(11) Blog Posts Made in October 2015

South Africa

My time in the Western Cape is coming towards the end.  I arrived a week ago to brilliant sunny weather that I went up Table Mountain where I had fantastic views as did hundreds of others.  A Rock Kestrel caught its prey from a steep drive.  The next day was some serious bird watching at Strandfontein with lot of water birds and a Spotted Eagle Owl. It was my first ighting of African Oystercatcher which have mad a come back from the brink of extinction thanks to a French water snail that has colonised the shore line.  In the afternoon I drove around the Cape visiting Cape Point (Souther Right Whales) and Cape of Good Hope.  It was my first sighting of Ostrich as well and of course I stopped at Boulders Bay for Aftican Penguin.  Sunday was the pelagic in a small boat.  I was not sea sick thanks to a pill that kept sending me to sleep though one chap did not last a hour before he turned green!  Anyway about 7 miles south of Cape Point we met a trawler that was finishing processing fish and then took up another catch.  It was a superb experience to see so many birds including 5 types of Albatross.  O the way back we picked up all 4 types of Cormorant and for good measure also added Black-bellied Storm Petrel.  Monday morning I headed for the West Coast National Park and on the way followed the Darling loop.  This was birding paradise with so many species with Blue Crane, Cape Long-billed Lark, Bokmakerie, Cape Bulbul and lots of Karoo Prinia which was to become a common bird.  At the park there were a lot of waders  as as well as Southern Black Korhaan and Black Harrier.  A extension to the Cerebos salt Works for Chesnut-banded Plover proved fruitless as did a stop the following morning after successfully finding 2 Verreaux's Eagles.  It was avery long drive to Karooppoort with roadworks that had a waiting time of around 10 mins.  One way traffic for about 5 kms was the norm at least 3 times on one particular road.  The Karro was warm unlike the coast and I spent ages trying to find Karoo specialists but only succeeded in White-backed Mousebird, Booted eagle, Karoo Chat, Lark Like Bunting, Grey Tit and Namaqua Warbler.  Along drive back to Cape Town and experienced rush hour at Paarl; never to be repeated.  On Wednesday morning met up with the Cape Birding Club at Kirstenbosch for just over 2 hours when they finished and I continued.  The Spotted Eagle Owl was nesting in the courtyard and we could see the top of the chick.  I added Cape Sugarbird and Brimstone Canary to my list.  The afternoon was spent looking for the elusive Knysna Warbler that was heard but not seen so does not get added to the list.  Yesterday I met the committee of the Hermanus Birding Club at Rooiels by chance.  We had excellent views of Cape Rockjumper and Cape Rock Thrush as well as other birds. The next stop was Harold Porter Botanical Gardens with Cape Siskin and Swee Waxbill.  I was shown a back road that was covered in birds including Plain-backed Pipit.  The afrernoon I stood where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans met doing the tourist bit.  Today is my final day here and more birds to find around Agulhas.  My total now stands at 356 species for the trip.


Gibraltar Ringer 2015 - 8

Blue Rock Thrush (juvenile male)

A dismal morning turns rapidly into a great day with good news and a fantastic catch. After the usual light round of Blackcaps and the threat of further showers and strong gusts threatening the safety of the nets, Julia returned with a single bird bag and a very big grin. Blue Rock Thrush - a target bird but very elusive. As the picture shows, the colour of the bird, despite being a juvenile, and length of the bill are both striking. Fortunately it was a male with little of the brown that characterizes females. Carl and my name were in the hat and I had the privilege of ringing the bird. What a perfect end to a great fortnight.

In the middle of the excitement, Richard Seargent texted to say that today he had reached his target of 200 members of the Army Ornithological Society and before he hands over. I know that we’ve all done our bit but great effort Richard!

There are two days remaining but my flight leaves soon and therefore this will be the last blog of the series. We have all benefited hugely from the experience of ringing birds out of our normal environments and with a lot of fun thrown in. Thanks to all my fellow ringers, Mark Cutts, Carl Powell, Julia and Robin Springett and particularly to Julia and Robin for setting up the exped. Lastly, Ann Powell has kept me under control and returning to the UK several pounds heavier. A great team.

The Team


Gibraltar Ringer 2015 - 7

Short-toed Treecreeper

Who asked for a change of weather? It rained all last night and for most of the morning and into the afternoon. The upper slopes have been swathed in dense cloud. As there is no shelter on the slopes and it would take time to empty nets in a hard downpour, the ringing site was abandoned for the day. A couple of nets opened in the garden where we could monitor continuously, caught a new and a retrapped Blackbird. Suppressed excitement!

View from the uppermost nets

Wrestling to make something of the day, admin took priority and a chance to work on some species’ totals. It is without doubt that Blackcaps have once more held pole position and followed by Robins. On different days, other species have topped the list - Blackbirds, Pied flycatchers and Sardinian warblers in the early days, Redstarts in the middle and lately Chiffchaffs. Of the 748 birds processed, 300 have been in the last two days.

The team stay on for another couple of days but my last day’s ringing (weather permitting as storms are due) is on Monday before an afternoon flight out and home via two days with the BTO. Hopefully the final blog comes from Gibraltar airport.


Gibraltar Ringer 2015 - 6

Grasshopper Warbler in typical pose

Two great days of ringing at last! Weather in Spain and then a shift in wind to the East has resulted in a massive fall of birds for which we were unprepared. A high number collected in the first round was a clue, followed by the extraordinary sight of masses of birds in every single net. Now we were seeing chiffs and Willow Warblers that need careful handling and because of their size, were the most tangled. In total 197 birds on Friday. Today started with a gale and glum looks all round and we decided to keep many of the nets closed to avoid damage to the birds but the remainder, in the more protected places on the hill, still managed to catch 140 birds. Stars amongst them were Iberian chiffchaff, Grasshopper warbler, and Dartford warbler.

One of our overlapping diagnostic birds! Suggestions?

Oddly, this fall of passerines was not complemented with a passage of raptors. A Merlin put in an appearance and Ring ousel have so far evaded us. Still no nightjar despite their numbers during the dawn unfurling of nets and the Barbary Partridge have resisted the urge to take flight and be caught. To our discomfort, Jew’s Gate bird observatory have managed to catch Scops again and today caught the first recorded Common crossbill for Gibraltar. Nevertheless we did catch a control - a Blackcap ringed on the north coast of Spain near San Sebastian.

Both of our readers will have noticed that there was no blog last night. Slasher’s run ashore, before meeting up with the rest of the team for supper in the town, was a lapse in judgement and not to be repeated. However, his wife Nicky has now joined us and, less for the rugby this evening, normal service is resumed.


Gibraltar Ringer 2015 - 5


After yesterday’s fall of nightjars we rather expected a repeat today. So much so that we managed to persuade Steve Copsey to get up early and accompany us out to the nets well before dawn. This reasoning was reinforced by the sound of Scops owl calling from the garden during the night and a brisk breeze blowing across the slopes. Despite Jews Gate catching a record 5 Scops in their nets, nothing for us and so it was with relief that the first net round of the day produced a good mix of birds including redstarts and our first Chiffchaff.

The redstart theme continued for most of the morning (total of 6 birds) but usually with juvenile birds and it was mid morning before we caught the first male in full striking adult plumage. Always good to catch several species at the same time as it is one of the few times that plumage can be compared. A total of 54 birds altogether including 9 robins and, oddly considering the habitat and altitude, our second Reed warbler. Probably the best sighting of the day for all of us was a juvenile Cirl bunting and only the second to be seen since 1991. Regrettably no photos!

Comparing juvenile Redstarts

On the admin side, no lasting effects from last night’s chilli, Steve reverts from under command exercise to under command his wife who flew in this morning and Robin has discovered Wavepad - an excellent sound system for tape lures.


South Africa

I have come to the end of my time in Kwa-Zulu Natal where there is no Zulu word for maintenance.  I have been helped by bird clubs and my host whilst I have been visiting.  I am in the humid town of Durban and finished birding In Pigeon Valley where I was early this morning.  At long last I was able to sight the Purple Crested Turaco that I constantly heard on my travels.  I spent all but the last day in Howick; the last person to sleep in my bed was a certain Capt Wales.  I visited many sites nearby including some original Afro-Montain habitat and today Scarp Forest habitat.  Yesterday I was counting Bearded and Cape Vultures at Giant’s Castle.  Endemics seen over the last few days  include Cape Batis, Bush Blackcap, Southern Boubou, Forest Canary, Cape Grassbird, Drakensberg Prinia, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Southern Double-collared Sunbird and Knysna Turaco.  I have had good views of African Harrier-Hawk, Emerald Cuckoo, Long-crested Eagle, Orange Ground Thrush and Dark-backed Weaver; their Afrikaans name translates  as forest musician.  I have heard more birds but as not seen are nor recorded.  An example is the Chorister Robin-Chat which was heard a lot at a farm which had an Open Garden week; the flowers were tremendous.  Quite a few visits were to Game Reserves.  As we were walking down a track my hostess reminded us about Puff Adders on the path and Leopard in the gorge; neither were met but we did walk past an old male Giraffe.   I have managed to see all 3 crane species and have visited a sewage works where a Goliath Heron put on various fly-bys.  I am now at 276 species for the trip as each day adds a few more.


Gibraltar Ringer 2015 - 4

Slasher, Carl and Julia processing

At last some good news and it started as we drove from Bruce’s Farm up to the ringing site. A Red-necked nightjar sat on the road dazzled by the car headlights. An attempt was made to creep up on the bird but at 6 feet away the bird flew. This was followed by close sightings of two further birds and Carl Powell finding yet another sat on the net pole. Here the luck rather runs out as no birds flew into the nets but we now know that they’re back!

Plenty of Pied flycatchers today for which we have managed to sort out the sexing while ageing is not a problem. There are still juvenile birds that we are unable to sex as biometrics often show the characteristics of both sexes but we have grown more comfortable with this. A single Spotted flycatcher was a treat as was the Garden Warbler and sad to say, the Wren. Other than some interesting plumage variations, only a single Sardinian warbler reminded us that we were ringing abroad.

Garden Warbler

Our garden nets newly erected last night have yet to prove their full potential but Slasher is on the job. Starting the Scops owl tape at full volume under my window at 04:45 was less than guaranteed to get a good reception at breakfast but if it catches owls... So far only Blackbirds and Pied fly caught but we have faith.

Steve Copsey’s trip up the Rock confirmed that yesterday’s raptor numbers have dwindled to Kestrels and Sparrowhawks with no migrants but as nothing escapes him, we are pretty sure that the ringing team have missed nothing. Tonight the naval contingent are cooking and giving Ann and Julia the night off. Chilli con carne with a variety of sauces for extra heat. The Andrex is in the fridge!


Gibraltar Ringer 2015 - 3

Carl checking the nets

Never a good thing to believe that conditions can’t get worse because they always do, and today is no exception. This works well for Mark Cutts who, as new ringer on the block, gets all the birds to ring while the A ringers look on. This morning was, less for the heat and the one in two incline, like ringing in a country garden, with blackbird, wren, blackcap and robin first out of the nets. The sardinian warbler rather breaks the illusion but a light shower of rain also helped. While the Springetts, Carl Powell and I all expect the contrariness of a day’s ringing in Gibraltar, Steve Copsey had every right to expect a decent autumn raptor migration. Booted eagles appeared briefly with honey buzzard, common kestrel, goshawk and sparrowhawk but no further signs of lesser kestrel, osprey and short-toed eagle.

An unoccupied Robin Springett is always dangerous and after I had moved the nets a foot to the right of their original position, the constant gardener was away with the loppers and secateurs like Titchmarsh on double Red Bulls. An early return to the accommodation at Bruce’s Farm has allowed us to put up some nets in the garden, principally for Scops Owl but also for any ‘olive tree passerines’ that we can catch during the evening. If Jew’s Gate, a mile away, can catch them, so should we.

The blackbirds continue to cause problems with ageing. So simple in the UK but in Gibraltar the adults are often light grey and with speckled juvenile throat feathers. Nicely square tailed adult tail feathers are complemented by first year contrasts in wing colour. And to top it all, sexing, which is merely deciding how black are the tail feathers, is making us all question our definition of ‘black’.

Steve is still on the hill and has reported back 13 black storks so things might be beginning to move. So yet more prayers tonight for a change in wind direction; contrary to all the forecasts!

Slasher on watch looking after the ringing site


Gibraltar Ringer 2015 - 2

Slasher and Steve have arrived bringing a new dimension to activities on the Rock as well as rain and over-healthy appetites. Beer supplies have been quadrupled. There are now seven of us here in Gib, unfortunately coinciding with a real doldrums in bird activity. The Blackcaps and Sardinian Warblers are still here but the continuing westerly winds have stopped all bird movement at the north side and on the southern site at Jews Gate. But all is not lost as another Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, and Willow Warbler hit the nets. It’s hard to believe that this was our best ringing day two years ago!

One of the benefits of our site on the side of the hill has been being able to watch migration progress below us. It’s the time for Lesser Kestrels and almost on cue, one appeared today as well as a Common Kestrel and Sparrowhawk. With Steve here we should be able to get better photos and at least zoom into the high fliers.

The Macaques have forced us to drop two nets and relocate them elsewhere. We are not here to provide an adventure playground for immature monkeys and that is how they are treating the nets put up for Blue Rock Thrush. Still, it may give us a better chance at Red-necked Nightjar on a different part of the slope.

Praying that the weather changes!


Gibraltar Ringer 2015 - 1

A quiet day in all respects as the bustle of Gibraltar Town can usually be heard from our ringing station perch high on the Rock. A feeling of post rugby blues hung over us and there were few birds to break the gloom. Previous days have seen large numbers of Pied Flycatchers and Blackcaps as the most common birds in the nets but several Redstarts, a Nightingale and many Sardinian Warblers have kept us on a high. A single Short-toed Treecreeper, Garden Warblers and Willow Warblers add to the picture.

The catering team of Ann Powell and Julia Springett have made it increasingly difficult to stagger up the hill but the weather has so far been benign and not scorched us to date. Further nets were added to a particularly steep piece of rock on the northern side yesterday but macaques are taking an unhealthy interest in the nets. The families of adults and very young pass by without trouble but one or two of the juvenile macaques just have to see how far they can get with testing the guy ropes. Typical adolescents.

The Royal Navy arrive tomorrow in the shapes of Mark Cutts and Steve Copsey and we are very much looking forward to seeing them both. Extra rations have been bought!


South Africa

I have a signal once again but I am now in Kwa-Zulu Natal.  I travelled back to Johannesburg once again dipping on the Taita Falcon as the female died and the malehad disappeared.  The next day I visited the Bird Reserve at Marievale.  This desolate spot next to a mine where a gale was blowing introduced me to water birds including Hottentot Teal, Levaillant's Cisticola, a range of Bishops, White-bellied Duck and Marsh Warbler.  The next day was adrive to Wakkerstroom on the border with KZN.  There was time before last light to visit the lakes and reeds after picking up African Darter and Caspian Tern at the lunch stop.  There were South African Cliff Swallows nesting under the bridge.  An African Marsh Harrier swept the reedbeds and a pair of Black-crowned Night Herons were a star with some other birders.  I was more interested in the Long-tailed Widowbird and African Rail.  The next day we went out with a guide named Lucky.  We did quite a few miles on dirt roads but we did see some nice birds including to start with Denham's and White-bellied Bustard.  All 4 Ibises were seen; Hadeda, Sacred, Bald and Glossy.  In addition we saw Botha's, Red-naped, Red-capped, Rudd's, Clapper and Spike-heeled Larks. There were Secretarybird, Blue Khoran, Blue Crane, Grey-crowned Crane, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Cape Longclaw and Ground Woodpecker.  Back at the water I saw Black Crake and African Swamphen.  The birds came thick and fast and it was wonderful weather.  This morning was a quick visit to the water where a Red-chested Flufftail appeared out of the reeds.  It was then a drive south to Howick where a new set of birds awaited including an African Harrier Hawk, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Southern Boubou, Spectacle Weaver and White-rumped Swallow.  I am now at 202 species for the trip and will be leaving at 5.45 to go out for a couple of hours before it gets too hot.  Once again the weather has been kind and Wakkerstroom will be remembered as a birder's paradise.