Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in July 2020 …..
Klein Karoo South of Oudtshoorn – 1 July
Klein Karoo (Little Karoo) ? – for those not familiar with this South African region it is the dry area
Before embarking on this atlasing outing, I did an analysis of the frequency of atlasing over the last three years in the area around Mossel Bay, homing in on those pentads which appeared under-atlased in the period. I came up with about 10 pentads and, keen to do some Karoo birding, I decided on two that were located off the R328 road between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn, on the northern side of the Langeberg mountains.
I have made several trips to this area in the past and love the feel of the Karoo, so I was anxious to get there by sunrise – around 7.30 am during the mid-winter months. I reckoned it would take an hour’s drive so left home just after 6.30 am and headed past Hartenbos along the R328 road past the familiar landmarks of Eight Bells Resort (currently closed) and the twisty, steep in places Robinson Pass which tops out at 860 m. I always keep an eye on the car’s outside temperature gauge at this point and wasn’t surprised to see it reflecting a chilly 4 degrees C. I reached the first pentad soon after.
The air was crisp and clear when I made the first stop near the turn-off to the village of Volmoed and I spent the next 15 minutes drinking in the pureness of it while the sun cast a pale rosy wash over the surrounding hills.
It did not take long to pick up the calls of Large-billed Lark, seen shortly after, Grey-backed Cisticola, Ring-necked (Turtle) Dove and a distant Southern Black Korhaan to get the list off to a good start.
The booming call of an Ostrich and a nearby group reinforced just how popular this enormous bird is as commercial farming livestock in these parts, dating back 100 years to the era when ostrich feathers brought great wealth to the region, still visible in the old “Ostrich Palaces” which the farmers of those times built with their new-found wealth. But I did not record it as it is not a natural resident of the area. A Karoo Chat made up for that,,,
A flock of Pied Starlings passed by, no doubt off to start another busy day of foraging.
Driving on slowly, watching out for approaching vehicles so that I could pull over onto the verge, I saw Cape Bulbul, Malachite Sunbird, White-throated Canary and Layard’s Titbabbler (New record) before reaching the turn-off signposted Mount Hope, which raised my … er … hopes.
I spent some time driving the gravel road which initially runs next to a dry river course – single width in places so I had to be extra cautious while watching for oncoming cars and bakkies (pickups). Birds were not plentiful so I headed back to the main road and on to the next turn-off, this time to the opposite side and signposted Kandelaarsrivier (literally “chandelier river” – wonder where that name came from?) – suddenly birds were more plentiful, probably due to the farms, ploughed fields and ostrich encampments which lined the first part of the road.
My encounters with curious farmers have been a feature of my atlasing outings and I have met many interesting people along the way, albeit briefly. Today was no exception, although the age profile of the “farmer” was somewhat different this time – more about that at the end of this post.
It was not too long before I reached the boundary of the first pentad, with my species total standing on 38 hard-won species. The second pentad was adjacent to the first but involved a 15 minute drive to get to a convenient starting point before I could start recording again.
I started the new pentad in familiar territory in the village of Volmoed (literally “full of hope”) but it was now 11 am and it was immediately apparent that slow “middle of the day” birding lay ahead, with very few birds showing in the arid habitat.
This area is so arid the local rugby “field” is un-grassed – I doubt if they do those spectacular dives when scoring a try on this ground!
Hoping to get a better start, I headed to the Paardebont turn-off a few kms further – the first stretch of this gravel road is used by heavy vehicles transporting sand from the quarry some way down this road and I had learnt from previous visits that it is a road best avoided until after the quarry, as the dust kicked up by these vehicles creates something akin to a thick brown fog each time they pass, making any attempt at birding at best unpleasant, at worst impossible
Fortunately I also knew that there is an unmarked side road/track that heads back to the village, which I took and spent the next hour exploring as it runs near another dry river course with enough bush to attract several bird species, including Karoo Scrub-Robin, African Hoopoe, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Cape Bunting and Long-billed Crombec.
Back on the dusty Paardebont road I stopped for a recce at the low water bridge, thankfully with a concrete surface that was a veritable island in a sea of dust when the inevitable large truck rumbled past. A Namaqua Warbler took my total for the pentad to a modest 20 and after passing the quarry birding got even slower. Ahead lay more attractive, hilly countryside dotted with pleasant farmsteads, which I hoped would be more productive.
I lingered at every likely spot for the last hour and after the minimum two hours required for a “full protocol” pentad card, I had increased the total to 28, including a White-throated Canary and a very pleasing Greater Honeyguide calling from the valley below me, right on the pentad boundary.
Despite the low-ish totals and lack of any bodies of water, I returned home well pleased – there is something very rewarding about atlasing in the Klein Karoo.
An encounter with a farmer..
As mentioned earlier, my encounters with farmers while atlasing in their “patch” have often been a highlight of the day. Today produced yet another encounter with a farmer, or more correctly a future one.
I was driving slowly along a dead quiet back road lined with fields when I noticed a quad bike approaching in the rear view mirror and was soon overtaken by it – it was being driven by a young boy and an even younger girl was clinging for all she was worth to her big brother. They looked at me curiously as they went by but did not stop.
Not long after, they returned and stopped next to my vehicle – the lad, no more than 10 years old at a guess – asked me “kyk Oom voels?” (Are you looking at birds?) I replied “Ja” and tried to explain, in terms that I thought a youngster would understand, what I was doing. I established that he was Liam and his “sussie” (sister) was Lea, whereupon Liam in bright fashion carefully explained how to get to a certain gate on their (ie his parent’s) farm, where I was welcome to go in and, as he put it, spend some time waiting for the birds to come, while keeping myself concealed (all in Afrikaans, with a delightful “brei” – the distinct rolling of the r’s while talking, unique to parts of the southern Cape ).
He assured me that, using this technique, I would see “blerrie baie voels” (literally “a bladdy lot of birds”). I had to suppress a chuckle at his choice of words, obviously picked up from his parents, but at the same time felt his grasp of what I was doing was quite mature.
All this time his young sister, perhaps 6 years old, kept quiet, watching me with large eyes. I thanked Liam for his advice but told him I couldn’t linger too long as I had a day’s atlasing ahead. We parted ways with him advising me to look out for White-eyes as they were plentiful in the area, leaving me pleased about his enthusiasm and understanding at such a young age.
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%