Tag Archives: SABAP2

My Atlasing Month – June 2020 (Part 1 )

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

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

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

Herbertsdale Area – 4 June

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

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

The Route

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

Pentad 3415_2145

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

A misty side road in early morning

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

Neddicky, Herbertsdale south

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

Heuningklip road through hilly country

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

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

Terrestrial Brownbul

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

Farm, Herbertsdale area

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

Shallow pan, Herbertsdale area
Three-banded Plover

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

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

Pentad 3355_2145

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

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

Herbertsdale area

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

Herbertsdale area – this aloe was already in bloom

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

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Black-crowned Night-Heron

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

Hamerkop, Herbertsdale Area

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Atlasing Month – March 2020 (Part 4)

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.

Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West : 23 – 24 March 2020

When we stayed over at Lemoenfontein at the end of January on our way back to Gauteng, we hardly imagined we would be visiting this pleasant lodge so soon again and that we would be hearing news that evening that would change our lives along with the rest of the world.

We had plenty of time to do the 400 or so kms to get there from our previous overnight stop at Prior Grange near Springfontein in the Free State, so we took it easy with an extended stop at one of our favourite roadside pitstops – the Three Sisters garage. As has been our custom when stopping here, we purchased burgers at the take-away restaurant (not yet in lockdown, so still operating) and enjoyed them at one of the concrete picnic tables under the trees, surrounded by eager little sparrows, weavers and starlings all waiting for a chance to grab a dropped crumb or two.

We could already see the effect of the C-virus in the relatively few travelers on the road, despite being school holidays (although the schools had closed earlier than planned). The feeling of impending doom was hard to shake off and everyone seemed to be behaving differently.

Not long after, we arrived at the turn-off to Lemoenfontein and as we crossed into the pentad in which the lodge falls, I started driving slowly and scanning the surroundings.

Pentad 3215_2235

The approach road from the gravel turn-off runs for about 5 kms up to the lodge and provides a good opportunity to find some of the birds particular to the arid Karoo. First up was a Rufous-eared Warbler, a bird which always lifts my spirits, but often difficult to find. I have learnt from previous encounters with this striking little bird that to see it well, one must look out for it flying into a small bush where it tends to disappear from view, only to pop out at the top of the bush and perch there momentarily before moving to the next bush. This one did exactly as expected and we had good views for a half a minute.

Rufous-eared Warbler

Further on we found the first of what was going to be many Lark-like Buntings – a drab bird which often blends in with the arid habitats that it prefers and spends a lot of time on the ground. Strangely, these Buntings were more active and prominent than those I have previously encountered, fluttering about and perching briefly in the open, providing good views of their features – which are hard to describe, except to quote what others have said – “The main feature of the Lark-like Bunting is that it has no standout features” – sometimes birding can be a tad confusing.

Lark-like Bunting (Emberiza impetuani / Vaalstreepkoppie) ; (Subspecies sloggetti), Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West

We arrived at Lemoenfontein with just these two species logged, checked in and were taken to Room No 9, which I found to my delight was to one side with a small garden in front and a view that stretched beyond over the wide expanse of Karoo scrub.

Lemoenfontein near Beaufort West

I took up a seat on the patio and spent time just watching the passing bird traffic, gradually adding to my list with doves and sparrows and the likes of White-backed Mousebird, Dusky Sunbird, Rock Martins cruising by and Greater Striped Swallows resting on the top branches of a small tree.

Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West
Greater Striped Swallow (Cecropis cucullata / Grootstreepswael), Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West

I wanted to fit in a walk before dinner and headed up the mountain trail, which proved challenging as hordes of mosquitoes descended on all my bare parts – not a good time to be in shorts! I slapped furiously only managing to deter them for a few seconds before they returned with reinforcements.

They weren’t giving me a chance to even lift my binos and look around, but I noticed that they seemed to be getting fewer the higher I climbed, so I hastened to get as high as my lungs would allow then slowed to a more suitable pace to look around properly.

Lemoenfontein near Beaufort West

Just then my heavily pumping heart soared as I saw two black shapes high up above the ridge that towers over Lemoenfontein – a pair of Verraux’s Eagles (New record for the pentad) enjoying the late afternoon thermals, gracefully wheeling and soaring. A sight I never tire of.

Verreaux’s Eagle (Aquila verreauxii / Witkruisarend), Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West

On the way back to the lodge I added Karoo Scrub-Robin and Pale-winged Starling to close out my afternoon’s atlasing at a modest 18 species – not unexpected in this habitat.

Soon it was time for dinner on the grand Verandah – we had heard President Cyril Ramaphosa was due to speak about the virus pandemic and kept an eye on the news while enjoying an excellent 3 course dinner. By the time it got to pudding we knew that our plans would have to change and we would have to cut short our stay in Cape Town to one day to allow time to get to our house in Mossel Bay before the announced lockdown started on Friday 27th March for at least 3 weeks.

Next morning we left after breakfast – I managed to fit in some further atlasing in between loading the car and other tasks, adding Red-eyed Bulbul, Familiar Chat, Malachite Sunbird and a surprising Red-headed Finch. On the slow drive back to the main road, we saw more Lark-like Buntings, this time openly perched and singing, plus a Karoo Chat and White-necked Raven to complete the atlas card with 27 species logged. I had to remind myself that it’s not about the numbers but all about recording what’s present (and not present) in a particular area at a particular time.

Karoo Chat (Cercomela schlegelii / Karoospekvreter) (Subspecies pollux), Lemoenfontein, Beaufort West

I did not appreciate it at the time but this was to be my last atlasing “away from home” for a long time.

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

My Atlasing Month – March 2020 (Part 3 )

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.

The Stable Cottage among trees, Prior Grange, Springfomtein

Pentad 3015_2540

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.

Green Woodhoopoe
Acacia Pied Barbet,

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.

African Darter

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.

Blue Cranes in flight, Prior Grange, Springfomtein

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.

Long early morning shadows at Prior Grange, Springfomtein
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.

The road between Springfontein and Prior Grange

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.

Cape Longclaw,

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….

Prior Grange, Springfomtein

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%

My Atlasing Month – March 2020 (Part 2 )

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

Another busy atlasing month during which planned – and unplanned – trips saw us travelling across South Africa, initially to Mpumulanga province for a midweek breakaway, followed not long after by a lengthy trip through Gauteng, Free State and Western Cape provinces 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.

Balmoral Area : 18th March 2020

My focus was now on the more mundane “ordinary” parts of Gauteng, rather than the nature reserves and protected areas that I had atlased the previous month. Studying the pentad map, I was drawn to the area around, and north of, Balmoral, a small settlement about 70 kms east of Pretoria along the N4 National Road. Both of the pentads I had in mind had not been atlased in 2020 yet, so fitted into my atlasing plan.

Pentad 2550_2855

The N4 National road effectively divides the pentad into northern and southern sections – I decided to ignore the southern section as it includes Kusile power station, still partly under construction and surrounded by coalfields. From previous experience, I knew the roads would be filled with heavy, intimidating coal trucks and that the habitat has been seriously altered by the mining activities – not at all suited to the comfortable, relaxed atlasing I was looking for.

Kusile Power station in the distance

The northern section is entirely different with a mix of grassland and farms with herds of cattle and I set out to cover as much of it as possible.

Initially, after turning off the highway, I travelled slowly along the quieter R104 road that runs parallel to the N4. This proved to be a good move with plenty of birds apparent along the verges, in and on the long grass and bush, even among the banks of colourful Cosmos flowers in pastel shades that emerge at this time of year.

After the first hour I had logged 28 species, all fairly common for the area, including Fan-tailed Widowbird, Bronze Mannikin (3%), Zitting Cisticolas aplenty in their characteristic hopping flight and equally as many Levaillant’s Cisticolas calling zestily from their tall grass perches.

After turning back I took the gravel road heading north-east and spent some time at a bridge over a river where I found tens of Little Swifts and some Lesser Striped Swallows filling the air above it. In a distant riverside bush I spotted a flash of colour and my binos confirmed my initial excited hope – a Half-collared Kingfisher (6%) ! Thanks to the magic of my Sony bridge camera (appropriately used on a bridge) I could capture a fuzzy but identifiable image of this superb little bird – definitely my bird of the day!

View of the river from the bridge

The Kingfisher was in the bush just in front of the tallest tree above

Half-collared Kingfisher (Alcedo semitorquata / Blouvisvanger), Balmoral area

My next move took me out of the pentad and I only returned to it 3 and a half hours later, when I proceeded into the southern section hoping the dreaded coal truck traffic was less intimidating by now. Fortunately I found a quiet side road along which lay a farm dam I had visited previously and was thrilled to find Grey-headed Gull, Reed Cormorant, Yellow-billed Duck and Maccoa Duck (9%) on the water and White-winged Tern (3%) above it to take my pentad total to 52, which is where it ended.

Pentad 2545_2855

This pentad, which lies directly north of the first one, has more rugged habitat and less of the waving grasslands and lush verges that I had enjoyed so far. The road was initially in good condition but when I branched off it became increasingly rough …..

The road (track) looks marginally better than it actually was

The initial stretch of road was productive and it did not take long to log the first 15 species, including two larks – Rufous-naped and Spike-heeled Larks (7%) – both entertaining me with typical calls and roadside photo opportunities.

Spike-heeled Larks have two features which set them apart from similar looking larks – a short, white-tipped tail and a white throat – both are visible in this image. The longish decurved bill is another feature of the species but less obvious in this image.

Spike-heeled Lark (Chersomanes albofasciata / Vlaktelewerik) ; (Subspecies alticola), Balmoral area

Moving north-west the birding slowed somewhat until I reached a stream with a small wetland, which provided a boost with Village Weavers, Red-collared Widowbird, Moorhen and Lesser-swamp Warbler – the last revealing its presence in the reeds with its liquid warbling call.

Shortly after that stop I came across a Black-winged Kite and colourful White-fronted Bee-eaters using the overhead wires as a hawking perch, after which I had to work hard for new species to record. A small raptor high up on a pylon, with strong backlight preventing a clear sighting, had me battling to decide on an ID, but my trusty Sony bridge camera on full zoom and set to over-expose by about two stops saved the day, providing a good enough image to confirm it was a Greater Kestrel (5%).

Greater Kestrel (Falco rupicoloides / Grootrooivalk) (Immature), Balmoral area

Ant-eating chats suddenly appeared in roadside fields, announcing a change in habitat to a more sandy terrain – just another reminder how habitat bound many species of bird can be.

Ant-eating Chat (Myrmecocichla formicivora / Swartpiek) (Probable subspecies “minor”), Balmoral area

Last but one record for the pentad was another small raptor perched in a distant tree – it had me guessing for a while, even with the assistance of the camera – my initial thought was Gabar Goshawk but it was lacking certain features such as the red cere. After studying the photos, I decided it had to be a sub-adult Gabar that had lost most of its juvenile features but was not yet fully adult – however I was set in the right direction by Roelof (see comment below) and changed my ID to African Cuckoo Hawk, which pleased me even more as this is a species not readily found in these parts – interestingly this particular pentad stands out as having the highest reporting rate (21%) for the species in the province.

African Cuckoo Hawk (Aviceda cuculoides / Koekoekvalk), Balmoral area

Just before leaving the pentad finally, I came across a flock of Black-throated Canaries to take the pentad total to a satisfactory 42.

My March atlasing continued during our road trip to the Cape – more about that in Part 3….

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

My Atlasing Month – March 2020 (Part 1 )

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

Another busy atlasing month during which planned – and unplanned – trips saw us travelling across South Africa, initially to Mpumulanga province for a midweek breakaway, followed not long after by a lengthy trip through Gauteng, Free State and Western Cape provinces 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.

Verlorenkloof – 2 to 6 March

Expiring timeshare points were put to good use with a last-minute midweek booking at Verlorenkloof, between Macahadadorp and Lydenburg, our favourite resort which we have been visiting since 2004. Over the years we have got to know the resort intimately, which helps when it comes to birding and atlasing, as you tend to know what to expect before actually seeing it.

Pentad 2525_3015

The pentad covers the resort, adjoining farmland, trout fishing dams, a river that meanders through the lower part of the resort and grasslands. Habitats are varied, as covered in some detail in previous posts such as https://mostlybirding.com/2016/05/04/verlorenkloof-birding/ and are centered around the croft, which for this break was No 6.

Grasslands, Verlorenkloof

Birding began, as usual, in the vicinity of the spacious croft with species coming and going while we enjoyed the ambience of the patio with good friends Koos and Rianda, bathed in just enough sunlight to keep the late summer temperatures at a comfortable level. The comers and goers included African Paradise and Spotted Flycatchers, Red-winged Starlings in abundance, a lone Grey Cuckooshrike – too quick for a photo – and in the evening a Fiery-necked Nightjar.

Chinspot Batis, Verlorenkloof

The Fiery-necked Nightjar displayed an uncanny sense of time, starting to call at the same time, give or take a couple of minutes, for 4 evenings in a row, usually just after we had started our braai fire. Perhaps it was the flames of the fire that inspired it – being a Fiery-necked Nightjar after all!

The birding highlight of our stay, initially spotted by Koos, was the colony of Cape Vultures which appeared late on the first afternoon high up against the escarpment, cruising slowly and effortlessly in a long lazy loop, utilising the warm updraft to good effect before settling on projecting ledges.

I took this photo at a distance of possibly a kilometre, using my spotting scope at its maximum 60 x zoom and holding my iphone over the viewing lens. The resulting photo needed some editing and manipulation but gives a reasonable idea of the craggy mountain top and the roosting vultures (those whitish blobs)

Cape Vulture roost, Verlorenkloof

With the help of the spotting scope we were able to estimate the colony at some 60 individuals, so it is clearly a significant colony of this endangered species. During previous visits we have spotted Cape Vultures in flight on a couple of occasions, but never in these numbers and never roosting within view, so we came to the conclusion that this was a newly formed colony.

Our late afternoon walks and short drives to the reception building for coffee were opportunities to bird the woodland and grassland, the latter producing regular sightings of Broad-tailed Warbler, a scarce and desirable species for many a birder. When logging the species on Birdlasser I found that it had undergone a name change, now being known as Fan-tailed Grassbird.

Fan-tailed Grassbird (Schoenicola brevirostris)

Other species included Lazy Cisticola and Croaking Cisticola which, true to its name, sounds like a frog with laryngitis. Tall reeds held tens of Widowbirds – Red-collared, Fan-tailed and White-winged – and Bishops – Red and Yellow-crowned.

Lazy Cisticola (Cisticola aberrans / Luitinktinkie), Verlorenkloof

The fishing dams (it’s a trout fishing resort as well) were fairly barren at first but with some patience we found Yellow-billed Duck, Moorhen and Little Grebe.

One of the dams

Aerially, it was as busy as always with Rock Martins, White-rumped Swifts and Greater Striped Swallows never far from view around the croft. Further afield, Barn Swallows, White-throated, Lesser-striped, Pearl-breasted (8%) and Grey-rumped Swalows patrolled their preferred patch, ever searching for the next feed.

The gravel access roads to and from the resort are best for the bush and tree species with the likes of Southern Black Flycatcher, Brubru (5%), Yellow-fronted Canaries, Mousebirds and others.

Southern Black Flycatcher, Verlorenkloof

One lazy afternoon a family group of Red-necked Spurfowl weaved through the longer grass around the croft, affording glimpses of their main features.

Red-necked Spurfowl (Pternistis afer / Rooikeelfisant) (Race castaneiventer), Verlorenkloof

Koos and I dedicated one morning to atlasing the northern reaches of the pentad on the way to another pentad further afield – another 19 species were added in about two hours of frequent stops, with highlights being Willow Warbler, the tiny Orange-breasted Waxbills that move around in flocks, Dusky Indigobird (4%), Giant Kingfisher, a calling Red-winged Francolin – too furtive to spot and Yellow-crowned Bishop. All very pleasing additions to my already advanced list.

Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima / Reusevisvanger) Verlorenkloof

A handful of birds (if you have just 4 fingers) on our last morning on the way home took my total for the pentad to 97 including a lone Amur Falcon (7%) – not my highest 5 day total for this pentad but quite satisfying for late summer when many of the migrants have either left or are not calling.

This was my 16th atlas card for the pentad and took my personal total for the pentad to 191 species (out of a total for all atlasers of 292 species), which illustrates the amazing diversity of bird life in the area, bearing in mind a pentad covers around 8 x 8 kms of the planet.

The Other Stuff

Verlorenkloof is not just about birding, being a botanist’s delight as well as a haven for many other of nature’s treasures – here’s a selection of photos which touch on the variety of flora and fauna to be found –

This beauty I would guess is a type of wild Iris of sorts


Just look at this delicate flower, found in long grass near one of the paths

Wild flower, Verlorenkloof

Even an ordinary moth looks delicate and special

Moth, Verlorenkloof

Kiepersol trees are plentiful

Kiepersol, Verlorenkloof

Verlorenkloof has wild life too – but don’t expect a Big 5 experience

Scrub Hare (Lexus saxatillis), Verlorenkloof

Even a reptile or two – this one brought home to me once again just how well wild life can blend into its environment – a raptor would have great difficulty seeing this reptile from above as it matches the colours of the rock to a tee

Rock Agama (I beieve) Verlorenkloof
Rock Agama, Verlorenkloof

And to finish, here’s another example of a spotting scope / iphone combination to take a photo of a three-quarter moon

Verlorenkloof

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

My Atlasing Month – February 2020 (Part Three)

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

I thought it best to split it into three parts as it has been a busy atlasing month during which I made a point of visiting some of Gauteng’s prime birding spots for my atlasing pursuits in the hope that it would get my birding year off to a cracking start (it worked!)

Marievale Bird Sanctuary – 26 February

This week’s choice of atlasing destination was Marievale Bird Sanctuary, situated near Nigel in south-eastern Gauteng and about 100 kms drive from our Pretoria home. I had intended to do two pentads – Marievale itself plus an adjoining pentad outside the nature reserve. After spending more time in Marievale than planned, I struggled to find an access road into the second pentad and found myself driving in circles, thanks to some confusing directions from my navigation system. A short session of “test atlasing” of a stretch of the very busy road that I eventually found, convinced me that it would be a wasted effort and a frustration, as it was by now the middle of the day – a very quiet time for birding – and I did not fancy dodging traffic for two hours.

Pentad 2620_2830

Marievale is famous for its extensive, shallow open waters and wetlands, reedbeds and surrounding grasslands. It is also well served with bird hides and a picnic spot – all well maintained and you are guaranteed to see an excellent variety of waterfowl, wetland and grassland species in a morning’s birding.

Marievale Bird Sanctuary

After a slow drive from home through early morning traffic, despite starting out at 5.30 am and following some back roads, I started atlasing as soon as I entered the pentad in its north-eastern corner, still on the R42 main road between Delmas and Nigel. It took 20 minutes to get to the Marievale entrance road, by which time I had logged 21 species seen along the road – I made sure to pull off onto the wide grass verge wherever possible, as the road proved to be quite busy. Black-winged Kite, Glossy Ibis and Spotted Thick-Knee were pleasing to see as well as two Widowbird species – Fan-tailed and Long-tailed.

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus / Glansibis), Marievale Bird Sanctuary

I spent a while at the entrance complex which has a deck overlooking some wetlands and quickly added Red-billed Teal, Cape Shoveler and Hottentot Teal, taking my total to 31 by the time I accessed the reserve proper.

My next focus was on the “powerline road” – a maintenance track below the main overhead powerlines that run through a section of the wetlands. The track is narrow and lined with reeds in places, affording views of the ponds and small lakes, most of which have abundant bird life. The reeds are a favourite haunt for warblers which provide a soundtrack of birdsong as you drive along, windows open to hear all the calls. Lesser Swamp Warblers competed with African Reed Warblers for the title of “most prolific warbler” which ended pretty much in a draw.

The shallower ponds were alive with waders, including elegant Greater Flamingoes, Wattled Lapwings, Black-winged Stilts and Spoonbills; deeper ponds were filled with waterfowl such as Teals, Yellow-billed Ducks and SA Shelducks.

African Spoonbill (Platalea alba / Lepelaar), Marievale Bird Sanctuary

At one spot an African Swamphen and a Moorhen emerged from the reeds and went about their business while I tried to get them in the same frame, each nicely posed – a tall ask indeed.

African Swamphen (Porphyrio madagascariensis / Grootkoningriethaan) with Common Moorhen, Marievale Bird Sanctuary

On my return trip along the track a flash of colour caught my eye – a Malachite Kingfisher, often plentiful at Marievale but on this day it was the only one I found. A Natal Spurfowl (0.5%) crossed the track ahead of me – not usually regarded as a scarce bird but this was one of only a handful of records for Marievale.

Malachite Kingfisher (Alcedo cristata / Kuifkopvisvanger), Marievale Bird Sanctuary

With my total now standing at 52 after two hours of atlasing I knew the pace of adding new species would slow, but I was expecting 70 plus based on my previous visits to Marievale and continued along the main access road to the picnic spot, where I enjoyed coffee and a sandwich in the hide, before entering the northern part of the reserve.

The next two hours added just 18 species but took me to my target of 70 species and was quite satisfied with my citizen scientist contribution for the day. The only mild disappointment was the lack of small waders, barring a Little Stint, due to the higher levels of the ponds and dearth of muddy flats following the good summer rains.

A Squacco Heron in the middle of the track kept me fascinated for about ten minutes while it tried to manoeuvre a small fish into a swallowing position, pushing and pulling it on the ground then picking it up in its bill and flipping it about to get it in position, dropping the fish again and repeating the moves over and over. This went on until the heron grew tired of my attention and stalked off into the reeds, fish in bill.

Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides / Ralreier), playing with its food
And off he goes into the reeds

On the way out I found a Common Buzzard (6%) and an Amur Falcon to round off a superb morning of atlasing.

The highlight of the morning? Undoubtedly an unusual mammal that I had never seen up close before – but more about that on another occasion …….

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%

Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and surrounds, January 2019

This series of “Atlasing Tales” posts sets out to record some of the memorable experiences and special moments that I have enjoyed while *atlasing. (see end of post for more info on atlasing)

The Atlasing Destination

With an open palette of pentads not yet atlassed in 2019  I chose two pentad blocks around Herbertsdale in the southern Cape with the least Full Protocol cards to date – one covering Gondwana Game Reserve and the other including the village of Herbertsdale and the surrounding countryside.

The location of the pentads – the red shaded block on the map below and the block to its left :

Getting there

My route was planned to be a circular one, heading out and back on the R327 to this by now familiar area that I have atlassed frequently over the last several years.

I had put my faith in the usually dependable YR weather App which forecast that the overnight rain would clear up by early morning. Heading out at 5.30 am from Mossel Bay, I had a few doubts as the gloomy, rainy weather persisted until after 7 am, an hour into atlasing the first pentad, but then cleared up into a beautiful sunny day.

Pentad 3400_2150

Soon after entering the pentad block, I stopped at the Gondwana Game Reserve gatehouse to check if there were any restrictions on driving through the reserve on what is still a public road. The reply was “Yes you can drive through, but  you are not allowed to stop”. Now I am a birder and we like to stop frequently and unexpectedly, so I nodded vaguely and proceeded on my way through the reserve, not expecting to come across any other traffic at this early hour and on this rather remote road.

I saw a few animals but as it turned out, with rain still falling steadily, I did not have much reason to stop for birds, until I came across a small roadside dam with a Grey Heron standing like a statue in hunting mode, watching the water very intently. I could not resist stopping, whereupon two things happened almost simultaneously – a Black-crowned Night-Heron flew gracefully in and settled in the shallow water near the Grey Heron – and a Gondwana ranger in a bakkie (utility vehicle) appeared over the rise behind me slightly less gracefully and stopped next to my vehicle – with a smile on his face,it must be said.  He reminded me of the ‘no stopping’ request and suggested I move on, which I did after asking permission to take a quick photo of the Night-Heron and receiving same.

It’s quite understandable that reserves such as Gondwana are nervous or even slightly paranoid about potential poaching, having passed a grazing Rhino with full horn just a little earlier, however I’m sure the profile of the average poacher does not include meek, pensioner-age birders in SUV’s armed only with long-lens cameras. In any case, next time I will contact Gondwana beforehand for permission to bird.

Exiting the reserve a short while later through the northern gate, a subtle change in habitat – more bush and trees for a starter – resulted in a change in bird life in terms of numbers and almost immediately Malachite and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds were added to my list.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird

Further along the road I stopped to look around, only to be enticed to walk up an inviting track leading through a field filled with fynbos and protea species.

Gondwana area

The ericas were abundant and made extra attractive by drops of moisture clinging to leaves and flowers

Even the spider’s webs had gathered lots of rain drops

Southern Tchagra and Orange-breasted Sunbirds delighted me with their presence while a “Murder of Crows” – White-necked Ravens by name but also part of the Corvus genus along with all the other Crows – flew over and settled in an adjoining open field.

Orange-breasted Sunbird

Soon after, I reached the eastern boundary of the pentad and turned around with 29 species recorded so far, then took a branch road which headed into the more hilly northern section with another subtle change in habitat – still quite bushy along the road verge but more open fields and grassland behind. Suddenly I could hear Cape Clapper Lark displaying and saw the perpetrator soon after, furiously clapping its wings as it ascended, producing a loud, fast clapping sound followed by a drawn out sharp whistle on descent.

Competing with the Clappers and soon winning the “most prominent call” competition were Victorin’s Warblers, seemingly every 50 m or so for a few hundred metres – definitely a hot spot for this loud but elusive bird that just refused to show when I stopped to search for it, allowing nothing more than a brief glimpse through dense foliage.

Victorin’s Warbler, Herbertsdale area

More cooperative was the Bokmakierie I came across shortly after

Bokmakierie

Pentad 3400_2145

Although this pentad lies directly west of the first one, the lack of direct roads meant a longish drive  via the R327 to get to the northern boundary just outside the tiny but charming Herbertsdale village. The birding was immediately lively and the views from the hill leading into the village spanned the fertile valley below, albeit suffering under the drought that has so much of the country in its grip.

Herbertsdale area

Herbertsdale area

Driving slowly through the village a group of swifts and swallows were circling busily overhead, no doubt feasting in mid-air on the thousands of flying insects.

Barn Swallow

A couple of Alpine Swifts flew by,  big-bodied and lightning fast compared to the White-rumped and African Black Swifts that made up the majority of the flock,  so distinctive with their white underparts.

It’s a challenge getting a photo of the Alpine Swift, so this is the best I could manage on the day

Alpine Swift

Beyond Herbertsdale the road heads back towards Mossel Bay, past roadside farm dams which held a selection of water birds, including Black Crake, Yellow-billed Duck, Red-billed Teal while the call of Lesser Swamp-Warbler emanated from the fringing reeds. An irrigated field was literally swarming with low flying Barn Swallows  crisscrossing in the air while tens of Red Bishops searched the ground below them.

Patrolling the field at a height was a fierce-looking Peregrine Falcon – I imagined some doem-doem-doem music building up in the background to heighten the drama of the situation, but the Falcon was not in a hurry to hunt and I carried on after watching it for a while.

Peregrine Falcon

In contrast, this little guy – less than 10 cm long – was crossing the road so I helped him/her on its way, as you never know when a car might come by and people often do not see them in the road, causing unnecessary fatalities

Tortoise

Further stops produced Tambourine Dove calling and a group of Common Waxbills, then I came across a tree at the side of the road full of bright red flowers which was clearly irresistible for the sugar freaks of the bird world, drawing numbers of Malachite, Greater Double-collared and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds. That also signaled the end of the morning’s atlasing

The Statistics

Pentad  3400_2150 : A total of 30 Full Protocol (Minimum 2 hours) cards have been done to date with a low/high card count of 25/77 and a total of 154 species recorded to date; This was my first card for the pentad and my 42 species represented coverage of 27% of the total species. The only notable species was White-rumped Swift (7% reporting rate)

Pentad 3400_2145 : A total of 21 Full Protocol cards have been done to date with a low/high card count of 26/65 and a total of 144 species recorded to date; This was my fourth card for the pentad and my 51 species represented coverage of 35% of the total species. My total for the 4 cards increased to 90 species. New species recorded for the pentad were Black Crake, Peregrine Falcon and Lesser Swamp-Warbler

The Birdlasser pentad maps below show the route and sightings –

Gondwana area

Herbertsdale area

* Atlasing

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

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

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

 

Atlasing Tales – An Owl and a hungry Swift

The Atlasing* destination

Work and other commitments had kept me from any regular atlasing,  other than our Drakensberg escapes, since January 2018, so I welcomed the Human Rights holiday on 21st March, bang in the middle of the working week and I just had to get out and do some atlasing.

Looking at the 2018 pentad map for Gauteng the previous evening, the closest pentads that met my criteria (not atlased in the current year) and fell south of the N4 highway (my arbitrary dividing line when deciding whether to venture north or south from Pretoria) were in an area south of Delmas and I selected two as my target for the next day. The first was :

Pentad 2610_2840

Indicated by the blue rectangle on the map –

Pentad 2610_2840 south of Delmas, about 70 Km from Pretoria

I set off from our home in Pretoria in light rain at about 5.30 am, hoping the rain would dissipate, which it fortunately did, and was into the first target pentad an hour later. I initially stayed on the R50 main road which was quite busy with coal-hauling lorries despite the holiday (the coal mines and the power stations they feed obviously don’t get to close down) so whenever the opportunity presented itself I pulled off onto the gravel margin and drove slowly but bumpily along to keep out of their way.

The Cosmos flowers along the road verges made for an attractive background, interrupted by the coal mining activities that have despoiled large tracts of land in this part of SA. For more on the Cosmos flowers go to my earlier post – Cosmos time

Cosmos time, Delmas south

Not exactly a warm welcome – coal mining and roadworks ahead!

After recording what I could in the first few kms, I was glad to reach the R548 turn-off and proceed south along this far quieter road. I soon passed Leeuwpan, a large pan which in previous years was filled with water and teeming with water birds, but was now bone dry with no visible birds other than a few Spur-winged Geese (Wildemakou / Plectropterus gambensis) half hidden by the long grass. Good rains had fallen in Gauteng over the last few weeks to make up for the relatively dry summer, but clearly not enough to make much of an impact on these pans.

My pentad list grew slowly with species mostly typical of the limited habitats – grassveld patches between cultivated lands with near fully grown maize and soya crops, elsewhere restricted mining areas blocked any thoughts of exploring further.

My first surprise sighting of the morning came in the form of a lone White Stork (Witooievaar / Ciconia ciconia).

White Stork, Delmas south

This was followed soon thereafter by an even bigger surprise when I explored a sandy side road and spotted something in the middle of the road far ahead, which turned into an owl as I raised my binoculars to my eyes. I approached as quietly and cautiously as my vehicle would allow and was able to confirm my initial thought that it was a Marsh Owl (Vlei-uil / Asio capensis) – on the basis of it being the most likely owl in the area and the moist grassland habitat surrounding us at that point.

Marsh Owl

Thankfully no other traffic came by to interfere with my attempt to photograph this species – contrary to other species which are usually easier to photograph at rest than in flight, the only photos I have of Marsh Owl are in flight, so I was pleased to add these photos to my collection.

Unfortunately their habit of sitting in the road, especially after dark, can be this owl’s undoing – they are often victims when the lights of an oncoming vehicle blind them and they don’t fly off in time. Many are killed in this way, particularly during harvesting of the maize when they tend to feed on spilled corn kernels along the roads in the maize areas. It’s pleasing to see signs erected on some of the busier roads warning against this danger (to the owls) – if only more people would respond by being more vigilant while driving at night.

Reaching the southern boundary of the pentad with some time still left to atlas before reaching the two hour minimum time required for “Full Protocol” status, I decided to carry on along the same road into the adjoining pentad and complete the first one later on my way back. This pentad was directly south of the first one and numbered :

Pentad 2615_2840

Indicated by the red rectangle on the map –

Pentad 2615_2840

Being of similar habitat, the species mix in the second pentad was mostly similar for the first stretch, however I soon added Orange-breasted Waxbill (Rooiassie / Amandava subflava) and Wattled Lapwing (Lelkiewiet / Vanellus senegallus) to the morning’s list.

Then I came across the first decent body of water for the morning in the form of a farm dam some distance from the road and with the help of my scope was able to spot Greater Flamingo (Grootflamink / Phoenicopterus roseus) , SA Shelduck (Kopereend / Tadorna cana), a flock of Spur-winged Geese and a sprinkling of Yellow-billed Ducks ( Geelbekeend / Anas undulata). Another dam further on was closer to the road and held a single Goliath Heron (Reusereier / Ardea goliath).

Greater Flamingo

I completed a circuit of the pentad by heading west near its southernmost boundary, then north again – not much was added until I reached a bridge I had visited years before and which had what seemed like the same large flock of White-rumped Swifts (Witkruiswindswael / Apus caffer) circling above it. Stopping, I peered over the edge of the low bridge and immediately an African Spoonbill (Lepelaar / Platalea alba) flew up and away, followed a second later by a Green-backed Heron (Groenrugreier / Butorides striata) (first record for the pentad). Across the road I spotted a Malachite Kingfisher (Kuifkopvisvanger / Alcedo cristata) (2nd record) before it too flew off and disappeared into the reeds.

White-rumped Swift

I spent a while trying to photograph some of the fast-flying Swifts with some success – what I found later on scanning through my attempts was that one swift had a full crop, evidenced by the bulging white throat patch.

White-rumped Swift – with very full crop

It was time to head home – along the way I came across a rare photo opportunity in the form of a female Amur Falcon so engrossed in her grasshopper meal that I was able to approach much closer than usual. To see the photos I took, go to my earlier post titled Mongolian take-away

The Atlasing statistics

Pentads 2610_2840 and 2615_2840

I added the 19th and 26th Full Protocol cards overall and the 1st and 3rd for 2018 for the respective pentads, The combined tally for the morning was 51 species of which 2 were new records.    Total species for the pentad now 156 and 157

Some of the new/notable species added:

Green-backed Heron 

Red-faced Mousebird

Goliath Heron

SA Shelduck

White Stork

Malachite Kingfisher

* Atlasing

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

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

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

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

Kuilfontein near Colesberg – Long-legged Tortoises and Doctor No

After a long day’s driving, there is nothing I look forward to more than going walkabout and doing some birding. When travelling from Pretoria to our “other home town” of Mossel Bay, we like to make at least one overnight stop, and during our recent trip we decided to try a new (for us – it’s been there a long time) guest farm near Colesberg called Kuilfontein, just 11 kms beyond the town and close to the N1 national road.

Our route included a slight detour to allow for a mid-morning stop at son Stephan’s house in Potchefstroom in the North West Province. He was at work but Liesl was on hand to refresh us with coffee and banana bread before we pressed on. This part of the trip left me with mixed emotions as we passed through several small towns along the R30 route, which traverses the farmlands and goldfields at the heart of South Africa. The summer rains had not yet come and the wind was whipping up the fallow farmlands creating small dust storms, while the mining areas were equally dusty but from the mine dumps being scoured by those same winds.

This is not unusual after the winter and before the rains come (which they did subsequently) so one accepts that the landscape is not particularly attractive at this time of year. What really got to me was when we approached the towns along the way and on the way out again – the plastic bag litter strewn across the fields seems to be the norm nowadays (not just confined to these parts but more noticeable here) – very disheartening  and with a bit of effort so simple to rectify you can’t help wondering why nothing seems to be done about it.

Anyway enough complaining and back to the pleasant part of the day.

We reached Kuilfontein farm at 5.30 pm after driving some 760 kms and by 6 pm we were settled in our charming cottage room.

Entrance to Kuilfontein – an encouraging sign

Our cottage room for the night

Comfortable room

With the prospect of a good one and a half hours of daylight available, I set off with a spring in my step to explore the farm, wondering what I would find.

Starting around the main house, I followed the entrance road which is like a long verdant tunnel with trees both sides almost meeting overhead. There were Sparrows and Doves aplenty, joined by Starlings (Pied, Cape Glossy and Red-winged) and several Cape Robin-Chats to make the walk interesting.

Kuilfontein – the manor house

Kuilfontein – entrance road

A group of three Korhaans caught my eye in the fields and turned out to be Blue Korhaans – they have a curious way of walking, crouching so that when they are in longish grass, just their rounded backs and the top of their heads are visible, giving them the appearance of fast-moving tortoises as they move about.

Blue Korhaan, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover
Blue Korhaan (photo taken not far from Kuilfontein on a previous trip)

By dinner time I had recorded 25 species and called it a day – can’t be late for the Lamb pie!

After an early night and a good rest I was up before 6 am the next morning and was soon out for part two of my Kuilfontein birding, this time covering some new ground which soon delivered with Bokmakierie, Pied Barbet and Cape Clapper Lark amongst others.

Bokmakierie

From a vantage point on the top of the earth dam wall (bone dry) I could see far across the Karoo scrub – in the background the distant hills were washed blue / pink by the early morning rays. Two elegant Blue Cranes were just discernible in a distant field and as I scanned the horizon three Korhaans flushed about a 100 m away and flew off while calling what sounded to my ears like a very guttural “doctor no, doctor no, doctor no”. I couldn’t help chuckling at the thoughts that my interpretation of their call brought to my head.

It turned out That they were Karoo Korhaans and replaced the Blue Korhaans from the previous evening as my favourite sighting of the short stay.

Kuilfontein farm

Soon after, near the entrance gate at the end of the long entrance driveway, another call drew my attention and looking upwards I saw three Namaqua Sandgrouse flying by while calling “kelkiewyn” (pronounced “kelkyvane”) which is also their Afrikaans name. As I watched them they turned in a wide circle in the sky, almost as if acknowledging my presence, then carried on flying into the distance.

Namaqua Sandgrouse, (this photo is also from a nearby farm on a previous trip)

Time had also flown by and I headed back for breakfast, adding White-throated Swallow, Wattled Starling, Red-winged Starling and Fiscal Flycatcher on the way back. At the cottage a Malachite Sunbird was moving about amongst the Aloes lining the pathway, the emerald sheen of its feathers glinting in the sun. The garden sprinklers were on so the aloes had drops of water

Aloe

Malachite Sunbird enjoying the Aloes

After breakfast we greeted host Penny, who has the knack of making you feel like part of the family, and headed off on the next leg of our trip, but not before adding Steppe (Common) Buzzard and Red Bishop on the way to the N1.

As always I was atlasing (recording the bird species for submission to the database at the University of Cape Town)  and was surprised and very pleased when I discovered that my “full protocol card” (minimum two hours of atlasing) was only the fourth one for the pentad, “turning it green” in atlasing parlance – this is a way of tracking how many times a pentad has been atlased, green indicating that at least four cards have been submitted to provide a statistical base.

Atlasing Statistics

Pentad : 3045_2455

Full protocol cards : fourth for the pentad.

Total species recorded : 45 – out of 86 for the pentad to date which equates to a coverage of 53% of the species recorded to date

Pentad location :

New species recorded for the first time in the pentad :

Greater striped Swallow; Karoo Thrush; African Hoopoe; Cape Wagtail; Black-shouldered Kite; Cape Clapper Lark; House Sparrow; Karoo Scrub-Robin; Common Starling; Egyptian Goose; White-throated Swallow; Wattled Starling; Fiscal Flycatcher: Malachite Sunbird; Steppe (Common) Buzzard

Atlasing Tales – Herbertsdale and beyond

Wondering what Atlasing is?

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

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

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

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

Beyond Herbertsdale

Herbertsdale is a small, cosy town in the Southern Cape, conveniently close to Mossel Bay, our home town for part of the year. North of Herbertsdale lies the Langeberg (“Long Mountain”) range and the R327 tar road to changes to gravel soon after passing through the town, before winding its way through the mountains.

Along the R327 north of Herbertsdale
Along the R327 north of Herbertsdale

I had set out to atlas two of the more remote pentads in the area, both of them lying beyond the Langeberg. On the way there I warmed up with some ad hoc atlasing, and was happy to hear a Victorin’s Warbler (Rooiborsruigtesanger) calling in its distinctive way, followed by a Red-necked Spurfowl (Rooikeelfisant) in the short grass near the road and a Black Saw-wing  (Swartsaagvlerkswael) swooping gracefully by – three fairly uncommon species and more than enough to have me smiling as I stopped to enjoy the quiet of the mountains and a cup of roadside coffee.

Black Saw-wing (Swartsaagvlerkswael)
Black Saw-wing (Swartsaagvlerkswael)

By 7 am I entered the first target pentad  3350_2140 which is shown as the shaded square on the map below and which initially runs through the last section of the pass along a river, then emerges into flatter farmland and Karoo countryside before reaching the Gouritz River, where I took a short walk along the riverside.

Herbertsdale map 2

Returning to my vehicle, I took it very slow which helped to build up a decent list, including  Common House Martin (Huisswael), Plain-backed Pipit (Donkerkoester) in an open short-grassed field, Rock Kestrel (Kransvalk) perched quietly in a tree,   a very welcome Dusky Sunbird (Namakwasuikerbekkie) and a soaring Booted Eagle (Dwergarend). During the two hours (minimum duration for a “Full Protocol” card) I recorded 40 species, of which 20 were new records for the pentad, mainly because it had only been atlased twice before, nevertheless a great reward for my efforts.

Booted Eagle, (Dwergarend)
Booted Eagle, (Dwergarend)

An Old Wagon Route discovered

Then the real adventure started as I turned off at a road I had partially explored a few years ago, marked with a small, obscure sign with an old wagon picture on it.

My next target was pentad 3350_2145, shown as the shaded square on the map below, which had never been atlased before, known to Atlasers as a “virgin pentad” and much sought after by those with a bit of the pioneering spirit (which many South Africans seem to have in their genes).

Herbertsdale map 1

The road passed a lone farmhouse, then headed into the hills, becoming more barren as it wound its way over the rolling mountains, with some steep gradients and tricky corners requiring utmost concentration while moving.

Old Wagon route north of Herbertsdale
Old Wagon route north of Herbertsdale

Old Wagon route
Old Wagon route

Birds were beyond scarce – all I could do was to stop frequently and check for distant calls or a movement giving away the presence of a bird. I was relieved when a variety of aerial birds appeared and I could at least get my list going with Greater Striped Swallow (Grootstreepswael), Barn Swallow (Europese swael), Rock Martin (Kransswael) and White-rumped Swift (Witkruiswindswael).

The aerial birds such as Swallows, Martins and Swifts seem to enjoy hunting aerial insects together. Whenever I see a group of these graceful fliers I stop and scan as many of them as I can while they are still within a visible distance. More often than not the species first spotted leads to seeing two or three others, as  happened in this instance.

Greater Striped Swallow rootstreepswael)
Greater Striped Swallow (Grootstreepswael)

Patches of  Fynbos and Protea bush were the next most productive habitat, as I was able to spot some of the species common to the habitat, such as Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse suikervoël) swishing busily from one bush to the next, White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie) , Karoo Prinia (Karoolangstertjie) trying to match the  frantic activity of the Sugarbirds, Grey-backed Cisticola (Grysrugtinktinkie) calling in its distinctive fashion and Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Kleinrooibandsuikerbekkie) adding a splash of colour with its bright red breast band and iridescent green back .

Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse Suikervoel)
Cape Sugarbird (Kaapse Suikervoel)

White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie)
White-throated Canary (Witkeelkanarie)

, Herbertsdale north

When I stopped for a refreshment break near a mountain stream, an elderly gent, tasked with looking after a patch of Prickly Pears nearby and the only person I saw in the two hours, approached hesitantly, probably wondering what this obvious stranger to the area was up to – I shared my hard-boiled eggs and provita biscuits with him and we had a good chat about life in this remote area.

Lark-like Buntings (Vaalstreepkoppie) were unusually common, often a difficult species to find, while a soaring Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoël) made my heart soar just before exiting the pentad.

Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoel)
Jackal Buzzard (Rooiborsjakkalsvoel)

The road continued for a few Kms until it passed through a guest farm after which the landscape showed signs of “civilization” in the form of pine plantations and I eventually emerged onto the gravel road leading to the Oudtshoorn-Mossel Bay road and the way home.

I recorded just 21 species after two hours in this pentad, one of my lowest pentad totals ever, but all were new species for the pentad.

Memorable atlasing indeed!

The Atlasing statistics

Pentad 3350_2140

3rd Full Protocol card for the pentad;   20 New species added to the pentad list;   Pentad total species now 52

New species added to the pentad list were : Cape Canary ; Blue Crane ; Namaqua Dove ; Red-eyed Dove ; Fork-tailed Drongo ; Egyptian Goose ; Cape Grassbird ; Little Grebe ; Helmeted Guineafowl ; Common House-Martin ; Hadeda Ibis ; Rock Kestrel ; Brown-hooded Kingfisher ; Crowned Lapwing ; Rock Martin ; Common Moorhen ; Plain-backed Pipit ; Cape Spurfowl ; Dusky Sunbird ; Common Waxbill

Pentad 3350_2140

1st Full Protocol card for the pentad;   21 New species added to the pentad list;   Pentad total species now 21

New species added to the pentad list were : Bokmakierie ; Larl-like Bunting ; Jackal Buzzard ; White-throated Canary ; Grey-backed Cisticola ; Cape Crow ; Red-eyed Dove ; Fork-tailed Drongo ; Rock Martin ; Red-faced Mousebird ; Neddicky ; Karoo Prinia ; Red-winged Starling ; Cape Sugarbird ; Southern Double-collared Sunbird ; Barn Swallow ; Greater-striped Swallow ; White-rumped Swift ; Common Waxbill ; Cape Weaver ; Cape White-eye