Wednesday 27 January 2010

Cape Town Specials

Whenever a Cape Town trip appears on my roster, my mind turns to the specialties of that unique area. The vegetation type known as fynbos is exclusive to the southern cape of Africa and supports many endemic animals. On the shoreline, the most iconic of Cape Town’s specialties is the African Penguin. Even non-birders flock (excuse me) to the boardwalks at Boulders, Simons Town.
This week I have made it my task, nay pleasure, to bring you a taste of Cape Town, but first, a selfish indulgence as I take a trip to Paarl Bird Sanctuary.
I have wanted to visit this sewage works in the Paarl valley since reading about in at and a beautiful morning awaited as I set out at 06.00.
To reach Paarl from Somerset West, take the R44 heading north through Stellenbosch. Turn right, east, onto the N1. The first turn off is for Paarl. Head up the main road, R45, to Lady Grey Road, turn right and over the river. Turn left on to Jan van Riebeck and you should start to see signs to the reserve after a short while. To avoid the town, stay on the N1 for an extra junction. As you turn off you will be on Jan van Riebeck
I arrived at 07.00 exactly and proceeded in an anti-clockwise direction. The sun was right in my eyes around the first half, but there were obviously a lot of birds. Long-tailed cormorants and Red-knobbed Coots skittered away across the water as I drove round. There were lots of duck and Dabchicks. A young African Fish Eagle flew from a large tree as I approached.
I had made nearly half a circuit before I stopped to get the camera out. According to the map on the side of a shed at the entrance I had reached the north-east corner of Pond C where I pulled up in the shade of some large reeds, looking out to a small island; reedy at one end and rocky at the other. A flock of White-winged Terns were dipping in buoyant flight to take morsels from the surface of the water. Egyptian Geese, Cape Teal, Red-billed Duck and Cape Shoveler shared the water with the bickering grebes while the edges of the reeds were haunted by Common Moorhens, Purple Swamphen and Cape Wagtails. The rocky end of the island was playing host to Black-winged Stilts and the terns who preferred a lie-in. There were large numbers of Cape Wagtail around the reserve, especially where the sewage treatment was still in it’s early stages. As the wine-soaked effluent passed through it’s most agitated stage, the wagtails were joined on the lawns by egrets. I didn’t pay them any attention as I was trying to get into position to see a harrier, but I am sure there were Little, Intermediate and Cattle. There is a heronry on an island in Pond 4, close to the squatter camp.
A large settlement tank, marked on the map as Pond 3 was teeming with birds. Hirundines of 4 different species flashed low over the water or rested on the wires. I wondered if the traditional scene from Europe of the swallows on the wires awaiting their journey south was re-enacted before the return leg. White-rumped Swifts were feeding higher. On the steep bank on the far side, a Water Dikkop patiently watched the hysterics of a flock of Grey-headed Gulls and the water was a profusion of wildfowl. To add to those already mentioned, I noted Southern Pochard, Maccoa Duck and Hottentot Teal. Blacksmiths Plovers waded at the waters edge on the near bank.
A hide looks out over Pond B. Dry ground in front of the hide held a large roost of Cape Shoveler and a Great Flamingo. Reed warblers were abundant and I got a good opportunity to compare the two most common ones, the Lesser (Cape Reed) Swamp Warbler and the Little Rush (African Sedge (Bush-)) Warbler. I was also pleased to see an African (Marsh) Reed Warbler (someone has been re-evaluating the common names again), some Levaillant’s (Tinkling) Cisticola and a (European) Sedge Warbler. The other hide looks out onto Pond A.
A causeway between Pond A and B looked enticing so I ventured a walk along it, encountering a Malachite Kingfisher as I went. The black bill indicates a juvenile. A small flock of 13 Eastern White Pelicans were on Pond A. Some were on the water, “swanning” with their wings very slightly raised to catch the wind and move them along.One suddenly decided to take a couple of turns around the reserve as though he had been reading my post for Dallas earlier this month. So JR, this one’s for you.
With one lap complete, I went for another turn, this time clockwise. Just beyond where I had stopped before to scan the island, a bridge crosses a small stream which flows through the squatter camp beside the reserve. An adult Malachite Kingfisher looked up at me from a fallen palm frond below the bridge. I went to cross, but a security guard with a dog turned me back saying that the area beyond this point was not patrolled and dangerous people came on to the reserve sometimes. There had been a few robberies of late and I was warned to be very careful of people who may be in the reserve.
A bit further on, I pulled in by Pond A1 and a man approached my car. He said his name was Brahm and he tried to tempt me out of my car with promises of tea and peanut butter sandwiches. It seemed an unlikely ploy if mischief was their intent, so I accepted. They were a group of bird counters and didn’t seem too malevolent on the face of it. Their figures for wetland birds would be sent to the University of Cape Town and thence to a bird demographic organization in Switzerland. It struck me later from what they were saying, that the security patrols had been laid on specially. Perhaps the patrols are not a regular feature, or maybe just at weekends. On a beautiful Saturday morning, I saw only one other person not connected with the monthly bird count. It would be well to check what security arrangements are in place at the gate on arrival.
One of the counters has passed her email address to me and I will put you in touch if you wish to check up on the latest security situation there. The local advice is to visit during the week. Their methods for counting are probably far more accurate than my slapdash efforts and I have adopted John’s figure of 207 White-winged Terns to save myself the laborious task of counting a flying flock. I also noticed that their list included something that I had missed. Some White-faced Duck had been counted and Brahm led me back to Pond 3 to look for them. He is not a birder, he busies himself waging a private war against alien invaders and replanting native species of trees on the reserve.
For the afternoon, I decamped to Paarl Rock in the mountain to the east of the valley. I found a delightful picnic site with a small pond and I spent the afternoon dragonflying. As ever, I refer you to

Bird species; 61

Little Grebe 40, Eastern White Pelican 13, White-breasted Cormorant 4, Long-tailed Cormorant 40, African Darter 15, Grey Heron 2, Black-headed Heron 4, Little Egret 8, Cattle Egret 6, Little Bittern 1, Sacred Ibis 60, Hadeda Ibis 4, African Spoonbill 12, Greater Spoonbill 1, White-faced Whistling Duck 4, Egyptian Goose 35, Spur-winged Goose 4, African Black Duck 3, Cape Teal 90, Yellow-billed Duck 25, Red-billed Duck 12, Cape Shoveler 80, Southern Pochard 4, Maccoa Duck 2, Yellow-billed Kite 1, African Fish Eagle 1, Cape Griffon 1, African Marsh Harrier 1, Helmeted Guineafowl 20, African Swamphen 4, Common Moorhen 40, Red-knobbed Coot 120, Black-winged Stilt 35, Pied Avocet 12, Water Thick-knee 1, Blacksmith Plover 25, Three-banded Plover 30, Cape Gull 4, Grey-headed Gull 250, White-winged Tern 207, Red-eyed Dove 4, Cape Turtle Dove 2, Namaqua Dove 6, White-rumped Swift 30, Malachite Kingfisher 10, Black Saw-wing 20, Plain Martin 100, European Swallow 100, White-throated Swallow 30, Greater-striped Swallow 15, Cape Wagtail 120, Levaillant’s (Tinkling) Cisticola 8, Little Rush Warbler 1, Sedge Warbler 1, African Reed Warbler 6, Lesser Swamp Warbler 20, Fiscal Flycatcher 2, Pied Crow 8, Common Starling 15, Mossie 20, Cape Weaver 20.

As evening approached, I returned to Somerset West and the Heldeberg Nature Reserve, nestling in the lap of the eponymous mountain. It is from here that I hoped to bring you a picture of a Cape Sugarbird.
The reserve is a small informal botanical garden and is one of my favourite sites in Cape Town. It is an easy 10 minute drive from the Lord Charles Hotel and the concierge will even drop you there if you ask nicely. If the gate is not open for an early visit, a car can safely be left outside the gate. RSA15 is the entrance charge for 1 person in a car.
The lower area is lawn and oak trees, but beyond the Mother Goose café (08.00-17.00) it is fynbos. This ecotype is a unique collection of plants found only near the cape. Picture a Scottish moor with scrubby bushes, then add sunshine, proteas, mountains, an ocean and fantastic birds and that is fynbos. A small pond by the café distracted me with it’s odonata again, but as the sun began to drop through the evening sky, I moved into the fynbos to try to get some of the cape specials. I had earlier noted a protea bush that the sugarbirds were favouring and close by was another shrub with red flowers highly fancied by the Orange-bellied Sunbird. This seemed a good place to stake out. As I moved towards my intended position, a Malachite Sunbird flew across the path. It came to rest on an agapanthus bloom in the shade. I didn’t hold out much hope with the poor light, so was pleasantly surprised that it came out at all. Some Cape Francolin and Cape Weavers approached closely while I waited for some other visitors to clear from the path. The bush I had my sights set on was in full sun and I tried to blend into the background to wait for the sugarbirds to show. In fact an Orange-breasted Sunbird was first on the scene and fed amongst the red flowers for a few moments before perching at the top of the bush and calling. Not long after, a pair of sugarbirds landed exactly where I wanted them and posed perfectly. Occasionally a visitor to Heldeberg may see a Bontebok; an antelope endemic to the cape.

Bird species; 25

Long-tailed Cormorant 1, Hadeda Ibis 2, Spur-winged Goose 3, Yellow-billed Duck 3, Cape Francolin 2, Helmeted Guineafowl 2, Common Moorhen 1, Red-eyed Dove 4, Cape Turtle Dove 3, Black Saw-wing 4, White-throated Swallow 2, Olive Thrush 1, Cape Robin-chat 1, Karoo Prinia 6, Fiscal Flycatcher 12, Cape Batis 3, Orange-breasted Sunbird 6, Malachite Sunbird 4, Southern Double-collared Sunbird 6, Cape White-eye 4, Cape Sugarbird 4, Pied Crow 6, Cape Weaver 8, Common Waxbill 8, Pin-tailed Whydah 1.

Mammal species; 1

Bontebok 3.

The next bird I wanted to show you was the Cape Rockjumper. This babbler likes boulder and rock strewn hillsides and the most reliable place I know is Sir Lowrie’s Pass. The Hottentot Holland mountains look down onto Somerset West from the east. Sir Lowrie’s Pass gives access to a spectacular viewpoint and a trail that runs into prime rockjumper territory.
My first spot of the morning was a couple of delightful Klipspringers, high on the rocks, jumping sure-footedly between the outcrops. Spotted Prinias were common this morning, but would not pose for me.
I wanted to reach a spot called Gantouw Pass.This has proved to be a reliable place to go looking for Cape Rockjumper in the past as recommended by
I sat down between two rocky hillsides to watch for the birds and to have my picnic breakfast. 3 Cape Dassies kept a watchful eye on me as they warmed in the early morning sun.
After a while I decided that a more direct, positive approach was needed. A small trail leads from the historic cart tracks up to a pair of signal canons. Still no rockjumpers to be seen, but what a view.
I started back down and noticed a Klipspringer at the top of the far slope. I raised my binoculars to get a good look and saw the red breast of a rockjumper on the boulder beside it. I checked again and saw another bird hop up onto the Klipspringer and begin to tug tufts of hair from it’s moulting coat. Perhaps they were gathering nesting material? Then it became clear that the bird was a Red-winged Starling. I began to doubt myself and wondered if a glimpse of the red in the wing of the starling had caused me to think of the breast of the rockjumper.
Then to the right, a bird was seen scuttling through the crevices between the rocks and it was indeed the Cape Rockjumper, but sadly his photo was not practicable at that distance. Here’s one I made earlier on a trip to exactly the same spot 2 years ago.

Bird species; 14

Verraux’s Eagle 2, Jackal Buzzard 2, Rock Kestrel 1, Common Stonechat 3, Familiar Chat 6, Neddicky 4, Karoo Prinia 4, Cape Grassbird 2, Cape Rockjumper 1, Orange-breasted Sunbird 5, White-necked Raven 2, Red-winged Starling 4, Yellow Bishop 30, Cape Siskin 8.

Mammal species; Cape Dassie 3, Klipspringer 5,

And so to that most photographed of the cape specials, the African Penguin. At Betty’s Bay is the “other” colony, the second of only two breeding locations for the penguins on mainland Africa. It is less visited and less commercialised than it’s famous counterpart at Boulders.
A boardwalk protects the colony from tramping feet and a fence beneath it protects from dogs and land predators. It is open to the ocean where the penguins have to take their chances.
An entrance cost of just RSA10 seems very good value. The rocks here also act as a roost for as many as 4 kinds of cormorant, Today the Cape, Bank, and White-bellied Cormorants were present.
From Somerset West, take the N2 east and cut down to Gordons Bay. From here follow the R44 along the coastal route. Bettys Bay is about 30 kms along that shoreline.

Bird species; 7

African Penguin 400, White-breasted Cormorant 30, Cape Cormorant 500, Bank Cormorant 6, Grey Heron 1, Hartlaub’s Gull 15, Karoo Prinia 2.

Mammal species; 1

Cape Dassie 4.

If you ever find yourself in Betty’s Bay, make time for a little lunch at the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens. It is just a mile further east from the village.
I visited here to look for some more dragonflies and ended up seeing a snake and Orchid spotting.
The Disa flower is the provincial flower of the Western Cape I believe and it only flowers in January, so I was very lucky to catch it apparently. The snake, I could not identify, but some locals looked horrified and kept muttering “boomslang” under their breath.
In the early afternoon on a Sunday, the gardens had more to offer the dragonflier (?) and herpetologist than the birder, but the fynbos trail has proved interesting in the past. Today, time was pressing heavily upon me to return home.

Bird species; 12

Hadeda Ibis 2, African Swift 8, African Rock Martin 2, Cape Robin-chat 1, Karoo Prinia 4, Cape Batis 2, African Paradise Flycatcher 2, Orange-breasted Sunbird 2, Southern Double-collared Sunbird 2, Cape White-eye 15, Red-winged Starling 6, Swee Waxbill 1.

Driving around, I saw a few species that do not fit neatly into any of the above lists, but which help to bring the total for the trip to 101.
Western Steppe Buzzard 3, African Oystercatcher 2 Great Crested Tern 5, Alpine Swift 1, Speckled Mousebird 4, House Crow 20, Southern Masked Weaver 1.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Redwings in the snow

The recent cold and snow has brought a flock of Redwings to our neighbourhood. Perhaps they have come down off the North Downs where the snow still lingers. Don’t imagine that this is my garden, this is the lake at Mote Park in Maidstone. Anyway, they found our road rich in crab apples and cotoneasters and have been gorging themselves for a fortnight on the berries.I tried to get some photos by following them up and down the road, but they did not allow me get too close. Instead, I staked out my front window which is bordered by a spiky Pyracanthus laden with bright orange berries.
I have long thought that birds may have a sense of humour, albeit an odd one. Usually their sense of fun manifests itself in teasing yours truly by waiting in perfect pose until the camera is positioned and as soon as the focus is achieved, they fly off.This week they have been teasing our (I am ashamed to say it) cats. The cats sit on the front windowsill watching the Redwings feeding immediately outside. They go frantic, pawing at the glass and the birds just look back at them and cock their heads as if to say, “Go on girls, give it your best shot”. The birds were not at all disturbed by the cats, but I had to creep up very carefully to the window to get shots. The fruit trees and berry bushes attract our other thrushes too. A blackbird has laid claim to this tree and the Song Thrush has been following in the wake of the Redwings, demolishing the berry crops.
The Redwings were mostly sporting white tips to the end of their tertials which indicates a young bird experiencing it's first winter.

Monday 18 January 2010

Even the bad days are good.

There are some places that grow on you, sites that you become familiar with and accustomed to, places that fill you with anticipation and excitement.
I don’t think that Achimota Forest will ever attain such favoured status.
The guard on the gate needed a bribe to let me in and then insisted on taking me to a sad little zoo with a few monkeys and a cage over-stuffed with birds.
It is an area of thick bush and the forest is denuded to such an extent that it barely deserves the name any more.
From the gate, a dirt road passes through the scrub with side roads dividing the area into rectangular blocks. From the birdsong, one would assume that the birds are plentiful, but the bush is so thick and the birds so unapproachable that I did not even bother to take out the big lens.
I did get some good views of the Yellow-crowned Gonolek, and the Grey-backed Camaroptera, but all the others on the list below were fleeting glimpses.
I walked for about a kilometre beyond the zoo. The tantalizing feeling of hearing birds in the bush turned to frustration when the birds refused to come out to be spotted. Eventually, I turned back and bailed out of Achimota Forest in favour of a quick look at Labadi Beach.

Bird species; 13

Yellow-billed Kite 6, Hooded Vulture 2, Laughing Dove 8, Western Grey Plantain-eater 6, Senegal Coucal 3, Common Bulbul 12, African Thrush 5, Grey-backed Camaroptera 4, Brown Babbler 12, Yellow-billed Shrike 9, Northern Puffback 2, Yellow-crowned Gonolek 8, Pied Crow 30.

A bridge crosses a polluted river just east of Labadi Beach Hotel. The river seeps under the bridge into the ocean immediately south. Waders such as Common Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Whimbrel and Black-winged Stilt, picked along the sandy bank while Western Reef Egrets and Little Egrets waded deeper in.
The northern (inland) side of the bridge was a shocking mess of rubbish, but I was tempted to get the bigger lens out at last by a hovering Pied Kingfisher.Spur-winged Plovers and Wood Sandpipers fed amongst the litter while a Squacco Heron and a couple of Grey Herons roosted in the mangroves.
I must have been in a funny mood today as I could not shake off the irritations of the day and was becoming increasingly dispirited about birding in Accra. So Emmanuel drove me back to the hotel and we agreed to try again later at Aburi Botanical Gardens.

Bird Species; 18

Long-tailed Cormorant 15, Grey Heron 2, Little Egret 8, Western Reef Egret 10, Squacco Heron 1, Striated Heron 2, Yellow-billed Kite 1, Lizard Buzzard 1, Common Moorhen 1, Black-winged Stilt 30, Spur-winged Lapwing 6, Whimbrel 2, Common Greenshank 3, Wood Sandpiper 2, Common Sandpiper 20, Mottled Spinetail 8, African Palm Swift 2, Pied Kingfisher 2.

The botanical gardens at Aburi are on an escarpment about 35kms north of Accra. It was less humid here as well as a couple of degrees cooler. It took about one and a quarter hours to get up there.
The first striking feature of the gardens is the palm-lined road. At the top of one of the dead palms was my first bird of the afternoon, a Splendid Glossy Starling with it’s white eye making identification straightforward. I didn’t realise at the time, but I inadvertently included a few Mottled Spinetails in the picture too. Collared Sunbirds were sitting on a wire lower down with what I took to be a form of double-collared sunbird nearby. I had to look him up in my Helm field guide to “Birds of Western Africa” (Nik Borrow and Ron Demey), and lo…! It was an Olive-bellied Sunbird. Through the hedge I could hear the piping calls of the African Pied (Allied) Hornbill. Four of them were calling and chasing through the treetops.
Some dragonflies distracted me for a short while and a separate post will be found on
Returning to the road I managed to get a shot of the hornbill as it was calling. In a bush beneath him I saw a Spectacled Weaver. For the second time today my homework had paid off. I had been swotting up before the trip and noticed that although the Spectacled Weaver is not present in the area, the very similar Black-necked Weaver is. I would have liked to get a better look to see the sturdier bill, but was unable to see it well enough.
At the lower end of the gardens is a wilder, overgrown and more “birdy” area. A flowering tree outside a restaurant was attracting the sunbirds with both olive-bellied and collared feeding there. The light was dimming now but I tried a few shots before heading back towards the car.For the third time this afternoon, I saw a bird that had a passing familiarity, yet which I knew did not occur in the region. Therefore out came the book again to confirm my first lifer of the decade, a Chestnut-winged Starling.
Just before reaching the car, another flowering tree was playing host to a Splendid Sunbird and a Pale Flycatcher. This was proved to be the most productive 30 minutes of the day.
Despite what I said about Achimota Forest and birding in Accra earlier, it was still better than being at work. Even slow and frustrating days in Africa are better than not being in Africa at all.
Thanks to the concierges Mohammed and Daniel and to Emmanuel for driving me around.
Once again I owe a debt of thanks and more beer to G.L. for his trail-blazing and for passing on his experiences.

Bird Species; 19

Cattle Egret 14, Yellow-billed Kite 20, Hooded Vulture 6, Laughing Dove 8, Mottled Spinetail 15, African Palm Swift 6, White-throated Bee-eater 5, Allied Hornbill 8, African Pied Wagtail 1, Common Bulbul 6, Willow Warbler 1, Pale Flycatcher 1, Collared Sunbird 12, Olive-bellied Sunbird 6, Splendid Sunbird 1, Pied Crow 20, Splendid Glossy Starling 12, Chestnut-winged Starling 8, Black-necked Weaver 1.