After a month or two of focusing on Tommy’s list (getting him closer to the 300 landmark) I had inadvertently let my own personal lists meander a little. I may have mentioned it before in saying that I am not necessarily the most fanatical twitcher but I do keep a little more than just a single eye on my Southern African, Western Cape and more recently my photographic list. My Southern African list remains quite static with the exception of a burst here and there when I may travel further afield (read about my trip to Harare and the Eastern Highlands and of course the memorable trip to Pongola where I netted 2 new ones) and I am inclined to say that my Western Cape list has the tendency to be even more static due to the extensive birding that I have done close to home while the boys have been young. I had a big push to the 400 mark over the last year (read about my trip to Murraysburg) and since I topped that considerable milestone last year with the long staying Goliath Heron I have not moved an inch.
Testament to the fact that I am not quite a fanatical provincial lister (I hear you all saying “why on earth would he drag himself to Murraysburg to tick a Drakensberg Rockjumper in the Western Cape if he isn’t a fanatical provincial lister!!”) is that I have spurned a number of opportunities to tick relatively easy Western Cape birds such as the very brief visiting Woolly-necked Stork in Somerset West and the contrastingly comfortable Long-crested Eagle in the same corner of the Cape. Being on the verge of a fanatical birder these opportunities lost pained me a little and with the most recent long weekend coming up I decided that I needed to reach beyond 400. Thoughts of the Lilac-breasted Roller in Merweville crossed my mind but a quick Google Map of this little known town in the northern extremities of the Western Cape did not bode well for combining a 401 twitch with a family getaway. I would appreciate anyone with any knowledge of Merweville to let me know how it may appeal to my wife and kids but somehow I think my inbox will stay as barren as the surrounding landscape of the northern Western Cape…
So, the recently discovered Pectoral Sandpiper at Rocher Pan would have to be the target and it also gave me an opportunity to combine some birding with a family getaway. It would be a new Western Cape bird for me (having seen it a few times in Southern Africa already) and I would also be able to chase some new birds for my photographic list. The most important target that fell into that category was Chestnut-banded Plover, a bird I had not seen in many years (shows how little time I have spent up at Velddrif). We planned just a single night away and after phoning at least 20 guest houses, B&B’s and self catering options in Paternoster we gave up on spending a night in what is probably the quaintest of West Coast villages. Instead it was to be the “March special” at the Shelley Point Hotel and Spa which is probably not considered to be particularly quaint but it did the job for us. There was a pool, a kids play area, a restaurant and comfortable accommodation at a relatively special rate. Critically, it was within a stone’s throw of Velddrif and Roche Pan.
We only left on Sunday morning so it gave us an opportunity to spend much of Saturday morning on the beach in Muizenberg on one of the hottest days of the year with a late summer heat wave passing through Cape Town. It is interesting to note Tommy’s behavior these days even when he is not “birding” per se: beach activities include body boarding, cricket, sand castles and a bit of rugby and soccer but it is also nice to see that his mind never really wanders that far away from birding even in the most non birdy of places. Without any prompting whatsoever he trawled the tide line for mussel shells and put together the outline of one of his favourite birds (a Little Bee-eater). At the age of 7 the likeness is definitely there despite the lack of any reference book for guidance. It shows that the time spent paging through my plethora of field guides is definitely sinking in.
Anyway, the trip north on Sunday morning was to be a serious venture for Tommy and I (Jean, her mom and the younger 2 would join later) so I invited Dave Winter to join me. Having recently returned from the colder northern climes on a skiing trip I think Dave was itching to point his bins at something other than a coot or blackbird.
The birding during the morning was pretty good despite the relatively disappointing weather (I noted that the hours I spent birding on the weekend were exclusively the ones when the sun didn’t shine). It never rained but the low cloud and mist made photography tricky and the newly photographed species were not as bright as they could have been. I reacquainted myself with Chestnut-banded Plover at a new venue for me on the southern side of the river, east of the R27 on a private farm for which we got permission to visit. The target species was nabbed in double quick time with a flock of at least 30 plovers in a very confiding mood.
The salt pans delivered a few other goodies including a smattering of raptors which is definitely Tommy’s favoured group (Osprey, African Marsh Harrier and Lanner Falcon). The waders were plentiful and visits to the Riviera hide and De Plaat mud flat gave us a relatively complete set without delivering anything spectacular. It has been said before but it bears mentioning again that 7 year old budding birders are not necessarily the keenest on waders but Tommy showed remarkable patience for the hours we spent scanning the mud flats and he wasn’t too upset at the fact that the Chestnut-banded Plovers represented yet another step towards 300 species.
As Tommy’s list has been growing he has become acutely aware of some of the birds that he cannot tick as we head out on our ventures. It is a function of his time spent poring through my field guide as well as common sense to know that the chickens that roam around farmyards just do not represent something that can go on the list. There are some strange anomalies though, and while birding on Sunday we had an interesting discussion about the African Penguin colony at Boulders Beach in Simonstown. As a family we have often visited this quirky little beach with the penguins running around on the sand amongst the bathers, and for some reason Tommy was absolutely convinced that someone had brought these wonderful birds down to the beach and released them there and so under no circumstances could they be added to his list. I was at great pains to tell him that they were wild, free roaming birds and they certainly were a species that could justifiably be counted. It took Dave and I some time to convince him of this fact and eventually he relented and agreed to add it to his list. After all, they are a Southern African endemic. On the flip side of the coin though was the Mallard that we encountered while driving along the Berg River in Velddrif. As much as I was excited to tell Tommy that he could add the penguin to his list I felt ashamed to admit that this destructive alien species has also managed to weasel its way onto our list of species. Despite the fact that it represents a great threat to our indigenous waterfowl and should be eradicated wherever possible it counts just as much as the penguin does. By now he seemed more at ease with his listing ethics and another lifer for the morning was not going to be sneezed at.
Once we had sated ourselves on Velddrif we headed north for Rocher Pan. The walk to the hide was chock-a-block full of Cape Penduline Tits which can be a tricky little species to nab and Tommy welcomed this new one as well. The Pectoral Sandpiper was almost as easy as the Golden Pipit twitch (read my blog about that here). The only thing missing was a big neon sign above the bird pointing it out to make sure it wasn’t mistaken for one of the other waders patrolling the exposed shoreline. It is a difficult thing for me to admit being a relatively experienced birder, but I actually needed the neon sign. We arrived in the hide and I immediately picked up the bird and started firing off shots. Dave’s camera was unusually quiet although it didn’t quite register yet why he wasn’t taking the opportunity to photograph the bird lest it decide to fly off and disappear forever as waders are want to do. After 10 minutes of getting some very usable shots of the Sandpiper I suddenly realized that I was actually pointing my camera at a Ruff. Yes, a bird almost 50% larger than the wader we were actually meant to be looking for. It was then that I realized why Dave’s camera was as quiet as it was – the sandpiper was not in view yet! It was a sheepish moment but I took a deep breath, gathered my thoughts, made sure Tommy didn’t realize how useless his father had been and re-trained my binoculars to find the right bird. Well, we all have our moments and it was one that I would prefer to move past…
The Pectoral Sandpiper was species number 401 for me in the Western Cape and it was good to kick the list into action again. Amazingly, it wasn’t even a lifer for Tommy having seen it at Muze Pan on our trip to Pongola.
Finishing off at Rocher Pan was the end of the morning’s birding and Dave dropped us off at Vredenburg so we could meet up with the rest of the family en route to Shelley Point. A stop at KFC kept up the birding theme and we then headed north to a peninsula I had never been to before. An afternoon snooze under the belt and there was time for yet some more birding and atlassing. I had decided to combine the weekend’s birding and photography with a bit of atlassing. We had covered the Velddrif and Rocher Pan pentads in the morning (3245_1810 and 3235_1815) and I wanted to add the Shelley Point pentad (3240_1755) to the list. During the short time we were there I also managed to spend enough time in the pentad to the south of Shelley Point (3245_1755). One of the things I have come to love about my oldest son is his absolute integrity. There is no such thing as a lie in his mind and stretching boundaries no matter how arbitrary it may seem is just not negotiable. This quality came through strongly during our afternoon session in 3245_1755. We were driving south towards Vredenburg when I looked at the GPS and it showed me that we had just crossed beyond the pentad line. I was about to do a u-turn when I noticed a Rock Kestrel on a telephone pole. It was a new one for the pentad so I proceeded to record it on to my voice recorder. Tommy looked at me as if I was on another planet. “Why are you counting that one?” he said to me. It was my second time of the weekend to look sheepish. I tried to motivate my way out of it saying that we were just outside the pentad and it wouldn’t make too much difference if we included it. He was hearing nothing of it. It was definitely not going on the list – not on his watch! Just then the most fortuitous thing happened in that the bird in question took off and flew due north straight into the pentad we were atlassing. It was a lucky escape for me.
The birding was a little disappointing mainly due to the miserable weather that had settled on the west coast for the time we were there. We did find the Sickle-winged Chats we were looking for and despite the fact that there were plenty of them they never sat still long enough for a decent photo. Most disappointing was hearing Cape Long-billed Lark but not being able to see it as well as hearing Namaqua Sandgrouse calling consistently in one field but also never getting a view. Both these birds represented lifers for Tommy and he was still lamenting these misses by the time we got home and filled in his list.
We wrapped the weekend off with a visit to the beach at Shelley Point just as the sun came out and it was ironic that this was now the time when the birding was over and the camera was more or less packed away. I still snapped a few pics of some coastal species and they actually turned out to be some of the better ones. It is still satisfying to get a nice photo even if it is a common species. It was also nice to see Tommy back in “7 year old mode” as he clambered over the rocks with his brothers searching for sea urchin shells and just enjoying being out in the sun doing what 7 year olds should be doing. It was a competitive venture nonetheless and he emerged victorious with more shells than his brothers, mother and grandmother!
All in all another successful weekend with a good mix of birding, photography, atlassing, beaching and family time. I edged my lists a little further, Tommy breached the 300 mark and the family had a good break. A traffic jam coming back into Cape Town was almost enough to wash away the good work done, but…not quite.