Category Archives: Twitching

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

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.

A Sudden Twitch – Malagasy Pond-Heron

Malagasy Pond-Heron?

Sounds exotic …. and indeed it is, if you are a South African birder.

This is how I came to see this bird and put to rest a certain entry on my life list that has gnawed at my birding conscience for many years.

Rare birds have, for the last couple of years, made a habit of crossing my path, making themselves difficult to ignore if not irresistible.

I have this very arbitrary “rule” with regard to twitching rare birds which says that I only consider it if the bird is within 2 hours travelling time from wherever I am based at the time. I have had an incredible run of luck over the last two years in that I have been positioned to twitch rare bird species in places such as Katima Mulilo in Namibia (I was in nearby  Kasane Botswana at the time), Strandfontein Sewage works in Cape Town (I was visiting Cape Town), Stilbaai on the Southern Cape Coast (I was in Mossel Bay) and Mkombo dam in Limpopo Province (I was at home in Pretoria), all without breaking my rule.

When news broke via the SA Rare Bird News (SARBN) report produced so expertly by Trevor Hardaker, of a Malagasy Pond-Heron at Phinda Private Game Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal province (KZN) , I initially ignored it, Phinda being well beyond my travel limit at around 6 hours drive from Pretoria. But as the weeks passed and the Pond-Heron was still being seen, on top of which our timeshare week in Durban was approaching, I realised that Phinda, near the town of Hluhluwe in Zululand, would be a lot closer if we travelled from Durban – some 2 and a half hours drive by my estimate.

Suddenly it became do-able without exceeding my travel limit by much, and in any case we would be on holiday, so what better time to fit in a side trip to northern KZN, which we had last visited 15 or more years ago.

What made this twitch different was that it was only possible to look for the bird if you joined one of the game drives that various birders were booking through AndBeyond, who run a few lodges at Phinda and had permission from the concession owners at Mziki to access the dam where the Pond-Heron was seen.

I started looking out for a game drive opportunity that coincided with our first weekend at our timeshare unit ie 24 – 25 June. I soon found that the weekend drives were fully booked, but it seemed that no one had got as far as booking the Sunday afternoon drive…..

After some serious should I / shouldn’t I thoughts and with our Friday drive to Durban looming, I decided at the last moment to phone Phinda reservations, made a provisional booking and the game was on! Trevor Hardaker kindly sent out an email note on Friday morning to all SARBN subscribers and the calls started coming in as we commenced our drive on the N3 to Durbs. Some time after our halfway lunch stop at Harrismith, the game drive was fully taken up, Phinda’s invoice received and paid and details had been sent to the 5 other participants. It’s amazing what can be achieved with a smart phone on the go!

Off to Phinda

We were glad of the Saturday to recover at our timeshare apartment in La Lucia so that, come Sunday, we were ready to travel again – this time northwards up the N2 National road to Richards Bay, then on to Hluhluwe where we had a burger lunch before heading to the Phinda gate some 20 kms further.

Durban La Lucia to Phinda Game Reserve

I dropped Gerda off at the Phinda Mountain Lodge, on the way to Mziki Private camp where we were to be collected. Along the way game was plentiful including a Rhino family, one of them de-horned as an anti-poaching measure as is the trend nowadays, also Nyala, Zebra and Warthogs.

How do you like your Rhino – horned or de-horned?

Some interesting birds caught my eye, the pick being a Long-tailed Paradise Whydah with its impressive tail feathers almost too long to fit into the frame, followed closely by a striking Scarlet-chested Sunbird in the Aloes at the lodge.

When I arrived at Mziki camp entrance and parked in the demarcated spots (these Phinda folk are organised) the other twitchers were all there – not twitching as such, in fact quite calm, but looking forward to finding the bird that had brought us all to this place – Dave Minney, Johan Boshoff, Jon de Guisti, Trish Jonsson and Ken Jarvis. Just a few minutes later our game drive vehicle arrived with Zandri Benade at the wheel – the vehicle looked far too large for this petite young lady to handle, but as it turned out she drove it like a pro.

And so we set off, excited, to Mziki dam – which was literally “just down the road” and we reached it a few minutes later, where Zandri found the Pond-Heron a further few minutes later! Other groups had looked for up to two hours to find the Pond-Heron, but in our case – there it was – almost before we had a chance to build up some tension and excitement!

At least we could all relax in the knowledge that our long journeys had paid off and now we could just enjoy the bird. And enjoy it we did, for close to two hours, watching its every move while enjoying the peaceful setting and beautiful surroundings.

Initially the Pond-Heron was engrossed in its search for prey along the grassy edge of the dam, probing now and then in the shallow water then moving in stalker fashion, veeeerrrryy slllooowwwly and deliberately, hardly causing even a tiny ripple which may warn the fish, frogs and aquatic insects of its approach.

Zandri edged the vehicle closer, trying for better views and camera angles to take advantage of the lighting. The Pond-Heron played along nicely, posing in various positions and actions :

  • Stalking mode

  • Coy behind grass fronds

  • A short flight to show off its “whiter than white” OMO advert wings

  • Moving into the open with perfect light conditions, showing off its heavy streaking and yellow legs

  • Preening at water’s edge

  • Sipping water

  • Moving cautiously past a crocodile near the water, eyeing it in the process, while we all held our breath wondering if this would be the Pond-Heron’s last hurrah

Hmm who’s this then

Best keep away – those jaws look fearsome

  • Joining a Yellow-billed Stork and African Spoonbill foraging in the shallows

 

Threesome

While this was happening we were also entertained by other visitors to the water :

  • A handsome Nyala bull coming to drink, joined later by a female and a younger male

Nyala Bull

Nyala

 

  • Yellow-billed Stork flying in and joining the lone Spoonbill

Here I come

Arghhh .. brakes on

Made it

Oh oh here comes a stranger

 

  • Pied Kingfisher flying by with fish prey just caught, later continuing its familiar hovering search for the next one

Fuzzy photo but nice catch

Looking for the next one

The afternoon concluded with a celebratory drink and a toast, where after we all went our separate ways, thoroughly happy about the outcome and a very special lifer.

Oh and that bit about my birding conscience at the start of this post …

In fact my life list already included this rare species, based on a sighting 23 years ago at a small pond at Tshipise in the far north-east of SA. Can one trust a sighting from your early years of birding, when I had no appreciation of rarities as such? There have only been a handful of sightings in our region, mostly in Mozambique with just one previous sighting in South Africa itself, also in KZN at Ndumo July 2005 (according to Roberts) so what are the chances that I indeed saw this species in July 1994? Actually I am still mostly convinced that I did record the species at the time, but am glad I could put all doubts about including it in my life list to rest with this sighting.