Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Braking for birds

American biologist, nature author and bird artist, Julie Zickefoose said: “The presence of a single bird can change everything for one who appreciates it.” This could not ring truer than for birders in the Kruger, whose frequent stopping often irks other visitors who are on the hunt for the Big Five. But, believes Andy Wassung of BirdLife South Africa, early birders really do catch the worm in this popular national park.

It’s way too early in the morning, somewhere in the Kruger National Park. Except for the “chirrup” of a cricket, which, by the sounds of it, must be somewhere in your tent, the intermittent coughs of the baboons sleeping in the fig tree overhead, and, of course, the snoring war going on between the tents either side of you (or perhaps your spouse in the bed next to you?), the silence of the bush is eerily deafening. But the bush alarm is starting to sound. First, it’s the rude and raspy awakening of the Swainson’s Spurfowl, clearly unimpressed with this year’s winter chill. Then, the far-too-chatty Dark-capped Bulbuls scavenging from yesterday’s skottel. What about one of my favourites, the ascending then descending song of the White-browed Robin-chat?

Although, when it comes to the dawn chorus, the sound that you may identify with most is that first Toyota Hilux chugging to life a few campsites down. Of all the bush sounds, this one is the most alarming and the most effective at getting me out of bed. It alerts the senses to spring into action; boil the kettle, fill the flasks, pull on yesterday’s braaivleis-smelling clothes, and splash some water on the face. It may seem insignificant, but the ignition of the first engine in a Kruger camp declares one thing: your fellow campers have arisen with the same intention as you: to be first out the gate, or ‘King of the Road’ as we call it amongst friends.

So, with unbrushed teeth and sleep still in your eyes, but mandatory coffee and rusks packed, you head out of the camp gate and into the park. It’s just you, the wide-open road and that feeling of anticipation hidden around every bend. ‘Operation King of the Road’, it seems, was a success. Or was it? As you come around the next bend, you see something in the middle of the road ahead. It’s another car. Someone has beaten you to it. On the plus side, their brake lights are on. They’ve stopped at a funny angle, and there’s a monstrous camera lens (the kind that costs more than the car itself) pointing into the bush; a sure sign that they’ve seen something good.

You idle up, wind your window down, and squint through sleepy eyes into the bush, anticipating your first big sighting. Could it be the king of beasts stretching in the morning sun, or an energetic pack of wild dogs? Perhaps it’s the elusive and enigmatic leopard stalking a herd of impala next to the road. What could they possibly have spotted? Not seeing anything big, hairy or immediately obvious, you inch forward to get a better point of view. And then you see it… a sticker on the back of their car. The one you saw in the camp shop yesterday. The one that reads: “I brake for birds.”

Welcome to the wonderful world of birding in the Kruger National Park. A world that guarantees to keep you enthralled. It also guarantees to keep you guessing, scratching your head, squinting through binoculars, getting stiff neck muscles from looking up at awkward angles, and debating juvenile plumages. But mostly, enthralled. Especially when the big and hairies are in hiding during the heat of the day, which, in Kruger National Park, is most of the day, every day.

This is a world that is waiting to be discovered, and once you do, there’s no looking back. Only looking up (a lot of the time). Enter it, and your trips to ‘the park’ are about to get much more special. To help you take some baby birding steps, I’ve picked a few of my favourite birding spots to visit on your next Kruger adventure.

Lake Panic, South Kruger

If you’re an overnight or day visitor to the south of the park and want to avoid the crowds, then take a break from the main roads and head for Lake Panic, situated between Skukuza and Paul Kruger Gate. This iconic bird hide feels as though it’s floating on the water, and you’re bound to spot regulars such as Malachite and Pied Kingfishers, African Jacana, Black Crake, Goliath and Grey Herons, White-faced Whistling Duck, Reed and White-breasted Cormorants, and – if you’re lucky – the resident leopard that comes to drink there.

Leeupan, South Kruger

Heading further north from Skukuza? Another worthwhile pit-stop between Skukuza and Satara is Leeupan waterhole, near Tshokwane picnic spot. Look out for striking Little Grebe diving underwater, aptly named Knob-billed Duck, and, in a good rainfall year, African Pygmy Goose, Lesser Moorhen and Little Bittern are frequently seen here. I have also seen Woolly-necked Stork and Allen’s Gallinule. Tshokwane is a great place to grab lunch, stretch your legs and do some birding around the picnic spot afterwards.

Balule Bridge, Central Kruger

If you’re exploring the central part of the park (near Olifants), take a drive down to the bridge next to Balule camp at dawn or dusk, in the hope of finding one of the holy grails of the birding world: the Endangered Pel’s Fishing Owl. They are known to roost in the tall riverine trees along the Olifants River, such as Jackalberry trees. This bridge (across the Olifants) is also a great spot to see African Fish Eagle, Three-banded Plover, Water Thick-knee, Hamerkop, and a variety of smaller, reed-dwelling birds like cisticolas and warblers. There are also a number of weirs and low-level stream crossings on the S91 and S92 loop road where the beautiful, but very secretive Greater Paintedsnipe hang out. This part of the park, with its relatively open savannas, is also a good place to see birds of prey such as the Critically Endangered Hooded and White-backed Vultures, and the endangered Tawny and Martial Eagles, and Bateleur.

Makuleke Concession & Punda Maria, North Kruger

Arguably the best part of Kruger to go birding is in its far north region, where you will find Punda Maria camp and the Makuleke Concession. Punda Maria’s Paradise Flycatcher Trail (which is within the camp, so perfect for birding on foot) is a great place to start, with a good chance of Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Terrestrial Brownbul, Eastern Nicator and Bearded Scrub Robin. The short 25km Mahonie Loop around the outside of the camp is also a beautiful scenic drive, often yielding Crowned Hornbill, Brown-headed Parrot, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, and the “Elvis Presley of the bird world” (to quote a friend of mine), the Crested Guineafowl. If you’re around this area in the summer months and really want to make your birder friends jealous, book a sunset or night drive from Punda Maria for a chance of seeing the rare, nocturnal Pennant-winged Nightjar and Threebanded Courser.

From Punda Maria, you are well positioned to make an early start to Pafuri picnic site, where you should ask the staff on duty if they know of anything special hanging around. The last time I was there I was lucky enough to see my first Black-throated Wattle-eye on a nest.

A trip up to the top of the park wouldn’t be complete without stopping on the bridge over the Luvuvhu River, and this is an excellent vantage point from which to find Horus Swift, Redfaced Cisticola, Crowned Eagle, the elusive African Finfoot, and the even more elusive and Endangered Pel’s Fishing Owl.

In closing

Whether it’s a Pel’s on the Luvuvhu River bridge, the distinctive  dance of a pair of Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills at a picnic  site, or the high-pitched whistle of an Orange-breasted Bushshrike  above your tent in camp, one thing is certain: with over  500 bird species (some of which aren’t found anywhere else  in South Africa), the Kruger National Park is truly a birder’s  paradise. And, when in bird paradise, do as the birders do: Slow down,  look up, listen. Go on… brake for birds.

Birdlife South Africa the Kruger National park

Kruger Birding & Wildlife Challenge

If you love the Kruger and its exceptional array of birds and wildlife,  you don’t want to miss the Kruger Birding & Wildlife Challenge, a fun  fundraiser for the conservation of one of the world’s rarest birds, the  Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail. The week-long event takes  place from 12 to 19 February 2023 and is jointly hosted by BirdLife South  Africa and Rockjumper Birding Tours.

European Roller Monitoring Project

In 2021, BirdLife South Africa established a monitoring programme for the European Roller at three key sites, the Kruger National  Park and two private nature reserves in KwaZulu-Natal. European Rollers return to South Africa in November and depart on their  long journey in March. Data is collected during this period using the BirdLasser app, in order to better understand the population  numbers and trends, as well as habitat preference. The project will be expanding into additional reserves in South Africa in 2022  and hopefully into Malawi.

About Birdlife South Africa

South Africa strives to conserve birds, their habitats and biodiversity through  scientifically-based programmes, through supporting the sustainable and equitable  use of natural resources and by encouraging people to enjoy and value nature.

CONTACT: www.birdlife.org.za | info@birdlife.org.za |+27 11 789 1122.

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