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Fantastic Feathered Finds: Rarities Galore

Familiar scenes at birding sites across the country

While staying in Plettenberg Bay for the December holidays, my eagerness grew as the posts kept coming on the Cape Rare Bird Alert of rarities present at Voëlvlei near Mossel Bay, including 3 rare sandpipers: namely the Buff-breasted-, White- rumped- and Pectoral, as well as an Eurasian Curlew nearby. I didn’t have a lift until an already established team which included Mike Bridgeford and Robert Forbes had two spaces left in their vehicle and were happy to let me and my brother, Evan join them. Here’s the story...

We were on the road at sunrise just before 05:00am which flew past swiftly along the N2. After Mossel Bay we turned off on a farm road and Mike Bridgeford, a renowned bird photographer, gave me some advice on shooting far off birds on manual mode required for photographing small, shy waders. This water mass, several kilometers in size is rarely ever completely filled with water, but when it is, Voëlvlei’s birding is exceptional. There were at least a dozen other birders there looking at something. They pointed out to us where the first rarity was…

Agulhas Long-billed Lark

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper! A unique bird I really wanted to see! It came closer and closer until it was visible with the naked eye! I took plenty of shots of this unique, sand-coloured sandpiper walking about on the dry ground minding it’s own business. We then walked to another section of the pan where someone located the other rarity, the Pectoral Sandpiper. The bird sat without motion among dried vegetation which made it almost impossible to see. After the help of help of other birders, I could locate the bird and snapped a few record shots of the half obscured bird. Around 11am, I ate a sandwich while hearing the Aghulhas Long-billed Larks calling nearby. I mimicked its call a few times and by my surprise the bird sat 5 metres away. It stood tall and looked for the “bird” announcing its presence in its territory, but soon started feeding again by probing its bill in the nearby sandy soil.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Grey-backed Cisticolas were also active and the naïve youngsters were picking off insects from the wooden fence poles a few steps away. We then made our way to the Gouritz River where I we found yet another rarity…An enormous Eurasian Curlew feeding on a sand bank in the middle of the river! As we ventured closer, it flew over to the opposite bank. While we stood there the endangered Black Harrier flew low over the strandveld vegetation before landing among large restios.

Grey-backed Cisticola

Already we have seen 3 out of the 4 rarities of the area and were headed back for Voëlvlei for another chance of the White-rumped Sandpiper. At 2pm we were still scanning at the same general area. There were at least hundred Little Stints present which makes it difficult to differentiate from the slightly larger and longer tailed White-rumped Sandpiper and has a white rump visible in flight, hence its name. Hopes started to die out among the team and the blazing sun brought unpleasantry.

White-rumped Sandpiper

Suddenly a group of waders flew into view, and everyone was scanning for clues of a White-rumped Sandpiper. Something shifted into view, and I could see how everyone’s binoculars and scopes focused on the bird. It was a bit larger than the Little Stint with a slightly downcurved bill and a exposed tail. Mike Bridgeford called it first: White-rumped Sandpiper! With the excitement of the team and other birders - the group of waders got frightened and flew off. Some of the birders could manage to see a white rump on one of the birds. We all discussed the sighting and could confirm that it was indeed the sandpiper!

As far as I know we were the only birders to see all four the rarities on a single day at the writing of this article, but we were also the guys who stood there the longest of all that day. At 16:00 we drove back discussing the incredible sightings and already missing the excellent birding of Voëlvlei.

Post submitted by: Ruven Schoeman

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