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Berg-en-Dal REport: Big Bird Day 2007

26 April 2007

Background: West Rand Honorary Rangers Big Bird Day 2007

For the 9th consecutive year the Honorary Rangers West Rand Branch hosted the Kruger Birding Day in the last weekend in January and the first in February.

The demand for this event is such that it now involves 16 of the rest camps as bases and as indicated above has now been extended to include a second weekend at some of the more popular destinations and to include a couple of the smaller bush camps that surrendered the use of their vehicles and guides during the first weekend.

The number of public participants was over 600, plus the organising Honorary Rangers, SANParks staff and other invited experts.  This is a tremendous growth from the inaugural year back in 1999 where 150 people took part in just 5 camps.  The event can now lay justifiable claims to being an institution on the South African Birding calendar.

As always a big thank you must go to the sponsors who help make this event possible.  SASOL continues to be the premier sponsor, but the number of support sponsors has grown considerably.

Berg-en-Dal Big Bird Day 2007

Participants at Berg-en-Dal arrived at various times on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, but formalities began on the Friday evening when all gathered in the boma area behind the conference centre.  After a hearty meal and some ice-breaking bird games, serious birding for the weekend kicked off with a night drive at around 20h00.  For the vehicle I was on, the 25 km Majulu Loop proved a productive drive for night birds.  Both thick-knees, a couple of nightjars and several owls were recorded.  Spotted Eagle-Owl was the most common, while calling African Scops-Owl and Pearl-spotted Owlet, and nice sightings of Barn Owl and White-faced Scops-Owl provided a wonderful supporting cast.

Slightly later than most other camps the participants gathered in the reception parking lot at 04h00 on Saturday and set off on their drives.  The 3 trucks soon separated and on comparing notes later all struggled early on.  One of Berg-en-Dal’s shortcomings is the limited access to water points.  The camp’s Mutjulu Spruit Dam is one of the few, but on the drive, until visiting the Crocodile River Bridge at Malelane Gate later in the morning, the only real water point is at Biyamiti Weir.  And so it was in that general direction that we headed.

As the sun rose higher the bird list started to grow.  Many of the bushveld favourites such bee-eaters, rollers, hornbills and kingfishers were seen.  A few ‘brown eagles’ provided the usual test.  Wahlberg’s, Lesser Spotted and Tawny were positively identified, while an almost pure white immature Martial Eagle was certainly the most regal looking of the day’s birds.

When we finally got to Biyamiti Weir, it didn’t disappoint.  Apart from crakes, jacanas and three-banded plovers, on the western side about 20 m from the road a beautiful female Greater Painted Snipe, uncharacteristically bold and out in the open was arguably the morning’s highlight.  For readers unfamiliar with this bird it is one of the few birds where the female is more resplendent than the male.  Feeling content after this wonderful sighting, but beginning to feel pangs of hunger, we headed towards Afsaal Picnic Site (some 20 km away) to have drinks, snacks and a stretch of the limbs.

Along the way the strident call of Stierling’s Wren Warbler and a roadside juvenile African Harrier Hawk were exciting additions for the list.

At Afsaal Yellow-breasted Apalis was one of the new ticks, and it was almost comical to watch about 20 people craning skyward with binoculars pressed to their eyes as this busy little bird moved about the picnic site canopy.  However the two roosting African Scops-Owls also got a solid binocular and camera work over by most of the participants.

Heading back to camp the trucks stopped to examine some slumbering white rhino not far south of the picnic site.  It was here the day before that several of the participants encountered a black rhino cow and calf and perhaps more pertinently for a birding weekend, a party of the enigmatic Temminck’s Courser. 

On the bridge over the Matjulu riverbed on the main tar about 3km from Malelane Gate was an unexpected bird for Kruger – a Steppe Buzzard perched lazily in a riverine tree.  This is not an easy bird to see inside the park.

Although thoughts of afternoon Siesta were high on the mind of many as the oppressive noon day heat approached, there was one last important hoorah on the morning’s drive – namely a visit to Malelane Bridge, just the other side of the park entry gate.  Ducks, cormorants and herons were added to a list noticeably shy of waterbirds. 

Some participants elected to go on an evening drive to Steilberg Hill.  Others elected to stay in camp.  The camp side Matjulu Dam proved good value as the sun descended.  Weavers, wagtails and waders all swelled the list, but an immature Black-crowned Night Heron was a good find.

The participants once again gathered at the boma area for a well deserved feast at the end of a long day.  The prize giving was popular too and virtually all involved received a gift, some of which were most worthwhile, such as complimentary weekends.

Birding inside Berg-en-Dal like most camps is highly productive.  A walk around camp on Sunday morning was the most effective way to swell the list before having to hand in the checklists mid morning. 

Heading up to gate one encounters a different habitat to other parts of camp.  It is drier here and borders hillside grassland on the other side of the fence.  A flappet lark entertained us with its diagnostic display flight high above the ground.  Bronze Mannikin was also seen near the gate.

Turning round and heading back towards the dam produced Terrestrial Bulbul and Sombre Greenbul, Kurrichane Thrush, Green-backed Camaroptera, White-throated and White-browed Robin-Chat and Willow Warbler.  A distinctive tick … tick … tick from thick foliage was a give-away to a lurking Marsh Warbler.  All four common bushveld woodpeckers (Bearded, Cardinal, Bennett’s, Golden-tailed) were found in camp and Southern Boubou brought the shrike total for the weekend to 10.

However there were some gapping holes in my personal list for the weekend.  Flycatcher and sunbird variety and numbers were poorer than usual and one cuckoo (Le Valliant’s) heard or seen over the entire weekend was just bizzarre.  Is this a sign of global warming affecting migration patterns or breeding behaviour?  Is it drought related as it has been a particularly dry summer?  Is it a park phenomenon; a country-wide occurrence or is it unique to Berg-en-Dal.  It will be interesting to compare it to other camps and previous years when all the data is finally in.

In conclusion, my special thanks to Honorary Rangers Sakkie, Kendel and Jeanette and for the camp staff, especially the drivers and guides for all their hard work and time.  These weekends are always a win and SANParks is greatly indebted to the dedication and reliability of the West Rand Honorary Rangers.

Chris Patton

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