BIRDING IN THE GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE

The dry winter is not the best time to observe birds in the Great Fish River Nature Reserve – certainly not from within the confines of one’s vehicle over very rough roads which jolt one from side to side, along with having to be extra vigilant about avoiding being scratched by the Vachellia thorns on the branches that protrude well into the road in places. Birding is often an adventure waiting to happen.

This is the reed-lined entrance to the Kentucky Bird Hide overlooking the Khwalamanzi Dam.

Given the prolonged drought in the Eastern Cape, we should not have been surprised to be greeted by this:

In February 2015 the dam looked like this.

Then we saw a flock of Yellow-billed Ducks.

And a pair of Egyptian Geese were nesting on a mound in front of the bird hide.

At least there was a small herd of kudu to see this time!

A careful scrutiny of the surrounds and much patience revealed a Brown-hooded Kingfisher waiting to catch – who can tell what?

I later spotted another one at the picnic site adjacent to the Great Fish River.

On our way out, I saw a Cape Wagtail posing on a fence.

My bird list for this visit is as follows:

Bar-throated Apalis
Black-eyed Bulbul
Bokmakierie
Boubou
Brown-hooded Kingfisher
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin
Cape Wagtail
Egyptian Goose
Emerald-spotted Wood-dove
Fiscal Shrike
Fork-tailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Ostrich
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Pied Wagtail
Speckled Mousebird

GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE REVISITED

GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE REVISITED

This weekend saw us revisiting the Great Fish River Nature Reserve on a darkly overcast day. The maximum of 18°C felt much colder, thanks to the stiff, chilly breeze that blew across the landscape. We again entered and left through the Kamadolo Gate. This time though the guard on duty told us the gate actually closes at 6 p.m. – a whole hour later than on our previous visit. Methinks that fellow wanted to leave early as he knew we were the last visitors!

SONY DSC

We enjoyed travelling along the narrow, twisting dirt road – naturally expecting and hoping for a surprise around every corner.Sections of the road are in a very poor state of repair. In places though, gabions have been constructed to prevent erosion – particularly where water would otherwise flow across the road.

gabion

I mentioned last time (see GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE 10th February 2015) what a harsh environment this can be. These bones at the side of the road seem to epitomise this.

bones

Death was evident in the insect world too.

beetle

Less than two weeks later, the countryside looks greener and ‘softer’ and lavender-coloured cross berry (Grewia occidentallis) blooms are evident all over the area we drove through. Some of the shrubs have been cut back through browsing into compact forms, while others are still lanky and creep upwards through clumps of other thick bushes.

crossberry
Open areas are now carpeted with a wide variety of indigenous flowers, all beautiful in their own right, yet spectacular when seen en masse.

kdf1

I have not yet been able to identify them all, nonetheless these are a sample of some of the flowers we could see growing close to the road.

kdf2

kdf3

kdf4

kdf5

kdf6

kdf7

Three species of flower I recognise are the Common Gazania (Gazania krebsiana), which seem to thrive in harsh environments and often brighten the edges of the tarred roads in this region. I have not had much luck growing them in my garden though.

commongazania

The Bladder Hibiscus (Hibiscus trionum) is another beautiful flower I look forward to seeing in the veld.

kdhibiscus

Then there is the Plumbago auriculata, which is rampant in my garden – requiring regular pruning lest it takes over everything in its wake. This one is blooming unusually close to the ground – probably as a result of grazing. This goes to show how persistent nature can be to thrive against adversity.

kdplumbago

The only animals we saw this time round were Red Hartebeest. I think this new fashion of breeding them in different colours, such as gold or black, is a pity for they look wonderful in the sartorial splendour they are meant to be in.

Sredhartebeest

We walked quietly down the winding reed-fenced path towards the bird hide.

hidepath

The area next to the hide, facing away from the water, was covered with an enormous complex of golden-threaded spider webs. Two of these spiders held sway in different sections of this mass and looked ready to devour anything lurking within their domain.

SONY DSC

This time the water was shallower and the surface was dominated by a large flock of Yellow-billed Ducks.

ybduck

The dark, windy, chilly conditions – as well as the time constraint – did not lend themselves to good bird watching. My list is thus as modest as it was last time:
Barn swallow
Boubou shrike
Cape glossy starling
Cape turtle dove
Egyptian goose
Fiscal shrike
Fork-tailed Drongo
Laughing dove
Lesser kestrel
Little grebe
Ostrich
Redwinged starling
Sombre bulbul
Speckled mousebird
Yellow-billed duck.

GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE

GREAT FISH RIVER NATURE RESERVE

At 39°C the air was breathless even in the shade. A drive into the country was called for and so we headed along the Fort Beaufort road to the 45 000 ha Great Fish River Nature Reserve in the middle of Sunday afternoon.

SONY DSsignpostC

As there was only time to briefly explore the wilderness area we used to know as the Andries Vosloo Kudu Reserve, we paid our modest entrance fee and entered at the Kamadolo Gate. Our journey began along what looked like a smooth gravel road brightened on either side by bright displays of the orange and yellow flowers of the finger vygie (Malephora crocea), growing in the large open sandy patches of the veld.

fingervygie

These plants can clearly withstand the extremely harsh conditions that prevail in this section of the nature reserve and look beautiful in bloom, especially being highlighted as they were by the unrelenting sunshine.

The rugged terrain and the vegetation of the valley bushveld is harsh at the best of times. On Sunday, however, we could feel the heat coming in waves as it bounced of the rocky ground along with an airlessness as if the breezes had forgotten how to blow in that part of the world.

The road soon deteriorated into a rough, narrow track, deeply rutted and uneven in places. Sections of it are overhung with thorny acacia trees; at times it dips through dry water courses; and leads one bumpily up hills and around sharp corners.

With the recent rains has come a softening of this harsh terrain in the form of a flush of green grass, leafy trees and the flowering of that very important fodder plant, the spekboom (Portulacaria).

kdrspekboom
The stands of Acacia karoo are also in bloom, their puff-ball yellow flowers emitting a wonderful scent carried across the veld in the hot air.

kdracaciakaroo

They bear ‘no-nonsense’ thorns too!

kdrthorns

We were not expecting much in the way of birds or animal life in that wilting heat. Nonetheless, a few female ostriches passed us as we headed for the Kentucky Bird Hide.

kdrostriches

It was wonderful to see water at the hide along with a number of yellow-billed ducks sitting along the edge, in the shade cast by the nearby hill.

kdrbirdhide

My bird list, compiled in barely legible script as we bumped and lurched our way forward, is a modest one:
Black harrier
Burchell’s coucal
Common greenshank
Egyptian goose
Hadeda ibis
Karoo prinia
Little grebe
Ostrich
Pearl-breasted swallow
Red-winged starling
Sombre bulbul
Speckled mousebird
White-rumped swift
Yellow-billed duck

Coming out of the hide, I happened to look up at the enamelled blue sky and saw this spider sitting in the middle of its large web, just above the height of my head. I have no idea what species it is, but it had no intention of moving.

kdrspider

Other surprises lay in store during the limited time we had left before the gates closed (we were told) at 5 p.m. Among these were several majestic-looking kudu bulls. Unfortunately, they all appeared to be skittish and moved off quickly at our approach. Given the condition of the road, I imagine they could hear us coming way before we even spotted them! Another was a steenbok crossing the road ahead of us. It obligingly stopped a little distance away so that we could get a reasonable view of it before it disappeared behind some shrubs.

kdrsteenbok

Several iconic Shepherds trees (Boscia albitrunca) with their characteristic white trunks cried out to be photographed in the late afternoon light.

shepherdstree

It seems odd to see old man’s bear lichen (Usnea) growing out in the open, where it is exposed to the relentless rays of the sun. I tend to associate it with the dampness of the forests along the Tsitsikama coast.

oldmansbeard

And, how lovely to see these pretty creamy flowers gracing the weathered fence posts.

kdrflowers

The biggest surprise of all though, and one which made our trip in the heat even more worthwhile than we had imagined, was coming round a corner to find two black rhino watching us!

blackrhinos

Judging from the tide-marks along the flank of the right-hand one, we must have disturbed them while they were cooling off in a shallow mud pool. Despite having come across several middens along our drive, we never guessed that we would be privileged with such a close-up view of these magnificent creatures. They made our day.