Punda Maria is the northernmost rest camp in Kruger and is also, perhaps, the most beloved by birders. The camp, established in 1919, was named for the first animal the initial ranger spotted, the zebra. He named it Punda Maria believing that this was the Swahili name for zebra but later found he was mistaken. It was supposed to be Punda Milia. However, he kept the name in honor of his wife, Maria. From a birder’s perspective, Punda has a lot going for it. It is close to the Pafuri region, home to many tropical species that just barely cross the border into South Africa. The camp also has a unique vegetation type, a certain broad-leaved woodland on very sandy soil which also holds many unique species. These two factors combine to make it a birding wonderland.
We left Shingwedzi early and took the tar road north. Our main target was the rare Roan (Hippotragus equinus), an antelope that has been reintroduced to Kruger in the past few years. We did not find the Roan but there was still plenty to look at. There were plenty of African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) bathing and drinking at the waterholes as well as some enormous herds of Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer). On the bird front, we spotted a single male Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus) quartering over the savanna as well as many African Quailfinch (Ortygospiza fuscocrissa) flushing off the road verges. Soon after, we found the bird highlight of the drive in the form of a single Senegal Coucal (Centropus senegalensis). The coucal was sitting at the top of a tree with its back towards us, proudly showing off its completely unbarred rump. A quick stop at Babalala picnic spotted provided a handsome flock of African Green Pigeons (Treron calvus), a species that is accurately named the Papegaaiduif or Parrot Dove in Afrikaans. From Babalala the vegetation began to change. The Mopane thinned and new taller trees species entered the mix. Stierling’s Wren-warblers (Calamonastes stierlingi) called all around and we spotted several Yellow-throated Petronias (Petronia superciliaris) in the tops of trees. We were beginning to enter the broad-leaved woodland surrounding Punda Maria. We did a quick drive around the Mahonie Loop, a gorgeous rolling loop through sandveld savanna. We spotted a couple nice birds including African Pygmy Kingfisher (Ispidina picta) and Jacobin Cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus) but it was mostly quiet.
We arrived at the camp way to early for check in and decided to head straight for the pool. A family of Orange-winged Pytilias (Pytilia afra), a tricky species at the best of times, had moved in to the pool area and had been reliably seen drinking and bathing at a leaky pipe. When we got to the pool, we had a bit of a problem. The area around the pipe was eroded, meaning the water was deep in hole which was unviewable, and the grass was very overgrown. We watched the pipe for a couple minutes before turning our attention to the bushes close to the pool. There we spotted some Blue Waxbills (Uraeginthus angolensis), an Emerald-spotted Wood-dove (Turtur chalcospilos), and half a dozen Red-billed Firefinches (Lagonosticta senegala). Then, a flash of coppery orange contrasting with a barred breast caught our eyes. It flitted away quickly. We walked around the pool and sat across from the bushes and the little waterfall into the pool. At the top of the waterfall, there was a small shallow puddle and within seconds of sitting down, the birds settled back into bathing. The Orange-winged Pytilias, a male and two females, came into the open beautifully. They showed off their distinctive mini orange mask, olive barring, and orange wings (perhaps the least noticeable feature). Once we got our fill of the pytilias, we headed to have lunch at the restaurant before checking in.
Melissa and I had already booked a sunset drive to look for Pennant-winged Nightjar (Caprimulgus vexillarius) but we decided it was probably worth booking an extra one just to be safe. We wanted the best possible chance of seeing our quarry. That gave us a few hours to set up our tent and relax before heading out again. We chose the most isolated campsite, at the base of the koppie and along the fence. As we were setting up, we were often distracted by the phenomenal birds around us. A Bearded Scrub-robin (Cercotrichas quadrivirgata) scratched around in the leaves at the base of the koppie. Icterine (Hippolais icterina) and Willow Warblers (Phylloscopus trochilus) were both feeding in the Silver Clusterleaf trees above us. Red-billed Firefinches and Blue Waxbills fed on seeds on the campsite edges. Far off we could hear the Eastern Nicator (Nicator gularis), a call that sounds like an exploding bulbul. We finished setting up and could not resist chasing the nicator. Every time we thought we were close, we really were not until we walked up the hill and around to the back of the restaurant. We sat down in a small open patch and waited. Within a minute or two, the skulking Eastern Nicator showed himself for a few minutes.
After the nicator, we put together our things and got ready to go on our sunset drive. Luckily, all five on board the vehicle were looking for the same bird. We knew our chances were not great. It was late in the season for the birds. But we decided it was worth a try. Our drive started off fairly slowly as we went along the Mahonie Loop. Luckily it heated up quickly with a gorgeous Leopard (Panthera pardus) (the fourth of the trip) lying at the base of a termite mound near a waterhole. We watched her until she skulked off into the bushes. We continued on and spotted more elephants and buffalo as well as a handsome Wahlberg’s Eagle (Hieraaetus wahlbergi). As the light dimmed, we turned down a no entry road to a dry river bed where we switched off and waited. We waited and waited and waited. However, by the end of the evening, we saw nothing except a flash of what was likely a female Pennant-winged Nightjar. We left a bit disappointed but at least we had a second chance the next day. As a consolation prize on the way home, we spotted tons of Springhares (Pedetes capensis), which our guide called Krugeroos, definitely an accurate name for these bizarre rodents.
The next morning, Melissa and I woke up determined. We wanted to find as many of the northern specials as possible. We were the one of the first cars out of the gate and quickly headed down the road past Klopperfontein Dam. As we passed the dam, Melissa and I noticed something large and tawny striding across the overgrazed patch between the dam and the road. When we looked closer, there was a whole pride of Lions (Panthera leo) walking towards the water. We backed up to the dam pullout and waited as a pride of 16 Lions meandered towards the dam. There was a magnificent male as well as four females and eleven cubs of varying ages. We sat entranced as they drank, slept and played. The photos were wonderful with beautiful reflections in the still water and multiple action shots as the cubs wrestled and pounced on each other. We ended up spending almost an hour completely alone with them before heading north.
Our first stop when we reached the Pafuri region was a spot for Racket-tailed Roller (Coracias spatulatus), the last southern African roller Melissa and I need to see. We arrived in the tall woodland habitat and searched for an hour to no avail. We headed back south, stopping in a few promising spots, but only found a single Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus). So from there, we headed to the Levuvu River bridge to look for Mottled (Telacanthura ussheri) and Bohm’s Spinetails (Neafrapus boehmi) as well as Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus). We spent an hour there and didn’t see any of the three species. Although we did see many Common House-martins (Delichon urbicum) and Little Swifts (Apus affinis) as well as Common (Actitis hypoleucos) and Wood Sandpipers (Tringa glareola). We tried another place for Bohm’s Spinetails and missed them again. From there, we headed to Crook’s Corner, where the borders of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe meet, for a coffee. There our luck changed a little and we picked up some nice species. When we arrived, the first sound we heard was a pair of African Yellow White-eyes (Zosterops senegalensis), foraging in the trees above us. This was followed by another sound an unusual buzzy call that was clearly being made by a group of birds. Melissa and I racked ours brains trying to remember the familiar call. Black-throated Wattle-eye (Platysteira peltata)? Nope. What about one of the cisticolas? Definitely not. And then Melissa came up with the answer. It was a group of Green-capped Eremomelas (Eremomela scotops) which we eventually spotted gleaning insects in a tree. Other nice birds included the inland race of White-fronted Plover (Charadrius marginatus) and several White-crowned Lapwings (Vanellus albiceps) on the river bank.
As we drove back towards the tar road, the temperatures really began to soar. The Meve’s Starlings (Lamprotornis mevesii) were hiding under bushes and all the birds were beginning to go quiet. We decided on one last long shot search for the Three-banded Courser (Rhinoptilus cinctus) before heading home. We did not get the courser (which is no great surprise) and the drive home was generally uneventful. When we arrived back in camp though, we were in for a big surprise. Chacma Baboons (Papio ursinus) had raided our tent! They had unzipped everything, unpacked our bags, and even tried every medicine in our toiletry kits. Luckily they had left everything fairly clean and besides a pack of Strepsils, had gotten nothing to eat. We set about cleaning up and then took a short rest before we headed out on another chase for the pennant-wings.
At 4:30pm, we got back on the game drive vehicle with the same guide and headed back out. We left our cameras due to the seemingly imminent rain and we were not feeling very optimistic. It was very windy, likely due to the high heat that day, and it constantly felt like we were about to be poured on. We spotted a few animals on the way back to the nightjar spot including a Sharpe’s Grysbok (Raphicerus sharpei)and a very sore Cape Buffalo with a snare wound on his leg. When it came to birds, it was silent except for a flock of European Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) hawking insects in the wind. We arrived at nightjar spot again and began the long wait. We waited and waited and waited as it grew steadily darker. Suddenly, a dark shape with rufous wings swooped by and was quickly followed by a striking nightjar with bold black and white wings that were triangular in shape. We had finally found our male Pennant-winged Nightjar but he had no pennants! We decided it was worth waiting as more and more females flew past and our patience eventually paid off. Another male flew by and this time he at least had one of his pennants. Victorious, we headed home for a quick supper and bed!
It was our last full day in the park. We decided to try for the difficult Pafuri species again. We tried for Arnot’s Chat (Myrmecocichla arnotti) at our usual spot again with no luck. Then we tried for Three-banded Courser and Racket-tailed Roller also with not luck. We struck out on both spinetails after spending an hour or two on the bridge. We did however find the ever-elusive Green Sandpiper, a scarcity in southern Africa which was a nice bonus. We headed back towards Crook’s Corner along the winding Levuvhu River, stopping the enjoy a confiding Tropical Boubou (Laniarius major) along the way. Crooks Corner was quiet in the grey, wet conditions but beautiful none the less. There were still a couple African Yellow White-eyes in the big Fever Tree above the get-out point. White-crowned Lapwings were chasing each other and everything else around in the sandy river bank. Tropical and Southern Boubous (Laniarius ferrugineus) called all around us and swarms of Little Swifts flew above. It was as idyllic as ever.
After some discussion and a slow drive back to the picnic site, Melissa and I decided to braai some jaffles (little sealed toasted sandwiches). We started our fire and began prepping our ingredients, only to have some unwanted attention from the local Vervet Monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus). The monkeys were constantly trying to grab bread or anything else they wanted from our table. Melissa held them at bay with a pair of braai tongs. Birdwise, the site was quiet except for a brief sighting of a Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii) in a tree over the river. We enjoyed our lunch and then headed back south, stopping to enjoy a brief African Hawk-eagle (Aquila spilogaster) sighting. The eagle had been trying to lunch on some Crested Guineafowl (Guttera pucherani) but was unsuccessful.
Once again, we decided on the Klopperfontein Loop to get back to camp, and once again, we were glad we did. The pride of Lions was back at the dam as well as a couple Knob-billed Ducks (Sarkidiornis melanotos) and a Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta). When we arrived there were only three Lions, a lioness and her two cubs but after a time, more and more and more Lions emerged from the bushes until the whole pride (minus the male) were there. They greeted each other, cuddling and playing. We even got to witness an almost kill when one of the lionesses chased a young male Impala (Aepyceros melampus)that had strayed to close! We stayed and enjoyed them until we had to leave to make gate close time.
After dinner, we decided to check the hide in camp for any last sightings. We were lucky enough to witness an incredible number of African Elephants coming in to drink. There were at least 30 or 40 individuals ranging from new babies to mature matriarchs. One by one, they lined the banks of the water, drinking and splashing, before disappearing as a herd into the darkness. It was an amazing experience to hear their low rumblings and watch their complex interactions with each other.
Our last morning dawned, clear and sunny. We woke up and began to pack up camp, sad to be leaving. We had one last surprise in the form of a covey of Crested Guineafowl that meandered into our site, picking insects from where our tent had been. We drove out via a sand track to a lookout point. We were lucky enough to find a beautiful African Hoopoe (Upupa africana) as well as a Bearded Woodpecker (Chloropicus namaquus). We headed out of the park, sad to see the trip end but feeling pretty lucky for all the amazing sightings. We will definitely be back as soon as we can but until then we have plenty to look forward in Northern Cape, Western Cape, and Namibia!