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Raiders of the Lost Lark crack the 300 mark in the Dinokeng Region
Etienne Marais

Posted 1 February, 2006

Press Release
Team Profiles
Full bird list (Excel - 64KB)

Full Report

This year (2005) the Raiders of the Lost Lark set out on 1 December with a new look team - welcoming back Faansie Peacock and being joined by Richard Montinaro - participating in his first full-scale BBD.

Given the total lack of moonlight on our chosen night (and as it turned out, starlight) we only started at about 2:30am. Our first bird was actually a dip, when Richard realised that the Wood Owl he and Faansie had heard had been calling in a completely different direction from where Rob and I were playing the tape! (And no, there were no other teams in the area, which is within Gauteng!)

After recording Freckled Nightjar as our first bird Rob's nicotine-enhanced hearing picked out the hooting of BUFF-SPOTTED FLUFFTAIL from riverine thickets. Further night birding eked out Grass and Marsh Owl
Raiders of the Lost Lark Team Members
From L to Right: Rob Geddes, Etienne Marais, Richard Montinaro, and Faansie Peacock

and Rufous-cheeked nightjar, as well as the usual nocturnal Red-chested Cuckoo's and Thick-knees. The day dawned cool, overcast and every now and then, threatened rain. We stopped for a Freckled Nightjar in the road, and it promptly tried to hawk insects under the car, providing one of those memorable moments when we enjoyed being delayed in our intense journey to maximise our day tally. The slowly growing dawn chorus was very productive as we picked individual sounds out of the medley, including some goodies like Cape Rock-thrush, Cape Bunting and Brown-backed Honeybird.

As we headed up the kloof, the woodland session was proving very productive, and we seemed to be getting most of the "possibles" along with virtually all the "probables". Faansie's sharp hearing led us to a calling GARDEN WARBLER, while other tricky birds like Green Pigeon, Pygmy Kingfisher and Ostrich were joined by new BBD birds like HONEY-BUZZARD and ORANGE-RIVER FRANCOLIN - perennial BBD bogey.

We headed out onto our grasslands route at 06:07 with a hundred birds under our belt. Feeling confident and excited we quickly picked up several trickies like Blue Crane, Spike-heeled and Pink-billed Lark, along with common species like Melodious, Eastern Clapper Lark and Greater Kestrel. We worked a bit for Dark-capped Yellow Warbler and Fawn-coloured Lark, but added lots of good bonus birds like Little Bittern, Montagu's and Pallid Harrier (the latter two males) and the usual Red-chested Flufftail and African Rail combination. Etienne's aggressive driving did not stop him from spotting a flock of CUT-THROAT FINCH at 90kph, and soon afterwards we got a Gauteng Mega in the form of BUFF-STREAKED CHAT. Richard's excellent scoping skills picked out a pair of CUCKOO FINCH, and we added Eastern Long-billed Lark to our impressive Lark List. After an excellent dawn chorus and breathtaking grassland loop our total was soaring beyond expectation and edged towards 190 at 09:40 am. Faansie was not alone in his amazement at our progress, but produced the quote of the day, which became the team mantra: "we are dominating". 
A second drive through the Wilge river valley produced Green-capped Eremomela, Village Weaver, Half-collared Kingfisher and Purple Indigobird, although we appeared to be dipping on Tinkling Cisticola and Mocking Cliff-chat. The 200 went by unnoticed at about 10:40am.

The pace was relentless and we continued to accumulate new birds steadily, picking up Jackall Buzzard on the way to Verena. No reduction in accelerator pressure was required to get the House Sparrows at the Verena four-ways. Our "bushveld-grassveld" transition loop north-east of Verena was done at top speed as the bakkie bounced over the rocky road and we added Bushveld Pipit, Fiscal Flycatcher and Greater double-collared Sunbird in double quick time before heading on to Mabusa, where Flappet Larks were in full song. We got to Noon with the total on 220, quite a bit more than previous years, which is an excellent way to keep motivation levels high.

A dam north of KwaMahlangu added more ducks, common Squacco and Brown-throated Martin. The only serious rain of the day came on our longish drive to Mdala, where Etienne negotiated his way out of a R1250-00 speeding ticket before we picked up Red-headed Weaver and headed into the thornveld around Mkhombo just after 1:30pm, with the total on 250! Now we were really pumping with the realisation that we had reached this milestone a good two hours earlier than previous years, with all of the bird wealth of Mkhombo and the Raptor-rich Rust de Winter area still to come.

Mhombo waterbirds were slightly disappointing, but lifted the total upwards with a clutch of shorebirds, Goliath Heron, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and African Fish Eagle. The arid woodlands of Mkhombo offered some superb hotspots where the birding was excellent. Perhaps the highlight of the day was a tree-full of birds which included Green-winged Pytilia, Barred-Wren Warbler, Garden, Icterine and Willow Warbler and COMMON WHITETHROAT! In this area we also picked up tricky birds like Cape Penduline-Tit, Yellow-bellied Eremomela and European Golden Oriole. By 15:45 we had reached 280, and Faansie was not alone in his amazement at our progress - but perhaps a little complacency had started to creep in, as team members swopped logic about how we would need things to go badly wrong not to get to 300!

However the inexorable truth of BBD is that the more birds you have, the less there are left to find and the harder it is to add new birds. The last 2 hours of daylight were hard work indeed!

On to Rust de Winter - and a farm on the way produced an African Cuckoo in exactly the same spot as last year! The Rust de Winter area once again produced it's magic with flocks of storks and raptors, although this year was a little down on other days in the area as we dipped on White Stork, Northern Hobby and Western Redfooted Falcon. Amur Falcon (Eastern Redfooted Kestrel), Lesser Kestrel and Lesser Spotted Eagle obliged and we also filled in some earlier dips in the form of Hamerkop, Red-billed Firefinch, Brown-hooded Kingfisher and Emerald-spotted Wood-dove.

Fortunately we had miscounted, and were actually nearer to 300 than we thought, working hard to get those last seven birds, as the daylight hours started to run out.

The Elands river bridges produced Bearded Woodpecker, Lesser Honeyguide and Speckled Mousebird and we headed for Rust de Winter dam, where we had a long session without new birds, before an OSPREY suddenly flew past, and a "Victorr" performed a dusk chorus. Our 300th bird was African Scops Owl, and after about an hour of searching, we found a hooting White-faced Owl. We headed back to Buffelsdrift with storm clouds chasing us, and the rain threatened as we quickly found a Fiery-necked Nightjar. We then spent a comical half-hour peering into the bushes in Pieter van Zyl's garden in search of a roosting Karoo Thrush, but to no avail! Exhaustion had now started to set in, and having reached 300, the motivation to keep searching for more long-shot birds evaporated, and we decided to call it quits at 10:30, which meant that we our birding day had been almost exactly 20 hours.

Reflections on the day.

We have been quizzed as to what set this year apart from previous efforts, and there is little doubt that for us, the team-work was one of the most important factors. Every team member made an indispensable contribution to the days birding, and the differing skills of each complimented the others superbly, ensuring that we recorded far more as a team, than we would have as individual birders. Team members did not waste words, but were intensely concentrated on the job of finding birds - hour after hour. Jokes and light banter were restricted to the fast drives between localities.

The second major factor was preparation and route planning. Rob and I were able to do a fair amount of recce work this year, building on the route we have followed and developed since 2003, with Rob concentrating on the northern end, and I working on the south. We had also done mini trial runs in the week beforehand, and we were able to fine-tune and adjust the route - only one or two minor spots produced lulls in progress on the day.

It also helped that we have now accumulated a fair amount of data on the area as a whole, and were able to consider options and alternatives, and develop a clear focus on which were priority birds in each area. As it turned out our planning was almost spot-on.

Further factors in achieving the total were luck and kind weather.

The area we covered is mostly rather poorly known, but this is unlikely to remain this way. The area is quite remarkable for the proximity of some contrasting habitats. Here one can record Orange-river Francolin within 5 minutes of Wood Owl and African Goshawk, Buff-streaked Chat within 10 minutes of Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, and Blue Crane within 2 minutes of Bushveld Pipit. Our overall target list was 421 species - and all of those have either been recorded by ourselves or by other birders in the areas along or close to our actual route.

Specials Recorded: (in the context of Gauteng/Western Mpumalanga)

Little Bittern
Western Honey-Buzzard
Lesser Spotted Eagle
Ovambo Sparrowhawk
Pallid Harrier
Orange-River Francolin
Buff-spotted Flufftail
Red-chested Flufftail
Blue Crane
Temminck's Courser
African Grass-Owl
Freckled Nightjar
Pygmy Kingfisher
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
Brown-backed Honeybird
Melodious Lark
Eastern Long-billed Lark
Flappet Lark
Pink-billed Lark
Eurasian Golden Oriole
Cape Penduline Tit
Buff-streaked Chat
Garden Warbler
Common Whitethroat
Icterine Warbler
Olive-tree Warbler
Dark-capped Yellow Warbler
Yellow-bellied Eremomela
Green-capped Eremomela
Barred Wren-Warbler
Wing-snapping Cisticola
Lazy Cisticola
Bushveld Pipit
Southern White-crowned Shrike
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Great Sparrow
Red-headed Weaver
Cuckoo Finch
Cut-throat Finch
Purple Indigobird

Biggest Dips:
African Hoopoe
Grey-headed Gull
Giant Kingfisher
Bronze Mannikin
Kittlitz Plover
Common Quail
Black Kite (Yellow-billed)
Hottentot Teal
Comb Duck
Common Scimitarbill
Bennet's Woodpecker
Black-faced Waxbill

Birds Dipped due to insuffient Team presence/consensus
Martial Eagle
African Goshawk
Wood Owl
Sand Martin
Plain-backed Pipit

Vehicle: Isuzu Double Cab 4X4
Driver: Etienne (we did not use a non-birding driver this year)
Distance covered: about 380km
Start Point - Amanzintaba Resort, Wilge River Valley
Start Time - 02:15
Finish Time - 10:30pm
Hours birded - 20 hours, 15 minutes.
Radius Used - 43km

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