One really has to love long weekends. Especially the Easter Weekend which is just that little bit longer than most.
There is, however, one thing that I don’t like about long weekends – Sir Lowry’s Pass.
I am either just getting more grumpy as I get older (Jeanie will attest to that) or, alternatively, the traffic volumes have worsened dramatically (or perhaps a combination of both) but I can barely face Sir Lowry’s Pass on the last afternoon of a long weekend. It tends to suck all the relaxation of the weekend right out of me.
So, when we discussed the destination of our Easter Weekend, I was happy to go just about anywhere as long as it did not involve sitting in that traffic on the way back. I was fortunate that Jeanie had found a beautiful rental house in the Shelley Point development on the West Coast next to St Helena Bay.
There were so many positives.
The house was right on the beach; there would be no Sir Lowry’s Pass on the way back and, fortuitously, it was comfortably within the Challenge area.
I would certainly hope to be adding a few birds to my list this weekend. I had made some good progress in the recent weeks with some great birds but the Velddrif area was going to be an opportunity for a few more.
The Velddrif area has two main focus areas – the farmlands between Vredenburg and the coastline with some range restricted birds and the Berg River and the salt pans that are always great birding spots.
I was also pleased my good mate Simon Peille would be joining my dad, Adam and I for a Saturday morning assault. Alongside Dave and Dom, Simon is another keen Challenge mate and it is nice to tick some of these birds together. In the adage of “keep your friends close but enemies closer” I am not sure where Simon fits in the context of the Challenge. I suspect “two pairs of eyes is better than one” is probably more appropriate so we would have our best chance working together. Maybe later on this year the balance will shift but for now it was great to have him along.
Adam has also taken on the Challenge with a bit of gusto. He has had a bit of a slow start but the beauty of the Challenge is that the slower the start the better the chance of adding lots of birds with the “catch-up” outings. Adam would certainly be accelerating his list this weekend.
Our first priority was the salt pans at Kuifkopvisvanger Resort which is a camping and river facility on the southern bank of the Berg River just east of the R27 on the road towards Hopefield.
I am not sure why this place is so under-exposed in birding literature. I have visited it on two occasions and both times we have been welcomed with open arms by the owners and, by their own admission, they wished they had more birders visiting them. The access rates are reasonable but on our visit there they chose not to charge us as we were there for such a short time collecting our target species. In fact, we probably would have paid double, as it was not about time spent but about the quality of sightings.
The habitat consists of a small amount of scrubby pastures and strandveld and the reeded banks of the Berg River, but the real feature are the evaporation pans of the saltworks. The access roads between the pans give birders and photographers the most amazing access to waders, flamingos, grebes, pelicans and the most prized bird of all – Chestnut-banded Plover.
We had visited Kuifkopvisvanger for this bird about 3 or 4 years ago and had not been disappointed and so we were expectant of good views. This time was even better. We were there just after sunrise and the lighting on the pans was nothing short of spectacular. I eventually stopped taking pictures of these stunning little birds as I could not think how I could improve the shots that I had. There were no excuses for poor images this time round.
In addition to the Plover I also managed to add Lesser Flamingo to my Challenge list but they were unfortunately just a little too far away for photographs.
There were some good opportunities for photographing one or two other species:
Our next stop would be the classic birding road between Vredenburg and Shelley Point. It is a 20km gravel road that rises and descends gradually through the farmlands offering very productive birding with a few localized birds in relative abundance. Interestingly this road looks so much like so many other farm roads in the Swartland but for some reason there are a few different birds that would be our targets.
The easiest of the lot was the Sickle-winged Chat. There seemed to be a pair of these birds at regular intervals along the road. They are certainly plentiful and there is no real excuse for missing them. They are charismatic little things and they occasionally posed nicely for a pic.
Grey-backed Sparrowlarks are also pretty regular along this route and I doubt there are too many better roads in the Challenge area for this species. The black-bellied and neat males are pretty obvious as they flush off the road and fly into the pastures. This one was another new one for me.
The Ant-eating Chat was also far easier than I had expected. Fortunately these birds are hard to miss and although their density is reasonably low (nothing like the Sickle-winged Chats) they perch nicely on the telephone wires and, when not perching, their fluttering flight and white secondaries make them stick out like sore thumbs.
The toughest bird of the lot was the Cape Long-billed Lark. I have seen these birds in a number of different places over the years and there are some spots that have high densities, but I was not too hopeful of that in this area.
I need not have feared as we found an area that was absolutely full of them. Their descending whistles were coming from all sides of the road and a bit of careful scanning revealed a number of individuals. They certainly do have a conker of a bill.
As is the case with most Long-billed Larks they were pretty skittish and it was tricky getting a decent pic.
Aside from the target birds there were a few other good species to be seen and photographed along the farm roads. We stumbled upon a Rock Kestrel that had just caught a lizard and was tearing it apart. It seemed pretty unaffected by our presence so we got nice and close. Adam and I spent some time trying to ID the lizard as well but once the Kestrel had removed the head it was pretty hard to tell!
The plover, flamingo, two chats and two larks made it 6 new birds for the Challenge. I would never have been satisfied with that count (when are we ever satisfied?) and I had secretly hoped for 10 new birds. I was fortunate that I managed to hit that target with a few additional incidental birds.
Crowned Cormorants were not unexpected. They were literally everywhere on the shoreline around Shelley Point. I also spent a fair amount of time scanning the cormorant colonies for Bank but I came away empty handed. I’m not too worried about that one though – a nice Banker for later (pun most certainly intended).
Grey Tit was also an expected bird. They are pretty common in this area and I had heard a few calling birds whilst riding around Jakobsbaai one morning but we managed to get a good view of a small group of three of them at the northern end of the Vredenburg/Shelley Point Road.
Another bird that I was amazed that I had not seen yet was Namaqua Dove. They are very regular on the West Coast and despite this being my 4th visit up this way I was only able to add it this time around. And then, as is always the case, once you see one they seem to be everywhere.
The last bird for the weekend was an added bonus. I managed to squeeze a visit to Geelbek on our way back south on Monday afternoon (far better than sitting on Sir Lowry’s Pass) and picked up a few feeding Marsh Sandpipers on the dropping tide. Once again this was a bird that had strangely eluded me but I don’t feel that bad as my close competition in the Challenge were also missing this one. The pair of Common Redshanks were also a nice addition (although they didn’t advance my list) but they were a full lifer for Adam and a challenge bird for both Tommy and Adam.
I suppose these blogs may give the impression that our long weekends are exclusively for the purposes of birding, but when the family is involved there is so much more that we get up to.
We spent plenty of time on the beach with the kids with yet more bizarre warm weather for April.
I also managed to get out on my bicycle on a long, exploratory jaunt along the coastline between Paternoster and Saldanha. I had mapped a route using Googlemaps but, despite some conscientious planning I still managed to end up in the most bizarre place. The mist had rolled in off the ocean and, in between the pockets of mist, I was riding past free campers on the beach and then ultimately ended up in a dune field with the road I was on petering out into soft beach sand.
My map software and Garmin were rendered pretty useless and just before I started to panic that my decaying skeleton would be found by West Coast fishermen in 6 months’ time, thankfully, I bumped into two campers from Wellington who were able to put me on the right track to find my way back to Vredenburg.
They had surfaced from their tents in a Brandy and Coke haze and seeing me emerge from the mist at 7:30am, asking them where the hell I was, produced an appropriately surprised response. I suspect they may have thought I was some kind of apparition. The one guy asked me where I had come from and when I replied “Shelley Point” he justifiably asked whether I left there 5 days previously. It felt like it was a remote spot but it wasn’t exactly outer Borneo.
Anyway, I did manage to get onto a road that was more gravel than sand and before long I was back on track to Shelley Point but considerably later than I had expected.
The weekend also allowed Tommy and I to spend some good father and son bonding time together. Whilst the rest of the family did the logical thing and got in the car to drive the 20kms from Shelley Point to Paternoster, Tommy and I decided to ride through the Groot Paternoster Nature Reserve on our bikes to join the family for sundowners. It was a case of de ja vu as the road went from tar to gravel to corrugations to soft beach sand and ultimately the expected one hour fresh air exposure became a slog that required some determination and courage. Riding through soft sand was tough for me but for Tommy with skinnier tyres, skinnier legs and skinnier overall frame it was a challenging ordeal.
We did eventually arrive in Paternoster just as the sun was setting and it was a moment of pride for Tommy as he overcame a few negative thoughts along the way. Thankfully there was enough space in the car to get back home as a return trip would have broken both of us in half.
As is always the case these long weekends still seem to be too short but the one thing I was thankful for was that I did not have to sit in Sir Lowry’s Pass traffic on the way home…