Friday 29 March 2013

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town, March 2013

The beautiful gardens at Kirstenbosch were living up to their billing this morning. Set on the lower, eastern slopes of Cape Town’s most prominent landmark, they are prone to the moods of the mountain, which was in a changeable humour today.

My first lifer of the year has been a long time coming, but only the second bird of the morning was a Black Goshawk that flew across the face of Table Mountain.

A small party of birds at the start of the Braille Trail included Cape White-eye, Southern Double-collared Sunbird and a Dusky-brown Flycatcher. Beyond that the trail was very quiet.

I emerged from the wooded slopes into the Erica Gardens where the sunbirds can usually be found and was treated to a Southern Double-collared Sunbird feeding from a flower and giving me my shot of the week.

I recognised that I was close to the top of the Dell and went to visit Bob James at his memorial bench. I was sad to see that Bob had been joined by his wife Betty who died in 2012. This is where I usually start my search for the Spotted Eagle Owls. A pair can often be found in the vicinity, so my custom is to sit for a few moments with Bob and scan the area.

The Owls were quickly found in a Saffron Tree across the path behind the bench. The female was sitting out in full view, though shaded. The male was further back amongst the foliage in much deeper shade. Photographs were easy to get, but reviewing them in the bright sunshine was a mistake. The review screen could not compete with the sun and they appeared to be underexposed. I purposefully over-exposed to compensate. Reviewing in the hotel later, I realised that the camera’s built in light meter is far more accurate that my own eyes. Note to self; after you have spent a small fortune on technology, trust it!

Having mucked about with settings and white balances, I was in completely the wrong mode when the owl suddenly became animated, so I have had to spend some time with my photo-editor to retrieve this one from the recycle bin.

Further up the slope, examples of the characteristic cape flora can be found. Fynbos is a community of heathy, heathery, feathery plants beloved of Malachite Sunbirds and Orange-breasted Sunbirds.

The protea garden is at the top of the slope and is the best place to look for Cape Sugarbirds. I missed them on my first circuit and had to go around again to find a few tucked away in a large bed without proteas.

The juveniles and females have an elongated tail which is about the same length as their body. The mature males have a more extravagant appendage.

My reptile of the day was a very friendly tortoise, though I can’t reduce it to species level at the moment.

Birds seen; 23

Egyptian Goose 5, Helmeted Guineafowl 8, Cape Francolin 6, Black Goshawk 1, Speckled Pigeon 3, Spotted Eagle Owl 2, Speckled Mousebird 4, Common Fiscal 1 Pied Crow 2, Black Sawwing 1, Sombre Greenbul 1, Cape Bulbul 6, Karoo Prinia 2, Cape White-eye 15, Cape Sugarbird 5, Dusky-brown Flycatcher 2, Cape Robin-chat 2, Olive Thrush 4, Red-winged Starling 2, Orange-breasted Sunbird 15, Malachite Sunbird 10, Southern Double-collared Sunbird 30, Forest Canary 2.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens can be found on Rhodes Drive on the eastern side of Table Mountain (Google Earth ref; 33°59'16.48"S 18°26'7.96"E). 

Bantry Bay, Cape Town, March 2013

I was a little slow to rise this morning, but the promenade at Bantry Bay was very close by which enabled me to get right into the action. Beach Road runs along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean here and a couple of little car parks provide dry roosting and free food opportunities for the gulls (Google Earth ref; 33°55'20.02"S 18°22'38.84"E). Rocks on the shoreline below give sanctuary to the slightly less approachable birds.

Kelp Gulls, Hartlaub’s Gulls and Sandwich Terns were wheeling around in the early morning light on the lookout for surface scraps as the waves broke on the rocks.

A few birds were roosting on the rocks beyond the spray zone. Cape Cormorants and Crowned Cormorants were seen in small numbers which would save me a job of having to get all the way down to Cape Point. The Spotted Thick-knee and Red-winged Starlings had been seen in the suburbs inland.
Birds seen; 10

Cape Gannet 8, Cape Cormorant 8, Crowned Cormorant 8, Spotted Thick-knee 3, African Oystercatcher 3, Hartlaub’s Gull 30, Kelp Gull 15, Sandwich Tern 35, Red-eyed Dove 1 Red-winged Starling 3

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Strandfontein, Cape Town, March 2013

A light breeze brought the occasional stinky waft, but that was a cheap price to pay for a day at Strandfontein. Anyone who subscribed to the “Poop Week Special” on 10,000 Birds will know that where there is poo, there are birds, so the water treatment plant and settling ponds made for good watching. Greater Flamingos are the big draw, but they took their place, unobtrusively on the list with almost 70 others today.

A car is essential for getting to and around the site, but there are no regulations to prevent you from getting out and walking wherever you wish. The birds here are slightly aloof, so it is as well to use the car as a rolling hide. 

The approach road cuts off from Strandfontein Rd (at Google Earth ref; 34° 3'12.88"S 18°31'43.76"E) and it looks as if a residential development is imminent. A snake (Cape Cobra?) slipped quickly off the road at my approach and I stopped, hoping to get a look at it. Instead of the snake, I found a very approachable Cape (Dune) Molerat which was far too trusting to last much longer in the vicinity of a large snake.

Access to the water treatment plant is via a causeway between two man-made lakes. Cape Teal, Red-billed Teal and Cape Shoveler were seen in the lake to the left. On the right, a rustic frame held Great (White-breasted) Cormorant and Long-tailed (Reed) Cormorant. On the causeway itself, a few Blacksmith Lapwing “tinked” at me from the verge. As Usual, thanks go to for their permission to embed their sound recordings. 

Security personnel at the gate take name rank and serial number, but show no further interest unless you get stuck in the soft sand. A couple of my colleagues also visited Strandfontein today and fell foul of the sinky stuff. They were generously assisted by a couple of the security staff, but this is not usually part of their job description so play safe. I was sticking to the good roads in the attempt to avoid a hatrick of getting stuck.

The road leads towards a six-road junction that looks like the axle of a cartwheel (Google Earth ref; 34° 4'58.11"S 18°30'47.69"E). Any road taken from here will produce birds and the best route is the one that gives you the best light. Flamingos were very easy to find as were a good number of ducks. Each pan had its own birds that favoured the particular characteristics of that pan.

Some had sandbars that attracted Kelp Gulls to roost with the Great White Pelicans. Some pans were shallow and muddy and patronised by Little Stint, Pied Avocets and Wood Sandpipers. The road between the gate and the axle had a pan on the left which had attracted Barn Swallows and Plain (Brown-throated) Martins. I stopped here for a while, half-heartedly trying to get a shot of a hirundine in flight, but whole-heartedly failing.

At the southeast corner is an expanse of scrub and dune. An African Marsh Harrier and a Karoo Scrub-robin were seen here, but the Common (Rock) Kestrel stood out as the poser of the area.

The large numbers of some species were often made up from a number of roosting flocks that found space on sandbars, mudflats, road verges and banks of the pans. Gorged hirundines rested on the roads or roosted in the bushes of the dunes.

A Three-banded Plover was particularly faithful to a small patch of bark chippings. It looked as if it might have a nest, but it was in demure plumage indicating that it is still a juvenile. I recall reading somewhere that this plover has a duller non-breeding plumage, but I can’t find that snippet of information again to confirm. Another bird close by was showing the brighter plumage with red eye-ring and base of the bill.

Birds seen 69;

White-faced Whistling Duck 8, Egyptian Goose 65, Spur-winged Goose 25, Yellow-billed Duck 120, Cape Shoveler 300, Red-billed Duck 80, Cape Teal 65, Cape Francolin 8, Little Grebe 15, Great Crested Grebe 1, Eared Grebe 2, Greater Flamingo 700, Cape Gannet 5, Great (White-breasted) Cormorant 125, Long-tailed Cormorant 45, African Darter 2, Great White Pelican 9, Grey Heron 3, Black-headed Heron 6, Purple Heron 2, Little Egret 1, Cattle Egret 160, Glossy Ibis 60, Sacred Ibis 200, Hadada Ibis 15, Black-shouldered Kite 2, African Marsh Harrier 2, Jackal Buzzard 1, Eurasian Kestrel 1, Purple Swamphen 10, Eurasian Moorhen 30, Red-knobbed Coot 60, Blacksmith Plover 60, Common Ringed Plover 40, Three-banded Plover 6, African Oystercatcher 5, Black-winged Stilt 50, Pied Avocet 100, Wood Sandpiper 5, Little Stint 80, Ruff 1, Hartlaub’s Gull 40, Kelp Gull 300, Caspian Tern 35, Great Crested Tern 30, Speckled Pigeon 10, Ring-necked Dove 7, Little Swift 4, Speckled Mousebird 1, Common Fiscal 1, Pied Crow 15, White-necked Raven 2, Plain Martin 60, Barn Swallow 140, White-throated Swallow 15, Cape Bulbul 20, Tinkling Cisticola 2, Zitting Cisticola 4, Karoo Prinia 4, Cape White-eye 1, Cape Scrub-robin 1, European Starling 200, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Cape Wagtail 80, African Pipit 1, Orange-throated Longclaw 3, Cape Canary 1, Cape Sparrow 8, Cape Weaver 8.

Black-headed Heron

Monday 25 March 2013

A quick hit for Cape Town

This is a quick hit for a Cape Town visit. A trip to New York was cancelled, so I was sent here instead. Ah well!

With hundreds of photos to sort through, it’s going to be a while before I can get all the posts posted, so here is a quick taster.


Strandfontein Water Treatment Plant attracts Greater Flamingos that filter feed in the pans. They were joined by almost 70 other species during my visit, including a Common (Rock, depending on your taxonomical allegiance) Kestrel.

Fynbos is a heathy, scrubby habitat characteristic of the Cape. It has its own unique animals such as the Southern/Lesser Double-collared Sunbird.

The summer is drawing to a close in the southern hemisphere, but the weather is still fine. As I sat in a hide at West Coast National Park, I couldn't help but contemplate that looking out across a windswept bay in March in South Africa was markedly different to a corresponding day out in New York.

I will update and make links to the posts as I catch up.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Beaver inToronto, March 2013

I forgot to mention that North American Beavers, Castor canadensis, can be seen on the lakefront right at the bottom of Yonge Street. From the lakewall in Harbour Square Park I was surprised to have one surface just beneath my feet. It swam across the old dock on the western side of the park and disappeared under a small boardwalk where it would have been able to get up onto the land.

The lake front is built up for a couple of miles in each direction from Harbour Square Park so there can only be a few places where it can get up onto the bank. Apart from the small area under the boardwalk, the closest place for it to haul out and find some bark to eat would be on the islands, straight out across the water.
Oh and by the way there were more Long-tailed Ducks!

For a previous visit to the Harbour Square Park, follow the link below;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada Page for more from Canada and Toronto; including; High Park and Leslie Street Spit

Monday 18 March 2013

High Park, Toronto, March 2013

I am desperately trying to balance family, work, birding, blogging and sleep (in that order). Please excuse me if I catch up by being brief.
High Park in Toronto had been knee deep in snow until last week, but today the thaw was taking hold and the paths were running with melt water. The unpaved tracks were quite boggy, so I stuck to the main roads. Not much was seen in the northern part of the park, until I reached  the pond at the bend in Spring Road (Google Earth ref;  43°39'4.53"N 79°27'39.28"W). A few Black-capped Chickadees were found feeding in the pine trees here.

A road leading down to Grenadier Lake from the Children’s Garden proved to be the most productive spot of the day. Dark-eyed Juncos and House Sparrows joined a black Gray Squirrel helping themselves to free handouts from a kindly seed dropper.

A nasal honk alerted me to a Red Breasted Nuthatch which I couldn’t pinpoint for a while. As I searched I found a White-breasted Nuthatch. It seemed to be using a tool to probe into a hole at the base of a branch. It may have been removing debris from the hole in its search for insects, but it held onto a small length of twig as it did it. Are Nuthatches known to use probing sticks? Anyone?

At last I found the Red-breasted Nuthatch working its way through a derelict squirrel drey.
Birds seen;

Canada Goose 6, Downy Woodpecker 3, Black-capped Chickadee 10, Red-breasted Nuthatch 1, White-breasted Nuthatch 2, Dark-eyed Junco 3, Northern Cardinal 1, American Goldfinch 1, House Sparrow 15.
Reach High Park from the Subway train. Take the Bloor – Danforth line (Green Line). Travel west to High Park Station. Simple Huh?

A previous visit to High Park is described at the link below;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada Page for more posts from Canada and Toronto, including;
Leslie Street Spit and Harbour Square Park.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Leslie Street Spit, Toronto, March 2013

The site at the end of Leslie Street in Toronto, where it meets the lake goes by two names; Leslie Street Spit and Tommy Thompson Park (Google Earth ref; 43°38'45.59"N 79°19'15.27"W) . There are 30 or so hotspots and personal locations marked by Toronto’s eBirders, but no concensus on demarcation between the two sites. I have sided with the marker named as Leslie Street Spit – Base as it describes pretty much where I was and is well placed.  I have placed my own marker for the Outer Harbour Spit 

A short way along the road a manned barrier denies any further access onto the spit except for weekends and holidays. I have chosen to interpret the area beyond the barrier as Tommy Thompson Park. There had been some confusion about accessibility, but the signs seemed perfectly clear when I arrived at the gate. Tommy Thompson Park is the extension of the spit beyond the gate, out into Lake Ontario. It is a working site where trucks dump landfill from construction sites and is closed to the public from Monday through Friday. It is only accessible to the public at weekends and holidays. The park has its own website which can be found at this link.

The area before the gate is accessible and can be freely birded. Black-capped Chickadee and House Finch were seen here and an American Kestrel perched at the very top of a tree, raising and dipping its tail to maintain its balance as the branches moved in a slight breeze. A Northern Mockingbird was seen at the same location by the marina gates each morning.

I found a bay at Google Earth ref; 43°38'44.14"N 79°19'39.39"W which suited me very well as the sun was coming in over my shoulder and giving very nice light for photos. I returned to Leslie Street Spit the next morning and though it was by then a weekend and I could have taken a walk into Tommy Thompson Park, I preferred to go back to the bay and sit there for a couple of hours.

The two visits are woven together as one to avoid too much repetition. Beautiful though Long-tailed Ducks may be, there is a limit to the appeal of posts about them. They were immediately obvious and a Common Golden-eye flushed from close to the bank and flew round the small spit with wings whistling.

A spit of land projects out into the water of the Outer Harbour, as the small bay is known. To reach it, I had to pass through the gates of the marina. There was no guard on the first occasion and I tried to find an office to ask permission (honest), but no-one was available. On the second visit the guard happily waved me through and confirmed that I could assume access on my next visit if the gate was open.

Ducks made occasional flights back and forth from the small bay into the bigger water in the lee of Tommy Thompson Park. Common Mergansers and Red-breasted Mergansers were found in good numbers and a small flock of Buffleheads flew past.  The small spit brought me closer to the action and closed the distance with flying birds often passing quite close.

A surprise came in the shape of a White-winged Scoter which paddled away from the end of the spit as I arrived. A small flock were seen later flying past.

Small bushes allowed me to sit quietly, invisible to the birds approaching from either side. Occasionally a Red-breasted Merganser hove into view and grunted a warning to its companions before it dived out of sight.

Evidence of Beaver activity was plain to see and I noticed a jumble of logs, sticks and varied flotsam that proved to be the lodge against the edge of the spit.
Birds seen; 24
Canada Goose 10, Mute Swan 2, Gadwall 15, Mallard 30, Redhead 8, White-winged Scoter 6, Long-tailed Duck 80, Bufflehead 15, Common Goldeneye 20, Common Merganser 45, Red-breasted Merganser 15, Cooper’s Hawk 1, Red-tailed Hawk 3, American Kestrel 1, Ring-billed Gull 60, Herring Gull 10, Mourning Dove 2, American Crow 15, Black-capped Chickadee 3, American Robin 1, Northern Mockingbird 1, European Starling 60, Northern Cardinal 1, House Finch 4.

Street Trolley number 501 and 502 (frequent service, but check Sunday schedule) run from downtown Toronto along Queen Street East and cross Leslie Street about 1.5kms (15 – 20 mins walk) from the gate.

‘Immigrant Family’ by Tom Otterness
In case you are given to xenophobia, check out the brass work by New York artist, Tom Otterness at the bottom of Yonge Street. You can’t help but luv ‘em.

Monday 11 March 2013

Harbour Square Park, Toronto, March 2013

At the southern end of Bay St. in Toronto, where it meets the shorefront, is the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal. At Google Earth ref; 43°38'24.13"N 79°22'36.23"W is a small park known as Harbour Square Park. It is well attended by dog-walkers looking for a quick and easy place to relieve their pets first thing in the morning. A wooden promenade stretches along the lakefront and from it, one can look out towards Toronto Island.

The water here is sheltered in the lee of the islands and was very calm this morning. The light on the previous evening had been poor and this morning, the sun was taking its own sweet time to come out from behind a thick bank of cloud close to the eastern horizon. I was impatient to get some pictures, so I started anyway.

Long-tailed Duck were feeding on mussels and fish that sheltered around the concrete, dock-like shoreline. They were close in, sometimes too close and wouldn't fit into the viewfinder. 

I cannot say why some of the males carried their long-tails, stiffly, out of the water, while others allowed it to trail in the water behind them.  I got the impression that it was dominance-related rather than a mood-influenced behaviour. The cocked- tail males had a more virile, energetic look to them whilst the trailing-tail males appeared submissive and passive.

Red-breasted Mergansers found good eating close to the bank too and dived for small fish along the wall. Most of them were females with the brighter males in their breeding colours appearing to be more wary and staying further from the bank.

The square, concrete bay at the southwest end of the park was probably an old dock. A single Redhead mixed with some Greater Scaup and American Coot, while a female Common Golden-eye dived for mussels in a shallow corner.

The sun works its way around to be full in your face by mid-morning. Its best positioning is in the early afternoon, by which time it has moved to behind your right shoulder as you look out across the water. The old dock gives a good angle to catch the early morning light and the reflections from the apartments make the water much more interesting.

Birds seen;

Canada Goose 5, Mute Swan 2, Mallard 8, Redhead 1, Greater Scaup 2, Greater/Lesser Scaup 8, Long-tailed Duck 50, Common Goldeneye 4, Red-breasted Merganser 25, American Coot 6, Ring-billed Gull 6, European Starling 8, House Sparrow 10

Harbour Square Park is so convenient from our hotel that I visited each morning and evening as I came and went. The list above represents an average over those visits in early March.

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada Page for more posts from Toronto including High Park.