29th October – 1st November 2016
Kay Foskett and Fazlyn Fester
Thirty-three (33) bird watchers congregated at Botterkloof Resort in Stilbaai for a memorable 3 day camp. The self-catering accommodation was situated in comfy leafy grounds which had several ponds and lots of trees in which to do some warm up birding before camp proper began. A Greater Honeyguide flew in and out of the trees.
The Knysna Woodpecker was known to habituate in the camp and several of us were lucky enough to spot a pair of them on the first evening, along with an Olive Woodpecker which gave a fantastic display as to how to climb an almost vertical tree with just feet and tail. The ponds also gave up weavers and bishops, a host of wagtails, a Common Moorhen, even a Malachite Kingfisher. There is a heronry at the back of the coffee shop and several Common Peacocks roamed the grounds and jumped up on the roof at night to make sure that everyone knew they were there and to ensure that no-one overslept.
We gathered at the pool house which had been given over to the club for the duration and we were divided amongst our 3 guides: Simon Fogarty, Vernon Head and Mel Tripp. Roger Cope kindly volunteered to be braai master for the camp and promptly set to work whilst Priscilla and Mel introduced the plan for the next 3 days. Fazlyn was particularly keen to hear that we would be looking for the Cape Crapper Lark and wondered what it had done to earn that name. She was somewhat disappointed when I explained that it was actually a Clapper Lark.
Day 1 saw us up early and on the road by 6.30. We drove along Melkhout Road, stopping along the way for canaries (Brimstone, Cape, White throated and Yellow), Brown-hooded, Giant and Pied Kingfishers, and a host of swallows (Greater-striped, Pearl-breasted, White-throated), an African Spoonbill, Large-billed and Red-capped Larks, Olive Bush Shrike, Streaky-headed Seedeater, a Bar-throated Apalis and a Booted Eagle and an African Fish Eagle amongst many. A shallow river provided a perfect spot for coffee and sandwich and the surroundings were beautiful, even if the Black Cuckoo, spotted the previous week, failed to appear.
We continued along the gravel road which continued to get steeper and passed several small farms and a stud farm. Some of the local farmers were very interested to find out what this convoy of 9 cars was up to. Vernon had a chat with one farmer in Afrikaans who invited him to look at his garden. Vernon thought the farmer was going to show him some birds but there had been a miscommunication; what he actually wanted to show him was some strawberries! Having ticked strawberries off our list we continued down the winding road ending up at the coast. Here the wind had picked up a bit and there were hopes of perhaps seeing a Shy Albatross but no such luck. We did however manage a White-Chinned Petrel, oystercatchers, cormorants, terns and gulls and a Grey Plover. Making our way back to camp we spotted a lone whimbrel and a common sandpiper.
The evening saw Roger banking the fire and everyone swapped lists of who had seen what, wanted to see what, or had not seen what.
Day 2 saw us all up bright and early again and setting off at 6.30 to look for the much heralded ‘Crapper’, sorry, Clapper, Lark. The route meandered along a gravel road more or less parallel with the coast and several attempts were made to connect with the Clapper Lark. A Denham’s Bustard duly appeared which was a very satisfying tick for everyone, especially as they are often seen too far from the road to notice all the markings of this splendid bird. At this point Vernon seemed to be offering a free iPad to the first Clapper Lark to respond to the call on his tablet. Still no takers appeared. Back in the car and down the hill a lark could be heard but not seen until eventually we struck lucky. A Zitting Cisticola also decided to join in the party. A walk down a path yielded Cape Robin Chat, Karoo Scrub Robins, Karoo Prinia, a Jackal Buzzard and Cape Bulbuls. Larks and pipits were surprisingly thin on the ground though eventually an African Pipit popped up. A Southern Black Korhaan was heard but sadly not seen somewhere in the fields. Out came the coffee and sandwiches for a quick snack then were back on the road driving through some pristine fynbos. Alison James is an expert on fynbos plants and readily answered all sorts of questions as we went along. There was also a honey farm along the way with an honesty box (and security cameras) and we soon depleted their stock.
We carried on along the road to a bridge where the team was confident that Knysna Warbler and Jacobin Cuckoo would be found. Simon got his scope out and we all listened in frustration to the call of a bird that simply refused to be seen. The Jacobin Cuckoo also decided that today was his day off and so we ticked off some mousebirds and bulbuls before heading on again. After a while we came upon a bridge over the Gouritz River. The setting was absolutely beautiful and it was good to see so much water in the river when the drought has been going on for so long. Saw-wings and swallows dipped in and out and some Horus Swift were lifers for some. Pied Starlings abounded on the bank and flew in and out of the many holes in the bank and a Pied Kingfisher tried his luck in the river. After appreciating the surrounds we drove off to the coast in the hope of Shy Albatross. No albatross despite the presence of a trawler but an Osprey flew in and out of the waves. On the way back to the camp we stopped at the riverside and some did a quick tour of the sewage works.
In the evening Alison gave a short talk about some fynbos she had found along the roadside, as summarised here: An amazing sight greeted us on our way to the Gouritz River mouth on Monday – hillsides and roadside adorned by an enigmatic pin cushion (L. praecox). New flowers are yellow, changing to a burnt orange as they age; very beautiful to see. A slight puzzle had us wondering if it really was praecox as the flowers were late, the plants small and the flower heads undersized. A quick call to a local botanist confirmed that it was indeed praecox – a fire had raged through the area about 4 years ago, hence their small size. She explained that the rain had been intermittent and somewhat late, which may explain their late flowering. These plants are under threat from agricultural development and it was a reminder to us that our Cape flora is close to a precipice; any over-exploitation will send some species over the edge and into oblivion.
After Alison’s talk we compiled a composite tick list. A very pleasing 146 birds were seen in total. The Knysna Woodpecker was voted the ‘bird of the camp’ though some was would have liked it to have been the Common Peacock, someone else a Yellow-billed Duck and there was even one vote for the Clapper Lark (can’t guess who voted for that one!).
On the Tuesday morning some headed home early in the day whilst others went for a short walk along one of the coastal trails before repairing to the local museum and to watch local eels being fed.
The camp was extremely well organized, very enjoyable, set in beautiful surroundings and a huge vote of thanks to Priscilla, Simon, Mel and Vernon for organizing it all.
Additional note from Priscilla:
On the Tuesday morning I was part of the much smaller group of those who met at the Palinggat homestead, now the ‘home’ of the Blombos Archaelogical Museum and the Stilbaai Tourism Bureau. Near the start of the short trail leading from there down to the river mouth we heard the call of the elusive Knysna Warbler ( a call I don’t think I will ever forget!) and after much patient waiting and watching, we SAW it flitting across the path right in front of us from one bush to another and back again! It was a lifer for me and for some of the others there as well.
Thank you again, Vernon, Mel and Simon, for a wonderful and satisfying weekend. Thank you also for arranging the ‘surprise’ at the start of the camp. Everyone was mystified by the instruction that they had to be at Botterkloof by 13:45, but must not check-in. Our leaders had organised a gin tasting at Inveroche next door – so the camp got off to quite a ‘merry’ start!