Overly gorgeous days in the African bush


October 8, 2018

Adam Cruickshank

So after a long time, I thought after an amazing weekend of birding that it would be a good time start blogging again. With the rising price of petrol in South Africa, birding closer to home has become more attractive than the far trips that I used to do to find birds. What has been exciting over the past few months, is that I have been forced to look at the bird life that I have right on my doorstep, and I have been amazed at what I have found. Two weeks ago I decided to atlas my local pentad of the course of a week during lunch breaks and after work, and I managed in less than favourable weather to record 100 species of birds.

On Friday morning Tyron Dall and myself decided to do some local birding, we headed a few kilometers down the road to a birding spot just inland from Umkumaas. It is a location that is really difficult to explain where it is, I managed to find it last year while atlasing in the area. Based on the amount of people that have atlased it over the years, it does not seem like a very well-known spot, which excites me as there will be many birds that are yet to be recorded in the area.

I was nervous as we headed to the location and really hoped that I would still remember where to go, but once we worked out where we were, we took a turn down a road that I didn’t get to explore last time that I came. As the dusty road snaked down towards the river, the early morning silence nature sounds were welcoming before the sand trucks started to drive down to the river for their sand pickups. The early morning sun started to peak over the tops of the mountains as the valley came alive with the sounds of hundreds of birds. We started to see the skies being filled with the birds that we see almost on the daily basis, the skies overhead filled with the Red-winged Starlings, showing off flashes of red under their wings as they flew rushing to get to their destination. The Hadeda Ibises bellowed their African alarm clock sounds over the still sleepy community. Small flocks of Yellow-fronted Canaries flew through the skies flitting from tree top to tree top. A small Green-backed Camaroptera was calling from deep within the bushes alongside the road, teasing us as if to say: ‘spot me if you can’.

Then we found a bird that would be the highlight of the day for us. What prepared us for the sighting was the fact that over the last few weeks we have been endeavoring to learn 30 bird calls a week, and if I be honest there are moments when I get very frustrated because it seems like nothing is sinking in. The Warblers that are pretty drab little birds that already provide identification challenges, for many of these LBJ critters their calls just sound not very distinctive and are hard to learn. Well I guess we didn’t do as badly as we thought, because as we drove along the road we heard a call that had stuck, and it wasn’t any bird, it was a special bird. I have only seen the bird once and even though it was the same day that I saw the famous Malagasy Pond Heron, the bird was still the ‘star of the day’. We started to try to follow the call and locate it in the thick shrubbery, each time we thought we had located it, it would move somewhere else in the tree. After batches of patience mixed with bigger batches of frustration we saw it – a bird whose call almost as beautiful as its plumage – the Gorgeous Bushshrike. No matter how many times you see this bird, it still takes your breath away. This is a bird that the Creator must have taken a little longer to create, an olive green back, a crimson throat and a broad black bar cutting a course between the throat and the powdery yellow belly. Everything about this bird is something to behold, no matter how long you look, it’s details are a visual feast that capture your gaze.  Reluctantly we had to tear ourselves away to try and find some other birds for the day, but our day was made! We had some other great sightings in the pentad including Swee Waxbill, Cape Glossy Starlings, Yellow Weavers and so on.

The next pentad was filled with many of the same birds that we had just seen, but while stopped deep in the valley taking in the sights and sounds of nature at its best, we both heard and saw the Olive Bushshrike and Grey Headed Bushshirke. The Grey Headed Bushshrike called from the tops the trees, just hiding itself from view, and after much persistence he decided to give us a view of it at the top of one of the trees. We also had two African Pygmy Kingfisher sitting no more than two meters on a branch next to the car, with rich colours that no painter could ever hope to give full justice to. On the way home we stopped at a local water treatment plant and were able to see a pair of Southern Pochard. Over the course of the morning we saw 84 species of birds.

The next morning Tyron Dall, Chris Flannery and myself headed inland stocked with caffeine and food supplies, we didn’t know what to expect but I could not see how it could possibly be better than the previous day. Dave Rimmer had kindly helped us work out all the best places to visit during the day and the best times to visit them, so with this information in hand did expect a great days birding.

We started at Cedara Agriculture College just outside of Howick. While driving to the dam we had some great close up views of Cape Grassbird, Red-throated Wryneck and Dark-capped Yellow Warbler. The dawn chorus was filled with the calls of Levaillant’s Cisticola calling from the side of the road, at first they just look like drab LBJ’s, but once you start to look closer the rich colours on the bird really start to burst through the lens of the binoculars. We were treated to a Red-necked Spurfowl proudly calling alongside the dam, trying to not attract attention by hiding in the grass but at the same time giving its whereabouts with its loud calling.

We headed from Cedara to Doreen Clark Nature Reserve and the highlight of the time was seeing a pair of Bush Blackcaps showing themselves a few meters from us in the trees, giving us great views of its pink bill and black cap. The bird almost has a Fiscal Shrike look to it, with a drabber underbelly and pink bill. We tried for the mythical Buff-spotted Flufftail which stayed hidden deep inside the forest and for the Knysna Warbler which also decided that we were not worth it’s precious time.

After a quick caffeine fix and some rusks we headed to Midmar Dam, which was a first for me, so I had no idea what to expect. The Black-winged Lapwing were all over the grassy patch when we first came in, making their monkey like lapwing call, demanding that we pay attention to them as they stood alongside the road. The dam was full of the usual suspects – White-faced Whistling Duck, Red-knobbed Coot, Egyptian Geese and many birds that most KZN birders would tick on any day when they are around any patch of water. The African Fish Eagle called from high in the skies letting us know in case we had missed it that we were in Africa. We kept on driving eagerly looking for the next ‘tick’ for our bird list focussing our tired eyes on every movement that we saw.

We came round a corner after what seemed like many kilometers of driving and a solo Secretary Bird was right next to the road getting some early morning breakfast on the ground. The last time I saw one of these it was a long way off so it was really exciting to see it showing itself off proudly right alongside the road. Tyron decided that this was a bird that had to be photographed, he slowly got out the car, and as soon as the Secretary Bird saw him it started its hasty walk back into the short grass that was around the road continually checking over its shoulder to make sure it was winning the race. He stayed in hot pursuit trying to get that award winning ‘National Geographic’ photo, all of a sudden a brown rapture ducked into the grass. We all thought it was probably something common but we were curious to see what it was. So Chris got sent on an all-important mission, to go into the grassland to flush it, while we waited with our cameras ready to get the photo. He walked as we directed him – left, right, straight, left again – and all of a sudden the bird showed itself, as we took photos it was apparent what we were seeing – an owl! My hands we actually shaking and my heart was beating against my rib cage – I actually think I did what every birder should never do – I screamed out ‘OWL! OWL!’ We were blown away and decided that we need to see this bird again, as we would probably not see it very soon again. So we sent Chris back into the grass where the owl landed and ‘Chris the Amazing Flusher’ managed to flushed the owl again, this time two owls flew out of the grass showing themselves off. This was getting better and better. We decided to walk one more time through the short grass out of curiosity fascinated with what we had just seen, we walked in a line three across and as we walked ten owls flew out of the grass and were flying all around us. This was nature just showing off now and we were very impressed! This was by far the best experience that I have had since I had started birding. The Marsh Owls are beautiful, drab coloured brown birds, which carry and air of mystery about the, graced us with a few minutes of pleasure that I will not forget very soon. We managed to compose ourselves (well almost), after much frantic messaging and phoning people, we managed to still see Blue and Grey Crowned Crane in the farm lands around the dam.

We stopped off at Darville Water Treatment works on the way home but didn’t see anything worth mentioning, probably due to the combination of a ‘hang over’ from seeing 10 owls and some really tired eyes. We managed to end the day seeing 105 species of birds!

This was a very special day that we will find hard to top, but I guess that’s what makes birding so amazing, just when you think it can’t get better, you will discover something that makes the day before pale in comparison.

Until next time I hope you see some amazing birds. Please feel free to comment and share this post.

Blessings, Adam

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2 Responses to Overly gorgeous days in the African bush

  1. Dave Rimmer says:

    Great write-up Adam – and so glad that a bit of my Midlands planning for you turned out to be a magic day.

  2. Ronnie Herr says:

    Hi Adam,
    I really enjoyed reading your latest blog.
    I am a keen amateur bird photographer and i am always available on Saturday’s to go birding, if you ever need company, please contact me on 0835004060.
    I have been going to sites in and around Durban on my own and the recent attack at Burman bush has made me rethink about going out on my own with expensive camera equipment.
    So please if you need company, please dont hesitate to give me a shout.
    best wishes
    Ronnie Herr

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