Category Archives: Atlasing

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)

Atlasing – August 2020 : Ruiterbos

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in August 2020 ….. in this case to two pentads in the Ruiterbos area north of Mossel Bay, which turned out to be as contrasting as two pentads adjoining each other can be

Ruiterbos Area – 25 August

Still using my earlier analysis of pentads in the southern Cape which had not yet been atlased in 2020, I noticed that the Ruiterbos area had one pentad not atlased since 2018 and with very low species totals recorded, which piqued my interest – nothing like a challenging pentad to make things interesting! Low totals, I have found, are usually due to limited diversity of habitat (all birds are particular to a specific habitat) or limited means of access to parts of the pentad, preventing the atlaser from getting to all the habitats. In some instances both of the above can apply, which results in really low totals.

I decided to target the challenging pentad as well as the one directly south of it, which seemed to hold more promise. Both are within about 45 minutes of home – the maps below show the location of the former…

The Route

With sunrise gradually coming earlier each day in late August, just a week away from Spring day, I set the alarm a bit earlier and left home at 6.15 am. I followed the R328 regional road to Oudtshoorn, passing Brandwag village and turned left at Ruiterbos Farm stall then travelled a couple of Kms along this quiet road before reaching the start of the first pentad at around 7 am.

Sunrise, Ruiterbos area

Pentad 3355_2155

Birding got off to a brisk start with calls of several species welcoming the new day – a cool, fresh morning with little cloud. Blue Crane, Bokmakierie, Cape Grassbird, Grey-backed Cisticola, Red-necked (Cape Turtle) Dove, even Hadada Ibis all joined the chorus.

Cape Grassbird (Sphenoeacus afer / Grasvoël) (Race afer), Ruiterbos area

Not much further along the gravel road I stopped at two adjacent fields which showed how differences in usage of farming land can have a noticeable impact on the species to be found. The first was covered in lush green lucerne and was seemingly reserved for the “big boys” – Egyptian and Spur-winged Goose and Blue Cranes were prominent. The adjacent field had short patchy grass with a scattering of stones and cowpats – clearly used for grazing of cattle and the realm of the smaller guys – Lapwings (Crowned), Larks (Red-capped) and Pipits (Plain-backed).

Plain-backed Pipit (Anthus leucophrys / Donkerkoester), Ruiterbos area
Red-capped Lark (Calandrella cinerea / Rooikoplewerik) (Race cinerea), Ruiterbos area

Descending into a valley, I passed a fruit farm which had entire fields draped in protective shade cloth, mostly to keep insects out I would guess, but equally proficient at keeping birds away, creating a very sterile environment.

Ruiterbos area

I did not dawdle and proceeded out of the valley into the hills beyond – what a contrast – suddenly the hills were alive with bird sounds, which were music to my ears (why do I feel a song coming on?). The next twenty minutes were bountiful, with 3 species of Sunbird (Southern Double-collared, Orange-breasted and Malachite), Cape Buntings and Cape Canaries twittering away, Stonechat and an African Olive Pigeon (New record).

Klaas’s Cuckoo (new record) announced its presence with its well-known “Meitjie” call and I wondered if it was an early arrival or perhaps one of those that had overwintered in the area, as they are known to do. A Cape Batis became my first record of this species for the year.

Cape Batis

After an hour and a half in the pentad, I had logged 34 species – a good start, and being close to the second “challenging” pentad, I decided to tackle it while birds were still active and come back to the first pentad a bit later. This would hopefully maximise my chances of getting a reasonable total in the second pentad which, from the stats, was going to produce a low bird-count card, for reasons as yet unknown.

Ruiterbos area

I returned later in the morning to complete a second “shift” in this pentad, carrying on where I had stopped before. I was now out of the prime birding area, into flatter countryside with less bush, but was still able to add regularly to my atlas card with the likes of Rock Kestrel, Victorin’s Warbler and African Black Swift (New record).

Victorin’s Warbler, Ruiterbos area

I managed to get a reasonable photo of the Rock kestrel – I had seen it returning with a small prey to its perch on top of a utility pole and guessed it would be pre-occupied while devouring it, which would allow a closer approach than usual. I was right and it only flew off again when the prey was ripped apart and swallowed.

Rock Kestrel (Falco rupicolus / Kransvalk), Ruiterbos area

Along the last stretch before exiting the pentad,another photo opportunity arose – this time an Olive Bushshrike (New record). I heard it calling from a particularly bushy area alongside the road and once I thought I had found the spot where it was concealed (which they are very good at doing) I tried some “pishing” which is a useful way of getting some species to pop out momentarily.

The Bushshrike obliged for just a few seconds, curious as to what was making this sound which birds associate with danger and I was able to snatch a few images – my best of this species to date!

Olive Bushshrike (Chlorophoneus olivaceus / Olyfboslaksman) (Race olivaceus), Ruiterbos area

The pentad had produced 50 species in all, and some very special ones at that.

Pentad 3350_2155

This was the pentad that had me wondering about the low totals logged by others. I soon found out why – apart from the first km or so which runs through open hills, the rest of the only access road ran through a commercial pine plantation, habitat which is notoriously sterile when it comes to bird life. The open stretch held Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia, Red-necked Spurfowl and African Pipit.

African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus / Gewone koester), Ruiterbos area

Entering the plantation, birding – and indeed life itself – seemed to slow down…

Paardekop Plantation, Ruiterbos area
Paardekop Plantation, Ruiterbos area

It was nevertheless a most pleasant environment to be in, despite being less than attractive for most bird species – exceptions were Black-headed Orioles, Cape Canaries, Cape Bulbul, and Cape White-eye, all of which I found easily and repeatedly, mostly at the fringes of the plantations.

At one stop, Greater Double-collared Sunbirds were curious bystanders but most stops were met with dead silence and no discernable movement, so each species added was quite precious as I slowly built on the list.

After two hours birding in the invigorating pine-scented air, I found I had reached 20 species, amazingly the second best total for the pentad out of 15 cards completed to date! I later found that I had added 3 new species to the pentad records, being Hadada Ibis (!), Speckled Pigeon and Black Sawwing.

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%

My Atlasing Month – August 2020 : Albertinia Area

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in August 2020 …..

Albertinia north-west – 7 August

I looked for two pentads not too far from Mossel Bay, our home during lockdown, and not yet atlased in 2020 – my survey resulted in me selecting two pentads in the area north-west of Albertinia, an area which I have found to be pleasant and productive from a birding point of view, so they fitted my plans well.

Albertinia north

The Route

Getting to the starting point of the first pentad meant driving west along the N2 National road to Albertinia, then north towards the mountains and west again along the gravel road that ran through the pentad, ensuring that the sun would be behind me during the prime early morning birding hours.

As I drove along the already busy N2, the view northwards was across low valleys which were filled with mist, giving them the appearance of large fluffy lakes surrounded by hills.

The morning was one of the coldest I’ve experienced in these parts, with the car indicating an outside temperature of just 1 degree C as I approached the starting point – thank goodness I had purchased a woolen beanie the day before, which I now donned to prevent the cold penetrating beyond my ears to my brain – who knows what damage that could do (although some would say the damage was done ages ago).

Chilly morning in Albertinia

Fortunately it warmed up as the day progressed and by 11 am I was in shirt sleeves and the beanie was replaced by my battered hat.

Pentad 3400_2125

The map below shows the location of the pentad, north west of Albertinia. For those who have not visited South Africa, the town marked Agulhas at bottom left is where the southernmost tip of the African continent is located and is a favourite tourist stop.

And this is a closer view of the first pentad, shown by the red square below

Right at the start of this pentad I came across a roadkill victim in the middle of the gravel road and stopped to see what it was (dead birds can be recorded when atlasing) – it was a Crowned Lapwing, largely undamaged so I moved it to the verge just to save it the further indignity of being trampled by other vehicles.

Albertinia north

The road was damp with puddles in places from the previous day’s rain and birds were plentiful. Changing quickly into atlasing mode, I followed my usual strategy of driving very slowly and stopping frequently to look around and listen for calls – in the first hour I recorded 26 species while progressing just 2 kms along the road, with so many interesting and promising spots to investigate.

Albertinia north

Fresh footprints in the damp mud at roadside had me somewhat puzzled – left by someone running, judging by the depth of the imprints, and someone with very tough feet, going on the very gritty surface.

All the usual suspects were present including Blue Crane and Large-billed Lark, African Pipit and Fork-tailed Drongo, but also some of the scarcer species such as Denham’s Bustard (twice) and Grey-backed Cisticola.

African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus / Gewone koester, Albertinia north

Cape Longclaw on a fence presented a good photo opportunity, as they so often do, but Red-capped Larks in the road were not as cooperative and flew off each time I tried to position the car/ myself/my camera, settling tantalisingly back in the road a way ahead and often on the opposite side to where my camera was pointing. It was probably my imagination but I thought I detected a smirk on their faces each time they left me cursing under my breath. Bird photography can sometimes be a tad frustrating!

Cape Longclaw (Macronyx capensis / Oranjekeelkalkoentjie), Albertinia north

A small dam held Grey Heron, Yellow-billed Duck and Little Grebe to add some waterbirds to my list. The last half hour produced two Canaries – Brimstone and Yellow Canary, the third Lark of the day – Agulhas Long-billed Lark, and Cape Grassbird to take the card total to a respectable 48 species.

Pentad 3400_2120

The second pentad of the morning lies directly west of the first, so I continued along the same road and through habitat similar to the first. Species were mostly a repeat of what I had recorded in the first pentad. Some notable exceptions were Little Rush Warbler which I heard calling from a well reeded stream that I crossed and a Rock Kestrel that passed overhead during one of my many stops.

Albertinia north

I spent a coffee break at a copse of bluegum trees next to the road at a farmyard and watched the Fork-tailed Drongo‘s actively flying about and hawking flying insects. A Cardinal Woodpecker called a loud rapid ch-ch-ch-ch-ch and it didn’t take too long to find it high up against the branches of the trees, pecking at cavities and using its barbed tongue to extract larvae of beetles and other insects, spiders and ants.

Fork-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis / Mikstertbyvanger), Albertinia North

Passing fields brimming with bright yellow canola, a Yellow Bishop with an equally bright yellow rump and perched on the fence presented an interesting photo opportunity, so I positioned myself and my camera, with some difficulty, so that the background would be the yellow of the canola while hoping the Bishop would stay where it was. It did and I managed to take a few shots, but the distance from the bird meant it was not as sharp as I had hoped… still quite unusual –

Yellow Bishop (Euplectes capensis / Kaapse flap) (Race capensis), Albertinia north

Moments later it flew off

Yellow Bishop (Euplectes capensis / Kaapse flap) (Race capensis), Albertinia north

A last dam before leaving the pentad held a pair of Water Thick-knee, inconspicuously standing among bushes along the fringe of the dam, while a few Brown-throated Martins raced about over the water.

Water Thick-knee (Burhinus vermiculatus / Waterdikkop), Albertinia north

As I left the pentad I spotted some Red-billed Queleas in a thorn tree, the last record for the day to take the pentad total to 41 and my day’s total to a pleasing 63 after some 5 hours of atlasing this most pleasant part of the southern Cape.

My Atlasing Month – July 2020 (Part 3 )

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in July 2020 …..

Great Brak and Mount Hope – 24 July

I chose two pentads quite far from each other – only because I had started atlasing Great Brak River a few days prior and was within the 5 day maximum atlas period, so I was keen to complete this pentad. The choice for the second pentad was one not yet atlased in 2020 and the most appealing one was located on the other side of the Outeniqua Pass, on the way to Oudtshoorn.

This meant a lengthy drive to get there, which on the day was made a lot longer by the convoy of 3 “Abnormal Load” vehicles trundling up the pass at a snail’s pace, with no chance of overtaking on this single lane, twisty road. Even a stop for coffee halfway up the pass to let the long queue of cars get ahead of me, did not help much as I quickly caught up with them again, but at least I wasn’t stewing in the queue all that time, but could enjoy a relaxed cup of coffee and an egg (forgetting of course that it was a bird that produced it)

Outeniqua pass with abnormal load vehicles in the distance, heading right

Pentad 3400_2210

Great Brak is always a pleasurable spot to atlas, particularly the part that lies around the river estuary, which is a local waterbird hotspot. I had started atlasing during a brief 15 minute stop the previous Tuesday, on the way back from a day trip to Knysna.

It was an hour before sunset and with the setting sun behind us as we drove slowly along the Suiderkruis road on the western side of the estuary, we had perfect light for viewing and photography for those 15 minutes. It was enough time to record 17 species including Greater Flamingo (with 3 juveniles nearby), Little Grebe, Black-winged Stilt, Little Egret, African Spoonbill and Cape Teal.

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus / Grootflamink) (Juvenile), Great Brak
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta / Kleinwitreier), Great Brak
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus / Rooipootelsie), Great Brak

When editing the images I played around with the above photo – can you see what I did in this next photo ? Answer at end of Post….

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus / Rooipootelsie), Great Brak

On the Friday morning I set out to continue atlasing at 7.30 am – sunrise in midwinter – along the gravel road that runs between Klein Brak and Great Brak just north of the N2 national road. The first birds were fairly mundane – Doves, Hadeda, Egyptian Goose – then I stopped to scan the settling ponds of the waste water treatment works and heard Little Rush Warbler and Cape Grassbird, both very distinctive calls, and saw White-faced Ducks on the opposite side of one of the ponds. An encouraging start to the morning!

Roadworks in progress over the next stretch of road, including a “stop and go” one way system, meant a short delay followed by a forced rush until I was through the village of Great Brak and heading northwards into hilly country, along a twisting gravel road lined with bush both sides and steeply sloping ground falling away to one side.

Great Brak River

Several stops along the way, but only along the longer straight parts of the road so that approaching cars would be able to see me in time, added both Southern and Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Bar-throated Apalis, Cape White-eye, Sombre Greenbul and Southern Boubou. When I reached the plateau the habitat changed quickly to farmland and I soon came to the northern boundary of the pentad, so it was time to turn back.

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Great Brak River
Sombre Greenbul, Great Brak River

I wanted to hit the estuary again before moving on to the next pentad and I headed for the eastern side to avoid having the sun in my eyes. I was rewarded with Mallard, a couple of Pied Avocets (5% – so quite scarce), Grey Heron, plenty of Greater Crested (Swift) Terns and a Common Sandpiper, the latter surely one of the first arrivals from European Russia – heck it’s still winter here and the migrants are already arriving!

Common Sandpiper, Great Brak River

While scanning the waters for other waterbirds a Klaas’s Cuckoo (9%) called “Meitjie” (it’s Afrikaans name, pronounced “maykie”) to confirm its presence. As I left this superb birding spot a single Cape Sugarbird (10%) flew between bushes to take my total for the first pentad to 54, after some 2.5 hours of atlasing.

Cape Sugarbird

Pentad 3345_2215

In hindsight I should have chosen a second pentad closer to the first – my trip between the pentads took over an hour including the “abnormal load” induced delay and coffee stopheading up and over the Outeniqua Pass which takes you from sea level to an elevation of 800 metres – not all that high but enough to bring the temperature down substantially until I was into Klein Karoo country on the way to Oudtshoorn.

It meant that I only started the second pentad at 11 am – hardly the ideal time for birding, especially in the Klein Karoo where the birds tend to disappear during the middle of the day. Nonetheless the first half hour was quite lively as I passed through mainly farmland and found Ibises (Sacred and Hadeda), Egyptian Geese and Black-headed Heron – all species that prefer open fields.

That was followed by the bird of the day as I came across a flock of Black-headed Canaries (15%) – a species that I have seen few enough times to count on one hand.

I continued past several more farms and a small stream until I came across the next exciting find when I spotted a flock of Swifts in the air – way too early for returning migrants I thought. As it turned out they were Alpine Swifts (6%) which are partial intra-African migrants so probably hadn’t come far by Swallow / Swift standards but always a joy to see with their speedy flight and white belly making them one of the easier swifts to call.

Alpine Swift, (taken in Augrabies NP)

A large farm dam disappointingly produced not a single bird and thereafter birding became really slow as I headed into more arid countryside with almost no signs of visible farming. Just when my birding spirits were flagging I came across a Mountain Wheatear (New record) and shortly after that excitement another smaller dam was more productive with both SA Shelducks and Yellow-billed Ducks in residence.

SA Shelduck

In the surrounding bush I found a Bar-throated Apalis, as feisty as always, and in a tall tree a Pale Chanting Goshawk provided a pleasing conclusion to the pentad, which stood at a total of 34 species – not at all bad considering the time of day. I took the shortest route back to Mossel Bay, eventually getting back on to tar at the R328 and completed the long circular route home.

The Answer ……..

If you guessed that the second Black-winged Stilt photo is a copy of the first but inverted, you win this week’s prize, which is a genuine “well done” from me!

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%

My Atlasing Month – July 2020 (Part 2 )

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in July 2020 …..

Albertinia Area – 17 July

I had not atlased in the Albertinia area for a few years, so was keen to see if it would prove to be as enjoyable as before, with its combination of attractive countryside, quiet roads and interesting birds.

Using the analysis of pentads that I had prepared at the beginning of July, I chose one that I had identified as not yet atlased in 2020 and for convenience added an adjacent pentad that had already been atlased by another birder during the year.

I set the alarm for what I thought was 5.45 am but added an hour by mistake (does Freudian slip apply in this case? I am not a natural early riser) so I only reached the first pentad at 8.15 am, well after sunrise, which is around 7.30 am at this time of year.

The Route

From Mossel Bay it is an easy 40 minute’s drive to Albertinia along the N2 national road, already quite busy at this time of the morning, At Albertinia I turned off towards the town centre – blink and you miss it in such a small town – and spent a while around the town and surrounds before heading further north towards the main birding route for the morning – a gravel country road signposted Kleinplaas (“Small farm”) that traverses both of my target pentads from east to west.

The route for the morning

Pentad 3410_2130

Bird life was lively right from the start, despite – or perhaps because of – the late start, with a long Vee of Sacred Ibises in flight overhead, setting the scene for another absorbing morning of my favourite pastime – atlasing.

Sacred Ibis

My first stop was at the local golf course – a nine hole, rather basic one set in parkland with “greens” that were in fact made up of bare soil treated with oil or some such agent to keep them smooth and firm. The small dam in the middle was too far from where I could view it to be able to hear calls, but I could just make out Reed Cormorant and Gyppos (Egyptian Goose). A circuit of the road around the course produced Southern Red Bishop (in drab non-breeding plumage), African Hoopoe, Red-knobbed Coot and even a Yellow-billed Duck emerging from a patch of reeds in a stream.

Southern Red Bishop (winter plumage)

Heading north out of town, I quickly got into my routine of stopping to look and listen every couple of hundred metres and carried on in this fashion until I came to the first turn-off which was the gravel road that meandered through the pentad from east to west.

This road of about 6 kms in length is bordered by farmland for the entire distance and took me close on two hours to complete, with many distractions besides the birds – but more of that in a moment, first the birds, which came in a steady flow at every stop :

Denham’s Bustard (seen twice) flying by majestically

Denham’s Bustard, Albertinia area

Sheep kraal with Red-capped Larks pottering about amongst the sheep

An unexpected Three-banded Plover in the same sheep kraal

Blue Cranes calling in their guttural fashion

Large-billed Larks calling from sparsely grassed fields in their unique way – sounding just like a rusty gate badly in need of some oil

Cape Crows heard in the distance then seen as they came closer

At least half a dozen Capped Wheatears in a large lightly grassed field scattered with stones – I find them so often in similar habitat that I can only conclude that this is ideal for them

Capped Wheatear (Oenanthe pileata / Hoëveldskaapwagter) (Race pileata), Albertinia area

Sharing this habitat preference were several Crowned Lapwings and a few Agulhas Long-billed Larks, the latter a sought after species amongst birders, only because their distribution is limited. In this area they are quite easy to find.

Crowned Lapwing (Vanellus coronatus / Kroonkiewiet) (Race coronatus), Albertinia area
Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris / Fiskaallaksman) (Race collaris), Albertinia area
Fiscal Flycatcher (Sigelus silens / Fiskaalvlieëvanger) (Race silens), Albertinia area

While revelling in this excellent birding, it was brought home to me how much more there is to atlasing than “just” the birds encountered (although that of course is the primary objective of the activity) – it’s also about the whole experience of travelling along routes that most people will never see and the interesting sights and sounds that lie around every bend.

This particular trip stood out in that regard – and here’s why ….

I came across fields of dark green lucerne followed by canola fields in bloom, stretching into the distance and carpeting the landscape in bright yellow.

Canola fields, Albertinia area

I enjoyed coffee and rusks on a lonely road where thoughts of the Covid 19 pandemic were far away

I was fascinated by an old “tin” cottage, long since abandoned, with an equally old barn next to it – I couldn’t help wondering what stories it could tell about the people who lived there and tended the small garden or worked in the barn, with pigs and sheep and perhaps a dog or two occupying the yard.

Abandoned farm house, Albertinia area
Abandoned farm house, Albertinia area

As I approached the fence to take these photos, a Jackal Buzzard flew out of the gum trees beside the house – perhaps to remind me not to get too distracted and to focus on the birding.

Abandoned farm house, Albertinia area

But there was more – an incongruous red telephone booth in the middle of an active farmyard had me wondering again – where didi it come from and why was it there?

Farm with postbox, Albertinia area

And with that I came to the end of the first pentad with a total of 48 species recorded. On checking the previous records for the pentad I found that the Red-billed Queleas I had seen was a new record, while Long-billed Crombec was just the second record.

Pentad 3410_2125

There was more of the same as I continued into the adjacent pentad along the same road, with the time now already 10.30 am, so well past the prime birding time. Nevertheless I recorded 20 species in the first half hour, before stopping for mid-morning coffee and a customary hard-boiled egg – my new list included pleasing species such as Brimstone Canary, never common, Grey-backed Cisticola and Red-capped Lark.

Albertinia area

The road left the pentad on its northern bounday so I took the first road southwards to return to the pentad – and this is where the birding slowed down as I traversed less favourable habitat – so much so that it took all of the next one and a half hours (to make up the two hour minimum atlasing required) to push the species total up to a hard-won 33. Blame it on flatter countryside with too much alien bush, pockets of pine and gum trees and overgrown fields

Despite this I had a glorious morning’s atlasing in attractive countryside

Oh… and I also came across this ostrich look-alike – its rather wooden expression had me guessing for a split second….

“Wooden Ostrich”, Albertinia area