Birds of a feather learn together
Polokwane - The week-long EcoTraining Birding in the Bush course I attended with my fellow bush-loving friend Lauren de Vos took place in the northern Kruger National Park’s remote Makuleke Concession. The area could arguably be described as the Swarovski of South African birding destinations.
Although the 24 000-hectare region forms only one percent of the Kruger’s total surface area, it supports 90 percent of all birds recorded in the park (more than 450 species).
With 34km of river frontage, with the Limpopo River and an equal stretch of the softly flowing Luvuvhu River fringed by an impressive array of habitat types, it’s no wonder twitchers flock to the region, binoculars in hand, to notch up their list of “lifers”.
Interestingly, the area also falls within a convergence zone of tropical and subtropical bird species, a crossover that brings out new and exciting arrivals each year. This encompasses a variety of “specials”, including those of the human kind, most notably, our legendary guide Bruce Lawson.
Bruce and his wife, Dee, have lived in EcoTraining’s rustic Makuleke camp for the last eight years. “The attractive thing about where we are and what we do”, he says, “is how simple it is. We’ve got no electricity (the camp makes use of solar lanterns), no cellphone reception, which is absolutely fantastic, and we live in a tent. We take nothing for granted here. I can walk out of our tent to go to the kitchen, which is only 20m away, and meet a big bull elephant blocking my way. Every day is an adventure.”
One of the first things Bruce told us to do was to take off our watches. “I want you to experience living in the moment. Let me worry about what happens while you just concentrate on getting in touch with the wilderness inside you.” Bruce’s dad, Peter, is an ornithologist and passed on his interest in birds to his son from a young age “through the process of osmosis”.
Another of the things we were instructed to do was lock up any food, lest some hairy-tailed local would find its way into our rooms, rustic yet spacious en-suite tents. At this, however, Lauren and I were to fail miserably, and pay the consequences!
Slowly (as is the essential pace for birdwatching), we weaved our way in one-by-one formation across dry flood plains, every so often bunching up around Bruce to learn from his experienced birder’s eye and ear. Being able to identify bird song is one of the most helpful and important skills for any budding avian admirer.
“Ninety-nine percent of the birds I see are located through their calls,” said Bruce.
A drop of sweat slid down my chin and neck. Although it was only 8am, the sun was beaming down on us, lighting up tall wisps of cat’s-tail grass and reflecting off the leaves of northern lala palms.
“Work harder, work harder,” urged Cape turtle doves from a dry leadwood branch as I diligently scribbled down the name of each new species.
Mosque swallows swept the air above us and Natal spurfowl started up their rusty engines.
When we entered the magical yellow-green fever tree forest, it was difficult to know where to look: the leafy riparian canopy was wild with activity.
“Listen! A lemon-breasted canary.” There was also the distinctive cry of a trumpeter hornbill and, just then, a flash of bright blue greeting my interest with a familiar trill, a woodland kingfisher.
I gave up trying to write down everything and tucked away my notebook in favour of being fully present and immersing myself in the arboreal assemblage of grey-headed parrots, iridescent Meve’s starlings, European bee-eaters, white-browed scrub robins and a variety of other small passerines partaking in aerial sallies.
I was enjoying myself so much, in fact, that I tumbled right over a dry branch in the path, which caused an outburst of laughter from both myself and Lauren. After a few hours, we stopped to rest under big fever trees in soft filtered light, eating biltong and a cursed packet of dried fruit that would play a role in the events that unfolded that night: “Rach! Listen… It’s right outside our tent!” Shaken awake from Lauren’s whisper, I took in a large rustling sound. Last night’s elephant was back, I thought. I imagined him rustling and chewing leaves against the canvas. With this wonderful thought, I prepared to sink back into blissful oblivion.
Suddenly there was a loud thud followed by clattering and clunking… what the? The peaceful elephant of my thoughts had turned into an angry tusker crashing into our veranda!
“It’s inside!” Lauren’s headlamp lit up the scene of the crime: Sticky dried peaches flung about, a fallen water bottle and a crackly, emptied plastic packet told the story. My “elephant” was none other than an intrepid, mischievous rodent. It was these little moments of hilarity shared with good friends, scattered throughout an informative and adventurous trip, which made for such an unforgettable experience.
“We only stop for things with feathers,” Bruce said, grinning. Luckily, the large buffalo herd we came upon had attracted a flock of red-billed oxpeckers while cattle egrets trailed behind old “dagga boys” (buffalo bulls that have left the breeding herd), catching the insects stirred from the grass.
Afternoon birdwatching sessions were done from an open Land Rover, bumbling over dirt roads beside Mopani veld or beside rocky koppies with baobabs in bright-green dress.
If only these trees could talk, I mused, what marvellous stories would they tell about the area’s rich history, the ancestral home of the Makuleke people?
We saw a number of fantastic raptors on these drives: a long-crested eagle (the “Elvis bird”), a juvenile martial eagle, several resident tawnies – and, to our great delight, a Pel’s fishing owl, silently hunkering on a fallen branch beside the Limpopo.
Although birding was our focus, the course offered so much more: a meaningful break from city life and technology, new friendships and the strengthening of old ones, and freedom to laugh and learn simultaneously. As Bruce says: “The best way to study birds is when you’re having so much fun, you don’t even realise you’re learning!”
This was featured in the latest edition of The Intrepid Explorer magazine. For more features, go to www.intrepidexplorer.co.za
Photographs: Ben Coley and Rachel Lang