A few weeks back an invite was extended to all Western Cape birders to assist with increasing the coverage of the province for the South African Bird Atlas Project. The project has been running for over 4 years now and is a remarkably comprehensive attempt to gain as much information as possible about the distribution, abundance and movement of our bird species within the country.
The project has received enormous support over the years through the efforts of over 600 “citizen scientists” and the coverage map for the country has slowly improved over that time. Naturally, the more extensive coverage has taken place in areas close to the larger cities and easier-to-access places as well as some of the birding hotspots around the country. Unfortunately there are parts of our extensive landscape that have just been too out of reach for the average atlasser and it was with this in mind that the weekend was put together.
My involvement in the project to date has been to participate as much as possible by recording species on weekends away and dedicated birding trips but I have also played a role as the Western Cape rarity vetter for records that are thrown out of the system if they are seemingly out of range. This involvement is largely a desk bound contribution and I was quite keen to attend this weekend to add to my time in the field.
I think it goes without saying that the chosen destination for this weekend was not going to sound too appealing to the average birder. Our place of major focus was going to be an area called the Knersvlakte. This bleak landscape is situated about 70kms north east of Vanrhynsdorp in the north-eastern corner of the Western Cape.
Most people driving from Cape Town to Namibia will almost certainly have noticed the endless kilometres of absolutely nothing on either side of the road. They will have noticed that the ground is relatively bare with the odd bit of vegetation scattered about. They will also have noticed that the area is very flat and featureless (“vlakte” being an apt name) and they might even have noticed that their vehicle temperature gauges would have read higher than normal as they whizzed by with the aircon turned up to full.
Most of what they noticed would have discouraged them from ever stopping anywhere near this godforsaken place and they would have been very happy that their final destination was a lot more appealing than this.
Well, that was our final destination and we would be spending two full days scouring the barren environment for any birds crazy enough to live up there.
Now, it is not a totally ridiculous concept to visit such a forlorn place. Birds are remarkably resilient and many of the birds that are that resilient are also quite special. One would not expect to see a Hadeda or Cape Robin-chat in such a place but it is the larks, warblers, bustards, tits and coursers that choose such a place to live and it is those species that really appeal to the crazy birder. Our weekend was going to be tough and species would be hard to come by but we would certainly be rewarded with some special ones. Well, at least we hoped we would.
I tried to convince a few mates to join me on this venture but in the end there was really only one person mad enough to do it with me – none other than Tommy. In fact, Adam also showed remarkable interest in such a strange idea but I knew it would be madness to take him into such a tough environment as one of his first birding trips away from home. At least I knew Tommy’s ability to withstand the toughest of birding trips had been tested and he would certainly be able to last the weekend.
To make matters trickier was the fact that the weather was going to be particularly harsh. There were predictions of temperatures in the high 30’s and to add to that the place we were staying had no electricity or running water and we would have to ensure that everything we needed was with us.
The more I describe the place the less appealing it sounds, doesn’t it.
So, we packed the car with enough food to feed the entire group of 20 (not just the two of us), we erred on the side of caution with our water provisions and we headed north. We decided that a detour through the West Coast National Park was a good idea – when given the “pink ticket” for a birding trip one must take it with both hands and do as much as humanly possible.
The West Coast delivered most of the usual species and then we cut across country and headed through places I had only ever seen on a map – Leipoldtville, Graafwater, Lutzville. Don’t be surprised if you have never heard of these places – most people haven’t.
Our cross country travels gave Tommy the opportunity to bank some sleep on what was going to be an awfully exhausting weekend. Just before we left we were read the riot act by his mother about him returning on Sunday with black circles under his eyes. After leaving West Coast at around 10am Tommy took one look in the mirror and commented that his eyes had circles.
Straight away he said to me that he needed a sleep. Now, this is a child we could not get to take any catnaps on our Namibia trip which was also pretty intensive. I thought about his mother’s instructions and asked him why he was so worried about his black circles.
His reply to me was: “most of the time mommy is very loving but sometimes she is very scary”.
I couldn’t argue with that and nodded quietly to myself agreeing with his sentiments – I know she’ll read this but I’ll take my chances. I’m always too scared to tell her this straight to her face.
There was also some severe warning from Jeanie about Tommy getting sunburnt. I made the mistake of telling her that it was going to be very hot over the weekend. We were sent away with several canisters of factor 50 spray-on suntan cream with instruction of regular application. On most mornings Tommy was applying his second layer before 9 o’clock. There was the one occasion when I jumped out the car to ID a bird when he shouted out the window that I needed to put suncream on. It was almost as though the life threatening rays would strike us down within minutes of exposure.
It seems as if he is showing a few obsessive compulsive tendencies but rather that than arriving back home as a burnt crisp.
We arrived at Graatjiesgat (try saying that with a mouthful of biltong) at the worst time of the day. The sun was beating down on the exposed house we were going to call home and a dry, dusty wind was whistling through the windmill (which incidentally was not working). Many of our atlassing companions had still not arrived so we chose our prime spot in the house and unloaded our excessive baggage.
The weekend was put together by our Western Cape atlassing co-ordinator, Pete Nupen who, it seemed, was our resident drill sergeant. The dining room of the house had been converted into the “situation room”. The walls were adorned with several maps of the surrounding areas with numbered and colour co-ordinated keys to our names and the pentad codes we would be tackling. Each pentad was then accompanied by a full 1:50,000 map which was neatly attached to a notepad and a pentad reference sheet. Bird books were scattered across the table and laminated identification guides of some of the trickier species were pasted to the walls in between the maps.
No stone was left unturned and we were extremely grateful for the leadership. I had not been expecting much and I was delighted to have someone telling me exactly what to do.
The hard work was done for us – now it was our turn to get out into the field and rack up those species.
Atlassing is usually good fun. The requirement is to spend a minimum of two hours in a pentad and record, in a sequential order, as many different species as possible. Incidentally, for those that are wondering what a pentad is – it is an imaginary 5 minute by 5 minute square (essentially 9kms by 8kms) designated by a code and for which separate cards are submitted to the Bird Atlassing database. It is a perfectly reasonably sized area to cover within the stipulated two hours.
Atlassing the Knersvlakte was unlikely to be as much fun as it would be atlassing in areas that are far more species-rich. Typically, an average pentad produces around 65 species and within the first 30 minutes your list is usually on about 40 species. Some very productive pentads can produce well over 100 species with as many as 60 or 70 in the first hour.
The road through the Knersvlakte
Well, the first pentad that we tackled on the Knersvlakte produced a measly 20 species in total and most of those were found in the first hour. It was slow stuff and was not for the faint-hearted. As mentioned earlier though, some of our recorded species were highly sought after South African endemics such as Black-eared Sparrowlark and Karoo Lark.
Displaying Black-eared Sparrowlark
Our first pentad was completed in the dying hours of the first day and the late afternoon sun transformed the bleak landscape into a rich tapestry of colours. The well-managed cooler box produced a few ice cold beers which were made available to toast some of our birding success.
The next day required a very early start as our allocated pentads lay 60kms to the north of Gratjiestgat in the jumbled rocky hillsides that surround the small town of Kliprand – certainly one of the most uninspiring towns I have ever seen. The only redeeming feature of the town was the single bottle store which I had hoped would supply me with bags of ice to replenish my cold boxes but alas the delivery was only expected on Monday. It seems like freezers are not regular features in Kliprand which is quite bizarre given the average midday temperature in the town.
The rocky hillsides were a key feature for me as it gave me an opportunity to hunt down one of South Africa’s most charismatic and hard to find endemics – Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. This bird lives exclusively amongst the large boulders on the scrubby hillsides and mountainsides of the dry interior of the Western and Northern Cape. The closest known site to Cape Town is approximately 100kms to the north of Ceres in the Tanqua Karoo and its close proximity to Cape Town (yes, 280kms is considered close in bird twitching parlance) means that it has been ticked by most South African and foreign birders at this site. The downside is that the use of tape playback to call up this particular bird has meant that this site has become virtually ineffective and in latter years I have been severely disappointed when not finding it there.
The Knersvlakte is as isolated as one can get and I felt certain that getting into the right habitat would produce results. We clambered up one or two boulders before we finally hit the jackpot. The strident call is often hard to miss but getting a decent view is another story. We followed the call until we eventually saw a pair of Cinnamon-breasted Warblers bounding up and over the boulders like mini Rockjumpers. To add to the excitement of this find was that the pair of birds had a threesome of fledged chicks in tow, emulating their parents by scuttling over the rocks, alternately cocking their tails as they paused to review their surroundings before darting behind the next gap.
Cinnamon-breasted Warbler habitat
Cinnamon-breasted Warbler – juvenile
Cinnamon-breasted Warbler – juvenile
These birds were certainly not shy and it was a wonderful moment shared with Tommy as we photographed them in all sorts of poses. Not only did the Warblers perform for us but for a few golden moments as the sun peeped through the early morning cloud cover we were treated to a procession of photogenic species as they posed right in front of us.
Once the early part of the day was over things become tougher and tougher. Our species dried up and we eked out small consolations as we drove from one pentad to the next. The heat of the day arrived quickly and at 42 degrees we were both pretty spent. We achieved our objective of atlassing three consecutive pentads before heading back to Gratjiesgat to avoid the worst part of the day.
The Knersvlakte is predominantly sheep farming country. The Dorper Sheep are probably the only livestock that are able to survive the extreme conditions and minimal food sources. It stands to reason, too, that the livestock camps do not support great numbers of these sheep.
Where there are sheep, there are farmers, and we encountered our fair share of interesting individuals in the Knersvlakte.
Our first meeting was less than enjoyable as a rather large, mean looking farmer gave us a severe tongue-lashing after we had driven through his property without permission.
Birders are often the source of much farmer frustration as good birds have a tendency to find themselves on private land and birders find it hard to avoid chasing them. During our time in the area we had every intention of asking for permission to traverse private property but the density of farmhouses is so low that finding a farmhouse is even harder than finding their sheep. Fortunately we managed to convince the poor man that we were simply looking for birds and not trying to steal his sheep and within a few minutes the conversation became pretty amiable. My thanks go to Peter van Oudtshoorn who had joined me for this afternoon session and he was able to converse comfortably with the farmer in Afrikaans.
From that moment onwards we had to tread a little more carefully but we were very surprised to bump into the complete antithesis of our first farmer in the next pentad we covered. The second farmer was about as relaxed about our presence on his land as you could get. He extended an invitation into his house for a cup of tea and to join him for the second half of the England/France Rugby World Cup semi-final. It was a tempting offer, particularly as the temperature crept into the discomfort zone but we had work to do and we would not be distracted.
It was even more tempting the next morning to join him to watch the quarter final between South Africa and Australia but I was ever grateful that we prioritised our birding when finding out the result. What a shame it would have been to spend the most productive birding time of the day watching something so depressing…
As much as I have made it sound as if the area was devoid of much life, that is not really the impression I am intending to portray. In fact, the Knersvlakte is extremely well known for its abundance of succulent plants and in times of rain the plains occasionally fill with fields of grass. With the grass come the grasshoppers and I have seldom seen more abundance than the grasshoppers that we came across. At times it looked as though water was flowing across the road as thousands upon thousands of grasshoppers crossed the road. It was amusing driving through these “road crossings” as the ‘hoppers would stop their steady stream in one direction and scatter all over the place. It was truly like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
After an attempt at cooling down during the early part of the afternoon by pouring buckets of water over myself we headed out into the field again whilst most of the other teams stayed behind to catch up on some sleep and to expend as little energy as possible. We were rewarded for our determination by some good birds.
The start to our 2 hours was quite desperate with about 3 birds in the first 25 minutes but it was bird number 4 that turned the afternoon around. We crawled along the narrow track through the succulent habitat hoping for just anything to draw our attention when three Burchell’s Coursers flushed from a bare patch right next to the road. Unfortunately they flew pretty directly away from us but any sighting of this extremely skittish and tricky bird is a real treat and it was a huge surprise for the area.
The Cinnamon-breasted Warbler was my favourite birding moment of the weekend but this was certainly the top bird. We were then even more fortunate to flush another single bird a few minutes later and after it headed away at pace we thought our chance of seeing it again was over. Peter had again joined us for this drive and he was determined to flush it again so he strode out into the veld and put it up to air again and I managed to take a few of the worst pictures imagineable as it flew straight into the sun. At least the moment was captured.
The rest of the afternoon produced some good views of Spike-heeled Larks which were abundant in the area. They love the sandy habitat and are very noticeable as far as larks go. They characteristically flutter from bush to bush and scuttle along the ground cackling away amongst one another. Certainly one of the more charismatic larks.
Spike-heeled Lark – juvenile
The afternoon wrapped up with a stunning view of a Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk – a common bird of the area but always impressive.
Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk
It was an early exit for us the next morning to head back to the family in Cape Town. We committed to one more pentad on the way home at Kransvleipoort just south of Clanwilliam and our target bird, Protea Seedeater, made the briefest of appearances for Tommy’s list – his last lifer out of a very good haul of 13 for the weekend. I was hoping for some photographic opportunities of the seedeater but I came away empty-handed. Instead I settled for some pics of a very obliging group of Cape Siskins flitting in and out of the crevices of a rock face in the poort.
Cape Siskin – juvenile
Shortly thereafter we pointed the car south and headed home. The frustration of sitting at one of the stop-go roadworks just outside Citrusdal was briefly worsened by the news of the Springbok’s loss to the Wallabies. Despite this rather depressing news it came nowhere near upsetting me. Three days in the true wilderness on an adventure with Tommy was more than enough compensation for me.