RICHARD MASSON'S BIRDING BIG MONTH - BLO'S MONTHLY TALK ON 18 JANUARYPosted on the 19th January 2016
Richard Masson was the guest speaker at BirdLife Overberg's first monthly meeting for 2016. The meeting was attended by 50 people and all agreed that Richard's review of his birding big month was highly entertaining and illustrated with brilliant photographs. We post a few images of last night's event and then repeat Richard's report published earlier for those unfortunate members who could not attend. Our thanks to Elaine and Hele for marvellous catering (as usual).
RICHARD MASSON'S BIRDING BIG MONTH
Close to the top of my bucket list has been to visit the northern parts of Kruger but as a Western Cape resident that’s many miles to be travelled and some planning required. October 2015 heralded a milestone in my life as rules at my current employer stipulate retirement at age 63 and I reached this venerable age in September. While the regulations of the corporate world have not excluded me from employment entirely, rather turning my status from employee to contractor, I nonetheless decided to mark this transition by taking “retirement month” to indulge in my love of camping and birding.
October and November have for years now been my “bush time” months, when I usually spend up to 2 weeks camping in the national parks. As plans for this trip developed it was Dearly Beloved who encouraged the idea of turning this into a Birding Big Month, extending the trip beyond the normal 2 weeks and taking the opportunity to tick the Northern Kruger bucket list wish.
Once the decision was made, the itinerary took on wings of its own and I had a mouth-watering birding month ahead of me. Initially I flippantly set a target of 500 birds, but after some internet research and reviews of similar trip reports, (mostly overseas visitors using local professional guides), I revised this to a more realistic 400 species. I am not normally a list keeper except for my life list of birds photographed and setting a target and keeping lists provided a new dimension and an extra edge to the whole adventure.
What an experience it was! South Africa is an incredible country of huge distances, vast spaces and endless diversity. This report can only offer a broad outline of the places visited and birds seen, (perhaps it will turn into a book when I properly retire), and choosing the 20 odd photos that accompany this report has been agonisingly difficult. Over 15 000 photos were taken, my first edit reduced this to just over 1 000 out of which I have chosen 140 which will go through final processing, and my 20 specials will be included here.
The birding big month began in the first week of October, spent in Stanford during which I conscientiously spent 5 days birding the various local habitats. I think you have to travel away from the Western Cape to gain a perspective of just how special our home birds are. There is little to beat a spring morning in the fynbos surrounded by sugarbirds, grassbirds, sunbirds, siskins and harriers. By the time I set off on my travels I had already ticked more than 150 species. I had visited Rietvlei, Lagoon Beach and Black River in Cape Town for water and seabirds. Bot River on the way home to Stanford had yielded Marsh Harrier, Salmonsdam fynbos species and the poplar forest on the way there just before Beloftebos had all 3 woodpeckers with the Knysna Woodpecker the first one located.
(l-r) Cape Grassbird; Orange-breasted Sunbird.
Uilenskraalmond and Danger Point delivered the other seabirds I needed including terns, oystercatcher and a few of the waders. These were complemented by a morning spent at Hardebaai in Onrus and Vermont Pan whilst my car was being serviced in preparation for the long haul to Kruger. I also did a lark outing into the Overberg farmlands round Jongensklip and found all 4 larks and was fortunate that the one which showed best was the Agulhas Long-billed Lark. Jongensklip is always a pleasure with a bounty of wheatears, scrub-robins, Blue Cranes, cisticolas (found 3), bishops and more which at this time of year were all busy making nests and babies. Another special on this morning was listening to the Common Quail calling in the canola fields, but unfortunately, they did not show themselves. I did not have any pelagics and did not do De Mond and these were kept in reserve in case they were needed at the end of the month to reach the 400 target. It was interesting that 2 of the final ticks on the list were Steppe Buzzard and Barn Swallow in Stanford at the end of October. These were not present when I left in early October but were here when I got back.
Agulhas Long-billed lark.
On 8 October I set off very early for Karoo National Park arriving by 10:30 enabling me to enjoy a good afternoons birding. This became my routine for the next four days as I travelled north stopping over each day at a different place. Sandveld Nature Reserve on the Bloemhof Dam in the Free State, Marakele National Park in North West where I spent an afternoon and morning exploring the reserve, Kuriso Moya in the Magoebas Kloof followed and finally into Kruger where I had 4 nights each at Pafuri River Camp, Punda Maria, Shingwedzi and Tsendze Rustic Camp. On the return leg I spent an afternoon and morning at Reitvlei Nature Reserve outside Pretoria, overnighted at Gariep Dam and finally home on 30 October 2015.
And so to the travels. Having left home at 4 a.m. I was in Karoo National Park before 11 and completed the mountain pass drive, the picnic site drive and the camp-site itself. 27 new species were added to my list, and some of the specials were Verreaux’s Eagle, African Rock Pipit, Karoo Korhaan, Pririt Batis, the chats and arid canary species. Booted Eagle and a Karoo Long-billed Lark posed beautifully for photographs. As I wended my way towards Kruger I took time to stop if there were any interesting sightings, (this morning there was Namaqua Sandgrouse, Booted Eagle and Greater Kestrel), planning to arrive at the next destination as close to lunchtime as possible.
(l) Karoo Long-billed Lark; (r) Brimstone Canary.
My second stop, Sandveld Nature Reserve on the Bloemhof Dam, yielded a good afternoon of birding with 36 new ticks and noteworthy finds including Short-clawed Lark, Desert Cisticola, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Northern Black Korhaan in abundance, Orange River White-eye, Sociable Weaver and Crimson-breasted Shrike in the camp.
The next morning enroute to Marakele National Park in the North West via a “short-cut” saw me getting lost on some very productive gravel roads between Klerksdorp and Ventersdorp. I spent an hour at a bridge watching South African Cliff Swallows and Swifts and for the first time consciously tried to sort out the different swifts. I had previously lumped into a “mossie group” the 3 with white on their rumps or used the fallback identification of Little Swift. With some patience and practice I think I was able to correctly identify the White-rumped Swift, Horus and Little Swifts. These back-roads also offered up some of the widowbirds and whydahs which were morphing into their beautiful breeding colours and ridiculously long tails.
Marakele put another 22 new ticks on my list. I braved the tortuous drive up to the view site at the Cape Vulture colony which was daunting but well worth the frayed nerves. Apart from good views of vultures thermalling up close there were also habituated Mocking Cliff Chats, Cape Rock thrush, buntings and the like to photograph. Many of the birds that were to be commonly seen over the next weeks were first encountered here – barbets, Chinspot Batis, Go-Away birds, hornbills, rollers, francolins and waxbills among them.
(l-r) Chinspot Batis; Crested Barbet; Cape Rock-Thrush.
Of the many highlights in my trip, one rises above the others and that is Kurisa Moya and Magoebaskloof. Kurisa Moya had been recommended by members of the Tygerberg Bird Club for great guided birding and I had added this to my itinerary quite late in the planning but was fortunate in that they were able to accommodate me for one night. I was expecting a modest chalet, however I had the entire old farm-house to myself, a luxurious and generous experience for one. In the morning I took a 3 hour guided walk with local guide Paul Nkhumane who made me work very hard to find and photograph the birds. At times I thought my retired heart was going to retire permanently as he dragged me up mountain-sides. The reward was photographs of Black-fronted Bush-shrike, Olive Bush-shrike, African Emerald Cuckoo, Square-tailed Drongo, Red-backed Mannikin, Narina Trogon, White-starred Robin, Yellow-streaked Greenbul and Green Twinspot (amongst others); sightings of Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Olive Woodpecker, the forest doves and other robins and hearing the songs and calls of Crowned Eagle, the Turacos and African Wood Owl. Photography in the forest is very challenging but thanks to Paul I was able to record these birds, some of which I am not sure I will have many opportunities of seeing again.
(l) Narina Trogon; (r) Green Twinspot.
From Kurisa Moya to Punda Maria gate was a short hop and I had my first experience of Pafuri and the Luvhuvu River on my way to Pafuri River Camp which was to be home for the next 4 nights. Although I have said that Kurisa Moya was the top highlight there were indeed so many varied experiences that I felt I had been away for a year because so much was packed into each day.
The Luvhuvu River area is a paradise for birds and reminded me of Mana Pools in Zimbabwe – you come down out of the Mopane into a riverine forest that one can imagine God has created especially for birds and wild-life. I spent 3 hours with guide Frank Mabasa from the Pafuri Picnic site and understand now why he is such a legend in birding. He is like Mr Postman and as you reach a certain site he will say – and here is Mr Bohm’s Spinetail and here Tropical Boubou and over here the Wattle-eyes (heard but not seen) and so it went on. It was humbling to spend time with such a knowledgeable man who is so enthusiastic about his patch. The next day when we met up he was with another birder and they had seen the Wattle-eyes as well as 2 Pel’s Fishing Owls from the Luvhuvu River Bridge. I did not envy them as that morning I had seen Greater Painted-Snipe and Red-faced Cisticola from the same bridge and the Pel’s could wait for another occasion.
(l-r) Luvhuvu River; Greater Painted-Snipe; Bohm's Spinetail.
Pafuri River Camp is a great value camp if you want a bush experience – no electricity or cell-phone reception, but magnificent shaded private camp sites with good facilities and of course excellent birding. Whilst I was there the heat wave was on with 47 degrees on one day – dangerous for us who were not used to it and I think I was wise enough to restrict birding until about 9:00 am and then spent time in the swimming pool. I again enlisted the skills of a local guide, one Sam Baloyi, and we went out one morning with very good results – Red-capped Robin-chat, Orange-breasted Bush-shrike, Pygmy Kingfisher, Ovambo Sparrowhawk and reasonable photographs of an African Cuckoo Hawk which will stand out as one of the specials for the trip.
(l-r) Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike; African Goshawk; Pygmy Kingfisher.
Next on to Punda Maria which lived up to its reputation as a birding mecca. I have not visited the area for probably 15 years and certainly not since the birding bug has taken leading place in my interests. By now my list was getting up to 370 and finding the last dozen or so birds was not proving easy. Punda delivered 19 new birds. The Mahonie Loop is a beautiful drive and is just the right sort of distance where you are never in a hurry and can spend time with the birds. I had the far end of the camp-site to myself (except the monkeys) and on 2 evenings had the Bat Hawk flash past. I also went on an evening drive, (unfortunately not the Pennant-winged Nightjar drive), but was rewarded with Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Fiery-necked and Freckled Nightjar. The 4 days in the Far North resulted in 84 new species.
(l-r) Dickinson's Kestrel; Temminck's Courser; Wahlberg's Eagle.
From Punda I moved on to Shingwedzi which is an equally beautiful camp with numerous options for afternoon and morning drives. I found that some of the more rewarding birding was found by leaving the riverine loops and going inland to the grassland and mopane areas where I had Temminck’s Courser, Dickinson’s Kestrel, Double Banded Sandgrouse and a Wahlberg’s eagle nest where the bird sitting on the nest was the brown variety and the mate the light coloured version. I encountered a number of groups of Southern Ground Hornbill but not one Secretarybird. Another highlight was a giraffe kill in one of the river beds at which 4 vulture species were in attendance. An afternoon’s walk round the Shingwedzi camp-site (hoping for Collared Palm Thrush) proved very productive with good opportunities to photograph Crombec, Chinspot Batis, Ashy and Southern Black Flycatcher, Grey Tit-flycatcher and Violet-backed Starling.
(l-r) Southern Ground-Hornbill; Grey Tit-Flycatcher; Double-banded Sandgrouse.
My last venue was Tsendze Rustic Camp outside Mopane. I was initially allocated camp-site 28 which did not have one leaf of shade but this was rectified the following morning with the help of Rodgers Hlobyane, the camp commandant and a great host for the 4 nights. He proudly showed me his 3 nesting owls – Pearl-spotted and African Barred Owlets and a number of African Scops Owls. A Grey-headed Bush-shrike was also nesting above my camp-site. Rodgers recorded babblers mobbing and injuring one of the Barred Owlets which that evening thank goodness, appeared in good health.
(l-r) African Scops Owl; Grey-headed Bush-Shrike; African Barred Owlet.
A Brown Snake Eagle had killed a monitor lizard and hung around the camp most of the time I was there.
(l) Brown Snake-Eagle with monitor lizard; (r) Brown Snake-Eagle with Fork-tailed Drongo.
On the day I went past 400 birds, I had the 3 Owls, Collared Pratincole, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-lark, Lizard Buzzard, African and Jacobin’s Cuckoos and Black Cuckoo-shrike, any of which would have been worthy of the number 400 position! Tsendze closed out with 10 new species. It was interesting that there were no Woodland Kingfishers, that I did not even hear Diederik’s and Klaas’s Cuckoos and only on the last 2 days did I find Jacobin’s, African and Common Cuckoos. Perhaps they are on the internet and have heard about our drought and heat waves.
(l-r) Lizard Buzzard; Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark & female Black Cuckooshrike.
You cannot feed birds in the national parks but I do carry a small bird-bath around with me. The camp birds quickly discovered and made use of it. I am going to suggest to Rodgers at Tsendze that he build a bird-bath(s) as this is a camp-site that has already developed into a must for visiting birders.
(l-r) Greater Blue-eared Starling; Kurrichane Thrush; Blue Waxbill; White-browed Scrub-Robin; Southern Black Tit; Violet-backed Starling.
During the trip I seemed to be lucky with woodpeckers and had great opportunities to photograph Bennet’s, Cardinal, Golden-tailed and Knysna Woodpeckers. Can you identify these from the photographs? You will find the answer at the end of the article.
On the return journey I travelled through Dullstroom and stayed the night at Rietvlei Nature Reserve in Pretoria which yielded 11 new birds. This is a very good Highveld grassland site and highlights were the Banded Martin, Buffy and Plain-backed Pipits, Red-throated Wryneck and Red-collared Widowbirds. The final night was at the Gariep Dam where I did not really bird but chose to watch the camp birds (including nesting Hoopoes) and Caspian Terns fishing in the harbour from the comfort of the camp-site.
With a final tally of 414 birds and the addition of 53 new birds to my photo life list, (a list which is now approaching 500), my Birding Big Month is an experience I will treasure for the rest of my days.
Article and all images by Richard Masson
(l-r) Giant Kingfisher; White-crested Helmet-Shrikes; Plain-backed Pipit.
(l-r) Tropical Boubous; Banded Martin; Red-headed Weaver; African Paradise-Flycatcher.
(l-r) Crested Guineafowl; African Firefinches; Jameson's Firefinch.
Answer to the Woodpecker question: From left to right they are Knysna; Cardinal; Golden-tailed and Bennet’s Woodpeckers.