Back to birding business

Beatiful winters day in Plett

The recent weeks have been dominated more by frogs than by birds but this weekend would restore a little more balance.  Jeanie and the kids were going to be spending 10 days in Plettenberg Bay for the holidays and, as is customary, I would be driving them up, spending the weekend in Plett, flying back for a week of work and returning to fetch them.

It just so happened that two regional rarity reports had come through from the Garden Route and even more fortunate was the fact that I had neither of them on my Western Cape list.

My WC list has been an important regional list for me since the kids have been a part of my life. As a family unit our travel has been far more locally based and so the closer species have been more justifiably twitched.  There have been a few exceptions (the Golden Pipit springs to mind) but for the most part it is easier to sell a Squacco Heron in Paarl than a Whinchat in Eastern Zimbabwe.  My Western Cape list also has had a few boosts in more recent years with an epic whirlwind trip to Murraysburg with Cliff and Suretha Dorse giving me almost 20 new birds for the list.

Eventually, though, all lists slow down and it has definitely been tough to add to over the last few years.  There has been the occasional windfall (like a Little Crake 15 minutes from my office) but there are also some really hard to justify species which may struggle to find their way onto the list.  An example of this is the erratically recorded Lilac-breasted Roller near Merweville.  With apologies to those that live in Merweville, who even knows where that is? It would be an extremely tough sell to get that one right.  To tell Jeanie that I was driving 5 hours into the middle of nowhere to see a bird that I would see within 5 minutes of arriving in the Kruger Park even sounds a little crazy to me.

So, one has to rely on the alignment of the stars when things just fall into place.  There is no better example of this than the Sooty Falcon from earlier this year.  It would have been very difficult to pass this one by but it just so happened that we were visiting my parents in George that same weekend and the hour’s drive to Plett wasn’t hard to squeeze past the committee.

This last weekend fell very nicely in that category.  The two birds reported from the Garden Route would have very little impact on the family and they both seemed quite reliable from reports.

The first was a White-fronted Bee-eater which was reported to be actively hawking insects from a fence bordering on the Plett Water Park – no more than 5 minutes from my mother-in-law’s house.  There have been very few Western Cape records of this bird that I can recall.  The last one I know of was an individual bird near Calitzdorp, but more than the fact that Calitzdorp is pretty far from most conventional Buckham holiday locations it was also quite tricky to find and couldn’t be ticked on a “drive-through” basis.

The second was a Marabou Stork which was found by Josef van Wyngaard at the George dump site.  The George dump site is also conveniently situated 5 minutes from George airport which was ideal since I was flying out from George on Sunday evening.  All I would need to do was leave for the airport 15 minutes earlier than planned.  The Marabou Stork was probably a bird that I should have had on my list already.  There was an influx of them about 5 or 6 years ago, particularly in the area around Oudtshoorn, but at the time I was just unable to get round to seeing them.

Well, I can report that I have never had two easier twitches…ever.

We arrived on Friday at the Plett Water Park and while we were still parking the car, Tommy was already shouting that he could see the bird.  I turned my head and the emerald jewel was flying around its favoured bush.  We jumped out the car and within minutes we had point blank photos of it.  Ironically, the photo opportunities of this individual bird were far better than I had ever had in its natural environment in the Kruger Park.  Admittedly, the habitat surrounding the bird was not as evocative as a sandy cutting alongside a sub-tropical river but if a photo is cropped tightly enough no one will know the difference…

White-fronted Bee-eater
White-fronted Bee-eater

The Marabou Stork was perhaps just as easy.  It has to be said that it is a far larger bird than the bee-eater but even large birds can be elusive.

Not this one.

We arrived at the gate to the dump deep into a lazy Sunday afternoon and asked the security guard where the “big bird” was.  He looked puzzled which concerned me a little.  I had been told that the security guard would know exactly what we were looking for but it just so happened that the guy who let us in was at this particular post for the first time.

Slightly more comforting.

We drove 20 meters and with a quick scan to the right, there it was as big and obvious as I had expected it to be.  We parked and I fired off a few terrible record shots with my 100mm macro lens (I had left the bigger lens in Plett to avoid lugging it on the plane).  Unfortunately the security guard, who was genuinely interested in his celebrity guest, walked to join us and as I was about to secure a few better photos his walkie-talkie crackled into life at its highest volume setting and the Marabou launched its heavy frame into the air and flew to a more peaceful and invisible location 100 meters away.

Marabou Stork

I could not be too grumpy about this missed opportunity.  It was only a Marabou Stork after all and all that really mattered was that we saw it.  It was now firmly on my Western Cape list despite the lack of a quality photograph.

I have to acknowledge that these two additions seemed just too easy but I suppose it balances out all the birds that I have missed over the years.  As they always say, you make your own luck and years in the field will eventually yield results.

As is always the case it was a pretty busy weekend besides the twitches.  I managed to ride the Tour de Plett Mountain Bike race which is a spectacular addition to the mountain bike calendar.  It took us from the small little village of Wittedrif towards Knysna, into the Knysna Forest, inland past Diepwalle Forestry Station and then back through Uplands.  The indigenous forest are always a privilege to ride through but it was the farm roads through Uplands which held special memory for me as it was where Jeanie’s father used to farm sheep in the days when we met.  I still recall the day chasing after her in the farm bakkie whilst she ran along the muddy farm roads chasing the cows.  The roads were not only covered in mud – there was a fair share of additional slush added by the cows.  I always knew that if I could love her then, I could love her always.

During the weekend we also did some casual birding which was our usual loop through the Plett pentad.  It always offers great diversity in a short space of time.  The sewerage works are always a winner and the little bridge crossing the river near the Old Nick never fails to impress.  The most exciting bird was a Tambourine Dove which I cannot recall ever seeing in Plett before. There was also a large group of Collared Sunbirds actively foraging in the tangled scrub.  Just like the Grey Sunbird, this sunbird species is rapidly stretching its natural boundary westwards and a bird that was a huge excitement many years ago seems to be relatively run of the mill these days.

Adam photographing plovers
Productive birding at the Old Nick

I suppose it wouldn’t surprise if I mentioned that we also spent some time looking for frogs.  I was a little out of my comfort zone with all my frog mentors some way away in Cape Town, so it was me and the boys, which I can safely describe as the blind leading the blind.

I had reccied a few wet spots during the day and as darkness fell on Friday evening we headed onto an empty plot which was a mixture of Port Jackson with the occasional clump of restios submerged under a few inches of water.  I knew we were in a good spot as the croaking was relatively deafening.  I was quickly confident of many Clicking Stream Frogs around me but there was another croak that sounded a lot like a caco to me.

Never having seen a caco before I wasn’t convinced but I set about trying to find one.  I can only describe the process as one of the most frustrating things I have ever done. I would wade into the water in my wellies (for those that are thinking of giving frogging a bash don’t even think about it without a pair of wellies) and inch closer and closer to the source of the croaking.  Whenever the croaking stopped I would freeze until it resumed and then I would edge closer still.

I also felt quite pleased with my innovative strategy of recording the call with my cellphone and then playing it back.  I had read that many frog species call when they hear others calling.  It worked a treat and it meant I was able to get literally on top of a patch of loosely connected restios of no more than 30cms by 30cms from where a call was emanating.  I would then turn my torch on and shine into the area.

I repeated this exercise over a course of an hour and half.  I came away completely empty handed.  Not even one frog for my efforts.  At one point I saw the hind foot of a frog sticking out of the water.  It looked like it was upside down and my first suspicion was that it was actually dead.  I carefully “grabbed” the foot between my index finger and my thumb and extracted it from the grassy mass.  As it came out it was dangling limp in my fingers confirming that it was, in fact, a very dead frog.  I knew it wasn’t a live one but at least I’d get to test my ID skills.  I carefully placed the limp body on my flat hand and as soon as I let it go it shot out of my hand with an enormous leap and plopped into the water, never to be seen again.

It was most certainly very much alive when it sprang out of my hand.

So, I was never going to find a caco but at least I now know after confirming with one or two gurus that it is most likely Boettger’s Caco.

The evening was not a complete waste.  We visited another small pond and by now my father (who had decided to join us) and Adam were sitting in the car which was parked in a side street in suburban Plett.  My father was listening to the radio and Adam was actually looking at pictures in my frog book which was a far more satisfying activity than waiting for me to find a frog.

It was Tommy and I putting in the hours when it eventually paid off.  By complete fluke I saw a frog half-submerged on a reed and within seconds it was in my hand and we were able to confidently identify it as a Striped Reed Frog.  We also finally managed to identify the call that we had been hearing emanating from just about every reed patch in the small little pond as being that of the Striped Stream Frog.  As common a species as it may be it was still very exciting getting some pics of a lifer animal.

Striped Stream Frog

The final bit of the frog tale comes as a result of a completely unlikely set of circumstances.  Having mentioned in previous blogs that Jeanie is not quite coming to terms with my new interest it is very hard to believe that she was the one that found my next lifer frog.  I was arriving home from my cycle race when my mother-in-law came running out the door screaming that Jeanie had found a frog.  There was a little panic in her voice so I visualised that it was a Raucous Toad which I had seen before at the house and could therefore understand why everyone was a little panicked – largish toads can be a little on the squirmy side.  I could even tell the tale of a reasonably experienced frogger that prefers not to pick up toads (you know who you are).

When I got to Jeanie, who also seemed to be in a state of shock, I found a glass upside down on top of the tiniest little frog imaginable.  It is hard to believe that anyone could find something so tiny offensive at all.  As it turned out it was a juvenile Painted Reed Frog (he says, taking a deep breath for fear that he screwed up another ID) and since the frog was also in a bit of shock we managed to get some pics of it before sending it on its way.

Painted Reed Frog

The animal hunt for the weekend was complete when I added a new skink to my list.  According to my expert ID skills this is a Variegated Skink.  I am almost certain someone that knows better will correct me so please do so if I am off the mark.  Until then it will remain on my list as such.

Variegated Skink

All in all an excellent weekend but it was a little sad arriving home to an empty house without the sound of the kids shouting and screaming to welcome me.

2 comments on “Back to birding business

  • ALAN COLLETT says:

    We make the twitches easy here in the Southern Cape, Mike! When I got the message about the Bronze-winged Courser from Trevor a while ago I was on the other side of town. Within an hour I had seen it gone home (6 kms east of Wilderness) to get my camera and got the shot. Like your writing style.



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