Category Archives: Birding South Africa

Lockdown …. is for the Birds (Part 2)

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

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

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

The Habitats

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

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

The Sunbirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay

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

Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina / Swartsuikerbekkie)

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

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

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

Malachite Sunbird, Valsriviermond

Cape Weaver in Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t worry, I’ve got this …..

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

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

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

Lockdown …. is for the Birds (Part 1)

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

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

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

The Habitats

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

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

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

The Doves

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

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

Laughing Dove Spilopelia senegalensis Lemoenduif, Mossel Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speckled Pigeon (Columba guinea / Kransduif), Mossel Bay

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

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

Ring-necked and Laughing Doves, Mossel Bay lockdown

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

Red-eyed and Laughing Doves, Mossel Bay lockdown

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

Ring-necked vs Red-eyed Dove, Mossel Bay

Cape Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Odd couple, Mossel Bay

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

My Atlasing Month – March 2020 (Part 4)

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

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

Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West : 23 – 24 March 2020

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

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

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

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

Pentad 3215_2235

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

Rufous-eared Warbler

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

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

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

Lemoenfontein near Beaufort West

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

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

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

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

Lemoenfontein near Beaufort West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Atlasing Month – March 2020 (Part 3 )

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

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

Prior Grange, Springfontein : 22 – 23 March 2020

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

The Stable Cottage among trees, Prior Grange, Springfomtein

Pentad 3015_2540

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

Green Woodhoopoe
Acacia Pied Barbet,

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

African Darter

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

Blue Cranes in flight, Prior Grange, Springfomtein

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

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

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

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

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

The road between Springfontein and Prior Grange

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

Cape Longclaw,

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

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

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

Prior Grange, Springfomtein

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

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

My Atlasing Month – March 2020 (Part 2 )

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

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

Balmoral Area : 18th March 2020

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

Pentad 2550_2855

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

Kusile Power station in the distance

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

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

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

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

View of the river from the bridge

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

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

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

Pentad 2545_2855

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Atlasing Month – March 2020 (Part 1 )

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

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

Verlorenkloof – 2 to 6 March

Expiring timeshare points were put to good use with a last-minute midweek booking at Verlorenkloof, between Macahadadorp and Lydenburg, our favourite resort which we have been visiting since 2004. Over the years we have got to know the resort intimately, which helps when it comes to birding and atlasing, as you tend to know what to expect before actually seeing it.

Pentad 2525_3015

The pentad covers the resort, adjoining farmland, trout fishing dams, a river that meanders through the lower part of the resort and grasslands. Habitats are varied, as covered in some detail in previous posts such as https://mostlybirding.com/2016/05/04/verlorenkloof-birding/ and are centered around the croft, which for this break was No 6.

Grasslands, Verlorenkloof

Birding began, as usual, in the vicinity of the spacious croft with species coming and going while we enjoyed the ambience of the patio with good friends Koos and Rianda, bathed in just enough sunlight to keep the late summer temperatures at a comfortable level. The comers and goers included African Paradise and Spotted Flycatchers, Red-winged Starlings in abundance, a lone Grey Cuckooshrike – too quick for a photo – and in the evening a Fiery-necked Nightjar.

Chinspot Batis, Verlorenkloof

The Fiery-necked Nightjar displayed an uncanny sense of time, starting to call at the same time, give or take a couple of minutes, for 4 evenings in a row, usually just after we had started our braai fire. Perhaps it was the flames of the fire that inspired it – being a Fiery-necked Nightjar after all!

The birding highlight of our stay, initially spotted by Koos, was the colony of Cape Vultures which appeared late on the first afternoon high up against the escarpment, cruising slowly and effortlessly in a long lazy loop, utilising the warm updraft to good effect before settling on projecting ledges.

I took this photo at a distance of possibly a kilometre, using my spotting scope at its maximum 60 x zoom and holding my iphone over the viewing lens. The resulting photo needed some editing and manipulation but gives a reasonable idea of the craggy mountain top and the roosting vultures (those whitish blobs)

Cape Vulture roost, Verlorenkloof

With the help of the spotting scope we were able to estimate the colony at some 60 individuals, so it is clearly a significant colony of this endangered species. During previous visits we have spotted Cape Vultures in flight on a couple of occasions, but never in these numbers and never roosting within view, so we came to the conclusion that this was a newly formed colony.

Our late afternoon walks and short drives to the reception building for coffee were opportunities to bird the woodland and grassland, the latter producing regular sightings of Broad-tailed Warbler, a scarce and desirable species for many a birder. When logging the species on Birdlasser I found that it had undergone a name change, now being known as Fan-tailed Grassbird.

Fan-tailed Grassbird (Schoenicola brevirostris)

Other species included Lazy Cisticola and Croaking Cisticola which, true to its name, sounds like a frog with laryngitis. Tall reeds held tens of Widowbirds – Red-collared, Fan-tailed and White-winged – and Bishops – Red and Yellow-crowned.

Lazy Cisticola (Cisticola aberrans / Luitinktinkie), Verlorenkloof

The fishing dams (it’s a trout fishing resort as well) were fairly barren at first but with some patience we found Yellow-billed Duck, Moorhen and Little Grebe.

One of the dams

Aerially, it was as busy as always with Rock Martins, White-rumped Swifts and Greater Striped Swallows never far from view around the croft. Further afield, Barn Swallows, White-throated, Lesser-striped, Pearl-breasted (8%) and Grey-rumped Swalows patrolled their preferred patch, ever searching for the next feed.

The gravel access roads to and from the resort are best for the bush and tree species with the likes of Southern Black Flycatcher, Brubru (5%), Yellow-fronted Canaries, Mousebirds and others.

Southern Black Flycatcher, Verlorenkloof

One lazy afternoon a family group of Red-necked Spurfowl weaved through the longer grass around the croft, affording glimpses of their main features.

Red-necked Spurfowl (Pternistis afer / Rooikeelfisant) (Race castaneiventer), Verlorenkloof

Koos and I dedicated one morning to atlasing the northern reaches of the pentad on the way to another pentad further afield – another 19 species were added in about two hours of frequent stops, with highlights being Willow Warbler, the tiny Orange-breasted Waxbills that move around in flocks, Dusky Indigobird (4%), Giant Kingfisher, a calling Red-winged Francolin – too furtive to spot and Yellow-crowned Bishop. All very pleasing additions to my already advanced list.

Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima / Reusevisvanger) Verlorenkloof

A handful of birds (if you have just 4 fingers) on our last morning on the way home took my total for the pentad to 97 including a lone Amur Falcon (7%) – not my highest 5 day total for this pentad but quite satisfying for late summer when many of the migrants have either left or are not calling.

This was my 16th atlas card for the pentad and took my personal total for the pentad to 191 species (out of a total for all atlasers of 292 species), which illustrates the amazing diversity of bird life in the area, bearing in mind a pentad covers around 8 x 8 kms of the planet.

The Other Stuff

Verlorenkloof is not just about birding, being a botanist’s delight as well as a haven for many other of nature’s treasures – here’s a selection of photos which touch on the variety of flora and fauna to be found –

This beauty I would guess is a type of wild Iris of sorts


Just look at this delicate flower, found in long grass near one of the paths

Wild flower, Verlorenkloof

Even an ordinary moth looks delicate and special

Moth, Verlorenkloof

Kiepersol trees are plentiful

Kiepersol, Verlorenkloof

Verlorenkloof has wild life too – but don’t expect a Big 5 experience

Scrub Hare (Lexus saxatillis), Verlorenkloof

Even a reptile or two – this one brought home to me once again just how well wild life can blend into its environment – a raptor would have great difficulty seeing this reptile from above as it matches the colours of the rock to a tee

Rock Agama (I beieve) Verlorenkloof
Rock Agama, Verlorenkloof

And to finish, here’s another example of a spotting scope / iphone combination to take a photo of a three-quarter moon

Verlorenkloof

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

My Atlasing Month – February 2020 (Part Three)

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

I thought it best to split it into three parts as it has been a busy atlasing month during which I made a point of visiting some of Gauteng’s prime birding spots for my atlasing pursuits in the hope that it would get my birding year off to a cracking start (it worked!)

Marievale Bird Sanctuary – 26 February

This week’s choice of atlasing destination was Marievale Bird Sanctuary, situated near Nigel in south-eastern Gauteng and about 100 kms drive from our Pretoria home. I had intended to do two pentads – Marievale itself plus an adjoining pentad outside the nature reserve. After spending more time in Marievale than planned, I struggled to find an access road into the second pentad and found myself driving in circles, thanks to some confusing directions from my navigation system. A short session of “test atlasing” of a stretch of the very busy road that I eventually found, convinced me that it would be a wasted effort and a frustration, as it was by now the middle of the day – a very quiet time for birding – and I did not fancy dodging traffic for two hours.

Pentad 2620_2830

Marievale is famous for its extensive, shallow open waters and wetlands, reedbeds and surrounding grasslands. It is also well served with bird hides and a picnic spot – all well maintained and you are guaranteed to see an excellent variety of waterfowl, wetland and grassland species in a morning’s birding.

Marievale Bird Sanctuary

After a slow drive from home through early morning traffic, despite starting out at 5.30 am and following some back roads, I started atlasing as soon as I entered the pentad in its north-eastern corner, still on the R42 main road between Delmas and Nigel. It took 20 minutes to get to the Marievale entrance road, by which time I had logged 21 species seen along the road – I made sure to pull off onto the wide grass verge wherever possible, as the road proved to be quite busy. Black-winged Kite, Glossy Ibis and Spotted Thick-Knee were pleasing to see as well as two Widowbird species – Fan-tailed and Long-tailed.

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus / Glansibis), Marievale Bird Sanctuary

I spent a while at the entrance complex which has a deck overlooking some wetlands and quickly added Red-billed Teal, Cape Shoveler and Hottentot Teal, taking my total to 31 by the time I accessed the reserve proper.

My next focus was on the “powerline road” – a maintenance track below the main overhead powerlines that run through a section of the wetlands. The track is narrow and lined with reeds in places, affording views of the ponds and small lakes, most of which have abundant bird life. The reeds are a favourite haunt for warblers which provide a soundtrack of birdsong as you drive along, windows open to hear all the calls. Lesser Swamp Warblers competed with African Reed Warblers for the title of “most prolific warbler” which ended pretty much in a draw.

The shallower ponds were alive with waders, including elegant Greater Flamingoes, Wattled Lapwings, Black-winged Stilts and Spoonbills; deeper ponds were filled with waterfowl such as Teals, Yellow-billed Ducks and SA Shelducks.

African Spoonbill (Platalea alba / Lepelaar), Marievale Bird Sanctuary

At one spot an African Swamphen and a Moorhen emerged from the reeds and went about their business while I tried to get them in the same frame, each nicely posed – a tall ask indeed.

African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis / Grootkoningriethaan) with Common Moorhen, Marievale Bird Sanctuary

On my return trip along the track a flash of colour caught my eye – a Malachite Kingfisher, often plentiful at Marievale but on this day it was the only one I found. A Natal Spurfowl (0.5%) crossed the track ahead of me – not usually regarded as a scarce bird but this was one of only a handful of records for Marievale.

Malachite Kingfisher (Alcedo cristata / Kuifkopvisvanger), Marievale Bird Sanctuary

With my total now standing at 52 after two hours of atlasing I knew the pace of adding new species would slow, but I was expecting 70 plus based on my previous visits to Marievale and continued along the main access road to the picnic spot, where I enjoyed coffee and a sandwich in the hide, before entering the northern part of the reserve.

The next two hours added just 18 species but took me to my target of 70 species and was quite satisfied with my citizen scientist contribution for the day. The only mild disappointment was the lack of small waders, barring a Little Stint, due to the higher levels of the ponds and dearth of muddy flats following the good summer rains.

A Squacco Heron in the middle of the track kept me fascinated for about ten minutes while it tried to manoeuvre a small fish into a swallowing position, pushing and pulling it on the ground then picking it up in its bill and flipping it about to get it in position, dropping the fish again and repeating the moves over and over. This went on until the heron grew tired of my attention and stalked off into the reeds, fish in bill.

Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides / Ralreier), playing with its food
And off he goes into the reeds

On the way out I found a Common Buzzard (6%) and an Amur Falcon to round off a superb morning of atlasing.

The highlight of the morning? Undoubtedly an unusual mammal that I had never seen up close before – but more about that on another occasion …….

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

My Atlasing Month – February 2020 (Part Two)

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

I thought it best to split it into three parts as it has been a busy atlasing month during which I made a point of visiting some of Gauteng’s prime birding spots for my atlasing pursuits in the hope that it would get my birding year off to a cracking start (it worked!)

Wilge River Valley – 19 February

My choice of pentads for the week was centred around the beautiful Wilge River Valley which lies about an hour’s drive north-east of Pretoria. Getting there is simple and includes the N4 National road up to the R25 turn-off at Bronkhorstspruit, then northwards to the Zusterstroom turn-off. From the turn-off the tar road soon changes to gravel, continuing eastwards across the pentad, flanked by a stream on one side and scenic cliffs on the other. Both sides are lined variously with bush, forest and woodland, changing to farmland beyond the valley.

Wilge River Valley

I was anticipating a good day’s birding with most of the summer migrants still present, although some of them are a lot more secretive during the late summer months before departing northwards. Red-chested Cuckoos, which are almost monotonously vocal during November to January are mostly silent in late February.

Pentad 2535_2855

My first stop was at a small farm dam close enough to the road to scan for bird life – also the only dam I came across during the morning. Yellow-billed Ducks (8%) and a lone Little Grebe (5%) paddled about on the water, while Pied Starlings (7%) flew about somewhat aimlessly (I’m sure they didn’t think so), Long-tailed Widowbirds floated delicately just above the long grass in that unique summer display that they have perfected and the calls of Rufous-naped Lark and Cloud Cisticola provided an appropriate soundtrack to it all. Who needs a concert when you have it all provided free by nature?

Finishing my first coffee, I proceeded slowly along the road, closing the windows to avoid the dust clouds created by the occasional passing vehicle, stopping frequently to get out and scan the surroundings and the air while listening for any calls. I have learnt that this is by far the best way to atlas, as birds I probably would not have noticed if I remained in the car suddenly pop up, fly by or call and become part of the statistics. My list grew steadily, albeit a bit slower than I had anticipated, with regular Puffback and Orange-breasted Bush-shrike calls reminding me that this habitat suited them perfectly.

Wilge River

Highlights along the way :

  • Red-breasted Swallows perched at the roadside had me stalking them to get better light – photographing against an overcast sky is never ideal and seldom results in a decent photo
  • A Dusky Indigobird (1.5% ) also grabbed my attention for a while, but once again I struggled to get decent light without spooking the bird – some manipulation with Lightroom saved the day and I was reasonably pleased with the result
  • As I drove I kept hearing a call which was familiar but not immediately recognised by me – this happens a lot with calls especially when you have not heard a species for some time. I started seeing one Cinnamon-breasted Bunting after another and then it clicked that it was their call I was hearing. Bird calls can be a real challenge so linking a mystery call to a species is a particular thrill of atlasing.
  • A Prinia like bird, but with a rufous cap could only be a Lazy Cisticola and a warbler calling from dense bush had me checking the warbler calls to confirm my suspicion that it was a Garden Warbler, another Palaearctic summer migrant – despite being a few metres away and calling loudly, there was not a movement to be seen, so I had to be content with its mellow call
Red-breasted Swallow (Cecropis semirufa / Rooiborsswael)
Dusky Indigobird  (Vidua funerea / Gewone blouvinkie)
Cinnamon-breasted Bunting ( Emberiza tahapisi / Klipstreepkoppie)

At one stop I noticed a dead Nightjar in the road, clearly hit by a passing vehicle – its wing was conveniently spread revealing a pattern of white spots which I later used to ID it as Freckled Nightjar (9%). Unfortunately they are in the habit of settling on gravel roads at night and become blinded by the vehicle lights until it is too late.

A stop at the river where it crosses the road, produced Little Rush and African Reed Warblers calling from the reeds which have taken over the river at that point. Further on, just before reaching the eastern pentad boundary, I spotted a Woodland Kingfisher on an overhead wire and a Black-winged Kite on an exposed branch, both looking for their next meal.

Turning north, I re-entered the pentad in a completely different habitat of grassland, patches of bush and wetlands with tall reeds. The wetlands were too distant for my binoculars so I set up my scope and came up with a trio of Widowbirds – White-winged, Fan-tailed and Red-collared, plus Red Bishops, all of which favour this habitat.

I was at the boundary of the pentad on its northern side, about to exit it and resigned to not reaching my target of 70 species, when a Cattle Egret and Levaillant’s Cisticola saved the day. By now it was late morning and I decided to do the pentad directly north of the first one.

Pentad 2530_2855

This was a far less diverse pentad, comprising mostly grassland with some wetland patches at the start. A Greater Kestrel on a utility pole was my first record, and also happened to be a new species for the pentad, always an exciting moment. The wetlands held the same widowbirds and bishops as the first pentad and a stream crossing had a variety of birds but not much new other than Red-breasted Swallows and Tawny-flanked Prinias

Grasslands

Soon I was back on the main R25 tar road, which was under construction for most of its length through the pentad and I did not linger or try to stop as it would have been quite dangerous, so I turned off at the first gravel side road that came up. This was fortuitous as it took me along a quiet farm road through more grassland where the power lines had many European Bee-eaters and a multitude of Common House-Martins

I stretched my stay in the area, knowing there was no further scope for atlasing elsewhere in the pentad, until I had done the minimum two hours, by which time I had recorded a modest 31 species on my Birdlasser app.

Rufous-naped Lark  (Mirafra africana / Rooineklewerik)

I couldn’t resist photographing this Citrus Swallowtail butterfly when I came across it near the stream crossing

Although I was finished with atlasing, my birding was not quite done – I had heard about a rarity seen at the Bronkhorstspruit Dam which was on my route home so decided to see if it was still around. Indeed it was and I saw only my second Red Phalarope through my scope in the middle of the large dam from where a group of birders had gathered – too far for a photo. This lovely Yellow-billed Duck and young duckling passing by made up partially for that….

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

My Atlasing Month – February 2020 (Part One)

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

I thought it best to split it into three parts as it has been a busy atlasing month during which I made a point of visiting some of Gauteng’s prime birding spots for my atlasing pursuits in the hope that it would get my birding year off to a cracking start (it worked!)

Lemoenfontein near Beaufort West – 1 to 2 February

Lemoenfontein Game Lodge near Beaufort West was our first overnight stop on our 1 300 km trip from Mossel Bay back to our main home in Pretoria. We had not stayed there before and were more than happy that we had followed our friend’s recommendation, as we enjoyed a comfortable room and excellent meals served on the grand open verandah overlooking the expanse of the surrounding Karoo landscape. The lodge dates back to the mid 1800’s and I could imagine hunting parties enjoying the same view in those days.

The approach road to Lemoenfontein Game Lodge near Beaufort West
Heavy rain drenching the arid Karoo near Beaufort West as we approached Lemoenfontein

My usual strategy for atlasing the minimum two hours at overnight stops is to split it into one hour’s birding after arrival in the afternoon and a further hour’s birding before breakfast the next morning. Our arrival at Lemoenfontein was accompanied by a heavy downpour which started outside Beaufort West and only let up once we had settled into our room. That still left just enough time for a short walk along the trail that skirts the lower slopes of the mountain, enough to find some of the Karoo specials such as Layard’s Warbler, Grey-backed Cisticola and Lark-like Bunting.

Lemoenfontein

My pre-breakfast walk the next morning was in the opposite direction including a section of the access road and added to my modest list with Pale-winged Starlings and a Pale Chanting Goshawk most prominent, taking my pentad total to just 23 species

The view all the way to Beaufort West

Pretoria – “Home” Pentad – 6 to 8 February

Getting back to Pretoria after more than two months away takes some adjusting – South Africa’s infamous “load shedding”, a “soft” term for regular power cuts, was with us again and added to the challenge. So I chose to ease into my Gauteng atlasing routine by starting with my home pentad – the pentad that includes the suburb where we live and a large chunk of south-eastern Pretoria.

The habitat is mostly urban gardens and housing estates such as the one where our home is located, which has a couple of dams favoured by various waterfowl, while the pentad is also blessed with three reasonably sized nature reserves with varying habitats, so opportunities for birding are good. Atlasing the busy general urban areas is challenging as sudden stops can lead to accidents, so I prefer to head to a quieter, protected area for the bulk of the atlasing and any birds spotted along the way and identifiable without slowing down or stopping are a bonus.

I started the atlasing of my home pentad with a long walk around Moreletakloof Nature Reserve – the warm, humid weather had me sweating profusely and I was glad I had taken a water bottle along. There are various trails through the reserve and I followed one through dense woodland down to the stream, then through more open grassland and woodland up to the dam, which was only partially visible through the dense reeds which cover a large part of it.

Moreletakloof
The Reserve has a few Zebras

From the dam I headed further up the main trail then turned back towards the parking area and main gate. Palm and Little Swifts and Greater Striped Swallows were constantly visible in the air, while highlights of the walk were African Green Pigeon, Glossy Ibis flying over, Spotted Flycatcher and the resident Common Ostriches which I watched carefully as they can be dangerous when breeding. I left the reserve with a list of 38 species and headed to my next planned stop at Struben Dam, some 20 minutes away through busy traffic and some dead traffic lights affected by load shedding.

At Struben Dam, a small nature reserve favoured by fishermen, I walked the path that circles the small dam, almost baulking at a heavily flowing stream crossing, but one giant leap – well that’s what it felt like to my ageing body – got me across safely. The dam has numbers of Yellow-billed Ducks, Coots and Egyptian Geese, while the vegetated fringes are good for Weavers, Bishops and Warblers. A small island in the middle of the dam had a Striated (Green-backed) Heron and an African Darter was searching the water for its next meal, spear-like bill at the ready. Calls that I could identify were Lesser Swamp Warbler in the reeds and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird from a distant tree. After a liitle more than a half hour I had to return home, by which time I had added another 12 species taking my total to 50.

Struben dam
This Barbel came slithering past as I looked for a spot to “jump” the stream

I completed the atlasing over the next two days in The Glades, our home estate and ended with a satisfying 62 species, including a Purple Heron which made a brief appearance at one of the dams. While I was at the dam late one afternoon and after heavy rain earlier in the day, I noticed an emergence of alates (the winged version of termites) and watched fascinated as they quickly attracted a few hundred swallows and swifts which were expertly snatching them in flight at full speed as they fluttered from their underground chambers. Nature’s own take-away protein bar.

Roodeplaat Dam – 12 February

This week my choice of pentad fell on Roodeplaat Dam, a large dam and nature reserve immediately north of Pretoria’s northernmost suburbs and one of the best birding spots within half an hour’s drive of our home. I had planned to do two pentads, but as the day progressed I sensed that the pentad would be a particularly generous one in terms of species atlased. As it turned out, my decision paid off and I managed to chalk up my highest ever one day pentad total.

The entrance

I left home before sunrise as usual and by just after 6 am I started atlasing on the Kameelfontein road that skirts the eastern side of the reserve. Early traffic speeding past persuaded me to head for the safety and quiet of the reserve and at the entrance gate I logged Crowned Lapwing, Rufous-naped Lark and Red-chested Cuckoo while waiting for my entrance ticket, then headed into the reserve at snail’s pace, taking in the early morning freshness of the air and beauty of the mix of woodland and grassland habitats that make up large parts of Roodeplaat.

It took all of an hour of steady atlasing to get to Seekoegat (“Hippo wallow”) and the first glimpse of the dam, with many stops along the way to view the abundant bird life including the likes of Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler), White-browed Scrub-Robin, Black-chested Prinia and Diderick Cuckoo. A patch of reeds held many Widowbirds with both White-winged and Red-collared well represented.

I parked in the shade at Seekoegat and scanned the waters of this quiet corner of the dam, in the process finding Striated (Green-backed) Heron, Glossy Ibis, Grey Heron and a lone Yellow-billed Stork. The latter was a first record for the pentad after some 900 separate atlasing sessions by many observers over the ten years that the SABAP2 programme has been running, so was deservedly the bird of the day in my view.

Passing through a wooded area I found Spotted Flycatcher, a summer migrant to our part of the world, mainly from Scandinavia. Carrying on I stopped at a small pan with a bird hide and watched Wattled Lapwings, Wood Sandpipers and a Little Grebe going about their business. More woodland produced Black-crowned Tchagra, Chinspot Batis and Red-backed Shrike, another Palaearctic migrant, common in our bushveld in summer.

Spotted Flycatcher
Red-backed Shrike

The hide at the picnic area provides views across the dam, which is a popular rowing venue, even on a weekday morning as I found, with coaches in small boats giving instructions to rowers with their loud-hailers. Some Reed Cormorants, many White-winged Terns and a Little Egret did not seem perturbed by the activity but I suspect other birds were hiding in other parts of the dam to get away from it. Unfortunately water levels after the rains were too deep for waders to be attracted to the dam edges.

The third hide I visited was the more remote one at the northern end of the dam but there was not much to see, although I did add Blue Waxbill, Dusky Indigobird and Orange-breasted Bush-shrike while traversing the more arid woodland to get to the hide.

A Banded Mongoose at the side of the road
Vervet Monkey

After 4 hours I left the Reserve, with a total of 75 species logged and suddenly it made sense to carry on atlasing the same pentad rather than start a new one – a record one day pentad total (for me) seemed entirely possible. I travelled further along the Kameelfontein road, turning off at Rif road which climbs slowly to a higher area with more rocky habitat and found several new birds such as Long-billed Crombec, Cut-throat Finch, Black-throated Canary and lots of Cinnamon-breasted Buntings.

An atlasing bonus – having a road to yourself (but choose the road carefully)
Red-billed Quelea

I was particularly happy to find and photograph a Black Cuckooshrike male, a species I have not seen for a couple of years.

Black Cuckooshrike

Village Weaver took my total to 90 for the pentad after a total of 6 hours of atlasing – certainly my highest one day atlasing total – could 100 be possible? After another hour of very slow birding I was ready to call it a day, but just before leaving the pentad I stopped to view the last river which was flowing strongly, and promptly added 4 species – Black Ducks flying off on one side and Moorhen and Red-billed Teal in a dammed up ond on the other side, while a Natal Spurfowl called loudly – was he saying cheerio?

I was tempted to turn back to see if I could find 3 more but common sense told me 97 is just about as good as 100 and I headed homewards, rather pleased with my efforts.

My Atlasing Month – January 2020

Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, is the mapping of distribution and relative abundance of birds in a given area, using data gathered by a group of several hundred volunteer “citizen scientists” across southern Africa. Volunteers select a geographical “pentad” (roughly 8 x 8 km and based on co-ordinates) on a map and record all the bird species seen within a set time frame. This information is uploaded to the database managed under the Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2) and is used for research and analysis. I have been a volunteer Citizen Scientist since 2010.

That’s the formal description of what takes up most of my birding time nowadays and I thought it is time that I included more of my atlasing activities in this blog. I have previously made the mistake of being over-optimistic about the frequency of posting on a particular subject, so I won’t fall into that trap – the title of this post may provide a clue to my intentions but let’s see how it goes….

So, let’s have a look at where atlasing took me in the first month of 2020…

Klein Brak River

Klein Brak River is a small village close to Mossel Bay in the Southern Cape and was my choice for my first formal atlasing outing for the year on 8th January, given the luxury of having an open pallete of pentads not yet atlased in 2020 to choose from. The pentad includes the village, the road to Botlierskop game farm and the Geelbeksvlei road, all of which had provided good birding in the past.

Starting in Klein Brak village at 6 am, my list grew rapidly in cool conditions, ideal for both bird and man (armed with binos). I drove through the residential area checking out the gardens and ended up at a wide section of the river which gives the town its name – there I set up my scope and scanned the river. Birds were not plentiful but those that were visible were interesting waders and waterbirds with Cape Teal, Common Greenshank, Common Ringed Plover, Little Egret and a Grey Plover that, for a while, had me hallucinating about Golden Plovers until I came to my senses.

Grey Plover / Pluvialis squatarola / Grysstrandkiewiet, Klein Brak River

A Pied Kingfisher was active over the water and his Brown-Hooded land-based cousin could be heard nearby in a garden. Moving on, I left the village behind and passed through cultivated farmland, where a short grassed area held both Crowned and Black-winged Lapwings moving about together. Both are Vanellus species and share looks and habits, seeming to enjoy each other’s company.

Lapwings – Black-winged and Crowned, Klein Brak River
African Stonechat / Saxicola torquatus / Gewone bontrokkie (Juvenile), Klein Brak River

The road led to the Gannabos road where I turned right towards Botlierskop and spent some time stopping at every shady tree (it was heading over 30 degrees C) to explore the surroundings and the bush, as this stretch has proven to be good for forest birds. Olive Bushshrike and Paradise Flycatcher obliged by calling first then showing themselves fleetingly, Common Waxbills twittered in the roadside bush and even an African Fish-Eagle called from somewhere close by.

The road to Botlierskop – welcoming shady spots to stop and bird
Common Buzzard / Buteo buteo / Bruinjakkalsvoël, Klein Brak River

At the Botlierskop farm dams I found a lone Spoonbill and several White-faced Ducks and heading back a handsome Jackal Buzzard watched me pass by. The Geelbeksvlei road was fairly quiet except for a popular fishing spot where I used the scope to ID a Little Stint and Kittlitz’s Plover, while a Yellow-billed Kite did its low-flying thing overhead. taking my total to a pleasing 67 species for the pentad.

Bee on red flower, Klein Brak River
Fiscal Flycatcher / Sigelus silens / Fiskaalvlieëvanger, Klein Brak River

Gouritsmond Area

When I checked my pentad map, I noted that I had never atlased the pentad west of the town of Gouritsmond at the mouth of the Gourits River, so it became my main target for the day.

Gouritsmond lies south-west of Mossel Bay and I set off early on the 24th January – the journey was slowed by several “not to be missed” birding and photo opportunities along the road, including –

  • ponds alongside the road formed by recent rains – my first stop to view one was opposite the PetroSA refinery plant and attracted a grave looking official who stopped behind me, got out and walked to my car to enquire as to what I was doing while checking what I had in the car, and “did I know PetroSA is a National Key Point so no photography is allowed”. I responded that I was observing the birds and he looked me over and walked off again, presumably happy that my profile was not that of a threat to the National Key Point. Many Gulls and Sacred Ibises were present and a Little Stint was pottering about amongst them.
  • .Cape Grassbird on top of a roadside bush, singing away near a small pond before the Vleesbaai turnoff.
Cape Grassbird / Sphenoeacus afer / Grasvoël, Gouritsmond road
  • Rock Kestrel (Immature) in perfect morning light on top of a fence post.
Rock Kestrel / Falco rupicolus / Kransvalk, Gouritsmond road
  • Agulhas Long-billed Lark on a small rock in a field, close enough for some fine photos
Agulhas Long-billed Lark / Certhilauda brevirostris / Overberglangbeklewerik, Gouritsmond road

Once I entered Gouritsmond I drove along the Beach road to the start of pentad 3420_2145 and followed the coastal road, bounded on the one side by wide stretches of rugged rocks, lapped by the green ocean beyond, and on the other side by coastal bush and grassed fields.

Scene along the Beach Road west of Gouritsmond

Seabirds were few – Kelp Gull, African Black Oystercatcher and Ruddy Turnstone (just visible through the scope), the balance were birds of the bush, fields and sky. It was slow going and with the minimum 2 hours done and no prospect of adding many more to my modest total of 32 species, I proceeded back to the town to pentad 3420_2150 and commenced atlasing once again.

Scene along the Beach Road west of Gouritsmond

I made a good start along the coastal road with similar species to the first pentad, them made my way slowly through the town’s residential area and out to the waste water treatment works, which has been upgraded with neat ponds and easy viewing from the surounding fence. Numbers of waterbirds had made this their home and Cape Teal, Yellow-billed Duck and Egyptian Goose were all prominent.

My next and final stop was the boat launch site up river from the mouth and I set up the scope to scan the distant banks for waders, coming up with Whimbrel, White-fronted Plover, Ruff and Common Ringed Plover.

There was no sign of the Kittlitz’s Plover that had entertained me at this same spot in 2018 -see my earlier post https://mostlybirding.com/2018/12/15/kittlitzs-plover-a-winning-performance/

West of Mossel Bay along the N2

My last chance for atlasing out of Mossel Bay, before returning to Pretoria, came up on the 29th January and I targeted two pentads directly west of Mossel Bay, both never atlased by me before.

I started with pentad 3410_2155 which is bordered by PetroSA on the north side and stretches to the sea on the south side, although various private estates block access to the coastal area itself and I had not made any arrangements for such access so I was limited to the inland areas. I started along the N2 National road which runs east-west through the pentad and was predicably busy but has a wide tarred shoulder which allowed me to stop with relative safety.

Mossel Bay west

After the recent good rains there was enough water in farm dams and shallow pans, especially on the south side of the N2, which had attracted a variety of waterbirds – Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal, Spurwinged Goose, Cape Shoveler and Little Grebe.

Shortly after, I turned south onto the Gouritsmond road, which had less traffic but the road is a narrow one with a gravel shoulder sloping off at an angle that makes it difficult to pull off comfortably, so I had to look for farm gate turn-offs to be able to stop safely. There was enough to see at each stop to keep my list growing and at one stop my attention was drawn to a pair of Blue Cranes walking in a grassy field and, for a change, close enough to the road to allow for some reasonable quality photography of these elegant birds.

Blue Cranes, Mossel Bay west

Suddenly they started a courtship dance that left me entranced but determined to record as much of it on my camera – it was so special that it deserves a separate post, suffice to say it was a birding highlight of our lengthy stay in Mossel Bay!

Blue Crane courtship dance, Mossel Bay west

Further on, where the road bends away to the west, I stopped to view a small pond and the surrounding bush and found a variety of birds such as Yellow Canary, White-throated Canary, Red Bishops and Levaillant’s Cisticola, Red-capped Lark in the road (as is their habit) was my 3rd Lark for the day, after Large-billed and Agulhas Long-billed.

Back on the N2, I proceeded further west to pentad 3410_2145, where I turned off at the first gravel road heading south – the road cuts through the pentad and reaches its southern bounday at the bone-dry Voelvlei, which last had water a number of years ago – when it does have water it is a spectacular birding spot but in times of drought is a rather depressing sight.

The route there proved to be less bird friendly with farmland and hills and I worked hard to get to a modest list of 26 without a single waterbird, but a trio of Denham’s Bustards flying over was an exciting highlight.

Denham’s Bustard

What makes birding/atlasing special is coming across other wild life in the process – these beetles were attracted to a flowering bush and caught my eye with their tan colouring –

Brown Monkey Beetle

All in all, a satisfying start to my atlasing for the year…..