Garden Route Birding – part of a Big Year quest.

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Scanning for Denham's Bustard on the Rondevlei Heights.

‘There is a Rufus-chested Sparrowhawk’  I called out to Peter. We were busy scanning for Denham’s Bustard on the Rondevlei Heights when an African Goshawk flew into view and darted across the pasture to a copse of tree in a drainage line. It then bombed a dead tree and flushed the Sparrowhawk.

It was the second time that I had taken Peter birding in the Garden Route as part of his Big Year. His count when we started was an impressive 618. Impressive for September with spring and summer still ahead.

On his first trip in winter Peter had sent me a list birds for the area that he wanted to tick off. It had been hard work to get 5 ticks. Now, at the end of September, he had a concise list of five birds – Red-necked Spurfowl, Black-winged Lapwing, Denham’s Bustard, Red-chested Flufftail and the illusive holy grail, a Knysna Warbler. Rufus-chested Sparrowhawk had also been on the winter list, but we had agreed that chances were slim. I knew easier locations in the Eastern Cape.

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Water levels at the Rondevlei Bird Hide are ideal for a diverse range of waterfowl.

The spurfowl was easy – we had hardly made it to the parking area at the Rondevlei Bird Hide when one popped out of the fynbos onto the foot path and started preening in the morning sun. Counter –  619.

Conditions at the bird hide were good for Flufftail, but none responded to the calls so we moved onto the culvert between Rondevlei and Landvlei.

We had nearly packed up after half an hour of calling when we heard one territorial challenge. Before we could restart the call, a second bird called.

Then like magic, one popped out of the reeds and inspected the fence line south of the culvert. By this stage a third challenger had begun calling.

Mesmerized we watched as the exposed Flufftail disappeared in to reeds before we could get cameras out. We had one final bit of luck, a territorial dispute as one male flushed and chased a second male. Then calm and quiet. Counter – 620. Things were looking good.

So, on the heights the Sparrowhawk was a bonus (counter 621) as we headed to a pasture for the Lapwings.

Preferring short, recently cropped meadow or pasture, the flocks move around and aren’t always easy to locate from public roads. We were lucky, a dairy herd had recently grazed a pasture, which before had been too long, and there was a flock of 15. Counter – 622.

We found the Denham’s Bustard on Oakhurst farm though we could not get close. Tick – 623.

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The Wilderness Trail at the Woodville Big Tree is ideal for forest bird species.

Now the nemesis. The Knysna Warbler. First stop was the Woodville Big Tree. The Catch 22 was deciding if we use a call to lure them out or hope to hear one calling and try get close enough.

Opting for calling, we set up the speakers and played the call for 90 seconds. Nothing. Another 90 seconds. Still nothing. Moving a hundred meters we played for another 90 seconds and got a response. It was close to the stream. A leaf was quivering. It all seemed to easy.

Moving closer the call stopped. We waited and were rewarded as the song started up. There was movement in the Plectranthus. We moved closer, playing the song. The Warbler stopped calling. Had we transgressed a territorial or comfort zone. Did the ‘challenge’ of a recording chase this species away. We never got to find out. Suddenly two photographers started walking down the path right near the spot, there was an unidentifiable flurry of wings and everything remained quiet. No song for 10 minutes. Just a pair of Bar-throated Apalis and a Cape Batis. Nothing. Nada!

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The path along the Dieprivier of the Brown-hooded Kingfisher Trail offers a good mix of forest and riverine bird species.

Heading down to the Brown-hooded Kingfisher Trail we hoped for better luck. Nothing. No song. No Knysna Warbler. We decided that it was too hot for the birds to call and packed up for the day.

As a last resort before leaving the Garden Route, Peter was going to attempt a sighting at Pledge Park in Knysna.

So we said our farewells, going our own ways.

But it wasn’t to end there. That evening I got a text from Nick, a guest for birding on Saturday morning. He had bumped into Peter at sunset who was over the moon about the Flufftail. But still no Knysna Warbler.

Sunday with Nick and Roger, was a good start at the Rondevlei Bird Hide, mediocre at the culvert and taunting at the Malachite Bird Hide.

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The boardwalk to the Malachite Bird Hide offers a chance of seeing Red-chested Flufftail

Recording sightings for E Birds, Nick had just given us a tally of 40 leaving the bird hide when we heard a Flufftail near the boardwalk. Out with the recording. Two birds,  then a third responded and started moving closer. One to the east of the boardwalk was seemingly on the verge of coming out of the reeds, less than 60cm away from us when disaster struck. A black Labrador with a couple came walking down the boardwalk. The birds went quiet and that was the last of our chances.

Moving onto the Brown-hooded Kingfisher Trail, we were hardly 120m down the path when a Knysna Warbler started calling. 08:48. The delema was whether to try call it out or to hope for it to come out. Deciding that the call would probably chase it away, I opted for phishing. It worked and we had a minute of watching it skulking in the dense undergrowth.

At the Woodville Big Tree we again we lucky. A second Knysna Warbler, though with a very different call.

In all, for the Garden Route, it was a rewarding two days of birding with a valuable lesson. While Red-chested Flufftails respond well to electronic calling, Knysna Warblers seemed deterred when too close, responding better to phishing.

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