ABOVE: A gorgeous image of the Strandfontein Temminck’s Stint by my friend Martin Benadie. You can get a good feel for the secluded, swampy habitat of the bird from this pic. You can also see my digiscoped footage of the bird right at the bottom of this post.
Our story starts on Saturday 26 November when Glynis Bowie visited Strandfontein Sewage Works outside Cape Town. This extensive series of marshes, pans and settling ponds is a haven for waterbirds, and is considered to be one of the top waterbird sites in South Africa. Indeed, Strandfontein is featured in my new book, Chamberlain’s Waders, as one the top wader-watching hotspots in southern Africa – the place is quite simply teeming with waterbirds. But let’s ignore the masses of flamingos, ducks, grebes, pelicans, cormorants, waders, gulls, terns and others for now – this tale focuses on one very small, very dull and very popular little bird.
At around 10:30, Glynis spotted a rather nondescript brownish wader on the marshy edge of a pan. She managed to get some fantastic shots of the mystery bird, which was very cooperative and approachable. As we all know, sorting through and editing photos is a rather laborious process, and it takes some time to work through the backlog. So, three days later, on the evening of Tuesday the 29th, Glynis uploaded a picture of the mystery bird to Facebook. Fortunately the bird’s true identity was quickly confirmed: she had found southern Africa’s first confirmed and potentially twitchable TEMMINCK’S STINT in 29 years!
I actually considered entitling this post “Glynis strikes again”. Believe it or not, but the Temminck’s Stint was not her first incidental mega. Rewind the clocks about 2 years. Kieliekrankie in the Kgalakgadi Transfrontier Park. Glynis photographed a strange seed-eater – which turned out to be the region’s second and South Africa’s first ORTOLAN BUNTING! Seriously, how lucky can one person get? By the way, Southern Africa’s first Ortolan was seen on 13 November 2013 at the Namibrand in Namibia.
So, after Glynis’s mystery stint was identified, Trevor Hardaker shared the news of this CMF as a MEGA ALERT on his SA Rare Bird News group. I don’t know about you, but seeing this heading in my inbox immediately results in severe physiological and psychological symptoms – elevated heart-rate, sweaty palms, unblinking eyes and a intoxicating cocktail of excitement and apprehension, coupled with a severe attack of FOMO. I daresay that even before I open the email, I already and instinctively evaluate the possibility of a flight tomorrow morning – to wherever Trevor’s message may prompt me – in terms of free time and finances. When the email starts with the word “I can’t believe that I am typing this, but…” all those manifestations are instantly tripled.
The message concluded with the phrase “…if it is still around, it is going to cause absolute mayhem!!”. Prophetic words. The next morning the bird was indeed still around, and the first twitchers managed to connect with it. This was all the motivation I needed to book a last-minute flight for the next morning. Needless to say my Wednesday was spent in agony, but reports that the bird had again been seen in the afternoon were promising. After a relatively sleepless night, I got up at 03:00 on Thursday morning, 1 December 2016, and grabbed my binoculars -as it happens, I had received a pair of pristine Zeiss Conquest 10x42s just the previous day, and I was itching to field test them…this was my feeble ‘excuse’ for jetting to sewage works on the other side of the country on a random Thursday morning. At 04:30 I stumbled into Lanseria Airport, with nothing more than my bins, wallet and a banana. I found my friend Justin Nicolau, equally red-eyed and scantily equipped, already waiting. We were soon joined by Lance Robinson, the third member of our little twitching expedition.
At 04:30 I stumbled into Lanseria Airport, with nothing
more than my bins, wallet and a banana.
ABOVE: About to embark on 05:55 Safair flight to Cape Town International Airport.
A twitching tangent
‘Twitching’ – i.e. traveling especially to go and ‘tick’ a rare bird found by someone else – is often frowned upon by many birders. For the life of me, I don’t understand why. Sure, it’s a waste of time and money…then again, if you manage to ‘grip’ the bird, you are rewarded by a memory that will be with you for the rest of your life. You will have long ago forgotten about the couple of thousand bucks that it set you back, but as an old man I will remember, with fondness, the moment I first laid eyes upon this bird. And much more than that…I will remember the salty, windy tang of the air as I stepped out of the plane at Cape Town; my agitation at how long the rental car place took before they handed over the keys; the sight of hundreds of flamingos in the foreground, with a promising line of cars in the background; even the taste of the aforementioned banana (which I split with Justin).
…even the taste of the aforementioned banana
(which I split with Justin).
I think there are three components that make twitching so addictive. Firstly, the thrill of the chase. The faster you get there, the more likely you are to connect with the bird. You can’t wait until it’s convenient or until month’s end so you can afford it. You have to act immediately to ensure success. And you never know where ‘there’ may be. It could be as convenient as a suburban garden in Randburg (Collared Flycatcher, December 2012), to a suburb of Maputo (Red-necked Stint, September 2015), to riverine forests along the Zambezi River in the Caprivi Strip (Yellow-throated Leaflove, February 2016).
In today’s fast-paced, regulated world, such spontaneity is rare and precious. Twitching gives you a motivator to live free, liberated and unrestricted. ‘Normal people’ (a.k.a. non-birders) don’t spend an unplanned Thursday outside, alternately scoping birds and applying sunblock all day, at a sewage treatment plant, 1,300 km from home, living off of half a banana. They go to work, come home, perhaps watch some TV, and plan something sensible for the weekend, or perhaps a holiday in a few months’ time. I’m not judging – I certainly spend the vast majority of my life in the latter fashion, but an occasional unscripted day of unadulterated fun in nature really is spiritually invigorating!
And this brings me to my second point. Twitching enforces a sense of belonging and community. Instead of feeling asocial, alone and alienated sitting on that taxying plane with binoculars around my neck, I always experience exactly the opposite. A feeling of being part of a group of like-minded passionate people, who also sacrifice time and money and normality in the pursuit of their hobby. This feeling climaxes when you arrive at the ‘stakeout’ with a whole crowd of people already there – people who chose to spend this day in their lives just like you. Later in the day everyone filters back to normality, heading home to catch up on some emails or check in with spouses or kids. You just continue where you left off, but with your life a little richer.
Thirdly, twitching gives you a story to tell. I’m sure we all love entertaining our non-birding friends with tales of our latest ‘bird-crazy’ exploits. Birders won’t bat an eyelash when you tell them you spent the day wading through waste-deep muck, surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes, flicking off the occasional leech, all to see “the bird”. But non-birder friends react very differently: they will laugh, ask questions, express their disbelief and perhaps even get a twinge of jealousy in their eyes as you recount the story of your pursuit of a ‘a small brown lesser-spotted something or other’. And perhaps your adventures will even spark a flame that might just ‘convert’ them to birders down the line. Quite apart from this, a group of birders huddled around a campfire can talk twitching tales late into the night – the dips, the grips, the near-misses…the ID arguments, the characters, the spots, the stringers, the lists.
Oh the lists! Frowny facers are often very dismissive of keeping a list (or lifelist) of the birds you’ve seen. But why not? Documenting your observations, even in the simplistic form of a list of ticks, is good practice. To me my lifelist is really one of the central pillars that my life revolves around. Not because I pride myself on my list being particularly high, or higher than someone else’s. Sure I enjoy some friendly competition, but more than that, my lifelist is like a mental photo album. Each tick on that list represents a special and unforgettable moment in my life: smells, sights and sounds; emotions; scenery; company; stories, jokes, debates, legends. An also a particular bird. Try it…think back to the first time you saw a Narina Trogon. Or a Bat Hawk. Or an Alpine Swift. Bombarded with good memories? A slight smile creeping across your face? I rest my case.
ABOVE: My ‘photos’ of the Temminck’s Stint. These may look like scribbles and gibberish, but this is valuable stuff! Analysing the bird like this, feather by feather, helps create a permanent mental map, I daresay more informative than just taking a photo. Also, I’m too stingy to buy a camera.
Back to the Temminck’s
Aaanyways…getting back to our story. We spotted several other birders were ambling about the terminal, sipping coffees and checking calidrid ID features while we waited to board. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a quick flight to Cape Town: Lance, Justin and I talked and laughed non-stop. I didn’t as much as glance at the in-flight magazine or safety card. With no check-in luggage to collect, we jogged to the rental car station below a Table Mountain enshrouded in cloud, and were soon on our way. We were greeted by a friendly boom gate guard at Zeekoeivlei, who informed us that she’s already on the third page of her visitors register clipboard for that morning.
Finding the Temminck’s Stint was a cinch. One of the easiest and most enjoyable twitches I’ve ever had. It initially took me a while to find it – because it was much, much closer than I had anticipated. Not more than 8-10 m away, half-hidden in the dappled shade of the bulrushes, stealthily probing in the algae and sludgy mud. Another unappreciated boon of twitching is that it gives you a rare opportunity to study a bird that you might never see again in your life. Use this valuable opportunity to soak it in – and find your own one next time! I set to work with my notebook, making a few scribbled sketches and annotations. This exceptionally cooperative calidrid provided excellent views – I noted one retained and very worn black-centred feather (a rearmost scapular, on the left side) which suggests it is an adult just finishing up its post-breeding moult. I also took some digiscoped footage – with my phone and Lance’s scope. You can see the results below. It was especially gratifying for me to see this species – having just illustrated it for my waders book some weeks ago. Those notes were based on my previous experience with the species in Thailand. Fortunately I didn’t discover anything that didn’t fit – it is too late to stop the book presses now! Number 854. Tick.
But Strandfontein had some other surprises in store. Priority number two for me was an American Golden Plover – just a few hundred metres from the stint! This bird was a little more distant and spent most of its time lying down, but an hour or so’s observations revealed a full picture. It was a very scruffy and worn bird, with blackish mantle contrasting with very bleached scapulars and coverts. It had a little gold spangling left on the rump, where the feathers are protected from excessive wear and sun by the overlying tertials. Again within walking distance, a Red-necked Phalarope in non-breeding plumage provided some entertainment. While I’ve seen lots of these before, I will never not enjoy a phalarope – arguably some of the world’s most interesting waders. Furthermore, I would vote for a female RN Phalarope in breeding plumage for the title of the world’s most attractive wader. We also saw what may have been a very distant Pectoral Sand, in addition to reasonable numbers of other waders. I really enjoyed the large flocks of Brown-throated Martins milling about – such a delicate and unassuming species but full of life!
By about 11:00, we decided to push our luck and try for the Elegant Tern towards Cape Point, and perhaps a Hottentot Buttonquail. Both were dead ends, but I nonetheless enjoyed the floral splendour and geomorphologic majesty of Cape Point, as always. We did manage to find many of the endemic Black Girdled Lizard, Cordylus niger, which occurs only on Table Mountain, with a small isolated population on the West Coast. Another bonus was a little Banded Stream Frog, Strongylopus bonaespei, which is virtually endemic to the Western Cape. Sunburnt and footsore, but elated, we fought through the Cape Town traffic to reach the airport by early evening. Back home at 22:30. A long day. A successful day. A memorable day. Thanks Glynis!
A little more on Temminck’s and Temminck
For such a small and drab bird, Temminck’s Stint caused quite a stir at Strandfontein. When I was there on Thursday, there were already crowds of birders. According to reports the Saturday was absolute mayhem, with up to 200 birders there at a time. But despite its bland appearance, Temminck’s Stint actually has a very interesting life history. Like the vast majority of scolopacid waders, it is strongly migratory. During the boreal summer, it breeds in marshes and bogs in the cold taiga zone of the N Palearctic, from Scandinavia to Siberia. The male advertises above his small territory by performing a hovering display flight, during which the white outer tail feathers (pale grey in most stints) are flared. To maximise reproductive output during the short, peaked Arctic summer, the species employs an unusual breeding strategy. After mating, the female lays a clutch of eggs and then departs, leaving the male to incubate. Meanwhile she lays a second clutch of eggs which she incubates herself. The non-breeding grounds lie in SE Asia, India, parts of the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa, mostly north of the equator. There have only been a handful of records of the species in Southern Africa, but it is probably overlooked. However, the yellowish colour of the legs should instantly eliminate most confusion species, except the Long-toed Stint (and potentially the American Least Sandpiper). However, both the latter species have obviously mottled upperparts, while Temminck’s is a rather plain bird. Temminck’s also differs from many calidrid waders in being more stealthy, typically feeding in half-concealed muddy spots fringed by vegetation. It moves slower and more furtively, and does not form big flocks. The species named after Coenraad Jacob Temminck (1778-1858), a Dutch zoologist. Temminck’s name is also carried by about 20 other avian taxa (including Temminck’s Courser), as well as a range of mammals, reptiles and fish.
ABOVE: The global distribution of Temminck’s Stint: yellow is the breeding range, blue is the non-breeding range. The image is from Wikipedia Commons (Vicpeters).
What makes Strandfontein so special?
Chances are you’ve been to Strandfontein at least twice in the last few months. First for Southern Africa’s very first and very unexpected Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, and now for the Temminck’s. In addition to its range of aquatic habitats, with different water depths, salinity levels and amounts of fringing vegetation, Strandfontein’s greatest drawcard is its geographical location. Situated just east of the Cape Peninsula, and just inland of the shores of False Bay, the site is perfectly positioned to ‘trap’ vagrants. Migrants or nomads are likely to travel overland as far S as they can go, funnel onto the Peninsula, and eventually arrive at the headland around the lighthouse. Here they are faced with a choice: continue flying across the open, windy and notoriously stormy oceans, or turn back and try to find some refuge. Strandfontein is the closest major wetland habitat, and thus a magnet to off course vagrants – that is, if you disregarded the various little wetlands and dams dotted along the peninsula (though the birds do not totally disregard these; see map below).
ABOVE: This is why I’m moving to the Cape. I think the Cape Peninsula, due to its tapered, pointed shape, is probably the only part of Southern Africa that acts as a funnel or trap for vagrants and migrants – this, coupled with the number of birders running around the greater Cape Town area, means that I’m racking up a lot of frequent flyer miles down to the Cape. Strandfontein Sewage Works are ideally positioned to ‘capture’ any water-associated vagrants. It lies on the plain of the Cape Flats (further east birds will have to cross the Cape Fold Mountains). It is also very visible from the air, so migrants flying at high altitudes will undoubtedly spot this smelly oasis. These are just some recent(ish) vagrants that came to mind – I’m probably forgetting a whole bunch more.
If waders make you tick…these bad boys are arriving on this weekend (10 December 2016). As of next week I’ll start sending them out (click here for some previews or click here to buy a signed copy right now without hesitation). Temminck’s Stint is on page 164, with some additional ID tables, diagrams and sketches in the chapter introduction. The book also features the usual Little Stint, Red-necked Stint and Long-toed Stint, with Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Western Sandpiper thrown in for good measure. These last three are potential future vagrants to Southern Africa. Let’s hope you find one soon, so I have another excuse to fly across the country with a banana.
As promised, a video of our twitching adventure below…
Lovely story Faansie…so glad my bird didn’t show any discrepancies with your beautiful illustrations in your new book. I will have to get a copy and keep an eye out for the Least, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers…..you never know what i may find by mistake in the future.
How great – a comment by the guest of honour! On behalf of the entire birding community, thank you for finding us such a fantastic bird Glynis! I do hope that you find many more such megas by mistake in future!
Hi Faansie! I really enjoyed this piece on the Temminck’s! Your writing is really fun but also educative. And the content was obviously very relatable! Just a quick comment, you credited Mr Temminck as being close to 700 years old when he died! And I think when explaining the Stint’s breeding grounds you wrote “need” instead of breed. Both small typos, but I thought you might like to know. I’m looking forward to the next book, and I’m hoping we’ll run into each other some place when you’ve moved down here to the Cape! Cheers.
Cool, thanks Andrew. I have corrected both the typos – for someone who considered themselves a semi-professional writer my spelling and grammar can be rather atrocious (you should see my whatsapp messages). The problem is that my brain is already three sentences ahead while my fingers are still catching up 🙂 Thanks for your kind words regarding the article, glad you enjoyed it.
Great read, thank you Faansie!
Thanks a lot Matt! Great to have met you at the Red-necked Buzzard twitch at Stilbaai. Hope to spend some more time in the field in the near future!
Thanks for the great article on the Temminck’s twitch. I was fortunate enough to see it on 4/12/2016 and then again on 12/01/2017 where it was displaying the much brighter breeding plumage. Managed to get some reasonable photos both times.
Have recently purchased your book on Waders and hoping to brush up on my knowledge with your help seeing SSW is my homeground.