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Birding Africa pt. 4 - Skukuza Camp & Lake Panic

posted by Tim Avery at
on Saturday, October 5, 2013 

Our first morning in the park started off with a slight hiccup.  I had locked our camera gear and optics in the closet the night before when we left for dinner.  When we tried to get back in the closet we realized the key to the closet had a piece break off when we locked the door.  Our gear was locked away from us.  After some scavenging I managed to round up a hammer and a metal tent stake with the help of Bert.  I set out on the hinges, punching the bolts out, and then managed to remove the door from the frame.  We grabbed our gear, put the door back in, and replaced the bolts--then kindly reported that we were unable to unlock our closet--it was fixed by the early afternoon.

Sunrise over Lake Panic.

We had an early coffee and rusks starter in the dark at the Outlook Safaris kitchen.  While we ate the WHITE-BROWED ROBIN-CHATS serenaded us, and even hopped out under the table.  When the gates opened at 6:00am, we were in the vehicle and headed to Lake Panic to see what birds were active there.  As we drove the road there a SADDLE-BILLED STORK flew over the road--it was a terrible look, and I hoped we’d have better later.

Flyover Saddle-billed Stork near Skukuza.

At the turn in to the lake, the bird activity picked up.  A small flock of BLACK-COLLARED BARBETS were jumping around the top of a bare tree.  We parked and walked down the path to the blind and took seats facing the east.  There were a handful of GRAY HERON on nests just 20’ away.  AFRICAN DARTER were sunning in the trees to the south, and WATER THICK-KNEE worked their ways along the banks, flanked by AFRICAN PIED WAGTAILS.

Gray Heron on a nest at Lake Panic.

Along the far shore we could make out AFRICAN JACANA foraging, and occasionally a HAMERKOP would fly across the opening over the lake.  Out of nowhere an AFRICAN CRAKE popped out of the grass to the left of the blind and landed on a snag hanging into the water.  The character of a bird hopped and ran around on the snag, providing great viewing ops.

Black Crake striking a pose at Lake Panic.

While looking out over the water I spotted a PIED KINGFISHER  flying directly at us, it came in and landed on a tree branch right in front of the blind--with a huge fish in its bill.  Over the next 15 minutes it proceeded to beat the living crap out of the fish, swinging its head in a huge loop, and smashing the fish into the branch--over and over again.  The violence of nature.

Pied Kingfisher against the sun, with a fish.

Along the edges of the lake the songbirds were making plenty of noise.  In less than a minute I saw VILLAGE, SOUTHERN-MASKED, SPECTACLED, and RED-HEADED WEAVERS.  These beauties were right alongside both WHITE-BELLIED and MARIQUA SUNBIRDS, stunning birds as well.  Overhead WIRE-TAILED SWALLOWS circled and various doves came and went.  EMERALD-SPOTTED WOOD-DOVES worked the bank just across from the blind, and as we watched them a BLACK GOSHAWK flew across the lake--the only of the trip.

Black Goshawk flyby at Lake Panic.

After about an hour we headed out, walking down the path I looked up and spotted a RETZ’S HELMETSHRIKE.  Apparently a fairly hard to get bird, it would be the only one we saw.

Retz's Helmetshrike at Lake Panic was a great find.

In the parking lot a YELLOW-FRONTED TINKERBIRD flew over while a RED-BACKED SCRUB-ROBIN sang in the bush nearby.  As we drove off towards the Skukuza Golf Club a pair of COMMON SCIMITAR-BILLS flew into trees next to the car--another species we wouldn’t see again.

Best look we would have at a Common Scimitar-bill.

At the Skukuza Golf Club the parking lot played host to dozens of swifts--mostly LITTLE SWIFTS, there were a few AFRICAN BLACK, and AFRICAN PALM SWIFTS mixed in.   After some scanning I picked out something different--a similar swift to the Little, but it had a deeply forked tail--the bird was an early arriving WHITE-RUMPED SWIFT.

Picking through the swifts I got lucky and found this White-rumped Swift.

As we walked the course there were also numerous swallows circling the pond near the clubhouse.

Lesser Striped-Swallow soaring over the Skukuza Golf Club.

The majority were LESSER STRIPED-SWALLOWS, one of the coolest looking swallow species in Africa.   I ended up finding one with some mud perched on an A/C unit that provided an excellent photo.

Close-up of a Lesser Striped-Swallow.

The course was birdy--there were drongos and starlings, as well as a few waterbirds on the pond.  A CHINSPOT BATIS popped up in a nearby tree--just an interesting species.  COLLARED SUNBIRDS came and went, and BLACK-HEADED ORIOLES sang from various trees.  I looked up and right above me was a gorgeous BLACK-COLLARED BARBET sitting perfect for a photo.

Black-collared Barbet posing for a photo.

We walked from the course into the Skukuza Nursery where various native plants are grown and sold to guests--and where birds were plentiful.  Right off the bat we spotted NEDDICKY and  PALE FLYCATCHER.

Neddicky at Skukuza Nursery.

As we walked along I spotted a gorgeous flyover in a pair of PURPLE-CRESTED TURACOS.  I immediately took off after them trying to get a good photo--that turned out to be a lesson in futility as they constantly moved from branch to branch and tree to tree.  I snapped a number of shots, but none were really awesome--just enough to show what a bad-ass bird it was.

Tough to photograph Purple-crested Turaco.

As we headed out of the nursery back towards the golf course a flock of BROWN-HOODED PARROTS flew into the trees above us.  After a few minutes I found a good vantage point for a few shots.  Although there were 4 species of parrots we could’ve seen in southern Africa, this was the only species we ended up getting, and they were fairly common throughout Kruger.

A good look at a Brown-hooded Parrot.

As we made it back to the parking area, a SHIKRA appeared in the trees ahead of us, I snapped a quick shot of this gorgeous hawk before it took flight and circled high above.

A gorgeous Shikra at the Skukuza Golf Club.

We hopped in the car and headed back towards camp for a late breakfast--once there we wandered towards the tent camp and picked up SOUTHERN GRAY-HEADED SPARROW as well as CAPE CROMBEC, and had great looks at LAUGHING DOVE.

Southern Gray-headed Sparrow in the Skukuza Tent Camp.

As we walked to the breakfast table I looked up and happened to catch a MARTIAL EAGLE soaring over us--the rest of breakfast was bird-free, but we did catch a glimpse of a THICK-TAILED BUSHBABY sleeping in the tangles of trees nearby.  Afterwards we headed out and drove along the Sabie River, south of camp.  Our first stop on the low water bridge turned out to be an incredible stop as we spotted 2 AFRICAN FINFOOT swimming upstream--a great find here and the only we would see all trip.

This pair of African Finfoot on the Sabie River were an excellent find.

Driving along the river we saw many of the common species we had seen the day before.  The game wasn’t as exciting today, but we did see plenty of CAPE BUFFALO, HIPPOS, and a few ELEPHANTS.  Along with those animals we saw plenty of RED-BILLED OXPECKERS that were accompanying them.

A pair of Red-billed Oxpecker on a Cape Buffalo.

We added WAHBLBERG’S EAGLE, while we saw several more TAWNY EAGLES and BATELEURS.  Several WHITE-BACKED VULTURE were perched in trees along the river sunning, and every once in a while an AFRICAN HARRIER-HAWK could be seen soaring above the river and trees.

African Harrier-Hawk cruising the Sabie River.

Along the banks there were the occasional PIED WAGTAILS and several times a STRIATED HERON would fly by.  Besides the common BLACKSMITH LAPWINGS, there were several WHITE-HEADED LAPWINGS and a pair of THREE-BANDED PLOVERS feeding along the sand shores.

White-headed Lapwing on the banks of the Sabie River.

We picked up our first bee-eater of the trip with a WHITE-FRONTED BEE-EATER feeding along a ditch leading into the river, while we headed back towards camp.  We spent several hours out peering into the bush and it was time to take a break.  Back at camp we had lunch and Sam and I headed back to our room to relax.  On the way I spotted a pair of YELLOW-FRONTED CANARY above our hut, and a cooperative CROWNED HORNBILL nearby.

Crowned Hornbill right outside our hut at the camp.

While Sam took a nap I headed to the river walk where dozens of sunbirds foraged in a flowering tree. Both MARIQUA and WHITE-BELLIED were very cooperative for photos.  A lone BROWN-HOODED PARROT also called incessantly from the trees above.

Mariqua Sunbird in the trees along the Skukuza River Walk.

As I made my way back to the hut to get Sam for our night safari drive, I came across a flock of GREEN WOOD-HOOPOE--a bird we saw plenty of, but every time I wanted to stop and watch as they had great personalities as birds.

Green Wood-Hoopoe foraging near our hut.

At 4:30pm we hopped into an 18-person open-top safari vehicle for an evening game drive with park staff.  The ride would take us out for the last hour and half of sun, then spend another 90 minutes in the dark--these drives are well worth the $25 per person price tag, as we saw some of the coolest animals of the trip during them.  Right off the bat we watched a herd of 200+ CAPE BUFFALO foraging just off the road.

Large heard of Cape Buffalo on our night game drive.

As it was getting dark the guides led us to a pair of WHITE RHINO, the last 2 we would see on our trip, so we were very thankfully we saw them on our first two days.

The last White Rhino we saw on our trip.

The sun dropped quickly and it was soon pitch black.  As we drove an owl swooped across the road and landed nearby--it was a SPOTTED EAGLE-OWL.  We ended up seeing 2 more during the drive and all provided excellent looks.

1 of 3 Spotted Eagle-Owls we saw on the night drive.

As we were making our way back towards camp the driver slowed, looking ahead you could see why--there were 4 LIONS in the road!  The safari vehicle slowed to a halt and angled off the road so we could all see the KING OF THE JUNGLE--even though it was two lioness, with two cubs--less than 50’ from the vehicle.  Let the photo session begin!

We spent quite a while watching the lions, while they actually made there was closer and closer to the vehicle, eventually walking within a couple feet of us.  It was a thrilling experience and one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

As it was getting close to our expected return time, we continued on our way, only to make it maybe another half mile before the guide again brought the vehicle to a screeching halt--this time it was a LEOPARD darting across the road in front of us, and stopping just 20’ into the bush.

The Leopard blending into the bush.

Again time was short and we headed out again--and just like before it was maybe 30 seconds down the road when we saw a small cat leaping across the road and into the brush.  This time it was a CIVET, but the small cat was shorter than the grass and hid well, so no photos were taken.  With about 10 minutes to spare we headed on, and came to a stop at a den of SPOTTED HYENA--I am certain it was the same group from the day before, but it was interesting to see them at night.

A couple Spotted Hyenas lounging on the edge of the road.

We ended up being about 10 minutes late back to camp, where Bert met us and we headed to dinner.  After a great meal we turned in for the night.  Reviewing what I’d seen for the day, I was shocked to find I had added 60 life birds for the day, besting the day before by 4--it was turning into the trip of a lifetime.

60 life birds this day / 148 total trip life birds / 159 total trip species

photos from Lake Panic and the Skukuza Golf Club:

photos from the Lower Sabie River and Skukuza Camp:

photos from Night Safari near Skukuza Camp:

eBird Checklists:
Kruger NP--Lake Panic
Kruger NP--Skukuza Golf Club
Kruger NP--Lower Sabie-Skukuza Road
Kruger NP--Night Safari

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello - just to comment on a few probable mis-identifications: black goshawk -> African hawk eagle; neddicky -> tawny-flanked prinia.

December 15, 2013 at 4:08 AM  

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