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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The trip back to Kasane was uneventful, other than coming across a trio of elephants along the road traversing Chobe.
Another successful twitch and memories of a brief but busy trip that will stay with me for a long while.
The birding world is full of twitchers – essentially they are the birders who are chasing numbers (of species seen) and who will go to considerable lengths to add a new species to their list of “lifers” (birds not previously seen/ticked) or to other lists such as regional, provincial, annual and the like.
Keen twitchers think nothing of getting on a plane and flying from Joburg to Cape Town, for example, to twitch a vagrant species that may have turned up in the area.
The size or appearance of a bird is not of great importance – a nondescript small bird can generate as much excitement as a larger, striking species, provided the scarcity factor is high.
Wkipedia has a nice definition and some further info on the subject :
“Twitching is a British term used to mean “the pursuit of a previously located rare bird.” In North America it is more often called chasing, though the British usage is starting to catch on there, especially among younger birders. The term twitcher, sometimes misapplied as a synonym for birder, is reserved for those who travel long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked, or counted on a list. The term originated in the 1950s, when it was used for the nervous behaviour of Howard Medhurst, a British birdwatcher. Prior terms for those who chased rarities were pot-hunter, tally-hunter, or tick-hunter. The main goal of twitching is often to accumulate species on one’s lists. Some birders engage in competition to accumulate the longest species list. The act of the pursuit itself is referred to as a twitch or a chase. A rare bird that stays put long enough for people to see it is twitchable or chaseable.”
Where does that Place Me?
Well, I enjoy listing the species I have seen, but there are limits as to how far I will go to view and tick a new species – my rule of thumb is that I will consider it if it is within one to two hour’s road travel, as long as it does not disrupt my normal routines too much.
Previous attempts to twitch a couple of rarities which have been reported on the SA Rare Bird News platform (an excellent and valuable service provided by Trevor Hardaker – you can ask to join the group via email to Trevor at email@example.com ) have met with mixed success, mainly due to me being too slow off the mark, so that by the time I get around to visiting the spot where a rarity has been reported, the bird has moved on to greener pastures .. or cleaner water or wherever.
However, I have had some success over the last month or two, which has changed my view of twitching just a bit – nothing like adding a new species or having the chance to photograph it to get the happy juices flowing!
Here is a selection of my recent twitches :
Pacific Golden Plover : Gouritzmond, Western Cape
I had started the morning of 14 December 2015 by atlasing a pentad along the Herbertsdale road outside Mossel Bay, where we have a home and decided to drive to Gouritzmond nearby to see if I could find the Pacific Golden Plover reported there since October.
The difficult part was finding the site of the “boat launch” which was the only info given out and I spent some time driving around the town looking for a spot where boats were launched, but eventually had to admit defeat and actually ask someone. If I had been awake driving into town from the inland side I would have noticed the tell-tale sign just outside town.
At the boat launch it was quite busy with visiting boaters and fishermen, but finding the Plover took less than a minute as it moved, unperturbed by all the activity, up and down the muddy shoreline of the Gouritz river. I approached carefully and was able to get some nice shots as it probed the shallows and flew a short distance before settling again. A very simple “twitch” this time.
Caspian Plover : Hanover, Northern Cape
We were on the way back to Pretoria from Mossel Bay in mid January 2016, doing it in a few stages as is our wont.
Knowing we would be passing Hanover I kept it in the back of my mind that a Caspian Plover had been reported from a nearby guest farm called New Holme and when I saw we had time to spare, I proposed a “quick diversion” to Gerda who, used to me springing birding surprises on her, agreed, so we took the farm road for 8 kms to the homestead hoping for a quick sighting and turnaround.
The owner PC Ferreira was busy with new guests booking in, but he pointed us towards the area where the plover had been seen and we duly covered the area as best we could for about half an hour, scanning the plains for the elusive bird, but without success – lots of Kittlitz’s Plovers, some Namaqua Sandgrouse but no Caspians.
Back at the ranch … er farmhouse, PC was free and refused to let me go without seeing his “special bird”, so I joined him, his little daughter and two dogs in his bakkie and we headed back to the short-grassed area where his sheep were grazing and within minutes we had found the Caspian Plover. It was good enough to pose nicely at a distance. Another success!
Red Phalarope : Mkhombo Dam, Mpumulanga
I had tried for this species a year or two previously but it had moved on before I got to it, so I was keen to try for it when an individual was reported during January 2016 at Mkhombo Dam, which lies north of Pretoria, within my two-hour limit.
In the end it took two visits a few days apart to track it down and it disappeared shortly thereafter so I was just in time. On the second visit I met up with George and Barbara Skinner as arranged and we followed the track which skirts the western side of the dam, finding the Phalarope without too much effort where it was swimming up and down in a small bay formed by the slowly receding water.
The muddy fringe did not allow a close approach, but I walked as far as I could to get a reasonable photo.
Spotted Crake : Waterfall Estate, Gauteng
I hardly imagined I would see this particular species without going to some far-off location and spending lots of time searching for it. As it turned out this was one of the easiest and most popular twitches on record in SA, seen by well over 1000 birders so far and still going strong as I write this.
I decided it was too good an opportunity to miss when it turned up unexpectedly at one of the main gates to the Waterfall Estate in Midrand, between Joburg and Pretoria and made the pilgrimage one morning before going to the office. It was not visible when I arrived but made an appearance a few minutes later, trotting up and down in the shallows of the man-made pond, occasionally popping behind the reeds before coming into view again.
It has become a famous bird and a superstar of the SA birding scene in a short space of time!
So I am feeling quite pleased with my twitching efforts, adding four diverse species in four very different localities spread across South Africa.
A message received from Birdlife SA is worthy of a special Post on my blog.
A couple of years ago I was fortunate, along with scores of keen birders, to have a brief sighting of this enigmatic bird at a high altitude wetland near Dullstroom in Mpumalanga, South Africa, some 200Kms from Pretoria. We trudged through the shorter grass on the edge of the wetland while a group of about 12 people with the help of tracker dogs thrashed there way through the longer grass to try and flush the flufftail. After lots of walking and hoping, one did flush briefly and we were able to view it at a distance before it dove back into the cover of the long grass. So little is known about it, but it is a fascinating little bird which seems to migrate between Ethiopia and South Africa – but no one really knows! There are estimated to be just 250 birds remaining, with about 50 of these in South Africa. If they all got together in one place, standing side by side they would probably fit in a medium sized bathroom!
The media release is copied below :
South African flufftail on brink of extinction
Johannesburg, 28 November 2013:
The White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi is the latest addition to the growing number of the world’s birds which are threatened with extinction. The tiny and secretive flufftail, one of nine flufftail species in Africa, is now listed as Critically Endangered, one step away from extinction. The White-winged Flufftail is only known to occur in South Africa and, nearly 4000 km away, in Ethiopia.
Ornithologists are of the opinion that fewer than 250 adult White-winged Flufftails remain in the wild and that the South African population is estimated to number less than 50 birds. These estimates, combined with the emergent threats of habitat degradation and habitat loss, saw BirdLife South Africa and the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, two BirdLife International partners at the opposite ends of the continent, motivate for the uplisting of the White-winged Flufftail to globally Critically Endangered. This category represents the highest risk of extinction in the wild. White-winged Flufftail is the second South African bird species to be listed as globally Critically Endangered, with the other being the Tristan Albatross.
According to BirdLife International: “destruction and degradation of its high altitude wet grassland habitat, including wetland drainage, conversion for agriculture, water abstraction, overgrazing by livestock and cutting of marsh vegetation, have driven it to this precarious state. Urgent action is now needed in both Ethiopia and South Africa to better understand the species’ ecology and to address these threats and save it from extinction”. The preferred high altitude wetland habitat in South Africa, which is mostly limited to Mpumalanga, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, is threatened by mining, pollution from industrial effluents, domestic and commercial sewage, acid mine drainage, agricultural runoff and litter. The three Ethiopian wetlands where the birds are known to occur and breed are threatened by overgrazing and grass-cutting.
There is growing concern for the future of the White-winged Flufftail. “BirdLife South Africa and the Middelpunt Wetland Trust (MWT) have rolled out a number of research projects during 2012 and 2013 to focus on the conservation of the White-winged Flufftail”, according to Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, Conservation Manager at BirdLife South Africa. She added that “it is only with a better understanding of the connection between South Africa and Ethiopia, the flufftail’s movements and its habits, that we can implement correct conservation measures”.
A survey of suitable wetland habitat in South Africa is currently underway and will contribute to a better understanding of the extent of its occurrence in our country. Smit-Robinson further explains, “the analyses of blood and feather samples will shed light on whether the birds move between Ethiopia and South Africa or whether the two populations are in fact isolated”.
According to Malcolm Drummond, founding trustee of the MWT, solely established for the conservation of the White-winged Flufftail and its habitat, the Trust has long understood the importance of protecting habitat for the species in South Africa and Ethiopia. “As a means of gaining the support of the local community at Berga wetland in Ethiopia, where the flufftail breeds, the MWT has provided financial support over the past ten years for the building of a primary school for 700 pupils”. In return, the site support group patrols the wetland during the breeding season to prevent grazing and grass cutting.
The research and conservation work on the White-winged Flufftail is supported by the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme through funding from Eskom, the BirdLife Species Champion for the White-winged Flufftail.