When it doesn’t just rain, it pours…
stranded at the Sirheni Bushveld Camp
Text and Photographs by Dylan Vasapolli & Lance Robinson
With a backdrop of recent tropical storms in Mozambique (thanks to tropical storm Eloise) which resulted in flooding parts of the Kruger in the preceding weeks, the attendees of the West Rand Honorary Rangers Sirheni weekend, 2021, assembled on cue in this fantastic bushveld camp for some intended intense birding on the last weekend of February.
Most of the group had arrived and checked in on Thursday and got acquainted over a quintessential bring-n-braai that evening, with most enjoying calling Fiery-necked Nightjars and Water Thick-knee and, a fortunate few, the African Scops Owl in camp. An early birding walk on Friday morning kicked the birding into touch, with the large group splitting into two and slowly exploring the camp. It was a cool, overcast morning that seemed to keep the bird activity low. The gruff-grunting of a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl across the river taunted us all but it remained out of sight. More easily seen were the numerous Woodland Kingfishers, and other camp residents such as Natal Spurfowl, Black-backed Puffback, and Orange-breasted Bushshrike. A large flock of calling Little Swifts were admired overhead, while other species such as Levaillant’s and Jacobin Cuckoos, African Paradise Flycatcher, Ashy Flycatcher and Red-faced Cisticola were all seen well. The soft calls of a Marsh Warbler sounded from deep within a thicket but remained unseen. Then the all-too imminent rain arrived and put a halt to proceedings for the morning, so everyone gathered for some warming coffee and sweet treats provided by the catering crew. Undercover and with a warm mug in hand, Lance and Dylan ran through a quick ‘refresher’ course on some of the more prominent bird calls and sounds to be expected in the general area, before the group made their own way for the remainder of the day.
Most folks headed out on a drive around the area, some venturing to Shingwedzi and a few even to Punda Maria, all keen on advancing their bird lists albeit in pouring rain. The weekend’s birding list is a tally within a 50km radius from the designated camp. Some of the more interesting birds recorded by various groups included scarce tropical migrants such as African Crake, Lesser Moorhen, Greater Painted-snipe, and Dwarf Bittern. More commonly encountered Kruger birds included others such as Knob-billed Duck, Martial Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, Shikra, Saddle-billed Stork, Double-banded Sandgrouse, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Eurasian Hobby, and Long-tailed Paradise Whydah – amongst many others. A few lucky folks also enjoyed incredible views of Cheetah!
Lesser Moorhen (male on left; female on right)
In the late afternoon, everyone reconvened once more, as the group loaded up onto two of the large SANParks game viewing trucks and headed off for a sunset drive. Lance’s group concentrated efforts along the Mphongolo River Road and had incredible views of a group of Southern Ground Hornbill gathering frogs by the beak load as a definite highlight amongst the general flurry of feathered activity. The birding was perfectly complemented with a glowing sun that started its descent on the western horizon. However, there was a prominent, rather dark grey cloud and an obvious massive storm was brewing in the distance.
Southern Ground Hornbill
Dylan’s group opted for the road less-traveled, and explored the more open, grassy plains. A special sighting of a pair of the uncommon and range-restricted (in South Africa) Senegal Coucal got things off to a great start, and the group also enjoyed a number of LBJ (little brown jobs) sightings in the area – namely Sabota Lark, Rattling– and Desert Cisticolas and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. Raptors seen included Wahlberg’s Eagle, Amur Falcon, and Black-winged Kite. A small group of another scarce Kruger bird was seen: Yellow-crowned Bishop, before some of the group had a brief sighting of two Harlequin Quail flushing off the road. A touch of comedy ensued shortly afterward as the group patiently stalked ‘two Harlequin Quails’ sitting on the road verge – the ‘birds’ sadly turning into some perfectly rounded elephant dung! It took a Kori Bustard, the world’s heaviest flying bird, for the group to come back to its senses. The last sighting of interest was a Dusky Lark sitting in the road, just after dark.
Unfortunately, just as darkness crept in, so the deluge of rain began, as both groups trundled their way back to camp in torrential rain, all with varying amounts of water dripping (and even pouring) into the trucks. Soaked to the skin, dinner plans were completely changed to accommodate the rain and the caterers delivered take-out hamburgers to each chalet.
With rain persisting throughout the night, it was with some trepidation that the group woke on Saturday morning. Lance and Dylan headed to the low-level bridge to assess the situation. A sure sign we were in trouble was when we encountered a large crocodile in a newly formed stream in the middle of the road en route! Reaching the river, we looked in amazement just as the makeshift bridge (it was the third time this rainy season), our only connection to the rest of Kruger, washed away! Word soon got out, meaning we’d all have an extra day or two in the Kruger until the bridge could be repaired. Sounds like divine intervention – or was it? Everyone seemed to have urgent Monday meetings or other plans and there was concern whether there would be enough food and, importantly, beverages – rather like lockdown in lockdown! The caterers looked stone faced as they had been stranded and then only airlifted out of Sirheni after five days in 2020! With reality settling in and the rain ongoing, morning birding plans were put on hold, so the group settled in instead for a birding talk by Dylan on South Africa, in one of the chalets, fortunately, being renovated. This was followed by an impromptu talk on the conservation efforts and of BirdLife South Africa by Hanneline Smit-Robinson.
A showy European Nightjar was expertly found during the day and showed well to the entire group. Although perhaps somewhat anticlimactic, the weather held for the late afternoon, and the group headed out on a short game drive down to the river for some greatly anticipated sundowners. The birding was relatively slow on the short drive down to the bridge, with species such as European Bee-eater, White-crested Helmetshrike, and Meve’s Starling showing, on top of the regular bushveld species. An African/Common Cuckoo was seen, but being somewhat distant, it couldn’t be conclusively identified. Other highlights were a juvenile (grounded) Bateleur and a pair of mating Wahlberg’s Eagles. Sundowners’ overlooking the now-destroyed bridge was a convivial affair, with further birds such as African Green Pigeon, Wire-tailed Swallow, and Common House Martin being seen. Time to head back to camp but it first took a concerted group effort to extract one of the trucks from some treacherous mud on the road verge before the group gradually returned back to camp.
Fortunately, the group never let the rain dampen their spirits and everyone took part and dressed up for the ‘black-and-white’ theme and were then rewarded with a scrumptious beef fillet dinner – yes, our caterers were amazing! A makeshift quiz was conjured up and Lance and Dylan put the group’s birding knowledge to the test with a few questions on various birding facts and points explained during the weekend – with the winners receiving various book prizes. All too soon, the weekend had formally come to an end, though everyone was still waiting for word on the bridge repair and therefore still very much camp bound.
Much of Sunday was written off with the continuing rain, but we occupied ourselves with a fun birding-themed movie presentation by Dylan and Lance to help pass the time. This, with a few short walks around the camp and a 4 km drive down to the bridge further seeking out all forms of biodiversity, helped to keep us sane.
Monday morning dawned with a hint of promise to it: drastically dropped river levels boding well for the bridge repair to be completed. A slow birding walk around the camp brought us the likes of some species such as Little Sparrowhawk, Brown-headed Parrot, and Yellow-bellied Greenbul alongside more widespread species. The most exciting moment came when a coucal was well seen some distance away. We made judicious use of playback to try to elicit a response to try and determine its identity – either the ‘regular’ Burchell’s or the ‘uncommon’ Senegal (only some of the group had seen the Senegal Coucal pair earlier). No immediate response was forthcoming, but the bird moved towards us in stages, before disappearing from sight – only to start up calling, again just out of sight. It was the call of the ‘regular’ Burchell’s Coucal that started up and then, the much deeper bubbling call of a Senegal Coucal responded. Both birds called, as though duetting to one another for a short while, before the Senegal Coucal graced us with a brief view as it came to a nearby tree and called, before disappearing. The Burchell’s Coucal likewise did the same. Other species seen around the camp during the morning included a shy Bearded Scrub Robin, Retz’s Helmetshrike, Bennett’s Woodpecker, and Broad-billed Roller.
As the day progressed, it appeared likely that the bridge would be repaired, and with more rain forecast, the group hastily packed their things and made their way to the bridge to watch the last repairs being made. At roughly 15h40, the grader successfully made the connection and passed over the road, and signaled to us that the road was safe for us to cross. A round of quick goodbyes and extended thanks went around, as the group all loaded up and made their way. In hindsight it was an extremely good weekend, not only did we enjoy good birding but the highlight was certainly the great comradery and served as a reminder that you can always make a plan B.
A special thanks must go to all in the Class of Sirheni-6, 2021, as everyone got together to make the best of out the situation. Further thanks go to out to our hosts, Simon & Lee Ridge, Joan Ferreira and all the HR organisers for ensuring this process went as smoothly as possible, as well as to our excellent caterers, Tracy Yates and Veronica Schnippenkoetter for making sure we all had food for a few extra days (on top of the wonderful food served).