Somerset West Bird Club Outing – 21 July 2012

After meaning to make one of the Bird Club outings for a number of months, I finally had the weekend free and was completely dedicated to attending this time. I started following the timing of the weather closely from early in the week and one day it looked terrible, then it looked more promising and then back to ominous. On the evening of the Friday I sent Jill Mortimer an e-mail asking what conditions are usually needed for the outings to go ahead, she told me that even if it was raining I should come by to the meeting place and then we could decide from there.

I woke up at 7:00 on Saturday to the sound of winds lashing through the trees, and water dripping from the gutters – before even opening the curtains I knew that today wouldn’t be ideal, the rain was supposed to only start at around 10:00 but it was clearly early. I had gotten all my photographic equipment ready the night before, so it would be a quick process to get ready. As the sunlight broke, which to be honest – it never really did… I was wondering if it was worth going down at all, it just seemed impossible that one could even brave the weather from the door to the car, but I eventually decided that I was already up, so I may as well go and see. To my surprise, as I approached the meeting area the rain got softer, and looking back towards the Helderberg I noticed it was mainly orographic rain which was falling, which was a positive aspect.

Farm House

I arrived at around 7:45 and saw Jill signalling their presence, and after parking I was introduced to Rose Mills – a name that I had become familiar with through reading issues of The Batis magazine, she would be leading the outing today. We organized the lifts and waited in the parking lot a bit, within not even 5 minutes we noticed the distinct wing movements of a Peregrine Falcon which passed just in front of us, perching in one of the gum trees across the road. It appears as though this bird performs it’s morning feeding in the area, as it has been seeing in this area by some of the other birders before on another outing, around the same time. Unfortunately I had already packed my camera away for leaving and once again missed out on getting a decent shot of this species. We were getting ready to leave when another car pulled up, and I was introduced to two more birders who decided to brave the winter conditions. At 8:03 we decided it looked like it would be the 5 of us, and we set out on our journey.

We would be visiting several farms around the Stellenbosch area, with the main target for the day being the Wood Owls which reside around Helderberg Farm. Another target was much broader in that we were looking for any interesting water birds, with most of the visits revolving around the dams, a good plan considering in this weather, the water birds are much more prevalent as opposed to the other areas which tend to become far more quiet.

After a short drive we ended up at our first destination – a farm on the left of Old Main Road, if heading from Somerset West, just prior to the Baden Powell turn off. Conditions were not great with strong winds and drizzle, and the air was nothing short of icy. We were greeted by a number of Red-Knobbed Coots, Blacksmith Lapwings and Helmeted Guineafowl. The dam also held Egyptian Geese, Cape Shoveller and what appeared to be a Moccoa Duck. Around the pond we saw both House and Cape Sparrows, European Starlings, Cape Canaries, Sacred Ibis and a single Grey Heron which glided slowly in against the gale force winds. We walked around a bit more, looking for any other interesting birds but we seemed to have tapped the supply.

Hadeda Ibis grabbing an earth worm

Giant Kingfisher in the distance
Yellow-Billed Egret

Robin Chat

We were then off to another farm off Annandale Road when we decided to stop by Spier first and see what we could find there. After parking we walked to the river along the Protea Trail – the first species we saw here were Olive Thrush, Hadeda Ibis and some Cattle Egrets. While walking across the one bridge we saw the familiar, yet not familiar enough sight of a Giant Kingfisher passing under the bridge and perching on another bridge in the distance, it was a nice surprise. Continuing on along the path we saw a White Necked Raven, Malachite Sunbird and Fork-Tailed Drongo. The river was savage, and it was amusing to watch some Yellow-billed Ducks attempting to go against the current before realizing it’s better to just stop fighting and go with it. Then it started to rain, quite hard too. We headed back in the general direction of the cars, but then decided to go and try find the Fish Eagle nests which were said to be near by, on the way we encountered a Robin Chat and Yellow-Billed Egret. The rain got steadily harder and it was then time to move on.

Maccoa Duck

Red Bishop

Canada Goose

A short trip from Spier to Annandale Road lead us to another farm, and after arriving at the dam the rain was still coming down hard, keeping us in the car for a while, it was then declares coffee and lunch time. I hadn’t packed anything and I am quite used to going through til 1pm without food, but Rose was kind enough to share some food and offer something to drink. It was during this time that the rain decided to abate a bit and the clouds became much thinner, with the light improving a bit. On the dam there were a surprising amount of both male and female Moccoa Ducks, about 10-20 individuals I would estimate. Other species on the dam included some Cormorants, Red-Billed Teal, Cape Shoveler, Coots and a single Canada Goose, a very likely escapee from a near by waterfowl collector. Then a sudden influx of Weavers and Bishops occurred and to my pleasant surprise, amongst them was a male Red-Bishop in breeding plumage, a lifer for me and a striking little bird. After this were decided to head through to the Helderberg Farm area in search for the sought-after Wood Owl.

Egyptian Goose

Soon we were back on Annandale Road and headed in the general direction of Somerset West, while driving Jill pointed out a raptor in the distance over the one farm, and it was headed in our general direction, so we pulled over to the side of the road and quickly got out… Soon the raptor was just overhead right in front of us, having it off with a Pied Crow, while we originally thought it may be a Jackal Buzzard, once the plumage became visible we quickly realized that it wasn’t. The dark head and light chest first brought on thoughts and discussion on it possibly being a Black Chested Snake Eagle, but after looking at the photographs there were clear specks on the light areas, ruling out the Snake Eagle, but of almost equal excitement was the fact that we were then able to ID it as a Martial Eagle, while the Martial Eagle is less of a rarity, it is by no means common and very difficult to come across down here. The car was suddenly filled with excitement, when we headed out 3 and a half hours earlier, in horrid conditions, none of us were expecting to see a Martial Eagle – the day had already been made.

It’s interesting to note that the Martial Eagle has been reported from this area a few times in the past, including one in a very similar location in August 2011, so it seems possible that there may be some breeding in the area – which would be great.

Martial Eagle

Martial Eagle and Pied Crow

Finally we stopped off at the Helderberg Farm area where our main target was and after about 5 minutes of searching the Wood Owls were located, an adult and a juvenile hid in the trees behind thick brush, right next to each other. We stood there for a bit admiring the wonder that is owls, but due to the thick branches and low light a decent photograph was impossible, though the Wood Owl was the first Owl I ever came across, back in the beginning of 2011 – in the same area, just higher up on the mountain.

It was then back to Somerset West at noon, and boy am I glad that I decided to go ahead and venture out into this weather because I would have been kicking myself if I had heard afterwards that there was a sighting of a Martial Eagle on an outing I had not attended. In the end we managed to get 41 species in the day, not bad at all for a miserable winter’s day. This will be the first of hopefully many outings I will be attending with the bird club, and with spring around the corner things are only going to get better.

2 African Wood Owls hide from the cold

I must note though, because of the weather I was shooting on ISO 1600 or occasionally 800 throughout the day, with the shutter speed never going above 1/650 so the photographs definitely aren’t the best, and many are merely record shots.

Birds Seen On The Outing

  • Laughing Dove
  • Turtle Dove
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Pied Crow
  • Cape Shoveler
  • Sacred Ibis
  • Hadeda Ibis
  • Cape Sparrow
  • House Sparrow
  • European Starling
  • Cape Canary
  • Red-Knobbed Coot
  • Grey Heron
  • Brown-Throated Martin
  • Maccoa Duck
  • Little Grebe
  • Levaillant’s Cisticola
  • White-Breasted Cormorant
  • Fork-Tailed Drongo
  • Yellow-Billed Duck
  • Yellow-Billed Egret
  • Cattle Egret
  • Fiscal Flycatcher
  • Egyptian Goose
  • Helmeted Guinea Fowl
  • Grey Heron
  • Giant Kingfisher
  • Common Moorhen
  • African Wood Owl
  • Blacksmith Lapwing
  • White-Necked Raven
  • Robin Chat
  • Malachite Sunbird
  • Red-Billed Teal
  • Kelp Gull
  • Olive Thrush
  • Cape Wagtail
  • Cape White-Eye
  • Cape Weaver
  • Yellow-Rumped Widow
  • Red Bishop
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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 out looking for birds, trying to find the most mesmerizing landscapes possible, in a sick barrel or chasing thunderstorms.

6 thoughts on “Somerset West Bird Club Outing – 21 July 2012

  1. Great report thanks Bryn.
    Glad your resolve to brave the foul weather was so well-rewarded.
    Cheers,
    Johan

  2. Glad you had a good outing despite the lousy weather.
    A great report and damn good shots.
    I hope more people read it.
    Basil

  3. Bryn – this is fabulous. Your pictures are EXCELLENT. Thank you so much for such a great writeup – you do it really well.
    I shall pass this around to others, if that’s OK with you – until we get your website (blog) address known.

    Cheers
    Jill

  4. Who would have thought that a successful outing could be had in such adverse weather conditions … well done on the little group that persevered in the cold and wet. Thanks Bryn for the interesting write-up
    Regards
    Denise

    1. Hi Bryn,
      I regret having been such a slouch and not come along. What a lovely write up and your pictures are super. A Martial Eagle – wow!
      Best regards
      Heide

  5. Hi Bryn

    Thank you for such a comprehensive report complete with great photos taken under difficult conditions, and a record of the birds seen. Well done!

    I’m sure club members will find this both interesting and useful.

    All the best
    Norman

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