Birding Big Day 2016 – A Day in the Country

Birding Big Day (BBD) 2016 was, for me, a mostly unplanned, ad hoc affair – in fact I was not even planning to participate at all until, spurred on by messages on the Facebook birding pages from Ernst Retief, I decided to register at the last moment on the Friday before BBD at around 6 pm.

This left me with no time for any sort of planning for the day ahead and with a one man team – OK, I did include my wife’s name to boost the numbers, but being a non-birder she was there for moral support and a bit of spotting. Thus I had already ignored two of the main requirements for a successful BBD ie –  planning the route in advance and doing research on what species to expect along the way.

Added to that, the fact that we had just arrived in Mossel Bay for our end-of-year stay and that the Southern Cape falls some way behind the recognised prime birding areas of SA in terms of numbers of bird species, meant that I was not over-confident about reaching the target of 100 species that I had set myself.

The alarm duly woke me at 4.30 am on the Saturday and I started recording a few species that I could hear –  Spotted Thick-Knee, Cape Sparrow and Cape Robin-Chat amongst them – as they greeted the early morning and I got dressed and gathered the all-important provisions to see me through the day. A walk in the garden was good for a few more including the Cape Sugarbirds that are constant visitors to our Pincushions, then I was on my way by 5.30 am – a peek at the leaderboard on Birdlasser showed that the leading team was into the 80’s already!

Cape Sugarbird - loves the Pincushions!
Cape Sugarbird – loves the Pincushions!

A slow drive through Mossel Bay Golf Estate added several more and I exited the gate with a list nudging 20. A quick detour  in and out of the local mall’s parking area added the two Gull species that I had hoped to find there – Kelp and Grey-headed and then I was on the main road heading west to the N2.

From there it was a question of driving at my customary atlasing speed with windows wide open to listen for calls, following the N2 up to the R327 to Herbertsdale, where I turned off onto a long stretch of quiet country road and started birding in earnest, stopping every couple of hundred metres to get out and listen. Two of my favourite Larks were close to the road, seemingly awaiting my arrival  – Red-capped and Agulhas Long-billed, while the grassy fields on either side held Stonechat, Cape Longclaw and Zitting and Cloud Cisticolas.

Agulhas Long-billed Lark giving it all with his distinctive call
Agulhas Long-billed Lark giving it all with his distinctive call

A call like a squeaky gate opening gave away the presence of Large-billed Lark as I continued to add slowly but steadily to my list.

Large-billed Lark - often heard before being seen, with its "squeaky gate" call
Large-billed Lark – often heard before being seen, with its “squeaky gate” call

A roadside dam, usually full of waterfowl, had just a few Egyptian Geese and Red-knobbed Coots, nevertheless two more for the list. Further along on a side road a heavy-billed small bird turned out to be Brimstone Canary, after which there was a long stretch without new species, until a large dam some way from the road produced the two regular Cormorants – Reed and White-breasted. Shortly afterwards I turned off on a gravel road signposted Hartebeeskuil Dam and immediately saw the tree where I had found a Jackal Buzzard nest-building 18 months ago. A pair flew out as I approached and a Juvenile was perched nearby so they had clearly been successful.

Jackal Buzzard with nest material (July 2015) - pretty sure it's the same pair that I saw on BBD 2016 - this time with a juvenile nearby
Jackal Buzzard with nest material (July 2015) – pretty sure it’s the same pair that I saw on BBD 2016 – this time with a juvenile nearby

The road followed the ups and downs of the rolling hills through pretty Southern Cape countryside, almost distracting me from the task at hand, but a coffee-and-rusk stop set me on the right path again and was also the signal for a White-necked Raven to fly overhead. Shortly after, I was thrilled when I spotted a Black Harrier flying low over the fields, wings spread wide for maximum gliding ability.

A short distance further some interesting looking habitat in a valley with a stream running through it seemed worth further investigation and turned up trumps when a Black Stork suddenly flew from its concealed position, while a Blue Crane was also visible and a Little Rush Warbler’s call floated up from the small stream.

Black Stork
Black Stork

Hartebeeskuil dam was my next stop, but was nowhere near as productive as on a previous trip and I carried on somewhat disappointed. The rest of this road was sparse until the last hill before reaching the R328 Hartenbos/Oudtshoorn road when a Booted Eagle soared overhead.

The Geelbeksvlei road which passes through Klein Brak  on its way to Hartenbos was my next target, always a pleasant drive and with a variety of birds. The first stream I stopped at produced a Black Saw-wing and Rock Kestrel, while the fallow fields adjoining it had numbers of Cape Crows.

A side road I have never investigated before turned into a worthwhile deviation as I added the 3 common Ducks/Teals (White-faced, Yellow-billed, Red-billed) and Moorhen at a small farm dam.

Yellow-billed Duck
Yellow-billed Duck
White-faced Duck on farm dam
White-faced Duck on farm dam

My next stop was Mossel Bay Sewage works where the ponds, just visible from outside the normally closed gate, had a variety of waterfowl. I had to be content with distant views, unlike the team of BBD birders inside the fence, who had obviously pre-arranged access to the works (mental note to do the same next year). Nevertheless I was able to ID Cape Teal, Cape Shoveler, Southern Pochard and Little Grebe before continuing to my next stop at Mossel Bay’s Point to pick up some of the seabirds not yet on my list.

By this time it was after midday, my total stood at 88  and I was considering calling it a day, with no one to boost my flagging spirits – there’s a definite advantage in being part of a team rather than one lone birder in these events. After a quick stop at the Point, where I added Cape and White-breasted Cormorant, Swift Tern and Hartlaub’s Gull, I headed home for an extended lunch break and to decide what to do with the rest of the day.

Grey-headed Gull (light eye differentiates it from the similar looking Hartlaub's Gull) at Mossel Bay's Point
Grey-headed Gull (light eye differentiates it from the similar looking Hartlaub’s Gull) at Mossel Bay’s Point

My wife joined me at this stage and we set off for Great Brak River for an afternoon coffee, without intending to do any further serious birding, but by the time we headed back to Mossel Bay around 4.30 pm and spurred on yet again by the tallies coming through on Birdlasser, my second wind kicked in and we made a couple of stops at bridges over the river near Hartenbos, adding Greenshank, Black-crowned Night-Heron and – hallelujah – my 100th species for the day, a Little Egret.

With my target reached, every bird after that was a bonus and I was curious to see how many more we could add in the few hours of daylight still left. We looked for access to the riverfront, as I could see what looked like Flamingoes in the distance, and duly found a friendly caravan park manager who invited us in to look around. Venturing to the water’s edge we spent a good half hour or so adding Greater Flamingo, Caspian Tern and Lesser Swamp Warbler amongst others and left with 108 as our new total.

Back home again at 6 pm I decided on one last sortie into the fynbos area of our estate for the “fynbos specials” that hang out there and was happy when Cape Bunting, White-throated Canary and Karoo Scrub-Robin all obliged by making an appearance. Our day’s birding ended soon after with a Cape Rock-Thrush perched on a neighbour’s roof to close out at 112 species, earning the Reid Wobblers position 111 in the standings. Not exactly fireworks when compared with the counts of the top teams, but hey, we had a ball!

A selection of some of the other birds encountered :

Fiscal Flycatcher
Fiscal Flycatcher
Common Waxbill
Common Waxbill
Southern Red Bishop
Southern Red Bishop
Yellow Bishop
Yellow Bishop
White-throated Swallow
White-throated Swallow
Booted Eagle
Booted Eagle
Grey-backed Cisticola
Grey-backed Cisticola

2 thoughts on “Birding Big Day 2016 – A Day in the Country”

  1. Very interesting reading your BBD trip report – if only we’d known you were down there we’d have invited you to join us chasing the Red-necked Buzzard! Perhaps you’ve ticked it and it’s a matter of time before we read your report on driving about Stillbay?

    Merry festive season to you and yours from Ray and Helen Biram

    1. Thanks Ray and Helen – I’m enjoying birding the Southern Cape again and yes I did go to Stillbay for the Red-necked Buzzard last week – what a handsome bird! Watch this space for my take on it.
      Glad to hear you are still chasing after the rarities and presumably maintaining your frontrunner position amongst the ladies Helen – I’m a beginner at twitching but starting to get hooked by the thrill of it!
      All the best for the holiday season

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