Birding Big Day

Michele Hofmeyr

Joe Grosel and his Zonke Inyoni team spotted a new record 313 species in the Houtbosdorp area, during this year's Birding Big Day. Joe, Selwyn Rautenbach, John Glendinning and Déwald Swanepoel followed a route from Polokwane via Magoebaskloof to Tzaneen in Limpopo. They came prepared and were intent on making the most of the day, despite the weather.

'The day kicked off on a low note with rain pouring outside when we got out of bed at 03h00. We thought that it would be fatal to our effort but after months of preparations and recces that we had put in we decided to get going regardless as this was our only chance,' says Joe.

'Birding started off at the Polokwane Nature Reserve at a rate slower than we had hoped for though, and by 04h00 we had only southern white-faced scops-owl, fiery-necked and rufous-cheeked nightjar, forked-tailed drongo and spotted thick-knee on our list.'

From the nature reserve the team headed to the Polokwane Bird Sanctuary / sewage works, first passing through town to mop up a few suburban species. The Bird Sanctuary provided another 25 birds in a little under an hour.

'The success of our day would to a large degree depend on a locality visited next.' The team opted for 'Superdam', a large irrigation dam in a wetland area and when they left Polokwane at 13h00 they had 'a healthy list of 215 birds, a good 15 species ahead of our best case scenario (BCS) target.'

It was at Haenertsburg where they saw the undisputed bird of the day, 'Just before Haenertsburg we tried flushing a long-billed pipit that Déwald had seen alighting. In the process John flushed a corn crake, which provided stunning views for all before settling into long grass, shortly after which the long-billed pipit showed again.'

Arriving at Woodbush forest with 252 species on their list, the rain had subsided and they spotted 27 birds while driving there and within 20 minutes in the forest. When they left Magoebaskloof at 16h30 with a bird count of 286, 'we knew that we were in with a chance of breaking the record.'

They tallied 10 more species in Tzaneen town and another 11 species in Letsitele Valley 'where the brown-backed honeybird took us past the record of 302 at exactly 17h45.' 'We retraced our steps back to Magoebaskloof where we added buff-spotted flufftail, African wood-owl and spotted eagle-owl to our list.

From here it was back to Polokwane where we ticked the nocturnal cape weaver and lesser masked-weaver (twittering from their breeding colonies) and finally back to the Polokwane Nature Reserve where we were unsuccessful at finding European nightjar or bronze-winged courser but added marsh owl, our final and 313th bird for the day.'

In Kruger, the 'Four Gauls', celebrated their 21st Big Birding Day with a count of 218 species. The team, who got their name from the comic book series Asterix, is lead by Ian Whyte who goes by Vitalstatix, Mooiplaas section ranger Johann Oelofse, Obelix, acting regional ranger of the Marula section, Don English, Asterix and former Nxanatseni far north regional ranger, Kobus Wentzel.

Kobus, who is studying in Australia, returns to South Africa for about three weeks every year, to 'recharge his batteries' and this includes taking part in the Birding Big Day. Ian says the team started at Punda and worked their way down to the picnic spot at Pafuri arriving there for dawn chorus at 04h00.

'We worked the Pafuri area until about 09h00 and then went down the eastern boundary to the Nyandu and then to Langtoon Dam and across the grasslands back to Punda. We then worked the Punda area after dark and finished at about 22h00.'

'It was raining cats and dogs at 23h30 when we were supposed to get up and start, so we postponed the start by two hours. The rain then cleared and for the rest of the day it was perfect (cool and mainly overcast). Soon after we finished the rain poured down again, so we really got lucky! The rain did prevent us getting to some areas we would have liked as the roads were too muddy,' he added.

Ian says the highlight of the day by far was a fantastic sighting of a pennant-winged nightjar. 'We had stopped just at sunset to have a sundowner and to re-connect the spotlights when he emerged and flew around us doing his display flight. We had a pennant-winged call on CD so we put it on and he flew around and around us for at least 10 minutes till it got too dark to see him. We also saw two tropical boubous killing a marbled tree snake at Pafuri.'

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