🕘 14-minute read
Every twitcher dreams of spotting a bird no one else has seen. Anne Williams’ megatick at sleepy Kleinemonde on the Sunshine Coast changed her life.
The birding experts were initially dismissive when Anne Williams reported a foreign gull feeding on the edge of the lagoon at Kleinemonde, a small settlement on the Sunshine Coast, east of Port Alfred.
A fanatical birder, who had honed her twitching skills on an overland adventure from Knysna to Malawi with hubby Clive, Anne nevertheless was unable to identify the stranger among a flock of 400 resident Kelp Gulls foraging in the tranquil Eastern Cape estuary.
She backed up her sighting with photos and filmed footage before Roberts Birds of Southern Africa co-author Tony Tree ventured out to Kleinemonde. When he identified the unusual vagrant as a Heuglin’s Gull from Siberia, it set the birding world atwitter. Heuglin’s Gulls had previously never been seen south of Tanzania, where they migrate to escape the harsh Russian winters.
The Rarities Committee arrived from Cape Town to test the veracity of her sighting one weekend, while she was away visiting family, and searched fruitlessly for the stray gull. “I got back the night before they left and met them at the lagoon early the next morning. My heart was in my mouth and at first we could not see it, but thankfully the gull appeared and I pointed it out as casually as I could.
“It was a case of reverse migration. It kept going south and ended up here,” says Anne, who was kept busy taking visitors to see the Siberian gull during its four-month sojourn from April 2000.
Finding a New Direction
“I could’ve made a fortune if I charged them,” she remarked to a friend one day – and the penny finally dropped. She realised that her passion for the avian creatures in the coastal paradise at Kleinemonde where she lives could be turned to profit, despite having starting this hobby late in life.
Anne started birding after a trip to Kruger National Park, and taught herself to identify birds, finding that her training as a classical pianist and music teacher, as well as in medical technology, had prepared her well to pay attention to the fine details invaluable in identifying birds.
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To become a professional guide, she enrolled for courses, first as a general tour guide and then as a specialist FGASA (Field Guides Association for Southern Africa) guide. She now regularly takes visitors to see the 334 species she’s recorded in the area stretching from the Fish River Mouth to Port Alfred and inland to Bathurst and local game farms. “You can spot a fair number of birds
in this area quite easily,” Anne advises birders wanting to build their list of lifers.
Flocking to the Eastern Cape
And if you add in the rest of the Sunshine Coast west to Alexandria, more than 400 species have been recorded, including many specials and migrants. “We have five of South Africa’s seven biomes in this area and ten river estuaries,” points out Sandy Birch of Sunshine Coast Tourism.
The area around Port Alfred is becoming a favoured birding destination, where birdwatchers have the chance of seeing many specials and near-endemics difficult to see elsewhere, thanks to the varied habitats – coast, estuaries, wetlands, riverine and dune forests, valley thicket, grasslands and Eastern Cape fynbos. “The coast, estuaries and wetlands provide excellent feeding grounds for waders, but the richest habitats are savannah and grassland,” says Sandy.
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What’s There to See?
Among the sought-after birds found in the Eastern Cape fynbos are the Black Harrier and the African Marsh Harrier, as well as the Jackal Buzzard, Malachite Sunbird, Grey-backed Cisticola and Denham’s Bustard. In other habitats, Brown Scrub Robin, Barratt’s Warbler, Dark-backed Weaver, Grey Sunbird, Black-bellied Starling, Blackcrowned Tchagra, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Swee Waxbill with its distinctive red rump, Orange-breasted Bush Shrike and Forest Canary are also favourites with twitchers.
A pair of Knysna Woodpeckers are regulars in Anne’s garden, where a Chorister Robin-Chat provides a happy soundtrack in contrast to the harsh croak of Knysna Turacos that compete with Trumpeter Hornbills for the fruit of the wild plum (Harpephyllum caffrum).
Her passion for birds extends to rescuing those in distress and she’s played Florence Nightingale to quite a few. One such case was Gracie, an uncommon and vulnerable African Grass Owl that Anne found impaled on a barbed-wire fence. She spoke to Gracie and calmed her before untangling Gracie and taking her to a local vet.
Another time Anne helped a Fiscal Flycatcher mom rear her chicks after they fell out of the nest while being harassed by a boomslang. “I placed them in a container and supplied her with mealworms. She did the rest and they still come to beg for worms,” says Anne. “Friends for life.”
Where to Go Birding in Kleinemonde
Kleinemonde has two river mouths and double the number of birds on its estuaries. Down on the mudflats of the eastern one, we watched a Goliath Heron trawl for titbits among Reed Cormorants, while a Fish Eagle wrestled with a snake it had caught in its talons. We could hear a Grey Sunbird, but it remained tantalisingly hidden from view.
On one of Anne’s popular eco tours from the Riet River mouth to the Three Sisters landmark, we spotted African Black Oystercatchers foraging for mussels while Terek Sandpipers, and Caspian Terns and Little Terns, took advantage of the low tide. Anne told us fascinating tales of shipwrecks, local history and the ecology of this stretch of beach, rich in rock pools to explore.
Joining one of her Bird ’n Breakfast outings at Pomeroy Game and Nature Reserve nearby, we followed the flight of a Scaly-throated Honeyguide while strolling through riverine bush. The Mountain Wagtail and Narina Trogon remained elusive, but we were charmed by a Knysna Woodpecker and a little Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher.
Other local specials include the secretive African Finfoot, Denham’s Bustard, Black-winged Lapwing, White-starred Robin, Bar-tailed Godwit and Common Redshank.
Some of Anne’s favourite birding spots on the Sunshine Coast include the Kowie River horseshoe valley at Waters Meeting Nature Reserve in Bathurst, Ngciyo Pans on the stretch of the R343 outside Kenton (dubbed the ‘poor man’s game drive’), Nyala Valley Game Lodge, Kap River Nature Reserve, Riet River estuary and the coastal stretch to the Three Sisters landmark.
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Varied habitats make it easy to spot birds sometimes difficult to see elsewhere. The Heuglin’s Gull may be the most unusual visitor to the Sunshine Coast recorded so far – and was certainly a first for South Africa – but other vagrants are fond of surprising twitchers here. Anne has spotted Open-billed Storks and a Great White Pelican on the Kleinemonde Lagoon, and a Dusky Lark on the road to the lighthouse at Fish River Point.
Dusky Sunbirds, Long-billed Crombecs, European Honey Buzzards, Spotted Redshanks and Green Twinspots are some of the other uncommon visitors Anne has ticked locally. Her biggest regret is missing a Pel’s Fishing Owl photographed on the Kleinemonde East River bank after it strayed from KwaZulu-Natal – it would have been a lifer to add to her list of 655 species.
“After days of searching for it I had to concede defeat. I was devastated,” she mourns. “Now I need to travel again if I want to add to my list.”
Anne Williams’ Favourite Birds
- Anne Williams: +27 (0) 83 719 4950; annesbirding.co.za
- A new digital brochure on birding in the area is available from Sunshine Coast Tourism: 046 624 1235; [email protected]; sunshinecoasttourism.co.za
If you enjoyed our story on Anne Williams, take a look at our story on top birding guide Adam Riley.
Words Marion Whitehead
Photography Marion Whitehead and Supplied
A journalist by trade, features writer on occasion and now the digital editor of SA Country Life. The first chance she gets, Leigh will tell you about a podcast she was recently listening to and how you simply have to make the move from radio. In a previous life, she once taught English on Jeju which left her with an insatiable craving for kimchi.