NEWSLETTERS

Iconic Birds & Big Cats
of Northern Kruger National Park
ISSUE 17 | November 2021

I was going to write a newsletter on Benvie Gardens and breeding Orange Ground Thrush (which I will do in time) but I have just got back from an incredible trip to the northern reaches of the Kruger National Park and thought I would share about my experiences there first.

The Punda Maria and Pafuri regions of this famous location are notorious amongst birders and bird photographers alike and hold some of South Africa’s most sought after avian gems. I have been to the area three times previously but only for a few days at a time. To fulfil a long held dream I booked a 16 night trip with 12 nights at Punda Maria and 4 nights at Pafuri Border Camp. A massive thank you must go to my adorable wife; Eileen, who held the fort so I could have the experience of a lifetime. Thank you my love!

Instead of trying to cover everything in a single newsletter, I thought I would do it over the next three issues. This first issue gives a high level overview of the area, the Iconic Birds and Big Cats you can find in it and shows off some of my favourite portraits from my time there.

I really hope you enjoy what follows and look forward to hearing your feedback.

Iconic Birds & Big Cats of Northern Kruger
Pel’s & Pafuri at night

Just the mention of the word “Pafuri” and just about every birder will follow it with “Did you see Pel’s?”. This is pretty frustrating as based on first-hand experience the answer is usually “No!”.

A true icon of the northern Kruger and one of South Africa’s most sought after birds; the Pel’s Fishing Owl, perched on an Nyala Berry Tree on the banks of the Luvuvhu River in the Pafuri region. Nyala Berry Trees dominate the riverine forest of the Pafuri region and hence, it was so fitting to have this iconic bird perched on one of the area’s iconic trees. The Luvuvhu River is a couple of metres below the Owl’s tail.

The area is one of the best spots in Africa to see these elusive and incredibly sought after Owls. According to Carl Nkune from Pafuri Border Camp, a survey in 2005 found 18 pairs on the Luvuvhu River between Crooks Corner and Lanner Gorge. Since the previous survey was conducted the population increased by 8 pairs, so there may be even more Owls now! With this level of population density you would have to fancy your chances, yet more birders walk away without seeing one than those that do, such is the elusive nature of these shy, ginger Owls.

A map of the northern Kruger National Park showing all the areas and roads I refer to in this newsletter, as well as the different biomes one can expect to encounter. Lots of Mopane! (Copyright: www.krugerpark.co.za).

If I have any advice for those still looking to see and photograph this “nocturnal nemesis”, I would encourage you to spend three nights at one of the camps near the Luvuvhu River and book three night drives. This may be more expensive than trying to do it on your own, but it increases your chance of seeing these Owls exponentially. I stayed at the Pafuri Border Camp and went with Carel. His knowledge and experience combined with a large degree of favour meant we saw the birds on two of the three nights. The sightings surpassed my wildest imaginations and I have Carel and Warren Deyzel to thank for that! (Warren can be contacted for walking tours and safaris in Kruger via [email protected])

A birding moment that will last a lifetime; A Pel’s Fishing Owl letting out its low pitched, booming call from the banks of the Luvuvhu River, Pafuri, Kruger National Park.

Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: Manual mode | ISO 4000 | 1/500s | f6.3 | Exp bias 0 | Flash (ETTL | +2.7)
Image dimensions: 6399 x 4267 (7.7 MB)

To see these magnificent Pel’s Fishing Owls two nights in a row was an unbelievable experience and something I will never forget. I think the fact that we booked three night drives really improved our chances and is something I would recommend to all those looking to photograph this elusive species.

The night drives are also a fantastic way to connect with another of the area’s special birds; the Three-banded Courser. Before heading to Kruger I had heard of numerous people “dipping” on this species during the day, but we had no problems finding them once the sun had set.

Back and front images of a stunning Three-banded Courser photographed on the open, elephant dung ridden plains of the Makuleke Concession in the northern Kruger National Park.

You also have the chance of bumping into some of the regions stunning Owl species including African Wood Owl and Verreaux’s Eagle Owl. If anything, the “Luvuvhu Magic” is as good at night as it is during the day!

An African Wood Owl photographed at the Blyde River Canyon on my way back home to Balgowan from the Pafuri Border Camp.

That said, morning and afternoon light should not be wasted as Pafuri holds some phenomenal bird species.

Böhm’s on the Bridge

One of these and one of my main targets in Pafuri was Böhm’s Spinetail. I have a real soft spot for these unique birds with their bat-like shape, short stubby tails with spines on them and fast, flittery flight.

“Luvuvhu Magic” – The Pafuri Bridge is one of my favourite places in the world! Not only is it one of the more reliable haunts of Pel’s fishing Owl and Böhm’s Spinetail, but it also consistently delivers some wonderful wildlife sightings like this African Elephant drinking from its banks.

I estimate that I spent around 12 hours observing them during my 16 days in the park and as a result I learnt so many new things about them. Instead of trying to cover it all now, the newsletter after next will go into more depth. I really pushed myself to try and take advantage of the Canon R5s focusing ability and achieve images that I have not seen published before. To give you a sense of what is to come, below is just one of the images I was able to capture of a Spinetail flying directly at me. It was incredible to witness them flying so low down and even under the Pafuri Bridge itself. The time with them was so exciting that Warren and I even came up with our own song, which should probably stay in Pafuri!

A Böhm’s Spinetail flying low down and directly at me while standing on the Pafuri Bridge. It was such a privilege to spend so much time with these unique birds and I can’t wait to share more of my experiences with you. Without a doubt, mirrorless cameras have changed flight photography forever! In the newsletter after next I will share the detailed camera settings that worked best for me to capture these erratic fliers.

Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/8000s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash
Image dimensions: 4181 x 2789 (2.4 MB)

While spending significant time photographing Böhm’s, I got to witness some fantastic moments with both birds and mammals. One of these moments was watching an African Harrier Hawk hunt Little Swift’s under the bridge. Within 20 minutes he had caught and devoured three birds!

An African Harrier Hawk busy devouring his 3rd Little Swift within a 20 minute period. You can see the head of the Swift in his talons. Not great for the colony of Little Swifts, but such is life in the African bush!

Other great sightings on the Pafuri Bridge included: Pygmy Kingfisher; African Yellow White-eye, Green-capped Eremomela; Burnt necked Eremomela and Grey tit flycatcher, as well as many fly overs from the likes of African Fish Eagles, Marabou and Saddle-billed Storks and Brown-headed Parrots.

Brown-headed Parrots were by far the most common Parrots I encountered in the north, with a few sightings of Meyer’s and none of Grey-headed. This particular bird was captured while driving from Shingwedzi to Punda Maria.

The Pafuri Picnic Spot

After spending an early morning on the Bridge, and especially on hot days, I would make my way to the shaded Pafuri Picnic Spot for some welcome relief from the 44 degree (centigrade) heat. The Picnic Spot is located on the banks of the Luvuvhu River under a canopy of magnificent, Riverine Forest trees. It is undoubtedly one of the best locations to pick up some of the area’s top birds.

A very friendly Bearded Scrub Robin that I would spend time with early in the morning at the Pafuri Picnic Spot.

I had the pleasure of enjoying long stints searching its interior and spending time with its knowledgeable and kind caretaker and bird guide; Mandla Ngomane. I love spending time with passionate, local guides, hearing their stories and getting to know them. It is a real privilege and something I encourage us all to do! One of the highlights of my trip was sharing my experiences with Mandla and celebrating the wonders of Pafuri’s birdlife. I am also so thankful for the information and experience he imparted; from the behaviour of Böhm’s Spinetail in windy, cloudy conditions, to the favourite hangouts of Pel’s Fishing Owls and too many wonderful stories about Racket-tailed Rollers and Gorgeous Bush-shrikes. Thank you so much Mandla! The trip would not have been the same without you!

A male, Black-throated Wattle-eye with a combination of spider webs and tiny twigs in his beak as he goes about the task of building his nest at the Pafuri Picnic Spot.
A female, Black-throated Wattle-eye at one of her favourite collection points, where she had discovered the motherload of spider webs for her nest building efforts.

One of the many special moments was locating the nest of the resident Black-throated Wattle-eyes. Mandla kindly pointed the birds out to me on my first morning there and after a few hours of observation I noticed that they were carrying nesting material. The next day Mandla’s keen eyes located their nest in the canopy. Consequently, I spent the entire next day watching them collect nesting material. After 8 hours of observation, I was delighted when the male decided to dive bomb a Tropical Boubou and land on an eye level branch just a couple of metres from where we were standing. The couple were incredibly territorial and would attack just about anything that ventured close to their nest; from vervet monkeys to black-headed orioles. You always knew when they were defending their site, as they would make a metallic-like sound as they aerially bombarded the perpetrator.

The male Black-throated Wattle-eye that landed just a few metres from me after dive bombing the resident, one-eyed Tropical Boubou. It was such a treat to be able to spend so much time with these stunning birds and to learn so much about their behaviour and the birds that share the picnic spot with them. This image also shows off the incredible ISO performance of the canon R5, which makes photographing forest birds incredibly exciting!

Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 4000 | 1/1000s | f5.6 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

Other great species found in and around the picnic spot included African Cuckoo Hawk, Heuglin’s or White-browed Robin Chat, Ashy Flycatcher, African Yellow White-eye, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, Terrestrial Brownbul, Tropical Boubou, Red-faced Cisticola and Bearded Scrub Robin.

A pair of Ashy Flycatchers were resident at the Pafuri Picnic Spot and would regularly swoop down to catch insects and then fly up and land on some of the low hanging branches. This made for my best images of this pretty species to date.
“One eyed Jack’s good side” – I would find this one-eyed Tropical Boubou each morning looking for scraps around the Picnic Site. He looked pretty normal on his left side but was horribly deformed on his right. At least, like many other birds that share the site with him, he has found his small oasis along the banks of the Luvuvhu.
The Heuglin’s or White-browed Robin-chats are incredibly photogenic at the Pafuri Picnic Spot and I was afforded some close encounters.
A Terrestrial Brownbul looks on as one of his fellow flock member throws leaves in the air while foraging for insects at the Pafuri Picnic Spot.

The road to Crook’s Corner

Apart from the Pafuri Bridge and Picnic Spot, I also spent significant time driving the length of the river to Crook’s Corner. These early and late afternoon drives never failed to suprise me and I took away some incredible encounters with some of the iconic birds of the area; including Bateleurs, Saddle-billed Storks, Ground Hornbills, Meve’s Starlings and Broad-billed Rollers.

One of the many highlights was locating the nest site of a pair of threatened Ground Hornbills. I could hear their booming call as I came round a corner to find them perched on a large tree that lent into the road. On closer inspection of the surrounding area, I noticed a large cavity in a tall tree to the right, which looked perfect for them to raise their family in. This led to some amazing sightings as they searched for food on the surrounding plains and brought back what they had found to their young.

My first glimpse of an adult Ground Hornbill on the Pafuri River road to Crook’s Corner. This was the start of many memorable moments with these iconic birds.
An adult Ground Hornbill on her way to feed her young in a large nest cavity about 5 metres from the road.
The same adult Ground Hornbill about to present a “field mouse” lunch to her offspring on the Pafuri River road to Crook’s Corner.

Equally exciting was fulfilling one of my many photographic dreams, which was to capture a pair of Bateleurs sitting together on a dead tree. The cloudy conditions were perfect, as they not only kept away the brutal heat of the day but also allowed the opportunity for a number of high key images.

A dream come true! A pair of Bateleurs perched on a dead tree on the road to Crook’s Corner in the Pafuri region of northern Kruger.
A Bateleur swallows a “Squirrel roadkill” on the tar road from Pafuri to Punda Maria. Although it was hard not to feel sad for the Squirrel, it was fascinating to watch this stunning, adult Bateleur devour the entire roadkill in a single gulp.
A Saddle-billed Stork fishes below me on the Luvuvhu River in the Pafuri region of northern Kruger.
(Edited ~ used levels in Photoshop to make the background white (from off white))
A Meve’s Starling stands on a gnarly perch a few metres from my vehicle on the Pafuri River road to Crook’s Corner.
A Broad-billed Roller perches in a Baobab Tree a few kilometres from the Pafuri Border Camp in northern Kruger.

Iconic Cats, Big & Small

The road from Punda Maria to Pafuri takes about one and a half hours. There are two routes; one via Klopperfontein Dam (on the S60) or one via the tarred H1-13. Both options then join the tarred H1-8. Each route has its own merits as Arnot’s Chat can be found in mature mopane on the Klopperfontein road and Dickenson’s Kestrels have been seen between Klopperfontein Dam and the nearby reservoir.

Although, I travelled the S60 a few times and bumped into some cool birds, such a Temninck’s Courser, Peregrine Falcon and Southern Ground Hornbill, the road was very corrugated and I decided to travel the tar roads instead. This turned out to be a stroke of good fortune as I had some of my best sightings on these two main arteries; including the elusive Arnot’s Chat on the H1-13, a Bat Hawk about 20 kilometres from the Pafuri Bridge on the H1-8 and some fantastic predatory Cat sightings.

A Dickinson’s Kestrel photographed 12 kilometres from the beginning of the Mahonie Loop near Punda Maria Rest-camp in the northern Kruger National Park. This image will always have a special place in my heart as it was not only the first time that I have seen this elusive Kestrel but also an answer to an important prayer.

Although the Chat and Hawk were awesome to see it was the latter predatory Cat sightings that really stood out to me. There is just something so exhilarating about spotting and spending time with Africa’s Big Cats and dangerous game. Almost as exciting as birds!  My intuition and logic says that there is still a big gap in the market to offer overseas bird photographers tours that not only cater to their bird photography needs (such as set ups, bird hides, purpose built vehicles and professional bird photography guides) but also allow time for epic encounters with Africa’s Big Five and Big Cats.

My first encounter happened while driving 50 km/h (the speed limit on the main roads in Kruger) to get to the Pafuri Bridge at 6am, when I suddenly caught site of an odd looking rock to the right of my vehicle. My gut said that I needed to turn around, but by the time I had slowed down I was already a good few hundred metres past the “rock”. Choosing to trust my gut, I slowly reversed backwards to find that the rock had transformed into the most stunning African Wildcat. It hadn’t moved! It was crouched down, motionless and watching me closely as the rising sun lit up its ears and presented me with a dream image and moment! There is just something about Kruger and especially the north, which makes you feel that within minutes or just around the next bend, something magical can happen.

This was the first image I took of this magnificent African Wildcat, as she crouched motionless on the main tar road (H1-8) to the Pafuri Bridge. I love the colours of Mopane in the background and her intense gaze.
After a few minutes of absolutely no movement, she finally raised her head and moved slightly forward, before heading off into her Mopane surrounds.

A couple of days after my African Wildcat sighting I was doing the same early morning drive when I saw two heads popping up from the side of the road. I immediately knew I was going to be late for another date with some Bohm’s Spinetails! It was two male Cheetahs taking it easy, literally 3 metres from my vehicle! To my delight they slowly stood up and began their morning hunt. Although I didn’t see a kill, I got to spend some wonderful moments with these magnificent cats as they walked slowly down the road to Punda Maria, stopping on termite mounds and climbing on concrete sign posts as they went along.

Two male Cheetahs discovered on the H1-8 to the Pafuri Bridge. I shared some amazing moments with these two magnificent Cats as they used various raised platforms to inspect their surrounds.

And If that wasn’t enough I also bumped into African Wild Dogs five times as well as a coalition of 10 male lions. The lions are known as the Babalala coalition, which is the largest in the Kruger Park and I found them on the road from Shingwedzi to Punda Maria; making their way towards Klopperfontein Dam. I am normally happy with 1, but 10 did just fine.

The Babalala collation of Lions stops for a drink before continuing on their journey to the Punda Maria region of the Kruger National Park. I am seriously glad that I am not an antelope in the northern Kruger! Just look at 8 of the 10 brutes that are roaming around between Babalala and Klopperfontein Dam!

The “Mighty” Mahonie Loop and Punda Maria Rest-camp

If those sightings of Big Cats weren’t enough, the Mahonie Loop had even further surprises. The Loop and the nearby Punda Maria Rest-camp are famous with birders and hold some exceptional bird species. Orange-winged Pytilias and Eastern Nicators have been seen lurking around the camp interior while the Loop offers the opportunity for Pennant-winged Nightjars, Grey-headed Parrots, Dickinon’s Kestrels and many more excellent species. Some even say that Southern Hyliota is a possibility!

Punda Maria is one of the best places in South Africa to see and photograph Pennant-winged Nightjars. They have been seen drinking from the waterhole in front of the camp at dusk, but if you want to significantly increase your chances book a sunset drive and say you want to go to the Pennant-winged lek site. This particular Pennant-winged was photographed in Dzalanyama Forest in Malawi where I had 4 birds flying around me in the reserve’s stunning Miombo Woodlands.

After a very special sighting of a Dickinson’s Kestrel twelve kilometres from the beginning of the Mahonie Loop, I was intent on finding the Great Painted Snipes that had been seen in the area a few days earlier. It was almost time to give up on my search, as it was getting close to gate closing time and I still had a few kilometres to go before arriving at the Punda Maria gate. Undeterred, I knew there was one more spot to scan before heading home. I slowly entered the small, semi-circle loop that leads to a small wetland, stopped the car and raised my binoculars to start my search. Oh mother of Naartjies! There in my viewfinder staring back at me was a young, female Leopard. She was having her pre-dinner drinks and I was just fortunate to be looking for Snipes, as her ability to blend in was second to none. She continued to drink and I got to enjoy the sighting all on my own; one of the many benefits of the north!

The exact scene I found when I lifted my binoculars to search for a Great Painted Snipe. There were no Snipe, but who cares when you have a stunning, female Leopard looking back at you.
My favourite image of my time with this beautiful Leopard. I love how she blends into her surroundings and could go so easily unnoticed.

The Leopard and a cracking Dickinson’s Kestrel were not the only stars that the “Magical Mahonie” had to offer and I was afforded some other super sightings. The standouts were undoubtedly my best encounter with a Black Stork, a termite eruption that attracted both Mosque and Red-breasted Swallows and some wonderful moments with one of my favourite Woodpeckers; the Bennet’s Woodpecker. I was also fortunate to finally find the Great Painted Snipes. In fact, I returned the next afternoon and located three males and two females feeding below a small river crossing. Although the light and angle wasn’t ideal for photography it was fantastic to spend time observing these good looking birds.

One of two females (right) and one of three males (left) that I had the fortune of observing on the Mahonie Loop near Punda Maria. Every time a Drongo made a racket or a Brown-hooded Kingfisher called, this female Snipe would open up her wings as wide as possible in an attempt to look bigger and ward off any danger.
A stunning, male Bennet’s Woodpecker photographed on the Mahonie Loop near Punda Maria Rest-camp, northern Kruger National Park.
My best ever encounter with a Black Stork at a small river crossing on the Mahonie Loop near Punda Maria.

The camp itself also didn’t disappoint, as I was greeted on a few afternoon excursions with awesome views of Eastern Nicator, Crowned Hornbill, Orange-breasted Bush-shrike, Ashy Flycatcher, Square-tailed Nightjar and White-throated Robin-chat. Added to this, I also got to spend an afternoon with the local Crested Guineafowl party! I couldn’t believe how relaxed they were around me, often getting well within my minimum focal distance and making for some standout portraits and one of the funniest moments of the trip.

“That’s the Spot” – This Crested Guineafowl clearly had an itch that needed scratching and his fellow companion had obviously picked the right spot. This scene really made me chuckle, as the bird stayed in this exact pose for a good few minutes.

Although I wasn’t trying to maximise my species count, as I was focused more on photography than birding, I did manage to see over 200 species of birds and 30 mammals during my stay in the Park.

Here is a list of some of the special birds I encountered and where I saw them:
Dickinson’s Kestrel (Mahonie loop, approximately 12 km from the start);
Arnot’s Chat (on the H1-13);
Böhm’s spinetail (at 6am on the Pafuri Bridge when it was sunny and calm and around 07h30 if it was windy and overcast);
Pels Fishing Owl (on the first and second loops after the Pafuri Picnic Spot);
Three-banded Courser (at the first no entry road sign after leaving the bridge and heading into the Makuleke concession);
Racket-tailed Roller (a few kilometres from the Pafuri Bridge towards the Pafuri Gate);
Ground Hornbill (on the Pafuri River road after the picnic spot);
Bat Hawk (approx 20km before the Pafuri Bridge);
Black Stork (at a small river crossing on the Mahonie loop);
Great Painted Snipe (at a river crossing about 6km from the start of the Mahonie loop).

After 16 full days in the northern Kruger National Park, I can confidently say that there is something unbelievably special about it. It gets under your skin! There is an intensity, a feeling of imminent danger and excitement that is met with an equal and opposite sense of peace and a feeling of belonging. It made me think deep thoughts, drew me closer to God and made me marvel at his creation.

My next issue will reveal my favourite image and moment of the trip as well as a portfolio of images; called the “Colours of Northern Kruger”. This is one not to be missed and I look forward to sharing this magical destination with you in a somewhat different way; through “habitat shots” that at least for me help to reveal the true essence of Punda Maria and Pafuri.

I look forward to seeing you there!

Yours in bird photography,
 


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