Category Archives: Birding South Africa

Birds on the Beach

Now these are not just any old birds on any old beach that I’m referring to, both the birds and their beach habitat are – well – very special and wonderfully unique.

Let’s start with the beach …….

Boulders Beach is a small beach at Simon’s Town, which lies on the False Bay side of the Cape Peninsula, some 40 kms south of central Cape Town. For many years it was a little known, ‘out of the way’ beach favoured by couples and young families seeking a quiet spot to spend a day, Perfect for a picnic and safe for the kids to paddle and swim, with hardly a wave in sight due to the protective ring of large boulders which all but shut out the sea’s power.

Growing up in Cape Town, I can recall the occasional trip from our home in the suburbs, via bus and train, to Simon’s Town to spend a day at Seaforth beach, which adjoins Boulders beach. Later in my student years, I ‘graduated’ to joining my elder brother and his family in a leisurely day at Boulders itself.

Seaforth beach, Simon’s Town

I left Cape Town in 1970 to pursue my career ‘up north’ (actually my future wife played a major role in that decision, but don’t let on to her) and Boulders beach gradually drifted from my memory, until much later……

Some 12 years later, two breeding pairs of African Penguins decided that the beach would be a good place to settle, probably influenced by the availability of fish in nearby waters

From just two breeding pairs in 1982, the penguin colony has grown to about 3,000 birds in recent years. This is partly due to the prohibition of commercial pelagic trawling in False Bay, which has increased the supply of pilchards and anchovy, which form part of the penguins’ diet. (Ref : Wikipedia)

Boulders beach Simon’s Town

Since those first two pairs settled there, Boulders has gone from an obscure swimming beach to one of Cape Town’s best known tourist attractions and now forms part of the Table Mountain National Park

We had a reason to travel to Cape Town in January last year and decided to use the accommodation that we were going to use in March 2020 but which we had to cancel when Covid 19 and the subsequent lockdown changed all our lives. The B&B sits high up on a hill overlooking Simon’s Town with sweeping views of the town, the naval dockyard and False Bay beyond and turned out to be an excellent choice.

The daytime view from the B&B
Even prettier in the evening

With the ‘business’ part of our trip done and dusted, we thought about what to do with the rest of our stay in Simon’s Town and first on my list was Boulders beach which we had last visited many years ago.

The Penguins

The thing with Penguins is that most people know what they look like from films and images, adverts and the like – they are just so endearing and marketable. But Penguins tend to choose remote spots to breed and live, often on islands, so relatively few people get the chance to see them in real life, outside of zoos that is.

Which makes Boulders a perfect choice for anyone wanting to see these birds in their natural habitat. After gaining entry with my Wild Card I walked along the boardwalk which snakes its way down to the beach, with a platform at the bottom for viewing the beach and nesting area.

Boulders beach Simon’s Town
Boulders beach Simon’s Town – the boardwalk to the Penguin’s habitat

Looking back from the upper part of the boardwalk, the view across the bay is quite striking

View from the boardwalk at Boulders beach Simon’s Town

Once you are past the densely vegetated dunes, the first of the penguins comes into view, quite relaxed and unperturbed by human presence. Not the smallest or the largest penguins in the world, they would reach to about your knee height when standing. (Incidentally, we saw the smallest penguin, called a Little Penguin – obviously – during a visit to Philip Island near Melbourne Australia – the subject of a post a few years ago – https://wordpress.com/post/mostlybirding.com/8353 )

African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus / Brilpikkewyn), Boulders beach Simon’s Town

At various points on the boardwalk, information boards are placed with interesting facts about the colony and the habits of the African Penguins

Boulders beach Simon’s Town

Once you get to the lower viewing platform, you can see some of the residents of the colony – those not involved in breeding activities will be out in the deep sea looking for food, so what you see here is a small part of the colony

African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus / Brilpikkewyn), Boulders beach Simon’s Town

I took a few shots of some of the penguins in their burrows, only realising when I edited the photos and lightened up the shadows that I had captured a glimpse of an egg under one penguin’s belly.

African Penguin incubating an egg

There was constant movement of penguins to and from the sea – such a comical sight as they waddle towards the water but once in they are in their element, swimming swiftly and soon disappearing from sight.

African Penguins on the beach

I couldn’t help thinking of an elderly yet elegant gent tentatively going for a swim in cold water as I watched one penguin entering the sea…..

As the one penguin swam off, more entered the water

A little bit more…

The African Penguin is the only penguin that breeds in Africa and is restricted to the coastline and seas of Southern Africa. Penguin numbers fell from over a million pairs a hundred years ago, to just 18,000 pairs today so they are justly classified as Endangered.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s egg collecting and guano scraping (which I can remember being taught about at school with not a hint of criticism, such was the relaxed attitude to conservation in those days) caused havoc with the survival of penguins. Nowadays the decline in availability of fish due to overfishing is the major cause of the further downward trend

Their ‘wings’ are in reality efficient flippers for swimming at speeds up to 20 km/h – which may not sound that fast but they would easily beat any Olympic swimmer you can think of – and they can dive to depths of 130m while holding their breath for an average 2,5 minutes, when feeding.

Their black and white colouring aids in camouflaging them from predators, both from above (black back blending in with dark sea for predators looking down) and below (white front melding with light skies for predators looking up).

These unique aquatic birds are certainly deserving of conservation – hats off to Birdlife South Africa for being at the forefront of penguin conservation efforts.

References :

  • Table Mountain National Park information boards at Boulders
  • African Birdlife Magazine September/October 2021, published by Birdlife SA
  • Firefinch – Birding app by Faansie Peacock

My Photo Picks for 2021 – The Birds and a Bee

With the new year barely out of the starting blocks, it’s once again time to select the photos which best represent our travels and nature experiences during 2021, plus a few others that appeal to me for various reasons.  Despite the ongoing restrictions brought upon all of us by Covid 19, we still managed to travel fairly extensively, although it was limited to the borders of South Africa. 

I’m hoping you will find some of my favourite images to your liking – if you do, please take a moment to mention them in the comments at the end of the post. 

The Birds

During a normal birding year, I take a couple of thousand images of birds – this past year, for various reasons, I did not get out in the field birding and atlasing as much as I would normally have done, nevertheless when it came to choosing images I was happy to find that it was as challenging as ever.

African Stonechat Saxicola torquatus (Gewone bontrokkie) (Female) , Herbertsdale Area
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo (Bruinjakkalsvoël), Herbertsdale Area
Pied Starling Lamprotornis bicolor (Witgatspreeu), Herbertsdale Area
Orange-breasted Sunbird Anthobaphes violacea (Oranjeborssuikerbekkie), Kirstenbosch
Rock Kestrel Falco rupicolus (Kransvalk), Vleesbaai area
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater Merops persicus (Blouwangbyvreter) (Western Cape rarity), Gouritzmond Area
Large-billed Lark Galerida magnirostris (Dikbeklewerik), Herbertsdale Area
White-throated Canary Crithagra albogularis (Witkeelkanarie), Herbertsdale Area, Western Cape
White-bellied Sunbird Cinnyris talatala (Witpenssuikerbekkie), Donkerhoek / Boschkop Area, Gauteng
Blue Cranes, Sacred Ibises and sheep, Vleesbaai area, Western Cape
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis (Landeryklopkloppie), Vleesbaai area
Sacred Ibis, Vleesbaai Area
White-throated Swallow Hirundo albigularis (Witkeelswael) Bronkhorstspruit Area, Gauteng
Pin-tailed Whydah Vidua macroura (Koningrooibekkie) Bronkhorstspruit Dam, Gauteng
Red-chested Cuckoo Cucula solitarius (Piet-my-vrou), Ezemvelo Nature Reserve, Gauteng
Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris bairdii (Bairdse strandloper), (National Rarity), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve, Gauteng
Red-capped Lark Calandrella cinerea (Rooikoplewerik), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve, Gauteng
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia (Groenpootruiter), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve
African Penguin Spheniscus demersus (Brilpikkewyn), Boulders beach Simon’s Town
Sooty Gull Ichthyaetus hemprichii (National Rarity), Sunday’s River Mouth. Eastern Cape
Cape Robin-Chat Cossypha caffra (Gewone janfrederik), Addo Elephant Park, Eastern Cape
Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis (Kaapse wewer) (female), Addo Elephant Park, Eastern Cape
Red-necked Spurfowl Pternistis afer (Rooikeelfisant), Addo Elephant Park
The usually extremely shy Sombre Greenbul Andropadus importunus (Gewone willie), Addo Elephant Park
Cape Turtle-Dove Streptopelia capicola (Gewone tortelduif), Addo Elephant Park
African Rock Pipit Anthus crenatus (Klipkoester), Mountain Zebra National Park
Familiar Chat Cercomela familiaris (Gewone spekvreter), Verlorenkloof
Cape Rock Thrush Monticola rupestris (Kaapse kliplyster), Verlorenkloof
Nest building Cape Weaver Ploceus capensis (Kaapse wewer), Mossel Bay
Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus (Kelpmeeu), Paternoster, Western Cape

And the Bee….

Busy Bee, Mossel Bay

Have a wonderful 2022!

Blue Crane Breeding

At the end of a memorable year which has left many of us with a somewhat negative feeling about 2021 and hopeful for a better experience in 2022, it seemed appropriate to write about something which holds promise for the future. and what is more promising than the sight of an iconic bird in breeding mode.

We were recently privileged to view a Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus (Bloukraanvoel) on its nest, something we have never seen before and our short ‘stay’ with this National Bird of South Africa was truly uplifting.

It happened purely by chance, as is often the case with special bird sightings, and only a few days into our latest stay in Mossel Bay over the December/January summer ‘season’

We had travelled to Plettenberg Bay from our Mossel Bay home (both part of the famous Garden Route of South Africa and some 150 kms distance from each other) to follow up on a sighting of a rarity that had been located at the Keurbooms River Estuary (more about that in a future post) and were on the road from the estuary back to the N2 National Road for our return trip home.

Gerda spotted a bird in a field and I duly stopped on the quiet road to see what it was. A car going in the opposite direction had also stopped almost alongside us and I wondered if they were also birding, whereupon one of the occupants got out and told us “There’s a Blue Crane on a nest if you are interested” and proceeded with a description of where we could find it. I didn’t pick it all up but thanked him and we set off in search of the spot he had described.

Fortunately between Gerda and myself we had understood enough of this thoughtful birder’s directions to find our way to the road along the Bitou River just outside Plett (which is how most South Africans refer to this Popular town) and after carefully scanning the river and vleis for a few kms we came to the spot he had described, with a pair of Blue Cranes in attendance a short distance from the road.

One was clearly on a nest and this was confirmed moments later when he/she stood up so that we could see at least one egg, which turned into two when I later studied the photos.

Blue Crane on nest
Blue Crane at nest, two eggs visible
The Blue Crane fussing over the eggs

The other Blue Crane was a short distance away in shallow vlei water, seemingly keeping an eye on the situation. According to Roberts VII the male and female spend almost equal amounts of time incubating the eggs over a period of around 30 days.

We had no way of knowing how long they had been incubating so it’s impossible to say when they may hatch – perhaps we will travel that way in a couple of weeks time and see if there has been a change in status.

Blue Cranes form monogamous pairs when breeding and are well known for their spectacular pairing and courtship displays, which we were fortunate to witness some time ago and which I featured in an earlier post – a couple of the images from that post are repeated below

Blue Crane courtship dance, near Mossel Bay
Blue Crane courtship dance, near Mossel Bay

My last post for 2021 comes with best wishes for a peaceful and healthy New Year

250 Up !

After publishing a post this week, I happened to notice that I have published 250 posts so far – a nice milestone to reach. That got me thinking – not too deeply mind you – about how it started and where blogging has taken me since July 2013 when I set out on this blogging journey

It all started some time after retirement when I took on the part-time role of Consultant, which gave me more time to do things outside the work/office environment, amongst them birding, photography and writing. The beauty of blogging is that it combines all of these into one neat package.

I have had a lifetime habit of recording travels and trips in diary form and keeping birding lists for various localities, so blogging seemed like a natural progression for these activities.

Photography has been a hobby of mine since my youth, starting with a simple point and shoot film camera borrowed from my dad, progressing through various upgrades of cameras and lenses into the digital age, going full circle to today where most of my photography is done with either my Iphone or with my very capable and convenient point-and-shoot camera, albeit a very sophisticated one.

WordPress was a good choice as my preferred software provider and it was not too difficult to learn how to set up posts, create a library of images and set categories and tags so that the published post looked reasonably professional.

So, blogging has satisfied my “writing passion” beyond what I imagined – an estimated 250,000 words and 5,000 images later I find myself looking forward to many more – it is my hope that some of you will join me on the next part of the journey.

In celebration of the milestone I have selected a few images which have garnered the most “clicks” over the years….

Red-billed Firefinch
Fish-Eagle and Martial Eagle eye each other
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Red-faced Crimsonwing, Zimbabwe
Lion, Chobe Riverfront
Herring Gull, at sea
African Purple Swamphen
Cape Long-billed Lark
Lion, Chobe Riverfront
Greater Flamingo

I hope you have a peaceful and restful holiday season!

Sweet little Sugarbirds

Observing birds going about their daily business is often fascinating – when that business involves raising youngsters it becomes really special.

We were treated to a very special “show” during the late winter / early spring months of August and September this year while resident in our Mossel Bay home, which started with a casual comment from our neighbour (a non-birder who happens to be our brother-in-law).

My journal chronicles it as follows :

Day 1 : (1st August 2021)

Brother-in-law – let’s call him Tienie (mainly because that’s his name) – posed a question “what’s that bird in the garden with the long tail that likes the Protea bushes ?”. Well, there weren’t too many options so I surmised immediately that he was talking about the Cape Sugarbirds that frequent our garden almost year round.

So I eagerly followed up with “why do you ask?” and it turned out he had noticed a nest in one of the Protea bushes in his garden, with said Sugarbird in attendance and when he investigated further he was able to spot what he thought were “two fluffy babies” in the nest. My guess is that the chicks had been born in the last day or so.

Day 2

Tienie’s comment had sparked my interest more than he could realise, even though he knows I am a keen birder, and Gerda and I commenced a daily check from our bedroom balcony, which has a good view of the Protea bush in his garden.

The nest was quite well concealed among the stems and leaves and it was not always easy to pick up details, so I started by doing a recce from Tienie’s garden, carefully approaching the bush on foot to confirm for myself that there were chicks in the nest.

The nest

The only evidence I could pick up was an adult female apparently feeding the chicks which I could not see, while the adult male stayed in the vicinity, occasionally going to the nest himself.

Cape Sugarbird adult
Cape Sugarbird adult
Cape Sugarbird adult at the nest

We continued to monitor their progress at various times during the following days, but had to interrupt our observations as we had booked a trip to Franschhoek from 6 to 11 August, after which we resumed keeping an eye on the activities around the nest.

Day 19

I was thrilled to see that the chicks were preparing to fledge as they were clearly visible in the nest and spent time perched on top of the nest, presumably working up the courage to explore the world around them.

Cape Sugarbird chick
Cape Sugarbird chicks
Cape Sugarbird chick

Both adults were never very far from the nest, venturing out to forage for something and taking turns to feed the chicks, whose appetite had by now increased exponentially.

Cape Sugarbird adult
Cape Sugarbird adult
Cape Sugarbird adult with insect ready to feed chick
Cape Sugarbird adult feeding chicks
Cape Sugarbird adult feeding chicks

Day 20

As I had suspected, the chicks had fledged and the great news was that they had chosen to spend their day in the trees right in front of our enclosed braai room which is almost level with the canopy of the trees, so we had the best views of the two young Sugarbirds.

Cape Sugarbird fledgling

They were still being fed by both adults and were moving about now and again, but chose to spend most of their time on a small but sturdy branch, as the wind was strong and was testing their ability to balance themselves to the utmost.

Cape Sugarbird adult
Cape Sugarbird adult feeding fledgling
Cape Sugarbird adult feeding fledgling

Day 22

The fledglings were getting stronger by the day and starting to lose their “baby fluff” but had no tail to speak of and were still dependant on the adults for food

Cape Sugarbird fledgling
Cape Sugarbird fledgling
Cape Sugarbird fledgling

They hung around for another day or two and soon we were not able to find them at all, so presumed they had moved elsewhere in the vicinity. We didn’t spot them again until –

Day 35

What a nice surprise to find one of the youngsters feeding itself on a Protea flower in our front garden, its tail now well developed and the young bird now confident and strong, which it displayed by flying quickly and directly from one bush to the other with none of the hesitancy of an inexperienced bird.

Cape Sugarbird juvenile

It was a real privilege to see these Sugarbirds develop from new-born chicks to their juvenile independence and to be able to observe them at such close quarters

It’s a Shore Thing – The Sequel (Part 2)

Continuing the story of our trip to Bronkhorstspruit Dam Nature Reserve not far from Pretoria, where we were fortunate to find the rare vagrant Baird’s Sandpiper with relative ease ….

After locating the Baird’s Sandpiper and spending some time admiring this tiny adventurer all the way from the Arctic, we spent the next couple of hours driving slowly as close to the dam shoreline as we could, scanning every metre of it as we went.

This paid off with several more good sightings of waders and other birds, many of them the same species as I had recorded during an atlasing trip a few weeks prior, but with some exciting new additions –

Starting with an uncommon species which we found in the short grass which covers most of the open ground between the track and the shoreline of the dam …..

Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava (Geelkwikkie)

Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava (Geelkwikkie), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

The Yellow Wagtail is not a wader as such, but it favours similar habitat to some of the waders, particularly fringes of dams with short grass. It is not unusual to find the far more common Cape Wagtails pottering about in their perky fashion among small waders, but during the summer months it pays to check out all the wagtails as they could include this uncommon non-breeding migrant, which arrives in small numbers from its breeding grounds in eastern Europe and western Asia

Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia (Groenpootruiter)

We also came across this fairly common wader which can be found right across southern Africa at inland and coastal waters, but seldom in numbers, often alone – we saw just the one during our couple of hours of careful scanning

Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia (Groenpootruiter), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

Generally one of the easier waders to identify and get to know, even at a distance, due to its long-legged appearance, relatively large size and slightly upturned bill

Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia (Groenpootruiter), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

The Greenshank is one of the longer-staying Palaearctic migrants, arriving from its “home” in European Russia and eastwards from as early as August and departing again between February and April

Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos (Gewone ruiter)

Another wader that belies its name by not being particularly common, this was one of just a couple that we came across

Once you are “into” the intricacies of identifying waders, the Common Sandpiper soon becomes familiar, with its standout features being its uniform brown upper colouring contrasting with a clear white underside. The white gap between shoulder and breast band (not clearly visible in my photo) is often a clincher

Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos (Gewone ruiter), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

It prefers firmer surfaces than other waders and can often be found alongside wagtails on rocks, firm sand and gravel rather than wading in the water itself

It is also a long-staying migrant from its “home” which stretches from Europe to Japan, arriving in southern Africa from August and departing from January to April

Red-capped Lark Calandrella cinerea (Rooikoplewerik)

And now for something completely different ……

Arguably one of the better known larks, which otherwise get a lot of bad press by being called “little brown jobs” or LBJ’s by those new to birding, this one is hard to confuse with any other lark species due to its distinctive rufous crown and breast side patches

Red-capped Lark Calandrella cinerea (Rooikoplewerik), (Adult) Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

Their preferred habitats include bare ground and edges of wetlands so it wasn’t too much of a surprise to find one not far from the dam edge, nevertheless we were most pleased to find this individual with a tiny morsel in its beak.

Red-capped Lark (Adult)

We immediately guessed that the morsel was intended for a juvenile being fed by the adult, and looked around – nearby was a well-camouflaged, inconspicuous bird with no matching features but there was no doubt of its lineage as we watched the adult feeding the morsel to it then rushing off to find more. Lovely to watch and a unique sighting!

Red-capped Lark (Juvenile with Adult)
Red-capped Lark (Juvenile with Adult)

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida (Witbaardsterretjie)

Now, sharp readers will quickly realise that terns are not waders – but I have other reasons for including these images …..

Firstly, terns commonly roost at water’s edge in between sorties over the dam close to the shoreline, floating in the wind, looking for prey and dipping down to grab it.

As we drove slowly along the shoreline at one point, I noticed a flock of about a dozen Whiskered Terns flying low in their usual fashion, heads down, floating in the light wind, looking for prey and dipping down to grab something then joining the flock again.

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie, Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

What was different was that they were flying above solid ground rather than the water, something I have not seen before – clearly there were enough small insects in the short grass or flying about just above it to persuade the terns to hunt away from their usual habitat.

They presented a beautiful sight as they flew towards our vehicle, veering away at the last moment, flying away for a distance, then turning back to repeat the circuit. They are such elegant birds in flight …..

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie, Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

It’s a Shore Thing – The Sequel (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a selection of Waders (Shorebirds) and other water birds that I had encountered during an atlasing trip to Bronkhorstspruit Dam Nature Reserve not far from Pretoria.

Well, I wasn’t expecting to visit this nature reserve so soon again, but an alert received this past Saturday from SA Rare Bird News run by Trevor Hardaker (the second item in his alert below) had me reconsidering fairly quickly – a Baird’s Sandpiper would be a lifer for me and, having been spotted just 45 minutes drive from my home in Pretoria, it was an irresistible twitch.

The Twitch

I was not keen to join what I expected to be a twitcher scramble on the Sunday so I waited for Monday morning, when I picked up Koos Pauw at 6.30 am and we headed east along the N4 highway, then took the R25 and R42 turnoffs to take us to the nature reserve access road.

The many twitchers making their way to the dam the previous day combined with heavy overnight rain had turned the gravel access road and the nature reserve tracks into a muddy jumble in places – no problem for my Prado but we felt for the hardy twitchers in small sedans who we saw later in the reserve – no one got stuck while we were there but the road was worse on our way out, so those drivers would have had to use all their skills to get out without a problem.

More of a quagmire than a road – there’s already an ‘escape road’ forming on the right

We couldn’t help chuckling when we saw two Yellow-billed Ducks swimming in one of the larger puddles in the bumpy nature reserve track – how opportunistic, but it left us wondering why they chose a muddy puddle instead of the vast expanse of dam just 50 metres away.

From previous experience of twitches at popular, accessible birding spots such as this, I knew the best way of finding the target rare bird after an alert is to drive to the area where you expect to find it, then look for parked cars – this was my strategy and it worked, but only just!

As we approached the approximate position along the dam edge given in the alert, a vehicle was heading towards us – we stopped to chat and the friendly driver offered to show us “the Baird’s” as they had just come from its location, with no one else around at the time. We accepted with alacrity and a couple of minutes later we were at the right spot and watching the Baird’s Sandpiper ourselves – success! (cue the Beatles “With a little help from my friends”)

Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris bairdii Bairdse strandloper, Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

We had nevertheless armed ourselves with some knowledge of the species and its main identifying features, in case we were faced with finding and identifying it ourselves – but our newfound friend quickly informed us that we only had to look out for the ‘small wader with a limp’ as it seems it had injured its leg, so the task of picking it out among the other small waders was very simple. The video clip below shows just how pronounced its limp was

Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris bairdii (Bairdse strandloper)

The Baird’s Sandpiper falls into the wader family known as the Calidrids, breeding at Arctic latitudes of Alaska and Canada and usually migrating to South America during the austral summer.

Occasionally, as with this one in all probability, a single bird is blown off course by adverse weather conditions, or its ingrained directional instinct goes slightly awry and they end up in southern Africa instead. Not without an almost unfathomable effort of course, for its journey would have taken it across the Atlantic Ocean at some stage.

Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris bairdii Bairdse strandloper, Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

Less than 20 records exist of sightings of this species in the southern African region, since 1984 – prior to that there is just one record from 1863! So its status is rightly given as a very rare vagrant

Each red dot represents an individual record over the last 37 years

Waders without clear features which set them obviously apart from other similar sized waders can present a real challenge to birders and the Baird’s Sandpiper falls into that category. If it hadn’t had the distinct limp we would have had to resort to looking for the features given in the illustration below from the Roberts app

So that’s how I added the latest lifer to my Southern African list – simple really …….

As with my previous visit we spent the next couple of hours driving slowly as close to the dam shoreline as we could, scanning every metre of it as we went. This paid off with several more good sightings of waders and other birds, many of them the same species as I had recorded before, but with some exciting new additions – more about these in a follow up post

References

Finally, just a mention of the two outstanding sources that I have used for the information in this post :

Firstly, Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa – the go-to guide for detailed information on all of Southern Africa’s birds

Secondly, the more focused Chamberlain’s Waders – The Definitive Guide to Southern Africa’s Shorebirds by Faansie Peacock (No, that’s not a made up name!)

The Call of Summer

There are numbers of migrant birds to southern Africa that herald the start of the Austral (Southern Hemisphere) summer from September each year, but two stand out as the icons of summer’s arrival and become the subject of excited messages on the various birding chat groups as they are spotted or heard for the first time in the early summer months

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica (Europese Swael)

One is the Barn Swallow, which has become the best-known of the migrant swallows, certainly because it outnumbers the others, is highly visible and occurs virtually across southern Africa.

Barn Swallow, Kendal area, Gauteng, South Africa

A staggering, estimated 20 to 40 million “Barnies” (as they are known to birders who like nicknames) migrate to Africa from western Europe and another 40 to 80 million from eastern Europe and Asia annually on their southward migration, many of which end up in southern Africa.

Barn Swallows, Roodeplaat Dam near Pretoria, South Africa

In southern Africa, during the summer months, they can be found just about anywhere outside the built up areas of cities, preferring moister, open areas such as grassland, pastures, cultivated fields and vleis and occurring in loose flocks of varying numbers.

Barn Swallow, Devon near Johannesburg , Gauteng, South Africa

Anyone who has witnessed Barn Swallows settling in their thousands into their roost at the end of the day, as we did many years ago near Umhlanga, will not forget this amazing sight.

I have been fortunate to see Barn Swallows in other parts of the world during our travels in the northern hemisphere summer, including Europe, Canada, Malaysia, Cuba and Egypt.

Barn Swallow, Annasrust farm Hoopstad, Free State, South Africa

Their status in southern Africa is ‘non-breeding Palaearctic migrant’ which means they breed ‘at home’ in the northern hemisphere, so we do not see any nesting behaviour, which is why I was particularly excited to find a nest tucked under a roof overhang during a trip to western Canada some years ago.

Barn Swallow on nest, Bow Lake, Alberta, Canada

Interestingly, these Barnies looked a little different to what we are used to seeing in SA – clearly these particular swallows would not be seen in our country as their migration path southwards would take them to South America.

Another encounter on a different continent, during a cruise on the Danube River, had me equally excited – it was April and Barn Swallows were flying above the river right next to our river cruise boat and I realised that they must have just arrived back from their return migration at the end of the Austral summer, with anything up to 10,000 kms ‘under their belt’.

Barn Swallow, Danube River at Linz, Austria

Which brings me to what inspired this post ……

Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius (Piet-my-vrou)

First some background –

My bird atlasing trip this past week took me to Ezemvelo Nature Reserve some 70 kms north-east of Pretoria, a small nature reserve comprising mainly rolling grasslands. Before arriving at the entrance gate at the entry time for day visitors, I had managed to complete 2 hours of atlasing in the pentad immediately west of Ezemvelo and was looking forward to spending time in the reserve, which I had last visited in 2013.

After completing the gate formalities, I headed to the Reception a few kms from the gate, paid for my day visit and parked at the nearby picnic spot, nicely located under large trees near a low tree covered hill and overlooking a small dam.

I literally had the whole place to myself – I’m sure it gets busier over weekends but on a weekday the only visitors are probably keen nature lovers such as myself, of that rather pleasant age when you, rather than others, decide how you are going to spend your day.

As I enjoyed coffee and rusks, I heard the familiar summer sound of a Red-chested Cuckoo – or Piet-my vrou (pronounced piet-may-frow) as most South Africans know it, a name based on the 3-syllable call which carries long distances and is often difficult to trace.

Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius (Piet-my-vrou), Ezemvelo

I would hazard a guess that, doves aside, this is one of the best known calls of all birds in South Africa, with farmers often referring to it, somewhat hopefully, as the “Rain Bird” because it’s arrival coincides with the hoped for start of the summer rains in large parts of SA.

The call I heard suddenly sounded very close and I walked to the nearby trees, camera in hand, to see if I could find it. This is a bird not easily seen as they tend to choose a branch in the depth of well-foliaged trees to perch on and call. I followed the call and was thrilled to find the Cuckoo after a short search and approached carefully, not wanting to scare it away.

Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius (Piet-my-vrou), Ezemvelo

I took a couple of photos, thrilled at getting this rare chance to photograph the species, but mildly disappointed that it refused to turn around and show its front. With a few photos under the belt I decided to try to get a video while it was calling and managed to complete a short clip before the bird flew off, leaving me very pleased with my first reasonable images of a Red-chested Cuckoo in 40 or so years of birding!

Here’s the video –

Red-chested Cuckoo (Piet-my-vrou)

It’s a Shore Thing

My atlasing trip last week included time spent in Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve, which lies on the southern side of the dam of the same name and is an easy 40 minutes drive east of Pretoria

Before reaching the reserve entrance, I had spent time recording species in the habitats that I was not expecting to find inside the reserve and had a pleasing list of 30 species by the time I reached the entrance, a number of which I had found at a bridge crossing the Bronkhorst Spruit on a quiet side road.

On entering the reserve I passed a few herds of antelope enjoying the long grassveld habitat of the dam surrounds before heading to the dam’s shoreline, which I knew from previous visits was ideal habitat for waders – or shorebirds as some prefer to call them.

Waders are notoriously challenging to identify in the early stages of birding, but time is on your side in this wonderful hobby/pastime, which usually becomes the dominant one for the rest of your life once you’ve got into it. As you progress and have more opportunities to watch waders in action, you learn to look for certain features and identification becomes easier, making you wonder why you battled so much in the beginning.

Here are the waders and a few other birds that I came across as I drove slowly as close to the shoreline of the dam as I could – I had to divert here and there to avoid disturbing the fishermen who also enjoy this environment ….

Ruff Philomachus pugnax (Kemphaan)

Ruffs fall into the wader family known as the Calidrids, breeding at Arctic latitudes and migrating to southern Africa during the austral summer. There would be no difficulty identifying Ruffs during the breeding season, as they take on a spectacular breeding plumage, but we see them in southern Africa in their drab non-breeding state, looking like many of the other waders. One of the most numerous summer waders

What to look for :

  • Size medium (M : 29-32cm F 22-26 cm)
  • Medium length bill, slightly drooping
  • Longish, usually orange legs
  • Scaled appearance on back
  • White feathers at bill base
Ruff Philomachus pugnax (Kemphaan), Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Sanderling Calidris alba (Drietoonstrandloper)

Sanderlings also belong to the Calidrids family, breeding in, and migrating from, Siberia and Greenland to southern Africa, where they arrive from September. Inland records are quite scarce as most head to coastal beaches, but Bronkhorstspruit Dam has seen some records of this species on an intermittent basis. This was the only one I saw during my visit and is only the 4th record for the pentad, out of 170 cards

What to look for :

  • Size : Small (18-21 cm)
  • Distinctive light colouring separates the Sanderling from most other waders
  • Short, stout bill
  • Dark shoulder patch (hidden by white feathers in my photo)
Sanderling Calidris alba (Drietoonstrandloper) Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula (Ringnekstrandkiewiet)

The first of the “Small Plovers”, this palaearctic migrant flies up to an amazing 18,000 kms from its breeding grounds to southern Africa

What to look for :

  • Size : Small (17-19 cm)
  • Relatively easy to identify with its broad black breast band contrasting with the white collar
  • Very short, stubby bill
  • Orange legs
Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula (Ringnekstrandkiewiet) Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Three-banded Plover Charadrius tricollaris (Driebandstrandkiewiet)

The second of the “Small Plovers”, this is a common freshwater wader in southern Africa, where it also breeds

What to look for :

  • Size : Small (17-18 cm)
  • Distinctive with its double breast band and red eye-ring
  • Bobs up and down in animated fashion
Three-banded Plover Charadrius tricollaris (Driebandstrandkiewiet) Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Little Stint Calidris minuta (Kleinstrandloper)

This smallest of waders always makes me think of an old gent in a faded brown overcoat – they habitually walk about with head bowed which, along with their small size, makes them easy to pick out among a group of waders. The Little Stint is a Palaearctic migrant. those arriving in South Africa from September are thought to breed in northern Europe

What to Look for :

  • Size : Very Small (12-14 cm)
  • Short, fine-tipped dark bill
  • Bowed posture while wading
Little Stint Calidris minuta Kleinstrandloper Bronkhorstspruit Dam

The Others

Some of the other birds occupying the shallow wading areas and margins of the dam that I came across –

Grey-headed Gull Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus (Gryskopmeeu)

This fairly common inland Gull had been attracted to the shallows by a dead fish on which it was scavenging.

One of the easiest Gulls to identify inland as it is usually the only one. At the coast one has to be a bit more judicious in arriving at an ID – the Hartlaub’s Gull is of similar size and general appearance so a more detailed look will show the differences

Grey-hooded Gull Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus (Gryskopmeeu)
Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Juveniles are there for the sole purpose of confusing birders, or so it seems – they often look so different that it’s easy to imagine it may be a completely different species

Grey-hooded Gull (juvenile) Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida  Witbaardsterretjie

A small flock of Whiskered Terns were resting at the dam’s edge – any terns seen inland are likely to be one of two species – this one and the White-winged Tern. They can be difficult to distinguish in flight, but resting like this it is a fairly easy ID

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie Bronkhorstspruit Dam

This one decided to stretch its wings then flew off, showing off the beauty of the feathers that make up the wings and tail

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie Bronkhorstspruit Dam
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia (Reusesterretjie)

My favourite Tern was nearby, on its own – the Caspian Tern is the largest tern (at 51 cm) in the region and is a breeding resident. Apart from its size, the standout feature is its large red dagger-like bill.

Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia (Reusesterretjie), Bronkhorstspruit Dam

And these two waterbirds make it onto this post simply by sticking close to the shoreline, allowing me to get reasonable images as I studied the waders

Cape Shoveler Anas smithii (Kaapse slopeend)

Cape Shoveler Anas smithii (Kaapse slopeend), Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata (Geelbekeend)

Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata (Geelbekeend) (Adult with Juvenile), Bronkhorstspruit Dam

To end off – a mystery wader at water’s edge – extremely large and well feathered – definitely not a Stint……

Supersized Wader, Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Knock knock …… who’s there?

We are getting back into our Pretoria routine after 3 months in Mossel Bay, and I decided to go out atlasing in Roodeplaat Nature Reserve one morning this week. Heading into summer the weather in Pretoria is already warm with temperatures in the low 30’s and the skies are clear – some rain has fallen but the ‘big’ summer rains accompanied by the typical highveld thunderstorms have not yet arrived – hopefully they are not far off.

It was a good morning’s atlasing with 71 species logged on the Birdlasser app, including one which put on a brief display for me (well that’s what I like to think) ….

I was out of the car listening to a Lesser Honeyguide calling near the nature reserve offices, when I saw what looked like a woodpecker fly from a tree to a bare wooden utility pole. I could not make out what it was as it seemed to be purposely hiding from me so I approached carefully until I had a partial view and took a few record photos.

It then started pecking at the pole in a rhythmic fashion creating a loud drumming sound and I immediately wondered why, as there was no hope of anything edible to be found and the pole was completely unsuitable for nesting or similar purposes.

Here’s the short clip I filmed of the woodpecker, which I later identified as a Bearded Woodpecker, in action – do excuse the shakiness of the images – I had to film it at a distance on full zoom so as not to scare it away and the wind blowing didn’t help matters.

Best viewed in full screen mode ….

Bearded Woodpecker (Female) ‘drumming’ (Baardspeg / Dendropicos namaquus)

A read through of the species habits on the Roberts app on my phone provided the following insights into this behaviour – nothing to do with food or nesting it seems –

Presence often given away by loud, distinctive call, or by loud tapping (while foraging), or drumming.

Moves out of sight behind a branch in response to danger.

Both sexes drum frequently, mostly early morning; used in territorial advertisement and to establish contact with partner.

Drums in bursts of ca 1 sec at ca 12 strikes/sec, beginning fast, then slowing; usually on a high dead branch (same branch often reused); audible to 1 km.

Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa

It flew off after a while and I continued with my atlasing, pleased at having witnessed this behaviour and at having everything one wants to know about birds available on my iphone.