birding-aus S.African impressions 3 Karoo

Subject: birding-aus S.African impressions 3 Karoo
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Sun, 21 Feb 1999 15:50:28 +0100


        After my three weeks cruise along the south-african west coast with the
"Africana" I had some 5 days in Cape Town, mostly filled with work at the
museum and discussions with colleagues. But one Saturday my colleague Rob
Leslie of the Fisheries Institute invited me to come with him to the Karoo,
the low rainfall semi-desert NE of Cape Town---the word Karoo comes from a
Khoi term signifying "thirst-land", a most appropriate name.
        We started out from Cape Town early in the morning and passed the 
range still in darkness. At first light we crossed the last mountain
passes---where the first bird of the day was the first of many Steppe
Buzzards, sitting motionlessly in a roadside tree--, and soon could discern
pairs of Pied Crows and Cape Ravens flying overhead, and small flocks of
Pied Starlings along the roadsides. As everywhere I visited in this area,
doves and pigeons were numerous also here.
        At the Karoo Poort we were lucky to see and hear a number of the very
beautiful Blue Cranes---a bird I particularly wanted to see, as its picture
graces the label of a  good South African wine available in Tromsø. These
tall uniformly grey-bluish birds with the long trailing "tail" and the
bulbous light-capped head are among the most elegant of the cranes, a
family noted for its regal beauty. Another tallish long-necked bird that
flew up in the same area turned out to be a Karoo Korhaan, one of the many
bustards of the south-african area.
        After the mountain passes we arrived in the wine and fruit growing
districts around Ceres, and here in the early morning light numbers of the
odd-looking Helmeted Guineafowl, an old acquaintance, as they were often
kept as farm birds in my native Zeeland, were scratching around on the
verges of the road, no doubt in search of grit for their crops. With the
guineafowl---often foolhardedly unafraid of the traffic-- were smaller
numbers of francolins. These came in two sizes: the partridge-sized
Greywing Francolins and the larger and darker Cape Francolins. Later on the
day we never saw a single grouse, although the many tracks made clear that
they were around also in the Karoo itself.
After Ceres the area became progressively drier and we entered the Karoo
proper, a  mostly flattish region of low, often thorny bushes, now clearly
in the quiescent mode of the dry summers here---rain, when it falls, comes
mainly in winter in the Karoo. A stiff wind made birding not easy---most
birds skulked in or among the low bushes, and when one (read Rob, an expert
in Karoo-birding) finally had succeeded in flushing them, they "blew away"
with the wind and often landed at a considerable distance. I had probably
not found half of the birds we got to see on my own, and am most grateful
to Rob for taking the time to show me this fascinating country.

Relatively the easiest birds to come to grips with were the various chats,
as these characteristic "sit-and-pounce" predators have a tendency to sit
on top of the bushes, and even on the roadside fence-wires. We found no
less than 5 different species, all with subtly different habitat
exigencies: along the roadsides we found the slender Familiar Chat and,
once, the plump dark Anteater Chat; in the somewhat more dense vegetation
the large and dark grey Karoo Chat---one of the many endemics of this
area--, and in lower and sparser vegetation the lighter-coloured and
white-rumped Tractrac Chat. All these latter three species belong to the
genus Cercomela, in Europe best known from the Middle-East Blackstart, one
of my favourite birds.
The Wheatears, so dominant among the chats in SE Europe and the Middle
East, were here represented by the Mountain Chat, which shares the white
rump of the Tractrac Chat, but otherwise is much more contrasty, the males
often almost black-and-white; these Mountain Chats lived up to their name
by being  concentrated in the few hilly sections or river gorges.
Patience and some diligence were usually sufficient to get to see the
chats, but they this time did not suffice for another group of Karoo
specialists, the larks. We did not do at all well with this group, and the
only bird I saw well was the large and quite contrasty (for a lark, that
is) Karoo Lark, another endemic of the area, and easily recognized by its
warm brown colours and pale eye-stripe. In flight this looked like an
uniformly dark bird, but on the ground its true colours showed up.
The third group that is typical of the low Karoo shrub is the warblers, but
once more the stiff wind made it hard to get to see these well, and
although Rob called several Eremomela's from short glimpses of wind-swept
small non-descript birds, I never saw them sufficiently well to be able to
identify them myself. All warblers that I tracked down in the low thorny
Karoo bushes, were Spotted (or Karoo) Prinias, a dapper spotted bird, very
active and with the usual Prinia long swivel-tail.
One conspicuous group that I forgot to mention hitherto are the swallows
and swifts. At the Karoo Port I had watched my first Striped Swallows, but
here in the open shrubland we saw either single wide-ranging Barn Swallows
or the local Rock Martins, that in their abrupt swooping movements always
remind me of the better-succeeded paper planes that we used to fold as
kids. Later on the day the swallows were accompanied by swifts, mainly
Little Swifts, but I saw also at least one large Alpine Swift.
Birds of prey were not very conspicuous, but we watched repeatedly a
beautiful light-morph Booted Eagle and an impressive pair of Black (or
Verreaux') Eagles, as well as Common Kestrels, here confusingly called Rock

A very special habitat was the picnic spot and "kloof" at Katbakkies, an
oasis of Acacia trees and other larger bushes, and with free water
available (Attracting a pair of Three-banded Plovers, the only shorebirds
we saw in the Karoo). This greenery attracted a whole suite of different
birds (although not all species this day that Rob had hoped to demonstrate.
Is not it always like that?), from the irrepressible Cape Bulbuls and a
small flock of White-backed Mousebirds to a Pied Barbet up in the trees,
and with both Cape and Karoo Robins on the shadowed ground below them.
Although both called robins and both belonging in the vague area between
chats and thrushes, these two species are not very closely related: the
Cape Robin, with its clear white eyebrow, its  orangy outer tail feathers ,
and its cheerful "Jan Frederik" notes that have earned it its Afrikaans
name, is a Cossypha, while the Karoo Robin is one of the Scrub Robins
Erythropygia and has the wide white-tipped tail of that genus. Like many of
the Karoo birds, it is otherwise mainly decked in earthy inconspicuous
colours, but it too has a clear white eye-stripe and also a white chin.
Much more colourful and conspicuous is a bird, that also occurred in the
more open scrubs along the road, and because of its inquisitive nature and
clear colours was easy to watch, viz. the Bokmakierie. This is the one
species of the colourful Bush-shrikes, that has given up on skulking and
has become a quite tame and inquisitive, as well as beautiful bird, common
as well in the bush as in suburbia.
Further denizens of the taller trees were i.a. the Long-billed Crombec,
easily recognized, as it looks like "a cat got its tail", and the
diminutive and active "different-looking" grey and black Fairy Flycatcher,
that to my eyes is a bit Fantail-like in its incessant movements. A much
more specialized warbler is the dark rock-hopping Cinnamon-breasted
Warbler, a denizen of rocky kloofs and cliffsides, that Rob  miraculously
succeeded in getting to materialize after we nearly had given up its quest.
Just as the bird books do, I have left the finches and buntings to the
last, a bit unfair in this case, as especially the easily recognized
stripy-headed Cape Bunting was such a regular denizen of this area, that at
the end of the day we called them "just another Cape Bunting", unfairly so,
as these are dapper perky birds, well worth watching. Similarly, the
canary-yellow Yellow Canaries glowed from faraway in the greyish bushes,
and also were among the easiest birds to identify. The other Canary (or
Seedeater) in the area, the much smaller and less conspicuous Whitethroated
Canary, was still relatively easily identified because of its
greenish-yellow rump.
Altogether the Karoo was a place to get thirsty, sunburnt and
scratchy-legged, but also a wonderful area to go birding, with that strange
strong attractiveness that so many dry areas appear to have. I am very glad
that Rob Leslie gave me the chance to get my first superficial acquaintance
with this very special habitat.
Mammals were not thick on the ground, but judging from the many holes and
heaps, maybe thicker in the ground---the largest holes were made by the
famous Aardvark, the largest burrowing animal in the world. We saw several
Duikers, a small group of Springboks, and the inevitable Baboons in the
mountain passes.

List of bird species seen (in order of Newman's guide):
NB Mark the steady repeat of the words Cape and Karoo in the bird names! 
Karoo Korhaan                   Eupodotis vigorsii
Blue Crane                              Anthropoides paradisaea
Cape Francolin                  Francolinus capensis
Greywing Francolin              F.   africanus
Helmeted Guineafowl             Numida meleagris
Booted Eagle                            Hieraaetus pennatus
Black Eagle                             Aquila verreauxii
Steppe Buzzard                  Buteo b. vulpinus
Black-shouldered Kite           Elanus caeruleus
Rock Kestrel                            Falco tinnunculus
Threebanded Plover              Charadrius tricollaris
Cape Turtle Dove                        Streptopelia capicola
Laughing Dove                   S.   senegalensis
Rock Pigeon                             Columba guinea
Feral Pigeon                            C.  livia
Greater Striped Swallow         Hirundo cucullata
European Swallow                        H. rustica
Rock Martin                             H. fuligula
Little Swift                            Apus affinis
Alpine Swift                            A.  melba
Whitebacked Mousebird           Colius colius
Pied Barbet                             Lybius leucomelas
Karoo Lark                              Mirafra albescens
Pied Crow                               Corvus albus
Whitenecked Raven               C. albicollis
Cape Bulbul                             Pycnonotus capensis
Mountain Chat                   Oenanthe monticola
Familiar Chat                           Cercomela familiaris
Tractrac Chat                           C.  tractrac
Karoo Chat                              C.  schlegelii
Anteating Chat                  Myrmecocichla formicivora       
Cape Robin                              Cossypha caffra
Karoo Robin                             Erythropygia coryphaeus
Longbilled Crombec              Sylvietta rufescens
Cinnamonbreasted Warbler        Euryptila subcinnamomea
(Karoo Eremomela                        Eremomela gregalis)
Spotted (Karoo) Prinia          Prinia maculosa
Fairy Flycatcher                        Stenocira scita
Fiscal Shrike                           Lanius collaris
Bokmakierie                             Telophorus zeylonicus
Pied Starling                           Spreo bicolor
Redwinged Starling              Onychognathus morio
Cape Whiteeye                   Zosterops pallidus
Cape Sparrow                            Passer melanurus
Cape Weaver                             Ploceus capensis
Yellow Canary                   Serinus flaviventris
Whitethroated Canary            S. albogularis
Cape Bunting                            Emberiza capensis
                                                        Tromsø, 19-2-1999
                                                        Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                                        9037 Tromsø, Norway

To unsubscribe from this list, please send a message to

Include "unsubscribe birding-aus" in the message body (without the quotes)

<Prev in Thread] Current Thread [Next in Thread>
  • birding-aus S.African impressions 3 Karoo, Wim Vader <=

The University of NSW School of Computer and Engineering takes no responsibility for the contents of this archive. It is purely a compilation of material sent by many people to the birding-aus mailing list. It has not been checked for accuracy nor its content verified in any way. If you wish to get material removed from the archive or have other queries about the archive e-mail Andrew Taylor at this address: andrewt@cse.unsw.EDU.AU