Predators are drawn to the dry river beds of Aoub and Nossob – lion, leopard, cheetah and many eagles, owls and vultures. Peter Chadwick goes birding in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick www.peterchadwick.co.za
I love to visit the dry river beds of the Nossob and Auob in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, one of my favourite natural treasures, to view lions, leopards, cheetahs and other predators. And yes, these animals are indeed impressive, but it’s the eagles, owls and vultures that lure me again and again to this arid landscape, far in the north-west of our country.
Perhaps the only other location in South Africa that has such diversity of birds of prey is the Kruger National Park, but even this great conservation landscape cannot compete with the sheer numbers that the Kalahari provides on occasion. When I lived and worked along the Nossob in the early 1990s, I recorded well over 1 000 raptors from 24 species in just 160km of river bed. And this excluded counting the vultures and owls.
The drive to the Kalahari may indeed be long from whichever direction, but I have such a special feeling at Twee Rivieren, when the large reception area at the entrance to the park comes into view. The friendly and efficient SANParks staff soon has me through the entrance gates and I always stop first to refuel, buy an ice-cold drink and pack out my camera gear before eagerly heading into the wild.
On my most recent visit I had barely left the gates at Twee Rivieren, when I spotted a pair of Pygmy Falcons perched under the shade of a Sociable Weaver nest. The massive nest hung in the boughs of a large camel thorn acacia that overlooked the first waterhole near the gates.
Closer inspection of the massive collection of grass showed a white ring of faeces, where the falcons had their own nest among the weavers. Pygmy Falcons mainly feed on small insects and reptiles, but are also known on occasion to turn on their landlords and feed on newly fledged weaver chicks.
I continued north towards Nossob Camp, and eagerly ticked off the first sightings of springbok, gemsbok, blue wildebeest and ostrich on the checklist. At Rooiputs waterhole, the well-known pride of lion was lounging in the shade of a shepherd’s tree, with an admiring throng of paparazzi in attendance, clicking away with their expensive camera gear.
At Kij Kij waterhole, droves of Scaly-feathered Finches, Namaqua Doves, Cape Turtle Doves, Cape Sparrows and Namaqua- and Spotted Sandgrouse came in quickly to drink in the hope of not becoming victims of the fast Lanner Falcons (5 on checklist).
Dikbaardskolk Picnic Site is always a favourite birding stop, where I usually find Fork-tailed Drongos, Chestnut-vented Tit Babblers, Red-eyed Bulbuls, Marico Flycatchers, Crimson-breasted Shrikes, Cape Glossy Starlings and White-browed Sparrow-Weavers. Black-chested Snake Eagles (7), Secretary Birds (6) and Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks (8). A careful search among the acacia trees usually produces Gabar Goshawks.
It is the 30 kilometres north and south of Nossob Camp itself that have always produced my best raptor (and mammalian predator) sightings, especially at my regular hangouts of the Marie-se-Gat, Cubitjie Quap and Kwang waterholes. In the heat of the day, up to 20 Bateleurs (9) will come down to bathe and drink there and are often joined by Martial Eagles (2), Tawny Eagles (10), Secretary Birds and vultures. At Kwang waterhole, a pair of resident Red-necked Falcons (4) uses the crowns of dead acacias to launch after small birds.
Cubitjie Quap waterhole, 11 kilometres north of Nossob Camp, has become renowned for the black-backed jackal that has mastered hunting sandgrouse as they come in to drink and, on a really good morning, the wily predator can snatch four or five birds from the air in an hour or two of hunting.
Lanner Falcons add to the excitement, when the whooshing of their wings is often heard before they’re seen aerially attacking and striking birds drinking at the waterhole. An added bonus is the brown hyena, cheetah, lion and even leopard that regularly come here to drink.
In the late afternoons at Cubitjie, the rather cute bushveld shengis, with their long, ever-twitching noses, feed alongside Kalahari Scrub-Robins below the row of small acacia trees just to the west of the waterhole.
Over a few days at Marie-se-Gat waterhole, a gemsbok cow with a severe injury to her hind leg, withered away and died. While this was hard to watch, the benefit of her death was the few hundred White-backed Vultures (3) and eight much larger Lappet-faced Vultures (1) that reduced her carcass to a few remaining bones in little under a day.
More than 30 black-backed jackals constantly came and went from the carcass, assisting the vultures in cleaning up her remains. But with the arrival of more vultures, tensions rose quickly and erupted in clawing and biting among the White-backed Vultures. And it was the Lappet-faced Vultures that commanded huge respect, with both the White-backed Vultures and black-backed jackals stepping aside when they approached the carcass to feed.
Nossob Camp itself also provides excellent sightings of various owl species. A pair of Barn Owls has their roost in the eaves of the office complex, and both Southern White-faced Owls and Pearl-spotted Owlets regularly roost in the trees around camp. Over the three nights that I camped at Nossob, and against the sound of barking geckos, an adult Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl flew into the large acacia tree in the middle of the camp at dusk to hunt. On two of these nights it caught a Freckled Nightjar in flight and an unwary Cape Turtle Dove.
The rolling roads that cut across the dune fields and link the Nossob and Auob river beds provide different birding, with Rock Kestrels, Greater Kestrels, Northern Black Korhaans, Kori Bustards, Chat Flycatchers and Ant-eating Chats the most regularly seen. On most of my trips across these dunes, I’ve been extremely fortunate to see honey badgers digging for rodents and reptiles, accompanied by Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks or black-backed jackals that both usethe badger to increase their chances of catching a small morsel.
The Auob river bed is much narrower than the Nossob, and often provides better sightings of Tawny Eagles, Martial Eagles and Black-chested Snake Eagles, and the waterholes attract flocks of Red-headed Finches, Yellow Canaries, Violet-eared Waxbills and Grey-backed Finch-Larks. Grey Tits, Scimitarbills, Black-throated Prinias, Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters and Lilac-breasted Rollers also occur in good numbers along the Auob.
Over the last few years, the giraffe population in the Auob has done exceptionally well and it is now not uncommon to see herds of up to 20 of these graceful animals wandering in to feed between the acacias. Like the giraffe, the Brants’ whistling rat numbers have exploded in recent years and these seem to have benefited the African wild cat population. I had 15 sightings in just two days.
Of all the places I have visited in South Africa, it is the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that has left the deepest impression. A wild place, it is where the extremes of life and death seem to play out the most. And it is this, and the unforgettable wildlife, that draw me back again and again.
Season and Weather
This is a harsh and unpredictable land where water is scarce, with less than 50mm of annual rain. Temperatures in summer are extremely high while nights can be chilly. Night-time temperatures in winter can fall to -10°C.
Red dune fields covered with arid bushveld and dry grasslands. The Auob and Nossob river beds contain dry grasses and large acacia trees.
- Lappet-faced Vulture
- Red-necked Falcon
- Swallow-tailed Bee-eater
- Crimson-breasted Shrike
- Violet-eared Waxbill
Birding Checklist: 10 specials to try and spot in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
The large, impressive Lappet-faced Vulture (Swartaasvoël) has dark coloration, a bare, pinkish-red head and a 2.5m wingspan. An uncommon species, usually solitary or in pairs, it dominates at carcasses.
An extremely powerful bird of prey, the Martial Eagle (Breekoparend) has a wide diversity of prey that includes game birds, mammals up to the size of a grey duiker, and large reptiles including monitor lizards.
The most abundant vulture species in Southern Africa, the White-backed Vulture (Witrugaasvoël) numbers are being heavily eroded by rampant poisoning of the birds for muti. The nest is a large platform of sticks in the
crown of acacias.
The Lanner Falcon (Edelvalk) has been spotted in flocks of up to 20 birds at a waterhole where it makes repeated, rapid flights to catch small birds up to the size of spurfowls. It also hunts co-operatively, with one
bird the decoy while the other flies in unobserved to catch the prey.
The long un-feathered legs of the Black-chested Snake Eagle (Swartborsslangarend) aid in the capture of its reptile prey that mainly comprises snakes of up to 2m in length. Smaller prey is often swallowed in flight, while large prey is torn up.
Found in arid savannah, the Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk (Bleeksingvalk) is usually highly conspicuous by its habit of perching prominently for long periods. It sometimes hunts on the ground, running after rodents, insects and reptiles, and often accompanies honey badgers on the hunt, snatching away their prey.
The sex of the Bateleur (Berghaan) is easily distinguished in flight as the male has a white underwing with a broad black band on the trailing edge, while the female’s is largely white with just a black edge.
The Tawny Eagle (Roofarend) hunts by stopping in flight, or from a perch, and has been known to rob other eagles, storks and Ground Hornbills of prey. It readily scavenges on carrion. Fortunately it’s still common in game reserves but populations are declining elsewhere.
Accommodation and Activities
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park offers a wide variety of accommodation, from rustic camping in some of the smaller wilderness camps to comfortable self-catering chalets in the larger camps along the Nossob and Auob river beds. Nossob, Mata Mata and Twee Rivieren all have small swimming pools, and basic supplies and fuel.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is most easily reached from South Africa via Upington. The entrance to the park lies 260km north of Upington and is well signposted.
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