Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in March 2020 …..
Another busy atlasing month during which planned – and unplanned – trips saw us travelling across South Africa, initially to Mpumulanga province for a midweek breakaway, followed not long after by a lengthy trip through Gauteng, Free State and Western Cape provinces on our way from Pretoria to Cape Town and then eastwards to eventual lockdown in Mossel Bay, a trip of some 1850 kms spread over 4 days.
Balmoral Area : 18th March 2020
My focus was now on the more mundane “ordinary” parts of Gauteng, rather than the nature reserves and protected areas that I had atlased the previous month. Studying the pentad map, I was drawn to the area around, and north of, Balmoral, a small settlement about 70 kms east of Pretoria along the N4 National Road. Both of the pentads I had in mind had not been atlased in 2020 yet, so fitted into my atlasing plan.
The N4 National road effectively divides the pentad into northern and southern sections – I decided to ignore the southern section as it includes Kusile power station, still partly under construction and surrounded by coalfields. From previous experience, I knew the roads would be filled with heavy, intimidating coal trucks and that the habitat has been seriously altered by the mining activities – not at all suited to the comfortable, relaxed atlasing I was looking for.
The northern section is entirely different with a mix of grassland and farms with herds of cattle and I set out to cover as much of it as possible.
Initially, after turning off the highway, I travelled slowly along the quieter R104 road that runs parallel to the N4. This proved to be a good move with plenty of birds apparent along the verges, in and on the long grass and bush, even among the banks of colourful Cosmos flowers in pastel shades that emerge at this time of year.
After the first hour I had logged 28 species, all fairly common for the area, including Fan-tailed Widowbird, Bronze Mannikin (3%), Zitting Cisticolas aplenty in their characteristic hopping flight and equally as many Levaillant’s Cisticolas calling zestily from their tall grass perches.
After turning back I took the gravel road heading north-east and spent some time at a bridge over a river where I found tens of Little Swifts and some Lesser Striped Swallows filling the air above it. In a distant riverside bush I spotted a flash of colour and my binos confirmed my initial excited hope – a Half-collared Kingfisher (6%) ! Thanks to the magic of my Sony bridge camera (appropriately used on a bridge) I could capture a fuzzy but identifiable image of this superb little bird – definitely my bird of the day!
The Kingfisher was in the bush just in front of the tallest tree above
My next move took me out of the pentad and I only returned to it 3 and a half hours later, when I proceeded into the southern section hoping the dreaded coal truck traffic was less intimidating by now. Fortunately I found a quiet side road along which lay a farm dam I had visited previously and was thrilled to find Grey-headed Gull, Reed Cormorant, Yellow-billed Duck and Maccoa Duck (9%) on the water and White-winged Tern (3%) above it to take my pentad total to 52, which is where it ended.
This pentad, which lies directly north of the first one, has more rugged habitat and less of the waving grasslands and lush verges that I had enjoyed so far. The road was initially in good condition but when I branched off it became increasingly rough …..
The initial stretch of road was productive and it did not take long to log the first 15 species, including two larks – Rufous-naped and Spike-heeled Larks (7%) – both entertaining me with typical calls and roadside photo opportunities.
Spike-heeled Larks have two features which set them apart from similar looking larks – a short, white-tipped tail and a white throat – both are visible in this image. The longish decurved bill is another feature of the species but less obvious in this image.
Moving north-west the birding slowed somewhat until I reached a stream with a small wetland, which provided a boost with Village Weavers, Red-collared Widowbird, Moorhen and Lesser-swamp Warbler – the last revealing its presence in the reeds with its liquid warbling call.
Shortly after that stop I came across a Black-winged Kite and colourful White-fronted Bee-eaters using the overhead wires as a hawking perch, after which I had to work hard for new species to record. A small raptor high up on a pylon, with strong backlight preventing a clear sighting, had me battling to decide on an ID, but my trusty Sony bridge camera on full zoom and set to over-expose by about two stops saved the day, providing a good enough image to confirm it was a Greater Kestrel (5%).
Ant-eating chats suddenly appeared in roadside fields, announcing a change in habitat to a more sandy terrain – just another reminder how habitat bound many species of bird can be.
Last but one record for the pentad was another small raptor perched in a distant tree – it had me guessing for a while, even with the assistance of the camera – my initial thought was Gabar Goshawk but it was lacking certain features such as the red cere. After studying the photos, I decided it had to be a sub-adult Gabar that had lost most of its juvenile features but was not yet fully adult – however I was set in the right direction by Roelof (see comment below) and changed my ID to African Cuckoo Hawk, which pleased me even more as this is a species not readily found in these parts – interestingly this particular pentad stands out as having the highest reporting rate (21%) for the species in the province.
Just before leaving the pentad finally, I came across a flock of Black-throated Canaries to take the pentad total to a satisfactory 42.
My March atlasing continued during our road trip to the Cape – more about that in Part 3….
Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%