Category Archives: Atlasing

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

My Atlasing Month – July 2020 (Part 1 )

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

Klein Karoo South of Oudtshoorn – 1 July

Klein Karoo (Little Karoo) ? – for those not familiar with this South African region it is the dry area

The Route

Before embarking on this atlasing outing, I did an analysis of the frequency of atlasing over the last three years in the area around Mossel Bay, homing in on those pentads which appeared under-atlased in the period. I came up with about 10 pentads and, keen to do some Karoo birding, I decided on two that were located off the R328 road between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn, on the northern side of the Langeberg mountains.

I have made several trips to this area in the past and love the feel of the Karoo, so I was anxious to get there by sunrise – around 7.30 am during the mid-winter months. I reckoned it would take an hour’s drive so left home just after 6.30 am and headed past Hartenbos along the R328 road past the familiar landmarks of Eight Bells Resort (currently closed) and the twisty, steep in places Robinson Pass which tops out at 860 m. I always keep an eye on the car’s outside temperature gauge at this point and wasn’t surprised to see it reflecting a chilly 4 degrees C. I reached the first pentad soon after.

Pentad 3340_2205

The air was crisp and clear when I made the first stop near the turn-off to the village of Volmoed and I spent the next 15 minutes drinking in the pureness of it while the sun cast a pale rosy wash over the surrounding hills.

Oudtshoorn south

It did not take long to pick up the calls of Large-billed Lark, seen shortly after, Grey-backed Cisticola, Ring-necked (Turtle) Dove and a distant Southern Black Korhaan to get the list off to a good start.

Large-billed Lark (Galerida magnirostris / Dikbeklewerik), Oudtshoorn south
Southern Black Korhaan (Afrotis afra / Swartvlerkkorhaan)

The booming call of an Ostrich and a nearby group reinforced just how popular this enormous bird is as commercial farming livestock in these parts, dating back 100 years to the era when ostrich feathers brought great wealth to the region, still visible in the old “Ostrich Palaces” which the farmers of those times built with their new-found wealth. But I did not record it as it is not a natural resident of the area. A Karoo Chat made up for that,,,

Karoo Chat (Cercomela schlegelii / Karoospekvreter) (race Pollux), Oudtshoorn south

A flock of Pied Starlings passed by, no doubt off to start another busy day of foraging.

Pied Starling (Lamprotornis bicolor / Witgatspreeu), Oudtshoorn south

Driving on slowly, watching out for approaching vehicles so that I could pull over onto the verge, I saw Cape Bulbul, Malachite Sunbird, White-throated Canary and Layard’s Titbabbler (New record) before reaching the turn-off signposted Mount Hope, which raised my … er … hopes.

Oudtshoorn south

I spent some time driving the gravel road which initially runs next to a dry river course – single width in places so I had to be extra cautious while watching for oncoming cars and bakkies (pickups). Birds were not plentiful so I headed back to the main road and on to the next turn-off, this time to the opposite side and signposted Kandelaarsrivier (literally “chandelier river” – wonder where that name came from?) – suddenly birds were more plentiful, probably due to the farms, ploughed fields and ostrich encampments which lined the first part of the road.

Atlasing Little Karoo

My encounters with curious farmers have been a feature of my atlasing outings and I have met many interesting people along the way, albeit briefly. Today was no exception, although the age profile of the “farmer” was somewhat different this time – more about that at the end of this post.

It was not too long before I reached the boundary of the first pentad, with my species total standing on 38 hard-won species. The second pentad was adjacent to the first but involved a 15 minute drive to get to a convenient starting point before I could start recording again.

Pentad 3340_2200

I started the new pentad in familiar territory in the village of Volmoed (literally “full of hope”) but it was now 11 am and it was immediately apparent that slow “middle of the day” birding lay ahead, with very few birds showing in the arid habitat.

This area is so arid the local rugby “field” is un-grassed – I doubt if they do those spectacular dives when scoring a try on this ground!

Rugby field, Volmoed

Hoping to get a better start, I headed to the Paardebont turn-off a few kms further – the first stretch of this gravel road is used by heavy vehicles transporting sand from the quarry some way down this road and I had learnt from previous visits that it is a road best avoided until after the quarry, as the dust kicked up by these vehicles creates something akin to a thick brown fog each time they pass, making any attempt at birding at best unpleasant, at worst impossible

Fortunately I also knew that there is an unmarked side road/track that heads back to the village, which I took and spent the next hour exploring as it runs near another dry river course with enough bush to attract several bird species, including Karoo Scrub-Robin, African Hoopoe, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Cape Bunting and Long-billed Crombec.

Butterfly: Meadow white (Pontia helice helice / Bontrokkie), Oudtshoorn south

Back on the dusty Paardebont road I stopped for a recce at the low water bridge, thankfully with a concrete surface that was a veritable island in a sea of dust when the inevitable large truck rumbled past. A Namaqua Warbler took my total for the pentad to a modest 20 and after passing the quarry birding got even slower. Ahead lay more attractive, hilly countryside dotted with pleasant farmsteads, which I hoped would be more productive.

Atlasing Little Karoo

I lingered at every likely spot for the last hour and after the minimum two hours required for a “full protocol” pentad card, I had increased the total to 28, including a White-throated Canary and a very pleasing Greater Honeyguide calling from the valley below me, right on the pentad boundary.

White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south

Despite the low-ish totals and lack of any bodies of water, I returned home well pleased – there is something very rewarding about atlasing in the Klein Karoo.

An encounter with a farmer..

As mentioned earlier, my encounters with farmers while atlasing in their “patch” have often been a highlight of the day. Today produced yet another encounter with a farmer, or more correctly a future one.

I was driving slowly along a dead quiet back road lined with fields when I noticed a quad bike approaching in the rear view mirror and was soon overtaken by it – it was being driven by a young boy and an even younger girl was clinging for all she was worth to her big brother. They looked at me curiously as they went by but did not stop.

Not long after, they returned and stopped next to my vehicle – the lad, no more than 10 years old at a guess – asked me “kyk Oom voels?” (Are you looking at birds?) I replied “Ja” and tried to explain, in terms that I thought a youngster would understand, what I was doing. I established that he was Liam and his “sussie” (sister) was Lea, whereupon Liam in bright fashion carefully explained how to get to a certain gate on their (ie his parent’s) farm, where I was welcome to go in and, as he put it, spend some time waiting for the birds to come, while keeping myself concealed (all in Afrikaans, with a delightful “brei” – the distinct rolling of the r’s while talking, unique to parts of the southern Cape ).

He assured me that, using this technique, I would see “blerrie baie voels” (literally “a bladdy lot of birds”). I had to suppress a chuckle at his choice of words, obviously picked up from his parents, but at the same time felt his grasp of what I was doing was quite mature.

All this time his young sister, perhaps 6 years old, kept quiet, watching me with large eyes. I thanked Liam for his advice but told him I couldn’t linger too long as I had a day’s atlasing ahead. We parted ways with him advising me to look out for White-eyes as they were plentiful in the area, leaving me pleased about his enthusiasm and understanding at such a young age.

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%

My Atlasing Month – June 2020 (Part 2 )

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

Friemersheim Area – 20 June

It was 2 weeks since my previous atlasing trip so I was keen to get out and about – Friemersheim is a small village inland of Mossel Bay and lies in pleasant countryside with quiet roads – just the thing for a morning’s relaxing birding / atlasing. Both of the pentads I chose had not yet been atlased in 2020 so met my other main criteria – one did get atlased in the meantime but that was not going to put me off

Friemersheim area – early morning

The Route

I followed the N2 highway for a short distance eastwards of Mossel Bay, turning off at Tergniet and heading along gravel roads to the southern boundary of the first pentad, 3355_2210. The “main” gravel road runs south-north with a branch to the east through a deep gorge. I spent time on these roads, then proceeded to the adjacent pentad 3355_2205, starting on its eastern boundary and doing a large anti-clockwise circle through the village, out into the hills and mountains to the north and returning to where I had started. The last stretch southwards soon left the pentad and took me back to the road to Klein Brak and homewards

Pentad 3355_2210

The gravel road runs through prime farmland with planted fields, plenty of cattle and regular small dams, good varied habitat for regular bird sightings. The first field was filled with Sacred Ibises with a sprinkling of Hadedas, while Cattle Egrets dominated the next field along with their “hosts” – some handsome looking, well-fed cattle.

Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis / Veereier), Friemersheim area

Next up was a group of Black-winged Lapwings, one of the “specials” of this area which were standing like mini statues among tufts of grass in a sparsely grassed field.

A Black-winged Kite caught my attention as I passed a tall bare tree, so I stopped and used my best stealthy approach (picture it – ageing birder bent over and creeping slowly towards said tree, armed with camera, trying to be inconspicuous – I bet the Kite was chuckling to itself) which worked fine until I pressed the shutter, when the Kite decided to fly off. As it turned out, the camera captured it at the moment of take off, so I was quite pleased at getting an image different from the usual “sitting on a branch” one of this good looking raptor.

Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus / Blouvalk), Friemersheim area

Then it was the turn of an Amethyst Sunbird, usually found in heavy foliage, sitting exposed on a fence and singing vigorously, doing a great impression of a canary.

Just to illustrate the difference that the lens setting makes – the first photo is the “normal” view from the car, the second uses the full telephoto of 600mm and the photo is further cropped to get the “close up” view – gotta love technology!

Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina / Swartsuikerbekkie), Friemersheim area

A turn-off just after, sign-posted Kleinplaas (literally “Small farm”) was one that I recalled from a previous trip, but I could not remember where it went, so had to explore it again. Very soon I found the road dropping away steeply into a deep forested kloof with a dark brown, tannin-stained river running through it.

Grootrivier, Friemersheim area

Now I remembered it and spent time stopping and listening for the calls of forest birds – there weren’t as many as before and the irritating throb of a pump supplying water to some unseen farm was an unfortunate disturbance to the peace of this lovely spot.

Nevertheless, I picked up the calls of Sombre Greenbul, Cape Bulbul and Neddicky before proceeding up the other side of the kloof to the next plateau where a reed-lined dam produced no waterbirds but a good consolation in a Malachite Kingfisher (14%) along with Cape Grassbird and a Brown-throated Martin.

Malachite Kingfisher

A pair of small birds in a roadside tree turned out to be Forest Canaries (14%) – a relatively scarce bird, so always pleasing to find. My attempt to photograph them was stymied as they flew off seconds after I stopped – I have yet to add this species to my photo database.

I had reached both the end of the pentad and my time limit, so turned back and set my sights on getting to the next pentad with my total standing at 40 species.

Pentad 3355_2145

I reached the start of the second pentad on its eastern boundary, a km or so outside of the village of Friemersheim, named after the birth place of Rev Johan Kretzen, a missionary from Germany who settled here originally.

Friemersheim

Driving through the village it struck me that the settlement of about 1000 seemed untouched by the pandemic, with no signs of the social distancing and face masks which have become part of our lives.

On the other side of the village, I followed a track which branched off and took me through a series of deep valleys and tall hills. At the first stop a flash of iridescent green drew my attention to a Malachite Sunbird (10%) and moments later an African Hoopoe appeared in a nearby tree.

Malachite Sunbird

A stream ran through the first valley bottom and I stopped to listen – several calls told me I should spend time there and I was rewarded with Olive Bushshrike, Black-backed Puffback and a Greater Double-collared Sunbird, the latter brightening the foliage with its red and green colouring. Yet another Bar-throated Apalis showed briefly after calling vigorously from a concealed location.

Bar-throated Apalis (Apalis thoracica / Bandkeelkleinjantjie) (Race capensis), Friemersheim area

Beneke River, Friemersheim area

Once I had left the last of the valleys behind me, the environment changed to pine plantations, many recently cut down and waiting to be replanted, so a very sterile habitat as far as birding goes. A Victorin’s Warbler and a Karoo Prinia were the only birds added before getting back to my starting point just east of Friemersheim.

From there I headed homewards, past farms and a dam where a Plain-backed Pipit (6%) had apparently come to drink.

Plain-backed Pipit (Anthus leucophrys / Donkerkoester), Friemersheim area

One last deep valley lay ahead and I stopped at a busy river that ran through it, spotting a Knysna Turaco in the trees on the other side of the river – an unexpected delight, but apparently a familiar one in this pentad judging by its high reporting rate of over 60%. All I could manage was a very poor “record” photo –

Knysna Turaco, Friemersheim area
Friemersheim area

That took me to two hours and 33 species for the pentad and signaled the end of my morning’s atlasing.

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 – June 2020 (Part 1 )

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

With the severe restrictions largely lifted at end of May 2020, I was glad to be able to resume atlasing on a limited basis, still somewhat unsure of what would fall within the changed travel regulations, but comfortable with the thought that birding / atlasing on my own could in no imaginable way be seen as a risk to myself or anyone else.

Never mind the 1,5m social distance recommended by authorities, I doubt if I was likely to come within 150 metres of others, as all my birding is done from my vehicle along quiet back roads and when I stop there is no one else to be seen except for the occasional passing car.

Herbertsdale Area – 4 June

I wasted no time selecting a couple of pentads that met my simple criteria – not yet atlased in 2020 and not too far from home (which has been Mossel Bay since lockdown began). Two pentads south and north of Herbertsdale, a small town off the beaten track and less than an hour’s drive from Mossel Bay, fitted the bill with the added bonus of being one of my favourite areas in the southern Cape.

I have this habit of forgetting at least one thing when I go out on an atlasing outing – sometimes my hat or perhaps the milk for my coffee, neither of which is too serious. This time though I managed to leave my camera at home so had to make do withscenic shots taken with my iphone and bird photos borrowed from previous outings.

The Route

The R327 road to Herbertsdale is accessed off the N2 National road just west of Mossel Bay and runs south-north through both of the target pentads. On the way, the road passes Petro SA, with its tall smokestacks pumping flames and pale smoke into the atmosphere, then heads through farming land, low hills and flatter country all the way to Herbertsdale. Beyond the village the terrain soon becomes hilly again and the road winds its way through the mountains with interesting kloofs and streams.

Pentad 3415_2145

I reached the southern pentad boundary just on 8 am, with heavy mist limiting visibility. That didn’t stop a Bokmakierie from calling from a nearby tree, in fact he seemed to put extra woema (effort) into it with an outstretched neck.

A misty side road in early morning

Other calls were less obvious, their owners hidden somewhere in the mist. One tiny bird was hard to make out against the sharp backlight of sun on mist, but it obligingly made its characteristic “fietspomp” (bicycle pump) squeaky call, telling all in hearing distance that “I’m a Neddicky“.

Neddicky, Herbertsdale south

With the mist clearing and to avoid driving into the low sun, I moved quicker than usual along the Heuningklip road, which leads off to the east of the R327, so as to get to the pentad boundary, where I turned back, now with the sun behind me, making it a lot more comfortable to spot the birds.

Heuningklip road through hilly country

First off, a small field mouse darted across the road in front of me, disappearing into the bush lining the road. The hills on both sides were studded with aloes, soon to burst into a blaze of orange and red blooms. A familiar krrr-krrr sound from a bushy spot revealed the presence of Terrestrial Brownbul (8%) – a species not easily seen as they tend to remain in the dense foliage.

The photo below is of one I found in the open in Kruger Park

Terrestrial Brownbul

Just after passing the neat little farm house in the photo below, I came to a field of green lucerne where Ibises – Sacred and Hadeda – stood out as they worked there way along, bent over to pluck morsels from the soil. A farmer stopped to find out what I was up to (as they are wont to do) and we got into a conversation on the area, the weather and recent drought that was now improving. He happened to have the same surname as my son-in-law and knew of him and the family, which generated more discussion of course.

Farm, Herbertsdale area

Excusing myself, I was soon back on the R327 and on the way to Herbertsdale through rolling hills and grand scenery, pausing frequently to study the surroundings. A farm dam and adjoining shallow pan was filled with ducks and waders – I counted no less than 72 Three-banded Plovers, a fairly common bird but usually seen singly or in pairs. I had never seen so many in one spot before. For those of a mathematical bent that would amount to 216 bands among all the Plovers……

Shallow pan, Herbertsdale area
Three-banded Plover

Other birds were a Cape Teal pair (New record for the pentad), Red-billed Teals, Yellow-billed Ducks and a single Kittlitz’s Plover (another new record for the pentad)

I was approaching 3 hours in the pentad and had recorded 49 species which was more than satisfactory, so I proceeded to the next, adjoining pentad to continue my efforts.

Pentad 3355_2145

Entering the second pentad about a km beyond Herbertsdale, I had a coffee and snack break (boiled eggs cooked to perfection by our neat little egg boiler gadget the previous evening) and got the new list going just on 11 am with Sombre Greenbul, Forktailed Drongo and a curious Greater Double-collared Sunbird that came to inspect me from a nearby tree.

I carried on along the R327, which had changed to gravel as I passed through the village, towards the hills, stopping frequently at each promising spot while admiring the beautiful views that unfolded around each corner and over each hill.

Herbertsdale area

I scanned a large open field for Pipits and …. bingo! … a Plain-backed Pipit (New record for the pentad) was doing his thing in and among the short grass and stones. They are not that uncommon in the southern Cape but are always difficult to spot due to their colouring in shades of brown which blend in with the terrestrial habitat that they prefer.

Herbertsdale area – this aloe was already in bloom

Next stop was a small dam at roadside, hidden unless you know it’s there, which I do from previous trips. It held a couple of unusual species for the area – African Darter and Black-crowned Night-Heron (14%)

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Black-crowned Night-Heron

Ahead was a low-water bridge which always delivers, but when I stopped I could not see any birds. As I got out to look around a Hamerkop (14%) flew off in agitation – another uncommon bird in the area.

Hamerkop, Herbertsdale Area

Further on at another field of lucerne, I spotted some large black shapes among the green lucerne, which turned into Spurwinged Geese when I focused my binos on them. Just then, another farmer stopped behind me but did not get out – I looked in my rear view mirror and he just looked back at me, so I got out and approached his rather battered vehicle warily, only to meet a similarly battered looking owner of the vehicle, his appearance not necessarily to be blamed on the lockdown.

As it turned out he was also curious about my rather suspicious looking activity and I gathered from our conversation (very one-sided on his part – I could hardly get a word in) that he had been in an accident in his earlier years and was not very mobile, but enjoyed cruising around in his bakkie (utility vehicle, pickup or truck depending on where you are from) checking out the farming activities in his patch.

The last part of the pentad was in the mountains with the habitat dominated by proteas and I quickly added the species that go with this habitat – Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird and a calling Victorin’s Warbler.

Wild dagga is a favourite of nectar-loving birds and a short stretch had them in abundance

Deeper into the mountains I added a few species such as Yellow Bishop, Cape Grassbird, Amethyst Sunbird and African Stonechat to take my total for the pentad to 38 – this was a good result considering that the second pentad of the day is always a slower birding experience and I turned for home well satisfied with my first atlasing outing in a while.

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%

Lockdown …. is for the Birds (Part 2)

Just to repeat some of the background to our lockdown experience while in Mossel Bay…..

Top of my list of activities to keep me occupied under lockdown was birding / atlasing and to make it more interesting Birdlasser came up with a “South African Lockdown Challenge” for which I registered. Any species that I logged on the Birdlasser app would be counted towards my personal total during lockdown and could be compared with others doing the same. I knew that I would not be very competitive, but saw it as an inspiration to keep up regular birding / atlasing during the lockdown.

The rules were simple – any bird species recorded in or from the garden would count – the “from the garden” bit makes it really interesting as it means a bird flying overhead or at a distance, even a kilometre or more away, counts, as long as you can confidently ID it.

The Habitats

The central habitat is of course the garden itself – in our case a small one – literally a u-shaped strip of lawn between 1 and 2m wide on three sides of the house, with the front side having a well-established rockery type garden on both sides of the driveway.

Our patio and enclosed stoep, where we have meals and tend to spend most of our time, looks over our neighbour’s gardens and has a sweeping view of part of the golf course and of the open sea beyond the cliffs.

The Sunbirds

These colourful little bundles of energy are an absolute joy to watch as they fly from one sweet flower to another, hyper-actively on the go all day, fueled of course by the nectar of the aloes and honeysuckles which flower at this time of year.

One thing I discovered about the smallest of them – with one of the longest names in our region – the Southern Double-collared Sunbird, is that their wings beat so fast that they make a whirring sound as they fly about.

The wing beat of Hummingbirds is a lot faster, causing the humming sound after which they are named, but I would hazard a guess that sunbirds are high up in the rankings of birds with the fastest wing beats.

I had never noticed this whirring sound before, but it became a calling card of this species when we were in the garden during the lockdown period, immediately alerting us to their presence and was the signal for me to grab my camera, in the hope of capturing an image while they prodded the flowers with their long curved bills.

The bills are unique in that they are both long and slender, down-curved at just the right radius to reach deep into the similarly curved flowers that they prefer – just another example of nature’s perfect partnerships. The tongue of the sunbird can extend to almost the same length as the bill and is tubular with projections at the tip to suck up the nectar while feeding. So long flowers such as the honeysuckle suit them perfectly –

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris chalybeus Klein-rooibandsuikerbekkie (Female), Mossel Bay

Four species of sunbird visit our garden, some more regularly than others, depending on the supply of nectar-producing flowers (and the neighbour’s feeders) and seasonal changes.

Most regular visitor is the Southern Double-collared Sunbird – like most of the sunbirds there is a distinct difference between the male and female colouring – known as dichromatism. Compare this colourful fellow with the photo of the female above and following the next one as an example.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris chalybeus Klein-rooibandsuikerbekkie (Male), Mossel Bay

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris chalybeus Klein-rooibandsuikerbekkie (Female), Mossel Bay

Occasionally the cousin of the last species, the Greater Double-collared Sunbird will pop in, but the smaller Southern species outnumbers it by at least ten to one in our garden. Although larger than the Southern species, this is not always discernible when there is nothing to compare it with, so I usually rely on the width of the red band across the chest, which is about double the width in the case of the Greater species.

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay

The Amethyst Sunbird with its all black glossy plumage is a regular at certain times of the year while completely absent at other times. It was a regular visitor during the lockdown period, but less conspicuous and seldom staying very long. I wasn’t able to capture an image of the male, so have included one from an earlier trip.

Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina / Swartsuikerbekkie)

Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina / Swartsuikerbekkie) (Female race amethystina), Mossel Bay

Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina / Swartsuikerbekkie) (Female race amethystina), Mossel Bay

The most recognizable sunbird is the Malachite Sunbird, mainly because of its glossy green plumage and because it has a longer tail than any of the other sunbirds in the region. It was scarce during the lockdown months and seems to visit us more often during midsummer – November to February. This photo is from an earlier trip to the southern Cape

Malachite Sunbird, Valsriviermond

Cape Weaver in Action

Not far behind the sunbirds in the energy stakes are the weavers and I discovered that they also have a liking for a drop or two of nectar now and then (who doesn’t like a bit of sweetness after a meal?). Now weavers have a shortish, thick bill rather unsuited to prodding into flowers such as honeysuckle so they take a shorter route to get to the nectar – to my horror as a lover of flowers but interesting to watch.

They go straight for the jugular, as it were, nipping the entire flower off just above its base and so gaining direct access to the nectar, which they quickly take a sip of and move on to decimate the next flower. Fortunately they seem to be rapidly sated, so once again the natural balance remains intact.

One Cape Weaver was intent on building a nest and chose an overhanging branch of our neighbour’s tree which was no more than 2 metres from our patio window, affording us a grandstand view of its efforts. And did he keep us entertained!

Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis Kaapse wewer (Male), Mossel Bay

I suspected the male was fairly young, otherwise he would not have been attempting to construct a nest so late in the season, with winter just around the corner. At a guess, he was possibly getting in some practice for the next breeding season, honing his all-important nest-building skills while impressing the female in his life, who was constantly around to inspect and comment on his prowess.

Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis Kaapse wewer (Male), Mossel Bay

This carried on for around a month – some days there would be no interest on his part to continue, other days he would be coming and going for a large part of the day, modifying the grass structure, adding a few strands here and there, twisting and turning and hanging underneath all at the same time.

Here the female is bringing some weaving material to the nest – clearly not confident that the male would pick the right material

Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis Kaapse wewer (Female), Mossel Bay

Don’t worry, I’ve got this …..

Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis Kaapse wewer (Male), Mossel Bay

Eventually it seemed he was satisfied after checking it out from the top and bottom and getting the nod from the female, after which it all went quiet and the weavers became less conspicuous. Perhaps they had realised that the cold and windy weather was not conducive to raising youngsters and that they would be better off next season – let’s wait and see.

Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis Kaapse wewer (Male), Mossel Bay

Lockdown …. is for the Birds (Part 1)

Faced with the phychological challenge of being under “house arrest” due to lockdown regulations, amplified by our supposedly risky senior citizen status, Gerda and I resolved to keep ourselves as busy as possible with our various hobbies and activities while confined to our house in Mossel Bay. We have generally succeeded so far but are enjoying the extra freedom since 1st of June when the regulations changed from level 4 to level 3, while keeping ourselves as safe as we can.

Top of my list of activities to keep me occupied under lockdown was birding / atlasing (but you knew that anyway, didn’t you) and to make it more interesting Birdlasser came up with a “South African Lockdown Challenge” for which I registered. Any species that I logged on the Birdlasser app would be counted towards my personal total during lockdown and could be compared with others doing the same. I knew that I would not be very competitive, but saw it as an inspiration to keep up regular birding / atlasing during the lockdown.

The rules were simple – any bird species recorded in or from the garden would count – the “from the garden” bit makes it really interesting as it means a bird flying overhead or at a distance, even a kilometre or more away, counts, as long as you can confidently ID it.

The Habitats

The central habitat is of course the garden itself – in our case a small one – literally a u-shaped strip of lawn between 1 and 2m wide on three sides of the house, with the front side having a well-established rockery type garden on both sides of the driveway, featuring aloes, pincushions and proteas which are a major drawcard for Sugarbirds and Sunbirds, even Canaries.

The lack of trees in our garden is compensated for by the neighbours’ trees and bird feeders which attract a variety of birds, depending on the weather and how frequently we all restock our bird feeders. Our patio and enclosed stoep, where we have meals and tend to spend most of our time, has a sweeping view of part of the golf course and of the open sea beyond the cliffs, albeit partially obscured by said neighbour’s trees and the roofs of the houses between us and the sea.

So, with the scene set let me tell you about the birds that came to see us (rather than the other way around) and the often interesting behaviour that they displayed.

The Doves

I’ll start with the really mundane ones – the Doves. We are so used to having them around that one tends to take them for granted, but with time on hand I set out to try and photograph the three common species of Dove on their own and together to highlight differences of size, colour etc. All three occur in abundance across most of southern Africa

Starting with the smallest of them, the Laughing Dove – 25 cm; 100 g – quite easy to identify as it lacks the neck ring of the other two doves and the colouring is a lot more rufous with distinctive black spotting on the chest

Laughing Dove Spilopelia senegalensis Lemoenduif, Mossel Bay

Next up in size order is the Ring-necked Dove – 27 cm; 153 g, until recently known as the Cape Turtle-Dove. This is where ID starts getting a tad trickier as it and the next species both have distinctive neck rings, however there is a considerable size difference (which only helps if you have another dove or other species to compare with) and colouring is overall greyer than the Red-eyed Dove.

Ring-necked Dove (Streptopelia capicola / Gewone tortelduif), Mossel Bay

Last of the common doves is the largest as well – the Red-eyed Dove – 35 cm; 252 g – some two and a half times the weight of the Laughing Dove and one and a half times its length.

Red-eyed Dove (Streptopelia semitorquata / Grootringduif), Mossel Bay

Apart from the size difference the red eye ring and eye colour itself is an ID clincher, provided you are close enough to see it.

Red-eyed Dove (Streptopelia semitorquata / Grootringduif), Mossel Bay

Just don’t confuse it with the Speckled Pigeon ….. or should this one be renamed the Peeking Pigeon?

Speckled Pigeon (Columba guinea / Kransduif), Mossel Bay

Some joint photos highlight the differences quite well, but they aren’t always this obliging by posing together

Here we have the Laughing Dove (front) and the Ring-necked Dove (back) . Very similar in size, but the lack of the neck ring on the Laughing Dove is what sets it apart. When seen together like this the colour difference is quite marked.

Ring-necked and Laughing Doves, Mossel Bay lockdown

This one of the Red-eyed Dove (left) and the Laughing Dove (right) shows the size difference, but this is not so obvious in the field when they are on their own and size is difficult to gauge. Here the red eye is just showing and the neck ring clearly differentiates it from the Laughing Dove.

Red-eyed and Laughing Doves, Mossel Bay lockdown

This one shows both of the doves with neck rings so at a quick glance they could be taken for the same species, however close scrutiny of the Red-eyed Dove on the right shows the red eye ring and eye itself, versus the plain ring-less dark eye of the Cape Turtle Dove / Ring-necked Dove

Ring-necked vs Red-eyed Dove, Mossel Bay

Cape Birds

Just for the fun of it I set out to photograph as many birds as I could with “Cape” as part of their name – there are 29 in southern Africa of which I managed to capture images of 10 in our garden. The neighbour’s Kiepersol tree with bare branches provided a perfect perch for photography, as the birds waited their turn at the feeders, but I wonder what the neighbours thought as I dashed out on to the balcony and knelt down every now and then with my camera, twisting to get the right angle and trying to avoid getting the railings in the way.

Cape Bulbul (Pycnonotus capensis / Kaapse tiptol), Mossel Bay

Cape Sparrow (Male) (Passer melanurus / Gewone mossie), Mossel Bay

Cape Weaver (Male) (Ploceus capensis / Kaapse wewer), Mossel Bay

Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer / Kaapse suikervoël), Mossel Bay

Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer / Kaapse suikervoël), Mossel Bay

Cape Spurfowl ( Pternistis capensis / Kaapse fisant), Mossel Bay
Cape Spurfowl ( Pternistis capensis / Kaapse fisant), Mossel Bay

OK, this one is stretching it a bit but one of its alternative names is Cape Widow

Yellow Bishop (Euplectes capensis / Kaapse flap) (Female), Mossel Bay

Yellow Bishop / Cape Widow (Euplectes capensis / Kaapse flap) (Male non-breeding), Mossel Bay

Cape Bunting (Emberiza capensis / Rooivlerkstreepkoppie) (Male race capensis), Mossel Bay

Cape Rock Thrush Monticola rupestris Kaapse kliplyster (Male), Mossel Bay

Cape White-eye (Zosterops capensis / Kaapse glasogie) (Race virens capensis), Mossel Bay

Two on one chimney was a bonus – but what contrasting companions – I can imagine the Sugarbird saying to the Rock-Thrush “you may have a more colourful breast but I have a spectacular tail, so there”

Odd couple, Mossel Bay

Next post will include the eye-catching nectar feeders – the Sunbirds – and a Weaver that was determined to show off his nest building skills

My Atlasing Month – March 2020 (Part 4)

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

The last week and a bit of March saw us on our way from Pretoria to Cape Town and then eastwards to eventual lockdown in Mossel Bay, a trip of some 1850 kms spread over 4 days. As is my habit, I used the stopovers to do some atlasing – always a great way to shake off the effects of a day in the car.

Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West : 23 – 24 March 2020

When we stayed over at Lemoenfontein at the end of January on our way back to Gauteng, we hardly imagined we would be visiting this pleasant lodge so soon again and that we would be hearing news that evening that would change our lives along with the rest of the world.

We had plenty of time to do the 400 or so kms to get there from our previous overnight stop at Prior Grange near Springfontein in the Free State, so we took it easy with an extended stop at one of our favourite roadside pitstops – the Three Sisters garage. As has been our custom when stopping here, we purchased burgers at the take-away restaurant (not yet in lockdown, so still operating) and enjoyed them at one of the concrete picnic tables under the trees, surrounded by eager little sparrows, weavers and starlings all waiting for a chance to grab a dropped crumb or two.

We could already see the effect of the C-virus in the relatively few travelers on the road, despite being school holidays (although the schools had closed earlier than planned). The feeling of impending doom was hard to shake off and everyone seemed to be behaving differently.

Not long after, we arrived at the turn-off to Lemoenfontein and as we crossed into the pentad in which the lodge falls, I started driving slowly and scanning the surroundings.

Pentad 3215_2235

The approach road from the gravel turn-off runs for about 5 kms up to the lodge and provides a good opportunity to find some of the birds particular to the arid Karoo. First up was a Rufous-eared Warbler, a bird which always lifts my spirits, but often difficult to find. I have learnt from previous encounters with this striking little bird that to see it well, one must look out for it flying into a small bush where it tends to disappear from view, only to pop out at the top of the bush and perch there momentarily before moving to the next bush. This one did exactly as expected and we had good views for a half a minute.

Rufous-eared Warbler

Further on we found the first of what was going to be many Lark-like Buntings – a drab bird which often blends in with the arid habitats that it prefers and spends a lot of time on the ground. Strangely, these Buntings were more active and prominent than those I have previously encountered, fluttering about and perching briefly in the open, providing good views of their features – which are hard to describe, except to quote what others have said – “The main feature of the Lark-like Bunting is that it has no standout features” – sometimes birding can be a tad confusing.

Lark-like Bunting (Emberiza impetuani / Vaalstreepkoppie) ; (Subspecies sloggetti), Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West

We arrived at Lemoenfontein with just these two species logged, checked in and were taken to Room No 9, which I found to my delight was to one side with a small garden in front and a view that stretched beyond over the wide expanse of Karoo scrub.

Lemoenfontein near Beaufort West

I took up a seat on the patio and spent time just watching the passing bird traffic, gradually adding to my list with doves and sparrows and the likes of White-backed Mousebird, Dusky Sunbird, Rock Martins cruising by and Greater Striped Swallows resting on the top branches of a small tree.

Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West
Greater Striped Swallow (Cecropis cucullata / Grootstreepswael), Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West

I wanted to fit in a walk before dinner and headed up the mountain trail, which proved challenging as hordes of mosquitoes descended on all my bare parts – not a good time to be in shorts! I slapped furiously only managing to deter them for a few seconds before they returned with reinforcements.

They weren’t giving me a chance to even lift my binos and look around, but I noticed that they seemed to be getting fewer the higher I climbed, so I hastened to get as high as my lungs would allow then slowed to a more suitable pace to look around properly.

Lemoenfontein near Beaufort West

Just then my heavily pumping heart soared as I saw two black shapes high up above the ridge that towers over Lemoenfontein – a pair of Verraux’s Eagles (New record for the pentad) enjoying the late afternoon thermals, gracefully wheeling and soaring. A sight I never tire of.

Verreaux’s Eagle (Aquila verreauxii / Witkruisarend), Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West

On the way back to the lodge I added Karoo Scrub-Robin and Pale-winged Starling to close out my afternoon’s atlasing at a modest 18 species – not unexpected in this habitat.

Soon it was time for dinner on the grand Verandah – we had heard President Cyril Ramaphosa was due to speak about the virus pandemic and kept an eye on the news while enjoying an excellent 3 course dinner. By the time it got to pudding we knew that our plans would have to change and we would have to cut short our stay in Cape Town to one day to allow time to get to our house in Mossel Bay before the announced lockdown started on Friday 27th March for at least 3 weeks.

Next morning we left after breakfast – I managed to fit in some further atlasing in between loading the car and other tasks, adding Red-eyed Bulbul, Familiar Chat, Malachite Sunbird and a surprising Red-headed Finch. On the slow drive back to the main road, we saw more Lark-like Buntings, this time openly perched and singing, plus a Karoo Chat and White-necked Raven to complete the atlas card with 27 species logged. I had to remind myself that it’s not about the numbers but all about recording what’s present (and not present) in a particular area at a particular time.

Karoo Chat (Cercomela schlegelii / Karoospekvreter) (Subspecies pollux), Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West

I did not appreciate it at the time but this was to be my last atlasing “away from home” for a long time.

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 – March 2020 (Part 3 )

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

The last week and a bit of March saw us on our way from Pretoria to Cape Town and then eastwards to eventual lockdown in Mossel Bay, a trip of some 1850 kms spread over 4 days. As is my habit, I used the stopovers to do some atlasing – always a great way to shake off the effects of a day in the car.

Prior Grange, Springfontein : 22 – 23 March 2020

A Sunday start meant quiet roads out of Gauteng and a relaxed drive for some 620 kms to Prior Grange near Springfontein in the Free State. We were allocated the Stable Cottage in the grounds of the farm garden, set amongst tall old trees and we welcomed the comfortable and spacious accommodation and looked forward especially to the delicious dinner and breakfast served in the cottage.

The Stable Cottage among trees, Prior Grange, Springfomtein

Pentad 3015_2540

As soon as we had settled in I set off on a walk, exploring the garden and the dam behind the main house, ending the afternoon with 34 species recorded. The garden was filled with bird calls – those of Green Woodhoopoes most prominent and visible as they foraged from tree to tree. Crested and Pied Barbets both made themselves heard with their distinctive calls, one a drawn out trilling, the other a series of nasal calls and short, quick hoots.

Green Woodhoopoe
Acacia Pied Barbet,

The dam was sparsely populated at first glance, but once I had scanned it carefully I found there were a number of species in small numbers on the water – Common Moorhen (10%), Yellow-billed Duck, Egyptian Goose, Little Grebe calling shrilly as it took off in its typical fly / swim fashion, a lone Spur-winged Goose and a pair of SA Shelducks. An African Darter (4%) on the far bank was not easy to see until it moved – only the second record for this species in the pentad.

African Darter

I made my way back to the main gravel road and walked a short distance along it in the remaining time, enough to find a Rock Kestrel on a utility pole and to see a distant group of Blue Cranes flying to their roost.

Blue Cranes in flight, Prior Grange, Springfomtein

The afternoon ended back at the cottage with calls of Diderick Cuckoo and a guttural call which had me puzzled until my bird calls memory kicked in and I realised that it was Grey Herons, which I was just able to make out on the top of a tall tree that they were using for nesting and roosting.

Supper was the customary Karoo lamb – this time in a delicious pie form with veggies and a pudding for after. I set the alarm for 6 am to allow an hour or so of atlasing in the morning, so completing the 2 hours minimum atlasing before departing after breakfast.

Next morning the weather was fine and cool for a further walk, but before setting out I spotted White-backed Mousebirds in the trees followed immediately by the unmistakable whirring, clapping sound and ascending whistle which announced the presence of a Clapper Lark in display flight and specifically in this part of the country, the Eastern Clapper Lark.

Long early morning shadows at Prior Grange, Springfomtein
Eastern Clapper Lark

Walking the gravel road in the direction of Springfontein I soon found a Jackal Buzzard (10%) perched on a distant pylon, accompanied by a belligerent looking Pied Crow, the Buzzard rather aloof to it all as the Crow seemed to scold it for who knows what reason.

The road between Springfontein and Prior Grange

A Cape Longclaw flew up out of the grass as I passed and sat briefly on a fence post, showing its bright orange neck colouring, while a Cloud Cisticola called phwee-phwee-phwee-chik-chik-chik rapidly in the background, determined to make sure I would add it to my list.

Cape Longclaw,

A little further on, another bird on a fence post was a puzzle until I could get closer with less backlight and identify it as a Sabota Lark (a New record for the pentad). Time for breakfast had arrived and I headed back to the cottage, hesitating only to listen to the Orange River Francolin that was greeting the new day.

After a full breakfast we packed up and headed for the N1 National Road which would take us to our next overnight stop near Beaufort West. While loading the car I heard and then spotted an African Paradise Flycatcher (another new record for the pentad)

And just in case you wonder which way to go …… there is a very helpful sign to see you on your way….

Prior Grange, Springfomtein

It seems that Prior Grange attracts its fair share of atlasers, with 49 pentad cards submitted to date. My total of 50 species was more than I had expected in the two and a bit hours that I spent atlasing, all of it on foot other than 3 species recorded on the road as we drove the last stretch to the farm. My personal tally stands at 96 species for the pentad, after 5 visits to the farm, one of our favourite stopovers on the long road to the southern Cape.

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 – March 2020 (Part 2 )

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

Another busy atlasing month during which planned – and unplanned – trips saw us travelling across South Africa, initially to Mpumulanga province for a midweek breakaway, followed not long after by a lengthy trip through Gauteng, Free State and Western Cape provinces on our way from Pretoria to Cape Town and then eastwards to eventual lockdown in Mossel Bay, a trip of some 1850 kms spread over 4 days.

Balmoral Area : 18th March 2020

My focus was now on the more mundane “ordinary” parts of Gauteng, rather than the nature reserves and protected areas that I had atlased the previous month. Studying the pentad map, I was drawn to the area around, and north of, Balmoral, a small settlement about 70 kms east of Pretoria along the N4 National Road. Both of the pentads I had in mind had not been atlased in 2020 yet, so fitted into my atlasing plan.

Pentad 2550_2855

The N4 National road effectively divides the pentad into northern and southern sections – I decided to ignore the southern section as it includes Kusile power station, still partly under construction and surrounded by coalfields. From previous experience, I knew the roads would be filled with heavy, intimidating coal trucks and that the habitat has been seriously altered by the mining activities – not at all suited to the comfortable, relaxed atlasing I was looking for.

Kusile Power station in the distance

The northern section is entirely different with a mix of grassland and farms with herds of cattle and I set out to cover as much of it as possible.

Initially, after turning off the highway, I travelled slowly along the quieter R104 road that runs parallel to the N4. This proved to be a good move with plenty of birds apparent along the verges, in and on the long grass and bush, even among the banks of colourful Cosmos flowers in pastel shades that emerge at this time of year.

After the first hour I had logged 28 species, all fairly common for the area, including Fan-tailed Widowbird, Bronze Mannikin (3%), Zitting Cisticolas aplenty in their characteristic hopping flight and equally as many Levaillant’s Cisticolas calling zestily from their tall grass perches.

After turning back I took the gravel road heading north-east and spent some time at a bridge over a river where I found tens of Little Swifts and some Lesser Striped Swallows filling the air above it. In a distant riverside bush I spotted a flash of colour and my binos confirmed my initial excited hope – a Half-collared Kingfisher (6%) ! Thanks to the magic of my Sony bridge camera (appropriately used on a bridge) I could capture a fuzzy but identifiable image of this superb little bird – definitely my bird of the day!

View of the river from the bridge

The Kingfisher was in the bush just in front of the tallest tree above

Half-collared Kingfisher (Alcedo semitorquata / Blouvisvanger), Balmoral area

My next move took me out of the pentad and I only returned to it 3 and a half hours later, when I proceeded into the southern section hoping the dreaded coal truck traffic was less intimidating by now. Fortunately I found a quiet side road along which lay a farm dam I had visited previously and was thrilled to find Grey-headed Gull, Reed Cormorant, Yellow-billed Duck and Maccoa Duck (9%) on the water and White-winged Tern (3%) above it to take my pentad total to 52, which is where it ended.

Pentad 2545_2855

This pentad, which lies directly north of the first one, has more rugged habitat and less of the waving grasslands and lush verges that I had enjoyed so far. The road was initially in good condition but when I branched off it became increasingly rough …..

The road (track) looks marginally better than it actually was

The initial stretch of road was productive and it did not take long to log the first 15 species, including two larks – Rufous-naped and Spike-heeled Larks (7%) – both entertaining me with typical calls and roadside photo opportunities.

Spike-heeled Larks have two features which set them apart from similar looking larks – a short, white-tipped tail and a white throat – both are visible in this image. The longish decurved bill is another feature of the species but less obvious in this image.

Spike-heeled Lark (Chersomanes albofasciata / Vlaktelewerik) ; (Subspecies alticola), Balmoral area

Moving north-west the birding slowed somewhat until I reached a stream with a small wetland, which provided a boost with Village Weavers, Red-collared Widowbird, Moorhen and Lesser-swamp Warbler – the last revealing its presence in the reeds with its liquid warbling call.

Shortly after that stop I came across a Black-winged Kite and colourful White-fronted Bee-eaters using the overhead wires as a hawking perch, after which I had to work hard for new species to record. A small raptor high up on a pylon, with strong backlight preventing a clear sighting, had me battling to decide on an ID, but my trusty Sony bridge camera on full zoom and set to over-expose by about two stops saved the day, providing a good enough image to confirm it was a Greater Kestrel (5%).

Greater Kestrel (Falco rupicoloides / Grootrooivalk) (Immature), Balmoral area

Ant-eating chats suddenly appeared in roadside fields, announcing a change in habitat to a more sandy terrain – just another reminder how habitat bound many species of bird can be.

Ant-eating Chat (Myrmecocichla formicivora / Swartpiek) (Probable subspecies “minor”), Balmoral area

Last but one record for the pentad was another small raptor perched in a distant tree – it had me guessing for a while, even with the assistance of the camera – my initial thought was Gabar Goshawk but it was lacking certain features such as the red cere. After studying the photos, I decided it had to be a sub-adult Gabar that had lost most of its juvenile features but was not yet fully adult – however I was set in the right direction by Roelof (see comment below) and changed my ID to African Cuckoo Hawk, which pleased me even more as this is a species not readily found in these parts – interestingly this particular pentad stands out as having the highest reporting rate (21%) for the species in the province.

African Cuckoo Hawk (Aviceda cuculoides / Koekoekvalk), Balmoral area

Just before leaving the pentad finally, I came across a flock of Black-throated Canaries to take the pentad total to a satisfactory 42.

My March atlasing continued during our road trip to the Cape – more about that in Part 3….

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%