Thursday, March 22, 2012

Finding the roseate tern

This article was written on July 7, 2005.

A bar-throated apalis

NO birder worth his or her salt can happily live in Port Elizabeth without eventually trying to track down the elusive roseate tern.

But in order to see this lovely bird you either have to defy restrictions and make your way to the breeding grounds on Bird Island or the other islands in Algoa Bay, or chance your luck at that most undervalued of geographical locations, Cape Recife.

The winter of 2005 was something of a birding renaissance for Luke and me.

After a brisk, almost obsessive start to our amateur bird-watching careers, our interest gradually waned, as Luke proceeded through the higher primary standards and then into high school. He found he had increasingly less free time and, what with computer games, sport, music and so on, his interest, while still strong, was not readily acted upon. Also, as he said to me so often, what was the point of going to our same old places again, since we had seen most of the birds we were likely to see anyway.

And of course he was right. While we had committed ourselves to try to travel more widely within South Africa in order to expand the bird-watching possibilities in the future, practically speaking this could happen only occasionally. In the interim, we’d have to make the best of what was on offer locally.

So it was that during the winter school holidays of 2005, Luke and I returned, first, to our happy hunting ground in Settlers Park. After an absence of a couple of years, it was like coming home. I felt like a kid exploring an old play area. Every nook and cranny, thicket and stream, seemed familiar. The few changes that had occurred in the interim were also obvious.

Being mid-winter, we did not expect to be too richly rewarded as we set out around 8am down the jeep track. The eastern bank of the valley was still in cool shade as we scanned the bushy central part of the park. Black and greater doubled-collared sunbirds were the first to catch our eye.

We headed up onto the contour path, where ring-barking has left a graveyard of tall, dead bluegums, so often the source of the regular tap-tapping of the olive woodpecker. Growing up between the dead exotics are a new generation of indigenous replacements, including yellowwood and Cape ash.

Our first sighting, little more than an arm’s length away, was of a soft-as-down bar-throated apalis. It seemed to have puffed up its body, probably against the cold.

We passed an area where, several years earlier, we had a remarkable sighting of a wood owl. We had seen the owl, in broad daylight, being harried from its perch in dense forest by a veritable army of anti-raptors, including olive thrushes, forktailed drongos, Cape robins, Cape and sombre bulbuls and even Knysna louries. It was an amazing sight.

This time, though, all was quiet. Back down in the valley, Luke thought he saw a tambourine dove, but it was only a fleeting glimpse as he noted the chestnut colouring under its wings. We meandered among the clumps of thicket which characterise the park, hoping for something special to come our way. The usual customers, Cape white-eyes and speckled mousebirds, were there in abundance, but nothing to make a lasting impression – until we got right down to the river. First the flashes of blue-green of a group of louries, frolicking among the branches of a large, leafless, grey-white tree, gave us something to celebrate. A couple even flew our way, settling in corral tree branches just above us, before flying off again, their scarlet wings disappearing between the tops of tall reeds and overhanging leafy-green boughs.

Running our eyes along the edge of the reeds, we recalled a few years back having seen a mother rednecked francolin leading a group of chicks along the grass before darting back into the safety of the reeds. This time there was nothing on the ground – but on a dry branch on the steep opposite bank of the river, we saw majesty personified – or rather birdified.

The African darter has an unsettling similarity to a snake, which is probably why its Afrikaans name is slanghalsvoel, snake-neck bird. Anyway, this fellow, all 80cm of him, was sleek and shiny black. With a long egret-like neck it cannot be mistaken for a cormorant. I had seen a darter at the reclamation ponds at Cape Recife a few years earlier, swimming along with just its neck and head protruding and looking most disturbingly snakelike.

This time, however, the bird was in repose, sunning itself. We were able to admire that long brown and black neck, with a line of white down its length, together with its strikingly long, pointed bill. Every now and then it would open its wings. The streaking on the neck reminded me of our sighting of a little bittern at Dodds Farm, also several years back, one of our most memorable experiences.

Eventually, this giant of a bird harnessed his energy and swooped off on broad wings to another resting spot further down the river. Shortly afterwards, Luke heard, spotted and identified a half-collared kingfisher. Only once he alerted me to it did the call of the bird even register. Which just shows how on the ball you have to be to all possibilities.

We journeyed on, taking a path running parallel to the river for a couple of hundred metres, and were rewarded with a cluster of small (9cm) bundles of energy. As I battled again to come up with the name, after such a long break, Luke immediately provided the answer: bronze mannikins. A cursory glance at the relevant page in the Sasol Birds of Southern Africa field guide provokes a sobering thought. On the same page as the bronze mannikin I have yet to see the redbacked mannikin, pied mannikin, cut-throat (ouch!) finch, red-headed finch or scaly-feathered finch. And that’s just that page. All these lifers still to get. Phew!

Klaas's cuckoo

Anyway, if you start young enough, chances are you could indeed get to see them all. But I doubt it. Nevertheless, Luke and I reached a little weir on the river under tall, again dead, exotic trees, which had provided us with plentiful birdlife in the past. This time was no different. And for a change I was the one to spot the bird first – but, as usual, Luke was the one to identify it. I had noted the suggestion of a white breast and green upper plumage, but the bird was high up and partly obscured, so I didn’t even want to hazard a guess. However, a Klaas’s cuckoo is was, another of my personal favourites, although on this occasion so far up it was difficult to get a decent view of the fellow. But oh to see a barred or an emerald cuckoo – both on the same page as the Klaas’s and Diederik versions, which we’d encountered fairly often.

We’d seen several of the quite common Cape weavers on our walk, but it was Luke again who spotted a rather plump-looking fellow with a heavily brown-streaked breast, clutching a berry in its outsized bill. As usual, I was at a total loss as to its identity. Not Luke, though. We had seen the thickbilled weaver male, with his distinctive dark brown body and white patch on the forehead, several times before. But this, declared Luke, was the female of the species. A quick look at the picture in the bird book confirmed his suspicions one hundred percent.

I would personally like to increase the “lifer” definition to include all variations on a theme. To me a female should be considered a separate sighting to a male, when they are often so totally different in appearance. Likewise, when it comes to juveniles or sub-adults, or birds that are in breeding or non-breeding plumage, or somewhere in between. There are so many variables, each sent to challenge us dumb humans.

The top Cape Recife reclamation pond

The truth of that observation about bird variations was underlined a few days later when Luke and I set out, again around 8am, for Cape Recife.

Fears that this unique area may be destroyed by over-commercialisation through the Madiba Bay project arose again as we wandered along the path cut through a combination of exotic rooikrans (much of it cut out and lying dead, covered with creepers) and indigenous coastal flora.

The call of the southern boubou has been with me since I could first hear sounds of any sort. Indeed, as Luke’s cousin Dylan first told us, it has many calls, often done in duets between the male and the female. This time, Luke and I watched through our binoculars as, unusually exposed on a branch, a boubou let out its call in the crisp morning air. It was another “lifer” – watching the southern boubou in full cry.

A little further on we saw several other birds sending their songs into the air, including a bar-throated apalis and a Karoo prinia.

Reaching the swampy reed border of the lower reclamation pond, our first sighting of note was of a greenbacked bleating warbler, its call (recognised instantly by Luke) giving it away. Further on, we heard the distinctive Cape robin-like call of the Cape reed warbler and the sound, like a train speeding up, of the African sedge warbler – neither of them seen, but identified through their calls.

The good news which greeted us when we reached the upper pond was that the weevils had done their job. Whereas, the lake was more like a flat, green football field, covered with an invasive hyacinth, when last we visited several years earlier, now it was back to its pristine best – and home to a lovely array of water birds. Perhaps the most pleasant sighting was a group of about two dozen dabchicks, those diminutive (for a grebe) birds which seem permanently to remain small and cute. Though they are 23cm to 29cm long, compared to most water birds this is small, and they are usually only ever seen far out on the water, trailing around like a family of goslings that have lost their mother goose.

As we walked along the bank, a group of about six red-knobbed coots scurried out of the nearby reeds, joining another group of yellow-billed ducks further from the shore. A personal favourite, the grey-headed South African shelduck, was not to be seen this time, however. Neither was the purple heron we had encountered here previously, nor for that matter the purple gallinule. However, we did see a grey heron fly overhead, as well as several little egrets.

Venturing along the track between the upper and lower reclamation ponds, we reached a point where previously we had spotted the spectacularly beautiful whitebacked night heron. We even brought Dylan back months later to show him, and the pair were still there. But the exotic trees on which they were perched that time had subsequently been cut down. Hopefully, something indigenous will replace them.

To our relief, we also did not encounter any snakes, unlike a few years earlier when a puffadder had crossed that road about a dozen metres ahead of us. We had watched it, looking ominously large through the binoculars, as it slithered off into the reeds, where tasty morels no doubt abounded.

Anyway, it was about this time, with my thoughts wandering, that we became aware of a dogfight in the sky above us, as kelp gulls wailed and flailed in anger at the presence of a raptor, which again initially defied description. But we were getting wiser. Or Luke was. This, on close observation through the field glasses, was a sub-adult African fish eagle, he assured me. I didn’t argue.

A view from the bird hide at the lower pond

Retracing our footsteps, we then headed for the bird hide beside the lower pond. Opening the observation flaps, we were disappointed at the paltry pair of Egyptian geese and a couple of red-billed teal on the water. We decided to stick around and see what turned up. We didn’t have long to wait before Luke spotted it, cruising just above the reeds: another raptor. When agonising over the fish eagle earlier, he had already mentioned the harrier possibility. Well, after again consulting the bird book and watching this bird closely, with its creamy head and leading edge on the wings, along with a bar across its breast, not to mention the way it indeed harried its prey in the reeds below, we – or Luke – came to the conclusion it was an African marsh harrier.

The African marsh harrier

Imperious, a lone ranger out on a deadly mission, this was one of the great, ancient dramas of the African wilderness unfolding before our eyes. But it was to be repeated in even more spectacular fashion soon afterwards. After enjoying a short but ever-so-rewarding sighting of a common moorhen, with its matt black back and bright red face-shield before it disappeared back among the reeds, Luke and I closed the flaps (Luke narrowly missing an encounter with a rather large spider) and headed towards the seaside, just a couple of hundred metres away.

Terns and gulls on the shore near the point at Cape Recife

Kelp gulls frequent both the sea and freshwater areas, their calls like no other capturing the mood of the shoreline. On our walk towards the lighthouse, they were joined in the sky by grey-headed gulls, while on the sand we spotted a trio of white-fronted plovers. Half a dozen black oyster catchers, a whimbrel and a pair of ruddy turnstones (in non-breeding plumage) kept us entertained. But it was again a raptor that would enthral us.

A rock kestrel

When I first spotted it, it was like watching an aircraft approaching – but one that somehow seemed never to get closer. How the common (or rock) kestrel manages to stay aloft in a light sea breeze without flapping a wing is amazing. How it manages to keep absolutely still in the air is a miracle of avian aviation. This fellow hovered about five metres above the low dunes, occasionally moving upwind before relaxing and falling back to its original position. We watched it for some 10 minutes, and were about to head on when it suddenly pulled in its wings and plummeted into the vegetation. Seconds later it was up in the air again, a lizard hanging from its talons. Then, still keeping aloft through minute adjustments to the angle of its wings, we watched as it devoured its prey in a few mouthfuls. Awesome! Many have spoken of how thrilling it is to see Africa’s great mammal predators – leopards, lions and so on – in action. Yet, I would contend that the drama of the raptor hunting – and eating – on the wing, is every bit as spectacular. Even if the bird in question is a mere 30 to 33cm in size.

But enough of this musing. It was high tide, and Luke and I were a little disappointed, since the large expanse of rocky shoreline normally found at low tide was covered in water. This meant less likelihood of spotting birds ferreting for food. That was the down-side. We discovered the up-side when we walked past the black-and-white-striped Cape Recife lighthouse, and the rocky outcrops at the very tip of the peninsula came into view.

First, focusing on a ship which was navigating its way around the point, we noticed a flurry of pelagic activity off-shore. The long, black-tipped wings pointed to a Cape gannet feeding frenzy, but they were too far away for us to really appreciate them. Not so the birds sunning themselves at the point.

The benefit of it being high tide was that, unlike on previous occasions when we had visited at low tide and the flocks of terns were located at the very edge of the rocky shoreline, next to the sea, now they were right beside the sand. Indeed, some were right on the sand and, despite the light wind behind our backs, we managed to walk to within about 50 metres of the closest crop of about 50 birds without disturbing them. Another group, a bit further away on the rocks, must have comprised at least 100 birds. We embarked on our own visual feeding frenzy.

Cape Recife lighthouse in a bit of a gale - a shot taken during another visit

With the breeze flapping at the pages of the field guide, Luke indicated to me the tern species we were most likely to encounter. A scanning of the more distant group had already suggested there were some quite massive fellows there, among many somewhat smaller ones, while those on the sand close by were by far the smallest. The terns, at first glance, are all pretty similar, with grey bodies, white necks, a black cap and straight, medium-length red, yellow or black bills. You have to look for size and specific nuances which set each species apart. This we tried to do, and concluded that the big oke with the thick red bill standing alone at the back was a Caspian tern (47-54cm). Almost as large were the yellow-billed majority around it, swift terns (36-41cm), while there were also a smattering of common terns (31-35cm). Which left the group nearer to us. They were much smaller than the others, so the most likely choice was the little tern. All the other specifications seemed to fit, including the fact that their black caps were more like a collar, with a white crown on top – evidently the non-breeding plumage. Black tips to their wings was another key distinguishing feature.

The beautiful roseate tern

Then a new pair of terns landed among the little terns. Luke recently had done a fair amount of research on his Roberts Birds of Southern Africa CD-Rom. And he had become increasingly less conservative as he matured, more willing to accept the evidence before him and not rule out completely the possibility that he might, just might, have spotted something exciting and new, a lifer.

So when this pair of terns turned to face us, it was with almost disbelief that we looked, and looked again, and again, at the evidence before our eyes. The obvious, and beautiful, pinkish tint to their pale breasts was unmistakable. These were roseate terns. And, somehow, for some reason, in mid-winter, they were in breeding plumage. There was also a quality about the birds, an almost regal superiority, which set them apart. Then, much to our astonishment, one hopped on the back of the other, which was still standing. I have not seen how birds mate, I don’t even have the foggiest what their reproductive organs look like, but I can only imagine that was what these two roseate terns were doing.

Of course all good things must come to an end. It is just unfortunate that, despite the much-appreciated ban against vehicles on our beaches, it was two men in a large 4x4 which came trundling past us that chased the entire flock of birds into the sky.

Reading the Sasol Birds of Southern Africa, it seems to me that the roseate tern – probably more than any other species, including the African penguin which for a time was given that status – is the true wildlife symbol of Port Elizabeth and Algoa Bay. They breed on the islands in the bay and nowhere else, and are considered endangered residents.

As we walked back to the car, Luke took out his Southern African birds checklist and seemed quite chuffed with himself as he ticked off the roseate tern, lifer number 261.

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