Atlasing Tales – Little Karoo near Oudtshoorn

Excuses, excuses…

Firstly, regular readers of this blog (yes, both of you) may be wondering why it’s been more than 3 weeks since my last post. I do try and post at least once a fortnight and have more or less managed to keep it up, but these past few weeks have been extra-busy with both Gerda and myself celebrating a milestone birthday. We decided early in the year to take our family – kids and grandkids, numbering 15 altogether including ourselves, to Mauritius for a week, which is where we were during the first week in October. More about that in a post very soon but for the time being this post is a further episode of Atlasing Tales (cue – loud clapping and cheering!!)

Back to Mossel Bay

During our late winter visit to Mossel Bay this past August, I was keen to do some atlasing of a couple of the pentads not yet visited in 2017 by any atlasers and eventually settled on two pentads in the Little Karoo near Oudtshoorn, with the added hope of adding some Karoo species to my year list. (For a further explanation of atlasing have a look at my earlier posts on the subject eg Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and beyond)

The location of the first pentad is shown on the map below, the second one is directly west of it –

The Little Karoo (better known in South Africa by the Afrikaans name “Kleinkaroo”) is separated from the Great Karoo (“Grootkaroo”) by the Swartberg Mountain Range which runs east-west almost parallel to the southern coastline of South Africa, from which it is separated by another east-west range called the Outeniqua-Langeberg Mountains. The Karoo is a semi-desert natural region of SA, with low rainfall, arid air, cloudless skies and extremes of heat and cold.

Getting there

It was raining lightly when I set off early morning from Mossel Bay and the wet roads had me making my way very carefully up the twisty Robinson Pass, which peaks out at 860 m above sea level and typically has a thick layer of mist or low clouds in the upper parts, as it did today.

Cresting the pass I glanced at the car’s temperature gauge which showed a chilly 5°C, so I welcomed the warmth of the car’s heater, but knew that I would be feeling it once I started atlasing, which one can only effectively do with the car’s windows open in order to be able to hear the birds calling, often the only way of identifying the species if you don’t see them. It was hard to imagine though, that the temperature would be the same 5° C on my way back through the pass at around 1.30 pm that afternoon!

By 7 am I was through the pass and the habitat changed rapidly to that of typical Little Karoo – few trees, many small shrubs and bushes and not much else.

Oudtshoorn south
A rainbow appeared when I made my first stop

Atlasing starts

Compared to other parts of the country, birding in the Karoo is slow and measured but immensely rewarding at the same time. When birds are scarce there is a certain pleasure in looking for and finding whatever may cross your path, very different from the abundant birds that other more bird-friendly habitats may provide. It’s a bit like sipping a special wine, taking your time and appreciating each drop, knowing there’s a limited amount and plenty of time.

A Karoo Lark (Karoolewerik ; Calendulauda albescens) drew my attention at my first stop, calling from a fence post then dropping to the ground. Its call was bright and cheerful despite the rather gloomy weather, but I suppose when you live in an arid area such as the Karoo, a bit of rainy weather is worth singing about!

Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south

Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south
Karoo Lark

Another Lark sitting on a small bush at a distance from the road had me wondering and I studied it as best as I could at that range, not being close enough to pick up the finer details that are important when trying to identify one of the LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs). It was streaky brown on the back, seemed to have  some light streaking on the breast – features that most of the larks possess so I was no closer to an ID. However when it turned its head the long decurved bill was a prominent feature, almost Bee-eater like in appearance which pointed towards Karoo Long-billed Lark (Karoolangbeklewerik / Certhilauda subcoronata) – some later study of Faansie Peacock’s excellent book on LBJ’s clinched the ID for me. When I submitted the card for the pentad it generated an ORF (Out-of-range form) for this species, which I still have to complete and submit in order to get the ID verified – all part of being a “Citizen Scientist”

The photo was taken previously in the Karoo National Park –

Karoo Longbilled Lark, Karoo National Park
Karoo Long-billed Lark

A gravel side road, signposted Kandelaarsrivier proved to be an interesting diversion and I followed it for a few kms not far from the mostly dry river course and past several farmsteads. Along the way I came across a group of Mountain Wheatears (Bergwagter / Oenanthe monticola) which were quite accommodating, allowing a close approach in my vehicle for some pleasing photos of this species which is usually at a distance.

Mountain Wheatear (female), Oudtshoorn south
Mountain Wheatear (female)
Mountain Wheatear (female), Oudtshoorn south
Surprising how much white is visible in flight

Both Speckled and White-backed Mousebirds (Gevlekte en Witkruismuisvoëls / Colius striatus and Colius colius) showed themselves at a spot further on – it’s interesting how they sometimes seem to stick close together yet don’t occupy the same tree.

I continued along the back roads past small villages and settlements, stopping to have a closer look at a handsome stone country church and exploring a side road which looked interesting but only took me to a rugby field, which could surely only be found in the Karoo – no grass, just a hard gravel surface. I had to wonder how they played such a physical game on this surface – they obviously breed some hard players in the area or they have very good medical care.

Rugby field, Oudtshoorn south

At another farmstead a group of White-throated Canaries (Witkeelkanarie / Crithagra albogularis) was busily gathering seeds from the ground, possibly spilled or perhaps from a nearby tree.

White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south
White-throated Canary – note the hint of yellow rump showing

White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south

Heading back towards the Robinson Pass I was soon into my second target pentad for the day … 3340_2200 and added Pied Starling (Witgatspreeu ; Lamprotornis bicolorCommon Starling (Europese spreeu ; Sturnus vulgaris) and Bokmakierie (Bokmakierie ; Telephorus zeylonus)fairly quickly. Another gravel road wound its way past a quarry, which also happened to be the destination of several lorries which kicked up clouds of dust each time they passed, making the conditions unpleasant for a while. Nevertheless between dust clouds I found a Karoo Chat (Karoospekvreter ; Cercomela schlegelii)and Pale Chanting Goshawk (Bleeksingvalk ; Melierax canorus)and heard the distinctive call of a Pririt Batis (Priritbosbontrokkie ; Batis pririt)

Once past the quarry I could stop and enjoy the peace of the surroundings again and soon added Cape Bunting (Rooivlerkstreepkoppie ; Emberiza capensis), Acacia Pied Barbet (Bonthoutkapper ; Tricholaema leucomelas)and Namaqua Warbler (Namakwalangstertjie ; Phragmacia substriata). Just before exiting the pentad Cape Crow (Swartkraai ; Corvus capensis)and Cape Spurfowl (Kaapse fisant ; (Pternistis capensis) were welcome additions. The landscape changed to more hilly country, providing some magnificent views….

From there it was a question of finding the shortest route back to the main road to Mossel Bay, which turned out to be a “gated” road through rolling hills, necessitating the “stop, open gate, drive forward, stop, close gate” procedure repeated four times along the way. Not at all onerous when your travelling through such rugged and handsome countryside with no other vehicles to be seen, it just adds to the “getting away from it all” feeling. I eventually got back to the tar road at the Paardebont turn-off where I turned right onto the road back home.

Gate along a wet road

The day’s excitement wasn’t done yet however – heading down the Mossel Bay side of the Robinson Pass, I stopped at the roadside picnic spot where I had found my first Victorin’s Warbler (Rooiborsruigtesanger ; Cryptillas victorini) a few years ago – as luck would have it I almost immediately heard one in the bush just below the road and soon found it threading its way through the dense undergrowth which is their preferred habitat.

After a couple of frustrating misses with my camera, I surmised which direction it was heading and went up ahead to wait for it to appear. This strategy worked as it briefly emerged from the bush and I rattled off a few shots while it called loudly. Eureka!

Victorin’s Warbler, Robinson Pass
View of Mossel Bay from Robinson Pass (taken on a sunnier day)

Well satisfied, I headed homeward

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 3340_2205

21st Full Protocol card for the pentad ;    Out of Range form received for Karoo Long-billed Lark ; Total species for the pentad now 141 ; my total for the 2 – 3 hours was 31 or 22% of the pentad total

Pentad 3340_2200

12th Full Protocol card for the pentad ;   Total species for the pentad now 111 ; my total for the 2 hours was 23 or 21% of the pentad total

 

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