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Friday, 02 February 2007 19:17
Written by Neil Gray

1 February 2007. I spent a very rewarding day yesterday birding in the Wakkerstroom district. Having dipped on the big three specials on my previous visit two years ago, I went again to try my luck with Botha's Lark, Rudd's Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit.

This time, however, I decided to enlist the services of one of the local birding guides - Norman Ncube (cell: +27 82 584 1542). I picked up Norman at 06:30 at the 4-way junction where the Amersfoort-Utrecht road crosses the R543. We headed straight out on the Utrecht road for several kilometres to a spot close to the Mpumalanga/KZN boundary, where we left the bakkie and did some walking into the veld - very wet, as there was a heavy dew and the remnants of a low overnight cloud-base still hanging around. I am not too strong on bird calls, but having played the calls of the three target species over and over the previous evening, I recognised immediately the first Yellow-breasted Pipit call less than a minute after we had started walking. While we were trying to locate the source of the calls we had an excellent view of a flock of Southern Bald Ibis passing overhead en route from their overnight roost out to their foraging fields and could pick out several tiny Wing-snapping Cisticolas in display flight. Several African Pipits and a Common Quail later we flushed a pair of Yellow-breasted Pipit that disappeared rather rapidly and disappointingly over the nearest ridge - I hadn't seen enough to put that lifer tick in my book yet. In the next 15 minutes we probably disturbed 6 or 7 different breeding pairs, until finally one individual hung around long enough for me to get some photos - pushing the camera to its limit. I had to resort to manual focus through the intervening short grass at a full 400mm zoom. (The photo in the Newest Additions Gallery is a straight 640x480 pixel crop from the RAW image - which should the give the camera experts a feel for just how far away the bird was). That was a mini-milestone for me, being bird No. 650 on my southern Africa life-list.

We headed back down the mountain and out into the grassland to search for the larks, picking up on the way into town Buff-streaked Chat, Sentinel Rock-Thrush and Red-throated Wryneck. I seemed to spend most of the day pushing the camera to its limit, nothing wanted to pose only a few metres away, so many of my shots are not as crisply focussed as I would like. However, as many of them (like the three mentioned above) were my first photos of these species, I was happy with what I achieved.

Norman said he knew where we could almost certainly find Botha's Lark, some 15km out of town towards Amersfoort. Along the way we picked up Denham's Bustard (too far off to get a decent photograph), Grey Crowned Crane, a single Banded Martin sitting on a barbed-wire strand with a small flock of Barn Swallows, Red-capped Lark and three Ground Woodpeckers hopping around a derelict kraal (this was another mini-milestone - the 400th entry for my Mpumalanga list). Another walk in the veld quickly turned up three Botha's Larks. We were no more than 5-6 metres from the trio, and it was possible to ID them conclusively even without binoculars, but try as I might the grass was too dense and tussocky to get a photograph.

Off now to Fickland's Pan where Norman assured me that Rudd's Lark was no problem, as he knew the location of a breeding pair. During the short drive we were rewarded with a distant sighting of a pair of Blue Crane with a chick in close attendance. Having arrived at the pan it was obvious that there were a lot of larks about, but these were Spike-heeled Lark with a lot of juveniles in the groups. The pan itself gave me a rare chance to watch Maccoa Duck and a group of 15-20 Crowned Crane on the far side of the pan. Dozens of Amur Falcon were gliding and hovering overhead. Heading for Norman's nesting site I almost literally tripped over a Rudd's Lark. It took off only a metre from my left foot - I really don't know which of us got the bigger fright! It did hang around for its photo opportunity but again the intervening grass almost defeated me. I have put 2 images in the Newest Additions Gallery, but neither shows that distinctive diagnostic white stripe from bill to crown.

Less than 3 hours had elapsed since I picked up Norman in Wakkerstroom, so after discussion of what else I might be interested in, we head towards Dirkiesdorp in search of Barrow's Korhaan. Along the way we had several sightings of White Stork, another Banded Martin, Cape Rock-Thrush, several iridescent male Malachite Sunbirds, yet more Crowned Cranes, and both Steppe and Jackal Buzzards.

Sadly, the Barrow's Korhaan eluded me this time, and I dropped off Norman in Wakkerstroom exactly 5 hours and an impressive 96 species, after I had picked him up. The species count was all the more impressive since we had largely ignored the Wakkerstroom Wetland Reserve.

For anyone considering a birding trip to Wakkerstroom, do yourself a huge favour and hire one of the local guides. Although the "Southern African Birdfinder" points you in the right direction, it would be like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack given the size of those larks and height of the grass, unless you have the constantly updated and intimate knowledge of the local guides to assist you.

Neil Gray

Last Updated ( Thursday, 27 September 2012 11:00 )