Tag Archives: Atlasing

My Atlasing Month – June 2020 (Part 2 )

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

Friemersheim Area – 20 June

It was 2 weeks since my previous atlasing trip so I was keen to get out and about – Friemersheim is a small village inland of Mossel Bay and lies in pleasant countryside with quiet roads – just the thing for a morning’s relaxing birding / atlasing. Both of the pentads I chose had not yet been atlased in 2020 so met my other main criteria – one did get atlased in the meantime but that was not going to put me off

Friemersheim area – early morning

The Route

I followed the N2 highway for a short distance eastwards of Mossel Bay, turning off at Tergniet and heading along gravel roads to the southern boundary of the first pentad, 3355_2210. The “main” gravel road runs south-north with a branch to the east through a deep gorge. I spent time on these roads, then proceeded to the adjacent pentad 3355_2205, starting on its eastern boundary and doing a large anti-clockwise circle through the village, out into the hills and mountains to the north and returning to where I had started. The last stretch southwards soon left the pentad and took me back to the road to Klein Brak and homewards

Pentad 3355_2210

The gravel road runs through prime farmland with planted fields, plenty of cattle and regular small dams, good varied habitat for regular bird sightings. The first field was filled with Sacred Ibises with a sprinkling of Hadedas, while Cattle Egrets dominated the next field along with their “hosts” – some handsome looking, well-fed cattle.

Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis / Veereier), Friemersheim area

Next up was a group of Black-winged Lapwings, one of the “specials” of this area which were standing like mini statues among tufts of grass in a sparsely grassed field.

A Black-winged Kite caught my attention as I passed a tall bare tree, so I stopped and used my best stealthy approach (picture it – ageing birder bent over and creeping slowly towards said tree, armed with camera, trying to be inconspicuous – I bet the Kite was chuckling to itself) which worked fine until I pressed the shutter, when the Kite decided to fly off. As it turned out, the camera captured it at the moment of take off, so I was quite pleased at getting an image different from the usual “sitting on a branch” one of this good looking raptor.

Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus / Blouvalk), Friemersheim area

Then it was the turn of an Amethyst Sunbird, usually found in heavy foliage, sitting exposed on a fence and singing vigorously, doing a great impression of a canary.

Just to illustrate the difference that the lens setting makes – the first photo is the “normal” view from the car, the second uses the full telephoto of 600mm and the photo is further cropped to get the “close up” view – gotta love technology!

Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina / Swartsuikerbekkie), Friemersheim area

A turn-off just after, sign-posted Kleinplaas (literally “Small farm”) was one that I recalled from a previous trip, but I could not remember where it went, so had to explore it again. Very soon I found the road dropping away steeply into a deep forested kloof with a dark brown, tannin-stained river running through it.

Grootrivier, Friemersheim area

Now I remembered it and spent time stopping and listening for the calls of forest birds – there weren’t as many as before and the irritating throb of a pump supplying water to some unseen farm was an unfortunate disturbance to the peace of this lovely spot.

Nevertheless, I picked up the calls of Sombre Greenbul, Cape Bulbul and Neddicky before proceeding up the other side of the kloof to the next plateau where a reed-lined dam produced no waterbirds but a good consolation in a Malachite Kingfisher (14%) along with Cape Grassbird and a Brown-throated Martin.

Malachite Kingfisher

A pair of small birds in a roadside tree turned out to be Forest Canaries (14%) – a relatively scarce bird, so always pleasing to find. My attempt to photograph them was stymied as they flew off seconds after I stopped – I have yet to add this species to my photo database.

I had reached both the end of the pentad and my time limit, so turned back and set my sights on getting to the next pentad with my total standing at 40 species.

Pentad 3355_2145

I reached the start of the second pentad on its eastern boundary, a km or so outside of the village of Friemersheim, named after the birth place of Rev Johan Kretzen, a missionary from Germany who settled here originally.

Friemersheim

Driving through the village it struck me that the settlement of about 1000 seemed untouched by the pandemic, with no signs of the social distancing and face masks which have become part of our lives.

On the other side of the village, I followed a track which branched off and took me through a series of deep valleys and tall hills. At the first stop a flash of iridescent green drew my attention to a Malachite Sunbird (10%) and moments later an African Hoopoe appeared in a nearby tree.

Malachite Sunbird

A stream ran through the first valley bottom and I stopped to listen – several calls told me I should spend time there and I was rewarded with Olive Bushshrike, Black-backed Puffback and a Greater Double-collared Sunbird, the latter brightening the foliage with its red and green colouring. Yet another Bar-throated Apalis showed briefly after calling vigorously from a concealed location.

Bar-throated Apalis (Apalis thoracica / Bandkeelkleinjantjie) (Race capensis), Friemersheim area

Beneke River, Friemersheim area

Once I had left the last of the valleys behind me, the environment changed to pine plantations, many recently cut down and waiting to be replanted, so a very sterile habitat as far as birding goes. A Victorin’s Warbler and a Karoo Prinia were the only birds added before getting back to my starting point just east of Friemersheim.

From there I headed homewards, past farms and a dam where a Plain-backed Pipit (6%) had apparently come to drink.

Plain-backed Pipit (Anthus leucophrys / Donkerkoester), Friemersheim area

One last deep valley lay ahead and I stopped at a busy river that ran through it, spotting a Knysna Turaco in the trees on the other side of the river – an unexpected delight, but apparently a familiar one in this pentad judging by its high reporting rate of over 60%. All I could manage was a very poor “record” photo –

Knysna Turaco, Friemersheim area
Friemersheim area

That took me to two hours and 33 species for the pentad and signaled the end of my morning’s atlasing.

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 – June 2020 (Part 1 )

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

With the severe restrictions largely lifted at end of May 2020, I was glad to be able to resume atlasing on a limited basis, still somewhat unsure of what would fall within the changed travel regulations, but comfortable with the thought that birding / atlasing on my own could in no imaginable way be seen as a risk to myself or anyone else.

Never mind the 1,5m social distance recommended by authorities, I doubt if I was likely to come within 150 metres of others, as all my birding is done from my vehicle along quiet back roads and when I stop there is no one else to be seen except for the occasional passing car.

Herbertsdale Area – 4 June

I wasted no time selecting a couple of pentads that met my simple criteria – not yet atlased in 2020 and not too far from home (which has been Mossel Bay since lockdown began). Two pentads south and north of Herbertsdale, a small town off the beaten track and less than an hour’s drive from Mossel Bay, fitted the bill with the added bonus of being one of my favourite areas in the southern Cape.

I have this habit of forgetting at least one thing when I go out on an atlasing outing – sometimes my hat or perhaps the milk for my coffee, neither of which is too serious. This time though I managed to leave my camera at home so had to make do withscenic shots taken with my iphone and bird photos borrowed from previous outings.

The Route

The R327 road to Herbertsdale is accessed off the N2 National road just west of Mossel Bay and runs south-north through both of the target pentads. On the way, the road passes Petro SA, with its tall smokestacks pumping flames and pale smoke into the atmosphere, then heads through farming land, low hills and flatter country all the way to Herbertsdale. Beyond the village the terrain soon becomes hilly again and the road winds its way through the mountains with interesting kloofs and streams.

Pentad 3415_2145

I reached the southern pentad boundary just on 8 am, with heavy mist limiting visibility. That didn’t stop a Bokmakierie from calling from a nearby tree, in fact he seemed to put extra woema (effort) into it with an outstretched neck.

A misty side road in early morning

Other calls were less obvious, their owners hidden somewhere in the mist. One tiny bird was hard to make out against the sharp backlight of sun on mist, but it obligingly made its characteristic “fietspomp” (bicycle pump) squeaky call, telling all in hearing distance that “I’m a Neddicky“.

Neddicky, Herbertsdale south

With the mist clearing and to avoid driving into the low sun, I moved quicker than usual along the Heuningklip road, which leads off to the east of the R327, so as to get to the pentad boundary, where I turned back, now with the sun behind me, making it a lot more comfortable to spot the birds.

Heuningklip road through hilly country

First off, a small field mouse darted across the road in front of me, disappearing into the bush lining the road. The hills on both sides were studded with aloes, soon to burst into a blaze of orange and red blooms. A familiar krrr-krrr sound from a bushy spot revealed the presence of Terrestrial Brownbul (8%) – a species not easily seen as they tend to remain in the dense foliage.

The photo below is of one I found in the open in Kruger Park

Terrestrial Brownbul

Just after passing the neat little farm house in the photo below, I came to a field of green lucerne where Ibises – Sacred and Hadeda – stood out as they worked there way along, bent over to pluck morsels from the soil. A farmer stopped to find out what I was up to (as they are wont to do) and we got into a conversation on the area, the weather and recent drought that was now improving. He happened to have the same surname as my son-in-law and knew of him and the family, which generated more discussion of course.

Farm, Herbertsdale area

Excusing myself, I was soon back on the R327 and on the way to Herbertsdale through rolling hills and grand scenery, pausing frequently to study the surroundings. A farm dam and adjoining shallow pan was filled with ducks and waders – I counted no less than 72 Three-banded Plovers, a fairly common bird but usually seen singly or in pairs. I had never seen so many in one spot before. For those of a mathematical bent that would amount to 216 bands among all the Plovers……

Shallow pan, Herbertsdale area
Three-banded Plover

Other birds were a Cape Teal pair (New record for the pentad), Red-billed Teals, Yellow-billed Ducks and a single Kittlitz’s Plover (another new record for the pentad)

I was approaching 3 hours in the pentad and had recorded 49 species which was more than satisfactory, so I proceeded to the next, adjoining pentad to continue my efforts.

Pentad 3355_2145

Entering the second pentad about a km beyond Herbertsdale, I had a coffee and snack break (boiled eggs cooked to perfection by our neat little egg boiler gadget the previous evening) and got the new list going just on 11 am with Sombre Greenbul, Forktailed Drongo and a curious Greater Double-collared Sunbird that came to inspect me from a nearby tree.

I carried on along the R327, which had changed to gravel as I passed through the village, towards the hills, stopping frequently at each promising spot while admiring the beautiful views that unfolded around each corner and over each hill.

Herbertsdale area

I scanned a large open field for Pipits and …. bingo! … a Plain-backed Pipit (New record for the pentad) was doing his thing in and among the short grass and stones. They are not that uncommon in the southern Cape but are always difficult to spot due to their colouring in shades of brown which blend in with the terrestrial habitat that they prefer.

Herbertsdale area – this aloe was already in bloom

Next stop was a small dam at roadside, hidden unless you know it’s there, which I do from previous trips. It held a couple of unusual species for the area – African Darter and Black-crowned Night-Heron (14%)

.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Ahead was a low-water bridge which always delivers, but when I stopped I could not see any birds. As I got out to look around a Hamerkop (14%) flew off in agitation – another uncommon bird in the area.

Hamerkop, Herbertsdale Area

Further on at another field of lucerne, I spotted some large black shapes among the green lucerne, which turned into Spurwinged Geese when I focused my binos on them. Just then, another farmer stopped behind me but did not get out – I looked in my rear view mirror and he just looked back at me, so I got out and approached his rather battered vehicle warily, only to meet a similarly battered looking owner of the vehicle, his appearance not necessarily to be blamed on the lockdown.

As it turned out he was also curious about my rather suspicious looking activity and I gathered from our conversation (very one-sided on his part – I could hardly get a word in) that he had been in an accident in his earlier years and was not very mobile, but enjoyed cruising around in his bakkie (utility vehicle, pickup or truck depending on where you are from) checking out the farming activities in his patch.

The last part of the pentad was in the mountains with the habitat dominated by proteas and I quickly added the species that go with this habitat – Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird and a calling Victorin’s Warbler.

Wild dagga is a favourite of nectar-loving birds and a short stretch had them in abundance

Deeper into the mountains I added a few species such as Yellow Bishop, Cape Grassbird, Amethyst Sunbird and African Stonechat to take my total for the pentad to 38 – this was a good result considering that the second pentad of the day is always a slower birding experience and I turned for home well satisfied with my first atlasing outing in a while.

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 – March 2020 (Part 4)

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

The last week and a bit of March saw us on our way from Pretoria to Cape Town and then eastwards to eventual lockdown in Mossel Bay, a trip of some 1850 kms spread over 4 days. As is my habit, I used the stopovers to do some atlasing – always a great way to shake off the effects of a day in the car.

Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West : 23 – 24 March 2020

When we stayed over at Lemoenfontein at the end of January on our way back to Gauteng, we hardly imagined we would be visiting this pleasant lodge so soon again and that we would be hearing news that evening that would change our lives along with the rest of the world.

We had plenty of time to do the 400 or so kms to get there from our previous overnight stop at Prior Grange near Springfontein in the Free State, so we took it easy with an extended stop at one of our favourite roadside pitstops – the Three Sisters garage. As has been our custom when stopping here, we purchased burgers at the take-away restaurant (not yet in lockdown, so still operating) and enjoyed them at one of the concrete picnic tables under the trees, surrounded by eager little sparrows, weavers and starlings all waiting for a chance to grab a dropped crumb or two.

We could already see the effect of the C-virus in the relatively few travelers on the road, despite being school holidays (although the schools had closed earlier than planned). The feeling of impending doom was hard to shake off and everyone seemed to be behaving differently.

Not long after, we arrived at the turn-off to Lemoenfontein and as we crossed into the pentad in which the lodge falls, I started driving slowly and scanning the surroundings.

Pentad 3215_2235

The approach road from the gravel turn-off runs for about 5 kms up to the lodge and provides a good opportunity to find some of the birds particular to the arid Karoo. First up was a Rufous-eared Warbler, a bird which always lifts my spirits, but often difficult to find. I have learnt from previous encounters with this striking little bird that to see it well, one must look out for it flying into a small bush where it tends to disappear from view, only to pop out at the top of the bush and perch there momentarily before moving to the next bush. This one did exactly as expected and we had good views for a half a minute.

Rufous-eared Warbler

Further on we found the first of what was going to be many Lark-like Buntings – a drab bird which often blends in with the arid habitats that it prefers and spends a lot of time on the ground. Strangely, these Buntings were more active and prominent than those I have previously encountered, fluttering about and perching briefly in the open, providing good views of their features – which are hard to describe, except to quote what others have said – “The main feature of the Lark-like Bunting is that it has no standout features” – sometimes birding can be a tad confusing.

Lark-like Bunting (Emberiza impetuani / Vaalstreepkoppie) ; (Subspecies sloggetti), Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West

We arrived at Lemoenfontein with just these two species logged, checked in and were taken to Room No 9, which I found to my delight was to one side with a small garden in front and a view that stretched beyond over the wide expanse of Karoo scrub.

Lemoenfontein near Beaufort West

I took up a seat on the patio and spent time just watching the passing bird traffic, gradually adding to my list with doves and sparrows and the likes of White-backed Mousebird, Dusky Sunbird, Rock Martins cruising by and Greater Striped Swallows resting on the top branches of a small tree.

Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West
Greater Striped Swallow (Cecropis cucullata / Grootstreepswael), Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West

I wanted to fit in a walk before dinner and headed up the mountain trail, which proved challenging as hordes of mosquitoes descended on all my bare parts – not a good time to be in shorts! I slapped furiously only managing to deter them for a few seconds before they returned with reinforcements.

They weren’t giving me a chance to even lift my binos and look around, but I noticed that they seemed to be getting fewer the higher I climbed, so I hastened to get as high as my lungs would allow then slowed to a more suitable pace to look around properly.

Lemoenfontein near Beaufort West

Just then my heavily pumping heart soared as I saw two black shapes high up above the ridge that towers over Lemoenfontein – a pair of Verraux’s Eagles (New record for the pentad) enjoying the late afternoon thermals, gracefully wheeling and soaring. A sight I never tire of.

Verreaux’s Eagle (Aquila verreauxii / Witkruisarend), Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West

On the way back to the lodge I added Karoo Scrub-Robin and Pale-winged Starling to close out my afternoon’s atlasing at a modest 18 species – not unexpected in this habitat.

Soon it was time for dinner on the grand Verandah – we had heard President Cyril Ramaphosa was due to speak about the virus pandemic and kept an eye on the news while enjoying an excellent 3 course dinner. By the time it got to pudding we knew that our plans would have to change and we would have to cut short our stay in Cape Town to one day to allow time to get to our house in Mossel Bay before the announced lockdown started on Friday 27th March for at least 3 weeks.

Next morning we left after breakfast – I managed to fit in some further atlasing in between loading the car and other tasks, adding Red-eyed Bulbul, Familiar Chat, Malachite Sunbird and a surprising Red-headed Finch. On the slow drive back to the main road, we saw more Lark-like Buntings, this time openly perched and singing, plus a Karoo Chat and White-necked Raven to complete the atlas card with 27 species logged. I had to remind myself that it’s not about the numbers but all about recording what’s present (and not present) in a particular area at a particular time.

Karoo Chat (Cercomela schlegelii / Karoospekvreter) (Subspecies pollux), Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West

I did not appreciate it at the time but this was to be my last atlasing “away from home” for a long time.

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 – March 2020 (Part 3 )

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

The last week and a bit of March saw us on our way from Pretoria to Cape Town and then eastwards to eventual lockdown in Mossel Bay, a trip of some 1850 kms spread over 4 days. As is my habit, I used the stopovers to do some atlasing – always a great way to shake off the effects of a day in the car.

Prior Grange, Springfontein : 22 – 23 March 2020

A Sunday start meant quiet roads out of Gauteng and a relaxed drive for some 620 kms to Prior Grange near Springfontein in the Free State. We were allocated the Stable Cottage in the grounds of the farm garden, set amongst tall old trees and we welcomed the comfortable and spacious accommodation and looked forward especially to the delicious dinner and breakfast served in the cottage.

The Stable Cottage among trees, Prior Grange, Springfomtein

Pentad 3015_2540

As soon as we had settled in I set off on a walk, exploring the garden and the dam behind the main house, ending the afternoon with 34 species recorded. The garden was filled with bird calls – those of Green Woodhoopoes most prominent and visible as they foraged from tree to tree. Crested and Pied Barbets both made themselves heard with their distinctive calls, one a drawn out trilling, the other a series of nasal calls and short, quick hoots.

Green Woodhoopoe
Acacia Pied Barbet,

The dam was sparsely populated at first glance, but once I had scanned it carefully I found there were a number of species in small numbers on the water – Common Moorhen (10%), Yellow-billed Duck, Egyptian Goose, Little Grebe calling shrilly as it took off in its typical fly / swim fashion, a lone Spur-winged Goose and a pair of SA Shelducks. An African Darter (4%) on the far bank was not easy to see until it moved – only the second record for this species in the pentad.

African Darter

I made my way back to the main gravel road and walked a short distance along it in the remaining time, enough to find a Rock Kestrel on a utility pole and to see a distant group of Blue Cranes flying to their roost.

Blue Cranes in flight, Prior Grange, Springfomtein

The afternoon ended back at the cottage with calls of Diderick Cuckoo and a guttural call which had me puzzled until my bird calls memory kicked in and I realised that it was Grey Herons, which I was just able to make out on the top of a tall tree that they were using for nesting and roosting.

Supper was the customary Karoo lamb – this time in a delicious pie form with veggies and a pudding for after. I set the alarm for 6 am to allow an hour or so of atlasing in the morning, so completing the 2 hours minimum atlasing before departing after breakfast.

Next morning the weather was fine and cool for a further walk, but before setting out I spotted White-backed Mousebirds in the trees followed immediately by the unmistakable whirring, clapping sound and ascending whistle which announced the presence of a Clapper Lark in display flight and specifically in this part of the country, the Eastern Clapper Lark.

Long early morning shadows at Prior Grange, Springfomtein
Eastern Clapper Lark

Walking the gravel road in the direction of Springfontein I soon found a Jackal Buzzard (10%) perched on a distant pylon, accompanied by a belligerent looking Pied Crow, the Buzzard rather aloof to it all as the Crow seemed to scold it for who knows what reason.

The road between Springfontein and Prior Grange

A Cape Longclaw flew up out of the grass as I passed and sat briefly on a fence post, showing its bright orange neck colouring, while a Cloud Cisticola called phwee-phwee-phwee-chik-chik-chik rapidly in the background, determined to make sure I would add it to my list.

Cape Longclaw,

A little further on, another bird on a fence post was a puzzle until I could get closer with less backlight and identify it as a Sabota Lark (a New record for the pentad). Time for breakfast had arrived and I headed back to the cottage, hesitating only to listen to the Orange River Francolin that was greeting the new day.

After a full breakfast we packed up and headed for the N1 National Road which would take us to our next overnight stop near Beaufort West. While loading the car I heard and then spotted an African Paradise Flycatcher (another new record for the pentad)

And just in case you wonder which way to go …… there is a very helpful sign to see you on your way….

Prior Grange, Springfomtein

It seems that Prior Grange attracts its fair share of atlasers, with 49 pentad cards submitted to date. My total of 50 species was more than I had expected in the two and a bit hours that I spent atlasing, all of it on foot other than 3 species recorded on the road as we drove the last stretch to the farm. My personal tally stands at 96 species for the pentad, after 5 visits to the farm, one of our favourite stopovers on the long road to the southern Cape.

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 – March 2020 (Part 2 )

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

Another busy atlasing month during which planned – and unplanned – trips saw us travelling across South Africa, initially to Mpumulanga province for a midweek breakaway, followed not long after by a lengthy trip through Gauteng, Free State and Western Cape provinces on our way from Pretoria to Cape Town and then eastwards to eventual lockdown in Mossel Bay, a trip of some 1850 kms spread over 4 days.

Balmoral Area : 18th March 2020

My focus was now on the more mundane “ordinary” parts of Gauteng, rather than the nature reserves and protected areas that I had atlased the previous month. Studying the pentad map, I was drawn to the area around, and north of, Balmoral, a small settlement about 70 kms east of Pretoria along the N4 National Road. Both of the pentads I had in mind had not been atlased in 2020 yet, so fitted into my atlasing plan.

Pentad 2550_2855

The N4 National road effectively divides the pentad into northern and southern sections – I decided to ignore the southern section as it includes Kusile power station, still partly under construction and surrounded by coalfields. From previous experience, I knew the roads would be filled with heavy, intimidating coal trucks and that the habitat has been seriously altered by the mining activities – not at all suited to the comfortable, relaxed atlasing I was looking for.

Kusile Power station in the distance

The northern section is entirely different with a mix of grassland and farms with herds of cattle and I set out to cover as much of it as possible.

Initially, after turning off the highway, I travelled slowly along the quieter R104 road that runs parallel to the N4. This proved to be a good move with plenty of birds apparent along the verges, in and on the long grass and bush, even among the banks of colourful Cosmos flowers in pastel shades that emerge at this time of year.

After the first hour I had logged 28 species, all fairly common for the area, including Fan-tailed Widowbird, Bronze Mannikin (3%), Zitting Cisticolas aplenty in their characteristic hopping flight and equally as many Levaillant’s Cisticolas calling zestily from their tall grass perches.

After turning back I took the gravel road heading north-east and spent some time at a bridge over a river where I found tens of Little Swifts and some Lesser Striped Swallows filling the air above it. In a distant riverside bush I spotted a flash of colour and my binos confirmed my initial excited hope – a Half-collared Kingfisher (6%) ! Thanks to the magic of my Sony bridge camera (appropriately used on a bridge) I could capture a fuzzy but identifiable image of this superb little bird – definitely my bird of the day!

View of the river from the bridge

The Kingfisher was in the bush just in front of the tallest tree above

Half-collared Kingfisher (Alcedo semitorquata / Blouvisvanger), Balmoral area

My next move took me out of the pentad and I only returned to it 3 and a half hours later, when I proceeded into the southern section hoping the dreaded coal truck traffic was less intimidating by now. Fortunately I found a quiet side road along which lay a farm dam I had visited previously and was thrilled to find Grey-headed Gull, Reed Cormorant, Yellow-billed Duck and Maccoa Duck (9%) on the water and White-winged Tern (3%) above it to take my pentad total to 52, which is where it ended.

Pentad 2545_2855

This pentad, which lies directly north of the first one, has more rugged habitat and less of the waving grasslands and lush verges that I had enjoyed so far. The road was initially in good condition but when I branched off it became increasingly rough …..

The road (track) looks marginally better than it actually was

The initial stretch of road was productive and it did not take long to log the first 15 species, including two larks – Rufous-naped and Spike-heeled Larks (7%) – both entertaining me with typical calls and roadside photo opportunities.

Spike-heeled Larks have two features which set them apart from similar looking larks – a short, white-tipped tail and a white throat – both are visible in this image. The longish decurved bill is another feature of the species but less obvious in this image.

Spike-heeled Lark (Chersomanes albofasciata / Vlaktelewerik) ; (Subspecies alticola), Balmoral area

Moving north-west the birding slowed somewhat until I reached a stream with a small wetland, which provided a boost with Village Weavers, Red-collared Widowbird, Moorhen and Lesser-swamp Warbler – the last revealing its presence in the reeds with its liquid warbling call.

Shortly after that stop I came across a Black-winged Kite and colourful White-fronted Bee-eaters using the overhead wires as a hawking perch, after which I had to work hard for new species to record. A small raptor high up on a pylon, with strong backlight preventing a clear sighting, had me battling to decide on an ID, but my trusty Sony bridge camera on full zoom and set to over-expose by about two stops saved the day, providing a good enough image to confirm it was a Greater Kestrel (5%).

Greater Kestrel (Falco rupicoloides / Grootrooivalk) (Immature), Balmoral area

Ant-eating chats suddenly appeared in roadside fields, announcing a change in habitat to a more sandy terrain – just another reminder how habitat bound many species of bird can be.

Ant-eating Chat (Myrmecocichla formicivora / Swartpiek) (Probable subspecies “minor”), Balmoral area

Last but one record for the pentad was another small raptor perched in a distant tree – it had me guessing for a while, even with the assistance of the camera – my initial thought was Gabar Goshawk but it was lacking certain features such as the red cere. After studying the photos, I decided it had to be a sub-adult Gabar that had lost most of its juvenile features but was not yet fully adult – however I was set in the right direction by Roelof (see comment below) and changed my ID to African Cuckoo Hawk, which pleased me even more as this is a species not readily found in these parts – interestingly this particular pentad stands out as having the highest reporting rate (21%) for the species in the province.

African Cuckoo Hawk (Aviceda cuculoides / Koekoekvalk), Balmoral area

Just before leaving the pentad finally, I came across a flock of Black-throated Canaries to take the pentad total to a satisfactory 42.

My March atlasing continued during our road trip to the Cape – more about that in Part 3….

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 – March 2020 (Part 1 )

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

Another busy atlasing month during which planned – and unplanned – trips saw us travelling across South Africa, initially to Mpumulanga province for a midweek breakaway, followed not long after by a lengthy trip through Gauteng, Free State and Western Cape provinces on our way from Pretoria to Cape Town and then eastwards to eventual lockdown in Mossel Bay, a trip of some 1850 kms spread over 4 days.

Verlorenkloof – 2 to 6 March

Expiring timeshare points were put to good use with a last-minute midweek booking at Verlorenkloof, between Macahadadorp and Lydenburg, our favourite resort which we have been visiting since 2004. Over the years we have got to know the resort intimately, which helps when it comes to birding and atlasing, as you tend to know what to expect before actually seeing it.

Pentad 2525_3015

The pentad covers the resort, adjoining farmland, trout fishing dams, a river that meanders through the lower part of the resort and grasslands. Habitats are varied, as covered in some detail in previous posts such as https://mostlybirding.com/2016/05/04/verlorenkloof-birding/ and are centered around the croft, which for this break was No 6.

Grasslands, Verlorenkloof

Birding began, as usual, in the vicinity of the spacious croft with species coming and going while we enjoyed the ambience of the patio with good friends Koos and Rianda, bathed in just enough sunlight to keep the late summer temperatures at a comfortable level. The comers and goers included African Paradise and Spotted Flycatchers, Red-winged Starlings in abundance, a lone Grey Cuckooshrike – too quick for a photo – and in the evening a Fiery-necked Nightjar.

Chinspot Batis, Verlorenkloof

The Fiery-necked Nightjar displayed an uncanny sense of time, starting to call at the same time, give or take a couple of minutes, for 4 evenings in a row, usually just after we had started our braai fire. Perhaps it was the flames of the fire that inspired it – being a Fiery-necked Nightjar after all!

The birding highlight of our stay, initially spotted by Koos, was the colony of Cape Vultures which appeared late on the first afternoon high up against the escarpment, cruising slowly and effortlessly in a long lazy loop, utilising the warm updraft to good effect before settling on projecting ledges.

I took this photo at a distance of possibly a kilometre, using my spotting scope at its maximum 60 x zoom and holding my iphone over the viewing lens. The resulting photo needed some editing and manipulation but gives a reasonable idea of the craggy mountain top and the roosting vultures (those whitish blobs)

Cape Vulture roost, Verlorenkloof

With the help of the spotting scope we were able to estimate the colony at some 60 individuals, so it is clearly a significant colony of this endangered species. During previous visits we have spotted Cape Vultures in flight on a couple of occasions, but never in these numbers and never roosting within view, so we came to the conclusion that this was a newly formed colony.

Our late afternoon walks and short drives to the reception building for coffee were opportunities to bird the woodland and grassland, the latter producing regular sightings of Broad-tailed Warbler, a scarce and desirable species for many a birder. When logging the species on Birdlasser I found that it had undergone a name change, now being known as Fan-tailed Grassbird.

Fan-tailed Grassbird (Schoenicola brevirostris)

Other species included Lazy Cisticola and Croaking Cisticola which, true to its name, sounds like a frog with laryngitis. Tall reeds held tens of Widowbirds – Red-collared, Fan-tailed and White-winged – and Bishops – Red and Yellow-crowned.

Lazy Cisticola (Cisticola aberrans / Luitinktinkie), Verlorenkloof

The fishing dams (it’s a trout fishing resort as well) were fairly barren at first but with some patience we found Yellow-billed Duck, Moorhen and Little Grebe.

One of the dams

Aerially, it was as busy as always with Rock Martins, White-rumped Swifts and Greater Striped Swallows never far from view around the croft. Further afield, Barn Swallows, White-throated, Lesser-striped, Pearl-breasted (8%) and Grey-rumped Swalows patrolled their preferred patch, ever searching for the next feed.

The gravel access roads to and from the resort are best for the bush and tree species with the likes of Southern Black Flycatcher, Brubru (5%), Yellow-fronted Canaries, Mousebirds and others.

Southern Black Flycatcher, Verlorenkloof

One lazy afternoon a family group of Red-necked Spurfowl weaved through the longer grass around the croft, affording glimpses of their main features.

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

Koos and I dedicated one morning to atlasing the northern reaches of the pentad on the way to another pentad further afield – another 19 species were added in about two hours of frequent stops, with highlights being Willow Warbler, the tiny Orange-breasted Waxbills that move around in flocks, Dusky Indigobird (4%), Giant Kingfisher, a calling Red-winged Francolin – too furtive to spot and Yellow-crowned Bishop. All very pleasing additions to my already advanced list.

Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima / Reusevisvanger) Verlorenkloof

A handful of birds (if you have just 4 fingers) on our last morning on the way home took my total for the pentad to 97 including a lone Amur Falcon (7%) – not my highest 5 day total for this pentad but quite satisfying for late summer when many of the migrants have either left or are not calling.

This was my 16th atlas card for the pentad and took my personal total for the pentad to 191 species (out of a total for all atlasers of 292 species), which illustrates the amazing diversity of bird life in the area, bearing in mind a pentad covers around 8 x 8 kms of the planet.

The Other Stuff

Verlorenkloof is not just about birding, being a botanist’s delight as well as a haven for many other of nature’s treasures – here’s a selection of photos which touch on the variety of flora and fauna to be found –

This beauty I would guess is a type of wild Iris of sorts


Just look at this delicate flower, found in long grass near one of the paths

Wild flower, Verlorenkloof

Even an ordinary moth looks delicate and special

Moth, Verlorenkloof

Kiepersol trees are plentiful

Kiepersol, Verlorenkloof

Verlorenkloof has wild life too – but don’t expect a Big 5 experience

Scrub Hare (Lexus saxatillis), Verlorenkloof

Even a reptile or two – this one brought home to me once again just how well wild life can blend into its environment – a raptor would have great difficulty seeing this reptile from above as it matches the colours of the rock to a tee

Rock Agama (I beieve) Verlorenkloof
Rock Agama, Verlorenkloof

And to finish, here’s another example of a spotting scope / iphone combination to take a photo of a three-quarter moon

Verlorenkloof

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%

Marievale – An Unexpected Sighting

In my most recent post ( https://mostlybirding.com/2020/03/31/my-atlasing-month-february-2020-part-three/) I mentioned my encounter with an unusual mammal while atlasing / birding at Marievale Bird Sanctuary, but thought I would dedicate a special post to this most exciting sighting. If you have seen an Otter close up in the wild before, read no further – for those that have not ….. well, read on.

Marievale Bird Sanctuary

Just as a reminder, Marievale, with its extensive, shallow open waters and wetlands, reed beds and surrounding grasslands, is well known among birding enthusiasts as a place where you are pretty much guaranteed to see an excellent variety of waterfowl, wetland and grassland species in a morning’s birding.

I was atlasing (bird-mapping) along the “power line road” – a maintenance track below the main overhead power lines that run through a section of the wetlands. The track is narrow and lined with reeds in places, affording views of the ponds and small lakes, most of which have abundant bird life. After heavy rains the track becomes inundated and impassable, but at most times of the year it is drive-able as long as your vehicle has reasonably high clearance and you don’t mind the potential light scratches that may be caused as you squeeze your vehicle between the reeds and vegetation on both sides.

Once committed to the track, the only places to turn around are where the track has been widened at each of the pylons and I used one such spot for a coffee break, after which I headed back along the track toward the paved main access road. Still alert for any new bird species to record for atlasing purposes, I was passing a smaller pond when I noticed movement in the water and a glimpse of a dark shiny body. Dismissing it as a fish I was about to proceed when suddenly a small head popped up out of the water and looked at me – I knew immediately what it was and let out a gasp of excitement – an Otter!

As I watched, I saw that there was more than one otter, but they surfaced for just a second or two then dived below the surface, disappeared for a half minute, then popped up again in a different part of the pond. I got out of the car and carefully crept around the back to where I could watch their antics and hopefully get a photo or two. This game of cat and mouse – or man and otter – went on for a good ten minutes or more as one or both otters popped up to look at me curiously then slithered off below the surface only to pop up metres away, with me trying to anticipate where they would appear.

My only previous sighting of an otter was a distant one many years ago, while birding a farming area not far from Marievale, so this was for me a very unexpected and special moment.

Initially when I wrote this post I identified the otter as a Cape Clawless Otter, but was prompted by a comment (see below) to research a bit further and came to the conclusion that this was the much smaller Spotted-necked Otter. Wikipedia provides the following info :

The spotted-necked otter (Hydrictis maculicollis), or speckle-throated otter, is an otter native to sub-Saharan Africa.

The spotted-necked otter is a relatively small species, with males measuring 71 to 76 cm (28 to 30 in) from nose to rump, and weighing 5.7 to 6.5 kg (13 to 14 lb), while females are 57 to 61 cm (22 to 24 in) and 3.0 to 4.7 kg (6.6 to 10.4 lb). The tail is long and muscular, measuring 39 to 44 cm (15 to 17 in) in both sexes. Like many other otters, it is sleek and has webbed paws for swimming.

Although considerable variation exists among individuals, their fur is usually reddish to chocolate brown and marked with creamy or white blotches over the chest and throat. The head is broad with a short muzzle, small rounded ears, and a hairless nose pad. The teeth are adapted for consuming fish, with large sharp upper canine teeth, curved lower canines, and sharp carnassial teeth.

Below is a selection of the photos I was able to take of this endearing animal.

Spotted-necked Otter (Hydrictis maculicollis),, Marievale Bird Sanctuary

My Atlasing Month – February 2020 (Part Three)

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

I thought it best to split it into three parts as it has been a busy atlasing month during which I made a point of visiting some of Gauteng’s prime birding spots for my atlasing pursuits in the hope that it would get my birding year off to a cracking start (it worked!)

Marievale Bird Sanctuary – 26 February

This week’s choice of atlasing destination was Marievale Bird Sanctuary, situated near Nigel in south-eastern Gauteng and about 100 kms drive from our Pretoria home. I had intended to do two pentads – Marievale itself plus an adjoining pentad outside the nature reserve. After spending more time in Marievale than planned, I struggled to find an access road into the second pentad and found myself driving in circles, thanks to some confusing directions from my navigation system. A short session of “test atlasing” of a stretch of the very busy road that I eventually found, convinced me that it would be a wasted effort and a frustration, as it was by now the middle of the day – a very quiet time for birding – and I did not fancy dodging traffic for two hours.

Pentad 2620_2830

Marievale is famous for its extensive, shallow open waters and wetlands, reedbeds and surrounding grasslands. It is also well served with bird hides and a picnic spot – all well maintained and you are guaranteed to see an excellent variety of waterfowl, wetland and grassland species in a morning’s birding.

Marievale Bird Sanctuary

After a slow drive from home through early morning traffic, despite starting out at 5.30 am and following some back roads, I started atlasing as soon as I entered the pentad in its north-eastern corner, still on the R42 main road between Delmas and Nigel. It took 20 minutes to get to the Marievale entrance road, by which time I had logged 21 species seen along the road – I made sure to pull off onto the wide grass verge wherever possible, as the road proved to be quite busy. Black-winged Kite, Glossy Ibis and Spotted Thick-Knee were pleasing to see as well as two Widowbird species – Fan-tailed and Long-tailed.

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus / Glansibis), Marievale Bird Sanctuary

I spent a while at the entrance complex which has a deck overlooking some wetlands and quickly added Red-billed Teal, Cape Shoveler and Hottentot Teal, taking my total to 31 by the time I accessed the reserve proper.

My next focus was on the “powerline road” – a maintenance track below the main overhead powerlines that run through a section of the wetlands. The track is narrow and lined with reeds in places, affording views of the ponds and small lakes, most of which have abundant bird life. The reeds are a favourite haunt for warblers which provide a soundtrack of birdsong as you drive along, windows open to hear all the calls. Lesser Swamp Warblers competed with African Reed Warblers for the title of “most prolific warbler” which ended pretty much in a draw.

The shallower ponds were alive with waders, including elegant Greater Flamingoes, Wattled Lapwings, Black-winged Stilts and Spoonbills; deeper ponds were filled with waterfowl such as Teals, Yellow-billed Ducks and SA Shelducks.

African Spoonbill (Platalea alba / Lepelaar), Marievale Bird Sanctuary

At one spot an African Swamphen and a Moorhen emerged from the reeds and went about their business while I tried to get them in the same frame, each nicely posed – a tall ask indeed.

African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis / Grootkoningriethaan) with Common Moorhen, Marievale Bird Sanctuary

On my return trip along the track a flash of colour caught my eye – a Malachite Kingfisher, often plentiful at Marievale but on this day it was the only one I found. A Natal Spurfowl (0.5%) crossed the track ahead of me – not usually regarded as a scarce bird but this was one of only a handful of records for Marievale.

Malachite Kingfisher (Alcedo cristata / Kuifkopvisvanger), Marievale Bird Sanctuary

With my total now standing at 52 after two hours of atlasing I knew the pace of adding new species would slow, but I was expecting 70 plus based on my previous visits to Marievale and continued along the main access road to the picnic spot, where I enjoyed coffee and a sandwich in the hide, before entering the northern part of the reserve.

The next two hours added just 18 species but took me to my target of 70 species and was quite satisfied with my citizen scientist contribution for the day. The only mild disappointment was the lack of small waders, barring a Little Stint, due to the higher levels of the ponds and dearth of muddy flats following the good summer rains.

A Squacco Heron in the middle of the track kept me fascinated for about ten minutes while it tried to manoeuvre a small fish into a swallowing position, pushing and pulling it on the ground then picking it up in its bill and flipping it about to get it in position, dropping the fish again and repeating the moves over and over. This went on until the heron grew tired of my attention and stalked off into the reeds, fish in bill.

Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides / Ralreier), playing with its food
And off he goes into the reeds

On the way out I found a Common Buzzard (6%) and an Amur Falcon to round off a superb morning of atlasing.

The highlight of the morning? Undoubtedly an unusual mammal that I had never seen up close before – but more about that on another occasion …….

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 – February 2020 (Part Two)

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

I thought it best to split it into three parts as it has been a busy atlasing month during which I made a point of visiting some of Gauteng’s prime birding spots for my atlasing pursuits in the hope that it would get my birding year off to a cracking start (it worked!)

Wilge River Valley – 19 February

My choice of pentads for the week was centred around the beautiful Wilge River Valley which lies about an hour’s drive north-east of Pretoria. Getting there is simple and includes the N4 National road up to the R25 turn-off at Bronkhorstspruit, then northwards to the Zusterstroom turn-off. From the turn-off the tar road soon changes to gravel, continuing eastwards across the pentad, flanked by a stream on one side and scenic cliffs on the other. Both sides are lined variously with bush, forest and woodland, changing to farmland beyond the valley.

Wilge River Valley

I was anticipating a good day’s birding with most of the summer migrants still present, although some of them are a lot more secretive during the late summer months before departing northwards. Red-chested Cuckoos, which are almost monotonously vocal during November to January are mostly silent in late February.

Pentad 2535_2855

My first stop was at a small farm dam close enough to the road to scan for bird life – also the only dam I came across during the morning. Yellow-billed Ducks (8%) and a lone Little Grebe (5%) paddled about on the water, while Pied Starlings (7%) flew about somewhat aimlessly (I’m sure they didn’t think so), Long-tailed Widowbirds floated delicately just above the long grass in that unique summer display that they have perfected and the calls of Rufous-naped Lark and Cloud Cisticola provided an appropriate soundtrack to it all. Who needs a concert when you have it all provided free by nature?

Finishing my first coffee, I proceeded slowly along the road, closing the windows to avoid the dust clouds created by the occasional passing vehicle, stopping frequently to get out and scan the surroundings and the air while listening for any calls. I have learnt that this is by far the best way to atlas, as birds I probably would not have noticed if I remained in the car suddenly pop up, fly by or call and become part of the statistics. My list grew steadily, albeit a bit slower than I had anticipated, with regular Puffback and Orange-breasted Bush-shrike calls reminding me that this habitat suited them perfectly.

Wilge River

Highlights along the way :

  • Red-breasted Swallows perched at the roadside had me stalking them to get better light – photographing against an overcast sky is never ideal and seldom results in a decent photo
  • A Dusky Indigobird (1.5% ) also grabbed my attention for a while, but once again I struggled to get decent light without spooking the bird – some manipulation with Lightroom saved the day and I was reasonably pleased with the result
  • As I drove I kept hearing a call which was familiar but not immediately recognised by me – this happens a lot with calls especially when you have not heard a species for some time. I started seeing one Cinnamon-breasted Bunting after another and then it clicked that it was their call I was hearing. Bird calls can be a real challenge so linking a mystery call to a species is a particular thrill of atlasing.
  • A Prinia like bird, but with a rufous cap could only be a Lazy Cisticola and a warbler calling from dense bush had me checking the warbler calls to confirm my suspicion that it was a Garden Warbler, another Palaearctic summer migrant – despite being a few metres away and calling loudly, there was not a movement to be seen, so I had to be content with its mellow call
Red-breasted Swallow (Cecropis semirufa / Rooiborsswael)
Dusky Indigobird  (Vidua funerea / Gewone blouvinkie)
Cinnamon-breasted Bunting ( Emberiza tahapisi / Klipstreepkoppie)

At one stop I noticed a dead Nightjar in the road, clearly hit by a passing vehicle – its wing was conveniently spread revealing a pattern of white spots which I later used to ID it as Freckled Nightjar (9%). Unfortunately they are in the habit of settling on gravel roads at night and become blinded by the vehicle lights until it is too late.

A stop at the river where it crosses the road, produced Little Rush and African Reed Warblers calling from the reeds which have taken over the river at that point. Further on, just before reaching the eastern pentad boundary, I spotted a Woodland Kingfisher on an overhead wire and a Black-winged Kite on an exposed branch, both looking for their next meal.

Turning north, I re-entered the pentad in a completely different habitat of grassland, patches of bush and wetlands with tall reeds. The wetlands were too distant for my binoculars so I set up my scope and came up with a trio of Widowbirds – White-winged, Fan-tailed and Red-collared, plus Red Bishops, all of which favour this habitat.

I was at the boundary of the pentad on its northern side, about to exit it and resigned to not reaching my target of 70 species, when a Cattle Egret and Levaillant’s Cisticola saved the day. By now it was late morning and I decided to do the pentad directly north of the first one.

Pentad 2530_2855

This was a far less diverse pentad, comprising mostly grassland with some wetland patches at the start. A Greater Kestrel on a utility pole was my first record, and also happened to be a new species for the pentad, always an exciting moment. The wetlands held the same widowbirds and bishops as the first pentad and a stream crossing had a variety of birds but not much new other than Red-breasted Swallows and Tawny-flanked Prinias

Grasslands

Soon I was back on the main R25 tar road, which was under construction for most of its length through the pentad and I did not linger or try to stop as it would have been quite dangerous, so I turned off at the first gravel side road that came up. This was fortuitous as it took me along a quiet farm road through more grassland where the power lines had many European Bee-eaters and a multitude of Common House-Martins

I stretched my stay in the area, knowing there was no further scope for atlasing elsewhere in the pentad, until I had done the minimum two hours, by which time I had recorded a modest 31 species on my Birdlasser app.

Rufous-naped Lark  (Mirafra africana / Rooineklewerik)

I couldn’t resist photographing this Citrus Swallowtail butterfly when I came across it near the stream crossing

Although I was finished with atlasing, my birding was not quite done – I had heard about a rarity seen at the Bronkhorstspruit Dam which was on my route home so decided to see if it was still around. Indeed it was and I saw only my second Red Phalarope through my scope in the middle of the large dam from where a group of birders had gathered – too far for a photo. This lovely Yellow-billed Duck and young duckling passing by made up partially for that….

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 – February 2020 (Part One)

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

I thought it best to split it into three parts as it has been a busy atlasing month during which I made a point of visiting some of Gauteng’s prime birding spots for my atlasing pursuits in the hope that it would get my birding year off to a cracking start (it worked!)

Lemoenfontein near Beaufort West – 1 to 2 February

Lemoenfontein Game Lodge near Beaufort West was our first overnight stop on our 1 300 km trip from Mossel Bay back to our main home in Pretoria. We had not stayed there before and were more than happy that we had followed our friend’s recommendation, as we enjoyed a comfortable room and excellent meals served on the grand open verandah overlooking the expanse of the surrounding Karoo landscape. The lodge dates back to the mid 1800’s and I could imagine hunting parties enjoying the same view in those days.

The approach road to Lemoenfontein Game Lodge near Beaufort West
Heavy rain drenching the arid Karoo near Beaufort West as we approached Lemoenfontein

My usual strategy for atlasing the minimum two hours at overnight stops is to split it into one hour’s birding after arrival in the afternoon and a further hour’s birding before breakfast the next morning. Our arrival at Lemoenfontein was accompanied by a heavy downpour which started outside Beaufort West and only let up once we had settled into our room. That still left just enough time for a short walk along the trail that skirts the lower slopes of the mountain, enough to find some of the Karoo specials such as Layard’s Warbler, Grey-backed Cisticola and Lark-like Bunting.

Lemoenfontein

My pre-breakfast walk the next morning was in the opposite direction including a section of the access road and added to my modest list with Pale-winged Starlings and a Pale Chanting Goshawk most prominent, taking my pentad total to just 23 species

The view all the way to Beaufort West

Pretoria – “Home” Pentad – 6 to 8 February

Getting back to Pretoria after more than two months away takes some adjusting – South Africa’s infamous “load shedding”, a “soft” term for regular power cuts, was with us again and added to the challenge. So I chose to ease into my Gauteng atlasing routine by starting with my home pentad – the pentad that includes the suburb where we live and a large chunk of south-eastern Pretoria.

The habitat is mostly urban gardens and housing estates such as the one where our home is located, which has a couple of dams favoured by various waterfowl, while the pentad is also blessed with three reasonably sized nature reserves with varying habitats, so opportunities for birding are good. Atlasing the busy general urban areas is challenging as sudden stops can lead to accidents, so I prefer to head to a quieter, protected area for the bulk of the atlasing and any birds spotted along the way and identifiable without slowing down or stopping are a bonus.

I started the atlasing of my home pentad with a long walk around Moreletakloof Nature Reserve – the warm, humid weather had me sweating profusely and I was glad I had taken a water bottle along. There are various trails through the reserve and I followed one through dense woodland down to the stream, then through more open grassland and woodland up to the dam, which was only partially visible through the dense reeds which cover a large part of it.

Moreletakloof
The Reserve has a few Zebras

From the dam I headed further up the main trail then turned back towards the parking area and main gate. Palm and Little Swifts and Greater Striped Swallows were constantly visible in the air, while highlights of the walk were African Green Pigeon, Glossy Ibis flying over, Spotted Flycatcher and the resident Common Ostriches which I watched carefully as they can be dangerous when breeding. I left the reserve with a list of 38 species and headed to my next planned stop at Struben Dam, some 20 minutes away through busy traffic and some dead traffic lights affected by load shedding.

At Struben Dam, a small nature reserve favoured by fishermen, I walked the path that circles the small dam, almost baulking at a heavily flowing stream crossing, but one giant leap – well that’s what it felt like to my ageing body – got me across safely. The dam has numbers of Yellow-billed Ducks, Coots and Egyptian Geese, while the vegetated fringes are good for Weavers, Bishops and Warblers. A small island in the middle of the dam had a Striated (Green-backed) Heron and an African Darter was searching the water for its next meal, spear-like bill at the ready. Calls that I could identify were Lesser Swamp Warbler in the reeds and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird from a distant tree. After a liitle more than a half hour I had to return home, by which time I had added another 12 species taking my total to 50.

Struben dam
This Barbel came slithering past as I looked for a spot to “jump” the stream

I completed the atlasing over the next two days in The Glades, our home estate and ended with a satisfying 62 species, including a Purple Heron which made a brief appearance at one of the dams. While I was at the dam late one afternoon and after heavy rain earlier in the day, I noticed an emergence of alates (the winged version of termites) and watched fascinated as they quickly attracted a few hundred swallows and swifts which were expertly snatching them in flight at full speed as they fluttered from their underground chambers. Nature’s own take-away protein bar.

Roodeplaat Dam – 12 February

This week my choice of pentad fell on Roodeplaat Dam, a large dam and nature reserve immediately north of Pretoria’s northernmost suburbs and one of the best birding spots within half an hour’s drive of our home. I had planned to do two pentads, but as the day progressed I sensed that the pentad would be a particularly generous one in terms of species atlased. As it turned out, my decision paid off and I managed to chalk up my highest ever one day pentad total.

The entrance

I left home before sunrise as usual and by just after 6 am I started atlasing on the Kameelfontein road that skirts the eastern side of the reserve. Early traffic speeding past persuaded me to head for the safety and quiet of the reserve and at the entrance gate I logged Crowned Lapwing, Rufous-naped Lark and Red-chested Cuckoo while waiting for my entrance ticket, then headed into the reserve at snail’s pace, taking in the early morning freshness of the air and beauty of the mix of woodland and grassland habitats that make up large parts of Roodeplaat.

It took all of an hour of steady atlasing to get to Seekoegat (“Hippo wallow”) and the first glimpse of the dam, with many stops along the way to view the abundant bird life including the likes of Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler), White-browed Scrub-Robin, Black-chested Prinia and Diderick Cuckoo. A patch of reeds held many Widowbirds with both White-winged and Red-collared well represented.

I parked in the shade at Seekoegat and scanned the waters of this quiet corner of the dam, in the process finding Striated (Green-backed) Heron, Glossy Ibis, Grey Heron and a lone Yellow-billed Stork. The latter was a first record for the pentad after some 900 separate atlasing sessions by many observers over the ten years that the SABAP2 programme has been running, so was deservedly the bird of the day in my view.

Passing through a wooded area I found Spotted Flycatcher, a summer migrant to our part of the world, mainly from Scandinavia. Carrying on I stopped at a small pan with a bird hide and watched Wattled Lapwings, Wood Sandpipers and a Little Grebe going about their business. More woodland produced Black-crowned Tchagra, Chinspot Batis and Red-backed Shrike, another Palaearctic migrant, common in our bushveld in summer.

Spotted Flycatcher
Red-backed Shrike

The hide at the picnic area provides views across the dam, which is a popular rowing venue, even on a weekday morning as I found, with coaches in small boats giving instructions to rowers with their loud-hailers. Some Reed Cormorants, many White-winged Terns and a Little Egret did not seem perturbed by the activity but I suspect other birds were hiding in other parts of the dam to get away from it. Unfortunately water levels after the rains were too deep for waders to be attracted to the dam edges.

The third hide I visited was the more remote one at the northern end of the dam but there was not much to see, although I did add Blue Waxbill, Dusky Indigobird and Orange-breasted Bush-shrike while traversing the more arid woodland to get to the hide.

A Banded Mongoose at the side of the road
Vervet Monkey

After 4 hours I left the Reserve, with a total of 75 species logged and suddenly it made sense to carry on atlasing the same pentad rather than start a new one – a record one day pentad total (for me) seemed entirely possible. I travelled further along the Kameelfontein road, turning off at Rif road which climbs slowly to a higher area with more rocky habitat and found several new birds such as Long-billed Crombec, Cut-throat Finch, Black-throated Canary and lots of Cinnamon-breasted Buntings.

An atlasing bonus – having a road to yourself (but choose the road carefully)
Red-billed Quelea

I was particularly happy to find and photograph a Black Cuckooshrike male, a species I have not seen for a couple of years.

Black Cuckooshrike

Village Weaver took my total to 90 for the pentad after a total of 6 hours of atlasing – certainly my highest one day atlasing total – could 100 be possible? After another hour of very slow birding I was ready to call it a day, but just before leaving the pentad I stopped to view the last river which was flowing strongly, and promptly added 4 species – Black Ducks flying off on one side and Moorhen and Red-billed Teal in a dammed up ond on the other side, while a Natal Spurfowl called loudly – was he saying cheerio?

I was tempted to turn back to see if I could find 3 more but common sense told me 97 is just about as good as 100 and I headed homewards, rather pleased with my efforts.