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LBJ Field Course Weekend Report 2-4 February 2007

Leader/Course Presenter: Etienne Marais

Participants:

Frank Timmins
Uli Schackermann
Lisl van Deventer
Jackson Kone
Theresa Venter
Soza Simango
Gerrie van Rensburg
Stephen Meddows-Taylor
Colin Meddows-Taylor
Fatima Visser
Casper Visser

11 people participated in the Larks, Pipits and Cisticolas weekend held at Ezemvelo from 2-4 February. As with our previous field course we concentrated on getting good scope views of as many of the Larks, pipits and Cisticolas which occur in the region as possible. Friday evening was taken up with an in-depth presentation on the ID of these difficult groups with the emphasis on mastering the aspects that are most poorly covered in the field guides - namely gizz and habitat requirements of the birds in question.

At the appointed starting time on Saturday it was still dark and this allowed us the opportunity to get good flight views of a Rufous-cheeked Nightjar as it circled overhead.

First up was the ubiqitous Cloud Cisticola, which seemed to be everywhere, followed by a couple of early morning start up calls by Eastern Clapper Lark, which joined the chorus laid down by the Rufous-naped Larks in the area. We paused to scope some Red-winged Francolin feeding in the road and also went in pursuit of a some Spike-heeled Larks which were moving from bare patch to bare patch in their usual cheery group. Some recently burned patches in the reserve had attracted a host of birds, including a number of Red-capped larks, and in addition to these we saw Spotted Dikkop, Pearl-breasted Swallow and had excellent scope views of a small party of Red-winged Francolin. In this bare area we also spotted our first challenging pipit - a very buffy coloured bird, which was studied and stalked for some time before it became clear that this was one of those troublesome Plain-backed Pipits that is buffy coloured, but was given away by it's rather hesitant tail-wag, overall structure and yellow base to the mandible. A further walk produced good views of Wailing Cisticola, and we also saw Amur Falcons, Common House Martin and Desert Cisticola. In the area below the dam wall several had good views of Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Cape Grassbird and Levaillants Cisticola.

Over the dam were a number of hirundines and we were able to compare House Martins and Pearl-breasted Swallows as they sat on the lines. A drinking African Black Swift also provided for superb views as it swooped past.

We then birded the area around the camp, where we had good looks at both Striped Pipit and Lazy Cisticola in their usual habitat. We also witnessed the sad end to a newly fledged African Pipit, as it was dispatched by a common fiscal while the parents shrieked their protest.

Participants conducted a field observation exercise which involved comparing the gizz and movements of two similar species.

In the afternoon we headed on a more scenic drive down to the bottom end of the reserve, during which the LBJ highlight was getting good views of a genuine Buffy Pipit, which allowed for useful comparisons with the Plain-backed we had seen earlier. This bird was in drier habitat, closer to the edge of woodland. We also saw Lesser Swamp Warbler, Alpine Swift and flocks of European Bee-eater. On the way back to camp we started to encounter larger and larger numbers of swallows. We then discovered the attraction, a massive swallow roost in the reedbed near the friends of Ezemvelo Camp. Here huge numbers of swallows wheeled about before plummetting down into the reeds at great speed. Estimates were bounced around and the group all felt that here were over a million birds!

On arrival back at camp, a pair of Freckled Nightjar obliged by showing themselves as they called and flew above the camp.

Day 2: 3 February 2007

Leaving early we headed for the grasslands north of Ezemvelo. We paused briefly to take a look at some South African Cliff Swallows nesting on a small bridge. In the crisp morning air of the highveld we had excellent views of Rufous-naped larks, various swallows, and were lucky enough to see a Denham's Bustard strolling along on a facing slope. Alse seen here were Wing-snapping Cisticola and several Long-billed Pipits, which seemed to be frolicking around the top of the rocky hillside. Also in the area were more Wailing Cisticola and Rufous-naped lark, as well as Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting and Rock Kestrel.

We then took a circular drive through the grasslands, encountering some raptors which included Greater Kestrel, a soaring Ovambo Sparrowhawk, and a nice male Montagu's Harrier and several Melodious Larks. It was hard work locating the resident Melodious Larks, but eventually everybody got good flight views of the bird. A bonus in this area was the sighting of several Kurrichane Buttonquail. A little further on in typical "trees on sandy soil" habitat we encountered a singing Fawn-coloured Lark.

The "non-lbj" highlight of the morning was an excellent, extended sighting of a Rufous-winged Sparrowhawk as it soared past in company with some Amur Falcons.

We then headed further north to Mabusa NR, where we managed to see a pair of Bushveld Pipit, along with several other birds, including Woodland Kingfisher, Southern Black Tit, Violet-backed Starling and White-browed Scrub-Robin. A long drive back to the de Tweedespruit Conservancy produced a nice Tinkling Cisticola, and also in the area, a handsome Black-chested Snake-eagle. By now temperatures had risen, and it was quite late in the day. Some of the participants headed home, while others continued on to find the last two Lark species. Monotonous Lark was located in an area where it was probably breeding, but was not calling at all.

Conclusion

The aim of the weekend is to introduce participants to a hands-on, practical experience of identifying Larks, Pipits and Cisticolas. Each bird that was seen was examined and discussed. In many cases everyone managed to look through the scope, ensuring that the bird had been well-seen. Debates and discussions combined with field notes enabled all to go home satisfied that they had had rewarding and convincing views of a host of LBJ's. Even where some species were not seen, participants were able to examine and discuss the habitat in depth. In summary 22 LBJ species were studied in depth, and overall 153 species recorded during the weekend.

LBJ SPECIES SEEN/RECORDED

LARKS (8)

Rufous-naped
Spike-heeled
Red-capped
Eastern Clapper
Melodious
Fawn-coloured
Monotonous
Eastern Long-billed (Heard)
PIPITS (6)

African
Plain-backed
Long-billed
Buffy
Striped
Bushveld

CISTICOLAS (10)

Zitting
Desert
Cloud
Wing-snapping
Neddicky
Wailing
Le Vaillants
Lazy
Tinkling
Rattling (Heard)

See also our FEEDBACK PAGE to read what our participants had to say!
The Field LBJ Course at Ezemvelo has become a regular event and in 2007 we plan to run at least three of these weekends. The dates are to be finalised soon. Should you be interested in attending one of these courses please  with your contact details.



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