24 December 2017 – 7.42 pm : Knysna Warbler / Bradypterus sylvaticus (Knysnaruigtesanger) becomes my latest lifer – number 765 on my Southern Africa life list and the 9th addition to my life list for 2017. Location : Mossel Bay Golf Estate
Those are the bare facts and as I was not able to get a photo of this elusive bird, the post could end right here……… but there is more to the story than that of how I came to find this bird.
Firstly, some information on this species, starting with an extract from Roberts Birds of Southern Africa :
Status – Uncommon to rare and localised endemic; regarded as vulnerable
Habitat – Dense tangled thickets on edge of forests and along watercourses
General Habits – Very secretive; presence usually revealed only when calling
The Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa adds to this :
The Knysna Warbler is endemic to the region and has a highly restricted and fragmented distribution….
The SABAP2 distribution map below shows the current distribution of the Knysna Warbler, spread along the southern coastal regions of SA :
Going into more detail the map below is of the pentads in the Mossel Bay area, the coloured ones showing where Knysna Warbler has been recorded during the 10 years that records have been gathered – yellow, orange and green indicate a lower number of sightings, while blue, pink, red and purple indicate more frequent sightings. Uncoloured pentads are where the species has not been recorded yet. So for example there has been only one previous record in Mossel Bay (the yellow block) in 10 years
Estimates put the total population at less than 2500 individuals with a status of Vulnerable
None of which explains why this species, which occurs in areas I have visited frequently during the 30 or so years that I have been birding, has eluded me until now. That’s birding – no certainties, lots of surprises.
I can only recall one occasion some years ago, during a visit to the Big Tree near Knysna, when I heard the distinctive trilling call from deep in the surrounding forest bush, but was unable to locate the bird at all
I have been very aware of this gap in my birding life list for some time and was determined to put in a special effort to fill this gap during our current December 2017 / January 2018 visit to Mossel Bay. A local birder offered to show me some spots known to be reliable for Knysna Warbler but I had not yet got around to taking up the offer.
The story of my unexpected find starts with a family walk around the golf estate on Christmas eve, around 7 pm in the evening and still light. Gerda and I set off with daughter Geraldine and Andre as well as the two granddaughters – first to leave the group was Megan who had her running shoes on and with the abundant energy of youth went running off like an Impala.
At the top of the hill Gerda and Geraldine returned home to put the final touches to the Christmas eve dinner, leaving myself, Andre and Maia to continue, heading for the clubhouse with the intention of doing a full circuit of the estate. A little further along the road it started drizzling lightly and with dark-ish clouds chasing in from the sea, I suggested a shortcut over the golf course to get home – problem was Maia was barefoot and with access to the golf course being across a stretch of veld with the possibility of thorns, she and Andre decided to turn around and walk back along the paved road we had just come on. This left me to continue on my own with the weather threatening and dusk approaching ….
I increased my pace a tad and at the bottom of the next hill I took a path on to the golf course and headed towards the edge of the 14th fairway and the path homewards. The rain had stopped and the dark clouds seemed to be moving away from me so I slowed my pace and listened to the birds calling from the dense bush that lines this part of the estate – the usual Mousebirds, Apalises and others were still active.
Then a different call attracted my attention and had me wondering out loud what it could be – my auditory memory kicked into overdrive and I just knew this was a call that I needed to get a handle on, familiar yet strange at the same time and certainly one I had not heard on the estate before.
The warbler like call started slowly then sped up into a drawn-out rapid trilling conclusion, with the clarity of a whistle with a pea in it – after some deep thought I went to the Roberts app on my iphone and looked up western cape then warblers. As soon as I saw Knysna Warbler it hit me like a wet snoek and I pressed the play on the bird’s call – bingo, that’s what it was!
This illustration is from Roberts Birds of Southern Africa :
Next challenge was to try and see it, so I got as close as I could to the bush from where it seemed to be calling and searched in the fading light. It sounded so close I felt I should be able to reach out and touch it, but it is a master at remaining hidden, not even stirring a leaf to give a clue to its position.
After spending 20 minutes or so searching, the best sighting I could get was of a small drab bird flitting from one dense bush to the next, but I decided this was the best I was going to do and left it calling non-stop, even though it was by now almost dark.
In any case this is an example of a bird whose call is much prettier than the bird itself, so I was quite content with my sighting / hearing and very happy to be able to add it to my life list at last.
So after agonising about where I should go to find this species, it popped up virtually on my doorstep – considering the circumstances that led to my finding it, I was left with the feeling that this was how it was meant to be.
An early Christmas present that I won’t forget!