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-breased 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 licence 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.