Tag Archives: Birding South Africa

Sea Pie in Plett

What happened to the Birding ?

If I have touched your curiosity button and you are wondering why I seem to have changed the theme of my blog to culinary matters, let me set things straight right away. I was looking for some background information about the bird which is the subject of my recent twitch of a rarity and my extensive research (OK, I just googled a bit) came up with something unexpected……

The bird in question is the Eurasian Oystercatcher, the unexpected fact is that the Oystercatcher was originally known as the “Sea Pie” but was renamed in the 1730 ‘s when a naturalist observed one eating oysters. The name “sea pie” seems to be a shortened form of Sea Magpie, due to its pied (black and white) appearance, (not applicable to our better known African Black Oystercatcher which has all black plumage).

An old illustration of the Sea-Pie

Just a little background

At the risk of boring those who already know my approach to twitching (the chasing of rarities no matter what it entails) let me repeat my criteria : if the rarity in question is within maximum 2 hours travel time by car from where I happen to be, I will consider going for it.

Once again the trigger came from the SA Rare Bird News report (SARBN) which is published by Trevor Hardaker twice a week – in this case it was the report of 3rd December 2021 that piqued my interest with a report of an Eurasian Oystercatcher on the Keurbooms River estuary at Plettenberg Bay in the southern Cape.

We were still in Pretoria at the time but were readying ourselves for a mid December road trip to our other home in Mossel Bay, so if the bird hung around long enough, there may be a chance to twitch it…..

I kept an eye on the reports coming through and as our departure date got closer, and the Oystercatcher remained in the same area, my hopes of being able to twitch the species started rising.

Now I should mention that I had in fact seen this species in Europe a number of years ago, but the circumstances were rather bizarre and the sighting somewhat unsatisfactory so I was keen to get a better sighting and of course to be able to add it to my list of Southern African birds seen.

At the time we were travelling to the UK via Amsterdam Schiphol airport and while taxi-ing after landing at Schiphol early morning I spotted, from my window seat, an Eurasian Oystercatcher at the edge of a concrete water channel along the perimeter of the airport – the sighting was brief but there was no mistaking the bird with its black and white plumage and distinctive bill

As I said, a somewhat unusual way to add a lifer and not what I consider fulfilling…..

Time to Twitch

We arrived in Mossel Bay on Wednesday 15 December 2021 after a road trip spread over 3 days and, once settled in to our ”Southern Cape” routine, my thoughts returned to the Eurasian Oystercatcher, which was still hanging around in the same area on the Saturday, so we decided to do the trip to Plettenberg Bay (or Plett for short) on the Sunday.

Now, 150 kms doesn’t usually sound like a challenging distance to drive for a day but Google Maps put it into perspective by estimating that a 2 hour drive awaited us, fortunately just making it into my (admittedly arbitrary) 2 hour drive time limit for a twitch.

With time to prepare I made a note of the instructions provided about the location, where to park and how to access the estuary and the recommendation that any attempt to find the bird be done at low tide. The tide tables indicated a low tide around 10 am for the Sunday so it seemed quite reasonable to leave home at about 8 am.

Another recommendation was to have a scope handy if available as the bird was likely to be a fair distance from the closest viewing spot so my Swarovski scope was the first item to be loaded into the car. I had recently purchased a new ball head for the scope to replace an old one that had become difficult to manoeuvre and I was looking forward to see how it functioned in the field (I’m glad to say it performed perfectly)

We duly got to the pin-drop spot at the small parking area, which had a full complement of cars but fortunately one was just pulling out and I slotted the Prado into place and set off down the narrow track, scope and tripod slung over my shoulder, leaving Gerda to enjoy the peace and quiet with her knitting.

The track initially wound its way through bush, then over a narrow wooden foot bridge and onto the sands of the estuary. A birder heading the other way turned out to be Rudi, another Mossel Bay birder and after greeting each other he pointed me in the general direction of where he had just seen the Oystercatcher.

The pathway to the Estuary

Armed with that knowledge, I found a spot to set up the scope, taking care to avoid the softer sands which would have swallowed my sandals if I wasn’t wary (all proof of how hazardous twitching can be). I scanned the distant river close to a Tern roost and within a minute had found the Oystercatcher and locked onto it with the scope. I allowed myself a little victory punch in my imagination – success!

For the next 40 minutes I tried getting closer to where the bird was hanging out, with some success although the soft mud of the estuary at low tide thwarted my attempt constantly as I picked my way across the drier parts to a better vantage point.

Satisfied with the views I had enjoyed, I made my way in hopscotch fashion to the main pathway back to the car, passing a group of birders who had just arrived but were less fortunate as a passing helicopter had caused the Tern roost and surrounding birds to rise up and fly off.

My only regret was not having my camera, which I left in the car as the scope and tripod was quite a burden without a camera dangling from my shoulder as well. Plenty of excellent photos have been posted on various birding groups and the superb image below was taken by a birder who rented a canoe so as to get closer to the bird – included here with the photographer’s kind permission.

Image by Deirdre Krzychylkiewicz

Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus (Bonttobie)

This species is a rare but annual visitor from its breeding grounds across the Palearctic region from Iceland to China. Those found in southern Africa are thought to originate from Siberia and prefer to feed by probing for invertebrates on mudflats, having a longer bill than the African Black Oystercatcher which generally feeds on mussels.

The illustrations below are from Chamberlain’s Waders, written and illustrated by Faansie Peacock and show the unmistakeable pied appearance of the Eurasian Oystercatcher compared to the all black plumage of the African Black Oystercatcher.

On our way back home we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a light lunch of their home-made pie and salads – it crossed my mind that I had seen a Sea Pie in Plett and eaten a Pie near the Sea in Plett, all in the same morning……..

Overnighting in the Karoo – Abbotsbury is a delight

Google “Abbotsbury” and it comes up with a Wikipedia article about a village in the English county of Dorset, about a mile from the English Channel coast.

The Abbotsbury we like to visit couldn’t be further from that description – it is a Guest Farm deep in the Karoo, some 27 kms north of the historic South African town of Graaff-Reinet, and is one of our favourite stopovers on the long road between our homes in Pretoria and Mossel Bay.

Location of Abbotsbury

In 2021 we had the pleasure of two stopovers at this peaceful and hospitable guest farm, on our way to Mossel Bay for our winter and summer stays, and we were once again enchanted by the setting and the comfortable Garden Cottage which has become a brief “home away from home” for a number of years.

The Garden Cottage

The setting is sublime – set among a cheerful garden which is in complete contrast to the surrounding arid conditions, yet fits the purpose perfectly

Abbotsbury guest farm – the Garden Cottage

And the interior is just as charming with that homey feeling that has you instantly relaxed

Abbotsbury guest farm – the living room
Abbotsbury guest farm – the lawns
Abbotsbury guest farm – time to relax on the stoep
Abbotsbury guest farm

Getting there

We have done the road trip between Pretoria and Mossel Bay or vice-versa many times and usually travel on the N1 National Road between Pretoria and Colesberg, then choose between the route via Beaufort-West/Meiringspoort/Oudtshoorn or via Graaff-Reinet/ George.

The latter route is the one that takes us past Abbotsbury, which lies a few kms off the N9 National Road and as soon as we turn off and pass through the entrance gate I feel a sense of relief at escaping, for a while, from the main road. It’s also a signal to open the car window, breathe in the fresh Karoo air and listen for the calls of the birds that favour this arid habitat.

Abbotsbury Graaff-Reinet

It’s a short drive from the road up to the farmstead along a dusty farm track that passes kraals with sheep and goats, keeping a lookout for birds in the scrubby Karoo habitat

Abbotsbury guest farm
Abbotsbury guest farm – even the goats are good looking
Abbotsbury Guest Farm

Once we have greeted owner Graham and settled into the cottage, we relax for the rest of the afternoon on the stoep overlooking the garden and lawn – by now Angus, the friendly Scottish Terrier, has come to “greet” us and persuade us to throw his old tennis ball so that he can scurry after it and bring it back for the next throw.

Angus, Abbotsbury’s friendly Scottish Terrier

Time for a Walk

For the last hour or so of driving before we reach our overnight stop, I start looking forward to the walk I will take once we are settled in – firstly to stretch legs and body that have been unnaturally dormant while driving for several hours and secondly to fit in at least an hour’s quality atlasing in a pentad that has limited coverage.

The farm has a character all its own and around every bend there is something photogenic to admire

Abbotsbury Guest Farm
Abbotsbury guest farm
Abbotsbury guest farm

There are some quirky plants along the way

Abbotsbury guest farm
Flower amongst the thorns, Abbotsbury guest farm

And the Birds

Atlasing statistics show that the pentad in which Abbotsbury lies has a total of 100 species after 13 full protocol cards, with my contribution being 65 species from 7 cards. I usually expect to find 30 to 40 species during a visit and the images below are a selection of some of those I have come across and been able to photograph –

Karoo Scrub-Robin Erythropygia coryphaeus  (Slangverklikker), Abbotsbury guest farm
Cape Sparrow Passer melanurus  (Gewone mossie), Abbotsbury guest farm

The Pied Barbet is one of those birds that are heard before they are seen, alternating between their two calls – one a soft descending hoop hoop hoop, the other a loud nasal pehp pehp pehp – very much a feature of this arid habitat

Acacia Pied Barbet Tricholaema leucomelas  (Bonthoutkapper), Abbotsbury guest farm
Cape Robin-Chat Cossypha caffra  (Gewone janfrederik) , Abbotsbury guest farm
Greater Striped Swallow Cecropis cucullata  (Grootstreepswael)
, Abbotsbury guest farm
Cape Bunting Emberiza capensis  (Rooivlerkstreepkoppie)
, Abbotsbury guest farm
Grey Tit Parus afer  (Piet-tjou-tjou-grysmees) , Abbotsbury guest farm
Southern Masked-Weaver Ploceus velatus  (Swartkeelgeelvink) , Abbotsbury
African Red-eyed Bulbul Pycnonotus nigricans  (Rooioogtiptol), Abbotsbury

The best part about my afternoon and morning walks of an hour or so each around the farm is knowing a delicious dinner or breakfast will be served when I get back to the cottage

Laughing Gull in Mossel Bay – a Week to Remember

Some two years ago I posted about a memorable swim at Santos Beach in Mossel Bay, the coastal town that is our home for a large part of the year. On that occasion it was a unique spectacle of nature as hundreds of terns and gulls gathered to feast on shoals of anchovies that had come so far inshore that swimmers could literally scoop them from the sea. (https://mostlybirding.com/2020/02/18/a-swim-to-remember/)

In early February this year we witnessed an even rarer happening in Mossel Bay, which started on Sunday 6th February 2022 on that same beach – Santos – and continued throughout the week, spreading to the harbour area and as far as the Point.

The Story Begins

From sunrise on Monday morning, small knots of people could be seen gathering at strategic spots along the shoreline of Mossel Bay, many dressed in bush clothing, with binoculars draped around their necks and carrying ‘weapons’ of varying size, the latter often covered in camouflage material designed to conceal them.

Their actions were strange – one moment they would be gazing out to sea or scanning the beach and harbour with their binoculars, the next moment they would be on the run to a nearby vantage point, hiding behind anything they could find and pointing their ‘weapons’ at the object of their interest.

At other times they would stand around talking animatedly, checking their phones constantly, then at some signal rushing to their vehicles and driving anxiously to another of the favoured spots, there to repeat the procedure.

At the harbour, a designated National Key Point in South Africa, the gathered groups encountered some resistance to their endeavours, as security personnel approached menacingly, ordering them to refrain from entering the harbour area and from pointing their ‘weapons’ in the direction of the harbour.

This led to several verbal skirmishes and the mood of the increasing number of ‘attackers’ seemed to take a turn for the worse. However a message, possibly from a ‘Central Command’, had the groups heading off to one of the other points and calm returned to the harbour once again.

This continued throughout the day and for the rest of the week, with the initial groups of ‘attackers’ being replaced on a daily basis by new groups arriving from all over South Africa.

What was Going on?

It could only be one of two things –

  • the start of an armed insurrection, or
  • twitchers gathering to see and photograph the latest addition to the Southern African list of birds

I’m glad to say it was the latter, especially as I was initially responsible for starting the scramble to see this first time vagrant to our shores!

And the ‘weapons’ referred to in the story above are, of course, the long-lensed cameras favoured by birders (the ‘attackers’) trying to capture an image of the bird for their records.

Twitchers outside the harbour (I’m the hidden one with the hat) (Image by Renette Furstenburg)

How it Happened

It all started with a trip to Santos beach with my daughter Geraldine and son-in-law Andre, for a late afternoon swim just after 6 pm on Sunday 6th February 2022. We parked and walked down the steps and across the grassy embankment towards the beach – ever on the lookout for birds, I noticed that there were about a dozen gulls in the fresh water pond that forms in the middle of the beach at the stormwater outlet, drinking and bathing at the end of a no doubt busy day of scavenging and resting.

As we got closer to the pond I stopped dead in my tracks, let out a mild expletive and said to Andre and Geraldine “That’s a Franklin’s Gull!” – it stood out like a sore thumb amongst the similar sized Grey-headed Gulls lined up at the pond, with its black hood and dark, slate grey wings contrasting with the mostly white head and pale grey wings of the similar sized gulls normally encountered in Mossel Bay.

This excellent photo (by Estelle Smalberger the next day) best represents the view we had of the gull at the pond

Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Estelle Smalberger 7 Feb)

I had come to the beach for a late afternoon swim, so had none of my usual birding paraphernalia – no binos, no camera, not even my otherwise ever-present phone, so Andre dashed back to the car to get his phone. Geraldine and I stood and watched the gull intently while we waited but, as luck would have it, the gull finished drinking and bathing a few seconds before Andre got back and it flew off in the direction of the harbour.

I buried my head in despair for a few seconds, then shrugged it off and we enjoyed the swim we had come for.

Fortunately the gull had been quite relaxed and allowed us to approach within a few metres of its spot alongside the pond, so I was able to confirm in my mind the instinctive first ID of the gull as a Franklin’s Gull.

This was without any of the usual aids, simply based on having seen the species in Canada some years ago – the breeding plumage with full black hood and white eye crescents were what clinched it for me, without considering other possibilities……..I mean, no other gulls with a fully black hood occur in Southern Africa, so what else could it be ……. ?? (The Black-headed Gull, also an occasional vagrant, looks similar but its hood is a chocolate brown colour)

Once I got back home, I posted a message on the local birding whatsapp group, at 8.13 pm to be precise, suggesting that all keep a lookout for a “Franklin’s Gull” in the Mossel Bay area.

At the same time I recorded the sighting on my Birdlasser app which shows the location of the sighting on a map (this shows the corrected species name)

Some time later, at 9.32 pm, Rudi Minnie responded with some amazement and undertook to be at Santos beach at first light on Monday morning.

And there I left it, happy that I had spotted a rarity, one that is recorded only sporadically along the west and east coasts of South Africa and one that would no doubt be of interest to a few birders ……

Monday dawned sunny and warm and I headed out early to the Vleesbaai area where another rarity – a Baillon’s Crake – had been reported, my plan being to hopefully find it and atlas the pentad at the same time. While waiting patiently for the crake to put in an appearance (one juvenile popped out briefly, too quick for a photo) I kept an eye on the messages from those looking for the “Franklin’s Gull”.

First to confirm it was Edwin Polden at 6.42 am and Rudi Minnie shortly thereafter, followed by the first photos at 7.01am.

Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (“Back of camera” Image by Edwin Polden 7 Feb)
Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Rudi Minnie 7 Feb)

Some other Mossel Bay birders followed up with their own photos, providing more detail of the gull’s features

Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Tersia Marais 7 Feb)

Trevor Hardaker, chair of the SA Rarities Committee and the undisputed ‘king’ of rarities in Southern Africa joined in the discussion, expressing his concern about the initial ID and imploring photographers to send a photo of the gull’s upper wing colouring. There was some speculation about his reason for this request, which became more urgent as the minutes ticked by.

Fortunately Estelle Smalberger was able to post a photo showing the upper wing of the gull with all-black wingtips –

Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Estelle Smalberger 7 Feb 08.53am)

and the reaction from Trevor was instantaneous :

Some 7 minutes later Trevor sent an email alert to the thousands of subscribers around Southern Africa to let them know about this ‘Giga’ rarity, a new species record for the sub-region, which had many of them, including Trevor himself, re-arranging their lives to get to Mossel Bay without delay and hopefully see the gull.

Laughing Gull vs Franklin’s Gull

It took the expertise of Trevor Hardaker to correctly ID this gull and it was based on the differences in upper wing pattern which are nicely illustrated in these excerpts from a guide book which he posted

This is the Laughing Gull – (in non-breeding plumage so without the black hood)

Laughing Gull Illustration

And this is the Franklin’s Gull

Franklin’s Gull Illustration

The Reaction

The reaction after Trevor sent out the alert was not unexpected – there are a number of birders in the region who will go to any lengths to add a species to their lists for the southern African sub-region and this new species presented a golden opportunity for the ultra keen twitchers. Some must have literally upped and rushed to the airport and found a seat on a flight to George, as the first arrivals from Gauteng were in Mossel Bay that same afternoon.

Others made quick arrangements and drove long distances to Mossel Bay from all over SA. This continued throughout the week, with clutches of anxious twitchers staking out the favourite spots and sharing messages until they too were able to ‘tick’ this new species and get a photo or two.

Laughing Gull twitchers near the tidal pool in Mossel Bay (Image by Justin Ponder 8 Feb)

The gull became a celebrity visitor overnight and by far the most photographed bird in SA that week as several hundred birders descended on the town over the 6 days it remained there.

Here is a selection of photos posted on Facebook and Whatsapp groups –

Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Justin Ponder 7 Feb)
Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Barry Scott 9 Feb)
Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Elmarie Brits 7 Feb)
Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image by Johan Grobbelaar)
Laughing Gull amongst a group of Grey-headed Gulls (Image by Amanda Walden)
Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay ‘behind bars’ – actually inside the restricted harbour area (Image by Amanda Walden)

I managed to get a few images of the gull when it was perched on the wall near the harbour

Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image : Don Reid)
Laughing Gull, Mossel Bay (Image : Don Reid)

In The News

The presence of the celebrity gull soon spread to the newshounds and articles were published in several newspapers – at first the local Mossel Bay and George papers carried the story which then spread to the Cape Town newspapers. It even made the national SABC newscasts.

Mossel Bay Advertiser

Laughing Gull Leucophaeus atricilla (Roetvlerkmeeu)

Laughing Gulls, named for their raucous call which sounds like a high-pitched laugh, are monogamous and form long-term pair bonds. They breed in large colonies from April to July on the Atlantic coast of North America, the Caribbean and northern South America.

They are coastal birds found in estuaries, salt marshes, coastal bays, along beaches (where I first found it) or on agricultural fields near the coast. My previous (only) sighting of Laughing Gull was on the Varadero Peninsula on the north coast of Cuba during a memorable visit some years ago.

Laughing Gulls are gregarious birds, noisy and aggressive in nature and don’t hesitate to steal the prey of other birds.

Illustrations from Collins Bird Guide app

Topmost in many birder’s minds was the question “How did it get to Southern Africa?”. That’s an impossible one to answer but several ideas were postulated such as –

  • there have been numerous previous vagrant records in the UK and western Europe so perhaps this was another which then proceeded to migrate south as it would normally do in its home territory and only stopped when it reached the southern end of Africa
  • ship-assisted vagrants are not unknown so perhaps it hitched a ride on a ship that passed Mossel Bay, from either east or west and thought, as we do, that it looked like a rather nice place to spend some time

And that sums up the newest addition to the Southern African bird list. Trust Faansie Peacock to be the first to add it to his brand new birding app called Firefinch, due to be fully launched this year, already partly available

New page added to Faansie Peacock’s “Firefinch” birding app

What a shame that the handsome Laughing Gull stayed in Mossel Bay for just a week – the following Sunday it was nowhere to be found…… who knows where it went next and whether this species will ever be seen in the Southern African region again.

Image from animalia.bio

But it had provided a lot of excitement for the birding community during its short stay!

Blue Crane Breeding

At the end of a memorable year which has left many of us with a somewhat negative feeling about 2021 and hopeful for a better experience in 2022, it seemed appropriate to write about something which holds promise for the future. and what is more promising than the sight of an iconic bird in breeding mode.

We were recently privileged to view a Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus (Bloukraanvoel) on its nest, something we have never seen before and our short ‘stay’ with this National Bird of South Africa was truly uplifting.

It happened purely by chance, as is often the case with special bird sightings, and only a few days into our latest stay in Mossel Bay over the December/January summer ‘season’

We had travelled to Plettenberg Bay from our Mossel Bay home (both part of the famous Garden Route of South Africa and some 150 kms distance from each other) to follow up on a sighting of a rarity that had been located at the Keurbooms River Estuary (more about that in a future post) and were on the road from the estuary back to the N2 National Road for our return trip home.

Gerda spotted a bird in a field and I duly stopped on the quiet road to see what it was. A car going in the opposite direction had also stopped almost alongside us and I wondered if they were also birding, whereupon one of the occupants got out and told us “There’s a Blue Crane on a nest if you are interested” and proceeded with a description of where we could find it. I didn’t pick it all up but thanked him and we set off in search of the spot he had described.

Fortunately between Gerda and myself we had understood enough of this thoughtful birder’s directions to find our way to the road along the Bitou River just outside Plett (which is how most South Africans refer to this Popular town) and after carefully scanning the river and vleis for a few kms we came to the spot he had described, with a pair of Blue Cranes in attendance a short distance from the road.

One was clearly on a nest and this was confirmed moments later when he/she stood up so that we could see at least one egg, which turned into two when I later studied the photos.

Blue Crane on nest
Blue Crane at nest, two eggs visible
The Blue Crane fussing over the eggs

The other Blue Crane was a short distance away in shallow vlei water, seemingly keeping an eye on the situation. According to Roberts VII the male and female spend almost equal amounts of time incubating the eggs over a period of around 30 days.

We had no way of knowing how long they had been incubating so it’s impossible to say when they may hatch – perhaps we will travel that way in a couple of weeks time and see if there has been a change in status.

Blue Cranes form monogamous pairs when breeding and are well known for their spectacular pairing and courtship displays, which we were fortunate to witness some time ago and which I featured in an earlier post – a couple of the images from that post are repeated below

Blue Crane courtship dance, near Mossel Bay
Blue Crane courtship dance, near Mossel Bay

My last post for 2021 comes with best wishes for a peaceful and healthy New Year

250 Up !

After publishing a post this week, I happened to notice that I have published 250 posts so far – a nice milestone to reach. That got me thinking – not too deeply mind you – about how it started and where blogging has taken me since July 2013 when I set out on this blogging journey

It all started some time after retirement when I took on the part-time role of Consultant, which gave me more time to do things outside the work/office environment, amongst them birding, photography and writing. The beauty of blogging is that it combines all of these into one neat package.

I have had a lifetime habit of recording travels and trips in diary form and keeping birding lists for various localities, so blogging seemed like a natural progression for these activities.

Photography has been a hobby of mine since my youth, starting with a simple point and shoot film camera borrowed from my dad, progressing through various upgrades of cameras and lenses into the digital age, going full circle to today where most of my photography is done with either my Iphone or with my very capable and convenient point-and-shoot camera, albeit a very sophisticated one.

WordPress was a good choice as my preferred software provider and it was not too difficult to learn how to set up posts, create a library of images and set categories and tags so that the published post looked reasonably professional.

So, blogging has satisfied my “writing passion” beyond what I imagined – an estimated 250,000 words and 5,000 images later I find myself looking forward to many more – it is my hope that some of you will join me on the next part of the journey.

In celebration of the milestone I have selected a few images which have garnered the most “clicks” over the years….

Red-billed Firefinch
Fish-Eagle and Martial Eagle eye each other
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Red-faced Crimsonwing, Zimbabwe
Lion, Chobe Riverfront
Herring Gull, at sea
African Purple Swamphen
Cape Long-billed Lark
Lion, Chobe Riverfront
Greater Flamingo

I hope you have a peaceful and restful holiday season!

The Call of Summer

There are numbers of migrant birds to southern Africa that herald the start of the Austral (Southern Hemisphere) summer from September each year, but two stand out as the icons of summer’s arrival and become the subject of excited messages on the various birding chat groups as they are spotted or heard for the first time in the early summer months

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica (Europese Swael)

One is the Barn Swallow, which has become the best-known of the migrant swallows, certainly because it outnumbers the others, is highly visible and occurs virtually across southern Africa.

Barn Swallow, Kendal area, Gauteng, South Africa

A staggering, estimated 20 to 40 million “Barnies” (as they are known to birders who like nicknames) migrate to Africa from western Europe and another 40 to 80 million from eastern Europe and Asia annually on their southward migration, many of which end up in southern Africa.

Barn Swallows, Roodeplaat Dam near Pretoria, South Africa

In southern Africa, during the summer months, they can be found just about anywhere outside the built up areas of cities, preferring moister, open areas such as grassland, pastures, cultivated fields and vleis and occurring in loose flocks of varying numbers.

Barn Swallow, Devon near Johannesburg , Gauteng, South Africa

Anyone who has witnessed Barn Swallows settling in their thousands into their roost at the end of the day, as we did many years ago near Umhlanga, will not forget this amazing sight.

I have been fortunate to see Barn Swallows in other parts of the world during our travels in the northern hemisphere summer, including Europe, Canada, Malaysia, Cuba and Egypt.

Barn Swallow, Annasrust farm Hoopstad, Free State, South Africa

Their status in southern Africa is ‘non-breeding Palaearctic migrant’ which means they breed ‘at home’ in the northern hemisphere, so we do not see any nesting behaviour, which is why I was particularly excited to find a nest tucked under a roof overhang during a trip to western Canada some years ago.

Barn Swallow on nest, Bow Lake, Alberta, Canada

Interestingly, these Barnies looked a little different to what we are used to seeing in SA – clearly these particular swallows would not be seen in our country as their migration path southwards would take them to South America.

Another encounter on a different continent, during a cruise on the Danube River, had me equally excited – it was April and Barn Swallows were flying above the river right next to our river cruise boat and I realised that they must have just arrived back from their return migration at the end of the Austral summer, with anything up to 10,000 kms ‘under their belt’.

Barn Swallow, Danube River at Linz, Austria

Which brings me to what inspired this post ……

Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius (Piet-my-vrou)

First some background –

My bird atlasing trip this past week took me to Ezemvelo Nature Reserve some 70 kms north-east of Pretoria, a small nature reserve comprising mainly rolling grasslands. Before arriving at the entrance gate at the entry time for day visitors, I had managed to complete 2 hours of atlasing in the pentad immediately west of Ezemvelo and was looking forward to spending time in the reserve, which I had last visited in 2013.

After completing the gate formalities, I headed to the Reception a few kms from the gate, paid for my day visit and parked at the nearby picnic spot, nicely located under large trees near a low tree covered hill and overlooking a small dam.

I literally had the whole place to myself – I’m sure it gets busier over weekends but on a weekday the only visitors are probably keen nature lovers such as myself, of that rather pleasant age when you, rather than others, decide how you are going to spend your day.

As I enjoyed coffee and rusks, I heard the familiar summer sound of a Red-chested Cuckoo – or Piet-my vrou (pronounced piet-may-frow) as most South Africans know it, a name based on the 3-syllable call which carries long distances and is often difficult to trace.

Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius (Piet-my-vrou), Ezemvelo

I would hazard a guess that, doves aside, this is one of the best known calls of all birds in South Africa, with farmers often referring to it, somewhat hopefully, as the “Rain Bird” because it’s arrival coincides with the hoped for start of the summer rains in large parts of SA.

The call I heard suddenly sounded very close and I walked to the nearby trees, camera in hand, to see if I could find it. This is a bird not easily seen as they tend to choose a branch in the depth of well-foliaged trees to perch on and call. I followed the call and was thrilled to find the Cuckoo after a short search and approached carefully, not wanting to scare it away.

Red-chested Cuckoo Cuculus solitarius (Piet-my-vrou), Ezemvelo

I took a couple of photos, thrilled at getting this rare chance to photograph the species, but mildly disappointed that it refused to turn around and show its front. With a few photos under the belt I decided to try to get a video while it was calling and managed to complete a short clip before the bird flew off, leaving me very pleased with my first reasonable images of a Red-chested Cuckoo in 40 or so years of birding!

Here’s the video –

Red-chested Cuckoo (Piet-my-vrou)

Knock knock …… who’s there?

We are getting back into our Pretoria routine after 3 months in Mossel Bay, and I decided to go out atlasing in Roodeplaat Nature Reserve one morning this week. Heading into summer the weather in Pretoria is already warm with temperatures in the low 30’s and the skies are clear – some rain has fallen but the ‘big’ summer rains accompanied by the typical highveld thunderstorms have not yet arrived – hopefully they are not far off.

It was a good morning’s atlasing with 71 species logged on the Birdlasser app, including one which put on a brief display for me (well that’s what I like to think) ….

I was out of the car listening to a Lesser Honeyguide calling near the nature reserve offices, when I saw what looked like a woodpecker fly from a tree to a bare wooden utility pole. I could not make out what it was as it seemed to be purposely hiding from me so I approached carefully until I had a partial view and took a few record photos.

It then started pecking at the pole in a rhythmic fashion creating a loud drumming sound and I immediately wondered why, as there was no hope of anything edible to be found and the pole was completely unsuitable for nesting or similar purposes.

Here’s the short clip I filmed of the woodpecker, which I later identified as a Bearded Woodpecker, in action – do excuse the shakiness of the images – I had to film it at a distance on full zoom so as not to scare it away and the wind blowing didn’t help matters.

Best viewed in full screen mode ….

Bearded Woodpecker (Female) ‘drumming’ (Baardspeg / Dendropicos namaquus)

A read through of the species habits on the Roberts app on my phone provided the following insights into this behaviour – nothing to do with food or nesting it seems –

Presence often given away by loud, distinctive call, or by loud tapping (while foraging), or drumming.

Moves out of sight behind a branch in response to danger.

Both sexes drum frequently, mostly early morning; used in territorial advertisement and to establish contact with partner.

Drums in bursts of ca 1 sec at ca 12 strikes/sec, beginning fast, then slowing; usually on a high dead branch (same branch often reused); audible to 1 km.

Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa

It flew off after a while and I continued with my atlasing, pleased at having witnessed this behaviour and at having everything one wants to know about birds available on my iphone.

Spring Flowers – and Some Birding : Klein Welmoed, Stellenbosch

We don’t like to let an opportunity pass us by and, with the severe travel limitations that the Covid pandemic has brought upon all of us over the past year or so, it was an easy decision to extend our recent essential trip from Mossel Bay to the Western Cape, to include a visit to the West Coast during the ‘flower season’

Our plan was to spend four nights in the Stellenbosch area, conclude the ‘business’ part of the trip, see some of the family and spend some time with our eldest granddaughter Megan who is at University there, then continue to the West Coast town of Paternoster for some flower season touring.

After looking at various options we chose to stay at Klein Welmoed Guest House which is located on a working farm that lies off the main road between Somerset West and Stellenbosch. This turned out to be a good choice as we had a large cottage which comfortably accommodated ourselves and granddaughter Megan (she was only too happy to ‘escape’ from the university hostel for a few days) and the surrounding farm area proved to be ideal for exploratory walks when the opportunity arose.

Getting there

We had to check in by 2.30 pm so we left Mossel Bay earlier than usual and arrived at Klein Welmoed on time, after a drive that was made comfortable and relaxed by the light traffic and good weather, which allowed us to enjoy the picturesque route lined with farmlands and with a constant backdrop of mountains.

As soon as we were parked at the cottage and before unloading the luggage, I could not resist capturing some images of the beautiful view and the fields filled with arum lilies and other flowers.

The view from Klein Welmoed
Pastures filled with flowers

The Walks – Flowers, Birds …. and a few sheep

A late afternoon walk took me to the large dam along a pathway that was sodden in places – Cape Canaries were calling non-stop and Red and Yellow Bishops worked their way through the reeds, while on the dam Coots, Little Grebes and Cape Shovelers were busy making the most of the last light.

As I scanned the reeds on the other side a Purple Heron momentarily popped up and Little Rush Warbler called, ending the day on a high birding note

The dam at Klein Welmoed
Southern Red Bishop  Euplectes orix  Rooivink
Yellow Bishop  Euplectes capensis  Kaapse flap

After a filling breakfast, I set off for a lengthy walk with no set plan, just following paths that I came across. This initially took me past marshy areas with reeds, then skirted the orchards and vineyards that make up most of the farm.

View of Klein Welmoed from the pastures

There was plenty of birdlife in the reeds including a Karoo Prinia flitting in and out of the reeds, pausing to look at me for an instant, and Levaillant’s Cisticola calling and popping out briefly, but not long enough to snatch a photo – these birds require a quick draw!

Karoo Prinia  Prinia maculosa  Karoolangstertjie

A Pied Crow in flight caught my eye and as it was not too high I attempted an in flight shot which turned out OK

Pied Crow  Corvus albus  Witborskraai

I was pleasantly surprised to find rafts of white and yellow flowers next to the pathways and between the lines of trees in the orchards – this augured well for the ‘real’ flower spots we would be visiting later in the week.

Rafts of flowers in places
Blacksmith Lapwing  Vanellus armatus  Bontkiewiet

The orchards attracted a different set of birds including Cape White-eyes (pictured below), Fiscal Flycatcher and Fork-tailed Drongo

Flowers between the rows of trees in the orchards
Cape White-eye  Zosterops capensis  Kaapse glasogie

And the sheep ….. returning from my first late afternoon walk I noticed that one ewe had given birth to a lamb, which was still showing signs of the birth and I watched for a few minutes as the ewe prompted it to stand up on very wobbly legs. Just a day or so later the tiny lambs were eagerly following mommy

Dorper sheep (a South African breed developed by crossing Dorset Horn and Blackhead Persian sheep)

Addo Elephant National Park – Stoepsitting

Stoepsitter Birding – again!

A couple of my recent longer posts have highlighted what I like to call “Stoepsitter birding” – which is the relaxed kind conducted mostly from a comfortable seat, preferably accompanied by suitable snacks and beverages to make sure the energy and spirit remains at a high level. Both were in favourite locations, one in Satara Camp in Kruger National Park, the other at Verlorenkloof Resort not far from Macahadodorp in Mpumulanga Province.

Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape has the honour of completing a trio of outstanding locations and places where Stoepsitter birding comes into its own.

The criteria are simple – suitable habitat to attract a variety of birdlife, a comfortable spot from which to observe the comings and goings of the birdlife, without disturbing them too much and the time and patience to devote yourself to this activity. It also helps if the birdlife and small wildlife is habituated to humans and happy to share their world with us, which for the most part is certainly the case in Addo.

Addo Elephant National Park

Our road trip in March this year included a three night stay in Addo, in a comfortable chalet with a view over a part of the Main Camp and a raised deck where we could spend a large part of the day (depicted in the heading image), while reserving the afternoons to venture out on game/birding drives.

The variety of birdlife that came to visit was exceptional, many of them drawn by the surrounding trees and shrubs which held a cornucopia of edible avian delights – nectar filled flowers, berries, small insects and suchlike.

The Weavers

Weavers were the most prominent and numerous birds that visited, represented by no less than three different species, all belonging to the Ploceus genus. Weavers can be difficult to ID in their winter non-breeding plumage, but there are still enough clues to narrow the identification down when faced with similar looking yellow birds.

Village Weaver (Bontrugwewer / Ploceus cucullatus)

The Village Weavers outnumbered the other two weaver species and were frequent visitors to the flowering trees right in front of our chalet. My limited botanical knowledge would make this a type of Coral Tree (Erythrina genus) with its bright scarlet flowers but I’m open to correction….. which I have received (see comments below) and I now know this is in fact a Weeping boer-bean (Schotia brachypetala / Huilboerboon) so called, apparently, due to the copious amounts of nectar during flowering which overflow and ‘weep’

In breeding plumage the Village Weaver is fairly easy to distinguish from other masked Weavers, but this male was in eclipse plumage, the “in-between” stage when they are in the process of transitioning to their duller non-breeding plumage. The red eye and spotted-backed appearance confirmed the ID

Cape Weaver (Kaapse wewer / Ploceus capensis)

In non-breeding plumage the Cape Weaver male is still fairly easy to identify with its white eye colour and heavy bill, although lacking the chestnut brown wash over the face and neck which it shows during the summer breeding months. This is also the largest of the yellow weavers, by length and mass, but size is not always a dependable way to ID a bird unless the other candidate is sitting right next to it.

Cape Weaver male in partial non-breeding plumage, Addo Elephant Park

The female is less distinctive with brown eyes but the heavy bill helps to separate it from other non-breeding female weavers.

Spectacled Weaver (Brilwewer / Ploceus ocularis)

The Spectacled Weavers are easily distinguishable with their black ‘spectacles’ and black bill, while the black bib says this is a male.

The Sunbirds

Two species of Sunbird were drawn to the nectar produced by the flowering trees, very different in appearance but equally striking as they went about the business of extracting the nectar with long down-curved bills and even longer tongues to probe the flowers.

Amethyst Sunbird (Swartsuikerbekkie / Chalcomitra amethystina)

Amethyst Sunbird, Addo Elephant Park

Greater Double-collared Sunbird (Groot-rooibandsuikerbekkie / Cinnyris afer)

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Addo Elephant Park

Other Species

There were several other species that visited the chalet surrounds, not all of which chose to pose for a photo, but those that did seemed quite happy to be ‘in the picture’. Here are the species that spend most time in the trees and shrubs –

Red-winged Starling (Rooivlerkspreeu / Onychognathus morio)

Red-winged Starling, Addo Elephant Park

Fork-tailed Drongo (Mikstertbyvanger / Dicrurus adsimilis)

Fork-tailed Drongo, Addo Elephant Park

Streaky-headed Seedeater (Streepkopkanarie / Crithagra gularis)

This member of the Canary family (The Afrikaans name confirms it) is a great singer and fond of sitting in an exposed position, so is hard to miss, but can be confused with the similar looking White-throated Canary

Streaky-headed Seedeater (race humilis), Addo Elephant Park

Black-collared Barbet (Rooikophoutkapper / Lybius torquatus)

The Black-collared Barbet tends to be a tad shier than other species, keeping its distance in a bush and not venturing close to the chalet

Black-collared Barbet (race torquatus), Addo Elephant Park

Sombre Greenbul (Gewone willie / Andropadus importunus)

Then there’s the Sombre Greenbul, always heard, seldom seen – I managed to capture an image of this one as it made its way through dense shrubs

Sombre Greenbul (Andropadus importunus / Gewone willie), Addo Elephant Park

The species that spend more time on the ground also ‘popped by’ as they searched for grubs and insects in the gravelly ground around the chalet

Cape Robin-Chat (Gewone janfrederik / Cossypha caffra)

Cape Robin-Chat, Addo Elephant Park

The Cape Robin-Chat is not averse to hopping up onto a branch to survey the area

Cape Robin-Chat, Addo Elephant Park

Emerald-spotted Wood Dove (Groenvlekduifie / Turtur chalcospilos)

Easy to see where it gets its name from….

Emerald-spotted Wood Dove (race chalcospilis), Addo Elephant Park

Olive Thrush (Olyflyster / Turdus olivaceus)

Olive Thrush (race oliveaceous), Addo Elephant Park

Other Creatures

And here’s a couple of non-avian visitors to end off with…

Flightless Dung Beetle, Addo Elephant Park
Cape Grey Mongoose (Herpestes pulverulentus / Kaapse grysmuishond), Addo Elephant Park

How about a spectacular sunset, viewed from the stoep, to close out the day

Sunset, Addo Elephant Park

Twitching a Gull on Sundays

Actually it was on a Wednesday – but all will become clear as you read on…..

Road Trip to Eastern Cape

Our Road Trip from Mossel Bay to the Eastern Cape was into the third day, after spending the first two nights in the Nature’s Valley area, where we explored a few places we had last visited many years ago.

Our next stop was Addo Elephant National Park, half a day’s drive further east, so there was no need to rush, except ……. well, there was the small matter of a possible rarity in the back of my mind …..

Now, some readers may know by now that I am an opportunistic twitcher rather than an obsessive one – if a rare bird is reported at a spot which is within reach of where I happen to be, I will consider making an attempt to see it, as long as it does not entail extensive travel and there is a reasonably good chance of actually finding the rarity.

So what rare bird was in the back of my mind?

Well, for some time before this trip, in fact since the end of November 2020, there had been reports of a Sooty Gull that had been spotted at various places along the eastern coast of South Africa, a species never recorded before in the region, so classified as a “Mega Rarity” by those who are driven by such things.

I had been following its gradual progress southwards with interest, secretly hoping that 1) it would remain in the area long enough until our road trip began and 2) it would settle at a spot which was within ‘twitching distance’ of our planned route to the Eastern Cape. After the initial sighting in Northern Kwazulu Natal, the gull was spotted at Kei Mouth in the Eastern Cape and spent some weeks there.

I became more interested when the bird was spotted at the Sundays River Mouth, east of Port Elizabeth, early in March 2021 and remained there for the couple of weeks prior to our road trip. That was just what I had been hoping for, as I estimated that the detour to its location would fit into our travel plans with time to spare.

Extract from the SA Rare Bird News of 8 March 2021 with a report of the Sooty Gull

Sooty Gull

Now where had this rarity come from? No one can tell for sure but it is thought it had somehow ‘drifted’ far south of its usual territory, which is the Middle East and southwards to Tanzania, Kenya and the northern most reaches of Mozambique. Also known as the Aden Gull or Hemprich’s Gull, it was a couple of thousand kms outside its normal range when first spotted in SA. It is partially migratory, moving southwards after breeding, so perhaps its internal ‘GPS’ went awry and took it much further south than intended.

Being a coastal bird and a scavenger, it is most often found near ports and harbours, inshore islands and the intertidal zone.

The Journey

My journal tells the story ……

We left Nature’s Valley around 11 am with a drive of some 330 kms ahead of us – which took us all of 6 hours as it turned out! A quick stop at the Bread and Brew shop for pies to take to Addo and we were on our way. Initially the N2 National Road proved to be a good road with a broad shoulder, but from halfway it became more challenging with heavier traffic, several of the ubiquitous “Stop and Go’s” (one side of road closed at a time to allow construction work) and many slow heavy vehicles to get past.

The route (in blue) from Mossel Bay to Sundays River Mouth

I had discovered that morning that I had contrived to forget my camera’s battery charger at home and was desperately thinking how to find one for my particular camera in Port Elizabeth (PE) in a short space of time. Fortunately the first camera shop I phoned said they could help, but this meant a long, slow detour deep into the suburbs of PE to the shop. An hour or so and R700 (about $50) later I was the proud owner of a nifty universal battery charger and we set our sights on getting to Colchester, the town near the Sundays River Mouth.

Sundays River Mouth

After confirming the location on Google Maps, I had imagined driving through Colchester to the river mouth on a reasonable road, parking there and finding the Sooty Gull nearby – none of that happened!

We found Colchester some 30 kms east of PE, drove through to where the road to the mouth supposedly began and found ourselves on a road marked ‘Private’ and a locked gate blocking any further progress. I parked and went to enquire at the nearby Pearson Park office where I found a couple who confirmed that we were at the right place and told us “the entrance fee is R100”. It seemed odd that the river mouth had been privatised in this way but there was no time for a discussion and R100 seemed like a good investment for what I imagined to be a guaranteed lifer, so I paid the amount and, clutching the entrance ticket, returned to our car.

The gate opened and we proceeded along the road, initially tarred but soon it became gravel, very corrugated and worn, which had our small but fully loaded car bouncing along while I winced inwardly. The office couple had simply told us to “drive until you see parked cars”, which we did for several kms.

Some distance from the sea we found a parking area in between the low dunes, with two vehicles parked, one of which was about to leave, so I stopped them to enquire if they knew about ‘the bird’. They absolutely did as they were returning from a day’s fishing and they explained how I would find it on the beach “where those fishermen are, see?”. I didn’t want to admit that said fishermen were so far away that I couldn’t see them, thanked them as they drove off and set off myself on foot, munching on a take away chicken burger (there had been no time to stop for lunch), along the sand in the direction they had pointed.

Heading towards the beach
Looking back to where the car was parked, in the distance (my footprints show my progress)

At this stage it was already 3.30 pm and with the last stretch of road to Addo still ahead and of unfamiliar route and distance, I was becoming rather tense. I walked as quickly as the soft sand would allow, quickly seeking out the firmer sand along the edge of the estuary. After some 15 minutes of strenuous walking/ trotting I found myself closer to the beach. I could already see a few gulls pottering about on the sand – through the binos I could make out numbers of Kelp Gulls but of the Sooty Gull there was no sign and my heart sank just a tad.

Then, as I approached the last ridge in the sand before the beach and peered over it I spotted more gulls, one of which had a darker appearance. Lifting the binos to my eyes I let out a shout of “bingo!” or something similar – it was the Sooty Gull!

First glimpse of the Sooty Gull

Relieved, I spent the next 10 minutes slowly approaching and photographing the gull as I went, until I was 10 to 15 metres away and felt that I was close enough, not wanting to spook the bird, which seemed quite accepting of my slow approach, only once lifting into the air for a few seconds before carrying on with its foraging.

When seen with a Kelp Gull, the size and plumage differences are obvious
A closer view shows the red tip to the bill and the dark grey colouring which gave it the name “Sooty”
Sooty Gull, briefly in flight

This is the location where the gull was hanging out

Most satisfied with how things had turned out, I returned as hastily as possible to the parked car and my patient wife, sweating from the exertion but happy about the outcome. The rest of the trip to Addo was uneventful, but slow on the poor, bumpy and narrow roads and we were glad to arrive safely and in time before the gates closed, book in and find our chalet. Accompanied by a typical bush sunset, we could relax and savour a glass of red wine and the new lifer in beautiful surroundings.

What a challenge birding can be sometimes, yet what joy and satisfaction it brings.

How to find out about rarities

Just a footnote on news of Rarities in Southern Africa – for up to date news of rarities I highly recommended that you subscribe (at no cost) to the SA Rare Bird News by simply sending an email to hardaker@mweb.co.za and asking to be added to the subscriber list