Rufousnaped Lark

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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Warbler Weekend - Zaagkuildrift Feb 2016

Zaagkuildrift Bird Sanctuary and Lodge
Well, after many years of wanting to attend the Warbler Weekend run by Etienne Marais in the Zaagkuildrift area I finally found the time and funds to go with and I wasn't disappointed. 

Firstly I have to say that my birding trips of late have been plagued by bad weather, so much so that farmers actually invite me to come birding on their farms just so that they can get a bit of rain. I mean we have had a bad drought this season and rain has been minimal to say the least. As I left Pretoria in peak traffic, the thunder clouds were looming to the North and I assumed that this weekend was not going to be a sunny affair. Arriving at Pienaars River, there were puddles everywhere and it was obvious that there had been quite a cloud burst. This was confirmed as I reached the dirt road to Zaagkuil....I had not yet experienced the road in this condition with the new bird mobile and was a bit worried about the notorious intersection where the sand congregates to create a deep sand trap that had caught numerous vehicles in the past. But I cruised over this area with a bit of slipping and sliding and converted the mobile from a shiny city car to something resembling a Dakar rally contestant. Mud clung to the bodywork and splattered the wind screen making bird spotting a challenge to say the least... and using the wipers was a disaster as the window washer reservoir depleted itself after the first squirt....Murphy!! Squinting through the brown blurr I finally made it  to the Zaagkuildrift Bird Sanctuary and Lodge which was to be our base for the weekend.

My Room (the pillows were very comfy)
 It is always a bonus to go birding and have comfortable lodgings at the same time and this lodge was very comfortable and the food was mouth is watering again just at the the thought of those steaks we had on Saturday night....

View from my room
So after a short briefing and some background on the techniques to use when searching for these elusive species, we had supper and headed of to bed to get enough rest for an early start (Lazy Birder heaven?).

Saturday morning saw us walking off into the veld to search for the abundant warblers of Zaagkuildrift, well that's what you expect when birding with an expert in the correct habitat. I was kind of expecting them to jump out of every bush fighting for a position, chirping and whistling a birdy translation of "tick me, tick me!!". It turned out to be a little harder than this, of course!

A short walk from the lodgings is the floodplain with lots of good warbler habitat along the edge of it.

Floodplain (note the Oxpecker taxis to the right)
Crossing the floodplain had its own issues and we were all carting a fair percentage of the soil along with us as the mud clung to our shoes. It was a case of walk ten paces, stop, clean shoes, carry on, or like me try to ignore the escalating weight on your feet and focus on the birds..

Muddy Boots - (Photo courtesy of Fay and Peet van Eeden)
Etienne Marais is an excellent birder with an ear tuned in to birdsong, within minutes he was picking up all the churrs, chips and tjeets which make up the various warbler alarm calls. Whitethroats and Marsh Warblers were more common in the smaller bushes along the floodplain and Garden Warbler was found in the taller trees along the river banks. Icterine Warbler was found in the taller trees away from the water and Willow Warblers popped up just about everywhere. This sounds amazing I know but seeing them was another challenge altogether. Etienne chirped and squeaked and spished to try and lure them into the open but all that most of us could see were brief glimpses of these phantoms hopping from one bit of cover to the next. I suppose from the birds point of view, having thirteen apex predators focussing on you alone must be extremely if observing these birds was a mission, photography was a no-go...the Icterines were the only furtive warblers to let me have a sniff at a record image..

An actual Icterine Warbler, note the grey legs
Another Icterine Warbler that allowed a quick snap (from a safe distance of course)

After all this excitement and hard birding, my stomach was making growls similar to those made by a lioness when her cubs are threatened, luckily it was time to head back to the lodge for a sumptuous breakfast with all the necessary proteins and carbs to keep us going for the day.  This done we headed out to the Kgomo Kgomo floodplain to look for the other elusive warbler, Olivetree, but we couldn't find any as the area was still very dry despite the good rains on Friday night. We did see a good number of other birds (84 on my count) with highlights for me being, Village Indigobird, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Barred Wren-warbler, Marabou Stork, Gabar Goshawk, Juvenile Lanner Falcon, Ashy Tit, Great Sparrow pair feeding chicks, Temmincks Courser and a large flock of Black-winged Pratincole. At the end of the day we went to a secluded spot on the floodplain for a sundowner where a pair of Yellow-billed Storks gave us a slow fly past. (We had just been talking about Saddle-billed Storks being seen on the plain so I blurted out "Saddle-billed Storks" when this pair came into view....oops!)

Male Village Indigobird
Male Village Indigobird
Barred Wren-warbler
Lesser Spotted Eagle?
Yellow-billed Storks

Back at the lodge we all went down to the boma for another delicious meal! The 300g steaks, mentioned earlier were cooked to perfection and my favouite pudding was served for dessert. It was here that the group got to know each other a bit better, a glass of wine or beer always helps to break the ice in a new group and we got to talking on some really interesting subjects. Birds mainly! I for one found out that I am not the only one that has bogey birds or has an influence on the weather conditions when birding, whilst others are blessed with finding these same bogey birds and was informed that if you go to the prime habitat for said birds they will "always be there" just waiting to show themselves to you....hmmmmmm!  It was also decided at supper to move our search for the Olivetree Warbler to Mkhombo Dam the next day. Mklhombo is a large dam mentioned in a previous blog on this site, which is about 50km up the road from Zaagkuildrift, that is known as a regular spot for this species. 

Sunday morning came around and we were up early as usual, had another great breakfast and headed off to Mkhombo. Once again the clouds were building up and rain looked imminent. The drive there was quite rewarding as there were a lot of raptors along the way. The first one seen along Zaagkuildrift road was this Ovambo Sparrowhawk that looks as if it is partially leucistic?

Ovambo Sparrowhawk
The others were pretty normal for the area with the exception of a dark form Steppe Buzzard in fresh plumage!

Wahlbergs Eagle
Male Lesser Kestrel
Steppe Buzzard

Mkhombo was full of waders and waterbirds as usual and it took some time to sift through all of them in search of the recent specials that had been seen there. Black-tailed Godwits, Caspian Plover, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Osprey were on the list but unfortunately we did not see the godwits or the plovers. The Osprey made an appearance in the distance, but then again it is "always there"....(private joke)...

Western Osprey

One of the exciting parts of driving Mkhombo Dam is navigating the tracks without driving over one of the sharp stumps that are littered about everywhere and getting a puncture. Needless to say we all succeeded and got away without a single flattie. Woodland birds here are excellent as well and at last we caught up with the Olivetree Warbler, not one, not two but 4 birds calling in one small area, seeing them was once again a challenge that I failed in, despite standing still and watching the bush for any movement. But we again saw Whitethroat nicely and also saw a few Willow Warblers..

Searching for the Olivetree Warbler
Luckily there are more willing photographic subjects and I managed a few snapshots before I had to call it a day and head back home.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Male Namaqua Dove
So all in all it was a great weekend with great accommodation, great food, great company and great birding, oh, and the weather wasn't that bad after all! So until next time!! Toodles!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Bezhoek Lodge - Mpumalanga

Cycads - Encephalartos middelburgensis 

After our return from the UK I was invited to take part in a team doing a survey of the birds of Bezuidenhoutshoek Farm near Middelburg in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa. Adolf and I left after work on the Friday and drove through to the farm, arriving at around 21:00 with the wind blowing which didn't bode well for a good list. Obviously it was dark when we arrived and birding was rather quiet, apart from a Spotted Eagle-Owl that we flushed from the roadside. I was introduced to the rest which comprised of Eric (part owner of the farm), Vic (the birder who has an excellent knowledge of the birds on the farm) and Dave (the photographer) who works with Adolf. Our sleeping quarters were luxurious to say the least and we each had our own rooms, which meant we could each snore to our hearts contents without bothering the others....although I woke up in the early hours thinking I had heard a leopard coughing outside. This was a blessing as I had once shared a much smaller house with some serious snorers whoc kept me awake most of the night..

It felt like I had just closed my eyes for 5 minutes when It was time to get up and go birding.. At 04:29, not normally a productive time for The Lazy Birder, the first bird I heard was Natal Spurfowl followed by Black and Red-chested Cuckoos, Woodland Kingfisher and a Rufous-cheeked nightjar calling close to the house.We bundled our cameras and selves into a Landcruiser game viewing vehicle and set off into the dawn. By 05:30 our list was already at 23 and counting. We stopped for a Black Cuckooshrike that was calling and heard a Woodpecker tapping in a nearby tree. As we watched and listened I became aware of a vaguely familiar call in the background which bugged me as I tried to place it. Suddenly it dawned on me..............trogon!!! Narina Trogon, identified for the first time on this farm and pretty close to Gauteng too. The light was pretty bad as it was overcast so photograph opportunities were non-existent at this stage but we tried some shots anyway, just for the record...opening my photo account with a Violet-backed Starling female.

Violet-backed Starling - Female
One thing I was impressed with was that these guys knew how to bird, we stopped often and even had a great cooked breakfast out in the bush with Dave doing a brilliant job with his gas bottles and pans. Vic showed us his identification skills and was a great on his calls too. Eric did all the driving and I personally felt that he did an excellent job, switching off immediately after we had a called a stop to studying some flitting bird or listen to calls. During breakfast I learned that these guys had been friends since 1977 after meeting during off-road/enduro motorcycling events and they had even done the tricky Roof-of-Africa event back then, when it was more difficult on the old bikes. Having been an off-road biker myself (although probably nowhere near as dedicated as these guys) I thought that it must be a natural progression to go from biking to birding...the camaraderie between them showed through and it turned out to be a really enjoyable day of birding..

So for what it is worth, here are the best of a really bad bunch of photographs..

Levaillants (Striped) Cuckoo

Black Cuckoo

Lazy Cisticolas were common and very vociferous

Wailing Cisticola

African Quailfinch - biggest flocks I've ever seen...

Little Bee-eater

Denhams Bustard Flypast

Spike-heeled Lark - showing the spike heel for which he is named
Lesser Kestrel - female settling into the roost for the evening

And lastly so that the mammals also have a place here.....a slinky Cape Clawless Otter which we observed from a tall cliff overlooking the Olifants river which runs through the farm..

Cape Clawless Otter - see the webbed hind feet through the water?

Adolf and I had to leave on Saturday afternoon as I had other obligations to perform on the Sunday but I really hope to go back one day and do it all over again....and again.....and again....but will probably have to wait until next years bird count (if I'm lucky)

Monday, November 23, 2015

UK Oct 2015 (Part 3) - Lands End to Weymouth

Once again the bed at Lands End Hotel was very comfortable, I don't know what they make them of but they are definately not like the ones they have here in SA. If I could get one like that here I would most definately.....what is this blog all about again....oh yes, the birds I saw on the trip.

Morning at Lands End

One of the first birds I saw for the morning was another couple of lifers in the form of a few Great Black-backed Gulls with a couple of Shags on the rocks below the hotel. don't know why they call them that but I did think of a few funny scenarios when telling friends about what birds I had seen.......nope, I'd rather not say but I'm sure you have a good imagination.

Great Black-backed Gulls

European Shag

Time was running out so we headed off from Lands End, down the narrow country roads once more to the quaint little town of Mousehole (pronounced Mowzel locally). A really small village with narrow streets and houses with small doorways.

Mousehole Harbour 

We spent a bit of time here, after parking on the harbour wall we took a walk around the town and I was able to get a few photos of the local birds. Herring Gulls were plentiful as usual in the coastal areas and there seemed to be a lot of immature birds. These I identified as first winter birds?

Herring Gulls - 1st Winter Birds?

Down on the beach in the harbour I noticed some small waders running along the beach. We took a stroll down and as we got closer, we realised that they were Turnstones....not at all shy like ours in SA. I sat down in front of their intended path and managed to photograph a few before they got nervous and headed back up the beach away from us..


One thing that was a challenge was the light, it was overcast a lot of the time and I had to play with the ISO settings to get the shutter speed up fast enough to get sharper images. After we left Mousehole, we headed up  to Weymouth with the cloud cover getting thicker and thicker and the light fading badly.

We got to Weymouth and checked into the Riviera Hotel. After dumping our bags in the room we headed off to explore the town and I discovered that there was a bird sanctuary on the outskirts. RSPB Lodmoor! The light was really horrible by now and it was decidedly more miserable than the last few days had been. Taking a stroll around the reserve I got another few birds for the trip.

Eurasian Teal - Male 

Northern Lapwings

Eurasian Spoonbill - Immature

Eurasian Blue Tit

Eurasian Coot
And that was it for the day, it started to drizzle and after spending some trying to photograph a snipe and a distant Dunlin we headed back to the hotel for a meal and bed..Hopefully it was one of those soft comfortable ones again?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

UK Oct 2015 (Part 2) Lynton to Lands End

We had a nice stay at the North Cliff Hotel in Lynton, the bed was extremely comfortable and the room was very cosy. It was with great effort that we got up to continue our journey, so late in fact that we opted to skip the tour of the flood museum at Lynmouth and carry on to next overnight stop at Lands End.

Lynton to Lynmouth Railway

We drove down along the coast through Bude and Bodmin until we reached the Bedruthan Steps where a giant supposedly used the rocks to cross the bay at high tide when the beach is completely submerged.

Bedruthan Steps

This was eventually where I managed to get to grips with some birds, I noticed small flocks of birds that kept landing and taking off along the cliff edge. With some patience and a bit of stalking I eventually managed to photographed them and what did they turn out to be, pipits.....Rock Pipits.

Rock Pipit (Anthus Petrosus) x 3

I really enjoyed these birds and sat and watched them for quite a while. Their high pitched piping contact calls are very un-pipitlike in my opinion and when I first saw them flying around I thought that they may be some form of euplectids? It was strange for me to see them in flocks as our pipits are mainly loners or at least associate in loose groups.

While watching them I picked up a different bird sitting right on the edge of the cliff. On closer inspection, this turned out to be a male Northern Wheatear in non-breeding plumage..

Northern Wheatear - Oenanthe Oenanthe

Unfortunately I only got the one shot as in my excitement to photograph the bird I didn't check my settings properly and completely blew the rest. Notice all the "miggies" flying around his head, as I walked along the path I had to keep dodging them so that I didn't get a face full, I imagined it was like a Star Wars movie and I was flying through a meteor field, hahahaha (I'll never grow up...).

Another bird I enjoyed watching was this Stonechat (Northern?), which is a familiar bird here in SA but this one looked somehow different, not as neat and colourful as ours but a little scruffy and grizzled looking (according to my Collins fieldguide this should be spring plumage?).


One bird that I heard almost everywhere I stopped was the European Robin which is very vociferous and extremely furtive at the same time. It took me a while to realise that the calls I was hearing (which sounded very sunbirdlike at times) belonged to this bird. I tried everything to get the bird in the open but as you approach them they go quiet and disappear, eventually out of frustration I played a Willow Warblers call from my Roberts Multimedia and out popped the robin..(he probably thought that it was spring and the warblers had returned).

European Robin

A real Christmas card type photo don't you think? It looks like snow in the background but its actually the light coloured roof shingles of the shed behind him...

One group of birds that were also very common on our trip were corvids. They seem to be everywhere but are very wary and don't really allow a close are two of the species we saw..

Carrion Crow


With that we left Bedruthan steps and headed off again through the hedgerows to Lands End where the sun was shining and we got some nice sunset shots and another difficult to photograph birdie..

Lands End Hotel

Lands End Panorama

We walked the paths around the hotel, enjoying the scenery and taking lots of photos. then just before the sun disappeared behind the horizon I caught up with a tiny bird which had been teasing me all day, they just don't sit still for a minute. It wasn't really a competition quality photo but at least I had a record shot of a Winter Wren..(its on the right hand rock by the way ;-) )

Winter Wren

And that was it for the day, we went to the hotel pub and spent R450 on two toasted sandwiches with crisps and salad and two beers....the restaurant food was even more expensive!! Imagine what food you could buy for that amount here in Pretoria???

Well at least the room was nice, the bed was again very comfortable and we slept well. The view from our window was also great!!

Lands End Hotel window views!!

 Part 3 to follow shortly.....Lands End to Weymouth