The Big Birding Day (“BBD” to those in the know!) is a nationwide initiative run by BirdLife South Africa to get people out in nature and involved in the fantastic hobby of birdwatching. The idea is to pick a team of four members that bird in a 100 km (62 mile) diameter area with a pre-set centre point. You need to identify as many birds as you can in a 24 hour period, with both sightings and birds heard counting towards the total. The teams have their totals calculated with the use of the brilliant BirdLasser App.
Our local Gauteng-based Nature Travel Birding team have been doing the challenge for a few years now, and we have always just fallen short of the 200 species mark. This year we were determined to reach the magical mark, and we even packed some sparkling wine in the vehicle just in case…
As our team is based in Pretoria in the Gauteng province, we headed north on the N1 highway to one of the top birding roads in Southern Africa, the famous Zaagkuildrift Road, to make this our first spot. We reached the road at about 4:45am and as has been the case on every single previous BBD, our first tick was the unmistakable kraak-kraak-kraak of the Northern Black Korhaan. We slowly made our way westwards, picking up the ubiquitous Long-billed Crombec, Red-backed Shrike, Helmeted Guineafowl and Rattling Cisticola, and also adding a few good regional endemics: Southern Boubou, Cape White-eye and Southern Pied Babbler.
We stopped at a small wetland for an early coffee break and managed to add African Fish Eagle, Spur-winged Goose, African Jacana, Black and Purple Heron, White-faced Whistling Duck, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, an out-of-range Fan-tailed Widowbird and White-bellied Sunbird to name a few.
We continued making our way westward in wonderful weather, with only a slight breeze and pleasant overcast conditions. The cuckoos were out in full force, and we ticked Black, Levaillant’s, Klaas’s, Diederik and Red-chested Cuckoo fairly early on. The small seedeaters were also well represented, and we managed great views of Blue, Black-faced and Violet-eared Waxbill, Red-billed Firefinch, along with the beautiful Green-winged Pytilia. The road is also a raptor hotspot, and we managed Black-chested Snake Eagle, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Common Buzzard, and Black-winged and Yellow-billed Kite. We smashed through the 100 mark early in the morning; things were looking good!
We reached the famous “Crake Road” with some more nice birds in the bag, including Brown-backed Honeybird, Barred Wren-Warbler, Great Sparrow, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Cape Penduline Tit, Red-billed Oxpecker, Brubru, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Red-breasted Swallow, Lesser Grey Shrike, Willow Warbler, Chinspot Batis and Kalahari Scrub Robin. The often-flooded road is named “Crake Road” for the tendency of the area to produce some superb crake sightings, and although we didn’t manage any of those, we did add a pair of African Snipe, Knob-billed Duck, Pied Kingfisher, Great Egret, Thick-billed Weaver and Yellow-crowned Bishop, bringing our total for the day to about 140.
We reached the famous Kgomo-Kgomo floodplain and were ecstatic to see the wetlands brimming with water; the most we had seen in all our years of doing BBD. We managed to get African Spoonbill, Yellow-billed Stork, Squacco Heron, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Black-winged Stilt, Wood Sandpiper, Malachite Kingfisher and a shrub full of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters!
We then drove back the way we had come on the Zaagkuildrift Road (with our total at about 160), and upon reaching the N1 highway aimed back south. On the way to Pretoria we picked up good numbers of White and Abdim’s Stork , both nice surprises. We reached our next destination, the Rooiwal Water Treatment Works, at about 11:30am. Only birders will understand why people willingly walk and drive around in a sewage treatment plant! Here we picked up Glossy Ibis, a single Cape Teal, good numbers of Grey-headed Gull, Little Grebe, Common Sandpiper, Three-banded Plover, Black Crake, Cape and African Pied Wagtail, Lesser Swamp Warbler, White-fronted Bee-eater and a pair of beautiful Amethyst Sunbirds.
In Pretoria, we decided to try something different from what we had done in previous years, and made two stops. First, we headed to the compact Faerie Glen Nature Reserve, a true gem right inside the city’s suburban sprawl. Here we did a short walk and managed to tick Lesser Honeyguide, Jameson’s Firefinch, the endemic Fiscal Flycatcher, European Bee-eater, Karoo Thrush, Cape Robin-Chat, Bronze Mannikin and the highlight, a very obliging, Black Cuckooshrike. Next we headed to a local shopping mall that we had scouted before the BBD, and managed our three main targets there: Mountain Wheatear, Familiar Chat and Rock Martin.
After a quick lunch break at a nice spot in the city (to recharge our batteries) we headed to our final spot for the day, the wonderful Rietvlei Nature Reserve to the southeast of Pretoria with our team total at about 180 – would we make 200? We arrived just after 3pm and followed a route that our team had had great success with in the past. We were amazed at the amount of water in the reserve after the previous week’s good rains; not only were the streams and dams overflowing, but there was water lying in the veld everywhere! Highlights early on during our drive in the reserve included African Black Duck, Giant Kingfisher, Long-tailed Widowbird, Red-throated Wryneck, Black-crowned Tchagra, Wing-snapping Cisticola, huge numbers of Pied Starling, stunning Cape Longclaw, African Reed Warbler and the ridiculously bright Crimson-breasted Shrike.
We could feel the excitement building… We were close to 200… Would we make it? A last loop in the reserve produced number 199, the endemic Cape Grassbird, and then, rounding a corner one team member heard the unmistakable call of the Bokmakierie , and then we all saw it. Number 200 in the bag! What a great feeling! As a bonus we also picked up Orange-breasted Waxbill shortly afterwards, taking our total to 201 for the day.
We ended our day at dusk at one of the bird hides inside Rietvlei just before 7 pm with some sparkling wine, toasting great friendship, a fantastic BBD and a new record for our local Gauteng-based Nature Travel Birding team!