Category Archives: Birding South Africa

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

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

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

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

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

Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava (Geelkwikkie)

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

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

Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia (Groenpootruiter)

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

Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia (Groenpootruiter), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

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

Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia (Groenpootruiter), Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

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

Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos (Gewone ruiter)

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

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

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

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

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

Red-capped Lark Calandrella cinerea (Rooikoplewerik)

And now for something completely different ……

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

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

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

Red-capped Lark (Adult)

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

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

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida (Witbaardsterretjie)

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

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

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

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie, Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

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

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

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie, Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve

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

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

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

The Twitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris bairdii (Bairdse strandloper)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

The Call of Summer

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

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica (Europese Swael)

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

Barn Swallow, Kendal area, Gauteng, South Africa

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

Barn Swallows, Roodeplaat Dam near Pretoria, South Africa

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

Barn Swallow, Devon near Johannesburg , Gauteng, South Africa

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

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

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

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

Barn Swallow on nest, Bow Lake, Alberta, Canada

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

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

Barn Swallow, Danube River at Linz, Austria

Which brings me to what inspired this post ……

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

First some background –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the video –

Red-chested Cuckoo (Piet-my-vrou)

It’s a Shore Thing

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

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

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

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

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

Ruff Philomachus pugnax (Kemphaan)

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

What to look for :

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

Sanderling Calidris alba (Drietoonstrandloper)

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

What to look for :

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

Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula (Ringnekstrandkiewiet)

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

What to look for :

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

Three-banded Plover Charadrius tricollaris (Driebandstrandkiewiet)

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

What to look for :

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

Little Stint Calidris minuta (Kleinstrandloper)

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

What to Look for :

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

The Others

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

Grey-headed Gull Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus (Gryskopmeeu)

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

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

Grey-hooded Gull Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus (Gryskopmeeu)
Bronkhorstspruit Dam

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

Grey-hooded Gull (juvenile) Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida  Witbaardsterretjie

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

Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Witbaardsterretjie Bronkhorstspruit Dam

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

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

Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia (Reusesterretjie)

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

Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia (Reusesterretjie), Bronkhorstspruit Dam

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

Cape Shoveler Anas smithii (Kaapse slopeend)

Cape Shoveler Anas smithii (Kaapse slopeend), Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata (Geelbekeend)

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

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

Supersized Wader, Bronkhorstspruit Dam

Knock knock …… who’s there?

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

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

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

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

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

Best viewed in full screen mode ….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa

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

Paternoster – Spring Flowers, Birds and Beaches

Continuing the story of our ‘Wild Flower Season’ trip to the West Coast town of Paternoster…..

Getting there

After breakfast we left Klein Welmoed Farm near Stellenbosch, dropped granddaughter Megan off at her university hostel, then headed to Paternoster via Wellington, Malmesbury and Vredenburg.

The road runs through the wheat belt of South Africa – almost endless fields of dark green wheat with smaller fields of canary yellow canola providing a dramatic contrast.

Occasional patches of ‘natural’ veld held colourful sprinklings of wild flowers to break the monotony of the cultivated fields and had me braking and reversing to get some photos.

Then we were in Paternoster and soon found Paternoster Dunes Guesthouse which, as the name suggests, lies on the land side of the dunes overlooking a wide expanse of unspoilt beach

The view of the beach
The Guest House

Just to get us further into flower appreciation mood, the patch in front of our room, the middle one in the image above, held some bright orange flowers

After a rest (we are pensioners after all) I took a walk along the beach to the end of the bay and looked up at the dunes which were covered in growth with a mass of yellow flowers

I climbed to the top of the dune and walked to where the houses stopped, finding a view into the distance with more yellow flowers in abundance

Caterpillar of unknown species, specific to the plant on which I found it by the looks of it as they were only in one small area

During our visit I discovered that there were a few bird species which found the patch in front of our room to their liking, including the Yellow Canaries and Karoo Scrub-Robin pictured below as well as Cape Bunting, Southern Double-collared Sunbird and many Common (European) Starlings


Yellow Canary (Geelkanarie) Crithagra flaviventris in full song
Karoo Scrub-Robin (Slangverklikker) Erythropygia leucophrys scanning the surroundings from its favourite perch on a low bush

On a morning walk along the beach in front of the guesthouse, camera in hand, with the wind blowing the sea into a frothy jumble and overcast skies, several Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls wading in the shallows caught my eye and with some gentle persuasion lifted into the air, providing some nice photo opportunities in the soft, even light

As I walked along the sand I spotted movement on the dry sand ahead and approached cautiously, knowing that the subject matter would race off if I got too near. Sure enough, three tiny White-fronted Plovers watched me carefully as I got closer, initially moving away in slow short bursts, then speeding off like top 100m sprinters, barely touching the sand between strides

And a few more photos of Bek Bay at different times of the day

I came across this interesting beetle scavenging among the rocks

The last afternoon produced the most spectacular sunset of all as the cloud-filtered sun cast its rays on the choppy sea. Many Terns were plunging into the sea offshore – too far to differentiate between species until a Common Tern seemingly chased a much larger Caspian Tern so that they passed close to where I was watching from the beach

Paternoster turned out to be an excellent choice as our base for the short stay, being within an hour’s drive from West Coast National Park and literally next door to Cape Columbine Nature Reserve, both of which we visited – more about that in upcoming posts

Mountains, Zebras and a Pipit on the Rocks!

Our road trip to the Eastern Cape in March this year included a 3 night stay in Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock, only our second stay in this “off the beaten track” National Park, but enough to cement it as one of our ‘new favourite’ parks to visit. What it lacks in Big Five game, other than some introduced lions which are not easily seen and a small herd of Cape Buffalo, it makes up with other animals not generally seen elsewhere including the Zebra after which the park is named and interesting antelope species.

On the birding front, the park is known for its drier habitat species and I was looking forward to doing some atlasing and adding to my year list without much expectation for anything unusual – but as all birders know – ‘always expect the unexpected’ and a bird that had eluded me for many a year was about to become the highlight of our visit ….

What also sets this park apart is the ambience – peaceful yet wild with panoramic views once you reach the plateau, which is at an altitude of about 1400 m, a couple of hundred metres above the main camp. The camp has around 25 comfortable chalets with patios which overlook the plains and distant hills, an ideal spot for some ‘stoepsitter’ birding.

We left Addo mid-morning, initially heading east towards Paterson and joining the N10 National Road heading northwards to Cradock, where we stopped at a coffee shop for a light lunch, then drove the last 12 km to the Mountain Zebra National Park gate. The main camp (pictured in the heading image) is another 12 km along a rather corrugated gravel road which thankfully changed to tarmac for the last stretch.

The reception was efficient and friendly and we soon found our chalet No 20 almost at the top of the gently sloping road that runs through the camp and got ourselves settled in.

After a brisk walk, the air was suddenly chilly with the sun setting behind the surrounding hills, so I donned a jacket and headed to the stoep for a bit of late afternoon birding. The stoep furniture did not match the rest of the chalet in terms of comfort – in fact I’ll go so far as to say the chairs are possibly the heaviest, most uncomfortable ones I have ever come across. However I didn’t let this small detail bother me and carried one of the living room cushioned chairs outside for that all important sundowner time.

Stoep chairs designed to keep you away from them !

The view made up in no uncertain terms for the furniture and with beverage in hand I scanned the surroundings, soon finding a few species typical of the more arid landscape

View from the stoep, Mountain Zebra NP
Red-headed Finch (Amadina erythrocephala / Rooikopvink) (male race erythrocephala), Mountain Zebra NP
White-browed Sparrow-Weaver (Plocepasser mahali / Koringvoël), Mountain Zebra NP

Next morning was very relaxed – being Sunday we were up late-ish and most of our morning was spent on the stoep. Apart from the species already shown, other prominent species were Familiar Chat, Red-eyed Bulbul, Red-winged Starling, Acacia Pied Barbet, Bokmakierie and several others.

Striped Mice crept cautiously out of the low bushes to grab a morsel in front of the stoep, scurrying back to safety at the slightest movement. Using very slow hand/camera movements I was able to get a few shots of these cute creatures. They are also known as four-striped mice based on the four characteristic black longitudinal stripes down their back.

Striped Mouse (Rhabdomys pumilio), Mountain Zebra NP

Another striped creature, this time a lizard, put in an appearance alongside the mice, each not taking much notice of the other, probably after small insects that wouldn’t necessarily be on the mice’s menu. With its distinctive stripes, I thought this would be an easy species to identify but the Reptile book I have groups lizards into a few main groups without providing photos of each regional one so I was only able to narrow it down to what I thought was a Mountain Lizard

Lizard – unsure of species but possibly a type of Mountain Lizard

After lunch we set off on a drive on the Rooiplaat Loop, the most popular circular drive and about 25 km out and back. Before ascending to the plateau we spent some time at the picnic spot near the main camp (also mentioned in my earlier post on the Honeythorn Tree) where a few birds were active, including a lone African Hoopoe – such a handsome bird and always a treat to see, even though they are quite common.

African Hoopoe (Upupa africana / Hoephoep), Mountain Zebra NP

A short way further on we came across a group of Vervet Monkeys including a mother and youngster who posed like pros in the lovely shaded light – I am always drawn to their eyes which look so bright and intelligent.

Vervet Monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus / Blouaap), Mountain Zebra NP
Vervet Monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus / Blouaap), Mountain Zebra NP

A short climb up the tar road took us to the plateau where the grassland stretched to the horizon, with pockets of game visible in the distance – the return leg took us closer to some of them so I used the opportunity to get some pleasing images, particularly of the Mountain Zebra foal with its parent.

The plateau, Mountain Zebra NP
Bontebok, Mountain Zebra NP
Springbok, Mountain Zebra NP
Mountan Zebra, Mountain Zebra NP
Mountan Zebra, Mountain Zebra NP

The birds were not plentiful but several of those we came across were species not regularly seen outside of this particular habitat – three species of Lark on the ground (Eastern Long-billed, Spike-heeled and Red-capped Larks), Scaly-feathered Finch and Neddicky in the few trees and a glimpse of Grey-winged Francolin just showing in the long grass.

This handsome Jackal Buzzard was no doubt on the lookout for prey –

Jackal Buzzard (Buteo rufofuscus / Rooiborsjakkalsvoël), Mountain Zebra NP

Larks are a favourite of mine – not the most striking of birds, in fact just the opposite, but that is their attraction and finding them in grassland habitat feels like a real accomplishment, often followed by some serious research to confirm the ID.

Eastern Long-billed Lark (Certhilauda semitorquata / Grasveldlangbeklewerik) (race algida), Mountain Zebra NP

We had completed the full circuit of Rooiplaats Loop and started descending the road which winds down from the plateau when I heard a call which caused me to brake sharply – it went like this

Gerda said “what is it, why did you stop so suddenly” – my reply, in an elevated state of excitement, was something like “oh boy, this is a bird I’ve been trying to find for a looooong time”

We were into perfect habitat for what I thought it was – rocky hillsides with large boulders – and after a quick scan I found it on one of the boulders – African Rock Pipit!

Rock Pipit habitat, Mountain Zebra NP

The Pipit. a lifer for me, was perched on the boulder and emitting its distinctive, repetitive call every few seconds and I was doubly pleased to be able to get a few decent photos of it in action

African Rock Pipit (Anthus crenatus / Klipkoester), Mountain Zebra NP
African Rock Pipit (Anthus crenatus / Klipkoester), Mountain Zebra NP

To celebrate we went to the park’s restaurant for dinner that evening and, unsure what to expect, were very pleasantly surprised to find brisk service, good food and friendly personnel to round off an outstanding day.

Addo Elephant National Park – Stoepsitting

Stoepsitter Birding – again!

A couple of my recent longer posts have highlighted what I like to call “Stoepsitter birding” – which is the relaxed kind conducted mostly from a comfortable seat, preferably accompanied by suitable snacks and beverages to make sure the energy and spirit remains at a high level. Both were in favourite locations, one in Satara Camp in Kruger National Park, the other at Verlorenkloof Resort not far from Macahadodorp in Mpumulanga Province.

Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape has the honour of completing a trio of outstanding locations and places where Stoepsitter birding comes into its own.

The criteria are simple – suitable habitat to attract a variety of birdlife, a comfortable spot from which to observe the comings and goings of the birdlife, without disturbing them too much and the time and patience to devote yourself to this activity. It also helps if the birdlife and small wildlife is habituated to humans and happy to share their world with us, which for the most part is certainly the case in Addo.

Addo Elephant National Park

Our road trip in March this year included a three night stay in Addo, in a comfortable chalet with a view over a part of the Main Camp and a raised deck where we could spend a large part of the day (depicted in the heading image), while reserving the afternoons to venture out on game/birding drives.

The variety of birdlife that came to visit was exceptional, many of them drawn by the surrounding trees and shrubs which held a cornucopia of edible avian delights – nectar filled flowers, berries, small insects and suchlike.

The Weavers

Weavers were the most prominent and numerous birds that visited, represented by no less than three different species, all belonging to the Ploceus genus. Weavers can be difficult to ID in their winter non-breeding plumage, but there are still enough clues to narrow the identification down when faced with similar looking yellow birds.

Village Weaver (Bontrugwewer / Ploceus cucullatus)

The Village Weavers outnumbered the other two weaver species and were frequent visitors to the flowering trees right in front of our chalet. My limited botanical knowledge would make this a type of Coral Tree (Erythrina genus) with its bright scarlet flowers but I’m open to correction….. which I have received (see comments below) and I now know this is in fact a Weeping boer-bean (Schotia brachypetala / Huilboerboon) so called, apparently, due to the copious amounts of nectar during flowering which overflow and ‘weep’

In breeding plumage the Village Weaver is fairly easy to distinguish from other masked Weavers, but this male was in eclipse plumage, the “in-between” stage when they are in the process of transitioning to their duller non-breeding plumage. The red eye and spotted-backed appearance confirmed the ID

Cape Weaver (Kaapse wewer / Ploceus capensis)

In non-breeding plumage the Cape Weaver male is still fairly easy to identify with its white eye colour and heavy bill, although lacking the chestnut brown wash over the face and neck which it shows during the summer breeding months. This is also the largest of the yellow weavers, by length and mass, but size is not always a dependable way to ID a bird unless the other candidate is sitting right next to it.

Cape Weaver male in partial non-breeding plumage, Addo Elephant Park

The female is less distinctive with brown eyes but the heavy bill helps to separate it from other non-breeding female weavers.

Spectacled Weaver (Brilwewer / Ploceus ocularis)

The Spectacled Weavers are easily distinguishable with their black ‘spectacles’ and black bill, while the black bib says this is a male.

The Sunbirds

Two species of Sunbird were drawn to the nectar produced by the flowering trees, very different in appearance but equally striking as they went about the business of extracting the nectar with long down-curved bills and even longer tongues to probe the flowers.

Amethyst Sunbird (Swartsuikerbekkie / Chalcomitra amethystina)

Amethyst Sunbird, Addo Elephant Park

Greater Double-collared Sunbird (Groot-rooibandsuikerbekkie / Cinnyris afer)

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Addo Elephant Park

Other Species

There were several other species that visited the chalet surrounds, not all of which chose to pose for a photo, but those that did seemed quite happy to be ‘in the picture’. Here are the species that spend most time in the trees and shrubs –

Red-winged Starling (Rooivlerkspreeu / Onychognathus morio)

Red-winged Starling, Addo Elephant Park

Fork-tailed Drongo (Mikstertbyvanger / Dicrurus adsimilis)

Fork-tailed Drongo, Addo Elephant Park

Streaky-headed Seedeater (Streepkopkanarie / Crithagra gularis)

This member of the Canary family (The Afrikaans name confirms it) is a great singer and fond of sitting in an exposed position, so is hard to miss, but can be confused with the similar looking White-throated Canary

Streaky-headed Seedeater (race humilis), Addo Elephant Park

Black-collared Barbet (Rooikophoutkapper / Lybius torquatus)

The Black-collared Barbet tends to be a tad shier than other species, keeping its distance in a bush and not venturing close to the chalet

Black-collared Barbet (race torquatus), Addo Elephant Park

Sombre Greenbul (Gewone willie / Andropadus importunus)

Then there’s the Sombre Greenbul, always heard, seldom seen – I managed to capture an image of this one as it made its way through dense shrubs

Sombre Greenbul (Andropadus importunus / Gewone willie), Addo Elephant Park

The species that spend more time on the ground also ‘popped by’ as they searched for grubs and insects in the gravelly ground around the chalet

Cape Robin-Chat (Gewone janfrederik / Cossypha caffra)

Cape Robin-Chat, Addo Elephant Park

The Cape Robin-Chat is not averse to hopping up onto a branch to survey the area

Cape Robin-Chat, Addo Elephant Park

Emerald-spotted Wood Dove (Groenvlekduifie / Turtur chalcospilos)

Easy to see where it gets its name from….

Emerald-spotted Wood Dove (race chalcospilis), Addo Elephant Park

Olive Thrush (Olyflyster / Turdus olivaceus)

Olive Thrush (race oliveaceous), Addo Elephant Park

Other Creatures

And here’s a couple of non-avian visitors to end off with…

Flightless Dung Beetle, Addo Elephant Park
Cape Grey Mongoose (Herpestes pulverulentus / Kaapse grysmuishond), Addo Elephant Park

How about a spectacular sunset, viewed from the stoep, to close out the day

Sunset, Addo Elephant Park

Honeythorn Tree

Lycium oxycarpum : Honeythorn tree/ Kriedoring / Wolwedoring

During our visit to Mountain Zebra National Park in March this year, we stopped at the main picnic area on the way to one of our drives and were drawn to have a closer look at the striking tree in the middle of the area.

Closer inspection showed just how unique this tree is and the Parks Board had wisely thought to provide a name plate for this impressive example

The tree dominates the middle of the picnic area
The bark has a unique rough texture
Close-up of the bark and the name plate (being gradually engulfed by the looks of it)
The fruit of the Honey-thorn are vivid in colour
The flowers are small and delicately beautiful

All in all a striking example of this tree species, I’m sure you will agree

Twitching a Gull on Sundays

Actually it was on a Wednesday – but all will become clear as you read on…..

Road Trip to Eastern Cape

Our Road Trip from Mossel Bay to the Eastern Cape was into the third day, after spending the first two nights in the Nature’s Valley area, where we explored a few places we had last visited many years ago.

Our next stop was Addo Elephant National Park, half a day’s drive further east, so there was no need to rush, except ……. well, there was the small matter of a possible rarity in the back of my mind …..

Now, some readers may know by now that I am an opportunistic twitcher rather than an obsessive one – if a rare bird is reported at a spot which is within reach of where I happen to be, I will consider making an attempt to see it, as long as it does not entail extensive travel and there is a reasonably good chance of actually finding the rarity.

So what rare bird was in the back of my mind?

Well, for some time before this trip, in fact since the end of November 2020, there had been reports of a Sooty Gull that had been spotted at various places along the eastern coast of South Africa, a species never recorded before in the region, so classified as a “Mega Rarity” by those who are driven by such things.

I had been following its gradual progress southwards with interest, secretly hoping that 1) it would remain in the area long enough until our road trip began and 2) it would settle at a spot which was within ‘twitching distance’ of our planned route to the Eastern Cape. After the initial sighting in Northern Kwazulu Natal, the gull was spotted at Kei Mouth in the Eastern Cape and spent some weeks there.

I became more interested when the bird was spotted at the Sundays River Mouth, east of Port Elizabeth, early in March 2021 and remained there for the couple of weeks prior to our road trip. That was just what I had been hoping for, as I estimated that the detour to its location would fit into our travel plans with time to spare.

Extract from the SA Rare Bird News of 8 March 2021 with a report of the Sooty Gull

Sooty Gull

Now where had this rarity come from? No one can tell for sure but it is thought it had somehow ‘drifted’ far south of its usual territory, which is the Middle East and southwards to Tanzania, Kenya and the northern most reaches of Mozambique. Also known as the Aden Gull or Hemprich’s Gull, it was a couple of thousand kms outside its normal range when first spotted in SA. It is partially migratory, moving southwards after breeding, so perhaps its internal ‘GPS’ went awry and took it much further south than intended.

Being a coastal bird and a scavenger, it is most often found near ports and harbours, inshore islands and the intertidal zone.

The Journey

My journal tells the story ……

We left Nature’s Valley around 11 am with a drive of some 330 kms ahead of us – which took us all of 6 hours as it turned out! A quick stop at the Bread and Brew shop for pies to take to Addo and we were on our way. Initially the N2 National Road proved to be a good road with a broad shoulder, but from halfway it became more challenging with heavier traffic, several of the ubiquitous “Stop and Go’s” (one side of road closed at a time to allow construction work) and many slow heavy vehicles to get past.

The route (in blue) from Mossel Bay to Sundays River Mouth

I had discovered that morning that I had contrived to forget my camera’s battery charger at home and was desperately thinking how to find one for my particular camera in Port Elizabeth (PE) in a short space of time. Fortunately the first camera shop I phoned said they could help, but this meant a long, slow detour deep into the suburbs of PE to the shop. An hour or so and R700 (about $50) later I was the proud owner of a nifty universal battery charger and we set our sights on getting to Colchester, the town near the Sundays River Mouth.

Sundays River Mouth

After confirming the location on Google Maps, I had imagined driving through Colchester to the river mouth on a reasonable road, parking there and finding the Sooty Gull nearby – none of that happened!

We found Colchester some 30 kms east of PE, drove through to where the road to the mouth supposedly began and found ourselves on a road marked ‘Private’ and a locked gate blocking any further progress. I parked and went to enquire at the nearby Pearson Park office where I found a couple who confirmed that we were at the right place and told us “the entrance fee is R100”. It seemed odd that the river mouth had been privatised in this way but there was no time for a discussion and R100 seemed like a good investment for what I imagined to be a guaranteed lifer, so I paid the amount and, clutching the entrance ticket, returned to our car.

The gate opened and we proceeded along the road, initially tarred but soon it became gravel, very corrugated and worn, which had our small but fully loaded car bouncing along while I winced inwardly. The office couple had simply told us to “drive until you see parked cars”, which we did for several kms.

Some distance from the sea we found a parking area in between the low dunes, with two vehicles parked, one of which was about to leave, so I stopped them to enquire if they knew about ‘the bird’. They absolutely did as they were returning from a day’s fishing and they explained how I would find it on the beach “where those fishermen are, see?”. I didn’t want to admit that said fishermen were so far away that I couldn’t see them, thanked them as they drove off and set off myself on foot, munching on a take away chicken burger (there had been no time to stop for lunch), along the sand in the direction they had pointed.

Heading towards the beach
Looking back to where the car was parked, in the distance (my footprints show my progress)

At this stage it was already 3.30 pm and with the last stretch of road to Addo still ahead and of unfamiliar route and distance, I was becoming rather tense. I walked as quickly as the soft sand would allow, quickly seeking out the firmer sand along the edge of the estuary. After some 15 minutes of strenuous walking/ trotting I found myself closer to the beach. I could already see a few gulls pottering about on the sand – through the binos I could make out numbers of Kelp Gulls but of the Sooty Gull there was no sign and my heart sank just a tad.

Then, as I approached the last ridge in the sand before the beach and peered over it I spotted more gulls, one of which had a darker appearance. Lifting the binos to my eyes I let out a shout of “bingo!” or something similar – it was the Sooty Gull!

First glimpse of the Sooty Gull

Relieved, I spent the next 10 minutes slowly approaching and photographing the gull as I went, until I was 10 to 15 metres away and felt that I was close enough, not wanting to spook the bird, which seemed quite accepting of my slow approach, only once lifting into the air for a few seconds before carrying on with its foraging.

When seen with a Kelp Gull, the size and plumage differences are obvious
A closer view shows the red tip to the bill and the dark grey colouring which gave it the name “Sooty”
Sooty Gull, briefly in flight

This is the location where the gull was hanging out

Most satisfied with how things had turned out, I returned as hastily as possible to the parked car and my patient wife, sweating from the exertion but happy about the outcome. The rest of the trip to Addo was uneventful, but slow on the poor, bumpy and narrow roads and we were glad to arrive safely and in time before the gates closed, book in and find our chalet. Accompanied by a typical bush sunset, we could relax and savour a glass of red wine and the new lifer in beautiful surroundings.

What a challenge birding can be sometimes, yet what joy and satisfaction it brings.

How to find out about rarities

Just a footnote on news of Rarities in Southern Africa – for up to date news of rarities I highly recommended that you subscribe (at no cost) to the SA Rare Bird News by simply sending an email to hardaker@mweb.co.za and asking to be added to the subscriber list