand.  By now the temperature had soared and we spent the afternoon alternately standing in the shower, or sitting in the breeze getting cool with wet clothes on!  Birds were few and far between!

We spent a night in Windhoek, hoping to do some birding in the Daan Viljoen Reserve, but we were bitterly disappointed to find it so hot and dry that there was nothing to see!  The same applied to the Avis Dam site and the Botanical Gardens, so that we were quite glad to move on to Swakopmund, but more about that later!

Arid Areas Birding – Part 1, Hermanus to Aus

Nam Kgal 2
Our proposed route in blue.  The red route was in November.

Having completed an extensive trip around eastern and northern SA in November, we decided to try our luck in the arid western portion of the area, including southern and central Namibia.  Our first leg was to drive to Springbok, a long, hot drive with little opportunity to see new species.  We did have a serious attempt at finding a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler or two in the granite koppies around the town, but to no avail.

Next day saw us heading down to Port Nolloth and on to Alexander Bay, where our target was the Barlow’s Lark.  Once again we were disappointed not to find this elusive little bird, but we were astounded by the beautiful day in Port Nolloth.  The sea was like a lake and it was warm and sunny – a perfect beach day with no wind at all.  There were thousands of cormorants on the small islands offshore and we saw some waders, including a Ruff, on the beach.

Crossing the border into Namibia at Alexander Bay was an interesting experience and we made a brief stop in Oranjemund – a place where we spent many years!  It has certainly changed, especially as it is now an open town.  We took the drive along the north bank of the Orange River to Rosh Pinah.  This has recently been tarred and is an excellent and comfortable way to see this section of the Richtersveld.  Birds, however, were few and far between.  From Rosh Pinah to Aus, a section of around 170 kms, we drove through a virtually lifeless desert, and did not see a single living creature over a 150 kms stretch!!

We stayed in the charming Orange House in Aus.  It is close to the jail, so we heard some loud shouting from the inmates until they quietened down as evening fell (Thank Goodness!)  Aus is a quaint little village with a good hotel and gives one access to the wild horses of Namibia, but we only saw two.


Floating Pillows

A visit to Strandfontein last week, in search of the elusive Red-necked Phalarope, was unsuccessful.  There were so many birds present that it was like looking for a needle in a haystack!  What we did see, however, was this assemblage of floating pillows!


The Epic, Part 6 – Waterberg to Hermanus

We drove from the Waterberg to our overnight stop in Mahikeng.  The less said about Mahikeng, the better.  It is the most disgustingly filthy place imaginable – on a par with Umthatha.  It appears that nothing has been spent on town maintenance, upkeep of roads, traffic lights, garbage removal, etc., for 25 years, and it shows!!

On the way there we drove through the Pilanesberg Reserve, an excellent birding destination, however, this too is showing signs of decay and the roads are in disrepair, the buildings and toilets are run down and there is a general air of neglect about the place.  It is not within the Sanparks stable and this may explain the lack of maintenance.  We were very disappointed and will not return.

There were many Korhaans, mainly Northern Black, along the road to Vryburg and then, near Warrenton, we saw a huge flock of Abdim’s Storks in a field.  The main show, however, was on the approach to Kimberley, when we passed Kamfersdam and saw the incredible multitude of Lesser Flamingos on the pan.  It must be one of the major birding sights of the world as there were literally millions of birds.  Sadly, one cannot get close to them (perhaps this is actually a good thing) and no photograph can do the sight justice, but it will remain embedded in my memory forever!

We spent two nights at the Lilydale Camp in the Mokala Reserve.  After the good rains experienced further north, it was tragic to see how dry it was – the drought is really bad from there southwards.  Fortunately there is still some water at the waterholes, and in the grasslands in the north of the Reserve near Lilydale, there were vast herds of all manner of antelope, especially buffalo.  We searched diligently for Coursers, but without any success, however, we did get around 80 other species whilst there, but the dryness and the dust left us in despair.

We traveled south for our last two nights at the Karoo National Park.  The camp is very comfortable and we were impressed with the Interpretive Centre, but once again the drought was taking its toll and the birds were definitely in short supply.  We managed a few more ticks for our trip list and got the total to 427 which we felt was not too bad, but way short of what such a long trip could have yielded.

Our journey home was a nightmare with a major truck accident on the N1 near Beaufort West holding us up for an hour or so when around 300 trucks and many cars were held up in a queue about 6 kms long!  The chaos of speeding vehicles, trying to escape this mess, caused us some very scary moments and we diverted from the N1 at Laingsburg for a long drive home on some bad gravel roads, but free from the dangers of the highway!

It was a truly epic trip and it contributed greatly to our Big Birding Year Challenge list.  We now look forward to a foray into Namibia in January, but first we must lick our wounds and recharge our batteries!!