A plan was made to head out on Saturday 2 June with a couple of other birders in the area, one of which I knew online. I stumbled out of bed at 6:50am after a barrage of alarm clocks I had set to ensure I would get there on time. The plan was to visit the Strandfontein Sewage Works first, a place that I hadn’t been before, then move on to the Dick Dent Bird Sanctuary in Strand and then on to the Helderberg Nature Reserve. We had two main targets, I wanted to get a decent photograph of an African Marsh Harrier while 2 of us needed a Cape Rockjumper and 1 needed to photograph it still.
I left Somerset West towards Stellenbosch at 7:30am, after having Megan and Pieter pile their stuff in the car we headed towards Strandfontein. After the GPS trying to take me to every place except the right one, we ended up entering at around 8:30. We stopped at one of the first ponds and looked around for anything interesting but it was mainly Cape Teal, Hartlaub’s Gulls and Red-Knobbed Coots – with a few other common species. We stopped and got out the car, looking at the Warblers and Cisticolas that were active in the reeds alongside the road, while we were out a giant flock of Greater Flamingos passed by, definitely the most I’d seen in flight at a single time, but soon it was quiet again so we moved on further.
At the next pond there were some African Shelduck, a species I had seen before but failed to get an even passable photo. Also there were Pied Avocet which only later I realized was a lifer for me, I managed to get photographs of them, but hardly ones worth sharing. Some Black-Winged Silts along the shallows of the water allowed for decent photography of them, a species I had been unable to get a decent shot of prior. A Swift Tern passed directly overhead while a Black Headed Heron decided he didn’t like us there and emerged in flight from the reeds in front of us. Packing up once again to move on we made our way to the next area where we managed to see one of our targets, an African Marsh Harrier had just came out in front of us, but by the time we got out the car to take photographs he had passed over us, the conditions were also terrible with no visible sunlight and even light drizzle, completely unforecast.
Next we moved on and came across another Black Headed Heron as he slowly edged forward, eyes on his breakfast. At the same area the Martins were dancing across the waters surface with their amazing agility, a frustration to photograph with a camera without the kind of focusing to handle that type of event, wishing I had a 7D. Continuing on several more Black Headed Herons were seen, as well as a group of Glossy Ibis. We continued to drive around looking for a hint of anything interesting but we agreed it was quiet and headed back to the gate to make our exit.
At the last pond prior to the entrance I stopped to once again try my luck at capturing the Martins as they skimmed the waters surface, the quiet water providing a strong reflection. It wasn’t long before I gave up and we got back on track to head to the gate, but our driving was short lived and Megan shouted “STOP STOP! Did you guys see that?! There was a Grysbok”. We slowly reversed and then stopped the car as a hunt for the now hidden Grysbok went underway, cameras now ready. A short period of searching only resulted in momentary glimpses of the mammal as it hid in the thick brush. We got back in the car and went to the boomed entrance, but as we stopped a Small Grey Mongoose crept in the bushes on the side of the car, for a few moments he came out in the open and did a decent job in showing himself off a bit.
We were soon on the N2 highway and headed back towards Somerset West. I showed Megan and Pieter the way to the Dick Dent Bird Sanctuary, a place that cannot be found without knowing where it is, there are no signs and no roads leading to it and requires one to drive off the highway pavement down a small concealed drive way. We went inside and it wasn’t long before the first sighting occurred, one of reptilian nature. A Cape Dwarf Chameleon was looking for some sunlight on the razor wire fence, unfortunately he was not keen to be photographed at all and this time his blatant theory of “if I can’t see them, they can’t see me” proved right. The first birds we saw were a Common Fiscal and some Blacksmith Lapwing, Levaillant’s Cisticola were also visible. We headed to the hide for a bit, but the ponds are still very empty as we still haven’t had much rainfall yet, so we moved on to the dam on the right of the sanctuary where there was a lone Red-Knobbed Coot. At the main pond we spotted the resident Malachite Kingfisher, some Sacred Ibis, Blacksmith Lapwing and a couple of Grey Herons. On the way back to the car we also came across the lone resident Southern Masked Weaver.
It was then off to the Helderberg Nature Reserve, with weather conditions still very much less than ideal with 75% cloud cover. We first headed towards the pond near the restaurant in the hopes of seeing some visiting duck that may be of interest but it wasn’t birds that the other two were interested in, a frog call which has become just another ambient sound of the reserve to me, made their ears perk up. My knowledge of frogs and frog calls is little to none, but just by the fact that it is so prevalent around the pond I assumed it was another common frog. There was a lot of determination to find one of the frogs, there was an uncertainty about which species it may be, but one of the Moss Frog species was on top of that list. A species that none of us had seen before. This prompted Pieter to dedicate his time to digging around in the thick grass and reeds alongside the pond in the hopes of finding one, the problem being that the habitat is perfect for them, they are small creatures and it is definitely not easy to get to the bottom of the grass. Megan and I decided that while he did all the hard work we would look for some other birds in the area, an unknown raptor was flying far in the distance which looked to possibly have been a young Gymnogene, a Jackal Buzzard also put in a short appearance. We didn’t see much but as always with the Helderberg, the sunbirds were out and we saw the Lesser Double Collared Sunbird, Amethyst Sunbird, Malachite Sunbird and Orange Breasted Sunbird all within a short period of time.
A shout of “Megan!” was then heard from across the reserve, figuring he must have caught one of the frogs we headed back to the pond and as suspected he was on the ground with macro lens attached getting photos of a new lifer. This is one of the times where I realize the positives in lens versatility, having used a Sigma 50-500mm for a long time it was difficult to get used to using a 400mm prime to get a shot of a tiny frog no bigger than a finger nail from 3.5m distance. And while the photos I managed to get are by no means good photographs, they are at least documentation of the frog. It turned out that the frog in question is most likely a De Villiers’s Moss Frog.
We tried heading up the mountain for some Pipits or Larks which have occurred in the burned area, but without luck. We then called it a day… And while there were no real interesting birds to speak of it did allow for a couple of lifers in other areas and some improved photographs.