Rounding up the crakes

As a very new and young birder I can recall, with great clarity, the page in my crisp Newman’s field guide that housed the crakes. It followed closely on the heels of the flufftail page as the one that I knew was reserved specifically for higher-grade birders. Sure, there was the consolatory Black Crake, which happened to be a resident bird and also happened to display far more of an exhibitionist personality that the rest of the uptight bunch on the same page, and so I had seen plenty of them, even in those younger days.

But, as for the rest of them, they were pure wishful thinking.

Back in my early days of birding I knew I wanted to see each one but I was pretty sure that I never would. You see, your average crake is a shy little creature. They are generally restricted to seasonal wetlands and are, at best, only seen as a blur, as they dart from dense cover to pick up a little morsel and then they shoot back into the gloom.

In those days (the early 80s) the crakes all fitted onto one page of the field guide. The lone solitary tick against the Black Crake used to taunt me: “this is as good as it will ever get for you” they seemed to say.

Black Crake

Black Crake

But slowly, over the years, I started to win the occasional battle.

If I remember correctly, it was a Baillon’s Crake that was awarded the honour of my second ever crake. I was shown this tiny little bird (our smallest crake) by Dave Hoddinott at Darvill Bird Sanctuary in Pietermaritzburg. I sure as hell would never have seen it on my own and I was grateful for Dave’s scope that was trained on the crake. It was if it were a pretty little gift, wrapped in a fancy bow, served on a silver platter. But crakes are birds that require as much assistance as you can possibly get, so I was certainly not going to look this particular gift horse in the mouth.  I have seen only one other Baillon’s Crake and that was the popular bird that pitched up at Intake Island not more than 20 minutes from where I live.  This photo goes to show just how hard it is to get a clear view of these diminutive things.

Baillon's Crake - Courtesy of Tommy Buckham

Baillon’s Crake – Courtesy of Tommy Buckham

Number three was as big a surprise to me as it was to the crake itself.

My father and I were doing a birding trip of a lifetime through the Caprivi strip, back in 2003. We were spending a night in the far north-eastern Namibian town of Katima Mulilo and we had arranged an afternoon of birding in Katy Sharpe’s garden. Katy was the resident birder in Katima and I guess it would be a stretch to call her back yard a garden. It was in fact the floodplain of the Zambezi River and we were lucky enough to be there in the height of a flood season. It was a rain migrant bumper year and we were pretty pleased with having ticked Dwarf Bittern, Allen’s Gallinule and Lesser Moorhen.  The next rain migrant we were about to see was way more than we could have wished for.

We were trudging through the margins of a small water-filled depression that had been cut off from the main river as the waters had started to recede, when, from underneath my feet, in a flurry of feathers, a crake burst skywards and flew an awkward circle around us with legs dangling and wings whirring. It eventually crashed into some tall flooded grass, but it had been airborne for long enough to confirm its identity as a Striped Crake. This was a pretty spectacular third crake to see. This one was usually reserved for last position, as it was probably the toughest of all. So special was this bird that all sanity drained from my body and, within a minute of flushing it, I had shed all my clothing, other than my underpants, and I tramped straight into the reeds to try and flush it for a second look.

Other than the possibility of offending Katy to the point of being thrown off her property, I had also not considered the substantial risk of crocodiles lurking in the small wetland which was but a stone’s throw from the main channel of a river with one of the densest crocodile populations in Africa.

Fortunately I survived the crocodiles, and the crake avoided a further flush, but it was happily added to my list and I was half way to the grand total of six. I was progressing well.

Number four was a bit of an anti-climax. It was admittedly a bit of a bogey bird for me and, by the time I finally clapped eyes on an African Crake at the Polokwane Nature Reserve with Joe Grosel, I really should have seen it already.  It is a relatively common summer migrant to the north-eastern parts of our sub-region and it was high time that I finally added it.

So, four out of six wasn’t bad. Except for the fact that there were no longer six crakes. A seventh was just about to be added.

Who could ever forget the Little Crake that pitched up at the Clovelly wetland in March, 2012?

It was a first record for Southern Africa and the little critter found by Gillian Barnes created one of the largest twitching frenzies we had ever seen.

I was lucky enough to work within 15 minutes of the site and I was there in about 13 minutes flat, after I’d finally seen one of Trevor Hardaker’s missed calls on my phone. Knowing that I worked close by, he had tried to get me to join him as he headed out to the site to check it out. As it turned out, the urgency was not entirely necessary as the bird stayed for a couple of weeks before disappearing mysteriously one night.

Either it decided to head north for warmer climes as winter reached South Africa, or it was a victim of the countless feral cats that patrolled the wetland. Incidentally, I went back to the site the night before it disappeared in order to improve my photographs and I remember watching it slink into the reeds and settle into a roosting positing as the sun dropped over the horizon, and that was the last time that anyone saw it. I’m not sure if there is anything special about being the last person to see a particular rarity but I was that person…

Little Crake

Little Crake

Little Crake

Little Crake

So, I was now five out of seven for that crake page and I had won a number of battles and I was definitely starting to win the war.

Number six was a very special one for me as the Corncrake we flushed in the grasslands south of Harare in 2013 represented my 800th Southern African bird. I was there with two of my closest mates who were there to join me in celebrating my 40th birthday and this was just about the best way possible. Chest bumps and high fives were rather awkwardly shared amongst good mates on a remote Zimbabwean farm.

Shortly before we flushed the Corncrake

Shortly before we flushed the Corncrake

So, after all of that I was now only one shy. By now, you all have probably figured out that the last remaining crake on my wanted list was a Spotted Crake.

Not only was this the last crake that I needed but it was also one of very few birds that my father had seen and I hadn’t.

Spotted Crake is by no means an easy bird. It is one of the skulkier of the family and it is infrequently recorded in Southern Africa. It migrates from Europe/Asia and as far south as Zambia and northern Zimbabwe when conditions are right. It seldom ventures further south than Zimbabwe but in some years, when conditions are just right, they seem to irrupt in reasonable numbers in the strangest places.

The last easily twitchable one was at Bullfrog Pan in the East Rand in 2003. I was connected to the birding hotline, even in those days, and, since my father was living in Jo’burg at the time, I gave him a call and told him where to go. He called me excitedly telling me how great it was to see this rare bird. I was obviously not as happy for him as he might have expected. I was stuck in Cape Town with no reasonable justification to spend all that money on a bird, back in the days when Jean and I were expecting our first child and already paying off our first mortgage.

So, it had remained as a big gap on my list ever since.

The first signs of the “Spotted Crake Season of 2016” was a rather jaw-dropping photo of one of them taken by Justin Nicolau at the Rundu Sewerage Works. That was in December 2015 and that wasn’t particularly unusual given the northerly latitude of Rundu. But, then followed a string of absolutely bizarre records of birds seen in Namibia and Botswana, wandering around in the dustbowls of places like the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

Despite the craziness of these records none of them were particularly twitchable, with most of the lost ones likely coming to an unfortunate demise as heat and lack of habitat consumed them.

Then, the Sappi hide in Stanger, KZN, produced at least three birds and Marievale in south-eastern Gauteng matched that with three of its own. There were even two birds found in the Eastern Cape which was decidedly far south.

I suffered for several days, seeing Facebook postings of countless photos of Spotted Crakes taken from every angle imaginable from all reported sites. There were pictures, too, of hundreds of birders happily clinching their very first Spotted Crake.

I was still out in the cold but I was still not tempted. It still seemed extreme to spend that kind of money on one bird and, what’s more, we also had a trip to Jo’burg planned for late February and I was hopeful that their migration pattern would be reflective of what the field guides said and they would still be there then, with most of them likely departing at the end of March.

But, then a report and a photo came through of a Spotted Crake that had been found at an artificial pond just outside the entrance gate of the Waterfall Estate in Midrand. The photo had to be seen to be believed. The bird looked so good it must have been stuffed and placed there. But, no, further photos emerged and it was true – there was a Spotted Crake as easy to see and photograph as the Hadeda Ibis patrolling my lawn back in Cape Town.

So, after a week of agonizing, I took the plunge.

And, when I say “I took the plunge” I actually mean that I built up the courage to ask Jean what she thought of me going to Jo’burg to twitch it.

“But, we’ll be in Jo’burg in three weeks time and you can see it then?” she said, incredulously.  If not a little dismissively.

She had a point, but my response was well rehearsed (if not a little hyperbolic):

“But it could run out of food in this artificial pond?”

“It could be taken out by a cat?”

“It could be hit by a car as it is disoriented by the bright lights and bad city?”

“It could decide to migrate earlier having further to travel?”

Fortunately my wife is malleable and she loves me very much and all I had to do for her was serenade her with her favourite song (“Just give me a reason” by Pink) and my ticket was booked.

I should make it clear that I was not expected to sing the song but simply play it for her on our sound system.

See, I told you she was malleable.

She wasn’t so malleable that she allowed me to book two tickets for Tommy and Adam, but I figured they should work as hard for their crakes as I had, and they would hopefully have a chance a few weeks later when we returned.

Often the seeing of a rarity is the bulk of the telling but, in this case, it really was as easy as pie. I arrived at the site in the heat of a Gauteng afternoon, which is certainly the worst crake-watching conditions you can get, and I walked up to the little pond at Entrance 4 of Waterfall Estate and there is was parading along the shoreline. I walked to within five metres of it and started snapping away. No mess, no fuss. Just good value.

Spotted Crake

Spotted Crake

Spotted Crake

Spotted Crake

Spotted Crake

Spotted Crake

As a quick aside, it was fascinating to watch the comings and goings at the estate entrance whilst birders flocked to see it. Ordinary people just watched in amazement at some of the strangest behaviour imaginable.  Whilst I was enjoying the bird there were three young ladies sitting under the lone acacia tree, who were obviously employed as nannies or maids in the estate, and were watching this anomaly of human behaviour.  The one looked at me and said “do you think that little bird knows how special it is?”

I laughed at her great question and replied that I doubted it did but I asked her if anyone had given her a look through a pair of binoculars or a scope.  She replied that she hadn’t seen it up close and so I offered her my pair to look through (no doubt the first time she had lifted such a thing to her eyes) and her and her two friends had a look. It was priceless seeing the true happiness on their faces as they locked onto the little bird in sharp focus and experienced what we birders are lucky enough to experience as often as we do.  I think they understood, just a fraction, of why this is special for us.

Twitchers at Waterfall Estate

Twitchers at Waterfall Estate

So, there you have it. I had finally closed the chapter on my crake hunting and all I have left to do is see the remaining 33 crakes worldwide.

Interestingly, of all the crakes I have seen it goes something like this.

I have seen several hundred Black Crakes.

I have seen two Baillon’s Crakes

And I have only seen one Striped, Corn-, Spotted, Little and African Crake.

Once the crake was ticked I had the rest of the very brief weekend visit to Jo’burg to spend doing a bit of atlassing and birding. I joined Ron Searle for a walk around Waterfall Estate on Saturday afternoon and then the two of us took a drive to Marievale for some great late summer birding in one of the most prolific wetlands in Gauteng.

Here are some pics from the rest of the birding. The highlights were undoubtedly getting pics of Western Marsh Harrier and Sedge Warbler but the breeding plumage widows and bishops were also very special.

Southern Red Bishop

Southern Red Bishop

Yellow-crowned Bishop

Yellow-crowned Bishop

White-faced Whistling Duck

White-faced Whistling Duck

Western Marsh Harrier

Western Marsh Harrier

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron

Black-shouldered Kite

Black-shouldered Kite

African Swamphen

African Swamphen

African Swamphen

African Swamphen

Hottentot Teal

Hottentot Teal

Whiskered Tern

Whiskered Tern

Sedge Warbler

Sedge Warbler

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