We each give our top three bird sightings from 2020. We would love to know what your best were.
3) Peregrine Falcon – Amanzimtoti During the dark days of the Level 5 Lockdown, many of us were forced into watching birds from our houses. In my case I live in a flat, so I didn’t expect to find anything interesting. I had seen a Peregerine once from my house but I didn’t realise they were resident in the area. What I soon discovered was that a pair of them roosted every evening on top of Sweetwaters Flats (which is the tallest apartment buildings around, and about 500m from where I live, but that I have a direct line of sight to) Every now and then I would see them hunting and on a couple of occasions they flew directly over my flat. What was fascinating to watch, was the reactions of the other birds in the area, especially the Red-winged Starlings, Village Weavers and Pigeons. Often they would be the ones that would alert me to the presence of a raptor, as they would get a huge skrik and dart off in different directions. When they did this, it meant one of two things, either it was the Peregerine hunting, or it was the other resident raptor being the Black Sparrowhawk.
2) Short-tailed Pipit – Sani Pass The one thing I have discovered this year, which is something I have always suspected, is that I am not a big twitcher. I don’t get that much joy in having a huge expectation, and then usually driving a great distance to see a rare bird for the sake of a tick. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy it, but it’s not near the top of what I call a good birding experience. So what is? Well the answer to that is the thrill of the unexpected. I recently did a trip to Sani Pass, and one of the first stops we did was at the bottom of the pass and we got out the car and had a bit of a look around. Suddenly I hear my guide Stuart shout saying that’s Short-tailed Pipit flying around (yes white outer tail feathers he excitedly says). Now Short-tailed Pipit to me is honestly a bird I thought I just might never see, owing to the difficulty in locating them. I also didn’t even realise you got them near Sani Pass. Now of course none of the other people saw the birds Stuart was shouting about. But Stuart marked where they had landed in the grassland, and he sent Glen to flush them out. A while later two Short-tailed Pipits ascended from their lair and gave a magnificent display flight for quite some time. To top it all off, one of them landed on a rock in the distance.
1) Pallid Harrier – Mopani area, Kruger National Park Some of why this sighting is my number one of 2020, has not to do with the bird, but about the area. I’m absolutely in love with the Kruger Park, and especially the North. Again it has to do with the unexpected. That day I left Mopani Rest Camp as early as humanly possible and I had the whole day to myself. A whole 12 hours plus of endless opportunities. But it didn’t take 12 hours, it took 12 minutes. Just before the Mopani Camp access road meets the main road was a small wetland. In a tree in the early morning a ghostly figure sat proudly in a small tree. At first I thought maybe a Black-winged Kite. It wasn’t, it was a Harrier, a magnificent male Pallid Harrier. It would leave the tree and do its distinct flappy flight and return to its perch. I sat for a while entertained by its grace. I couldn’t wait to show another car, but sometimes in Kruger that other car doesn’t come and you get that experience all to yourself.
Enough has been said about what 2020 has been like for all of us. Thankfully we have birding to distract us from the challenges of day to day life during the Covid 19 pandemic. With saying that, this year still managed to produce some great birds, here are just three of mine for the year.
3) Rosy-throated Longclaw - Nibela Peninsula
Before I started birding in earnest and keeping a serious lifelist, I had already (unknowingly) travelled to many birding hotspots. I'm sure there are many birders reading this who could kick themselves when they think back to where they have been and the birds they could have seen. Some of mine include Thailand, Madagascar and Mauritius - I can hear your thoughts whilst you read this........... Another such place I had been to with my wife when we first started dating, was Hluhluwe River Lodge - which as the name suggest borders the Hluhluwe river. At the time I told the guides that I was 'interested' in birds, who then proceeded to take me down to the flood plains and show me their local population of Rosy-throated Longclaws. For some reason, I couldn't understand why I wasn't as excited as the guides were when they pointed one out to me.... I now know why. Not having the opportunity to get back to this area to relocate this special bird has been a cause of irritation for me for some years. Thankfully a report came out of a Black-tailed Godwit having been seen at the Nibela Peninsula, so another local birder Mike White filled up a car and we headed off to find it. Nibela Peninsula is arguably the most reliable spot in South Africa to find Rosy-throated Longclaws. I'm happy to report, that not only did we find the Rosy-throated Longclaws in abundance, but managed to get Cape and Yellow-throated on the same day! All three species found in South Africa on one outing.
2) Madagascan Cuckoo - Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve Most birders will agree although not always publicly that chasing a rarity or twitching is arguably one of the most exhilarating aspects of birding. I find it adds some real adrenalin to a trip but can have dire consequences for team morale if you happen to dip on the bird you're after. News broke out in early December of a Madagascan Cuckoo calling and then seen first in Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve and another bird at Soetdoring Reserve outside Bloemfontein. I've been pretty lucky over the years in managing to lock on to birds I'm twitching, but mostly thanks to the advice I once received from David Hoddinot. He said that when you get the report you've got a day or two max to get the bird until it might decide to move off from its location. In this case it was on day three of the report for this species that Luke Allen and myself shot out of Ballito to HIP. Upon arriving at the pin location we sat listening out for its distinct call. After around 10min the unmistakable call was heard by both of us. Naturally we wanted to cement the sighting with a visual, so another 40min went by until it eventually moved to a tree close enough to get a solid view.
1) Grey Tit - Sani Pass
Although not the most exciting bird in South Africa, for me it truly was one of my top birds of 2020. Having chased this bird on Sani Pass and into Lesotho on three occasions I still needed to see it as a Lifer. In November of this year my wife and I spent a week in Underberg where part of the trip was to go up Sani Pass and into Lesotho for the day. Sani Pass not only being really fun to drive, but always presents fantastic birding opportunities. We started heading up the pass with the ongoing roadworks making the trip a lot quicker than I'm used to. I personally am sad about the tarring of the road as it is not only far busier, but you aren't able to stop along the route as often and appreciate the landscape and birds as easily as before. Upon arriving at the South African border post, our enthusiasm was ripped away from us as we were told that we couldn't actually go into Lesotho without a PCR Covid Test coming back negative at a cost of R170.00 pp cash. I must say that the border control staff were very friendly and tried to make the whole process as smooth as possible. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we could still go up the pass and simply turn around at the Lesotho border post and make our way back down. Upon summiting the pass we parked our car just before the border gate, and as is customary with the top of the pass, the wind was howling! My wife and friends stayed in the car as I walked around a little to try to at least see the Drakensberg Rockjumper near the hotel and pub, alas no luck. I then started scanning the rocks in front of the hotel to look for Sloggett's Ice Rat which thankfully I did see. Not thinking much of it, I saw a small Sparrow sized bird bouncing around on what looked to be a small rock wall about 15m away from me. The size was right for a Sparrow, but the facial markings were throwing me off - I then realised Grey Tit!! What a find, not only was it a Lifer but it made the whole trip worthwhile especially when I thought I would leave the top of Sani not having seen any of my main targets.
So as the crazy year winded down and we headed into a new year, we were each asked to look back at our favourite three bird sightings for 2020. I have chosen the three birds on my list for different reasons – they may not have all been rarities and specials – but they each provided a special moment for me.
3) Magpie Mannikin - Amanzimtoti Bird Sanctuary
As someone who lives in the Durban area, this is a bird that is not that difficult to see. I have friends in Westville that see this species almost daily. I travelled up regularly to Westville, went to all the ‘Magpie’ hotspots, visited people that had them on their feeders, and did all that I could to see this chunky Mannikin species – but I never got to see the bird.
We have a local Facebook page for the birders in our area and news came through on the group of a Magpie Mannikin that had been seen at our local bird sanctuary. This was exciting because it was not only in my area, but also in my home pentad! I took a drive to go and see at as soon as I could – and my arrival on the scene meant that every Magpie Mannikin in the Durban area suddenly decided to do a mid-summer migration to Canada! I eventually went back on a Friday morning in late January and decided that this would be the day that I would finally add this bird to my list. I found the spot where the Mannikin had been seen in the park and just sat and waited. People came. People went. Birds came. And birds went. Suddenly a small flock of Mannikins flew in – I raised my binoculars to my eyes – but the whole flock was Bronze Mannikins. The arrival of every Mannikin to the flock but caused excitement to arise within me, but also a sense of disappointment as I saw it wasn’t a Magpie. Then it happened – as I peered despairingly through the binoculars – a solitary Magpie Mannikin flew into the flock!
Bird number 528 was added to my life list and finally I had the ‘Magpie Monkey’ off my back!
2) African Emerald Cuckoo - Ashburton
This bird was also a nemesis bird for me for many years. Like with the Magpie Mannikin, if one was seen or heard, if it was within traveling distance I would get in my car and try to find it. This bird isn’t a rarity or even uncommon – but as you can see from the photo, it’s one of the most beautiful birds that you could wish to see. The Creator fashioned this stunning bird together better than even the finest artist could ever hope to paint on their best day.
Late last year I did a quick trip to Ingeli Forrest, and even with Zach taking me around his local patch, we managed to hear the Cuckoo in the distance but never got to see it. We did manage to see a pair of African Wood Owl which was another bird that I had been looking out for – so the outing was still amazing. This bird was really driving me ‘cuckoo’!
On the way back from a birding day in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands, I saw a spot next to the road that I thought would be amazing for birding. A few weeks later we decided to return to the spot to atlass the pentad and see what we could find. The place was near Ashburton, and we ended up birding in a stunning conservancy. We stopped at a certain spot for coffee and to see what birds we could see – as we just took our time, suddenly, we heard an African Emerald Cuckoo calling! We played a bit of call back and the bird flew in! It sat on a branch close enough for us to see the bird clearly, but also just far enough away that we couldn’t get decent photos. I was happy to add number 536 to my life list – and was ready to pop the non-alcoholic fruitless environmentally friendly champagne to celebrate. But the day was still going to get better – we ended headed out of the valley area and stopped at another place. At this place we managed to see a young African Emerald Cuckoo calling and displaying only a few meters from us! We were able to just stand – take photos, and make videos – as this bird that is a celebration of all things visual showed off right in front of our eyes! (Watch the short video below as I share about this special sighting)
1) Sooty Falcon - Mbazwana (KwaZulu Natal)
This sighting made the list simply because of how funny the sighting was. Young eyes, a busy SuperSpar, and a background soundtrack of loud Taxi beats came together to make a memorable sighting!
We did a day trip up to Zululand to chase after some rare birds that had been seen – we left at 4am and only got home at 10:30pm that night! After visiting a few of the spots we had planned to visit, we decided to head up to Mbazwana to see the Sooty Falcon that had been reported there. We had two cars travelling in convoy – our car and another car with the Naude family. Steph Naude wanted to buy cooldrinks, so on the way up to Mbazwana we stopped at a Spar next to the road. The lines were winding out of the shop, so we decided to give it a miss and look for somewhere else. We drove into Mbazwana and tried to work out where this Sooty Falcon would be. Maybe in the trees that line the roads as you drive into town. We were looking for a place to stop and ended up coming to a busy SuperSpar. Taxis, loud music, hooters being blown every few seconds – and obviously, that ‘hell hot’ Zululand heat. I said that we should stop at the SuperSpar to allow Steph to get some cooldrinks for his family. While we were looking for parking, we got called to the Naude vehicle. Tristan Naude, aka ‘wonder-eyes’, had seen the Sooty Falcon in a dry tree just above the Spar! We got out of our car with a sense of disbelief – and there high in the tree – a small speck of raptor pierced the unforgiving African skies – it was the Sooty Falcon!
I can just imagine the conversations around us as six strange folks were pulling out cameras and binoculars to look into a tree! We took our photos, gave Covid elbow pumps, and took some complimentary photos of some of the petrol attendants. Bird number 549 took us to a place that we may have never visited unless we were chasing birds. This is the delight of birding – friends, places, and memories that get etched into you mind.
So what were your favourite three sightings of 2020? We would love to hear your stories! Please comment in the comments section of this post.