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South Africa Bound!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Egad! Has it really been six weeks since my last post? Eek! That's scary enough for Halloween. I'm out of shape for this, and instead of blogging here, I'm spending way too much time throwing out content on Facebook and Instagram. I note my "captions" turning into paragraphs, turning into essays, and realize that I'm misusing these media; that I really should get those flying fingers back to their real home on this blog. Besides, I've got way more photos than anyone should try to share there. I'm making a nuisance of myself. This blog is where I should be putting my energy, getting those writing muscles back in shape after the big push of Saving Jemima.

Bla bla bla bla. Here's where I write and then delete a big self-confessional paragraph about all the stuff I've been dealing with as some kind of screwy rationale/apology for not blogging more often. Thank you, Phoebe, for helping me see this pattern and step around the pile of run-on writer's poo.  As my keenly self-observant daughter writes:
"Literally every time I've tried to start a post, I write one mega-paragraph about the swirling cocktail of emotions and thoughts in my head and why it's so damn hard for me to write about them, and then I get tired and/or distracted, and step away for long enough that the cycle begins again."

Elephant dreaming. Look at the tiny calf, and the sharp-angled forehead of its mama.

However. I have seen elephants. I've experienced hyenas.  And I've spent the last two weeks doing almost nothing but editing photos from the Bird Watcher's Digest Reader Rendezvous I accompanied, Oct. 1-11, 2019. I was asked to co-lead this trip because Bill had been lined up to do it, and at first it looked like he'd be too sick to go, and then it rapidly became clear he wouldn't even be here in October 2019, so I was tapped for the honor. Big sigh. Bill had been to South Africa once, but he never made it to The Kruger.

  This is how South Africans refer to their gigantic national park, where everything still lives and thrives despite the worst efforts of humanity to overcrowd and poach the wild things all away. Oh, is there living and wildlife and cool timeless awesome stuff going on there. So I did it for Bill, and for the subscribers who had signed up, and I did it for me, too, because I was pining for Africa. People say Africa gets into your blood, and it's true. It does. And one morning you wake up and say, "I need to go back." And I realize how incredibly fortunate I am to be in a position, whether by being asked to go, or by arranging my own group safaris through Holbrook Travel, to make that happen now and then. I don't take it for granted. And, like all my trips, this would be a working trip.

Scene along the Lower Sabie River, with Burchell's zebra and blue wildebeest coming to drink.

This was not a solo pilgrimage. Not by a long shot. We had 21 BWD subscribers signed up; two BWD guides (me and my dear friend Raymond Van Buskirk wheeee!!); two guides from Rockjumper Tailor-made Tours (Doug McCulloch and Rynart Bezuidenhout); an incredible bus driver for the Cape portion (Jacques Snyman); and three ridiculously good guides for the Kruger Park portion (Neil Watt, Heyn Neethling and Dirk Neethling).  That's a LOT of people to take on safari--25, not counting drivers, yeeoww! That means three packed safari vehicles and walkie-talkies between guides.  But Rynart Bezuidenhout planned and executed it incredibly well, and it was the trip of a lifetime. 

Leftmost guide: Doug McCulloch. Front row: Dirk Neethling, Neil Watt, Rynart Bezuidenhout, JZ, Raymond Van Buskirk, Heyn Neethling. Refraining from naming subscribers because some might prefer I not. Taken on Oct. 11, 2019, at Skukuza Camp, Kruger National Park, South Africa.

I was asked to write the trip up (in short form, which for Zick works out to almost 4,000 words) for the Bird Watcher's Digest Reader Rendezvous web page. I was glad to do this, because otherwise it could have just faded into memory, and this was a trip to remember forever. So I'll be relying on my trip report, painstakingly reconstructed, and embroidering where I feel like it, because blogging is embroidered writing. Illuminated, freeform. Like the birds and plants of Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is traditionally where weary travelers arriving in the Cape go, in the peculiar haze of having flown for perhaps 17 hours in one (usually hellish) flight. Kirstenbosch’s psychedelic botanical wonders, spectacular mountain backdrops, and gaily colored birds make for a fever dream when one is sleepless and bone-tired, and a pure delight after a night’s sleep. Endemic Cape sugarbirds and southern double-collared sunbirds were easy to photograph as they clambered among the big proteas. 

Scale is deceptive here. The king protea is the size of a dinnerplate, and the Cape sugarbird is the size of a brown thrasher, with a super-long tail, too. Sugarbirds are adapted to and dependent on the Proteaceae for nectar. Imagine such a huge bird living on nectar! They eat other things, too, but still.

Here's a southern double-collared sunbird. That's what I mean by "fever dream." Sunbirds are the Old World equivalent (sorta) of our hummingbirds, but they're too big and heavy to hover a lot, so they clamber. Still, they feed on nectar and small insects, and there are lots of plants designed (in an evolutionary sense) for their decurved bills.

 Cape white-eye on an I-have-no-idea-what. There's a lot of that going on botanically at Kirstenbosch. I did my best at identifying the plants, and my best wasn't very good.

A spotted eagle owl winked at us from over the rim of a hanging planter as she incubated her eggs. It's that kind of place. Magical.
I thank the gods and the early planners of these gardens that Kirstenbosch exists, educating and enlightening people about the incredible native plants of South Africa. Truly, this country is the cradle of so many fabulous ornamental plants, grown worldwide.
This bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia) is one of them! Who knew it was native to South Africa? Not me...I had thought they were Neotropical. Just goes to show you what you can learn at a botanic garden. I like the way the honeybee  is buzzing it.

Some of the birds were hard to miss, like this Cape francolin, strutting in the sun on a well-groomed lawn. Do click on the photo to enlarge it, and see its elegant tweed herringbone pattern! Click on all of them.

This Egyptian goose was also hard to miss. Unfortunately, I determined he had an injury, which is what made his left wing kind of hang out. But oh, the glory of it, with that neon green patch of secondary feathers! And he'll do just fine here, because he really doesn't need to fly to get what he needs.

But when they do fly, there's a neat central breast spot, as if all the other stuff weren't enough. Egyptian geese (Gyppos, after you've seen a few hundred of them) are extremely common all over South Africa, wherever there's some water to be had. Nice bird to be abundant!

 We had to work a lot harder for the elusive Cape batis. Batises are adorable, quick, cobby little birds who don't let you contemplate them for long. Taxonomically, they're sort of near the bushshrikes. There are many, many shrike-like birds in South Africa.

 Two notoriously skulky and hard-to-see species—forest canary and swee waxbill—foraged calmly at our feet, starting a run of lucky sightings that was to persist throughout this trip.

Forest canary, taking a leap. A pair was finding insects on the brick sidewalk, and schlepping them to their young.

You never see either forest canaries or swee waxbills like this! But we did, we did! and there was so much more delight to come!

and next would be...PENGUINS!! This one carrying a little stick, because that was his schtick.


I went to South Africa in 1998 and spent an afternoon in the Kirstenbosch and three whole days in Kruger. My husband has 3 cousins who grew up in South Africa and in 1998 2 were still living there and gave us the best tour in the world. One cousin's husband was a birder. He presented me with a small Birds of Kruger guidebook and I was able to check off 50 birds there. We also saw the penguins at the Cape and all my friends at home couldn't believe that we saw penguins in Africa. Your photos on Facebook let me relive that visit. Now, with your blog, I can relive it again. We were there the same time of year.

Oh, yes--Africa gets in you! I had been away from my southern Africa connections having left there in 1060. In 2006, I went to visit my daughter who was doing an internship in Accra, Ghana. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I took a deep breath, and said (to myself) "ah... Africa.
Lovely pics--I enjoyed revisiting Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens through your photos.
Don't know if I'll ever make it back, but my memories are long and lovely.

Ahem...make that 1960 (otherwise I am a WHOLE lot older than I realized).

The reason you were on this trip is horrible, but I am very glad that this BWD group had one woman as a leader. That front row rank of men is certainly enhanced by your presence.

Eerily germane thought, @madelynn. Thank you.

Glad you are back here on your blog. I've missed you. I see that you were quite busy. What a lovely trip.

Yay!! You're back! So I can post comments, which I can't on your FB page. This sounds (looks) like a fabulous trip. I am convinced I need to start saving my pennies so I can join you on one of them.

(Better late than never - just catching up on some of your older posts.) Is that Egyptian Goose native to South Africa? I ask because we saw them in Amsterdam years ago. They are among the non-native birds that probably arrived aboard ships and established themselves as residents of the Netherlands.

@LNMP, thanks for reading! Egyptian Geese. Native to central and southern Africa, Egyptian Geese have been present in Europe as an exotic species since at least the 17th Century. Naturalised populations in Germany, the Netherlands and eastern England remained relatively small, but have expanded considerably since the 1980s. Got this off The Google. So yeah, it's native to South Africa (though I suspect from its ubiquity, it may have fairly recently expanded its range there from sub-Saharan Africa). They are ridiculously common and adaptable. Have seen them nesting on rocky sea stacks and in trees in city parks and gardens as well as around the Kruger Park.

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