To the uninformed birder, Dave Deighton must seem to be one of the luckiest birders in the country. Despite being modest to the point of near-anonymity, Dave’s name is still synonymous with rarities and twitching and, whether they know it or not, the majority of serious listers active in southern Africa in the early 2000’s owe him their gratitude.
Dave disagrees. For him, the lure of rarity-hunting lies not in sparking big twitches or being acknowledged by his peers. ‘It is about the bird, and only about the bird’ he passionately states, ‘and the only way to really get to know birds, is through local patching’. Make no mistake: with a southern African lifelist pushing 900—the fourth highest in the region—Dave has done more than his fair share of twitching. But his greatest joy is in repeatedly and methodically birding a favourite spot, whether it be the suburban streets in Brooklyn, Pretoria while walking his dogs, the stark grasslands of Rietvlei Nature Reserve every Tuesday, or a rarity hotspot like Marievale Bird Sanctuary on Gauteng’s East Rand.
A yearning for open spaces and closeness to nature—plus better weather—motivated Dave to immigrate to South Africa from the U.K. in 1967. He admits that the move was not specifically for the birding opportunities. While he had always been interested in nature, his fervor for birding was only cemented many years later, when he met his wife Lyn in 1987. On work-related trips to Durban, Dave and Lyn made a habit of visiting the Umgeni Bird Park, but the point of no return was probably a 1992 trip to Kruger National Park with Lyn and her mother. ‘Ridiculous as it sounds now, I thought ‘A whole week in Kruger! What am I going to do?’’ Dave jokes. ‘So I got a pair of binoculars, bought myself a copy of Newman’s Birds of the Kruger National Park from the local CNA, and never looked back’.
A love affair with waders began in 1994, when Dave started frequenting Marievale Bird Sanctuary between Springs and Nigel. Now a legendary birding spot—to a large extent thanks to Dave’s meticulous local patching work—he chose Marievale at the time simply because it was within easy reach of his work at a rubber factory in Benoni. While he had sufficient free time for exploration, he desired a like-minded birding compatriot. And so he met Richard Montinaro, at that time a golfing pro with sharp eyes, moderate athleticism, and ‘a seemingly inexhaustible supply of luck’. Dave and Richard teamed up with another Brit, Paul Wood, who Dave met on a trip to Kimberley to see the then newly discovered, now invalid, Long-tailed Pipit.
Thanks to their diligence and thoroughness, the three birding companions got to know Marievale and its birdlife to a degree of intimacy bordering on possessive. They could identify long-toed footprints in the mud as those left by a Baillon’s Crake the evening before. They discussed the sex ratio of male and female Greater Painted-snipes visible from the ‘bus-stop’. They even bragged proudly about how many chicks each pair of African Rails currently boasted. They discovered patterns, documented variations, and expected the unexpected. And so Marievale’s blaze of glory commenced.
ABOVE: Dave Deighton admiring a Broad-billed Prion that found its way onto a ship en route to Antarctica.
backdrop of hirundine exhilaration, Marievale was
Buff-breasted Sandpiper | Tryngites subruficollis
Marievale Bird Sanctuary, Springs; Sunday, February 4, 2001
In late January, Richard had alerted Dave and Paul of the presence of a flock of Caspian Plovers on a burnt fallow land at the northern end of the reserve. After a chat with the land-owner, the trio entered the field in search of the Caspians. Dave recounts how they paced slowly abreast, until Paul announced that he had the plovers on the left at almost the same moment as Richard shouted that he had ‘something else’ on the right. ‘I was in the middle, comically flicking my head from side to side, unable to decide which way to look first’ Dave reminisces. Richard’s right-hand bird turned out to be southern Africa’s eighth Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a small spectacle of gold and cream that had somehow found its way from the peninsulas, bays and moors of northern Canada and Alaska to a farmer’s field between the mine dumps and mielie lands of Gauteng.
The 2001 Buff-breasted sparked a twitch that was unparalleled in southern Africa’s birding history. Dave, Richard and Paul had the foresight to warn the farmer who unknowingly hosted the small American celebrity of what was to come. When he awoke on the Sunday morning his farm road had been transformed into what looked like the parking lot of a shopping mall at month’s end. Separated from the crowd of birders by a small fence and a barrage of tripod legs, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper unconcernedly went about its business of moulting, fattening up on African invertebrates, and generally waiting out the unforgiving Nearctic winter. ‘Having loaned his scope to someone during the festivities, at one stage Richard was jogging up and down the lines of birders, asking ‘whose got my scope?’’ Dave laughs. ‘That bird was just so popular. There were people standing on the roofs of land rovers, something like 140 people came just on the first day. Even birders who were not aware of the bird but just happened to be visiting Marievale that day, like my colleague Tony Newey, joined the twitching crowd’. The bird ended up staying for four weeks, during which time it thrilled, captivated, inspired, rejuvenated and ignited hundreds of hearts.
But something that those opposed to twitching tend to overlook, is that the Buff-breasted was just the brightest ember in the fire, and to some extent, only an impetus to get out of the office, and go birding. Even while scanning the field for the Buff-breasted, birders were treated to hundreds of Ruff and Black-winged Pratincoles that would suddenly and spectacularly take to the skies when a falcon or harrier unexpectedly swept overhead. Between the sprigs of emerging grass visiting Yellow Wagtails of all descriptions tail-bobbed merrily, competing with the resident pipits, larks and coursers for morsels. After soaking up the Buff-breasted, birders could then take a short drive down to Marievale’s celebrated causeway, and enjoy birds like Slaty Egret and Black-tailed Godwit, rarities in their own right. Or even just take in the simple pleasures of skulking African Rails, Sand Martins relaxing on bent reeds, or busy groups of African Snipe exploring the mud with their oversized, nerve-rich bills. And over all the constant twittering of thousands of Barn Swallows overhead.
Sadly, many believe that Marievale’s flame has almost flickered out. ‘During the late 90’s and for a few years after, there was just an explosion of life, but today it is simply not in the same caliber’ Dave believes. This transience, a celebration of the triumph of biodiversity in today’s increasingly domesticated world, albeit brief, is to a large extent what twitching is all about. ‘Marievale’s wader count is 39 species, which is a great total anywhere in the world’ enthuses Dave, subsequently recounting some of the more memorable shorebirds to have put in an appearance, ‘Red Phalarope, Pacific Golden Plover, Terek Sandpiper, Common Redshank’. And then there are rarities from other families like Black Coucal, Eurasian Bittern, Spotted Crake, and even a recent sighting of a probable European Turtle-Dove. ‘Not to mention the unconfirmed ones’ Dave adds with a mischievous smile. If ever you meet him in the field, ask about his probable Temminck’s Stint that was accidentally flushed when his grandson (one of his twenty grandchildren) innocently tossed a pebble into the water. ‘In a way, the ones that got away are even more exciting than the confirmed species. To this day I wonder about them.’
‘I was in the middle, comically flicking my head from side to side, unable to decide which way to look first’
ABOVE: One of the first photos of the legendary 2001 Marievale Buff-breasted Sandpiper. This image is a scan from a film photograph – these were the days before digital cameras. Buff-breasted Sandpipers belong to the monotypic genus Tryngites, and differ from other waders in their tongue and jaw musculature and reduced salivary glands.
The 2001 Buff-breasted Sandpiper sparked a twitch that was unparalleled in southern Africa’s birding history.
Asiatic Dowitcher | Limnodromus semipalmatus
Leeupan, Benoni; Thursday, November 11, 2004
Leeupan is within walking distance of Dave’s office, as he was unfortunately to realise. ‘Every Thursday, I used to pick up Richard and then do a quick circuit of the pan for about forty minutes around lunchtime’. On one such Thursday in November 2004, Dave and Richard’s weekly local patching efforts paid off momentously. Dave recalls that moment with clarity that most people would marvel at in someone of his age. ‘We were driving around the pan counter-clockwise, so Richard was on the water’s side, when we spotted what we at first though must be a godwit. Even if you’re not into waders, this bird was startling: big, beautifully patterned and with this immensely long all-black bill’.
However, that all-black bill bothered Dave and Richard, to the extent that they hardly slept that night. A phone call to Trevor Hardaker followed, posing the simple question of ‘does a godwit ever have an all-black bill?’. The question was met with stunned and absolute silence at the other end of the line. The third member of the original Marievale trio, Paul Wood, who had since emigrated back to the U.K., received a similar phone call. ‘Many birders still only have local field guides, so if you happen to find something that is not in the book, you’re in trouble. We didn’t even have a book with us when we saw the bird at Leeupan’ Dave recalls.
On Trevor and Paul’s recommendation, Richard consulted Prater, Marchant and Hayman’s Shorebirds, and when he showed the relevant plate to Dave on Friday, something clicked. ‘That’s the bird!’ Dave immediately shouted, excitedly poking the page with an index finger. While Dave and Richard agreed that the illustration was a perfect match to their sighting, the evidence against their identification was overwhelming: a species that breeds in the Russian and Mongolian steppes, and winters only in eastern India, south-east Asia and at a few localities in northern Australia; is globally near-threatened with a total estimated population of barely 20 000 birds; and had never even been recorded in the whole of Africa (discounting a now rejected record from Kenya in 1966). Could it be that they had found Africa’s first Asian Dowitcher?
Could it be
that they had
found Africa’s first
Chaos ensued. Dave met Trevor and Margaret Hardaker, John Graham and Naas du Preez at the airport on Saturday and headed straight to Leeupan. When they arrived they found twitchers from all over the country already assembled. However, the bird was absent. Despondent after a day of fruitless searching, the pioneering twitchers retired for the night and returned on the Sunday morning—now to be met by an even bigger crowd of people, and an Asian Dowitcher.
The bird instantly became a major attraction, making headlines in regional newspapers, one of which suggested that the dowitcher has supplanted Charlize Theron as the biggest star to call Benoni home. Dave remembers how he used to sneak away from work at lunch, just to ‘get a quick fix of the bird’. Dave jokes that ‘Richard was initially concerned that his saloon car may be unable to negotiate the rocky shoreline of the pan, but with a dowitcher as motivation, he soon discovered it could’.
However, while the dowitcher was generally confiding and unperturbed over the course of the next four weeks, it frequently disappeared for periods. That is, until some enterprising birders from KwaZulu-Natal who had dipped at Leeupan, got hold of a street atlas and started surveying nearby pans.
ABOVE: The appearance of the Asian Dowitcher and the associated influx of twitchers was featured in several local and regional newspapers. This is an extract from the Benoni City Times, dated Friday November 26, 2004. Beeld reported ran an article outlying the options for an Afrikaans name for the species; the name Asiatiese Snipgriet (Asian Snipe-godwit) was finally chosen to reflect the snipe-like bill but godwit-like appearance.
Wilson’s Phalarope | Phalaropus tricolor
Dolphin Beach Pan, Table View, Cape Town; Sunday, May 20, 2007
Nevertheless, the incident did not detract from Dave’s passion for waders, and he had one more unbelievable discovery in store in his future. On the evening of 3 May 2007 the news leaked that Faansie Peacock had lucked upon a Wilson’s Phalarope at Barberspan in North West Province. Although the bird was in non-breeding plumage, it is by far the rarest of the three species of phalaropes in southern Africa, and one of the only waders that Dave still needed, so the decision to speed down the N14 for three hours the next morning was impulsive but undisputed. Regrettably the Wilson’s had seemingly disappeared overnight and could not be relocated, and it seemed Dave would have to wait a few more years for another chance.
Wrong. Less than three weeks later, Dave and Lyn were in Cape Town for business, and decided to do a pelagic birding trip while there. Due to inclement weather the trip was cancelled, and a disappointed Dave consoled himself by taking a short walk to a pan down the road from their hotel. ‘I was feeling rather down in the dumps, with the horrible weather’ he recalls, but when he got to Dolphin Beach Pan, his spirits lifted immediately and considerably. On the water’s surface was a phalarope, but due to the drizzle and fog clouding his binoculars’ lenses he was unable to confirm the species. A return trip in the gathering gloom of dusk didn’t do much except increase his unease.
First thing the next morning Dave was back at the pan, this time in bright sunlight and accompanied by Trevor Hardaker. Not only had Dave found his Wilson’s Phalarope, but unlike the Barberspan bird, this individual was a female (which in the polyandrous phalaropes is the more attractive of the sexes) in full and glorious nuptial plumage: all elegant curves of rich chestnut and warm buff, offset against acute angles of black and grey, on a streamlined body terminating in a needle-thin bill. Undoubtedly one of the most breathtaking of the world’s waders, a breeding female Wilson’s will draw appreciative gasps from even the most disinterested observers.
Perhaps the most special aspect about the phalarope though, was its significance to Trevor. Having been in mental anguish about whether he should fly up to Gauteng for the Barberspan phalarope just a few weeks before, here, unbelievably, was the same species literally five minutes’ drive from his home. A quick twitch before work. And his 900th bird.