Ticking the Tweeters

We share our home with a geriatric, milky-eyed Yorkie. He tolerates his own company – halitosis & flatulence his bedtime mates – much to the dismay of most everyone else in an ever-widening circle of influence… He’s done his time; is a steady fixture & knows his way around the place but if there’s a rat in the kitchen, he’ll get bitten on the arse. #BBD2018’s Wilge River Valley proved to be ‘our kitchen’… & we ended a handful short of 300; our target for the day. Others were more successful.

You may think hero-worship, in our 40-something years, bears witness to levels of antisocial behaviour yet undocumented, but I don’t care & if I was you, I’d listen to me. Them 3 or 4 (300+sp.) teams, who whipped us gud & proppa, deserve their ribbons. They’re that good. These are our avocation’s true A-listers; the rest of us & the hit, tick & run brigade, the beggared cousins in an eclectic family blessed with more than most.

Mkhombo Dam – That’s us in the middle

That out of the way – we’re not comfortable out, looking in – & we’ll be back for more, in the next. This time we’ll come packing.

In the early 80s the late, great Ted Parker & compatriot, Scott Robinson, legendary ornithologists based in Peru’s Madre de Dios, obliterated the Birding Big Day record; & Madre de Dios it was; still is. They put to bed the hitherto moot point that field-craft is its own reward but experience and planning are key.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Some years later Kenya bettered their score, by a handful, but it was only 35 years later that the ‘impossible’ was achieved & the standing record shattered by more than 20%. The previous record of 350-odd is today’s Ecuadorian 431 – a record in which South Africa played a small part. Their achievement is a staggering display of field-craft; a function of that country’s biodiversity merged & centred into a small geography; & mostly, the result of careful planning.

When it comes to ‘So you want to compete in a 24-hour birding challenge’ mortals rely on these few obligate rules:

  1. ‘Scout, scout & scout some more’ [ref. John Arvin, ditto the rest].
  2. Review & practice the route [outcomes-based learning].
  3. Weather happens [Plan B].
  4. Learn the birds [… duh].
  5. Every bird counts as one [move along].
  6. Cellphone & contact numbers are useful [a select few will do].
  7. Compile a hit-list [of the birds that is]
  8. Make the night hours count [bring a light]
  9. Maximise the night hours, Part 2 [somewhat confusing initially but clear when the sun sets 10 short of a whole number].
  10. Maximise the most important time of the day [Dawn chorus].
  11. Plan the route to coincide with ‘typical’ bird activity [assuming ‘typical’ is the new normal].
  12. Make the most of the 2nd-most important time of the day [sandwiched between afternoon tea & pre-evening prayers].
  13. Utilise the twilight hours [crepuscular bits & bobs].

How’d we do:

  1. Scout sum more – Scout? Tick; a morning’s session, the week before. None since November’s #BBD2017. Scout some more? Nope.
  2. Practice the route – Nope. Sorry.
  3. Weather happens – Blue skies & hail the size of small peas – our usual Highveld smoothie.
  4. Learn the birds – we’re gold-star members… [I was wrong…once; on a Tuesday I think… & Tuesday is a work-day; doesn’t count.]
  5. Every bird = 1  [(tick tock – tickety tock)]
  6. Contact numbers are useful – particularly when Mkhombo’s false-crust grabs @ yer! Ask them 3 who was stucknaivety & al’ that. We were fine. To be honest, in our halcyon days, we spent 20 hours in Mkhombo’s loving embrace; hours plastered in the nougat-gloop; gloop comprised of sewage & long-deceased fish   …  u n f o r g e t t a b l e.      Since those show-off days, an adjusted insurance excess demands a lighter brush. We tread more lightly.
  7. Compile a hit-list – the least we could do: in vibrant colour on excel – the week before; & printed in B&W, the night before. A shade of dark grey for green & a darker shade of grey for red; ‘green‘ the must-haves; & in ‘red’: the nice-to-haves… To say that the Two Shades of Grey tested Lish’s vows, in darkness, is an astonishing understatement. ‘Love & cherish’ [obey?] etc. it’s in the contract…
  8. Make the night hours count – like thieves with a stolen bag, we hurtled into the night & stood around, feeling foolish when the spotlight’s globe mysteriously cleft in two – for sh*ts & giggles, I think.
  9. Maximise the day’s last hours [night] Part 2 – we were in bed by 9pm.
  10. Maximise the important times of day – Social birdies @ dawn; ducks & wadey-things on water [duh … @midday]; birdies in parties for a late snack & a sundowner chat – late afternoon; & night critters @ night. Tick.
  11. Plan the route to coincide with ‘typical activity’ & make use of the afternoon – see ‘travelling birdies’ etc. above. That said, we’ll go to the bush before we head to the cliffs, next time.
  12. Utilise the twilight hours – we did, for sandwiches, tea & rusks. We keep an open mind & an even sharper ear.

So… an then!

Given our levels of commitment & commensurate preparation, an F was the inevitable consequence of birding blind where even the one-eyed could be king. In particular, at the first salvo of the pre-dawn’s chorus, we found ourselves out-back, begging in. A bum wrap really & we scratched as best we could; acting on instinct rather than on know-how. We hadn’t a clue –  the same underlying fear that featured most of the day. We missed a handful of the Wilge Valley’s localised sp. & those 5 or 6 added-up to us falling-short by …  5 or 6.

Sorting through the muck

The dogma implicit in competitive birding is knowing where the birds should be. Knowing where the birds are, however, is the hack that actually wins the race. Truth is, we blundered blindly about the kitchen & were nipped on the bum, pants down. Perversely, however, Wilge River Valley’s mercy lent us Klaas’s Cuckoo & an Alpine Swift, [a sore-thumb in a mixed flock] & 2 omissions on the prep. list. These & others are the testament to ‘luck’; our guiding principle & the source of our limited success; however inconsequential.


Further afield, we turned the corner [literally] on Bronze-winged CourserAfrican Grass Owl & a pair of roosting Caspian Tern. Where experience proved invaluable, however, was in ‘knowing where & when‘ to bumble for rare & localised individuals including the Short-tailed Pipit. The Lesser Masked Weaver’s range-expansion, into the northern-most edge of our encircled traverse, was also unexpected. That area’s unimaginably dry conditions are at the root cause of change – the birds included.

Sunrise over Vlaklaagte

The ‘bird of the day‘ provided instant gratification but failed to make the list. We’d ‘gone-in’ to find Pygmy Goose & White-backed Duck – & those were nice. On the periphery – a tern… Too far away to be sure & behind the ‘Staff Only‘ stay-out or be-killed notice. The “Gull-billed Tern” circled the vignette at the very edge of the scope’s abilities. The tick [invaluable usually but just one on a list of others, remember?] – would have been a 30 minute scramble into ‘no-access’ &, in context, a ‘tick’ that could never be, given the late-afternoon’s demands – tick-tock; tickety-tock. The tern proved an untickable compromise on a self-‘adjudicated’ list; a list determined by the strength of its weakest link and, let’s be honest, a tainted list is the worst kinda edit.


At the 19th hour we made our last stand in the far north-western corner of the traverse for hoped-for stragglers & I must admit, we were lucky. Our last & final species was the fairly common Southern White-faced Owl; a hoot really & testament to the day’s fun. We could have transferred back to Rust de Winter, 40-odd kilometres back from whence we’d just come, for Verreaux’s Eagle Owl – our bankable, last-minute ‘break in emergency only‘ bolt-on, but the spirits were low. That & a threatening electrical storm cooled the adrenaline that had flowed strongly since late Thursday. I suppose 295 means more, but in increments of ‘we’ve fallen short’, 5 or 6 didn’t matter (much).


If structure & planning are the pillars of preparation, it’s little wonder our roof caved in under pressure. We were under-gunned & we’ll fix that, next outing. Where we won-out, however, was in the time spent in the field. The morning’s sunrise will live-on long after ‘294’ fades into darkness. The thunderstorm’s light-show flashing intermittently over dusty plains, was equally compelling; the hail not so much. Mkhombo Dam, a fixture on the local circuit, is a shadow of its glory-days – & perhaps a reminder that 550 kilometres chasing birds is an indulgence we can ill-afford. That said, we’ve spent the best of times, often under trying conditions, pursuing the avian waifs that get us out o’ bed, in the middle of the night. It’s a shared experience. That & more are the pillars of why we do what we do, if anyone cares to ask – & it’s also why we’ll do it again; just better [with luck].






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