Day 2 (Friday, 29th April)
The early morning call to the room came at 5:20, leaving plenty of time for juice on the restaurant veranda before our morning safari. Of the five groups jumping into the Land Rovers, 3 were destined for a Rhino track on foot, which was the choice I plumped for. Sat at the rear of the jeep, the plan was for the ranger and tracker (perched on the bonnet at the front) to drive and look for fresh Rhino tracks. As we drove around the tracks through the reserve, not only did we not pick up Rhino tracks, which included one false alarm reported by another vehicle, but many of the birds were tantalisingly calling out of view. This included Red-fronted Tinkerbird, with its characteristic repeated bubbly barbet call being heard regularly, but unfortunately not seen. After about ¾ of an hour, the tracker found some fresh tracks which looked promising, which led into the surrounding forest. It was impressive that they could not only tell that they were Rhino tracks, but also that there were two animals, one of which was a sub adult. After receiving thorough instructions concerning how to proceed, we progressed snake like through the forest. We were warned of a possible two hour long trek in front of us, and so were amazed when we stumbled on a Rhino, fortunately with its back to us, and only about 30 metres distant, within the thick bush. This wasn’t at all what I expected, having pictured a long march through open grassland and bushes to spot a Rhino in the distance. This was all the more exciting, yet quite unnerving, when such a large and potentially dangerous creature was only a short charge away from us. We feasted briefly on this apparently smaller sub adult for a short time, before carefully retracing our steps, and then attempting to circle around with the wind in the right direction for better and safer views. While the guides were deciding on the best strategy, a couple of Red-fronted Tinkerbirds started calling and showing well close by. After a nervy 20 minutes or so trying to circle around the Rhino, the guides decided it had become too risky, due to the thickening foliage, so we headed back to the Land Rover. More Rhino, and Lion, tracks were found on the way, as well as a close White-browed Scrub-robin.
After a short break, Mike drove the Land Rover round to a spot further on next to a water hole, leaving us to walk the few hundred metres through the bush to it. There were some excellent birding opportunities here - a much longed for Batis came in the form of male Chinspot, while trying to get a better look at a Fork-tailed Drongo. After watching a dung beetle moving its prized meal, near to the water hole (which was surprisingly quiet), we were served coffee. A short look around and a little patience led to White-throated Robin-chat. The bush was easily located by its constant calling, which included a mimicking of other birds, but finding it took some time, since it was skulking deep in the bush. Returning again to the group next to the water hole, Dusky Flycatcher was found in a tree previously occupied by a Red-eyed Dove and Glossy Starling. To the rear of the water hole, on the muddy margins, a pair of Three-banded Plovers was located on the shoreline.
On the return to the lodge, Mike was very helpful in stopping to look at any interesting birds. Not only were these the obvious, such as White-backed Vultures, and a superb Bateleur straight over our heads, but we also saw small parties of passerines, including Rattling Cisticola, which was mainly identified on call, Southern Black Tit, Green Woodhoopoe, and plenty of Dark-capped Bulbuls.
Back at the lodge, a female Collared Sunbird was seen in front of the restaurant deck – this was the only bird seen well from here around breakfast time. However, it did follow a pair of Bearded Scrub-robins which I stalked in the undergrowth on approaching the restaurant. It was fairly quiet by now and almost midday, yet on the short walk from the restaurant to the accommodation suite, a small party of birds was seen, feeding through the trees. These included 2-3 Terrestrial Bulbuls, Puffback Shrike, Yellow-breasted Apalis, and female Blue-mantled Flycatcher. Despite the heat of the day now at its maximum, it certainly showed potential for further birding within the slightly cooler shade of the forest.
The afternoon was spent on a leisurely walk around the tracks that cross the grounds of the Forest Lodge, and on larger vehicular tracks just outside of the boundaries. The earlier location of the small party of passerines was now quiet, and I wondered if I had been lucky to stumble on the only party passing through. However, a little further on, in the corner where the Bearded Scrub-robins had been found, a pair of Red-capped Robin-chats had now replaced them, and this turned out to be a regular spot for them throughout the day. It was also at this point that the video camera decided to die – bad timing with not only posing Red-capped Robin-chats, but also equally obliging Blue-mantled Flycatchers and Terrestrial Bulbuls. However, after returning the camera to the room, I ambled around carrying only binoculars and basic digital camera. Just outside of the Forest Lodge boundary were a few Square-tailed Drongos and Puffback Shrikes. On the other side of the road, under the watchful eye of a Vervet Monkey, a stunning little Green-backed Cameroptera was steadily hunting around in a single dense thicket. It came out and showed well at times, behaving a lot like a European Wren, in shape as well as behaviour. On the walk back past reception, I stumbled across a family of Collared Sunbirds feeding fledged young. A couple of bulbuls popped into sight here, which proved to be Yellow-bellied Bulbuls. One was pristine with new growths in the tail feathers, the other a ragged affair, with parts of its tail feathers missing and barely off-cream breast.
The evening was spent on a small motor powered boat cruising along one of the nearby rivers. A one hour jeep ride got us there, and it was on this initial journey that we came across a mother and calf White Rhinoceros in the open grassland, surrounded by the open type of savannah that thoughts of Africa usually provoke. It allowed us to get quite close, and on approach about half a dozen Red-billed Oxpeckers on the back of one of the animals could be seen. A party of Black Saw-wings flew overhead. A small water hole was passed a little further on, with the expected pair of Egyptian Geese rubbing feathers with a couple of African Pied Wagtails. Another, marsh-fringed, water hole held African Jacana and a small family of Little Grebes.
The boats included a bar along with the beautiful and rewarding views of the river, and we chugged our way slowly along, stopping off whenever something interesting was spotted. Amongst the birdlife was a perched and very confiding Anhinga, joined by African Pied Wagtail. Perched overhead was Pied Kingfisher. Along the edges of the river were birds such as Purple Swamphen, Wattled Plover, and Striated Heron. One of the most impressive sights of the whole stay was towards the apex of the journey, where a large herd of Giraffe, accompanied by Zebra and Impala, suddenly started to run for some reason – their motion is like a dinosaur running through water. Hadeda Ibis were constantly overhead, but pride of place on the river was taken by the mammals, with 3 huge Hippos just sharing their snouts and profiles with us. They are reputed to leave the water to graze just after dusk.