Birding Big Day – November 2020 – The Finish

What’s it all about ?

Continuing the story of Birding Big Day (BBD), which is held every year on the last Saturday in November – the event is all about seeing how many bird species can be identified in a 24 hour period from midnight to midnight. Teams are allowed a maximum of 4 participants, of which a majority must agree on each species identification, whether by sight or call.

Birdlasser, the amazing birdlisting and atlasing app developed in South Africa, keeps track of every sighting of every team and can be easily accessed during the day to see where the team stands in comparison with the other 300 plus teams across the country.

Our team was set up by Koos Pauw and included myself, Martin Slabbert and Thinus van Staden to make up our team of four. A target of 200 species was decided upon by the team – only time would tell if this was achievable on the day.

Weather forecasts were looking promising and we hoped they would prove to be accurate, however at this time of year on the highveld extreme heat and afternoon thundershowers are the norm so we weren’t assured of a full day’s uninterrupted birding

This turned into quite a lengthy story so to keep it manageable I have split it into 3 stages – The Start, The Middle and The Finish.

Borakolalo to Rooiwal (Hour 12 and 13)

A testing time lay ahead as we headed away from Borakolalo towards our final target spot – Rooiwal Waste Water Treatment Works. Slow traffic, substandard roads and many rural villages along the way, clogged with random traffic, pedestrians and animals, proved frustrating as the minutes and hours ticked away, eating into the remaining daylight hours.

Koos remained calm and patient behind the wheel, despite very little to raise our spirits, until an unexpected wetland near the road was cause for a rapid stop. Shouts of Abdim’s Stork went up, followed by White Stork and finally a Black Heron was spotted.

Moretele area, Birding Big Day 2020 (Look carefully – Abdim’s Storks just visible)

With renewed enthusiasm we carried on and another hour later found the road which would take us to Rooiwal

Highlights (apart from the wetland specials mentioned above) :

Ashy Tit seen just after leaving Borakolalo

White-rumped Swift (at last!)

Rock Dove – yes even this mundane species which is fond of people becomes a highlight when you are getting anxious

Total Species : 183 after 13 hours – our slowest rate of the day, adding just 7 species in two hours

Rooiwal Waste Water Treatment Works (Hour 14)

At last, we turned off the slow road and found ourselves on Piet-my-Vrou Street, which augured well as it is the Afrikaans name for Red-chested Cuckoo.

Koos was right in his assessment that this road would take us through a stretch of highveld habitat, differing from any of the other habitats we had encountered so far – Long-tailed Widowbird in longish grass provided the proof.

Long-tailed Widowbird

30 minutes later we arived at Rooiwal, initially driving the rough track that runs through the adjoining open veld with pans, then entering the treatment works for a rapid ‘whip around’ to see what we could add to our already substantial (by our standards) list.

Highlights :

African Stonechat in the open grasslands

African Stonechat (male)

Many Grey-headed Gulls enjoying the several ponds of the treatment works

Cape Teals equally at home on the ponds

Cape Teal (Anas capensis / Teeleend), Rooiwal

White-fronted Bee-eaters – first of the day at the treatment works

Red-collared Widowbirds as we drove away from Rooiwal

Total species : 194 after 14 hours – getting closer to our target but with time running out we still had some work to do

Back to Pretoria for the Final Push (Hour 15 and 16)

With just 6 species to go, we left Rooiwal and were soon back on the N1 heading to Pretoria, our last hope for a grand finish!

The consensus was that we still had not picked up some of the typical ‘suburban’ birds that are common in the leafy suburbs that we know so well. So we made our way first to Meyerspark to the east of the city and explored some of the open spaces between the houses and local businesses

This proved to be a good strategy as we slowly added to our total and excitement mounted with each new species.

Every bird added was a highlight :

195 – Red-winged Starling perched on a tall building

196 – Violet-backed Starling in tall trees adjoining a small business complex

197 – Cape White-eye in the same trees

Cape White-eye

198 – Bronze Mannikins feeding on a sidewalk lawn

199 – Crested Barbet feeding on an adjoining lawn

The light was fading fast as we headed up a hill past a block of flats with lush gardens – as we stopped to listen, a Kurrichane Thrush appeared in the lower branches of a tree – 200 up !!!

In high spirits we headed through the adjoining suburb of Murrayfield where we added 2 more for luck – Cut-throat Finch and Fiscal Flycatcher – then back to where it had all started in The Glades. There was just time to stop at the dam where we had started some 16 hours earlier and find the Cape Weaver that I know nests there – sure enough it was present and became our last bird of the day.

These photos were taken in The Glades, but not on the day

Cut-throat Finch (Male) (Amadina fasciata / Bandkeelvink), Wapadrand Pretoria
Cape Weaver (Ploceus capensis / Kaapse wewer), The Glades

A final separate count the next day showed just one species had been seen but not recorded, so our final count was 204. This was good enough for 40th position out of over 300 teams, so we were extremely pleased with our effort

The results, Birding Big Day 2020

Phew, what a day!

Birding Big Day – November 2020 – The Middle

What’s it all about ?

Continuing the story of Birding Big Day (BBD), which is held every year on the last Saturday in November – the event is all about seeing how many bird species can be identified in a 24 hour period from midnight to midnight. Teams are allowed a maximum of 4 participants, of which a majority must agree on each species identification, whether by sight or call.

Birdlasser, the amazing birdlisting and atlasing app developed in South Africa, keeps track of every sighting of every team and can be easily accessed during the day to see where the team stands in comparison with the other 300 plus teams across the country.

Our team was set up by Koos Pauw and included myself, Martin Slabbert and Thinus van Staden to make up our team of four. A target of 200 species was decided upon by the team – only time would tell if this was achievable on the day.

Weather forecasts were looking promising and we hoped they would prove to be accurate, however at this time of year on the highveld extreme heat and afternoon thundershowers are the norm so we weren’t assured of a full day’s uninterrupted birding

This turned into quite a lengthy story so to keep it manageable I have split it into 3 stages – The Start, The Middle and The Finish.

Kgomo-Kgomo (Hour 7)

This was our status at 9.58 am after 6.5 hours – 26th position and looking strong (Team Tuis-Bes)

9.58 am Birding Big Day 2020

As we approached the village of Kgomo-Kgomo at the end of the Zaagkuildrift road, the habitat changed to more open, dry countryside. We turned east towards the bridge over the wetlands, which had received a fair amount of water during recent rains. Some time was spent on the bridge scanning the wetlands, while passing locals from the village greeted us in friendly fashion – no doubt used to seeing birders in action at this well-known birding spot.

Highlights :

The somewhat drier habitat near the village produced Cape Penduline Tit and Scaly-feathered Weaver (Finch), while high overhead a soaring Black-chested Snake-Eagle caught our attention and was quickly ID’d.

Black-chested Snake=Eagle

Great Sparrow also made it onto our list – a scarce bird and one of our birds of the day. We wondered again why this particular sparrow is so scarce, while sparrows in general are such common birds

The wetlands held numerous waders and swimmers such as Black-winged Stilt, Wood Sandpiper, Little Egret, Cape Shoveler and Little Grebe and we added Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and Brown-throated Martin.

Black-winged Stilt

Total species : 152 after 7 hours – still looking good for our target

Borakolalo (Hour 8 to 11)

It was 10.25 am when we left Kgomo-Kgomo, full of confidence for a good total, but we knew we were approaching the dreaded “middle of the day” lull when birds seem to go into hiding. New species were becoming more difficult to find, so we used the time to get to our next target spot of Borakolalo Nature Reserve as quickly as possible, stopping only when a potential new species was spotted and to spend about ten minutes at the one dam that we passed

We arrived at Borakolalo Nature Reserve 45 minutes later and spent the next two and a half hours exploring the tracks through the bushveld area and along the shoreline of the dam. Our first glimpse of the dam itself confirmed our one fear – the water level was exceptionally high and not at all suitable for the many waders that usually frequent the muddy shores. This was emphasized when we later passed by the dam wall which was overflowing and sending a surge of water down the sloping wall into the river below

Borakolalo NP, Birding Big Day 2020

So that left us with the ‘swimmers’, many of which we had already logged – our only chance of adding new species was to cover the bushveld habitat as thoroughly as possible. It was slow going, using the strategy of stopping every couple of hundred metres or so and scanning the bush and sky for birds. We continued with this until we had exhausted most possibilities and headed back to the main entrance to assess our strategy for the rest of the day.

Highlights :

At this stage of the day just about every sighting becomes a highlight and there was no shortage of desirable birds that made it onto our list

African Cuckoo, calling hauntingly as we stopped at a roadside dam, quickly traced to a nearby tree

Sabota Lark, as always, singing from the very top of a tree

Sabota Lark (Calendulauda sabota / Sabotalewerik)

African Fish-Eagles for – um – Africa,,,,, We saw up to 5 of this iconic species at a time, soaring above the dam looking for their next meal no doubt.

Red-crested Korhaan calling, several times at different spots in the reserve – the unmistakeable, loud kyip-kyip-kyip that they emit at regular intervals.

We did not encounter many animals but a Giraffe was good enough to cross the road ahead of us and as a bonus had some Red-billed Oxpeckers in attendance

Red-billed Oxpecker

A raptor flew off low just ahead of us and we leapt out to ID it – not too difficult to see that it was a Wahlberg’s Eagle, with a longish, squared-off tail

One of our frequent stops produced a small bird party with Southern Black Tit, White-crowned Helmet-Shrike and Yellow-fronted Canary in the nearby trees

Just after hearing a Pearl-spotted Owlet at one stop, a large bird flew at speed between the trees and we were able to track it to a distant tree – it was a Great Spotted Cuckoo

Great Spotted Cuckoo

Heading out of the reserve, we picked up Golden-tailed Woodpecker and Red-headed Weaver before leaving Borakolalo

Our rate of new species had slowed down drastically to between 5 and 8 per hour, to be expected during the middle of the day lull, nevertheless disappointing as we had envisaged more waterbirds to help us get to our target.

Total species : 177 after 11 hours – so near yet so far from our target of 200…..

Our next planned spot was Rooiwal – a Waste Water Treatment Works about 40 kms north of Pretoria, where we hoped to find the balance of the species to take us to our target

Birding Big Day – November 2020 – The Start

What’s it all about ?

“In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” (Alfred Lord Tennyson) – ummmm, well, actually in my case it’s birding and specifically Birding Big Day (BBD), which is held every year on the last Saturday in November – an event not to be missed by keen, occasionally competitive birders such as myself and fellow atlaser Koos Pauw. Oh, and that bit about a young man’s fancy – well that’s stretching the truth to be honest….

The annual event is all about seeing how many bird species can be identified in a 24 hour period from midnight to midnight. Teams are allowed a maximum of 4 participants, of which a majority must agree on each species identification, whether by sight or call.

Birdlasser, the amazing birdlisting and atlasing app developed in South Africa, keeps track of every sighting of every team and can be easily accessed during the day to see where the team stands in comparison with the other 300 plus teams across the country.

And so it was that Koos set up the team, inviting Martin Slabbert and Thinus van Staden, two younger, keen birders to make up the team of four. We met in the week prior to the event to discuss the route and an indicative timeline we would follow – vital to the success of the day’s endeavours, but we knew we should have some flexibility on the day to cater for the unexpected …

A target of 200 species was decided upon by the team – do-able but seemingly optimistic, considering Koos and I had never done more than 185 species in a day over many previous BBD’s. But I was hopeful, even confident that the introduction of two younger members to the team would take us to the 200 mark …. only time would tell. Koos and I refined the route during the last week and we were all set for Saturday 28th November.

Weather forecasts were looking promising and we hoped they would prove to be accurate, however at this time of year on the highveld extreme heat and afternoon thundershowers are the norm so we weren’t assured of a full day’s uninterrupted birding

This turned into quite a lengthy story so to keep it manageable (and hopefully readable) I have split it into 3 stages – The Start, The Middle and The Finish. So here goes with the Start of the day…..

Pre-dawn Pretoria (Hour 1)

I was up at 2.15 am to prepare for the day and was ready when Koos arrived at 3.20 am, having picked up Martin and Thinus on the way. A short drive through The Glades (the estate where our home is located), stopping at the two small dams to shine our torches on the water, got our list going before heading out.

A short detour through Murrayfield on the way to the highway saw us stopping at a bridge to check for Finfoot (seen recently at that spot) without success, then we were speeding north on the N1 highway to our “dawn chorus” spot.

Highlights :

Thick-billed Weaver revealed by torchlight in the reeds at the Glades dam (Glades photos were taken a few days earlier in daylight)

Thick-billed Weaver (Amblyospiza albifrons / Dikbekwewer) (Male) (race woltersi), The Glades

Red-chested Cuckoo calling monotonously from 2.30 am

Mallard and Yellow-billed Duck out and about on the Glades dam, visible by torchlight

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos / Groenkopeend), The Glades
Yellow-billed Duck (Anas undulata / Geelbekeend), The Glades

Total species : 11

Pienaarsrivier Irrigation Dams (Hour 2 &3)

It took 45 minutes to travel the 70 kms to Pienaarsrivier and the irrigation dams that Thinus had suggested as our dawn starting point. Once we arrived at the dams and the surrounding wetlands, it was already light enough to see that this would prove to be an excellent spot to start the day in earnest – the pre-dawn sky was filling with birds on the move and the wetlands were busy with waders and swimmers.

Irrigation Dams near Pienaarsrivier, Birding Big Day 2020

Parked on the main dam’s earthen wall we had a good view of the action all around and birds were added rapidly – so much so that I struggled to keep pace logging them on the BIrdlasser app as they got called out, at the same time scanning the wetlands with binos and scope to verify ID’s and search for new ones.

This action kept us busy for the best part of two hours as we progressed slowly around the main dam and the adjoining wetlands and fields. This was the most productive part of the day and highlights were many –

Highlights :

The call of a Great Reed Warbler (probably newly arrived from its European breeding grounds) emanating from dense reeds

At 5 am, thousands of Red-billed Queleas rising up out of the adjoining fields and covering the dawn sky. Wave after wave of Queleas followed – a few hundred thousand at a guess – off to feed in the surrounding areas

A tiny sandbank in the middle of one pond held a variety of waders of differing size just too far to be certain of their ID but the scope views confirmed them – Little Stint, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, with an African Black Duck on the side

As the skies lightened, terns appeared – both of the regular fresh water species – Whiskered and White-winged Terns

The unusual sight of a flock of 12 Black-crowned Night-Herons flying overhead – none of us had seen so many at one time of this mostly solitary species

Three Kingfishers spotted within 4 minutes as we circled the dam – Woodland, Pied and Brown-hooded Kingfishers all presented themselves to be counted

Cries of “bumblebee” from the younger half of the team had me puzzled for a second until I realised they were referring to the Yellow-crowned Bishops buzzing around the long grass, looking a lot like giant bumblebees with their black and yellow colouring and manner of flight

Yellow-crowned Bishop (Euplectes afer / Goudgeelvink)

Total species : 79 after 3 hours

Irrigation Dams to Zaagkuildrift (Hour 4)

Before leaving the irrigation dams, Thinus suggested a walk through longish grass to a wetland area not accessible by vehicle. What a good idea it turned out to be as we added one very special wader and a handful of other species before heading to the start of our second major focus area – the famous (among birders) Zaagkuildrift Road that starts just outside the village of Pienaarsrivier and meanders west to the Kgomo-Kgomo floodplain

Irrigation Dams near Pienaarsrivier, Birding Big Day 2020
Wetlands at Irrigation Dams near Pienaarsrivier, Birding Big Day 2020
Start of Zaagkuildrift, Birding Big Day 2020

Highlights :

Exploring the wetlands on foot we found African Swamphen and then the ‘bird of the day’ – Lesser Moorhen

African Purple Swamphen

Zaagkuildrift road starts with grasslands on both sides and we quickly picked up Rufous-naped Lark, Northern Black Korhaan and Desert Cisticola, followed by Wing-snapping Cisticola, which performed a display flight in front of us.

Rufous-naped Lark

Total species : 98 after 4 hours

Zaagkuildrift Road to Kgomo-Kgomo (Hour 5 & 6)

Zaagkuildrift road requires slow progress to make the most of the birding on offer, which is plentiful and to be found in the road, at puddles, in the roadside bush and trees, on the fences, in adjoining fields and even in the air.

It was still just 7.36 am when we passed 100 species and our spirits were high. But we had seen many of the common species by now, so the tempo of adding new species was bound to slow down, evidenced by the rate of new species per hour slowing from our initial 35 per hour to 23 in hour 5 and then just 10 in hour 6.

We stuck to the ‘main’ road which despite being a gravel surface is in good condition, our only deviation being the side road which birders know as “Crake Road” – we had progressed about half a km along this road when we came upon a bakkie (utility vehicle) standing in the middle of the narrow road with some agitated looking farm personnel peering underneath. Clearly it was going nowhere for an indeterminate time so we had to abandon any further exploration of the road and reversed out (no room to turn) and continued along the main route.

Highlights :

Plenty of the typical “bushveld” species were present, including 3 species of Waxbill (Blue, Black-faced and Violet-eared) plus a few similarly small birds such as Green-winged Pytilia, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Jameson’s Firefinch and Neddicky

Blue Waxbill (Uraeginthus angolensis / Gewone blousysie)

Marico and White-bellied Sunbirds seen within minutes of each other

Marico Sunbird

Hamerkop at the spruit on Crake Road – the only species we added on this road

Hamerkop patiently waiting for prey

Total species : 131 after 6 hours

It was still only 9.30 am with a lot of day left, so we were feeling optimistic about reaching our target. However we knew that the dreaded “middle of the day” lull lay ahead and weren’t going to count our chickens – or birds – before they hatched, as it were.

More about that in the next post!

Atlasing – September 2020 : Lushof Lodge

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in September 2020 – in this case using an overnight stop to make the most of the birding on offer…

Heading home – at last!

After more than 5 months in Mossel Bay – a lot longer than our initial plan of 3 to 4 weeks – we decided to return to our other “home” in Pretoria. Mossel Bay’s charm and many advantages had worked their way into our minds and it was with some reluctance that we headed northwards, but Covid-19 had kept us away from our main home for too long and we knew it was time to get back.

We set off on a Friday, fully loaded, around 9 am and travelled the familiar route via George, Graaf-Reinet and Colesberg to our overnight accommodation at Lushof Lodge, some 50 km beyond Colesberg. Along the way we enjoyed take-away coffee and a picnic lunch – all part of the “new normal” way of doing things.

Lushof Lodge, which we last visited in January 2011, was as we remembered – set on a farm with a stream running through, lined with verdant growth. The accommodation was a comfortable cottage which we had all to ourselves, set on a hill overlooking an expanse of fields and veld and we were well looked after by Lise, the bright and friendly hostess and her staff.

The orange block shows the location of the pentad which includes Lushof Lodge, about 50 kms north-east of Colesberg

Lushof Lodge (Pentad 3025_2530)

By the time we had settled in and acquainted ourselves with the cottage, it was 5.30 pm and there was just enough time for a birding walk down to the stream, which forms a small dam on one side of the entrance road and a wetland covered in reeds on the other.

The dam was good for Common Moorhen while the wetland held a few African Reed Warblers, with Red Bishops occupying the reeds and a Kurrichane Thrush exploring the edges. The tall trees alongside were home to a Cardinal Woodpecker, which first revealed its presence with a soft tok-tok-tok as he poked at the branches in search of some protein.

Southern Red Bishop, Lushof Lodge

Returning up the short hill to the cottage I scanned the slopes of the hill above it and soon saw Speckled Mousebirds moving in straggling fashion from tree to bush, then heard a Grey-backed Cisticola and quickly picked it up as it flitted from one low bush to another. For good measure a Blue Crane called but I could not track it down in the gathering dusk.

Orange River White-eye, Lushof Lodge

That seemed to be it for the day and a bit later we settled down to a hearty Karoo lamb meal, brought to the cottage by Lise and her daughter. But there was one more surprise later on – when I peered outside briefly just before going to bed, a Rock Martin roosting under the roof overhang stared back at me and became species 20 on my pentad list .

Saturday Morning 5 September

An early night meant I could get a good night’s rest and still be up at 6 am to have a coffee in the crisp morning air outside our cottage, while adding to the previous afternoon’s list.

View from Lushof lodge

I was able to add another 9 species before heading off on a lengthy walk around the farm, including Cape Bunting, Yellow Canary, a calling Brubru (also widely known as the “telephone bird” because of its trilling, repeated call) and a Familiar Chat doing its ‘familiar’ sequence of perch, fly down to the ground, catch something small and return to the perch with a couple of wing flicks straight after landing.

Familiar Chat

Venturing away from the farmstead, I followed a track along the stream and heard two very different birds – first a Lesser Swamp Warbler hidden somewhere in the dense riverine vegetation, then a Blue Korhaan greeting the new day from somewhere up ahead. From the latter call I guessed the habitat must open up further on to be suitable for the latter species – indeed it did a couple of hundred metres further, affording an expansive view across fields and plains, but there was no sign of the Korhaan, which had probably moved on or concealed itself in the grass (which they are masters at doing)

Lushof Lodge

I headed back to spend some time in the lush area close to the farmhouse, with the river and wetland as focus points. Common Starlings and a Cape Wagtail caught my attention and then a flash of colour signaled the arrival of a Malachite Kingfisherin an overhanging tree, ready to spot and dive for a small fish, frog, crab or insect.

Malachite Kingfisher

Before returning for breakfast, which we had arranged to be brought to the cottage at 8 am, I had a look around the area beyond the stream and soon added Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler) and White-throated Canary. I tried to capture the latter species on camera as I knew it was a different sub-species (orangensis) from those I am used to seeing in the Southern Cape. I had limited success getting a clear photo, but they were better than nothing.

White-throated Canary (Crithagra albogularis / Witkeelkanarie) (race orangensis), Lushof Lodge

By the way if you think it’s a bit extreme not being satisfied with photographing bird species but trying to photograph all the subspecies as well, I confess I have had this “collectors” affliction since a young age and it seems to be getting worse….

After a substantial breakfast (to see us through the last day’s driving, you know) it was time to pack the car one last time, while still keeping an eye out for any birds to add. Fortunately so, as a Booted Eagle and a pair of SA Shelducks flew overhead within minutes of each other.

Booted Eagle, Lushof Lodge

On the road out we picked up Namaqua Dove and White-backed Mousebird, the dam near the highway held Blacksmith Lapwing and the adjoining grass boasted an Eastern Clapper Lark, giving us its version of goodbye as it performed its display flight in the air.

White-backed Mousebird, Lushof Lodge

The Stats

We left with a total of 48 species recorded which, considering the time of year, is a good indication of the quality of Lushof Lodge as a birding spot.

Of special note – this was only the third full protocol card completed for this pentad in 10 years, the previous two having been done by myself and Koos Pauw in 2010/11. A very under-atlased pentad!

11 new species were added to the pentad records –

  1. Brubru
  2. Cape Bunting
  3. Grey-backed Cisticola
  4. Blue Crane
  5. African Hoopoe
  6. Malachite Kingfisher
  7. Blue Korhaan
  8. Karoo Prinia
  9. South African Shelduck
  10. House Sparrow
  11. Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler)

Atlasing – August 2020 : Ruiterbos

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in August 2020 ….. in this case to two pentads in the Ruiterbos area north of Mossel Bay, which turned out to be as contrasting as two pentads adjoining each other can be

Ruiterbos Area – 25 August

Still using my earlier analysis of pentads in the southern Cape which had not yet been atlased in 2020, I noticed that the Ruiterbos area had one pentad not atlased since 2018 and with very low species totals recorded, which piqued my interest – nothing like a challenging pentad to make things interesting! Low totals, I have found, are usually due to limited diversity of habitat (all birds are particular to a specific habitat) or limited means of access to parts of the pentad, preventing the atlaser from getting to all the habitats. In some instances both of the above can apply, which results in really low totals.

I decided to target the challenging pentad as well as the one directly south of it, which seemed to hold more promise. Both are within about 45 minutes of home – the maps below show the location of the former…

The Route

With sunrise gradually coming earlier each day in late August, just a week away from Spring day, I set the alarm a bit earlier and left home at 6.15 am. I followed the R328 regional road to Oudtshoorn, passing Brandwag village and turned left at Ruiterbos Farm stall then travelled a couple of Kms along this quiet road before reaching the start of the first pentad at around 7 am.

Sunrise, Ruiterbos area

Pentad 3355_2155

Birding got off to a brisk start with calls of several species welcoming the new day – a cool, fresh morning with little cloud. Blue Crane, Bokmakierie, Cape Grassbird, Grey-backed Cisticola, Red-necked (Cape Turtle) Dove, even Hadada Ibis all joined the chorus.

Cape Grassbird (Sphenoeacus afer / Grasvoël) (Race afer), Ruiterbos area

Not much further along the gravel road I stopped at two adjacent fields which showed how differences in usage of farming land can have a noticeable impact on the species to be found. The first was covered in lush green lucerne and was seemingly reserved for the “big boys” – Egyptian and Spur-winged Goose and Blue Cranes were prominent. The adjacent field had short patchy grass with a scattering of stones and cowpats – clearly used for grazing of cattle and the realm of the smaller guys – Lapwings (Crowned), Larks (Red-capped) and Pipits (Plain-backed).

Plain-backed Pipit (Anthus leucophrys / Donkerkoester), Ruiterbos area
Red-capped Lark (Calandrella cinerea / Rooikoplewerik) (Race cinerea), Ruiterbos area

Descending into a valley, I passed a fruit farm which had entire fields draped in protective shade cloth, mostly to keep insects out I would guess, but equally proficient at keeping birds away, creating a very sterile environment.

Ruiterbos area

I did not dawdle and proceeded out of the valley into the hills beyond – what a contrast – suddenly the hills were alive with bird sounds, which were music to my ears (why do I feel a song coming on?). The next twenty minutes were bountiful, with 3 species of Sunbird (Southern Double-collared, Orange-breasted and Malachite), Cape Buntings and Cape Canaries twittering away, Stonechat and an African Olive Pigeon (New record).

Klaas’s Cuckoo (new record) announced its presence with its well-known “Meitjie” call and I wondered if it was an early arrival or perhaps one of those that had overwintered in the area, as they are known to do. A Cape Batis became my first record of this species for the year.

Cape Batis

After an hour and a half in the pentad, I had logged 34 species – a good start, and being close to the second “challenging” pentad, I decided to tackle it while birds were still active and come back to the first pentad a bit later. This would hopefully maximise my chances of getting a reasonable total in the second pentad which, from the stats, was going to produce a low bird-count card, for reasons as yet unknown.

Ruiterbos area

I returned later in the morning to complete a second “shift” in this pentad, carrying on where I had stopped before. I was now out of the prime birding area, into flatter countryside with less bush, but was still able to add regularly to my atlas card with the likes of Rock Kestrel, Victorin’s Warbler and African Black Swift (New record).

Victorin’s Warbler, Ruiterbos area

I managed to get a reasonable photo of the Rock kestrel – I had seen it returning with a small prey to its perch on top of a utility pole and guessed it would be pre-occupied while devouring it, which would allow a closer approach than usual. I was right and it only flew off again when the prey was ripped apart and swallowed.

Rock Kestrel (Falco rupicolus / Kransvalk), Ruiterbos area

Along the last stretch before exiting the pentad,another photo opportunity arose – this time an Olive Bushshrike (New record). I heard it calling from a particularly bushy area alongside the road and once I thought I had found the spot where it was concealed (which they are very good at doing) I tried some “pishing” which is a useful way of getting some species to pop out momentarily.

The Bushshrike obliged for just a few seconds, curious as to what was making this sound which birds associate with danger and I was able to snatch a few images – my best of this species to date!

Olive Bushshrike (Chlorophoneus olivaceus / Olyfboslaksman) (Race olivaceus), Ruiterbos area

The pentad had produced 50 species in all, and some very special ones at that.

Pentad 3350_2155

This was the pentad that had me wondering about the low totals logged by others. I soon found out why – apart from the first km or so which runs through open hills, the rest of the only access road ran through a commercial pine plantation, habitat which is notoriously sterile when it comes to bird life. The open stretch held Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia, Red-necked Spurfowl and African Pipit.

African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus / Gewone koester), Ruiterbos area

Entering the plantation, birding – and indeed life itself – seemed to slow down…

Paardekop Plantation, Ruiterbos area
Paardekop Plantation, Ruiterbos area

It was nevertheless a most pleasant environment to be in, despite being less than attractive for most bird species – exceptions were Black-headed Orioles, Cape Canaries, Cape Bulbul, and Cape White-eye, all of which I found easily and repeatedly, mostly at the fringes of the plantations.

At one stop, Greater Double-collared Sunbirds were curious bystanders but most stops were met with dead silence and no discernable movement, so each species added was quite precious as I slowly built on the list.

After two hours birding in the invigorating pine-scented air, I found I had reached 20 species, amazingly the second best total for the pentad out of 15 cards completed to date! I later found that I had added 3 new species to the pentad records, being Hadada Ibis (!), Speckled Pigeon and Black Sawwing.

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%

A Trip to the Wilderness…

Just in case you are expecting a tale of a wild trip into a far-off uninhabited, inhospitable area, let me start by saying that this Wilderness is the name of the town that lies a short drive east of George in the southern Cape……

We were in Mossel Bay in the southern Cape during much of the lockdown period and, once travel restrictions became less severe, we made a point of doing regular day trips to some of the delightful spots along the Garden Route. One of our trips was to Wilderness and specifically the surrounding area and the vleis (lakes) that are a feature of this part of the Garden Route.

Although not primarily a birding outing, we decided to include a visit to the bird hides at two vleis which we had visited some years ago and knew from social media reports that the hides were in good condition and well looked after. (Just a side note – why are they called bird hides? Surely the purpose is to hide people from the birds and not vice versa? Apologies, that’s my pedantic side coming to the fore!)

Day Trip 27 August 2020

We left Mossel Bay just after 10 am (“gentleman’s hour” as one colleague in my career called it) – I had heard that the small wetland adjoining the Hartenbos Water Treatment Works just outside Mossel Bay was humming with bird life after good rains, so we made a brief detour to take us past the wetland.

It was indeed full of waterbirds and during our 10 minute stop I had listed 14 species without too much effort, including Little Grebe, Red-billed Teal, Grey-headed Gull and Black-winged Stilt. However, there was no sign of the African Swamphen that had been reported by others.

Our next stop was Victoria Bay for a picnic tea on a bench overlooking the beach – relatively quiet on a weekday, other than the usual complement of keen surfers enjoying the prime conditions of this favourite beach of ours.

Victoria Bay

Familiar calls emanated from the bush which borders the beach area and on both sides of the steep approach road – Sombre Greenbul, Knysna Warbler, Southern Boubou, Neddicky and Bar-throated Apalis could all be heard loud and clear, but apart from brief glimpses they all remained well hidden.

From Vic Bay we headed through Wilderness to the turn-off to “The Vleis” then followed further signage to the hide at Langvlei (literally Long Lake).

The boardwalk to the hide at Langvlei, Wilderness

It was quite windy and from the hide hundreds of waterfowl were visible bouncing on the choppy water. Most were Red-knobbed Coots but there were also a few Black-necked Grebe, a species I don’t see often so a welcome sight, and several Little Grebes.

Red-knobbed Coot (Fulica cristata / Bleshoender), Langvlei Wilderness
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis / Kleindobbertjie), Langvlei Wilderness

A few of the birds came close to the hide, so that I was able to get a few photos, but the one I hoped would approach was the Black-necked Grebe, which seemed to move even further away to frustrate my efforts for a reasonable photo.

Black-necked Grebe, Langvlei Wilderness

A post in the shallow water was occupied by an African Darter, providing a good opportunity to get a better shot than the reluctant Grebe

African Darter (Anhinga rufa / Slanghalsvoël), Langvlei Wilderness

On the way back to the car I spotted a butterfly next to the pathway – a lovely specimen of the Garden Inspector – also used as the heading image to this post

The next hide at Rondevlei (literally Round Lake) was a 5 minute drive away – I left Gerda in the car at the parking spot, after checking that it was a safe environment, and walked the short distance to the hide. The bird life was similar as far as the waterfowl goes but one nice feature of this hide is the dead tree stumps positioned several metres away in the shallow water, which were occupied by Cormorants.

White-breasted and Cape Cormorant, Rondevlei Wilderness

A quick scan showed that there were no less than three cormorant species present and all were quite nicely posed for photographs, except for one that insisted on playing “Where’s my head gone” with me.

White-breasted Cormorant (Phalacrocorax lucidus / Witborsduiker), Rondevlei Wilderness

I spent a few minutes getting some nice shots of the Cormorants, which are often difficult to identify at a distance, but close up the subtleties of bill and gape colouring, eyes and overall appearance become far more obvious.

Reed Cormorant (Microcarbo africanus / Rietkormorant), Rondevlei Wilderness
Cape Cormorant (Phalacrocorax capensis / Trekkormorant), Rondevlei Wilderness

The difference in eye colour is particularly startling – something which I will highlight in a follow-up post to this one.

It was time to head homewards, but first we were keen to find a suitably pleasant spot for our picnic lunch. We both had somewhat vague memories of taking the kids many years ago to the “beach in the corner” at Wilderness, but had no idea of the amenities we might find, so I turned off at the road leading to the beachfront area and drove between the many holiday homes until we reached the end and – hooray! – there was the spot, complete with tables and benches.

Wilderness beach picnic

It was just what we were looking for and we enjoyed our ham and cheese rolls and coffee, with a magnificent view of the wide expanse of beach and high waves rolling in.

Wilderness beach

A day trip to remember, also our last outing before returning to Pretoria the following week, after almost 6 months in Mossel Bay.

A Week in Verlorenkloof – Day Six and Seven

Verlorenkloof is our favourite destination for a get away from it all week in October each year, usually green from early summer rains and buzzing with bird life across all of the various habitats, from the river along the one boundary through wetlands and open grasslands to the forested kloofs of the surrounding mountains.

It’s all about relaxation while enjoying the beauty and superb birding of this secluded valley – so join us as we explore the estate and the surrounds, ever on the lookout for the special birds of the area.

Map showing location of Verlorenkloof (the blue circle)

Day 6 – Tuesday

After two days of very little birding, today was to be a serious birding day again and Verlorenkloof and the surrounds certainly delivered!

Koos had met a farmer on the opposite side of the valley, on one of his excursions, and had been invited by him to explore the trail that runs through the undeveloped part of his farm, up and along the foothills of the mountainside on the opposite side of the valley to the Verlorenkloof estate.

Up after 5 am, we set off soon after 6 am, heading slowly through the estate to the river, then on to the gravel “back road”.

On the way the birding was very productive, as it often is in the early morning, and combined with the birds I had recorded at the croft while enjoying coffee and rusks, I had already built up a list of 42 birds by the time we got to the gate a couple of kms further, still only 7.15 am. Most were the regular Verlorenkloof species but I was pleased to add Giant Kingfisher, Greater Double-collared Sunbird and Rufous-naped Lark which are not always guaranteed to be seen.

Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima / Reusevisvanger) Verlorenkloof

Koos stopped at the gate and we proceeded on foot along the track, that initially disappeared among the trees then emerged at the bottom of the first long slope.

The landscape around us had an other-worldly feel to it – hundreds of tall aloes standing like alien creatures on the lightly grassed slopes, with bare patches and rocks in the open spaces between clumps of trees and bushes.

Ahlers farm, Verlorenkloof

We took it slow – not just because of the mild climb but to make sure we would pick up any bird movement. It paid off immediately as I spotted a Golden-breasted Bunting and the first of many White-fronted Bee-eaters.

Ahlers farm, Verlorenkloof

Puffback and Black Cuckoo called in their distinctive fashion and there were plenty of aerial birds – swallows and swifts – to keep us looking up every now and then. Barn Swallows tend to swoop lower down but others such as Palm Swift are generally higher up while the only Black Saw-wing weaved its way at a low height between the trees.

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica / Europese swael)

Southern Bald Ibis is one of the specials of this area and we saw a pair flying by on their way to their favourite field no doubt.

Southern Bald Ibis (Geronticus calvus) Kalkoenibis

At the top of the slope the track headed parallel to the road some way below us and the habitat became more bushy with birds to suit- Cape Batis, Long-billed Crombec, Bar-throated Apalis and Green-backed Camaroptera.

Ahlers farm, Verlorenkloof

By now we had been walking for about two hours and with no sign of the track heading back down to the road we turned around and retraced our steps back to where the car was parked.

Not yet done for the morning, we drove further along the gravel “back road” to a dam where we had found the White-faced Ducks a couple of days before – they were not there but Little grebe, Black-headed Heron, Red Bishop and Levaillant’s Cisticola made up for their lack.

Little Grebe

The rest of the day was spent in recovery mode (two and a half hour’s walking tends to require that at our age) which gave me a chance to catch up on my journal and blogging.

Duiker, Verlorenkloof

It started raining around midday, providing some welcome relief from the hot conditions and having a visible effect on the two waterfalls that drop from the escarpment, one of which feeds the stream near croft no 2.

After a rainstorm, Verlorenkloof

A late afternoon drive to the lodge produced a juvenile African Fish-Eagle and a Common (steppe) Buzzard to round off an excellent day’s birding. I was amazed to find that I had recorded 83 species during the day, having started a new atlasing list that morning (atlasing requires that a new list is started after 5 days)

Steppe (Common) Buzzard

Day 7 – Wednesday

Time to return home to Pretoria, but not before having a good brekkie at the lodge (thanks Koos and Rianda), then driving slowly along the gravel roads back to the newly completed R36 tar road which connects Verlorenkloof’s access road with the N4 national road. Well done to the authorities for rebuilding this road which for years was in poor shape and suffering continuous damage from the many coal-haulage trucks that use the route.

The final stats for the week : 128 species recorded on two atlasing cards.

A Week in Verlorenkloof – Day Four and Five

Verlorenkloof is our favourite destination for a get away from it all week in October each year, usually green from early summer rains and buzzing with bird life across all of the various habitats, from the river along the one boundary through wetlands and open grasslands to the forested kloofs of the surrounding mountains.

It’s all about relaxation while enjoying the beauty and superb birding of this secluded valley – so join us as we explore the estate and the surrounds, ever on the lookout for the special birds of the area.

Map showing location of Verlorenkloof (the blue circle)

Day 4 – Sunday

Verlorenkloof is like a mild drug when it comes to birding – hard to stop when the birds are constant companions around the croft and wherever you walk or drive in the estate, But I do enjoy the opportunity to relax and that is what I did on day 4 and 5 of our visit, alternating between the verandah and the lounge.

Verlorenkloof

Nevertheless there were still plenty of interesting bird “happenings”, starting with an early wake up call – this time from a Natal Spurfowl on the lawn outside our bedroom window, calling at the top of his voice as only they can. This is not a sound that is easy to sleep through!

Not content with that, he (or could it have been a she?) then jumped up onto the window cill, about 1,5m from my resting head (obeying the social distancing rules in the process) and belted out another series of calls, ensuring that further rest was completely out of the question.

After coffee, Gerda called from the kitchen where several things bird-related were happening outside the window –

Waxbills feeding on grass seeds;

Common Waxbill

Female Cape Rock-Thrush coming and going to her nest constructed (which is a kind way to put it) on top of one of the carport’s stone columns. We watched as she arrived with a stick, small twigs, leaves etc and casually dumped them on the pile already there, then rather comically sat on top and wiggled her body about hoping, it seemed, to create a cup shaped depression in the unruly pile. Comical for us but serious business for the Rock-Thrush.

Cape Rock Thrush (Monticola rupestris / Kaapse kliplyster), Verlorenkloof
Cape Rock Thrush on nest, Verlorenkloof

Violet-backed Starling which flew in and perched on a branch for us to admire this colourful migrant – first of the summer for us and so striking.

Violet-backed Starling

A bit later I walked to the rock pool and on the way saw an African Paradise Flycatcher flying into the copse of trees and bush that separates croft 2 from the pool. I peered through an opening in the bush and there the flycatcher was, sitting on a tiny lichen-decorated, cup-shaped nest, with its long tail draped over the side.

African Paradise Flycatcher at nest, Verlorenkloof

Photo conditions were tricky in the extreme – poor light, twigs and branches in the way making focusing a challenge and the flycatcher not hanging around for long, but with patience I eventually got a couple of shots.

African Paradise Flycatcher at nest, Verlorenkloof

Later I went for a swim in the freshly filled pool – quite chilly but very refreshing and just the thing for an ageing birder!

Rock pool, Verlorenkloof

Day Five – Monday

There always seems to be something of interest on awakening – this time it was an African Golden Weaver feeding on grass seeds right outside our window. This is one of the scarcer weavers so to see one close up is a treat – the key ID features of heavy black bill and yellow eyes were clearly visible.

Much of the rest of the day passed quietly on the verandah with our own “theatre of birding” providing the entertainment in the usual impeccable fashion – constant calls and bird movements to and fro – such as this African Hoopoe and Familiar Chat.

Our late afternoon walk was down the old entrance road, or “cisticola alley” as I have come to imagine it (due to the number of cisticolas often present), Perhaps I need to re-imagine it as “grassbird alley” as both Grassbirds were calling – the newly renamed Fan-tailed Grassbird (or Broad-tailed Warbler) and the Cape Grassbird – both of which remained hidden in the long grass from which their contrasting calls emanated

Fan-tailed Grassbird (Schoenicola brevirostris), Verlorenkloof

Lazy Cisticola put up a sterling performance, clearly hoping he could persuade me to revert to my original name for this bird-rich “alley”. Then an African Yellow Warbler made Gerda’s day by showing nicely and enabling her to find it in her new bird book – Faansie’s Bird Book – an absolute delight for not only kids but adults as well, especially those who are not interested in all the detail facts that other books and apps provide.

Dark-capped Yellow Warbler

Just one day left of our stay – Koos has plans to make it another biggie…

A Week in Verlorenkloof – Day Three

Verlorenkloof is our favourite destination for a get away from it all week in October each year, usually green from early summer rains and buzzing with bird life across all of the various habitats, from the river along the one boundary through wetlands and open grasslands to the forested kloofs of the surrounding mountains.

It’s all about relaxation while enjoying the beauty and superb birding of this secluded valley – so join us as we explore the estate and the surrounds, ever on the lookout for the special birds of the area.

Map showing location of Verlorenkloof (the blue circle)

Day 3 – Saturday

Today was far more productive in terms of birding effort and we made up for yesterdays fairly relaxed day with some quality birding / atlasing while remaining within the boundaries of the pentad that includes Verlorenkloof resort. The pentad number is 2525_3015.

I was awake just after sunrise and decided to make the most of the perfect weather conditions with a walk along the foothills of the mountain that overlooks croft 2, following the mountain bike trail.

Drakensberg Prinia (Prinia hypoxantha / Drakensberglangstertjie), Verlorenkloof

As I left the croft I spotted an Olive Bushshrike in the trees nearby and spent a while stalking it and “spishing” (that strange habit that birders have of making a sound akin to a bird’s alarm calls in the hope that the bird being sought will pop out of the bush to investigate). It seemed to work as the bush-shrike, usually very shy, did appear for a few seconds at a time, just long enough to rattle off a few photos and hope for the best.

As I headed up the lower slopes of the mountain, mist descended rapidly and visibility reduced, but I could still make out several Rufous-naped Larks along the way, celebrating the new day with their familiar call.

Rufous-naped Lark (Mirafra africana / Rooineklewerik), Verlorenkloof – in the mist
Kiepersol, Verlorenkloof

There was not much else in the way of bird life, so I focused on the different small flowers that were in bloom, standing out like beacons in the short green grass and scattered rocks and boulders.

A Cape Longclaw flying off into the mist caught my eye and got me back into birding mode, followed by a Little Bee-eater hawking insects from a thin bush.

Little Bee-eater (Merops pusillus / Kleinbyvreter) (race Meridionalis), Verlorenkloof

Back at the croft, I gathered my breath, had a quick breakfast and headed out with Koos for an extended drive mostly outside Verlorenkloof estate but within the pentad that surrounds it. Our route took us past the fishing dams, down to and across the bridge over the Crocodile river, where a White-throated Swallow was perched on a fence post.

White-throated Swallow (Hirundo albigularis / Witkeelswael), Verlorenkloof

Then we turned left onto the gravel road that runs east-west past several prosperous-looking farms which variously produce wheat, corn, lemons and livestock. The first stretch passes through natural habitat lined with trees and bush, always productive for those species which prefer this habitat, such as the Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird. The latter, a tiny bird, has the outsized voice and lungs that enable it to keep up a loud popping call for much of the day.

Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird (Pogoniulus chrysoconus / Geelblestinker), Verlorenkloof

This habitat is also favoured by Weavers – Village, Southern Masked, and Spectacled Weavers were all present. Later a Cape Weaver made it 5 weavers for the day, having seen a Thick-billed weaver during my walk. Oh, and Koos later spotted a White-browed Sparrow Weaver on our way back later on, to make it 6!

We stopped at every farm dam but only one had any water birds of note, with a flotilla of White-faced Whistling Ducks and a Little Grebe.

White-faced Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna viduata / Nonnetjie-eend), Verlorenkloof

At another stop next to wheat fields the Fan-tailed and White-winged Widowbirds contrasted with the pale brown of the wheat, soon to be harvested.

Fan-tailed Widowbird (Euplectes axillaris / Kortstertflap), Verlorenkloof

I was watching swallows and swifts overhead when I saw what for a moment looked like six planes in a tight formation – then I realised they were Blue Cranes at a considerable height, on their way to some distant field or wetland.

Blue Cranes, Verlorenkloof

As we watched, they started flying in a wide circle several times, no doubt using the thermals to go up even higher and catch an air stream, then continued on their way – spectacular!

The road ends at a T and we turned right along a poorly maintained, bumpy gravel road which passes more farms and a rural school, then skirts an upmarket looking game farm and winds up the pass to the highest point in the area (where a paragliding launch spot is located). This is also the southernmost boundary of the pentad and where we turned around.

While having coffee at this spot I noticed an LBJ and immediately hoped it was the Wailing Cisticola which I had found at this exact location a couple of years ago. It was and I followed it in the hope of getting a photo. With some patience I was able to photograph it from a distance – my first photographic record of the species.

That was the sum total of the species until a small black and white jet plane shot past – actually an Alpine Swift which was followed by a few more, quite appropriate at this elevation and mountainous habitat.

We returned slowly past the old farmhouse on Verlorenkloof (which served as the estate reception in years past) adding a White-fronted Bee-eater on the wire to complete a very productive drive.

Scrub Hare (Lepus saxatillis), Verlorenkloof

A late afternoon walk produced an African Reed Warbler at one of the dams and at dusk a Fiery-necked Nightjar called to close out the birding for the day – 43 species added taking my week total to 104.

Adventurous Birding, Atlasing and Travel