Category Archives: Special Birds

Kïttlitz’s Plover – a Winning Performance

If there were Oscars for birds, I would propose a category called “Best performance by a bird defending its nest from a predator”

“And the winner is ……….. Kittlitz’s Plover” (cue loud applause)

So on what do I base this award?

Well, I was atlasing the area known as Gouritsmond, a small coastal town at the mouth of the Gourits River about a half hour’s drive from Mossel Bay. The Gourits River has its origin at the confluence of the Gamka and Olifants rivers, south of Calitzdorp in the Klein-Karoo and winds its way to the Indian Ocean across plains and through mountains.

Approaching the sea it widens into a broad estuary which is humming with activity in the holiday season, when the town expands its population by about 80%, but was dead quiet when I visited it on a weekday in October 2018 and I had the whole parking area at the boat launch site to myself, other than a waste van which came to empty the rubbish bin.

Braving the strong cold wind, seemingly unseasonal but those who live along the southern Cape coast will tell you to expect 4 seasons in one day, I ventured up and down the river’s edge with its wide muddy margin and took the opportunity to photograph the Plovers and other shorebirds present, of which the Kittlitz’s Plover was the least shy.

Kittlitz’s Plover, Gouritzmond

Every now and then I popped back to my car to escape from the cold wind, which my 3 layers of clothing were battling to defend. On one of my forays  along the shoreline, a Kittlitz’s Plover’s curious behaviour caught my attention – it ran off as I approached, then suddenly dropped flat on its belly, wings spread wide and flapping about as if mortally injured.

Kittlitz’s Plover in anti-predator mode, Gouritzmond
Kittlitz’s Plover in anti-predator mode, Gouritzmond

Stepping closer, I was about 3 metres away when it miraculously recovered, ran further and repeated the dramatic death scene while watching me with beady eyes. All the while it was leading me away, presumably from a nest which was not apparent, and I did not try too hard to find it for fear of giving the Plover a heart attack.

Kittlitz’s Plover in anti-predator mode, Gouritzmond
Kittlitz’s Plover in anti-predator mode, Gouritzmond

The Plover repeated this act each time I approached and the drama of its performance had me chuckling in delight and admiration for the ingenuity of the species.

Kittlitz’s Plover in anti-predator mode, Gouritzmond

In this way the Kittlitz’s led me for a way down the river margin, until I turned and retraced my steps towards the parking area, whereupon the Plover also turned and flew back so that he was just ahead of me and repeated the act once more.

That was enough teasing for the day and I returned to the car, with the Plover watching me go – I imagined he had a look of “why go now, we were just starting to have some fun”

The Roberts app describes this behaviour thus : “When predator present, performs distraction displays including injury feigning, waving one or both wings and fanning tail to attract predator’s attention, sometimes flopping forward along ground..”

Other Birds

Apart from the dramatic Kittlitz’s Plover, the shoreline was occupied by several other species who favour this habitat –

Common Ringed Plover, a polar migrant which is present in Southern Africa from September to April

Common Ringed Plover
Common Ringed Plover

Common Greenshank, a Palaearctic (Europe, Asia north of the Himalayas, North Africa) summer visitor, mainly from August to April

Common Greenshank, Gouritzmond

Common Whimbrel, non-breeding migrant with circumpolar origin, present from August to March

Common Whimbrel, Gouritzmond

Sanderling, non-breeding migrant from the arctic tundra, present from September to April

Sanderling, Gouritzmond
Sanderling, Gouritzmond

All of the above are long-distance migrants, whereas the Blacksmith Lapwing is a local resident, one that is found in most parts of Southern Africa – this individual is a good example of a juvenile, lacking the very distinctive markings of the adult, which often leads to incorrect ID such as Grey Plover and others

Blacksmith Lapwing (Juvenile), Gouritzmond

Another morning’s atlasing, another unique birding encounter

 

 

Feathered Feast on father’s day (Part 2)

 

Father’s Day Treat

Continuing the story of my Father’s day birding treat while on holiday in La Lucia near Durban a couple of years ago ……..

Umlalazi Nature Reserve

With two hours of superb forest birding at Ongoye Forest Reserve behind us and Green Barbet duly seen and photographed, the next stop on bird guide Sakhamuzi’s itinerary was the Umlalazi Nature Reserve adjacent to the town of Mtunzimi.

We drove straight to the riverside along a winding sandy road and parked at the picnic spot where we enjoyed the all-important first cup of coffee accompanied by rusks while keeping an eye out for interesting bird life in the vicinity.

Umlalazi

Top spot went to a Mangrove Kingfisher perched on a low branch overhanging the water – a bird I had tried for a few times in various locations near Durban without success, then saw my first one the year before in the forests of Mozambique.

Mangrove Kingfisher, Mtunzini
Mangrove Kingfisher, Umlalazi NR

Curiously, the Mangrove Kingfisher occupies two quite different habitats – during the non-breeding season, from March to September, they inhabit mangroves while October to March sees them moving to forests to breed, estuarine forests in the Eastern Cape in the case of the Kwazulu-Natal population and lowland forests in the case of the Mozambique population, often far from water.

This is one of the Mangrove Kingfishers we came across in the forests of Mozambique

Their diet is equally curious, ranging from crabs – seawater crab in winter and freshwater crab in breeding season – to fish and even insects and lizards when crabs are not available. They are not averse to snatching the odd fish from ornamental ponds, a habit they share with other Kingfishers, much to the frustration of pond owners. Mind you, installing an ornamental pond and expecting a Kingfisher not to feed off your ornamental fish is like putting a fillet steak on the lawn and hoping your dog won’t eat it.

Noisy Black-bellied Starlings drew our attention to the tree which held several of them, as well as Yellow Weavers.

Black-bellied Starling, Umlalazi NR

Little Swifts and Palm Swifts swirled overhead, while a “big and small” act of Kingfishers played out on the lagoon as a Giant Kingfisher (364 g) made a large splash in pursuit of its prey while its diminutive cousin Malachite Kingfisher (just 17 g – ie one twentieth of the weight of the Giant) hardly created a ripple as he dove in at the water’s edge. All part of the magic and variety of birding.

After a half hour or so of absorbing the beauty and avian treasures of the surroundings, we headed slowly back to the entrance, stopping for a couple of special species along the way – Rufous-winged Cisticola in a patch of grassland and a handsome, posing Yellow-throated Longclaw on top of a nearby bush.

Yellow-throated Longclaw, Mtunzini
Yellow-throated Longclaw, Umlalazi NR

Amatigulu Nature Reserve

Last but by no means least on Sakhamuzi’s itinerary of nature reserves was another small reserve – Amatigulu, not far from where I had picked him up earlier and a stone’s throw from his house just outside the reserve. Once through the gate and the formalities of signing in etc, which Sakhamuzi took care of, we drove through grassland and coastal forest on an ever-deteriorating track down to the lagoon and found a parking spot at the picnic site.

I had mentioned to Sakhamuzi the fact that Green Twinspot was on my wish list for the day and he made a special effort to find this species which has somehow eluded me to date. He took us along a slightly overgrown path through the dense forest in search of it, but other than a brief glimpse of what he said was a Green Twinspot flying across the track and disappearing into dense bush, it remained elusive. Oh well, something to look for another day.

Amitigulu Nature Reserve – forest

A Scaly-throated Honeyguide made up partly for the dip on the Twinspot and was good enough to pose for some record photos – a lot better than previous ones I had managed to take.

Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Amitigulu Nature Reserve

White-eared Barbets were plentiful, as they were at the other reserves, and a Black-throated Wattle-Eye made a brief but welcome showing. Others we came across were Olive Sunbird, Spectacled Weaver, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird and Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher – all desirable species for any keen birder.

By this time we were heading into the afternoon and it was time to say goodbye to Sakhamuzi who had shown me a lot during the course of the morning.

Sappi Mill at Stanger/Kwadukuza

Back on the N3 highway, I pointed the Prado southwards but seeing I had some time in hand, decided to have a “look-in” at Sappi Mill wetlands, adjacent to the paper mill near Stanger/Kwadukuza, a spot I last visited perhaps 10 years ago. It was a worthwhile stop with a neat hide and good views for 180 degrees and more over the wetlands.

Sappi Mill Stanger / Kwadukuza

Immediately in front of the hide is a small island with trees which serves as a roost for many Cormorants, accompanied by a variety of waterfowl.

Sappi Mill Stanger / Kwadukuza

All 3 common Teals were present – Cape, Hottentot and Red-billed Teals – as well as a few African Swamphens, a flock of White-faced Ducks, Wooly-necked Storks (which are particularly common in Kwazulu-Natal), African Spoonbills and a calling African Rail.

Cape and Hottentot Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza

A Yellow Wagtail had been reported from this site in the last week and I looked out specially for this scarce bird, but to no avail.

The rest of the drive back to La Lucia was uneventful but full of good thoughts about my memorable day.

 

Feathered Feast on father’s day (Part 1)

While holidaying in La Lucia near Durban a couple of years ago, atlasing of the surrounding pentad kept me comfortably in touch with my birding passion – nothing spectacular, although the walks along the long stretch of beach immediately in front of the resort, where we have had a timeshare unit for many years, are always interesting with a mix of Gulls, Terns and Cormorants being the main source of birding entertainment. When the seas are high and stormy there’s even a chance of spotting an Albatross far out to sea,  but identifying them at that distance is very difficult unless you can pick up one of the features that separate the species.

La Lucia beach

Father’s Day Treat

I suspect Gerda saw the signs of me itching for some more exciting birding and with Father’s day coming up she suggested I “take a day off” and do a day trip to Ongoye Forest, knowing that there was a special bird or two to be ticked there (my subtle prompts worked like a charm). I didn’t need much encouragement and soon contacted a local guide, Sakhamuzi Mhlongo and arranged the trip for the upcoming Father’s Day.

Setting out in the dark before dawn, a couple of minor calamities delayed my departure, the first of which was a leaking hot water flask which sent me back to the apartment to get a refill of the essential hot water for my coffee later on, then I managed to miss a turn-off in the dark while trying to get to the highway and ended up in Verulam before I could find a place to turn around.

With my nerves somewhat on edge (it’s hard being a control freak) it took the beauty of a rosy dawn appearing over the lush green hills as I drove northwards and Louis Armstrong doing ” Rock my Soul” on the I-pod plugged into the sound system to bring me back to a semblance of my normal calm self and ready for the day ahead. By 7 am I reached the rendezvous, picked up Sakhamuzi and headed further up the N3  before taking the turn-off at Mtunzimi and heading west towards Ongoye.

Ongoye Forest Reserve

Soon we were at the entrance which, unlike the often impressive ones of many of the larger reserves, was just an open gate in the fence.

Ongoye Forest

By now the road was a track which wound through grassland covered hills towards the forest area, where we parked and ventured on foot into the forest itself.

Sakhamuzi leading the way into Ongoye Forest

I soon realised that Sakhamuzi has a real talent for bird call imitations, as he repeatedly did a near perfect Green Barbet call – no app necessary when you have him at your side! At least one bird responded, but it was still well concealed as we craned our necks and scanned the canopy to find it. However it didn’t take long to trace the call and locate a pair of Green Barbets feeding high up in the canopy, showing themselves briefly now and again.

The Green Barbet has the unenviable distinction of having probably the smallest distribution of any bird in Southern Africa, found only in the 3200 ha Ongoye forest, so any keen birder wanting to see it has only one choice of where to go, unless you happen to be in Tanzania.

It also means that this species is extremely vulnerable, being dependant on this relatively small patch of forest for its continuing existence in Southern Africa – a habitat the size of a typical mid-size farm. It is classified as Endangered in the 2015 Eskom Red Data Book of Birds published by Birdlife SA.

Ongoye Forest

Once I was happy with my sighting (which happened to be my 750th species in Southern Africa) I tried to get a photo, which is always a challenge in the forest against a strong back light, made doubly so by the Barbet’s habit of remaining high in the canopy and not sitting still for longer than a second or two. I eventually had a few photos in the bag which I hoped to be able to edit into something vaguely recognisable and we decided to move on after two hours in this unique birding locality.

Green Barbet, Ongoye Forest Reserve

Of course there is much more to Ongoye than this species as the forest and surrounding grasslands and bush are rich in several other desirable species, amongst them the distinctive Brown Scrub Robin, White-eared Barbet, Trumpeter Hornbill, Grey Cuckooshrike, Yellow-throated Longclaw and others. Striped Pipit on the way out was a surprise bonus.

Trumpeter Hornbill, Ongoye Forest Reserve

Forest birding is quite different from any other habitat – it’s more about audibility of the birds than their visibility. The canopy dwellers are often particularly vocal and the forest rings with multiple calls from the raucous wail of Trumpeter Hornbill to the gentle chop ….. chop of the Green Barbet and the quicker popping of the Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird.

They are joined intermittently by Square-tailed Drongo (strident tweets), Purple-crested Turaco (loud kor-kor-kor), Olive Sunbird (liquid tip-tip-tip), Black-bellied Starling (harsh jumble), Collared Sunbird and others. Seeing them clearly is tricky as mentioned above.

Square-tailed Drongo, Ongoye Forest Reserve

Next stop was Mtunzimi …….. but more about that and the rest of the trip in Part two

Into the Wilderness – A Forest, A Big Tree and a Ghostly Dove

Forest Magic

There’s nothing like a walk in a natural forest to heighten the senses – once you have walked a short distance into the forest, the background sounds of daily life are gradually reduced and eventually all you can hear are the sounds of the forest itself. The bird calls become prominent and even the rustle of leaves as a bird or small creature moves through the canopy or the forest floor can suddenly be heard.

If you are lucky enough to have a patch of forest to yourself, you can almost feel a bubble forming around you as you enter a private world with just the forest sounds, the smell of the trees and the soft feel of the leaf-strewn pathway for company.

This was my experience during a recent visit to the Woodville “Big Tree” forest near Hoekwil in the Southern Cape. The forest lies beyond the Wilderness (not the actual kind, this is a village near George much favoured for holiday homes and as a retirement spot) just off the old George – Knysna road with the main attraction being the massive Yellowwood tree a stone’s throw from the parking area and picnic spot. Estimated to be over 800 years old and standing 31m tall it is more than impressive and one can only wonder how pristine our country was when it was a mere sapling, long before any human interference.

How we came to be there

Gerda and I had decided to explore the Garden Route beyond George for the day and she was the one who suggested we head for the Wilderness  for lunch at one of the popular restaurants in the small village centre, followed by a drive through the countryside east of Wilderness.

We set off in perfect weather, sunny and warm with just a whisper of wind and enjoyed a pleasant light lunch of tapas – chunks of hake and calamari with tasty side sauces. From there we took  a slow drive to Woodville forest  via Hoekwil and we were soon at the parking area. I found a shady parking spot and left Gerda contentedly knitting (making sure there were picnic goers and a forest warden nearby – you always have to be wary in our beloved country) while I explored the forest trail beyond the Big Tree.

The Trail

The trail is fairly easy and an hour is more than enough time for a slow walk while stopping to listen and look around. In the back of my mind was the thought that I still had not seen a Lemon Dove, despite being very close to them on a few occasions – so I stopped a few times to play their call, initially with no response.

By this time I had seen a number of forest specials such as Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler (Geelkeelsanger), Chorister Robin-Chat (Lawaaimakerjanfrederik), African Paradise Flycatcher (Paradysvlieëvanger) and Cape Batis (Kaapse Bosbontrokkie)

Woodville Big Tree Forest Walk
African Paradise Flycatcher, Woodville
Cape Batis

About a third of the way along the trail, I was near a large fallen tree when I heard a rustle behind me. Turning, I saw a dove-like bird fleetingly as it flew across the trail and my heart skipped a beat or two – could this be the one I had hoped for?

I crept back as quietly as possible until suddenly a bird flew out of the leaf litter right next to the trail and for a few seconds perched on an open branch, not 3m away.  It was a Lemon Dove (Kaneelduifie) and I may have let slip an expletive in my excitement as we eyed each other face to face. Desperate for a photo of this beauty I slowly went to lift my camera but at that moment the dove decided to vanish, literally, and flew back across the trail. I was convinced it had not gone far and stood at the point where I expected to find it again, scanning the forest floor and trees for several minutes but to no avail – it had disappeared like a ghost in the night.

Lemon Dove (Roberts Bird Guide app)
Lemon Dove Distribution (Roberts app)

Roberts Bird Guide describes the Lemon Dove as “Secretive and difficult to see, especially when it freezes to avoid detection”, which I can verify from this experience.

Buoyed by this sighting, I walked along the rest of the trail in a state of happiness, taking in all the various sights and sounds right down to the interesting fungi growing on trees and stumps. A rustle in the undergrowth and a harsh churring call drew my attention and after some chasing of shadows amongst the dense foliage I was pleased to track down a Terrestial Brownbul (Boskrapper).

Terrestial Brownbul

Towards the end of the trail another call, like an owl hooting while being shaken, had me wondering until I dredged my memory cells and came up with Olive Pigeon (Geelbekbosduif) – a quick play of its call on my Roberts app confirmed the ID. I left the forest to the repeated call of a Red-capped Robin-Chat, which I later suspected was a Chorister Robin-Chat mimicking its cousin, but who knows?

So my short walk produced one lifer that I had long hoped for as well as a pleasing selection of forest specials, all of which left me with a big smile and something to share with Gerda, patiently waiting in the car.

Knysna Warbler – at last!

24 December 2017 – 7.42 pm : Knysna Warbler / Bradypterus sylvaticus (Knysnaruigtesanger) becomes my latest lifer – number 765 on my Southern Africa life list and the 9th addition to my life list for 2017. Location : Mossel Bay Golf Estate

Those are the bare facts and as I was not able to get a photo of this elusive bird, the post could end right here………    but there is more to the story than that of how I came to find this bird.

Firstly, some information on this species, starting with an extract from Roberts Birds of Southern Africa :

Status – Uncommon to rare and localised endemic; regarded as vulnerable

Habitat – Dense tangled thickets on edge of forests and along watercourses

General Habits – Very secretive; presence usually revealed only when calling

The Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa adds to this :

The Knysna Warbler is endemic to the region and has a highly restricted and fragmented distribution….

The SABAP2 distribution map below shows the current distribution of the Knysna Warbler, spread along the southern coastal regions of SA :

Knysna Warbler 1

Going into more detail the map below is of the pentads in the Mossel Bay area, the coloured ones showing where Knysna Warbler has been recorded during the 10 years that records have been gathered – yellow, orange and green indicate a lower number of sightings, while blue, pink, red and purple indicate more frequent sightings. Uncoloured pentads are where the species has not been recorded yet. So for example there has been only one previous record in Mossel Bay (the yellow block) in 10 years

Knysna Warbler Map

Estimates put the total population at less than 2500 individuals with a status of Vulnerable

None of which explains why this species, which occurs in areas I have visited frequently during the 30 or so years that I have been birding, has eluded me until now. That’s birding – no certainties, lots of surprises.

I can only recall one occasion some years ago, during a visit to the Big Tree near Knysna, when I heard the distinctive trilling call from deep in the surrounding forest bush, but was unable to locate the bird at all

I have been very aware of this gap in my birding life list for some time and was determined to put in a special effort to fill this gap during our current December 2017 / January 2018 visit to Mossel Bay. A local birder offered to show me some spots known to be reliable for Knysna Warbler but I had not yet got around to taking up the offer.

The story of my unexpected find starts with a family walk around the golf estate on Christmas eve, around 7 pm in the evening and still light. Gerda and I set off with daughter Geraldine and Andre as well as the two granddaughters – first to leave the group was Megan who had her running shoes on and with the abundant energy of youth went running off like an Impala.

At the top of the hill Gerda and Geraldine returned home to put the final touches to the Christmas eve dinner, leaving myself, Andre and Maia to continue, heading for the clubhouse with the intention of doing a full circuit of the estate. A little further along the road it started drizzling lightly and with dark-ish clouds chasing in from the sea, I suggested a shortcut over the golf course to get home – problem was Maia was barefoot and with access to the golf course being across a stretch of veld with the possibility of thorns, she and Andre decided to turn around and walk back along the paved road we had just come on. This left me to continue on my own with the weather threatening and dusk approaching ….

Knysna Warbler 2

I increased my pace a tad and at the bottom of the next hill I took a path on to the golf course and headed towards the edge of the 14th fairway and the path homewards. The rain had stopped and the dark clouds seemed to be moving away from me so I slowed my pace and listened to the birds calling from the dense bush that lines this part of the estate – the usual Mousebirds,  Apalises and others were still active.

Knysna Warbler 3
The dense bush lining the fairway, from where the Knysna Warbler was calling

Then a different call attracted my attention and had me wondering out loud what it could be – my auditory memory kicked into overdrive and I just knew this was a call that I needed to get a handle on, familiar yet strange at the same time and certainly one I had not heard on the estate before.

The warbler like call started slowly then sped up into a drawn-out rapid trilling conclusion, with the clarity of a whistle with a pea in it – after some deep thought I went to the Roberts app on my iphone and looked up western cape then warblers. As soon as I saw Knysna Warbler it hit me like a wet snoek and I pressed the play on the bird’s  call – bingo, that’s what it was!

This illustration is from Roberts Birds of Southern Africa :

Knysna Warbler

Next challenge was to try and see it, so I got as close as I could to the bush from where it seemed to be calling and searched in the fading light. It sounded so close I felt I should be able to reach out and touch it, but it is a master at remaining hidden, not even stirring a leaf to give a clue to its position.

After spending 20 minutes or so searching, the best sighting I could get was of a small drab bird flitting from one dense bush to the next, but I decided this was the best I was going to do and left it calling non-stop, even though it was by now almost dark.

In any case this is an example of a bird whose call is much prettier than the bird itself, so I was quite content with my sighting / hearing and very happy to be able to add it to my life list at last.

So after agonising about where I should go to find this species, it popped up virtually on my doorstep – considering the circumstances that led to my finding it, I was left with the feeling  that this was how it was meant to be.

An early Christmas present that I won’t forget!

 

Pigeon Valley – Forest birding in the suburbs

After the excitement and effort that went into the Malagasy Pond Heron ‘twitch’, a relaxing morning’s birding / atlasing seemed like just the ticket to bring me down to earth, gently. We were back in our timeshare apartment in La Lucia near Durban and one of my favourite birding spots became my next focus of attention – Pigeon Valley Park, which is a small forested reserve of about 10 hectares in the middle of Durban’s older suburbs on the Berea Ridge.

Pigeon Valley is located in the middle of old Durban suburbs

I entered the gate around 10 am (talk about relaxed birding … none of this crack of dawn stuff this time) and within a couple of minutes had an Olive Sunbird (Olyfsuikerbekkie / Cyanomitra olivacea) fluttering about in the branches above my head and heard the drawn out, repetitive call of a Tambourine Dove (Witborsduifie / Turtur tympanistria) from deep in the forest.

Pigeon Valley Durban

This reserve is famous amongst birders for the reliability of seeing  Spotted Ground Thrush (Natallyster / Zoothera guttata) here during the winter months and I can attest to that, having seen it on two out of three of my previous visits. I was on the lookout for it as soon as I entered, scanning the ground between the trees and just 50 metres from the gate I found it in deep shadow, scratching amongst the brown leaf litter.

Spotted Ground Thrush, Pigeon Valley

I approached quietly and fired off a number of shots but could see that they were not coming out very well due to the poor light. Using a large tree as a concealment between myself and the Thrush, I edged closer and poked my head carefully around the side of the tree to observe its movements, hoping it would move into one of the tiny patches of sunlight filtering through the dense foliage above.

The Thrush obliged, briefly moving into a patch of sunlight as I crouched to get closer to the bird’s level, then got in a few shots when it looked up and directly at me for a second – success! If there had been someone else with me it would have been high fives, but I had to make do with a triumphant smile.

Spotted Ground Thrush, Pigeon Valley

Buoyed by this wonderful start I made my way slowly up the main path, where I briefly met two other birders who were on their way out – as it turned out they were the only other visitors that I came across in the two and a half hours I was there, so effectively I had the reserve to myself for that time – apart from those tending to the park.

I had the constant accompaniment of birds calling as I walked, most of which I could ID and many of which I saw during the walk. Those heard only included the ubiquitous Sombre Greenbul (Gewone Willie / Andropadus importunus ), Black-backed Puffback (Sneeubal / Dryoscopus cubla), Tambourine Dove, Bar-throated Apalis (Bandkeelkleinjantjie / Apalis thoracica), African Fish-Eagle (Visarend / Haliaeetus vocifer)- probably from a nearby dam – and Black Sparrowhawk (Swartsperwer / Accipiter melanoleucus ), which are known to breed in the reserve.

I spent some time at a tiny pool near the top of the main path, fed by a little stream trickling down from a source outside the reserve. As I sat quietly to one side, there was a constant movement of small birds coming and going, sipping the clear water, some bathing as well – lots of Cape White-eyes (Kaapse glasogie / Zosterops capensis), a pair of Cape Batises (Kaapse bosbontrokkie / Batis capensis), Red-capped Robin-Chat (Nataljanfrederik / Cossypha natalensis), Tawny-flanked Prinia (Bruinsylangstertjie / Prinia subflava)and an unexpected but very welcome surprise in the form of a Grey Waxbill (Gryssysie / Estrilda perreini), which I had only seen once before in Zimbabwe.

Red-capped Robin-Chat
Tawny-flanked Prinia
Grey Waxbill

All of this activity was observed by an African Dusky Flycatcher (Donkervlieëvanger / Muscicapa adusta) hawking insects from a nearby branch, then popping down to the water for a drink.

Dusky Flycatcher

Spectacled Weavers (Brilwewer / Ploceus ocularis), which I had heard earlier, also came to the stream for a bathe.

Spectacled Weaver
Spectacled Weaver

The bird I was hoping for, Green Twinspot, did not appear so I continued my walk along the perimeter of the reserve, then back to the entrance gate with regular sightings to keep it interesting –

  • Terrestial Brownbul (Boskrapper / Phyllastrephus terrestris) skulking in the lower stratum of the dense bushes, as they like to do
  • Southern Black Flycatchers (Swart vlieëvanger / Melaenornis pammelaina) and Fork-tailed Drongos (Mikstertbyvanger / Dicurus adsimilis) trying their best to confuse my ID abilities by appearing in the same trees, but a check of the tail tip and eye colour was enough to sort them out
Fork-tailed Drongo
  • Surprisingly, for me anyway, numbers of Thick-billed Weavers (Dikbekwewer / Ambliospiza albifrons) in the lower and upper stratum – I am used to finding them near water in reeds, but later reference to the Roberts app showed that they inhabit forests in the non-breeding season, a new discovery for me
  • Grey Sunbird (Gryssuikerbekkie / Cyanomitra veroxii) showing briefly
  • Several White-eared Barbets (Witoorhoutkapper /  Stactolaema leucotis) high up in the trees
White-eared Barbet
  • Golden-tailed Woodpecker (Goudstertspeg / Campethera abingoni)
Golden-tailed Woodpecker

And, just before leaving, a bevy of Bronze Mannikins (Gewone fret / Lonchura cucullata) huddled together on a branch made a charming sight

Bronze Mannikins – knit one, slip one, knit one

Without fanfare or wild expectations, the morning had turned into something memorable, to be savoured for days after. This is the sort of experience that makes birding the amazing pastime that it is.

A family of Bateleurs

During a visit to Chobe Game Reserve in April this year, I saw many of the birds that I have become accustomed to in this special slice of African wilderness. After substantial summer rains Chobe Riverfront was greener and more lush than I have ever seen it, and with the river in flood from the rains in the catchment area in Angola, the “River road” was slightly more river than road….

Road meets river in Chobe

This meant I had to stick to the upper road for most of the way, not that this detracted from the experience in any way.

The highlight of the morning was being treated to a fly past by a family group of Bateleurs – male, female and juvenile – which swooped by in a great circle above my vehicle. They were good enough to repeat this a couple of times, allowing me the opportunity to view them from my vehicle and take a few in flight shots which perfectly showed the differences between them.

What a graceful picture they present when in their element in the air, making small adjustments to their wing’s plane in flight, flying with such precision and elegance that it is like watching a cirque de soleil performance.

This species is one of the delights of visiting the larger game reserves in the northern part of our region, particularly Kruger Park where they are relatively common and often the most numerous raptor in the air.  However in all my years of birding I have never seen a “complete set” in one spot before.

The male is distinguished in flight by the broad, black trailing edge to its wings :

Male Bateleur with broad black leading edge to wings

The female can be told by the much narrower, black trailing edge to its wings :

Female Bateleur with narrow black trailing edge to wings

The juvenile has the same short tail and overall “giss” as the adults, but the plumage is in several shades of brown, seemingly designed to throw you off the track when identifying them, unless you see them in the company of the adults as I was fortunate to do.

Juvenile Bateleur

I left Chobe with the sighting of these elegant birds imprinted on my mind.

The Nectar Lovers of the Southern Cape

 

Southern Cape winters are  often cold and wet, with cold, clammy mists regularly rolling in from the sea. We love visiting our home in Mossel Bay, which is seen by many as the start of the famous Garden Route, but our winter visits are usually kept short, although the conditions can be a tonic after a few months of the dry Highveld winter of our main home in Pretoria, with no rain for months stretching from May to mid-October.

One of the floral attractions during winter in the Southern Cape is the proteas and aloes that flower and enrich the green landscape with their bright orange, yellow and red colours, attracting the nectar lovers such as the Sugarbirds and Sunbirds.

When we visit Mossel Bay in the winter months, there is a great sense of anticipation as we land at George airport and head along the highway for the short drive to our home, soaking up the lush green winter scenery and particularly the aloes planted here and there along the highway, colourful in their winter dress.

Cape Sugarbird

300 Flowers a day! That is how many flowering Proteas the Cape Sugarbird / Kaapse suikervöel (Promerops cafer) may visit during a day to meet its energy requirements.

Having watched them in action in our garden, I can well believe that figure – they maintain a frenetic level of activity amongst the Protea species, mostly of the Pincushion variety, that we have in our garden, flitting from bush to bush and flower to flower, then flying off rapidly in search of the next one, long tail swishing about in their urgency.

The yellow dusting on the forehead is the pollen picked up from dipping deep into the flowers, which then gets carried to the next flower.

Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay

Double-collared Sunbirds

Alongside the Cape Sugarbirds, other nectar loving species look positively sedate, including the Double-collared Sunbirds, both Southern and Greater species which are wonderful to watch with their brightly coloured, shiny plumage as they feed on the equally colourful flowers.

The males of these species are similar looking but, if you have binos handy or can get close enough, they can be fairly easily identified by the width of the bright red band across their chests – the Southern Double-collared Sunbird / Kleinrooibandsuikerbekkie (Cynnyris chalybeus) has a narrow band while the Greater Double-collared Sunbird / Grootrooibandsuikerbekkie (Cynniris afer) has a much broader band of red.

Both take the prize for the longest name for a small bird!

Look carefully at the next photo and you will see the thin “tongue” which is hollow and with which the sunbird sucks the nectar – much like a flexible syringe.

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay

Both of these species are guaranteed to brighten up your day, just as they add colour, vibrancy and action to your garden in the Southern Cape in the middle of the winter.

All the photos in this post were taken in our garden in Mossel Bay, which Gerda planned to be as indigenous as possible and to survive with the minimum of attention during the months when we are elsewhere.

It’s Donald’s birthday!

That’s right! Donald Duck recently celebrated his 82 nd Birthday – how do I know this?  Well, National Geographic told me  :

“Donald Fauntleroy Duck entered the world on June 9, 1934, as a sailor suit-wearing cartoon character in The Wise Little Hen. Since then, he’s flown on the nose of military aircraft, hosted the Oscars, and been honoured with his own asteroid.”  (Click on any of the underlined bits for more info)

So in celebration, here are a few photos of other ducks that all have one thing in common with Donald – they don’t wear pants either…

Yellow-billed Duck
Yellow-billed Duck
Hottentot Teal
Hottentot Teal
SA Shelduck
SA Shelduck
Fulvous Duck
Fulvous Duck
Red-billed Teal
Red-billed Teal
White-faced Duck
White-faced Duck
Mallard Duck
Mallard Duck
Yellow-billed Duck
Yellow-billed Duck

Happy birthday Donald!

Leaflove Story – a Sudden Twitch

Leafloves?

As I mentioned in my previous post about twitching (https://mostlybirding.com/2016/02/23/a-twitch-or-two/), I hardly consider myself to fall into the category of keen twitchers, those hardy, sometimes mildly bonkers birders who let nothing stand in the way of seeing rare birds that turn up in Southern Africa.

Such was the case when a pair of Yellow-throated Leafloves (interesting name!) turned up and started nesting at a riverside lodge near Katima Mulilo in Namibia, some 200 kms south of their normal distribution in Zambia and northwards. Suddenly the Southern African region had a brand new bird added to the regional list!

The reports started coming through in mid February 2016 of this unexpected pair of birds in the gardens of the Caprivi Houseboat Safari Lodge near Katima Mulilo and there was soon a gold-rush like invasion of keen twitchers heading to this remote part of Southern Africa via plane and car from various places in South Africa and Namibia.

The Twitch

I watched with interest the messages coming through from Trevor Hardaker and the SA Rare Bird Facebook page, knowing that I would be going to Kasane in northern Botswana for a project I am involved in, during the 1st week in March. I also had a look at the map and realized that Katima Mulilo fell nicely within my “twitch limit” of around 2 hours drive, being about 120 kms from Kasane with a border crossing from Botswana to Namibia to negotiate along the way. So, if the Leafloves hung around until then, I planned to “pop over” the border for a quick visit and hopefully a new tick on my life list for Southern Africa.

Tuesday 1st March

Come Tuesday,  I caught the daily flight from Joburg to Kasane – a day early for my site visit so that I could spend a night in Katima Mulilo (KM) and be back in time for the project commitments the following day. I had arranged for a bakkie (pickup) to be available and shortly after landing I set off for KM via Ngoma border post. The border formalities went smoothly, perhaps because I was the only customer in an hour or two.

From Kasane to Ngoma the public road (tarred) bisects the northernmost section of Chobe Game Reserve and the landscape is pristine woodland all the way.

The road to Katima Mulilo
The road to Katima Mulilo

Once into the Caprivi in Namibia, the scenery changes to more open, patchy woodland interspersed with small settlements and small-scale agriculture.

I arrived at the lodge by 4.30 pm and settled into the rustic accommodation on the river in unit No 5, which is right alongside the tree where the Leafloves were nesting.

Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
The rustic cabin at Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
The rustic cabin at Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
View from the cabin
View from the cabin

I immediately saw one of the young chicks peering over the edge of the nest and within minutes the parents were in the vicinity and at the nest, bringing morsels and calling in a Babbler-like manner although less harsh.

Nest site, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Nest site, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Yellow-throated Leaflove nestling
Yellow-throated Leaflove nestling
Yellow-throated Leaflove
Yellow-throated Leaflove

The rest of the afternoon was spent re-visiting the nest site in the hope of getting better views / photos and exploring the small property with its jungle-like gardens and river views.

River views, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
River views, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
River views, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
River views, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge

It proved to be really challenging trying to get the Leafloves in my camera’s viewfinder for long enough to get a decent photo, as they seemed intent on hiding in the shadiest part of the foliage at every opportunity and when they did show themselves briefly, it was in an opening high up in the trees with bright light behind them.

Yellow-throated Leaflove
Yellow-throated Leaflove

Other birders had arrived earlier and a few more arrived after me – we enjoyed a good evening meal together and then made our way to mosquito-netted beds in the rustic cabins, happy to be able to add the Leaflove to our life lists.

Wednesday 2nd March

In the morning the others were already gathered at the coffee and rusks and I tagged along with the small group as they set off for a birding walk along the dirt road outside the lodge, which turned out to be quite busy with early morning commuters on their way to places unknown.

Morning walk near the lodge
Morning walk near the lodge

White-bowed Robin-Chat and Tropical Boubou were competing for loudest call as we walked and there was no shortage of other interesting species, such as :

  • Paradise and Grey-tit Flycatchers
  • Village Indigobird on the very top of a tree
  • Namaqua Dove perched on overhead wires
  • Brubru working its way through the foliage of a large tree
  • Little Sparrowhawk perched on an open branch
  • Copper Sunbird female peering from its nest in the roadside bush
  • Brown-crowned Tchagra posing beautifully on a nearby branch
  • Greater Blue-eared Starlings
  • African Golden Oriole – bright yellow against the green foliage
Copper Sunbird (Female) at nest
Copper Sunbird (Female) at nest
Flame Lily
Flame Lily
Brown-crowned Tchagra
Brown-crowned Tchagra

After the walk it was breakfast time followed by some further garden birding. A Schalow’s Turaco was calling and I followed the sound to find this lifer – a pair were moving about in the dense foliage of a tall tree, making it challenging to get a decent view or a photo. Fortunately I heard them again as I was leaving and found one on an open branch, almost inviting me to photograph this handsome species.

Schalow's Turaco
Schalow’s Turaco
Schalow's Turaco
Schalow’s Turaco

The trip back to Kasane was uneventful, other than coming across a trio of elephants along the road traversing Chobe.

The road through Chobe
The road through Chobe

Another successful twitch and memories of a brief but busy trip that will stay with me for a long while.