Tag Archives: Bird Atlasing South Africa

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