20 July 2013 – a reptile at sea…

•July 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Trevor was lucky to join another Zest for Birds pelagic trip today (co-guiding with Barrie Rose, Alvin Cope, Cliff Dorse and John Graham). The extra set of guiding eyes was a response to our slightly surreal sighting of an Amsterdam Albatross close to Cape Point last week, as we had unrealistic hopes of finding the bird again. Unfortunately the weather was not ideal, with a north-west wind of around 20 knots and a choppy sea, and we were troubled by some light rain after rounding Cape Point.

Amazingly, at around 4 nautical miles past Cape Point, Barrie picked up a Wandering-type Albatross at long distance flying parallel to the boat, and the views we were able to accumulate between rolls appeared very similar to last week’s mega albatross. Unfortunately, the bird disappeared into some rain and despite following its course for some time we were unable to relocate it.

The waters close to the shore had an unusually large collection of Sooty Shearwaters, and an interesting shearwater with darker, uniform underwings was seen amongst them, close to the boat. This is a feature of Short-tailed Shearwater, but it was felt that the bill length was too long and the leg extension too little for this species, and so we let it go. Due to the rain and spray we got no pictures, and so it will remain unidentified.

Our voyage outwards took us out of the rain and into clear skies, and we added good birds as we headed southwards. Antarctic Prions were regular and gave excellent views, and Soft-plumaged Petrels and Great-winged Petrels were seen early in the trip. A loud yell of “Turtle” from Cliff alerted us to a Loggerhead Turtle loafing close to the boat and we were afforded great views. This is a particularly uncommon species in our part of the world and was also a new species for our Western Cape challenge list. A brief Sunfish spotted by Alvin was unfortunately not seen again.

Loggerhead Turtle

Loggerhead Turtle

As was the case last week, we were unable to locate a trawler and so did some chumming with fish oil in the vicinity of the shelf edge. We brought in Wilson’s Storm Petrels, Soft-plumaged Petrels and Antarctic Prions for good close looks, and a quick flyby of a very similar Slender-billed Prion was only revealed from examination of photo’s shortly after setting off northwards. Astonishingly, we did not see a single Pintado Petrel, even when chumming. These are strongly attracted to chum and so there cannot have been any within reasonable reach of the boat (downwind, of course).

Our voyage home was quiet, although added further views of Humpback Whales.

Shy Albatross

Shy Albatross

Slender-billed Prion

Slender-billed Prion

14 July 2013 – showing our friends a lifer…

•July 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Our friends, Keir and Alouise Lynch and their son, Cian, had spent the night with us last night and, as they were still looking for Antarctic Tern for their lifelists, we decided that a little jaunt up the west coast to a roost that we knew of would be a good bet. These terns visit South Africa during the austral winter, arriving in the Cape in late May and departing again in early September.

Just over an hour’s drive later (after having stopped off for a take-away breakfast), we arrived at Mauritzbaai and headed straight for the tern roost. It was almost too easy as we could just walk out to where the terns were the Lynchs could just tick them off. Carefully scanning through the roost of several hundred birds revealed only a handful of Swift and Common Terns hidden in amongst the majority of Antarctic Terns. They were in a wide variety of plumages ranging from juveniles through to adults in both summer and winter plumage. We spent the next little while photographing them and enjoying their antics before calling it a day and heading back home.

Even if one doesn’t get a new addition to your own list, there is still some enjoyment in watching the smiles on your friends’ faces as they get to tick off another lifer…:)

Swift Tern

Swift Tern

Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern

13 July 2013 – a mega pelagic trip

•July 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

After a long break, we eventually managed to get out to sea again today on another Zest for Birds pelagic trip (Trevor co-guiding with Cliff Dorse and John Graham). The weather was a bit miserable, with a 15 – 20 knot north-westerly wind and a bit of rain around, but predictions were that the wind would go into the south-west at midday and the swell was a choppy but still relatively easy 2,5m south-westerly swell, ensuring an easy ride home.

Our trip outwards was relatively uneventful, bar a steady accumulation of the regular pelagic species and a heavy downpour for 10 minutes or so. An unseasonal Manx Shearwater was a surprise, as were a sprinkling of overwintering Arctic Terns. By the time we were in the trawling waters, the skies had cleared somewhat but our spirits dampened again when we realised that there wasn’t a trawler or fishing boat within radar range.

White-chinned Petrel

White-chinned Petrel

Shy Albatross

Shy Albatross

Black-browed Albatross

Black-browed Albatross

We birded on and accumulated a good list of species before turning back for home. Highlights were some excellent views of Soft-plumaged Petrels and Great-winged Petrels revelling in the windy conditions and showcasing their spectacular powers of flight, and a magnificent young immature Southern Royal Albatross that flew the length of the boat before disappearing down the wake. Pintado Petrels were their normal endearingly friendly selves and the prions showed very well, but all appeared to be the regular Antarctic Prions.

Pintado Petrel

Pintado Petrel

Antarctic Prion

Antarctic Prion

Soft-plumaged Petrel

Soft-plumaged Petrel

Southern Royal Albatross

Southern Royal Albatross

Our voyage homewards was back into overcast conditions, but was entertainingly punctuated by regular visits from Soft-plumaged Petrels, and it was when watching one of these at only 6 nautical miles from Cape Point that a huge dark brown bird got up off the water some 150m or so off the starboard bow. Calls of “juv Wanderer” immediately went up from the guides and cameras were lifted and snapping away as this graceful giant flew level for a short while before heading off to the south-east. Immediately, something did not feel “right” about this bird and we carried out the mandatory review of pictures immediately and realised that there was something seriously amiss with this bird. Despite its overall brown “monkey jacket” type plumage and white face, it showed a glaring broad white hind collar that contrasted with a dark brown cap and ear covert line, and a broad white belly. Closer examination appeared to reveal a dark cutting edge and dusky tip on the bill, near diagnostic features of the critically endangered Amsterdam Albatross. Subsequently, the photos were sent off to a number of experts across the globe and the following passage is a direct quote from the SA Rare Bird News Report a few days later:

“We have finally reached a point, after having done some very thorough research into the various possibilities and communicated with a number of people on the issue, to announce that we now believe that the bird we saw and photographed about 6 nautical miles south-west of Cape Point on Saturday, 13 July 2013 was, in fact, an AMSTERDAM ALBATROSS! We have not taken this decision lightly and have discussed the issue ad nauseum with a number of people. It seems wrong, when so many people have given detailed and valuable input on the bird, to single out just a few, but there are 3 people who certainly should be mentioned and who all add definite weight to the credibility of the record.

The first two are the world’s leading seabird identification authorities, Hadoram Shirahai and Peter Harrison, both of whom have confirmed that they are happy, based on the latest understandings of identification criteria (much of which is not even published in literature yet!), that all other possible candidates can be eliminated and the bird is definitely an Amsterdam Albatross. The third person that deserves a mention is Jean-Paul Roux, the person who wrote the paper originally describing Amsterdam Albatross to science, and he, too, has come back to confirm the identification as that species! We could not have asked for a better vote of support for this record than from these 3 gentlemen!

This is a hugely significant record of a species that is classed as “Critically Endangered” with current population estimates sitting at a maximum of 170 individuals left in the world! I still have to check this, but it may well be the rarest species (on a global scale) that has ever been recorded in Southern Africa. Although this species has been satellite tracked into our waters before, there has never been a sight record that has been confirmed up until now. We count ourselves as truly fortunate to have been on board when this really special bird came to visit the boat and are extremely thankful that we managed to get photographs of it which were able to confirm the identification. Big smiles all round…:)”

Amsterdam Albatross

Amsterdam Albatross

We continued on home, adding Humpback Whale and a playful pod of Long-beaked Common Dolphins to the trip list to bring to an end surely our most memorable pelagic trip of 2013 so far!

Long-beaked Common Dolphin

Long-beaked Common Dolphin

07 July 2013 – cleaning up the Moss Frogs…

•July 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Having spent last night with our friends, Keir and Alouise Lynch, in Hermanus, we decided that this morning would be a good opportunity to try once again to find Drewes’s Moss Frog at Fernkloof Nature Reserve. It was a species that we still needed for our Western Cape challenge list and was also the last Moss Frog that we needed to complete the suite on our frog lifelist.

This species, described to science as recently as 1994, is restricted to just a few mountains around Hermanus where it inhabits moist seeps on the mountain slopes. It can be very tough to find, even although one hears them calling frequently and has resulted in much frustration (along with the other Moss Frog species) for us in the past.

View from Fernkloof Nature Reserve looking down to Hermanus

View from Fernkloof Nature Reserve looking down to Hermanus

After a good breakfast at a local restaurant, we decided to tackle the walk up the mountain with Keir and Alouise and their son, Cian, who often joins us on our forays into the field. Within 15 minutes of starting the climb, we were already starting to hear the frogs calling, but most of them seemed to be in fairly inaccessible places. After a reasonable walk, we eventually got to an area which was more accessible and then Keir hit luck and found one literally right next to the path! Almost an anti-climax for this tough species, but we were not going to complain. Young Cian was certainly excited about it too! Finally, Drewes’s Moss Frog in the bag! Nothing quite like setting out to find a target and actually finding it! Lots of photos later and we eventually began the walk back down and the long drive back home… with big smiles on our faces!

Cian is all smiles with the find...

Cian is all smiles with the find…

Drewes's Moss Frog

Drewes’s Moss Frog

29 June 2013 – a local rarity…

•July 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Having just gotten back from Peru, I was still rather tired but, with news of an immature Green-backed Heron that had turned up on a small holding just south of Atlantis (which is not too far from where we live), we decided to head out there this morning. Apparently, the bird was most reliable between 11am and 3pm, so that also suited me for a more relaxed start to the day…

We arrived there just after 11am to find a few others there already who were looking for the bird. Some of them had been there for over an hour already with no sign of the bird, so we all just sat back and waited. There was a little bit of activity around the pond where the heron had been seen with lots of Cape Weavers busy nest building and a few other species coming and going, but not much else, so it really ended up turning into a bunch of twitchers sitting around and talking nonsense…

After more than an hour of sitting around, the bird suddenly came flying in and landed in front of us! Quite a surprise as, by this stage, we were beginning to believe that it had moved on. It hung around for just a few minutes, enough time to snap off a few shots, before it disappeared again. Fortunately, a little while later, it was relocated at another pond across the road and we were able to get more views, albeit slightly more distant, of this rather unusual species for the Western Cape. No matter what the species, it is always good when a twitch is successful, especially so close to home…:)

Green-backed Heron

Green-backed Heron

10 – 12 May 2013 – a milestone celebration…

•July 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

When we received it early in the year, it probably didn’t take us longer than 2 seconds to accept Michele Tarboton’s invite to Warwick’s 70’s birthday bash. After all, this was bound to be a party of note! The first part of the year has flown by and the weekend arrived for us to pack our bags and head off to Modimolle, catching our flight at 8am on Friday morning. It was great to be part of a large delegation of people from all over the country and continent that descended on Combretum Park just outside Modimolle, previously known as Nylstroom.

The group getting ready to party...

The group getting ready to party…

Combretum Park is a privately owned nature reserve with some small chalets and a camping area set in some wonderful patches of Acacia woodland very close to the famous Nylsvlei Nature Reserve. Fortunately, because we were travelling from far, we were allocated a chalet for the weekend as we couldn’t lug all our camping equipment along with us. This was a relief as it meant we didn’t have to go through the pain of setting up camp… but it didn’t stop us having a bit of a laugh as we watched some of our friends setting up their tent…:)

Our chalet

Our chalet

Our chalet

Our chalet

Watching Johann and Lizet Grobbelaar setting up camp...

Watching Johann and Lizet Grobbelaar setting up camp…

After picking up our hire car, the drive to Modimolle was quiet and uneventful. The calls of Grey Go-away birds confirmed that we were now in the heart of the bushveld, a part of our country that we don’t get to see enough of and that we miss terribly when we are not there!

Grey Go-away-bird

Grey Go-away-bird

With all the good intentions of doing some serious birding, attempting to get some photos and maybe even finding some rarities, most of the weekend turned into a social gathering of note, catching up with old friends and getting to know new ones. The evenings were most entertaining with slide shows shown by a number of people. A very interesting video of a Crowned Eagle on a nest and a hilarious video of a Honey Badger trying his luck with an Aardvark had us in hysterics, but the best photos had to be those of Warwick ranging from a longer haired stud climbing trees to him standing in a vlei with no pants on…:)

Lots of socialising...

Lots of socialising…

Patrick Cardwell lets us into some of Warwick's long-forgotten secrets...

Patrick Cardwell lets us into some of Warwick’s long-forgotten secrets…

Johann shows that the celebration is thirsty work

Johann shows that the celebration is thirsty work

All too quickly, we had to start packing again with lunch served at Grobbelaar’s residence halfway between Modimolle and the airport. A huge thank you to Michele and Warwick for inviting us to be part of this memorable occasion. We had an amazing time!! Happy birthday Warwick!

Crested Francolin

Crested Francolin

Cardinal Woodpecker

Cardinal Woodpecker

Crested Barbet

Crested Barbet

05 May 2013 – chasing a marabou…

•May 25, 2013 • 1 Comment

Once again, our target for the day was a new species for our challenge list. A Marabou Stork had been reported from farmlands just to the east of Bredasdorp and seemed to be hanging around. It is still a fairly rare bird in the Western Cape and, even although we had seen it in the province before, we had not managed to connect with one since we started with our challenge. We invited friends Bryn de Kocks and Cathryn Golby to join us for the twitch and collected them in Somerset West on the way through.

After about 1,5 hours drive, we arrived in the right area and, after surprising a Black Sparrowhawk that had just recently killed a Helmeted Guineafowl and was busy eating it right next to the road (it took off and disappeared before we could get any shots of it.!), we started slowly driving along the road. It wasn’t long before Cathryn actually picked up the stork walking around in amongst some sheep out in one of the fields. Great, that was a relatively easy and successful twitch for a change (we have had a lot of bad luck recently with chasing rare birds). We spent the next little while enjoying the bird, watching its antics and taking lots of photos of it. At one point, it found an old animal carcass in one of the fields and spent some time feasting on this. The carcass looked like it had been there for weeks already and it really didn’t look all that pleasant to be eating, but the stork certainly seemed to be enjoying it!

Marabou Stork

Marabou Stork

We then moved off a little further along the road and spent the next few hours slowing driving and stopping to see what all we could find. There was a surprising number of Denham’s Bustards around and also plenty of Capped Wheatears and Red-capped and Large-billed Larks. A small patch of bush held a few Southern Tchagras and some other common species. But, other than that, there was not too much else to be found, so eventually we began the long drive back home after another successful chase and another new addition to our challenge list.

Denham's Bustard

Denham’s Bustard

Capped Wheatear

Capped Wheatear