Category Archives: Atlasing

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)

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

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

It’s a Shore Thing – The Sequel (Part 2)

Continuing the story of our trip to Bronkhorstspruit Dam Nature Reserve not far from Pretoria, where we were fortunate to find the rare vagrant Baird’s Sandpiper with relative ease ….

After locating the Baird’s Sandpiper and spending some time admiring this tiny adventurer all the way from the Arctic, we spent the next couple of hours driving slowly as close to the dam shoreline as we could, scanning every metre of it as we went.

This paid off with several more good sightings of waders and other birds, many of them the same species as I had recorded during an atlasing trip a few weeks prior, but with some exciting new additions –

Starting with an uncommon species which we found in the short grass which covers most of the open ground between the track and the shoreline of the dam …..

Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava (Geelkwikkie)

Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava (Geelkwikkie), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

The Yellow Wagtail is not a wader as such, but it favours similar habitat to some of the waders, particularly fringes of dams with short grass. It is not unusual to find the far more common Cape Wagtails pottering about in their perky fashion among small waders, but during the summer months it pays to check out all the wagtails as they could include this uncommon non-breeding migrant, which arrives in small numbers from its breeding grounds in eastern Europe and western Asia

Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia (Groenpootruiter)

We also came across this fairly common wader which can be found right across southern Africa at inland and coastal waters, but seldom in numbers, often alone – we saw just the one during our couple of hours of careful scanning

Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia (Groenpootruiter), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

Generally one of the easier waders to identify and get to know, even at a distance, due to its long-legged appearance, relatively large size and slightly upturned bill

Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia (Groenpootruiter), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

The Greenshank is one of the longer-staying Palaearctic migrants, arriving from its “home” in European Russia and eastwards from as early as August and departing again between February and April

Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos (Gewone ruiter)

Another wader that belies its name by not being particularly common, this was one of just a couple that we came across

Once you are “into” the intricacies of identifying waders, the Common Sandpiper soon becomes familiar, with its standout features being its uniform brown upper colouring contrasting with a clear white underside. The white gap between shoulder and breast band (not clearly visible in my photo) is often a clincher

Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos (Gewone ruiter), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

It prefers firmer surfaces than other waders and can often be found alongside wagtails on rocks, firm sand and gravel rather than wading in the water itself

It is also a long-staying migrant from its “home” which stretches from Europe to Japan, arriving in southern Africa from August and departing from January to April

Red-capped Lark Calandrella cinerea (Rooikoplewerik)

And now for something completely different ……

Arguably one of the better known larks, which otherwise get a lot of bad press by being called “little brown jobs” or LBJ’s by those new to birding, this one is hard to confuse with any other lark species due to its distinctive rufous crown and breast side patches

Red-capped Lark Calandrella cinerea (Rooikoplewerik), (Adult) Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

Their preferred habitats include bare ground and edges of wetlands so it wasn’t too much of a surprise to find one not far from the dam edge, nevertheless we were most pleased to find this individual with a tiny morsel in its beak.

Red-capped Lark (Adult)

We immediately guessed that the morsel was intended for a juvenile being fed by the adult, and looked around – nearby was a well-camouflaged, inconspicuous bird with no matching features but there was no doubt of its lineage as we watched the adult feeding the morsel to it then rushing off to find more. Lovely to watch and a unique sighting!

Red-capped Lark (Juvenile with Adult)
Red-capped Lark (Juvenile with Adult)

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida (Witbaardsterretjie)

Now, sharp readers will quickly realise that terns are not waders – but I have other reasons for including these images …..

Firstly, terns commonly roost at water’s edge in between sorties over the dam close to the shoreline, floating in the wind, looking for prey and dipping down to grab it.

As we drove slowly along the shoreline at one point, I noticed a flock of about a dozen Whiskered Terns flying low in their usual fashion, heads down, floating in the light wind, looking for prey and dipping down to grab something then joining the flock again.

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie, Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

What was different was that they were flying above solid ground rather than the water, something I have not seen before – clearly there were enough small insects in the short grass or flying about just above it to persuade the terns to hunt away from their usual habitat.

They presented a beautiful sight as they flew towards our vehicle, veering away at the last moment, flying away for a distance, then turning back to repeat the circuit. They are such elegant birds in flight …..

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie, Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

It’s a Shore Thing – The Sequel (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a selection of Waders (Shorebirds) and other water birds that I had encountered during an atlasing trip to Bronkhorstspruit Dam Nature Reserve not far from Pretoria.

Well, I wasn’t expecting to visit this nature reserve so soon again, but an alert received this past Saturday from SA Rare Bird News run by Trevor Hardaker (the second item in his alert below) had me reconsidering fairly quickly – a Baird’s Sandpiper would be a lifer for me and, having been spotted just 45 minutes drive from my home in Pretoria, it was an irresistible twitch.

The Twitch

I was not keen to join what I expected to be a twitcher scramble on the Sunday so I waited for Monday morning, when I picked up Koos Pauw at 6.30 am and we headed east along the N4 highway, then took the R25 and R42 turnoffs to take us to the nature reserve access road.

The many twitchers making their way to the dam the previous day combined with heavy overnight rain had turned the gravel access road and the nature reserve tracks into a muddy jumble in places – no problem for my Prado but we felt for the hardy twitchers in small sedans who we saw later in the reserve – no one got stuck while we were there but the road was worse on our way out, so those drivers would have had to use all their skills to get out without a problem.

More of a quagmire than a road – there’s already an ‘escape road’ forming on the right

We couldn’t help chuckling when we saw two Yellow-billed Ducks swimming in one of the larger puddles in the bumpy nature reserve track – how opportunistic, but it left us wondering why they chose a muddy puddle instead of the vast expanse of dam just 50 metres away.

From previous experience of twitches at popular, accessible birding spots such as this, I knew the best way of finding the target rare bird after an alert is to drive to the area where you expect to find it, then look for parked cars – this was my strategy and it worked, but only just!

As we approached the approximate position along the dam edge given in the alert, a vehicle was heading towards us – we stopped to chat and the friendly driver offered to show us “the Baird’s” as they had just come from its location, with no one else around at the time. We accepted with alacrity and a couple of minutes later we were at the right spot and watching the Baird’s Sandpiper ourselves – success! (cue the Beatles “With a little help from my friends”)

Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris bairdii Bairdse strandloper, Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

We had nevertheless armed ourselves with some knowledge of the species and its main identifying features, in case we were faced with finding and identifying it ourselves – but our newfound friend quickly informed us that we only had to look out for the ‘small wader with a limp’ as it seems it had injured its leg, so the task of picking it out among the other small waders was very simple. The video clip below shows just how pronounced its limp was

Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris bairdii (Bairdse strandloper)

The Baird’s Sandpiper falls into the wader family known as the Calidrids, breeding at Arctic latitudes of Alaska and Canada and usually migrating to South America during the austral summer.

Occasionally, as with this one in all probability, a single bird is blown off course by adverse weather conditions, or its ingrained directional instinct goes slightly awry and they end up in southern Africa instead. Not without an almost unfathomable effort of course, for its journey would have taken it across the Atlantic Ocean at some stage.

Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris bairdii Bairdse strandloper, Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

Less than 20 records exist of sightings of this species in the southern African region, since 1984 – prior to that there is just one record from 1863! So its status is rightly given as a very rare vagrant

Each red dot represents an individual record over the last 37 years

Waders without clear features which set them obviously apart from other similar sized waders can present a real challenge to birders and the Baird’s Sandpiper falls into that category. If it hadn’t had the distinct limp we would have had to resort to looking for the features given in the illustration below from the Roberts app

So that’s how I added the latest lifer to my Southern African list – simple really …….

As with my previous visit we spent the next couple of hours driving slowly as close to the dam shoreline as we could, scanning every metre of it as we went. This paid off with several more good sightings of waders and other birds, many of them the same species as I had recorded before, but with some exciting new additions – more about these in a follow up post

References

Finally, just a mention of the two outstanding sources that I have used for the information in this post :

Firstly, Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa – the go-to guide for detailed information on all of Southern Africa’s birds

Secondly, the more focused Chamberlain’s Waders – The Definitive Guide to Southern Africa’s Shorebirds by Faansie Peacock (No, that’s not a made up name!)

It’s a Shore Thing

My atlasing trip last week included time spent in Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve, which lies on the southern side of the dam of the same name and is an easy 40 minutes drive east of Pretoria

Before reaching the reserve entrance, I had spent time recording species in the habitats that I was not expecting to find inside the reserve and had a pleasing list of 30 species by the time I reached the entrance, a number of which I had found at a bridge crossing the Bronkhorst Spruit on a quiet side road.

On entering the reserve I passed a few herds of antelope enjoying the long grassveld habitat of the dam surrounds before heading to the dam’s shoreline, which I knew from previous visits was ideal habitat for waders – or shorebirds as some prefer to call them.

Waders are notoriously challenging to identify in the early stages of birding, but time is on your side in this wonderful hobby/pastime, which usually becomes the dominant one for the rest of your life once you’ve got into it. As you progress and have more opportunities to watch waders in action, you learn to look for certain features and identification becomes easier, making you wonder why you battled so much in the beginning.

Here are the waders and a few other birds that I came across as I drove slowly as close to the shoreline of the dam as I could – I had to divert here and there to avoid disturbing the fishermen who also enjoy this environment ….

Ruff Philomachus pugnax (Kemphaan)

Ruffs fall into the wader family known as the Calidrids, breeding at Arctic latitudes and migrating to southern Africa during the austral summer. There would be no difficulty identifying Ruffs during the breeding season, as they take on a spectacular breeding plumage, but we see them in southern Africa in their drab non-breeding state, looking like many of the other waders. One of the most numerous summer waders

What to look for :

  • Size medium (M : 29-32cm F 22-26 cm)
  • Medium length bill, slightly drooping
  • Longish, usually orange legs
  • Scaled appearance on back
  • White feathers at bill base
Ruff Philomachus pugnax (Kemphaan), Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Sanderling Calidris alba (Drietoonstrandloper)

Sanderlings also belong to the Calidrids family, breeding in, and migrating from, Siberia and Greenland to southern Africa, where they arrive from September. Inland records are quite scarce as most head to coastal beaches, but Bronkhorstspruit Dam has seen some records of this species on an intermittent basis. This was the only one I saw during my visit and is only the 4th record for the pentad, out of 170 cards

What to look for :

  • Size : Small (18-21 cm)
  • Distinctive light colouring separates the Sanderling from most other waders
  • Short, stout bill
  • Dark shoulder patch (hidden by white feathers in my photo)
Sanderling Calidris alba (Drietoonstrandloper) Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula (Ringnekstrandkiewiet)

The first of the “Small Plovers”, this palaearctic migrant flies up to an amazing 18,000 kms from its breeding grounds to southern Africa

What to look for :

  • Size : Small (17-19 cm)
  • Relatively easy to identify with its broad black breast band contrasting with the white collar
  • Very short, stubby bill
  • Orange legs
Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula (Ringnekstrandkiewiet) Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Three-banded Plover Charadrius tricollaris (Driebandstrandkiewiet)

The second of the “Small Plovers”, this is a common freshwater wader in southern Africa, where it also breeds

What to look for :

  • Size : Small (17-18 cm)
  • Distinctive with its double breast band and red eye-ring
  • Bobs up and down in animated fashion
Three-banded Plover Charadrius tricollaris (Driebandstrandkiewiet) Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Little Stint Calidris minuta (Kleinstrandloper)

This smallest of waders always makes me think of an old gent in a faded brown overcoat – they habitually walk about with head bowed which, along with their small size, makes them easy to pick out among a group of waders. The Little Stint is a Palaearctic migrant. those arriving in South Africa from September are thought to breed in northern Europe

What to Look for :

  • Size : Very Small (12-14 cm)
  • Short, fine-tipped dark bill
  • Bowed posture while wading
Little Stint Calidris minuta Kleinstrandloper Bronkhorstspruit Dam

The Others

Some of the other birds occupying the shallow wading areas and margins of the dam that I came across –

Grey-headed Gull Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus (Gryskopmeeu)

This fairly common inland Gull had been attracted to the shallows by a dead fish on which it was scavenging.

One of the easiest Gulls to identify inland as it is usually the only one. At the coast one has to be a bit more judicious in arriving at an ID – the Hartlaub’s Gull is of similar size and general appearance so a more detailed look will show the differences

Grey-hooded Gull Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus (Gryskopmeeu)
Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Juveniles are there for the sole purpose of confusing birders, or so it seems – they often look so different that it’s easy to imagine it may be a completely different species

Grey-hooded Gull (juvenile) Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida  Witbaardsterretjie

A small flock of Whiskered Terns were resting at the dam’s edge – any terns seen inland are likely to be one of two species – this one and the White-winged Tern. They can be difficult to distinguish in flight, but resting like this it is a fairly easy ID

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie Bronkhorstspruit Dam

This one decided to stretch its wings then flew off, showing off the beauty of the feathers that make up the wings and tail

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie Bronkhorstspruit Dam
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia (Reusesterretjie)

My favourite Tern was nearby, on its own – the Caspian Tern is the largest tern (at 51 cm) in the region and is a breeding resident. Apart from its size, the standout feature is its large red dagger-like bill.

Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia (Reusesterretjie), Bronkhorstspruit Dam

And these two waterbirds make it onto this post simply by sticking close to the shoreline, allowing me to get reasonable images as I studied the waders

Cape Shoveler Anas smithii (Kaapse slopeend)

Cape Shoveler Anas smithii (Kaapse slopeend), Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata (Geelbekeend)

Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata (Geelbekeend) (Adult with Juvenile), Bronkhorstspruit Dam

To end off – a mystery wader at water’s edge – extremely large and well feathered – definitely not a Stint……

Supersized Wader, Bronkhorstspruit Dam

A Crane Safari

Onverwacht Farm

During our September 2020 visit to the farm of Pieter and Anlia, described in my previous post, the opportunity arose for a very unique birding experience, all thanks to Pieter’s efforts in setting it up.

Pieter had arranged with friend Trevor, retired professional hunter and nature expert of note, to pick him up from a nearby farm so that he could guide us to a bird sanctuary on a farm south-west of Vryheid – Trevor had already given the outing a name – “Crane Safari” which was an obvious hint of what we were likely to see but not of the exceptional numbers we would encounter.

Firstly though, there were various urgent farm matters to attend to – amongst them, counting the cattle to make sure none had been ‘appropriated’ overnight, checking fences for signs of any further ‘recycling’ operations and taking the bakkie to town for some repairs to the suspension (damaged during a fruitless hunt for fence ‘recyclers’ who had struck during the night and removed a few hundred metres of fencing) – such is the existence of a farmer in these parts.

Pentad 2745_3035

We picked up Trevor, who I had met before several years ago, drove to Vryheid and then proceeded along the R33 towards Dundee for about 15 kms before turning off onto farm roads and arrived at the farm around 1.30pm. Trevor knows many of the farmers in the area and had arranged access to the farm and bird sanctuary.

From then on, for the next two hours, the birding was hectic as Trevor and Pieter spotted birds in quick succession while I tried to record them on the Birdlasser app and verify the ID.

We drove along the earth wall of the first dam, which was filled with hundreds of waterfowl, including a group of White-backed Ducks (new record for the pentad) and others of Greater Flamingos, Southern Pochards and Cape Shovelers (which I like to call “Sloppy Ducks” based on their Afrikaans name of Slopeende).

White-backed Duck (Thalassornis leuconotus / Witrugeend)
Cape Shoveler (Anas smithii / Kaapse Slopeend)

Several Black-winged Stilts patrolled the dam fringes and Trevor called an African Marsh Harrier which was flying low over the grassy verges.

Moving on, the large vlei lower down came into view and at the same time a huge flock of perhaps 150 Grey Crowned Cranes rose up in unison, creating a birding spectacle that few people can have witnessed. The flock circled the vlei then settled for a while, but as soon as our vehicle edged closer they rose as one again, repeating the spectacle over and over.

Grey Crowned Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid

I would guess that most experienced birders have seen a pair or perhaps a small group of Grey Crowned Cranes at some time, but to see such a large flock of this endangered species is truly remarkable.

Grey Crowned Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid
Grey Crowned Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid

Once we were closer to the vlei, with the Crowned Cranes now settled on the opposite side, we could see a few Glossy Ibises along the fringe and a superior looking Goliath Heron right in the middle. Shortly after, a lone Squacco Heron flew in and a Purple Heron rose up out of the reeds to complete the trio of “scarcer Herons”.

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus / Glansibis)
Vlei, Crane Safari near Vryheid

Between the dam and the vlei, lush grassland was good for Cape Longclaw, Spike-heeled and Red-capped Larks and African Stonechat.

Cape Longclaw (Macronyx capensis / Oranjekeelkalkoentjie)
Spike-heeled Lark (Chersomanes albofasciata/ Vlaktelewerik) – showing its main identifying features of short white-tipped tail and long slightly curved bill

Soon it was time for a lunch break – sandwiches of home made bread and last night’s leg of lamb leftovers along with coffee which went down a treat in the cold windy conditions. The lee side of the bakkie provided some shelter from the wind but we didn’t dawdle and were soon on our way again.

While we were enjoying lunch, a flock of Blue Cranes, some 100 strong, flew over the vlei and settled briefly before moving on – so we had seen large numbers of both of the Crane species found in these parts – mission accomplished, thanks to Trevor!

Later, we found a small group of Blue Cranes in a field, this time close enough for some photos …..

Blue Crane, Crane Safari near Vryheid
Blue Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid
Blue Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid

At the last dam before leaving this incredible birding spot, we saw a few waders at the water’s edge and approached carefully so as to get close enough to identify these sometimes difficult species. Fortunately they were all species that I have got to know well and I was able to record Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper (New record for the pentad), Little Stint and Kittlitz’s Plover – a real bonus after such a variety of waterfowl.

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax / Kemphaan), near Vryheid
Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea / Krombekstrandloper), near Vryheid

I hadn’t planned to do a “Full Protocol” (FP) card for the pentad in which the dams and vleis fell, but as it turned out the last bird recorded on the way out – a Southern Masked Weaver at a small stream – was precisely two hours after the first bird and I was more than happy to submit my list as FP (which requires a minimum two hours of survey time in a pentad).

Back at the ranch – well, the farmstead where Trevor and Collette live – we sipped warming Milo while Trevor pointed out a few of the garden species including Paradise Flycatcher and a flock of Olive Pigeons that swooped by.

It had been a memorable day’s birding and I was very pleased to have been able to complete a Full Protocol Atlas card. I recorded 40 species in the two hours, the seventh card for the pentad, and added two new species

Atlasing – September 2020 : Onverwacht, Vryheid

I haven’t posted about my bird atlasing travels for a while so now I’m …..

Catching up on the monthly look at where Atlasing took me in September 2020 ….. in this case to the farm of Pieter and Anlia, part of Gerda’s wide family and one of our favourite places to visit and enjoy traditional farm hospitality –

Onverwacht Farm – 26 to 30 September 2020

Getting there

We had been back in Gauteng for three weeks after an extended stay in Mossel Bay and with lockdown eased to Level 1 our thoughts, as they are wont to do, turned to travel. With a long weekend coming up, it was the ideal time to pay a visit to Pieter and Anlia on Onverwacht Farm, not far from Vryheid in central Kwazulu-Natal.

We had done most of the preparatory packing the day before, so were up at a reasonable hour and left mid-morning, travelling via Witbank, Hendrina, Ermelo and Piet Retief with tea and lunch breaks taken at the roadside, our ‘new normal’ way of doing longish road trips.

The drive was made somewhat taxing by the combination of many slow, large lorries encountered, the poor condition of the roads once we turned off the N4 and the depressing state of some of the towns along the way. However, our spirits were lifted when we reached the farm, saw the braai fire being prepared and the friendly greetings of the family.

The Pentad

I was not expecting to atlas outside the pentad in which the farm lies, but thanks to Pieter there was an opportunity to visit an adjoining pentad on a “Crane Safari” which turned into an exciting atlasing trip of its own. More about that in a follow-up post….

Pentad 2740_3035

My atlasing on the farm was spread over the four days of our stay, but was limited to short bouts of birding in between all of the other activities.

Saturday, late afternoon

On arrival and after settling in, I got the pentad list going with the birds on and around the dam, which lies a couple of hundred metres down the gentle slope in front of the house – all the usual suspects such as Cattle Egret, Egyptian Goose, Yellow-billed Duck, Coots and White-breasted Cormorant.

Onverwacht farm Vryheid
Yellow-billed Duck

Pieter pointed out a couple of large birds on a distant grassy slope and with my binos I could verify their ID – Grey Crowned Crane – a quite magnificent and stunning bird that I never tire of seeing and one of the specials of the area.

Grey Crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum / Mahem), Onverwacht farm Vryheid

The warm weather was rapidly dissipating in the face of a cold front that had arrived, so the braai fire was a warming spot to spend the last of the day, still on the lookout for new species. A chorus of cackling calls announced the presence of Green Woodhoopoes (Not recorded in the pentad before) in the tall pine trees next to the house and we soon saw them in the fading light, moving among the branches in a loose group of 6 or more.

Pleased with this new species for the pentad, I then heard the whoo – hooo of a Spotted Eagle-Owl (33%) and down at the dam a group of 3 Wattled Lapwings (22%) flew in and settled near the water in the fading light

Spotted Eagle-Owl
Sunday

The day was cold – even more so than the forecast 10 deg C due to the icy wind, so my birding was limited to a couple of short sorties into the large garden and surrounding farmstead, the wind chasing me back to the warmth of the house after 15 to 20 minutes.

Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Highlights were Southern Bald Ibis at the dam edge, Black Sawwings (44%) swooping by in their shiny black plumage with long forked tail streaming behind, Bronze Mannikins and Pied Starlings perched in trees and on poles.

Bronze Mannikin (Lonchura cucullata)

By day’s end my pentad total was a modest 31 without having ventured beyond the garden and surrounds.

Onverwacht farm Vryheid
Monday

Monday was devoted to the “Crane Safari” in an adjoining pentad, which I will cover in a separate post as it was such a special birding experience, but in the evening I heard the unmistakable, eerie call of a Barn Owl somewhere near the house.

Tuesday

And the surprises kept coming! Despite all sorts of challenges that Pieter had to attend to – stolen fencing and a broken torsion bar on the bakkie (utility vehicle) which left it standing at a crazy angle – Pieter still had time to arrange for son Janneman to take me to a nearby kloof on the farm, where he had seen signs of Bald Ibis breeding.

After another farm breakfast (my favourite ‘krummelpap’ again – a sort of crumbed porridge unique to SA) Jan and I set off on a birding tour of the farm, with our first stop some way up the lower slopes of the mountain escarpment that looms over the farm. There we clambered through a fence, then walked along a sloping ridge to a point where we could get a view of the krans (cliff face).

It didn’t take long to spot a Bald Ibis on a nest set back in the horizontal split in the rock face. A small waterfall trickled water down the face and Kiepersols, Aloes and other natural growth completed the handsome picture.

Bald Ibis breeding spot, Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Bald Ibis breeding spot, Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Nearby a Sombre Greenbul called and an African Olive Pigeon (not recorded in the pentad before) showed itself among the green tops of the trees. However the show of the day belonged to Bald Ibises and White-necked Ravens (also a new record for the pentad) chasing each other aerially, the Ravens seeming to harass the Ibises for unknown reasons until they retreated to the depths of the rock crevices.

The rest of the farm tour provided several other sightings of Rufous-naped Lark (33%), Buff-streaked Chat (55%), Yellow-fronted Canary and a pleasing Giant Kingfisher (22%) to round off my atlasing efforts for the visit.

My total species recorded in the pentad during the visit stood at 46 with 4 new species added to the pentad list and my total species after 6 cards completed over several years was now 132

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%

Atlasing – September 2020 : Lushof Lodge

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in September 2020 – in this case using an overnight stop to make the most of the birding on offer…

Heading home – at last!

After more than 5 months in Mossel Bay – a lot longer than our initial plan of 3 to 4 weeks – we decided to return to our other “home” in Pretoria. Mossel Bay’s charm and many advantages had worked their way into our minds and it was with some reluctance that we headed northwards, but Covid-19 had kept us away from our main home for too long and we knew it was time to get back.

We set off on a Friday, fully loaded, around 9 am and travelled the familiar route via George, Graaf-Reinet and Colesberg to our overnight accommodation at Lushof Lodge, some 50 km beyond Colesberg. Along the way we enjoyed take-away coffee and a picnic lunch – all part of the “new normal” way of doing things.

Lushof Lodge, which we last visited in January 2011, was as we remembered – set on a farm with a stream running through, lined with verdant growth. The accommodation was a comfortable cottage which we had all to ourselves, set on a hill overlooking an expanse of fields and veld and we were well looked after by Lise, the bright and friendly hostess and her staff.

The orange block shows the location of the pentad which includes Lushof Lodge, about 50 kms north-east of Colesberg

Lushof Lodge (Pentad 3025_2530)

By the time we had settled in and acquainted ourselves with the cottage, it was 5.30 pm and there was just enough time for a birding walk down to the stream, which forms a small dam on one side of the entrance road and a wetland covered in reeds on the other.

The dam was good for Common Moorhen while the wetland held a few African Reed Warblers, with Red Bishops occupying the reeds and a Kurrichane Thrush exploring the edges. The tall trees alongside were home to a Cardinal Woodpecker, which first revealed its presence with a soft tok-tok-tok as he poked at the branches in search of some protein.

Southern Red Bishop, Lushof Lodge

Returning up the short hill to the cottage I scanned the slopes of the hill above it and soon saw Speckled Mousebirds moving in straggling fashion from tree to bush, then heard a Grey-backed Cisticola and quickly picked it up as it flitted from one low bush to another. For good measure a Blue Crane called but I could not track it down in the gathering dusk.

Orange River White-eye, Lushof Lodge

That seemed to be it for the day and a bit later we settled down to a hearty Karoo lamb meal, brought to the cottage by Lise and her daughter. But there was one more surprise later on – when I peered outside briefly just before going to bed, a Rock Martin roosting under the roof overhang stared back at me and became species 20 on my pentad list .

Saturday Morning 5 September

An early night meant I could get a good night’s rest and still be up at 6 am to have a coffee in the crisp morning air outside our cottage, while adding to the previous afternoon’s list.

View from Lushof lodge

I was able to add another 9 species before heading off on a lengthy walk around the farm, including Cape Bunting, Yellow Canary, a calling Brubru (also widely known as the “telephone bird” because of its trilling, repeated call) and a Familiar Chat doing its ‘familiar’ sequence of perch, fly down to the ground, catch something small and return to the perch with a couple of wing flicks straight after landing.

Familiar Chat

Venturing away from the farmstead, I followed a track along the stream and heard two very different birds – first a Lesser Swamp Warbler hidden somewhere in the dense riverine vegetation, then a Blue Korhaan greeting the new day from somewhere up ahead. From the latter call I guessed the habitat must open up further on to be suitable for the latter species – indeed it did a couple of hundred metres further, affording an expansive view across fields and plains, but there was no sign of the Korhaan, which had probably moved on or concealed itself in the grass (which they are masters at doing)

Lushof Lodge

I headed back to spend some time in the lush area close to the farmhouse, with the river and wetland as focus points. Common Starlings and a Cape Wagtail caught my attention and then a flash of colour signaled the arrival of a Malachite Kingfisherin an overhanging tree, ready to spot and dive for a small fish, frog, crab or insect.

Malachite Kingfisher

Before returning for breakfast, which we had arranged to be brought to the cottage at 8 am, I had a look around the area beyond the stream and soon added Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler) and White-throated Canary. I tried to capture the latter species on camera as I knew it was a different sub-species (orangensis) from those I am used to seeing in the Southern Cape. I had limited success getting a clear photo, but they were better than nothing.

White-throated Canary (Crithagra albogularis / Witkeelkanarie) (race orangensis), Lushof Lodge

By the way if you think it’s a bit extreme not being satisfied with photographing bird species but trying to photograph all the subspecies as well, I confess I have had this “collectors” affliction since a young age and it seems to be getting worse….

After a substantial breakfast (to see us through the last day’s driving, you know) it was time to pack the car one last time, while still keeping an eye out for any birds to add. Fortunately so, as a Booted Eagle and a pair of SA Shelducks flew overhead within minutes of each other.

Booted Eagle, Lushof Lodge

On the road out we picked up Namaqua Dove and White-backed Mousebird, the dam near the highway held Blacksmith Lapwing and the adjoining grass boasted an Eastern Clapper Lark, giving us its version of goodbye as it performed its display flight in the air.

White-backed Mousebird, Lushof Lodge

The Stats

We left with a total of 48 species recorded which, considering the time of year, is a good indication of the quality of Lushof Lodge as a birding spot.

Of special note – this was only the third full protocol card completed for this pentad in 10 years, the previous two having been done by myself and Koos Pauw in 2010/11. A very under-atlased pentad!

11 new species were added to the pentad records –

  1. Brubru
  2. Cape Bunting
  3. Grey-backed Cisticola
  4. Blue Crane
  5. African Hoopoe
  6. Malachite Kingfisher
  7. Blue Korhaan
  8. Karoo Prinia
  9. South African Shelduck
  10. House Sparrow
  11. Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler)