23 May 2012

Paarl

I felt like taking a quick break from my Namibian chronicle and decided to focus instead on something that happened about two weeks ago. Before I went to Namibia, I met a man by the name of Les Underhill who is in charge of the South African Bird Atlas Project II (frequently condensed to SABAPII on the interwebs). He put me in touch with a man by the name of Pieter La Grange, and I soon found myself surveying the Paarl pentad with him.
Our morning started out quite well, with us heading up Paarl Mountain to see what we could find. The slopes were productive, with a pair of African Harrier-Hawk patrolling the slopes, Southern Boubou singing from the nearby thickets, and Rameron Pigeons (such as the one to right I photographed in Jonkershoek) flying between the trees. The garden at the top of the mountain kept us interested, with Bar-throated Apalis, three species of Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird, and Cape Batis. We soon wrapped up our high elevation survey and headed down to the Paarl Bird Reserve in town.

For me, the Paarl reserve was fantastic. Having been trapped in the fynbos for most of the semester, the reserve was like Christmas for me, with ducks and gulls everywhere. Upon driving up, I was instantly with my lifer Grey-hooded Gull, sitting right in front of my lifer White-faced Whistling-Ducks!

The excitement continued however, as my aquatic lifers stacked up. Red-billed Ducks and Cape Teal swam among the Cape Shovelers, African Black Ducks and Yellow-billed Ducks, and I even managed to spot a lone Hottentot Teal foraging along the edge of the reeds. Hundreds of Helmeted Guineafowl ran through the open, gravelly areas while Little Egrets, Grey Herons, Glossy Ibis, and a lone Greater Flamingo foraged along the edges of the lake. I finally caught up with a bird I had missed in Ecuador, Southern Pochard, and we even managed to refind the lone African Jacana that had been reported in the area a few weeks before. Overall, it was a fantastic morning. You can check out all of my pictures on my eBird checklist.

Glancing at the clock now, guilt is starting to well up inside me again... I need to get back to work. Halfway through finals, and soon, I'll more time to write (and bird!). 

Grey-hooded Gull (Chroicocephalus cirrhocephalus) in Paarl, South Africa.



19 May 2012

Fish River Canyon

As we arrived in Ais-Ais for the night, my friends and I quickly came to realize just how awesome Namibia truly was. Staying at the fantastic hot springs resort at the bottom of the canyon, we watched the stars come out above the Fish River and went for a swim in the fantastic pool. We then grabbed dinner together, enjoying the cool desert air, and I enjoyed some Windhoek Lagers and a Kudu Steak (Kudu is amazing, for anyone who hasn't tried it). However, it was soon time to retire, and as the girls went off to their fantastic rooms, I shuffled through the dark to set up my tent in the camping area in front of the lodge. I had just gotten it set up, when I heard a bird that I had heard previously in the evening - a low "kow-kow, kow-kow" coming from not far away. My birding instincts kicked in instantly, as I whispered to myself "Freckled Nightjar!" I quickly climbed out of my tent with my head land, and wandered towards the sound. The bird sounded close, and I had a hunch I knew where it was. I clicked the light onto the roof of the bathrooms and, lo and behold, the nightjar was sitting in the middle of my beam of light. Thoroughly satisfied, I quickly dozed off.

The next morning (5 April) was another great day. I woke up long before the others, and started wandering around the resort in search of birds. I got a pretty good list for the day considering our location, and was quite satisfied with what I found. I snapped a lot of birds pics that morning, just for the sake of having some documented birds during my trip, and tried really hard not to laugh as one of the locals chased a screaming baboon running away with a loaf of bread.

The distinctive Orange River White-eye is widely considered a separate species (Zosterops pallidus) here in Africa, but some authorities still treat it as a subspecies of the Cape White-Eye (Zosterops capensis).
A Swallow-tailed Bee-Eater (Merops hirundeneus) foraging near my tent.
A Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) that wandered around us as we packed in the morning.

Soon, the girls were up as well, and we enjoyed a nice breakfast together before loading up the car and heading northward again. We drove parallel to the Fish River Canyon, and soon found ourselves at a beautiful turn in the bend before the actual canyon overlook. Now, the actual overlook is pretty spectacular, but my camera died shortly after taking this picture and I haven't retrieved my other pics from Maria's camera, so this will have to do for now!


The rest of our day was a travel day. We continued northwards, stopping for the occasional stretch and for our own "mini-Etosha" in the middle of the desert. Stephanie, with her now-legendary Eagle Eyes, spotted some Gemsbok (same thing as Oryx, for you Americans) in the distance. As we approached closer, we realized there was actually a water hole nearby, where Hartmann's Mountain Zebras watched their young chase and play with the nearby Gemsbok coming to drink. It was a pleasant surprise bird-wise too, as I spotted my lifer Martial Eagle flying towards the water hole. We soon continued our driving, however, listening to music, talking about life, and just enjoying each others company. It wasn't long until we were in the town of Marienthal and ready to go to sleep after a long days drive.

10 May 2012

Place of Great Noise

Like most people from the Western World, I have a hard time speaking in clicks. I often try to imagine what it must have been like, as a European colonist in South Africa, learning how to speak using this sound that seems so foreign to us. In Stellenbosch, I love listening to people speaking isiXhosa as they walk by, and sometimes find myself practicing my clicks when I am alone so that I can one day at least attempt to speak some of the languages that populate this amazing land.

However, simplifications have occurred over time to make things easier on people like me. I meet people from throughout Africa, and they often introduce themselves not with their name, but with a surrogate. "Just call me Taku, because Takuedzwa is too hard for you." I try my hardest to prove them wrong now, but the error still exists. Anyone I try to tell that name too may be confused by my mispronunciations and accent. When the Afrikaaners moved into large areas of southern Afrika, the names became simplified as well. One of these places was along the Orange (Gariep) River. The native people of the area called it a name that translates to "place of great noise," and believed it was where a water monster lived. The simplification of their word for it is the name of the park today: Augrabies National Park.

Located along the Orange River not far before it becomes the boundary between South Africa and Namibia, the Orange winds across a rough granitic plateau and drops into the Orange River gorge. The braids of the river form multiple falls in this region, and as I sped down the highway, I was looking forward to seeing the main falls.

The morning, though brief, had already treated me quite well. I got a lifer sitting on the ground next to the car not long after I woke up - a Rosy-faced Lovebird, reminiscent of the Spectacled Parrotlets I had fallen in love with in Colombia two years before. I passed through the scattered Acacias and the fantastic Kokerboem aloes and before we knew it, we arrived within Augrabies National Park. We were not disappointed by what we found.

The main falls of Augrabies. More pictures by others can be found here.

The falls, though not at their highest low rate, were extremely impressive. The brightly colored Augrabies Lizards (photo from Australian Geographic here) crawled across the rocks and fought in the sun, their colors almost hurting our eyes. I held on to my hat to keep it from blowing into the gorge, and stared in wonder as the Orange weaved its way out into the Kalahari.

Orange River Gorge. There were Peregrine Falcons nesting in the left part of the gorge.

After gawking at the sights of the gorge, we hiked out along the river for a while to see what we could find. The braiding river created strange and random marshes, potholes and large sinks filled with boulders that led towards the river. Stephanie, proving her eyes once again, spotted a group of Eland running in the distance, while I found myself in a staring match with a Klipspringer from about two meters away at one point. Though we walked together, we were simultaneously alone. We spaced ourselves out along the trail, and each of us became lost in their own world. My world, naturally, was dominated by birds, and I was not disappointed. A cloud of Alpine Swifts infested the canyon, a lone Booted Eagle sailed overhead, Swallow-tailed Bee-Eaters flycatched from the trees, African Pied-Wagtails walked amongst the Vervet Monkeys in the Picnic Area and I acquired several lifers including Bradfield's Swift and Chat Flycatcher (full list here). As fascinating as the park was, however, we had a long ways to drive.

Pale-winged Starling in Augrabies National Park.

We continued onward, through the desert, and into an area with more hills. The red sands of the Red Larks were calling to me, but I resisted their temptation, knowing that if I began searching that I could not stop and our destination would never arrive. We stopped for petrol in Pofadder and then headed off into the unknown. The road become rough, and even more desolate. Signs of civilization grew scarcer as the rocks and the Kalahari took over. It seemed as though we were completely alone in the world, until I saw the dip in the horizon. Like a saw slowly cutting away at the earth, the scar of the Orange River was visible from kilometers away, and we soon found ourselves at a junction making the easiest decision of our lives.


The sign appeared older than the country we wished to visit. Suidwes-Afrika, the old name for Namibia, was within our grasp. We wound down past the northernmost vineyard we would see and checked out of South Africa. Slowly and excitedly, we crossed the river and found ourselves in a new and somehow familiar land: Namibia. After briefly checking in, we headed out across the veld in an attempt to make it to Ai-Ais for the night.

The road stretched on forever that day. Straightaways dozens of kilometers long accompanied the infinite visibility, and I felt as though the world went on forever. Karoo Korhaans crossed the road in front of us, the occasional sign in English, German or Afrikaans flew by our window, and the sun scorched the earth before us. The rains had come recently, however, so the Kalahari was green. Amazingly so. The further we continued the greener it became, until we began to descend once again into some of the harsher and hotter reaches of the Kalahari. We found ourselves descending into hell itself, it seemed, as the land became devoid of vegetation and the ground raised up around us as if to trap us.

As the sun set, we found ourselves at the bottom of the second deepest canyon in the world.


The road to Ai-Ais at sunset.

To be continued...

08 May 2012

Ever Northward

The Tankwa Karoo before sunrise.

The second day of our Namibia trek started out quite well. I woke up right at about dawn, awoken by a bird that I unfortunately was never able to track down, and then headed out into the karoo to see what I could find. I was not disappointed, as my before dawn walking rewarded me with such good birds as Tractrac Chat, Rufous-eared Warbler, the ever-present Karoo Scrub-Robin and even Namaqua Prinia (my short but complete list here). I turned around at one point, however, and was surprised to see a lone figure on the hillside. I slowly walked up the hill, and found myself side by side with Maria (well, first I found myself running to get my camera, but I came back). I stood there her, talking about the desert enveloping us, and watched the desert come to life. As we stood there together, I saw the first ray of sun break through the distant hills, and watched in awe as the world began to glow around me. It was a great day already, and it wasn't even 8 o'clock in the morning.

Sunrise over the Tankwa Tented Camp.

We soon got up and got started with our day,as we ate breakfast with our Malawian friends and packed up for the day. We took some awesome showers, I left my permanent mark in the office of the camp, and we headed back out into the Karoo.

Our morning maintained the same theme for hours. The karoo was huge, and it never seemed to end. I saw Groot Winterhoek, the mountains were I had camped two months before, and enjoyed the beautiful desert scenery. I also got my first life bird of the day: Pterocles namaqua, the Namaqua Sandgrouse.

Namaqua Sandgrouse walking on the side of the road (above) and flushing into the desert (below).

After the brief ornithological break, we climbed Bloukrans Pass and were greeted at the summit by a pair of Verreaux's Eagles. We continued onward and onward until finally coming to our spot for lunch that day: Calvinia. This small frontier town in the karoo was a fascinating place to be, but we quickly finished our lunches and loaded back into the car. The northern expanses were calling to us, and we could not ignore them anymore. We drove onward and onward, and I even ignored some pretty good birds in the interest of time and spending time with my friends (before you have a heart attack, I still got Black-eared Sparrowlark!).

As we came closer and closer to the orange river valley, the terrain transformed around us. Then suddenly, almost without warning, the veld changed completely. Grasses grew everywhere, the gigantic Sociable Weaver nests seemed to impossibly balance in the trees and on the power poles along the road, and the road stretched on into infinity.

Our road through the Northern Cape, South Africa

We soon decided to stop and stretch, and found the quaint little town of Kenhardt in which to do so. Needless to say, I soon became quite please with our decision to do so. Cape Glossy-Starlings sat on the fences, Dusky Sunbirds climbed through the bushes, and Black-fronted Bulbuls seemed to be everywhere. Three lifers in three minutes is always a nice thing to encounter, wherever you are. The girls soon dragged me away from the iridescent starlings, however, and we headed off once more into the wild blue yonder, finally reaching our destination, the Augrabies Backpackers.

I, however, had not had enough of wandering about for the day, and apparently the others hadn't either. We ventured off through the vineyards and Phragmites grasses in search of more cool things for the day. Stephanie and Yvonne soon headed back to the backpackers, but Maria and I ventured further, seeking out more. A Black-headed Heron flew overhead, Bulbuls were everywhere (I estimated 40 on my checklist) and we even found a pair of calling Spotted Eagle-Owls in the brush. Thoroughly satisfied, we followed the southern cross back to the backpackers and arrived just as Stephanie exclaimed in wonder at the stranger she was sitting next to "NO WAY! I know who you are!"

The world, it seems, is a very small place. I found myself face to face with a spitting image of my roommate in Stellenbosch. From the French-Canadian accent to the very mannerisms she used, it was like being back at the dorms. Yvonne's and my flatmate, Genevieve, had told us her parents were coming to South Africa, but we never assumed that we would meet them at some point, let alone at some point in the middle of nowhere in the Northern Cape! We enjoyed our evening talking about life and traveling around the country, and before I knew it, tomorrow had already come. I forced myself off to bed, knowing that if I didn't rest now, I wouldn't rest at all.

I slowly slipped off into unconsciousness, and waited for the sun to wake me. In my head, I went through the checklist of things I would need in the morning, and smiled as I realized I'd be crossing into yet another African country at some point the next day.

06 May 2012

Catching Up From School

Once again, school has bested me. It has sucked me in with its assignments and deadlines, and kept me from the outside world and from my blog.

So it is time to do some catch up. The next couple posts may not be entirely in line temporally, but they are my adventures from the beginning of April, just over a month ago today.

My fall break, a week long, officially started in Cape Town. I boarded a bus in the early afternoon in Stellenbosch, and rode with my Conservation Management class to the Cape Town Docks where we boarded the ferry for Robben Island, and spent the better part of three days on the Island. I ended March spending the night in one of the prisons on the island made infamous by apartheid, talking to my South African friends and wandering about the island for various conservation projects. We caught tortoises, we assessed vegetation cover on various parts of the island, and I acquired four new South African birds - two lifers (Bank Cormorant and Subantarctic Brown Skua) and two country birds (Pomarine Jaeger and Chukar, and introduced resident on the island). My time on the island was fairly long, and very fun. We braai'd, we enjoyed the sunsets, and we yelled at the kid whose alarm went off at 4 AM. As I left the harbor on the island or the mainland on April 1, it was a beautiful day. The sky was bluer than almost any I had seen before, and Table Mountain loomed above the city and the cold and imposing Atlantic. I was excited, because I knew that on the mainland another adventure awaited, and I was ready for it to begin.

The next morning, I met with Stephanie, Yvonne and Maria: the three amigas. They are all German, and they all had one word on the tip of their tongues: Namibia. We walked to downtown Stellenbosch, and picked up our rental car, a silver Volkswagen Polo. We looked it over, had it checked out, and I insisted on making sure we had infinite mileage (kilometerage?), window insurance, wheel/undercarraige/overall insurance, and that we had a full size spare ready to go. Thoroughly satisfied with our acquisition, we bid Stellenbosch a hasty farewell and drove out to the N1 highway heading over the mountains. We passed through the only tunnel I have seen in Africa, and soon found ourselves in our first stop of the day: Worcester, at the Karoo National Botanical Gardens. The Karoo gardens, though most spectacular in the spring, still did not disappoint. Moments after stepping from the car, I saw my lifer Acacia Pied Barbet, and the trails wandering through the desert afforded amazing views at the succulent plants the interior of South Africa is famous for.

After an hour of wandering through the gardens, enjoying the native flora of southern Africa, we loaded back into the car and began our final push north for the day. We headed onto the R355, and bid the pavement farewell. We were venturing deep into the heart of the Tankwa Karoo, the driest and 'loneliest' part of the entire country. The excitement kept coming, however, even as the vegetation slowly disappeared. Southern Pale Chanting Goshawks became a common sight on the few roadside perches that did exist, Stephanie earned hundreds of brownie points by spotted both Mountain Zebra and some Giraffes, and the car proved itself as we bounced along the rocky and desolate stretch of road.

After a few hours we came to our camp for the night: the Tankwa Tented Camp at the edge of Tankwa Karoo National Park. Considering this was the first major dirt road some of the people in our party had ever traveled (and the first true desert to boot), the landscape was both stark and fascinating, an utter moonscape stranded in the southern reaches of the continent.

The Tankwa Karoo, it all its glory.

We pulled into the camp for the night, and soon wandered off into the more wooded floodplain of the Tankwarivier. We crushed the mud beneath our shoes, wandered through the acacias, and I chased after Karoo Larks flitting along the ground.

About 100 meters from the above picture: the Tankwarivier Floodplain.

As the sun set and the desert began to cool, we headed back to the main building and met the two workers around a fire they had started for us. We were the only guests that night, and we had a lekker time. The girls soon became absorbed in an intense conversation in their home language, and I found myself with the workers. I never caught their names, but I learned they were both from Malawi. I commented that I could not understand any German (at the time - this would change by the end of the week), and one of them looked at  me and said:

"Hearing someone speak another language is like listening to the birds. No one knows what they are saying, because they say it to each other, but all we can do is listen and realize how beautiful is sounds for what it is." (Not a direct quote, but as close as I can remember!)

I agreed with him wholeheartedly, and I soon began learning some of their native language, Chewa. We talked for hours, looked at the moon through a spotting scope, and discussed Africa in general. Slowly, however, the fire started to die and we grew tired, ready to sleep for the long drive ahead.

I bid everyone goodnight, and crawled into my tent, happy to be between the infinite sky and the endless veld. As I closed my eyes, I already knew the next day was going to be another great day.