Tag Archives: Mkhombo Dam

Atlasing Tales – Mkhombo : 500 Not out

Formal bird atlasing * (see end of post) has become my priority when planning a birding outing and I was looking forward to completing my 500 th “Full Protocol” atlasing card, having completed 499 by the end of March this year.

With Monday 2 April this year being a public holiday, it seemed the ideal time to reach  this milestone and I targeted two pentads to the west of Mkhombo dam, a little more than an hour’s drive north of Pretoria, which I suspected would provide good birding in attractive surroundings and should be lush and green after the recent good rains in the area north of Pretoria.

I was up at 4.20 am (after hitting the snooze button twice without even realizing it), collected good friend and equally keen atlaser Koos Pauw and headed north on the N1 highway, already busy on the homeward side with returning holiday and Moria pilgrimage traffic. The Rust der Winter turnoff soon loomed and before long we were on quiet country roads as the light grew stronger – a detour took us in the wrong direction initially but we were soon into the first pentad for the day.

Pentad 2505_2840

The dusty rural village we had entered was not very inspiring as a place to start our atlasing but just outside the village the habitat changed to patches of arid bushveld which, once we had stopped to investigate, proved irresistible for atlasing. All it took was to hang around at a selected spot long enough to allow the species to show – and show they did – all the species that favour the drier bushveld habitat : Yellow-billed Hornbills flying in their ponderous fashion from tree to tree, Crimson-breasted Shrikes with their redder than red breast colouring contrasting with jet black uppers. This area rates as excellent for Shrikes judging by the variety we encountered, with White-crowned Shrikes, Red-backed Shrikes, Lesser Grey Shrikes and even Magpie Shrikes all easily seen during the morning.

White-crowned Shrike
Red-backed Shrike

In between sightings we were able to identify several birds on their calls, familiar ones such as Acacia Pied Barbet, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Rattling Cisticola and the ubiquitous Go-Away Bird uttering its nasal “go away” call at every opportunity. With the obvious birds recorded on our list we started picking up the smaller, “passer-by” species – Amethyst Sunbird, Chinspot Batis, White-bellied Sunbird, Black-faced Waxbill and Green-winged Pytilia (Melba).

Chinspot Batis
Black-faced Waxbill – amongst the thorns
Green-winged Pytilia

The species we came across most frequently were Marico Flycatcher and Scaly-feathered Finch (love its Afrikaans name Baardmannetjie – literally small bearded man, alternatively Koos calls it Fu-man-chu). In the villages Pearl-breasted Swallows dominate amongst the swallows for reasons unknown – perhaps they just like being around humans like many other bird species.

Marico Flycatcher

The village we drove through looking for the species that seem to favour this habitat, was suffering from some “land-grabbing”, but not the sort that dominates our  news from time to time – here the only tar road bisecting the village was slowly being “grabbed” by the surrounding sandy earth and undergrowth, so much so that there was barely a single lane width of the two-lane tar road still visible – so much for maintenance.

With our two hours of atlasing done (the minimum for a “Full Protocol” card), we headed to the main target for the morning, being Mkhombo Nature Reserve which lies to the west of the main dam.

Pentad 2505_2845

Entering the reserve’s gate, which lies a distance off the main road and is not signposted, we were met by the hoped-for pristine bushveld and sandy tracks with some thorny bushes encroaching in places – a tad worrying when the first screeches of thorn against duco rattled the control-freak side of my nature, but after some initial teeth-clenching I decided to ignore it – after all, why have a bush-capable SUV if you don’t want to go into the bush with it.

Mkhombo Nature reserve
Mkhombo Nature Reserve

We had the place to ourselves and enjoyed Koos’s hard-boiled eggs (well actually a chicken produced them, he just boiled them) and coffee in the tranquil surroundings while continuing with atlasing, then proceeded slowly along the sandy roads, branching off here and there for a view of the dam, which was pretty much non-existent other than a small pond or two. No other water was visible, just a vast expanse of green vlei grass covering the muddy plain as far as the eye could see, confirming how little rain the area had experienced over the last couple of years since we were last there.

We were rewarded with Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters in a nearby tree, while Great and Yellow-billed Egret as well as Grey Heron were ID-able once I had the scope up  and focused on the distant scattered birds. All three local Lapwings – Crowned, Blacksmith and Wattled – were visible, in separate groups but mingling where they overlapped,  then I spotted a mixed flock of large birds in flight, morphing into Spurwinged Geese and Knob-billed Ducks as they landed in a hidden patch of water, with just their top halves showing.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

We had completed two hours and made our way back to the gate then homewards, which took a lot longer than planned as we encountered heavy holiday traffic all the way back.

I basked in the pleasure of a milestone reached – here’s to the next 500!

* Atlasing : 

Simply put, it is the regular mapping of bird species in a defined area  called a “pentad”. Each pentad has a unique number based on its geographical position according to a 5 minute x 5 minute grid of co-ordinates of latitude and longitude, which translates into a square of our planet roughly 8 x 8 kms in extent.

As a registered observer / Citizen scientist under the SABAP2 program (SA Bird Atlas Project 2), all of the birding I do nowadays includes recording the species for submission to the project database at the ADU (Animal Demography Unit) based in Cape Town.

Atlasing has brought a new dimension and meaning to my birding as it has to many other birders. The introduction a couple of years ago of the “Birdlasser” App has greatly simplified the recording and submission of the data collected.

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while atlasing.

A Twitch or Two – Finding Rarities


The birding world is full of twitchers – essentially they are the birders who are chasing numbers (of species seen) and who will go to considerable lengths to add a new species to their list of “lifers” (birds not previously seen/ticked) or to other lists such as regional, provincial, annual and the like.

Keen twitchers think nothing of getting on a plane and flying from Joburg to Cape Town, for example, to twitch a vagrant species that may have turned up in the area.

The size or appearance of a bird is not of great importance –  a nondescript small bird can generate as much excitement as a larger, striking species, provided the scarcity factor is high.

Wkipedia has a nice definition and some further info on the subject :

“Twitching is a British term used to mean “the pursuit of a previously located rare bird.” In North America it is more often called chasing, though the British usage is starting to catch on there, especially among younger birders. The term twitcher, sometimes misapplied as a synonym for birder, is reserved for those who travel long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked, or counted on a list. The term originated in the 1950s, when it was used for the nervous behaviour of Howard Medhurst, a British birdwatcher. Prior terms for those who chased rarities were pot-hunter, tally-hunter, or tick-hunter. The main goal of twitching is often to accumulate species on one’s lists. Some birders engage in competition to accumulate the longest species list. The act of the pursuit itself is referred to as a twitch or a chase. A rare bird that stays put long enough for people to see it is twitchable or chaseable.”

Where does that Place Me?

Well, I enjoy listing the species I have seen, but there are limits as to how far I will go to view and tick a new species – my rule of thumb is that I will consider it if it is within one to two hour’s road travel, as long as it does not disrupt my normal routines too much.

Previous attempts to twitch a couple of rarities which have been reported on the SA Rare Bird News platform (an excellent and valuable service provided by Trevor Hardaker – you can ask to join the group via email to Trevor at hardaker@mweb.co.za ) have met with mixed success, mainly due to me being too slow off the mark, so that by the time I get around to visiting the spot where a rarity has been reported, the bird has moved on to greener pastures .. or cleaner water or wherever.

However, I have had some success over the last month or two, which has changed my view of twitching just a bit – nothing like adding a new species or having the chance to photograph it to get the happy juices flowing!

Here is a selection of my recent twitches :

Pacific Golden Plover : Gouritzmond, Western Cape

I had started the morning of 14 December 2015 by atlasing a pentad along the Herbertsdale road outside Mossel Bay, where we have a home and decided to drive to Gouritzmond nearby to see if I could find the Pacific Golden Plover reported there since October.

The difficult part was finding the site of the “boat launch” which was the only info given out and I spent some time driving around the town looking for a spot where boats were launched, but eventually had to admit defeat and actually ask someone. If I had been awake driving into town from the inland side I would have noticed the tell-tale sign just outside town.

At the boat launch it was quite busy with visiting boaters and fishermen, but finding the Plover took less than a minute as it moved, unperturbed by all the activity, up and down the muddy shoreline of the Gouritz river. I approached carefully and was able to get some nice shots as it probed the shallows and flew a short distance before settling again. A very simple “twitch” this time.

Pacific Golden Plover, Gouritzmond

Pacific Golden Plover, Gouritzmond

Pacific Golden Plover, Gouritzmond

Caspian Plover : Hanover, Northern Cape

We were on the way back to Pretoria from Mossel Bay in mid January 2016, doing it in a few stages as is our wont.

Knowing we would be passing Hanover I kept it in the back of my mind that a Caspian Plover had been reported from a nearby guest farm called New Holme and when I saw we had time to spare, I proposed a “quick diversion” to Gerda who, used to me springing birding surprises on her, agreed,  so we took the farm road for 8 kms to the homestead hoping for a quick sighting and turnaround.

The owner PC Ferreira was busy with new guests booking in, but he pointed us towards the area where the plover had been seen and we duly covered the area as best we could for about half an hour, scanning the plains for the elusive bird, but without success – lots of Kittlitz’s Plovers, some Namaqua Sandgrouse but no Caspians.

Back at the ranch … er farmhouse, PC was free and refused to let me go without seeing his “special bird”,  so I joined him, his little daughter and two dogs in his bakkie and we headed back to the short-grassed area where his sheep were grazing and within minutes we had found the Caspian Plover. It was good enough to pose nicely at a distance. Another success!

Caspian Plover, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover

Caspian Plover, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover

Red Phalarope : Mkhombo Dam, Mpumulanga

I had tried for this species a year or two previously but it had moved on before I got to it, so I was keen to try for it when an individual was reported during January 2016  at Mkhombo Dam, which lies north of Pretoria, within my two-hour limit.

In the end it took two visits a few days apart to track it down and it disappeared shortly thereafter so I was just in time. On the second visit I met up with George and Barbara Skinner as arranged and we followed the track which skirts the western side of the dam, finding the Phalarope without too much effort where it was swimming up and down in a small bay formed by the slowly receding water.

The muddy fringe did not allow a close approach, but I walked as far as I could to get a reasonable photo.

Mkhombo Dam
Mkhombo Dam

Red Phalarope, Mkhombo Dam

Red Phalarope, Mkhombo Dam

Spotted Crake : Waterfall Estate, Gauteng

I hardly imagined I would see this particular species without going to some far-off location and spending lots of time searching for it. As it turned out this was one of the easiest and most popular twitches on record in SA, seen by well over 1000 birders so far and still going strong as I write this.

I decided it was too good an opportunity to miss when it turned up unexpectedly at one of the main gates to the Waterfall Estate in Midrand, between Joburg and Pretoria and made the pilgrimage one morning before going to the office. It was not visible when I arrived but made an appearance a few minutes later, trotting up and down in the shallows of the man-made pond, occasionally popping behind the reeds before coming into view again.

It has become a famous bird and a superstar of the SA birding scene in a short space of time!

Waterfall Estate
Waterfall Estate

Spotted Crake, Waterfall Estate

Spotted Crake, Waterfall Estate

So I am feeling quite pleased with my twitching efforts, adding four diverse species in four very different localities spread across South Africa.

Wonder what will turn up next?