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!)
Wilge River Valley – 19 February
My choice of pentads for the week was centred around the beautiful Wilge River Valley which lies about an hour’s drive north-east of Pretoria. Getting there is simple and includes the N4 National road up to the R25 turn-off at Bronkhorstspruit, then northwards to the Zusterstroom turn-off. From the turn-off the tar road soon changes to gravel, continuing eastwards across the pentad, flanked by a stream on one side and scenic cliffs on the other. Both sides are lined variously with bush, forest and woodland, changing to farmland beyond the valley.
I was anticipating a good day’s birding with most of the summer migrants still present, although some of them are a lot more secretive during the late summer months before departing northwards. Red-chested Cuckoos, which are almost monotonously vocal during November to January are mostly silent in late February.
My first stop was at a small farm dam close enough to the road to scan for bird life – also the only dam I came across during the morning. Yellow-billed Ducks (8%) and a lone Little Grebe (5%) paddled about on the water, while Pied Starlings (7%) flew about somewhat aimlessly (I’m sure they didn’t think so), Long-tailed Widowbirds floated delicately just above the long grass in that unique summer display that they have perfected and the calls of Rufous-naped Lark and Cloud Cisticola provided an appropriate soundtrack to it all. Who needs a concert when you have it all provided free by nature?
Finishing my first coffee, I proceeded slowly along the road, closing the windows to avoid the dust clouds created by the occasional passing vehicle, stopping frequently to get out and scan the surroundings and the air while listening for any calls. I have learnt that this is by far the best way to atlas, as birds I probably would not have noticed if I remained in the car suddenly pop up, fly by or call and become part of the statistics. My list grew steadily, albeit a bit slower than I had anticipated, with regular Puffback and Orange-breasted Bush-shrike calls reminding me that this habitat suited them perfectly.
Highlights along the way :
- Red-breasted Swallows perched at the roadside had me stalking them to get better light – photographing against an overcast sky is never ideal and seldom results in a decent photo
- A Dusky Indigobird (1.5% ) also grabbed my attention for a while, but once again I struggled to get decent light without spooking the bird – some manipulation with Lightroom saved the day and I was reasonably pleased with the result
- As I drove I kept hearing a call which was familiar but not immediately recognised by me – this happens a lot with calls especially when you have not heard a species for some time. I started seeing one Cinnamon-breasted Bunting after another and then it clicked that it was their call I was hearing. Bird calls can be a real challenge so linking a mystery call to a species is a particular thrill of atlasing.
- A Prinia like bird, but with a rufous cap could only be a Lazy Cisticola and a warbler calling from dense bush had me checking the warbler calls to confirm my suspicion that it was a Garden Warbler, another Palaearctic summer migrant – despite being a few metres away and calling loudly, there was not a movement to be seen, so I had to be content with its mellow call
At one stop I noticed a dead Nightjar in the road, clearly hit by a passing vehicle – its wing was conveniently spread revealing a pattern of white spots which I later used to ID it as Freckled Nightjar (9%). Unfortunately they are in the habit of settling on gravel roads at night and become blinded by the vehicle lights until it is too late.
A stop at the river where it crosses the road, produced Little Rush and African Reed Warblers calling from the reeds which have taken over the river at that point. Further on, just before reaching the eastern pentad boundary, I spotted a Woodland Kingfisher on an overhead wire and a Black-winged Kite on an exposed branch, both looking for their next meal.
Turning north, I re-entered the pentad in a completely different habitat of grassland, patches of bush and wetlands with tall reeds. The wetlands were too distant for my binoculars so I set up my scope and came up with a trio of Widowbirds – White-winged, Fan-tailed and Red-collared, plus Red Bishops, all of which favour this habitat.
I was at the boundary of the pentad on its northern side, about to exit it and resigned to not reaching my target of 70 species, when a Cattle Egret and Levaillant’s Cisticola saved the day. By now it was late morning and I decided to do the pentad directly north of the first one.
This was a far less diverse pentad, comprising mostly grassland with some wetland patches at the start. A Greater Kestrel on a utility pole was my first record, and also happened to be a new species for the pentad, always an exciting moment. The wetlands held the same widowbirds and bishops as the first pentad and a stream crossing had a variety of birds but not much new other than Red-breasted Swallows and Tawny-flanked Prinias
Soon I was back on the main R25 tar road, which was under construction for most of its length through the pentad and I did not linger or try to stop as it would have been quite dangerous, so I turned off at the first gravel side road that came up. This was fortuitous as it took me along a quiet farm road through more grassland where the power lines had many European Bee-eaters and a multitude of Common House-Martins
I stretched my stay in the area, knowing there was no further scope for atlasing elsewhere in the pentad, until I had done the minimum two hours, by which time I had recorded a modest 31 species on my Birdlasser app.
I couldn’t resist photographing this Citrus Swallowtail butterfly when I came across it near the stream crossing
Although I was finished with atlasing, my birding was not quite done – I had heard about a rarity seen at the Bronkhorstspruit Dam which was on my route home so decided to see if it was still around. Indeed it was and I saw only my second Red Phalarope through my scope in the middle of the large dam from where a group of birders had gathered – too far for a photo. This lovely Yellow-billed Duck and young duckling passing by made up partially for that….
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%