Betty’s Bay wetland birding

Bettys Bay wetland birding

Grootwit Vlei, Betty’s Bay

I spent one of the few Easter weekend weather gaps at Grootwit Vlei in Betty’s Bay where the water levels are now low enough to walk around the edges. Apart from the expected Water Thick-knee, African Snipe, Little Egret and Sacred Ibis, of note were three South African Shelduck and a calling African Rail. Both of these species are new additions to my Betty’s Bay bird list.
David Winter

Kirstenbosch raptor watching notes and directions

At the risk of being monotonous, I visited Kirstenbosch for a third weekend in a row on Saturday 29 January 2011 to see what raptors were around. The start was a bit earlier than usual as I was joined by Callan who was guiding two Birding Africa clients.

Raptor watching kbosch

The vantage point we use to watch raptors is, in my opinion, probably one of the better locations to watch raptors from in Cape Town. I’ve never equaled the 12 species haul that Callan and I notched up in the 90’s at Tokai forest, but over the years we’ve tried Newlands Forest, Cecilia and other locations close to Kirstenbosch and this one seems to be the most consistent.

Raptor Watching Spot reduced

Kirstenbosch raptor watching spot [Image source: Google Earth]

The vantage point is located in the Lubbert’s Gift area of Kirstenbosch and can be a little tricky to find if you don’t know the paths. Essentially you need to get onto the gravel track that runs above the National Botanical Institute buildings towards Newlands Forest. We stand at the point where the road splits [see map above] as this gives you a panoramic view from Wynberg Hill towards Newlands.

Raptor watching2 kbosch

View towards Castle Buttress

A quick thought about timing. If you want a better chance of seeing accipiters then an early start is recommended. On previous raptor-watching sessions, which have generally only started around 10am, accipiters were recorded infrequently. On this visit we recorded African Goshawk (not at Kirstenbosch – Callan had one at Constantia Nek), Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk (2 birds were sparring above Window buttress at about 8:15am) and Black Sparrowhawk all before 9:30am. Of course you can see them any time of the day, but early morning certainly seems to be better for them.

Black Sparrowhawk

Black Sparrowhawk

For buteos and other raptors a later start appears to be better. We generally only start seeing good numbers of buzzards from about 10am until around lunch time. The weather also has a part to play – warm, sunny days are better.

African Harrier Hawk

African Harrier Hawk

Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Buzzard

Yellow-billed Kite

Yellow-billed Kite

Getting back to Saturday 29 January, the morning started off well with the flurry of accipiters described above and a lone African Harrier Hawk over the car park. Apart from that, raptor numbers were rather low through the morning and the species count was limited to Steppe Buzzard, Yellow-billed Kite and fleeting glimpses of a Honey Buzzard over Newlands Forest. I imagine that most Steppe and Honey Buzzards are thinking about heading north right now, but if anyone does visit this raptor watching spot please let me know what you see.

David Winter

Interesting Water Mongoose and Sacred Ibis interaction at Strandfontein Sewage Works

I joined Mike, Brian and Thomas Buckham at Strandfontein on Sunday for a quick visit to the works. We were hoping to bump into the Sand Martin that had been reported the week before, but it was a needle in a haystack affair.

Strandfontein Sewage Works a

Soon after we arrived we bumped into Mel Tripp who pointed out a Water Mongoose in pan P2, a species I’ve only seen once before at Strandfontein (26 December 1991). The mongoose was completely relaxed by our presence, but what was most interesting was how the Sacred Ibis and Cattle Egrets in the pan reacted to it.

Water Mongoose a

Water Mongoose surrounded by birds

Mel noted as he pointed it out to us that the ibis and egrets were following and herding the mongoose as it went about its business. Wherever the animal walked a group of birds would quite literally follow and track its movements.

Water Mongoose b

In the image above the mongoose was moving off only to be followed by a group of ibis. The mongoose seemed quite relaxed and at no point appeared threatened or put-off by its followers. We thought perhaps the birds were just keeping an eye on the mongoose as reference books indicate they eat birds eggs.

Hottentot Teal

P2 was probably the most productive pan of the morning. It turned up a small group of Hottentot Teal and the exposed margins held lots of Little Stints, Common Ringed Plovers, a Greenshank and a single White-winged Black Tern.

Cape Longclaw

Cape Longclaw

African Sacred Ibis

African Sacred Ibis

Strandfontein Sewage Works bird list – 27 March 2011: Cattle Egret, Black-headed Heron, Common Starling, Red-winged Starling, Barn Swallow, Brown-throated Martin, Little Rush Warbler, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Cape Canary, Brimstone Canary, African Purple Swamphen, Common Moorhen, Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Red-eye Dove, Cape Turtle Dove, Hottentot Teal, Cape Teal, Cape Shovellor, Egyptian Goose, African Marsh Harrier, Black-shouldered Kite, Zitting Cisticola, Lesser Swamp Warbler, African Black Swift, Purple Heron, Cape White-eye, Pied Crow, Cape Cormorant, Reed Cormorant, Kelp Gull, Hartlaub’s Gull, White-necked Raven, Cape Robin-chat, White-winged Black Tern, Little Stint, Common Ringed Plover, Cape Wagtail, Common Greenshank, Black Sparrowhawk, Cape Bulbul, Little Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Blacksmith Plover, Swift Tern, Sandwich Tern, Caspian Tern, Hadeda Ibis, Sacred Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Cape Weaver.

David Winter

Some “passive” birding in Germany and Austria…

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.

Ratzenburg lake

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 ice channel

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.

Black-headed Gulls

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!

Germany and Austria bird list:

Tufted Duck, Mallard, Nuthatch, Rough-legged Buzzard, Teal, Goldeneye, Red Kite, Coot, Goosander, Blackbird, Mute Swan, Red-necked Grebe, Great-crested Grebe, Wood Dove, Jackdaw, Lapwing, Smew, Herring Gull, Black-headed Gull, Kelp Gull, Goldcrest, Alpine Chough.

David Winter

Press Release: Think Pink. Help support the Kamfers Dam Lesser Flamingos

Lesser Flamingos

Aerial view of 2000 adult Lesser Flamingos, assembled on a specially constructed breeding island at Kamfers Dam, Kimberley, South Africa [Photo by Mark D. Anderson]

A unique fundraising exhibition of birdlife-inspired art in support of the Save The Flamingo charity. On Wednesday 23 March 2011 at 7.30pm, an exhibition of new works by Jeremy Houghton inspired by the spectacular Lesser Flamingo will open at the Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s HQ, Kings Road, London, SW3 4SQ. The exhibition will be raising funds in support of the Kamfers Dam wetlands, a conservation project centred on one of the last remaining breeding sites of the increasingly endangered Lesser Flamingo. [read more]

Video: Excellent presentation showcasing the intelligence and adaptability of crows

If you’ve got 10 minutes I suggest you watch this insightful TED Talk on crows and their ability to solve problems. It shows some great examples of how they can quickly adapt to a situation through trial and error and also pass their knowledge on.

For those with slow internet connections I suggest you press play, but then pause it immediately and allow the entire video to download before watching it. The red line that creeps along the bottom of the video represents the amount downloaded.

Eurasian Oystercatcher at Seeberg Hide, Langebaan Lagoon

Graham Bull emailed me these images of a Eurasian Oystercatcher he photographed at Langebaan Lagoon on Tuesday 25 January. The bird was about 1km north of Seeberg hide.

Great record Graham and thanks for submitting your photos.

David Winter

Research: Hungry chicks have unique calls to their parents

It can be hard to get noticed when you’re a little chick in a big colony, but new research published in BioMed Central’s open access journal BMC Ecology reveals that baby birds in need of a feed have individual ways of letting their parents know. [Science Daily]

More Kirstenbosch raptor watching

Mike Buckham joined me on Saturday (22-01-11) for another raptor watch at Kirstenbosch. The conditions weren’t great with a strong black south-easter (lots of cloud cover over the mountain), but Kirstenbosch was thankfully quite sheltered. We didn’t expect a great raptor tally, particularly because we had 4 children in tow who found stone throwing far more entertaining than discussing the nuances of Forest vs. Steppe Buzzard separation. We did however put them to work with an incentive scheme that offered a wine gum for each raptor spotted. Young eyes are surprisingly sharp, particularly when energised with a bit of sugar…

22 January 2011 Kirstenbsoch

Forest Buzzard

So, despite wind and hyper-active kids we did actually see some raptors. The cloud conditions can actually help photography slightly, particularly for shots against the mountain – see buzzard image above. However, I believe windless, warm days are generally better for encouraging soaring activity.

22 January 2011 Kirstenbsoch1

Black Sparrowhawk

In total we notched up 6 raptors before the wind got the better of us: Booted Eagle (pale phase), Steppe Buzzard, Forest Buzzard, Yellow-billed Kite (2 birds did a very close fly-by), Rock Kestrel and finally an immature Black Sparrowhawk (photo above).

David Winter

Kirstenbosch raptor watching

A short raptor watch at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on Saturday 15 January 2011 really turned up the goods. I always feel slightly deprived when a summer passes and I haven’t seen at least one Honey Buzzard on the Cape Peninsula. Last year was one of those where, despite putting in some time at Kirstenbosch and Newlands Forest, no Honeys were recorded.

Kirstenbosch vista1

I’m pleased to report a different state of affairs this year. No sooner than 5 minutes after arriving at Kirstenbosch on Saturday (10:15am) an immature Honey Buzzard caught my attention. I was far from prepared for this early kick-off and only managed to rattle off a couple of shots before my camera’s card was full. Nevertheless, I managed to capture this image, which shows the diagnostic features.

Honey Buzzard1

Honey Buzzard (immature)

I’m amazed how frequently I see African Harrier Hawk in the Southern Suburbs these days. I can still recall painstakingly trying to track my lifer down in the Warmbaths area back in the early 90’s as it was particularly uncommon in the Western Cape at that time. On Saturday I was entertained by two adult birds completing an extensive aerial display that lasted at least 30 minutes. One of the birds would complete a series of consecutive dives and sharp vertical rises, shaking its wings just at the top of each rise, while the other circled below.

African Harrier Hawk displaying

African Harrier Hawks displaying

Roberts reports the following regarding such displays:

In breeding display, 1 (sometimes both) of pair sours high in air, in slow and buoyant flight, usually silent. Sometimes makes shallow undulations with exaggerated wing fluttering. Sometimes male stalls, falls backwards and drops into a dive; may dive on soaring female, who turns onto her back and extends legs so that they briefly tough claws. Such flights average 20 minutes (11 – 33 minutes, n = 10).

In-between soaring Honeys and displaying Harrier Hawks there were a smattering of Steppe Buzzards (probably 5 individual birds in total), a lone Rock Kestrel, a distant Booted Eagle, an immature African Fish Eagle (below) and at least one vocal Forest Buzzard. I was chuffed with the Fish Eagle, it’s only the second time I’ve seen this species at Kirstenbosch and interestingly the last time it was also an immature.

African Fish Eagle

African Fish Eagle (immature)

Forest Buzzard

Forest Buzzard

Thinking the morning couldn’t get any better, whilst photographing a passing buzzard my attention was drawn to a soaring falcon, which struck me by its long-tailed and winged appearance and its dissimilarity with expected falco species. The bird was fairly distant, but I managed to snap a few record shots, which I circulated for comment here earlier this week. Below are two of the images.

Large Falcon kbosch Jan 2011

Large Falcon kbosch1 Jan 2011

My suspicions at the time, and now following input from a variety of raptor experts, is that the bird may have been an Eleonora’s Falcon. Other suggestions from people have included Lanner, Peregrine and European Hobby. Out of interest, John Graham recorded an Eleonora’s Falcon at Kirstenbosch back in 2006 and managed to grab a few shots of the soaring bird. Subsequent to his sighting he created this series of photos, which includes his Kirstenbosch bird on the left and then an Eleonora’s image from the web for comparison.

John Graham Ele Image

John Graham Ele Image 1

John Graham Ele Image 2

I also consulted raptor expert Dick Forsman ( and this was his response:

I can only agree with you, that the bird in the image is a young dark morph Eleonora’s Falcon. The falcon is young because of its prominent white tail-tip and trailing edge to the wing. Identifying it as an Eleonora’s is to push it a bit, as some juv Hobbies can look extremely similar when viewed against the light and in slightly blurred images like this. However, in this case I believe, that what we see is also the actual truth.

So, all in all it was an action-packed morning that produced no less than 8 raptor species. Raptor watching can be a pot-luck affair, but I’ll certainly be putting in some more time this weekend so feel free to join me if you’re keen to catch up with some of the Peninsula’s raptors.

David Winter

Kirstenbosch bird list: Sombre Greenbul, Cape Sugarbird, Swee Waxbill, Cape Canary, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape White-eye, Forest Canary, Steppe Buzzard, Forest Buzzard, Honey Buzzard, Booted Eagle, Rock Kestrel, African Harrier Hawk, African Fish-Eagle, Southern Boubou, Paradise Flycatcher, Cape Batis, Black Saw-wing, Bar-throated Apalis, Cape Robin-Chat, Red-winged Starling.