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Birding and Tour News:

5 December 2003 - 275 species recorded in a day!

The annual Birding Big Day event organised by BirdLife South Africa, provides an opportunity to demonstrate that the Pretoria area (within a little more than an hours drive) offers world-class birding diversity. In 2003 Etienne Marais once again led his "Raiders of the Lost Lark" team to the top of the Southern African Birding Pile with a haul of 275 species, in under 22 hours of birding. The full report follows, and a list of birds recorded can be accessed here.

In 2003, the "Raiders were made up of Etienne Marais, Faansie Peacock and Rob Geddes, who took the place of Pete Irons. This year we decided to do a completely new route, from eZemvelo in North-eastern Gauteng, and based on the Mabusa and Mkhombo reserves in Western Mpumalanga. This provided the added challenge of finding all-new localities for about 250 species, as well as the excitement of exploring some totally new terrain! For us one of the highlights of BBD is to find new birds in new areas, and the excitement of exploring unknown back roads and negotiating access to good looking private land is one the really big plusses of the whole Birding Big Day experience.

A fairly experimental trial run on the 23rd produced a good tally of 247 species, which included Slaty Egret and Pallid Harrier, and made us realise that perhaps there was more promise in them thar hills then we had previously imagined. At this stage our target for the day was set at 260.

Due to tour commitments, Sunday 30 November was the chosen day, and when the coffee hit ground zero at 2:30am, we had already added Scops Owl to the list. The first night session amidst foreboding hills of the Mabusa National Park, was cool and quiet as an annoying wind seemed to keep the birds from calling. We soon added Redchested Cuckoo, Pearly and a Barn Owl to the list. Heading out into the grasslands north of Bronkhorstspruit saw a rapid acceleration as the cisticolas and larks came alive. Our stakeouts for a couple of tricky birds like Mountain Chat, Wailing Cisticola and Eastern Longbilled Lark seemed to be working like a dream, and a small dam and vlei added a quick 34 species bringing us up to 80 species at around 6:10 am.

Nearby grasslands provided a couple more larks in the form of Melodious, Eastern Clapper, Spike-heeled and a nice Cuckoo-Finch. We also saw our first Amur Falcon of the year. A cracking male Montagu’s Harrier sailed past, but the resident Barrow’s Korhaan are now well into their breeding cycle and did not show their presence, as they have been in the last few weeks.

We met up with Louis Heyns at 06:30 and he took over the driving. We then headed into a beautiful kloof where the first woodland species were encountered. Here we ticked birds like Striped Pipit, Brown-backed Honeybird, Woodland Kingfisher, White-throated Robin-chat and Lazy Cisticola. Another small dam provided Thickbilled Weaver, Village weaver and Dark Capped Yellow Warbler – which is now virtually a trash bird in North-eastern Gauteng. A fast flowing river provided a moment of hilarity as two team members simultaneously shouted “Half-collared” and pointed in opposite directions. There were in fact two birds, but the third team member survived with only minor neck injuries. Here we also got Bearded Woodpecker and Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting, as well as a hunting Ovambo Sparrowhawk.

On to another dam, where we picked up a few more ducks and swallows, as well as some colourful language as our planning whent slightly awry. Due to a miscalculation in our plannign spreadsheet, we found ourselves having to make up some time, as we headed northwards into prime woodland areas. Here we picked up some nice birds in the form of Lizard Buzzard and Flappet Lark, and we then had a brilliant patch of birding and added 7 birds in just a few minutes, including some good ones like Bushveld Pipit and Greencapped Eremomela.

The next two hours slowed down significantly, as it heated up rapidly, and we added only 8 species. We did manage to make up some time, and by the time we got to Siyabuswa Sewerage Works we were back on schedule, with the 200th bird, a Common Greenshank, coming at about 12:45pm. Greater Painted Snipe was bird number 204.

A quick detour to the gate of Mdala for Red-headed Weaver proved unnecessary as the bird appeared on the way there. Having a driver allows all team members to concentrate fully on the birding, and we sniffed out a couple of difficult birds along the way towards Mkhombo, including Southern White-crowned Shrike. Another innovation of this day, is that our route and stopping points were plotted on a GPS, which reduced the number of missed turns - fairly useful when you don't know the route particularly well. We are thinking of offering the track of the day up for sale, to those who might be interested in sponsoring us for 2004. This would enable any other GPS equipped birders to follow exactly the same route and times as we did. GPS units do not however (yet) come out with a means of plotting which way you should look, and whether the stop is for raptors or rails.

Into the Mkhombo we went just after 2:00pm and with our total on 220, we felt that we had a chance of posting a really good score. However it now seemed to be really hot and seedeaters were nowhere to be found. The peaceful shores of Mkhombo lake were disturbed with a few expletives as we got a puncture. Fortunately Louis took care of this, while we did the waterbirds on the lake, and saw large numbers of Black Herons, Common Ringed Plover, Goliath, Yellow-billed Stork and a flock of Lesser Flamingos.

As we came out of Mkhombo on time we realised that we had missed a few expected species and decided to try the villages. Locals looked on in disbelief as a filthy bakkie loaded with white men, wielding weird looking implements screeched to a halt next to a weaver filled tree in the middle of the village. With war-like whoops the men yelled at each other and then went creeping into the undergrowth below the tree to get to grips with a Lesser Masked Weaver, before running after an already moving vehicle and leaping onto it. They roared off with spinning tyres, only to screech to a halt 50 metres further on, as a Marico Sunbird fled a fast swooping Gabar.

We arrived back on the main road at 16:30, with the tally on 254, and went in search of some other absurd dips like Wattled Starling and African Hoopoe. Onto private land towards Rust de Winter, we were treated to a spectacle as a huge termite eruption was on the go. Here were flocks of Abdim’s Stork, Cattle Egret, huge numbers of European Bee-eater, Common Swift, Amur Falcon, Northern Hobby, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Black-breasted Snake Eagle and many others. We also managed to find some of the more common seedeaters, like Scaly-feathered Finch, Shaft-tailed Whydah and REDBILLED QUELEA!

We stayed to enjoy the spectacle and see what else would come along, and this resulted in us running out of light for our last daytime locality. However we got to the Elands River at near Rust de Winter in time to find a few more birds, before the deep Grunt of a Giant Eagle announced that the day was just about up. Our second night-time birding session started with our tally on 268. At this stage there seemed to be quite a lot of “easy nocturnals” still to come, but as we know by now, there are no easy birds in the dying hours of a BBD! At Rust de Winter Dam we got a late calling Shelley’s Francolin, as well as our first Fiery-necked Nightjar. The last four hours of birding produces just four more birds. Grass Owl, White-faced Owl and Marsh Owl all eluded us. Perhaps the best moment of the day was the sound of Monotonous Lark calling at 11:00pm. This was bird number 274, and we were to add only Red-chested Flufftail to reach 275 before the clock ticked over to a new day, just as a Barn Owl flew over our heads, where the Grass Owl should have been!

Birds of the Day: Monotonous Lark, Montagu’s Harrier, Northern Hobby, Greater Painted Snipe, Half-collared Kingfisher, Lesser Flamingo, Cuckoo Finch.

Top Groups: Herons (12), Francolins (6) Raptors (15) Accipiters (4) Cuckoos (6) Larks (10) Swallows (12) Cisticolas (9) Pipits (6) Sparrows and Petronias (5) Shrikes (12)

Final Bird Count for Day = 275

Etienne Marais

Full list of days birds




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Web Site Updated 05 December 2003© Indicator Birding
e-mail: etienne@birding.co.za