When birding in Kimberly, it takes a few seconds. The Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler flits onto the edge of the deck, hops a little closer and picks up my cheese crumb. Not to be outwitted, a Familiar Chat lands quietly on the chair and flicks its wings twice while it checks out the table for more. A Fiscal Flycatcher watches eagerly from the low-hanging branch of a camel thorn tree branch two metres away, as a duiker tiptoes past to nibble on buffalo thorn leaves.
The dawn chorus slowly fades as the choir of birds leaves their roosts, and a ground-foraging Crimson-breasted Shrike starts hopping through the leaf litter.
Time to climb
We are at Dronfield Nature Reserve, just north of Kimberley. Not just for birding or photographing, but to try and save a Critically Endangered icon of the skies.
“Time to climb,” says Angus Anthony, as he grabs the kit, and three teams head off to ring White-backed Vulture chicks. Angus, previous manager of Dronfield, and Mark Anderson, CEO of BirdLife South Africa, are the team leaders of this long-term vulture research, now in its 27th year, at Dronfield.
There are 23 volunteers helping this year. Some are long-term and local, others international raptor experts and young scientists. With no time to waste, we have to ring and measure 50 fledgelings on nests in the top of tall camel thorn trees, spread over 11 000 hectares.
About 108 pairs of critically endangered White-backed Vultures breed every year during winter, and the fledgelings leave the nest from the end of October. These birds face many threats throughout Southern Africa, including poisoning by poachers and lead poisoning from bullet fragments.
To get to some nests, we drive through the eastern savannah of Dronfield, where the grassland is sparsely dotted with camel thorn trees, and herds of gemsbok, eland and zebra moving through the waterhole conjure up images of the Serengeti in Tanzania.
Secretarybirds and Martial Eagles also breed here, and Tawny Eagles, Pale Chanting Goshawks and Gabar Goshawks are frequently seen on the wing. Ant-eating Chats hover like tiny drones and whistle their warning call as we pass by the large aardvark holes that hold their cool, rooftop tunnel nests. Fawn-coloured Larks (4) sing loudly from their perch on little shrubs, and Desert Cisticolas tinkle in the air. “Just look at all these LBJs (Little Brown Jobs), so many species,” exclaims volunteer Thierry Bouchet from LeGrand Parc Puy du Fou in France.
“We’ve just put out a fresh hartebeest carcass,” Dronfield manager, Charles Hall tells us as we check the bird activity from the hide at the vulture restaurant. Fifty White-backed-, two Cape- and one Lappet-faced Vulture (6) are engaged in kickboxing and tug-of-war at the carcass. We leave them to enjoy their feast and to take some fresh meat back to their hungry nestlings. Onwards to our next vulture nest and fledgeling, and the next and next.
Under the blanket of the Milky Way, we enjoy a braai in the lapa after a long day of tree climbing and measuring young vultures, which tend to throw up their half-digested meat chunks when they get nervous.
“Hopefully we’ll see Verreaux’s Eagle Owl chicks on the old vulture nests this year,” says Andy Hinton from the Hawk Conservancy Trust in England. The trust raises funds for the research, and Andy joins us every year for the fieldwork. Later that night the Rufous-cheeked Nightjars lull us into a dreamland of birds.
Kimberly birding firsts
Before dawn the next day, we head off to Kamfers Dam for some Kimberly birding, just across from Dronfield on the west side of the N12. As we arrive, the first rays cast an orange hue on the still dam, the peaceful and ever-changing habitat of the flamboyant Lesser Flamingo. The high-pitched, squeaky call of an Orange River Francolin shatters the silence around us.
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“Kimberley is famous for its many ‘firsts’,” Mark reminds me. “The first electric street-lighting in the Southern Hemisphere, the first drive-in bar [for horses and cars], the first aeroplane accident.” We reminisce about a more recent Kimberley first that happened in 2008, this time at Kamfers Dam. It was a world-first for Lesser Flamingos to breed on an artificial island. This is currently one of only five breeding sites for this species in the world. “I remember seeing the first grey little fluffballs under their mom’s long legs like it was yesterday,” I reply, as we gaze at 60 000 flamingos gently swaying from side to side as they filter blue-green algae in the shallows. It’s astounding to see this asynchronous dance by a mass of pink.
“It’s a miniature version of the lakes in Kenya with their hundreds of thousands of flamingos,” whispers Mark.
The pink layer cake
No one has described Kamfers Dam more eloquently than ornithologist Andrew Jenkins, who has monitored the flamingos here. He tells the story of a pink layer cake. “It’s a multi-layered cake of nuanced complexity. Grey mud, blue water – a warm, spicy mix of liquids and nutrients, a golden-grassed savannah beyond, baked in the heat of the summer sun, and topped with gloriously ornate, bright-pink flamingos.”
We are also looking for other less flamboyant but equally beautiful waders, and find the scarce little Chestnut-banded Plover. Black-winged Stilt, Common Greenshank, Little Stint and Kittlitz’s Plover feed along the water’s edge. Lesser Kestrels and Amur Falcons fly overhead from a nearby roost to the grasslands to hunt for insects and mice.
An immature African Fish Eagle startles a flock of flamingos into flight as it swoops down but fails to grab one of them. Grey-headed Gulls cry out as they fly by and White-winged Terns rest on a mud island where they face into the breeze. We scan the skies for the Booted Eagle and African Marsh Harrier, but they don’t seem to be around today.
Returning to Dronfield, we spot Banded Martins scooping water into their little beaks, and Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters hawking insects close to our chalet. We have to leave the next morning and our hearts are heavy, but we will be back soon. Next time at Kamfers Dam we hope again to see a crèche of chirpy flamingo youngsters jogging through the shallows and flapping their stubby little wings in glee.
For more detail on the birds seen take a look at our Top 10 birds in the Kimberley region.
Kimberly Birding numbers:
Dronfield Nature Reserve
053 839 4455, www.debeerswildlife.co.za
Kamfers Dam Northern Cape Tourism Authority 053 832 2657