After spring rain, the Kgalagadi landscape is a magnet for birds. Peter Chadwick shares his Auob Riverbed birding experience…
Words and pictures: Peter Chadwick www.peterchadwick.co.za
Three Southern White-faced Owl chicks stared down at me with large eyes and inquisitive bobbing heads from the upper branches of a dense acacia. From a hollow in a gnarled branch of the adjacent camel thorn, a Pearl-spotted Owlet peers.
The sign at the entrance to the camp had said, ‘Welcome to Mata Mata’ and this double sighting of owls was thrilling.
Birding at Mata Mata
My overnight stop at Mata Mata camp in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park on the Namibian border was the final leg of a week-long stay in the park.
I had just driven across the dunes from the Nossob riverbed on an overcast day, and the animals at Mata Mata were certainly active in the cool weather.
During a break at the Dikbaardskolk picnic site, I was joined by a throng of Sociable Weavers that hopped between my feet, perched on my coffee mug and pecked at my sandwiches without the slightest concern.
Slightly shier Cape Glossy Starlings, Southern Grey-headed Sparrows and even a pair of Crimson-breasted Shrikes with a recently fledged youngster in tow arrived not much later.
Birding en route to the Auob Riverbed
Back in my vehicle I drove between rolling red dunes with wavy green and yellow grasslands interspersed with shepherd’s trees and acacias.
As I drove, I spotted some of the birds on my checklist:
- Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks and Lilac-breasted Rollers perched on high vantage points
- There were plenty of Kori Bustards walking slowly in the dips and crests of the dunes.
- Grey-backed Finch-Larks and Larklike Buntings erupted from the verges as I drove past and, in the shrubs, Chat Flycatchers and,Fork-tailed Drongos were on the lookout for insects.
A flock of ostriches startled a small family of suricates that scampered at speed back to their den, from where they cautiously surveyed the scene for signs of predators.
One of the suricates climbed to the top of a small shrub for a bout of guard duty as the rest of the family cleaned out the entrances to the den and foraged in the sand. Two small pups followed an adult, uttering begging calls and only momentarily satisfied whenever some grubs were handed over.
Northern Black Korhaan males stood on dune crests calling like rusty pumps on the go, but the shy females scurried off every time I slowed down. In an old signpost, a pair of Ashy Tits must have had young, as the adult birds repeatedly carried bits of food to the pole, disappearing into its hollow depths. Greater Kestrels flew slowly over the grasslands, stopping occasionally to hover before dropping to snatch up prey.
Birding at its best on the Auob Riverbed
I left the dunes behind and finally dropped into the narrow stretches of the Auob Riverbed, choosing the longer route to Mata Mata along various loop roads that passed close to waterholes.
Springbok herds were abundant and their newly born lambs frolicked and chased each other, bounding and pronking as the adults watched lazily from their shade.
At a waterhole, a herd of 17 giraffe drank briefly before settling down to rest, one of the adult males struggling to collapse his long legs. Another male wandered between the females testing their oestrous.
Crimson-breasted Shrikes hopped between the fallen seedpods of camel thorn acacias, flicking the seedpods aside to find small hairy caterpillars that they beat and rubbed against a branch before swallowing them.
I spotted a few more of the specials on my checklist:
- Cape Crows joined the shrikes and dug up fat grubs with their dagger-like bills.
- In the branches above, Common Scimitarbills, Pririt Batises and
- Chestnut-vented Tit-Babblers gleaned insects from the bark, and Marico Flycatchers surveyed their surroundings from the outer branches.
At Dalkeith Waterhole, a lone Secretary Bird bathed and took a quick drink as flocks of Red-headed Finches, Black-faced Waxbills, Speckled Pigeons, Yellow Canaries, Cape Turtle Doves and Namaqua Sandgrouse arrived.
In a large acacia nearby, an adult Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl with droopy eyes and pink eyelids peered at me as I drove past.
Rain had fallen recently and many of the birds had young or were breeding. White-browed Sparrow Weavers and Scaly-feathered Finches collected dry grass stems that they wove carefully into their rather untidy nests.
Marico Flycatchers, African Hoopoes, Fork-tailed Drongos, Ant-eating Chats, and Common Fiscals all had recently fledged chicks that followed the adults like shadows, soliciting with loud calls and shaking their low-hanging wings.
In the dip of the verges, Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters nested close to each other in long burrows. Jacobin- and Dideric Cuckoos called constantly and the highlight was seeing an elusive African Cuckoo perched on top of a dead tree.
As I neared Mata Mata, the raptors became more plentiful. White-backed Vultures and Tawny Eagles nested in acacia crowns and pairs of Black-breasted Snake-Eagles bathed at most waterholes.
Smaller raptors like the Gabar Goshawk, Red-necked Falcons and Lanner Falcons hunted smaller birds as they came to drink, swooping in and sending the small birds into panicked flight.
On the final stretch to Mata Mata, the road veered away from the riverbed and over a dune field. Male ground agamas with orangey bodies and blue heads sunned in the tops of the rhigozum bushes and cast me a beady eye as I drove past.
Brant’s Whistling Rats had their burrow systems at the base of the shrubbery and gave out high-pitched alarm calls as I stopped to watch them, then dived for cover. I waited patiently, and they slowly emerged, feeding and grooming until they scattered back underground when a slender mongoose put in an appearance.
After settling in at my chalet, I wandered about the camp grounds in the evening and found Groundscraper Thrushes, Striped Kingfishers, Shaft-tailed Whydahs, Rock Martins and Rufous-cheeked Nightjars.
In the distance, Spotted Eagle-Owls hooted and a pride of lions roared, as if celebrating with me an excellent day of birding.
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