The last few weeks have been a tough time for us as a family, with Tommy suffering from his post-concussion difficulties.
We are so used to his cheerful personality and his broad grin as he goes about his schoolwork, his sport and his family activities but the last few weeks have knocked that out of him and he has battled through some adjusting to a slower recovery than we had hoped. He has spent quite a bit of time away from school and it has seemed like ages since our routine was normal. Things have definitely been a lot better in the last week and he got to school on Friday and made it through the day with no ill effect.
One of the things the two of us really looked forward to was a trip this last weekend to Johannesburg for Tommy to receive an Owlet Award from Birdlife South Africa.
Tommy’s birding passion started about 3 years ago when he joined my father and I on our whirlwind trip to Northern KZN on my longest-range twitch ever for the reliable, and twitchable, Golden Pipit in the Pongola Nature Reserve. We had started Tommy’s list a number of months before that twitch but it only really gathered in momentum aftewards.
We took every opportunity we could to add to his ever growing list and holidays were filled with early morning excursions to all my favourite birding spots to make sure the numbers were added. We even did some dedicated trips to a few birding hotspots when the torrent of lifers was reduced to a trickle. Our Namibian trip was a virtual clean sweep of the endemics but the real fillip came when we visited the Kruger Park in the midst of a productive summer season.
It was on that hot and humid trip that Tommy sped through the 500 species mark with a White-winged Widowbird on the Limpopo Floodplain and it was for that achievement that he was nominated for his Owlet Award.
I received a mail from Ernst Retief about 3 months ago asking me if Tommy and I would attend the Annual Birdlife Owl Awards Ceremony, as Tommy had been nominated. It took me less than five minutes to pen a mail (can you say that?) back to Ernst to accept. The two of us would be attending the auspicious event together for Tommy to receive his award. We would also rope in my father to join us as he was there right at the beginning as well.
This would be a great tonic for Tommy after his most recent travails. He definitely needed this. What would be even better is that we would be spending the weekend with his cousins and that would just add to the healing effect.
Naturally a weekend in Jo’burg to receive a birding award would need to be accompanied by some time in the field. The main problem was that late August is possibly the worst time of year to go birding on the Highveld. Tommy remarked that it seemed strange that the Owl Awards would be held at such a non-birder-friendly time of year but, given the tight schedule for Birdlife SA, it probably makes sense for them to do it at that time.
August on the Highveld is dry and dusty and although not as cold as mid-winter the birds are all a long way from finding their voice for the breeding season and all the migrants are still winging their way south.
I had low expectations for a morning out and that was a good thing. It was possibly the quietest morning’s birding we had ever done together. Fortunately Tommy’s cousin Teagan joined us and that allowed the two of them some good quality time to catch up. Our chosen locality was the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens and although well known for some good photo opps of some of the common species, especially the resident pair of Verreaux’s Eagles, we were rewarded with very little of either. It was a cold and miserable morning with a chill wind blowing under leaden skies and not only was the birdlife very thin on the ground but whatever we did see seemed to be in same shades of grey as the skies above.
We got to the Verreaux’s Eagle viewpoint after a slog up the rocky path, but the eagles had apparently just produced a clutch of eggs and the activity levels were extremely low. We disappointingly left two hours later without any sighting of the most famous residents of the gardens. I hadn’t expected much in the way of birds, and a list of about 25 species was indicative of that, but I had hoped for a few reptiles. August is also probably the worst time of year for herps but I did not expect to leave with not a single lizard, skink, gecko or snake. Well, that was what it came to.
We left the gardens with our tails between our legs and vowed to return when conditions were a little more conducive. The only birds I thought were worth photographing were these three rather bedraggled specimens:
I had a plan for our next stop. I had chatted to Justin Nicolau the night before and asked him for some gen on some of the local herps. I also asked him (hopefully) about our chances of finding a Striped Pipit. It was a bird I had only ever seen briefly in Zimbabwe and I still needed a photo of it but, more importantly, Tommy still needed it as a lifer.
“That’s easy” he replied nonchalantly.
“It is guaranteed on the lawns of the campsite at the Krugersdorp Game Reserve.”
Not something I expected to hear and I also cursed him for laying the kiss of death on the Striped Pipit. The last time someone guaranteed me a bird was many years ago at Roy’s Camp in Northern Namibia when the ranger there told me on arrival that I would definitely not leave without seeing the famous Black-faced Babblers. Needless to say after many hours of frantic searching, mostly by the careless ranger for fear of his trashed reputation, we left Roy’s Camp with a gaping hole in my list. To this day I still need the bird and I believe that ranger is no longer offering guarantees.
Anyway, I warned Justin of his careless and carefree words and he back-tracked slightly, but he still sounded confident of his recommendation. I had hoped we’d see them at Walter Sisulu but naturally we had no luck there so we had no other option but to key in the co-ords of the Krugersdorp Game Reserve and head there straight away.
I remember as a kid visiting Krugersdorp Game Reserve in the middle of winter as a budding and enthusiastic birder and I recall thinking that if that is not something to put me off birding for life then nothing will. Not only is it one of the least attractive places you could ever wish to spend birding but any bird you see is likely to be the same colour as the uniform brown grass that covers the rolling hills and jutting ridges. Not exactly an easy introduction for a beginner. Nothing much has changed in the intervening 30 years and the reserve was exactly as I remembered it – drab, lifeless and very unlikely to yield anything exciting.
Could this really be the spot to find one of my real bogey birds?
On the way to the campsite we saw exactly two birds, both of them Common Fiscals. Things were not looking good at all. We pulled into the camp that was covered in lawn the same drab brown as the rest of the reserve and I felt like this would be a rather disappointing waste of time.
We had not even parked the car yet when Tommy yelled “look, there it is!”
I grabbed my binoculars and looked in the direction he was pointing and, would you believe it, there was a Striped Pipit as loud and proud as the hadedas we have patrolling our lawn back in Cape Town?
We jumped out the car and sat down in front of some overnight guests who were still winding down their party from the night before and fired off plenty of shots of a Pipit that was blissfully unaware of its general elusiveness or the risk of it being hit on the head by an errant beer bottle.
It was not the most romantic locality for this great bird but we certainly made the most of being able to get within a few metres of it. At times I was stepping back so that I could fit the whole bird in the frame.
After a few minutes of the pipit Tommy and Teagan found some horses to feed (horses to Teagan are like birds are to Tommy) and I spent a bit of time getting some pics of some other common campsite species.
I finally managed to get a picture of a Fairy Flycatcher that was not a blurred action shot or concealed by a whole bunch of acacia leaves.
It was not the greatest morning of birding we had ever had but Tommy had added to his list and would proudly attend the awards that night with another step beyond 500.
The awards evening was a real “proud dad” moment for me. Tommy was exceptionally neatly turned out in his school uniform, hair combed for the first time in about 3 years and a broad grin and twinkle in his eye that made me really believe that he was back to his old self.
Despite his young age, and being the only person under the age of about 30, he joined “birdy” conversations with ease and, at times, he was surrounded by well wishers regaling them of stories of his birding exploits.
The awards were a nervous moment for Tommy. You see, Ernst had told me that Tommy was definitely going to win the Owlet Award, but I figured it was best telling him that it was not yet a done deal. He was merely a nominee and he may come away empty handed. It was a way to make the evening even more special and it seemed to work. As the awards were being handed out to some very well known birding names, Tommy was still not sure whether he was going to win his trophy. He leant over to me and told me that he was so nervous that he did not know how to stop his hands from sweating. Five minutes later Mark Anderson announced his name and Tommy puffed out his chest, straightened his tie and proudly strode up to the stage where he was handed a beautiful Charles Greig Barn Owl statuette and a huge framed certificate announcing him as the Owlet Award winner for 2013.
My father and I sat and watched this little man walk up to the stage and collect his award and I definitely felt proud of him, especially after the last few difficult weeks that he had been through.
Tommy spent the rest of the evening being chatted up by a few old ladies with one hand clasping his trophy and the other his framed certificate. It was a wonderful evening and I can only thank Birdlife South Africa and, in particular, Ernst, for recognizing Tommy’s achievement and honouring it.
The only downside to Tommy’s award was trying to find space for it in our luggage on returning home. The framed certificate was wrapped in several layers of clothes and put in the bag whilst the trophy was bundled into Tommy’s hand luggage, increasing its weight by about three kilograms. When we pushed his bag through the x-ray machine we were stopped by the security lady who did not recognize the heavy metal object in the x-ray image and so insisted we reveal what was creating such a strange shape in his bag. The security lady was unable to identify the barn owl but Tommy sure was.
It was an appropriate end to a great weekend as we sat waiting to board the plane and Tommy flipped through a birding app on my phone and tested my knowledge of birds. I offered him R1 for each bird I stumbled on and after cunningly throwing me a number of rarity seabirds and one or two cisticolas he had banked R5 by the time we had to board.
It was not the best weekend of birding and herping we had ever had, but it was so much more than that – a full weekend of appreciating just how special a little man Tommy Buckham is.