Friday, October 17, 2014

Highveld to the Indian Ocean to Kruger and a bit of Cloud Forest just for good measure!

June 2014

I picked the lovely Charlotte up at the airport and we drove south to the small town of Memel in the eastern Free State of South Africa.
Rock Kestrel
On the way we got her a birthday present in the form of a cracking adult male Rock Kestrel and then, on one small pan not far out of Memel, we found two pairs of Grey-crowned and Wattled Cranes, incredible!! It was the first time I had seen the latter in SA!!
In the afternoon we drove up to Mullers Pass, at 2000m and on the way dropped for a juvenile Lanner on a pole and on the next one along was a Juvenile Jackal Buzzard! We got a trap down and the Lanner immediately came in and hit the trap hard. Just then the Jackal Buzzard came in and flushed the Lanner, which was not caught and flew off without trying any further. The Jackal Buzzard also took off, double bummer!
Just before the pass we came across another JB and dropped, the bird came to the trap and was caught, but just as we got to it, the bird got off. Not enough time on the trap.
Birding was nice with several sightings of the endemic Blue Korhaan, Red-winged Francolins and another SA endemic, Buff-streaked Chat. Got to Mullers Pass and walked to the edge of the lovely Podocarpus (Yellow Wood) forest and took in the stunning view.
RT Wryneck
Next morning in the orchard of Memel Organics, a lovely Permaculture garden, we set a single 40’ 2 panel net next to a dripping irrigation pipe and got quite a few good birds; Fiscal Shrike, White-browed Sparrow-weaver, DC Bulbul, Bokmakierie, Red-throated Wryneck and a Speckled Pigeon!
 The Indian Ocean
Setting off the next morning we came across a Secretarybird hunting on a field next to the road, which was a great bird for Charlotte to get, in the old days she would have taken a ‘whole roll’ of film! But being a born natural photographer, she got some very cool shots of the bird.
Charlotte and her first JB
We stuck to the back roads in search of raptors, but there was not much about, a single Lanner flew across the road at one point. Then as we got into the hills round the beautiful wilderness area before Nongoma, we found a Jackal Buzzard. The only access to get a trap down was on a convenient little side track which we did and backed off.
The bird came in at once and onto the trap, where after a while of trying to get the mouse, managed to open the sprung door of the trap and grab the mouse!
There was no point waiting as it now had the mouse, so we went in and luckily the bird was caught. Sadly for the mouse we were not in time. It was an adult and a well-earned tick which Charlotte duly ringed.

Moving on we got to the coast and were driving through the lovely thick sand forest leading to the St Lucia estuary when I spotted a raptor on a pole through a thick stand of trees. Impulsively I swung the car off the road and through a small gap in the thicket, to drop the trap. Bloody hell! A Southern-b
anded Snake-eagle!!!!!!!
The bird came in immediately and crashed onto the trap, the first thing I noticed was the lont tails of the bird, and the way it came in, like a big accipiter. Just then a local appeared along a hidden path and so I had no choice to go in for the bird, which was ca
ught, briefly, but then off…. The language….. Good job Charlotte was so understanding and not the type to take offence!  The bird hadn’t gone far, just across the road, so we set the trap again and waited, no interest. The bird eventually flew off, but only as far as a pole some 300m further down. Hoping this time there were no more Grockles about, we drove off the road and I willed the car through the sand to a clearing where we could see the bird. I crept up and got the trap down again and backed off. Seconds, which felt like hours, passed when the bird suddenly saw the mouse and in it came, heart in mouth I nearly had a moment, when the bird, a metre from the trap, swooped up into the tree above it!! How much more of this could a man take!! Charlotte was being so cool about everything!  So when the bird eventually dropped onto the trap and went for it, we collectively held our breaths whilst edging the car closer through the sand. Then it was caught! It was the longest 30m I have ever driven, Joberg to Captetown would have seemed quicker. Eventually, I got to the bird and dived out of the car onto it, forgetting about handbrakes, the car and Charlotte who all ended up in a thicket.
But we got the bird. What a beautiful eagle, a bird I have wanted to catch for so long.
There are only some 50 individuals of this species in SA, prone to disturbance and the spread of human settlements, loss of its littoral forest habitat, this bird is hanging on in just a small northern part of this province, it was very special moment for me.
Bird weighed 1.090kg, smaller than I would of thought, and an adult.
After releasing the bird we then decided it was an appropriate time to have a beer!

 Cape Vidal
We decided to have a day off and go to the beach and do some sea watching. Driving through the National Park, we saw Buffalo, Hippo, White Rhino and just missed seeing a Leopard! Humpbacks were breaching offshore.
On the way back to St Lucia we saw another (or same?) Southern Banded Snake-eagle!! It was a tough drop, but had to go for it, but the bird flew.
That night we set a net for a pair of Wood Owls who were busy reacting to our sound system, but the wind was too strong and the birds were not leaving cover. All we got for out troubles was a large Epauletted Fruit Bat!!

The Lowveld
We got to my friends Rael and Helen’s house in Hoedspruit fairly late and so got some nets up in the morning.  Not a lot of birds about, but what we did manage to catch more than made up for it. The first morning we got a lovely Grey-headed Bush-shrike and 2 Retz’s helmet-shrikes, what curiously funny eye wattles they have! Also, Bearded Scrub-robin, Black-backed Puffback, Orange-breasted Bush-shrike and a Chin-spot Batis, so we were doing well on the shrikes!
We put some seed out and began to attract a covey of Crested Francolins to a walk in trap and succeeded in getting a feisty adult female!
That night we set a 60’ net and put a selection of Owl calls on (Charlotte loves Owls!). After unsuccessfully trying to tempt Southern White-faced Owl, African Scops Owl and Pearl-spotted Owlet, we decided to put African Barred Owl on as I had heard them here before. After an hour or so we heard some replies from 3 different directions and we began to feel hopeful, however, nothing doing in the nets. Then at around 1100 Charlotte went to check the net and bingo!! We got one!!
For some reason this is such a secretive owl, I have only ever seen 3 and never in the hand so it was a very special bird. Thinking there could be other owls about we gave it another 30 mins and blow me down! Another Barred Owl in the net!! We were two very happy campers and celebrated the evening with a G&T.
The next day we did a raptor run to the North in good ‘big eagle’ country, but there was very little about, we were too late for a Lizard Buzzard which flew. But managed to get one adult Dark-chanting Goshawk and a Lilac-breasted Roller in the spring trap, which made a very good vocal account of itself!
That afternoon we mist-netted a few more garden birds, Kurrichane Thrush, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Red-billed Firefinch, Blue Waxbill, Black-collared Barbet and Yellow-breasted Apalis.
Next day we set off for Woodbush Forest in the Hearnetzberg Mountains, one of SA’s remaining Afro-montane mist-belt forests. We first went via the Kruger National Park to try and find Charlotte some Elephants and we were in luck! There were so many herds about. We also counted 35 Bateleur Eagles, this species is very rare outside National Parks and this is a very good example of how badly this and many other species fare without protecting their environment.
We also saw Martial Eagle, African Hawk Eagle, and a Tawny Eagle feeding its chick, a Secretarybird, and a family of Southern Ground Hornbills! 
Getting closer to the forest, we found an African Goshawk sitting on a pole, unusual in itself, but managed to get a trap down on the busy road and the bird came in immediately, and got caught briefly but got off, not long enough on the trap and too many cars.
In the morning we were greeted with a spectacular view from our room, such an awesome sight of thick mist in the valley bottom with the sun coming up. We set off on a Raptor Run round the plantations and patches of indigenous forests and first off saw a Long-crested Eagle, but inaccessible. After 20 minutes we came across a Forest Buzzard and unlike their European cousins, this endemic ‘African’ Buzzard came in like a shot and we had him! Like all buteos, there is a great amount of confusion with various plumages, but the Forest Buzzard is a very ‘white’ bird, almost two-tone and also a migrant in South Africa.

Charlotte was very chuffed because she had now ringed a raptor her trainer Nigel Shaw, had not!! (Including the Barred Owl) His text from Toronto said it all ‘well paint me fucking green’ which made us laugh so much!  Next up we came across an adult Jackal Buzzard which was an easy catch, a big one at 1.200kgs. Later in the morning on our way back for lunch, we got another Forest Buzzard and then 200m further we got a juvenile Jackal Buzzard! This time a farmer stopped to watch us ring it, who was ever so happy to see what we were doing, it’s good to know there are sympathetic people in the region concerned for the wellbeing of wildlife.
In the late afternoon, we saw the Long-crested Eagle again, this time it had settled on a pole right up above an embankment, it was not being cooperative in its choice of droppable perches! I got the car up a small track towards it, but then it flew!! Over the road it went and onto another pole, backed the car down, drove back over the road and down a tiny logging track where I could just squeeze the trap into its view. We backed off and now were unsighted, so I got out of the car and crept back and managed to see the head feathers of the bird on the trap not 10m from me!
Herat in moth moments in mouth as I knew how much Charlotte wanted this bird and then it was caught! I legged it in and got the bird. The look on Charlottes face was worth every conniption when I walked back with the bird!
Then it was back to Joberg for us the next morning, but not before we got a 3rd Forest Buzzard leaving Woodbush Forest! It was nice to see good numbers of these birds compared to the summer months summer when they move down to the Eastern Cape to breed. Further south we got a Greater Kestrel on the Springbok Flats. 
Rufous-naped Lark

 Abe Bailey Nature Reserve

With a couple of days left, we went out with my friend Michael Parker and Niall Perrins to this reserve an hour outside Johannesburg. It is an upland grassland reserve with a considerable wetland in it.
Capped Wheatear
First off we had to wait for the sun to come up so the mealworms wouldn’t freeze on in the spring traps! In the meantime we set a net and got a few goodies, Lesser Swamp Warbler and Black Crake in the wetland, then set the spring traps and got Crowned Plover, Capped Wheatear, Rufous-naped Lark and Anteating Chat.

Back in Joberg we continued Charlottes run on ringing ticks and got her a Karoo Thrush, Cape Robinchat and the endemic Fiscal Flycatcher.

the well-earned beer!!

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