TBC Eastern Cape Birding Trip, 14-29 May 2022

The excited party was all assembled in the dark at Kevin’s house in Durbanville by 6 AM on the Saturday (Helene Thompson, Jacky van Tonder, Peter and Nikki Nupen, Angus and Frances Hemp). We arrived in Graaff Reinet some eight hours and 20 minutes later, having had breakfast, pit and leg-stretch stops after Touw’s River, in Laingsburg and Aberdeen. Sightings along the way included Blue Crane, Rock Kestrel and Greater Kestrel, Black- and White-throated Canary and Pale Chanting Goshawk.

We unloaded rapidly at 4 Rothman Street and went for a late afternoon drive in the Camdeboo National Park, with guide Leonie Fouche. We passed the Nqweba Dam and drove, and then walked, to various viewpoints in the Valley of Desolation and watched the sunset.

Sightings included Pale- and Red-winged Starlings, Streaky-headed Seedeater, White-backed Mousebird and Lanner Falcon. Back at the lodge, hosts Judy and Zorb Caryer had prepared an amazing braai for us.

We were out early next morning (freezing cold, 3-7®!) with Leonie who, being on the committee, could take us to places in Camdeboo not usually open to the public. A Yellow-throated Petronia put on a display in the campsite. A highlight was finding a Namaqua Warbler and the development of a bird party with Common Waxbill, Acacia Pied Barbet, Cape White-eye, Karoo Scrub Robin, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-headed Finch, Acacia Pied Barbet, African Stonechat and Red-billed Quelea, among others. Some of the group also spotted a Gabar Goshawk and juvenile Martial Eagle, while a Spotted Eagle-Owl was seen by all. A drive in the veld produced a Karoo Korhaan and a small party of Double-banded Coursers bobbing in and out of view. There were Ant-eating, Familiar and Stone Chats on display, also Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Sabota Lark, Wattled and Pied Starling, African Pipit, Neddicky, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler and African Hoopoe. There were waterbirds on a dam, including Black-necked Grebe, and African Palm Swifts and Rock Martin overhead. Two Pale Chanting Goshawks sat on a flat-topped aloe on the way to the old Winterhoek Homestead, restored by Anton Rupert.  Larger game included black-backed jackal, black wildebeest and red hartebeest.

Some managed to spot Village Indigobird and Amethyst Sunbird in the Guest House garden before we left for Craddock the next morning. At Nieu- Bethesda most of us had a fascinating tour of the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre, including the fossils still buried in the river. These were from a pre-dinosaur age, some 253 million years ago. We proceeded to Mountain National Zebra Park via back roads looking for Rockjumpers and Mountain Wheatear, but with no luck, although we found the latter in the park. In the gardens outside our chalets there were Cardinal Woodpecker, Rufous-eared Warbler, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Scaly-feathered Finch, Cape Glossy Starling, Speckled Mousebird, Golden-breasted Bunting and Fairy Flycatcher flitting around. We were self-catering after shopping at the Spar and had a braai with pizza slices.

A morning drive along the Kranskop Loop produced Eastern Long-billed and Spike-heeled Lark, African, Nicholson’s and Plain-backed Pipit and, more excitingly, male and female Buff-streaked Chat, Sickle-winged Chat, and also the longed-for Ground Woodpecker. (Someone saw pink and yelled, “Parrot!”). The picnic site was awash with Finch, Firefinch, Robin, Quelea, Bunting, Wagtail, Pipit, Canary and Bokmakerie.

The dam on the Ubejane Loop had a clump of Spotted Thick-knee and waterbirds including Common Shelduck. Chat-corner was populated by Ant-eating Chats, ground squirrel and mongoose. We also saw Eastern Clapper Lark, Secretarybird, Blue Crane, Double-banded Coursers, Cape Longclaw and Ludwig’s Bustard among the zebras, black wildebees and blesbok up on the plateau. A night drive, warmly wrapped in blankets, yielded two Spotted Eagle-Owls, grey duiker, kudu, gemsbok, bat-eared foxes, porcupine, striped genet and scrubhares.

The following day we drove the routes in the Mountain Zebra Park again, first encountering a buffalo and then adding Black-faced Waxbill, Jackal Buzzard, Sentinel Rock Thrush and Large-billed Lark to the list. Watching a black-backed Jackal, we suddenly realised that the rounded ears sticking up at slight distance were attached to two lionesses, invisible when they flopped their heads back down again. There is only a very small pride of lions in the park and we had not expected to see them, as the photograph shows!

In the picnic ground, the monkeys were on the alert to secure lunch and snatched a sandwich out of an unwary hand. Meanwhile, back at the chalets, there was an invasion going on with monkeys eating the food on one of the kitchen counters. Much mopping up!

The following day, Thursday 19th May, we left for the Hogsback, with rain threatening. We did a U-turn for a tree full of hunched grey birds, “Vultures!”, which turned out to be Hadeda. An afternoon in the Hogsback Arboretum, mostly watching Knysna Turaco chasing each other through the trees, also yielded Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Black-chested Snake Eagle, Black-headed Oriole, Dark-backed Weaver, Olive Woodpecker andDark-capped Bulbul, before the rain set in for the next couple of days. Birding was impossible, but we were very comfortable in May Lodge, with Bev as our hostess, enjoying the large, comfortable cottages, big fires, an outing to a local pancake house and Kevin’s pasta carbonara. We heard the Cape Parrots fly over and saw some outliers.

On the Saturday, we drove through King Williamstown (roadworks around Alice) to the Woodleigh Lodge in East London. Gerard Morgan opened up the Nahoon River Reserve for us and we saw flocks of Bronze Manikin at the hide, along with Eastern Golden Weaver and a duiker. On the walk along the Nahoon River we saw what Kevin later determined from photographs was a Great rather than an Intermediate Egret, with a heavy bill, a gape which extended beyond the eye and all black tarsi. A Crowned Eagle flew up and gave several sightings. Some also saw Terrestrial Brownbul and Grey Cuckooshrike. On the racecourse, we saw small groups of Black-winged Lapwing, Common Myna, several Red-necked Spurfowl and Hamerkop, with Long-crested Eagle on every other post. We were spoilt at the Lodge by Chef Louis who produced a braai feast, served by candlelight (loadshedding) and also koeksisters and malva pudding. This was an expensive stay, but the leftovers provided supper and padkos for the next few days.

Inspecting dams and rivers while driving to Grahamstown on Sunday, we saw African Black Duck, Pied and Malachite Kingfisher, African Spoonbill, Greenshank and Caspian Tern, among others. We stayed at Stone’s Throw Cottages, with hostess Suzanne, for two nights. The highlight of this stay was finding the Cape Eagle Owl in an old quarry, guided by Lynette Knot-Rudman. We drove around the top of the quarry on what had been the old wagon trail from PE to Grahamstown, hoping for Mocking Cliff Chat, but found Long-billed Crombec and African Firefinch instead. We drove round and around Grahamstown in the dark (almost no street lighting) and eventually treated ourselves to a pensioner’s meal at the Spur.

The Belmont Golf Course Road next day had a small group of Crowned Hornbill, being chased by a cheeky Drongo. We also saw Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Black-collared Barbet, while the highlight was a pair of Mountain Wagtail who flew across right in front of us to a foam-covered stream (pesticides?). 

We visited the estuary mouth at Kenton-on-Sea, where there was a Goliath Heron, a small flock of Sanderling, plus Oystercatchers, Greater Crested Tern and White-fronted Plover. After breakfast and shopping there, we drove down some country roads (skilled driving by Kevin prevented us sticking in the mud) and had a wonderful sighting of a Grey Sunbird, feeding on an aloe and also of Eastern Golden Weaver.Supper was yet more leftovers from Woodleigh Lodge.

On the drive to Port Elizabeth on Tuesday 24 May, we dropped in at Blue Water Bay to photograph a Grey-headed Gull sitting on a beach”alcohol “Zero Tolerance” signboard, and then visited the Cape Recife lighthouse, where we found Cape Gannet, Cape Cormorant , Caspian, Swift and Common Tern, but no Damara Tern. In PE, we stayed at Deer Park and visited the Island Reserve. The reserve was disappointing for those who were hoping for forest birds such as the Lemon Dove, White-starred Robin and Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, but a contained a treat in the form of horse riders with a black Friesian and a white Percheron. We read in the Eastern Cape Provincial Nature Reserves Visitor Guide, that some resorts are offering exotics such as Rock-spotted Eagle owl, Spotted Wagtail, Darter Barbet and Crested Weaver! (Some rational editing needed!). Supper was at Panarotti’s Pizza in the Bayside Mall.

The next day, we drove into St Francis Bay, where the port was full of calamari-fishing boats, docked for the off-season. On the way, we saw Black-cheeked and Rosy-faced Lovebirds. In the estuary we saw Whimbrel and other water birds, before a walk along the canals, tea stop and some more Spar shopping. We searched the roads around Humansdorp for Denham’s Bustard, but only succeeded in causing a traffic jam when we were all gazing at an African Pipit, unaware that we were blocking an intersection in two directions. After a break at the Storms River garage where Red-Wing Starlings were on the scrounge for crumbs, we arrived at the De Vasselot Rest Camp in Nature’s Valley. Here we had cabins overlooking the river, with a walk to the ablution block. Walks around the campground then and the next day yielded an African Fish Eagle, African Goshawk, Pied and Half-collared Kingfisher, Knysna Turaco, Sombre Greenbul, Olive Woodpecker, Grey Cuckooshrike(and a one-horned bush buck), while spilling crumbs lured Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Lemon Dove and Chorister Robin-Chat out for some close-up pics. Later two spotted genets were seen playing. Some saw Terrestrial Bulbul and Green Wood Hoopoe on the Forest Trail Board Walk. Scaly-throated Honey guide was heard calling in the distance.

In the afternoon a large male baboon turned the doorhandle, marched into our cabin, leapt up on the table and exited with a box of rusks when we shouted at him. A few members of the troop were less easy to chase out of another cabin as they were inside by themselves with the rest of the troop all waiting around outside.  They broke eggs, put their fingers into the salad trays and left with yet more rusks and a full box of sweets.  More mopping up and some anger as to why the rangers had not warned us about what must be pretty routine afternoon raiding.

At the Global Village in Plettenberg Bay the next day, we all saw the Green Wood Hoopoe, Forest Canary, Black-headed Oriole and Black Sparrowhawk. There were waterbirds at Leisure Isle, adding a Glossy Ibis, but the breeding Peregrine above Coney Glen at the Knysna Heads were elusive.

The best was saved to last and we all enjoyed our two-night stay at Elephant Rest with Adela and Brett Steageman  as their garden was full of birds gathering nectar and displaying in the sunlight, whereas elsewhere birds in gardens and fields had been relatively scarce. There were Forest and Brimstone Canary and Streaky-headed Seedeater; flocks of Black-bellied Starling; Amethyst, Greater and Southern Double-Collared Sunbird; Bar-throated Apalis, Cape White-eye, Cape Batis and the promise of a Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, heard but not seen.  Spurwing Goose and Knysna Woodpecker and Black-wing Lapwing were nearby. We enjoyed forest walks from Dalene Matthee’s Big Tree and to the Big tree at Woodville the next day, but birds were difficult to see in the canopy (just Cape Siskin). Coffee and cheesecake were enjoyed at Hoekwil.

A drive along the Lakes produced Great-crested, Black-necked and Little Grebe;Red-billed and Cape Teal;  Little Rush and Lesser Swamp Warbler; a single Maccoa; Black Crake and three cavorting African Swamphen who dashed in and out of the reeds; Cape Sugarbird, Cape Grassbird and African Olive Pigeon. One person had a fleeting glimpse of an African Rail whilst others heard the call. We tried for Oxpecker riding on zebra but were not allowed in to the private reserve opposite Swartvlei. 

On Sunday 29 May we headed home over Outeniqua Pass, to Calitzdorp on Route 62, stopping for port at Boplaas and lunch at the Bakhuis, and on through light rain to Cape Town, arrivingabout 9 hours later.  We were all very grateful to Kevin for organising such a great trip, taking us to beautiful and varied places, with accommodation well-chosen in terms of settings and length of stay, and a chance to see some amazing birds and meet interesting people, while being carefully driven, with no responsibility for anything! 

 Total birds 212. Total Km 3378.

Frances Hemp

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