VICTORIN’S ‘SECRET’ – By Patrick Cardwell

One of the most sought after and most difficult to locate of all the ‘fynbos’ endemics is Victorin’s Warbler (Cryptillas victorini). This is largely due to habitat preference associated with thick tangles of bracken and rank grass in mixed ‘fynbos’ along south facing mountain slopes of the Western Cape.

Although vocal for most of the year this highly secretive skulker of note very rarely presents its cryptic plumage combination of tawny underparts and cinnamon back for a full inspection due to its rodent like behavior and frustrating habit of remaining completely concealed from view even within arms reach!

At best the persevering birder comes away with a matrix of piecemeal views as the bird hops and creeps about energetically within its chosen tangle of undergrowth as it goes about a full inspection of those desperately trying to secure a ‘tick able’ view. This in itself can take a considerable amount of time and invariably leads to mounting anxiety and dwindling patience as the bird tinkles away in monotonous response to ‘spishing’ and stock recordings of the call.

Like trout fishing, and the choice of fly on the day, these techniques engender mixed reactions and are not always reliable if conditions are less than perfect. Yet, like most highly secretive birds, there comes a time when patience and all the elements come together and ‘voila!’ you have the ‘5 star’ sighting you are after for an extended period of personal enjoyment.

And so it happened one wet and extremely windy day when Peter & Jeppe Bundgaard of Denmark set off enthusiastically for Rooi Els with Cape Rockjumper sightings in mind as our target bird for the day.

On arrival weather conditions were adverse to say the least with the wind speed picking up steadily and cold driving rain from the north west . Undeterred we decided to set off stoically along the mountain track anyway, finding shelter from the intermittent squalls of rain behind boulders and alongside vacant holiday homes as when the need arose.

Even so we were soon sopping wet and on the point of return when suddenly the wind dropped and the sun came out. Almost at once the seemingly barren mountain slope above us came to life with sunbirds, sugarbirds, robin chats, bulbuls, grassbirds, prinias, cisticolas and bishop birds appearing out of nowhere along with Cape Rockjumpers to sing, preen and feed during this brief period of respite within the weather cycle.

It was then in the distance that I picked up on a Victorin’s Warbler calling repetitively and enticingly from within a stand of well developed ‘fynbos’ on a nearby patch of isolated marshy ground. Its persistent call led us to within a few metres of the then still obscured bird that appeared to be calling from low down in a mixture of rank vegetation.

So loud was the call that I was able to capture a string of repetitive phrases with a simple hand held digital dictaphone used for taking field notes. On playing back the hardly audible recording the response was immediate as the ‘sound source’ revealed itself in full by clambering through the shrubbery to an exposed perch in open sunlight.

So close and so preoccupied was the bird in response that binoculars were unnecessary outside of a desire for fine feather detail. Even the pale and quite distinctive orange eye was clearly visible as the highly confiding bird sang away for minutes on end providing wonderful photo opportunities in the process.

Indeed the interlude was the best I have ever had in over twenty years of observing this highly secretive and enigmatic ‘fynbos’ warbler, and the stunning shot taken by Jeppe Bundgaard is proof positive of a great engagement triggered by a positive change in the weather on what at first seemed like a near hopeless day for birding in the Western Cape!

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