Category Archives: Special Birds

Mountains, Zebras and a Pipit on the Rocks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoep chairs designed to keep you away from them !

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

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

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

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

Striped Mouse (Rhabdomys pumilio), Mountain Zebra NP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rock Pipit habitat, Mountain Zebra NP

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

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

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

Twitching a Gull on Sundays

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

Road Trip to Eastern Cape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sooty Gull

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

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

The Journey

My journal tells the story ……

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

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

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

Sundays River Mouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First glimpse of the Sooty Gull

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

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

This is the location where the gull was hanging out

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

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

How to find out about rarities

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

A Crane Safari

Onverwacht Farm

During our September 2020 visit to the farm of Pieter and Anlia, described in my previous post, the opportunity arose for a very unique birding experience, all thanks to Pieter’s efforts in setting it up.

Pieter had arranged with friend Trevor, retired professional hunter and nature expert of note, to pick him up from a nearby farm so that he could guide us to a bird sanctuary on a farm south-west of Vryheid – Trevor had already given the outing a name – “Crane Safari” which was an obvious hint of what we were likely to see but not of the exceptional numbers we would encounter.

Firstly though, there were various urgent farm matters to attend to – amongst them, counting the cattle to make sure none had been ‘appropriated’ overnight, checking fences for signs of any further ‘recycling’ operations and taking the bakkie to town for some repairs to the suspension (damaged during a fruitless hunt for fence ‘recyclers’ who had struck during the night and removed a few hundred metres of fencing) – such is the existence of a farmer in these parts.

Pentad 2745_3035

We picked up Trevor, who I had met before several years ago, drove to Vryheid and then proceeded along the R33 towards Dundee for about 15 kms before turning off onto farm roads and arrived at the farm around 1.30pm. Trevor knows many of the farmers in the area and had arranged access to the farm and bird sanctuary.

From then on, for the next two hours, the birding was hectic as Trevor and Pieter spotted birds in quick succession while I tried to record them on the Birdlasser app and verify the ID.

We drove along the earth wall of the first dam, which was filled with hundreds of waterfowl, including a group of White-backed Ducks (new record for the pentad) and others of Greater Flamingos, Southern Pochards and Cape Shovelers (which I like to call “Sloppy Ducks” based on their Afrikaans name of Slopeende).

White-backed Duck (Thalassornis leuconotus / Witrugeend)
Cape Shoveler (Anas smithii / Kaapse Slopeend)

Several Black-winged Stilts patrolled the dam fringes and Trevor called an African Marsh Harrier which was flying low over the grassy verges.

Moving on, the large vlei lower down came into view and at the same time a huge flock of perhaps 150 Grey Crowned Cranes rose up in unison, creating a birding spectacle that few people can have witnessed. The flock circled the vlei then settled for a while, but as soon as our vehicle edged closer they rose as one again, repeating the spectacle over and over.

Grey Crowned Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid

I would guess that most experienced birders have seen a pair or perhaps a small group of Grey Crowned Cranes at some time, but to see such a large flock of this endangered species is truly remarkable.

Grey Crowned Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid
Grey Crowned Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid

Once we were closer to the vlei, with the Crowned Cranes now settled on the opposite side, we could see a few Glossy Ibises along the fringe and a superior looking Goliath Heron right in the middle. Shortly after, a lone Squacco Heron flew in and a Purple Heron rose up out of the reeds to complete the trio of “scarcer Herons”.

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus / Glansibis)
Vlei, Crane Safari near Vryheid

Between the dam and the vlei, lush grassland was good for Cape Longclaw, Spike-heeled and Red-capped Larks and African Stonechat.

Cape Longclaw (Macronyx capensis / Oranjekeelkalkoentjie)
Spike-heeled Lark (Chersomanes albofasciata/ Vlaktelewerik) – showing its main identifying features of short white-tipped tail and long slightly curved bill

Soon it was time for a lunch break – sandwiches of home made bread and last night’s leg of lamb leftovers along with coffee which went down a treat in the cold windy conditions. The lee side of the bakkie provided some shelter from the wind but we didn’t dawdle and were soon on our way again.

While we were enjoying lunch, a flock of Blue Cranes, some 100 strong, flew over the vlei and settled briefly before moving on – so we had seen large numbers of both of the Crane species found in these parts – mission accomplished, thanks to Trevor!

Later, we found a small group of Blue Cranes in a field, this time close enough for some photos …..

Blue Crane, Crane Safari near Vryheid
Blue Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid
Blue Cranes, Crane Safari near Vryheid

At the last dam before leaving this incredible birding spot, we saw a few waders at the water’s edge and approached carefully so as to get close enough to identify these sometimes difficult species. Fortunately they were all species that I have got to know well and I was able to record Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper (New record for the pentad), Little Stint and Kittlitz’s Plover – a real bonus after such a variety of waterfowl.

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax / Kemphaan), near Vryheid
Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea / Krombekstrandloper), near Vryheid

I hadn’t planned to do a “Full Protocol” (FP) card for the pentad in which the dams and vleis fell, but as it turned out the last bird recorded on the way out – a Southern Masked Weaver at a small stream – was precisely two hours after the first bird and I was more than happy to submit my list as FP (which requires a minimum two hours of survey time in a pentad).

Back at the ranch – well, the farmstead where Trevor and Collette live – we sipped warming Milo while Trevor pointed out a few of the garden species including Paradise Flycatcher and a flock of Olive Pigeons that swooped by.

It had been a memorable day’s birding and I was very pleased to have been able to complete a Full Protocol Atlas card. I recorded 40 species in the two hours, the seventh card for the pentad, and added two new species

Christmas in Kruger : A Bit(tern) of a Surprise

“Christmas in Kruger – it’s going to be very hot!”

Well that was more or less everyone’s reaction when we mentioned our plans for a Christmas break in Kruger National Park. “Yes, we know” was our standard answer, followed by “but the chalets have air-conditioning and so does our car” – this served only to raise a sceptical look or two and we tried hard to convince ourselves that it would all be fine.

As it turned out, we managed to survive the sometimes extreme heat and humidity for which the lowveld is renowned at this time of year – midsummer in South Africa – by spending as much time as possible in air-conditioned areas or shady spots with a cooling breeze and only venturing out during the cooler parts of the day. In fact we elected to stay in camp a lot more than we usually do during visits to Kruger.

Kruger’s Surprises

Kruger always has a surprise or two and I thought I would highlight some of the surprise encounters, starting with what, for me at least, was the highlight of the week. As so often happens with birding, the encounter was dependent on a series of events which were impossible to foresee – here’s how it happened ………

After spending a night in the Magoebaskloof Hotel, where we rendezvoused with daughter Geraldine and family, we made our way the next morning to the entrance gate at Phalaborwa, passing through Tzaneen on the way and stopping at one of the many farm stalls to stock up on some of the locally grown tropical fruit – bananas, paw-paws, mangoes (not for me, can’t stand the taste) and litchies.

The Road to Mopani

At the Phalaborwa gate we dealt with the formalities and proceeded to Mopani Rest Camp – Kruger had it’s summer clothes on – green and lush as far as we could see. We didn’t dawdle. wanting to get to Mopani and settle in, but a report on SA Rare Birds the previous evening of a Striped Crake near Letaba meant I could not resist doing a detour of about 50 kms which would take me past the spot and I would be able to try for this potential rarity / lifer.

There were 3 or 4 vehicles at the small seasonal pan just south of Letaba and we joined them, asking if any had seen this secretive bird – it turned out that none had, despite spending some time there, but we decided to spend a half an hour or so, scanning the shallow water and vegetation along its edges for any sign of the Striped Crake.

Seasonal Pan outside Letaba

It refused to show and we were about to leave when I spotted a crake-like bird on a log above the water, partially hidden by foliage – success! Or was it? I tried desperately to get some photos to help confirm the ID of the crake, but the results were poor due to the interference of foliage and the shady conditions under the trees.

Later I was able to confirm that it was a Crake by downloading the images onto my laptop and zooming in on the detail, but not the rarity I had hoped for – nevertheless it was an African Crake, also a ‘lifer’ for me so I was more than satisfied.

But that wasn’t the last of the seasonal pan near Letaba ……

Mopani to Satara

After 4 nights in Mopani, it was time to move on – to Satara Rest Camp some 140 kms south – not very far by normal standards but in Kruger it translates into a 4 to 5 hour drive, so we planned a stop for lunch at Olifants camp.

Along the route we enjoyed sightings of some of Kruger’s iconic creatures –

Elephant, KNP – Mopani – Satara
Giraffe, KNP – Mopani – Satara
Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus / Gewone troupant), KNP – Mopani – Satara
Southern Ground-Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri / Bromvoël), KNP – Mopani – Satara

We also stopped briefly at Letaba for coffee and a ‘comfort break’ and on the way from there to Olifants, we decided to make a brief stop at the seasonal pan we had visited on the first day, just south of Letaba, despite their being not a single other car there – well, you never know, do you?

We had hardly stopped, still had the engine running, when my heart skipped a beat – a small, unfamiliar crake-like bird was no more than 5m away from me in the shallow water, among the tree roots and tangled vegetation! No, not the Striped Crake but just as good in my book – it was a Dwarf Bittern, a lifer and a bird that I have wanted to find for a long time.

I was ecstatic and spent the next 10 minutes or so watching as it moved slowly and stealthily, foraging in the shallows for its next meal – the sequence of photos says it all.

Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba

Dwarf Bittern
Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba
Dwarf Bittern
Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba
Dwarf Bittern
Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii / Dwergrietreier), KNP – Pan outside Letaba

After two years of not adding a singe lifer to my Southern Africa list, I had found two in the space of four days – what a nice Christmas present!

Strictly Crane Dancing

The Blue Crane is a unique bird for several reasons, not least of all for its striking good looks, but also for the fact that it is South Africa’s National bird and has appeared on stamp issues and has adorned the 5c coin since 1965 – initially a nickel coin, later a copper coin which inflation has rendered worthless except for small change.

It is also unique in being the world’s most range-restricted Crane (out of 15 Cranes worldwide). In the Southern African region (which encompasses South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique) it qualifies as an endemic and almost makes it to the vaunted rank of South African endemic, but for an isolated population in Namibia near the Etosha pan and small numbers in the extreme south-east of Botswana.

Despite a significant decrease in numbers in parts of South Africa, it has grown in numbers in the Western Cape where they favour cereal croplands, planted pastures and ploughed fields, roosting in shallow water bodies such as dams and pans.

Voelvlei (literally “bird pan”) near Mossel Bay is well known to birders in the southern Cape as a magnet for birds (when it has water), and during “wet” seasons up to 1 000 Blue Cranes have been counted roosting there – unfortunately Voelvlei is virtually bone dry at present, as it has been for the last 4 to 5 years – just another reminder of the drought the region has endured.

All of this is just an introduction to this very special bird and to lead into the performance that a pair of Blue Cranes entertained me with earlier this year…

It has to do with their totally unique form of courtship – no candlelit dinners, roses and champagne for them – much too obvious. Blue Cranes which – in the words that American TV dramas have taught us – have “feelings” for one another, do it with an elaborate courtship dance like no other.

Now, I had seen Cranes doing short dances from afar on a couple of previous occasions, but this performance took place about 100 meters / yards from where I was sitting in my vehicle and with the aid of my bridge camera I was able to capture some of the moves. I was busy atlasing along a stretch of road not far from the aforementioned Voelvlei, saw a group of Blue Cranes in the field and stopped to view them properly.

One pair had separated from the larger group and, sensing that they were about to perform, I grabbed my camera and waited – not for long as they launched into a beautiful courtship dance that had me ooh-ing and aah-ing while I clicked away.

Here is a sample of the full sequence I took without too many further words, as the images speak for themselves …..

So there you have it – worth 10’s from all the judges in my book. But don’t get carried away by their gracious looks – Blue Cranes are known to be aggressive during the nesting season to the extent that they attack cattle, tortoises, plovers, even sparrows …… oh and humans as well, drawing blood and tearing clothes – you have been warned!

Australian Adventure – Victoria : Philip Island

We left our overnight accommodation in Geelong after a hearty breakfast – destination Queenscliff. With plenty of time before our reserved ferry trip, we had coffee at a cafe, then drove to the ferry terminal and on to the ferry. 40 minutes later we drove off at Sorrento (no not the Italian one) and set off on the long route around the top of the bay and southwards to Philip island, which is accessed via a bridge across the narrow channel between the mainland and the island.

The rain had followed us for most of the day, varying between light drizzle and road-drenching downpours. We stopped at a farm cafe for warming soup and a break from driving and were treated to the sight of a flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows taking refuge from the heavy rain under a parked vehicle.

Eurasian Tree Sparrows sheltering from the heavy rain
Eurasian Tree Sparrows

We reached Philip Island around 4 pm and headed straight to the accommodation that Stephan had booked for the weekend – they arrived a bit later and we discussed our plans for the next day, Saturday, besides the Penguin Parade for which we had booked tickets the previous week. We decided a visit to the Chocolate Factory would satisfy the kids – the actual ones and the grown-ups who like to be kids sometimes.

Chocolate Factory

Next morning after a slow and lazy start we headed across the island to the Chocolate Factory, not knowing quite what to expect. The entrance tickets set the tone – edible chocolate ones – and we spent a very entertaining hour or more going from one exhibit to the next, some of them interactive and full of fun.

After a good curry lunch we headed back to the house to get ready for the main outing of the day – the Penguin Parade. On the way we passed a small reserve and spotted our first Wallabies – when I stopped to take a photo through the fence, a small head cutely popped out of its pouch!

Penguin Parade

The only thing we knew about the Parade was that it would be outside and we should dress warmly so, kitted out with jackets, scarves and beanies, we drove the few kms or so to the Philip Island Nature Park. By now we had come to know that top tourist attractions in Australia are very popular and the already full parking area confirmed this.

We walked to the main centre, a large building with shops, restaurants, toilets and an auditorium, past an even larger centre under construction, then on down the boardwalk towards the beach area to take up our position on the boarded seating along with numbers of other people hoping for a sighting of the Little Penguins. Our view was limited to a stretch of the beach, a rocky area and a pathway where the penguins would be passing by, we were told.

Penguin Parade boardwalks and seating areas – we were in the seating closest to the camera

It all seemed very organised and unlike any “birding” experience that I could think of, nevertheless I was fascinated by it all and looking forward to seeing these penguins, well named “Little Penguin” as they are the smallest of their species. They are just 35-45cm long and are also known as Fairy Penguin. It is the only resident penguin in Australia.

I was disappointed to hear that photography was not allowed “for the protection of the penguins” – I couldn’t help wondering what the long-term effect may be of up to 2000 people viewing the parade every evening, sitting under lights and crowding the boardwalks as the birds make their way to their roosts. Fortunately one can download photos from an app which is what I did and the photos which I have used here do represent the experience

The Rangers on duty told us what to expect, predicting the time that the first penguins would emerge from the sea after their day of foraging the open seas, in some 45 minutes time. While we waited, a couple of Little Penguins that had been left behind entertained the crowd before the “main show” started at the predicted time, with the first raft of penguins swimming in, scrambling up the rocky area, hesitating, then heading up the network of main and branch pathways in batches of 2 to 20 at a time.

They were beyond cute as they waddled by, bent forward like old folk and rather awkward out of the water, but moving surprisingly quickly. More rafts of penguins swam in, turning into waddles as they moved inland, some up to 3kms to their roosts. All in all several hundred penguins passed our position while we watched fascinated by the spectacle.

We walked back slowly to the main centre along the crowded boardwalk and watched some of the groups of penguins waddling by almost within touching distance, with many already at their chosen spots in the grassy dunes, some apparently courting. All that remained to be done was some shopping and the short drive back to the house.

Quite a special experience despite sharing it with so many others.

Next morning before heading back to Sale, we enjoyed a Mother’s day brunch at a local restaurant in Cowes, then took a walk along the beachfront and pier – a nice way to round off our visit to Philip Island and our week long road trip. I squeezed in some birding while the others enjoyed the seaside atmosphere

Secretary Bird – Bird of the Year 2019

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

My Photo Picks for 2018

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!

The Places

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

Champagne Valley Drakensberg

Annasrust Farm Hoopstad (Free State)

Sunset, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Pine Lake Resort near White River (Mpumulanga Province)

Pine Lake Resort

Mossel Bay – our second “Home” town

Mossel Bay coastline

Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van Reenen

La Lucia near Durban (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

La Lucia beach

Shongweni Dam (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Shongweni Dam

Onverwacht Farm near Vryheid (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Controlled burn on Onverwacht Farm

Kruger Park Olifants camp

Bungalow roof, Kruger Park

Herbertsdale area (Western Cape) – atlasing

Herbertsdale area

Karoo National Park near Beaufort West (Western Cape)

Karoo National Park

Kuilfontein Guest Farm near Colesberg (Northern Cape)

Kuilfontein, Colesberg – the drought has hit this area badly

Verlorenkloof (Mpumulanga)

Verlorenkloof – view from upper path

Lentelus Farm near Barrydale (Western Cape)

Lentelus Farm near Barrydale

The Wildlife

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

African Wild Dog, Kruger National Park

Zebra, Kruger Park

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

Karoo National Park

Waterhole scene, Karoo National Park

Klipspringer, Karoo National Park

Chobe Game Reserve

The eyes have it

Chacma Baboon, Chobe River Trip

Hippo, Chobe River Trip

Wild but beautiful

Leopard, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Leopard, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Who needs a horse when you have a mom to ride on

Chacma Baboon, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Oh, and the news is hippos can do the heart shape with their jaws – they don’t have fingers you see

Hippo, Chobe River Trip

The Birds

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

Great Egret, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

White-fronted Bee-eaters doing what they do best – looking handsome

White-fronted Bee-eater, Kruger Day Visit

White-browed Robin-Chat

White-browed Robin-Chat, Kruger Day Visit

The usually secretive Green-backed Camaroptera popping out momentarily for a unique photo

Green-backed Camaroptera, Kruger Day Visit

African Fish-Eagle – aerial king of the waters

African Fish Eagle, Kruger Park

Kori Bustard – heaviest flying bird

Kori Bustard, Kruger Park

Little Bee-eater

Little Bee-eater, Olifants, Kruger Park

Black-chested Snake-Eagle

Black-chested Snake=Eagle, Kruger Park

Crowned Hornbill – he’ll stare you down any day

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park

Kittlitz’s Plover

Kittlitz’s Plover, Gouritzmond

Large-billed Lark in full song

Large-billed Lark, Herbertsdale area

Village Weaver – busy as a bee

Village Weaver, Verlorenkloof

Thick-billed Weaver – less frenetic, more particular about its nest-weaving

Thick-billed Weaver, Verlorenkloof

African Jacana with juveniles

African Jacana, Chobe River Trip

Juvenile African Jacana – a cute ball of fluff with legs longer than its body

African Jacana, Chobe River Trip

Reed Cormorant with catch

Reed Cormorant, Chobe River Trip

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Chobe River Trip

White-crowned Lapwing

White-crowned Lapwing, Chobe River Trip

 

Wishing all who may read this a 2019 that meets all of your expectations!

Terek Sandpiper at Great Brak ….

Terek Sandpiper (Terekruiter / Xenus cinereus)

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.

Even at full zoom, there was not much to be seen

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.

Full zoom and cropped as far as I could push it, at least separated the Terek Sandpiper from the Plovers

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 –

This was the closest I was going to get so I had to be content with a “record shot”

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.

Kittlitz’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