Tag Archives: Bird Atlasing South Africa

My Atlasing Month – February 2020 (Part One)

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

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

Lemoenfontein near Beaufort West – 1 to 2 February

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

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

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

Lemoenfontein

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

The view all the way to Beaufort West

Pretoria – “Home” Pentad – 6 to 8 February

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

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

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

Moreletakloof
The Reserve has a few Zebras

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

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

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

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

Roodeplaat Dam – 12 February

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

The entrance

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

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

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

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

Spotted Flycatcher
Red-backed Shrike

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

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

A Banded Mongoose at the side of the road
Vervet Monkey

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

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

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

Black Cuckooshrike

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

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

My Atlasing Month – January 2020

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

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

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

Klein Brak River

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

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

Grey Plover / Pluvialis squatarola / Grysstrandkiewiet, Klein Brak River

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gouritsmond Area

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

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

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

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

Scene along the Beach Road west of Gouritsmond

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

Scene along the Beach Road west of Gouritsmond

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

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

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

West of Mossel Bay along the N2

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

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

Mossel Bay west

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

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

Blue Cranes, Mossel Bay west

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

Blue Crane courtship dance, Mossel Bay west

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

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

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

Denham’s Bustard

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

Brown Monkey Beetle

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

My Birding Year 2019

Ahhh, 2020 is already moving ahead apace and I am just finalising my “My Birding Year” post for the past year …. how time flies as you get older!

Before getting into a summary of my birding exploits for 2019, I asked myself – what were my birding expectations at the beginning of the year and how far did I go in achieving what I set out to do? I decided that they were …..

  • Atlasing – my first priority nowadays and I aim to atlas one day per week – I generally managed to do so and my species list atlased for the year reached 426 spread across southern Africa, a more than satisfactory outcome in my book – not for personal glory but rather an indicator that my atlasing efforts were well spread across many parts of the country
  • Birding outside southern Africa – knowing we would be visiting Australia for the first time in April and May was an exciting prospect and the country and its bird life were an absolute treat
  • Lifers – most birders are driven by the desire to add new lifers to their lists and I am no different, however I have found that this aspect of birding is becoming less important with my focus shifting to citizen science activities such as atlasing. Nevertheless I cannot deny being thrilled each time I added a lifer – I saw just one lifer in southern Africa during the year but made up for that with 68 new birds added to my “world list” from our Australia trip
  • Photography – I find bird photography in particular to be an ongoing challenge and am always on the lookout for that special one (photograph, not Jose Mourinho the manager of my favourite football team).

Rather than get into a lengthy month by month description as per previous years I thought I would let the photos do most of the talking with a short note here and there to add some background

As with recent years, it all started in the Southern Cape, around Mossel Bay and further afield

Grey Heron, Mossel BAY
Bokmakierie, Gondwana area
Gondwana area – an inviting path through fynbos

Marievale Bird Sanctuary remains one of the best and most pleasant places to bird in Gauteng with its well-kept hides and fluctuating water levels

The powerline track, Marievale
Wood Sandpiper, Marievale
Squacco Heron, Marievale
Yellow-crowned Bishop, Marievale

A short stay at Pine Lake Resort near White River was an opportunity to bird the resort itself and to do a day trip to nearby Kruger Park

Pine Lake Resort, White River
Dusky Lark, Kruger Day Visit – this is one of the scarcer Lark species so it was athrill to find it near one of the dams
Green Pigeon, Kruger Day Visit

Mabusa Nature Reserve is a quiet, less visited reserve some 100 kms from home and I love spending time atlasing there

Spike-heeled Lark, Mabusa Nature Reserve, Mpumulanga

Then in April came our first trip to Australia, covered in some detail in earlier posts so I don’t want to repeat myself – suffice to say we had an exciting time discovering what this fine country is all about and finding many new, often spectacular, birds. This is a selection of some of the standout birds that I found (or they found me, I’m never sure) …

Magpie-lark, Sale, Victoria
Laughing Kookaburra, Raymond Island, Victoria
Australian Grebe, Sale, Victoria
Masked Lapwing, Sale
Eastern Spinebill, Lake Guyatt Sale
Dandenong Ranges – forest path
Crimson Rosella, Sassafras
New Holland Honeyeater, Apollo Bay
Crested Tern, Great Ocean Road
Little Corella, Philip Island
Australian Pelican, Lake Guyatt Sale

Back home over the winter months, I focused on atlasing an area north-east of Pretoria, which proved to be challenging at times, having to contend with the traffic on tar roads and the dust on the gravel back roads

African Snipe (Gallinago nigripennis), Kusile area
Pied Starling (Lamprotornis bicolor), Bronkhorstspruit area
White-bellied Sunbird (Cynnyris talatala), Bronkhorstspruit area
Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina), Bronkhorstspruit area

A last-minute booking saw us spending a week in Kruger Park – the best place to do some quality birding

African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer), Olifants area, Kruger Park
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis / Geelbekooievaar), Lower Sabie area, Kruger Park
Trumpeter Hornbill (Male) (Bycanistes bucinator / Gewone boskraai), Lower Sabie camp, Kruger Park

More Gauteng atlasing followed during the winter months

Temminck’s Courser (Cursorius temminckii / Trekdrawwertjie), Cullinan area
Capped Wheatear (Oenanthe pileata / Hoëveldskaapwagter), Delmas area
Cape Longclaw (Macronyx capensis / Oranjekeelkalkoentjie) (Subspecies colletti), Suikerbosrand

We do look forward to our week at the Verlorenkloof resort in Mpumulanga, and with reason – it’s a perfect place to combine relaxation with some excellent birding

Purple-crested Turaco (Tauraco porphyreolophus / Bloukuifloerie). Verlorenkloof
Verlorenkloof
Cape Rock Thrush (Female) (Monticola rupestris / Kaapse kliplyster), Verlorenkloof
Lazy Cisticola (Cisticola aberrans / Luitinktinkie), Verlorenkloof

On one of my atlasing outings, I spent a pleasant morning at Rietvlei Nature Reserve, not far from home

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica / Europese swael), Rietvlei NR
Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida / Witbaardsterretjie), Rietvlei NR

I joined a team of 3 other keen birders for the annual Birding Big Day at the end of November. We ended up with 184 species for the day and a pleasing 50th place countrywide. There was only time for a quick snatched photo of the team heading through bush at one of our many stops

Birding Big Day

We closed out the year in Mossel Bay, where Sugarbirds visit our garden

Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Oudtshoorn south

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