Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Notmoor part one

I have spent the last four days in the Kruger National park, one of my favourite places in the world. I went there very shortly after a long desperate drought had broken. It had been a very long time with no rain and the consequences were everywhere to be seen. At the same time it was wonderful to see how the, as yet light, rains turned the park green in just a matter of days. The animals that have survived looked well as they fed on the fresh new flush of grass and yet evidence of the scale of the devastation was everywhere to be seen. Piles of bleached bones stood out against the faint tinge of pale green as the new grass started to cover the bare soil. The way in which every shrub and bush had been stripped of leaves and bark evidenced the search for sustenance. It was the water dependent animals that had suffered the most, Hippos and Buffalo.
Grass coming through too late for this Buffalo
Many of the large water bodies that on my previous visits have always been highlights for bird and animal sightings were dry. These places had always held small populations of Hippos and they had gone leaving just their bones. Buffalo need to be able to drink every day and we saw just a few of them it may mean that they moved areas where they could find water and hopefully didn’t suffer in the same way as the less mobile Hippos.
It is sobering to see the consequences of a natural disaster although the visit was very far from being all doom and gloom and as always there were superb highlights.

Birds being mobile are able to come and go more freely and their numbers were beginning to increase as we left the park. Until the grass and herbs grow there will not be the volume of insects to support the many species of birds that depend on them. I saw flocks of several hundred mixed hirundines feeding and drinking over the Olifants River which is now flowing as rain has fallen on the Drakensberg Mountains and the Highveld to the west. There are always good birds to be seen in the Kruger Park rest camps and this trip was no exception, with Sunbirds, Bush Shrikes and Glossy Starlings queuing up to have their pictures taken.

Marico Sunbirds and Glossy Starling
I even managed to add a species to my Southern Africa list, something I have failed to do on my last two trips. We found a female Montagues Harrier quartering the plains and the next day found another one, a real bonus but it seemed incongruous to see it floating over the dry savanna instead of the lush English countryside.

Seeing birds out of their normal context was a constant theme. Wood Sands were common wherever there was a muddy puddle or on the edges of rivers as were Common Sands. Greenshanks patrolled the shallows while occasional Ruff could be seen. On one occasion as I was watching a group of mixed waders, both familiar and unfamiliar, at the edge of a muddy dam a crocodile surfaced just behind them with a huge fish in its jaws and spent some time trying to point it in the right direction to swallow. Not something we’re used to seeing when going through the waders at Titchwell or Minsmere. The waders just ignored it.
Croc and fish with indifferent Geese and waders

Another highlight when birding here is just how unafraid and approachable wading birds are. Birds such as Wood Sands that you could not get within fifty metres of in the UK are too close to focus on. It is easier to get close to other birds too both in the rest camps and from the car.

I hope that I don’t give the impression that this was in any way a disappointing trip. It is wonderful to be able to visit such a huge wild place. It is after all approximately the same area as Wales. It is being cared for sensitively and raises valuable revenue both for the country and for conservation throughout South Africa. Anyone I know would love to visit it and would love to have seen the things I saw this time……a dung beetle rolling a ball of dung along the road, every so often climbing onto the top of it to see which way it was going…….a small family of elephants with a mother suckling her calf just beside my car so close I could smell her……..a pair of lions mating beside the road the lioness seeming so indifferent to the males attention she didn’t even get up from her side…..tortoises coming to the tar road to drink from the puddles after a shower of rain. These are the kind of experiences that make it such a special place.

As for the drought, there have always been droughts and floods, whether this is local weather or global climate change I leave to the experts. It does show however that even if we set aside huge tracts of lands for wildlife we cannot guarantee its safety from the elements, all we can try to do is to protect it from man’s worst excesses.

African Fish Eagle, African spoonbill and sunset

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