25 February 2012

To Hell and Back

After doing the beach on Friday night, Christopher and I had a ten hour hiatus before meeting each other again at the Neelsie parking lot the next morning, ready to hike with the Universiteit van Stellenbosch Berg-en-Toer Klub. I joined the club for two reason: their hikes looked epic, and their members are Afrikaaners. If I am going to learn Afrikaans, what better way to do it that by spending time with and listening to the locals?

I was not disappointed, and was soon pretty lost after the familiar phrases of greeting such as "Bly te kenne" had been uttered. I easily cruised past the questions such as "hoe gaan dit?" and "wat is jou naam?" but was quickly lost in the harsh guttural sounds of the South Africans. As I struggled to pay attention to everything they said, we loaded up into the cars, and headed north to the Groot Winterhoekberge, and the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness.

The drive in was incredible, and the birds were nice too. North of Porterville, I scored my lifer Namaqua Dove (Oena capensis) on a fenceline, and the parking area had calling Ground Woodpecker (Geocolaptes olivaceus) in the distance and a pair of Bokmakierie (Telephorus zeylonus) foraging in the bushes. We got our gear together and, speaking our mix of German, Afrikaans and English, ventured off into the mystical wonderland of rocky pinnacles and fynbos scrub that lay before us.

The tallest peak in view in this picture is Groot Winterhoekberg at 2055 meters asl. The incredible forest of stone continued almost the entire 20 km to our camp site.

As we hiked, the members of the club swam in the water and, being shy of lakes myself, I kept myself occupied with Orange-breasted Sunbirds, Yellow Canaries and a lone Common (Steppe) Buzzard soaring overhead.

That night, we all collapsed in the shelter of one of Cape Nature's cabins available for backpackers, and had a glorious feast of macaroni and tuna. I found a four inch gecko in the toilet (which was quite the surprise), and Christopher chased the spiders around the cabin, muttering foul phrases at the freakishly huge spiders that thought our cabin was quite the "lekker" place to be. The trip for me though, was a fascinating look at the people themselves. I did hardly any birding, and spend almost the entirety of my time just talking to everyone and getting to know them. I learned a lot of Afrikaans (even if I can't exactly say it back yet!) and a lot about South Africa in general. Almost everyone was quite impressed with my general knowledge base as well, as the two most common questions I was asked were "How long have you been here?" and "A month? How do you know so much?"

As a consequence of this fraternization, I did almost zero birding. I was distracted by the sky, with stars more intense than any I have seen in the northern hemisphere, by the fynbos with it's bizarre proteas, by the people, and by the great time as a whole. We did, however, see Verreaux's and Booted Eagles soaring over the fynbos and at the very beginning a group of Klippspringers to satiate my desire to bird, but I otherwise acted as the group photographer, and tried to capture the trip as best I could and work on my photography. As such, there really isn't much more for me to say, besides the fact that wildernesses are awesome, and that South Africa is an amazing place to be.

Die Hel, one of the largest freshwater pools in South Africa and our end point to our hike.

Die Hel, and if you look closely, you can see people in the rocks on the near side of the lake for perspective.

An awesome Praying Mantis found wandering across the road on our hike out.

21 February 2012

Muizenberg

I didn't know Germany had surfer-dudes until I met Christopher. At about 6'6" and all muscle, he looks like a page out of a California surfing magazine. Needless to say, as he stares down at you and you try not to stare at his beach blond hair, you get the impression he has ridden some serious waves. So, when he called me and asked if I was interested in wind-surfing Muizenberg beach, I said I wasn't keen on surfing but was keen on some Atlantic Ocean action.

We met and loaded up into his rental beetle and headed out to the beach. The winds were strong off the ocean, and the language barrier was finally broken for me when I realized that Christopher wasn't just a surfer, but a kite-surfer! We pulled up and the sky was a myriad of kites belonging to his brethren, and he wasted no time getting his gear and heading out into the chilly waters of Vaalsbaai. I, on the other hand, had some ornithological fish to fry, and headed down the great sandy stretches of the beach (eBird checklist here).

Muizenberg Beach facing east while in the dunes, south of Cape Town, South Africa

As I ventured out, it soon became apparent that this was going to be a terrible place for shorebirds. I wandered amongst the dunes, but mostly focused on the offshore birds hoping for a petrel or a shearwater. Out beyond the breakers, Cape Gannets foraged and avoided the masses of Kelp (Cape) Gulls swarming out over the water and the beach. As I wandered, I was soon distracted by movement in the grasses and scored a life bird - White-fronted Plover (Charadrius marginatus)!

White-fronted Plover (Charadrius marginatus), Muizenberg, South Africa

I kept myself entertained while these miniature sand-colored plovers darted between the dune grasses, and even spotted a tiny mini-plover that was probably only a few days old. To not disturb these cool birds, I headed closer to the coast, and to my astonishment, spotted a Shearwater, though not exactly how I imagined I would.

Subantarctic Little Shearwater (Puffinis [assimilis] elegans), Muizenberg, South Africa

As shown above, I found a Subantarctic Little Shearwater dead on the beach. I was surprised by the sight of such a bird, one that I imagine should be far off shore, so far into Vaalsbaai. I have no idea how he ended up where he did, but it was an interesting sight to see regardless! I photographed the bird for documentary purposes and then continued on my slow march down the beach, watching the White-necked Ravens scavenge in the kelp and occasionally kicking up a "fun bird" like a Plain-backed Pipit or Red-headed Cisticola.

At the end of my walks, I met up with Christopher again, and we decided to mess around with some shots. Unfortunately, the hour was late and they did not come out very well, so we agreed to head out again and I would do my best ESPN impression as he cut the surf with his wind-powered apparatus. As the winds strengthened and the sky darkened, we got our gear together and headed back towards Stellenbosch, ready for the weekend that lay before us.


16 February 2012

Penguins Revisited

The past two weeks have been quite busy for me. I have been doing school mostly, and have hardly been out to enjoy the wilds of Africa. I  did, however, head out on Sunday to Jan Marais Natuur Reservaat and to the lower reaches of Stellenboschberg. At Jan Marais, I found my 100th African bird - a Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops africanus)! Other highlights included Cape Sparrow, a female Pin-tailed Whydah, multiple Karoo Scrub-Robins and a massive flock of staging migrants on Stellenboschberg. I estimated the following in the fynbos swarm:


Black (Yellow-billed) Kite - 2
Eurasian (Rock) Kestrel - 1 bird, trying to catch the swifts and swallows for a short while
Alpine Swift - 25
Common Swift - 2 - these were extremely close, and for the first time I was able to separate them from African Swifts - LIFE BIRD
African Swift - 4
Little Swift - 40
Horus Swift - 4
White-rumped Swift - 50
Swift sp. - 10
Rock Martin - 20
Barn Swallow - 600
White-throated Swallow - 2 - surprisingly few, considering how many were in the area when I first arrived
Pearl-breasted Swallow - 14
Greater Striped-Swallow - 170
Black Sawwing - 2 - LIFER - hanging out near the creek


This coming weekend, I will be heading out into the fray once again with the Berg-en Toer Klub of Stellenbosch University to the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area. In the meantime, as promised, some of my pictures from Boulder's Beach.

Two African (Jackass) Penguins snuggling on the beach together, Simon's Town, Western Cape, South Africa (I was about two feet away!)
African (Jackass) Penguins lounging on the boulders of Boulder's Beach, Simon's Town, Western Cape, South Africa

05 February 2012

The Beauty of Buteos

The number of Buteos varies depending on who you ask. I've recently been keeping my entire list in eBird, and there 29 species in the genus Buteo according to that listing regime. If you count all the subspecies and groups you are able to 'designate' a bird as in the program, however, the number climbs to 63, including the generic entries such as "Red-tailed Hawk" with no further specification. This level of variability exhibited within the genus can really make some species a nightmare for field birding. In fact, one species, the Variable Hawk (Buteo polyosoma) was once considered several different species before genetic testing showed that there were merely 20+ color morphs! In the state, thankfully, there are typical 'morphs' for each population, and when seen prove extremely easy to identify. An example of this would be a Swainson's Hawk: there is really no other bird like it in much of its range, and regular 'light-morph' birds that I usually see in the deserts of Colorado and Utah rarely make me take a second glance to confirm them. Things become slightly more complicated as variability is taken into account, however, and the dark-morph birds I had at Independence Rock in Wyoming made me glance at my book just to be sure. Luckily, Buteo is pretty well covered genus in North America, and many guides are available showing the telltale marks for birds of virtually any population and color morph.

The comfort of this safety net of field guides from every angle has slowly slipped away for me over the years. when I was in South America, there was a juvenile Buteo in the jungles near BaƱos, Ecuador, and we were in no way certain of what to make of it at the time. It wasn't until several months later after I was back in the states that I finally figured out it was a young White-rumped Hawk (Buteo leucorrhous) outside of the typically expected elevational range (full checklist here). Even then, I was reliant on guides that were not available to me in the field, and that I did not even know existed while I was scouring my Ecuador field guide in the damp jungle.

This feeling of helplessness of hawks quickly returned to me as I arrived in South Africa. So far, the most common bird for me has been the "Steppe" Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus), considered by my field guide to be separate from the nominate Common Buzzard. Indeed, some insular subspecies of this hawk have recently been upgraded to full species status, and some of the more distinctive mainland forms may follow in the near future. My knowledge with these birds is limited at the present time, and I mostly know that if a see a variably brownish bird flying over campus of the open karoo near Stellenbosch, that opening my book will inevitably lead me to this hawk.

While on the slopes of Stellenboschberg, I encountered yet another Buteo which was completely foreign to me but, luckily, extremely distinctive: the Jackal Buzzard (Buteo rufofuscus). These birds have red-tails much like the hawks I'm familiar with at all, but are ink black under the wings and across their mantle, making them extremely distinctive.

Jackal Buzzard, south of Stellenbosch, South Africa. The red tail is barely visible between the wings. This is a bad photo due to overcast conditions.

Today, in an attempt to beef up my world hawk list, I ventured through an extensive Eucalyptus plantation near town (complete birdlist here). My goal bird was one of two Buteos: the South African endemic "Forest" Mountain Buzzard (Buteo oreophilus trizonatus) and the so called "Elgin" Buzzard. The "Elgin" Buzzard, more commonly called the "Mystery Buzzard," is an enigma. A pair of largely rufous hawks was found nesting near Table Mountain a few years back, and now these birds are common in plantations and farm areas in extreme southwest South Africa (and according to the website listed below, occur "around Jonkershoek near Stellenbosch)." As of yet, no one is really sure where they come from either, with hybrid origin being one possible explanation I have read. So, when I finally did scare up a pair of Buteos, I got extremely excited about what they could be, but through the minimal views and even after photographing them I am left shaking my head. Their wing pattern was similar to that of a "Steppe" Common Buzzard, ruling out "Forest" Mountain Buzzard, but the head was pale, which did not necessarily line up with the Common Buzzards I had seen previously. Similarly, "Elgin" Buzzards are usually pretty uniform and usually largely rufous, which, though uniform, this bird was not rufous. Classes start tomorrow, but as soon as I am able I intend on heading out and looking for them again. In the meantime, I have a lot of studying I'll have to do for classes, and a lot I will have to do before I can fully appreciate and understand this variable genus.

In the meantime, some homework for whoever reads this blog: what do you think this hawk is?

Feel free to comment and let me know what you think. In the field I thought they were "Elgin" Buzzards, but I still haven't been able to rule "Steppe" Common Buzzard out in my mind completely. Some useful information on:

Cape Mystery (Elgin) Buzzards: http://mysterybuzzard.blogspot.com/p/identifying-mystery-buzzard.html
"Steppe" Common Buzzard photos: http://www.google.co.za/search?q=steppe+buzzard&hl=en&prmd=imvns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=GY4uT_C8JcPBhAfo0eTjCg&ved=0CD8QsAQ&biw=1280&bih=685
"Forest" Mountain Buzzard photos: http://www.google.co.za/search?um=1&hl=en&biw=1280&bih=685&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=forest+buzzard&oq=forest+buzzard&aq=f&aqi=g1&aql=&gs_sm=e&gs_upl=1801l1933l0l2792l2l2l0l0l0l0l200l200l2-1l1l0

04 February 2012

Serendipity

The past week has simply flown by for me. I got my general class schedule figured out, and, amazingly, managed to not take my camera with me the couple times I did go somewhere. I did get pictures, but my contact for those pictures is currently in Cape Town... Anyways, I'll get them up when I can.

On Tuesday, I scheduled my classes at the international office and, upon walking outside, was greeted by Genevieve, Yvonne, and Stephanie. They all had one thing on their minds: penguins. Jackass (African) Penguins to be exact, a penguin known for its distinctive donkey-like braying. So, before I knew it, I was on the long train ride out to the southernmost place I have ever been in my entire life: Boulder's Beach. Upon arriving, we instantly had a penguin from the parking lot! We paid the R35 to wander down to the beach with them, and for the next few hours, I watched the penguins while the girls swam in the cold, clear waters of South Africa (I was caught by surprise so much I didn't even have a swimsuit!). I wandered through the boulders and crawled along the Jackass Penguin highways through the cool, white sand and watched Speckled Mousebirds hide in the adjacent fynbos and even spied a Cape Gannet diving not far off shore.

Before long, however, it was time for us to head back, and we re-boarded the train for Cape Town (and I snagged one last lifer for the day - a Black-headed Heron near Fish Hoek). When we arrived at the station, we were greeted with some rather unexpected news: the last train to Stellenbosch had left an hour before. We were forced to find different mean of transport for the night, and, after some haggling, got a taxi for R400 to take us back to Stellenbosch. I sat up front with the cab driver while the girls crammed in the back, and we started talking a little. I found out that our driver was from Transkei, and when I greeted him in isiXhosa, he was very impressed and began talking to us all about South Africa. He showed us where his house was in Khayelitsha township from the N2 highway and told us all about his life in Cape Town, while we asked him for advice regarding our new home. He told us about places to go and not to go, how to deal with people, and even offered sound advice on some of the school activities we have been thinking of enrolling in. The drive to Stellenbosch was relatively slow as our driver believed in obeying the speed limit (we were all extremely thankful for this), but the time still flew by as we talked while passing through the rolling vineyards. Soon, we were back in Stellenbosch, and as I handed him my last R100 bill, he said "Thank you, you have put some food on my table!" and sped off towards Cape Town for the rest of his shift. We all tried to absorb everything he had said to us on our drive home, and in the end every single one of us was thankful to have missed the train back to Stellenbosch.

The rest of my week followed with a similarly lucky tone, but more of a bird oriented one. I had planned on climbing Stellenboschberg to try to find, among other things, a Cape Batis, but was dissuaded by the high winds throughout the week. Instead, I hid in the shadows of Jan Marais Natuure Reservaat where, lo and behold, a pair of Cape Batis came within two meters of me drinking from a leaking hose! This occurred again when my plans to bird a wetland were foiled and, at Jan Marais, a lone and seemingly out of place Purple Heron coasted over the Karoo scrub as Malachite Sunbirds and Cape Bulbuls called from the surrounding bushes.

School starts the day after tomorrow, so I'm thinking I will go hiking again, but maybe to the lower reaches of Stellenboschberg to see what else I can add to my Cape Winelands list. I'm excited to start school, as I feel like I have just enjoyed the end of a summer's vacation rather than the halfway point of my LSU year! So, until I get more pictures and more stories, take care, and good birding.