As it was Day 2 of the Pel’s Census, we drove to Crooks’ Corner at sunrise, going through the famous Yellow Fever Tree Forest, spotting a breeding pair of bat hawks along the way.
As we arrived at Crooks’ Corner, which is where the confluence of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu River is and more importantly, the place where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet, we were spied out by a curious pod of hippo, honking at us in irritation. The modus operandum was to be the same as that of the previous day – split up into two teams, and simultaneously comb both banks of the Luvuvhu River for possible roosting and feeding sites, as well as collect feathers for DNA analysis, all the time dodging the thirsty pachyderms and bovines that frequent the river at this dry time of year.
Shortly after starting our expedition, we found a very fresh set of leopard tracks, which were confirmed by the rattling alarm call of a flock of crested guineafowl no more than 30 metres in front. As the riparian vegetation was quite thick, we proceeded with caution and at a snail pace, everyone’s senses running in overdrive, scanning the bushes for a rosette or flick of the white tail tip. We managed to get through without a confrontation, but we were definitely being watched by a master of disguise.
Just as the excitement of this encounter began to settle, the team on the southern bank found fresh droppings and fish scales under a large nyala berry tree, logging the location on their GPS and collecting a few samples.
The walk along the river just got better and better, as this part of the river very rarely saw trail groups and was teeming with general game, boisterous pods of hippo, shady crocs and a plethora of birds, including a world-class sighting of Narina trogon. Through my research, I knew exactly where we would find fishing-owls, keeping it to myself in order to build the experience up as much as possible.
At this time of the day, many African fish-eagles were active along the river, and as the laws of competition and survival dictate, any species that utilises the same food source will fiercely battle any potential competition, so being smaller than a fish-eagle, the Pel’s fishing-owls were all hiding in the thickest parts of the riverine canopy to avoid a confrontation with the grand Haliaeetus vocifer. This provided the perfect opportunity for me to use my ‘eagle eyes’ to spot a heavily camouflaged bird in amongst the thick foliage. The group was wowed when I suddenly stopped and raised my hand, asking for silence. After listening for a moment or two and scratching around at the base of a large Natal mahogany, I pointed up, revealing an adult Pel’s and its fluffy white fledgling. This earned me serious ‘street credit’ with the group!
We reached camp by 14.00 after covering eight kilometres of thick riparian vegetation, uncovering three adult Pel’s, a juvenile, two possible nesting spots and a number of roosting areas. We had two elephant encounters along the walk as well as a sighting of buffalo too – all in all, a pretty productive day in the office.
If you have missed part one of the census, click here.