Category Archives: Birding Spots

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

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

Hornbills in Lockdown

Stoepsitter Birding

Sticking with the “stoepsitter” mode of birding as described in my recent post on the ‘Lawn Raiders’ of Verlorenkloof, here’s another version in a somewhat different location – Satara Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park.

(For the benefit of international readers “stoepsitter” is an Afrikaans term that translates roughly as one who spends much time on the stoep or verandah – but you knew that anyway, I’m sure)

It’s a well known fact amongst birders that, when visiting Kruger’s camps, time spent relaxing with binos on the stoep of your accommodation is bound to be rewarded with views of a variety of birds as they go about their daily business, on the grass, in the bushes and in the trees that most of the camps have in abundance.

That’s not to say one shouldn’t spend time getting out and about on game drives, exploring this national treasure of our wildlife, it’s just that when you want to relax in the rest camp, there’s no better place to do so than on the stoep of your rondavel or other accommodation.

Satara Rest Camp

During our December 2020 visit to Kruger, we spent four nights in Satara Rest Camp, one of which was in a fully equipped rondavel close to the perimeter fence, the other three in a more basic rondavel facing onto an expanse of grass with well established trees in close proximity.

This meant there was ample time for some serious stoepsitting, in between forays into the surrounding areas on game and birding drives and to visit the picnic spots for our traditional Kruger brunches (ooh, just typing that makes my mouth water and my nose prickle with the imaginary smell of a tasty brunch braai-ing on the pan).

The first afternoon and morning produced a fair sprinkling of interesting birds, before we changed rondavels, some of which I managed to photograph –

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata / Europese vlieëvanger

A Spotted Flycatcher, a non-breeding Palaearctic migrant, was quietly going about its business on an outer branch with a view over an expanse of lawn, which in some camps has been allowed to grow “wild”, as you will see in the featured image at the top of this post.

Just a note on these “wild” lawns : it was initially jarring to see the lawns in such a wild state, having been used to manicured lawns in the camp for so many years, but I will admit that I now find this quite appropriate to the surroundings, as the contrast between the camp gardens and the natural habitat of the surrounding veld has been reduced – the ‘line has been blurred somewhat’. I like to think this was a conscious decision by the Park authorities.

Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata / Europese vlieëvanger), KNP – Satara

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu

Another migrant, the stunning Violet-backed Starling, but this one hasn’t got as far to migrate, being an intra-African migrant from tropical Africa.

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu) (Male), KNP – Satara

And the missus was there, no doubt keeping an eye on handsome hubby to make sure he didn’t attract any competition. One of a number of species with significant, even dramatic, differences in plumage between male and female (known as dimorphism)

Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster / Witborsspreeu) (Female), KNP – Satara

Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis / Bosveldvisvanger

The Woodland Kingfisher is also a breeding intra-African migrant, strikingly coloured and always a joy to find. Although they were present in the camp, this photo was taken on one of our drives.

Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis / Bosveldvisvanger), KNP – Satara – Muzandzeni

Moving home

On the second morning we had to move to another rondavel, this time without a kitchen, but we had come prepared with a fold-up table, little gas cooker for the all-important boiled water for our tea and coffee and our picnic hamper that always accompanies our trips to Kruger. The camp has communal kitchens close by for the washing up etc .

Southern Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus rufirostris / Rooibekneushoringvoël

Once settled in to the new accommodation, I continued with stoepsitter birding and soon noticed that one particular bird was almost constantly present on the stretch of grass in front of the rondavel. It was a Red-billed Hornbill, a common species found throughout Kruger. I assumed it had found a good spot to find the small insects that make up most of its diet and did not pay too much attention to it as it came and went at regular intervals.

Southern Red-billed Hornbill
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Hornbills look ungainly with their huge bills, but they have an admirable ability to find and pick up insects with some precision

Southern Red-billed Hornbill
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

At one stage I kept watching the Hornbill after it had found an insect but not swallowed it, which led me to think it was feeding its young. It flew up to a large tree nearby and settled on the trunk where a branch had probably broken off years earlier as there was a large scar, visible about halfway up the left hand trunk in the image below.

Satara Rest Camp
Southern Red-billed Hornbill

The Hornbill then poked its bill through a small hole in the trunk and that’s when I realised what it was doing.

Southern Red-billed Hornbill

Red-billed Hornbills nest in natural cavities in trees, which the female inspects before selecting one. The entrance is usually just wide enough to allow entry and is then sealed from the inside by the female, using own faeces, leaving just a narrow slit and effectively holding her prisoner during the laying and incubation of the eggs.

Cavity sealed from inside with small hole for feeding

Once eggs are laid, incubation takes up to 25 days, followed by another 16 to 24 days during which the female cares for the young, all the while being fed by the male. Then the female breaks her way out leaving the youngsters in the nest and joins the male in providing food for the chicks, while the youngsters then re-seal the opening until they in turn are ready to take on the world at the ripe old age of around 50 days.

That’s quite a partnership! I felt privileged to have been able to see them in action.

All of this kept the male busy the whole day, but he still found time to go and see his reflection in my car’s window and frustratingly shadow box with what he thought was a possible intruder.

Red-billed Hornbill seeing his reflection

Verlorenkloof – The Lawn Raiders

Birding comes in different forms, sometimes challenging, requiring a dedicated effort, extended travel, perhaps some serious physical exertion, often in the face of less than favourable weather conditions.

However, it’s not always that way – some of the most relaxing and enjoyable birding is to be found in your immediate surroundings, whether at home or a holiday destination.

Which is precisely what we experienced during our recent visit to Verlorenkloof, a country resort that I have written about on a few occasions and one of our all-time favourite places to spend a breakaway week. We were fortunate to be invited by Koos and Rianda to join them in Croft No 3 (shown below) for the last week in May.

Croft No 3
Croft No 3 Verlorenkloof

For those who don’t yet know, Verlorenkloof lies east of Dullstroom, but on the lower side of the escarpment which towers above the fertile valley in which the resort is situated. The red square on the map indicates the position of the pentad which includes Verlorenkloof resort.

The birding at Verlorenkloof is always exceptional, with my personal tally of species recorded in the area, after many visits over the last twelve years, standing at 195, so the expectations were high. These hopes were of course tempered by the knowledge that the last week in May is often a quiet time for birding, with none of the summer migrants present and many of the remaining species not in calling or displaying mode.

Oddly enough, for the first 3 or 4 days of our stay, the area around the Croft was very quiet with far fewer birds than we are used to, but over the last two days of our stay, following some light rain, the scene changed completely. Suddenly all of the usual visitors were there, searching the lawn for edible insects, worms and the like.

I was fascinated by the variety of mostly “ordinary” birds and their antics – each one displaying its own way of “raiding the lawn” and finding a tasty morsel while showing unique character traits and interacting with the other bird species doing more or less the same thing.

So here’s a selection of the Lawn Raiders

Cape Wagtail (Gewone Kwikkie / Motacilla capensis)

The ultimate “I’m not going to bother anyone” bird – demurely pottering about, occasionally finding something to its taste then carrying on as if it was nothing special

Red-winged Starling (Rooivlerkspreeu / Onychognathus morio)

Enter the Darth Vader of the bird world – the menacing, glaring Red-winged Starling….. and they work in gangs, daring others to get in their way, descending en masse to grass level and prodding aggressively at the grass in search of a victim. But only after perching on the railing post in intimidating fashion.

The gang takes over ….

Common Fiscal (Fiskaallaksman / Lanius collaris)

Watching from a side tree, the Common Fiscal, aka Jacky Hangman aka the Butcherbird – what a reputation this small bird has, all because of its habit of impaling prey on a thorn or barbed wire! Its elegant appearance, as if dressed in formal attire, seems to project just the opposite impression.

Interestingly the Fiscal was quite composed, until the Fork-tailed Drongo arrived, when it flew from its perch and chased the Drongo until it retired to a far-off tree.

Striped Pipit (Gestreepte koester / Anthus lineiventris)

Another of the more timid birds, almost ever-present on the lawn, pottering about without bothering any of the others. But a bit of a celebrity nevertheless, being rated “uncommon to locally common” by Roberts – a regular at certain times at Verlorenkloof, but by no means guaranteed.

Familiar Chat (Gewone spekvreter / Cercemola familiaris)

Familiar is the right name for this well-known species. Another bird that is present from dawn to dusk around the Croft, watching from its favourite post and “diving” down to catch its tiny prey in the matted grass, with each return to its perch marked by three wing-flicks. I wondered how a bird with such tiny eyes can spot its prey at up to 5 metres or more, pouncing on it unerringly and returning to its post to devour it.

Cape Rock Thrush (Kaapse kliplyster / Monticella rupestris)

Bringing some class to the scene (did I mention I also originate from the Cape?) the Cape Rock Thrush has a way of dominating with its handsome looks and determined approach – they are not around constantly, but “pop in” from time to time, watching carefully from the roof edge or stone wall before pouncing on an unsuspecting prey.

And this is called hitting the jackpot

African Dusky Flycatcher (Donkervlieevanger / muscicapa adusta)

Now here’s everyone’s favourite bit player – demure, quiet, unobtrusive (for a moment I thought I was describing myself), spending much of the day perched in the shade on a thin twig, flying down to the grass to catch some small prey.

Dark-capped Bulbul (Swartoogtiptol / Pycnonotus tricolor)

The Bulbuls lie somewhere between the extremes shown by other species – not aggressive but certainly determined and not hesitating to pounce on prey before the competition gets to it

Black-collared Barbet (Rooikophoutkapper / Lybius torquatus)

A somewhat unexpected visitor, trying its luck along with the regulars. Despite its bright colours, this is a bird more familiar due to its call, a far-carrying duet, than its appearance. It did not stay long but seemed to be drawn to the lawn by all the other bird activity.

Fork-tailed Drongo (Mikstertbyvanger / Dicrurus adsimillis)

Making just a single appearance, the Drongo had to put up with being chased by the Fiscal and ended up viewing the action from a distant tree, before flying in for a quick lawn raid then disappearing.

African Hoopoe (Hoephoep / Upupa Africana)

A real loner, the Hoopoe patrolled the quiet edges of the lawn, well out of the way of other species, head down and prodding with its long bill all the way.

Black-headed Oriole (Swartkopwieliewaal / Oriolus larvatus)

The Oriole just sat for a while on a branch with a view of the lawn, didn’t seem to want to get involved and flew off again.

Birding Big Day – November 2020 – The Finish

What’s it all about ?

Continuing the story of Birding Big Day (BBD), which is held every year on the last Saturday in November – the event is all about seeing how many bird species can be identified in a 24 hour period from midnight to midnight. Teams are allowed a maximum of 4 participants, of which a majority must agree on each species identification, whether by sight or call.

Birdlasser, the amazing birdlisting and atlasing app developed in South Africa, keeps track of every sighting of every team and can be easily accessed during the day to see where the team stands in comparison with the other 300 plus teams across the country.

Our team was set up by Koos Pauw and included myself, Martin Slabbert and Thinus van Staden to make up our team of four. A target of 200 species was decided upon by the team – only time would tell if this was achievable on the day.

Weather forecasts were looking promising and we hoped they would prove to be accurate, however at this time of year on the highveld extreme heat and afternoon thundershowers are the norm so we weren’t assured of a full day’s uninterrupted birding

This turned into quite a lengthy story so to keep it manageable I have split it into 3 stages – The Start, The Middle and The Finish.

Borakolalo to Rooiwal (Hour 12 and 13)

A testing time lay ahead as we headed away from Borakolalo towards our final target spot – Rooiwal Waste Water Treatment Works. Slow traffic, substandard roads and many rural villages along the way, clogged with random traffic, pedestrians and animals, proved frustrating as the minutes and hours ticked away, eating into the remaining daylight hours.

Koos remained calm and patient behind the wheel, despite very little to raise our spirits, until an unexpected wetland near the road was cause for a rapid stop. Shouts of Abdim’s Stork went up, followed by White Stork and finally a Black Heron was spotted.

Moretele area, Birding Big Day 2020 (Look carefully – Abdim’s Storks just visible)

With renewed enthusiasm we carried on and another hour later found the road which would take us to Rooiwal

Highlights (apart from the wetland specials mentioned above) :

Ashy Tit seen just after leaving Borakolalo

White-rumped Swift (at last!)

Rock Dove – yes even this mundane species which is fond of people becomes a highlight when you are getting anxious

Total Species : 183 after 13 hours – our slowest rate of the day, adding just 7 species in two hours

Rooiwal Waste Water Treatment Works (Hour 14)

At last, we turned off the slow road and found ourselves on Piet-my-Vrou Street, which augured well as it is the Afrikaans name for Red-chested Cuckoo.

Koos was right in his assessment that this road would take us through a stretch of highveld habitat, differing from any of the other habitats we had encountered so far – Long-tailed Widowbird in longish grass provided the proof.

Long-tailed Widowbird

30 minutes later we arived at Rooiwal, initially driving the rough track that runs through the adjoining open veld with pans, then entering the treatment works for a rapid ‘whip around’ to see what we could add to our already substantial (by our standards) list.

Highlights :

African Stonechat in the open grasslands

African Stonechat (male)

Many Grey-headed Gulls enjoying the several ponds of the treatment works

Cape Teals equally at home on the ponds

Cape Teal (Anas capensis / Teeleend), Rooiwal

White-fronted Bee-eaters – first of the day at the treatment works

Red-collared Widowbirds as we drove away from Rooiwal

Total species : 194 after 14 hours – getting closer to our target but with time running out we still had some work to do

Back to Pretoria for the Final Push (Hour 15 and 16)

With just 6 species to go, we left Rooiwal and were soon back on the N1 heading to Pretoria, our last hope for a grand finish!

The consensus was that we still had not picked up some of the typical ‘suburban’ birds that are common in the leafy suburbs that we know so well. So we made our way first to Meyerspark to the east of the city and explored some of the open spaces between the houses and local businesses

This proved to be a good strategy as we slowly added to our total and excitement mounted with each new species.

Every bird added was a highlight :

195 – Red-winged Starling perched on a tall building

196 – Violet-backed Starling in tall trees adjoining a small business complex

197 – Cape White-eye in the same trees

Cape White-eye

198 – Bronze Mannikins feeding on a sidewalk lawn

199 – Crested Barbet feeding on an adjoining lawn

The light was fading fast as we headed up a hill past a block of flats with lush gardens – as we stopped to listen, a Kurrichane Thrush appeared in the lower branches of a tree – 200 up !!!

In high spirits we headed through the adjoining suburb of Murrayfield where we added 2 more for luck – Cut-throat Finch and Fiscal Flycatcher – then back to where it had all started in The Glades. There was just time to stop at the dam where we had started some 16 hours earlier and find the Cape Weaver that I know nests there – sure enough it was present and became our last bird of the day.

These photos were taken in The Glades, but not on the day

Cut-throat Finch (Male) (Amadina fasciata / Bandkeelvink), Wapadrand Pretoria
Cape Weaver (Ploceus capensis / Kaapse wewer), The Glades

A final separate count the next day showed just one species had been seen but not recorded, so our final count was 204. This was good enough for 40th position out of over 300 teams, so we were extremely pleased with our effort

The results, Birding Big Day 2020

Phew, what a day!

Birding Big Day – November 2020 – The Middle

What’s it all about ?

Continuing the story of Birding Big Day (BBD), which is held every year on the last Saturday in November – the event is all about seeing how many bird species can be identified in a 24 hour period from midnight to midnight. Teams are allowed a maximum of 4 participants, of which a majority must agree on each species identification, whether by sight or call.

Birdlasser, the amazing birdlisting and atlasing app developed in South Africa, keeps track of every sighting of every team and can be easily accessed during the day to see where the team stands in comparison with the other 300 plus teams across the country.

Our team was set up by Koos Pauw and included myself, Martin Slabbert and Thinus van Staden to make up our team of four. A target of 200 species was decided upon by the team – only time would tell if this was achievable on the day.

Weather forecasts were looking promising and we hoped they would prove to be accurate, however at this time of year on the highveld extreme heat and afternoon thundershowers are the norm so we weren’t assured of a full day’s uninterrupted birding

This turned into quite a lengthy story so to keep it manageable I have split it into 3 stages – The Start, The Middle and The Finish.

Kgomo-Kgomo (Hour 7)

This was our status at 9.58 am after 6.5 hours – 26th position and looking strong (Team Tuis-Bes)

9.58 am Birding Big Day 2020

As we approached the village of Kgomo-Kgomo at the end of the Zaagkuildrift road, the habitat changed to more open, dry countryside. We turned east towards the bridge over the wetlands, which had received a fair amount of water during recent rains. Some time was spent on the bridge scanning the wetlands, while passing locals from the village greeted us in friendly fashion – no doubt used to seeing birders in action at this well-known birding spot.

Highlights :

The somewhat drier habitat near the village produced Cape Penduline Tit and Scaly-feathered Weaver (Finch), while high overhead a soaring Black-chested Snake-Eagle caught our attention and was quickly ID’d.

Black-chested Snake=Eagle

Great Sparrow also made it onto our list – a scarce bird and one of our birds of the day. We wondered again why this particular sparrow is so scarce, while sparrows in general are such common birds

The wetlands held numerous waders and swimmers such as Black-winged Stilt, Wood Sandpiper, Little Egret, Cape Shoveler and Little Grebe and we added Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and Brown-throated Martin.

Black-winged Stilt

Total species : 152 after 7 hours – still looking good for our target

Borakolalo (Hour 8 to 11)

It was 10.25 am when we left Kgomo-Kgomo, full of confidence for a good total, but we knew we were approaching the dreaded “middle of the day” lull when birds seem to go into hiding. New species were becoming more difficult to find, so we used the time to get to our next target spot of Borakolalo Nature Reserve as quickly as possible, stopping only when a potential new species was spotted and to spend about ten minutes at the one dam that we passed

We arrived at Borakolalo Nature Reserve 45 minutes later and spent the next two and a half hours exploring the tracks through the bushveld area and along the shoreline of the dam. Our first glimpse of the dam itself confirmed our one fear – the water level was exceptionally high and not at all suitable for the many waders that usually frequent the muddy shores. This was emphasized when we later passed by the dam wall which was overflowing and sending a surge of water down the sloping wall into the river below

Borakolalo NP, Birding Big Day 2020

So that left us with the ‘swimmers’, many of which we had already logged – our only chance of adding new species was to cover the bushveld habitat as thoroughly as possible. It was slow going, using the strategy of stopping every couple of hundred metres or so and scanning the bush and sky for birds. We continued with this until we had exhausted most possibilities and headed back to the main entrance to assess our strategy for the rest of the day.

Highlights :

At this stage of the day just about every sighting becomes a highlight and there was no shortage of desirable birds that made it onto our list

African Cuckoo, calling hauntingly as we stopped at a roadside dam, quickly traced to a nearby tree

Sabota Lark, as always, singing from the very top of a tree

Sabota Lark (Calendulauda sabota / Sabotalewerik)

African Fish-Eagles for – um – Africa,,,,, We saw up to 5 of this iconic species at a time, soaring above the dam looking for their next meal no doubt.

Red-crested Korhaan calling, several times at different spots in the reserve – the unmistakeable, loud kyip-kyip-kyip that they emit at regular intervals.

We did not encounter many animals but a Giraffe was good enough to cross the road ahead of us and as a bonus had some Red-billed Oxpeckers in attendance

Red-billed Oxpecker

A raptor flew off low just ahead of us and we leapt out to ID it – not too difficult to see that it was a Wahlberg’s Eagle, with a longish, squared-off tail

One of our frequent stops produced a small bird party with Southern Black Tit, White-crowned Helmet-Shrike and Yellow-fronted Canary in the nearby trees

Just after hearing a Pearl-spotted Owlet at one stop, a large bird flew at speed between the trees and we were able to track it to a distant tree – it was a Great Spotted Cuckoo

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Heading out of the reserve, we picked up Golden-tailed Woodpecker and Red-headed Weaver before leaving Borakolalo

Our rate of new species had slowed down drastically to between 5 and 8 per hour, to be expected during the middle of the day lull, nevertheless disappointing as we had envisaged more waterbirds to help us get to our target.

Total species : 177 after 11 hours – so near yet so far from our target of 200…..

Our next planned spot was Rooiwal – a Waste Water Treatment Works about 40 kms north of Pretoria, where we hoped to find the balance of the species to take us to our target

Birding Big Day – November 2020 – The Start

What’s it all about ?

“In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” (Alfred Lord Tennyson) – ummmm, well, actually in my case it’s birding and specifically Birding Big Day (BBD), which is held every year on the last Saturday in November – an event not to be missed by keen, occasionally competitive birders such as myself and fellow atlaser Koos Pauw. Oh, and that bit about a young man’s fancy – well that’s stretching the truth to be honest….

The annual event is all about seeing how many bird species can be identified in a 24 hour period from midnight to midnight. Teams are allowed a maximum of 4 participants, of which a majority must agree on each species identification, whether by sight or call.

Birdlasser, the amazing birdlisting and atlasing app developed in South Africa, keeps track of every sighting of every team and can be easily accessed during the day to see where the team stands in comparison with the other 300 plus teams across the country.

And so it was that Koos set up the team, inviting Martin Slabbert and Thinus van Staden, two younger, keen birders to make up the team of four. We met in the week prior to the event to discuss the route and an indicative timeline we would follow – vital to the success of the day’s endeavours, but we knew we should have some flexibility on the day to cater for the unexpected …

A target of 200 species was decided upon by the team – do-able but seemingly optimistic, considering Koos and I had never done more than 185 species in a day over many previous BBD’s. But I was hopeful, even confident that the introduction of two younger members to the team would take us to the 200 mark …. only time would tell. Koos and I refined the route during the last week and we were all set for Saturday 28th November.

Weather forecasts were looking promising and we hoped they would prove to be accurate, however at this time of year on the highveld extreme heat and afternoon thundershowers are the norm so we weren’t assured of a full day’s uninterrupted birding

This turned into quite a lengthy story so to keep it manageable (and hopefully readable) I have split it into 3 stages – The Start, The Middle and The Finish. So here goes with the Start of the day…..

Pre-dawn Pretoria (Hour 1)

I was up at 2.15 am to prepare for the day and was ready when Koos arrived at 3.20 am, having picked up Martin and Thinus on the way. A short drive through The Glades (the estate where our home is located), stopping at the two small dams to shine our torches on the water, got our list going before heading out.

A short detour through Murrayfield on the way to the highway saw us stopping at a bridge to check for Finfoot (seen recently at that spot) without success, then we were speeding north on the N1 highway to our “dawn chorus” spot.

Highlights :

Thick-billed Weaver revealed by torchlight in the reeds at the Glades dam (Glades photos were taken a few days earlier in daylight)

Thick-billed Weaver (Amblyospiza albifrons / Dikbekwewer) (Male) (race woltersi), The Glades

Red-chested Cuckoo calling monotonously from 2.30 am

Mallard and Yellow-billed Duck out and about on the Glades dam, visible by torchlight

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos / Groenkopeend), The Glades
Yellow-billed Duck (Anas undulata / Geelbekeend), The Glades

Total species : 11

Pienaarsrivier Irrigation Dams (Hour 2 &3)

It took 45 minutes to travel the 70 kms to Pienaarsrivier and the irrigation dams that Thinus had suggested as our dawn starting point. Once we arrived at the dams and the surrounding wetlands, it was already light enough to see that this would prove to be an excellent spot to start the day in earnest – the pre-dawn sky was filling with birds on the move and the wetlands were busy with waders and swimmers.

Irrigation Dams near Pienaarsrivier, Birding Big Day 2020

Parked on the main dam’s earthen wall we had a good view of the action all around and birds were added rapidly – so much so that I struggled to keep pace logging them on the BIrdlasser app as they got called out, at the same time scanning the wetlands with binos and scope to verify ID’s and search for new ones.

This action kept us busy for the best part of two hours as we progressed slowly around the main dam and the adjoining wetlands and fields. This was the most productive part of the day and highlights were many –

Highlights :

The call of a Great Reed Warbler (probably newly arrived from its European breeding grounds) emanating from dense reeds

At 5 am, thousands of Red-billed Queleas rising up out of the adjoining fields and covering the dawn sky. Wave after wave of Queleas followed – a few hundred thousand at a guess – off to feed in the surrounding areas

A tiny sandbank in the middle of one pond held a variety of waders of differing size just too far to be certain of their ID but the scope views confirmed them – Little Stint, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, with an African Black Duck on the side

As the skies lightened, terns appeared – both of the regular fresh water species – Whiskered and White-winged Terns

The unusual sight of a flock of 12 Black-crowned Night-Herons flying overhead – none of us had seen so many at one time of this mostly solitary species

Three Kingfishers spotted within 4 minutes as we circled the dam – Woodland, Pied and Brown-hooded Kingfishers all presented themselves to be counted

Cries of “bumblebee” from the younger half of the team had me puzzled for a second until I realised they were referring to the Yellow-crowned Bishops buzzing around the long grass, looking a lot like giant bumblebees with their black and yellow colouring and manner of flight

Yellow-crowned Bishop (Euplectes afer / Goudgeelvink)

Total species : 79 after 3 hours

Irrigation Dams to Zaagkuildrift (Hour 4)

Before leaving the irrigation dams, Thinus suggested a walk through longish grass to a wetland area not accessible by vehicle. What a good idea it turned out to be as we added one very special wader and a handful of other species before heading to the start of our second major focus area – the famous (among birders) Zaagkuildrift Road that starts just outside the village of Pienaarsrivier and meanders west to the Kgomo-Kgomo floodplain

Irrigation Dams near Pienaarsrivier, Birding Big Day 2020
Wetlands at Irrigation Dams near Pienaarsrivier, Birding Big Day 2020
Start of Zaagkuildrift, Birding Big Day 2020

Highlights :

Exploring the wetlands on foot we found African Swamphen and then the ‘bird of the day’ – Lesser Moorhen

African Purple Swamphen

Zaagkuildrift road starts with grasslands on both sides and we quickly picked up Rufous-naped Lark, Northern Black Korhaan and Desert Cisticola, followed by Wing-snapping Cisticola, which performed a display flight in front of us.

Rufous-naped Lark

Total species : 98 after 4 hours

Zaagkuildrift Road to Kgomo-Kgomo (Hour 5 & 6)

Zaagkuildrift road requires slow progress to make the most of the birding on offer, which is plentiful and to be found in the road, at puddles, in the roadside bush and trees, on the fences, in adjoining fields and even in the air.

It was still just 7.36 am when we passed 100 species and our spirits were high. But we had seen many of the common species by now, so the tempo of adding new species was bound to slow down, evidenced by the rate of new species per hour slowing from our initial 35 per hour to 23 in hour 5 and then just 10 in hour 6.

We stuck to the ‘main’ road which despite being a gravel surface is in good condition, our only deviation being the side road which birders know as “Crake Road” – we had progressed about half a km along this road when we came upon a bakkie (utility vehicle) standing in the middle of the narrow road with some agitated looking farm personnel peering underneath. Clearly it was going nowhere for an indeterminate time so we had to abandon any further exploration of the road and reversed out (no room to turn) and continued along the main route.

Highlights :

Plenty of the typical “bushveld” species were present, including 3 species of Waxbill (Blue, Black-faced and Violet-eared) plus a few similarly small birds such as Green-winged Pytilia, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Jameson’s Firefinch and Neddicky

Blue Waxbill (Uraeginthus angolensis / Gewone blousysie)

Marico and White-bellied Sunbirds seen within minutes of each other

Marico Sunbird

Hamerkop at the spruit on Crake Road – the only species we added on this road

Hamerkop patiently waiting for prey

Total species : 131 after 6 hours

It was still only 9.30 am with a lot of day left, so we were feeling optimistic about reaching our target. However we knew that the dreaded “middle of the day” lull lay ahead and weren’t going to count our chickens – or birds – before they hatched, as it were.

More about that in the next post!