Bhutan 2017 – The Kingdom of Happiness

As interesting as the birds are the history, culture and current life in Bhutan.  The country is landlocked, bordered by Tibet to the north and the remainder by India.

First, History:  Many of the Dzongs and Temples built in prior centuries retain their beauty and their importance for the cultural identification of Bhutan with its Buddhist roots.  They are stunning architectural gems that combine governance and spirituality.  We especially enjoyed our morning at Punakha Dzong with one of our local Bhutanese guides, who was very knowledgeable of the history and religious art and artifacts which adorn the premises.

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Prayer Wheel



Prayer flags are flying everywhere



and large pictures of the king and queen are very prominent.



Culture:  Our impression of the people of Bhutan is that many of the people are artists who have a deep appreciation of nature and beauty; not so much, science and engineering.  Many homes, even in the remote and humble villages, are decorated attractively and speak of the pride of the occupants.   Much of the ancient forest is preserved and wild life thrives.



Our Bhutanese guide told us that all children attend free public education through 10th grade.  At that point a test is given to determine who will continue for two more years.  Here is a young boy walking to school.



Archery is the national sport.  The targets are small and at a long distance away.



The physical aspects of the country lend to its preservation.  Mountainous it is, and to a degree that cannot be appreciated until you have gone into the high, rural areas, where the road (singular is appropriate) is difficult and dangerous.  We were blessed with a very skilled driver and we were most appreciative of his good judgment, caution and constant good humor.  Guides are certainly important, but we came to the conclusion that a good driver is absolutely essential.  We had one.

On many days in the mountains we experienced low-hanging clouds.



Current Life:  City life (Paro, Thimpu, some others), bustles, but with infrastructure in need of work and no traffic lights.



Rural life is primitive.

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Witness the method of cultivation of the fields.

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Bhutan is viewed as a model for proactive conservation initiatives.  The Kingdom has received international acclaim for its commitment to the maintenance of its biodiversity.

The government aims to promote conservation as part of its plan to target Gross National Happiness.  It currently has net zero greenhouse gas emissions because the small amount of pollution it creates is absorbed by the forests that cover most of the country.



Bhutan Birds — April, 2017 — Part 5

Let’s start with the Barbets.  A few years ago, all Barbets were just Barbets.  Recently, however, they were divided up into 3 families:  Asian, African and South American.  The 3 species of Asian Barbet we found in Bhutan were colorful and vocal.  Here they are:

Golden-Throated Barbet



Great Barbet



Blue-throated Barbet



Eurasian Jays have a huge range, so it was no surprise that we found some in Bhutan.



Scarlet Minivets, (only the males are scarlet, the females are bright yellow) represented one of several very similar Minivet species seen.



Rufous Sibias were common and vocal all day long.



Birds with blue were frequently encountered.  Here are a couple of the prettiest:

Blue-fronted Redstart



Blue-capped Rock Thrush



Birds were not the only animate objects of attraction.  Along the way we saw Capped Langurs, many more Golden Langur Monkeys,



Macaques (both Assamese and Rhesus), Barking Deer,



Yellow-throated Martens, Otters and 4 species of Squirrel, including this impressive Giant Pied Squirrel



This is not a trip for wimps.  We survived 7 nights in tents in the mountains several of them quite cold, and a lot of long, hard drives.  But for the service of our guides and the crew that made our meals, erected our tents and tended to our comfort, it would not have been doable.  Birding was mostly from the road.  Physically, we were not put to a hard test.  Most of the walking was either flat or down-mountain, with only a few gentle up-mountain hikes.  Some of the facilities were marginal.  We highly recommend it.

In my last report, I’ll focus on the history, culture, and current life in Bhutan.


Bhutan Birds — April, 2017 — Part 4

I am particularly fond of the Wood Warblers and Hummingbirds of North and South America.  They are, for the most part, small, quick, colorful and challenging to identify.  In Asia, the Sunbird family fills that niche.

Two beautiful and very similar Sunbird species are Mrs. Gould’s Sunbirds and Green-tailed Sunbirds.  Can you tell which is which?

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(The first one above is Mrs. Gould’s, note the crimson mantle and back.  It is perched on one of the many rhododendron trees which were in full bloom.  The last two are Green-tailed)


Another colorful little bird is a member of the numerous Old World Flycatcher family.  Here is a Pygmy Blue Flycatcher.



More common, and as beautiful in their own right, were the Verditer Flycatchers.



The Ultramarine Flycatchers never seemed to show up in good light, but in good light, they were quite pleasing to the eye.



Many members of the Flycatcher family do not have a claim to pretty colors; they are often quite drab.  That makes identification even more of a challenge.

This Sultan Tit has a just claim to its name.



Whereas the Blood Pheasants won Bird of the Trip award, what might have been a contender were the more difficult to see Silver-eared Mesias.



The next installment of the Bhutan birds seen on our recent trip will feature a mixture of the more interesting birds that cooperated with the in-house photographer, and that do not clearly fit in the “big bird” or “very small bird” categories, but represent a cross-section.  Also included will be a few of the animals we saw.

Bhutan Birds — April, 2017 —- Part 3

One of the rarest species in the world is the White-bellied Heron.  It has been a few years since any of these have been seen on the Vent tour, but this year, with help from others in the Bird Guide fraternity, we found one feeding along the river not far from our campground.  Unfortunately, it was a long way off so the picture of this White-bellied Heron is not especially good, but I include it merely because of the rarity of the bird.



Hornbills, those amazing creatures, were fairly common.  The most numerous were the Rufous-necked Hornbills.  Odd looking and fun to see.

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Common around our campground were Great Hornbills, but not quite as approachable as the Rufous-necked Hornbills.

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This installment seems to focus on some of the large birds, so let’s continue with that theme.

This Himalayan Griffon appeared to be ill or injured in some way, although it did fly away.



When I published my pheasant blog, I overlooked a photo of a Kalij Pheasant so here it is now.    Not as colorful as the other pheasants seen on this trip.



Yellow-billed Blue Magpies were numerous.



Pin-tailed Green Pigeons enjoyed the fruits of one of the early fruiting mountain trees.  


The next Bhutan installment will feature a few of the more colorful small birds, including some stunning Sunbirds and an even more stunning Silver-eared Mesia.

Bhutan Bird Families – April 2017

One of the reasons we chose to go to Bhutan on a birding tour was that there are a few families of birds that can be found there that I had never seen.  These were: Ibisbill, Honeyguide, Cupwings (Wren-Babblers), and Fairy Bluebirds.   The Tour Company’s checklist from prior trips to the area included the possibility of finding at least one species in each of those.  We struck out on the Fairy Bluebird, but succeeded with the other three.

The first bird we saw after arriving at the Paro Airport was an Ibisbill.  This distinctly marked wader was easily observed along the rocky riverside near the Paro Airport.


There are over 15 or more species of Honeyguide, mostly in Africa, but with one or two in Bhutan.  We succeeded in finding at least 2 of these interesting honey fans.  Here is one of the Yellow-rumped Honeyguides that gave us some good views in what is apparently a frequently used perch near some cliff-dwelling bees.


The Cupwings were a challenge.  We spent quite a few hours on several days trying to spot one of these secretive and elusive little ground dwellers.  Barbara eventually spotted one on the opposite side of the road from where the rest of the group was searching vainly for the source of the song of a Scaly-breasted Cupwing.


A second species of the Cupwing family that has been seen on some prior Bhutan tours is the Pygmy Cupwing, but we neither heard nor saw one of those on this trip.

Woodshrikes and Flycatcher-shrikes of certain species, based on genetic analysis, have been moved into the Vanga family.  Vangas have, until recently, been thought to exist only in the Madagascar area.  We did see both a Large Woodshrike and a Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike.

It is hard to keep up with all the changes going on in the scientific classification of birds.  As genetic studies proliferate, I suspect there will be many more changes.  The most current list of bird families and species is the Clements Checklist Version 2016 published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  It can be found on-line in a downloadable spreadsheet version.

My next installment will feature some of the more spectacular birds we saw, including Hornbills, as well as a distant view of one of the rarest birds on earth, the White-bellied Heron.



Pheasants in Bhutan

On April 6, 2017 Barbara and I left Des Moines as we boarded the first leg of our flight to Delhi, India.  A day or two of rest in Delhi then preceded our flight on April 9 to Paro, Bhutan, with the other 3 participants in the 2017 Victor Emanual Birding Tour of Bhutan.

From the plane we could see the beautiful Himalayan Mountains before landing at the ornate Paro airport.



My prior blogs detailing our birding out of the U.S. usually approached the subject in chronological order.  This time I am going to do it differently.  I have chosen as the first installment to cover the most striking family of birds that we saw in Bhutan, the Pheasants, or Phasianidae. All 40 or so species of this family are native to Asia.  The Chinese Ringneck Pheasant has been introduced as a game bird around the world , and has adapted well.

Let’s start with what our group voted the bird of the trip, Blood Pheasants.  They were plentiful in the high altitudes, i.e. 10,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level.  As is common among the Phasianidae, the males are far more colorful than the hens.  Here are some of the many Blood Pheasant photos Barbara took.

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Behind the Blood Pheasants both in number and in favor among the 5 of us, were the Tragopans and Himalayan Monals (far fewer seen, shy and difficult to photograph).  The Monals are most often found well above 10,000 feet.  While downloading photos from the camera, something happened that erased about 60 photos from that time period, including the ones of the Monals.

It is hard to believe that a bird as beautiful as the Tragopan only rated a second place among the pheasants.  Here are photos of the male and female of this not so shy bird.

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At the lower altitudes we encountered a few Kalij Pheasants, which lack the brilliant coloration of their brethren shown above, but nevertheless are striking birds.

Two other pheasants shown in the Field Guide to the Birds of Bhutan were Grey Peacock Pheasants (quite plain, reportedly common, but not seen by our group) and Blyth’s Tragopan, (rare and not seen by our group).

Stay tuned for the next installment, which will feature the birds I saw which are representatives of families of birds that were new to me in Bhutan.   (There are about 240 families of birds world-wide, with over 10,000 species spread among them.  Some families have several hundred species, others with but one specie).



Namibia Birding-Part 3 —— Etosha National Park and Waterberg Plateau ——- November 9-13

From Toko Lodge we drove to the western gate (the Galton Gate) into Etosha National Park, which, along with the Namib Dunes, is the leading tourist attraction in Namibia.  Most of the western part of the Park is Mopane woodland, interspersed with granite hills and outcrops.  The drought has resulted in severely dry conditions throughout the Park.  Etosha is the largest and most important of Namibia’s conservation areas.  Large game animals and birds are present in good numbers.

There are 3 lodges within the Park, all government run.  The lodges and, in particular the food served at the lodges, were outstanding.  Because of the many wild animals, we were not allowed to get out of our vehicle at any time, unless within the fence at one of the lodge areas.  Moreover, the lodges close their gates at 7:00 p.m. (sundown) and they remain closed until 6:00 a.m, or so (sunrise).  We had to be inside the fence within those hours.  At each of the lodge areas, however, is a lighted water hole which attracts animals that can be viewed at all hours of the day and night.

From Galton Gate, we drove toward Okaukuejo Lodge where we would spend the night.  Among the first animals seen as we moved away from the Gate were Black-faced Impala, a subspecies of Impala found only in Namibia.


The Black-faced Impala were just one of the 8 species of African Antelope we saw at Etosha.  The others were Red Hartebeest, Springbok, Kirk’s Dik-Dik, Oryx, (also known as Gemsbok), Steenbok, Greater Kudu, and Blue Wildebeest.

At the waterholes, we saw Lions, Black-backed Jackals, Elephants, Blue Wildebeests, Springbok, Oryx, and much more.

watering-hole-1 watering-hole-2 watering-hole-springbok

In the category of “life is tough out there”, the Ostrich action shown below involves a female ostrich killing the chicks of a male/female pair in order to get the male to mate with her.


Although the main attraction in the park is the abundant wild game, some new birds were found there as well, including

White-headed Vultures


Tawny Eagle


Double-banded Courser


Temminck’s Courser


Burchell’s Sandgrouse 


Namaqua Doves


After dinner at the Okaukuejo Lodge, we saw our first and only Black Rhinos at the Lodge water hole.  The arrival of the Rhino eased the fears of the 11 giraffes that had appeared, very tentatively, on the horizon and advanced ever so slowly in ghostly formation toward the lighted waterhole until they determined the source of the noise they were picking up was the Rhino and her baby, and not lions.


Giraffe and Kudu


On November 10th (day 8 or our trip) we travelled further east through the park to Halili Camp.  Not much new showed, but toward the end of the day we came upon a small herd of elephants, including a couple of young.


New birds for the day were:



Cinnamon-breasted Buntings


Golden-breasted Buntings


On November 11 (day 9 of the trip) we left Halili Camp to drive toward our evening lodging, Namutoni, the eastern-most camp within the Park.

Today we saw a lot of plains game and several Spotted Hyenas.


The highlight of the day came late in the afternoon when we drove the famous Dik-Dik Drive, where we had great views of cute little Kirk’s Dik-Diks, which weigh around 10 pounds, compared to their largest antelope cousin, the Eland, which weighs nearly 2,000 pounds.


We also saw:

Swainson’s Francolins


Southern Red-billed Hornbills


Grey Go-away Birds


We stopped for a look at the animals at the Klein Namutoni waterhole, where we saw several Spotted Hyena, Black-faced Impala and Elephants.  Steve had to put the pedal to metal to get us back to camp before the gate closed, and we barely made it as the sun set and the gate was coming down.

On the 12th we saw Red-billed Buffalo Weavers, Jacobin Cuckoos and White-bellied Sunbirds before leaving the Lodge ground.  We then left the Park via the east gate and visited the private Mokuti Lodge.  There we saw:

Yellow-breasted Apalis 


Crimson-breasted Shrike


Along the road to Waterberg Plateau we saw many pipits and larks. We were fortunate to find one of my target birds, a Wahlberg’s Eagle, standing guard in a tree near its nest as we approached the Waterberg Plateau.

Klipspringers were common and relatively tame at the Waterberg Plateau Lodge grounds.

We watched the super moon just before sunset from the patio.


As we were finishing dinner one of the staff came to our table excitedly announcing that there was a Cape Porcupine just outside the kitchen window. We quickly left our table to go look, and indeed, there was a very large Porcupine, apparently accustomed to dining on the kitchen waste.  The angle and the lighting were not good enough for a picture.

The next day we took the long drive back to Windhoek Airport with many warthogs nibbling the newly green grass along the highway.

Steve and Louise Braine are good partners in the Batis Birding Safari operation.  I cannot imagine a better qualified guide for anyone seeking to see the birds of Namibia.  Louise manages the arrangements, communicates with clients, and goes above and beyond the call of duty to make clients feel welcome and at home.   We enjoyed our Namibia birding safari, and it was much more than a birding safari.  We enjoyed the variety and closeness of the animals, particularly the 10 Antelope species seen in Namibia, adding to the Eland, Bontebok, Grey Rhebok and Cape Grysbok seen the previous week in the Cape Town, South Africa area.  We also were greatly impressed with the food, accommodations and people of Namibia.  We certainly hope that the rains come soon.

I returned home with my World Bird Species List at approximately 3,060, substantially more than the 3,000 that I had planned on (very conservatively) for the combined South Africa and Namibia trip.

Namibia Birding-Part 2 Swakopmund to Damaraland November 7-8, 2016

On November 7, (day 5 of our tour) we drove from Swakopmund to the beautifully situated Hohenstein Lodge in the Erongo Mountains near Spitzkoppe.

The day yielded several excellent sightings, some along the way and and others near our lodge:

Pearl-spotted Owlet


Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill


Rosy-faced Lovebird


Hartlaub’s Spurfowl


Ruppell’s Parrot


Elephant Shrew (now called Western Rock Sengi)


On the 8th  (day 6 of our tour) we drove from Hohenstein Lodge via the mighty Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain, to the Rustig Lodge, located on private farmland in Damaraland.

Along the way we found, after much effort, a Herero Chat which is near endemic.  We also saw

Violet Woodhoopoe


Bearded Woodpecker 


Lesser Masked Weavers


Northen Black Korhaan


Red-crested Korhaans


Nomoqua Sandgrouse


Along the way we witnessed a case of animal abuse of a team of skinny donkeys being lashed at top speed along the road in the noon-heat.  Also, to our surprise, several women along the way in colorful traditional garb, excluding tops.

One of the most enjoyable episodes of the trip was a night-drive through the farmland around the Lodge.  This night drive yielded good views of a few night birds and several animals that I had hoped, but not expected, to see in Africa:

Aardvarks (2 of them)

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The next morning, November 9th, (day 7 of our tour) we headed for our major destination in Namibia, the huge and game-rich Etosha National Park, where we would spend the next 3 nights.






Namibia Birding (plus mammals) —– November 3-13, 2016 ——— Part 1-November 3, 4, 5 and 6

On November 2 Barbara and I flew from Cape Town to Windhoek, Namibia.  We had arranged a 10-day private tour with Batis Birding Safaris.  Batis is a family operation based in Swakopmund, operated by Steve and Louise Braine and their sons, Dayne and Sean.  Steve was our driver/guide for our entire stay.

We arrived a day early and stayed at River Crossing Lodge between the airport and Windhoek.  From our lodging we saw our first of the 9 antelope species that we saw in Namibia, a Common Duiker, which munched its way slowly past our back deck.  Steve met us at the Lodge for dinner and the next morning we started the tour. We tried to locate the Orange River Francolins that inhabit the hillsides around the lodge, but with no success.  While trying to locate the Francolins, however, we were treated to good looks at a Montiero’s Hornbill.


We followed up with a visit to Windhoek’s Sewage Treatment facilities.  Namibia is in the midst of a 3-year long drought, and as a result many birds flock to any water they can find, even if it is a Sewage plant.  The treatment ponds and environs were loaded with Egyptian Geese, South African Shelducks, South African Shovellers, Southern Pochards, Red-knobbed Coots, Little Grebes, and several species of Cormorants, Herons, Lapwings, Plovers, and Sandpipers.   Southern Red Bishops were present in good numbers, but not yet dressed in the brilliant red plumage that was sported by their brethren that we saw in the Cape Town area.  Wattled Starlings


and White-throated Swallows were present in the hundreds.


Also skulking about the ponds was this Yellow Mongoose.


We then travelled south through the Rehoboth area, for our night’s lodging, the spectacularly sited Villas at Namib Grens.


Rehoboth is the center of the Baster community in Namibia.  Many of the residents are descendants of the Dutch men and African women who settled the area 100s of years ago.

Following a nap to help us survive the afternoon heat, we explored the area and among the birds seen were a Short-toed Rock Thrush


and a Groundscraper Thrush.


Day 2 of the tour found us on the Spreetshoogte Pass on our way to Hoodia Lodge where we spent the night.  Along the road we saw many Sociable Weaver colonial nests, weighing down the host trees.


Also along the way were:

African Hoopooes


Southern Chanting Goshawks


Sociable Weavers


Ruppell’s Korhaans were sheltering from the blazing sun in the only shade available, a road sign.


And our first Klipspringer


Day 3 was scheduled for photography of the Namib Desert dunes near Sossuvlei.  We started very early to catch the sunrise, but the weather did not cooperate.  The skies were cloudy for the first time in a long time.  Nevertheless the photographs of the dunes that Barbara managed to obtain show why these dunes are the number 1 attraction for many tourists to Namibia.  We walked in the dunes, which are of the color and consistency of ground cinnamon.


Dune Larks were the highlight of the morning.  These lovely and entertaining little birds are the only true Namibian endemic species, found only in the Namib Desert.


We left the dunes and travelled on toward Swakopmund.  Along the way we saw Oryx


and, unexpectedly, a beautiful Cheetah, apparently sizing up its intended prey.


Ludwig’s Bustards were relatively plentiful.


We arrived at Swakopmund and our Hotel Pension, our only Namibian double night stay.  Louise joined us for an outstanding dinner at one of the nice Swakopmund restaurants.

Day 4 took us to Walvis Bay Lagoon on the Atlantic Ocean.  Amazing numbers of Lesser and Greater Flamingos populated the waters of the Lagoon.


Many other water birds were seen, of most interest being:

Chestnut Banded Plovers


and White-fronted Plovers


Diminutive Damara Terns flitted along the banks looking for small fish.

We saw a few Gray-headed Gulls.


We left the coast and drove inland to a drier area and there found several Gray’s Larks one of which alerted us to the presence of a Horned Adder curled up at the base of one of the scrawny desert bushes.

We closed the day with another pleasant dinner with Steve and Louise, and retired for the night at Hotel Pension, ready for an early start to Day 5 of our Namibian trip, November 7th.



Cape Town South Africa Birding October 27-November 1, 2016

We engaged Avian Leisure of Simon’s Town, a suburb of Cape Town, for 6 days of birding, mammal viewing and wine tasting in Western Cape Province of South Africa.  Avian Leisure is owned and operated by Patrick and Marie-Louise Cardwell, and Patrick was our driver and guide for the week.  Although Patrick and Louise operate a small B&B, it was full at the time and so they arranged for us to stay at Mariner’s Guest House in Simon’s Town for the first 3 nights.  The 4th night was near the De Hoop Nature Reserve east of Cape Town and the 5th night was at a dairy farm near the Grootvadersbosch Forest area east ot Swellendam.  Our final night was at a hotel near the airport so that we could catch an early morning flight to Windhoek, Namibia for another 11 days of birding and photography.

We were surprised by the number mammals to be seen in the Western Cape.  Among them were Elands, Africa’s largest antelope.


Cape Mountain Zebra is one of the 2 subspecies of Mountain Zebra.   [Mountain Zebra, found only in southwest South Africa and in Namibia, is one of the 3 species of Zebra:  Grevy’s Zebra is confined to northern east-central Africa, Burchell’s Zebra is widespread, and Hartman’s Mountain Zebra is the Mountain subspecies found only in northern Namibia].  We enjoyed the challenge of distinguishing between Burchell’s and the 2 subspecies of Mountain Zebra, so here is a pictorial.  As we saw the Burchell’s and Hartman’s only later in Namibia, this is a bit out of sequence, but it makes for a nice challenge right here.

cape-mountain-zebra burchells-zebra hartmans-zebra

Bontebok are strikingly patterned antelope that once were on the brink of extinction.  Down to about 30 individuals, they were saved by local farmers and are now securely established in several South African preserves.


Other antelope seen in the Western Cape area were Grey Rhebok and Cape Grysbok.

Of course, one of our primary goals was to see the Jackass (African) Penguins, the only penguin species found in Africa.  We need not have worried, as these funny little birds were numerous and tame at Boulder Beach in Simon’s Town and at another coastal area that we stopped at later in the trip. This became our 10th  lifetime penguin species, adding to the 9 that we have seen in the southern part of the western hemisphere.


I have been making a mild effort to see at least one species of each family of birds in the world.  There are about 10,000 species, in about 200 families.  South Africa provided a potential of 4 new families for me:  Sugarbirds, Honeyguides, Buttonquail and Whydahs.  At the wonderful Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town, the Cape Sugarbirds graced the colorful and unique Fynbo vegetation in good numbers, making for a pleasant garden experience.  Kirstenbosch Gardens is a jewel, not to be missed.


Patrick and Marie-Louise invited us to their house in Simon’s Town for tea one morning, and we were delighted to view in their garden a pair of Pin-tailed Whydahs, the second of the four new families sought.


We did not succeed in finding any of the other two families, Honeyguides or Buttonquail.

We enjoyed an afternoon visiting one of the oldest vineyards in South Africa, the Groot Constantia, and tasting several of its wines.  Founded in 1685 by the first governor of Cape Town, an official of the Dutch East India Company, the vineyard has survived changes of ownership and the original mansion is still maintained on the premises.

Among the more colorful new species found during the drives around the countryside were Denham’s Bustards


Blue Cranes


Orange-breasted Sunbirds


Lesser Double-collared Sunbirds


Southern Boubous


Hartlaub’s Gulls


African Black Oystercatchers


Capped Wheatears


Spotted Thick-knee


Spotted Eagle-Owl


Bully Canary




African Paradise Flycatcher




African Black Duck


African Shelduck


Southern Red Bishops


We spent one night at a dairy farm near Grootvadersbosch.  The family maintains a herd of about 500 Jersey milchcows.  They treated us to a lovely home-cooked meal with them in their 200 year old farmhouse.  This was certainly a highlight of our South Africa experience.

Finally, this Cape Cobra made its escape from our wheels as we drove along one of the rural roads.


I started the South Africa trip with a total of 2,934 species of birds on my world List.  I added 92 in South Africa, to break my 3,000 target.

Avian Birding and the Cardwells are a fine choice for anyone seeking a short and pleasant birding experience in the Western Cape.  They include, in addition to birding and animal viewing, other activities and interests and pleasant and interesting companionship.