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A Superb Day of Warblers and Quails - 31 January, 2004A day trip with John, Henk and Sven was dedicated to getting good views of some of the more uncommon and tricky warblers, which congregate in the wide band of woodland alongside the Pienaars river valley in late summer. Common Whitethroat and Olive-tree Warbler are present, the former being common in some years. European Marsh Warbler is usually very numerous here in late summer, and Icterine Warbler, while less common, is usually a more co-operative.
The first calling warbler (a European Marsh) was deemed to be too inaccessible, and our attempts to see a second resulted in mere fleeting glimpses, before we were sidetracked into trying to see one of the numerous Harlequin Quails, which seemed to be calling from all over the area. This first "stalk" failed, but shortly afterwards a splendid male Harlequin Quail came out onto the track and walked casually towards us, calling all the time. What a stunning bird! The superb patterning could even be considered to make a Narina Trogon seem quite boring!Our patient "hunt" to see these tricky warblers was frequently and briefly interrupted by some of the other birds in the area, including Crimson-breasted Shrike, Southern Pied Babbler, Marico Flycatcher, Greenwinged Pytilia, Jameson's Firefinch and Tit-babbler.
The next stop for Common Whitethroat turned into an attempt to see a Small Buttonquail, which ended up calling from a thick patch of rank grass between us - but attempts to see it did not prove successful, although a Common Whitethroat was briefly observed as it moved through the area.
Surprisingly, 3 out of 4 of the Widowfinches we saw turned out to be Purple Widowfinch, (Indigobird), and yes - if well seen this bird really does show a beautiful if subtle purple sheen, particularly on the back. The bird we looked at closely, and which was also heard imitating it's host species, had pinkish-white legs, which depending on light conditions, often need a really good scope view to avoid mistaking them with brighter orange-red legs of the Black, or Variable Widow-finch (In Eastern South Africa that is - elsewhere the identification of this groups is more tricky!).A thick patch of trees, with dense thickets and undergrowth produced first a pair of Le Vaillant's Cuckoo, and then several excellent sightings of European Marsh Warbler, and then Common Whitethroat - which sat up on a bush, showing it's diagnostic jizz.
Everywhere the Quails called - for the full 25km stretch of road, there seemed to be at least 1 Quail every 100m. The habitat where the quails occur is very extensive in this area, and all has had good rain - a conservative estimate would be 100 000 ha of suitable habitat and assuming that each pair occupy 4ha (which seems very conservative), there may be around 50 000 Harlequin Quails in the region.A treeful of Southern Carmine Bee-eater provided superb colour and we also saw Kalahari Robin, Barred Wren-warbler, Crested and Natal Francolin, Wahlberg's Eagle, Southern Yellowbilled and Redbilled Hornbill, Burchell's Starling and migrant Redbacked and Lesser Grey Shrike. Also much in evidence were the parasitice whydahs - Longtailed Paradise and Shaft-tailed being particularly pleasing on the eye with their superb orange buff and black colouration. Dense shrubbery next to a cattle kraal provided views of more European Marsh Warblers, and excellent views of Icterine Warbler, with it slower, more twangy warble.
The Olive-tree Warbler proved more difficult, and a stop for a calling bird resulted in us flushing a pair of Small Button-quail - which once again played hide and seek with us, while the Olive-Tree laid low for a while. We went onto the floodplain at Kgomo-kgomo where the third bee-eater of the day, Blue-cheeked, was present in large numbers. Here we also saw Chestnut-backed Finchlark and an assortment of Herons and Storks, as well as a lonesome Blackwinged Pratincole that provided superb Scope views from the bridge. A second stop at the spot where Olive-Tree warbler had been calling proved worthwhile as the bird kept calling and provided glimpses before diving into a dense acacia tree and disappearing.Etienne Marais - 1 February 2004
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