A very small part of a very Big Year

A successful day with Noah and Callan

A successful day with Noah and Callan

I am not sure how to start this blog other than to set out, very briefly, just a few of the diverse activities that involve the birds on our planet.

The study of birds, or ornithology, is a scientific pursuit and is reserved for a select few who have dedicated their lives to the study of birds’ habits, physiology and general place in the natural world.

Then there are birdwatchers – that group of people that enjoy the beauty of birds around them and take delight in their presence.

And finally, there is the more recent pursuit of birding, which is, I guess, our attempt, as birdwatchers, to turn our hobby into some kind of adrenaline sport.

There is also no rule that says that each of these has to be mutually exclusive. There is the bird scientist that will bolt off at the first sign of a rare bird, just as urgently as the most rabid of twitchers; whilst there is nothing to say that that same rabid twitcher can’t simply enjoy watching his garden birds pecking at seed that he has thrown down on his lawn.

Birding, per se, and, by my definition, is an active and determined pursuit of birds, rather than the more sedate activity of birdwatching, which seems to be a slightly more sedate and measured pastime. The timeframes of birding are variable and the area in which the birds are sought range from one’s garden to the whole world. As birders we really have to make a list and it seems we are not fussy about how many we make.

Big years, big days and big months are all subsets of birding, involving fanatical and fantastical listing.

Birding Big Day is something I did as a kid. I got together with a few good mates and we walked the Braamfontein Spruit, up and down on a Saturday, from dawn to dusk, and recorded as many birds as we could. My birding big days were not restricted to my youth. I embarked on a few as an adult and they are some of the fondest memories I have as a birder. Spending close to 24 hours in a car, with other fanatics, seeing as many birds as possible, is like nirvana for birders.

I still, however, have not quite got round to a big year.

A big year is the ultimate of the birding pursuit. Sure, the lifetime goal of a long list of birds has some serious commitment attached to it, and one only has to read the memoirs of Phoebe Snetsinger in the book called “Birding on Borrowed Time” to understand the absolute obsession that top birders have in accumulating lists that include up to 80-90% of the world’s species. But I still don’t know if that quite compares to a big year in terms of focused dedication.

I have to admit that I am a bit of a sucker for big year literature. I have a whole shelf full of them. The best known is the one simply named “The Big Year” written by Mark Obmascik, and it chronicles the story of three guys that separately set out to see as many birds in North America, during a single calendar year. Many laymen would know this story as well, as it was converted into a Hollywood movie of the same name and, I suppose, it opened the eyes of non-birders to the fanaticism of birding within a big year.

Although “The Big Year” is the most well known of the lot, there are a few that I favour, with the purists’ classic being “Kingbird Highway”, an autobiographical tale by Ken Kaufmann of his North American Big Year during the early ‘70s when birding was even more niche than it is today, and technology had not quite got to the point where GPS co-ordinates led birders to the exact spot they needed to go to see certain species. Ken Kaufmann did it the hard way, on a shoestring budget, by hitching his way around North America to try and accumulate what was then the biggest list for a big year. He failed to break the record, but his achievement was quite remarkable considering his meagre resources.

My favourite of the genre, however, is a book called “The Big Twitch” which takes one to a completely different continent. An Australian birder, Sean Dooley, broke the Australian big year record in 2003 with a total of 703 species. Sean exemplifies the fanatical twitcher more than just about anyone else I have read about. Not only does he cross the most remote places on the planet, on his own, but he decides to celebrate Christmas in his big year by participating in a Birding Big Day, when his hopes of adding any new species had been exhausted. Why he did not go home to spend that time with friends and family instead of seeing a whole bunch of species he’d already seen, is something a non-birder would just not get. In fact, I can hardly understand it myself.

So, why the background ramble on big years?

Well, the ultimate of big years has to be the concept of doing a World Big Year. It is something so enormous that it has not been attempted too many times before. There are plenty of top world listers who have kept year lists during their normal travels (I use the word “normal” quite loosely in this context) but very few people have set out to cover the entire planet in a year in order to see as many of the 10,900 species that exist (depending on which list you use). There are only one or two people crazy enough to try it.

The first well-documented big year was attempted by Ruth Miller and Alan Davies, two Brits that set out in 2010 for their go at it. They accumulated a monstrous 4,341 species during the calendar year and set the first milestone in what is likely to become a more regularly attempted adventure.

In fact, I was fortunate to be on a pelagic trip with Ruth and Alan when they were out here in Cape Town. We chugged out of Simonstown harbour and the minute we hit one little swell in False Bay the blood drained from Alan’s face and he curled up in the corner of the boat for the rest of the day, occasionally leaning over the gunwale and depositing some of his breakfast and his previous day’s meals into the ocean. It was on that day that I saw my first and only Wandering Albatross and I remember that it was also the first Wanderer that Ruth and Alan had seen that year. Ruth called over to Alan to look up, as it was important that he actually see the bird in order to tick it, and all he could manage was a slight lift of his head and a glance in the general direction of the bird. I suspect he saw a white bird in the ocean but I am not sure he saw much else.

Wandering Albatross

Wandering Albatross

I will say that it was mildly comforting to see someone on the boat that was in worse shape than me.

Anyway, I heard early on this year about a young American by the name of Noah Strycker who was embarking on his own World Big Year. I immediately clicked onto his blog and was completely enthralled by what he intended to do in 2015. Noah wasn’t doing this on a whim. This was a project that seemed extremely detailed in it’s planning and he was aiming to smash the record and list over 5,000 species. Most birders, with plenty of resources, spend a lifetime accumulating a list of that size.

It is most interesting looking at the map on his blog page as it shows the level of detail that he has gone into in determining his route up front (see his blog at www.audubon.org/features/birding-without-borders).

Each destination was picked beforehand to maximize on endemic birds and he had made every effort to book flights and local birders to accompany him at each of the localities.

It didn’t take me long to realize that he had to come to South Africa, given our endemic birds, and, by looking at his map page, I saw the date of 24 July 2015 was the day he would land in Cape Town and spend four days birding parts of the Western Cape.

Through a bit of research, and cunningly using the grapevine, I managed to find out that my good mate, Callan Cohen, was going to be guiding Noah on the Peninsula and Hottentots Holland mountains on the 25th of July. Without too much prompting (okay, maybe a little more than that) Callan popped me an e-mail and asked me if I would like to join him on the one day tour that he would plan for Noah.

Surely a redundant question?

I was definitely in.

So, Noah arrived on Friday evening for dinner and a bed at the Buckham abode. I was shocked to hear that he was in his 12th day in South Africa and he was yet to sample the delights of a South African braai. So, out came the boerewors and chutney, chops and steak and we made sure Noah had enough energy for the next day’s birding.

Just as much as I hope the braai was a treat for Noah, his presence in our house was certainly a treat for my two birding boys, Tommy and Adam.  Most boys that age are a little star-struck by rugby and cricket stars but Noah had both of them a little glazed over during dinner as he told us all tales of his amazing adventures to this point.  Noah made such an impression on Adam that it prompted a hand written note wishing Noah all the best for his time in the Cape.

Noah, Tommy and Adam

Noah, Tommy and Adam

Adam's note to Noah

Adam’s note to Noah

Once we had got the pleasantries out of the way, it was a fascinating exercise going about setting a target list for our day out. Noah is an avid eBirder. eBird is a thinly used database in South Africa because we have our Bird Atlas project, but around the world, and especially in the United States, it is a very popular listing tool. As Noah said, people don’t go birding, they go eBirding.

eBird has been a critical tool for Noah during his big year. It maintains a real time database of all the birds he sees on his travels, as he records species on an app on his phone. When we were in the field the next day he assured us he wasn’t as popular as we thought he was as he tapped away at his phone – he wasn’t receiving SMS’s and whatsapps or checking on Facebook, but rather making sure he noted every species, at every location, on his eBird app.

So, using the search functionality on ebird we were able to search for all the birds he had not yet seen during 2015 and refine our search to the Western Cape. We then sorted these species in the descending order of their recording rate. Within seconds we had a list of about 150 species, from the highest recording rate of about 26% (Karoo Prinia), all the way down to vagrants that had recording rates lower than 0.1%. Noah suggested we ignore anything lower than 2% as, in his experience, he generally woudn’t get anything that has a recording rate that low.

So, we whittled it down to about 75 species in the Western Cape with about 25 that were possible on our day whizzing around the Peninsula and the mountains to the east of Somerset West.

We had a hit list that included easy birds but we also had a few nightmare ones. The ones that sent me into a bit of a cold sweat were Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk, Hottentot Buttonquail and Striped Flufftail.

The first on that list is not a rare bird and anyone spending time in the alien plantations around Newlands and Claremont for a period of time will get one of them flying over or displaying, but it is a real “hit or miss” affair and I did not like our chances. The latter two hardly bear mentioning. They are, quite possibly, the two toughest resident birds in South Africa and many hours have been spent, by many birders, looking for those two, without success.

I’ll cut to the chase and report, sadly, that we didn’t get any of those three.

The sparrowhawk decided to miss rather than hit, although I went for a mountain bike ride on Sunday morning and had possibly my best sighting of Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk in a very long time.

Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk

Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk

We tramped for the buttonquail for over 2 hours with as little success, and despite trying in several places in perfect habitat for the Striped Flufftail we didn’t turn that one up either.

Striped Flufftail

Striped Flufftail

I calculated that we spent almost 6 hours looking for those three birds, during the course of the day, and although it did overlap with quite a few other endemics it did eat away at the time we had allocated. Still, it was a great day out and we managed to add 18 species to Noah’s list. Adding 18 species for a guy that is on 3,704 was a pretty good result.

Noah had given us a lifeline in saying that his two non-negotiables were Cape Rockjumper and African Penguin. Those were a little more within our ability to guarantee than the “Holy Trinity”.

We started the day off at Rhodes Memorial, looking for that dastardly accipiter, where we at least added Cape Sugarbird, Cape Bulbul, Malachite Sunbird and Cape Siskin to make sure the list ticked over. We were also fortunate enough to see a Brown-backed Honeybird at Rhodes Memorial and, although Noah had recorded this one by call earlier on in the year, it was now a full lifer as he got a good view of it as it flitted between the tall alien trees.

Cape Sugarbird

Cape Sugarbird

Malachite Sunbird

Malachite Sunbird

Cape Bulbul

Cape Bulbul

 

Cape Siskin

Cape Siskin

Once we had exhausted our patience for the sparrowhawk we headed off to Sir Lowry’s Pass where we took the long slog up to the cannons for the rockjumpers. Rooi Els has become the default position on rockjumpers of late, but I have personally missed them there on more than 50% of my visits and I have never had that misfortune at Sir Lowry’s. Callan gave us a statistic that he has guided more than 70 or 80 groups to Sir Lowry’s and his hit rate there is still 100%. It was a good sign that there was no in-fighting amongst the two “guides” and so it was an easy decision to do Sir Lowry’s.

Noah looking for rockjumpers

Noah looking for rockjumpers

A view from Gantouw Pass

A view from Gantouw Pass

Despite a cold south-easter that whistled past our ears we came up trumps with the rockjumpers, thanks to Callan’s eagle eyes, and we were also able to add Orange-breasted Sunbird and Victorin’s Warbler before we decided to move on.

Cape Rockjumper

Cape Rockjumper

Orange-breasted Sunbird

Orange-breasted Sunbird

Victorin's Warbler

Victorin’s Warbler

The Kleinmond spot near Arabella for Hottentot Buttonquail is probably the place where 95% of birders that have seen this bird ticked theirs, but I have never had the pleasure despite four visits there (although this bird is on my list after flushing a few of them on a mountain run near Swellendam).

We slogged across the scrubby fynbos in a rather haphazard criss-cross fashion, but we got absolutely nothing flushing from under our feet. It was not a complete bust as Noah was able to add Red-headed Cisticola.

Yes, I said Red-headed Cisticola. The Clements list people, who are American, have decided to rename our Grey-backed Cisticola to Red-headed. It is a nonsensical name and one that we were at pains to show Noah is totally inappropriate as a few Grey-backs popped up onto the top of a low shrub.  Their grey back seemed a lot more prominent to me than their red heads.

Grey-backed Cisticola

Grey-backed Cisticola (Red-headed Cisticola)

We stood in the middle of the fynbos plain above the Bot River lagoon and finally decided we should move on. Our time had accelerated very rapidly and we figured we were not going to get this bird without a lot more walking.

Enough of this tramping

Enough of this tramping

It must be tough for Noah to make those decisions as he just knew that missing this bird now meant that he would miss it forever. There was no better place and he certainly had very little time in the coming four days to try for it again.

We were very pleased to get to Stoney Point in Betty’s Bay for some easy birds. We had worked very hard for some successes, but we’d had equally as many misses, so when we arrived at Stoney Point and the penguins were literally falling over themselves to show off to Noah, it gave us a bit of a break on the eyes. He also added Bank Cormorant, Cape Cormorant, Cape Spurfowl and African Black Oystercatcher and so it was a very easy four birds in a short space of time.

African Penguin

African Penguin

Bank Cormorant

Bank Cormorant

Cape Cormorant

Cape Cormorant

 

Cape Gannet

Cape Gannet

Cape Spurfowl

Cape Spurfowl

African Black Oystercatcher

African Black Oystercatcher

We calculated we had just enough time to get back to Strandfontein before it got dark. Having pored through Noah’s list we realized that the only place he would see Maccoa Duck on his South African spin was at Strandfontein. He didn’t really need anything else there, but it would be worth it just to make sure he didn’t miss an easy bird. The long drive to Strandfontein wasn’t all bad as it meant we were able to take Noah along the beautiful Clarence Drive for some more traditional sightseeing. There is no such thing as normal sightseeing and it was still birding all the way. A Verreaux’s Eagle obliged and soared across the road although it was unfortunately not a new bird.

Verreaux's Eagle

Verreaux’s Eagle

We got to Strandfontein as the sun was going down and we spent a frantic thirty minutes scanning the usual spots for this bird. Callan finally got onto a group of about eight of them just before it got dark, which was an enormous relief.

Maccoa Duck

Maccoa Duck

We also picked up some extra ones in Swift Tern (Great Crested Tern on Noah’s list) and a Spotted Thick-knee (Spotted Dikkop on just about every South African’s list).

Spotted Thick-knee

Spotted Thick-knee

Swift Tern

Swift Tern

We had the short drive back home in the dark to reflect on the great day we had spent together. Noah added 18 birds to his growing total and hopefully we were able to give him value on the first leg of his Western Cape blitz. He’ll do a pelagic trip with Cape Town Pelagics and leave the next day with fellow American (now living in South Africa) and fellow eBirder, Ethan Kistler, who will take him on the Agulhas, Tanqua and West Coast anti-clockwise loop in a three day assault on some more of our endemics. Our fingers are crossed for some good birds and some good weather and we hope that Noah has some very fond memories of his time here. I certainly do.

You can read Noah’s blogs relating to the two days we spent together here:

Day 205 – Birds and Rugby

Day 206 – Penguins of Africa

The list of birds we added with him were:

Cape Sugarbird

Malachite Sunbird

Cape Siskin

Cape Bulbul

Karoo Prinia

Cape Rockjumper

Victorin’s Warbler

Orangebreasted Sunbird

Grey-backed Cisticola

African Penguin

Cape Spurfowl

African Black Oystercatcher

Bank Cormorant

Cape Cormorant

Cape Gannet

Maccoa Duck

Swift Tern

Spotted Thick-knee

(Author’s note: I have included photographs in this blog that were not taken on my day out with Noah Strycker but they were all taken by me at some stage on my birding adventures.  I figured it would be better to at least illustrate the blog)

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