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my wild, one day birding spree around johannesburg: marievale wetland bird sanctuary and suikerbosrand nature reserve

2007-12-12 - 7:21 a.m.

all photos � 2007 by elaine radford

Note: Don't miss my trip report from Madagascar. To my knowledge, we are the first tour to see Madagascar Serpent-Eagle, amongst other brags. To start with part one, Ranomafana, click here. To continue with part two, Ampijoroa, click here. Part 3, Masaola, is here. Part 4 is right here. Here's the bird list, and here's the lemur list.

After I typed up my J'burg adventures of December 2, I hurried outside. It was just 7 PM, the sun had just set, and the owl was not there. Had I missed him? As I ate my picnic at the table by the pool in the growing darkness, I began to worry. On the other nights, he had appeared immediately at sunset and before full darkness. It would be too bad if I didn't get to see him on my last night. Fortunately, he did not disappoint me, although once again, he disappointed the camera, since by 7:20 it was too dark to attempt a photograph, even when he perched relatively close. I enjoyed my final views in the binoculars though. "I knew you would come!" I told him. Weird lady, talking to an owl. He was carrying prey, but I'm not sure what.

As I noted, I was scheduled to be picked up by the bird guide at 4:30 AM. Well, what I never thought of was, what do I do if I was awakened by a horrible thunderstorm at 3:30 AM? I sort of thought it was a desert and had not even considered making any fall-back arrangement. So I went ahead, dragged my suitcase up to the front of the hostel, and hoped for the best. As the rain kept falling, I worried that he just wouldn't show up. But he was only a little late -- and this, not because of the rain, but because of a flat tire. It was a gray day, but it was my only day, so we were off to the races. In the end, I think the rain was probably lucky, because it turned into a mild and pleasant day, and I didn't have to worry so much about the chance of being badly sunburned. Also, with it never getting really hot, there was never a time when the birding slowed down, which was really advantageous when you've only got one day to get a good list.

Oh, and also worth mentioning, on a Monday morning in December (their late spring?) after a crazy, noisy thunderstorm, we had both reserves virtually to ourselves. At Marievale, we saw one other birder as we were leaving. At Suikerbosrand, arriving around lunchtime, we saw people using the picnic areas and a small school group of Jewish schoolboys (complete with yarmulkes) studying the example farm buildings. But the "tourist route" itself? Ours, all ours.

It would be so overwhelming to make notes of the impressions made on me by the various birds that I almost didn't make any comments at all. However, I can't resist a few random scribbles, bearing in mind that I simply don't have time or space to comment on all 125 species seen in a day. (And the guide saw more, I'm a s-l-o-w person.) So just a few birds crying out for comment:

  • Red-Knobbed Coots in breeding plumage, building nests or sitting on nests -- I loved their little red "knobs," which look like nothing so much as tiny little red plastic devil's horns sprouting from their heads
  • A day for canaries, with many great views of Black-Throated Canaries, Yellow Canaries, Cape Canaries
  • A day for the widowbirds and whydahs, with perhaps the graceful male Red-Collared Widowbird a special notable -- a slender long-tailed all-black bird with just a small ribbon of scarlet at his throat, as if he were the victim of a jealous slasher

  • The singing Bokmakierie
  • Two good barbets, both dramatically marked, although the Crested Barbet playing under the garbage can at the picnic table was not posed as dramatically as some others
  • Rare or elusive birds were well-seen, including the Cuckoo Finch, which I'm told many local birders have trouble finding
  • Spotted Thick-knee, Gray-Winged Francolin, Swainson's Spurfowl -- all easily seen close, the francolin tried to hide and is usually apparently only seen when flushed, but eventually we found them wandering openly along the road where a good long look at the families was child's play
  • A little flock of graceful Amur Falcons on front of us on the road exiting Marievale, a migratory falcon and the first returnees the guide has seen this season -- they were running late this year, to arrive just for me!

I'd met some of the birds earlier, but I think I got every bird on my South Africa list today, with the exception of the Spotted Eagle-Owl, which I saw only at the hostel. I took fewer pictures than I planned, considering the beautiful scenery, but it was a whirl-wind day of birds, birds, birds, getting as many species as we possibly could. Whew!

Our first stop was Marievale Bird Sanctuary, an atmospheric wetland. In addition to good views of good birds, we also encountered a good close sighting of a Black-Backed Jackal, who paused while crossing the road to give us a very nice look. We spent the rest of the day at Suikersbosrand, which included a scenic "tourist route" for cars, making it very easy to cover a lot of ground. Lots of mammals there -- Chacma Baboon, Black Wildebeest, Zebra, Red Hartebeest, Eland, Common Duiker, Springbuck. The guide brought a cooler full of drinks and treats, so other than a brief lunch stop, we went full-bore all-out birding all day. (Yes, a cooler. With actual ice. We're not in Kansas, I mean, Madagascar any more, folks.) At times I was spinning. The birds kept coming so fast that I just didn't see all of them. But I saw a heck of a lot.

At the end of the day, with a pink sunset in the sky, we went to the new addition at Suikerbosrand to wait for the Marsh Owl. It didn't come immediately. Like the Spotted Eagle Owl, it decided to wait a few minutes after sunset to start flying. But when it did -- wow! A big finish to a big day.

atmospheric mountain landscape of suikerbosrand, near johannesburg, south africa
My guide then dropped me off at the airport, where I was delighted to learn that, yes, there is a God, and as part of my business class ticket, I was entitled to use of the Air France clubroom and the blissful free shower, with towels provided, courtesy of our friends at Air France. Peachfront salutes you, and my fellow travelers salute you, since I doubt they'd want someone all sweaty from safari going straight to a business class seat.

Would you believe I flew all the way back, JNB-AMS, AMS-MEM, and MEM-MSY, and I never watched a movie? Here is where business class really proved its value, because I could sleep, sleep, sleep, and sleep some more. Alas, only one of the planes was operated by KLM, so I collected only one more little Dutch house with gin in it. AMS-MEM was NW operated, so no cute little souvenirs. Boo hiss. I did have time to visit the KLM clubroom in AMS though. The soup wasn't half-bad although I'm not sure if the glass of wine followed by a half jigger of Cognac was a wise decision. But it isn't every day you're flying back from seeing the Madagascar Serpent-Eagle.

By the way, just so you'll know, I learned that in business class, you are welcome to help yourself in the galley. But what really happens is that you never do, because you just stretch out and go to sleep. I think once in four trips I went back and got some extra water, but I never did really investigate the bar. I hope I didn't let the team down too badly.

Back at home, I gave DH the little Amsterdam house with its little ounce of gin, as well as a golf shirt from a snooty J'burg mall. There just weren't any shirts of the kind he wears in Madagascar, at least not where I was looking. I also learned that our former neighbor is being transferred to South Africa. Hmmm. Wonder if they want a house guest. Tee hee.

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