Category Archives: Atlasing

Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and beyond

Wondering what Atlasing is?

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a specific area  called a “pentad”. Each pentad has a unique number based on its geographical position according to a 5 minute x 5 minute grid of co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, which translates into a square of our planet roughly 8 x 8 kms in extent.

As a registered observer / Citizen scientist under the SABAP2 program (SA Bird Atlas Project 2), all of the birding I do nowadays includes recording the species for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town.

Atlasing has brought a new dimension and meaning to my birding as it has to the many other birders. The introduction a couple of years ago of the “Birdlasser” App has greatly simplified the recording and submission of the data collected.

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while atlasing.

Beyond Herbertsdale

Herbertsdale is a small, cosy town in the Southern Cape, conveniently close to Mossel Bay, our home town for part of the year. North of Herbertsdale lies the Langeberg (“Long Mountain”) range and the R327 tar road to changes to gravel soon after passing through the town, before winding its way through the mountains.

Along the R327 north of Herbertsdale
Along the R327 north of Herbertsdale

I had set out to atlas two of the more remote pentads in the area, both of them lying beyond the Langeberg. On the way there I warmed up with some ad hoc atlasing, and was happy to hear a Victorin’s Warbler (Rooiborsruigtesanger) calling in its distinctive way, followed by a Red-necked Spurfowl (Rooikeelfisant) in the short grass near the road and a Black Saw-wing  (Swartsaagvlerkswael) swooping gracefully by – three fairly uncommon species and more than enough to have me smiling as I stopped to enjoy the quiet of the mountains and a cup of roadside coffee.

Black Saw-wing (Swartsaagvlerkswael)
Black Saw-wing (Swartsaagvlerkswael)

By 7 am I entered the first target pentad  3350_2140 which is shown as the shaded square on the map below and which initially runs through the last section of the pass along a river, then emerges into flatter farmland and Karoo countryside before reaching the Gouritz River, where I took a short walk along the riverside.

Herbertsdale map 2

Returning to my vehicle, I took it very slow which helped to build up a decent list, including  Common House Martin (Huisswael), Plain-backed Pipit (Donkerkoester) in an open short-grassed field, Rock Kestrel (Kransvalk) perched quietly in a tree,   a very welcome Dusky Sunbird (Namakwasuikerbekkie) and a soaring Booted Eagle (Dwergarend). During the two hours (minimum duration for a “Full Protocol” card) I recorded 40 species, of which 20 were new records for the pentad, mainly because it had only been atlased twice before, nevertheless a great reward for my efforts.

Booted Eagle, (Dwergarend)
Booted Eagle, (Dwergarend)

An Old Wagon Route discovered

Then the real adventure started as I turned off at a road I had partially explored a few years ago, marked with a small, obscure sign with an old wagon picture on it.

My next target was pentad 3350_2145, shown as the shaded square on the map below, which had never been atlased before, known to Atlasers as a “virgin pentad” and much sought after by those with a bit of the pioneering spirit (which many South Africans seem to have in their genes).

Herbertsdale map 1

The road passed a lone farmhouse, then headed into the hills, becoming more barren as it wound its way over the rolling mountains, with some steep gradients and tricky corners requiring utmost concentration while moving.

Old Wagon route north of Herbertsdale
Old Wagon route north of Herbertsdale
Old Wagon route
Old Wagon route

Birds were beyond scarce – all I could do was to stop frequently and check for distant calls or a movement giving away the presence of a bird. I was relieved when a variety of aerial birds appeared and I could at least get my list going with Greater Striped Swallow (Grootstreepswael), Barn Swallow (Europese swael), Rock Martin (Kransswael) and White-rumped Swift (Witkruiswindswael).

The aerial birds such as Swallows, Martins and Swifts seem to enjoy hunting aerial insects together. Whenever I see a group of these graceful fliers I stop and scan as many of them as I can while they are still within a visible distance. More often than not the species first spotted leads to seeing two or three others, as  happened in this instance.

Greater Striped Swallow rootstreepswael)
Greater Striped Swallow (Grootstreepswael)

Patches of  Fynbos and Protea bush were the next most productive habitat, as I was able to spot some of the species common to the habitat, such as Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse suikervoël) swishing busily from one bush to the next, White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie) , Karoo Prinia (Karoolangstertjie) trying to match the  frantic activity of the Sugarbirds, Grey-backed Cisticola (Grysrugtinktinkie) calling in its distinctive fashion and Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Kleinrooibandsuikerbekkie) adding a splash of colour with its bright red breast band and iridescent green back .

Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse Suikervoel)
Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse Suikervoel)
White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie)
White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie)

, Herbertsdale north

When I stopped for a refreshment break near a mountain stream, an elderly gent, tasked with looking after a patch of Prickly Pears nearby and the only person I saw in the two hours, approached hesitantly, probably wondering what this obvious stranger to the area was up to – I shared my hard-boiled eggs and provita biscuits with him and we had a good chat about life in this remote area.

Lark-like Buntings (Vaalstreepkoppie) were unusually common, often a difficult species to find, while a soaring Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoël) made my heart soar just before exiting the pentad.

Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoel)
Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoel)

The road continued for a few Kms until it passed through a guest farm after which the landscape showed signs of “civilization” in the form of pine plantations and I eventually emerged onto the gravel road leading to the Oudtshoorn-Mossel Bay road and the way home.

I recorded just 21 species after two hours in this pentad, one of my lowest pentad totals ever, but all were new species for the pentad.

Memorable atlasing indeed!

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 3350_2140

3rd Full Protocol card for the pentad;   20 New species added to the pentad list;   Pentad total species now 52

New species added to the pentad list were : Cape Canary ; Blue Crane ; Namaqua Dove ; Red-eyed Dove ; Fork-tailed Drongo ; Egyptian Goose ; Cape Grassbird ; Little Grebe ; Helmeted Guineafowl ; Common House-Martin ; Hadeda Ibis ; Rock Kestrel ; Brown-hooded Kingfisher ; Crowned Lapwing ; Rock Martin ; Common Moorhen ; Plain-backed Pipit ; Cape Spurfowl ; Dusky Sunbird ; Common Waxbill

Pentad 3350_2140

1st Full Protocol card for the pentad;   21 New species added to the pentad list;   Pentad total species now 21

New species added to the pentad list were : Bokmakierie ; Larl-like Bunting ; Jackal Buzzard ; White-throated Canary ; Grey-backed Cisticola ; Cape Crow ; Red-eyed Dove ; Fork-tailed Drongo ; Rock Martin ; Red-faced Mousebird ; Neddicky ; Karoo Prinia ; Red-winged Starling ; Cape Sugarbird ; Southern Double-collared Sunbird ; Barn Swallow ; Greater-striped Swallow ; White-rumped Swift ; Common Waxbill ; Cape Weaver ; Cape White-eye

Atlasing Tales – Little Karoo near Oudtshoorn

Excuses, excuses…

Firstly, regular readers of this blog (yes, both of you) may be wondering why it’s been more than 3 weeks since my last post. I do try and post at least once a fortnight and have more or less managed to keep it up, but these past few weeks have been extra-busy with both Gerda and myself celebrating a milestone birthday. We decided early in the year to take our family – kids and grandkids, numbering 15 altogether including ourselves, to Mauritius for a week, which is where we were during the first week in October. More about that in a post very soon but for the time being this post is a further episode of Atlasing Tales (cue – loud clapping and cheering!!)

Back to Mossel Bay

During our late winter visit to Mossel Bay this past August, I was keen to do some atlasing of a couple of the pentads not yet visited in 2017 by any atlasers and eventually settled on two pentads in the Little Karoo near Oudtshoorn, with the added hope of adding some Karoo species to my year list. (For a further explanation of atlasing have a look at my earlier posts on the subject eg Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and beyond)

The location of the first pentad is shown on the map below, the second one is directly west of it –

The Little Karoo (better known in South Africa by the Afrikaans name “Kleinkaroo”) is separated from the Great Karoo (“Grootkaroo”) by the Swartberg Mountain Range which runs east-west almost parallel to the southern coastline of South Africa, from which it is separated by another east-west range called the Outeniqua-Langeberg Mountains. The Karoo is a semi-desert natural region of SA, with low rainfall, arid air, cloudless skies and extremes of heat and cold.

Getting there

It was raining lightly when I set off early morning from Mossel Bay and the wet roads had me making my way very carefully up the twisty Robinson Pass, which peaks out at 860 m above sea level and typically has a thick layer of mist or low clouds in the upper parts, as it did today.

Cresting the pass I glanced at the car’s temperature gauge which showed a chilly 5°C, so I welcomed the warmth of the car’s heater, but knew that I would be feeling it once I started atlasing, which one can only effectively do with the car’s windows open in order to be able to hear the birds calling, often the only way of identifying the species if you don’t see them. It was hard to imagine though, that the temperature would be the same 5° C on my way back through the pass at around 1.30 pm that afternoon!

By 7 am I was through the pass and the habitat changed rapidly to that of typical Little Karoo – few trees, many small shrubs and bushes and not much else.

Oudtshoorn south
A rainbow appeared when I made my first stop

Atlasing starts

Compared to other parts of the country, birding in the Karoo is slow and measured but immensely rewarding at the same time. When birds are scarce there is a certain pleasure in looking for and finding whatever may cross your path, very different from the abundant birds that other more bird-friendly habitats may provide. It’s a bit like sipping a special wine, taking your time and appreciating each drop, knowing there’s a limited amount and plenty of time.

A Karoo Lark (Karoolewerik ; Calendulauda albescens) drew my attention at my first stop, calling from a fence post then dropping to the ground. Its call was bright and cheerful despite the rather gloomy weather, but I suppose when you live in an arid area such as the Karoo, a bit of rainy weather is worth singing about!

Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south

Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south
Karoo Lark

Another Lark sitting on a small bush at a distance from the road had me wondering and I studied it as best as I could at that range, not being close enough to pick up the finer details that are important when trying to identify one of the LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs). It was streaky brown on the back, seemed to have  some light streaking on the breast – features that most of the larks possess so I was no closer to an ID. However when it turned its head the long decurved bill was a prominent feature, almost Bee-eater like in appearance which pointed towards Karoo Long-billed Lark (Karoolangbeklewerik / Certhilauda subcoronata) – some later study of Faansie Peacock’s excellent book on LBJ’s clinched the ID for me. When I submitted the card for the pentad it generated an ORF (Out-of-range form) for this species, which I still have to complete and submit in order to get the ID verified – all part of being a “Citizen Scientist”

The photo was taken previously in the Karoo National Park –

Karoo Longbilled Lark, Karoo National Park
Karoo Long-billed Lark

A gravel side road, signposted Kandelaarsrivier proved to be an interesting diversion and I followed it for a few kms not far from the mostly dry river course and past several farmsteads. Along the way I came across a group of Mountain Wheatears (Bergwagter / Oenanthe monticola) which were quite accommodating, allowing a close approach in my vehicle for some pleasing photos of this species which is usually at a distance.

Mountain Wheatear (female), Oudtshoorn south
Mountain Wheatear (female)
Mountain Wheatear (female), Oudtshoorn south
Surprising how much white is visible in flight

Both Speckled and White-backed Mousebirds (Gevlekte en Witkruismuisvoëls / Colius striatus and Colius colius) showed themselves at a spot further on – it’s interesting how they sometimes seem to stick close together yet don’t occupy the same tree.

I continued along the back roads past small villages and settlements, stopping to have a closer look at a handsome stone country church and exploring a side road which looked interesting but only took me to a rugby field, which could surely only be found in the Karoo – no grass, just a hard gravel surface. I had to wonder how they played such a physical game on this surface – they obviously breed some hard players in the area or they have very good medical care.

Rugby field, Oudtshoorn south

At another farmstead a group of White-throated Canaries (Witkeelkanarie / Crithagra albogularis) was busily gathering seeds from the ground, possibly spilled or perhaps from a nearby tree.

White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south
White-throated Canary – note the hint of yellow rump showing

White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south

Heading back towards the Robinson Pass I was soon into my second target pentad for the day … 3340_2200 and added Pied Starling (Witgatspreeu ; Lamprotornis bicolorCommon Starling (Europese spreeu ; Sturnus vulgaris) and Bokmakierie (Bokmakierie ; Telephorus zeylonus)fairly quickly. Another gravel road wound its way past a quarry, which also happened to be the destination of several lorries which kicked up clouds of dust each time they passed, making the conditions unpleasant for a while. Nevertheless between dust clouds I found a Karoo Chat (Karoospekvreter ; Cercomela schlegelii)and Pale Chanting Goshawk (Bleeksingvalk ; Melierax canorus)and heard the distinctive call of a Pririt Batis (Priritbosbontrokkie ; Batis pririt)

Once past the quarry I could stop and enjoy the peace of the surroundings again and soon added Cape Bunting (Rooivlerkstreepkoppie ; Emberiza capensis), Acacia Pied Barbet (Bonthoutkapper ; Tricholaema leucomelas)and Namaqua Warbler (Namakwalangstertjie ; Phragmacia substriata). Just before exiting the pentad Cape Crow (Swartkraai ; Corvus capensis)and Cape Spurfowl (Kaapse fisant ; (Pternistis capensis) were welcome additions. The landscape changed to more hilly country, providing some magnificent views….

From there it was a question of finding the shortest route back to the main road to Mossel Bay, which turned out to be a “gated” road through rolling hills, necessitating the “stop, open gate, drive forward, stop, close gate” procedure repeated four times along the way. Not at all onerous when your travelling through such rugged and handsome countryside with no other vehicles to be seen, it just adds to the “getting away from it all” feeling. I eventually got back to the tar road at the Paardebont turn-off where I turned right onto the road back home.

Gate along a wet road

The day’s excitement wasn’t done yet however – heading down the Mossel Bay side of the Robinson Pass, I stopped at the roadside picnic spot where I had found my first Victorin’s Warbler (Rooiborsruigtesanger ; Cryptillas victorini) a few years ago – as luck would have it I almost immediately heard one in the bush just below the road and soon found it threading its way through the dense undergrowth which is their preferred habitat.

After a couple of frustrating misses with my camera, I surmised which direction it was heading and went up ahead to wait for it to appear. This strategy worked as it briefly emerged from the bush and I rattled off a few shots while it called loudly. Eureka!

Victorin’s Warbler, Robinson Pass
View of Mossel Bay from Robinson Pass (taken on a sunnier day)

Well satisfied, I headed homeward

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 3340_2205

21st Full Protocol card for the pentad ;    Out of Range form received for Karoo Long-billed Lark ; Total species for the pentad now 141 ; my total for the 2 – 3 hours was 31 or 22% of the pentad total

Pentad 3340_2200

12th Full Protocol card for the pentad ;   Total species for the pentad now 111 ; my total for the 2 hours was 23 or 21% of the pentad total

 

On a Farm in Africa

I (wish I) had a farm in Africa……….

Having a farm in Africa is not quite as romantic as the well-known film of some years ago made it out to be. It takes a lot of courage and hard work to make a success of a farm and the dependence on favourable weather conditions can fray the nerves, to say the least.

Nevertheless it would be many people’s dream come true to have a farm in Africa – the next best option is having family with a farm and we count ourselves fortunate to be in that position. It also helps if said family are the hospitable kind and they don’t come more hospitable than Pieter and Anlia Genis, Pieter being my wife Gerda’s nephew and Anlia being, well, Anlia.

Their farm lies in a hilly part of northern Kwazulu-Natal province of South Africa, not far from Vryheid and some of the sites of fierce battles that took place in the late 1800’s, variously between the forces of the British, Boers and Zulus who were all fighting for control of this part of Southern Africa.

Onverwacht farm, Vryheid

We visit the farm whenever the opportunity arises, although less frequently than we would like and our most recent visit, coinciding with the first weekend of our Spring in September 2016, was to attend a family wedding in Vryheid. I used the time before and after the nuptials to fit in some birding in this quite special environment and as usual it delivered several species that are not easily seen elsewhere.

Exploring the Farm gardens and surrounds

Onverwacht farm, Vryheid

Saturday’s session was less than half an hour in the vicinity of the farm-house, highlighted by a Bald Ibis flying past, Black-headed Oriole calling regularly with liquid whistles, White-throated Swallow and a lofty Yellow-billed Kite, no doubt fresh back from its migration to other parts of Africa.

Bald Ibis
White-throated Swallow

Very prominent were the Village Weavers in numbers in the pine trees behind the house, chattering away in their excitement at the arrival of Spring and a chance to do some nest-building and wooing of the female weavers.

Village Weaver

And in the garden a Greater Double-collared Sunbird showed off its bright red and green colouring.

Greater Double-collared Sunbird

Sunday’s birding was a lot more exciting, starting with an hour-long slow walk around the dam not far from the house and followed by a drive up the mountain to the plateau, courtesy of “bird-guide” Pieter, who has become very adept at knowing where certain species occur on his farm.

The dam circuit was a slow and easy walk from the house down to the dam and skirting the edge all the way around.

The dam as seen from the farm house
The dam

Brown-throated Martins and Black Saw-wings flew low over the water along with an occasional White-throated Swallow. Amongst the usual Yellow-billed Ducks and Red-knobbed Coots, a bevy of White-backed Ducks stood out but kept their distance, making it difficult to get a decent photo.

White-backed Duck

A Giant Kingfisher flew out of a waterside tree as I approached, calling ka-ka-ka, and landed on the far side of the dam.

Walking along the dam wall, I disturbed several reed-dwellers – Levaillant’s Cisticolas, Tawny-flanked Prinias, Neddickys and Southern Red Bishops aplenty. Lesser Swamp-Warbler peeked out of the reeds just long enough to grab a photo.

Levaillant’s Cisticola
Southern Red Bishop
Lesser Swamp Warbler

Going Up

After a more than substantial farm breakfast, including my favourite “krummelpap” – a crumbly porridge in warm milk and dressed with biltong and cheese, Pieter suggested a birding drive, which I agreed to rapidly. We were soon on our way  up the mountainside on to the plateau in the 4 x 4 bakkie (pickup), expertly driven by Pieter on tracks which are at times rough enough and steep enough to have this brave birder’s heart in his mouth.

The plateau lies some 300 metres above the farm-house and once we had ascended to the top we spent the next couple of hours looking for the species that favour the rock-strewn grassy habitat, rocking and rolling along the rough tracks that wind between the rocky areas.

View from the plateau

Surprisingly the most common bird was Buff-streaked Chat – up to a dozen pairs in all – followed by Eastern Long-billed Larks and Cape Longclaws, all moving about this unique landscape with its almost unearthly feel – thousands of rocks seemingly strewn about in a random manner, interspersed with fine grass and shrubs and relatively flat despite being “on top of the mountain”

On the plateau – rocks for Africa!
Eastern Long-billed Lark (from far away)
Cape Longclaw

Other interesting species that occur here and that we came across in small numbers were :

  • Black-winged Lapwing
  • Denham’s Bustard
  • Blue Crane
  • Red-capped Lark
Black-winged Lapwing
Black-winged Lapwing
Denham’s Bustard

After exploring the length and breadth of the farm’s extent at this higher level, we headed back down the steep incline, edging slowly around the hairpin bends, some with a steep drop-off to one side, which require some careful manoeuvring.

We came across Ground Woodpeckers, whose habitat according to Roberts includes road cuttings, which is precisely where we found them – how specific is that!

We ended with a drive through corn fields adjacent to a stream and found a single Spoonbill, then made our way back to the farm-house for more of the hospitality for which farmers are deservedly famous.

On a previous trip we had the pleasure of seeing Grey Crowned Cranes in the fields, albeit at a distance. They must rate as one of the most spectacular large birds in Southern Africa and to see them “dancing” as part of their courtship ritual is unforgettable.

Grey Crowned Crane

This is also an area of plantations, generally sterile as far as birding goes but good for a moody photo…..

Plantation, Onverwacht farm

Atlasing Stats

From an atlasing point of view it was a successful outing with 55 species recorded, 5 of which were new to the pentad (refer to my recent “Atlasing Tales” posts for an explanation of these terms). The pentad number is 2740_3035 (the red square on the map) and this was the 7th Full Protocol card. My contribution has been 4 FP cards so far, with a species count of 123.

Can’t wait for our next visit!

 

Atlasing Tales – East of Delmas

Atlasing?  Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a specific area  called a “pentad”. Each pentad has a unique number based on its geographical position according to a 5 minute x 5 minute grid of co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, which translates into a square of our planet roughly 8 x 8 kms in extent.

As a registered observer / Citizen scientist under the SABAP2 program (SA Bird Atlas Project 2), most of my birding includes recording the species I see or hear, for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town. These tales record some of the more memorable experiences while atlasing.

Delmas and surrounds

The Area marked in blue on the map shows where this atlasing took place

delmas-east-11

Delmas is a busy town, known for many years as a centre of large farming operations and now also on the fringe of the coal mining belt that stretches across a large part of the Mpumulanga province and feeds the several large coal-fired power stations in the area. The habitat varies between stretches of prime grassland – lush and long after the good summer rains, large farming operations with tall green mielies (corn) bordering the gravel road for kilometres at a time and, sadly for the environment, areas that have been substantially altered (even devastated) by extensive strip coal-mining activities. The latter is cause for concern as you can’t help wondering if the mine-owners will go to the expense of properly rehabilitating the landscape, once they have stripped out all the available coal. Yes, there are regulations and laws that oblige them to do so, but as with so many things in our beloved country, these laws are often ignored by unscrupulous people who, it is rumoured, buy their way out of their obligations.

The atlasing

The atlasing reminded me once again why atlasing is such a joy (despite my comments about coal-mining) – this outing had all the elements that make atlasing memorable – interesting birding, a handful of “wow” birds seen, pleasant weather conditions, mostly quiet roads and an unexpected surprise sighting.

Pentad 2605_2850

As usual I was on my way before sunrise and made Delmas in good time before traffic had built up too much. At one spot the low mist combined with the soft light of dawn made for a magic scene which I just had to stop and snap with my iPhone.

Early morning, Delmas area
Early morning, Delmas area

Right on 6.30 am I was into pentad 2605_2850 and my list grew apace with all the usual grassland species on view. Orange River Francolin and Swainson’s Spurfowl were particularly vocal, as they often are early morning.

The long grass, stretching as far as the eye could see in places, was dotted with Widowbirds – Long-tailed Widowbirds displaying in their trademark undulating fashion with long tails floating behind them, White-winged Widowbirds fluttering about and Fantailed Widowbirds perched elegantly on longer stalks. Here and there Yellow-crowned Bishops provided a splash of colour in the waving grass.

Long-tailed Widow (Langstertflap) showing why it has that name
Long-tailed Widow (Langstertflap) showing why it has that name
Long-tailed Widow in flight - what a beaut!
Long-tailed Widow in flight – what a beaut!

The road itself was full of action – Doves and Sparrows in abundance and numbers of Red-capped Larks foraging for goodness knows what in the middle of the gravel road (I always wonder why they spend so much time in the road – there can’t be much for them to feed on).

A Marsh Owl over the grassland was cause for the first “wow” of the day, followed shortly after by a Pipit which caught my eye at the roadside – after much deliberation at home and consultation of the wonderful LBJ’s book of Faansie Peacock, I decided it was a Buffy Pipit.

Common (Steppe) Buzzard (Bruinjakkalsvoel)
Common (Steppe) Buzzard (Bruinjakkalsvoel)

A stop at the Wilgespruit (stream) added African Reed Warbler calling vigorously and out of the many Swallows overhead I could ID White-throated and SA Cliff Swallows. A long stretch of mielies followed, the stalks higher than my Prado – so pleasing to the eye and soul, but not particularly good for birding.

Mielies (corn) near Delmas, looking magnificent after good summer rains
Mielies (corn) near Delmas, looking magnificent after good summer rains

Shortly after I was into coal-mining area where a Black-chested Snake-Eagle surveyed the altered landscape with what I imagined was disdain, but a group of a hundred or so Brown-throated Martins didn’t seem to mind as they were foraging actively amongst the spoil heaps.

Black-chested Snake-Eagle (Swartborsslangarend)
Black-chested Snake-Eagle (Swartborsslangarend) – too far for anything but a record photo
Brown-throated Martin (Afrikaanse oewerswael)
Brown-throated Martin (Afrikaanse oewerswael)

With my total on a pleasing 55 species, I turned around and drove back along the same road towards Delmas and the second target pentad for the day.

Pentad 2605_2845

This turned out to be a rather trying pentad, as it largely covered landscape seriously altered by extensive coal-mining activities and I struggled to find an accessible side road to escape from the incessant string of coal trucks rumbling by every time I stopped.

Coal mining area - a depressing sight
Coal mining area – a depressing sight

After 40 minutes of less than happy birding, I abandoned the pentad – nevertheless with 21 species logged, including one “wow” bird in the form of a soaring Booted Eagle, for which I received an ORF (Out of Range form to be completed and submitted whenever a species outside of its normal known range is recorded).

With some time in hand and wanting to make the most of the morning’s atlasing I took the longer way home via the R42 to Bronkhorstspruit.  As I passed the signpost indicating the entrance to Bronkhorstspruit Dam, I decided to explore it and turned off onto a pleasantly quiet stretch of road through grassland. Not far down the road was a bridge over a stream which was just the spot I was hoping for to enjoy some refreshments and view the bird life.

And the birds were plentiful – several Amur Falcons perched on the fence, White-throated Swallows and Brown-throated Martins swooping under and over the bridge, Calling African Reed and Lesser Swamp Warblers, a Giant Kingfisher and a Common Sandpiper bobbing its head on a brick retaining wall while it watched the rushing water below.

Common Sandpiper (Gewone ruiter)
Common Sandpiper (Gewone ruiter)

Bird of the day was a Half-collared Kingfisher which unfortunately did not hang around long enough for me to get a photo. But a very pleasant conclusion to a mixed day of atlasing.

Surprise Sighting

The surprise of the day was not a bird – travelling along a stretch of gravel road, I spotted a mongoose in the middle of the road, not too unusual when birding in the country areas, but as I got closer I realised it was tackling a snake. The metre-long Mole Snake had coiled itself up for protection, while the Slender Mongoose looked for a vulnerable spot to attack.

My approach disturbed it enough to abandon the snake, which uncoiled itself and headed towards my vehicle.

Mole snake approaching my car
Mole snake approaching my car

I reversed out of the way and as luck would have it, at  that moment a car approached from the opposite direction, forcing me to move away to avoid having the snake run over. However the other driver did not appear to see the snake and probably just caught it with a wheel – immediately after the car had passed, the mongoose dashed from its cover, grabbed the injured snake and dragged it into the roadside bush, where it eyed me for a moment before disappearing. A real natural drama on a small scale! Now I believe those stories of Mongoose taking on snakes larger than themselves!

Slender Mongoose vs snake, Delmas area (Swartkwasmuishond)
Slender Mongoose vs snake, Delmas area (Swartkwasmuishond)

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 2605_2850

14th Full Protocol card for the pentad;   3 New species added to the pentad list (Little Egret, Palm Swift, Buffy Pipit) ;   Total species for the pentad now 138;  Personal total for the pentad 82 from 3 FP cards

Pentad 2605_2845

1st Ad hoc card for the pentad (18 FP cards done) ;   1 New species added to the pentad list (Booted Eagle) ;   Total species for the pentad now 145;  Personal total for the pentad 61 from 2 FP cards

What’s New?

New, Brighter, Cleaner, Washes everything Better!!

Well, if the washing powders can do it, so can I.

I recently realized I have been doing this blogging thing for two years already – how time flies when you’re having fun! It seemed like the right time to have a look at where this is going and how sustainable it is.

One suggestion is that some of what I have written needs a more permanent “home” and not be buried amongst past posts – those who blog will know the principal of blogging is that they are shown in reverse chronological order ie latest one is at the top and you scroll down to see the earlier ones (or you use the archives if you know when a particular one was published).

This is fine but something like a trip report to a special place needs to be more easily accessible.  So a separate page on the site for “Birding Trips” may be the way to go, plus pages for things like Butterflies, Mammals and some of the other interesting stuff out there.

I have already started revamping the blog into a Website format and have changed the theme (ie appearance) plus added some tentative new “Pages” to the headings at the top. One of them is “Birding by Habitat” which I have had in mind for some time – could be useful for beginners to know what birds they can expect to encounter in a particular habitat.

The site address has been shortened to “mostlybirding.com” eliminating the “wordpress” that was there before so it is very easy to get to the site by simply googling “mostly birding”

Hit the “Like” or the Comment Box if you like where I am going!

Robertson, Cape – Small Town, Big Food, Good Birding

Who can resist  a Cape country stay and good food, with some great birding thrown in?

When we spend time at our home in Mossel Bay, as we did during July this year, we often try to break away to an area that we have not visited or explored before. This time around we chose Robertson in the Western Cape, just 2 and a half hours from Mossel Bay, and after scanning through all the options on Booking.Com we settled on Orange Grove Farm for our two night stay. Gerda and I also like to try out special restaurants now and again and were pleased to get a booking at the Reuben’s Restaurant in Robertson, owned by the renowned chef of the same name and with a reputation for fine dining.

The last Monday in July saw us heading west along the N2 National road to Swellendam and from there branching off to Ashton and Robertson, a road quite familiar to us by now, but always a delight and particularly so at this time of year, with the contrasting greens and yellows of the scattered wheat and canola fields providing a spectacular patchwork.

Canola fields
Canola fields

First stop for lunch was at Riversdale where the restaurant had a welcoming fire going (did I mention there was a severe cold spell over most of SA?) and simple but hearty food – we chose toasted sarmies and coffee to keep us going. The friendly owner also helped us choose some frozen home-made meals for the evening meal at Orange Grove, which is a self-catering resort, and later we were only too happy that we had chosen this option as we popped the Bobotie and rice in the microwave for an instant delicious supper.

Riversdale cafe
Riversdale cafe

Not much later we stopped at Orange Grove’s reception, but not before having a coffee in the restaurant at Rooiberg Winery Restaurant, right at the turn-off to Orange Grove. We were very tempted to try their pineapple Danish – you can make up your own mind whether we succumbed to the temptation or not, suffice to say we really enjoyed that last short stop.

By 5pm we were in our chalet set against the slopes of the fynbos-covered mountain, looking over the vineyards and olive groves with the valley in the background.

The cottage
The cottage

The chill of evening was setting in fast so I got the wood fire going and the gas heater running, then braved the chill air to start a new atlas card with the many visiting birds attracted to the indigenous garden and surrounding fynbos – cheerful Cape Robin-Chats and Bokmakieries with their well-known calls, White-Eyes twittering and Karoo Prinias in good form, moving about restlessly.

Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Robin-Chat

It was not long before the sun started disappearing behind the surrounding mountains, prompting the resident Cape and House Sparrows to settle in for the night as the cold really set in.

Next morning we slept late, with our breakfast basket arriving at 8.30am, beautifully packed with the goodies we had ordered off the list – all for self preparation. “Real” coffee from the French press went down well with a warm muffin and a skewer of fresh fruit with yoghurt – it’s moments like this that you feel really privileged and spoilt.

Once showered, I found a sunny spot on the patio and kept a lookout for passing birds, which did not disappoint. Fiscal Flycatcher is really at home here and it is also the most recorded bird in the pentad (reminder : a pentad is an 8km x 8 km block based on co-ordinates). Not far behind are the Sunbirds (Malachite and Southern Double-collared) in their colourful finery, and a selection of Canaries (Brimstone, Cape and Yellow), perky as always.

Fiscal Flycatcher
Fiscal Flycatcher
Indigenous garden
Indigenous garden
Sunny corner in the morning
Sunny corner in the morning
Brimstone Canary
Brimstone Canary

Later in the morning Johan and Rosa (Gerda’s sister) arrived and we  took the short drive to the Rooiberg Winery restaurant for lunch and a chance to catch up on family news both sides and enjoy some of the simple but tasty fare on offer. Knowing we had a dinner date in the evening, Gerda and I went for the safe option of fish and chips, which turned up beautifully grilled, while Johan and Rosa chose the chicken curry, equally delicious judging by their satisfied murmurs.

The big chair at Rooiberg Winery restaurant
The big chair at Rooiberg Winery restaurant
Check those prices!
Check those prices!

The wine was from Rooiberg’s selection and I was pleasantly surprised that the cellar (next door) prices applied in the restaurant – where else in the world can you be served an acceptable wine for less than R40 (that’s about 2 Pounds!)

After a lengthy and relaxed lunch, we settled the reasonable bill, said our farewells and returned to Orange Grove Farm, where I set out to do some justice to the atlas list. I soon had all three species of Mousebird (Speckled, Red-faced and White-backed) chalked up and a group of 5 Domestic Geese on the nearby dam while the other dam further along the road had Black Duck and Coots.

Orange Grove Guest farm
Orange Grove Guest farm
White-backed Mousebird
White-backed Mousebird

A walk along the road next to the riverine bush was quite productive with Pied Barbet in the trees and a variety of birds on and around a mound of organic fertiliser (that’s the nice term for it) – Doves, Sparrows, Weavers, Bishops and a few Cape Spurfowl all vying for a spot.

Swee Waxbill turned up in the trees and settled for a while for a late afternoon grooming session, but were not easy to photograph, while a Southern Tchagra popped out of the lower stratum of the bushes long enough to snatch a photo.

Swee Waxbill
Swee Waxbill
Southern Tchagra
Southern Tchagra

We had booked in advance for Reubens Restaurant that evening, but when it came to going out in the cold and driving the 20 Kms to Robertson we almost cancelled – thank goodness we persevered as it was a memorable meal in very pleasant surroundings, with some really stunning dishes accompanied by an excellent Merlot – the photos don’t do the dishes justice but use your imagination and sense the subtle flavours and perfect cooking!

Dinner at Reubens in Robertson
Dinner at Reubens in Robertson
Gerda enjoying Reubens
Gerda enjoying Reubens
Springbok loin (the animal not the rugby player)
Springbok loin (the animal’s not the rugby player’s)
Orange souffle
Orange souffle
Crème Brulee
Crème Brulee

Next morning we again lay in till late then set off on the return trip to Mossel Bay, again stopping at our new favourite roadside restaurant for coffee and a breakfast pastry (the infamous “load shedding” meant we could not boil water for coffee that morning). The road back was not busy and we took it easy, just enjoying the passing scenery, which at this time of year includes a vibrant display of flowering aloes, some natural, others planted.

Aloes along the Ashton-Swellendam road
Planted Aloes along the Ashton-Swellendam road

Riversdale was our last stop at just the right time for tea (no, we resisted the cakes this time). Passing Mossgas (PetroSA) the rain had formed temporary wetlands in the fields and the Gulls and others were making the most of it.

Gulls in temporary vlei near PetroSA (after soaking rains)
Gulls in temporary vlei near PetroSA (Mossgas) (after soaking rains)

Shortly after, we were back “home” in Mossel Bay (well it is our second home) with some pleasant memories of a charming part of South Africa.

Mossel Bay in July – A Winter’s Tale

At home in Mossel Bay

The first 10 days of our July stay in our second home town were characterised by cold, wet weather almost every day – typical Cape winter weather you might say, but the locals insist it is exceptional for Mossel Bay, which is punted as having one of the mildest climates in SA.

It hasn’t been conducive to going atlasing in the early morning, so I have taken the lazy option of doing most of my birding and atlasing in the Golf Estate where our house is located with short visits to some selected spots in the Mossel Bay area to find the species not occurring in the estate itself.

Mossel Bay Golf Estate
View of the golf course from our garden
Mossel Bay Golf Estate - nature reserve area
Looking down at the nature reserve area from the walking trail

The Patio Option

Our enclosed patio looking over the golf course and the sea has proved to be the ideal spot for viewing the birds that visit our small garden, particularly when they perch in the neighbour’s trees, which are at eye level a just a few metres from the first floor patio.

Regular visitors include the usual Doves (Laughing, Cape Turtle- and Red-eyed) and Sparrows (Cape and Grey-headed) while Streaky-headed Seedeaters have been prominent for the first time that I can recall.

Cape Sparrow
Cape Sparrow
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Streaky-headed Seedeater (which used to be called Streaky-headed Canary)

A Cape Weaver started building his nest with a neat ring of grass as the frame for the ball-shaped nest to follow, but unfortunately abandoned it at that point.

Weaver starter frame of nest
Weaver starter frame of nest

The honeysuckle hedge below the patio was not in flower but we still had both Southern and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds visiting, probably on their way to the many flowering Aloes in the estate, which are at their colourful best in the winter months.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird
Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Greater ditto is identical other than a broader band of red)

Others dropping by were both of the common species of Mousebird, Speckled and Red-faced and both presented nice photo opportunities.

Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Mousebird
Red-faced Mousebird (calling)
Red-faced Mousebird (calling)

The ubiquitous Cape Sugarbirds are abundant in the estate and seem to be in a state of excitement most of the time – just shows what a fancy long tail does to you.

Cape Sugarbird
Cape Sugarbird
Cape Sugarbird
Cape Sugarbird (taken on my I-Phone)

Then there are the Bulbuls with the familiar Cape Bulbul not at all shy to show himself, while the Sombre Greenbul remains hidden in the bushes but makes up for it with his piercing call “which sounds a bit like “Willie” (which is also the Afrikaans name for it)

Cape Bulbul
Cape Bulbul
Cape White-eye
Cape White-eyes move through the foliage in small flocks

A Yellow Bishop was a surprise visitor, as I had only ever seen them in the Fynbos which fills the nature reserve area between the last row of houses and the rocky headlands along the shoreline. It was in its duller winter plumage, heavily streaked and giving a glimpse of bright yellow back as it flew off.

Yellow Bishop at the feeder (winter plumage)
Yellow Bishop at the feeder (winter plumage)

Feeding the masses

I bought a bird-feeder and some seed at Agri, our local co-op and installed it below the patio, hoping for some seed-eating visitors. Well, it was packed with birds the next day – Sparrows, Seedeaters (they used to be called Streaky-headed Canaries), Bishops and Weavers all vying for a spot. In the frenzy some seed fell to the grass below and was quickly taken by the Doves and even the Cape Spurfowl which are very common in the estate.

Cape Spurfowl
Cape Spurfowl

Going Walkabout

When the weather allowed, I did some walking around the estate and down into the nature reserve area of Fynbos. The latter was alive with Yellow and White-throated Canaries flitting about, plenty of Sunbirds and a Bokmakierie or two.

White-throated Canary
White-throated Canary

And the scenery was special – most of the fynbos was in flower creating beautiful spreads of tiny purple, pink and white flowers against the backdrop of grey skies and cobalt ocean beyond the cliff edge.

Fynbos
Fynbos
Fynbos
Fynbos
Fynbos
Fynbos

For a few minutes the icy wind was forgotten and I took some photos with my pocket camera (which I sometimes use for communication as well – they should call it an I-Camera rather than an I-Phone)

Other fynbos favourites were out and about – Karoo Prinia vociferous as always and Southern Boubou skulking in the bushes, while Bar-throated Apalis moved about restlessly,  calling chit-chit-chit all the while.

Let’s go down to the Sea again …….

Seabirds are always a feature of birding in Mossel Bay and there were plenty in numbers if not species. Kelp Gulls are common, even over the estate which they use as a direct route to their roosts along the cliffs.

Kelp Gull
Kelp Gull

Down at the Point there were numbers of Swift Terns flying past just off the rocky shoreline, some harried by Subantarctic Skuas, large all brown seabirds with distinctive white wing flashes, hoping for a dropped morsel. Their Afrikaans name Roofmeeu translates directly to “Robbing Gull” which describes their habit of pestering other seabirds until they drop or disgorge some of their food.

Subantarctic Skua
Subantarctic Skua

During the first week there were signs of the annual “sardine run”, when millions of these small fish move up the east coast of South Africa in massive shoals, drawing all kinds of sea- and bird-life along with them. From the patio we could see some of them enjoying take-aways :

  • schools of dolphins numbering in the hundreds
  • a few whales breaching – they are annual visitors to the bay
  • Cape Gannets galore, turning and diving straight down in their typical fashion
Cape Gannet
Cape Gannet

Winter is certainly a worthwhile time to visit Mossel Bay, but let’s face it, Spring and Summer are a lot better from most points of view! Can’t wait to return later in the year!

On the statistics front, my total bird list during this visit was 110 species of which about 60% were in the estate itself and the rest during side trips in and around Mossel Bay and a two-day “culinary and birding trip” to the Robertson area (watch this space for more on that subject)

Port Elizabeth : A breath of Fresh Air

we were very pleasantly surprised by just how nice a place PE turned out to be – the size (not too big, not too small), friendly atmosphere, attractively upgraded beachfront area, clean appearance and general all-round good feel made it a pleasure to visit and drive around”

The background

We had not been to Port Elizabeth (known as “PE” to most South Africans) in the Eastern Cape for a very long time, perhaps 20 years or more, so we were unsure what to expect when we decided to spend 6 days there in April 2013, as part of a 10 day trip to the Eastern Cape. Our reason (excuse?) for going to PE was to support our son James and wife Minette along with their 2 young kids, as James had entered to do the “Ironman” Triathlon which takes place in PE each year. For those not in the know, the Ironman is an event that would horrify most of us who belong to the unfit brigade and even a lot of those who consider themselves fit – 3.8 Km of swimming in the open sea, a bike ride of 180 Km and a run of 42 Km!

While we were in PE it made sense to visit a couple of the birding spots listed on my Roberts VII App, and I selected two which looked really worthwhile – Cape Recife Nature Reserve and Swartkops River Estuary, both of which were within easy driving distance of Summerstrand, where we had rented accommodation for the stay.

Port Elizabeth Impressions

Memories of short visits to PE a long time ago were faded, but we weren’t particularly enthusiastic about our visit to the city as such, however we were very pleasantly surprised by just how nice a place PE turned out to be – the size (not too big, not too small), friendly atmosphere, attractively upgraded beachfront area, clean appearance and general all-round good feel made it a pleasure to visit and drive around.

Summerstrand beach
Summerstrand beach
View from the pier
View from the pier
Cormorants occupying rocks offshore
Cormorants occupying rocks offshore

Our accommodation was in a guest house in Summerstrand, close to the Ironman start and finish and with plenty of space for all 6 of us

Our accommodation in PE
Our guest house accommodation in PE
Jemma found a comfy spot to catch the sun
Jemma found a sunny spot at the guest house

The Ironman Triathlon was well-organized and supported and more or less dominated the Summerstrand area and surroundings for the whole weekend, pulling in visitors from all over South Africa and internationally as well.

Part of the Ironman route
Part of the Ironman route
James on the bike leg
James on the bike leg
The marathon at the end was tough
The marathon run at the end was tough, but he made it
Minette providing moral support
Minette providing moral support

Cape Recife Nature Reserve

This reserve lies at the southernmost point of Algoa Bay, comprising long stretches of sandy and rocky beaches, coastal dune scrub and fynbos. The rocks attract seven species of Tern at different times, some of which are resident, others visitors.

The reserve is easy to find, being signposted from Marine Drive, just 2.5 km from Summerstrand and there is a nominal entrance fee, which you pay at the Pine Lodge Resort on the left immediately before the manned entrance boom.

I drove there on the Friday afternoon and once into the reserve, I continued the atlasing which I had started on the Pentad boundary before the turn-off (Pentad 3400_2540). Along the first stretch of road that leads to the lighthouse,  I heard a number of Sombre Greenbuls giving their sharp “Willie”call and saw Barn Swallows, Fiscal Flycatcher, Karoo Scrub-Robin and several other common birds to get my list going. Further on, the beach came into view and I stopped at a gap in the dunes to check out the shoreline and was rewarded with a Little Egret working the rocks for morsels.

Cape Recife
Cape Recife
Little Egret - yellow feet showing nicely
Little Egret – yellow feet showing nicely

The road soon ended at the lighthouse where there is a parking area. Judging by the heavy earthmoving equipment parked nearby and signs of sand being repositioned, I guessed that some form of beach rehabilitation was underway, which was reinforced when I came across rows of old tires half buried in the sand as I made my way along the wide beach.

Cape Recife
Cape Recife

Just beyond the lighthouse, the beach stretched for a long distance, bordered on the sea side by rows of jagged rocks which effectively break up the waves, so that only shallow streams reach the inner beach, making it ideal for the waders present such as :

Common Ringed Plover

Common Ringed Plover
Common Ringed Plover

White-fronted Plover

White-fronted Plover, Cape Recife
White-fronted Plover, Cape Recife

Sanderling (which was a lifer for me)

Sanderling, Cape Recife
Sanderling, Cape Recife

Other birds enjoying the sandy flats were many Kelp Gulls, African Black Oystercatchers and a group of 3 Whimbrels , which hopped off the rocks and trotted off elegantly in the shallow water as I approached.

African Black Oystercatcher, Cape Recife
African Black Oystercatcher, Cape Recife
African Black Oystercatchers
African Black Oystercatchers
Whimbrel, Cape Recife
Whimbrel, Cape Recife
Whimbrels
Whimbrels

Less pleasing was the amount of litter in the form of plastic bottles and bags plus other debris, which is probably washed ashore from the bay, as the beach itself does not attract the usual gamut of holidaymakers, just hardy walkers, fisherman and birders who, by their nature, are not inclined to litter.

I noticed that some of the Oystercatchers were raising their one leg when standing still and limping slightly when walking – on closer inspection of my photos when I got back home, some of them were ringed with bands that appeared to be too tight, which was probably the reason for their discomfort. (I placed these photos on the SA Birding Facebook page in the hope that someone in the know would look into it)

African Black Oystercatchers with ring showing
African Black Oystercatchers with rings showing
Another ringed Oystercatcher
Another ringed Oystercatcher
This ring looks tight and may have been causing the Oystercatcher to limp
These rings look tight and may have been causing the Oystercatcher to limp

One part of the beach had rows of pebbles and shells along the high water mark, some of which – to my surprise – “came alive”, turning into plovers and Sanderlings as I got too close for their comfort, and moving off in unison. This just proved once again how well camouflaged they are in their natural environment.

Sanderlings
Sanderlings
White-fronted Plovers
White-fronted Plovers

The Terns present during my short visit were a contingent of Swift Terns occupying small rocks just offshore and a few Caspian Terns with their distinctive red bills, flying overhead and posing on the sandy flats.

Swift Terns, Cape Recife
Swift Terns, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife
Caspian Tern, Cape Recife

White-breasted Cormorants were prominent along the water’s edge, waddling about then taking off in rapid direct flight as I approached.

White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Recife
White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Recife

Having completed the minimum 2 hours of atlasing and enjoyed some memorable birding, I slowly made my way back up the beach in the rapidly fading light past the lighthouse, partly silhouetted against the setting sun, to the parking area for the short trip back to the guest house.

 

Cape Recife
Cape Recife
Lighthouse at Cape Recife
Lighthouse at Cape Recife

Swartkops River Estuary

This is the other “must-visit” birding spot for visitors to PE. We visited the area on the Monday (Pentad 3350_2535) and found it about 20 minutes drive along the N2 towards Grahamstown, where we turned off at the Swartkops/John Tennant Road intersection. Once we were in Swartkops village, we turned right towards the riverside, which was accessible at certain points, but the sand flats exposed by the receding tide and favoured by many waders, Gulls and others were quite a distance away and a spotting scope would have been of great assistance – I only decided later in the year to treat myself to my first spotting scope and on this occasion had to make do with the binos.

Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary
Swartkops Estuary

Most of the birds were easy enough to ID but a couple of larger waders had me puzzled – a nearby tree helped me hold the binos steady and after straining my eyes for some time I was able to confirm a Greater Sand Plover, which happily was a lifer for me.

Having started on the Swartkops Village side we slowly made our way along the riverside until we came to a single lane bridge, which took us to Amsterdamhoek, a village which stretches along the other side of the estuary and has a long row of riverside houses which have clearly been there for many years, some renovated, others looking rather old and battered by the elements.

On the way a Harrier did a fly over across the marshy area next to the road, but unfortunately I was not able to confirm an ID although I suspect it was one of the “ring-tail” harriers such as Montagu’s or Pallid. My photos of this bird in flight were far off and hurried so were not conclusive at all.

The road through Amsterdamhoek ended at the river mouth, where many Terns were present, resting on long narrow sand banks exposed by the tide – most were Common Terns with a sprinkling of Swift Terns and a couple of Caspian Terns in between.

Terns at Swartkops Estuary
Terns at Swartkops Estuary

All of the birds present kept their distance, making it impossible to get close-up photos of them, with the exception of some Domestic Geese which appeared to have made the estuary their home – so here is the only decent bird photo I could get on the day!

Domestic Geese
Domestic Geese have made their home at Swartkops Estuary

All in all we found PE to be a really pleasant place for a visit and could easily go back there if the opportunity arises

 

Western Cape Quickie – Coast to Karoo

Background to our January 2014 Trip

We love Cape Town and the surrounds and take every opportunity to visit – so it was an easy decision when Gerda suggested we “pop down” from Mossel Bay, where we spend the December/January holidays, to say ‘hello’ to the fairest Cape and visit family at the same time. It’s just less than 400 kms with lots of pleasant scenery on the way along good roads and we tend to stop often so 4 hours turns into a comfortable and non-taxing 6 hours for us. Always on the lookout for birding and bird atlasing opportunities, I was eager to start the new year with a Western Cape outing or two……. or even three as it turned out.

We didn’t have too many fixed plans for the 4 days but Gerda wanted to visit her ex-Pretoria hairdresser, now resident in Kommetjie, which would give me a couple of hours to atlas the area. Kirstenbosch is always part of our itinerary and we would surely spend at least 2 hours there, enough to complete a “full Protocol” atlas card. Our last stop was to be Worcester for a couple of days with the family and I was sure I could fit in a pentad or two in the early mornings, knowing how hot it can get in that part of SA in January – not conducive to middle of the day birding.

It almost worked out that way …..

Kommetjie (Pentad 3405_1815)

Having dropped Gerda off at the hairdresser, I set off to explore the pentad covering Kommetjie (a pentad being 5 x 5 minutes in degrees latitude/longitude or about 8 x 8 kms in extent) – about 90% of this pentad is in fact in the sea, so atlasing is limited to a part of Kommetjie jutting into the pentad in the south-east corner. I stopped at the first beach area I came across and was immediately struck by the numbers of seabirds flying past and, looking for their source, noticed huge colonies of them further out on the exposed rocks. Swift Terns and Hartlaub’s Gulls were especially abundant, numbering in the hundreds if not a thousand or more and making quite a sight.

Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie

Walking along the sandy paths towards the next-door bay, I noticed other seabirds in between the massed Terns and Gulls, including African Black Oystercatchers and Little Egrets – the latter not strictly a seabird but I have often found them in this type of habitat. A number of Cormorants were in attendance, mostly  Cape and White-breasted Cormorants but also a few Bank Cormorants with their all black faces – I looked for the white in their rumps but it was not showing, so checked my Roberts bird book (on my Ipad) which confirmed that it only shows when Bank Cormorants are breeding.

Swift Tern
Swift Tern
Swift Tern
Swift Tern
Hartlaub's Gull
Hartlaub’s Gull

Both African Sacred and Hadeda Ibises were foraging amongst the seaweed-littered rocks, while Barn Swallows swooped low overhead probably catching flying insects attracted to the seaweed litter – never an opportunity missed!

A few White-fronted Plovers were exploring the rocks and seaweed as well, running to the white sandy areas when I approached – I was struck by how amazingly well camouflaged they are against the bright sand when they stand still – I had to look twice to find them even though they were just 5 to 10 metres away.

White-fronted Plover
White-fronted Plover

A short distance down the road I stopped at a vlei which the board informed me was called Skilpadsvlei (Tortoise Vlei) but found it was undergoing rehabilitation and had no water. It’s apparently home to the Western Leopard Toad (Amietophrynus pantherinus) which occurs in restricted parts of the Western Cape. However a short walk around the vlei did produce Red-winged Starlings and Rock Martins doing fly-bys plus a Cape Canary in the long grass.

Skilpadsvlei - home to the Western Leopard Frog
Skilpadsvlei – home to the Western Leopard Toad

By this time Gerda was done and I joined her for coffee and a light lunch at a very pleasant outdoor restaurant. From there I closed out the 2 hours minimum time required for a “full protocol” atlas session with a drive to the nearby Slangkop lighthouse and through the suburbia of Kommetjie, adding a few of the regulation western Cape birds in the process and stopping to admire the great views. I ended with a list of 30 species for the pentad – not a large number compared to other pentads, but a stunning area to go atlasing.

Slangkop lighthouse, Kommetjie
Slangkop lighthouse, Kommetjie
A street name in Kommetjie - named for the flower and not the users
A street name in Kommetjie – named for the flower and not the users

Kirstenbosch (Pentad 3355_1825) ….. well almost

The next day we had planned an excursion to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, one of our favourite places to visit, with a walk and lunch in mind. That morning I woke up to a very upset stomach and flu-like aches and pains and wasn’t up to doing much at all. We did go to Kirstenbosch hoping to catch a “golf cart” guided tour, but our timing was out so we just sat in the restaurant and had tea – no scones for me this time!

Saturday was spent getting to Worcester via Tokai (to visit my brother and sister-in-law) and along the coastal road past Strandfontein, where there were Kelp Gulls by the hundred along the beach and kite surfers enjoying the windy conditions that pulled them at high speed across the breaking waves – what a spectacular sport! Then we proceeded through Stellenbosch to Helshoogte on the way to Franschoek for a lunchtime stop at our other favourite venue – Hillcrest Berry farm. There we enjoyed a light lunch and tea with magnificent views of the mountains across the valley and the vineyards spread like patchwork over the lower slopes.

Worcester / Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens (Pentad 3335_1925)

In complete contrast to Kommetjie, the area around Worcester, just 110 kms from Cape Town, presents typical Karoo habitats, although not as stark and barren as further inland in the “real” Karoo, as well as suburbia and farms with extensive vineyards.

I started out at 6h30, still too early for the Botanical Gardens which I discovered only open at 7h00, so I drove around suburbia and up a lonely road which dead-ended at a quarry. Once I gained entry to the Gardens, I drove to the upper parking area and took a walk through the various desert-like biomes represented there, with displays of desert and semi-desert plants – fortunately there is enough signage to inform you on what you are seeing – a good thing when your knowledge of trees and plants is as limited as mine. I do know Quiver trees from our trip to Namaqualand last year and there were a number of magnificent specimens to admire.

Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens, Worcester
Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens, Worcester
The bugs are big here - actually the work of a local artist
The bugs are big here – actually the work of a local artist
Quiver trees in the botanical Gardens
Quiver trees in the botanical Gardens

The Gardens have an interesting history, having been established at a site near Matjiesfontein in 1921 but due to serious water supply problems it was moved to its current site in Worcester in 1945, along with many of the unique plants, some of which are still present in the gardens, including the Quiver trees mentioned above.

Birds are plentiful throughout the Gardens but restricetd in the number of species, with the feature birds being Bokmakierie calling vociferously in the early morning, White-backed Mousebirds and Red-faced Mousebirds flying about in groups between the larger bushes and trees, Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds enjoying the flowering aloes. Common Fiscals and Acacia Pied Barbets added to the mix with their distinctive calls, the Barbets outdoing all the others with their piercing, nasal call heard at a distance.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird
Southern Double-collared Sunbird

Overhead White-rumped Swifts and Greater-striped Swallows competed for flying insects. Exiting the gardens, a winding road took me up the hill to Brandwacht which is mainly vineyards with large farm dams, the latter quite productive around the fringes with the likes of Yellow bishop, Common Waxbill, Stonechat and Familiar Chat helping to boost the pentad list to 43 for the 2-3 hours spent atlasing.

Paths meander through the various biomes
Paths meander through the various biomes
Quiver trees are a special sight
Quiver trees are a special sight

Worcester / Hex River Valley (Pentad 3330_1930)

Just north of Worcester lies the Hex River valley and the pentad I had targeted for my third and last atlasing outing of the trip, comprising mostly mountains with the N1 national road bisecting them through the valley, with the flat sections along the river taken up by vineyards and the lower slopes of the mountains covered in fynbos. This is a very attractive part and some of the last vineyards before getting into the flatter and drier  Karoo further down the N1.

Hex River
Hex River
Hex River
Hex River
Aloe
Aloe

My first stop was at the Seekoeigat Padstal (Farm stall) where I kicked off with some regulation birds such as Red-winged Starling, Steppe (Common) Buzzard and White-rumped Swift amongst others. At the first opportunity I turned off, glad to get off the busy N1 with large trucks thundering past each time I slowed and pulled over to check out a bird seen fleetingly. This was a far more peaceful birding environment and quickly produced Pied Barbet, African Stonechat, Bar-throated Apalis, African Hoopoe and several Southern Double-collared Sunbirds.

Returning reluctantly to the N1 and continuing cautiously through the cutting that makes its way through the mountains, I spied a pair of White-necked Ravens. Further on a broader verge allowed a safe roadside stop with a view down the slopes to the river below, where I spotted Cape Rock-Thrush, Cape Spurfowl, Cape Robin-Chat and Cape … sorry Karoo Prinia. A bit further on I was able to get closer to the river where an unexpected Giant Kingfisher was watching over one of the deeper pools in the river and not far from him a Cape Bunting was hopping about on the railway tracks.

Hex River
Hex River
Cape Bunting
Cape Bunting

The next turnoff took me into prime farming area with vineyards on both sides of the road – nice to look at with bunches of grapes just about ready for harvesting but quite a sterile environment for birding so I didn’t dawdle too long and returned to the N1 for the last stretch before reaching the northern boundary of the pentad. There I found a large dam some way off the road but close enough to make out a few cormorants and coots plus a good old “gyppo” or Egyptian Goose. Turning back, I spotted a raptor soaring high above and was able to ID it as a Booted Eagle, which seems to have a fondness for the Western Cape as I have seen several in my trips around this province.

All in all a nice variety of birding and habitats about as far removed from each other as you can get, each one with its own beauty and attraction.