Our team, 'Die Trekvoëls', consisted of Mark and Julia Friskin, Dudley Pound, and myself. Dudley picked me up twenty to three the morning, then picked up Mark and Julia, and we were at the Polokwane Game Reserve at three. We had brought powerful torches, and soon spotted our first birds of the day – nightjars – resting in the road! It was very difficult to ID them like that, though, since externally they are very similar to each other. Two species are common in the reserve – Fiery-necked and Rufous-cheeked Nightjars. It doesn't help much … both species have reddish feathers around their neck and cheek region! So I tried to sneak up on a nightjar to catch it, as it sat in the road, while Mark shone a light on it. If I could get it in hand, we could ID it by the particular pattern of white patches on the wing and tail feathers. I almost succeeded in catching one … I got almost within grabbing distance of it, but then it flew off! But I got a great look at it, and a lovely thing it is, with its complex but highly camouflaging feather patterns.
The night drive give us some great sightings other than birds. We found antelopes resting for the night, and got quite close to a spectacular eland. We also spotted a small, round thing moving with a shuffling gait – a little hedgehog! It's the first time in many years I've seen one, and actually the first one I see 'in the wild' – the others have been garden visitors. It was a very cute one and we got a great look at it.
We headed for a big rock outcrop in the reserve, a great spot for hearing night birds and catching the dawn chorus. Other teams were also in the reserve and we met them and chatted. With their help as well as hearing birds calling, we ID'd the nightjars as being both the rufouscheeked and the fierynecked. It was lovely to hear them calling. We heard some birds anticipating the dawn – rufousnaped larks were calling even in the dead of night! I might explain here that for the Birding Big Day, we were allowed to record birds even if we just heard them. But for any ID, three of the four team members had to be in agreement about it. So lots of ID's involved us speaking together to come to a consensus. Mark and Dudley also had pads with a program with the calls of Southern African birds, which we used in any cases where we needed to confirm an ID based on a call.
I cursed myself on the hill … we've been having a heatwave over here and I thought some cool weather would be great … we had clouds and a bit of rain the day before … and I dressed in shorts and a T-shirt and sandals. It turned out to be a very cold and windy day. I thought I was going to die in the cold up there! I was shivering so hard I couldn't hold the binoculars still and my teeth were chattering so hard I couldn't speak properly to my team members even if I had managed to ID'd anything. But I sorta adapted as the day went on and I hope I didn't let them down too badly!
It was not a dark night and the dawn broke quite early, it being mid-Summer after all, cold weather in spite. Getting several more early birds up on the rock, we then drove through the reserve and got many more. An interesting sighting was a brown-backed honeybird (a species of honeyguide). Initially we all thought it was a flycatcher, unable to agree whether a Marico or a Spotted, but then it opened its mouth and obligingly let out a call! I immediately realized it was a honeyguide, their calls being distinctive, and Mark quickly got it on his bird call program, and when he played it back, we all immediately agreed. It is not at all a common bird to see! Another great sighting for all of us was a tiny but gorgeous little pygmy kingfisher.
We were at over 70 bird species already when we left the reserve. We dropped by the Golf Club, where we got several more birds, including a Malachite Kingfisher, another little beauty! It was a day for kingfishers, with us even hearing the call of a Woodland Kingfisher, not at all a usual species locally.
Next was a patch of 'veld' next to the Stadium stretching to some retirement complexes, where we got a bunch of small savannah birds as well as some dikkops who were nesting there … but we'd recorded them by call in the reserve already.
From there we headed north to some farms a bit outside of Polokwane. First was BBB, a cattle farm with some nice constructed ponds. It was a very fruitful stop! On a dam not particularly large, there were huge numbers of waterbirds. Most amazing of all was a garthering of Comb Ducks or Knobbilled Ducks, larger than I would have believed possible. Up to then I'd only seen the species singly or in pairs, and I still regard it as a rare species in South Africa – it is one I don't see regularly at all, many years prior to this having gone by without my seeing a single one. Here, there were HUNDREDS of them! My friends think I'm exaggerating but even they concede there must have been more than a hundred. I'd say three hundred at least – it was incredible. We got more species of ducks and other birds of the water and waterside, including an unexpected and cute little Kittlitz's Plover.
From BBB we went to a Vencor farm where cattle are slaughtered. It sounds (and smelled!) nasty but the 'refuse' attracts large numbers of vultures and other scavenging birds. There we saw Cape and White-backed Vultures. Vultures are having a rough time in South Africa an indeed in the rest of the world, but at least at this farm, there was lots of food and quite a few of them managing to subsist.
Storks are also attracted to the farm, such as the expected scavenging marabou storks, but we also found a large flock of Abdim's Storks, and also some White storks.
From Vencor we next headed to the Polokwane Bird Sanctuary. Only one of the ponds had water in it this time, but we did find a few of the birds we were seeking, such as Cape Sedge Warblers (identified by call), Black Crakes, and beautiful White-fronted Bee-Eaters.
From there we hit the big road, going well beyond Polokwane to the Turfloop Nature Reserve, close to the University of Limpopo. The reserve is based around a large dam that had quite a lot of water in it in spite of the drought. There we found vast numbers of Red-Knobbed Coots. Amidst the coots Mark and Julia (Dudley stayed in the car as we plodded along the margins of the lake) swore they saw a Dabchick, but I couldn't find it and so we were unable to add it to the list! But we did all see, along with the coots, a Greater Flamingo (which Mark kept calling a pelican, infecting even me so I was later talking about a pelican too), some lovely little Hottentot Teals, and a single Glossy Ibis.
In many places we saw vast numbers of Sacred Ibises too! I'm happy because as I've mentioned in my Sacred Ibis 'Colours of Wildlife' article, it's been a while since I've seen them … this time there were hundreds of them. Clearly the species is doing all right. We encountered Hadeda Ibises as well. Only missing this time were the Bald Ibises which we hoped to catch at Turfloop – they sometimes perch along the lake or on the central rocky island, but not this time.
I can't remember exactly where, but another lovely sighting, not birds, was a couple of Yellow Mongooses. We came close to them and they appeared utterly relaxed. They were scratching themselves, licking their fur, and playfully rolling in the dust. We saw some slender mongooses as well, which were much more furtive, and something else I'll mention later. Though mammals weren't our interest on this day, we saw many, including giraffes (even some babies!), impalas, kudus, tsessebes, wildebeests, hartebeests and some steenbokkies.
We were way behind schedule leaving the Turfloop Nature Reserve. From there we were off to Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge, a region of hills with some of the northern parts of the great forests of the Magoebaskloof-Duiwelskloof region. We didn't stay very long; we got some birds on their calls, including a robin and a Narina Trogon that answered when Mark played some of their calls on his pad! We could have got more birds, but we were already near our goal of 150 species. From there we drove to the Magoebaskloof region, specifically targeting the Magoebaskloof Dam. On the road we spotted a Longcrested Eagle, perched on a pole with its floppy crest drooping over its head. This eagle didn't seem to mind the cold, misty, dreary weather much, and it was a fine sighting. At the dam we didn't see much, not the forest wagtails we were hoping for, but we got some canaries and a few other things. My team members all were certain they'd heard a Purplecrested Turaco; I was equally sure that the call they'd heard was a Black Cuckoo. But because three votes carried the matter, the turaco was put down on the list.
From the dam we headed back to Polokwane by way of Duiwelskloof. We had hit our target, indeed we'd exceeded it, ID'ing 152 species of birds! And as luck would have it … a lovely Purplecrested Turaco flew over the road right in front of our car, displaying itself so well that all four of us instantly saw and recognized it! So the call ID was mooted by this visual ID all four of us agreed on.
It was getting dark, indeed had been quite dark the whole day, but now the sun was setting as we were getting back to Polokwane, and it was much too late to enter the reserve again as we had initially planned, but we thought we might try for a final few more birds by heading back beyond the game reserve towards the silicon mine. We did find some nightjars flying around the road, but no owls as we had hoped for. HOWEVER … as we were driving back past the reserve we saw an unusual mammal, Dudley even driving off the road to keep it in the car's headlights. It was trotting along and Dudley first thought it was a Civet. But it was smaller and didn't have the spots and stripes a civet's coat is decorated with. I recognized it, it was a White-tailed Mongoose! This species is poorly known, infrequently seen, and I've not seen a good photograph of it yet! In fact I'd never seen it before and didn't even know it occurred in our region. The white-tailed is the largest of the local mongoose species, the size of a large cat, and trotting along with its large white tail (which in this one's case was a bit soil-stained) usually raised high and its fur fluffed out a bit, is quite an imposing-looking species. We followed the mongoose until it disappeared into the bushes along the road. For me and Dudley this was surely a high point of the excursion; I am now inspired to paint it and to use it for an article!
So: with a tally of 152 species, we were very happy with our day's birding. Indeed with the weather being what it was we did great, I think. We had missed several species because of the need for three confirmations, which were only seen and agreed on by one or two of us. The 'pro'-teams such as Joe's and Richter's, which were aiming for over 300 species, must have had a tough time indeed, but I'm hoping they too did in spite of the weather manage all right! It's a special day to me, as it's the most birds I've identified in a single day, since my previous Birding Big Day in 1988.