We had been planning Birding Big Day (BBD) – which took place on 25 November 2017 – for months, working out a route with stops planned to the minute and covering as much of the allowed 50 km radius as possible while making sure we included as many habitats as we could in the 24 hours ……….. Well that’s what we should have done to do any justice to the day; in fact our planning consisted of my jotting down a few “must visit” spots that I knew of close to Mossel Bay, the day before BBD. These included the Golf Estate, the harbour and Point, Herbertsdale road, Hartenbos waste water treatment works, Klein Brak area and the Hartenbos river. Any others would be added on a “play it by ear” basis as the day progressed.
Having only arrived in Mossel Bay from Pretoria the day before, there was not much time to gather ourselves but the prospect of a full day’s birding was enough to motivate me and I looked forward to having Willie Boylan, old friend and occasional birder, join me as the other half of our two man team – the Harried Hawks.
I had set the alarm for 4.15 am having suggested that Willie join me at 5 am, which he duly did and we immediately started our birding big day with a slow walk down the hill to the belt of coastal fynbos that lies between the residential area of the estate and the cliffs that drop away to the sea below
The weather was perfect and remained that way throughout the day – sunny yet cool with no cloud to speak of and a light wind. Doves were already vocal while the drawn out trilling call of Cape Grassbirds greeted the first rays of the sun. Yellow Canaries were active and plentiful along with Yellow Bishops with their standout black and yellow colouring.
The African Black Swifts that roost along the cliffs were up and about, joined by a lone Kelp Gull on its way to the sea. After scanning the bush for quite a while we felt we had exhausted the coastal fynbos possibilities, so we set off by car and exited the estate with 31 species, just about a quarter of our target of 125 for the day, with one hour down. As can be expected this was by far the best hour of the day.
We took it slow along the road bordering the St Blaize trail and soon spotted a Tern roost on the rocks far below – I set up the scope and was mildly disappointed to find they were all Swift Terns as I had been hoping for one or two other Tern species. Early morning joggers were curious and when told what we were up to they wished us luck. As we were packing up the scope a Southern Tchagra, always a difficult species to spot, showed briefly in the bush just below the road.
On to Church street and the harbour area where we quickly added Grey-headed and Hartlaub’s Gulls as well as Mallard, but the Point was a disappointment being very quiet – none of the usual Cormorants or Terns – were we too early for them?
By 7 am with two hours done and a total of 46 we headed through town and out on to the Cape road, deviating briefly to explore the bush along the outskirts of town at the small industrial area which turned out to be quite lively with Bokmakierie, Red Bishop, African Pipit and Pied Starling.
The light traffic meant we reached the Herbertsdale turnoff not long after where we almost immediately found some of the expected species. Large-billed Lark was first up with its “squeaky hinge needs oil” sounding call, but for a change wasn’t joined by Agulhas Long-billed Lark – hopefully we would get it later.
We added the likes of Karoo Prinia, Diderick Cuckoo, Grey-backed and Cloud Cisticola before reaching the small farm dam alongside the road which had just a few Yellow-billed Ducks and a couple of Common Moorhens.
By now we were in need of coffee and rusks, so we turned off onto the quieter (we thought) Klipkop road to find a peaceful spot but we were harried by 4 x 4 enthusiasts heading to an off-road event along the same road so in the end we had to venture further beyond the venue entrance before stopping. While enjoying the caffeine boost a Rock Kestrel came to greet us as did a Brimstone Canary on the nearby fence, while in the distance we could just make out some cattle with Cattle Egrets in attendance.
This is where the “play it by ear” factor kicked in for the first time as we decided to carry on with Klipkop road rather than head back to the tar road and soon we had Steppe Buzzard and White-necked Raven on our list, but not much else as we passed through the undulating hills and headed towards Hartenbos,
Our first stop at the Hartenbos river produced Black-winged Stilt, Red-billed Teal and White-faced Duck before continuing to the Waste water treatment works which we hoped would give our list a nice boost. It delivered as hoped and we added 9 species including Cape Teal, Cape Shoveler, Little grebe on the ponds, a Lesser Swamp Warbler calling and a couple of aerial birds in Brown-throated Martin and Pearl-breasted Swallow. By now it was 10.30 am and we had recorded 88 species, pleasing enough but I imagined it was going to be much slower going from there on.
In fact the next two hours produced just 10 species as we covered both Klein Brak and Great Brak river mouths, nevertheless including some less common birds such as African Black Oystercatcher, Little Egret, Greenshank, White-fronted and Common Ringed Plovers as well as a soaring Jackal Buzzard.
Time for our next route decision – this time we decided to make our way through Great Brak village and turn off west onto the road which would take us back to Klein Brak, but along the secondary road north of the N2. Our first stop along this stretch was at another waste water treatment works, the ponds visible from the road, which produced Pied Avocet, Three-banded Plover and a calling Little Rush Warbler.
Before reaching Klein Brak we turned right and took the Botlierskop road, just after spotting a Spoonbill in a marshy area before the bridge. Two “Olive” birds were our reward along this road – Olive Pigeon and Olive Bush-Shrike. As we passed a small obscure track we noticed another group of birders higher up on the embankment – turned out this was the “202 Ostriches” team who set a new Western Cape BBD record that day. We decided not to disturb them but to take a look later on our way back (the road was closed further on). In fact we discovered later on that the embankment was the wall of a large dam which held White-backed Duck and a lone African Darter – nice one to know about for future reference.
The 202 Ostriches passed us and stopped to say hi but were clearly hyped up and we didn’t want to hold them up – at that point they were on 160 species compared to our 101. Our next target was the Geelbeksvlei road – the vleis mostly dry but with a few water channels which held Hamerkop, Little Stint and Pied Kingfisher. Greater Honeyguide was calling “Victorrrrr” in the same spot I had heard it before while cycling the road.
The next hour was the longest of the day as we headed back into the undulating hills from the Brandwag turnoff, only finding our next species at the end of the hour after stopping at a farmstead near the road with a large Jacaranda tree in full bloom, which was alive with sunbirds including Amethyst and Greater Double-collared. They came as a timely boost to our pensioner aged team as our energy was being rapidly sapped although spirits were still high as we headed back towards Mossel Bay along the Gondwana road.
Almost simultaneously we spotted Denham’s Bustard followed a minute later by Red-necked Spurfowl crossing the gravel road, raising our spirits a notch or two again. A Forest Buzzard on a dry tree was worth turning off for but flew off before I could position the car for a photo.
At the next junction with the R327 tar road we crossed over and carried on towards Kleinberg and the N2 national road – this road was also quiet until we reached the mill where we found Red-capped Larks in the road and a few House Sparrows on the fence, the latter having eluded us all day despite popping into a couple of filling stations en route, often their preferred hangout.
Heading towards Mossel Bay along the N2, another bird that had eluded us – Agulhas Long-billed Lark – caught my ear and a quick stop confirmed the ID. Black-shouldered Kite was the last to be added on the road and we headed back to the estate, tired but happy with our total standing on 123, just two short of our target. It was 5.30 pm and there would still be daylight for an hour and a half at least, but we both agreed to call it a day, although Willie was happy to accept any further species I may spot once he left.
After a short recovery, I felt somehow compelled to find two more birds and took another short walk which happily produced a Cape Rock-Thrush, then while I was relaxing on the balcony with the light fading and a celebratory glass of wine in hand, still keeping an eye on passing birds, a Peregrine Falcon of all things obliged by flying past – 125 done!
Next day I checked the BBD Birdlasser page which showed 124 against our team’s name – the difference turned out to be the Domestic Goose which we had recorded at Great Brak estuary but which had been disallowed. Makes sense although when atlasing it is a recordable species. So 124 was our final total. All in all it was a great day’s birding with some slow progress in the middle third of the day – better planning and ranging wider to cover more habitats would have improved our total – good thing there’s a next time to look forward to!