Tag Archives: Atlasing

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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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 – 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.

Central Drakensberg – Champagne Valley

For no other reason than to utilise our expiring RCI points, we booked a long weekend getaway from 9th to 12 th February this year at Champagne Valley Resort near Winterton in the area known as the Central Drakensberg.


We departed from home in Pretoria at around 9.30 am, late enough to avoid the peak hour traffic as we made our way through Johannesburg’s eastern side and headed south on the N3 towards Harrismith, where we had arranged to meet up with Koos and Rianda for a “padkos” brunch of hard-boiled eggs, frikadels (courtesy of Woolies) and jam sandwiches. Padkos is long-standing South African tradition, translating literally to “food for the road” and tastes even better when you stop at one of the large roadside service centres where there are umpteen choices of take-away and sit-down fast food restaurants – a nose-thumbing at conventional practices. (Just to show we’re flexible we stopped at the same spot for a Wimpy breakfast on the way back)

We reached Champagne Valley by 3.30 pm after a fairly relaxed drive from Harrismith, the scenery progressively becoming greener and prettier as we got closer to the central Berg area. On checking in we were allocated a chalet overlooking the dam with pleasing views of the Drakensberg range in the background and we quickly settled in. I had a refreshing swim in the crystal clear pool then joined the others on the stoep for beverages as we all spotted a few birds to get our list going in true keen birder/atlaser fashion.

Champagne Valley chalet

By sundown there were 18 species on my list including a Black-headed Oriole calling sweetly, Cape and Village Weavers busying themselves on the lawns, as well as Common Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot and White-faced Duck on the dam.

Village Weaver (Male)
Cape Turtle-Dove


After a late rise (after all we were there to relax and are of the age where a crack of dawn start is not always first choice) we were back on the stoep in pleasant but humid weather to savour our first coffee along with Gerda’s health rusks. Before long we were entertained by no less than 3 different raptors – Cape Vulture at high altitude soaring majestically in wide circles, a Yellow-billed Kite cruising just above the tree tops delicately adjusting its flight path with twists of its distinctive broad V-shaped tail and a Bearded Vulture so high that I could only ID it from a magnified photo. They were joined by a group of White-necked Ravens calling from aloft in their croaky fashion.

Cape Vulture

Yellow-billed Kites were a feature of the weekend as we came across them several times in different localities. What struck me when looking at the photos I had taken of one individual was its rather un-fierce look which I deduced was because of its dark eyes and fluffy feathers on the head, creating a look unlike most large raptors with their piercing eyes.

Yellow-billed Kite
Close-up of the Yellow-billed Kite – a less than fierce look unlike most raptors

Mid-morning Koos and I braved the humid weather for a walk around the resort, starting with a walk through the grassland area along a mown path then wading through knee-high grass pods down the gentle slope until we found another path to take us back to the resort proper.

Champagne Valley grassland

Grassland species such as Fan-tailed and Red-collared Widowbirds, Zitting Cisticola and Streaky-headed Seedeater were active and visible, while an unusual “chip-chu” call had us puzzled until we discovered an Amethyst Sunbird calling from a tree – not the call we are used to, so something new added to our birding knowledge.

Fan-tailed Widowbird
Amethyst Sunbird

A passing Martin caught my eye and the white rump said Common House-Martin – one of those birds seen infrequently, although we came across a few more in flocks of Swallows during the weekend.

By the time we got back to the chalet I was drenched in sweat from the humidity and mild exertion – a cold drink was most welcome and stoep-based birding became the order of the day.

Late afternoon we drove to Monk’s Cowl camp, stopping  on the way to see if we could coax a Bush Blackcap to show itself, but to no avail. Nevertheless we had good sightings of Steppe Buzzards and Yellow-billed Kites, a Dusky Indigobird and a Black-backed Puffback with a Juvenile in tow.

Dusky Indigobird
Black-backed Puffback (Juvenile)


Another relaxed morning for me starting with a quiet walk along the edge of the dam where odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) were almost more numerous than the avifauna so I spent a pleasant hour or so chasing them down and taking a few photos.


Late morning we set off on a drive along the R600 towards Winterton with the main purpose of popping into Scrumpy Jacks for coffee and a taste of their recommended cheesecake. On the way Koos pointed out the Long-crested Eagle he had seen on his earlier walk, perched in the open for all to see.

Long-crested Eagle

Soon after we arrived at the small farmstall with a few tables outside, a parking area fairly muddy from earlier rains and a notice on the flimsy gate to “please close the gate to protect the dog”. The only visible animal in the garden was a large pig with an even larger pot belly dragging on the ground – presumably the “dog” referred to in the notice. It seemed a strange pet to allow near guests – such as us – coming for coffee and honey-baked cheesecake, however we did not let it detract from the treat.

Said coffee and cheesecake did the trick of turning on the switch in the brain that says “I am contented with life” and we ventured further down the R600 with the intent of doing a “bit of birding”. At the signpost indicating “Bell Park Dam 8 km ” we turned left – this was a route Koos and I had explored a year ago and it turned out to be a good choice again as we were soon into rolling grasslands and farms planted with tall green mielies (corn). Amur Falcons were numerous, perched at regular intervals on the roadside wires, sometimes in small groups, scanning the fields for their next grasshopper or termite alate meal.

The attractive farm dam where we had seen Grey-crowned Cranes landing the year before, was occupied by various waterfowl including SA Shelduck, Spur-winged Goose and a complement of the usual Egyptian Geese and Red-knobbed Coots plus a lone Grey Heron.

Farm dam in the distance

We continued in the same slow fashion past the Bell Park dam wall with cascading overflow creating a nice picture, then turned off onto the road leading to the dam’s entrance gate. After a brief leg-stretch accompanied by yet another Yellow-billed Kite eyeing us from his perch on top of a pole, we decided to turn back and head for the resort.

Farmlands with mountains in the background
The road to Bell Park dam

On the way back Koos spotted a flock of Geese and was elated when he found two Grey-crowned Cranes amongst them. A small Cisticola like bird in the top of a tree had us puzzled for a while with its grey breast and white belly, until we decided it was a form of Neddicky – later reference to Roberts showed that there are no less than 7 subspecies of Neddicky in southern Africa so I deduced that a wide variance in appearance can be expected. (another snippet of added knowledge).


Amazingly our “bit of birding” had been so absorbing that we found we had spent the required 2 hours in the pentad for a “Full protocol” card – and we all had an enjoyable afternoon of birding in a beautiful environment along a quiet road – what more can one ask for?


Time to return to Pretoria – Arrow-marked Babblers visited the chalet while packing and I couldn’t resist a quick photo…..

Arrow-marked Babbler

By 9 am we were on our way, this time choosing the scenic route via Winterton and Bergville then via the spectacular Oliviershoek pass to Harrismith. What a good choice it turned out to be – the scenery was quite stunning for most of the way, certainly the greenest we have ever seen this part of our country, both cornfields and grasslands alike, stretching into the distance in checkered patterns.

We’ll be back! Sooner than you can imagine – in a couple of weeks we return to the same area but a different resort when my brother visits from the UK.

My Birding Year 2017 (Part 2) – Atlasing, Twitching, An Island and more

Following on Part 1 of My Birding Year for 2017  ………  guess what, here’s Part 2!

So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the second half of 2017 along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited.


The first week saw me back in Kasane for a project visit and we managed to fit in a memorable drive through Chobe Riverfront where the game viewing took precedence, but the birdlife was hard to ignore, particularly the Carmine Bee-eaters

Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Chobe Riverfront
Greater Blue-eared Starling, Chobe Riverfront

Later on in the month I was back to atlasing in the area south of Bronkhorstspruit, some 50 km east of Pretoria, dominated by the drab midwinter “browns” of the highveld and providing some challenging birding in the form of very similar looking small birds in their winter plumage.

Southern Red Bishop (winter plumage), Bronkhorstspruit area
White-winged Widow (winter plumage), Bronkhorstspruit area


Another visit to Kasane, Botswana in the first week included a spectacular boat safari on the Chobe river with Pangolin Safaris in a specially equipped boat kitted out with swivel seats and pliable camera mounts. One of the owners of Pangolin Safaris, who goes by the nickname of “Guts”,  accompanied us and made sure we had some amazing photo opportunities of the wildlife and birds to be found along the river.

Six species in one frame (1 only just) – can you spot them? (see end of post for answer)
Glossy Ibis, Chobe River
Doing it in style with Pangolin Safaris on the Chobe River

One moment of sheer photographic magic came my way in the form of a lone African Skimmer passing by and showing how it got its name.

African Skimmer, Chobe River

The following weekend saw us visiting family in Potchefstroom once again – I took the two grandkids for a birding outing to nearby Boschkop dam and was again very pleased with the quality of birding at this venue, which is also quiet and safe for the kids to roam about a bit.

White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Boschkop dam, Potchefstroom
The birding team
Three-banded Plover, Boschkop dam, Potchefstroom

Next up was some atlasing in the grasslands north east of Pretoria – known as Vlaklaagte, which was good for birding but the gravel roads at this time of year are very dusty and the passing mining lorries tend to make it quite difficult to bird in peace – nevertheless a successful day’s atlasing.

Pied Starling, Vlaklaagte area
Dam, Vlaklaagte area
Buffy Pipit, Vlaklaagte area

A short winter visit to Mossel Bay in the second half of August provided the opportunity to explore the Karoo south of Oudtshoorn on a cold day – I added several species to my year list and atlased in areas not regularly covered so well worthwhile.

Cape Weaver, Mossel Bay
Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south
White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south

On Robinson Pass, my patience was rewarded when a Victorin’s Warbler posed briefly for a photo – a very difficult species to photograph so a nice bonus.

Victorin’s Warbler, Robinson Pass


My monthly visit to Kasane was likely to be one of my last as the project was heading to completion, so I made the most of the 3 days there and fitted in birding at every opportunity. The airport precinct and perimeter were particularly lively with up to 200 bee-eaters present along the fences.

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Kasane Airport area

An early morning drive through the Chobe Riverfront was as good as ever with some unusual species showing.

Burchell’s Sandgrouse, Chobe GR
Kori Bustard, Chobe GR

During the rest of the month I targeted some of the more remote areas of north-east Gauteng to do some atlasing, selecting pentads not yet atlased in 2017.

Rufous-naped Lark (Mirafra africana – subspecies transvaalensis, Vlaklaagte area
Spike-heeled Lark, Balmoral area


Our much anticipated trip to Mauritius to celebrate our “milestone” birthdays with the family was a highlight of the year from all points of view – the sheer joy of having our 3 children, their spouses and our 7 grandchildren with us in such a beautiful setting for a whole week was awesome (as they say).

Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius

I didn’t do any serious birding but the hotel gardens were good for a total of just 11 species, of which 6 were lifers to add to my world list (yes I’m a “lister”!)

Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Red Fody (Foudia madagascarensis), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Malagasy Turtle Dove (Nesoenas picturatus), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius
Zebra Dove / Barred Ground Dove (Geopelia striata), Le Victoria hotel, Mauritius

In any case I was so busy enjoying the ambience, the family, the great meals and the snorkelling that birding was relegated to about 10th place (just for that week, mind)

Later in the month I visited Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel in Gauteng for a superb morning of birding in this prime waterbird location.

Lesser Swamp-Warbler, Marievale
White-backed Duck, Marievale

An unexpected atlasing trip with Koos on the 21st in the pentad covering the north-east corner of Pretoria was a delight, covering all areas from industrial to country estates.


My last visit to Kasane was also a busy one work-wise so not much opportunity for birding other than snatched moments in between other commitments – how I’m going to miss this place!

A weekend in Potchefstroom presented another chance to take Christopher (6) with me for some atlasing at Boschkop dam – plenty of highlights to make it interesting for both of us.

Marievale was my destination for the second time in 4 weeks when reports came through of Baillon’s Crake seen there. I dipped on the crake but still had a wonderful morning’s atlasing.

African Snipe, Marievale
Ruff (white headed form), Marievale

On the 22nd it was time to head south (how time flies!) to our Mossel Bay home – a two day road trip with an overnight stop at Kuilfontein guest farm near Colesberg, which provided some great birding and relief from the long driving sessions.

Malachite Sunbird, Kuilfontein near Colesberg

I hardly had time to recover in Mossel Bay when Birding Big Day was upon us and I invited Willie to join me for a long but fruitful day’s birding along some of the back roads of the surrounding countryside. We ended the day quite happy with 124 species and something like 120th place in the national challenge.

Common Ringed Plover, Klein Brak, BBD 2017
Red-necked Spurfowl, Brandwag area, BBD 2017


December as usual was given over to family matters with  a bit of atlasing squeezed in here and there. Apart from the good birding that Mossel Bay offers, most of my trips were in the direction of Herbertsdale, some 50 kms north-west of Mossel Bay, where the countryside is attractive and the roads quiet.

Pin-tailed Whydah (Male), Mossel Bay
Booted Eagle, Mossel Bay
White-rumped Swift, Mossel Bay
Steppe (Common) Buzzard, Mossel Bay area
Jackal Buzzard, Mossel Bay
Blue Cranes, north of Herbertsdale
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Scenery north of Herbertsdale

The last 3 days of the year were spent at a cottage in the hills beyond Calitzdorp, serious Little Karoo country and good for some of the Karoo specials. The cottage was Andre and Geraldine’s dream that became real, through a lot of hard work on their part.

Evening walk, Calitzdorp
Red-billed Queleas, Calitzdorp

Answer to “6 Species in one frame” – left to right :

Glossy Ibis (left, just in frame), Squacco Heron, African Darter (in front), African Spoonbill (rear, twice), Little Egret, Long-toed Lapwing

Phew glad I got that post out in January (only just) – a Birding Year story is no good whatsoever in February



My Birding Year 2017 (Part 1) – Atlasing, Twitching, Cruising and more

Another memorable Birding Year has come and gone – a year filled once again with travelling to many familiar places and some exciting new ones, atlasing at every opportunity, a number of new birds seen and enough experiences to fill my journal to the brim.

So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the 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.


Our year kicked off in Mossel Bay, our home town for some of the year and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing / birdmapping in the area – Hartenbos and the adjoining inland in particular.

Agulhas Long-billed Lark in full song

On the 9th I had the unexpected thrill of finding a Pectoral Sandpiper, classed as a national rarity, which I duly reported to Trevor Hardaker who sent out a note to all subscribers to the SA Rare Bird News network – what a memorable day!

Pectoral Sandpiper, Hartenbos River weir
SA Rare Bird News report

We started our journey back to Gauteng on the 13th, first stopping over in charming Prince Albert for two nights. I managed to fit in some atlasing in the area including a pleasant trip along the Damascus road.

Familiar Chat, Prince Albert (Damascus road)

Our next stop for one night was at Garingboom guest farm near Springfontein in the Free State which also proved to be an interesting birding destination.

Amur Falcon, Garingboom Guest farm, Springfontein
SA Cliff Swallow, Garingboom Guest farm, Springfontein

Back in Pretoria, my first atlasing was centred around Mabusa Nature Reserve some 100 km north east of Pretoria which was a most enjoyable spot with some challenging roads and good birding

Mabusa Nature Reserve
Yellow-fronted Canary, Mabusa Nature Reserve
Bushveld Pipit, Mabusa Nature Reserve
Mabusa Nature Reserve


My first trip of the year to Kasane presented some great birding and atlasing opportunities in the summer lushness of Chobe Game Reserve.

Kasane Forest Reserve
White-crowned Lapwing, Chobe Game Reserve
Chobe Game Reserve
Double-banded Sandgrouse, Chobe Game Reserve

Back in Pretoria I did further atlasing in the Delmas area

Brown-throated Martin, Delmas area

We used our timeshare points for a weekend at Champagne Valley in the Drakensberg, which provided an opportunity for some atlasing in the area

Grey-crowned Crane, Drakensberg south
Drakensberg south
Gurney’s Sugarbird, Drakensberg south


Our Canadian family arrived on the 6th for a two week visit which included a Kruger Park visit and a trip to Vic Falls and Chobe Game Reserve

European Roller, Kruger Park
Green-backed Heron (Juvenile), Lake Panic in Kruger Park
White-fronted Bee-eater, Zambezi Cruise
Little Sparrowhawk (Juvenile), Chobe Safari Lodge

Getting back to normal after the excitement of touring with the family, we visited Potchefstroom, and I was happy to take grandson Christopher (6) with me for some birding at the local dam – I think he was more interested in my Prado’s little fridge filled with cold-drinks, but you have to start somewhere!


My monthly visit to Kasane, Botswana afforded another opportunity for some birding around Kasane and in Chobe Game Reserve – such a great destination which I try not to spoil with too much work….

Bronze-winged Courser, Kasane Airport perimeter
Western Yellow Wagtail, Kasane Sewage Works

Then it was time for our much anticipated “Flock at Sea” cruise from the 24th to 28th  arranged by Birdlife SA

Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise
Black-browed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
White-headed Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise
Flock at Sea Cruise


Another short autumn visit to Mossel Bay meant I could fit in some further atlasing in the Southern Cape

Grey-headed Gull, Mossel Bay
Cape Rock-Thrush (Male), Victoria Bay
Zitting Cisticola, Herbertsdale area

Later in the month Koos and I headed to Bushfellows Lodge near Marble Hall in Mpumulanga for a day’s atlasing (and some snake watching)

Just a week later we spent 4 days at Verlorenkloof also in Mpumulanga with Koos and Rianda, one of our favourite spots for relaxing and blessed with a variety of birding opportunities

Chinspot Batis, Verlorenkloof
Lower dam, Verlorenkloof
Red-throated Wryneck, Verlorenkloof


The month kicked off with a visit to Kasane but this time my birding was limited to a rather hurried morning trip into Chobe Riverfront

Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Chobe Game Reserve
Brown Snake Eagle, Chobe Game Reserve

On the 10th Koos and I braved the mid-winter cold and the notoriously dangerous Moloto road north of Pretoria to do some atlasing in NE Gauteng

Marico Sunbird, far north east 4DG

We closed out the half year with our “get away from it all” break in La Lucia near Durban at our timeshare resort – this was interrupted by a breakaway to northern Zululand to view a Malagasy Pond-Heron that had taken up residence at Phinda Game Reserve.

Phinda North KZN
Malagasy Pond-Heron, Mziki dam, Phinda North KZN
Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Phinda North KZN

In the latter part of the week I visited Pigeon Valley for some superb forest birding

Spotted Ground Thrush, Pigeon Valley Durban
Pigeon Valley Durban
Grey Waxbill, Pigeon Valley Durban

July to December will be covered in the next post – watch this space!


On a Farm in Africa

I (wish I) had a farm in Africa……….

Having a farm in Africa is not quite as romantic as the well-known film of some years ago made it out to be. It takes a lot of courage and hard work to make a success of a farm and the dependence on favourable weather conditions can fray the nerves, to say the least.

Nevertheless it would be many people’s dream come true to have a farm in Africa – the next best option is having family with a farm and we count ourselves fortunate to be in that position. It also helps if said family are the hospitable kind and they don’t come more hospitable than Pieter and Anlia Genis, Pieter being my wife Gerda’s nephew and Anlia being, well, Anlia.

Their farm lies in a hilly part of northern Kwazulu-Natal province of South Africa, not far from Vryheid and some of the sites of fierce battles that took place in the late 1800’s, variously between the forces of the British, Boers and Zulus who were all fighting for control of this part of Southern Africa.

Onverwacht farm, Vryheid

We visit the farm whenever the opportunity arises, although less frequently than we would like and our most recent visit, coinciding with the first weekend of our Spring in September 2016, was to attend a family wedding in Vryheid. I used the time before and after the nuptials to fit in some birding in this quite special environment and as usual it delivered several species that are not easily seen elsewhere.

Exploring the Farm gardens and surrounds

Onverwacht farm, Vryheid

Saturday’s session was less than half an hour in the vicinity of the farm-house, highlighted by a Bald Ibis flying past, Black-headed Oriole calling regularly with liquid whistles, White-throated Swallow and a lofty Yellow-billed Kite, no doubt fresh back from its migration to other parts of Africa.

Bald Ibis
White-throated Swallow

Very prominent were the Village Weavers in numbers in the pine trees behind the house, chattering away in their excitement at the arrival of Spring and a chance to do some nest-building and wooing of the female weavers.

Village Weaver

And in the garden a Greater Double-collared Sunbird showed off its bright red and green colouring.

Greater Double-collared Sunbird

Sunday’s birding was a lot more exciting, starting with an hour-long slow walk around the dam not far from the house and followed by a drive up the mountain to the plateau, courtesy of “bird-guide” Pieter, who has become very adept at knowing where certain species occur on his farm.

The dam circuit was a slow and easy walk from the house down to the dam and skirting the edge all the way around.

The dam as seen from the farm house
The dam

Brown-throated Martins and Black Saw-wings flew low over the water along with an occasional White-throated Swallow. Amongst the usual Yellow-billed Ducks and Red-knobbed Coots, a bevy of White-backed Ducks stood out but kept their distance, making it difficult to get a decent photo.

White-backed Duck

A Giant Kingfisher flew out of a waterside tree as I approached, calling ka-ka-ka, and landed on the far side of the dam.

Walking along the dam wall, I disturbed several reed-dwellers – Levaillant’s Cisticolas, Tawny-flanked Prinias, Neddickys and Southern Red Bishops aplenty. Lesser Swamp-Warbler peeked out of the reeds just long enough to grab a photo.

Levaillant’s Cisticola
Southern Red Bishop
Lesser Swamp Warbler

Going Up

After a more than substantial farm breakfast, including my favourite “krummelpap” – a crumbly porridge in warm milk and dressed with biltong and cheese, Pieter suggested a birding drive, which I agreed to rapidly. We were soon on our way  up the mountainside on to the plateau in the 4 x 4 bakkie (pickup), expertly driven by Pieter on tracks which are at times rough enough and steep enough to have this brave birder’s heart in his mouth.

The plateau lies some 300 metres above the farm-house and once we had ascended to the top we spent the next couple of hours looking for the species that favour the rock-strewn grassy habitat, rocking and rolling along the rough tracks that wind between the rocky areas.

View from the plateau

Surprisingly the most common bird was Buff-streaked Chat – up to a dozen pairs in all – followed by Eastern Long-billed Larks and Cape Longclaws, all moving about this unique landscape with its almost unearthly feel – thousands of rocks seemingly strewn about in a random manner, interspersed with fine grass and shrubs and relatively flat despite being “on top of the mountain”

On the plateau – rocks for Africa!
Eastern Long-billed Lark (from far away)
Cape Longclaw

Other interesting species that occur here and that we came across in small numbers were :

  • Black-winged Lapwing
  • Denham’s Bustard
  • Blue Crane
  • Red-capped Lark
Black-winged Lapwing
Black-winged Lapwing
Denham’s Bustard

After exploring the length and breadth of the farm’s extent at this higher level, we headed back down the steep incline, edging slowly around the hairpin bends, some with a steep drop-off to one side, which require some careful manoeuvring.

We came across Ground Woodpeckers, whose habitat according to Roberts includes road cuttings, which is precisely where we found them – how specific is that!

We ended with a drive through corn fields adjacent to a stream and found a single Spoonbill, then made our way back to the farm-house for more of the hospitality for which farmers are deservedly famous.

On a previous trip we had the pleasure of seeing Grey Crowned Cranes in the fields, albeit at a distance. They must rate as one of the most spectacular large birds in Southern Africa and to see them “dancing” as part of their courtship ritual is unforgettable.

Grey Crowned Crane

This is also an area of plantations, generally sterile as far as birding goes but good for a moody photo…..

Plantation, Onverwacht farm

Atlasing Stats

From an atlasing point of view it was a successful outing with 55 species recorded, 5 of which were new to the pentad (refer to my recent “Atlasing Tales” posts for an explanation of these terms). The pentad number is 2740_3035 (the red square on the map) and this was the 7th Full Protocol card. My contribution has been 4 FP cards so far, with a species count of 123.

Can’t wait for our next visit!


My Birding Year 2016 (Part 2) – Twitching, Lifers, Atlasing and more

It was a memorable Birding Year for several reasons – many great places visited in pursuit of new birds, many amazing experiences, often when least expected, atlasing at every opportunity, all of which has left me more than satisfied and (hopefully) has boosted my birding and bird photography skills. It was also sprinkled with enough “Lifers” to make it a special birding year, most of which were not planned but rather just happened along the way.

Part two follows my birding journey from July through to December and is just a brief synopsis of my birding activities along with photos of the species encountered and places visited. Some of my trips are / will be covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.


The month kicked off with some mid-winter atlasing on the 2nd, in the Balmoral / Witbank area with Koos Pauw

On the 8th, in Kasane, Botswana for my monthly project visit, I did a spectacular birding trip by rented boat on the Chobe River, which was every bit as good as I had hoped

Chobe River Boat Trip
Chobe River Boat Trip
African Fish-Eagle, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Fish-Eagle, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip
African Skimmer, Chobe River Boat Trip
Lappet-faced Vulture, Kasane
Lappet-faced Vulture, Kasane

Just three days later it was back to more normal birding / atlasing – this time east of Potchefstroom where we had gone to visit Stephan and family

And another two days later it was time for a truly memorable trip to Heilbron in the Free State to ” twitch”  the reported Burchell’s Courser with Koos, which we duly did, finding  along the way two other Coursers (Double-banded, Temminck’s) and a bonus lifer for me in the form of a Pink-billed Lark which Koos spotted

Burchell's Courser, Heilbron area
Burchell’s Courser, Heilbron area

The last week in July was spent in Mossel Bay where the Pincushions were in full bloom and attracting numbers of nectar feeders, which kindly posed for some colourful photos

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay

Writing this, I realised that I had done birding across 2 countries and 5 of SA’ s provinces during July!


My visit to Kasane from the 3rd to 5th allowed for some great birding again, visiting a riverside spot late afternoon where my colleagues went to fish and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing, photographing the Hartlaub’s Babblers and just enjoying the ambience as the sun set and hippos blew bubbles and snorted in the river

On the Friday morning before returning to SA I travelled to the Ngoma gate into Chobe Game Reserve and drove eastwards along the Riverfront road, atlasing all the way. I was rewarded with good views of Openbill, Great White Pelican, Tawny Eagle, Dickinson’s Kestrel and Slaty Egret amongst many others.

Brown-crowned Tchagra, Chobe Game Reserve
Brown-crowned Tchagra, Chobe Game Reserve
Slaty Egret, Chobe Game Reserve
Slaty Egret, Chobe Game Reserve (a very average photo, but my first of this scarce species)
Dickinson's Kestrel, Chobe Game Reserve
Dickinson’s Kestrel, Chobe Game Reserve

Mid August I fitted in some Monday atlasing, this time near Leandra where a farm dam was very productive with a nice range of waterfowl and one Caspian Tern


A family wedding took us to Vryheid and the farm of Pieter and Anlia Genis, where I was able to enjoy excellent birding in between the family festivities, with the assistance of Pieter and his rugged Bakkie (Pickup). The drive up to the plateau high above the farmhouse was as spectacular as ever and was good for a number of the area specials such as Black-winged Lapwing, Denham’s Bustard, Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat and Eastern Long-billed Lark

Onverwacht farm, Vryheid
Onverwacht farm, Vryheid
Black-winged Lapwing, Onverwacht farm, Vryheid
Black-winged Lapwing, Onverwacht farm, Vryheid

Another family event saw us in Potchefstroom two weeks later and I was able to squeeze in some atlasing early on the Monday morning before returning home to Pretoria


A visit to Kruger National Park in the first week of October with Andre and Geraldine and the girls was a highlight of the year, with the dry conditions limiting the bird numbers somewhat but each day proved to be full of interesting sightings.

Our home for the week was Olifants camp in the northern section of the Park.

African Harrier-Hawk, Afsaal area KNP
African Harrier-Hawk, Afsaal area KNP
Southern Ground Hornbill, KNP
Southern Ground Hornbill, KNP
Golden-breasted Bunting,  Olifants Balule road KNP
Golden-breasted Bunting, Olifants Balule road KNP
Hooded Vulture, S37 Trichardt road KNP
Hooded Vulture, S37 Trichardt road KNP
Brownheaded Parrot, Pretoriuskop KNP
Brownheaded Parrot, Pretoriuskop KNP

The rest of October was devoted to atlasing some of the birding “hotspots” around Pretoria and further afield.

Roodeplaat dam was good for two separate visits on consecutive Saturdays, one with Koos Pauw, both visits proving that this is one of the best spots for a relaxed morning’s birding with good roads and well-kept facilities.  The highlight was the constant calls of Tchagras, Titbabblers, Boubous, Scrub-Robins and others that accompanied the drives. The two birding sessions produced a remarkable 100+ species!

It was also the place where I saw the strangest bird of the year – one that had me completely flummoxed until I realised it was a fairly common Lesser Striped Swallow missing its tail. For a moment or two I thought I had discovered a new species of Spinetail!

Lesser Striped Swallow (tailless), Roodeplaat NR
Lesser Striped Swallow (tailless), Roodeplaat
Diederik Cuckoo, Roodeplaat NR
Diederik Cuckoo, Roodeplaat
Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Roodeplaat Dam
Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Roodeplaat Dam
Caspian Tern, Roodeplaat Dam
Caspian Tern, Roodeplaat Dam

Another attractive venue was Mabusa Nature Reserve, some 1.5 hours drive from Pretoria, but almost constant light rain put a damper on my visit and the slightly unscheduled arrival of our 7th grandchild had me rushing back to Pretoria a little earlier than planned. Definitely a spot to revisit on a sunny day.

A Terrapin in the middle of the drenched gravel road was proof of how wet it was – I have only ever seen them clinging to a rock in a river or dam

Terrapin, Mabusa NR
Terrapin, Mabusa NR
Mabusa NR
Mabusa NR on a wet day
Cape Glossy Starling, Mabusa NR
Cape Glossy Starling, Mabusa NR trying to look happy about the rain
African Pipit, Mabusa NR
African Pipit, Mabusa NR

Last up was a visit to the area around Settlers in the Bela Bela area of Limpopo province, where the highlight was meeting a farmer that I encountered on the road who invited me to visit the “Vulture restaurant” at a large Pig-farm nearby.

Greater Kestrel, Settlers area, Limpopo
Greater Kestrel, Settlers area, Limpopo
Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark, Settlers area, Limpopo
Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark, Settlers area, Limpopo


You would think I’d had enough of Chobe by now, but no, once again I arranged a boat trip along with a colleague while in Kasane and once again it was spectacular. My aim was to find Rock Pratincole which we did quite easily and had an up close and personal view to boot. I will do a separate post on this trip but suffice to say it was special.

Rock Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Rock Pratincole, Chobe River trip
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River trip
Long-toed Lapwing, Chobe River trip

On the 9th another local hotspot demanded a visit when Green Sandpiper was reported from Rietvlei Nature Reserve near Pretoria (actually part of Pretoria). I did not find the Sandpiper but plenty of others kept me busy and fascinated, including a variety of antelope and other game. I still managed to make it to the office by mid-morning with 62 species counted.

Cape Longclaw, Rietvlei Dam
Cape Longclaw, Rietvlei Dam

Our annual “long stay” trip to Mossel Bay came around almost before we were quite ready and an overnight stop at Abbotsbury guest farm near Graaff-Reinet on the way there was my next opportunity for some Karoo birding on this delightful farm.

Red-eyed Bulbul, Abbotsbury near Graaff-Reinet
Red-eyed Bulbul, Abbotsbury near Graaff-Reinet

We were barely settled in Mossel Bay when Birding Big Day came up on the 26th and at the last moment I decided to enter the Birdlasser challenge despite not having a team, planned a route or being even vaguely prepared. As it turned out I had a great day doing a circular route in the surrounding area, with Gerda joining me in the afternoon, and recorded 112 species on the day – not too bad for the area.


On the road again – this time on a 5 day trip to the Western Cape mainly to visit family, but naturally I took every opportunity to do birding along the way. News of several rarities at Strandfontein Sewage Works had filtered through in the few days prior to the trip and, prompted by Gerda who knows I can’t resist the temptation of a new bird, we adjusted our itinerary to spend a night nearby the spot, which meant I could spend time there in the hope of finding them. As it turned out I added Temminck’s Stint, Red-necked Phalarope and American Golden Plover to my life list – my only dip was the Pectoral Sandpiper.

Temminck's Stint, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Temminck’s Stint, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Red-necked Phalarope, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Red-necked Phalarope, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Pied Avocet, Strandfontein Sewage Works
Pied Avocet, Strandfontein Sewage Works

Worcester was our base for 3 nights and on the return trip to Mossel Bay we stopped for an overnight stay at Jan Harmsgat guest farm

I felt that the rarities were following me when a Red-necked Buzzard was seen in Stilbaai, just and hour or so away from Mossel Bay, so on the 13th I went to look for it and ended up getting great views accompanied by some of the top birders in SA, who had driven a lot further to see this mega-rarity. One of them was the country’s leading seabird expert, Barrie Rose, with whom I had a chat as we were at school together. Barrie was tragically killed just a couple of weeks later  when he fell off rocks at Cape Point while fishing. Just another reminder how tenuous life can be.

Red-necked Buzzard, Stilbaai Twitch
Red-necked Buzzard, Stilbaai Twitch
Stilbaai Sewage Works
Stilbaai Sewage Works – a bird hide for the birds
Stilbaai twitch
Stilbaai twitch – RIP Barrie Rose (walking up the hill at the rear)

On the 22nd I atlased two pentads north and south of Herbertsdale, one of my favourite birding areas, which was also my last formal birding trip of the year.

During our lengthy stay in Mossel Bay I did regular atlasing in the Golf Estate, where 30+ species can be seen in an hour’s walk during Summer, as well as around town which has a few reliable birding spots such as the Point and the harbour area for seabirds and the small dam at the SPCA grounds for waterfowl.

Grey-backed Cisticola, Mossel Bay
Grey-backed Cisticola, Mossel Bay
African Black Swift, Mossel Bay
African Black Swift, Mossel Bay

I am not sure how I will top 2016 as far as birding goes, but I will certainly give it a go!

My Birding Year 2016 (Part 1) – Twitching, Lifers, Atlasing and more

It was a memorable Birding Year for several reasons – many great places visited in pursuit of new birds, many amazing experiences, often when least expected, atlasing at every opportunity, all of which has left me more than satisfied and (hopefully) has boosted my birding and bird photography skills. It was also sprinkled with enough “Lifers” to make it a special birding year, most of which were not planned but rather just happened along the way.

What follows is a brief (remember, brief is relative) synopsis of my birding activities along with photos of the species encountered and places visited. Some of my trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.


Our year kicked off in Mossel Bay, our home town for some of the year, including December and half of January, and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing / birdmapping in the area. This included one particularly memorable trip through the mountains on a back road north of Herbertsdale (actually an old wagon route)  where I saw just one other person in two hours and not a single other vehicle. The pentad (a block of 5 x 5 minutes of latitude and longitude) had never been atlased previously so was virgin territory.

Old Wagon route, Herbertsdale north
Old Wagon route, Herbertsdale north
Jackal Buzzard, Herbertsdale north
Jackal Buzzard, Herbertsdale north

Further atlasing on the 14th was limited by almost constant light rain, but was nevertheless interesting, producing some scarcer species such as Little Bittern doing its “sky-gazing” trick and a group of Amur Falcons, unusual in this part of SA. Parts of the gravel road were very slippery and called for close concentration.

Cattle Egret, Herbertsdale south
Cattle Egret, Herbertsdale south (spot the raindrops!)

Our customary “slow and easy” trip back to Pretoria started on the 16th with a short drive to Prince Albert for a two night stay, allowing time for some Karoo birding, then on to Prior Grange guest farm near Springfontein in the Free State, where I was able to fit in some early morning birding before our last push to Pretoria and home.

A report of a Caspian Plover near Hanover persuaded us to deviate for an hour or two to look for it – with the help of the farm owner we found it, as well as some other delights such as Blue Korhaan and Namaqua Sandgrouse

Namaqua Sandgrouse, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Namaqua Sandgrouse, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Caspian Plover, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Caspian Plover, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Blue Korhaan, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Blue Korhaan, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover

Back in Pretoria I was soon chasing further rarities when reports of a Red Phalarope at Mkhombo dam filtered through and I ended up visiting this exciting birding spot three times before the month was out, once on my own, once with George Skinner and once with Francois Furstenburg, the latter trip including some great birding along the Zaagkuildrift road.

Red Phalarope, Mkhombo Dam
Red Phalarope, Mkhombo Dam
Grey Plover, Mkhombo Dam
Grey Plover, Mkhombo Dam
123 Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Mkhombo Dam (925)
Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, Mkhombo Dam

And to round off a memorable month, a Spotted Crake was reported outside the main gate to one of Johannesburg’s largest residential estates. It proved to be one of the easiest twitches ever as more than 1000 birders went to see it.

Spotted Crake, Waterfall Estate
Spotted Crake, Waterfall Estate

After that exciting start to the year I took a break in February to focus on other life matters and recommenced in…


The month started with a bang when I visited Kasane in Botswana for the project I am involved in and took the opportunity to “pop over” to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia to see the Yellow-throated Leaflove reported at a lodge near Katimo Mulilo, along with some of the other area specials and another lifer by way of an accommodating Schalow’s Turaco at the same lodge. The Leaflove was a new species for Southern Africa and created a lot of excitement amongst twitchers.

Yellow-throated Leaflove, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Yellow-throated Leaflove, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Schalow's Turaco, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge
Schalow’s Turaco, Caprivi Houseboat Lodge

While in Kasane I visited Chobe Game Reserve and the Kasane Waste treatment works which both produced some excellent birding.

Chobe NP
Chobe NP
Red-billed Spurfowl, Chobe NP
Red-billed Spurfowl, Chobe NP
African Openbill, Chobe NP
African Openbill, Chobe NP
Southern Carmine Bee-Eater, Chobe NP
Southern Carmine Bee-Eater, Chobe NP
Wood Sandpiper, Kasane Water Treatment
Wood Sandpiper, Kasane Water Treatment works

The following week I fitted in some atlasing, this time in and around Cullinan area east of Pretoria (where the famous Cullinan diamond was found)

The next weekend we visited Potchefstroom and I atlased in the area, focusing on the Boskop dam north-east of Potch which proved to be an excellent spot with a total of 72 species, the highlight being an African Rail walking along the dam edge for 50m or so before disappearing into reeds.


Back in Kasane for my monthly visit, the only birding I managed was at Senyati camp, which we visited late one afternoon and viewed the elephants coming to drink at the waterhole, along with a variety of bird life.

Then it was time for our long-planned trip of the year to celebrate 45 years of marriage – two weeks in Europe  , visiting Prague and Passau, with an eight-day Danube River Cruise sandwiched in between. Birding was limited to whatever crossed my path but was still good for a handful of Lifers added to my “World list”

Eurasian Jay, Prague
Eurasian Jay, Prague
Black Redstart, Cesky Krumlow
Black Redstart, Cesky Krumlow
Petrin Hill
Petrin Hill in Prague
Great Tit, Vienna
Great Tit, Vienna
Red Fox with fish catch
Red Fox with fish catch along the Danube River (OK it’s not a bird but rates as one of my sightings of the year)
Caspian Gull, Danube
Caspian Gull, Danube
Common House Martin, Danube
Common House Martin, Danube
Barn Swallow, Danube
Barn Swallow, Danube
Lesser Kestrel, Passau
Lesser Kestrel, Passau
Passau - views from the Castle
Passau – views from the Castle
Black-headed Gull, Passau
Black-headed Gull, Passau


My trip to Kasane Botswana from the 10th to 12th presented few opportunities for focused birding, nevertheless I was able to spend time in three spots that I have got to know fairly well – Kasane Waste Treatment works, Thebe lodge and Seboba Nature Park, all of which are reliable for a variety of species.

113 White-crowned Lapwing, Seboba Nature Park - Kasane (290)
113 White-crowned Lapwing, Seboba Nature Park – Kasane (290)
Marabou Stork, Kasane Water Treatment
Marabou Stork, Kasane Water Treatment
Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Thebe Safari Lodge
Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Thebe Safari Lodge
Blue Waxbill, Seboba Nature Park Kasane
Blue Waxbill, Seboba Nature Park Kasane

On the 16th and again on the 23rd I got back to some “ordinary” atlasing in some of my favourite parts of eastern Gauteng – lying generally in the corridor between Bronkhorstspruit area and Delmas area. Good solid midwinter atlasing in these run-of-the-mill parts of Gauteng can be just as inspiring as birding some of the more recognised birding spots.

Brown-throated Martin, Delmas area
Brown-throated Martin, Delmas area

On the 26th and 27th we joined Koos and Rianda at our favourite getaway – Verlorenkloof estate near Machadadorp – which as usual did not disappoint with the quality of the birding

Mocking Cliff-Chat (Female), Verlorenkloof
Mocking Cliff-Chat (Female), Verlorenkloof


Kasane was the destination once again from the 1st to 3rd with another birding trip along the Riverfront section of Chobe Game Reserve.

Bradfield's Hornbill, Chobe Riverfront
Bradfield’s Hornbill, Chobe Riverfront

Winter atlasing in the Delmas area on the 6th included a visit to a farm dam courtesy of the farm owner who I tracked down – worth the trouble as the dam contributed 21 species to the list including both Flamingoes, Black-necked Grebe and Maccoa Duck

African Marsh-Harrier, Delmas area
Harrier in the mist (African Marsh-Harrier), Delmas area

Next up was our visit to La Lucia near Durban for a week, during which I enjoyed a Fathers Day feast of birding in Ongoye Forest, Mtunzimi and Amatigulu Reserve with local guide Sakhamuzi Mhlongo,  who found the Green Barbet that I had hoped to see. This species is restricted to this one single forest in Southern Africa.

Ongoye Forest
Ongoye Forest
Green Barbet, Ongoye Forest Reserve
Green Barbet, Ongoye Forest Reserve (Not a photo-friendly species at all!)
Ongoye Forest
Ongoye Forest
Square-tailed Drongo, Ongoye Forest Reserve
Square-tailed Drongo, Ongoye Forest Reserve
Yellow-throated Longclaw, Mtunzini
Yellow-throated Longclaw, Mtunzini
Amitigulu Nature Reserve
Amitigulu Nature Reserve, Sakhamuzi leading the way
Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Amitigulu Nature Reserve
Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Amitigulu Nature Reserve

On the way back to La Lucia I popped into the well-known birding spot at Sappi Stanger, which was lively with waterfowl and others

Sappi Mill Stanger / Kwadukuza
Sappi Mill Stanger / Kwadukuza
Cape and Hottentot Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza
Cape and Hottentot Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza
Cape Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza
Cape Teal, Sappi Mill KwaDakuza

Before the week was done we did a quick trip to Pigeon Valley in Durban’s suburbs, where a few of the forest species were in evidence.

Red-capped Robin-Chat, Pigeon Valley
Red-capped Robin-Chat, Pigeon Valley

Atlasing the Delmas area once again on the 27th concluded the month’s diverse birding

July to December are covered in a separate post called ,,,,,,,,  wait for it ………..Part 2.