Wednesday, 29 May 2013

$10000 mongoose - An Ode to Joy!


To my farm late yesterday I travelled. Who knows what birds I'd find?

Frenzied yapping should have stopped the chore; and
I should have shut the garage-door.
That's true but now a distant tearful click away ...

I should not have used the Range Rover either; but I did as much & just for fun.
The dachshunds should have stayed in town!
Instead they joined me 'for a run'.

Flappy-eared & tongues triumphant,
the two canines later came to heal.
I know them well. These dogs were guilty; but of what?
Must have been a meal.

An hour before did streak a mongoose; right across the lawn.
Tolerating trespass not these dogs gave tongue & baying murder pursued the culprit's fate.
Under the car, not yet registered, the mongoose found his shelter; the engine cooling late.
Conscience-free the two dived after; clawed & bit their journey higher. This electronic maze, a hindrance, the two released from burden.
Its central-nervous system thus arranged, the newbie's heart was broken.

The tail of woe ends not there..

'Hark, a racket?' Two Ridgebacks cocked an ear..
As the battle raged late into the day, the two big browns soon joined the fray.
Atop the bonnet sat the slender culprit; inside the engine's coffin still raged the flappy-two.
One big brown stretched her leg and rearranged the vehicle's paint; Picasso-perfect too..

What of the slender pimpernel? Escaped scott-free & none too soon.
Inside my wallet the workshop-manager now resides. The panelbeater waits his boon!

'Mustard with that dog?'           Anyone?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Bewitched & a stringy vulture

Ornithologically speaking, the term Twitch, used to describe the pursuit of a rare bird & which originated in the early 1950s for the nervous disposition of Howard Medhurst, a birdwatcher, is acceptable only if the twitcher finds the chase. Fail to tick the twitch & most avid birders are left gripped-off, particularly if the bird is seen by someone else. If, however, one was to attempt a twitch which proves neither twitchable nor chaseable, for a smorgasbord of excuses, then you would have dipped out... Rarities are stringy or considered dubious in record by those who dip out ...

An important caveat for the ornithologically-uninitiated - the Suppression of a rarity ie: the act of concealing a rarity from other avid pot or tick-hunters [listers] is a capital ie: tar & feather offence within the confines of the birding community.

The bell tolls for those who Suppress a tick ..

Twitcher's guide to longevity -

  • Successful twitchers should expect to cock-a-leekie if they intentionally crow the rooster in a gripped-off stew of green envy. 
  • Crying fowl without the pixels to backtrack the claim is an offense. 
  • The bell, in the end, tolls for those who suppress a tick.
  • To dip is to grip-off - your successful sympathies are best kept suppressed. 

Twitchers deprived of all that is normal & who are captivated / cast under a spell of magic by the merest whiff of a rarity, are bewitched. A bewitcher is sad - don't be a hater..
The merest whiff....

I'll let you in on a secret - two bewitchers boarded a plane to KZN's Richard's Bay hopeful of a Franklin's Gull no-one had seen for a week & surprisingly dipped .. The same bewitchers, undaunted & tireless, hired a car, crossed borders [Swaziland] & drove the 8 hours to the Kruger National Park for an Egyptian Vulture belatedly reported at least a week earlier. Imagine their surprise when the bird was not at roost in the spot first reported...

We're just a tad gripped-off...

Monday, 13 May 2013

Mozambique - May 2013 [ Finding Green Tinkerbird]

Getting through the Lebombo [RSA] / Ressano Garcia [Mozambique] border is not usually difficult. We speak Portuguese which helps, obviously. Notwithstanding the language constraints and whenever possible avoid the touts who 'assist' tourists with their cross-border formalities. Those who do decide to use a tout should note that the going rate is 50 meticais for this service. Pay more than that & you're being cheated; usually a joke shared openly with peers and enjoyed by all, officials included. Never hand your passport or original certification to anyone other than a uniformed officer behind the counter. Non-SADC domiciled travelers may require a visa. Self-drive travelers are obligated to buy 3rd-party insurance, reflective safety jackets (2 if there are more than two passengers in the vehicle) and a set of red warning triangles (in the event of a puncture etc.) which we usually acquire in Johannesburg prior to departure. In need, the insurance, jackets & triangles can be acquired at the BP fuel station situated on the South African side of the border near Komatipoort. Although fuel is readily available in Mozambique (Visa is accepted in the larger towns for fuel) we advise topping up on the South African side of the border prior to crossing.

Construction on the N4, adjacent to the BP fuel station, channels two-way traffic, for a short distance, onto a single shared lane which necessitates one of South Africa's infamous 'stop & go' procedures ie: traffic from either side is halted and filtered through the single lane in small groups. Waiting your turn to proceed through the stop can be trying. Our delay cost us an additional 3 hours in travel time. On this point, avoid traveling through the border on weekends & in early mornings whenever possible.

Meticais , rands & US dollars are accepted currency in Mozambique. Border fees and sundry purchases in the smaller towns are paid for in meticais (Mozambique's currency of exchange - the traded rate on the formal currency market is 3.29 MZN for 1 ZAR[SA rand]). Purchase meticais by ordering currency in advance from any of the major banks in Johannesburg or buy from the Bureau de change (at a significantly poorer rate) in the same BP complex referred to herein above. Don't buy currency from the 'currency-vendors' who descend on likely targets. You will be cheated. New notes have replaced the old meticais currency and it is these notes that are usually sold to unsuspecting travelers.

Many self-drive tourists to Mozambique have, in the past, claimed excessive bullying by traffic officials and other local authorities alike. That simply is not true. Obey the speed limits clearly indicated on roadside signage. Be civil & sensitive to custom. The speed-limit in all urban areas, however small the village, is always 60 kph which is rigidly enforced. You will be asked to pay a spot fine in the event that you are caught speeding. Ensure that one of the reflective jackets is visible to officials at the many road-blocks and avoid unnecessary delay and or repetitive inspection.

If you're after the tinkerbird and one or two of the other south/central specials then, like us, most people spend their first night somewhere north of Maputo (Mozambique's capital city & a city of considerable chaos). Depending on how far north of Maputo your itinerary takes you two routes are available to the self-drive traveler. The first is via Maputo [initially along the EN4 & later on the EN1 headed north out of the city]. Both the EN4 & the EN1 are well-maintained tarmac for which a toll is levied. Carry cash for the tolls. The other route north avoids Maputo, which is a good idea generally and rejoins the EN1 near Xinavane. It's not an easy drive, even for Mozambique. This road via Moamba (left off the EN4 heading east and some 40 km from the SA border) to Sabie and then onto Magude is, in places, treacherously eroded. Expect the 125 km [approx] to take at least 3 hours. The short section between Magude & Xinavane is, however, mostly good tar. If time is no object then this 'short-cut' north is obviously the more scenically attractive. Travelling via Maputo to the same spot in the north might be longer on the map but is, perhaps, the faster route all things being equal & largely dependent on time spent traversing Maputo's chaos.

The first point of interest along the EN1 north, for birders at least, are the dambos (wetlands) near Xai Xai. A Pond-Heron [Malagasy] was reported from here recently and a bird which we looked for, one or two days later, without success. A small stand of alien trees on the 'south' side of the bridge is usually good for E. Honey Buzzard which we found this time and which we managed to photograph. Even this late in the season & on the assumption that the dambos have some water, all the more common wetland birds found in typical habitat can be expected, including Lesser Jacana. We would usually spend more time searching these wetlands but given the delay at the border and the 550 km we had to travel from the border to our first night's accommodation in Praia da Barra, we moved on quickly.

Heading north expect to see unusual aggregations of Pied Crow & not much else. Notwithstanding, occasionally at this time of the year, less common species can be recorded from a fast-moving vehicle. We considered ourselves lucky to see a single Dickinson's Kestrel [on one of many Coconut-palms] near Jangama early next morning en route Unguana for the G. Tinkerbird. Avoid mistaking the commonly seen Lizzard Buzzard for the rarer Dickinson's.

Finding suitable accommodation in Mozambique isn't too tricky. Most travelers who have been to Mozambique's Inhambane area before [which we consider an ideal base from which to strike either north for G. Tinkerbird or south-west to Panda for Olive-headed Weaver] have a favourite lodge they return to whenever possible. Our favourite is Flamingo Bay Water Lodge located in Inhambane's tidal bay. We also, when pressed, recommend Bali Hai to anyone who hasn't been here before. All told, accommodation in Barra is diverse, usually well-appointed, generally well-priced and tailors for most people & pockets. Avoid the prawns sold on the side of the road... You don't want to know! Buy the freshly-baked bread. It's good and costs about 10 meticais (60 US cents) for ten bread-rolls of variable shape & size.

At this time of the year most of the shorebirds Barra is renowned for are generally absent. The walk along the beach from Barra Lodge to Tofu's lighthouse, usually pleasant, is now dominated by large half-washed / half-filled sand-bags; a levee, in principle, against what I can only assume was unusually high seas in the not too distant past. White-fronted Bee-eaters are plentiful in the sand-banks nearer the lighthouse. Mascarene Martin, Plain-backed Sunbird (photographed) & Mangrove Kingfisher were reportedly seen in the general vicinity. We failed to find any of these specials during the time we spent either traversing the area around our accommodation or en route elsewhere.

One of the better travel-disciplines, if you like, for self-drive travelers to foster, particularly when traveling alone, is the enforced topping up of fuel tanks whenever possible, wherever possible. As a rule I never travel anywhere in Africa with less than a half-tank of fuel for many reasons the most important of which are quality & availability. Fuel stocks can be erratic, generally. Fuel quality can & does vary dramatically especially in the more remote areas and fuel consumption, in rough terrain, can be surprisingly poor.. We filled up with fuel in both Inhambane & Maxixe where Visa is readily accepted. Be aware of pedestrians & school-children who use the road-infrastructure to travel to & from work or school.

As an aside you'll note that small children & babies are carried in a side-sling under the care-giver's [either an older sister or the child's mother] left arm, as opposed to the more readily seen method on the care-giver's back. Sadly, like anywhere else, poorer communities occasionally resort to what we would consider ecologically destructive practices in an effort to make ends meet. Brown-headed Parrots & other wild birds are caught and sold in markets & usually to misguided tourists even to those with good intentions. Don't buy any! Support local communities in either the fresh-produce or craft markets instead.

Whilst we were comfortable with the distance from Barra to & from the EN1, it isn't for everyone. The 60 kilometers to and fro can be testing, especially in poor light. The condition of the road [tarred] is also poor at best. There are, of course, other more geographically convenient accommodation options further north & up the coast but I can't speak for any. On this point Morrungulo, a short drive from Unguana [G. Tinkerbird site] and on the coast, is an option that has been considered by others.

Finding the G. Tinkerbird itself is a touch more tricky than is first envisaged. There are three well publicised routes, all in close proximity of Unguana, a small semi-urban settlement north of Massinga. For reference the site is a measured 185 kilometers from Praia da Barra via our selected [considered the more direct route of the three] route to the site, On a point of departure and as a rule we don't travel in darkness in rural Africa, anywhere. We have seen too many tragedies that could / should have been avoided. As a consequence, leaving Barra for Unguana in daylight, a journey of a little under three hours, seems a contradiction of the birder's rule that earlier is better. Despite this fact, we found our birds in late morning. Time of day, therefore, in this instance, might not play too big a part.

Some 2.3 kilometers north of Unguana [23 02 37.8 S & 35 15 37 E] a small track leads off the EN1 and to the left. We used this recommended route rather than the two alternatives. In that context & from the outset it soon becomes apparent that most vehicles will suffer some paintwork damage from encroaching vegetation. Visitors should be aware of this fact or try one of the alternative routes in its stead, the efficacy of which I cannot confirm, either way. Stay on the broader track, heading westwards [inland] for approximately 7.4 kilometers [as suggested but which measured 7.2 km on my odometer] and turn right [23 04 00.9 S & 35 15 37 E]. We found our first bird approximately 1.1 km further along this track & on the left-hand side in woodland bordering on an open patch of regrowth. Should you miss this point use the cultivated land /rural settlement [1.5 km from the aforementioned right turn] as a reference and head back to the clearing as suggested. A small, well-used foot-path leads off inland along the woodland's edge & on the east side of the clearing. Some 150 paces along the aforementioned footpath & on the left-hand side is a fairly conspicuous leafless tree in which we sighted our first of two birds. The other bird, a little more tricky to map accurately, we found further along the track nearer the cultivated land referenced earlier.

Other birds of interest at the site included, among others, Grey Waxbill, Bohm's Spinetail, African Cuckoo-Hawk & Neergaard's Sunbird.

In closing, when using call-playback do so with some sensitivity & always sparingly. The birds respond immediately but actively avoid repeatedly loud playback. We observed the immediate & patently aggressive response of Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird to the played G. Tinkerbird call rather than by the Green Tinkerbird itself which in turn approached, fleetingly, a short while later & largely unannounced.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

6 o' the best - Green Tinker style!

Before the advent of child psychology children understood consequence or as I recall the lesson - cause & effect. Cause a disturbance & you were effectively corrected, without exception. One such proponent of the cause & effect theorem was our Std 6 mathematics teacher. [The equivalent of Grade 28 in South Africa today]. This steel-wristed, cane-carrying professor of pain, who lived by the credo practice makes perfect & who tolerated no deviance or malfeasance, was genuinely admired for the perfectly parallel, tri-coloured stripes he could lay down on either cheek, at a whim, for any misdemeanour, real or imagined. If you're reading this Sir, my fondest salaams...

Green Tinkerbird
Drive down a forested alley in Mozambique no wider than the fat lady & experience the joy of 6 perfectly parallel lines etched deeply into each side of the car. No amount of rubbing can ever allay the inner screams..  Was finding the Green Tinkerbird worth the price of a respray? Yes, indeed!

Our sincerest gratitude to Maans Booysens & the Birams et al who kindly cut short their celebratory tea & biscuits to point out the spot they'd seen their bird an hour earlier. Well met!

Finding 2307_3519 is only half-way home. Actually seeing the bird is something else all together. Our first bird took two hours of heart-hammering perseverance. Pressed for time & soaked through by the incessant rain our pics are rudimentary at best. We'll return some day, on bicycles & assuming the DJ hasn't played the tune too often, for more respectful photos of a bird that ranks at No. 1 on my SA chart.
The Panda special...
The Mozambique we love..

Qual e o problema que se esta a passar? It's a term you'll hear often enough if you ask the right people at the right time. Whenever possible we engage with the local people, particularly in Mozambique, who represent an unparalleled diversity of history & intent. Tempered by conflict & the fortitude that comes from living off the land, most of the rural folk protect their subsistence lifestyle with passive humility.  

In that vein the elderly farmer, who patiently tended his maize & cassava in a slash & burn clearing, adjacent to the Green Tinkerbird site, was more than a little nonplussed at our arrival on his doorstep. Qual e o problema que se esta a passar..? [What is all the fuss about?] A bird? There are many birds in Mozambique & there are many trees in Mozambique... Eh?
What's really going on? Near Panda the remnant glades of mature Brachystegia, in which the Olive-headed Weaver breeds & is largely dependent for food, is all but gone; at least as far as can be seen from the roadside. The remaining trees are systematically ring-barked to make room for low-yield or marginal crops which usually fail in the sandy soils. Near & en route the G. Tinkerbird site birds persist but in low numbers, generally. Indigenous parrots are sold at most stalls, in most markets, for not much more than dez (10) meticais.  
The road to Panda from the north - inaccessible..
Whilst most of Mozambique's children attend well-kept schools, infrastructure is poor, if it exists at all. The Chinese re-engineered EN1 along Mozambique's coast is a traverse-relief & a vast improvement on the 'road' we used not too long ago. Notwithstanding, the heavily laden super-links ferrying indigenous wood down from the dwindling north to the port of Maputo, en route Shanghai, are having a negative impact on the road & the sanctity of Mozambique's heritage.

Vida nao e so uma cerveja - [Very roughly - life isn't always as simple as beer].. Recalling my high-school maths - If x+y = z and where x is habitat & y is food then finding z shouldn't prove too difficult. Lose x or y or both and z becomes nothing more than a figment of the imagination. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

R u looking forra skimmers

Are you looking forra skimmers?      Yes, asseblief.       Ja goed. Turn left, then at the T turn right then left again. Go straight over ve bumps; then some more bumps; blerrie bumps. Stay right, then turn right, on a dust, one more time at the Y; the road goes slowly left, then go little-bit straight & you see a boom. The sekuriet at the boom will show you where they is...  

Dankie. Keep the change. The Sunday Times now safely stowed on the vehicle's dash we resumed our trip to the North West's Vaalkop Dam.

When word gets out of an extraordinary sighting in these parts everybody knows; even the village newspaperman. Three, possibly four, African Skimmers had been reported from Vaalkop one or two days earlier and given the recorded sparsity the sighting was sure to draw-in interested folk from far & wide. 

Murphy called it true - the skimmers preferred the geography on the opposite end of an island, out of view from the dam's shore & some 300 meters away from where we had solemnly gathered. Out of view, that is, for most of us, merely mortal, who for all the pleading of one or two failed to see what was purported to be in 'plain sight'...

African Skimmer - a cherished memory & well captured in this extraordinary photo...

Um, no, Madam. It's not over there..
No owners - no problem. No keys - damn...

As the flasks ran dry and the hours ticked on the birds held firm, unrepentant & out of sight.

Faced with what was fast becoming a real conundrum, the more enterprising few; undeterred by regulation, crocodile or a watery death stepped away from scopes, hitherto focused on islands distant & mulled the matter through.

Woohoo - are these canoes for us? 
Nearby, one or two flat-boats wallowed in the shallows, at anchor. Like vultures these few left their posts & descended on the boats. Keys, alas, were noticeably in absentia, as were owners, which, in hindsight, should not have surprised them much...

Ever resourceful, these brave few, unfazed, undeterred and eminently preferring the consequences of the law over the slashing jaws of crocs unseen, discovered, to their delight, a raft of canoes some way up the shore and clearly free for all to use...

Hi-ho, hi-ho - who will ever know...?

Optimism - rub a dub dub; two men in a tub

Them car-keys are heavy ...
Selecting green for luck, these resourceful few launched the Gatvol, as the canoe was duly dubbed. Two, one fore one aft, thrashed the shallow water with little sign of forward motion. Swirling sands confirmed the unintended consequence. The boat was broadly grounded...

Faced with impending sunstroke one offered up his berth, to the cheers of all & for the advancement of the cause. Bless him.

Those of us who watched from shore later saw the skimmers fly. This after the second trip inadvertently flushed them up. Tick, tick & tick again. Just another twitcher's tale..

Postscript - no canoe was harmed during the making of this sighting. None of the 'intrepid few' herein above were 'up the legal creek without an oar' - permission had been sought & granted from the rightful owner before the boat was launched. Notwithstanding, many who stood on shore knew none of this and undeterred & somewhat morally -challenged willed the brave few on...