Little Crake – a first for everyone

The birding community is a slightly strange one but when you are part of it it just seems quite normal.  I often find myself at dinner parties or in discussions with good friends that are non-birders and get myself into a passionate soliloquy about what makes this hobby so exciting.  It is often quite difficult to describe.

I found myself in a similar conversation very recently and I struck upon an analogy that just seemed to fit quite well.

I said to my mates that the thrill of an exciting twitch is just like watching your rugby team play an important crunch game against a strong opponent.  The anxiety during the game is just like the anxiety of chasing a rare bird that you have just heard about.  The outcome is uncertain, it really could go either way and the thrill of a victory is not quite within grasp.  You can imagine how good it will feel when the hooter goes and the scoreboard reflects the desired result but you cannot take it until the last act is done.  The depression of a defeat is also not a certain outcome but thoughts of this eventuality make the pit of your stomach feel empty and just a little desperate.

The extent of the anxiety is directly proportional to the significance of the game.  A successful twitch of a Sooty Falcon in Plettenberg Bay is just like the Stormers winning the Super 15 final against the Bulls or, even better, the mighty Crusaders.  Well, this last week I was put into a World Cup Final scenario – the Springboks against the All Blacks at Eden Park for the number 1 ranking in world rugby.

It all started with a missed call from Trevor Hardaker on Thursday afternoon.  I was in a meeting and didn’t have my phone with me.  I’m not quite sure what I could have done if I had been able to take the call but it didn’t matter too much as I was soon afterwards back at my desk checking my e-mails.  Mega Mega Alert jumped out at me and I skipped all other e-mails to open this one.

I didn’t see much other than “Little Crake”, “Clovelly”, “first record for SA” and I was already running out of the office not paying too much attention to any of the minor details – they could be garnered whilst in the car on the way.

I was extremely fortunate in this particular situation in that I work in Westlake which is no more than a short distance to Clovelly.  In 5pm traffic it would be a maximum of 20 minutes.  I briefly contemplated going home to pick up my binoculars and camera (and probably more importantly my two bird-crazy boys) but time would then be against me.  It may be too late by the time we got there.  Herein is the uncertainty of these twitch outcomes – we never really know how long these vagrants will stay put and how easy will they be to see whilst they are around.

I had made my decision – it would be straight to Clovelly to make sure I at least got a view.  I would worry about a photograph later.  I was not sure if my boys would ever forgive me but that was a chance I would have to take.

The drive along Boye’s Drive was excruciating.  The slow grinding gears of a truck in front of me made me extremely nervous.  Every second that ticked by was another second that this once-in-a-lifetime record may take to flight.  I eventually reached the Clovelly wetland and screeched to a halt next to the described pond.  I jumped out of the car and ran the short distance to where a few early arrivers were gathered looking way more relaxed than they should have.  This was a bad sign.  Had it already disappeared?

I ran up to Trevor and breathlessly asked him whether it was still around.  It was a very relieving “yes” but “it is in the reedbed at the moment”.  I would have to be anxious for just a little bit longer. I was offered a pair of binoculars (a pair that were so bad that you had to close one eye to eliminate 4 or 5 adjacent images) and I waited.

Soon thereafter the tiny and aptly named female Little Crake wandered calmly out of the reeds and proceeded to forage on the surface of the water no more than 6 metres away from me.  Whew, an enormous relief – I had made it in time.  Now I could relax and when my mate asked what it feels like to finally see something so special, I would be telling him that it was a combination of elation and relief.

Soon after seeing the bird there was quite a lot of discussion around what it was doing here.  This is a bird that is so unlikely in our country that the possibility had never been contemplated.  It breeds in Eastern Europe finding ponds and wetlands from where the male displays and sets up camp during our winter (March through to September).  Once the breeding season is over it makes its way into Africa.  When chatting to Callan Cohen, a good mate and arguably the world authority on African birds he mentions that it virtually disappears on arrival in Africa.  There are scattered records of this species in Ethiopia but since it is usually so shy and retiring and it is no longer calling and displaying it is virtually impossible to find.  Despite Callan having spent much time in parts of Africa where this species theoretically winters he had never seen one.  Who knew he would see one in his back yard…

Its arrival in Cape Town is clearly a case of reverse migration.  Some vagrants find themselves at the wrong end of the globe as a result of weather oddities (storms at sea pushing them east or west of their usual north south migration routes) but in this case it is unlikely that this bird was one of these.  Reverse migration happens every now and again and is most likely a case of a switch inside the bird’s migration program that just goes wrong.  Instead of this particular bird heading north from wherever it was overwintering it went due south until it ran out of land and decided it was time to stop.  It is truly fascinating thinking of this poor thing flying in completely the wrong direction, unknowingly heading to a very strange land whilst all its contemporaries were moving northwards together.  It is kind of like being on a train that you really feel should be full of people yet you are strangely the only one on it.  You must eventually realise that something is wrong.

Since Cape Town is at the end of a continent it tends to be a good collection zone for reverse migrants and this Little Crake is certainly not the first bird to get it completely wrong.  Cape Point (which is not that far from Clovelly) is a true reverse migrant trap and a bird like White-throated Bee-eater is another good example of this phenomenon.

Well, here it was now and by all accounts it seemed to be having a relatively good time.  By the way it was foraging there did not seem to be any shortage of food and it certainly was not shy of all the attention.

An extremely important mention needs to go to the person that started this whole episode.  Gillian Barnes, a resident of Clovelly, had been taking one of her usual walks along the wetland on Wednesday when she noticed this tiny little Crake feeding on the margins of one of her favourite patches.  At first she thought it may be a juvenile Baillon’s Crake (which in itself would have been a pretty special sighting) but she wasn’t convinced.  Fortunately she was diligent enough to take a pic and send it on to Trevor on Thursday for identification.  Trevor comments that he nearly fell off his chair when he saw the picture come through.  There was little doubt that this was a Little Crake and shortly thereafter the wheels of motion were set in place.  I would imagine the entire birding fraternity owes Gillian an enormous thanks for her attention to detail – I am convinced most of us may just have walked straight past it.

On Thursday evening the crowd gathered over the course of the evening and by 6:35 when I left there were at least 40 or so birders that had fought the traffic to share in this momentous occasion.  There were equally as many (if not more) innocent bystanders that were completely perplexed by this commotion and in some cases were taken up by the whole thing.  The security guard that patrols the area was showing just as much interest as the hardened birders and it was wonderful to see the spark of birding interest amongst the general public.  After all, this was the beginning of the most significant rarity event in this country since the Asiatic Dowitcher in 2004 and, birder or not, it was fun to be a part of.

Thursday evening had a noticeable set of absentees.

Tommy and Adam were stuck in Newlands whilst the Little Crake was at least 20 kms away.  I tried to convince Jeanie that a late afternoon drive out to Clovelly with the boys would be a good idea.  My intentions were not entirely selfless.  I was also hoping to convince her to bring my camera along too.  There is nothing more excruciating than watching other photographers firing off hundreds of shots whilst the rarest bird on our shores parades no more than 10 metres away.

I wasn’t selling an early evening drive to Jeanie so I resorted to phoning a few of my mates.  None of them were really around so the boys would have to wait.  I did get through to Dave Winter who had just landed at Cape Town International after a day’s work in Jo’burg.  I asked him if he had seen his mails, which he obviously hadn’t but when I mentioned “Little” and “Crake” in the same sentence he changed his route home dramatically and arrived at Clovelly an hour later to make sure he wouldn’t regret missing a bird of this magnitude.

As much as Jeanie was delighted at the latest lifer on my list she had asked me to bring home some fresh fish in order that Tommy would be able to make some sushi for his class mates for the last day at school.

Yes, Tommy was making sushi for his classmates.

The boys had been asked to make their favourite meal and it was no real surprise that Tommy chose sushi.  I was due to deliver the all-important package at around 6:30 but there I was on the other side of the peninsula not really that aware of how time was marching on.  An enquiring call from Jeanie brought my “twitch” to an abrupt end and what followed was a race across town to make sure that the fish had not turned to stone by the time I got home.  Fortunately the sushi was made relatively quickly and the only drama I had to deal with was Tommy and Adams’ long faces as I regaled about this incredible bird.

Well, my drama was not quite over.  The universe has a way of equilising everything and my 6 month old daughter, Emma, decided that she would make me pay for my excitement whilst she yelled at me for 2 hours while Jeanie was out with her mates for dinner.

It was certainly well worth it.

Fortunately this story has a happy ending.  Over the course of the next 3 days the bird played along for everyone.  Twitchers from all over the country descended on the quiet little suburb of Clovelly, walked up to the pond and duly ticked the rarest bird they had ever seen in this country.  Included in that long list of twitchers were Tommy and Adam who joined me on Friday evening and Sunday morning to make sure they didn’t miss out. In fact, on Sunday morning we had an almost full complement of Buckhams along for the ride.  Even Jack made an effort to see the bird but his interest waned quickly and lego on the back seat of the car was far more appealing.

You never know – Emma may turn into a fanatical birder as well and she may regret the day that she was left at home whilst the rest of her family was out adding a Little Crake to their lists.

After an hour or two spent at Clovelly we returned to the normality of a Buckham weekend with a picnic and cricket on Hout Bay beach.  What more could we ask for?

6 Responses to Little Crake – a first for everyone

  1. Alan Collett says:

    I didn`t get to do the Little Crake twitch so thanks for making it almost real for me-so graphically described and beautifully photograghed.

  2. Brian Kirsch says:

    Hi Mike….Lovely blog!!…I enjoyed reading the whole thing…just wish that I could get my family as interested and excited but they just go ho hum and humour me my very odd hobby!!….they just put up with me disappearing at a moments notice in case of any such reachable Megas!!….
    Well I found a gap and drove to Clovelly on Fri pm but silly me sans instructions re the exact spot!…A plaintive plea to the group and in a couple minutes I had about 10 responses with the clear directions and went straight there to find a few birders but no Crake!!…She had flown into some dense reeds nearby…a bit of a patient wait and sure enough she emerged on the fringes of her by now resident pond quite happily foraging in what she must think is her permanent home!!…..such an exciting sighting and so happy to have made the effort!!…
    Oh well at least you understand!!
    Regards
    Brian Kirsch

  3. Brian Kirsch says:

    Forgot to mention that I hiked Elephants Eye, Constantiaberg Mast and Blackburn ravine yesterday with a group from the US and spotted the Silvermine pair of Black Eagles soaring above the Eye at about 11am……Lots of Ravens in attendance!!….
    I let Lucia know accordingly…
    Regards
    Brian Kirsch

  4. Mary-Ann says:

    Lovely blog Mike and what a great experience to see the special bird! Impressed that Jack even made it to the blog – think that is a 1st!!!

  5. Olga says:

    As always a great read Mike! This blog is such a great record of your boys’ early birding experiences – maybe a book in the making?? 🙂

  6. Margaret Maciver says:

    Only just had a chance to read your blog, Mike, it brought back great memories. I was due to leave on a trip on Friday morning, luckily Graham Searll phoned me as he was on Boyes Drive, and Linda Hibbin and myself jumped into her car and raced along Boyes Drive as well, catching red robots all the way out of Tokai. We must have been there when you were there? If that bird had been found one day later, I would have missed it, as it left about the same day I got back to Cape town.
    I liked your rugby comparison about the thrill of seeing a lifer. I tried to explain it to my son once, who was completely puzzled about my excitement when we passed my first Abdims Storks just outside Rustenburg some years ago and I screamed at him to stop and go back. I said the feeling was like him getting a hole in one in golf – but he replied that he’d never got a hole in one, so he didnt know the feeling!

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