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