Having spent a weekend away at Sani2C last week it seems as if I was missed. The boys were itching to do a bit of birding and, quite surprisingly, the most insistent keenness was coming from Jack.
Jack has never really showed much more than just a passing interest in joining us for our birding. I have not encouraged it too much either, as he is still young and it is likely that he will get very frustrated by our outings. During the week, however, he insisted that I take him birding. He also insisted it was just him and I, without any interference from his two older brothers.
Since he was still in his plaster cast from his broken leg from a few weeks back, he managed to get a little more leeway and so I agreed that he and I would go birding on Saturday afternoon – just the two of us.
With him in plaster and unable to walk, our destination was also a little limited and so I decided the flat paths around Intaka were a great place to take him. Lots of easy big birds were also available for his first outing with his dad. Fortunately the weather had cleared beautifully and the bright sunshine allowed for some photos. It must be said that the reserve was particularly quiet being close to mid-winter but it mattered little to Jacky Jack as I pushed him around on our jogger pointing out the birds as they flew past. The birds interested Jack a tiny bit but he was ready to go home after just an hour. That wasn’t totally unexpected but at least it had been an hour.
The most fascinating bit for Jack was the ginger and white cat that followed us much of the way around the island. I have encountered cats on the island before and it seems to be a regular problem with many cat-owning residents surrounding the reserve and the wealth of birdlife being a pretty strong magnet for cats.
Birders and cats are generally not particularly good friends. I curse the wayward cats in our neighbourhood as they regularly screech and wail at 3am but far worse than the disturbance is the fact that a neighbourhood that houses cats is likely to suffer in the avian department. They are indiscriminate killers and there is little point in having a bird bath or feeder in one’s garden as it turns into a bit of a death trap.
So, the appearance of this ginger and white feline companion was met with luke-warmness, at best. It had a collar and seemed pretty friendly and in between stalking every bird it saw it would occasionally curl up next to me and purr. Strangely enough, I still did not feel too much closer to it as it sought to befriend me.
Anyway, I mentioned it to the ranger on duty and he was fully aware of its existence. He assured me that they would be trying to catch it during the week and attempt to return it to its owner. I suspected that that was a bit of a tall story as the cat followed me into the reception area and strolled around the entrance looking pretty much at home – it didn’t seem to have any concern about being captured. My guess is that the cat has been caught and returned to its owner on numerous occasions in the past but the owner’s concern about keeping it indoors and the natural magnetism of the abounding birdlife in Intaka were factors that were too strong in ensuring it is kept outside. Perhaps we shall all be lucky and the cat will pick out all the Mallards and other exotic ducks in the reserve and leave the indigenous birds alone.
It is funny that I mention exotic ducks as that brings me straight into my next section of the blog.
During the week Howard Langley posted a note about two strange looking ducks at the Paarl Sewerage Works. His thoughts were that they were Ferruginous Ducks, a species of duck that migrates from eastern Europe into northern Africa during the northern winter and then back to Europe for the summer (starting to sound familiar, isn’t it?). Well, the problem with Ferruginous Ducks in contrast to Little Crakes is that crakes are unlikely to be found in any wildfowl collection. This is a significant factor in this tale.
I have never really understood it but waterfowl are popular animals for people to collect and keep as pets. Outlandish American, European, Eastern and Australasian species fill these man made ponds all over the country. It amazes me when I see a nicely created wetland with Black Swans floating around them. Golf Estates are notorious offenders in this instance possibly trying to “upsell” themselves with a few bizarre, beautiful creatures. What’s wrong with a few ordinary Yellow-billed Ducks, I say?
Unfortunately these collections cause an enormous amount of confusion and controversy for birders that list their species as though their lives depend on it. This is further made difficult by the fact that many European species are quite likely to occur as vagrants in our sub-region anyway as a result of overshoot or reverse migration. Birds like Garganey, Northern Pintail and European Shoveller are examples of this overshoot migration whilst all three are also strong candidates for reverse migration depending on the time of year that they are seen.
Sightings of these very rare ducks are always accompanied by the usual round of debate that often becomes a little petty. References are made to the strength of the bird’s flight (a reference to whether the wings were clipped at any stage), rings on the legs or lack thereof or their skittishness, alluding to whether the birds are habituated to man (which is obviously a strong likelihood with collected birds).
A number of years ago there was a beautiful male Northern Pintail at the Northern Farms Sewerage Works in northern Gauteng. The debate was fierce with all those that had most likely ticked their Northern Pintail in the Harare Wetlands (where they are most likely to genuinely occur) claiming that it must be an escapee whilst all those that twitched it claimed that it was extremely shy and skittish and impossible to get close to, as evidenced by the rather poor photos of it. There is no doubt that 95% of the people that twitched that bird put a big tick next to it on their excel list. You can tell that I am not bitter at all. Did I mention that I never saw it?
I am also reminded of one of the first records of Fulvous Ducks in the Western Cape. It was about 5 or 6 years ago and there was a pair found in the canals that channel through the Pearl Valley Golf Estate. A keen birder that lived on the estate had reported them and since I happened to be passing by on a Saturday afternoon (as one does), I arranged to go tick this significant Western Cape rarity.
I arrived there and started scanning carefully until eventually seeing them on the far side of the canal. I hauled the camera out and started firing off shots at a great distance. These would be poor photos but who cares, this is a massive rarity. Then there was this subtle change in the ducks’ demeanour. They almost seemed to notice me from about 50m away. My first thought was that they would turn tail and head into some concealing vegetation. Nope, not these ones. They turned towards me and started swimming directly at me. I fired off shots as they got closer and closer amazed at my good fortune. I started to smell a rat when both of them literally swam so close that I could no longer focus on them. They were 2 metres away from me and started to make these soft mewing noises as if to say “where is my bread?”
Needless to say, they were the shortest lived Western Cape birds on my list. For a good 5 minutes I had believed I had advanced my list but they were soon off as I realised that these were definitely escapees.
So, coming back to the Ferruginous Ducks.
This species had never been recorded in the sub-region before and I am not even sure how many potential ticks had been had in the past. There was also a rather comical exchange of e-mails on SA Birdnet with Ian Sinclair, after having been out to see them, posting that they looked like the real deal (given their skittishness, strong flight and good condition) but he burst all of our bubbles with the comment that there was a wild bird collector in Paarl that had lost two of his Ferruginous Ducks. Before any of us could change our plans a mail from Trevor Hardaker came out saying that the named collector had been contacted and he had most definitely not lost 2 of his birds. All very confusing but seemingly there was some miscommunication going on and there was still a good chance that these birds were genuine vagrants and well worth the effort of ticking.
So, with a large amount of debate circling around I eventually decided at the last minute, late on Saturday night, that I would take the 2 boys with me on Sunday morning and go see what we could see. The worst that could happen is that we spend some time seeing some good birds and we do or don’t see the Ferruginous Ducks. Dave Winter was a late-joining companion and we got to Paarl just as the sun was rising over the mountains.
It was an absolutely stunning morning. A typical blue-sky winter May day with mist rising from the dead still pans of the sewerage works. We set about our search at the central ponds and in amongst photographing Grey-headed Gulls we scanned the pan for anything unusual. We spotted some Fulvous Ducks and Hottentot Teals amongst the more common species and actually had an African Rail calling in the reeds on the edge of the pan but despite a fair amount of effort there was nothing that looked like a Ferruginous Duck.
In between a bout of Grey-headed Gull exposures I looked down at the middle of the pan and saw a dark brown duck with a bright white vent. That was it! I shouted to Dave and the boys to get on to it and within seconds it had taken to wing in a flurry of feathers and a pattering of feet on the surface of the water and after doing a perfect fly-by it had headed for the lower pans and disappeared from view.
We were extremely lucky to have got a decent view as it did not seem obliging at all. All the arguments were well ticked – it was certainly skittish, it was very free flying and there were no visible rings or anything else of the sort that made it look like an escapee. You can just hear the bias in my tone, can’t you? Anyway, we had successfully claimed our “insurance tick” and now all that would be left was several months, if not years of debate as to whether it was a valid species to be added to the Southern African list.
Despite the possibility that this bird would not be allowed on our lists there were large numbers of twitchers at the sewerage works and within a few minutes all the cars headed to the lower pans to try and relocate it. Most visitors had missed it as the views were so brief and despite a large amount of searching by us and many other twitchers it was not relocated before we left.
We used our time well though and spent the earlier hours taking some nice pics of some pretty common birds in glorious morning light.
In addition to a few bird species we also had an extreme close up view of a Large Grey Mongoose. This was a full lifer for me and even more unusually it was a full lifer for Dave. Unfortunately it was so close to the car that the best shot I could get of it was a head shot. Still, it was a nice surprise.
As is customary for all our visits to the sewerage works we drove up on to Rotary Drive that traverses the contour on the northern slopes of Paarl Mountain and overlooks the town. Aside from the great views and abundant birdlife it is probably quicker than driving the main road of Paarl which is reputed to be the longest main road in the country. It can take a good 20 minutes to negotiate all the traffic lights on that road before exiting onto the N1. Rotary Drive is also mostly in the same pentad as the sewerage works and it gives one an excellent variety of birds within one pentad by serving up all the fynbos species.
The mandatory stop at the Paarl Mountain Reserve Botanical Gardens is always pleasant. Our main purpose for stopping here was to find some Protea Seed-eaters. These elusive endemics have become so tough on Paarl Mountain these days but it seems as if there is some reliability within the gardens. We eventually found a very furtive pair in the upper section of the gardens feeding on grass stems and by the time we eventually got our cameras on them they flushed and flew to land on the most inappropriate tree for a photograph. Strangely enough these Seedeaters were not the highlight of our visit to the Reserve. The highlight for me, and no doubt for the kids, was a frog!
I had recently bought Adam a book on the frogs of Southern Africa as he loves the creepy crawlies. I had also recently photographed my first Western Leopard Toad and suddenly my interest in amphibians had been born. I purchased a macro lens on Saturday morning and so I was itching to use it on something small. A frog would be first prize.
So, whilst strolling through the central section of the gardens we heard lots of frogs calling from the damp areas.
Once we had heard the calls I looked at Dave and said “so what now?”
Dave’s recommendation was to walk around the sludgy sections until we saw one hop. Then it should be simple. And so it was. One jumped in front of Dave and before any of us could do anything he had grabbed a whole pile of grass, mud and frog in his hand and we were soon putting it down on the path for a photo. I think Adam was a little put out that he was not the handler but he had his chance a little later. Tommy, on the other hand, kept a safe distance – way too slimy for him.
It was actually a lot smaller than I had expected (I know absolutely nothing about frogs at this point) and, remarkably, it sat very still whilst I manoeuvred myself into an appropriate position to put the lens to the test.
To be honest, we originally identified this one as a Clicking Stream Frog. I scoured the new book and narrowed it down to a few species that I thought it may be and then settled on the Stream Frog. When posting the blog originally, Barrie Rose, an extremely accomplished “frogger” corrected my ID in telling me it was a Cape River Frog. It was an interesting lesson as I have suddenly realised that frog identification has the potential to make pipit identification look easy. I am still battling to recognise the key features but I believe the webbing on the hind feet is a key feature and I quite clearly failed to look at that. So, it is back to the drawing board…
The results of the photograph were also pretty poor as the f-stop was all wrong but at least we added another frog species to our list.
That brought to an end a very busy morning with many highlights as well as a very busy weekend. We had plenty of firsts including a first outing for little Jacky Jack, a possible new bird species for the Southern African list, a new mammal and a new frog. I’m already looking forward to a little more adventure next weekend.