Birding in Kenya: Eburru Forest day trip

I thought my day of birding in Nairobi National Park would be hard to top, but a day trip to Eburru Forest with the Onsight Expedition Team was a fantastic experience and it offered a whole suite of new birds for me. Onsight Expedition run regular monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) day trips to locations within a few hours of Nairobi. The focus of the well-priced trips are usually hiking, but this is dependent on the group as the guides are all experienced birders so they’re happy to focus on birding for those interested.

Nairobi-Naivasha Screenshot

Lake Naivasha. Google Maps image.

Eburru Forest is about a 2.5 hour drive to the north-west of Nairobi; the mountain flanks Lake Naivasha National Park.

Eburru Forest

Eburru Forest. Google Maps image.

Eburru Forest is better known as a site where you can find Mountain Bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus ssp. isaaci) a critically endangered sub-species of antelope. Here is some more information from the IUCN Red List:

Historically, the Mountain Bongo occurred in and around forested zones of Mt. Kenya, the Aberdares, Mau forest, Cherengani hills and Chepalungu hills in Kenya and Mount Elgon in Kenya and Uganda (Elkan and Smith in press). The Mountain Bongo was exterminated from the Uganda side of Mount Elgon around 1913-1914 (Kingdon 1982). It is now confined to four completely isolated populations in patches of forest on Mt. Kenya, the Mau and Eburu forests, and the Aberdares in Kenya (Elkan and Smith in press). The current population estimate (2007) for the Mountain Bongo is ca. 75-140 individuals: Aberdare Mts (50-100); Mt Kenya (6-12); Mau Forest (6-12), Eburu Forest (6-12) (M. Prettejohn and L. Estes in litt to ASG 2007). [more here]

We unfortunately didn’t bump into a Mountain Bongo, but as they’re nocturnal and only an estimated 6-12 individuals at Eburru Forest, I wasn’t holding out much hope. We did however have an armed soldier walk with us as buffalo are known to occur in the forest on occasion. Thankfully, another species we didn’t encounter.

Eburru Forest Walk

Eburru Forest Walkers

Our group for the day mostly comprised of walkers, but that suited me fine because our route was a return walk along the main forest trail so this allowed me to dawdle along behind the group to bird and take pictures. My net result of new birds was likely less than if I’d remained with one of the guides, but I enjoyed the solitude of finding different bird parties and trying to work out what I was seeing and hearing (sans field guide again!).

Eburru Forest Trail

Eburru Forest Trail

When I was trying to decide whether I should join the day trip I “Google Imaged” the search terms “Eburru Forest birds” and was super excited when images of Golden-winged Sunbird appeared. I was sold. The trail we walked started in scrubby, secondary growth and slowly developed into more mature forest as we progressed. The secondary growth was dominated by Leonotis nepetifolia, a favourite food source of Golden-winged Sunbird.

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Golden-winged Sunbird

I was a very easy customer to please that day as essentially the first bird we recorded when alighting from the vans was Golden-winged Sunbird. The Leonotis bushes were practically dripping with males and females feeding and chasing each other, as only sunbirds can. I’m afraid Bronze Sunbird, which were also in attendance and are also an attractive species, were relegated to the category of “shabby cousin” as the Golden-wingeds were just superb!

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Golden-winged Sunbird

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Golden-winged Sunbird – sans central tail feathers

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Golden-winged Sunbird – immature

My photos certainly don’t do them justice, but you’ll have to believe me when I say they are by far the best looking sunbird I’ve ever seen.

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Bronze Sunbird

I had to tear myself away from the sunbirds as I knew I’d be missing out on other species if I didn’t. Forest birding can be an acquired taste as there are often periods of very little bird activity followed by a flurry of different species at once, if you’re lucky. Birding by ear is another important tool if you want to stand a reasonable chance of seeing anything, but if you don’t know what you’re listening to it can be tricky.

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Doherty’s Bush-shrike

I was lucky with this Doherty’s Bush-shrike as it first called from some dense scrub and was thankfully incredibly responsive to “spishing” as I had no idea what it was until it stuck it’s gorgeous head above cover.

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European Blackcap – male

This male European Blackcap had me going for a while. I initially thought it was a Garden Warbler as it warbled away very quietly in a dense tangle, but it finally revealed its true identity when it popped out onto a branch. I’m used to hearing the rather loud song of Blackcap in its summer territory rather than this very subtle version. Perhaps a good rule of thumb when separating the two species on song is, if you think you’ve got a Blackcap it should eventually reveal itself (as they’re far more “showy” than Garden Warbler), but if you think you’ve got a Blackcap and it doesn’t budge then perhaps you’ve got a Garden Warbler? Mmmh, or perhaps just study the calls a bit more carefully :)

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Black-billed Weaver

I recorded two pairs of Black-billed Weaver, a species that the Onsight bird guides were quite surprised about. Apparently it’s not a species they’ve seen in the area before. They also responded very well to spishing.

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Black-collared Apalis

I enjoyed tracking down and finally photographing and recording this Black-collared Apalis. I’m used to the more typical calls one hears from southern African apalis species so I was quite surprised when I finally managed to connect the bird with the call I was hearing.

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Grey Apalis

Here’s another apalis call, this time Grey Apalis, a call type much closer to that of Bar-throated Apalis, a common species from my home patch in Cape Town. I thought I was picking up most of the birds around me, but the value of home ground advantage was highlighted when one of the Onsight Expedition guides easily pointed out a few new species just based on call, like this Brown Woodland Warbler.

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Brown Woodland Warbler 

Below are the balance of my photos from the day:

David Winter

Strandfontein Sewage Works birding notes

I popped into Strandfontein Sewage Works on Saturday to try out a new pair of binoculars. I was quite surprised to see that the reed beds around pans P7, P6, P5 and a few others have been cleared. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this, and imagine they’ll regrow pretty quickly, but it made approaching some birds quite tricky. Pan P2 was the pick of the pans for the morning as it had both a good number of birds and a variety of species.

Zitting Cisticola

Zitting Cisticola

Strandfontein Sewage Works bird list for the morning: Karoo Prinia, Cape White-eye, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Cape Canary, Hadeda Ibis, Hartlaub’s Gull, Kelp Gull, White-breasted Cormorant, Malachite Sunbird, Laughing Dove, Grey Heron, Cape Weaver, African Sacred Ibis, Black-shouldered Kite, Little Rush Warbler, Yellow-billed Duck, Blacksmith Lapwing, Cape Wagtail, Western Cattle Egret, Cape Teal, Little Grebe, Egyptian Goose, Pied Crow, Cape Shoveler, Brown-throated Martin, Greater Flamingo, Maccoa Duck, Red-knobbed Coot, Common Starling, Black-winged Stilt, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Glossy Ibis, Purple Gallinule, Common Moorhen, Swift Tern, Great White Pelican, Black-headed Heron, Cape Bulbul, Cape Turtle Dove, Helmeted Guineafowl, Grey-headed Gull, Caspian Tern, Common Ringed Plover, African Pipit, Curlew Sandpiper, African Spoonbill, Cape Sparrow, Cape Spurfowl, African Black Oystercatcher, Purple Heron, Little Stint, Barn Swallow, Pied Avocet, Red-billed Teal, Spur-winged Goose, Zitting Cisticola. [Total: 56 species]

David Winter


Birding in Kenya: a day trip to Nairobi National Park

Long business trips can be taxing, but when they include exotic birding locations like Kenya I look at them in a whole new light. A recent trip to Nairobi involved a weekend so I made sure that I put the time to good use and organized a birding trip on both the Saturday and Sunday. Despite this being my 5th trip to the capital, I’d never managed to visit Nairobi National Park so I really had to remedy that.

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Nairobi National Park. Google Earth image.

One thing you notice when flying over Nairobi is that apart from the city’s sprawling urban areas you spend a lot of time flying over expanses of golden grassland, large portions of which can be attributed to the Nairobi National Park. Boasting a bird list of well over 500 species (Brian Finch identified the park’s 529th species in 2010 – an African Stonechat), and given it’s proximity to Nairobi, I would say the park is well worth a visit for birders new to East Africa.

Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu

Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu

I looked at various travel options to get to the park, but in the end decided that hiring a taxi with a driver was the best value for money and it also allowed me go at my own pace as I generally try and photograph any birds I see, particularly new ones. Also, a real rookie error, I managed to leave my Birds of East Africa field guide back in South Africa so I needed as much photographic evidence as possible to identify some of the birds. In terms of costs, the taxi driver charged me KES 6500 ($70) for a full day of driving (7am-6pm) and the park entrance for both of us was about KES 5500 ($60), which I thought was pretty steep, but understand that most East African parks are expensive. My driver, Kiteme, was great and by the end of the day he was pretty sharp at picking up distant birds. Importantly, he was also very patient with me and had no problem maneuvering the car to help me photograph birds. What follows is a selection of photos from the day with a bit of commentary.

Grey-capped Warbler

Grey-capped Warbler

One of the first birds of the day was Grey-capped Warbler. I’ve seen this species before in Uganda, but never one quite as confiding as this individual. It was calling from some shrubbery bordering the parking lot of the main entrance to the park. Some gentle spishing and it just popped into view.

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Spot-flanked Barbet

Our first stop for the morning was the Ivory Burning site where you can get out of your car and walk around. I was quite chuffed with myself when I recognized a calling barbet and managed to track down this Spot-flanked Barbet in a nearby tree.

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Tree Pipit

A Tree Pipit kept me distracted for a good 10 minutes as it played hide and seek, but I finally managed to snap this shot.

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Red-rumped Swallow

The last time I saw Red-rumped Swallow was April 1999 in southern  Spain and this was my first sighting in Africa, so I was quite excited when a small group of them  perched and started calling at the Ivory Burning site. What I remember when first seeing Red-rumped Swallow in Spain was how similar they are to Greater-striped Swallow, not only in appearance, but they also have similar calls. Take a listen, I managed to record this short clip with my iPhone – sorry about the plane noise in the background, there’s an airport nearby and Saturday mornings seem to be a popular practice time.

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White-bellied Bustard

I didn’t spot the first of three White-bellied Bustards we saw – I was busy watching a Rufous Sparrow when my driver, Kiteme, skillfully maneuvered the car to give me great views of this individual. White-bellied Bustards can be pretty shy birds in South Africa so I really enjoyed the experience.

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Male Rufous Sparrow

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Female Rufous Sparrow

Rufous Sparrow, what a smart bird, the male at least. It really reminded me of Cape Sparrow, a smart endemic from Southern Africa.

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Pied Wheatear

I really enjoyed the wheatears and chats in the park, particularly as they are vagrant visitors to Southern Africa and are yet to grace my list for the sub-region. Pied Wheatear was pretty common and the easiest to identify.

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Pied Wheatear – ‘vittata’ race

This Pied Wheatear appears to be of the ‘vittata’ race, an uncommon sighting according to the Birds of East Africa.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear

With no prior experience I found separating this Isabelline Wheatear from Northern Wheatear a tad tricky, but Brian Finch helped by confirming its identity.



 Whinchat is another Southern African vagrant that I’ve yet to see in the region so I was tempted to sneak one into my luggage :)

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Rufous-naped Lark

This Rufous-naped Lark was particularly confiding, but what was most interesting about it was the call it was making. I’m used to the typical three-syllabled call of the southern African race, but take a listen to this short clip I managed to record with my iPhone.

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Long-tailed Shrikes were common in the park

Below is the balance of my photos from the day. If anyone is looking for a taxi driver that is prepared to take them to Nairobi National Park let me know and I’ll put you in touch with Kiteme.

David Winter


Birding in Kenya: Nairobi National Park bird identification

I managed to leave my field guide at home when visiting Kenya last month (rookie error when traveling in a new country!) so I wasn’t able to pin down some of the IDs in the field. I took these photos in Nairobi National Park. Any thoughts on each bird’s identification would be much appreciated – feel free to add comments below.

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Wheatear 1

My feeling is that this is an Isabelline Wheatear given the black alula and the extent of white in front of the eye, but I have no experience separating Isabelline from Northern Wheatear.

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Pipit 1

Pipit spp_a

Pipit 2

Pipit spp_b

Pipit 3

I saw a lot of pipits in Nairobi National Park and most resembled African Pipit, but I have seen literature mentioning “Nairobi Pipit” and the likes so I thought I’d seek opinion on these. Pipits 1 and 2 remind me of African / Grassveld and Pipit 3, given its longer-legged appearance and bulkier giss I’d lean towards Plain-backed. Any thoughts on these pipits?

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Cisticola 1

Cisticola spp_e

Cisticola 2

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Cisticola 3

Sorry, but I had to include some Cisticolas and some rather rubbish images to boot. I realise habitat and call provides a bit more context, but does anyone have any thoughts?

Thanks in advance,

David Winter

Cape Clawless Otters in Betty’s Bay

One of the things I love about Betty’s Bay is how close you feel to nature when there. Case in point, imagine my surprise last year when I bumped into not one, but a group of six Cape Clawless Otters while walking on beach.

Cape Clawless OtterDavid Winter

Tanqua Karoo birding

A bogey bird can be a great leveler amongst birders. For those who aren’t familiar with the term it refers to a species that, despite much effort, a birder is just not able to see and add to their list. It doesn’t matter how many rare birds a birder may have on their list, if they haven’t seen a relatively common species it can be a source of great embarrassment and most certainly the root of some focused ribbing (mostly good natured) from mates!  I, admittedly, have some spectacular omissions on my list, but this trip to the Tanqua Karoo was to target a bogey bird that a mate, despite having a southern Africa list of well over 840, was missing. Our target for the day was Black-eared Sparrowlark, and recent feedback from trips into the area reported that they were breeding in good numbers on the R355 to Calvinia and the P2250 towards the Tanqua Karoo National Park.

Tanqua vistaA 4:14am start had us rolling into Karoopoort at about 6:30am after a brief stop en route to see if there were any Cape Clapper Larks displaying close to the road – no such luck, bar a faint whistle in the distance. It must be said, after the wettest Cape winter I can recall for some time, I was also looking forward to some sunshine in the Karoo. We were eager to head straight to the P2250, but bird activity was good along the R355 so we took our time.

Immature Red-capped LarkWhat was quite fun were the number of young larks around. I thought this young Red-capped Lark was very striking with its richly coloured upperparts, while two young Large-billed Larks were very comical with their punk hairdos and their insistence of tracing their parent’s every step.

Immature Large-billed LarkIt didn’t take long for the “sparrowlark” call to go up and just like that the bogey bird was in the bag. In true bogey bird fashion, as soon as we had seen our first we started to see them everywhere. We found our first few pairs on the R355, but once we had turned off towards the Tanqua Karoo National Park we flushed birds every few hundred meters.

Black-eared SparrowlarkOne thing is for sure, Black-eared Sparrowlark can be a pain to photograph!  They spend a lot of their time feeding on the ground and as you approach them they always somehow manage to keep just beyond decent shot distance. If they flush they can then circle you for minutes on end, which makes photography even trickier. I managed to snap a few shots, and in 90% of the photos the birds had their wings folded in a torpedo-like dive, which is probably the point at which they were moving the slowest and I could finally focus on them.

Black-eared Sparrowlark_bOf interest was this apparent leucistic individual that really stood out.

Black-eared Sparrowlark_leucisticAfter we had our fill with the sparrowlarks we headed south towards Skitterykloof. En route we encountered most of the typical Tanqua Karoo regulars including Karoo and Tractrac Chat, Karoo Korhaan (flushed and calling), Pale-chanting Goshawk, Karoo Lark, Karoo Eremomela, Rufous-eared Warbler, Black-headed Canary, Yellow Canary, Greater and Rock Kestrel and Namaqua Sandgrouse.

Namaqua SandgrouseNamaqua Sandgrouse flocks were particularly active on this trip. We encountered good numbers of them feeding along the P2250 and active flocks “kelkiewyn’d” overhead throughout the morning.

Karoo LarkPalechanting Goshawk

The birding in Skitterykloof was suprisingly good despite our midday arrival time. As we entered the kloof we were greeted by Dusky Sunbird, African Reed Warbler and a flock of Black-headed Canaries working their way along the cliff face. A stroll up the river valley above the dry dam revealed White-backed Mousebird, Fairy Flycatcher, Bokmakierie and a calling pair of Cinnamon-breasted Warblers. The warblers were wonderfully tame as they worked their way along a cliff face oblivious of our snapping cameras.

Cinnamon-breasted WarblerWith the bogey in the bag and some great birding under our belts we made one last stop at Eierkop before making a dash for Cape Town. Despite the distance, I finished the day feeling that the Tanqua Karoo is very accessible from Cape Town and it should really be a place I visit more often. Although, I should perhaps focus my attention more on finding my own bogey birds closer to home!

David Winter

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:


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.