04 October 2012 – a mega on our doorstep
I’m sitting quietly in the office on Thursday afternoon grinding away at some work when my phone rings at just after 3:30pm. Local birders, Robin and Heather Wood, have just found an African Skimmer at Rietvlei very close to our house. Wow, what a record, it would be miles out of range and certainly a new record for the Western Cape. Briefly, I wonder about the possibility of something way more esoteric than that, but quickly push the thoughts to the back of my mind…
I sit staring at my computer screen for a full 5 minutes and suddenly, it dawns on me… What the hell am I still doing in the office?! I slam my laptop shut, grab my bag and charge out of the office shouting to my colleagues as I’m already halfway out of the door “Sorry, got to go, chasing a rare bird..!” In most work environments, this would normally get all sorts of weird reactions, but to my colleagues who have been exposed to my craziness for a number of years already, this is pretty much normal behaviour for me and they don’t bat an eyelid apart from the usual shouts of “Good Luck!”.
En route, while actually driving (not wanting to waste any more time), I posted a quick alert to the SA Rare Bird News alert service and also quickly phone Margaret to tell her to hit the road as well. Of course, being stuck in my office meant that I had to get right across town through rush hour traffic and a frustrating 50 minutes later, I pulled up to the gates at Rietvlei with Margaret actually arriving just ahead of me! Now the nerves were starting to set in… We quickly ran across to where the bird had been reported from meeting up with a few other people who had already gotten there and had seen the bird confirming that it was definitely a Skimmer. It was roosting on an island with some Pelicans, but was hidden by them, so it took at least 10 minutes before the bird decided to take a short feeding flight and we actually got to see it. It was one of the longest 10 minute periods of my life…!
I grabbed a couple of record shots before the bird went back to the island to roost behind the pelicans. The bird showed a predominantly white tail just with central dark feathers and an extensively black tip to the bill and also appeared a little chunkier than what I remembered for African Skimmer. Panic started to set in when my mind began assessing all the evidence… Surely this wasn’t an African Skimmer, but actually a much more exciting Black Skimmer…? That species had never been recorded on the African continent before. In fact, there was only one other claim of the species from this side of the Atlantic Ocean. People are going to think we are crazy if we suggest this… What to do? How could I be sure? With no reference material with me, I was quickly on to the phone to a couple of people who had books handy and sat watching the bird and discussing the features with them. After these calls, I felt that there was a very good chance that this was a serious mega, so put another note out on SARBN warning people of the possibility and encouraging them to get there as quickly as possible, something along the lines of “GET HERE NOW!”
It didn’t take long for the first people to arrive and, over the course of the next hour or so, at least 50 twitchers turned up! We eventually had to leave and rush off to Somerset West where I was giving a talk to the local bird club there, but I still managed to process a quick photo and throw it into my talk to surprise the bird club that evening… They were the first people to actually get to see a photo of the bird…:)
I visited the site again early on Friday morning, enjoying the bird with a fairly large group of people and again on Friday evening where still more people were present. By the time we left, the bird was still present (last seen by the reserve staff just a short while after we left) and it boded well for the hordes that were arriving on Saturday morning. Needless to say, Saturday morning dawned bright and early with loads of birders who had travelled from various parts of the country and there was no bird to be seen!
Over the course of the day, various sites in the general area were searched with absolutely no sign of the bird and it had clearly disappeared. What we were definitely not expecting was to get a call from birders in Walvis Bay in Namibia at about 8:30am on Sunday morning to say that they had located a Black Skimmer there!! Subsequent studying of the photos suggested that this was almost certainly the same individual and it had travelled an incredible 1250km in about 36 hours which meant an average speed of around 35 km/h. How bizarre and awesome is that…?! The wonders of birding…:)