With a family birthday celebration near Kei Mouth we made the great trek from St Francis Bay to the slightly “wilder” part of the Eastern Cape. With Tommy showing some promising signs as a bit of a lister the journey along the N2 was accompanied by a count of species as we drove. It was one way of keeping my frustrations off the cricket commentary as South Africa slumped to a disappointing loss against the Indian tourists. Grim weather along the route did not bode well for the next few days. As we crested the hill that overlooks Grahamstown, Jean attempted to invoke a little imagination by telling the kids where she went to school in amongst the mist and rain. The weather also kept the species count low with only the occasional raptor breaking the monotony of the particularly bleak conditions.
We had arrived at the turn off to Kei Mouth and shortly thereafter a few telephone calls were made to confirm where we were to go for the next few days. We were staying at a remote resort called Nthombe Kei which is co-owned within Jean’s family. The road in was described to us as “pretty shitty” and this was no exaggeration. I don’t believe I have ever travelled on such a mess of a road. Nthombe Kei (check out the website at www.umthombekei.co.za) is situated about 5kms upstream from Kei Mouth and getting there requires a traverse over the hills through a quagmire of black cotton soil before finally dropping down into the Kei Valley. With a lot of shrieking and gasping from the family and no small amount of concern from my wife when I was unsure of how to engage the four wheel drive (I can’t believe I am admitting that on a public forum), we slowly inched our way to our destination.
We arrived safely (despite the lack of faith from the clan) and after unpacking our kit in the pouring rain I surveyed the surroundings and noted that this was most likely a birding paradise. This was confirmed early the next morning when I dragged Tommy out of bed and we took a walk along the riverside, flanked by untouched Eastern Cape riverine bush and forest. The most exciting find was an extremely vocal Mangrove Kingfisher that was shouting at the rest of the birds at 5:30 am. I suspect it was not fully appreciated by the rest of the family as it chose to call from the top of a dead tree right outside our house – it has an amazingly raucous call and it is likely it woke everyone up. This was an exceptional start to our listing and it added yet another kingfisher to Tommy’s growing compliment of Southern African kingfishers. He is still primarily focused on the largest of them all, the Giant Kingfisher, which he is yet to see but has been seen by his 5 year old brother, something that requires reminding every now and again.
The Mangrove Kingfisher was a big surprise in that we were quite some distance from the nearest mangroves and I certainly had not expected to see it so far south. During the summer months they are known to stray up river away from the mangroves where they breed and I am pretty sure the performing pair that we saw was nesting in one of the large alien oak trees in the gardens of Nthombe Kei.
The birding was rewarding with wonderful weaver colonies (Yellow, Village and Thick-billed), twittering Sunbirds (Amethyst, Grey, Greater Double-collared and Eastern Olive), furtive forest dwellers (Narina Trogon, Knysna Turaco, Brown Scrub-robin, Knysna Woodpecker and Red-capped Robin-chat), clumsy Hornbills (Trumpeter and Crowned) and thousands of aerial feeders (White-rumped and Little Swifts and Barn, Lesser-striped and Greater-striped Swallows). I atlassed the pentad while there (3235_2820) and racked up a list of 86 species but I had to make a special effort for an excursion into the old Transkei via the pont on my bicycle.
One of my passions outside of birding is mountain biking. During the atlas period I have found that birding and mountain biking are particularly complimentary activities. As a father of young kids one has to find ways to optimise one’s extramural activities (given the short leash and thin supply of pink tickets) and so it seemed natural that since mountain biking gives one access to some “hard to get to” places it would be a great way to do both at the same time. I have found a method that works for me which is to ride with a mini voice recorder clipped on to my camelback and as I ride I record the species that I see and hear. I have to rely quite a lot on identifying the calls as I grind out the kms but carrying a small pair of binoculars in my pack also gives me the option to scan the occasional open water or grassland areas or identify the odd raptor perched on a fence post. There are some drawbacks in that distances are covered significantly slower than in a car but the advantages are more numerous. Being on a bicycle allows for a greater sense of the sounds of the birds around me and there are places that I get to on my bike that are not as easy as in a car. My home pentad on the slopes of Table Mountain, for example, has mountain paths which are inaccessible to cars but I can happily traverse the fynbos slopes and log species that are not found lower down. The ultimate upside has to be the fact that the exercise slog seems far less painful when records are being logged.
I have had some amazing finds while on the bike with one particular dam in the northern corner of the Eastern Cape near Umngazi River Bungalows being particularly memorable. Without knowing it was there I stumbled upon a dam nearby the Port St Johns airfield which held a pair of African Pygmy-Geese which represented the first Eastern Cape record of this species during the atlas period. The dam also produced African Finfoot and African Cuckoo-hawk. A patch of indigenous forest on the same ride also gave me a record of African Cuckoo which was also a first for the Eastern Cape during the atlassing period.
Anyway, I digress.
My ride to the pont, across the river, north into the colloquially named “Wild Coast” produced a new range of species for the pentad including some grassland specials not found in the riverine bush. Long-tailed and Fan-tailed Widowbirds flopped above the tall grass whilst Rufous-naped Larks perched on fence posts mournfully whistled as I trundled by.
Whilst at Kei Mouth I also took Tommy and my youngest son (Jack) for a quick spin around the pentad to the south of Nthombe Kei which holds the small town of Kei Mouth itself. Jeff Curnick, the prominent East London birder, had very kindly given me some excellent spots to check and we whizzed around logging a reasonable list in the minimum two hours. Tommy has already displayed considerable birding endurance but my youngest son, Jack, who turns 4 in June this year is not quite up to the challenge of a two hour protocol period. He is a fiery red head (we constantly blame his grandmother for that attribute) and his levels of patience border on non-existent and so it was with great trepidation that I dragged him off with me. To his credit he made it through the ordeal without too much drama but the periodic stop along the road to pick up a few extra species had him covering himself in the black sticky mud whilst I had my back turned. It was, however, a small price to pay for having him along with me on his first birding outing. It may be some time though before he chooses to come with me again.
The weather in Kei Mouth never really improved while we were there which was a pity as it dampened a lot of the exploring I had hoped to do. The list was satisfactory but I am certain we left behind a few gems unticked. It was all too soon before we were filling the trailer and grinding our way out of the valley to head back to St Francis Bay. Our last morning was a busy one with the mountain of items to be packed away. Heaven alone knows how we ever fitted it all into the trailer. The trip back to St Francis was far better than our drive in the opposite direction a few days prior. The clouds had parted and the sun was shining proudly on the dramatic kloofs and krantzes that are so typical of the interior of the Eastern Cape. Our species count was significantly higher, almost reaching 40 species (it did include a few dodgy ticks while stopping for the best pies in the country at Nanaga farm stall).
Our arrival back in St Francis was, to be quite frank, a little bizarre. Tommy and his twin cousins were behaving quite strangely. There was a lot of whispering, stolen glances and “parent avoiding” behavior. When all was revealed it had a strangely “birdy” theme as well. During the frantic packing operations the kids had found a weaver nestling on the ground below one of the colonies. Instead of sending it on its brief journey into bird heaven they felt that they could nurse it to adulthood. It was wrapped in one of their sweaters and somehow made its way into the car for the journey back to St Francis. My brother-in-law claims to have heard a fair amount of chirping and cheeping from the back seat which was dismissed as a squeaky toy. The truth was eventually out in St Francis with the kids realizing that they were unlikely to keep it secret any more. It brought back so many memories for me as a kid when I was the only bird lover at my school (well, certainly the only one that made it publicly known). Every young bird that had fallen from its nest or any broken-winged specimen that had been rescued from the jaws of the neighbour’s dog was brought to me for salvation. I would always traipse home with a box containing the doomed creature and would lovingly drip feed it with pronutro or milk and say goodnight soothingly, but not once did I get any of these birds to survive the night. I would always dread the expectant kids at school and have to explain that it was just beyond my power to eke out an extended existence. Eventually they stopped bringing me these birds realizing that knowing the difference between a Cape Sparrow and a Common Mynah did not qualify me in any way to nurse a crippled bird back to health.
It was with these memories in mind that I prepared 3 very sensitive kids for the fact that the day old nestling that they had lovingly nurtured was unlikely to survive the night. They decided to name the mostly naked bird, “Lucky”, which I figured was probably appropriate given that a fair amount of TLC during the day was a lot luckier than being munched by the resident Nthombe Kei dog. Well, it was no surprise that the next morning revealed a motionless little body and the only thing left to do was to prepare a burial site and perform an appropriately sombre ceremony. We sent poor Lucky on his (or her) way and said a quiet little prayer for good measure. Thank goodness kids bounce back pretty quickly as it wasn’t 5 minutes before there were far more entertaining things to be doing than to mourn the passing of Lucky. In fact, the preparation of the burial site gave them an opportunity to flex their creativity with a mixture of decorated tombstones, flower arrangements and a carefully laid out stone border. Never has so much fuss been made of such a short-lived creature.
The short time that I have spent birding with my boys has brought back so many memories from my childhood days. I had a very young introduction to birding as a child. I joined my family on a trip to Londolozi game reserve as a six year old. Back in those days access to the private game reserves was far easier. We lived in a fairly isolated world and with strict sanctions there was very little appeal for foreign tourists meaning that there wasn’t the same demand for an “African safari” in South Africa. The only upside was that we could enjoy the relative luxury of a private reserve as a family at an extremely affordable rate. We were additionally fortunate in that we had a game ranger who was passionate about birds, amongst many other things. He quickly realized that I showed great interest in the birds he pointed out and so he would set me challenges at the end of each drive. I would have to recite all the birds we had seen on the drive and, if successful, I would get to sit on his lap and steer the land rover for short distances during our next excursion. It is remarkable how simple human beings are. Small incentivisation yields impressive results. My sponge-like six year old brain soaked it all up and by the end of the trip I was listing 50 or 60 species that we had seen during our time there. The seed was well and truly planted and as soon as we got back to Johannesburg we were off to the nearest CNA to buy Ken Newman’s “Birds of the Kruger National Park”. It was my first bird book and marked the beginning of my bird book collection. More importantly it marked the beginning of my passion for this wonderful pastime.