29 March 2012

Twitching in the Southern Hemisphere

School has been taking over. Needless to say, the whole reason I am in Africa is to go to school, but it has been edging out the rest of my activities. Between my social life and my academic life, birding has started to slip away just like in the states, and beside a Black Goshawk between some of my classes, I have been largely trapped within the confines of Stellenbosch. I was therefore elated to hear that there was a new country record for South Africa located last week - a Little Crake (Porzana parva) - and that it was accessible via public transportation!

Being in the Fynbos, I don't actually get to go out very much to areas that are more aquatic. I have managed a few stops at wetlands and lakes along my drives, but am still extremely lacking when it comes to such water-dependent birds. Since this rare bird was reported in the Silvermine Wetland in Clovelly, I grew excited about what other birds I could see along the way! I headed to Cape Town first by minibus taxi with a friend of mine, and then hopped on the train in downtown to head down the tracks towards Simon's Town. I was not disappointed in my desire to see water birds, as the train passed through the marshes north of Muizenberg and Sacred Ibis, Hadada Ibis, Blacksmith Plovers and dozens of egrets flew over the marshes. I even got a lifer from the train - African Marsh-Harrier hunting over the reeds! Already pumped, I jumped off the train at Fish Hoek (or, as my ticket said, Vishoek) and headed up the road to Clovelly. I immediately ran into another birder, who told me he had failed to find the Little Crake that I was seeking and failed to see any other birders in general. I became suspicious that maybe I was in the wrong place, but decided to check the nearby reeds anyway to find out. An extremely close Purple Heron was waiting next to the trail and, while watching a Eurasian Moorhen, my lifer Little Bittern flew out of the reeds and landed right out in the open!
My lifer Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) at the Silvermine Wetlands, Clovelly, South Africa

I continued wandering around the marsh, frustrated with the calls I did not know but delighted by the calls that I was able to track down. Bokmakierie called from the shrubs, Common Waxbills flew by my head, and Pied Crows and Hartlaub's Gulls flew over the marsh. It was not long, either, until I spotted a large group of photographers gathered around a tiny patch of open water. I immediately cut down towards the people and, upon walking up, was immediately greeted by the Little Crake! Not bad for my first rail species in South Africa.
South Africa's first ever Little Crake (Porzana parva) in the Silvermine Wetlands in Clovelly, Western Cape.

I watched the bird and the bird-watchers for a while (scoring yet another lifer in the process!) and then slowly began working my way back to the train so that I would not be stranded far away from Stellenbosch for the night. Considering how cooperative the rail was and how many other good birds were there in the short time that I was there, it was a very good twitch and a very successful afternoon.

10 March 2012

The End of the World

N2 Highway, Western Cape, South Africa

The kilometers flew past us as we listened to french music in the African countryside. We were headed to Cape Agulhas and the Indian Ocean. Though it was almost two weeks ago now, the trip seems like yesterday. South through Caledon and into the fynbos of the southernmost reaches of the cape we drove, barely passing any cars along our way. Blue Cranes, the national bird of South Africa, were everywhere, flying over the fields and letting their ornate feathers flutter behind them. Several life birds for me dotted the fields in this area as well, such as African Stonechat and Spur-winged Goose, and a massive flock of several hundred African Pied-Starlings made me gaze in wonder as we pushed ever southward. Before we knew it, the Indian Ocean was beside us, and I saw my southernmost life bird ever in the southernmost town in Africa: Cape Francolin running through someone's yard. We drove past the lighthouse, parked, and wandered out to where the land ends and the never-ending southern ocean begins.

Me at Cape Agulhas, South Africa

The Cape, needless to say, was incredible. Hardly anyone was there, and for a while, my friends and I had the end of the continent all to ourselves. We decided to roam around the municipality a little since we were in the area, and headed to the town of Arniston not long after. We drove through fields hiding Stanley Bustard, Cape Sparrows and Cape Crows before arriving at this white sand beach where the Indian Ocean lapped on the rocky coast. Crowned Cormorants flew by and Common Ringed-Plovers dodged the people climbing on the rockier parts of the coast, and I followed my friends through the dunes to Waenhuiskrans. Waenhuiskrans, we soon found out, is a cave the likes of which I had never seen before: a large, open chamber accessed through another adjacent cave, with bats huddling on the ceiling and Speckled Pigeons braving the watery entrance to nest in the enchanting depths.

From the inside looking out: Waenhuiskrans, South Africa

We enjoyed the beach as much as we could, and soon began the long drive back to Stellenbosch.

After this trip, my life has settled down quite a bit as school work has begun to set in and my obligations have begun to keep me in town. I saw only one lifer this week, Rameron Pigeon, and the fact that things like Cape Wagtails and Red-winged Starlings are 'normal' reveals how long I've really been here. Fall break is coming soon, however, and I doubt I will be able to remain in Stellenbosch for that...

Cape Francolin, Stony Point Penguin Colony, South Africa

03 March 2012

Westward Bound

A week ago Friday, my friends and I headed out to one of the most famous parts of South Africa: the Cape of Good Hope. Visible from Stellenbosch Mountain here in town, we had all been longing to go see the open ocean and explore the rugged peaks where they meet the wide open Atlantic. On the way out there, we made a few preliminary stops at places such as Rondevlei Bird Sanctuary. Everyone else was there looking for Hippos, but I searched through the reeds for birds, and was pretty successful! Three-banded Plovers hid on the sandbars, a pair of Little Grebes and a lone Great Crested Grebe sat out on the water, and I even got another South African endemic on the water - Cape Shovelers.
Three-banded Plovers at Rondevlei Bird Sanctuary, Cape Town, South Africa

After failing to find any hippos, however, we headed out to Simon's Town for the night. As always, you cannot visit Simon's Town without visiting the penguins for which it is so famous! We walked down the beach gawking at the large concentration of birds hanging out at the beach as Cape Gulls and Great Crested Terns flew overhead. I even got another life bird on the boulders not far offshore - Crowned Cormorant, and endemic bird of the Benguela Current in southwestern Africa.
African Penguins jumping into the surf of Boulder's Beach, Simon's Town, South Africa

We spent the night that night in a backpacker's not far from the South African naval yard (we could even see a submarine!), and then attempted to sleep through the screaming kids and partying people for the next day.

I've got a lot of homework to do now, unfortunately, but I'll put up the Cape of Good Hope pics later this week!