Birding for the namesake of Knysna

The message on Saturday afternoon simple : I will be in the Garden Route on Monday and would like to photograph a Knysna Woodpecker and a Knysna Warbler. Can you help?

August Birding in the Garden Route can be extremely fickle, very much dependent on which way the wind blows. A week of South westerly winds can drop the temperature and blast the birds into hiding while a northerly wind, as a light Berg Wind, can warm everything up and stimulate flowers to bud and birds to start early nesting activities.

The historical village of Knysna flanks a the eastern side of the Knysna Estuary.

Knysna, the name of a historical coastal town in the Garden Route, is unique in being used in the names of no less than 5 species. There are three avian species, Knysna Turaco, Knysna Warbler and Knysna Woodpecker.

The endemic Knysna Seahorse occurs only in three estuaries in the Garden Route

There is also a reptilian species, the Knysna Dwarf Chameleon, and a marine species, the Knysna Seahorse, an endemic species found only in three locations in the Garden Route.

There is a sixth species which includes the towns name, the Knysna Elephant, but this is merely a reference to a historical population of African Elephants that roamed through the Garden Route, and isn’t a true name.

Focusing on the brief to photograph the two species, I set out on Sunday to scout a few well known sites for both species. My first stop was the Woodville Big Tree, a convenient site for both species.

Near the wooden bridge leading to the big tree is a regular site for Knysna Warbler.

It was midmorning and warm. The forest canopy was alive with birds. Cape Batis pairs chirped their contact calls from every direction while foraging.

Overhead, Black-headed Orioles, Green Woodhoepoes, Knysna Turaco and Sombre Greenbuls flitted through the canopy. In the undergrowth Bar-throated Apalis and Terrestrial Brownbuls picked off prey from the branches.

Flocks of Double-banded Sunbirds, both Greater and Southern, competed with Cape White-eyes in the flowering Wild Pomegranate over the stream.

Forest Canaries swooped down to the undergrowth along the stream, and in the background Grey Cuckooshrike, Fork-tailed Drongo and Olive Woodpecker announced their presence.

Of the Knysna species, only silence. Nada. Maybe another location would be more productive the next morning.

At sunrise on Monday, as we set off, I decided to try a different site for the Woodpeckers, a section along the Seven Passes road with a stand of tall dead Eucalypt trees.

The rivers that the Seven Passes road crosses over all have ideal habitat for Knysna Warbler as well as Knysna Woodpecker.

After 10 minutes of calling and scanning for the woodpeckers, we were about to leave when the distinctive trill of the Knysna Warbler broke the uncanny silence and the contact call of a female filtered up from the dense undergrowth.

For the next hour Johan tried his best to get a clear photo. As a skulking species two birds flitted through the undergrowth, popped out onto branch tips but it was only a flash of a wing, a frame of tail or a cropped portrait that he captured.

Calling it quits, he high fived me and we set off to a second site for the Woodpeckers. Again, another Warbler and some Olive Woodpeckers, but no Knysna Woodpeckers.

Unsure how the rest of the morning would play out, we stopped in at the big tree. Silence. Nothing except a chorus of Sombre Greenbuls in the canopy and Sunbirds in the Wild Pomegranate.

Resigned to the absence of the Woodpecker, we turned back to the vehicle only to have a Spotted Eagle-Owl swoop over our heads and land on an open branch, probably the reason for the lack of bird activity compared to the day before.

With a deadline for an onward journey we got into the car only to have an Olive Woodpecker flash past and stop 2 meters in front of the vehicle. Despite having a photographic portfolio of 703 species which includes the Olive Woodpecker, Johan couldn’t resist the indifferent attitude of the bird as it pecked for a meal, and he managed to get a great photo before we drove off.

Typical tall canopy trees in the Knysna Forest. Bird parties frequent the mid level and canopy crown.

Unfortunately we didn’t track down the targeted Woodpecker. Personally, it was remarkable to observe how distinctly different the collective bird behavior was on the two days, an insight into the chance aspect of finding a species out of nesting season.

Both visits to the Woodville Big Tree where at similar times, namely mid morning. Both days were sunny, calm and mild conditions. One of the possible reasons for the reduced activity of birds in the canopy could be attributed to the presence of the Spotted Eagle-Owl.

For more details of our Lakes Loop bird tour and birding photography visit Garden Route Birding.

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