I participated in a transect-related pelagic seabird assessment as part of a Bird Life SA conservation and research initiative conducted in association with the Department of Science & Technology.
While ‘common’ bird names of a descriptive nature are generally of benefit in aiding identification some are downright confusing as the diagnostic feature referred to is not always readily apparent.
Every so often a birder has the good fortune of encountering a family group of Cape Rockjumbers foraging for Zebra Cockroaches amongst the rocks and boulders flanking the Rooi Els track leading to Pringle Bay.
Over the years the species list of birds recorded in the ‘fynbos’ garden or from the viewing deck overlooking False Bay has steadily increased.
Once a readily accessible sighting at Kommetjie on the Cape Peninsula, this enigmatic and medium sized tern of the Southern Ocean, is proving to be increasingly difficult to locate along the Atlantic coast north of Cape Town due to coastal housing developments and regular disturbance within bays and coves favoured in the past as roosting sites.
Always a treat to see and a delight to watch as it careens back and forth in effortless flight as an almost ethereal accompanying presence.
Some time back a golden-feathered avian delight popped out of the vagrant box to add its striking presence to the official list of bird species so far recorded in South Africa.
First to the scene, following repeated reports by the resident ranger of a ‘canary yellow bird sporting a distinctive breast band’, was Dr Warwick Tarboton, a highly regarded Bushveld based ornithologist, who remained convinced that the reported sighting would reveal itself as an off-limits Yellow-throated Longclaw from the Lowveld or perhaps, even more unusual, a pompous Bokmakierie parading about in strictly out of character thornveld habitat.
And so it was on visual contact that this explosively striking member of the largely dull and cryptically coloured pipit family unveiled its stunning presence in a pulverising flash of bright yellow axillaries and under-wing coverts in visual confirmation of its unmistakable identity…
For weeks afterwards this accommodating pipit remained on station providing ‘twitchers’ from all over the country with stunning views as it showcased itself to the delight of appreciative admirers!
Since then there has been one other confirmed sighting of this accommodating pipit, possibly as a result of extreme migratory dispersal beyond the home range recorded in East Africa, where it appears to be confined to scrubby grassland and open Acacia habitat in contrast to other more open pipit requirements.
In Kenya it is not infrequently found, and on our recent trip we recorded several in Meru N.P. and Shaba N.R. further to the north in woodland habit similar to that within which it was first located in South Africa.
An interesting and unusual feature relating to the physiology of this distinctive species, occupying a monotypic genus, is the bare lower tibia associated with no other passerine in the world.
As yet no explanation for this unfeathered peculiarity has been advanced and neither is its functional purpose known. Magnified images attached clearly depict this unusual and distinctive identification feature beyond the striking plumages of the birds themselves.
There can be few ‘lifer’ related quests more debilitating and frustrating than trying to connect with a silent ‘will o’ the wisp’ somewhere in the fathomless depths of a tropical forest in the non-breeding season, Read the rest of this entry »
Perhaps it’s their catholic taste for precise habitat requirements that has captured my fascination for the ‘lark’ family in its global entirety.
Cryptic in colouration, and less than vocal in most instances, larking about in search of new species for my ‘life list’ has been a perennial and enjoyable challenge over the years.
And so it was with William’s Lark, first recorded in 1955 to the north of Isiolo, within what can best be described as a starkly beautiful landscape of arid scrub and rugged mountain ranges interspersed by numerous springs and swampy rivers dating back through the millennia to their volcanic origins.
This semi-arid region, known in colonial days as the Northern Frontier District, is sparsely populated and embraces a combination of national reserves of which Shaba was our destination in the search for this highly localised and dark volcanic soil loving lark with plumage colouration to match.
Attempts to track down this little known and highly localised endemic lark to Kenya in 2003 failed miserably due to a lack of locality related information and the sheer vastness of this wilderness area of varied habitat types.
This year we concentrated exclusively on the lava rock strewn plains and patches of grass coverin the search for this elusive species, made all the more challenging by the dry season and an absence of vocal display activity at the time.
Walking across the lava fields is a slow and serious ankle twisting event, but in the end we were successful in obtaining a selection of images depicting the key identification features, such as the white outer tail feathers of this particularly dark plumaged and highly localised lark, making the eventual sighting a high point during our stay in the Shaba National Reserve.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Lewis Carroll ‘Alice in Wonderland’
Indeed, somewhat of a ‘stork’ by another name with a delightful touch of cetacean and royalty in the scientific descriptive – Balaeniceps rex !
This avian oddity, first described in the early ornithological records as a Whale-headed Stork, represents a physiological mix of heron and stork, with the net effect it has ended up in in its own mono-specific family. It has no relative anywhere in the world either alive today or in the fossil record.
As such it’s a throw-back to a long lost world as a totally unique and almost prehistoric slate-grey apparition standing motionless and silent in a seemingly catatonic state staring intently into the papyrus and flooded reeds around it as its preferred hunting habitat.
On closer examination the huge, bulbous bill ending with a conspicuous and sharp hook for securing prey, with lung fish (Protopterus spp.) the preferred choice, is unquestionably the most distinctive clog-like feature that has given rise to the species common name.
Add to this its imposing stature of 1.2m, supported of swamp composition necessity by noticeably long jacana-like toes, following upwards along its length to beyond its colossal bill to a head, inset with large lemon- yellow eyes and ending in a small, shaggy nuchal crest, and you have some idea as to why this avian oddity is one of the most evocative species in the world…
Strictly tied to papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) and Phragmites associated swamps in Central Africa extending from Zambia to its stronghold in the vast Sudd of Southern Sudan this long-lived species, like so many other large waterbirds, is under increasing pressure from loss of habitat and associated human related activities.
Uganda is by far the best site I know of with responsible bird guides in the Kampala/Entebbe area more than happy to arrange a responsible eco-orientated outing to Mabamba Bay for visiting birders keen to add this iconic and awe-inspiring waterbird to their ‘Life Lists’…
Given ‘Koro Creek’s’ unique composition of several distinctive micro-habitat types a group of 14 keen birders set out to see how many bird species could be recorded as a collective total within what amounted to a fairly relaxed and highly enjoyable morning.
The regular crowd are back in full force this summer, with no less than 35 birds loafing about in our indigenous garden.
Of all the owl species found in Southern Africa the enigmatic and highly localised Pel’s Fishing Owl is unquestionably the most desirable and challenging of all to locate.
July 2002: We have been living in Uganda for over 2 years – Patrick is the MD of Uganda Breweries and gets to drive a red Landrover Discovery number-plated ‘Bell 1’ after the best selling beer in the country – Bell Lager. But more importantly, Uganda has over 1000 bird species. We (the Royal ‘we’) have to see as many of these while we are here. We cannot envisage leaving without taking every possible birding opportunity. Patrick says ‘Imagine finding out afterwards that you’ve missed a turning and so missed an important bird site’. We must research and plan. The secret is in thorough research and planning.
Of all the sounds along the West Coast in early summer the strident and varied territorial calls of a pair of colourful Bokmakieries dueting from an exposed perch, seemingly for the sheer pleasure of it, are for me a delight to the ear.
These two relatively common birds of the acacia drainage lines and reed choked river beds of the Tanqua Karoo are very similar in general appearance as they flirt their spindly tails about while foraging through the undergrowth in search of their main prey in the form of small invertebrates.