Monday, 25 February 2013

Pelagics - It's for the birds!

Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross
Anxiety & anticipation dominate our emotions, as always, the minute we board the Zest II; ex-Simon's Town en route the fishing grounds, some 25 miles SSW of Cape Point.

Alisha suffers from chronic seasickness; medicated, sedated or otherwise. Anticipating the dry-heaves is reason enough to make anyone anxious. I have no such qualms but I do, however, anxiously anticipate the day's catch...

To begin with, some formalities. A pelagos cruise operated by Zest for Birds on-board Captain Harry’s decommissioned ex-navy boat, the Zest II, is by far and away the best functioning outfit and for one simple reason only. Bigger is better and here we’re not talking egos either; we’re talking boats.

Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross
Foreign birders ie: anybody not from Cape Town who fly south for the sole purposes of a pelagic cruise will more often than not be met with disappointment on any other 'small-boat' outfit. On any given day the swells can be impressive! Perversely, the bigger the seas the more adverse the weather and the better the birding!

Not much younger nor more aesthetically appealing than the Zest II herself, with apologies to the boat, Messrs T. Hardaker, J. Graham, B. Rose, Cpt. Harry and 1st & only mate 'Chief', are constant fixtures on board. These gentlemen are to sea-birding what Shakespeare was to verbosity; simply world-class. Picking out Indian from Atlantic or Wilson's from European is, if anything, second-nature. Any pelagic adventure without this team is akin to a shark-cage in a sardine-can; a touch absurd...

Lest we get all zesty and before I accept their PR appointment, let me say this. The Zest II was not decommissioned because she blitzed across the seas.. Neither was she procured into life-long splendour and aggrandisement. She floats and that's all there is to say except perhaps to lament time lost getting to & from the pelagically-sweet-waters some 25 miles out to sea. You'll spend 7 hours just getting there & back.. Granted the likelihood for views of rare & interesting cetaceans en route are not to be scoffed at. That said and in fairness to the tub, if power is defined by the number of horses in the string, I suspect Cpt. Harry leaves most in the stable..

The formalities complete what about the birding itself? Two words; Bloody Brilliant! 

Long-tailed Jaegar (Skua)
19 species in total; 5 Shearwaters, 4 Skuas, 4 Albatross, 2 Storm Petrels, 3 Petrels & a specialist gull. Amazingly two were lifers; Long-tailed Jaegar and Manx Shearwater. Flesh-footed Shearwater was also a surprise, confined more usually, to waters further east. Bird numbers, as is always the case in summer, were low. The species count however, as is always the case in summer, was high!

Anybody who has been on a pelagos and who is, like me, a keen amateur photographer, will know the frustration a pelagic guarantees the shooter in post-production. I doff my hat to the more accomplished photographers on-board who secured the shots more consistently.

First off, store the gimbal & tri-pod at the hotel or take them along as a coat-hanger when the frustration has you hot under the collar. The vagaries of pitch & roll interspersed with the downwind air-speeds of those which shear across the water, makes composition akin to the accuracies usually associated with kindergarten's 'pin-the-tail-on-the donkey..' Shooting the birds floating on the water is about as photographically appealing as the Premier in her curlers. Where water joins sky light metering is a guess at best. Wholly brown or black birds require a stop or two up whilst the more prominently-white require a full stop or two down... Accurately metering the inconsistent light, adjusting the compensation, picking out the target from its peers of hundreds, adjusting composition for pitch, roll & airspeed, all in the 3 seconds or so the bird is in effective range, makes for imaginative cursing!

A gallery of Curses

Wingless - an albatrussed without Red Bull..
Circumcised at the wing - eligible for the para's.

1.5 nano-seconds too soon - too far / so near!
As appealing as Her Worship in Sunday slippers

Under-compensated - dark as the Dark Knight in a mood
Over-exposed - just one small stop... is enough!

Exit top right - Stage-fright?
Come back...! Please.
Swing through it son ...

By & large I had a cracker day. I can't say the same for Alisha who clung to the stern railing for the duration of the trip...

Back on dry land Alisha's first words were not entirely unexpected and in the interests of our younger readers I'll paraphrase - 'This trip is for the birds!' which coincidentally were my thoughts exactly. This trip is only for the birds and long may they skim the wave-tops. Total for the year to date - 522.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Don't judge a bird by its colour!

With Alisha away on assignment for a week our 800 Challenge has, by implication, been temporarily suspended... Even so, as the sedentary parent in the house and in the interests of a sound body & mind, I thought it my duty to tag along with Sean, my 12 year old, to catch, photograph and record 'anything-that-moved'. He forbid me my iPod, iPad, PSP, Wii U & Xbox which I was compelled to leave at home; nasty brat ...!

Spotted Thick-knee
Armed with nets, cameras, lights, flasks and a good dose of enthusiasm, we set off into the hinterland in search of just about anything. One (1) hour later we managed to exit the front gate having netted & ringed a spanking adult Spotted Thick-knee. The seek & search method for anything-that-moves doesn't cover much ground, very quickly...

Pioneered here, the concept of Citizen Science continues to play its part in the mapping & conservation of a vast diversity of species. Unlike elsewhere, ordinary laymen & women are encouraged to record and document species under review. Birds in particular and the associated mapping of range-shifts play a very important role in the conservation effort. Our contribution to Citizen Science, supervised under the Code of Ethics as prescribed by SAFRING [South African Bird Ringing Unit], involves the safe-capture and release of birds; the subsequent marking of each individual with a numbered leg-ring and the recording of morphometric data. The data helps map the bird's movements, dispersal, life-expectancy & breeding success etc. over time.

Bronze-winged Courser
Limited largely to weekends and having spent as much time as we have on our 800 Challenge, we've had little time to pursue our bird-ringing or banding passions.Whilst Alisha's hard to beat with a net & light, Sean has participated in so many of these nocturnal excursions that he's as handy as most whenever assistance is needed. It wasn't long before we'd caught & ringed Bronze-winged Courser, Spotted Eagle-Owl, Rufous-cheeked Nightjar and Spotted Thick-knee.

Rufous-cheeked Nightjar
The conservation benefits are a given but the real spin-off for the individual, doing the ringing, is so much more. It's only when you hold a bird in hand and are obliged to accurately identify the bird before ringing that you truly appreciate the subtle diagnostics largely missed through the glass. Our evolution as birders, if you like, we describe in three phases. As beginners we employed colour-coding to identify our birds. We called this our Bee-eater phase. That worked well enough for birds readily identified by colour-scheme or pattern. LBJs [Little Brown Jobs] were a step too far for our Bee-eater skills. As a consequence we were dragged unceremoniously into phase two, our Fish-Eagle phase, where we learn't to separate 'Cloud' from 'Desert' & 'Marsh' from 'Reed' on call and behaviour alone. That's fine in the breeding season when birds are calling ... At other times of the year the Silence of the Birds becomes confusion.

Phase 3, our Nightjar phase, has forced us to understand morphometrics and other subtle diagnostic features that readily separate 'Marsh' from 'Eurasian Reed' and one sub-species from another. These skills we continue to learn each time we step into the field especially when the birds are in-hand. I suspect there is much more to come..

Between Sean & I we racked up close to 300 species of birds, insects, butterflies, dragonflies, mammals & reptiles this last weekend. The highlights were many; the time spent with my son, priceless.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Professor Spisher's Short-tail

We're into week 7 of our 800 Challenge which we kicked off this last weekend on a frenetic trip to Mpumalanga. We based ourselves in Dullstroom, a decision based on the proximity of a particular special rather than one of convenience. Most of the birds we were after were a little further afield.

This time we were dry; a pleasant change from weekends past. Although sulky skies threatened spirits, we had a ball. We were joined on this trip by Martin Benadie, a quietly spoken, unassuming gentleman whose field-knowledge is unsurpassed. If phishing or pishing is an art, then Martin's the modern-day Da Vinci; a veritable avian-vocab professor. This Doolittle-like guru easily interprets the dawn-chorus by pishing / phishing or even spishing the words 'Make me!' to any bird with the temerity to shout 'Bugger off! This protea's mine!' We had unrivaled views of ALL the specials we were after. In short, Martin's a credit to himself and an unheralded character in the local birding community dominated by self-appointed pseudo-aficionados.

Whilst on the subject there are many heated debates on the effect playback (playing of recorded bird calls to entice birds closer) has on the welfare of the targeted species. Some claim that the frequency or volume of playback is the clincher rather than playback itself. Others will defend their right to use technology any way possible to 'get-that-bird' whilst others rabidly hate the concept entirely. Although I have my own opinions, perhaps sanity insists on 'less-is-more' where minimalism, seemingly, has become old-fashioned.

First order of business: Short-tailed Pipit; a prized bird which moves extensively / erratically outside of the Oct-Feb breeding period when it is more readily found. Finding them now rather than then is key. We'd arrived on site early enough to view the early-morning aerial display these birds are famed for. Although the birds were vocally active, we couldn't pick them out against the backlit glare. Somewhat frustrated and largely discounting Alisha's 'it's calling down here in this water-logged drainage line' we retired hurt for a simple ham sandwich and tea. The usual 'shall we try again later' debate raged around the tea-slurping circle. When order was restored and the ham safely stowed, an informal glance at the 'down here - drainage line' revealed a Short-tailed Pipit in all its circling glory. From our slightly elevated box-seat position, no more than 50 paces from centre-stage, we were treated to unparalleled views of a bird I rank first in the short-grassland-division. I have taught Alisha well.....

The next few hours we spent debating a 'far-off, fish-carrying, short-grassland-loving Osprey' which I added not.... much to the chagrin of the visiting team. In between punches, as the debate raged on, we added Lazy, Croaking, Cloud, Levaillant's, Wailing and Wing-snapping Cisticola. Add Neddicky to that lot and that makes 7 Cisticolidae in a single sitting; greedy some might say. Over the ensuing late-morning and early afternoon sessions we recorded Gurney's Sugarbird; Greater Double-collared, Malachite and Amethyst Sunbird; African Harrier-Hawk; Alpine Swift; Dark-capped Yellow and Broad-tailed Warbler. No amount of begging / cajoling would coax out the localized Red-winged Francolin for ticking.

Second order of business:  Cape Eagle-Owl; a prized bird and that's all that needs to be said by way of introduction. In the interests of all involved, let's just say that a two-hour slog & sit session up The Secret Hill revealed .... Nothing! With numbed bums and failing nerves as the goblins of the impending night echoed in the valley across which we had, until now, held unflinching vigil, one last look under the ledge we were sitting on revealed a Cape Eagle-Owl in unsurprised splendor. The 'do you think it will hear us over there on the opposite cliff?' debate seemed a little trivial....To say we were pleased with our work was an understatement.

If Saturday was special, Sunday was a close-run second. We'd allocated the early-morning slot to a tour & breakfast session at Pilgrim Rest's nearby Mt Sheba, a Forever Resorts resort. Here we recorded Narina Trogon, Orange Ground Thrush, Olive Woodpecker, Grey Cuckooshrike, White-starred Robin and other forest specials. Green Twinspot called once on the descent into the resort but we were unsuccessful in our attempts to locate the bird. Whilst we found most of the targeted species, birding was tough to say the least, which hastened our early exit a little after breakfast. En route our second scheduled route of the day up the gravel road off Pilgrim's Rest to Bourke's Luck in the nearby Blyde River Canyon, we stopped off at Crystal Springs for a 'look & see'. We looked and we saw - Southern Tchagra! We had magnificent views of two very vocal birds, easily in this year's Top-10.

To say we dipped on African Finfoot over the next few hours would do the session a disservice. Yes we missed the Finfoot but we did discover a new route which revealed Mountain Wagtail, Red-winged Francolin (got you sucker...), Golden Weaver, African Cuckoo-Hawk (x3), Verreaux's Eagle (x3), Olive Bushshrike, Black Cuckooshrike and Cape Rock Thrush.

A 'push-your-luck' stop at the dam nearby Alzu's Petroport for Red Phalarope was unsuccessful and detracted none at all from our late evening cappuccino at Alzu's where the buffalo roam. A great weekend's birding and 29 'newbies' for our 800 Challenge! Total to date: 473.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Nibela Peninsula, Mpempe Pan and Themba Mthembu

Rosy-throated Longclaw
Saturday 2nd Feb heralded in another early start for us. Respecting the local king's edict that birders either get permission or be accompanied by a guide before venturing onto the floodplains of the Nibela Peninsula, we were joined by Birdlife Guide Themba Mthembu. Themba's uncle happens to be the king which didn't hurt either..

As far as guides go Themba ranks first. Having grown up on the fringes of the Nibela floodplain his knowledge is second to few. It wasn't long before we'd logged good views of Lesser Jacana, Rosy-throated Longclaw, Bar-tailed Godwit, Slaty Egret, Caspian Tern, Great White & Pink-backed Pelican, Pink-throated Twinspot and others.

The biggest surprise was an Eurasian Bittern we flushed whilst wading / stumbling through meter-deep water just as Livingstone might have done before inadvertently bumping into Stanley in a phragmites-induced bumble. Sometimes it's just dumb luck rather than anything else. Even so, whilst we'd seen E. Bittern in the sub-region before, the memory of this particular bird is the abiding one.

Lesser Jacana (Mpempe Pan bird)
By 9am. the humidity and the Elephant-coast's infamous furnace-like heat had us drawing deeply from the water-bottles at a rate almost as fast as we were perspiring. Sunburn't & parched and not visually too dissimilar from a bowl of good quality sun-dried tomatoes, we called time on Themba's seemingly endless forays into the knee-deep black-mud morass.

Great White Pelican
Caspian Tern
Up above 200+ Great White Pelicans soared in synchronised grace. Caspian Terns stylishly danced the gangnam. Legions of egret, heron & stork marched the floodplain in search of tasty morsels. There is much to be said for this place...

Pectoral Sandpiper
Yellow Wagtail spp M.f.lutea - uncommon as far as Y. Wagtails go in the sub-region

Mpempe Pan was our second stop of the day. Finding the pan after Themba's 'shortcut' was akin to finding a parsimonious politician at the eat-all-you-can-possibly-stuff-in-your-pant's pocket buffet; a pleasant surprise! We were somewhere in the middle of the pan before we knew we were on the pan which sounds almost as ridiculous as we felt. Compounding the absurd we stopped to ask some locals, tending cattle on the pan, for directions..

We racked up the species for our 800 Challenge. Some of the more memorable finds included Pectoral Sandpiper, Lesser Sand Plover, Western Yellow Wagtail, Common Ringed Plover, Caspian Plover and Lesser Spotted Eagle. African Marsh Harrier, Senegal Lapwing, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper and Rufous-winged Cisticola were a credible supporting cast. The recently reported P.G. Plover was conspicuously absent, sadly.

Themba had earned his crust and then some. I cannot stress the competence of this Birdlife-trained guide whose gentle nature and dedication to his trade, even in the noon-day sun, spoke volumes for his character.

It is a great pity that more is not forthcoming, commercially, for these professionals of the trade.

We let Themba off early near Nibela en route our base at Dumazulu for some well-deserved R&R... which in itself was an absurdity given the sand forest 'out-back' behind the lodge. Here we spent the hottest hours of the afternoon in pursuit of Grey Sunbird, African Broadbill, Purple-banded & Neergaard's Sunbird. We dipped on both the Neergaard's and the Broadbill.

By 5pm we'd left the sand forests of False Bay for St Lucia in hope of finding the resident Sooty Tern. Getting to the tern roost near the Umfolozi River mouth proved impossible and since we didn't have a scope, our efforts were in vain. Even so, we spent an idyllic few hours enjoying the sunset in the company of Little, Caspian, Swift, Common and Lesser Crested Tern. Both sp. of pelican were present in numbers. Also present in fair numbers were Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Terek Sandpiper and Pied Avocet.

Late evening - St Lucia / Umfolozi River mouth
Swift Tern - coming into roost

Acrobatics to sign off another hard day out to sea
Little Tern - present in numbers and a favourite
We closed off the weekend with a relaxed early morning session at St Lucia's Gwalagwala. A fitting end to an eventful, fruitful and thoroughly exhausting weekend's birding. Total for the year to date 443. 
White-eared Barbet - returned 15 times with morsels for the chick in the 20 minutes we watched them.

Ongoye - Muddy bloody barbet!

Friday the 1st of February started off well enough even though the inclement weather rolling in off the sea left little doubt that the day would be a wet one. First stop on the itinerary, having left Johannesburg for the KZN Zululand coast, was Ongoye Forest. Situated somewhere between Empangeni and Mtunzini this small patch of forest is the last known refuge, in the sub-region, for Green Barbet. Recent rains, a deeply fissured / pot-holed road, flooded grasslands and a gut-wrenching river crossing turned the 10.5 kilometers off the R102 into an hour-long adventure. 

Plain-backed Pipit
Croaking Cisticola - enjoying an early morning shower
It wasn't long before the heavens opened but since we'd come all this way [750km] we thought we'd persevere.... Almost impossibly the 'road' into the forest deteriorated further. If birding is a story then one of our better tales was writing itself with each roll-of-the-wheel. Whilst the forest held its breath we had soon found our first G. Barbet which wasn't reason enough to turn around. A photo [even in the worst kind of weather] is the finishing touch a rarity deserves...

Ongoye - Forest 'road' 

3 or 4 kilometers into the forest Alisha called time. Mists of insanity hung loosely around the driver's seat where I found myself seated. The goggle-eyed, white-knuckled death-grip on the steering-wheel was another rarity-induced madness Alisha had seen before, usually with disastrous consequences. Mumbling unprintables but fearing the wrath of Herself and with little to show for the day's work other than a rain-infused glimpse of two barbets, we turned back. 

Chop, chop, chop..... an ugly interruption and the clear call of Green Barbet close-by. The Great Ornithologist in the sky had sent us a gift! 

Grabbing the camera and attempting a better angle I veered a half-yard off the road.. Rule 1 when driving treacherous roads, steeply banked to a fast flowing stream - STAY ON THE ROAD. Rule 2 - SEE Rule 1.. 

Captain's log - Star-date 2013;1 Feb; 800 Challenge; 9:30am: - 
Inadvertently parked vehicle on slippery slope to oblivion. Vehicle immovable. Stream flowing strongly under the front axle. Nearest human - 5 kilometers as the barbet flies. Inventory - 2 chicken wraps and a bottle of water each. Recovery prospects - Null. Cellphone reception - Null. Conversation with spouse - Null. Photo of Green Barbet - Null. 

Communication Hill - 2pm
Communication Hill - 11am

Communication Hill - 6:30pm
Preferring the terrors of the forest, filled with the djins of idiots-past, to the Grim Reaper in the passenger seat, I trudged off muddied and bloodied in driving rain up the nearest hill, forever dubbed Communication Hill in hope of technological salvation.

Captain's log - 11am. Alisha has joined me on the knoll of misery. In contact with rescue team. Help is imminent.

Captain's log - 2pm. Alisha has taken over All communication. Help has stalled. [You'll recall the gut-wrenching river crossing someway short of the forest entrance].

Oh the shame..
Empangeni's Kenny at work on the snatch
Much later; soaked through, tired and resigned to a night in the forest those sweet words...'We're through..Standby - 30 minutes...'
Almost there - just another day in Zululand. [Cellphone pic]

Even though the recovery was a technical one, given the gradient and clay soil and although the snatch proved fatal to the only tree of substance near our vehicle, we were eventually free to leave.

I thought better than suggest a flufftail hunt...

Although the day proved trying, all was not lost. Unwittingly we had stumbled upon the tree on Communication Hill used by most of the forest birds to do their own communicating. Over the 8 hours we sat up there we had the closest views of Grey Cuckooshrike, Green Barbet, Crowned Eagle, Black-bellied Starling, Trumpeter Hornbill, Collared Sunbird, Woodward's Batis and Tambourine Dove.

Later, en route back to the R102, having forded the river, we were stunned to find two Grass Owls sitting on the road, very unusually, not 10 meters in front of us but in driving rain; a pre-ordained boon of good timing! Who says a full-body mud-pack isn't good for you - Woohoo!