River Warbler-less

After what has seemed to be a long hiatus in my birding and blogging activities here I am posting a second blog in the space of two weeks – a similar pace to my initial forays into blogging.  Our birding this last weekend was, however, completely different to the week before.

Last year we booked a flight for the whole family to Jo’burg to celebrate my father’s 75th birthday.  We had to change flights for a number of reasons and we were left with tickets we had to use within six months of their issue.  We picked the weekend of the 15th March to visit family in Jo’burg.

Although the reasoning behind the trip was for Jeanie and I to visit our respective sister and brother and for the kids to see their cousins, I wasn’t going to let a summer weekend in Joburg go by without getting out for some birding. It also just so happened that our visit coincided with the end of two of the wettest weeks Joburg has experienced in recent memory.

What is frustrating for some is very good for others.

I decided that I would visit the Pienaars River and its floodplain at Kgomo-Kgomo which is accessed along a road well known in birding circles as the Zaagkuildrift Road.  In years of very high rainfall the Pienaars River swells in certain sections to create an enormous floodplain that covers a huge area near the small settlement of Kgomo-Kgomo.  The high rainfall does not only result in masses of exciting water birds descending on the feeding bounty, but it also creates the right conditions for some of the smaller passerines to flourish.  The Zaagkuildrfit road is almost as well known for its migratory warblers as it is for its water birds.

I have birded this wonderful road on a previous occasion when the conditions were just right and I had made the most of seeing a large proportion of these warblers, but there was one that I still needed – River Warbler.

Many years ago River Warbler was considered a great rarity in South Africa. There were so few records of it and there seemed to be very little knowledge of exactly when and where one could find it.  The last 10 or 15 years, however, have been a period of enlightenment for SA birders and there seems to be a lot more known about this bird’s habits than in the past.  Despite this, it is still a really tricky one to find.

The migratory habits of the River Warbler are seemingly quite different to many of the other Palearctic warblers.  The others leave their breeding grounds in Europe in the northern autumn and head on a direct route to their wintering grounds, arriving in our early summer.  They spend around six months here before fattening up in the late summer and heading north again.

River Warblers, however, are either just a little lazy, or they prefer the scenic route.  I suppose one could compare it to the way I like to travel from place to place by taking the shortest route possible and focussing on the destination, rather than the journey, whilst Jeanie would far rather we took our time and “smelled the roses” as we went.

The River Warbler leaves around the same time as most other warbler species (September/October) but when getting over the stressful crossing of the Mediterranean and arriving in Ethiopia it decides to take a two month rest before moving on.  It them ambles down the eastern half of Africa before crossing into South Africa in late January or even well into February.  It is then that it does a serious disappearing act.  It is not until mid-March that it makes its presence felt for a tiny window period of three weeks when it sings for about two hours a day in the very early morning before shutting up for the rest of the day.

As is the case with most warblers it is a pretty drab looking thing and, what’s more, it acts more like a mouse than a bird.  It spends most of its time on the ground and occasionally creeps up onto a low branch to belt out its bizarre insect-like strident song.  Sightings of River Warblers are few and far between, even for the most patient of birders, and I had hoped to add it to my list during our visit.

Tommy, Adam and I applied for the relevant visa from the Minister of Birding Affairs and, once granted for Saturday morning, I contacted my good birding mate, Allan Ridley, and asked if he wanted to be our guide for the morning.  It is never hard to convince Allan to head out for some birding, so he was game.

We would head out to the River Warbler spot and then take a drive down the legendary Zaagkuildrift Road.

It meant a frighteningly early start as our destination was the Elands River near the town of Rust de Winter and, since the River Warbler starts calling at 6am and, being an hour and a half drive, we left home at 4:30.  I was very proud of my two boys to forsake a morning with their cousins to join me for some birding and the early start it required showed me that they were committed to the task.

I suppose the biggest problem with the short window period for the River Warbler was that we would not be the only people out there looking for it.  The “gen” we had been given seemed to have been circulated on Facebook and when we arrived at the bridge crossing which was seemingly THE spot, we were far from the first people to arrive.  In fact, there were already about four vehicles and a crowd of about 15 or 20 people.

We quickly located at least three singing birds and before long each site was crowded by all 20 of us.  The birds seemed tolerant at first but within a few minutes of us starting to peer into the low tangled bushes, each one of the birds stopped calling and it became virtually impossible to expect a sighting.  What made it even trickier was that each one of our calling birds was behind a big game fence and we had no chance of narrowing the area of our search.

It’s somewhere in there
Behind the damn fence

It was time for me to make a decision that was going to be quite difficult.  There is no question that I seek new birds to add them to my list.  I think you would be hard-pressed to find a birder that is genuinely not interested at all in increasing his/her count.  Over the years with my list having grown beyond 800, adding new species naturally has become harder and harder.  Here I was, in perfect habitat, at the perfect time of year, in perfect post-rain conditions and I was about to pull the plug on my River Warbler search after only about an hour.

My hard core birding mates would be absolutely appalled.  How could I give in so easily?

It was perhaps the fact that I would be sacrificing seeing an amazing diversity of birds for the sake of a single one.

As the time went by our visa would be nearing its expiration and another factor was the warmth of the day sending birds to cover.  I had other lifer potentials on the Zaagkuildrift road and why not spend some time looking for those rather than be pinned down at Rust de Winter?  A further factor was that peering into a bush for hours on end probably rated alongside wader watching for my two boys.  The chances of them seeing such a furtive species was slim as it was, and there was also a huge amount of birds they could realistically add to their lists if we did some driving around.

So, I made a tough decision and suggested to Allan that it was time to move on.  There would be another time for the River Warbler, for sure.

It wasn’t hard to convince the boys of our decision as the first bird we saw after binning the warbler was a lifer for both of them – a comparatively very showy White-throated Robin-chat.  It wasn’t nearly as special as a River Warbler but it was certainly easier for the boys to appreciate.

White-throated Robin-chat

We spent about an hour driving around Rust de Winter adding some good birds to our list and then headed slightly west to drive the Zaagkuildrift Road.

Levaillant’s Cuckoo
Burnt-necked Eremomela
Marico Sunbird
Red-breasted Swallow
Steppe Buzzard
Red-billed Hornbill
Lesser Grey Shrike
Red-backed Shrike

The road starts in the town of Pienaarsrivier on the edge of the N1 (not a particularly imaginative name for a town) and heads virtually due west for 26kms, mostly following the Pienaars River before crossing the floodplain at Kgomo Kgomo.  Soon after starting the drive we were ticking species left, right and centre.  This was what I had looked forward to – great birding with a good mate and my boys and I had quickly forgotten about the River Warbler.

As I mentioned earlier I had a few lifer potentials on this route.  I was looking for two bogey birds that had taunted me for many years – Montagu’s Harrier and Harlequin Quail.  My expectations were relatively low, however, particularly as it was a little later in the day than we had expected to be on the route.

Birding the Zaagkuildrift Road

The first surprise came when we were driving slowly, negotiating our way around many of the large puddles on the road, when Allan slammed on brakes, shouted “quail” and bailed out of the car in an instantaneous moment.  I jumped out of the car as well and before I knew what was going on he was galloping through the tall grass alongside the road trying to flush the quail from where he had seen it land.  It was a slightly comical moment as he ended up in a deep ditch but recovered well to carry on his tramping when a Harlequin Quail flushed again and flew a good 20 metres before crashing back into the grass on the other side of the road.  All of us had managed a good view and I had now added a life bird to my list.

The second moment of apparent success was shortly thereafter when I noticed a lazily flapping raptor at quite a distance flying low over the bushes.  The long tail and long wings immediately indicated it was a “ringtail” (the name given to Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers from the white band around the top of the tail). I shouted for Allan to stop and we had a similarly frenetic exit from the vehicle to get a decent view of this bird before it disappeared over the horizon.  Fortunately it gave an opportunity for a few photos before it got too distant and it seemed pretty clear to me that it was a sub-adult Montagu’s Harrier.  It was not the first time, however, that subsequent views of a raptor on my computer and consultation with the relevant experts had unceremoniously eliminated a lifer from my list.  The overriding opinion at this point is that it is, in fact, a Pallid Harrier.  The most frustrating thing of all is that Pallid Harriers are known to be far scarcer than Montagu’s and I have now seen five separate Pallids and still no Montagu’s.

Pallid Harrier (probably)

The rest of our drive along the road was equally as productive.  Not only was it exciting in birding terms but the boys had their most excitement when we reached a section of road that ran very close to the river.  We had crossed many puddles but nothing compared to a section that we reached simultaneously to one of Etienne Marais’ birding groups.  The vehicles were all parked next to the overflowing section with much debate about whether we would make it across.  We had heard that the water was almost waist-deep in places and we weren’t quite sure whether we should risk it.

Fortunately a bit of testosterone kicked in for Etienne and he decided to venture through the water first.  We would follow but not before making sure he made it all the way across.

Despite a few particularly deep sections we both made it across and it was a huge relief as a deep water rescue would definitely have taken us well beyond our visa timeframe.  Allan was seemingly more scared of Jeanie than I was and he made sure that I gave the go ahead before he plunged his vehicle into the water.

Can we make it?
Deep puddles

About halfway along the Zaagkuildrift Road is a road to the south, colloquially called Crake Road by birders.  It crosses the Pienaars River and floodplain at a low level bridge.  We took the turn off and had a look but it was certainly a no go as the bridge was comfortably under water and we would definitely be needing a rescue if we gave that a try.  It was tempting to wade across to try and get a few extra birds but seeing my two boys washing down the pulsing river was also not something that Allan was keen to risk.

Crake Road – we definitely cannot make this

We ultimately reached the end of the Zaagkuildrift after a few more great birds including an extremely confiding Common Whitethroat.  This was a bird that I had seen once before, many years ago, on this same route, but my view that time of this migrant warbler was of bits and pieces of the bird as it foraged in the middle of a large well-covered tree.  This time it picked at berries in a relatively open tree and it was interesting to see what I thought was an insectivorous bird eating fruit.  The photos were unfortunately a little awkward but good to get a record shot of such a nice bird.  It was also a pleasure to get the boys on to a tough little warbler without a huge deal of frustration in pointing it out.

Common Whitethroat
Common Whitethroat

Just before reaching the town of Kgomo-Kgomo the road crosses a small tributary of the Pienaars River called the Plat River and it was a spectacular sight seeing the entire grassy meadows filled with water.  There was a long convoy of cows trudging through the water and it made for a very picturesque scene.  I was very impressed with Tommy’s forward thinking when he said to us that we should be watching the front of the convoy to see any crakes, moorhens or gallinules that may be flushed by the lowing herd.  It was a truly inspired idea but unfortunately nothing interesting flushed.

The bridge over the Pienaars River to the south of Kgomo-Kgomo marked the end of our birding journey for the morning and pumpkin hour was getting way too close for my liking.  It was, however, obligatory to stop on the bridge to witness the floodplain in all its glory.  There were ibises, herons, egrets, geese, ducks, teals and stilts dotted in the water as far as the eye could see.  It was just a pity that we could not spend a little more time there.

Water, water everywhere

We returned to Lonehill where the boys reunited with their cousins after a mandatory snooze in the car and it was good to have been able to take them out again despite missing out on the first prize.  My good mate, Dom Rollinson, had shared our frustration on the Saturday morning but, being a little closer to Rust de Winter by staying in Pretoria for the weekend, he was able to get back out there and claim the prize on Sunday morning when it seemed the birders were not out in full force.  Dom reported that he had saturation views of a calling River Warbler for at least five minutes.  I received that juicy information on my cellphone the next morning which made me feel a little jealous.

That was quickly forgotten when we took all the kids for a walk to the top of the Lonehill Koppie and even little Emma managed to get to the top.  The sun was shining and the rain had seemingly abated just for us.  It was a good way to wrap up our whirlwind weekend before setting off for the airport.

Tommy, Adam, Teagan and Caera
Jeanie and Emma
Jeanie, Emma, Adam and Mike

As a quick aside I just want to acknowledge Faansie Peacock for the information I have included above about the River Warbler.  He has definitely shed a lot more light on this species than has ever been known before.

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