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

Leucistic White-fronted Plover at Cape Point

Margaret Maciver photographed a leucistic White-fronted Plover at Cape Point back in 2008. Here’s her photo and note.

Leu WF Plover Cape Point Sept 088274 reduced

I found this leucistic White-fronted Plover at Olifanstbos near the Thomas Tucker wreck in September 2008. It was a very pretty bird, and seemed to be accepted by the other Whitefronted Plovers running around on the beach!

Thanks Margaret.

David Winter

Leucistic starling in the Eastern Cape

Gerrie Horn submitted these photos (originally via ECBirdNet) of a leucistic starling from the Eastern Cape. Any thoughts on what species it is?



Thanks Ken & Gertie.

David Winter

Leucistic Cape Bulbul in Struisbaai

I posted a note about a leucistic Speckled Mousebird at Grootvadersbosch a while back – you can read about it here. Tjaart Muller thinks he may have seen an albino or leucistic Cape Bulbul at Struisbaai. Tjaart posted the following photos and note on CapeBirdNet today:

04072010 White Bull Bull Marked(96)

I am new to the group and took these pictures in Struisbaai recently. Is it perhaps an albino, any info will be appreciated.

04072010 White Bull Bull Marked (36)

Wikipedia has this to say about leucism:

Leucism (occasionally spelled leukism) is a general term for the phenotype resulting from defects in pigment cell differentiation and/or migration from the neural crest to skin, hair or feathers during development. This results in either the entire surface (if all pigment cells fail to develop) or patches of body surface (if only a subset are defective) having a lack of cells capable of making pigment.

Since all pigment cell-types differentiate from the same multipotent precursor cell-type, leucism can cause the reduction in all types of pigment. This is in contrast to albinism, for which leucism is often mistaken. Albinism results in the reduction of melanin production only, though the melanocyte (or melanophore) is still present. Thus in species that have other pigment cell-types, for example xanthophores, albinos are not entirely white, but instead display a pale yellow colour.

More common than a complete absence of pigment cells is localized or incomplete hypopigmentation, resulting in irregular patches of white on an animal that otherwise has normal colouring and patterning. This partial leucism is known as a “pied” or “piebald” effect; and the ratio of white to normal-coloured skin can vary considerably not only between generations, but between different offspring from the same parents, and even between members of the same litter. This is notable in horses, cows, cats, dogs, the urban crow and the ball python but is also found in many other species.

A further difference between albinism and leucism is in eye colour. Due to the lack of melanin production in both the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) and iris, albinos typically have red eyes due to the underlying blood vessels showing through. In contrast, leucistic animals have normally coloured eyes. This is because the melanocytes of the RPE are not derived from the neural crest, instead an outpouching of the neural tube generates the optic cup which, in turn, forms the retina. As these cells are from an independent developmental origin, they are typically unaffected by the genetic cause of leucism.

Thanks Tjaart for the interesting photos and note.

David Winter

Leucistic Speckled Mousebird at Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve

While birding at Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve on Saturday I was surprised to bump into an albino Speckled Mousebird. The bird was seen close to the reserve office – see map below – and was very obvious amongst its grey team mates.

Grootvadersbosch map reduced

It wasn’t particularly obliging, but you get the idea from the photo below.

Speckled Mousebird albino

I gleaned the following from Wikipedia:

Albinism in birds is rare, occurring to any extent in perhaps one in 1800 individuals (Terres 1980). A bird that is albino (from the Latin albus, “white”) has white feathers in place of coloured ones on some portion of its body.

Four degrees of albinism have been described. The most common form is termed partial albinism, in which local areas of the bird’s body, such as certain feathers are lacking the pigment melanin. The white areas may be symmetrical, with both sides of the bird showing a similar pattern. In imperfect albinism, the pigment is partially inhibited in the skin, eyes, or feathers, but is not absent from any of them. Incomplete albinism is the complete absence of pigment from the skin, eyes, or feathers, but not all three. A completely albino bird is the most rare, lacking any pigment in its skin, eyes, and feathers. The eyes in this case are pink or red, because blood shows through in the absence of pigment in the irises. The beak, legs, and feet are very pale or white.

Completely albino adults are very rarely spotted in the wild. They are likely easier targets for predators because their colour distinguishes them from their environment. Falconers have observed that their trained birds are likely to attack a white pigeon in a flock because it is conspicuous. A complete albino often has weak eyesight and brittle wing and tail feathers, which may reduce its ability to fly. In flocks, albinos are often harassed by their own species. Such observations have been made among red-winged blackbirds, barn swallows, and African penguins. In a nesting colony of the latter, three unusual juveniles—one black-headed, one white-headed, and one full albino—were shunned and abused by companions. [more here]

What was very striking about this individual was how obvious it was in flight – at first glance it looked like a cockatiel! The photo below is a rather embarrassing attempt at a flight shot, but you get the idea.

Speckled Mousebird albino flight

Based on what Wiki says regarding albinism in birds, I would say this is a completely albino individual. Any thoughts?

Correction: it has since been brought to my attention that this bird is probably leucistic rather than an albino.  You can read about the reasons here, but essentially the dark eye gives it away. A complete albino would have no pigment in the eye.

Birding in Cape Town:West Coast National Park, Langebaan

Wednesday, a public holiday in South Africa, was spent birding with mates in the West Coast National Park. Located on the southern leg of Langebaan lagoon, the park is without equal in South Africa when it comes to the number and variety of shorebirds one can see. The Strandveld (local vegetation type) birding is also very good.

West Coast National ParkThere are three excellent hides located on the eastern shores of the lagoon. The older hide (northern hide) at Geelbek is, in my opinion, the best, while Seeberg hide comes into its own at high tide when gulls, terns and shorebirds roost on the sand banks. You need to time the tides quite carefully; the optimal time is either a rising low tide or dropping high tide in the morning (the sun will be at your back). High tide at either of the Geelbek hides is hopeless because there is no exposed mud; Seeberg is less dependent on tides.

marshsandpiper.jpgThe northern Geelbek hide produced: Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Terek Sandpiper, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit and Grey, Ringed, White-fronted and Kitlitz’s Plovers.

Curlew Sandpiper

Eurasian Curlew

Interestingly, we spotted this partially leucistic Curlew Sandpiper. The photo is rather poor, but you get the general idea.

Leucistic Curlew Sandpiper1

We only spent the morning in the park, but managed to notch up about 90 species – we limited ourselves to the southern section because we were atlassing that specific pentad for the South African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2). Interesting birds for the park included Lesser Honeyguide, Common Swift (uncommon summer visitor) and Spotted Flycatcher (rare summer visitor in the Western Cape). Both the Lesser Honeyguide and Spotted Flycatcher were in the Spider Gums at the northern Geelbek hide.

Lesser Honeyguide

The Lesser Honeyguide was actively hawking insects, so it wasn’t the best behaved photo subject…

Common Swift

Talking of subject behaviour, swifts in general don’t rank high. We saw a handful of Common Swifts through the morning, usually singletons. The above shot – as with all my other swift shots – was a fluke!

Spotted Flycatcher

I’ve only seen Spotted Flycatcher once before in the Western Cape at Paarl Sewage Treatment Works (in 1993) so it was good to bag this one after a 16 year hiatus. This time gap is more a reflection of my lack of birding rather than the birds status. Our last stop for the day was the Abrahamskraal water hole, a good drinking spot for birds. Namaqua Doves are still very active in the park – I managed to snap this immature bird.

Namaqua Dove immature