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On a high from grass (and it's not what you think)

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

First let me rewind a week to start this post…

I know that there are a lot of purist birders (or birdwatchers) that don’t worry about keeping a list of birds that they have seen – ‘just enjoy the birds’ they say speaking in a higher from of the English language that would even impress Shakespeare. I, however, as much as I do simply ‘enjoy the birds’ do keep a list of how many birds that I have seen. If you keep a list two things are probably true of you:

1) You enjoy reaching milestones on your list (eg 200, 300, 350, 400 birds etc). You meticulously record and update your list, making sure that no sighting is missed, after all many birding conversations end up at some point with the question: ‘So how many do you have on your life list?’

Squacco Heron

2) There is something exciting about adding a new bird to your list. The thing is, the more birds that you have on your list the harder that it gets to add new birds to it. This often results of more money being spent and further distances being traveled to simply add one bird to the list.

So with all this taken into account, last weekend I went on an outing with my bird club, Birdlife PortNatal, on their monthly Saturday outing to Stanger bird hide on the Kwa-Zulu Natal North Coast. The water levels were a little high for the waders that frequent the place, so in terms of waders the count was a bit low. We had a great sighting of a Squacco Heron which is a special bird.

Southern Brown-throated Weaver (really bad image)

The bird of the day for me was bird number 350 on my list, the Southern Brown-throated Weaver! So yay for me! Pop the bubbly and have a happy dance (well inside at least I don’t want to embarrass myself). Well this elation lasted for all of five days, and this amazing birder (or so my diminishing fan club tells me) realised that bird number 350 was actually bird number 349! I had recorded a bird incorrectly on my list, and had an extra bird on my list! Close up the bubbly and pop the happy dance balloons.

Fast forward to yesterday…

The day didn’t start well, I set my alarm for

5am (perhaps birders are the only sub-species of human that do this on a day off) and when it went off the last thing I felt like doing was getting out of bed. I started to think of amazing series that I could lie in bed the whole day and watch! Eventually I reluctantly got out of bed at 6:15 and looked out the window, yes the sun was kind of out but the wind was also blowing quite strongly. To bird or not to bird that is the question? I decided after a sugarless coffee to hit the road and drive to one of the South Coast’s best bird spots: Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve.

I have a gem of a book called ‘Southern African Birdfinder’ that mentions a great spot to see a bird that I have wanted to see for a long time called a Short-tailed Pipit. I really love grassland birding, yes most of the birds look the same and are impossible to find, but this is what makes it amazing for me – the challenge! So the focus of today was going to be grassland birds.

When I eventually turned on the road that led to Vernon Crookes, I had one focus: grassbirds. This stretch of road into the reserve is at times even better than the reserve for birding, but today I kept a steady pace and only recorded what I saw from the car and I chose not to look very hard – I wanted to get into the reserve as soon as possible. I arrived at the gate, paid the entrance fee and started to head to where the Pipits would likely be spotted. I looked for birds on the road up, but honestly my mind was already caught up on the grasslands.

Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve Grasslands

I turned up the road to ‘pipit central’, on the road up encountered lots of swallows, swifts and LBJ’s that showed themselves for a split second and the ducked into the grass. The voice of the hills was the Croaking Cisticolas with their frog like sound.

I slowly drove up the road that would have probably been better suited for a 4x4 and when I got to the top turning circle I realised that I had arrived at the spot. My senses were all on high alert as I looked for this illusive little Pipit, which is easier to see in flight that on the ground. I walked into the rocky, short grass area which I could see was perfect habitat for the Short-tailed Pipit and all of a sudden out the grass shot a pipit in flight. I heard it fast flapping wings as it flew and saw its small, short tailed fighter jet body. A few seconds of pure bliss! I wanted to see it again, not satisfied with the short viewing, the only problem was that once they go into the grass they move through the grass and are hard to locate. So I decided to sit and wait. I sat on some rocks, hidden as best as I could for about an hour. I saw a few birds, including a Black-collared Barbet, but the pipit had gone AWOL. I decided to drive around the park and then come back and see if it had returned.

I drove around the park, again on the lookout for grassland birds, I got to see a Rufous-napped Lark calling proudly from a building out house, saw some Croaking Cisticolas, African Pipit and the normal birds that one would see. I was hoping for a Pale-crowned Cisticola, but my Sasol App did not have its call on it and when I got home I realised that I had got its habitat all wrong, so I will go back better prepared next time. I drove around for about one and a half hours and then the time had come to return to ‘pipit central’.

When I got back to the spot that I had seen it earlier on I made sure that I had my camera ready and armed for a photo. I even took off my slops so that I could walk quietly over the rocks to try and sneak up on it. I walked carefully, looking and listening as best as I could. I walked about 20 meters and nothing even budged! I started to head back to the car, and all of a sudden out the corner of my eye, no more than 2 meters away there it was! Sulking with its dumpy little, heavily streaked body pressed low against a rock was the Short-tailed Pipit. It was no more than a few seconds, I made sure to note its features so that I could identify it. I wanted a photo, but he wasn’t as keen on my company as I was on his, and he transformed into his fighter jet mode and ducked into the grass. It was a moment that made the hot sun, waking up early and even the lack of good coffee worth it!

So I ended the day on just over 20 birds, which for someone that has a bird list is not very good, but bird number 350 made it all worth it! I would have happily traded 200 birds on a list for a day for an encounter with the little fellow on a rock. I can’t wait to get back and try to get a photo, but for now the memories that days like this bring cannot be expressed in a photo.

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