Please, sir, I want some more!

Oliver to Tankatara’s twist, we went down for more.

Joined by a twitching doyen we flew on *Mango from Johannesburg [JHB – ORT] to Port Elizabeth (PE) for another crack at the Tankatara Pans where a potential giga lurked … in plain sight.

[*Alisha’s a cracker …]

Fortunately we were delayed at ORT for 30 minutes; the pilot stalling for discharge papers or his license. I can’t be sure but I was smug anyway.

The 3pm return, later that afternoon, was also a back-breaker; but nothing that a few chemicals and a firm rub on things couldn’t fix.

Whilst we were enjoying the EC’s – (Eastern Cape’s) hospitality last week, (read it here), a remote (very bloody remote) chance exists that I missed Southern Africa’s first Upcher’s Warbler.

Confined to the Tankatara Pan’s most conspicuous, exotic willow, this large hippolais warbler has held the birding community in a state of enthralled confusion ever since its incidental discovery, earlier in the week.

It’s not exactly a poser but it’s neither a skulker nor a denizen. It flicks, bobs & weaves and calls a repeated, (softly spoken), tuc or tac like two stones being clacked in mild-irritation rather than in spite; – audio recognised in our DNA when music was a rolling stone & fire was a spark. Whatever the distraction – I missed it. Had it been a flying biscuit I would have found it easily. Fortunately, & undeniably, it flew in after I’d been sent home – a relief then.

Why the confusion?        

For the answer to that – we need to revisit the scribblings of Aristotle, that senile old goat who couldn’t tell his rufous-browns from his olive-browns. He & his mates, Theophrastus & Hesychius, described these long-distant migrants as small, unidentified ground-nesting birds ie: hupolais – a fact contemporary ornithologists tried to disguise (we’re a proud community) by calling this four-species genus hippolais but in truth (& betw. us pls.) – hupo or hippo: the confusion still rings true today. Fortunately, molecular analysis cut four (4) species from the original hippolais-eight – the fired-four now treated within a genus of their own ie: iduna. The remaining hippolais-four [please follow!] are the larger species of the original hippolais-eight.

So where to begin?

The Tankatara bird was originally dismissed as an acro – ie: a Marsh Warbler (Acrocephalus palustris) which it isn’t. Why? It’s about the same size (13cm) as a medium-sized hippolais; has fairly non-descript facial patterns & in an excited state, can raise its fore-crown feathers to appear imposing … In our spring, worn-plumaged Marsh are greyer & have pale underparts. Prima facie – the broad-strokes fit but the detail was lacking.

The more generic features of hippolais include a square-ended tail, short-undertail coverts & a flattened profile from mantle to tail.

Prima facie the Tankatara mystery-warbler presented with the classic features associated with the species described under hippo; or was that Iduna? Either way, we agreed that Acrocephalus it wasn’t. The acros sp. were, therefore, dismissed (without recourse) & forbidden any further play in the debate.

The Iduna genus are similar to Hippolais in structure, behaviour & plumage. The wings are rounded and the tarsi *scutellated as in Hippolais. [*transverse scales on its legs]. 

So the equation was simple – was our bird an Iduna or a Hippolais?

Consensus ruled out Iduna [yes I know – consensus is what consensus does]. Hippolais then – and the slipper best fit an unlikely Cinderella – Upcher’s Warbler. [Who-would-have-guessed-it? A Southern Africa first!] 

A hush descended on the South African party, however, like an ill-tempered neighbour bearing warrants, when word reached the vine that our Tankatara fantasy-bird was none other than an Olive-tree Warbler; Cinderella’s brutish sister. This prognosis carried the weight of international standing too: the scriptor curie Vasconie of the Warbler Manuscripts (revised) – a contemporary Aristotle, albeit Israeli rather than Greek.

The Upchucking of milk & cookies on FB was a crying shame – & nobody should cry over spilt milk. Faced with the imminent horror of a list with one-tick-less, we – ‘the damned’ – spooned into the foetal position & contemplated a fate worse than death itself.  We’d collectively bumbled the ID of a commonplace, long-distance migrant & a regular visitor to these shores (albeit a national rarity in the 1990s).

We’d bummed – we bunch of bums – a kick to the knacks & niks would rub it better. 

… and then from the ashes a few whispered hallway-rants. ‘Nah-ways‘ – the common thread. [preceding expletives not important here!]

Nah-ways‘?     Why?

‘If it clucks like a chicken; & walks like a chicken – it’s probably a chicken.’

Then again, under a coating of crumbs and batter, what is undeniably chicken at face value, might, in fact, be bunny-rabbit, or mini-mouse or Jimmy-the-gong. Food for thought then.

I suppose in the realms of aberration & possibility, there exists the makings of a children’s story – a story of courage in adversity, a life-lived with no identity – & a chance that our mystery-bird could be atypically:

  • fond of patchy, scattered scrub & stoney ground;
  • thin-billed – & otherwise weak in the chops;
  • fond of a circular / dip & dunk / fanned or flared let’s-tango-tailOlé!!
  • pale from the knees down;
  • short in the wing with projection on the runty side of ‘maybe’; and
  • tanned from its sojourn over African hill & dale. Nobody likes grey or beige especially when on holiday.

The more erudite will have measured tertials, primary-projection & secondary spacing. Others will add to the speak & highlight posture, tail-wear, silvery wing-panels and facial non-descriptity (eh?). These & a plethora of other, well-researched notes & comments, none more valuable than the one written & published [here], promise something new – rather than something borrowed. What’s more, this published commentary is written by THE domestic wholesaler of all things brown & yucky AND even better still, by somebody who actually saw the bird going about its business in it’s flitty, flighty – pitter / patter way.

Ornithologists – a friendly reminder for you:      Don’t dismiss the witness!

His conclusion? Upcher’s Warbler [woohoo!] but wait… {eh?} – caveat – … let’s not rock the willow more than we need to… It’s rocky ground! (Yes we saw that. Wasn’t that the point?)

The note’s postscript secured the author an invitation to next year’s Bird Fair, the parthenon for avi-luminaries & for members who toe the party line only.    It read – … You lot, (ie: the great unwashed), must ‘decide for yourselves‘ and worse still (& this is where I get a little teary) –  ‘Who am I to say?’     What?     Say it isn’t so!    He who has led us to the promised land of pipits, larks and all things L. B. & J. – not adamantly stickler or moulded in brass for all prosperity but brittle & fair and open to suggestion? Now there’s a thing – I’ll be damned.

… and so it comes down to all of us, the nogschleppers of the field. Meditate! Scrutinise the fabric of your conscience & gott im himmel, I’m just going to say it … make-your-own-call!

Well I say this. It’s an Upcher’s Warbler and so there! Live with it; but don’t do as I say – do as I do. What do I know anyway? Caveat!

Live with it but don’t do as I say – do what I do. What do I know anyway?















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