Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Blue cranes in the Graaff-Reinet district

This article was written on July 16, 2005. (To see the images larger, please press shift and left click.)

Karoo splendour. The view from our accommodation on the farm, Groenvlei.

The air was perfectly still, the mid-winter sky a cloudless blue. Then we heard it: a clucking, chuckling sound, coming from the heavens.
     Looking up, we saw two large Vs, each comprising about 20 long-necked birds. They flew over in almost perfect formation, like something out of a children’s picture book.
     I consulted the oracle, Luke, now 14 years old, who was engaged in a titanic battle on the tennis court with younger brother Douglas, then a day or two short of his 12th birthday. 
     Luke had read up on the 200-odd bird species that have been spotted at Groenvlei, a guest farm about 60km north-west of Graaff-Reinet. After a cursory glimpse skywards and without a pair of binoculars immediately to hand, he suggested the birds – mere silhouettes at that height – might be crowned cranes. We left it at that, having just arrived at the farm after a rather tricky 40-kilometre trip along gravel backroads from Nieu-Bethesda.

Such is digital photography. My hundreds of shots taken at the Owl House in Nieu Bethesday, have got lost in the ether. Fortunately, I did a few sketches.

     Visiting the Owl House in that quaint hamlet for the first time in 22 years, I was amazed at how much more tourist-friendly, and well-maintained, it was than back in 1983 when I was last there. Was Helen Martins, whose example of “outsider art” is such a remarkable achievement, a bird lover? I wondered. Certainly owls are not the dominant life-form in her amazing concrete-animal-packed garden, but they do have powerful symbolic importance.

My photos of Graaff-Reinet have also disappeared. This drawing of Retief House Museum I did in the 1980s.

     Our trip north from Port Elizabeth had started a day earlier, in early July, 2005. We spent an evening in Graaff-Reinet where we soaked up some of that wonderful town’s history. Established in 1786, it is reputedly the fourth oldest town in the country, and boasts more national monuments than any other. Stand in Parsonage Street, and you get the picture. To the north is the façade of the historic Drostdy Hotel (1806), while at the opposite end of the street stands the equally impressive Reinet House (1812), both fine examples of Cape Dutch architecture.
     On the trip along rutted gravel from the N9 north of Graaff-Reinet to Nieu-Bethesda, few birds of note were seen. Even in the village, we looked in vain for house sparrows, which we’d expected to see. Luke did, however, spot a couple of raptors on poles along the next stretch to Groenvlei, the merino farm of Johann and Lynn Minnaar, including a steppe buzzard, jackal buzzard and pale chanting goshawk.

Our accommodation at Groenvlei.

      Settling into the southern wing of the former manager’s home – several self-catering guest houses cluster around a shared games and dining room – our two boys soon made use of the racquets and balls provided to get up a quick game of tennis. As the afternoon set in, the stillness of the Karoo – a high-pressure system ensured day after day of perfect weather – gradually soothed our city nerves. Our batteries recharged, we availed ourselves of one of the dozen or more planned and signposted hikes, each expertly explained in special pocket-sized booklets, including colour photographs. Since it was fairly late, we opted for a short walk of a couple of kilometers, the Sunset Stroll.

A pied starling (source:

     As usual, Robyn and Douglas set out ahead, while Luke and I, binoculars at the ready, brought up the rear. Before long it became obvious that the Karoo was home at this time of year to a large number of Cape sparrows and pied- and red-winged starlings, and Cape turtle doves galore. Yes, after years of battling to see these iconic-sounding doves, I was suddenly unable to venture anywhere without hearing, and seeing, them, although I still found them far less brazen than the redeye or laughing dove as they stuck to the tops of trees.
     So Luke and I trudged past a prickly pear plantation and a field still wet from a carefully managed water flow from a nearby dam, until we reached another smaller dam, where the others had halted. It was then that a trio of rather large, long-necked birds flew fairly low overhead. Binoculars trained on them, we watched in awe as we came to the realisation that they were blue cranes, our national bird. We watched as they landed gracefully a few hundred metres away. Suddenly I became aware of splashes of blue-grey on a low hill about 300 metres away. I started counting. At least 40 blue cranes were foraging away – clearly the same birds we had seen flying over us a few hours earlier.

I did these quick sketches at the East London zoo in the 1990s. Below are blue cranes, and above kudu.

     Then I recalled reading on the Groenvlei website that the farm was in fact renowned as a veritable blue crane haven. This was confirmed later by Lynn, who said there were in fact about double the number we had seen, but that the group had recently split into two, and that the others frequented another part of the farm. They would be counted by ornithologists at the end of July, during a national blue crane census, she said.
     The first and last time I had seen blue cranes was several years earlier in the Addo National Elephant Park – and then they were so far away it was barely a sighting at all. This time we had seen them in full flight and at fairly close quarters. When the whole flock flew over, clucking away, the next day, we were so blasé about them we barely gave them a second glance.
     While the cranes were clearly the most spectacular sighting during our stay, it was on a 12-kilometre hike the next day, called the Muishoek Trail, that we enjoyed several other outstanding birding experiences.
     This walk, which took us up a river bed to a large dam, started auspiciously when Luke alerted me to a Cape bunting, with those distinctive black and white lines across its head, on a nearby bush. But it was when we reached the dam that the real drama started. 
     The instruction was to walk along the top of the wall. While there was little or no bird life on the dam, we were delighted to see ahead of us a large brown and white raptor which had flown out of a thicket below the dam wall and landed on a bush about 70 metres ahead of us – just as a white-rumped antelope, probably a steenbok, fled bounding across the veld from roughly the same area. 
     As we got closer to the bird, we tried to ascertain what it was. Consulting the Sasol bird book, Luke thought initially that it might be an osprey, but decided its plumage was too brown. As it flew off on our approach, we got a clearer view and came to the conclusion that it was a juvenile fish eagle. 
     It is this sort of sleuth-work that makes birding such exasperating fun.
     On our return journey, along a farm road, we encountered a wide and exciting cross-section of Karoo bushveld birds. First on the list was a red-capped lark, followed soon after by a neddicky. This small (11cm) bird is arguably the pick of the cisticolas, with its blue-grey body and chestnut cap. We watched it as it sat on a barbed wire fence, a scene that would have made a superb photograph if I’d had a powerful telephoto lens to hand. The bird, with its wonderfully soft plumage, contrasted sharply with the rough, dark wire and harsh, koppie-strewn landscape seen in soft focus through the binoculars behind it.

A common stone chat (source

     The next sighting was to prove something of a challenge. Two birds, clearly a pair, were behaving very much like fiscal shrikes as they flitted from bush to bush. But there was just so much more colour involved, especially in the male. About 14cm long, it had a black head and rufous breast offset by pure white areas on the neck, wings and rump. The female was more subtle, but equally beautiful. We toyed with the idea of their being batises, but soon enough, with the help of the bird book, it became obvious these were common stonechats – though not so common to us. In Afrikaans the name is all the more descriptive, a gewone bontrokkie. It certainly does like to display its colourful frock.

Spandou Kop, as seen from the Valley of Desolation. I did this sketch in the 1980s.

     The next day, our visit to Groenvlei all too quickly over, we wended our way back to Graaff-Reinet, but first made an obligatory detour via the Valley of Desolation. En route Douglas spotted a martial eagle (lucky blighter!) on a telephone pole while dad was watching the road too closely. Luke saw what he was sure was a gabar goshawk, also on a telephone pole. The awesome beauty of the Valley of Desolation (Valei van Verlatenheid, in Afrikaans, which with its alliteration conveys an altogether more desolate feeling) was augmented by the presence among those precipitous crags of several rock pigeons, which seemed oblivious of the vertigo I was experiencing just watching them. 
     Then, just to make our day, a handful of pale-winged starlings joined their red-winged companions in joyous celebration of one of South Africa’s great natural wonders. With the plains of the Camdeboo stretching out to the south, the toothlike Tantjieberge to the east and the sentinel Spandau Kop between the Valley and the Sundays River-bordered town below, this is indeed a place where your soul is uplifted.

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