Tag Archives: Twitching

A Sudden Twitch – Malagasy Pond-Heron

Malagasy Pond-Heron?

Sounds exotic …. and indeed it is, if you are a South African birder.

This is how I came to see this bird and put to rest a certain entry on my life list that has gnawed at my birding conscience for many years.

Rare birds have, for the last couple of years, made a habit of crossing my path, making themselves difficult to ignore if not irresistible.

I have this very arbitrary “rule” with regard to twitching rare birds which says that I only consider it if the bird is within 2 hours travelling time from wherever I am based at the time. I have had an incredible run of luck over the last two years in that I have been positioned to twitch rare bird species in places such as Katima Mulilo in Namibia (I was in nearby  Kasane Botswana at the time), Strandfontein Sewage works in Cape Town (I was visiting Cape Town), Stilbaai on the Southern Cape Coast (I was in Mossel Bay) and Mkombo dam in Limpopo Province (I was at home in Pretoria), all without breaking my rule.

When news broke via the SA Rare Bird News (SARBN) report produced so expertly by Trevor Hardaker, of a Malagasy Pond-Heron at Phinda Private Game Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal province (KZN) , I initially ignored it, Phinda being well beyond my travel limit at around 6 hours drive from Pretoria. But as the weeks passed and the Pond-Heron was still being seen, on top of which our timeshare week in Durban was approaching, I realised that Phinda, near the town of Hluhluwe in Zululand, would be a lot closer if we travelled from Durban – some 2 and a half hours drive by my estimate.

Suddenly it became do-able without exceeding my travel limit by much, and in any case we would be on holiday, so what better time to fit in a side trip to northern KZN, which we had last visited 15 or more years ago.

What made this twitch different was that it was only possible to look for the bird if you joined one of the game drives that various birders were booking through AndBeyond, who run a few lodges at Phinda and had permission from the concession owners at Mziki to access the dam where the Pond-Heron was seen.

I started looking out for a game drive opportunity that coincided with our first weekend at our timeshare unit ie 24 – 25 June. I soon found that the weekend drives were fully booked, but it seemed that no one had got as far as booking the Sunday afternoon drive…..

After some serious should I / shouldn’t I thoughts and with our Friday drive to Durban looming, I decided at the last moment to phone Phinda reservations, made a provisional booking and the game was on! Trevor Hardaker kindly sent out an email note on Friday morning to all SARBN subscribers and the calls started coming in as we commenced our drive on the N3 to Durbs. Some time after our halfway lunch stop at Harrismith, the game drive was fully taken up, Phinda’s invoice received and paid and details had been sent to the 5 other participants. It’s amazing what can be achieved with a smart phone on the go!

Off to Phinda

We were glad of the Saturday to recover at our timeshare apartment in La Lucia so that, come Sunday, we were ready to travel again – this time northwards up the N2 National road to Richards Bay, then on to Hluhluwe where we had a burger lunch before heading to the Phinda gate some 20 kms further.

Durban La Lucia to Phinda Game Reserve

I dropped Gerda off at the Phinda Mountain Lodge, on the way to Mziki Private camp where we were to be collected. Along the way game was plentiful including a Rhino family, one of them de-horned as an anti-poaching measure as is the trend nowadays, also Nyala, Zebra and Warthogs.

How do you like your Rhino – horned or de-horned?

Some interesting birds caught my eye, the pick being a Long-tailed Paradise Whydah with its impressive tail feathers almost too long to fit into the frame, followed closely by a striking Scarlet-chested Sunbird in the Aloes at the lodge.

When I arrived at Mziki camp entrance and parked in the demarcated spots (these Phinda folk are organised) the other twitchers were all there – not twitching as such, in fact quite calm, but looking forward to finding the bird that had brought us all to this place – Dave Minney, Johan Boshoff, Jon de Guisti, Trish Jonsson and Ken Jarvis. Just a few minutes later our game drive vehicle arrived with Zandri Benade at the wheel – the vehicle looked far too large for this petite young lady to handle, but as it turned out she drove it like a pro.

And so we set off, excited, to Mziki dam – which was literally “just down the road” and we reached it a few minutes later, where Zandri found the Pond-Heron a further few minutes later! Other groups had looked for up to two hours to find the Pond-Heron, but in our case – there it was – almost before we had a chance to build up some tension and excitement!

At least we could all relax in the knowledge that our long journeys had paid off and now we could just enjoy the bird. And enjoy it we did, for close to two hours, watching its every move while enjoying the peaceful setting and beautiful surroundings.

Initially the Pond-Heron was engrossed in its search for prey along the grassy edge of the dam, probing now and then in the shallow water then moving in stalker fashion, veeeerrrryy slllooowwwly and deliberately, hardly causing even a tiny ripple which may warn the fish, frogs and aquatic insects of its approach.

Zandri edged the vehicle closer, trying for better views and camera angles to take advantage of the lighting. The Pond-Heron played along nicely, posing in various positions and actions :

  • Stalking mode

  • Coy behind grass fronds

  • A short flight to show off its “whiter than white” OMO advert wings

  • Moving into the open with perfect light conditions, showing off its heavy streaking and yellow legs

  • Preening at water’s edge

  • Sipping water

  • Moving cautiously past a crocodile near the water, eyeing it in the process, while we all held our breath wondering if this would be the Pond-Heron’s last hurrah
Hmm who’s this then
Best keep away – those jaws look fearsome
  • Joining a Yellow-billed Stork and African Spoonbill foraging in the shallows



While this was happening we were also entertained by other visitors to the water :

  • A handsome Nyala bull coming to drink, joined later by a female and a younger male
Nyala Bull


  • Yellow-billed Stork flying in and joining the lone Spoonbill
Here I come
Arghhh .. brakes on
Made it
Oh oh here comes a stranger


  • Pied Kingfisher flying by with fish prey just caught, later continuing its familiar hovering search for the next one
Fuzzy photo but nice catch
Looking for the next one

The afternoon concluded with a celebratory drink and a toast, where after we all went our separate ways, thoroughly happy about the outcome and a very special lifer.

Oh and that bit about my birding conscience at the start of this post …

In fact my life list already included this rare species, based on a sighting 23 years ago at a small pond at Tshipise in the far north-east of SA. Can one trust a sighting from your early years of birding, when I had no appreciation of rarities as such? There have only been a handful of sightings in our region, mostly in Mozambique with just one previous sighting in South Africa itself, also in KZN at Ndumo July 2005 (according to Roberts) so what are the chances that I indeed saw this species in July 1994? Actually I am still mostly convinced that I did record the species at the time, but am glad I could put all doubts about including it in my life list to rest with this sighting.




A Twitch or Two – Finding Rarities


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

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

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

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

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

Where does that Place Me?

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

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

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

Here is a selection of my recent twitches :

Pacific Golden Plover : Gouritzmond, Western Cape

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

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

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

Pacific Golden Plover, Gouritzmond

Pacific Golden Plover, Gouritzmond

Pacific Golden Plover, Gouritzmond

Caspian Plover : Hanover, Northern Cape

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

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

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

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

Caspian Plover, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover

Caspian Plover, New Holme Guest Farm, Hanover

Red Phalarope : Mkhombo Dam, Mpumulanga

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

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

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

Mkhombo Dam
Mkhombo Dam

Red Phalarope, Mkhombo Dam

Red Phalarope, Mkhombo Dam

Spotted Crake : Waterfall Estate, Gauteng

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

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

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

Waterfall Estate
Waterfall Estate

Spotted Crake, Waterfall Estate

Spotted Crake, Waterfall Estate

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

Wonder what will turn up next?