All posts by Don Reid

South African nature enthusiast with a passion for Birding, Photography and Travelling to interesting places to discover more about Southern Africa and the World

Gone, but not forgotten; Finding the Laughing Gull

Earlier in the year I wrote about my “Once in a birder’s lifetime” experience of finding a new species for the Southern African region, namely a very far off course Laughing Gull which stayed in Mossel Bay for a week before disappearing again.

I’m pleased to say that my post, with some tweaks, has been recently published as an article in the May/June 2022 edition of African Birdlife magazine, reproduced below –

Now how am I going to top this find?

Long-crested Eagle – at the roadside

While atlasing not far from Pretoria on the 1st of April this year, I was pleasantly surprised to come across this handsome Long-crested Eagle perched on a utility pole at the roadside. It is always challenging to photograph a raptor perched high up as this one was, with a light background – far better to have them perched closer to eye level, but that would be too much to hope for.

In this case I was on a fairly busy regional road when I saw the eagle from a distance and slowed down as much as the traffic would allow, then pulled off onto the verge at a spot almost opposite where the eagle was perched and where the grass was not so long that it could be concealing puncture-producing sharp objects – just another of the hazards faced by atlasers.

Not wanting to spook the eagle by getting out of my car, I carefully lowered the driver’s window and prepared my camera for a few shots – I learnt a long time ago that one of the most important settings when photographing birds in the field is the exposure compensation.

Both the bird’s colouring and the amount of backlight need to be taken into consideration and, without getting too technical, I set the exposure at 1 full stop over-exposure to take into account the dark colouring of the eagle and the fairly bright background of blue sky.

I took a few shots then turned the car around and stopped on the same side as where the eagle was perched and very carefully got out, remaining partially concealed by the car. This worked and I was able to get closer shots but as soon as I moved from behind the car the eagle flew off, only to perch on the next pole.

This next image may look like a “dud” because the eye is not sharp and bright, but in fact it shows the “third eyelid” that many birds and especially raptors have – called a nictitating membrane. Unlike regular eyelids, it opens and closes horizontally across the eye and protects the eye when catching prey at speed and other hazards. It also helps keep the eye clean and moist – important when you are relying almost solely on your sharp vision for survival

I also took a couple of video clips including this one which shows the eagle seemingly watching a passing car go by – there is just something about large raptors that make them a favourite photographic subject – those eyes, that presence never fail to produce a dramatic image.

Long-crested Eagle Lophaetus occipitalis (Langkuifarend)

A fairly common resident of Southern Africa, the Long-crested Eagle is a personal favourite and we have stopped many times to view one at roadside, particularly in areas where pine and other plantations are the dominant habitat.

When perched it is unmistakeable with its long crest and dark colouring. In flight it is a tad more difficult but the large white wing patches and barred tail separate it from all other large raptors, although looking up at a bright sky and trying to see those sort of details is never easy.

Where to find it

The Long-crested Eagle has a scattered distribution across the eastern parts of southern Africa with concentrations along the escarpment of Limpopo Province and Mpumalanga and the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. They occur as far south as the Garden Route area of the southern Cape coast

SABAP2 Distribution Map for Long-crested Eagle

My first sighting was in 1994 on a farm near Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal.

Mossel Bay to Pretoria – not just a Journey

One of the benefits of reaching that age where they automatically give you a pensioner’s discount at the supermarket check-out without asking for an ID, is having the time – and the good sense – to turn a potentially mundane trip into a mini-holiday.

And this is exactly what we did when travelling between our Mossel Bay and Pretoria homes during March this year – instead of rushing to complete the 1250 kms road journey in 2 days with one overnight stop, we decided to stretch it out with a two night stay in Prince Albert, Western Cape and a further night in Springfontein, Free State, turning it into a four day, three night adventure.

Day 1 Thursday

After spending most of the morning packing, loading and preparing our Mossel Bay home for a lengthy hibernation, we left around lunchtime and set off on the familiar route to Prince Albert via the scenic Robinson Pass then through the town of Oudtshoorn and the winding road that takes you through the spectacular Meiringspoort. No matter how many times we drive this route, I still end up driving through Meiringspoort with my jaw in a dropped position – it is that special.

But this time there was a twist – just beyond the last of the 25 river crossings (it’s the same river each time) we encountered the first of many swarms of locusts that filled the air and pinged and ‘thunked’ against the grille, windscreen and roof of our SUV as we drove. The arid parts of South Africa have been plagued by swarms of biblical proportions through the summer, due to good rains after years of drought conditions.

This video was taken after stopping at the roadside and gives an idea of the numbers of locusts – a tiny fraction of what we drove through for tens of kilometres

Once we reached our destination I spent half an hour carefully prising locust bodies from every nook and cranny of our car, at the same time providing a veritable feast for an army of ants that descended on them as they dropped to the ground.

Our usual B&B in Prince Albert was fully booked so we had booked into one we had not tried before – De Bergkant Lodge – which turned out to be an excellent choice – lovely spacious room, good breakfast, efficient management and a super 15m pool which I immediately tried out as the temperature was hovering in the low 30’s (deg C)

De Bergkant Lodge, Prince Albert
De Bergkant Lodge, Prince Albert – our room was the one in the corner

After the swim and relaxing a while we had dinner at the Rude Chef (No – he/she wasn’t) restaurant. Prince Albert has always had an amazing selection of quality restaurants for a small Karoo town, but like so many other places Covid has had a devastating effect on the tourist industry which is only now recovering. So the choice of eating places has reduced but the quality is still there.

Day 2 Friday

After breakfast at the pool we set off late morning to visit the Weltevrede Fig Farm about 30 kms outside Prince Albert, along a gravel road that made its way through the mountains in spectacular fashion providing beautiful views over every rise.

Road to Weltevrede Farm, near Prince Albert

Weltevrede appeared at the end of the road, like an oasis in the arid countryside, the fig trees spreading up and down the valley in a broad green ribbon.

Road to Weltevrede Farm, near Prince Albert

We had a look around then settled at a table under a tree and lingered over a light lunch and coffee, just enjoying the ambience while farm workers carried out tray after tray of prepared figs and set them out to dry in the pure Karoo sunshine, where the air is dry and devoid of any pollutants.

Weltevrede Farm
Weltevrede Farm – prepared figs drying in the sun
Weltevrede Farm – their Fig Tart is delicious!

We took our time travelling back to Prince Albert and relaxed for a while before I set out to add some species to the pentad list that I had begun the previous afternoon with mostly the species visiting the garden. Heading out of town in a northerly direction I soon found Pririt Batis, Namaqua Dove, Pied Barbet and White-necked Raven and a swing past the small Waste water treatment works added SA Shelduck to take my pentad list to a modest 30.

Pririt Batis / Priritbosbontrokkie

After another invigorating swim we walked across the road to La-di-dah restaurant for a meal – our first choice was grilled Karoo lamb chops but disappointingly they had just sold the last ones and we had to revert to other meat dishes.

Day 3 Saturday

A longish drive lay ahead so we left after breakfast and made good time via Prince Albert Road where we joined the N1 National road to Beaufort West, Richmond and Colesberg, with comfort and coffee stops at Three Sisters, Karoo Padstal and Chargo Farm Stall at Colesberg.

As we left Prince Albert a Booted Eagle flew over the road ahead and I quickly added this welcome raptor to my pentad list.

We reached our overnight stop – Prior Grange farm near Springfontein – just after 5 pm and settled in to the Garden Cottage.

Prior Grange near Springfontein Free State
Prior Grange – the main house
Prior Grange – the Garden Cottage

It was time for my birding/relaxing walk to stretch my legs and with not much daylight left I headed straight to the dam behind the farm house and found it fuller than I had ever seen it, in complete contrast to our last visit before Covid when it had held a fraction of the water it now had.

Prior Grange dam

The dam had a single Grey Heron and small numbers of Red-knobbed Coots, Moorhens, Cape Shovelers, Yellow-billed Ducks, Red-billed Teals, Little Grebes and SA Shelducks, while the reeds were busy with Bishops and Weavers and a single African Reed Warbler which had me puzzled for a while as it was making an unusual sound (for me, probably not for him)

Prior Grange dam
Cape Shoveler / Kaapse Slopeend

Heading back to the cottage I added Karoo Thrush, Pied Starling and Fiscal Flycatcher before dusk fell, taking my pentad list to 32 after an hour’s atlasing, leaving the next morning to complete the two hour minimum atlasing to count as a “Full Protocol” card. Dinner, served in the cottage, was roast lamb and veg – what else on a Karoo farm?

Karoo Thrush Turdus smithii Geelbeklyster, Prior Grange
Pied Starling Lamprotornis bicolor Witgatspreeu, Prior Grange

Day 4 Sunday

I was up early to complete the pentad card with a walk around the garden and along the road, adding Cloud Cisticola, Lesser Kestrel (on the same pole as I had seen it a few years ago), Cape Glossy Starling and Anteating Chat.

Lesser Kestrel / Kleinrooivalk

The grassland next to the road was waterlogged in places after substantial summer rains

On the road out after a full English breakfast I added a few more including a Black-headed Heron at a mini wetland in the town, taking the pentad total to 44 and raising my personal tally for the pentad to 98 species after completing 6 cards since 2014.

All that remained was a drive of around 550 kms to our home in Pretoria – we arrived just after 4 pm, glad to be ‘home’ (Pretoria version)

Sea Pie in Plett

What happened to the Birding ?

If I have touched your curiosity button and you are wondering why I seem to have changed the theme of my blog to culinary matters, let me set things straight right away. I was looking for some background information about the bird which is the subject of my recent twitch of a rarity and my extensive research (OK, I just googled a bit) came up with something unexpected……

The bird in question is the Eurasian Oystercatcher, the unexpected fact is that the Oystercatcher was originally known as the “Sea Pie” but was renamed in the 1730 ‘s when a naturalist observed one eating oysters. The name “sea pie” seems to be a shortened form of Sea Magpie, due to its pied (black and white) appearance, (not applicable to our better known African Black Oystercatcher which has all black plumage).

An old illustration of the Sea-Pie

Just a little background

At the risk of boring those who already know my approach to twitching (the chasing of rarities no matter what it entails) let me repeat my criteria : if the rarity in question is within maximum 2 hours travel time by car from where I happen to be, I will consider going for it.

Once again the trigger came from the SA Rare Bird News report (SARBN) which is published by Trevor Hardaker twice a week – in this case it was the report of 3rd December 2021 that piqued my interest with a report of an Eurasian Oystercatcher on the Keurbooms River estuary at Plettenberg Bay in the southern Cape.

We were still in Pretoria at the time but were readying ourselves for a mid December road trip to our other home in Mossel Bay, so if the bird hung around long enough, there may be a chance to twitch it…..

I kept an eye on the reports coming through and as our departure date got closer, and the Oystercatcher remained in the same area, my hopes of being able to twitch the species started rising.

Now I should mention that I had in fact seen this species in Europe a number of years ago, but the circumstances were rather bizarre and the sighting somewhat unsatisfactory so I was keen to get a better sighting and of course to be able to add it to my list of Southern African birds seen.

At the time we were travelling to the UK via Amsterdam Schiphol airport and while taxi-ing after landing at Schiphol early morning I spotted, from my window seat, an Eurasian Oystercatcher at the edge of a concrete water channel along the perimeter of the airport – the sighting was brief but there was no mistaking the bird with its black and white plumage and distinctive bill

As I said, a somewhat unusual way to add a lifer and not what I consider fulfilling…..

Time to Twitch

We arrived in Mossel Bay on Wednesday 15 December 2021 after a road trip spread over 3 days and, once settled in to our ”Southern Cape” routine, my thoughts returned to the Eurasian Oystercatcher, which was still hanging around in the same area on the Saturday, so we decided to do the trip to Plettenberg Bay (or Plett for short) on the Sunday.

Now, 150 kms doesn’t usually sound like a challenging distance to drive for a day but Google Maps put it into perspective by estimating that a 2 hour drive awaited us, fortunately just making it into my (admittedly arbitrary) 2 hour drive time limit for a twitch.

With time to prepare I made a note of the instructions provided about the location, where to park and how to access the estuary and the recommendation that any attempt to find the bird be done at low tide. The tide tables indicated a low tide around 10 am for the Sunday so it seemed quite reasonable to leave home at about 8 am.

Another recommendation was to have a scope handy if available as the bird was likely to be a fair distance from the closest viewing spot so my Swarovski scope was the first item to be loaded into the car. I had recently purchased a new ball head for the scope to replace an old one that had become difficult to manoeuvre and I was looking forward to see how it functioned in the field (I’m glad to say it performed perfectly)

We duly got to the pin-drop spot at the small parking area, which had a full complement of cars but fortunately one was just pulling out and I slotted the Prado into place and set off down the narrow track, scope and tripod slung over my shoulder, leaving Gerda to enjoy the peace and quiet with her knitting.

The track initially wound its way through bush, then over a narrow wooden foot bridge and onto the sands of the estuary. A birder heading the other way turned out to be Rudi, another Mossel Bay birder and after greeting each other he pointed me in the general direction of where he had just seen the Oystercatcher.

The pathway to the Estuary

Armed with that knowledge, I found a spot to set up the scope, taking care to avoid the softer sands which would have swallowed my sandals if I wasn’t wary (all proof of how hazardous twitching can be). I scanned the distant river close to a Tern roost and within a minute had found the Oystercatcher and locked onto it with the scope. I allowed myself a little victory punch in my imagination – success!

For the next 40 minutes I tried getting closer to where the bird was hanging out, with some success although the soft mud of the estuary at low tide thwarted my attempt constantly as I picked my way across the drier parts to a better vantage point.

Satisfied with the views I had enjoyed, I made my way in hopscotch fashion to the main pathway back to the car, passing a group of birders who had just arrived but were less fortunate as a passing helicopter had caused the Tern roost and surrounding birds to rise up and fly off.

My only regret was not having my camera, which I left in the car as the scope and tripod was quite a burden without a camera dangling from my shoulder as well. Plenty of excellent photos have been posted on various birding groups and the superb image below was taken by a birder who rented a canoe so as to get closer to the bird – included here with the photographer’s kind permission.

Image by Deirdre Krzychylkiewicz

Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus (Bonttobie)

This species is a rare but annual visitor from its breeding grounds across the Palearctic region from Iceland to China. Those found in southern Africa are thought to originate from Siberia and prefer to feed by probing for invertebrates on mudflats, having a longer bill than the African Black Oystercatcher which generally feeds on mussels.

The illustrations below are from Chamberlain’s Waders, written and illustrated by Faansie Peacock and show the unmistakeable pied appearance of the Eurasian Oystercatcher compared to the all black plumage of the African Black Oystercatcher.

On our way back home we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a light lunch of their home-made pie and salads – it crossed my mind that I had seen a Sea Pie in Plett and eaten a Pie near the Sea in Plett, all in the same morning……..

Overnighting in the Karoo – Abbotsbury is a delight

Google “Abbotsbury” and it comes up with a Wikipedia article about a village in the English county of Dorset, about a mile from the English Channel coast.

The Abbotsbury we like to visit couldn’t be further from that description – it is a Guest Farm deep in the Karoo, some 27 kms north of the historic South African town of Graaff-Reinet, and is one of our favourite stopovers on the long road between our homes in Pretoria and Mossel Bay.

Location of Abbotsbury

In 2021 we had the pleasure of two stopovers at this peaceful and hospitable guest farm, on our way to Mossel Bay for our winter and summer stays, and we were once again enchanted by the setting and the comfortable Garden Cottage which has become a brief “home away from home” for a number of years.

The Garden Cottage

The setting is sublime – set among a cheerful garden which is in complete contrast to the surrounding arid conditions, yet fits the purpose perfectly

Abbotsbury guest farm – the Garden Cottage

And the interior is just as charming with that homey feeling that has you instantly relaxed

Abbotsbury guest farm – the living room
Abbotsbury guest farm – the lawns
Abbotsbury guest farm – time to relax on the stoep
Abbotsbury guest farm

Getting there

We have done the road trip between Pretoria and Mossel Bay or vice-versa many times and usually travel on the N1 National Road between Pretoria and Colesberg, then choose between the route via Beaufort-West/Meiringspoort/Oudtshoorn or via Graaff-Reinet/ George.

The latter route is the one that takes us past Abbotsbury, which lies a few kms off the N9 National Road and as soon as we turn off and pass through the entrance gate I feel a sense of relief at escaping, for a while, from the main road. It’s also a signal to open the car window, breathe in the fresh Karoo air and listen for the calls of the birds that favour this arid habitat.

Abbotsbury Graaff-Reinet

It’s a short drive from the road up to the farmstead along a dusty farm track that passes kraals with sheep and goats, keeping a lookout for birds in the scrubby Karoo habitat

Abbotsbury guest farm
Abbotsbury guest farm – even the goats are good looking
Abbotsbury Guest Farm

Once we have greeted owner Graham and settled into the cottage, we relax for the rest of the afternoon on the stoep overlooking the garden and lawn – by now Angus, the friendly Scottish Terrier, has come to “greet” us and persuade us to throw his old tennis ball so that he can scurry after it and bring it back for the next throw.

Angus, Abbotsbury’s friendly Scottish Terrier

Time for a Walk

For the last hour or so of driving before we reach our overnight stop, I start looking forward to the walk I will take once we are settled in – firstly to stretch legs and body that have been unnaturally dormant while driving for several hours and secondly to fit in at least an hour’s quality atlasing in a pentad that has limited coverage.

The farm has a character all its own and around every bend there is something photogenic to admire

Abbotsbury Guest Farm
Abbotsbury guest farm
Abbotsbury guest farm

There are some quirky plants along the way

Abbotsbury guest farm
Flower amongst the thorns, Abbotsbury guest farm

And the Birds

Atlasing statistics show that the pentad in which Abbotsbury lies has a total of 100 species after 13 full protocol cards, with my contribution being 65 species from 7 cards. I usually expect to find 30 to 40 species during a visit and the images below are a selection of some of those I have come across and been able to photograph –

Karoo Scrub-Robin Erythropygia coryphaeus  (Slangverklikker), Abbotsbury guest farm
Cape Sparrow Passer melanurus  (Gewone mossie), Abbotsbury guest farm

The Pied Barbet is one of those birds that are heard before they are seen, alternating between their two calls – one a soft descending hoop hoop hoop, the other a loud nasal pehp pehp pehp – very much a feature of this arid habitat

Acacia Pied Barbet Tricholaema leucomelas  (Bonthoutkapper), Abbotsbury guest farm
Cape Robin-Chat Cossypha caffra  (Gewone janfrederik) , Abbotsbury guest farm
Greater Striped Swallow Cecropis cucullata  (Grootstreepswael)
, Abbotsbury guest farm
Cape Bunting Emberiza capensis  (Rooivlerkstreepkoppie)
, Abbotsbury guest farm
Grey Tit Parus afer  (Piet-tjou-tjou-grysmees) , Abbotsbury guest farm
Southern Masked-Weaver Ploceus velatus  (Swartkeelgeelvink) , Abbotsbury
African Red-eyed Bulbul Pycnonotus nigricans  (Rooioogtiptol), Abbotsbury

The best part about my afternoon and morning walks of an hour or so each around the farm is knowing a delicious dinner or breakfast will be served when I get back to the cottage

Laughing Gull in Mossel Bay – a Week to Remember

Some two years ago I posted about a memorable swim at Santos Beach in Mossel Bay, the coastal town that is our home for a large part of the year. On that occasion it was a unique spectacle of nature as hundreds of terns and gulls gathered to feast on shoals of anchovies that had come so far inshore that swimmers could literally scoop them from the sea. (https://mostlybirding.com/2020/02/18/a-swim-to-remember/)

In early February this year we witnessed an even rarer happening in Mossel Bay, which started on Sunday 6th February 2022 on that same beach – Santos – and continued throughout the week, spreading to the harbour area and as far as the Point.

The Story Begins

From sunrise on Monday morning, small knots of people could be seen gathering at strategic spots along the shoreline of Mossel Bay, many dressed in bush clothing, with binoculars draped around their necks and carrying ‘weapons’ of varying size, the latter often covered in camouflage material designed to conceal them.

Their actions were strange – one moment they would be gazing out to sea or scanning the beach and harbour with their binoculars, the next moment they would be on the run to a nearby vantage point, hiding behind anything they could find and pointing their ‘weapons’ at the object of their interest.

At other times they would stand around talking animatedly, checking their phones constantly, then at some signal rushing to their vehicles and driving anxiously to another of the favoured spots, there to repeat the procedure.

At the harbour, a designated National Key Point in South Africa, the gathered groups encountered some resistance to their endeavours, as security personnel approached menacingly, ordering them to refrain from entering the harbour area and from pointing their ‘weapons’ in the direction of the harbour.

This led to several verbal skirmishes and the mood of the increasing number of ‘attackers’ seemed to take a turn for the worse. However a message, possibly from a ‘Central Command’, had the groups heading off to one of the other points and calm returned to the harbour once again.

This continued throughout the day and for the rest of the week, with the initial groups of ‘attackers’ being replaced on a daily basis by new groups arriving from all over South Africa.

What was Going on?

It could only be one of two things –

  • the start of an armed insurrection, or
  • twitchers gathering to see and photograph the latest addition to the Southern African list of birds

I’m glad to say it was the latter, especially as I was initially responsible for starting the scramble to see this first time vagrant to our shores!

And the ‘weapons’ referred to in the story above are, of course, the long-lensed cameras favoured by birders (the ‘attackers’) trying to capture an image of the bird for their records.

Twitchers outside the harbour (I’m the hidden one with the hat) (Image by Renette Furstenburg)

How it Happened

It all started with a trip to Santos beach with my daughter Geraldine and son-in-law Andre, for a late afternoon swim just after 6 pm on Sunday 6th February 2022. We parked and walked down the steps and across the grassy embankment towards the beach – ever on the lookout for birds, I noticed that there were about a dozen gulls in the fresh water pond that forms in the middle of the beach at the stormwater outlet, drinking and bathing at the end of a no doubt busy day of scavenging and resting.

As we got closer to the pond I stopped dead in my tracks, let out a mild expletive and said to Andre and Geraldine “That’s a Franklin’s Gull!” – it stood out like a sore thumb amongst the similar sized Grey-headed Gulls lined up at the pond, with its black hood and dark, slate grey wings contrasting with the mostly white head and pale grey wings of the similar sized gulls normally encountered in Mossel Bay.

This excellent photo (by Estelle Smalberger the next day) best represents the view we had of the gull at the pond

Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Estelle Smalberger 7 Feb)

I had come to the beach for a late afternoon swim, so had none of my usual birding paraphernalia – no binos, no camera, not even my otherwise ever-present phone, so Andre dashed back to the car to get his phone. Geraldine and I stood and watched the gull intently while we waited but, as luck would have it, the gull finished drinking and bathing a few seconds before Andre got back and it flew off in the direction of the harbour.

I buried my head in despair for a few seconds, then shrugged it off and we enjoyed the swim we had come for.

Fortunately the gull had been quite relaxed and allowed us to approach within a few metres of its spot alongside the pond, so I was able to confirm in my mind the instinctive first ID of the gull as a Franklin’s Gull.

This was without any of the usual aids, simply based on having seen the species in Canada some years ago – the breeding plumage with full black hood and white eye crescents were what clinched it for me, without considering other possibilities……..I mean, no other gulls with a fully black hood occur in Southern Africa, so what else could it be ……. ?? (The Black-headed Gull, also an occasional vagrant, looks similar but its hood is a chocolate brown colour)

Once I got back home, I posted a message on the local birding whatsapp group, at 8.13 pm to be precise, suggesting that all keep a lookout for a “Franklin’s Gull” in the Mossel Bay area.

At the same time I recorded the sighting on my Birdlasser app which shows the location of the sighting on a map (this shows the corrected species name)

Some time later, at 9.32 pm, Rudi Minnie responded with some amazement and undertook to be at Santos beach at first light on Monday morning.

And there I left it, happy that I had spotted a rarity, one that is recorded only sporadically along the west and east coasts of South Africa and one that would no doubt be of interest to a few birders ……

Monday dawned sunny and warm and I headed out early to the Vleesbaai area where another rarity – a Baillon’s Crake – had been reported, my plan being to hopefully find it and atlas the pentad at the same time. While waiting patiently for the crake to put in an appearance (one juvenile popped out briefly, too quick for a photo) I kept an eye on the messages from those looking for the “Franklin’s Gull”.

First to confirm it was Edwin Polden at 6.42 am and Rudi Minnie shortly thereafter, followed by the first photos at 7.01am.

Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (“Back of camera” Image by Edwin Polden 7 Feb)
Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Rudi Minnie 7 Feb)

Some other Mossel Bay birders followed up with their own photos, providing more detail of the gull’s features

Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Tersia Marais 7 Feb)

Trevor Hardaker, chair of the SA Rarities Committee and the undisputed ‘king’ of rarities in Southern Africa joined in the discussion, expressing his concern about the initial ID and imploring photographers to send a photo of the gull’s upper wing colouring. There was some speculation about his reason for this request, which became more urgent as the minutes ticked by.

Fortunately Estelle Smalberger was able to post a photo showing the upper wing of the gull with all-black wingtips –

Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Estelle Smalberger 7 Feb 08.53am)

and the reaction from Trevor was instantaneous :

Some 7 minutes later Trevor sent an email alert to the thousands of subscribers around Southern Africa to let them know about this ‘Giga’ rarity, a new species record for the sub-region, which had many of them, including Trevor himself, re-arranging their lives to get to Mossel Bay without delay and hopefully see the gull.

Laughing Gull vs Franklin’s Gull

It took the expertise of Trevor Hardaker to correctly ID this gull and it was based on the differences in upper wing pattern which are nicely illustrated in these excerpts from a guide book which he posted

This is the Laughing Gull – (in non-breeding plumage so without the black hood)

Laughing Gull Illustration

And this is the Franklin’s Gull

Franklin’s Gull Illustration

The Reaction

The reaction after Trevor sent out the alert was not unexpected – there are a number of birders in the region who will go to any lengths to add a species to their lists for the southern African sub-region and this new species presented a golden opportunity for the ultra keen twitchers. Some must have literally upped and rushed to the airport and found a seat on a flight to George, as the first arrivals from Gauteng were in Mossel Bay that same afternoon.

Others made quick arrangements and drove long distances to Mossel Bay from all over SA. This continued throughout the week, with clutches of anxious twitchers staking out the favourite spots and sharing messages until they too were able to ‘tick’ this new species and get a photo or two.

Laughing Gull twitchers near the tidal pool in Mossel Bay (Image by Justin Ponder 8 Feb)

The gull became a celebrity visitor overnight and by far the most photographed bird in SA that week as several hundred birders descended on the town over the 6 days it remained there.

Here is a selection of photos posted on Facebook and Whatsapp groups –

Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Justin Ponder 7 Feb)
Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Barry Scott 9 Feb)
Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Elmarie Brits 7 Feb)
Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Johan Grobbelaar)
Laughing Gull amongst a group of Grey-headed Gulls (Image by Amanda Walden)
Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay ‘behind bars’ – actually inside the restricted harbour area (Image by Amanda Walden)

I managed to get a few images of the gull when it was perched on the wall near the harbour

Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image : Don Reid)
Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image : Don Reid)

In The News

The presence of the celebrity gull soon spread to the newshounds and articles were published in several newspapers – at first the local Mossel Bay and George papers carried the story which then spread to the Cape Town newspapers. It even made the national SABC newscasts.

Mossel Bay Advertiser

Laughing Gull Leucophaeus atricilla (Roetvlerkmeeu)

Laughing Gulls, named for their raucous call which sounds like a high-pitched laugh, are monogamous and form long-term pair bonds. They breed in large colonies from April to July on the Atlantic coast of North America, the Caribbean and northern South America.

They are coastal birds found in estuaries, salt marshes, coastal bays, along beaches (where I first found it) or on agricultural fields near the coast. My previous (only) sighting of Laughing Gull was on the Varadero Peninsula on the north coast of Cuba during a memorable visit some years ago.

Laughing Gulls are gregarious birds, noisy and aggressive in nature and don’t hesitate to steal the prey of other birds.

Illustrations from Collins Bird Guide app

Topmost in many birder’s minds was the question “How did it get to Southern Africa?”. That’s an impossible one to answer but several ideas were postulated such as –

  • there have been numerous previous vagrant records in the UK and western Europe so perhaps this was another which then proceeded to migrate south as it would normally do in its home territory and only stopped when it reached the southern end of Africa
  • ship-assisted vagrants are not unknown so perhaps it hitched a ride on a ship that passed Mossel Bay, from either east or west and thought, as we do, that it looked like a rather nice place to spend some time

And that sums up the newest addition to the Southern African bird list. Trust Faansie Peacock to be the first to add it to his brand new birding app called Firefinch, due to be fully launched this year, already partly available

New page added to Faansie Peacock’s “Firefinch” birding app

What a shame that the handsome Laughing Gull stayed in Mossel Bay for just a week – the following Sunday it was nowhere to be found…… who knows where it went next and whether this species will ever be seen in the Southern African region again.

Image from animalia.bio

But it had provided a lot of excitement for the birding community during its short stay!

An Ostrich Encounter

My last post (“Birds on the Beach”) highlighted one of Southern Africa’s most iconic birds, the African Penguin. This time the spotlight falls on another iconic species, this one being about as far removed from penguins as it is possible to imagine. Not that I had intended to write about this species at this juncture, but it drew attention to itself in ways that I simply could not ignore…..

Here’s how it happened –

I was on an atlasing trip out of Mossel Bay, which I try and do once a week, and was heading along a minor gravel road north-west of the town. After many years I have found that the most efficient way of atlasing (recording species in a defined area called a pentad) requires a combination of very slow driving, with windows open to pick up bird calls, combined with regular stops to get out of the car and scan the habitat all around.

Just as an aside, the ‘window open’ part had already paid huge dividends when I picked up a call which sounded warbler-like, emanating from roadside bush. I stopped and got out to listen carefully and when the bird carried on its warble I recorded it on my Iphone, knowing that it would probably not show itself and I would have to ID it on call alone.

This was fortunate as I realised that it could be a Marsh Warbler, considered a rarity in the Western Cape, which I duly reported to the SA Rare Bird News along with my recording. It was confirmed by Trevor Hardaker who runs the news service and he included it in that evening’s emailed report.

Anyway, back to the main theme of the post –

At one of my stops next to a wide field, I noticed a lone male Common Ostrich on the far side and, as I did so, he began trotting in determined fashion towards where I was standing alongside my SUV.

‘Hello’, I thought, ‘this could be interesting’ – but my camera was in the car and the ostrich was approaching quickly so I grabbed my phone, set it to video and started filming. Halfway across the field the ostrich stopped and called, a deep booming call that has been likened to that of a lion in the distance.

Turn your sound up to maximum to hear the call….

The ostrich continued coming towards me until it was just a few metres away, then suddenly went down onto its haunches and performed its courtship display, swinging its neck from side to side with wings spread wide. At that stage I was glad of the fence separating us – who knows what he might get up to next!

Still not satisfied that he had attracted my attention, it seems, the ostrich came even closer, just a metre or two from where I stood amazed, with just a flimsy fence separating us, and once again performed the courtship display.

This is when I believe the ostrich started having second thoughts about my suitability as a partner and he went behind the bushes for a minute or so then reappeared, giving me the once over and, I imagined, showing signs of mild doubt, even confusion as he eyed me from behind the bushes. That final tail flip is very telling…

I decided not to confuse the misguided bird any further and drove on….

However, I couldn’t help wondering about this strange encounter for the next day or two and came up with a few possibilities to explain it –

  • It was a very short-sighted ostrich
  • It was very lonely in that field all on its own
  • It was trying to prove its ‘wildness’ so that I might be persuaded to add it to my records for the pentad list*

* This last one probably needs some explanation for those not familiar with atlasing protocols and the status of the Common Ostrich in the southern Cape. Ostriches in this part of South Africa have been farmed for well over 100 years and most ostriches encountered are in fact of the ‘domesticated’ type, although not distinguishable from ‘wild’ ostriches which are generally only found in game and nature reserves. Atlasing protocols allow for recording of ‘free flying’ birds only which translates to ‘wild’ birds in the case of ostriches which of course are flightless, so none of the ostriches in the farming areas will be eligible.

  • Oh, and there’s one more possibility – perhaps I look more like a female ostrich than I had previously imagined….. Here’s a recent photo of me to let you decide

Birds on the Beach

Now these are not just any old birds on any old beach that I’m referring to, both the birds and their beach habitat are – well – very special and wonderfully unique.

Let’s start with the beach …….

Boulders Beach is a small beach at Simon’s Town, which lies on the False Bay side of the Cape Peninsula, some 40 kms south of central Cape Town. For many years it was a little known, ‘out of the way’ beach favoured by couples and young families seeking a quiet spot to spend a day, Perfect for a picnic and safe for the kids to paddle and swim, with hardly a wave in sight due to the protective ring of large boulders which all but shut out the sea’s power.

Growing up in Cape Town, I can recall the occasional trip from our home in the suburbs, via bus and train, to Simon’s Town to spend a day at Seaforth beach, which adjoins Boulders beach. Later in my student years, I ‘graduated’ to joining my elder brother and his family in a leisurely day at Boulders itself.

Seaforth beach, Simon’s Town

I left Cape Town in 1970 to pursue my career ‘up north’ (actually my future wife played a major role in that decision, but don’t let on to her) and Boulders beach gradually drifted from my memory, until much later……

Some 12 years later, two breeding pairs of African Penguins decided that the beach would be a good place to settle, probably influenced by the availability of fish in nearby waters

From just two breeding pairs in 1982, the penguin colony has grown to about 3,000 birds in recent years. This is partly due to the prohibition of commercial pelagic trawling in False Bay, which has increased the supply of pilchards and anchovy, which form part of the penguins’ diet. (Ref : Wikipedia)

Boulders beach Simon’s Town

Since those first two pairs settled there, Boulders has gone from an obscure swimming beach to one of Cape Town’s best known tourist attractions and now forms part of the Table Mountain National Park

We had a reason to travel to Cape Town in January last year and decided to use the accommodation that we were going to use in March 2020 but which we had to cancel when Covid 19 and the subsequent lockdown changed all our lives. The B&B sits high up on a hill overlooking Simon’s Town with sweeping views of the town, the naval dockyard and False Bay beyond and turned out to be an excellent choice.

The daytime view from the B&B
Even prettier in the evening

With the ‘business’ part of our trip done and dusted, we thought about what to do with the rest of our stay in Simon’s Town and first on my list was Boulders beach which we had last visited many years ago.

The Penguins

The thing with Penguins is that most people know what they look like from films and images, adverts and the like – they are just so endearing and marketable. But Penguins tend to choose remote spots to breed and live, often on islands, so relatively few people get the chance to see them in real life, outside of zoos that is.

Which makes Boulders a perfect choice for anyone wanting to see these birds in their natural habitat. After gaining entry with my Wild Card I walked along the boardwalk which snakes its way down to the beach, with a platform at the bottom for viewing the beach and nesting area.

Boulders beach Simon’s Town
Boulders beach Simon’s Town – the boardwalk to the Penguin’s habitat

Looking back from the upper part of the boardwalk, the view across the bay is quite striking

View from the boardwalk at Boulders beach Simon’s Town

Once you are past the densely vegetated dunes, the first of the penguins comes into view, quite relaxed and unperturbed by human presence. Not the smallest or the largest penguins in the world, they would reach to about your knee height when standing. (Incidentally, we saw the smallest penguin, called a Little Penguin – obviously – during a visit to Philip Island near Melbourne Australia – the subject of a post a few years ago – https://wordpress.com/post/mostlybirding.com/8353 )

African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus / Brilpikkewyn), Boulders beach Simon’s Town

At various points on the boardwalk, information boards are placed with interesting facts about the colony and the habits of the African Penguins

Boulders beach Simon’s Town

Once you get to the lower viewing platform, you can see some of the residents of the colony – those not involved in breeding activities will be out in the deep sea looking for food, so what you see here is a small part of the colony

African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus / Brilpikkewyn), Boulders beach Simon’s Town

I took a few shots of some of the penguins in their burrows, only realising when I edited the photos and lightened up the shadows that I had captured a glimpse of an egg under one penguin’s belly.

African Penguin incubating an egg

There was constant movement of penguins to and from the sea – such a comical sight as they waddle towards the water but once in they are in their element, swimming swiftly and soon disappearing from sight.

African Penguins on the beach

I couldn’t help thinking of an elderly yet elegant gent tentatively going for a swim in cold water as I watched one penguin entering the sea…..

As the one penguin swam off, more entered the water

A little bit more…

The African Penguin is the only penguin that breeds in Africa and is restricted to the coastline and seas of Southern Africa. Penguin numbers fell from over a million pairs a hundred years ago, to just 18,000 pairs today so they are justly classified as Endangered.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s egg collecting and guano scraping (which I can remember being taught about at school with not a hint of criticism, such was the relaxed attitude to conservation in those days) caused havoc with the survival of penguins. Nowadays the decline in availability of fish due to overfishing is the major cause of the further downward trend

Their ‘wings’ are in reality efficient flippers for swimming at speeds up to 20 km/h – which may not sound that fast but they would easily beat any Olympic swimmer you can think of – and they can dive to depths of 130m while holding their breath for an average 2,5 minutes, when feeding.

Their black and white colouring aids in camouflaging them from predators, both from above (black back blending in with dark sea for predators looking down) and below (white front melding with light skies for predators looking up).

These unique aquatic birds are certainly deserving of conservation – hats off to Birdlife South Africa for being at the forefront of penguin conservation efforts.

References :

  • Table Mountain National Park information boards at Boulders
  • African Birdlife Magazine September/October 2021, published by Birdlife SA
  • Firefinch – Birding app by Faansie Peacock

My Photo Picks for 2021 – The Places, Wildlife and Other Stuff

With the new year barely out of the starting blocks, it’s once again time to select the photos which best represent our travels and nature experiences during 2021, plus a few others that appeal to me for various reasons.  Despite the ongoing restrictions brought upon all of us by Covid 19, we still managed to travel fairly extensively, although it was limited to the borders of South Africa. 

I’m hoping you will find some of my favourite images to your liking – if you do, please take a moment to mention them in the comments at the end of the post. 

The Places

It was a revelation to look back over the year’s images and realise that, in fact, we did manage to travel to many places across South Africa. Our longest road trips were those between the two places we call home – Pretoria and Mossel Bay – and the pendulum seems to have swung in favour of the latter town, where we spent slightly more time than in Pretoria for the first time. My bird atlasing activities were somewhat handicapped this past year by other factors – nevertheless I did get out on atlasing trips on a fairly regular basis, mostly in the vicinity of one of the two home bases

Farmlands, Vleesbaai Area near Mossel Bay
Hillside Farm Trompsburg, Free State – where we spent a night on the trip to Mossel Bay
One of the dams in The Glades Estate, (where our Pretoria home is)
View of Simon’s Town from Penguin Palace B&B
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens in Cape Town – we never visit Cape Town without a visit to these superb gardens
Boulders beach, Simon’s Town, site of the famous African Penguin colony
The Point from the hill, Mossel Bay
Sunday’s River Mouth, Eastern Cape
Addo Elephant National Park, Eastern Cape
Mountain Zebra National Park, Eastern Cape
Croft 3, Verlorenkloof, Mpumulanga
The view from Robinson Pass, between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn
Abbotsbury Guest Farm, near Graaff-Reinet, Eastern Cape
Abandoned cottage, Franschhoek, Western Cape
Canola fields, Near Wellington, Western Cape
Historic Kerkstraat in Tulbagh, Western Cape
Klein Welmoed Guest Farm, Stellenbosch, Western Cape
West Coast National Park (Postberg section)

The Wildlife

2021 stands out for me as the year we did not visit Kruger National Park – I can’t remember when this last happened! Visits to a couple of the smaller Parks partially made up for this but I’m afraid my selection of wildlife photos is poor by comparison to previous years

Giraffe, Herbertsdale Area
Cape Grey Mongoose Herpestes pulverulentus (Kaapse grysmuishond), Addo Elephant Park
Elephant, Addo Elephant Park
Yellow Mongoose Cynictis penicillata (Rooimeerkat), Addo Elephant Park
Elephant at dusk, Addo Elephant Park
Kudu, Addo Elephant Park
Springbok, Mountain Zebra NP
Bontebok, Mountain Zebra NP
Mountan Zebra, Mountain Zebra NP
Mother and child” Vervet Monkey Chlorocebus pygerythrus (Blouaap), Mountain Zebra NP

The Reptiles

Reptiles are interesting creatures and I love it when the opportunity to photograph them at reasonably close quarters arises – here are a few examples – unfortunately I have not got around to positively identifying the first two yet

Probable Plated Lizard of some kind, Gouritzmond Area
Probable Sand Lizard, Mountain Zebra NP
Puff adder Bitis arietans (Pofadder), Mountain Zebra NP

The Other Stuff

And the rest – photos that don’t fall into a category but have a certain character that appeals to me

Windmill, Hillside Farm Trompsburg
Garden Acraea Butterfly, Kirstenbosch
Beach footprints, Nature’s Valley – where the birds go, I am bound to be not far behind
Doorknob selfie, Abbotsbury, Graaff-Reinet
Waiting our turn to get the vaccine, Mossel Bay
Saartjie, our daughter’s Border Terrier, enjoying a mid-winter (gas) fire , Mossel Bay
Surfer, Mossel Bay Point
Flowers in Robinson Pass
Karoo Lambs, Abbotsbury Guest Farm
Dragon hooter (horn) on 1911 Lorraine-Dietrich Convertible, Franschhoek Motor Museum
Spring flowers, Cape Columbine Nature Reserve (Tietiesbaai)

Have a wonderful 2022!

My Photo Picks for 2021 – The Birds and a Bee

With the new year barely out of the starting blocks, it’s once again time to select the photos which best represent our travels and nature experiences during 2021, plus a few others that appeal to me for various reasons.  Despite the ongoing restrictions brought upon all of us by Covid 19, we still managed to travel fairly extensively, although it was limited to the borders of South Africa. 

I’m hoping you will find some of my favourite images to your liking – if you do, please take a moment to mention them in the comments at the end of the post. 

The Birds

During a normal birding year, I take a couple of thousand images of birds – this past year, for various reasons, I did not get out in the field birding and atlasing as much as I would normally have done, nevertheless when it came to choosing images I was happy to find that it was as challenging as ever.

African Stonechat Saxicola torquatus (Gewone bontrokkie) (Female) , Herbertsdale Area
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo (Bruinjakkalsvoël), Herbertsdale Area
Pied Starling Lamprotornis bicolor (Witgatspreeu), Herbertsdale Area
Orange-breasted Sunbird Anthobaphes violacea (Oranjeborssuikerbekkie), Kirstenbosch
Rock Kestrel Falco rupicolus (Kransvalk), Vleesbaai area
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater Merops persicus (Blouwangbyvreter) (Western Cape rarity), Gouritzmond Area
Large-billed Lark Galerida magnirostris (Dikbeklewerik), Herbertsdale Area
White-throated Canary Crithagra albogularis (Witkeelkanarie), Herbertsdale Area, Western Cape
White-bellied Sunbird Cinnyris talatala (Witpenssuikerbekkie), Donkerhoek / Boschkop Area, Gauteng
Blue Cranes, Sacred Ibises and sheep, Vleesbaai area, Western Cape
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis (Landeryklopkloppie), Vleesbaai area
Sacred Ibis, Vleesbaai Area
White-throated Swallow Hirundo albigularis (Witkeelswael) Bronkhorstspruit Area, Gauteng
Pin-tailed Whydah Vidua macroura (Koningrooibekkie) Bronkhorstspruit Dam, Gauteng
Red-chested Cuckoo Cucula solitarius (Piet-my-vrou), Ezemvelo Nature Reserve, Gauteng
Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris bairdii (Bairdse strandloper), (National Rarity), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve, Gauteng
Red-capped Lark Calandrella cinerea (Rooikoplewerik), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve, Gauteng
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia (Groenpootruiter), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve
African Penguin Spheniscus demersus (Brilpikkewyn), Boulders beach Simon’s Town
Sooty Gull Ichthyaetus hemprichii (National Rarity), Sunday’s River Mouth. Eastern Cape
Cape Robin-Chat Cossypha caffra (Gewone janfrederik), Addo Elephant Park, Eastern Cape
Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis (Kaapse wewer) (female), Addo Elephant Park, Eastern Cape
Red-necked Spurfowl Pternistis afer (Rooikeelfisant), Addo Elephant Park
The usually extremely shy Sombre Greenbul Andropadus importunus (Gewone willie), Addo Elephant Park
Cape Turtle-Dove Streptopelia capicola (Gewone tortelduif), Addo Elephant Park
African Rock Pipit Anthus crenatus (Klipkoester), Mountain Zebra National Park
Familiar Chat Cercomela familiaris (Gewone spekvreter), Verlorenkloof
Cape Rock Thrush Monticola rupestris (Kaapse kliplyster), Verlorenkloof
Nest building Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis (Kaapse wewer), Mossel Bay
Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus (Kelpmeeu), Paternoster, Western Cape

And the Bee….

Busy Bee, Mossel Bay

Have a wonderful 2022!