An African Adventure

In January, to mark a big anniversary, Jean and I set off on a small ship cruise from Cape Town to Colombo in Sri Lanka. Apart from visiting some amazing places on the way, we wanted to experience, for our first (and probably last) time, the wildlife of a safari.

We had some problems with the weather – which meant ports were closed and detours had to be made. So we didn’t see half as much as planned. We also had to put up with razor wire on the balcony and black clothed commandos practising with their machine guns on the bridge deck (against pirate attack). But what we did see was amazing, including some wonderful bird life. I counted 86 lifers for me – at least those species I managed to identify!

Here are some of our many wildlife highlights.

From Cape Town we visited the famous Boulders Beach African penguin colony on the Cape of Good Hope peninsular. Established in 1983, there are over 2100 birds here. This is now an endangered species, worldwide numbers having crashed from 150,000 pairs in 1956 to about 26,000. From the boardwalk you get really close up to these birds nesting on the beach and in the dunes. Here is a photo of part of the colony. [ click on a photo for a larger view ]

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Notable at Cape point itself were densely packed flocks of cormorants (especially Cape cormorants of 4 varieties present) on rocks jutting out from the sea and flying in long lines. The fishing must still be good from the confluence of ocean currents here. Here is a Cape Cormorant (by far the commonest species) swimming by our ship in Cape Town harbour.

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On the top of Table Mountain, apart from magnificent views, red-winged starlings pottered among the crowds hoping for tit-bits and brilliant male Orange-breasted Sunbirds fed on the proteas and chased drab females.

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From Richards Bay we had a two hour boat ride on the lagoon at the St Lucia wetlands reserve. Here we saw lots of hippos, a few crocodiles and one Bull Shark that glided menacingly past the boat with its fin above water, as in the famous film. Lots of birds too.

Here is a photo of hippos congregating. They like shallow water apparently because they don’t swim. They are not aggressive supposedly, but they bolt (at speed) for the water if they are nervous and anything in the way gets flattened.

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On the edge of the lagoon brilliantly coloured Yellow Weavers had constructed their intricate ball-shaped nests on the reed edges –a scene very evocative of Africa. Weavers are apparently the only bird able to tie knots. I read that it is the male that usually constructs these nests to woo a female. If a female doesn’t approve, he has to deconstruct and start again!

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On the sandbanks were familiar waders from Europe – Sanderling, Ruff, Ringed plover, Greater Flamingos and Pratincoles – down for the winter along with the barn swallows and house martins flying across the water. Here is one of the Greater Flamingos, probably a juvenile as it has not acquired a pink bill or stronger pink colour on its wings yet.

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But in the water were also unfamiliar birds, like Yellow-necked Storks, Black Herons, Hadada Ibis, the reclusive African Finfoot, and this magnificent Goliath Heron, the biggest heron of them all-over 5 feet tall and a wingspan of nearly 8 feet.

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At the vast Imfolozi wildlife reserve we toured in a jeep along rough tracks and were lucky enough to see four of the Big Five in their natural environment (Lion, Buffalo, Rhino and Elephant) plus several Giraffe, Zebras, ugly Warthogs, cheeky Vervet monkeys, and various graceful Antelopes. Here is a shot of my favourite animal, the Giraffe, complete with a Red-billed Oxpecker cleaning it of parasites.

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I have to add this shot of a white Rhino. Still endangered because of poaching for the horns, this reserve has the largest herd in Africa. Perhaps because of its notoriously poor eyesight, the jeep backed up several yards as it wandered towards us, intent on crossing the track.

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Unusual birds too we saw – including a White-backed Vulture sitting in a bare tree, a Steppe Buzzard which flew close by, an all-grey Go-away bird, and a strange looking Hamerkop in the river. But generally we did not stop long enough to photograph them. This shot of a Helmeted Guineafowl was an exception. Conveniently, it decided to cross the track in front of the jeep!

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Then on to the Seychelles. I got my first sighting of White-tailed Tropicbirds floating across the jungle. On Praslin island I was lucky to see an endemic Black Parrot crawling round a Coco de mer tree trunk like a woodpecker. Not black at all but a dirty brown. But here my especially favourite bird was the dark blue-billed White, aka Fairy, Tern in Mahe – so angelic. Unusually for terns, they nest in these trees, laying their egg on a bare branch apparently. They seem to possess especially big eyes but that is an illusion because of the black eye ring.

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Another favourite here, though commoner than sparrows, was the brilliant red male Madagascan Red Fody, a species of weaver that hangs its ball-shaped nest from the branches of trees. It is something of an invasive species, having driven out the similar yellowish Seychelles Fody to three small islands (where it is protected). Sometimes males would face off on the ground raising all their feathers like fighting cocks.

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Finally in Colombo for two days, our hotel backed on to a large lagoon. So there were plenty of herons, marsh terns, egrets, Waterhens, Indian cormorants, and a familiar Common Sandpiper on the water to watch. But there were also these huge Spot-billed Pelicans fishing in the water and circling above the lake – a very pretty variety.

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A pair of Intermediate (aka Yellow-billed) Egrets conveniently stood close on the railing in front of the lagoon in the hotel grounds. The term Intermediate seems rather technical but its size is indeed halfway between Little and Great Egrets (both of which were also present on the lagoon).

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In the hotel swimming pool, flocks of the pesty House Crows bathed along with the guests. In the trees and shrubs there were Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters (see photo below), Purple-rumped Sunbirds, Babblers, Coucals, Taylorbirds, Magpie-robins, White-rumped Munias, and Black-eyed Bulbuls. Rose-ringed Parakeets screamed as they flew to tree tops- reminiscent of back home!

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Here is a picture of the Southern Coucal in the hotel grounds. A relative of the cuckoo, it is not however parasitic. It feeds on snails apparently – so the otherwise unwelcome invasion of the Giant African snail in urban gardens appears to have given this bird a boost.

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I have to include too this close shot of a White-throated Kingfisher on the edge of the lagoon– with its huge red bill and hints of glorious turquoise wings. A noisy bird, it was not fazed by human beings.

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The greatest surprise here was to watch a very distinctive Brahminy Kite, a sort of fish eagle, actually land on the water like a gull, sit there for a minute and then take off! Pity it was on the far side- too far for a photo.

But also in the lake we saw a few, what we first thought, were crocodiles. Here is a close up photo of the adult Asian Water Monitor complete with some rubbish it has picked up on its back. They are said to grow up to 10 feet in length, second only in size to the Komodo dragon. The forked tongue is equally impressive. I saw no-one swimming in this lake!

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Peter M
March 2016

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