Bird watching – and the extreme version, twitching – can take you to the most interesting places. I would say that visiting sewage works was never on my bucket list at any stage of my life, and I still view them with distaste – perhaps because of dismell – not only because they are in isolated areas where safety from criminal activity can be a concern, but also because the wind always seems to blow a hoolie. There are two along the False Bay coastline that have come into my list of places to see rarities – Strandfontein and Macassar – that are subjected to gales from both directions and dust swirls in mini tornadoes as you lean against the car to steady yourself while trying to zoom in on a tiny sandpiper on a far bank. Spitting grit is no fun at the best of times, but the addition of foam from a settling pan ‘gee my die horries‘ as an Afrikaans friend so eloquently puts it.
The opportunity to see a rarity and add it to the life list within an hour’s drive is quickly grasped and so it was that we set off on a Saturday morning with a gusting northwester behind us, headed for the sewage works. With the surprisingly helpful Google Maps lady, we arrived at our destination within the allotted time. Passing the burgeoning shack city along Baden Powell Drive is never a delightful experience as the in-your-face social divide encroaches on some of the last nature reserve along the shoreline, but that day all was quiet – not a person, a car, a goat or a skinny cur to be seen; a veritable ghost town. The only activity along the road was a large contingent of council workers bravely attempting to make a dent in the litter and debris, hopefully with some success.
There were plenty of other birders at the pans on the banks of the Eerste River also eager to catch a sight of the Baird’s Sandpiper that is seen most days, and it certainly helps to have the input of experienced birders when looking for a particular bird among flocks of terns, gulls and assorted waders. We are rapidly learning that the best way to encourage a bird to step out from behind the reeds is to leave the area, drive at least 2km away and wait for the cellphone to ping, advising that it is now in view. A quick u-turn and we are back at the pan, where it has just alighted from who knows where. Scopes and binoculars swing in its direction, zoom lenses point and shutters machine-gun rapid fire. Some hours are spent sitting on the grassy bank, littered with debris from upstream – mainly single Crocs. The wind is howling and dark clouds scud overhead. Just to see if it comes closer for a better photo. The rising tide covers the mudbank and it’s gone. The bird has flown. That’s birding!