We have just returned from our annual pilgrimage to St Francis Bay and Plett for the Christmas holidays and although it was a holiday filled with a plenty of birding, herping, skiing, beaching, cricket, swimming, eating and drinking I was not sure that a blog on the collection of those activities would keep my audience attentive for very long.
Just to satisfy my own needs to show some of the pictures of the holiday here they are. They include a few birds and one or two frogs and reptiles.
But, whilst trundling across the farmlands surrounding Humansdorp on my last ride of the holidays I put some thought into what would make an interesting blog on my return.
I decided that it would be worthwhile taking a look back on the year that has past and review some of the things that stood out. Naturally I will focus on my birding (and other new found biodiversity interests) but I will also talk about my family and some of my perspectives on a few other current affairs.
Birding trip of the year
This is an easy one – there are certainly no real close contenders here.
The 5 days I spent with my father and my two oldest boys in the Kruger Park in February were some of the best birding days I can ever recall. We spent two of the nights at Pafuri Camp in the Makuleke Concession north of the Levuvhu River and accompanied by our guide, Godfrey, we all added to our life lists.
I had a humble addition of one species (Three-banded Courser) but between Tommy and Adam their list of lifers reached a quantum that was so large I cannot even recall how many. The accommodation at Pafuri Camp remains as my favourite anywhere with the open sided tents perched on stilts, joined by a boardwalk that makes for a vantage point that would fill an entire morning birding from it.
The trip was also remembered for the stifling heat, a massive downpour in the middle of prime birding time and a very painful scorpion sting but these were certainly not detracting factors, just things to remind us that epic birding sometimes comes with a bit of hardship.
Bird of the Year
I saw very few lifers this year and I also missed my fair share. The ones I missed included the Black Skimmer in Milnerton and the very nearly seen Collared Flycatcher in Randburg but I prefer not to dwell on what I missed but rather what I saw. I probably had my lowest addition to my life list for a calendar year but that is kind of expected with reasonably limited travel – in the end I only added 2 new birds in 2012.
I have already mentioned the courser from Kruger but the second lifer certainly wins the prize for my bird of the year. The Little Crake at the Clovelly wetlands comfortably holds pride of place as my bird of 2012. This was a first and only record for Southern Africa and seemingly only the second ever record for the Southern Hemisphere. The twitchers descended en masse to see this most obliging rallid and very few, it seems, missed out.
Being close to work I visited the site a number of times, which included a few visits with my boys, and even Jeanie made it out there to have a look at what all the fuss was about. She certainly had no concern about whether she saw it or not but she enjoyed the social aspect and spent a considerable amount of time interviewing a number of the twitchers just to see what makes us all tick (no pun intended). She came away with a lot of information but she is still nonplussed.
Best Western Cape bird
Sure, a Western Cape list may seem silly to many but it is a really extensive area and it is also far more within reach for me than the greater sub-region. It therefore makes for a more accessible comprehensive list at this stage of my life than does my life list. It has also allowed me to travel locally with my boys as they grow into the pastime that has brought me so much pleasure over the years.
I added a surprisingly significant number of new birds to my Western Cape list during the year. I think it numbered eight birds which is not a bad haul. Of course, the Little Crake cannot win both the prize of “Bird of the Year” and the “Western Cape Bird of the Year” so I looked beyond that one.
The Black-collared Barbet and White-fronted Bee-eater in one weekend in Plett was pretty memorable and added to that was a very strong contender being the Sooty Falcon at the Emily Moon resort, also in Plett. There was also a Marabou Stork at a dump in George around the same time as the other Plett birds but a Marabou Stork is unlikely to be a strong contender.
The Great spotted Cuckoo at Klipheuwel had me extremely frustrated until Tommy and I finally came right, but it is also not on the top of the list.
The one bird that nearly took the title was a Wing-snapping Cisticola, also from Plett, believe it or not.
It is hard to imagine a bird as small and non-descript as a cisticola finding its way close to the top of the pile but this one was very special as it was a bird that I managed to find myself (unlike all the others which were twitched to some degree or another) and it also constituted the first record for the Western Cape (in fact, at the time of writing I suspect I am still the only person to have seen these birds in the Western Cape although that is hopefully going to change in the coming weeks).
But, there really can be only one bird that finds its way to the top of my “2012 Western Cape Bird of the Year” list and that would be the Pel’s Fishing Owl that somehow worked its way down the coast from somewhere far flung and decided the urban suburbs of Newlands and Constantia were to its liking.
A lucky few were the first ones to see it in Newlands, sending most of us into a slightly jealous frenzy but that was rectified a few weeks later when the Spanish Embassy in Constantia played host to this most unusual visitor where well over 200 of Cape Town’s happiest twitchers made their indelible Western Cape tick.
It may be some time before this one is beaten.
Frog of the year
I know this category will most likely cause many birders to skip to the next section, and for many of my good mates and family members to start rolling their eyes, but I have to say that my new interest in frogs in 2012 added a lot of fun to our excursions. In fact, many of our outings during the winter and autumn months were focused purely on certain frog species when the birding was particularly quiet.
I like to think that I learnt a huge amount about frogs this year but there is no doubt that Tommy, Adam and I are still complete novices. We had a very steep frogging “learning curve” and pocketed a few important lessons, many quite by accident. Waterproof clothing, wellies and a decent torch are key items of equipment and without them in the early days we either ended up wet, muddy or without a single frog for an outing.
We also learnt that a considerable degree of patience and fortitude is required, as finding most of our endemic frogs in the Western Cape makes flufftail twitches seem like novice work – the moss and rain frogs are virtually impossible to find but when one does amazingly appear we found it to be very rewarding.
We also established that Adam seems to be the only Buckham boy that is completely comfortable picking up a large adult Western Leopard Toad – Tommy and I are most often silent spectators whilst Adam hunts them down. We seem to be much more comfortable with the moss frogs which are not that intimidating at 2cms in size.
My frog list this year went from zero to 24 species and that included 3 rain frogs, 3 moss frogs, 3 stream frogs, 2 river frogs, 5 toads, 1 toadlet, 1 platanna, 2 cacos, a marsh frog, a ghost frog and a micro frog. Yes, I bet most of you never realised we had so many frogs worth seeing, and we haven’t even scratched the surface.
With such a long list of new species it is quite tricky deciding which was the very best. The moss frogs were all exceptionally rewarding as I had been told that they were the hardest frogs to find but for some reason I had 3 moss frogs on my list before a Cape River Frog (which a good mate tells me is the Cape Turtle Dove of frogs). We were definitely striking it luckier than we deserved.
The Micro Frog was extremely special as it rates as one of our most endangered frogs, limited to the wetland encircled by the Kenilworth race track and one or two small wetlands in Kleinmond. A cold night spent wandering the seasonal wetland in my underpants will surely not be forgotten in a hurry.
The Montane Marsh Frog also has a special place in my memory bank. Against all weather odds, my boys and I joined Dave Winter on a mission in the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve to hunt down this most unusual species and, despite getting soaked in the process, we came away with our prize.
For yet another sought-after endemic frog, Tommy, Adam and I hiked to the upper reaches of the Silvermine Nature Reserve to find a Rose’s Mountain Toadlet in the extremely short window period in the last week in August. Our timing was perfect as we not only found the toadlets but also found the small pools filled with the delicate necklaces of eggs.
Very close to the top of the list was the Eastern Ghost Frog that Adam found underneath a rock in the Grootvadersbosch Reserve. Most non-froggers would probably dispute this but if ever there was a beautiful looking frog, the Eastern Ghost Frog qualifies for me.
But, hands down the best frog of the year goes not to one frog but to a family of frogs – the Breviceps or Rain Frogs.
These were the frogs that enticed me to go in search of frogs in the first place – even though I had seen photos of them I really had to see them in the flesh to believe that there were creatures that looked like that.
By year end I had seen a Sand Rain Frog in Melkbosstrand (which was metaphorically handed to me on a platter by the Hardakers) and a Namaqua Rain Frog in the West Coast National Park (also the result of hard work by Dom Rollinson, not me).
But my favourite frog of the year goes to Breviceps gibbosus – Cape Rain Frog.
Callan Cohen and I headed out on one of the most miserable nights of the year to the Tokai plantation in search of one of these. As the rain lashed against the car windscreen on our way to the forest we could not believe we were going through with it. Remarkably, though, we were instantly rewarded by a female Cape Rain Frog as it shuffled purposefully across the road in search of a calling male.
Not only is this frog one of the strangest looking creatures I had ever seen but nothing associates more to a Cape Town winter than the mournful “prrrp” of the Cape Rain Frog. I suspect most Capetonians have heard this wonderful sound and the majority are probably aware of the fact that it belongs to a frog but I reckon few have ever seen one (aside from the occasional unlucky one that ends up in swimming pools).
So, it was a truly excellent year for frogging and although 2013 is likely to yield far fewer species there are plenty more out there for me to find. You can try and stop me (as Jeanie has tried to do) but you will be unsuccessful…
Reptile of the Year
If I describe myself as a novice frogger then I don’t even fit on a scale when it comes to reptiles. I have a reptile book and I have a vague idea that we have a huge bunch of reptiles in this country that are there to be found but, more than that, it is all very much new to me.
I used to think that the list of Southern African snakes constituted a Puffadder, Boomslang, Cape Cobra, Black Mamba and Molesnake but I soon realised that there are 155 more snakes hidden in the nooks and crannies across the country. Then, when you consider geckos, lizards, skinks, tortoises and crocodiles the list takes one up to nearly 500 species. ‘
I was amazed when I learnt that number.
Our country is one of the best on the planet for reptiles (in terms of diversity and endemism) but even though we have plenty, I realised that most of them are either extremely localised and/or live in pretty inaccessible places. This year I discovered a whole new range of field activities which included lifting rocks and logs, scraping through mole hills and burrowing into the base of restios. We battled along quite blindly but we had our days when we found our fair share. We also had some help from some of the real experts (which mostly involved a few snakes) but more than anything we were just exposed to yet another group of animals that we had never noticed before.
For example, who knows that the cute little gecko we have on our walls in Cape Town is called a Marbled Leaf-toed Gecko? That was a new one for me this year.
I also learnt that there are at least three species of burrowing skink that are found in the molehills of the West Coast National Park, plus a species of legless skink and at least one species of blind legless skink (a good friend of mine considers the Cuvier’s Blind Legless Skink to be pretty unlucky being saddled with being blind and legless – you would think one of the two handicaps would have been enough).
Our reptile exploits this year have been reasonably limited but even so, we still have a decent list to choose from.
I suppose, first I need to look back at the particular event that set us on our way with reptiles. I was at the Saturday morning twitch of the Sooty Falcon with my two boys in tow and naturally there was a big crowd gathered there.
Despite quite a lengthy wait for the bird we eventually came right, finding it perched on a power line down on the Bitou floodplain. The whole crowd migrated down to the river to get better views and, when returning to the car, I lingered at the back of the group in order to take a “bathroom break” (or a “number one” as Tommy describes it). As I found my suitable spot I noticed a slithering snake-like animal moving rapidly through the grass. Knowing absolutely nothing about reptiles I shouted to the group ahead “snake!!”.
Fortunately Cliff Dorse was one of our fellow Sooty Falcon twitchers and he ran towards me, saw the animal slithering through the grass and dived in to grab it.
He revealed immediately that this was not a snake at all but rather a Cape Grass Lizard – seemingly a rather hard-to-find reptile species and many amongst the group were delighted at this lifer reptile. It was truly educational experiencing how the guys went about photographing this creature and how excited they were to see it. My boys, especially Adam, were enthralled at an animal that they could actually handle, provided they were careful with it.
It was definitely the moment at which I decided that birding trips could be so much more enjoyable if we took note of other animals around us.
So, now to decide which one was the best of the year.
Well, the Cape Grass Lizard was not a bad place to start and although very close to the top it did not quite make it as number one.
The stunning juvenile Spotted Skaapsteker from Melkbosstrand was also one I thought of, as was the Herald Snake from Cape Point Nature Reserve.
Moving a little away from snakes the geckos are definitely my favourite family of reptiles and aside from a few of the smaller species one of my favourites was the Bibron’s Thick-toed Gecko which showed a bit of character when it nipped Adam’s finger.
We also added some lizards to our list. We found out that lizards and skinks, even early in the morning, are almost impossible to catch and get photos of. We spent endless amounts of time scurrying over sand and rocks clutching at thin air and ultimately resorting to a stealth approach in order to photograph them. The Common Sand Lizard from Touwsberg was a nice find for us but the prettiest of all the lizards was the range-restricted Broadley’s Flat Lizard which is abundant on the rocks overlooking the Augrabies Falls.
In terms of rarity the top of the pile goes to the Geometric Tortoise from the Elandsberg Nature Reserve but I found it very hard to get most excited about a tortoise. It does bear mentioning that the Geometric Tortoise is listed in the top 100 animals worldwide most likely to go extinct so we were very privileged to see one. It seems the population is less than 500 individuals and is dwindling rapidly.
The number one reptile for my list, for the year, however, was selected primarily for the amount of adrenaline it got flowing through my veins following its discovery.
Dave Winter, Tommy and I spent a memorable day in the West Coast National Park discovering all sorts of new reptile species including Gronovi’s Dwarf Burrowing Skink, Large-scaled Girdled Lizard, Cape Skink and Striped Dwarf Leaf-toed Gecko but what we had really hoped for was to find one of the numerous species of snake in the park.
It was our first shot at reptiles and a day without a snake seemed to be a little disappointing. I had been given all the necessary information of what snakes we would be most likely to find and it involved relatively harmless sand snakes and a skaapsteker or two but after turning over our fair share of rocks and sheets of metal we still had not found a single snake.
Our very last sheet was the one that counted though. Underneath it lay the largest Cape Cobra any of us had ever seen. It was a bit of a pantomime as we manoeuvred ourselves into a suitable position to make sure we avoided any fatal injuries but still ensuring we were able to get photographic evidence of our encounter. The manoeuvre involved some very long pieces of wood to lever the sheet of metal so that none of us were within several metres of one of SA’s most dangerous snakes (in fact, if my field guide is to be believed it causes more deaths than any other snake in this country and that includes a Black Mamba). Fortunately we kept our distance but still managed a shot.
So, that was our first year of reptiles behind us. I am not exactly sure what the count was but I think we are somewhere near the 40 mark so still a long, long way to go.
“Proudest Dad” moment of the year
For those that are only interested in birds you may have stopped reading at the end of the third or fourthparagraph. For those of you that have a wider interest in nature you may well have got to this point. I suppose I am just warning you that this is the section that is most relevant to my close friends and family. Who really wants to read about other people’s kids anyway?
I wanted to include this section merely as a reminder (in years to come) of some of the special moments I shared with all four of my kids during the year. Those that are close followers of my blog (I reckon there may be fewer than 10 of you and most are probably family members – even Jeanie reads most of my blogs under duress) will have been introduced to all 4 of my very special kids and this may be more meaningful to you.
I have expressed on many occasions how proud I am of Tommy for all his birding exploits. He is 9 now and his list has reached the 520 mark but I don’t want to focus on that as there is so much more to Tommy than birding.
I have had some amazing moments with my oldest during 2012.
I was fortunate enough to watch him play a few cricket games where he represented the U9A side for his school and I was also extremely proud the first time he clean bowled me in one of our regular driveway games of cricket. I would hasten to add that he takes my wicket on regular occasions these days.
I was also at most of his rugby games where he follows firmly in his father’s footsteps and commands a regular place in the lower echelons of the rugby team structures, but he played every game as though it were his last.
I was very fortunate that I was there for the last game of the season where he scored his very first try. Three minutes later, in that same game, he scored his second ever try and soon thereafter the final whistle for the season was blown and I was left wondering why he had not started his scoring spree at the beginning of the season…
But, the moment that made me most proud was attending his very first prize giving at his school where he was one of 8 boys in his grade to receive an award for academic excellence. As I have told him on many occasions it is the academic pursuits that make me the most proud and that day was a true example of that.
Adam entered grade one as a shy little boy at the beginning of the year but I watched him grow into a self-assured, confident member of his grade. He was recipient for “boy of the week” on a few occasions and his bird drawings were displayed at the entrance of the school after he wowed the headmaster with his artistic skills.
He also made us very proud with his glowing reports at the end of each term and he participated in every school sport that came his way.
But nothing made me smile more than when he learnt to waterski for the first time during our most recent holiday to St Francis Bay. He had tried waterskiing the previous year but failed to come out of the water but this year he approached the task with huge determination. By the end of the holiday he was coming up with ease and skiing more comfortably than any of his siblings and cousins.
Little Jacky Jack started school for the first time this year and, after battling his way through nursery school, we were anxious as to how he would adapt. Well, we found out that he was far more independent than we ever thought and within a couple of weeks he was setting the trend in his little class and leading the way.
Jack achieved many milestones during 2012. He achieved his first unassisted ride on a bicycle which was something we thought would take a lot longer (I was quite close to giving up having had to put up with a few tantrums). He also finally believed us when we told him that swimming is a lot of fun and that he should give it a real try. And so ended his fear of water and our fear that he would still not be able to swim when he reached high school.
We also had a momentous occasion on our road trip to the Northern Cape when he decided that the Jupiter Restaurant in Sutherland would be the location of his first ever hamburger. It amazed Jeanie and me that he was able to eat a combination of roll, burger patty, lettuce and tomato all in one bite. This is a child that seldom stomachs more than two food items on the same plate (and they daren’t be squishy, brown, seeded, spicy, grisly or bony and they certainly should not touch one another).
He also amazed us all with his growing confidence when he stood in front of a crowd of close friends and family and belted out his version of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” during our most recent December holiday.
What made me the proudest though was the way that Jack handled quite a bit of health adversity during 2012. Over the course of a few weeks Jack soldiered through a hernia operation as well as a broken leg, and did it all with a very brave spirit. I will never forget the terrible pain he had to endure when the doctor set the cast on his injured leg. In fact, I think I did forget as I was the one that passed out on the hospital bed whilst he bravely stuck it out. I think it was all made slightly easier that his plaster cast made him the most noticeable kid in the school and therefore the most popular.
Need I use words?
So, it was an incredible year for all my kids and Jeanie and I were so proud of each one of them. We had some ups and downs, a tantrum or two here and there but on the whole we couldn’t have asked for more. I suspect I may not be saying the same when they reach their teens…
My best sporting moment
Many of my blogs would have pointed to the fact that I am a real sports fan. I will admit that I don’t really understand what all the fuss is about when it comes to soccer (especially the English Premier League) and I don’t really care much for motorsports but when talking rugby and cricket, specifically, I am a huge fan.
2012 was a little different as it brought us the Summer Olympics in London and for 2 weeks I spent a little bit too much time in front of the TV (Jeanie, I do apologise if you felt neglected).
The Olympics rated very high on my scale when it came to sporting highlights. Watching Cameron van den Burgh and Chad le Clos win gold in the pool was incredible but my favourite event was the “come from behind victory” by the South African lightweight four. They came from 5th place with 500m to go to take gold from the Poms and the Danes. What made it even sweeter was the fact that the commentator simply assumed that the gold and green team that won the race was the Australian team when, in fact, they didn’t even find their way onto the podium.
However, as impressive as the Olympics were my favourite sporting moments were all cricket related. Nothing brought me more pleasure than watching Vernon Philander take the last wicket in the series against England to see the Proteas into top spot on the Test rankings. But, that was not enough.
There was a continuation of that theme as I watched Faf du Plessis deny the Australians in Adelaide with a momentous century and then our much talked about bowling attack demolish them with pace in the final test in Perth to cement their standing at the top of the table.
I have never been a big believer in the “chokers tag” as it is liberally tossed about when talking about One Day and Twenty20 Cricket so it was nice to see the Proteas show the uninformed critics that they have what it takes to be the best and to stay there.
Long may it continue.
The tougher side of 2012
I suppose it isn’t always highlights and 2012 was also a tough year in many respects.
We lost a very close friend to cancer at the end of the year and it always pains me enormously when young fathers (or mothers) leave behind a family that really deserves to have them around forever. We will always remember Neil with a great deal of fondness as he showed us that it was possible to cram a lifetime into 43 years.
We also had to (temporarily) say goodbye to our closest friends who will be some of those South Africans waving flags at the Sydney Cricket Ground the next time the Proteas take to the field in that part of the world (they promised they would always support the right green and gold). We were sad to say goodbye but we know that they will make a huge success of the challenges that face them in Australia.
So, good or bad, that is my not-so-brief summary of 2012. 2013 lies ahead of us and will hopefully bring plenty of new experiences for our family. For those that made it to this point of my story, I can only thank you for your support and commend you for your tenacity…