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.

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