AFRICAN WATERBIRD COUNT - SINAMATELLA AND ROBINS - HWANGE NATIONAL PARK
by John and Judy Brebner
Sinamatella River in flood below camp. (Stephen & Sue Long)
Is this the same place? Are we in HWANGE?
We couldn’t wait to get back into Hwange National Park after all the good reports we’d been getting about the rainfall and leapt at the chance of doing the January waterfowl count up at Sinamatella and Robins. We were absolutely incredulous at seeing the difference from the last time we were there in October. After all the heartache and stress of the last few months of last year, the park is looking magnificent – none of us had seen the park so beautiful, so lush, green and with water everywhere we looked. It is quite astounding to see how the veld has revived – Nature certainly is a wondrous thing and there was grass where there not normally is any – ever!
We began our trip travelling through to Sinamatella from Main Camp. The roadsides were embroidered with wild flowers and there were clumps of bright flame lilies popping their head above the tall grass. The vehicle had quite a wade through water to get to the Nyamandhlovu platform where the water was almost up to the platform pillars. The little resident herd of wildebeest had several light brown calves afoot and the herds of impala we came across also had a good crop of babies.
On the way through, waterfowl counts were done at Guvelala, Shapi, Danga, Roan, Dwarf Goose and the various water spots at and around Shumba. All the pans were full to bursting with a lot of grass cover around the edges, making it difficult to spot the little waders sometimes. There was quite a storm brewing up as we were approaching Masuma so it was decided that we would carry straight on to Sinamatella as we were uncertain what the road conditions up ahead were like, having been warned at Main Camp that we might just not get through. Despite a few dodgy patches, we had no trouble getting through and, having booked into our accommodation, we watched in fascination as the rain we’d just been in, began sweeping across the vlei below us, eventually sending down a deluge on the camp.
The following morning, having coffee with a view and listening to the birds, a small band of friendly dwarf mongooses foraged past us, pausing in their search for breakfast to stand on their hind legs and give us a good stare with their little beady eyes and noses twitching. As we headed off for the day, we found one of the vleis teeming with white winged widowbirds, the black males sitting atop slender grass stems, fanning their tails and displaying, with flashes of bright yellow as they took off for another stalk. Crossing many of the little streams and rivers, we could see just how much water must have been going over at some stage, judging by the debris caught up in the bushes and amongst the branches of trees. We met up with Stephen and Sue Long at Mandavu to conduct a count there. The dam is full to almost spilling which none of us had ever seen before. Here again, most of the shoreline was grass covered with several little streams still seeping in, their sides covered with tall grass too, which made counting difficult but we did our best at the various accessible spots we could get to. An osprey, two glossy ibis, several yellowbilled storks and two nesting Goliath herons fussing over the placement of nest material while precariously perched atop a little bush, topped the bill here. We then moved on to Masuma. The pan there has been scooped but unfortunately, the job was not completed and when the workers came in, they had to breech the wall in order to get the heavy machinery in and had not repaired it. As the little dam was absolutely full, the water had just begun to flow back through the breech. However, there are plans underway to sand bag it up until it can be fixed properly. The back pan which has developed was also a little lake and a flotilla of fluffy Egyptian goslings with proud mum and dad was making its way across this when we arrived and a lone spoonbill spooning along the far bank. There was a competition on to see who could spot the most water dikkops as they hunkered down in the mounds of mud remaining from the dam scooping. While counting, two saddlebilled storks made an elegant appearance and there was one grey crowned crane sauntering around amongst the waterbuck. Once back in camp, another shower of rain approached and although it didn’t quite get to us, it was quite breathtaking watching it sweeping along.
On Monday we set off for the Robins area and were delighted that Stephen and Sue Long, with their vast experience, agreed to join us for the day again. We didn’t get to see too much at the Deteema Dam picnic site as the grass was too tall but went on to the Mike Edwards picnic site. We were delighted to see the camp in such an orderly condition with the grass all slashed and everything clean. The dam was almost full with quite a puddle behind the wall where a few waterbirds were counted. There were two families of Egyptian geese, both with eight fluffly babies and the prize sighting here was of a black crowned night heron, skulking in the shade of a tree overhanging the water. As it always seems to happen, we moved on to Salt Pan in the heat of the day and were greeted by a young greater flamingo. The pan was fuller than any of us had seen before and not nearly as many birds as in our 2012 count. However, it was still a hectically busy count and the telescope came in handy for the far bank. Apart from the flamingo, we saw three long toed plovers which is a rarity and much discussion ensued as to which pratincoles were which and how many of each – collared and/or black winged!! Definitely both were present. There was a good count of Hottentot teal, a few red billed teal and only two Cape teal. Three giraffe galloped past at one stage, probably disturbed by one or other of us moving around to get a better sighting. With another storm approaching and several places along the road had been fairly sticky coming through, it was decided to return to Sinamatella. At the bottom of the hill, just before climbing up to the camp, we came across a most unusual sighting. We first saw a large, brightly coloured ginger cat with beautiful white markings way out in the bush and then saw that it was with an African wild cat, which was lying down right next to it. As we were watching, both cats got up and skulked off. We could only guess that the ginger had gone feral. As we sat with sundowners, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset, lighting up huge thunderheads with golden and pink light just in front of us. The next morning, after breakfast and packing up, we took a drive along the Salt Springs road and did a little waterbirding there before returning to Bulawayo.
Although we didn’t see many animals all the time we were in the Park, those that we did see, certainly seemed much happier and definitely fatter. It was lovely watching a small breeding herd of elephants, wading through tall green grass up to the top of their legs with the smaller ones almost obscured. The dung beetles were out in full force with their perfectly rounded spheres of dung and we came across several tortoises, some minute fellows, plodding along. There were several large sounders of warthog with varying sizes of piglets and we came across the biggest boar we’ve ever seen with the most exceptionally large tusks. Although we didn’t see any lion, we heard them every morning. There had been reports of sightings near camp as well as several sightings of wild dog. Birding, generally, was excellent.
So……for those of you out there who thought that poor ol’ Hwange would never come right again, get to the Park at the first possible opportunity – its BEAUTIFUL!!!! Just be sure, though, that you have a sturdy vehicle and better still a 4x4!
John and Jenny Brebner