The Overberg and a proud dad

A brooding Arniston

Well, it has been a very busy week indeed.

Last Monday Jeanie left for a 2 week trip to Vancouver for a work conference.  It meant her first time away from Emma and it also meant my first time in charge of 4 children for any length of time.  With my usual work schedule there was no way I could do it on my own so help came in the form of my mother-in-law, Annetjie, who moved in for the two week period.

Jeanie, however, keeps our household ticking over like a well-oiled machine and I would be lying if I said those first few mornings of the school drop-off were like clockwork.  The very first morning was a bit of a shambles – it was Adam’s once-a-term “show and tell” for the headmaster.  His choice was to show off a few “birdy” items.  The Little Crake episode being fresh in our minds meant that that was a good place for him to start.  The Weekend Argus article would be his first topic of display.  There ensued a 20 minute full scale search for it before we could leave for school.  It was, naturally, exactly where Jeanie had told us it was.

His second item (or items I should say) were a portfolio of some of his bird drawings.  I have mentioned a number of times on this blog that Tommy and Adam (and Jack, of late) have a bit of a thing for producing bird drawings.  They have, between them, worked through the Sasol guide and now they are onto some of my South American field guides that previously seemed to be simply ornamental. In amongst all these drawings Adam produced a portfolio of about 15 illustrations that he wanted to take to his show and tell.  I wasn’t quite sure whether his headmaster would have much of an interest in Adam’s collection but seemingly I was wrong…

When Adam came home in the evening I asked him where his drawings were.  He shrugged and told me that his teacher wanted to keep them and put them in a box.  This was puzzling, but the next day all was revealed when I got an MMS from another mother from the school telling me that Adam’s show and tell had been put up on the main notice board at the entrance to the school.  It seems as if the headmaster did enjoy the drawings.

When I dropped Adam off the next morning I walked past the board and took a few obligatory pictures of his proud moment and I am not embarrassed to admit that I lingered at the board hoping to bump into as many people as possible and gloat just a little bit.

Adam's show and tell

It was definitely one of my proudest moments as a dad.

The hectic school schedule also had me pencilled down to attend Tommy’s first ever rugby match in school colours.  He was picked for the under 9B’s to play against Bishops on Thursday afternoon.  The game was in Rondebosch, kicking off at 2:30, whilst my office is all the way in Westlake.  Thursday afternoon was the eve of the long weekend and to make matters worse Cape Town received its once in 6 months thunderstorm.  The game happened to coincide with the worst of the storm and not only did it create a bit of havoc for the parents watching the game but the traffic could not have been worse.  I made it just in time, armed with a raincoat and my camera (whoever would have thought an umbrella was a good idea) and there I stood cowering under another parent’s umbrella with lightning and thunder all around, rain pelting down and my son representing his school for the very first time.

Tommy's rugby match

Yet another very proud dad moment.

The main subject of this blog however (settle in as it is a long one) was our trip with a group of 5 couples to the Arniston Hotel for the long weekend.  I had vacillated a little between wanting to stay at home with all the creature comforts or put myself and Annetjie through a bit of an upheaval and head off to Arniston.  In the end the decision was a very good one.

The hotel itself couldn’t be better for kids – it really is designed for young families.  It is the hotel version of the Spur and if you go to the Spur for a romantic dinner you are asking for trouble.  The same rule applies to the Arniston hotel and I do pity those people in the hotel that were there for a bit of peace and quiet.

The Arniston Hotel

Being with a big bunch of mates the kids were constantly entertained and aside from the occasional check that they were all still okay they were left to their own devices running and cycling around the place.  We had very good weather and quite a bit of time was spent on the beach.  Although the water was not the warmest we even managed to get in a swim or two.

Emma and Dad
Tommy on the beach
Adam on the beach
Jack on the beach
Fun on the tandem with Tommy

The birding focus was relatively low key.  I had been to Arniston on a number of previous occasions and I have pretty much worked most of the habitats around the town so I wasn’t really expecting anything earth-shattering.  It was a good opportunity to do some atlassing in one or two of the pentads nearby.

The town itself is set on a quaint little bay surrounded by pristine fynbos.  There is apparently a development moratorium in the town itself which has prevented the inevitable development creep.  The worst affliction for the town in recent years was the perlemoen rush a number of years ago.  The fishing village was turned upside down with an influx of huge wealth for a relatively modest local community.  BMW motor cars with huge stereo systems were not an unusual sight amongst the fishing cottages.  There seems little remnant of that now as I suspect the perlemoen has been efficiently (albeit disastrously) extracted from the waters and the poaching circus has moved on.

Beyond the buffer of fynbos that surrounds the town, the Agulhas plains take over.  The land is incredibly flat and mostly turned to pasture.  It is amazing to note the change in species from the natural fynbos to the cultivated fields.  True fynbos birds such as Cape Sugarbird, Karoo Scrub-robin and Orange-breasted Sunbird give way to Denham’s Bustard, Red-capped and Large-billed Larks, African Pipit and Capped Wheatear in the stubble fields.

Adam at sunrise
Tommy and Adam at sunrise
Birding the fynbos
Denham's Bustard
Denham's Bustard
Black-headed Heron
Blue Cranes on the Overberg

The Agulhas plain is known for its endemics and sought after birds like Karoo Korhaan and Agulhas Long-billed Lark are easily found in the right places.  The long-billed lark was a bird I wanted to get better photos of and despite hearing them in just about every field we stopped at it was often very difficult to pin-point where the call was coming from and therefore get a decent view.  I ended up with absolutely no photos whatsoever.

Where is that Long-billed Lark?
Eventually found it

The one morning we spent 2.5 hours in the 3435_2010 pentad and the weather was miserable.  The wind was down but the sky was completely clouded over with a few spots of rain resulting in very few decent photos.  One of the more obliging birds was a Spotted Eagle Owl that was flushed by a Springbok running down the road towards us.

Spotted Eagle Owl

A ramshackle farmyard with milkwoods and aloes also produced a very obliging pair of Southern Tchagra which seemed to be just about everywhere we went birding.

Ramshackle farmyard
Southern Tchagra
White-throated Canary

A second morning had us tackling the De Mond pentad.  The habitat is pretty similar to the former but with the addition of the Heuningnes River which exits to the sea through a beautiful natural estuary which is protected by Nature Conservation in the De Mond Nature Reserve.  The bird numbers were very low being the winter season but there were one or two waders that brought the scope out.

Wader search at De Mond

Being with a number of couples that were new to birding meant a few more of my mates and their kids were exposed to the Buckham fanaticism.  Birding with 4 young kids is not exactly built for stealth but it was fun to have the kids along and to give them a bit of exposure to what it is all about.

On top of Soetmuisberg

There were two other incidents that involved a few more owls.  The one morning my good mate, Andrew, and I escaped for a pre-dawn ride to Bredasdorp to climb the Soetmuisberg – the only hill within tens of kilometers of Arniston.

We were about halfway to Bredasdorp, still in the murk of the dawn when we rode past a dead Barn Owl in the middle of the road.  In the past I may have just ridden on but having just photographed my first Barn Owl less than a week before I was curious.  I also felt the owl deserved more dignity than to be squashed by the next car that came along.  I picked up the bird and it was still warm.  It couldn’t have died more than a few minutes before our arrival.  It was also completely perfect – I could not find a single blemish on the bird and one can only suspect that it was tumbled by the turbulence of a vehicle resulting in a broken neck as it hit the road.  I carefully placed it a few metres from the road and we continued on our way.

Dead Barn Owl

Whilst riding around Bredasdorp I decided that it was such a perfect carcass that I should take it back to Cape Town and give it to someone that may appreciate it more than the crows that would inevitably find it to their liking.  We picked up a plastic bag at a shop in Bredasdorp and found the owl on the way back home.  It was carefully placed in the packet and then the only logical storage for it was the back pocket of my cycling shirt.

And there I was thinking that I was preserving its dignity.

When returning to the hotel I handed the packet over to the reception desk and asked them to store a dead Barn Owl in their hotel freezer.  It may have been one of the stranger requests that they have had.  Being a seaside hotel I am sure that they receive plenty of freshly caught fish to store in their freezer but this Barn Owl may have been their first of its kind.

I had to reassure the receptionist that I had absolutely no intention of asking the chef to prepare the owl for any of our dinners.  It did, however, cast my mind back to reading my kids’ Julia Donaldson classic children’s story about the Gruffalo, a mystical forest creature seemingly with a taste for other forest animals.  The relevant section is worth including:

On went the mouse through the deep dark wood.

An Owl saw the mouse and the mouse looked good.

Where are you going to, little brown mouse?

Come and have tea in my treetop house.”

“It’s frightfully nice of you, Owl, but no –

I’m going to have tea with a Gruffalo.”

“A Gruffalo?  What’s a Gruffalo?”

“A Gruffalo! Why, didn’t you know?”

“He has knobbly knees and turned-out toes,

And a poisonous wart at the end of his nose.”

“Where are you meeting him?”

“Here by this stream,

And his favourite food is owl ice cream.”

Well, the owl was frozen when we left but its final destination will most likely be the Iziko Museum in central Cape Town where some good will come from its untimely demise.

The final owl bit of this blog marked the real birding highlight of the weekend.  Many years ago, a good birding mate of mine, Peter van Oudtshoorn, discovered a breeding pair of African Grass Owls in the Bredasdorp area.  I was fortunate to be made aware of this record due to my involvement in the Western Cape rarity process and so on a visit to Arniston that coincided with Peter’s time in the area I accompanied him to the site and it was there that I saw my first African Grass Owl in the Western Cape.  I had made one further visit to the site with Peter a few years later but I have always wanted to go back, particularly to take the boys to share this spectacular bird.

It must be said that Peter’s discovery was not an accident.  He knows the area better than anyone through his hundreds of hours of walking the farmlands and wilderness areas.  He has also approached all the farmers to gain permission for his walks and in the process has educated many of them in the special birds they have on their farms and hopefully ensure that there is a chance of survival for these birds when so much of the land is turned to pasture.

The problem I had for the weekend was that I was completely unable to get hold of Peter.  He travels abroad regularly and he was uncontactable for a good 2 weeks before our scheduled weekend as well as for the duration of our time there.  Eventually on our last day in Arniston I decided that the only way was to contact the farmer myself and ask for permission – I was sure Peter wouldn’t mind if I “went above his head” on this one.  After a rather convoluted process I finally got hold of the farmer’s wife and permission was granted with the promise of making sure I closed all the farm gates that we opened.

It still did not get any easier.  Our next hurdle was Jack’s sudden desire to join his dad and brothers on a birding adventure.  You would think he would opt for a gentle walk around Kirstenbosch to see a few ordinary and easy birds as a first outing, but no, this was his moment to join us.  I suspect with his mother thousands of miles away, he was just wanting to spend time with his dad and I was not going to discourage that.

Well, that is not exactly true.

I knew what we were in for if we were going to try to find this bird and it would not be pretty.  The bird’s favoured habitat is a section of the most inhospitable restios I have ever seen.  The difference between normal grass and restios is that restios are a lot harder and a lot sharper and walking through it, even for an adult, is quite painful.  I knew Jack would really battle but there was no way he would be left behind and so the car was loaded with my three boys and Andrew and his son Nicholas.

The next major hurdle was the weather.

We had had four pretty good days for an owl hunt but on the eve of our departure our opportunity had arisen and we were facing the incoming storm.  The wind was now howling and the clouds had built into a solid mass.  Word from Cape Town was that it had been pouring and it was a matter of time before it hit us.  As we drove out of the parking lot from the hotel the first few spots of rain started falling.

The storm is coming

Somehow, when we got to the site the rain had seemed to have held off.  We walked quickly through the adjacent stubble field until we got to the small patch of restios that would be our area of search.

Grass Owl habitat

I had forgotten how painful the restios actually were.  Within 30 seconds I had Jack in a meltdown, the other three boys pretty uncomfortable and even Andrew was whining about how sore it was traipsing through the habitat.  I told all 5 of them to suck it up but somehow that doesn’t work so well with a 4 year old.  Poor little Jack on one of his first major birding outings was suddenly thinking that the comfortable hotel and his grandmother were so, so far away.  What had made him decide join us?

I was wondering the same thing.

There was only one thing for it.  I picked him up and put him on my shoulders.  Not only was I carrying my binoculars and camera with its heavy lens but now I was carrying my 25kg son.  It was going to be a disaster if the bird flushed now.  How was I going to explain to his mother that I had to drop him into a pile of prickly restios so that I could get my photo?

Fortunately sanity prevailed and we found a relatively open patch for the 4 kids and told them to stay there whilst we walked through the area.  I think Andrew was tempted to take up a position with the 4 boys as well but I was hearing nothing of it.

Within seconds of starting our search a bird flushed from Andrew’s feet.  Definitely not an owl but almost as exciting.  A female Red-chested Flufftail flew for about 6 or 7 metres and then crashed back into the vegetation.  Not a bad start but not what we had come for.

It was then literally 30 seconds later that the owl flushed from a few metres in front of Andrew’s feet and flew a little into the wind before taking refuge again.  It was certainly in the air long enough for excellent views for everyone.  It is always a little difficult to photograph flushed birds but besides plenty of backside shots I managed to get one side on view as it turned into the wind.

African Grass Owl - backside view
African Grass Owl

I looked back at the 4 boys in the restios and there were four big smiles.  Even Jack was jumping up and down having ticked a pretty spectacular bird on one of his first major outings.  I am not sure how much he will remember this occasion many years from now but it will be a hard one for me to forget.  Yet another proud dad moment.

Happy Grass Owl twitchers
A successful Grass Owl twitch
An old Grass Owl nest

Unfortunately that was our last outing for the weekend and Tuesday morning was all about packing up and getting home.  With four kids and all their paraphernalia that constitutes a major activity but we were soon on the road and busy with our latest road trip game which is a trip list for the journey.  We reached 34 species before we turned into our street and I was nearly persuaded to drive round the block until we found that Red-winged Starling that we needed to get it to 35…

Sunrise over Arniston

7 comments on “The Overberg and a proud dad

  • Love the Gruffalo part especially!!
    And how on earth did Jack manage to get to 25kg on what he eats??? 🙂

  • I am a very proud granny having read your latest Blog. Loved it – and so proud of Jack – I think he might just remember this outing for a long long time! So so special to experience this wonderful birding with your boys! Perhaps Emma will join them soon – one way to spend time with her Dad!

  • Andrew Kenny says:

    What a great weekend all round! There were 2 classic birding memories. That grass owl has to be one of if not my birding highlight to date made all the more special seeing the 4 boys faces after in flushed and disappeared over the trees. The 2nd while being very sad but extremely funny at the same time was you stuffing that barn owl head first into your cycling top. I still cant get that Monty Python dead parrot skit out of my mind. Thanks for the memories!

  • Bryn Hatty says:

    Great blog Mike. You may want to update the “About” page as you have an additional family member and readers may think your boys are a bit overdeveloped for their ages on the page.
    Dont know whether its a complement but Saul recognised my legs from the photo!

  • Mary-Ann says:

    Great blog! Love that Jack is getting interested in birding now! That Barn Owl is beautiful – cant believe you stuffed it into your back pocket and had it in a freezer at the hotel!


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