“Hey Mark, thanks for the directions to the Cape Rockjumper” Peter exclaimed as he climbed out of his Audi.
He had been on his way down to the Garden Route for one of our guided coastal walks and had asked for some birding sites en route.
I had suggested a site between Prince Albert and Oudtshoorn at the top of the Swartberg Pass over looking the Karoo. It is a location that I recommend to every avid twitcher that sought to tick off this endemic species.
Closing his door, Peter continued “Yes, we saw them, a total of eight.”
I could not believe it.
For close to five years I had tried to tick this Cape endemic off, each visit to either Rooiels near Hermanus or the Swartberg Pass ending in frustration as wind, rain and mist prevailed with uncanny regularity ending my journey empty handed so to speak.
As recently as June this year, on our way back from two weeks in the Kalahari, we diverted our return route to again try finally tick off the elusive Cape Rockjumper. But it was not meant to be. Ascending the Swartberg Pass from the sun baked Karoo north of the pass, at the 1566m summit we were shrouded in mist and buffeted by a gale. Needless to say, another fruitless attempt.
Why, in the presence of other rarer bird species, I had become obsessed with recording the Cape Rockjumper, I am not entirely sure. Maybe it was the journey to known locations, maybe it was the birds alluring colours or the rugged terrain in which they lived. Or it could simply be that it was on my doorstep, relatively speaking (give or take 150km), and I had not seen it yet.
So, when Amanda finished the Meiringspoort half marathon in early October, we again decided to summit Swartberg Pass for a chance to finally tick off this avian jewel.
The pass was bathed in sunlight, the breeze was light. Most noticeable, there was not a bird in sight. Not even a bird call could be heard. This trip looked to be yet another unsuccessful outing.
Slowly edging down the Southern slope, we scanned every boulder, cliff and outcrop. Nothing!
Then, a flash of chestnut, sharp braking and clutching binoculars.
Just a Sentinel Rock Thrush. Spectacular at the best of times, but not as alluring when mistaken for the Rockjumper.
Continuing downwards, the vistas of mountain range, patchwork of agricultural fields and rolling hills shrouded in fynbos moderated our speed as we attempted to take it all in.
Being a narrow gravel mountain road, we had pulled over to allow an ascending vehicle to pass. And there, 20m away perched a Ground Woodpecker, beak pointing to the sky. It shuffled to the right and then like a rabbit out of a hat, our quest materialised next to the woodpecker.
In all its glory, dazzling red eyes, russet chest, quite literally jumping on the rocks. The Cape Rockjumper!
So we had done it. This was more than a glimpse. For twenty minutes the elusive pair jumped and flitted over the rocks, an education into both species habits. A moment embellished in our memories, an encounter to be cherished forever.
Now with the accomplished quest what next? Most definitely attempt to capture some stunning photos of these vibrant birds.