Regular visitors to my blog will have realized that there has been very little birding in the Buckham family over the last few weeks (months even). The combination of silly season, a bit of herping (generic term for frogs and reptiles) and a general lack of birding interest close to home has meant there has (sadly) been little of interest to post. In fact, my last blog (see here) was a post about a bird that I missed rather than one that I saw!
With the onset of the school holidays it meant we piled the family in the car and headed off for our regular December holiday, split between Plettenberg Bay and St Francis Bay. I would unfortunately have to be back at work for a short stint in the middle but I was going to make sure I made the most of the long weekend.
The drive was as busy as I have ever seen it and I had Tommy and Adam on duty doing our standard road trip list but we only made it to 42 species before an unseasonal deluge of rain began in Wilderness and never let up until we reached Plett.
I have birded in Plett on so many occasions that I have lost count. We do a wonderful loop of the Plett pentad which takes in the Bitou River, the Keurboom lagoon and the Plett sewerage works with a potential 3 hour species count getting very near the 100 mark but despite the abundance I knew that we would not see too many new things.
I also needed to make sure that I had the full attention of my two faithful birding companions and when I announced we were going birding on Monday morning I was asked the inevitable question by my two birding boys: “what lifers will we see, dad?”.
In the old days this was easy – they both had such short lists that any trip would always yield a handful of new birds. Well, not so easy anymore. Tommy’s reasonably extensive list (particularly in the Western Cape) makes it almost impossible to score a lifer whilst Adam has also been around the block and back and we have to scratch hard to find something new.
December is also a time of year when the expanded family gets together so I need to compete quite strongly with Tommy and Adam’s cousins for time out in the field with the boys. I often feel a little guilty tearing them away from the fun times they share with cousins they only see a few times a year.
My customary ride on the Harkerville Red Route on Saturday morning gave me a clue to how we could change things up to make a birding excursion a little different from the norm. I had set out early on the trail and within the first few hundred meters, riding through a clearing in the forest, a flash of green and red whizzed by, almost right in front of my nose – a beautiful male Narina Trogon. I had no camera kit or binoculars with me, neither were Tommy and Adam there, but at least I now knew what we would be doing the next morning.
Tommy had seen a Narina Trogon with me before (near Oyster Bay) but it was a gap on Adam’s list and when I returned home and told him about my sighting his eyes lit up with excitement at the prospect of seeing one of SA’s most beautiful birds.
The Garden of Eden is situated almost exactly half way between Plett and Knysna and although the Harkerville Red Route south of the N2 has been the focus of my attention on so many occasions I have neglected to spend much time on the short boardwalk north of the N2. It is a small patch of forest but when it comes to the forest specials I would suggest that it is almost as good as Nature’s Valley. In fact, the birds seemed more habituated and since the area is so small we saw and heard most species quite quickly. The only downside is that the entire length of the boardwalk (a touch under 500m in length) is in close proximity to the N2 and so the sounds of the forest are often drowned out by the roaring traffic rushing between Plett and Knysna.
Our target was obviously a Narina Trogon and although I felt our chances were good based on my high speed sighting the previous day, admittedly that was on the red route on the other side of the road and I wasn’t quite so sure of the density of the population just across the road.
As we set out the forest was pretty quiet, as it so often is, but within a few minutes I heard the soft, mournful whistle of a White-starred Robin. I was immediately excited by this as I knew that this would also be a lifer for Adam. I was also excited as this dainty little robin can be such a tricky bird to find in the gloomy sections of forest that it frequents. Within a few minutes we had a pair of White-starred Robins dashing from one concealed thicket to the next. As difficult as they are to photograph I managed to get one or two shots before the game was up and they returned to their secretive ways. It was definitely the easiest sighting of White-starred Robin that I had ever had.
We didn’t have to wait long before we heard the unmistakable hooting of a Narina Trogon. Hearing them is one thing but getting a view is quite a different matter. I have learnt over the years that the hooting comes from a lot closer than you expect so I made sure Tommy and Adam were paying close attention to the trees around us in order to get a sighting. Once again it seemed far too easy as at least two separate birds darted through the forest and over our heads before disappearing through the trees. Adam had a brief glimpse of a bird in flight but we really needed something better for a decent tick.
Soon enough I managed to pinpoint the call and through several layers of branches I got onto a bird hooting away from an elevated perch. I quickly picked Adam up and pointed through the foliage so that he could get a tickable view.
His reaction was most likely very similar to mine when I had my first trogon sighting – his eyes lit up and he grinned a toothless smile (we have had numerous visits from the tooth mouse in the last few weeks) that said so much more than words. I found myself transfixed as well despite the fact that I had seen many of these birds in the past.
The situation improved even more as the trogon took short flights from one branch to the other coming ever closer until it was perched on a branch just above us. I had never noticed it before but the hooting obviously comes from so deep within its body that each hoot produces a full contraction of its body with the vocal sac puffing up and the tail bobbing.
We eventually walked away from the bird as our attention was taken by a calling African Emerald Cuckoo. Now that we had had so much luck already without even trying, could it last for yet another bird? This was also a very significant one for Tommy – it would be a full lifer for him and since his brother was already on 2 for the morning he needed to do some catching up.
Well, it just wasn’t to be. We spent a fair amount of time chasing the cuckoo through the forest but with no available clearing it was almost impossible to see it whilst it moved from one canopy perch to the next. They are extremely frustrating birds and I felt sad for Tommy with that void on his list. We decided to move on and target a few other forest birds and I finally managed to get a decent pic of a Terrestrial Brownbul. Over the years it has been a very frustrating bird for me as it likes only the gloomiest parts of the forest and they seldom sit still for more than a second or two.
We also managed to get a few pics of the reasonably habituated Chorister Robin-chats.
But, my time was now running out. Normally the boys complain bitterly when I drag them back home after a birding outing but this time was different. They had had their birding fill and now it was time to get back to the job of being kids and spending time with their cousins on the beach.