Sea Fever

I don’t remember when I first heard the poem Sea Fever by John Masefield – it may have been at school, but more likely it was quoted by my mother, who was fond of reading and writing poetry and even had one of her own published in a book of poetry when she was in her 80’s

During our visits to Mossel Bay we often drive down to The Point, at the “sharp” end of the peninsula on which Mossel Bay is located, get a take away coffee at the little kiosk and just sit and watch the sea, the birds and other sea life. Depending on the season, there’s often a whale to be seen far out, usually just a plume, a tail or a part of its back visible, or a few seals in the surf just beyond the rocks, and the wonderful sight of a school of dolphins passing by. Oh, and the people too of course. It’s very therapeutic.

The poem Sea Fever came to mind after our latest visit to The Point – the sky and the sea were in a multitude of shades of white, grey and blue, set against the brown of the rocks and looked particularly moody, so I walked first along the lower pathway then onto the rocks to get a sea level perspective and used my Iphone to take a number of images

Sea Fever – John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Note : The image in the heading of this post was taken from the newish restaurant just below the St Baize Lighthouse with a unique view of The Point

Road Block – Again!

When I go out on an atlasing trip, as I did as usual last week, the whole point of the exercise is to see (or hear) as many birds as possible. I was coming to the end of my survey in a pentad a few kms south of Oudtshoorn, known for its ostrich farming, and was feeling quite relaxed after a successful morning’s atlasing with 64 species recorded in two separate pentads – a reasonable total for late winter in the Klein Karoo

As I rounded a bend in the gravel road, I saw two farm hands in the road ahead of me and they gesticulated in a way that persuaded me to come to an immediate stop. Only then did I see what their concern was, as a third farm hand came down the road towards me, “guiding” a small group of young ostriches. I watched as the three corralled the trotting birds towards an open gate just in front of me and the ostriches followed instructions and headed into the field.

Now I’ve experienced “road blocks” caused by various farm and wild animals, even large birds on occasion, but this was definitely a first, being blocked by a flock of the largest bird in the world, albeit of the tame farmed variety. Such is atlasing – always a surprise!

Australia May 2022 : The Birding – it’s Different! (Part 2)

I started my previous post by saying that the casual, non-birder observer could easily come to the conclusion that Australia’s birds fall into three basic groups –

  • black and white or shades in between
  • vividly coloured birds
  • a variety of smaller, often nondescript birds

The author of The Complete Guide to Australian Birds, George Adams, has this to say in his introduction –

Australia is one of the world’s ten mega-diverse countries and is fortunate to have a rich diversity of birds and an unusually high number of endemic species found across its many, equally diverse and beautiful landscapes. The jabbering of parrots, the laughter of Kookaburras, the song of the Magpie or the trilling warble of Fairy-wrens all bestow a real sense of ‘place’ that is uniquely Australian.


Part 1 described some of the more common “black and white” species, which make up a large proportion of the birds that are found in the area of Victoria where our son has settled. In this Part 2 I will be showing some of the other common birds to be found, in particular ….

The Vividly Coloured Birds

Australia is probably best known for its variety of brightly coloured birds, and rightly so! They seem to occur just about everywhere, especially where their favoured habitat occurs – mostly forests of various kinds, but also anywhere else with trees such as gardens, farmlands, woodlands and the like.

Crimson Rosella Platycercus elegans

Corellas are small, ground-feeding cockatoos but are not averse to foraging in eucalypts for insects, seeds, fruit, nectar and larvae.

This endemic species has several colour forms across its range, which includes eastern and south-eastern Australia. Mostly crimson with blue patches on the cheeks as well as some of the wing and tail feathers, it stands out wherever you find it – in the image below it was scratching amongst a thick layer of fallen leaves and had found an acorn or seed of some kind.

Crimson Rosella Platycercus elegans, Bright Victoria

The immature version shows little crimson, which is replaced by dull green, making it far more difficult to spot

Crimson Rosella Platycercus elegans (Juvenile), Wurruk, Sale Victoria

Australian King Parrot Alisterus scapularis

The only endemic parrot with a red head, this is another standout species – the image shows a female with its somewhat duller colouring, with the red limited to the belly, nevertheless unmistakeable. I had seen King Parrots during our previous visit in 2019, but was not able to photograph one, so this opportunity was not to be missed when it posed briefly on a fence before flying off with the rest of its small group.

Habitat is forests, parks and gardens and its feeding preference is the outer foliage of trees where it looks for fruit, nuts, nectar and blossoms. They are found in eastern Australia.

Australian King Parrot Alisterus scapularis (female), Omeo Victoria

Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus moluccanus

Surely one of the most colourful birds you’ll see anywhere, they are easily spotted as they fly around the neighbourhood in small flocks, screeching as they go, then chattering while feeding in the trees. Lorikeets are arboreal feeders that have brush-like tongues for extracting nectar from flowering eucalypts. Favoured habitats are forests, parks and gardens.

Rainbow Lorikeet, Raymond Island, Victoria

Galah Eolophus roseicapilla

More sedately coloured than those above, the Galah makes up for any lack of bright colouring by gathering in flocks, sometimes large ones as will be seen in some of the images below. The Galah occurs across Australia and is usually a ground feeder, taking seeds, herbs and roots or spilt grain and cereal crops.

Galah, Philip Island (race albiceps occurring in southeast Australia, has a white crest and crown)
Galah’s, Bright Victoria
Galah’s, Bright Victoria
Galah’s foraging on the lawn in Wurruk, Sale

Eastern Rosella Platycercus eximius

This is another species that eluded my attempts to photograph it during our previous visit, so I was particularly pleased to get some decent images during an outing to Raymond Island (more about that outing in a future post). It is confined to the south-eastern parts of Australia where it is regarded as common.

As vividly coloured as the Rainbow Lorikeet above, the white throat and bill of the Eastern Rosella stand out against the bright colours of the rest of the bird. Preferred habitat is open eucalypt woodlands (where I found this one), grasslands, parks, gardens and farmland. A ground feeder of grass and fallen seeds, it is surprisingly well camouflaged when among foliage.

Eastern Rosella Platycercus eximius, Raymond Island Victoria

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo Cacatua galerita

Perhaps I’m pushing my luck including this all white bird under the general description of vividly coloured birds, however it is a spectacular bird that makes its presence known in no uncertain manner with a harsh raucous screech that comes straight out of a horror movie. They move about in small flocks, inhabiting forests, woodland, cultivated lands, parks and gardens and feed mostly on the ground on grass seeds, herbs, berries and fruit.

South Africans of a certain “vintage” will remember this bird well as it featured in adverts for NBS building society

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Wurruk, Sale Victoria

So what’s left? Having covered the “black and white” birds in Part 1 and the “Vividly coloured” birds in this Part 2, there are still a number of other birds to mention under the heading of “the others” – watch this space…

Reference : The Complete Guide to Australian Birds by George Adams

Weaver at work (Again) – Winter 2022

When we returned to our Mossel Bay home recently we were once again thrilled to find the Cape Weavers (Ploceus capensis/ Kaapse wewer) working diligently at building nests right outside our upper floor living area. It was a repeat of the scene of a year ago, which I featured in a post at the time (https://wordpress.com/post/mostlybirding.com/10946)

They are a source of entertainment from dawn to dusk and leave me feeling quite exhausted just watching their frenetic activity as they build one nest after another, hoping to impress the female weaver who “pops in” for an inspection at fairly regular intervals.

We have had up to four male weavers nest-building at a time and currently there are at least two vying for the attention of the female, whose arrival is greeted by a display by the anxious males, who hang below their best nest and display.

The display is nicely described by Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa as follows :

Once nest initiated, male displays at nest by ruffling feathers, shivering partly spread wings, swivelling body and singing. If female enters territory, male displays either hanging below nest or perched alongside; may also pluck leaves from near nest. If female enters nest, male responds with high-intensity wheezing song, either while hanging below nest or during circular display flight. Female apparently tests nest strength by pulling at material inside nest, then, once male leaves nest entrance, sits in nest chamber looking out of entrance; chases off male if he approaches at this stage

The images I took of one of the males show some of the above behaviour

The male will even get upside down in order to impress the female …

Great fun to watch!

Australia May 2022 : The Birding – it’s Different! (Part 1)

The casual, non-birder observer could easily come to the conclusion that Australia’s birds fall into three basic groups –

  • A majority that are various combinations of black and white or shades in between and can be found hanging about just about anywhere – in trees, on lampposts, in the garden, in town, at the sea – you get the picture
  • A lot that are vividly coloured birds, that in any other country would most likely be sitting in a cage in someone’s kitchen saying “hello – polly wants a cracker” or suchlike
  • The rest – a variety of smaller, often nondescript birds that don’t seem to seek the limelight as much as the above two groups and take some effort to find as they skulk in the bushes and trees

That’s a gross simplification of course, so to put it into some perspective, this is what the author of The Complete Guide to Australian Birds, George Adams, has to say in his introduction –

Australia is one of the world’s ten mega-diverse countries and is fortunate to have a rich diversity of birds and an unusually high number of endemic species found across its many, equally diverse and beautiful landscapes. The jabbering of parrots, the laughter of Kookaburras, the song of the Magpie or the trilling warble of Fairy-wrens all bestow a real sense of ‘place’ that is uniquely Australian.

Having just returned from our second visit to Australia (the first was in pre-pandemic 2019) I can associate with his description of the birding experience that this fine country has to offer.

The only problem is, with Australia being such a vast country, and considering that our two visits to date have been restricted to a relatively small part of one state – Victoria, in the south-east corner of Australia – means we have hardly touched on that rich diversity.

The majority of this massive continent and its birdlife therefore remains a mystery for the time being, with my only knowledge of it gleaned from the abovementioned guide.
Farmlands, Wurruk, Sale Victoria

However, having spent a total of some two and a half months during the two visits we have made to Sale, Victoria where our son and family have settled, there has been ample time to observe the neighbourhood birds and those in other places we visited, in the process getting to know some of the common birds quite well.

Which brings me back to those three basic groups, starting with …..

Black and white – and shades in between

Starting with the “all-blacks”, one of the most obvious and widespread is the Australian Raven Corvus coronoides, loudly pronouncing its presence with its “aark” call and often seen from a distance gliding across the landscape

The Common Blackbird Turdus merula, a much smaller species of thrush size and common in the UK and Europe, favours gardens – the female is a mottled brownish colour

Largest of all, the Black Swan Cygnus atratus, (yes, even the swans are black in Australia) which looks all black when swimming but shows white flight feathers when flying

Australian Raven Corvus coronoides, Sale Victoria
Common Blackbird Turdus merula, Sale Victoria
Black Swan Cygnus atratus, Sale Common, Victoria

The “black-and-whites” make up a large proportion of the birds seen generally, with the Australian Magpie Cracticus tibicen leading the way (by a couple of furlongs) – it is just everywhere and the family in Aus were quick to mention how aggressive it can be especially during breeding times. I was quite intimidated by one during our road trip along the Great Alpine Road (more about that in a future post) when I found one perched on our rental car’s mirror one morning, giving me a glaring look of “Who’s car is this anyway?”

They do have a very different song, curiously tuneful and sounding like it’s being produced by some sort of electronic instrument.

One of my favourites is the Magpie-lark Grallina cyanoluca, a glossy black-and-white medium sized bird which spends most of the time foraging on the ground, often in gardens. Also known as the “Peewee”, presumably based on its liquid call, it is neither Magpie or Lark but is related to Flycatchers, which it shows by its buoyant fluttering flight when chasing insect prey

Another favourite is the Pied Currawong Strepera graculina, which looks like a slightly smaller edition of the Magpie, although it has less obvious white colouring confined to a white band on the wings and a white-tipped tail. The voice is a distinctive, ringing “cur-ra-wong” which is why it carries the unusual name

Australian Magpie Cracticus tibicen, Sale Victoria – “Who’s car is this anyway?”
Magpie-lark Grallina cyanoleuca, Sale Victoria
Pied Currawong Strepera graculina, Sale Victoria

Also in this category are the two common Ibises, both of which are combinations of black and white and both occur in flocks of anything from a handful to a hundred or more. One morning I counted over 20 on the lawn of our son’s house, enjoying a temporary “wetland” caused by recent heavy rains.

Firstly, the one that has the impressive name of Australian White Ibis Theskiornis molucca, but is colloquially known as the “Bin Chicken” due to its habit of scavenging from rubbish bins in the cities. They make a grand sight at dusk when they fly in numbers in V-formation on their way to roost for the night.

The second Ibis has the interesting name Straw-necked Ibis Theskiornis spinicollis, but the reason for this name is not immediately obvious until you zoom in on the photos taken and notice that, indeed, the neck does have a straw-like appearance

Australian White Ibis Theskiornis molucca, Sale Victoria
White Ibis as depicted on the cover of a children’s book in the bookshop
Straw-necked Ibis Theskiornis spinicollis
The “Straw” that gives it the name

A bird which I had only a glimpse of during our 2019 visit but which afforded me some cracking views this time around is the Grey Butcherbird Cracticus torquatus. “Honey, I shrunk the magpie” comes to mind as it has all the features of the larger Magpie, scaled down to about half the size. In fact the Magpie and Butcherbirds belong to the same genus so the similarity is easy to understand. The Butcherbird name derives from its habit of impaling prey for later consumption, much like we see in South Africa with the Fiscals (which are also referred to as butcherbirds)

Grey Butcherbird Cracticus torquatus, Sale Victoria

That covers the black and white birds that are most often seen – excluding the smaller birds and water birds which I will introduce in further posts. That leaves the “vividly coloured birds” and “the rest” for a follow up introductory post on my Australian birding experience

Straw-necked and White Ibises together

Gone, but not forgotten; Finding the Laughing Gull

Earlier in the year I wrote about my “Once in a birder’s lifetime” experience of finding a new species for the Southern African region, namely a very far off course Laughing Gull which stayed in Mossel Bay for a week before disappearing again.

I’m pleased to say that my post, with some tweaks, has been recently published as an article in the May/June 2022 edition of African Birdlife magazine, reproduced below –

Now how am I going to top this find?

Long-crested Eagle – at the roadside

While atlasing not far from Pretoria on the 1st of April this year, I was pleasantly surprised to come across this handsome Long-crested Eagle perched on a utility pole at the roadside. It is always challenging to photograph a raptor perched high up as this one was, with a light background – far better to have them perched closer to eye level, but that would be too much to hope for.

In this case I was on a fairly busy regional road when I saw the eagle from a distance and slowed down as much as the traffic would allow, then pulled off onto the verge at a spot almost opposite where the eagle was perched and where the grass was not so long that it could be concealing puncture-producing sharp objects – just another of the hazards faced by atlasers.

Not wanting to spook the eagle by getting out of my car, I carefully lowered the driver’s window and prepared my camera for a few shots – I learnt a long time ago that one of the most important settings when photographing birds in the field is the exposure compensation.

Both the bird’s colouring and the amount of backlight need to be taken into consideration and, without getting too technical, I set the exposure at 1 full stop over-exposure to take into account the dark colouring of the eagle and the fairly bright background of blue sky.

I took a few shots then turned the car around and stopped on the same side as where the eagle was perched and very carefully got out, remaining partially concealed by the car. This worked and I was able to get closer shots but as soon as I moved from behind the car the eagle flew off, only to perch on the next pole.

This next image may look like a “dud” because the eye is not sharp and bright, but in fact it shows the “third eyelid” that many birds and especially raptors have – called a nictitating membrane. Unlike regular eyelids, it opens and closes horizontally across the eye and protects the eye when catching prey at speed and other hazards. It also helps keep the eye clean and moist – important when you are relying almost solely on your sharp vision for survival

I also took a couple of video clips including this one which shows the eagle seemingly watching a passing car go by – there is just something about large raptors that make them a favourite photographic subject – those eyes, that presence never fail to produce a dramatic image.

Long-crested Eagle Lophaetus occipitalis (Langkuifarend)

A fairly common resident of Southern Africa, the Long-crested Eagle is a personal favourite and we have stopped many times to view one at roadside, particularly in areas where pine and other plantations are the dominant habitat.

When perched it is unmistakeable with its long crest and dark colouring. In flight it is a tad more difficult but the large white wing patches and barred tail separate it from all other large raptors, although looking up at a bright sky and trying to see those sort of details is never easy.

Where to find it

The Long-crested Eagle has a scattered distribution across the eastern parts of southern Africa with concentrations along the escarpment of Limpopo Province and Mpumalanga and the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. They occur as far south as the Garden Route area of the southern Cape coast

SABAP2 Distribution Map for Long-crested Eagle

My first sighting was in 1994 on a farm near Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal.

Mossel Bay to Pretoria – not just a Journey

One of the benefits of reaching that age where they automatically give you a pensioner’s discount at the supermarket check-out without asking for an ID, is having the time – and the good sense – to turn a potentially mundane trip into a mini-holiday.

And this is exactly what we did when travelling between our Mossel Bay and Pretoria homes during March this year – instead of rushing to complete the 1250 kms road journey in 2 days with one overnight stop, we decided to stretch it out with a two night stay in Prince Albert, Western Cape and a further night in Springfontein, Free State, turning it into a four day, three night adventure.

Day 1 Thursday

After spending most of the morning packing, loading and preparing our Mossel Bay home for a lengthy hibernation, we left around lunchtime and set off on the familiar route to Prince Albert via the scenic Robinson Pass then through the town of Oudtshoorn and the winding road that takes you through the spectacular Meiringspoort. No matter how many times we drive this route, I still end up driving through Meiringspoort with my jaw in a dropped position – it is that special.

But this time there was a twist – just beyond the last of the 25 river crossings (it’s the same river each time) we encountered the first of many swarms of locusts that filled the air and pinged and ‘thunked’ against the grille, windscreen and roof of our SUV as we drove. The arid parts of South Africa have been plagued by swarms of biblical proportions through the summer, due to good rains after years of drought conditions.

This video was taken after stopping at the roadside and gives an idea of the numbers of locusts – a tiny fraction of what we drove through for tens of kilometres

Once we reached our destination I spent half an hour carefully prising locust bodies from every nook and cranny of our car, at the same time providing a veritable feast for an army of ants that descended on them as they dropped to the ground.

Our usual B&B in Prince Albert was fully booked so we had booked into one we had not tried before – De Bergkant Lodge – which turned out to be an excellent choice – lovely spacious room, good breakfast, efficient management and a super 15m pool which I immediately tried out as the temperature was hovering in the low 30’s (deg C)

De Bergkant Lodge, Prince Albert
De Bergkant Lodge, Prince Albert – our room was the one in the corner

After the swim and relaxing a while we had dinner at the Rude Chef (No – he/she wasn’t) restaurant. Prince Albert has always had an amazing selection of quality restaurants for a small Karoo town, but like so many other places Covid has had a devastating effect on the tourist industry which is only now recovering. So the choice of eating places has reduced but the quality is still there.

Day 2 Friday

After breakfast at the pool we set off late morning to visit the Weltevrede Fig Farm about 30 kms outside Prince Albert, along a gravel road that made its way through the mountains in spectacular fashion providing beautiful views over every rise.

Road to Weltevrede Farm, near Prince Albert

Weltevrede appeared at the end of the road, like an oasis in the arid countryside, the fig trees spreading up and down the valley in a broad green ribbon.

Road to Weltevrede Farm, near Prince Albert

We had a look around then settled at a table under a tree and lingered over a light lunch and coffee, just enjoying the ambience while farm workers carried out tray after tray of prepared figs and set them out to dry in the pure Karoo sunshine, where the air is dry and devoid of any pollutants.

Weltevrede Farm
Weltevrede Farm – prepared figs drying in the sun
Weltevrede Farm – their Fig Tart is delicious!

We took our time travelling back to Prince Albert and relaxed for a while before I set out to add some species to the pentad list that I had begun the previous afternoon with mostly the species visiting the garden. Heading out of town in a northerly direction I soon found Pririt Batis, Namaqua Dove, Pied Barbet and White-necked Raven and a swing past the small Waste water treatment works added SA Shelduck to take my pentad list to a modest 30.

Pririt Batis / Priritbosbontrokkie

After another invigorating swim we walked across the road to La-di-dah restaurant for a meal – our first choice was grilled Karoo lamb chops but disappointingly they had just sold the last ones and we had to revert to other meat dishes.

Day 3 Saturday

A longish drive lay ahead so we left after breakfast and made good time via Prince Albert Road where we joined the N1 National road to Beaufort West, Richmond and Colesberg, with comfort and coffee stops at Three Sisters, Karoo Padstal and Chargo Farm Stall at Colesberg.

As we left Prince Albert a Booted Eagle flew over the road ahead and I quickly added this welcome raptor to my pentad list.

We reached our overnight stop – Prior Grange farm near Springfontein – just after 5 pm and settled in to the Garden Cottage.

Prior Grange near Springfontein Free State
Prior Grange – the main house
Prior Grange – the Garden Cottage

It was time for my birding/relaxing walk to stretch my legs and with not much daylight left I headed straight to the dam behind the farm house and found it fuller than I had ever seen it, in complete contrast to our last visit before Covid when it had held a fraction of the water it now had.

Prior Grange dam

The dam had a single Grey Heron and small numbers of Red-knobbed Coots, Moorhens, Cape Shovelers, Yellow-billed Ducks, Red-billed Teals, Little Grebes and SA Shelducks, while the reeds were busy with Bishops and Weavers and a single African Reed Warbler which had me puzzled for a while as it was making an unusual sound (for me, probably not for him)

Prior Grange dam
Cape Shoveler / Kaapse Slopeend

Heading back to the cottage I added Karoo Thrush, Pied Starling and Fiscal Flycatcher before dusk fell, taking my pentad list to 32 after an hour’s atlasing, leaving the next morning to complete the two hour minimum atlasing to count as a “Full Protocol” card. Dinner, served in the cottage, was roast lamb and veg – what else on a Karoo farm?

Karoo Thrush Turdus smithii Geelbeklyster, Prior Grange
Pied Starling Lamprotornis bicolor Witgatspreeu, Prior Grange

Day 4 Sunday

I was up early to complete the pentad card with a walk around the garden and along the road, adding Cloud Cisticola, Lesser Kestrel (on the same pole as I had seen it a few years ago), Cape Glossy Starling and Anteating Chat.

Lesser Kestrel / Kleinrooivalk

The grassland next to the road was waterlogged in places after substantial summer rains

On the road out after a full English breakfast I added a few more including a Black-headed Heron at a mini wetland in the town, taking the pentad total to 44 and raising my personal tally for the pentad to 98 species after completing 6 cards since 2014.

All that remained was a drive of around 550 kms to our home in Pretoria – we arrived just after 4 pm, glad to be ‘home’ (Pretoria version)

Sea Pie in Plett

What happened to the Birding ?

If I have touched your curiosity button and you are wondering why I seem to have changed the theme of my blog to culinary matters, let me set things straight right away. I was looking for some background information about the bird which is the subject of my recent twitch of a rarity and my extensive research (OK, I just googled a bit) came up with something unexpected……

The bird in question is the Eurasian Oystercatcher, the unexpected fact is that the Oystercatcher was originally known as the “Sea Pie” but was renamed in the 1730 ‘s when a naturalist observed one eating oysters. The name “sea pie” seems to be a shortened form of Sea Magpie, due to its pied (black and white) appearance, (not applicable to our better known African Black Oystercatcher which has all black plumage).

An old illustration of the Sea-Pie

Just a little background

At the risk of boring those who already know my approach to twitching (the chasing of rarities no matter what it entails) let me repeat my criteria : if the rarity in question is within maximum 2 hours travel time by car from where I happen to be, I will consider going for it.

Once again the trigger came from the SA Rare Bird News report (SARBN) which is published by Trevor Hardaker twice a week – in this case it was the report of 3rd December 2021 that piqued my interest with a report of an Eurasian Oystercatcher on the Keurbooms River estuary at Plettenberg Bay in the southern Cape.

We were still in Pretoria at the time but were readying ourselves for a mid December road trip to our other home in Mossel Bay, so if the bird hung around long enough, there may be a chance to twitch it…..

I kept an eye on the reports coming through and as our departure date got closer, and the Oystercatcher remained in the same area, my hopes of being able to twitch the species started rising.

Now I should mention that I had in fact seen this species in Europe a number of years ago, but the circumstances were rather bizarre and the sighting somewhat unsatisfactory so I was keen to get a better sighting and of course to be able to add it to my list of Southern African birds seen.

At the time we were travelling to the UK via Amsterdam Schiphol airport and while taxi-ing after landing at Schiphol early morning I spotted, from my window seat, an Eurasian Oystercatcher at the edge of a concrete water channel along the perimeter of the airport – the sighting was brief but there was no mistaking the bird with its black and white plumage and distinctive bill

As I said, a somewhat unusual way to add a lifer and not what I consider fulfilling…..

Time to Twitch

We arrived in Mossel Bay on Wednesday 15 December 2021 after a road trip spread over 3 days and, once settled in to our ”Southern Cape” routine, my thoughts returned to the Eurasian Oystercatcher, which was still hanging around in the same area on the Saturday, so we decided to do the trip to Plettenberg Bay (or Plett for short) on the Sunday.

Now, 150 kms doesn’t usually sound like a challenging distance to drive for a day but Google Maps put it into perspective by estimating that a 2 hour drive awaited us, fortunately just making it into my (admittedly arbitrary) 2 hour drive time limit for a twitch.

With time to prepare I made a note of the instructions provided about the location, where to park and how to access the estuary and the recommendation that any attempt to find the bird be done at low tide. The tide tables indicated a low tide around 10 am for the Sunday so it seemed quite reasonable to leave home at about 8 am.

Another recommendation was to have a scope handy if available as the bird was likely to be a fair distance from the closest viewing spot so my Swarovski scope was the first item to be loaded into the car. I had recently purchased a new ball head for the scope to replace an old one that had become difficult to manoeuvre and I was looking forward to see how it functioned in the field (I’m glad to say it performed perfectly)

We duly got to the pin-drop spot at the small parking area, which had a full complement of cars but fortunately one was just pulling out and I slotted the Prado into place and set off down the narrow track, scope and tripod slung over my shoulder, leaving Gerda to enjoy the peace and quiet with her knitting.

The track initially wound its way through bush, then over a narrow wooden foot bridge and onto the sands of the estuary. A birder heading the other way turned out to be Rudi, another Mossel Bay birder and after greeting each other he pointed me in the general direction of where he had just seen the Oystercatcher.

The pathway to the Estuary

Armed with that knowledge, I found a spot to set up the scope, taking care to avoid the softer sands which would have swallowed my sandals if I wasn’t wary (all proof of how hazardous twitching can be). I scanned the distant river close to a Tern roost and within a minute had found the Oystercatcher and locked onto it with the scope. I allowed myself a little victory punch in my imagination – success!

For the next 40 minutes I tried getting closer to where the bird was hanging out, with some success although the soft mud of the estuary at low tide thwarted my attempt constantly as I picked my way across the drier parts to a better vantage point.

Satisfied with the views I had enjoyed, I made my way in hopscotch fashion to the main pathway back to the car, passing a group of birders who had just arrived but were less fortunate as a passing helicopter had caused the Tern roost and surrounding birds to rise up and fly off.

My only regret was not having my camera, which I left in the car as the scope and tripod was quite a burden without a camera dangling from my shoulder as well. Plenty of excellent photos have been posted on various birding groups and the superb image below was taken by a birder who rented a canoe so as to get closer to the bird – included here with the photographer’s kind permission.

Image by Deirdre Krzychylkiewicz

Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus (Bonttobie)

This species is a rare but annual visitor from its breeding grounds across the Palearctic region from Iceland to China. Those found in southern Africa are thought to originate from Siberia and prefer to feed by probing for invertebrates on mudflats, having a longer bill than the African Black Oystercatcher which generally feeds on mussels.

The illustrations below are from Chamberlain’s Waders, written and illustrated by Faansie Peacock and show the unmistakeable pied appearance of the Eurasian Oystercatcher compared to the all black plumage of the African Black Oystercatcher.

On our way back home we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a light lunch of their home-made pie and salads – it crossed my mind that I had seen a Sea Pie in Plett and eaten a Pie near the Sea in Plett, all in the same morning……..

Overnighting in the Karoo – Abbotsbury is a delight

Google “Abbotsbury” and it comes up with a Wikipedia article about a village in the English county of Dorset, about a mile from the English Channel coast.

The Abbotsbury we like to visit couldn’t be further from that description – it is a Guest Farm deep in the Karoo, some 27 kms north of the historic South African town of Graaff-Reinet, and is one of our favourite stopovers on the long road between our homes in Pretoria and Mossel Bay.

Location of Abbotsbury

In 2021 we had the pleasure of two stopovers at this peaceful and hospitable guest farm, on our way to Mossel Bay for our winter and summer stays, and we were once again enchanted by the setting and the comfortable Garden Cottage which has become a brief “home away from home” for a number of years.

The Garden Cottage

The setting is sublime – set among a cheerful garden which is in complete contrast to the surrounding arid conditions, yet fits the purpose perfectly

Abbotsbury guest farm – the Garden Cottage

And the interior is just as charming with that homey feeling that has you instantly relaxed

Abbotsbury guest farm – the living room
Abbotsbury guest farm – the lawns
Abbotsbury guest farm – time to relax on the stoep
Abbotsbury guest farm

Getting there

We have done the road trip between Pretoria and Mossel Bay or vice-versa many times and usually travel on the N1 National Road between Pretoria and Colesberg, then choose between the route via Beaufort-West/Meiringspoort/Oudtshoorn or via Graaff-Reinet/ George.

The latter route is the one that takes us past Abbotsbury, which lies a few kms off the N9 National Road and as soon as we turn off and pass through the entrance gate I feel a sense of relief at escaping, for a while, from the main road. It’s also a signal to open the car window, breathe in the fresh Karoo air and listen for the calls of the birds that favour this arid habitat.

Abbotsbury Graaff-Reinet

It’s a short drive from the road up to the farmstead along a dusty farm track that passes kraals with sheep and goats, keeping a lookout for birds in the scrubby Karoo habitat

Abbotsbury guest farm
Abbotsbury guest farm – even the goats are good looking
Abbotsbury Guest Farm

Once we have greeted owner Graham and settled into the cottage, we relax for the rest of the afternoon on the stoep overlooking the garden and lawn – by now Angus, the friendly Scottish Terrier, has come to “greet” us and persuade us to throw his old tennis ball so that he can scurry after it and bring it back for the next throw.

Angus, Abbotsbury’s friendly Scottish Terrier

Time for a Walk

For the last hour or so of driving before we reach our overnight stop, I start looking forward to the walk I will take once we are settled in – firstly to stretch legs and body that have been unnaturally dormant while driving for several hours and secondly to fit in at least an hour’s quality atlasing in a pentad that has limited coverage.

The farm has a character all its own and around every bend there is something photogenic to admire

Abbotsbury Guest Farm
Abbotsbury guest farm
Abbotsbury guest farm

There are some quirky plants along the way

Abbotsbury guest farm
Flower amongst the thorns, Abbotsbury guest farm

And the Birds

Atlasing statistics show that the pentad in which Abbotsbury lies has a total of 100 species after 13 full protocol cards, with my contribution being 65 species from 7 cards. I usually expect to find 30 to 40 species during a visit and the images below are a selection of some of those I have come across and been able to photograph –

Karoo Scrub-Robin Erythropygia coryphaeus  (Slangverklikker), Abbotsbury guest farm
Cape Sparrow Passer melanurus  (Gewone mossie), Abbotsbury guest farm

The Pied Barbet is one of those birds that are heard before they are seen, alternating between their two calls – one a soft descending hoop hoop hoop, the other a loud nasal pehp pehp pehp – very much a feature of this arid habitat

Acacia Pied Barbet Tricholaema leucomelas  (Bonthoutkapper), Abbotsbury guest farm
Cape Robin-Chat Cossypha caffra  (Gewone janfrederik) , Abbotsbury guest farm
Greater Striped Swallow Cecropis cucullata  (Grootstreepswael)
, Abbotsbury guest farm
Cape Bunting Emberiza capensis  (Rooivlerkstreepkoppie)
, Abbotsbury guest farm
Grey Tit Parus afer  (Piet-tjou-tjou-grysmees) , Abbotsbury guest farm
Southern Masked-Weaver Ploceus velatus  (Swartkeelgeelvink) , Abbotsbury
African Red-eyed Bulbul Pycnonotus nigricans  (Rooioogtiptol), Abbotsbury

The best part about my afternoon and morning walks of an hour or so each around the farm is knowing a delicious dinner or breakfast will be served when I get back to the cottage

Adventurous Birding, Atlasing and Travel