Can you remember the first time you ever compiled your lifelist? My first time must have been when I was about eight years old. I can remember exactly where I was sitting when I scribbled it down, and I vividly remember the total: 73 species. I felt exceptionally proud of this number. Something else that I remember clearly, was the total number of species on the checklist: 919. As of the end of 2018 the Southern African list stands on 978 species, and it seems that 1,000 is within reach.
My plan for this article was simple: to compare a modern list to an old one, and trace the origins of the original records. For the old list, I dug up a dog-eared copy of Roberts’ V. This volume was published in 1984, and the introduction of the book indicates that the species list was based on a list drawn up in 1982. As it happens, 1982 is the year I was born. I took this as a sign – there was no backing out of writing this piece now.
Okay. So at some point the Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund decided to redo the “Roberts’ Numbers”. If you are veteran birder you will know what I’m talking about. In older volumes, additional species were slotted in with suffixes, e.g. Souza’s Shrike: 708x. However, in Volume V a brand new number was allocated to each species. New vagrants or splits would get numbers from 901 upwards e.g. Red-throated Pipit: 903 and Red-breasted Swallow: 904. The main numbering started, as always, with Ostrich: 1 and ran all the way through to Lark-like Bunting: 887. I took this latter number (887) as my baseline.
As you can see in the infographic, 100 species were added to the Southern African list in the 36 years that I’ve been crawling/walking/running after birds. Since 1982 to 2018. There are 9 species on the 1982 list that have since been deleted. A few have been added, but then deleted again (like Kimberley Pipit and Long-tailed Pipit). Then there were the splits – loads of them. And as you know, things are still changing.
With a little math and a lot of detective work, I’ve come up with the following list. There are some nice glimpses into the history of our local birding scene. And in many cases I managed to track down some of the original photos of that specific bird taken at the time.
A lot of this information is from Trevor Hardaker’s SA Rare Bird News reports. Through this Google Group Trevor shares updates and alerts for rare birds a. And, believe it or not, this is a free service – an absolute mega rarity in today’s world. If you are not already subscribed to this incredible service, you’re missing out. Check it out here. For older records, Trevor’s Zest For Birds site was very useful. I’ve pirated a lot of photos from these two sources – if any of them are yours, I humbly apologise for taking this liberty, and I hope you don’t mind me sharing your significant picture with the world.
Each of these nine species has an interesting backstory. There are two claims of Shoebill, both from the Okavango Delta in Botswana: of two birds near South Gate and one near Khwai River Lodge. However, the landscape here is mainly seasonal floodplain, and is not considered to be suitable habitat for this swamp-dwelling species. Some have suggested there might be Shoebills skulking in the areas of deeper swampland in the Delta…but with all the tourism and aerial surveys in the area, one would think they would have been found by now. Long-toed Flufftail was claimed from a specimen found on 16 February 1966 at Nyanga, in eastern Zimbabwe. However, this is apparently a misidentification of a female Red-chested. I suspect the vagaries of large gull taxonomy are to blame for the inclusion of Herring Gull (from the KwaZulu-Natal coast). Under Fairy Tern (a.k.a. White Tern) Roberts V simply states “doubtfully recorded from s African waters (“Cape Seas”); should probably be excluded.” More on this last species at the bottom of this page…
Bimaculated Lark is based on a specimen collected at Swakopmund in September 1930 – it is doubtful whether this bird arrived here on its own steam, and there is much controversy about the record. Cinnamon Reed Warbler is now considered a race of African Reed Warbler. It would appear that there are no confirmed records of Fülleborn’s Longclaw yet – however, this species occurs on the Zambian shore of Lake Kariba, and close to the Namibian border, so perhaps it is just a matter of time. Violet Widowfinch (nowadays Indigobird), was described on the basis of a captive bird from West Africa, and was assumed to parasitize the Brown Firefinch, Lagonosticta nitidula. However, field observations have not confirmed this.
Lastly, Eastern Saw-wing (with the white underwing coverts), is now lumped with Black Saw-wing, P. holomelas.
- Shoebill Balaeniceps rex
- Long-toed Flufftail Sarothrura lugens
- Herring Gull Larus argentatus
- Fairy Tern Gygis alba
- Bimaculated Lark Melanocorypha bimaculata
- Cinnamon Reed Warbler Acrocephalus cinnamomeus
- Fülleborn’s Longclaw Macronyx fuelleborni
- Violet Widowfinch (Indigobird) Vidua incognita
- Eastern Saw-wing Psalidoprocne orientalis
ABOVE: An “Eastern” Saw-wing: now lumped with Black Saw-wing.
Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.
The decision of which alien, introduced species to include on the official list is always a bit arbitrary. I for one, would vote that we remove all these “plastics” from the list, and all forego the 10 or so ticks that it would cost us. There are currently only eight established aliens species, of which only seven are invasive and spreading. They are Mallard, Rock Dove, Rose-ringed Parakeet, House Crow, Common Myna, Common Starling and House Sparrow. Fortunately, the pretty Common Chaffinch is still restricted to the vicinity of its original introduction site in the Cape Town environs. In terms of the Southern African list, the 1982 rendition did not include Mallard – which greatly increased in numbers in the early 1980s to the 1990s, in both Gauteng and the Western Cape. This species is of conservation concern due to its hybridization with Yellow-billed Ducks and other indigenous waterfowl. The other miscellaneous alien species that snuck onto the list is my namesake, the Indian Peafowl (or Peacock). Although there are certainly other feral populations skulking in rural valleys, the only place where you can “officially” tick this bird is on Robben Island, where a bunch were introduced in 1968. Strangely, Chukar Partridge is included in the Roberts V list, and was introduced to Robben Island by customs officials only 4 years previously, in 1964. Mute Swan remains on the list, although no known feral birds still exist.
ABOVE: A Chukar Partridge, by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.
In the 1982-2018 period, seabirds contributed nine of the 99 new species (if you want to count them, count the gaps in the left hand column). In the 1980s Broad-billed Prion sensu lato was considered the common prion in our waters. Now we know it is Antarctic, and that the actual Broad-billed sensu stricto is a much rarer visitor. Nowadays, if you see a Rockhopper, you’ll have to look carefully at the undersides of its flippers to see if it is a Northern or a Southern.
|Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans||Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans|
|Tristan Albatross Diomedea dabbenena|
|Royal Albatross Diomedea epomophora||Southern Royal Albatross Diomedea epomophora|
|Northern Royal Albatross Diomedea sanfordi|
|Yellow-nosed Albatross Diomedea chlororhynchos||Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche chlororhynchos|
|Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche carteri|
|White-chinned Petrel Procellaria aequinoctialis||White-chinned Petrel Procellaria aequinoctialis|
|Spectacled Petrel Procellaria conspicillata|
|Broad-billed Prion Pachyptila vittata||Broad-billed Prion Pachyptila vittata|
|Antarctic Prion Pachyptila desolata|
|Salvin’s Prion Pachyptila salvini|
|Cory’s Shearwater Calonectris diomedea||Cory’s Shearwater Calonectris Calonectris|
|Scopoli’s Shearwater Calonectris borealis|
|Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus||Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus|
|Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus|
|Little Shearwater Puffinus assimilis||Little Shearwater Puffinus assimilis|
|Subantarctic Shearwater Puffinus elegans|
|Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes chrysocome||Southern Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes chrysocome|
|Northern Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes moseleyi|
ABOVE: An Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. This species breeds on Tristan de Cunha and Gough islands. It is told from the formerly lumped Indian Yellownose by its larger black mask and the grey wash on its head. Photo by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.
In the 1982-2018 period, terrestrial birds contributed 25 of the 99 new species – a major proportion. Some of these are a little debatable, and depends on what you consider to be a species (a simple question, with a very complicated answer). Some of the more dodgy ones, in my opinion, are the camaropteras, some of the larks, and the distinction of Burchell’s vs White-browed Coucal. Many authorities don’t split the latter pair. The distinction between Yellow-billed and Black Kite is also a little on the tenuous side. On the other hand, there are some birds that might be split, or split further, in the future such as Cape and “Green” White-eye and possibly even the Fork-tailed Drongo.
|Lesser Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica||American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica|
|Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva|
|Black Kite Milvus migrans||Black Kite Milvus migrans|
|Yellow-billed Kite Milvus aegyptius|
|Red-billed Hornbill Tockus erythrorhynchus||Southern Red-billed Hornbill Tockus erythrorhynchus|
|Damara Hornbill Tockus damarensis|
|Knysna Turaco Tauraco corythaix||Knysna Turaco Tauraco corythaix|
|Livingstone’s Turaco Tauraco livingstonii|
|Schalow’s Turaco Tauraco schalowi|
|Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus||Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus|
|Madagascar Cuckoo Cuculus rochii|
|Burchell’s Coucal Centropus superciliosus||Burchell’s Coucal Centropus burchelli|
|White-browed Coucal Centropus superciliosus|
|Rufous-bellied Tit Parus rufiventris||Rufous-bellied Tit Parus rufiventris|
|Cinnamon-breasted Tit Parus pallidiventris|
|Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus||Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus|
|Grey-headed Parrot Poicephalus fuscicollis|
|Black Korhaan Eupodotis afra||Southern Black Korhaan Afrotis afra|
|Northern Black Korhaan Afrotis afroides|
|Black-rumped Buttonquail Turnix hottentotta||Black-rumped Buttonquail Turnix nanus|
|Hottentot Buttonquail Turnix hottentottus|
|Bleating Warbler Camaroptera brachyura||Green-backed Camaraptera Camaroptera brachyura|
|Grey-backed Camaroptera Camaroptera brevicaudata|
|Clapper Lark Mirafra apiata||Cape Clapper Lark Mirafra apiata|
|Eastern Clapper Lark Mirafra fasciolata|
|Dune Lark Mirafra erythrochlamys||Dune Lark Calendulauda erythrochlamys|
|Barlow’s Lark Calendulauda barlowi|
|Long-billed Lark Mirafra curvirostris||Cape Long-billed Lark Certhilauda curvirostris|
|Agulhas Long-billed Lark Certhilauda brevirostris|
|Karoo Long-billed Lark Certhilauda subcoronata|
|Benguela Long-billed Lark Certhilauda benguelensis|
|Eastern Long-billed Lark Certhilauda semitorquata|
|Olive Thrush Turdus olivaceus||Olive Thrush Turdus olivaceus|
|Karoo Thrush Turdus smithi|
|Cape White-eye Zosterops pallidus||Cape White-eye Zosterops capensis|
|Orange River White-eye Zosterops pallidus|
|Spotted Prinia Prinia maculosa||Karoo Prinia Prinia maculosa|
|Drakensberg Prinia Prinia hypoxantha|
|Black-backed Cisticola Cisticola galactotes||Rufous-winged Cisticola Cisticola galactotes|
|Luapula Cisticola Cisticola luapula|
|Grey-headed Sparrow Passer diffusus||Southern Grey-headed Sparrow Passer diffusus|
|Northern Grey-headed Sparrow Passer griseus|
|Richard’s Pipit Anthus novaeseelandiae||African Pipit Anthus cinnamomeus|
|Mountain Pipit Anthus (hoeschi) editus|
|Long-billed Pipit Anthus similis||Long-billed Pipit Anthus similis|
|Wood Pipit Anthus nyassae|
A paper published in the journal Ibis in 1998 suggested that Southern Africa boasted a cryptic, overlooked species: Barlow’s Lark, Calendulauda barlowi. Named after the businessman and conservationist (1905-1979) this species occupies a tiny range in the scrubby deserts of southern Namibia and the extreme northwestern corner of South Africa. As most of its Namibian range is in the inaccessible Sperrgebiet, most birders attempt to find this species between Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay in the Northern Cape. The situation is not very clear-cut however, as Barlow’s interbreeds with Karoo Lark, C. albescens, over part of its range. If you have made this mission, enjoy your Barlow’s for the time being…I am hearing rumours that it may well be lumped with Dune Lark, C. erythrochlamys in the near future. In that case, Namibia will lose its only true endemic. Photo: Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours
Taxonomists were not quite done with larks. Following the splitting of Barlow’s Lark from Dune Lark the previous year, 1999 saw the explosion of a single species into five different ones. The original Long-billed Lark, Certhilauda curvirostris, was split into Cape Long-billed C. curvirostris (West Coast), Agulhas Long-billed C. brevirostris (Agulhas Plain), Karoo Long-billed C. subcoronata (interior of SA and southern Namibia), Benguela Long-billed C. benguelensis (northern Namibia) and Eastern Long-billed C. semitorquata. The authors of the original paper, published in The Auk in 1999, did suggest that some of these species limits were unclear. Particularly, the border (if any) between Karoo and Benguela is open to interpretation. There is a strong possibility that these two taxa will be lumped soon; ditto for Cape and Agulhas. Watch this space. The species pictured here is the spectacular Cape Long-billed. Photo: Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours
A few have come and gone
The most notable mentions in this category are perhaps the two mysterious pipits described from the Kimberley region of the Northern Cape. The first was the “Long-tailed Pipit Anthus longicaudatus” described in 1996. This was followed by the description of a second brand new species, the so-called “Kimberley Pipit Anthus pseudosimilis” in 2002. I visited the area many times to try and study these birds, but was never able to locate them. I managed to get hold of the type specimens of these two putative taxa, and went to town with measurements and investigations. It turned out that neither were valid species. Long-tailed was indistinguishable from Buffy, while Kimberley Pipit specimens were a mix of African Pipits and Long-billed Pipits. Genetic analysis has since confirmed that these two pipits are not valid species.
What else? At one point, the Olive Sunbird Cyanomitra olivacea, was split into two species. The one in eastern Zimbabwe was called Western Olive Sunbird C. obscura, while the Eastern Olive Sunbird C. olivacea was the one found in the coastal regions. The main difference being the lack of yellow pectoral tufts in the females of Western Olives. For a while, the larks down on the wheatfield flats of the Overberg were split off as Agulhas Clapper Lark Mirafra marjoriae. Interestingly, the call of this “species” is quite different from the (now lumped) Cape Clapper M. apiata. The latter gives a single rising whistle, but the former gives two descending whistles, which overlap with the accelerating wing clapping. Damara Canary Serinus (Alario) leucolaema is another one that fluctuates in and out of field guides.
There are also a few species that are currently on our list, but probably shouldn’t be. Maybe I’ll write something about those later.
An “Eastern” Olive Sunbird, photographed at Zimbali on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. Photo: Faansie Peacock.
Vagrants: before 1982
Roberts V used a numbering system that ended on 887 with Lark-like Bunting. That is number that my calculations are based on. However, the publishers spliced existing, pre-1982 vagrants into the book in the appropriate taxonomic sequence. These were given number starting from 901 onwards. There are only a few:
- Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes: First recorded from Harare in December 1979. To date there have been a handful of subsequent records, with perhaps the most twitched one being the bird that was present at Geelbek Hide in West Coast National Park during BirdLife South Africa’s annual Flock event in March 2018.
- Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca: This one was not included in Roberts V, and I’m not sure why. The first record was of a single bird at Noordhoek Pan outside Cape Town in December 1971.
- Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis (Hirundo) daurica: This swallow is resident and fairly common as far south as Malawi, and may be overlooked in parts of Zimbabwe. Indeed, most of the records are from the latter country. The first one that I could trace was from near Harare on 17 March 1963.
- Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus: The first record was from the Unvoti River Estuary in KZN, on 26 March 1983. It turned out to be a long wait before a twitchable Red-throated was found: the one at Avis Dam, outside Windhoek, in January 2015 (this was the region’s 6th).
Photo: Greater Yellowlegs by Jason Boyce / Birding Ecotours
White-headed Saw-wing (1983)
This exceptionally rare visitor from Central Africa was first recorded in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, on 13 February 1983. As far as I know there has been one additional record from Zim, and then one record from Letaba in the Kruger National Park in 2001. I couldn’t find any pictures or documentation of the original bird, so you’ll have to make do with this brilliant image from my friend Dylan Vasapolli. The White-headed Saw-wing, Psalidoprocne albiceps, is migratory in parts of its range, and moves as far south as Zambia and Malawi in October to April, where it inhabits miombo woodland and forest fringes. Definitely something to keep an eye open for!
Photo: Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours
Laysan Albatross (1983)
Of the world’s 22 albatrosses, only 3 occur widely in the Northern Hemisphere. The Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis, is one of them. This distinctive albatross breeds mainly on Hawaiian islands, including Laysan and Midway. How one found itself south of Cape Agulhas on 29 April 1983 is anyone’s guess. Global pelagic birding expert and author of the Seabirds bible, Peter Harrison, recounts his sighting of the first Laysan outside of the the northern Pacific in this extract from the journal Cormorant: “…at 0925GMT I saw an albatross round the bows and fly down the length of the ship at about 50m range. I immediately identified it as a Laysan Albatross and “chased it” along the starboard side of the ship. In that short space of time I noted the diagnostic underwing pattern, dusky-tipped bill and dark eye patch characteristic of this species. I maintained visual contact with the Laysan Albatross from the poopdeck for several minutes.” Harrison’s passion and excitement at this sighting is palpable. The article is accompanied by this picture, as well as a beautiful illustration. To date, this remains the only sighting of this species in our waters.
Photo: Peter Harrison
Pied Wheatear (1984)
Back in 1984, the then SAOS (South African Ornithological Society) nowadays BirdLife South Africa, published its annual rarities report in the journal Bokmakierie. On page 25 of volume 25 (1), you will find this inscription: “Pied Wheatear, Oenanthe pleschanka. One present for weeks during summer ’83-84 but seen well between 23-27 January 1984 at the farm Twinstreams, Mtunzini, Natal (I. F. Garland, J. C. Sinclair and C. Mowat). This is the first record for southern Africa. A pity the bird vanished before many birders had the chance to see it.” Pity indeed, although I was only 2 years old at the time. Following this, the next record was a bird photographed in Chobe National Park on 14 December 2014; the claim from Moremi in the same country was a misidentification. But perhaps the most sensational Pied was the third: from a parking lot at Victoria Falls airport, on 23 February 2017. According to reports, this bird was incredibly tame and presented fantastic photographic opportunities…but only for those few twitchers who got there quick. You can drool over Pete Rosewarne’s pic of this bird here.
Photo: Peter Rosewarne
Red-billed Tropicbird (1984)
There are only three species of tropicbirds in the world (in addition to a whole bunch of extinct species), and all three occur as rare vagrants in Southern African waters. Of these three, Red-billed Tropicbird Phaethon aethereus is by far the rarest. While the other two breed mainly on Indian Ocean islands (including Europa Island in the Mozambique Channel, just out of our territorial waters), Red-billed is more likely to be seen in the Atlantic. The first evidence was of a bird photographed at Chapman’s Peak in Cape Town in November 1984.
Photo: Flickr: Lip Kee
Eurasian Blackcap (1985)
On the morning of 16 December 1985, the ringers who had gotten out of bed so early were well rewarded for their efforts. Nestled in one of their mist nests, erected at Melville Koppies in Johannesburg, was a dull grey-brown bird. Southern Africa’s first ever Eurasian Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla. One of the original images of that bird is included here. Subsequently, our understanding of the status of this Palearctic migrant has changed significantly. Sightings in the highlands of eastern Zimbabwe are now regular (I’ve seen them at Seldomseen, ironically) and they have also been found with increasing regularity in the northern parts of South Africa. Most of the birds that have been found locally are males, but it is likely that the red-capped females are more easily overlooked.
Photo: L. Bunning
Snowy Sheathbill (1986)
In May 1986 something extraordinary happened aboard a fishing boat 7 km off Cape Town. A large, plump, scruffy, white bird, which seemed barely capable of flight, landed on deck. This was our first record of the Snowy or Greater Sheathbill, Chionis alba. These tough-as-nails scavengers breed on the Antarctic Peninsula and on various subAntarctic islands. Some birds migrate northwards to escape the polar extremes, with the southern extremities of South America as their destination. A few of these find respite on eastbound ships, and happy with the shelter from the wind and probably snacks tossed to them by sailors, they remain onboard. When they reach the Western Cape, they make landfall – and happily scrounge around at piers, harbours, seal colonies, rocky headlands and the like, for anything and everything edible. To date there have been about 25 records or so.
Photo: P. Funston
Hudsonian Godwit (1987)
The frustrating thing about identifying a Hudsonian Godwit, is that you can only be sure once it flies away! This species is easily told from the otherwise quite similar Black-tailed Godwit and Bar-tailed Godwit by its striking black underwing coverts. This is even easily notable when a mixed flock flies overhead. The first one was from the Swartkops River estuary in March-April 1987; since then there have been a scattering of records from the Western Cape. Hudwits are usually seen in association with Barwits (excuse the wader slang).
Photo: Phil Hockey
Matsudaira’s Storm Petrel (1988)
This peculiar, dark storm petrel breeds on Iwo Island and the Bonin islands south of Japan, and disperses south towards New Guinea and westwards into the Indian Ocean. First recorded in July 1988, off Durban, it remains exceptionally rare, with only 3 records to date, as far as I could gather. Both the English name and the scientific name, Oceanodroma matsudairae, commemorates the Japanese ornithologist Yorikatsu Matsudaira (1876-1945), who collected the first specimen. Also check out Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel (2010).
Photo: Flickr: Tony Morris
Eurasian Redstart (1988)
The only confirmed record of this beautiful little chat was of one in a suburban garden in Vaal Reefs Township near Klerksdorp in North-West Province, on 3-12 May 1988. There was also a report of a female at Lake Chivero in Zimbabwe in 1995. This is a widespread and common Palearactic species that winters across Africa, but mainly remains north of the Equator. The May date suggests a case of so-called reverse migration.
Photo: Flickr: hedera.baltica
European Turtle Dove (1988)
No one can argue that 1988 turned out to be a bumper year for rarities! This time it was the official first record of European Turtle Dove, Streptopelia turtur, from the then Kalahari Gemsbok National Park on 12 June 1988. Subsequently this species has also been recorded from Kruger National Park and a few times from wild and remote places in Botswana and Namibia. One was also seen at Marievale in Gauteng, but it is always difficult to prove that such birds are not escapees. Turtle doves are under great pressure from hunting during migration, and their numbers have plummeted in much of their Palearctic range.
Photo: Christina Botha
White-throated Bee-eater (1988)
There have been about 20 records of this spectacular species in our region, but it has gained a reputation for being thoroughly untwitchable. As soon as one is found and reported, it vanished into thin air. Another notable point, is that vagrants are often recorded in pairs or even small flocks of up to 5 birds. The transience of these bee-eaters suggests to me that it almost more a case of nomadism than vagrancy. The one pictured here was part of a group of 3, found on 22 April 2015 in Thornybush in the Lowveld. These birds hung around for only 3 hours! The first record was in arid woodland in the Kgalakgadi on the last day of 1988. Two years later one was seen in lush, forested habitat at Sedgefield. Weird.
Photo: Ryan Jack
Spur-winged Lapwing (1989)
The first Southern African record of the Spur-winged Lapwing, Vanellus spinosus, was of a bird between Kachikau and Kavimba on the Chope River floodplain in northern Botswana, in July 1989. Subsequently there have been fewer than 10 additional records, with almost all of them in the far north. The species has a wide but fragmented range in Africa and parts of the Middle East, but is expanding its range southwards. It is now resident in parts of Malawi and Zambia. The one pictured here was photographed by Janine Smith in southern Mozambique. I went looking for it, but was only rewarded by my first ever full-blown migraine. At first I thought I was dying, and then I wished I could just die and get it over with. Birding…gotta love it.
Photo: Janine Smith
Red-footed Booby (1990)
It was November 2005. I’ll never forget the announcement from a bewildered junior staff member aboard the MV Madagascar birding cruise: “Dear guests. There is a Red-footed Booby on the rigging”. Indeed, on that trip up the Mozambique Channel all the birders aboard the cruiseliner enjoyed extended views of many of these birds as they hunted down flying fish in surprisingly agile flight. The first local record was of a pale morph bird photographed on Ichaboe Island off southern Namibia’s coastline in January 1990.
Photo: P. Funston
Lesser Frigatebird (1990)
The Mozambique Channel almost surely still holds some surprise in store for birders. Lesser Frigatebirds, Fregata ariel, breed on tropical islands in all three major oceans and disperse all over the world’s warm currents. It is not really surprising that some find their way to the East Coast of Southern Africa, particularly after cyclones (I’ve seen a mixed flock of about 40 Greater and Lesser Frigates just outside our nautical limits). The first official record appears to be a bird 300km off Bazaruto Island in December 1990. Nowadays, 90% of the pictures I see are BOC’s (Back of Camera). Case in point this Lesser Frigate photographed at St Lucia estuary earlier this year by my friend Matthew Axelrod. The detail on this is sickening – quite a far cry from the early 1990s when field observers often had only some hastily scribble field notes and perhaps a rough sketch as evidence of their identifications.
Photo: Matthew Axelrod
Streaked Shearwater (1991)
I found this grainy photo of Africa’s first Streaked Shearwater in the 1991-1992 SAOS Rarities Report in Birding in SA magazine 47(1). This is the inscription accompanying the photograph: XXX Streaked Shearwater Calonectris leucomelas. One 20 km south-east of Durban (Natal) on 8 September 1991 (J. C. Sinclair, A. Marchant and many other observers). This species breeds in the north-west Pacific, migrating to the tropical west Pacific between November and February. Prior to this sighting, it was not known to wander west in the Indian Ocean than Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Photo: B. Tidman
White-faced Storm Petrel (1991)
The presence of this gorgeous storm petrel, Pelagodroma marina, in southern African waters has been suspected for some time. The first claims I could trace was from Barrie Rose in May 1991, with subsequent records in May 1993 and April 1995. There is also an unverified even earlier claim from June 1950 off Bazaruto Island in Mozambique. To date, there are just over 20 records of this species (none of them mine, sadly). It is possible that birds seen off the Cape are from populations breeding at Gough and Tristan islands. But there are also records from Durban (like the bird pictured here, photographed by Niall Perrins in June 2016). One day…
Photo: Niall Perrins
Jouanin’s Petrel (1991)
My only meeting with this mega pelagic bird was aboard the MV Madagascar, alongside about 200 other lucky birders. Three individual Jouanin’s Petrels, Bulweria fallax, were seen on this trip. That being said, I remember them being very flighty and presenting only brief and distant views. Before that amazing 2005 pelagic trip, the first record was from 180 km east of Inhambane in Mozambique, in December 1991, with a subsequent sighting 90 km east of Xai-Xai in December 1993. To date there has been less than 10 records in total of this bizarre and mysterious, sharp-tailed seabird. To make the whole story even more interesting, there is now doubt about the specific identity of Bulweria-type petrels from the Indian Ocean, with tantalizing taunts that a new species may be involved…stay tuned!
Photo: Wikimedia Commons: Mike Prince
Gentoo Penguin (1992)
Gentoo Penguins, Pygoscelis papua, are pretty faithful to their breeding colonies on various subAntarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. This includes about 1,3oo pairs at South Africa’s Prince Edward Islands. Indeed, they are seldom seen more than 100 km from their colonies. So for one to randomly pitch up on a beach near Bloubergstrand, on 28 June 1992, was a little on the unusual side, to put it lightly. With penguins, the question is always whether they are ship-assisted, but the Bloubergstrand bird had no sign of damage to its feathers or feet that is typical of ship-assisted birds. Unusually, this bird was not preparing to moult (as is usually the case in vagrant penguins).
Photo: Flickr: Liam Quinn
Little Blue Heron (1992)
Southern Africans had their first glimpse of this handsome American species, Egretta caerulea, in April 1992, when an immature was found at the Berg River estuary, Velddrift. Little Blue Herons normally breed in central and South America, and extend northwards into the southern parts of the USA. How one got across the Atlantic is anyone’s guess, but South Africa’s West Coast seems like a logical place for it to end up. Fortunately for twitchers, Little Blues tend to be long-stayers. The one pictured here was found in 2001, and this picture was taken in 2007. More than likely, exhausted trans-Atlantic vagrants find suitable fishing grounds and just stay put until they die on African soil.
Photo: Gina Wilgenbus
Twinspot / Zambezi Indigobird (ca. 1992)
Strictly speaking, this parasitic finch was known from 1907, when it was described as a new species, Vidua codringtoni. However, it was subsequently considered to be a race of either Village Indigobird or Dusky Indigobird. It was only around 1992 when research showed that it behaves as a distinct species, which parasitizes the Red-throated Twinspot. There are two further things that complicate matters. Firstly, in Roberts V you will find mention of Violet Indigobird V. incognita; this taxon was described on the assumption that it parasitizes the Brown Firefinch. However, it is not recognised as a species at present. Secondly, there are some enigmatic indigobirds in northern KwaZulu-Natal that mimic the call of Pink-throated Twinspots. These may be Twinspot Indigobirds, or may be a completely undescribed species. Interesting…
Photo: Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours
Chatham Albatross (1993)
This sexy seabird, Thalassarche eremita, is named after its breeding location: Chatham Island, east of New Zealand. The first one recorded in Southern African waters was on 8 October 1993. This was followed by records in 2001, 2006, 2011, 2013 and 2014. Adults Chatham Albatrosses are unmistakable thanks to their yellow bills, with a black spot near the tip of the lower mandible. The one pictured here was photographed by Wilfred Esau, a skipper of a trawler that was south of Cape Point on 8 April 2011. BirdLife South Africa’s Albatross Task Forced got Wilfred into seabirds – and he has turned up a number of megas over the years (see e.g. Trindade Petrel, below), making us landlubbers green with envy.
Photo: Wilfred Esau
Rüppell’s Vulture (1994)
These distinctively marked griffons, Gyps rueppellii, have been popping up at vulture restaurants and Cape Vulture colonies for years. The first accounts that I could trace were from Jun-Oct 1994 at Blouberg. This record was of three birds together. The normal East African range of this species is separated from Cape Vulture by extensive miombo woodlands, but it could be that widespread woodland clearing has opened a path for exploratory vultures. It appears that the birds may take up permanent residence in Cape Vulture colonies, and hybridize with the latter. The one pictured here was photographed at Shelanti Game Reserve in Limpopo, on 12 March 2011.
Photo: Alfred Ayers
Buller’s Albatross (1995)
10 August 1995 was certainly a memorable day on the waters off the Cape Peninsula. Not only a first for Southern Africa, but a first for the entire Atlantic Ocean! About 30,000 pairs of Buller’s Albatrosses, Thalassarche bulleri, breed on a few island around New Zealand and migrates to Western Australia and the Humboldt Current off South America. The bird was photographed (right) in a swarm of seabirds, and initially dismissed as a Yellow-nosed Albatross (pre-split). Later examination of the photos revealed the truth. Buller’s is told from both Yellownoses by the yellow stripe on the bottom of its bill, and from Grey-headed Albatross by the much broader base to the yellow band at the junction with the skull.
Photo: R. Ertel
Magellanic Penguin (1998)
To date our only record of this South American penguin was of a juvenile captured in Cape Town harbour in 1998. This bird was taken to a seabird rehab centre, and to everyone’s surprise, turned out to be a Magellanic Penguin, Spheniscus magellanicus, once it attained its adult plumage. Indeed, Magellanic Penguins and African Penguins look superficially similar, and juveniles are possibly indistinguishable. The first thing that you’ll notice in an adult Magellanic is that it has two black bands across its chest. African usually has one, but sometimes does show two (hence, there have been a number of false alarms over the years). Magellanic further has pinker feet, a narrower white eyebrow and a white line on its chin.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Citrine Wagtail (1998)
I begged my parents to go to the Eastern Cape to twitch this one. Not only a first, but such a ludicrously colourful bird too! Sadly they did not relent, and I am still awaiting my chance for another Citrine Wagtail, Motacilla citreola. Subsequently there have been a handful of records, mainly from the Western Cape but even at a waterhole in the Kgalagadi. This first-winter male was found at the Gamtoos River mouth by a local fisherman, Wayne Stanley. Wayne was initially perplexed about the bird’s identity, and wisely contacted a birder friend. You can imagine how the rest of the story played out. The photograph is from Volume 3 (3) of Africa Birds & Birding magazine – the forerunner of African Birdlife. I see the accompanying article was written by Bill Branch – one of Africa’s most respected herpetologist, who used to work at the PE Museum (Bayworld). Bill passed away earlier this year.
Photo: Mike Holmes / EP Herald
Slender-billed Gull (1999)
David Allan’s regular waterbird counts in Durban Bay yielded dividends in a big way on 10 September 1999, when he discovered Southern Africa’s first (and only, thus far) Slender-billed Gull, Chroicocephalus genei. The bird was only present for four days, and few twitchers managed to connect with is, despite David’s enthusiastic report on SABirdnet. Slender-billed Gulls breed from Senegal and Mauritania to the Meditteranean region and parts of Asia, and particularly around the Black Sea. Some populations migrate south, and have been recorded as far south as Kenya and Tanzania. It is certainly a species to keep an eye open for (check for orange legs, a pale eye and a lot of white on the wing). There has been a previous claim of this species, from Chobe in Botswana in October 1972. Despite the comments of some European lariphiles at the time, that bird appears to have been a young Grey-headed Gull. I did find David’s original photos of the Durban bird, but they were just too grainy to include here (sorry Dave).
Photo: PS Jinesh (Wikipedia Commons)
Great Knot (2000)
The potential occurrence of the Great Knot, Calidris tenuirostris, was predicted in the 1990s, but the first record was in March 2002. A bird was found amongst Red Knots at the famed Seeberg hide in West Coast National Park (incidentally, only about 5 minutes from my house). Subsequent examination of photographs showed that this same bird had been visiting since 2000, and it returned in 2003 too. I stumbled upon the next one on the Barra Peninsula, near Inhambane in Mozambique in December 2004. Being an Asian/Australasian migrant, it is probably more likely that Great Knots will be found along the Indian Ocean coastline. Indeed, up to 3 individuals have been found at Barra, including the one pictured here. However, there are also records from Walvis Bay. A great bird indeed!
Photo: Maans Booysen
Salvin’s Albatross (ca. 2000)
It is not clear when exactly the first record of Salvin’s Albatross Thalassarche salvini in Southern African waters was. Early claims are doubtful, but since 2000 this species has been seen a handful of times. This seabird breeds at the Bounty and Snares Islands off New Zealand. Most birds seem to migrate eastwards after breeding, and forage off the west coast of South America. It is most similar to Shy Albatross (particularly juveniles with a grey cast on the head) but has a darker grey head, more black on the undersides of the primaries and a less contrasting pale grey back.
Photo: Wilfred Esau
Little Ringed Plover (2002)
The cute little Little Ringed Plover, Charadrius dubius, with that diagnostic orange-yellow spectacles, snuck onto the Southern African list on 5 January 2002, when Grahame Stewart found one on the Makololo Plains in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. It was a 15 year wait for another chance. On 26 August 2017, Jo Balmer, Gregg Darling and Keith Joubert found the first one for South Africa, at Tankatara pans outside Port Elizabeth. This bird didn’t stick around too long, but as luck would have it, there was one more shot: on 11 September 2017 another (or the same?) Little Ringed Plover was found at Vermont Pan at Hermanus. Throw in a Citrine Wagtail and our very first Upcher’s Warbler, and September 2017 was certainly a red letter month.
Photo: Grahame Stewart
Western Reef Heron (2002)
Oh, these white egrets will be the death of me! There are a whole bunch of species worldwide that are really tricky to distinguish, with ID hinging on the shape of the bill, bare parts colours and breeding plumes (a.k.a. aigrettes). This one appears to be a Western Reef Heron, Egretta gularis. This species has three races, although the distinctions between them are not very convincing. There is the nominate West African race E. g. gularis, a coastal East African race that extends to India (schistacea) and then a Malagasy and Indian Ocean race (dimorpha). The latter is sometimes considered a separate species, Dimorphic Egret, and has been claimed from South Africa. I for one, am hesitant to identify these bloody things. I’ve seen plenty of Little Egrets with abnormal yellow colouration on their legs, and juveniles are particularly confusing. Western Reefs apparently hybridize with Little Egrets too. Good luck! The bird pictured here was first found at Buffel’s Bay in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve on 13 April 2002, and was later rediscovered at Olifantsbos.
Photo: Dave Deighton
Snowy Egret (2002)
How’s this for a bizarre twist of events? Two new species of white egrets for Southern Africa, in the same month! The Snowy Egret, Egretta thula, pictured here, was first found at Zandvlei on the Cape Peninsula on 23 April 2002, and was subsequently relocated on the 29th. This remained the only record of this Neotropical species up until June 2015, when my friends the Rollinson brothers found another bird at Black River in Cape Town. I made sure I was on plane to see this one before it disappeared!
Photo: Dave Deighton
Barau’s Petrel (2003)
The first claim of this handsome Indian Ocean specialist was from Maputo Bay in November 1987, with an additional claim from Richards Bay in October 1998. However, the first confirmed record is generally considered to be a bird off Richards Bay on 8 November 2003. Barau’s Petrel, Pterodroma baraui, breeds mainly on Reunion Island, and possibly on smaller islands near Mauritius. In the last few years the number of Barau’s recorded in our waters has increased exponentially. To date there are more than 50 records, including one seen on a birding cruise by more than 200 elated spectators (myself included).
Photo: Niall Perrins
Asian Dowitcher (2004)
‘That’s the bird!’ Dave immediately shouted, excitedly poking the page in Shorebirds 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. Of course they were right, and 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’. You can read the entire story about Dave Deighton’s discovery here: Dave and the Dowitcher: A tale of three twitches.
Photo: Clive Kaplan
Little Penguin (2005)
At only about 40 cm long, this cutie pie (Eudyptula minor) is the world’s smallest penguin. Hence its alternative name of Fairy Penguin. How this guy got from its Australian / New Zealand breeding grounds to Ichaboe Island, off Namibia’s coastline is a tough question to answer. But it would not be unreasonable to assume that it might have had some help. A fascinating record, whatever you make of it. It was first reported on 14 April 2005.
Photo: Neville-Nash Uhongoro and Jessica Kemper
Rosy Starling (2005)
Also known as the Rose-coloured Starling (Pastor roseus), this attractive sturnid breeds across eastern Europe and Asia. What exactly this second-year bird was doing 18.8 km south of Mata Mata camp in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park at 16:30 on 15 July 2005, is anyone’s guess. The species normally migrates to southern Asia and India during its non-breeding season. In some years, irruptions occur where there are locust plagues. A handful of further records suggests that perhaps Rosy Starling are more frequent visitors to Africa than we think.
Photo: Jörgen Sagvik
Elegant Tern (2006)
A stunning bird, with a fitting name, a first for Africa, and conveniently close to a major city. All the ingredients for a major twitch. Southern Africa’s first Elegant Tern Thalasseus elegans, found on 18 January 2006 at Strandfontein Sewage Works in Cape Town, was a popular bird. Check out some photos of the action here. Subsequently there have been regular reports of this species at various locations in the Western Cape, as well as in Namibia. I suspect that there are a few individuals floating around, and visiting tern roosts along the coast. Personally I still need to connect with one, which is the reason why I moved from Pretoria to Langebaan. Somewhat surprisingly, Elegant Terns appear to be very closely related to Sandwich Terns. Indeed, the two species are known to hybridise in Europe.
Photo: Trevor Hardaker
You can call this Irania gutturalis a White-throated Robin if you like, but that just invites confusion with our own White-throated Robin-Chat. Plus, “Irania” just sounds so much cooler. Another option is Persian Robin. Thus far the one and only record of this Palearctic migrant in Southern Africa was this male bird. It was photographed on a farm near Williston in the Karoo – literally in the middle of nowhere. I think farms in otherwise areas are a bit of a migrant trap, given the shade, irrigation and greenery. Ockert Lombard first found this on 11 July 2006. It vanished by the 15th.
Photo: Ockert Lombard
Grey-backed Storm Petrel (2007)
Barrie Rose was one of South Africa’s legendary seabirders. I was fortunate to have birded with him a few times, and even go looking for Rose’s Mountain Toadlet at Cape Point. Barry was lucky enough to connect with this Grey-backed Stormie, Garrodia nereis, on 14 April 2007 on a pelagic trip off Cape Town. If you have a Newman’s bird guide, you would have seen this species in that extra little section on Subantarctic species. Grey-backed Storm Petrels breed on a handful of islands in the Southern Ocean: South Georgia, Gough, Crozets, Kerguelens, Aucklands, Antipodes and Chatham. Their post-breeding movements are not well known.
Photo: Barrie Rose
Angolan Waxbill (2008)
This is an enigmatic one. In November 2008, birders bumped into a pair of waxbills at Ehomba in the far north of Namibia, near the Kunene River. These essentially resembled Swee Waxbills as we know them in South Africa. However, given the location, the birds are almost certainly of the Angolan race bocagei, which is now generally considered a separate species, namely Angolan Waxbill or Angola Swee Coccopygia bocagei. In the years since, birders have been hot on the trail of these waxbills, and there have been a number of claims. There is even a blurry photograph, which is considered “not unequivocal”. The official Namibia Bird Records Committee has not accepted the species onto their country list. Whatever the case is, it is certainly intriguing. If you go looking, remember that male Angolan Waxbills have black faces (like Swees, but unlike male Yellow-bellied Waxbills); their upperparts are also more distinctly barred.
Photo: Pedro Vaz Pinto (African Bird Club)
Madeiran Storm Petrel (2009)
The first whispers of Madeiran or Band-rumped Storm Petrel, Oceanodroma castro, in southern African waters surfaced in 2008, from observers aboard a cruise from Cape Town to Namibia. Even for experienced seabirders, identifying tiny storm petrels vanishing among the swells from a rocking boat is a challenge. Nevertheless, reports were received of a few contenders on two cruises up the West Coast in 2008. In October 2009 things took a fortunate turn when a stormie was seen flying around over Halifax Island, off Luderitz in Namibia. Jessica Kemper and Jean-Paul Roux forwarded the pictures to Trevor Hardaker, who sent them on to experts across the globe…the consensus is that they were Madeiran. This little pelagic has a wide breeding distribution in both the Pacific (Japan, Hawaii, Galapagos) and the Atlantic (St Helena, Cape Verde, Tenerife, Desertas, Salvage, Azores). You may also know this species by its alternative name, Band-rumped Storm Petrel.
Photo: Jessica Kemper
Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel (2010)
In November 2010, a vessel in the Mozambique Channel encountered, amongst loads of Barau’s Petrels and other great Indian Ocean specials, a small and dark storm petrel. A few record shots were obtained before the bird shot off. These pictures were circulated among both local and international experts – the final result being a new species for Southern Africa: Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel Oceanodroma monorhis! This is a really enigmatic species which breeds on islands around Japan, Korea and Russia and then migrates into the northern Indian Ocean from September to April. There have also been a few intriguing records from the north Atlantic, including some birds trapped ashore in England! It differs from the similar Matsudaira’s by its weaker wing bar and less white on the bases of the primaries.
Photo: Meidad Goren
Little Crake (2012)
Just before dawn, on the morning of Friday 23 March 2012, residents of Clovelly, south of Cape Town, woke to a crowd of birds furtively sneaking past their homes. One lady emerged sleepily, clad in a dressing gown, and clutching a cup of something. She caught my eye, and I felt obliged to stop and tell her why there was suddenly a parade of people, carrying scopes and telephone lenses, on her lawn. The reason: Southern Africa’s first Little Crake, Porzana parva. This little female emerged promptly as the sun rose, and gave the waiting birders a wonderful show as she foraged in the Silvermine Wetland. This appears to be only the second ever record south of the Equator in Africa. Fortunately the lady in question had just recently watched the movie “The Big Year” and was sympathetic to all the twitchers parked on her lawn. What a day!
Photo: Matthew Axelrod
Black Skimmer (2012)
The saga of the Black Skimmer deserves many a re-telling. All hell broke loose on Thursday 4 October 2012, with a report of a Black Skimmer Rynchops niger, at Rietvlei near Milnerton, Cape Town. This was only around 17:00 and only a few of the most rabid twitchers managed to beat the notorious Cape Town traffic to connect with the skimmer before the reserve closed. The Friday was chaos, as hordes of people came to appreciate this American skimmer – which is told from its African cousin mainly by its black-tipped bill. The bird was last seen by reserve staff just after 19:00. On Saturday…nothing. On Sunday though, amazingly, a Black Skimmer was found at Walvis Bay in Namibia. Could this be the same bird? Trevor Hardaker believes so:
“In comparing the photos of the birds at Rietvlei and Walvis Bay, there are some striking consistencies in the facial patterns and underwing details, especially the plumage markings on the leading edge of the underwing and I suspect that there is a strong possibility that this is, in fact, the same individual. If this could be proven without a shadow of a doubt, it would mean that the bird covered the 1250km between the 2 sites (a direct line distance) in about 36 hours averaging about 35 km/h.”
Photo: John Paterson
Isabelline Wheatear (2012)
What is Isabelline Wheatear, Oenanthe isabellina, doing in 2012? Surely it was in the books way before that? Yes, indeed. The bird has been included in local field guides based on a sight record of 2 birds in Chobe, northern Botswana on 7 December 1972. However, the species was rejected by the Botswana Bird Club’s Records Subcommittee, as it was felt that the details were not sufficient to eliminate similar species like Northern Wheatear and juvenile Capped Wheatear. It was always a bird that was likely to reach us at some point – being a Palearctic migrant that winters across much of Africa. Birders had to wait 40 years though, until Derrick Wilby found his Christmas present at Rio Savane in central Mozambique, on 25 December 2012. Now it gets interesting. Only 5 days later, on New Years Day 2013, Stefan de Meillon found another Isabelline in the Chobe area (close to Senyati Safari Lodge). This bird is pictured here. But wait, there’s more! On 25 March 2013, Enrico Leonardi and Morgan Saineti (the local birding guide at Aberfoyle Lodge) encountered a third Isabelline on top of Gleneagles at Aberfoyle in Eastern Zimbabwe’s Honde Valley. Three records in three months – this could only mean one thing: influx. I can’t wait for the next one. Hope it won’t be another 40 years.
Photo: Stefan de Meillon
Angola Cave Chat (2012)
This story gets my vote for the most sensational discovery in our region over the 36 years covered here. While doing a survey of northern Namibia’s remote Zebra Mountains at the end of May 2012, Wessel Swanepoel heard an unfamiliar bird call. Some further investigation revealed a striking black-and-white robin perched on some rocks. Swanepoel had discovered a hitherto overlooked population of Angola Cave Chat, Xenocopsychus ansorgei within our subregion. Subsequently, further scrambling and climbing around on these desolate hills have proved that there is a healthy population of these birds. A loss of an endemic for Angola, but a great gain for Namibia. Wessel reported his find in the Namibia Bird Club’s journal Lanioturdus, which included the photo shown here.
Photo: Wessel Swanepoel
Ortolan Bunting (2013)
How lucky can one be!? Paul Donald, a friend of mine from the UK, decided to visit Namibia for a romantic breakaway with his wife in November 2013. While chilling out at their chalet at NamibRand Family Hideout resort (which is pretty much in the middle of a nowhere), Paul spotted an interesting bird on the verandah. He immediately recognised this species from birding in Europe, and fired off some record shots. Sadly the bunting disappeared, but the photos prove without a doubt that it was new species for Southern Africa: Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hotulana! Paul took this photo off the back of his camera using his his iPod.
Photo: Paul Donald
Amsterdam Albatross (2013)
This must ranks as one of the most incredible sightings in the history of birding. Described in 1983, the Amsterdam Albatross Diomedea amsterdamensis, essentially resembles a juvenile Wandering Albatross. However, adults retain the brown plumage and never develop white feathers as in Wanderers. The species is globally Critically Endangered, with only about 25 pairs (and a total of perhaps 170 individuals). Its only breeding site is a rock in the middle of the Indian Ocean, about halfway between Africa and Australia. This rock is called Amsterdam Island – hence the name. Almost miraculously one of these birds crossed paths with a pelagic birding cruise, only 6 nautical miles off Cape Point, on 13 July 2013. Satellite tracking data have shown that Amsterdam Albatrosses sometimes reach out waters, but the odds of actually meeting one on the vast oceans are miniscule.
Photo: Trevor Hardaker
Trindade Petrel (2014)
The first new one for Southern Africa in 2014 pitched up on the 7th of January already, but was only identified much later. I am taking the liberty of pasting Trevor Hardaker’s emphatic original report here, from the SA Rare Bird News report that went out on 10 April 2014:
On Tuesday, 7 January 2014, Wilfred Esau was, as usual, skippering his trawler for I&J about 30 nautical miles south-east of Port Elizabeth when he picked up on an interesting bird and took a series of photos of it – it was a sooty black and white Pterodroma petrel…a quick glance at the photo and there was a little bit of uneasiness with the extent of the white on the belly, but I let it slip through. It was not until sometime later that discussions about this bird started up again…We then set about trying to identify the bird and managed to narrow it down to a handful of potential species with one of them seeming to be more likely than any of the others…we would have to call in the assistance of some “heavyweights…considered to be amongst the best in their field on the planet in terms of seabird identification. Peter Harrison, Hadoram Shirahai and Bob Flood all provided very valuable input on this bird and, in the end, all the discussions and identifications pointed to just one species, Trindade Petrel, Pterodroma arminjoniana of the Round Island population (near Mauritius).
Photo: Wilfred Esau
Red-tailed Shrike (2014)
Rarity-hunters Maans Booysen and Andre Stapelberg found this interesting-looking shrike at Sena on 14 January 2014. Sena is the farm on the southern bank of the Zambezi in lowland Mozambique, which is best known among birders as THE spot for Bohm’s Bee-eater. It is also the hottest place on Earth, as I can confirm from a gruelling afternoon spent there one December. Anyways, the photos clinched the ID of this bird as a Red-tailed or Turkestan Shrike Lanius phoenicuroides (a split from Isabelline Shrike). I’ve seen a few odd-looking Red-backed Shrikes over the years, and have tried stringing them into Red-tails. It is definitely worth reading up on this bird if you spend a lot of time in the Bushveld.
Photo: Maans Booysen
Red-necked Buzzard (2014)
One of the pro’s of being a professional bird guide, is that, eventually, you’re bound to bump into something staggering. On 28 July 2014, Etienne Marais was leading a group in the Bwabwata National Park in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip, when they spotted an interesting raptor. The bird perched for some gorgeous pictures (shown here). After some emailing between raptorphiles worldwide, the identity was confirmed: a juvenile Red-necked Buzzard, Buteo auguralis. But this is where the story gets even more interesting. Subsequent to this record being published, photos of several other mystery buzzards that had been seen over the years, were dug up. It appears that the first Red-necked Buzzard in Southern Africa was actually a juvenile in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in August 2001. This individual was initially identified as an out-of-range Forest Buzzard. Following this was an adult from Ngepi Camp in Namibia on 8 March 2009. Then a juvenile from Mahango in Namibia on 11 August 2012, and another from Chobe National Park in Botswana on 11 July 2014. Then Etienne’s bird, and finally an adult from Kasane in Botswana on 2 January 2015.
So, predominantly a winter visitor to the far north of our region. Or that’s what we thought until December 2016, when one was discovered at Stilbaai in the Western Cape. What!? Yes, really. I made the pilgrimage to go and see this bird, which we discovered devouring a molerat on an old rugby field. The Red-necked Buzzard just goes to show how much we still have to learn and discover!
Photo: Etienne Marais
Grasshopper Buzzard (2014)
Incredibly, 2014 delivered another new buzzard! This time it was the gorgeous Grasshopper Buzzard, Butastur rufipennis. Brendan Ryan was lucky enough to encounter this bird near Ngamo Pans in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park on 7 December 2014. It was associating with a loose flock of about 20 Yellow-billed Kites. Despite searches on subsequent days, the bird could not be located again. This African raptor can be quite abundant in good habitat, with nests of adjacent pairs less than 100 m apart. As you might imagine, grasshoppers and other large insects are its main prey. The most striking feature of this bird of prey is its bright rufous flight feathers – unmistakable. The second record was about three years later, when Andre Bernon found on a floodplain near Mungari Camp at Coutada 11 in Mozambique on 9 December 2016. This was followed by a third photographed by Siraaj and Caitlyn from Kavinga Camp in the Zambezi Valley on 2 November 2017. So if you can brave the heat in mid-summer and get up to the far north, you may just get lucky with this spectacular bird. Why not grab a pitta while you’re up there?
Photo: Brendan Ryan
Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin (2016)
On the morning of 17 July 2016, Peter Steyn and Andre Demblon went birding at Strandfontein Sewage Works in Cape Town. Thank goodness they did! In some scrubby growth along the shores of Zeeikoeivlei, they spotted an interesting-looking robin, and took some record shots. These were quickly circulated via the birding grapevine, and before you could say Cercotrichas galactotes, we had a new species for southern Africa. The bird remained quite cooperative and was seen by hundreds of twichers over the next several weeks. At this point we were building a house in Langebaan, and had to fly down every now and then to go and check on the builders’ progress. This made a convenient excuse to go and twitch the robin. On our first attempt we dipped…hard…but on a return visit the bird played ball. These migratory passerines breed in Eurasia and normally migrate only as far south as Kenya. The Western Cape’s reputation as a vagrant trap was once again confirmed.
Photo: Trevor Hardaker
Yellow-throated Leaflove (2016)
I still cringe when I think of this species, and particularly a photo of all my birding buddies crammed in a boat on their way to twitch it. The creatively-named Yellow-throated Leaflove, Atimastillas flavicollis, is a kind of greenbul which occurs within 200km of our borders in Zambia. It is perhaps not overly surprising that a pair was located in riverine bush on the grounds of the Caprivi Houseboat Safari Lodge in Katima Mulilo in February 2016. Boding well for potential twitchers, the pair then built a nest and started incubating their eggs. They appear to be resident in the area, as reports continue to roll in. Perhaps there are other populations of this species in the Caprivi Strip? It is well worth learning the call before you visit the area.
Photo: Curt-Ingo Sagell
Pied Flycatcher (2016)
This one was torture! On 18 December 2016, Christiaan Viljoen, a guide at the upmarket Bushmanskloof Wilderness Reserve near Clanwilliam in the Western Cape, found a little brown and white flycatcher hawking insects in the trees outside reception. The news was immediately put out to some expert birders, who sped up there to go and photograph it. Ficedula flycatchers in non-breeding plumage are notoriously difficult to separate. But forensic-level investigation of the photos and calls all point towards the bird being our first European Pied Flycatcher, F. hypoleuca. The other two contenders are Collared Flycather F. albicollis and Semicollared Flycatcher F. semitorquata. Day visitors are not allowed at the reserve, so this one was only for the very rich or the very determined. I note that there was another record of this species – in the summer of 1990, from Khane Ruins in Zimbabwe. Whether this one was ever confirmed I am not sure. Something to keep an eye open for!
Photo: Trevor Hardaker
Upcher’s Warbler (2017)
This one has a loooong backstory. You can read the whole saga here. The last week of August 2017 will forever be known as unhappy wives week. Tankatara Salt Pans near Port Elizabeth not only produced SA’s first Little Ringed Plover, but also a Citrine Wagtail. Whilst waiting for these two rarities to show, a nondescript warbler was photographed while catching midges in some of the small bushes lining the pans. Several things about it stood out, not least being its continuous, emphatic tail tipping and swinging. To make a long story short, an epic ID battle ensued…the final result: our first Upcher’s.
Photo: One of the very first photos, by Jo Balmer
White Wagtail (2018)
Thanks to the dedication of Lester van Groeningen, 2018 certainly kicked off with a bang. Here, in his own words, Lester describes his excitement in finding SA’s first White Wagtail:
One never knows what a new day will deliver! I always have high expectations – if you want to find something, expect to find it! But on that day, even my high expectations were exceeded. On Friday 5 th January, Cheryl and I left home with high expectations of finding the Pectoral Sandpiper which had been seen the previous evening from the Rooisand Nature Reserve Bird Hide. It was not a new bird for us but it would certainly boost our points tally in our local Hermanus Bird Club competition! Soon after we entered the hide, Ronnie Hazel and his wife popped in too. (As they are serious contenders in our local competition that was not good!!) We were scanning the area on the east side of the hide for the Pectoral Sandpiper when I noticed a ‘white’ faced wagtail in the short grass about 5m away. I immediately got Cheryl and Ronnie and his wife onto the bird and then then the discussion started……sort of looks like a Mountain Wagtail with that grey back…….it’s very scruffy…….wonder if it is not an aberrant Cape? I was really struggling to remain positive about this bird and did the normal birder thing – I took some photos! In my opinion, the bird looked like a Juvenile Citrine Wagtail and as soon as I got home, I studied the photos eagerly. Cheryl and my son, David, were now also convinced we had something special.
I believe we can all relate to our birding ‘early days’ when the field guides didn’t include all the birds we had seen, and eventually we had to concede to those pesky experts that we had not found a new bird after all! Well, with some resilience built up from those times, a bit of a nudge to Faansie Peacock, and a few extra photos, the identity of this bird was confirmed as a White Wagtail. Fortunately the bird was relocated on the 9th January which allowed another 200 or so birders to add White Wagtail to their lists. Unfortunately, it disappeared a few days later leaving a lot of disappointed birders not seeing the bird.
I must take this opportunity to thank Faansie and Trevor for the tremendous work they do and the efforts they made to sort out the ID of this wagtail. Without those efforts the ID of this bird may have slipped by and it would not have become the 975th Southern African species. At last we have found one not in the book! Here is the first photo taken of a White Wagtail in Southern Africa
Photo: Lester van Groeningen
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (2018)
Gary Allport has certainly been working his local patch in Mozambique in the last few years. He’s turned up some really good rarities, including a beautiful Red-necked Stint, but he outdid himself on 18 February this year when he found our very first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Macaneta, outside Maputo. With typical abandon, Justin jumped in his bakkie and raced across the border. He and Gary then upped their game by finding ANOTHER Sharpie at the same site. What!? As if this was not enough, the birds were accompanied by Pectoral Sandpipers, making for some great comparative photos of these two similar species. The potential occurrence of Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata in Southern Africa has been predicted for a while – Gary made our collective dreams come true.
Photo: Gary Allport
Tahiti Petrel (2018)
The penultimate addition to our list was on 11 November 2018. I was involved at the Wagtail Conservation Festival in Amanzimtoti the day before, and spoke to some of the birders who were to head out the next day on a pelagic trip from Durban. Little did I know what a spectacular find they would make! If I had, I may have canceled my plans and begged for a spot onboard. The bird in question, Tahiti Petrel Pseudobulweria rostrata, breeds on various islands in the tropical latitudes of the Pacific, basically between New Guinea and South America. From there they disperse widely across the Pacific. Identification is not straighforward, and there are many similar contenders such as Phoenix Petrel, Herald Petrel and Kermadec Petrel. Maybe we’ll get into the ID of petrels later, but I think this blog post is now long enough!
Photo: David Allan
White Tern (2018)
My friend Etienne Marais received a very welcome Christmas present last year. The very last addition to our list was on 26 December 2018. Some time during that day I got a very excited phone call from Etienne. At the Marais family’s traditional seaside escape at Kei Mouth, Etienne had decided to check a tern roost on the beach that morning. Suddenly, an all-white seabird flew in. According to Etienne, the bird seemed very hesitant to land and kept fluttering above the roost. Etienne managed to snap a few pics. A good thing, because otherwise such an amazing record would have almost sounded too good to be true. He Whatsapped the pictures to me, and we concurred: this could not be anything other than a White Tern, Gygis alba. This dainty little seabird is known to all since it is a favourite subject of nature documentaries, probably because it is so synonymous with small tropical islands. Here it precariously balances its single egg on a branch, weighing off the risk off less parasites with strong winds. The species is widely known by another name, Fairy Tern, but that cute moniker now applies to the unrelated Sternula nereis – a Little Tern lookalike that occurs in Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia. If you’ve read through this whole article, you would remember that “Fairy” Tern was originally included in the 1984 list, but that that vague claim was subsequently deleted.
On the left, with a Common Tern. Photo: Etienne Marais
And there you have it.
100 “new” additions to the Southern African list from 1982 and the Roberts V days. It’s been a wild and exciting ride, with the ups and downs of the taxonomic rollercoaster coupled with the thrills of discoveries, vagrants and twitches. Now the only question that remains is, what will be next? Let me know what you think in the comments.
A big thanks to Trevor Hardaker for comments on this article!
Thank you for a great read and compilation of information.
Thanks Fiona – appreciate it!
Unbefreakinglievable article Faansie.
Awesome read! Still itching to find any of the above mentioned birds!
You and me both Tristan!
Fun to see my name popping up! Thank you Faansie. Pity we – Morgan and myself – did not have a camera in Aberfoile when we saw the Isabelline Wheatear. Just to add on your story, few days after the record, Wayne Jones – one of the Rockjumper guides we had in Ethiopia few weeks before, in February, where BTW we had the chance to compare loads of Northern and Isabelline WEs -, wrote to me saying that an Isabelline was spotted by a birding tour in Madagascar during the same period. Might support your idea of an influx maybe.
All the best
That is very interesting Enrico. I didn’t know about the Mada record. But I think you’re right. The sudden jump in the number of southerly records certainly suggests an atypical influx. Thanks for reading!
Fantastic! Very interesting reading. Funny enough, we undertook a trip in 2016 to find the Yellow-throated Leaflove; no success!
Hi Sheleph – I still need the Leafloves too. I guess dipping is just an inevitable part of the birding game. Will make a plan at some point to go and see them.
Is there anything you don’t do 110%? Your bird book for kids even got my father interested now… Thanks for an awesome read!
Haha, thanks Pieter! Glad your dad likes the book.