A very frustrating cuckoo

With a recent return to some birding focus with a weekend of Western Cape success it was pretty unexpected that another Western Cape rarity would make itself available to be added to my list.  The frogging during these winter months has added a new dimension and it has been a bit of a pleasant distraction from the birding but there would be another winter rarity.

The rarity that I speak of was a Great Spotted Cuckoo.

Last Wednesday, whilst sitting at work, I received the e-mails that we all wait for – a rarity alert from Trevor Hardaker.  It is always a mixed blessing when getting these mails as 99 times out of 100 there is very little I can do about them on an immediate basis and so they will often just be the start of some pent up excitement for when I will be able to give it a go – if at all practically possible.

This bird was reasonably accessible but it would take some planning.  It was reported from the little settlement of Klipheuwel which is best described as being in the heart of the Swartland about 25kms north of Durbanville.  This was seemingly a doable distance but it would be tougher than it sounded.  In the very middle of winter the daylight hours are short and a morning twitch was impossible given that I work in Westlake and the traffic nightmare getting to the office would be unthinkable.  It would have to be an evening twitch with a slightly early escape from my desk.

Before continuing with the cuckoo part of the story it is important to fill you in on a bizarre coincidence from a frogging perspective.  The night before the Great Spotted Cuckoo was reported I had joined Dave Winter and Dom Rollinson on a Cape Caco search in a field that was literally adjacent to the field in which the cuckoo was found.

The Cape Caco is a very special little animal.  It is an endemic frog to the Western Cape, it has an extremely short breeding period in June every year and it has become particularly scarce as its favoured habitat has been reduced through a variety of farming practises.  It is only known from a few reliable sites, one of which is an adjacent field to where the cuckoo was found.  It was quite surreal as I checked the locality of the cuckoo on Google Earth to discover that it was probably within a few hundred metres of where we had searched for the Cape Caco.

I am saddened to report that our Cape Caco search was a fruitless one.  Dave, Dom and I wandered around in the dark seemingly chasing ghosts as we would occasionally hear its brief croak every 5 or 10 minutes amongst the far more regularly calling Flat Cacos but could never pinpoint where the croak was coming from.  To add to the disappointment we did not even find a single Flat Caco which would also have been a lifer frog for me.

We returned to Newlands that night empty-handed and in a bizarre sequence of events my neighbour decided that our house was being robbed as she noted three beanie-clad men getting out of a car in my driveway acting in a rather strange manner.  The strange behaviour was due to Dom’s discovery of a Marbled Leaf-toed Gecko on our gate post which turned into a brief photographic session in the dark outside the house.

Marbled Leaf-toed Gecko
Marbled Leaf-toed Gecko

Since my entire family was away on holiday I soon had frantic phone calls from my wife, sister-in-law and neighbour to make sure that I was still alive.  I confirmed that all was well and spent 10 minutes placating the neighbour, ensuring her that I was one of the beanie-wearers.

So, when I received Trevor’s mail on Wednesday morning it just didn’t seem right to be driving all the way back out to Klipheuwel that night.

I wasn’t able to leave that itch unscratched for too long though.  I piled my binoculars into the car on Thursday morning in case I could make an early escape from work.  I tried to recruit a number of people during the day but everyone was feeling particularly diligent and their work was being put first.  Not so for me.  I cleared my desk and at 4:20 I was rushing to the basement and screeching out of the office.  I had decided that Baden Powell was the way to go.  I would be avoiding the scrum on the N1 and doing my calculations I had hoped to reach the site by 5:30 with a good 30 minutes of light to find the bird.  Quite tight, but reports from the spot were good – there had been reliable sightings the night before after 6pm.

The first considerable snag was a fisherman’s bakkie that had left the road just beyond Strandfontein and was half stuck in the sand and half protruding into the road.  I spent 20 minutes snarled up in a traffic jam as a result of that mishap and suddenly the N1 seemed appealing.  A further snag was missing the turn off to the R300 off Baden Powell.  My knowledge of the interconnecting roads across the Cape Flats is not good enough and I figured it was best to stay the course towards Stellenbosch rather than floundering in the near dark in Khayelitsha or Mitchell’s Plain.  The final snag was rush hour in Stellennbosch.

Who knew that Stellenbosch actually had a rush hour?  Certainly not me.

I eventually hit the R304 out of Stellenbosch heading due west with the setting sun going down over the farmlands.  It was going to be very tight but I was not actually that worried.  I had been on the phone with Trevor and he had told me that there were plenty of people still at the site and there would surely be more arriving on day 2 of the discovery of this bird.  I would arrive at the exact spot and there would surely be at least 5 or 6 scopes trained on the bird making it an even easier tick that the recent White-fronted Bee-eater.

I turned off the R304 just as the sun disappeared behind the distant hills and suddenly I started to worry that this was not going to be as easy as I had thought.  It was right to worry.  I drove along Radio Road and got to the supposed site and there was no one to be seen.

No cars, no people, no scopes and no binoculars trained on a single spot.  Just a wide open field, a stream and a stand of Port Jacksons.

I made a frantic call to Trevor just to make sure I was in the right place and once that was confirmed there was a panicked scan with my binoculars, settling on each possible bush hoping to see the distinctive shape of the cuckoo.  But there was nothing.  The minutes ticked by and despite a trudge through the field alongside the stream in my work clothes I had absolutely no joy.  The sinking feeling started to descend just as rapidly as the light started fading.  As soon as it was too dark to see I gave up on the search.  The last 20 minutes had been fruitless anyway as the bird was most certainly tucked up tightly settling in for its overnight roost.

All was not lost though.  I would maximise the petrol cost out to Klipheuwel by making sure I got a caco on my list.  This time I was not going to be fussy.  I was going to settle for the more common Flat Caco.  At least I would be certain of having some return for the trip out.

I found a suitable field, donned my wellies, put on my head torch and trudged into the darkness following the distinctive ticking call of the Flat Caco.

Now, I know it sounds absolutely bizarre that I should be wandering the fields north of Durbanville in the dark, on my own, looking for a tiny little frog in amongst the flooded areas of the ploughed field.

And, I certainly cannot disagree.

I spent 2 hours hunched over a small little pond chasing a Flat Caco ghost instead of a Cape Caco ghost.  There were at least 20 of them in the small pool alternately clicking away.  Flat Cacos are tiny little things and as soon as you get close they go quiet, but I really felt as if I was getting close enough to clinch a sighting.  I could have sworn that I was literally standing on top of several of them but as soon as the torch went on and I rummaged in the shallow pool all I turned up was a handful of pond weed.

By the end of the two hours I had to give it up.  It started getting cold and I really started to worry about my sanity.  As I walked away from the pool it seemed as if the entire chorus of Flat Cacos dialled up to full volume just to mock me for my feeble efforts.  It was a lonely trudge back to the car and the eeriness was only enhanced as I flushed sleeping pipits, larks and sparrows from amongst the pasture tussocks.  I got back into the car and the first thing I did was phone Jeanie just to make sure that I was still a part of reality and hadn’t crossed over to a stranger place where normal people spend fruitless hours looking for invisible frogs.

I got home, sat on the couch and felt really sorry for myself.

So, it was a complete waste of an evening.  No cuckoo and no frogs.  I didn’t know if I could do that again.

We were away for the weekend so while most normal people were ticking the cuckoo during comfortable circumstances I was not able to.  I still felt that my Western Cape list needed this bird.  Surely I would regret this for some time as it was a bird that was not likely to be found anytime soon and reports during the following week indicated that it continued to be reliable.

Work was hectic and a sneaky departure was not possible until Thursday afternoon.  I had sent a mail to Birdnet to make sure the bird was still around and thanks to the birding community I was given up to date info that it was still being seen as late as lunch time on Thursday.  I would have to have another go.

I dashed out of the office, picked Tommy up along with all my optical equipment and decided that the N1 was going to be the route of choice.

I had a brief chat to Tommy as we left Newlands about the cricket bag he had won at his holiday cricket clinic.  He had won the main prize in a lucky draw and his theory was that his crossed fingers had been the reason for his win.  I told him that it was a good omen and that he should keep his fingers crossed so that we see the cuckoo.  20 minutes later as we moved at snails pace along the N1 in rush hour traffic I looked across at Tommy’s hands and his middle finger on both hands were still neatly crossed over his index fingers.  I sincerely hoped that this journey would be a lucky one.

After some painful traffic we eventually broke free and crossed the miles of the R304 to Klipheuwel.  Once again we would have to find the bird ourselves.  The site was absent of any other birders and any hopes of a tick on a plate was gone.

We climbed out of the car and with about 45 minutes of light left we headed straight for the Wild Olive tree I had been told was the tree in which the bird roosted.  It was extremely valuable gen and without it we would have been lost (my thanks go to Brian van der Walt for this pearl of wisdom).  It was too late in the day to have expected the bird to be feeding in the field as it had done for most of the daylight hours and we would have to luck on it by finding it in its roosting spot.

The important Wild Olive tree

As we approached the tree we were just not prepared for it flushing as it did.  One second it was there and the next it was diving out of the tree with a blur of wings and all Tommy and I saw was a largish long-tailed bird heading at pace away from us into a field filled with eucalypts, Port Jacksons and the occasional Wild Olive.  Our chance was gone.  We had no way of chasing after it and the views had been so poor that although I knew it was the bird there was no way I could tick it with a clear conscience.  Tommy tried his luck by suggesting we both tick it but I told him that it was not going to happen.  We crossed a sizeable river taking care not to end up with wet clothes by rock hopping across it but it was to no avail as we searched in all the Wild Olives for any sign of the obvious long tail.

The sun setting fast over Klipheuwel

Eventually I decided to head back to the car and hope that it had returned to its roosting tree but I had virtually given up hope.  We had 20 minutes of light left and it wasn’t going according to plan.  As we approached the car out of the corner of my eye I noticed the long-tailed dashing shape of a Great Spotted Cuckoo.  It flew directly in front of us and did a wide circle until eventually settling in yet another Wild Olive.  There was no chance for a photo in the worsening light and the speed at which the cuckoo circled around us as well as the fact that it was extremely difficult to approach. But, I didn’t care about a photo.  This had proved to be a frustrating bird to pocket and I would happily forego the photo just to get it on my list.

Happiness is....A Great Spotted Cuckoo

As the sun set and the light disappeared we climbed back in the car and headed back home with a great sense of satisfaction replacing the disappointment that had followed my last two excursions to Klipheuwel.

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