Garden Route Twitch – White-Browed Scrub Robin & Violet Backed Starling

Some rare bird news filtered in during the week of a juvenile Violet-Backed Starling photographed in at a garden feeder in Groot Brak River, along with the presence of a Great Spotted Cuckoo and White-Browed Scrub Robin at Reflections Eco-Reserve at Rondevlei (Wilderness). The premise of the ‘Scrubber’ and the provincial mega Violet-Backed Starling had a few twitchers rearing to go through and add some new birds to their provincial lists. Michael Mason once again swooped in with the ‘twitch bus’, for the second time in two weeks. On board the bus for the weekend would be both the Hardakers and the Dorses, along with myself and Michael.

Despite my many trips with Trevor and Margaret, it was my first time meeting Cliff and Suretha. Good friends of Trevor & Margaret, the Dorses have a passion for all forms of biodiversity and in fact run a website dedicated to it, they also both have impressive life lists, despite listing for a relatively short time period.

Having been sick off work the entirety of the week due to a pretty rough case of Tick Bite Fever, which I picked up in the fields of the Zululand two weeks earlier, I was a little hesitant in the beginning, but after having been put on Doxicycline, I was begin to feel like a human being again.

Off To The Wilderness

I was picked up early on Saturday morning from my home in Somerset West, where after we would make our way through to Wilderness and have a go at our first target for the day; the White-Browed Scrub Robin. The drive — which used to feel like forever — had seemingly become a quick trip, thanks to the contrast of the massive KZN trek we undertook just a couple weeks earlier. Around day break we found ourselves near Buffeljagsrivier, and picked ourselves up some breakfast, in the form of the renowned roosterkoek that can be purchased from Oude Post Bistro BP.

A couple hours later and we were arriving in the Wilderness, an area still fresh in my mind from my debut visit in April. Evidence of the large Knysna fire were visible atop some of the large hills. We could easily see just how such a disaster could happen, the area was extremely dry and it was clear that any fire could easily spread quickly, especially with the presence of wind, as had been in the case during the fire last month.

It wasn’t long before we entered the gate into Reflections, and would meet with Tim Carr, the owner of the resort. He graciously showed us around his property, explaining the pattern of the Robin, which had apparently been present for a couple of months already. We moved between the housing accommodation looking for the bird, which was said to prefer the short grass drive ways leading into the lodges.

Photogenic Fork-Tailed Drongo
Photogenic Fork-Tailed Drongo, showing where his ego comes from
Photogenic Fork-Tailed Drongo
Fork-Tailed Drongo

About three quarters of an hour into searching and things were not looking good. There was no sign of the Robin and things were quiet, apart from a single Fork-Tailed Drongo who seemed extremely egotistic and wanted us to do nothing but take photographs of him in every possible pose. Eventually we all just split up, trying to canvas a larger area, hoping that someone would see the bird. At one point Suretha, Cliff and myself were scanning near the one house, when Cliff quickly reacted:

“There it is!”

“No Cliff, that’s a Batis…”, responded Suretha.

“No behind the Batis!”

It took me a while to get bins on it, but in the end I managed to, just before the bird drops down into the thick and disappeared. The rest came running, Trevor just missing it by a fraction of a second. A hell of a scanning mission then began… But there was absolutely no luck. And after an hour or so later, I began to worry that there was going to be a very tension-filled bus ride back towards Mossel Bay.

I took this time to head towards where the Cuckoo was seen, breaking away from the rest of the group. The sun was now out and the air was heating up nicely, despite an intermittent cool breeze in the air in the wake of a weak cold front.

Eventually I gave up on the Cuckoo, after several attempts to call the bird and scanning the nearby trees. I then began my walk back to the rest of the group.

While walking back I could see the van, but no one by the van. It seemed they were all trying by one of the houses there. Then I saw movement in the middle of the road. “No way…”, I thought to myself, knowing exactly what I was looking at. I lifted the bins to my eyes and it became certain that our target bird had sneaked out the bush behind everyone’s back. I quickly tried to call Trevor to let them know, as I couldn’t walk to them, as between myself and the rest was a certain Scrub Robin.

White-Browed Scrub Robin
White-Browed Scrub Robin

White-Browed Scrub Robin

White-Browed Scrub Robin

About 30 seconds after my call, I then see them moving out from the side and quickly lifting up their cameras. It was clear everyone had eyes on it now, as it meandered around in the road. The bird then darted off into the bushes on the road side, allowing us to converge on the road and seek it out. Thankfully I was able to pick it up easily from my side and watched it fly under the deck of one of the cabins. Everyone was soon on the bird again, and we managed to follow it as it moved between the housing units.

The views were pretty damn good, it may not have been extremely close but it was sure close enough to void the idea of any complaining. A massive Western Cape bird for the group, and after what seemed like a rather daunting ride back, was turned into a celebratory one. With that said though, the Great Spotted Cuckoo was a bird that I dipped on in Klipheuwel (both birds seen the day before my arrival), it seems I have developed a bit of a tradition, with the Wilderness bird having been seen on the Friday before our arrival.

Post-Twitch celebrations after the White-Browed Scrub Robin
Post-Twitch celebrations after the White-Browed Scrub Robin

African Fire Finches in George

While heading out of the Rondevlei area, we stopped to see if we could perhaps pick up the Black Herons which were seen here a couple months ago. Despite finding no luck, we did run into another birder by the name of Rudi Minnie, he alerted us that he was on his way to the African Fire Finches which were picked up earlier in the morning in George. From there, we first stopped off for some lunch on the outskirts of George, for a little bit of post-WBSR celebration.

Once done eating it was on to George, when we received a message from Rudi that he had picked up the Fire Finches. We were now no more than 10 minutes away, and Trevor asked him to try keep on the birds for us. We would have ‘raced through’, but there’s more speed cameras than there are roads in George and we had a very well behaved drive through the town to our destination.

Upon arriving, we met up with Rudi who showed us where the birds had been hanging around. We were struggling to get visuals, however we could hear one calling from within the bushes in front of us. A single bird eventually then flew out and up the hill, causing us to give chase. At the top we managed to get a few seconds of fairly good views, before the bird once again slipped out of sight.

african-fire-finch
African Fire Finch

Light was beginning to fade, and so we headed through to Groot Brak in an attempt to find the Violet Backed Starling which was seen in the week. Unfortunately, we later learned that information had gotten a little mixed up and that the bird was only seen on a single day, a week ago; a concept that put a damper on some of the optimism.

None the less, we met up with a local neighbour who took us to the house with the feeder, where the Starling was seen. He was kind enough to let us up onto his balcony as we spent about an hour watching the birds frequenting the feeding station. While no Violet Backed Starling was seen, we did get a few Grey Sunbirds in along with the common birds. It seems that the Grey Sunbird is following a similar pattern to the Amethyst in its recent expansion towards to the south west. In the next few years we could well see the species coming towards the Cape Town area. After running into Christiaan Viljoen, also there for the Starling, he managed to assist me in sighting a Knysna Warbler along the road side. Despite the light being near gone, we were able to get visuals and in turn provide me with another full lifer for the trip.

Female Cape Sparrow
Female Cape Sparrow
Cape White Eye
Cape White Eye

With the sun now setting, and us being happy with our sightings, we could now head to our accommodation in Klein Brak. Once there, we unpacked, got settled and decided it was time for dinner. After a quality dinner, it was a quick chat over some tea before heading to bed.

Knob-Billed Ducks and More

Our day started moderately early, leaving the house just after 7:30 in the morning. The sun had just come up, and we’d be returning to the site of the Starling, just in case. To get a long story short though, after a bit of walking around the area we didn’t manage to pick it up. Personally, however, I did manage to finally get a Black-Backed Puffback for my provincial list. We drove around doing some atlasing for a while before we headed through to Klein Brak again, this time to try find the Knob-Billed Duck that had been reported there. We all already had the bird, but who could turn down another view of this species.

We arrived at the location and within seconds we picked it up, walking in an area of wetland. We also had an African Snipe flush from the grass along the road side while searching the area.

Knob-Billed Duck
Knob-Billed Duck
Caspian Tern
Caspian Tern

From there, we moved further along the dirt farm roads, eventually coming to a stop at an area of water. The highlight here was an Osprey, which I had spotted on a distant power line. The bird, despite initially being nothing more than a few pixels on a screen, gave us an amazing view, shortly after it had finished engaging in mid-air combat with an African Fish Eagle. Unfortunately the interaction took place while we were driving.

None the less, the views we got of the Osprey were amazing. It is a species that I have only ever caught at distance at the West Coast National Park, so to have it give me some views worthy of photographs, was absolutely amazing. Definitely one of the birding highlights for my year thus far.

Western Osprey
Western Osprey
Western Osprey
Western Osprey making eye contact
Western Osprey
Western Osprey

We then packed up and began our journey home, but not before an excellent Wimpy lunch.

While we essentially only got 1/3 of our initial targets, it was great to connect with the Scrub Robin and no one was really complaining about missing the others. The one was only really a target for myself anyway 😉

Had another great time with fellow birders, this time even featuring some new friends, and a special thanks to Michael Mason once again and his trusty Twitchmobile.

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Bryn De Kocks

Bryn is a passionate and opinionated antinatalist and naturalist with a love for nature, the ocean, photography, severe weather and music. He spends most of his time looking for new birds within the Western Cape, taking landscape photographs or behind his computer being a nerd.

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