An expensive lifer

It seems as if many of my blogs are written about new life birds for my boys and I. This one is really no different. They are usually the stories most worth telling as life birds are particularly special, no matter what level of birder you may be.

The latest addition to our lists could really be termed as an “incidental” lifer. It wasn’t so much that we happened to see it by absolute chance, but it happened to be available to us because it was “theoretically” only a small detour off the route back from our annual holiday on the Garden Route in Plettenberg Bay.

The bird in question was a Red-necked Buzzard.

This particular species was first added to the Southern African sub-region list about two years ago, following a post-fact photo identification of one many years after the actual photo was taken. An odd buzzard was photographed in the Kgalagadi in the early 2000’s and it remained unidentified for many years, most probably dismissed as an odd looking Common Buzzard. Fast forward to July 2014, when Etienne Marais photographed, and identified, a Red-necked Buzzard in the Caprivi, which led to the original photo being brought out of storage and being retrospectively, and correctly, identified as the very first record for the sub-region.

There have been a handful of subsequent records, mostly from the greater Kalahari basin, and usually completely untwitchable because of the remoteness of the locality and the wide-ranging nature of this migrant raptor. But then a strange buzzard was photographed by Terry Terblanche alongside the Goukou River, just north of the Western Cape coastal town of Stilbaai, about 300 kilometres east of Cape Town. It took a quick ID by Garth Shaw in Cape Town on a Facebook post to pin it down to a Red-necked Buzzard and the twitchiest twitchers of the lot were already hitting the N2 to find this bird.

Raptors are notoriously difficult to twitch. Their flying ranges are obviously far greater than the average passerine and they are very seldom in the same place a few hours later, never mind the next day. That didn’t put off my good friend, John Graham, who hit the road on a Sunday afternoon mere minutes after the bird was first reported. His four-hour drive to Stilbaai culminated in a fruitless three-hour search until the end of day darkness halted his progress. A Cape Town based meeting the very next morning had him travelling back into the small hours of the morning, feeling pretty bummed that his quarry had fled the scene. I think John sincerely accepted that he had missed his opportunity and he would have to wait for the next twitchable one before adding it to his list, but that was blown the next morning when it was re-found in the same place and, to cut a long story short, John got a second chance and got his very well-deserved tick the next morning. Many other birders took the immediate opportunity to chase this most unlikely, twitchable, raptor and one would think the onset of the festive season would have had me in a laid-back mood to do the same, but my run in to the end of the year was manic and I just couldn’t justify a full day round-trip for it.

I guess I resigned myself to the fact that this was a no-hoper.

Well, the holiday continued and Adam and I covered a huge amount of birding ground in St Francis Bay and Plettenberg Bay and, to be honest, it was more than adequate compensation for the missed buzzard. We broke our atlassing record in St Francis Bay with a single card of 158 species, which included a bizarre trip on the Kromme River to take the kids waterskiing where we saw four separate European Honey Buzzards.  Photos of these four birds are included here but you will have to forgive the poor quality as they were mostly taken while one of the kids was skiing.

European Honey Buzzard

European Honey Buzzard

European Honey Buzzard

European Honey Buzzard

European Honey Buzzard

European Honey Buzzard

European Honey Buzzard

European Honey Buzzard

All in all we completed over 8 atlas cards and recorded well over 200 species and added some good pics to our growing catalogues.

Adam photographing waders on the Kromme

Adam photographing waders on the Kromme

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit

Baillon's Crake

Baillon’s Crake

Olive Woodpecker

Olive Woodpecker

Grey Sunbird

Grey Sunbird

Amethyst Sunbird

Amethyst Sunbird

But, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t watching those daily rarity reports with just a tiny bit of interest. They were all rather encouraging, it must be said. Birders travelling to and from holiday destinations were popping in, rather haphazardly, and ticking a friendly buzzard with great regularity.

I started hatching a plan, knowing that we would be driving straight past Stilbaai on our way back home.

But one must understand that these plans are never really that easily achieved. I have an incredibly understanding wife, but we would be laden with surfboards, a trailer, four bicycles and not an insignificant number of non-birding family members in the car, and I am usually the most intolerant traveler when Jeanie wants to stop along the way to smell the roses. In normal circumstances, when I hit the road, I need to get home and here I would be expecting a role-reversing “smell the roses” stop in Stilbaai. It was going to be a tall order to get all of this right.

My plans were soon in full swing, despite the likely headwinds, and I contacted another good birding friend, Frans, who holidays in Stilbaai, to ask him for a laundry list of “things to do in Stilbaai while your husband searches for a life bird”. The list contained visits to coffee shops, riverside activities, boat trips, theme parks and the coup de grace, a visit to the Inverroche Gin distillery (Jeanie being particularly partial to this wave of craft gin sweeping through the Western Cape).

Jeanie's happy place

Jeanie’s happy place

I also managed to contact Menno Stenvert, the local birding expert, to assist us with transport and to help us search for the bird so that Jeanie had full access to our wheels (although I did have to reinforce the fact that she was towing a trailer and she couldn’t park wherever she wanted).

Being the amazing wife that she was, she agreed to the detour and we planned an early departure from Plett and arrived promptly at the sub-station, oft frequented by the buzzard, to meet Menno at 8am where he would take us under his wing and hopefully find the bird.

As Jeanie drove off to sample the wonders of Stilbaai, she never even asked me how long I needed. I didn’t broach the subject either, as I wasn’t quite sure if she was mentally prepared for 20 minutes or 4 hours and the less pressure I had, the better. Knowing her like I do I suspected that my binoculars would turn into a pumpkin at the two-hour mark and I would possibly be wife-less at the three-hour mark. But reports of this bird had been pretty reliable and I was confident that we would turn it up within half an hour.

Tommy, Adam and I set off with Menno and we were soon joined by Ben and Joanne Baxter, who had travelled from Hermanus, and Stewart and Sally Maclachlan from Stutterheim, who were on their way back home after their holidays. We all faced the same pressures of needing to get it quickly, but I suspected my time line was way shorter than all of theirs.

Needless to say, we searched every damn pole and electricity pylon within the relevant radius and turned up nothing. There were Common Buzzards, Jackal Buzzards, Booted Eagles, a Yellow-billed Kite and an Osprey, but none of the soaring raptors matched what we were looking for. I had also opened an atlas card and I was on 50 species when the pumpkin hour arrived. Doing my best to stay in Jeanie’s good books I sent her a whatsapp saying “we still haven’t found the bird but if you are ready to go you can pick me up”. It was a prepaid olive branch just to make sure she wouldn’t dismiss these crazy ideas too hastily in the future. We trudged back to the meeting point and continued our scanning work and, by the time we got back into the car, we were buzzard-less, but the kids were fed with toasted sandwiches and the windows were closed, aircon turned on and we turned the car onto autopilot for Claremont, Cape Town.

As we bade a fond (yet disappointed) farewell to our fellow birders, as an amusing, but purely academic exercise, I asked Jeanie what the “point of no return” would be.  In other words, how far towards Cape Town would she allow us to travel before we were no longer allowed to turn around if someone should phone us to say they had found the bird (the others were still going to search for a while longer). Her response was immediate and categoric “we have already passed that point”. I implored with her that we were only 30 seconds out of town:

“Surely you would allow me to turn around now? I can understand the N2 or Riversdale, but an immediate clampdown on turnarounds? It just doesn’t sound reasonable.”

It was a stonewall. My time had well and truly run out and even when Tommy and Adam chimed in with their opinion  of this being a once in a lifetime bird (with the appropriate sparkles in their eyes), their mom wouldn’t even entertain their pleading.

I won’t deny the fact that missing this bird had made me grumpy and so the stonewall turned into a stony silence as we motored out of town and headed towards the N2.

As we reached the N2 my phone rang. It was Ben and he told me he had just seen a viable candidate for the bird, flying from the river back towards the school and church area. He wasn’t certain, but was fairly confident, but, since the bird wasn’t in view, I didn’t believe it was even worth a discussion.

And then the inevitable happened. As we drove out of Riversdale, more than half an hour away from Stilbaai, I got an SMS from Ben saying: “confirmed back at school, apologies for bragging” and with that I was sent a digiscoped photo of the bird sitting happily on one of the poles I had scanned 10 times over a few hours before.

By now Emma was fast asleep on the middle seat and Jeanie had also just nodded off. I didn’t think too carefully before I let out a rather loud expletive which shook Jeanie awake. She looked at me, rather grim-faced, and said “what now?”

I told her that the bird had been found and I started moaning about my poor luck. I think she weighed a few things up in her head right there and then. She forecast in her mind a four-hour drive with a seriously grumpy husband and she decided to make a self-preserving decision and said, with minimal hesitation, “turn around. Let’s go see this bird.”

I will highlight that it was not an excited reaction but more of a resigned one. I didn’t care. I told her she was the most amazing wife in the world (which she is) and we found a safe place to turn the car around and we headed back to Stilbaai. The next 30 minutes were excruciating. I had Tommy on the phone to Ben to get regular updates and then he phoned Stewart and another guy we had met and told them the bird had reappeared. We always bemoan the fact that the traffic is worst when you are in a rush to see a good bird. The same had happened in gridlock traffic through Ottery when we were rushing to see the Temminck’s Stint and, even though this wasn’t gridlock, there was a train of traffic trundling along the road and I just felt every second may count with this bird.

My stress was unnecessary as we turned down at the sub-station and parked at the church and our bird was perched two poles away. What a relief.

Unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the bird for photographs but it didn’t matter too much to me. We had excellent scope views as it flew and perched on a higher pole and Stewart supplied some shots for me to use in this blog.

We made it

We made it (photo courtesy of Stewart Maclachlan)

Red-necked Buzzard

Red-necked Buzzard (photo courtesy of Stewart Maclachlan)

Red-necked Buzzard

Red-necked Buzzard (photo courtesy of Stewart Maclachlan)

Waiting patiently

Waiting patiently, but sneaking a look at the bird as well

We're all happy now

We’re all happy now (is that a smile on Jeanie’s face or a grimace?)

There was a price to pay for this bird. Once we got back to Cape Town I found myself at a shopping mall pushing a trolley around Woolworths to stock the house with food and I’m also led to believe that I owe Jeanie a night away at the One and Only Hotel in the V&A Waterfront as further compensation. Although there are no birds there, other than Hartlaub’s Gulls, I am pretty sure that I will derive just as much benefit as Jeanie and at least I have that buzzard on my list.

One Response to An expensive lifer

  1. Pamela says:

    You truly do have an amazing wife – not sure many would have agreed to turn around on the wrong side of Riversdale, even for a night at the One&Only!!! Really enjoyed your account of finding this bird!

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