Each year Birdlife South Africa chooses a Bird of the Year and for 2019 the chosen bird is the very unique Secretary Bird.
To celebrate this, Birdlife SA included a very informative poster in the latest African Birdlife magazine, which I thought I would share here – however the only way to share an A1 size poster in a blog is by chopping it up into smaller, hopefully readable, chunks, which I have attempted to do with my iphone camera.
So, here goes ………
I have not had much success in photographing the Secretarybird over the past few years – not for want of finding them, that’s the relatively easy part, the problem is they immediately stride off in the opposite direction when you try and get closer, so most of my attempts have been at long distance. Here are a couple of my marginally better shots, still nowhere close to what I regard as a decent photo
This one was nesting in a tree some way from the road when we visited Mountain Zebra National Park s few years ago
Secretarybird striding through short grass near Albertinia, southern Cape
With the new year in its first week, it’s time to select a few photos which best represent our 2018. In some cases, selection is based on the memory created, in others I just like how the photo turned out, technically and creatively
If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!
This was an unusual year for us, in that for the first time in several years we did not journey outside Southern Africa once during the year. But we made up for that with plenty of local trips, such as –
Champagne Valley resort in the Drakensberg
Annasrust Farm Hoopstad (Free State)
Pine Lake Resort near White River (Mpumulanga Province)
Mossel Bay – our second “Home” town
Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
La Lucia near Durban (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Shongweni Dam (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Onverwacht Farm near Vryheid (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Kruger Park Olifants camp
Herbertsdale area (Western Cape) – atlasing
Karoo National Park near Beaufort West (Western Cape)
Kuilfontein Guest Farm near Colesberg (Northern Cape)
Lentelus Farm near Barrydale (Western Cape)
With visits to Kruger National Park, Karoo National Park and Chobe Game Reserve in Botswana, there was no shortage of game viewing opportunities and it turned out to be a great year for Leopards
Kruger National Park
Karoo National Park
Chobe Game Reserve
The eyes have it
Wild but beautiful
Who needs a horse when you have a mom to ride on
Oh, and the news is hippos can do the heart shape with their jaws – they don’t have fingers you see
Bird photography remains the greatest challenge – I am thrilled when it all comes together and I have captured some of the essence of the bird
Great Egret flying to its roost
White-fronted Bee-eaters doing what they do best – looking handsome
The usually secretive Green-backed Camaroptera popping out momentarily for a unique photo
African Fish-Eagle – aerial king of the waters
Kori Bustard – heaviest flying bird
Crowned Hornbill – he’ll stare you down any day
Large-billed Lark in full song
Village Weaver – busy as a bee
Thick-billed Weaver – less frenetic, more particular about its nest-weaving
African Jacana with juveniles
Juvenile African Jacana – a cute ball of fluff with legs longer than its body
Reed Cormorant with catch
Wishing all who may read this a 2019 that meets all of your expectations!
An easily identified wader or shorebird compared to others of its ilk, darn difficult to find in Southern Africa if my experience is anything to go by.
It’s been on my list of “birds to get” for far too long and I have tried to find it on a couple of occasions, without success. So, when a message appeared on the Mossel Bay Birding WhatsApp group – “Terek Sandpiper at Great Brak“ – I made a quick decision to see if I could find it.
Being a summer migrant and occasional winter migrant (non-breeding) to the southern Cape town of Mossel Bay from our home in Pretoria, I was just a half hour’s drive from Great Brak River, so that would make it an easy decision, you would think. However, I had been bird atlasing since 5.30 am that morning in the Oudtshoorn area, returning home at 2.30 pm, so I already had 9 hours of driving/atlasing under my belt. This was followed by some domestic chores and a trip to the shops so by the time I read the message I was ready to put my feet up and relax for the rest of the late afternoon and evening.
The Terek Sandpiper message changed all that and after a quick reviving coffee I was off to beat the sunset, which was still an hour and a half away, but light was fading…..
By 6.30 pm I was at the spot along the Suiderkruis road which skirts the Great Brak river mouth and ends at a parking area adjoining a picnic spot where several groups seemed to be celebrating the end of their working year in loud style – not quite the accompaniment you want when searching for a lifer but I did my best to ignore the raucous goings on and remain focused on my mission.
Once parked, I got out to scan the sand banks in the middle of the river and could immediately see dozens of Terns and Gulls, but more importantly many smaller shapes moving about in the subdued light. Checking these with my binos made my heart sink momentarily as all I could make out were many groups of small shorebirds which all looked pretty much the same in the less than ideal light.
I had to get closer, so I set off along the sandy edge of the river until I could get a better view of the sand banks – this turned out to be the right move and I carefully scanned the gathered hordes of small shorebirds, mostly Common Ringed Plovers, for something different.
I gasped audibly when I spotted it – the low-slung body on short, bright orange legs and with a long slightly upturned bill stood out like a beacon amongst the more rounded, upright Ringed Plovers with short bills.
Savouring the moment, I waded cautiously into the shallow, wide stream separating the sand bank from the shoreline to try to get a little closer for a photo, but the birds were on to me and promptly moved further away.
So I had to be content with a long-distance photo, which was quite a challenge in itself. The Terek was moving in unison with groups of Ringed Plovers and just getting it vaguely into the camera viewfinder was all but impossible at the distance I was.
So I resorted to getting a lock on its position through my binos then quickly swopping over to the camera, pointing it at the same spot and rattling off a few shots. This worked up to a point but the best of the shots was well below my usual standard, so I crept a bit closer and repeated the process.
At one point the Terek moved slightly away from the Plovers and I rapidly got in some shots while it was more or less isolated –
Deciding that this was about the best I could do and with the light conditions now very poor I trudged back to the car and set off homewards, very pleased with this long-awaited sighting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..”
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 Greenshank, a Palaearctic (Europe, Asia north of the Himalayas, North Africa) summer visitor, mainly from August to April
Common Whimbrel, non-breeding migrant with circumpolar origin, present from August to March
Sanderling, non-breeding migrant from the arctic tundra, present from September to April
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
Another morning’s atlasing, another unique birding encounter
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next stop was Mtunzimi …….. but more about that and the rest of the trip in Part two
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 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)
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.
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).
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.
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 :
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
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 ….
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.
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 :
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spectacled Weavers (Brilwewer / Ploceus ocularis), which I had heard earlier, also came to the stream for a bathe.
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
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
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….
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 :
The female can be told by the much narrower, black trailing edge to its 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.
I left Chobe with the sighting of these elegant birds imprinted on my mind.