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A MARATHON OF 271 SPECIES IN TWENTY HOURS,Glen Holland
I felt my head had hardly hit the pillow when the alarm went off at 1.00 am. It was Bid Birding Day in Zululand, South Africa, twitching at its ultimate, where numerous teams compete to find the highest number of birds in 24 hours. Each team has sponsors with funds going to Birdlife South Africa. Our team of three was called the Deaf, the Dumpling and the Dutchman. Hamish (The Deaf) is an excellent birder but unfortunately has failing hearing, Barry (The Dumpling) has excellent hearing but being a large man was perhaps a little less agile than some and me, The Dutchman with the surname Holland. We all took our days supplies but Barry catered for an army and his lunch was always more interesting than ours. Centered in Eshowe in northern KwaZulu/Natal we were allowed to move in a 50km radius but we had already done a fair bit of homework and had our route for the day staked out, which we, like all the teams, kept a secret.
I fetched Hamish at 1.15 and we dashed to the edge of the Dlinza Forest where I was about to call a known pair of wood owl when a police vehicle pulled up beside us and asked what we were doing. With a look of disbelief on his face the constable climbed back into his vehicle and smiling he told his partner what we were doing I think the only thing that stopped us from being arrested was the parks department vehicle which I drove. After all his commotion I cupped my hands to call the wood owls and succeeded only in waking and obviously upsetting the dog in the neighbouring garden. It was not to be so we headed on to fetch Barry on his farm. On the way we shone a spotlight on the tops of the telephone poles and succeeded in finding a spotted eagle owl. In a team of three two members have to agree on a sighting or cal so this one counted, one down, two hundred and seventy one to go. Now 1.40 am Barry was waiting for us in his drive and while packing his days supplies Barry and I both heard a Natal francolin calling in the maize fields below his house. Shining a torch into the trees above the driveway we found his small flock of helmeted guineafowl sleeping. Leaving Barrys farm we headed for a rural settlement which perched on the escarpment of a valley of dry thorn veld (scrub). While I drove Barry prepared the tape, which we were to use to call up two more nocturnal species spotted dikkop (thick-knee) and fiery-necked nightjar. Struggling a little for the former eventually we had both. With no moon present the nightjars were not vocal but playing the tape we soon had a reply of good lord deliver us surely one of the most haunting calls of the African night. It was only 3.15 am and with fifteen minutes to spare we sat quietly on the escarpment listening intensely to the silence around us. A soft call from way down the valley and Barry and I smiled at each other ground hornbill we announced to Hamish who was recording. This took us all by surprise as not only did we not expect to get them but it was not even dawn yet. With that and our count of six species we had to head to Entumeni forest to be there before dawn. It was customary, together with the two other teams competing in our zone to have a pre-dawn cup of coffee at the car park deep within Entumeni Forest. We usually compared notes but once we announced that we had six species we could not get any information out of our competitors we took this as a good sign. Once the laughter and jostling settled down we tuned into the silence again and were rewarded with a deep ooooom call from deep within the forest buff-spotted flufftail. A few minutes before the first sign of light we all picked up on the last calls of the wood owls duet with the male calling Come on its time to go and the female answering Its late, its late. With eight in the bag we prepared ourselves for the dawn chorus which was about to begin.
DAWN IN THE FOREST
As shapes in the forest became more obvious with the first sign of dawn a chorister robin burst into call meters from where we were gathered. Followed soon by Cape white-eye the chorus began to gain momentum. We had a special staked out at the bottom of the valley and on the way down, with Hamish having his hearing aid plugged into a microphone and amplifier we ticked a wide variety of forest species. Terrestrial, sombre and yellow-streaked bulbuls were very vocal and Hamish surprised us when he asked for confirmation on yellow-throated warbler. Barry and I tuned in to he calls from the canopy above and sure enough Hamish was correct. Further down the track we heard the deep calls of the magnificent narina trogon followed by the Im so sad call of the black cuckoo, we had earlier heard the red-chested cuckoo as well. The doves had also woken and by the time the first rays of sun touched the forest canopy the deep calls of the tambourine (white-fronted forest) dove echoed through the forest. Rameron pigeon were also heard but no sign Delegorgues which we had hoped for would have to try our back-up location for them. As we neared the bottom of the valley I heard a very soft prrrrup and looked at Barry expectantly but he had missed it. We stood for a while listening intently and confirmed a red-fronted tinker barbet which began hi repertoire above us. As beautiful as he is, he was not the one we were after and we headed to the stream at the bottom of the valley. Standing next to the stream we saw a grey cuckooshrike feeding in the canopy above but still could not hear the chap we were after and then suddenly he called prrrrup and we all nodded with relief we had no back up area for this fellow. The male African broadbill has a favoured perch in his territory from which he performs his circular display flight while giving his prrrrrup call. Feeling very pleased with ourselves we slowly headed back up the hill continuing to tick more of the forest species such as black-headed oriole, trumpeter hornbills which cried like babies as they flew over us and forest sunbirds which seemed to be everywhere giving their excited tick, tick calls. A group of red-billed woodhoopoe gave their cackling calls, which the Zulu people so aptly name Uhlekabafazi The laughing women! Heading out of the forest we had forty-eight species, which we felt, was good going. Next were the grasslands where we hoped to pick up another ten or so. Spotted prinia were calling everywhere and a short burst with a tape soon produced a display flight and answer from a croaking cisticola. Red-collared widow could be seen popping up throughout the grassland and once parked, listening quietly we heard the familiar call of Ill drink your beer repeated five or six times gave away a hidden covey of Shelleys francolin. On the forest margin we found two small flocks of red-backed mannikin feeding on ripe grass seed heads but could not find the green twinspot which again were another difficult species which were good to have under the belt so that we could concentrate on others later in the day. Birdwatchers always have to be reminded that birding is like fishing and you do not always catch what you want. Two surprises on the way out were a pair white-eared barbets sunning themselves on a dead branch (which probably contained their nest) and a small flock of orange-breasted waxbills which were a little out of their usual territory but we ere not complaining. Hamish had an extraordinary ability to pick up birds we had missed and he suddenly shouted, Stop - flying and pointed over the forest canopy. Barry and I focused on the canopy but could not see anything when suddenly the boss of forest soared gently over the forest and slowly back into the valley, which was his territory below. Crowned eagle is the most powerful but also one of the most secretive of Africas raptors and is always a bonus on any birding trip.
Our next stop was the garden of the famous photographer Nico Myburgh. Nico lived next to a forest patch of forest about 200 meters higher than any of the other areas on our itinerary. On the way down to his house we flushed a pair of blue-billed firefinch feeding on grass seed on the edge of the road. Nico had planted his garden and also supplied food for the bids in his region. On the bird table we found numerous bronze-winged mannikins Frets as we know them, swee (Dufrene's) waxbill and forest canaries. A quick walk around the garden gave us greater double-collared sunbird, spectacled weaver defending his nest on the end of a palm frond and a pair of brown-hooded kingfisher busy feeding their brood in a rock wall in the garden. On the lawn we found groundscraper thrush and black flycatcher hunting insects from dead perches a few metes above the lawn. The pair of Cape wagtail nesting in a flower pot outside Nicos door were easy spotting but we could not help stop and watch the pair for a minute while they were busy feeding their chicks. A tik-tik, tik-tik call from the canopy above the lawns and again we gave each other the lucky day look. This was the start of the green (fruit) pigeons call which soon broke into a mixture of more melodious notes. Nico had warned us that they were around, initially as a large flock that had steadily been thinned out by a black sparrowhawk, which nested in the adjacent forest. No sign of the predator but we had a spot marked X for him on the days itinerary.
Next was the gold mine. This had been named by Barry not because of anything to do with gold but because this little valley always produced a host of unusual species. We were not disappointed and sitting on the rocks looking down the gully we listened to and recorded a host of cliff and hillside species. Buff-streaked and familiar chats, red-winged starlings and rock pigeons which were busily nesting in the cliffs and were very vocal. The aloes below were in seed and streaky-headed seedeaters could be heard further down the hillside. A pair of white-necked ravens periodically left their territory on the cliff and together with a pair of rock kestrels performed aerial display flights aimed at chasing off the numerous pied crows in the area. Alpine, little and white-rumped swift also occupied the air currents above us, one alpine swift clearly heard as it cut through the air. A rather sad call of tree-e-tree-loo from hillside below revealed a favourite of mine known in Zulu as Hlala-matsheni which means, live on the rocks. This is the call the rufous-naped lark which usually sits on a prominent rock to give his call. Others we were lucky to pick up in the gold mine were striped pippit, red-throated wryneck which we could not see but is loud calls resonated in the valley below. On our way out an orange-throated longclaw surprised us by flushing from the grass in the centre of the muddy track. The bird, which we thought would probably be the biggest surprise of the day, was a cuckoo hawk sitting in a dead wattle tree near the track. Resembling a cuckoo with a heavily barred chest this was the first time we had seen him in our area. We had an excited discussion over whether or not the other teams would even believe us when we compared notes.
We headed back to Dlinza Forest where I had started with Hamish in the early hours of the morning. One way we stopped at a farm dam that our reconnaissance had showed as good spot. Thick-billed (Grosbeak) weavers common and in between were a few pairs of yellow weavers. The male thick-billed weavers were in the process of completing their nests and each advertising these as the best to passing females. The dam also gave us a rather lazy malachite kingfisher staring endlessly into the water and his large cousin the giant kingfisher, which we could hear but not see in the trees standing in on the water edge. In the reeds we could hear the grating call of the sedge warbler and reed warblers which are common in the area. Black saw-wing and white-throated swallows skimmed insects of the surface of the water, which was also home to a pair of yellow-billed ducks and Egyptian Geese. The highlight of this stop however was the hooting call of the secretive male red-breasted flufftail (rail) which are almost never seen and only occasionally heard. A quick stop at the farmers garden where we knew there was a colony of lesser-masked weavers gave us not only the weavers but also a diederick cuckoo who was continually being chased by the weavers who were aware of he cuckoos intention to use them as a host. From a bed of reeds below the dam wall we had the gurgling call of a burchells coucal which sounded like water running from a bottle. This was also our only spot for greater striped swallow, which were nesting in the garden and did not disappoint us.
Entering the Dlinza forest we headed straight for a known calling perch of the scaly-throated honeyguide. Unfortunately the bird was not in residence but while stopped there high above us Barry and I could hear the chick, chick call of an African Goshawk doing his aerial display flight above his territory in the forest. A short walk down the track took us to some very dense undergrowth and a short call tik-tik, tik-tik from the tape produced a vocal response from the resident green coucal. This dense undergrowth was also home to a very vocal yellow-bellied bulbul (greenbul) which repeatedly gave his deep throaty chew, chew, chew call. A pair of bar-throated appalis that excitedly flitted around and called in the vegetation above us did clearly not appreciate our presence. Their excitement attracted a collared-sunbird which, much to our appreciation, came over to investigate the disturbance. The forest echoed with the calls of chorister robins and forest sunbirds that we had earlier in the day but all created the most fantastic birding environment. Still no honeyguide and my numerous attempts to call the scarce Delegorgues (bronze-naped) pigeon had failed. Our next stop n the forest was a picnic spot where we had been feeding and photographing green twinspots. Usually extremely difficult to see there were numerous pairs with chicks in the undergrowth. Entering the forest on a short path this was our territory for the endangered spotted thrush. Having been busy with a monitoring programme we knew that a pair in the vicinity had recently fledged a chick. Starting to feel the fatigue of the early start, sitting quietly on a stump we heard forest weaver, violet-crested turaco and finally our honeyguide calling in the distance. We could not afford any more time on the spotted thrush so headed back up the path. A bleating warble gave its call, which sounded like two ball bearings knocking together, and then burst into its bleating beeeeep alarm call. On nearing the vehicle Barry stopped suddenly and put his hand up. Realising that there was something there I strained to listen even more intently. A soft tseeeup and Barry pointed as I said, yip the alarm call of a spotted thrush telling its juvenile to sit tight. This was the last chance for Delegorgues pigeon but we knew it was a tall order to hear one this early in the season. By this stage the humidity was climbing and in response the calls of the cicada beetles were becoming deafening. The birds also seem to feel the competition from the cicadas and almost ceased all vocalisations. Stopping at a small grassland on the edge of town we found grassbird (our only spot for him), common waxbills and yellow-throated longclaw.
With the heat building we headed to the thornveld and savannah which included a visit to a private game reserve. On the way down from the higher lying forests we stopped on a bend in the road from were, using a telescope, we could see the nest of a black sparrowhawk high in a fork of a gum tree. The dark back of the female was clear on the nest and we had gained one more. A small culvert under the road was a known home to a breeding pair of red-breasted swallows, which took a little while to appear. While waiting however we also picked up the calls of a gorgeous bush-shrike and numerous cordon-blue waxbills. A single swallow appeared and then disappeared into the culvert with a beakfull of mud. In the distance we could hear the alarm clock like drone of a crested barbet proclaiming his territory. Next stop was open grassland on a farm where Barry had seen a black-bellied korhaan (bustard). A quick survey of the area did not produce any results so Barry gave two quick calls with a tape from the distant grassland came the reply which sounded like a large drop of water falling into a pool below. A white-winged widow was very busy displaying over a green patch in the middle of the grassland and we could hear numerous pairs of rattling cisticola competing for territories. High above a raptor soared lazily, non-descript but fortunately its tightly closed tail gave away its identity Whalbergs eagle. Next stop was a stream, which had a convenient cattle path along its bank. We were after two species which we knew were here, both associated with flowing water, black duck and long-tailed wagtail. We found both species just were we thought they should be and in the thorn thicket above the stream bank I also heard the familiar song of the melba finch. With sweat running off all of us I asked to sit and listen until one of he others had heard the melba. After a few minutes the soft warble started up again and my sanity was restored I had not started hearing thins yet! Walking back along the track Hamish picked up a special. Ahead of us on a rock in the stream bank sat a half-collared kingfisher, which we had not expected. Easily overlooked taken for granted as they were calling continually with their four-note call I checked that Hamish had recorded the golden-rumped tinker barbet, which he did.
At the entrance to the private game reserve we stopped to survey the managers garden. The thornveld was still dry and the garden was sure to attract a multitude of species. We were not disappointed with Cape and red-eyed turtledoves, masked weavers, dusky flycatcher, kurrichane thrush, amethyst and glossy (red-shouldered) starlings, golden-breasted bunting, red-billed firefinch, black, white-bellied and scarlet-chested sunbirds competing for nectar amongst the flowering plants. The manager told us where to find the giraffe and we headed in to the reserve, stopping every ten minutes to listen for new calls that were numerous. Green-spotted dove, neddicky and crombec calls echoed from every corner of the reserve. Black-crowned tcahgra with their melodious up and down calls were also common. Driving down to the flat grassland areas we found yellow-throated longclaw perched on a some dry twigs and behind him in the now shimmering heat we could see numerous white-fronted bee-eaters hawking winged insects above the grass. Stopped in the shade of the camp site for lunch which was eaten on the run and with low key conversations so as not to miss any calls and from above us came a loud call of victor, victor repeated which gave away a greater honeyguide. Numerous willow warblers were feeding in the canopy above giving their tsweep calls. A flock of bronze mannikins were noisily feeding in the seeding grass on the edge of the picnic site. Hamish had found a white-throated robin at the edge of the camp but by the time we went over there was no sign of it resulting in lots of comments and laughs about loosing it, eyesight goingetc. After a quick bite to at we headed for the large thorn trees lining the river to find white-backed vulture which roosted there. Not only did we find the vultures but heard a cardinal woodpecker calling in the trees above. Hearing a stick fall from the canopy we picked some movement which I thought was a vervet monkey. Hamish had his binocs trained on the movement and announced that it was a gymnogene. With the hat now building, high above the canopy soared another medium sized raptor this time with the tail fanned tawny eagle. Driving away again to locate the giraffe we had a pied barbet flash across the road in front of us. We all saw it but it took a while to register before we confirmed what we had seen. A surprise, which we had not expected, was a bokmakierie, which popped out of a thicket on the roadside. Puffback shrike and hoopoe were common in the reserve with the former giving their cellphone like calls and the later calling their name. We finally found the herd of giraffe and were not disappointed when we found three red-billed oxpeckers feeding on their necks and bodies. Leaving the reserve we picked up a pair of wattled plover in a small wetland and while stopped to look at them a small flock of red-faced mousebirds called to each other with their choo, choo, choo calls a give away but also easily confused with the brown-hooded kingfisher. Other species we picked up on call only were southern black tit, crested francolin and numerous white-browed robin. Chinspot batis are very common in the thorns, easily seen but also continually heard with their bill snapping and the call three blind mice
A QUARRY, A DAM AND A TOWN
2.15 pm and the exhaustion which had set in at lunch time was now behind us a light afternoon breeze set in. We were all rather burnt and had pasted ourselves with sunscreen but it was the iceblocks in the drink cooler, which really saved the day. Heading for a small disused quarry we were after two species in particular. On reaching the quarry looking at a familiar crag lined with white markings we were also being watched intently by a pair of lanner falcon resting in the afternoon heat. A few pairs of rock buntings were resident in the quarry. The surprise here was a mocking chat which dashed across the road in front of us, landed for a few seconds with the characteristic over balance posture as the tail lifted and then as quickly as he had appeared he disappeared into a group of boulders. A small farm dam, which we had permission to visit, always gave a few surprises. Black crake, moorhen, spoonbill, white-faced duck, Egyptian geese were the regulars and today we spotted two extras painted snipe which flushed almost from our feet and a single fulvous duck amongst the noisy flock of white-faced. As we walked along the edge of the dam a resident, and probably breeding, pair of blacksmith plover dive bombed us ad uttered their shrill calls. We tried unsuccessfully for a heuglins robin, which lived along the stream below the dam. A black widowfinch sitting high on a dead branch mimicking a red-billed firefinch was a nice second prize after missing the robin. Starting to check our watches now as high tide was at 5.00pm, we rushed to the industrial area of a town where we hoped to find feral pigeon and Indian mynah neither very exciting species but another two which could make the difference. Having found them it was of to the harbour town of Richards Bay.
LAKES, MANGROVES AND ESTUARIES
First stop was in the edge of a very busy highway where we clearly angered a few motorists a vehicle and three large men hiding behind telescopes on the edge of the highway. We chuckled at what people must have been thinking but what mattered was the pair of pygmy geese feeding amongst the lilies on a distant pan of water. Overhead Hamish picked up a long-crested eagle soaring with the white windows clearly visible in his wings. Back into the vehicle and off to the bay with only an hour to high tide. On the way a pair of African Marsh Harrier displayed themselves beautifully as they effortlessly drifted across the papyrus swamp. On the edge of town lay a large fresh water mangrove swamp. Here we found a pair of wattle-eyed flycatcher and grey sunbird. While heading out of the swamp we also heard a natal robin giving his shaky see-saw call. Into the vehicle and with forty minutes to go we had one more drive by spot. On the edge of a reed swamp that also bordered an industrial site we knew that a flock of red-winged pratincole had their nests. Sure enough the pratincoles were there but of equal interest were the pair of crowned cranes, which moved into the reeds as soon as we arrived. I have often thought of that pair of birds that were totally isolated from others of their own kind and slowly having their habitat throttled by the surrounding industrial giants. An epitome of what was happening to a raft of species in this delicate ecosystem.
We headed for a sand spit that would be under water in an hour and there we found curlew, whimbrel, bar-tailed godwits, grey plover, little stints, sanderlings, white fronted and Kitlitz plover. To our surprise a single crab plover which are a rare sighting in this area appeared amongst the godwits. At the end of the spit we had noted an African fish eagle enjoying his meal. We made a dash off the sand spit with only a narrow strip of sand left above the water line. Finally reaching the shallow edges of the harbour we found two other teams already positioned behind their scopes. On arrival we were greeted with the usual jostling from the other teams who did not believe that we honestly did not know what number of birds we had. For one we were to tired to really bother and we had been having too much fun to spend time counting. This stage of the day was also one we had all been looking forward to all afternoon we could finally open a cold beer or two! With the scopes positioned low in front of us and the rising tide pushing all the bids towards us we had a great time with Caspian, lesser-crested, swift, common, little, sandwich tern all perched on a sand bank in front of us. A host of sandpipers and plovers rested on the sandbank and some rarities including terek sandpiper and ringed plover helped our tally. We heard one of the other teams mention Mongolian plover and had some sharp comments about stretching it. In the shallows in front of us a pied kingfisher hovered above his unsuspecting prey and on the far side of the estuary an osprey sat feeding on a pole in the water.
It was getting late now but we had one more spot on the waters edge Thulasihleka pan that in Zulu means quiet we are laughing. This fresh water pan is sadly dying as result of the high nutrient load entering the water accidentally from neighbouring fertilizer production factories. Each year the reedbeds spread a little further into the pan of water. We had two primary birding areas and headed straight for these. Driving along a track lined by tall grass we flushed a kurrichane buttonquail that flew for about 20 meters before dropping back into the grass. Numerous blue-cheeked and a single pair of little bee-eaters were hunting their prey from he branches of dead casurrina trees. On reaching the edge of the pan a Goliath heron took off from the clearing we were to use to survey the pan. African Jacana raced for cover as we approached but soon settled when we stood still behind our scopes. Barry found the first lesser-jacana skulking along the edge of a reedbed. This was our only chance for this difficult species. Out on the water were numerous pairs of white-backed duck, red-billed teal, cape shoveler, and a single darter with only his head and neck visible above the water, pink-backed and white pelican. In the reeds beside us we could hear cape reed warblers, black-backed cisticola and although it took some time to get a clear view, we all agreed that the weaver performing his display flight was in fact the rare brown-throated. Off to the birders hide next we had another surprise when we found an African cuckoo on the fenceline next to the road a first for me. On reaching the hide we met another team who had just finished and they all said bittern, laughed and walked away. We said sure thing, laughed and entered the hide. We were stunned as on a small bank next to the reds stood a bittern which none of us had seen in these areas before. In the shallows in front of the hide were a black crake, squacco heron intent on catching his last meal of the day and a purple gallinule. From deep within the reeds we heard both Baillons crake and African rail. A pair of fish eagle duetted from the opposite side of the pan and at the far side we could just make out a yellow-billed stork standing in the shallow water. As dusk approached glossy ibis, night and purple heron were descending to roost in the reeds. The pleasure of this environment was soon broken as we started to slap mosquitos, that sent us back to our vehicle.
Our last stop was rolling grassland next to the airport. This was as much a quest for a new species as much as being able to add a last bird to or days total. We met up with two other teams and after a short drive we stopped amongst the hills of grass. Moving away from the vehicles as a group we played a single short call from tape. Chok, chok, chok and almost immediately we had a Natal nightjar land within meters of us. We admired it by torchlight and then retreated to leave it in peace a first for all of us. The end of a fantastic day but sunburnt and weary we headed home. The post biding day barbeque is as important as the day itself. All the teams got together to compare notes and chat about the days experiences. We had counted 271 species and the Zululand Roadrunners had 272. As we were laughing about this, the partner of one of the roadrunners noted that we had not seen yellow-throated warbler. Together Hamish, Barry and I remarked that we had and she informed us that we had not marked it. We also had 272 but in order to keep the peace we agreed that we cold not add it a day after the event! We knew and had enjoyed a great day.
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