Moving on from what was without doubt a very successful stay in the Kruger National Park, our next port-of-call was next door in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, a private reserve made up of various property-owners bordering the Kruger National Park. This is one of Africa’s flagship private reserves, operating under a ‘conservancy’ type principal where various land owners have dropped the internal fences to create a large conservation area, which in this case is open to the vast Kruger National Park, meaning that animals have space to roam – around 20 000 square km to be precise. Now, if you’ve seen photos of Leopards posing perfectly for the camera, almost too good to be true, then the chances are that those photos were taken in the Sabi Sands. The big cat viewing can be mind-blowing, though even this reserve has its peaks and troughs, but I reckon we hit it on a peak, that’s how good it was. We were staying at Idube, and from there the clients moved on to Idube’s sister lodge, Lukimbi, on the Lwakahle Concession in the southern Kruger National Park. These concessions are large tracts of land in the Kruger that are leased to private lodge operators, in a way blending the Kruger National Park with a private lodge experience. We didn’t have any guides staying with the clients, hence the lack of photos from that stay. From there we moved on to the quaint and charming world of Mkhaya Game Reserve in Swaziland, and then ended off at Tembe Elephant Park in northern KwaZulu-Natal. All in all it was another excellent tour with the ‘Aussie’ contingent, and we look forward to their return in April 2017 (for something a bit different…)
In May 2016 we once again hosted Kevin Folland and his South Australian Zoo Volunteers’ group, this time 18 participants in the herd and this was Kevin’s fifth safari with Lawson’s since 2013. Once again it was a roaring success, with the Kruger and Sabi Sands producing some of our best game sightings yet. We started our Kruger section with two nights at Skukuza, followed by two nights at Satara and finally another two nights at Lower Sabie. From there we moved over to Idube Game Lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which was mind-blowing as usual (well, perhaps even more so, as even this fine reserve has it’s peaks and troughs). But let’s let the photos speak for themselves… Part 1: Kruger National Park, 8 – 13 May 2016.
Snippets from the field, May 2016:
On our April 2015 South Australian Zoo Volunteers’ Safari we were ending off our Kruger stay at Lower Sabie Rest Camp, a very popular camp in one of the best game viewing regions of the park. After settling in we decided to take a drive along the Sabie River, hoping for that Leopard that was still eluding us. But we were on the lookout for anything of interest (well, us guides were at least!), and a few kilometers up the road something caught my eye, a reflection of light from a dead branch. Yet dead branches should offer almost zero reflection, and I immediately realised that I was looking at a smallish African Rock Python lying in ambush position on the end of a dead branch, waiting for doves to alight before drinking in the river. It was a phenomenal spot, one of my best ever, and soon the people in gathering cars were marveling, aghast at how I could have seen it. Anyway, we moved on, and on my following visit in June, and all subsequent visits, I scanned the branch as I passed by, but the snake had moved on. In May this year I was again at Lower Sabie, with the same group of people in fact, and once again we headed up the river late one afternoon to end off the day. I was leading and decided to make the ‘snake tree’ my turn-around point to get back to camp in time for the 17h30 gate closing time. As I approached the tree (basically a dead tree with one single branch) I saw that it’s shape had changed slightly, and sure enough, just over one year since the last time, the snake (we assume it’s the same snake, it’s at least the same size) was back on the branch, leaving us a little nonplussed, to say the least. Jason Stewart, who was guiding with me on both occasions, is our resident herp expert, with plenty of experience with Pythons, and is also at a loss to explain it. Maybe just a coincidence? Well, that’s the thing I guess, you never know what to expect on a safari… Here’s some insight from Jason: “Pythons don’t really have a territory in the true sense of the word but they will stay in an area like a home range if conditions are suitable. It is probably a spot he/she uses fairly often during certain times of the year. During the hotter months it’s unlikely to use it, being exposed to the heat during the day as we saw it but you never know what happens later on. Such ambush tactics – where they go up onto an exposed branch and wait for birds to land and catch them – have been documented before and likely the birds wouldn’t see him when coming in to perch. If it stays in the area longer and increases in size it will stop using it as the prey will be too small, there will be better pickings on the ground like francolins etc”.
Here are two other examples of small African Rock Pythons in ambush position on branches. In all three cases they were close to water, which makes sense, as the chances of a bird landing on a particular branch increase significantly when there’s water in the immediate vicinity – birds like to perch first to scope the area before going down to drink. And in the last photo, taken in Botswana’s Tuli Game Reserve with a small ‘point-and-shoot’ back in 2007, we see the results of the ambush as a Python grabs a Cape Turtle Dove that landed on the wrong ‘branch’.
May 2016: we’ve just completed our 5th South Australian Zoo Volunteers’ safari, a re-run of April 2015’s highly successful itinerary. We had some cracking sightings of all kinds of wildlife, though of course it was the big predators that stole the show. Predators aside, there was many a magical moment enjoying nature in general, and being ‘birdos’ as they call us, we tried to convert them into birdwatchers (mixed results, though we are chipping away at the regular participants!). This was one of those magical moments, a Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis) fishing at Sunset Dam, caught up in the reflection of the sky. Note the ‘less is more’ approach – zooming out a bit to incorporate the bird in context, using rules of thirds. Stay tuned for more photos from this tour…
Unfortunately, with the current poaching epidemic, we can’t delve into too much detail regarding this magnificent sighting of two ‘Bhejane’ (pronounced ‘Bhe-jaan’), the Zulu name for this irascible critter. Suffice to say it was one of guide Leon’s best sightings ever, and certainly unexpected in the exact area it occurred. And of course, sadly, it was made all the more special when considering the plight of these creatures at the moment – current figures are roughly one killed every 8 hours somewhere in South Africa, all for the ‘traditional medicine’ trade in Asia, China and Vietnam specifically. Chilling stuff, and with this information creating a somewhat sombre mood for the clients at the time, despite the magnitude of the encounter, we pushed on to see what else the morning would bring us… Maybe see what you can do to help stop this slaughter.
For any birder, owls rank up there among the most desirable of birds to be seen, such that certain birding companies run dedicated ‘owl tours’, involving plenty of after dark birding in order to bag Southern Africa’s 12 species, or as many of them as possible at least. That’s quite a task indeed, and dawn to dusk and beyond type birding is certainly not for everyone. So, for those who don’t mind getting up early (or who will at least put up with it in order to pursue their passion!), but who don’t lean toward long night drives, is it possible to see owls? Well, yes, you can still see owls, and with a bit of luck may be able to rack up 6 species on a tour, maybe more if you choose your locations with owls in mind. On a normal Southern Kruger National Park tour one can bag five species, providing that your guide has sharp eyes and a knack for finding owls on daytime roosts, while a short little after-dinner cruise in small towns such as Wakkerstroom can add number 6 your list – Spotted Eagle-Owl being quite common in such places. A little knowledge helps as well, as some species have preferred roosting areas, some of which are within the grounds of certain camps (African Scops Owl almost a guarantee in Satara Rest Camp in the Kruger). Of course luck also plays a big role: sometimes you get to three or four species but just can’t get any further, other times you reach six but just can’t find number seven. Time of year also helps: the increased density of foliage in summer makes it harder all round. And in the spring, which coincides with decreased foliage density, many species are breeding, making for increased activity levels as they attempt to put food into the mouths of young. And looking for owls while on game drives changes the way you search for things, honing your skills until you are able to find all manner of small, interesting creatures – snakes, Bushbabies, Chameleons, Nightjars and so forth. Take a look at the album for some recent sightings of owls and other cryptic creatures.
Ayers’s Hawk-Eagle (Hieraatus ayersii), Kruger National Park, November 2015. This bird is something of an enigma, not often seen and not well studied. Distribution and movement patterns are not well known, though odd sightings are reported from much of north-eastern South Africa, even though the core breeding range is thought to be in the Miombo Woodland regions of South-Central Africa. It’s a specialist bird hunter, and reportedly one of the most agile of all the eagles. This one was bathing in a puddle along the roadside just north of Shingwedzi Camp, and flew up into a small tree to pose for a few photos before taking to flight. It’s a well, marked individual, making it easy to identify (pale birds aren’t as easy!). A real cracker of a sighting…