Rufousnaped Lark

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Rietvlei Nature Reserve - Night Drive

Rietvlei Nature Reserve, which is managed by the City of Tshwane municipality, is a perfect little reserve to get away from the city during the day, without even leaving the city, but a night drive in the reserve is very special. The cars have all gone home so you have it all to yourself, well including all the others on the game drive vehicle, and the night animals come to life and start their hunt for food!

Marsh Owl in this reserve can be considered abundant I think with one encountered around every corner but it is the other specials that can occur that is the attraction. There have been 5 owl species and 4 nightjar species recorded in this reserve which include Marsh Owl, Spotted Eagle Owl and Barn Owl which are fairly common and then the two elusive species, Grass Owl and Southern White-faced Owl representing the owls and then Rufous-cheeked and Fiery-necked Nightjar which are fairly common, Square-tailed Nightjar which is recorded occasionally and European Nightjar has also been recorded in the past.

Marsh Owl #1

Marsh Owl #2
Marsh Owl #3

As I said Marsh Owls are by far the most common but there is a chance of seeing other birds. For example, Spotted Thick-knees are extremely common and love to sit on the roads at night as well as the full range of common lapwings, Crowned, African Wattled and Blacksmith Lapwings.

Spotted Thick-knee

African Wattled Lapwing

Crowned Lapwing

And of course we sometimes find roosting birds who have found a safe, warm dry spot to curl up and spend the night.

Immature Black-headed Heron roosting on one of the dead Eucalyptes trees.

Roosting African Black Duck

Northern Black Korhaan (White-quilled Korhaan)

We even found a young Black-backed Jackal who was enjoying the warmth of the tar road and we almost had to push him out of the way before he finally moved. The jackals are quite a menace on the reserve unfortunately. Without any natural predators, their population has exploded and not many antelope young make it to adulthood because of predation by the jackals.

Black-backed Jackal

Oh and I almost forgot to show the photographs of the nightjars we have seen..

Female Square-tailed (Mozambique) Nightjar - note the buffy outer tail feather 

Male Rufous-cheeked Nightjar

Unfortunately that's all for this outing, the Fiery-necked Nightjar and Spotted Eagle Owl proved too elusive to photograph but hopefully I will get some good photos soon. Although, with winter (brrr) coming, the nightjars and owls will soon move out of the reserve for warmer climates and the Lazy Birder will prefer a warm house to a cold car anyday!

Have a good one!!

For a chance to go on a owl night drive in the reserve, contact Nicky Ras ( of the Pretoria Region of the SA National Parks Honorary Rangers for more information.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Ezemvelo Nature Reserve

This 4,500 hectare reserve is located just outside Bronkhorstspruit off the R25 towards Groblersdal, a mere hour from downtown Johannesburg and 45 minutes from Pretoria. The eastern boundary of the reserve is the Wilge River, which demarcates the boundary between the Gauteng and Mpumalanga provinces.

The Ezemvelo Nature Reserve is a for-profit business, owned and managed by the students of MERU, (this looks like a great idea to preserve our natural areas), who help to run the business for learning experience and earning a small income, will help contribute to sustainability.

The Reserve is situated on the Bakenveld, which is the transition ecotone between grassland and savanna biomes. Ecologically this is very valuable as elements of both biomes occur within the reserve, creating very rich biodiversity. The reserve is naturally divided into well preserved grasslands and associated rocky outcrops and wetlands. The clear waters of the Wilge River is the boundary and forms beautiful gorges and valleys of colourful Wilge sandstone. The reserve is home to some 268 bird species, and a host of game; black and blue wildebeest, kudu, zebra, blesbuck, waterbuck, steenbok, eland, gemsbok, springbok, civet, caracal, vervet monkey, baboon, aardvark and aardwolf (just to mention a few). 

Well it was for the 268 species of bird that Adolf and I headed out for some bird photography practice that is sadly lacking as far as I am concerned. Lately, all of my images seem to be blurred so I was convinced it was something to do with my camera, unfortunately I can't really say that anymore as I think it is my impatient button clicking that has produces the bad results. So...we set at off at 05:00 along the back roads through Bapsfontein to get to the turn-off just passed Bronkhorstspruit town. The Weather looked ominous and we thought it would rain all day but a thin layer of cloud produced some great photography light.

Suddenly along the 20 odd km access road, a raptor flew low over the road and banked back towards a leafless tree growing next to the road. We turned back and discovered it to be a juvenile Ovambo Saprrowhawk.

Juvenile Ovambo Sparrowhawk
 When eventually reaching the gate to the reserve, the only co-operating bird we had seen along the way was the sparrowhawk. Although lots of euplectids, stonechats and cisticolas offered fleeting glimpses as they flew out of the roadside stands of exotic cosmos flowers and indigenous climax grasses.

We thought we would joke with the guard at the gate and made as if we were going to slip through after the car in front but he was not amused. However we soon had him smiling and believe that all was forgiven. After signing in at the gate we had to report to the reception to pay our reasonable feea and found the staff to be extremely friendly and were made to feel very welcome.

Birding in the reserve proved difficult however and the list of birds seen grew very slowly, mainly due to the season, a few wrong turns and attempting to bird along roads that are now closed to public vehicles, although it is possible to walk passed the boom and bird on foot (heaven forbid). So we had to turn back to the reception to follow the signs to the Northern section of the reserve where the Family and Hikers huts are situated above the river. Up this way it is mainly grassland with a few dead exotic eucalyptis trees covered in perching doves. The grasslands were thick with vegetation after the good rains we received this summer and the lack of avian targets even forced me to photograph a mammal or of these was the Black Wildebeest which, despite its formidable appearance is actually tiny in comparison to its Blue cousin.

Black Wildebeest
Plains (Burchells) Zebra

But after a while we found some lbj's conducting their daily business and allowed us to practice our ID skills. The fact that they weren't calling made the identification more challenging. The Eastern Clapper Lark was one of them, but it has a sort of "grizzled" appearance around the face and chest which gives it away.

Eastern Clapper Lark
African Quailfinch were flying over and calling while one male landed in the road in front of us and proceeded to hop directly toward us. Now I can speak from experience and say that these tiny grassland birds are not easy to see, let alone photograph but this was an opportunity not to be missed. Problem, the bird is directly in front and the windscreen is in the way!! I slowly moved the car across the road and we got one or two pics, with grass inflorescence partly obscuring the little fella, before it turned around, hopped off and flew away.

African Quailfinch Male

In this one spot, we got quite a few LBJ's with two pipits as well, both Buffy and African Pipit although the African was sporting a pink lower mandible and had white outer retrices to prove his identity.

Buffy Pipit
African Pipit

Just as we were about to leave the Pipits in peace, Adolf spots another LBJ sunning himself on a rock close to the car...A Spike-heeled Lark, one of my favourites, mainly due to the fact that they are easy to identify and they can be quite confiding. True to form he ignored us completely and we were able to snap away at our leisure, playing with settings and compositions and just enjoying every minute.

Spike-heeled Lark

Another bird we found to be quite common here was the Banded Martin, a large swallow type of  intra-African breeding migrant in the summer which spends our winters in the Southern equatorial belt. Also a favourite of mine as they were one of my first birds I identified while birding the grasslands around Centurion. They breed in soil banks or erosion gulleys and I had noticed these birds diving into the grass at the same point, so went to investigate and had found an old excavation where they had dug their nest into the wall. As you can imagine, as a beginner birder, I was immensely proud of my discovery.

Banded Martin

Its amazing how time seems to fly past when you are doing something you really enjoy. Anyway, before we knew it, it was time for home again and we made our way back to the gate and home again. As a last note, I have to add a photo of the Ant-eating Chats which are common in our grasslands which have termite mounds scattered about, but here at Ezemvelo they are extremely common and also don't mind posing for a photo or two! They are a bit drab, I suppose, but show white wing and shoulder flashes in flight.

Ant-eating Chat

Tonight I am doing night patrol in the local reserve, so I hope to post some owl and nightjar pics in the next post. Happy Easter !!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Marakele Birding Weekend - November 2016

Marakele Vistas
Well what do you know, a new blog!! Its about time I know but its been a really busy year again and hasn't it just flown past?? Anyway I have done quite a bit of birding over the last few months so hopefully I will get the chance to tell you all about it!

Two weeks ago I was involved in a birding weekend to Marakele National Park as the bird "expert" :-) . It was with a bit of trepidation that I took on this role as I am by no means an expert on the level of the local experts but I can identify a bird or two and know quite a few calls which helped to me to fake it for the weekend. My wife always uses a quote "Fake it until you make it!" Hahahaha, don't try this at home though...

Home away from home, my quarters were the little add on tent to the right....

Tent set up and settled, the weekend started with a quick drive around to familiarize myself with the habitat and surroundings. Just out of the camp we bumped into a pair of Bennets Woodpeckers feeding in the dry woodland, I managed to get a quick record shot of the male before they disappeared into the bush.

Male Bennets Woodpecker
After the guests had arrived I gave a short presentation on the park, explained the agenda for the next day and went through a list of the possible birds we might see as well and explaining the differences between similar species we might encounter. That done, the two kids in the group set out to look for scorpions with their ultra-violet light. I really didn't think they would find any but was I surprised......and I was sleeping on the ground....I took a photo of one hidden in a tree hole..

No idea what type it was but it looked pretty formidable..
So it was off to bed, I kept the lights off in the tent to keep the insects out and to minimize the potential mosquito attack. Luckily Marakele is not a Malaria area so they would just be an irritation not a danger. Surprisingly enough there were very few mosquitos around the whole weekend, probably due to the late rains that had just recently fallen. I didn't get bitten once.....I think because there were juicier targets around, who wants to chew on an old goat when there is fresh meat about hey?

The best part was falling asleep to the sounds of the crickets and nightbirds calling. Two of my favourite night calls are those of the Fiery-necked Nightjar and the African Scops Owl, both of which serenaded me to sleep.

Violet-backed Starling - Male
 Early the next morning, I had one guest that opted to accompany me in a camp walk, where we found quite a few species like Pearl-spotted Owlet, Violet-backed Starling, Red-billed Hornbill, Bru-bru and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird.

Red-billed Hornbill

Bru-bru (so nice, they named it twice ;-))

Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird
 After the walk, we were dished up a rather sumptuous breakfast prepared by Wynand, who is quite the chef (his chicken burgers served at the owl events are delicious). Once everyone had eaten their fill and were keen to take on the birds, we headed up the mountain to try and find some of the specials. to get to the mountain you travel through the Big-five area of the park but did not see any unfortunatelky. The road up the mountain is rather hairy with straight drops of about 50-100m close to the wheels of the car with a one way path right to the top and occasional wider sections to let cars on their way down pass on the inside.....needless to say, we still got some birds sitting on branches hanging over the valley. Namely Common (Steppe) Buzzard which is a migrant to South Africa from the Steppes of Russia and a Sunbird that just wouldn't sit still for an ID or photo.

Common (Steppe) Buzzard
 Once at the top there are some unusual birds that are normally associated with the Drakensberg Mountains of Natal. These are the Buff-streaked Chat and the Gurneys Sugarbird that we were assured we would not find as they are attitudinal migrants that spend their summers in the 'Berg. Cape Buntings were common and we found a Male Malachite that was using one of the radio masts as its calling post. Then there are these small lizards running around on the rocks, I call them commando lizards as they seem to be wearing camouflage uniforms but they are actually Rock Agamas. they are really cute to watch as they hunt flies and other insects.

Cape Bunting admiring the view
The View...

Buff-streaked Chat Female

Buff-streaked Chat Male

Gurneys Sugarbird

Malachite Sunbird - Male
The biggest attraction at Marakele is the Cape Vulture colony which at 800 pairs is the largest colony of this species in the world. Unfortunately our timing was out as they had already left the roost to forage and there were only few catching thermals in the skies above us.

Cape Vulture
Rock Agama

Rock Agama

We had a great time on top of the mountain, so much so that we almost missed our bus for the evening drive...where we didn't see that much although the ranger took us to see the overweight Unicorns...who's true names may not be mentioned for fear that someone may crave their appendages for an aphrodisiac.

Purple Roller.
 Back at camp, we were treated to Wynands chicken burgers and sat around the fire chatting about the days birds and enjoying the glow of the fire and the calls of the Scops Owls coming from the darkness beyond the glow of the fire.

African Scops Owl
 Sunday morning and my official duties were complete although I took some of the guests around the camp once more to enjoy the common bushveld birds before we headed back to the jungle, the concrete one that is, where the real animals know, the rat race? The camp is really great, situated on the edge of a large area with a water hole where some of the animals come down to drink and even join you in camp sometimes..

Crested Barbet

Arrow-marked Babbler

Ostrich close-up

Warthog visitor to the camp

Levaillants Cuckoo


Tree Agama.

And so another weekend in the bush comes to an end....happy birding!!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Warbler Weekend - Zaagkuildrift Feb 2016

Well, after many years of wanting to attend the Warbler Weekend run by Etienne Marais in the Zaagkuildrift area I finally found the time and funds to go with and I wasn't disappointed.

Firstly I have to say that my birding trips of late have been plagued by bad weather, so much so that farmers actually invite me to come birding on their farms just so that they can get a bit of rain. I mean we have had a bad drought this season and rain has been minimal to say the least. As I left Pretoria in peak traffic, the thunder clouds were looming to the North and I assumed that this weekend was not going to be a sunny affair. Arriving at Pienaars River, there were puddles everywhere and it was obvious that there had been quite a cloud burst. This was confirmed as I reached the dirt road to Zaagkuil....I had not yet experienced the road in this condition with the new bird mobile and was a bit worried about the notorious intersection where the sand congregates to create a deep sand trap that had caught numerous vehicles in the past. But I cruised over this area with a bit of slipping and sliding and converted the mobile from a shiny city car to something resembling a Dakar rally contestant. Mud clung to the bodywork and splattered the wind screen making bird spotting a challenge to say the least... and using the wipers was a disaster as the window washer reservoir depleted itself after the first squirt....Murphy!! Squinting through the brown blurr I finally made it  to the Zaagkuildrift Bird Sanctuary and Lodge which was to be our base for the weekend.

My Room (the pillows were very comfy)
 It is always a bonus to go birding and have comfortable lodgings at the same time and this lodge was very comfortable and the food was mouth is watering again just at the the thought of those steaks we had on Saturday night....

View from my room
So after a short briefing and some background on the techniques to use when searching for these elusive species, we had supper and headed of to bed to get enough rest for an early start (Lazy Birder heaven?).

Saturday morning saw us walking off into the veld to search for the abundant warblers of Zaagkuildrift, well that's what you expect when birding with an expert in the correct habitat. I was kind of expecting them to jump out of every bush fighting for a position, chirping and whistling a birdy translation of "tick me, tick me!!". It turned out to be a little harder than this, of course!

A short walk from the lodgings is the floodplain with lots of good warbler habitat along the edge of it.

Floodplain (note the Oxpecker taxis to the right)
Crossing the floodplain had its own issues and we were all carting a fair percentage of the soil along with us as the mud clung to our shoes. It was a case of walk ten paces, stop, clean shoes, carry on, or like me try to ignore the escalating weight on your feet and focus on the birds..

Muddy Boots - (Photo courtesy of Fay and Peet van Eeden)
Etienne Marais is an excellent birder with an ear tuned in to birdsong, within minutes he was picking up all the churrs, chips and tjeets which make up the various warbler alarm calls. Whitethroats and Marsh Warblers were more common in the smaller bushes along the floodplain and Garden Warbler was found in the taller trees along the river banks. Icterine Warbler was found in the taller trees away from the water and Willow Warblers popped up just about everywhere. This sounds amazing I know but seeing them was another challenge altogether. Etienne chirped and squeaked and spished to try and lure them into the open but all that most of us could see were brief glimpses of these phantoms hopping from one bit of cover to the next. I suppose from the birds point of view, having thirteen apex predators focussing on you alone must be extremely if observing these birds was a mission, photography was a no-go...the Icterines were the only furtive warblers to let me have a sniff at a record image..

An actual Icterine Warbler, note the grey legs
Another Icterine Warbler that allowed a quick snap (from a safe distance of course)

After all this excitement and hard birding, my stomach was making growls similar to those made by a lioness when her cubs are threatened, luckily it was time to head back to the lodge for a sumptuous breakfast with all the necessary proteins and carbs to keep us going for the day.  This done we headed out to the Kgomo Kgomo floodplain to look for the other elusive warbler, Olivetree, but we couldn't find any as the area was still very dry despite the good rains on Friday night. We did see a good number of other birds (84 on my count) with highlights for me being, Village Indigobird, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Barred Wren-warbler, Marabou Stork, Gabar Goshawk, Juvenile Lanner Falcon, Ashy Tit, Great Sparrow pair feeding chicks, Temmincks Courser and a large flock of Black-winged Pratincole. At the end of the day we went to a secluded spot on the floodplain for a sundowner where a pair of Yellow-billed Storks gave us a slow fly past. (We had just been talking about Saddle-billed Storks being seen on the plain so I blurted out "Saddle-billed Storks" when this pair came into view....oops!)

Male Village Indigobird
Male Village Indigobird
Barred Wren-warbler
Lesser Spotted Eagle?
Yellow-billed Storks

Back at the lodge we all went down to the boma for another delicious meal! The 300g steaks, mentioned earlier were cooked to perfection and my favouite pudding was served for dessert. It was here that the group got to know each other a bit better, a glass of wine or beer always helps to break the ice in a new group and we got to talking on some really interesting subjects. Birds mainly! I for one found out that I am not the only one that has bogey birds or has an influence on the weather conditions when birding, whilst others are blessed with finding these same bogey birds and was informed that if you go to the prime habitat for said birds they will "always be there" just waiting to show themselves to you....hmmmmmm!  It was also decided at supper to move our search for the Olivetree Warbler to Mkhombo Dam the next day. Mklhombo is a large dam mentioned in a previous blog on this site, which is about 50km up the road from Zaagkuildrift, that is known as a regular spot for this species. 

Sunday morning came around and we were up early as usual, had another great breakfast and headed off to Mkhombo. Once again the clouds were building up and rain looked imminent. The drive there was quite rewarding as there were a lot of raptors along the way. The first one seen along Zaagkuildrift road was this Ovambo Sparrowhawk that looks as if it is partially leucistic?

Ovambo Sparrowhawk
The others were pretty normal for the area with the exception of a dark form Steppe Buzzard in fresh plumage!

Wahlbergs Eagle
Male Lesser Kestrel
Steppe Buzzard

Mkhombo was full of waders and waterbirds as usual and it took some time to sift through all of them in search of the recent specials that had been seen there. Black-tailed Godwits, Caspian Plover, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Osprey were on the list but unfortunately we did not see the godwits or the plovers. The Osprey made an appearance in the distance, but then again it is "always there"....(private joke)...

Western Osprey

One of the exciting parts of driving Mkhombo Dam is navigating the tracks without driving over one of the sharp stumps that are littered about everywhere and getting a puncture. Needless to say we all succeeded and got away without a single flattie. Woodland birds here are excellent as well and at last we caught up with the Olivetree Warbler, not one, not two but 4 birds calling in one small area, seeing them was once again a challenge that I failed in, despite standing still and watching the bush for any movement. But we again saw Whitethroat nicely and also saw a few Willow Warblers..

Searching for the Olivetree Warbler
Luckily there are more willing photographic subjects and I managed a few snapshots before I had to call it a day and head back home.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Male Namaqua Dove
So all in all it was a great weekend with great accommodation, great food, great company and great birding, oh, and the weather wasn't that bad after all! So until next time!! Toodles!