A wonderful week of birding

I think most people view birding (or birdwatching) as a bit of a passive pastime. It isn’t really seen as much of a sport or a competitive pursuit, but the advent of technology in the form of Birdlasser and ebird has made the data so much more comparable. Ebird is updated in real time and life lists, regional lists and county lists are visible for all to see, allowing for immediate and ongoing comparison against peers and friends.

Here in South Africa we have the South African Bird Atlas project which is into its tenth year and has generated many millions of individual species records and tens of thousands of atlas cards. There were naysayers up front, but it has become a part of a birder’s life here in SA. The Birdlasser app was written to make atlassing easier and it has become, in my opinion, the most incredible birding resource for in-the-field record keeping. A tap of the screen and a few letters brings up the search bird, and one further tap adds the record to a list with GPS data and time of day available for all time. A simple submission posts the card to the database and, Bob’s your Auntie, you have not only added to your own database but you’ve added to scientific data for bird distribution.

The Birdlasser guys extended their product further with on-line and real time data tracking of the Birdlife Birding Big Day teams and, this year, there were over three hundred teams that participated, logging almost 700 species in our country in a single 24 hour period.

So, where am I going with all of this?

I couldn’t allocate the relevant amount of time to BBD this year, so I decided I would pick my favourite pentad near to home and my son, Adam, and I would spend a five day period trying to beat the pentad record. We picked the Strandfontein pentad (3400_1830) as it is probably one of the birdiest pentads in the Western Cape and it also meant we could have a crack at one of my best birding mate’s record. Dom Rollinson logged 126 species in the pentad a few weeks ago and it represented a really decent challenge. My previous best in this pentad was only just over 100, so Adam and I would have our work cut out.

3400_1825

3400_1825

Our effort did not involve any planning whatsoever. We woke up bright and early on Sunday morning and we simply headed out and started logging our species. We have covered the pentad pretty well in the past, so we had a broad idea of where to go, but it was just good to be out on a cracking morning, birding together.

I guess it also helped to know (from a week’s previous birding session at Strandfontein) that the conditions in the pans had never looked better. Pan P2 had just the right level of water for an influx of thousands of waders and that would definitely give our list a serious boost.

We had earmarked a few broad areas to target. The gums along Zeekoeivlei are always productive, then we would move onto the pans, with S1 being good for waterfowl, then across to P1 and P2 where we would add the waders and then across to the dune scrub in the area to the east of the actual works. Over the last year or two we have worked harder in that area and, although it is poorly birded and poorly known, it produces a great range of totally different birds. We would have to find some time for the tiny coastal strip in the south eastern corner of the pentad and we would also have to give the overgrazed grassy fields in Phillipi a fly-by for some species there.

We had a great start on the edge of Zeekoeivlei. We were on 50 species within 10 minutes, just by listening in the trees and scanning the vlei. That is the spot for Great-crested Grebe and there were tons of them. The trees delivered African Dusky-flycatcher, Amethyst Sunbird and gazillions of Cape Canaries.

We were then driving slowly along the paved road below the gums when I heard the distinctive singing of a Willow Warbler.

Screech to a halt, jump out the car and scan the upper branches and there it was. It was a fantastic bird for our attempt as I had never seen one here before and it is also a pretty tricky bird in the Western Cape, never mind the peninsula.

Willow Warbler

Willow Warbler

I had intended to focus the early morning energy on the dune vegetation in the east of the works, but there was just too big an appeal to scan the waders on P2. The early morning light was perfect and so we headed there.

The Jacana was in place as we rattled past its usual spot and we got to P2 for the real boost to the list.

African Jacana

African Jacana

Strandfontein is a phenomenal birding location but I had never seen it like this. The water levels had been managed to perfection to create a balance that attracted waders in droves.

It is worth noting, at this point, that the pans aren’t simply left to their own devices in terms of water levels. They are actively managed in order to optimize the variety of habitat within the works. This job had been done with great expertise by Erica-lux Essig and she should be commended for creating the perfect environment for the wealth of waders.

Prophetically, I said to Adam that there had to be something spectacular in these large flocks. We didn’t find anything particularly outrageous that morning, but the Red-necked Phalarope was happily swimming and feeding amongst at least 15 other wader species. The list accelerated, not only with waders, but with terns, gulls, pipits, cisticolas, waterfowl and the ever-growing population of Hottentot Teals.

Hottentot Teal

Hottentot Teal

Interestingly the population of Lesser Flamingos that used to hang around just south of the pentad border, rendering them frustratingly untickable, had moved to P2 in their droves to feed on the better conditions that were present now.

Lesser Flamingo

Lesser Flamingo

Our list was already on 92 species when we decided to head into the dune vegetation. We had blithered a little at the waders, so by the time we got to the heart of the bush birds, the heat of the day was already telling and the bush was dead quiet. We eked out Cape Grassbird, Bokmakierie, Yellow Canary, Southern Boubou, Grey-backed Cisticola, Karoo Scrub Robin, Fiscal Flycatcher and one or two more but we had missed it at its best and I felt we were a few short.

Black-shouldered Kite

Black-shouldered Kite

We spent a little more time meandering through some of the pans, finding the White-winged Tern that Cliff Dorse had mentioned, as well as a Grey-headed Gull or two, but decided to head home for a swim with our list on 106. We were still a long way off the record and we would have to return to get anywhere near it.

A bigger problem we were facing was that our petrol gauge had plummeted whilst we were wrapped up in all the birding. The electronic range reader had found its way down to 5kms before we even left the works. Adam watched it carefully as it dropped further, until it eventually dropped to zero as we were free-wheeling past the exit gate. I could feel his sense of panic, not being wise to the built-in buffer that these range readouts have. I think he thought that when it hits zero, the car literally grinds to a halt.

Luckily that was not the case and we made it to the Shell Garage on Strandfontein Road, avoiding a potentially long walk. It was a fortuitous eventuality as no sooner had we started filling the tank when Adam spotted a Booted Eagle being harassed by a few Pied Crows. It was a very good one to add to the list.

I had to decide if I was going to continue to stretch for the record or not. The next day was Monday and work was hectic, plus I was flying to Jo’burg on Wednesday, further limiting the amount of time I would have for the attempt. Despite the limits, I decided that I would use the long daylight hours of summer to squeeze in some extramural birding. Monday evening had me trawling the streets of Zeekoeivlei looking for odd birds, peering into the back yards of houses along the western edge of the vlei. These silly competitive birding quests do tend to bring out the oddest behaviour.  Things were a little bleak for a while but I happened upon a small nature reserve right along the water’s edge and I ticked three swift species, a Greater Striped Swallow, an African Marsh Harrier, Southern Fiscal, Yellow Bishop and Red-faced Mousebird.

By the time the sun set on Monday evening I was on 122. The record was well within sight now and I would simply have to venture back to Strandfontein before work to claim it. Some household negotiations were required but, when Jeanie relented, I roped in two good friends, Megan and Andrew, and headed pre-dawn to Strandfontein.

We had to make an obligatory stop at the Phillipi wetlands (which are anything but wet right now) for the two grassland birds – Capped Wheatear and Red-capped Lark – and then we headed first to the eastern edge of the vlei where the Willow Warbler was still singing away. The African Paradise-flycatcher and Jackal Buzzard were far more important as they were two new birds for the list and then it was to the bush for species that we had missed on Sunday. My list was now on 126 and I needed one more bird for the record to be mine.

It wasn’t quite as birdy as I had hoped. In fact, the best “bird” of the area was a pair of friendly Water Mongooses (yes, the right plural) but eventually we got a Chestnut-vented Titbabbler as bird number 127.

Water Mongoose

Water Mongoose

I said to Andrew and Megan that we should make another turn at P1 and P2 to show them some waders. It was a good decision as we quickly found the phalarope and added a Swamphen to the list along with a White-necked Raven, but the real cracker was the odd looking “grey” plover that I saw feeding along the edge of the pan. It just looked all wrong and when it flew I noticed the pale auxillaries making it one of the golden plover species. Fortunately, Cliff Dorse was around and, with my limited time, I had to leave it in his capable hands to get some record shots to nail it down as an American Golden Plover. I’m not much of a rarity finder so this was a pretty good one to get, especially since it got the list up to 131.

American Golden Plover

American Golden Plover (photo courtesy Cliff Dorse)

My name would have been up in lights for far longer had it not been for what was going to happen later that day.

I was checking my phone on Tuesday evening when Trevor Hardaker sent a few of us a screenshot of a Temminck’s Stint that had been found by Glynis Bowie on Saturday morning at Strandfontein. It had remained tucked away on Glynis’s memory card and only worked its way through Facebook on Tuesday evening when she posted it to a general group for ID assistance. It was quite amusing seeing the reaction from the general birding populace. Here was one of the most notable rarities of the year, being innocently posted on Facebook, with little thought to how much chaos it would create. Huge kudos to Glynis for finding this bird and having the sense that it was something different. It would have been so easy to have simply assumed it was run of the mill and ignored it.

The wires were soon buzzing and plans were being set in motion for a huge twitch at Strandfontein the next morning. What was even better was the fact that this bird was in my pentad!

Not so fast.

I had a 6:05am flight to Johannesburg, for what turned out to be a 10 minute meeting in Pretoria. Just like the Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin where work scuppered my plans at being in place for the first search for the bird on that Monday morning, here I was heading north when most Gauteng-based SA birders would be heading south. Even worse, all my close birding friends would be gazumping me while I crammed into that tiny little SAA seat.

As I landed in Jo’burg my phone was turned on and message after message came through of news of the bird that had been found again, just where it was originally seen. I guess that was excellent news but I had serious FOMO (“Fear of Missing Out”).

No sooner had I landed and I was re-organising my return flight. I was originally due to fly back at 4pm making the possibility of a twitch almost unachievable, given traffic. I managed to secure a 13:55 flight back and the relatively important 10 minute meeting (it was the crux of a significant transaction that I have been busy with for most of the year) became a distraction as I considered my detailed plans of getting to Strandfontein.

My plane landed promptly at 4:05pm, I called the Uber from the tarmac, rushed through the airport, got into my fourth Uber of the day and told my driver, Inock from Zimbabwe (of course), that he had to get us to my house as fast as was humanly possible, without breaking any speed limits. I made the most of the dead time in the car by phoning my boys and telling them to pack the car with camera, bins, scope and, without tempting fate too much, a cooler box of celebratory beers.

It was quite a come-down to arrive home so efficiently, whizz through the house and get changed and jump in the car and then grind to a halt in the gridlocked traffic through Ottery.

We had plenty of time, though, and I was able to relax and enjoy the anticipation of the bird, particularly since I was getting regular updates from Margaret and Cliff who were making sure it was still nailed down for when I got there.

I guess the ease at which we saw the bird could be considered anti-climactic, but it wasn’t. Sure, it was right there in the first scope that I stepped up to and it wasn’t the best light for noticing the bright yellow legs and unmarked back and friendly face that seems to be a feature of this bird, but I was there with my two bird-crazy boys and we were ticking a lifer for all of us, together.

A very cool side-story was that this was Adam’s 600th Southern African bird. I can’t even remember what my 600th bird was but I am very confident I wasn’t 11 years old and it was very likely not something as special as a Temminck’s Stint.  He is still about 19 birds behind Tommy and I personally am not looking forward to the day when that gap narrows to zero.

Celebrating Adam's 600th bird

Celebrating Adam’s 600th bird

Looks like the best angle

Looks like the best angle

Temminck's Stint

Temminck’s Stint

Here are a few more pics of the stint that I have managed to capture on subsequent visits to Strandfontein:

Temminck's Stint

Temminck’s Stint

Temminck's Stint

Temminck’s Stint

So, I was still within the five day pentad period and the Temminck’s Stint was the 133rd bird I had recorded in the pentad. I was to add one other, an African Snipe, to finally get to 134. It was a rewarding extension of the record, that no one really cares about, but it included a fair number of amazing birding memories. Quite incredibly, the atlas list included three national rarities (Temminck’s Stint, Red-necked Phalarope and American Golden Plover), 5 Western Cape rarities (African Jacana, Hottentot Teal, White-faced Duck, Sand Martin and Willow Warbler) and a fair number of new pentad records for me.

Sand Martin

Sand Martin

The great thing about records, though, is that they are meant to be broken. Although I did think that mine would stand for a little while, I made the tragic mistake of mentioning to my good friend, John Graham, that I had attacked the pentad with vigour, when I saw him at the Temminck’s Stint twitch on Wednesday evening. John seemed impressed with my total, but given that it is virtually his home pentad as well, he seemed a little too interested in the number I had posted. It did not surprise me at all that, when I bumped into John at Strandfontein a few days later when we went back for better pics of the stint, he admitted that he was having a go himself. He was four days in and was sitting on 128 and, knowing some of the really easy birds he was still missing, I knew that my record was going to fall pretty quickly.

At 1 pm that afternoon I was easing into a relaxing meal with the family when John called and broke the news that he had surpassed my number with one day to go. Don’t read into this that he was gloating in any way, just that he felt I should be the first to know. It was a little like he was a good friend breaking the news to me that he had stolen my girlfriend. He was clearly a little embarrassed, but still pleased that he had won the girl over. And, perhaps to extend the analogy a bit, I wasn’t as crestfallen as you would expect as I was probably all too aware that I was never really good enough for the girl anyway.

Despite losing the record, this last week has been a very enjoyable week of birding for Adam, Tommy and I. We spent tons of time at Strandfontein in all its finery (non-birders would never understand how fine a sewerage works can be) and we got to share our experiences with good friends and fellow birders.

One Response to A wonderful week of birding

  1. Adam Buckham says:

    Awesome blog dad, lovely pics.

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