South Africa Oct 02—23, 2008

Posted by Geoff Lockwood

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Geoff Lockwood

Geoff Lockwood's interest and involvement with birds dates back to his early years at school and forms part of a wider interest in the biodiversity of the Southern Afri...

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This year's South Africa tour took place in a context of climatic contrasts. The Cape was coming off its wettest winter in over 50 years, and water was everywhere—including lapping against the road in the Karoo (usually an arid, semi-desert area). The rest of the country was hot, dry, and dusty, and anxiously awaiting the start of the summer rainy season.

In spite of the goods rains, or possibly because of them, spring appeared late in the Cape and many of the migrants that have typically arrived by this time remained elusive. We still, however, managed one of our best Cape "legs" ever, with great sightings of most of our target species.

Our trip around False Bay to the small coastal town of Betty's Bay took place in changeable weather, with intermittent rain squalls threatening. Our first stop at the Strandfontein Beach Resort brought great scope views of six African Black Oystercatchers roosting on the rocks in the tidal pool, as well as Cape, Crowned, and Great (White-breasted) Cormorants.

The hamlet of Rooi Els saw us walking along a disused gravel road, scanning the hill slope above the town for a glimpse of the striking Cape Rockjumpers. An early diversion came in the form of a Cape Grassbird calling stridently from a clump of protea, giving everyone great, close views. This was followed by stunning views of a male Cape Rock-Thrush, a Cape Bunting, and then an exquisite Orange-breasted Sunbird sitting less than two yards away. A pair of majestic Verreaux's Eagles took to the skies, soaring effortlessly along the cliffs in search of rock hyrax, their favorite prey. Margaret's sharp eyes picked up a superbly camouflaged pair of klipspringer—small, agile, rock-loving antelope.

Suddenly, a male Rockjumper called briefly from a rock before disappearing back into the vegetation. We now knew where the birds were, however, and over the next few minutes were treated to repeated scope views of the male and female, as well as two recently fledged youngsters.

Our luck held out. Movement on a large rock right next to the group drew attention to a Ground Woodpecker—a strange, almost prehistoric-looking bird that nests in tunnels excavated into the soil! After eyeing us suspiciously from only three yards away, it flew off and disappeared behind a large boulder. It was time to head for the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens.

Having failed to locate our quest bird, a Victorin's Warbler, in its normal haunt, we were slowly making our way towards the gate when we heard its distinctive call coming from the far side of the garden. Things went quiet when we reached the spot, but a snatch of playback immediately had it responding and eventually sitting out in full view on the edge of the track—less than two yards away! Here was a bird that usually proves very tough giving us walkaway, full-frame views…WOW! Spectacular views of a male Swee Waxbill, one of our smaller and more attractive endemic seedeaters, feeding unconcernedly on the path, wrapped up a great visit to the Gardens.

Our last stop was the Stoney Point penguin colony, one of only three mainland nesting sites for Africa's only penguin species. The sun was out and we were assailed by the sights, sounds, and smells of hundreds of African penguins coming and going around and even underneath us. Walking along the boardwalk we would suddenly become aware of a penguin speculatively eyeing our ankles, or of an adult regurgitating fish for its tiny, fluffy nestlings only yards from the group.

Beyond the penguins, numbers of cormorants were happily indulging in courtship and nest-building, giving the group superb scope views and a chance to sort out the three endemic marine cormorants—Crowned, Bank, and Cape—that are found off the Cape coast.

Driving back to our hotel, we had several groups of southern right whales in the bay, with several bulls contesting the right to mate with a cow…a perfect ending to a fantastic day.

Sugarloaf Campground in St. Lucia has to be one of the best birding spots in Zululand, and we have yet to have a bad day here on these tours. This year, however, the birding was incredible, with all of the "East Coast specials" apparently trying to outdo each other in the quality of the sightings they offered.

Barely had we entered the campground when a harsh crowing, krok…krok…krok…announced the presence of Livingstone's Turaco. We crept closer, only to see first one, then another bird fly out—their crimson remiges contrasting vividly with the metallic greens and blues of the rest of their plumage. A little later, there the two birds were, quietly sitting above our heads and studying us carefully. We had to back away to place the scope (they were that close!). Every detail of these glorious birds was etched into our memories, from their spectacular, long, white-tipped spike-like crests to their outrageously exotic white, black, and scarlet eye "make-up"! It doesn't get any better than this!

Next came stunning views of a pair of Rudd's Apalis (their small, delicate build and subtle coloring in marked contrast to the "over-the-top" knock-out of the turacos) as they busily searched the foliage of a small tree next to us for insects.

A strange, metallic-sounding weeeagh…wonk…weeeagh…wonk…chck-…e…ck…chck…e…ck announced the appearance of yet another of our target birds—a pair of Woodward's Batis. These are perhaps the most delicately colored of the batis group, but as we watched them moving about in the bushes, their wings making soft "fripping" sounds in each flight, everyone was entranced.

We were still looking for Brown Scrub-Robin, however, and time was running out! Suddenly two birds shot out of the bush-clump next to us and chased each other almost through our legs. "Brown Scrub-Robins," I shouted, hoping that at least some of the group would catch a glimpse of these often elusive birds. What happened next was incredible: the birds returned and perched opposite each other, out in the open, and only yards from our spellbound party! Their hauntingly plaintive song filled our ears as we studied the front, sides, back, and tails of first one, and then the other bird.

After several minutes we reluctantly left them and headed for the bus, each of us blown away by some of the best views ever of these special birds.