One of the great privileges of working in the field of conservation is that you get to work in some of the most special and amazing wild places in the country and as an added bonus this has also allowed me to follow my passion of bird watching. My first employment offer has to remain one of my most memorable, when I was asked to work on the rare and endangered birds of the northern Kruger National Park. To think that I was actually paid to walk around in one of South Africa's birding Mecca’s with a pair of binoculars and monitor some of the countries rarest birds! What followed, was a year of endlessly amazing species being added to my life list and the opportunity to really get to know the 7
This far northern reach of the Kruger National Park is certainly the wildest and most remote and apart from boasting an incredibly diverse and prolific birdlife, over three-quarters of the Kruger’s wildlife and vegetative biodiversity also occurs in the Pafuri and Punda Maria region of the Park. Many of the bird species found here have their southernmost distribution and many of the dry western species meet their eastern counterparts. Pafuri is known for its folklore of early explorers and ancient civilisations and also incorporates Crooks Corner, which is the meeting point of three countries; namely Mozambique, Zimbabwe and of course South Africa. The great Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers cut through beautiful gorges and thick riparian vegetation and fever tree forests, providing lush habitats for numerous species. In May 2007 the biological significance of the area was recognised in its declaration as a Ramsar site – which is a wetland of international importance. Punda Maria comprises of numerous rolling kopjies where stunning large trees, many of them rare, grow on the hillsides. Baobabs also abound in this dry country.
1. Sausage Tree Flowers.
From a visitors perspective there are three ways to spend time in the area and each has its own advantages, allowing access to different habitats. The first and perhaps most common way is to stay at the National Park camp at Punda Maria. The Nyalaland Wilderness Trail, also run by National Parks allows you to explore the area through guided foot trails. Lastly, Wilderness Safari’s run a luxury camp at Pafuri where guided vehicle and foot trails are possible.
2. Arrow-Marked Babbler.
The camp at Punda Maria offers great birding opportunities with the day visitor and picnic-area together with the Flycatcher Trail providing excellent sightings. At the picnic area a bird bath attracts scores of different species, with constant activity throughout the day. The thick under-growth adjacent to the bird bath allows the birds to approach safely undercover and early mornings are best, when Yellow-bellied Greenbul and Terrestrial Brownbuls are the first to arrive. White-browed and White-throated Robin-Chats herald the dawn of each new day with their wonderful song. Greater Blue-eared Starling, Blue Waxbill, Green-winged Pytilia, Jameson’s and Blue-billed Firefinch and Kurrichane Thrush make repeated appearances throughout the day. In the Knobbly-Fig trees above, Purple-crested Turaco and Grey Go-away-bird, Black-headed Oriole, Black-collared Barbet, Olive, Black and Scarlet-chested Sunbird all compete with Vervet Monkeys in the tree tops. At night Peter’s Epauletted Fruit Bat beep constantly, while they feed on the fruit of the large trees. The Flycatcher trail is a good place to search for birding parties with African Paradise-Flycatcher, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Southern Black Flycatcher, Chin-spot Batis, Red-capped Robin-Chat and Bearded Scrub-Robin being regularly encountered. The new game viewing hide in the corner of the camp not only allows for views of interaction between the resident lion pride and buffalo, but is also a good place to look for bathing raptors, such as the beautifully colored Bateleur and smaller Accipiters rush out and attack small birds as they come into drink. A pair of Spotted Eagle-Owls hunts around the waterhole at night, while African Scops-Owl, Southern White-faced Scops-Owl and the occasional African Barred Owlet can be heard, and if you are lucky may be seen within the camp confines. During the day, confiding family parties of Arrow-marked Babbler move noisily among the campsites and together with Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills and Crested Barbets try and glean scraps for the campers.
3. African Scops Owl.
The Mahonie Loop is renowned for its rare trees and animals such as the Sable, Sharpe’s grysbok and the tiny, rare suni antelope. In the summer months such specials as the White-breasted Cuckooshrike and Southern Hyliota can be found in the thickly leaved trees together with Yellow-breasted Apalis and Longbilled Crombec. Gorgeous Bush Shrike and Eastern Nicator call from the thickets and pairs of African Hawk-Eagle and Brown Snake-Eagle scour the slopes for prey, whilst during the summer months, the Wahlbergs Eagles return to breed. A night drive from Punda Maria is especially worthwhile as male Pennant-winged Nightjar display with their long wing pennant feathers during the early summer months, Freckled Nightjar and Square-tailed Nightjar also occur in the area and there is the added attraction of possible leopard sightings.
4. Male Blue Waxbill.
An early start driving from Punda Maria to Pafuri is a must and there are several routes to get there. The marshland at the junction of the H1-8 & H13-1 provides rare sightings of Black Coucal amongst the more common Burchells Coucal in extremely wet years and the mature Mopane forests en-route are good places to view the Arnots Chat and families of Retz’s Helmet-Shrike. As the mature mopane trees change into scrubland, be on the look out for well camouflaged Double-banded Sandgrouse, Temminck’s and Bronzewinged Courser nesting near the roads edges. Red-crested Korhan males display and call in the evenings and the ever present Crested Francolin and Natal Spurfowl scratch for insects amongst the elephant dung piles
5. Spotted Hyena sniffing the dawn air.
The first Baobab trees near Klopperfontein Dam are a good place to start looking for herds of the rare Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest and Roan antelope which often occur in the Mopane scrub veld, whilst small family groups of Ground Hornbill strut through the veld predating on anything from small insects to large puff adders. Vultures become more obvious with White-headed Vulture often making use of the Baobab’s to place their nests together with flocks of Buffalo Weaver. The rare Cape Vulture and Martial Eagles use the top of the large power lines which transect the veld to either perch or hunt from. Dropping over from Baobab Hill into the Pafuri basin and flood plain the temperature immediately rises and the dark green lines of the riparian belts of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers beckon. Large herds of buffalo are plentiful here and they carry both the Red-billed and rarer Yellow-billed Oxpeckers, which glean parasites or irritate the buffalo by constantly pecking at sores, keeping them open for longer than is necessary.
6. Male Red-Billed Buffalo-Weaver
While working in the park I had the extreme privilege of being able to camp on the banks of the Luvuvhu River, setting up my camp under a large Nyala Berry. I was ceaselessly amazed to simultaneously be able to view several pairs of nesting Narina Trogan and Broad-billed Roller in the Fig Trees, while African Green-Pigeon fed in the branches above and Tambourine Doves uttered their mournful calls. At night Pels Fishing-Owls hunted along the river bank and Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls searched for prey in the open groves below the figs and Ana trees. During extremely dry periods, when the river stops running and only a few small pools remain several of the megatick Pels all hunt around one pool together. At one such pool a pair of White-crowned Lapwing gallantly defended their nest with two eggs against five meter long crocodiles as they moved about in the sun next to the last remnants of a once powerful river. The drying river forces all the fish into remaining pools which provide times of feasting to Yellow-billed, Wooly-necked and Saddle-billed Storks.
7. Coral Tree Flower.
The picnic site at Pafuri is the perfect place to spend the heat of the day and the National Parks staff are ever helpful in pointing out the secret hiding places of the special birds. Trumpeter Hornbill feed in the Nyala Berry trees and can be easily located by their wailing calls. The thickets adjacent to the river are great places to view Yellow White-eye, Black-Throated Wattle-Eye and Tropical Boubou and occasionally Olive Shrike and Thick-billed Cuckoo grace the tree tops.
8. Female Double-Banded Sandgrouse
Continuing the loop away from the picnic-site into the drier areas Grey-rumped Swallows breed in the clearings caused by elephant and Blue-cheecked and Little Bee-eaters hawk insects from prominent perches. The Baobabs contain numerous hollows throughout their knarled trunks, providing nesting space for Bohms and Mottled Spinetails and the rare Grey-headed Parrot and the more common Brown-headed Parrot. Family groups of Crested Guineafowl scratch in the earth below these ancient trees, with this activity in turn attracting Meves’s Starling, which is another special which has its southernmost distribution here.
9. Verreaux's Eagle Owl.
At dusk and if you are fortunate enough to be able to stay at Pafuri Camp, the bridge over the Luvuvhu River is a good place to try ones luck in seeing the elusive Bat Hawk, as it hunts bats emerging from below the bridge.
10. Green-Backed Heron.
It is always with a heavy heart that I leave the Pafuri basin and head back towards Punda Maria and then ultimately have to leave this special part of paradise. There are few places anywhere in the country which boast such a numerous variety of highly sought after bird species. This together with the magnificent scenery, excellent game viewing and history which can fill volumes, keeps drawing me back again and again.
Original Article by: Wildlife and Conservation Photographer Peter Chadwick: Country Life: Northern Kruger National Park Birding.