Great holiday - poor birding!

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8 years 3 months ago #13371 by Dave Shedman
Dave Shedman created the topic: Great holiday - poor birding!
Firstly let me state that this was a holiday rather than a birding trip. Yes, we did give consideration to birding opportunities in the area when choosing our location and obviously we wanted to do as much birding as possible while we were away, but the primary purpose was to get away from the stress and strain of everyday life in the Johannesburg suburbs. In that respect it was a great success. From a birding perspective it was definitely a trip of ups and downs, in more ways than one.

To get an idea of where we were, look at this site: in particular the gallery which shows views both of and from the cottage. For those who can’t be bothered to look at the Google Earth map, it’s just south of Clarens in the Free State, just a few kilometers from the entrance to Golden Gate Highland National Park.

We arrived at the cottage about 2.30pm on Sunday, just as it was starting to rain. After unpacking, making coffee and waiting for the rain to pass, we sat outside on the stoep, taking in the awesome scenery and the wonderful bird sounds. Due to it being cloudy and the birds being small and hidden in long grass, ID was difficult except for the Stonechats, which were everywhere! However, we got good enough looks at a Cisticola to determine by listening to calls on Roberts Multimedia that it was a Wailing Cisticola, our first lifer of the trip. From the woodlands far below us we could hear Red Chested Cuckoos and Cape Turtle Doves calling loudly, as well as Crested Barbet, Hadeda and Helmeted Guineafowl. A couple of Black Shouldered Kites flew over too. We later saw a striped mouse just outside the cottage, which explains the presence of so many of these birds, outnumbered in the area only by the Pied Starlings and Stonechats.

We had already decided we would spend the first day just lazing around the cottage and surrounding area and the day started well. A pair of Red Winged Starlings, which were to become our constant companions during our stay, came and hopped around outside the cottage, scavenging for scraps of food. Obligingly, we put out some cut up fruit and crumbs and they soon returned, joined this time by a pair of Bokmakieries. It was good to get some quality shots of a Bokmakierie at last, albeit in shady conditions. Later on, we saw the starlings chasing a pair of birds around a bush. The others turned out to be a pair of Cape Rock Thrushes, our second lifer of the trip. Greater Striped and White Throated Swallows swooped low over the grassland, hawking insects, always a pleasant sight to see. We took a drive into Clarens and on the dirt road that leads to from the cottage to the R712 we picked up hordes of Fiscal Shrikes and Pied Starlings, as well as Cattle Egrets following the horses around the fields. We also saw a Black Headed Heron and one of only three Dark Capped Bulbuls (a record low of any trip for us so far!!). On the way back we saw Cape Canary and heard but didn’t see White Necked Raven and Black Collared Barbet. Not seeing the raven was a disappointment, it would have been a lifer for us.

Big disappointment number one – Golden Gate National Park.

I had had a heated debate with a member of staff by e-mail as to whether I would have to pay the ‘foreign visitors’ conservation fees as although I live and work in South Africa I don’t yet have a South African ID. However, it turns out we misunderstood how the whole thing works and as a day visitor you don’t have to pay to enter the park. Great – except that as a day visitor all you can do is drive along the R712, which affords little or no opportunities to stop (safely and legally anyway!) to get out and look at birds. Everything else is signposted “Permit holders only, no day visitors allowed”. However, we did pull over to watch and photograph a raptor circling above us. It turned out to be a Jackal Buzzard, another lifer for us. After a brief visit to the Basotho Cultural Village, where we saw Cape Longclaw, Southern Masked and Cape Weavers and more bloody Pied Starlings (you can’t get away from them!), we decided to drive back and see if we could access some other areas of Golden gate. Despite the signposts there was no-one at the entrances of either of the ‘loops’ to check for permits so we decided to risk it and do the two loops. Our fall back plan, if we were challenged by staff, was the old Scottish technique of “act daft and get a hurl for nothing” (any Scots here will know what that means!).

On the Blesbok Loop we picked up another couple of lifers in Cape Vulture and Yellow Breasted Pipit, but very little else other than Levaillant’s Cisticola and Yellow Billed Duck. No more lifers ensued on the Oribi Loop but we did get some fantastic close-ups of a Long Tailed Widow displaying. He sat on a stem of grass at the side of the road and we noticed he didn’t fly off as the car in front of us drove past. We pulled up alongside him and got great photos and video clips of him displaying no more than 1m away from us. I had to zoom out to get all his tail in the frame!

Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed Golden Gate, the scenery is breathtaking and we did get three lifers there, but it seems to do any quality birding you have to stay in one of the rest camps or hotels and go out on foot, which we couldn’t afford to do. There’s a seven page pdf species list for Golden Gate, 147 of which would be lifers for us, but to see any amount of birds as a day visitor is virtually impossible.

Back at the cottage though, we did manage to identify another lifer, by appearance and call, as a Karoo Prinia. We only need Drakensberg Prinia now to complete our Prinia collection.

Big disappointment number two – Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve.

Wednesday morning was cloudy and overcast but we decided we would still go to Sterkfontein Dam anyway. Along the road we saw more Longtailed Widows than we’ve ever seen in our lives, there were hundreds of them along the roadside, accompanied by Red Bishops. Problem number one arose when our GPS took us (as we eventually discovered) 8km past the entrance and asked us to turn right onto a road that didn’t exist and, if the screen display was to be believed, led out into the middle of the water. By now we were down to a ¼ tank of petrol and didn’t want to risk going back to find the reserve and drive round it in case we came out with not enough petrol to get us to a garage (they’re thin on the ground in that area). So we decided to continue down Oliviershoek Pass to find a petrol station. At the top of the pass it was so foggy we were down to 2nd gear most of the time and came to a virtual standstill as a troupe of baboons crossed the road in front of us. The nearest petrol station turned out to be just outside Bergville (passing the “welcome to Kwazulu Natal” signpost was not a good sign!), nearly 40km away from the dam. Having filled up and had a snack, we headed back up the pass and, ignoring the GPS (which now wanted us to turn left onto the non-existent, sub-aquatic road) we eventually found the entrance.

Finally we would get to do some birding – or so we thought. As we stopped at the side of the entrance road to film a Black Shouldered Kite on a telephone pole, two minibus taxis came up behind us. As the first one passed us, with loud music thumping out, an arm came out of the window and deposited three empty beer bottles, one after another, into the grass at the side of the road, the third one shattering on a rock. It was lucky their music was so loud or they would have heard me saying “Dirty b******s!” and that could have had serious consequences for us. Needless to say, the fact that they were heading to the same place as us did not bode well.

We got to the gate and asked how much it would cost to enter the ‘reserve’. We were told that if we just came in for half an hour it would be free. When we explained we wanted to do some birdwatching and would be more than half an hour, he said it would be R45. So we paid and entered, following the paved road round to where it ended and could see nowhere else we could go to do some birding. We tried following some of the dirt tracks off the paved road but they were too rough for our little Kia Picanto. At one point Mariana had to get out and guide me over a really rough patch. By this time it was already lunch time so we parked in the shade of a tree to eat our sandwiches. We decided to call it quits, neither of us any longer being in the mood for birding. With the amusement area of the resort full of drunken hooligans, we were not inclined to leave the car and go walking about. It seemed to us the only way you can do any quality birding is either in a 4x4 or on foot. We did get a lifer in the form of an Ant Eating Chat on the way out, and at least I got some quality shots of Grey Headed Gulls in flight, but on the whole our trip to Sterkfontein Dam was a disaster any way you cut it. Oh yes, and a bird I photographed flying away from us turned out to be a Southern Bald Ibis, so that was another lifer.

We had planned to go to Witsiehoek the following day, weather permitting, but when we woke up we were enveloped by low clouds (well, high clouds really as we were 1850m up) and as the clouds seemed to be heading roughly in the direction of Witsieshoek, we decided not to bother, especially in light of our previous two unsuccessful trips. Witsieshoek is listed as a place where you’re virtually guaranteed to see a Bearded Vulture so we were disappointed, but at least we hadn’t spent three hours behind the wheel of the car to be disappointed. Once the clouds cleared we decided to do some more birding in the area around the cottage and the dirt road that leads up to it. The usual suspects were seen and heard on the way down the road; Wailing Cisticola, Stonechat, Red Winged Starling and Bokmakierie. On top of a farm building we encountered a pair of Southern Grey Headed Sparrows, and there seemed to be a Fiscal Shrike on every telephone cable. Wandering down to where the horses were kept, we stopped to take photos of them and the attendant Cattle Egrets. Again, this was my first chance to get good close-up shots of Cattle Egrets. Then Mariana spotted a raptor circling overhead. We didn’t get too excited, believing it was probably another Jackal Buzzard, but I took some photos anyway as Mariana followed it with the bins. It wasn’t until we got back to the cottage and looked at the photos on the laptop that we realized it was a Bearded Vulture! At least our decision not to go to Witsieshoek had been vindicated, although it did mean we missed out on the chance of another of the region’s specials, Drakensberg Rockjumper.

On our way back to the cottage we finally got some good shots of a Cisticola that had been evading identification the whole week and confirmed it as Neddicky, another lifer for us. I also finally got a good shot of a Cape Canary, a bird which is present in large numbers in the town of Clarens, but we only saw three up by the cottage. Having got two lifers, one of which (Bearded Vulture) was a special for that area, we felt we’d had a good morning’s birding. The afternoon weather, sadly, proved not to be conducive to more birding so that was that for the day.

Having got a lifer on our first day, we were not expecting to be so lucky again on our last day. Wrong! Having done most of our packing, and being reluctant to leave, we hung around the cottage in glorious sunshine watching all the birds that came our way. The Cape Rock Thrushes reappeared, only the second time we’d seen them, so I went into the cottage to photograph them through kitchen window, as they had flown round to that side of the cottage and knowing I couldn’t get close to them otherwise. Having got some good shots of the female (the male didn’t stay long) I was about to put down the camera when suddenly two small birds appeared. I managed to get just two shots before they flew off, which I subsequently identified as Cape Bunting, another lifer. Then on the dirt road on our way out we saw the Bearded Vulture again and Mariana spotted a BBB (Big Brown Bird) sitting in a tree. I hastily got the camera out of the rucksack as she started filming with the camcorder. I got some good shots of it on the tree and even better in-flight shots, later identified here on the forum as Steppe Buzzard. Our final lifer of the trip, minutes before getting back onto the R712 to head back to Joburg, back to burglar bars, alarms going off all the time, traffic roar on Hendrik Potgieter Road and Parktown Prawns needing to be removed from the bath.

As I said, as a relaxing holiday out in the country it was magnificent, a great success. From a birding point of view, 13 lifers has to be considered a success, but only 62 species in five days, when Justin has just got far more than that in a one day trip :mrgreen: , has to go down as a disappointment. However, forewarned is fore-armed, as they say, so next time we go there (and we WILL go back) with our forearms forewarned, we’ll know what to expect and where not to go, so maybe we’ll be lucky – who knows?

Full species list to follow (when I’ve copied it over from the laptop).


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  • Duncan
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8 years 3 months ago #13375 by Duncan
Duncan replied the topic: Re: Great holiday - poor birding!
Hi Graeme. I don't think you should be to disappointed with only see 62 species in five days. On our trip to Golden Gate if I remember correctly I only recorded 40 or so species in 2 days which is probably my lowest holiday total yet. Even the stats from the atlas data illustrate that birding in the mountains is slow. With Lesotho (virtually all montane habitat) only averaging 25.7 birds species seen per card the next lowest is the Northern Cape on 44.1. Even if you look at the diversity map you can tell that the number of species in that area of the free state is low compared to else where in the country.

You also saw some very nice birds. We missed both Bearded Vulture and Yellow-breasted Pipit when we were there. I think seeing Bearded Vulture would of made my trip when we were there they are just so different from anything else.

Anyway like you say it really is one of the most beautiful places in our country even if the birding is slow you still have a good time relaxing.

P.S The number of specials that are restricted to the area are what you go there for from a birding perspective and not the quantity of birds.

P.P.S I would like to see your photos when they are ready

Cheers Duncan

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  • Dave Shedman
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8 years 3 months ago #13376 by Dave Shedman
Dave Shedman replied the topic: Re: Great holiday - poor birding!
Hi Duncan and thanks for the info. We had been warned the variety of species would be low, we just didn't think it would be that low!

The Bearded Vulture (I still prefer the name Lammergeier) was definitely the highlight, especially seeing it so close to our cottage, and we did get some reasonably good photos of it. I can thoroughly recommend that little cottage both for a wonderful holiday and reasonably good birding. From memory I think 41 of the 62 species were recorded either around the cottage or on the farm track that leads up to it. I think next time we go we'll stick to that area and perhaps ask the cottage owner if he can speak to the owners of the neighbouring game farms and ask if we can go onto their properties to look for birds.

The bird photos are now resized, just need to reduce the file sizes and upload, probably tomorrow.


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8 years 3 months ago #13377 by Dave Shedman
Dave Shedman replied the topic: Re: Great holiday - poor birding!
Here's our full species list. The ones listed for the cottage are seen around the area of the cottage and the 4.1km dirt track that leads up to it from the R712. Those in red are lifers and those with (H) after them were heard only.

Martha’s Rock Cottage & surrounding area.

1. Fiscal Shrike
2. Helmeted Guineafowl
3. African (Common) Stonechat
4. Black Shouldered Kite
5. Crested Barbet
6. Cape Turtle Dove
7. Hadeda
8. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Wailing Cisticola[/color:1wcba78f]
9. Red Chested Cuckoo (H)
10. Red Winged Starling
11. Bokmakierie
12. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Cape Rock Thrush[/color:1wcba78f]
13. White Necked Raven (H)
14. Black Collared Barbet (H)
15. Red Eyed Dove
16. Greater Striped Swallow
17. Cattle Egret
18. Pied Starling
19. Black Headed Heron
20. White Throated Swallow
21. Dark Capped Bulbul
22. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Alpine Swift[/color:1wcba78f]
23. Familiar Chat
24. Fork Tailed Drongo
25. Red Billed Quelea
26. Southern Masked Weaver
27. Red Collared Widowbird
28. Cape Wagtail
29. Eastern Black Headed Oriole (H)
30. Laughing Dove
31. Cape Weaver
32. Cape White Eye
33. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier)[/color:1wcba78f]
34. Diederick Cuckoo (H)
35. Southern Grey Headed Sparrow
36. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Karoo Prinia[/color:1wcba78f]
37. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Neddicky[/color:1wcba78f]
38. Hamerkop
39. Cape Crow
40. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Cape Bunting[/color:1wcba78f]
41. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Steppe Buzzard[/color:1wcba78f]
42. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Jackal Buzzard[/color:1wcba78f]
43. Spur Winged Goose

Seen on trips away from the cottage.

1. Southern Masked Weaver
2. Cape Longclaw
3. House Sparrow
4. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Yellow Breasted Pipit[/color:1wcba78f]
5. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Cape Vulture[/color:1wcba78f]
6. Yellow Billed Duck
7. Levaillant’s Cisticola
8. Speckled Rock Pigeon
9. Egyptian Goose
10. Swainson’s Spurfowl
11. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Ant Eating Chat[/color:1wcba78f]
12. Southern Red Bishop
13. African Hoopoe
14. Common Myna
15. Grey Headed Gull
16. White Winged Widowbird
17. Pied Crow
18. [color=#FF0000:1wcba78f]Southern Bald Ibis[/color:1wcba78f]
19. Long Tailed Widowbird

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  • mossie
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8 years 3 months ago #13392 by mossie
mossie replied the topic: Re: Great holiday - poor birding!
Ditto on Duncan's comments.

High altitude grassland birding is not for the fainthearted. Summer is best for breeding plumage, display flights, and calls to nail those impossible cisticola's, pipits and larks.

And I'm a bit envious :mrgreen: <!-- s:bouncy: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/bouncy.gif" alt=":bouncy:" title="Enthusiastic" /><!-- s:bouncy: --> <!-- s:sonar: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/sonar.gif" alt=":sonar:" title="Sonar" /><!-- s:sonar: --> <!-- s:yes: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/yes.gif" alt=":yes:" title="Yes" /><!-- s:yes: --> on the yellow breasted pipit would be a lifer.

Glad the Picanto survived <!-- s:wave: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/wave.gif" alt=":wave:" title="Wave" /><!-- s:wave: -->


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  • Dave Shedman
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8 years 3 months ago #13394 by Dave Shedman
Dave Shedman replied the topic: Re: Great holiday - poor birding!
Thanks Mossie. The Yellow Breasted Pipit was sheer luck. If it had stayed in the grass we probably wouldn't have seen it but it very kindly hopped onto the only exposed rock on the whole slope while we were out of the car with cameras and bins. So we actually ended up with most of the speciels except the Drakensberg Rockjumper, which gives us the perfect excuse to go back.

Yes, the Picanto survived, though there were some scary moments on those dirt tracks at Sterkfontein Dam. It needs a damn good wash now though! <!-- s:lol: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/icon_lol.gif" alt=":lol:" title="Laughing" /><!-- s:lol: -->


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8 years 2 months ago #13587 by arty
arty replied the topic: Re: Great holiday - poor birding!
Hi Dave,
read your holiday experience fully understanding your disappointment as i had had the same problem a few years back and tended to stay away from the berg. However i went down this last week end to play the clarens golf course and came away with a rather successful trip.
this is what i saw on the course.
1.bokmakierie [male and female singing a duet] great pics tailed whydah collared whydah
4.long tailed whydah
5.cape weaver
6.southern masked weaver
7.southern red bishop
8.grey heron headed heron
10.reed cormarant
11.white breasted cormarant
12.quail finch
13.cape sparrow sparrow winged starling
16.pied starling
18.egyptian goose knobbed coot
20.white faced duck
21.lessor striped swallow
22.barn swallow martin sawwing
25.cape wagtail
26.jckal buzzard
27.steppe buzzard eagle shouldered kite
30.cape vulture[flying over]
31.helmeted guineafowl
32.yellow billed duck
33.spur winged goose throated wryneck
35 african hoopoe
36.speckeled mousebird chested cuckoo
38.speckled pigeon
39.laughing dove
40.cape turtle dove.
41.rock dove
42.common moorhen smith lapwing
44.crowned lapwing
45.rock kestrel
46.cattle egret
47.hadeda ibis
48.southern bald ibis
49.cape batis
50.pied crow
51.common fiscal
52.white throated swallow
53.rock martin
54.cape grass bird.
needless to say my playing partners where unimpressed with me as i spent more time bird watching and taking pics then i did playing golf.unfortunately i got no lifers but hey i got some awesome pics.

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8 years 2 months ago #13591 by Dave Shedman
Dave Shedman replied the topic: Re: Great holiday - poor birding!
So what you're telling me, Warren, is that I need to take up golf! <!-- s:rotfl: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/rotfl.gif" alt=":rotfl:" title="Laughing" /><!-- s:rotfl: -->


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8 years 2 months ago #13601 by Margaret
Margaret replied the topic: Re: Great holiday - poor birding!
I've just returned two days ago from a very interesting trip trying to avoid the extreme cold and rain of last week. Started at Creighton, and ended up at Witsieshoek and Golden Gate. We had heard Witsieshoek was a guaranteed place for Bearded Vulture too, and didnt realise what a difficult long drive it is to the top. It was cold, but sunny, and the only birds we found were a pair of Drakensberg rockies right at the top and a pair of Mountain Pipits (which became my 800th bird). We then spent the night in Golden Gate and got a quick glimpse of one Bearded Vulture, but not many birds at all. Back to Witsieshoek for a decent look at Bearded Vulture, once again, no luck. Its not the easiest place to find them, despite people saying it is. Maybe it was too cold :-) Strangely enough a White Stork flew over, high above the peaks! But no other birds at all - very beautiful, cold, snow on the mountain peaks, but the bird life is minimal. Creighton, even in the pouring rain, produced great birds including Buffspotted Flufftail, Redheaded Quelea, Broadtailed Warbler, and a trip to Ntsikeni, sliding through the mud and rain, produced the trump bird - a Striped flufftail!

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8 years 2 months ago #13602 by Rusty Justy
Rusty Justy replied the topic: Re: Great holiday - poor birding!
Congrats on the 2 Flufftails, and the 800 mark <!-- s:bouncy: --><img src="{SMILIES_PATH}/bouncy.gif" alt=":bouncy:" title="Enthusiastic" /><!-- s:bouncy: --> :mrgreen:

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