9 September 2014

Larking about in the Cape

I've been on the road for months now. Tours of New Britain and Papua New Guinea followed by a few weeks with Rich Lindie on Sulawesi. Too much time in the sky, completely unnecessary, fly from northern Sulawesi to Singapore via Bali onwards to Johannesburg, back to Dubai and then Basel via London in a day. Spend a few days birding with Adrian in Switzerland, then back back to England for the rather massive UK Bird Fair. A lecture, much chatting and more standing made up another four days. Drive back to London, fly to South Africa via Dubai. This time my flights are two hours longer than normal as I am flying direct to Cape Town rather than Johannesburg.

I've been to the Cape three times, twice when I was a kid and once when I behaved like a child. Relationships are funny things, somehow with much kicking a screaming, I agreed to being dragged half way across the world for a 'weekend'. Off I went on a trans-continental flight to a country I hated, under the auspices of attending the most ridiculous religious wedding of people I didn't even know. I reverted to form not long after arriving and headed off to Kirstenbosch Gardens, never setting foot anywhere near said bunch of happy clappers until way after the extremist stuff had been puked out. The point, however, is that my world and southern African bird list had long suffered the ignominy of this birding black hole. 

With some level of wisdom, I had been appointed to guide paying clients around the Cape in a few months time, so a scouting mission was in demand. While I only needed to cover a small section of Cape for scouting purpose, I was intent of covering as much of it as possible, the rest of the trip would be for me to hammer away at the new lifers and bring some respectability to my Southern African list.

Land, customs, bags, rental, drive. Cape Town (indeed all of the Western and Northern Cape as I would discover) may as well have been another country by comparison to the rest of the South Africa shithole. The climate is different, the people are different, the scenery is different. I could wax lyrical for pages on the pros and cons of the Cape versus the rest of the bell end, but perhaps another time.

My first morning dawned with heavy rain and wind - a test for my personal 'Happy Month'. I had some shopping to do, i.e. buy a new lens. Orms Direct had the mid-range Nikon 400mm f/4.0 that I felt I could carry on my little frame. Despite the crappy weather, I was taking a strong liking this place already - been a while since I was able to use the word 'competent' in these parts. Despite the weather, I felt I needed to be outside at least trying to do something. Rooi Els it would be - a tiny upmarket seaside village that has taken to protecting a section of the lower slopes of the Capes Hottentots Holland Mountains. The prime focus of my attention here was the Cape Rockjumper. I've seen many of its allopatric brother, the Drakensberg Rockjumper in both the Lesotho and KwaZulu Natal highlands - but completing the company set was my main intention. A patch of cleared at at an opportune time, but I was easily distracted by overly confiding Southern Double-collared and Orange-breasted Sunbirds. I had no idea as to what my new lens was actually capable of doing, so I just shot everything in much the same way as the locals handle their AK's.

Pissing rain came sweeping in almost catching me unawares, but rain stopped within seconds of me reaching the car. The sun came out and it looked as though clear skies would last the rest of the afternoon. I didn't need it fortunately, a pair of Cape Rockjumper conveniently worked over a nearby boulder even allowing me to sneak up for some more 'spray and prey' shots. Most chuffed with myself, I withdrew from the scene to drink beer with Shawn Wedd, my partner in amongst other crimes, the art of fish tank building.

Day two in Cape Town started rather pleasantly with breakfast at the Victoria and Alfred waterfront. Another spot of shopping for some 'stuff' before heading off to find a warbler. It's worth noting at this juncture, what a spectacular place Cape Town actually is. To walk out of a major shopping mall, the bright sunny glare clears suddenly revealing the most incredible mountainous vista stretching from one horizon to the next. I haven't come across a city of such size and incomparable beauty anywhere else in the world. [PS: the view across the V&A waterfront towards Table Mountain would have been even better had the city planners not allowed the building of that absolutely atrocious piece of kitsch rubbish of an FNB building to forever blight the mountain.]

Having made a relatively late start, I headed off to Constantia to find the very dull but very endangered Knysna Warbler. A rather dingy individual showed, and not too soon either - twitching for boring birds has never been a personal highlight. I had one last stop to make at the rather beautiful little beach town of Kommetjie for a Cormorant before driving through and beyond Cape Town to spend a night with Shawn, Lauren and young Cooper.

Awake at a reasonable hour for the drive towards Ceres and the beginning of the Karoo! Things were about to get much more exciting than they had been up to this point. I arrived at Karoopoort well after breakfast, to find large stands of Phragmites reeds. This was perfect habitat for Namaqua Warbler, which turned out not to be a shy bird when defending territory. The common stuff was all new and some rare birds were common - I'd take them any way they came of course; White-backed Mousebirds thawing in the early sunshine, Pale-winged Starlings, Tractrac Chat and plenty of Black-headed Canary. The local farmer came over to talk birds and borrow my wheel spanner to help another driver in distress - unfortunately we were all of little use in removing some very tight wheel lugs. [If you have a blow out, don't drive on the rim...]

From here onwards it was going to be a 250km dirt road drive towards Calvinia. I stopped at a pile of rocks named Eierkop. Large-billed Lark had the distinction of being the very first lark of the trip. A dry riverbed contained both Pririt Batis and an eclipse plumaged Dusky Sunbird. With the day starting to heat up, I conspired to get lost on the longest uninterrupted road in South Africa. A missed turnoff cost me 60km's ultimately (and the fuel consumed was equivalent to about the same sum in Rand, or US$6.00 in real money).

Entering Skitterykloof, to look for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler at 14:00 in the afternoon is perhaps not desirable, but I had little other choice. Scrambling up a rocky scree slope paid off when one of the heavily taped out individuals showed briefly. I made a small detour to find the frustrating Karoo Eremomela while picking up Spike-heeled and Red-capped Lark at the same time. The last two hours of dirt road driving towards Calvinia were interrupted by a number of Ludwig's Bustard flyovers and a pair of rather confiding Karoo Korhaans.

I spend most of my life in universal summer, and failed to appreciate that winter was not done in the Cape. Calvinia was bloody cold, so cold that my windscreen was frozen over and I had to wear almost every piece of clothing I had available to me. Shivering and shaking over a cup of coffee, I did my best credit card scrape of the windscreen before heading further north towards the one horse town of Bradvlei. Twenty kilometres shy of the town I pulled over for my first major Lark twitch. I started my search amongst a seemingly barren landscape pitted only by a solitary windmill. Rufous-eared Warbler was refreshingly common and I needed only a few more minutes to nail down the object of my desires, a pair of Red Lark. It must be said that this very late winter / early spring period is fantastic for Larks, most of whom start displaying an hour or so after sunrise. Karoo Scrub Robin quickly became lifer number two for the morning.

Struggle to find a place to have breakfast in the town, but am impressed to find that there is a restaurant called the 'Red Lark' - albeit closed. Breakfast complete, I'm back into the increasingly warm scrubby desert. I am now due to play a waiting game, it works like this. Find one of only a handful of water troughs, place your bets and wait for a lark to pitch up. To say that I am impatient would be an understatement, for ten minutes later I am waling the periphery trying to make things happen. Through nothing much more than pot luck, a Sclater's Lark flushes from nearby, sits on a bush, poses and disappears while I'm still fiddling with autofocus...

With more time available than expected, I try the same tactic at other waterholes. Karoo Long-billed Lark gets twitched, while a flock Namaqua Sandgrouse are in no mood to pose for me. A distant male Black-eared Sparrow-Lark is somewhat disappointing added to the list - I rather fancied getting some images of this fellow.  With all targets in the bag, it is back to Calvinia for an afternoon of working on my forthcoming Colombia checklists and rugby.

I have gotten fully into twitching mode and immediately start chopping time of my trip with ambitious driving distances. Leaving Calvinia early, I make quick time to the nearby village of Nieuwoudtville. After many kilometres of seemingly barren Karoo, it is a staggering surprise to suddenly find oneself amongst miles of green grass and numerous flowers. I had barely taken a foot out the car when the distinctive 'wing clapping' of a Cape Clapper Lark could be heard nearby. Hell it was cold though, upon closer inspection the road verges were all solidly frozen. With the sun just clearing the horizon, the larks had positioned themselves in a rather un-photographical position. I had stopped climbing over fences as of yesterday, I don't doubt that the Dutchmen up here will shoot before asking questions - and may well be further motivated to do so upon hearing my English accent in any case. One target left, which I could hear everywhere but was having rather less luck finding. Against a small, backlit ridge - I could just about discern the outline of what had to have been a Southern Black Korhaan. A quick reposition confirmed to some delight that I was indeed looking at one of the more sexy bustard beasts.

With great distances still to cover and an abject lack of traffic cops, I could 'get the hammer down'. The morning was spent driving over and down the Bokkeveld escarpment to reach the edge of the Nama Karoo at Vanrhynsdorp before turning north to Springbok. I barely paused for breath in Springbok, knocking off the remaining 140kms to the coastal town of Port Nolloth in time for lunch. Five kilometres north of the town, Barlow's Lark was ticked and photographed. Five kilometres south of town and it was much the same for Cape Long-billed and Karoo Lark. Back in the car for the 140km's back to Springbok for the night. In retrospect, I should have stayed the night in Port Nolloth and worked on my photography for a little longer.

Twitching this had become and twitching it would stay. Depart Springbok bright and early heading for the town of Pofadder. I had no idea at this point that I would still be driving some 14hours later, part of a 1000km day... Anyhow, at the moment dawn was breaking and there were more Larks to find. From Pofadder I hit the dirt road towards the South African / Namibian border town of Onseepkans on the Orange River. I was now becoming increasingly target driven. Stark's Lark - tick, photo, next. Stop, Namaqua Sandgrouse - photo, next. I took a half hour breather and spent some time trying to get photos instead of simply chasing ticks. Acacia Pied Barbet and Scaly-feathered Weaver proved decent adversaries. Then it was off to complete the 50km long dirt road. Arriving on the border town I was quick to scramble amongst the few patches of palm tree for Rosy-faced Lovebird. I spent 30minutes dashing around like a ricochet before focussing properly and finding what I was after. Though well seen, these parrots had little time for sitting still and waiting while I tried to get photographs. Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters were much keener to play ball, and my as yet uninhibited approach to taking plenty of shots resulted in a few decent action shots. Orange River White-eye responded well to tape, though it had seemed completely non-existent before that.

Birds in the bag for the day, it was now a case of seeing just how far I could get. Sociable Weaver increased exponentially just outside of Pofadder, but I could not find an African Pygmy Falcon to add to my South Africa list just yet. With the journey going well, I wondered if I might reach Kimberley by evening. I was already 2-3 days ahead of schedule, reaching Kimberley tonight would significantly shorten my plans. Then I made a spurious decision to drive up to Augrabies National Park. Ostensibly this was to twitch Short-toed Rock Thrush, though it took me a few hours to establish that not only had I dipped, but that I had no need to look for it in any case - having ticked it many years ago already. Twat - those two and a half hours had almost certainly consigned me to spending the night in Upington instead. As it happens, I went on a mission - through Upington and onwards, foot as flat as I dared - even passing the police who showed little inclination to follow me. If I was risking anything, it was driving at night with Kudu feeding on the road verges. Despite my speed and the lighting, I did have the opportunity to watch a skittish Kudu get back on 'his' side of the fence. A languid, effortless jump from a standing start over the 21 strand, three metre high fence. At least if I was on a collision coarse with one, it would probably only scratch the roof with its hooves.

Up and going early in the morning, I headed to the 'Big Hole' in down town Kimberley to find one last lifer - Bradfield's Swift. Having first mis-identified the large pile of rubble to the left of the parking lots as being 'the hole', I managed without embarrassment to find the real hole. A part of me expected it to be simply a large hole in the ground, not one ensconced, stadium style by walkways and shops. I tried entering at 07:00 to be confronted by a bevvy of what seemed to me in any case to be local 'guides'. I tried the avoidance approach, gave them a wide berth and sped up my gait. Turns out they were security guards and none too happy with me for trying to give them the slip. The 'hole' only opened at 08:00... Stuff it, I'd simply wait outside for the swifts to appear and then be off. A flutter of adrenalin was proven to be a false start - bloody Little Swifts. Ten minutes later the much larger, dull brown Bradfield's Swift made an appearance clearing the way for me to get a move on. The rest of the trip was a just an asphalt orientated haze, broken only by the bevvy of arsehole drivers that indicated I was nearing Gauteng. It takes a really 'special' kind of cock to drive an M3 or an RS4 with GP tags.

Trying to find a shortcut through the toll roads (something else that doesn't exist in the Cape), I found myself driving the increasingly poor dirt roads of Marikana village - site of a South African Police Service massacre just two years previously. Perhaps not the greatest place in the world to be gallivanting about. I exited post haste just in case I should happen to round a bend and come head to head with one Julius Malema...

And that was that. Just over 5000km of driving and R4800 spent on petrol (US$480) to see 30 lifers, 10 of which were Larks. It was also the dawning of my Love for Larks, a family I am now seriously going to chase... 33 Larks this year alone including the Critically Endangered Beesley's Lark on northern Tanzania. Better yet, I still have options on another two species - both lifers, both endemic to South Africa and both in a lot of trouble. 51 from 97 doesn't sound like much  - especially since the easy species have already been taken care of.

A foreigners guide to understanding some place names mentioned above:

Rooi Els = red Alder (species of tree)
Kommetjie = small basin (referring to the small bay area)
Karoopoort = Karoo gateway, literally a farm at the start of the Karoo.
Eierkop = egg head (small rocky outcrop in an otherwise characterless environment. Probably refers to Ostrich egg fragments found on top of the rocks, no doubt placed there by the San Bushmen.
Skitterykloof = restless / skittish gap
Calvinia = named after the French religious 'reformer' Jean Calvin. You needn't look very far to see what these religious extremists and brain dead nut cases did to South Africa under the guise of 'god'.
Brandvlei = literally marsh fire, probably best interpreted as Burnt Marsh
Nieuwoudtville = new forest town, perhaps in relation to the unexpected forests and green vegetation that is to be found here in relation to the dry and inhospitable surroundings.
Vanrhynsdorp = I'm guessing slightly, may be named after Rembrandt van Ryn
Pofadder = Puff Adder, a particularly attractive but dangerously venomous species of snake.
Onseepkans = an opportunity to wash off soap.
Upington - named after Sir Thomas Upington, who was Attorney General and then Prime Minister of the Cape Province.
Kimberley = I am going to post a large piece of 'cut and paste' here from Wikipedia. I urge you to read the entire entry on Kimberley - for it is quite fascinating. After the discovery of diamonds, the general area had no name barring the Dutch farm name of Vooruitzigt. The local prospectors termed the town 'New Rush', but the British were having none of it. Before the British would proclaim the area for the crown, there was a problem. [continued from Wiki]

The delay was in London where Secretary of State for the ColoniesLord Kimberley, insisted that before electoral divisions could be defined, the places had to receive "decent and intelligible names. His Lordship declined to be in any way connected with such a vulgarism as New Rush and as for the Dutch name, Vooruitzigt … he could neither spell nor pronounce it." The matter was passed to Southey who gave it to his Colonial Secretary J.B. Currey. Roberts writes that "when it came to renaming New Rush, [Currey] proved himself a worthy diplomat. He made quite sure that Lord Kimberley would be able both to spell and pronounce the name of the main electoral division by, as he says, calling it 'after His Lordship'.

And quite rightly so.

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