Posted on the 19th April 2015

On the weekend of April 10th I had the privilege of participating in a truly wonderful event sponsored by SASOL and organized by SANParks Honorary Rangers Boland Region in conjunction with BirdLife SA. The objective is to promote birding in the Tankwa Karoo National Park and conservation in general. The event took the form of a birding game with a challenge to birders to spot and identify as many species as possible out of the 180 odd list for the park. I was one of about 25 lucky birders, aged from 30 to over 80, some novices, some experienced, who participated over the two days. I could fill this whole trip report with thanks to those that contributed to the weekend which was fantastic. We were made to feel welcome and looked after splendidly - even down to the small detail of having fresh flower arrangements in each of our rooms out there in the middle of the desert. What an experience. The giant potjie at the gala dinner will be forever remembered.

Tankwa landscape 1











Participants were split into 7 teams of between 3 and 5 members and each team was allocated an experienced guide who was there to assist with the identification process and confirmation (giss, bill, legs, flanks, colouring, habitat etc.), but no actual spotting, so it was all down to the team members to do the work. Our team of four was led by Vernon Head whom I have admired from afar till now for the work he does voluntarily for Birdlife SA, birds, conservation and nature, his book, contribution to the Stanford and Walker Bay Bird Fairs and the many talks I have attended. I must admit to some nervousness when I learnt I was in “short back and side’s” team – a nickname bestowed on him. However after around 18 intense hours of birding my trepidation had turned to awe. Vernon’s enthusiasm, passion, knowledge, willingness and ability to share and teach was inspiring. All the while he is self-effacing and has the ability to make one feel that he is privileged to have you along rather than the other way round! We had a very special sighting (which will be mentioned a later) and Vernon was beside himself with excitement even though he has seen this bird before (often) amongst the 5 000+ he has found round the world. His main concern was to get me into the right position to photograph the bird and he seemed to know exactly how the bird was going to behave.

Other members of the team were Phil, Chairman of Honorary Rangers Boland, who knows the park (not so much the birds) and acted as our driver and Andrew who does the bird part of EIA’s for windfarms and although the youngest participant has a deep knowledge of birds. By the end of the first day we decided our team would be called “Phantastic Phil and the A Team” as Phil was doing more than driving and getting into the swing of birding, doing his own spotting and identifying.

Tankwa landscape 2
Tankwa landscape 3









Lesson 1 on birding was habitat. If you want to see as many birds as possible make sure you visit all the habitats and know what birds you might expect to find in each habitat. Our team kicked off on the Friday evening by trying to find the crepuscular species (unsuccessfully), owls, thick-knees, nightjar and as a long-shot, maybe a courser but only had (except me) a fleeting glimpse of what was probably a Spotted Eagle-Owl so could not claim it. Thus we started out on 0 ticks in the dark early hours of Saturday morning but soon had our first success - a Barn Owl. We reached Oudebaaskraal Dam,which is 8kms long and a magnet for birds, as first light was beginning to develop and by 08:30 had increased our tally to 27 sightings. There were literally thousands of birds, maybe even tens of thousands. We wondered what the collective noun for coots could be and a suggestion was “an Oudebaaskraal of coots” in recognition of the multitude there! Vernon systematically scanned the birds and we identified the 3 grebes, the ducks (including Maccoa), geese, shelduck, shoveller, darter, pelicans, pochard, etc. There was excitement as a falcon flew hunting low across the dam and was positively identified as a Peregrine Falcon.

It was then onto the dam wall and the reed-beds below for the warblers. We had some specials with Namaqua Warbler and Little Rush Warbler (which did not appear on our bird list and might be a first for the park) and which was responding to playback for Baillon’s Crake (Vernon does tend to think out the box). There was even a Fairy Flycatcher hawking insects amongst the phragmite reeds which meant we did not have to search for it later in its more normal acacia habitat. We also added the 2 small plovers from the dam wall.

Namaqua Warbler
Fairy Flycatcher










Soon after leaving the dam we had Ludwig’s Bustard, Rufous-cheeked Warbler and some of the canaries and sparrows and Vernon began to prepare us for the bush birds where the targets were the 4 chats and 5 larks. As we came across each species we spent time with them and Vernon highlighted characteristics to look for. In no time we were calling out Karoo Chat (or Tractrac, Sickle-winged or Familiar) as birds flew up beside us. The same applied to larks and we soon found 4 larks, dipping only on Karoo Long-billed.


Karoo Lark
Red-capped Lark











It is amazing how quickly you gain confidence when you are with someone who instinctively knows what bird it is. Whenever I am unsure I will hear Vernon’s voice – “look at its tail, bill, flank etc, what do you see” as an aide memoire to identification. We also saw a Cape Cobra hunting through what looked like rodent holes which we added to our general sighting list.

We stopped at Volmoersfontein informal camp-site for a late morning breakfast with our total past the 50 mark and there Vernon picked up a Martial Eagle which must have been all of 2 kilometres distant which was some feat of spotting. There had been localized storms the previous evening which are a stunning sight in the Tankwa but can make certain roads inaccessible and we were fortunate to have timed the break to coincide with the team in front of us returning and who advised of wash-aways and impassable roads. Their feedback enabled us to change our planned route which might have cost us the Karoo Long-billed Lark as we were about to enter its favoured territory, however the detours did present us with the second of my 4 lifers – the Karoo Eremomela - as well as Spike-heeled Lark to add to our list.

Two Spikeheeled Lark images









From Volmoersfontein we took the long route round to reach Roodewerf and the SANParks offices, stopping at the lodge pump station where we added 2 swifts, the martins, 2 mousebird species, weavers and the like. And it was here I had my special sighting whenVernon called up Namaqua Warbler (already seen and heard it at the dam earlier but no photo) which I was able to photograph and this was the first of my photo lifers. At the SANParks offices we found although with difficulty House sparrow, Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler and Southern Double-collared Sunbird.

Next was our search for the higher altitudinal species on the breathtaking beautiful Gannaga Pass. We soon ticked Mountain Wheatear, Cape Bunting and Pale-winged Starling, had magnificent views of Verreux’s Eagle at perch and also 3 individuals thermalling above with a Booted Eagle in close attendance.

We stopped for a late lunch at a likely spot for Rock Pipit towards the top of the pass and were trying playback to lure the bird out when Andrew called from across the road that he had a warbler with some rufous on its crown and body. Vernon seemed to sense something important was afoot and soon we confirmed it as a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. It was inquisitive about the Rock Pipit call and circled us giving superb views of this magnificent endemic and sought after bird. Vernon assured us that this was a first for the park, though it had been suspected it may be present. Such is the nature of competition that Vernon had to drag us away from the warbler to identify another bird –“just” a Cape Robin-Chat, but nevertheless, a tick. We had what might have been the Rock Pipit in silhouette against the sun but there was not sufficient detail to claim it. Our tally was now reaching the late 60’s. We worked hard to find Pririt Batis and eventually succeeded at about the third acacia lined watercourse we searched and a bonus was Dusky Sunbird at one of these stops. Finallywe reached the top end of Oudebaaskraal Dam and this proved a very fruitful spot – Little Egret,Grey Heron, Black-winged Stilt, Pied Kingfisher, Grey-headed Gull, Glossy Ibis and Ruff amongst others. A Common Ostrich (apparently the only one in the park) across the road was tick number 80. 

Cinnamon-breasted Warbler
Yellow Canary










With time running out, our final stop was again at the lodge pump station and while Andrew was completing our Rare Bird Sighting (CBW, Little Rush Warbler and Peregrine Falcon) and General Sighting (hunting Cape Cobra) forms and the final Phantastic Phil and the A Team’s list, we added 2 more endemics, the Karoo Thrush and Pied Starling, to the final tally to close out at 82. We left some out there – Hadeda, Red-eyed Dove, 1 chat and 1 lark, no sparrow-larks, no kestrels and no buzzards or White-necked Raven and the small waders which we could see but could not positively identify because even with the scope, the distance was too great. (How about a hide for the SANParks wish-list.) It would be interesting to know if any team has ever broken the 100 barrier but our 82 reflected a very satisfying days birding.

In the evening we enjoyed a gala dinner with the aforementioned delicious potjie. There were speeches, lots of prizes and Mel Tripp hosted a Bird Quiz. Andrew won the Rare Bird Sighting prize for the Cinnamon-breasted Warbler and Chris Cheetham, the General Prize for a Horned Adder (I believe he has good photos). Did we win the game? By then I do not think it mattered. There was a general air of bonhomie and immense satisfaction which reflected the enjoyment of the day and a very well organized event. Hats off and baaie, baaie dankie to the Honorary Rangers (especially Jenny and Mike Lodge) and the sponsors for making it happen!

Male Pririt Batis
Tankwa landscape 4










On the Sunday morning, after reheated potjie (still delicious) for breakfast, Vernon and Mel were to give a talk on Vernon’s book “In Search of the Rarest Bird in the World”. Having had the pleasure of already hearing this at the Walker Bay Bird Fair, I left to do some more birding and end this trip report with a Double-banded Courser which I found in perfect early morning light on the P2250 on the Sunday morning as I was leaving the venue. Though this did not count towards our game tally, it was one of my target species and confirms the birding bounty that is to be had in the Tankwa Karoo National Park. This counted as my fourth photo lifer for the weekend. I will be back. Anyone who has an interest in birds should earmark this event as a must for April 2016.

Double-banded Courser 1
Double-banded Courser 2











At Eierkop on the way back home








A chat - go figure












MARGARET (posted: 2015-04-20 08:43:35)
Next year I want to go - sounds like a wonderful trip and I\'m longing to get back to the Tankwa!