Monday, July 24, 2006

Day 1, Part 2: Dlinza to Bonamanzi

Monday, July 24, 2006
This white-eared barbet was the trip's first really cooperative bird in good light.

After hitting the road from Eshowe, we headed to a nearby suburban neighborhood where palm-nut vultures were reported to be nesting. This smallish black-and-white vulture is a localized rarity in KwaZulu-Natal, so our guides thought it was worth seeking. I had been fortunate enough to see two PNVs in 2002 on my trip with Peter Lawson. We did not find the vultures, but the along the road through the neighborhood, we got into our first really good digiscoping of the trip.

Everyone had their camera and optical gear out and working. And it was a frenzy of see a bird, ID it with binocs, grab the scope, try to find the bird in the scope, focus as finely as possible, get out the camera, turn it on, put it on the eyepiece of the scope, zoom to get rid of the vignetting, check the LCD screen to see if the bird was there, press the shutter halfway for the camera's auto-focus, make sure the bird was within the focus area, snap an image.

Needless to say, things can go awry while all this is happening. The bird might fly, you might not be able to find the bird in the scope in time, the camera batteries could be dead, the scope might get jostled off target, the camera could focus on a stick or leaf instead of on the bird, your camera settings might be wrong, and once again, the bird may move, fly, or simply stay in a spot where only Superman's laservision could get a sufficiently sharp focus.

I love the challenge of digiscoping. When it works, it's a huge rush. You feel as though you've managed to make a lovely, sharp, professional-looking image with some very basic tools--not the normal high-end gear associated with such images.

I'm planning a entire post about my digiscoping gear in the near future. And I'll likely follow that one up with a post on some of the lessons I learned on this digiscoping trip in South Africa.

The late-afternoon sun was at our backs and the birds before us, feeding, sunning, and preening in several large trees. Yellow-eyed canaries and scarlet-chested sunbirds moved too fast for most of us to digiscope, so we concentrated on the barbets, an African hoopoe (I got no good shots), and some black-eyed bulbuls. A Cape wagtail let me capture a few blurry images as he sauntered from sun to shade then back again, never stopping his constant motion.

My best blurry Cape wagtail.

I consider myself lucky to have gotten this blurry silhouette shot of a scarlet-chested sunbird.

After just a hour along this birdy road, we saddled up for more driving. Our next stop was along a river, farther northeast up the coast (though we only glimpsed the Indian Ocean briefly). We disembarked and climbed through a barbed-wire fence to walk along the river, scanning the shady edges of the water for the elusive African finfoot. The finfoot is one of nature's weirder birds--half cormorant, half grebe, the finfoot has lobed (not webbed) feet and prefers to skulk along the wooded banks of rivers. We looked and looked--both Kevin and I really wanted to see the finfoot--to no avail. We did manage to add a few more species to the day and trip list, including wire-tailed swallow, thick-billed weaver, and pied kingfisher.

Seeking the elusive finfoot.

This backlit image of a thick-billed weaver is not great, but at least it shows the species' thick bill.

Seeing the thick-billed weaver reminded me of my friend back in Ohio (and a regular BOTB reader) named Bill Weaver. He is anything but thick, however. Howdy Wilderness Bill!

Then there was the girl I knew growing up in Pella, Iowa, whose name was--I kid you not--Ann Hinga. But I am getting too far afield....

After the finfootless stop along the river (watch for crocs, fellas!) we headed toward the town of Matubatuba. Our sole destination? A strip mall that featured a Kentucky Fried Chicken. We needed a quick lunch, and hunger being already with us, we did not argue.

Now I have not been in a KFC for several years, and this was not your mama's KFC. The pictures of the meals looked the same, but they had names like Streetwise Chow and Streetwise Maincourse. Interesting to see how American fast-food culture had morphed to be more appealing to South Africans.

There was a backlit panel promotion KFC's connection with the new Superman movie. The panel was mounted backwards but it did not seem to hurt the promotion's effectiveness. The place was hopping.
The strip mall in Matubatuba. Hands full? Carry the 20lb bag of rice home on your head!

Would the Colonel know what Streetwise Chow is?

!oreh ym si namrepuS

The traditional (and mighty comfy-looking) method for carrying an infant in Zululand.

We ate our lunches as we lurched down the road in our combi, seeing a few birds here and there, but mostly trying to make time to get to Bonamanzi Game Park, listed in our itinerary as one of South Africa's best birding locations. I was pleased because we would be staying in Bonamanzi for three nights which meant a more relaxing pace and that would be better for digiscoping.

We stopped at a campground near a wetland lake (called a pan in SA, specifically Thaluzihleka Pan) where we picked up a few additional species including African jacana and Cape cormorant, but darkness was winning out over the day. I realized that I had yet to call home to let Julie and the family know I'd made it safely. Plus it was Phoebe's tenth birthday today, and at 5 pm local time in SA, it would be 11 am in Ohio--perfect for a call. Christian offered his international cellphone--it had no minutes left. The payphone at the main building did not take credit cards. Christian asked everyone to hand over their Rand coins so we could try to make the call. My fellow travelers obliged and moments later I got to hear, from half a world away, Phoebe scream "DADDY!!!" when I greeted her with "Happy Birthday from Africa, Phoebe!"

It was the undisputed highlight of my day. And after talking with Jules, Phoebe, and Liam, I felt great. I told my tripmates the first round was on me when we got to Bonamanzi (and it was--two bottles of excellent South African Merlot). We drank a toast to the birthday girl.

Toasting Phoebe on her 10th birthday. Photo by our waiter,

In winter in South Africa, it gets light at about 6:30 am and the light is excellent for digiscoping (and even "normal" photography) until about noon. Then it is harsh and bright for an hour or so, and then the buttery light of late afternoon settles in and remains good until just before dark (at 5:30 pm). As we got closer to Bonamanzi, it became clear that we would not get there during daylight, so most of our group drifted off to Snoozland. The road into Bonamanzi was so bouncy and washboard-like, that we all instinctively grabbed our optics and held them on our laps to avoid any damage from vibration. We would traverse this stretch of road at least six more times in the next few days.

Christian shone his spotlight into the dark woods as we drove, spotlighting impala, a red duiker (a tiny deerlike creature), and then we came to a sudden stop--a nightjar was in the road. Everyone piled out in a hurry, but there was no need. The bird, eventually ID'd as a fiery-necked nightjar, sat politely for 15 minutes while we took our images. It was tough finding out which settings worked best for artificially lit nighttime birds. But I got a few keepers.

Fiery-necked nightjar.

At the entrance to the lodge grounds, Bonamanzi's manager/hostess Grace greeted us warmly. They had held dinner late for us, so we were to meet back at the bar and diningroom in 15 minutes. Bar? Food? Oh yes, please. But shower first...

As we walked to our rondovals (circular Zulu traditional buildings with thatched roofing), impala slowly walked out of our way.

We ended the day toasting our new birds with bottles of Windhoek Lager from Namibia, standing around a raging bonfire, our bellies full of good food, our heads swirling with the images from the day just past.

These are impala, not aliens.

BT3 warming by the bonfire. It felt good in the chilly night air. Photo by Kevin McGowan.


On July 24, 2006 at 2:29 PM Anonymous said...


I hope you do post your digi scoping gear and share what you were taught in Africa. I do some digiscoping with my Nikon Coolpix 4500 and a old Kowa TSN2 scope. I have a lot to learn yet. I keep my camera on the macro setting and shoot thru a 30x eyepiece. I think I could get better results with a 20 eye piece.

Also I was looking at the KFC photo and saw the prices of the meals at the KFC!!!! YIKES the average meal costs anywhere from $13-20 per meal?

I love reading your adventure in Africa.

Mike H.

On July 24, 2006 at 2:44 PM Rondeau Ric said...

It's like reading a National Geographic only more personal.
More please.

On July 24, 2006 at 5:37 PM Anonymous said...

I love the list of African birds' names from your travel tales...even the Colonel's chicken. Look forward to the continuing recounting of the trip, most folks vacation pictures aren't half as interesting to look at.
Caroline in SD

On July 25, 2006 at 12:54 AM LauraHinNJ said...

That nightjar pic is awesome!

On July 25, 2006 at 8:11 AM Jeff Gyr said...

Streetwise chow? Gotta love it! No wait, that's Popeye's chicken the commercials tell me I gotta love.

Anyhow, seeing how other cultures, even commercial cultures, appropriate English is definitely one of the pleasures of travel.

Loved the nightjar pic and the Phoebe story.


On July 25, 2006 at 12:47 PM Patrick Belardo said...

Great write-ups! Can't wait to hear more and see more pics. I second Laura - the nightjar rules.

How was the Namibian lager?