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Birding the African Midnight - a birding safari tale!  (2002)

June 22 is the shortest day of the year, which means that the sun's warm rays only just start warming the cold dry grass just before 7:00 in the morning. Birding in midwinter conjures up images of quiet desolation - a depressed wait for better, warmer days. Yet the rich diversity of the African Savannah will not be quelled - even at the year's midnight. This account highlights some of the sights and sounds enjoyed on a birding safari for Jim Nix, a US citizen, in late June of 2002.

Day 1 - South African Plateaux in midwinter

Our Safari starts on the chill hillsides of the highveld, 100 metres higher than Kathmandu, where we explore a wooded gully for a calling Grassbird, usually a tricky character to see, the chill brings them out into the sunshine, and we have crippling eyeball views of the intricately striped plumage of this bird. The hills of Suikerbosrand are alive with migrant Sentinel Rock Thrush, and Mountain Wheatear, but we have to work hard to find the Greywinged Francolin, which forage in the short grass on the summit. In the dry thornveld in the west of the reserve, we get excellent views of Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler, ParadiseWhydah and Blackcheeked Waxbill.

At the Marievale bird Sanctuary we encounter a large number of stunning African Snipe, foraging on mudflats well in the open. This bird is much less concerned at our presence than would be the case in summer. Also on view are a number of African Rail, as well as Hottentot Teal, Goliath Heron, African Spoonbill and Purple Swamphen. Non-breeding widows are much in evidence, with Long-tailed and the more restricted Redshouldered both appearing common. As we leave a quartering Marsh Owl catches our eye, and this one settles on a fence post a short distance away, allowing for superb viewing of this stunning bird.

A very diverse day with 121 Species Recorded.

Day 2 - North into the Bushveld (Dinokeng)

The early morning finds us in the highveld grasslands at 1600 meters above sea level. This area, east of Pretoria is renowned for grassland birds, and did not dissapoint. A dramatic encounter between two different species of Francolin was observed, with the Western Orange River Francolin, seeming dominant over the eastern, Redwinged Francolin. Then it was on to a highveld pan, situated on South Africa's high plateaux, where a number of water birds are to be seen. Flamingos congregate here in dry periods, when the preferred, saline pans elsewhere have dried up. Today we saw both Lesser and Greater flamingo, as well as Intermediate Egret, Southern Pochard and Cape Shoveller. Also present were a number of Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, as well as an assortment of plovers and other waterfowl.

We then head northwards, down off the edge of the escarpment into the warmer country - that is Dinokeng or "place of rivers". Here we encounter the first of many White-fronted Bee-eater. Soon afterwards we saw a splendid juvenile African Hawk Eagle, sitting in the shade of a large tree, before swooping off and displaying it's characteristic pale orange underwings. The next raptor we ran into was a typically upright Brown Snake Eagle, sitting on a telecommunications tower above the road. We then enter the Seringveld conservancy - an area of rolling hills and diverse, mainly broadleaved woodland. This offers excellent birding, and top birds of the afternoon were a superb African Cuckoo-Hawk, which soared right above us, displaying it's boldly marked chestnut bars and underwing, and big round eyes. Here we also ran into Cardinal and Bearded Woodpecker, Striped and Pied Kingfisher,Burnt-necked Eremomela and Black Flycatcher. As evening loomed we arrived at the wonderful atmospheric Panorama Game Lodge. Here we enjoy a cold beer with the setting sun and the calls of Francolin. Later we are served a delicious meal around the fire - African boma-style.

125 Species Recorded, Trip total: 171 species

Day 3 - Thornveld and Plains Birding

Day 3 saw us make an early start for the thornveld woodland to the north of the Seringveld. Early on we encountered several altitudinal migrants such as Olive Thrush and Cape Robin that make short altitudinal movements over the short winter period. This was to be an accipiter day, and we encountered Juvenile Little Sparrowhawk and Gabar Goshawk fairly early on. We had wonderful views of Giant Kingfisher and Hamerkop at the Elands river bridge, and knew we were into the bushveld proper as birds such as Burchell's Glossy Starling and Lilac-breasted Roller made their appearance.

On into the dry, harsh thornveld west of the Great North road and we begin to encounter several of the thornveld specials of the area: the striking Southern Pied Babbler, an oddly plumaged Pale Chanting Goshawk, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Kalahari Robin, and the stunning Violet-eared Waxbill. A table is set for a field-brunch, enjoyed under the shade of an acacia tree. The brunch is disturbed once or twice as 4 Redbilled Oxpeckers argue about which of two stud bulls has the best ticks, and a party of busy Burn't necked Eremomela come to visit. We then enjoy some excellent late morning birding, headed up by a gaggle of Redbilled Buffalo Weaver and a host of other bushveld species, including an iridescent Marico Sunbird feed on a particularly attractive tree.

On the dry Kgomo-kgomo floodplains we stalk a party of Temminck's Courser and enjoy a flock of Chestnut-backed Finchlark. Here we also encounter that dry country specialist: the intricately marked Scaly-feathered Finch.

At Borakolalo National Park, a variety of bushveld and water birds are encountered, including no less than 9 African Fish Eagles, Redbilled and Southern Yellowbilled Hornbill, Eastern Black-headed Oriole, White Helmet Shrike and Violet-eared Waxbill.

Mammals seen include Giraffe, Sable Antelope, Kudu, Impala, Vervet Monkey and Yellow Mongoose.

The bushcamp where we stay is supremely peaceful and quiet, and the traditional South African braai around a huge fire, is punctuated by the eery cries of Black-backed Jackal.

126 Species Recorded, Trip total: 217 species

Day 4: Borakolalo Dawn

A early start to get the best out of the broadleaved woodland pays dividends and we see: Brubru, Short-toed Rock Thrush, Redheaded Weaver, Pallid Flycatcher and Fantailed Flycatcher are on offer. We are interrupted by a group of 3 White (Square-lipped) Rhinocerous, which amble hurriedly past us. Also in the woodland areas, we encounter Grey Penduline Tit, Striped Kingfisher, Meyer's Parrot and Grey-backed Camaroptera. In the riverine habitat along the river, we see Greenbacked Heron, Half-collared Kingfisher, Black Crake, and a superb Shikra (Little-banded Goshawk)

In the dry acacia area near the river, we see some more good birds, including White-throated Robin, a large mixed flock of Redbilled and Jameson's Firefinch, Blue waxbill and Melba finch (Green-winged Pytilia) . We also run into some superb Kudu, and see plenty more Mammals, including Bushbuck, Tsessebe, Common Duiker and Banded Mongoose.

Airline departures wait for no-one and it is with some regret that we leave Borakolalo and head towards Johannesburg International, some 2 hours away. We are delayed by a family of Bennett's Woodpecker, a pair of Purple Roller, and the striking Black-breasted Snake Eagle. The latter is busy eating a snake on the wing, and as we watch it circling around, the length of snake dangling from the raptors mouth gradually shrinks, until it disappears, and the bird soars off into the distance.

110 Species Recorded, Trip total: 234 species

Of the trip total 227 species were seen. All in all Jim saw just on 200 lifers in this African birding experience.

If you would like a copy of the full Trip List, please e-mail us.

Report by Etienne Marais
Posted 27 July 2002

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