Birding South Africa–Oudtshoorn!

The first time we cracked open our brand new “Newman’s Birds of South Africa” book, our moderate knowledge about birds went out the window.  We hardly recognized a bird in the book – talk about starting over!

One of our favourite birding locations in South Africa was Oudtshoorn, a town in the Western Cape province along the Garden Route drive (a week-long drive we were doing from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth).  Although this area is most widely known for being the “Ostrich capital of the world,” it also offers some pretty good birding.

This was a particularly memorable day in South Africa because we had a one-on-one encounter with Meerkats at the crack of dawn, immediately followed by birding with a local guide. We were extremely fortunate to see the landscape in full colour because we were in South Africa during spring.  When walking around, you wouldn’t think there are many birds, but patience and knowledge reveals an abundance of life.

It all started when our guide stopped dead in his tracks, listening intently because he thought he heard a particular bird call–a Double-banded Courser.  We know that when a bird guide (who birds every day) gets excited, you need to pay attention!  It is a very elusive bird and difficult to spot in tall vegetation so we stood still, held our breath, and eventually captured this image of the courser among the flowering desert landscape.  It is one of our favourite avian “captures” in the area!

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Double-banded Courser

The Southern Fiscal is also named the jackie hangman or butcher bird due to its habit of impaling its prey on acacia thorns to store the food for later consumption.  They hunt small rodents, insects and small birds.  Evidence of its latest meal (yes–a small bird) still on its beak…

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Southern Fiscal

Ah, the Cape Weaver… we feel sorry for the male Cape Weaver because he spends seven days constructing an intricate nest to impress a potential mate and will then spend several more days attempting to attract a female with calls and displays of prowess (like the one seen below). Once he succeeds he repeats the process and attempts to attract yet another mate (up to seven).  He is a very busy bird!!!  No wonder he usually does not participate in care of the young!

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Cape Weaver

During the breeding season, the male Southern Red Bishop sings his heart out in hopes of attracting a mate.  Similar to the Red-Winged Blackbird of North America, this gregarious male perches on a reed with his chest and flight feathers puffed out competing with the other males in area for attention.  Similar to the Cape Weaver, the Southern Red Bishop builds several nests which are then thoroughly scrutinized by the females.

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Southern Red Bishop

Given that Oudtshoorn is the Ostrich capital of the world, this blog post would not be complete without at least one photo of an Ostrich!  We took in the full Ostrich experience while in Oudtshoorn – an Ostrich lunch, an Ostrich farm tour, and an Ostrich ride, saddle and all (which is somewhat scary after you finish laughing at the thought as they are the fastest land bird at 70 km per hour)!

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Ostrich

 Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt Birds

Sharp-tailed Grouse – So you think you can dance?

Move over Calgary Stampede, there’s a rival to your claim of being the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth!

When we were offered a rare invitation to witness Sharp-tailed Grouse at a lek in southern Alberta, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  A lek is an open area where male birds carry on courtship behaviour each spring.

As this location is on private land we are not permitted to disclose the location of the lek to protect the species, but we can certainly share the experience!

Males arrive at the lek very early – around dawn.  As spectators, we had to get up at 4:15 am in order to arrive on location before sunrise so as not to disturb the birds once they start the courtship rituals.  We carefully made our way to the site and used a blind to remain hidden from the birds.

There were about 30-40 male Sharp-tailed Grouse at the lek and they were “dancing” all around the site.  Heads down, tails up, wings outstretched and stamping their feet rapidly – about 20 times per second !  We can see where all the native dancers at the Stampede got their moves from!  When you hear, and see, 30-40 grouse doing this simultaneously it is truly an amazing act of nature to witness.  Their feathers rattle, they inflate their purple neck sacks, and they make very interesting cooing and gulping sounds at the same time–much like festive Macarena dance!

16A_6012 3-1(male courtship dance at first light)

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(head down, tail up, and gyrating!)

The males were competing for dominance, as only the dominant male (or two) out of the whole group, will be selected by the females to sire the next generation.  The males faced off in head to head battles (often striking one another) until the matter was settled.

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(males facing off for dominance)

Eventually about 3 females arrived and that’s when the males really ramped up the jigging and shaking!  The females walked around slowly perusing the wares on display, selected the male that had the best moves, made quick work of the business at hand, and carried on.

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(female arrives to evaluate the dancing – note the abnormal “crossbill-like” beak)

Our lek experience lasted about 3 hours and eventually, when it was evident no more females were coming, the males became quiet and still (probably exhausted from the effort).  Just a silently as they arrived, they all flew off.

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(closeup of a male – nice eyebrows!)

It was an awesome outdoor show, one we have never been privileged to witness before!  We never cease to be amazed at the variety of wildlife and birds right here in Alberta.  We think the Sharp-tailed Grouse know how to dance 🙂

Marcy & Ray Stader

StaderArt Birds