THE EDEN FIELDWORK TOURPosted on the 25th June 2012
Elaine and myself have just returned from an extended fieldwork and site visit trip through the Eden District municipal area for the development of the birding brochure for that region. We had a slow trip in bad weather on the first Monday and reached Still Bay having seen more than 50 species along the way. The best part of all of this was that we decided to take the gravel road along the western shores of the Kougou river that eventually reaches the sea at Still Bay. Initially it runs through wheatfields very much like what we know in the Overberg, but when it reaches the river the action really starts. This is BEAUTIFUL country with views and vistas over the river that one just can not believe. And the birds …...... Protea Seedeater and just about every fynbos associated endemic that one can think of, Knysna Woodpecker and a whole range of forest species and obviously lots of waterbirds. We will undoubtedly see a lot of this road during our club outing to this area in August.
|My first two together!|
We stayed at Botterkloof guest farm for the next two evenings. Brilliant place with lots of great birds, with even nine Common Moorhens in one frame. Elsa Kruger really has a destination that needs to be investigated by any birder visiting this area. On Tuesday I had some interviews at Gouritsmond and we took a slow drive along the gravel coastal road. Again we were afforded good birding with Grey-winged Francolins the highlight, until I got my first ever images of two Jackal Buzzards sitting on a pole. The main birding destinations near Gourits are Langvlei and Voëlvlei and the group that attended the meeting gave us useful information on birding in the area. In the evening I gave a public talk in Still Bay surprisingly attended by more than 40 people. Real enthusiasm and I wish so that we can get a BirdLife thing going there, as the region deserves it. Elaine also convinced one of the ladies to come and talk to us over one of the lunchtimes when we visit the area. Her family has farmed along the river for more than 300 years, tour guide, developing a botany trail on the farm, etc etc Sounds very promising.
On Wednesday I had an interview with the head of tourism in Hessequa at Riversdale and he gave us massive support for the project. (Even got his staff to assist us to get the Fish-Eagle posters and CD's to the 27 schools in the region). We also spoke about the possibility of developing a birding brochure for their local municipal area as the region clearly has limitless birding potential. Then we had tea at the Zoutpan guest farm outside Albertinia – another outstanding birding destination with vleis and 'fountains' all over the place. Yet another potential venue for bird club weekends.
We booked into the Garden Route Game Lodge at lunchtime and believe it or not we were massively impressed. The lodge and chalets are very well designed and the supper was top notch. Hannes van Tonder, the senior guide, took us on a game drive and we got drenched several times. They do have very practical ponchos that helps a lot against the wet, but hell, were we cold afterwards and who says that Captain's aren't the best medicine for the cold? Despite the heavy rain we managed to get 54 species in the two hours birding in terrible conditions. At one point we saw ALL OF THE LARKS of the region in a stretch of grassveld nothing more than 800 yards in extent – this included Agulhas Long-billed Larks. Good sightings of Denham's Bustard – various habitat types that allows for great species diversity. This place is not to be frowned upon. Go for a visit, even if it is just for a day visit with a game drive. Special: Sunday lunch that includes a two hour game drive at R 175.00 – not too shabby.
|Young Olive Thrush|
|Mean Cape Batis|
I have become increasingly depressed on this trip as there are just too many top birding destinations and wonderful birds along the Garden Route for me to fit into the space that I have available in the panels of the generic brochure format. A panel takes 350 words and my first attempt at drafting the Knysna text left me with a whopping 1,800 words. How on earth am I going to do this job meaningfully?
On Thursday night we were back at one of our favourite places: one of the wooden chalets in the Ebb and Flow rest camp in the Wilderness National Park. It was still 'cats and dogs' and it seemed as if we will never be able to bird or take photographs on this trip. I really think that Elaine is one the best chefs on earth, but chops in the oven is not my cup of tea. Waking up in cold misty conditions and lying in bed hearing Black-crowned Night-Herons coming in to roost and watching thousands upon thousands of cormorants, ducks, herons, egrets coming over is something to behold.
True to form the weather cleared when I left to do interviews in Sedgefield and Knysna and it again started raining when I returned. (He is getting more depressed). Elaine used the good weather and went walkies and birded the Pied Kingfisher Trail into Wilderness village – she got her Knysna Warbler LIFER! Just to show how good birding can be here I quote from a recent trip report by Pat Nurse, the Chairperson of the Lakes Bird Club: 'Wessel’s group eventually caught up with mine and we met John near the start of the Half-collared Kingfisher Trail. He was very up beat as his group had seen the Narina Trogon again (he makes a habit of this). Wessel was very disappointed as he had never seen one, so we followed John’s directions and went to look for it. Suddenly when we got to the right area, I saw a Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler high above in the canopy and Wessel said he could see three of them. Then he suddenly realised that the birds had metallic green backs…. they were in fact Collared Sunbirds, that we had never recorded in Wilderness Park before.( Needless to say, we both got Out of Range Forms to complete for our SABAP2 cards, but the sightings were accepted.) We then saw and heard 2 or 3 Blue-mantled Crested Flycatchers and a pair of Scaly-throated Honyguides, which were unusually silent. Then a stunning male Narina Trogon was spotted. What excitement for us all especially Wessel and Dawie and a couple of others who had never seen this colourful bird before.' This is an incredibly productive system – no wonder that the entire length of the Wilderness lakes system is an IBA. Brilliant!
|Hadeda taking snake|
|Wilderness: the Serpentine at dawn|
We spent two nights at Ebb and Flow and then were scheduled to spend one night at Stormsriver Mouth. Then Elaine started with her usual Punda Maria tricks: 'Don't you think we should try to spend two evenings there and take a break from interviews on Sunday?' Done and dusted. My desktop research and many years spent in Knysna and Plett in earlier years resulted in us shooting straight through and having a picnic lunch in magnificent Nature's Valley. And Southern Boubou, African Fish-Eagle, Half-collared Kingfisher, Chorister Robin-Chat, Black-bellied Starling and the 'Knysna' variations of turaco, warbler and woodpecker – all during a brief lunch break, I ask you!
Last night we had a lovely braai, at last, and we started debating …........ 'Why have all these photographs in the brochures, when these are in actual fact resources that are supposed to disseminate information and assist birders to get to the birds in the first place?' Early this morning I reformatted the template of the brochure and scored about 50 words per panel. (Wonderful what one can do with CoralDraw). Elaine went walkies and I tried doing text in the new format. Herewith my provisional attempt at describing the Tsitsikamma National Park:
'The Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park incorporates Nature’s Valley and Stormsriver Mouth. The Park boasts 80 km of rocky coastline with stupendous sea, mountain and landscapes, secluded mountains and valleys covered in mountain fynbos and temperate indigenous forests with deep river gorges leading to the sea. The diversity of habitat types here hosts more then 280 species of birds. The world famous Otter Trail takes hikers from Stormriver Mouth to Nature’s Valley.
The Nature’s Valley Rest Camp is reached through the Groot River Pass and slow birding is advised here as it allows glimpses of the great birding to follow. Nature’s Valley on the banks of the Groot River is renowned for it’s forest birding and Forest Canary, Emerald Cuckoo, Lemon Dove, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Black-backed Puffback, White-starred Robin, Chorister Robin-Chat, Nerina Trogon, Knysna Turaco, Knysna Warbler, Green Woodhoopoe and Olive and Knysna Woodpeckers are common. Many good species can also be found in the village - take a gentle stroll or slow drive here. The sheltered waters of the lagoon and the Groot River can produce African Finfoot, African Fish-Eagle, Half-collared Kingfisher and Osprey. Numerous trails are on offer - the Salt River Mouth Trail is recommended for birders.
An added bonus of this Park is that the Soetkraal section in the interior offers the vast majority of Southern African endemics associated with mountain fynbos - think of Protea Seedeater, Cape Siskin, Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird and Victorin’s Warbler. Grassland patches here hold Denham’s Bustard, Black Harrier and Secretarybird. Other birds of prey in the Park can include Forest Buzzard, African Goshawk, Crowned Eagle and African Wood Owl.
|From patio, having coffee|
|'Skietklip' & aloes - Stormsriver Mouth|
The Stormriver Mouth section is typified by an open rocky shoreline where massive waves break continually and dolphins and whales are often on view. Cormorants, Cape Gannets, Kelp Gulls, African Black Oystercatchers and terns are regularly seen. Excellent forest birding is available at the entrance gate, the forest huts and the trail from the restaurant that takes visitors to the suspension bridge. The boundaries of the Park further include a wide selection of activities and facilities for the more adventurous. Here mention can be made of the highest bungy in the world at Bloukrans Bridge, the Stormsriver Cycle Trail, Forest Canopy Tours and several hiking trail of varying lengths and levels of endurance. This Park is a must for the discerning birder and international visitor.'
Then this afternoon we went birding, (dare I say in foul and dark weather). I took 25 pics of a Yellow-troated Woodland-Warbler with NOT ONE USABLE RESULT. We got brilliant sightings of wonderful birds though and I got pics whereby one can at least see that it is a Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher. I have to learn about bird photography in forests during foul weather. (No more depression).
Our first stop on Monday was Sue Scheepers's Bitou River Lodge outside Plett. This certainly is a great birding venue with fantastic opportunities to get waterbirds, waders in summer, together with access to both fynbos and forest species within walking distance. Sue's establishment can also serve as a fantastic base to explore the birding delights of the Garden Route. We will load a destination listing soon.
From here we took on the Prince Alfred Pass to Uniondale. We had a wonderful sighting of a Forest Buzzard sitting on a telephone wire of all places, but birding was just about impossible all day as the weather was shocking. The gravel road of the pass was extremely slippery and our decision to travel in the Opel rather than the Freelander to save on petrol really came under scrutiny. There are huge stretches of indigenous forests throughout the pass and the river cuttings towards the top are very similar to Meiringspoort. Keep in mind that the pass can also be reached along the R339 from Knysna. Pat Nurse of the Lakes Bird Club recommends birding at several places along this road and this includes Diepwalle Forest, Die Vlug and the Outeniqua Trout Farm. Once the pass is exited the habitat starts changing to features of the Little and Great Karoo and as is to be expected the birds change as well.
The Uniondale Pass allows for sightings of the species that one would expect in most of the passes to the west and north from here. The diversity of habitat types along the pass gives birders access to species that are associated with both fynbos and Karoo habitats. The mountain fynbos is home to Cape Bulbul, Protea Seedeater, Cape Siskin, Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird. Cape Rockjumper is common on exposed rocky outcrops at higher altitudes. Booted and Verreaux’s Eagles, Cape Eagle-Owl, Peregrine Falcon and Black Stork can be found along the cliffs and African Rock Pipit, Pale-winged Starling and Ground Woodpecker along kloofs and rocky gorges. Other notable species include Cape and Sentinel Rock-Thrushes, Cape Spurfowl and Victorin’s Warbler.
What is the point of describing all of this? A trip from the Garden Route to Uniondale gives birders the opportunity to try for coastal, water, forest, fynbos, mountain and Karoo species – the best of everything that the Eden region has to offer! It is maybe a bit much for a day trip if one wants to return to the Garden Route, but why not drive along this route and the magic of Route 62 when returning to Cape Town? It is a real adventure and one is forced to drive slowly and this makes for good birding. We found the R339 and later R341 from Uniondale to De Rust of the most beautiful that we had seen. It reminds a lot of Eastern Cape landscapes and the mountains are something to behold. The gravel road that connects these two roads and marked as the Hoekplaas road is recommended strongly by local birders, so give it a try.
|Blue Hill Escape|
|Acacia Pied Barbet|
Dr. Alan Lee of Blue Hill Escape invited us to stay over on Monday evening. It is about 40km north-east of Uniondale and most of the road is gravel. It borders the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area and the species list is truly impressive with many Karoo species and again all of the fynbos specials featured. Alan is currently researching the impact of climate change on the distribution of these fynbos associated species and the chat that we had with him was the highlight of our visit. We will get him to and talk at one of our monthly meetings. There are a variety of hiking trails available on the farm – unfortunately our stay was just too brief and the veld too wet for us to investigate properly. Upon our return we saw the biggest flock of Blue Cranes that we had ever seen. Literally hundreds of these magnificent birds, too many to count. Another trip highlight.
We have visited several of the birding hotspots and presented four Flight for Birders courses in the Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp districts over the last few years, with the result that we travelled to the Ladismith area directly. Here we stayed with Anita at Koedoeskloof and first impressions were that this is another little known birding gem. Koedoeskloof: what a revelation. It lies on the road running west out of Ladismith towards Laingsburg. The Dwarsrivier loop road runs through mixed farmland allowing access to a variety of habitat types in the foothills of the Little Swartberg mountain. Wagendrift Lodge, that we described in the Karoo trip report, lies just to the north of these mountains and can't be more than 50 km away as the crow flies. There is an abundance of water in the area making for outstanding birding – we racked up more than 60 species without extending ourselves that much. We also did the Buffelsdrift Conservancy loop that basically follows the Groot River. There are lots of cormorants, ducks, kingfishers and fish-eagles in this magnificent wetland area and the acacia woodland along it's banks hosts the typical species found in many of these parts – Acacia Pied Barbet, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler and Fairy Flycatcher were some of the highlights. Also interesting that we found both Pale-winged and Red-winged Starlings in the area and Red-billed Queleas surprised us. The Koedoeskloof Guest House is being developed as a multi-purpose accommodation destination and could be used as a fantastic base to explore the birding potential of the area. Remember the name as this area has vast birding potential.
|Last rays of sun on Towerkop|
We have now spent two periods of fourteen days each on the road investigating top birding destinations in the Central Karoo and Eden District municipal regions. There are so many brilliant places that is would be impossible to describe these within a trip report of this nature. On our way back to Onrus we discussed a lot of this and decided that there is no doubt that the biggest surprise and our top area that we had visited is the area to the east of Laingsburg and to the west of Ladismith. The area basically straddles the Little Swartberg mountain range with the impressive massive of Towerkop towering above it. In the Karoo trip report we described Wagendrift Lodge and above Koedoeskloof. Both of these venues offer great habitat and species diversity, spectacular landscapes and an abundance of water at this time of year. They can either be used as base for casual birding on foot, or to serve as venues to explore a variety of brilliant loop roads in the area. We will describe several of these as and when we have the time.
But try this day-long circle route at some point: 'One of the most underrated entry points into the Karoo takes one via SEWEWEEKSPOORT to LAINGSBURG. The turnoff is just outside Zoar on the R62 between Ladismith and Calitzdorp. The scenery through Seweweekspoort must be experienced and birders are in with a very real chance of finding specials such as Booted and Verreaux’s Eagle, Cape Rock-Thrush, Cape Siskin, Cape Sugarbird and Ground Woodpecker. Allow at least two hours to travel through this gorge to experience one of nature’s true marvels. Once the intersection is reached there are two options - one can travel east to Bosch Luys Kloof Private Nature Reserve and the western shores of Gamkapoort Dam, or one can travel west towards Laingsburg. Travelling by 4x4 is advised when going down Bosch Luys Kloof. Huge numbers of Cape Siskins can seasonally be found along the first five km's along this road.
|African Black Ducks|
The gravel road towards Laingsburg is usually in very good condition, but caution is advised. Ensure that the many dams along this road are checked as African Darter, African Black Duck, SA Shelduck, Cape Shoveler, Cape Teal and many more waterfowl are common. Both the Vleiland and Rouxpos detours are also of interest. The scenery along this road is often described as a geologist’s wonderland - a supreme area for landscape photography. The turnoff to Anysberg Nature Reserve is found just before Laingsburg is reached. The Flood Museum in Laingsburg is certainly worth a visit. There are a variety of self-catering establishments available along this road.
We selected WAGENDRIFT LODGE and were very impressed- an ideal destination for birders and bird clubs. This is big sky country in fantastic blues and bright, quiet nights and a classic example of the peace and tranquility that one can experience at so many farm-based destinations in the Great Karoo. Besides the birds mentioned earlier we found Acacia Pied Barbet, Familiar and Karoo Chat, African Fish-Eagle, Fairy Flycatcher, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler and Karoo Scrub-Robin, to mention a few of the 60 species that we found in the six hours birding on the farm.'
One can alternatively return to Ladismith from Laingsburg. Our combined species counts for the Wagendrift and Koedoeskloof areas stand on 127 species – keep in mind that we were not out on the twitch as we were investigating destinations. Also, our visits were in winter. We believe strongly that these destinations should be highlighted and marketed much more strongly and that this general area could become a great venue for bird club outings. The irony of all of this is that there are many top birding spots in the area that are still being recommended to us - this all needs further investigation ....
|Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk|