The north-eastern part of Free State Province is known as one of the major maize, sunflower and wheat farming areas with its deep sandy soils and seemingly endless vistas across the flat landscape.
By kind invitation of Pieter and Marietjie, part of Gerda’s extended family, we spent a glorious weekend on their farm Annasrust near Hoopstad in April this year, together with our son Stephan and family – pretty much the perfect venue for a relaxing yet stimulating stay, raised to an even higher level by the company, it has to be said.
Annasrust farm is not your average Free State farm, lying as it does on the southern shores of the Vaal River (which forms part of the Bloemhof dam at that point) and stocked with a variety of game which enjoy the largely undisturbed plains, making it more of a mini Game Reserve than a farm.
With its varied habitats, the farm presents plenty of exciting birding opportunities, which started as we drove from the entrance gate to the farmstead through grasslands interspersed with patches of woodland. Once we had greeted our hosts Pieter and Marietjie and had settled in our house – did I mention we had a house to ourselves? – I recorded the species seen on the way in –
- several Northern Black Korhaan rising up out of the long grass and flying off in a wide circle, croaking their objection to being disturbed
- Ant-eating Chat perched on a termite mound
- Sociable Weavers at their enormous communal nest (more fully described in my earlier post Sociable Weaver)
- the usual doves and Helmeted Guineafowl and a Spotted Thick-knee which seemed to be awaiting our arrival in the middle of the road, only giving way at the last moment
My plan was to do some early morning birding over the two-day stay, leaving the rest of the day for family activities and any ad hoc birding opportunities that may arise. The only decision needed was whether to head out on foot, limiting the area I could cover, or to take the Prado and explore further and wider. In the end I chose the walking option, one of my favourite forms of exercise and one that trumps any other way of getting close to nature in such beautiful surroundings
Sunrise was at 6.30 am and I was on my way a few minutes later – almost immediately I heard a soft piping call – vaguely familiar and I scanned the tall blue gum trees near the house. I soon found the responsible bird – a Gabar Goshawk which was seemingly agitated by a group of cackling Green Woodhoopoes who had dared to trespass in his territory.
The more familiar call of Rufous-naped Lark – a clear, plaintive “tswee – twooo” – accompanied me as I walked along the sandy track lined with long grass both sides, wet with morning dew.
A bushy tree some way ahead drew my attention – the whitish blob did not fit the pattern of the rest of the tree and through my binos it turned almost magically into none other than a Pearl-spotted Owlet – I had scarcely begun my walk and already had a highlight of the morning. I cursed the fact that I hadn’t taken my camera and turned to go and get it, just as the Owlet disappeared.
This tiny member of the Owl family has to rate as one of the cutest birds around – all fluffy and round with those penetrating yellow eyes and if you’re lucky it will perform its party trick of turning its head 180 degrees to show you the back of its head, complete with false “eyes”.
I found these photos in my archive from 2007 which show the front and back “eyes”
The walk continued with regular sightings of some less common arid bushveld species –
- Kalahari Scrub-Robins calling, but difficult to spot amongst the foliage
- Barred Wren-Warbler emitting its trilling call that can be heard at a distance despite its small size
- Groundscraper Thrush perched high up in a tree and calling melodically for minutes on end
- Pririt Batis with its descending, drawn out series of short whistles, heard initially then seen later
An isolated outbuilding which seemed not to be in use, had attracted a pair of Ashy Tits, not seen by me in a few years, while Scaly-feathered Finches occupied a nearby tree along with an excited pair of Neddickys.
And being a game farm there were other sightings of a few of the animals that roam the grasslands ………….
By now I had been walking for an hour and a half and could feel breakfast and coffee beckoning so turned back and headed for the farmstead, where I took off my shoes which were wet through from the dew and caked with the sand from the tracks and left them in the sun to dry out.
Breakfast was duly enjoyed with the family – a feast of fruit platters conjured up by Gerda and Liesl, followed by a baked egg and bacon dish which really hit the spot. The rest of the day was given over to long chats, a midday snooze and a stunning late afternoon river cruise (more about that in the next post)
I was up early and out again for another extended walk, this time my plan was to do a circular route past the old house, down to the river and back along the riverside fence where I would look for the most direct route homewards.
Initially the birds I encountered were mostly the same as the previous morning, then Zitting Cisticola showed, fluttering over the long grass and Cape Penduline Tit made a welcome appearance, moving restlessly among the bushes.
Before reaching the river I added White-browed Sparrow-Weavers to the list and at the river the shallow flats were a moving feast of birds with Yellow-billed and Little Egrets and Cape Teals prominent amongst many others and White-winged Terns flying in elegant fashion just above the water, turning and retracing their path every 50 metres or so.
Walking along the fence, two grazing horses followed me on the other side – hoping for a treat perhaps? I don’t usually have an affinity for horses, so tried to ignore them but they followed me all the way to where I turned for home.
Two hours of walking had left me quite weary and caffeine deprived, so I took the shortest route back to the house where the family were slowly emerging and I was in good time to join them for much-needed coffee.
Later that day we reluctantly left this bit of paradise and headed back to Pretoria – the slow drive out of the farm and along the first stretch of road past Hoopstad was good for a few interesting species to round out a memorable weekend –
- Shaft-tailed Whydah
- Long-tailed Paradise Whydah
- Lesser Kestrels in numbers on the overhead wires
- Namaqua Doves
- A lone White Stork
I can recall reading an article many years ago on a visit to the Free State in which the writer suggested a weekend in the Free State is like a week in the country – I would tend to agree.