Category Archives: Special Birds

A Twitch or Two – Finding Rarities

Twitching?

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 hardaker@mweb.co.za ) 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.

Pacific Golden Plover, Gouritzmond

Pacific Golden Plover, Gouritzmond

Pacific Golden Plover, Gouritzmond

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!

Caspian Plover, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover

Caspian Plover, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover

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.

Mkhombo Dam
Mkhombo Dam

Red Phalarope, Mkhombo Dam

Red Phalarope, Mkhombo Dam

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!

Waterfall Estate
Waterfall Estate

Spotted Crake, Waterfall Estate

Spotted Crake, Waterfall Estate

So I am feeling quite pleased with my twitching efforts, adding four diverse species in four very different localities spread across South Africa.

Wonder what will turn up next?

White-winged Flufftail – on the edge of extinction

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.

The image is from Middelpunt Wetland Trust :