Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Bushmanland's hotter than a shearer's armpit...

Where locals would no sooner hang you by the shorts than offer you 'met-ys..Ja!' for so much as a wink at lovely Bo-Peep and where skies cry crimson at dusk & at dawn; this is truly the land of contrast. Here a lung-full of sky is as pure as it gets.

Big skies - miserly trees
Set aside as a stand-by route, where the endemics & specials are present all-year round, we'd hoped to go elsewhere whilst the summer sun held the migrants in thrall.

Some bad timing and a political side-show meant we'd had to postpone our trip to Zimbabwe in favour of somewhere else and where better than the Northern Cape, South Africa's thirstland province in the far north west.

At first glance the landscape appears desolate & forgotten. People are few and at midday it's the devil's very own as the sun unleashes the fury of hell on mad-dogs & Birdmen alike. Later when dusk falls and the first glass washes away the dust caked deep in your soul you're reminded of the evening chill, no less than 30 degrees below the mid-afternoon peak. At the sun's death and for a brief moment the desert holds its breath; a hush falls over this land. Then life returns in-sync & on-cue as the yapping of the tormented & the barking of geckos prove life exists here, abundantly.

The long, long road to nowhere
Out in the field the roads are as dusty as they are long & measure length in time-traveled rather than in metric. The going's tough & it's not for those with low clearance but for birders it's nothing short of miraculous. Here birds are patently special, perfectly adapted & completely at ease.

The first thing newcomers will notice is the Lilliput-like 'fence' most farms boast. These tailor-friendly, vertically-challenged mesh & barb hindrances make trespassing, ...practical. Birds too like these, hide & shelter under these and nonchalantly brave the altitude to get to the other-side usually to avoid 'a better pic'..  It's a small victory then to stride over this no-mans' land without so much as a grunt!

Lilliput fence - 'jackal'-proof?

Usually our first leg on any N.Cape odyssey includes a trip to Kimberley for the two local pipits, Long-tailed & Kimberley. Some controversy exists around the validity of these two species and although early in argument these two species may well be 'decommissioned'.. or they might not be. Even so, for accuracy's sake, we've removed these two from our targeted species-list for the 800 Challenge.
Our 1st stop therefore was a little further west near Kakamas ie: the Augrabies Falls, where we spent two nights cleaning up on raptors, warblers, sunbirds & tits. Whilst so much more needs to be said here my words wouldn't do justice. It's truly awesome. In early evening tens, if not hundreds of thousands of bats emerge from their roosting places to continue the feast. It's a mammalogist's dream...

By day raptors soar high above the canyon-depths but, remarkably, within arm's-length & covert to cheek from the observation-platforms which dot the canyon peaks along its length. For raptorphiles there are arguably few better sites, if any, for both diversity & proximity.

Bat for breakfast - Rock Kestrel
Pygmy Falcon

Further afield, ie: Pofadder; aptly enshrined as THE one-post-two-donkeys town, the order of the day are the Alaudidae or larks.

Most birders make the pilgrimage to Brandvlei to find the local specials which I find noble if not a little unnecessary. With patience; some fortitude; a tolerance of 40+ degree temps; a good book & 5 litres of drinking water each, the mohamedians always come to the mountain.. By that I mean find a water trough in the most desolate terrain imaginable and wait for the birds to come to you...

Like good politicians Sclater's, Large-billed, Stark's, Karoo Long-billed, Pink-billed & even 'Bradfield's' usually indulge at the trough. The Black-eared Sparrow-Lark needs more attention but in the right places these too are usually bagged. A short jog down the road towards Springbok is normally reliable for both Red & Fawn-coloured Lark. Pofadder may be a faded one-pony town but it's reliably THE mecca for larks, sparrow-larks & coursers alike.

Burchell's Courser
Black-eared Sparrow-Lark

Sclater's Lark

Stark's Lark
If you're diligent most of the region's specials can be seen in, near or within close proximity of Pofadder itself. Even so, some require further effort further afield which means go-west-my-son and in one case necessitates a trek to the furthest north-westerly reaches of South Africa itself, the eerily weird Alexander Bay.

Karoo Long-billed Lark - undercover
Cape Long-billed Lark - cryptic
For this leg of the trip we always stay in Springbok, the region's almost-21st-century-town. Nandos, KFC and air-conditioning are not inconspicuously cryptic.. For those who take note of these things littering is taken seriously. Other than the weighty bunch in your wife's purse you'd be pushed to find any plastic perched on any fence, anywhere.. It's an oasis for the footsore and a launch-pad further north for birders and travelers alike.

Whilst we're talking the validity of species and particularly the potential 'split' of 'Damara' from Black-headed Canary, our subjective 'at-face-value' observations confirmed the presence of 'Damara' Canaries only. During our brief time spent here we noted not a single 'Black-headed' type specimen. They say blood is thicker than water but it seemed that whilst DNA might prove Damara a ssp. of Black-headed, the Black-headed, like wise-men, had in fact followed the water.. someplace east.

The other bone of contention is Barlow's Lark and their promiscuous habits.. Hybridising with Karoo Lark, the common-folk in the south, places doubt on the ancestry of the birds usually targeted around Port Nolloth. To circumvent the thin vs. thick bill debate, a visit to Alexander Bay in the far north west, where the Barlow's run true, is essential. In the right areas the birds are easily found. Alexander Bay itself is also never forgotten once seen.

Barlow's Lark - Alexander Bay [Regally pure]
Below is a mildly gratuitous photograph of a N. Cape favourite. It's Lilliput-like tiny, as are the fences; has a big heart, like the local people; is a shrewd nest-builder disguising the entrance with hidden tunnels, just like the local diamond-seekers who tunnel the coastal sands & shores and gathers in strength to attack an enemy just as you would be attacked if ever you had the temerity to bring a salad to a big-sky braai where the staple diet is meat, without ys... Ja!

800 Challenge year-to-date: - mid-600s. 

My personal favourite - Cape Penduline Tit

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