Tuesday, 7 January 2014

800 Challenge - 2013 That's a wrap!

2014 has kicked off with a bang if the traffic in uptown Johannesburg is anything to judge these things by! To close off last year's challenge one or two stats:

Southern Right Whale - in "Whale" Bay
We covered a little over 100000 km cumulatively ie: over the duration of the year, inclusive of commercial / chartered flights, ships, boats, vehicles, buses, flat-bed trucks, rickshaws, bikes, ferry, by helicopter, by horse-back & in a makoro. I have no idea how many kilometers we walked.. but if the bathroom scale is anything to go by probably fewer than we should have!

We spent 151 days in the field ie: away from home. We saw 825 species from end to end and from pillar to post within the sub-region.

Over the period we did 4 trips to Namibia; 3 trips to Botswana; 2 trips to Zimbabwe; 2 trips to Mozambique; 1 trip each to Lesotho & Swaziland (transit). Most of the cross-border trips we kept as short as possible, a function of necessity rather than by design or preference. Our longest trip (12 days) was to Namibia's northern region incl. of Kunene & the Zambezi region (Caprivi).

The Namib desert / Namibia
We flew most of the major domestic routes at least once & as many as 10 times ie: to Cape Town. Exclude PE & Bloemfontein from that list. We missed our flight to PE & who flies to Bloem..? The only 'international' flight was the flight to Windhoek (Namibia). The other cross-border trips we did by vehicle.

If pushed to pick a favourite trip I would have to say central Mozambique & for reasons unrelated to the birds. [See the 'Stranded out to sea..' blog for some insight.] Alisha, by comparison, prefers Namibia over most other spots. The most surprising cross-border trip was to Zimbabwe's Mana Pools area. This was our 1st trip to the north of Zimbabwe & to be fair, a highlight & somewhere we'll return to as soon as we can.

My bird of the year - African Pitta [inside 3 m / Coutada 12 - Moz]
Alisha's bird of the year - Spotted Creeper [party of 4 / Marondera - Zimbabwe].
Surprise of the year - 2 Grass Owls 8:30 pm, in torrential rain; Ongoye -KZN. [also happens to be Alisha's 'worst trip of the year' - see blog post 'Ongoye -Muddy bloody barbet']
Dip of the year - Pintado Petrel..! [The sparrow of the winter seas]

Species seen by Alisha or by myself but not by both of us & therefore excluded:

Eurasian Blackcap - Marondera; Zim (Alisha & 3 others)
Lesser Seedcracker - Mt. Gorongosa; Moz (Mark & 1 other)
Amsterdam Albatross (Probable) - Zest pelagic; SA (Mark et al)
Slender-billed Prion - Zest pelagic; SA (Mark et al)

Probables excluded - ID inconclusive

Gull-billed Tern - (Kgomo Kgomo; SA) Photographs inconclusive
Zambezi Indigobird - (Masoka Village; Zim) Impossible to separate from other non-br indigobirds.

Possibles (excl): -

Yellow-bellied Hyliota - Chinizuia; Mozambique

Birds heard only: -

Madagascar Cuckoo - Biyamiti; KNP
Basra Reed Warbler (probable) - near Caia, Sofala [Moz]

To conclude we added 30 (approx) new species to our regional life list and we added 60 (approx) 'photographic' lifers over the period.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Footprint in the African hourglass

Grosse Spitzkuppe - finding Herero Chat

As the dust settles on the thrills, spills, trials & tribulations that was [at the time of writing] our 800 Challenge, three, as yet, unanswered questions spring to mind - Each has an Old & a New; a past & a future, some tense, some not. In the context of our global village we consider http://www. We consider the hard to truthfully pinpoint: // Where, What & Who or even the who, what & why..

Time is fleeting; a lesson made all too clear throughout our challenge. As the old sets on the eve of something new, you might lend me your eyes for a minute.
In the context of our 800 Challenge some examples in the Std-grade category:
  1. Where has our journey taken us? or even Where has the time gone? All over the region, from corner to corner, more than once; in the blink of an eye.
  2. What inspired us? or perhaps What have we achieved? A self-motivated, time-constrained goal, within a predetermined set of rules & governed by a self-imposed code of conduct. That & more.  
  3. Who have we met along the way? Accountants, teachers, the needy, the greedy, policemen, judges & a jury of our peers.
Dune Lark - The abominable sandman..?
Will we do it again? Hard to truthfully say. 

If the old sets the standard then the higher-grade questions lie somewhere in the new. The answers are as elusive as they are pressing. Here are some examples. You'll know your own.
  1. Where have the numbers gone? or even Where will we find the courage & make the effort? 
  2. What must be done? or perhaps, more importantly, What will our children say?
  3. Who will toe the line? & Who's responsibility is it anyway?
Rooibank  -  West Coast. Namibia

Will we find the answers? Hard to truthfully say.

Our footprints, etched in time, leaves a stain. This we know for the stain lies in the old. It's the future that stands dawn-lit & at the start of something new. 
    Birds are not food & yet the plight of birds, in our ever shrinking global shanty, is food-enough for thought.

    2013 played host to an unforgettable adventure; the avian protagonists foremost in our thoughts. We hope, this year, to reciprocate a little. 
    One or two G. Flamingos : dismissively attentive.

    Ruppell's Korhaan

    Our last & final leg, in central Namibia & on her west coast, was perhaps a fitting end to what had been a fantastic year. Namibia stands first & foremost in the countries we love most. Burn't skies, open fields & singing sands call to us. 

    Our suite at the Hansa Hotel

    A half-dozen, unaccounted-for species secured our flight from South Africa's OR Tambo to Namibia's Hosea Kutako International, a large skip east of Windhoek, the country's capital. A more convenient flight would have been a few minutes further westwards to Walvis Bay. Nevertheless, the range restricted Herero Chat & the rain-seeking / desert-loving Ruppell's Korhaan necessitated an inland stop & go. We added both in quick succession, in two uneventful sessions, en route Swakopmund's Hansa Hotel, our desert home away from home. Germanic influence; a local ja, das ist gut attitude; seasonal holiday fever & an outdoors-orientated lifestyle cements this coastal town's status as Namibia's premiere holiday destination.

    Migrant waders clog the salt pans, tidal zones & nearby tundra-like vegetation

    If a free-flowing piste down the autobahn-like aisles at the local Food Lovers Market is your passion, then December is not the time of year to travel. Notwithstanding the urban crush, December is also rarities season & as the drapes fell on our year we hoped for nothing less than an encore performance. We weren't disappointed.

    Pygmy Right Whale - beached in the lagoon

    Joined most mornings [afternoons & evenings too] by local resident Mark Boorman, friend & part-time banding mentor, we were assured of something special. In fact we had a whale of a time.

    We were after three specific birds for our 800 Challenge. Wading through a sea of waders for three specific individuals takes a keen eye & some experience. Wilson's Phalarope, seen intermittently since the start of the season would, as suspected, pose a challenge. As it turned out the Wilson's stayed in the bag, unseen.

    In the interim we had recorded Red-necked Phalarope in the lagoon & Dune Lark at nearby Rooibank. One special remained. Earlier in the year we had missed this particular bird & were seemingly well on track to do the same again. Fairly regular to date, this repeat-vagrant had, for selfish reasons no doubt, made itself scarce the instant we disembarked.
    Alisha & Mark B trying to relocate a probable American G Plover

    If worms hate 1st-call then, by rights, they have good reason. Finding visiting avian guests, eager to explore the unfamiliar, usually means a wake-up call sometime before the sanity bell. Walvis Bay is no different. We'd arrived most mornings in time for morning tea which secured a vacant lot. Getting to the lagoon on time, however, proved more rewarding & on our last morning in the field we recorded our final species for our 800 Challenge, Pacific Golden Plover; a magnificent likeness of himself, in non-breeding garb & a lifer to boot. Fitting; unscripted & more than a little poetic.

    A. Penguin - in moult. Escorted, by rental, to Hotel Boorman
    As an aside, Mark introduced us to the world of long-distance avian travel. We spent a day scrutinising waders & terns for foreign-flagged / ringed / banded individuals ie: caught & marked for identification in the field. The foreign-caught, long-distance migrants are also the most intriguing. By end-of-day we had successfully identified a handful of birds. One particular tern, as it turns out, was originally processed in Scotland, some 9000 km further north, undeniable evidence that Scotland, is in fact, the very hub from which all good things emanate..! It's an amazing feat of endurance in itself & a confirmation, more importantly, of the role that Southern Africa plays in the seasonal lives of many long-distance migrants, drawn from all around the globe.

    For those who have followed our exploits what would our story be if we had no tale to tell?

    Poking the stupid stick at the gods!
    Poking the stupid-stick at the gods is something I do well, clearly. One poke is not as good as another & this time I thought I'd give it stick. At the start of our year we acquired a diesel A-class Mercedes from which we'd do most our local birding. The rationale was simple; for a simpleton that is. We'd keep our carbon footprint to a minimum... No point ruining the world chasing the ridiculous, yes? In hindsight, it's a bowl of hot air! We've traveled further than a godwit's bill & the reasoning is akin to a bag-full of sticky-pie & a diet soda.. but I digress.

    Notwithstanding the frail-nature of good intent, we ignored the rows of gas-guzzling 4x4s, vehicles for the insensitively boorish & secured, instead, the mechanical services of a rented front-wheel-drive sedan. As the manual reads - adequate on tarred surfaces or salt-hardened gravel but, like all Toyotas, somewhat skittish in the dunes..

    A trip highlight - Dune Lark nest
    Dune Lark happened to be on the morning menu. To secure the lark we'd need to travel a touch inland to nearby Rooibank, a haven for sand-experts & the closest landmark to the bird in question. To get from Rooibank to the red-sand habitat is a walk of a 1000 meters. We thought we'd drive.. Her words resonate in my left ear still! WTH soon became WTF! The adequate on tar proved inadequate in sand. Mechanically belly-beached, 4 wheels lazy in the desert breeze & less upwardly mobile than might have been expected came, at the time, as a complete surprise to me... Fortunately, as it turned out, we'd saved ourselves a measured 23 paces to the nearest dune; an Eskom-like energy-saving during a summer thunderstorm black-out. Small mercies as they say.. We walked the remaining 981 meters to the dune & found the larks, on a nest. We walked the 981 meters back to immobility & spent the next two hours digging, cursing & larking about under the chassis.

    If Namibia is nothing else then it's a country of unmatched hospitality & good people. From the nearby Rooibank hamlet two German/Afrikaans-language [preference] sand-experts approached our sand-spit & found me in full display. I was immediately addressed in well-spoken English, relieved of the car-keys & in soothing, single-syllable west coast tones encouraged to take a seat under the nearest shady tree. The sun had, no doubt, found a chink in my thinking -cap. They were taking no chances, evidently. I chewed, somewhat thoughtfully, on the cork clogging my senses, put there by my own wife, familia no less..! Is there no honour left in this cruel world?

    Damara Tern - the week's highlight

    I'm not too displeased to report the untimely demise of not one but two 'nooit-nie (can't break)' snatch-straps before the vehicle was eventually recovered a third strap & a short snooze later.

    Namibians know their sand. We live & we learn!