Going just a little beyond the Challenge

They always say that “when the cat’s away the mouse will play”.  If you can call my family “the cat” and me “the mouse” then I suppose that would be true.

This last weekend Jeanie was in Plett with the entire family to spend some time with cousins over the school holidays.  Ordinarily, I would have joined for a weekend but, with their time there being so short, I decided to stay in Cape Town.  It is always pretty lonesome being in the house when you reduce the family from six people to one, but I was determined to make the most of the time I had on my own to add a few challenge birds to my list.

It is quite strange how taken I have been with the Wider Cape Town Birding Challenge.  It is not like I have any chance of being near the top of the leaderboard when 31 December ticks over.  It is also not like there are any birds that I really need to see in the challenge area that I haven’t already seen for my life list or for my Western Cape list.  It is also unlikely that my busy life will allow me to drop my family responsibilities at any moment and go chase some odd bird at the extremity of the boundaries of the challenge area to make sure I get one over the next person.

But, for some reason, I have really enjoyed setting about ticking off species on my challenge list.  It is amazing how exciting it can be when ticking silly species like Forest Canary and Orange-breasted Sunbird.

Forest Canary
Cape Robin-chat
Orange-breasted Sunbird

And then there was the African Quailfinch in Durbanville that was a lifer for Tommy and Adam.  Who knew these birds were available so close to Cape Town?

Tommy and Adam looking for Quailfinches
African Quailfinch

I have had a slow start to my Challenge but, then again, so have my good birding mates, and I suspect that the close proximity of their lists to mine have kept things pretty interesting.  I just wonder when the time will come that we stop sharing gen with one another.  It will be like that moment in Survivor when the alliance is broken and the blindside comes from within your own camp.  Already I am considering keeping my African Wood-owl gen to myself.

One wonders what is happening to me?

Anyway, I digress a little.

So, this weekend, I was man alone and, aside from an obligatory mountain bike training ride that I had to get under my belt in preparation for my Sani2C race in about a month’s time, I was a free agent.  The family would be arriving back late on Sunday afternoon and I could set about ticking off a few blank spots on my list.

Adam and I had had a rather disappointing visit to Rondevlei the weekend before having scored exactly zero out of my four target species (Little Bittern, Goliath Heron, Malachite Kingfisher and African Snipe).  The water levels were low and birding was pretty quiet.  The highlights were made up of two non-birds.  The first was my first ever sighting of the famous Rondevlei hippo that we saw wallowing in the middle of the largest section of open water, and the second was the beautiful male Boomslang that has now become something of a celebrity at the nature reserve.  It was a little disconcerting walking under the rafters of the hide that is home for this rather venomous snake.

The excitement of the birding is evidenced by the fact that this is my most exciting photo from the morning out in the field:

Lesser Swamp-warbler

I was determined to put the slow birding behind me despite the fast advancing winter season when birding was most likely to be very quiet and additions to the list would require great effort.

The first stop on the weekend was Paarl Sewerage Works and Paarl Mountain Reserve.  I was fortunate to have Dave Winter and Dom Rollinson in the car with me so I could keep my eye on my two closest adversaries.  Dave was clearly in the lead and so his hopes of adding species was relatively limited, whilst Dom was some way behind even me, having spent the first six weeks of the year on a ship somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which made his challenge attempt somewhat difficult.  I was sandwiched between the two of them and wanted to make sure I at least kept pace.

Paarl Sewerage Works on a warm Saturday afternoon is a pretty bleak place.  The works have deteriorated significantly over the years with the hides outside the fenced area having been destroyed, obviously for the benefit of the informal housing settlement that is adjacent to the north eastern corner of the settling ponds.  The hyacinth is taking over rapidly and it is a matter of time before there will be virtually no surface water at all.  The egrets seemed to find it enjoyable and Dom was able to add an easy Yellow-billed Egret to his list.  Dave and I were not pleased.

We eventually left the works having ticked a relatively meager number of new birds.  I added Black Crake, African Snipe and Malachite Kingfisher.

Black Crake

But that was somewhat less than I had hoped for and, despite thinking I might gain some ground, Dave kept his list going with a Water Thick-knee that I made the mistake of pointing out to him.  I am certain the sound of the churning sewerage and the engine noises would have been enough to drown out the piping whistle but, since my ears are better than Dave’s, I felt it was the honourable thing to assist him with that one.  He showed minimal gratitude and, initially, I think he actually doubted my hearing it.  Once I had handed it to him on a platter we were allowed to move on.

I would describe the Paarl Mountain Reserve segment of our expedition as an unmitigated disaster, from a Challenge perspective, of course.

Our main objective was obviously the hard-to-find Protea Canary.  A trash bird like Streaky-headed Seedeater was already on my list but I was shocked to discover that both Dave and Dom still needed this dopey bird.  Well, I need say very little more than we left Paarl Mountain Reserve without the Protea Canary, but with Dave and Dom both adding the Seedeater to their lists.

Overall I think Dom caught up at least 3 birds on me whilst Dave and I level-pegged.  Not exactly what I had hoped for.

Sunday, however, would be my chance to catch up a few species.  I would spend the morning at West Coast National Park with a few stops on the way for one or two localized species.  Dom would also be heading in that direction but I would be accompanied by my good friends Saul and San-Marie, whilst Dom’s agenda was a little different and he would travel on his own steam.  We agreed to meet up along the way and perhaps share some of the time together.

It would be wrong of me not to acknowledge that there was some sharing from Dave and Dom.  Perhaps they felt that things had been a little one-sided of late and it was time they threw me a bone or two.  Maybe they were just giving me the gen for some birds they knew I would eventually see but, when it came to the really tough stuff, I am sure they would withhold.  It was all a bit murky at this point but I wasn’t going to spurn their assistance and I ticked the Cape Clapper Larks at the Darling Hills Road site in the pre-dawn and then shortly thereafter found a few small flocks of Wattled Starling that Dom had told me about a few kilometers up the road.  No photo of the Wattled Starlings but the ubiquitous Pied Starlings obliged.

Pied Starling

It was a good start to the day adding two quick species and we then headed north to the park.  This would be a targeted expedition and I would only be visiting sites that held some productivity for me.  Abrahamskraal was spurned for more productive sites as there was virtually nothing that I needed there.  My wanted species were limited and although some of them would be a little tough there were a few that were going to be very easy.

We did pick up one or two incidentals on the way.  I always wonder why it is that a Black Harrier, as spectacular a bird as it is, never chooses to look in the right direction when the camera is firing.

Black Harrier

The Ruddy Turnstone and Little Tern were were easily added at the Seeberg Hide and I will acknowledge that Dom pointed out a pair of Karoo Larks on the entrance road to the hide.  My tally for the day was now 5 and things were going pretty well.

We stopped at the Seeberg Viewpoint for Grey Tit which is a bird I still needed for some bizarre reason.  It is not a particularly difficult bird but so far I had not yet bumped into one.  We searched high and low without success but I won’t lie when I say it pleased me just a little that we found several parties of Cape Pendies (Cape Penduline Tits) around the Seeberg dome which I knew Dave still needed.  This would be a temporary source of amusement as it would be a matter of time before Dave collected these.

Despite the fact that we were focusing entirely on birds we were still pleased to find five reptile species around the viewpoint.  Two geckos (Striped Dwarf and Ocellated Thick-toed), one Girdled Lizard (Karoo) and two snakes (Herald and Boomslang).  The Boomslang sighting was a bizarre one as it was at a distance of about 70 or 80 metres.  It is not every day that you use a scope to ID a snake but I found this one sunbathing on the top of a large boulder in the distance and it was only when we pulled out the scope that we were able to ID it as a Boomslang.  My second Boomslang ever and in the space of two weeks…

Scoping a Boomslang
A very distant Boomslang

A small flock of Swifts near Seeberg produced Little and Alpine but also a good view of a Common Swift as it hurtled past.  This was a surprise bird and was one that could easily elude me during the rest of the year.  With winter around the corner it would be some months before it would even be worth looking for this one so it was definitely leading the charge as bird of the day.

We took a completely fruitless drive to the Langebaan Quarry for the nesting pair of Verreaux’s Eagles as they were not in residence and, in the stifling unseasonal heat, there was virtually nothing else to show for our long detour into and out of Langebaan and then back again.  The nest was unoccupied and there was no sign of hide or hair of a Verreaux’s Eagle, so that one would have to wait for another day.

Where is that damn Verreaux’s Eagle

The heat was picking up (it got to 37 degrees during the day) and the family would be arriving back in the mid afternoon so I had to start making my way back south.  We had one more stop – Geelbek Hide.

I had checked the tide tables and although I have an absolutely horrendous record with getting the timing of the tide right I felt like this was going to be my moment.  12pm was the perfect time according to my calculations and we arrived there 10 minutes before that.

As a precursor to this bit of the story I had received an SMS from good birding mate, Cliff Dorse, the night before to let me know that he and Suretha had found a Broad-billed Sandpiper at Geelbek the previous afternoon.  The BBS, as I know it, as Broad-billed Sandpiper is a bit of a mouthful, was fast becoming (or had become) a real bogey bird for me.  I had missed it on a number of occasions at Geelbek over the last 15 years of my entrenched birding habit and, most recently, I had suffered a great disappointment to miss it at De Mond Nature Reserve when, not only one bird had been found there, but at least three.  The worst thing about that miss was the fact that it was seen the day before and the day after our visit.  Dave and Dom were with me on that occasion (along with Simon, my other good birding mate and my son, Tommy) and now that I think about it I am starting to wonder why we came back empty handed that day.  You see, Dave and Dom have both seen a BBS and their wader ID is a far deal better than mine so it really does make one wonder, doesn’t it?

Anyway, that having been said, Cliff was in the know that a BBS would be a good bird for me so he gave me a gentlemanly heads-up.

I walked into the hide and it was full of people with cameras and scopes pointed in all different directions.  It is always pretty obvious if there is a good bird on show when one walks into a hide full of people.  There is definitely a degree of heightened energy and excitement with people taking turns looking through shared scopes and the features of the rarity being described by more experienced birders to those with lesser knowledge.  Things like “it has a noticeable primary projection” or “it has white secondaries” or “its toes project beyond the tail in flight” are rattled off regularly and urgently.  Bird books are open on the counter with fingers being pointed and pages being flicked.  Camera shutters are bursting, frame after frame, and big smiles fill most faces.

When we walked into the hide at Geelbek it was all pretty quiet.  There was no rushing around the hide, no high fives and no congratulatory wishes being shared.  It was obvious to me that no one had yet found the BBS.

It must also be said that I am probably the worst rarity finder in the world.  My list of conquests is limited to probably one Pectoral Sandpiper that I found in the Eastern Cape about 15 years ago.  I am not a terrible wader-watcher, but I don’t think I have the eye for something different and so I probably gloss over a lot of good stuff.  I can tell a Curlew Sandpiper from a Little Stint but I guarantee you I cannot pick out a Red-necked Stint in a crowd of Little Stints.

So, I sat down with my scope and set about scanning the masses of birds that were settling down on the mudflat, as the tide started receding, with very little hope of finding the BBS.  I was pleased that Dom was in the hide with me as he could certainly pick this bird out amongst the best of them.  Mind you, one would wonder whether he would have another agenda on this particular day?

Blow me down, three minutes into my job of scanning the flocks I bumped into a bird that just looked different.  This would not be the first time that I had thought I had seen something different so I was pretty measured.  Most of my “something different” moments had turned out to be “not really anything different at all” moments and so I kept calm.  But looking at this bird I just felt that it really was different.  I shifted between an adjacent Curlew Sandpiper and said bird and I ticked off the boxes.

Slightly smaller than the Curlew Sandpiper – check.

Slightly greyer– check..

Shorter neck – check…

Straighter bill with a drooped end –  quite a big check….

Broad lateral stripes on the side of the head – enormous CHECK…..

I looked up from the scope and quietly called Dom over.

It was important not to draw too much attention to myself.  I had already embarrassed myself earlier in the day with a howler of an ID at the Seeberg hide and I was not going to do it again.  I urged Dom to look at the bird I was looking at and make sure I was not seeing things.  He looked down, then looked up and said calmly – “yip, you got it”.

Well, Hulla-bloody-lujah.

Finally I had one of my big bogey birds nailed down and I had actually found it myself.

I was elated inside but it was also important to keep cool in the situation – perhaps play it out that it is the most natural thing in the world to find a rarity within three minutes of starting one’s search.  We called over a few people, including my good friends Saul and San-Marie, and started pointing out the features.  It wasn’t long before most of the hide was onto it and I was that person pointing out the features that made it a BBS and not another one of the countless common birds frittering away on the mudflat.

It was an immensely satisfying moment for me.  Here was a bird I had searched for on many occasions and finally I had found it.  Sure, Cliff had told me it was there but there were still hundreds of birds on that mudflat and it required at least some effort to be found.  My challenge list advanced one further, but so did my life list and my Western Cape list.  This was the Full Monty of birding ticks and I was pretty pleased with myself.

I found myself completely distracted by the BBS for the time that I spent in the hide and it is quite possible I gave up the opportunity for finding things like Terek Sandpipers or Greater Sand Plovers, but this was good enough for me for a morning out.  It was not long before the clock ticked a few ticks too many and it was time to head home.  I managed some pretty dismal shots of the BBS but at least it was documented and no one could take it away.

Broad-billed Sandpiper

And so I ended my weekend with nine additions to my Challenge List but really so much more than that.  The only downside was having to tell my two birding boys that I had seen a lifer when they returned late on Sunday afternoon but I am pretty sure their rarity finding skills will be so much better than mine in the years to come.

(After thought – I do hope Dave and Dom know that most of my references in this blog were tongue in cheek.  I’m going to need them for the rest of the year if I hope to get beyond 250)

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