West Coast Wader Bashing

In a previous blog I spoke at quite a bit of length about the competitive side of birding (see here). It is not something I have done a lot of but, when I do a big day or chase a high atlas total, I really enjoy it as it is just that little bit different to the run of the mill birding.

It is a time when silly, common birds that happen to elude you all day suddenly become bogey birds and are like gold dust when they eventually land on the list. Who ever would have thought that a Wattled Starling would elicit high fives, but that was what happened on our weekend in the West Coast National Park.

We’d been invited by our good friends, Andrew and Loraine, to join them for the West Coast National Park Honorary Rangers “Wader Bash”. It basically entailed a 24 hour birding competition from 5:45pm on Friday evening to 5:45pm on Saturday evening, followed by a prize giving in the Stables near the Geelbek Manor House.

The rules were pretty simple, although quite strict. Teams of four would require at least three members of the team to positively affirm a bird before being added to the list, and there was also a guide assigned to each team to ensure that “stringing” was eliminated. I guess the definition of “stringing” is required here. Essentially it is a subtle form of cheating whereby dodgy birds are added to a competitive list in order to prove that you are more “birdy” than the next guy. Yes, it happens all the time, all over the world, in just about every bird circle.

There was no risk of that in our team. Andrew and Loraine were tough taskmasters, ensuring that they confirmed every bird, whilst Simon, our excellent guide, was as ethical as ethical gets, and I found him peering over my shoulder on numerous occasions insisting that he confirm the Ruddy Turnstone that I had just announced to the team.

The guides were also assigned to the various teams to assist the less experienced birders and point them in the right direction with the various IDs.

In addition to these ethical rules, the rest of the rules were pretty self-explanatory. We could add any bird to the list provided it was seen or heard with certainty and it was within the confines of the West Coast National Park. Despite the name of the competition we were not limited to waders and shorebirds.

Our team consisted of Andrew, Loraine, myself and Jeanie (my wife). Yes, I know you all fell off your chairs at the mention of Jeanie participating in a birding competition, but I can confirm that she was actually a member of our team.

Proof that Jeanie was there

Proof that Jeanie was there

Her participation was at times limited to administrative tasks, such as keeping a list tally and starting the braai, but she was a full and present member for the Saturday morning session from 5:30am to 12:30pm. If you’d told me that Jeanie would be with us for seven hours straight, at any point of the competition, I would have thought you were smoking your socks. To be honest, I thought there would be as much chance of that as Simon allowing me to put a Brimstone Canary on our list.

It probably comes as a surprise that my bird crazy boys were not assigned to our team, but they were put in a separate team to keep the pressure on the oldies. Tommy and Adam were paired up with Andrew and Loraine’s son, Mark, and another good mate, Jonty, who was just as bird nuts as the other three (possibly even more so).

Adam, Mark, Jonty and Tommy

Adam, Mark, Jonty and Tommy

They were assigned Mel as their guide and he would have the pleasure of reining in the overzealousness of four  enthusiastic boys for the duration of the competition. When I looked at Mel on Saturday evening at the prize giving there was just a tiny bit of a halo glinting in the dining room lights.

Mel and the boys

Mel and the boys

All competitive birding events must be accompanied by a fair degree of planning. And this was no exception, particularly given the importance of timing the tide correctly at Geelbek and Seeberg, the one being best on a dropping tide and the other being best at high tide, respectively.

We also had to maximize our bush birding with birds going deathly quiet in the West Coast National Park during the windy and warm middle hours of the day, so we would be sure to allocate a good portion of the early morning to the Strandveld.

I had taken the liberty of sending our planned route to my teammates during the week. It was unusual for me to take a bossy role in something like this but someone really had to do it. Thoughts of midday snoozes, late lie-ins and G&T’s were tossed out the window, much to my wife’s disappointment.

Our route would go broadly something like this:

We’d start on Friday evening with the salt pans to the south east of the manor house, with high tide pushing roosting waders to the pans; on Saturday morning we would bush bird north on our way to Seeberg, timing our arrival there for high tide and then we’d slowly work our way back south to be at Geelbek at the customary four and half hours after high tide for the dropping tide wader extravaganza; a quick lunch break and then we would head west to Tsaarsbank for coastal birds and then return to Abrahamskraal for the last 45 minutes before the clock ran dead.

I’d spent many a day in the West Coast in the past but I don’t think I’d ever cracked 100 species. We would be there for a bit longer than usual this time, and our birding would be very focused, so I felt hopeful of a total beyond that, but I wasn’t sure by how many. Andrew and Loraine, who were Wader Bash stalwarts, said that a total of 115 won it last year, so I had hoped we’d be a little higher than that. Perhaps 120?

We got stuck in horrendous traffic in the stop-gos on either side of Yzerfontein on the way out, which meant we arrived in a swirl of dust at the stables as lists and rules were being handed out by the Honorary Rangers.

The best way to fill up the time at the roadworks stops

The best way to fill up the time at the roadworks stops

It was an inauspicious start as we clumped into the hall, all six of us, knocking past the quietly attentive contestants as we stumbled to our seats in the back of the hall. Emma ran in shouting excitedly as they had made a nametag just for her, and it was important that she announce it to the world. It was a pretty relaxed crowd, though, and about three minutes later all was forgiven as teams huddled in corners strategizing their future 24 hours.

None of that was necessary for team Haven’t got the Fogartyest as I had laid out our plans already (see, there is method in my OCD behavior at times) and we were the first team walking purposefully across the flat plains to the salt pans. I had never before been in the WCNP at this time of day and had always wanted to wader watch at the pans at the right time of day and with the tides so accommodating. We were not disappointed. The light was just right and we sat down and scanned for as much as we possibly could in that beautiful time of day.

Salt pans in the late afternoon light

Salt pans in the late afternoon light

Salt pan scanning

Salt pan scanning

The list clicked over quickly, as it usually does in the first few hours of a big day, and, by the time we arrived at Duinepos as the sun was setting, we already had 45 species chalked up. The most exciting species were good numbers of Chestnut-banded Plovers and a pair of very distant Terek Sandpipers.

It was a good start and we were already ten ahead of the youngsters. We would have to keep on our toes to stay ahead of them.

Sunset over Geelbek

Sunset over Geelbek

Saturday morning dawned as beautifully as Friday had finished off and we were headed north to Seeberg with our intrepid guide at 5:45am. Jean was appalled to be awake this early for birding purposes, but she sucked it up and took her place in the backseat of the car with the list at the ready to tick. And tick frantically is what she did, as we rattled through the bush birds on the way north: Karoo Lark, Cape Penduline Tit, Grey Tit, Bar-throated Apalis, Karoo Scrub-robin, Cape Robin-chat, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, White-throated and Yellow Canary, Greywing Francolin and Cape Spurfowl. It was fast and furious and since Jeanie had not heard of most of these birds before she would stop us and say something like “Is that a spurfowl? I thought it was a francolin”.

Tut tut.

Grey-winged Francolin

Grey-winged Francolin

Bokmakierie

Bokmakierie

Bokmakierie

Bokmakierie

Cape Penduline-tit

Cape Penduline-tit

Cape Penduline-tit

Cape Penduline-tit

Karoo Scrub-robin

Karoo Scrub-robin

White-backed Mousebird

White-backed Mousebird

Yellow Canary

Yellow Canary

We arrived at Seeberg just in time for high tide and accelerated further through the list with terns, gulls, flamingos, plovers, cormorants and oystercatchers advancing the list steadily. When we cleared out of the rather overpopulated hide (it was not a big surprise that others had planned as far ahead as I had and 8am was the premium time to be at Seeberg hide) our list was on about 85 and things were progressing pretty well.

Andrew and Jeanie at Seeberg

Andrew and Jeanie at Seeberg

A squash and a squeeze at Seeberg hide

A squash and a squeeze at Seeberg hide

Havent Got the Forgartyest at Seeberg Viewpoint

“Haven’t Got the Forgartyest” at Seeberg Viewpoint

Little Tern

Little Tern

Common Tern

Common Tern

Common Tern

Common Tern

Little Egret

Little Egret

One of the biggest benefits of the Wader Bash weekend is that one gets access to sections of the park that the general public doesn’t get to see. We were given access to Klein and Groot Mooimaak, which are two dilapidated settlements in the northern part of the park. Klein Mooimaak is down at the lagoon and produced a Cardinal Woodpecker and Lesser Flamingo. Both of those birds were thanks to the youngsters who could not contain their excitement at seeing these birds and hence gave them away to us. We would take any gifts that we were given at this stage of the game.

We also birded alongside them at Groot Mooimaak, which is a run down set of barns and cottages to the east of Seeberg view point. We returned the favour to the boys by assisting them with African Pipit, Booted Eagle, Jackal Buzzard, Malachite Sunbird and a pair of Fiscal Flycatchers. All of these were pretty good birds for the day’s list and it just goes to show how useful it was to get into different habitat when diversity is so important to get that edge.

Getting rid of some pent up energy at Groot Mooimaak

Getting rid of some pent up energy at Groot Mooimaak

As time ticked by we made the decision to get to Geelbek hide as early as possible in order to secure prime viewing spots as we knew it was going to be a bunfight in the hide with 11:15 being the ideal time to be there. I think we overdid it a bit, as we arrived in the hide at 10:20 and peered through the slats and looked at a full tide with the water lapping against the kneecaps of the flamingoes that were clucking away in front of the hide. It would be a long wait before the action started but it was a good time to regroup and relax after a busy start.

Geelbek very seldom disappoints, especially if you get the tide right, and, within 45 minutes, the mudflats were covered in birds probing away. It was not unlike the action inside the hide with around 50 people all squeezing into any available space to add birds to their lists. We added all the usual stuff but unfortunately there were no rarities to be found. The most exciting bird was certainly the resident Osprey that did a fly-by with its morning catch. In fact, I think the Osprey was bird number 100, which was a nice landmark for the day.

Western Osprey

Western Osprey

We were all grateful for the break in the middle of the day where we headed back to Duinepos for lunch and a swim. We felt we’d be more productive with a recharge but we were surprised to see that the boys’ team continued onto Tsaarsbank with no break. The moms were in a bit of a flap worrying about whether they had eaten or whether they would have their midday snooze. It took a while to convince them that the boys wouldn’t melt without a break and it was good to see them chasing us hard. Our afternoon session would have to be focused to make sure we stayed ahead.

The afternoon was very quiet, as was expected. We eked out a new bird every 30 minutes or so and Tsaarsbank was a boon with four new birds (African Penguin, Southern Giant Petrel, Crowned Cormorant and Cape Gannet).

Southern Giant Petrel

Southern Giant Petrel

Abrahamskraal was a relative gold rush with five new birds (Common Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Spur-winged Goose, Black Crake) and we left the hide and headed back to the Stables to make sure we got our lists in on time. It would be a shame to be disqualified for a late submission after all our hard work.

We were not done yet though. Bird number 117 was a Wattled Starling at a drinking trough alongside the road (which elicited a rather spontaneous high five as mentioned earlier) and bird number 118 was the best of the day with a Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk perched on the telephone pole near the manor house. Interestingly, PCG is a rather rare bird in the park and so it seemed fitting that it was our last bird of the day.

Except that it wasn’t.

It seemed wrong that we added a House Sparrow to our list just before the clock chimed 5:45 but that is what big days are all about – a House Sparrow has the same pride of place on the list as a Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk – and I was pretty happy to make it number 119. So, we fell one short of my target but it had been an epic day in the field and it was a pretty good total for the Wader Bash.

As is always the case with big days it is more interesting to look at what we missed rather than what we got. Looking at the atlas database and reporting rate the most shocking of these were Black Harrier, African Marsh Harrier, Pied Kingfisher, Reed Cormorant and Namaqua Dove.  Interestingly we got a whole bunch of Namaqua Doves the next morning as we did some slightly more relaxed birding.

The boys also finished very strongly with a total of 112 and although they were crestfallen not to beat our total they still managed an amazing list given their collective experience. Mel was a superstar as a guide and I suspect he may have needed a tranquilizer at the end of the day to come down from the hype that filled his Kombi during the bash. The total of 112 for the boys secured them second spot in the competition, which they were delighted with.

Mel and his team

Mel and his team

It must be said, though, that the highlight of the day for me was sitting at the prizegiving and realizing what the day was all about. The Honorary Rangers organize this day for the general public but a big focus of the day is to invite several scholar teams from a number of schools to participate. The matric students that attended may or may not have been exposed to birding before, but they are assigned experienced guides who share their knowledge with the school kids and introduce them to the wonderful world that we have been privileged to be a part of for most of our lives already.

“Oom” Andre was the guide for the winning scholar team and he stood up and praised his team for their total on the day. We had actually bumped into them at Tsaarsbank and shared our scopes with them so that they could add African Penguins and Southern Giant Petrels to their lists. The smiles on their faces when the distant specks bobbing on the water came into sharp and near focus as they peered into the eyepieces was better than any bird we ticked that day.

So, a huge thanks to the HRs for an amazing day out and they can be assured that we will be back next year. I think we’ll have to watch our backs a lot closer as the boys will be even more determined to beat us.

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