Birding-in-the-Bush

Ask any birder to name the three best bird-watching destinations in South Africa and Pafuri will come up close to, if not at the top spot. The diversities of habitats range from two large rivers (Limpopo and Levuvhu) with the adjacent riparian forests, floodplains, ephemeral pans, mountains and woodland, each with a unique suite of plant life houses incredible numbers and species of birds.

I jumped at the chance to return to this favourite area when asked to host a Birding-in-the-Bush course for EcoTraining. Not being restricted to the main tar road (which unfortunately is the only access tourists to the Kruger National Park have to this remarkable area) and being able to reach all the above-mentioned habitats is a huge drawcard for any birder.

Getting Settled In

After meeting Wilfried and Sybille from Namibia and Nicky from Johannesburg who was to be our guests from the week we settled them into their tents and set off for our first-afternoon drive. Rainy conditions set in a few days earlier and if we thought that cloudy conditions would affect the birding, we were soon proved wrong. Soon after setting off and seeing some of the more common species, we encountered a group of fledgeling Dwarf Bitterns. A great treat to see four individuals of this species in one binocular view. Soon our tally reached more than 40 species and we ended the first day with a night drive where we picked up Square-tailed Nightjar and the first special for the area, a Three-banded Courser.

Birding Nightjar

Photographs © Albie Venter

Day 1 – A Soft Rainy Day

The next morning broke rather wet with a soft rain falling throughout the day. Birding was restricted to checking whatever ventured into the wet forest adjacent to the camp. Unsurprisingly not many birds were seen and the best sighting that of a Collared Sunbird gleaming insect from an adjacent Croton bush. Talks about birding gear, habitats and a rundown on owls of Southern Africa finished off the day.

Photographs © Albie Venter

Day 2 – Superb Views

Although much of the rain dissipated the next morning, there were still clouds around. The respite in the downpour prompted us out and enthusiastically we started our second morning, A very obliging African Crake right next to the road offered superb views and for the photographers in the group frame-filling views of this seldom seen and even less frequently photographed species. Other noteworthy species included a Broad-billed Roller and a distant Lemon Breasted Canary. Intermittent rain still fell but definitely not enough to make us turn back to camp. Coffee stops at the brim-filled Reedbuck Pan, offered us great views of a heronry where Cattle Egrets, Grey and Black-headed herons, Reed Cormorants as well as Yellow-billed storks and African Open bills were vying for a nesting spot. We also managed to get the only outstanding species of the resident bee-eaters, the striking Carmine that brought the total amount of Bee-eaters seen to five (Little, White-fronted, European and Blue Cheeked made up the rest of the tally) and out total to more than a hundred.  A small group of Lemon Breasted Canaries on the banks of the Levuvhu made up for the distant view of the morning. The evening drive took us to Banyini Pan where we were greeted by a very obliging Allen’s Gallinule as well as the now-ubiquitous Dwarf herons.

Bee-eater

Photographs © Albie Venter

Our total amount of birds now stood at around 120 species, which of course meant that new species to the list were becoming increasingly less frequent and to see a perched European Hobby, as well as Grey-headed Parrots on-route back to camp, was a great end to an exciting day.  A small disaster struck as Nicky’s bag containing car keys, cell phone and most importantly, our bird list fell off the vehicle during the afternoon drive. We set out searching for it during the evening and although we were unsuccessful in recovering the bag, we did manage to see Spotted Eagle-owls and a single White-faced Scops owl.

Day 3 – Abundant BirdLife

Still searching for the bag, we decided to retrace our steps the next morning.  And so, our third morning started with a big surprise. A Peregrine Falcon, at first glance mistaken for a Hobby perched in a dead tree where it roosted for the night no more than a kilometre from camp; a portent of what was to come. It so turned out that the morning was going to be a great one for raptors in general. We found our first African Harrier Hawk shortly after the Peregrine and had not too distant flight views of a European Hobby Falcon. With the sun out, larger raptors made the most of the thermals and soon we saw our first Tawny Eagle. Up until this point most eagles, we saw were Lesser Spotted’s. A very obliging Little Sparrow hawk was sunning itself in a leafless tree and we had great, albeit distant views of Verreux’s Eagles.

Photographs © Albie Venter

A lesser Moorhen greeted us on its way to small chicks when we stopped for a coffee while Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were hawking insects from nearby perches. By this stage Dwarf bitterns hardly drew attention and these otherwise secretive birds were constantly flying over the reed beds that cover the pan. The only other noteworthy event of the morning drive is that we found the aforementioned missing bag. By this point we started setting our targets on still-outstanding key species that occurs in Pafuri and the afternoon drive was dedicated to finding Black-throated Wattle-eye. On route to the Levuvhu, our best location for finding them, we found Brown Snake-eagle. We had hardly arrived and started searching for a good location (Thanks to Ross, the head instructor at Makuleke Camp) that we encountered a few Black-Throated Wattle-eyes showing beautifully.  More species were added to the list and a mixed bird party contained half a dozen or so new ones included, rather surprisingly a Burnt-necked Eremomela. Later on, our identification skills were put to the test as a Red-faced Cisticola showed itself, begging for an ID while a very obliging White-throated Robin-Chat ended the day’s bird watching.

Day 4 – An Early Rise

Day four started at 4 am in the morning aiming to see the sunrise from Lanner Gorge. Alas, that was not to be. Although the rain had stopped three days ago, seepage made the road impassable and our plans were thwarted when we got stuck in the mud hardly halfway to the gorge. A very welcome Samaritan from Outpost lodge helped us out and we decided to change our plans to search for Arnot’s Chat. Again, this was not to be although we serendipitously found a Racket-tailed Roller right next to the road offering exhaustive views and superb photo opportunities of yet another rare Pafuri special. The drive was ended at the river where an African Harrier Hawk waited on the Levuvhu Bridge for its chance to raid the nesting colony of Little Swifts nesting underneath and just before coffee we had a brief yet distant view of a single Bohm’s Spinetail.

Photographs © Albie Venter

Our Remaining Days

The iconic large Baobab towards the Limpopo lookout is one of Makuleke’s must-see destinations and we headed there for the afternoon drive. New species included Pearl-spotted Owlet. The mobbing party of birds surrounding it added a few species to our list and the highlight of the afternoon was a stunning juvenile Martial Eagle that had caught a rock monitor next to the road.

Only one more drive remained for the trip and because we did not make Lanner Gorge, we were headed for Mutale Gorge for the afternoon. Yet that was also not to be. It would seem that our plans to see any gorge were not going to work out. Unforeseen circumstances with a broken vehicle thwarted our gorge expedition and everyone subsequently opted for a relaxing afternoon around the fire. With our list now on 180 species (Bearded Scrub-Robin was located in camp during the day), everyone was happy with a relaxing fireside chat coupled with a few cold beers.

An Enjoyable Trip, Coming To An End

And so ended our birding adventure in the Makuleke concession of Pafuri. Guests, Wilfred, Sybille and Nicky, backups Alexa and Caro as well as Ross and the rest of the camp staff all contributed to making it a memorable and fun trip. Thank you for an enjoyable trip overflowing with friendliness in this remarkable birding hot spot.

About the Author: 

Albie Venter is a Professional Wildlife Photographer and a freelance Instructor for EcoTraining.