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Text and pictures: Peter Chadwick. Article from the March 2012 issue of Country Life Magazine.
The birdlife in this northern Kruger Park camp alone is enough to astonish you, never mind what’s to be seen in the surrounding bushveld.
Remember well the first time I visited Punda Maria in the northern reaches of the Kruger National Park. I’d just turned off the road between Shingwedzi and Pafuri and onto the final stretch to the camp when a large male leopard leapt out of a tree and sauntered across the road in front of me. I entered the camp gates absolutely enthralled with such a magnificent sighting, and while driving up the small hill to the reception area I was then blown away by the amount of birdlife in the camp’s grounds. As I got to know Punda Maria and its surroundings better it became one of my favourite birding locations and I’ve returned again and again over the years.
On my most recent visit I enthusiastically drove through the park entrance gates and was immediately greeted by the summer calls of Woodland Kingfishers (9 on the checklist on page 25) and by numerous beautifully coloured European Rollers (3 on checklist). Grey Go-away-birds flew laboriously from tree top to tree top, raising and lowering their crests and giving their distinctive calls.
While driving slowly towards the camp I saw Fork-tailed Drongos hawking insects all along the way, and followed an old bull elephant that was ambling through the long grass. Initially it was rather tense because of my presence, but it quickly relaxed when it found a marula tree with ripe fruit, upon which it then spent the next hour feeding.
After checking in at the camp, I set up my tent under the shade of a large mopane tree and watched a pair of African Paradise-Flycatchers that appeared to be collecting food for their youngsters, who must have been in a nearby nest. White-browed Robin-Chats began calling from the thickets adjacent to the swimming pool, and a KurrichaneThrush pair flicked and scratched among fallen leaves for hidden insects.
With the breeding season still in full swing, the Southern Yellow-billed and Red-billed Hornbills had built nests in hollows in the mopane trees and in many cases the males were feeding the females, now sealed inside the nests with only small gaps through which to reach out for the food.
Walking up to the hide which overlooks a waterhole on the edge of the camp, I was watched by a wrinkled and rather ugly Marabou Stork (8 on checklist) perched on the top of a dead tree and surveying all under it like royalty. A kudu cow wandered past with both Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers combing through its hair, searching for parasites. Next up was a Diderick Cuckoo that had found a fat caterpillar and which proceeded to beat it enthusiastically against a branch for several minutes before finally swallowing it.
With late afternoon approaching and the temperature dropping, I set out to drive around the Mahonie Loop. This goes through some of the best woodland in the park and at the time of year was lush and green. Just outside the camp a Sharpe’s grysbok dashed across an open patch of veld while Rattling Cisticolas (7 on checklist) and a Black-Crowned Tchagra indicated there must be a predator nearby, which would probably have frightened the grysbok.
At a termite mound, small winged alates were emerging and these attracted Crested Barbet (6 on checklist), African Hoopoe, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Black-headed Oriole (1 on checklist), Jacobin and Black Cuckoos, which all dashed around trying to catch and swallow as many of the nutritious termites as possible. Along the watercourses, European and Carmine Bee-eaters swooped after flying insects, and high up on a ridge, a pair of African Hawk-Eagle hunted in tandem. As I watched the two magnificent raptors, I wondered if they could be the same pair I’d monitored during two years in the early 1990s when working on a rare birds project in the park.
With the vegetation being so thick it was necessary to travel extremely slowly around corners in the road, as there were numerous breeding herds of elephant around and they were not always that friendly, raising my adrenalin level with some good charges. Zebra, kudu, impala and giraffe were also plentiful and provided welcome and interesting breaks between the birdwatching.
The golden webs of the aptly named Golden Orb spiders adorned the dank vegetation, many holding grasshoppers or butterflies that the spiders were eagerly feeding on.
In branches over the numerous pools of water foam nest frogs had lathered up the foam ‘nests’ in which they lay their eggs out of the reach of predators.
As the eggs develop they became heavier and sink down through the foam until, eventually, the tadpoles plop into the water below.
At these same wet areas, Zitting Cisticolas and White-winged Widowbirds were plentiful. I was also lucky to see several male Long-tailed Paradise-Whydah with their long tails dangling behind their diminutive bodies.
Small groups of White Stork wandered through the long grasses and snapped up any insects that they came across.
As the shadows lengthened and dusk approached, the birdlife became more active with Eastern Nicator White-throated Robin-Chat, Swainson’s Spurfowl and Natal and Crested Francolins all starting to call. Brown-headed Parrots screeched from the tops of marula trees and dropped the large fruit intermittently. Cackling parties of Arrow-marked Babbler and Green Wood-Hoopoe added to the increasing variety of sounds that emanated from the bush.
Birding parties are always great to find as you’re treated to many species working together through an area, feeding in different ways and filling different niches while providing numerous eyes to keep a watch out for predators. My first birding party was a real goodie, with African Grey Hornbill (5 on checklist) feeding in the upper tree tops while Chinspot Batis, Spectacled Weaver, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Common Scimitarbill, Spotted Flycatcher, Black-backed Puffback, Greater Honeyguide, Southern Black Tit and Southern Black Flycatcher all fed in the mid-strata of the vegetation. Low down, Brown-crowned Tchagra and Cape Glossy Starling completed the diversity of the party, and it was amazing to see how quickly they moved through an area and disappeared from sight.
As I completed the first half of the loop, the veld opened up and became drier and I flinched instinctively as I drove right next to an, until then unseen, black mamba that was a thick as my forearm and which reared up aggressively with mouth agape at the vehicle.
Red-backed Shrike (4 on checklist) now became common and I watched Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver (2 on checklist) collecting sticks for their massive nests, which adorned several large trees. On top one of the trees, a large Tawny Eagle (10 on checklist) ignored being mobbed by some of the much smaller male buffalo-weavers, who were not happy with having the predator so close to their nests.
As I approached the camp again I came across a large herd of Cape buffalo feeding placidly in the lush grass.The evening light highlighted the colouration of several Lilac-breasted Roller (below) which were following the buffalo closely to snatch up insects disturbed by their heavy feet.
I entered the camp just before the gates were closed, excited by both the day I’d just had and the thought of heading up to Pafuri the next morning.
Season and Weather Summers hot and wet with afternoon thunderstorms.Temperatures soar into the 40°C plus, so always have plenty of drinking fluids available. Vegetation lush and difficult to see through at this time of the year Winters are cooler and the vegetation is drier and easier to see through. Winters are also when game concentrates around the waterholes. But spring and summer; although being so hot, are definitely the best seasons for birding as this is when the migrants arrive. Early morning and late afternoons are the best times of day.
Habitats Brachystegia woodland, riparian woodland, mopane bushveld, lowveld savannah.
Specials Dickinson’s Kestrel, Crested Guineafowl, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Arnot’s Chat, Black Coucal. Recommended Viewing Points Punda Maria camp, Flycatcher trail, Game-viewing hide, Mahonie loop.
Accommodation & Activities Both huts and tent sites are available at Punda Maria camp. Book through SANParks’ central reservations office.The Nyalaland Wilderness Trail is popular and needs to be booked well in advance. Guided drives, night drives and walks can be booked at the camp office.
Getting There Punda Maria can be accessed from the south of Kruger Park or via the Punda entrance gate, which is reached from Makhado.The camp is about 600km from Johannesburg.
10 specials to try to spot on BirdLife South Africa’s Punda Maria Birding Route.
- The Black-headed Oriole (Swartkopwielewaaf) is a common resident. It occurs in broad-leafed woodlands and has a beautiful liquid call.
- The Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver (Buffelwewer) makes large untidy nests of twigs in the upper and outer branches of bushveld trees. The darker males display near their nest sites.
- A summer migrant, the European Roller (Europese Troupant) becomes the most commonly encountered roller in the Kruger National Park in season, often seen swooping down on the large insects upon which it feeds.
- The Red-backed Shrike (Rooiruglaksman) is another summer migrant. The males are the more brightly coloured sex, with grey crowns and reddish backs, while the females are a mottled brown.
- Occurring in small family groups, the African Grey Hornbill (Grysneushoringvoël) has an undulating flight pattern. When display-calling, it holds its head vertically.
- The Crested Barbet (Kuifkophoutkapper) is regularly encountered in the various Kruger camps. Apart from its obvious colouration it’s also easily located by its repetitive trrrrring call.
- The most common and abundant of the bushveld cisticolas, the Rattling Cisticola (Bosveldtinktinkie) is most easily located and distinguished by its rattling call.
- The large, unmistakable Marabou Stork (Maraboe) has the strange habit of defecating on its legs, which gives them their white colour
- Probably one of the most recognised summer sounds of the bushveld is the piercing trp-trrrrrrrr call of the Woodland Kingfisher (Bosveldvisvanger), an inter-African breeding migrant.
- A year-round resident, the Tawny Eagle (Roofarend) is easily confused with the migrant Steppe Eagle, but its gape extends only below the eye while that of the Steppe Eagle extends beyond the eye.
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