SECRETARY BIRD

Secretary Birds (Sagittaruis serpentarius) are endemic to the grasslands and open savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. Should you be fortunate enough to spot one in the veld, look around very carefully for its mate might be foraging some distance away. They are known to pair for life.

These unique, elegant, long-legged birds stand out from their surroundings, yet do not dilly-dally if you see one in the distance for they can walk surprisingly fast in search of food.

They are known to cover up to 30 km a day in search of food, which includes not only snakes, but tortoises and rats, as well as the chicks of ground-nesting birds.

The crest of 20 long black feathers is distinctive as is the bare face which is usually yellow, orange or red. The body is covered in whitish-grey feathers, with two long, black-tipped tail feathers. Their wingspan has been measured up to 2.10 meters. If you look at them closely you will also notice their long eye-lashes and hooked beak.

They bend down to seize smaller food items in their bill, but stamp on more agile prey with the thickened soles of their feet, stunning it and then swallowing it whole. Akin to Ostriches, Secretary Birds ingest pebbles to aid their digestion. Even though they are mostly seen on the ground, Secretary Birds choose to nest in trees.

Sadly, even though they were declared a protected species in 1968, these magnificent birds are in decline, mostly due to habit destruction and they are susceptible to collisions with both power lines and fences.  I have mostly seen Secretary Birds in our national parks, but was very excited to see one on the edge of town during the course of last year.

HEIMWEE FOR THE ADDO ELEPHANT NATIONAL PARK

We have been in lock-down for ninety-five days already – despite having moved to Level Three (‘advanced’ Level Three nogal!) that allows more businesses to open, we still cannot visit family and friends nor can we cross provincial borders without a permit – and you require a very good reason to get one of those. National Parks are now open for day visitors, yet the above-mentioned restrictions make visiting the Kruger National Park out of the question. In the spirit of the photograph below, I will look back to share some of the delights of the Addo Elephant National Park which we hope to visit again before much longer.

Naturally, one goes to the Addo Elephant National Park to see elephants – they seldom disappoint. We have seen herds of over a hundred individuals congregating around the Hapoor waterhole; been surprised by single elephants right next to the road; and have enjoyed watching small groups – such as the one these two are part of – at the Domkrag waterhole. Here we are able to get out of our vehicle and look down at these magnificent animals as they go about their daily life.

You might be fortunate enough to come across a Secretary Bird striding through the grasslands.  They occur singly and in pairs – it is always worth scanning the veld to see if you can spot another one.

Zebras grace the landscape in Addo – they might occur in small groups or in much larger ones that stretch across the side of a grassy slope. They are always a delight to observe.

I am always pleased to come across the large Mountain tortoises that lumber through the grass or patiently cross rocky areas. This one was taking advantage of a puddle in the road after rain.

Then there are the beautiful Cape Glossy Starlings that brighten the landscape.

By keeping an eye open for more than just animals, you get to enjoy some of the many butterflies too.

WINTER IN ADDO

WINTER IN ADDO

The dew was still thick on the ground and glistened like a myriad diamonds in the early morning sun when we entered the Addo Elephant National Park for the second time in just over two weeks. It was a gloriously clear winter’s day that warmed up gradually from 9°C to a very comfortable 23°C by the middle of the afternoon.

Warthogs were the first animals we spotted. They are ubiquitous: mowing the road verges, drinking from waterholes, and generally moving through the veld in family groups.

warthogs

Birdwatching became easier once we had emerged from the Eastern Cape Thicket, along with seeing more game. A female Ostrich stopped us in our tracks as she calmly proceeded with her dust bath on the Mbotyi Loop, sweeping her head and neck along the dusty ground and fluffing out her feathers.

ostrich

Another pleasant surprise came in the form of a pair of Secretary Birds striding purposefully across the veld, coming close enough for us to see their fine crests that earned them their name because it is reminiscent of the quill pens 19th century secretaries tended to stick in their hair or wigs.

secretarybird

Two other unusual bird sightings were a pair of Denham’s Bustards and a glimpse of a Burchell’s Coucal. The latter scuttled through the undergrowth next to the road before I could even lift my camera. This behaviour is so different from the ones in the Kruger National Park. There we saw several Burchell’s Coucals flying across the open veld, seemingly content to remain on their prominent perches for a while as they surveyed their surroundings.

Majestic looking kudu, delightful zebras and shining hartebeest abounded throughout the Park, which was alive with the shrill answering calls of Sombre Bulbuls and sprinkled with Fiscal Shrikes at every turn.

kudu

hartebeest

The veld is still relatively green and is brightened by a variety of different coloured blossoms: pale blue Plumbago, bright red schotia, orange and yellow aloes, bright yellow canary creepers, orange Cape honeysuckle, purple verbena, and blue felicia.

schotia

Unfortunately we arrived at Hapoor just as an enormous herd of elephant was dispersing into the veld. A few stragglers remained for a while, affording us the opportunity to watch them.

elephant

Rooidam was full of water. Oddly enough there wasn’t even a pair of Egyptian Geese to be seen. This is in contrast to Ghwarrie Dam, where we watched two Blackwinged Stilts work their way through the shallow water, and at Domkrag.

Rooidam

Blackwingedstilt
The sun was already low in the sky when we nosed our way homewards, having enjoyed a brief look at an elephant at the waterhole at the Main Camp and marvelled at the pink-tinged clouds on the western horizon.

My bird list is:

African Stone Chat
Barthroated Apalis
Black Crow
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Heron
Blackshouldered Kite
Blacksmith Plover
Blackwinged Stilt
Bokmakierie
Boubou Shrike
Burchell’s Coucal
Cape Glossy Starling
Cape Robin
Cape Sparrow
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Cape Weaver
Cattle Egret
Crowned Plover
Denham’s Bustard
Egyptian Goose
Emeraldspotted Wood Dove
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greyheaded Heron
Hadeda Ibis
Jackal Buzzard
Karoo Robin
Laughing Dove
Little Grebe
Moorhen
Olive Thrush
Ostrich
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Redeyed Dove
Redknobbed Coot
Redwinged Starling
Rufousnaped lark
Secretary Bird
Sombre Bulbul
South African Shelduck
Speckled Mousebird
Threebanded Plover

WIDE-EYED IN ADDO

WIDE-EYED IN ADDO

Last weekend the family gathered at the Addo Elephant National Park for a combination of celebrations. With two vehicles and plenty of drivers available, there were ample opportunities for game drives. Three of our party also went horse-riding, an experience they all recommend is worth repeating.

Instead of our usual style of camping, we ensconced ourselves in the Forest Cabins this time. These are very comfortable wooden structures discreetly hidden from their neighbours by thick hedges of Spekboom and other indigenous bush.

Driving out as soon as the gates open at half past six in the morning was the order of the day. While it is still too dark then to take photographs, there is a sense of wonder in seeing a herd of dawn-coloured Eland walk across the road to disappear into the veld despite their size.

As the sky lightens, it becomes easier to see the herds of Zebra, Kudu and Hartebeest dotted all over the Park. In our quest to see somethign ‘different’ we found that Warthogs have an uncanny ability to ‘disguise’ themselves as all sorts of creatures from a distance – even in broad daylight!

We enjoyed seeing Buffalo breathing out clouds of steam as the sun rose; Black-backed Jackals walking purposefully across the veld; Yellow Mongooses scurrying across the road; and – of course – the majestic Elephants this Park was created to protect.

Everyone returned from their drives with tales and pictures of what they had seen. Two of our party photographed a Caracal right next to the road. The rest of us were briefly envious until, on our last morning, we saw an enormous Lion making its way down a slope, crossing the road in front of us and striding along the valley below. We watched until it disappeared from sight then drove on towards Rooidam in the hope it would emerge there.

It didn’t, but another did (we later learned these two are brothers): walking with a slight limp, this Lion walked intently towards the edge of the dam and then dipped out of sight. By reversing slightly, we were able to watch it lap the water thirstily and then disappear over the dam wall. There was great excitement all round and a shared feeling that this was a satisfying ending to what had been a wonderful weekend.

The aloes are in bloom at this time of the year and brighten up the wintery landscape. Other blooms include the vygies and pelargoniums. I noticed that the canary creepers there are still creating splashes of yellow, whereas the flowers in our garden have been reduced to puff balls that scatter in the wind.

Aloe

An outing such as this is not necessarily ideal for bird watching, although I was able to spot a surprising number of birds while the attention of others was focused on something else.A highlight was seeing a Secretary Bird preening itself on top of a low bush. Even the animal watchers enjoyed this. It was good to spot a Southern Black Korhaan in the grass and several Pied Avocets on the edges of the waterholes we stopped at.

secretary bird

I opted out of some drives to observe birds from the comfort of the Forest Cabin balcony. My patience was rewarded with close-up views of Cape Robin, Sombre Bulbul, Boubou Shrike, Cape Weaver and even a Bar-throated Apalis that made its way through the hedge at eye-level.

Birds I noted over the weekend were:

Anteating Chat
Barthroated Apalis
Blackeyed Bulbul
Blackheaded Heron
Blacksmith Plover
Bokmakierie
Boubou Shrike
Cape Robin
Cape Sparrow
Cape Turtle Dove
Cape Wagtail
Egyptian Goose
Fiscal Flycatcher
Fiscal Shrike
Forktailed Drongo
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Grey Heron
Hadeda Ibis
Hoopoe
Karoo Scrub Robin
Laughing Dove
Little Grebe
Moorhen
Olive Thrush
Ostrich
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Pied Avocet
Pied Crow
Pied Starling
Redeyed Dove
Rednecked Spurfowl
Redwinged Starling
Rock Kestrel
Secretary Bird
Sombre Bulbul
South African Shelduck
Southern Black Korhaan
Speckled Mousebird
Streakyheaded Canary
Threebanded Plover
Village Weaver