After a quiet spell in the twitching world (no rarities spotted for a while), things have started to hot up again, and it’s getting quite difficult to know which twitch is which, or where to twitch or even – and especially – if we can afford to twitch. The rising cost of travel in South Africa is a cause for concern, as pursuing a sighting of a rare bird requires a full tank of petrol or even two, a reliable car (preferably a 4×4) and all weather gear. Not to mention a high-quality scope or binoculars and a long lens to capture the bird for posterity as it flies away, never to be seen again.
The bird being sought in the sights at present is a visitor from far away, the Snowy Sheathbill. Resembling a small chicken, slightly, in shape, it is the only land bird native to Antarctica. Although a fast and strong flier, it prefers to travel by boat and hitches a ride to the Cape from time to time. As a rare vagrant, sightings are dependent on it being seen by a person who recognises it as a bird that doesn’t belong here, and very importantly, cares to share the experience with the birding community. There must be many rarities that go unnoticed and return from whence they came, simply because nobody observed them. This is why it is so important to always be looking up and around you if you are interested in birds. A chance glance in the right direction has caused many a heart to beat faster and car keys to be snatched from the hall stand.
We received the first message on the Rare Bird Alert group yesterday at 3.18 and by 3.40 were taking pictures of the bird on the harbour wall in Kalk Bay. We were not the first to arrive, and a steady stream of twitchers swelled the ranks as the Snowy Sheathbill posed and pecked and paraded for the cameras. A rod fisherman on the wall played the part of carnival king, tossing bits of bait and telling everyone to come closer, don’t worry, it won’t fly away. Eventually it did, but only to show us its flying skills before returning to a different position.
The usual birding community camaraderie was in evidence as everyone shared stories of how they had seen the message on the way back from the early morning twitch of an Abdim’s Stork in Betty’s Bay (we didn’t participate in that one, thank goodness – rushing long distances can be very stressful), and we left satisfied with our experience and photos.
This morning a few lucky twitchers saw it at daybreak, then it flew off and was not seen for some hours, until a report came from a boat at Seal Island that it was on board. Its latest position is the end of the naval breakwater in Simon’s Town, without public access. So near and yet so far for those who have flown in or travelled far – if you have a boat, now’s the time to cast off. You will have many passengers.
(Photos: Robert Cooper)