Monday, 28 October 2013

Defying imagination

Imagination is more important than knowledge.... [Albert Einstein] 

Flap-neck chameleon - NSA agent in SA
Before I caption this weekend's activities, some housekeeping. Our intended migration south for four coastal species turned out to be a figment of our imagination. Unintended consequences imposed on us by the touchy-feely world ruined what would have been a thoroughly enjoyable weekend; at least as far as I envisioned. Hoping for a reprieve from the airlines turned out to be as bizarre as Merkel's choice of pizza c/o the NSA. Sauerkraut pizza indeed..!
Thoroughly grounded & chewing tickets we were faced with the weekend's conundrum... Cry or spy - outside the rain kept falling on the p......roverbial.  We elected spy & targeted two hitherto untargeted, locally-grown species ie:  Freckled Nightjar and Grey-headed Kingfisher. Pinning a bulls-eye to the two species was as simple as a squint-back through the mists of our minds. We knew where to look. With one eye on the nightjar & the other across the tableau on the kingfisher we shed our formal threads for our green-clad weekend paraphernalia. Early Saturn's day morning we fired our first arrow at Borakalalo NP, north westwards & in the general direction of the approaching storm gods as they quarreled bitterly over seasons or something.. 

Late-afternoon storm gods still cry a picture
There we encountered fellow questers, a lottery throw by any stretch of the imagination. Who would have guessed? These two gentlemen sought national recognition for a local milestone, a feat they accomplished. Well done gentlemen. Whilst I dither at times's halftime-siren & on this, a cold summer's day, the spirit of youth seemingly invigorated these gamy-legs...
Grey-headed Kingfisher - the target
With renewed Red Bull-like energy we trotted out ourselves & found the first of five (5) Grey-headed Kingfishers. None, unsurprisingly, played ball and none sat for the obligatory photo-shoot. Creative stirrings thus stifled we were forced, nay obliged, to shoot unannounced; without a warrant & from the hip, whilst the birds looked t'other way. Wrapped, tagged & delivered!
Splitting the atom of a single thought - foreboding
Meanwhile, in Elysium, the gods of thunder & lightening spat their agenda. The boredom of the quarrel, not lost on us, mere mortals, had us running for the hills of home, two hours yonder. Hardened tears, like ice, battered us all the way. Vehicles lay littered this way & that. New rivers raged, unimpeded. Man-made structures groaned despair; some buckled at the seams. Above us, blurred through rain-distorted glass, jolts of lightning jagged across the blackened skies. Any thoughts of nightjar - freckled, speckled or even heckled were quickly quashed in the impending flood.

Sipping too deeply on the Sunday-morning duck-down covers consigned the morning's intended activities to a history that never was. The nightjar, by rights, is not a dayjar & only the very lucky or the overtly energetic brave the day-time scree-slope roosts. We would wait for Sunday's crepuscular watch, when the grass-swishing hob-goblins emerge. Sometime later in the valley of the Wilge river & with one eye on the prize and the other on the bushpig sounder frolicking in the goo nearby we're pleased to announce species no. 696 for South Africa (calendar 2013). Freckled Nightjar! All around from within the blackened green emanated the sounds of squeaks, quacks, groans & croaks. We can't say for sure, by any stretch of the imagination, just who said what..

What does the Bullfrog say? A bulls-eye...

I'll leave you with this....

'*Dog goes woof, cats go meow
Bird goes tweet, and mouse goes squeak 
But there's one sound that no one knows...'
What does the Frog say?

Grewww - grewww - grewr - bro
Broohwer - brewha - broohwer -go!

So we did.

*with apologies to Ylvis & 'The Fox' []

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Hear a bird; see no bird; record no bird!

Mexican Pines, an exotic inclusion on the slopes 
A day's birding in any forest is generally frustrating, a pain in the neck & paradoxically, incomparable in reward. Add the vagaries of shifting weather & the brew becomes a perfect recipe for a breakdown. Early mists tease the dawn & as the skirts of grey lift above the green an introspective battle of the senses rages unrepentant. Auditory signals contradict the visual certainty.. Bird calls seemingly emanate from thin air. Close your eyes and the culprits reveal themselves in song. Shut your mind to the auditory assault; open your eyes & the protagonists vanish, instantly! Accompany this sensory confusion with a generous quenelle of freshly-washed moss & you know, without hesitation that, in South Africa at least, you've arrived atop the Woodbush Forest in Magoebaskloof.
Freshly washed moss - an olfactory delight

Ochre-red mud clings to boots, knees, elbows... Clothing is functional, rather than a display of fashion. Single-digit temperatures is an early summer legacy. This is a fascinating slice of Africa & worth more to birders than its assigned value measured in yellowwood saplings.

Woodbush is home to a remnant population of Cape Parrot & the most accessible site in SA for Black-fronted Bushshrike, two species we needed for our 800 Challenge. Add Barratt's Warbler to the mix & we were in for a rollicking time.. in the rain!
Red-chested Cuckoo - summer visitor 
Magoebaskloof Triplets - 80m plus
Barratt's Warbler - a forest denizen
South Africa boasts a fist-full of inspiring global-firsts including the world's tallest planted trees. Planted in 1906 the three sentinel-centurions, affectionately dubbed the Magoebaskloof Triplets, still dominate the sky-line. Down below lie the scarred remnants of a recently harvested commercial forest. Sap & resin oozes the misery of the arbour. Forestry trucks ply their trade & clear the field. It's an interesting contrast...

Cape Parrot breed nearby & their post-dawn calls were a good harbinger. South Africa's only endemic parrot is, sadly, in trouble, a consequence of habitat loss & PBFD [Psittacine Beak & Feather Disease], a fatal virus affecting mostly younger birds thought to be exacerbated by stress & poor nutrition from eating commercial nuts. It's a fragile reminder of the vulnerability of many species, largely extant on the foresight of few.
Black-fronted Bushshrike

The three birds we needed are not the toughest birds to hear. Buy a ticket & the dance-floor's DJ is a certainty. Seeing the bird, however, is a whirl altogether different. If we could conduct our list by ear we'd add twenty more immediately but this is a visual world & a different challenge.

The Black-fronted Bushshrike, like many forest dwellers, is a creature of habit. Having banded (tarsus rings & the recording of morphological data) these birds in Woodbush before we had a reasonable idea where to initiate the search. A confiding pair obliged; the weather did not. Images in the mist were poor; the birds were not. All the while Barratt's Warbler slapped a verbal gauntlet from thickets all around...
Northern Forest Rainfrog - Breviceps sylvestris sylvestris
There's something to be said for technology; a weapon in our arsenal the Barratt's hadn't accounted for. Put away play-back [ie: call]; they're more discerning & always ignore the effort. Instead appreciate Steve Jobs' abiding legacy; an unintended boon for birders. Intro the iPod & the iPad..

To beat the Barratt's requires a tourniquet of patience. In fact, in this particular case, we held vigil for four (4) hours before the bird magically appeared from within the brambles for a shot. All the while the Barratt's called from within the thicket alongside ; a call none of my three children heard but once; the first time.. For them Metallica, Iron Maiden & Katy Perry smoothed the beige mists of boredom..  Not a fidget; nigh a murmur.. Thank you Steve!

One last thought before I go. When we embarked on this challenge we understood the end to be a function of the means. ie; we embarked on a journey rather than an accountable fact & for that reason this weekend proved special above most others.

The birds were good & we'd picked 3 from 3. Even so, the abiding memory originated further afield in our home-for-two-nights. The weather had confined us indoors, mostly; alongside a roaring log-fire; across the chessboard; above a steaming cup of cocoa & behind the weber, skewered marsh-mellows in hand! We later braved the weather in search of Forest Rainfrog, a sublime creature we'd sought for so many years without success. The four or five we found were undeniably the weekend's outdoors' highlight but the real success were the five of us around a table.. iPods abandoned & forgotten.

Friday, 18 October 2013

A Big City Triple Crown - a winning trifecta...!

White-breasted Cuckooshrike - Groenkloof [Pretoria]
Out the stalls I make no apologies for the quality of these images. A roughie or an odds-on favourite makes no difference at the tote if you're holding the winning ticket..! [The misguided adventures of my youth - Law-school was expensive...]

Big City birding is AWT (All weather racing) and it's not for the faint of heart. When word filters through that a bomber [rarity] has hit home-track you take the bit and run.. 

Pretoria's Groenkloof NR is a true Blue Hen & is fast becoming the region's rarity-mecca. Late Monday's FB-post that a White-breasted Cuckooshrike had been seen a few days earlier was a neon-light attention-grabber. In hand and having appraised the house-highweight (Alisha) of the impending stampede we made our way through to Groenkloof early next morning, as did most of the usual grandstand-membership. Although blown on the walk up the ridge and pulled-up short on the phone to confirm the sighting, there is no joy, in this game, more crystal-pure than a mega [a bomber- see above] in perfect stride. 
Mountain Wagtail - Groenkloof [Pretoria]

The post-parade dust had hardly settled when friends on the rail confirmed another local mega; Mountain Wagtail - under the rail-bridge and back a few hundred yards.. ! Chalk this one up to luck but sometimes the dice fall as they will.. Perhaps not as well-turned out as the WBCS & more aware of the stands, this bird proved even more elusive to photograph. Later it took a bow for our regional ticket, even so. 

There are occasions when circumstance deals a quirky hand so unexpected that the odds are almost a milkshake[illegal]. If the cuckooshrike and the wagtail were light on the toteboard [long-shots] then the Bush Blackcap's maiden visit to Johannesburg is the winner going away. 

Bush Blackcap - Randburg [Johannesburg]
Although stewards have lodged the usual inquiry on the validity of these sightings, considered flukish if not unnatural, I for one hold a winning ticket. So do many other lucky punters. What excitement & what a race!

As an addendum I want to emphasise the good-natured spirit that abounds in SA birding [bird-watching.] I'll annotate for ease of reference:
  1. Dirk Maartens Human unselfishly brought the original sighting of the White-breasted Cuckooshrike to our attention via social media; ably supported later by the administrators of the various SIT groups;
  2. SARBN [SA Rare bird news], a free service administered by Trevor Hardaker, kept interested members abreast of developments as they unfolded;
  3. Dewald Swanepoel and Gisela Ortner highlighted the Mountain Wagtail, a truly unexpected surprise on a day when the cuckooshrike held centre-stage; and
  4. I cannot say enough for Gisela Ortner who unselfishly opened her home to the birding community when the Blackcap was first discovered in her garden. 
We live for weeks like these, as ephemeral as the rarities themselves. Whilst the adrenaline does strange things to ordinary people we cannot deny the truth. This is an African Spring!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Said the Bishop to the actress...not today luv!

African Broadbill - False Bay
Sunday morning's vigil from the Bishop's Seat, in the drizzle, from high on the aerial boardwalk in Eshowe's [KZN] Dlinza Forest, had me contemplating the world from tear-infused eyes rather than from rose-tinted glasses. What, in all honesty, were we doing this for?

The toothy-cold weather would, no doubt, have had the bishop cooling his heels but undeterred we found ourselves on the trail of another of this country's forest denizens, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon...
Aerial boardwalk - Dlinza

Dlinza boasts four (4) local pairs. Finding a pigeon in scarp forest poses an interesting challenge and whilst stumbling around the many trails clad in decayed leaf-litter and cloying mud is considered an honest pursuit, it won't bring the pigeon to pie. These are sneaky beasts which spend their time in the tree-top extremes. Craning your neck vertically for a ventral glimpse is a pain in the neck... Take the aerial boardwalk, sit quietly in the canopy and wait for the birds to come to you! Easy? It would have been had Alisha not forgotten to pack a jacket. She took mine, which is fine with me, as I was told.. If chivalry [ie: self-preservation] is a dying art it persists in isolated & remotely located locales..

African Broadbill - pre-somersault routine
With frozen brassies & speaking in incoherent soprano we locked-on to two singleton males in a two-hour vigil as they sheered across gale-force winds. Our cameras warmed their lenses back in the car rather than on our laps; a financially astute decision if nothing else. Whilst more than a little remiss at the lost photographic opportunity it's tough to find the trigger-finger coated, as it was, in black-ice. For interest the slippery-slope against which I scrambled whenever I peeked sideways at the thermal jacket sitting next to me, was ice-clad too.. but I digress...

Green Malkoha - False Bay
You'll recall my cosy contemplation from the recycled bench on the Bishop's Seat, a lifetime away from our suite in Richards Bay...If Sunday was Cape Town in winter, Saturday wasn't. Saturday was, in fact, almost perfect. Perfect barring, perhaps, the post-script photographic disaster of two terns and a 'pelagic' visitor, a tooth-grinding eventuality in sea-salt & windblown sand-haze.

From my vantage point in the clouds it occurred to me that the five (5) hours we had spent on the beach near St Lucia & in the shade of the Dumbass Dutchman* whilst waiting for two regionally rare terns to return home to roost, was a likely precedent for irrational exuberance. In sequence, rather than in paralleled thought, it also occurred to me that the Humpback Whales, a few hundred yards offshore, alongside which bobbed the Advantage, the whale-watching boat for which the Dumbass Dutchman* waited patiently, were actually the star performers of the early afternoon. A pity we hadn't paid closer attention...

Yellow Weaver - hard at work. 
The whales and much later an unexpected Southern Giant Petrel, usually found further out to sea in these waters, alleviated the grinding boredom. Even so, we'd shrugged-off past experience & for our misguided intent had paid the price in sun-block and an unsolicited nasal sand-blast.

We'd seen the Sooty Tern some months before, at the same venue and were therefore reasonably assured of its habits. As before the Sooty returned to the tern-roost from dune-side interests rather than from directly out to sea & just before sunset. The Damara Tern, another regional surprise, seemingly fished the shallows down-coast before doing the same near where we sat & also at last light. We'd become emotionally involved and for our extraordinary lapse had spent half-a-lifetime in the baking sun...

One last thought occurred to me before I straightened out for the knee-jangling descent to the forest floor below. Had we not observed, from handbook images, that the African Broadbill preferred usnea-species for its nesting material, we would not have stopped under the tree in which hung the same material and as a consequence we would surely have missed the pair nesting close-by.

On a more serious note iSimangaliso field-staff had chased and failed to apprehend poachers intent on harvesting juvenile fish in the St Lucia lake. Notwithstanding, they had, in fact, confiscated the illegal gill-nets and had returned to shore filled to the gunnels. The St Lucia lake is one of very few marine sanctuaries and is therefore a critical breeding ground for fish. The 200-meter-long nets had been set the previous night in an organised commercial assault. This act of ecological violence accounted for an estimated 1000 Spotted Grunter juveniles, a sad indictment of organised greed! When will the madness end?

iSimangaliso Wetland Park - field-staff at work
By net's end this vehicle was loaded..

Monday, 7 October 2013

Highover sings the Blues..

Highover - Blue Swallow custodians
We found ourselves this last weekend at 29S 55' 10.635" / 30E 4' 12.09" - Highover [Southern Natal Midlands: KZN] near Hela Hela, somewhere close to Richmond. Why?

  • Only a travel-masochist, cut from the stupid cloth, would contemplate an overnight, 1500 kilometer round trip from Johannesburg to the Mkomazi River & back for the joy of multiple tick bites & the cost of a full valet; but
  • only a birder would actually make the trip... 

So why the Southern Midlands? Two reasons: - Blue Swallow & their recent extinction in our more conveniently located Mpumalanga province. Bird populations are dynamic at best & particularly so for species with specific habitat requirements. Upland [High-altitude] grassland, a rare commodity in this country, is still heavily utilised by the timber companies. As a consequence where once Blue Swallows may have hawked the skies they no longer do. Notwithstanding this dollar-biased ignorance 80 odd pairs return to SA annually but to locales further afield.

In a rare weekend's perfect score & possibly a hitherto incomparable birding-bonanza we scooped ALL of the Highover specials including two (2) breeding pairs of Blue Swallow, Black-rumped Buttonquail, Striped Flufftail, Black-winged Lapwing & Bush Blackcap. Yes we may pay for the scoop with a healthy dose of tick-borne fever but that's an unlikely fortnight away.. Today we celebrate the freedom of our Blues. Long may they weave their magic over swaying grasslands.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Crouching Doubts - Hidden Thoughts!

Victoria and Alfred Waterfront
After the crushing disappointment of another cancelled pelagic (seabird) trip I'll admit the first misgivings of our campaign. We won't get another chance to get out to sea this year & if success is a number, Bingo's a distant shout, particularly given the fact that a fistful of numbers will remain in the bag.

Artificial light illuminates the skies over the Waterfront
Stranded in Cape Town on a miserable Friday afternoon the idea of an early flight home had appeal. Fortunately a late-lunch meeting at the iconic Mount Nelson; a business visit to the quintessential Bo-Kaap & a whistle-stop site inspection of two of our company-owned Waterfront restaurants turned out to be a welcome distraction. Perhaps our eye was taken off the challenge-ball for long enough to put the disappointment in perspective?

Eclectic Cape Town - sights & sounds
Deflation is, perhaps, a simple state of mind & giving in to circumstance in this, the final push, is simply not how we roll. Notwithstanding, we were later shepherded to the abyss once more, early Saturday morning, with the following irreverent revelation from the Robben Island information desk and I quote 'the ferry [to Robben Island] is fully-booked until Tuesday...'  

Confined to this nondescript island both the Chukar Partridge & Common Peacock would remain a 5 mile spit too far; an annoyance to say the least.

In our eight (8) birding-specific visits to Cape Town this year we'd selectively pursued the more easily recorded specials especially those confined to the immediate vicinity or close-enough away from Cape Town to make a fist of it in a day's travel.

Bo-Kaap - Ancient heritage / wonderful food
Three locals had avoided our attentions thus far; Hottentot Buttonquail, Victorin's Warbler & Protea Seedeater (Canary). All had proved elusive & would be the targeted birds in conditions we considered less than perfect. By weekend's end we had had average views of two of three, a hit-rate we might have been happy with before but given the current circumstances might prove fatal when we give our final account.

Yserfontein - our new home away from home
We failed to nail the buttonquail & this in spots we'd seen them many times before. In our defense, record rains & seasonally-lush vegetation might have had something to do with our unsuccessful fynbos scramble. Even so, there's something to be said for two plastic-clad, otherwise average adults, woo-wooing & tut-tutting in a synchronised ballet-like quail-drive, in icy-rain, high up in the Hottentots-Holland.

The Victorin's Warbler was a bag of joy too & an auditory delight [yay...] as it frolicked, gaily, in the deepest scrub. Visually, this winged mouse had us lower than a Cape Cobra's navel as we crawled through the impenetrable restio forests to satisfy our 'we must both bloody see it' rule. We did, mercifully, much much later. Candidly we're still rubbing the mud & grime from our eyes, a delightful addendum to the weekend's campaign.

For the Protea Seedeater we'd go further afield; a distant week's travel by Cape Town's measured pace. For immigrant drivers it's little more than an hour's drive north, up to & a stone's throw beyond the West Coast NP. Picketberg, or more accurately the town of Aurora, a rustle rather than a bustle, 50 kilometers inland from the equally impressive Velddrif, was our selected point of departure for the seedeater.

King Protea - simply sublime & truly the Fynbos King

No sooner had we deflected the unsolicited roadside advice ' return to Velddrif' from two married cousins who, in all likelihood, play the banjo ...well, two P. Seedeaters obstructed our views of the protea alongside.

There are few things more frustrating than an interrupted view of a protea in full flourish...!

If a visit to the Cape has a seasonal bias then September's the ticket to the show & tell. This floral kingdom boasts a palette-like soup of coy & shade. Birds in black-tie sup on sweet nectar & bird-song resonates across hill & dale in saturated stereo.
Bokmakierie - Postberg special

One of the more primary & currently popular hues, in seasonal-Cape, is yellow. People wear it, captains live by it & out in the field birds boast the brightest sunshine.

As yellow as the Cape gets - Cape Weaver
En route back to Cape Town, after our successful foray into the outer hebrides for Protea Seedeater, we thought we'd drop by the West Coast NP for a late visit to Postberg, West Coast's unheralded crown-jewel. Closed for most of the year this fenced-off piece of paradise, on the leeward side of Langebaan lagoon, lends credence to the notion that out in the field at least, all is well with the world. It's truly spectacular & although infrastructurally deficient does provide some access to the more intriguing bits & pieces. Wild seas crash onshore in a relentless assault on the geography. Cormorants, oystercatchers & gulls find solace on and among the rocks. In the valleys eland graze peacefully. Larks laugh, cisticolas call & bokmakieries 'bok-bok...makierie'...  

Cape Eland bull - Postberg [West Coast NP]
A single Black Harrier, in what seemed a trance-like glide, slid silently across the plain. Here's a reason, in isolation, why most people return to the West Coast time & time again.

Common Fiscal - Watchful. Patient. Confident.
Out on the lagoon waders steal in under cover of night, unannounced & from the north. Although numbers remain thin on the beach, this year portends a vagrant. Record rains have delayed breeding on the ground for most but food resources declare a stocked larder. This is a bay of plenty & it won't be long before an unintended visitor lands on these shores for a twirl around the food-plate.

As the golden orb set on another perfect day we made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Rooi Granaat, a West Coast secret...not. This bi-polar haven of good food & wine, nestled in the nondescript hamlet of Yserfontein (where we've acquired some property) & a stones throw south of the West Coast NP, leaves a lifelong impression. The fare compares favourably with most high-end restaurants in mainstream Cape Town. Pay them a visit if you're human & celebrate your humanity. You won't be sorry.
King Protea - it's the 'heart' that makes the bloom

If the King Protea (Protea cynaroides) is the Lord of the Manor then like all mortal monarchs appearance is subjectively fleeting. Look more closely & nestled conspicuously within this honeypot's bloom beats the kingdom's 'heart'. It's tomorrow's hope for more. Without heart there is no tomorrow. We'll keep at it too.