A New Year’s gift

It feels like absolute ages since I have put pen to paper (or, more accurately, fingers to keys). The world seems to turn fast these days and my diminishing time seems to force an easy exit to Facebook updates rather than using my brain to actually write something worth reading.

Well, I have decided to fight the urge to be lazy and so here is another blog that will hopefully serve as a nice memory for the future.

Since my blogs are so irregular I guess it means something significant should happen for me to be encouraged to write one.

Does a lifer count?

Absolutely.

One has to go back to the beginning of our annual summer holiday in St Francis Bay for the beginning of the story.

St Francis is a little piece of holiday heaven that has been in my blood since I was twelve years old. That was when my parents decided to invest in a property before most people even knew the little seaside town existed. The years have been good to the growth and development of St Francis (I guess not to everyone’s liking) and it is now a bustling holiday town that draws crowds from all corners of the country. There are thumping New Years parties, jetskis, pubs, clubs and crowded beaches and rivers but, despite all that, it is still one of my favourite places on earth.

And, what’s more, it produces some of my favourite birding and atlassing. The village itself is positioned in the south-eastern corner of pentad 3405_2445. If you look at the screen shot of the pentad it is not hard to notice the diversity of habitat that produces such exciting birding.

The dominant feature is the Kromme River that snakes from the north-western corner all the way to the south east, with the pentad border unfortunately cutting off the river just before it enters the Indian Ocean (oh, how I wished I could add some of the coastal birds too). The northern parts of the pentad are dominated by farmlands and grasslands, while patches of indigenous coastal bush are dotted all over the place. There is a tiny patch of fynbos in the south-west and the estuary in the south-east is a source of good species additions, as well as the possibility of something really exciting.

The birding, and hence atlassing, has not been unaffected by the growth and development of the town and its surrounds. The farmlands in the south-west are now the location of one of the wind farms in the area. St Francis is famous for its strong and consistent winds that seem to blow in one direction for 4 days and then switch 180 degrees and blow in the opposite direction for the next 4. Developers have not missed that trick and so the turbines went up a few years ago, temporarily chasing away the large terrestrial birds that are such an appealing feature. Fortunately the bustards, cranes, korhaans and harriers have returned and a fully-fledged monitoring team spends hours counting species every month, ensuring that the impact of the wind farm is well documented. It appears as if the density of the key species is returning to normal, which I guess is encouraging.

African Marsh Harrier - pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

African Marsh Harrier – pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Blue Crane - pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Blue Crane – pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

One cannot help but feel a little sad, though, as one stands on a quiet farm road, scanning for birds, and hearing the thundering “whoosh-whoosh” of the turbines overhead. They look quiet and peaceful from a distance but it is a pretty eerie experience standing right under them. We watched a White-rumped Swift fly close to a rotating turbine and as it flew into the trailing path, it tumbled and stalled before hitting stable air again and returning to its normal flight path. One can only imagine what kind of havoc the turbines create for larger, slower species.

Development has further hampered my atlassing efforts. Crime and trespassing in the area has resulted in many property owners resorting to the erection of large electric and game fences to keep intruders out, and some of my favoured little nooks and crannies are now off-limits. I can count on more than one hand the number of species that used to be slam-dunks that are now very hard to find. If only I could just get through those damn gates.

Anyway, we understand the price of progress and, despite all these limitations, the Kromme pentad must be one of the best in the country (and I say that with confidence and perhaps a little bias).

Before arriving in St Francis for our holidays I decided to do a little bit of data research. The St Francis pentad has a total species list of around 270 species. Scanning through the list one can knock off quite a few vagrants as well as some bizarre species that seemed to have escaped the “out of range” validation. The pentad is ranked third in the Eastern Cape for the number of species, and I really felt with a bit of time and effort during the holidays I could have a bash at the Eastern Cape atlassing record of 166 species for a single card. As it turned out I never even got close, and not due to a lack of effort. Adam and I atlassed the pentad 4 times, starting a new card every five days, and we worked it very hard. With the kids in the house getting a little older, I now have a lot of freedom to do my own thing for a couple of hours in the morning, and it doesn’t hurt to have a son that is as fanatical as I am. He is now 10, but I still call it babysitting.

We would generally do a four hour blitz to open the card and we would visit every imaginable habitat type, making sure we had good coverage and, on one morning, we raced to a solid total of 126 species in that four hours. It was birding at pace, but still allowing for a bit of photography along the way.

Fiscal Flycatcher - pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Fiscal Flycatcher – pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Namaqua Dove - pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Namaqua Dove – pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Egyptian Goose - pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Egyptian Goose – pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

African Pipit - pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

African Pipit – pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Lesser Striped Swallow

Lesser Striped Swallow

Whiskered Tern

Whiskered Tern

Knysna Woodpecker - pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Knysna Woodpecker – pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

We would then do a few more focused efforts in some of the lesser-known areas, which generally entailed asking farmers for access to some of the private farms, and we would slowly but surely eke out a few more species here and there.

As I said, we never got close to 166. Our best card was a total of 148 with our worst being 137. The combined species list for all four cards was 185, which just goes to show that if you get lucky, and hit everything, there is a chance of a really big number. Incidentally, during the holidays, the total of 166 was bettered, first by a group led by Christoph Groenewald, at Cannon Rocks, getting to 168, and then Etienne Marais shot us all out of the park with a total of 180 in Kei Mouth. It really is quite remarkable how many birds there are in the Eastern Cape. My relatively low totals were unceremoniously put in their place.

But, the birding was not only about numbers. It was about getting out and exploring and seeing just what there is out there. I have been holidaying in St Francis for over 30 years and, for most of those holidays, the birding has been a real focus. I have been up and down the river, walked the tidal flats hundreds of times, criss-crossed the farmlands and peered into the back gardens of houses in the village, looking for birds, and it is still quite surprising to me how many great new birding experiences we continue to have.

So, here are a few notes from those highlights:

The grasslands up near the turbines are the haunt of the Denham’s Bustard and with some decent scanning there are always a few of them around. The White-bellied Korhaan is a special of the area and it requires luck and a lot of patience to see one. We heard them calling on a number of occasions but we only had one sighting.

The best bird of the grasslands, however, was a bit of a surprise. We had driven past a patch of flooded grass and restios on a few occasions (St Francis had been lucky to have had a bit of rain in the weeks leading up to the December holidays). It was Adam and I in the car and we had invited a good friend’s mother to join us who was equally as keen to get out to do some birding as we were.

We drove past that little seasonal wetland and I said to Adam and Wenda “I bet there is a Red-chested Flufftail somewhere in there”.

Adam waiting for the flufftail to appear

Adam waiting for the flufftail to appear

So, I pulled off the road and parked on a small clearing and we all hopped out of the car from where I played a short burst of the flufftail call on my iPhone. It took no more than 10 seconds for a response almost at out feet. Wenda looked down and started motioning frantically to her right: “there it is, there it is!”

And there it really was.

A male Red-chested Flufftail came wandering out of the thickest sedges to investigate the intruder. That first time we saw it, it was remarkably relaxed (or maybe inquisitive) and it posed for some nice photos, and even ran under the car, before heading back into the sedge, having safely negotiated its invisible competitor.

Red-chested Flufftail - picture courtesy of Adam Buckham

Red-chested Flufftail – picture courtesy of Adam Buckham

Red-chested Flufftail

Red-chested Flufftail

This was a really good bird to find so close to St Francis and it was yet another species on our atlas card.

We had further success that morning with Wenda when we found not one, but two, Brown-backed Honeybirds in a small patch of mixed indigenous and exotic vegetation below a large farm dam wall. The first bird flew characteristically incognito into the branches of a wattle tree and proceeded to feed actively along the branches allowing us to get a photo or two, but the second bird was a big surprise as it was quite clearly a young one. It seemed strangely coincidental seeing a juvenile brood parasite so close to an adult, making me wonder if the adult bird has some notion of parental interest, despite leaving other species to raise its offspring. There was absolutely no evidence on offer that the young bird was the progeny of the adult bird but given the scarcity of Brown-backed Honeybirds, in general, it seemed unlikely to find two of them in the same small patch of bush without there being some kind of link in their lineage.

Brown-backed Honeybird

Brown-backed Honeybird

Brown-backed Honeybird - pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Brown-backed Honeybird (juvenile) – pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

The river and its tidal mudflats and salt marshes were also a source of additional species for the list. The usual fare was always on offer with assorted waders, terns, cormorants, herons and egrets.

Common Greenshank

Common Greenshank

Common Greenshank - pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Common Greenshank – pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Grey Plover

Grey Plover

Black-headed Heron - pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Black-headed Heron – pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

The level of human activity (kitesurfers, dog-walkers, prawn-pumpers and boaters), however, has a very negative impact on the number of birds available and we noticed a significant decline in bird numbers between the quieter early days and the latter part of the holiday. We battled to find a single Greater or Lesser Sand Plover which are two of the more exciting list-fillers but it was partly compensated for by a single Terek Sandpiper that we latched onto one afternoon. We had great views of it for a few minutes and then it disappeared and we never saw it again. Yet another tick and the list advanced.

Terek Sandpiper - pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

Terek Sandpiper – pic courtesy of Adam Buckham

The upper reaches of the Kromme River were also productive. We spent quite a bit of time up the river on the boat and we bumped into the Goliath Heron and Great Egret on a very regular basis. These are two birds that have never been particularly common on the Kromme but they seemed to have become resident now.

Great Egret

Great Egret

But this was really the year of the raptors.

Our total raptor count was 13 and included the usual river raptors, such as African Fish-eagle and Western Osprey (the latter of which we saw with surprising regularity), Common and Jackal Buzzards, African Marsh Harrier, Black-shouldered Kite and then two unlikely accipiters in Little and Black Sparrowhawk.

Western Osprey

Western Osprey

The Amur Falcons arrived late this year, well into the latter half of our holiday, but, once they got there, they were seen on a regular basis. In fact, our first recording of these great birds was a threesome flying over the canals at 5:15am the one morning. It was my guess that they were very recently arrived birds and they were still homing in on their final destination. Later that morning we saw the small flock, which then took up residence in the farmlands for the remainder of the holiday.

Amur Falcon

Amur Falcon

And then, one morning, Adam and I were driving slowly along a quiet farm road that we’d never been on before. Open grassland gave way to a long avenue of eucalypts and a small farm dam. A bit of scanning revealed a single Long-crested Eagle but, even more noteworthy, was a Booted Eagle, slowly circling above the farm dam. There was a moment of interaction between the two as they each flexed their muscles, trying to show who, in fact, was the top predator of that farm yard. It was a great few minutes of atlassing as these were two birds that I had never seen in St Francis before and we ticked them both in the same minute of time.

Long-crested Eagle

Long-crested Eagle

Booted Eagle and Long-crested Eagle

Booted Eagle and Long-crested Eagle

It was, however, the best for last. Adam and I were up at 5am on New Years morning. We picked our way through the debris of the revelers and met two local birders from St Francis (Maggie and Alison) and we took them to the flufftail spot where it performed on cue before we headed north into the farmlands to try locate the honeybirds again.

We had just turned off the main road between St Francis and Humansdorp when I noticed a long-winged raptor from my right and it flew straight over us when I realized it was a “ringtail” harrier. “Ringtail” is a generic term used for two of our vagrant raptors, Pallid and Montagu’s, on the basis of the female birds having a noticeable white rump creating the impression of a white ring around the base of the tail. The females are notoriously difficult to separate, with subtle facial differences being the only real clues, hence the lumping of the two of them into a generic category. The male birds, being predominantly dove grey in appearance, are superficially similar, however, other distinctive plumage characteristics make them easy to separate once getting a semi-decent view.

I could see immediately this was a male, given its grey appearance, but it certainly wasn’t a semi-decent view. The bird flew over our heads and by the time I slammed on the brakes and exited the vehicle, and raised my camera to fire off a few shots (all in a whirl of dust, arms and legs), the bird had flown directly towards the early morning light, under grey skies, and my views were terrible.

Adam and the two ladies were out of the car, almost as quickly as I was, and we eventually got onto the bird as it flew into the distance. Thinking all hope was lost and a huge opportunity had been missed, I watched with excitement as it eventually landed on a fence post several hundred metres away. Then the scope was out and I was peering at it from a million miles away, trying to decide whether it was a Pallid or Montagu’s.

To add even more adrenaline to the process, I had seen Pallid Harrier on a number of occasions in the past, despite the fact that it was a considerably rarer bird than Montagu’s, but I’d actually never seen a Monty’s.  This was potentially a full lifer for me.

Now I knew this was one of the two but it was so far away I couldn’t pin a definite name to it (although I did think it was more likely a Pallid at the time). It then quartered over the grassland for almost 15 minutes before it seemed to head south towards St Francis Bay. I knew it would most likely intersect the gravel road to Paradise Beach, so we threw the scopes in the car and hurtled off in a further swirl of dust to try and intersect it before we had missed our chance. It was real adventurous stuff, with the blood pumping, and stress levels high.

So seldom does it all work out, but this time it did. As we bumped along the road, the bird floated across the road in front of us and settled on a roadside fence post. We were still about 200m from it but I couldn’t risk flushing it before we pinned the ID, so brakes applied and another bail from the car with camera in hand to take a few shots. Fortunately, we had stopped, as it soon took off and started to fly away from us but at an angle that allowed for some ID shots. We could now see the brown streaking on the belly and the distinctive dark line at the base of the upper primaries. It was definitely a Montagu’s.

Montagu's Harrier

Montagu’s Harrier

It was not as rare as a Pallid would have been, but I was far more delighted to add a lifer. As is customary, high fives were exchanged and we soon moved on and settled into slightly more sedate birding to finish off the morning.

So, it was another holiday filled with plenty of birding but still allowing for plenty of other activities.

Tommy

Tommy

Adam

Adam

Jacky Jack

Jacky Jack

Emma Chops

Emma Chops

We all face 2016 with a lot of trepidation given the current state of our economy and the uncertainty of the political landscape, but for a few weeks in December it was a suspension of most of those concerns as we enjoyed yet another summer holiday in St Francis Bay.

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