It all started on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
Well, it wasn’t actually that quiet. I was embroiled in a serious table tennis tournament with Tommy and Adam when my Bluetooth enabled watch started buzzing on my wrist. That buzzing may even have cost me a point. In fact, it probably cost me the match.
I looked at my phone and Trevor had just posted a photo of an African Crake strolling casually across the causeway between S2 and S3 down at Strandfontein. It wasn’t a dodgy, through the grass-stems, backside shot of the bird. This was almost full frame and perfect light kind of photo that you see in magazines and wonder why you’ve never taken a photo like that. Well done Tony Macky for capturing that image but at that very moment I hated you.
This news was hot off the press. Trevor was driving back from Agulhas and had just received the pic and sent it all to us, as it would be a spectacular challenge bird. It was 4:32pm and I sat down at the kitchen table and harrumphed about our poor luck. We had had the whole morning available at Strandfontein and may even have driven right past this bird and now this message comes through at 4:32pm. What on earth could we do about it now?
Jeanie looked up from her laptop (engaged in her exciting plans for a new business) and said “stop harrumphing and just go. What are you waiting for?” I have to acknowledge that I do have the greatest wife in the world, particularly in those surprising moments.
I shouted at Adam to move his arse (he was still gloating about his victory on the table tennis table) and within seconds we were in first gear screaming out of the drive way.
I’ll cut this bit short. We arrived at the pinned spot just as John was getting there and we spent the next hour hoping this wonderful little bird would give us an equally uncharacteristic show as it had done earlier. Well, it didn’t. We waited until it got dark and then headed for home with our tail between our legs. We had given it a good bash but we hadn’t been rewarded for our fast action.
An African Crake is a pretty amazing bird to have at Strandfontein. I had seen it once before in a more expected location up at Polokwane Nature Reserve, but it would be a great bird to add to my Western Cape list and an even greater bird to add to the challenge. There were only 4 or 5 previous records in the Western Cape with this one being an obvious case of reverse migration.
Anyway, it was back to the office on Monday morning with a week of board meetings, results announcements and presentations ahead of me. I sat down at the first of many meetings at 9am and the inevitable message came through from Andrew simply announcing that the bird had been found and was now in view for a bunch of twitchers, which included a number of my challenge rivals. I had experienced similar feelings of grumpiness at the Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin discovery last year (see the blog here) and here I was back in exactly the same boat. I just could not see a way to get this one under the belt. At least not until the weekend.
So, Monday and Tuesday passed in a slow, morbid way (although we made great progress on work stuff) and my levels of anxiety just got worse as one challenger after another headed down to the works and added it to their lists. John was similarly stuck with work commitments but, at some point, he chucked that out of the window and headed down as well. When asked by Dom if he intended going back to work after ticking it his response was: “I’ve got the afternoon off so have been pigging out a bit. The bird is very relaxed. Just climbed up the hill on the east side in good light”. That was the low point for me.
Tuesday also started with a morning full of meetings which was followed by some very productive finalisation of presentations and at 3:30 I just couldn’t take it any more so I decided to take my laptop home to catch up later and I hit the traffic.
Working in town now means that a quick jaunt to Strandfontein is absolutely out of the question. It is a good hour to get there without any traffic so it became the longest drive imaginable. Once again I’ll fast forward a bit but I eventually arrived at the site and parked behind a long row of cars parked on the side of the causeway. I should mention at this point that I was alone. Yes, I had deserted my boys and decided to go alone given my limited timing. Tommy was at hockey practise and Adam was at rugby and there was just no way I could wait for them and still ensure we all got there before dark.
I ran up to the throng of birders and as is often the case at twitches there is usually a bunch of fairly relaxed people and then there is always the single frantic person who is yet to get their first view. I was obviously that guy. There is an element of playing it cool, though, so I casually asked if anyone was on the bird. It had just been in view on the shoreline (apparently) and it was now in the long grass. Why does that always happen? Why is it never in view as one arrives?
Anyway, I won’t drag this out any more than necessary. Eventually I spotted it working its way through the grass until it proceeded to patrol the shoreline.
One would have thought that my story was done but that was almost just the beginning. The next thing that happened was my discovery that the electric hippo wire was actually live. So often we drive past these kinds of electric wires and if we can’t hear the “thuk-thuk” pulsing through the wire we just assume that it is for show. Well, not in this case.
I was photographing the crake, and just as it got into a good position, the front of my lens touched the wire. I felt as if I had been punched in the nose. The shock seemed to travel down the length of the lens and into the camera and then it smacked me on the nose. It was one of those moments where I thought someone had physically hit me (although that has never really happened before being a real pacifist) and I was sudden alert and ready to start swinging back until I actually realised that it was the shock from the wire. The extremities of my body were tingling with my toes and fingers throbbing a little and if I had hair I reckon it would have been standing on end. I did my very best not to create a scene and stepped nonchalantly back from my position and gathered my thoughts before resuming my photography, this time comfortably keeping a gap between myself and the wire that I now knew was live.
It was a very peaceful afternoon photographing the crake as it patrolled the shoreline and that may also have been the end of my story had Pete not arrived and, as he stepped up to see the crake, mentioned casually that he had seen a Knob-billed Duck at the main entrance to the works. Pete wasn’t one of our challenge participants but he got great insight into it on our twitch to see the Northern Shoveller and so he knew very well that this would be a challenge bird for all of us. Secretly I think he was relishing the little scene that this casual announcement would create. It would also be a first for me at Strandfontein so, as hard as this is to believe, I looked up at Garth in the midst of photographing the crake and said “should we go?”
It is unfathomable to me that I dropped an African Crake out in the open to dash across the works to tick a dodgy juvenile Knob-billed Duck, but that is the nature of the challenge – every bird counts the same as the last and this one would be important. I thanked Pete for the gen and posted a comment to the group to say we had another great bird to chase and then Garth and I set off for the duck.
It sounds simple for us to have worked our way across to the other side of the works, but it really wasn’t. I got back to my car and noticed that someone had parked in the middle of the road behind me. Given that the way forward would take me past all the crake twitchers that wasn’t really an option and now there was no way of reversing because a frantic twitcher, anxious to see the bird, hadn’t really given much thought to anyone’s need to actually leave the location. Such is the nature of these twitches unfortunately.
We were still not completely stuck as Garth had his scooter and it seemed an excellent idea to jump on the back, weave through the parked cars, and go and tick our next challenge rarity. That was also easier said than done. Garth’s scooter was as dead as a Dodo (seemingly appropriate for a birding blog). At the time we thought the battery was gone but it turned out to be a fuse. Another bunch of critical minutes ticked by as we tried to jump start the scooter (thanks Bev for the jumper cables). I felt I could almost simply touch the ignition of the scooter and get it started given the electricity coursing through my veins at that point, but that also wouldn’t have worked so well.
Since the scooter was a no go, it was back to the car and some careful weaving past the remaining crake twitchers (as the unclaimed car was still parked right in the middle of the road) and then we headed to the platforms on P6 to find our duck. We arrived there and, true to form, it wasn’t on the platform where Pete said it would be. It seemed rather unfair, really. It was getting progressively darker and we now had a tricky task of scanning the extent of the pan, trying to pick out the duck in amongst the hundreds of other waterfowl that were littered across the surface.
John and Trevor were naturally there within minutes. I suspect they are a little like Uber drivers, trawling the hot spots, for good lifts to run. They seem to have that uncanny knack of getting to the challenge area in disturbingly rapid time. I imagine them driving the perimeter of the challenge area waiting for Birdlasser to launch a bouncy pin of the next good bird. In this case, however, it was a real winner that we had an extra few sets of eyes. We set about scanning independently and John actually suggested heading down to P1 to do some of the work down there.
I genuinely thought it was a long shot and with the light almost gone completely I was not at all hopeful. I said to Garth that is was time to wrap up and go and recover his scooter before it was genuinely too dark to do that. We trundled back down towards S2 and S3 and as we were about to head down the narrow strip, my phone pinged with a message from John saying “It’s on P1. North west corner”.
Another screeching about turn and we weren’t trundling anymore. We arrived in a cloud of dust, parked behind John’s car and nabbed our Knob-billed Duck in the flooded vegetation in the corner of P1. Our cloud of dust was soon followed by Trevor’s and a convoy of other cars showing just how fast news is now travelling in this shrinking birding world of ours. It was a great way to finish off the evening with good mates and challenge rivals adding a huge amount of excitement to a Tuesday evening.
We still had the not insignificant matter of getting Garth’s scooter to a place of safety for the night. I was quite bullish that the whole thing would fit in the back of my car but I must have a very poor sense of dimension as it never even got close. The best we could do was get three quarters of it into the back with the front wheel and console hanging out the back. Thankfully a fellow crake twitcher was still around and he lent us a pair of dog leads which we strung together and attached to the tow bar and door-locking mechanism to keep the door closed on the scooter and we set off home.
We arrived in one piece and it brought to close the most frantic, but enjoyable, afternoon. It was a classic example of everything that I love about birding – the anxiety, the rush of seeing a good bird, the camaraderie and that little competitive edge as well. With the African Crake and Knob-billed Duck safely added my Challenge total ticked over to 180 species. I am currently lying a good 10 birds behind John and Trevor who are both sitting on 190 but at least I didn’t lose any ground.
I estimated at the beginning of the year that 190 would be the winning total so I guess I was way out on that. But I was also way out on how seriously this challenge would be taken. I can’t wait for the next big one.