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Midnight Birding Challenge with WBC - 150 species recorded in a day.

22 June is the shortest day of the year - the proverbial "midnight" of the birding year, and this year fell on a Friday. We thus opted to conduct the first Midnight birding Challenge on the 23rd of June - a day on which the time between sunrise and sunset is a mere 10 hours 33 minutes. The aim of the challenge was to see how many bird species could be recorded in mid-winter, and I led the group of 18 birders in 6 vehicles on a diverse route in the Ezemvelo area. We started before dawn, with a chorus of doves, but no nocturnal birds to speak of! Natal Spurfowl and Red-winged Francolin called in the early morning - fortunately not quite as cold as some other mornings in the recent past.

Near the gate of Ezemvelo an open piece of veldt produced a host of species, including a family of charming Spike-heeled Larks, some nice Capped Wheatear, Stonechat, Long-tailed Widow and several Southern Ant-eating Chats. Further on along the road, a farmyard played host to large flocks of seed-eaters, and here we were able to sort out Red-bishop, Village and Southern Masked Weaver, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Red-billed Quelea and Pin-tailed Whydah - the latter in a flock by themselves. One of the highlights was found further down the road - a pair of stately Denham's Bustard. The Trichardtspoort area provided us with a burst of Bushveld birds, including Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Thick-billed Weaver, White-fronted Bee-eater, Puffback, Emerald-spotted Wood-dove, as well as gorge specialists like Rock Martin, Mocking Cliff-chat and Cape Rock-Thrush. Further down, a real special was recorded - a pair of Ashy Flycatchers within the borders of Gauteng!!

Higher up on a hilltop, we had excellent close-up views of Long-billed Pipit and also saw Mountain Wheatear, Bokmakierie and Wailing Cisticola. The grasslands and dams of the Vlaklaagte area were productive and we recorded species as diverse as African Rail, Greater Kestrel, Malachite Kingfisher, White-winged Widow and African Jacana. We crossed the highveld via a back road towards the de Tweedespruit area and apart from Desert Cisticola, Black Crow and Crombec, found several Fawn-coloured Larks which toyed with the group, not being willing to show themselves. A nice surprise here was a small group of Bushveld Pipit, which offered excellent views. It was now after 1:00pm, and we were somewhat behind the planned schedule, which did not leave much time to look for the "Diamond Bird" - the rather tricky Tinkling Cisticola. Near Little Eden a Lizard Buzzard did not stay long, and we arrived at our lunch stop with time running out! We used the lunch break to take stock and found the total hovering around the 111 mark! A short but satisfying lunch was followed by a short walk in the beautiful grounds (casual day visitors not allowed), and here we saw Kurrichane Thrush, Southern Boubou, Arrow-marked Babbler and Mocking Cliff-chat again.

Our final birding destination was Bronkhorstspruit Dam NR and we traveled via the Brandbach area, where a few more Bushveld species such as White-browed Scrub Robin, Speckled Mousebird, Crested Barbet and Pearl-breasted Swallow were added to the list. The Bronkhorstspruit Dam area proved well worth it as an hour of birding added over 25 new species to the list - including African Fish-eagle, Goliath and Grey Heron, Great Egret, Cape Shoveller, Hottentot Teal, African Purple Swamphen and Spoonbill. As we left the reserve in the fading light two Marsh Owls put on a display for the group.

We then headed back to the reserve picking up Spotted Eagle-owl and Spotted Thick-Knee along the way. A final count around the fire revealed a list of 149 species, and a few of the group went out in search of nightjars and owls - but to no avail. However a question mark about a small (juvenile) raptor was resolved the next morning and allowed us to add Little Sparrowhawk to the list to make it 150 species, which just goes to prove that winter is not such a shoddy time to go birding in the Gauteng Region! Most of the group felt that this should become an annual event. See you all next year!!

Etienne Marais

Winter Birding Challenge with WBC, Participants: Etienne Marais (leader), Lance Robinson, Robyn Kadis, Dennis du Plooy, Leonie and Dylan Mulholland, Doreen Wood, Lynette Lotz, Lillian Hadley, Neville Hoets, Alison Hanson, Joan Strugnell, Lester Niss Jackson Kone, 4 conservation students from Pretoria Technikon.

For the full list, (excel format) click here.

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