Sunday, 11 June 2017

Of Gales, Cape Parrots and Crowned Eagle

Further surveys out of Grahamstown had to be cancelled due to gale force winds this week. Still, Wednesday morning Adrian Craig, Lynette Rudman (Eastern Cape Bird Club), Diane and myself headed out somewhat optimistically. Our destination was Fort Fordyce Nature Reserve, managed by Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism. This well signed, well looked after, quiet, forested reserve is quite a contrast to the Darlington Dam campsite.

We were warned on entrance that strong winds had already brought down two large trees, and we should park away from anything that might topple onto us. Ringing, our mission for the morning, was out of the question. Instead we went for some walk into the forest, where the trees did offer some shelter from the howling winds, but where birding was very quiet.

The birding highlight of the day would come late that afternoon on our way out. Lynette had some inside information that Cape Parrots were at the Baddaford farm stall. Sure enough, flutters of green and squeaks could be heard from the Pecan nut grove, and Lynette got us permission to head down a bit closer. The birding highlight for my day would have been the juvenile Crowned Eagle perched right overhead and that provided excellent viewing. But that would be eclipsed when eventually the parrots emerged en-masse from the green foliage. We’d been a bit disappointed when our trajectory to the pecan-nut grove had been cut off by an electric fence. As we stood wistfully wishing to get closer, trying to catch a glimpse of anything in the trees, suddenly the calling volume started to pick up. It was evident that there wasn’t just a small party of parrots here, but quite a few. However, none of us were prepared for the irruption of 160 parrots from the grove of trees that was no more than 100m long.

The parrots whirled and swarmed, many then settling in the large tree near us. The appearance of a Black Sparrowhawk caused further chaos to the clammering flock. Eventually, with the sun having disappeared from the valley, the flock took off and headed away, presumably in the direction of Hogsback, well know Cape Parrot hotspot.  Smaller groups were then observed coming down the valley, presumably from further off. The whole experience was stark contrast to my first efforts to spot Cape Parrot: I’d spent three days camping near Stutterheim just for a sighting of a pair flying high overhead. The Cape Parrots of Baddaford experience was a lot more reminiscent of the claylick experiences of the Tambopata River.

With the estimated population somewhere around 1500 birds, that we had seen roughly 200 (10 – 15% of the population), was a very very special experience.

Juvenile Crowned Eagle

Cape Parrots

Darlington Dam: Addo's best kept secret?

A dramatic week, with Cape Town battered by storms and the fires to the south of us wreaking havoc in Knysna: evacuations, houses burnt and lives lost in this historic seaside town. Despite that, the area is in the grips of a severe drought, with the sporadic rains from two months ago now a distant memory.

Still, my week started fairly well. I set off at 5am Monday morning to a Karoo Biogaps pentad just off the untarred R400 between Jansenville and Riebeek-east. The area was typical flat Karoo terrain, but with elements of succulent Albany thicket as evidenced by expansive stands of ‘noors’, a species of Euphorbia. The Sunday’s River, reduced to puddles, also winds its way through here. The pools of water and acacia thicket lining the river provided productive birding, with the cold early morning making way for a warm and pleasant day.

This was the first pentad where Sabota Lark would prove to be really common. Small parties were observed foraging here and there several times. White-fronted Bee-eaters provided some colour, and some nesting Rock Martins on the farmhouse were pointed out by the farmer. He also commented that he had seen Fish Eagle feeding on Angora lambs on infrequent occasions. The only raptor I’d see here would be the inevitable Pale Chanting Goshawk.

As I’d been unsure as to accessibility across the pentad, and the amount of time I’d need to survey it, I’d not made accommodation plans for that night. However, the farm tracks and dry conditions meant easy access across the pentad, facilitating timely completion of the survey come 5pm. I’d noticed the Darlington Dam was relatively nearby, and having never been there decided it would be a worthy place to explore for accommodation options.

I was somewhat (pleasantly) surprised to find that the dam falls under the jurisdiction of Addo Elephant National Park. However, unlike the main Addo section, things at Darlington are a lot more informal – there was no ranger at the gate, and I had to hunt around the houses to find someone who’d take money for entrance or camping. This proved to be very cheap – R60 excluding conservation fee, which must make it the cheapest SANPARKs camping fee of any of the national parks. I’d later find out that this is perhaps because there are no showers or running water: there is no ablution block along the lake edge to which I was directed. Toilets are very dilapidated and dirty long-drop toilets scattered along the lake edge. It is not surprising that there is toilet paper and poo behind most bushes, but the piles of litter were inexcusable as bins are provided. Darlington Dam is probably best known to the angling community, some of whom clearly need to clean up their act. Navigating catfish heads, shit and the litter along the lake edge is a putrid affair.

In fact, the original title for this blog post was Darlington Dam: Addo’s best kept (dirty) secret?

Enjoying the lake edge at the campsite was not what I was there for of course: the birding would make up for all that. Spotted Eagle Owl had already greeted me as I’d tried to navigate the un-signed tracks in the evening winter gloom to somewhere legal looking to put up my tent. Waterfowl and Water Dikkop bickering provided backdrop noise all night long. During the cold, long, pre-sunrise dawn was when I took my walk along the dam edge, where Red-billed and Cape Teal paddled off at my approach, Egyptian Geese and Shelducks complained loudly, and a variety of other birds provided distraction from the legacy of human presence. As a bonus, I was the only person there.

With the rising of the sun it seemed like a good time to go for a drive to explore the rest of the pentad outside the sturdy electric fence demarcating the camp area. For those more interested in game than birds, Jackal, Vervet Monkey, Baboon, Kudu, Gemsbok, Kudu, Rhebok or Reedbuk, Duiker, and Springbok were all seen. Meanwhile, birds of all sorts were non-stop along the water edge. I was surprised to see Cape Bulbul rather than Red-eyed Bulbul, and Karoo birds were generally lacking from the lengthy bird-list, despite the obvious suitability of the habitat. With 80 birds for the 4-5 hours birding, this is easily a site that could produce 100 birds for the day with a few more hours at this time of year, and probably a lot more with the summer migrants.

However, I had meetings in Grahamstown to get to, but on balance, I could have done with at least another day here. Addo clearly have big plans for the area, with a seemingly endless tract of sturdy electrified game fence stretching along the main dirt road. If elephant and lion aren’t there already, they will be soon.

Female Southern Black Korhaan

Blacksmith Lapwing

Familiar Chat on 'noors

Fish Eagle with a view

Grey-headed Gull

Kittlitz's Plover

Lark-like Bunting on noors

Red-billed Quelea, non-br

Sabota Lark


Oh yes, despite this rather alarming warning sign, I did not see or hear hippo, or see any tracks. If that is because they simply avoid the human habited lake section I cannot say.

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