Birding 2017: A year in review and looking forward

Well, the year is almost over! It has been an incredible birding year for Melissa and me with plenty of travel to new and old places, and a few lifers from around beautiful South Africa. We have seen the deep pelagic ocean off the continental shelf, the cool grasslands of Wakkerstroom, the towering cliffs of the Mpumalanga escarpment, and so much more. Through these trips, we have collected a total of 533 bird species of which 21 were new for me and 19 were new for Melissa. We obviously can’t go through everything we have seen this year so here is a list of the top ten sightings of our birding year (in temporal order).

  1. Pallid Harrier (Circus macronus)/Cuckoo-finch (Anomalospiza imberbis): This was a great sighting at one of our absolute favorite reserves, Nylsvley in Limpopo province. We were driving along the tourist route, parallel with the vlei, with our friends Ainsley and Lynique. I was scanning the left hand side of the road and Melissa was scanning the right. As I was looking, I spotted a tiny yellow bird sitting on a bare branch which we quickly identified as a male Cuckoo-finch. As the rest of us were admiring him, Melissa quickly checked the vlei and spotted a cracking male Pallid Harrier. You have never seen four people get out of a car so quickly! Two lifers for our friends and two incredible year birds for us. Not bad!
  2. Yellow-throated Sandgrouse (Pterocles gutturalis): This bird was particularly special for me as it was my 700th southern African species. Melissa had a talk to give in for BirdLife Rustenburg and I decided to come along in the hopes of doing some birding in the area. After the talk, we were chatting with chairman of BirdLife Rustenburg, Shaun Mcgillewie, who asked us if there was anything we were looking for. There were two options as I saw them: head to Kgomo Kgomo to look for the Striped Crake or head northwest to look for Yellow-throated Sandgrouse. We decided the sandgrouse was a better bet and so at 8:30am the next morning, we were off to a very specific sunflower field. No more than three minutes after arriving Shaun heard the call as the birds flew in and soon we were all enjoying a fantastic group of Yellow-throated Sandgrouse feeding in the fields and I was officially a member of the Southern Africa 700 Club!
  3. River Warbler (Locustella fluviatilis): This bird definitely wins the most unexpected sightings award. Melissa and I were assisting on a field trip at Wits Rural, a university property close to Hoedspruit. Every morning, Melissa, Joelene (the field trip lecturer) and I would go for a run around the property. On the fourth morning, we were running down a sand track when Melissa and I heard a sound that stopped us dead in our tracks, a high pitched, insect-like trill. And sure enough, hopping around a bush about eight meters away, was a small dark warbler. We quickly finished our run, got into the bakkie, and raced back to the spot, hoping to get better views to confirm that this was indeed a River Warbler. We managed fleeting but diagnostic views of the bird although I have to say I think our naked eye views may have been better!
  4. Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans): The biggest event of the South African birding year was unquestionably Flock at Sea Again. Two thousand birders on a ship almost 200 nautical miles off of the Western Cape. The first morning of the trip will likely go down as one of the most incredible mornings in South African birding with no fewer than five rare seabirds, including one mega rarity, in the space of two hours. We had hit an eddy, a swirl of cold Antarctic water, and with it came some seabirds usually found much further south. The least rare but one of the most magnificent of the rare species was the Wandering Albatross. It was one of our first birds of the day, gliding in on its 3.5 meter wings. Albatross fly using a process called dynamic soaring and therefore have no need to flap. They simply turn and glide around the world’s oceans. The Wandering Albatross is the largest of these gentle giants and is found only in the Southern Ocean where it spends almost all of its life flying, coming to land only to breed once every few years. Upon seeing this bird, we feel we can now truly understand the famous quote by Robert Cushman Murphy, an American ornithologist, which states “I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross.”
  5. Light-mantled Albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata): This was another one of the species that arrived on that fateful first morning of Flock. We had already seen some special birds including Grey Petrel, White-headed Petrel, Sooty Albatross, and plenty of Wandering Albatrosses. Just as we were about to head inside for breakfast, the call went out: “Light-mantled Albatross!”. In flew an enormous, graceful, all-dark albatross. It danced in front of the ship, stopping to feed several times, before disappearing over the horizon. This was only the 15th ever record of this species in southern Africa, one of the rarest species we have ever seen, not to mention one of the most beautiful.
  6. Spotted Ground-thrush (Geokichla guttata): The Spotted Ground-thrush was a bird that Melissa and I had not seen for a very long time and so when we had a trip to the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal planned, it was certainly a top target. We spent the whole first day exploring Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve to no avail and had largely given up on seeing this Endangered endemic. However, we had one last morning to walk around the smaller (and closer) Umtamvuna Nature Reserve. The walk was wonderful and we picked up a few nice birds including Knysna Turaco and Brown Scrub-robin but no Spotted Ground-thrush. As we walked out of one of the last patches of forest, we heard leaves flicking and the distinctive calls of Terrestrial Brownbuls. We walked past them but then thought better of it and turned around to check them out. There were quite a few Terrestrial Brownbuls, a couple Brown Scrub-robins, and then, Melissa spotted a single Spotted Ground-thrush! It was a fantastic group of brown leaf-flicking birds in a gorgeous corner of the province.
  7. Southern White-faced Owl (Ptilopsis granti): The story of the Southern White-faced Owl is a long one with many twists and turns but lets just say it took Melissa and me a very long time to find this species for the first time last year. Since then, we had not seen it a single time. Melissa and I had a little extra time before a meeting in Dinokeng in northern Gauteng and decided to do a quick drive down the famous Zaagkuildrift Road to see what we could find. The beautiful Acacia savanna held quite a few surprises including Violet-eared Waxbill and Green-winged Pytilia. The best, however, was a beautiful family of Southern White-faced Owls, sitting together in a thicket, each one giving us a beady eye.
  8. Crowned Eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus): The Crowned Eagle is undeniably one of the most beautiful eagles in the world as well as one of the largest in Africa. It is known to prey upon small antelope as well as monkeys. The Nelspruit area has a very large population of these magnificent eagles and we were lucky enough to go out with Garth Batchelor who monitors them. The first nest we visited was particularly special. It was in a thickly forested valley where the calls of Eastern Nicator and Scaly-throated Honeyguide echoed. The enormous female eagle was sitting next to her nest. We watched as she guarded her nest, chasing off a pair of African Harrier-hawk, and listened to her call as the male eagle approached. The two eagles then flew together in a beautiful display right above us. Watching them above us truly made my heart sing.
  9. Pel’s Fishing-owl (Scotopelia peli): This bird could only be described as a bogie bird for Melissa and me. We had travelled to Pafuri, Ndumo, and Mkuze to try to find it with no luck. We decided to give the bird one more try on our recent Kruger trip. The Pel’s Fishing-owl had been reliably reported on the Olifants morning walk along the river, and so we booked and crossed our fingers. The morning of the walk arrived and we headed out with our guides, Vuzi and Wonderful, along the Olifants River. Within five minutes, we had seen a pair of White-backed Night-herons that flushed into low-hanging bush. Not a bad start! About fifteen minutes later, we had seen our first Pel’s Fishing-owl as it flew out of an enormous riverine tree. It was a magnificent bird with its huge dark eyes and its wide ginger wings. This owl was a great tick and bogie bird curse broken!
  10. Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus):  And now we come to the last bird on this list. Most South African birders will know that there has been an immature Egyptian Vulture moving around central Kruger National Park. And most of these birders will also know just how unreliable this bird has been! We were staying two nights at Balule and had hoped to get the bird around the Olifants River where it had been spotted several times in the past but we left disappointed and headed north to Shingwedzi. It was not a great morning’s drive! We got stuck in Letaba with a flat tire which delayed us by two hours and were feeling a little despondent as we continued north. Melissa and I had decided to stop by Nshawu and Mooiplaas waterholes (two of our favorites places) before lunch in Mopane camp. About four kilometers along the Nshawu road, a man stopped us, noticed Melissa’s BirdLife hat and showed us a picture on the back of his camera. It was the Egyptian Vulture and he had seen it fifteen minutes before at Nshawu No. 3. We rushed towards the waterhole, worried that we had driven past it due to a map error, and finally, arrived at the waterhole. We began scanning the enormous group of vultures that had arrived at the Cape Buffalo carcass. White-backed Vulture… White-headed Vulture… Lappet-faced Vulture… Cape Vulture… and then there it was… Egyptian Vulture! We watched it as it was chased by a juvenile White-headed Vulture and as it meandered around the carcass eventually coming to rest next to a Hooded Vulture, as if to confirm what it was not.

    So those were some of our highlights! I am sure we are missing many still. We have treasured this year and all its birding as well as all the people, new and old, we have spent time with over the last twelve months. Next year promises to be even better! Already in the first three months of 2018, we are have some incredible trips on the books including a drive through the Northern Cape to Flock on the West Coast as well as a big bash into the Caprivi with my mother, my godmother, and our beloved guide from our last Nambia trip, Dayne! Here’s to a great 2017 and to an even better 2018 filled with beautiful views, faithful friends, and stunning lifers!

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