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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 divine.....my 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 intimidating....so 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!

2 comments:

Linda said...

Beautiful photos.

Linda said...

Beautiful photos! :)