Road Block

After the recent cold and rainy weather in the Mossel Bay area, I was glad when the weather brightened this past week, allowing me the opportunity to get out for some bird atlasing. I headed west of Mossel Bay to an area I had targeted over the weekend and found myself on a gravel country road, quiet and with no other traffic, so I wasn’t expecting to encounter a road block ……

I don’t mind admitting it left me feeling a bit sheepish ……

Mossel Bay – The Point (Again)

On one of our recent outings to The Point, just 10 minutes away from our Mossel Bay home, we spotted a rainbow forming over the sea in the distance.

I snapped a shot while driving (very slowly) and hastened to find a spot to capture the rainbow before it disappeared. It did not have the full bow of a ‘proper’ rainbow but formed an almost vertical column disappearing into the low clouds hanging over the sea – quite unusual.

Once satisfied with the images I noticed a number of surfers in the sea – not unusual as this is a favourite surf spot, but the light was so perfect for photography that I could not resist trying my hand at some “surf’s up” images.

Further on we found a parking spot to enjoy our tea and watch the passing birds – the Cape Cormorants are regulars at the Point and once again the light was still good enough to capture a couple in flight, on their way to their roost somewhere further up the coast.

Weaver at work (Update)

When we returned to our Mossel Bay home recently we were thrilled to find the Cape Weavers (Ploceus capensis/ Kaapse wewer) hard at work building nests right outside our upper floor living area. They provide endless entertainment with their constant activity, never stopping from dawn to dusk.

The post has been updated to include an image of the chicks being fed – they are growing fast

Male – just starting on the nest
Male – initial nest frame in progress
Male building nest – at an advanced stage
Female feeding two chicks

We are watching their progress with interest….

Honeythorn Tree

Lycium oxycarpum : Honeythorn tree/ Kriedoring / Wolwedoring

During our visit to Mountain Zebra National Park in March this year, we stopped at the main picnic area on the way to one of our drives and were drawn to have a closer look at the striking tree in the middle of the area.

Closer inspection showed just how unique this tree is and the Parks Board had wisely thought to provide a name plate for this impressive example

The tree dominates the middle of the picnic area
The bark has a unique rough texture
Close-up of the bark and the name plate (being gradually engulfed by the looks of it)
The fruit of the Honey-thorn are vivid in colour
The flowers are small and delicately beautiful

All in all a striking example of this tree species, I’m sure you will agree

Twitching a Gull on Sundays

Actually it was on a Wednesday – but all will become clear as you read on…..

Road Trip to Eastern Cape

Our Road Trip from Mossel Bay to the Eastern Cape was into the third day, after spending the first two nights in the Nature’s Valley area, where we explored a few places we had last visited many years ago.

Our next stop was Addo Elephant National Park, half a day’s drive further east, so there was no need to rush, except ……. well, there was the small matter of a possible rarity in the back of my mind …..

Now, some readers may know by now that I am an opportunistic twitcher rather than an obsessive one – if a rare bird is reported at a spot which is within reach of where I happen to be, I will consider making an attempt to see it, as long as it does not entail extensive travel and there is a reasonably good chance of actually finding the rarity.

So what rare bird was in the back of my mind?

Well, for some time before this trip, in fact since the end of November 2020, there had been reports of a Sooty Gull that had been spotted at various places along the eastern coast of South Africa, a species never recorded before in the region, so classified as a “Mega Rarity” by those who are driven by such things.

I had been following its gradual progress southwards with interest, secretly hoping that 1) it would remain in the area long enough until our road trip began and 2) it would settle at a spot which was within ‘twitching distance’ of our planned route to the Eastern Cape. After the initial sighting in Northern Kwazulu Natal, the gull was spotted at Kei Mouth in the Eastern Cape and spent some weeks there.

I became more interested when the bird was spotted at the Sundays River Mouth, east of Port Elizabeth, early in March 2021 and remained there for the couple of weeks prior to our road trip. That was just what I had been hoping for, as I estimated that the detour to its location would fit into our travel plans with time to spare.

Extract from the SA Rare Bird News of 8 March 2021 with a report of the Sooty Gull

Sooty Gull

Now where had this rarity come from? No one can tell for sure but it is thought it had somehow ‘drifted’ far south of its usual territory, which is the Middle East and southwards to Tanzania, Kenya and the northern most reaches of Mozambique. Also known as the Aden Gull or Hemprich’s Gull, it was a couple of thousand kms outside its normal range when first spotted in SA. It is partially migratory, moving southwards after breeding, so perhaps its internal ‘GPS’ went awry and took it much further south than intended.

Being a coastal bird and a scavenger, it is most often found near ports and harbours, inshore islands and the intertidal zone.

The Journey

My journal tells the story ……

We left Nature’s Valley around 11 am with a drive of some 330 kms ahead of us – which took us all of 6 hours as it turned out! A quick stop at the Bread and Brew shop for pies to take to Addo and we were on our way. Initially the N2 National Road proved to be a good road with a broad shoulder, but from halfway it became more challenging with heavier traffic, several of the ubiquitous “Stop and Go’s” (one side of road closed at a time to allow construction work) and many slow heavy vehicles to get past.

The route (in blue) from Mossel Bay to Sundays River Mouth

I had discovered that morning that I had contrived to forget my camera’s battery charger at home and was desperately thinking how to find one for my particular camera in Port Elizabeth (PE) in a short space of time. Fortunately the first camera shop I phoned said they could help, but this meant a long, slow detour deep into the suburbs of PE to the shop. An hour or so and R700 (about $50) later I was the proud owner of a nifty universal battery charger and we set our sights on getting to Colchester, the town near the Sundays River Mouth.

Sundays River Mouth

After confirming the location on Google Maps, I had imagined driving through Colchester to the river mouth on a reasonable road, parking there and finding the Sooty Gull nearby – none of that happened!

We found Colchester some 30 kms east of PE, drove through to where the road to the mouth supposedly began and found ourselves on a road marked ‘Private’ and a locked gate blocking any further progress. I parked and went to enquire at the nearby Pearson Park office where I found a couple who confirmed that we were at the right place and told us “the entrance fee is R100”. It seemed odd that the river mouth had been privatised in this way but there was no time for a discussion and R100 seemed like a good investment for what I imagined to be a guaranteed lifer, so I paid the amount and, clutching the entrance ticket, returned to our car.

The gate opened and we proceeded along the road, initially tarred but soon it became gravel, very corrugated and worn, which had our small but fully loaded car bouncing along while I winced inwardly. The office couple had simply told us to “drive until you see parked cars”, which we did for several kms.

Some distance from the sea we found a parking area in between the low dunes, with two vehicles parked, one of which was about to leave, so I stopped them to enquire if they knew about ‘the bird’. They absolutely did as they were returning from a day’s fishing and they explained how I would find it on the beach “where those fishermen are, see?”. I didn’t want to admit that said fishermen were so far away that I couldn’t see them, thanked them as they drove off and set off myself on foot, munching on a take away chicken burger (there had been no time to stop for lunch), along the sand in the direction they had pointed.

Heading towards the beach
Looking back to where the car was parked, in the distance (my footprints show my progress)

At this stage it was already 3.30 pm and with the last stretch of road to Addo still ahead and of unfamiliar route and distance, I was becoming rather tense. I walked as quickly as the soft sand would allow, quickly seeking out the firmer sand along the edge of the estuary. After some 15 minutes of strenuous walking/ trotting I found myself closer to the beach. I could already see a few gulls pottering about on the sand – through the binos I could make out numbers of Kelp Gulls but of the Sooty Gull there was no sign and my heart sank just a tad.

Then, as I approached the last ridge in the sand before the beach and peered over it I spotted more gulls, one of which had a darker appearance. Lifting the binos to my eyes I let out a shout of “bingo!” or something similar – it was the Sooty Gull!

First glimpse of the Sooty Gull

Relieved, I spent the next 10 minutes slowly approaching and photographing the gull as I went, until I was 10 to 15 metres away and felt that I was close enough, not wanting to spook the bird, which seemed quite accepting of my slow approach, only once lifting into the air for a few seconds before carrying on with its foraging.

When seen with a Kelp Gull, the size and plumage differences are obvious
A closer view shows the red tip to the bill and the dark grey colouring which gave it the name “Sooty”
Sooty Gull, briefly in flight

This is the location where the gull was hanging out

Most satisfied with how things had turned out, I returned as hastily as possible to the parked car and my patient wife, sweating from the exertion but happy about the outcome. The rest of the trip to Addo was uneventful, but slow on the poor, bumpy and narrow roads and we were glad to arrive safely and in time before the gates closed, book in and find our chalet. Accompanied by a typical bush sunset, we could relax and savour a glass of red wine and the new lifer in beautiful surroundings.

What a challenge birding can be sometimes, yet what joy and satisfaction it brings.

How to find out about rarities

Just a footnote on news of Rarities in Southern Africa – for up to date news of rarities I highly recommended that you subscribe (at no cost) to the SA Rare Bird News by simply sending an email to hardaker@mweb.co.za and asking to be added to the subscriber list

Hornbills in Lockdown

Stoepsitter Birding

Sticking with the “stoepsitter” mode of birding as described in my recent post on the ‘Lawn Raiders’ of Verlorenkloof, here’s another version in a somewhat different location – Satara Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park.

(For the benefit of international readers “stoepsitter” is an Afrikaans term that translates roughly as one who spends much time on the stoep or verandah – but you knew that anyway, I’m sure)

It’s a well known fact amongst birders that, when visiting Kruger’s camps, time spent relaxing with binos on the stoep of your accommodation is bound to be rewarded with views of a variety of birds as they go about their daily business, on the grass, in the bushes and in the trees that most of the camps have in abundance.

That’s not to say one shouldn’t spend time getting out and about on game drives, exploring this national treasure of our wildlife, it’s just that when you want to relax in the rest camp, there’s no better place to do so than on the stoep of your rondavel or other accommodation.

Satara Rest Camp

During our December 2020 visit to Kruger, we spent four nights in Satara Rest Camp, one of which was in a fully equipped rondavel close to the perimeter fence, the other three in a more basic rondavel facing onto an expanse of grass with well established trees in close proximity.

This meant there was ample time for some serious stoepsitting, in between forays into the surrounding areas on game and birding drives and to visit the picnic spots for our traditional Kruger brunches (ooh, just typing that makes my mouth water and my nose prickle with the imaginary smell of a tasty brunch braai-ing on the pan).

The first afternoon and morning produced a fair sprinkling of interesting birds, before we changed rondavels, some of which I managed to photograph –

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata / Europese vlieëvanger

A Spotted Flycatcher, a non-breeding Palaearctic migrant, was quietly going about its business on an outer branch with a view over an expanse of lawn, which in some camps has been allowed to grow “wild”, as you will see in the featured image at the top of this post.

Just a note on these “wild” lawns : it was initially jarring to see the lawns in such a wild state, having been used to manicured lawns in the camp for so many years, but I will admit that I now find this quite appropriate to the surroundings, as the contrast between the camp gardens and the natural habitat of the surrounding veld has been reduced – the ‘line has been blurred somewhat’. I like to think this was a conscious decision by the Park authorities.

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata / Europese vlieëvanger), KNP – Satara

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu

Another migrant, the stunning Violet-backed Starling, but this one hasn’t got as far to migrate, being an intra-African migrant from tropical Africa.

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu) (Male), KNP – Satara

And the missus was there, no doubt keeping an eye on handsome hubby to make sure he didn’t attract any competition. One of a number of species with significant, even dramatic, differences in plumage between male and female (known as dimorphism)

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu) (Female), KNP – Satara

Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis / Bosveldvisvanger

The Woodland Kingfisher is also a breeding intra-African migrant, strikingly coloured and always a joy to find. Although they were present in the camp, this photo was taken on one of our drives.

Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis / Bosveldvisvanger), KNP – Satara – Muzandzeni

Moving home

On the second morning we had to move to another rondavel, this time without a kitchen, but we had come prepared with a fold-up table, little gas cooker for the all-important boiled water for our tea and coffee and our picnic hamper that always accompanies our trips to Kruger. The camp has communal kitchens close by for the washing up etc .

Southern Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus rufirostris / Rooibekneushoringvoël

Once settled in to the new accommodation, I continued with stoepsitter birding and soon noticed that one particular bird was almost constantly present on the stretch of grass in front of the rondavel. It was a Red-billed Hornbill, a common species found throughout Kruger. I assumed it had found a good spot to find the small insects that make up most of its diet and did not pay too much attention to it as it came and went at regular intervals.

Southern Red-billed Hornbill
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Hornbills look ungainly with their huge bills, but they have an admirable ability to find and pick up insects with some precision

Southern Red-billed Hornbill
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

At one stage I kept watching the Hornbill after it had found an insect but not swallowed it, which led me to think it was feeding its young. It flew up to a large tree nearby and settled on the trunk where a branch had probably broken off years earlier as there was a large scar, visible about halfway up the left hand trunk in the image below.

Satara Rest Camp
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

The Hornbill then poked its bill through a small hole in the trunk and that’s when I realised what it was doing.

Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Red-billed Hornbills nest in natural cavities in trees, which the female inspects before selecting one. The entrance is usually just wide enough to allow entry and is then sealed from the inside by the female, using own faeces, leaving just a narrow slit and effectively holding her prisoner during the laying and incubation of the eggs.

Cavity sealed from inside with small hole for feeding

Once eggs are laid, incubation takes up to 25 days, followed by another 16 to 24 days during which the female cares for the young, all the while being fed by the male. Then the female breaks her way out leaving the youngsters in the nest and joins the male in providing food for the chicks, while the youngsters then re-seal the opening until they in turn are ready to take on the world at the ripe old age of around 50 days.

That’s quite a partnership! I felt privileged to have been able to see them in action.

All of this kept the male busy the whole day, but he still found time to go and see his reflection in my car’s window and frustratingly shadow box with what he thought was a possible intruder.

Red-billed Hornbill seeing his reflection

Verlorenkloof – The Lawn Raiders

Birding comes in different forms, sometimes challenging, requiring a dedicated effort, extended travel, perhaps some serious physical exertion, often in the face of less than favourable weather conditions.

However, it’s not always that way – some of the most relaxing and enjoyable birding is to be found in your immediate surroundings, whether at home or a holiday destination.

Which is precisely what we experienced during our recent visit to Verlorenkloof, a country resort that I have written about on a few occasions and one of our all-time favourite places to spend a breakaway week. We were fortunate to be invited by Koos and Rianda to join them in Croft No 3 (shown below) for the last week in May.

Croft No 3
Croft No 3 Verlorenkloof

For those who don’t yet know, Verlorenkloof lies east of Dullstroom, but on the lower side of the escarpment which towers above the fertile valley in which the resort is situated. The red square on the map indicates the position of the pentad which includes Verlorenkloof resort.

The birding at Verlorenkloof is always exceptional, with my personal tally of species recorded in the area, after many visits over the last twelve years, standing at 195, so the expectations were high. These hopes were of course tempered by the knowledge that the last week in May is often a quiet time for birding, with none of the summer migrants present and many of the remaining species not in calling or displaying mode.

Oddly enough, for the first 3 or 4 days of our stay, the area around the Croft was very quiet with far fewer birds than we are used to, but over the last two days of our stay, following some light rain, the scene changed completely. Suddenly all of the usual visitors were there, searching the lawn for edible insects, worms and the like.

I was fascinated by the variety of mostly “ordinary” birds and their antics – each one displaying its own way of “raiding the lawn” and finding a tasty morsel while showing unique character traits and interacting with the other bird species doing more or less the same thing.

So here’s a selection of the Lawn Raiders

Cape Wagtail (Gewone Kwikkie / Motacilla capensis)

The ultimate “I’m not going to bother anyone” bird – demurely pottering about, occasionally finding something to its taste then carrying on as if it was nothing special

Red-winged Starling (Rooivlerkspreeu / Onychognathus morio)

Enter the Darth Vader of the bird world – the menacing, glaring Red-winged Starling….. and they work in gangs, daring others to get in their way, descending en masse to grass level and prodding aggressively at the grass in search of a victim. But only after perching on the railing post in intimidating fashion.

The gang takes over ….

Common Fiscal (Fiskaallaksman / Lanius collaris)

Watching from a side tree, the Common Fiscal, aka Jacky Hangman aka the Butcherbird – what a reputation this small bird has, all because of its habit of impaling prey on a thorn or barbed wire! Its elegant appearance, as if dressed in formal attire, seems to project just the opposite impression.

Interestingly the Fiscal was quite composed, until the Fork-tailed Drongo arrived, when it flew from its perch and chased the Drongo until it retired to a far-off tree.

Striped Pipit (Gestreepte koester / Anthus lineiventris)

Another of the more timid birds, almost ever-present on the lawn, pottering about without bothering any of the others. But a bit of a celebrity nevertheless, being rated “uncommon to locally common” by Roberts – a regular at certain times at Verlorenkloof, but by no means guaranteed.

Familiar Chat (Gewone spekvreter / Cercemola familiaris)

Familiar is the right name for this well-known species. Another bird that is present from dawn to dusk around the Croft, watching from its favourite post and “diving” down to catch its tiny prey in the matted grass, with each return to its perch marked by three wing-flicks. I wondered how a bird with such tiny eyes can spot its prey at up to 5 metres or more, pouncing on it unerringly and returning to its post to devour it.

Cape Rock Thrush (Kaapse kliplyster / Monticella rupestris)

Bringing some class to the scene (did I mention I also originate from the Cape?) the Cape Rock Thrush has a way of dominating with its handsome looks and determined approach – they are not around constantly, but “pop in” from time to time, watching carefully from the roof edge or stone wall before pouncing on an unsuspecting prey.

And this is called hitting the jackpot

African Dusky Flycatcher (Donkervlieevanger / muscicapa adusta)

Now here’s everyone’s favourite bit player – demure, quiet, unobtrusive (for a moment I thought I was describing myself), spending much of the day perched in the shade on a thin twig, flying down to the grass to catch some small prey.

Dark-capped Bulbul (Swartoogtiptol / Pycnonotus tricolor)

The Bulbuls lie somewhere between the extremes shown by other species – not aggressive but certainly determined and not hesitating to pounce on prey before the competition gets to it

Black-collared Barbet (Rooikophoutkapper / Lybius torquatus)

A somewhat unexpected visitor, trying its luck along with the regulars. Despite its bright colours, this is a bird more familiar due to its call, a far-carrying duet, than its appearance. It did not stay long but seemed to be drawn to the lawn by all the other bird activity.

Fork-tailed Drongo (Mikstertbyvanger / Dicrurus adsimillis)

Making just a single appearance, the Drongo had to put up with being chased by the Fiscal and ended up viewing the action from a distant tree, before flying in for a quick lawn raid then disappearing.

African Hoopoe (Hoephoep / Upupa Africana)

A real loner, the Hoopoe patrolled the quiet edges of the lawn, well out of the way of other species, head down and prodding with its long bill all the way.

Black-headed Oriole (Swartkopwieliewaal / Oriolus larvatus)

The Oriole just sat for a while on a branch with a view of the lawn, didn’t seem to want to get involved and flew off again.

Millions of Birds

Let me start by saying : “I saw millions of birds this past weekend” – now I know what you’re thinking ….. just a bit of harmless hyperbole on my part, not unusual in these attention-seeking times. But what if I really did see millions of birds? What kind of bird gathers in those sort of numbers?

There is only one possible answer to that question and that is – the Quelea, or to be more precise in this case, the Red-billed Quelea.

Some background to this latest exceptional birding experience –

We were travelling back to Pretoria after a long stay in Mossel Bay and arrived in Hoopstad, Free State for our second overnight stop, primarily to pay a short visit to Gerda’s family. It was just after 3 pm when we arrived in the small town, the centre of the farming community in that part of the Free State. Piet and Marietjie kindly accommodated us and Piet invited me to join him on a quick trip to their farm some way out of town.

The farm lies on the southern side of the Vaal river, which forms one of its boundaries, and is a well-stocked game farm with a variety of game in a bushveld setting to rival the best that Southern Africa can offer, so for a lover of nature such as myself it is always a special treat to visit this piece of paradise, albeit briefly.

Annasrust farm, Hoopstad
Nyala, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

The day was waning as we approached the farm and our progress along the dirt road was punctuated by flocks of Queleas rising up out of the roadside grass at regular intervals, each flock numbering a couple of thousand at a guess. Piet remarked that he had seen many more flocks of larger size that same morning, so we were on the lookout for more Queleas, without realising what we would experience a bit later.

We did a quick tour of the farm, marveling at the numbers of game, ranging from Antelope to Zebra, with the standout animals for me being the incomparable Sable Antelope with their dark brown bodies and graceful, curved horns. (The photo below is from one of my Chobe trips as I did not have my camera with me)

Sable Antelope (Chobe Game Reserve)

After a brief stop at the farm house, occupied for the week by a group of hunters, we headed back to the main road, but hadn’t gone far when Piet pointed out what looked like a distant cloud of smoke stretching across the horizon. He stopped and we got out to have a better look and realised immediately that this was not smoke of course, but a huge flock of Queleas, visible against the rapidly darkening skyline, moving like a giant serpent across the horizon.

Queleas across the horizon

For the next ten to fifteen minutes – I didn’t time it so it could have been longer – the enormous flock grew in length and made its way to some distant, unknown roosting spot, probably along the river. There is no way of beginning to estimate numbers of birds in a flock of this magnitude, suffice to say “millions” is not an exaggeration.

At one stage the flock moved in an elongated tube-like formation directly over our heads and as we gazed up the sound of several thousand small wings filled the silence with an eerie soft humming, like nothing I had heard before.

As it was rapidly getting darker, we left the farm and headed back to Hoopstad, mulling over the impact that birds in these numbers could have on the area, which is one of the prime maize and wheat-producing areas in our country. Piet mentioned that some farmers had already decided not to plant their usual winter crops due to the risk of the crops being devastated by the Queleas.

Suddenly I realised that birds are not always to be regarded as “Threatened” by human behaviour but can also be “Threatening” to some of our food sources – a sobering thought.

Roberts VII Birds of Southern Africa has the following to say about Red-billed Queleas under Population and Demography :

  • Perhaps the most abundant bird on earth
  • The major pest of cereal crops in Africa
  • Population estimate post-breeding is 1 500 billion (so about 200 Queleas for every person on earth!)
  • Most abundant bird in Kruger National Park at 33.5 million
  • More than 100 million birds killed annually in control operations in South Africa – methods used are aerial spraying and explosions at roosts (but the latter is not favoured as other species get killed in the process)
  • Prey of Peregrine and Lanner Falcons
  • Drinking birds taken by predators including pelomedusid turtles (!), crocodiles, Marabou Storks and Striated Herons

All in all, this is an interesting bird, often for the wrong reasons. Despite this I always enjoy seeing them in small numbers as they are quite variable in appearance, some drab, others colourful.

Here are a few photos of those I have come across while atlasing –

Red-billed (Quelea quelea / Rooibekkwelea), Balmoral north
Red-billed Queleas, Calitzdorp area
Red-billed Queleas, Satara-Nwanetsi (Kruger National Park)
Queleas, Mkhombo Dam

A Crane Safari

Onverwacht Farm

During our September 2020 visit to the farm of Pieter and Anlia, described in my previous post, the opportunity arose for a very unique birding experience, all thanks to Pieter’s efforts in setting it up.

Pieter had arranged with friend Trevor, retired professional hunter and nature expert of note, to pick him up from a nearby farm so that he could guide us to a bird sanctuary on a farm south-west of Vryheid – Trevor had already given the outing a name – “Crane Safari” which was an obvious hint of what we were likely to see but not of the exceptional numbers we would encounter.

Firstly though, there were various urgent farm matters to attend to – amongst them, counting the cattle to make sure none had been ‘appropriated’ overnight, checking fences for signs of any further ‘recycling’ operations and taking the bakkie to town for some repairs to the suspension (damaged during a fruitless hunt for fence ‘recyclers’ who had struck during the night and removed a few hundred metres of fencing) – such is the existence of a farmer in these parts.

Pentad 2745_3035

We picked up Trevor, who I had met before several years ago, drove to Vryheid and then proceeded along the R33 towards Dundee for about 15 kms before turning off onto farm roads and arrived at the farm around 1.30pm. Trevor knows many of the farmers in the area and had arranged access to the farm and bird sanctuary.

From then on, for the next two hours, the birding was hectic as Trevor and Pieter spotted birds in quick succession while I tried to record them on the Birdlasser app and verify the ID.

We drove along the earth wall of the first dam, which was filled with hundreds of waterfowl, including a group of White-backed Ducks (new record for the pentad) and others of Greater Flamingos, Southern Pochards and Cape Shovelers (which I like to call “Sloppy Ducks” based on their Afrikaans name of Slopeende).

White-backed Duck (Thalassornis leuconotus / Witrugeend)
Cape Shoveler (Anas smithii / Kaapse Slopeend)

Several Black-winged Stilts patrolled the dam fringes and Trevor called an African Marsh Harrier which was flying low over the grassy verges.

Moving on, the large vlei lower down came into view and at the same time a huge flock of perhaps 150 Grey Crowned Cranes rose up in unison, creating a birding spectacle that few people can have witnessed. The flock circled the vlei then settled for a while, but as soon as our vehicle edged closer they rose as one again, repeating the spectacle over and over.

Grey Crowned Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid

I would guess that most experienced birders have seen a pair or perhaps a small group of Grey Crowned Cranes at some time, but to see such a large flock of this endangered species is truly remarkable.

Grey Crowned Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid
Grey Crowned Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid

Once we were closer to the vlei, with the Crowned Cranes now settled on the opposite side, we could see a few Glossy Ibises along the fringe and a superior looking Goliath Heron right in the middle. Shortly after, a lone Squacco Heron flew in and a Purple Heron rose up out of the reeds to complete the trio of “scarcer Herons”.

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus / Glansibis)
Vlei, Crane Safari near Vryheid

Between the dam and the vlei, lush grassland was good for Cape Longclaw, Spike-heeled and Red-capped Larks and African Stonechat.

Cape Longclaw (Macronyx capensis / Oranjekeelkalkoentjie)
Spike-heeled Lark (Chersomanes albofasciata/ Vlaktelewerik) – showing its main identifying features of short white-tipped tail and long slightly curved bill

Soon it was time for a lunch break – sandwiches of home made bread and last night’s leg of lamb leftovers along with coffee which went down a treat in the cold windy conditions. The lee side of the bakkie provided some shelter from the wind but we didn’t dawdle and were soon on our way again.

While we were enjoying lunch, a flock of Blue Cranes, some 100 strong, flew over the vlei and settled briefly before moving on – so we had seen large numbers of both of the Crane species found in these parts – mission accomplished, thanks to Trevor!

Later, we found a small group of Blue Cranes in a field, this time close enough for some photos …..

Blue Crane, Crane Safari near Vryheid
Blue Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid
Blue Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid

At the last dam before leaving this incredible birding spot, we saw a few waders at the water’s edge and approached carefully so as to get close enough to identify these sometimes difficult species. Fortunately they were all species that I have got to know well and I was able to record Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper (New record for the pentad), Little Stint and Kittlitz’s Plover – a real bonus after such a variety of waterfowl.

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax / Kemphaan), near Vryheid
Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea / Krombekstrandloper), near Vryheid

I hadn’t planned to do a “Full Protocol” (FP) card for the pentad in which the dams and vleis fell, but as it turned out the last bird recorded on the way out – a Southern Masked Weaver at a small stream – was precisely two hours after the first bird and I was more than happy to submit my list as FP (which requires a minimum two hours of survey time in a pentad).

Back at the ranch – well, the farmstead where Trevor and Collette live – we sipped warming Milo while Trevor pointed out a few of the garden species including Paradise Flycatcher and a flock of Olive Pigeons that swooped by.

It had been a memorable day’s birding and I was very pleased to have been able to complete a Full Protocol Atlas card. I recorded 40 species in the two hours, the seventh card for the pentad, and added two new species

Atlasing – September 2020 : Onverwacht, Vryheid

I haven’t posted about my bird atlasing travels for a while so now I’m …..

Catching up on the monthly look at where Atlasing took me in September 2020 ….. in this case to the farm of Pieter and Anlia, part of Gerda’s wide family and one of our favourite places to visit and enjoy traditional farm hospitality –

Onverwacht Farm – 26 to 30 September 2020

Getting there

We had been back in Gauteng for three weeks after an extended stay in Mossel Bay and with lockdown eased to Level 1 our thoughts, as they are wont to do, turned to travel. With a long weekend coming up, it was the ideal time to pay a visit to Pieter and Anlia on Onverwacht Farm, not far from Vryheid in central Kwazulu-Natal.

We had done most of the preparatory packing the day before, so were up at a reasonable hour and left mid-morning, travelling via Witbank, Hendrina, Ermelo and Piet Retief with tea and lunch breaks taken at the roadside, our ‘new normal’ way of doing longish road trips.

The drive was made somewhat taxing by the combination of many slow, large lorries encountered, the poor condition of the roads once we turned off the N4 and the depressing state of some of the towns along the way. However, our spirits were lifted when we reached the farm, saw the braai fire being prepared and the friendly greetings of the family.

The Pentad

I was not expecting to atlas outside the pentad in which the farm lies, but thanks to Pieter there was an opportunity to visit an adjoining pentad on a “Crane Safari” which turned into an exciting atlasing trip of its own. More about that in a follow-up post….

Pentad 2740_3035

My atlasing on the farm was spread over the four days of our stay, but was limited to short bouts of birding in between all of the other activities.

Saturday, late afternoon

On arrival and after settling in, I got the pentad list going with the birds on and around the dam, which lies a couple of hundred metres down the gentle slope in front of the house – all the usual suspects such as Cattle Egret, Egyptian Goose, Yellow-billed Duck, Coots and White-breasted Cormorant.

Onverwacht farm Vryheid
Yellow-billed Duck

Pieter pointed out a couple of large birds on a distant grassy slope and with my binos I could verify their ID – Grey Crowned Crane – a quite magnificent and stunning bird that I never tire of seeing and one of the specials of the area.

Grey Crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum / Mahem), Onverwacht farm Vryheid

The warm weather was rapidly dissipating in the face of a cold front that had arrived, so the braai fire was a warming spot to spend the last of the day, still on the lookout for new species. A chorus of cackling calls announced the presence of Green Woodhoopoes (Not recorded in the pentad before) in the tall pine trees next to the house and we soon saw them in the fading light, moving among the branches in a loose group of 6 or more.

Pleased with this new species for the pentad, I then heard the whoo – hooo of a Spotted Eagle-Owl (33%) and down at the dam a group of 3 Wattled Lapwings (22%) flew in and settled near the water in the fading light

Spotted Eagle-Owl
Sunday

The day was cold – even more so than the forecast 10 deg C due to the icy wind, so my birding was limited to a couple of short sorties into the large garden and surrounding farmstead, the wind chasing me back to the warmth of the house after 15 to 20 minutes.

Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Highlights were Southern Bald Ibis at the dam edge, Black Sawwings (44%) swooping by in their shiny black plumage with long forked tail streaming behind, Bronze Mannikins and Pied Starlings perched in trees and on poles.

Bronze Mannikin (Lonchura cucullata)

By day’s end my pentad total was a modest 31 without having ventured beyond the garden and surrounds.

Onverwacht farm Vryheid
Monday

Monday was devoted to the “Crane Safari” in an adjoining pentad, which I will cover in a separate post as it was such a special birding experience, but in the evening I heard the unmistakable, eerie call of a Barn Owl somewhere near the house.

Tuesday

And the surprises kept coming! Despite all sorts of challenges that Pieter had to attend to – stolen fencing and a broken torsion bar on the bakkie (utility vehicle) which left it standing at a crazy angle – Pieter still had time to arrange for son Janneman to take me to a nearby kloof on the farm, where he had seen signs of Bald Ibis breeding.

After another farm breakfast (my favourite ‘krummelpap’ again – a sort of crumbed porridge unique to SA) Jan and I set off on a birding tour of the farm, with our first stop some way up the lower slopes of the mountain escarpment that looms over the farm. There we clambered through a fence, then walked along a sloping ridge to a point where we could get a view of the krans (cliff face).

It didn’t take long to spot a Bald Ibis on a nest set back in the horizontal split in the rock face. A small waterfall trickled water down the face and Kiepersols, Aloes and other natural growth completed the handsome picture.

Bald Ibis breeding spot, Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Bald Ibis breeding spot, Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Nearby a Sombre Greenbul called and an African Olive Pigeon (not recorded in the pentad before) showed itself among the green tops of the trees. However the show of the day belonged to Bald Ibises and White-necked Ravens (also a new record for the pentad) chasing each other aerially, the Ravens seeming to harass the Ibises for unknown reasons until they retreated to the depths of the rock crevices.

The rest of the farm tour provided several other sightings of Rufous-naped Lark (33%), Buff-streaked Chat (55%), Yellow-fronted Canary and a pleasing Giant Kingfisher (22%) to round off my atlasing efforts for the visit.

My total species recorded in the pentad during the visit stood at 46 with 4 new species added to the pentad list and my total species after 6 cards completed over several years was now 132

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%

Adventurous Birding, Atlasing and Travel