Tag Archives: Bird Atlasing South Africa

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.

 

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.

Kuilfontein near Colesberg – Long-legged Tortoises and Doctor No

After a long day’s driving, there is nothing I look forward to more than going walkabout and doing some birding. When travelling from Pretoria to our “other home town” of Mossel Bay, we like to make at least one overnight stop, and during our recent trip we decided to try a new (for us – it’s been there a long time) guest farm near Colesberg called Kuilfontein, just 11 kms beyond the town and close to the N1 national road.

Our route included a slight detour to allow for a mid-morning stop at son Stephan’s house in Potchefstroom in the North West Province. He was at work but Liesl was on hand to refresh us with coffee and banana bread before we pressed on. This part of the trip left me with mixed emotions as we passed through several small towns along the R30 route, which traverses the farmlands and goldfields at the heart of South Africa. The summer rains had not yet come and the wind was whipping up the fallow farmlands creating small dust storms, while the mining areas were equally dusty but from the mine dumps being scoured by those same winds.

This is not unusual after the winter and before the rains come (which they did subsequently) so one accepts that the landscape is not particularly attractive at this time of year. What really got to me was when we approached the towns along the way and on the way out again – the plastic bag litter strewn across the fields seems to be the norm nowadays (not just confined to these parts but more noticeable here) – very disheartening  and with a bit of effort so simple to rectify you can’t help wondering why nothing seems to be done about it.

Anyway enough complaining and back to the pleasant part of the day.

We reached Kuilfontein farm at 5.30 pm after driving some 760 kms and by 6 pm we were settled in our charming cottage room.

Entrance to Kuilfontein – an encouraging sign
Our cottage room for the night
Comfortable room

With the prospect of a good one and a half hours of daylight available, I set off with a spring in my step to explore the farm, wondering what I would find.

Starting around the main house, I followed the entrance road which is like a long verdant tunnel with trees both sides almost meeting overhead. There were Sparrows and Doves aplenty, joined by Starlings (Pied, Cape Glossy and Red-winged) and several Cape Robin-Chats to make the walk interesting.

Kuilfontein – the manor house
Kuilfontein – entrance road

A group of three Korhaans caught my eye in the fields and turned out to be Blue Korhaans – they have a curious way of walking, crouching so that when they are in longish grass, just their rounded backs and the top of their heads are visible, giving them the appearance of fast-moving tortoises as they move about.

Blue Korhaan, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Blue Korhaan (photo taken not far from Kuilfontein on a previous trip)

By dinner time I had recorded 25 species and called it a day – can’t be late for the Lamb pie!

After an early night and a good rest I was up before 6 am the next morning and was soon out for part two of my Kuilfontein birding, this time covering some new ground which soon delivered with Bokmakierie, Pied Barbet and Cape Clapper Lark amongst others.

Bokmakierie

From a vantage point on the top of the earth dam wall (bone dry) I could see far across the Karoo scrub – in the background the distant hills were washed blue / pink by the early morning rays. Two elegant Blue Cranes were just discernible in a distant field and as I scanned the horizon three Korhaans flushed about a 100 m away and flew off while calling what sounded to my ears like a very guttural “doctor no, doctor no, doctor no”. I couldn’t help chuckling at the thoughts that my interpretation of their call brought to my head.

It turned out That they were Karoo Korhaans and replaced the Blue Korhaans from the previous evening as my favourite sighting of the short stay.

Kuilfontein farm

Soon after, near the entrance gate at the end of the long entrance driveway, another call drew my attention and looking upwards I saw three Namaqua Sandgrouse flying by while calling “kelkiewyn” (pronounced “kelkyvane”) which is also their Afrikaans name. As I watched them they turned in a wide circle in the sky, almost as if acknowledging my presence, then carried on flying into the distance.

Namaqua Sandgrouse, (this photo is also from a nearby farm on a previous trip)

Time had also flown by and I headed back for breakfast, adding White-throated Swallow, Wattled Starling, Red-winged Starling and Fiscal Flycatcher on the way back. At the cottage a Malachite Sunbird was moving about amongst the Aloes lining the pathway, the emerald sheen of its feathers glinting in the sun. The garden sprinklers were on so the aloes had drops of water

Aloe
Malachite Sunbird enjoying the Aloes

After breakfast we greeted host Penny, who has the knack of making you feel like part of the family, and headed off on the next leg of our trip, but not before adding Steppe (Common) Buzzard and Red Bishop on the way to the N1.

As always I was atlasing (recording the bird species for submission to the database at the University of Cape Town)  and was surprised and very pleased when I discovered that my “full protocol card” (minimum two hours of atlasing) was only the fourth one for the pentad, “turning it green” in atlasing parlance – this is a way of tracking how many times a pentad has been atlased, green indicating that at least four cards have been submitted to provide a statistical base.

Atlasing Statistics

Pentad : 3045_2455

Full protocol cards : fourth for the pentad.

Total species recorded : 45 – out of 86 for the pentad to date which equates to a coverage of 53% of the species recorded to date

Pentad location :

New species recorded for the first time in the pentad :

Greater striped Swallow; Karoo Thrush; African Hoopoe; Cape Wagtail; Black-shouldered Kite; Cape Clapper Lark; House Sparrow; Karoo Scrub-Robin; Common Starling; Egyptian Goose; White-throated Swallow; Wattled Starling; Fiscal Flycatcher: Malachite Sunbird; Steppe (Common) Buzzard

Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and beyond

Wondering what Atlasing is?

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a specific 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 the 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.

Beyond Herbertsdale

Herbertsdale is a small, cosy town in the Southern Cape, conveniently close to Mossel Bay, our home town for part of the year. North of Herbertsdale lies the Langeberg (“Long Mountain”) range and the R327 tar road to changes to gravel soon after passing through the town, before winding its way through the mountains.

Along the R327 north of Herbertsdale
Along the R327 north of Herbertsdale

I had set out to atlas two of the more remote pentads in the area, both of them lying beyond the Langeberg. On the way there I warmed up with some ad hoc atlasing, and was happy to hear a Victorin’s Warbler (Rooiborsruigtesanger) calling in its distinctive way, followed by a Red-necked Spurfowl (Rooikeelfisant) in the short grass near the road and a Black Saw-wing  (Swartsaagvlerkswael) swooping gracefully by – three fairly uncommon species and more than enough to have me smiling as I stopped to enjoy the quiet of the mountains and a cup of roadside coffee.

Black Saw-wing (Swartsaagvlerkswael)
Black Saw-wing (Swartsaagvlerkswael)

By 7 am I entered the first target pentad  3350_2140 which is shown as the shaded square on the map below and which initially runs through the last section of the pass along a river, then emerges into flatter farmland and Karoo countryside before reaching the Gouritz River, where I took a short walk along the riverside.

Herbertsdale map 2

Returning to my vehicle, I took it very slow which helped to build up a decent list, including  Common House Martin (Huisswael), Plain-backed Pipit (Donkerkoester) in an open short-grassed field, Rock Kestrel (Kransvalk) perched quietly in a tree,   a very welcome Dusky Sunbird (Namakwasuikerbekkie) and a soaring Booted Eagle (Dwergarend). During the two hours (minimum duration for a “Full Protocol” card) I recorded 40 species, of which 20 were new records for the pentad, mainly because it had only been atlased twice before, nevertheless a great reward for my efforts.

Booted Eagle, (Dwergarend)
Booted Eagle, (Dwergarend)

An Old Wagon Route discovered

Then the real adventure started as I turned off at a road I had partially explored a few years ago, marked with a small, obscure sign with an old wagon picture on it.

My next target was pentad 3350_2145, shown as the shaded square on the map below, which had never been atlased before, known to Atlasers as a “virgin pentad” and much sought after by those with a bit of the pioneering spirit (which many South Africans seem to have in their genes).

Herbertsdale map 1

The road passed a lone farmhouse, then headed into the hills, becoming more barren as it wound its way over the rolling mountains, with some steep gradients and tricky corners requiring utmost concentration while moving.

Old Wagon route north of Herbertsdale
Old Wagon route north of Herbertsdale
Old Wagon route
Old Wagon route

Birds were beyond scarce – all I could do was to stop frequently and check for distant calls or a movement giving away the presence of a bird. I was relieved when a variety of aerial birds appeared and I could at least get my list going with Greater Striped Swallow (Grootstreepswael), Barn Swallow (Europese swael), Rock Martin (Kransswael) and White-rumped Swift (Witkruiswindswael).

The aerial birds such as Swallows, Martins and Swifts seem to enjoy hunting aerial insects together. Whenever I see a group of these graceful fliers I stop and scan as many of them as I can while they are still within a visible distance. More often than not the species first spotted leads to seeing two or three others, as  happened in this instance.

Greater Striped Swallow rootstreepswael)
Greater Striped Swallow (Grootstreepswael)

Patches of  Fynbos and Protea bush were the next most productive habitat, as I was able to spot some of the species common to the habitat, such as Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse suikervoël) swishing busily from one bush to the next, White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie) , Karoo Prinia (Karoolangstertjie) trying to match the  frantic activity of the Sugarbirds, Grey-backed Cisticola (Grysrugtinktinkie) calling in its distinctive fashion and Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Kleinrooibandsuikerbekkie) adding a splash of colour with its bright red breast band and iridescent green back .

Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse Suikervoel)
Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse Suikervoel)
White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie)
White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie)

, Herbertsdale north

When I stopped for a refreshment break near a mountain stream, an elderly gent, tasked with looking after a patch of Prickly Pears nearby and the only person I saw in the two hours, approached hesitantly, probably wondering what this obvious stranger to the area was up to – I shared my hard-boiled eggs and provita biscuits with him and we had a good chat about life in this remote area.

Lark-like Buntings (Vaalstreepkoppie) were unusually common, often a difficult species to find, while a soaring Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoël) made my heart soar just before exiting the pentad.

Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoel)
Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoel)

The road continued for a few Kms until it passed through a guest farm after which the landscape showed signs of “civilization” in the form of pine plantations and I eventually emerged onto the gravel road leading to the Oudtshoorn-Mossel Bay road and the way home.

I recorded just 21 species after two hours in this pentad, one of my lowest pentad totals ever, but all were new species for the pentad.

Memorable atlasing indeed!

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 3350_2140

3rd Full Protocol card for the pentad;   20 New species added to the pentad list;   Pentad total species now 52

New species added to the pentad list were : Cape Canary ; Blue Crane ; Namaqua Dove ; Red-eyed Dove ; Fork-tailed Drongo ; Egyptian Goose ; Cape Grassbird ; Little Grebe ; Helmeted Guineafowl ; Common House-Martin ; Hadeda Ibis ; Rock Kestrel ; Brown-hooded Kingfisher ; Crowned Lapwing ; Rock Martin ; Common Moorhen ; Plain-backed Pipit ; Cape Spurfowl ; Dusky Sunbird ; Common Waxbill

Pentad 3350_2140

1st Full Protocol card for the pentad;   21 New species added to the pentad list;   Pentad total species now 21

New species added to the pentad list were : Bokmakierie ; Larl-like Bunting ; Jackal Buzzard ; White-throated Canary ; Grey-backed Cisticola ; Cape Crow ; Red-eyed Dove ; Fork-tailed Drongo ; Rock Martin ; Red-faced Mousebird ; Neddicky ; Karoo Prinia ; Red-winged Starling ; Cape Sugarbird ; Southern Double-collared Sunbird ; Barn Swallow ; Greater-striped Swallow ; White-rumped Swift ; Common Waxbill ; Cape Weaver ; Cape White-eye

Atlasing Tales – Little Karoo near Oudtshoorn

Excuses, excuses…

Firstly, regular readers of this blog (yes, both of you) may be wondering why it’s been more than 3 weeks since my last post. I do try and post at least once a fortnight and have more or less managed to keep it up, but these past few weeks have been extra-busy with both Gerda and myself celebrating a milestone birthday. We decided early in the year to take our family – kids and grandkids, numbering 15 altogether including ourselves, to Mauritius for a week, which is where we were during the first week in October. More about that in a post very soon but for the time being this post is a further episode of Atlasing Tales (cue – loud clapping and cheering!!)

Back to Mossel Bay

During our late winter visit to Mossel Bay this past August, I was keen to do some atlasing of a couple of the pentads not yet visited in 2017 by any atlasers and eventually settled on two pentads in the Little Karoo near Oudtshoorn, with the added hope of adding some Karoo species to my year list. (For a further explanation of atlasing have a look at my earlier posts on the subject eg Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and beyond)

The location of the first pentad is shown on the map below, the second one is directly west of it –

The Little Karoo (better known in South Africa by the Afrikaans name “Kleinkaroo”) is separated from the Great Karoo (“Grootkaroo”) by the Swartberg Mountain Range which runs east-west almost parallel to the southern coastline of South Africa, from which it is separated by another east-west range called the Outeniqua-Langeberg Mountains. The Karoo is a semi-desert natural region of SA, with low rainfall, arid air, cloudless skies and extremes of heat and cold.

Getting there

It was raining lightly when I set off early morning from Mossel Bay and the wet roads had me making my way very carefully up the twisty Robinson Pass, which peaks out at 860 m above sea level and typically has a thick layer of mist or low clouds in the upper parts, as it did today.

Cresting the pass I glanced at the car’s temperature gauge which showed a chilly 5°C, so I welcomed the warmth of the car’s heater, but knew that I would be feeling it once I started atlasing, which one can only effectively do with the car’s windows open in order to be able to hear the birds calling, often the only way of identifying the species if you don’t see them. It was hard to imagine though, that the temperature would be the same 5° C on my way back through the pass at around 1.30 pm that afternoon!

By 7 am I was through the pass and the habitat changed rapidly to that of typical Little Karoo – few trees, many small shrubs and bushes and not much else.

Oudtshoorn south
A rainbow appeared when I made my first stop

Atlasing starts

Compared to other parts of the country, birding in the Karoo is slow and measured but immensely rewarding at the same time. When birds are scarce there is a certain pleasure in looking for and finding whatever may cross your path, very different from the abundant birds that other more bird-friendly habitats may provide. It’s a bit like sipping a special wine, taking your time and appreciating each drop, knowing there’s a limited amount and plenty of time.

A Karoo Lark (Karoolewerik ; Calendulauda albescens) drew my attention at my first stop, calling from a fence post then dropping to the ground. Its call was bright and cheerful despite the rather gloomy weather, but I suppose when you live in an arid area such as the Karoo, a bit of rainy weather is worth singing about!

Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south

Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south
Karoo Lark

Another Lark sitting on a small bush at a distance from the road had me wondering and I studied it as best as I could at that range, not being close enough to pick up the finer details that are important when trying to identify one of the LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs). It was streaky brown on the back, seemed to have  some light streaking on the breast – features that most of the larks possess so I was no closer to an ID. However when it turned its head the long decurved bill was a prominent feature, almost Bee-eater like in appearance which pointed towards Karoo Long-billed Lark (Karoolangbeklewerik / Certhilauda subcoronata) – some later study of Faansie Peacock’s excellent book on LBJ’s clinched the ID for me. When I submitted the card for the pentad it generated an ORF (Out-of-range form) for this species, which I still have to complete and submit in order to get the ID verified – all part of being a “Citizen Scientist”

The photo was taken previously in the Karoo National Park –

Karoo Longbilled Lark, Karoo National Park
Karoo Long-billed Lark

A gravel side road, signposted Kandelaarsrivier proved to be an interesting diversion and I followed it for a few kms not far from the mostly dry river course and past several farmsteads. Along the way I came across a group of Mountain Wheatears (Bergwagter / Oenanthe monticola) which were quite accommodating, allowing a close approach in my vehicle for some pleasing photos of this species which is usually at a distance.

Mountain Wheatear (female), Oudtshoorn south
Mountain Wheatear (female)
Mountain Wheatear (female), Oudtshoorn south
Surprising how much white is visible in flight

Both Speckled and White-backed Mousebirds (Gevlekte en Witkruismuisvoëls / Colius striatus and Colius colius) showed themselves at a spot further on – it’s interesting how they sometimes seem to stick close together yet don’t occupy the same tree.

I continued along the back roads past small villages and settlements, stopping to have a closer look at a handsome stone country church and exploring a side road which looked interesting but only took me to a rugby field, which could surely only be found in the Karoo – no grass, just a hard gravel surface. I had to wonder how they played such a physical game on this surface – they obviously breed some hard players in the area or they have very good medical care.

Rugby field, Oudtshoorn south

At another farmstead a group of White-throated Canaries (Witkeelkanarie / Crithagra albogularis) was busily gathering seeds from the ground, possibly spilled or perhaps from a nearby tree.

White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south
White-throated Canary – note the hint of yellow rump showing

White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south

Heading back towards the Robinson Pass I was soon into my second target pentad for the day … 3340_2200 and added Pied Starling (Witgatspreeu ; Lamprotornis bicolorCommon Starling (Europese spreeu ; Sturnus vulgaris) and Bokmakierie (Bokmakierie ; Telephorus zeylonus)fairly quickly. Another gravel road wound its way past a quarry, which also happened to be the destination of several lorries which kicked up clouds of dust each time they passed, making the conditions unpleasant for a while. Nevertheless between dust clouds I found a Karoo Chat (Karoospekvreter ; Cercomela schlegelii)and Pale Chanting Goshawk (Bleeksingvalk ; Melierax canorus)and heard the distinctive call of a Pririt Batis (Priritbosbontrokkie ; Batis pririt)

Once past the quarry I could stop and enjoy the peace of the surroundings again and soon added Cape Bunting (Rooivlerkstreepkoppie ; Emberiza capensis), Acacia Pied Barbet (Bonthoutkapper ; Tricholaema leucomelas)and Namaqua Warbler (Namakwalangstertjie ; Phragmacia substriata). Just before exiting the pentad Cape Crow (Swartkraai ; Corvus capensis)and Cape Spurfowl (Kaapse fisant ; (Pternistis capensis) were welcome additions. The landscape changed to more hilly country, providing some magnificent views….

From there it was a question of finding the shortest route back to the main road to Mossel Bay, which turned out to be a “gated” road through rolling hills, necessitating the “stop, open gate, drive forward, stop, close gate” procedure repeated four times along the way. Not at all onerous when your travelling through such rugged and handsome countryside with no other vehicles to be seen, it just adds to the “getting away from it all” feeling. I eventually got back to the tar road at the Paardebont turn-off where I turned right onto the road back home.

Gate along a wet road

The day’s excitement wasn’t done yet however – heading down the Mossel Bay side of the Robinson Pass, I stopped at the roadside picnic spot where I had found my first Victorin’s Warbler (Rooiborsruigtesanger ; Cryptillas victorini) a few years ago – as luck would have it I almost immediately heard one in the bush just below the road and soon found it threading its way through the dense undergrowth which is their preferred habitat.

After a couple of frustrating misses with my camera, I surmised which direction it was heading and went up ahead to wait for it to appear. This strategy worked as it briefly emerged from the bush and I rattled off a few shots while it called loudly. Eureka!

Victorin’s Warbler, Robinson Pass
View of Mossel Bay from Robinson Pass (taken on a sunnier day)

Well satisfied, I headed homeward

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 3340_2205

21st Full Protocol card for the pentad ;    Out of Range form received for Karoo Long-billed Lark ; Total species for the pentad now 141 ; my total for the 2 – 3 hours was 31 or 22% of the pentad total

Pentad 3340_2200

12th Full Protocol card for the pentad ;   Total species for the pentad now 111 ; my total for the 2 hours was 23 or 21% of the pentad total

 

Atlasing Tales – East of Delmas

Atlasing?  Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a specific 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), most of my birding includes recording the species I see or hear, for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town. These tales record some of the more memorable experiences while atlasing.

Delmas and surrounds

The Area marked in blue on the map shows where this atlasing took place

delmas-east-11

Delmas is a busy town, known for many years as a centre of large farming operations and now also on the fringe of the coal mining belt that stretches across a large part of the Mpumulanga province and feeds the several large coal-fired power stations in the area. The habitat varies between stretches of prime grassland – lush and long after the good summer rains, large farming operations with tall green mielies (corn) bordering the gravel road for kilometres at a time and, sadly for the environment, areas that have been substantially altered (even devastated) by extensive strip coal-mining activities. The latter is cause for concern as you can’t help wondering if the mine-owners will go to the expense of properly rehabilitating the landscape, once they have stripped out all the available coal. Yes, there are regulations and laws that oblige them to do so, but as with so many things in our beloved country, these laws are often ignored by unscrupulous people who, it is rumoured, buy their way out of their obligations.

The atlasing

The atlasing reminded me once again why atlasing is such a joy (despite my comments about coal-mining) – this outing had all the elements that make atlasing memorable – interesting birding, a handful of “wow” birds seen, pleasant weather conditions, mostly quiet roads and an unexpected surprise sighting.

Pentad 2605_2850

As usual I was on my way before sunrise and made Delmas in good time before traffic had built up too much. At one spot the low mist combined with the soft light of dawn made for a magic scene which I just had to stop and snap with my iPhone.

Early morning, Delmas area
Early morning, Delmas area

Right on 6.30 am I was into pentad 2605_2850 and my list grew apace with all the usual grassland species on view. Orange River Francolin and Swainson’s Spurfowl were particularly vocal, as they often are early morning.

The long grass, stretching as far as the eye could see in places, was dotted with Widowbirds – Long-tailed Widowbirds displaying in their trademark undulating fashion with long tails floating behind them, White-winged Widowbirds fluttering about and Fantailed Widowbirds perched elegantly on longer stalks. Here and there Yellow-crowned Bishops provided a splash of colour in the waving grass.

Long-tailed Widow (Langstertflap) showing why it has that name
Long-tailed Widow (Langstertflap) showing why it has that name
Long-tailed Widow in flight - what a beaut!
Long-tailed Widow in flight – what a beaut!

The road itself was full of action – Doves and Sparrows in abundance and numbers of Red-capped Larks foraging for goodness knows what in the middle of the gravel road (I always wonder why they spend so much time in the road – there can’t be much for them to feed on).

A Marsh Owl over the grassland was cause for the first “wow” of the day, followed shortly after by a Pipit which caught my eye at the roadside – after much deliberation at home and consultation of the wonderful LBJ’s book of Faansie Peacock, I decided it was a Buffy Pipit.

Common (Steppe) Buzzard (Bruinjakkalsvoel)
Common (Steppe) Buzzard (Bruinjakkalsvoel)

A stop at the Wilgespruit (stream) added African Reed Warbler calling vigorously and out of the many Swallows overhead I could ID White-throated and SA Cliff Swallows. A long stretch of mielies followed, the stalks higher than my Prado – so pleasing to the eye and soul, but not particularly good for birding.

Mielies (corn) near Delmas, looking magnificent after good summer rains
Mielies (corn) near Delmas, looking magnificent after good summer rains

Shortly after I was into coal-mining area where a Black-chested Snake-Eagle surveyed the altered landscape with what I imagined was disdain, but a group of a hundred or so Brown-throated Martins didn’t seem to mind as they were foraging actively amongst the spoil heaps.

Black-chested Snake-Eagle (Swartborsslangarend)
Black-chested Snake-Eagle (Swartborsslangarend) – too far for anything but a record photo
Brown-throated Martin (Afrikaanse oewerswael)
Brown-throated Martin (Afrikaanse oewerswael)

With my total on a pleasing 55 species, I turned around and drove back along the same road towards Delmas and the second target pentad for the day.

Pentad 2605_2845

This turned out to be a rather trying pentad, as it largely covered landscape seriously altered by extensive coal-mining activities and I struggled to find an accessible side road to escape from the incessant string of coal trucks rumbling by every time I stopped.

Coal mining area - a depressing sight
Coal mining area – a depressing sight

After 40 minutes of less than happy birding, I abandoned the pentad – nevertheless with 21 species logged, including one “wow” bird in the form of a soaring Booted Eagle, for which I received an ORF (Out of Range form to be completed and submitted whenever a species outside of its normal known range is recorded).

With some time in hand and wanting to make the most of the morning’s atlasing I took the longer way home via the R42 to Bronkhorstspruit.  As I passed the signpost indicating the entrance to Bronkhorstspruit Dam, I decided to explore it and turned off onto a pleasantly quiet stretch of road through grassland. Not far down the road was a bridge over a stream which was just the spot I was hoping for to enjoy some refreshments and view the bird life.

And the birds were plentiful – several Amur Falcons perched on the fence, White-throated Swallows and Brown-throated Martins swooping under and over the bridge, Calling African Reed and Lesser Swamp Warblers, a Giant Kingfisher and a Common Sandpiper bobbing its head on a brick retaining wall while it watched the rushing water below.

Common Sandpiper (Gewone ruiter)
Common Sandpiper (Gewone ruiter)

Bird of the day was a Half-collared Kingfisher which unfortunately did not hang around long enough for me to get a photo. But a very pleasant conclusion to a mixed day of atlasing.

Surprise Sighting

The surprise of the day was not a bird – travelling along a stretch of gravel road, I spotted a mongoose in the middle of the road, not too unusual when birding in the country areas, but as I got closer I realised it was tackling a snake. The metre-long Mole Snake had coiled itself up for protection, while the Slender Mongoose looked for a vulnerable spot to attack.

My approach disturbed it enough to abandon the snake, which uncoiled itself and headed towards my vehicle.

Mole snake approaching my car
Mole snake approaching my car

I reversed out of the way and as luck would have it, at  that moment a car approached from the opposite direction, forcing me to move away to avoid having the snake run over. However the other driver did not appear to see the snake and probably just caught it with a wheel – immediately after the car had passed, the mongoose dashed from its cover, grabbed the injured snake and dragged it into the roadside bush, where it eyed me for a moment before disappearing. A real natural drama on a small scale! Now I believe those stories of Mongoose taking on snakes larger than themselves!

Slender Mongoose vs snake, Delmas area (Swartkwasmuishond)
Slender Mongoose vs snake, Delmas area (Swartkwasmuishond)

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 2605_2850

14th Full Protocol card for the pentad;   3 New species added to the pentad list (Little Egret, Palm Swift, Buffy Pipit) ;   Total species for the pentad now 138;  Personal total for the pentad 82 from 3 FP cards

Pentad 2605_2845

1st Ad hoc card for the pentad (18 FP cards done) ;   1 New species added to the pentad list (Booted Eagle) ;   Total species for the pentad now 145;  Personal total for the pentad 61 from 2 FP cards