Wader-watching in the Western Cape: Flock 2018 and more

After our long drive down to Langebaan, there was no rest for the weary! Flock on the West coast was beginning in only a day and a half and there was plenty to unpack and prepare before the big event started. And once Flock actually began, there were talks to attend and networking to be had. That being said, between everything, Melissa and I still got in some good birding with some notable highlights!

The first morning we awoke to the sound of the resident African Oystercatchers (Haematopus moquini) foraging on the rocks outside our windows. Melis had some meetings so headed for a quick trip to the salt pans in Veldrif to look for the local Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus). Within five minutes of arrival, I had located the phalarope along with tons of Chestnut-banded Plovers (Charadrius pallidus) and a mix of the regular waders including Little Stints (Calidris minuta), Curlew Sandpipers (Calidris ferruginea) and Common Ringed Plovers (Charadrius hiaticula). After a total of 20 minutes at the salt pans, Melissa needed the bakkie back and so I sped home to help set up the conference. Once everything was setup, Melissa and I headed out to Yzerfontein to check in with the boat captains for excursions and take a test ride out to Dassen Island, a major penguin colony. The boat trip out was wonderful albeit very choppy. We spotted the usual Benguela Current specials including Crowned (Microcarbo coronatus) and Cape Cormorants (Phalacrocorax capensis) and of course, African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus). However, the highlight was certainly a small group of Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea) on our way back to shore.

After Yzerfontein, Melissa and I headed for an hour of wader watching at Geelbek in West Coast National Park. We were hoping for one of the local celebrities, either the Broad-billed Sandpiper (Calidris falcinellus) or the Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes). Although they did not show up, there was plenty to look at including Greater Flamingoes (Phoenicopterus roseus), Common Greenshanks (T. nebularia), Marsh Sandpipers (T. stagnatilis) and more.

The next morning was the first day of Flock. Melissa and I began with a stunning sunrise back in Yzerfontein as we organized people onto boats to Dassen Island. The early morning was well worth it with a handful of Sabine’s Gulls (Xema sabini) flying by as well as a few Bank Cormorants (Phalacrocorax neglectus) (the rarest of the southern African cormorants) sitting on a rock offshore. A quick drive around the town revealed Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer) as well as singing Bokmakieries (Telophorus zeylonus). The rest of the day was fairly uneventful until someone spotted the Lesser Yellowlegs at Geelbek again! I flew out to the park only to find that the tide was too high already. Luckily, there was a great consolation prize in the form of Grey-winged Francolins (Scleroptila afra) on the side of the road on my way home.

On the final pre-conference morning, Melissa and I were headed out to Groot Winterhoek to coordinate guides. Groot Winterhoek is the closest patch of accessible mountain fynbos to Langebaan. We left while it was still pitch dark and no sooner had we gotten on the road then we began to get calls about issues back in Langebaan. The whole drive to the base of the mountains was spent sorting through things although we did still manage a single Barn Owl (Tyto alba) in the farm fields. We took a slow drive up the steep mountains, checking for any fynbos endemics on the way. The habitat was generally quiet as fynbos often is but we pulled out a few species including Fiscal Flycatcher (Melaenornis silens), Cape Robin-chat (Cossypha caffra), and Cape Bunting (Emberiza capensis). The best bird was when we reached the top plateau. We managed a surprise Protea Seedeater (Crithagra leucoptera), a species that is renowned for its trickiness closely, followed by another Western Cape endemic in the form of Orange-breasted Sunbird (Anthobaphes violacea). Once we reached the final meeting point, we still had over an hour to bird around so we did a little atlassing. The usuals were all around including Cape White-eyes (Zosterops virens), Cape Grassbirds (Sphenoeacus afer), and Southern Fiscals (Lanius collaris). Over the course of the morning, we also picked up a trio of Ground Woodpeckers (Geocolaptes olivaceus), a favorite species of ours, as well as a single Layard’s Tit-babbler (Sylvia layardi).

Once the final group arrived, we were off again, heading to help with shorebird IDs in West Coast National Park. We split up as we arrived in the park with Melissa heading to Seeberg hide and me heading to Geelbek hide. Within half an hour of arriving at Geelbek, the Lesser Yellowlegs showed up. I took a quick peek before driving back to Seeberg, picking up Melissa, and going to Geelbek. Luckily the yellowlegs was still hanging around and mediocre views were had by all. This was only the eighth record of the species in southern Africa so quite a cool bird to see!

The following two days were full time work with the conference in full swing. Melissa gave a five minute science talk on using puppetry as a creative medium to spread the conservation message and I gave a layperson’s and a science talk on my honey-buzzard research. Between talks there was networking and organizing. After the conference, it was back to tours. I did an island tour out to Malgas Island, a huge breeding colony of Cape Gannets (Morus capensis). We saw plenty of Cape Gannets along with a single Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus) on the way out. After that, Melissa and I went for walking tour with Faansie Peacock where we spotted Southern Black Korhaans (Afrotis afra), Karoo Prinias (Prinia maculosa), and a couple Cape Long-billed Larks (Certhilauda curvirostris).

On our last day, Melissa and I headed out to Dassen Island along with Dylan Vasapolli and Faansie. Dassen is aclong flat island inhabited by only a handful of researchers. It has large numbers of African Penguin, cormorant, and Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus) breeding on it. The way out was fairly uneventful with a single distant sighting of Heaviside’s Dolphins (Cephalorhynchus heavisidii). As we neared the edge of the island a lone fin emerged in the water in front of us which launched cries of ‘Sunfish!’ (Mola mola) from the crew .We got to watch this gentle giant of the open seas gaze up at us with his large eye before descending to the safety of the deep. Upon our arrival, we walked out to the lighthouse through the middle of the island. It was fairly quiet birding with a few penguins and gulls. As we neared the lighthouse, I joked that it would be great if the island’s resident Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) would come and sit on the lighthouse for a picture. A few minutes after our arrival at the lighthouse, in swooped the falcon with dismembered dove in its claws! The boat trip back was amazing. We had flocks of cormorants and terns surrounding the boat as we left the island. A single Sooty Shearwater (Ardenna grisea) gracefully soared by along with a single Parasitic Jaeger. As we neared the shore, a Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) came up a short distance away. We followed it and a few minutes later the enormous animal came up only a few meters from the boat! It was truly magical to see the sea so full of life and the perfect send off before we headed back toward our inland home!


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