Tag Archives: Mossel Bay Birding

Atlasing Tales – Little Karoo near Oudtshoorn

Excuses, excuses…

Firstly, regular readers of this blog (yes, both of you) may be wondering why it’s been more than 3 weeks since my last post. I do try and post at least once a fortnight and have more or less managed to keep it up, but these past few weeks have been extra-busy with both Gerda and myself celebrating a milestone birthday. We decided early in the year to take our family – kids and grandkids, numbering 15 altogether including ourselves, to Mauritius for a week, which is where we were during the first week in October. More about that in a post very soon but for the time being this post is a further episode of Atlasing Tales (cue – loud clapping and cheering!!)

Back to Mossel Bay

During our late winter visit to Mossel Bay this past August, I was keen to do some atlasing of a couple of the pentads not yet visited in 2017 by any atlasers and eventually settled on two pentads in the Little Karoo near Oudtshoorn, with the added hope of adding some Karoo species to my year list. (For a further explanation of atlasing have a look at my earlier posts on the subject eg Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and beyond)

The location of the first pentad is shown on the map below, the second one is directly west of it –

The Little Karoo (better known in South Africa by the Afrikaans name “Kleinkaroo”) is separated from the Great Karoo (“Grootkaroo”) by the Swartberg Mountain Range which runs east-west almost parallel to the southern coastline of South Africa, from which it is separated by another east-west range called the Outeniqua-Langeberg Mountains. The Karoo is a semi-desert natural region of SA, with low rainfall, arid air, cloudless skies and extremes of heat and cold.

Getting there

It was raining lightly when I set off early morning from Mossel Bay and the wet roads had me making my way very carefully up the twisty Robinson Pass, which peaks out at 860 m above sea level and typically has a thick layer of mist or low clouds in the upper parts, as it did today.

Cresting the pass I glanced at the car’s temperature gauge which showed a chilly 5°C, so I welcomed the warmth of the car’s heater, but knew that I would be feeling it once I started atlasing, which one can only effectively do with the car’s windows open in order to be able to hear the birds calling, often the only way of identifying the species if you don’t see them. It was hard to imagine though, that the temperature would be the same 5° C on my way back through the pass at around 1.30 pm that afternoon!

By 7 am I was through the pass and the habitat changed rapidly to that of typical Little Karoo – few trees, many small shrubs and bushes and not much else.

Oudtshoorn south
A rainbow appeared when I made my first stop

Atlasing starts

Compared to other parts of the country, birding in the Karoo is slow and measured but immensely rewarding at the same time. When birds are scarce there is a certain pleasure in looking for and finding whatever may cross your path, very different from the abundant birds that other more bird-friendly habitats may provide. It’s a bit like sipping a special wine, taking your time and appreciating each drop, knowing there’s a limited amount and plenty of time.

A Karoo Lark (Karoolewerik ; Calendulauda albescens) drew my attention at my first stop, calling from a fence post then dropping to the ground. Its call was bright and cheerful despite the rather gloomy weather, but I suppose when you live in an arid area such as the Karoo, a bit of rainy weather is worth singing about!

Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south

Karoo Lark, Oudtshoorn south
Karoo Lark

Another Lark sitting on a small bush at a distance from the road had me wondering and I studied it as best as I could at that range, not being close enough to pick up the finer details that are important when trying to identify one of the LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs). It was streaky brown on the back, seemed to have  some light streaking on the breast – features that most of the larks possess so I was no closer to an ID. However when it turned its head the long decurved bill was a prominent feature, almost Bee-eater like in appearance which pointed towards Karoo Long-billed Lark (Karoolangbeklewerik / Certhilauda subcoronata) – some later study of Faansie Peacock’s excellent book on LBJ’s clinched the ID for me. When I submitted the card for the pentad it generated an ORF (Out-of-range form) for this species, which I still have to complete and submit in order to get the ID verified – all part of being a “Citizen Scientist”

The photo was taken previously in the Karoo National Park –

Karoo Longbilled Lark, Karoo National Park
Karoo Long-billed Lark

A gravel side road, signposted Kandelaarsrivier proved to be an interesting diversion and I followed it for a few kms not far from the mostly dry river course and past several farmsteads. Along the way I came across a group of Mountain Wheatears (Bergwagter / Oenanthe monticola) which were quite accommodating, allowing a close approach in my vehicle for some pleasing photos of this species which is usually at a distance.

Mountain Wheatear (female), Oudtshoorn south
Mountain Wheatear (female)
Mountain Wheatear (female), Oudtshoorn south
Surprising how much white is visible in flight

Both Speckled and White-backed Mousebirds (Gevlekte en Witkruismuisvoëls / Colius striatus and Colius colius) showed themselves at a spot further on – it’s interesting how they sometimes seem to stick close together yet don’t occupy the same tree.

I continued along the back roads past small villages and settlements, stopping to have a closer look at a handsome stone country church and exploring a side road which looked interesting but only took me to a rugby field, which could surely only be found in the Karoo – no grass, just a hard gravel surface. I had to wonder how they played such a physical game on this surface – they obviously breed some hard players in the area or they have very good medical care.

Rugby field, Oudtshoorn south

At another farmstead a group of White-throated Canaries (Witkeelkanarie / Crithagra albogularis) was busily gathering seeds from the ground, possibly spilled or perhaps from a nearby tree.

White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south
White-throated Canary – note the hint of yellow rump showing

White-throated Canary, Oudtshoorn south

Heading back towards the Robinson Pass I was soon into my second target pentad for the day … 3340_2200 and added Pied Starling (Witgatspreeu ; Lamprotornis bicolorCommon Starling (Europese spreeu ; Sturnus vulgaris) and Bokmakierie (Bokmakierie ; Telephorus zeylonus)fairly quickly. Another gravel road wound its way past a quarry, which also happened to be the destination of several lorries which kicked up clouds of dust each time they passed, making the conditions unpleasant for a while. Nevertheless between dust clouds I found a Karoo Chat (Karoospekvreter ; Cercomela schlegelii)and Pale Chanting Goshawk (Bleeksingvalk ; Melierax canorus)and heard the distinctive call of a Pririt Batis (Priritbosbontrokkie ; Batis pririt)

Once past the quarry I could stop and enjoy the peace of the surroundings again and soon added Cape Bunting (Rooivlerkstreepkoppie ; Emberiza capensis), Acacia Pied Barbet (Bonthoutkapper ; Tricholaema leucomelas)and Namaqua Warbler (Namakwalangstertjie ; Phragmacia substriata). Just before exiting the pentad Cape Crow (Swartkraai ; Corvus capensis)and Cape Spurfowl (Kaapse fisant ; (Pternistis capensis) were welcome additions. The landscape changed to more hilly country, providing some magnificent views….

From there it was a question of finding the shortest route back to the main road to Mossel Bay, which turned out to be a “gated” road through rolling hills, necessitating the “stop, open gate, drive forward, stop, close gate” procedure repeated four times along the way. Not at all onerous when your travelling through such rugged and handsome countryside with no other vehicles to be seen, it just adds to the “getting away from it all” feeling. I eventually got back to the tar road at the Paardebont turn-off where I turned right onto the road back home.

Gate along a wet road

The day’s excitement wasn’t done yet however – heading down the Mossel Bay side of the Robinson Pass, I stopped at the roadside picnic spot where I had found my first Victorin’s Warbler (Rooiborsruigtesanger ; Cryptillas victorini) a few years ago – as luck would have it I almost immediately heard one in the bush just below the road and soon found it threading its way through the dense undergrowth which is their preferred habitat.

After a couple of frustrating misses with my camera, I surmised which direction it was heading and went up ahead to wait for it to appear. This strategy worked as it briefly emerged from the bush and I rattled off a few shots while it called loudly. Eureka!

Victorin’s Warbler, Robinson Pass
View of Mossel Bay from Robinson Pass (taken on a sunnier day)

Well satisfied, I headed homeward

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 3340_2205

21st Full Protocol card for the pentad ;    Out of Range form received for Karoo Long-billed Lark ; Total species for the pentad now 141 ; my total for the 2 – 3 hours was 31 or 22% of the pentad total

Pentad 3340_2200

12th Full Protocol card for the pentad ;   Total species for the pentad now 111 ; my total for the 2 hours was 23 or 21% of the pentad total

 

Nest building 101 – Cape Weaver does his thing

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

Monday

Arriving at the nest with fresh grass strand

Starter ring being constructed

Friday

Finishing off

Busy Weaver

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

Wonder if this one is going to be good enough?

Can’t wait to see what happened!

 

Spring Day in Mossel Bay

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.

The path leading from the tidal pool 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.

A lone fisherman enjoys the conditions

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

The tidal pool which is crammed with kids in season
St Blaize lighthouse reflected in the tidal pool
The tidal pool
Looking back along the seafront pathway

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.

African Black Oystercatcher

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.

Spring Day in Mossel Bay
Spring Day in Mossel Bay
Spring Day in Mossel Bay

A memorable Spring Day walk!

 

The Nectar Lovers of the Southern Cape

 

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.

Cape Sugarbird

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.

Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay
Cape Sugarbird, Mossel Bay

Double-collared Sunbirds

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.

Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay
Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Mossel Bay

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.

Mossel Bay in July – A Winter’s Tale

At home in Mossel Bay

The first 10 days of our July stay in our second home town were characterised by cold, wet weather almost every day – typical Cape winter weather you might say, but the locals insist it is exceptional for Mossel Bay, which is punted as having one of the mildest climates in SA.

It hasn’t been conducive to going atlasing in the early morning, so I have taken the lazy option of doing most of my birding and atlasing in the Golf Estate where our house is located with short visits to some selected spots in the Mossel Bay area to find the species not occurring in the estate itself.

Mossel Bay Golf Estate
View of the golf course from our garden
Mossel Bay Golf Estate - nature reserve area
Looking down at the nature reserve area from the walking trail

The Patio Option

Our enclosed patio looking over the golf course and the sea has proved to be the ideal spot for viewing the birds that visit our small garden, particularly when they perch in the neighbour’s trees, which are at eye level a just a few metres from the first floor patio.

Regular visitors include the usual Doves (Laughing, Cape Turtle- and Red-eyed) and Sparrows (Cape and Grey-headed) while Streaky-headed Seedeaters have been prominent for the first time that I can recall.

Cape Sparrow
Cape Sparrow
Streaky-headed Seedeater
Streaky-headed Seedeater (which used to be called Streaky-headed Canary)

A Cape Weaver started building his nest with a neat ring of grass as the frame for the ball-shaped nest to follow, but unfortunately abandoned it at that point.

Weaver starter frame of nest
Weaver starter frame of nest

The honeysuckle hedge below the patio was not in flower but we still had both Southern and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds visiting, probably on their way to the many flowering Aloes in the estate, which are at their colourful best in the winter months.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird
Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Greater ditto is identical other than a broader band of red)

Others dropping by were both of the common species of Mousebird, Speckled and Red-faced and both presented nice photo opportunities.

Speckled Mousebird
Speckled Mousebird
Red-faced Mousebird (calling)
Red-faced Mousebird (calling)

The ubiquitous Cape Sugarbirds are abundant in the estate and seem to be in a state of excitement most of the time – just shows what a fancy long tail does to you.

Cape Sugarbird
Cape Sugarbird
Cape Sugarbird
Cape Sugarbird (taken on my I-Phone)

Then there are the Bulbuls with the familiar Cape Bulbul not at all shy to show himself, while the Sombre Greenbul remains hidden in the bushes but makes up for it with his piercing call “which sounds a bit like “Willie” (which is also the Afrikaans name for it)

Cape Bulbul
Cape Bulbul
Cape White-eye
Cape White-eyes move through the foliage in small flocks

A Yellow Bishop was a surprise visitor, as I had only ever seen them in the Fynbos which fills the nature reserve area between the last row of houses and the rocky headlands along the shoreline. It was in its duller winter plumage, heavily streaked and giving a glimpse of bright yellow back as it flew off.

Yellow Bishop at the feeder (winter plumage)
Yellow Bishop at the feeder (winter plumage)

Feeding the masses

I bought a bird-feeder and some seed at Agri, our local co-op and installed it below the patio, hoping for some seed-eating visitors. Well, it was packed with birds the next day – Sparrows, Seedeaters (they used to be called Streaky-headed Canaries), Bishops and Weavers all vying for a spot. In the frenzy some seed fell to the grass below and was quickly taken by the Doves and even the Cape Spurfowl which are very common in the estate.

Cape Spurfowl
Cape Spurfowl

Going Walkabout

When the weather allowed, I did some walking around the estate and down into the nature reserve area of Fynbos. The latter was alive with Yellow and White-throated Canaries flitting about, plenty of Sunbirds and a Bokmakierie or two.

White-throated Canary
White-throated Canary

And the scenery was special – most of the fynbos was in flower creating beautiful spreads of tiny purple, pink and white flowers against the backdrop of grey skies and cobalt ocean beyond the cliff edge.

Fynbos
Fynbos
Fynbos
Fynbos
Fynbos
Fynbos

For a few minutes the icy wind was forgotten and I took some photos with my pocket camera (which I sometimes use for communication as well – they should call it an I-Camera rather than an I-Phone)

Other fynbos favourites were out and about – Karoo Prinia vociferous as always and Southern Boubou skulking in the bushes, while Bar-throated Apalis moved about restlessly,  calling chit-chit-chit all the while.

Let’s go down to the Sea again …….

Seabirds are always a feature of birding in Mossel Bay and there were plenty in numbers if not species. Kelp Gulls are common, even over the estate which they use as a direct route to their roosts along the cliffs.

Kelp Gull
Kelp Gull

Down at the Point there were numbers of Swift Terns flying past just off the rocky shoreline, some harried by Subantarctic Skuas, large all brown seabirds with distinctive white wing flashes, hoping for a dropped morsel. Their Afrikaans name Roofmeeu translates directly to “Robbing Gull” which describes their habit of pestering other seabirds until they drop or disgorge some of their food.

Subantarctic Skua
Subantarctic Skua

During the first week there were signs of the annual “sardine run”, when millions of these small fish move up the east coast of South Africa in massive shoals, drawing all kinds of sea- and bird-life along with them. From the patio we could see some of them enjoying take-aways :

  • schools of dolphins numbering in the hundreds
  • a few whales breaching – they are annual visitors to the bay
  • Cape Gannets galore, turning and diving straight down in their typical fashion
Cape Gannet
Cape Gannet

Winter is certainly a worthwhile time to visit Mossel Bay, but let’s face it, Spring and Summer are a lot better from most points of view! Can’t wait to return later in the year!

On the statistics front, my total bird list during this visit was 110 species of which about 60% were in the estate itself and the rest during side trips in and around Mossel Bay and a two-day “culinary and birding trip” to the Robertson area (watch this space for more on that subject)