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.
This is a good read about the value of citizen science:
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.
After my week in Nairobi (read about my birding at Lake Magadi here) it was time to spend a week in Kampala, Uganda. Kampala is my favourite of East Africa’s cities. Dar es Salaam has too many house crows, Nairobi is big and dirty, but Kampala has a certain charm to it. Aesthetically, Kampala sports the typical circa-60′s East African architecture, but there’s more greenery and the rolling hills amongst which the capital is settled seem to take the edge off it.
Kampala Golf Course
Also, the birding in Kampala itself is pretty good. I stayed at the Protea Hotel, which is about a 10 minute stroll from Kampala’s golf course. On the point of walking, I felt relatively safe walking around Kampala during the day, which was a nice change from Nairobi. The golf course is open to the roads that surround it so I just wandered in, but was eventually asked to leave after about 90 minutes of birding. I should have stopped in at the pro-shop and asked permission, and I recommend people do that, but all the locals appear to use the course as a thoroughfare so I just headed in.
Within two minutes of wandering between fairways (be careful – golf is actually played!) I was reminded why I love the birding in Kampala. My suspicions that a calling falco species was of the African Hobby variety were quickly proven when the above silhouette dashed overhead. My photos are rubbish, but the giss is telling. Luckily the bird did another fly-by so I was able to snap this slightly less rubbish image.
The golf course is surrounded by very large trees that are often dotted with Yellow-billed Kites, Marabou Storks or in the case below, Hooded Vultures. The skies above Kampala, and Nairobi in fact too, are always filled with Kites – I’ve never seen such high concentrations of these birds over a city.
I’m afraid rubbish photos were the order of the day as can be seen by the Eastern Grey Plantain-eater I’ve included below. This turaco is hard to miss with its distinctive call and common garden-species status. A Ross’s Turaco also did a brief fly-by as I was dodging golf balls up the 17th, but it was a bit too quick for my camera. What a stunning bird!
Eastern Grey Plantain-eater
By the time I reached this Double-toothed Barbet I had noticed an official-looking person (uniform and all) heading towards me. I tried the classic birder reaction of continuing to snap photos, looking at birds and giving off an air of general ignorance, but this didn’t help! These Double-toothed Barbets really are cracking birds. I guess our Southern African barbets are also nice to look at, but the diversity and beauty of East Africa’s barbets is something to behold.
This Northern Black Flycatcher was taken post the stern talking-to delivered by the golf course security guard so I was lucky to even get this shot. What frustrated me was that while he was asking me to leave the course locals were streaming past on their way home from work. Perhaps he was just worried about me being hit by a stray golf ball?
Northern Black Flycatcher
If you can get permission to walk the Kampala golf course, or are willing to take a chance, I can recommend it. Even if you’ve only got an hour to spare it’s worth a quick look. Just keep an eye out for flying balls!
A business trip to East Africa last year had me thinking about what birding opportunities I could capitalise on over the two weekends I was in the region. My first stop in Dar es Salaam was rather birdless, apart from a Dimorphic Egret sighting in the traffic one morning and literally 1000s of House Crows. The number of crows in Dar, and the lack of any other passerines, highlighted the importance to me of eradicating the few House Crows we have in Cape Town.
Lake Magadi Map[adapted from Google Earth]
The birding in Nairobi was far more fruitful. I stayed at the leafy Fairview Hotel, which allowed me to catch-up with some common Nairobi garden birds. Baglafecht’s Weaver, Montane White-eye and Ruppell’s Robin-chat were common visitors to the verdant garden setting of the Fairview.
As I was going to spend a weekend in Kenya I decided to contact the local birding-pal network to see if a Kenyan birder could give me some local gen. As luck would have it I contacted John Musina from the Department of Ornithology at the National Museum of Kenya and he responded almost immediately saying that I was welcome to join him and his team for the Lake Magadi birding count that weekend. What a luck! Not only was I welcome to join them, but all I had to do was get myself to the National Museum on Saturday and all other logistics would be arranged by the museum. It sounded too good to be true, but by midday on Saturday I was pottering around the National Museum’s garden notching up a few species for my trip list while I waited for our departure. The museum gardens are not a bad place to go birding, and I believe they run bird walks around the leafy grounds every Wednesday morning. In my short wait I managed to notch up Speckled Mousebird (rather a different beast to our southern variety), Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater and Streaky Seed-eater.
Kenya is making a concerted effort to sort out its road infrastructure, and this is very evident when traveling around Nairobi as each major intersection seems to be sporting a construction team of sorts. However, call me a cynic, but give Kenyan drivers the best roads in the world and there will still be 5 hours of rush hour traffic every evening – they just do not abide by any rules of the road!! I digress. As soon as everyone had finally arrived at the museum we were on our way. Lake Magadi is to the south west of Nairobi and about a 3 hour drive on possibly the worst “tar” road Kenya has to offer. We did stop a couple of times en route to stretch the legs and see what birds were around. It was great to get out the car and walk a bit – birding highlights were Sooty Boubou, Blue-capped Cordonbleu, Red-fronted Barbet, White-bellied Go-away-bird, Schalow’s Wheatear, Spotted Morning-thrush, Black-backed Puffback, Eastern Chanting Goshawk and Hildebrandt’s Starling.
Birding the road en route to Lake Magadi
By the time we arrived at Lake Magadi it was getting dark so tents were quickly pitched before heading over to the local town hall for dinner and a lecture on the birds of Lake Magadi. Lake Magadi is the southern-most lake in Kenya’s Rift Valley lying just north of Lake Natron in Tanzania, and home to large populations of wading birds, particularly Lesser Flamingo.
My bird count team
I was really impressed with the way this bird count was organised and also how keen Kenyan birders are! This count takes place twice a year and on this occasion there were at least 50 people in attendance. The map below depicts the careful planning that John Musina carries out prior to all the count teams being sent on their way. I was also totally amazed by the hospitality and generosity extended by John to me on this bird count weekend. Not only did he arrange my transport and food, but he also lent me a sleeping bag and made sure I had a tent to sleep in – superb Kenyan hospitality!
Meticulous bird count planning
On Sunday morning after a quick breakfast we headed off to count our section of the lake. You can ask any hardcore bird counter, but counting birds is not birding. When you’re counting birds you’re counting birds, kapish? There’s generally no time to ogle over anything of interest. I, however, was lucky. My group included a few inexperienced birders so the pace was a bit slower than usual and our leaders were, thankfully, not hardcore counters so some birding was allowed
Lake Magadi birding..ahem, I mean counting
One, two, three, four…
Another bird count team
In between counting Lesser Flamingos, of which there were decent numbers (1000s), I managed to notch up a few lifers. Top new birds included Fischer’s Sparrowlark, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and Greycapped Sociable-weaver.
Counting birds is not for sissies. We walked for at least 4 hours in blazing Rift Valley sun, but jeepers it was worth it. Not just the birds were amazing, but the passion of the Kenyan birders that accompanied me was really unforgettable. Next time I’m in Nairobi I’ll definitely be contacting John to find out if I can join his next count expedition!
Other species notched up in and around the pans included: Greater Flamingo, Chestnut-banded Plover, Speckled Pigeon, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird, Cape Teal, Yellow-rumped Seed-eater, Somali Golden-breasted Bunting, Cut-throat Finch, African Mourning Dove, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-billed Quelea, Yellow-spotted Petronia, Chestnut Sparrow, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Slate-coloured Boubou and Blue-naped Mousebird.
I followed up recent reports of both a Black Tern and Pectoral Sandpiper from Strandfontein Sewage Works on Saturday afternoon. Black Tern is a scarce species in the Western Cape, but is likely somewhat overlooked, and Pectoral Sandpiper seems to be having a bumper season this year. I stand corrected, but in my view Pectoral Sandpiper was a rare vagrant 30 years ago, but more recently with the increase in regular records I’d say its status can be relegated to rare visitor.
I was pretty lucky with the Pectoral – it was the first bird I picked up when scanning the corner of P1 [map]. It shared the pan with Wood Sandpiper, Ruff and a Hottentot Teal.
I wasn’t so lucky with the Black Tern. I scoured all of its reported hangouts, but turned up nothing. There were fantastic numbers of Swift, Common, Sandwich and Caspian Tern in P2, but no obvious “Lake Terns” were around. Given its relative small size it may well have been holed up in the large tern roost on P2. Anyway, I didn’t limit my visit to seeking out the two rare visitors and managed to notch up a respectable list for the afternoon – see list below. Here are a few random snaps from the trip.
Strandfontein Sewage Works bird list for the afternoon:
Pied Crow, Kelp Gull, Speckled Pigeon, Common Fiscal, Common Buzzard, Great White Pelican, Swift Tern, Karoo Prinia, Southern Masked Weaver, Brimstone Canary, Hartlaub`s Gull, White-breasted Cormorant, African Marsh Harrier, Levaillant`s Cisticola, Ring-necked Dove, Cape Bulbul, Little Rush Warbler, Greater Flamingo, Cape Wagtail, Barn Swallow, Cape Teal, Maccoa Duck, Common Moorhen, Southern Red Bishop, Red-knobbed Coot, Brown-throated Martin, Pied Avocet, Glossy Ibis, Reed Cormorant, Common Starling, Hadeda Ibis, African Sacred Ibis, Blacksmith Lapwing, Yellow-billed Duck, Little Grebe, Black-headed Heron, Cape Shoveler, Grey Heron, Pied Avocet, Pectoral Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, Red-billed Teal, Hottentot Teal, Cape Longclaw, Bar-tailed Godwit, Sandwich Tern, Caspian Tern, African Black Oystercatcher, Egyptian Goose, Great Crested Grebe, African Pipit, Zitting Cisticola, Cape Robin-Chat, Western Cattle Egret, Spotted Thick-knee, African Fish Eagle, Spur-winged Goose, African Purple Swamphen, Ruff.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This individual has started moulting its flight feathers
You can see the scaling on the birds face that protects it from wasp stings
I popped into Kirstenbosch yesterday for a quick walk and was amazed at how confiding two Lemon Doves were in the Dell. The pair kept very close to one another, but on the occasion when they separated one bird would stop foraging and start calling its low hoot until its mate reappeared. Keep an eye out for them.
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
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 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 male
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 male
Cape Rockjumper male
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.