I’m afraid my birding and blog posts have been scarce of late. I’ve recently returned from two weeks in Germany and Austria where I was restricted to “passive” birding, bar the odd walk around a frozen lake or through a quiet wood.
Mallard, Egyptian Goose and a single Teal roosting on ice!
My itinerary included Frankfurt – Hamburg (Ratzeburg) – Stuttgart (Biberach) – Saltzburg – Zell am See – Frankfurt. From a birding perspective the highlight was Ratzeburg, which is north-east of Hamburg and about an hours drive south of the Baltic Sea. The area apparently offers excellent birding in spring and summer, but in winter you’re restricted to wildfowl on the many (frozen) lakes in the area.
Hamburg, as far as European cities go, is a fairly attractive one. The city is located on the River Elbe and with all its waterways apparently has more bridges than Venice… The channel above was good spot for Mallard and ice.
This is what happens when you don’t go birding enough. You start taking cellphone photos of Black-headed Gulls in harbours. As you can see from the list below birding really took a backseat on this trip. It sometimes takes a trip like this to realise how good the birding is in the southern hemisphere…even in winter!
As I sat in my offices over the last two weeks with news of the Pipit in Pongola it was tough to concentrate on work. I had given up a chance at twitching the bird last weekend as I just felt it was not justifiable. You see, I have never really travelled huge distances to see one particular bird and I don’t consider my SA list to be large enough to justify a “drop everything at once” type of twitch. However, it became increasingly obvious to me at the beginning of the week that I may not be able to let this one go. The discovery of the Buff-breasted Sandpiper was also a factor and before I knew it I was scheming about getting a crazy trip past the family.
Now, to take a step backwards in time I need to set the scene. My father and I started our birding careers at the same time, about 31 years ago, when I was 6 years old. Over the intervening years I have slowly advanced my list at a slightly faster rate than my father owing mainly due to his inability to get away as often as I was able to, plus the fact that maybe I was just a little more fanatical than he was. We have, over the years, shared many birding trips together, though with some memorable experiences. My father is now in his 70’s and despite his continual insistence that he is old and crotchety I still see the potential for many more trips together. My father quickly became my first target companion for this trip.
As for step 2 in the process of justifying this crazy jaunt I had to satisfy my wife that the time away from the family was entirely justified. We were due to commence with our annual December festive season holiday in St Francis and it seemed a “no hoper” to escape for 2 days for the Pipit.
My wife and I are lucky to have 3 sons (ages of 7, 5 and 3) and since they have been young (yes, I know they still are pretty young but it is all relative) I have been very careful to avoid the over-fanatical fatherly desire to make them birding companions from an early age. I always recall a friend of mine telling me that she was dragged off on birding trips with her parents from a very young age and quite frankly, another car stop at a Rattling Cisticola in Kruger may just drive her over the edge. The last thing I wanted to do was to force the birding on my kids and turn them all against something that has become so much a part of my life. So, I left them at home when I went on my birding forays and they got used to my 5am wake up time on holidays while I went out birding. I thought I’d leave it for the day that they were asking to come with me rather than the other way around.
I decided a few months ago that my oldest boy, Tommy, was worth giving a bash at fostering an early interest. After all, I was 6 when I became hooked so he should be old enough. I also realized that one of the key factors was that he was nearing the end of Grade one and he had been taught how to read. It seems more important than you would believe that kids are able to associate a name to a bird and be able to read this on a list or in a field guide in order for them to really bridge the gap between pointing out the occasional Hadeda Ibis and truly enjoying the pastime of true birding. Adam, my middle son, is also showing a desire to join us but he just cannot read the names yet and it makes it difficult for him.
So, Tommy and I set about discovering how we coped with birding together. A few local twitches (Green-backed Heron and Squacco Heron in the Western Cape) and a few weekends away in Tulbagh, Oudtshoorn and Kleinmond showed me that he actually enjoyed being out there with me. He also started his life list and it wasn’t long before he started to get that excitement every time I pointed out a new bird for him. Admittedly, there does seem to be an over reliance on the list rather than just being out there to see the birds but if that is what it takes to have the little man by my side then so be it.
I went out and bought the Roberts Multimedia and we embarked on a life list for Tommy. It was just so amazing to be back at the beginning again and to be experiencing all these birds with him as though it were my first time. A silly little Common Chaffinch in Kirstenbosch was a new bird for his list (it was probably close to his 100th bird) but yet it brought a smile to his face that is hard to describe. We got home and it went straight into the list module of Roberts Multimedia.
He sits on my lap as we do the list and as I call out the birds he shouts out “yes, I remember that one. It was the one with the reddish tummy and the green back and it was hopping on the ground”. As an aside, it will be a sad day when he stops using the word “tummy” and “top part” and resorts to the more conventional “underparts “ and “upperparts” to describe those critical anatomical features of a bird. He has also come up with some ways to classify the birds. Never mind the passerines and non-passerines and the wealth of genera; Tommy has adopted a few major groups including the “hairstyle” birds which account for any bird that seems to have even slightly ornate feathering on its head (who says you can’t put Long-crested Eagle, Speckled Mousebird and Knysna Turaco in the same group) whilst the “criminal birds” seem to have some sort of mask or cap on their heads (once again let’s lump a Red-billed Teal together with Kittlitz’s Plover, Cape Robin-chat and Olive Bush-shrike in the same category). It would be madness to correct him and change those quirks that make the birding trips with Tommy as refreshing as they are.
So, we got through a few 2 or 3 hour birding trips with very little pain and still the craving was there. I sighed a few sighs of relief when we were hardly back at home before he was asking about the next trip. Last weekend was the big test. Partly to compensate for my lack of trying for the pipit but mainly to see how Tommy enjoyed a slightly longer outing I took him out to West Coast National Park with me for an entire morning. We birded solidly for 8 hours stopping at all my old favourite places in the park including the long walk to the salt marsh hides and the schlep down to the Seeberg hide. He was an absolute star and it was only when we settled into the seats at Geelbek for some wader watching that he seemed to think we had been out there long enough. Well seasoned wader buffs are happy to scan the mudflats looking for that one grey-brown thingy with a long beak which it probes into the sand which is fractionally different to the 5000 others, but when it is the tail-end of your first extended day of birding it is likely to be too much for anyone, never mind for a 7 year old. It was no sooner that we were back in the car, though, that Tommy was pointing out every single YBK (Yellow-billed Kite) on the dreary drag back to Cape Town.
With the West Coast trip behind us and no sign of him slowing down his march to become the number one birder in the country (watch your backs, Ian and Trevor and co) I felt that there may be something special in the offing. His list had reached the heady heights of 165 and we needed to break some frontiers. Or at least that would be what I would tell his mother.
On Monday morning I called my faithful birding companion (my father) and asked him what he thought of a two day blitz in Zululand and Pongola to pursue the pipit and seek the sandpiper. To add to the appeal I suggested we take Tommy with us. His oldest grandson as a companion – how could he say no?
So, after some negotiating with the wife (she happily admitted to me that she hoped that stupid pipit took flight and returned to where it came from before the week was out so that we would have to cancel – thank goodness that never happened proving at least that she has no mystical powers despite what I may have thought for all these years while I was on the golf course and the rain came pouring down!) I managed to get the “pink” (or would that be “golden”) ticket that I so desperately needed.
The plans started taking shape. We would leave Cape Town with the whole family and drive seven and a half hours to St Francis Bay. Spend the night there and the next morning drive to Port Elizabeth with my father and Tommy, board a flight to Durban and then haul up the N2 to Pongola Nature Reserve. The GPS points were keyed in and we left on our journey. We had up to the minute reports of the bird still putting on a show and despite the buckets of rain that had fallen in the past few days in that area it seemed as if the “Pongola Pipit” had decided that it was a good place to stay for a while.
Our drive along the N2 was pretty uneventful except for a tragic incident during which I pointed out a Long-crested Eagle (hairstyle bird) perched on a telephone pole somewhere near Hluhluwe and by some quirk of unfortunate fate Tommy seemed to miss it. It became the “dip of the trip” to that point and I was not sure a golden beauty would even be enough to recover.
It is worth mentioning that Tommy has installed himself as a raptor spotter extraordinaire. He sees soaring raptors from kilometers away and makes no bones about announcing it at the top of his voice. There were a few YBK’s that almost had my father driving the rental car off the N2 into a roadside ditch. The missed Long-crested Eagle was compensated for by a spectacular view of a low soaring Palm-nut Vulture about 5 kms north of Mtunzini but despite this pretty spectacular bird that I managed to point out to Tommy, it seemed as if it was somehow my fault that his list had a gap in the tick box opposite the Long-crested Eagle. I told him with confidence (my voice belied the way I felt inside) that we would definitely see one on the way back to the airport less than 24 hours later.
A few phone calls to Trevor had me feeling quite confident about the pipit, but would the three of us be the first group to not see the pipit? My heart starting beating faster as we got closer to Pongola Nature Reserve and I could feel that Tommy was also starting to get excited. We signed in at the gate and drove the 1.5kms or so to the spot and since there was no one there at the time we had to find the bird ourselves. It certainly didn’t take too long. There it was perched on the mid size bush as if it was waiting for us to arrive.
I was stunned and I suspect my father and Tommy were as well. In a few brief moments I felt that it had been worth this journey but somehow I think I knew that before we even saw the bird. Being a twitch spanning three generations, it was already special before even being successful.
We all jumped out of the car and my camera started working overtime. I took hundreds of photos, mostly pretty poor but managed one or two half reasonable ones. It was during one of my photographic bursts with the bird quite close by that I think I noticed how hot it was (the weather, not the bird). It was exactly mid-day and it was searingly hot. My watch (probably not the most reliable meteorological device) told me that it was 39 degrees but it was the humidity that was the real kicker. In the moment of being caught up with such a great bird I think I momentarily forgot about how Tommy was doing. Then suddenly I realized he wasn’t by my side savouring the sighting. Where was he? I quickly discovered that he was curled up in the car much like an overheated dog would be, panting at pace, trying to cool down. Here was this fragile seven year old who had grown up in the mildest of climates in Cape Town being exposed to 39 degree heat with extreme humidity. The poor child was literally melting. He looked at me with his large blue eyes and only just managed to tell me that he thought we should probably go now. We had come such a long way but we had seen what we wanted to and after taking a few more pics it was probably not the worst idea to close the windows and turn on the aircon at full blast. After all, we had more work to do that afternoon with the Buff-breasted Sandpiper less than 100kms away at Muzi pan.
We wrapped up at the pipit and after collecting a few quarts of beer and a huge bag of ice at the border-side bottle store we headed south again en route to Mkuze Game Reserve and Muzi Pan for the Buff-breasted Sandpiper. The post lunch session gave Tommy a chance to recharge his batteries as he crashed on the back seat while we jilted and jolted along the rather dreadful road that leads one to Mkuze. An opportune wee stop (this was certainly not the first of the trip) saw us tick White-throated Robin-chat and Long-tailed Paradise Whydah and then it was straight to Muzi pan. The road to the pan is equally dodgy with an interesting mix of urban taxis, goats, cows and crowds of people whiling away the day. We got to the paradise that is Muzi pan and soon after we were happily ticking the Buff-breasted Sandpiper. An obliging Pectoral Sandpiper also made an appearance but after the Golden Pipit it all seemed a little anticlimactic.
I was elated but once again we were in that realm of anorak clad birders shielding against the elements (let it be said we were at Muzi pan on a spectacular sunny and windless afternoon) and sifting through hundreds of birds that all essentially look the same. Tommy has not yet coined a phrase for this rather inelegant bunch but it is a matter of time before they become the “boring birds”. I suspect in years to come he may tune his excellent eyes to the waders in the same fanatical way that I do but at the moment I can forgive him for being more interested in the larger more colourful specimens. Fortunately Muzi pan is a fledgling birder’s paradise as well, as there is a plethora of colourful species to add to the ever growing list. Yellow-billed Storks, Great Egrets, Whiskered Terns, African Jacanas, Collared Pratincoles, Malachite Kingfishers, Brown-throated Weavers and Pink-backed Pelicans were just a few of the birds that made up the numbers. I was in birding heaven not having seen such a wealth of species in such a long time but the sun was starting to dip beyond the horizon and we had to make our way to the main camp in Mkuze for a night in the bush.
I have seldom spent much time in Malaria infested areas but Mkuzi in mid-summer kind of gave me the heebie-jeebies. Plenty of rain had fallen and the wet, humid conditions seemed to be ideal for the cultivation of lots of anopheles mosquitoes and not only was I making sure that I survived the experience but I had dragged my 7 year old along with me and his mother had given me a lecture of epic proportion noting how careful we needed to be. Tommy and I sat in our bungalow with windows closed, tabard spray everywhere, hauling on as many body-covering items of clothing as we could find in 30 degree heat. The crowning moment was the spreading of the mosquito net which turned into a debacle as the spinning fan caught the supporting cable of the net and wrapped the whole contraption in the blades of the fan. The fan ground to a halt and now the net was suspended amongst the blades about 8 foot from the ground with not much hope of redemption. A moment of sheer genius from Grandpa Brian saw us spinning the blades in the opposite direction and in so doing loosening the vice like grip it had on the mosquito net.
We survived the night relatively unscathed (it is still too early to tell whether we managed to escape the dreaded disease but I am yet to find a bite on mine or Tommy’s body so I think we may be okay). The next day was an overwhelming experience for all of us with Mkuze in fine form presenting us with all the birds we have not seen for so many years. We caught up with what I consider to be the big three of the Sand Forest (Pink-throated Twinspot, Rudd’s Apalis and Neergaard’s Sunbird) as well as ticking a huge number of species for Tommy’s list. It was all too soon before we had to take our leave from birding paradise and begin the journey to King Shaka International to catch our flight back to Port Elizabeth.
A few memorable moments (some good and some bad) marked the journey back home. The first objective was to find that elusive Long-crested Eagle which we did quite satisfactorily. As soon as I saw it perched on a telephone pole 300 metres away I ranted as loudly as I could to make sure Tommy did not miss it. That monkey was now off my back and I could relax knowing that I had not caused the failure of the trip in Tommy’s young, impressionable eyes.
The next memorable moment was a sign of the true birding bug having bitten my eldest son. He lay down on the back seat to once again recharge his young batteries and after a few minutes I noted large pineapple plantations on either side of the car. Not wanting to be totally exclusionary of all other things besides birds I decided to point out the pineapples: “Tommy, quick, look. Can you see the pineapples?” He shot up from his horizontal position, looked out the window in a panic and shouted “Where, where? Where is the Pied Apalis?” And, as much as you may think this story is conjured up using a lot of poetic license I can honestly say that it is entirely true.
The final memorable moment is one that I would almost like to forget. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time (and just remember that missing this flight would probably put to an end any birding trip that I may want to take in the future) but a delayed check-in and very slow service at the airport restaurant had us putting our bags through the security check point as they announced the closure of our flight for boarding. In our panic my father left his cell phone in the security tray which I fortunately saw and picked up but we all started a frantic sprint to the boarding gates. We reached the gates just in time only for us to get on the bus and for me to realise that in the rush of picking up my father’s cell phone I had left my camera bag with all my priceless photos of the Golden Pipit at the security checkpoint. I didn’t even wait for the boarding assistant to stop me – I did the Shaka International 200 metre dash in record time to thankfully find my bag still sitting at the end of the x-ray machine. Even though I am now in my late thirties I am apparently still not old enough to avoid a lecture from my father about making sure I look after my things. It was a good example for Tommy to see this but I had to point out that the only reason I left my bag behind was because I was so busy salvaging my father’s cell phone…
So, despite that rather frantic end to our trip the short flight home gave Tommy and I an opportunity to update his list (which he now carries with him everywhere) and to discover that we have already reached 235 species. It was a truly memorable trip shared between a grandfather, a father and a son and I know it is something that I will never forget and I suspect neither will my father or Thomas.
Driving from Gordon’s Bay to Rooi Els on Friday I noticed a tight flock of birds low over the water in the bay, unlike a typical feeding flock. On closer inspection I was surprised to see a mixed group of birds feeding on a dead whale! It was difficult to determine the species, but judging by the size I would guess it was either a Southern Right or Humpback. In attendance were Kelp Gulls, Subantarctic Skua and a handful of Giant Petrels, which I thought was interesting.
I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a Great White Shark taking a nibble, but no luck! A dead Bryde’s Whale was towed to Seal Island, False Bay earlier this week and at least 30 Great White Sharks pitched up for the meal [read more here].
Following the introductory post on my trip to Namibia’s Kaokoveld, below is a brief account of some birding at the popular Avis Dam. Avis is a great birding spot very close to the centre of Windhoek. It’s the sort of place you can visit if you’ve just got an hour or two to spare. Try and avoid weekends as the place is overrun with dog walkers, however both of my visits were on the weekend and it wasn’t too bad if you’re able to drown out the incessant yapping. There are two popular entrances to Avis, I opted for the entrance to the south of the dam on both occasions rather than the one close to the dam wall. There was a lot of activity around the wall (fisherman, dog walkers etc), which didn’t bode well for birding.
My target bird for Avis was Damara Rockrunner and as you can judge by the photo below it produced the goods. I’ve circled the exact spot where I snapped this pic, but I imagine they’re fairly widespread in the area. I actually ticked my first Rockrunner at the dam wall back in ’93 so try there as well.
The encircled Rockrunner spot on the map above is where I did most of my birding. There’s a path that winds its way up a small hill through some sparse acacia woodland, which had regular bird party activity. I found mimicking Pearl-spotted Owlet particularly effective at attracting birds. Below are a few common party participants:
Burt-necked Eremomela is a common bird at Avis Dam and was present in just about every bird party.
Brubru and Pririt Batis
Marico Flycatchers were always very quick respond to the “owlet”.
Sabota Lark and Crimson Boubou
and Black-cheeked Waxbill
Female Green-winged Pytilia
Listen for the “kelkiewyn” of Namaqua Sandgrouse as they fly over after a drink and watch for Palm Swift overhead.
Avis Dam is a good area for the near-endemic Bradfield’s Swift so check all swift flocks for them.
My next Namibia post will be on Hobatere Lodge, a fantastic reserve west of Etosha, where we spent two nights en route to the Kaokoveld.
The Buckham family was again travelling some of the more beautiful parts of the Western Cape over the last extended weekend. We visited a wonderful self catering spot about 20 kilometres east of Swellendam called Frog Mountain. It is set approximately 8kms off the N2 on a dead end gravel road which makes for a very peaceful weekend. Aside from it being an absolute haven for young kids it is well situated for some exciting birding. The cottages are set between grassed paddocks, an unfortunately wattle choked river and aloe covered hillsides with some thickish inidigenous forest in certain pockets. There is also plenty of fynbos covered slopes nearby for the fynbos endemics. Aside from the birds on display at Frog Mountain there is spectacular birding nearby with Grootvadersbosch no more than a 25 minute drive away and some Agulhas plain birding even closer.
Over the weekend we didn’t see anything that spectacular at Frog Mountain itself but there is plenty to keep one occupied. It has without a doubt the highest concentration of Swee Waxbills I have ever encountered and along with the Swees there are thicket birds such as Terrestrial Brownbul, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Sombre Greenbul, Olive Woodpecker, Knysna Woodpecker, Olive Bush-shrike, Brown-hooded Kingfisher and Brimstone Canary. The river and small farm dams host Malachite Kingfisher and African Black Duck whilst birds such as Fiscal Flycatcher, Fork-tailed Drongo, Black Saw-wing, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Amethyst Sunbird and Southern Boubou are ubiquitous. Victorin’s Warbler is also vocal all day but would require some adventurous hiking to get a view
Swee Waxbill (male)
Swee Waxbill (female)
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
On one of the mornings we took a drive towards Malgas on one of the well known Agulhas spots and most of the endemics were easily available. The best spot in the world for Agulhas Clapper Lark never fails to deliver the goods whilst Agulhas Long-billed Lark, Large-billed Lark and Red-capped Lark are everywhere. The plains also support Karoo Korhaan which we heard calling at just about every stop as well as giving us a great view of a pair in flight, whilst a good scan almost always produces several Denham’s Bustards. The acacia lined river beds were good for Acacia Pied Barbet, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Fiscal Flycatcher and Cape Weaver.
Agulhas Clapper Lark
A highlight of the weekend was a lengthy mountain bike ride from Frog Mountain to Grootvadersbosch. A few months back Dave Winter mentioned flushing a covey of Red-winged Francolin within the reserve itself up on the fynbos covered hillsides. This is an exceptionally tough bird in the Western Cape and I personally had not heard of a record of these birds for a long time before Dave managed to find a population. We did not hear them in the fynbos but soon after traversing a grassy hillside within a farm boundary I flushed three birds literally under my wheel. It was in very different habitat to where Dave had seen them and unfortunately on private land but it is good to know that there are some scattered groups in this area. I would be interested to know if anyone else has had any luck with this species in the Western Cape.
Frog Mountain can certaainly be recommended as a place to recharge batteries and to catch up on some of the special birds the Western Cape has to offer.
We recently returned from a whirlwind trip of the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. This trip report is not going to be a laundry list of the birds we saw and the routes we drove but rather a description of some of the experiences we had (along with the obligatory mention of the good species we went for). My travelling companions were Paul Lewis and Simon Peile (two mates from Cape Town) and we had asked Ian Riddell, a resident guide in the Harare area, to join us. One of the main reasons that Ian was asked to accompany us was due to the last minute disappointment we had experienced as a result of a previously organized trip falling through. We felt we needed some local knowledge along with us to help with some of the birding as well as to give some pointers in local custom should we have needed it.
My birding companions on the Aberfoyle golf course
Notwithstanding the fact that Ian was great to have along we discovered along the way the logistics turned out to be easier than we had thought as well as the fact that we used two separate local guides who were both excellent and indispensable in their special patches.
The trip we did was unfortunately tightly squeezed into 5 intensive days with an itinerary of midday arrival in Harare on Friday, straight to Leopard Rock hotel that night with a stop for the afternoon at Gosho Park in Marondera, two nights at Leopard Rock followed by two nights at Aberfoyle and then back home on the Tuesday.
I had spent a few days in the Vumba about 20 years ago but I had always wanted to return. It is truly a majestic and mystical place and having missed the Honde Valley many years ago it remained as a supposedly legendary spot on my “one day I’ll get there” birding itinerary.The Easter weekend proved to be a good time to go with each of the three of us getting the necessary “pink tickets” from our respective wives. If the truth be told, I won a bet (an expensive one for my wife) but I won’t even begin to guess how Simon and Paul convinced their wives about a 5 day boys-only weekend over Easter. Anyway, I digress.
As mentioned above our first stop was Gosho Park. Having been uninitiated in the special nature of Miombo birding I would have to admit that I was not quite prepared for the deathly silence that greeted us on that first Friday afternoon. While we were approaching Harare during our descent my excitement levels were rapidly rising thinking about the birds we were going to see during that first afternoon in the Miombo. I was hoping for bird parties to be rushing in front of me whilst ticking all the Miombo specials in no time at all. It was very different to what I had expected.
We spent a cumulative of approximately 9 or 10 hours in the Miombo during our trip and not once did we get a busy bird party coming through. We saw almost all the specials in the end (Miombo Tit (photo below), Miombo Rock Thrush, Whyte’s Barbet, Cinnamon-breasted Tit, Red-faced Crombec (photo left), White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Cabanis’s Bunting, Wood Pipit and Green-capped Eremomela) but it was very, very hard work.
We missed two important species, the most significant being Spotted Creeper, closely followed by Green-backed Honeybird (we all had a brief glimpse of a Honeybird flashing through the trees but it never perched and will always remain as an uncertainty) but we still wanted to experience that whirlwind of activity. Time of day and time of year probably plagued us but those hardened Miombo birders probably know that we needed to pay our dues before we get the easy ticks. The Miombo birding was slightly below our expectations but I am not one to dwell on that and the forest birding in the Vumba and at Aberfoyle more than adequately compensated.
After a comfortable night at Leopard Rock (Seldomseen was fully booked and it would probably have been preferable to stay there) we met up with Bulawesi for our much anticipated walk through the grounds of Seldomseen. Bulawesi’s (foreground in photo above) name is well known in birding circles and he truly is an essential guide in that area. He took us slowly through the forests while ensuring we got all of our species.
The list is long but included Swynnerton’s and White-starred Robin, Yellow-streaked and Stripe-cheeked Greenbul, Chirinda and Bar-throated Apalis, Robert’s Prinia, Eastern Saw-wing, Orange Ground-thrush, Gurney’s Sugarbird (photo below), Singing Cisticola (photo above), Black-fronted Bush-shrike, Miombo Double-collared, Variable, Collared and Malachite Sunbird. I was fortunate enough to see Blue Swallow as well.
Seldomseen is certainly the highlight of the area but there is a nice patch of Miombo on the way down to Burma Road via what used to be known as the Tom Hulley Road. It was typically quiet at mid-morning but we eked out Miombo Rock-thrush (photo below), Miombo Tit and we heard Cinnamon-breasted Tit calling but were frustrated in not getting a sighting. Between the Miombo and the forest there are degraded farmlands and tangled hillsides which deliver good species including Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Singing Cisticola and Yellow-bellied Waxbill.
For me the most disappointing aspect of the morning was a return visit to the Vumba Botanical Gardens. I had last been there at least 20 years ago and I remembered it being an extremely well kept location with excellent facilities. It is now run down and totally overgrown. Most of the paths through the forested section are unpassable and the remainder of the areas around the dam are covered in weed. It is not all bad though and it produced some good birds including Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Chirinda Apalis, Black-fronted Bush-shrike, Stripe-cheeked and Yellow-streaked Greenbul, White-browed Robin-chat and the usual array of Sunbird species. We did not see Bronze Sunbird which was a little disappointing. The regular Tree Pipits were also notably absent.
Our afternoon was spent back at the hotel where we had one of the highlights of the trip with a pair of Silvery-cheeked Hornbills (photo above) spending at least an hour in a tree in front of the hotel balcony. We also strolled around the spectacular golf course where species such as Crowned Hornbill, Ashy Flycatcher, African Golden Oriole and Dark-backed Weaver were common.
The next morning required an early start and a drive through the mist to Mutare to “clean up” on some of the Miombo species at Cecil Kop and then the laborious drive through to Aberfoyle. We were a little delayed in getting to Cecil Kop with a diversion to the wrong side of Mutare but the diversion proved fruitful with additional species such as Broad-tailed Warbler (photo above) and Red-collared Widow in the damp grassland surrounding the Miombo. Cecil Kop was undoubtedly our most successful Miombo experience with plenty of Miombo Tits, Common Scimitarbill, African Cuckoo Hawk, Streaky-headed Seedeater, Redfaced Crombec and a glimpse of a very probable Green-backed Honeybird. Notably we saw all four possible Bunting species (Cabanis’s, Cape, Cinnamon-breasted and Golden-breasted) in a space of about 10 minutes. The true highlight was a pair of skittish Cinnamon-breasted Tits which spent a few fleeting moments around us and then disappeared.
We replenished at the Spar which was remarkably well stocked, paid a visit to the local Nandos (whoever would have thought!!) and then hit the road for Aberfoyle. We had plenty of good birds under our belts and aside from a battle for the front seat for the winding road down into the Honde Valley we were all in good spirits. In between bouts of motion sickness and the occasional screeching to a halt for the suspected Blue-spotted Wood-dove exploding from the road margin we made one or two stops as we hit the valley floor. I had read about the Honde Valley in many trip reports and the occasional site guide but I didn’t have a good feel for what it would look like.
Honde Valley looking south from near Aberfoyle
The drop into the escarpment is truly spectacular although densely populated. Once on the valley floor and travelling in a general northerly direction the escarpment looms very obviously on the western side with the impressive Matarazi Falls cascading down from Inyanga whilst on the eastern (Mozambican) side there are beautiful granite domes and inselbergs rising from amongst the maize fields and tea estates.
There was a well timed stop for the Black-winged Bishops (photo left) amongst the subsistence maize crops and one of the best lunch time stops I have ever experienced on any of my birding trips alongside the Pungwe River. The lunch stop was not only good because of the beautiful surroundings but equally for the cold Nandos burger that had kept so well since leaving Mutare. I was also finally given credit for my ingenious cooler “bucket” system when I hauled out an ice cold Zambezi for my fellow travelers.
The mid afternoon was spent in fairly comical circumstances. Anyone worth their salt in Southern African birding circles will know about the classic spot for Anchieta’s Tchagra. I must have read over 20 times about the well known turning at the Wamba Factory and the fact that all the locals seemed to “know” about the Wamba Bird (“Ask the locals where to find the Wamba Bird” the bird guide describes so simply). We certainly found the right spot and I made sure I asked at least two locals the right question (which I might add was greeted with completely blank looks) but we were fairly confident that we were going to nail this one first time. I might also add that I had been well advised to get some help from Wisdom (the guide at Aberfoyle) before heading into the marsh. Well, we thought we knew better. We walked through the tea crop and headed straight into the 10 foot high elephant grass without hesitation. We found a reasonably clear path which quickly dwindled into a seething mass of sharp grass and steadily deepening swamp water. Within a few minutes I was waist deep in the swamp and getting deeper. After narrowly avoiding several birding equipment disasters with the deepening water, we felt we were at the right place and scanned for about half an hour with no luck. It was then that we decided that we may actually have got it all wrong and opted to place our trust in Wisdom when we got to Aberfoyle. We tried a short cut out of the marsh and it turned into an absolute nightmare – the wall of reeds and elephant grass was almost impenetrable and we eventually emerged with cuts and abrasions on all parts of our uncovered anatomies. We were all soaked from toe to waist and in the baking sun we had gained absolutely nothing.
We drove the last few kilometers to Aberfoyle looking forward to an invigorating swim and afternoon nap whereupon we were instructed by Wisdom that time was not on our side and we were to head straight back to where we had come from. I honestly thought he was joking. So we piled back into the car and headed back to the exact same spot that we had been an hour before. I might add that Wisdom knew a secret passageway into the marsh (his completely dry boots were a giveaway that he knew something we didn’t) and within 10 minutes of parking the car we were standing at the dry edge of the marsh and right on cue the male Tchagra popped out of the reeds for our 45 seconds of satisfaction. We also saw a single Wattled Starling in the reeds which I believe is quite an unusual bird for that area (why would I possibly think that would be noteworthy in the same paragraph as the Anchieta’s Tchagra?).
Scanning for Anchieta’s Tchagra in the Wamba Marsh
A few words of advice for those looking for the Tchagra – don’t expect it to be a guaranteed tick (we visited the same spot three times and only saw it for a very brief 45 seconds) and don’t spurn the absolutely vital local knowledge that is offered by Wisdom (his painless route through the grass and reeds certainly justifies any fee that he earns!!)
It is necessary to mention here that Aberfoyle is an absolute jewel. It is very well equipped with very comfortable accommodation, beautifully set amongst the tea plantations and the service from Herbert (the chef) and Sundae (the manager) was exceptional. Sundae has a great sense of humour and takes enormous pride in the way the estate is run. Wisdom requires special mention as he is the man to show you the birds and that he does with great skill and enthusiasm. We had a long day of birding but he was always available and willing to keep going despite the ongoing requests.
Our early morning was spent doing a fairly stiff hike up to the beautiful forests. It is not necessarily a long way to go up the mountain but the path is steep and the constant stopping makes for a long morning of intensive birding. We had a very special morning with a bird list that I had only ever dreamed of. I promised I would avoid lists but who can avoid such an auspicious laundry list as this: Red-throated and Green Twinspots, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Gorgeous (photo above) and Black-fronted Bush-shrike, White-tailed Crested, Blue-mantled Crested, African Paradise and Ashy Flycatcher, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Green-backed Woodpecker, White-eared Barbet, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, Stripe-cheeked (photo below), Yellow-streaked and Sombre Greenbul, Livingstone’s Turaco, Chirinda and Bar-throated Apalis, African Emerald and Klaas’s Cuckoo. Not only was the birding excellent but the forest was truly beautiful. Our only disappointment (which was more than compensated for by the successes) was missing Red-faced Crimsonwing. I have a firm belief that this bird does not really exist and that it is all damn lies if anyone tells you otherwise.
The rest of the day was spent walking leisurely around the gardens, a repeat visit to the Wamba Marsh and a vigil for a Pallid Honeyguide on the first green on the Aberfoyle Golf Course. We spent some time at a large fruiting tree which was a hive of activity where we added Orange-breasted Bush-shrike and had improved views of Green-backed Woodpecker, Klaas’s Cuckoo and African Emerald Cuckoo.
Our flight out of Harare was at 12:30 pm the next day and having assessed our lack of success in the Miombo we decided we would need a stop at Gosho on the way back. It required a 4am departure from Aberfoyle which was a little sado-masochistic given the pace of the previous few days but we had some bird parties to see and we wouldn’t be stopped. We had nice sightings of two separate Civets on the way out of Aberfoyle and we arrived at Gosho at just about the predicted time. We were ready for some hot Miombo action and nothing could have dampened our spirits more than yet another deathly silent greeting from that damned habitat. Gosho was every bit as quiet as it had been 4 days previously (I did promise not to dwell on this but I am only trying to warn those that follow us). We had such limited time and this was certainly a contributory factor and once again we had to work so very hard for any reward at all. We flushed a number of Wood Pipits (photo below) which were a new addition to the list and we had repeat sightings of Whyte’s Barbet but once again the Creeper eluded us and we had to pack it in with a few hours to spare to make sure we caught our plane.
It paradoxically goes without saying that no birding trip is complete without leaving something behind so we felt we had to have a few birds in store for our next visit to Zimbabwe. The trip was too short, probably too expensive and at the wrong time of year but it was just perfect for us. We found the conditions in this most beautiful of countries to be far better than we had expected with far more necessities available than we would have thought. We also dreaded the road blocks but not once were we asked to stop or treated with anything other than respect. We also could not believe the warmth and friendliness that exists amongst the humblest of people and nothing brought it home more than the SAA check in clerk for our flight to Cape Town who greeted us with absolutely no warmth, sense of humour or desire to make our lives any lighter. I marvel at how the people have survived such hardship but perhaps it is less evident in the areas that we visited.
It seems that more and more people are doing the exact trip that we have just done with a hugely important addition being a day or two in Harare for the vlei birding and some better spots for Creeper. Zimbabwe is certainly back on the birding map. If anyone has any questions about our trip they are welcome to mail me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
This last weekend was spent relaxing at John and Miranda Moodie’s Honeywood Farm, which is adjacent to Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve. The area has finally had a sprinkling of rain so it was back to its lush, green self. Not too much time was spent behind the camera or bins, but birds are difficult to avoid at Honeywood. Just to give you an idea of how idyllic this place is, this was our accommodation. It was a tough weekend…
Grootvadersbosch is known for its status as the western limit of several forest bird species ranges, but I spent most of my time walking and riding the fynbos mountain slopes that surround the reserve. This area is particularly good for the shy Victorin’s Warbler. I managed to grab this shot very close to our cabin.
Something of interest that I noted was a Cape Bulbul completing a display of sorts. I can’t recall ever seeing them do this, but perhaps I don’t pay them enough attention? Has anyone else ever seen any bulbul species displaying like this?
A quick peruse of Roberts indicates I clearly don’t watch Cape Bulbuls closely enough because there appears to be a fair amount of literature about this display. This from Roberts VII:
Wing-flicking display given as greeting to mate by female leaving nest during incubation, and by male in conflict situations or as greeting. This display accompanied by loud chattering given in upright stance, with tail fanned, and wings rapidly flicked from vertical position over head down to side of body. In low intensity threat display, crest flattened, head lowered and wings slightly raised. At high intensity, tail spread wide and depressed. When threatening another sp, wings spread, and back and back and rump feathers fluffed out.
Apart from the above note and photos I also managed a shot of this Forest Canary (male) and two dodgy shots of an Olive Woodpecker (female) and Forest Buzzard.
It warms the cockles of my heart when my non-birding friends take an interest in birds. A close friend – Craig Banks – was very excited when he watched a Black-headed Heron catch a Cape Molerat in Hermanus this past weekend. He even had the composure to take some photos and video. He made me promise that I’d post it on GetBirding, so here it is.
For those with slow internet connections I suggest you press play and then pause it immediately. Wait for it to load completely (red line to the end) before pressing play again.
Despite my “tongue-in-cheek” tone directed at my non-birding friends, I would like to encourage others to send in any photos or videos of interesting birds or birding experiences.
A quick visit to Strandfontein sewage works on Saturday evening resulted in these photos of a Purple Heron trying to swallow a rather large Vlei Rat [I stand corrected here, but this is what I think it is – can anyone confirm?].
Swallowing a rodent this size is clearly not easy so the heron spent about 15 minutes dipping the rat into the “water” (actually a cocktail of sludge and other unmentionables) to aid swallowing.
After several dunkings and a few swallow attempts it was finally ingested.
A quick search revealed similar images, but with a Grey Heron and a rabbit. The link mentions that the prey is dunked in the water to drown it. Drowning may be a result, with mammals anyway, but I feel the real reason is to aid the swallowing process. Any comments or thoughts on this?
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.
It wasn’t particularly obliging, but you get the idea from the photo below.
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.
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.