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Stiffnecks Newsletter : Volume1, No 3, June 2007

Dear Stiffnecks,

During a recent trip to the Kruger National Park I experienced a few birding epiphanies; none occurred during spectacular birding moments (although there were a few of those), but they were real eye openers. The first “aha” moment transpired when the realization hit home that not everyone notices birds and apparently not due to disinterest, but merely because of the comparatively smaller size and less media coverage given to our feathered friends. I converted two uninitiated fellow travelers to birding; both admitting it significantly increased their enjoyment of the outdoors.

The second realization was that birding in the park varies significantly with amounts of rainfall and the season. Most of you will most likely roll your eyes and say “I knew that”, but the extent of the change was particularly notable. The very dry winter has resulted in predators, particularly the cats, making kills literally on every corner. This in turn resulted in a very high presence of vultures and other raptors contrasting sharply to the constant buzz of brightly coloured sunbirds and orioles around the flowering aloes.

It would be remiss of me not to mention some of the birding highlights? most notably watching crocs trying to grab mouthfuls of Red-billed Quelea at Pioneer dam. The flock of hundreds seemed to be well versed in the crocs habits though and deftly swooped, as one, just beyond those monstrous snapping jaws. Another extraordinary moment occurred somewhere between Letaba and Mopani; driving along slowly we spotted a huge herd of impala, when suddenly a White-headed vulture swooped literally a few centimeters above our car and landed seemingly in the middle of the impala herd. What followed was both fascinating and somewhat bizarre.

Birds suddenly came in from every direction; Lappet-faced, White-backed and White-headed vultures soared in low, landing in a tight, characteristically bickering group behind the bush. Bateleurs circled and smaller raptors hovered. The impala began running in circles, barking and chasing one another. The noise was unbelievable! We stayed for quite a while by which time several cars had gathered around the spectacle. I imagine there was some kind of kill. Why the impalas hung around I don’t know as the huge birds even chased them. And then the cherry on top: two Grey headed parrots flew past the fray!

Yours in birding,


Courtesy of Birds of Prey Working Group
Endangered Wildlife Trust

Implementing Patagial Tagging On Vultures In Southern Africa


Bird ringing has been used in southern Africa for almost 60 years as a cost-effective method to study many aspects of the biology of a wide range of species, including raptors. The first birds to be ringed in South Africa were a group of 31 Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres) nestlings at the Kranzberg colony in Limpopo in 1948.

The following aspects with regard to the biology of raptors can be obtained by the use of ringing and colour-marking:

• Local movements and dispersal patterns
• Migratory patterns and seasonality
• Survival rates and longevity
• Causes of mortalities and potential threats

What is Patagial Tagging?

Colour-marking a bird enables researchers to individually identify birds in the field after release. The colour-marking method that is currently in use for vultures is known as “patagial tagging”. Patagial tagging refers to the fitting of a plastic tag to the “patagium”, or frontal flap of skin to the wing of a bird and has been used worldwide with great success on a wide range of bird species, including vultures and condors in Europe and America.

What to do when you see a tagged vulture

The EWT-BoPWG will also rely on members of the public, landowners and reserve managers to report any of these birds that are re-sighted. Now is the time for you to get involved and enhance your next visit to an area, such as a nature reserve or vulture restaurant, where vultures occur! Because vultures regularly visit well-managed restaurants, these sites will play a vital role in contributing to our knowledge of bird movements by people reporting on birds re-sighted there.

Should a tagged bird be seen, the observer should record the following details:

• Date
• time,
• locality
• GPS coordinates (if possible)
• Species
• Habitat
• condition of the bird

Most importantly, the colour of the tag and its specific alpha-numeric code must be recorded as this will provide us with an exact idea of the area where the bird was tagged. Ideally, observers should also attempt to photograph the tagged bird and submit a low-resolution image (les than 100Kb) with their report. It is also important that the observer provide their name and contact details should we require further information.

Who should re-sightings and recoveries be reported to?

All relevant information can be reported to the South African Bird Ringing Unit (SAFRING) in Cape Town at telephone number +27 (0)21 650-2421/2 or . Alternatively, you can also contact the Birds of Prey Working Group directly at +27 (0)11 646-4629 or The Birds of Prey Working Group is also in the process of setting up a reporting facility via its website on .

Rare and Interesting Bird Sightings

An Honorary Ranger from the Bloemfontein region, Dewald du Plessis, has kindly allowed the use of his bird list which he compiled in the newly declared Mokala National Park.
By all accounts this new park will be a must visit for birding enthusiasts!
“I am convinced the new Mokala National Park will be a new area for any bird enthusiast.” Hein Grobler, Hospitality Services Manager: Mokala National Park

“I think that Mokala has plenty of potential for birding. It will most likely have a greater diversity than Vaalbos, with perhaps most of the Kalahari thornveld specials.” Dewald du Plessis, Honorary Ranger.

Numbers coincide with those of Sasol Birds of Southern Africa


Ostrich (1) Hadeda ibis(94)
Whitefaced duck(99) Egyptian goose(102)
Yellow-billed duck(104) Spurwinged goose (116)
Yellowbilled kite(126 b) Blackshouldered kite(127)
Steppe buzzard(149) Pale chanting goshawk(162)
Lanner falcon(172) Western redfooted falcon(179)
Rock kestrel(181) Lesser kestrel(183)
Pygmy falcon(186) Crowned guineafowl(203)
Kori bustard(230) Northern black korhaan(239b)
Crowned plover(255) Wood sandpiper(266)
Spotted dikkop (297) Rock pigeon(349)
Cape turtle dove(354) Laughing dove (355)
Namaqua dove (356) Diderick cuckoo(386)
Barn owl(392) African scops owl(396)
Spotted eagle owl(401) Rufouscheeked nightjar(406)
Whiterumped swift(415) Little swift(417)
Whitebacked mousebird(425) Redfaced moosebird(426)
European bee-eater (438) Swallowtailed bee-eater(445)
African hoopoe (451) Acacia pied barbet(465)
Rufouscaped lark(494) Clapper lark(495)
Spikeheeled lark(506) European swallow(518)
Whitethroated swallow(520) Redbreated swallow(524)
Greater striped swallow(526) Rock martin (529)
Forktailed drongo(541) Pied crow(548)
African redeyed bulbul(567) Mountain chat(586)
Familiar chat(589) Southern anteating chat(595)
Common stonechat(596) Cape robin(601)
Kalahari robin(615) Chestnutvented titbabbler (621)
Blackchested prinia(685) Fiscal flycatcher(698)
Pririt batis(703) Cape wagtail(713)
African rock pipit(721) Lesser grey shrike(731)
Common fiscal shrike(732) Crimsonbreasted shrike(739)
Brubru(741) African pied starling(759)
Cape glossy starling(764) Orange River white-eye(796b)
Whitebrowed sparrow-weaver(799) Sociable weaver(800)
Cape sparrow(803) Scalyfeathered finch(806)
Masked weaver(814) Redbilled quelea(821)
Southern red bishop(824) Yellow canary(878)
Blackthroated canary(870) Cape bunting(885)

• And in June, Hanno Langenhoven was lucky enough to arrive at Dolphin Beach just before the Wilson’s Phalarope flew off to her next destination.

If anyone would like to submit their sightings lists to the newsletter please email:

Plants for Bird Friendly Gardens

Words by Helga McLeod

Aloes need no introduction as they are friend to humans, animals and birds alike. All aloes are adored by birds such as sunbirds, glossy starlings, weavers and mousebirds - so you can safely choose the one that is prettiest to you! These succulents ask for little, but demand warm homes with no frost. Planted pots in our colder regions should thus be moved indoors during winter. Your aloe will appreciate a nice, loamy soil that drains well and only a little watering when absolutely necessary. You can add a rock or two to serve as growing support and remove dead flowers now and then. Attacks from rust and scale insects are possible. Our Aloes propagate most easily through seed, cuttings or offsets and can be done through the year. To our birds, aloes are excellent feather protectors as they contain vital magnesium lactate.

A. arborescens (Tree aloe; 2,5m) forms a large clump with leaf rosettes at the end of each stem. Winter flowers of red appear on conical spikes.
A. aristata (Guinea fowl aloe; 5,5 - 7m) has slightly inwards pointing leaves with white, toothed edges and white spots on the dark green surfaces. The spring- to summer flower spikes of flame-red emerge from the rosettes.
A. barberiae (Tree aloe; 16 - 18m) is a much branched, large tree with winter flowers ranging from orange to brick red.
A. candelabrum (Candelabra aloe; 2,5m) has candelabra-like flower stalks in winter with red blooms. Its large leaves have brownish, toothed edges and are bluish-green.
A. cooperi (Cooper’s aloe; 75 - 85cm) has pinkish summer flowers with green tips, carried on tall spikes which emerge from the clumps of foliage. The leaves are greyish green with toothed edges, and are long and narrow.
A. cryptopoda (Spite aloe; 1,5m) has clumps of bluish-green leaves and much-branched, tall flower spikes of scarlet autumn blooms.
A. ferox (Cape aloe; 2 - 3m) has candelabra-like flower stalks in summer with red blooms.
A. saponaria (Soap aloe; 50 - 100cm) is stemless and has winter flowers of red on tall stalks. The foliage is spotted.
A. striata (Coral aloe; 70cm) has red, spring flowers on branching flower stalks and smooth edged, pale green foliage.
A. thompsoniae (Thompson’s aloe; 30cm) has orange flowers, green tipped, emerging from clumps of bright green foliage.
A. variegata (Kanniedood, Partridge-breast aloe; 10cm) has dark green leaves, spotted white in rows. Its winter and spring flowers appear on long stalks in orange-pink.
A. vera (85 - 95cm) is known for its medicinal properties when treating skin irritations. The stemless plant has mottled, bluish-greyish-green leaves and yellow, single stemmed flowers.
A. wickensii (Wicken’s aloe; 1m) flowers during winter with much-branched stalks of yellow flowers. Its bluish-green leaves curves inwards and upwards.

Helga McLeod of the hugely successful Gardening Eden website has kindly agreed to do a few inserts on bird friendly plants.

A Good Idea

A clever hint from Dinkybird for when trying to capture bird pix: heard from someone who just got back from KNP that cut off pieces of pool noodles with a groove to fit over the car window were popular replacements for bean bags.
This is a really nice idea for point and shoot or compact zoom cameras, although D-SLR’s may require a slightly more substantial base.

Bird Identification 101

Words by Deefstes

There are a few Herons and Egrets that could potentially pose a challenge to the beginner birder but armed with some rudimentary knowledge, identification becomes quite easy. For the purposes of this discussion we will not consider the vagrants such as Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron and Western Reef Heron.


Let’s start off with the white Egrets (Great Egret, Yellow-billed Egret, Little Egret and Cattle Egret), which often is the main stumbling block for beginners. As you might have expected, the main features to note would be the colour of the bill, the colour of the legs and the colour of the feet. Bear in mind though that, in some species, these colours may change in breeding season and it is important to be aware of the different combinations and have some appreciation for when the birds go into or out of breeding plumage. Another compounding matter is that the colour of the feet and legs can be obscured by mud from the Egret wading in muddy waters, as is their wont.

Great Egret:

The Great Egret really is a large bird, comparing in size to the Grey Heron. The Great Egret will always have black legs and feet but the bill can vary in colour from yellow when not breeding to black when breeding. When the bird is seen from close range and there is still confusion with Yellow-billed Egret, the black line extending from the gape can be of help. On Great Egret the line extends well beyond the eye while on Yellow-billed the line extends to only below the eye. The Great Egret and Yellow-billed Egrets are the only ones to have this line extending from the gape.

Yellow-billed Egret:

This seems to be the Egret causing the most confusion. It’s not a particularly common Egret so one often sees many more of the other white Egrets for every one Yellow-billed Egret. The legs and feet will always be black below the tibio-tarsal joint and from the tibio-tarsal joint upwards yellow when not breeding to reddish when breeding. The colouration of the tibia can be surprisingly difficult to see in the field so care should be taken when looking for this feature. The bill will be yellow or orange depending on the season but never black.

Little Egret:

The Little Egret is a very elegant looking bird and the breeding plumage is more clearly defined by longer plumes than colour variation of the bill and legs. The bill will always be black although the lores can display hints of yellow or red. The legs can be orange to red in breeding plumage although it is mostly just black with yellow feet. The breeding colouration of the bare parts is kept for only a very short period at the start of the breeding cycle.



Cattle Egret:

The Cattle Egret is the only white Egret that displays any colouration to the feathers when in breeding plumage. It is rather a stocky bird in comparison with the other white Egrets and will never display an S-shaped curve to the neck. The Cattle Egret shows quite a variety of bare parts colouration with legs ranging from black in non-breeding plumage to yellow and even red in breeding plumage and the bill ranging from yellow with a black tip in non-breeding plumage to orange and red in breeding plumage. Immature birds are the only ones with black bills.

The following table can be of help to quickly reach an identification. It may be worth printing out and inserting into your field guide.


Colour of legs

Colour of bill

Other features

Great Egret

All black

Yellow (nonbr)
Black (br)

Very long and strongly kinked neck

Yellow-billed Egret

Tibia yellow (nonbr) or red (br)
Tarsus and feet black

Yellow (nonbr)
Orange (br)


Little Egret

Legs black
Feet Yellow


Long plume on hind neck (less conspicuous when not breeding)

Cattle Egret

Black (nonbr)
Yellow to red (br)

Yellow / Orange
Black (immature)

Only white Egret to display feathers other than all white in breeding plumage.


The possibility of confusion when it comes to Herons would probably exist in separating Grey Heron from Black-headed Heron or Goliath Heron from Purple Heron.

Grey Heron vs. Blackheaded Heron:

Distinguishing between Grey Heron and Black-headed Heron is dirt easy if you see the bird in flight in which case the underwings provides the easiest feature. On Black-headed Heron the underwings will be two-toned with the coverts being white and the flight feathers being black. The Grey Heron on the other hand has a uniformly coloured grey underwing.

When not in flight the two can still be separated readily by comparing the colour of the throat to the colour of the hind neck. The Black-headed Heron will always display a different coloured hind neck than throat with an adult having a black hind neck and juvenile grey. The throat will always be white in contrast. The neck of the Grey Heron is white all around from the throat to the hind neck even though the black stripes above the eyes terminate in a black crest behind the head. Take note that the throat on both the bird can show black streaking lower down.

Goliath Heron vs. Purple Heron:

The Goliath Heron and Purple Heron are not typically confused either but if any doubt exists the crown of the bird should be sufficient to identify it. The Purple Heron will have a black crown and facial markings as opposed to the rufous crown and face of the Goliath Heron. These features would typically only be required when only poor views of the bird in question is available as the enormous size of the Goliath Heron and the size of the bill should easily distinguish it from Purple Heron.


Southern Black Korhaan (Eupodotis Afra)

Description: size: 50-52cm. This bird has distinctive bright yellow legs and a jet black belly (female) while the male also has a black chest, neck and head.

Habitat: It is found in strandveld as well as Karoo scrub and fynbos areas.

Status: A common, endemic resident.

Distribution: Coastal areas of S, SW and E Cape.

Feeding Habits: Feeds on insects and reptiles as well as seeds and new growth of plants.




Red Crested Korhaan (Eupodotis gindiana)

Description: size: 50cm. The male displays crest (although not a common occurrence). Has a jet black belly.

Habitat: Found in semi-arid grasslands and savannah with sparse tree cover.

Status: A common bird, although at times easily overlooked.

Distribution: A band through most of Namibia excluding the arid coastline, Botswana, parts of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the far north of South Africa.

Feeding habits: Feeds on insects, seeds and berries.




Note: collect these bird pages and compile a bird guide

Counting Birds

Words and pix by Johan van Rensburg

During the last weekend of July I shared a memorable birding experience with my good friend, bird ringer Colin Williams. Colin is one of the local precinct organisers of the Coordinated Avifaunal road counts project (CAR). I have had a standing invitation to join them during one of the two days that is set aside every year (end of July and end of January) to monitor the presence and populations of specific large birds. These observations are done by means of a road count from vehicles covering fixed routes. The bird sightings are recorded while driving slowly and especially during stops at regular two-kilometre intervals. During these stops, the surrounding countryside is scanned using binoculars and spotting scopes.

This standardised method allows comparisons between counts. The total area covered county-wide is so large that CAR is statistically capable of demonstrating trends in population size. The project also reveals details of habitat use and the relationship of populations to the agricultural practices of an area.

The approach was pioneered in July 1993 in a joint Cape Bird Club/ADU project to monitor the populations of two threatened species: Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus and Denham’s/Stanley's Bustard Neotis denhami. The initial study area was the Overberg. CAR has since spread rapidly to other provinces and now monitors over 20 species of large terrestrial birds (crane, bustard, korhaan, stork, secretarybird and bald ibis) along 360 fixed routes covering over 19 000 km. 14 of these species appear in the Red Data Book.

Routes have been grouped into clusters called precincts. Local precinct organisers play a vital role in organising counts in their areas. Currently there are 40 precincts in seven provinces. CAR has thrived on the enthusiastic, voluntary participation of members of bird clubs and farming communities, conservators, schools and interested members of the public. Every six months, over 750 people travel along country roads, making this one of the largest birder-participation projects in Africa.

Some of the spin-offs from CAR were published in a major 200-page report, “Big birds on farms: Mazda CAR Report 1993-2001”, summarising the information collected over the first eight years. There are accounts for 15 species and 17 precincts, as well as a summary chapter and information about organisations that are helpful to landowners. The report provides advice on how to promote the conservation of these magnificent birds on farm lands. Landowners are guided in their conservation actions to adopt mixed farming strategies; use poisons responsibly; monitor and mark overhead cables and other dangerous structures; protect natural veld; create habitat corridors; protect wetlands and breeding sites; control dogs and cats; educate farm workers; collaborate with neighbours and experts to improve conservation strategies.

So, this year SO and I managed an open weekend on a CAR day. Our bird-count for this blustery, chilly day was about 240 birds of nine species over an 85-kilometre route. The highlights were 11 blue korhaan, 70 blue cranes, (both species never seen in these numbers on a single trip by myself in this area before) two crowned cranes (a first sighting in the Standerton area for all of us), two secretary birds (one can never get enough of these stately raptors and can easily loose track of time as the bird struts along looking for prey) and a single southern bald ibis.

So much fun did it turn out while we were doing a bit of worth-while data collecting that SO and I have committed to register our own route with CAR and from January on, to participate as fully-fledged CAR participants.

If YOU would like to know more about CAR, visit their website at

How to Improve your Bird Photography

Words and pix by Bert van Hamersveld

When the lions and other great species decide its time to hide just as the photographer drives past, don’t go into panic mode! We can always count on our feathered friends to be there, eagerly posing to be photographed. But, because they sit in trees, hide among the grass and are generally much smaller then the average cat, they are sometimes more difficult to capture on chip or film.

Is this true?

I don’t think so, and will try to talk you through it with simple, practical photographic methods. You can let the camera do all the “thinking” and set everything on the automatic mode. In general you will get good pictures, but it can be so much more rewarding when you are in control and your pictures will improve.

The place where we would like to be most is Kruger National Park, and birds can be found all over Kruger. And photographic rules for birds in Kruger can be applied for any other part of the world.

Aperture and shutter speed

The most important numbers in the camera to make a good picture: Aperture starts from 2.8 and goes up to 28 or more. (I won’t try to explain what happens; there are more than enough books around for that.?)

For example, take your general starling in any camp in Kruger: easy to photograph because they are used to humans, and can be found anywhere. And you don’t need an extreme telephoto lens because the birds come real close. If such a lovely bird presents itself on a table while we are eating, it’s a piece of cake! But what number (aperture) to use: A SMALL number.

The high numbers (28) have sharpness from very close to very far. One best used for landscapes if you the whole picture (composition) to be sharp and in focus.

But for the starling we should go for 5.6 or 8. We want to get the starling sharp and in focus. But, the people we don’t know sitting at the other table should be out of focus. Why is this?
To make sure that the starling gets the attention of the viewers when seeing your picture.
Therefore it must be the sharp and focused object in the picture. Take a look through a Coffee table book. Most birds (at least the smaller ones) are sharp and the background is blurred.

And the second important factor is the speed:

For myself I have found that from 1/125 of a second the starling is frozen. Meaning that if the bird should move it won’t be noticed, but the higher the number the better.

My camera is always on aperture selection and I always check that I have a low number (8) combined with fast speed.
And while making the picture try to hold the camera steady. Or use a tripod and all methods of built in anti-shake in the camera will do the trick.

The same rules for small number (aperture) can be used when on the roads and seeing a little bird in a bush next to you. Then it’s more important. You don’t want to highlight the bush, but want to draw the attention to the colourful bird in the bush and therefore it’s very important to have the surroundings out of focus and therefore create a blur.


This is the second important factor for a nice starling image. And it doesn’t matter whether the camera is on automatic mode or if you try to play around with aperture, it’s up to you and you are the master in command.

The main feature of all birds is the beaks and you must always try to get that in the picture. And if possible, also try to capture the reflection of daylight in the eye. Most smaller birds have dark eyes and if there is no reflection we speak of a “dead eye”.

If the starling is filling the picture (frame) it doesn’t matter whether the image of the bird is in the middle. You want the viewer to see it in all its glory! But, say for example it is sitting on a chair, and small: don’t put in the middle. We are used to reading and writing from left to right and it comes naturally to us to look from left to right. It’s best then to place the bird either in the left or the right of the frame (picture). The idea behind this is to make a pleasant composition line to follow with the eye till we see the starling sitting on the chair.

And very important:: Try to get a picture from your eye level, meaning that the worst picture you can make is trying to snap the starling from above, pointing the lens down. The great bird becomes a small heap of feathers underneath you without any posture. Try this at home with the cat or dog. Try to do the same with all the other tips and tricks.

Aperture 5.6 and 22:
Then see what happens with the background
Speed 1/60 up to 1/500:
See what happens with the sharpness of the image
From above, at eye level or upwards.

That’s one of the great advantages of the digital age, you can delete the images and it will not cost you any money. A very basic explanation of the general rules of photography.
Note: Click on images to expand.

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