Breaking some atlassing boundaries

Living in Cape Town has many advantages. It has the mountain, it has the ocean, it has beaches, forests, rivers and, of course, the Stormers.  It is, however, often thought to be a bit of a poor birding cousin to the cities closer to the bushveld like Jo’burg and Pretoria as well as the city of Durban which gives birders access to some of the country’s hottest birding spots.

It is true that Cape Town is probably the city that has access to the most rarities with our Pelagic trips from Simonstown regularly producing exceptional birds as well as the hides on the Langebaan lagoon delivering the occasional completely lost wader.  We also have fantastic access to many of our most highly prized endemics with the Fynbos zone being home to birds like Cape Rockjumper whilst the Karoo is also most easily accessible from Cape Town.

But, in terms of true diversity and sheer volume of species we are certainly some way behind.

Much of this is reflected in our atlas lists where our average species count per card is a lot lower than the pentads in the northeast of the country.  This, however, does not make our atlassing any less interesting and my atlassing in the Western Cape has been extremely rewarding.

What I have found in the last few weeks is that my home pentad is actually a lot more interesting and productive than I originally thought.  I have submitted many cards for 3355_1825 over the last few years and most of these cards have involved a few hours here and there but over the last few weeks I have begun to explore a little deeper in the pentad in order to see what is really out there.

To give you an idea of what my home pentad looks like, it covers much of the eastern half of Table Mountain proper, whilst stretching north to the Waterfront and south to Constantia.  The eastern edge of the pentad extends a fraction beyond the M5 motorway whilst the western border virtually splits Table Mountain in half.  If you have a look on Google Earth you will note that there is a lot of urban development but there are also some fantastic natural areas.  For starters, I am truly fortunate to have Kirstenbosch Gardens in my home pentad whilst the Black River, as polluted as it may be, is also a source of a reasonable diversity of species.  There are a few school fields and then, of course, there is Table Mountain itself which is low in species numbers but it does hold a few special birds.

This reasonable spread of habitats means that there is some birding fun to be had in my own backyard.  This had become a little more apparent over the last few weeks as I started to concentrate on some of the areas that I did not usually get to.  My lists started to creep upwards and I got closer and closer to the highest species count for the pentad (it stood at 90 species which was, in fact, a card that I shared with a few other atlassers).

I started to close in on this number whilst doing individual surveys and it led me into a relatively silly venture of trying to reach 100 species for the card in a five day atlas period.  I suppose it was my own compensation for having missed out on Big Birding Day and although a minuscule task compared to doing a big year (see Niall Perrins’s effort here) it was going to take a bit of an effort. When I first looked at the potential species list I was pretty sure it was unachievable but there was no harm in giving it a bash.

As usual, all things birding in our household generally involves quite a bit of commitment from my two birding boys, Tommy and Adam (it is not hard to convince them to join me on these crazy outings).  It is also always a lot easier to convince Jeanie of the need to do something as intensive as this when it involves entertaining at least 2 of my kids.

So, the survey period commenced at 5:50 am on Sunday, 27th of November, and it would run for the standard 5 day period until Thursday, 1st December.

We opened our account with an early morning wake up call from a Hadeda Ibis and in the first three hours of our attempt we covered the Black River, the Riverclub golf driving range (we do get some very strange looks from the driving range staff as we head along the river’s edge with camera and binoculars), Hartleyvale hockey stadium and a quick hour blitz through Kirstenbosch.  In these first three hours we managed a very respectable total of 72 birds and although one would think that 100 species is more than easy to achieve given such a good start, the nature of sporting birding is that the number count dies off dramatically after the initial blitz.

Having said this, it was a very good start and we had nabbed some good birds in that 72. We had most of the hirundines (swallows and martins), many of the waterfowl and most exciting of all we had a first in the pentad for me which was a Caspian Tern.  It was a pretty surprising bird to see in the centre of Cape Town.

After the initial intensive three hour bash, the rest of the 5 day period was spent visiting and revisiting many of my most reliable sites for some of the more special birds.

The thick brambles alongside Rhodes Drive were visited on three separate occasions at 5am in the morning to tick off Buffspotted Flufftail and Knysna Warbler.  On all three occasions the flufftail obliged but not one peep from the warbler despite the fact that it had been well and truly reccied the week before.

I also paid three separate visits to Kirstenbosch to ensure that no stone was left unturned.  I eventually managed to find the Lemon Dove that I had so desperately needed for the list and a real bonus of one of the visits was an African Harrier-hawk finding it very difficult to find some landing space on any of the oak trees in the central part of the gardens as a result of the constant harassment from a large flock of Red-winged Starlings.

Cecilia Forest was a dead cert for Cape Siskins and with the felled trees giving way to some recovering fynbos they are far easier to find than they used to be.  A few posed quite nicely for some photographs.

The Rondebosch Common does not produce too many great birds but it is the only reliable spot in the pentad for three specific birds: Zitting Cisticola, Cape Longclaw and African Pipit.  It took two separate visits to nab all three and it was rather concerning after the first visit that I had not yet got any of them.  A late evening jaunt with the boys, however, came up with the required targets and the list edged a little further forward.  I was quickly realizing that all the half chance birds would have to come through if I was going to have any hope of 100.

By the time the second last evening rolled along the list was on 89 species.  Things were going to be tight.

Our first visit to Newlands Forest was not as eagerly anticipated as you would think.  Newlands Forest has its moments when it produces some good raptors but it really is pretty sterile amongst the pines.  I was looking for Swee Waxbills and we were very fortunate that one single bird decided to call from the tops of the trees.  Shortly thereafter a loud screech from above alerted me to some raptor activity.  The light was terrible and we were surrounded by trees creating some difficult viewing conditions but 2 Steppe Buzzards in hot pursuit of a Forest Buzzard gave me two of the tougher birds of the week and they would certainly enhance my chances at reaching my goal.

Wednesday night proved to be an interesting one.

It has to be said that Jeanie is seldom amused by my birding exploits.  She is a tremendously understanding and supportive wife and mother when it comes to the granting of the ever-important “pink tickets” but she has great difficulty in understanding why we do the things we do.  It was quite interesting to me that she seemed to have embraced this pentad bash with as much enthusiasm as she did.  Not only was I swamped by the kids every time I walked in the door but Jeanie would be there with great expectation wondering whether there were any new birds on the list.

But it was with further great surprise that I was awoken at 1am on Thursday morning by Jeanie telling me that there was an owl calling outside.  It wasn’t the Spotted Eagle Owl but rather African Wood Owl and it would have been bird number 93.

It was a very warm and still evening and I then lay awake for quite some time straining my ears for the owl’s call but I heard absolutely nothing.  Why on earth had I been awoken for this?

To add insult to injury Jeanie asked me “are you going to count it?”

It is pretty difficult to tell such an enthusiastic wife that she may have misheard the call, or that she may even have dreamt it but I weaseled my way out of this one by telling her that in order for me to count it for the list I had to be the one to have heard it.  I know Jeanie hadn’t got this one wrong but for the time being it was going to have to stay off the list.

That was unfortunately not the only interruption of the night.  At 3am a completely unexpected thunderstorm rolled over the house and caused considerable angst for all our boys and Abby, our rather lovable but quite pathetic Golden Retriever.  Whilst the lightning flashed and the thunder rumbled I held onto Jack as his poor little frame shook in my arms.  There was some religious discussion from my brave little 4 year old wondering if it was god making all that noise. I strategically chose to change the subject.

The only Buckham that slept through the whole episode was little Emma, yet again proving that little girls are definitely lower maintenance than little boys.

By the time the storm had passed and the kids were back asleep it was time for yet another very early start.  Myself and good friend, Andrew, had planned a mountain bike ride on the city bowl side of the mountain to ensure the addition of a few more critical species – we wouldn’t get to 100 without them.

Just below the blockhouse the distinctive rattle and whistle of Grey-backed Cisticola made it 93 and Cape Bunting (94) and Familiar Chat (95) were added just below Tafelberg Road.  The Familiar Chat was a real bonus and 3 birds was more than the expected 2. It was a lot of hard work for only three species but at the business end of the quest that would be what it would take.

Being so close to the target it meant I had to make a plan for the evening to get the remaining 4 birds.  Jeanie was now fully into the progress I had made and gave yet another exemption to head out into the field.  To make it even better I would be taking Tommy and his good friend, Alec, who was very excited to be a part of this birding “competition”. To Alley I was up there in the same category as Schalk Burger and Jacques Kallis.


Another good friend, Paul, would add another pair of eyes to ensure we gave ourselves the best chance possible.  We first tried a small school field in Claremont for the reliable Crowned Lapwings that had been so easy to get a few weeks back.  Not this time.  Nothing.

We were compensated by a Black-headed Heron which we had strangely not seen yet.

It was now decision time.  We had about 40 minutes of light left before we had to head home.  We had even less time before Tommy and Alley turned into pumpkins lest they be late for bath and bed time.  I didn’t want to push my luck too much.

I decided a second visit to the wetland alongside the Black River just west of Vincent Pallotti hospital would be our best bet.  There were a few water birds I still needed and this was the most likely spot.  It was also a new area for me and being relatively unexplored I knew there may be some bonus birds.  We parked and quickly trotted through some very toxic weeds towards the river.  I quickly added number 97 as a Cape Wagtail tweeted and flashed its white outer tail feathers.  Number 98 was just as easy as two Black-crowned Night Herons were silently enjoying the last few minutes of the day tucked down out of the wind alongside the reed bed.

At this point I have to admit that I had miscounted and had overstated the list by a margin of 2 birds.  The Black-crowned Night Herons were bird number 100 in my mind so there was a lengthy celebration as we high fived and enjoyed the success.  Thankfully the birding was still quite “hot” so we decided to stay a little longer and add a few more.  Why not stretch the list as much a possible while we still had the chance?

A Water thick-knee whistled urgently becoming number 99 and as we strolled along the edge of the river I thought it would be worthwhile scanning the many ducks that were dotted along the mud flat.  It certainly was worthwhile as one of the teals tucked amongst the Yellow-billed Ducks was distinctively smaller and distinctively browner than the Red-billed Teals which were far more dominant.  As it turned its head it was as clear as day – a Hottentot Teal and the real bird number 100. A pretty good way to finish.

Just as the last bits of daylight kept things going we added the final 2 birds of the list. A Little Grebe and an extremely distant Black-shouldered Kite.

Our final tally would rest on 102 and an objective had been achieved.  It was possible, after all, to post a count in excess of 100 species in my home pentad.  I ended up spending a total of 9 hours criss-crossing my home patch which included some very early mornings in order to fit it all in amongst parenting and work responsibilities.  It is so much more satisfying to do this during the long summer days, that is for sure.

I am almost certain that this will not mean the end of my atlassing of 3355_1825 but I may slow it down a little and enjoy some cards in the ’70’s and ’80’s.

13 comments on “Breaking some atlassing boundaries

  • Dave Rimmer says:

    A lovely read Mike and I’ll certainly be making a few notes of the places you mention for certain birds. I’m in the Cape between 19 Dec and 5 Jan and will be keen to add a number of those you mention to my life list. Cape Siskin in particular at Cecilia Forest.


  • Congrats on cracking the ton Mike – great achievement! Now leave it for a little while and, once you’ve forgotten how much work this was, have another crack at it and see if you can improve on that total…:)

  • Fabulous, Mike. You might just yet make a twitcher out of this formerly snooty ‘sorry, I’m just an ornithologist’! This is a nicely pacey account, much enjoyed. But buff-spotted flufftail on Rhodes Avenue!? I had no idea – next time you go out to spot it, please shout and I will try to meet you there! I’ve always been envious of Peter Ryan’s nonchalant ‘oh yes, it’s above my house’ but always failed to find it in my (and his) home pentad – 3405 1825. PS – swee waxbills and olive pigeons (and at least 2 buzzards, depending on your paradigm) frequently seen from Kirstenbosch Research Centre….

  • Margaret Maciver says:

    I would love to join Phoebe and look for Buff spotted flufftail on Rhodes Ave! Mike, did you actually see them or hear them?

  • Tony Archer says:

    Wunder bar, Mike! I think I enjoyed the story more than the photos but would hate to have make a decision about that.

    P.S. I think I have eventually “won” the atlasing war with the Missus. Where the question used to be “Are you going birding AGAIN?” it is now “What time will you be back from alasing?”!

  • James McFarlane says:

    Very interesting posting, Mike, as well as GREAT pictures! I particularly like the one of the little female Cape Batis on her nest.

  • Well done Mike and the rest of the team! What a great achievement and so interesting. That African Harrier-Hawk is very pretty. As always a great read. Just one day you have to take your nephew with you, even if its for 30min’s…please!

  • Ian Rijsdijk says:

    Fantastic blog, Mike. I also have two little ones and a intermittently interested wife, but my children are a few years away from being dragged around on wild chases. I’ve found Crowned Plovers most times I’ve been to Rondebosch Common, down at the Mowbray corner. Were you lucky enough to get Blue Crane? They seem to flying over a bit at the moment. I must say I’ve always considered the Flufftail stories as borderline myths, but it seems like a quiet early morning reccie to Rhodes Drive is required.

  • Peter Sharland says:

    Enjoyed the blog immensely. Shows just how many forms of “competitive” birding are available. Enjoy the times when the 70’s and 80’s will suffice. Maybe you should track what the first hour brings relative to the second hour over a period of time and let us have some stats?


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