Larks and pipits are, as I am sure they are to many a birder, my weak point and I had decided to brush up on these confusing species by making a trip to the montane grassveld of the Mountain Zebra National Park. This area is striking in its scenic beauty with its typical karoo flat-topped hills and open vistas.
On passing through the entrance gate and continuing up to the main camp, the birding and game viewing started virtually immediately with a sighting of six Cape Mountain Zebra with three newly born foals and a very protective herd stallion. This endangered mammal, whose total population numbers half that of Black Rhino’s has its stronghold in the area and it has also given its name to this National Park.
While watching the zebra four Ludwig’s Bustards strutted past in the background and a Southern Pale Chanting-Goshawk flew off from its high vantage point on top of an Acacia karoo pouncing onto a hapless Three-Striped Mouse. Further up the road an adult Black-Shouldered Kite wagged its tail up and down in alarm as we passed close by its perch on the telegraph wires. Herds of Springbok moved constantly while grazing and browsing through the scrubveld and this disturbed numerous insects that were rapidly snapped up by a Common Fiscal, Fiscal Flycatcher, Fork-Tailed Drongo and an Ant-eating Chat.
At the small dam an African Spoonbill scythed its large bill from side to side in the shallows and a pair of Black-Winged Stilts bobbed their heads in the water to catch small aquatic insects while balanced on their ultra thin legs.
1. Blue Crane.
On arrival at the reception, extremely efficient and friendly staff booked us in and explained where we could set up camp. A short while later my family and I busied ourselves with setting up our tents and other camping equipment. Camp inspection by the other camp residents began immediately as a family of White-Browed Sparrow-Weavers flew in and landed at out feet. Many of the birds had rings and color-rings on their legs being part of a research project. A pair of African Red-Eyed Bulbuls also flew into the small tree next to our camp and eyed what potential scraps they could glean from the new arrivals. A Common Fiscal made kamikaze like bombings into the ground landing and snapping up small insects that we disturbed and a pair of Cape Glossy Starlings eyed us from atop a dead tree together with a small flock of Pied Starlings. Speckled Pigeon took over the high vantage points on top of the various roofs.
2. Cape Mountain Zebra mother and foal.
After setting up camp and hoping to make the most of the late afternoon, we all set off for a game drive to the top of Rooiplaat Loop. On the steep incline up to the plateau and amongst the numerous large dark brown boulders a pair of Mountain Wheatear hopped about endlessly making viewing difficult while Cinnamon-Breasted, Cape Buntings and Larklike Buntings fed on the ground in the small clearings. On the ridge my first challenge came when a family of five Spike-Heeled Larks fed amongst the feet of a herd of Black Wildebeest. Fortunately these short tailed birds with their long back claw where easy to identify and this boosted my confidence for what lay ahead with the other LBJ’s or Little Brown Jobs as they are known amongst birding circles. Further around the loop a pair of Sickle-Winged Chats launched aerial attacks from the tops of the numerous termite mounds onto an emergence of flying ants. Their darker colored relatives, the Familiar Chats, took an easier approach to the feast by standing on the ground at the entrance of the ant’s nest, plucking up the insects as they emerged. A pair of Secretary Birds strode purposefully through the long dry grass and a Double-Banded Courser was well camouflaged amongst the scrubveld. Cloud Cisticola are common on the plateau and are most easily seen when they briefly fly skywards before disappearing again into the long grass.
3. Flat topped hills and acacia woodlands dominate the scenery at Mountain Zebra National Park.
With darkness setting in we returned to camp and enjoyed the stillness of the night that was only broken by the haunting calls of Black-Backed Jackals as they announced their territories to one another or by the harsh barks of Kudu as they raised the alarm to the presence of a prowling predator. Occasionally the hooting of Spotted Eagle-Owls also carried across from the boulder-strewn hillsides. The open skies soon allowed the temperatures to fall to a very icy cold but this was made up for by some of the most impressive and clearest star gazing that I have had in many a year.
4. Accommodation at Mountain Zebra National Park.
The next morning and an early drive up towards the Kranskop loop produced a flock of Pale-Winged Starlings as they foraged near the feet of two massive Eland bulls. A family of Grey-Winged Francolin sunned themselves next the road in the early and warming rays of the sun. In the distance herds of Black Wildebeest gallivanted and pronked chasing one another in gay abandon. A herd of ten Cape Mountain Zebra walked up from the valleys and onto the plateau where they started to graze amongst the Blesbok and Springbok herds.
5. Acacia Pied Barbet.
At the start to the Kranskop loop, numerous African Pipit hurried around catching and swallowing fat caterpillars, while on a nearby rock an African Rock Pipit allowed me to check the differences between the two similar pipit species. A short distance further along, three Karoo Long-Billed Larks scurried amongst the short scrub veld, occasionally perching on elevated rocks to scan the surroundings for danger. They were joined by a Golden-Breasted Bunting whose brightly colored chest stood out amongst the otherwise drab veld. Red-Capped Lark and the occasional Large-Billed Lark also ran around in the grassveld, with the Large-Billed Larks occasionally displaying and calling. The steep sides of this loop provide good opportunities for sightings of Grey Rhebok and Mountain Reedbuck, whilst on the rocky outcrops Klipspringer pairs broke the skyline with their silhouettes.
6. Mountain Reedbuck.
As you begin to drop off the plateau into the valley alongside the Wilgeboom River keep a look out for Buff-Streaked, African Stonechat and Tractrac Chat. Jackal Buzzard and Rock Kestrel control the skies and in the acacia woodland, Brown-Hooded Kingfishers call from the thickets or may be seen perched at the edge of an opening. These thickets are also the best place to view the Cape Buffalo while Red Hartebeest and Kudu are more easily seen in the occasional openings, where African Hoopoe also feed.
7. Speckled Pigeon.
Back at camp and after a lazy lunch a walk along the roads provided good birding for Acacia Pied Barbet, Bar-Throated Apalis, Red-Throated Wryneck and definitely the fattest Rock Hyrax families that I have ever seen. Swee Waxbills fed on the ground, while Neddicky, Black-Chested Prinia, Southern Boubou, and Southern Tchagra all skulked amongst the undergrowth. Cape Robin-Chats were ever friendly together with Karoo Scrub Robin and Layard’s Tit-Babbler.
8. Common Fiscal.
On driving out of the reserve we witnessed an aerial battle between a Greater Kestrel and a pair of White-Necked Ravens who were then joined by a Cape Crow, who also ganged up against the small raptor. A final parting treat to this special place was a Caracal with a freshly killed Springbok. As we watched and with my camera frustratingly packed well away and out of reach, the Caracal brought its two small cubs to feed cautiously on the carcass, showing that one must always expect the unexpected when out under an African sky.