The attendant at the Phalaborwa gate of Kruger National Park in South Africa greeted us with the words: “Are you going to look for the big five?”
For a moment Flip and I paused, not understanding what he was saying. Then Markus, our driver and guide, spoke up and informed the attendant that we were going to the park to look at birds. If we saw the big five, that would be an additional bonus. The attendant thought we were a bit nuts, but let us pass through.
The big five include African elephant, white or black rhinoceroses, African buffalo, lion and leopard. These are all magnificent mammals, but we were looking for feathered creatures such as African fish eagle, African pygmy kingfisher, lilac-breasted rollers and Marabou storks. We were not disappointed in either case.
The first couple of days we stayed at Olifants Camp on the border of South Africa and Mozambique in the middle of Kruger Park. The park is approximately 12,000 square miles in area. The habitat around Olifant is primarily open grassland (veld) with a few stunted Mopani trees sparsely scattered throughout. The Olifant River runs through this part of the park.
This river, plus a few hides near watering holes, gave us awesome views of all the big five, including a lioness that was feeding on a zebra which she had killed earlier. It also afforded us superb views of many species of birds coming in to drink, feed or roost.
As we sat on the edge of the river, a Goliath heron, the biggest heron in the world, successfully stalked a fish. And an African fish eagle, a stunning bird with a white head and tail and rich chestnut and black wings, swooped down and gracefully snatched a fish from the waters directly in front of us. Brilliantly colored kingfishers ranging in size from four and one half to 16 inches hovered over the water. The African pygmy-kingfisher is a tiny bundle of blue and orange with a large bright red bill. The giant kingfisher is black-winged with a chestnut and white chest. Both are efficient fisherman.
Our experience throughout Kruger National Park was fabulous except for the Chacma baboons. We had gone out at dawn our last day at Olifants and returned to pick up our clothing, cooler and food from the refrigerator. Markus and I were rearranging the van while Flip went to get our gear. We heard Flip growl, bark like a dog and shout, “Get out of here!”
We ran around to see what was going on. We saw a group of baboons high tailing it into the scrub. Flip had approached the bungalow and a single baboon sitting on the roof screeched a warning and jumped to the ground. Moments later six baboons jumped out of the kitchen window. The bungalow’s kitchen was trashed — it looked like a scene from the Animal House food fight. The baboons had opened the cooler and refrigerator and food and drinks — what was left of them was spread all over the kitchen. Thank goodness our knapsacks and clothing were in a locked closet.
We left South Africa after three amazing weeks of birding, spotting close to 400 birds. It was a great experience despite the baboon raid.
American kestrels are the hot item this week from one end of the Island to the other. Andrea Hartman spotted a pair at Quenames in Chilmark on April 16. She comments that this is the third year the kestrels have returned around the same date. Unfortunately they don’t nest here any more. They are just passing through.
Tim and Sheila Baird counted six American kestrels at once at Katama late last week, although they have been seeing at least one a day out there for the last two weeks. Suzie Bowman watched a female American kestrel perch on a bluebird box at Felix Neck on April 18. Tree swallows and bluebirds have been inhabiting the boxes at the neck as well.
Matt Pelikan spotted nine American kestrels between Katama and Gay Head the weekend of April 19. Tim and Sheila had four at Katama — there had to be at least a dozen kestrels on the Island last weekend.
Andrea Hartman reports that there were Eastern bluebirds at Quenames as of April 13 and pine warblers were singing at the same area on April 16. Andrea’s chipping sparrows returned to her West Tisbury home on April 16. On April 17, she had a male indigo bunting under one of her feeders.
Tom Rivers had a whippoorwill singing at his Chilmark home on April 18. He spotted a female rose-breasted grosbeak on April 20 at his feeder.
Richard Regan called to report a great egret on Squibnocket Pond on April 17.
Gus Ben David reports that he has been seeing both tree and barn swallows. His chipping sparrows are back at the World of Reptiles and Birds, and the pine warblers are beginning to sing. Gus had a northern oriole on April 20, but it did not stay. He also spotted a Eastern towhee on Chappaquiddick this weekend.
Allan Keith and Matt Pelikan spotted a palm warbler at Aquinnah on April 19 and commented that a few harlequin ducks are still at Squibnocket. Matt mentioned that field sparrows are singing on territory at the state forest and pine warblers are singing there as well. Pete Gilmore and Lanny McDowell spotted a palm warbler at Aquinnah on April 17. Allan Keith also had three green-winged teal at Turtle Brook Farm on April 18.
Peter and Pamela Shea have all three species of woodpeckers around their place off Barnes Road in Oak Bluffs. Peter is watching a pair of red-breasted woodpeckers building a nest in a nearby tree. He also has a red-breasted nuthatch and a pair of tufted titmice.
Rob Bierregaard e-mailed to say that there are now 62 pair of ospreys either on eggs or preparing for the breeding season. He also mentioned that Homer is on the move. He has left Hispaniola and is headed our way. Rob also added that all three of last year’s surviving birds, Luke, Claws and Conomo, remain alive and well. Rob plans to tag six young birds this year, three on the Vineyard, one on the Cape and two in the south.
The annual Massachusetts Audubon Birdathon is scheduled for May 16 and 17. We are looking for volunteers. Please call the bird hot line at 508-627-4922 and leave your name and phone number or e-mail address so we can get in touch with you.
Susan B. Whiting is the co-author of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II and led bird tours with Osprey Tours for 30 years to Central and South America.