Trip 1: July 2010
On Saturday the 25th July 2010, my son (Little Birdman) and I made an early start and arrived at the entrance to Ezemvelo Nature Reserve (described in chapter 52 of Birding Gauteng) as the sun was rising over the entrance gate. The reserve is about 30 kilometers north east of Bronkhorstspruit.
There was a lot of cloud around early in the morning and we hoped it would not spoil our day's outing. We were too early to pay at reception (which only opens at 8) so we decided to head towards the lower Eastern section of the reserve to explore the Wilge River. We saw Common Ostrich, Cape Sparrow, Cape Turtle Dove, Ant-eating Chat and Natal Spurfowl. A slow start to the day's birding!
We arrived at the picnic area just before the electronic boom gate that hinders cars driving across the river to the other side of the reserve (it seems mostly reserved for hiking). We spent time on the bridge as the sun struggled to break through the clouds and then walked along the path next to the river, hoping to see African Finfoot which is seen there occasionally. I suspect there is only 1 Finfoot in the whole of South Africa and it must have been on show in another spot because no matter how hard we looked and sneaked around we did not see it. We did see White-breasted Cormorant, Reed Cormorant, Arrow-marked Babbler, Woodpecker (we only heard it as it was in trees on the other side of the river), Tawny-flanked Prinia, African Black Swift and a Warbler that we never got to id or photograph successfully.
We then made our way towards the reception area past the small dams which were all empty so there was no waterfowl to see unfortunately. We did see Cape Glossy Starling, Southern Red Bishop, Cape Longclaw, Red-winged Startling, Long-tailed Widowbird (I did not see the orange wing colour so I am not sure of this id) and Swainson's Spurfowl that involved some patience and hiking up a small hill to catch a glimpse of it as it flew away from us. There is a stunning house in this area painted in the Ndabele style. Here are a few pics from the section:
After paying at reception we drove past the big dam where we saw Levaillant's Cisticola, African Stonechat and Black-throated Canary and Yellow-fronted Canary. There was not a single waterbird in sight! Strange but true!
On the way up to the game drive section of the reserve we spotted Helmeted Guineafowl and Southern Masked Weaver (at least there was a good amount of game around all day to keep us interested when the birds were a little scarce at times, including Wildebeest, Impala, Bontebok, Eland, Kudu, Waterbuck, Gemsbok, Zebra and a million Warthogs (a predator or two would help to keep them in check but it was great being able to walk around and not worry about being bitten by lion). I will post some pics of the animals later.
While we were driving along the western fence we saw Ant-eating Chat, Crowned Lapwing, Common Fiscal, Plain-backed Pipit and suddenly a Northern Black Korhaan, probably female, took off not too far from our vehicle and I hastily snapped a few shots and then we decided to get follow it on foot to get some close up shots. It looked like we saw exactly where it landed (and a second one joined it too) but we must have walked a 500 metre square area and did not see them again - although we did hear them. We concluded that they land in a spot and then run from there to a new spot to confuse birders!
We arrived at the Hikers Hut and after being initially distracted by the beauty of the river and the rock formations in front of the huts we realised that there was some unique little Swallow/Swift/Martin type birds flying around. They turned out to be Rock Martin (proven conclusively by the 8 beautiful white spots on the tail feathers. A female was perched on a flag pole and the guys were all flying up close to her and displaying their spots - which led to a few half-decent pics being snapped. A lifer!!! There was a male and female Mocking Cliff-Chat around as well as Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Familiar Chat and Red-billed Quelea.
We headed off towards the view points and even though there has been no rain for a while there was a lot of mud around, probably coming from a spring on the top of the hill - and when I decided to turn back because it looked bad up ahead, I managed to let one of my front wheels slip off the hard path into the softest mud I have ever seen - and we were totally stuck, even though just one wheel was in the mud. Fortunately a ranger arrived with his game drive vehicle but all he had was a screw driver (I had hoped for a spade or a tow cable so he could pull me out). It must have taken us about 20 minutes to get the car onto some bricks and then with some rocking back and forth (with him standing in the mud and pushing) we were out. You can imagine how profusely I thanked him - Little Birdman thought it was the highlight of the day!
On the way back to the reception area we saw two Larks - first a Red-capped Lark and then another Lark that I believe is a Spike-heeled Lark even though I can't quite see the spike in any of the pics - they are just not at the right angle. It's colouring was totally amazing!!! Here are some pics from different angles:
We then spent a good hour or two birding around the reception area and the area behind the chalets and the upper camping area. Here we saw Dark-capped Bulbul, Cardinal Woodpecker, Familiar Chat, Thick-billed Weaver, Cape Weaver, Cape White-eye, Arrow-marked Babbler, Crested Barbet, Yellow-fronted Canary and Speckled Pigeon.
It was around 1pm when we decided against returning to the River sight where we started that morning in favour of a return to Smuts Koppies in Pretoria so Little Birdman could see the Rose-ringed Parakeet that I had seen earlier that week. I will post some updates to that trip report. On the dirt road just outside the reserve we spotted African Grey Hornbill and Black-shouldered Kite, to take our total bird species seen for the day up to 44.
Here are some of the animals that we saw on the day:
Trip 2: November 2012
Armed with some fresh information from a fellow birder about sightings of a Shelley's Francolin that he had seen (my longest running bogey-bird) and possible chances with seeing some Nightjars, I headed off before dawn with the plan to camp overnight at Ezemvelo Nature Reserve. I started out birding the Old Verena Spa Road near Mabusa Nature Reserve - also a good spot for the Francolin and Barrow's korhaan. Sadly neither species were around and I soon found myself at the little wetland near the end of the route where I always hear Red-chested Flufftail calling. I decided to make myself comfortable and wait until I got a sighting at least - hoping to see a male at last. About 45 minutes later there was movement in the reeds and a tiny little female Flufftail was checking me out. I had a few sightings and at one time she came to within 2 meters of my car but flew back to the safety of the reeds before I was able to fire off any shots. Here are the best of my efforts with Mrs Flufftail:
I then headed towards Ezemvelo with the only sighting along the way of any significance this Lesser Grey Shrike:
I arrive at Ezemvelo as the day was getting rather hot, set up my tent and headed off to bird along the Wilge River. Sadly this time I did not get lucky with an Finfoot sightings like on my previous visit. Rufous-naped Larks were calling from every rock with the occasional Easter Clapper Lark putting in an appearance as well. African Pipit was going ballistic displaying between the campsite and the little dam. Here are a selection of pics from the afternoon:
I tried to get closer to a pair of male Violet-backed Starlings in their bright purple plumage but had to be happy with these shots:
This Woodpecker in the shadows of the koppie close to my tent kept me guessing until I enhanced the photos and realised that it was Cardinal with the strong barring on the chest:
I was out at sunset driving around the park but did not spot the Shelley's Francolin - however, the information I had gotten was to be out early the next morning between the gate and the game drive area so I was not too worried. The setting sun was something special as was a sighting of 4 Black-backed Jackal not far from the main gate:
The highlight of the evening was looking for Nightar's around the campsite. I heard the call of Freckled Nighjar quite a distance away in the koppie next to the campsite and it responded to my call and made it's way down to the open area between the campsite and the dam - presumably hunting for insects. The moon would come and go as the clouds were heavy but they seemed to not move around when the full moon was shining. Sadly with the low light photo opportunities were dismal. They kept calling well into the night and even when I got up at 4am they called a few times well.
I then heard a most bizarre call that sounds like frogs around the dam - but it would continue for a while and then go quiet - this got me checking the call of Rufous-cheeked Nightjar and bingo - what an amazing sound for a bird!!! I tried my luck by focussing on a poll about 10 meters from where I was standing in the pitch darkness and when it made one of it's passes close to me I blindly snapped a shot and got luck with this poor quality record shot:
Anyway, I finally gave up trying to shoot in the dark (next time I need to bring a decent flashlight as my little torch was hopeless) and work the next morning at 4am, brewed up some coffee for the day and went Francolin hunting! I saw one little Francolin darting into the long grass close to the main gate and wondered if that was my first and last chance at the species. It was already 6am and I was starting to get a little despondent and decided to do a drive around part of the game drive area (from point 7 towards point 8 and then back to point 9 and then back to 7 - on the reserve's map). I pulled onto the road leading back to where I had started played the call - had a cup of coffee and was just about to drive off when I spotted a Francolin come out of the grass but immediately head back into cover. Before I could even begin to wonder what it was (I had already seen the Red-winged Francolin in the area so really needed to be sure of my id) the loud "I'll drink your beer, I'll drink your beer" call of the Shelley's Francolin sounded from the grass not more than a few meters from my window. It was a lot faster than the call on my phone but no doubt the Shelley's! I spent the new 15 minutes taking pics as it seemed unfased by my presence and called not more than 4 meters from my car and even ran past my car about 2 meters from me. Here are some shots:
I returned home the next day thrilled to have finally spent some time with Shelley!