Kruger Park Birding by Region | Around Punda Maria
Image: Racket-tailed Roller
Set in mixed sandveld woodlands below Thulamila Koppie (not to be confused with Thulamela Heritage Site, which is near Pafuri), Punda Gate has been upgraded to cater for the increase in tourist traffic to the north.
The surrounding woodlands are a mixture of bushwillow and Marula with a bit of Mopane. The White-throated Robin-Chat* and Bearded Scrub-Robin occupy the denser bush. When fruiting in summer, the Ebony Jackal-berries attract African Green-Pigeons and other fruit-eaters. The short drive from the Gate to Punda Camp is best done at dawn or dusk. Stop at the Punda Educational Centre 100m from the Gate.
The area around Punda combines mountainous sandveld with patches of Mopane forest and mixed woodland. The Mopane leaves in the higher rainfall zone of Punda remain green far longer into winter than elsewhere in the north. The string of hills to the north of the camp is exploited by raptors, particularly on hot summer days when the wind blows from the south, providing ideal thermals for birds of prey to get the necessary altitude to soar and hunt in the most energy-efficient manner.
Regularly seen eagles are the resident Martial, Tawny, African Hawk-Eagle, Bateleur and Brown Snake-Eagles, as well as the summer visitors - the Wahlberg's, Steppe and Lesser Spotted Eagles, and the Yellow-billed Kite. An occasional visitor is the Eurasian Hobby. Other common raptors in the Punda area include the African Harrier-Hawk*, Lanner Falcon and African Goshawk.
A speciality here is the Lappet-faced Vulture. According to AC Kemp the densest breeding colony in the Park is in the Umbrella Thorn Acacia trees on the Hlamalala N'washitshumbi flatlands on the basalts east of Punda.
There are often Grey-headed Parrots in the Ebony Jackal-berry trees on the access road to Punda Camp. Northern Kruger is the southernmost limit of their range - this nomad is more common in the tropics from Zimbabwe to the DRC. There are believed to be fewer than 1 000 of these birds south of the Limpopo and most are in the Punda and Pafuri areas. A much more common parrot sighting is the Brown-headed Parrot, which is under threat. Once widespread through southern Africa, it is now confined mostly to Kruger with an estimated population of 2 500 birds in Knob-thorn and Mopane woodland.
Sightings on the access road to Punda may also include the African Cuckoo and the Eurasian Golden Oriole. White-rumped and Little Swifts. In summer, the Red-breasted Swallow, a visitor from further north in Africa, breeds in the culverts on the side of the road.
Where to stay Around Punda Maria
Punda Maria Rest Camp
Punda Maria Camp, on an island of sandveld in a sea of Mopane, is one of Kruger's premier birding camps. Set against a ridge of Wyliespoort quartzite in a line of rolling hills which are the easternmost extension of the Soutspansberg, the camp is an excellent base from which to spot many of the Afro-tropical species not seen elsewhere in South Africa. Punda, which has a diversity of raptors and woodland birds, has the highest rainfall in northern Kruger - an average of 650mm a year. This is apparent in the prevelance of Usnea lichen, known as 'Old Man's Beard' hanging from many of the trees.
The camp retains the quaint authenticity and charm of its origins as the original ranger's post in northern Kruger. It was occupied by the controversial ranger JJ 'Ou Kat' Coetser, who coined the camp's name in honour of his wife Maria who apparently hated the isolation of being quartered there. Punda means zebra in Swahili. Coetser was ignomiously fired after his predilection towards poaching was discovered and he met a brutal end in the Limpopo Valley where he was gored to death by an elephant in the 1920s.
The best way of acclimatising to Punda is to walk the 20-minute Flycatcher Trail. The Southern Black, Ashy, Grey Tit-Flycatchers and African Paradise-Flycatcher are resident all year round in the bush above the camp. The robins to look out for are the Bearded Scrub-Robin and the White-throated Robin-Chat* that call from the thicker bush. The other distinctive calls are those of the Yellow-bellied Greenbul* and Terrestrial Brownbul. It is possible to see the Grey-headed, Orange-breasted and Gorgeous Bush-Shrikes during the walk. Camp staffers have reported seeing up to 13 Crested Guineafowls sheltering in the dense undergrowth.
The other good birding spot in the camp is near the bird bath below the picnic site in front of the rows of chalets. There's a good chance of seeing several waxbills and finches - the Green-winged Pytilia and Cutthroat Finch, Jameson's Firefinch and Blue Waxbill. Other colourful birds at Punda are the Purple-crested Turaco and Violet-backed Starling*. Camp regulars include the Greater Blue-eared Starling, Golden-breasted Bunting, Grey Penduline-Tit and Bearded Woodpecker.
Because of its isolation, habitat diversity and nocturnal quietness, Punda is good for owls. According to Birding SA, there are at least six species whose haunting laments give flavour to the night air. After dark, listen out for the African Barred Owlet, which has a distinctive kroo-kroo-kroo call, while Punda's other owls include the Barn, Verreaux's Eagle-Owl, Spotted Eagle-Owl, African Scops-Owl and Southern Whitefaced Scops-Owls.
There are at least three nightjars in this vicinity - the Fiery-necked, Square-tailed* and Pennant-winged (in summer). The Bat Hawk sometimes appears when bats emerge at twilight from under the eaves of the camp buildings.
Mahonie Loop (S99)
One of the top drives for birding aficionados in Kruger is Mahonie Loop (S99), the 28-km circuit around Punda Maria Camp. This route traverses sandveld at its finest, and is named after the Pod Mahogany favoured by hornbills, which use their large beaks with dexterity to break open the pods for the seeds inside. The dust road loop is best done in the early morning or late afternoon.
Mahonie Loop can be described as broadleafed woodland, with a variety of trees, including Mountain Kirkia, Apple-leaf, Knob-thorn, Red Ivory and Tamboti. Because of the relative infertility of the red, sandy soils, the Punda Maria area does not support high densities of wildlife. However, the vegetation is subtle, complex and engaging - factors that favour a diverse birdlife. The Mahonie Loop Water Holes are hit or miss affairs - look out for Grey-headed Parrots and Narina Trogon in the trees around the Witsand Water Hole.
There is no lush, riverine forest so the consistency of sightings is varied. On the other hand, any sightings along the road are bound to be special. There are a number of rare, regionally specific species that have been regularly recorded, including the Eastern Nicator* and Racket-tailed Roller that inhabit the denser stands of tree Mopane. Look out in the Burkea trees on this drive for Southern Hyliota*.
The best examples of Punda sandveld include the dense woodland around Matukwale Dam on the extreme western part of the loop. The Bat Hawk may be seen on Mahonie Loop as well as the uncommon Ayres's Hawk-Eagle. More likely sightings will be the African Crowned Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle and Bateleur that nest in the vicinity. There has been a long-standing Bateleur nest close to the road on the southern part of Mahonie Loop, about 1.3km from where it joins the main access road to the camp.
Mahonie Loop birds include the Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Thick-billed and African Cuckoos, Mosque Swallow, and Grey-headed Kingfisher. The Loop is one of the best places in South Africa to chalk up the rather rare Pennant-winged Nightjar. This summer visitor from north of the equator is most often active at dawn or dusk.
Chat Versus Trunk Call
There is some concern that Arnot's Chat may become a victim of the overpopulation of elephants in Kruger. Elephant damage to the dense Mopane woodland around Kingfisher Spruit led to a decline in numbers of the localised population of this rare bird. However, the Arnot's Chat population in the thick Mopane forests around Punda Maria do not appear to have been affected by elephants. Arnot's Chat is an easily identifiable black bird with a distinct white crown and shoulder patches. It is often visible hopping about from the lower branches of the Mopane trees down to the road to catch insects.
Punda Maria to Dzundzwini Hill (H13-1)
The Punda Gate Road (H13-1) goes through some of the finest stands of Mopane forest in Kruger and skirts the mixed woodlands between the turn-off to the camp and Dzundzwini Hill. The H13-1 is one of the best roads in Kruger from which to see Arnot's Chat (see chat versus trunk call above). Bennett's Woodpecker is very active in the dense stands of tree Mopane and mixed woodland.
Dzundzwini Hill (600m) stands high above the sandveld some 15km from Punda near the main Shingwedzi-Pafuri road (H1-8). The rocky slopes are alive with a multitude of plant species in contrast to the monotony of the surrounding mopaneveld.
There is a reasonable lookout point on Dzundzwini that has good views over the shrub Mopane flatlands to the east. But the real pleasure of this road is the S58 loop which winds through mixed woodland past the original picket set up by 'Ou Kat' Coetser when he was appointed ranger to the north in 1919. The site is marked by a plaque beneath a Sausage-tree at the foot of Dzundzwini hill. AC Kemp regularly encountered the Amur Falcon in this vicinity.
The tar road (H1-7) between Dzundzwini and Babalala is quite lively because of the numerous vleis in the palm savanna of the Shisha watercourse. According to Birding SA, the pockets of wetland north of Babalala Picnic Site at Shisha West, Mawawi and Dokweni are prime spots for rarer Kruger species such as the Black Coucal, African Crake, Croaking Cisticola and Rufous-winged Cisticola.