I suppose it had to take something quite special to get me to put pen to paper again. Southern Africa’s 6th ever record of a Red-throated Pipit probably fits into the category of “quite special”. In addition to it being only the 6th record in our sub-region ever, it was also a bird that had never been photographed here and, although I don’t have the exact details, it has been a very long time since the 5th record.
The Red-throated Pipit is a bird of northern Europe and Asia that migrates from its northerly breeding grounds into Africa, about as far as northern Tanzania, as well as into parts of south and east Asia and the western United States. In Africa, it is easily found in the austral summer in places like Ethiopia but not often too much further south. There are other accidental dispersals into other parts of the world and as a result it is an oft-chased rarity in the southern climes.
It is a pretty little pipit in breeding dress, with a brick red wash across its head and face, lots of streaking on its underparts and upperparts and two subtle wing bars on its wings. It has a thin little bill as far as pipits go, and occasionally bobs its tail a little like most pipits and wagtails. In non-breeding plumage it loses the reddish wash across its head and it is left looking a lot more ordinary.
Anyway, now that you all know that this is a special bird, I guess you’ll want to know why I am blogging about it. The 6th ever record of RtP (we’ll abbreviate from now on) was found by a foreign birder on the shores of Avis Dam in Windhoek. I guess we should be pleased it was a European birder that was birding there as I am pretty sure most of us would have missed it. Well, I am almost certain that I would have.
He contacted our resident rarity expert, Trevor Hardaker, to let him know of his sighting and shortly thereafter Trevor turned to technology to get some sort of confirmation. Said foreign birder had no photographic evidence and before setting the birding world a-flutter it was important to get a little more proof.
A Facebook appeal went out and, within an hour, flights were being booked and road distances were being calculated – this was a real RtP for everyone to get excited about as it was confirmed with plenty of photos on Facebook (and who says social media is a waste of time?).
Naturally, I was not enticed in the slightest to leave the comfort of my summer holiday and race up to Namibia for a drab little pipit in non-breeding dress. A good mate said something like “I would hope to see a bit more red if I drove 1,500 kilometres to see it”. He is a bit of a birding philistine so one shouldn’t take too much notice, but I will admit that I was just thinking that it would be impossible to justify this kind of twitch whilst enjoying the last few days of holiday with the family.
Casual dinner conversation that included the words “red”, “throated” and “pipit” in the same sentence did not go down too well and even if I spread them across three different sentences my subtle attempts at feeling the temperature were being met with Antarctic responses.
I would not be twitching this little birdy.
So, it was back to work on Monday to sit at my desk and read about all the people that had added this one to their lists. Countless photos and excited messages ticked through and I was not enjoying my first day back at my desk.
With these kinds of rarities the duration of their visit is an absolute lottery. Sometimes they arrive one day and are gone the next, and other times they linger for ages and, by the end of their excursion, they have become a passé topic and no one really cares anymore.
But no one really knows how long they will be around.
Sure, weather and feeding conditions play a role and if weather remains settled and there is plenty of food then why would the bird leave anyway? These are all thoughts that go through our minds when deciding to take a trip immediately or think about it for a while, trying to find an appropriate gap in the diary. There are some that are not prepared to take any chances and drop everything immediately and chase.
In many cases, however, not even an urgent response is enough.
South Africa’s first and only Irania (White-throated Robin) disappeared in a Karoo storm approximately 12 hours before all the rabid twitchers arrived en masse to tick it. They were left oohing and aahing at the Karoo farmer’s point and shoot pictures of it in the aftermath of the storm while sipping moer koffie and staring at an empty yard where a day before the Irania was behaving like a Cape Robin-chat. So, it turns out that the only person with an Irania on their SA list is a farmer that really has no interest in the length of his list.
I know I can digress a little but there are two fascinating little twitching stories about two rare UK birds that are worth telling.
The first was a Grey Phalarope that was present at a swamp or sewerage farm or some other equally appealing birding spot. It had been twitched by quite a number of birders but there were plenty that had not yet seen it. I suspect they may have had wives, girlfriends or bosses that were sticks in the mud, and so they just hadn’t got there yet.
There was a hide of birders sitting watching the phalarope feeding when a buzzard swooped into the scene and clutched the phalarope in its talons and disappeared over the horizon to feed on it. It could have picked on any number of common birds feeding in the shallows but it chose the rarity. What are the chances of that?
This story sounds almost unbelievable but the beauty of it was that someone actually photographed the whole episode as proof (if you don’t believe me you can read the story here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/wildlife/4246823/Buzzard-snatches-and-kills-rare-bird.html).
The second story relates to a White-throated Needletail, which is an Asian swift-like bird, that pitched up on an island called the Isle of Harris, one of the Hebridean Islands north west of Scotland. It was a first UK record in 22 years and, since the UK has more twitchers per square mile than red postboxes, it caused a stir of epic proportions. It isn’t easy to get to these far flung islands and so charter flights and boat trips were booked in their dozens in order to ferry the hordes across to the scene of the twitch.
I forget the exact numbers but I recall that a small number of birders had arrived on the scene and were enjoying this once-in-a-lifetime bird flying over some or other Loch when they noticed that it flew straight into a wind turbine and dropped like a stone to the ground.
And that was that.
They recovered the body which I suppose had some scientific use but there were hundreds of twitchers who arrived to hear what must have sounded like a cruel joke when they heard it.
“You here to see the needletail?”
“Yes, has it been around? When was it last seen? Where is it?”
“Well, you see that wind turbine over there? It just flew into that and is now dead”
Okay, back to my story.
I sat during the week and started contemplating a twitch. It was still a problem. The weekend was already taken care of with lots of social engagements and not a gap in sight.
I then had a brain wave.
Last year I had booked a trip to Windhoek to visit our Namibian office but it had to be cancelled at the last minute. The ticket was put on hold. I checked the expiry date and fate had thrown me a wonderful little gift. It was expiring in early March and it had to be used. I was on the phone straight away to set up some meetings in Windhoek and my seat was booked for Sunday night. I would fly up, tick the bird in the early morning and visit our offices for meetings during the day.
Necessity is the mother of invention, they say.
Once the seat was booked all I could do was stress over all the possible ways this seemingly reliable bird could disappear. I checked weather sites and requested daily updates of its reliability. I may even have prayed a little.
I bade farewell to the family on Sunday afternoon and boarded my flight. Unfortunately I could not justify taking my boys with me on this one but they have the rest of their lives for a RtP. At a frequency of 1 every 20 years they’ll have at least another 3 stabs at it.
My Sunday evening then turned into the Amazing Race.
My flight was due to land at 7pm and, given the admin of car rental and distance between Hosea Kutako International Airport and Avis Dam, I knew I would be heading straight for my accommodation and waiting until daybreak for my shot. There simply wasn’t enough time between landing and a 7:41pm sunset to tick the bird (yes, I checked the time of sunset in Windhoek).
But, with Air Namibia being as efficient as they are (incidentally, they have more leg room than any other airline in the world), we landed 20 minutes early and the race was now on.
All I needed was a sniff and now I was mentally locked in to giving myself two stabs rather than one. That Windhoek Draught beer would taste so much better if it was under the belt before dark and Monday morning was reserved for relaxing photo time.
As efficient as Air Namibia is, their airport company made us park as far away from the airport buildings as possible. I ran the longest zebra crossing in the world and whizzed through passport control before harassing the Hertz guy to hurry up with my car keys.
I got into the car at exactly 7pm and I now had 41 minutes to get there before the sun went down. I figured that I had enough light till 8pm. It was going to be tight.
I hadn’t considered that it would be a hair-raising drive from the airport, though. Not only are Namibian drivers the most reckless I have seen in a while but the setting sun was an issue. For those that don’t know that airport road, it travels in a disturbingly straight line from the airport until it reaches Windhoek where it winds down into the city bowl. I reckon when they built that straight road they used the line of the setting sun on the 18th of January to make sure they got it as straight as possible. Just like tennis courts are not built east to west there should be a law against building roads in the same manner. There were sections where I could hardly see where I was going so I wasn’t quite sure how large 4x4s were able to overtake me at 150km/h.
I reached the turn-off to the dam and, with a huge sigh of relief, I turned away from the sun. But now I had a new stress – there was only a tiny amount of it remaining (the sun, I mean). Dust spewed from the back of my VW Polo as I bumped and bashed over the last kilometer to the car park.
I had expected a rather serene setting, but I was faced with about 50 cars in the parking area with people and dogs literally everywhere. Not ideal pipit-finding conditions.
I ran down to the water’s edge where the bird was most reliably reported from, and frantically scanned the shoreline looking for it. Every now and again a golden retriever would splash into the water sending birds in all different directions. I spotted stilts, stints, plovers, geese, wagtails, ducks and egrets fluttering and swirling in different directions but nothing fit the bill for a pipit. I was now resorting to chasing silhouettes as the sun was well and truly gone and shapes were all I had to go on.
It was a bust. A complete miss.
I had arrived at the mat and Phil had said in his monotone: “Mike Buckham – you are the last team to arrive. You have been eliminated” (my humble apologies to those that have never watched an episode of the Amazing Race or to those that dislike the series as much as I do).
Well, fortunately this version of the Amazing Race had a “buy back in” card. I would have the next morning to complete my journey. The biggest problem for me now, though, was that I had a serious seed of doubt stuck in my head. Would I be the first person to dip on this bird? Had one of those golden retrievers walked off with the rarest bird in SA clenched in its jaws a la Grey Phalarope?
These were seriously warped thoughts going through my head, but that is what happens when putting in this time and effort to see such a special bird.
There was nothing for it but to trundle off to my guesthouse and wallow in my self-pitying thoughts overnight. Maybe I had just been a little unlucky.
Well, that was it. I had been a little late and a little unlucky. I arrived at the site bright and early on Monday morning and I was joined by a few other birders and it wasn’t long before one of my companions (thanks Ian White) spotted our quarry in its regular spot – parading along the shoreline as if it belonged there. It was a huge relief to see the bird and all the stress from the night before melted away as I watched it feeding on the zillions of miggies that were buzzing around.
I am not sure if these twitches could ever be considered anti-climactic but there is definitely a period of calmness that descends once the sighting is secured. It seems as if it was never a possibility that the bird wouldn’t have been there. Nonetheless, I was kept on my toes with the need to get that perfect image of this very special bird. It was quite conceivable that I would never get another chance to get a photo so I best make the most of it. As far as rarities go it was about as obliging as it gets. It was relatively tame and would feed for long periods on the shoreline before flitting off into the long grass for short forays before returning to the shore to carry on gorging itself on Namibia’s invertebrate offerings. The only frustration I had was having to wait for the sun to climb above the surrounding hills to get that perfect light for the perfect shot.
As it turned out, I never really excelled in getting a great shot but what I had would do very nicely.
The great thing about being in a seldom visited city was that most of the birds I saw near Avis Dam were things that we just do not see in Cape Town. Once I had had my fill of the pipit I wandered around the area looking for some other bits and pieces to photograph. I had to be in the office by about 10am so I had to squeeze in as much as possible.
The Bradfield’s Swifts were a bit of a treat. There was plenty of swift activity and in amongst the White-rumped, Little and African Palm Swifts there would be the occasional fly through by the endemic Bradfield’s. I took loads of pictures as swift photography is a little addictive, despite the low rate of return. A little like gambling, actually.
I eventually got one or two usable shots but isn’t it ironic that the clearest, sharpest image always has something wrong with it. Why did the swift have to close its eyes at the moment critique?
We had also found a pair of Monteiro’s Hornbills to photograph which was a good one for me, never having really taken a decent pic of this bird, when a large raptor flew directly overhead.
It came so close that even the hornbill took notice with a quick glance skywards. It was pretty unmistakable as a Honey Buzzard and it was a beautiful specimen. It had broad, distinctive barring and it had to be photographed. It flew over my head too quickly to get a shot but flew across the depressingly dry section of the dam and landed in amongst the wooded hillside across the other side. I knew it was worth following so I ran across the grassy “floodplain” keeping my eyes on the section of the woodland in which it had landed.
As I got close it suddenly flushed and instead of doing what most other birds do by flying straight into the sun or directly away from me rendering a photographic opportunity useless, it flew in a wide arc over the floodplain and gave me the perfect photographic opportunity.
I had come all the way to Namibia for a very rare pipit but I had got more than I bargained for with really nice photos of the Honey Buzzard.
Eventually I had to wrap up my birding for the morning and re-program my brain for a day of work at our Namibian office. I didn’t resent the work for one second, though, as it had given me a reason to get access to this rather exciting birding experience.
On reflection, I seem to have a thing for pipit twitches. My only other really long-range twitch was for the equally popular Golden Pipit from Pongola in December 2010. That one was very special as it included my dad and my oldest boy, Tommy, however I still boarded the plane later in the day with a very satisfied feeling of having made the most of my opportunity. It also reinforced my thinking that Namibia is probably my favourite Southern African country to visit and I mentally committed to bring the rest of the family back as soon as possible. There may not be a Red-throated Pipit on show when we come back, but there will be plenty of other things for us to see.