Atlasing Tales – An Owl and a hungry Swift

The Atlasing* destination

Work and other commitments had kept me from any regular atlasing,  other than our Drakensberg escapes, since January 2018, so I welcomed the Human Rights holiday on 21st March, bang in the middle of the working week and I just had to get out and do some atlasing.

Looking at the 2018 pentad map for Gauteng the previous evening, the closest pentads that met my criteria (not atlased in the current year) and fell south of the N4 highway (my arbitrary dividing line when deciding whether to venture north or south from Pretoria) were in an area south of Delmas and I selected two as my target for the next day. The first was :

Pentad 2610_2840

Indicated by the blue rectangle on the map –

Pentad 2610_2840 south of Delmas, about 70 Km from Pretoria

I set off from our home in Pretoria in light rain at about 5.30 am, hoping the rain would dissipate, which it fortunately did, and was into the first target pentad an hour later. I initially stayed on the R50 main road which was quite busy with coal-hauling lorries despite the holiday (the coal mines and the power stations they feed obviously don’t get to close down) so whenever the opportunity presented itself I pulled off onto the gravel margin and drove slowly but bumpily along to keep out of their way.

The Cosmos flowers along the road verges made for an attractive background, interrupted by the coal mining activities that have despoiled large tracts of land in this part of SA. For more on the Cosmos flowers go to my earlier post – Cosmos time

Cosmos time, Delmas south
Not exactly a warm welcome – coal mining and roadworks ahead!

After recording what I could in the first few kms, I was glad to reach the R548 turn-off and proceed south along this far quieter road. I soon passed Leeuwpan, a large pan which in previous years was filled with water and teeming with water birds, but was now bone dry with no visible birds other than a few Spur-winged Geese (Wildemakou / Plectropterus gambensis) half hidden by the long grass. Good rains had fallen in Gauteng over the last few weeks to make up for the relatively dry summer, but clearly not enough to make much of an impact on these pans.

My pentad list grew slowly with species mostly typical of the limited habitats – grassveld patches between cultivated lands with near fully grown maize and soya crops, elsewhere restricted mining areas blocked any thoughts of exploring further.

My first surprise sighting of the morning came in the form of a lone White Stork (Witooievaar / Ciconia ciconia).

White Stork, Delmas south

This was followed soon thereafter by an even bigger surprise when I explored a sandy side road and spotted something in the middle of the road far ahead, which turned into an owl as I raised my binoculars to my eyes. I approached as quietly and cautiously as my vehicle would allow and was able to confirm my initial thought that it was a Marsh Owl (Vlei-uil / Asio capensis) – on the basis of it being the most likely owl in the area and the moist grassland habitat surrounding us at that point.

Marsh Owl

Thankfully no other traffic came by to interfere with my attempt to photograph this species – contrary to other species which are usually easier to photograph at rest than in flight, the only photos I have of Marsh Owl are in flight, so I was pleased to add these photos to my collection.

Unfortunately their habit of sitting in the road, especially after dark, can be this owl’s undoing – they are often victims when the lights of an oncoming vehicle blind them and they don’t fly off in time. Many are killed in this way, particularly during harvesting of the maize when they tend to feed on spilled corn kernels along the roads in the maize areas. It’s pleasing to see signs erected on some of the busier roads warning against this danger (to the owls) – if only more people would respond by being more vigilant while driving at night.

Reaching the southern boundary of the pentad with some time still left to atlas before reaching the two hour minimum time required for “Full Protocol” status, I decided to carry on along the same road into the adjoining pentad and complete the first one later on my way back. This pentad was directly south of the first one and numbered :

Pentad 2615_2840

Indicated by the red rectangle on the map –

Pentad 2615_2840

Being of similar habitat, the species mix in the second pentad was mostly similar for the first stretch, however I soon added Orange-breasted Waxbill (Rooiassie / Amandava subflava) and Wattled Lapwing (Lelkiewiet / Vanellus senegallus) to the morning’s list.

Then I came across the first decent body of water for the morning in the form of a farm dam some distance from the road and with the help of my scope was able to spot Greater Flamingo (Grootflamink / Phoenicopterus roseus) , SA Shelduck (Kopereend / Tadorna cana), a flock of Spur-winged Geese and a sprinkling of Yellow-billed Ducks ( Geelbekeend / Anas undulata). Another dam further on was closer to the road and held a single Goliath Heron (Reusereier / Ardea goliath).

Greater Flamingo

I completed a circuit of the pentad by heading west near its southernmost boundary, then north again – not much was added until I reached a bridge I had visited years before and which had what seemed like the same large flock of White-rumped Swifts (Witkruiswindswael / Apus caffer) circling above it. Stopping, I peered over the edge of the low bridge and immediately an African Spoonbill (Lepelaar / Platalea alba) flew up and away, followed a second later by a Green-backed Heron (Groenrugreier / Butorides striata) (first record for the pentad). Across the road I spotted a Malachite Kingfisher (Kuifkopvisvanger / Alcedo cristata) (2nd record) before it too flew off and disappeared into the reeds.

White-rumped Swift

I spent a while trying to photograph some of the fast-flying Swifts with some success – what I found later on scanning through my attempts was that one swift had a full crop, evidenced by the bulging white throat patch.

White-rumped Swift – with very full crop

It was time to head home – along the way I came across a rare photo opportunity in the form of a female Amur Falcon so engrossed in her grasshopper meal that I was able to approach much closer than usual. To see the photos I took, go to my earlier post titled Mongolian take-away

The Atlasing statistics

Pentads 2610_2840 and 2615_2840

I added the 19th and 26th Full Protocol cards overall and the 1st and 3rd for 2018 for the respective pentads, The combined tally for the morning was 51 species of which 2 were new records.    Total species for the pentad now 156 and 157

Some of the new/notable species added:

Green-backed Heron 

Red-faced Mousebird

Goliath Heron

SA Shelduck

White Stork

Malachite Kingfisher

* Atlasing

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a defined area  called a “pentad”. Each pentad has a unique number based on its geographical position according to a 5 minute x 5 minute grid of co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, which translates into a square of our planet roughly 8 x 8 kms in extent.

As a registered observer / Citizen scientist under the SABAP2 program (SA Bird Atlas Project 2), all of the birding I do nowadays includes recording the species for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town.

Atlasing has brought a new dimension and meaning to my birding as it has to many other birders. The introduction a couple of years ago of the “Birdlasser” App has greatly simplified the recording and submission of the data collected.

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while atlasing.

3 thoughts on “Atlasing Tales – An Owl and a hungry Swift”

  1. Hi Don
    I do enjoy your birding exploits ! Is the Amur Falcon an early migrant or do some over-winter ?
    Kind regards
    Larry
    PS Do Little Swifts survive on fast food ?

    1. Hi Larry, The Amurs are not known to overwinter – they are one of the later arrivals in November/December and depart April /May. We usually only start seeing them in early December on the highveld. They are being found more regularly in the eastern part of the Western Cape but in small numbers. Then the Swift – fast food question – you had me for a moment! All I can say is they enjoy a MacMidge or two on occasion

  2. Apologies
    I was confused with the Amur Falcon but reading more carefully it was not a sighting but the same route that you were following when you took those marvellous photos earlier in the year.
    Ah! White Rumped Swift (forked tail) not Little Swift. They fly so fast its hard to tell the difference. Hahaha
    Looking forward to your next blog !

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