This report (actually my daily diary) spans an eight day self-drive holiday in Kruger National Park with almost five weeks in Swaziland. Four of the weeks in Swaziland were spent as a conservation volunteer with All Out Africa (www.alloutafrica.com), based at Mbuluzi Game reserve in the North East of the country. As a conservation volunteer, I was involved in bird surveys and a Crested Guineafowl research project, and supported a number of other research activities that were not bird related. I was camping at Mbuluzi at the beginning of the rainy season and this was challenging to say the least. The rapidly rising river just behind our camp site had Crocodiles and Hippo’s (and there were no fences!).
Birds of Southern Africa (Sinclair, Hockey, Tarboton and Ryan) published by Struik Nature
‘Swaziland’ (Mike Unwin), published by Bradt. The definitive guide book to Swaziland – a masterpiece, superbly written and packed full of information and anecdotes.
Southern African Wildlife (Mike Unwin), published by Bradt). A very useful book and so much more than just a field guide.
Swaziland – phase one
The trip to Southern Africa began on the evening of 25 September with a smooth flight from London Heathrow to Johannesburg. Arriving around 8 am the next morning, we had more than enough time to clear customs, find some breakfast, and at about mid-day, take another short flight to Swaziland. The approach to Swaziland is interesting because as you begin the descent, the green hills of the Kingdom of Swaziland (to give it its full and proper name) roll up from the plain and the occasional river appears. The airport is absolutely tiny, with no other aircraft on the tarmac. Formalities were completed quickly and we collected our rental car: the adventure began.
Over the next couple of hours, we drove slowly north and west, with hardly any other traffic to worry about. In the main, the impression was of a relatively green, pastoral country, with few people and a scattering of small farms and homesteads. Birds were also few, at least from the car, although a Pied Crow was an exception. Eventually we left the tarmac road and bumped along a very rough road for a couple of miles, through forestry plantations, until we arrived at the highly recommended Phophanyne eco lodge. This was to be camping in style (or is it called ‘glamping’ these days). Our tent, on a raised platform, had its own en suite bathroom facilities, and views through the forest. The eco lodge is sited close the Phophanyne falls, and throughout the grounds are aqueducts carrying water. This seems to ensure a verdant profusion of trees and shrubs, numerous butterflies, and some great birds including Amethysts Sunbird, Orange-Breasted Bushshrike, and African Paradise Flycatcher.
The 27th September was spent recovering fully from the flights, and enjoying the peace and quiet of this very pleasant retreat. Jan and I soon agreed that another day would have been nice, especially as it’s safe to walk the local trails without any concerns about large and dangerous animals. More new birds followed, including Ashy Flycatcher, Dark Capped Bulbul and Eastern Nicator. I was startled to startle a large male Boomslang which fortunately slithered away from me!
Kruger National Park (Republic of South Africa)
All too soon we had to leave Swaziland and head north into South Africa. The drive across the border was uneventful, although it did feel like a ‘proper border’ with a no-man’s land and lots of people hanging around. At about 3 pm we entered the world famous Kruger National Park, crossing the Crocodile River, and checking into Crocodile Camp. Our bungalow was on the perimeter of the camp, and within minutes we were watching small groups of Elephants browsing the lush river side grass. As night fell, and we were preparing supper, a Spotted Hyena patrolled just the other side of the fence. It was probably attracted by the smell of meat on people’s BBQ’s. I have to say that I don’t think that a Hyena could ever be described as cute or cuddly (as some animals rightly are). This was a brute of an animal ‘slinking’ up and down the fence line. I was glad to note that the fence looked in a good state of repair. The last bird of the day, and a new bird at that, was a Kurrichane Thrush which Jan thought looked a bit like an American Robin.
On the 29th September we started driving further north into the park, with a camp at Lower Sabie our next overnight destination. To our shock, it also started to rain, and did so for much of the day. The day itself though was a good one from a birding point of view with many new birds including Magpie Shrike, Water Thick knee, Swainsons Spurfowl and Black Collared Barbet. We also saw the first Hippo’s of the trip, and in subsequent days saw 100’s more! As night fell, and we headed back to camp, where a strict curfew is enforced, we saw two Lions – a very large and sleepy male and a smaller Lioness.
From the restaurant terrace at the camp, we picked up Burchells Starling, Lesser Masked Weavers, Black Crake, Three banded Plover, Blacksmiths Plover, Reed Cormorants and innumerable Hippo’s.
The 30th September was spent driving the back roads around Lower Sabie. These were gravel or sand roads, often with no other cars seen for 30 – 40 minutes. Actually, it was quite re-assuring when another car was eventually seen! Lilac Breasted Roller was quite common, once you recognised its silhouette, perched on a conspicuous branch of a road side tree. A highlight was finding a huge White Rhino, more Elephants, Giraffes and Kudu. At Sunset Dam, very close to the camp, we had very close views of Hippo’s, some of which were ‘hosting’ Red Billed Oxpeckers. Around the shore line we had a couple of gigantic Marabou Storks, 30+ Yellow Billed Storks, a single Ruff and a couple of African Pied Wagtails. We also saw some enormous Crocodiles – a rather terrifying sight to someone from Brighton!
After two nights at Lower Sabie, and rain for two consecutive days, we headed north once more towards Satara camp. On the back roads, we found a Gabar Goshawk, Natal Spurfowl, Arrow Marked Bablers and Swainsons Spurfowl, and at Mlondzi watch point, a fantastic looking Black Collared Barbet, behaving like a woodpecker. The same site turned up African Firefinch, Mocking Cliff Chat, Long Billed Crombec and Chinspot Batis, all in the space of less than five minutes.
Back on the main road, with a passing car about every 15 minutes, more birds came thick and fast including Brown-Headed Kingfisher, Crowned Eagle, numerous White Backed Vultures and a stunning Grey Headed Bushshrike. African Grey Hornbill was added to the list a picnic site (one of the few designated spots where you can leave your vehicle to stretch your legs).
As we progressed along the H10 main road, we saw a couple of cars parked and following the direction of their gaze saw a magnificent Cheetah!!! The cat was very relaxed, about 50 meters from the road and under the shade of a bush. There are estimated to be about 120 of these rapidly declining cats in Kruger national Park, so we felt extremely thrilled to be watching one. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away, and at the next water hole we heard and then saw our first African Fish Eagles. Lots of new birds were also in attendance including Black Crowned Tchagra, Green Backed Heron, Abdims Stork (just two), Black Kite, Little Bee-eater, and a Burchells Coucal. From the main road, we also found three White Rhino and two sleepy Lions (they always seem to be sleepy!).
Reaching Satara camp late afternoon, the first bird I saw was a Crested Barbet, and some other birders quickly put me onto a Brown Headed Parrot, Cardinal Woodpecker, Red Billed Buffalo Weaver and Red-faced Mousebird.
At 4.45 am on the 2nd October, we reported for our ‘bush walk’. We were a small group of eight – the maximum allowed – and we would be led by two very experienced (armed) guides. The safety briefing was enough to make you think twice about the risks you were about to take! But undeterred, we boarded the vehicle used to drive us to the beginning of the walk. Just five minutes outside the camp gates, and as the sun was just beginning to light the day, we screeched to a halt. Just 20 meters from the road, lying down and facing us, was a Leopard! It watched us watching him/her for a couple of minutes, then sat up and calmly walked away, deeper into the bush. Yet another fantastic cat sighting, and the day had only just begun. The walk itself didn’t produce any of the ‘big and scary’ game that the safety briefing covered, other than some Hippo’s and a couple of Crocodile that were safely in a water hole. The Hippo’s did, however, watch us intently.
Nonetheless, the walk was extremely enjoyable, with plenty of general game seen including Impala, Wilderbeest, Warthogs and Giraffes. The guides made the whole experience really interesting, and we leant a lot about the ‘smaller stuff’, as well as tracks and signs of the bigger beasts.
After the walk, and a quick breakfast, we were back on the road heading north, and it wasn’t long before Jan spotted a huge White Rhino lumbering through the bush. That was two of the big five seen – but could we dare to hope for more? The answer came within another ten minutes or so when we found ourselves surrounded by about 500 Buffalo, either side of the road. It was with some trepidation that we drove both past and through them! Shortly after that, there were more big beasts crossing the road. This time it was 12 Elephants. So if you know your big five then you will have sussed that we only needed Lions now. Sure enough, two were found sleeping under a bush, and we calculated that the last four of the big five had all been seen within an hour!
We arrived at the beautiful Oliphants camp elated with our success, and were very pleased to find that our bungalow had a view over the Oliphants river. The camp is perched a couple of hundred feet above the river – the views were fantastic both from our bungalow and especially from the terrace of the restaurant. A quick sandwich and cold drink at the restaurant saw us fighting off the Red-winged Starlings that saw our grub as an opportunity for a free lunch. They were bold and persistent and at times it was like a scene from Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’! A Crested Barbet had a nest in a tree on the terrace, and was bringing in food to its young just feet from where we sat. Fantastic. We also added Trumpeter Hornbill without moving.
The 3rd October was based around a circular route to Letaba, which would be as far north as we would go in Kruger. Birding was good, with White Fronted Bee-eater, White Browed Scrub Robin, Goliath Heron, Purple Roller, and Kori Bustard, all seen on the drive. From the restaurant terrace at Letaba, we added African Fish Eagle, African Spoonbill, and Batleur. The bird of the day, however, just south of the Letaba bridge, was Southern Ground Hornbill (eight in fact including a colour ringed juvenile bird.
4th October: Back at Oliphants river crossing (the high level bridge), White Fronted Plover, Black Kite, Wood Sandpiper and Green Backed Heron were ubiquitous and we saw our first and only Giant Kingfisher. About eight to ten Elephants were also cooling-off in the water, a great sight however many times you have seen it before. Chatting to some people at the bridge, we were told that some Cheetahs had been seen hunting in the area of Ngotso dam (water hole) we headed south in the hope that they would still be on view. Of course, they were long gone! But we did see a couple of Woolly Necked Storks and about 20 Wilderbeest stopped by for a drink.
In the evening, we joined the rangers on a sunset game drive. Yellow Billed Oxpeckers were providing a ‘cleaning service’ to some giraffes and we also saw a female Spotted Hyena with three cubs as they emerged from their den. Of greatest interest on the birding front was the sight of 100’s of Little Swifts coming to roost on the Oliphants bridge, being chased by a Whalbergs Eagle. Unfortunately, no cats were seen, nor the expected Nightjars. I also learnt, too late in the day, that some of the morning walks from Oliphants see Pells Fishing Owl. It seems that you need to make your interest known to the rangers the night before and then hope that they will use the river side route the following morning. To say that this was not well advertised and that I was annoyed would be an understatement!
Our last full day in the parks was spent driving from Oliphants to Orpen. Passing through some quite varied terrain, we lucky enough to find yet more Lions at a fresh Buffalo kill, a heard of Buffalo (minus one!), yet more Elephants, Zebra, Impala, and a huge White Rhino trying to find some shade on a very hot day. New birds included a Martial Eagle, Lesser Stripped Swallow and a couple of miles out from Orpen, a noisy group of White Crested Helmet Shrikes.
Orpen camp was a place that we would have enjoined for more than just one night. Each bungalow was shaded from the sun, and looked out over gardens and trees to a small waterhole beyond the perimeter fence. The water attracted Elephants, a lone Giraffe and lots of Impala and Wilderbeest. Around the gardens I added Southern Black Flycatcher and Greater Blue-Eared Starling, but again dipped on any Nightjars.
Back in Swaziland on the afternoon on 6 October, we stayed at the delightful Forresters Lodge. The gardens were good for birds and the Spectacled Weavers were busy nest building right in front of our chalet.
No new birds on the 7th October, and an early afternoon departure for Jan as she headed back to England.
The 8th October was an ‘orientation day’ for all of the new volunteers such as myself, with briefings on the social projects and my savannah project. Swaziland is a beautiful country with charming, gentle, people but it is also plagued by HIV and AIDS. The social projects encounter the destitution and misery caused by AIDS on a daily basis and I take my hat off to the young volunteers who were going to confront this grim reality on a daily basis (and make a difference). Some of them were only 18 or 19 years old and I’m not sure that I could have coped at that age.
The 9th October was the day that I met Tanya, the Savannah Conservation Project coordinator. Tanya will, in effect, be my boss for the best part of four weeks. The drive to the camp took about an hour and a half. The camp and research station is located within the Mbuluzi Game Reserve and is part of the wider Lubombo Conservancy. The research station building is a traditionally thatched structure and also houses the kitchen. The accommodation is in tents. The communal ablutions are open to the elements. I’m thinking of starting a bird list of all of the birds that I have seen from the loo.
By the time I had unpacked, and received my safety briefing (avoid the edge of the river because of Crocodiles and don’t be tempted to swim), there was not much day light left for a walk around the camp. I did, however, manage to see a splendid Little Sparrowhawk (a diminutive version of the Sparrowhawk back home) and a handful of Scarlet Chested Sunbirds. It was dark shortly after 6 pm, and an hour later, pitch black once the generator was silenced. Then the sounds of the bush took over, and I was relieved not to hear any Hippo’s grazing near my tent!! I kid you not.
10th October – I woke at about 4.30 am and it already seemed to be getting light. I could hear a number of birds beginning their dawn chorus, and a Nightjar (unidentified) churring away in the background. Our research task today was to try and find a number of Crested Guinea Fowl that have been fitted with radio collars. There are currently 12 such birds, and they are beginning to form pairs and establish breeding territories. With the help of a receiver to pick up the signal from the radio collars, we eventually accounted for all 12 birds.
Later in the day, I was able to go for a walk in the bush and bird on my own. The joy is that away from the river, there are not any ‘big and scary’ animals that would do me any harm. So apart from some very close encounters with Giraffes (and absolute thrill I must say), it was good birds all the way including:
• Red-Headed Weaver – a superb male
• Scimitar Bill
• Green Pigeon – a superb looking bird
• Purple Crested Touraco
• Helmeted Guinea Fowl
• Fork Tailed Drongo
• Reed Cormorant
• Giant Kingfisher
• Whalbergs Eagle
• Emerald Spotted Wood-dove
• Scarlet Chested Sunbirds
• Tawny Flanked Prinia
• African Fish Eagle
• Lesser Striped Swallow
• Black Headed Oriole
• Violet Backed Starling
• Red Faced Mousebird
• Yellow Fronted Canary
• Brown Headed Kingfisher
• White Crowned Lapwing
• Red Eyed Dove
• Red Billed Oxpeckers (on a Giraffe)
• African Palm Swift
• Pied Kingfisher
In the late afternoon, Tanya and I visited a waterhole and found a Crocodile where none had been seen before (at least by Tanya). This was my first full day in camp and I had enjoyed myself hugely. The reserve is tranquil, safe to walk in, and full of birds. It doesn’t get much better than this.
11th – 13th October was based at the Nisela Game Reserve in the far south east corner of Swaziland. ‘Team Rodent’ were led a by a PhD student from the University of Florida, studying (you have guessed) rodents. The focus seemed to be the extent to which human activities impact on the environment, and thus on the population of rodents. Swaziland offers the opportunity to investigate this in terms of pristine savannah-bush through to sugar estates/plantations, and everything in between.
Our task was to bait and empty traps twice a day. The rodents are unharmed and we even caught a Quail (species not identified). An early morning start was required so that any harm was minimised to rodents trapped over night. It was very amusing that as we emptied or baited traps, inquisitive Giraffes looked on. I had a very strange sensation of being looked upon from a great height!
The process of analysing the catch was very similar to bird ringing/banding. The animal was extracted with care from the trap, and then weighed, measured, sexed and aged. Larger animals were also tagged (an ear tag with an unique reference number) and where possible, tissue samples were obtained. As far as I could see, the released rodents were not at all harmed by their experience of being captured and processed. As soon as they were released, they scurried off into the bush, all except one individual that started to burrow within feet of where it had been set free. At one point a large and unidentified raptor appeared overhead, and we feared the worse. But the raptors swoop at the unsuspecting rodent was unsuccessful, and all remained fine, at least from the rodent’s point of view!
The camp site used by our team was teeming with birds, albeit species that I had seen before. But I did add Southern Black Tit and Grey-rumped Swallow to my life/world list and I enjoyed many common species such as African Hoopoe, Lesser Masked Weaver and Southern Grey Headed Sparrow. An African Harrier Hawk was the icing on the cake!
Monday 14th October. I was now back at the research station, which felt luxurious with a kitchen under a roof and a fridge. I also preferred the sounds of the bush to the rumble of traffic back and forth across the border with South Africa (the source of most of the trade at Nisela as far as I could see). As with the previous day at Mbuluzi, our first task was to track the whereabouts of the Crested Guinea Fowl. All 12 were quickly found, but not seen.
A new bird this morning was Klaas’s Cuckoo, expertly identified first by its call by Tania. We also saw a tiny Croc’ by a weir and a huge Croc’ hauled out on the bank of the river. Fortunately, the opposite bank to the one that we were walking beside!
Tuesday 15 October. All 12 Crested Guinea Fowl were quickly located with the aid of our telemetry equipment. We then started the process of mapping and measuring trees greater than five meters in height within prescribed plots. This was actually quite hard work as it was very hot by 11 am and we were off the track and up to our ears in thorn trees and Acacias. You certainly had to be very careful not to collide with any low branches as blindness would probably be the result!
The rhythm of the camp is now firmly established. The dawn chorus wakes all but the dead at about 4.30 am – and a little more snoozing is possible before getting up at about 6.30 am. By this time, Tania (camp manager) has already completed a 10 -15 k run through the bush, often with a head torch for the first part in the dark! Some of these South African women are made of tough stuff! (Yesterday she got out of the car at a river crossing to ‘encourage’ a Crocodile to return to the safety of the deeper water. It was blocking our way!) The only new ‘lifer’ today was Jameson’s Fire Finch, a cracking little bird that was bathing in a bird bath at the entrance lodge to the reserve.
I also completed, alone, a 7km bush walk in the late afternoon. In truth it was really too hot for birding but I still managed to find a party of White Crested Helmet Shrikes, Bronze Manikins (x5), and a similar number of Arrow Marked Babblers. In the evening, just before sunset, we drove up to a ridge from where we enjoyed a fabulous view of the Mbuluzi river, snaking away below us. A very large Croc was seen, and the air was full of Lesser Striped Swallows and African Palm Swifts. As dusk fell, Fiery Necked Nightjar started up just yards from my tent. With the help of my torch I could the reflection of its eyes and eventually it flew away into the gloom, still calling but sounding ever so angry with me.
Wednesday 16th October. The 12 Crested Guinea Fowl were very quickly found this morning, and a short while later we saw four crossing a clearing in the forest. These birds were not sporting tracking devices so were clearly not part of the study group. A very nice herd of Zebra watched us intently as we drove through the southern section of the reserve, and in turn, I enjoyed the sight of a large solitary Giraffe emerging from the bush.
The research station at Mbuluzi Game Reserve is relatively new and still in the process of becoming fully functional. As a result, there is a lot to do and today we began the task of plotting, with GPS, all of the major walking trails. This is going to take some time to complete. Anyway, we made a start this morning and the first set of data now needs to be transferred to a map so that walkers in the future will have GPS way points to navigate by. It was very hot by 11 am, no clouds in the sky, with most birds going about their business quietly. Nevertheless, the reserve is a haven for birds and even under very hot conditions, I saw Chinspot Batis, Purple Banded Sunbird, Black Backed Puffback, Whalbergs Eagle (on a nest) and a Brown Snake Eagle. After a late and leisurely lunch (nothing gets rushed around here) I checked a fruiting fig tree behind the tents and found a Sombre Greenbull, another lifer for me.
Thursday 17th October. The day started quietly, with low cloud and little breeze, and ended with a bang (a loud thunder storm with lots of lightening). In between, it was a busy day for me, starting with the Crested Guinea Fowl tracking (all 12 birds still together in a loose flock).
I then started driving the four-wheel-drive vehicle for the first time, tentatively at first but quickly adapting and navigating my way around the tracks. They all look the same to me! Having a vehicle at my disposal increased my birding range, and I was able to get to a more distant waterhole which has a birding hide. The waterhole is very picturesque, with shallow banks and lots of blue lotus flowers. Two White Crowned Lapwing (Plovers) were seen, with their strange yellow wattles handing from their bills. The water also attracted a number of Doves (Cape Turtle, Red-eyed and the diminutive Emerald-spotted), as well as some Red-billed Oxpeckers. From time to time, a Crocodile surfaced, and this probably explained the lack of animals close to the waterhole!
In the afternoon, we were jointly mapping walking trails. For me, it was great pleasure to be able to stretch my legs and walk for a couple of miles, birding as we went. Flocks of White-crested Helmet-Shrikes seemed to be everywhere this afternoon, and a Black Cuckooshrike was an excellent lifer.
From a vantage point high above the river, I spotted a huge, solitary, bull Hippo. This was the first that I had seen or heard on the reserve – they are apparently quite mobile and at this time of year struggling to find good grazing. The sound of distant thunder was almost as loud as the grunting and snorting of the Hippo. We stepped up the pace, getting back to base amp just as the wind, and then the rain, arrived with force.
Friday 18th October. The ‘work’ today was completed by about 9 am, having been out before 6 am. We were based entirely in the south of the reserve this morning, and started as usual with checking the study group of Crested Guinea Fowl. There are six birds radio tagged birds in the south – all present and correct this morning – and six in the northern sector of the reserve. We also sighted a flock of at least 12 birds, none of which were radio collared.
The remaining task of the day was to walk a trail and take GPS coordinates. This was at trail through some very nice riverside (Riparian) forest, and a White Bellied Sunbird was a lifer. The best part of the walk, though, was the privilege of walking through the bush with wild game all around. Today there were Nyla, Impala, Bushbuck, Baboons (given a wide berth), Kudu and six magnificent Giraffes. I find Giraffes fascinating: they seem to be both inquisitive and shy in equal measure. They never take their eyes off you until they have made the decision to move on, at which point they ‘lollop’ away. A great sight and one of the females this morning was absolutely huge.
In the afternoon, I added a Green Wood Hoopoe and at about 4 pm, it was as dark as night and shortly after parking the vehicle, the thunder and lightning started. This was an African storm, not a wimpy European version, and the lightning illuminated the entire sky, before we were plunged back into darkness.
The camp numbers were swelled tonight by the arrival of two Texan women, researching the Crested Guinea Fowl, and Dan from the head office of All out Africa. I can’t understand a word of what the Texans are saying, but hopefully I’ll understand enough within the next couple of days to not look a complete numpty!
As we were eating dinner in the barn-like kitchen/communal area, we became aware of a fluttering above our heads. Looking up, we realised that 12 European barn Swallows had roosted on the rafters. I was unsure if they were newly arrived in our area, or whether the poor weather had driven them in. Either way, they were a welcome presence, but for one night only as by the following morning, they had left far too many calling cards in the kitchen for anyone’s liking!
Saturday 19th October. The task today was to map, with GPS, more of the off-road trails and walking routes in the southern sector. Dan, Tanya and I spent about five to six hours in the field, mapping and birding as we went. It was a gloomy, dank, day and reminded me of England in November (although not as cold). Some of trails were open, easy to follow, and afforded good views of the bush. Others were overgrown, difficult to follow and occasionally defeated us. Tanya seemed to have an inbuilt compass, and re-assuring sense of roughly where we were, even when Dan and I felt completely lost!
Walking quietly through the bush results in some spectacularly close encounters with Giraffe – today this included both small family groups and a couple of lone, but stately, individuals. We also spooked a small heard of Wilderbeast, and saw the tails of Impala as they disappeared before our eyes. New birds today included Green-backed Camaropteras (a cross between a Wren and a leaf Warbler), and African Dusky Flycatcher (both lifers). In terms of the Game Park list that we are maintaining, we added Crowned Hornbill, Golden Breasted Bunting, Pintailed Whydahs, and an African Pied Wagtail.
By nightfall, it had started to rain and continued throughout most of the night. The animals might welcome the onset of the rains – but I don’t share their enthusiasm!
Sunday 20th October. Woke at 5 am to the sound of rain! By 10 am even the most optimistic campers were concluding that it looked set in for the day, and the camp looks more Glastonbury than Savannah Bush.
Monday 21 October. The rain hardly abated yesterday, but there was some respite today. Infact, I spent almost an entire day in the field, working with the Texan research crew of Chelsea and Drew. In previous days, there has not been any difficulty in establishing the locations of the radio tagged Crested Guinea Fowl (CGF). Today was a different matter in terms of the birds in the south of the reserve and by nightfall, two birds were still unaccounted for.
In the north of the reserve, we also carried out a vegetation survey of an area where a tagged bird had previously (killed by something). The purpose of the survey was to map the vegetation of areas where there has been CGF mortality, and to compare this with areas where the birds nest. This line of enquiry might shed some light on the habitat requirements of the birds and thus suggest conservation strategies in the future.
The vegetation survey was hard work because of the thorn bushes and other hooks and hazards. A north/south intersection and an east/west were both plotted and then surveyed in meticulous detail. The aim was to identify and map all of the trees and shrubs along the intersections. The only help that I could offer was to record the data as it was dictated to me. As I don’t speak fluent Texan, and have some hearing loss, I probably didn’t contribute very much to the speed of the process. But I did enjoy the sense of participating in some genuine, possibly ground breaking, research because very little is known about the ecology of CGF.
The CGF have been fitted with a light weight radio transmitter. The device detects movement and sends out a signal that confirms that the bird has been moving within the previous four hours. If there is no movement after four hours has elapsed, the signal will change. This ensures that if a bird dies, the corpse can hopefully be found (and possibly the cause of death established).
I was reflecting today on how to describe our camp and research station. At present, the description has to include ‘damp’, ‘muddy’ and crawling in insect life. The rains are seen as a blessing by most Swazis, especially those who rely on agriculture to scrape a living. And with the rains comes an explosion of creepy crawlies, butterflies, and this evening a moth the size of a House Martin! The frogs and toads are also enjoying themselves. In terms of big game, the rains will bring new life to the grasses and trees/shrubs on which they feed. Some of the animals, such as Impala, are looking thin at the moment because there’s not much nutrition left in the grasses that they graze on. From the camp this afternoon I saw a Giraffe about 30 meters away, enjoying the succulent new leaves on an Acacia tree that no other browser could reach. You could almost hear the animal’s joy as it tucked in to all of those fresh green leaves and juicy thorns.
As I write this, we have just has a huge deluge of rain, some of which has flooded our kitchen/dining area. It flowed under the door and through the one inch gap at the top of the door and we had to hastily move all of the electrical cables that were linked to laptops and re-charging phones. Earlier pioneers of the bush never had to worry about electrocution!
Tuesday 22nd and Wednesday 23rd October. The search for the missing CGF (now five!) was resolved on Wednesday when we tracked them on foot. At about 9 am, we began to pick up a very weak set of signals from the radio tagged birds, but they had clearly strayed a considerable distance from where we had last been confident about their position. It was imperative that we try to ‘sight’ them, so we set out on foot, telemetry antennae to hand, and started to follow the signals. Nothing was going to stop us following the signals – not even vicious thorn bushes and Crocodile infested rivers!! We traversed both, picking up more and more scratches, torn clothes and frustrated expressions along the way. At one point, as Chelsea forded a stream (in flood), I thought that she might be swept away. (she is actually very small in stature so I’m not exaggerating!) Eventually the signals got closer, and so did the high game fence of the neighbouring reserve. ‘Lost’ became ‘found’ – but unfortunately the little buggers had flown over the fence into Hlane Game Reserve!!! So they were alive and kicking, but we couldn’t track them any further and if they don’t return to our side of the fence, it seriously reduces the study cohort! I Must say that I felt for Chelsea, - her PhD depends on getting some results, and these five birds had put themselves beyond PhD reach!
The rest of the day was spent in and around the camp, and included camp chores and some leisurely birding. At one point I almost collided with four Giraffes and reflected on the fact that I was hugely privileged to enjoy such close (and very cautious) encounters with these huge, stately, animals. God was obviously having a good day when he created them!
The only lifer of the last few days was a Grey tit-flycatcher. But there were loads of European Bee-eaters overhead to lighten the over wise overcast sky.
Thursday 24th October. Up at 5 am for a bird survey at the nearby Mlawula Nature Reserve. This was a pilot for a survey to be carried out later in the year when the biodiversity of Mlawula and Mbuluzi will be compared with comparable segments of Kruger National Park. We surveyed nine plots, following a prescribed methodology. Two minutes were spent walking from the edge of the plot to the centre (a distance of 50 meters) and eight minutes at or close to the centre. Most birds were actually identified on call alone and at times they came thick and fast. We didn’t actually see much they we have not recorded elsewhere in the past week, but a Malachite Kingfisher nowhere near water was a surprise. As is the norm with survey work, it is mandatory that you walk through the bush – usually the parts with the most vicious thorns and other obstacles, designed to shred your clothes and nerves.
Back at Mbuluzi, I added two Yellow Throated Petronias – lifers for me. I then had the boring but necessary task of recording all of the survey data on a spreadsheet. All 128 lines of it!
Am pleased to say that the there was no rain overnight and it is beginning to look like the weather is improving. I’ll soon be complaining that it is too hot.
Friday 25th October. Up at 5 am, a glorious sun-rise over the nearby Lubombo mountains, and very warm by 7 am. Nine plots to be birded, starting at 6 am. Lifers today included Yellow-Billed Kite, and Dideric Cuckoo (the latter a spectacular looking bird with a livery of green). On a subsequent drive across the dirt roads of the reserve I also found a fantastic Yellow Longclaw, and at the dam, five White-Faced Whistling Duck and two Trumpeter Hornbills. I really love the peace and quiet at the dam, and it always seems to turn up new birds.
Dinner was around the camp fire, with some excellent fish and salad. The backdrop was the sounds of the African bush, particularly frogs and toads, and a myriad of other unidentified insects. Talking of insects (especially ants, spiders and beetles), I’m amazed that we are not all sick. At times, the kitchen is simply over run with the things – and it just goes to show how unnecessarily fastidious we are in Northern Europe about such things. If my kitchen in Brighton looked like this, I would expect the environmental health inspector to be knocking on the door!
Saturday 26th October. Up at 5 am, to join Tanya, Chelsea and Drew on a 10 km walk in aid of Cancer Awareness Day. The girls wear pink – I don’t. Not surprisingly, the lack of subdued attire seems to scare away the birds, but I did manage Retz’s Helmetshrike (a lifer) and a splendid Little Bee-eater. As there were no other humans around to witness our hike, we had to persuade ourselves that we had raised the awareness of two Waterbuck and a Warthog! At the end of the walk, at around 9 am, we had a ‘bush breakfast’, courtesy of Tanya who had stashed a picnic at a waterhole hide approximately five hours before. We enjoyed our breakfast whilst watching a Crocodile – and a Pied Kingfisher, trying to catch his/her breakfast.
Sunday 27th October. All the researchers took a day off and some of us visited a nearby community conservancy/mountain camp. The project started in 1999, and at its core is the mountain lodge which has fantastic views (from 500 meters above sea level) across the bush veld below. We could actually see our research station and tents far below us. Our visit included a walking tour of the village. This demonstrated very graphically just how poor most of the villagers were, scraping a subsidence living from the land. Some dwellings had electricity, but many appeared not to (nor did most dwellings have running water). Many of the men commuted every week to the sugar plantations down on the plain below – another tough life for the unskilled cane cutters amongst them. The good news, though, was that the lodge was doing relatively well, was employing about 14 people, and that the profits were ploughed back into the local community. Apparently the ‘community’ (I suspect that this means the men!) decide annually what to invest the profits in. In recent years this has included building kitchens at the local primary schools so that a meal can be provided. I also learnt that slowly but surely free education is being extended, at least to the first few grades of primary school. It sounded as if this trend of expanded free education will continue, ie to more grades/age groups in subsequent years.
Our visit included a very tasty lunch, although I had to circumvent the chicken without causing offence. In the distance we could here singing, and drums beating, at a church service. We got back to our camp just ahead of yet another almighty great storm. They know how to ‘do weather’ here! Fortunately the storm abated in time for a camp fire to be lit, and in no time at all yet more food was underway. This was partly occasioned by a guest of Tanya’s dropping in – obviously it would be rude not to serve him huge steaks grilled on the Braai. There was some good fish for me too, and plenty of camp fire banter.
The said guest then had to be let out of the reserve – the gates having been locked at sunset. This was an excuse for a night drive, that is a drive to escort him to gate, unlock it, and send him on his way. Our drive back included a stop at a waterhole where we used torches to search for Crocodiles. The eyes of a two or three were seen, fortunately from the safety of a hide. We then returned to camp adding a Barn Owl, Spotted Thick Knee and Fiery-Necked Nightjar to our day’s list. At about 5 am the following morning, the heavens opened once again.
Monday 28th October. The rain eased off about 9 am so we were out tracking Crested Guinea Fowl. The bush was far too wet, muddy, and unpleasant, to track on foot, so we contented ourselves with just radio signals to confirm that the birds were alive/moving. The majority were accounted for. With just one or two absent without leave (AWOL) in the adjacent Hlane reserve. The birds obviously do not understand the meaning of fences! They simply fly over them! The recent storms have turned the roads to a mush, and one route is blocked by a huge fallen tree. I spent four hours this afternoon out walking in the bush. In terms of animals it was really quiet, with only Waterbuck seen, but overhead were hundreds of European Bee-eaters and Barn Swallows. I also found my first ever Southern Bou-bou (a large Bushshrike).
Tuesday 29th October. I was up at 5 am, to start a bird survey at 6 am, in the south sector of the reserve. We had nine plots to survey, by sight or sound, with 10 minutes per plot. This is intensive birding, my job being to record first, spot or hear second. I made a contribution, though, and succeeded in finding a Bearded Woodpecker. At long last I also caught up with several Yellow-Breasted Apalis, having seriously doubted that they existed! Once I had completed the tedious data entry tasks back at the camp, I was free to take a vehicle and drive through the very sodden reserve. This entailed learning a new route because a fallen tree continues to block the ‘main road’ (track). There were hundreds of European Bee-eaters overhead, and perching on any available tree. It’s fascinating to think that I might have seen some of these birds in April on Menorca, or just before this trip in Andalucía.
As I write this, huge moths, and other flying ‘things’ are crashing into the windows of the research station. That’s in addition to the hundreds that are crawling all over the kitchen! The combination of rain, followed by hot sun this afternoon, seems to have led to a huge hatch of insects.
Wednesday 30th October. Dry overnight – hooray! I spent the entire day with the Crested Guinea Fowl (CGF) researchers, the objective of the day being sight records if at all possible. The two flocks are definitely beginning to splinter, which implies that the birds are pairing in preparation for breeding. So with the aid of the radio collars and telemetry equipment, we were able to roughly ascertain where the birds were located. It was then a simple matter (!) of following the signals and bashing through the bush until (with luck) we would sight the birds. This strategy was actually relatively successful, and at one point during the morning we had really excellent views of two collared birds out in the open. Their GPS locations were noted, and I managed to take the first photos of any of the study birds post-ringing (banding – and being fitted with their radio transmitting collars). Further birds were seen later in the afternoon, although these were impossible to photograph.
This tracking on foot, on a very hot day, was extremely tiring. In places the bush was almost impenetrable with vicious thorns and tangled undergrowth. We also had our first snake encounter – a male Boomslang. Fortunately my strategy of bringing up the rear of the group worked a treat: I didn’t see the serpent as it slithered up a tree (from where it allegedly watched us!). In reality, I think that we were all slightly shaken, and the tree was given a very wide birth.
The bird of the day was an unmistakable Booted Eagle (I know these birds so well from Menorca). I really enjoyed today – it was hard work but I enjoyed the company of Chelsea and Drew (from Tarleton State University – Texas) who made me feel a part of the team.
Thursday 31st October to Saturday 2nd November inclusive. This is a ‘wrap up’ diary entry as I have got behind. The storm late Wednesday and for the first five hours of Thursday was the most ferocious yet. Gale force winds, lashing rain, thunder and lightning. I spent the first couple of hours fully dressed in my tent, contemplating whether it was safer back in the research station. The problem with making a dash for it was the lightning – a frequent cause of death in Swaziland! All the tents had lost their awnings and were askew by the morning – mine was the only one not to be flooded!
Late afternoon on Thursday, I got a lift to Hlane national nature reserve. This is one of the few places in Swaziland with ‘big and hairy’ animals (ie Lion, Elephant and Rhino) and is about ten miles from Mbuluzi. I was mightily relived to be shown to a dry Rondavel, with a working shower, and a proper bed. Luxury. On Friday morning, I participated in a guided bird watching walk. It quickly became apparent that I knew far more than the guide – and I ended up teaching him! The rest of the day, until 4 pm, was spent birding around the grounds. I got some reasonable photos that I will post once back in the UK and also finally caught up with Acacia Pied Barbet (a lifer that I should have seen in Kruger).
Shortly after 4 pm, and the replacement of a flat tyre on the game viewing vehicle, I set out on a sunset drive. Together with seven very excited Swedes. The drive lasted nearly three hours, during which time we had good views of common game (such as Giraffe and Impala), close views of a White Rhino, and very close views of a pride of Lions. As it got dark, we literally crossed paths with a family group of Elephants. I can’t quite make my mind up whether it was poor judgement by our guide/driver, or bad luck. But we were suddenly in the middle of a herd of Elephants, with young separated from Mothers, and large animals very close to the vehicle. It was beyond exciting – I was VERY worried. One medium, sized Elephant (large to you and me) turned to face us: ears flapping, trunk raised – a mock charge! The Swedes were by now less excited and more scared. They had only been in Southern Africa a day and were being charged by an Elephant!
As I’m still able to write this, you will have realised that the ‘charge’ was just a warning – and we survived. Back at camp, I had to borrow a torch to find my way back to my Rondavel, and a VERY LARGE whisky. Rarely has a large glass tasted so good.
Saturday morning was spent in the camp at Hlane, and White Rhino came to visit. It started with two, then three and eventually five. A miniscule fence – only two strands of electrified barbed wire – separated me from tons of Rhino. I don’t believe for one moment that the fence would have protected me. It was a thrill to be about ten feet from the nearest Rhino. It didn’t seem to see me, but as soon as I moved, or was spoken to by an over excited French guy, it snorted and looked menacing. We both (me and the French guy) moved back with alacrity – and the Rhino smiled and went back to its grazing!
I got some amazing photos, and mostly was the only person watching these prehistoric looking animals. What an amazing privilege – spine chilling and exhilarating at the same time. Back to Mbuluzi mid-afternoon on Saturday, and a blissful two hour walk around part of the reserve. No mammals, but some very enjoyable birds including an influx of White-Fronted Bee-eaters. I also saw a Cape Batis – a lifer for me and a scarce bird on this particular game reserve.
Sunday 3rd November. It had been a clear and cool night, and at dawn there were traces of dew. This quickly disappeared however as the day started heating up, at about 7 am.
In the four weeks that I have been here, the bush has slowly but surely turned green. Not surprising, given the amount of the rain that we have seen. In places, though, the long grass and many of the thorn bushes and Acacia trees are still dry and brown, but their time will come. If it is a good year for the rains, it will continue to bucket down until February! That, at least, is what the animals and farmers are hoping for.
It’s been a really good four weeks here, with the opportunity to contribute in a minor way to some hard edged research. My fellow camp mates have all been ‘accommodating’ of someone twice their age (!), and the Swazis working on the reserve have without exception been warm, friendly, and amused by my attempts to speak a few words of siSwati.
Whenever that failed, we reverted to discussions about the Barclays Premiership – it worked a treat!
Swaziland packs a punch for such a small country. It is climatically and topographically diverse, and that is reflected in its fauna and flora. It is, in fact, a global ‘hot-spot’ for biodiversity. It is also a nation blighted by a HIV/AIDs pandemic, the politics of which I will perhaps leave until another day.
My final full day on the reserve centred around a five hour self-guided walk. I decided to take walking trails that I had not used before, and so explored the far North East reaches of the reserve. This provided me with a back drop of forested mountains, and occasional views of the swollen river. Bird wise, I hit the jackpot with a Red-chested Cuckoo (a lifer), a bird that I have heard every day from morning till night but so far failed to see. Perhaps this one took pity on me because after calling incessantly to attract my attention, it obligingly perched on a dead branch of a tree in full view. All birders will know the feeling of finally catching up with a much wanted bird. After that, I was treated to five minutes of walking with Giraffes, before they melted away into the bush. Magic.
The final lifer of the day was a Jacobin Cuckoo. A fitting finale to a great days birding. For any hard core birders following this blog, I must tell you about the perils of pishing in the Swazi bush. Stop chuckling – pishing the noise that birders make to attract birds. It involves making a ridiculous sound – a kind of pissshhhhh – ing, and imitates god knows what. Anyway, to the point of this anecdote. I came across a mixed flock of birds and decided to pish, to see if it brought any birds closer. Bang, like an Exocet Missile, a Chinspot Batis flew towards me as if in a rage! I ducked just in time. I couldn’t believe what had happened – the said sound hardly provokes any response at all when I’m trying to attract tired migrants out of a bush on the Norfolk coast. So I tried again, and bang – was under attack again, this time from two birds! I assume that I was perceived as a predator. The ferocity of the ‘attack’ from this tiny bird was truly unbelievable. I shall try pishing next week somewhere near Brighton – but I bet it doesn’t result in a Batis trying to poke my eye out!
Monday 4th November 2013: All good things come to an end, and so has this Southern Africa Adventure. Camping in the Swaziland bush has been a real thrill and privilege and I wish everyone associated with Mbuluzi Game Reserve all the very best in the coming years.