A very tense twitch

The other day Jeanie moaned at me that the flow of blogs on my website had slowed to more of a leak. In fact, I would have to acknowledge that it had even got worse than that. The blogs had dried up completely.

Aside from the trip notes that I recently posted on the amazing journey we had in KZN over the school holidays, I literally hadn’t posted anything for months.

I mentioned to her that no one really wants to read a blog about our regular trips to Strandfontein or Kirstenbosch. Something significant needs to happen to justify the energy applied to these writings (and the energy applied to the readings thereof).

Something new.

Something significant.

Well, the birding/blogging gods were listening to my wife’s complaining. Something huge, it definitely was.

On Sunday afternoon we took the family down to Muizenberg beach to do our 67 minutes for Mandela Day. I know it is possible that you think that was the “something huge” as it was a mammoth task to convince the kids to spend that short period of their weekend cleaning rubbish on the beach. But it was not that astonishing exercise that justified the writing of this blog.

Little did we know that no more than 10 minutes away, a new bird for Southern Africa had made its presence known. Unfortunately I only found out about it at 7:30 in the evening, long after the sun had set and I was firmly ensconced back on the couch watching the Open Championship on TV, so I couldn’t shirk my responsibilities and dash off to see the bird.  I would have to wait a little longer.

Andre Demblon and Peter Steyn had photographed a Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin in a picnic area alongside Zeekoeivlei on the entrance road to Strandfontein Waste Water Treatment Works, which set in motion a sequence of events that ultimately resulted in a rarity alert going out.

Quite a bizarre record, indeed.

This cumbersomely named bird (which has a few other colloquial names such as Rufous Bush Chat, which is my personal favourite) is a bird that spends most of the boreal summer in the northern hemisphere in North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It migrates as far south as Kenya and other parts of central Africa in our summer, but this one had clearly boarded the wrong plane and headed south instead of north in trying to return to Europe.

I’ve spoken about vagrancy in previous blogs (many of my blogs have naturally been about vagrant birds) but, very simply, this Robin was a perfect example of reverse migration. Reverse migration is probably one of the sadder forms of vagrancy, as the bird will end up in a strange place surrounded by strange birds and the weather will be well worse than it had expected it to be. Instead of enjoying long summer days in the Middle East, this poor thing had probably been buffeted by one Cape Storm after another. I guess reverse migrants don’t have much chance of long-term survival but on Sunday, when Andre and Peter found it, it certainly looked to be in fine form.

Ordinarily, the delay in finding out about a bird would not have bothered me. I would have packed my kit on a Monday morning and made sure to be there at first light and, following a successful twitch, I would have headed off to the office. I could have been at my desk easily at 9am.

Unfortunately, this particular Monday, work pressure just had to take precedence over a vagrant bird. I needed to be at the office before 7am and I had a very long day ahead of me making it impossible to get to Zeekoeivlei at any point during the day.

It was a different story for my boys, though.

It was their last day of school holidays and they were free agents. Their day was well and truly open (aside from the second tier chores their mother had given them the night before).

So, my good friend Dave arrived at 6:15am on Monday morning to fetch them. I was impressed with Tommy as he was dressed and ready to go 20 minutes before Dave arrived. And Adam was also a bit of a soldier. He had come down with tick bite fever following our KZN trip but, despite that, he was also raring to go. This was a new record for SA and nothing was going to stop them.

As I said goodbye to them in our driveway, I faced the opposite direction and headed off to the office.

An hour later, as I sat in a meeting room with some of my colleagues reviewing transaction documents with fumes pouring out of my ears, I waited anxiously for the news to come through. The first message from Tommy was “haven’t seen it yet” but, shortly thereafter, “we got it!” pinged on my phone and they were one pretty special bird ahead of me.

Believe it or not I wasn’t grumpy because they had seen a bird I hadn’t. I was delighted that they had had the opportunity to do it despite my not being there. It was a turning point in their birding in that it was something that they loved doing irrespective of whether I was pushing them to do so, or not.

I have always had the approach that there is no point in forcing them to join me in the field if they weren’t keen. But, this showed me that they really were at a point where they seemed to be as keen as me and that was a special realization.

Soon after the first photos of the twitch started hitting the social pages of Facebook I noticed that the two of them were in the front line of the twitch. I just hoped that they had behaved themselves and hadn’t got in the way.

Monday went by in a bit of a blur and the crazy day meant that I didn’t think too much about the robin. My focus had to be on my work and by the time I got home at 9:30 that evening I was pretty comfortable that I had cleared the most critical stuff and, in so doing, I had created a little window for myself on Tuesday morning.

I sent my boss an SMS and said “I am going to try see this bird. You won’t see me until 9:30”. I didn’t even wait for his response. I was going whether he liked it or not!

Unfortunately Tuesday morning was a different kind of day with low clouds scudding over the mountaintops and the roads were wet and puddled as I bumper-to-bumpered my way to Strandfontein. I arrived expecting to see 20 cars parked at the now well-known circle, but I was the first to arrive at 7:30am. I donned my wellies and raincoat, slung my camera over my shoulder and started the search for this skulky little thing. I knew exactly where to look and so concentrated my search there.

It was a full thirty minutes before the crowds started arriving and at least I had more people to assist in finding this thing before the clock ran out. I had a fixed meeting at 9:30 and I couldn’t stay a minute longer than 9am.

What I have noticed at twitches where the bird isn’t nailed to a post is that people generally arrive hoping that someone else has already found it. There is generally a sense of reliance on others. Unfortunately I didn’t have this luxury and so I covered as much ground as I could in the time I had.

Tick tock. My time was running out.

At 8:45 I decided to do one last sweep of its regular haunt as had been reported the previous day. As I walked quietly past the small stand of early growth eucalypts I noticed a very small flash of white and black tips and a long rufous tail. My views were very brief and the bird disappeared into the next tree within a second. I couldn’t see it anymore but I knew it was the bird. I then called the crowds over and we all eventually got brief, gloomy yet sufficient views before it disappeared again.

It was a huge relief for me.

I generally don’t overthink the birds that I miss that are far flung where my schedule and budget doesn’t allow me to entertain a twitch, but this one would have stung hard having been so close, but due to a range of circumstances there was a chance I may have missed out. I always have to remind myself that it is just one bird and you can’t see them all but, fortunately, this is one that I did actually get to see.

I took a turn past Strandfontein on the way home to try improve my photos but 45 minutes of searching didn’t produce any sightings. There is no doubt this bird is not quite as excited about seeing us as we are about seeing it.

At the time of writing this (three days later), the bird is still around but the weather has been atrocious and my work has continued to be manic, so I am yet to return and have a go at another photo, but perhaps it will oblige on the sunny weekend ahead of us.

Note: I managed to make good use of the time while I searched for the bird by completing an atlas card for one of my more regularly atlassed pentads (as it includes the northern half of the Waste Water Treatment Works. I was extremely impressed with my birdlasser app as the Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin was available as a species on the list. Well done to the guys at Birdlasser for being as current as they are.


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