On the Cubango River

Heading east from Ongula, on a surprisingly good road, we stopped for the night at a lodge on the river that forms part of the Namibian/Angolan border. The Rio Cubango rises in Angola’s highlands and heads south-east to form that border for a while, before being joined by the Cuito, another Angolan river, and later becoming the mighty Okavango. It was quite surreal looking across the river into Angola, something that would have been totally out of the question when I was younger and the area was still ravaged by war.

Taranga Safari Lodge is perched right on the edge of the Cubango, with permanently erected tents on platforms high enough to avoid having to worry about hippos or crocs. A floating bar on the river was a good spot for sunset photos with local people moving around on their traditional mokoros and lots of birds to be seen.

The birding was great, in fact. Between the river’s edge and the 11 hectares of bushveld with a self-guided walk and watering hole, there was a lot to find. I added at least nine new species and rediscovered a few that I hadn’t seen for a long time. Of course, I only managed decent images of some but I’m really happy that one of those I did capture was the stunning Violet-backed Starlings (still prefer their old name of Plum-coloured Starling).

Ongula Village Homestead Lodge

After Etosha, our next stop was a more cultural destination. Over 40 years ago, my husband was conscripted into the South African Defence Force and spent a large part of his two years service in the Ovamboland region of what was then South West Africa. This trip gave him the opportunity to revisit this part of Namibia under much more pleasant circumstances. A “memory-lane” drive into the town of Oshakati was followed by a night at Ongula Village Homestead Lodge, where the local community share their traditional way of life while providing some very comfortable accommodation.

Our guide Erik showed us around the homestead (kraal or eumbo), introducing us to the women who spend some part of the day underground (for the cool/damp) making clay pots. He explained the significance of the layout of the different areas of the homestead, and we met another group of women who demonstrated how they grind the mahangu (millet) and crush marula fruit for oil (by hand with wooden implements).

The tour took us past the family’s lands where they grow and harvest their crops, and around the market with its cuca shops (small bars selling homemade beer) and other small stores selling food and clothes. As the sun began to sink, we returned to the homestead to be entertained by the dancing prowess of a group of very colourfully dressed young girls. Dinner was a selection of traditionally prepared dishes, including marathon chicken, bean stew and mahangu porridge, with mopane worms on the side. Some of it was delicious, while other dishes required a bit more intestinal fortitude (I did eat one mopane worm!) A fascinating insight into a traditional way of life that can hopefully hang on in the face of modernisation.

Etosha National Park

Being lucky enough to have more time than usual for our visits to South Africa, we added on a trip to Namibia and Botswana. From Cape Town we flew to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, where we hired a vehicle and headed north to Etosha National Park.  Etosha is dominated by a huge salt pan but has plenty of wildlife in the areas you can access in your vehicle. Our first afternoon travelling from the entrance at Okaukeujo was productive for birds and other animals.

We spent one night at Halali camp and the waterhole at the camp delivered some special sightings, including African Elephants drinking, a Black Rhino and a group of the endemic sub-species of Black-faced Impala.

Halali is a lovely old-fashioned camp with chalets as well as a campsite. It proved a good spot for birding, with a couple of interesting new species added to my list (the Wood-Hoopoe and Hornbill), as well as a few old friends.

On the trip from Halali to Namutoni we had some good elephant sightings (they are so pale, presumably from the dust) and saw quite a bit of other game on the edge of the pan. Conditions were a bit challenging for photography, with bright sun and strong shadows, and the glare from the pan.

Namutoni has changed a bit since I was last there ( a very long time ago) with the accommodation more upmarket (but not in a hugely successful way) and other things, like the old German fort, rather rundown. A drive around Fisher’s Pan was interesting (not the best season for birding, sadly) and we did find a couple of Damara Dik-dik just as we headed back to camp before the evening gate closure.

Being winter, it was quite chilly overnight and we had to waste some time the next morning waiting for the fuel pumps to be able to deliver diesel, so I found a few subjects warming up in the sunshine inside the camp environs. Then farewell to Etosha, until next time (I hope).

Western Cape 2018

Autumn 2018 (in the Southern Hemisphere) saw us in Southern Africa again, beginning our trip in the Western Cape to celebrate my Dad’s 80th birthday with family. We did spend a couple of days in Cape Town, visiting the African Penguin colony at Boulders Beach near Simonstown and walking around Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden on a very windy day (not very good for bird photography) in between catching up with family and friends.

Most of our time in the Western Cape was spent with my parents in Montagu, a small town in the Little Karoo region. I had fun stalking birds in their garden when the weather wasn’t too miserable. The Pepper Tree (Schinus molle – not a native tree) had lots of little red berries so was very popular, as was the Liquidamber in the front garden. I got to practice my identifications, with both Common Fiscal (aka Fiscal Shrike) and Fiscal Flyatcher making an appearance, and a cute but elusive Fairy Flycatcher playing hide and seek in a large tree.

I did do a bit of exploring around town – the lei-water dam and the Nature Garden were good spots, and I found a Gymnogene (African Harrier-Hawk) in a palm tree in the primary school grounds (not easy to get a good angle though). There were lots of Red-winged Starlings around and I was happy to get one in flight, showing where their name comes from.

FNQ – Tablelands and Cairns

Nothing like some stunning birds distracting one from having breakfast and packing up – these beautiful Olive-backed Sunbirds were having a great time feeding right next to our van.

As we couldn’t go further north in our hired campervan (or we could have but wouldn’t have been covered by any insurance), we decided to head back up to the Atherton Tablelands. After winding up another steep escarpment, we stopped at Kingfisher Lodge near Julatten, a wonderful birder’s paradise where you can either stay over or just visit for the day. We spent a few blissful (but also frustrating) hours wandering around, seeing some awesome birds (and butterflies) but getting a little tired of the low light and dense vegetation which makes rainforest photography so tricky.

We stopped a couple more times at some places that were recommended for birding – Abbatoir Swamp was not hugely scenic but quite productive; Mareeba Wetlands was mostly disappointing as apparently all the good birds had left in the prelude to Cyclone Debbie a few weeks earlier (and further south). The landscape in this area is very interesting with large anthills nested in amongst what reminded me strongly of an African savanna.

We then headed south to stay overnight at Lake Eacham, one of the stunning crater lakes (which possibly houses a freshwater crocodile). This is an awesome area to explore – fascinating forests with huge fig trees, lots of birds and other wildlife, plus delicious tea and scones at Lake Barrine! A highlight was a quick trip to Mount Hyipamee National Park where we saw an Amethystine Python in a tree (not too close, the downside of which is that I don’t have a decent image as I left my camera in the car and only had my phone).

Another slightly scary trip back down the escarpment saw us back in Cairns for a night with friends before heading home. Luckily they live close to the Botanical Gardens and Centenary Lakes so we managed to squeeze in a bit more birding and butterfly hunting.

FNQ 2 – Port Douglas and Daintree Village

A subtle sunset and a lovely meal on a tropical veranda in Port Douglas ended a great day – although I later realised that maybe I was a bit too close to the water’s edge when taking the image above, having forgotten about the crocodiles. Oops!

The following morning saw us up bright and early for a boat trip to the Low Isles, an easily accessible part of the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately the weather was not kind – very choppy seas and gloomy skies are not much good for visibility when snorkelling. We did enjoy the morning trip but it wasn’t exactly a highlight.

Next stop was the quaint Daintree Village, where we camped at the Daintree Riverview Park. While Sarah napped off the effects of getting up so early, I went for walk around the village and found a few interesting birds along the way. The light wasn’t the best but at least I didn’t get myself and my camera wet.

We had another early start the next day but a much more worthwhile one – a highly recommended cruise on the awesome Daintree River with Ian”Sauce” Worcester. Being a quiet time of the year, we had the boat to ourselves which made it even more special. A few more ‘lifers’ were seen, with the most exciting being Papuan Frogmouths and a Great-billed Heron.

Far North Queensland

This time last year I was lucky enough to spend a week in Far North Queensland, exploring the Cairns area with my daughter. I’ve always wanted to visit this area, largely because of the interesting birds that can be found there. The first day started well, with a new species (White-breasted Woodswallows) before I’d even left the airport . Once I had collected the camper van and Sarah had arrived from Sydney, we paid a quick visit to the Cairns Esplanade. Not the best time of day to bird by that stage, but the sun was shining and I managed a few decent images of another new species, a Peaceful Dove.

Then we set off to find our campsite for the first couple of nights. We stayed at the Speewah Conservation Park, a lovely spot near Kuranda. Definitely not recommended for caravans though – the road in is pretty steep in places. The first morning there were lots of birds calling in the rainforest, which got a bit frustrating as they were often really hard to spot. The Brown Cuckoo-doves were friendly and I got to know their call quite quickly. I do find birding in completely new places can be challenging if the vegetation is dense, as I don’t have any idea what all the calls belong to (Shazam for bird calls would be great).

We decided to stay up on the escarpment for the day and explore some of the waterfalls a bit further south. As you can see below, it was a very overcast (and sometimes wet) day so not the greatest for photographing birds. We had a fun time though, swimming at the Elinjaa Falls and seeing a good range of new birds, including the strange Pheasant Coucal. I have added the rather poor photo of  a Grey-Headed Robin to show the challenges of birding in the rainforest – no light and so many leaves for the birds to hide behind!

The following day we explored Kuranda and the Barron Gorge area, and then headed for Port Douglas on the coast. Sarah was not impressed with the beaches we stopped at – we are very spoilt in Western Australia – but we did find Port Douglas very attractive. After waking up to more interesting bird calls (I did spot one of the culprits – the Yellow Oriole), a visit to Mossman Gorge was in order. On the shuttle bus into the gorge, some tour guides were talking about an unusual sighting – and although we had gone for the self-guided option, we were lucky to be in the right place when they were pointing out the very cryptic Northern Leaf-tailed Gecko to their clients. We waited for everyone to move on and had a good look – I don’t how someone spotted it on the lichen covered tree trunk.

That was 2017, part 2

We got back to the cold and wet in early July. While we were checking up on the Bridgetown house, I was lucky enough to see a Restless Flycatcher on the back patio – such a beautiful bird.  July also saw a mad dash to Canberra for my daughter’s graduation, sadly without my camera. Back in Perth, I did get to Herdsman Lake a few times as the house we are renting is not far away.

In August I flew to Adelaide for the awards night for the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year competition. I was super excited to find out my “Windblown Egret” was the winner of the Animal Portrait category, at a great evening where I met many amazing nature photographers in person. It was a surreal experience seeing my image on banners in front of and inside the South Australian Museum.

After the awards I was lucky enough to have a day or two to explore the region, seeing the stunning little Diamond Firetails and some other great birds.

Perth had plenty of of rain this winter and Herdsman Lake has been lovely and full, providing many photo opportunities in spring.

School holidays in October gave me a bit of time to get out and capture more birds doing their reproductive thing, from Tree Martins collecting nesting material in Bridgetown to Moorhen chicks at Herdsman.

Going through all my images has made me realise I found time to take photographs – what I struggled with was time to sort and process the images. In November, I was out of action for a few weeks when I was in hospital and recovering; on my first outing with my camera I did feel lots of sympathy for this poor Willie Wagtail who had lost all its tail feathers, possibly in defending its nest from a family of Australian Ravens.

2017 finished in a lovely relaxed fashion, spending some time at our house in Bridgetown, enjoying all the birds who visit the bird baths and sprinklers, and watching a pair of Tree Martins very busily feeding their chicks who were somewhere in our roof space. Two of the Tree Martins fledged the day before we left; so adorable.

Thank you for reading. I’m really hoping to get a few more blog posts out in 2018, so you don’t have to wait until this time next year. In the meantime, wishing all my followers a wonderful year.

That was 2017, part 1

Way back at the beginning of January 2017 I was planning to be diligent about posting on my blog this year, envisioning at least one post a month. That idea fell by the wayside rather quickly. In my defence, we have had a bit of a crazy year, what with selling our house, moving, travelling and so on. I did manage to squeeze in a fair amount of photography along the way so have decided to share some highlights of 2017.

In January I spent a lovely morning watching the Fairy Tern colony at Rous Head, where these endangered birds raise their chicks on a small patch of fenced off land in the middle of Fremantle’s busy port (see here for more information).

We spent many weekends during 2017 in Bridgetown, working on our new house,  particularly the landscaping. In February I practised some macro photography on subjects found while gardening and moving soil. March was not a great month for photography as we decided to sell our Perth house and I spent most of my time painting, cleaning and de-cluttering. One thing I did manage was experimenting with taking bird’s-eye-view images of leaves and insects floating on the surface of the pool (probably when I was supposed to be keeping it clean). I was very happy with how an image of bleached bougainvillea flowers turned out (called “Floating Trio”). It has done well in a couple of competitions, netting a Silver Award with a score of 87 in the Revealing Nature category of the 2017 Better Photography competition.

Our Perth house sold in April, which was a great relief. I was lucky to get a week off from the chaos, visiting Far North Queensland with my daughter. We hired a campervan and explored the area near Cairns, managing to make it to the Daintree, one of my bucket list destinations. Although it wasn’t the ideal time of year for birding we saw heaps of interesting things, including a couple of very special birds on an amazing boat cruise with Ian “Sauce” Worcester on the Daintree River.

May was a mad rush of packing and moving, with some stuff going to Bridgetown and some to a rental in Perth. We did get a bit of time to enjoy autumn down south.

Once the moving was all done, we set off in our camper trailer for a long-awaited month of long-service leave, travelling north from Perth all the way to Broome and back (about 2400 km each way). We saw some amazing landscapes, met interesting people and saw lots of birds and other animals.

Highlights included some amazing station stays at Wooleen Station, in the Gascoyne, Hamelin Bay Station near Shark Bay, Quobba Station north of Carnarvon, Bullara Station on the way to Exmouth and Pardoo Station on the northern coast. In Broome we stayed at the awesome Broome Bird Observatory and on our way back south we detoured to Millstream-Chichester National Park in the Pilbara.

 

 

 

Carnaby’s chicks on campus

Carnaby's dad feeding his chick
Carnaby’s dad feeding his chick

Carnaby’s Cockatoos are endangered parrots endemic to the south-west of Western Australia, usually seen around Perth from late summer through to winter, when they move inland to breed. So it was a big surprise last summer when observant students discovered two pairs of these iconic birds breeding on a local university campus. As mentioned in this article, this is the first record of Carnaby’s breeding in Perth since European settlement.
As part of ongoing monitoring of Carnaby’s Cockatoos by conservation agencies, both chicks were extracted from their hollows, weighed, measured and banded on one leg with special stainless steel bands bearing unique identifying numbers. The university students set up camera traps facing the hollows to record the parents’ comings and goings and hopefully the timing of the chicks fledging. I was very lucky to be able to take some photos as part of the monitoring. The first chick, known as Chappie, was in a hollow that was difficult to see clearly, particularly in the evening. The parents come in to feed the chicks quite late in the day, when the light is very low on the horizon.

Ronnie’s hollow was in a much better spot and I was able to get some lovely images of him peeking out of his hollow and of his Dad coming in to feed him just before sunset. Anyone familiar with Carnaby’s will know that usually you hear their distinctive call well before you see them; when they are coming in to an active nest they are much more discreet and can suddenly appear as if from nowhere.

It was such a privilege to watch the last few days of Ronnie’s time in his hollow – the parents would call to him and he would think about leaving and then change his mind, and get his wings in a tangle trying to get back in to the hollow. I was expecting that when he fledged he would climb out of the hollow and spend some time on one of the nearby branches before flying away but he didn’t. His parents called to him a few times and he just launched himself out of the hollow over our heads (one of the students was with me) and disappeared over the campus.

Sadly there was no happy ending for Ronnie’s story. A few months later, we found out that he had been found injured on the side of a major road. He was taken to the Perth Zoo but was too badly hurt (probably hit by a car) and had to be euthanised. Car strikes are a major problem for Carnaby’s in urban areas – they often feed on native shrubs planted on roadsides and their tendency to take off low to the ground puts them in harm’s way. Hopefully Chappie will be luckier.