Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Green Sandpiper and teamwork!

There are few things more invigorating in the morning than a walk in the countryside and if the 'countryside' happens to be close to home and within Johannesburg's urban sprawl, all the better. Top that off with fairly decent views of Green Sandpiper and Eurasian Hobby (a first for us in Gauteng 'proper') and the day's off to a rollicking start!
Green Sandpiper - Waterfall Estates

Despite the litter in the Jukskei river and the ceaseless construction in the area, this is the second year running, at least, that a Green Sandpiper has been recorded here. Perhaps it's the same bird..

We were joined this morning by Allan Ridley, Niall Perrins, Reg Thompson and Justin Rhys Nicolau who made the walk all the more enjoyable. It's becoming increasingly obvious that the success or otherwise of our challenge is largely dependent on the assistance, either directly or indirectly, of the many like-minded people who plow the field in search of our region's avian treasures. Our thanks to Justin who asked us along and to the others for making the pre-breakfast walk a memorable one. All that remains to be done is to return to the scene of the sighting for some decent photos.

Black Duck was also a welcome addition to our 800C list. Total to date 375.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

European Nightjar - a scarce eastern race in Johannesburg

C.e.plumipes! What is fast becoming a catchphrase in local twitching parlance ' Malcolm's Garden' was again in the limelight with the discovery of a European Nightjar, remarkable in itself but made more so by the scarcity of this bird's race. This one speaks 'Gobi'  [ie: from eastern Asia]. I'd seen this bird yesterday but under the best conditions the Caprimulgiformes (Family Caprimulgidae) or 'goat-suckers' [Don't ask me why...] are difficult to ID. Break that down further into race and it gets quite tricky.
C.e.plumipes - male

We were reasonably confident that the bird roosting in 'Malcolm's Garden' was the sandy-coloured C.e.plumipes and a male. In the hand that would have been relatively easy to confirm. Males have large white spots on the primaries. The tarsi are also more 'heavily-feathered' than the other races. Looking through the glass, however, is more difficult. The only way to confirm with any conviction that this bird was not the more common C.e.unwini was to check the barring on the upper tail which proved impossible yesterday given the bird's propensity to roost 'longitudinally' and the elevation of the slope out back.

Fortunately last night's storm didn't seem to phase the bird much and it was rediscovered, this morning, close by. Even though getting decent pictures proved interesting, we were, however, able to confirm the bird's race. An unexpected bonus and number 373 for our 2013 - 800 Challenge.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Nylsvlei, 2-dips and a Tinkling Cisticola

This weekend we concentrated on picking up one or two specific bushveld birds we hadn't picked up to date. Our itinerary was frenetic but rewarding. In hindsight we might have bitten off more to do than we could comfortably chew. Even so, we recorded another 27 species for our 800C.

Pygmy Kingfisher 
Our intentions were simple - we'd bird an area usually attractive to the more' elusive', post good rains. Although there are many such places even close to home, we decided on Nylsvlei, a natural floodplain in the Limpopo province. On the way we would try for the Pectoral Sandpiper and Yellow Wagtail reported recently from nearby Kgomo Kgomo, a village in the North West province famous among local birders for its propensity to produce rarities and other sought after species like Corn & Striped Crake. On our return to Johannesburg we planned a brief visit to the Seringveld, near Roodeplaat Dam. 

Black-headed Heron [Juv]
Little Bittern [Juv]

At the start nothing went according to plan. We spent an extraordinary amount of time looking for both Pectoral Sandpiper and Yellow Wagtail at Kgomo Kgomo but found neither. We'd logged our first two 'dips' of the weekend. We did, however, record our first pair of African Hawk-Eagle in the area, en route. Other good birds from Zaagkuildrift and new additions to our list included Black-chested Snake Eagle, Gabar Goshawk and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. Although early in the season we'd hoped for a River Warbler or a Thrush Nightingale to sweeten the pot a touch.... That wasn't to be either!

African Crake

Nylsvlei, further north-east in the Limpopo province, was probably not quite at its best. Vogelfontein, however, lived up to its annual heron-revelry. Although Dwarf Bittern was conspicuously absent, the rest were in attendance, in abundance. Yellow-billed, Western Cattle, Little and Western Great Egret, most in breeding masquerade, were common in their hundreds.

Black, Grey and Black-headed Heron were equally common; Black perhaps less so. Black-crowned Night Heron joined the party later. Little Bittern were present in small numbers.

African Crake, Red-chested Flufftail and Lesser Moorhen also offered up good views. We heard both Baillon's Crake and Allen's Gallinule but saw neither.

One of the best aspects of birding at Nylsvlei at this time of the year is the overwhelming number of birds usually in Br. plumage. Differentiating between the lime-green-lored Yellow-billed Egret and the smaller Western Cattle Egret, with their rufous-coloured dorsal aigrettes, is straightforward. Separating Zitting Cisticola from Desert Cisticola and female Yellow-crowned Bishop from female White-winged Widowbird or even Southern Red Bishop is challenging.

Desert Cisticola 

Huge flocks of Hirundines (Swallows & Martins) wheeled overhead. Barn Swallows were the most common. Sand, Common House and Banded Martin were present in good numbers. Lesser Striped, Greater Striped, Pearl-breasted and Red-breasted Swallow were also present.

Common House Martin - note the feathered tarsi..

Other good birds present at Vogelfontein [accessed from outside the reserve itself] included Fulvous Whistling Duck, White-backed Duck, Lizard Buzzard, Marsh Owl, Western Barn Owl, Rufous-cheeked Nightjar, Purple Roller, African Reed Warbler, Great Reed Warbler and African Swamphen
Banded Martin - note the conspicuously white 'eyebrows'
Sand Martin
A quick word on our accommodation. Limpopo Tourism & Parks run a first-class facility in Nylsvlei Reserve itself. We stayed in the Heron cottage which was, in a nutshell, simply outstanding. The staff must be commended too.

Returning to Johannesburg via Seringveld [near Pretoria's Roodeplaat Dam] we notched up the targeted specials including Green-capped Eremomela, Striped Kingfisher, Garden Warbler and a cracking Tinkling Cisticola. All told a successful weekend's birding.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Memelorable & just for a Lark!

Yellow-breasted Pipit
We've learn't quite quickly that there are different attitudes required in the field when pushed for time. Finding the specials, especially those confined to a specific geography, will play a critical role in the success or otherwise of our 800 Challenge come December 31st.

Birding under these time-restricted pressures requires patience which sounds like a contradiction in terms... It isn't & I'll tell you why. You are obliged to stick it out until the geographically - confined species are seen! That means you spend much more time Finding Rudd's Lark than you would say atlassing or enjoying a weekend's birding.

The weather in Memel, like everywhere else in the country, was soggy... Seekoeivlei was closed. Access roads to and from the reserve and along the usual birding routes were a quagmire of mud & water usually enjoyed by flocks of YB and Maccoa Duck.

Rudd's Lark - nestling
We looked for the area's grassland specials on the plateau most birders who've been to the area know well enough. Even in driving rain it wasn't long before we'd added Denham's Bustard, Blue Korhaan, Ground Woodpecker and Wailing Cisticola.

The real specials, other than Yellow-breasted Pipit, proved more elusive which forced us to slow down and retrace our steps.

We tend to view inclement weather as detrimental for birding but that's not necessarily true, particularly if the wind isn't blowing. For Rudd's we decided on some likely habitat and sat quietly, coffee in hand and waited. Some three hours later, unmoved and in driving rain, we'd seen a pair of Rudd's, two small flocks of Botha's Lark and three more YB Pipit.

We'd learn't another lesson too. The real prize wasn't ticking the Rudd's, the Botha's or the Yellow-breasted. It was so much more and for us, at least, one of the highlights of our time in the field, anywhere. We'd noticed that the Rudd's returned singly, but religiously, to one spot before leaving in a hurry to find more food. Later, when we'd found the nest and the three healthy chicks in it, we understood the amazing intelligence of these little birds. The adults would land and run, unobserved, three or so meters to the 'tunnel-entranced' nest. Any casual observer would search, unsuccessfully, near or at the 'landing-spot' for the nest. However, in their haste to leave the adults flew directly from the nest which the more determined birder would notice...

Other highlights from the area included breeding Whiskered Terns, Montagu's Harrier, Lanner Falcon, Blue & Grey Crowned Crane, Blue Korhaan, Black-winged Pratincole and SA Shelduck.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Marievale Bird Sanctuary - Black-tailed Godwit 16 January 2013

One of the challenges I suspect we'll face this year is knowing which vagrant to twitch as and when they're reported. There's a temptation to chase vagrants with more compulsion than common-sense. Time will tell if our more sober attitude to the 800 Challenge, at least early on in the year, is the wrong approach. If anything though, neither of us are complacent, generally. 

The recently reported Black-tailed Godwit (BTG) at Marievale Bird Sanctuary was our first successful twitch of the 800C. Fortunately the bird was reported relatively close to home-base which made it easier to find the few hours we needed to tick the bird. We'd seen BTG before in the sub-region but not near Johannesburg. This then a welcome addition to our Gauteng & Surrounds list (426). 

We'd agreed that both Alisha and I had to see the bird [at the same sighting] before it could be successfully added to our 800C list. That would mean finding a window where we both had time. That opportunity presented itself on Wednesday (16 Jan) afternoon at 4:30pm which is always an interesting time of day to get 'out' of Johannesburg. 

We had a vague idea where the bird had last been seen - '500m past the Shelduck Hide..' and having arrived at Marievale at 5:30pm approximately, time wasn't on our side. Getting to the Shelduck Hide was also an adventure in itself as we had, rather stupidly and in haste, taken Alisha's car rather than one of the SUVs. 

We popped into the Shelduck briefly for a quick squiz (look). Here we found Great Crested Grebe and one or two others we needed for the list. The BTG we found shortly thereafter further along the shore [heading 'west'] at the last bit of open water before the road swings away and back toward the large mine dump in the top left of the picture above.

We'd left our long lenses at home, not anticipating much in the way of anything decent in fading light [irrational exuberance!] As it was the light was impractical but having watched the bird and its seemingly unusual tolerance for whooping twitchers on a quest, I would imagine that in better light and at a better time of day, good pictures are possible, if not probable. We were on the 'east' of the bird but we did, however, take a few record shots anyway. Trying to get on the western side of the bird proved impossible and the bird flew off to a spot I've marked in picture 2 below as a possible 'alternative spot'. Birders who have missed the bird might want to check here if the bird is missed in the more regular spot, (green tag).

On our way out we spent what was left of the fading day adding to our list and were very fortunate to see a female Western Marsh-Harrier, which had been reported recently too. A rarity in itself. Other good birds included Greater Painted-Snipe, Whiskered Tern, Black-winged Pratincole, African Purple Swamphen, Squacco Heron, Purple Heron, Mountain Wheatear and Black-crowned Night-Heron

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Kruger's silent Hippolais - Upcher's anyone?

We kicked off the 800 Challenge (herein-forever-after '800C') in the Kruger National Park, by default rather than by design. 2012 had come and gone and whilst most revelers were seeing the Old Year out, we were tucked up in bed, blissfully unaware of the festivities and the driving rain.

4:30 am - Lower Sabie (KNP) 1 Jan 2013
There is something about the dawn chorus in the KNP, particularly in summer. Most will say that the dawn chorus in good forest habitat is the epitome of birding but for me, at least, the Southern Ground Hornbill's du du dududu / hu hu huhu is early-morning Africa at its best. Listening to that, along with the raucous calls of Crested Francolin, with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and a hot-cross-bun-flavoured rusk (absolute poison but bloody brilliant) in the other, is why we bird. It's a catharsis for the soul and puts a little perspective on the hum-drum of life we take far too seriously.

Having set our 800C criteria to exclude ID by call / song neither Hornbill nor Francolin made the list until much later. Nevertheless we were off to a decent start aided and abetted by our proximity to the Sabi River. From our patio in Lower Sabie camp the first bird 'in the bag' was Little Swift (nesting under the eaves). By day-end we'd seen 128 species including a wing-tagged Marabou Stork (number: S188). Highlights for day 1 were Lesser Kestrel, Croaking Cisticola, Pallid Harrier, White-crowning Lapwing, Monotonous Lark, Steppe Eagle and a single Greater Kestrel, our first in the KNP. Other notables included Eurasian Hobby, Great Spotted Cuckoo and a very confiding male Coqui Francolin.

6:20pm - High-water bridge Sabie River (Lower Sabie)

Although we were happy with our first day's haul we had to be careful not to let the 'dips' take precedence over the highlights. We'd spent a good deal of the day looking for three particular birds ie: Black Coucal, which we haven't seen in the Park but had been reported recently on the S128; Madagascar Cuckoo, which we'd seen in the park recently and Thick-billed Cuckoo, a bogey-bird for us until we had good views of an adult bird near the Bume river on the S108 a week before.

We dipped on all three and learn't a lesson (I think..). Spending too much time looking for a specific bird, even in good habitat, wastes valuable time... There is more than enough time to stress about the dips later in the year and why stress today when you can put it off to tomorrow..!

By day 4 we'd broadly covered the southern and central sections of the Park, seen 186 species and improved our photos of Retz's Helmetshrike & Stierling's Wren-Warbler. A case of diminishing returns given that we'd seen 128 on day 1.. Although the veld is lush and in places standing-water is still visible, particularly from recent rains, the Red-billed Quelea flocks are smaller than usual, raptors less conspicuous and quails almost entirely absent. Nevertheless, we did record Lanner Falcon, Harlequin & Common Quail, Lesser Spotted Eagle and Eurasian Hobby. As always we checked the Sabie for African Finfoot and Lower Sabie camp for the crepuscular Bat Hawk but dipped on both.

We can't, as yet, lay claim to any 'mega' or even a rarity. Good birds yes, but rarities not. We can however claim our first sighting of Common Reedbuck in the park on the same S128 where we'd searched for Black Coucal; a side-bet perk we hadn't expected but suspect will play a big part as we continue our journey. Strangers; people we'd met along the way, intrigued by the challenge, are no longer strangers and now follow our blog.

Here's one for the fundis. When is a silent Hippolais an Upcher's and not an Olive-tree? We found a Hippolais warbler with continuous [some might say, exuberant] tail-wag early on the 3rd of January on the S39 2.5km north of Ratelpan Hide. I'm not familiar with Upcher's at all so I'm loath to even make the inference. Even so, anyone in the area more familiar with the distinguishing characteristics might want to keep an eye out for the bird. As always, getting a photo, any photo, proved impossible given that we were confined to the vehicle.

Monday, 14 January 2013

2013 - 'The 800 Challenge'

This is the first of, what should be, many more related blogs as the year progresses. For those of you unfamiliar with the birding fraternity generally and with twitchers / listers specifically, the depths we plumb & the lengths we go to see, what most people consider 'just a bird', borders on the abnormal, absurd even..

Our 'office'..

First, some background. Some 8 years ago Alisha & I embarked on a travel journey together which quickly became a love-story; a love of birds. It's difficult to say exactly why but as time passed our hobby swiftly became a passion. If pushed I would offer the following simple explanation: 'There's a latent freedom of spirit in all of us often stifled in the big city. Some people take to the air, scale mountains, dive the depths or find their solace on the race track. We live our freedom vicariously through birds. 

One of the first lessons we learn't was an affirmation of what we already suspected. We had a great deal to learn.. Armed, adequately we thought, with three or four different field guides, a pair of binoculars each and some spending money we ventured into the field. The common species were readily ticked & allocated a place in the listing files and passed over for the more enticing species as yet unseen. The second lesson was more subtle; we had no idea where to find the more uncommon species. Asking for help from the birding community can be trying. If you think jealousy is rife in Hollywood then you haven't had the temerity to claim a bird-list 'higher' than you deserve... ie: given your time spent in the field, contribution to 'The Bird Organisation' and or your propensity to charm the 'experts'. The third lesson we learn't was an affirmation of human nature at its best and its worst. Some 'experts' were a contradiction in terms whilst others were simply outstanding sharing their own experiences, knowledge and information. These are the unsung heroes of our passion and we have and continue to learn a great deal from these people.

Whilst by no means in the upper echelon of the listing community we have, over the years, accumulated a fairly competent list. Of the 960 or so species recorded in the region we've seen 816, photographed 785 and ringed 320 (more on this later). Our provincial lists are perhaps a better reflection of the time we've spent in the field. Our Mpumalanga list of 500 species would be considered decent. Our Limpopo list of 495 and our 'Gauteng and surrounds' list of 425 species is not bad either. We're especially proud of our Kruger list (430 species) where we spend a great deal of our 'disposable' time. So whilst our provincial lists near our home in Johannesburg are considered reasonable, our Southern Africa list falls a little short.

The Southern Africa region, in birding parlance and for listing purposes, traditionally encompasses all of Mozambique south of the Zambezi river, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and the continental shelf off the coasts of South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia. We have steadfastly refused to spend any time in Zimbabwe for our own personal reasons; Alisha is a terrible sailor and like everybody else, juggling time and children has its influence on freedom of movement. By virtue of these facts we haven't spent enough time out at sea as we might have if circumstances were different. 30% of the birds we haven't seen can only be seen out to sea. The Zimbabwe endemics or near-endemics (birds confined to a specific country) we haven't seen either. We hope to change that this year.

So why the '800 Challenge'? Three immediate reasons come to mind. Firstly, we love to travel and we love rural Africa. Spending time in the field feeds our soul. Secondly, our Southern Africa list needs some bolstering.. and thirdly, perhaps most importantly, here's a personal challenge, just for the hell of it, with clearly defined Ts&Cs and definitive time constraints. There are no prizes or commendations which suits us just fine.