"Very Quiet Here Today": A Crash Course in Natal (South Africa) Birding, September 25-29, 1999

Wim Vader, South African Museum, Cape Town, South Africa. Permanent address: Tromsø Museum, 9037 Tromsø, Norway; wim@imv.uit.no

After the wonderful introduction to S. African nature and birding during my week in the Zululand reserves, Adam Riley picked me up in Durban on Saturday 25 September with an ambitious plan of showing me the best of Natal birding in four crowded days.

What a pity then that the weather so absolutely would not cooperate! The first afternoon was drizzly and cool, the second day pouring rain for most of the day, the third day dry and cool but with a fierce wind (a serious problem chasing pipits on Mt Matatiete!), the fourth day definitely not what I expected of Africa temperature-wise (during our evening run after owls Adam had his sock over his "spotlight-hand", and even so he had to count his fingers carefully afterwards). And on the last day it started out even colder at Karkloof, before warming up at the inevitable climax of all birding trips, a sewage farm (this time in Pietermaritzberg). No wonder then that the refrain I heard from Adam every day was the same: "very quiet here today"!!

You could have fooled me! I saw more than 200 bird species during these days (and still missed a few by being not nimble enough with the field-glasses), and Adam, the perfect host, threw in a considerable number of mammals, as well as various frogs and lizards. I have a complete birdlist for the people who are specially interested, but here I want to content myself with a number of snapshots from these crammed wonderful days.

We started out in Vernon Crookes nature reserve close to the coast south of Durban, a beautiful area protecting both coastal forest and coastal grassland. In the morning we walked through the forest ("Very quiet here today") and heard and saw Knysna Louries, Narina Trogons, and Trumpeter and Crowned Hornbills. Terrestrial Bulbuls muttered to themselves in the undergrowth, and Natal and White-browed Robins, Black Flycatchers, and White-bellied, Grey and Olive Sunbirds revealed themselves to the quick drawer. The presence of Forest and Spectacled Weavers and Black-bellied Starlings showed that we still were in the coastal forests. I was thrilled to be shown a Lesser Honeyguide calling all day from the same branch, exceptionally almost in the open; but I never succeeded in getting my eyes on the Grey Cuckooshrike and the Grey Waxbill, that Adam's all-seeing eyes had discovered in the middle of that green jumble of a jungle.

In the open grassy areas I got a crash-course in Cisticolas (Wailing, Croaking, Lazy, Levaillant's, Neddicky), where I'll still need several follow-ups. But soon Adam found more noble game, and we plunged in a little valley where he had heard the song of the Broad-tailed Warbler. It took some chasing, but then this bird allowed us to watch him from quite close by, both in song and in display, one of the highlights of this first day. For comparison a Grassbird sang close by.

In the shorter grasslands, full of strange and wonderful flowers, I was delighted to watch Yellow-throated Longclaws, a bird that I have used for many years in my evolution lectures as an example of chance similarity (with the American unrelated Meadowlarks), but which I never had seen close-up. And another crash course was necessary, when we came across mixed flocks of Widows, still mostly in their sparrowy plumages: Red-shouldered, Red-collared, White-winged; one could get dizzy of less.

Easier then to lift my eyes and watch the majestic raptors overhead: first a Crowned Eagle, later also a Martial Eagle! And then a large dark Accipiter that lands in a tree on the hillside -- my very first Black Sparrowhawk!!

After this promising start the weather steadily deteriorated. We did try, but my main memories from the rest of the day are of a series of "rain forests", with Adam's running comments on all the birds that might have been seen here. We did find Yellow-throated Warblers high up, but it felt like birding under a shower.

Day 2 started in a hospitable B&B farm (Cedarberg near Cedarville), where my first bird in the early morning was a Bokmakierie calling outside my window. I noted down the birds from the large garden, an oasis in a drought-stricken farmland: Cape Turtle, Red-eyed and Laughing Doves, Cape Rook, Hadeda Ibis, Red-throated Wryneck (a new acquaintance to me, and much more colourful than our European wryneck), Bokmakierie, Cape Robin, Olive Thrush, Cape Wagtail, Cape Whiteeye, Bar-throated Apalis, Dusky Flycatcher, Common Waxbill, Cape Weaver, and Grey-headed Sparrow. Exotic enough for somebody from 70°N!

Today the crash course would be pipits and larks on Mt Matatiete; unfortunately this was made still more difficult by a "Capetonian" strong wind, which kept the birds wisely hiding in nooks and crannies, and "blowing away" when we finally had found some. ("Very quiet here today!"). Rudd's Lark never showed up, but the pipit lessons duly happened, with Grassveld, Long-billed, Buffy, and the rare and beautiful Yellow-breasted Pipit (followed later by Plain-backed), as well as the Orange-throated Longclaw. Also Quail Finches were here, but one needed to be quick to see more than a rapidly disappearing dot.

In the rocky ravines many birds did not show up at all, but perseverance paid off (also when our car got stuck in an overlooked erosion hole), and I finally got to grips with Drakensberg Prinia, Cape Rock Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, and Gurney's Sugarbird, of which especially the last one was a dream come true.

Back in the plains a Secretarybird walked around as if in a TV documentary, and a long drive brought us to the marshes near Franklin, still in a wind and temperature that made me feel right at home, but made Adam shiver. There were lots of birds to warm yourself on, though, in this complex of flat reed-fringed pools and marshes: various herons, a spoonbill, Hamerkops, all three species of S African cranes, albeit at a distance, sundry ducks, rails and coots, Brown-throated Martins and White-throated Swallows overhead, and Cape Reed Warblers and Levaillant's Cisticolas in the reeds. Another memorable day!!

The third night we spent with Gail and Malcolm in Creighton; Malcolm is the champion of the Cape Parrots in this area (among a lot of other things), and he promised to show me these largest of all South Africa's parrots in all their glory, together with a very special morning chorus.

We got up at four, and a strong 4WD got us along rutted paths high above Creighton, and in an icy wind -- and having forgotten the hot coffee we prudently had made -- we shivered awaiting the dawn. Before that happened a strange sound turned out to be the rare and precious Striped Flufftail; sadly he did not show himself, try as we might. The Red-winged Francolins were more forthcoming, luckily.

The dawn chorus did not live up to expectations this day, probably too cold ("Strangely quiet here today"). But a walk in the forest brought a number of new birds, although some of them (Barratt's warbler) were not too keen on a closer acquaintance. The Olive Bush Shrike was just as bashful, but Blue-mantled Flycatchers were more forthcoming and let themselves be admired, and the Knysna Louries even came out and posed on an exposed branch, as far as I know a quite special honour. The Cape Parrots held out for a long time, but just at the end of the morning four of these beautiful large parrots circled over us several times, and were duly admired.

Back on the farm Malcolm drove us around in the area and showed some of the specialties of the area, staked out with the help of neighbouring farmers. Most impressive, together with the very elegant Oribi antelopes, was Stanley's Bustard, an amazingly large and stately bird; there were also Blue Cranes and Black-bellied Korhaans in the fields, and the first House Sparrows of the trip on the farm.

In the evening we went spotlighting in a game area near Howick, where we earlier had admired the falls, with eagles nesting in the kloof, Alpine Swifts overhead, and a my very first Groundscraper Thrush feeding unconcernedly on a lawn. It was as cold as cold can be (This was the evening of the socks as mittens), and "very quiet tonight", but we still caught another Stanley's Bustard and sundry Black-winged Plovers in the light, as well as a number of Marsh Owls, again a new acquaintance for me.

The last day started out almost still colder than the night before, but great views of all three cranes warmed, and not before had we arrived at Karkloof, where Adam conjured up a singing Bush Blackcap at point blank range: a beautiful bird with a nice exuberant song phrase!

In the wonderful gardens of John Robinson at Beadie close by we were not only out of the cold wind, but also in a wonderland of colourful new birds -- and this day they were not bashful either, but showed themselves in their full glory. First the Chorister Robin (A rare case where I prefer the English name to the Afrikaans Lawaaimaker Jan-Fredrik), then the Orange Thrush, that we had heard caroling already for a while, and subsequently also the Starred Robin; they were almost vying for the honour to show off! The same with the Honeyguides: first the Greater, then the Scaly-throated (the famous "crippling views"), and then we also heard the Sharp-billed! But there the line was drawn, and that one did not show himself. While we were searching for the Honeyguides, we had another stroke of luck, and could admire a Green Twinspot hopping around among the bracken; what a wonderful little bird! In addition, this wonderful park had Long-tailed Wagtails, Forest Canaries and Swee Waxbills, so my birdlist for 4 days of "very quiet around here" jumped over the 200-mark.

The dessert was, as in so many bird trips, a sewage farm, and another crash course in Natal birding, this time to see and recognize African Marsh, African Reed and African Sedge Warblers! Then the Yellow Warbler was easier: it really looks, but does not sound, like an Icterine Warbler. A Lesser Masked Weaver was the last new bird of the trip.

I am extremely grateful to Adam Riley, who sacrificeed some of his scarce free days to go birding with me, a real busman's holiday! Adam was always very quick in spotting and identifying all the birds we saw, and very patient in making sure I saw them too. He has moreover the gift of describing where a bird is in such a way, that one can actually find it, a gift that is quite rare even among professional bird guides. So I got very much out of these few days, even though I still shall stumble among the pipits and cisticolas for a long time to come.

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser; ugeiser@xnet.com; November 26, 1999