After a long and busy year, Melissa and I were ready for a break and planned a nine night camping trip through central and northern Kruger National Park starting at Maroela camp near Orpen and ending in Punda Maria camp about 250 kilometers to the north. Our plan was to try and look for some of the few lifers (birds we have never seen before) left in the park for us, as well as just to enjoy the biodiversity bonanza that Kruger offers.
We set out early from Johannesburg in the pouring rain, passing through the village of Dullstroom and making our way down Abel Erasmus Pass into the lowveld. Despite the temptation to stop for the infamous Taita Falcon (Falco faschiinucha) pair in the pass, the rain was still coming down and we had been lucky enough to see the birds the week before, so we skipped it and hurried on into the park to check in for our first night. Upon entering the park gate, we were lucky enough to have a gorgeous male Black-bellied Bustard (Lissotis melanogaster) calling on the side of the road. The Black-bellied Bustard has one of my favorite calls/displays of any of southern Africa’s birds. He stretches his neck up while making a crescendoeing buzzy whistle, pauses, and then pulls his head down to his body while making a sound like an electrified champagne bottle being opened. Not a bad start to the trip!
Maroela camp is the satellite camping site of Orpen (which does not offer camping). Orpen is named for Eileen Orpen who made the single largest land donation during the expansion of Kruger in the 1940s. The area is famous for its large African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) pack and among birders, for its fairly reliable, Senegal Lapwings (Vanellus lugubris). As we left the main camp for the short drive to Maroela, we began picking up some of the regular bushveld birds including Swainson’s Spurfowl (Pternistis swainsonii), Crowned Lapwings (V. coronatus), and the noisy Rattling Cisticolas (Cisticola chiniana). A beautiful Eurasian Hobby (F. subbuteo) also gave a quick flyby. On the mammal front, there were plenty of lone Blue Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) males guarding their stomping grounds under trees and many newly born Impala (Aepyceros melampus) lambs crowded into crèches under small bushes.
We arrived at tiny Maroela camp, situated on the banks of the Timbavati River, and were promptly greeted by Bill, our name for the bold Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas) that attacked the car windows and mirrors, and begged for cheese as we had a late lunch. The camp was wonderfully quiet with Natal Spurfowl (P. natalensis) scratching around under trees, Ashy Flycatchers (Muscicapa caerulescens) gleaning insects in the bushes, and Senegal Lapwings calling unseen as they flew over. We picked a campsite as far from everyone as possible, set everything up, and headed out for our first game drive of the trip.
We headed east on the main tar road towards Satara. It was reasonably quiet, likely because it was still very windy, a little cold, and damp, but we managed to find some interesting birds and mammals nonetheless. Perhaps the highlight on the bird front were the Senegal Lapwings in the open grazing lawns along the road. There were large flocks of up to twenty birds foraging together along with Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea), Chestnut-backed Sparrowlarks (Eremopterix leucotis), and Southern Grey-headed Sparrows (Passer diffusus). We were also lucky enough to have another male and a female Black-bellied Bustard, close to the car on the side of the road. In terms of raptors, we had our first Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) as well as Bateleurs (Terathopius ecaudatus) and White-backed Vultures (Gyps africanus). There were a few mammals as well including a pair of Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) pups resting in their den and many African Elephants (Loxodonta Africana) feeding in the Timbavati River bed. All in all, a good first drive in the park. As a bonus, when we got back to the camp, we met the local Spotted Hyena clan that religiously patrolled the fence, hoping for scraps. There was also a beautiful African Scops Owl (Otus senegalensis) that was calling from a tree near the bathrooms. We fell asleep to hyenas whooping, an owl purring, and far off, lions roaring.
The next morning we woke up at 4:00am, made a cup of coffee, filled our thermos, and headed out at gate open. Melissa and I always tend to be a bit optimistic about how far we can travel in a day in the park and this one was not different as we planned to head south on the dirt roads to Tshokwane, back up the tar to Satara, and then west towards home at Maroela. We began the day with several Spotted Hyenas in various places along the road, perhaps belonging to the clan at the den from the day before. There was also a magnificent (and very relaxed) African Elephant bull that walked towards us in an open field with the golden morning light on him. The Senegal Lapwings were all still present, joined in some patches by Crowned Lapwings as well. Under a tree in one of these fields, we also spotted our only Spotted Thick-knee (Burhinus capensis) of the trip.
Soon after turning onto our first dirt road, we drove through grassy plains that contained a magnificent male Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori). The Kori Bustard is famous for being the heaviest flying bird (a title that it is sometimes believed to share with the similar Great Bustard (Otis tarda)) and they are truly massive. A male Kori Bustard can stand up to 150cm tall and weighs up to 18kg. Sadly this incredible bird has declined throughout its range including in Kruger due to habitat changes, collisions with power infrastructure and hunting pressure, and is now listed as Near Threatened globally. We were extremely grateful to watch this one as he marched through the grass. The open habitats along the road contained many smaller birds as well including Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis), Black-crowned Tchagra (Tchagra senegalus), Sabota Lark (Calendulauda sabota), and Kurrichane Thrush (Turdus libonyana). The migrants were back in full force with many Red-backed Shrikes (Lanius collurio), Spotted Flycatchers (M. striata), European Bee-eaters (Merop apiaster), and Wahlberg’s Eagles (Hieraaetus wahlbergi) around.
We made a few stops as we headed south at the beautiful Muzandzeni picnic site where we were harassed by the local Burchell’s Starlings (Lamptornis australis) and Southern Red-billed Hornbills (Tockus rufirostris). As we left this spot, we encountered our third of the Big Six birds, a flock of Southern Ground-hornbills (Burcorvus leadbeateri). The Southern Ground-hornbill is a highly social species, living in flocks with an alpha pair along with multiple beta males who help to feed and raise the offspring of the alpha pair. These beta males are often offspring of the alpha pair. The female offspring, on the other hand, do not remain with their natal flock and disperse farther away, likely to avoid inbreeding. Like the Kori Bustard, the Southern Ground-hornbill is also declining and is listed as Vulnerable worldwide due to secondary poisoning, persecution, and traditional medicine trade. Another bird we felt very lucky to see.
After our picnic site stop, we decided to have breakfast at a dam further down the road. The dam was fairly quiet except for a big flock of Egyptian Geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca) and a pair of Water Thick-knees (Burhinus vermiculatus) with their young hidden under a little bush. As we left, we also caught a Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis), tenderizing a skink for breakfast. Further south, we found an incredible open area with several little pans and mud wallows. A handsome pair of male African Elephants came down and took a mud bath next to the road and a few Black-backed Jackals (Canis mesomelas) skulked around. There were also a few Blue Waxbills (Uraeginthus angolensis) and Yellow-fronted Canaries (Crithagra mozambica) feeding in the dirt. As we left the open area, we entered beautiful broad-leaved habitat which held some of the best birds of the day. The first of these was a gorgeous Dusky Lark (Pinarocorys nigricans), who sat cooperatively on a bare twig for a few seconds before being flushed by another vehicle. On the less cooperative side was a Eurasian Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) that shot across the road and then hid in a barely visible spot 50m off the road. Levaillant’s (Clamator levaillantii) and Jacobin (C. jacobinus) Cuckoos were both calling incessantly throughout the area along with Striped Kingfishers. As we headed into a dry river bed, we were also lucky enough to have a Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis) trot along the road with us, even stopping to have a drink in a small puddle in the road. Another dam further down also held some interesting things including a large mixed flock of Knob-billed (Sarkidiornis melanotos) and White-faced Whistling (Dendrocygna viduata) Ducks and a few Wood Sandpipers (Tringa glareola).
We arrived back on the tar just before lunch time. We were lucky enough to see a White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) and many Cape Buffaloes (Syncerus caffer) as we headed back north towards Tshokwane. However, the real highlight was in the form of a Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis), sitting on the ground and eating termites! Melissa and I have not seen this species since 2012 so it was definitely a nice surprise. Sadly, when we arrived at Tshokwane, we were in for a not so great surprise in the form of some extremely badly behaved Vervet Monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) stealing our carrots. Luckily, this was all they got but they were bold enough that nothing we were doing could scare them away. Needless to say, we had a very quick lunch before getting on the road again.
As we drove north along the tar, we got lucky enough to have three more Kori Bustards along the way as well as many more Knob-billed Ducks in every dam. Nyika Pan held a magnificent herd of Cape Buffalo, complete with both Red-billed (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) and Yellow-billed (B. africanus) Oxpeckers along for the ride. A young, moulting White-backed Vulture was also sunbathing there. By this point, it was getting very warm and the bush was very quiet, so when Melissa screeched to a halt and backed up, the last thing I was expecting was an enormous male Leopard (Panthera pardus) on the move! This handsome male cat stalked through the bush, marking his territory along the way. He hopped up and strolled across the road before coming to rest under a bush. The best part of this sighting? We had him all to ourselves for at least fifteen minutes!
From the Leopard sighting, we drove up to Satara to pick up braai firewood (and an Orange-breasted Bush-shrike (Telophorus sulfureopectus)) and then home (with a few stops for Grey Penduline-tit (Anthoscopus caroli), Red-crested Korhaan (Lophotis ruficrista), and a few Temminck’s Coursers (Cursoirius temminckii)) to our campsite for the evening. Sadly, the campsite was not quite as quiet as the night before due to some noisy neighbors but we were lucky enough to have a pretty special Spotted Hyena sighting. The clan had caught an Impala lamb and spent the evening fighting over it, laughing and screaming at each other. We also watched one of the large females regurgitate meat for her pups less than 20m from our campsite! Definitely a great way to end our first full day in the park and the next day we were headed to Balule (outside Olifants camp) to look for the notorious Pel’s Fishing-owl (Scotopelia peli) and maybe if we were lucky the unreliable Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus).