After a nearly three year absence from the Somerset West bird club outings, I decided to join up with the club again as they visited Vergenoegd Farm and Spier Wine Farm during the monthly outing. After fighting with the warmth of the duvets, we managed to make it to the meeting area in time, with the sun still masked behind the Hottentots Holland mountains. It was quite a good turn out with around 15 people showing up for the outing.
At 07:30 we departed for Vergenoegd first. Vergenoegd is a wine estate located just off the N2 near Faure and just about 7 kilometers from Spier wine farm. I have birded at Vergenoegd before, but that was years ago during my early days of birding. Since that time I have become far more efficient in the locating and identification of birds, so was keen to see what I could find this time around. Vergenoegd is well known for their runner ducks, of which they have over 1000. These ducks act as quite an attraction for visitors to the farm, while also working effectively at keeping the vineyards clean of snails.
Some unexpected sightings…
Upon arriving, we all parked near the main dam and began scanning through the birds. Much of the ground was covered with a layer of low lying mist, but we were still able to scan across the pond and in the process, came up with some fascinating sightings. African Darter, Reed Cormorants and Red Knobbed Coots were plentiful, along with some Little Grebe and a pair of Cape Shoveller. At this point some excitement erupted from the sighting of four individual White Backed Ducks, always a good record for the area.
Interest then shifted when two Black Crakes made an appearance on the center island of the dam, not particular rare birds by any means — however, also a solid sighting for being so close to home. These two individuals moves along different sides of the island and gave us quite decent views.
A couple of Purple Herons were present, moving across the pond occasionally. Along with two junveniles and an adult Black Crowned Night Heron.
I continued to scan the reeds, in the odd chance of finally getting lucky enough to see a Little Bittern. After about 30 minutes or so, I came across a shape in the thick of the reeds which appeared smaller than a Purple Heron. Just seconds earlier I had been telling Monique how nice it would be if we got a Little Bittern. I wanted to make sure first before calling it out to the others, so I took a few quick shots and checked the camera… Yup! That’s it.
“Little Bittern in the reeds to the left”, I called…
The eyes of the others lit up as they tried to get visuals. The bird was skulking, as they tend to do — but was soon able to be picked up by the other members of the club. A great sighting, and a lifer for myself and Monique (I assume probably a few others on the outing too). Little Bittern are uncommon residents, but are often very difficult to pick up as they tend to hide quite deep within the reeds and usually one only catches a glimpse of them as they fly into another patch of reeds. This particular bird later gave us even better views as it moved to the outside of the reeds and sat in the open for a few minutes before flying across the pond and disappearing.
While scanning the pond, we also got to witness the masses of the runner ducks (and some geese) on their twice-daily patrol, as they all came running towards us and then filtered into the dam.
We later moved across the pond for the tea break and looked over some of the vineyards. There we saw a Black Shouldered Kite, Yellow Canary and numerous Common Starlings.
Suddenly, out of nowhere I saw a large bird coming in from the right. Immediately it was clear that it was a Secretary Bird! Secretary birds used to be fairly common residents in the area in the 90s, however since then they have seemingly become more and more difficult to find in the Helderberg area. The bird landed in an open field just about 100 meters from us. Everyone walked towards the field to get views it, as it foraged in the tall dead grass, looking for a meal. It didn’t taken long before we saw it kicking into the ground and lifting up something in its beak.
Three really interesting sightings on our first location, the day was definitely already way ahead of expectations. Monique had also already amassed 4 new birds for her life list during the visit.
Onwards to Spier
After the excitement with the Secretary Bird we all got in our cars and headed up to the road to Spier wine farm. Spier isn’t particularly known as a birding location, however there’s some great walks one can do and the birding there is actually extremely good. There hasn’t been a single time I have visited without at least 2 raptor sightings. It has the Eerste River flowing through it, along with rich garden areas filled with oak trees and even some fynbos, combined with the farmlands surrounding it where raptors will often feed.
Our walk started off well with a sighting of a Black Sparrowhawk on the southern side of the river. It gave us decent views, as it flew relatively high up, circling. Just a few minutes later we got our second raptor sighting, as a beautiful juvenile Lanner Falcon. The Lanner circled a few times ahead of us before disappearing into the sun, though again being seen later on by some of the other members.
Further down the path we got some good views of Red-Faced Mousebirds and Malachite Sunbirds. We were also fortunate enough to come across a single Olive Woodpecker which was moving at the base of a dead Oak tree. He was clearly a bit camera shy, as he tended to move around the tree to avoid getting seen, as much as possible — but briefly gave a good glimpse to some as he moved into the light.
Our final two birds were a Black Shouldered Kite and adult Jackal Buzzard just on Annandale Road while returning home.
All in all, the outing was a great success with 44 species seen in total, and with them some truly special sightings. Never did I think that my long, 6 year search for Little Bittern would eventually come to an end just 10 kilometers from home.
Here’s a personal list of species seen during the outing, though I think the official list may be a bit larger.
Lesser Swamp Warbler
White Backed Duck
Black Crowned Night Heron
Black Headed Heron
Cape Turtle Dove
Southern Red Bishop
Black Saw-Wing Swallow
And a likely African Black Swift.