The Birding Big Day that wasn’t

As the year starts to slide to December I have begun to realize that weekends are running out rapidly.   We have a family planner on our wall in our kitchen with a column for each member of the family (we have manually had to add one or two columns to fit in Jack and Emma).   A simple glance at the planner shows that most of the remaining weekends are already filled with year-end functions, birthday parties, campouts and cycling events. It does not look good for my Wider Cape Town Challenge.

I have been bumbling along at a rather sedate pace, stuck disappointingly a fraction outside of the top 10, with the grim realization slowly dawning that that is where I am going to finish.

I certainly have to write off a pelagic trip. The mere fact that one has to keep aside a full weekend in case there is a weather carry-over from Saturday to Sunday, makes it totally unrealistic given that most of my pink tickets are usually issued in half-day coupons.

Well, that’s okay, as it saves me seven or eight hours of vomiting, better spent doing something more productive, but it is sad to leave behind an automatic 15 species on top of my list. Maybe I’ll do a sea watch from the shore and “string” a few tubenoses.

Sadly, I have also written off a visit to Paarl Sewerage Works. My good mate, Dom, was recently mugged there at gun and knife-point and relieved of his camera and binoculars. I also heard on the weekend that there was another mugging of an overseas tourist at the same place, so the thought of risking my life and equipment for the sake of 4 birds (Fulvous Duck, Tambourine Dove, White-winged Tern and Common Sandpiper) seems like a poor risk/return ratio. Incidentally, if anyone knows of an alternative place where I can tick all four of these species within the time span of a half-day pink ticket please feel free to let me know.

The clock winding down has had me thinking that I may have to be satisfied with my ultimate finishing position in the Challenge resting somewhere outside the top 10, but over the last two weekends I have, at least, managed to add 7 new birds.

We spent last weekend at High Season Farm in the Hemel and Aarde Valley near Hermanus and, despite the wind virtually blowing us over, I managed Red-chested and Diederick Cuckoo in the valley itself whilst a drive back home along the Karwyderskraal Road delivered a pair of Denham’s Bustards which was a very nice addition and thanks only to Tommy’s eagle eyes. There is no way my aging eyes would have picked up just the heads of the birds over a distant ridge. The fourth bird of the weekend was the extremely obliging Blue-mantled Crested-flycatcher in the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens in Betty’s Bay. A previous visit there 4 or 5 months ago was completely unsuccessful but this time we hardly had to look for it as it came looking for us.

Blue-mantled Crested-flycatcher

Blue-mantled Crested-flycatcher

We also had a very obliging Olive Woodpecker with its youngster which made for slightly more satisfying views than usual.

Olive Woodpecker

Olive Woodpecker

Whilst Adam, Jack and I added some great birds in the forested kloof the rest of the family chilled on the lawn in front of the restaurant (which, incidentally, has great service, very nice food and a 10% discount for Botanical Society card holders).

A snooze at Harold Porter

A snooze at Harold Porter

Tommy chilling at Harold Porter

Tommy chilling at Harold Porter

We also paid a visit to the Stoney Point penguin colony where my most exciting animal was the beautifully coloured Cape Girdled Lizard. Adam added the penguin and Bank Cormorant to his list to push him above 200 species in the Challenge.

Cape Girdled Lizard

Cape Girdled Lizard

The Buckhams at Stoney Point

The Buckhams at Stoney Point

This last weekend also held some promise for a nice fillip to my list. Several months ago Dom suggested we do a Birding Big Day. Securing a date for this was almost as unlikely as getting myself onto a pelagic trip, but I decided to give it a bash anyway. Using a fair amount of guile I sold it to Jeanie as a charity event to raise money for my new community project (there will be more detail of this in future blogs) and the strategy worked. Jeanie agreed to set me free for a Birding Big Day provided that it could be squeezed somewhere into our rapidly filling family planner. We settled on the 1st of November (which was literally the only date that was available) and we agreed to go ahead.

One of our birding heavy hitters, Dave, was unavailable for the day as he was riding the Wines to Whales Mountain Bike Adventure so we would have to do without him. Since he still needs Red-chested Flufftail for his life list we figured it wasn’t that big a loss and we extended our search a little.

We secured our final four with Frans and Garth (obviously using aliases for the sake of their anonymity) and we were essentially on our way with a full team. To cut a long story short (yes, I know that I am incapable of a short story) it was a real “on again, off again” affair with Dom having to cancel due to a research trip out to sea arising unplanned, which was then duly cancelled four days before and our BBD could have gone ahead anyway.

In the end, my aversion to uncertainty led me to a decision to bin the Big Day and settle for a morning on the West Coast where I could enjoy a bit of birding, keep myself in the good books back home and hopefully add a few species to my Challenge list.

Unfortunately Garth had to bail (having an even shorter leash than me due to work commitments) so it was just Dom, Frans and I that headed out on Saturday morning (and I said I would cut a long story short).

Darling Hills Road

Darling Hills Road

Dom and Frans on Darling Hills Road

Dom and Frans on Darling Hills Road

I have mentioned Dom and his Challenge list before in my blogs. I was quite competitive against Dom in the early part of the year (mostly because he was stranded on a research vessel for most of January and February) but in the latter half of the year he has well and truly pulled away from me. He is at least 15 birds ahead and that gap is very likely to widen. He certainly has had the advantage of spending some decent time at sea with all the research he does but he is also far more willing and able to spend the time in the field for his land-based birding than I am. He has even sacrificed some of his equipment in the cause whilst adding a few extra species at Paarl Sewerage Works. I recall his e-mail to me on the day that he was mugged when he matter-of-factly mentioned that he had had a good day with some extra species but it was somewhat ruined by the fact that he was held at gunpoint for the redistribution of his birding equipment.

It seems completely wrong to be flippant about such a frightening crime incident but I have seldom come across anyone that was so nonchalant about being mugged.

Frans was our other companion for the day. I have only recently spent time in the field with Frans after having first bumped into him on a warm, windy day in Knysna when both of us were unsuccessfully attempting to twitch the Black Heron during last year’s Christmas holidays. We have since crossed paths a few times during the year at certain Challenge twitches and it was good to spend the morning with Frans doing some decent Challenge birding.

As an aside, it is worth mentioning that I spent the morning with Frans and Adam a few weeks ago at Sir Lowry’s Pass. Adam finally managed to nail his lifer Cape Rockjumper up at the cannons and I managed my first decent shots of a monster Cape Crag Lizard sunning itself on a rock.

Cape Crag Lizard

Cape Crag Lizard

Cape Crag Lizard

Cape Crag Lizard

A Rockjumper smile

A Rockjumper smile

Frans has taken a more stealth-like approach to his Challenge list. Most of us have exposed our souls to the Challenge process with our names up on the list on the website with our totals there for everyone to see. We run the very real risk of ridicule as the lists are easily checked for any dodgy ticks. Heaven help you if you happen to tick something like a Green-backed Heron, as you will be hunted down by the list police, asked detailed questions of your whereabouts, your companions, the field features and the time of year when it was seen. You will also be asked why you didn’t alert anyone about your rare sighting as it took away the chance for other people to see it. But, basically, you are being told that your record is a bit rubbish.

Frans has avoided all that stress by simply not posting his list on the website at all. I reckon he is going to tick it on the last day of the year to really provide a bit of a surprise for everyone. Just when you thought you may be good for a top ten finish, Frans will post his list and knock you from 10 to 11. Pretty sneaky, to say the least.

We managed to eke it out of Frans on the weekend as to what his total was and I was horrified that my 12th spot was actually 13th. Frans was on 265 and I was on 264. He even admitted to looking a little less vigilantly for the Banded Martin that I still needed but which he had ticked a few weeks previously knowing that I would tie him up.

I felt a little “done in” from this last weekend’s Challenge birding. On the basis of our comparative lists, I had the most to gain from a morning out in the field but I finished up with far fewer ticks than either Dom or Frans. It seemed that they hit most of their target birds (which I already seemed to have) and virtually none of mine made an appearance.

I already had Diederick Cuckoo on my list but Dom and Frans still needed it. It called obligingly at Groote Post wine farm and they spent 20 minutes clambering in the long grass trying to get their view whilst I twiddled my thumbs at the car hoping for a Banded Martin to fly past.

Frans and Dom both needed Karoo Thrush (which I also already had) and it virtually jumped into their laps at the Geelbek manor house.

Secretarybird was another one firmly on my list but blank on Dom’s, and since it is a considerably tougher bird than most in the Western Cape these days I thought I was safe having that one on my list ahead of Dom, but when we stopped at Tienie Verfeld to look for MY Banded Martin, what do you think I managed to spot?

A Secretarybird stalking through the grass.

I seriously considered keeping quiet about it. Why hand Dom another Challenge Bird on a silver platter? My conscience got the better of me and I reluctantly pointed it out. To compensate, Dom suggested that a hirundine flying 4kms away was “most probably” a Banded Martin but knowing full well that I could never tick it on the basis of that dodgy call.

Tienie Verseld

Tienie Verseld

Anyway, I suppose I should have been happy with my “haul” of three new birds for the day, being European Bee-eater, Lark-like Bunting and Greater Honeyguide.

The Euro Bee-eater was always going to be a slam-dunk on the Darling Hills Road but the Lark-like Bunting was a nice surprise. They have become pretty regular in the West Coast National Park over the last few years but for some reason they had gone unrecorded at that site this year. Abrahamskraal is always the best spot and within a minute or two of arriving there Dom had managed to pick one up in flight. It was about 3.98kms closer than the Banded Martin he had spotted so I was happy to pursue this one as a viable option, but I waited until we had one right in front of the hide before I made that final tick.

Lark-like Bunting

Lark-like Bunting

As much as the Lark-like Bunting sighting represented some decent birding skills from us, the Greater Honeyguide was a bit of an embarrassment all round. We knew that the best spot for this bird would be near Groote Post (given the large stands of gum trees surrounding the homestead) and so we gave it a try with a bit of playback. Since Dom also needed Lesser Honeyguide for his Challenge list we tried that one too. A few minutes later a honeyguide flew into the very top branches of one of the gum trees. It was impossible to say which one it was right off the bat and the angle was particularly poor. I peered through my bins and was pretty convinced I saw a relatively unmarked face. In fact, we all had our first look and simply assumed it was a Lesser Honeyguide. There was certainly no clear evidence of the black throat.

Frans, however, was armed with his camera.

Now it must be said he has suffered some abuse from me regarding his birding technique. He has been known, on occasion, to head into the field sans binoculars, but rather armed with his camera. The method of ID is to fire off a few shots of a distant bird and then use the LCD screen on the camera to zoom in on the subject to identify it. It has some degree of practical application but one shouldn’t be caught dead doing so. Roger Tory Peterson would be turning in his grave.

All my chastising has seemingly had no effect as there he was standing next to me firing off a few pretty ordinary shots of the honeyguide whilst I peered through my bins to try and determine the salient features. Before I could completely rule out Greater, a Malachite Sunbird zoomed past the honeyguide and chased it out of the back of the tree, never to be seen again.

We got back in the car and, out of the bright glare of the sun, we decided to look at the photos that Frans had taken. Well, it was pretty bleeding obvious that the bird that we had been looking at was the real deal Greater Honeyguide. The coral bill and a yellow patch on the shoulder made it clear that we had got the bird we wanted (with Dom needing either one he was relatively ambivalent but probably acknowledged that Greater was the better one to get on the day).

Aside from the Challenge birds we managed to see, we also spent at least an hour in the Geelbek hide looking at waders. We had timed the tide to perfection and we scanned the flats as the tide pushed the birds closer, hoping to find something unusual. The Common Redshank was found quite easily although gave very little in the way of photo opportunities but there was very little else of excitement other than the usual fare.

Common Redshank

Common Redshank

What was very rewarding were the large flocks of Lesser Flamingos that flew left and right in front of the hide. It is not a tough species to find further north in Veldrif but it can be scarce in the park so it was nice to see in such large numbers. A small obliging flock of them pranced right past us giving us great photo opportunities. They really are pretty special birds.

Lesser Flamingo

Lesser Flamingo

The light was so good in the hide that it was worth taking a few other shots, even though the birds were pretty run of the mill.

Grey Heron

Grey Heron

Pied Avocet

Pied Avocet

Pied Avocet

Pied Avocet

Common Greenshank

Common Greenshank

Greater Flamingo

Greater Flamingo

Greater Flamingo

Greater Flamingo

Marsh Sandpiper

Marsh Sandpiper

We were back in town just before lunchtime and it was an extremely successful morning outing. We got quite a few good species that would have been bonuses on a Birding Big Day and Frans was heard to mutter on several occasions that we should have done one. He was probably right but I was definitely a lot more popular when I arrived home at lunchtime than I would have been arriving at 9pm.

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