Tuesday, 19 December 2017

South Africa: Day 2

Day 2:
Four in the morning came around far too quickly, but Mick and I were equal to the task of getting up, and so too was our new guide for the next two days Campbell, who turned up right on time half an hour later – always a good sign. The weather was poor, and now we understood why our days had been swapped around and why it was that we were headed north along the west coast of the Cape instead of east to the Hottentots as originally planned.
We made most of the journey in the dark in order to maximise birding time, and so our first stop was just after dawn on a minor road just north of Koeberg. Campbell had asked us what our priorities were and was perhaps somewhat surprised that unlike most people we were not interested in a rabid tick-fest but instead wanted to spend time with the birds with the aim of getting some decent images. That said, it was dull and grey and so for this stop we reverted to birding – the two hobbies really do gel very well.

Karoo Scrub Robin. ISO 2 million.

As the light gradually came up above the uniform Strandveld habitat, we could hear birds everywhere, seeing them was a different matter entirely however  - this was not a morning when things were inclined to perch up and sing in full view! We eventually managed views of almost everything other than Grey Francolin and Long-billed Crombec. The former is a fully ground-dwelling species that we were always going to struggle to get a view of in the dense habitat, and the latter a real skulker that showed briefly after intense pishing. Species seen here included Cape Weaver, Bokmakeirie, Karoo Scrub Robin, Grey-backed Cisticola, Rufous-vented Tit Babbler and Pearl-breasted Swallow. Raptor interest was provided with Jackal Buzzard, Black-winged Kite and our first views of Rock Kestrel, all of which we would see multiples of throughout the trip. I have no photos worth speaking of from this stop-off as the light was so dire throughout. 

Our second stop was the Darling Hills road opposite Grotto Bay – this had been recommended to us by Otto the previous day and Campbell also knew it well. As we approach the turnoff what we initially took to be an Egyptian Goose in the gloom became a Southern Black Korhaan in flight. A bit of result as this is a major target of this particular day-trip, but disappointing not to see it better.

The Darling hills road is unpaved and gently winds its way up through agricultural habitat. There were more Bokmakerie here, as well as our first views of White-backed Mousebird, European Bee-eaterPied Starling and a Three-banded Plover on some mud. More obvious however were a field full of Blue Crane, South Africa’s national bird, numerous African Pipits, and specially for me, two pairs of Capped Wheatear – Oenanthe pileata.  We nabbed a few photos of the Cranes, but the Wheatear were not playing ball and in addition were soaking wet in the light drizzle and not looking their best.

Capped Wheatear, damp morph

The weather looked better further north so we carried on to the West Coast National Park, our actual destination for the day. A small fee was payable to enter the park, and we then drove for a few kilometres through the strandveld before stopping the car at a seemingly random point by the side of the road when we saw a Namaqua Dove on the tarmac. This was all part of Campbell’s master plan however as the scrub here was teeming with birds. We got excellent views of Karoo Lark,  Karoo Prinia, Bar-throated Apalis, Cape Penduline Tit, Southern Masked Bishop, and Southern Grey Tit (unexpected here).  And then a trip highlight – Ostriches in the middle distance! This felt like proper Africa and to celebrate the sun came out!

Southern Grey Tit

Karoo Prinia

A short while further on we parked the car up at the edge of the lagoon that is the centrepiece of the park and walked a short boardwalk out to a hide. The tide was already quite far out, but we added a ton of familiar European waders to the trip list here, as well as Kittlitz’s Plover on the salt marsh adjacent to the path.  On the other side of the road I ventured out into the sandy habitat and picked up a Cape Longclaw on call and then had some mediocre views of a pair distantly in a bush which I only got record shots of (my trip reports mostly try and avoid total record shots however!). Adding to the experience were Angulate Tortoises all over the place, ranging from tiny ones only a couple of inches long to soup-bowl sized ones. Closer to the Geelbek vistor centre and restaurant we picked up a couple of African Hoopoe, a group of Speckled Dove, and the ever-present Cape Spurfowl.

Kittlitz's Plover

Three-banded Plover

As we still had a short while before it was officially lunchtime we drove for about ten minutes to the Atlantic viewpoint on the west side of the lagoon. Here another of our major targets fell, with excellent views of a Black Harrier quartering the dunes. The view here was magnificent  - distant Cape Gannets against the waves rolling in, and the spouts of Whales clearly visible.

Black Harrier

After a light lunch at the Geelbek we then drove the western side of the lagoon up to the seal colony at the entrance – Tsaarsbank – seeing another Black Harrier along the way and several Black-winged Kites. At the parking area a quick scan out to sea had Campbell excitedly pointing out a Giant Petrel quite close in which was most unexpected. A more detailed scan picked up about 20 of these Antarctic monsters either resting outside of the surf or cruising along the waveline. We took some long distance shots in the hope of being able to ID to species (Northern and Southern are very similar indeed), and concluded on Northern due to the obviously darker bill-tip. At the colony itself we had our first Crowned Cormorants and African Oystercatchers, and a pair of White-fronted Plovers assiduously guarded a young chick in the white sand near the rocks. Somewhat incongruous were two juvenile Black-crowned Night Herons, one of those pan-global species like Cattle Egret that you see basically everywhere you go.

A monstrosity - both the bird and the photo! Northern Giant Petrel.

White-fronted Plover

Hartlaub's Gull

At this point our trip list was a very healthy 144, but it had not been a great day for photography as evidenced by the mainly below par illustrations in this post. With this in mind, and with the end of the harsh light in sight (we found that after 9am it became rather unpleasant until at least 4.30pm) we headed all the way back anti-clockwise around the lagoon to an obvious granite hill with a small building on the top of it. From this elevated position we hoped to spot a Korhaan below and then descend to intercept it and get stunning photographs. The first part of this plan worked very well, with a bird found by Campbell almost immediately. The second part was not quite as successful when we stumbled on the Korhaan at close range only to have it vanish into the vegetation instantaneously and permanently!

Southern Fiscal Shrike

With this failure under our belts we decided to spend the final part of the day back at Darling Hills knowing that the light would be really nice on the Wheatears. At the very start of the road we stumbled upon our third Korhaan of the day but again getting images proved very difficult, or at least not of the standard we wanted. Good bins views at last though, the neck is incredibly spindly for such a chunky bird. As expected the light was wonderful for the Wheatears but unfortunately they were not at all keen on being digitised and we were left stymied as the sun set.

Southern Black Korhaan

Blue Crane

Capped Wheater. Getting better but still not sufficient!

It had been a long day and with Cape Town an hour away still we had been on the go for 16 hours and we were pretty knackered. Normally I don’t do guided visits preferring to make my own way, but on this short trip it made perfect sense to have a guide for a few days and we saw a lot more as a result – our guide was very sharp indeed, both on sight and on call. And when the days are 16 hours long you definitely feel that you are getting your money’s worth! We bid goodbye to Campbell at Kirstenbosch and agreed to meet again at the more civilised time of 6.30am the following morning for the trip out east.

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