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.

Birding in Uganda: Kampala Golf Course

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

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.

African Hobby Silhouette

African Hobby

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.

African Hobby flight

African Hobby

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.

Hooded Vulture

Hooded Vulture

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

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.

Double-toothed Barbet

Double-toothed Barbet

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 Flycather

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!

Kampala golf course bird list:

African Harrier-hawk, African Hobby, Eastern Gray Plantain-eater, Yellow-billed Kite, Hooded Vulture, Ross’s Turaco, Northern Black Flycatcher, Yellow-eyed Canary, African Thrush, Marabou Stork, Double-toothed Barbet, Common Bulbul, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Brown (Meyers) Parrot.

David Winter

Birding in Kenya: Lake Magadi bird count

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 550x423

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.

Montane White-eye

Montane White-eye

Baglagecht's Weaver

Baglafecht’s Weaver

Ruppell's Robin-chat

Ruppell’s Robin-chat

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.

Speckled Mousebird

Speckled Mousebird

Streaky Seed-eater

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.

IMG 1742

Birding the road en route to Lake Magadi

Spotted Morning-thrush

Spotted Morning-thrush

Redbilled Firefinch

Red-billed Firefinch

White-browed Scrub-robin

White-browed Scrub-robin

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.

IMG 1750

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!

IMG 1747

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 :)

IMG 1752

Lake Magadi birding..ahem, I mean counting

IMG 1754

One, two, three, four…

Lake Magadi bird count

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.

Lesser Flamingoes

Lesser Flamingos

Fischer's Sparrowlark

Fischer’s Sparrowlark

Chestnutbellied Sandgrouse flight

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse

Greycapped Sociable-weaver

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.

David Winter

Strandfontein Sewage Works birding notes

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.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

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.

Hottentot Teal

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.



Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow


African Pipit

African Pipit

David Winter

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.

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