MICHAEL MILLS – 16 November 2003

(EXCERPTS FROM AN EASTERN SOUTH AFRICA BIRD TRIP)

We headed immediately to the south along the coast of the Indian Ocean, then cut inland to the town of Creighton and the Smithfield Guest House where Malcolm and Gail Gemmell made us very welcome. Malcolm would take us up the Sani Pass to Lesotho the next day, but we had plenty of light left for birding around the Gemmells’ farm area, and took full advantage of it. Just walking a kilometer or so out to the railroad tracks and then along them we had some really fine birds, including Redthroated Wryneck, Blackwinged Plover, Red-chested and Diederik Cuckoos, a family of spectacular Redbilled Woodhoopoes, Fantailed (Zitting) Cisticola, Longtailed Widow and Pintailed Wydah. [Note: It’s well worth going to Malcolm’s website (www.buttonbirding.com) to have a look at some of the birds we saw.]

Day 11 – We were off early in Malcolm’s Jeep Grand Cherokee to brave Sani Pass. (Only 4WD vehicles are allowed to go beyond the South Africa-Lesotho border post up the road to the pass, so our Toyota sedan wouldn’t have made the grade.) Needless to say, we stopped frequently for birding. Malcolm studies the rare and endangered Cape Parrot, but had recently lost track of his “usual suspects,” so he practically dropped his teeth when we came across a small flock of ’em flying into a tree right along the road. And, to put some icing on the cake, there was an immature Palmnut Vulture – rare in South Africa and ‘way out of normal range, visiting the “vulture restaurant” maintained by a local farmer. Once off the paved road, the first big prize was a Bush Blackcap Michael enticed out of the woods for us, and a group of four young Spanish birders doing South Africa on their own, to enjoy. Malcolm knew of a day-roost of a Cape Eagle Owl, and sure enough there he was – snuggled in some bushes under the edge of a road cut to be enjoyed as long as we cared to admire him. About halfway up to the pass, we stopped for a breakfast which almost brought back the days of the Raj. Picture canvas sling chairs set up around a table on a flat spot beside the road, with juice, coffee, cereal, yoghurt, fruit and home-made muffins on offer, and a breathtaking panorama of forbidding cliffs spread out ahead. As if that weren’t enough, we had Gurney’s Sugarbird, Buffstreaked Chat and Streakyheaded Canary right across the road. Grinding our way along in 4WD low-range over a pretty rough and wickedly switchbacked road, we eventually reached the pass at some 9700 feet. We were lucky with the weather as it was clear, not too cold, and only a bit windy. You could see for miles, but finding our target Mountain Pipit on the short grass plains took a bit of time.
When we stopped in at Africa’s Highest Pub for a little something to celebrate the pipit, there were Bald Ibis grazing out back, Ice Rats (cute little rodents which live in the tundra-type soil) doing their thing, and Horus Swifts overhead. On the way back down, we had Sentinel Rockthrushes literally at our feet, a couple Lammergeiers cruising along the escarpment relatively close, and – at the bottom – Barrat’s Warbler in a roadside ravine.
You might think that this would be sufficient excitement for one day, but not if you’re with Malcolm and Michael. Off we went to find ourselves a rare Blackrumped Buttonquail (Turnix nana) and, after crossing and re-crossing a certain slightly brushy field in line abreast, we flushed a couple for a pretty decent look. After that, there was nothing to do but pick up a couple new cisticolas to add to an incredible day’s birding, and head for the barn. Back at the B&B at dusk, Gail asked “How do you like your steak?!”, and topped off the day with a perfect chateaubriand with a green peppercorn sauce, and a sumptuous homemade dessert. Twenty-five lifers, fantastic scenery, superlative company, and fine food all in one day – that’s not too hard to take, folks.

Day 12 – We headed out early to bird some nearby remnant forest, and hit it lucky right from the start with a Longcrested Eagle perched beside the road. With his all-black coloring and crest feathers, this is one mean-looking eagle! Birding from the road inside the forest patch, Michael heard an elusive Orange Thrush. We scrambled down from the road, bushwhacked to where the bird seemed fairly close, and Michael pulled out one of the tricks of the trade. Finding a slightly open area, he set his mini-disc unit on repeat, left it on the ground and came back to join us in waiting to see if the bird would come to investigate this interloper.
After some time, he did, and even sat up on a low branch so we could have a good look. That was a kick! The same tactic also got us a Buffspotted Flufftail, often heard but really hard to see. We returned to the B&B at mid-morning for a nice breakfast, then headed north to Eshowe.