We’d been trying to make plans to stay with our friends Keir and Alouise in Napier for over a month now, however with winter conditions having been prevalent on most of the weekends we had tried planning, we’d just not been able to make it happen. Finally we were given an opportunity, as forecasts showed a mild but sunny weekend. Plans were set up and come Saturday morning, I was up at 4am and soon on my way to pick up Monique in Gordon’s Bay before heading through to Napier.
The drive from Somerset West isn’t too bad and is around an hour and a half on the road, taking the route through Grabouw and Botrivier.
We arrived just after 7am, at the Lynch’s house; a lovely place in a quiet area of the small town. Before long we were back on the road again, and chasing our first targets. Monique had quite a few birds to target, having only recently started keeping a proper list, while I had 5 or 6 potential birds for the area that I was hoping to see. Keir’s work out on the farms in the area have given him extensive knowledge of some of the harder to locate species, as well as access to some otherwise tough to access areas.
The Elusive Rail
Our first target was that of the African Rail, a bird that has eluded me for many years and through many trips to Abrahamskraal in the West Coast National Park. Within about 5 minutes of arriving at our destination, we had the bird call for us. We were able to get onto it fairly soon afterwards, as it moved across in the reeds in front of our location. Unfortunately the forecasts were not quite accurate and conditions were quite rough for photography, with light rain falling and very overcast skies. The bird gave us some pretty good views for a Rail, which are notoriously difficult to see out in the open. Despite the limited photographic opportunities, I was happy to have finally seen this bird and be able to tick of a bit of a nemesis.
We spent a little more time on the farm, as we atlased the PENTAD. Navigating around the wetland area we tried to find some African Snipe, which had been reliable in the area recently, as Monique still needed them as a full lifer and I still needed a decent photograph of one. We struggled to locate them, as further rains had turned the mud into a fairly large pool of water. Alouise had gotten sight of a small wading bird pop into the reeds, so we played a Black Crake call to see if it was perhaps what she had seen. The individual in question didn’t respond, however, from the covers on the right saw a couple of Black Crakes pop up out of nowhere and into view as they came to investigate.
We canvased the area a bit more and headed back towards the Rail for better views. At this time the rain was starting to come down fairly steadily, but we still continued to enjoy the birding. A massive unexpected surprise occurred when we found a Burchell’s Coucal in a distant tree, views were initially really bad, but it gave us a better chance when it flew from the tree to the reeds about 50 meters in front of us. Burchell’s Coucal is another bird I have struggled with, and was a full lifer for me, and one that I wasn’t expecting either.
Once we were done at the Rail, we headed through to a reliable location for Hottentot Buttonquail. A drive up the hillside on a nearby farm brought us to some ideal Buttonquail habitat. We all got out and formed a flush line, and gave it a shot. We worked hard through some fairly thick vegetation, keeping a keen eye on anything that may flush. Unfortunately after about 30 minutes of canvasing the area of ideal habitat, we still didn’t have any success. In an ordinary situation, we’d have worked the area harder, as it’s a tough bird that I desperately need, but we’d given Keir and Alouise quite the list of targets and if we were going to get through all the areas, we’d need to have the time rationed off at each area.
On route back from the Buttonquail, we stopped off at the Rail location again and this time had better success with the African Snipe, giving Monique another new bird for the trip.
Into De Hoop
Next up, we’d be targeting the Vultures in De Hoop, as well as a few of the other locals, primarily for Monique. I’d be keeping my eyes peeled for Karoo Koorhaan, while Monique still needed the Agulhas Long-Billed Lark, Denham’s Bustard, Grey-Backed Cisticola and a couple other easy birds. Her primary target for the trip however, was the Cape Vulture. On route to De Hoop we picked up some quality Wimpy take away, refueling the humans in the vehicle.
Just a couple kilometers onto the road to De Hoop, we got a beautiful Long-Billed Lark perch for us on the road side. The sun was still a little shy at this stage and required 800 ISO on the camera. But was definitely the nicest views I had of the LBL. Followed shortly by some mammal sightings, the most exciting of which was a Cape Mountain Zebra, which had somehow found solace among the sheep.
Further down the road we got unexpected sightings of a Klaas’s Cuckoo, another new bird for Monique and a bird that is hard to become tired of seeing. A small break in the clouds gave life to the bright green feathers of this beautiful bird.
Arriving at Potberg, we had views of more than 50 Cape Vultures circling over the edge of the mountain. The views were quite far, but the amount of birds was definitely special. Monique thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and with it got another addition to her list, while I never tire of Vulture sightings.
It was then onto some more farmlands as we hunted for Karoo Koorhaan and Denham’s Bustard. It wasn’t too long before we had 5 Denham’s in front of the car, but were quite quick to depart before we could get any decent photographs. It was also here where Monique finally got her Grey-Backed Cisticola. She had also just picked up Bokmakierie an hour or so earlier. You know that you’re dating a twitcher when you see things like Rufous-Tailed Scrub Robin and Eurasian Blackcap before you see the likes of a Grey-Backed Cisticola and Bokmakierie.
As the afternoon drew to a close, we moved between the small roads around the park. Alouise stopped us, as she somehow managed to spot a Little Bittern from the road, moving at 80km/h. We got some excellent views, but the damn bird decided to bolt as I pointed my camera at it.
The sun was setting by the time we were getting back onto the tarred road, but a Giant Kingfisher made sure that we got some more great views to end the day.
We arrived back at the Lynch’s home and enjoyed some great food, which Al was kind enough to cook us. Home made food is a mega rarity where I stay and it was nice to have some proper food. We all sat together a bit chatting about all kinds of nature and wild life. Their book shelf was lined with every kind of possible field guide, from reptiles to birds, from trees to spiders and everything else in between. Both Keir and Al run Bionerds, in conjunction with their 9 year old son Cian, who joins them in their adventures. According to their Facebook page they are “a family of Bionerds, Blogging & photo-documenting a Biography for Biodiversity through #EcoExplorations in Southern Africa.”
Oh my God, African Grass Owl
** Please Note: The location of these African Grass Owls will be kept secret. The location is currently being accessed as a research area only, and the sensitive nature of this research on the species means that access to the location cannot be given. It is important to respect the wishes of those involved in the project, whose ultimate goal is to eventually be able to open the site up to birders in the future, once the safety of the Owls can be established. This is a sought after bird by many individuals, and hopefully in the future it can be shared with everyone. But for now, please do not reach out to Keir seeking access. Thank you. **
On Sunday morning, Keir and Al were going to be heading to a reliable location for African Grass Owl in the Overberg area. The visit was going to be part of a fascinating research study to determine how successful the Grass Owls are in the area, and whether similar habitat to the known location houses any other unreported presence of African Grass Owl. We’d be assisting him during his research, as we’d seek out any signs of pellets or feathers, so that DNA testing could be done.
The sun had barely passed above the horizon and we began walking through waist high vegetation, so thick that one would often be walking on top of it, not between it. We formed a line and walked out, keeping an eye on the ground for any signs of pellets or feathers. We knew that in the process we’d likely flush the birds, and so we were ready with our cameras on hand. Sure enough, about 5 minutes into the walk, we got our first flush. A single bird jumped out from the thick grass a few meters in front of us and took flight. It circled around a tree and landed back on another section of vegetation. The views weren’t too long, but we got some excellent visuals on an extremely special bird which is almost unheard of in the Western Cape.
We even managed to stumble across a feeding sight with pellets, which hopefully will now return some valuable data. We flushed another two birds in the process while heading back, though they moved off to the sides. The fact that we managed to flush three individuals is evidence that they have successfully bred on site and are doing well. By the end of it, we were all soaked through to nearly the waste, from the dew on the long grass we’d been wading through.
There remains some concerns regarding cattle walking through the area, however hopefully the research can soon lead to better fencing around the area to ensure the safety of these special birds.
Once we were back at the car, we were all smiles. Discussing the conservation attempts and the research being done. Just then I got visuals on a Woodpecker in the distance, on vegetation that would have been very appealing to a Knysna Woodie. I hopped back into the thick grass and made a dash for better views (after some peer pressure). The Knysna Woodpecker is a bird that has continued to escape me. Once again however, it turned out to be a Cardinal, which was soon joined by a female. The two gave us a nice shot as they interacted along a dead tree.
Another Try For the Woodpecker
On route home, back to Somerset West a few hours later, we stopped at Platbos Forest near Gansbaai. A location which was apparently very reliable for Knysna Woodpecker. While driving, we stopped at a scene of a Black Shouldered Kite bugging a Jackal Buzzard on one of the fence poles, we got some great views of the birds interacting and then even better views of a very obliging Jackal Buzzard who allowed us to stop the car next to him and get some pictures and then leave, without so much as moving an inch.
At Platbos, we were greeted by the sounds of fighting Baboons, just inside the forest where the trail begins. Monique wasn’t too keen to walk into the troop, so I slowly meandered in, keeping a close ear for any tapping of the trees.
After about 45 minutes, I still hadn’t heard or seen any evidence of woodies. That doesn’t mean however that it was all a loss, we got a Bar-Throated Apalis perch about 20 centimeters from our faces, while several Cape Batis gave good photographic opportunities.
The final stop on route home, was just a quick scan at the Vermont Salt Pan, where things were fairly quiet, apart from some Martins buzzing around the car.
Thanks so much to Keir and Al for having us at their place, and for the 3 new lifers that they got me, and the 12 for Monique. We can’t wait to pay another visit once the seasons change and see what more we can find, and hopefully connect with some of the birds we missed this time.