Tag Archives: Atlasing

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.

The African clawless otter (Aonyx capensis), also known as the Cape clawless otter or groot otter, is the second-largest freshwater species of otter. African clawless otters are found near permanent bodies of water in savannah and lowland forest areas. They are characterized by partly webbed and clawless feet, from which their name is derived. (Info courtesy of Wikipedia)

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

African clawless otter (Aonyx capensis), also known as the Cape clawless otter or groot otter, 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.

My Atlasing Month – January 2020

Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, is the mapping of distribution and relative abundance of birds in a given area, using data gathered by a group of several hundred volunteer “citizen scientists” across southern Africa. Volunteers select a geographical “pentad” (roughly 8 x 8 km and based on co-ordinates) on a map and record all the bird species seen within a set time frame. This information is uploaded to the database managed under the Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2) and is used for research and analysis. I have been a volunteer Citizen Scientist since 2010.

That’s the formal description of what takes up most of my birding time nowadays and I thought it is time that I included more of my atlasing activities in this blog. I have previously made the mistake of being over-optimistic about the frequency of posting on a particular subject, so I won’t fall into that trap – the title of this post may provide a clue to my intentions but let’s see how it goes….

So, let’s have a look at where atlasing took me in the first month of 2020…

Klein Brak River

Klein Brak River is a small village close to Mossel Bay in the Southern Cape and was my choice for my first formal atlasing outing for the year on 8th January, given the luxury of having an open pallete of pentads not yet atlased in 2020 to choose from. The pentad includes the village, the road to Botlierskop game farm and the Geelbeksvlei road, all of which had provided good birding in the past.

Starting in Klein Brak village at 6 am, my list grew rapidly in cool conditions, ideal for both bird and man (armed with binos). I drove through the residential area checking out the gardens and ended up at a wide section of the river which gives the town its name – there I set up my scope and scanned the river. Birds were not plentiful but those that were visible were interesting waders and waterbirds with Cape Teal, Common Greenshank, Common Ringed Plover, Little Egret and a Grey Plover that, for a while, had me hallucinating about Golden Plovers until I came to my senses.

Grey Plover / Pluvialis squatarola / Grysstrandkiewiet, Klein Brak River

A Pied Kingfisher was active over the water and his Brown-Hooded land-based cousin could be heard nearby in a garden. Moving on, I left the village behind and passed through cultivated farmland, where a short grassed area held both Crowned and Black-winged Lapwings moving about together. Both are Vanellus species and share looks and habits, seeming to enjoy each other’s company.

Lapwings – Black-winged and Crowned, Klein Brak River
African Stonechat / Saxicola torquatus / Gewone bontrokkie (Juvenile), Klein Brak River

The road led to the Gannabos road where I turned right towards Botlierskop and spent some time stopping at every shady tree (it was heading over 30 degrees C) to explore the surroundings and the bush, as this stretch has proven to be good for forest birds. Olive Bushshrike and Paradise Flycatcher obliged by calling first then showing themselves fleetingly, Common Waxbills twittered in the roadside bush and even an African Fish-Eagle called from somewhere close by.

The road to Botlierskop – welcoming shady spots to stop and bird
Common Buzzard / Buteo buteo / Bruinjakkalsvoël, Klein Brak River

At the Botlierskop farm dams I found a lone Spoonbill and several White-faced Ducks and heading back a handsome Jackal Buzzard watched me pass by. The Geelbeksvlei road was fairly quiet except for a popular fishing spot where I used the scope to ID a Little Stint and Kittlitz’s Plover, while a Yellow-billed Kite did its low-flying thing overhead. taking my total to a pleasing 67 species for the pentad.

Bee on red flower, Klein Brak River
Fiscal Flycatcher / Sigelus silens / Fiskaalvlieëvanger, Klein Brak River

Gouritsmond Area

When I checked my pentad map, I noted that I had never atlased the pentad west of the town of Gouritsmond at the mouth of the Gourits River, so it became my main target for the day.

Gouritsmond lies south-west of Mossel Bay and I set off early on the 24th January – the journey was slowed by several “not to be missed” birding and photo opportunities along the road, including –

  • ponds alongside the road formed by recent rains – my first stop to view one was opposite the PetroSA refinery plant and attracted a grave looking official who stopped behind me, got out and walked to my car to enquire as to what I was doing while checking what I had in the car, and “did I know PetroSA is a National Key Point so no photography is allowed”. I responded that I was observing the birds and he looked me over and walked off again, presumably happy that my profile was not that of a threat to the National Key Point. Many Gulls and Sacred Ibises were present and a Little Stint was pottering about amongst them.
  • .Cape Grassbird on top of a roadside bush, singing away near a small pond before the Vleesbaai turnoff.
Cape Grassbird / Sphenoeacus afer / Grasvoël, Gouritsmond road
  • Rock Kestrel (Immature) in perfect morning light on top of a fence post.
Rock Kestrel / Falco rupicolus / Kransvalk, Gouritsmond road
  • Agulhas Long-billed Lark on a small rock in a field, close enough for some fine photos
Agulhas Long-billed Lark / Certhilauda brevirostris / Overberglangbeklewerik, Gouritsmond road

Once I entered Gouritsmond I drove along the Beach road to the start of pentad 3420_2145 and followed the coastal road, bounded on the one side by wide stretches of rugged rocks, lapped by the green ocean beyond, and on the other side by coastal bush and grassed fields.

Scene along the Beach Road west of Gouritsmond

Seabirds were few – Kelp Gull, African Black Oystercatcher and Ruddy Turnstone (just visible through the scope), the balance were birds of the bush, fields and sky. It was slow going and with the minimum 2 hours done and no prospect of adding many more to my modest total of 32 species, I proceeded back to the town to pentad 3420_2150 and commenced atlasing once again.

Scene along the Beach Road west of Gouritsmond

I made a good start along the coastal road with similar species to the first pentad, them made my way slowly through the town’s residential area and out to the waste water treatment works, which has been upgraded with neat ponds and easy viewing from the surounding fence. Numbers of waterbirds had made this their home and Cape Teal, Yellow-billed Duck and Egyptian Goose were all prominent.

My next and final stop was the boat launch site up river from the mouth and I set up the scope to scan the distant banks for waders, coming up with Whimbrel, White-fronted Plover, Ruff and Common Ringed Plover.

There was no sign of the Kittlitz’s Plover that had entertained me at this same spot in 2018 -see my earlier post https://mostlybirding.com/2018/12/15/kittlitzs-plover-a-winning-performance/

West of Mossel Bay along the N2

My last chance for atlasing out of Mossel Bay, before returning to Pretoria, came up on the 29th January and I targeted two pentads directly west of Mossel Bay, both never atlased by me before.

I started with pentad 3410_2155 which is bordered by PetroSA on the north side and stretches to the sea on the south side, although various private estates block access to the coastal area itself and I had not made any arrangements for such access so I was limited to the inland areas. I started along the N2 National road which runs east-west through the pentad and was predicably busy but has a wide tarred shoulder which allowed me to stop with relative safety.

Mossel Bay west

After the recent good rains there was enough water in farm dams and shallow pans, especially on the south side of the N2, which had attracted a variety of waterbirds – Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal, Spurwinged Goose, Cape Shoveler and Little Grebe.

Shortly after, I turned south onto the Gouritsmond road, which had less traffic but the road is a narrow one with a gravel shoulder sloping off at an angle that makes it difficult to pull off comfortably, so I had to look for farm gate turn-offs to be able to stop safely. There was enough to see at each stop to keep my list growing and at one stop my attention was drawn to a pair of Blue Cranes walking in a grassy field and, for a change, close enough to the road to allow for some reasonable quality photography of these elegant birds.

Blue Cranes, Mossel Bay west

Suddenly they started a courtship dance that left me entranced but determined to record as much of it on my camera – it was so special that it deserves a separate post, suffice to say it was a birding highlight of our lengthy stay in Mossel Bay!

Blue Crane courtship dance, Mossel Bay west

Further on, where the road bends away to the west, I stopped to view a small pond and the surrounding bush and found a variety of birds such as Yellow Canary, White-throated Canary, Red Bishops and Levaillant’s Cisticola, Red-capped Lark in the road (as is their habit) was my 3rd Lark for the day, after Large-billed and Agulhas Long-billed.

Back on the N2, I proceeded further west to pentad 3410_2145, where I turned off at the first gravel road heading south – the road cuts through the pentad and reaches its southern bounday at the bone-dry Voelvlei, which last had water a number of years ago – when it does have water it is a spectacular birding spot but in times of drought is a rather depressing sight.

The route there proved to be less bird friendly with farmland and hills and I worked hard to get to a modest list of 26 without a single waterbird, but a trio of Denham’s Bustards flying over was an exciting highlight.

Denham’s Bustard

What makes birding/atlasing special is coming across other wild life in the process – these beetles were attracted to a flowering bush and caught my eye with their tan colouring –

Brown Monkey Beetle

All in all, a satisfying start to my atlasing for the year…..

Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and surrounds, January 2019

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while *atlasing. (see end of post for more info on atlasing)

The Atlasing Destination

With an open palette of pentads not yet atlassed in 2019  I chose two pentad blocks around Herbertsdale in the southern Cape with the least Full Protocol cards to date – one covering Gondwana Game Reserve and the other including the village of Herbertsdale and the surrounding countryside.

The location of the pentads – the red shaded block on the map below and the block to its left :

Getting there

My route was planned to be a circular one, heading out and back on the R327 to this by now familiar area that I have atlassed frequently over the last several years.

I had put my faith in the usually dependable YR weather App which forecast that the overnight rain would clear up by early morning. Heading out at 5.30 am from Mossel Bay, I had a few doubts as the gloomy, rainy weather persisted until after 7 am, an hour into atlasing the first pentad, but then cleared up into a beautiful sunny day.

Pentad 3400_2150

Soon after entering the pentad block, I stopped at the Gondwana Game Reserve gatehouse to check if there were any restrictions on driving through the reserve on what is still a public road. The reply was “Yes you can drive through, but  you are not allowed to stop”. Now I am a birder and we like to stop frequently and unexpectedly, so I nodded vaguely and proceeded on my way through the reserve, not expecting to come across any other traffic at this early hour and on this rather remote road.

I saw a few animals but as it turned out, with rain still falling steadily, I did not have much reason to stop for birds, until I came across a small roadside dam with a Grey Heron standing like a statue in hunting mode, watching the water very intently. I could not resist stopping, whereupon two things happened almost simultaneously – a Black-crowned Night-Heron flew gracefully in and settled in the shallow water near the Grey Heron – and a Gondwana ranger in a bakkie (utility vehicle) appeared over the rise behind me slightly less gracefully and stopped next to my vehicle – with a smile on his face,it must be said.  He reminded me of the ‘no stopping’ request and suggested I move on, which I did after asking permission to take a quick photo of the Night-Heron and receiving same.

It’s quite understandable that reserves such as Gondwana are nervous or even slightly paranoid about potential poaching, having passed a grazing Rhino with full horn just a little earlier, however I’m sure the profile of the average poacher does not include meek, pensioner-age birders in SUV’s armed only with long-lens cameras. In any case, next time I will contact Gondwana beforehand for permission to bird.

Exiting the reserve a short while later through the northern gate, a subtle change in habitat – more bush and trees for a starter – resulted in a change in bird life in terms of numbers and almost immediately Malachite and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds were added to my list.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird

Further along the road I stopped to look around, only to be enticed to walk up an inviting track leading through a field filled with fynbos and protea species.

Gondwana area

The ericas were abundant and made extra attractive by drops of moisture clinging to leaves and flowers

Even the spider’s webs had gathered lots of rain drops

Southern Tchagra and Orange-breasted Sunbirds delighted me with their presence while a “Murder of Crows” – White-necked Ravens by name but also part of the Corvus genus along with all the other Crows – flew over and settled in an adjoining open field.

Orange-breasted Sunbird

Soon after, I reached the eastern boundary of the pentad and turned around with 29 species recorded so far, then took a branch road which headed into the more hilly northern section with another subtle change in habitat – still quite bushy along the road verge but more open fields and grassland behind. Suddenly I could hear Cape Clapper Lark displaying and saw the perpetrator soon after, furiously clapping its wings as it ascended, producing a loud, fast clapping sound followed by a drawn out sharp whistle on descent.

Competing with the Clappers and soon winning the “most prominent call” competition were Victorin’s Warblers, seemingly every 50 m or so for a few hundred metres – definitely a hot spot for this loud but elusive bird that just refused to show when I stopped to search for it, allowing nothing more than a brief glimpse through dense foliage.

Victorin’s Warbler, Herbertsdale area

More cooperative was the Bokmakierie I came across shortly after

Bokmakierie

Pentad 3400_2145

Although this pentad lies directly west of the first one, the lack of direct roads meant a longish drive  via the R327 to get to the northern boundary just outside the tiny but charming Herbertsdale village. The birding was immediately lively and the views from the hill leading into the village spanned the fertile valley below, albeit suffering under the drought that has so much of the country in its grip.

Herbertsdale area

Herbertsdale area

Driving slowly through the village a group of swifts and swallows were circling busily overhead, no doubt feasting in mid-air on the thousands of flying insects.

Barn Swallow

A couple of Alpine Swifts flew by,  big-bodied and lightning fast compared to the White-rumped and African Black Swifts that made up the majority of the flock,  so distinctive with their white underparts.

It’s a challenge getting a photo of the Alpine Swift, so this is the best I could manage on the day

Alpine Swift

Beyond Herbertsdale the road heads back towards Mossel Bay, past roadside farm dams which held a selection of water birds, including Black Crake, Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal while the call of Lesser Swamp-Warbler emanated from the fringing reeds. An irrigated field was literally swarming with low flying Barn Swallows  crisscrossing in the air while tens of Red Bishops searched the ground below them.

Patrolling the field at a height was a fierce-looking Peregrine Falcon – I imagined some doem-doem-doem music building up in the background to heighten the drama of the situation, but the Falcon was not in a hurry to hunt and I carried on after watching it for a while.

Peregrine Falcon

In contrast, this little guy – less than 10 cm long – was crossing the road so I helped him/her on its way, as you never know when a car might come by and people often do not see them in the road, causing unnecessary fatalities

Tortoise

Further stops produced Tambourine Dove calling and a group of Common Waxbills, then I came across a tree at the side of the road full of bright red flowers which was clearly irresistible for the sugar freaks of the bird world, drawing numbers of Malachite, Greater Double-collared and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds. That also signaled the end of the morning’s atlasing

The Statistics

Pentad  3400_2150 : A total of 30 Full Protocol (Minimum 2 hours) cards have been done to date with a low/high card count of 25/77 and a total of 154 species recorded to date; This was my first card for the pentad and my 42 species represented coverage of 27% of the total species. The only notable species was White-rumped Swift (7% reporting rate)

Pentad 3400_2145 : A total of 21 Full Protocol cards have been done to date with a low/high card count of 26/65 and a total of 144 species recorded to date; This was my fourth card for the pentad and my 51 species represented coverage of 35% of the total species. My total for the 4 cards increased to 90 species. New species recorded for the pentad were Black Crake, Peregrine Falcon and Lesser Swamp-Warbler

The Birdlasser pentad maps below show the route and sightings –

Gondwana area

Herbertsdale area

* Atlasing

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a defined area  called a “pentad”. Each pentad has a unique number based on its geographical position according to a 5 minute x 5 minute grid of co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, which translates into a square of our planet roughly 8 x 8 kms in extent.

As a registered observer / Citizen scientist under the SABAP2 program (SA Bird Atlas Project 2), all of the birding I do nowadays includes recording the species for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town.

Atlasing has brought a new dimension and meaning to my birding as it has to many other birders. The introduction a couple of years ago of the “Birdlasser” App has greatly simplified the recording and submission of the data collected.

 

My Birding Year 2018

 


My 2018 Birding Year

So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the last year along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited. Some of the trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.

January 2018

Mossel Bay is our home over the holiday season up to the third week in January, so I try to use this time to fit in as much atlasing as I can in the beautiful surrounding countryside.

Atlasing trips and the highlight species included :

  • the area beyond Herbertsdale – Black Storks at the Gouritz River
  • the town of George with a visit to the waste water treatment works as well as the forested area at the top of the town – Black Cuckooshrike, Black Sparrowhawk and Knysna Turaco
  • Wilderness and the Woodville Big Tree (covered in a separate post) – Lemon Dove, Chorister Robin
  • Friemersheim area north of Klein Brak – Olive Bushshrike, Swee Waxbill, Narina Trogon, Black-winged Lapwing

Friemersheim area

African Hoopoe, Friemersheim area

Black-winged Lapwing, Friemersheim area

A blustery day blew some seabirds inshore – a visit to the Point at Mossel Bay produced White-chinned Petrels, Gannets and Gulls galore, Terns and, amazingly, a Sooty Shearwater

 

February

Back in Pretoria I could catch up on some highveld atlasing with a visit to Mabusa nature reserve along with Koos Pauw – an outstanding day with both Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers seen and Great Reed Warbler heard.

Pallid Harrier (Juvenile), near Mabusa NR

I literally went into the bundu on occasion

Mabusa NR and area

Mid-month we used up some expiring RCI points to spend a weekend at Champagne Valley resort in the southern Drakensberg. Great birding in a magnificently scenic environment – highlights were Cape Vulture, House Martin, Bearded Vulture, Grey Crowned Crane and Long-crested Eagle

Black-backed Puffback (Juvenile), Champagne Valley Drakensberg

Amethyst Sunbird, Champagne Valley Drakensberg

Arrow-marked Babbler, Champagne Valley Drakensberg

March

Back to the Drakensberg, this time with brother Andrew visiting from the UK – some birding, more touring from our base at Drakensberg Sun resort

Work pressures meant no time for atlasing although I used the public holiday to do a couple of pentads around Delmas, where an Amur Falcon entertained me with its handling of a locust catch (covered in a separate post)

Amur Falcon feeding on grasshopper, Delmas south

April

For my 500th pentad I decided to atlas the area around Mkhombo Dam which proved to be a good choice (also covered in a separate post)

Marico Flycatcher, Mkhombo dam area

Black-faced Waxbill, Mkhombo dam area

The following weekend we visited family on Annasrust farm in the Free State near Hoopstad – one of the highlights of our year and a superb birding spot in its own right.

Massed Egrets, Spoonbills and Cormorants made for a spectacular sight on the river

Mixed roost, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Common Sandpiper, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Late in April, with some RCI points not fully used and about to expire, we booked a week at Pine Lake Resort near White River, which also included a memorable day visit to Kruger Park

Pine Lake Resort

African Fish Eagle, Kruger Day Visit

Booted Eagle, Kruger Day Visit

White-browed Robin-Chat, Kruger Day Visit

May

My only atlasing trip in May was to Mabusa Nature Reserve and the surrounding area – many highlights including Flappet Lark, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah and Barred Wren-Warbler

June

Early June saw us in Mossel Bay for a brief visit – just one atlasing trip was squeezed in, covering the area north of Great Brak River

This Black-headed Heron posed on my neighbour’s roof

Black-headed Heron, Mossel Bay Golf Estate

We were hardly back in Pretoria when we set off for our annual visit to La Lucia near Durban where we have a timeshare apartment, with an overnight stay at the beautiful Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van ReenenMy early morning walk was a misty affair

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van Reenen

La Lucia was as restful as ever but the World Cup soccer proved to be a distraction, nevertheless I managed to fit in a mix of beach birding walks, a trip to my favourite urban forest – Pigeon Valley – and a visit to Shongweni Nature Reserve

We took up Gerda’s Vryheid family’s invitation to stop over on their farm near the town on our way back – a worthwhile detour if there ever was one! A pair of Crowned Cranes made the visit really special, although Anlia’s breakfast krummelpap (a coarse farm porridge) was a serious competitor for “best reason to visit”.

Crowned Crane, Onverwacht farm Vryheid

Southern Bald Ibis, Onverwacht farm Vryheid

July

Mid-month I was in Cape Town for a day and found myself free for the afternoon – so where does a keen birder go on a rainy day in this famous City? Naturally to the Strandfontein Sewage Works – birding was superb with a few hundred Flamingoes amongst many other water birds

August

Mid-winter atlasing trips around Gauteng kept me sharp during August, despite cold (- 3 deg C at one stage), windy conditions that kept me mostly in my car. Spike-heeled Larks were a feature of both trips, while African Harrier-Hawk was an exciting find.

Southern Fiscals are common just about everywhere but this subcoronatus sub-species is quite a special find

Common Fiscal (subcoronatus), Nigel area

Pin-tailed Whydah (female), Nigel area

September

A last-minute decision to spend a week in Kruger Park turned into a memorable, relaxing trip with plenty of wild life experiences (covered in several posts)

Crested Francolin, Sable Dam, Kruger Park

Wahlberg’s Eagle (Juvenile White crowned), Olifants River, Kruger Park

Sabota Lark, Kruger Park

An atlasing trip to the Delmas area later in the month produced a Blue Korhaan, scarce in these parts, as well as a couple of other terrestial species in the form of Orange River Francolin and Northern Black Korhaan

October

Time for our timeshare week at our favourite get away – Verlorenkloof, which produced fine birding once again and some interesting atlasing opportunities in the area.

African Stonechat (Male, Saxicola torquatus), Verlorenkloof

The most exciting sighting at Verlorenkloof was of an immature Crowned Eagle, which apparently was born and raised on the property, the nest still visible on top of a tall tree

African Crowned Eagle (Immature, Stephanoaetus coronatus), Verlorenkloof

Down at the river the Village Weavers were nest-building in loud and vigorous fashion

Village Weaver (Male, Ploceus cucullatus – spilonotus), Verlorenkloof

The tiny Swee Waxbill visited the undergrowth near our Croft

Swee Waxbill (Female, Estrilda melanotis), Verlorenkloof

The sought after Broad-tailed Warbler is a regular at Verlorenkloof during the summer months but does its best to frustrate any attempts to get a close photograph

Broad-tailed Warbler (Schoenicola brevirostris), Verlorenkloof

Back to the Cape in the last week of October for a short visit to Mossel Bay, followed by a quick visit to family in the western Cape town of Worcester, where I spent a morning enjoying the surprisingly good birding that was on offer in the adjoining hills.

Quarry road, Worcester

November

Further atlasing in the Mossel Bay area included trips to Herbertsdale and Gouritz River, before returning to Pretoria where we prepared for our return to Mossel Bay for a longer stay over December and January, as has become our custom over the last few years.

The road trip to the southern Cape included an overnight stop at Kuilfontein near Colesberg and a two night stay at Karoo National Park, both places providing some diverse atlasing opportunities

Karoo National Park

Short-toed Rock-Thrush, Karoo National Park

The following week saw me returning by air to Gauteng and onward to Kasane in northern Botswana for a final inspection visit to the airport project that I was involved in. I booked a boat-based and vehicle-based game drive during my stay, in order to make the most of this last visit to Chobe game reserve, both of which provided some amazing sightings and photographic highlights.

Cattle Egret, Chobe River Trip

Pied Kingfisher, Chobe River Trip

Chobe Riverfront Game Drive

Spur-winged Goose, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Hamerkop, Chobe Riverfront game drive

December

Back in Mossel Bay, it was time to get into relaxed mode and I looked forward to some atlasing of the area, including Mossel Bay itself.

Water Thick-knee, Mossel Bay GE

A Terek Sandpiper at Great Brak was a lifer for me

Terek Sandpiper, Great Brak River mouth

Little Egret, Great Brak River mouth

The only body of fresh water in Mossel Bay is a drawcard for numbers of birds

SPCA dam, Mossel Bay

This Cape Weaver decided to use the bird-feeder in our neighbour’s garden as a base frame for its nest – probably an inexperienced juvenile practicing his skills. He never did complete the nest.

Cape Weaver nest-building on feeder, Mossel Bay

Atlasing Tales – An Owl and a hungry Swift

The Atlasing* destination

Work and other commitments had kept me from any regular atlasing,  other than our Drakensberg escapes, since January 2018, so I welcomed the Human Rights holiday on 21st March, bang in the middle of the working week and I just had to get out and do some atlasing.

Looking at the 2018 pentad map for Gauteng the previous evening, the closest pentads that met my criteria (not atlased in the current year) and fell south of the N4 highway (my arbitrary dividing line when deciding whether to venture north or south from Pretoria) were in an area south of Delmas and I selected two as my target for the next day. The first was :

Pentad 2610_2840

Indicated by the blue rectangle on the map –

Pentad 2610_2840 south of Delmas, about 70 Km from Pretoria

I set off from our home in Pretoria in light rain at about 5.30 am, hoping the rain would dissipate, which it fortunately did, and was into the first target pentad an hour later. I initially stayed on the R50 main road which was quite busy with coal-hauling lorries despite the holiday (the coal mines and the power stations they feed obviously don’t get to close down) so whenever the opportunity presented itself I pulled off onto the gravel margin and drove slowly but bumpily along to keep out of their way.

The Cosmos flowers along the road verges made for an attractive background, interrupted by the coal mining activities that have despoiled large tracts of land in this part of SA. For more on the Cosmos flowers go to my earlier post – Cosmos time

Cosmos time, Delmas south

Not exactly a warm welcome – coal mining and roadworks ahead!

After recording what I could in the first few kms, I was glad to reach the R548 turn-off and proceed south along this far quieter road. I soon passed Leeuwpan, a large pan which in previous years was filled with water and teeming with water birds, but was now bone dry with no visible birds other than a few Spur-winged Geese (Wildemakou / Plectropterus gambensis) half hidden by the long grass. Good rains had fallen in Gauteng over the last few weeks to make up for the relatively dry summer, but clearly not enough to make much of an impact on these pans.

My pentad list grew slowly with species mostly typical of the limited habitats – grassveld patches between cultivated lands with near fully grown maize and soya crops, elsewhere restricted mining areas blocked any thoughts of exploring further.

My first surprise sighting of the morning came in the form of a lone White Stork (Witooievaar / Ciconia ciconia).

White Stork, Delmas south

This was followed soon thereafter by an even bigger surprise when I explored a sandy side road and spotted something in the middle of the road far ahead, which turned into an owl as I raised my binoculars to my eyes. I approached as quietly and cautiously as my vehicle would allow and was able to confirm my initial thought that it was a Marsh Owl (Vlei-uil / Asio capensis) – on the basis of it being the most likely owl in the area and the moist grassland habitat surrounding us at that point.

Marsh Owl

Thankfully no other traffic came by to interfere with my attempt to photograph this species – contrary to other species which are usually easier to photograph at rest than in flight, the only photos I have of Marsh Owl are in flight, so I was pleased to add these photos to my collection.

Unfortunately their habit of sitting in the road, especially after dark, can be this owl’s undoing – they are often victims when the lights of an oncoming vehicle blind them and they don’t fly off in time. Many are killed in this way, particularly during harvesting of the maize when they tend to feed on spilled corn kernels along the roads in the maize areas. It’s pleasing to see signs erected on some of the busier roads warning against this danger (to the owls) – if only more people would respond by being more vigilant while driving at night.

Reaching the southern boundary of the pentad with some time still left to atlas before reaching the two hour minimum time required for “Full Protocol” status, I decided to carry on along the same road into the adjoining pentad and complete the first one later on my way back. This pentad was directly south of the first one and numbered :

Pentad 2615_2840

Indicated by the red rectangle on the map –

Pentad 2615_2840

Being of similar habitat, the species mix in the second pentad was mostly similar for the first stretch, however I soon added Orange-breasted Waxbill (Rooiassie / Amandava subflava) and Wattled Lapwing (Lelkiewiet / Vanellus senegallus) to the morning’s list.

Then I came across the first decent body of water for the morning in the form of a farm dam some distance from the road and with the help of my scope was able to spot Greater Flamingo (Grootflamink / Phoenicopterus roseus) , SA Shelduck (Kopereend / Tadorna cana), a flock of Spur-winged Geese and a sprinkling of Yellow-billed Ducks ( Geelbekeend / Anas undulata). Another dam further on was closer to the road and held a single Goliath Heron (Reusereier / Ardea goliath).

Greater Flamingo

I completed a circuit of the pentad by heading west near its southernmost boundary, then north again – not much was added until I reached a bridge I had visited years before and which had what seemed like the same large flock of White-rumped Swifts (Witkruiswindswael / Apus caffer) circling above it. Stopping, I peered over the edge of the low bridge and immediately an African Spoonbill (Lepelaar / Platalea alba) flew up and away, followed a second later by a Green-backed Heron (Groenrugreier / Butorides striata) (first record for the pentad). Across the road I spotted a Malachite Kingfisher (Kuifkopvisvanger / Alcedo cristata) (2nd record) before it too flew off and disappeared into the reeds.

White-rumped Swift

I spent a while trying to photograph some of the fast-flying Swifts with some success – what I found later on scanning through my attempts was that one swift had a full crop, evidenced by the bulging white throat patch.

White-rumped Swift – with very full crop

It was time to head home – along the way I came across a rare photo opportunity in the form of a female Amur Falcon so engrossed in her grasshopper meal that I was able to approach much closer than usual. To see the photos I took, go to my earlier post titled Mongolian take-away

The Atlasing statistics

Pentads 2610_2840 and 2615_2840

I added the 19th and 26th Full Protocol cards overall and the 1st and 3rd for 2018 for the respective pentads, The combined tally for the morning was 51 species of which 2 were new records.    Total species for the pentad now 156 and 157

Some of the new/notable species added:

Green-backed Heron 

Red-faced Mousebird

Goliath Heron

SA Shelduck

White Stork

Malachite Kingfisher

* Atlasing

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a defined area  called a “pentad”. Each pentad has a unique number based on its geographical position according to a 5 minute x 5 minute grid of co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, which translates into a square of our planet roughly 8 x 8 kms in extent.

As a registered observer / Citizen scientist under the SABAP2 program (SA Bird Atlas Project 2), all of the birding I do nowadays includes recording the species for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town.

Atlasing has brought a new dimension and meaning to my birding as it has to many other birders. The introduction a couple of years ago of the “Birdlasser” App has greatly simplified the recording and submission of the data collected.

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while atlasing.

Atlasing Tales – Bushfellows Game Lodge, Limpopo

The Atlasing* destination

On a cold May morning in 2017 we set off from Pretoria, making our way to the R573, known as the “Moloto Road” and one with a reputation for heavy traffic during the commuting hours and many accidents, often due to the irresponsible driving habits of a minority. Koos was driving his new vehicle and being very careful, so it took us close to 2 hours to get to our destination – Bushfellows game lodge, near Marble Hall – where he had arranged with the owner Gary and manager Mandy for us to spend some time atlasing.

The day turned into a tale of interaction between avian and reptilian species with very different endings….. and we got to see a couple of animals that were unexpected.

Pentad 2500_2910 (the rectangle on the map below) :

The atlasing* started slowly with a few species recorded along the road as we made our way through the pentad to the lodge, including several Brown-hooded Kingfishers (Bruinkopvisvanger / halcyon albiventris) hunting insects from fence posts along a concrete irrigation canal.

Approaching the lodge, the birdlife increased in numbers and we headed to the office to announce ourselves and meet Mandy. Introductions done, we walked the lodge gardens in separate directions to make sure our atlasing records would not be duplicated, ending up at the small dam where we enjoyed the coffee and snacks we had brought with us.

Snake encounter No 1

A commotion from a medium-sized tree drew my attention and I soon found the source – Long-billed Crombecs (Bosveldstompstert / Sylvietta rufescens) and Cape White-eyes (Kaapse glasogie / Zosterops capensis) were clustered in the canopy and were clearly agitated. Previous experience of this phenomenon had me searching for the reason – sure enough, a Boomslang lay twisted around the branches.

Boomslang

Boomslang

Boomslang – the large eye is typical

The snake was bobbing its head back and forwards in a curious fashion as the birds got closer and braver – I later checked my reference book regarding this behavior and found that this is a ploy of the boomslang to draw birds closer and so have a better chance of nabbing one. Interestingly, I also discovered that although the boomslang is highly venomous, very few boomslang bites on humans have been recorded due to its less aggressive nature.

In this instance there was no sign of an impending small bird meal for the snake and I left them to carry on with their natural instincts.

This was followed by a viewing of the resident Lion, Wild Dogs and Rooikat in their separate enclosures, all animals rescued from a worse fate than their current captivity and undergoing rehabilitation.

Wild Dog (captive), Bushfellows Game Lodge

Mandy offered to have a ranger drive us through the game farm area which we accepted with alacrity and we spent the next hour and a half birding in style from the back of an open game-drive vehicle.

Ranger taking us for drive, Bushfellows Game Lodge

The arid bushveld was pleasingly productive as we spotted several of the species typical of this habitat – Crested Francolin (Bospatrys / Dendroperdix sephaena), Chestnut-vented Titbabbler (Bosveldtjeriktik / Sylvia subcaerulea), Kalahari Scrub-Robin (Kalahariwipstert / Erythropygia paena), Common Scimitarbill (Swartbekkakelaar / Rhinopomastus cyanomelas) and Blue Waxbill (Gewone Blousysie / Uraeginthus angolensis).

Species that are less common as a rule, but true to the habitat were Bushveld Pipit (Bosveldkoester / Anthus caffer), Southern Pied Babbler (Witkatlagter / Turdoides bicolor), White-crowned Shrike (Kremetartlaksman / Eurocephalus anguitimens ) and Cape Penduline Tit (Kaapse kapokvoël / Anthoscopus minutus).

Crested Francolin

Blue Waxbill

Bushveld Pipit

White-crowned Shrike

Snake encounter No 2

On our way out, about halfway down the long entrance road to the lodge, we spotted a Brown Snake-Eagle perched on a tall dry tree, which they typically use to scan the surrounding veld for potential prey. Always an exciting species to come across, we approached cautiously but the Snake-Eagle was having none of it and flew off into the distance, more or less in the direction we were heading.

Brown Snake-Eagle

Fortunately we encountered it again as we approached the main entrance gate to the lodge, this time flying up from an adjacent field clutching a long snake in its claws and landing on top of a utility pole. As we watched in fascination, it grabbed the limp snake’s head, popped it into his mouth and proceeded to swallow it whole, looking for all the world like a connoisseur sucking in a long strand of thick spaghetti. Within a few seconds the snake had disappeared and I’m almost sure I saw the eagle burp in satisfaction.

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 2500_2910

We added the 3rd and 4th Full Protocol cards for the pentad, turning its status to light green in the process. Our combined tally for the day was 78 species of which no less than 28 were new records for the pentad.    Total species for the pentad now 128

Some of the new/notable species added:

Glossy Ibis

Bushveld Pipit

Common Scimitarbill

Sabota Lark

Jameson’s Firefinch

Southern Pied Babbler

Bearded Woodpecker

* Atlasing : 

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a defined area  called a “pentad”. Each pentad has a unique number based on its geographical position according to a 5 minute x 5 minute grid of co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, which translates into a square of our planet roughly 8 x 8 kms in extent.

As a registered observer / Citizen scientist under the SABAP2 program (SA Bird Atlas Project 2), all of the birding I do nowadays includes recording the species for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town.

Atlasing has brought a new dimension and meaning to my birding as it has to many other birders. The introduction a couple of years ago of the “Birdlasser” App has greatly simplified the recording and submission of the data collected.

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while atlasing.

Atlasing Tales – Mkhombo : 500 Not out

Formal bird atlasing * (see end of post) has become my priority when planning a birding outing and I was looking forward to completing my 500 th “Full Protocol” atlasing card, having completed 499 by the end of March this year.

With Monday 2 April this year being a public holiday, it seemed the ideal time to reach  this milestone and I targeted two pentads to the west of Mkhombo dam, a little more than an hour’s drive north of Pretoria, which I suspected would provide good birding in attractive surroundings and should be lush and green after the recent good rains in the area north of Pretoria.

I was up at 4.20 am (after hitting the snooze button twice without even realizing it), collected good friend and equally keen atlaser Koos Pauw and headed north on the N1 highway, already busy on the homeward side with returning holiday and Moria pilgrimage traffic. The Rust der Winter turnoff soon loomed and before long we were on quiet country roads as the light grew stronger – a detour took us in the wrong direction initially but we were soon into the first pentad for the day.

Pentad 2505_2840

The dusty rural village we had entered was not very inspiring as a place to start our atlasing but just outside the village the habitat changed to patches of arid bushveld which, once we had stopped to investigate, proved irresistible for atlasing. All it took was to hang around at a selected spot long enough to allow the species to show – and show they did – all the species that favour the drier bushveld habitat : Yellow-billed Hornbills flying in their ponderous fashion from tree to tree, Crimson-breasted Shrikes with their redder than red breast colouring contrasting with jet black uppers. This area rates as excellent for Shrikes judging by the variety we encountered, with White-crowned Shrikes, Red-backed Shrikes, Lesser Grey Shrikes and even Magpie Shrikes all easily seen during the morning.

White-crowned Shrike

Red-backed Shrike

In between sightings we were able to identify several birds on their calls, familiar ones such as Acacia Pied Barbet, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Rattling Cisticola and the ubiquitous Go-Away Bird uttering its nasal “go away” call at every opportunity. With the obvious birds recorded on our list we started picking up the smaller, “passer-by” species – Amethyst Sunbird, Chinspot Batis, White-bellied Sunbird, Black-faced Waxbill and Green-winged Pytilia (Melba).

Chinspot Batis

Black-faced Waxbill – amongst the thorns

Green-winged Pytilia

The species we came across most frequently were Marico Flycatcher and Scaly-feathered Finch (love its Afrikaans name Baardmannetjie – literally small bearded man, alternatively Koos calls it Fu-man-chu). In the villages Pearl-breasted Swallows dominate amongst the swallows for reasons unknown – perhaps they just like being around humans like many other bird species.

Marico Flycatcher

The village we drove through looking for the species that seem to favour this habitat, was suffering from some “land-grabbing”, but not the sort that dominates our  news from time to time – here the only tar road bisecting the village was slowly being “grabbed” by the surrounding sandy earth and undergrowth, so much so that there was barely a single lane width of the two-lane tar road still visible – so much for maintenance.

With our two hours of atlasing done (the minimum for a “Full Protocol” card), we headed to the main target for the morning, being Mkhombo Nature Reserve which lies to the west of the main dam.

Pentad 2505_2845

Entering the reserve’s gate, which lies a distance off the main road and is not signposted, we were met by the hoped-for pristine bushveld and sandy tracks with some thorny bushes encroaching in places – a tad worrying when the first screeches of thorn against duco rattled the control-freak side of my nature, but after some initial teeth-clenching I decided to ignore it – after all, why have a bush-capable SUV if you don’t want to go into the bush with it.

Mkhombo Nature reserve

Mkhombo Nature Reserve

We had the place to ourselves and enjoyed Koos’s hard-boiled eggs (well actually a chicken produced them, he just boiled them) and coffee in the tranquil surroundings while continuing with atlasing, then proceeded slowly along the sandy roads, branching off here and there for a view of the dam, which was pretty much non-existent other than a small pond or two. No other water was visible, just a vast expanse of green vlei grass covering the muddy plain as far as the eye could see, confirming how little rain the area had experienced over the last couple of years since we were last there.

We were rewarded with Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters in a nearby tree, while Great and Yellow-billed Egret as well as Grey Heron were ID-able once I had the scope up  and focused on the distant scattered birds. All three local Lapwings – Crowned, Blacksmith and Wattled – were visible, in separate groups but mingling where they overlapped,  then I spotted a mixed flock of large birds in flight, morphing into Spurwinged Geese and Knob-billed Ducks as they landed in a hidden patch of water, with just their top halves showing.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

We had completed two hours and made our way back to the gate then homewards, which took a lot longer than planned as we encountered heavy holiday traffic all the way back.

I basked in the pleasure of a milestone reached – here’s to the next 500!

* Atlasing : 

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a defined area  called a “pentad”. Each pentad has a unique number based on its geographical position according to a 5 minute x 5 minute grid of co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, which translates into a square of our planet roughly 8 x 8 kms in extent.

As a registered observer / Citizen scientist under the SABAP2 program (SA Bird Atlas Project 2), all of the birding I do nowadays includes recording the species for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town.

Atlasing has brought a new dimension and meaning to my birding as it has to many other birders. The introduction a couple of years ago of the “Birdlasser” App has greatly simplified the recording and submission of the data collected.

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while atlasing.