No, better! It’s actually a Starred Robin! I said excitedly.
A frosty silence descended.
‘DO YOU KNOW I’M THE CHAIRMAN OF THE HERMANUS BIRD CLUB?’ came the imperious question.
That’s very nice, I said without taking my binocs off the robin, But that doesn’t make a robin a shrike. Look at its beak.
A classic attempt at eminence over evidence. Whattahoot!
We moved on, back to our bush camp near Lake St Lucia. Things were uncomfortable, as Jess and I were actually their guests, and mine host’s ego was wounded.
That night I aimed my tiny little 22X Kowa spotting scope at the full moon, setting the tripod low so the kids could get a lovely look.
Again I felt the ambient temperature drop drastically. There were mutterings by Ma, sending The Chairman of the Hermanus Bird Club scuttling off to his son’s bungalow and emerging twice with two large wooden boxes and one small one. A huge tripod emerged from one of them. Unfolded, it resembled the Eiffel tower. From the other box a white tube like an Apollo rocket. The Professional Celestial Telescope! After much assembling and urgent furtive instructions the fussing codgers and the favourite son start searching for the moon. Hey! It’s not easy to find with those bazookas. You move it a millimetre right and you’ve got Jupiter; a millimetre left and its Mars. Go too far down it’s Uranus. Eventually the moon is located and focused on. Ma, Pa and favourite son step back satisfied, and invite the kids to look at THIS telescope. A real one. A chair has to be found for them to stand on.
Oh, I much prefer that one, says the grandkid and then Jessica agrees, and then the other grandkid says Yes, That one’s much better, POINTING AT MY TINY KOWA! It’s a social disaster! Their own grandkids betraying them in their moment of triumph!
I hastily step up to their scope and say Ooh! Aah! and Wow! Magnificent! Powerful! What else? All you can see is white. It’s focused on an insignificant bath mat-sized area of the moon. Whereas with mine you can see the whole moon the size of a dinner plate, this one you could see a dinner plate on the moon. Except there’s no dinner plate to see. Mine shows mountains and craters, this monster shows white.
Cast a pall on the evening it did. Gloom descended. Some went to bed early after some muttered explanation of how the better telescope WAS actually much better.
Hilarious, if a bit stressful at the time for a polite person.
Nephew Robbie must have wondered what the heck could be so interesting that Koos was always peering into that thing.
So he investigated.
Ten or fifteen years later, we re-enacted the scene.
The original was on their farm Umvoti Villa between Greytown and Kranskop on the Mispah road; the re-enactment was at Mangeni Falls where ‘Lord’ Chelmsford was arsing about while his men got killed at Isandlwana. Isandlwana has been the scene of many re-enactments, so this was quite appropriate!
It’s about ten years later again – time for another re-pete.
Top: Introducing daughter Jessie to the wonders of the ‘scope. Now she’s 21 and her response is ‘bo-oring!’
Geoffrey Kay, birding optometrist, ‘ornithoptometrist’?, put together a trip to Namibia in 1986.
We landed in Windhoek, picked up a VW kombi and rigged it up with a nice big hebcooler in the back. Ice, beer, gin & tonic. Now we were ready for any emergency.
West to Daan Viljoen game park where a lion’s roar welcomed us that first night. On through the Khomas Hochland into the Namib Desert. Then on to the Atlantic Ocean at Swakopmund. On to Spitzkoppen; Usakos; Erongo Mountains; Karabib; Omaruru; Otjiwarongo; and Outjo;
Then up to Etosha: Okakuejo, Halali and Namutoni camps. In Etosha we saw a very rare night ‘bird‘; Seldom seen.
Then on to Tsumeb; the Waterberg; Okahandja; And back down to Windhoek.
Geoff Kay, Jurgen Tolksdorf, Jill Seldon, Mick Doogan, Me & Aitch; Three optometrists and three normal people.
We spotted 200 bird species that week! Also a new mammal for me: The Damara DikDik.
Jurgen Tolksdorf newbie birder spotted many birds for us with his keen eye. “What’s that?” he’d say. In Etosha one night we woke up to the b-b-b-b-bhooo of a white-faced owl near our tents. We shook everyone awake and grabbed our torches and binocs and went to look for it. Except Jurgen. He said “A WHAT?” and rolled over and went back to sleep with a snort. We searched in vain and got back to bed very late, disappointed.
After a short sleep, on our way back from breakfast we met Jurgen who had risen late after a long night’s sleep and was now on his way to eat. While we chatted he looked up in the tree above our heads and said “What’s that?”.
While we were birding in Namibia in 1986, a comet buzzed past us.
Englishman Edmond Halley, in his 1705 Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets, used Newton’s new laws to calculate the gravitational effects of Jupiter and Saturn on cometary orbits. He realised that a comet that had appeared in 1682 was probably the same one that had appeared in 1531 (observed by Petrus Apianis), and 1607 (observed by Johannes Kepler). Halley concluded they were the same object returning every 76 years and predicted its return for 1758. He died in 1742 before he could observe this himself, but his prediction of the comet’s return proved to be correct! It was seen on 25 December 1758.
And then – significantly – again by us in Namibia in 1986, thus conclusively proving Halley was no poephol even if he was an Engelsman.
Petrus Apianis in 1531
Johannes Kepler in 1607
Edmond Halley in 1758 if he hadn’t died away – and . .
Petrus Swanie in 1986
We lay on our backs in Etosha on a beautifully clear night with our birding binocs and telescopes and had a good look at a tiny little fuzzball* far away while a white-faced owl went b-b-b-b-bhooo in the near distance. If the truth be told, our view of Halley’s looked more like one of the tiny dots in the right of this picture rather than the swashbuckling zooming thing on the left. But it did have a tail, so we convinced ourselves we HAD seen it. Halley’s Comet!!
*Even the keenest astronomers said the view of Halley in 1986 ended up being underwhelming in observations from Earth. When the comet made its closest approach it was still a faint and distant object, some 62 million km away. However, we humans did send a few spacecraft up which successfully made the journey to the comet. This fleet of spaceships is sometimes dubbed the ‘Halley Armada.’ Seven probes were up there looking, with the European Giotto craft getting closest – to within 596km. The Challenger space shuttle would have been the eighth but it blew up two minutes after it launched.
The Giotto got this pic of the 15km X 8km X 8km rock:
Halley’s is due again on 28 July 2061. I’ll be keeping a 106yr-old eye out.
Just back from a Five Days, Five Forests birding trip to Zululand: Nkandla, Entumeni, Dlinza, Ngoye mistbelt or scarp or afromontane forests; and St Lucia coastal forest. (note: this was in 2013)
My highlight was Ngoye, about which I’ve heard so much over the years. Especially after Aitch went without me: “Have you been to Ngoye Koos? Oh, no, I remember, you haven’t. So you haven’t seen the Woodwards Barbet then? I HAVE!” Only about a hundred times, she rubbed it in!
COMFORT This trip was just me and my guide. Sakhamuzi was lovely quiet company. Nights at the B&Bs and the Birders’ Cottage we cooked up a red meat storm, washed it all down with frosties and early to bed. On walks I took my binocs, telescope, rucksack and deckchairs. Mostly we simply found great spots like forest edges and parked. My guide Sakhamuzi was great and said (well, he would, wouldn’t he?) that he enjoyed sitting still. Said mostly birders want to rush from one spot to the next, talking all the time! I said he should get deckchairs and specialise in khehlas and gogos. ‘Charge a premium, carry a hebcooler and you’ll make your fortune, young man,’ was my advice to him! Find a fruiting tree, and let the birds come to your doddery customers.
I took plenty snacks and drinks in my rucksack, so the waiting was comfy, luxurious and munchy. Next time I’ll take some poncho or dark sheet to break the human outline – see if that fools the voëls.
We stayed two nights in the Birders Cottage in Ngoye. Perfect for getting up before five every morning and getting straight into the forest at first light. Saw and heard lots of birds which I’d seen before but had written BVD next to them (“better view desired”) and one great lifer. Yes, Aitch-In-The-Clouds, I did the see the barbet, so I laid that bogey-bird to rest!
The Green BarbetStactolaema olivacea used to be called Woodward’s Barbet – our sub-species is Stactolaema olivaceawoodwardi. Here’s a beautiful 1897 illustration of a pair of Woodward’s barbets, by J.G. Keulemans
Also a special in the forest is the oNgoye red squirrel, Paraxerus palliatus ornatus and I cant remember if we saw him! I’ll have to go back! Illustration by Joseph Wolf, Zoological Society of London 1864.
WHEELS Craig Naude’s magic silver and blue Mitsubishi Colt 4X4 V6 3000 was superb. That’s it above left in the grasslands above the forest. I needed first gear low ratio in places in the forest where the rutted tracks changed to slippery clay, and steep drops into stream beds meant equally steep climbs out of them, starting at snail’s pace. Boy heaven.
COASTAL FOREST At St Lucia we got into the forest at dawn, too, then walked on to the mouth of the estuary by 6.30am and low tide. Waders and terns remain confusing to me, and the sooty tern Sakhamuzi hoped to spot had trekked back to Mozambique. Pity, as it’s one of the easier ones to ID. Oh, well, as the baby tern said to the mother tern: Can I have a baby brother? Certainly, said the mother tern: ‘One good tern deserves another.’
On the way back we spotted a dwarf chameleon, which I now know was probably the endangered Setaro’s Dwarf Chameleon. No picture! Then we sat in the forest in comfort again and a Green Malkoha (old green coucal) obligingly flew into a tree and leisurely displayed his banana beak in full sunlight. No picture!
Driving back to the B&B a Lemon Dove (old cinnamon dove) sat on a track at the side of the road for so long we eventually drove off! First time I’ve ever done that. Usually you just glimpse them flying off at speed. Another early night after red meat and beer was enjoyed.
What a great break – the first real birding since before Aitch and I became child-infested. I’d forgotten what early mornings without scarecrows was like! We spent 32 days on our trip up to Malawi when the kids were 5 and 1 and only saw one bird, and that was a Zambian nkuku whose cousin was deliciously on our plates at a shisanyama at the roadside in Livingstone. I exaggerate. Slightly.
Bruce Soutar wrote: Pete – eye think this is a compliment – from Rooooth Garland: Please tell Piet I LOVE his stories and want to see more . . . He makes me smile, even though he’s a drunkard and no good at flying. Does he have a blogspot I can sign up for? XxPS: Sakumuzi is a huge Twinstreams fan . . . Lovely man. Ruth Garland – Sydney Australia
Ruth’s Dad was the legendary Ian Garland, whose exploits at Twinstreams in Zululand did heaps to save, propagate and teach about indigenous plants. Ruth’s exploits at Mbona in a low-flying kombi were a different chapter, which also did heaps to save and teach, but not propagate.
khehlas and gogos – Old men and Old ladies
gugile – ancient, as in buggered; decrepit; you know; don’t pretend you don’t know
voëls – birds
nkuku – chicken
shisanyama – red meat on red hot coals restaurant; not teetotal joints; licenced to sell alcohol, ‘Which’ – as famous birder Ian Sinclair said with a grin – ‘I’m licenced to drink’
My Bird List in Nkandla Forest:Lemon Dove; Dusky Flycatcher; Blue-Mantled Flycatcher;Knysna Turaco; Red-eyed Dove; Redbilled Wood-Hoopoe; Greater Double-collared Sunbird; Grey Cuckoo Shrike; Rameron Pigeon; Black-headed Oriole; Cape Batis; Black Saw-wing; HEARD: Dark-backed Weaver; Emerald Cuckoo; Chinspot Batis;
My Bird List in Entumeni Forest:Narina Trogon; Cape Batis; Olive Sunbird; Terrestrial Brownbul
My Bird list St Lucia and in St Lucia coastal forest: Woodwards Batis; Rudd’s Apalis; Yellow-bellied Greenbul; Green Malkoha – LIFER in South Africa for me – full sunlight saturation view; Grey Sunbird; Livingstone’s Turaco; Burchell’s Coucal; Whimbrel; Osprey; Grey Heron; Fish Eagle; Spoonbill; Yellow Weaver; Green Pigeon; Speckled Mousebird; Swift Tern; Black-winged Stilt; Avocet; YB Stork; Pink-backed Pelican; Little Tern; Three-banded Plover; Blue-cheeked Bee-eater;Lemon Dove – saturation close-up; Crested Guineafowl; Pied Wagtail; Cape Wagtail; Goliath Heron; Great White Egret; Little Egret; Thickbilled Weaver; White-breasted Cormorant; Palm Swift; Brown-throated Martin; Black or Common Swift; Chorister Robin-chat; Crowned Hornbill;
My Bird list in Ngoye Forest:Green Barbet – LIFER for me (yes, I know, Aitch); Yellow-streaked Greenbul; Tambourine Dove; Delegorgue’s Pigeon; Crowned Hornbill; Olive Woodpecker; GT Woodpecker; Orange-breasted Bush Shrike; Mountain Wagtail; Red-eyed Dove; Hadeda Ibis; Narina Trogon; HEARD: Wood Owl; Diederik Cuckoo;
Other creatures on the trip: Samango monkey; Red Squirrel; Thick-tailed Bushbaby (heard at night); Rainbow Skink; Banded Forester Butterfly;