It was going to be just another late afternoon swim at Santos beach, a favourite in Mossel Bay for the visitors that stream into the town over the holiday season, stretching its resources to the limit. Late afternoon is usually when the crowds have thinned out, the sun is less fierce and you can actually swim without bumping into others.
By the time we got to the beach on this particular afternoon, it was cloudy with a cool breeze and a light spatter of rain – driving there, the usual comments of “it’s raining, we are going to get wet” were being bandied about, raising a few chuckles. It all worked in our favour as, by the time we had parked and walked across the cool sand to deposit our towels and gear near the water, there was but a handful of people in the water and we joined them eagerly.
The sea was calm, quite chilly, but we were soon in and enjoying the refreshing conditions, not expecting the natural extravaganza that was to unfold before us.
I noticed some terns gathering further out and plunge diving, so I guessed that there were fish around. Soon a few gulls joined the terns, settling on the sea in the same spot. Then we saw dark forms in the water quite close to where we were swimming, the forms changing shape as we watched, moving about like black ghosts.
Suddenly, a large, black, shiny seal surfaced nearby, causing a missed heartbeat or two….. it’s well known that these waters are favoured by large sharks which have a predeliction for these meaty creatures. We watched it move about nearby, then swim into deeper waters, half expecting a shark to rise out of the water and grab it with mighty jaws.
There was clearly food available for predators and seabirds alike – the numbers of terns and gulls was increasing by the minute, literally as we watched from our waist-deep position in the water. Moving closer to shore, until we felt a tad safer, we watched enthralled as the bird numbers grew further. Terns were plunge diving less than 10 metres from us and when the dark shapes we had seen earlier rose to the surface and magically turned into a mass of tiny silver fish, the terns took it in turn to fly in, dip down gracefully to scoop a fish or two, then fly off and let the next bird in line repeat the process.
The Swift (Greater Crested) Terns were so adept at this that many emerged with 3 or 4 of the fish held sideways in their bills – much like the famous Puffin images that one sees. A fisherman informed us that the fish were anchovies – something was causing them to rise to the surface, creating a brief maelstrom of silver bodies and turning the surface of the sea into a frothy jumble. The terns were queueing up to take part in the bonanza, like tiny planes coming in to land on an aircraft carrier.
By now the shoals of anchovies were so close to shore that some were being caught by the small waves and washed up onto the sand, where they were left in tiny desparation until kids came to scoop them up and throw them back in the water – their lucky day, except if they were taken in the seabird feeding frenzy of course.
As we slowly left the water, picked up our belongings and headed to where the car was parked, there were perhaps a couple of hundred seabirds filling the sky above the sea. More proof, if needed at all, that amazing experiences happen when least expected – this one will remain with me for ever.
Footnote : I did not have my camera with me, something which I initially regretted as I could have taken some memorable shots, but thinking about it I decided it was for the best – not everything has to be recorded digitally – that’s why we have a brain…
So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the last year along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited. Some of the trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.
Mossel Bay is our home over the holiday season up to the third week in January, so I try to use this time to fit in as much atlasing as I can in the beautiful surrounding countryside.
Atlasing trips and the highlight species included :
the area beyond Herbertsdale – Black Storks at the Gouritz River
the town of George with a visit to the waste water treatment works as well as the forested area at the top of the town – Black Cuckooshrike, Black Sparrowhawk and Knysna Turaco
Wilderness and the Woodville Big Tree (covered in a separate post) – Lemon Dove, Chorister Robin
Friemersheim area north of Klein Brak – Olive Bushshrike, Swee Waxbill, Narina Trogon, Black-winged Lapwing
A blustery day blew some seabirds inshore – a visit to the Point at Mossel Bay produced White-chinned Petrels, Gannets and Gulls galore, Terns and, amazingly, a Sooty Shearwater
Back in Pretoria I could catch up on some highveld atlasing with a visit to Mabusa nature reserve along with Koos Pauw – an outstanding day with both Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers seen and Great Reed Warbler heard.
I literally went into the bundu on occasion
Mid-month we used up some expiring RCI points to spend a weekend at Champagne Valley resort in the southern Drakensberg. Great birding in a magnificently scenic environment – highlights were Cape Vulture, House Martin, Bearded Vulture, Grey Crowned Crane and Long-crested Eagle
Back to the Drakensberg, this time with brother Andrew visiting from the UK – some birding, more touring from our base at Drakensberg Sun resort
Work pressures meant no time for atlasing although I used the public holiday to do a couple of pentads around Delmas, where an Amur Falcon entertained me with its handling of a locust catch (covered in a separate post)
For my 500th pentad I decided to atlas the area around Mkhombo Dam which proved to be a good choice (also covered in a separate post)
The following weekend we visited family on Annasrust farm in the Free State near Hoopstad – one of the highlights of our year and a superb birding spot in its own right.
Massed Egrets, Spoonbills and Cormorants made for a spectacular sight on the river
Late in April, with some RCI points not fully used and about to expire, we booked a week at Pine Lake Resort near White River, which also included a memorable day visit to Kruger Park
My only atlasing trip in May was to Mabusa Nature Reserve and the surrounding area – many highlights including Flappet Lark, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Long-tailed Paradise Whydah and Barred Wren-Warbler
Early June saw us in Mossel Bay for a brief visit – just one atlasing trip was squeezed in, covering the area north of Great Brak River
This Black-headed Heron posed on my neighbour’s roof
We were hardly back in Pretoria when we set off for our annual visit to La Lucia near Durban where we have a timeshare apartment, with an overnight stay at the beautiful Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen
Oaklands Country Manor, near Van ReenenMy early morning walk was a misty affair
La Lucia was as restful as ever but the World Cup soccer proved to be a distraction, nevertheless I managed to fit in a mix of beach birding walks, a trip to my favourite urban forest – Pigeon Valley – and a visit to Shongweni Nature Reserve
We took up Gerda’s Vryheid family’s invitation to stop over on their farm near the town on our way back – a worthwhile detour if there ever was one! A pair of Crowned Cranes made the visit really special, although Anlia’s breakfast krummelpap (a coarse farm porridge) was a serious competitor for “best reason to visit”.
Mid-month I was in Cape Town for a day and found myself free for the afternoon – so where does a keen birder go on a rainy day in this famous City? Naturally to the Strandfontein Sewage Works – birding was superb with a few hundred Flamingoes amongst many other water birds
Mid-winter atlasing trips around Gauteng kept me sharp during August, despite cold (- 3 deg C at one stage), windy conditions that kept me mostly in my car. Spike-heeled Larks were a feature of both trips, while African Harrier-Hawk was an exciting find.
Southern Fiscals are common just about everywhere but this subcoronatus sub-species is quite a special find
A last-minute decision to spend a week in Kruger Park turned into a memorable, relaxing trip with plenty of wild life experiences (covered in several posts)
An atlasing trip to the Delmas area later in the month produced a Blue Korhaan, scarce in these parts, as well as a couple of other terrestial species in the form of Orange River Francolin and Northern Black Korhaan
Time for our timeshare week at our favourite get away – Verlorenkloof, which produced fine birding once again and some interesting atlasing opportunities in the area.
The most exciting sighting at Verlorenkloof was of an immature Crowned Eagle, which apparently was born and raised on the property, the nest still visible on top of a tall tree
Down at the river the Village Weavers were nest-building in loud and vigorous fashion
The tiny Swee Waxbill visited the undergrowth near our Croft
The sought after Broad-tailed Warbler is a regular at Verlorenkloof during the summer months but does its best to frustrate any attempts to get a close photograph
Back to the Cape in the last week of October for a short visit to Mossel Bay, followed by a quick visit to family in the western Cape town of Worcester, where I spent a morning enjoying the surprisingly good birding that was on offer in the adjoining hills.
Further atlasing in the Mossel Bay area included trips to Herbertsdale and Gouritz River, before returning to Pretoria where we prepared for our return to Mossel Bay for a longer stay over December and January, as has become our custom over the last few years.
The road trip to the southern Cape included an overnight stop at Kuilfontein near Colesberg and a two night stay at Karoo National Park, both places providing some diverse atlasing opportunities
The following week saw me returning by air to Gauteng and onward to Kasane in northern Botswana for a final inspection visit to the airport project that I was involved in. I booked a boat-based and vehicle-based game drive during my stay, in order to make the most of this last visit to Chobe game reserve, both of which provided some amazing sightings and photographic highlights.
Back in Mossel Bay, it was time to get into relaxed mode and I looked forward to some atlasing of the area, including Mossel Bay itself.
A Terek Sandpiper at Great Brak was a lifer for me
The only body of fresh water in Mossel Bay is a drawcard for numbers of birds
This Cape Weaver decided to use the bird-feeder in our neighbour’s garden as a base frame for its nest – probably an inexperienced juvenile practicing his skills. He never did complete the nest.
Following on Part 1 of My Birding Year for 2017 ……… guess what, here’s Part 2!
So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the second half of 2017 along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited.
The first week saw me back in Kasane for a project visit and we managed to fit in a memorable drive through Chobe Riverfront where the game viewing took precedence, but the birdlife was hard to ignore, particularly the Carmine Bee-eaters
Later on in the month I was back to atlasing in the area south of Bronkhorstspruit, some 50 km east of Pretoria, dominated by the drab midwinter “browns” of the highveld and providing some challenging birding in the form of very similar looking small birds in their winter plumage.
Another visit to Kasane, Botswana in the first week included a spectacular boat safari on the Chobe river with Pangolin Safaris in a specially equipped boat kitted out with swivel seats and pliable camera mounts. One of the owners of Pangolin Safaris, who goes by the nickname of “Guts”, accompanied us and made sure we had some amazing photo opportunities of the wildlife and birds to be found along the river.
One moment of sheer photographic magic came my way in the form of a lone African Skimmer passing by and showing how it got its name.
The following weekend saw us visiting family in Potchefstroom once again – I took the two grandkids for a birding outing to nearby Boschkop dam and was again very pleased with the quality of birding at this venue, which is also quiet and safe for the kids to roam about a bit.
Next up was some atlasing in the grasslands north east of Pretoria – known as Vlaklaagte, which was good for birding but the gravel roads at this time of year are very dusty and the passing mining lorries tend to make it quite difficult to bird in peace – nevertheless a successful day’s atlasing.
A short winter visit to Mossel Bay in the second half of August provided the opportunity to explore the Karoo south of Oudtshoorn on a cold day – I added several species to my year list and atlased in areas not regularly covered so well worthwhile.
On Robinson Pass, my patience was rewarded when a Victorin’s Warbler posed briefly for a photo – a very difficult species to photograph so a nice bonus.
My monthly visit to Kasane was likely to be one of my last as the project was heading to completion, so I made the most of the 3 days there and fitted in birding at every opportunity. The airport precinct and perimeter were particularly lively with up to 200 bee-eaters present along the fences.
An early morning drive through the Chobe Riverfront was as good as ever with some unusual species showing.
During the rest of the month I targeted some of the more remote areas of north-east Gauteng to do some atlasing, selecting pentads not yet atlased in 2017.
Our much anticipated trip to Mauritius to celebrate our “milestone” birthdays with the family was a highlight of the year from all points of view – the sheer joy of having our 3 children, their spouses and our 7 grandchildren with us in such a beautiful setting for a whole week was awesome (as they say).
I didn’t do any serious birding but the hotel gardens were good for a total of just 11 species, of which 6 were lifers to add to my world list (yes I’m a “lister”!)
In any case I was so busy enjoying the ambience, the family, the great meals and the snorkelling that birding was relegated to about 10th place (just for that week, mind)
Later in the month I visited Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel in Gauteng for a superb morning of birding in this prime waterbird location.
An unexpected atlasing trip with Koos on the 21st in the pentad covering the north-east corner of Pretoria was a delight, covering all areas from industrial to country estates.
My last visit to Kasane was also a busy one work-wise so not much opportunity for birding other than snatched moments in between other commitments – how I’m going to miss this place!
A weekend in Potchefstroom presented another chance to take Christopher (6) with me for some atlasing at Boschkop dam – plenty of highlights to make it interesting for both of us.
Marievale was my destination for the second time in 4 weeks when reports came through of Baillon’s Crake seen there. I dipped on the crake but still had a wonderful morning’s atlasing.
On the 22nd it was time to head south (how time flies!) to our Mossel Bay home – a two day road trip with an overnight stop at Kuilfontein guest farm near Colesberg, which provided some great birding and relief from the long driving sessions.
I hardly had time to recover in Mossel Bay when Birding Big Day was upon us and I invited Willie to join me for a long but fruitful day’s birding along some of the back roads of the surrounding countryside. We ended the day quite happy with 124 species and something like 120th place in the national challenge.
December as usual was given over to family matters with a bit of atlasing squeezed in here and there. Apart from the good birding that Mossel Bay offers, most of my trips were in the direction of Herbertsdale, some 50 kms north-west of Mossel Bay, where the countryside is attractive and the roads quiet.
The last 3 days of the year were spent at a cottage in the hills beyond Calitzdorp, serious Little Karoo country and good for some of the Karoo specials. The cottage was Andre and Geraldine’s dream that became real, through a lot of hard work on their part.
Answer to “6 Species in one frame” – left to right :
Glossy Ibis (left, just in frame), Squacco Heron, African Darter (in front), African Spoonbill (rear, twice), Little Egret, Long-toed Lapwing
Phew glad I got that post out in January (only just) – a Birding Year story is no good whatsoever in February
Another memorable Birding Year has come and gone – a year filled once again with travelling to many familiar places and some exciting new ones, atlasing at every opportunity, a number of new birds seen and enough experiences to fill my journal to the brim.
So here’s a synopsis of my birding activities during the year along with photos of a few of the species encountered and places visited. Some of the trips are covered in separate posts in a lot more detail.
Our year kicked off in Mossel Bay, our home town for some of the year and I took the opportunity to do some atlasing / birdmapping in the area – Hartenbos and the adjoining inland in particular.
On the 9th I had the unexpected thrill of finding a Pectoral Sandpiper, classed as a national rarity, which I duly reported to Trevor Hardaker who sent out a note to all subscribers to the SA Rare Bird News network – what a memorable day!
We started our journey back to Gauteng on the 13th, first stopping over in charming Prince Albert for two nights. I managed to fit in some atlasing in the area including a pleasant trip along the Damascus road.
Our next stop for one night was at Garingboom guest farm near Springfontein in the Free State which also proved to be an interesting birding destination.
Back in Pretoria, my first atlasing was centred around Mabusa Nature Reserve some 100 km north east of Pretoria which was a most enjoyable spot with some challenging roads and good birding
My first trip of the year to Kasane presented some great birding and atlasing opportunities in the summer lushness of Chobe Game Reserve.
Back in Pretoria I did further atlasing in the Delmas area
We used our timeshare points for a weekend at Champagne Valley in the Drakensberg, which provided an opportunity for some atlasing in the area
Our Canadian family arrived on the 6th for a two week visit which included a Kruger Park visit and a trip to Vic Falls and Chobe Game Reserve
Getting back to normal after the excitement of touring with the family, we visited Potchefstroom, and I was happy to take grandson Christopher (6) with me for some birding at the local dam – I think he was more interested in my Prado’s little fridge filled with cold-drinks, but you have to start somewhere!
My monthly visit to Kasane, Botswana afforded another opportunity for some birding around Kasane and in Chobe Game Reserve – such a great destination which I try not to spoil with too much work….
Then it was time for our much anticipated “Flock at Sea” cruise from the 24th to 28th arranged by Birdlife SA
Another short autumn visit to Mossel Bay meant I could fit in some further atlasing in the Southern Cape
Later in the month Koos and I headed to Bushfellows Lodge near Marble Hall in Mpumulanga for a day’s atlasing (and some snake watching)
Just a week later we spent 4 days at Verlorenkloof also in Mpumulanga with Koos and Rianda, one of our favourite spots for relaxing and blessed with a variety of birding opportunities
The month kicked off with a visit to Kasane but this time my birding was limited to a rather hurried morning trip into Chobe Riverfront
On the 10th Koos and I braved the mid-winter cold and the notoriously dangerous Moloto road north of Pretoria to do some atlasing in NE Gauteng
We closed out the half year with our “get away from it all” break in La Lucia near Durban at our timeshare resort – this was interrupted by a breakaway to northern Zululand to view a Malagasy Pond-Heron that had taken up residence at Phinda Game Reserve.
In the latter part of the week I visited Pigeon Valley for some superb forest birding
July to December will be covered in the next post – watch this space!
24 December 2017 – 7.42 pm : Knysna Warbler / Bradypterus sylvaticus (Knysnaruigtesanger) becomes my latest lifer – number 765 on my Southern Africa life list and the 9th addition to my life list for 2017. Location : Mossel Bay Golf Estate
Those are the bare facts and as I was not able to get a photo of this elusive bird, the post could end right here……… but there is more to the story than that of how I came to find this bird.
Firstly, some information on this species, starting with an extract from Roberts Birds of Southern Africa :
Status – Uncommon to rare and localised endemic; regarded as vulnerable
Habitat – Dense tangled thickets on edge of forests and along watercourses
General Habits – Very secretive; presence usually revealed only when calling
The Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa adds to this :
The Knysna Warbler is endemic to the region and has a highly restricted and fragmented distribution….
The SABAP2 distribution map below shows the current distribution of the Knysna Warbler, spread along the southern coastal regions of SA :
Going into more detail the map below is of the pentads in the Mossel Bay area, the coloured ones showing where Knysna Warbler has been recorded during the 10 years that records have been gathered – yellow, orange and green indicate a lower number of sightings, while blue, pink, red and purple indicate more frequent sightings. Uncoloured pentads are where the species has not been recorded yet. So for example there has been only one previous record in Mossel Bay (the yellow block) in 10 years
Estimates put the total population at less than 2500 individuals with a status of Vulnerable
None of which explains why this species, which occurs in areas I have visited frequently during the 30 or so years that I have been birding, has eluded me until now. That’s birding – no certainties, lots of surprises.
I can only recall one occasion some years ago, during a visit to the Big Tree near Knysna, when I heard the distinctive trilling call from deep in the surrounding forest bush, but was unable to locate the bird at all
I have been very aware of this gap in my birding life list for some time and was determined to put in a special effort to fill this gap during our current December 2017 / January 2018 visit to Mossel Bay. A local birder offered to show me some spots known to be reliable for Knysna Warbler but I had not yet got around to taking up the offer.
The story of my unexpected find starts with a family walk around the golf estate on Christmas eve, around 7 pm in the evening and still light. Gerda and I set off with daughter Geraldine and Andre as well as the two granddaughters – first to leave the group was Megan who had her running shoes on and with the abundant energy of youth went running off like an Impala.
At the top of the hill Gerda and Geraldine returned home to put the final touches to the Christmas eve dinner, leaving myself, Andre and Maia to continue, heading for the clubhouse with the intention of doing a full circuit of the estate. A little further along the road it started drizzling lightly and with dark-ish clouds chasing in from the sea, I suggested a shortcut over the golf course to get home – problem was Maia was barefoot and with access to the golf course being across a stretch of veld with the possibility of thorns, she and Andre decided to turn around and walk back along the paved road we had just come on. This left me to continue on my own with the weather threatening and dusk approaching ….
I increased my pace a tad and at the bottom of the next hill I took a path on to the golf course and headed towards the edge of the 14th fairway and the path homewards. The rain had stopped and the dark clouds seemed to be moving away from me so I slowed my pace and listened to the birds calling from the dense bush that lines this part of the estate – the usual Mousebirds, Apalises and others were still active.
Then a different call attracted my attention and had me wondering out loud what it could be – my auditory memory kicked into overdrive and I just knew this was a call that I needed to get a handle on, familiar yet strange at the same time and certainly one I had not heard on the estate before.
The warbler like call started slowly then sped up into a drawn-out rapid trilling conclusion, with the clarity of a whistle with a pea in it – after some deep thought I went to the Roberts app on my iphone and looked up western cape then warblers. As soon as I saw Knysna Warbler it hit me like a wet snoek and I pressed the play on the bird’s call – bingo, that’s what it was!
This illustration is from Roberts Birds of Southern Africa :
Next challenge was to try and see it, so I got as close as I could to the bush from where it seemed to be calling and searched in the fading light. It sounded so close I felt I should be able to reach out and touch it, but it is a master at remaining hidden, not even stirring a leaf to give a clue to its position.
After spending 20 minutes or so searching, the best sighting I could get was of a small drab bird flitting from one dense bush to the next, but I decided this was the best I was going to do and left it calling non-stop, even though it was by now almost dark.
In any case this is an example of a bird whose call is much prettier than the bird itself, so I was quite content with my sighting / hearing and very happy to be able to add it to my life list at last.
So after agonising about where I should go to find this species, it popped up virtually on my doorstep – considering the circumstances that led to my finding it, I was left with the feeling that this was how it was meant to be.
We had been planning Birding Big Day (BBD) – which took place on 25 November 2017 – for months, working out a route with stops planned to the minute and covering as much of the allowed 50 km radius as possible while making sure we included as many habitats as we could in the 24 hours ……….. Well that’s what we should have done to do any justice to the day; in fact our planning consisted of my jotting down a few “must visit” spots that I knew of close to Mossel Bay, the day before BBD. These included the Golf Estate, the harbour and Point, Herbertsdale road, Hartenbos waste water treatment works, Klein Brak area and the Hartenbos river. Any others would be added on a “play it by ear” basis as the day progressed.
Having only arrived in Mossel Bay from Pretoria the day before, there was not much time to gather ourselves but the prospect of a full day’s birding was enough to motivate me and I looked forward to having Willie Boylan, old friend and occasional birder, join me as the other half of our two man team – the Harried Hawks.
I had set the alarm for 4.15 am having suggested that Willie join me at 5 am, which he duly did and we immediately started our birding big day with a slow walk down the hill to the belt of coastal fynbos that lies between the residential area of the estate and the cliffs that drop away to the sea below
The weather was perfect and remained that way throughout the day – sunny yet cool with no cloud to speak of and a light wind. Doves were already vocal while the drawn out trilling call of Cape Grassbirds greeted the first rays of the sun. Yellow Canaries were active and plentiful along with Yellow Bishops with their standout black and yellow colouring.
The African Black Swifts that roost along the cliffs were up and about, joined by a lone Kelp Gull on its way to the sea. After scanning the bush for quite a while we felt we had exhausted the coastal fynbos possibilities, so we set off by car and exited the estate with 31 species, just about a quarter of our target of 125 for the day, with one hour down. As can be expected this was by far the best hour of the day.
We took it slow along the road bordering the St Blaize trail and soon spotted a Tern roost on the rocks far below – I set up the scope and was mildly disappointed to find they were all Swift Terns as I had been hoping for one or two other Tern species. Early morning joggers were curious and when told what we were up to they wished us luck. As we were packing up the scope a Southern Tchagra, always a difficult species to spot, showed briefly in the bush just below the road.
On to Church street and the harbour area where we quickly added Grey-headed and Hartlaub’s Gulls as well as Mallard, but the Point was a disappointment being very quiet – none of the usual Cormorants or Terns – were we too early for them?
By 7 am with two hours done and a total of 46 we headed through town and out on to the Cape road, deviating briefly to explore the bush along the outskirts of town at the small industrial area which turned out to be quite lively with Bokmakierie, Red Bishop, African Pipit and Pied Starling.
The light traffic meant we reached the Herbertsdale turnoff not long after where we almost immediately found some of the expected species. Large-billed Lark was first up with its “squeaky hinge needs oil” sounding call, but for a change wasn’t joined by Agulhas Long-billed Lark – hopefully we would get it later.
We added the likes of Karoo Prinia, Diderick Cuckoo, Grey-backed and Cloud Cisticola before reaching the small farm dam alongside the road which had just a few Yellow-billed Ducks and a couple of Common Moorhens.
By now we were in need of coffee and rusks, so we turned off onto the quieter (we thought) Klipkop road to find a peaceful spot but we were harried by 4 x 4 enthusiasts heading to an off-road event along the same road so in the end we had to venture further beyond the venue entrance before stopping. While enjoying the caffeine boost a Rock Kestrel came to greet us as did a Brimstone Canary on the nearby fence, while in the distance we could just make out some cattle with Cattle Egrets in attendance.
This is where the “play it by ear” factor kicked in for the first time as we decided to carry on with Klipkop road rather than head back to the tar road and soon we had Steppe Buzzard and White-necked Raven on our list, but not much else as we passed through the undulating hills and headed towards Hartenbos,
Our first stop at the Hartenbos river produced Black-winged Stilt, Red-billed Teal and White-faced Duck before continuing to the Waste water treatment works which we hoped would give our list a nice boost. It delivered as hoped and we added 9 species including Cape Teal, Cape Shoveler, Little grebe on the ponds, a Lesser Swamp Warbler calling and a couple of aerial birds in Brown-throated Martin and Pearl-breasted Swallow. By now it was 10.30 am and we had recorded 88 species, pleasing enough but I imagined it was going to be much slower going from there on.
In fact the next two hours produced just 10 species as we covered both Klein Brak and Great Brak river mouths, nevertheless including some less common birds such as African Black Oystercatcher, Little Egret, Greenshank, White-fronted and Common Ringed Plovers as well as a soaring Jackal Buzzard.
Time for our next route decision – this time we decided to make our way through Great Brak village and turn off west onto the road which would take us back to Klein Brak, but along the secondary road north of the N2. Our first stop along this stretch was at another waste water treatment works, the ponds visible from the road, which produced Pied Avocet, Three-banded Plover and a calling Little Rush Warbler.
Before reaching Klein Brak we turned right and took the Botlierskop road, just after spotting a Spoonbill in a marshy area before the bridge. Two “Olive” birds were our reward along this road – Olive Pigeon and Olive Bush-Shrike. As we passed a small obscure track we noticed another group of birders higher up on the embankment – turned out this was the “202 Ostriches” team who set a new Western Cape BBD record that day. We decided not to disturb them but to take a look later on our way back (the road was closed further on). In fact we discovered later on that the embankment was the wall of a large dam which held White-backed Duck and a lone African Darter – nice one to know about for future reference.
The 202 Ostriches passed us and stopped to say hi but were clearly hyped up and we didn’t want to hold them up – at that point they were on 160 species compared to our 101. Our next target was the Geelbeksvlei road – the vleis mostly dry but with a few water channels which held Hamerkop, Little Stint and Pied Kingfisher. Greater Honeyguide was calling “Victorrrrr” in the same spot I had heard it before while cycling the road.
The next hour was the longest of the day as we headed back into the undulating hills from the Brandwag turnoff, only finding our next species at the end of the hour after stopping at a farmstead near the road with a large Jacaranda tree in full bloom, which was alive with sunbirds including Amethyst and Greater Double-collared. They came as a timely boost to our pensioner aged team as our energy was being rapidly sapped although spirits were still high as we headed back towards Mossel Bay along the Gondwana road.
Almost simultaneously we spotted Denham’s Bustard followed a minute later by Red-necked Spurfowl crossing the gravel road, raising our spirits a notch or two again. A Forest Buzzard on a dry tree was worth turning off for but flew off before I could position the car for a photo.
At the next junction with the R327 tar road we crossed over and carried on towards Kleinberg and the N2 national road – this road was also quiet until we reached the mill where we found Red-capped Larks in the road and a few House Sparrows on the fence, the latter having eluded us all day despite popping into a couple of filling stations en route, often their preferred hangout.
Heading towards Mossel Bay along the N2, another bird that had eluded us – Agulhas Long-billed Lark – caught my ear and a quick stop confirmed the ID. Black-shouldered Kite was the last to be added on the road and we headed back to the estate, tired but happy with our total standing on 123, just two short of our target. It was 5.30 pm and there would still be daylight for an hour and a half at least, but we both agreed to call it a day, although Willie was happy to accept any further species I may spot once he left.
After a short recovery, I felt somehow compelled to find two more birds and took another short walk which happily produced a Cape Rock-Thrush, then while I was relaxing on the balcony with the light fading and a celebratory glass of wine in hand, still keeping an eye on passing birds, a Peregrine Falcon of all things obliged by flying past – 125 done!
Next day I checked the BBD Birdlasser page which showed 124 against our team’s name – the difference turned out to be the Domestic Goose which we had recorded at Great Brak estuary but which had been disallowed. Makes sense although when atlasing it is a recordable species. So 124 was our final total. All in all it was a great day’s birding with some slow progress in the middle third of the day – better planning and ranging wider to cover more habitats would have improved our total – good thing there’s a next time to look forward to!
Firstly, regular readers of this blog (yes, both of you) may be wondering why it’s been more than 3 weeks since my last post. I do try and post at least once a fortnight and have more or less managed to keep it up, but these past few weeks have been extra-busy with both Gerda and myself celebrating a milestone birthday. We decided early in the year to take our family – kids and grandkids, numbering 15 altogether including ourselves, to Mauritius for a week, which is where we were during the first week in October. More about that in a post very soon but for the time being this post is a further episode of Atlasing Tales (cue – loud clapping and cheering!!)
Back to Mossel Bay
During our late winter visit to Mossel Bay this past August, I was keen to do some atlasing of a couple of the pentads not yet visited in 2017 by any atlasers and eventually settled on two pentads in the Little Karoo near Oudtshoorn, with the added hope of adding some Karoo species to my year list. (For a further explanation of atlasing have a look at my earlier posts on the subject eg Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and beyond)
The location of the first pentad is shown on the map below, the second one is directly west of it –
The Little Karoo (better known in South Africa by the Afrikaans name “Kleinkaroo”) is separated from the Great Karoo (“Grootkaroo”) by the Swartberg Mountain Range which runs east-west almost parallel to the southern coastline of South Africa, from which it is separated by another east-west range called the Outeniqua-Langeberg Mountains. The Karoo is a semi-desert natural region of SA, with low rainfall, arid air, cloudless skies and extremes of heat and cold.
It was raining lightly when I set off early morning from Mossel Bay and the wet roads had me making my way very carefully up the twisty Robinson Pass, which peaks out at 860 m above sea level and typically has a thick layer of mist or low clouds in the upper parts, as it did today.
Cresting the pass I glanced at the car’s temperature gauge which showed a chilly 5°C, so I welcomed the warmth of the car’s heater, but knew that I would be feeling it once I started atlasing, which one can only effectively do with the car’s windows open in order to be able to hear the birds calling, often the only way of identifying the species if you don’t see them. It was hard to imagine though, that the temperature would be the same 5° C on my way back through the pass at around 1.30 pm that afternoon!
By 7 am I was through the pass and the habitat changed rapidly to that of typical Little Karoo – few trees, many small shrubs and bushes and not much else.
Compared to other parts of the country, birding in the Karoo is slow and measured but immensely rewarding at the same time. When birds are scarce there is a certain pleasure in looking for and finding whatever may cross your path, very different from the abundant birds that other more bird-friendly habitats may provide. It’s a bit like sipping a special wine, taking your time and appreciating each drop, knowing there’s a limited amount and plenty of time.
A Karoo Lark (Karoolewerik ; Calendulauda albescens) drew my attention at my first stop, calling from a fence post then dropping to the ground. Its call was bright and cheerful despite the rather gloomy weather, but I suppose when you live in an arid area such as the Karoo, a bit of rainy weather is worth singing about!
Another Lark sitting on a small bush at a distance from the road had me wondering and I studied it as best as I could at that range, not being close enough to pick up the finer details that are important when trying to identify one of the LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs). It was streaky brown on the back, seemed to have some light streaking on the breast – features that most of the larks possess so I was no closer to an ID. However when it turned its head the long decurved bill was a prominent feature, almost Bee-eater like in appearance which pointed towards Karoo Long-billed Lark (Karoolangbeklewerik / Certhilauda subcoronata) – some later study of Faansie Peacock’s excellent book on LBJ’s clinched the ID for me. When I submitted the card for the pentad it generated an ORF (Out-of-range form) for this species, which I still have to complete and submit in order to get the ID verified – all part of being a “Citizen Scientist”
The photo was taken previously in the Karoo National Park –
A gravel side road, signposted Kandelaarsrivier proved to be an interesting diversion and I followed it for a few kms not far from the mostly dry river course and past several farmsteads. Along the way I came across a group of Mountain Wheatears (Bergwagter / Oenanthe monticola) which were quite accommodating, allowing a close approach in my vehicle for some pleasing photos of this species which is usually at a distance.
Both Speckled and White-backed Mousebirds (Gevlekte en Witkruismuisvoëls / Colius striatus and Colius colius) showed themselves at a spot further on – it’s interesting how they sometimes seem to stick close together yet don’t occupy the same tree.
I continued along the back roads past small villages and settlements, stopping to have a closer look at a handsome stone country church and exploring a side road which looked interesting but only took me to a rugby field, which could surely only be found in the Karoo – no grass, just a hard gravel surface. I had to wonder how they played such a physical game on this surface – they obviously breed some hard players in the area or they have very good medical care.
At another farmstead a group of White-throated Canaries (Witkeelkanarie / Crithagra albogularis) was busily gathering seeds from the ground, possibly spilled or perhaps from a nearby tree.
Heading back towards the Robinson Pass I was soon into my second target pentad for the day … 3340_2200 and added Pied Starling (Witgatspreeu ; Lamprotornis bicolor) Common Starling (Europese spreeu ; Sturnus vulgaris) and Bokmakierie (Bokmakierie ; Telephorus zeylonus)fairly quickly. Another gravel road wound its way past a quarry, which also happened to be the destination of several lorries which kicked up clouds of dust each time they passed, making the conditions unpleasant for a while. Nevertheless between dust clouds I found a Karoo Chat (Karoospekvreter ; Cercomela schlegelii)and Pale Chanting Goshawk (Bleeksingvalk ; Melierax canorus)and heard the distinctive call of a Pririt Batis (Priritbosbontrokkie ; Batis pririt)
Once past the quarry I could stop and enjoy the peace of the surroundings again and soon added Cape Bunting (Rooivlerkstreepkoppie ; Emberiza capensis), Acacia Pied Barbet (Bonthoutkapper ; Tricholaema leucomelas)and Namaqua Warbler (Namakwalangstertjie ; Phragmacia substriata). Just before exiting the pentad Cape Crow (Swartkraai ; Corvus capensis)and Cape Spurfowl (Kaapse fisant ; (Pternistis capensis) were welcome additions. The landscape changed to more hilly country, providing some magnificent views….
From there it was a question of finding the shortest route back to the main road to Mossel Bay, which turned out to be a “gated” road through rolling hills, necessitating the “stop, open gate, drive forward, stop, close gate” procedure repeated four times along the way. Not at all onerous when your travelling through such rugged and handsome countryside with no other vehicles to be seen, it just adds to the “getting away from it all” feeling. I eventually got back to the tar road at the Paardebont turn-off where I turned right onto the road back home.
The day’s excitement wasn’t done yet however – heading down the Mossel Bay side of the Robinson Pass, I stopped at the roadside picnic spot where I had found my first Victorin’s Warbler (Rooiborsruigtesanger ; Cryptillas victorini) a few years ago – as luck would have it I almost immediately heard one in the bush just below the road and soon found it threading its way through the dense undergrowth which is their preferred habitat.
After a couple of frustrating misses with my camera, I surmised which direction it was heading and went up ahead to wait for it to appear. This strategy worked as it briefly emerged from the bush and I rattled off a few shots while it called loudly. Eureka!
Well satisfied, I headed homeward
The Atlasing statistics
21st Full Protocol card for the pentad ; Out of Range form received for Karoo Long-billed Lark ; Total species for the pentad now 141 ; my total for the 2 – 3 hours was 31 or 22% of the pentad total
12th Full Protocol card for the pentad ; Total species for the pentad now 111 ; my total for the 2 hours was 23 or 21% of the pentad total
Our recent short ‘end-of-winter’ visit to Mossel Bay was made interesting by a Cape Weaver (Kaapse Wewer / Ploceus capensis) who had chosen the neighbour’s tree for his nest for the new breeding season. Although not in our garden, the tree overhangs our small lawn and as luck would have it the branch that was chosen by the Weaver was no more than 2 m from our bedroom window and marginally more from our balcony.
By the time we spotted it, the initial ring had already been woven by the busy Weaver and I promptly set up my camera at our bedroom window, linked it to my iphone (using the clever Nikon app and the built-in wifi connection of my Nikon camera), then sat in the lounge where I would not be seen by the bird and clicked away whenever the Weaver appeared on my iphone screen. I love it when technology comes together!
This technique produced some clear shots of it arriving at the partial nest with a length of grass or piece of leaf and as it set about the intricate task of weaving it into the growing structure. Fascinating to watch as the nest slowly grew and took shape. Once the nest was more or less complete and well-shaped the Weaver shifted his attention to the thin branch to which it was attached, stripping it of leaves – we could only guess this was a strategy to prevent unwanted “visitors” from using the foliage to conceal their approach.
After a couple of days of frenetic activity the bird seemed satisfied – except nothing happened, no female took occupation and the nest just hung there, unoccupied. A very windy day tested the nest structure to the limit and it seemed to withstand the battering without damage.
Then a day before we were to leave, a second ring frame appeared, attached to the outer wall of the first nest and we once again watched fascinated as the same Weaver set about building a “semi-detached” extension to the nest. This is not something I have seen before although Weavers are known to build more than one nest, often several, usually in different locations in the same tree, before the female of the species indicates her acceptance and takes occupation. (Right now I am resisting the temptation to make some further comment about this behaviour, relating to the female of another species that I am familiar with….)
Unfortunately we could not stay to see the outcome of this new development – perhaps there will be some evidence of the outcome when we return in November.
Anyway, here is a selection of the photos I took surreptitiously of the Weaver
Arriving at the nest with fresh grass strand
Starter ring being constructed
A bit of displaying might impress her
Saturday, one week later
You think semi-detached will work better? – Yes, of course dear!
Now where does this one go again?
I really don’t like being watched while I’m weaving
Spring Day is celebrated in South Africa (and the southern hemisphere) on 1st September, which is when the seasons ‘officially’ turn and the days are supposed to get warmer as winter comes to an end and we head towards summer again. No public holiday has been declared (yet?) but it’s just a day when many businesses encourage their staff to dress casually and people forget some of their problems or relegate them to the back of their mind for a while.
We were in Mossel Bay for two weeks leading up to the day and knowing how the weather can vary – up to 4 seasons in one day as our mother used to say of Cape Town – I wasn’t expecting anything different from the typical August weather we had experienced so far. Chilly overcast days were followed by a chilly sunny days, followed by rainy, windy days and then the cycle more or less repeated itself.
So if you had the choice, what would your perfect day look like, weather-wise? If it was possible to choose the perfect Spring Day weather, I would make sure it was pleasantly sunny, the temperature would be not too hot, not too cold – say about 20 to 25 degrees C, there would be a whisper of a breeze to keep things fresh and there would be at most a few fleecy clouds to break the cobalt blue sky.
Well, apart from being a cloudless day, Spring Day in Mossel Bay ticked all my boxes and turned out just about as perfect as it is possible to be.
Gerda had an appointment at the hairdresser in town mid-morning (all of 5 minutes from our house) so after dropping her off, I drove to the “Point” just a short distance away, parked and set off for a walk along the pathway which winds its way past seafront houses and apartments back towards the harbour.
Being the middle of the morning and out of season, it was quiet and I had the seafront virtually to myself, other than a few people walking their dogs, a mother with her small kids at the swings and a lone fishermen on the rocks.
Scanning the seas I could make out two seals lazily swimming and flopping about just off the rocks, while a couple of surfers in black shiny wetsuits that matched the seals coats almost exactly were catching the smooth breaking swells, expertly guiding their boards along the line of rocks.
The tidal pool had hardly a ripple, the surface reflecting the historic St Blaize lighthouse in the background
I had my binoculars with me but didn’t really need them as all the birds I could see were large, familiar and easy to identify with the naked eye – Kelp Gulls wheeling overhead, skeins of Cape Cormorants flying close inshore and just above the waves, Swift Terns making their way to and from the harbour area and African Black Oystercatchers searching for food out on the rocks.
The small stretch of sand between the rocks – I would hesitate to call it a beach – had a few newly washed up shells scattered about.
The views along the way were as perfect as the weather – Mossel Bay at its best – and my soul felt refreshed and calm just from taking in the natural beauty of the scene.
By the way, the photos (other than the Oystercatcher which was taken a day earlier with my “proper camera”) were all taken with my IPhone.
Southern Cape winters are often cold and wet, with cold, clammy mists regularly rolling in from the sea. We love visiting our home in Mossel Bay, which is seen by many as the start of the famous Garden Route, but our winter visits are usually kept short, although the conditions can be a tonic after a few months of the dry Highveld winter of our main home in Pretoria, with no rain for months stretching from May to mid-October.
One of the floral attractions during winter in the Southern Cape is the proteas and aloes that flower and enrich the green landscape with their bright orange, yellow and red colours, attracting the nectar lovers such as the Sugarbirds and Sunbirds.
When we visit Mossel Bay in the winter months, there is a great sense of anticipation as we land at George airport and head along the highway for the short drive to our home, soaking up the lush green winter scenery and particularly the aloes planted here and there along the highway, colourful in their winter dress.
300 Flowers a day! That is how many flowering Proteas the Cape Sugarbird / Kaapse suikervöel (Promerops cafer) may visit during a day to meet its energy requirements.
Having watched them in action in our garden, I can well believe that figure – they maintain a frenetic level of activity amongst the Protea species, mostly of the Pincushion variety, that we have in our garden, flitting from bush to bush and flower to flower, then flying off rapidly in search of the next one, long tail swishing about in their urgency.
The yellow dusting on the forehead is the pollen picked up from dipping deep into the flowers, which then gets carried to the next flower.
Alongside the Cape Sugarbirds, other nectar loving species look positively sedate, including the Double-collared Sunbirds, both Southern and Greater species which are wonderful to watch with their brightly coloured, shiny plumage as they feed on the equally colourful flowers.
The males of these species are similar looking but, if you have binos handy or can get close enough, they can be fairly easily identified by the width of the bright red band across their chests – the Southern Double-collared Sunbird / Kleinrooibandsuikerbekkie (Cynnyris chalybeus) has a narrow band while the Greater Double-collared Sunbird / Grootrooibandsuikerbekkie (Cynniris afer) has a much broader band of red.
Both take the prize for the longest name for a small bird!
Look carefully at the next photo and you will see the thin “tongue” which is hollow and with which the sunbird sucks the nectar – much like a flexible syringe.
Both of these species are guaranteed to brighten up your day, just as they add colour, vibrancy and action to your garden in the Southern Cape in the middle of the winter.
All the photos in this post were taken in our garden in Mossel Bay, which Gerda planned to be as indigenous as possible and to survive with the minimum of attention during the months when we are elsewhere.