22 March 2012 – all hell breaks loose…

I’m sitting in the office on Thursday at lunch time when I receive a phone call from Johan Johanssen saying that they have some photos of a crake that they would like to send through to me to assist with the identification. No problem, I say, send them through. Due to some email difficulties on their side, it takes a while to send them, but eventually, a couple of hours later, an email arrives in my inbox from Gillian Barnes with a few images of this crake that she photographed earlier this morning at a small wetland in Clovelly.

I open the photos and nearly fall off my chair. Surely this is a female Little Crake??!!! It’s a species that has never before been recorded in Southern Africa with only one previous record in March 1980 (from northern Zambia) from south of the equator on the African continent. In fact, when I wrote a short chapter on birds that might still turn up in SA over the next few years in the Birding Gauteng book that was published a few years ago, Little Crake was one of my predictions. But here I was faced with the distinct possibility that there was now one actually here. I quickly forwarded the photos to my friends Peter Ryan, John Graham, Phil Hockey and Cliff Dorse to ask them if I was “smoking something too good” and what they thought the bird was and, within minutes, Peter had responded saying that it looked like a Little Crake to him as well. Panic started to set in…

I sat back and considered the situation for a few minutes – I was in my office about 40km from home (which was literally totally in the opposite direction to where the bird was!) and did not have binoculars, a scope or a camera with me. It was now getting late and could I risk going all the way home to collect the stuff and then fight my way back to the site through the rush hour traffic? No, that would be a crazy idea! I quickly phoned John Graham to see what he thought, only to find that he had already dropped everything and was on his way! And there was another voice in the background too. He had already collected Peter Ryan from his office too! Decisions, decisions… Fortunately, my business partner had a pair of compact binoculars lying in his car, so I grabbed these along with the office’s “point ‘n shoot” camera, quickly re-arranged a couple of work things and then ran like hell, not before making that all important phone call to Margaret to let her know that she had better be on her way soon too!

Surprisingly, I was the first one to arrive on site and met up with Gillian Barnes there. She had just seen the bird before I arrived and it had now walked into a thick clump of reeds. I stood there shaking, waiting. John arrived. Still no bird! And, suddenly, out she popped into full view. Flippen’ hell! There in front of us stood a cracking female Little Crake! We watched her in total disbelief and I even managed to take a couple of record shots with the point n shoot. Peter was soon alongside us and we chatted about it for a few minutes confirming all the necessary diagnostic features just to be sure before breaking the news to the rest of the birding world. This was going to cause mayhem!

17h01 and the message goes out on the SA Rare Bird News alert system “MEGA MEGA ALERT: Little Crake in Clovelly“! Right in the middle of rush hour traffic – this was not going to be good for twitchers’ hearts! Within seconds, my phone starts ringing off the hook with frantic twitchers wanting directions and begging for us to please not chase it off. I don’t know how they did it in such a short time, but in less than 20 minutes the first cars start to roll in. At 17h30, there are already about 15 people there. By 18h00, the numbers are now swelling, while all the time everyone continues to enjoy this absolutely mega bird. A quick head count 30 minutes later as it is starting to get a little dark now reveals that there are now about 50 people there already! What a day! Eventually, it’s too dark to see the bird, so we head off back home to go and relax and savour the experience.

The first twitchers enjoying the bird

I arrive back on site on Friday morning with my own bins and camera before it is even really light. There are already a large group of expectant twitchers gathered there catching glimpses of the bird in the half light. I spend the first couple of hours of the day there managing to get some record shots of the bird in poor light and enjoying the social side of things before heading back to the office. Throughout the day, more and more people arrive with the first long distance twitchers from Gauteng arriving on site by 09h30 and the first ones from Durban pulling in just after 10h00! My phone is like an absolute hotline with people phoning through updates and others phoning for updates before making travel arrangements from all parts of the country. It’s Friday afternoon and I really can’t handle too much more of this, so I find myself leaving the office early again and heading back there. Fantastic afternoon light on the bird finally allows for some half decent photographic opportunities and also to catch up with the gathered masses. At this stage, close to 150 people have already seen the bird.

Early on Saturday morning, Margaret and I head back out there and see lots of old friends and get to meet lots of new ones too. We spend most of the day in the area, leaving for a while around lunch with a group of friends to go and celebrate at a nearby restaurant. There is a constant stream of people throughout the day, many of them from other parts of the country, to come and see this little gem. And, boy, does it perform well for them! Not acting at all like a secretive crake should, it walks around in the open not in the least worried about all its admirers. Although there are many other species in the area, including some quite confiding African Snipes, nobody really pays them too much attention and just concentrates on the crake – understandably so! This is almost certainly the biggest twitch ever is SA birding history and, at the time of writing this blog, close to 600 people have already been to see this bird! Unfortunately, on day 12, the bird also decided that it had had enough of the admiring masses and did a disappearing act leaving a good number of birders highly disappointed. I wonder whether this will go down as the most exciting birding event of 2012 or whether something else will still come along to overshadow it later this year…

Whatever the case, this is the first new bird I have had in Southern Africa since the Golden Pipit in Pongola in December 2010, so it’s been a bit of a dry spell and I am certainly not complaining about my latest addition…:)

Little Crake

Little Crake

African Snipe

Twitchers enjoying their latest tick

Twitchers enjoying their latest tick


~ by hardakerwildlife on April 3, 2012.

2 Responses to “22 March 2012 – all hell breaks loose…”

  1. Great story and thanks for all the news on recent sightings.

  2. Wow – and to think this bird was just across the valley from where I live – and where was I – in The Kruger National Park – I heard about it from a complete stranger who saw the BLSA sticker at the back of my vehicle and noted the CA registration. “You’re in the wrong place right now,” he said
    I flippantly replied that I’d rather be in KNP:-)

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