Continuing the monthly look at where Atlasing, or Birdmapping as it is also known, took me in March 2020 …..
The last week and a bit of March saw us on our way from Pretoria to Cape Town and then eastwards to eventual lockdown in Mossel Bay, a trip of some 1850 kms spread over 4 days. As is my habit, I used the stopovers to do some atlasing – always a great way to shake off the effects of a day in the car.
Prior Grange, Springfontein : 22 – 23 March 2020
A Sunday start meant quiet roads out of Gauteng and a relaxed drive for some 620 kms to Prior Grange near Springfontein in the Free State. We were allocated the Stable Cottage in the grounds of the farm garden, set amongst tall old trees and we welcomed the comfortable and spacious accommodation and looked forward especially to the delicious dinner and breakfast served in the cottage.
As soon as we had settled in I set off on a walk, exploring the garden and the dam behind the main house, ending the afternoon with 34 species recorded. The garden was filled with bird calls – those of Green Woodhoopoes most prominent and visible as they foraged from tree to tree. Crested and Pied Barbets both made themselves heard with their distinctive calls, one a drawn out trilling, the other a series of nasal calls and short, quick hoots.
The dam was sparsely populated at first glance, but once I had scanned it carefully I found there were a number of species in small numbers on the water – Common Moorhen (10%), Yellow-billed Duck, Egyptian Goose, Little Grebe calling shrilly as it took off in its typical fly / swim fashion, a lone Spur-winged Goose and a pair of SA Shelducks. An African Darter (4%) on the far bank was not easy to see until it moved – only the second record for this species in the pentad.
I made my way back to the main gravel road and walked a short distance along it in the remaining time, enough to find a Rock Kestrel on a utility pole and to see a distant group of Blue Cranes flying to their roost.
The afternoon ended back at the cottage with calls of Diderick Cuckoo and a guttural call which had me puzzled until my bird calls memory kicked in and I realised that it was Grey Herons, which I was just able to make out on the top of a tall tree that they were using for nesting and roosting.
Supper was the customary Karoo lamb – this time in a delicious pie form with veggies and a pudding for after. I set the alarm for 6 am to allow an hour or so of atlasing in the morning, so completing the 2 hours minimum atlasing before departing after breakfast.
Next morning the weather was fine and cool for a further walk, but before setting out I spotted White-backed Mousebirds in the trees followed immediately by the unmistakable whirring, clapping sound and ascending whistle which announced the presence of a Clapper Lark in display flight and specifically in this part of the country, the Eastern Clapper Lark.
Walking the gravel road in the direction of Springfontein I soon found a Jackal Buzzard (10%) perched on a distant pylon, accompanied by a belligerent looking Pied Crow, the Buzzard rather aloof to it all as the Crow seemed to scold it for who knows what reason.
A Cape Longclaw flew up out of the grass as I passed and sat briefly on a fence post, showing its bright orange neck colouring, while a Cloud Cisticola called phwee-phwee-phwee-chik-chik-chik rapidly in the background, determined to make sure I would add it to my list.
A little further on, another bird on a fence post was a puzzle until I could get closer with less backlight and identify it as a Sabota Lark (a New record for the pentad). Time for breakfast had arrived and I headed back to the cottage, hesitating only to listen to the Orange River Francolin that was greeting the new day.
After a full breakfast we packed up and headed for the N1 National Road which would take us to our next overnight stop near Beaufort West. While loading the car I heard and then spotted an African Paradise Flycatcher (another new record for the pentad)
And just in case you wonder which way to go …… there is a very helpful sign to see you on your way….
It seems that Prior Grange attracts its fair share of atlasers, with 49 pentad cards submitted to date. My total of 50 species was more than I had expected in the two and a bit hours that I spent atlasing, all of it on foot other than 3 species recorded on the road as we drove the last stretch to the farm. My personal tally stands at 96 species for the pentad, after 5 visits to the farm, one of our favourite stopovers on the long road to the southern Cape.
Footnote : Where I show percentages in brackets, these refer to the relative scarcity of the species according to the pentad surveys completed to date over the ten years that the project has been running. So if 100 pentad surveys have been done to date and a species has been recorded 5 times by the observers, it will be shown as 5%. Notable species in my book are those with a % of less than 10%
The thing about being “semi-retired” is that it gives you lots of time to travel and Gerda and I tend to make the most of it while we are able. With our second home being in Mossel Bay, we do like to spend as much time there as we can afford, without abandoning our Pretoria ties completely.
And so it happened that we decided to spend the Easter period this year in Mossel Bay – then, fortuitously, we received an invite to a wedding at De Hoop Nature Reserve over the weekend before Easter, and on top of that our daughter and son-in-law suggested we do a week’s touring through the Eastern Cape during the school break at the end of April, with 2 or 3 night stays at three National Parks – Camdeboo near Graaf-Reinet, Mountain Zebra a bit further east near Cradock and Addo Elephant Park not far from Port Elizabeth. Now that’s an offer that was difficult to refuse. We had been to Addo before – just last year for the first time – but the other three parks would all be first-time visits, which is something we are looking forward to.
Starting off – overnight in Springfontein
As often happens, we were loaded to the hilt when we left Pretoria (actually our VW Touareg was) – there are always surplus items from our main home which need transporting to Mossel Bay and this time was no different, plus our normal baggage. The trip to Mossel Bay is a two-day affair for us, so an overnight stop around halfway is always part of the planning. We have tried various B&B’s in the stretch between Bloemfontein and Colesberg / Hanover and they have all been quite acceptable – all you want is a comfortable bed, a clean shower that works properly and a decent dinner and breakfast and most have perfected those simple requirements. This time around we decided to try Prior Grange, a guest farm near Springfontein, as I had read that there was a Blockhouse from the Anglo-Boer war on the property and I was interested to see it.
Having left Pretoria a bit later than we had hoped, knowing we had over 600 km to travel, we nevertheless reached Prior Grange in good time and, after settling in, I drove the further 4 km to the hill on which the blockhouse was perched. According to Blackie de Swardt from Prior Grange, there were some 8000 of these block houses built by the Brits across South Africa, approximately 1000 yards apart so that they were visible to the next one, of which only 50 or so originals remain – he went to the trouble of rebuilding this one on the old foundations and well done to him, as it gives you a feel for what it would have been like to man these structures, watching over the railway line and the surrounding veld well into the distance.
At the same time I worked on a bird list for the pentad, which proved to be quite productive – Wattled and Pied Starlings were plentiful and a Desert Cisticola posed on the fence, while Cliff Swallows wheeled overhead near a culvert before settling in for the night. Common Waxbills twittered as they passed by in a flock and Barn Swallows swooped past, perhaps readying themselves for the long journey back north.
Next morning I was up at dawn to complete the 2 hours atlasing and walked to the dam just behind the main house. There I was met by a beautiful scene of dead still water in the soft morning light, reflecting the surrounding trees and disturbed only by the V-shaped ripples of the water birds enjoying the first light of day – I listed Red-billed Teal, Little Grebe, Cape Shoveler and a few handsome SA Shelducks.
White-throated Swallows skimmed the water and a group of Spotted Thick-Knees flushed like magic from the grassy verge when I got close. Then it was time for breakfast and the second leg of the long drive to Mossel Bay.
De Hoop Nature Reserve
We had just two days at our home in Mossel Bay before it was time to travel again – to De Hoop for the “Wedding Weekend” of Louis and Amelda (Rossouw). De Hoop lies south-west of Swellendam and less than 200 km from Mossel Bay so we didn’t rush to get away and stopped at Riversdale for lunch on the way at a farm stall, which has the only “dog pub” I’ve come across.
The last 50 km or so were on gravel and just before getting to the entrance gate to De Hoop we stopped for a photo of a pair of Blue Cranes which were mingling with some cattle at a watering hole – so intent was I on getting a good photo with my new lens that I didn’t notice I had stepped into …… (no, fortunately not what you were thinking) ….sticky yellow mud at the side of the road which immediately rendered my sandals unwearable. After checking in barefoot, Gerda kindly rescued my sandals by washing them and leaving them in the sun to dry – good as new again!
A Black-headed Heron flying off proved to be a good time to test my new lens’ ability to handle a Bird-in-flight – I was quite pleased with my new purchase.
From the entrance gate it was a short drive to the “Opstal” and by 5pm we were settled into our spacious and comfortable cottage – Black Oystercatcher cottage – which we would enjoy for the next three days. Birding started as we approached the complex of white-painted buildings and once we were settled in I took a walk to the Vlei, which I discovered is a large body of water trapped for centuries by the dunes bordering the nearby coastline and which has dried up completely in dry years, but right now seemed massive and full to the brim. On the walk to the vlei I came across some relaxed birds all of the “Cape” variety – Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Spurfowl and Cape Weaver – basking in the late afternoon sun.
At the vlei I found tens of Egyptian Geese, Coots and Great Crested Grebes back-lit by the fast setting sun, and a Grey Heron or two keeping watch at the edge of the vlei. Walking along the cliffs that border long stretches of the vlei, I noted a number of Rock Martins preparing to roost for the night, while a flock of Glossy Ibises flew overhead on their way to their preferred roosting site. All of the while I was aware of the biting horse flies which made it difficult to stand still for any length of time. The sun set in a blaze of red-orange reflected across the water.
Later on we enjoyed a fine dinner in the Fig Tree restaurant at the Opstal, which augured well for the rest of our short stay.
Exploring De Hoop
I had booked an extra day to allow time for some relaxed birding and atlasing, so only ventured out on Friday after a good lie-in to recover from an energy-sapping few days, starting with a slow drive past the short-grassed fields where several Capped Wheatears were showing and a flock of Pied Starlings were moving about in chattering fashion. Also present were Bontebok which are plentiful in the reserve and some colourful butterflies.
Heading towards the coastal dunes I was really pleased to come across a group of Cape (there it is again) Penduline-Tits, which I have only seen a handful of times in all my years of birding – as a bonus I was able to get a distant photo or two before they moved off again.
Further on, the vlei had encroached onto the road and, as the Opstal manager had told me last evening, there were a lot of birds taking advantage of the shallow water with plenty of food for all types. Spoonbills were prominent along with Darter, White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Teal, Little Grebe and a family of Cape Shovelers. Also in the scene were Pied Kingfishers hovering and diving now and then, Purple Heron flying in and landing gracefully near some Little Stints and Wood Sandpipers. On the opposite shore a few Great White Pelicans pottered about.
Carrying on along the road to the “Melkkamer”, a quiet inlet held Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe and an African Darter stretching its wings, while the roadside bush was quite productive with the customary fynbos species such as Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Grassbird, as well as Bar-throated Apalis noisilycompeting with Karoo Prinia for attention – if the latter two were schoolkids they would be the ones always being scolded for talking too much.
I turned around at the gate to the protected area and headed the opposite way to Koppie Alleen where I took a brief walk on the high dunes – the pentad ended just short of the parking area at Koppie Alleen, but not before I had seen a beautiful Black Harrier floating low above the dunes in their typical butterfly like way.
On the way I had an interesting sighting when I spotted a Cape Bunting in the road, only to discover it was “chasing” a large Puff Adder across the road and into the thick bush. Not for nothing then that signs have been erected warning visitors to brake in time for snakes in the road.
Saturday dawned bright and sunny – and warm for this time of year. The ceremony was only at 4 pm so there was time for further birding and I decided to return to Koppie Alleen to explore the beach which had looked enticing from high up on the dunes. The 15 km from the cottage took about 45 minutes with a brief stop at the vlei and I began to atlas the pentad at Koppie Alleen by 8.30 am, with Cape Bulbul featuring prominently in the fynbos on the long walk from the parking area down to the beach.
Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds flitted about busily and vociferously while a few Barn Swallows proved that they hadn’t begun their long trek northwards just yet. Maybe they’d heard about the long cold European winter and were holding out as long as possible.
The beach, once I got there, was deserted except for a few Kelp Gulls, White-breasted Cormorants, African Black Oystercatchers and a few Cape Wagtails – later on the beach would see a handful of visitors but right now it was just me and the wide expanse of sand and rocks. It seemed to be low tide,as the rocks in the inter-tidal zone were exposed, some with crystal clear pools of water trapped between them. It was nice to see no sign of the plastic litter that is a feature of much of the coastline nowadays, just thousands of pristine seashells left behind by the tides.
A little unexpectedly, a Yellow Canary and Familiar Chat joined me on the beach, then a small flock of waders flew past which I was able to ID as Sanderlings based on their small size, tail pattern and call.
A boardwalk over the dunes and higher rocks was very welcome in getting past the rocky barriers between the beaches.
Trekking back up the long and sandy road (time to hum the similar-titled Beatles song), a Jackal Buzzard and a Black Harrier helped to close out the pentad before I made my way back to the cottage, then on to lunch. The wedding ceremony was held out in the open overlooking the vlei – I had to wonder where else you can carry on birding during a wedding, as I watched a Bokmakierie close by and the waterfowl on the vlei in the distance.
The reception was equally “cool” being held under the massive Fig tree near the restaurant and as darkness fell the lights strung around the branches turned it into a veritable fairyland – with fairy princess and all. Needless to say the evening was enjoyed by all and the younger set danced till the early hours. The perfect weather was made for partying outdoors.
After breakfast on Sunday morning and goodbyes, we set out for our next stop – Stellenbosch with a quick look-in at De Mond Nature Reserve. More on that at another time.
This Saturday 26 April will see us starting the next leg of our Four Parks tour – starting with Camdeboo National Park at Graaf Reinet