Garden Route Birding – Day 3

This blog post is a continuation of my initial entry documenting our 4 day vacation in the Garden Route, staying at Lake Pleasant in Sedgefield and traveling to various nearby areas looking for bird life.

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Rondevlei / Langvlei
Kingfisher Country House
Half-Collared Kingfisher Trail
Franklin’s Gull at Klein Brak River

Black Herons at Rondevlei

When I started birding in 2011, I bought my first guide book (Newmans) and made a list of 10 ‘bucket list birds’. Ten species that I most wanted to see in the country. On the top of my list at that time was in fact the Black Heron, and there was no way I could give up easily on this species. By our third day we’d attempted to twitch the Black Herons which had been seen around Langvlei and Rondevlei on three different occasions. However, on Tuesday evening we got some pretty useful news from an individual who we came across at the Rondevlei hide. The birds weren’t as easy to see as we had thought, and it turned out one had to actually walk along the channel, through a hole in the fence in order to reach the area where you can view the birds (should they decide to be present at the time you go).

Both Monique and I made our way across the fence, trying to ensure that we got as close to the viewing area as possible without disturbing any of the bird life, after all one is not supposed to walk in the area, so we tried to make sure our presence had minimal affects. Though it seems this has been the route that all other birders attempting to see the Black Herons at the channel had been using, as a small path had now developed.

Black Heron
African Spoonbill
African Spoonbill
African Fish Eagle
Cape Teal

Our arrival was a disappointing one, once again. I decided to keep scanning the general area for anything resembling the Black Herons. About 5 minutes in I noticed two fairly large black birds moving over the reeds towards me, I had high hopes and managed to lift my camera and grab a single shot before they handed behind the reeds, about 200m away. The image was terrible, but it was enough to confirm the identification. It wasn’t the views I had been hoping for on my first sighting of this species, but I cannot really complain — at least I got to see it. Unfortunately Monique was scanning the other side at this time and missed the birds dipping down into the hidden area. Making it the 7th lifer on the trip and my 303rd Western Cape Bird.

Kingfisher Country House

At 08:30 we headed through to Kingfisher Country House, a wonderful source of accommodation in the Wilderness area. If you’re looking for a good, affordable B&B in the area, with unrivaled birding opportunities, I’d definitely recommend checking out their website. What makes Kingfisher Country House special is the fact that they have some unbelievable species of bird in their garden, which often come feed right next to their patio. For guests, you can enjoy a breakfast less than a foot away from species such as Knysna Turaco, Lemon Doves, Chorister Robins, various Sunbirds and plenty more. In fact, Sue says that they get more than 30 species of bird to their feeders.

We had organized to visit Sue and Phil around feeding time, in the hopes of getting close to some of these birds and allowing for some special photographic opportunities. Immediately we had a Chorister Robin, Forest Canary, Swee and Common Waxbill and Amethyst Sunbirds present.

Chorister Robin-Chat
Chorister Robin-Chat
Grey Sunbird
Greater Double Collared Sunbird
Grey Sunbird
Forest Canary

It wasn’t long before we were surprised by a Grey Sunbird at the feeder. Grey Sunbirds are typically a little bit out of range in this area and it was definitely one of the more unexpected lifers of the trip, moving my provincial total to 304. While waiting for the birds we were kept company by a wonderfully plump Golden Retriever of theirs, who was extremely friendly and looking for some scratches.

Despite our attempts to get the Lemon Doves that are present nearly every day in the garden, we just didn’t have any luck with them. Instead, Red-Necked Spurfowl took their place below the balcony. Sue was telling us that this year has been very unusual in terms of bird activity, despite the warm and dry summer the birds apparently stopped calling earlier than usual, having already gone quiet a few months ago now.

Knysna Turaco
Knysna Turaco
Knysna Turaco
Red-Eyed Dove

Just before our intended departure, a single Knysna Turaco appeared in the tree in front of us — offering us amazing views for a short period of time. One of those cases where as a Canon 400mm 5.6 L owner, you wish you had a zoom function… A truly amazing experience…

We then chatted a bit with Sue as she advised us on some of the other birding locations in the Wilderness area that she would recommend us going to before we leave. One of which was the Half-Collared Kingfisher Trail, a walking trail along a river just about a kilometer or so from their house.

Half-Collared Kingfisher Trail

After taking the short drive to our new location, and paying our conservation fees, we headed into a forested walk along the river. We were just meters into the forest when we came across a Tambourine Dove perched a top a tree branch crossing our path. I realized early that if I was going to be shooting in the area that I’d be needing to either be at 1600 ISO, or even 3200 ISO in some areas. Forest birding isn’t only tough for seeing the birds, but even worse for photographing them.

It was a picturesque hike, nothing hectic at all but extremely beautiful. Thick forest covered most of our surroundings and the calls of distant birds echoed through the trees. Despite the many calls we heard, our visuals were limited. One disappointing call was that of a Green Wood Hoopoe, a fairly common species in the area but one that we never did manage to find. The calls were coming from within the forest, where we couldn’t reach too.

Half-Collared Kingfisher Trail
Half-Collared Kingfisher

A stop at the picnic area on the way lead us to scanning the river bed a bit, in the hopes of coming across the Half-Collared Kingfisher. Considering that is the name of the place, we’d hoped that we’d get to see one, a bird that was on my target list for the trip.

Later on in the forest, on our way back we got our first real visuals of something since the Tambourine Dove. A White Starred Robin was moving between the thicket above our heads, not giving very good views, but enough to make a positive ID at least. I thought the White Starred Robin is quite a good looking bird, so was hoping for more revealing views — but one cannot be fussy. This became my 305th provincial tick.

A mere few meters further we came across a few smaller birds moving between the trees. One individual bird was kind enough to come down near eye level and give us some decent views. We identified the bird as a Yellow-Throated Woodland Warbler, a common species for the Garden Route forests, but a first for me and #306 was in the bag.

White Starred Robin
Yellow-Throated Woodland Warbler

We decided to stop off once more at the picnic location on the way back and thank goodness we did. Shortly after scanning, something came flying up the river. In a hurry to get the shot, I had to shove Monique out the way and try not to fall into the water as I snapped a couple shots of the bird as it passed us. Yes! Half-Collared Kingfisher! Out of all the potential Kingfishers, we got the one that we both needed and our target bird. A nice way to bring the provincial list to 307.

A short visit to The Big Tree afterwards was enjoyable, but didn’t yield any visible birds — though we did hear Woodpeckers and a few other species.

Franklin’s Gull at Klein Brak River

We were feeling quite successful after our morning of birding and decided to head back to get food, it was now probably around 3pm and we hadn’t eaten all day. About 1 kilometer out of Wilderness, I ask Monique to put my phone on charge and she responds shortly after with “You have a message from Trevor, shall I read it?”

“Not sure if you still need Franklin’s Gull but one has just been found at Klein Brak River between Mossel Bay and George… probably less than an hour from where you are.”

In fact, the Klein Brak River was just 30 minutes from our current location, and I certainly still needed a Franklin’s Gull. I made a U-Turn immediately on the N2 and we postponed our food while we went on the chase. Franklin’s Gulls are extremely beautiful birds when in breeding plumage, and this individual was just that. We raced our way there, flirting with the speed limit the entire way. We got there 25 minutes after the report had been released and arrived to see a group of around 5 people already there looking at the bird…

Franklin’s Gull
Franklin’s Gull
Franklin’s Gull

We had made it! The Franklin’s Gull was still there, moving up and down the river, above and below the bridge. I was a little confused by the fact that everyone was standing on the road side when the bird was clearly not phased about the people swimming in the river and walking on the beach, it wasn’t like moving onto the beach itself would create any sense of discomfort for the bird or risk flushing it.

I moved ahead, still behind the many other beach goers that the bird was flying around unphased, and put myself into a position that was beneficial to both the bird and the photographic side. The Franklin’s Gull continued to move around, flying towards us at times and then away at others. The other birders soon followed and moves themselves into positions that were more beneficial for some decent views. Though at this time, we were still viewing the bird about 20 meters away, when it passed by.

Suddenly a group of Grey Headed Gulls started feeding in the waters just in front of us, and the Franklin’s Gull decided to join in. Suddenly we were just meters away from the bird as it got mobbed by some Grey Headed Gulls occasionally while attempting to feed. Most of the time the Grey Headed Gulls were too busy doing their own feeding to care, but occasionally one would come up and bother the visitor.

Franklin’s Gull
Franklin’s Gull
Franklin’s Gull

Absolutely amazing experience for both Monique and myself. A lifer for both of us, and an exquisite bird offering us equally as appealing views.

This would mark the end of our adventures in the Garden Route, as I then drove back to Somerset West the following day. But what an amazing day to cap it off with, 6 new birds — one of which was a rare vagrant.

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