top of page

Much a Cluck About Cuckoos

Personally, I would call myself an atlasser before I would say that I am a birder. I find more delight in recording a special bird on a full protocol card, than I do in travelling to some far flung location and getting a rarity for my life list (although having a rarity of a full protocol card is the ultimate win). A few years ago a friend introduced me to atlassing and it ignited a passion in me that is still burning strong.

For those that may not know, what is atlassing?

Atlassing is the systematic recording of birds in a defined area (also known as a pentad), following the correct protocols.The area (pentad) is atlassed for a minimum of two dedicated hours and for a maximum of five days. (head on over to to read a more detailed explanation of atlassing and the protocols).

What has made atlassing accessible to almost any competent birder is the Birdlasser App. This app, available on both IOS and Android operating systems, allows one to record and submit the data. It also has the atlassing protocol built into the app – so really there is no excuse to not dig in and get started with atlassing.

A few weeks ago, I headed inland for a day of birding with some friends. We headed past Pietermaritzburg, birding Cedara and Thurlow, and while we are on the way back late in the afternoon, we saw an area beside the road that looked like it would be great for birding. The area was a stunning thorn (Senegalia sp) savannah area just near Ashburton, just east of Pietermaritzburg.

Last week we were trying to decide where to go birding, I looked at the satellite view on Google maps and the decision was made to head to this location. I went through the SABAP records – the pentad had been atlassed a good amount of times with some good species being recorded.

I crawled out of the safety of my warm bed at 3:30am – it was so early that not even coffee was able to lift the mood as my tired body walked through the house, trying to make sense of why the hell someone would wake up this early! I packed the cooler box and filled the flask knowing the caffeine would make the day just a little sweeter. I left my place just after 4am – strangely enough the roads still had a thin trail made by the rear lights of traffic – why would anyone wake up this early? I picked up Zach and Tristan, brought another cup of coffee (taking my caffeine count to three cups – yes, three cups – don’t judge), and we headed up the N3 in search of some avian delights.

The early morning car chatter kept the spirits up as we drove through the early morning traffic, we turned off at the Ashburton turnoff and started with some birding in the small town. Bird number one was the not so rare Cape Wagtail – bopping its tail with delight as I recorded it in the prime spot on the card. At 6:46am we recorded a Black-bellied Starling – which was already bird number 50 for the morning. Included in the first 50 birds was Violet-backed Starling, White-bellied Sunbird, Brimstone Canary, Southern Tchagra, Red-chested Cuckoo, Lazy Cisticola, Spotted Thick-knee, Yellow-throated Bush Sparrow, Crowned Lapwing, Ashy Flycatcher, Grey Sunbird and Crowned Eagle. The day had got off to a good start and we had just started (still only three cups of coffee).

Violet-backed Starling

Once we had finished birding the town area, we headed into the Senegalia sp bushveld that made up the habitat. There was a gate which announced that this was the Lower Mpushini Conservancy – this lifted the excitement levels up a notch once again.

The conservancy had dust roads which were in good condition – we took the first left turn and headed down into a small valley. This was a good place to stop for coffee and to look for some birds. The Spectacled Weavers were calling all around us (maybe they also like caffeine), we then heard the distinctive insect like call of the Scaley-throated Honeyguide. All of a sudden a tinge of excitement darted through my inner being as Zach told us he had heard an African Emerald Cuckoo calling. This species had eluded me and taken lots of petrol over the course of three years as I had pursued it. Every time someone told me that they had seen one and it was within traveling distance, I would head there, and again and again leave disappointed. We played a little call back and we were lucky that the bird responded. It flew into a tree about 20 meters away and flew over our heads giving us a great showing. A lifer for the day and it would be on a full protocol card! We managed a few more species such as Cardinal Woodpecker, Hamerkop, Thick-billed Weaver, Burchell’s Coucal, and a Crowned Eagle in a nest.

We headed up to the top of a hill and ended up by a place that looked like a small holding – we managed to see Crowned Hornbill, African Goshawk, and hear the drunken sailor – the Black-crowned Tchagra. The highlight of the time in this place was a second African Emerald Cuckoo that ended up flying into a tree no more than five meters from us allowing us to get stunning photos and video material. From never seeing an African Emerald Cuckoo, all of a sudden they seemed to be showing and calling all around us.