I have covered quite a bit of ground across eastern South Africa in the past few days. I had the silly notion that I would update this blog every evening as a way to document my South Africa travels. Ha! The combination of spotty reception and lack of sleep (we start our days at 4:30 am) quickly kicked that notion to the curb. There is so much I want to write about and share, and some of those thoughts will likely be captured after the trip when I have time to reflect and sort through photos. For example, I WILL be posting about the insanely impressive variety and abundance of birds of prey. I need to write about the “Big 5” and all the incredible mammal sightings we’ve had (in addition to the big cats I posted about) – African Elephants, Vervet Monkeys, Baboons, several species of Mongoose, Jackal, Hyaena, HONEY BADGER, White Rhino, Hippo, Kudu, Warthog, Impala everywhere, Wildebeest….and more. I want to share all my pictures of Bee-eaters and Rollers and Kingfishers (and brubrus, and boubous, and cuckoos…oh my!). Despite the lack of posts, I have managed to update my daily travelogue with a picture each day (I’m sure you’re all following along! Hi Mom!).
So much more to share about Kruger, but one of my favorite bird moments came courtesy of this aptly named Pygmy Kingfisher. This Kingfisher is the smallest member of its family, measuring in at 4.5″ from bill tip to tail tip. Unlike other Kingfisher, he is not a fisher! In fact, the Pygmy Kingfisher is an insectivore, plucking flying insects midair. He’ll supplement his insect-diet with the occasional frog or lizard. The colors on this bird are just spectacular and so striking. Our guide through Kruger NP, Dirk, has been visiting the park regularly since he was 1 month old and guiding professionally in the park for the past 20 years. Shockingly, this was a life bird for him! His excitement over made this find even all the more momentous.
A few more exciting birds (hornbills, rollers, and bee-eaters have earned their own post!)…
I was anticipating, with excitement, finding a variety and abundance of vultures. I am sadly disappointed. The White-backed Vulture below is stunning (and sunning! Ha!) and is one of two species we’ve seen, but rather infrequently. Vulture populations have plummeted across Africa. Poachers will intentionally poison carcasses to attempt to go undetected (vultures quickly detect a fresh kill and will descend on their potential meal…a kettle of vultures is likely to give away a poachers location). I am quite saddened by this and there is a steep ecological cost associated with their declines.
On a brighter note, raptor numbers are super impressive. Just yesterday, we saw ~100 individuals of 3 species of eagles soaring in the same area. This Gabar Goshwak is one the many raptor species I’ve been able to see frequently. Gabar Goshawks are supreme bird hunters, both on the wing and from perches, and are known to terrorize nesting colonies of bishops, weavers, and queleas. They are common residents in Kruger, particularly from March – July as the availability of immature birds to prey on increases.
The charismatic Saddle-billed Stork! This guy is the cover model on the “Birds of Kruger National Park” book, and rightfully so! These storks are considered one of Kruger’s ‘Big 6’ – six particularly large and charismatic birds that are considered the avian equivalent of the ‘Big 5′ mammals. Most of South Africa’s breeding population occurs in Kruger NP, which supports 20-40 breeding pairs. They may be rare, but they certainly are conspicuous, standing 5′ tall with a 8-9’ wingspan. They are spectacularly plumages.
We left the rich bushveld of Kruger NP and made our way south and east toward the high elevation bushveld in the country village of Wakkerstroom. Wakkerstroom is a tiny, quaint, blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town surrounded by pristine upland grasslands that are rich in endemic birds. The birding in this area was quite a different experience than Kruger. We arrived at our lovely Wetlands B&B to African Hoopoe grazing on the grass.
But our main goal was to search for small and mostly drab grassland birds that quickly take refuge in the high grasses once they detect your presence – the endemic larks and pipits. Not the most charismatic of birds and definitely a challenge to find. Case in point: the endangered South African endemic, Botha’s Lark. But, my WiFi is not longer allowing me to upload photos…so this will have to end on an “Up Next”. Up next: more on Wakkerstroom endemics, crow nests in barbed wire, pipits and larks, and the journey from Wakkerstroom to Mkuze.