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.

A Week in Verlorenkloof – Day Two

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 2 – Friday

Our second day started lazily, despite the Red-chested Cuckoo imploring us to “wake up now” over and over. Eventually we succumbed, made ourselves presentable and headed to the verandah for coffee.

Before breakfast a Red-necked Spurfowl surprised us with a slow walk past the croft, until he spied us watching him and set off at a pace towards the long grass, leaving me with a snatched photo opportunity. I followed the Spurfowl hoping to get some better images of this shy species, but despite hearing it nearby I could not see any movement and had to abandon the stealthy chase.

Disappointed, I returned along the path through tall grass and reeds to the croft, only to be surprised once again by a second Spurfowl, in full throated voice, presenting a perfect photo opportunity and a highlight for the day.

Red-necked Spurfowl (Pternistis afer / Rooikeelfisant) (race castaneiventer), Verlorenkloof

From a distance the red of the neck and face is not all that striking, but close up it is immediately apparent why it was named the Red-necked Spurfowl

Red-necked Spurfowl (Pternistis afer / Rooikeelfisant) (race castaneiventer), Verlorenkloof

After breakfast I strolled down to the rock swimming pool near our croft, where I found an Olive Thrush in the small stream, hopping about in the shady undergrowth. The thrush eluded my photo attempts but a group of Cape White-eyes made up for it moments later by choosing a tiny pool amongst the rocks alongside to bathe – a charming sight.

Much of the rest of the day was spent relaxing on the verandah, watching the comings and goings of the regulars, with African Paradise Flycatcher flitting between the trees at regular intervals.

Mid afternoon we went for a drive around the estate and down towards the river, stopping frequently and adding :

– Village Weavers in large numbers

– Stonechat pair perched close together, showing the differences between male and female (left and right)

African Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus / Gewone bontrokkie) (male and female), Verlorenkloof

– A pair of Bald Ibises flying to a field further on

– Swallows aplenty – Greater Striped, Lesser Striped and White-throated

– Red-throated Wryneck whose plaintive kweek-kweek-kweek caught our attention and we soon found him high up in the branches of a tree

Red-throated Wryneck (Jynx ruficollis / Draaihals), Verlorenkloof

– Groundscraper Thrush strutting guardsman-like about the green lawns of the idyllic picnic spot next to the river

Crocodile River, Verlorenkloof
Butterfly, Verlorenkloof
Verlorenkloof

On the way back to the croft a Tree Agama sat next to the road, then climbed up the trunk of a nearby tree, pausing long enough for us to get a good look at its prehistoric form and bright blue head and neck

The second day, a slow relaxed one, ended with a modest 11 new species added to the list for the week to take the total to 61

A Week in Verlorenkloof – Day One

Our timeshare week at Verlorenkloof came at just the right time – travel restrictions are minimal and the local tourism industry is gradually returning to some sort of normality, although the lack of international visitors remains a massive problem for those elements of the industry that rely solely on them.

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.

Day 1 – Thursday

After a busy Wednesday of packing, family commitments and traveling, we arrived at Verlorenkloof after 7 pm to the welcoming sight of Croft No 2, brightly lit and with supper on the go, thanks to Koos and Rianda who had left Pretoria a couple of hours before us.

Croft No 2 at Verlorenkloof

It was wonderful to wake up the next morning to the different calls from the varied bird life at Verlorenkloof. Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird was first on the list – it’s clear ‘popping’ call unmistakable in the crisp morning air. Others followed in rapid succession and the first 12 species on my atlasing list were all based on calls, including Cape Grassbird repeatedly trilling from the nearby long grass, Olive Bushshrike with its descending teu-teu-teu-tu-tu and Brown-hooded Kingfisher adding an occasional strident Ki-ti-ti-ti to the mix.

This Cape Robin-Chat found a nice juicy worm for breakfast

Cape Robin-Chat (Cossypha caffra / Gewone janfrederik), Verlorenkloof

Ahhhhh, that was delicious,,,,

Cape Robin-Chat (Cossypha caffra / Gewone janfrederik), Verlorenkloof

Our breakfast was our traditional oats porridge on the verandah, where we spend a large part of the day, accompanied by the Kor-kor-kor of Purple-crested Turacos in the surrounding trees and Greater striped Swallows and White-rumped Swifts swooping by in their constant search for flying insect prey. Both species seem to be vie-ing for occupational rights to the under-eaves nest.

Greater Striped Swallow (Cecropis cucullata / Grootstreepswael), Verlorenkloof

Now, if I can just get to that itch…….

Greater Striped Swallow (Cecropis cucullata / Grootstreepswael), Verlorenkloof
Breakfast with a view

A short walk to the lower slopes of the mountain took me past the stream where beautiful green ferns and reeds thrive on the water trickling down from the mountain top.

Verlorenkloof

Here and there small flowers add a splash of colour to the shades of green. I spotted African Yellow Warbler and Red-collared Widowbird, both of which love this habitat.

Verlorenkloof
Verlorenkloof

The kitchen overlooks a patch of grass where small seedeaters often come –

Common Waxbill (Estrilda astrild / Rooibeksysie), Verlorenkloof
African Firefinch (Lagonosticta rubricata / Kaapse vuurvinkie), Verlorenkloof

Our late afternoon walk took us further up the slopes to where the forested kloof starts – the forest specials were calling al around us and were not too difficult to identify even though non could be seen – Chorister Robin-Chat, Bar-throated Apalis, Sombre Greenbul and Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher.

Koos spotted a small warbler, which was singing at full pitch in the forest canopy, which he identified as a Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler (such a long name for a tiny bird!) and we enjoyed good views of it for the next 5 minutes.

Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler

Briefly out of the forest before turning back, I saw a bird in a distant tree which we eventually decided was a female Narina Trogon – a much sought after species which we have often heard in the kloof before but only seen a couple of times. That proved to be the last one for the day – taking my list to a nice round 50 species.

Hermanus – Flowers on a Hill

Hermanus

And now for something different …. well, we all need a change sometimes.

In January this year, before the restrictions of lockdown descended on us in March, we travelled to Hermanus from Mossel Bay for a short break after the busy Christmas and New Year period, when Mossel Bay bulges at the seams. Hermanus lies about an hour and a half’s drive south east of Cape town – for us it was a bit further coming from Mossel Bay but still a comfortable half-day’s drive.

The town is famous for its whale-watching opportunities, particularly Southern Right whales, but also other whale species. The whales can be seen from the cliffs all along the coast from as early as June and usually depart in early December. It’s hard to believe that these magnificent creatures were once hunted in the nearby town of Betty’s Bay.

On our first day in Hermanus we explored the town, including a quick visit to a small complex of boutique type shops – on a whim we popped into a wine shop and ended up being persuaded by one Roetter Smit (a born salesman) to do a gin-tasting session under his personal guidance. Well, it was fascinating and Roetter had us tasting all kinds of interesting combinations, fortunately with just the tiniest sips so that we weren’t incapacitated for the rest of the day.

The Rotary Way

After a lunch at Lizettes restaurant – delicious Asian flavoured fish and chips – and a quick stop at Voelklip beach to refresh our memories of this lovely spot, we headed back through town until we found the turn-off signposted Rotary Way.

We remembered driving up the Rotary Way scenic drive during a previous visit to Hermanus, perhaps 20 years ago, and recalled, rather vaguely, the views of Hermanus from the top, so we decided to take a drive up this scenic route, which winds its way up the mountain overlooking the town.

Hermanus is in the Cape Floristic Region and thus has one of the highest plant diversity levels in the world. The principal vegetation type of this region is Fynbos, a mixture of evergreen shrub-like plants with small firm leaves (Info courtesy of Wikipedia)

Hermanus Rotary Way

We soon realised that the drive was a perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the beautiful, delicate, flowering fynbos shrubs that lined the road higher up and we stopped frequently, under Gerda’s guidance, for closer views and photos of some of the more distinctive species. Here is a selection of the photos that I took – for the time being the flowers will have to remain nameless as our reference books on Fynbos remained behind in Mossel Bay when we returned to Pretoria (well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it}

And the view of Hermanus? We almost had to tear ourselves away from the flowers to see if the views down to the town were as good as we remembered – the verdict – definitely

Hermanus Rotary Way

My Atlasing Month – August 2020 : Albertinia Area

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in August 2020 …..

Albertinia north-west – 7 August

I looked for two pentads not too far from Mossel Bay, our home during lockdown, and not yet atlased in 2020 – my survey resulted in me selecting two pentads in the area north-west of Albertinia, an area which I have found to be pleasant and productive from a birding point of view, so they fitted my plans well.

Albertinia north

The Route

Getting to the starting point of the first pentad meant driving west along the N2 National road to Albertinia, then north towards the mountains and west again along the gravel road that ran through the pentad, ensuring that the sun would be behind me during the prime early morning birding hours.

As I drove along the already busy N2, the view northwards was across low valleys which were filled with mist, giving them the appearance of large fluffy lakes surrounded by hills.

The morning was one of the coldest I’ve experienced in these parts, with the car indicating an outside temperature of just 1 degree C as I approached the starting point – thank goodness I had purchased a woolen beanie the day before, which I now donned to prevent the cold penetrating beyond my ears to my brain – who knows what damage that could do (although some would say the damage was done ages ago).

Chilly morning in Albertinia

Fortunately it warmed up as the day progressed and by 11 am I was in shirt sleeves and the beanie was replaced by my battered hat.

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The map below shows the location of the pentad, north west of Albertinia. For those who have not visited South Africa, the town marked Agulhas at bottom left is where the southernmost tip of the African continent is located and is a favourite tourist stop.

And this is a closer view of the first pentad, shown by the red square below

Right at the start of this pentad I came across a roadkill victim in the middle of the gravel road and stopped to see what it was (dead birds can be recorded when atlasing) – it was a Crowned Lapwing, largely undamaged so I moved it to the verge just to save it the further indignity of being trampled by other vehicles.

Albertinia north

The road was damp with puddles in places from the previous day’s rain and birds were plentiful. Changing quickly into atlasing mode, I followed my usual strategy of driving very slowly and stopping frequently to look around and listen for calls – in the first hour I recorded 26 species while progressing just 2 kms along the road, with so many interesting and promising spots to investigate.

Albertinia north

Fresh footprints in the damp mud at roadside had me somewhat puzzled – left by someone running, judging by the depth of the imprints, and someone with very tough feet, going on the very gritty surface.

All the usual suspects were present including Blue Crane and Large-billed Lark, African Pipit and Fork-tailed Drongo, but also some of the scarcer species such as Denham’s Bustard (twice) and Grey-backed Cisticola.

African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus / Gewone koester, Albertinia north

Cape Longclaw on a fence presented a good photo opportunity, as they so often do, but Red-capped Larks in the road were not as cooperative and flew off each time I tried to position the car/ myself/my camera, settling tantalisingly back in the road a way ahead and often on the opposite side to where my camera was pointing. It was probably my imagination but I thought I detected a smirk on their faces each time they left me cursing under my breath. Bird photography can sometimes be a tad frustrating!

Cape Longclaw (Macronyx capensis / Oranjekeelkalkoentjie), Albertinia north

A small dam held Grey Heron, Yellow-billed Duck and Little Grebe to add some waterbirds to my list. The last half hour produced two Canaries – Brimstone and Yellow Canary, the third Lark of the day – Agulhas Long-billed Lark, and Cape Grassbird to take the card total to a respectable 48 species.

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The second pentad of the morning lies directly west of the first, so I continued along the same road and through habitat similar to the first. Species were mostly a repeat of what I had recorded in the first pentad. Some notable exceptions were Little Rush Warbler which I heard calling from a well reeded stream that I crossed and a Rock Kestrel that passed overhead during one of my many stops.

Albertinia north

I spent a coffee break at a copse of bluegum trees next to the road at a farmyard and watched the Fork-tailed Drongo‘s actively flying about and hawking flying insects. A Cardinal Woodpecker called a loud rapid ch-ch-ch-ch-ch and it didn’t take too long to find it high up against the branches of the trees, pecking at cavities and using its barbed tongue to extract larvae of beetles and other insects, spiders and ants.

Fork-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis / Mikstertbyvanger), Albertinia North

Passing fields brimming with bright yellow canola, a Yellow Bishop with an equally bright yellow rump and perched on the fence presented an interesting photo opportunity, so I positioned myself and my camera, with some difficulty, so that the background would be the yellow of the canola while hoping the Bishop would stay where it was. It did and I managed to take a few shots, but the distance from the bird meant it was not as sharp as I had hoped… still quite unusual –

Yellow Bishop (Euplectes capensis / Kaapse flap) (Race capensis), Albertinia north

Moments later it flew off

Yellow Bishop (Euplectes capensis / Kaapse flap) (Race capensis), Albertinia north

A last dam before leaving the pentad held a pair of Water Thick-knee, inconspicuously standing among bushes along the fringe of the dam, while a few Brown-throated Martins raced about over the water.

Water Thick-knee (Burhinus vermiculatus / Waterdikkop), Albertinia north

As I left the pentad I spotted some Red-billed Queleas in a thorn tree, the last record for the day to take the pentad total to 41 and my day’s total to a pleasing 63 after some 5 hours of atlasing this most pleasant part of the southern Cape.

My Atlasing Month – July 2020 (Part 3 )

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in July 2020 …..

Great Brak and Mount Hope – 24 July

I chose two pentads quite far from each other – only because I had started atlasing Great Brak River a few days prior and was within the 5 day maximum atlas period, so I was keen to complete this pentad. The choice for the second pentad was one not yet atlased in 2020 and the most appealing one was located on the other side of the Outeniqua Pass, on the way to Oudtshoorn.

This meant a lengthy drive to get there, which on the day was made a lot longer by the convoy of 3 “Abnormal Load” vehicles trundling up the pass at a snail’s pace, with no chance of overtaking on this single lane, twisty road. Even a stop for coffee halfway up the pass to let the long queue of cars get ahead of me, did not help much as I quickly caught up with them again, but at least I wasn’t stewing in the queue all that time, but could enjoy a relaxed cup of coffee and an egg (forgetting of course that it was a bird that produced it)

Outeniqua pass with abnormal load vehicles in the distance, heading right

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Great Brak is always a pleasurable spot to atlas, particularly the part that lies around the river estuary, which is a local waterbird hotspot. I had started atlasing during a brief 15 minute stop the previous Tuesday, on the way back from a day trip to Knysna.

It was an hour before sunset and with the setting sun behind us as we drove slowly along the Suiderkruis road on the western side of the estuary, we had perfect light for viewing and photography for those 15 minutes. It was enough time to record 17 species including Greater Flamingo (with 3 juveniles nearby), Little Grebe, Black-winged Stilt, Little Egret, African Spoonbill and Cape Teal.

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus / Grootflamink) (Juvenile), Great Brak
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta / Kleinwitreier), Great Brak
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus / Rooipootelsie), Great Brak

When editing the images I played around with the above photo – can you see what I did in this next photo ? Answer at end of Post….

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus / Rooipootelsie), Great Brak

On the Friday morning I set out to continue atlasing at 7.30 am – sunrise in midwinter – along the gravel road that runs between Klein Brak and Great Brak just north of the N2 national road. The first birds were fairly mundane – Doves, Hadeda, Egyptian Goose – then I stopped to scan the settling ponds of the waste water treatment works and heard Little Rush Warbler and Cape Grassbird, both very distinctive calls, and saw White-faced Ducks on the opposite side of one of the ponds. An encouraging start to the morning!

Roadworks in progress over the next stretch of road, including a “stop and go” one way system, meant a short delay followed by a forced rush until I was through the village of Great Brak and heading northwards into hilly country, along a twisting gravel road lined with bush both sides and steeply sloping ground falling away to one side.

Great Brak River

Several stops along the way, but only along the longer straight parts of the road so that approaching cars would be able to see me in time, added both Southern and Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Bar-throated Apalis, Cape White-eye, Sombre Greenbul and Southern Boubou. When I reached the plateau the habitat changed quickly to farmland and I soon came to the northern boundary of the pentad, so it was time to turn back.

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Great Brak River
Sombre Greenbul, Great Brak River

I wanted to hit the estuary again before moving on to the next pentad and I headed for the eastern side to avoid having the sun in my eyes. I was rewarded with Mallard, a couple of Pied Avocets (5% – so quite scarce), Grey Heron, plenty of Greater Crested (Swift) Terns and a Common Sandpiper, the latter surely one of the first arrivals from European Russia – heck it’s still winter here and the migrants are already arriving!

Common Sandpiper, Great Brak River

While scanning the waters for other waterbirds a Klaas’s Cuckoo (9%) called “Meitjie” (it’s Afrikaans name, pronounced “maykie”) to confirm its presence. As I left this superb birding spot a single Cape Sugarbird (10%) flew between bushes to take my total for the first pentad to 54, after some 2.5 hours of atlasing.

Cape Sugarbird

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In hindsight I should have chosen a second pentad closer to the first – my trip between the pentads took over an hour including the “abnormal load” induced delay and coffee stopheading up and over the Outeniqua Pass which takes you from sea level to an elevation of 800 metres – not all that high but enough to bring the temperature down substantially until I was into Klein Karoo country on the way to Oudtshoorn.

It meant that I only started the second pentad at 11 am – hardly the ideal time for birding, especially in the Klein Karoo where the birds tend to disappear during the middle of the day. Nonetheless the first half hour was quite lively as I passed through mainly farmland and found Ibises (Sacred and Hadeda), Egyptian Geese and Black-headed Heron – all species that prefer open fields.

That was followed by the bird of the day as I came across a flock of Black-headed Canaries (15%) – a species that I have seen few enough times to count on one hand.

I continued past several more farms and a small stream until I came across the next exciting find when I spotted a flock of Swifts in the air – way too early for returning migrants I thought. As it turned out they were Alpine Swifts (6%) which are partial intra-African migrants so probably hadn’t come far by Swallow / Swift standards but always a joy to see with their speedy flight and white belly making them one of the easier swifts to call.

Alpine Swift, (taken in Augrabies NP)

A large farm dam disappointingly produced not a single bird and thereafter birding became really slow as I headed into more arid countryside with almost no signs of visible farming. Just when my birding spirits were flagging I came across a Mountain Wheatear (New record) and shortly after that excitement another smaller dam was more productive with both SA Shelducks and Yellow-billed Ducks in residence.

SA Shelduck

In the surrounding bush I found a Bar-throated Apalis, as feisty as always, and in a tall tree a Pale Chanting Goshawk provided a pleasing conclusion to the pentad, which stood at a total of 34 species – not at all bad considering the time of day. I took the shortest route back to Mossel Bay, eventually getting back on to tar at the R328 and completed the long circular route home.

The Answer ……..

If you guessed that the second Black-winged Stilt photo is a copy of the first but inverted, you win this week’s prize, which is a genuine “well done” from me!

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%

My Atlasing Month – July 2020 (Part 2 )

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in July 2020 …..

Albertinia Area – 17 July

I had not atlased in the Albertinia area for a few years, so was keen to see if it would prove to be as enjoyable as before, with its combination of attractive countryside, quiet roads and interesting birds.

Using the analysis of pentads that I had prepared at the beginning of July, I chose one that I had identified as not yet atlased in 2020 and for convenience added an adjacent pentad that had already been atlased by another birder during the year.

I set the alarm for what I thought was 5.45 am but added an hour by mistake (does Freudian slip apply in this case? I am not a natural early riser) so I only reached the first pentad at 8.15 am, well after sunrise, which is around 7.30 am at this time of year.

The Route

From Mossel Bay it is an easy 40 minute’s drive to Albertinia along the N2 national road, already quite busy at this time of the morning, At Albertinia I turned off towards the town centre – blink and you miss it in such a small town – and spent a while around the town and surrounds before heading further north towards the main birding route for the morning – a gravel country road signposted Kleinplaas (“Small farm”) that traverses both of my target pentads from east to west.

The route for the morning

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Bird life was lively right from the start, despite – or perhaps because of – the late start, with a long Vee of Sacred Ibises in flight overhead, setting the scene for another absorbing morning of my favourite pastime – atlasing.

Sacred Ibis

My first stop was at the local golf course – a nine hole, rather basic one set in parkland with “greens” that were in fact made up of bare soil treated with oil or some such agent to keep them smooth and firm. The small dam in the middle was too far from where I could view it to be able to hear calls, but I could just make out Reed Cormorant and Gyppos (Egyptian Goose). A circuit of the road around the course produced Southern Red Bishop (in drab non-breeding plumage), African Hoopoe, Red-knobbed Coot and even a Yellow-billed Duck emerging from a patch of reeds in a stream.

Southern Red Bishop (winter plumage)

Heading north out of town, I quickly got into my routine of stopping to look and listen every couple of hundred metres and carried on in this fashion until I came to the first turn-off which was the gravel road that meandered through the pentad from east to west.

This road of about 6 kms in length is bordered by farmland for the entire distance and took me close on two hours to complete, with many distractions besides the birds – but more of that in a moment, first the birds, which came in a steady flow at every stop :

Denham’s Bustard (seen twice) flying by majestically

Denham’s Bustard, Albertinia area

Sheep kraal with Red-capped Larks pottering about amongst the sheep

An unexpected Three-banded Plover in the same sheep kraal

Blue Cranes calling in their guttural fashion

Large-billed Larks calling from sparsely grassed fields in their unique way – sounding just like a rusty gate badly in need of some oil

Cape Crows heard in the distance then seen as they came closer

At least half a dozen Capped Wheatears in a large lightly grassed field scattered with stones – I find them so often in similar habitat that I can only conclude that this is ideal for them

Capped Wheatear (Oenanthe pileata / Hoëveldskaapwagter) (Race pileata), Albertinia area

Sharing this habitat preference were several Crowned Lapwings and a few Agulhas Long-billed Larks, the latter a sought after species amongst birders, only because their distribution is limited. In this area they are quite easy to find.

Crowned Lapwing (Vanellus coronatus / Kroonkiewiet) (Race coronatus), Albertinia area
Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris / Fiskaallaksman) (Race collaris), Albertinia area
Fiscal Flycatcher (Sigelus silens / Fiskaalvlieëvanger) (Race silens), Albertinia area

While revelling in this excellent birding, it was brought home to me how much more there is to atlasing than “just” the birds encountered (although that of course is the primary objective of the activity) – it’s also about the whole experience of travelling along routes that most people will never see and the interesting sights and sounds that lie around every bend.

This particular trip stood out in that regard – and here’s why ….

I came across fields of dark green lucerne followed by canola fields in bloom, stretching into the distance and carpeting the landscape in bright yellow.

Canola fields, Albertinia area

I enjoyed coffee and rusks on a lonely road where thoughts of the Covid 19 pandemic were far away

I was fascinated by an old “tin” cottage, long since abandoned, with an equally old barn next to it – I couldn’t help wondering what stories it could tell about the people who lived there and tended the small garden or worked in the barn, with pigs and sheep and perhaps a dog or two occupying the yard.

Abandoned farm house, Albertinia area
Abandoned farm house, Albertinia area

As I approached the fence to take these photos, a Jackal Buzzard flew out of the gum trees beside the house – perhaps to remind me not to get too distracted and to focus on the birding.

Abandoned farm house, Albertinia area

But there was more – an incongruous red telephone booth in the middle of an active farmyard had me wondering again – where didi it come from and why was it there?

Farm with postbox, Albertinia area

And with that I came to the end of the first pentad with a total of 48 species recorded. On checking the previous records for the pentad I found that the Red-billed Queleas I had seen was a new record, while Long-billed Crombec was just the second record.

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There was more of the same as I continued into the adjacent pentad along the same road, with the time now already 10.30 am, so well past the prime birding time. Nevertheless I recorded 20 species in the first half hour, before stopping for mid-morning coffee and a customary hard-boiled egg – my new list included pleasing species such as Brimstone Canary, never common, Grey-backed Cisticola and Red-capped Lark.

Albertinia area

The road left the pentad on its northern bounday so I took the first road southwards to return to the pentad – and this is where the birding slowed down as I traversed less favourable habitat – so much so that it took all of the next one and a half hours (to make up the two hour minimum atlasing required) to push the species total up to a hard-won 33. Blame it on flatter countryside with too much alien bush, pockets of pine and gum trees and overgrown fields

Despite this I had a glorious morning’s atlasing in attractive countryside

Oh… and I also came across this ostrich look-alike – its rather wooden expression had me guessing for a split second….

“Wooden Ostrich”, Albertinia area

Adventurous Birding, Atlasing and Travel