Monday, 4 September 2017

Karoo surveys August: all about Cinnamon-breasted Warblers

The month started out with 2 pentads covered near Murraysburg. My companion atlaser for one of the days was Stefan Theron, who has a fantastic eye and ear for birds, and works occasionally as a bird guide in the area. Stefan volunteered to drive us up the escarpment, where I was vaguely hoping for Drakensburg Rockjumpers, but we didn’t get quite high enough. Still, Ground Woodpeckers and Black Eagles were a bonus.

The second week of August I attended a Hot Bird conference near Prince Albert. Hot Birds is the research name for a behaviour and physiology project led by Andrew McKechnie and Susan Cunningham. There were interesting presentations by arid zone gurus Richard Dean and Sue Milton-Dean, followed by many other interesting presentations by the students and prospective students.

The third week I headed to Fraserburg, where I was joined by Salome Willemse, of the Namaqua Bird Club based out of Vanrhynsdorp. Salome is an avid contributor to SABAP2, and a great cook. We stayed at the Muggefontein Gasteplaas just south of the breath-taking Theewaterkloof pass. Salome prepared excellent meals every evening, and I covered 5 Biogaps pentads during the week from Fraserburg to LeeuGamka. Salome did many more atlas cards, including for some pentads never surveyed before. When Salome left on Friday, I had to stay on in Fraserburg for the Saturday morning to wrap up that pentad as a cold front had blown in during the middle of the week, bringing ice rain, strong wind and poor survey conditions.

Then I headed off slightly unprepared due to lack of internet/cell phone reception, to Droefontein, on the plains of the Great Karoo beyond Merweville. My destination was an optional pentad that no-one had either atlased or surveyed as part of the Biogaps project. I was a bit nervous about who or what I’d find, but luck was on my side. The owners of the farm were cousins of Stefan Therons! Andre and Susan Theron, together with their children Chrystal and OJ were also very interested in the project and offered to put me up for the evening. I’m very grateful to their wonderful hospitality and insights into life in this arid part of the world.

Despite the hectically dry conditions, the presence of the Dwkya River here with the occasional pool of water meant good bird life and healthy bird lists. Of the three pentads for which lists were submitted, about 20 Out-of-range forms would be generated, including for White-fronted Bee-eater, a Western Cape regional rarity. Luckily I’d photographed that one. On the Sunday I did part of the target pentad by bicycle, in the company of the Theron’s dog, who got a bit more of a ‘walk’ that she’d expected! Then Monday morning was an easy wrap to the pentad before heading down the N1 to Laingsburg to pick up my next atlasing companion, Campbell Fleming. The drive down the N1 was a stark contrast the dry conditions observed over the weekend: evidently enough rain had fallen to initiate something of a spring-time bloom along the road edge. The strips of yellow, white and orange was in stark contrast to the brown veld just beyond the road fence.

Campbell is a Masters student at UCT looking the genetics of Cape Sugarbirds, also an atlaser (his definition of a bad birder is someone who does not atlas), and a bird guide for Callan Cohen’s Birding Africa. Campbell had a somewhat eventful bus journey to Laingsburg, when the emergency exit ceiling door blew off. However, for me the delay was welcome, with the time with internet much needed to catch up with the world and try organise the rest of the week – including last minute booking for accommodation for that night! Verlatenkloof Gasteplaas at the start of the Verlatenkloof pass over the Roggeveld escarpment towards Sutherland would prove adequate accommodation for the next 2 nights, and a roof over our heads was much appreciated when the latest cold front brought rain and wind. Certainly I was glad to not be camping.

With a stiff breeze whipping away the latent warmth of our cosy beds, we headed off early to our survey pentad about 50 km west along the R356 that cuts across the southern Tankwa towards Ceres. The temperatures marginally above freezing certainly felt a lot colder with the wind. Never-the-less, we recorded birds at all points along the route, with Karoo Lark and flocks of Yellow Canary dominating. Probably a highlight sighting was a displaying Karoo Eremomela. However, finding each bird was generally a lot of work. We finished the day hunting Cinnamon-breasted Warbler on the pass: no good views were obtained, although we did have a Cape Robin chat responding to our playback efforts with a great imitation of our target species, which proved elusive on the rocky slope.

The following day, at a pentad closer to the Verlatenkloof, it was like another world. Although still cool, there was little wind or cloud, and the birds clearly thought it was spring, with several sightings of prospective parents carrying nesting material. Karoo Lark was recorded at almost every point, with a wide variety of birds from Karoo Eremomela to a dam with hundreds of ducks and martins. With lots of tracks across the farm and with Campbell assisting with data entry, the counts went pretty quickly: but we were also aware that we had a long journey ahead of us to our next destination pentad closer to Fraserburg.

As we headed east with the setting sun, the bakkie cab filled with the aroma of ham and mushroom pizza, some dolerite inselbergs caught my eye. Campbell did some playback for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, and almost immediately, one responded. I was able to get my first photos of the much sought after Karoo endemic. What an astounding little bird, with colours that make it look as though it has been carved from the red lichen-covered dolerite boulders.

Cinnamon-breasted Warbler

The journey then became rather interesting, with Google maps taking us across country through farmland with 15-20 gates. About 30 minutes was spent trying to find the road, when we accidently missed the main track and headed into a farm instead. We thus arrived a bit later than expected at the Eselfontein guest house, just south of Fraserburg. However, it was worth the effort: Eselfontein is a spectacularly restored farm house with lots of room and all mod-cons.

Leaving Campell behind to at Eselfontein to catch up on his thesis writing, I headed out to the targeted pentad. Although I’d written to the farmer to announce my intentions to survey the farm, the gate was locked. However, the ‘rante pad’ between Fraserburg and Sutherland traversed the pentad, allowing for initially easy surveying until I ran out of space. Then it was over the locked gate with my bicycle. However, an interesting koppie (small hill) had caught my attention. Perhaps there I would find more Cinnamon-breasted Warblers. So up I hiked. Although none of my now new favourite bird were around, I was most startled to see and hear an African Rock Pipit. This is Dawie de Swart’s favourite bird – he has been looking at behaviour and calls across their range. Dawie also adjudicates Out-of-Range forms for the Northern Cape, so I knew I’d have to be very certain of my record! With the help of some judicious playback, the bird perched close enough for me to snap a picture with my camera phone. Then, with thunder in the distance, it was time to get off the mountain.

The next pentad was associated with a farm called Fonteinplaas, between Sutherland and Williston. While on Google Earth the pentad looked close to the one we had just done, there was no direct route between them. So, at 5.30 we were on the road dodging kamikaze bunnies via Fraserburg. Here things proved tricky. While again we had permission to visit the farm, this time we could not even find any farm with the right name; and with more locked gates. Again, it was onto my bicycle and over the dusty farm tracks to try and complete the survey. Rather amazingly, there was a river bed with stagnant brack pools hidden away in the hills, with all sorts of water birds. And in the koppies behind the river I would record more Cinnamon-breasted Warbler among the dassie dominated dolerite boulders.

At this stage we were into no mans land: no cell phone reception, and few signs of life except for the dorper and merino sheep. Our next pentad was thankfully not too far away in terms of this survey: a mere 50km to the north, and thankfully located on one of the back roads between Sutherland and Williston. Our intel provided, by Karoo Biogaps coordinator Gigi Laidler, suggested that one of the farmers might be able to offer accommodation, and more or less unannounced we rocked up at Ottersgat, home to Hennie Visagie. Again, we were treated to the rather remarkable hospitality that defines the remote Karoo region. Having never met us before, Hennie invited us two shady and grubby characters to share his home for the night. It was quite an experience: Hennie was very chatty and we learnt loads about life in this barren, almost forsaken part of the world. His optimism and enthusiasm for farm life are almost certainly the most important ingredients keeping him on this land against the many challenges of a rather inhospitable farming environment.

Then it was off to Williston, where we managed to find a room at Annie’s Inn. Apparently we were a bit lucky to get some beds, as the town was preparing for its annual ‘Vleis Fees’ (Meat Festival). We did not attend, for us the big highlight would be the pentad on the farm Zakfontein, owned by Dr Koos Louw. For only the second time in the survey I got to record the diminutive Sclater’s Lark. Not just one or 2, but droves, with a flock of 20+ of this scarce Karoo endemic coming in to a water trough to drink. I’d spent most of the midday waiting here for photo opportunities, and the larks kept on coming in, but mostly in pairs or small groups. To round off a great day, Koos gave me directions to a hidden pan with some water in. At least 15 more species were added to the list at that location.

The diminutive Sclater's Lark

Next up: having been denied permission for the first time in the survey to access a pentad associated with a game farm, on a last minute whim Campbell and I headed off to another optional pentad further west. The farmer was amenable to our presence, and as the assigned pentad was pretty poor in terms of excitement, we also did an atlas card for the pentad next door, which had an annual river with some ponds, as well as the farmstead. A bit of water and a farm can mean the difference between a species list of 30 and 60 in this part of the world.

Leaving Williston behind, next stop was a pentad on the way to Loxton. Luckily, we managed to bag another Cinnamon-breasted Warbler before the wind picked up to 10m/s, at which time counts had to be abandoned. Perhaps not a bad thing, as there were still several tens of kilometres of back roads to navigate to Loxton.

In Loxton our sanctuary for the next 3 days would be the Four Season’s Guesthouse. Karoo Cottage, the accommodation of choice in the town was unfortunately full. Never-the-less, it was good to have some self-catering facilities after Annie’s Inn, where Campbell had to prepare a camp meal on the cadac stove on the stoep.

While Loxton has apparently had more rain the Williston, it was hard to see that in the veld, which still looked dry and suffering somewhat with the presence of scores of sheep. The dolerite koppies again revealed a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, and a water hole provided some photo opportunities during the midday head, after a day that had started at 2C with ice on the windscreen. Interesting for me was a Sabota Lark coming in to drink. A bridge with a colony of South African Cliff Swallows was another highlight.

The next morning Campbell and I set out to the farm Welgevonden, where we were gratiously met by Bob and Marian Meintjies. Dividing forces, Campbell and I managed to wrap up the pentad by lunchtime. My section of the pentad included a hike up a local mountain (again!), which was rewarded with no less than four encounters with Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. I would however fail in my mission to get a recording of the species. Both Campbell and I picked up African Rock Pipit, which generated ORFs, but luckily Campbell had managed to capture a short video of an individual in full song. While we had been planning to use the afternoon to catch up on laptop time, we got distracted by the Loxton dam, which while low, was providing resources to scores of species, from Black-throated Canary coming to drink, to Ludwig’s Bustards stalking off in the distance, to Ruffs and other waders at the water edge.

Easy access pentads over, our final destination for this first epic leg of the surveys of the western Great Karoo was a farm called Matiesfontein, which overlooks the Karoo National Park. Despite leaving Loxton at 5:15 we were lucky to make it to the farm by 7.30, after Google navigator took us down a road that was blocked by a locked farm gate. A second attempt ended in a road that had been washed away. Luckily, the owners of Matjiesfontein were welcome and accommodating. Rene Hoon also runs the MyKaroo butchery in Beaufort West, so we’d been luckily to catch them. To deal with more inevitable locked gates, I did my morning surveys by bicycle; an easy ride over sandstone plains.

Then finally… the drive back to Blue Hill for some much deserved, rest, family time, and inevitable catching up on emails and paperwork.

Muggefontein: a hike up the escarpment to get some views of the Great Karoo

Fiscal Flycatcher, male

... you'll need it.

Interesting: a fledgling Karoo Eremomela (right)

Karoo Long-billed Lark

Lark-like Bunting

Merweville Church

N1 - the only flower show

Sabota Lark coming in to drink

Sheep shearing is a major part of life in the Karoo

Spike-heeled Lark

Rock beacons overlooking Fraserburg

White-fronted Bee-eater, a Western Cape regional rarity

Yellow Canary, male

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