Birding – an on-demand generation

Weaned on rarity reports, has birding become the outdoor poster child for an on-demand generation?

It’s pay-per-view reporting – pick & choose – get there – tick it. Load it – boast it & confine the field-clip to a binary yes or no. Life’s an adventure: a paper-bag of water – seeping madness. It’s also sweeter on the soul running uphill against time. Keeps us chirpy.

Is there anything more annoying, less-relaxing even, than the chime of a mega email? Mac, my weekday pro@home / password confidant & recipient of single-fingered-typing, [usually given the weekend off, btw.], blinked in some irritation, I thought unfairly, when I strolled past dressed in slippers & a gown. The Clock-on-the-Wall confirmed my suspicions. It was, in fact, late afternoon on Saturday the 27th of August. Most times we argue these things; the clock & I.  Damn the clock – & damn the mirror too: frivolous, merciless swine living in cahoots to make my life a misery one glare at a time! The mirror was excluded from the glanced confirmationMirror’s a bloody liar anyway.

The mail’s message was simple enough – get down to Port Elizabeth’s (PE) Tankatara Pan. South Africa’s 1st Little-ringed Plover & a Citrine Wagtail had made themselves temporarily at home; a fact attested to by some local birder-buddies. The wagtail was worth the travel on its own – the plover left nothing in the option’s-bag other than ‘Go, Go..Go‘ [That’s what it said]. As usual we had to travel. Johannesburg [JHB] isn’t renowned for its salt pans unless you count the guilt-laced puddles outside the gym on a Monday morning. 

…left nothing in the option’s-bag other than ‘Go, Go..Go’

Walking to PE is doable but at a pace slow & steady. Slow wouldn’t do – steady’s fine. That meant we’d have to teleport, fly or drive. Teleportation is a stew at the other end & a tailor’s nightmare. Flights to PE, ex-JHB, are a snigger at common-sense. Most depart after brunch & make landfall in time for tea – too much laissez faire for the camera-jockies / local yokels to do irreparable damage to the bird’s psyche. We’d have to be on site early – soothe the bird’s nerves, so to speak. 

The only viable flight (7am dept.) was on Mango; an orange-coded, state-owned / low-cost airline. I, however, like my fruit sun-ripened – cleaned, cut & well-presented. Don’t give me a spoon either – a fork will do. We don’t fly on fruit, silly & even if we wanted to, the flight was SOLD; I suspect to other Little-peeps.  

Drive, then – on an immediate turnaround basis, in time for Monday’s office – a round trip of 2300 kilometres. In the car, window/aisle seats fuse comfort & a view; the leg-room’s fair, the luggage-allowance generous & the food okay. We left at 6pm [… in a cloud of burnt rubber], on Saturday the 27th of August – little more than an hour after ‘Go, Go..Go‘!  

By 9pm (Sat 27th) the adrenaline had lost its kick, looked edgy; a little bored. The Free State droned by in waves of blackness. Had we had a light we’d have seen some grass; a tree, maybe. 

The witching hour had come & gone. At 1:45am (Sun 28th) the heavens blazed ice-cold – an army of light-pricks in an otherwise featureless sky. The odometer stared back balefully – I blinked, I think. In the east, lightening creased the sky – disappeared & flashed again somewhere else. A few spots of rain harried the parched lands; insurance against the fire-goblins that must surely live again amongst the trees & grass. Sounds of silence answered an enquired glance in the rearview mirror & in the seat alongside.

At a service-station one of the super-links stood parked in contemplation – meditating or something. Fair enough – we are all searching for dharma & in truth, as my 2am face may have suggested, the path to the driver’s enlightenment lay south – somewhere on the coast!

At about 3am the slosh of some jungle-juice, alcohol-free fire water, reminded of a more focused time. The coffee-flasks lay abandoned: scattered in the footwell – rolling with the punches as the road twisted this way / that way.

In the east the sun’s coronation was an hour or two down the road – the cat’s-eyes blinked. I winked back. On the handsfree, David Gilmour strummed a solo & the Fender bled its soul – I drove on, Comfortably Numb. Things were hotting up.

The darkest hour, just before the dawn, lay an hour behind us. The moment had arrived. Tankatara Pan had come to life – the tension hummed. At 6:30am other hopefuls joined us at the fence.

We faced the same logistical dilemma home-invaders detest: – “Do we climb over or through this fence?” In the end the physical attributes of each individual decided the point. Those tall enough – stepped over; the others bobbed-through. Partnered-pairs assisted during the up&over / bend&bob formalities. A little later, in the dash for the box seats ie: when the bird had made itself known, we had a fall. No one wants an injury, least of all cuts & scrapes not covered in the Workers’ Comp. Fortunately the lady’s hurts were metaphysical, rather than corporeal & her graciousness, in public, is something to be proud of. Had it been me I might have curled up and sucked a thumb.

The bird was further over there – & not conveniently nearer the crossing from where we’d made our trespass. Somebody there said ‘I see you‘ – & ‘we heard them, from over here‘.. At that time we were scoping / glassing the mudflats from far enough away to summon the SALT (large telescope). Nobody wants to spoil the sport – the fear of being fingered, real! Like a bag of cats we clawed our way through bushpockets of shrub to the locale nearest the Plover.

The Little-ringed contemplated our group from further away than we had hoped – the yellow eye-ring: sunshine for the soul & the obvious focal point. The legs were nothing to scoff at either. Some brown feathering in the ear coverts hinted at a ‘she-bird’ – in an androgynous world a probable femme fatale then. We looked back – bobbing from scope to scope, like old friends – pressure-pressed eye-rings of our own.          ‘I see you…

Some of us drifted off to find the Citrine Wagtail – another pearl for the sub-region. The Citrine is notoriously restless – here today – gone a bit later. Seen in the corner of Pan 2, we thought we’d start our vigil there. That’s a reasonable thing to do I would think?

Most twitches involve some social-interaction with people who share the common interest / others are old friends on the circuit. It’s a circuit we identify with; others do too. Having seen the targeted bird, people become more relaxed and talk about life’s ups & downs [ie: birding].We were gathered in a loose group of locals & outta-towners, chatting. Some 70 paces further up the pan some other local birders had set up camp – good vantage on the elevated burm adjacent the water – chairs mostly although I can’t be sure if coffee wasn’t a feature. There was a chill in the air. Limited boot space meant we’d left our waders back in JHB – ie: we were stood away from the edge of the pan talking quietly.

I heard the ‘those peeeeEEple [people] are standing where we know the bird is going to land‘  [x3 from ‘The Chair‘ (on the burm) to some other interested party, on the legal side of the fence, out on the road & equidistant from ‘The Chair‘ and our group. ie: A triangle of conflict then …]

At the 3rd peeeeEEple … blah blah … get them to move.. blah blah‘ we were approached by ‘Sir Whatsis-name‘, ‘The Chair’s‘ knight in waiting, hitherto on the road – the local butcher, baker / candlestick-maker. From about 30 paces we received the 1st animated ‘get away‘ gesture – (a red flag). At 10 paces we were lambasted with ‘get away – blah blah – you’re in the way.. blah blah – we know the bird & it likes this corner.’

I assume he ‘knew‘ the bird from the reported sighting first communicated the day before? I also assumed, at the time, that he was speaking for himself but it seems ‘we‘ meant the locals who had claimed the vagrant as their own.

At one-&-a-bit paces (halitosis range) I might have mentioned to our host that birds have ears too & although we may have inadvertently strayed onto the vagrant’s newly discovered fly-way, ‘The Chair’s‘ vocalisation left much to be desired. The fact that ‘The Chair‘ was equidistant from the designated LZ & more conspicuous than any of us, was lost in translation.

To be fair I could have moved away without any fuss but don’t presume matey. You know nothing of us – who we are or where we come from & do me a favour, introduce yourself to the group – you live close-by; that’s the claim – nothing more.

Just before ‘Sir Whatsis-name‘ turned away, he asked me, with a face like a freshly-smacked arse where I was from – I said ‘Johannesburg‘ to which he replied – ‘I thought so..

‘…with a face like a freshly-smacked arse..’

Alisha’s gentle squeeze kept me on an even-keel but I’ll say this – Come to JHB & we’ll show you how to be gracious. It’s just good-manners really / gutsy, old-fashioned hospitality. Incidentally, ‘Sir Whatsis-name‘ took photos of our group [after our joust] – legalities notwithstanding, a closet people’s-person / paparazzi then. We were well met by most local birders on the day – good peeeeEEple. As for the Citrine – no show – must have been us. Sorry.

Twitching does some interesting things to ordinary, simple folk. It’s a kinda magic I think. The ‘Mango-16’ landed mid-morning & arrived on site, not much later. Will I ever forget the power-mince left-right-left of one of the JHB-listers; glass & cameras swinging in the sway. He marched 20-paces ahead of his crew: groupies desperately trying to toe the line.

We turned around at about 10:30am – arriving home just after 9:45pm on Sunday evening – a point raised by the Clock on the Wall – no doubt to wind me up. That’s circa 28 hours on the road – good fun really. The mirror showed a haggard, unsmiling / ill-mannered lout but I’ve said it before – the Mirror’s a liar. What a happy, happy day!

The mirror showed a haggard, unsmiling / ill-mannered lout but I’ve said it before – the Mirror’s a liar. What a happy, happy day! 




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