Monday, 24 June 2013

Oy vey! Are you lost?

Is this the Eastern Cape? Take me home, please...!

If there's anything more stressful or tedious than a domestic flight, generally, then it has to be a domestic flight to the Eastern Cape, specifically. The hour's flying time has unwary visitors buffeting in the 20 knot 'onshore breeze' well before most succeed in wrestling their seat-belt from under the frame-hugging buttocks of the unwashed behemoth in the adjacent seat. Squawking toddlers, wielding saliva-encrusted plastic rattlers & routinely allocated the seat behind, play whack-the-bald spot, a rather miserable game for the receiving passenger in front.. This & teeth-decaying flatulence from the aforementioned behemoth tends to abrogate from the majestic mountains of the Drakensberg seen from the window-seat's porthole of hope as the plane heads south.

Vegetation, trees especially, are as laid back as the local people, a function of the prevailing 'onshore breeze' (ie: gale) rather than by design or attitude. Seasoned travelers to the Eastern Cape's Buffalo City (East London & surrounds) observe, wistfully, the departures' lounge on their way out to rentals from the arrivals-hall..

Occasionally circumstance negates free-will and obligation dictates action. A Greater (Snowy) Sheathbill, an 'assisted' vagrant to these shores, was recently reported from the Eastern Cape's Mazeppa Bay; a fishing hamlet a 'short drive' [30 minutes by concorde] away from the aptly named Hole-in-the-wall, another fishing hamlet. In the Eastern Cape a 'short drive' is anything closer than the Hubble Telescope, the taxman's pineapple spy, up in the sky.. Ask a Slummies (East London) inhabitant for directions to Mazeppa Bay & you'll be told it's in the 'Kye' (Kei) a 'short drive' away. Don't ask.
A suspension bridge joins the island to the 'mainland' 

G. Sheathbill - Mazeppa Island 'Point' June 2013
A common inhabitant of the Antarctic most, if not all, Sheathbills are considered ship-assisted vagrants to these shores. Sheathbills, incidentally, are not adverse to feeding on faeces or faecal pellets, an unusual characteristic of the avian world. For its curious nature, only a mother-can-love-it looks and the fact that we hadn't seen the Sheathbill in the sub-region before, Alisha & I boarded Sunday's 6 am. flight to East London. From there we drove the 3 hour / 190 odd kilometers, 'miss-the-angora goat' obstacle course, up-coast to Mazeppa Bay. Road conditions were interesting..

G. Sheathbill - Mazeppa Bay 'Boiling Pot' June 2013
Mazeppa Bay itself, a mecca for shore-fishermen, is defined by its hotel, wild seas and rugged coastline. Follow the boat-launch path down to the shoreline, cross the suspension bridge to the island & Bob's probably your uncle, that's all there is to it. Hopelessly lost, yet completely at ease & showing no signs of distress, the Sheathbill permitted excellent views. Later we were accompanied by fishermen, holidaymakers & a horde of local kids who joined us as we leopard-crawled over hill & dale in pursuit of 'the shot'.

The 'Supermoon' - a welcome sight as we threaded through the traffic, home.
We returned home that arvie (afternoon) on the 6 pm flight, battered by the buster (strong wind) & a little kussed out (tired) from our trip to the Kye. Awesome.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Overberg blues..

The trouble with Cape Town, in June, is two-fold. The weather is typically like ol' Auntie May; grey, wet & miserable. The second problem, quite candidly, is difficult to explain and usually manifests whenever we go back-to-the-future & return home, to the 21st century, in Johannesburg.. Our bathroom-scale takes on a will of its own & spews forth a string of deceptively-cruel untruths! It's a rather repetitive & somewhat annoying technical glitch, obviously.

Any suggestion that our "burgeoning weight" originated at one of Cape Town's many world-class fine-dining tables, during the many hours spent wiling away the cold-winter blues, is patently absurd!

Booked on a scheduled pelagic cruise with the Zest-crowd in early June we packed the thermals, ear-muffs, our 'like-um-uh-wow' -phrase-book & flew south. As these things go our timing couldn't have been more spectacular had we rubbed Aladdin's lamp & wished for the weather-gods to do their worst.

Friday the 7th of June - fair play; fine weather & some sunshine. 'Let's buy tickets for the City Sighting hop-on, hop-off bus; sit up top under clear skies and take in some of the history Cape Town is renown for & which very few South Africans know much about..'

Saturday, 8th of June - A severe cold front moved in overnight; 'so sorry the pelagic trip is postponed to tomorrow; weather permitting.'

Sunday, 9th of June - The cold front a squib of yesterday's worst; skies brilliantly blue. 'Like shame! Did you really have to catch an early flight back for a family function?'

Typically 'Overberg'
Overberg [bottom]  - Cape Town [top]
Large-billed Lark

Handed the verdict late Friday evening, one empty past happy hour, our only option was to try further afield for one or two stragglers we'd yet to add to our list.

When we first embarked on our 800-odyssey, given time constraints & the other obstacles we all find the need to burden ourselves with, much of the time we could allocate for short trips in and around the country would be limited to weekends. Apropos Cape Town, in particular, our intentions were to join a scheduled pelagic cruise on a Saturday and spend Sunday at one of many different spots for localised species further inland.

Agulhas Long-billed Lark
We had two options for the Saturday, given that the pelagic cruise had been postponed. We could travel to the town of Ceres for a single species or to the equally distant Overberg region, near Swellendam, also for a single species. Include the 'Agulhas Clapper Lark' [Mirafra apiata marjoriae] still considered a subsp of Cape Clapper Lark & that would make two for the region. We opted for the Overberg on the principle that more is better.
Last hand-driven pont in the country - Malgas
A simple meal in one of many Swellendam 'eateries' is worth the effort
Getting to & from the Overberg is hardly a hop, skip & a jump. It's a distant 2-3 hours by road. That said, the Southern Cape region is truly spectacular. Winter rainfall ensures a green-carpeted vista domestic visitors are unaccustomed to in the winter. The little hamlets too, at various spots along the route, are worth the price of admission alone.

Opt for the last hand-driven river-pont in the country over the Breede River at Malgas & you would have enjoyed a slice of history far too rare, too slow, too inconvenient & too quiet ...

In the right areas the targeted birds are readily found. In fact you'd be forgiven for thinking the whole affair somewhat anti-climactic. That said, 'u goes where u must & u do's what u must.'

You haven't like lived 'till you've been to the Southern Cape & if finding the Agulhas specials is the excuse to go; use it.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Ven-da cold winds blow, head north...

Baobab (Adansonia digitata) - the upside-down tree

Most outdoorsmen speak kindly of the piece of earth they call home. They wouldn't be outdoorsmen, by rightsif they thought otherwise.

There are also, as we know, the charlatans of the woods who speak volumes of God & Country in an act of one-upmanship for anyone naive enough to fall for the rhetoric. It becomes an exercise of futility, therefore, to lay claim to 'The most beautiful country on earth' without appearing boorish or brash. Even so, you would be hard-pressed, by anyone's definition, to find a more diversely spectacular country anywhere. South Africa is truly blessed.

In our southern hemisphere winter, from late May to August, the weather, by northern hemisphere standards, is mild enough to spend a pleasant day outdoors, most days. There are, however, the odd occasions when the southern ocean winds drive even the hardened few inside. Rather than endure a smoke-filled room and the subsequent headache after a red or two, outdoorsmen head north-east; far north-east to the Tropic of Capricorn where the winter sun is always warm.
Early-morning mists over the Albasini dam near Elim (Limpopo)

Home to a people of character and a lasting cultural identity, colloquial 'Venda' is quintessentially the 'Garden of South Africa' for which the Limpopo province is known. It's a region of contrasts, none more surreal than around the town of Louis Trichardt. Here bushveld, inselbergs, mountains, indigenous forests, unclaimed wilderness and farm mosaics can be safely crisscrossed in less time than it takes to say Entabeni Forest which is where we were headed.
Crested Guineafowl - Elvis would smile quietly to hisself..

This afromontane forest in the Eastern Soutpansberg mountains is home to Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Bat Hawk & Scaly-throated Honeyguide; all of which we needed for our 800 Challenge. 

Centrally-based at Shiluvari Lodge (Wild Pear) on the Albasini Dam, near Louis Trichardt, we spent a quiet Saturday at Kruger's Pafuri for one or two localised specials ahead of Sunday's more deliberate assault on the afromontane forests for the less-conspicuous birds on the Venda itinerary.

For the Venda leg we employed the services of Samson, a local guide and someone we'd met years before when both he & 'we' were new to the birding fraternity.
Dark Chanting Goshawk - a bird we later banded.
Samson is quietly spoken but knows the area well. We were after one or two specific birds rather than the general smorgasbord the area is renowned for.

Diversity - enthralling
Kliphuis - Entabeni Forest, shrouded in mist
Our attack on the slopes, so to speak, was somewhat different and timing, therefore, became more important than would otherwise have been the case. By way of example we spent six hours looking for Blue-spotted Wood Dove at Royal Macadamia's Muirhead dam on the Levubu river. Our first attempt at finding the bird failed. It was only much later on a revisit to the same spot that we were fortunate to find a single bird feeding on crushed macadamia nuts.

Adjusting to our tempo, out the gates, was a shock for Samson but like most professionals he soon caught on. That said, the 6:30 am start at Entabeni was a gross miscalculation of the elements and a mistake. A soup of heavy winter mist blanketed the forest which made our birding efforts, however well-meaning, redundant at best. These are the mistakes we learn from.

Returning to the mist-free altitudes at the foot of the forest we notched up Bat Hawk & a pair of Scaly-throated Honeyguide, a bird neither Alisha nor I had photographed before. Even though photography in both the overcast conditions and in the shaded canopies proved difficult, we both managed record shots of the birds. The photos are iffy, at best, but treasured, along with many others, for their value rather than the quality of the image.
Scaly-throated Honeyguide - iffy but treasured.

Later that morning our efforts at Muirhead Dam, on the Royal Macadamia estates, for Blue-spotted Wood Dove, proved a frustrating exercise. By mid-afternoon we were forced to concede defeat and head-off to Roodewal Nature Reserve, some 15 km further west, for African Broadbill. The broadbill is an elusive, nondescript little devil more difficult to find than an honest lister. Whilst the walk was less demanding than initially described we'll remember our afternoon for events unrelated to either the Broadbill, which we never found, or its nest, which we did find.
Roodewal Nature Reserve

The untidy nest of the African Broadbill

What unraveled that afternoon, in those forests, will stay with me forever for a number of reasons but perhaps more so for the initial shock & subsequent humour and later the appreciation of what we truly are, just a chink in the natural order of things.
African Rock Python -  485cm of muscle

This part of the story has two chapters; the first unfolded late Sunday & the second early next morning on Monday.

We weren't about to follow defeat at Muirhead with another at Roodewal. As a result we persevered in areas of Roodewal where few people ever venture. This part of the forest, in the late afternoon shade, ensured that visibility was down to less than 10 paces.. Leopard sign was everywhere & fresh scats littered the pathways which usually makes these things 'fun'..

The cathedral-like silence of the forest generally reciprocates the same response from most people. Not immune from the forest charms we walked on in trance-like reverence. An unholy, other-worldly, goat-like bleat and a later measured world record leap skywards into the overhanging branches wrenched us back from our world of reverie! Sometime later, after the echoes had died down, a more coherent Samson returned to terra-firma where he pointed out a rather substantial snake basking in an open glade alongside the stream we had been following. Unappreciative of Samson's unlikely soprano and less impressed than we were by his less-than-perfectly choreographed leap into the tree-tops, our snake preferred the cool waters of the nearby stream and departed for places other...

We accepted the pressing advice of our guide to abandon any further attempts for Broadbill, its absence a seasonal aberration apparently, in favour of the more readily obvious Blue-spotted Wood Dove back at Muirhead Dam.. We found the dove!

We returned, without our songstress athlete* (*Samson laughed later almost as much as we did then. Who can blame him for his immediate reaction?), to the same spot early next morning in the hope of a photo or two. By luck rather than by design we relocated the python nearby and whilst Alisha made breakfast back-at-the-car I snapped off a few shots. Fortunately the snake was in the initial phases of shedding its skin which, whilst not improving its sense of humour much, usually makes it less inclined to flee. For an hour she tolerated my unsolicited advances. Invisible lines were drawn in the sand which neither she nor I crossed and that's how it should always be, for her safety and ours. The attached photo I took with a 100 mm macro lens, testimony to her current condition and perhaps too a tolerance we don't usually associate with these gentle giants.

A short while later & after she had left via the same stream she had used the afternoon before, I paced out her length, as written in the sands. She measured an incredible 4.85 meters, easily powerful enough to send me to the great aviary in the sky, an eventuality I prefer to avoid at the moment. What a lady!

As an addendum to this story, whilst en route to the python and on foot, Alisha & I were 'thrilled' by the antics of a large male leopard which joined us for our morning stroll and within arm's length. My leopardese is a bit rusty but, at a guess, from its curses and short rushes through the chest-high grass we weren't his type..
Tropic of Capricorn - early morning
Sunrises, sunsets, a dash of hysterical laughter, 'difficult' birds and the occasional unsolicited charms of our co-conspirators in the bush make Limpopo province generally and Venda specifically, our winter home away from home.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

An F-16 in our garden..

We acquire skills either in the training simulator or by repetition which, in time, initiates the same sub-conscious response under specific conditions. It's what makes us who we are.

Often accused of intolerable inattention on the roads or whenever outdoors, the sub-conscious impulse to scan the skies for whatever might catch my eye is an instilled habit. Occasionally the rewards are immeasurable.

Whilst running the dogs in our garden, as is our way each morning, routine scanning of the skies revealed a young female Falco in our Eucalyptus tree; a beacon in our area, despised by the neighbours and enjoyed by all things avian. Contemplating us quietly and then later the gangs of G. Go-away-birds, bulbuls & zosterops which mobbed her mercilessly, she spent the morning unmoved, preening & completely at ease.

She's species 102 in our Sandton garden. Our current avian residents of shrub, scrub, bush & tree will have to look to the skies for from out-of-the-sun lurks a living Fighting Falcon on the dive for the inattentive...

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Xanthochromism - a yellow Black-collared Barbet

The rare xanthochroic Black-collared Barbet
I must admit social media does have its merits despite the time consuming, if not wholly nauseating exercise of sifting through Auntie Mona's exploits at 'U2R a belly-dancer'

Word filtered through the social-press late Friday morning that a xanthochroic Black-collared Barbet had been seen in Helderkruin, a woes-rand suburb of Johannesburg. This rare yellow-coloured form is as the label prescribes ... GTHOH*. Very few self-respecting twitchers would, short of Armageddon, pass up on the chance to see one.

(*Get the hell over here)

The unusual pair - yellow form on the right
Rather amusingly we found ourselves a touch further afield than might have been the case had a xanthochroic barbet NOT been reported.. We returned, in haste & more than a little emotive!

Our angst, as it turned out, was misplaced. Speaking to a number of interested residents the 'rare' yellow-form bird we had noted in Debonair ave. is one of more.. A xanthochroic bird has seemingly, for a season at least, successfully bred in a nearby artificial nest. 

The odd-ball pair follow a circuitous route from the fruit bowls kindly deployed by the homeowners of No.5 & No.7; across the street to the leafless tree in No. 20; back across & down the street to the poplar tree in the nearby park and back to the fruit-bowl. Wait at the barbet-bar long enough & the birds oblige.