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Stiffnecks Newsletter: Volume1, No 4, August/Sept 2007

04 October 2007

Stiffnecks Newsletter : Volume1, No 4,2007


Dear Stiffnecks,

A recent debate in the birding forums on the SANParks website got me thinking; the debate revolved around the seemingly intense competitiveness among twitchers and how it intimidated the beginner birders. There is no denying that a healthy competitive streak runs through many a twitcher, this most likely adds to the attraction of birding for this enthusiastic group. But a word of encouragement to all the budding twitchers or middle of the road birders: it is your choice, you can enjoy taking the occasional day to sit and spot birds or even only do bird watching of any note while on holiday; you may not know a covert from a crown, but you do love birds. We are all birders, whether our list of bird sightings is 450 or 40, we all thoroughly enjoy spotting birds; they add an extra dimension to our trips into the outdoors, and make us ever aware of just how many facets there are to nature!

For those of you taking your first tentative steps into the world of birding, enjoy the process, learn from nature: there is no hurry, take your time, enjoy every sighting and you will find that over time your knowledge grows along with your confidence. Nothing worthwhile occurs over night. And for the twitchers, (these are the ones who will hop on an aeroplane in an attempt to tick off another lifer), take a moment to welcome a beginner birder into your enthralling world, take him/her under your wing and show them the wonders of birding.

Yours in birding,




Glendower and Honorary Rangers

“Welcome back to the "Summer Migrants" Celebration Day

A Birding Day at the West Coast National Park

Every year, the West Coast National Park plays the willing and delighted host to returning summer migrants, many of which have flown extremely long distances, in some cases from as far away as the Balkans and Russian Steppes. In the category of returning summer migrants, we expect many species of waders, and also of raptors.

In order to publicise and support their return this year, the SANParks Honorary Rangers are hosting a welcome home celebration for these attractive birds that bring so many birders to our Park. This event will be held at the Environmental Centre presentation room at the stables behind the Geelbek homestead on Sunday 14 October 2007 from 10h30. Costs will be R15-00 per adult and R10-00 per child under 12 to cover the cost of the raptor demo in the afternoon. This cost excludes your Park gate entrance fee. A light lunch (boerewors rolls and jaffles) will be served at a nominal cost. Sodas, bottled water, fruit juice, beer and wine will be on sale, and sponsored Glendower whiskey will be available free. Exciting spot prizes will also be drawn at the event.

In the morning at about 11h00, after the opening and welcome, we will be addressed by one of our Honorary Ranger applicants, Heidi Duncan she will run a PowerPoint presentation and discussion on many of the wader species that we can expect to join us this summer. In order to get to see some of these returned waders, the presentation will be followed by guided excursions to the two Geelbek bird hides in time for suitable wader spotting on the incoming tide.

At about 13h00 after lunch, Hank Chalmers from Eagle Encounters at Spier Wine Estate near Somerset West will demonstrate and talk on raptor rehabilitation and conservation in falconry using a live display of raptors, and weather permitting, will fly some of these magnificent birds outside for your interest and pleasure. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about birds of prey, and to see these birds close-up in all their splendor.

So, if you are a birder, or are interested in attending a summer migrant birding day with a difference, please join us on the day. It is essential to book in advance, and this can be done by calling Jenny on 082 804 5539 before the end of September. We cannot guarantee places for guests who call us after this time.

Come and celebrate the return of our waders and raptors this year with us! We look forward to seeing you at Geelbek!

Mike Lodge

Publications Liaison,

SANParks Honorary Rangers

West Coast Region.



In August the Stiffnecks handed over a beautiful new pair of binoculars, generously donated by Bushnell and kindly organized by Muhammad, a Stiffnecks member, to Bishop, a SANParks guide. The hand over was done by Richprins, also Stiffnecks member, who reported that Bishop, who is a keen twitcher, was thrilled with the gift.

Rare and Interesting Bird Sightings

The Pelican Challenge

A number of years ago, a pig farm near Cape Town started feeding their pigs chicken carcasses. These were gutted before feeding and the offal was thrown into a hole in a remote corner of the farm. Before long, various scavenging birds, amongst them the Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus) started eating this regular and nutritious food. Unfortunately, as we all know, most chickens battery-reared today are fed growth hormones, and it is suspected that this has had an effect on these pelicans.

It is postulated that this plentiful supply of hormone-enriched feed caused the pelicans to breed better than is usual, and their offspring went to eat where their parents took them –to the pig farm. Forget that long beak and gular pouch, so ideally suited to bulk fishing in the sea, here were easy pickings, and today, a whole generation of pelicans has grown up with no knowledge of fishing techniques, or even what a fish is, or looks like.

When the authorities finally realised what had happened on the pig farm, they intervened and closed up the offal hole, effectively cutting off the bountiful food supply. After some initial confusion, the birds started looking for alternative food sources, and found that some unpopulated islands in the mouth of the Langebaan lagoon just outside Saldanha Bay had thousands of gannet, cormorant, penguin and gull nests, ripe for easy pickings. These hungry pelicans waddled through the breeding colonies, scaring the resident parent birds away and eating every chick they could find, and in many cases, decimated local populations of endemic sea birds.

The West Coast Honorary Rangers have created a rotating presence on these islands in order to frighten off pelicans whenever they land, but this is a lonely and labour-intensive operation and will not be able to be maintained for long. The pelicans cannot be shot as they are listed as “near-threatened” in the Red Data Book, and anyway, there is no way one can identify an ex-pig farm bird from a normal one at a distance. They cannot be poisoned without serious risk to other life forms. So what is the answer? Scientists at the Avian Demography Unit at UCT are feverishly working on the problem, but in the meantime, our coastal birds are under serious threat. We are hoping that these birds will get the message to stay off the islands, but it remains to be seen if they can still learn to fish like the rest of their kind have evolved to do.

Submitted by Mike Lodge

SANParks Honorary Ranger

West Coast Region

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

Plants for Bird Friendly Gardens

Words by Helga McLeod

One of my favourite bird-attractors is Leonotis leonurus, known as Lion’s tail, lion’s ear or wild dagga. A narcotic it is NOT, but this robust creature has lovely aromatic foliage and the most vibrantly orange to red-orange flowers, a yellow plus a showy white flowered form - making for an irresistible combination to birds (especially sunbirds!), bees and butterflies. This erect 2,5m tall shrub creates a great vertical focus, flowers are great for cutting and parts are used in medicine for headaches, fevers, coughs and other ailments. Water regularly after planting until established - after which they can tolerate a fair amount of drought and also frost. Ensuring excellent drainage, good sunlight and pruning it right down before spring will result in gorgeous displays year after year. Propagate through division, cuttings or seed. Plant some near windows as that allows easy viewing of feathered friends get literally intoxicated on nectar.

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

Bird Identification 101

Words by Deefstes


The two species of Flamingo occurring in southern Africa can be easily separated once a basic familiarity with the birds are established.

As the names suggest the Greater Flamingo is a fair bit bigger than Lesser Flamingo but the most important feature by which these two species can be separated is the shape and the colour of the bill. I will return to the shape of the bill at the end of the article but in terms of colour the Lesser Flamingo has a significantly darker bill than the Greater Flamingo. In fact, the pink bill with black tip of the Greater Flamingo is replaced by a dark red bill with black tip on the Lesser Flamingo. In fact, when not seen from close range, the bill of the Lesser Flamingo often appears black all over.

The Greater Flamingo is generally lighter in colour than the Lesser Flamingo and not only in terms of the bill colour. Overall, the Greater Flamingo is essentially a white bird with traces of pink while the Lesser Flamingo is a pink bird with traces of red.

One aspect where the Greater Flamingo is actually darker than the Lesser Flamingo is the colour of the underwing coverts which is dark pink to red on the Greater Flamingo as opposed to light pink to white on the Lesser Flamingo.

The challenge comes with identifying juveniles of these two species but the rule of thumb that Greater Flamingo is lighter than Lesser Flamingo still applies. The juveniles are grey and brown in colour but the Lesser Flamingo juvenile is much darker than the Greater Flamingo. Also the bill of the juvenile Lesser Flamingo is darker than that of the juvenile Greater Flamingo.

It may not be immediately apparent but on inspection it can be seen that there is a significant difference in the structure of the bills of these two species. It is a good idea to be familiarised with this feature as it can make an ID quite easy. The best way to appreciate this difference is by looking at the location of the cutting edge (where the upper and lower mandible meet) of the bill when viewing the bird sidelong.

On Greater Flamingo, if an imaginary line is drawn down the middle of the bill from gape to bill tip, the cutting edge will be only slightly above this line. On Lesser Flamingo the cutting edge stretches from the gape to the upper edge of the bill where the upper mandible bends down. From there the cutting edge more or less follows the upper curve of the bill meaning that very little of the upper mandible can actually be seen. Most of what is seen of the Lesser Flamingo bill when viewed sidelong is the lower mandible.

Note: collect these bird pages and compile a bird guide

Birding with a Twitcher:

Words by SP

Let me first make mention before I continue with my experiences in birding with a twitcher, that my dad was a twitcher so thankfully I had the ground rules regarding the do’s and do not’s in the presence of a twitcher twitching… No noise (breathe only when necessary). No sudden movements (even if that bee looks set to land on your nose! Take one for the team ok?). No bathroom breaks (where they have dragged you to has no ablution facilities anyway and copping a squat may just make too much noise for their liking). Do not touch the binoculars (especially if you tried to use said binnys to discourage the bee OR they happened to be in the way when trying to cop that squat…). Touch the pencil and notebook at your own peril (heaven forbid the pencil nib breaks). Always pay attention (did you see if it was a red bill or a yellow bill? What color legs? Did it have a pronounced this or that? And may Zeus himself help you if you can’t answer at least one of the above questions).

Unfortunately I did not have my own list when my dad was still around and when he died and I considered continuing, the task seemed daunting. Do I tick the birds I had seen with him or do I start from scratch and tick the Indian Myna in the back garden? So I kept procrastinating and never did make the decision. That is, until recently whereby I decided that I would start my list from scratch. Never mind the Egyptian Vulture I was lucky enough to see or the migration of the Steppe Eagle that I was lucky enough to happen upon. Nope. I would start with the one legged Indian Myna on the back wall.

First things first, I need a book. Ask too many people and they give you too many options. So I opted for the one that I thought the pictures looked most detailed. (I will not divulge which one for fear that thousands will put me off it). Next? Well there is no next is there? Just start. Ok, easier said then done. It’s like dropping off a Census Controller in the middle of Johannesburg and telling him, “Off you go, start counting”. So I did what anybody would have done. I walked outside and looked in the trees. Oh yes, that’s what I did. My dad was somersaulting in his grave I’m sure, but there was Novice I scanning the branches, armed with my book and a pair of binnys. I was on my way. I mean really? LBJ’s are the most difficult of all birds to ID. After about 5 minutes (it felt like an hour) I went back inside completely deflated. I phoned a twitcher (yes they do actually answer their phones) and was assured that we all have to start somewhere. The patient twitcher (I can say patient with confidence as it has been tried and tested time and time again thanks to yours truly) would take me places and I would see birds to my heart’s content. Righto! So I ended the call feeling a lot more confident.

But now I have a hobby that I haven’t really started but want to get going. Aha! Zoo Lake! There I went. Arrived armed with all the bird watching paraphernalia, almost like a zealot on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem or a new mom taking her baby out for the first time. I know I’ve been there. You plan a shopping trip for bread and milk and take a nappy bag so full you could change all the babies in the center and still have left over nappies for that “emergency”. I had so much in my hands that when I did encounter a bird I had to put this there put that down and take this off. Remove that and place this over there that when I was finally armed with binnys at the eyes the bird had either migrated to Europe and arrived safely or died of old age. Long gone. Very embarrassing really, especially when you have the local populace watching with abject fascination. Birding on your own is also a bit difficult. Between holding the binnys, making sure you keep an eyeball on the bird (darn their feathered wings that they use so regularly and always at ID moment) and trying to page through your book is no easy feat. I suggest a free pair of arms with every bird book purchased. I did however tick a few birds that day, the Maccoa Duck, White Faced Duck, Common Moorhen and of course, the Egyptian Goose. Not too bad for somebody who had an armload of birding ammo, a four year olds takkies and socks and a half eaten ice cream that I think belonged to her. At least I hope it did.

I was a birder! And I was going places!

To be continued:

Takeaway for Twitchers

Words by Gwendolen

I have recently been asked to participate in a twitching expedition. The goal of this avian adventure is to find the elusive Pel’s Fishing Owl. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my twitching ability that got me in the team. I have seen a Pel’s Fishing Owl before, but only after the wonderful and extremely patient guides, Lourens and Julius, kept pointing it out to me.

No, I’m pretty sure my endless comments about food have something to do with it. The job description states chef extraordinaire. Très chic way to say cook. Now, I know twitching is not for sissies. You need to get up at the crack of dawn and then travel for miles on end, before finally arriving at a location, hoping to catch a glimpse of the latest rarity. The last thing you want to do is scare the poor birdie away with stomach percussion. So my job is to ensure this won’t happen.

I’ll be testing a series of combinations I came across looking for wraps and sandwiches suitable for vegemites. Yes, half the team consists of vegetarians, although nothing will come between me and my avocado-biltong sarmie.

Soundproof bites

Cheese, honey and marmite

Marmite, peanut butter and honey.

Avocado, tomato, Camembert, basil and pepper

Brie and mango chutney

Goat cheese with roasted peppers

Happy twitching!

Compare and Contrast

White-headed Lapwing (Plover) (Vanellus albices)

Description: size: 29-31cm. Has distinctive, long yellow wattles and yellow legs.

Habitat: Frequents the sandy river banks of large rivers as well as island of these rivers and can be found along pools after heavy rains.

Status: locally common

Distribution: Found mostly along the larger rivers of Southern Africa.

Feeding Habits: Feeds on insects, little fish and frogs, molluscs and worms.


Three-banded Plover (Charadrius dubius)

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