Smashing owls in Dullstroom – a Birding Ecotours adventure

Sometimes it’s not only what you DO that matters, but WHO you do it with that makes an experience extra-special. Much like the difference between seeing a bird and ‘smashing’ it (which, in case you’re wondering, is not an action of violent intent but rather a common expression used by these adrenalized young birders once they’ve successfully located a desired species!) “Yeah! We smashed that Cape Eagle Owl!” they would say. And boy did we smash it (but more on that later).

First I’d like to introduce you to the Birding Ecotours guides –  a group of down-to-earth, tremendously passionate feather-fanatics who I was lucky enough to spend a few days with recently. In the process, I rediscovered my love for birds. I would even go so far as to say that it wasn’t necessarily the birds themselves that inspired this, but the birders, who most generously welcomed me (a complete novice) into their very exhilarating world.

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The birders and the novice © Tyrone McKendry

Birding Ecotours was founded by Chris Lotz, a gentle, unassuming man whose adores birds more than anything on Earth (apart from his lovely wife Megan of course). Chris has a doctorate in African sunbirds, and also spent 2 and a half years at the University of Wyoming studying hummingbirds. But this intense research interfered with actual birding time (where Chris is truly happiest) so he founded Birding Ecotours, which has taken him on world-wide birding adventures. His favourite African bird is the Knysna Turaco and Bwindi National Park in Uganda tops his list of birding spots in Africa. Chris also has a gift for growing and mentoring young birders, which is why most of Birding Ecotours’s guides are youngsters, still in their early 20’s. He is certainly a man to look up to.

John Kinghorn is the youngest bird guide (19 years old) and currently mid-way into his Big Birding Year. He’s clocked in an impressive 673 species so far within Southern Africa, which will hopefully be 800 by the end of the year (Holding thumbs for you John!). Read more about him in an interview I did earlier in the year.

Dylan Vasapolli  is 21 years old and there is absolutely no African birdcall that he can’t identify within a matter of seconds. I witnessed this firsthand when the group was out to dinner in Dullstroom. While waiting for our food to arrive, I was assigned to holding the iPhone and switching through a playlist of shuffled bird sounds (as you do). The aim was to see who could guess them first. Dylan was a champion at this.”I’m living my lifelong dream of being a bird guide” he tells me.

Jason Boyce is 24 years old. Apart from being mad about birds, he is fascinated by all kinds of creatures – frogs, butterflies, you name it!  He can often be seen picking up rocks to look for scorpions and snakes. Jason is studying environmental science and, when he isn’t’ birding, he plays guitar in the worship band at his local church.

ecotours peeps

Two other wonderful guides who I met (not pictured above unfortunately) are Errol de Beer and Martin Bernadie. Errol is an experienced birder and grew up on a farm in South Africa’s North West Province where he started birding at an early age. Martin is both a brilliant bird guide and loving Dad to his precious daughter Hayley (who I spent some time with at the Sasol Bird Fair). This lucky little girl is going to grow up to be a birder for sure! (and it seems that South Africa is in need of more female birders). I absolutely adore your little daughter Martin ( you and Carien have a very willing babysitter here! )

The Owling Adventure Begins… oh yeah

The expedition began with us “flocking off” to Dullstroom (as John would put it). Dullstroom is a quaint, farmy town snuggled between peaceful rocky outcrops, golden-yellow grasslands, and dams reflecting autumn. It’s in the Mpumalanga Provence, and only a few hours from Johannesburg. Although the area is one of South Africa’s premier fly fishing destinations, we had our sights set on something else. Something large, taloned, nocturnal, sighted mainly in the crepuscular hours and rather shy… a Cape Eagle Owl. This raptor is known to frequent the rocky crevices and caves on a hilltop close to where we were staying.  

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Cape Eagle Owl, our target bird © Dylan Vasapolli

We set off as if to conquer a snow-topped mountain; with beanies, boots, jackets, scarves and layers of warm clothes. The only thing missing was a donkey to carry all the fancy camera equipment, binoculars and similar contraptions! The sun was just sinking and the chilly evening air mingling with our tangible twitchy excitement. We clambered up a hill to a craggy area with crevices and caves between some of the rocks, a favourite spot or ‘stakeout’ for these owls.

“This is it”, said Chris. “This is where we saw them last time. Let’s settle here… keep an eye out everyone, scan all the grassy areas in case there is one roosting on the ground…” But I was too excited to settle! I asked if  I could go on climbing and “scout’ for the owls. Chris agreed so off I rock- hopped, free and light and utterly delighted to be out and about and part of something so special.

Let me just say now that if you thought birding was a tame pastime reserved only for the elderly couple sipping tea and peering through binoculars from their stoep, you would be much mistaken! While there’s nothing wrong with delighting in the gorgeous garden birds in your own backyard, birding can take you on amazing local or globe-trotting adventures to incredible locations! Often these are places you wouldn’t have otherwise thought to visit, Dullstroom for instance.

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Peaceful Dullstroom © Tyrone McKendry

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© Tyrone McKendry

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© Bush-bound Girl

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Cameras at the ready © Tyrone Brent McKendry

Suddenly, out exploded the owl, flushing it’s great blotchy tawny-brown wings. My heart jumped. Perhaps I should have shouted out to the others below me but it all happened in a flash,and, somewhat startled, I lost my voice. When I found it again, a few seconds later, I called to the others, hoping that they would have seen the owl too.

But none of them had. Oh now I have to find him, I thought to myself. I decided to walk around the top of the hill to where the bird (hopefully) would have landed. My intention was to ‘chase’ him towards the other birders. Meanwhile a few of the guys set out behind me and succeeded in flushing it from the grass. Apparently the owl flew over beautifully, right out in the open for them to see!

Even though it was a BVD (Better view desired) for me, I was at least happy to have had a glimpse of this gorgeous owl, and even happier to have contributed to a sighting for the others. Another tick in my growing life-list!

We came. We searched. We enjoyed. We “smashed”… that pretty much makes for a perfect stint of birding, doesn’t it?

As I made my way down the hill, trying not to trip over rocks in the darkness, my heart was full to the brim. Nobody could see the big smile on my face in the absence of light, but it was most definitely there; a big secret smile in the darkness from the joyful adrenalin of a satisfying day and of making new friends. By now the weather had turned full-on freezing, and, having worked up quite an appetite, we found a cosy local pub for dinner.

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© Tyrone Brent McKendry

Dullstroom is also home to a number of other special birds too, many of which we enjoyed the next day! Here are just a few…

Yellow Breasted Pipit - wow we really had to search for this guy! © Dylan Vasapolli

Yellow Breasted Pipit – wow we really had to search for this guy! © Dylan Vasapolli

Black-winged Lapwing © Dylan Vasapolli

Black-winged Lapwing © Dylan Vasapolli

My personal favourite - Gurneys Sugarbird © Dylan Vasapolli

My personal favourite – Gurneys Sugarbird © Dylan Vasapolli

An Instagram pic of John, Dylan and Jason stalking the Gurney’s Sugarbird, this is serious stuff…for those of you thinking of taking up birding here’s a warning: It is seriously addictive!

© Bush-bound Girl

© Bush-bound Girl

Thank you Chris and Birding Ecotours for treating me to such an incredible weekend! My birding lifelist grew by at least 50 birds while spending time with you. I’m also now the proud owner of an awesome pair of Vortex optics, which I am incredibly excited about!

Cheers to you all! And may there be more adventures to come! 

If you haven’t yet, check out Birding Ecotours’s awesome website and the amazing world-wide birding trips offered, I suggest you do: http://www.birdingecotours.co.za 

You can also chat to the team about local day trips, a great way to begin your adventure into birding!

Email Chris:  info@birdingecotours.co.za 

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Postcards from the Klaserie bush

The Klaserie is one of the lesser-known areas of Greater Kruger. It should perhaps be called  the wilder side of Kruger. It’s remote and just as beautiful. The reserve is made up of 60 000 hectares of privately owned land and shares unfenced borders with the Kruger.

I spent an amazing week at the reserve and stayed in three beautiful places which I would highly recommend (and I’m not being paid to say this!) Each camp I stayed at had something uniquely special about it.

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Moonlight, a lion fight, and a hand to hold

I reached for his hand and squeezed it tightly. He squeezed mine back just as hard – because even brave rangers get scared sometimes and if ever there was a time to feel frightened, it was now…

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My George-of-the-Jungle tree house in Caprivi

Ever since watching George of the Jungle as a kid, I’ve wanted to live in a tree house. Unless you’re scared of heights or of sharing a bed with the odd creepy crawly creature, who wouldn’t want their own cosy tree hideaway? Recently, I spent time at the legendary Ngepi Camp in the Caprivi region of Namibia where I stayed in the tree house of my dreams! Although George didn’t swing by, I (Ursula) had plenty of company, from hippos and little skittering mice, to fish eagles and coppery-tailed coucals…

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Tea at Twala Dam – an Africa on Foot adventure

It was one of those mornings where EVERYTHING was perfect.

And sometimes, when nothing goes wrong, a story can seem boring. But if you’re a bushbaby like me (and especially if you’re desk-bound or in an office somewhere) you’ll know how very important it is to remember and relive such perfect and beautiful moments, it’s what keeps us going! So, here’s my latest…

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Breaking records for the love of birds

John Kinghorn is a birder on a mission! Having matriculated last year, he set aside 2014 as his Big Birding Year, determined to break the record for the youngest person to see 800 bird species within a calendar year in the Southern African sub region. So far, he has ticked off 610 of Southern Africa’s 956 feathered varieties. Perhaps he will even attempt to break the National Record of 826 species of birds recorded in a year!

But for John, it’s not just about ticking birds off a list. “It’s much more important to me that I enjoy my time with each bird, admiring it in all it’s glory, even if Iv’e seen it many times before.” I love this attitude, don’t you? Intrigued by his quest, I decided to interview John and find out exactly what makes this young birder twitch…

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A hippo love story – Karen Paollilo’s brave book

“This was the first time that I fully understood the hippos to be the guardians of the lesser creatures of the river, but it was not to be the last. In only a few short months, and for the years to come, these hippos themselves would need guardians. It seemed I had found my place in the world.”

(Karen Paolillo)

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A sacred ritual in the bush – extract from one of my favourite books

This extract comes from “A Story like the Wind” by Laurens van der Post. It’s set in a remote area bordering the Kalahari Dessert on a farm called Hunters Drift where Francois, an only child, lives with his parents, Lammie and Ouwa.

The story – both beautiful and frightening – is a work of fiction, yet Laurens van der Post (who was born in Africa in 1906) writes with such rich, evocative images that I can’t help feeling he must have experienced much of it himself, including the occasion described in this beautiful passage. Having sat with a Savanna in hand, or dunking a rusk in a cup of tea, watching the sun set over a bushveld scene many times, this is a passage I find too wonderful not to share with you! I hope you enjoy it too…

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Cruising through colourful Katutura

I’m usually not a big fan of bustling through cities, so it came as a surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed a morning of doing just that in Namibia’s capital city, Windhoek.

I was with a great bunch of people (which makes all the difference, doesn’t it?), and together we whizzed around discovering a vibrant blend of old and new – long-standing colonial churches built by early German settlers stand amongst stark modern-day infrastructure. Windhoek is safe to explore on foot, and, if you know where to go, you’re in for a delightful cultural and culinary adventure! My favourite part of the city was (without a doubt) the bright and colourful township of Katutura.

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Saving day – a guest post by Sarah Borchert

My name is Sarah and to the outside world I’m a writer, editor, sub-editor and general wordy person. At home, though, I’m mom to two young daughters – Rebecca, a worldly wise seven year old, and Ruby, a four-year-old sprite with a quicksilver wit and infectious chuckle. They exhaust, amuse, surprise and, more often than I would have dreamed, humble me with their insights into the world. Read more »

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