Cormorants are not generally regarded as birds that are high on the list of desirable birds to see – unless it’s a potential lifer of course. When you’ve been ‘into’ birding for a while the most that a cormorant is likely to elicit is a slightly off-hand “Oh, there’s another Reed Cormorant” or “Hey, have a look at that Little Grebe just to the right of that White-breasted Cormorant”.
But there’s more to cormorants than meets the eye – or eyes in this case …..
During one recent day trip, I found an opportunity to visit the area which we know as “The Vlei’s”, to the east of the small town of Wilderness, and spent a pleasant hour or so in the bird hide at Langvlei.
There were numerous waterbirds on the vlei, mostly Coots but also significant numbers of Grebes, more than I can recall seeing in any location before and including all three southern African species – Little Grebes, Great Crested Grebes and a few Black-necked Grebes. However, they were too distant for photography.
Also distant was a long line of dark birds on the water, as the image below shows, and once I had the scope in position, I could see that it consisted of a few hundred Reed Cormorants, again more than I can recall seeing in one location before. As I watched the line, a few of the foremost swimmers flew up out of the water and circled back to the rear of the “queue” where they settled down in line again. I can only assume they were performing some kind of feeding strategy.
Close to the hide a dead tree stump has been strategically placed and perched on it were two cormorants – the larger White-breasted Cormorant and the somewhat smaller Reed Cormorant.
The light was favourable, so I took a few shots then zoomed in on their heads and took a few more. And that’s where the magic came in! In contrast to their rather dull appearance and less than comely shape, the cormorants have some of the most stunning eye colours of the bird world.
White-breasted Cormorant (Witborsduiker) (E-bird : Great Cormorant)
Starting with the brilliant green eyes of the largest cormorant in our region, commonly found in saltwater and freshwater habitats across southern Africa
Now this species is somewhat ungainly on land, but once in the water it will outswim Michael Phelps by a long way – that’s if you can get it to swim in a straight line and stay within its lane. And all it uses are its feet which have four toes connected by webbing, which it uses to propel itself most effectively through the water when chasing prey
It uses that hooked bill to secure small fish, which are eaten underwater, while bigger fish are brought to the surface to juggle into a head-first swallowing position.
Worldwide this species is often referred to as Great Cormorant and occurs across 6 continents – I have seen Great Cormorants in Australia, Canada, UK and Europe during our travels abroad
The Reed Cormorant is substantially smaller than the previous species and has a similar distribution across our region, but unlike the White-breasted (Great) Cormorant it is restricted to the African continent, occurring in most of sub-Saharan Africa
And the eyes? Red instead of green, but just as striking!
A surprising fact (courtesy of Faansie Peacock’s wonderful birding app called Firefinch) is that the feathers of cormorants are less waterproof than those of other birds – the reason is that this makes them less buoyant and allows them to sink when hunting underwater. This also explains why they spend much of their time out of the water with wings spread to dry. It is also believed that they swallow stones for additional weight, much like scuba divers wearing lead weights on their belts.
Cape Cormorant (Trekduiker)
I wasn’t expecting to find a Cape Cormorant alongside the other two species at Langvlei, as they are generally known as an exclusively marine species, but this one clearly thought a day away from the rough seas would be to its liking
Mossel Bay’s Point is a wonderful place to watch seabirds and Cape Cormorants are regular passers-by (or more appropriately flyers-by) flying low and fast over the ocean, singly or in pairs or in long skeins of up to a couple of dozen at a time.
This is usually late afternoon when we like to get a take-away coffee and sit and watch the sea and its inhabitants, which can be anything from humans surfing and snorkelling to seals, dolphins or whales (in season), while yachts and boats of various types and sizes make their way to and from the small harbour nearby.
I haven’t been able to establish where these passing Cape Cormorants roost, but it is probably one of the quieter stretches of beach further east towards Great Brak River and beyond.
Never mind, just look at those turquoise eyes!
This marine species is distributed along the coastline of South Africa, Namibia and Angola
We relocated to Mossel Bay towards the end of last year – somewhat unexpectedly, although it was always part of our medium-term planning. So you can expect the emphasis of my blog to shift towards the Southern Cape and away from the northern parts of our country, where we have lived for some 50 years.
However the Southern Cape, and in particular Mossel Bay are very familiar to us, having spent ever-increasing periods in our house here over the last 12 years and is the perfect place to spend our retirement years.
Our home in Mossel Bay is situated in the Mossel Bay Golf Estate which has a variety of habitats and gardens which attract many species of birds and this brings me to the subject of this post – the Spotted Eagle-Owl, which “put its hand up” (figuratively) to become the focus of a post by popping up in a number of places around the Golf Estate over the past few weeks.
It also seemed like a good opportunity to get back to the essence of my blog, which after all is called “Mostly Birding” for a reason ……
Here are some images of Spotted Eagle-Owls taken over the last while around our home and on my walks in the estate and adjoining nature areas:
Spotted Eagle-Owl bubo africanus Gevlekte Ooruil
Neighbour Catherine, knowing my interest in all things birding, popped over in the middle of the day to say there was an Owl in her garden, so I went to have a look, taking my camera of course. There it was perched on the garden wall and I surmised it was a juvenile, based on the lack of the “ears” (not really ears but protuding tufts of feathers for camouflage, not for hearing) which are a feature of the adults
‘Goodness, but it’s tiring being awake all night – am I ever going to get used to this …’
‘Hmmm – suppose I should keep a watch out even though I’m still young’
A few days later I noticed another Owl, this time an adult, sitting on the window cill of the neighbour’s house in broad daylight. More than likely the parent of the above juvenile.
A week or so later again, neighbour Jan, phoned to say there was an owl in the trees in his back garden, between our two properties. I could not see it from our balcony which is a level higher than Jan’s house so I went downstairs to our garden and quickly spotted the owl on a branch partly concealed by foliage. I positioned myself as best I could without disturbing the owl and took a few shots against the strong backlight of the morning sun.
My daily late afternoon walks take me all over the golf estate – my favourite walk being the one that takes in the nature area to the south and west of the estate as there is always something of interest.
One of my walks included an unusual encounter with an owl, which stood in the middle of the track as I approached and didn’t seem intent on flying away. I waited for a while to see what it would do, concerned that it was ill or injured, but after some 10-15 minutes I walked slowly past it as it moved to one side, eyeing me all the way but seemingly relaxed.
I kept a look out for this owl on my later walks as I was concerned about its health – I believe it was the same owl I spotted twice on the golf course itself, flying about without a problem so assumed it had recovered from any problem it may have had.
This species is well-known in the suburbs of our cities and towns and is often heard calling softly – wooo, hooo – and perched on roofs and streetlights from where it hunts insects, reptiles, rodents and the like.
Oh, and it’s good to have neighbours who keep you informed about birdlife in the garden ….
I have taken a bit of a sabbatical from blogging so far this year, so to get things going again I thought I should take a belated look back at 2022 …..
During 2022 my photo library increased by some 2000 images and for this retrospective (Yes! I’ve always wanted to use that word) I have limited my Photo Pick to the 40 images which appeal to me the most, often for different reasons – some are technically good (well, I think so anyway) others are reminders of a particular moment or place or special sighting – the very brief comments tell a bit of the story of each image. So to start with ….
One of the first places we visited in 2022 was the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley near Hermanus – the evening light was magical
I love the moodiness that overcast skies bring to a scene and this one had the benefit of a sunlit foreground and overcast background
The classic view of Table Mountain from Milnerton beach, a stone’s throw from where I was born
This unusual view of the southern Cape coast was taken from my seat in a plane on its way to land at George
A double rainbow over Mossel Bay just begged to be photographed
Our drive to Weltevrede farm near Prince Albert was an absolute delight with views like this around every bend
Evening tranquility at the dam on the farm Prior Grange near Springfontein, Free State
Our stay in Victoria, Australia provided widely contrasting experiences
Atlasing in the southern Cape around Herbertsdale provided this beautiful early-morning scene along the winding road
Another moody scene, this time with fishermen providing the focal point
Paternoster beach was another excellent spot for sunset photography, with gulls adding that extra punch
The flowers in the Postberg section of the West Coast National Park were spectacular (a separate post on this still to come)
Another view of the iconic mountain that I grew up with, this time from the waterfront at Cape Town
I spend most of my photographic energies on capturing images of birds, not always successfully. These are some of the better ones
The photo of a Cape Longclaw shows why it was given that name
This is a photo by Estelle Smalberger who kindly allowed me to use her images. What a privilege it was for me to be the one to first find this species – never before recorded in southern Africa!
Such elegant birds….
Cape Weavers treated us to a show while building their nests in front of our patio
Some of the birds seen during our Australia visit
My favourite bird photo of the year! Just seeing this scarce bird is a treat, capturing an image in flight from one bush to the next is a bonus
Cormorants are not colourful birds, but those eyes….!
Darter creating an arty pose
The Cape Batis likes to stay concealed so I was happy to capture this image as it flitted about in the depths of a bush
Not as clear an image as I would have liked but the in flight action is just perfect
Our favourite Cape Town destination is Kirstenbosch – always an opportunity for a few pleasing images
The Other Stuff
We visited a butterfly sanctuary which was great for close ups of some of the beautiful specimens
Nice to watch the Zipline in operation at the Point in Mossel Bay – now if I was a tad younger…..
The little village of Friemersheim has been turned into a living Art Gallery (more in a future post)
That sign conjures up all kinds of thoughts, doesn’t it?
A view from the inside of the Singapore Airlines plane that took us to Australia via Singapore
A tranquil scene on one of my atlasing trips
Cow in the flowers….behind barbed wire
People in the flowers on a sunny day
I can’t imagine a life without photography .. or birding of course
Earlier in the year I wrote about my “Once in a birder’s lifetime” experience of finding a new species for the Southern African region, namely a very far off course Laughing Gull which stayed in Mossel Bay for a week before disappearing again.
I’m pleased to say that my post, with some tweaks, has been recently published as an article in the May/June 2022 edition of African Birdlife magazine, reproduced below –
While atlasing not far from Pretoria on the 1st of April this year, I was pleasantly surprised to come across this handsome Long-crested Eagle perched on a utility pole at the roadside. It is always challenging to photograph a raptor perched high up as this one was, with a light background – far better to have them perched closer to eye level, but that would be too much to hope for.
In this case I was on a fairly busy regional road when I saw the eagle from a distance and slowed down as much as the traffic would allow, then pulled off onto the verge at a spot almost opposite where the eagle was perched and where the grass was not so long that it could be concealing puncture-producing sharp objects – just another of the hazards faced by atlasers.
Not wanting to spook the eagle by getting out of my car, I carefully lowered the driver’s window and prepared my camera for a few shots – I learnt a long time ago that one of the most important settings when photographing birds in the field is the exposure compensation.
Both the bird’s colouring and the amount of backlight need to be taken into consideration and, without getting too technical, I set the exposure at 1 full stop over-exposure to take into account the dark colouring of the eagle and the fairly bright background of blue sky.
I took a few shots then turned the car around and stopped on the same side as where the eagle was perched and very carefully got out, remaining partially concealed by the car. This worked and I was able to get closer shots but as soon as I moved from behind the car the eagle flew off, only to perch on the next pole.
This next image may look like a “dud” because the eye is not sharp and bright, but in fact it shows the “third eyelid” that many birds and especially raptors have – called a nictitating membrane. Unlike regular eyelids, it opens and closes horizontally across the eye and protects the eye when catching prey at speed and other hazards. It also helps keep the eye clean and moist – important when you are relying almost solely on your sharp vision for survival
I also took a couple of video clips including this one which shows the eagle seemingly watching a passing car go by – there is just something about large raptors that make them a favourite photographic subject – those eyes, that presence never fail to produce a dramatic image.
A fairly common resident of Southern Africa, the Long-crested Eagle is a personal favourite and we have stopped many times to view one at roadside, particularly in areas where pine and other plantations are the dominant habitat.
When perched it is unmistakeable with its long crest and dark colouring. In flight it is a tad more difficult but the large white wing patches and barred tail separate it from all other large raptors, although looking up at a bright sky and trying to see those sort of details is never easy.
Where to find it
The Long-crested Eagle has a scattered distribution across the eastern parts of southern Africa with concentrations along the escarpment of Limpopo Province and Mpumalanga and the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. They occur as far south as the Garden Route area of the southern Cape coast
My first sighting was in 1994 on a farm near Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal.
If I have touched your curiosity button and you are wondering why I seem to have changed the theme of my blog to culinary matters, let me set things straight right away. I was looking for some background information about the bird which is the subject of my recent twitch of a rarity and my extensive research (OK, I just googled a bit) came up with something unexpected……
The bird in question is the Eurasian Oystercatcher, the unexpected fact is that the Oystercatcher was originally known as the “Sea Pie” but was renamed in the 1730 ‘s when a naturalist observed one eating oysters. The name “sea pie” seems to be a shortened form of Sea Magpie, due to its pied (black and white) appearance, (not applicable to our better known African Black Oystercatcher which has all black plumage).
Just a little background
At the risk of boring those who already know my approach to twitching (the chasing of rarities no matter what it entails) let me repeat my criteria : if the rarity in question is within maximum 2 hours travel time by car from where I happen to be, I will consider going for it.
Once again the trigger came from the SA Rare Bird News report (SARBN) which is published by Trevor Hardaker twice a week – in this case it was the report of 3rd December 2021 that piqued my interest with a report of an Eurasian Oystercatcher on the Keurbooms River estuary at Plettenberg Bay in the southern Cape.
We were still in Pretoria at the time but were readying ourselves for a mid December road trip to our other home in Mossel Bay, so if the bird hung around long enough, there may be a chance to twitch it…..
I kept an eye on the reports coming through and as our departure date got closer, and the Oystercatcher remained in the same area, my hopes of being able to twitch the species started rising.
Now I should mention that I had in fact seen this species in Europe a number of years ago, but the circumstances were rather bizarre and the sighting somewhat unsatisfactory so I was keen to get a better sighting and of course to be able to add it to my list of Southern African birds seen.
At the time we were travelling to the UK via Amsterdam Schiphol airport and while taxi-ing after landing at Schiphol early morning I spotted, from my window seat, an Eurasian Oystercatcher at the edge of a concrete water channel along the perimeter of the airport – the sighting was brief but there was no mistaking the bird with its black and white plumage and distinctive bill
As I said, a somewhat unusual way to add a lifer and not what I consider fulfilling…..
Time to Twitch
We arrived in Mossel Bay on Wednesday 15 December 2021 after a road trip spread over 3 days and, once settled in to our ”Southern Cape” routine, my thoughts returned to the Eurasian Oystercatcher, which was still hanging around in the same area on the Saturday, so we decided to do the trip to Plettenberg Bay (or Plett for short) on the Sunday.
Now, 150 kms doesn’t usually sound like a challenging distance to drive for a day but Google Maps put it into perspective by estimating that a 2 hour drive awaited us, fortunately just making it into my (admittedly arbitrary) 2 hour drive time limit for a twitch.
With time to prepare I made a note of the instructions provided about the location, where to park and how to access the estuary and the recommendation that any attempt to find the bird be done at low tide. The tide tables indicated a low tide around 10 am for the Sunday so it seemed quite reasonable to leave home at about 8 am.
Another recommendation was to have a scope handy if available as the bird was likely to be a fair distance from the closest viewing spot so my Swarovski scope was the first item to be loaded into the car. I had recently purchased a new ball head for the scope to replace an old one that had become difficult to manoeuvre and I was looking forward to see how it functioned in the field (I’m glad to say it performed perfectly)
We duly got to the pin-drop spot at the small parking area, which had a full complement of cars but fortunately one was just pulling out and I slotted the Prado into place and set off down the narrow track, scope and tripod slung over my shoulder, leaving Gerda to enjoy the peace and quiet with her knitting.
The track initially wound its way through bush, then over a narrow wooden foot bridge and onto the sands of the estuary. A birder heading the other way turned out to be Rudi, another Mossel Bay birder and after greeting each other he pointed me in the general direction of where he had just seen the Oystercatcher.
Armed with that knowledge, I found a spot to set up the scope, taking care to avoid the softer sands which would have swallowed my sandals if I wasn’t wary (all proof of how hazardous twitching can be). I scanned the distant river close to a Tern roost and within a minute had found the Oystercatcher and locked onto it with the scope. I allowed myself a little victory punch in my imagination – success!
For the next 40 minutes I tried getting closer to where the bird was hanging out, with some success although the soft mud of the estuary at low tide thwarted my attempt constantly as I picked my way across the drier parts to a better vantage point.
Satisfied with the views I had enjoyed, I made my way in hopscotch fashion to the main pathway back to the car, passing a group of birders who had just arrived but were less fortunate as a passing helicopter had caused the Tern roost and surrounding birds to rise up and fly off.
My only regret was not having my camera, which I left in the car as the scope and tripod was quite a burden without a camera dangling from my shoulder as well. Plenty of excellent photos have been posted on various birding groups and the superb image below was taken by a birder who rented a canoe so as to get closer to the bird – included here with the photographer’s kind permission.
This species is a rare but annual visitor from its breeding grounds across the Palearctic region from Iceland to China. Those found in southern Africa are thought to originate from Siberia and prefer to feed by probing for invertebrates on mudflats, having a longer bill than the African Black Oystercatcher which generally feeds on mussels.
The illustrations below are from Chamberlain’s Waders, written and illustrated by Faansie Peacock and show the unmistakeable pied appearance of the Eurasian Oystercatcher compared to the all black plumage of the African Black Oystercatcher.
On our way back home we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a light lunch of their home-made pie and salads – it crossed my mind that I had seen a Sea Pie in Plett and eaten a Pie near the Sea in Plett, all in the same morning……..
Google “Abbotsbury” and it comes up with a Wikipedia article about a village in the English county of Dorset, about a mile from the English Channel coast.
The Abbotsbury we like to visit couldn’t be further from that description – it is a Guest Farm deep in the Karoo, some 27 kms north of the historic South African town of Graaff-Reinet, and is one of our favourite stopovers on the long road between our homes in Pretoria and Mossel Bay.
In 2021 we had the pleasure of two stopovers at this peaceful and hospitable guest farm, on our way to Mossel Bay for our winter and summer stays, and we were once again enchanted by the setting and the comfortable Garden Cottage which has become a brief “home away from home” for a number of years.
The Garden Cottage
The setting is sublime – set among a cheerful garden which is in complete contrast to the surrounding arid conditions, yet fits the purpose perfectly
And the interior is just as charming with that homey feeling that has you instantly relaxed
We have done the road trip between Pretoria and Mossel Bay or vice-versa many times and usually travel on the N1 National Road between Pretoria and Colesberg, then choose between the route via Beaufort-West/Meiringspoort/Oudtshoorn or via Graaff-Reinet/ George.
The latter route is the one that takes us past Abbotsbury, which lies a few kms off the N9 National Road and as soon as we turn off and pass through the entrance gate I feel a sense of relief at escaping, for a while, from the main road. It’s also a signal to open the car window, breathe in the fresh Karoo air and listen for the calls of the birds that favour this arid habitat.
It’s a short drive from the road up to the farmstead along a dusty farm track that passes kraals with sheep and goats, keeping a lookout for birds in the scrubby Karoo habitat
Once we have greeted owner Graham and settled into the cottage, we relax for the rest of the afternoon on the stoep overlooking the garden and lawn – by now Angus, the friendly Scottish Terrier, has come to “greet” us and persuade us to throw his old tennis ball so that he can scurry after it and bring it back for the next throw.
Time for a Walk
For the last hour or so of driving before we reach our overnight stop, I start looking forward to the walk I will take once we are settled in – firstly to stretch legs and body that have been unnaturally dormant while driving for several hours and secondly to fit in at least an hour’s quality atlasing in a pentad that has limited coverage.
The farm has a character all its own and around every bend there is something photogenic to admire
There are some quirky plants along the way
And the Birds
Atlasing statistics show that the pentad in which Abbotsbury lies has a total of 100 species after 13 full protocol cards, with my contribution being 65 species from 7 cards. I usually expect to find 30 to 40 species during a visit and the images below are a selection of some of those I have come across and been able to photograph –
The Pied Barbet is one of those birds that are heard before they are seen, alternating between their two calls – one a soft descending hoop hoop hoop, the other a loud nasal pehp pehp pehp – very much a feature of this arid habitat
The best part about my afternoon and morning walks of an hour or so each around the farm is knowing a delicious dinner or breakfast will be served when I get back to the cottage
Some two years ago I posted about a memorable swim at Santos Beach in Mossel Bay, the coastal town that is our home for a large part of the year. On that occasion it was a unique spectacle of nature as hundreds of terns and gulls gathered to feast on shoals of anchovies that had come so far inshore that swimmers could literally scoop them from the sea. (https://mostlybirding.com/2020/02/18/a-swim-to-remember/)
In early February this year we witnessed an even rarer happening in Mossel Bay, which started on Sunday 6th February 2022 on that same beach – Santos – and continued throughout the week, spreading to the harbour area and as far as the Point.
The Story Begins
From sunrise on Monday morning, small knots of people could be seen gathering at strategic spots along the shoreline of Mossel Bay, many dressed in bush clothing, with binoculars draped around their necks and carrying ‘weapons’ of varying size, the latter often covered in camouflage material designed to conceal them.
Their actions were strange – one moment they would be gazing out to sea or scanning the beach and harbour with their binoculars, the next moment they would be on the run to a nearby vantage point, hiding behind anything they could find and pointing their ‘weapons’ at the object of their interest.
At other times they would stand around talking animatedly, checking their phones constantly, then at some signal rushing to their vehicles and driving anxiously to another of the favoured spots, there to repeat the procedure.
At the harbour, a designated National Key Point in South Africa, the gathered groups encountered some resistance to their endeavours, as security personnel approached menacingly, ordering them to refrain from entering the harbour area and from pointing their ‘weapons’ in the direction of the harbour.
This led to several verbal skirmishes and the mood of the increasing number of ‘attackers’ seemed to take a turn for the worse. However a message, possibly from a ‘Central Command’, had the groups heading off to one of the other points and calm returned to the harbour once again.
This continued throughout the day and for the rest of the week, with the initial groups of ‘attackers’ being replaced on a daily basis by new groups arriving from all over South Africa.
What was Going on?
It could only be one of two things –
the start of an armed insurrection, or
twitchers gathering to see and photograph the latest addition to the Southern African list of birds
I’m glad to say it was the latter, especially as I was initially responsible for starting the scramble to see this first time vagrant to our shores!
And the ‘weapons’ referred to in the story above are, of course, the long-lensed cameras favoured by birders (the ‘attackers’) trying to capture an image of the bird for their records.
How it Happened
It all started with a trip to Santos beach with my daughter Geraldine and son-in-law Andre, for a late afternoon swim just after 6 pm on Sunday 6th February 2022. We parked and walked down the steps and across the grassy embankment towards the beach – ever on the lookout for birds, I noticed that there were about a dozen gulls in the fresh water pond that forms in the middle of the beach at the stormwater outlet, drinking and bathing at the end of a no doubt busy day of scavenging and resting.
As we got closer to the pond I stopped dead in my tracks, let out a mild expletive and said to Andre and Geraldine “That’s a Franklin’s Gull!” – it stood out like a sore thumb amongst the similar sized Grey-headed Gulls lined up at the pond, with its black hood and dark, slate grey wings contrasting with the mostly white head and pale grey wings of the similar sized gulls normally encountered in Mossel Bay.
This excellent photo (by Estelle Smalberger the next day) best represents the view we had of the gull at the pond
I had come to the beach for a late afternoon swim, so had none of my usual birding paraphernalia – no binos, no camera, not even my otherwise ever-present phone, so Andre dashed back to the car to get his phone. Geraldine and I stood and watched the gull intently while we waited but, as luck would have it, the gull finished drinking and bathing a few seconds before Andre got back and it flew off in the direction of the harbour.
I buried my head in despair for a few seconds, then shrugged it off and we enjoyed the swim we had come for.
Fortunately the gull had been quite relaxed and allowed us to approach within a few metres of its spot alongside the pond, so I was able to confirm in my mind the instinctive first ID of the gull as a Franklin’s Gull.
This was without any of the usual aids, simply based on having seen the species in Canada some years ago – the breeding plumage with full black hood and white eye crescents were what clinched it for me, without considering other possibilities……..I mean, no other gulls with a fully black hood occur in Southern Africa, so what else could it be ……. ?? (The Black-headed Gull, also an occasional vagrant, looks similar but its hood is a chocolate brown colour)
Once I got back home, I posted a message on the local birding whatsapp group, at 8.13 pm to be precise, suggesting that all keep a lookout for a “Franklin’s Gull” in the Mossel Bay area.
At the same time I recorded the sighting on my Birdlasser app which shows the location of the sighting on a map (this shows the corrected species name)
Some time later, at 9.32 pm, Rudi Minnie responded with some amazement and undertook to be at Santos beach at first light on Monday morning.
And there I left it, happy that I had spotted a rarity, one that is recorded only sporadically along the west and east coasts of South Africa and one that would no doubt be of interest to a few birders ……
Monday dawned sunny and warm and I headed out early to the Vleesbaai area where another rarity – a Baillon’s Crake – had been reported, my plan being to hopefully find it and atlas the pentad at the same time. While waiting patiently for the crake to put in an appearance (one juvenile popped out briefly, too quick for a photo) I kept an eye on the messages from those looking for the “Franklin’s Gull”.
First to confirm it was Edwin Polden at 6.42 am and Rudi Minnie shortly thereafter, followed by the first photos at 7.01am.
Some other Mossel Bay birders followed up with their own photos, providing more detail of the gull’s features
Trevor Hardaker, chair of the SA Rarities Committee and the undisputed ‘king’ of rarities in Southern Africa joined in the discussion, expressing his concern about the initial ID and imploring photographers to send a photo of the gull’s upper wing colouring. There was some speculation about his reason for this request, which became more urgent as the minutes ticked by.
Fortunately Estelle Smalberger was able to post a photo showing the upper wing of the gull with all-black wingtips –
and the reaction from Trevor was instantaneous :
Some 7 minutes later Trevor sent an email alert to the thousands of subscribers around Southern Africa to let them know about this ‘Giga’ rarity, a new species record for the sub-region, which had many of them, including Trevor himself, re-arranging their lives to get to Mossel Bay without delay and hopefully see the gull.
Laughing Gull vs Franklin’s Gull
It took the expertise of Trevor Hardaker to correctly ID this gull and it was based on the differences in upper wing pattern which are nicely illustrated in these excerpts from a guide book which he posted
This is the Laughing Gull – (in non-breeding plumage so without the black hood)
And this is the Franklin’s Gull –
The reaction after Trevor sent out the alert was not unexpected – there are a number of birders in the region who will go to any lengths to add a species to their lists for the southern African sub-region and this new species presented a golden opportunity for the ultra keen twitchers. Some must have literally upped and rushed to the airport and found a seat on a flight to George, as the first arrivals from Gauteng were in Mossel Bay that same afternoon.
Others made quick arrangements and drove long distances to Mossel Bay from all over SA. This continued throughout the week, with clutches of anxious twitchers staking out the favourite spots and sharing messages until they too were able to ‘tick’ this new species and get a photo or two.
The gull became a celebrity visitor overnight and by far the most photographed bird in SA that week as several hundred birders descended on the town over the 6 days it remained there.
Here is a selection of photos posted on Facebook and Whatsapp groups –
I managed to get a few images of the gull when it was perched on the wall near the harbour
In The News
The presence of the celebrity gull soon spread to the newshounds and articles were published in several newspapers – at first the local Mossel Bay and George papers carried the story which then spread to the Cape Town newspapers. It even made the national SABC newscasts.
Laughing Gulls, named for their raucous call which sounds like a high-pitched laugh, are monogamous and form long-term pair bonds. They breed in large colonies from April to July on the Atlantic coast of North America, the Caribbean and northern South America.
They are coastal birds found in estuaries, salt marshes, coastal bays, along beaches (where I first found it) or on agricultural fields near the coast. My previous (only) sighting of Laughing Gull was on the Varadero Peninsula on the north coast of Cuba during a memorable visit some years ago.
Laughing Gulls are gregarious birds, noisy and aggressive in nature and don’t hesitate to steal the prey of other birds.
Topmost in many birder’s minds was the question “How did it get to Southern Africa?”. That’s an impossible one to answer but several ideas were postulated such as –
there have been numerous previous vagrant records in the UK and western Europe so perhaps this was another which then proceeded to migrate south as it would normally do in its home territory and only stopped when it reached the southern end of Africa
ship-assisted vagrants are not unknown so perhaps it hitched a ride on a ship that passed Mossel Bay, from either east or west and thought, as we do, that it looked like a rather nice place to spend some time
And that sums up the newest addition to the Southern African bird list. Trust Faansie Peacock to be the first to add it to his brand new birding app called Firefinch, due to be fully launched this year, already partly available
What a shame that the handsome Laughing Gull stayed in Mossel Bay for just a week – the following Sunday it was nowhere to be found…… who knows where it went next and whether this species will ever be seen in the Southern African region again.
But it had provided a lot of excitement for the birding community during its short stay!
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.
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)
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.
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 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.
Looking back from the upper part of the boardwalk, the view across the bay is quite striking
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 )
At various points on the boardwalk, information boards are placed with interesting facts about the colony and the habits of the African Penguins
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
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.
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.
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.
Table Mountain National Park information boards at Boulders
African Birdlife Magazine September/October 2021, published by Birdlife SA
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.
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.