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All a-flutter — a journey to discover Garden Route birds

All a-flutter — a journey to discover Garden Route birds
A Knysna turaco (Tauraco corythaix). (Photo: Bernard Dupont via Wikimedia)

Birding is serious business for bird nerds, and others with a passing interest in the feathered creatures. The east coast of the country has some common species, and a few very special ones too.

Folks in Sedgefield were in a flap. Excuse the pun, but they were. The news was big, and so were the birds.

You need to know that the Sedgefield Island Conservancy community is all about nature. Road signs command you to slow down to avoid rare tortoises and every so often someone on the residents’ WhatsApp group will propose a ban on cats because of their bird-murdering tendencies. Such are the joys of living in such a blissful place.

I was staying at In Toto Retreat, a guesthouse owned by keen birders. Just down the road, a pair of Goliath herons had built their nest in a tall tree. Those in the know were eagerly awaiting the giant babies’ first flight.

Thing is, even in birding, there is politics. A storm was brewing over the nesting site. Since Sedgefield is beyond the usual range of these birds, some expert birders had on social media denounced the nest’s existence.

When local bird guide Ben Fouché showed up at In Toto, I got a full account: “Although rare for the area, it’s not the first time Goliath herons have raised chicks at this nesting site.”

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Plettenberg Bay birding guide Ian Pletzer. (Photo: Supplied)

Fouché was rhapsodic about Sedgefield, whose Swartvlei estuary is perpetually bustling with bird activity. “We have many very special birds in the conservancy. Knysna turacos, blue-mantled crested flycatchers, malachite kingfishers all over the place. Half-collared, giant and pied kingfishers, too. There’s a jackal buzzard around here somewhere. A forest buzzard. Fish eagles.”

A couple of times, he’s seen flocks of spoonbills. Flamingos once.

And there’s a local gymnogene, a raptor also known as an African harrier-hawk, that raids other birds’ nests. “Grey herons will band together to defend against an attack, several of them screaming and flapping their wings in the treetops.”

It seldom deters the raptor, though. “He usually manages to grab something from a nest and fly away.”

On his website Fouché drolly comments that “people with small dogs” should keep an eye on them. Because, yes, gymnogenes have been known to attack Yorkies, he said.

Fouché said there are about 11,000 bird species known to exist.

The great thing about birding is that anyone can do it, he said. You needn’t travel beyond your garden, or you can spend a lifetime exploring the world in search of new species to add to your list.

And once you get into it, all you need to do is dedicate a bit of time and maybe supplement your eyesight with a decent pair of binoculars. And get a bit of practice.

A red-knobbed coot (or crested coot) with a chick. (Photo: Derek Keats via Wiki Commons)

Sedgefield. (Photo: Supplied)

A southern double-collared sunbird. (Photo: Alan Manson)

Despite being a relatively small area, the Garden Route, with its mix of biomes, is where more than half of South Africa’s roughly 850 birds can be added to a list. It’s why Roland Vorwerk, who owns In Toto with his husband Richard Delate, has been working with BirdLife SA, the country’s umbrella body for bird nerds, to promote the region’s outsized opportunities as a ­birding destination.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Meet the majestic bateleur, BirdLife SA’s 2024 Bird of the Year

And it’s why, after several days in Sedgefield with no sign of the Goliath babies, I was up at the crack of dawn staring into the trees at ArendsRus, a rural countryside hideaway near George.

I was with a bunch of wannabe birders following on the heels of Andrew de Blocq, a very serious birdwatcher who’d minutes before shown some of us which end of our binoculars to look through.

Dawn had barely broken, and we were already seeing all sorts: sunbirds and dusky flycatchers, a brown-hooded kingfisher, and there was a tiny Cape batis with its black eye mask and matching band across its chest, like its own feathery superhero costume.

De Blocq said that we humans tend to be overwhelmed when stepping into wild places, often bombarded by the convergence of so many sights and sounds and smells. Instead of individual bird calls, we’ll hear an entire symphony, which makes identifying any one bird difficult.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Guides taking twitchers under their wings to discover the best of Limpopo’s diverse avian life

Part of the trick of birdwatching is to become sufficiently still to be able to pick out individuals, listen and watch for the antics of a single feathered fluff-ball.

In other words, birding requires acute attention.

One place to get a snapshot of the entire region is the Garden Route Botanical Garden in George, an unexpected patch of wilderness right in the centre of town.

Within the 16ha garden is George’s first dam, built in 1819, so there’s a thriving wetland inundated with reed beds, life everywhere. From the bird hide we watched black crakes, little grebes (aka dabchicks), malachite kingfishers, little bitterns, lesser swamp warblers, common waxbills and African common moorhens.

Willchaedon Saayman learns about birds in the Roland Rudd Bird Hide in Still Bay. (Photo: Supplied)

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An immature African harrier-hawk or gymnogene (Polyboroides typus). (Photo: Derek Keats via Wikimedia)

Inside the Roland Rudd Bird Hide in Still Bay. (Photo: Supplied)

Christiaan Viljoen, the garden’s curator, said about 150 birds have been recorded here. We followed Viljoen along a pathway through the garden’s rehabilitated sun-dappled forest that’s laced with wild plum, boekenhout, assegai, black stinkwood, Cape beech and yellowwood trees.

Because of the dense branches and leaves and twigs in the way, forest birding requires a lot more patience. Take your time, though, and if you move slowly the rewards are endless. As fearful as birds are, they’re inquisitive and can be lured into the open if you simply make a few curious sounds with your lips. Or, if you sit quietly and wait, things start to emerge from the shadows.

In the Garden Route’s indigenous forests, that might mean Narina trogons with their scarlet chests and emerald-green backs. Or those famously elusive Knysna turacos, fidgety creatures that seem to spend their time avoiding being seen by hopping ceaselessly between branches.

Also up there? Woodland warblers, southern double-collared sunbirds, black-headed orioles, green wood hoopoes and forest canaries. Viljoen was able to show us many of these on a short forest walk, but the one that, somewhat counterintuitively, stood out was a Knysna warbler, a rather drab “little brown job”.

So-called LBJs – nondescript birds considered indistinguishable from one species to the next – don’t get the publicity but will lure hardcore birders. They require more attention, not less, from obsessive listers eager to fathom the infinitesimal nuances that distinguish one grey-brown bird from the next.

Which brings us to the topic of competitive birding.

It was in the Bitou River Wetlands in Wittedrift, near Plettenberg Bay, that we met Plett Birding Club stalwart Rupert Hor­­ley, a member of the 850 Club.

The what?

“We do stupid things,” Horley said as he confirmed having seen more than 850 different bird species. “I’ve driven to Lambert’s Bay twice this year, a seven-hour journey each way. That’s 14 hours’ driving for each bird. The first was an Australasian gannet. I saw that and it was a big moment.”

That gannet was number 858 on Horley’s list. “My goal is 900,” said Horley. “Maybe 15 birders have reached the 900 Club in Southern Africa.”

“And what happens when you hit your 900-bird goal?” I asked. “Will you go in a special book?”

“No, it’s purely personal,” he said. “I get a huge high out of it. To have looked at a bird in books for so long and then see it in real life!” The next day, Horley was flying to Zimbabwe with the sole aim of seeing a lesser cuckoo that had been spotted in Aberfoyle in the Eastern Highlands.

“I’m spending a lot of money to see it. I have gone on these trips before and dipped.”

A Goliath heron (Ardea goliath). ªPhoto: Derek Keats via Wikimedia)

Christiaan Viljoen, curator of the George Botanical Garden. (Photo: Supplied)

Dipping, Horley said, is when you go out of your way to see a bird, but don’t.

He said, though, that the anticipation is half the thrill.

In the meantime, Horley, along with Plett birding guide Ian Pletzer, took us on a march through the drizzle along the edge of the Bitou wetland to spend time in a raised bird hide overlooking the expansive wetland.

The land, said Pletzer, is owned by a farmer who, for a small fee, allows birders to visit. Aside from the usual sightings, it’s fantastic for rarities, birds that are out of their normal range.

Pletzer said word of rare sightings spreads fast. “One big-name birder found a pectoral sandpiper here, and suddenly everyone wanted to see it. All the Plett birders came, then birders from farther afield.”

More recently, an American golden plover had landed up there, somehow sidetracked on a flight from North America to the Caribbean, and got the birding community into a flap. Pletzer said the whole birding network is dialled into a handful of WhatsApp groups and email newsletters, so those who care will know where to go to find rare birds.

At the other end of the spectrum was Willchaedon Saayman, a 10-year-old boy who was staring through a pair of binoculars, gazing at a group of birds with his tiny jaw hanging open. We were in the Roland Rudd Bird Hide, which overlooks the oxidation ponds near the wastewater treatment works in Still Bay. From here you have a chance of spotting African black oystercatchers, black-necked grebes and great crested grebes, black-crowned night herons, common ringed plovers, western ospreys and flamingos.

Young Willchaedon was transfixed. He’d never held binoculars before, never truly watched birds, but he and his classmates were learning about birding as part of a school project.

When I asked him what his favourite bird was, he flipped through a copy of Faansie Peacock’s birding field guide for children, pointed at a red-knobbed coot, and smiled. I asked him why he loved it and he said: “Want hy’s mooi! (Because he’s pretty).” Then he raised the binoculars to his eyes and carried on watching in awe. 

Another bird hide we visited was at Kwendalo, a wellness destination on Plett’s outskirts, where Matt Zylstra uses birdwatching as one of the nature-immersive therapies to restore cognitive health. The hide overlooks a pretty pond where at least 85 bird species have been seen, though Zylstra said the numbers aren’t important.

A Cape batis (Batis capensis). (Photo: Marco Valentini)

Instead, he said, it’s simply being inside the hide, giving attention to a single task, that is beneficial to human health.

“It’s the protocol of being quiet, speaking softly.”

Zylstra said that by forcing you to give attention to a single task, birdwatching “tricks” the brain into stillness. “When you’re in the hide, your field of awareness is narrowed. You’re not being bombarded by an overwhelming amount of information and can instead focus on what’s in front of you.”

Zylstra believes that birdwatching can be a “powerful restorer of attention”, reducing mental fatigue so you exit the bird hide more invigorated, alert and rested than when you enter. In other words, if you’re in a flap, birding is a great detox.

In Wilderness, we tried a different approach: by electric-powered boat with Wilderness River Safaris.

Our dreamy trip meandered past the back gardens of riverside homes and holiday houses, and later went deeper into the Garden Route National Park where the vegetation was noticeably wilder.

Birdwatching by boat on the Touw River, Wilderness. (Photo: Supplied)

It, too, was effortless birdwatching.

There were pairs of little grebes and a giant kingfisher hopping about on a residential jetty. We saw red-knobbed coots that young Willchaedon would have loved, and to our list we added a white-backed night heron, the Touws River being the only place in the Western Cape where they breed.

We watched as a purple heron performed an ungainly take-off and, as it rose into the air and I noticed a buzzard circling high overhead, I quietly wondered if there were any Yorkies about. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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