Birding in Namibia: back roads from Fish River Canyon to Walvis Bay

A road trip through southern Namibia in March 2012 opened my eyes to an area that I had always regarded as desert and not much else. Apart from spending the time soaking up Namibia’s spectacular scenery and birds, we also planned to visit my wife’s parents in Swakopmund for Easter. This Easter visit would also allow us to settle an ongoing debate between my wife and I about a “German Easter,” which according to her surpasses any other Easter imaginable…

Fish River CanyonThe broad trip plan was to spend 4 days exploring the south, gorge ourselves on German chocolate for a few days in Swakopmund and then wrap it up with a few days in Etosha before hot-footing it home via Windhoek. Specifically, our route in the south included: Orange River – Fish River Canyon – Seeheim – Bethaniem – Helmeringhausen – Betta – Namib Rand Private Nature Reserve – Sesriem – Sossusvlei – Solitaire – Tinkas / Bloedkoppe – Swakopmund. This route was travelled over three nights / four days and included some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen in Namibia! The veld was particularly green after the summer rains and birds were in abundance.

The Fish River Canyon should be included on any itinerary that covers southern Namibia, the area is just spectacular. Birding is best at the entrance to the park where the thick acacias harbour Pririt Batis, Rosy-faced Lovebird, Yellow-bellied EremomelaDusky Sunbird, Orange River White-eye and other passerines seeking a bit of shade, The canyon view site is great for close-up views of Pale-winged Starling and Mountain Chat as they try and steal your lunch.

Orange River White-eyeDusky Sunbird

Our drive north from Betta to Sesriem took us through the Namib Rand Private Nature reserve, an area that was just teeming with SpringbokOryx and Burchell’s Zebra.

Namib Rand ReserveWe also encountered a feeding group of Bat-eared Foxes that were completely unperturbed by our presence. What was interesting about this group was that a Yellow Mongoose followed them wherever they went, which we assumed was some form of symbiosis – an easy meal for the mongoose when the foxes flush something and perhaps some sharp mongoose eyes and ears to watch out for an approaching Martial Eagle?

Bat-eared FoxThe birding along the Namib Rand road was fantastic. Our list wasn’t particularly long or diverse at the end of it, but the light was just amazing and between Ruppell’s and Northern Black Korhaans I had my hands full trying to photograph everything!

Namib Rand KorhaanOne of the highlights of our trip was the camping we did in the Namib Naukluft Park around Tinkas and Bloed Koppe. We did not see another vehicle the entire time we were in this area; you need to be completely self-sufficient and preferably need a 4×4 for the rougher sections of the trail. Permits are required for driving and camping in this area, which can be obtained from Ministry of Environment & Tourism at Sesriem.

Bloedkoppe RockTinkas

HoodiaThe gravel roads in Namibia are generally pretty good, but be careful after heavy rains as sections of road have been known to wash away. If you are trying to cover distance 80 km/h is probably the maximum speed you want to travel at, but 60 km/h is better for birding and general sight-seeing. Road-side birds we encountered included: Ludwig’s BustardRuppell’s Korhaan, Lark-like Bunting, Grey-backed Sparrow-lark, Northern Black Korhaan, Karoo Long-billed Lark, Red-headed Finch, Greater Kestrel, Rock Kestrel, Martial Eagle, Lappet-faced Vulture, Black-eared Sparrow-lark, Namaqua Sandgrouse and Ant-eating Chat. Vegetated river courses contained Pririt Batis, Scaly-feathered Finch, Dusky Sunbird, Cape Penduline Tit and Acacia Pied Barbet while mountainous areas were good for Pale-winged Starling and Mountain Chat.

David Winter

Birding in Namibia: Sossusvlei

A key stop-off point on our 2012 Namibia road trip was Sossusvlei. My wife, being a true Namibian, insisted that no trip through her homeland would be complete without at least two nights at this iconic site. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much, perhaps a few large dunes and average birding, but I was wrong. The scenery and light were spectacular and the birding was top notch!

Sossusvlei Balloon

For those who enjoy camping I can recommend the Sossus Oasis Camp  that is across the road from the entrance to Sossusvlei. There is a campsite at the entrance to Sossusvlei, but Sossus Oasis is exactly that, a welcomed oasis in the desert – each site has its own covered kitchen, bathroom, electricity etc and there’s a pool for those hot summer days!

Sossus Oasis CampingBe sure to enter the park as the gate opens in the morning to enjoy the great light and birding opportunities. Most cars speed into the park and head for the dunes, but don’t be tempted as there’s lots to see as you drive in. Also don’t ignore the touristy spots like Dune 45 and Dead Vlei, they’re all great!

Sossus TreeSossusvlei

 We managed to buy our permits the evening before we entered the park so we had limited faffing in the morning and were in by 6am. Top birds for the day were Burchell’s Courser (4 birds along the road as we drove into the park), Bradfield’s Swift (in and around Sesriem Canyon), Ludwig’s Bustard, Ruppell’s Korhaan and a dark-phase Booted Eagle.

Burchell's Courser_Flight

David Winter

Kirstenbosch birding notes: Familiar Chat in Protea section of garden

Familiar Chat Kirstenbosch Gardens

I’ve always regarded Familiar Chat as a species found in the upper reaches of Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, particularly around Hely Hutchinson dam at the top of Skeleton Gorge, but I recorded it for the second time in the Protea section of the garden on Sunday. I first recorded it here in June 2012 and at the time fired off a quick email to Derrick Longrigg, Author of The Cape Birds Club’s “A Guide to the Birds of Kirstenbosch” (1978) and leader of the monthly bird count in the garden, asking him for his thoughts. Derrick replied with the following:

We recorded the FC in the upper gardens (lawns) first in April 2010, and again in June, August, September and December 2011. We have not seen it yet this year so thanks for your note. Maybe it wanders into the garden from time to time from higher up the mountain.

Another interesting record for this time of year was a single Black Saw-wing flitting over the Dell.

Kirstenbosch bird list: Sombre Greenbul, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Malachite Sunbird, Cape Batis, White-necked Raven, Forest Canary, Cape Robin-chat, Red-winged Starling, African Dusky Flycatcher, Southern Boubou, Karoo Prinia, Cape Bulbul, Familiar Chat, Cape White-eye, Hadeda Ibis, Egyptian Goose, Cape Spurfowl, Swee Waxbill, Black Saw-wing.

David Winter

What Do the Birders Know?

This is a good read about the value of citizen science:

birdingmabiraforest.jpg

By BRIAN KIMBERLING, published in the New York Times, April 19 2013.

A BIRD-WATCHER is a kind of pious predator. To see a new bird is to capture it, metaphorically, and a rare bird or an F.O.Y. (First of the Year, for the uninitiated) is a kind of trophy. A list of birds seen on a given day is also a form of prayer, a thanksgiving for being alive at a certain time and place. Posting that list online is a 21st-century form of a votive offering. It’s unclear what deity presides.

There was prestige in knowing birds in ancient Rome, and there is prestige today. There are also competitive insect enthusiasts and tree connoisseurs and fungus aficionados, but they lack the cultural stature and sheer numbers of bird-watchers. There are 5.8 million bird-watchers in the United States, slightly more than the number of Americans in book clubs or residents of Wisconsin. That’s a huge army of primitive hunter-mystics decked out in sturdy hiking boots and nylon rain gear, consulting their smartphones to identify or imitate a particular quarry.

Read more here.

Great-spotted Cuckoo twitch

Although not one of the most rabid western Cape listers, I decided to head out to Klipheuwel on Saturday morning to catch up with the Great-spotted Cuckoo that was found earlier in the week.

Great-spotted Cuckoo

The Atlas of the Birds of the Southwestern Cape (Hockey et al, 1989) says this about the species’ status in the region:

Rare summer visitor, no breeding recorded during the atlas period. Recorded from only four localities in the drier areas of the east and north. All records within the period August to December. Normally occurs in savanna habitats and is rare south of the Orange River. The principal brood hosts are crows and starlings: in the eastern Cape the Pied Starling is the main host, and Great-spotted Cuckoos in the SW Cape have been observed inspecting nest holes of this species: may occasionally breed in the region.

The bird at Klipheuwel appears quite at home; it spends a lot of its time in an open field gorging itself on small caterpillars. The bird is a sub-adult – it’s still showing some rusty brown markings in the primaries – visible in the dodgy shot below.

Great-spotted Cuckoo flight

Other species recorded while watching the cuckoo included: Large-billed Lark, Red-capped Lark, Southern-masked Weaver, Cape Weaver, Pied Starling, Hadeda Ibis, African Fish Eagle, Common Starling, Cattle Egret and Cloud Cisticola.

Great-spotted Cuckoo3

David Winter

Kirstenbosch birding notes

Castle Rock

Just a short bird list from a brief stroll through Kirstenbosch today.

Kirstenbosch bird list: 3 June 2012

Olive Thrush, Cape Robin-chat, Red-winged Starling, Cape White-eye, Karoo Prinia, Brimstone Canary, Forest Canary, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Cape Siskin, Cape Bulbul, Klaas’s Cuckoo (x2 individuals in the Protea section), Common Fiscal, Helmeted Guineafowl, Malachite Sunbird, Cape Spurfowl, Pied Crow, Cape Batis, Hadeda Ibis, Red-eyed Dove, Egyptian Goose, Sombre Greenbul, Southern Boubou, Spotted Eagle Owl.

On a non-birding note I also think I heard Cape Moss Frog (Arthroleptella lightfooti), and Cape Rain Frog. Can anyone perhaps confirm this call for me?

Cape Moss Frog by getbirding.com

David Winter

Eurasian Honey Buzzard recorded in Newlands

Otto Schmidt, who lives just down the road from Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, snapped these images of an Eurasian Honey Buzzard over his house on Saturday 14 January 2012. Honey Buzzards visit the Western Cape annually, but one needs a bit of luck to see them. Kirstenbosch is probably one of the more reliable areas for them [read here for more information about raptor watching in Kirstenbosch]. I would guess, judging by this bird’s underwing and tail pattern, that it’s an adult male.

Eurasian Honey Buzzard Otto Schmidt

This individual has started moulting its flight feathers

Eurasian Honey Buzzard Otto Schmidt2

You can see the scaling on the birds face that protects it from wasp stings

Eurasian Honey Buzzard Otto Schmidt1

Great record Otto and thanks for the images.

David Winter

Birding in Cape Town: Rooi Els

Rooi Els seems to have surpassed Sir Lowry’s pass as the place to see one of the Cape’s most alluring endemics, Cape Rockjumper. Just an hours drive from Cape Town, Rooi Els and nearby Betty’s Bay are likely the best Cape localities to see the region’s endemic fynbos species.

Rooi Els map adapted from Google Earth image reduced

Rooi Els map adapted from Google Earth image

In the slightly dated Google image above you can see that the area was flattened by a fire a few years ago, but the vegetation is now making a strong recovery, which can make finding Cape Rockjumper tough at times. Directions to the Rooi Els Cape Rockjumper site are simple. When entering the seaside village from a Gordon’s Bay direction, cross the bridge and take the second road to your right. Drive to the end of this road until you reach a gate where you can park. Be sure to park to the side and not block the gate. From here continue walking along the road birding as you go.

Cape Rock-thrush

Cape Rock-thrush male

Scan the telephone wires for Cape Rock-thrush and watch the protea bushes for Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird. Karoo Prinia, Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Grassbird are also common along this stretch.

Cape Sugarbird 1

Cape Sugarbird male

Orange-breasted Sunbird

Orange-breasted Sunbird, male

Finding the rockjumpers can be tricky at times. The easiest method is to walk along the jeep track while scanning the rocky slopes and listening for their piping song or more subtle contact calls. They spend most of their time on the ground searching for grubs, but occasionally they hop onto rocks and flutter short distances. They are typically in small groups of three to five birds. For the more energetic a walk up and along the slope can be more productive, but it can be hard going at times as the fynbos is getting denser by the year. The use of playback to attract rockjumpers does not work at Rooi Els (they are “taped-out”) and, if you do choose to use some form of recording, please do so sparingly.

Cape Rockjumper head

Cape Rockjumper male

Cape Rockjumper

Cape Rockjumper male

Cape Rockjumper female

Cape Rockjumper female

Once you have found the rockjumpers they can actually be quite confiding if approached slowly. I know birders who have had rockjumpers hopping around their feet! It’s easy to think at times that the rockjumpers are not home, but they are always there. You just need to search a bit harder! Other interesting species to look out for in the area include: Verreaux’s Eagle (see map for nest site), Ground Woodpecker (they can be tricky to pin down – listen for their call), Long-billed Pipit (particularly after a fire), Cape Spurfowl, Victorin’s Warbler (particularly on the upper slopes close to the cliffs, but also in the low lying areas on the sea-side of the road), Sentinel Rock-thrush (not on the phone lines like Cape Rock-thrush – look on the lower slopes), Cape Eagle Owl (scarce, but resident).

Enjoy the birding and please feel free to post interesting or recent sightings in the comments section below.

David Winter.

A great site for Chestnut-banded Plovers on the West Coast, Veldrif

Mike Buckham and I were keen to track down some Chestnut-banded Plovers on the West Coast earlier this year. We weren’t interested in “speck on the horizon” type views, we wanted them close. Mike, via CapeBirdNet, managed to make contact with the owners of the farm and guest house, Kuifkopvisvanger, which is located on the southern shores of the berg river and is reputably a reliable spot for them.

reduced Veldrif map1

Map adapted from Google Earth

The guest farm can be contacted on 022 783 0818 and I suggest you phone ahead to make arrangements. The spot was easy to find – see map above – and we weren’t disappointed. We found at least 15 individuals and using our car as a hide we were able to get within about 10 metres of them.

Chestnut-banded Plover

Chestnut-banded Plover (male)

Chestnut-banded Plover a

Chestnut-banded Plover (male)

We noted some interesting territorial behaviour while we were snapping these pics. As mentioned, there were at least 15 individual birds, both males and females, and one particular male spent a lot of his time chasing the other males around him. He would flatten his body (perhaps to appear bigger?) and strut around like he owned the place! The shots below were through the wind screen, but you’ll get the idea.

Dont mess with meDont mess with me1Dont mess with me2

Don’t mess with me…

Chestnut-banded Plover chase

The chase…

David Winter