Challenging the Overberg

Early morning in the Overberg

I was recently chastised by a good mate that my blogging habits had declined to such an extent that he had stopped checking for updates.  The truth be told, our lives have just been so busy that I have not had the time to do much birding, never mind blogging.  And, the birding that I have done has been pretty run-of-the-mill so not really worth writing home about.

In the last two months we have got back to work after a good break, delivered the kids back to school, moved out of our house, moved into a temporary abode and are currently running alterations on our new house.  Breathing space has been minimal and birding tickets have been even scarcer.

I suppose with all the activity in our lives my birding had the potential to go into pause mode, but it has been invigorated by the Wider Cape Town Birding Challenge (or simply “the Challenge”) that was initiated for 2014.  The Challenge is to tick as many bird species as possible in a 150km radius from the Cape Town stadium.  It stretches eastwards to Napier, northwards to Rocher Pan and southwards past the Peninsula and into the deep waters south of Cape Point. The whole idea behind the Challenge, I suppose, is to encourage us to get out to do some birding without breaking the bank on travelling costs nor breaking up the family on far flung birding adventures.  Well, that was the way I saw it.

So, through some encouragement from some birding mates I duly registered on the website dedicated to the task and started ticking my list.  It wasn’t long before a number of other good mates joined and I would imagine it wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that Tommy and Adam signed up as well.  I see some sibling rivalry of a different sort to manage in my future.

I started the Challenge a little later than some but I still thought that there was plenty of time during the year to get a decent list together.  There has been some healthy debate amongst us as to what a gettable number may be.  I have estimated that I may get around 250 species but looking at some of the lists already that seems like a relatively low target.  I am a little hamstrung by my lack of sea legs but it is also exciting to think that I will be making sure I get on a pelagic boat sometime this year.  Hopefully I’ll be able to stomach more than one!

So, despite a slow start I visited Strandfontein a few times and added some good Challenge birds a number of weeks ago.

Peregrine Falcon
Sand Martin

A visit to the Phillipi wetlands was also productive with a good record of Greater Painted Snipe.  This bird was found by my good mate, Dave Winter. and I was very fortunate that he cared to share this sighting with me as he is also registered for the Challenge and I suspect that deep into the year he may not be as free with his gen as he has been early in the year…

So, with a few birds under the belt and a visit to the West Coast National Park two weeks ago it was time for us to spread our wings a little wider and test the boundaries a little bit.

Yellow-billed Kite

It helped enormously that a Broad-billed Sandpiper had been found at De Mond Nature Reserve just west of Arniston.  Although De Mond is comfortably outside the Challenge area a visit to the reserve would give us good reason to do some farm road birding along the way to add some extremity birds to our lists.  The Broad-billed Sandpiper would be the main target but I was almost secretly more excited about some of the birds we may find just inside the boundary.  I cleared the pink ticket with Jeanie after some very carefully thought out negotiation and I was good to go.

I roped in three good mates, Dave, Dom and Simon, and Tommy was not playing sport or attending any birthday parties so he was also keen to add to his lists.

We left at the crack of dawn (actually, well before) and hit the road east.  Our first stop was in the dry farmlands just west of the town of Napier.  We were still inside the Challenge area and we had a few target birds on our list.  Unfortunately the main one, Denhams’s Bustard, did not oblige but we added a double sighting of Lanner Falcon that can be a little tricky close to Cape Town.

Tommy in the Overberg
Tommy in the Overberg

As we were driving slowly along a quiet dirt road, Dave stopped us from the back seat of the car and pointed out that he thought he heard a House Martin calling.  When it comes to the Hirundines I am not that up to date on their vocalization but here Dave was telling us that he had picked up the call of a House Martin from a moving vehicle?  Before we piled out of the car I asked him to describe what he had heard and the best he could come up with was that it sounded like a mini “fart”.  In fact, he even imitated the call by pursing his lips and making childish farting noises.  I’m not sure it was his proudest moment but would you believe that when we lifted our bins there was a House Martin cruising over a farm dam as clear as the day had dawned.  House Martin is not a common bird in the Western Cape and we had now added it to our Challenge lists.

House Martin
House Martin

Dave’s reputation as a birder amongst us had been suitably enhanced and he was definitely leading the charge as the most accomplished birder of the group.  His reputation in other spheres, however, may be taking a dive as some family members and non-birders read this.

We didn’t add too many other birds to our lists, which was a little disappointing, but we had the excitement of the Broad-billed Sandpiper to look forward to.  The sandpiper would be a full lifer for me and with recent reports on Birdnet I was hopeful of clinching this one.  An addition to this potential was the fact that four separate golden plovers were on show and although I had seen them many years before (at the same location, in fact), I had never photographed them and I would be happy to add them to my collection.

We arrived at the entrance to the reserve, were greeted by the obligatory Southern Tchagra sighting and then headed through the Milkwoods along the eastern shore of the river.  Our spirits were high given the reliability of the previous week’s sightings and we were sure to find this bird given the fact that there were five of us and we were armed with no less than four scopes.

We reached the mouth of the river after checking a few small flocks of waders, only revealing Little Stints and Common Ringed Plovers but we were surely to find our target in the mass of waders right at the mouth?

We settled into position and began scanning.  Dom had uttered the dreadful words “we’ll definitely get it” not half an hour before and after a further 2 hours of scanning we still had not found it.  Every Curlew Sandpiper had us briefly excited but we just could not find the Broad-billed Sandpiper.

Leaving no stone unturned

The flocks of birds would gather together as the tide started to lap up against their legs and then in a whirl of wings and feathers they would erupt in unison and fly halfway across the estuary before settling in the distance.  Groups of birds would depart and return at regular intervals and every time a fresh batch arrived we would have our scopes trained on them searching for the bird that looked like it had walked into a wall and bent the end of its bill.  But it was just not to be.  We eventually gave up when we felt we had looked at every individual bird and still not found it.  Perhaps it had moved on.

Time to give up the search

Our return to the reserve entrance was well compensated by some really good views of the golden plovers that were on show.  We managed to find, after some good gen from fellow birder Jacques Malan, three Pacific Golden Plovers and a single American Golden Plover on a small island in the middle of the river.  My first photos of these four birds were taken at a distance but after a few minutes I decided that it was worth wetting my pants for the sake of a closer view.  After my stealthy approach I had managed to capture some reasonably nice pics of both species.

American Golden Plover
Pacific Golden Plover
Pacific Golden Plover

It was nice to have the contrasting features well noted as the two separate species fed in close proximity and we left knowing full well that we would be able to discern them in the future.

As disappointing as it may be to return from a twitch not having seen the target bird I try to be as philosophical about these things as I possibly can.  It is so easy to say that it was a wasted morning driving all the way out to De Mond for no decent return, but it had been so long since I had been birding with my good mates that every moment was cherished.  I’ll have the chance in the future to get the Broad-billed Sandpiper on my list.

Tommy was very happy to have joined the “big boys” on this twitch but as the hours went by his energy levels started to wane.  It meant that our second foray back into the farmlands within the Challenge area would have to exclude Tommy as he fell fast asleep.  Unfortunately it also meant I was a little out of action too as he fell asleep on my shoulder and when Simon slammed on brakes to look a little more closely at the most recently spotted bird I was pretty immobile sitting in the back seat of the car with Tommy asleep on my shoulder.

Sleeping Beauty

Dave, Dom and Simon found a few good Challenge birds, all of which I had to peer at through the windscreen lest I make too many movements and wake up Sleeping Beauty.  The best bird of the lot was a single Red-billed Quelea in amongst a huge flock of other seedeaters including bishops and canaries.  It was a good bird for the Challenge and I was pleased that I got at least some view even if it meant it was a bit of a smudge through the dusty windscreen.

Eking out a few extra species

All too soon we were back on the N2 heading west to Cape Town.  Tommy continued to snore and there were a few occasions that I noticed my fellow passengers nodding off despite the fact that they were supposed to be keeping an eye out for a distant Secretary Bird or Martial Eagle.  Fortunately I was awake when we rounded a corner just after passing the Houwhoek Farm Stall when I noticed a large dark bird sitting on top of a dead tree right next to the road.  We were going at 120km/h at the time and it was a brief sighting, but I was convinced it was something special.  I told Simon to stop on the side of the road and I am pretty sure that everyone in the car wondered whether it was all worth it.  Home was calling and I think my companions were fancying some time on the couch after a long day in the field.

As we managed to turn the car around I feared that it was perhaps a Hadeda Ibis or even a Yellow-billed Kite but I even suggested that I thought it was a Snake Eagle based on its shape.  As we stopped the car I still couldn’t even manufacture a view as Tommy was still snoring on my shoulder, but as Dom and Dave looked through their bins they confirmed my suspicions – it was a Brown Snake Eagle!

As you would imagine Tommy wasn’t asleep for too much longer.  I shook him awake, mainly so that I could get a view, and soon enough I was looking at my first Brown Snake Eagle in the Western Cape.  And, in the most unlikely locality.  Unfortunately the light was awful and so the photo was pretty sub-standard but it was a new bird for my Western Cape list and very importantly it was a new bird on each of our Challenge lists.

Brown Snake Eagle

It wasn’t quite the same high standards of identifying a House Martin “fart” but I was quite pleased that I had added some value to the day’s outing.

We returned to Cape Town late into the afternoon very satisfied with healthy additions to each of our lists.  The Challenge was certainly alive and well and although I am not sure we were like Kenny Bostick, Brad Harris and Stu Preissler from the popular birding movie, the Big Year, we all rushed home to capture our totals and I am certain we all had a peek at each other’s lists to see where we were.

I certainly will not be a contender for the top echelons of the Challenge but I am so pleased it has been put out there as it has meant we have been given a good reason to explore some of the less seen parts of our province and to highlight some of the less known birding localities.  Now I have to start plotting my next assault to make sure I stay just ahead of one or two people…

4 comments on “Challenging the Overberg

  • As always a nice read with good pictures. Unfortunately, I cannot participate in the challenge since I now live in Norway. Spring is finally here and the first migrants have arrived :-). I am also off to Tanzania in April, so hope to remove the dust from my cameras before then.

  • Annetjie says:

    I loved the Pacific and American plovers. They are such neat little chaps and seeing them together would be great because then one can compare them easily. What a lovely day – I am sure you all enjoyed it even though it is quite far for a day trip. No wonder young Thomas surrendered to dreamland. Do I get house Martin’s in Plett? if so, will have to listen for a fart!

  • Ian Rijsdijk says:

    Nice to have you back, Mike. I’ve been monitoring the De Mond news with considerable envy as I’m rooted to work at the moment. Good comparative pics. My son is heading towards prospective twitching age so hopefully I won’t be alone in my cross-country chases for much longer.


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