29 March – the karoo gets rain…
With the Easter long weekend upon us, we decided not to let it go to waste and put together plans to visit the Murraysburg region in the north-eastern corner of the Western Cape again to work on our challenge list and to try, once again, to see Black-footed Cat. We joined up with friends Cliff and Suretha Dorse and Keir and Alouise Lynch and their son, Cian, for the weekend and based ourselves on the farm, Vierfontein, owned by the family of other friends of ours, Stefan and Madelein Theron.
After a really early start, we travelled with Cliff and Suretha on the fairly long drive through. Shortly after passing through Beaufort West, we turned off the N1 towards Nelspoort and then the long gravel road to Murraysburg. A young Long-billed Pipit just outside Nelspoort had us going for a little while, but eventually we worked out what it was. Over the course of the next couple of hours, we drove slowly along this road stopping regularly to look for birds, mammals, reptiles, etc. It was great to finally catch up with a single Kori Bustard for our challenge list and to eventually get photos (albeit poor ones!) of Vervet Monkeys for the challenge as well. Birdwise, it was fairly quiet with just many Lark-like Buntings and a few Sabota Larks along the way, but it was fun seeing Common Ground Squirrels in the province again as well.
As we got closer to Murraysburg, the heavens opened up and we were caught in a seriously impressive thunder storm which we had to travel through for the last 30 minutes or so to get to the farm. We have not seen THAT much rain fall in such a short period in the Karoo for a very long time!! Already, some of the small rivers were starting to flood over the road and we foresaw a few potential problems ahead of us.
We eventually made it to the farm in one piece and greeted our friends. At this stage, the Lynches hadn’t arrived yet, so once the rain let up a bit, we just wondered around the farm for a bit seeing what we could find. There were lots of Cape River Frogs out and about and we looked carefully at every one of them to see if we could find a Common River Frog amongst them, but it was not to be. There were several Boettger’s Cacos calling as well, but we weren’t able to find any. Perhaps the highlight of the afternoon was finding a couple of Reddish-grey Musk Shrews which we managed to get some photos of, the first time we had managed to photograph this species during the challenge.
Mid afternoon (the Lynches had still not arrived yet) and we decided to go and have a couple of hours sleep in preparation for the long night drive ahead of us. Waking up again at just after 5pm, we realized that the Lynches were still not there and, since there was no cell phone reception in the area, we were now starting to get worried and started planning where to go and look for them. We were still discussing the options when suddenly Keir walked into the farmyard soaked up to his waist…! Now it wasn’t raining, so how did he get so wet…?! As it turned out, they had arrived at one of the river crossings about 1km from the farm at 2pm, but it had come down in force and it was literally impossible to cross with the vehicle. They had also had to wait for it to subside a little before Keir could actually wade through and cross it without the possibility of being washed away. Long story short, we eventually left their car there for the night, trekked their bags over a hill to another road where we took the other vehicles to and then drove them back to the farm.
Later that night, we headed out on a night drive. Lots of Scrub and Cape Hares and Steenbok, a few Greater Kudus, one Mountain Reedbuck, a single distant Caracal and a Rufous-cheeked Nightjar were all we had seen by about midnight and some of the party were now getting a little tired. We decided to drop them all off back at the farm house and Cliff, Stefan and I decided to carry on for a little while longer. After all, with the predicted rain, we weren’t sure if we would get another chance! Slowly driving along at just after 1:15am and a Scrub Hare runs into the road and stops right in front of us. We are still busy looking at it when, out of nowhere, something else darts out of the grass alongside the road and attacks the Hare! It takes a few seconds for it to register and suddenly Cliff bellows out “BLACK-FOOTED CAT!! BLACK-FOOTED CAT!!”. Unfortunately, the hunt is unsuccessful and the cat charges off back into the grass. We follow it with the spot light and it stops to look back at us. Perfect views through the binoculars but, unfortunately, a little too far for photos! We are on a total high when we get back to the farmhouse – we have finally nailed the cat after years of trying!!
After breakfast the next morning, the sun is out for a little while, so we take a walk on the farm. Some nice Karoo birds are seen with good numbers of Black-throated Canaries around, lots of Layard’s Tit-babblers and we also manage to get our first photos of Village Indigobird for the challenge, a really tough bird to find in the province. Overhead, there are lots of aerial feeders enjoying the break in the rain and, in amongst the more common Little Swifts and Greater Striped and Barn Swallows, we also find a single Horus Swift and a couple of Common House Martins.
There are also a few butterflies around and, since this is still a pretty new pastime for us, there are even a couple of lifers in the form of Dull Copper and Tinktinkie Blue. A Southern Pygmy Toad was also a nice find on the walk and, again, a tough species to find in the province.
The afternoon sees us drive to another part of the fairly large farm where we spend quite a bit of time turning over rocks. The results are pretty poor considering the amount of effort put in with just a handful of scorpions, a few Variegated Skinks and a Common Sand Lizard that gets away, but Cliff eventually gets lucky and finds a Karoo Flat Gecko, a lifer for some of the group. According to the records we can see in the reptile atlas, this is possibly only the second ever record for the Western Cape after we found one around a Murraysburg a few years ago as well. We also stopped off at a small wetland where there were lots of Boettger’s Cacos calling and eventually, Alouise managed to find one.
That night, the heavens opened and it bucketed down, so there was no chance of a night drive. We agreed to hit the sack early and wake up at 3am to check the weather to possibly try then. Naturally, once we had crawled out of bed at that unearthly hour, it was still bucketing down, so we climbed back into bed for a few hours…:)
The early part of the day continued to rain hard, but we had set some Sherman traps the night before and at least had a couple of Namaqua Rock Mice to photograph for the efforts, another new species for our challenge list. Naturally, my traps had caught nothing at all and both mice were in Cliff’s traps! He has that kind of luck.
Eventually, the rain backed off just a little and we decided to head out on a bit of a drive. Stefan took us to a number of sites during the course of the rest of the day and we found ourselves turning over lots of rocks and “sinkplaat” looking for what we could find. The afternoon produced some nice animals after a fair amount of effort including a Spotted Gecko, another new species for our challenge list. Other finds included another Reddish-grey Musk Shrew, Western Rock Skinks, Bibron’s Geckos, a Burchell’s Sand Lizard and a baby Karoo Sand Snake. Birdingwise, it was pretty quiet and the weather was terrible for photography, so we never even aimed our cameras at a bird.
Our final morning was a fairly relaxed one and, after packing up and saying our good-byes, we started the long drive back home with just a few stops along the way. A Cinnamon-breasted Bunting was finally photographed for the challenge (although the photo is nothing short of terrible as the bird kept its head turned away from the camera the whole time!) and a Black Stork over one of the rivers was a fitting end to what had been a fantastic long weekend.