Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve, South Africa: Nov 11, 2012

While I have certainly enjoyed the last year working and birding in Central Brazil, I jumped at the chance to do three weeks of temporary duty in West Africa when the opportunity was recently offered to me. I had to cut my time in Tanzania short a few years ago, and I’ve been yearning to get back to the continent ever since, where challenges and hardships combine to make birding a more rewarding adventure than in more developed parts of the world. On our way to Lagos, Nigeria, where my colleague Mike and I would be working, we stopped overnight in South Africa, setting up a day trip to several reserves outside of Johannesburg with the help of Chris Lotz from Birding Ecotours. Despite arriving sleepless after an overnight flight from São Paulo, we hit the ground running, meeting Martin Benadie, who was to be our guide for the day, and heading out to Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve located just an hour’s drive away.

As a birder, surfer, and oenophile from San Diego, I’ve always wanted to visit South Africa, which strikes me as a wilder more troubled version of California. I knew the country was a world apart from the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, but I was still amazed by the quality of the airport, roads, and general infrastructure, which no doubt received a recent face lift in preparation for the 2010 World Cup. Along the way we peppered Marin with a few naïve questions about South Africa’s current development trends and socioeconomic issues, passing several informal shantytowns that have sprung up back from the highway. Martin himself had grown up in Zimbabwe, and his family resettled in South Africa in the late 1990’s after being forced out during Mugabe’s land reform movement. He speaks five languages and is trained as a biologist, working as a free-lance guide and leading high-end trips for Wilderness-Safaris. As we left Johannesburg and its problems behind, the conversation to turned to birds.

Before entering the reserve, which protects high-altitude rocky grasslands, we birded the lower altitude grasslands along the entrance road. Martin impressed me immediately with his visual and aural command of the tricky cisticola genus, a group of African warblers that are small, secretive, and similarly patterned. For the uninitiated, cisticolas are hard as hell to identify without extensive knowledge of their calls and respective habitats, but Martin soon had me differentiating between Levaillant’s, Cloud, Wing-Snapping, and Zitting Cisticolas (we saw a formidable total of six cisticola species over the day). For Mike, a novice birder, the grasslands and their avian inhabitants were probably short of spectacular, but he definitely seemed impressed by the display flights of the many male Long-Tailed Widowbirds present. Other good ticks in this area included Cape Longclaw and White-Backed Duck at a pond, although we couldn’t get our binoculars onto a calling Southern Black Korhaan, a bustard endemic to South Africa.

As it was Saturday, the reserve was already bustling with weekend warriors, wildlife enthusiasts and athletes in training alike. With no large predators present in the park except for a few leopards in the woodland sections, visitors are free to run or bike the paved roads, and we regularly dodged cyclists as we stepped out of the car to track down a bird among the rocky highlands. Martin’s well-trained ear had us stopping every few hundred meters to train or binoculars on a new bird.  Bokmakierie, a colorful bush-shrike, Rufous-Naped and Eastern Long-Billed Larks, and Cape Grassbird were all good finds, while more common birds included Common Stonechat, Capped and Mountain Wheatears, Ant-Eating Chat, Mocking Cliff Chat, and Cape Rock Thrush. The late morning weather was sunny and breezy, and we continued to rack up more new birds, fighting off sleep with brief moments of action and swigs of hot coffee.

There are several rest stops and campgrounds in the woodland areas of the park, and these also proved productive birding areas where we added to our list. White-Bellied Sunbird, Cape White-Eye, Chestnut-Vented Tit-Babbler, Crested Barbet, and Diederk Cuckoo were all noteworthy ticks. Mike also had the chance to admire more widespread but showy African birds, such as Green Wood Hoopoe and African Hoopoe. Back in the rocky grasslands again, we marveled at a pair of Secretary Birds, striding off into the distance on their impossibly long legs. Martin was particularly impressed with this find, a rarity at Suikerbosrand according to him. As we pushed deeper into the reserve along the driving circuit, we started to come across a variety of ungulates, including Eland, Greater Kudu, Black Wildebeest, Red Hartebeest, Blesbok, Common Duiker, and the lively Springbok, the national animal of South Africa. Not a bad haul for one’s first safari, I was telling Mike, who might not have been entirely satisfied with only a 100 plus bird list for the day.

Towards the end of the loop the habitat became noticeably more arid, and we picked up a few more good species, including Rufous-Breasted Wryneck, Ashy Tit, and Kalahari Scrub Robin, all birds I would have driven right by without being able to differentiate their calls. With the sun sinking lower in the sky, Martin finally decided it was time to move on to another site to close out the day. Marievale Bird Sanctuary is a wetlands reserve thirty minutes away, offering good infrastructure for visitors included several viewing platforms and hides, where birders can get off the dirt roads and set up their scopes and telephoto lenses in peace. Just like at Suikerbosrand, Martin has this place wired, timing our stops perfectly to maximize our birding potential. We got started with Greater Flamingo, Pied Avocet, African Jacana, and African Swamphen, and then moved on to Lesser Swamp, African Reed, and Little Rush Warbers. Grey-Hooded Gulls and Whiskered Terns swirled overhead while we ticked Common Greenshank, Little Stint, and Ruff.

To close out the day, we drove past the reedy wetlands and into the marshy grasslands, where we spotted an African Grass Owl hunting silently on the wing, looking very much like a Barn Owl but being much darker in color. A Goliath Heron then took to the air as we approached slowly in the car over a bumpy road. Martin had assured us that this area was ideal for African Snipe, and soon enough we picked out a few in the emergent vegetation poking their bills deep into the mud. Resorting to playback, we finally dug out an African Rail alongside the road from the cover of the car. With this impressive final handful of birds in the bag, we called it a day, and drove back to Johannesburg in the dark drifting off to sleep in between snippets of conversation.

Our flight to Lagos was scheduled for early afternoon on the following day, and we were laying up that night at Outlook Lodge, a charming and affordable bed and breakfast in the suburbs near the airport. Sitting back with first a couple beers and then a bottle of wine, Mike and I marveled at how well our African adventure had begun. Martin also joined us for an ample repast, including ostrich steak, and we cranked out the day’s bird list before saying farewell. Understandably, I slept in rather late the following morning, but still had time to run down to the nearby Korsman Bird Sanctuary where the usual ducks, gulls, and coots were present. Access is restricted now to the perimeter of the wetlands, and birders are forced to peer through the fence, but the sanctuary’s proximity is yet another reason to stay at the lodge. I even spotted a pair of Black-Collared Barbets on the way there.  Given its remote location at the tip of the continent, Johannesburg is not a common place for a layover, but my short experience was very rewarding, and I can’t wait to return.

Notable birds seen: Common Ostrich, Swainson's Spurfowl, White-Backed Duck, Spur-Winged Goose, Egyptian Goose, Yellow-Billed Duck, Cape Shoveler, Red-Billed Teal, Hottentot Teal, Southern Pochard, Little Grebe, Greater Flamingo, Sacred Ibis, Hadada Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Goliath Heron, Black-Headed Heron, Long-Tailed Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Secretarybird, Black-Winged Kite, African Rail, Purple Swamphen, Spotted Thick-Knee, Black-Winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Blacksmith Plover, Crowned Lapwing, African Jacana, African Snipe, Common Greenshank, Little Stint, Ruff, Grey-Hooded Gull, Whiskered Tern, Speckled Pigeon, Ring-Necked Dove, Laughing Dove, Diederik Cuckoo, African Grass Owl, White-Rumped Swift, Speckled Mousebird, European Bee-Eater, African Hoopoe, Green Wood Hoopoe, Black-Collared Barbet, Crested Barbet, Red-Throated Wryneck, Bokmakierie, Common Fiscal, Pied Crow, Ashy Tit, Rufous-Naped Lark, Eastern Long-Billed Lark, African Red-Eyed Bulbul, Brown-Throated Martin, White-Throated Swallow, Barn Swallow, Greater Striped Swallow, South African Cliff Swallow, Cape Grassbird, Willow Warbler, Lesser Swamp Warbler, African Reed Warbler, Little Rush Warbler, Wailing Cisticola, Levaillant's Cisticola, Piping Cisticola, Zitting Cisticola, Cloud Cisticola, Wing-Snapping Cisticola, Black-Chested Prinia, Bar-Throated Apalis, Chestnut-Vented Tit-Babbler, Cape White-Eye, Common Myna, Cape Starling, Pied Starling, Karoo Thrush, Cape Robin-Chat, Kalahari Scrub-Robin, Common Stonechat, Capped Wheatear, Mountain Wheatear, Southern Ant-Eating Chat, Mocking Cliff Chat, Cape Rock Thrush, Fiscal Flycatcher, White-Bellied Sunbird, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, Cape Sparrow, Southern Grey-Headed Sparrow, Grosbeak Weaver, Cape Weaver, Southern Masked Weaver, Red-Billed Quelea, Southern Red Bishop, Yellow Bishop, Fan-Tailed Widowbird, White-Winged Widowbird, Red-Collared Widowbird, Long-Tailed Widowbird, Common Waxbill, Pin-Tailed Whydah, Cape Longclaw, African Pipit, Long-Billed Pipit, Cape Canary, Black-Throated Canary, Yellow Canary, Streaky-Headed Seedeater, Cape Bunting.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Fatbirder's Top 1000 Birding Websites