While atlasing not far from Pretoria on the 1st of April this year, I was pleasantly surprised to come across this handsome Long-crested Eagle perched on a utility pole at the roadside. It is always challenging to photograph a raptor perched high up as this one was, with a light background – far better to have them perched closer to eye level, but that would be too much to hope for.
In this case I was on a fairly busy regional road when I saw the eagle from a distance and slowed down as much as the traffic would allow, then pulled off onto the verge at a spot almost opposite where the eagle was perched and where the grass was not so long that it could be concealing puncture-producing sharp objects – just another of the hazards faced by atlasers.
Not wanting to spook the eagle by getting out of my car, I carefully lowered the driver’s window and prepared my camera for a few shots – I learnt a long time ago that one of the most important settings when photographing birds in the field is the exposure compensation.
Both the bird’s colouring and the amount of backlight need to be taken into consideration and, without getting too technical, I set the exposure at 1 full stop over-exposure to take into account the dark colouring of the eagle and the fairly bright background of blue sky.
I took a few shots then turned the car around and stopped on the same side as where the eagle was perched and very carefully got out, remaining partially concealed by the car. This worked and I was able to get closer shots but as soon as I moved from behind the car the eagle flew off, only to perch on the next pole.
This next image may look like a “dud” because the eye is not sharp and bright, but in fact it shows the “third eyelid” that many birds and especially raptors have – called a nictitating membrane. Unlike regular eyelids, it opens and closes horizontally across the eye and protects the eye when catching prey at speed and other hazards. It also helps keep the eye clean and moist – important when you are relying almost solely on your sharp vision for survival
I also took a couple of video clips including this one which shows the eagle seemingly watching a passing car go by – there is just something about large raptors that make them a favourite photographic subject – those eyes, that presence never fail to produce a dramatic image.
A fairly common resident of Southern Africa, the Long-crested Eagle is a personal favourite and we have stopped many times to view one at roadside, particularly in areas where pine and other plantations are the dominant habitat.
When perched it is unmistakeable with its long crest and dark colouring. In flight it is a tad more difficult but the large white wing patches and barred tail separate it from all other large raptors, although looking up at a bright sky and trying to see those sort of details is never easy.
Where to find it
The Long-crested Eagle has a scattered distribution across the eastern parts of southern Africa with concentrations along the escarpment of Limpopo Province and Mpumalanga and the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. They occur as far south as the Garden Route area of the southern Cape coast
My first sighting was in 1994 on a farm near Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal.
One of the benefits of reaching that age where they automatically give you a pensioner’s discount at the supermarket check-out without asking for an ID, is having the time – and the good sense – to turn a potentially mundane trip into a mini-holiday.
And this is exactly what we did when travelling between our Mossel Bay and Pretoria homes during March this year – instead of rushing to complete the 1250 kms road journey in 2 days with one overnight stop, we decided to stretch it out with a two night stay in Prince Albert, Western Cape and a further night in Springfontein, Free State, turning it into a four day, three night adventure.
Day 1 Thursday
After spending most of the morning packing, loading and preparing our Mossel Bay home for a lengthy hibernation, we left around lunchtime and set off on the familiar route to Prince Albert via the scenic Robinson Pass then through the town of Oudtshoorn and the winding road that takes you through the spectacular Meiringspoort. No matter how many times we drive this route, I still end up driving through Meiringspoort with my jaw in a dropped position – it is that special.
But this time there was a twist – just beyond the last of the 25 river crossings (it’s the same river each time) we encountered the first of many swarms of locusts that filled the air and pinged and ‘thunked’ against the grille, windscreen and roof of our SUV as we drove. The arid parts of South Africa have been plagued by swarms of biblical proportions through the summer, due to good rains after years of drought conditions.
This video was taken after stopping at the roadside and gives an idea of the numbers of locusts – a tiny fraction of what we drove through for tens of kilometres
Once we reached our destination I spent half an hour carefully prising locust bodies from every nook and cranny of our car, at the same time providing a veritable feast for an army of ants that descended on them as they dropped to the ground.
Our usual B&B in Prince Albert was fully booked so we had booked into one we had not tried before – De Bergkant Lodge – which turned out to be an excellent choice – lovely spacious room, good breakfast, efficient management and a super 15m pool which I immediately tried out as the temperature was hovering in the low 30’s (deg C)
After the swim and relaxing a while we had dinner at the Rude Chef (No – he/she wasn’t) restaurant. Prince Albert has always had an amazing selection of quality restaurants for a small Karoo town, but like so many other places Covid has had a devastating effect on the tourist industry which is only now recovering. So the choice of eating places has reduced but the quality is still there.
Day 2 Friday
After breakfast at the pool we set off late morning to visit the Weltevrede Fig Farm about 30 kms outside Prince Albert, along a gravel road that made its way through the mountains in spectacular fashion providing beautiful views over every rise.
Weltevrede appeared at the end of the road, like an oasis in the arid countryside, the fig trees spreading up and down the valley in a broad green ribbon.
We had a look around then settled at a table under a tree and lingered over a light lunch and coffee, just enjoying the ambience while farm workers carried out tray after tray of prepared figs and set them out to dry in the pure Karoo sunshine, where the air is dry and devoid of any pollutants.
We took our time travelling back to Prince Albert and relaxed for a while before I set out to add some species to the pentad list that I had begun the previous afternoon with mostly the species visiting the garden. Heading out of town in a northerly direction I soon found Pririt Batis, Namaqua Dove, Pied Barbet and White-necked Raven and a swing past the small Waste water treatment works added SA Shelduck to take my pentad list to a modest 30.
After another invigorating swim we walked across the road to La-di-dah restaurant for a meal – our first choice was grilled Karoo lamb chops but disappointingly they had just sold the last ones and we had to revert to other meat dishes.
Day 3 Saturday
A longish drive lay ahead so we left after breakfast and made good time via Prince Albert Road where we joined the N1 National road to Beaufort West, Richmond and Colesberg, with comfort and coffee stops at Three Sisters, Karoo Padstal and Chargo Farm Stall at Colesberg.
As we left Prince Albert a Booted Eagle flew over the road ahead and I quickly added this welcome raptor to my pentad list.
We reached our overnight stop – Prior Grange farm near Springfontein – just after 5 pm and settled in to the Garden Cottage.
It was time for my birding/relaxing walk to stretch my legs and with not much daylight left I headed straight to the dam behind the farm house and found it fuller than I had ever seen it, in complete contrast to our last visit before Covid when it had held a fraction of the water it now had.
The dam had a single Grey Heron and small numbers of Red-knobbed Coots, Moorhens, Cape Shovelers, Yellow-billed Ducks, Red-billed Teals, Little Grebes and SA Shelducks, while the reeds were busy with Bishops and Weavers and a single African Reed Warbler which had me puzzled for a while as it was making an unusual sound (for me, probably not for him)
Heading back to the cottage I added Karoo Thrush, Pied Starling and Fiscal Flycatcher before dusk fell, taking my pentad list to 32 after an hour’s atlasing, leaving the next morning to complete the two hour minimum atlasing to count as a “Full Protocol” card. Dinner, served in the cottage, was roast lamb and veg – what else on a Karoo farm?
Day 4 Sunday
I was up early to complete the pentad card with a walk around the garden and along the road, adding Cloud Cisticola, Lesser Kestrel (on the same pole as I had seen it a few years ago), Cape Glossy Starling and Anteating Chat.
The grassland next to the road was waterlogged in places after substantial summer rains
On the road out after a full English breakfast I added a few more including a Black-headed Heron at a mini wetland in the town, taking the pentad total to 44 and raising my personal tally for the pentad to 98 species after completing 6 cards since 2014.
All that remained was a drive of around 550 kms to our home in Pretoria – we arrived just after 4 pm, glad to be ‘home’ (Pretoria version)
Continuing the story of our trip to Bronkhorstspruit Dam Nature Reserve not far from Pretoria, where we were fortunate to find the rare vagrant Baird’s Sandpiper with relative ease ….
After locating the Baird’s Sandpiper and spending some time admiring this tiny adventurer all the way from the Arctic, we spent the next couple of hours driving slowly as close to the dam shoreline as we could, scanning every metre of it as we went.
This paid off with several more good sightings of waders and other birds, many of them the same species as I had recorded during an atlasing trip a few weeks prior, but with some exciting new additions –
Starting with an uncommon species which we found in the short grass which covers most of the open ground between the track and the shoreline of the dam …..
Western Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava (Geelkwikkie)
The Yellow Wagtail is not a wader as such, but it favours similar habitat to some of the waders, particularly fringes of dams with short grass. It is not unusual to find the far more common Cape Wagtails pottering about in their perky fashion among small waders, but during the summer months it pays to check out all the wagtails as they could include this uncommon non-breeding migrant, which arrives in small numbers from its breeding grounds in eastern Europe and western Asia
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia (Groenpootruiter)
We also came across this fairly common wader which can be found right across southern Africa at inland and coastal waters, but seldom in numbers, often alone – we saw just the one during our couple of hours of careful scanning
Generally one of the easier waders to identify and get to know, even at a distance, due to its long-legged appearance, relatively large size and slightly upturned bill
The Greenshank is one of the longer-staying Palaearctic migrants, arriving from its “home” in European Russia and eastwards from as early as August and departing again between February and April
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos (Gewone ruiter)
Another wader that belies its name by not being particularly common, this was one of just a couple that we came across
Once you are “into” the intricacies of identifying waders, the Common Sandpiper soon becomes familiar, with its standout features being its uniform brown upper colouring contrasting with a clear white underside. The white gap between shoulder and breast band (not clearly visible in my photo) is often a clincher
It prefers firmer surfaces than other waders and can often be found alongside wagtails on rocks, firm sand and gravel rather than wading in the water itself
It is also a long-staying migrant from its “home” which stretches from Europe to Japan, arriving in southern Africa from August and departing from January to April
Arguably one of the better known larks, which otherwise get a lot of bad press by being called “little brown jobs” or LBJ’s by those new to birding, this one is hard to confuse with any other lark species due to its distinctive rufous crown and breast side patches
Their preferred habitats include bare ground and edges of wetlands so it wasn’t too much of a surprise to find one not far from the dam edge, nevertheless we were most pleased to find this individual with a tiny morsel in its beak.
We immediately guessed that the morsel was intended for a juvenile being fed by the adult, and looked around – nearby was a well-camouflaged, inconspicuous bird with no matching features but there was no doubt of its lineage as we watched the adult feeding the morsel to it then rushing off to find more. Lovely to watch and a unique sighting!
Now, sharp readers will quickly realise that terns are not waders – but I have other reasons for including these images …..
Firstly, terns commonly roost at water’s edge in between sorties over the dam close to the shoreline, floating in the wind, looking for prey and dipping down to grab it.
As we drove slowly along the shoreline at one point, I noticed a flock of about a dozen Whiskered Terns flying low in their usual fashion, heads down, floating in the light wind, looking for prey and dipping down to grab something then joining the flock again.
What was different was that they were flying above solid ground rather than the water, something I have not seen before – clearly there were enough small insects in the short grass or flying about just above it to persuade the terns to hunt away from their usual habitat.
They presented a beautiful sight as they flew towards our vehicle, veering away at the last moment, flying away for a distance, then turning back to repeat the circuit. They are such elegant birds in flight …..
A couple of weeks ago I posted about a selection of Waders (Shorebirds) and other water birds that I had encountered during an atlasing trip to Bronkhorstspruit Dam Nature Reserve not far from Pretoria.
Well, I wasn’t expecting to visit this nature reserve so soon again, but an alert received this past Saturday from SA Rare Bird News run by Trevor Hardaker (the second item in his alert below) had me reconsidering fairly quickly – a Baird’s Sandpiper would be a lifer for me and, having been spotted just 45 minutes drive from my home in Pretoria, it was an irresistible twitch.
I was not keen to join what I expected to be a twitcher scramble on the Sunday so I waited for Monday morning, when I picked up Koos Pauw at 6.30 am and we headed east along the N4 highway, then took the R25 and R42 turnoffs to take us to the nature reserve access road.
The many twitchers making their way to the dam the previous day combined with heavy overnight rain had turned the gravel access road and the nature reserve tracks into a muddy jumble in places – no problem for my Prado but we felt for the hardy twitchers in small sedans who we saw later in the reserve – no one got stuck while we were there but the road was worse on our way out, so those drivers would have had to use all their skills to get out without a problem.
We couldn’t help chuckling when we saw two Yellow-billed Ducks swimming in one of the larger puddles in the bumpy nature reserve track – how opportunistic, but it left us wondering why they chose a muddy puddle instead of the vast expanse of dam just 50 metres away.
From previous experience of twitches at popular, accessible birding spots such as this, I knew the best way of finding the target rare bird after an alert is to drive to the area where you expect to find it, then look for parked cars – this was my strategy and it worked, but only just!
As we approached the approximate position along the dam edge given in the alert, a vehicle was heading towards us – we stopped to chat and the friendly driver offered to show us “the Baird’s” as they had just come from its location, with no one else around at the time. We accepted with alacrity and a couple of minutes later we were at the right spot and watching the Baird’s Sandpiper ourselves – success! (cue the Beatles “With a little help from my friends”)
We had nevertheless armed ourselves with some knowledge of the species and its main identifying features, in case we were faced with finding and identifying it ourselves – but our newfound friend quickly informed us that we only had to look out for the ‘small wader with a limp’ as it seems it had injured its leg, so the task of picking it out among the other small waders was very simple. The video clip below shows just how pronounced its limp was
The Baird’s Sandpiper falls into the wader family known as the Calidrids, breeding at Arctic latitudes of Alaska and Canada and usually migrating to South America during the austral summer.
Occasionally, as with this one in all probability, a single bird is blown off course by adverse weather conditions, or its ingrained directional instinct goes slightly awry and they end up in southern Africa instead. Not without an almost unfathomable effort of course, for its journey would have taken it across the Atlantic Ocean at some stage.
Less than 20 records exist of sightings of this species in the southern African region, since 1984 – prior to that there is just one record from 1863! So its status is rightly given as a very rare vagrant
Waders without clear features which set them obviously apart from other similar sized waders can present a real challenge to birders and the Baird’s Sandpiper falls into that category. If it hadn’t had the distinct limp we would have had to resort to looking for the features given in the illustration below from the Roberts app
So that’s how I added the latest lifer to my Southern African list – simple really …….
As with my previous visit we spent the next couple of hours driving slowly as close to the dam shoreline as we could, scanning every metre of it as we went. This paid off with several more good sightings of waders and other birds, many of them the same species as I had recorded before, but with some exciting new additions – more about these in a follow up post
Finally, just a mention of the two outstanding sources that I have used for the information in this post :
Firstly, Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa – the go-to guide for detailed information on all of Southern Africa’s birds
Secondly, the more focused Chamberlain’s Waders – The Definitive Guide to Southern Africa’s Shorebirds by Faansie Peacock (No, that’s not a made up name!)
My atlasing trip last week included time spent in Bronkhorstspruit Nature Reserve, which lies on the southern side of the dam of the same name and is an easy 40 minutes drive east of Pretoria
Before reaching the reserve entrance, I had spent time recording species in the habitats that I was not expecting to find inside the reserve and had a pleasing list of 30 species by the time I reached the entrance, a number of which I had found at a bridge crossing the Bronkhorst Spruit on a quiet side road.
On entering the reserve I passed a few herds of antelope enjoying the long grassveld habitat of the dam surrounds before heading to the dam’s shoreline, which I knew from previous visits was ideal habitat for waders – or shorebirds as some prefer to call them.
Waders are notoriously challenging to identify in the early stages of birding, but time is on your side in this wonderful hobby/pastime, which usually becomes the dominant one for the rest of your life once you’ve got into it. As you progress and have more opportunities to watch waders in action, you learn to look for certain features and identification becomes easier, making you wonder why you battled so much in the beginning.
Here are the waders and a few other birds that I came across as I drove slowly as close to the shoreline of the dam as I could – I had to divert here and there to avoid disturbing the fishermen who also enjoy this environment ….
Ruff Philomachus pugnax (Kemphaan)
Ruffs fall into the wader family known as the Calidrids, breeding at Arctic latitudes and migrating to southern Africa during the austral summer. There would be no difficulty identifying Ruffs during the breeding season, as they take on a spectacular breeding plumage, but we see them in southern Africa in their drab non-breeding state, looking like many of the other waders. One of the most numerous summer waders
What to look for :
Size medium (M : 29-32cm F 22-26 cm)
Medium length bill, slightly drooping
Longish, usually orange legs
Scaled appearance on back
White feathers at bill base
Sanderling Calidris alba (Drietoonstrandloper)
Sanderlings also belong to the Calidrids family, breeding in, and migrating from, Siberia and Greenland to southern Africa, where they arrive from September. Inland records are quite scarce as most head to coastal beaches, but Bronkhorstspruit Dam has seen some records of this species on an intermittent basis. This was the only one I saw during my visit and is only the 4th record for the pentad, out of 170 cards
What to look for :
Size : Small (18-21 cm)
Distinctive light colouring separates the Sanderling from most other waders
Short, stout bill
Dark shoulder patch (hidden by white feathers in my photo)
Common Ringed Plover Charadriushiaticula (Ringnekstrandkiewiet)
The first of the “Small Plovers”, this palaearctic migrant flies up to an amazing 18,000 kms from its breeding grounds to southern Africa
What to look for :
Size : Small (17-19 cm)
Relatively easy to identify with its broad black breast band contrasting with the white collar
The second of the “Small Plovers”, this is a common freshwater wader in southern Africa, where it also breeds
What to look for :
Size : Small (17-18 cm)
Distinctive with its double breast band and red eye-ring
Bobs up and down in animated fashion
Little Stint Calidris minuta (Kleinstrandloper)
This smallest of waders always makes me think of an old gent in a faded brown overcoat – they habitually walk about with head bowed which, along with their small size, makes them easy to pick out among a group of waders. The Little Stint is a Palaearctic migrant. those arriving in South Africa from September are thought to breed in northern Europe
What to Look for :
Size : Very Small (12-14 cm)
Short, fine-tipped dark bill
Bowed posture while wading
Some of the other birds occupying the shallow wading areas and margins of the dam that I came across –
This fairly common inland Gull had been attracted to the shallows by a dead fish on which it was scavenging.
One of the easiest Gulls to identify inland as it is usually the only one. At the coast one has to be a bit more judicious in arriving at an ID – the Hartlaub’s Gull is of similar size and general appearance so a more detailed look will show the differences
Juveniles are there for the sole purpose of confusing birders, or so it seems – they often look so different that it’s easy to imagine it may be a completely different species
A small flock of Whiskered Terns were resting at the dam’s edge – any terns seen inland are likely to be one of two species – this one and the White-winged Tern. They can be difficult to distinguish in flight, but resting like this it is a fairly easy ID
This one decided to stretch its wings then flew off, showing off the beauty of the feathers that make up the wings and tail
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia (Reusesterretjie)
My favourite Tern was nearby, on its own – the Caspian Tern is the largest tern (at 51 cm) in the region and is a breeding resident. Apart from its size, the standout feature is its large red dagger-like bill.
And these two waterbirds make it onto this post simply by sticking close to the shoreline, allowing me to get reasonable images as I studied the waders
Cape Shoveler Anas smithii (Kaapse slopeend)
Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata (Geelbekeend)
To end off – a mystery wader at water’s edge – extremely large and well feathered – definitely not a Stint……
A couple of my recent longer posts have highlighted what I like to call “Stoepsitter birding” – which is the relaxed kind conducted mostly from a comfortable seat, preferably accompanied by suitable snacks and beverages to make sure the energy and spirit remains at a high level. Both were in favourite locations, one in Satara Camp in Kruger National Park, the other at Verlorenkloof Resort not far from Macahadodorp in Mpumulanga Province.
Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape has the honour of completing a trio of outstanding locations and places where Stoepsitter birding comes into its own.
The criteria are simple – suitable habitat to attract a variety of birdlife, a comfortable spot from which to observe the comings and goings of the birdlife, without disturbing them too much and the time and patience to devote yourself to this activity. It also helps if the birdlife and small wildlife is habituated to humans and happy to share their world with us, which for the most part is certainly the case in Addo.
Addo Elephant National Park
Our road trip in March this year included a three night stay in Addo, in a comfortable chalet with a view over a part of the Main Camp and a raised deck where we could spend a large part of the day (depicted in the heading image), while reserving the afternoons to venture out on game/birding drives.
The variety of birdlife that came to visit was exceptional, many of them drawn by the surrounding trees and shrubs which held a cornucopia of edible avian delights – nectar filled flowers, berries, small insects and suchlike.
Weavers were the most prominent and numerous birds that visited, represented by no less than three different species, all belonging to the Ploceus genus. Weavers can be difficult to ID in their winter non-breeding plumage, but there are still enough clues to narrow the identification down when faced with similar looking yellow birds.
Village Weaver (Bontrugwewer / Ploceus cucullatus)
The Village Weavers outnumbered the other two weaver species and were frequent visitors to the flowering trees right in front of our chalet. My limited botanical knowledge would make this a type of Coral Tree (Erythrina genus) with its bright scarlet flowers but I’m open to correction….. which I have received (see comments below) and I now know this is in fact a Weeping boer-bean (Schotia brachypetala / Huilboerboon) so called, apparently, due to the copious amounts of nectar during flowering which overflow and ‘weep’
In breeding plumage the Village Weaver is fairly easy to distinguish from other masked Weavers, but this male was in eclipse plumage, the “in-between” stage when they are in the process of transitioning to their duller non-breeding plumage. The red eye and spotted-backed appearance confirmed the ID
Cape Weaver (Kaapse wewer / Ploceus capensis)
In non-breeding plumage the Cape Weaver male is still fairly easy to identify with its white eye colour and heavy bill, although lacking the chestnut brown wash over the face and neck which it shows during the summer breeding months. This is also the largest of the yellow weavers, by length and mass, but size is not always a dependable way to ID a bird unless the other candidate is sitting right next to it.
The female is less distinctive with brown eyes but the heavy bill helps to separate it from other non-breeding female weavers.
Spectacled Weaver (Brilwewer / Ploceus ocularis)
The Spectacled Weavers are easily distinguishable with their black ‘spectacles’ and black bill, while the black bib says this is a male.
Two species of Sunbird were drawn to the nectar produced by the flowering trees, very different in appearance but equally striking as they went about the business of extracting the nectar with long down-curved bills and even longer tongues to probe the flowers.
There were several other species that visited the chalet surrounds, not all of which chose to pose for a photo, but those that did seemed quite happy to be ‘in the picture’. Here are the species that spend most time in the trees and shrubs –
This member of the Canary family (The Afrikaans name confirms it) is a great singer and fond of sitting in an exposed position, so is hard to miss, but can be confused with the similar looking White-throated Canary
I haven’t posted about my bird atlasing travels for a while so now I’m …..
Catching up on the monthly look at where Atlasing took me in September 2020 ….. in this case to the farm of Pieter and Anlia, part of Gerda’s wide family and one of our favourite places to visit and enjoy traditional farm hospitality –
Onverwacht Farm – 26 to 30 September 2020
We had been back in Gauteng for three weeks after an extended stay in Mossel Bay and with lockdown eased to Level 1 our thoughts, as they are wont to do, turned to travel. With a long weekend coming up, it was the ideal time to pay a visit to Pieter and Anlia on Onverwacht Farm, not far from Vryheid in central Kwazulu-Natal.
We had done most of the preparatory packing the day before, so were up at a reasonable hour and left mid-morning, travelling via Witbank, Hendrina, Ermelo and Piet Retief with tea and lunch breaks taken at the roadside, our ‘new normal’ way of doing longish road trips.
The drive was made somewhat taxing by the combination of many slow, large lorries encountered, the poor condition of the roads once we turned off the N4 and the depressing state of some of the towns along the way. However, our spirits were lifted when we reached the farm, saw the braai fire being prepared and the friendly greetings of the family.
I was not expecting to atlas outside the pentad in which the farm lies, but thanks to Pieter there was an opportunity to visit an adjoining pentad on a “Crane Safari” which turned into an exciting atlasing trip of its own. More about that in a follow-up post….
My atlasing on the farm was spread over the four days of our stay, but was limited to short bouts of birding in between all of the other activities.
Saturday, late afternoon
On arrival and after settling in, I got the pentad list going with the birds on and around the dam, which lies a couple of hundred metres down the gentle slope in front of the house – all the usual suspects such as Cattle Egret, Egyptian Goose, Yellow-billed Duck, Coots and White-breasted Cormorant.
Pieter pointed out a couple of large birds on a distant grassy slope and with my binos I could verify their ID – Grey Crowned Crane – a quite magnificent and stunning bird that I never tire of seeing and one of the specials of the area.
The warm weather was rapidly dissipating in the face of a cold front that had arrived, so the braai fire was a warming spot to spend the last of the day, still on the lookout for new species. A chorus of cackling calls announced the presence of Green Woodhoopoes (Not recorded in the pentad before) in the tall pine trees next to the house and we soon saw them in the fading light, moving among the branches in a loose group of 6 or more.
Pleased with this new species for the pentad, I then heard the whoo – hooo of a Spotted Eagle-Owl (33%) and down at the dam a group of 3 Wattled Lapwings (22%) flew in and settled near the water in the fading light
The day was cold – even more so than the forecast 10 deg C due to the icy wind, so my birding was limited to a couple of short sorties into the large garden and surrounding farmstead, the wind chasing me back to the warmth of the house after 15 to 20 minutes.
Highlights were Southern Bald Ibis at the dam edge, Black Sawwings (44%) swooping by in their shiny black plumage with long forked tail streaming behind, Bronze Mannikins and Pied Starlings perched in trees and on poles.
By day’s end my pentad total was a modest 31 without having ventured beyond the garden and surrounds.
Monday was devoted to the “Crane Safari” in an adjoining pentad, which I will cover in a separate post as it was such a special birding experience, but in the evening I heard the unmistakable, eerie call of a Barn Owl somewhere near the house.
And the surprises kept coming! Despite all sorts of challenges that Pieter had to attend to – stolen fencing and a broken torsion bar on the bakkie (utility vehicle) which left it standing at a crazy angle – Pieter still had time to arrange for son Janneman to take me to a nearby kloof on the farm, where he had seen signs of Bald Ibis breeding.
After another farm breakfast (my favourite ‘krummelpap’ again – a sort of crumbed porridge unique to SA) Jan and I set off on a birding tour of the farm, with our first stop some way up the lower slopes of the mountain escarpment that looms over the farm. There we clambered through a fence, then walked along a sloping ridge to a point where we could get a view of the krans (cliff face).
It didn’t take long to spot a Bald Ibis on a nest set back in the horizontal split in the rock face. A small waterfall trickled water down the face and Kiepersols, Aloes and other natural growth completed the handsome picture.
Nearby a Sombre Greenbul called and an African Olive Pigeon (not recorded in the pentad before) showed itself among the green tops of the trees. However the show of the day belonged to Bald Ibises and White-necked Ravens (also a new record for the pentad) chasing each other aerially, the Ravens seeming to harass the Ibises for unknown reasons until they retreated to the depths of the rock crevices.
The rest of the farm tour provided several other sightings of Rufous-naped Lark (33%), Buff-streaked Chat (55%), Yellow-fronted Canary and a pleasing Giant Kingfisher (22%) to round off my atlasing efforts for the visit.
My total species recorded in the pentad during the visit stood at 46 with 4 new species added to the pentad list and my total species after 6 cards completed over several years was now 132
Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%
Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in September 2020 – in this case using an overnight stop to make the most of the birding on offer…
Heading home – at last!
After more than 5 months in Mossel Bay – a lot longer than our initial plan of 3 to 4 weeks – we decided to return to our other “home” in Pretoria. Mossel Bay’s charm and many advantages had worked their way into our minds and it was with some reluctance that we headed northwards, but Covid-19 had kept us away from our main home for too long and we knew it was time to get back.
We set off on a Friday, fully loaded, around 9 am and travelled the familiar route via George, Graaf-Reinet and Colesberg to our overnight accommodation at Lushof Lodge, some 50 km beyond Colesberg. Along the way we enjoyed take-away coffee and a picnic lunch – all part of the “new normal” way of doing things.
Lushof Lodge, which we last visited in January 2011, was as we remembered – set on a farm with a stream running through, lined with verdant growth. The accommodation was a comfortable cottage which we had all to ourselves, set on a hill overlooking an expanse of fields and veld and we were well looked after by Lise, the bright and friendly hostess and her staff.
Lushof Lodge (Pentad 3025_2530)
By the time we had settled in and acquainted ourselves with the cottage, it was 5.30 pm and there was just enough time for a birding walk down to the stream, which forms a small dam on one side of the entrance road and a wetland covered in reeds on the other.
The dam was good for Common Moorhen while the wetland held a few African Reed Warblers, with Red Bishops occupying the reeds and a Kurrichane Thrush exploring the edges. The tall trees alongside were home to a Cardinal Woodpecker, which first revealed its presence with a soft tok-tok-tok as he poked at the branches in search of some protein.
Returning up the short hill to the cottage I scanned the slopes of the hill above it and soon saw Speckled Mousebirds moving in straggling fashion from tree to bush, then heard a Grey-backed Cisticola and quickly picked it up as it flitted from one low bush to another. For good measure a Blue Crane called but I could not track it down in the gathering dusk.
That seemed to be it for the day and a bit later we settled down to a hearty Karoo lamb meal, brought to the cottage by Lise and her daughter. But there was one more surprise later on – when I peered outside briefly just before going to bed, a Rock Martin roosting under the roof overhang stared back at me and became species 20 on my pentad list .
Saturday Morning 5 September
An early night meant I could get a good night’s rest and still be up at 6 am to have a coffee in the crisp morning air outside our cottage, while adding to the previous afternoon’s list.
I was able to add another 9 species before heading off on a lengthy walk around the farm, including Cape Bunting, Yellow Canary, a calling Brubru (also widely known as the “telephone bird” because of its trilling, repeated call) and a Familiar Chat doing its ‘familiar’ sequence of perch, fly down to the ground, catch something small and return to the perch with a couple of wing flicks straight after landing.
Venturing away from the farmstead, I followed a track along the stream and heard two very different birds – first a Lesser Swamp Warbler hidden somewhere in the dense riverine vegetation, then a Blue Korhaan greeting the new day from somewhere up ahead. From the latter call I guessed the habitat must open up further on to be suitable for the latter species – indeed it did a couple of hundred metres further, affording an expansive view across fields and plains, but there was no sign of the Korhaan, which had probably moved on or concealed itself in the grass (which they are masters at doing)
I headed back to spend some time in the lush area close to the farmhouse, with the river and wetland as focus points. Common Starlings and a Cape Wagtail caught my attention and then a flash of colour signaled the arrival of a Malachite Kingfisherin an overhanging tree, ready to spot and dive for a small fish, frog, crab or insect.
Before returning for breakfast, which we had arranged to be brought to the cottage at 8 am, I had a look around the area beyond the stream and soon added Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler) and White-throated Canary. I tried to capture the latter species on camera as I knew it was a different sub-species (orangensis) from those I am used to seeing in the Southern Cape. I had limited success getting a clear photo, but they were better than nothing.
By the way if you think it’s a bit extreme not being satisfied with photographing bird species but trying to photograph all the subspecies as well, I confess I have had this “collectors” affliction since a young age and it seems to be getting worse….
After a substantial breakfast (to see us through the last day’s driving, you know) it was time to pack the car one last time, while still keeping an eye out for any birds to add. Fortunately so, as a Booted Eagle and a pair of SA Shelducks flew overhead within minutes of each other.
On the road out we picked up Namaqua Dove and White-backed Mousebird, the dam near the highway held Blacksmith Lapwing and the adjoining grass boasted an Eastern Clapper Lark, giving us its version of goodbye as it performed its display flight in the air.
We left with a total of 48 species recorded which, considering the time of year, is a good indication of the quality of Lushof Lodge as a birding spot.
Of special note – this was only the third full protocol card completed for this pentad in 10 years, the previous two having been done by myself and Koos Pauw in 2010/11. A very under-atlased pentad!
Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in August 2020 ….. in this case to two pentads in the Ruiterbos area north of Mossel Bay, which turned out to be as contrasting as two pentads adjoining each other can be
Ruiterbos Area – 25 August
Still using my earlier analysis of pentads in the southern Cape which had not yet been atlased in 2020, I noticed that the Ruiterbos area had one pentad not atlased since 2018 and with very low species totals recorded, which piqued my interest – nothing like a challenging pentad to make things interesting! Low totals, I have found, are usually due to limited diversity of habitat (all birds are particular to a specific habitat) or limited means of access to parts of the pentad, preventing the atlaser from getting to all the habitats. In some instances both of the above can apply, which results in really low totals.
I decided to target the challenging pentad as well as the one directly south of it, which seemed to hold more promise. Both are within about 45 minutes of home – the maps below show the location of the former…
With sunrise gradually coming earlier each day in late August, just a week away from Spring day, I set the alarm a bit earlier and left home at 6.15 am. I followed the R328 regional road to Oudtshoorn, passing Brandwag village and turned left at Ruiterbos Farm stall then travelled a couple of Kms along this quiet road before reaching the start of the first pentad at around 7 am.
Birding got off to a brisk start with calls of several species welcoming the new day – a cool, fresh morning with little cloud. Blue Crane, Bokmakierie, Cape Grassbird, Grey-backed Cisticola, Red-necked (Cape Turtle) Dove, even Hadada Ibis all joined the chorus.
Not much further along the gravel road I stopped at two adjacent fields which showed how differences in usage of farming land can have a noticeable impact on the species to be found. The first was covered in lush green lucerne and was seemingly reserved for the “big boys” – Egyptian and Spur-winged Goose and Blue Cranes were prominent. The adjacent field had short patchy grass with a scattering of stones and cowpats – clearly used for grazing of cattle and the realm of the smaller guys – Lapwings (Crowned), Larks (Red-capped) and Pipits (Plain-backed).
Descending into a valley, I passed a fruit farm which had entire fields draped in protective shade cloth, mostly to keep insects out I would guess, but equally proficient at keeping birds away, creating a very sterile environment.
I did not dawdle and proceeded out of the valley into the hills beyond – what a contrast – suddenly the hills were alive with bird sounds, which were music to my ears (why do I feel a song coming on?). The next twenty minutes were bountiful, with 3 species of Sunbird (Southern Double-collared, Orange-breasted and Malachite), Cape Buntings and Cape Canaries twittering away, Stonechat and an African Olive Pigeon (New record).
Klaas’s Cuckoo (new record) announced its presence with its well-known “Meitjie” call and I wondered if it was an early arrival or perhaps one of those that had overwintered in the area, as they are known to do. A Cape Batis became my first record of this species for the year.
After an hour and a half in the pentad, I had logged 34 species – a good start, and being close to the second “challenging” pentad, I decided to tackle it while birds were still active and come back to the first pentad a bit later. This would hopefully maximise my chances of getting a reasonable total in the second pentad which, from the stats, was going to produce a low bird-count card, for reasons as yet unknown.
I returned later in the morning to complete a second “shift” in this pentad, carrying on where I had stopped before. I was now out of the prime birding area, into flatter countryside with less bush, but was still able to add regularly to my atlas card with the likes of Rock Kestrel, Victorin’s Warbler and African Black Swift (New record).
I managed to get a reasonable photo of the Rock kestrel – I had seen it returning with a small prey to its perch on top of a utility pole and guessed it would be pre-occupied while devouring it, which would allow a closer approach than usual. I was right and it only flew off again when the prey was ripped apart and swallowed.
Along the last stretch before exiting the pentad,another photo opportunity arose – this time an Olive Bushshrike (New record). I heard it calling from a particularly bushy area alongside the road and once I thought I had found the spot where it was concealed (which they are very good at doing) I tried some “pishing” which is a useful way of getting some species to pop out momentarily.
The Bushshrike obliged for just a few seconds, curious as to what was making this sound which birds associate with danger and I was able to snatch a few images – my best of this species to date!
The pentad had produced 50 species in all, and some very special ones at that.
This was the pentad that had me wondering about the low totals logged by others. I soon found out why – apart from the first km or so which runs through open hills, the rest of the only access road ran through a commercial pine plantation, habitat which is notoriously sterile when it comes to bird life. The open stretch held Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia, Red-necked Spurfowl and African Pipit.
Entering the plantation, birding – and indeed life itself – seemed to slow down…
It was nevertheless a most pleasant environment to be in, despite being less than attractive for most bird species – exceptions were Black-headed Orioles, Cape Canaries, Cape Bulbul, and Cape White-eye, all of which I found easily and repeatedly, mostly at the fringes of the plantations.
At one stop, Greater Double-collared Sunbirds were curious bystanders but most stops were met with dead silence and no discernable movement, so each species added was quite precious as I slowly built on the list.
After two hours birding in the invigorating pine-scented air, I found I had reached 20 species, amazingly the second best total for the pentad out of 15 cards completed to date! I later found that I had added 3 new species to the pentad records, being Hadada Ibis (!), Speckled Pigeon and Black Sawwing.
Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%
Verlorenkloof is our favourite destination for a get away from it all week in October each year, usually green from early summer rains and buzzing with bird life across all of the various habitats, from the river along the one boundary through wetlands and open grasslands to the forested kloofs of the surrounding mountains.
It’s all about relaxation while enjoying the beauty and superb birding of this secluded valley – so join us as we explore the estate and the surrounds, ever on the lookout for the special birds of the area.
Day 6 – Tuesday
After two days of very little birding, today was to be a serious birding day again and Verlorenkloof and the surrounds certainly delivered!
Koos had met a farmer on the opposite side of the valley, on one of his excursions, and had been invited by him to explore the trail that runs through the undeveloped part of his farm, up and along the foothills of the mountainside on the opposite side of the valley to the Verlorenkloof estate.
Up after 5 am, we set off soon after 6 am, heading slowly through the estate to the river, then on to the gravel “back road”.
On the way the birding was very productive, as it often is in the early morning, and combined with the birds I had recorded at the croft while enjoying coffee and rusks, I had already built up a list of 42 birds by the time we got to the gate a couple of kms further, still only 7.15 am. Most were the regular Verlorenkloof species but I was pleased to add Giant Kingfisher, Greater Double-collared Sunbird and Rufous-naped Lark which are not always guaranteed to be seen.
Koos stopped at the gate and we proceeded on foot along the track, that initially disappeared among the trees then emerged at the bottom of the first long slope.
The landscape around us had an other-worldly feel to it – hundreds of tall aloes standing like alien creatures on the lightly grassed slopes, with bare patches and rocks in the open spaces between clumps of trees and bushes.
We took it slow – not just because of the mild climb but to make sure we would pick up any bird movement. It paid off immediately as I spotted a Golden-breasted Bunting and the first of many White-fronted Bee-eaters.
Puffback and Black Cuckoo called in their distinctive fashion and there were plenty of aerial birds – swallows and swifts – to keep us looking up every now and then. Barn Swallows tend to swoop lower down but others such as Palm Swift are generally higher up while the only Black Saw-wing weaved its way at a low height between the trees.
Southern Bald Ibis is one of the specials of this area and we saw a pair flying by on their way to their favourite field no doubt.
At the top of the slope the track headed parallel to the road some way below us and the habitat became more bushy with birds to suit- Cape Batis, Long-billed Crombec, Bar-throated Apalis and Green-backed Camaroptera.
By now we had been walking for about two hours and with no sign of the track heading back down to the road we turned around and retraced our steps back to where the car was parked.
Not yet done for the morning, we drove further along the gravel “back road” to a dam where we had found the White-faced Ducks a couple of days before – they were not there but Little grebe, Black-headed Heron, Red Bishop and Levaillant’s Cisticola made up for their lack.
The rest of the day was spent in recovery mode (two and a half hour’s walking tends to require that at our age) which gave me a chance to catch up on my journal and blogging.
It started raining around midday, providing some welcome relief from the hot conditions and having a visible effect on the two waterfalls that drop from the escarpment, one of which feeds the stream near croft no 2.
A late afternoon drive to the lodge produced a juvenile African Fish-Eagle and a Common (steppe) Buzzard to round off an excellent day’s birding. I was amazed to find that I had recorded 83 species during the day, having started a new atlasing list that morning (atlasing requires that a new list is started after 5 days)
Day 7 – Wednesday
Time to return home to Pretoria, but not before having a good brekkie at the lodge (thanks Koos and Rianda), then driving slowly along the gravel roads back to the newly completed R36 tar road which connects Verlorenkloof’s access road with the N4 national road. Well done to the authorities for rebuilding this road which for years was in poor shape and suffering continuous damage from the many coal-haulage trucks that use the route.
The final stats for the week : 128 species recorded on two atlasing cards.