Category Archives: Atlasing

Atlasing Tales – Mkhombo : 500 Not out

Formal bird atlasing * (see end of post) has become my priority when planning a birding outing and I was looking forward to completing my 500 th “Full Protocol” atlasing card, having completed 499 by the end of March this year.

With Monday 2 April this year being a public holiday, it seemed the ideal time to reach  this milestone and I targeted two pentads to the west of Mkhombo dam, a little more than an hour’s drive north of Pretoria, which I suspected would provide good birding in attractive surroundings and should be lush and green after the recent good rains in the area north of Pretoria.

I was up at 4.20 am (after hitting the snooze button twice without even realizing it), collected good friend and equally keen atlaser Koos Pauw and headed north on the N1 highway, already busy on the homeward side with returning holiday and Moria pilgrimage traffic. The Rust der Winter turnoff soon loomed and before long we were on quiet country roads as the light grew stronger – a detour took us in the wrong direction initially but we were soon into the first pentad for the day.

Pentad 2505_2840

The dusty rural village we had entered was not very inspiring as a place to start our atlasing but just outside the village the habitat changed to patches of arid bushveld which, once we had stopped to investigate, proved irresistible for atlasing. All it took was to hang around at a selected spot long enough to allow the species to show – and show they did – all the species that favour the drier bushveld habitat : Yellow-billed Hornbills flying in their ponderous fashion from tree to tree, Crimson-breasted Shrikes with their redder than red breast colouring contrasting with jet black uppers. This area rates as excellent for Shrikes judging by the variety we encountered, with White-crowned Shrikes, Red-backed Shrikes, Lesser Grey Shrikes and even Magpie Shrikes all easily seen during the morning.

White-crowned Shrike
Red-backed Shrike

In between sightings we were able to identify several birds on their calls, familiar ones such as Acacia Pied Barbet, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Rattling Cisticola and the ubiquitous Go-Away Bird uttering its nasal “go away” call at every opportunity. With the obvious birds recorded on our list we started picking up the smaller, “passer-by” species – Amethyst Sunbird, Chinspot Batis, White-bellied Sunbird, Black-faced Waxbill and Green-winged Pytilia (Melba).

Chinspot Batis
Black-faced Waxbill – amongst the thorns
Green-winged Pytilia

The species we came across most frequently were Marico Flycatcher and Scaly-feathered Finch (love its Afrikaans name Baardmannetjie – literally small bearded man, alternatively Koos calls it Fu-man-chu). In the villages Pearl-breasted Swallows dominate amongst the swallows for reasons unknown – perhaps they just like being around humans like many other bird species.

Marico Flycatcher

The village we drove through looking for the species that seem to favour this habitat, was suffering from some “land-grabbing”, but not the sort that dominates our  news from time to time – here the only tar road bisecting the village was slowly being “grabbed” by the surrounding sandy earth and undergrowth, so much so that there was barely a single lane width of the two-lane tar road still visible – so much for maintenance.

With our two hours of atlasing done (the minimum for a “Full Protocol” card), we headed to the main target for the morning, being Mkhombo Nature Reserve which lies to the west of the main dam.

Pentad 2505_2845

Entering the reserve’s gate, which lies a distance off the main road and is not signposted, we were met by the hoped-for pristine bushveld and sandy tracks with some thorny bushes encroaching in places – a tad worrying when the first screeches of thorn against duco rattled the control-freak side of my nature, but after some initial teeth-clenching I decided to ignore it – after all, why have a bush-capable SUV if you don’t want to go into the bush with it.

Mkhombo Nature reserve
Mkhombo Nature Reserve

We had the place to ourselves and enjoyed Koos’s hard-boiled eggs (well actually a chicken produced them, he just boiled them) and coffee in the tranquil surroundings while continuing with atlasing, then proceeded slowly along the sandy roads, branching off here and there for a view of the dam, which was pretty much non-existent other than a small pond or two. No other water was visible, just a vast expanse of green vlei grass covering the muddy plain as far as the eye could see, confirming how little rain the area had experienced over the last couple of years since we were last there.

We were rewarded with Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters in a nearby tree, while Great and Yellow-billed Egret as well as Grey Heron were ID-able once I had the scope up  and focused on the distant scattered birds. All three local Lapwings – Crowned, Blacksmith and Wattled – were visible, in separate groups but mingling where they overlapped,  then I spotted a mixed flock of large birds in flight, morphing into Spurwinged Geese and Knob-billed Ducks as they landed in a hidden patch of water, with just their top halves showing.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

We had completed two hours and made our way back to the gate then homewards, which took a lot longer than planned as we encountered heavy holiday traffic all the way back.

I basked in the pleasure of a milestone reached – here’s to the next 500!

* Atlasing : 

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a defined 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 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.

Central Drakensberg – Champagne Valley

For no other reason than to utilise our expiring RCI points, we booked a long weekend getaway from 9th to 12 th February this year at Champagne Valley Resort near Winterton in the area known as the Central Drakensberg.

Friday

We departed from home in Pretoria at around 9.30 am, late enough to avoid the peak hour traffic as we made our way through Johannesburg’s eastern side and headed south on the N3 towards Harrismith, where we had arranged to meet up with Koos and Rianda for a “padkos” brunch of hard-boiled eggs, frikadels (courtesy of Woolies) and jam sandwiches. Padkos is long-standing South African tradition, translating literally to “food for the road” and tastes even better when you stop at one of the large roadside service centres where there are umpteen choices of take-away and sit-down fast food restaurants – a nose-thumbing at conventional practices. (Just to show we’re flexible we stopped at the same spot for a Wimpy breakfast on the way back)

We reached Champagne Valley by 3.30 pm after a fairly relaxed drive from Harrismith, the scenery progressively becoming greener and prettier as we got closer to the central Berg area. On checking in we were allocated a chalet overlooking the dam with pleasing views of the Drakensberg range in the background and we quickly settled in. I had a refreshing swim in the crystal clear pool then joined the others on the stoep for beverages as we all spotted a few birds to get our list going in true keen birder/atlaser fashion.

Champagne Valley chalet

By sundown there were 18 species on my list including a Black-headed Oriole calling sweetly, Cape and Village Weavers busying themselves on the lawns, as well as Common Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot and White-faced Duck on the dam.

Village Weaver (Male)
Cape Turtle-Dove

Saturday

After a late rise (after all we were there to relax and are of the age where a crack of dawn start is not always first choice) we were back on the stoep in pleasant but humid weather to savour our first coffee along with Gerda’s health rusks. Before long we were entertained by no less than 3 different raptors – Cape Vulture at high altitude soaring majestically in wide circles, a Yellow-billed Kite cruising just above the tree tops delicately adjusting its flight path with twists of its distinctive broad V-shaped tail and a Bearded Vulture so high that I could only ID it from a magnified photo. They were joined by a group of White-necked Ravens calling from aloft in their croaky fashion.

Cape Vulture

Yellow-billed Kites were a feature of the weekend as we came across them several times in different localities. What struck me when looking at the photos I had taken of one individual was its rather un-fierce look which I deduced was because of its dark eyes and fluffy feathers on the head, creating a look unlike most large raptors with their piercing eyes.

Yellow-billed Kite
Close-up of the Yellow-billed Kite – a less than fierce look unlike most raptors

Mid-morning Koos and I braved the humid weather for a walk around the resort, starting with a walk through the grassland area along a mown path then wading through knee-high grass pods down the gentle slope until we found another path to take us back to the resort proper.

Champagne Valley grassland

Grassland species such as Fan-tailed and Red-collared Widowbirds, Zitting Cisticola and Streaky-headed Seedeater were active and visible, while an unusual “chip-chu” call had us puzzled until we discovered an Amethyst Sunbird calling from a tree – not the call we are used to, so something new added to our birding knowledge.

Fan-tailed Widowbird
Amethyst Sunbird

A passing Martin caught my eye and the white rump said Common House-Martin – one of those birds seen infrequently, although we came across a few more in flocks of Swallows during the weekend.

By the time we got back to the chalet I was drenched in sweat from the humidity and mild exertion – a cold drink was most welcome and stoep-based birding became the order of the day.

Late afternoon we drove to Monk’s Cowl camp, stopping  on the way to see if we could coax a Bush Blackcap to show itself, but to no avail. Nevertheless we had good sightings of Steppe Buzzards and Yellow-billed Kites, a Dusky Indigobird and a Black-backed Puffback with a Juvenile in tow.

Dusky Indigobird
Black-backed Puffback (Juvenile)

Sunday

Another relaxed morning for me starting with a quiet walk along the edge of the dam where odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) were almost more numerous than the avifauna so I spent a pleasant hour or so chasing them down and taking a few photos.

Dragonfly
Dragonfly

Late morning we set off on a drive along the R600 towards Winterton with the main purpose of popping into Scrumpy Jacks for coffee and a taste of their recommended cheesecake. On the way Koos pointed out the Long-crested Eagle he had seen on his earlier walk, perched in the open for all to see.

Long-crested Eagle

Soon after we arrived at the small farmstall with a few tables outside, a parking area fairly muddy from earlier rains and a notice on the flimsy gate to “please close the gate to protect the dog”. The only visible animal in the garden was a large pig with an even larger pot belly dragging on the ground – presumably the “dog” referred to in the notice. It seemed a strange pet to allow near guests – such as us – coming for coffee and honey-baked cheesecake, however we did not let it detract from the treat.

Said coffee and cheesecake did the trick of turning on the switch in the brain that says “I am contented with life” and we ventured further down the R600 with the intent of doing a “bit of birding”. At the signpost indicating “Bell Park Dam 8 km ” we turned left – this was a route Koos and I had explored a year ago and it turned out to be a good choice again as we were soon into rolling grasslands and farms planted with tall green mielies (corn). Amur Falcons were numerous, perched at regular intervals on the roadside wires, sometimes in small groups, scanning the fields for their next grasshopper or termite alate meal.

The attractive farm dam where we had seen Grey-crowned Cranes landing the year before, was occupied by various waterfowl including SA Shelduck, Spur-winged Goose and a complement of the usual Egyptian Geese and Red-knobbed Coots plus a lone Grey Heron.

Farm dam in the distance

We continued in the same slow fashion past the Bell Park dam wall with cascading overflow creating a nice picture, then turned off onto the road leading to the dam’s entrance gate. After a brief leg-stretch accompanied by yet another Yellow-billed Kite eyeing us from his perch on top of a pole, we decided to turn back and head for the resort.

Farmlands with mountains in the background
The road to Bell Park dam

On the way back Koos spotted a flock of Geese and was elated when he found two Grey-crowned Cranes amongst them. A small Cisticola like bird in the top of a tree had us puzzled for a while with its grey breast and white belly, until we decided it was a form of Neddicky – later reference to Roberts showed that there are no less than 7 subspecies of Neddicky in southern Africa so I deduced that a wide variance in appearance can be expected. (another snippet of added knowledge).

Neddicky

Amazingly our “bit of birding” had been so absorbing that we found we had spent the required 2 hours in the pentad for a “Full protocol” card – and we all had an enjoyable afternoon of birding in a beautiful environment along a quiet road – what more can one ask for?

Monday

Time to return to Pretoria – Arrow-marked Babblers visited the chalet while packing and I couldn’t resist a quick photo…..

Arrow-marked Babbler

By 9 am we were on our way, this time choosing the scenic route via Winterton and Bergville then via the spectacular Oliviershoek pass to Harrismith. What a good choice it turned out to be – the scenery was quite stunning for most of the way, certainly the greenest we have ever seen this part of our country, both cornfields and grasslands alike, stretching into the distance in checkered patterns.

We’ll be back! Sooner than you can imagine – in a couple of weeks we return to the same area but a different resort when my brother visits from the UK.

My Birding Year 2017 (Part 2) – Atlasing, Twitching, An Island and more


Following on Part 1 of My Birding Year for 2017  ………  guess what, here’s Part 2!

So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the second half of 2017 along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited.

July

The first week saw me back in Kasane for a project visit and we managed to fit in a memorable drive through Chobe Riverfront where the game viewing took precedence, but the birdlife was hard to ignore, particularly the Carmine Bee-eaters

Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Chobe Riverfront
Greater Blue-eared Starling, Chobe Riverfront

Later on in the month I was back to atlasing in the area south of Bronkhorstspruit, some 50 km east of Pretoria, dominated by the drab midwinter “browns” of the highveld and providing some challenging birding in the form of very similar looking small birds in their winter plumage.

Southern Red Bishop (winter plumage), Bronkhorstspruit area
White-winged Widow (winter plumage), Bronkhorstspruit area

August

Another visit to Kasane, Botswana in the first week included a spectacular boat safari on the Chobe river with Pangolin Safaris in a specially equipped boat kitted out with swivel seats and pliable camera mounts. One of the owners of Pangolin Safaris, who goes by the nickname of “Guts”,  accompanied us and made sure we had some amazing photo opportunities of the wildlife and birds to be found along the river.

Six species in one frame (1 only just) – can you spot them? (see end of post for answer)
Glossy Ibis, Chobe River
Doing it in style with Pangolin Safaris on the Chobe River

One moment of sheer photographic magic came my way in the form of a lone African Skimmer passing by and showing how it got its name.

African Skimmer, Chobe River

The following weekend saw us visiting family in Potchefstroom once again – I took the two grandkids for a birding outing to nearby Boschkop dam and was again very pleased with the quality of birding at this venue, which is also quiet and safe for the kids to roam about a bit.

White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Boschkop dam, Potchefstroom
The birding team
Three-banded Plover, Boschkop dam, Potchefstroom

Next up was some atlasing in the grasslands north east of Pretoria – known as Vlaklaagte, which was good for birding but the gravel roads at this time of year are very dusty and the passing mining lorries tend to make it quite difficult to bird in peace – nevertheless a successful day’s atlasing.

Pied Starling, Vlaklaagte area
Dam, Vlaklaagte area
Buffy Pipit, Vlaklaagte area

A short winter visit to Mossel Bay in the second half of August provided the opportunity to explore the Karoo south of Oudtshoorn on a cold day – I added several species to my year list and atlased in areas not regularly covered so well worthwhile.

Cape Weaver, Mossel Bay
Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south
White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south

On Robinson Pass, my patience was rewarded when a Victorin’s Warbler posed briefly for a photo – a very difficult species to photograph so a nice bonus.

Victorin’s Warbler, Robinson Pass

September

My monthly visit to Kasane was likely to be one of my last as the project was heading to completion, so I made the most of the 3 days there and fitted in birding at every opportunity. The airport precinct and perimeter were particularly lively with up to 200 bee-eaters present along the fences.

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Kasane Airport area

An early morning drive through the Chobe Riverfront was as good as ever with some unusual species showing.

Burchell’s Sandgrouse, Chobe GR
Kori Bustard, Chobe GR

During the rest of the month I targeted some of the more remote areas of north-east Gauteng to do some atlasing, selecting pentads not yet atlased in 2017.

Rufous-naped Lark (Mirafra africana – subspecies transvaalensis, Vlaklaagte area
Spike-heeled Lark, Balmoral area

October

Our much anticipated trip to Mauritius to celebrate our “milestone” birthdays with the family was a highlight of the year from all points of view – the sheer joy of having our 3 children, their spouses and our 7 grandchildren with us in such a beautiful setting for a whole week was awesome (as they say).

Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius

I didn’t do any serious birding but the hotel gardens were good for a total of just 11 species, of which 6 were lifers to add to my world list (yes I’m a “lister”!)

Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Red Fody (Foudia madagascarensis), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Malagasy Turtle Dove (Nesoenas picturatus), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Zebra Dove / Barred Ground Dove (Geopelia striata), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius

In any case I was so busy enjoying the ambience, the family, the great meals and the snorkelling that birding was relegated to about 10th place (just for that week, mind)

Later in the month I visited Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel in Gauteng for a superb morning of birding in this prime waterbird location.

Lesser Swamp-Warbler, Marievale
White-backed Duck, Marievale

An unexpected atlasing trip with Koos on the 21st in the pentad covering the north-east corner of Pretoria was a delight, covering all areas from industrial to country estates.

November

My last visit to Kasane was also a busy one work-wise so not much opportunity for birding other than snatched moments in between other commitments – how I’m going to miss this place!

A weekend in Potchefstroom presented another chance to take Christopher (6) with me for some atlasing at Boschkop dam – plenty of highlights to make it interesting for both of us.

Marievale was my destination for the second time in 4 weeks when reports came through of Baillon’s Crake seen there. I dipped on the crake but still had a wonderful morning’s atlasing.

African Snipe, Marievale
Ruff (white headed form), Marievale

On the 22nd it was time to head south (how time flies!) to our Mossel Bay home – a two day road trip with an overnight stop at Kuilfontein guest farm near Colesberg, which provided some great birding and relief from the long driving sessions.

Malachite Sunbird, Kuilfontein near Colesberg

I hardly had time to recover in Mossel Bay when Birding Big Day was upon us and I invited Willie to join me for a long but fruitful day’s birding along some of the back roads of the surrounding countryside. We ended the day quite happy with 124 species and something like 120th place in the national challenge.

Common Ringed Plover, Klein Brak, BBD 2017
Red-necked Spurfowl, Brandwag area, BBD 2017

December

December as usual was given over to family matters with  a bit of atlasing squeezed in here and there. Apart from the good birding that Mossel Bay offers, most of my trips were in the direction of Herbertsdale, some 50 kms north-west of Mossel Bay, where the countryside is attractive and the roads quiet.

Pin-tailed Whydah (Male), Mossel Bay
Booted Eagle, Mossel Bay
White-rumped Swift, Mossel Bay
Steppe (Common) Buzzard, Mossel Bay area
Jackal Buzzard, Mossel Bay
Blue Cranes, north of Herbertsdale
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Scenery north of Herbertsdale

The last 3 days of the year were spent at a cottage in the hills beyond Calitzdorp, serious Little Karoo country and good for some of the Karoo specials. The cottage was Andre and Geraldine’s dream that became real, through a lot of hard work on their part.

Evening walk, Calitzdorp
Red-billed Queleas, Calitzdorp

Answer to “6 Species in one frame” – left to right :

Glossy Ibis (left, just in frame), Squacco Heron, African Darter (in front), African Spoonbill (rear, twice), Little Egret, Long-toed Lapwing

Phew glad I got that post out in January (only just) – a Birding Year story is no good whatsoever in February

 

 

My Birding Year 2017 (Part 1) – Atlasing, Twitching, Cruising and more


Another memorable Birding Year has come and gone – a year filled once again with travelling to many familiar places and some exciting new ones, atlasing at every opportunity, a number of new birds seen and enough experiences to fill my journal to the brim.

So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the year along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited. Some of the trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.

January

Our year kicked off in Mossel Bay, our home town for some of the year and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing / birdmapping in the area – Hartenbos and the adjoining inland in particular.

Agulhas Long-billed Lark in full song

On the 9th I had the unexpected thrill of finding a Pectoral Sandpiper, classed as a national rarity, which I duly reported to Trevor Hardaker who sent out a note to all subscribers to the SA Rare Bird News network – what a memorable day!

Pectoral Sandpiper, Hartenbos River weir
SA Rare Bird News report

We started our journey back to Gauteng on the 13th, first stopping over in charming Prince Albert for two nights. I managed to fit in some atlasing in the area including a pleasant trip along the Damascus road.

Familiar Chat, Prince Albert (Damascus road)

Our next stop for one night was at Garingboom guest farm near Springfontein in the Free State which also proved to be an interesting birding destination.

Amur Falcon, Garingboom Guest farm, Springfontein
SA Cliff Swallow, Garingboom Guest farm, Springfontein

Back in Pretoria, my first atlasing was centred around Mabusa Nature Reserve some 100 km north east of Pretoria which was a most enjoyable spot with some challenging roads and good birding

Mabusa Nature Reserve
Yellow-fronted Canary, Mabusa Nature Reserve
Bushveld Pipit, Mabusa Nature Reserve
Mabusa Nature Reserve

February

My first trip of the year to Kasane presented some great birding and atlasing opportunities in the summer lushness of Chobe Game Reserve.

Kasane Forest Reserve
White-crowned Lapwing, Chobe Game Reserve
Chobe Game Reserve
Double-banded Sandgrouse, Chobe Game Reserve

Back in Pretoria I did further atlasing in the Delmas area

Brown-throated Martin, Delmas area

We used our timeshare points for a weekend at Champagne Valley in the Drakensberg, which provided an opportunity for some atlasing in the area

Grey-crowned Crane, Drakensberg south
Drakensberg south
Gurney’s Sugarbird, Drakensberg south

March

Our Canadian family arrived on the 6th for a two week visit which included a Kruger Park visit and a trip to Vic Falls and Chobe Game Reserve

European Roller, Kruger Park
Green-backed Heron (Juvenile), Lake Panic in Kruger Park
White-fronted Bee-eater, Zambezi Cruise
Little Sparrowhawk (Juvenile), Chobe Safari Lodge

Getting back to normal after the excitement of touring with the family, we visited Potchefstroom, and I was happy to take grandson Christopher (6) with me for some birding at the local dam – I think he was more interested in my Prado’s little fridge filled with cold-drinks, but you have to start somewhere!

April

My monthly visit to Kasane, Botswana afforded another opportunity for some birding around Kasane and in Chobe Game Reserve – such a great destination which I try not to spoil with too much work….

Bronze-winged Courser, Kasane Airport perimeter
Western Yellow Wagtail, Kasane Sewage Works

Then it was time for our much anticipated “Flock at Sea” cruise from the 24th to 28th  arranged by Birdlife SA

Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise
Black-browed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
White-headed Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise

May

Another short autumn visit to Mossel Bay meant I could fit in some further atlasing in the Southern Cape

Grey-headed Gull, Mossel Bay
Cape Rock-Thrush (Male), Victoria Bay
Zitting Cisticola, Herbertsdale area

Later in the month Koos and I headed to Bushfellows Lodge near Marble Hall in Mpumulanga for a day’s atlasing (and some snake watching)

Just a week later we spent 4 days at Verlorenkloof also in Mpumulanga with Koos and Rianda, one of our favourite spots for relaxing and blessed with a variety of birding opportunities

Chinspot Batis, Verlorenkloof
Lower dam, Verlorenkloof
Red-throated Wryneck, Verlorenkloof

June

The month kicked off with a visit to Kasane but this time my birding was limited to a rather hurried morning trip into Chobe Riverfront

Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Chobe Game Reserve
Brown Snake Eagle, Chobe Game Reserve

On the 10th Koos and I braved the mid-winter cold and the notoriously dangerous Moloto road north of Pretoria to do some atlasing in NE Gauteng

Marico Sunbird, far north east 4DG

We closed out the half year with our “get away from it all” break in La Lucia near Durban at our timeshare resort – this was interrupted by a breakaway to northern Zululand to view a Malagasy Pond-Heron that had taken up residence at Phinda Game Reserve.

Phinda North KZN
Malagasy Pond-Heron, Mziki dam, Phinda North KZN
Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Phinda North KZN

In the latter part of the week I visited Pigeon Valley for some superb forest birding

Spotted Ground Thrush, Pigeon Valley Durban
Pigeon Valley Durban
Grey Waxbill, Pigeon Valley Durban

July to December will be covered in the next post – watch this space!

 

Kuilfontein near Colesberg – Long-legged Tortoises and Doctor No

After a long day’s driving, there is nothing I look forward to more than going walkabout and doing some birding. When travelling from Pretoria to our “other home town” of Mossel Bay, we like to make at least one overnight stop, and during our recent trip we decided to try a new (for us – it’s been there a long time) guest farm near Colesberg called Kuilfontein, just 11 kms beyond the town and close to the N1 national road.

Our route included a slight detour to allow for a mid-morning stop at son Stephan’s house in Potchefstroom in the North West Province. He was at work but Liesl was on hand to refresh us with coffee and banana bread before we pressed on. This part of the trip left me with mixed emotions as we passed through several small towns along the R30 route, which traverses the farmlands and goldfields at the heart of South Africa. The summer rains had not yet come and the wind was whipping up the fallow farmlands creating small dust storms, while the mining areas were equally dusty but from the mine dumps being scoured by those same winds.

This is not unusual after the winter and before the rains come (which they did subsequently) so one accepts that the landscape is not particularly attractive at this time of year. What really got to me was when we approached the towns along the way and on the way out again – the plastic bag litter strewn across the fields seems to be the norm nowadays (not just confined to these parts but more noticeable here) – very disheartening  and with a bit of effort so simple to rectify you can’t help wondering why nothing seems to be done about it.

Anyway enough complaining and back to the pleasant part of the day.

We reached Kuilfontein farm at 5.30 pm after driving some 760 kms and by 6 pm we were settled in our charming cottage room.

Entrance to Kuilfontein – an encouraging sign
Our cottage room for the night
Comfortable room

With the prospect of a good one and a half hours of daylight available, I set off with a spring in my step to explore the farm, wondering what I would find.

Starting around the main house, I followed the entrance road which is like a long verdant tunnel with trees both sides almost meeting overhead. There were Sparrows and Doves aplenty, joined by Starlings (Pied, Cape Glossy and Red-winged) and several Cape Robin-Chats to make the walk interesting.

Kuilfontein – the manor house
Kuilfontein – entrance road

A group of three Korhaans caught my eye in the fields and turned out to be Blue Korhaans – they have a curious way of walking, crouching so that when they are in longish grass, just their rounded backs and the top of their heads are visible, giving them the appearance of fast-moving tortoises as they move about.

Blue Korhaan, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Blue Korhaan (photo taken not far from Kuilfontein on a previous trip)

By dinner time I had recorded 25 species and called it a day – can’t be late for the Lamb pie!

After an early night and a good rest I was up before 6 am the next morning and was soon out for part two of my Kuilfontein birding, this time covering some new ground which soon delivered with Bokmakierie, Pied Barbet and Cape Clapper Lark amongst others.

Bokmakierie

From a vantage point on the top of the earth dam wall (bone dry) I could see far across the Karoo scrub – in the background the distant hills were washed blue / pink by the early morning rays. Two elegant Blue Cranes were just discernible in a distant field and as I scanned the horizon three Korhaans flushed about a 100 m away and flew off while calling what sounded to my ears like a very guttural “doctor no, doctor no, doctor no”. I couldn’t help chuckling at the thoughts that my interpretation of their call brought to my head.

It turned out That they were Karoo Korhaans and replaced the Blue Korhaans from the previous evening as my favourite sighting of the short stay.

Kuilfontein farm

Soon after, near the entrance gate at the end of the long entrance driveway, another call drew my attention and looking upwards I saw three Namaqua Sandgrouse flying by while calling “kelkiewyn” (pronounced “kelkyvane”) which is also their Afrikaans name. As I watched them they turned in a wide circle in the sky, almost as if acknowledging my presence, then carried on flying into the distance.

Namaqua Sandgrouse, (this photo is also from a nearby farm on a previous trip)

Time had also flown by and I headed back for breakfast, adding White-throated Swallow, Wattled Starling, Red-winged Starling and Fiscal Flycatcher on the way back. At the cottage a Malachite Sunbird was moving about amongst the Aloes lining the pathway, the emerald sheen of its feathers glinting in the sun. The garden sprinklers were on so the aloes had drops of water

Aloe
Malachite Sunbird enjoying the Aloes

After breakfast we greeted host Penny, who has the knack of making you feel like part of the family, and headed off on the next leg of our trip, but not before adding Steppe (Common) Buzzard and Red Bishop on the way to the N1.

As always I was atlasing (recording the bird species for submission to the database at the University of Cape Town)  and was surprised and very pleased when I discovered that my “full protocol card” (minimum two hours of atlasing) was only the fourth one for the pentad, “turning it green” in atlasing parlance – this is a way of tracking how many times a pentad has been atlased, green indicating that at least four cards have been submitted to provide a statistical base.

Atlasing Statistics

Pentad : 3045_2455

Full protocol cards : fourth for the pentad.

Total species recorded : 45 – out of 86 for the pentad to date which equates to a coverage of 53% of the species recorded to date

Pentad location :

New species recorded for the first time in the pentad :

Greater striped Swallow; Karoo Thrush; African Hoopoe; Cape Wagtail; Black-shouldered Kite; Cape Clapper Lark; House Sparrow; Karoo Scrub-Robin; Common Starling; Egyptian Goose; White-throated Swallow; Wattled Starling; Fiscal Flycatcher: Malachite Sunbird; Steppe (Common) Buzzard

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!