Specials of the High Berg
In birding speak, specials are birds that are found in a certain area and no where else. For birders this means that they will need to travel to those areas to go and ‘get’ those species. For most birders, to get a species means to see it and positively identify the bird. You could get crippling views of the bird (a sighting that was so good that you could hardly stand up straight), or you could dip-out (you didn’t get to see the bird at all). The only good thing about dipping-out on a special, especially one found in a really beautiful place, is that you will just have to return to see it again. The worst possible way to dip-out, is if every other person in the party gets to see the bird and you don’t. Birders have been known to perform collective ablution, for this very reason. Never let your mate wonder of into the bush with a spade and a role of white gold on his own, it’s a dangerous world and you never know what special he might bump into. Shifty bunch these Birders.
The most often asked question, by a birder, when they are heading into a new area is, “What specials can I pick up there?” They will then do copious amounts of study on those birds, learn their calls and get to know all there is to know about them, before they go. And then start contacting various fundis to get some good gen (short for general information) on where the best places will be to pick up these specials.
Well I hope this article will be good gen for you if you are going to the “top” to look for birds. If you dip-out, don’t stress because that just means you will have to go again, and that has to be better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick. Hopefully your first trip to get the specials of the high Berg won’t be as disastrous as mine was. We arrived at the border post at the base of Sani pass, when the guard was inspecting my passport he noticed that it had only just expired. I was half way over the beurocratic wall to convince him that I wasn’t actually going to enter Lesotho, I only wanted to go to the top of the pass, to see some special birds. He was so intrigued with this notion and was about to let us through when my birding mate, Pete walked in, oblivious to all that had gone down, he picks up my passport, and innocently asks me, “Why did you bring Gill’s passport”. I was dumbstruck, not only was the passport “passed”, but it also didn’t belong to me. My mates had crippling views of the birds mentioned here; I had to return to get my specials at a later date. Pete felt so bad that he left the cooler box with me at the bottom of the pass. I dipped-out on the birds, but I dipped-in on the beers.
Specials are often considered to be rare, but if you look at the status of most of these species you will see that they will be listed as; ‘rare, localised resident’. Or “rare, locally common.” This means that they are found in only very specific areas, and if you go to those areas you are likely to see these birds. The species that are considered specials for the high berg are species that are restricted by altitude, and are generally only found over 2000m. in fact only one of the three, the Mountain Pipit, Anthus hoeschi, is mentioned in P.A. Clancy’s classic, The Rare Birds of Southern Africa. Let’s have a look at the 3 species that I consider to be specials for the High Berg.
Drakensberg Siskin. Serinus symonsi.
Being a Serinus means that this bird belongs to the group of birds known as Canaries. It is a dull little bird and is far more unobtrusive than the rest of our canaries. The best way to ‘grip’ this bird is to see the “near-chocolate back with its greenish rump, and the white tips seen in flight on the black tail and brown primary feathers.” This is the description given in C J Skeads book on The Canaries, Seedeaters and Buntings of Southern Africa. One of the problems with using the birds ‘flying away from you’ characteristics for identification is that you had better be very sure of your sighting as all the other field guides will tell you that this bird flies a long way before resettling.
One of the things that I found interesting in Skeads book was his description of the call. Remembering that this book was published in 1960, so there was scant scientific data of the bird. He says, “There are no descriptions (of the call) other than such phrases as “….a pretty little song” and “…of some merit” which are meaningless.” Quite right he was. The Afrikaans name for this bird is Pietjiekanarie; once again they got it right by using onomatopoeic descriptions to name our birds. For the call can best be described as “pee, chee”. This is chiefly a bird of the slopes and valleys; we encountered them a few times along the side of Sani Pass as we were nearing the top.
Mountain Pipit Anthus hoeschi
This is the tricky one of the three, as are all Pipits. Best advice is to spend as much time looking at very common African Pipits, Anthus cinnamomeus, as you can so that you are so familiar with them that when you see this bird you can ID it on the fact that you are sure it is not an African Pipit. They look larger, but in fact are only 1cm larger, they seem more robust and longer legged. The field characteristic that you need to be clear on is the bill colour and the colour of the outer tail feathers. The bill of the Mountain Pipit has a pinkish base to the lower mandible whereas the African Pipits lower mandible is more yellowish. The outer tail feathers are buff rather than the white in the African Pipit. This is again best seen when the bird is flying away, so be sure to check on the lower mandible before you flush the bird. If you have any of the commercially available recordings of the bird calls, we found that this was the best way to be sure of a positive ID.
In the older literature this bird was a subspecies of the African Pipit, it was then given full species status, but it still remains an enigma. It is known to breed in Lesotho but then where it goes in winter is still conjecture. I managed to get the as yet unpublished material from the NEW Roberts, and they use words like, “apparently”, “reputedly” and “could potentially”. They call it an Inter-African migrant, but until we have confirmed ringing returns or someone designs a small enough satellite telemeter, I guess the mystery will continue.
The bird is found in sub alpine heath, “and may first be seen in the vicinity of the ruin, 2km along the road to Mokhotlong from Sani top” according to Hugh Chittenden’s excellent book Top Birding Spots in Southern Africa. We found it a little further on, but we suspect that the birders before us had flushed the bird from the ruin to check on the outer tail feathers.
Orange-breasted Rockjumper Chaetops aurantius
This for me is the mega-tick of the high Berg. Just because they are such characters, and really smart birds. It is the only bird that inspired me to pen poetry, after I had seen it. I most definitely would not expose you the reader to my literary mishap. Like the Mountain Pipit, this bird‘s “taxonomic career” has been unsettled. Whether it is a separate species from the Cape Rockjumper has been the question. One of the acid tests in these matters is whether they would interbreed. The mere fact that their ranges do not overlap by more than a couple of hundred kms, has seen that they are now treated as two entirely separate species. So where do the Rockjumpers fit in the whole ‘species’ picture. They have in the past been included with the Thrushes but more recently they have been shifted in with Babblers, oh if Linnaeus could see us now. All of this doesn’t detract from the fact that it is one of the most interesting endemics that we have in Southern Africa, and worth the trip.
They favour areas of scattered boulders on scree slopes, and are common all the way up the pass. My favourite place to get a “quick fix” of this awesome bird is at the Sentinal car park, along the path as you head up towards the chain-ladder.
These are the three Mega-specials; there are of course lots of other exciting birds to see on the high Berg. Go for these three and the others will fall into your lap. Specials like these are the reason that birders go to places, and the experience is always as good as the bird. Who knows you might bump into a Bearded Vulture along the way, now that is adding icing (no pun intended) to an already exciting fieldtrip.
The Complete Book of Southern African Birds. PJ Ginn, W G McIlleron and P le S Milstein. Struik
Top Birding Spots in Southern Africa. Hugh Chittenden. Southern Book Publishers
The Canaries, Seedeaters and Buntings of Southern Africa. C J Skead. Published for the trustees, the South African Bird Book fund, distributed by CAN.
Finches and Sparrows, An identification Guide. Peter Clement, Alan Harris and John Davis. Russel Friedman Books.
David Weaver owns the Rose Garden Manor House B+B which is registered as a “Birder Friendly” establishment by Birdlife South Africa. For further info on birds contact him on 083 3034230.