Chapter 71 in Birding Gauteng described an vast network of farm roads in the Devon area - about an hour east of the city of Johannesburg. Here are reports on the various trips that I have made to this spot:
1. May 2010
I returned from Nylsvley on Saturday with my family and came up 2 Lifers short of the 300 mark! So this morning, on my day off, I decided to complete the Devon Birding Routes. I woke up long before the sparrows did but went back to sleep thanks to massive storms all around Joburg which made it look like a bad day for birding. At 6 there seemed to be a little light in an easterly direction and that was all I needed. I hit the road at 6:30 and travelled on the N17 toll road to get to Devon. It got darker and darker as I drove away from the blue skies into the thunder clouds in front of me. But by the time I got to the R548, the road from Devon to Balfour, it was starting to clear up nicely!
I started scanning all the dams in the area and got a few pics but nothing spectacular. Two Pied Kingfishers, Yellow-billed Ducks, Egyptian Geese, Common Moorhen and some little brown jobs that kept flying off before I could id them or get a decent pic. I ventured onto a dirt road to do the Wolve-bank Loop but turned back within 100 metres because the roads were so water-logged that I could not get any traction. It did not look good for the day, given that most of the route is on dirt roads.
I arrived at the Witkop Road and at the dam at the intersection took a few pics of what I first thought might be a Harrier - only to check my display on my camera to find that it was an Owl. I have not seen an Owl in the wild since I started birding seriously and was starting to wonder if I ever would see one. I thought it was African Grass Owl but it turned out to be Marsh Owl.
Which got me wondering what my 300th bird would be. Surely something spectacular. In the meantime I had some amazing sightings of Black-shouldered Kite - and on one telephone pole I counted 6 birds!
One of my goals for the day was to find the Blue Korhaan, but the late start due to the weather had not worked in my favour but there was still a chance of finding it on the Rietkuil Road to Rus-en-Vrede. But the journey soon became anything but "Rus-en-Vrede" - try sheer panic as the road turned to butter and I began slipping and sliding - clearly the rain the night before had been prolific in this area and I kept thinking that if I just went another 100 metres it would improve. Sense and sensibility finally prevailed and I made a hasty retreat - and the return on my own tracks was not much easier!
But as I approached the tar road (a welcomed sight I can assure you!) I saw a Francolin step out of the bush in front of me. I casually snapped a couple of pics before seeing a family was nearby too. They decided that they too needed to make a hasty retreat and suddenly I remembered that this area was known for the Orange River Francolin. And looking at the books confirmed it - this was bird number 300 for me! Special? Kinda, I guess.
Here are one or two other pics I got along the way (the Cape Longclaw pic is special as it is the first time I have snapped a pic showing it's long claws):
There were little options left for me as all the others routes were on dirt roads and I was not doing that again on the day! So I headed off to Marievale for a bit more birding.
2. July 2010
On Saturday morning the 17th of July I made another trip of the Devon Birding Route (chapter 71 in Birding Gauteng). I was hoping to see a Blue Korhaan on the day so I made my way as quickly as possible to the Kietkuil Road. I came up empty handed on the day with my pursuit of the Korhaan, but had an awesome day out and was able to get really close to Marsh Owl and Orange River Francolin, fairly close to an African Marsh Owl and saw hundreds of Flamingoes at three different dams in the area. No Lifers - although the mystery Pipit I snapped (see the pics) might be a candidate.
Here are some pics I took in the order in which they were sighted:
This Swainson's Spurfowl actually sat and looked at me from this fence and allowed me to get an up close shot:
I got up really close to an African Marsh Harrier and just wished I could move the position of the sun (wow, I think I would destroy the world if I had the kind of power!) to get a decent shot. It flew off as I tried to edge forward to get some early morning sunlight onto the bird:
The place was crawling with Black-shouldered Kite - every second telephone pole had one perched on top of it. Here are three different pics I snapped during the day:
The last time I did this route I saw Orange River Francolin for the first time and never got a decent image - this time a family hurried into the grass from the roadside as I drove up to them and I had to wait at least 15 minutes before they appeared again - and I finally got some decent shots of them:
My biggest frustration of the day was not being able to get close enough to get decent shots of the four different sightings of Kestrel that I had on the day - one of them even looked like it might have been Lesser Kestrel which would have been a Lifer for me, but they never stayed long enough for me to get close enough with my 300mm lens. I need an invisibility cloak like Harry Potter uses to get up close to get a decent shot:
There were at least 8 Marsh Owl in the fields close to the Rus-en-Vrede farm at point 6 on the route. I walked into the field and stood among them as they hunted all around me - I finally gave up on auto-focus and went manual and actually got a few in focus pics as the hurried around catching their prey:
I watched in amazement as this Marsh Owl transferred a mouse that it had just caught from it's feel to it's beak in mid-flight:
I met the farmer of Rus-de-Vrede farm, Jan, a delightful chap, worried that I might be another person trying to steal one of his cattle (a problem they are having in the area) and he invited me to take a closer look at the dam on his farm. Here are some scenery pics of the dam with tons of birds:
I counted 113 Greater Flamingo on the dam as well as Red-billed Teal, Cape Teal, Grey Heron, Reed Cormorant, White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Shoveler, Maccoa Duck and Red-knobbed Coot - of course):
I nearly mis-identified the next bird as a Purple Heron - it was that rufous that my eyes played tricks on me - it turned out to be a juvenile Black-headed Heron:
Jan told me to look out for a tree at the intersection closer to Leeubank (point 4 in Birding Gauteng) where Secretary Birds roost at night. I found the tree and dozens of feathers on the ground and other evidence of their presence. I wish I could have been there late that evening as they returned because I did not see a single Secretarybird all day (and I looked!!!):
I returned to the R548 and crossed over the tar road to complete the Witkop Road and then the Langzeekoegat Link road. On the dams about 3km from the intersection I saw a small flock of Greater Flamingo with some mystery black birds in the background. I'd love to know what they are - but it's at the edge of my range so this is the best I have to show:
Here is a pic of Boesmanspruit river in the area:
Just where the dirt road becomes a tar road (before the turn off to the Langzeekoegat Link road I saw an African Pipit in the grass:
There was not too much alive on the Lanzeekoegat Road (it was around 12ish by now) and I made my way to Nigel and took a brief drive through Marievale where I managed to almost by luck get this pic of an African Snipe that took off as I approached the edge of the dam near the lodges:
I then headed back to the big dam on the R550 (see my Last Marievale trip report for directions). The huge flock of Greater Flamingoes and the other birds including Pied Avocet and Black-winged Stilt were all there (the White-faced Duck were particularly vocal):
Here is a full list of the birds I saw on the Devon Route: Black-shouldered Kite, Natal Spurfowl, Swainson's Spurfowl, Blacksmith Lapwing, Egyptian Goose, Cape Longclaw, Common Mynah, Black-headed Heron, Grey Heron, Southern Masked Weaver, Red-billed Quelea, Long-tailed Widowbird, Pied Kingfisher, Orange River Francolin, Red-capped Lark, African Stonechat, African Spoonbill, Three-banded Plover, Common Moorhen, Rock Kestrel, African Marsh Harrier, Marsh Owl, Common Fiscal, Capped Wheatear, Crested Lapwing, Cape Glossy Starling, African Wattled Lapwing, Southern Red Bishop, Cape Teal, Greater Flamingo, Red-Billed Teal, Cape Shoveler, White-breasted Cormorant, Reed Cormorant, Cape Wagtail, Red-knobbed Coot, Maccoa Duck, Hadeda Ibis, Southern Ibis, Little Grebe, Cattle Egret, Helmeted Guineafowl, Pipit, Rock Pigeon and Black-wing Stilt. 45 different bird species - a good day outdoors all round - not to mention the 5 cups of South American coffee that my flask kept me going with all day! And if someone could tell me that my Pipit is African Rock Pipit (although I am not sure that the legs and tail are particularly short) - then it will be a perfect day's outing!!!
3. October 2010 (Trip 1)
On Monday the 11th of October 2010 I made a third trip to bird the Devon Area route (as described in chapter of Birding Gauteng). I left home early enough (4:30am) to be in the field before the sun rose and made my way to Leeuwbank as soon as possible (point 3 and then 4 on the map). My goal was to catch sight of, and photograph, Blue Korhaan.
A few birds that barely delayed me were Black-headed Heron, Swainson's Spurfowl, Cape Long Claw, Black-shouldered Kite and Long-tailed Widowbird. It was really early morning and the light was not great for photography. As the sun started to rise I caught sight of two Marsh Owl - and one perched on a fence right next to the road.
An African Stonechat and Blacksmith Lapwing appeared before I spotted Orange River Francolin which I had seen close up on last trip so I paused for a couple pics before moving on.
I spotted the first African Pipit for the day and would during the day see dozens of the species in numerous locations.
I managed to id and get somewhat decent pics of three different Swallow species on the day:
I arrived at the cross-road at point 3 (just after Blesbokspruit and after the Wolwebank Loop road) and spotted Three-banded Plover, Hamerkop, Spur-winged Goose and Helmeted Guineafowl). And I began to search the grassy slopes for signs of Blue Korhaan - I must have walked for about 500 meteres in either direction of my car (seeing a pair of Spotted Thick-knee and not too much else) and then I heard them - at least two Blue Korhaan were clearly calling from the long grass not more than 30 meters from the road side. I played a sound bite from Roberts' multimedia and they responded harshly (an amazing sound to hear) and I expected to see them come strolling out of the grass. But each time I heard them I realised they were getting further and further away. It was soul destroying. The fields were fenced and I was not about to break the rules - even though getting a pic of this lifer would have been amazing. I "wasted" about 45 minutes hanging around and finally decided to continue along the road towards Rus-en-Vrede (point 6 on the map).
A Swainson's Spurfowl tried to appear invisible right next to the road and a Black shouldered Kite posed nicely as well.
Then my focus changed to hunting down Pink-billed Lark. My goal on the day was to photograph three birds (Pink-billed Lark, Pale-crowned Cisticola and Blue Korhaan - taking me to 400 birds on the life list) and suddenly I noticed that the "pipits" on the road side had unique cone shaped bills - bingo! They were Pink-billed Larks. I must admit that they stayed just about 15 meters beyond the sweet spot of my 300mm lens so I am really less than happy with the results - but at least it is a lifer confirmed and now I can relax and see them often!!!
The first of MANY Cisticola's appeared in my camera lens (and each time I looked with great hope and expectation for a short black tail and a whitish crown - and never saw it!) - some of the pics just can't be identified - so I can only assume that I mostly saw Levaillant's on the day:
A half-decent sighting of three Common Waxbill took my attention, followed by a bird that was a possible Pale-crowned, but thanks to sharp eyes on the Simply Birding forum turned out to be a juvenile African Stonechat (a first sighting of juvenile for me). Some other sightings in this area include: male Cape Longclaw, Three-banded Plover, Reed Cormorant, Red-capped Lark, African Pipit, Levaillant's Cisticola, Southern Red Bishop, Long-tailed Widowbird, Red-billed Quelea, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Cape Sparrow and Common Fiscal.
It is amazing how time flies when you are loving every minute of what you are doing - as I arrived at the farm dam at Rus-en-Vrede (and once again met and chatted with the farmer, Johan who once again welcomed me to spend as much time at his dam as I wanted to). He asked me some questions as to why so many Flamingoes were present on his farm dam and not other dams in the area and I was not much help with an answer. The focus of our conversation was on the desperate need for rain in the area - it is so so dry!
I scanned the dam and found hundreds of Greater Flamingo (and while processing my pics saw at least 2 Lesser Flamingo among the birds). A wader on the shoreline turned out to be a juvenile Blacksmith Lapwing (Where do they grow up? This is the first time I have ever seen a juvenile!). A Whiskered Tern flew up and down while Yellow-billed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot were common.
As I left the dam I decided to complete a loop that I had not done before (from 6 to 7 and back to 4). I spotted a Longclaw that I was convinced was Yellow-throated and then learned that the female Cape Longclaw has a yellow throat but less distinct throat band compared to the Yellow-throated Longclaw.
I then saw this Pipit that has a bill that is more pinkish than yellow, and the bill looks longer than the other Pipits I photographed on the day - so I am left wondering if it is perhaps Long-billed Pipit instead of African Pipit:
The route was enjoyable because it was new to me but did not yield too much more initiall than Cape Wagtail, Southern Masked Weaver, Red-billed Quelea, Sacred Ibis and Cattle Egret. A Rock Kestrel flew overhead and my pics confirm the id, but are too embarrassing to post!
Then I arrived at a farm dam at point 7 on the map and saw White-faced Duck in large numbers, Egyptian Goose, Cape Turtle Dove, Speckled Pigeon and Cape Turtle Dove.
This African Pipit kindly posed on a fence not far from the road side - I usually get shots of this species on the road or foraging among short grass, so this was a neat experience:
My next sighting was another Widowbird - which has been identified as a possible White-winged Widowbird:
I then arrived back at point 4 on the map and returned towards point 3 where I had heard the Korhaan. I took this photograph of the little dam in the area:
From this point I took another route for the first time - the Wolwebank Loop road - which follows the Blesbokspruit River. Along the way I saw Grey Heron, Hamerkop, White-faced Duck, Yellow-billed Duck, Sacred Ibis, Hadeda Ibis, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver. I then arrived at a spot where the river flows close to the road and a large farm overlooks the dam (on the left hand side of the road) - here is a pic of some birds in this spot.
I drove up the driveway and met the son of the farmer who informed me that there are a number of dams on their farm that I should explore. They are not marked on the map in Birding Gauteng and I was off like a shot. Here are the GPS co-ordinates for the road that you take off the Wolwebank Loop road (26°29'24.22"S, 28°45'12.17"E) and here are the co-ordinates for the first of the 2 dams that I discovered (26°29'34.14"S, 28°45'54.14"E) and the second dam (26°29'40.86"S, 28°46'05.88"E). Here are some scenery pics of the dams and a view looking back towards the first dam with the farmstead on the far side:
The best experience I had at the first dam was when I walked along the dam wall (just a small mound of sand in fact) and surprised a number of African Snipe. They flew off to the side of the dam when I had parked my car. When I walked back to that point they would take off and head back to the other side - and so on. The wierd thing was that once they landed they became invisible and try as hard as I could, I just could not spot them up close before they took flight (sometime they took off from what seemed like under my feet and I had not seen them at all). There were 10 of them at the dam and we had fun (well I hope they did too) walking back and forth for a while. You can see from my last pic - that only one hung around long enough for me to get a half decent pic!
The other birds on or around these dams included: White-faced Duck, Grey Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Squacco Heron, Glossy Ibis, Reed Cormorant, Blacksmith Lapwing, Red-knobbed Coot, Common Moorhen, Red-capped Lark and Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark. Here are a few pics:
I arrived at the tar road (R548 at point 2 on the map) and retraced my steps to explore the Witkop Road (beyond point 9). At the dams along this road (Where all three of the birds I was looking for have been spotted in the past) I saw House Sparrow, Red-billed Quelea, Black-headed Heron, Southern Masked Weaver, Long-tailed Widowbird, Cape Sparrow and Swallows.
I then returned to the R548 and set off along the Klippan Link Road (from point 13 to 12) - stopping at the first dam just off the main road where I saw a really dirty looking African Spoonbill, Black-winged Stilt, and a bird that I thought was a wader I had never seen before - it turned out to be a juvenile Blacksmith Lapwing (a first sighting for me).
Along the rest of the route (there are two wetlands that you cross with great potential when the rains have arrived) I saw Crowned Lapwing, Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark, Black-shouldered Kite, Yellow-billed Stork, Capped Wheatear and Common Waxbill I lost count of how many were in the group!).
Two other dams close to the N17 highway and close to Devon got my attention - on the one dozens of Flamingoes were standing around and on the other I saw Little Grebe, Whiskered Tern, Grey Heron, Red-knobbed Coot, Squacco Heron and Common Moorhen.
What a day!!! In total on the day I saw 60 Bird Species and got the lifer of the Pink-billed Lark. My Life list is photo based so hearing the Blue Korhaan does not count.
4. October 2010 (Trip 2)
On Saturday the 16th of October 2010 I made a fourth trip to bird the Devon Area route (my goal was to expose my family to the beauty of the area - and the flamingoes on the Rus-en-Vrede dam). We left home at 5am (a family-friendly departure time?) and arrived after the sun had risen although the heavy mist and cloud cover in the area made the late start acceptable. Fortunately as the sun rose the weather cleared up a whole lot - it was really cold out doors early on - like bitterly cold!
We made our way towards Rietkuil Road via Leeubank and had my first time sighting on the Devon route of Pin-tailed Whydah:
We were admiring a juvenile Black-shoulded Kite when we met up with a Lifer sighting for me - that of DotDaan from the GBT forum. It was great to meet up with another birder. We But for poor cell phone coverage with would have met up with others birders on the day as well. As we continued on the road, a farmer from one of the farms in the area drove up to us to make sure we were not cattle thieves. His name was Jaap Coetzee and it was really special when he called us birders by the name: "Voel Jagters" (bird hunters may be a loose translation). I think I will refer to myself as a Voel Jagter in future. He mentioned that his son-in-law is the owner of the Rust-en-Vrede Dam where the large flock of Flamingoes are resident. He really seemed to appreciate the presence of birders in the area and confirmed that we were welcome to visit the dams on his farm land.
Our next sighting was of a Spotted Thick-knee followed by my second sighting of Pink-billed Lark (they just never sit still long enough for decent pics!!!):
The fields in the area were looking really awesome as the sun rose:
We caught sight of a Secretarybird but it kept moving away from us, so my pic is really lame, but it was the first time I had seen Secretarybird on the Devon route:
We arrived at the Rus-en-Vrede dam and enjoyed checking out the flamingoes - I only spotted Greater and no Lesser on the day.
As we left the farm property to head back to the dirt road we paused to enjoy the row of Poplar trees that serve as a wind break:
At the dirt road we watched an African Pipit taking a bath - he seemed oblivious to our presence as he enjoyed bathing and shaking himself dry and then bathing and shaking again.
On the road back towards Leeubank (the scenery was amazing) we saw Black-shouldered Kite hunting in the fields (watching it dive was amazing and my shot was almost good!):
We turned right onto the Wolvebank Loop road and stopped to admire some Greater Striped Swallow sitting on a fence next to the road before we arrived at the farm dams I found last week (see my previous report for details). On my previous trip I was told there were three dams and yet I had only found 2. We made our way through a farm fence towards the third dam which we spotted because a flock of White-faced Duck took off and landed on the spot. I decided to take a walk from the track down to the little dam - not too hopeful to see more than a few duck.
Boy, was I wrong. Firstly, three Swainson's Spurfowl took off from right under my feet - nearly given me heart-failure, a buck went darting past me (about 3 meters away from me), and then a Marsh Owl took off, followed by another, then another - until we had counted 20 of them that were resting in the soft and marshy ground to the east of the little dam.
When we finally dragged ourselves from the spot we needed to head back home. Out last sighting was of Greater Kestrel on the R548 towards the N17 highway.
Here are the pics of the buck that we saw on the day:
5. February 2011
On the 7th of February 2011 I made a brief trip to this spot and saw Giant Kingfisher, Montagues Harrier and Steppe Buzzard among other species: