Posted on the 3rd November 2017

(This overview first appeared in this week’s “Batis”, the newsletter of the Somerset West Bird Club. – Ed).

2017 – A Spectacular Year for Rarities 2017 has been a remarkable year for rare bird sightings in Southern Africa with a record number being recorded. This has resulted in twitchers travelling all over the region in order to see these birds. Here are some notes on some of these rarities:
1. Pied Wheatear –Victoria Falls – 25/2/17 This is a northern hemisphere bird that migrates to Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia during the northern winter ie October to March. A very rare vagrant to southern Africa with only two previous records. Possibly “over-migrated” to reach our region in February 2017. Insectivorous and silent in Africa during its non-breeding period. The bird moved on after a rain storm on the night of 25/2/17. This bird has a black face that goes down the front of the neck. Brown crown and chest. Insignificant thin white stripe above the eye. Brown back with a white rump.

2. Northern Shoveler - Tankwa Karoo National Park – 4/4/17 This is another vagrant from the northern hemisphere. Sightings are always subject to speculation as to whether the bird is an escapee or not as these birds are kept in private collections. The Tankwa Karoo bird was considered as a wild bird because of where it was found ie far away from habitation, it was wild in behaviour and didn’t allow for a close approach, it was not pinioned and had no worn feathers as expected in a captive bird. A second bird was subsequently recorded at the Paarl Bird Sanctuary but it is not known if this was the same bird or not. We saw the bird in the Tankwa Karoo on 4/4/17 when the bird should have been about to return to the northern hemisphere. The bird has a very distinctive green head and neck together with a white chest and white flash on the side. Flanks and belly are brown. Note that the Mallard also has a green head and neck but has a white ring at the base of the green neck. 

3. Slender-billed Prion - Durban Pelagic – 24/6/17 This is an Antarctica bird which is a rare visitor to South African waters. There have been two or three records on Durban pelagic trips recently but the bird is difficult to separate from the Antarctic Prion. Mostly identified by photographic evidence. Differences include a larger white supercillium (white band above the eye), grey crown as opposed to a darker crown in the A. Prion, lighter “M” above when flying, smaller black tip to tail and of course thinner bill which is best seen in photographs. I have photographs of the two birds that we recorded on our trip out of Durban on 24/6/17. 

4. Malagasy Pond Heron –Mziki Private Reserve, Phinda – 25/6/17 This is an interesting intra-African migrant. It breeds during our summer (October to March) on the island of Madagascar and then migrates to the African east coast for the winter months (April to September) where it can be found in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. There is only one previous unconfirmed record for South Africa from the Ndumo Game Reserve (J Trousdale 2005) indicating the rarity of the recent sighting in the Mziki Private Game Reserve next to Phinda in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. Also interesting is that it is a winter migrant so it will probably remain on site until Sept/Oct before it returns to Madagascar for the summer breeding period. The bird is easily recognisable by the heavy dark brown streaking all over when the bird is static. When flying there is a strong contrast between the very dark almost black back and the white wings and white underwing. Note that there is no even colouring as in the Squacco only heavy streaking. Some diagnostic features include a slightly streaked dark charcoal fore-crown and two significant white bars down the front of the bird. 

5. Egyptian Vulture –Olifants River Bridge, KNP – 12/7/17 This bird has become a very rare vagrant to South Africa. The problem with trying to see it is that it is a “mover” and not a “stayer”. There were two sightings in the Wankie Game Reserve during Jan/Feb this year of an adult bird. Then a juvenile bird was seen and photographed south of Satara camp in the KNP in June. Then probably the same bird was seen at the high level bridge over the Olifants River between Satara and Letaba on Sunday 9th July. There was a kill in the bush nearby which had attracted 60-70 vultures including the Egyptian which is a carrion feeder. We managed to see the bird on Wednesday 12th July when it circled above us with 4 White-backed Vultures for 5-10 minutes. Our bird was a juvenile, dark brown all over with a grey/white face and a diagnostic long diamond shaped tail. The bill resembles that of the Hooded Vulture. Also has feathers on the head and neck (another diagnostic feature) unlike the other bushveld vultures which have a velvety down covering on the head and neck. The question now is where are they breeding or are these simply visiting vagrants? We know that they breed on mountain cliffs like the Cape Vulture and not on trees as the other bushveld vultures. The fact that both adult and juvenile birds have been seen in our region this year is interesting. It would be good news if they were found to be breeding in our region again!! 

6. Eurasian Blackcap –Durbanville, Cape Town – 21/7/17 This is another northern hemisphere bird which breeds in Europe and migrates to Africa, normally only as far south as Malawi, during the northern winter (October to March). It is considered as being a rare Palearctic vagrant to our region with only a few sightings. Interestingly the male bird seen in Durbanville, Cape Town during July (we saw the bird on 21 July) is out of sinc of when it should be here. This seems to be either a case of an early arrival or a reverse migrant (flew south when it should have flown north for the northern summer). Most previous sightings in our region have been in the Vumba in eastern Zimbabwe where I was fortunate to see the bird on 23 March 2008 (when it should have been in our region and just before it was due to return to Europe). The male bird has a very distinctive black cap and a brown back. The chest, belly and neck is white. It is a secretive bird that sticks to dense vegetation only appearing during quiet times at feeders. 

7. Ross’s Turaco –Linyanti Botswana – 24/8/17 This bird is resident in Africa and is fairly common in northern Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. However it is a vagrant in our region with only a few confirmed and unconfirmed sightings from the Okavango Delta in Botswana, northern Namibia and west of Victoria Falls. In August a bird was reported near Kings Camp on the Linyanti River in northern Botswana. Wilderness Safaris hold the concession for this area so it turned out to be quite an involved and expensive exercise for those ultra-keen twitchers to go and see it. As it turned out the bird only remained on site for a week before it moved off northwards. During this time only 9 twitchers managed to record the bird. The bird is very striking and is an entirely dark blue-purple with crimson primaries, a red crest and a yellow face and bill. It is frugivorous and the Linyanti bird was feeding on figs in a Sycamore Fig tree next to the Linyanti River while in the area. 

8. Little Ringed Plover –Port Elizabeth – 27/8/17 This is another northern hemisphere bird which migrates to central Africa during the northern winter i.e. September to April. It is regarded as a vagrant to our region with only a few previous sightings between November to January. The bird recorded near Port Elizabeth in late August had possibly ‘’over migrated’’ to our region and had probably just arrived with the other early migrants. This Plover proved to be a popular bird with birders travelling from all over the country to see it. The bird has a distinctive yellow eye-ring, pink legs and a clear black breast band. The yellow eye-ring however is the best feature to assist in identifying the bird. It remained on site for a few days and then moved further west along the coast where it was seen again before disappearing. (This is the same bird seen at the Vermont salt pan a few weeks later. See Bryn de Kocks’s description elsewhere. Ed.)

9. Upchers Warbler –Port Elizabeth – 1/9/17 This is another northern hemisphere bird that migrates to Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia during the northern winter i.e. September to March. A new bird for southern Africa with no previous records – still to be confirmed by the Rarities Committee. Possibly ‘’over migrated’’ to reach our region in early September 2017. Some difficulty was experienced in identifying this bird with opinions varying from Upchers to Olivaceous and even Olive-tree. However the ID finally settled on Upchers based on the call and behaviour. The bird moved on after spending only a few days at the Tankatara salt pans near Port Elizabeth. This bird is best identified by its constant tail wagging but has a prominent white supercilium, greyer upperparts and a white belly. However it is a typical Warbler and very similar to some other warblers and therefore difficult to identify. The question that arises from all the recent records of possible “over migration” is whether climate change is playing a role and whether birds are seeking cooler areas (further south than the tropics) to spend “their winters”.

John Bradshaw


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