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.

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