August 9 – Tankwa Karoo

On this last full day of the tour we left early for the Tankwa Karoo: a large dry area of low scrub that is super-rich in endemism (of both flora and fauna) and which I was very excited to visit!

We stopped first in a little area called Karoopoort to find a little endemic called the Namaqua Warbler. Once we got to the proper habitat, our guide played the song and a pair popped right up. This always seems like cheating to me and, while he played a fair number of calls over the tour, he definitely didn’t do it for at risk species and did his best not to over-play any songs. This can stress out birds in some cases, so it’s important to be conscious of what, where, and when calls/songs are played.

Next we drove into the Tankwa Karoo and everything changed: the birds are different, the plants are different, and there’s virtually no one living there. We only saw a single store (where I purchased, and relished every sip of, their famous homemade ginger beer) all day and only a few power lines. This pseudo desert is largely covered in succulent shrubs, bushes, and the occasional acacia. In fact, it’s estimated that over 90% of the world’s succulent plant species originate from this area! There were even some flowers in bloom in purple, white, and yellow.

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Flowers in Tankwa Karoo NP © James Palmer
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Succulent scrub as far as the eye can see © James Palmer
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The only place to stop in Tankwa Karoo NP © James Palmer

We started rapidly picking up specialty birds like Karoo Chat, Tractrac Chat (don’t ask me about that name), Large-billed Lark, the beautiful Rufous-eared Warbler(!), Fairy Flycatcher (a gorgeous pied bird with a subtle pink spot on the belly, and the only member of this flycatcher family we’d seen this trip!), and Booted Eagle.

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Tracking a singing lark in flight © James Palmer
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Large-billed Lark © James Palmer
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Fairy Flycatcher © James Palmer

Turning into an area called Skitterykloof, a place known as a good spot to find the beautiful Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, we went walking among the rocks, cliffs, and aloes to find this difficult bird. Even now in breeding season, this bird only sings once every 10 to 20 minutes and can be very difficult to locate singing from behind a rock along a cliff face. Andre explained that we should look for something that looked like a mouse, hopping quickly between rocks and staying largely out of sight. After a bit of walking, Jess picked up some movement and we all quickly managed views of this stunning little bird as it rapidly hopped about. Andre couldn’t believe we’d found it so easily!

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The beautiful Skitterykloof area © James Palmer
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Aloe everywhere! © James Palmer
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The elusive Cinnamon-breasted Warbler (and a White-throated Canary) © James Palmer

Next we went looking for several other specialties in the more typical Karoo scrub habitat, but didn’t have any luck with the several highly nomadic species we were looking for (they’re just hit or miss). It was a fascinating area to look around and we did see a few ostriches, Steenbok, and Springbok nearby. Along the side of the road, I even picked out a tiny Brant’s Whistling Rat! Not all rats are pests of course, and this one was actually quite cuddly looking. According to Andre, it’s also a very difficult mammal to see, so we were pleased to have managed good views as it looked at us somewhat warily and scurried in and out of its burrow.

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Brant’s Whistling Rat © James Palmer

We said “Goodbye” to the Karoo and headed back to and through the town of Ceres (where we were staying) to head up Gydo Pass before dinner. The target here was the Protea Canary and, though we didn’t find any, it was nice to see many more Cape Sugarbirds on the Protea flowers. We also had an amazing view of the area surrounding Ceres.

At dinner we debriefed and reminisced a lot, emails were exchanged, and we each compiled separate Top 10 lists of our favourite birds for the trip (NOT an easy task). Andre totalled the lists, giving more points to birds many of us ranked highly and fewer points to those in the top 10 that were ranked lower. We had all chosen quite different birds (there were 41 birds between 6 top 10 lists), but I was not surprised to see the Secretarybird as the overall #1!

What a great trip and a wonderful group of people! We’d gotten a little silly in the car today as fatigue got the better of us. At one point we wondered what the Pale Chanting Goshawk would chant. It was decided that it would obviously chant, “Paaaaale, paaaale” etc. (presumably its “Dark” brother would chant just that). And Jess and I couldn’t help doing our best David Attenborough impressions as we searched for the Protea Canary. I’m going to miss these people!

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Pale Chanting Goshawk © James Palmer

We still have tomorrow morning and might try for a couple of specialties on the way to the airport. Then I’ll have my own (likely somewhat lesser) adventures in my next few days in Cape Town.

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