I have been an awful birder of late, just horrible… I never twitched the Black Tern at Strandfontein, nor the Baillon’s Crake at Intaka Island. To be frank, I just haven’t had the energy for the most part. I should explain that my personality caters itself to obsession, followed by periods of complete inactivity, then cycles back to the obsession. You can be sure that my interest in each hobby remains throughout, but the focus I put on any particular one ends up being concentrated on one thing at a time, as opposed to being shared by all of my interests. This was enhanced by the fact that I began to forget what it felt like to actually see an interesting bird, as documented in my previous blog submission, I had been out birding several times over the past month or so, but things were quiet to say the least. Furthermore, living in Somerset West, most rarity sightings are far out of the way for me, given my financial constraints with regards to petrol.
This week though, a rare bird alert was put out- a Northern RockHopper Penguin at Soetwater. Of course I had no idea where Soetwater was, in fact, I know very little about that side of the world (Anything south of Hout Bay). It is a travesty to admit, but at this stage I had no penguins on my life list, I have not got around to visiting Boulders since I started birding, and due to this I was extremely keen to go and see my first penguin (since taking up birding).
I was staying at Kenilworth with my girlfriend for the weekend, which is only 30km from Soetwater, so I made sure to bring my camera and lens along. The plan was to head off at around noon, my primary fear of course being that my twitching history will once again repeat itself. For those who haven’t followed all my blog entries, my first attempted twitch was a Cape Vulture in the Strand in 2011, I was in my car mere minutes after the report went out, and rushed to the location- I ended up dipping on it by 5 minutes. Then in early 2012 I headed through to De Zalze in Stellenbosch during a lunch break to try and find an African Jacana that was seen, but the person who reported the bird who’s contact details were provided wasn’t answering her phone and I ended up having to turn around when at the gates, later in 2012 I made the trip from Cape Town to the Paarl Bird Sanctuary to try and twitch another African Jacana, and got there a couple hours after it was last seen- GONE! And then in late 2012 I went after the Great Spotted Cuckoo at Klipheuwal- where I found myself sitting next to John Graham in an open field and waiting 5 hours for a bird that was never seen again (it was seen the day prior to my visit). So one may see why I was a touch hesitant on the RockHopper Penguin.
Regardless, hesitancy aside- Cathryn and I got ready, wrote down an extensive list of directions and began the trip through to Soetwater. For once, it was a fairly simple drive, we only ended up missing 2 turns offs, and managed to get rectified in quick time. The drive was a fascinating one, and one that I had not taken before, an entirely new route for me. We passed over the mountains of the Silvermine Nature Reserve, through Noordhoek Valley and then along Slangkop Road. On our approach we became hesitant of the weather as low cloud moved along the stretch of road in front of us in the form of fog.
It wasn’t long before we were at the Soetwater Resort area, and after paying our R11/pp entry fee, we began checking off parking bays on the left side as to accurately account for where we should stop as per the directions received in the rare bird report. We passed a group of cars that made me raise my eyebrow, but there was supposedly a parking lot there, but this was a buses only parking area- so we continued on. A few seconds later a familiar face approached in his vehicle- it was Mike McSweeny, a birder who I had originally met in a Rondevlei hide, but had since been on several of the same twitches. He was kind enough to stop us and show us the way back to the area we had passed where the penguin was. The news then was that the RockHopper Penguin (now in heavy moult) had moved from the sandy beach where he had been rolling around previously, and was now located in the rocks just off the sand.
We arrived to a small group of twitchers, and a couple of other interested parties who had probably heard about the bird on the radio. We scanned the area, too shy to ask the others where it is, but it wasn’t long before someone offered to assist us in locating the bird. The view wasn’t great from the shore and only his head was visible as he found shelter from some bastardly Hartlaubs Gulls between a couple of rocks. We moved around, while maintaining a safe distance from the bird- to an area of rocks just off the shore where the view of the bird was better. His majestic yellow ear features merely a dull strand, and the often almost unreal contrast between a white stomach and a black back, rather looking like a monochrome display. To say this individual was in heavy moult would be an understatement. Though his eyes seemed tired, he would occasionally open them enough to catch a glance of the red eyes. A great feeling to connect with the bird, and even better- to have it was one of Cathryn’s first ticks.
We stuck around on the rocks, hoping that it would act within its name and hop onto the rocks, but that never happened, so instead we focused on some of the other birds in the area. A couple days prior a Greenshank was seen on the shoreline too, which I was keen to try and find- but not luck. A mass of Swift Terns were located on the rocks a few meters from us, while a pair of Sandwich Terns also passed over the ocean, under the low cloud, which was now lifting. Cormorants lined the rocks further out, while Kelp and Hartlaubs Gulls were prevalent. A couple of Egyptian Geese and African Oystercatchers also passed by as we were standing and looking around.
Soon our focus turned to the number of Swallows that was passing over the dead grass, dipping and diving. If ever you want to end up getting completely frustrated at yourself, your equipment and the birds- try and shoot Swallows. Cathryn and I stood for close to 30 minutes in one spot, just trying to get a single clear photograph of one of the Barn Swallows that were passing by- we tried in vain.
Next we decided that we couldn’t leave without at least trying to get some landscape photographs of the lighthouse, which was situated just down the road, so we got in the car and made the short drive. After walking through a beach of salt (I refuse to call that sand), we came to a small pool of water on the coastline, which was just a couple hundred meters from the lighthouse. On our way we came across a Water Thick-Knee who took into the air.
We then focused our attention on the lighthouse and spent some time getting dirty on the rocks (not a euphamism).
We were then soon back in the car, and only during the process of emptying our shoes of the salty sand that snuck into them, did we realize that we had both suffered some sunburn out when we were twitching.
Overall it was a successful twitch and a good day, it’s always very enjoyable when I see that Cathryn becomes more interested in the birds, while having been interested in birds for most of her life, there is that stage where one turns that love for birds into a love for birdING, and I think she is getting to that mentality. To help her be able to embrace the passion or ‘bug’ should it bite, I bought her a Newman’s guide this past week so that she could start her life list properly, there is nothing quite like being able to flick to the back of your guide book and check off another species. A relationship where both partners can appreciate birding is a grand thing, and it’s always good to see couples out doing it together- and for a certain select few out there, there is no way a relationship could otherwise last.