Monday, 4 September 2017

Karoo surveys August: all about Cinnamon-breasted Warblers

The month started out with 2 pentads covered near Murraysburg. My companion atlaser for one of the days was Stefan Theron, who has a fantastic eye and ear for birds, and works occasionally as a bird guide in the area. Stefan volunteered to drive us up the escarpment, where I was vaguely hoping for Drakensburg Rockjumpers, but we didn’t get quite high enough. Still, Ground Woodpeckers and Black Eagles were a bonus.

The second week of August I attended a Hot Bird conference near Prince Albert. Hot Birds is the research name for a behaviour and physiology project led by Andrew McKechnie and Susan Cunningham. There were interesting presentations by arid zone gurus Richard Dean and Sue Milton-Dean, followed by many other interesting presentations by the students and prospective students.

The third week I headed to Fraserburg, where I was joined by Salome Willemse, of the Namaqua Bird Club based out of Vanrhynsdorp. Salome is an avid contributor to SABAP2, and a great cook. We stayed at the Muggefontein Gasteplaas just south of the breath-taking Theewaterkloof pass. Salome prepared excellent meals every evening, and I covered 5 Biogaps pentads during the week from Fraserburg to LeeuGamka. Salome did many more atlas cards, including for some pentads never surveyed before. When Salome left on Friday, I had to stay on in Fraserburg for the Saturday morning to wrap up that pentad as a cold front had blown in during the middle of the week, bringing ice rain, strong wind and poor survey conditions.

Then I headed off slightly unprepared due to lack of internet/cell phone reception, to Droefontein, on the plains of the Great Karoo beyond Merweville. My destination was an optional pentad that no-one had either atlased or surveyed as part of the Biogaps project. I was a bit nervous about who or what I’d find, but luck was on my side. The owners of the farm were cousins of Stefan Therons! Andre and Susan Theron, together with their children Chrystal and OJ were also very interested in the project and offered to put me up for the evening. I’m very grateful to their wonderful hospitality and insights into life in this arid part of the world.

Despite the hectically dry conditions, the presence of the Dwkya River here with the occasional pool of water meant good bird life and healthy bird lists. Of the three pentads for which lists were submitted, about 20 Out-of-range forms would be generated, including for White-fronted Bee-eater, a Western Cape regional rarity. Luckily I’d photographed that one. On the Sunday I did part of the target pentad by bicycle, in the company of the Theron’s dog, who got a bit more of a ‘walk’ that she’d expected! Then Monday morning was an easy wrap to the pentad before heading down the N1 to Laingsburg to pick up my next atlasing companion, Campbell Fleming. The drive down the N1 was a stark contrast the dry conditions observed over the weekend: evidently enough rain had fallen to initiate something of a spring-time bloom along the road edge. The strips of yellow, white and orange was in stark contrast to the brown veld just beyond the road fence.

Campbell is a Masters student at UCT looking the genetics of Cape Sugarbirds, also an atlaser (his definition of a bad birder is someone who does not atlas), and a bird guide for Callan Cohen’s Birding Africa. Campbell had a somewhat eventful bus journey to Laingsburg, when the emergency exit ceiling door blew off. However, for me the delay was welcome, with the time with internet much needed to catch up with the world and try organise the rest of the week – including last minute booking for accommodation for that night! Verlatenkloof Gasteplaas at the start of the Verlatenkloof pass over the Roggeveld escarpment towards Sutherland would prove adequate accommodation for the next 2 nights, and a roof over our heads was much appreciated when the latest cold front brought rain and wind. Certainly I was glad to not be camping.

With a stiff breeze whipping away the latent warmth of our cosy beds, we headed off early to our survey pentad about 50 km west along the R356 that cuts across the southern Tankwa towards Ceres. The temperatures marginally above freezing certainly felt a lot colder with the wind. Never-the-less, we recorded birds at all points along the route, with Karoo Lark and flocks of Yellow Canary dominating. Probably a highlight sighting was a displaying Karoo Eremomela. However, finding each bird was generally a lot of work. We finished the day hunting Cinnamon-breasted Warbler on the pass: no good views were obtained, although we did have a Cape Robin chat responding to our playback efforts with a great imitation of our target species, which proved elusive on the rocky slope.

The following day, at a pentad closer to the Verlatenkloof, it was like another world. Although still cool, there was little wind or cloud, and the birds clearly thought it was spring, with several sightings of prospective parents carrying nesting material. Karoo Lark was recorded at almost every point, with a wide variety of birds from Karoo Eremomela to a dam with hundreds of ducks and martins. With lots of tracks across the farm and with Campbell assisting with data entry, the counts went pretty quickly: but we were also aware that we had a long journey ahead of us to our next destination pentad closer to Fraserburg.

As we headed east with the setting sun, the bakkie cab filled with the aroma of ham and mushroom pizza, some dolerite inselbergs caught my eye. Campbell did some playback for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, and almost immediately, one responded. I was able to get my first photos of the much sought after Karoo endemic. What an astounding little bird, with colours that make it look as though it has been carved from the red lichen-covered dolerite boulders.

Cinnamon-breasted Warbler

The journey then became rather interesting, with Google maps taking us across country through farmland with 15-20 gates. About 30 minutes was spent trying to find the road, when we accidently missed the main track and headed into a farm instead. We thus arrived a bit later than expected at the Eselfontein guest house, just south of Fraserburg. However, it was worth the effort: Eselfontein is a spectacularly restored farm house with lots of room and all mod-cons.

Leaving Campell behind to at Eselfontein to catch up on his thesis writing, I headed out to the targeted pentad. Although I’d written to the farmer to announce my intentions to survey the farm, the gate was locked. However, the ‘rante pad’ between Fraserburg and Sutherland traversed the pentad, allowing for initially easy surveying until I ran out of space. Then it was over the locked gate with my bicycle. However, an interesting koppie (small hill) had caught my attention. Perhaps there I would find more Cinnamon-breasted Warblers. So up I hiked. Although none of my now new favourite bird were around, I was most startled to see and hear an African Rock Pipit. This is Dawie de Swart’s favourite bird – he has been looking at behaviour and calls across their range. Dawie also adjudicates Out-of-Range forms for the Northern Cape, so I knew I’d have to be very certain of my record! With the help of some judicious playback, the bird perched close enough for me to snap a picture with my camera phone. Then, with thunder in the distance, it was time to get off the mountain.

The next pentad was associated with a farm called Fonteinplaas, between Sutherland and Williston. While on Google Earth the pentad looked close to the one we had just done, there was no direct route between them. So, at 5.30 we were on the road dodging kamikaze bunnies via Fraserburg. Here things proved tricky. While again we had permission to visit the farm, this time we could not even find any farm with the right name; and with more locked gates. Again, it was onto my bicycle and over the dusty farm tracks to try and complete the survey. Rather amazingly, there was a river bed with stagnant brack pools hidden away in the hills, with all sorts of water birds. And in the koppies behind the river I would record more Cinnamon-breasted Warbler among the dassie dominated dolerite boulders.

At this stage we were into no mans land: no cell phone reception, and few signs of life except for the dorper and merino sheep. Our next pentad was thankfully not too far away in terms of this survey: a mere 50km to the north, and thankfully located on one of the back roads between Sutherland and Williston. Our intel provided, by Karoo Biogaps coordinator Gigi Laidler, suggested that one of the farmers might be able to offer accommodation, and more or less unannounced we rocked up at Ottersgat, home to Hennie Visagie. Again, we were treated to the rather remarkable hospitality that defines the remote Karoo region. Having never met us before, Hennie invited us two shady and grubby characters to share his home for the night. It was quite an experience: Hennie was very chatty and we learnt loads about life in this barren, almost forsaken part of the world. His optimism and enthusiasm for farm life are almost certainly the most important ingredients keeping him on this land against the many challenges of a rather inhospitable farming environment.

Then it was off to Williston, where we managed to find a room at Annie’s Inn. Apparently we were a bit lucky to get some beds, as the town was preparing for its annual ‘Vleis Fees’ (Meat Festival). We did not attend, for us the big highlight would be the pentad on the farm Zakfontein, owned by Dr Koos Louw. For only the second time in the survey I got to record the diminutive Sclater’s Lark. Not just one or 2, but droves, with a flock of 20+ of this scarce Karoo endemic coming in to a water trough to drink. I’d spent most of the midday waiting here for photo opportunities, and the larks kept on coming in, but mostly in pairs or small groups. To round off a great day, Koos gave me directions to a hidden pan with some water in. At least 15 more species were added to the list at that location.

The diminutive Sclater's Lark

Next up: having been denied permission for the first time in the survey to access a pentad associated with a game farm, on a last minute whim Campbell and I headed off to another optional pentad further west. The farmer was amenable to our presence, and as the assigned pentad was pretty poor in terms of excitement, we also did an atlas card for the pentad next door, which had an annual river with some ponds, as well as the farmstead. A bit of water and a farm can mean the difference between a species list of 30 and 60 in this part of the world.

Leaving Williston behind, next stop was a pentad on the way to Loxton. Luckily, we managed to bag another Cinnamon-breasted Warbler before the wind picked up to 10m/s, at which time counts had to be abandoned. Perhaps not a bad thing, as there were still several tens of kilometres of back roads to navigate to Loxton.

In Loxton our sanctuary for the next 3 days would be the Four Season’s Guesthouse. Karoo Cottage, the accommodation of choice in the town was unfortunately full. Never-the-less, it was good to have some self-catering facilities after Annie’s Inn, where Campbell had to prepare a camp meal on the cadac stove on the stoep.

While Loxton has apparently had more rain the Williston, it was hard to see that in the veld, which still looked dry and suffering somewhat with the presence of scores of sheep. The dolerite koppies again revealed a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, and a water hole provided some photo opportunities during the midday head, after a day that had started at 2C with ice on the windscreen. Interesting for me was a Sabota Lark coming in to drink. A bridge with a colony of South African Cliff Swallows was another highlight.

The next morning Campbell and I set out to the farm Welgevonden, where we were gratiously met by Bob and Marian Meintjies. Dividing forces, Campbell and I managed to wrap up the pentad by lunchtime. My section of the pentad included a hike up a local mountain (again!), which was rewarded with no less than four encounters with Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. I would however fail in my mission to get a recording of the species. Both Campbell and I picked up African Rock Pipit, which generated ORFs, but luckily Campbell had managed to capture a short video of an individual in full song. While we had been planning to use the afternoon to catch up on laptop time, we got distracted by the Loxton dam, which while low, was providing resources to scores of species, from Black-throated Canary coming to drink, to Ludwig’s Bustards stalking off in the distance, to Ruffs and other waders at the water edge.

Easy access pentads over, our final destination for this first epic leg of the surveys of the western Great Karoo was a farm called Matiesfontein, which overlooks the Karoo National Park. Despite leaving Loxton at 5:15 we were lucky to make it to the farm by 7.30, after Google navigator took us down a road that was blocked by a locked farm gate. A second attempt ended in a road that had been washed away. Luckily, the owners of Matjiesfontein were welcome and accommodating. Rene Hoon also runs the MyKaroo butchery in Beaufort West, so we’d been luckily to catch them. To deal with more inevitable locked gates, I did my morning surveys by bicycle; an easy ride over sandstone plains.

Then finally… the drive back to Blue Hill for some much deserved, rest, family time, and inevitable catching up on emails and paperwork.

Muggefontein: a hike up the escarpment to get some views of the Great Karoo

Fiscal Flycatcher, male

... you'll need it.

Interesting: a fledgling Karoo Eremomela (right)

Karoo Long-billed Lark

Lark-like Bunting

Merweville Church

N1 - the only flower show

Sabota Lark coming in to drink

Sheep shearing is a major part of life in the Karoo

Spike-heeled Lark

Rock beacons overlooking Fraserburg

White-fronted Bee-eater, a Western Cape regional rarity

Yellow Canary, male

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Karoo Birds Winter Survey

It was only fitting that the day before we headed off for the 2 weeks of surveys of the birds of the Karoo, it should snow. Not enough snow to break the drought, just enough to remind us it is winter. Needless to say, the old Mazda Drifter did not appreciate the weather, and it was a slow start on the Monday. On the drive to the Karoo National Park, snow still lay on the higher reaches of the Swartberg Mountains. A lunch-time spot on the northern side of Meiringspoort would normally see one seeking the shade of one of the ragged Acacia trees: not this time. Anja and the kids and myself stood around the only picnic table in the sun, hopping up and down to stay warm.

The destination survey pentad in the park was just to the west of the Afsaal cottage, but we’d broken the journey with one night in the main camp so I could finish off some point counts on the Bulkraal loop. Snow also lay on the escarpment mountains, and also still under the bushes going over the Klipspringer pass. Never-the-less, the camp cottages have heaters and sufficient blankets to keep you warm: it was lions roaring near the campsite in the early hours that had me awake earlier than expected.

I’ll have to say that knowing the Afsaal cottage was off-grid had me a little bit nervous: certainly there would not be the luxury of plug in heaters. However, the quaint one room stone cottage had thick walls and a gas fridge, which kept the room very warm. Again, plenty of blankets and hot-water bottles meant one tended to wake up too warm rather than cold.

Mountain Chat female

Karoo Long-billed Lark

Watching Kudu drinking at the water hole next to the Afsaal cottage

Kori Bustard

Mountain Wheatear, Male

Several tracks (classed as 4x4 but not really) make their way over the ridges, plains, and drainage lines of the surrounding area, making for easy surveying. The generally dry conditions meant that bird densities were low, and none of the 4 pentad cards we finally submitted for the park would have more than 35 species. Anja did most of the atlasing while I drove. However, the Afsaal pentad provided some excitement with sightings of Kori and Ludwig’s Bustards, plentiful numbers of granivores drinking at the water-holes, and a skittish Black Rhino. Getting close and personal to the Mountain Chats at the cottage was pretty special too.

Next stop in the survey was a visit to Abraamskraal via Beaufort West, where some recently made friends had offered us a stay in their ‘jag-huisie’, which was really a fully kitted house. The presence of a farmstead in a pentad always has a major impact on bird species richness. After 2 nights, despite no dam for waterbirds, we’d tallied 50 species. To do the point counts, I’d hiked 18 km to include the local mountain, Perdeberg. Cool weather made for easy hiking, and cross country hiking through Karoo is hardly ever an issue with sparse vegetation cover.

The drought going on here is bad: it’s the worst rainfall year in around 40 years, and the worst of the current 3 year drought. The Karoo bossies are only just holding on and it’s a vasbyt year for everybody. Up until now, not a single pentad anywhere had recorded any nectarivores, and insect life was scarce, even on warm days.

I don’t think one can really know the Karoo unless one has spent the coldest time of year in what is generally recognised as one of the coldest places in South Africa: Sutherland. Despite being just a small ‘dorp’, with only a couple thousand inhabitants, it is a town everybody in South Africa knows by name and reputation: it is always the coldest place on the evening’s weather forecast. The previous Sunday, the maximum temperature for Sutherland and been 2 degrees.

Remnant snow from the previous weekend

'Land's end at Gunsfontein' - the edge of the Roggeveld escarpment

We had booked ourselves into the Gunsfontein gastehuis, being one of the few places that were able to offer 3 nights of accommodation at a very reasonable rate during the holiday season. This is a rather large historic house, with fantastic sunroom. However, it is pretty cold: week old snow was still all over in the shaded reaches. The hosts, Lynette and Andries Muller, were very friendly and accommodating: giving us a hand to start the car on the Sunday morning after another cold night. Glow plugs probably need replacing is the verdict.

With no cell phone reception anywhere for miles, it was a bit hard to make plans. With the morning gone, we headed south towards the escarpment to bird the pentad. A series of dams held interesting waterfowl: lots of Yellow-billed Ducks, Spur-winged Geese, and a Cape Teal. The escarpment views were amazing: views west over the Tankwa-Karoo to the Cederberg, and south to the Swartberg.

The Sunday afternoon I headed out with the kids to explore the Biogaps pentad I was supposed to be surveying. Luckily, a service road runs through the pentad, so we managed to make a start with the point counts. Bird life was noticeable by its absence, although weather conditions were perfect: warm and still. It was to be a trend that would continue, making it one of the quietest pentads to date, over the 3 days it would take to complete the surveys. Monday morning glow-plugs were replaced, resolving the slow start in the mornings issue for the Mazda.

Next stop Tankwa! I’d been hoping for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler on the Oudeberg Pass, but a howling icy wind meant no chance of getting out the vehicle without one’s pants blown off. We had to settle for the legendary spectacular views instead.

The next pentad was centred on the Tankwa Guesthouse, run by SANParks. Very nice, made all the more special that we had the place to ourselves. The pentad includes a massive dam, and two days here cracked 80 species: so much for the horror stories of some of the lowest atlas cards coming from the Tankwa! Tractrac chats and Thick-billed larks, with scattered flocks of Red-capped Lark and Yellow Canaries were the main fodder of the point counts. Two along the dam took about an hour apiece, with literally hundreds of waterfowl to scan through of virtually all species found in the bird book.

From the south of Tankwa, it was a good long, slow drive to the north of the park and the Elandsberg cottages. Again, rustic luxury might be one way of describing the accommodation here: cobb and stone walls, no electricity, gas showers, and a plunge pool. The cottages have great views of the escarpment, surrounded by thick succulent Karoo bushes. The birding had a slightly different feel to it: Karoo Larks and mountain birds making up the bulk of the counts.
Spotted Eagle Owl

Even Large-billed Lark get thirsty here

Pair of Cape Sparrow

Family of Cape Sparrow

Namaqua Warbler

At this stage it was time to head home, which we did with 2 nights in Anysberg Nature Reserve. As it was Charlie’s birthday I decided to not do any counts, but just atlas. That gave us a chance to do the Tapfontein 4x4 route as well as the hike to the waterfall. It was rather amazing to walk up a dry riverbed for over 1km and then come to a waterfall with natural plunge pool!

Of course, the fun never stops, and with the family safe at home I’m now in Murraysburg and point counting again.  

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Of open access, pay walls and sci-hub: a defence of the pay-wall perspective

OK – so my position is not that of a typical academic: I work from home, a remote location on the edge of a wilderness area, and I’ve never been able to make university library proxy mechanisms work for me. Instead, I’ve done what I’ve always done: email authors for pdfs, or in more recent years, google for on-line repositories. As a last resort, I’ll email our university librarian. Never in my life have I paid the $30 usually encountered with articles hosted by the big publishing houses. And yes, as of recently I am editor of a pay-wall journal.  

In the beginning, once upon a time, long long ago, I was pretty much a fan of the idea of open access: after all, it intrinsically appeals to the basic idea of what is right: that knowledge should be available to all. Later on, an open access journal then published an article stating that citation rates in open access journals were higher (shown later to be a controversial claim). In the meantime academics had 2 apparently good reasons to publish open access.

But we need to take a step back from moralizing self-righteousness: in the publishing world, there are people that need to be paid and so there are 2 revenue streams: either the author pays (open-access), or the reader pays (pay-wall).

So a couple of years ago I braved the submission system of Plos-One: the flag-ship of open access publishing. I was rather shocked towards the end of the submission to find out that there was a submission charge of $1500! That is right, one thousand five hundred US dollars. F me, that was more than my meagre research budget! To be fair, there was an application process to have this reduced (developing world submission etc etc), but after going through that there was still a fee of $200 liable upon acceptance. I was fretting about how to pay that for weeks, and I’ve never been so glad to get a reject-and-resubmit decision in my life. After revision, that article was subsequently accepted by a pay-wall publisher associated journal and I didn’t have to pay a cent.

Clearly, for the likes of non-university academics like myself, open access is just not a viable economic option. Ok – there are also very few non-university academics.

But that is not the end of it. For years now, almost daily somewhere in my spam box, occasionally filtering into my inbox, is a request from a ‘new’ open access journal of SCIENCE NATURE or NATURE SCIENCE or some combo of famous journal names begging for an article. Open access became a business model quickly adopted by a range of fringe science organisations, where profit clearly comes before quality.

And I’ll admit to having tested that out when an article that I’d written, not in my field of expertise and of dubious usefulness that had been rejected from reputable journal, was accepted pretty much as is for a fee of US$50. The journal was south-east Asia based, editors clearly struggled with English, and this was just one more article for their portfolio and a few more bucks in their pockets.  ‘Journals’ like that one thrive on the great pressure on researchers to publish-or-perish, and reach their minimum, surprisingly difficult to achieve, quota of 2 first authored papers a year.

The traditional news media world, e.g. newspapers, has been under pressure for some time now due to ‘free’ news available on the internet. However, with the rise of Fake News and click-bait leading us to advert filled web-pages, certainly many people are now willing to pay for quality and trusted content.  I suspect that pay-wall publishers are likely still around as they more or less are the guardians of good quality content. Certainly, there is a legitimate reason to request money to pay journalists and authors whose currency is words.  

The big science publishing houses of course have a portfolio of pay-wall as well as open-access journals. In a sneaky move by Wiley recently, a submission by a student I’m supervising to a good–ranking pay-wall journal was palmed off to a ‘sister’ open-access journal. When the crunch came to discuss payment, the journal wouldn’t budge on their fee: around R15 000. That is big money in conservation science. There was no choice but to withdraw and resubmit, to a pay-wall journal of course.

And now with the rise of Sci-Hub, where pretty much any article anywhere anytime is available through their super-efficient search and delivery system, all the world’s science is basically now open access.  So certainly, there is no longer the incentive to publish open access from the moral perspective of making your research available, except Sci-Hub is essentially peddling in stolen goods. Sci-Hub is certainly the Robin Hood of the publishing world at the moment.

I like that the logo for Sci-Hub is a bird (a crow?). In the spirit of Sci-Hub, I did not ask for permission to use this logo

While open access journals cry their amazing download statistics, lets face it: those of you who have accumulated vast pdf libraries, how many of those articles were downloaded with you thinking ‘I’ll read that later’ and you never did. Certainly, at a conservative estimate, I’ve never read more than the abstract of >50% of my pdf library. And abstracts are free anyway…

I’ll even go so far as to say that recently I’ve even felt angry with fellow South African’s who have published open access. Maybe they managed to get their fee reductions, but if not then not only are we exporting our science to foreign journals (a tirade for another day), but we’re paying for that privilege in a climate of #FeesMustFall! Certainly, there I must agree that the money set aside for academics to publish open access could be better used elsewhere (e.g. supporting the university libraries, student support etc).

So there we go: that is my voice against the ‘open access is better’ hymn I hear so often. Viva pay-wall publishing! If you can pay for your article, please do, and if you can’t: you know what to do.

Ps I was originally going to title this: “Does Sci-hub spell the end of the open access publishing model?”, but that is apparently not an original thought, should you care to google. But ironically, even sci-hub is not ‘free’ – there (illegal) operation is all run on donations, you’ll have to navigate their DONATE pop-up at some stage, and isn’t that really just a soft pay-wall after all?

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Of Gales, Cape Parrots and Crowned Eagle

Further surveys out of Grahamstown had to be cancelled due to gale force winds this week. Still, Wednesday morning Adrian Craig, Lynette Rudman (Eastern Cape Bird Club), Diane and myself headed out somewhat optimistically. Our destination was Fort Fordyce Nature Reserve, managed by Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism. This well signed, well looked after, quiet, forested reserve is quite a contrast to the Darlington Dam campsite.

We were warned on entrance that strong winds had already brought down two large trees, and we should park away from anything that might topple onto us. Ringing, our mission for the morning, was out of the question. Instead we went for some walk into the forest, where the trees did offer some shelter from the howling winds, but where birding was very quiet.

The birding highlight of the day would come late that afternoon on our way out. Lynette had some inside information that Cape Parrots were at the Baddaford farm stall. Sure enough, flutters of green and squeaks could be heard from the Pecan nut grove, and Lynette got us permission to head down a bit closer. The birding highlight for my day would have been the juvenile Crowned Eagle perched right overhead and that provided excellent viewing. But that would be eclipsed when eventually the parrots emerged en-masse from the green foliage. We’d been a bit disappointed when our trajectory to the pecan-nut grove had been cut off by an electric fence. As we stood wistfully wishing to get closer, trying to catch a glimpse of anything in the trees, suddenly the calling volume started to pick up. It was evident that there wasn’t just a small party of parrots here, but quite a few. However, none of us were prepared for the irruption of 160 parrots from the grove of trees that was no more than 100m long.

The parrots whirled and swarmed, many then settling in the large tree near us. The appearance of a Black Sparrowhawk caused further chaos to the clammering flock. Eventually, with the sun having disappeared from the valley, the flock took off and headed away, presumably in the direction of Hogsback, well know Cape Parrot hotspot.  Smaller groups were then observed coming down the valley, presumably from further off. The whole experience was stark contrast to my first efforts to spot Cape Parrot: I’d spent three days camping near Stutterheim just for a sighting of a pair flying high overhead. The Cape Parrots of Baddaford experience was a lot more reminiscent of the claylick experiences of the Tambopata River.

With the estimated population somewhere around 1500 birds, that we had seen roughly 200 (10 – 15% of the population), was a very very special experience.

Juvenile Crowned Eagle

Cape Parrots

Darlington Dam: Addo's best kept secret?

A dramatic week, with Cape Town battered by storms and the fires to the south of us wreaking havoc in Knysna: evacuations, houses burnt and lives lost in this historic seaside town. Despite that, the area is in the grips of a severe drought, with the sporadic rains from two months ago now a distant memory.

Still, my week started fairly well. I set off at 5am Monday morning to a Karoo Biogaps pentad just off the untarred R400 between Jansenville and Riebeek-east. The area was typical flat Karoo terrain, but with elements of succulent Albany thicket as evidenced by expansive stands of ‘noors’, a species of Euphorbia. The Sunday’s River, reduced to puddles, also winds its way through here. The pools of water and acacia thicket lining the river provided productive birding, with the cold early morning making way for a warm and pleasant day.

This was the first pentad where Sabota Lark would prove to be really common. Small parties were observed foraging here and there several times. White-fronted Bee-eaters provided some colour, and some nesting Rock Martins on the farmhouse were pointed out by the farmer. He also commented that he had seen Fish Eagle feeding on Angora lambs on infrequent occasions. The only raptor I’d see here would be the inevitable Pale Chanting Goshawk.

As I’d been unsure as to accessibility across the pentad, and the amount of time I’d need to survey it, I’d not made accommodation plans for that night. However, the farm tracks and dry conditions meant easy access across the pentad, facilitating timely completion of the survey come 5pm. I’d noticed the Darlington Dam was relatively nearby, and having never been there decided it would be a worthy place to explore for accommodation options.

I was somewhat (pleasantly) surprised to find that the dam falls under the jurisdiction of Addo Elephant National Park. However, unlike the main Addo section, things at Darlington are a lot more informal – there was no ranger at the gate, and I had to hunt around the houses to find someone who’d take money for entrance or camping. This proved to be very cheap – R60 excluding conservation fee, which must make it the cheapest SANPARKs camping fee of any of the national parks. I’d later find out that this is perhaps because there are no showers or running water: there is no ablution block along the lake edge to which I was directed. Toilets are very dilapidated and dirty long-drop toilets scattered along the lake edge. It is not surprising that there is toilet paper and poo behind most bushes, but the piles of litter were inexcusable as bins are provided. Darlington Dam is probably best known to the angling community, some of whom clearly need to clean up their act. Navigating catfish heads, shit and the litter along the lake edge is a putrid affair.

In fact, the original title for this blog post was Darlington Dam: Addo’s best kept (dirty) secret?

Enjoying the lake edge at the campsite was not what I was there for of course: the birding would make up for all that. Spotted Eagle Owl had already greeted me as I’d tried to navigate the un-signed tracks in the evening winter gloom to somewhere legal looking to put up my tent. Waterfowl and Water Dikkop bickering provided backdrop noise all night long. During the cold, long, pre-sunrise dawn was when I took my walk along the dam edge, where Red-billed and Cape Teal paddled off at my approach, Egyptian Geese and Shelducks complained loudly, and a variety of other birds provided distraction from the legacy of human presence. As a bonus, I was the only person there.

With the rising of the sun it seemed like a good time to go for a drive to explore the rest of the pentad outside the sturdy electric fence demarcating the camp area. For those more interested in game than birds, Jackal, Vervet Monkey, Baboon, Kudu, Gemsbok, Kudu, Rhebok or Reedbuk, Duiker, and Springbok were all seen. Meanwhile, birds of all sorts were non-stop along the water edge. I was surprised to see Cape Bulbul rather than Red-eyed Bulbul, and Karoo birds were generally lacking from the lengthy bird-list, despite the obvious suitability of the habitat. With 80 birds for the 4-5 hours birding, this is easily a site that could produce 100 birds for the day with a few more hours at this time of year, and probably a lot more with the summer migrants.

However, I had meetings in Grahamstown to get to, but on balance, I could have done with at least another day here. Addo clearly have big plans for the area, with a seemingly endless tract of sturdy electrified game fence stretching along the main dirt road. If elephant and lion aren’t there already, they will be soon.

Female Southern Black Korhaan

Blacksmith Lapwing

Familiar Chat on 'noors

Fish Eagle with a view

Grey-headed Gull

Kittlitz's Plover

Lark-like Bunting on noors

Red-billed Quelea, non-br

Sabota Lark


Oh yes, despite this rather alarming warning sign, I did not see or hear hippo, or see any tracks. If that is because they simply avoid the human habited lake section I cannot say.

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