Sunday, November 30, 2014

South Africa Trip, Day 16: Cape Town Sewage Ponds

Kimberly Writes: We woke early today, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the lovely Howard's End Manor, our home for the next few days. Our wonderful hostess, Bronwen Dawes, made us feel so welcome, and we highly recommend this place to anyone planning a trip to Cape Town!

After breakfast, we headed for the beach. Well, sort of. We headed in the *direction* of the beach, but drove past all the people soaking up the sun, on our way to a much better place! 

We were headed for the Strandfontein Sewage Ponds! 

This waste water treatment plant is actually a famous birding spot, and if you think that sounds a little crazy, you might want to take a look at today's photo album and see the birds that we found there!

The bizarre yet beautiful Greater Flamingo. 

Greater Flamingos are the largest and most widespread species of the flamingo family, and here on the sewage ponds, there were flocks totaling in the hundreds.

Sitting still, they're beautiful, but at the same time, somewhat gangly and a bit awkward looking. But in flight, they are breathtaking! 

And when the entire flock takes to the air at once, 
they scoop your heart and your imagination up and take them along for the ride!

Flamingos weren't the only birds at the sewage ponds today. We also saw several of these adorable little birds.

Okay, first off, this is a cute little member of the grebe family, which 

makes it a winner without knowing anything more. BUT, then you find 

out that its called a "Dabchick," and...SquEEEEEE!!!!

I love stilts, so I was thrilled to see Black-winged Stilts today. 

There were hundreds of these lovely Cape Teal on the ponds today. 
Their voice, a sweet high whistle, suits them perfectly.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

South Africa Trip, Day 15: Last day in Kruger

Kimberly Writes: Trees play a vital role in the way of life here, for the people and for the wildlife. We've spent some time trying to learn some of the common trees of the region, and we'd come to recognize and admire a few of them, like the Baobab and the Mopane. But today, our appreciation for the trees was taken to a whole new level, as they provided the backdrop for some of the most sensational discoveries of the trip.

During a stop at one of the camps to stretch, and replenish our water supply, we discovered a small group of Epauletted Fruit-bats roosting in a large tree!

I love bats, and have spent a great deal of time watching Little Brown and Big Brown Bats at home in Ohio. It was wonderful to see larger bats, roosting in a spot that allowed for great observation, and I even got some photos!

A close up up one of the Epauletted Fruit-bat reveals a 

cute, dog-like face! How could anyone not love bats?!

You don't drive through Kruger expecting to see a big cat. You hope, but you do not expect. These are elusive animals, mostly active at night, and some of them are very secretive. We'd had mind-blowing encounters with lions and cheetahs, and for that, we were deeply thankful. But we had failed to connect with a Leopard. 

Until today. 

That changed in the form of golden eyes staring down at us from high up in a tree. Set in a face awash in spots, it was not the piercing look of a fierce predator. No, the golden eyes stared down at us with sleepy indifference, but it was enough to make my heart slam against my chest, and make me give thanks for living in a world where something so extraordinary exists.
Sprawling on a limb, high in the tree and deep in the foliage, our first Leopard gazed at us with drowsy indifference. But even looking relaxed and sleepy, it was an impressive beast, as if someone took the best attributes of the lion and of the cheetah and blended them together into one fabulous big cat!

We felt certain that the Leopard was the discovery of the day. But late in the afternoon, with time running out before we had to be inside the camp gate, the trees provided one more very special gift: a stunning adult Bateleur Eagle! 
It was in a perfect spot for observing, and we spent more than an hour watching, photographing, sketching, and falling in love with this amazing bird! As the light shifted into that golden afternoon glow, it gave the bird an aura that was a sight to behold.

This is a place of magic, where distance isn’t measured in miles traveled, but by the ocean of golden savanna grass whispering in the breeze. By the vast mopane woodlands that sweep across the landscape and color the world a bright and brilliant green. 

Here, time passes in a different fashion, 
and all sense of time vanishes in the sweet, sweet face of an infant Vervet Monkey...

...and is lost in the soulful gaze of a wise old elephant.

I am sad to leave Kruger, but now we look forward to the last leg of our journey and adventures in Cape Town. Bring on flamingos and sugarbirds!  

Friday, November 28, 2014

South Africa Trip, Day 14: Olifants Camp, KNP

Kimberly Writes: During this trip, we've been blessed to spend time with some of the most spectacular mammals on the planet. But birds will always be at the heart of my interest in nature. They sparkle and shine, they flit and they soar, and they sing and dance in ways that I find endlessly captivating. Birds are a doorway to the natural world that introduces people to the diversity that exists - if you simply go out and look for it.

So today's post highlights just a few of the wonderful birds we were fortunate enough to see and photograph! 

We've seen Crested Barbet in every camp in Kruger National Park. 
And that's just fine by me, because they're just so totally cool!

Our fourth roller species of the trip, the European Roller! 

(We've also had Lilac-breasted, Purple, and Broad-billed.)

This dapper Mocking Cliff Chat was a life bird for me AND for Kenn 
(something that doesn't happen all that often!).

And, another view of the retina-burning Violet-backed Starling! 
I just can't get enough of this bird!

Red-billed Hornbill

Green-winged Pytilia

Jacobin Cuckoo 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

From Kenn's Sketchbook: Goliath Heron

Kenn Writes: 

Random sketchbook: Goliath Heron

 This huge bird, the largest heron in the world, lives only in Africa. It was one of the species that I particularly wanted to study on this trip for a future painting, but the few we'd seen had been very distant. Today Kimberly spotted one along the river near Oliphants, and we were able to watch it through the scope for a long time. The Goliath Heron can be up to 50 percent larger than the Great Blue Heron of North America, and I was trying to capture those elements of shape that create its ponderous and massive appearance.

Happy Thanksgiving from South Africa

Kimberly Writes: I am thankful each and every day for the love of family and friends, for my health, for my job and the amazing people I work with, and for the blessing of spending my life with the man of my dreams. 

Today, I am particularly thankful for the renewal of life. It touches my heart to see these fresh new faces, and it fills me with a deepened sense of commitment to conserving the natural world and its bountiful gifts.

Yes, these are baby giraffes. And, yes, I cried my
eyes out when I first laid eyes on them! 

There's nothing much sweeter
than a tiny baby elephant!

It stayed very close to mama and was always hidden
 in the tall grass, but this little baby Rhinoceros
was utterly delightful!

Even baby Warthogs are adorable!

A tiny newborn Impala.
They seem so fragile and vulnerable at this stage.

A very young, very precious Chacma Baboon with a 
little treasure that  it found along the road
Without question, one of the most adorable
 babies I've ever seen! 
Now, tell the truth, you said "awww"
when you saw this picture, didn't you!?!
I think my heart actually melted when I looked into the
sweet, sweet face of this Vervet Monkey!

Today, I am especially thankful to be sharing this South Africa adventure with Kenn -- just the two of us -- has been one of the most extraordinary things that's ever happened to me. Sitting quietly at his side as he sketches birds brings me more joy than I could have ever imagined.

Today, I watched him sketch the Goliath Heron, the largest heron in the world, and my heart could barely contain all the love I was feeling.

Wishing you all a wonderful and joyous Thanksgiving!

South Africa Trip, Day 13: Double Big Cat Day!

Kimberly Writes: After three fabulous days, we said a fond farewell to Punda Maria and headed south for Olifants Camp. Since this was the longest driving distance between any two stops of the trip, the drive south today was supposed to be simply getting from Point A to Point B. But Kruger had other things in mind! 

First came the lions.

We spotted an adult male standing over a freshly killed buffalo, 

looking every bit like a scene from Wild Kingdom. 

We hadn't been watching for more than a few minutes when he abruptly left the carcass and started walking towards us! He walked right past our car, across the road, and into a little grove of trees near the edge of the road, where the rest of the pride - two females and another male - were resting in the shade.

All were panting heavily, not from the heat (today was much cooler), but from having full bellies, an interesting tidbit we learned earlier in the trip. Here are two of the three females in this pride. In prides where both sexes are present, the females kill proportionately more than the males. However, single males and male groups do kill their own prey.

When an adult male lion with blood smeared all over its face looks you straight
 in the eye from less than 20 feet away, you are reminded of your place in this world in a powerful way! After about an hour, we reluctantly tore ourselves away in order to make it to the next camp before the gate closed. But our adventures were far from over! 

Earlier in the trip, we were fortunate enough to watch three cheetahs lounging in the grass, a fair distance from the road. We felt very blessed to see these wonderful animals, as there are less than 300 cheetahs in all of Kruger, and we felt certain that we would see no more after that fateful encounter. 

We were wrong!

The three cheetahs we found today were VERY close to the road, lying in 
the shade of a cluster of small trees. (can you find all three?!?!) We watched for
 nearly two hours as they rested, tossed and turned, and bathed themselves – 
behavior not unlike that of our (indoor) house cats back home.

Once you've looked into the eyes of a wild cheetah, the world seems like a 

better place, richer, fuller, more interesting, and much-much more wild!

We would have been thrilled simply to watch them resting, but after nearly 

two hours, one of them suddenly got to its feet and walked right past us. 

The other two soon followed.

They crossed the road in front of us and made their way deep into the bush. 

We watched until the white tips of their tails vanished into the brush. 
Once they were gone, we sat for several minutes in complete silence, 
reveling in the magic of the experience.

When the wildlife is as accessible as it is here, you are lulled into this sense of peace and tranquility. Today's encounter with this lion was a powerful reminder of the fact that this is real. These are wild animals, and every day is a matter of life -- and of death. We are but fortunate observers, offered a glimpse into a world that we can scarcely even imagine - even in our wildest dreams.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

South Africa Trip, Day 12: Punda Maria Camp, KNP

Kimberly Writes: We rose before the sun this morning and passed through the camp gate just after 4:30 AM. Once out of the camp, a wonderful mix of paved and dirt roads took us 2 1/2 hours north to the Pafuri Picnic Area, widely considered one of the best areas for birding in all of Kruger NP.

For a day focused mostly on birds, it started out on a high note when we encountered five Southern Ground-Hornbills.

One of my favorite birds of the whole trip, the Southern Ground-Hornbill! 

Southern Ground-Hornbills are the largest of Hornbill species. They spend most of their time walking slowly along the ground, searching for food. They're considered carnivorous, feeding mainly on small animals and insects.  

The male's throat pouch is red, but check out the extra color 
on the female's throat pouch! 

Roughly the size of a turkey, they are the largest of all hornbills. Southern Ground-Hornbills are very social, and are usually seen in pairs of family groups. They spend the majority of their time on the ground, taking to the trees only at night to roost. An endangered species, they are seldom seen outside conservation areas. They are also a bird of great superstition in African culture. They have a deep booming voice, and Kenn and I were close enough to these birds to hear them!

Guess what?!?! It's ANOTHER starling, darlings! While certainly not as flashy as the Violet-backed Starling, this Meve's Starling is a handsome bird in its own right.

We spent several minutes watching this African Harrier Hawk (Polyboroides typus). 

"Harrier" is a poor choice of name for this bird, as they are unrelated to harriers, and very different behaviorally, as well. These large,broad-winged hawks have long slender legs that can bend backward and sideways at the tarsal joint, allowing them to stick their feet into holes and crevices in rocks and trees to pull out prey,including bats, lizards, and birds. Sexes are alike in plumage, but young birds are brown. Check out the next two photos to see a young bird in action!

This young Harrier Hawk was clinging to the bottom of a palm frond, flapping its wings and clamoring about in this precarious position. It was clearly on a raid, and we soon learned what it was going for!

As we watched, the bird wriggled its way up into the palm frond...
and out burst a whole bunch of bats! We didn't see the bird actually catch a bat, 
but it was so interesting to watch this bird in action!


We had fabulous looks at this very dapper Red-chested Cuckoo.

I was SO HAPPY to get a photo of a Red-billed Firefinch and a Blue Waxbill 

together in the same photo. Granted, it isn't a great photo. But still...

Baobab Tree

In the northern part of Kruger, there are trees that challenge the limits of our imagination. When you see a Baobab tree for the first time, it stops you dead in your tracks with your mouth hanging open. When I saw one for the first time, my first thought was, "The Mother Tree," and I had to go and put my hands on it.

And they're more than just beautifully big. The leaves, flowers, and fruit are browsed by many animals. The roots are tapped for water, the young roots and leaves are eaten by people, and the seeds are used as a coffee substitute. Elephants strip the bark for moisture (and if you look close, you'll see that the base of this tree has some serious elephant damage, as did nearly every Baobab we saw today). Fiber from the bark is used for making rope, nets, baskets, and clothing. And the bark is used in traditional medicine.

The lovely butterfly-shaped leaf of the Mopane tree!

This area of Kruger NP has vast Mopane woodlands. The Mopane tree (pronounced "Mo-Pah-Nee:), is important to the local people, and for the wildlife.

We've seen hundreds of zebras now, but this little foal, resting in the shade of its mama, was the tiniest and the sweetest of them all! It was so cute that I could hardly stand it!

Have you ever seen anything so doggone adorable?!?!

After dinner, we were walking back to our cottage when we heard some sort of screaming/caterwauling coming from the trees nearby. A quick scan with the flashlight revealed a Galago, also known as a Bushbaby!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

South Africa Trip, Day 11: The Pennant-winged Nightjar

Kimberly Writes: Up until this evening, Kenn and I have not had a guide at all; it's just been the two of us. Kruger is so easy to navigate and the wildlife so abundant, that it's easy to travel here on your own without the luxury of hiring a guide.

However, all of the camps in the park are surrounded by large, electric fences. The fences protect visitors from dangerous animals (and the animals from dangerous humans), and they are closed and locked up tight from sunset to sunrise. The only way to explore the park after hours is by signing up for an excursion led by one of the park guides, something we hadn't done at any of the other camps. But at Punda Maria, there was a bird Kenn wanted to see, and since it was a nightjar, the only real hope of seeing it was to sign up for one of the "Sunset Drives."  

During the weeks and months leading up to our trip, I spent hours pouring over the field guides, trying to absorb as much as I could. But I will admit to you that I skipped the nightjars completely, focusing on birds that we were more likely to see. And so it was that as we began what would be the moment of this trip (and indeed, one of most memorable moments of my life), I had absolutely no idea what was waiting for us at the other end of a dark and dusty drive outside the gates of Punda Maria. I hadn't even heard Kenn or the guide speak the name of the bird that we were to encounter. And so my mind and my heart were blissfully unprepared for the bird that was about to grace our lives. 

We encountered wonderful birds and other animals on the drive. 
Southern White-faced Owl
Our third owl of the trip (we also had Verreaux's and 
African Scops owls earlier in the trip). This is a small owl,
only slightly larger than a Screech Owl.

This Fiery-necked Nightjar was a cool find! You can't see the rich rufous collar that gives this bird its name, but what a neat looking bird!

A young male lion, our 16th lion of the trip.

I thought this view of these elephants in the fading light was really appealing. 

There isn't anything that I don't love about elephants!
I'm really going to miss seeing them when our trip is over.

And as the most beautiful sunset of the entire trip began to spread out across the sky, our guide stopped the truck and asked us to follow him down a dry creek bed. He invited us to sit down among the rocks, and he asked us to sit very quietly and wait.

What happened next, I can only describe as a moment when the word "surreal" truly meant something to me for the first time in my life. With the light fading fast, our guide whispered, "Here he comes."  And out of the sunset flew an angel. A miracle with wings. A dream bird that obliterated every limit I'd ever set for just how extraordinary a bird could be.

Yes, here was this bird, the Pennant-winged Nightjar, a bird Kenn had been dreaming of seeing since he was just a boy. My mind struggled to process what was happening, for this could not possibly be a real bird. The answer was surely, no. For this was no mere bird. This was a scrap of silk cut from the deepest, darkest night sky, drifting over our heads in the most ethereal sky ballet, with feathers like ribbons streaming behind. It fluttered above us, challenging the boundaries of our imaginations, and taking us along on its wild and magical flight. In a world still so pure and so wild, this bird ruled the skies. 

And it ruled my heart, too.

Kenn took this magnificent photo. I never even lifted my camera. I was so utterly captivated that it never even occurred to me. Truth is, after I watched this miracle bird pass by once, I turned to watch Kenn's face. I didn't even need to see the bird to know how special it was. Everything I needed to know was reflected in Kenn's eyes.