pelicans
South African Safari
for Massachusetts Audubon Society
February 18 – 3 March 2016

Prime birding and mammal destinations in South Africa’s Limpopo Province were the focus of this safari. We teamed up with good friends, Lawson’s Birding Safaris, with their vehicles and two of their specialist guides and we reached an impressive total of 49 mammals and 322 birds species for the tour. Heading north out of Johannesburg we found South Africa’s largest bird, the Ostrich, in Rietvlei Nature Reserve close to Pretoria followed by the region's smallest bird, the tiny Grey Penduline Tit on our first night on the edge of Nylsvley Reserve, a major wetland habitat.

The Short-clawed Lark was the target species at Polokwane Game Reserve, seen and photographed from some distance but an important “tick” for the trip. It was, however, the spectacular Crimson-breasted Shrike that stole the day together with a fabulous sighting of a large group of rare Roan Antelope.

roan
Roan Antelope

Time at the forest around Shiluvare Lodge in the north of Limpopo Province provided very some very exciting birding possibilities starting with the elusive Bat Hawk that breeds there. At a little dam right in the middle of the local village we found a host of waterbirds including Purple Swamphen, Lesser Gallinule and Pygmy Geese plus a pair of Lanner Falcons perched high up in a dead eucalyptus tree.

Pygmy Geese
Pygmy Geese
Purple Swamphen
Purple Swamphen

A boat trip on the dam was another highlight with excellent sightings of a small group of Greater Flamingoes as well as several Long-crested Eagles perched on fence poles on the side of the main road with great photo opportunities.

Greater Flamingo
Greater Flamingo

Our journey now took us Mapungubwe National Park starting with a herd of over 50 elephant – adult cows and calves of varying ages, with a large bull trailing behind. Despite the drought several ponds still held water and the array of waterbirds was fabulous with lots of African Jacanas, various shorebirds and a very obliging Black Heron, plus five different species of brightly coloured bee-eaters.

Black Heron Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
Black Heron
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

A brief rain storm cooled the temperature down on our second day here and as soon as it stopped we found a Leopard Tortoise drinking from a puddle in the road. A Bennett’s Woodpecker and two Yellow-spotted Hyraxes relaxing in the cracks of a large, dead tree at the hide was a welcome addition to the list. Passing through some intensive farmland on the edge of the reserve were large numbers of Southern Carmine Bee-eaters, Red Bishops and Red-backed Shrikes making use of the supports for the tomato plants as hunting perches.

tortoise Hyrax
Leopard Tortoise
Yellow-spotted Hyrax

Now we headed for Kruger National Park to stay at Pafuri River Lodge in the Makuleke conservancy in the extreme north of the park. This is one of the premier birding destinations in the park and dazzling Violet-backed Starlings had cameras clicking furiously. The bird list now increased dramatically as the afternoon progressed, one of the highlights being a pair of Three-banded Coursers, a species only occurring in the extreme north of the Kruger Park.

starlings courser
Violet-backed Starlings
Three-banded Courser

Arriving back at camp after dark an even bigger prize was awaiting us – a Pel’s Fishing Owl perched on a large log in the middle of the Luvuvu River directly opposite the deck next to the bar. The next target species was the Racket-tailed Roller, another bird that only occurs in the extreme north of the Park, and it was found in the dense mopane woodland near the lodge. Elephant, Common Waterbuck, Nyala, Greater Kudu, Plains Zebra, Cape Buffalo and the ever common Impala were all added to the list for our stay, and finally over sundowners at the junction of the Luvuvu and Limpopo Rivers we were able to watch a large pod of hippos patiently waiting for us to leave before coming out to start grazing.
roller
Racket-tailed Roller

Moving south we stopped off at Klopperfontein Dam where over 20 massive elephant bulls drinking and bathing. Some bulls passed within touching distance of our vehicle as we quietly sat and watched the spectacle - definitely one of the highlights of the safari. Lesser Spotted Eagle, Arnot’s Chat, Broad-tailed Rollers and Brown-headed Parrot were now added to the list.

elephant
Elephant Bull - Klopperfontein Dam

A Leopard in the late afternoon near Shingwedzi Camp caused great excitement and as we crossed the causeway at the back of camp we came across a magnificent tusker drinking quietly in a pool. Reluctantly we had to leave him to his activities as the camp gate was due to close a few minutes later.

leopard

A short distance from Shingwedzi we found a family group of Southern Ground Hornbills, one with a radio antenna sticking up above its back. This forms part of an important study of this endangered species and several birds in the park and surrounding areas have been radio-tagged so as to provide essential information on this home ranges and activities.

At Letaba Camp a flight of around 40 White Pelicans circled over the entrance to the camp – a species rarely seen in the Park. A free afternoon gave everyone the opportunity to relax and spend time at the amazing elephant museum in the camp. Amongst others it holds tusks recovered from some of Kruger’s more spectacular tuskers collected over the years after they died.
Ground Hornbill

Outside camp we found a Spotted Hyaena den in a culvert under the road that included a tiny cub that wasn’t keen to have its photo taken plus a well-grown cub that joined two adults in a typical hyaena greeting ceremony sniffing each other’s genitals – a rather bizarre behaviour that is restricted as far as we know to the Spotted variety.

spotted hyena hyena cub
Spotted Hyaena Greeting Ceremony
Spotted Hyaena Cub

Narina Trogon
Narina Trogon
Our final destination was the mountainous area of Magoebaskloof. The forest was actually eerily quiet with very little bird song but after some searching we were finally able to locate a Narina Trogon high up in the canopy showing off its stunning colours. Despite the lack of birds (was this due to the drought?) the butterflies were amazing and this kept the photographers very busy.

Finally it was time for most participants to head home with some going on to Botswana for yet more adventures; and just a week later the rains arrived breaking the drought in most parts of Kruger National Park and surrounds with several rivers suddenly in full spate.


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