Our Strandfontein Big Year

I’ve never really attempted a Big Year. As a quick reminder (as I’ve spoken it before in a number of my blogs), in a birding context, it is an attempt, within a calendar year, to record as many bird species within a specific geographical boundary.  The pastime was popularised in the United States where it was born out of their Christmas Day bird counts which expanded to annual listing competitions per county, state and, ultimately, country.  It was brought to light amongst the muggles of the birding world through the light-hearted comedy called, with no great surprise, “The Big Year”, which told the story of three very different birders who attempted to break the United States Big Year record.

Not surprisingly, the big year boundaries have stretched over the years. Why stop at a continent?  Why not make it the whole world?  Well, there are a million reasons for not attempting a World Big Year (possibly a million dollars as well) but that didn’t stop a few over the most recent few years.  Ruth Miller and Alan Davies were the first to really give it a bash.  They amassed 4,341 species, which seemed a pretty good effort.  I was on board a pelagic trip with Ruth and Alan that must have been one of their more challenging days in their year as Alan spent most of it either huddled in the corner of the boat looking green or hanging over the side expelling a large amount of his insides.

Ruth and Alan’s valiant effort was kicked aside by Noah Strycker, who not only saw 6,042 species in 2015, but he also produced one of the most competently written and compiled diaries of his attempt.  I was enthralled every day as I caught up with the new birds he had seen in some far flung corner of the world.  When he struggled with WiFi and couldn’t post his blogs I felt incomplete not knowing where he was, what birds he had seen and what his total had grown to.  If you want to read his blog you can access it here.

I was lucky enough to have Noah stay a few nights with us during his Western Cape swing and I ensured our WiFi was working at full speed to ensure his followers around the world weren’t disappointed.  I also spent the day with him, showing him some of our beautiful Cape endemics and he left us having added 18 new birds to his tally (see the blog here).

Noah, Tommy and Adam
Noah, Tommy and Adam
A successful day with Noah and Callan
A successful day with Noah and Callan

Incredibly, while Noah was amassing his seemingly untouchable total, Arjan Dwarshuis (a Dutch birder) was planning his attempt for the very next year. He cruised past Noah’s number with a good few weeks to go and ended up on 6,833.  I don’t have the same connection to Arjan that I did to Noah as his progress was extremely difficult to follow, aside from his entertaining Instagram posts which showed some of the birds along the way.  Arjan was making a movie as he went along so I look forward to watching that one day.

So, as you can see, Big Years have become big. Very big.  I am not sure I would like to see over 6,000 species in one year as it is so much about ticking, and the birds get more or less forgotten along the way.  I would rather take my time and enjoy the birds a lot more, but that is just me.  But, having said that, I was still keen for a Big Year of some sort.

Last year I started mulling over what I could do.

I have a busy working life, four children that I love spending time with and quite a few other pastimes that keep me busy outside of birding. My Big Year ambitions for 2017 would have to be quite the opposite of Noah’s and Arjan’s.  My Big Year would have to be in a geographic boundary that was relatively tiny and pretty close to home.  In other words, particularly modest.

As you all know, atlassing is an added component of my birding life that is very important to me, so I thought initially of doing a Big Year in my home pentad (3355_1825). We have some diverse habitat and some very good birds, but no Big Year is particularly exciting unless it is a competition and I wasn’t that certain that I would be able to interest any of my birding mates in a challenge that niche.

So, it got me thinking a little more. It just so happened that at around the same time as I was mulling this idea over in my mind, Strandfontein Sewerage Works was enjoying its best rarity season in living memory.  Every day or two a new rarity seemed to be appearing, which birders were chasing with great excitement.  It started with the Red-necked Phalarope that was found by Garth Shaw of the #sweesmustfall Birding Big Day team and, shortly thereafter, I managed to locate an American Golden Plover, but the real biggie was Glynis Bowie’s Temminck’s Stint that created the most excitement.  It was the first record of this bird in over 27 years and, not only was it a cracking rarity, but it was about as obliging a wader as you could wish to find.  In the end it stayed for over three months and we all watched it morph from non-breeding plumage into its fancy breeding dress.

Temminck's Stint
Temminck’s Stint
Temminck's Stint in breeding plumage
Temminck’s Stint in breeding plumage

It eventually headed north (or fell prey to Strandfontein’s Peregrine Falcons) in the middle of February, but it had given us all more than enough opportunity to see it.  That was followed by a Spotted Crake, a Baillon’s Crake, a Yellow Wagtail, a few Willow Warblers and one or two others.

Willow Warbler
Willow Warbler

It made me realise that the two Strandfontein pentads (3400_1830 and 3405_1830) would be just about the perfect geographical boundary to give this thing a crack. It was close to home, it was a small enough area for me to do it justice, it had just the right potential for some good rarities and a lot of birders I know would be birding Strandfontein throughout the year and they would be easy to convince to join me in my challenge.

So, I set about communicating the idea to my close birding mates and before long I had a much longer list of birders than I thought I’d have. It seemed as if everyone was ripe for something like this and it would actually have the potential of being a fully-fledged competition.  Including my two boys, Tommy and Adam, the list of participants grew to about 16 birders (Andrew, Cliff, Dave, Dom, Frans, Garth, Ian, Jess, John, Marc, Margaret, Michael, Nick, Suretha and Trevor).  Technology would play a role here and the first thing I did was set up a Whatsapp group to make sure information sharing was current.

The next task was to determine some way to record the species in an accurate and real time way so that we had some kind of leaderboard. It seemed as if Henk Nel and his team at Birdlasser had built the app specifically for our 2017 Strandfontein Big Year.  I got hold of him and asked him if there was some way he could set up a private challenge on Birdlasser that would help us out with our record keeping.  Within 15 minutes the Strandfontein Big Year private challenge had been created and all our names were added to the list, fascilitating the ongoing list administration.

The Strandfontein Challenge Area
The Strandfontein Challenge Area

There were no clumsy spreadsheets, no e-mails of new species going backwards and forwards and nowhere to hide.  Within a split second of a species being recorded on the Birdlasser app on participants’ phones, the record would appear as large as life on the ongoing species list and it would either generate a flurry of activity as all the birders in close proximity would rush off to see it (Suretha’s Common Sandpiper down near the beach at the south-western corner of the challenge area, as an example) or chastisement would come from the list watchers as dodgy species were mistakenly recorded, no doubt due to “fat finger syndrome” (Michael’s repeated recording of Red-capped Robin-chat, and countless other dodgy species, come to mind, although, by his own admission, Birdlasser seemed a bridge too far from a technology point of view).

So, now we had a challenge area, we had a bunch of pretty fanatical birders willing to take part, we had Strandfontein as ripe as it had ever been for spectacular rarities, we had a whatsapp group to generate some “gees” and educational content from some of SA’s top birders and, all of a sudden, I had the Big Year I had always wanted.

Ready, steady, GO!

That first weekend was bordering on comical. Our fanaticism and rather bizarre behaviour was hidden somewhat by the general chaos that was taking place at Strandfontein, but there were about 15 of us running from one end of the pentad to the other to make sure we unblocked all those potential blockers.

Since this is likely to be an important word for the duration of this Big Year it is worth explaining. A “blocker” is a species that is recorded by one or a few of the participants, which is missed by most of the others and it remains as an advantage for the duration of the challenge.  Cliff loaded his Western Yellow Wagtail to the list on one of those first weekends and that became, instantaneously, the most likely long-standing blocker of the year.  Trevor was lucky enough to unblock that one a few weeks later but, as we stand right now, it remains elusive for the rest of us.  Ian revealed a bizarre record of Orange-breasted Sunbird early on, with photographic evidence, which was also destined to be a blocker. Fortunately, Adam, Dave, Dom and I managed to unblock that one a few weeks later with a completely fortuitous view from the viewing platform on P4.  For the rest it remains blocked.

So, that first weekend was frantic. The Temminck’s Stint could have disappeared at any moment or the Spotted Crake may spook and never be seen again, so all of us were there making sure we ticked all the rarities that were around.  We’d seen them all in the last few weeks of December, but I’d hazard to suggest that we were more anxious in those first few weeks of January than we were in December.  I suspect most of us unblocked the big five (Stint, Phalarope, Crake, Pectoral Sandpiper and Golden Plover) but that didn’t stop the running around.  It also helped that half the country’s birding population were there for all the rarities and so there were clumps of birders concentrated in the relevant places.  It was a little like a theme park, with people queueing up for the most popular attractions.  Panic would ripple through those attending the Spotted Crake vigil as word went out that the Golden Plover was showing so nicely on the opposite side of the pan.  “Do we stay and wait for the split second view of the crake or do we dash over and at least tick the plover?”  There were decisions, decisions, decisions but, in the end, I suspect all of us managed to get what we need on that first weekend.

It is also worth noting that the two pentads that include the actual settling ponds have quite a bit of alternative habitat in the urban areas of Ottery and the farmlands of Phillipi. These would be crucial areas to add the extra species that were not available in the actual works.  Those early days in January also had many of us exploring the farmlands during the pre-dawn hours for night birds.  Trevor found a Western Barn Owl one morning on Varkensvlei Road and, within a day, almost all of us had zeroed in on his Birdlasser pin to make sure we got it too.

Dave’s pre-dawn calling Olive Thrush was also a bird that caused a freakish amount of excitement.  It was a bird that none of us had recorded in the 3400_1830 pentad before, but Dave heard one call while driving through Ottery with an open window.  Interestingly, being a bird that is so common in surrounding pentads, Dave didn’t even think to mention it, however it wasn’t long before the rest of the challengers noticed the bouncing Birdlasser pin and soon we were all doing an early morning Ottery drive through to add our Olive Thrush.

With a Big Year with such a restricted boundary we all realised that the laws of diminishing returns would kick in very quickly. We knew a total of somewhere near 180 would probably be a decent one and some of us were in the mid 150s within that first month.  It encouraged me to create a second challenge that included a few pentads to the west which included the mountain, Kirstenbosch and some forested sections in the southern suburbs and this would be run as a separate challenge (with slightly fewer participants) with the possiblility of an additional 20 or 30 birds to keep us all interested.  As you probably know by now, one list is certainly not enough for most birders.

The Constantia to Cape Flats Challenge
The Constantia to Cape Flats Challenge

So, having set the scene, this “diary” will document some of the exciting moments we are likely to have this year. There will certainly be a number of crazy twitches and equally as many missed opportunities.  But, if nothing else, the Strandfontein pentads will get a lot more air time this year than they have in previous years.

African Crake

I always love a crake

23 May 2017