Sooty Falcon – in the Western Cape?

When I originally settled in Cape Town (many years ago) I was a keen birder with a dedicated Southern African list but the concept of a Western Cape list was a little foreign.  Regional lists, generally, may seem bizarre to many casual birders but there are many reasons for maintaining an accurate and up to date regional list.

There are certainly some competitive angles to a list of this nature (and I cannot deny that reason existing for me to a certain degree) but the main reason I focus on my Western Cape list is that it is well within range to try and fill it.

With our busy schedule as a family of 6 chasing rarities to the extremities of the Southern African subcontinent is most often impractical, expensive, time-consuming and applies maybe just a little too much pressure on the family.  Chasing Western Cape rarities is a little easier to sell to the wife and since it always involves at least two of my kids it is often not completely beyond the realms of possibility.

The Western Cape is also a hugely diverse region with the Karoo and Fynbos dominating most of the land space but with the coastal and estuarine habitat always being productive, the Southern Cape’s indigenous forests harbouring most of our forest species and further flung high altitude grassland in the north-western extremities of the Province, it makes for a comprehensive potential species list which in turn makes the provincial quest so well worthwhile.

My Western Cape list breached the 400 mark a few years ago and has naturally reached a degree of stagnation as the opportunities for additional species has dwindled.  My ears pricked up very quickly however when the first Western Cape record of Sooty Falcon was reported from Plettenberg Bay last week.  Sooty Falcon is a pretty spectacular bird just about anywhere in Southern Africa but, in the Western Cape, this was a once in a lifetime record.

There were a few factors that made the prospect of a twitch even more likely.  The first of these was that the bird, which was first seen on the 3rd of March at the Emily Moon hotel overlooking the Bitou floodplain, made a clockwork reappearance every morning at exactly 6:30am.  It almost seemed too good to be true.

Those birders that were a little less structure-bound than I was made the pilgrimage to Plett during the week to tick this absolute beauty.  Mouth-watering photographs starting trickling through and it became harder to ignore.

The second major factor in my favour was that we had planned a weekend away with my parents in George.  We would be spending the weekend on the Garden Route anyway and the 90 minute drive from George to Plett on Saturday morning seemed far more palatable than a relatively long range attempt from Cape Town.

Now, all that needed to happen was for the bird to continue with its set routine of perching in the trees in the parking lot of the hotel at 6:30 in the morning and wait for us to arrive and add it to our list.  Pretty simple stuff, really.

My standard birding team of Tommy and Adam wouldn’t miss this one even though it meant a 4:30am departure from George.  There was the obligatory buttering up of the “minister in charge of pink tickets” and we were all set for Saturday morning.  Dave Winter, another regular member of our local birding parties also could not resist this particular record as it would be a full lifer for him.  He decided to join us on the adventure.

We arrived at the Plett Shell Ultra City at 5:45am, refueled with a bit of coffee and a few drinks and soon thereafter we were driving up the steep driveway of the hotel as the first hints of dawn filled the eastern sky with a pink blush.  The prediction had been for a bit of rain but it was a perfect morning with very little wind and the Bitou floodplain was in resplendent condition.

As we drove into the parking lot we got some sense of how significant a bird this was.  There were already about 25 people starting the vigil of staring at the three large pines that overlooked the parking lot.  Any hotel guest that had peered out their window would have thought something was seriously amiss.  This was normal birding behaviour though, and Dave, Tommy, Adam and I took up our position and started scanning the trees.  Pleasantries were fairly limited as there was serious work to be done.

This was pretty odd, though.  No one had picked it up yet.  What was going on here?  Surely it would not be tardy for the most impressive crowd yet?

I was not too fussed.  It was not yet 6:30 and there was still time.

As 6:30 came and went the mood started to make a perceptible shift from that of nervous excitement to a gathering fear that this was not going to end well.  Discussions in the small groups started to centre around how unusual it was that the routine seemed to have been broken.  I started to have fears that the bird had decided that its southern summer holiday was over and it had decided to head north the day before.

Tommy and Adam, relatively new to this birding game are not yet hardened to the inevitable misses that come along just as often as the successful moments.  They both started to repeat the inevitable “Dad, I don’t think it is going to show up today”.  With every repetition, I told them confidently that it would eventually arrive.  I was putting on a brave face for their benefit, that’s for sure.

If things were tense for us, it was getting pretty serious for Trevor Hardaker who was creeping up on a massive Western Cape listing milestone.  He and John Graham had been locked together on 497 species in the Western Cape for a while and John had managed to edge one ahead just two days earlier as he escaped to tick the Sooty Falcon.  Trevor had not managed to get away and was left in Cape Town to stress over the photographs that were sent by John early on Friday morning.

Trevor was there on Saturday morning knowing very well that this was likely to be his only opportunity for a Sooty Falcon in the Western Cape. If he missed this one, he and John would be separated by this bird forever.  Not an outcome that was worth thinking about.

At around 7:30, almost 90 minutes into our vigil, the distinct possibility of missing out was becoming a reality.  Trevor was standing, shoulders hunched, looking pretty forlorn, with his wife, Margaret, almost too scared to go anywhere near him.

I had also lost hope and had decided to put my time to good use by atlassing the birds around us.  It would be a good list as the Bitou is a bit of a birding gem but it would be missing the most important bird.

I was standing on one side of the parking lot following the trilling of a Black Cuckooshrike (not an insignificant bird for the Western Cape in its own right), when I suddenly heard some shouting from the opposite end of the parking lot.  All I heard as I started running was “I got the bird, I got the bird!”

It was a comical scene as 30 birders stopped whatever it was that they had been doing and sprinted across the parking lot.  I would have hated to have seen a video of the mass movement as it would have looked quite ridiculous.  I am still not sure how Tommy and Adam made it across without being trampled but they were there with just the same urgency as the rest of us.

It was Vernon Head, who had put his time to good use instead of moping like many of us were doing, who finally picked up the falcon.  He had spent his time scanning the telephone wires that crossed the floodplain and whilst doing so he had found it sitting serenely on the wires.  Fortunately it was quite far away so the shouting had not chased it off and so we all gathered around the scope and got some perfect views of it preening as though it was the most natural place for it to be.

It was a huge relief for all of us, none more so than for Trevor, who seemed to have died a thousand deaths in the preceding hour and a half.

It really was something to see it sitting quite contentedly on a telephone wire over a Western Cape floodplain.  A bird that is usually restricted to places like Ndumo and Kosi Bay in the north-eastern part of the country ducking and diving amongst the sub-tropical woodlands.

We spent the next hour watching it as it alternated between spending its time preening and taking to the air for some high altitude sallies over the river.  It was often difficult to see it as it went so high as to be almost invisible.  At times we noticed that it was feeding on the wing and other times it simply circled amongst the swifts and swallows.  We eventually lost sight of it and so headed back to our cars.  There was one more final viewing as we noticed a brief squawk from above and, when looking up, we saw a brief mid-air battle as a Peregrine Falcon gave it a bit of a fly-by.

Despite the excellent viewing we had of the bird it never really posed particularly well for a photo of any degree of decency.  We had to be content with distant shots and the occasional flight shot a little closer. Still, it was a fantastic experience and well worth the effort.

We had one more bit of excitement in store on our way back to the cars.  I held back a little in order to spend a short while communing with nature when I noticed a small snake slithering quickly through the long grass I was aiming at.

Knowing that I was in the company of some reptile fundis I aborted my needs and shouted “snake!”  It is interesting company I keep these days as a word of that nature would generally cause most people to run away from the anguished cry but with this lot I had 6 or 7 people running at me at pace.  None were quicker than Cliff Dorse, who is a true reptile aficionado, and so he was shortly by my side asking me where the creature had gone.  I pointed at the mass of grass and told him it was “somewhere in there”. Fortunately it made an appearance amongst the tussocks and with no hesitation whatsoever Cliff shouted out “chamaesaura” and plunged into the grass and grabbed at the “snake”.

As it turned out it wasn’t a snake at all but I could be forgiven for getting it wrong.  This creature was a Cape Grass Lizard and is truly fascinating in that it has no noticeable limbs.  If you look very carefully you can see vestigial hind and forelimbs but overall it looks pretty much like a snake.  Its body is approximately 15cm long with a tail of about 35cms giving it a real snake-like appearance.  Closer examination revealed a head shape that was far more lizard than the diamond-shaped head of a snake and whilst in Cliff’s hands we all had a rare opportunity to spend some time with a creature without wings.  Fortuitously it was a full lifer for some of the reptile enthusiasts so it turned out to be a really good find.

Once some pics had been taken Adam was given the chance to let it go.  I can definitely see him finding reptiles just as interesting as birds as there are few kids that delight as much in holding creepy crawlies as he does.

The rest of the weekend was filled with many other non-birding activities but we did spend a bit of time on Sunday morning at some of the wetlands nearby my parent’s house.  We were after some more views of Red-chested Flufftail that I had found on a previous visit but despite hearing a few calling we never saw one.  I did manage to get some decent pics of an African Rail which is a bird that proves very difficult to photograph as it darts in and out of the reeds.

So, another weekend and another great bird added to my Western Cape list.  It was also a full lifer for Tommy and Adam, thus giving a little more impetus to each of their lists.

6 Responses to Sooty Falcon – in the Western Cape?

  1. Good to laugh about it now Mike although the nervous tension didn’t seem so funny at the time…:)

  2. Tony Archer says:

    Another great one Mike – report as well as the sighting! I spent the weekend traipsing up down hills looking for the Swamp Nightjar that Junior knew for ‘certain’ was there in the Amatikulu Reserve. The relief when it appeared at last must have been similar to the Plett relief…

  3. Amanda Haggett-Haagner says:

    A wonderful read Mike. I’m giggling at my desk and my colleague wants me to forward her the joke. When I said “it’s birding related” she said “don’t bother, I won’t get it” 🙂

  4. Margaret Maciver says:

    Great fun report, Mike! I was one of the lucky ones who drove down on Wednesday with Sion and Tiana Stanton, John Graham, and Graham Searll. In our determination not to miss this bird, although we stayed in Plett about 15 minutes drive away, we were at the site before 5.30 in total darkness. Our bird was soon seen in the dark heading for those telephone wires. So we chased it all the way to the power lines, only to have it turn around and fly right back to the usual pine tree with us all running back after it, right back to the exact spot we started! And there it stayed, giving numerous photographic opportunities and much relief all round, of course. An interfering Vervet monkey chased it to a lower tree where even a mik en druk camera like mine could get a shot. On our way back to Cape Town, we stopped at Vleesbaai and spent a good few hours there. Still thousands of birds, but just too far off for good views. The number of birds per species was awesome. Dozens of herons, dozens of glossy ibis, plenty of Hottentot Teal, huge flocks of Ruff., up to 50 Spoonbills. All the specials recently seen there could still have been in the reeds, but we were running of out time and out of daylight. Very high spirits all the way home, I wouldnt want to imagine the atmosphere if we hadnt connected with the bird 🙂

  5. Pieter Ellis says:

    Hi Mike,
    It was nice to meet you at last after all the phonecalls regarding the Verreaux’s Eagle Owls. It was a rollercoaster ride of emotions for me seeing the bird. It varied from initial excitement, followed by disappointment (we had to leave early and therefore assumed the bird was not arround), followed by great excitement when I received Trevor’s sms ” THE BIRD IS HERE”, we almost did a handbrake turn on the N2, followed by disappointment when we got back to Emily Moon only to be shown a speck in the sky and told “That is the bird”, followed by great excitement when it did that spectacular dive in front of us.
    I always enjoy your blog!
    Regards,
    Pieter

  6. Rene Van Eck says:

    Another wonderful read – thanks for sharing!

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