A Challenge fillip

It was time to return to some focused Challenge birding.  My hiatus had been a little too long for my liking and after a few short-range unsuccessful twitch attempts for silly birds like Olive Woodpecker, Goliath Heron and Sentinel Rock Thrush (okay that last one isn’t really a silly bird but it becomes one when it hangs about at the Strandfontein Pavillion) I was feeling like I needed to lift my game a little.

The opportunity arose when the family left for the Kruger Park on Saturday morning and I was left behind to wrap up my company’s financial results before joining them a few days later.  I am not one to sit still and mope in an empty house.  In fact, I am not one to sit still at all, so I co-opted my good friend Saul and his wife San-Marie to join me on phase one of my Challenge assault.

I had still not had the chance this year to add my favourite bird in the world to my list – Cape Rockjumper – and so that would be the day’s main objective.  But, speaking of silly birds, we would do a detour to Betty’s Bay, and Stony Point specifically, to add African Penguin and Bank Cormorant to my list.  Saul has suffered through some of my more extreme birding exploits over the last 2 years or so, but I think he was pleasantly surprised at the sedate addition of those two species at Stony Point.  We were on a bit of a schedule to make sure we left decent time for the Rockjumpers but the schedule certainly wasn’t altered due to the penguin.  We stepped onto the boardwalk and within a second there they were – waddling around and braying.

Pretty easy stuff.

The Bank Cormorant was not much harder.  At least we had to use a scope for that one.  My credibility with Saul and San-Marie required the use of at least one item of optical equipment to lead them to believe that this Challenge birding was actually, well, challenging.

Saul and San-Marie at Stony Point

I insisted we stick to the schedule, though, as I had spent too many hours at Rooi Els in the past missing out on the Rockjumpers.  It is the most accessible site (in the world, I suppose) but sometimes the birds just don’t play along.  I did tell Saul and San-Marie that it was a far easier site than Sir Lowry’s as that required a bit of a walk to the Cannons and a hair-raising crossing of the N2 at the top of the pass.  I was making sure I was making this as palatable to them as possible.

Well, all the best-laid plans do sometimes go a little awry.  We arrived at 4pm with a comfortable hour and half to spare on the most perfect afternoon.

Rooi Els

We would surely find these birds on such a good day?  We would hear the calls from miles away and it would be a matter of time before we picked up a party of them bounding up and down the rocks.  I had sold this as a pleasant walk along the road but what we were greeted with was absolute silence.  Well, except for a persistent Orange-breasted Sunbird that was insistent on being photographed.

Orange-breasted Sunbird

We walked up and down the road and on several occasions I could hear the distant chattering and piping of a rockjumper but try as I might I could just not find them in my bins.  I began to realize that these still conditions meant that the birds could be miles away yet their calls could still carry all the way down the slope to us.  There was nothing else to do but to embark on the slog up to the cliff-face.  I really hoped we would get halfway up and they would appear around us, but the more we climbed the more I realized we were going to need to go all the way.

Eventually we arrived at the spot where the slope meets the cliffs (I question whether there are any other birders as committed as we were that afternoon) and I raised my bins to a stunning Ground Woodpecker perched on top of a rock.  I motioned to Saul to have a look and when I turned to look at it again a Rockjumper bounded into the same binocular view.  We had finally been rewarded for our slog up the mountain and we spent the next 20 minutes fighting against the dying light to get at least some decent photos of the birds.  We were further rewarded by good views of small flocks of Cape Siskins but, as it turned out I already had the woodpeckers and siskins on my challenge list.  I did add the rather dopey Cape Rock Thrush but we were unable to find its slightly more elusive cousin.

Last rays of light over Rooi Els
Ground Woodpecker
Cape Rockjumper
Cape Rockjumper
Cape Rock Thrush
Saul at the top of a long slog

We spent a few minutes up on the mountain just enjoying the setting sun across the bay and then scrambled down to head back to Cape Town.  We had a big day ahead of us on Sunday – phase 2 of my Challenge assault.

Sunset over False Bay

I had not yet had the opportunity to visit the Tanqua and there was a good list of birds that I needed.  Fortunately I had a bunch of mates who were in the same position, so five of us left Cape Town long before the crack of dawn on Sunday morning and hit the road north.  We would be operating at the very extremities of the Challenge area and maybe we would find something just a little bit special.

My companions for the journey were firstly my Challenge antagonists (Dave and Dom) and then my two Zimbabwe 2013 travel mates, Saul and Lombie.  When Lombie decided at the last minute on Saturday to join us, Saul was delighted as he said that it would considerably narrow the gap between him (being the worst birder) and the second worst birder in the group.  A confusing statement in some ways, but a very true one.

Our arrival in the Tanqua was a shock to the system, to say the least.  We parked the car at Karoopoort and the temperature gauge read at -1 degrees.  It was flippin’ freezing.  Saul, again, needs to re-read that book, “Sensible Birding Attire”, as he was a little light on warm clothing.  Lombie considered himself well clothed with his new pair of svelte tracksuit pants.  Practical, yes.  Fashionable, no.

Our first stop in Karoopoort

Anyway, I digress.

Despite the cold, we clambered out of the car and started listing our species.  It was still pretty murky so all our ticks at that stage were based on call ID.  It is always an interesting testosterone moment as a group of birders shout out names of species they hear, each trying to list the new ones as they hear them.  It is a “muscle-flexing” exercise in a way and it would be a good place to play that childish game of “jinx” as new birds are often shouted out simultaneously.  The last thing one would want to do would be to stand there silently as your peers are getting the better of you.  With Dave’s superior skills (which had been tested from the Roberts app on the drive out to the Tanqua) and Dom’s far younger ears I was only allowed the occasional bird to the list but at least I was a little ahead of Saul and Lombie.  I think Lombie’s contribution early on was a Hadeda Ibis.  Possibly a bird that didn’t really justify naming but Lombie is still finding his way in this world of competitive birding.

Our target bird at this juncture was Namaqua Warbler and it was listed early on and without any fuss.  There were tons of them in the phragmites in the Kloof and their trilling call was hard to miss.

With a few other good birds under the belt we pressed on searching for the sun.  We made another stop at the Karoopoort farmhouse and within a few minutes of walking around the acacias we realized that it was just simply too cold for any self-respecting African bird to be moving about.  We got back in the car and cranked the car’s heater to its warmest setting and thawed out our frozen hands.  It was a slow start but things would hopefully improve.

The Tanqua Karoo is a spectacular place.  It has always been one of my favourite birding spots in Southern Africa.  The scenery is absolutely beautiful, it is remote and the opportunity for SA endemics is probably unrivalled.  A morning of concentrated birding in the Tanqua will deliver more endemic and near-endemic birds than any other location in our country (perhaps the Wakkerstroom stalwarts may challenge that statement).

On this particular morning the Tanqua was in its full glory.  The sun was rising in the north-east and the granite boulder-strewn kloof sides were bathed in a soft yellow light with the greening succulents on the plains starting to glisten.

Our next stop was for my most sought after bird for the day – Cinnamon-breasted Warbler.  Surely one of SA’s most wanted birds.  It is a tiny little thing and is desperately hard to find as it scurries mouse-like between the cracks in the boulders and seldom perches anywhere for more than a second or two.  The picnic site at the entrance to the Tanqua is the place to look but it does require some hard work entailing a scramble through the tumbled hillside.  We all set out onto the rocks and within 10 minutes we all seemed to be miles apart from one another.

Listening for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler

I eventually heard one calling behind me and fortunately it was sitting on top of a rock allowing for some decent views.  It was also fortunate that Dave and Lombie crested the ridge at a similar time and also got cracking views of this tough little bird.  Unfortunately the photos are not comparable to the views we had.

Cinnamon-breasted Warbler

All focused birding excursions should have some kind of strategy and we had to come up with one fast.  The last thing we could afford on such a perfect morning was to blither for several hours and not make the most of our opportunities.

The Challenge area stretches for a 150km radius from the Greenpoint Stadium.  We did have a debate about which end of the stadium it is measured from and we agreed that we would pick the most northern edge of the stadium structure (I am actually not joking) as every metre may count where habitat changes are rapid in the Tanqua.  I had Google-earthed the Tanqua and I had ascertained that the radius ended about 2 kms north of the picnic spot.  Other Challenge participants had established that fact as well and I had it clear in my head that we would drive to that point and then turn around and work our way back slowly.

At this point in the telling of my story it is important to mention the small, but important, side rule of the 150km Challenge.  I suspect when this rule was added by Garth Shaw (the initiator of the Challenge) he did not expect birders in the field to make such a determined effort to extend their circle, but the way it works is that one is entitled to count any birds seen in an atlassed card for a pentad that is cut by the 150km radius.  The whole idea is to encourage birders to atlas those more extreme pentads and here we were in the Tanqua doing our best to make sure we could extend our border as far as possible.

So, with my garmin out and my waypoints keyed in to make sure we got exactly the right readings I managed to establish that we could atlas pentad 3305_1945 which is the one that lies to the north-east of the Karoopoort pentad.  I was a little confused at the time as no one else that had been out here for the Challenge seemed to have publicized this little vagary.  Since a pentad stretches approximately 9km by 9km it meant we would get almost 8 additional kilometres north into the Tanqua.  Now surely that would have been critical when birding this section of the Challenge area?  I checked and re-checked what I was doing and then made it official – we would need to atlas 3305_1945 and extend our range by those 8kms.  Would it make a difference?  Absolutely!

Those that know the Tanqua will know that the drive north is punctuated by landmarks that are critical birding stops.  First there is the kloof with the Namaqua Warbler phragmites; next the farmhouse with its acacias and attending Pririt Batises and Fairy Flycatchers; then the picnic spot at the entrance to the plains where Mountain Wheatears eat out of your hand and Cinnamon-breasted Warblers shout from the rocky hillside.

Mountain Wheatear

The next landmark was the most important one for us – Eierkop.  Eierkop is a tillite hill about 10kms into the plains and is THE spot for Karoo Eremomela.  Or Karoo Ere, as we like to call it.

This was a bird that we pinpointed as a possible bird but a very unlikely one.  If Eierkop happened to fall inside the pentad then surely we would have a great chance?  So, the next 8kms of driving were nerve-wracking ones.  I alternated between my Garmin, the odometer of my car and the horizon where Eierkop lay, getting bigger and bigger as we got closer.

On road trips with my family we always play the game where we guess the distance of the furthest piece of road that we can see as we crest a hill.  It is a great game to play in the Karoo as the roads are often so straight and the land so flat and the distances can be substantial.  I was now playing this game in my head knowing we had about 8kms of flat road to drive, but was that furthest extremity more than 8kms away?  I vacillated between “yes, it is” and “no, it isn’t” about 5 times before the truth lay starkly in front of me – that last little ridge had messed everything up.  We were literally about 500m short of our target.  All was lost.  What a disaster.

Dave brought things back to a sense of reasonability and suggested that if the Eres are 500m away at Eierkop why could they not be here?  He opened his window and, blow me down with a feather, he shouted “Karoo Eremomela”!

Would you believe it but there was a small party of Karoo Eres working through the scrub right next to the road.  TICK!!!

No, wait a minute.  I needed to check my Garmin.  In all the stress and tension of watching the proximity of Eierkop I had overshot the northern border of the pentad.  It was only about a hundred metres or so but we were no longer in the pentad and these Karoo Eres were not countable.

I suppose the guilty thoughts were racing through our heads.  Does it matter that we are 100m out of the pentad?  Who would ever know (or care)?  Well, truth be told, we would absolutely know that we had bent the rules and that would not sit well with any of us.  So, we did what any self-respecting competitive birders would do.  We parked the car and started walking south for a hundred metres, watching the Garmin, waiting for it to roll from 33’ 04.9999S to 33’ 05.0001S.  As it did so we could still hear the Eres calling and we could see them moving through the scrub but the inevitable question was raised.  Do we count it if we are in the pentad or does the bird actually have to be in the pentad?  Saul is always our Voice of Reason and he insisted that the bird had to be in the pentad.  He would be supremely disappointed if we ticked it now.  So, we then again did what all self-respecting competitive birders may do and we played the tape for a short burst to entice them closer into the pentad.  It worked a treat and they obliged wonderfully and flew across the pentad border and settled on the fence nearby and gave us that fully satisfying moment of ticking them with absolutely no guilt.  My photo is rubbish but it was still important to document this bizarre moment in my birding life.

Karoo Eremomela

As it turned out we found quite a few more parties of these great birds whilst walking the scrub just south of that pentad border and I am confident if other birders want to add them to their challenge list they will do so quite easily with the conditions as they are currently.  Just remember that you must submit an atlas card!

Plenty of Karoo Eres here

We were now in virgin Challenge territory so decided to do some veld-walking.  One thing to know about the Tanqua is that it can be desperately quiet at times.  The birds are pretty special but they are tough to find and it requires hard work.  We spent about an hour striding through the veld.  I think we may have seen about 2 Karoo Chats in that entire hour but we were eventually rewarded by our next Challenge mega.  Once again, it required Dave’s immense skill to pick up a party of three Spike-heeled Larks working through the scrub on top of a small ridge.  This was another bird that is very tough to find this far south and Dom, Dave and I would be the first to record it on the Challenge this year.  Another awesome addition and, thankfully, we were a comfortable 500m south of the pentad border and so there were no Garmin-watching shenanigans required.

Walking south
Striding the veld
Rufous-eared Warbler

We also managed to find a beautiful and richly marked Karoo Lark that posed so nicely for some pics.

Karoo Lark

Our extra kilometres in the pentad were already paying off.  The pentad delivered two more awesome birds as we stopped to survey the dam at Inverdoorn.  The dam was full of birds but it wasn’t the distant water birds that were a boon.  It was the closer scrub birds that excited us.  The first was a pair of Dusky Sunbirds that alerted us to their presence with their scratchy contact call.  They perched about ten metres away for a few seconds and then flitted off and they were gone.  Literally two minutes later a male Black-headed Canary chirped and flew over our heads giving us an excellent view.  It, too, was a brief encounter but it was good enough for our list.  It is worth noting here that Dave added Pale Chanting Goshawk to his Challenge list at the Inverdoorn Dam.  Seems weird that it had taken him that long to get such an easy bird.

Surprisingly, Lombie was to make it five brilliant birds in the extended area when he sighted a large bird flying over the plains.  It took a few desperate moments for all of us to get onto it but, when we eventually did, it was not hard to see that it was a Ludwig’s Bustard.  Yet another phenomenal bird that we never expected to see in the Challenge area.  As Lombie always says – sometimes even a blind squirrel finds an acorn.

We had seriously cleaned up in the Tanqua and, although we were short of a Karoo Korhaan and Yellow-bellied Eremomela, we couldn’t have expected anything close to as successful a morning as we had had.  We bundled back into the car and started heading south.

We made one final stop at Die Tolhuis on the Mitchell’s Pass just beyond Ceres and walked up to the railway line to enjoy a bit of lunch and try for the Protea Seedeaters that are well known from that site.  I had to acknowledge to my companions that I had tried Die Tolhuis on many occasions for Protea Seedeater but had never been successful, but it was one of those days that just seemed to have no end to our good luck.  Shortly after sitting down to enjoy our lunch and a bit of sunshine I heard the pleasant whistle of the seedeaters behind me and it didn’t take too long to get a good view.  We rounded things off nicely a few minutes later with a view of a Verreaux’s Eagle as it soared over the mountain and, yet again, it was Lombie who had spotted the big bird.

Lunch and Protea Seedeaters

There was not much more we could do to top off our exceptional day so we scrambled down the hill and waited an inordinate amount of time for Dave to fill his now-broken Stanley coffee mug with moer-koffie from Die Tolhuis.  The Stanley mug had been the source of much pride for Dave and the broken handle seemed to take the gloss off some of the birds Dave had seen.  It was amazing to see how crestfallen he was that the indestructible mug he had been crowing about was now in more than one piece.  He claims that the company will replace it free of charge but his sales job was consdierably blighted.

We also embarked on a serious debate over the next 30 minutes as to whether moer-koffie has a place in this world with the advent of Vidas and Organic Full Cream Woolworths cappuccinos.  It seems illogical to me to drink burnt coffee that produces hair on unwanted parts of your body simply to uphold a South African form of cuisine.  I pointedly refused to do a taste test but Lombie confirmed that it was average, at best.

So came to an end two fantastic days of birding with my good mates.  The weather was glorious, the scenery spectacular, the company convivial (if not a little anorak-like) and the birding was exceptional.  I finished off with 20 new species to my Challenge list giving me cause to realize that, despite some good advances, it looks doubtful as to whether 300 is a makeable target.  It matters very little to me, though, as I will enjoy the moments I try to get there rather than the “getting there” itself.

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