Rufousnaped Lark

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Chasing lifers in Wakkerstroom

Every November I say to myself "I will go to Wakkerstroom this year" and then something comes up. This has gone on for at least 10 years (talk about procrastinating) and this year I decided that this is the year.

Wakkerstroom is situated in a beautiful valley, 27kms from the town of Volksrust. It lies at an altitude of 1760m and Newcastle and Piet Retief are the closest big towns, both 80km away. The Wakkerstroom district is a major farming area, with the main crop being maize. Cattle and sheep are the main livestock farmed in the area. What makes Wakkerstroom so special is that it is one one of South Africa's premier birding destinations. There are three bird habitat types in the area - wetlands, grasslands and forests and this, together with the mountains make for great birding. It is also home to three bird species that have been on my want list for a long time.....Yellow-breasted Pipit, Rudds Lark and Bothas Lark.

I booked a campsite for myself and a friend, Andrew (a first time birder), who would be joining me with his wife, Anneli, and three year old daughter Abi who couldn't wait to try out her new binoculars on some real birds. Seeing as we were going for such a short time I also arranged a bird guide to meet us on the Sunday morning to find the birds quickly for us.

Looking over the wetland at Wakkerstroom from the Birdlife campsite

It was a beautiful sunny day when we arrived late on Saturday afternoon. We immediately set up camp at the Birdlife Centre then set off for a drive to try for Yellow-breasted Pipit. By following the directions in the excellent book "Birding Gauteng" by Etienne Marais and Faansie Peacock, we quickly found the birds mentioned in the text in almost the exact locations specified. In fact the only one we didn't see was a Ground Woodpecker. In the field on top of the mountain next to the Utrecht road junction we found the first of my target birds in the form of a Yellow-breasted Pipit. Two birds were seen foraging and eventually the male performed a display flight almost right above was only after they had flown off that I realised I had not taken any photos....... here is a photo of the field they were in for you.

Yellow-breasted Pipit site
On the way back we came across a very obliging Buff-streaked Chat next to the road who really didn't mind a photo or two and posed for a quick session.

Buff-streaked Chat

Back at the camp we got the braai going for supper and heard Grey-crowned Cranes calling from the wetland below the camp. Abi got her designer bins out with the crystal clear view (no magnification however)..

That evening was rather quiet but we could hear the Red-chested Flufftails calling faintly in the distance. After supper we headed off to bed in anticipation of an early start where I discovered sleeping on the ground on a thin mattress was probably what it is like sleeping on a padded ironing board.

The next morning saw us getting up at 5 am and heading off to Wakkerstroom town in very overcast and misty conditions to meet up with our guide "Lucky". He took us off in the direction of Dirkiesdorp to look for Black-winged Lapwing, another on my want list, but the site where they had been seen on Friday was covered in thick mist and unfortunately we dipped on this one. During the hunt however we saw a few small groups of Bald Ibis foraging through the grasslands.

Southern Bald Ibis
The weather had turned cold and everyone was freezing by the time we reached the Bothas Lark site (only Lucky will know how we got there after all the bumps and turns). We parked next to a small family homestead and set off into the grass to find this elusive species. Within a few mintues we heard the Lark call and picked up a bird landing in the grass ahead but they are extremely cautious and do not allow a close approach. I only managed good binocular views and a very long distance photo for the record.

Bothas Lark - note the pink bill and you can just make out the whitish belly
With number two in the bag we set off for Fickland Pan to look for Rudds Lark which we also found very quickly after entering the field. Lucky proved to be an excellent guide and we were able to get quite a few pictures even though the bird was highly un-cooperative and kept hiding behind the taller grass tufts.

Rudds Lark

Note diagnostic streak through the crown

Always on the move!!

While driving along the dirt roads at Fickland we disturbed four Blue Korhaans who were busy with courtship chases through the grass. They all squat down in the grass as you approach and only take off at the last minute. The mist was at ground level at this stage making the photos seem a bit soft.

Blue Korhaans in the mist
All in all it was an excellent day and a half's birding which produced a bird list of 100 species including three lifers for my list. There are so many great birding locations in the Wakkerstroom area that you would need at least 3 to 4 days to get to all of them......I know I will be back to at least get better Bothas Lark photos!!

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