Wednesday 24 June 2009

Mai Po Marshes, Hong Kong

Weather predictions For Hong Kong this week included heavy rain from, storms from and warnings of typhoon from our national crew member, Flora. Advice to stay indoors is hard on an agoraphile such as myself. Since recent forecasts by mere mortals such as the Met Office had been so badly wrong and given that I had a permit for Mai Po, I decided to throw myself on the mercies of the Weather God. It was already 32C at 05.45 and wet, though not actually raining.
The MRT starts running at around 06.00 and takes about 1hour and 15 mins to travel between Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island and Sheung Shui on the mainland. Bus 76K takes another 20 mins to reach the end of the road leading to Mai Po. If ever an opportunity arises to visit Mai Po, I always elect to walk the last kilometre or so along the approach road. A separate list for this morning would run to 22 species.
The approach road is lined with fish ponds which attract Chinese Pond Herons, Great and Little Egrets, all of whom were stalking the margins. A couple of Black-crowned Night-herons roosted in some overhanging bushes and Plain and Yellow-bellied Prinias flitted amongst the reeds. White-breasted Water Hens skulked around the edges of the redbuds.
In the trees were Magpies, Oriental Magpie Robins, Spotted Doves and the ubiquitous Chinese Bulbul. On the wires were Black-necked Starlings, Chinese Starlings and Crested Mynas.
So far the Weather God, if not smiling on me, was at least turning a blind eye. It was hot and sticky; rain was threatening, but holding off. It was never going to be a good day for taking pictures, so don’t let your expectations for this post run away with you.
The Peter Scott Residential Field Studies Centre acts as a reception and permit desk. Permits to visit Mai Po must be applied for in advance A board outside detailed recent sightings and one in particular caught my eye. Painted Snipe had bred at the reserve and lucky bird watchers had been seeing their chicks at Gei wai 16/17. Gei wai are prawn ponds created by impounding an area of mangroves with an earth wall or bund. Clear areas are cut and the water levels are controlled with sluices. I did not rightly recall whether I had seen Painted Snipe before. I vaguely recalled seeing one at Bharatpur in 1996, but I was not a seasoned birdwatcher then and had simply accepted Martin’s word for it. I would be pleased to have a proper good look at one.
The high tide due at 09.30 was forecast to be a big one of 2.8 meters. The recent and impending storms may have encouraged a few birds in to shelter. So the obvious choice was to stake out Gei wai 16/17, where raised islands gave the birds somewhere to roost and 5 hides gave birdwatchers somewhere to watch them do it. I had had a rather aimless plan of sitting and waiting to see what showed up, but now I had a target bird and, possibly, a lifer in the shape of the Painted Snipe. Egrets and herons were abundant along the way as were many of the other resident birds; Oriental Magpie Robins, Masked Laughing Thrushes, prinias, starlings and bulbuls were all very evident. With the winter visitors and the passage migrants gone, the resident birds were taking their chance to shine.
A few birds appeared out of season. A non-breeding flock of waders is usually found at Mai Po and a few White Wagtails showed up.
Hide No.1 looks up the length of gei wai 16/17 with about 15 hectares of shallow water and flat islands visible. I had arrived shortly before high tide and the wader flock were already in place in clear, but distant view.
In their non-breeding colours, I was frustrated by the Redshank until they flew. Without the white trailing edges to the wings, they must have been Spotted Redshank. Also roosting on the bar were Caspian Tern, Black-headed Gull, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit and a couple of Pacific Golden Plovers. Herons and egrets were working the shallow water and 3 Black-faced Spoonbills were roosting and preening. Black-winged Stilts patrolled the margins, never straying too far from their nests.
I noticed a stilt chick tottering down to the water’s edge, just a bundle of fluff on ridiculously long legs. I moved the scope to get a better view. As I was watching, from the long grass just beyond the chick, 2 Painted Snipe chicks appeared. They were barely visible and stayed out for a very short time.
By sheer dumb luck, I had put myself in the only position that the chicks would have been visible from and had been looking through a scope at the time. They were too distant to have caught my unaided eye and binoculars would not have been enough to get a decent look.
I judged that Hide 3, which was sited further up the gei wai on the southern side, may be closer and might just give me the chance of a photograph. Indeed the hide was directly opposite the clump of grass. Although I saw something moving in the grass, there is no way that I could have told what it was if I hadn’t seen them from the other hide. So I was very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time doing the right thing in the right direction.
The Painted Snipe is an odd bird. In the absence of a photograph, I shall attempt a quick resume.
From the family Rostratulidae, the Greater Painted Snipe shares the family name with only one other bird, the South American Painted Snipe. Two subspecies occur, Rostratula b. benghalensis and Rostratula b. australis. There is some cause to consider R. b. australis as a separate species.
Sexual roles are reversed with the female being the brighter plumaged of the sexes. She is bigger and takes the most active role in defending territories. She may have multiple mates and takes the initiative in calling for them. The male does all the incubating. They are probably more closely related to jacanas than to true snipes. The tide would be retreating by now and I hoped that as the water flowed back into deep bay, the waders would follow it and come out to feed on the mud, giving me a closer look at them.
The day was getting very hot now and sticky, sticky, sticky. It was a very uncomfortable walk out onto the floating boardwalk through the mangroves to one of the hides looking out onto the mudflats. Deep bay has been getting progressively shallower due to silt and the tides don’t always reach as far up the mud as they used to.
Recently the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society built a new hide that reaches further out towards the incoming tide. From here, I could see plenty of egrets, herons and waders. Sadly they were all clustered around the old hide. I guess that the original hide had been well positioned in a place where the water drains away first. With such a high tide, it should have occurred to me that the water would easily reach the original hide and that this would be where the birds would come to feed first as the water receded and the mud became exposed.
Ah well….! The birds did eventually deign to come and feed near my hide, but no closer than I had already seen them. A flock of Common Greenshank had joined the party.
The birds receded with the tide and soon all I was left with were the crabs and the mudskippers. A flock of Barn Swallows kept them alert and sent them scurrying for cover each time one flew low, close to the mud. Two mudskippers were challenging for a special piece of mud while another flipped himself exuberantly into the air, possibly to attract a mate, but more likely to attract the attention of an egret. The Weather God was becoming impatient now. The sound of a storm came up ”like thunder outer China ’crost the bay.” The sky was black and a wind had started to whip across the water as if preceding rain. I had ridden my luck long enough and began the trek back home. The return walk was accompanied by rumbles of thunder and the wind was becoming stronger. It began to rain as I approached the bus stop and by the time the bus arrived, it was pouring. I added a couple of species on the way back, a Common Kingfisher and a Greater Coucal. I even chanced a stop to try a photo of a female koel high on a dead tree. I also managed to get some photographs of dragonflies today and even managed to find a name for one of them. Rhyothemis variegata

Species list. 44
Little Grebe 4, Grey Heron 6, Chinese Pond Heron 40, Black-crowned Night-heron 8, Cattle Egret 25, Little Egret 80, Great Egret 45, Black-faced Spoonbill 3, White-breasted Water hen 2, Black-winged Stilt 16, Avocet 6, Pacific Golden Plover 3, Painted Snipe 2, Eurasian Curlew 37, Whimbrel 26, Black-tailed Godwit 7, Spotted Redshank 15, Common Greenshank 15, Black-headed Gull 4, Caspian Tern 5, Gull-billed Tern 2, Spotted Dove 15, Asian Koel 3, Greater Coucal 1, Common Kingfisher 1, Barn Swallow 200, Tree Sparrow 8, White Wagtail 6, Crested Bulbul 3, Chinese Bulbul 80, Oriental Magpie Robin 12, Yellow-bellied Prinia 8, Plain Prinia 3, Masked Laughing Thrush 18, Great Tit 2, Japanese White-eye 60, Azure-winged Magpie 16, Black Drongo 1, Magpie 4, Jungle Crow 3, Chinese Starling 8, Black-necked Starling 10, Crested Myna 6, Spotted Munia 8.

More posts from Mai Po can be found by following the links below;

Visit the dedicated Asian Page for more posts from Hong Kong icluding; Tai Po Kau, Tai Mo Shan and Long Valley

Tuesday 16 June 2009

A delicious dilemma

I started bird-watching during a holiday in Africa as something to do between watching mammals. Even in the Serengeti, there are slow moments when nothing is moving. As far as the eye can see, there is empty, flat grassland. During these lulls, Martin introduced me to the birds and it took off from there so to speak.
Returning to Africa always puts me into a quandary. Do I look for mammals or birds or both? Can you do justice to both?
During the northern summer, the southern hemisphere experience their winter. The birds breeding plumage is being kept for best and many families present themselves as dowdy, brown and sparrow-like. The cisticola family are tricky at the best of times. The weavers, widows and whydahs are unrecognisable from their summer selves and the larks and pipits perplex me whatever the season.
So my choice was made fairly easy really. I decided to immerse myself in the African wildlife, but not to give too much attention to the difficult identification problems. I.e., go looking for mammals, look for birds in the slow moments and ignore anything that is brown.
I left my colleagues at the airport. As they headed for their luxury hotel, I made for Marievale Bird Sanctuary.

Marievale is south-east of Johannesburg off the N17 Toll road. Turn south from the Springs/Nigel turnoff and continue 3 miles or so until the Marievale sign pointing left into a cornfield. It is well signposted from there.
The morning was foggy with thick banks on the roads. When I arrived at Marievale, the mist was dense with occasional lighter patches. Through a relatively clear spot, I saw my first bird of the morning, a Black-winged Kite, ghostly grey in the mist. The road passes along a causeway, with water and reeds on both sides. Red-knobbed Coot are abundant here and were making plenty of noise. Reed cormorants were roosting and Dabchicks called through the fog. A black Crake darted across the road and a flock of Yellow-billed ducks came in to land on the water.
Along the causeway and the approach road, visibility was very poor, so I pressed on into the reserve, making for the Duiker Hide. Even here there was very little to see. Strategically placed posts and rails usually support cormorants and darters, but not today. At last the mist started to lift as I came out into the grasslands.
The reserve is fed by a small stream which spreads out, delta-like and forms extensive reed beds with open water areas. The wet part is surrounded by grasslands and sedges, with farmland beyond. African Stonechat are the most obvious inhabitants of the grasslands at this time of year, but my attention was caught by a shape in the distance. A Marsh Owl was quartering across the rough, tall grasses, occasionally banking and dropping into the grass. It was working it’s way towards me, but seemed wary of the car and kept a fair distance. A second owl appeared and began hunting. More proficient or luckier than the first, it caught a meal on it’s second attempt and flew off to eat it.
Another narrow causeway leads over the top end of the wetland and gives out onto a drier area. From the causeway, I could see more coots, Common Moorhen, Cape Wagtail, Cape Reed Warbler and Levaillant’s Cisticola. Long-tailed Widows can still be separated from the other sparrow-like winter birds by their large size and their remnant shoulder patches. There were a number of these gleaning by the side of the track. Common Waxbills were working their way through the rough sedge stems.
Shelduck Hide is at the furthest reach of the reserve. Dabchick and more coots were making lots of noise. The visibility was much better now and I could see out to the White-breasted and Reed Cormorants. Another Black Crake was searching the edge of the reeds.
As I returned towards the narrow causeway, I caught a flash of blue low down in the grass. A Malachite Kingfisher was peering into a tiny puddle. I tried to position myself to get a clear picture, but the grass was thick and high. I left him and moved out onto the causeway. Close by is a screen. I was going to set up in the screen and wait for the kingfisher to show, but he got there first. He landed just beyond the hide but still construed to be partially obscured by stalks. I tried to sneak quietly into the hide, but disturbed him and he flew on.
I returned to the car without the picture that I had hoped for. But the kingfisher was still around. Using the car as a mobile hide, I was able to approach as he perched close to the road. Then he dived and came up with a water insect. He perched so close to the car, I thought he was going to land on my wing mirror.
Back at Duiker Hide, it was now possible to see out onto the reserve where Egyptian and Spurwinged Goose were basking in the sunshine.
I was able to have a better look in the reeds alongside the approach road and the road causeway as I began home. Someone had told me that they had seen a Goliath Heron, but I missed it. I found an African Darter, some Red-billed Teal and Cape Shoveller. I was pleased to be able to re-affirm my conviction that little brown jobs were not going to be a productive use of my time. There was no sense in wasting time on dull brown birds when there are birds like the Malachite Kingfisher to watch and anyway, I am off to Pilanesberg tomorrow to look for some hairy stuff. I'm sure I will see a few feathers while I am there.

Species List; 40
Dabchick 6, White-breasted Cormorant 5, Reed Cormorant 7, African Darter 2, Black-headed Heron 1, Black-crowned Night-heron 1, African Sacred Ibis 200, Hadeda Ibis 1, Egyptian Goose 6, Spurwing Goose 4, Yellow-billed Duck 20, Red-billed Duck 3, Cape Shoveller 3, Black-shouldered Kite 6, Tufted Guineafowl 6, Black Crake 6, Common Moorhen 25, Red-knobbed Coot 400, Blacksmith Lapwing 10, Grey-headed Gull 200, Red-eyed Dove 16, Ring-necked Dove 60, Laughing Dove 12, Marsh Owl 2, African Palm Swift 1, Malachite Kingfisher 4, Plain Martin 15, Cape Longclaw 8, Cape Wagtail 3, Cape Robin-chat 1, African Stonechat 40, Levaillant’s Cisticola 6, Tawny-flanked Prinia 1 , Lesser Swamp Warbler 12, Common Fiscal 6, Common Myna 20, African Pied Starling 8, Lesser Masked Weaver 15, Long-tailed Widowbird 20, Common Waxbill 5.

The next morning, I was woken at 04.30 to start out for Pilanesberg National Park. It usually takes about 2 hours and I arrived shortly after the gates at Bakubung opened at 06.30 to be greeted by a Mocking Cliff Chat picking around my car.
The park is on the site of a collapsed volcano. It covers approximately 500 km square. A tarmac road (Kubu/Kgabo) runs from Bakubung Gate in the south, to Bakgatla Gate in the north-east, roughly bisecting the park. A second tarmac road (Tshwene Drive) runs east from Kubu/Kgabo to Manyane Gate. The rest of the roads are dirt, but well maintained.
The sun was just up and the light was still a little weak as I took the first turning off the tarmac. The Kgama Loop is dirt road and passes to the west of Lengau Dam.
I could hear the Baboons before I saw them. A large male was calling from the wall of the dam. Other adults approached in submissive postures while smaller animals cowered nearby.
The day continued promisingly with some Common Waterbuck, Impala and Brindled Wildebeest. Then I came across a small herd of Burchell’s Zebra. They were moving towards the road. I put myself into a position to be able to photograph them as they came out from behind the sparse acacia scrub. I was rewarded with a beautiful pose as they hesitated just before committing to cross the road. If this had been my only picture all day, I think I would have been happy!
At the junction, I turned north onto Ntshwe Drive. The birds were keeping me occupied now as the mammals thinned out. Along here were Swainson’s and Natal Francolins, Black-shouldered Kite, Short-toed Rock thrush and Familiar Chat. All the time, the “drink lager” song of the Cape Turtle Dove surrounded me. It is one of the most evocative sounds of the bush.
I continued north, crossing on to Nare Road. On a big meadow around a sharp bend, was a single bull Elephant. He was feeding calmly. So often an elephant, close to the road will attract quite a crowd. This morning, it seemed as if I was the only person who had ventured off the tarmac and I was able to sit and watch him for quite a while before he moved off.
There is one indulgence I always look forward to when I visit Pilanesberg, breakfast at Pilanesberg Centre. An old courthouse has been converted to cater to the tourists. As the name suggests, it is right in the middle of the park and it does a wonderful breakfast. With this thought in mind I let the Elephant go his way and I went mine. Pulling on to Sefara Link, I noticed a big block of grey colour about 200m across a shallow valley. Amongst the acacia scrub were 5 White Rhinos.
Barely slowing as I passed a small herd of Brindled Wildebeest, I came back onto the tarmac and turned south towards Pilanesberg Centre. Just a couple of hundred meters before I reached it, I was stopped by an Impala, close to the road and in good light.
This morning, despite having seen no traffic in the park, Pilanesberg Centre was full and the staff was stretched. My breakfast was disappointing, as was the centre itself. It has been “upgraded”, which so often takes away the endearing characteristics and replaces them with homogenised conformity. But the Warthog family is still there and still good for a close detailed photograph. A salt lick has been placed by the waterhole and attracted a giraffe.
Despite poor service and awful food, it can almost be forgiven when one is in such glorious surroundings.
Another draw for the Pilanesberg Centre is the sightings map. If people have seen any of the exciting animals, they are invited to stick pins in the map to indicate to others where they might find Lions, Giraffes or Elephants for example. There had been very little action this morning, with only half a dozen pins having been placed.
I wanted to sit out the middle of the day at a hide in the north-east of the park. So I took Tshwene Drive eastwards and joined Dithabaneng Drive. Extensive areas of the park have been burned recently and the grass is just starting to grow back. Green grass is a big draw for the plains animals and a good mixed bag of plains game were taking advantage of the fresh shoots. A Sabota Lark picked amongst the blackened stubble.
Burning is often part of the management program in wildlife parks such as Pilanesberg. It reflects the cycle of naturally occurring fires that renew and refresh the landscape. Fires set as part of a management policy are easier to control. An unfortunate incident occurred a few years ago when an unexplained fire ran out of control. 20 or so elephants became trapped in a gulley and were badly burned. The park management tried to treat them, but ultimately, they had to destroy the animals.
Birds find rich pickings here too. A brown Snake-eagle was scanning from the wing and a Lilac-breasted Roller, one of the most wonderfully plumaged birds in Africa, was hawking for insects from the top of an acacia. Just before reaching the hide, 8 giraffes crossed the road ahead of me. The light was wrong from my angle, so I tried to get ahead of them. As I pulled alongside I noticed that 3 of the giraffes were perfectly aligned. Trying to emulate the zebra shot from earlier, I almost pulled it off, but spoiled it by just catching the inside of the car door. Maletse Dam is home to nearly a dozen Hippos. They were hauled up on the bank near to the hide. One of them had many fresh cuts on it’s flank. Perhaps it had been attacked by lions. Hippo skin is very thick so the wounds were probably only superficial, but it did look sore. A family of waterbuck approached and one of them entered the water and swam across to the island on which the hide is built. This is the first time I have seen a Waterbuck do anything to earn it’s name. Usually, I see Waterbuck in the bush and Bushbuck by the water.
I spent a couple of hours in the hide. People came and went. A Red-billed Oxpecker, with a juvenile pecked about on the Hippos and a Black Crake fussed around the animals on the ground, possibly feeding on the flies and insects that find mammals so attractive. Up high, a Black-breasted Snake-eagle soared in the afternoon thermals.
The Waterbuck came very close to the hide. She was feeding in the reeds and looked up as some people entered the hide.
Rathlogo Hide is close to the tarmac road that runs south to northeast through the park. It is on the west side near the top. I moved here at about 14.30 and took some time to watch a male Waterbuck with a fine pair of deeply ridged, curved horns. He came down to the water to drink, then retreated to the long grass where he thrashed about with his horns. This is common behaviour among antelopes, known as bush or grass-horning and demonstrates a male’s aggressive mood and dominant status. People came and went again.
There is a tradition on safari that the “Big 5” should be sought. A moniker from the days when hunting was fashionable, the “Big 5”, Elephant, Rhinoceros, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard, were considered to be the hardest to shoot and therefore the par for a good hunter. Today, these animals are still considered to be the benchmark for a good photographic safari. This tends to demote the other animals to a lower division and interest wanes accordingly. Thus a Waterbuck, even a dominant male displaying his status, failed to capture the attention of people passing through.
The afternoon was passing quickly and the park would close it’s gates at 18.00. Soon the animals would start moving again after their midday siesta. I wanted to complete a figure of eight taking in the other 2 big dams, Makorwane and Mankwe.
The road was blocked on Tlou Drive by 3 vehicles and 2 White Rhino. Although I had 4 sightings of rhino today, with 11 animals altogether, none of them made for a good picture. Further along were the first Springbok of the day, some more giraffe and wildebeest. Approaching the dam, I noticed 3 large white birds, African Spoonbills, and low in the grass on the shoreline, a pair of Hamerkop. A Neddicky, called in chorus with a pair of Cape Turtle Doves.
The light was leaving the sky as I turned onto Mankwe Way and the last loop of the day. At the junction is a kopje, a mound of granite that characterises much of the African landscape. If I were a Leopard, this is where I would choose to live. I can never resist scanning the rocks with the absolute conviction that, one of these days, I will find a leopard, basking in the sunset. As usual, I had to stifle a sigh, but one day…..
Mankwe Way was quiet until I reached the most easterly point when the area suddenly came alive with Brindled Wildebeest, Zebra, Impala and giraffe.
A Slender Mongoose crossed the road ahead. Mongooses are often lucky for me and I often find something exciting shortly after seeing one. Sure enough, just around the corner, in the distance, I saw another bull Elephant.
I think that I have met this one before. He was very recognisable because his right tusk is missing. He once spooked my wife and son during a holiday in South Africa. We were driving on a narrow dirt road. We rounded a corner and he was walking down the middle of the road towards us. He showed no sign of stopping, so we had to reverse back around the corner, hoping that he would continue in a straight line and not follow us round the bend. But he did follow us and we ended up having to retreat nearly half a mile before being able to reverse into a side road and watch him plod past our windscreen.
Then I had to join the procession of cars heading south towards Bakubung Gate. Pilanesberg is big enough to contain many visitors without the feeling that we were all in an enclosed area. I had hardly seen any other tourists today except at Pilanesberg Centre and at the hides.
Close to the entrance to Sun City, there is a service area with a supermarket, fast food and petrol. I was able to fill up here for the 2 hour drive back to Midrand and a well deserved nap.

Species list; 68
Dabchick 6, White-breasted Cormorant 4, Reed Cormorant 3, African Darter 2, Grey Heron 1, Hamerkop 3, African Spoonbill 4, Egyptian Goose 20, Spurwing Goose 12, Yellow-billed Duck 40, Black-shouldered Kite 4, African Fish Eagle 1, Brown Snake-eagle 1, Black-breasted Snake-eagle 1, Crested Francolin 2, Natal Francolin 3, Swainson’s Francolin 4, Tufted Guineafowl 14, Black Crake 1, Red-knobbed Coot 4, Blacksmith Plover 8, Crowned Lapwing 1, Three-banded Plover 2, Speckled Pigeon 4, Red-eyed Dove 8, Ring-necked Dove 30, Laughing Dove 6, Grey Go-away-bird 15, African Palm Swift 6, Red-faced Mousebird 25, Brown-hooded Kingfisher 1, Pied Kingfisher 3, Little Bee-eater 1, Lilac-breasted Roller 4, African Hoopoe 1, African Grey Hornbill 4, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill 1, Rufous-naped Lark 1, Sabota Lark 4, Cape Wagtail 6, Common Bulbul 60, Groundscraper Thrush 4, Short-toed Rock-thrush 2, Mocking Cliff-chat 1, White-throated Robin-chat 1, Familiar Chat 8, Capped Wheatear 1, Tawny-flanked Prinia 1 Black-breasted Prinia 1, Mariqua Flycatcher 4, Southern Black Flycatcher 1, Arrow-marked Babbler 15, Common Fiscal 3, Brown-crowned Tchagra 4, Crimson-breasted Gonolek 1, Fork-tailed Drongo 1, Pied Crow 10, Cape Glossy Starling 4, Red-billed Oxpecker 5, House Sparrow 6, Mossie 2, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow 1, Lesser Masked Weaver 12, Green-winged Pytilia 1, Blue-breasetd Cordonbleu 10, Violet-eared Waxbill 2, Yellow-fronted Canary 8, Golden-breasted Bunting 4.

Mammal species list; 14
Slender Mongoose 3, Chacma Baboon 8, African Elephant 2, White Rhinoceros 11, Hipppotamus 11, Warthog 7, Impala 120, Kudu 2, Brindled Wildebeest 200, Springbok 25, Steenbok 1, Common Waterbuck 25, Burchell’s Zebra 50, South African Giraffe 28.

Reitvlei Nature Reserve does not open to the public until 08.00 so I took advantage of a leisurely lie-in and set off at about 07.30. The reserve is reached from the R21 which runs south to north from Johannesburg O.R Tambo International Airport to Pretoria. The reserve is on the east side of the road at the Irene turn off. It is mostly grassland with a coupe of large dams. There is a good head of game animals with a couple of rhino. In my more snobbish moments, I would not consider this to be “safari”. The animals have been stocked and do not have to survive the predations of lions etc. An injured animal will be treated, not left to the savagery of Mother Nature. Permanent water is assured.
However, time is limited today. I have to fly back to London later, so the attractiveness of a reserve is in its proximity rather than its wildness. I started with Blacksmith and Crowned Plover along the verges of the road. The verges were mowed a meter or two back from the edge of the road. This short grass was popular with the birds and it was possible to spot them from quite a distance away. Orange-throated Longclaw and Long-tailed widow were common. A short distance beyond the entrance gate is the first of the hides. I looks out onto the bigger dam. It was foggy again this morning so visibility was poor. As well as the usual Dabchick, White-breasted and Reed Cormorants, was a winter plumaged Great Crested Grebe. A red-knobbed Coot looked out of place feeding a couple of chicks. The fog, brown reeds, brown grass, winter plumages and the chilly mornings all contributed to the seasonal theme, yet here was a scene reminiscent of Spring.

In the taller grass and sedges, Tawny-flanked Prinias called, but did not show well. A number of cisticolas were certainly present in the grass, but it was difficult to tell which ones. Levaillant’s Cisticola is one of the few cisticolas that I can identify without having to refer to my field guides. It is usually found in damp areas, of which there were plenty.
The Fantailed or Zitting Cisticola is often easy to identify with its bright rump and chit-chit-chit flight song.
There were burned areas which had started to regrow and short green shoots were showing through. A Blesbok, free from worries, was taking a gentle nap. Actually, the Blesbok might start to show more alertness in the future as the park management has recently stocked the reserve with Cheetah.
The road leads across a stream with a small weir at the inflow end of the bigger dam. Here a pair of Egyptian Geese had taken up residence. Beyond them the plains had been burned over a large area. A Black-breasted Snake-eagle patrolled overhead, much to the annoyance of the Pied Crows who mobbed him each time he passed over. A secretary bird discomforted the crows as well. Rounding the top end of the charred meadow, I flushed 2 Northern Black Koorhan. A 3rd and 4th bird were out on the plain.
Sabota Larks liked the burned stubble. African Stonechat was conspicuous in the grass on the unburned side of the road and a Capped Wheatear sat well for a picture. On a post close to the picnic area was a dull brown bird that I thought I recognised. When she flew, the light patches in her wings confirmed that she was a Southern Anteating Chat.
The picnic area held very few birds. There were some Southern Masked Weavers and a small flock of Arrow-marked Babblers. The dam had cormorants, Dabchicks, Egyptian Geese and a single Spurwing Goose. A Grey-headed Gull wheeled above.
It had been a quiet morning, but still better than sitting in a luxury hotel. Can you think of anything worse? But as always happens the time came when the call of work and responsibility could no longer be ignored and back to the luxury hotel I turned.

Species List; 41
Southern Ostrich 12, Dabchick 4, Great Crested Grebe 1, White-breasted Cormorant 50, Reed Cormorant 6, African Darter 1, Egyptian Goose 6, Spurwing Goose 1, Yellow-billed Duck 8, Black-shouldered Kite 3, Black-breasted Snake-eagle 1, Secretarybird 1, Northern Black Koorhan 4, Swainson’s Francolin 1, Tufted Guineafowl 8, Common Moorhen 2, Red-knobbed Coot 20, Blacksmith Lapwing 4, Crowned Lapwing 9, Grey-headed Gull 1, Red-eyed Dove 4, Ring-necked Dove 7, Laughing Dove 4, African Palm Swift 6, Green Woodhoopoe 4, Rufous-naped Lark 1, Sabota Lark 3, Long-billed Pipit 5, Cape Longclaw 22, Common Bulbul 14, Southern Anteater Chat 2, African Stonechat 20, Capped Wheatear 1, Levaillant’s Cisticola 4, Zitting Cisticola 8, Tawny-flanked Prinia 2, Arrow-marked Babbler 15, Common Fiscal 12, Pied Crow 4, Mossie 8, Lesser Masked Weaver 12, Long-billed Widowbird 8.

A total of 96 birds is not a very good total for 3 sites in South Africa. I will do better next time!

Friday 12 June 2009

Ain't life fickle?

In my past, as an angler, I spent thousands of hours on the banks of rivers, streams and lakes. Now, as a birdwatcher, I am still to be found skulking around the edges of watercourses. After all that time I didn’t expect to find much that was new and amazing during a quick trip to Tylands Barn in Maidstone, Kent. Tylands Barn is the headquarters of the Kent Wildlife Trust and has a small pond for dipping. I had gone there this morning to feed my growing habit for dragonflies. Instead I witnessed something that I would have pooh-poohed if I had not seen it for myself.
As I was trying to get a focus on an Azure Damselfly, I heard a splash and looked up. A male blackbird was coming to the ground on the gravel path just beyond a platform used for pond dipping. Large ripples were developing in the middle of the pond. The blackbird dropped something from it’s beak as it landed and proceeded to thrash it against the ground. It was a newt. In the time it took for me to look up, no other bird was visible.
The spray from the splash was in the direction of the blackbird’s flight.
There are no fish bigger than sticklebacks in this tiny pond.
I am tempted to assume that the blackbird was fishing. Not Kingfisher style, nor Osprey-like. I did not see the actual catch, but would suspect that he saw the newt at the surface, swooped across the pond and picked it out as a frigate bird might take crabs off a beach. It is possible that it was opportunistic and that the blackbird saw the newt as he crossed the pond. The ripples emanated from the edge of some submerged weed. Could he have used these as support while dipping for the newt?
He did not make enough of a splash to make me think that he had plunged into the water and he still had a good momentum as he crossed the barrier for the platform. These points make me think that he picked the newt from the water as he flew over.
Newts are amphibians and can move about on land. It is possible that I could have been mistaken. Perhaps the newt was crossing the path when the blackbird flew by. The blackbird may have dropped what was already in his mouth in favour of a bigger meal. There were no remains when I went to inspect the spot afterwards and I don’t think anything else would have made the splash. So I still believe that the blackbird was fishing. He thrashed it against the gravel path too subdue it then hopped back up onto the platform barrier before flying off.

A witness speculated that he was adapting to conditions to feed his family. I must check up on the weather and worm availability for Kent over the past weeks. All my literature tells me that he should be looking for worms and other invertebrates to feed his family. If in fact he did pick up the newt off the path, he would probably not be the first blackbird to make a taxonomical error. But, could he be the first to actively fish from the middle of a pond?

Its an odd phenonmenon that when birdwatching, I am increasingly distracted by dragonflies and reptiles. On my first trip dedicated to dragonflies, I witnessed something ornithological that I would not have given credit to if someone else were to tell me about it. Ain't life fickle.