Category Archives: Birding South Africa

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…..

My Birding Year 2019

Ahhh, 2020 is already moving ahead apace and I am just finalising my “My Birding Year” post for the past year …. how time flies as you get older!

Before getting into a summary of my birding exploits for 2019, I asked myself – what were my birding expectations at the beginning of the year and how far did I go in achieving what I set out to do? I decided that they were …..

  • Atlasing – my first priority nowadays and I aim to atlas one day per week – I generally managed to do so and my species list atlased for the year reached 426 spread across southern Africa, a more than satisfactory outcome in my book – not for personal glory but rather an indicator that my atlasing efforts were well spread across many parts of the country
  • Birding outside southern Africa – knowing we would be visiting Australia for the first time in April and May was an exciting prospect and the country and its bird life were an absolute treat
  • Lifers – most birders are driven by the desire to add new lifers to their lists and I am no different, however I have found that this aspect of birding is becoming less important with my focus shifting to citizen science activities such as atlasing. Nevertheless I cannot deny being thrilled each time I added a lifer – I saw just one lifer in southern Africa during the year but made up for that with 68 new birds added to my “world list” from our Australia trip
  • Photography – I find bird photography in particular to be an ongoing challenge and am always on the lookout for that special one (photograph, not Jose Mourinho the manager of my favourite football team).

Rather than get into a lengthy month by month description as per previous years I thought I would let the photos do most of the talking with a short note here and there to add some background

As with recent years, it all started in the Southern Cape, around Mossel Bay and further afield

Grey Heron, Mossel BAY
Bokmakierie, Gondwana area
Gondwana area – an inviting path through fynbos

Marievale Bird Sanctuary remains one of the best and most pleasant places to bird in Gauteng with its well-kept hides and fluctuating water levels

The powerline track, Marievale
Wood Sandpiper, Marievale
Squacco Heron, Marievale
Yellow-crowned Bishop, Marievale

A short stay at Pine Lake Resort near White River was an opportunity to bird the resort itself and to do a day trip to nearby Kruger Park

Pine Lake Resort, White River
Dusky Lark, Kruger Day Visit – this is one of the scarcer Lark species so it was athrill to find it near one of the dams
Green Pigeon, Kruger Day Visit

Mabusa Nature Reserve is a quiet, less visited reserve some 100 kms from home and I love spending time atlasing there

Spike-heeled Lark, Mabusa Nature Reserve, Mpumulanga

Then in April came our first trip to Australia, covered in some detail in earlier posts so I don’t want to repeat myself – suffice to say we had an exciting time discovering what this fine country is all about and finding many new, often spectacular, birds. This is a selection of some of the standout birds that I found (or they found me, I’m never sure) …

Magpie-lark, Sale, Victoria
Laughing Kookaburra, Raymond Island, Victoria
Australian Grebe, Sale, Victoria
Masked Lapwing, Sale
Eastern Spinebill, Lake Guyatt Sale
Dandenong Ranges – forest path
Crimson Rosella, Sassafras
New Holland Honeyeater, Apollo Bay
Crested Tern, Great Ocean Road
Little Corella, Philip Island
Australian Pelican, Lake Guyatt Sale

Back home over the winter months, I focused on atlasing an area north-east of Pretoria, which proved to be challenging at times, having to contend with the traffic on tar roads and the dust on the gravel back roads

African Snipe (Gallinago nigripennis), Kusile area
Pied Starling (Lamprotornis bicolor), Bronkhorstspruit area
White-bellied Sunbird (Cynnyris talatala), Bronkhorstspruit area
Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina), Bronkhorstspruit area

A last-minute booking saw us spending a week in Kruger Park – the best place to do some quality birding

African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Trumpeter Hornbill (Male) (Bycanistes bucinator / Gewone boskraai), Lower Sabie camp, Kruger Park

More Gauteng atlasing followed during the winter months

Temminck’s Courser (Cursorius temminckii / Trekdrawwertjie), Cullinan area
Capped Wheatear (Oenanthe pileata / Hoëveldskaapwagter), Delmas area
Cape Longclaw (Macronyx capensis / Oranjekeelkalkoentjie) (Subspecies colletti), Suikerbosrand

We do look forward to our week at the Verlorenkloof resort in Mpumulanga, and with reason – it’s a perfect place to combine relaxation with some excellent birding

Purple-crested Turaco (Tauraco porphyreolophus / Bloukuifloerie). Verlorenkloof
Verlorenkloof
Cape Rock Thrush (Female) (Monticola rupestris / Kaapse kliplyster), Verlorenkloof
Lazy Cisticola (Cisticola aberrans / Luitinktinkie), Verlorenkloof

On one of my atlasing outings, I spent a pleasant morning at Rietvlei Nature Reserve, not far from home

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica / Europese swael), Rietvlei NR
Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida / Witbaardsterretjie), Rietvlei NR

I joined a team of 3 other keen birders for the annual Birding Big Day at the end of November. We ended up with 184 species for the day and a pleasing 50th place countrywide. There was only time for a quick snatched photo of the team heading through bush at one of our many stops

Birding Big Day

We closed out the year in Mossel Bay, where Sugarbirds visit our garden

Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Oudtshoorn south

Kruger in Winter – The Happy Couples

When we visit Kruger National Park, my focus is – as my Blog title suggests – mostly on the birding. That said, I enjoy all aspects of our premier game reserve, but it is often the birds that end up grabbing most of my attention.

During our winter visit in July this year we had many memorable animal and bird sightings and my photographic passion was well fed by the opportunities that arose. Most of the birds I photographed were species that I have previously been able to capture digitally, but the beauty of photography, and especially bird photography, is that there is always a chance of a better photograph, or perhaps a photo which displays the bird from a different angle or actively doing what birds do.

After our week in Kruger in July, I uploaded the many photos to Adobe Lightroom, my photo management and editing software of choice, and worked through the photos that I had taken, applying my customary edits and crops.

I realised that a few of the species I had photographed were of those species that show marked differences between the male and female and I had managed to get reasonable images of both. Another species was accompanied by juvenile birds showing features not yet as fully developed as in the adults. All show interesting differences and I thought I would make them the subject of this post ……

Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark (Eremopterix leucotis / Rooiruglewerik)

Preferring semi-arid short grassland and savanna, this species is fairly uncommon in Kruger but we have found it in the same area a couple of times – about halfway along the Satara-Olifants road.

They spend a lot of their time on the ground, feeding on grass seeds and insects. While the male is very distinctive with its rich chestnut back and white ear patch, the female is a lot paler and on its own can easily be confused with some of the other Lark species.

In this instance there was a small flock of Sparrowlarks not far from the road in an area with very little bush cover so I was able to fairly easily photograph both male and female, although I cannot guarantee that the two shown are actually a couple….

Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark (Female) (Eremopterix leucotis smithi), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark (Male) (Eremopterix leucotis smithi), Olifants area, Kruger Park

Namaqua Dove (Oena capensis / Namakwaduifie)

The Namaqua Dove is fairly easy to spot, even at a distance or flying past rapidly – its long tail and slim build distinguishes it from all other doves in the Southern African region. Once you get close enough to view it through binoculars, the male’s distinctive black face, throat and upper breast stand out along with its yellow/orange bill, while the female lacks those same features, having a plain grey body and a darker bill.

It is a nomadic species, preferring arid and semi-arid savannah and feeds on seeds of grass, sedges and weeds.

Coincidentally, we came across what appeared to be a family group of Namaqua doves not far from the Sparrowlarks, in a similarly arid area along the Satara-Olifants road

Namaqua Dove (Female) (Oena capensis / Namakwaduifie), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Namaqua Dove (Male) (Oena capensis / Namakwaduifie), Olifants area, Kruger Park

Double-banded Sandgrouse  (Pterocles bicinctus /  Dubbelbandsandpatrys)

The black and white forehead band and narrow black and white breast band of the male distinguish the male from the female, which lacks both features, having a barred breast and no forehead markings

This is a fairly scarce species, mostly terrestial, found in savannah woodland and is known to be monogamous, so this pair we came across can safely be presumed to be a “couple”. We found them in the area just west of Olifants camp, not far from the river.

Once found they are quite accommodating to the photographer and not easily spooked if you approach carefully and position the car to get the best vantage point, while watching their movements.

Double-banded Sandgrouse (Female) (Pterocles bicinctus multicolor), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Double-banded Sandgrouse (Male) (Pterocles bicinctus multicolor), Olifants area, Kruger Park

Then there are the less marked but interesting differences between adult and juvenile birds …

Retz’s Helmetshrike (Prionops retzii / Swarthelmlaksman)

I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of Retz’s Helmet-shrikes in Pretoriuskop camp during a morning walk, making their way busily and noisily through the trees. They are fairly common but often inconspicuous when out on a game or birding drive, as they move through the trees almost constantly and their dark colouring makes them difficult to spot. It’s a lot easier to spot them when in flight between trees.

While the adults are overall mostly black and brown with glossy shades and the distinctive red wattle around the eyes, the juvenile is more grey-brown and lacks the red wattles.

Groups consist of on average 5 birds, their preferred habitat is broadleaved woodland and they feed on insects and spiders.

Retz’s Helmet-Shrike (Prionops retzii / Swarthelmlaksman), Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park
Retz’s Helmet-Shrike (Juvenile) (Prionops retzii / Swarthelmlaksman), Pretoriuskop, Kruger Park

Kruger in Winter – Aloes, Sunbirds, Butterflies and Friends

We were changing camps during our winter visit to Kruger – this time from Lower Sabie where we had spent just one night, to Pretoriuskop, where we were booked for 2 nights. Being around 100 kms apart, at Kruger speeds with stops at sightings, we were counting on around 3 to 4 hours of easy travelling.

The Lower Sabie – Skukuza “highway” was as busy as always with large knots of vehicles at sightings, including a lion spotted moving through the bush on the river side, providing brief glimpses as it passed openings between the trees.

We decided to take a break at Skukuza, the largest and busiest of Kruger’s camps and a favourite of overseas tourists. We bought take away coffees and muffins, then found a nice sunny spot with a view – of the tourists passing by in their many shapes, sizes and degrees of dress sense. It’s a form of entertainment, guessing the origin of the tourists based on their choice of “safari gear” – some in designer khaki, others in strange combinations of camouflage clothing paired with dark apparel, many looking totally out of place.

Once we tired of that game, I started looking around the gardens and noticed a bright yellow sunbird at one of the flowering aloes, an irresistible subject for a bird photographer, so I leapt up (well that’s what it felt like, others may say I stood up quickly) and rushed over to get myself positioned near the aloe with the light from behind and shoot a few photos until I had some reasonable ones of the Collared Sunbird.

Collared Sunbird (Hedydipna collaris / Kortbeksuikerbekkie) Skukuza, Kruger Park

The adjoining aloes had attracted yellow butterflies and I set about capturing a few images of these colourful creatures as they fed on the aloe nectar.

It was only when I reviewed the photos, zooming in to check the sharpness of the detail, that I noticed I had captured a tiny flying insect “passenger”, clinging to its butterfly host then flying off to find another.

Butterfly : African Migrant (Catopsilia florella), Skukuza, Kruger Park

Zooming in to see what that dot on the wing edge is, revealed a tiny flying insect, not more than 1 mm long, clinging to the butterfly

The insect takes off :

Modern digital cameras are quite amazing in the detail they can capture!

Excited with this butterfly I looked around for others and amongst the leaf litter I found …………… well you can decide if there is anything to see in this next photo

The photo below compared with the one above, demonstrates how well camouflaged a butterfly can be when its wings are closed and in the right surrounds, despite its bright colouring when fully open

Butterfly : Speckled sulphur-tip (Colotis agoye agoye), Skukuza, Kruger Park