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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
My first trip of the year to Kasane presented some great birding and atlasing opportunities in the summer lushness of Chobe Game Reserve.
Back in Pretoria I did further atlasing in the 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
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
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!
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….
Then it was time for our much anticipated “Flock at Sea” cruise from the 24th to 28th arranged by Birdlife SA
Another short autumn visit to Mossel Bay meant I could fit in some further atlasing in the Southern Cape
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
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
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
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.
In the latter part of the week I visited Pigeon Valley for some superb forest birding
July to December will be covered in the next post – watch this space!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 :
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.
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.
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.
By 7 am I entered the first target pentad3350_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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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!
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 –
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.
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.
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.
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 bicolor) Common 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.
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!
Well satisfied, I headed homeward
The Atlasing statistics
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
And in the garden a Greater Double-collared Sunbird showed off its bright red and green colouring.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
Other interesting species that occur here and that we came across in small numbers were :
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.
This is also an area of plantations, generally sterile as far as birding goes but good for a moody photo…..
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The Atlasing statistics
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
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
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!
Who can resist a Cape country stay and good food, with some great birding thrown in?
When we spend time at our home in Mossel Bay, as we did during July this year, we often try to break away to an area that we have not visited or explored before. This time around we chose Robertson in the Western Cape, just 2 and a half hours from Mossel Bay, and after scanning through all the options on Booking.Com we settled on Orange Grove Farm for our two night stay. Gerda and I also like to try out special restaurants now and again and were pleased to get a booking at the Reuben’s Restaurant in Robertson, owned by the renowned chef of the same name and with a reputation for fine dining.
The last Monday in July saw us heading west along the N2 National road to Swellendam and from there branching off to Ashton and Robertson, a road quite familiar to us by now, but always a delight and particularly so at this time of year, with the contrasting greens and yellows of the scattered wheat and canola fields providing a spectacular patchwork.
First stop for lunch was at Riversdale where the restaurant had a welcoming fire going (did I mention there was a severe cold spell over most of SA?) and simple but hearty food – we chose toasted sarmies and coffee to keep us going. The friendly owner also helped us choose some frozen home-made meals for the evening meal at Orange Grove, which is a self-catering resort, and later we were only too happy that we had chosen this option as we popped the Bobotie and rice in the microwave for an instant delicious supper.
Not much later we stopped at Orange Grove’s reception, but not before having a coffee in the restaurant at Rooiberg Winery Restaurant, right at the turn-off to Orange Grove. We were very tempted to try their pineapple Danish – you can make up your own mind whether we succumbed to the temptation or not, suffice to say we really enjoyed that last short stop.
By 5pm we were in our chalet set against the slopes of the fynbos-covered mountain, looking over the vineyards and olive groves with the valley in the background.
The chill of evening was setting in fast so I got the wood fire going and the gas heater running, then braved the chill air to start a new atlas card with the many visiting birds attracted to the indigenous garden and surrounding fynbos – cheerful Cape Robin-Chats and Bokmakieries with their well-known calls, White-Eyes twittering and Karoo Prinias in good form, moving about restlessly.
It was not long before the sun started disappearing behind the surrounding mountains, prompting the resident Cape and House Sparrows to settle in for the night as the cold really set in.
Next morning we slept late, with our breakfast basket arriving at 8.30am, beautifully packed with the goodies we had ordered off the list – all for self preparation. “Real” coffee from the French press went down well with a warm muffin and a skewer of fresh fruit with yoghurt – it’s moments like this that you feel really privileged and spoilt.
Once showered, I found a sunny spot on the patio and kept a lookout for passing birds, which did not disappoint. Fiscal Flycatcher is really at home here and it is also the most recorded bird in the pentad (reminder : a pentad is an 8km x 8 km block based on co-ordinates). Not far behind are the Sunbirds (Malachite and Southern Double-collared) in their colourful finery, and a selection of Canaries (Brimstone, Cape and Yellow), perky as always.
Later in the morning Johan and Rosa (Gerda’s sister) arrived and we took the short drive to the Rooiberg Winery restaurant for lunch and a chance to catch up on family news both sides and enjoy some of the simple but tasty fare on offer. Knowing we had a dinner date in the evening, Gerda and I went for the safe option of fish and chips, which turned up beautifully grilled, while Johan and Rosa chose the chicken curry, equally delicious judging by their satisfied murmurs.
The wine was from Rooiberg’s selection and I was pleasantly surprised that the cellar (next door) prices applied in the restaurant – where else in the world can you be served an acceptable wine for less than R40 (that’s about 2 Pounds!)
After a lengthy and relaxed lunch, we settled the reasonable bill, said our farewells and returned to Orange Grove Farm, where I set out to do some justice to the atlas list. I soon had all three species of Mousebird (Speckled, Red-faced and White-backed) chalked up and a group of 5 Domestic Geese on the nearby dam while the other dam further along the road had Black Duck and Coots.
A walk along the road next to the riverine bush was quite productive with Pied Barbet in the trees and a variety of birds on and around a mound of organic fertiliser (that’s the nice term for it) – Doves, Sparrows, Weavers, Bishops and a few Cape Spurfowl all vying for a spot.
Swee Waxbill turned up in the trees and settled for a while for a late afternoon grooming session, but were not easy to photograph, while a Southern Tchagra popped out of the lower stratum of the bushes long enough to snatch a photo.
We had booked in advance for Reubens Restaurant that evening, but when it came to going out in the cold and driving the 20 Kms to Robertson we almost cancelled – thank goodness we persevered as it was a memorable meal in very pleasant surroundings, with some really stunning dishes accompanied by an excellent Merlot – the photos don’t do the dishes justice but use your imagination and sense the subtle flavours and perfect cooking!
Next morning we again lay in till late then set off on the return trip to Mossel Bay, again stopping at our new favourite roadside restaurant for coffee and a breakfast pastry (the infamous “load shedding” meant we could not boil water for coffee that morning). The road back was not busy and we took it easy, just enjoying the passing scenery, which at this time of year includes a vibrant display of flowering aloes, some natural, others planted.
Riversdale was our last stop at just the right time for tea (no, we resisted the cakes this time). Passing Mossgas (PetroSA) the rain had formed temporary wetlands in the fields and the Gulls and others were making the most of it.
Shortly after, we were back “home” in Mossel Bay (well it is our second home) with some pleasant memories of a charming part of South Africa.
The first 10 days of our July stay in our second home town were characterised by cold, wet weather almost every day – typical Cape winter weather you might say, but the locals insist it is exceptional for Mossel Bay, which is punted as having one of the mildest climates in SA.
It hasn’t been conducive to going atlasing in the early morning, so I have taken the lazy option of doing most of my birding and atlasing in the Golf Estate where our house is located with short visits to some selected spots in the Mossel Bay area to find the species not occurring in the estate itself.
The Patio Option
Our enclosed patio looking over the golf course and the sea has proved to be the ideal spot for viewing the birds that visit our small garden, particularly when they perch in the neighbour’s trees, which are at eye level a just a few metres from the first floor patio.
Regular visitors include the usual Doves (Laughing, Cape Turtle- and Red-eyed) and Sparrows (Cape and Grey-headed) while Streaky-headed Seedeaters have been prominent for the first time that I can recall.
A Cape Weaver started building his nest with a neat ring of grass as the frame for the ball-shaped nest to follow, but unfortunately abandoned it at that point.
The honeysuckle hedge below the patio was not in flower but we still had both Southern and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds visiting, probably on their way to the many flowering Aloes in the estate, which are at their colourful best in the winter months.
Others dropping by were both of the common species of Mousebird, Speckled and Red-faced and both presented nice photo opportunities.
The ubiquitous Cape Sugarbirds are abundant in the estate and seem to be in a state of excitement most of the time – just shows what a fancy long tail does to you.
Then there are the Bulbuls with the familiar Cape Bulbul not at all shy to show himself, while the Sombre Greenbul remains hidden in the bushes but makes up for it with his piercing call “which sounds a bit like “Willie” (which is also the Afrikaans name for it)
A Yellow Bishop was a surprise visitor, as I had only ever seen them in the Fynbos which fills the nature reserve area between the last row of houses and the rocky headlands along the shoreline. It was in its duller winter plumage, heavily streaked and giving a glimpse of bright yellow back as it flew off.
Feeding the masses
I bought a bird-feeder and some seed at Agri, our local co-op and installed it below the patio, hoping for some seed-eating visitors. Well, it was packed with birds the next day – Sparrows, Seedeaters (they used to be called Streaky-headed Canaries), Bishops and Weavers all vying for a spot. In the frenzy some seed fell to the grass below and was quickly taken by the Doves and even the Cape Spurfowl which are very common in the estate.
When the weather allowed, I did some walking around the estate and down into the nature reserve area of Fynbos. The latter was alive with Yellow and White-throated Canaries flitting about, plenty of Sunbirds and a Bokmakierie or two.
And the scenery was special – most of the fynbos was in flower creating beautiful spreads of tiny purple, pink and white flowers against the backdrop of grey skies and cobalt ocean beyond the cliff edge.
For a few minutes the icy wind was forgotten and I took some photos with my pocket camera (which I sometimes use for communication as well – they should call it an I-Camera rather than an I-Phone)
Other fynbos favourites were out and about – Karoo Prinia vociferous as always and Southern Boubou skulking in the bushes, while Bar-throated Apalis moved about restlessly, calling chit-chit-chit all the while.
Let’s go down to the Sea again …….
Seabirds are always a feature of birding in Mossel Bay and there were plenty in numbers if not species. Kelp Gulls are common, even over the estate which they use as a direct route to their roosts along the cliffs.
Down at the Point there were numbers of Swift Terns flying past just off the rocky shoreline, some harried by Subantarctic Skuas, large all brown seabirds with distinctive white wing flashes, hoping for a dropped morsel. Their Afrikaans name Roofmeeu translates directly to “Robbing Gull” which describes their habit of pestering other seabirds until they drop or disgorge some of their food.
During the first week there were signs of the annual “sardine run”, when millions of these small fish move up the east coast of South Africa in massive shoals, drawing all kinds of sea- and bird-life along with them. From the patio we could see some of them enjoying take-aways :
schools of dolphins numbering in the hundreds
a few whales breaching – they are annual visitors to the bay
Cape Gannets galore, turning and diving straight down in their typical fashion
Winter is certainly a worthwhile time to visit Mossel Bay, but let’s face it, Spring and Summer are a lot better from most points of view! Can’t wait to return later in the year!
On the statistics front, my total bird list during this visit was 110 species of which about 60% were in the estate itself and the rest during side trips in and around Mossel Bay and a two-day “culinary and birding trip” to the Robertson area (watch this space for more on that subject)