Chapter 83 in Birding Gauteng covers the Nylsvley Nature Reserve and Vogelfontein birding spots. A true birders paradise - especially when the flood waters arrive at the site.
1. April 2010
On Tuesday morning, with a dismal weather forecast for the whole of Gauteng, I headed out from my home in Johannesburg, at 4:30am, for Nylsvley Nature Reserve for a day of birding. The write up in The Chamberlain Guide to Birding Gauteng, was all I needed to convince me that I would not be disappointed.
I took the alternate route, via the road to Kranskop and was lucky enough to have a few significant sightings despite the lack of sunlight and dense cloud cover. On this road to Nylsvley I saw Fork-tailed Drongo, Hadeda Ibis, Swainson’s Spurfowl, Helmeted Guineafowl, Burchell’s Coucal, Black Shouldered Kite, a massive flock of Cattle Egret, Lilac-breasted Roller, Magpie Shrike, Mousebird, Cape Glossy Starling, Grey-Go-Away Bird, Crested Francolin, Hamerkop and a three-banded plover that was enjoying a dip in one of the many pools on the dirt road (at times I wondered whether I would get stuck or have to turn back, but I ended up making it through okay). If I was new to birding, then this trip alone may have made the outing worthwhile. The main highlight on this road for me was seeing two Black Stork (although I am left wondering whether one is a juvenile and why it seems to have a wattle at the base of its bill). Seeing Lifers is always an incredibly rewarding moment!
This road brought me to within 2 kilometers of the entrance gate to Nylsvley and it would be in this area (and at Vogelsfontent) and not inside Nylsvley that I would be most rewarded for making the long trip from Joburg. There is a steam that crosses the dirt road to the south of the entrance gate outside the Reserve and here I was blown away with repeated sightings of Green-backed Heron, both adult and juvenile, during the day:
At one point during the day I saw a Little Grebe swimming right next to the bridge and thought that for sure I would get clear photos of the little chap – but once again the image came out somewhat blurry. I am going to rename them The Little Shaking Grebes – I can photograph other water birds okay, but have never gotten a perfect shot of Little Grebe.
My next sighting near the bridge, in the large pools that develop alongside the road after heavy rains was a Lifer that I have been looking for all year: The Africa Spoonbill. I think I had given up hope of seeing it and thought at first I was looking at an Egret when suddenly I realized that it had a deformed beak – not so, but a Spoonbill! Fortunately my Manfrotto window mount helped me to compensate for the lack of light and the photos came out really sharp despite the overcast conditions.
I was suddenly surprised by the appearance of a huge Eagle and my first thoughts were that it must be a Marshall Eagle – but soon figured out that it was actually an African Fish-Eagle, but highly mottled because it was a juvenile. It flew away soon after I tried to get into position to get a clear shot, so this image is not as great as I would have liked! Just so you know, I shoot with an Olympus E500 with an Olympus 75-30mm lens.
Two Malachite Kingfishers (one a juvenile) happened along and were not too bothered about my presence as they were seemingly fighting over who the stream belonged to. As I took a few shots with them too far out of range to do much with the pics, suddenly one flew right up to my car and perched on a branch, not more than two meters from my window. I tried desperately to react without moving at all and managed to fire off a few shots with the camera in a skew position, not wanting to adjust it for fear of scaring it away, and then found that I had time to move the camera on the mount and get some really amazing shots. It was an absolute highlight, not as a Lifer, but just because I have always shot the Malachite at the end of my camera’s range. I prefer shooting the Pied or Giant Kingfishers because I don’t have to be that close to get a decent shot.
I was having so much fun, and I had not even entered Nylsvley (the reason why I actually drove all the way from Joburg) and almost out of duty decided to head into the Reserve. It was already about 8:30, but time seemed to not be so important on such a cold and overcast morning - fortunately it was not raining. I paid the R30.00 entrance fee for me and my car and was rather disappointed that the day was so drab because apart from some Southern Red Bishops and two Red-billed Hornbill there was nothing to see. To be fair to Nylsvley it was a dismal day and I had already decided that my day would be better if I focused on waterbirds and did not waste too much time looking into trees in picnic areas. I decided to visit again in Summer and look for all the specials that the books lists are available in and around the camping areas of Nylsvley.
I then drove through some of the worst muddy roads I would encounter on the day to get to the Jacana Hide. In fact, it was well named, as that was pretty much all I saw at the hide – apart from two Black Crake, a Common Moorhen and some Egyptian Geese flying overhead. In the distance I could see the odd Egret but nothing that my 300 mm lens would even pretend to be able to focus on. I had to walk through flowing water up to 30 centimeters in places as the flood plain in that area was covered with water. I did recall that the writers of my guide book mentioned that rubber boots would come in handy on the day and I wished that I had invested in a pair. I ended up using a pair a takkies (running shoes) for my outdoor walking on the day, without socks (at times my feet felt like they going to drop off from the freezing cold water), and would change back into a pair of shoes for driving around between hides. I am learning to pack extra items into a bag for “just in case” while out birding. I wasted about 30 minutes hoping for something special to arrive at the hide (the coffee in my flash was great so it was not a bad time) but left with a few grainy pics of African Jacana and a few others pics that became deleters. One highlight was a pic of a juvenile African Jacana that I had not seen before.
I then drove back towards the picnic site, having decided that as soon as I could I needed to make my way to Vogelfontein, on the other side of the Reserve, before the weather changed. I was worried about the passability of the dirt road to Vogelfontein, but did not realize that it was one of the best dirt roads I would drive on the whole day. On my way to Vogelfontein I also saw a Lizard Buzzard on the pylons near the railway line – another Lifer. Later that day I would get up close and personal with a Lizard Buzzard as I came across two gentlemen who were out tagging the birds. One was an elderly British gentleman, who said that he was actually an electrician on his way to do some repairs at a KFC in a nearby town and that he and his assistant were out doing some catching and releasing of birds. He said that they had already caught three of these Buzzards on the day and had ringed them. I must admit that later on as I drove back to Johannesburg I was worried that they might have been catching birds to sell them, but I think I may have been wearing my conspiracy theories cap. They were driving a white bakkie that was filled with electrical equipment. They asked to look at my bird books (they seemed to be wanting to check the identity of a Bittern) and the older gentleman bemoaned how that in South Africa people seldom take the time to report sightings of birds that have been ringed. He allowed me to take a few pics of the Lizard Buzzard.
On the way to the hides in Vogelfontein, I saw Green Wood-Hoopoe, Groundscraper Thrush, more Starlings and Burchell’s Coucal.
It was the pools of water on the side of the road just before the hides that yielded my best sightings in that area. I was enthralled to watch Black Heron engaged in their unique fishing methods:
In all my previous trips birding I had probably had three occasions where I got even close to Squacco Heron and had never successfully taken a pic that I was happy with – they were also either too far away or skulking around in the reeds. These were EVERYWHERE. And I also got to see juveniles. That made that part of the trip all worthwhile.
On the other side of the road I got to see a Goliath Heron doing gymnastics.
Another African Spoonbill (funny how you want to see a particular bird, search for it for months, and then when you see it once, you start to see it all over the place) was also practicing its own fishing technique among the Heron, and this pic shows their different approaches to fishing.
I then parked near the Kingfisher Hide and decided to do the walk to the two hides (Dadchick and Crake) using the codes for the combination locks that I had gotten from the main gate. It was a really challenging walk as the water was flowing strongly and came up to my knees in some places and it was slippery as anything, not to mentioned muddy and smelly. And to be honest, apart from the great scenery at the Hides and some African Jacana, African fish-Eagle flying overhead and other little sightings, none worth mentioned, I can’t say that it was worth the effort. It is probably all about time of the year and maybe this was not the ideal time to visit the hides. Again, the coffee was good – so that saved the day! Excuse my amateur stitching of these images to create a panorama view from the Crake hide. The Dragonfly walkway is a great platform to walk along on the way to the hide.
The one highlight of the walk to the Hides through the raging streams, was a Purple Heron taking off not to far from me. He was too quick for me, and the light too low to get a great pic.
I headed back to my car and visited the Kingfisher hide which was remarkably unrewarding apart from getting close to some Squacco Heron. I then wasted some more time at the pools near the road and was rewarded with real close encounters of Little Bittern, both adult and juvenile. On a previous outing to Rietvlei I had waited for about 40 minutes to get a few glimpses of Little Bittern and now I was able to feast on the birds right next to the road. I also saw an African Purple Swamphen.
My last stop was back at the stream on the dirt road south of the entrance to Nylsvlei were again I got to see the juvenile African Fish-Eagle, Green-backed Heron, Little Grebe, Little Bittern, Great, Little and Yellow-billed Egrets, Reed and White-breasted Cormorants and Kingfishers.
All in all, an amazing outing – and I have definitely flagged Nylsvley as a place to visit again, probably in summer!!!
2. May 2010
I will find any excuse to return to Nylsvley - and Mother's day to treat my wife was the perfect excuse - given that she asked to visit the reserve! Honestly - she did!!!
Reading about the 100 bird specifies in a day project at Zaagkuildrift, we set our target at 100 birds in and around Nylsvley. Sitting on 296 birds I was also confident that I would break the 300 barrier. I'll tell you at the end of this report what we achieved.
So we left home at 4:30am and arrived at Nylsvley just after 6:30. We drove straight to Vogelfontein hoping to visit the three hides there first and then enter the reserve. We had some incredible sights - in fact, I felt like I had ADD trying to focus on the diversity of birds that we recorded within the first 20 minutes of arriving. A Little Bittern was lining up to have his photo taken and even standing on the branches of the tree at the entrance to the Kingfisher hide to ensure that I got a good shot.
Before long, not to be upstaged, a Squacco Heron descended to out parade the Little Bittern and gave us an even closer view than what the Bittern had given us:
We got snookered when I tried to use the code that I had gotten for the gate to the Dabchick hide as the lock had been changed. We had planned to enter the reserve so were not trying to get something for nothing, but just wanted to make the most of the early morning light for photography. So, we headed back to the reserve, and did some birding past the entrance to the reserve at the bridge before entering Nylsvley. Here we saw the Green-backed Heron that was in the same spot when I was there last Monday (behind the bush along a fence on the left side of the bridge driving away from Nylsvley).
Just after the entrance gate in a tree on next to the concrete road I saw a Lifer: a male and female Bennett's Woodpecker - what a highlight!!
We then made our way to the Jacana hide. The area was still totally flooded and we took a wide walk on the right to get close to the metal walk way but still had to wade in shin deep water to get to the walkway. BUT IT WAS ALL WORTHWHILE. The adult Little Bitter than came out of the reeds not more than 3 metres from hide was stunning and he only flew off when something in the reeds scared it into flight. I was too busy admiring his dark blue plumage to think of getting a shot as it flew off.
I was able to chase a Crimson-breasted Shrike from tree to tree before I finally gave up on getting the perfect pic! I also got up close and personal to some nesting White-browed Sparrow-Weavers who squawked their displeasure at my presence in the area. Some other LBJ was too quick and I was not even able to get a record shot! Sad! The one that got away - probably a lifer.
We then attempted to drive through the more northern parts of Nylsvley but did a u-turn after slipping and sliding on the muddy roads. What we are calling a Sabota Lark was the one highlight on this part of our trip. A Lifer - if it is confirmed.
We returned to Vogelvontein, with the correct gate codes this time and the access permit and had awesome sighting of Squacco Heron up close at the entrance to the Kingfisher hide before making our way through the flooded pathway to the Dabchick hide and the Sasol Dragonfly walkway. The water was up to our knees in some places and it was like walking on butter, but we made it through - creating memories in the process - and had a relaxing time at the 2 hides although none of the sightings were spectacular: Spur-winged Goose; African Jacana, some Heron, a Kingfisher and Black-shouldered Kite in the distance. But the freshly-ground Starbucks coffee, that we brewed that morning, helped soften our disappointment at the lack of unique sightings.
I then decided to follow the advice of my Birding Bible: "The Chamberlain Guide to Birding Gauteng" and drive along the south-eastern boundary of the reserve hmmh...once we turned off from the Vogelfontein Road we did not see another bird until we got back to the Blindefontein/Nylsvley road. Okay, it was more about the time of the day (it was around 12:30 by now) than the advice from the authors. The road was really sandy but not that difficult in our Toyota Avanza - although my low, vintage c1994, Toyota Corolla, would have left an exhaust and a sump behind at a few spots...
This part of the day was not all in vain, however, because just south of Vogelfontein I finally got up close to Three-banded Plover - I think I am a little proud of the sequence of pics that I got as we spent time letting them come settle down and know that we were not out to harm them. Here are two:
A majestic juvenile African Fish-Eagle greeted us just past the bridge before the Nylsvley entrance. Someone suggested it might be an Osprey, which is found at Nylsvley, but the mottled brown on the chest right down to the feet, as well as the lack of a yellow eye ring and the shape of the bill is unfortunately making me tend towards a Fish-Eagle although an Osprey would be a Lifer. It sat for a long time on a fence pole on the side of the road and let us get to within 10 metres. It was awe-inspiring.
By now the weather was starting to become rather threatening with dark clouds gathering and we decided to gap it back to Joburg, via the alternate route this time (also suggested in my Birding Bible). I had taken this road on Monday last week when I last visited Nylsvley, and it was flooded in some spots but I figured that it had not been raining much for the past few days so it should be fine. Hah! No so!!! We made it through the first flooded section (barely, and after nearly having to use snorkels - my wife said at one point: "My feet are feeling wet - is that normal!!!" It was her car and that made me feel even worse!!!) I suggested that we should turn back, but honestly did not think we would make it through the river again. Hah! We should have done that because it got worse and worse - there were times when there was already water half way up my door and we would hit one of the "deep spots". My 4 year old, Birdman was loving it - "Do it again, Dad!" he kept saying, while I was praying for a miracle to help us float through and desperately trying to keep the wheels turning. If you think I sound melodramatic....I am under-exaggerating to preserve some self-respect!
To be honest, we took that route to reach our target of 100 birds (oh, and my 300 target) We were on around 75 birds when we left and ended the day, on the Noah's flood road, with 82 birds. Not bad for a day's outing!!! My Life List now stands at....drum roll....cymbals...298. As Homer Simpson would say, "Doh!" So close!!! Oh well, at least we survived the flood and did not have to visit a farm house to get a farmer to drag us to shore with his tractor.
And where are the picture of the flooding we drove through? None! I was not about to stop and take a picture in great deluge nor hang out the window with my camera as the waves of water washed my side windows clean!
All in a day's birding!
Here are some of the other pics that I took on the day:
3. March 2011
On Monday the 28th March 2011 I left home well before 4am and arrived as the sun was rising over Nylsvley. I paid my entrance fee at the reserve entrance and armed with the combination lock codes left immediately to visit the bird hides at Vogelsfontein. I expected to find an area flooded with both water and waterfowl but was to be disappointed in both respects. Despite recent rains in Gauteng it did not seem like much water had reached the area. It certainly was not dry but nothing like my last trip where we had to walk through water up to our knees to get to the bird hides.
The lack of Waterfowl was incredible for Nylsvley: I saw 2 African Jacana, a Purple Heron or two, one or two Black-headed Heron, 4 Common Moorhen, 3 African Purple Swamphen, 2 Goliath Heron, 1 flock of Spur-winged Goose, 2 lone red-billed Teal, 1 Hamerkop, 1 White-breasted Cormorant, 3 Reed Cormorants, 3 Cattle Egrets and no other Egrets whatsoever! And that was it (at all the spots including all 3 hides at Vogelsvontein). Almost no waders - 2 Three-banded Plover and 1 Wood Sandpiper. Incredibly slim pickings!
Here are some pics I took around the Vogelfontein area (The lack of pics of waterfowl is indicative of how little there was to be seen in this area):
The only Crake around on the day was Black Crake - but they were certainly around in numbers. A highlights was watching a female and juvenile Black Crake up in a tree - unusual sighting for me (aparently they are known to roost in trees but it looked like they were after insects). I also saw a chick as I arrived at the first hide:
I then headed back to the reserve and spent about 2 hours patiently birding the gardens in the reserve near the restaurant (the place was teeming with bird species):
I have only seen Red-headed Weavers once before (also at Nylsvley). I suspect this is a female as the head is not as read as the colouring in my books - in fact, I don't think I have seen a male yet:
The place seemed to be a nursery for young Diderick Cuckoo's - they were everywhere (in fact, I was even wondering if perhaps Greater Striped Swallow has raised some of the juveniles as they seems to be interacting with each other in the same area - then again, surely not!):
My next stop was a drive into the reserve itself towards the Jacana hide - I did hear Great Swamp Warbler but apart from 2 African Jacana and a Black Crake that I scared away as I stepped onto the metal walkway, there was nothing else to see - and it did not help that the reeds are really overgrown around the place. I did not even take a single photo here - and for me - that is amazing! I normal snap at anything that breathes or flinches!
As I left the hide I saw a Cuckoo and realised that there were 4 juvenile Great Spotted Cuckoo in the area - I am yet to see a mature bird of this species.
As I headed back towards Johannesburg, I took the back road around Kranskop - and added some species but did not get much to show - apart from a Brown Snake-Eagle that took off as I stopped my car to get some pics: