Tag Archives: Birding South Africa

Atlasing – September 2020 : Lushof Lodge

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in September 2020 – in this case using an overnight stop to make the most of the birding on offer…

Heading home – at last!

After more than 5 months in Mossel Bay – a lot longer than our initial plan of 3 to 4 weeks – we decided to return to our other “home” in Pretoria. Mossel Bay’s charm and many advantages had worked their way into our minds and it was with some reluctance that we headed northwards, but Covid-19 had kept us away from our main home for too long and we knew it was time to get back.

We set off on a Friday, fully loaded, around 9 am and travelled the familiar route via George, Graaf-Reinet and Colesberg to our overnight accommodation at Lushof Lodge, some 50 km beyond Colesberg. Along the way we enjoyed take-away coffee and a picnic lunch – all part of the “new normal” way of doing things.

Lushof Lodge, which we last visited in January 2011, was as we remembered – set on a farm with a stream running through, lined with verdant growth. The accommodation was a comfortable cottage which we had all to ourselves, set on a hill overlooking an expanse of fields and veld and we were well looked after by Lise, the bright and friendly hostess and her staff.

The orange block shows the location of the pentad which includes Lushof Lodge, about 50 kms north-east of Colesberg

Lushof Lodge (Pentad 3025_2530)

By the time we had settled in and acquainted ourselves with the cottage, it was 5.30 pm and there was just enough time for a birding walk down to the stream, which forms a small dam on one side of the entrance road and a wetland covered in reeds on the other.

The dam was good for Common Moorhen while the wetland held a few African Reed Warblers, with Red Bishops occupying the reeds and a Kurrichane Thrush exploring the edges. The tall trees alongside were home to a Cardinal Woodpecker, which first revealed its presence with a soft tok-tok-tok as he poked at the branches in search of some protein.

Southern Red Bishop, Lushof Lodge

Returning up the short hill to the cottage I scanned the slopes of the hill above it and soon saw Speckled Mousebirds moving in straggling fashion from tree to bush, then heard a Grey-backed Cisticola and quickly picked it up as it flitted from one low bush to another. For good measure a Blue Crane called but I could not track it down in the gathering dusk.

Orange River White-eye, Lushof Lodge

That seemed to be it for the day and a bit later we settled down to a hearty Karoo lamb meal, brought to the cottage by Lise and her daughter. But there was one more surprise later on – when I peered outside briefly just before going to bed, a Rock Martin roosting under the roof overhang stared back at me and became species 20 on my pentad list .

Saturday Morning 5 September

An early night meant I could get a good night’s rest and still be up at 6 am to have a coffee in the crisp morning air outside our cottage, while adding to the previous afternoon’s list.

View from Lushof lodge

I was able to add another 9 species before heading off on a lengthy walk around the farm, including Cape Bunting, Yellow Canary, a calling Brubru (also widely known as the “telephone bird” because of its trilling, repeated call) and a Familiar Chat doing its ‘familiar’ sequence of perch, fly down to the ground, catch something small and return to the perch with a couple of wing flicks straight after landing.

Familiar Chat

Venturing away from the farmstead, I followed a track along the stream and heard two very different birds – first a Lesser Swamp Warbler hidden somewhere in the dense riverine vegetation, then a Blue Korhaan greeting the new day from somewhere up ahead. From the latter call I guessed the habitat must open up further on to be suitable for the latter species – indeed it did a couple of hundred metres further, affording an expansive view across fields and plains, but there was no sign of the Korhaan, which had probably moved on or concealed itself in the grass (which they are masters at doing)

Lushof Lodge

I headed back to spend some time in the lush area close to the farmhouse, with the river and wetland as focus points. Common Starlings and a Cape Wagtail caught my attention and then a flash of colour signaled the arrival of a Malachite Kingfisherin an overhanging tree, ready to spot and dive for a small fish, frog, crab or insect.

Malachite Kingfisher

Before returning for breakfast, which we had arranged to be brought to the cottage at 8 am, I had a look around the area beyond the stream and soon added Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler) and White-throated Canary. I tried to capture the latter species on camera as I knew it was a different sub-species (orangensis) from those I am used to seeing in the Southern Cape. I had limited success getting a clear photo, but they were better than nothing.

White-throated Canary (Crithagra albogularis / Witkeelkanarie) (race orangensis), Lushof Lodge

By the way if you think it’s a bit extreme not being satisfied with photographing bird species but trying to photograph all the subspecies as well, I confess I have had this “collectors” affliction since a young age and it seems to be getting worse….

After a substantial breakfast (to see us through the last day’s driving, you know) it was time to pack the car one last time, while still keeping an eye out for any birds to add. Fortunately so, as a Booted Eagle and a pair of SA Shelducks flew overhead within minutes of each other.

Booted Eagle, Lushof Lodge

On the road out we picked up Namaqua Dove and White-backed Mousebird, the dam near the highway held Blacksmith Lapwing and the adjoining grass boasted an Eastern Clapper Lark, giving us its version of goodbye as it performed its display flight in the air.

White-backed Mousebird, Lushof Lodge

The Stats

We left with a total of 48 species recorded which, considering the time of year, is a good indication of the quality of Lushof Lodge as a birding spot.

Of special note – this was only the third full protocol card completed for this pentad in 10 years, the previous two having been done by myself and Koos Pauw in 2010/11. A very under-atlased pentad!

11 new species were added to the pentad records –

  1. Brubru
  2. Cape Bunting
  3. Grey-backed Cisticola
  4. Blue Crane
  5. African Hoopoe
  6. Malachite Kingfisher
  7. Blue Korhaan
  8. Karoo Prinia
  9. South African Shelduck
  10. House Sparrow
  11. Chestnut-vented Warbler (Titbabbler)

Atlasing – August 2020 : Ruiterbos

Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in August 2020 ….. in this case to two pentads in the Ruiterbos area north of Mossel Bay, which turned out to be as contrasting as two pentads adjoining each other can be

Ruiterbos Area – 25 August

Still using my earlier analysis of pentads in the southern Cape which had not yet been atlased in 2020, I noticed that the Ruiterbos area had one pentad not atlased since 2018 and with very low species totals recorded, which piqued my interest – nothing like a challenging pentad to make things interesting! Low totals, I have found, are usually due to limited diversity of habitat (all birds are particular to a specific habitat) or limited means of access to parts of the pentad, preventing the atlaser from getting to all the habitats. In some instances both of the above can apply, which results in really low totals.

I decided to target the challenging pentad as well as the one directly south of it, which seemed to hold more promise. Both are within about 45 minutes of home – the maps below show the location of the former…

The Route

With sunrise gradually coming earlier each day in late August, just a week away from Spring day, I set the alarm a bit earlier and left home at 6.15 am. I followed the R328 regional road to Oudtshoorn, passing Brandwag village and turned left at Ruiterbos Farm stall then travelled a couple of Kms along this quiet road before reaching the start of the first pentad at around 7 am.

Sunrise, Ruiterbos area

Pentad 3355_2155

Birding got off to a brisk start with calls of several species welcoming the new day – a cool, fresh morning with little cloud. Blue Crane, Bokmakierie, Cape Grassbird, Grey-backed Cisticola, Red-necked (Cape Turtle) Dove, even Hadada Ibis all joined the chorus.

Cape Grassbird (Sphenoeacus afer / Grasvoël) (Race afer), Ruiterbos area

Not much further along the gravel road I stopped at two adjacent fields which showed how differences in usage of farming land can have a noticeable impact on the species to be found. The first was covered in lush green lucerne and was seemingly reserved for the “big boys” – Egyptian and Spur-winged Goose and Blue Cranes were prominent. The adjacent field had short patchy grass with a scattering of stones and cowpats – clearly used for grazing of cattle and the realm of the smaller guys – Lapwings (Crowned), Larks (Red-capped) and Pipits (Plain-backed).

Plain-backed Pipit (Anthus leucophrys / Donkerkoester), Ruiterbos area
Red-capped Lark (Calandrella cinerea / Rooikoplewerik) (Race cinerea), Ruiterbos area

Descending into a valley, I passed a fruit farm which had entire fields draped in protective shade cloth, mostly to keep insects out I would guess, but equally proficient at keeping birds away, creating a very sterile environment.

Ruiterbos area

I did not dawdle and proceeded out of the valley into the hills beyond – what a contrast – suddenly the hills were alive with bird sounds, which were music to my ears (why do I feel a song coming on?). The next twenty minutes were bountiful, with 3 species of Sunbird (Southern Double-collared, Orange-breasted and Malachite), Cape Buntings and Cape Canaries twittering away, Stonechat and an African Olive Pigeon (New record).

Klaas’s Cuckoo (new record) announced its presence with its well-known “Meitjie” call and I wondered if it was an early arrival or perhaps one of those that had overwintered in the area, as they are known to do. A Cape Batis became my first record of this species for the year.

Cape Batis

After an hour and a half in the pentad, I had logged 34 species – a good start, and being close to the second “challenging” pentad, I decided to tackle it while birds were still active and come back to the first pentad a bit later. This would hopefully maximise my chances of getting a reasonable total in the second pentad which, from the stats, was going to produce a low bird-count card, for reasons as yet unknown.

Ruiterbos area

I returned later in the morning to complete a second “shift” in this pentad, carrying on where I had stopped before. I was now out of the prime birding area, into flatter countryside with less bush, but was still able to add regularly to my atlas card with the likes of Rock Kestrel, Victorin’s Warbler and African Black Swift (New record).

Victorin’s Warbler, Ruiterbos area

I managed to get a reasonable photo of the Rock kestrel – I had seen it returning with a small prey to its perch on top of a utility pole and guessed it would be pre-occupied while devouring it, which would allow a closer approach than usual. I was right and it only flew off again when the prey was ripped apart and swallowed.

Rock Kestrel (Falco rupicolus / Kransvalk), Ruiterbos area

Along the last stretch before exiting the pentad,another photo opportunity arose – this time an Olive Bushshrike (New record). I heard it calling from a particularly bushy area alongside the road and once I thought I had found the spot where it was concealed (which they are very good at doing) I tried some “pishing” which is a useful way of getting some species to pop out momentarily.

The Bushshrike obliged for just a few seconds, curious as to what was making this sound which birds associate with danger and I was able to snatch a few images – my best of this species to date!

Olive Bushshrike (Chlorophoneus olivaceus / Olyfboslaksman) (Race olivaceus), Ruiterbos area

The pentad had produced 50 species in all, and some very special ones at that.

Pentad 3350_2155

This was the pentad that had me wondering about the low totals logged by others. I soon found out why – apart from the first km or so which runs through open hills, the rest of the only access road ran through a commercial pine plantation, habitat which is notoriously sterile when it comes to bird life. The open stretch held Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia, Red-necked Spurfowl and African Pipit.

African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus / Gewone koester), Ruiterbos area

Entering the plantation, birding – and indeed life itself – seemed to slow down…

Paardekop Plantation, Ruiterbos area
Paardekop Plantation, Ruiterbos area

It was nevertheless a most pleasant environment to be in, despite being less than attractive for most bird species – exceptions were Black-headed Orioles, Cape Canaries, Cape Bulbul, and Cape White-eye, all of which I found easily and repeatedly, mostly at the fringes of the plantations.

At one stop, Greater Double-collared Sunbirds were curious bystanders but most stops were met with dead silence and no discernable movement, so each species added was quite precious as I slowly built on the list.

After two hours birding in the invigorating pine-scented air, I found I had reached 20 species, amazingly the second best total for the pentad out of 15 cards completed to date! I later found that I had added 3 new species to the pentad records, being Hadada Ibis (!), Speckled Pigeon and Black Sawwing.

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%

A Trip to the Wilderness…

Just in case you are expecting a tale of a wild trip into a far-off uninhabited, inhospitable area, let me start by saying that this Wilderness is the name of the town that lies a short drive east of George in the southern Cape……

We were in Mossel Bay in the southern Cape during much of the lockdown period and, once travel restrictions became less severe, we made a point of doing regular day trips to some of the delightful spots along the Garden Route. One of our trips was to Wilderness and specifically the surrounding area and the vleis (lakes) that are a feature of this part of the Garden Route.

Although not primarily a birding outing, we decided to include a visit to the bird hides at two vleis which we had visited some years ago and knew from social media reports that the hides were in good condition and well looked after. (Just a side note – why are they called bird hides? Surely the purpose is to hide people from the birds and not vice versa? Apologies, that’s my pedantic side coming to the fore!)

Day Trip 27 August 2020

We left Mossel Bay just after 10 am (“gentleman’s hour” as one colleague in my career called it) – I had heard that the small wetland adjoining the Hartenbos Water Treatment Works just outside Mossel Bay was humming with bird life after good rains, so we made a brief detour to take us past the wetland.

It was indeed full of waterbirds and during our 10 minute stop I had listed 14 species without too much effort, including Little Grebe, Red-billed Teal, Grey-headed Gull and Black-winged Stilt. However, there was no sign of the African Swamphen that had been reported by others.

Our next stop was Victoria Bay for a picnic tea on a bench overlooking the beach – relatively quiet on a weekday, other than the usual complement of keen surfers enjoying the prime conditions of this favourite beach of ours.

Victoria Bay

Familiar calls emanated from the bush which borders the beach area and on both sides of the steep approach road – Sombre Greenbul, Knysna Warbler, Southern Boubou, Neddicky and Bar-throated Apalis could all be heard loud and clear, but apart from brief glimpses they all remained well hidden.

From Vic Bay we headed through Wilderness to the turn-off to “The Vleis” then followed further signage to the hide at Langvlei (literally Long Lake).

The boardwalk to the hide at Langvlei, Wilderness

It was quite windy and from the hide hundreds of waterfowl were visible bouncing on the choppy water. Most were Red-knobbed Coots but there were also a few Black-necked Grebe, a species I don’t see often so a welcome sight, and several Little Grebes.

Red-knobbed Coot (Fulica cristata / Bleshoender), Langvlei Wilderness
Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis / Kleindobbertjie), Langvlei Wilderness

A few of the birds came close to the hide, so that I was able to get a few photos, but the one I hoped would approach was the Black-necked Grebe, which seemed to move even further away to frustrate my efforts for a reasonable photo.

Black-necked Grebe, Langvlei Wilderness

A post in the shallow water was occupied by an African Darter, providing a good opportunity to get a better shot than the reluctant Grebe

African Darter (Anhinga rufa / Slanghalsvoël), Langvlei Wilderness

On the way back to the car I spotted a butterfly next to the pathway – a lovely specimen of the Garden Inspector – also used as the heading image to this post

The next hide at Rondevlei (literally Round Lake) was a 5 minute drive away – I left Gerda in the car at the parking spot, after checking that it was a safe environment, and walked the short distance to the hide. The bird life was similar as far as the waterfowl goes but one nice feature of this hide is the dead tree stumps positioned several metres away in the shallow water, which were occupied by Cormorants.

White-breasted and Cape Cormorant, Rondevlei Wilderness

A quick scan showed that there were no less than three cormorant species present and all were quite nicely posed for photographs, except for one that insisted on playing “Where’s my head gone” with me.

White-breasted Cormorant (Phalacrocorax lucidus / Witborsduiker), Rondevlei Wilderness

I spent a few minutes getting some nice shots of the Cormorants, which are often difficult to identify at a distance, but close up the subtleties of bill and gape colouring, eyes and overall appearance become far more obvious.

Reed Cormorant (Microcarbo africanus / Rietkormorant), Rondevlei Wilderness
Cape Cormorant (Phalacrocorax capensis / Trekkormorant), Rondevlei Wilderness

The difference in eye colour is particularly startling – something which I will highlight in a follow-up post to this one.

It was time to head homewards, but first we were keen to find a suitably pleasant spot for our picnic lunch. We both had somewhat vague memories of taking the kids many years ago to the “beach in the corner” at Wilderness, but had no idea of the amenities we might find, so I turned off at the road leading to the beachfront area and drove between the many holiday homes until we reached the end and – hooray! – there was the spot, complete with tables and benches.

Wilderness beach picnic

It was just what we were looking for and we enjoyed our ham and cheese rolls and coffee, with a magnificent view of the wide expanse of beach and high waves rolling in.

Wilderness beach

A day trip to remember, also our last outing before returning to Pretoria the following week, after almost 6 months in Mossel Bay.

My Atlasing Month – August 2020 : Albertinia Area

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

Albertinia north-west – 7 August

I looked for two pentads not too far from Mossel Bay, our home during lockdown, and not yet atlased in 2020 – my survey resulted in me selecting two pentads in the area north-west of Albertinia, an area which I have found to be pleasant and productive from a birding point of view, so they fitted my plans well.

Albertinia north

The Route

Getting to the starting point of the first pentad meant driving west along the N2 National road to Albertinia, then north towards the mountains and west again along the gravel road that ran through the pentad, ensuring that the sun would be behind me during the prime early morning birding hours.

As I drove along the already busy N2, the view northwards was across low valleys which were filled with mist, giving them the appearance of large fluffy lakes surrounded by hills.

The morning was one of the coldest I’ve experienced in these parts, with the car indicating an outside temperature of just 1 degree C as I approached the starting point – thank goodness I had purchased a woolen beanie the day before, which I now donned to prevent the cold penetrating beyond my ears to my brain – who knows what damage that could do (although some would say the damage was done ages ago).

Chilly morning in Albertinia

Fortunately it warmed up as the day progressed and by 11 am I was in shirt sleeves and the beanie was replaced by my battered hat.

Pentad 3400_2125

The map below shows the location of the pentad, north west of Albertinia. For those who have not visited South Africa, the town marked Agulhas at bottom left is where the southernmost tip of the African continent is located and is a favourite tourist stop.

And this is a closer view of the first pentad, shown by the red square below

Right at the start of this pentad I came across a roadkill victim in the middle of the gravel road and stopped to see what it was (dead birds can be recorded when atlasing) – it was a Crowned Lapwing, largely undamaged so I moved it to the verge just to save it the further indignity of being trampled by other vehicles.

Albertinia north

The road was damp with puddles in places from the previous day’s rain and birds were plentiful. Changing quickly into atlasing mode, I followed my usual strategy of driving very slowly and stopping frequently to look around and listen for calls – in the first hour I recorded 26 species while progressing just 2 kms along the road, with so many interesting and promising spots to investigate.

Albertinia north

Fresh footprints in the damp mud at roadside had me somewhat puzzled – left by someone running, judging by the depth of the imprints, and someone with very tough feet, going on the very gritty surface.

All the usual suspects were present including Blue Crane and Large-billed Lark, African Pipit and Fork-tailed Drongo, but also some of the scarcer species such as Denham’s Bustard (twice) and Grey-backed Cisticola.

African Pipit (Anthus cinnamomeus / Gewone koester, Albertinia north

Cape Longclaw on a fence presented a good photo opportunity, as they so often do, but Red-capped Larks in the road were not as cooperative and flew off each time I tried to position the car/ myself/my camera, settling tantalisingly back in the road a way ahead and often on the opposite side to where my camera was pointing. It was probably my imagination but I thought I detected a smirk on their faces each time they left me cursing under my breath. Bird photography can sometimes be a tad frustrating!

Cape Longclaw (Macronyx capensis / Oranjekeelkalkoentjie), Albertinia north

A small dam held Grey Heron, Yellow-billed Duck and Little Grebe to add some waterbirds to my list. The last half hour produced two Canaries – Brimstone and Yellow Canary, the third Lark of the day – Agulhas Long-billed Lark, and Cape Grassbird to take the card total to a respectable 48 species.

Pentad 3400_2120

The second pentad of the morning lies directly west of the first, so I continued along the same road and through habitat similar to the first. Species were mostly a repeat of what I had recorded in the first pentad. Some notable exceptions were Little Rush Warbler which I heard calling from a well reeded stream that I crossed and a Rock Kestrel that passed overhead during one of my many stops.

Albertinia north

I spent a coffee break at a copse of bluegum trees next to the road at a farmyard and watched the Fork-tailed Drongo‘s actively flying about and hawking flying insects. A Cardinal Woodpecker called a loud rapid ch-ch-ch-ch-ch and it didn’t take too long to find it high up against the branches of the trees, pecking at cavities and using its barbed tongue to extract larvae of beetles and other insects, spiders and ants.

Fork-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis / Mikstertbyvanger), Albertinia North

Passing fields brimming with bright yellow canola, a Yellow Bishop with an equally bright yellow rump and perched on the fence presented an interesting photo opportunity, so I positioned myself and my camera, with some difficulty, so that the background would be the yellow of the canola while hoping the Bishop would stay where it was. It did and I managed to take a few shots, but the distance from the bird meant it was not as sharp as I had hoped… still quite unusual –

Yellow Bishop (Euplectes capensis / Kaapse flap) (Race capensis), Albertinia north

Moments later it flew off

Yellow Bishop (Euplectes capensis / Kaapse flap) (Race capensis), Albertinia north

A last dam before leaving the pentad held a pair of Water Thick-knee, inconspicuously standing among bushes along the fringe of the dam, while a few Brown-throated Martins raced about over the water.

Water Thick-knee (Burhinus vermiculatus / Waterdikkop), Albertinia north

As I left the pentad I spotted some Red-billed Queleas in a thorn tree, the last record for the day to take the pentad total to 41 and my day’s total to a pleasing 63 after some 5 hours of atlasing this most pleasant part of the southern Cape.

My Atlasing Month – July 2020 (Part 3 )

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

Great Brak and Mount Hope – 24 July

I chose two pentads quite far from each other – only because I had started atlasing Great Brak River a few days prior and was within the 5 day maximum atlas period, so I was keen to complete this pentad. The choice for the second pentad was one not yet atlased in 2020 and the most appealing one was located on the other side of the Outeniqua Pass, on the way to Oudtshoorn.

This meant a lengthy drive to get there, which on the day was made a lot longer by the convoy of 3 “Abnormal Load” vehicles trundling up the pass at a snail’s pace, with no chance of overtaking on this single lane, twisty road. Even a stop for coffee halfway up the pass to let the long queue of cars get ahead of me, did not help much as I quickly caught up with them again, but at least I wasn’t stewing in the queue all that time, but could enjoy a relaxed cup of coffee and an egg (forgetting of course that it was a bird that produced it)

Outeniqua pass with abnormal load vehicles in the distance, heading right

Pentad 3400_2210

Great Brak is always a pleasurable spot to atlas, particularly the part that lies around the river estuary, which is a local waterbird hotspot. I had started atlasing during a brief 15 minute stop the previous Tuesday, on the way back from a day trip to Knysna.

It was an hour before sunset and with the setting sun behind us as we drove slowly along the Suiderkruis road on the western side of the estuary, we had perfect light for viewing and photography for those 15 minutes. It was enough time to record 17 species including Greater Flamingo (with 3 juveniles nearby), Little Grebe, Black-winged Stilt, Little Egret, African Spoonbill and Cape Teal.

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus / Grootflamink) (Juvenile), Great Brak
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta / Kleinwitreier), Great Brak
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus / Rooipootelsie), Great Brak

When editing the images I played around with the above photo – can you see what I did in this next photo ? Answer at end of Post….

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus / Rooipootelsie), Great Brak

On the Friday morning I set out to continue atlasing at 7.30 am – sunrise in midwinter – along the gravel road that runs between Klein Brak and Great Brak just north of the N2 national road. The first birds were fairly mundane – Doves, Hadeda, Egyptian Goose – then I stopped to scan the settling ponds of the waste water treatment works and heard Little Rush Warbler and Cape Grassbird, both very distinctive calls, and saw White-faced Ducks on the opposite side of one of the ponds. An encouraging start to the morning!

Roadworks in progress over the next stretch of road, including a “stop and go” one way system, meant a short delay followed by a forced rush until I was through the village of Great Brak and heading northwards into hilly country, along a twisting gravel road lined with bush both sides and steeply sloping ground falling away to one side.

Great Brak River

Several stops along the way, but only along the longer straight parts of the road so that approaching cars would be able to see me in time, added both Southern and Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Bar-throated Apalis, Cape White-eye, Sombre Greenbul and Southern Boubou. When I reached the plateau the habitat changed quickly to farmland and I soon came to the northern boundary of the pentad, so it was time to turn back.

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Great Brak River
Sombre Greenbul, Great Brak River

I wanted to hit the estuary again before moving on to the next pentad and I headed for the eastern side to avoid having the sun in my eyes. I was rewarded with Mallard, a couple of Pied Avocets (5% – so quite scarce), Grey Heron, plenty of Greater Crested (Swift) Terns and a Common Sandpiper, the latter surely one of the first arrivals from European Russia – heck it’s still winter here and the migrants are already arriving!

Common Sandpiper, Great Brak River

While scanning the waters for other waterbirds a Klaas’s Cuckoo (9%) called “Meitjie” (it’s Afrikaans name, pronounced “maykie”) to confirm its presence. As I left this superb birding spot a single Cape Sugarbird (10%) flew between bushes to take my total for the first pentad to 54, after some 2.5 hours of atlasing.

Cape Sugarbird

Pentad 3345_2215

In hindsight I should have chosen a second pentad closer to the first – my trip between the pentads took over an hour including the “abnormal load” induced delay and coffee stopheading up and over the Outeniqua Pass which takes you from sea level to an elevation of 800 metres – not all that high but enough to bring the temperature down substantially until I was into Klein Karoo country on the way to Oudtshoorn.

It meant that I only started the second pentad at 11 am – hardly the ideal time for birding, especially in the Klein Karoo where the birds tend to disappear during the middle of the day. Nonetheless the first half hour was quite lively as I passed through mainly farmland and found Ibises (Sacred and Hadeda), Egyptian Geese and Black-headed Heron – all species that prefer open fields.

That was followed by the bird of the day as I came across a flock of Black-headed Canaries (15%) – a species that I have seen few enough times to count on one hand.

I continued past several more farms and a small stream until I came across the next exciting find when I spotted a flock of Swifts in the air – way too early for returning migrants I thought. As it turned out they were Alpine Swifts (6%) which are partial intra-African migrants so probably hadn’t come far by Swallow / Swift standards but always a joy to see with their speedy flight and white belly making them one of the easier swifts to call.

Alpine Swift, (taken in Augrabies NP)

A large farm dam disappointingly produced not a single bird and thereafter birding became really slow as I headed into more arid countryside with almost no signs of visible farming. Just when my birding spirits were flagging I came across a Mountain Wheatear (New record) and shortly after that excitement another smaller dam was more productive with both SA Shelducks and Yellow-billed Ducks in residence.

SA Shelduck

In the surrounding bush I found a Bar-throated Apalis, as feisty as always, and in a tall tree a Pale Chanting Goshawk provided a pleasing conclusion to the pentad, which stood at a total of 34 species – not at all bad considering the time of day. I took the shortest route back to Mossel Bay, eventually getting back on to tar at the R328 and completed the long circular route home.

The Answer ……..

If you guessed that the second Black-winged Stilt photo is a copy of the first but inverted, you win this week’s prize, which is a genuine “well done” from me!

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%

My Atlasing Month – July 2020 (Part 2 )

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

Albertinia Area – 17 July

I had not atlased in the Albertinia area for a few years, so was keen to see if it would prove to be as enjoyable as before, with its combination of attractive countryside, quiet roads and interesting birds.

Using the analysis of pentads that I had prepared at the beginning of July, I chose one that I had identified as not yet atlased in 2020 and for convenience added an adjacent pentad that had already been atlased by another birder during the year.

I set the alarm for what I thought was 5.45 am but added an hour by mistake (does Freudian slip apply in this case? I am not a natural early riser) so I only reached the first pentad at 8.15 am, well after sunrise, which is around 7.30 am at this time of year.

The Route

From Mossel Bay it is an easy 40 minute’s drive to Albertinia along the N2 national road, already quite busy at this time of the morning, At Albertinia I turned off towards the town centre – blink and you miss it in such a small town – and spent a while around the town and surrounds before heading further north towards the main birding route for the morning – a gravel country road signposted Kleinplaas (“Small farm”) that traverses both of my target pentads from east to west.

The route for the morning

Pentad 3410_2130

Bird life was lively right from the start, despite – or perhaps because of – the late start, with a long Vee of Sacred Ibises in flight overhead, setting the scene for another absorbing morning of my favourite pastime – atlasing.

Sacred Ibis

My first stop was at the local golf course – a nine hole, rather basic one set in parkland with “greens” that were in fact made up of bare soil treated with oil or some such agent to keep them smooth and firm. The small dam in the middle was too far from where I could view it to be able to hear calls, but I could just make out Reed Cormorant and Gyppos (Egyptian Goose). A circuit of the road around the course produced Southern Red Bishop (in drab non-breeding plumage), African Hoopoe, Red-knobbed Coot and even a Yellow-billed Duck emerging from a patch of reeds in a stream.

Southern Red Bishop (winter plumage)

Heading north out of town, I quickly got into my routine of stopping to look and listen every couple of hundred metres and carried on in this fashion until I came to the first turn-off which was the gravel road that meandered through the pentad from east to west.

This road of about 6 kms in length is bordered by farmland for the entire distance and took me close on two hours to complete, with many distractions besides the birds – but more of that in a moment, first the birds, which came in a steady flow at every stop :

Denham’s Bustard (seen twice) flying by majestically

Denham’s Bustard, Albertinia area

Sheep kraal with Red-capped Larks pottering about amongst the sheep

An unexpected Three-banded Plover in the same sheep kraal

Blue Cranes calling in their guttural fashion

Large-billed Larks calling from sparsely grassed fields in their unique way – sounding just like a rusty gate badly in need of some oil

Cape Crows heard in the distance then seen as they came closer

At least half a dozen Capped Wheatears in a large lightly grassed field scattered with stones – I find them so often in similar habitat that I can only conclude that this is ideal for them

Capped Wheatear (Oenanthe pileata / Hoëveldskaapwagter) (Race pileata), Albertinia area

Sharing this habitat preference were several Crowned Lapwings and a few Agulhas Long-billed Larks, the latter a sought after species amongst birders, only because their distribution is limited. In this area they are quite easy to find.

Crowned Lapwing (Vanellus coronatus / Kroonkiewiet) (Race coronatus), Albertinia area
Common Fiscal (Lanius collaris / Fiskaallaksman) (Race collaris), Albertinia area
Fiscal Flycatcher (Sigelus silens / Fiskaalvlieëvanger) (Race silens), Albertinia area

While revelling in this excellent birding, it was brought home to me how much more there is to atlasing than “just” the birds encountered (although that of course is the primary objective of the activity) – it’s also about the whole experience of travelling along routes that most people will never see and the interesting sights and sounds that lie around every bend.

This particular trip stood out in that regard – and here’s why ….

I came across fields of dark green lucerne followed by canola fields in bloom, stretching into the distance and carpeting the landscape in bright yellow.

Canola fields, Albertinia area

I enjoyed coffee and rusks on a lonely road where thoughts of the Covid 19 pandemic were far away

I was fascinated by an old “tin” cottage, long since abandoned, with an equally old barn next to it – I couldn’t help wondering what stories it could tell about the people who lived there and tended the small garden or worked in the barn, with pigs and sheep and perhaps a dog or two occupying the yard.

Abandoned farm house, Albertinia area
Abandoned farm house, Albertinia area

As I approached the fence to take these photos, a Jackal Buzzard flew out of the gum trees beside the house – perhaps to remind me not to get too distracted and to focus on the birding.

Abandoned farm house, Albertinia area

But there was more – an incongruous red telephone booth in the middle of an active farmyard had me wondering again – where didi it come from and why was it there?

Farm with postbox, Albertinia area

And with that I came to the end of the first pentad with a total of 48 species recorded. On checking the previous records for the pentad I found that the Red-billed Queleas I had seen was a new record, while Long-billed Crombec was just the second record.

Pentad 3410_2125

There was more of the same as I continued into the adjacent pentad along the same road, with the time now already 10.30 am, so well past the prime birding time. Nevertheless I recorded 20 species in the first half hour, before stopping for mid-morning coffee and a customary hard-boiled egg – my new list included pleasing species such as Brimstone Canary, never common, Grey-backed Cisticola and Red-capped Lark.

Albertinia area

The road left the pentad on its northern bounday so I took the first road southwards to return to the pentad – and this is where the birding slowed down as I traversed less favourable habitat – so much so that it took all of the next one and a half hours (to make up the two hour minimum atlasing required) to push the species total up to a hard-won 33. Blame it on flatter countryside with too much alien bush, pockets of pine and gum trees and overgrown fields

Despite this I had a glorious morning’s atlasing in attractive countryside

Oh… and I also came across this ostrich look-alike – its rather wooden expression had me guessing for a split second….

“Wooden Ostrich”, Albertinia area

My Atlasing Month – July 2020 (Part 1 )

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

Klein Karoo South of Oudtshoorn – 1 July

Klein Karoo (Little Karoo) ? – for those not familiar with this South African region it is the dry area

The Route

Before embarking on this atlasing outing, I did an analysis of the frequency of atlasing over the last three years in the area around Mossel Bay, homing in on those pentads which appeared under-atlased in the period. I came up with about 10 pentads and, keen to do some Karoo birding, I decided on two that were located off the R328 road between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn, on the northern side of the Langeberg mountains.

I have made several trips to this area in the past and love the feel of the Karoo, so I was anxious to get there by sunrise – around 7.30 am during the mid-winter months. I reckoned it would take an hour’s drive so left home just after 6.30 am and headed past Hartenbos along the R328 road past the familiar landmarks of Eight Bells Resort (currently closed) and the twisty, steep in places Robinson Pass which tops out at 860 m. I always keep an eye on the car’s outside temperature gauge at this point and wasn’t surprised to see it reflecting a chilly 4 degrees C. I reached the first pentad soon after.

Pentad 3340_2205

The air was crisp and clear when I made the first stop near the turn-off to the village of Volmoed and I spent the next 15 minutes drinking in the pureness of it while the sun cast a pale rosy wash over the surrounding hills.

Oudtshoorn south

It did not take long to pick up the calls of Large-billed Lark, seen shortly after, Grey-backed Cisticola, Ring-necked (Turtle) Dove and a distant Southern Black Korhaan to get the list off to a good start.

Large-billed Lark (Galerida magnirostris / Dikbeklewerik), Oudtshoorn south
Southern Black Korhaan (Afrotis afra / Swartvlerkkorhaan)

The booming call of an Ostrich and a nearby group reinforced just how popular this enormous bird is as commercial farming livestock in these parts, dating back 100 years to the era when ostrich feathers brought great wealth to the region, still visible in the old “Ostrich Palaces” which the farmers of those times built with their new-found wealth. But I did not record it as it is not a natural resident of the area. A Karoo Chat made up for that,,,

Karoo Chat (Cercomela schlegelii / Karoospekvreter) (race Pollux), Oudtshoorn south

A flock of Pied Starlings passed by, no doubt off to start another busy day of foraging.

Pied Starling (Lamprotornis bicolor / Witgatspreeu), Oudtshoorn south

Driving on slowly, watching out for approaching vehicles so that I could pull over onto the verge, I saw Cape Bulbul, Malachite Sunbird, White-throated Canary and Layard’s Titbabbler (New record) before reaching the turn-off signposted Mount Hope, which raised my … er … hopes.

Oudtshoorn south

I spent some time driving the gravel road which initially runs next to a dry river course – single width in places so I had to be extra cautious while watching for oncoming cars and bakkies (pickups). Birds were not plentiful so I headed back to the main road and on to the next turn-off, this time to the opposite side and signposted Kandelaarsrivier (literally “chandelier river” – wonder where that name came from?) – suddenly birds were more plentiful, probably due to the farms, ploughed fields and ostrich encampments which lined the first part of the road.

Atlasing Little Karoo

My encounters with curious farmers have been a feature of my atlasing outings and I have met many interesting people along the way, albeit briefly. Today was no exception, although the age profile of the “farmer” was somewhat different this time – more about that at the end of this post.

It was not too long before I reached the boundary of the first pentad, with my species total standing on 38 hard-won species. The second pentad was adjacent to the first but involved a 15 minute drive to get to a convenient starting point before I could start recording again.

Pentad 3340_2200

I started the new pentad in familiar territory in the village of Volmoed (literally “full of hope”) but it was now 11 am and it was immediately apparent that slow “middle of the day” birding lay ahead, with very few birds showing in the arid habitat.

This area is so arid the local rugby “field” is un-grassed – I doubt if they do those spectacular dives when scoring a try on this ground!

Rugby field, Volmoed

Hoping to get a better start, I headed to the Paardebont turn-off a few kms further – the first stretch of this gravel road is used by heavy vehicles transporting sand from the quarry some way down this road and I had learnt from previous visits that it is a road best avoided until after the quarry, as the dust kicked up by these vehicles creates something akin to a thick brown fog each time they pass, making any attempt at birding at best unpleasant, at worst impossible

Fortunately I also knew that there is an unmarked side road/track that heads back to the village, which I took and spent the next hour exploring as it runs near another dry river course with enough bush to attract several bird species, including Karoo Scrub-Robin, African Hoopoe, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Cape Bunting and Long-billed Crombec.

Butterfly: Meadow white (Pontia helice helice / Bontrokkie), Oudtshoorn south

Back on the dusty Paardebont road I stopped for a recce at the low water bridge, thankfully with a concrete surface that was a veritable island in a sea of dust when the inevitable large truck rumbled past. A Namaqua Warbler took my total for the pentad to a modest 20 and after passing the quarry birding got even slower. Ahead lay more attractive, hilly countryside dotted with pleasant farmsteads, which I hoped would be more productive.

Atlasing Little Karoo

I lingered at every likely spot for the last hour and after the minimum two hours required for a “full protocol” pentad card, I had increased the total to 28, including a White-throated Canary and a very pleasing Greater Honeyguide calling from the valley below me, right on the pentad boundary.

White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south

Despite the low-ish totals and lack of any bodies of water, I returned home well pleased – there is something very rewarding about atlasing in the Klein Karoo.

An encounter with a farmer..

As mentioned earlier, my encounters with farmers while atlasing in their “patch” have often been a highlight of the day. Today produced yet another encounter with a farmer, or more correctly a future one.

I was driving slowly along a dead quiet back road lined with fields when I noticed a quad bike approaching in the rear view mirror and was soon overtaken by it – it was being driven by a young boy and an even younger girl was clinging for all she was worth to her big brother. They looked at me curiously as they went by but did not stop.

Not long after, they returned and stopped next to my vehicle – the lad, no more than 10 years old at a guess – asked me “kyk Oom voels?” (Are you looking at birds?) I replied “Ja” and tried to explain, in terms that I thought a youngster would understand, what I was doing. I established that he was Liam and his “sussie” (sister) was Lea, whereupon Liam in bright fashion carefully explained how to get to a certain gate on their (ie his parent’s) farm, where I was welcome to go in and, as he put it, spend some time waiting for the birds to come, while keeping myself concealed (all in Afrikaans, with a delightful “brei” – the distinct rolling of the r’s while talking, unique to parts of the southern Cape ).

He assured me that, using this technique, I would see “blerrie baie voels” (literally “a bladdy lot of birds”). I had to suppress a chuckle at his choice of words, obviously picked up from his parents, but at the same time felt his grasp of what I was doing was quite mature.

All this time his young sister, perhaps 6 years old, kept quiet, watching me with large eyes. I thanked Liam for his advice but told him I couldn’t linger too long as I had a day’s atlasing ahead. We parted ways with him advising me to look out for White-eyes as they were plentiful in the area, leaving me pleased about his enthusiasm and understanding at such a young age.

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%

My Atlasing Month – June 2020 (Part 2 )

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

Friemersheim Area – 20 June

It was 2 weeks since my previous atlasing trip so I was keen to get out and about – Friemersheim is a small village inland of Mossel Bay and lies in pleasant countryside with quiet roads – just the thing for a morning’s relaxing birding / atlasing. Both of the pentads I chose had not yet been atlased in 2020 so met my other main criteria – one did get atlased in the meantime but that was not going to put me off

Friemersheim area – early morning

The Route

I followed the N2 highway for a short distance eastwards of Mossel Bay, turning off at Tergniet and heading along gravel roads to the southern boundary of the first pentad, 3355_2210. The “main” gravel road runs south-north with a branch to the east through a deep gorge. I spent time on these roads, then proceeded to the adjacent pentad 3355_2205, starting on its eastern boundary and doing a large anti-clockwise circle through the village, out into the hills and mountains to the north and returning to where I had started. The last stretch southwards soon left the pentad and took me back to the road to Klein Brak and homewards

Pentad 3355_2210

The gravel road runs through prime farmland with planted fields, plenty of cattle and regular small dams, good varied habitat for regular bird sightings. The first field was filled with Sacred Ibises with a sprinkling of Hadedas, while Cattle Egrets dominated the next field along with their “hosts” – some handsome looking, well-fed cattle.

Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis / Veereier), Friemersheim area

Next up was a group of Black-winged Lapwings, one of the “specials” of this area which were standing like mini statues among tufts of grass in a sparsely grassed field.

A Black-winged Kite caught my attention as I passed a tall bare tree, so I stopped and used my best stealthy approach (picture it – ageing birder bent over and creeping slowly towards said tree, armed with camera, trying to be inconspicuous – I bet the Kite was chuckling to itself) which worked fine until I pressed the shutter, when the Kite decided to fly off. As it turned out, the camera captured it at the moment of take off, so I was quite pleased at getting an image different from the usual “sitting on a branch” one of this good looking raptor.

Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus / Blouvalk), Friemersheim area

Then it was the turn of an Amethyst Sunbird, usually found in heavy foliage, sitting exposed on a fence and singing vigorously, doing a great impression of a canary.

Just to illustrate the difference that the lens setting makes – the first photo is the “normal” view from the car, the second uses the full telephoto of 600mm and the photo is further cropped to get the “close up” view – gotta love technology!

Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina / Swartsuikerbekkie), Friemersheim area

A turn-off just after, sign-posted Kleinplaas (literally “Small farm”) was one that I recalled from a previous trip, but I could not remember where it went, so had to explore it again. Very soon I found the road dropping away steeply into a deep forested kloof with a dark brown, tannin-stained river running through it.

Grootrivier, Friemersheim area

Now I remembered it and spent time stopping and listening for the calls of forest birds – there weren’t as many as before and the irritating throb of a pump supplying water to some unseen farm was an unfortunate disturbance to the peace of this lovely spot.

Nevertheless, I picked up the calls of Sombre Greenbul, Cape Bulbul and Neddicky before proceeding up the other side of the kloof to the next plateau where a reed-lined dam produced no waterbirds but a good consolation in a Malachite Kingfisher (14%) along with Cape Grassbird and a Brown-throated Martin.

Malachite Kingfisher

A pair of small birds in a roadside tree turned out to be Forest Canaries (14%) – a relatively scarce bird, so always pleasing to find. My attempt to photograph them was stymied as they flew off seconds after I stopped – I have yet to add this species to my photo database.

I had reached both the end of the pentad and my time limit, so turned back and set my sights on getting to the next pentad with my total standing at 40 species.

Pentad 3355_2145

I reached the start of the second pentad on its eastern boundary, a km or so outside of the village of Friemersheim, named after the birth place of Rev Johan Kretzen, a missionary from Germany who settled here originally.

Friemersheim

Driving through the village it struck me that the settlement of about 1000 seemed untouched by the pandemic, with no signs of the social distancing and face masks which have become part of our lives.

On the other side of the village, I followed a track which branched off and took me through a series of deep valleys and tall hills. At the first stop a flash of iridescent green drew my attention to a Malachite Sunbird (10%) and moments later an African Hoopoe appeared in a nearby tree.

Malachite Sunbird

A stream ran through the first valley bottom and I stopped to listen – several calls told me I should spend time there and I was rewarded with Olive Bushshrike, Black-backed Puffback and a Greater Double-collared Sunbird, the latter brightening the foliage with its red and green colouring. Yet another Bar-throated Apalis showed briefly after calling vigorously from a concealed location.

Bar-throated Apalis (Apalis thoracica / Bandkeelkleinjantjie) (Race capensis), Friemersheim area

Beneke River, Friemersheim area

Once I had left the last of the valleys behind me, the environment changed to pine plantations, many recently cut down and waiting to be replanted, so a very sterile habitat as far as birding goes. A Victorin’s Warbler and a Karoo Prinia were the only birds added before getting back to my starting point just east of Friemersheim.

From there I headed homewards, past farms and a dam where a Plain-backed Pipit (6%) had apparently come to drink.

Plain-backed Pipit (Anthus leucophrys / Donkerkoester), Friemersheim area

One last deep valley lay ahead and I stopped at a busy river that ran through it, spotting a Knysna Turaco in the trees on the other side of the river – an unexpected delight, but apparently a familiar one in this pentad judging by its high reporting rate of over 60%. All I could manage was a very poor “record” photo –

Knysna Turaco, Friemersheim area
Friemersheim area

That took me to two hours and 33 species for the pentad and signaled the end of my morning’s atlasing.

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%

Strictly Crane Dancing

The Blue Crane is a unique bird for several reasons, not least of all for its striking good looks, but also for the fact that it is South Africa’s National bird and has appeared on stamp issues and has adorned the 5c coin since 1965 – initially a nickel coin, later a copper coin which inflation has rendered worthless except for small change.

It is also unique in being the world’s most range-restricted Crane (out of 15 Cranes worldwide). In the Southern African region (which encompasses South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique) it qualifies as an endemic and almost makes it to the vaunted rank of South African endemic, but for an isolated population in Namibia near the Etosha pan and small numbers in the extreme south-east of Botswana.

Despite a significant decrease in numbers in parts of South Africa, it has grown in numbers in the Western Cape where they favour cereal croplands, planted pastures and ploughed fields, roosting in shallow water bodies such as dams and pans.

Voelvlei (literally “bird pan”) near Mossel Bay is well known to birders in the southern Cape as a magnet for birds (when it has water), and during “wet” seasons up to 1 000 Blue Cranes have been counted roosting there – unfortunately Voelvlei is virtually bone dry at present, as it has been for the last 4 to 5 years – just another reminder of the drought the region has endured.

All of this is just an introduction to this very special bird and to lead into the performance that a pair of Blue Cranes entertained me with earlier this year…

It has to do with their totally unique form of courtship – no candlelit dinners, roses and champagne for them – much too obvious. Blue Cranes which – in the words that American TV dramas have taught us – have “feelings” for one another, do it with an elaborate courtship dance like no other.

Now, I had seen Cranes doing short dances from afar on a couple of previous occasions, but this performance took place about 100 meters / yards from where I was sitting in my vehicle and with the aid of my bridge camera I was able to capture some of the moves. I was busy atlasing along a stretch of road not far from the aforementioned Voelvlei, saw a group of Blue Cranes in the field and stopped to view them properly.

One pair had separated from the larger group and, sensing that they were about to perform, I grabbed my camera and waited – not for long as they launched into a beautiful courtship dance that had me ooh-ing and aah-ing while I clicked away.

Here is a sample of the full sequence I took without too many further words, as the images speak for themselves …..

So there you have it – worth 10’s from all the judges in my book. But don’t get carried away by their gracious looks – Blue Cranes are known to be aggressive during the nesting season to the extent that they attack cattle, tortoises, plovers, even sparrows …… oh and humans as well, drawing blood and tearing clothes – you have been warned!

My Atlasing Month – June 2020 (Part 1 )

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

With the severe restrictions largely lifted at end of May 2020, I was glad to be able to resume atlasing on a limited basis, still somewhat unsure of what would fall within the changed travel regulations, but comfortable with the thought that birding / atlasing on my own could in no imaginable way be seen as a risk to myself or anyone else.

Never mind the 1,5m social distance recommended by authorities, I doubt if I was likely to come within 150 metres of others, as all my birding is done from my vehicle along quiet back roads and when I stop there is no one else to be seen except for the occasional passing car.

Herbertsdale Area – 4 June

I wasted no time selecting a couple of pentads that met my simple criteria – not yet atlased in 2020 and not too far from home (which has been Mossel Bay since lockdown began). Two pentads south and north of Herbertsdale, a small town off the beaten track and less than an hour’s drive from Mossel Bay, fitted the bill with the added bonus of being one of my favourite areas in the southern Cape.

I have this habit of forgetting at least one thing when I go out on an atlasing outing – sometimes my hat or perhaps the milk for my coffee, neither of which is too serious. This time though I managed to leave my camera at home so had to make do withscenic shots taken with my iphone and bird photos borrowed from previous outings.

The Route

The R327 road to Herbertsdale is accessed off the N2 National road just west of Mossel Bay and runs south-north through both of the target pentads. On the way, the road passes Petro SA, with its tall smokestacks pumping flames and pale smoke into the atmosphere, then heads through farming land, low hills and flatter country all the way to Herbertsdale. Beyond the village the terrain soon becomes hilly again and the road winds its way through the mountains with interesting kloofs and streams.

Pentad 3415_2145

I reached the southern pentad boundary just on 8 am, with heavy mist limiting visibility. That didn’t stop a Bokmakierie from calling from a nearby tree, in fact he seemed to put extra woema (effort) into it with an outstretched neck.

A misty side road in early morning

Other calls were less obvious, their owners hidden somewhere in the mist. One tiny bird was hard to make out against the sharp backlight of sun on mist, but it obligingly made its characteristic “fietspomp” (bicycle pump) squeaky call, telling all in hearing distance that “I’m a Neddicky“.

Neddicky, Herbertsdale south

With the mist clearing and to avoid driving into the low sun, I moved quicker than usual along the Heuningklip road, which leads off to the east of the R327, so as to get to the pentad boundary, where I turned back, now with the sun behind me, making it a lot more comfortable to spot the birds.

Heuningklip road through hilly country

First off, a small field mouse darted across the road in front of me, disappearing into the bush lining the road. The hills on both sides were studded with aloes, soon to burst into a blaze of orange and red blooms. A familiar krrr-krrr sound from a bushy spot revealed the presence of Terrestrial Brownbul (8%) – a species not easily seen as they tend to remain in the dense foliage.

The photo below is of one I found in the open in Kruger Park

Terrestrial Brownbul

Just after passing the neat little farm house in the photo below, I came to a field of green lucerne where Ibises – Sacred and Hadeda – stood out as they worked there way along, bent over to pluck morsels from the soil. A farmer stopped to find out what I was up to (as they are wont to do) and we got into a conversation on the area, the weather and recent drought that was now improving. He happened to have the same surname as my son-in-law and knew of him and the family, which generated more discussion of course.

Farm, Herbertsdale area

Excusing myself, I was soon back on the R327 and on the way to Herbertsdale through rolling hills and grand scenery, pausing frequently to study the surroundings. A farm dam and adjoining shallow pan was filled with ducks and waders – I counted no less than 72 Three-banded Plovers, a fairly common bird but usually seen singly or in pairs. I had never seen so many in one spot before. For those of a mathematical bent that would amount to 216 bands among all the Plovers……

Shallow pan, Herbertsdale area
Three-banded Plover

Other birds were a Cape Teal pair (New record for the pentad), Red-billed Teals, Yellow-billed Ducks and a single Kittlitz’s Plover (another new record for the pentad)

I was approaching 3 hours in the pentad and had recorded 49 species which was more than satisfactory, so I proceeded to the next, adjoining pentad to continue my efforts.

Pentad 3355_2145

Entering the second pentad about a km beyond Herbertsdale, I had a coffee and snack break (boiled eggs cooked to perfection by our neat little egg boiler gadget the previous evening) and got the new list going just on 11 am with Sombre Greenbul, Forktailed Drongo and a curious Greater Double-collared Sunbird that came to inspect me from a nearby tree.

I carried on along the R327, which had changed to gravel as I passed through the village, towards the hills, stopping frequently at each promising spot while admiring the beautiful views that unfolded around each corner and over each hill.

Herbertsdale area

I scanned a large open field for Pipits and …. bingo! … a Plain-backed Pipit (New record for the pentad) was doing his thing in and among the short grass and stones. They are not that uncommon in the southern Cape but are always difficult to spot due to their colouring in shades of brown which blend in with the terrestrial habitat that they prefer.

Herbertsdale area – this aloe was already in bloom

Next stop was a small dam at roadside, hidden unless you know it’s there, which I do from previous trips. It held a couple of unusual species for the area – African Darter and Black-crowned Night-Heron (14%)

.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Ahead was a low-water bridge which always delivers, but when I stopped I could not see any birds. As I got out to look around a Hamerkop (14%) flew off in agitation – another uncommon bird in the area.

Hamerkop, Herbertsdale Area

Further on at another field of lucerne, I spotted some large black shapes among the green lucerne, which turned into Spurwinged Geese when I focused my binos on them. Just then, another farmer stopped behind me but did not get out – I looked in my rear view mirror and he just looked back at me, so I got out and approached his rather battered vehicle warily, only to meet a similarly battered looking owner of the vehicle, his appearance not necessarily to be blamed on the lockdown.

As it turned out he was also curious about my rather suspicious looking activity and I gathered from our conversation (very one-sided on his part – I could hardly get a word in) that he had been in an accident in his earlier years and was not very mobile, but enjoyed cruising around in his bakkie (utility vehicle, pickup or truck depending on where you are from) checking out the farming activities in his patch.

The last part of the pentad was in the mountains with the habitat dominated by proteas and I quickly added the species that go with this habitat – Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird and a calling Victorin’s Warbler.

Wild dagga is a favourite of nectar-loving birds and a short stretch had them in abundance

Deeper into the mountains I added a few species such as Yellow Bishop, Cape Grassbird, Amethyst Sunbird and African Stonechat to take my total for the pentad to 38 – this was a good result considering that the second pentad of the day is always a slower birding experience and I turned for home well satisfied with my first atlasing outing in a while.

Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%