Well folk a few weeks ago I went off adventuring with some mates and what an adventure it turned out to be !!! Amazing !!
I will let Jono tell the story …………….
Pied Wheatear – Victoria Falls Airport – February 2017
What a Twitch, What a Twitch, What a mighty, mighty big Twitch!!
On Thursday 23rd February 2017 the following message was posted on the Zimbabwean Special Species Sighting whatsapp group:
23/2/2017, 2:38:02 PM: Hilton: Just through from Trevor Hardaker on RSA rare bird net. Pied Wheatear in parking area of Victoria Falls airport
A picture of the bird had been sent to Trevor Hardaker of the Rare Birds Committee in South Africa for verification and on confirmation the excitement began to mount!
First and foremost, we must acknowledge well renowned Professional Guides, Gavin Ford and Dave Carsons who were the first to spot the bird and make the call on its ID. Below is Dave’s description of the initial encounter:
25/2/2017, 11:35:21 AM: Dave Carsons: You cannot believe the absolute chance encounter of it all… Having Gavin F with me helped as he spotted it…. I just picked up Gavin and we were driving out of the airport and Gavin said, “hey there is a wheatear”. At that point we were not sure of which one (at least I was not). We hauled anchors…. stopped, ID it and got very very excited. Gavin got some great pics and then we called the cavalry.
Dave and Gavins excitement was well justified as the Pied wheatear has very few confirmed records for Southern Africa, in fact, according the Roberts, there have only been two sightings prior to our very exciting Vic Falls Record.
Rare Bird Data (Roberts VII Multimedia, Birds of Southern Africa)
1984/01/23-27 2831DD KZ-Natal Mtunzini, Twin Streams Farm I. Garland, I Sinclair, C. Mowat
2000/12/12-20 1823CD Botswana Third Bridge, just N or M. Tripp, P. Whittington et al.
So as the buzz and hype began to increase over all the social media channels, so too did my itch for a twitch!! At 4:17 on Thursday afternoon, the question was posed on The Chirpers Chat whatsapp group “Anyone keen for a twitch if the Pied hangs around?”. From that moment on the phones were hot. Darryl, who lives in Vic Falls, confirmed that the bird was still around on Friday morning. Sadly, there were not as many genuine twitchers out there as we had hoped. So, began the task of trying to establish the most cost effective means of making this twitch happen within the shortest possible timeframe (given that the bird could take advantage of the next available weather front and head on out of there at any moment) and trying to convince others to sign up for this totally spontaneous and awesome adventure. On Friday afternoon, after rushing around for most of the day trying to pull everything together, Tony Wood and I made the call “screw it, let’s do it”! The plan was to drive to Vic Falls on Saturday, twitch the Wheatear, camp the night in the National Park and head back to Harare on Sunday. As there were no other takers for the twitch, my wife and 4-month-old baby were fortunate enough to be invited to join the expedition! After a quick SOS call to Gwanny and Gwampa our two older children were taken care of and we were packed and ready for our crack of dawn departure the next day.
Tony arrived promptly at 4:30am on Saturday 25th in his very smart Landcruiser Station wagon & we set off on our epic adventure. We had been promised an update on the bird’s presence by Darryl but as we were in and out of signal on our journey, the messages weren’t coming in very frequently. Just before 8am, my wife got signal on her phone and made that apprehensive call to Darryl. We all held our breaths while we waited for the response…..the bird was still around and feeding happily at the airport….phew! Despite this news, Tony managed to maintain an even keel and we soldiered on avoiding any speeding fines. As we passed through Gweru, we received a message from Steve Edwards of Musango Camp (Kariba) asking how far we were and if he could join us from Bulawayo. The timing was perfect and we found him on the side of the road just before the toll gate leading out of Bulawayo with a duffle bag slung over his shoulder! He piled in with us and we were on our way again barely noticing the excitingly swollen rivers and delicately blooming teak trees along the way as we anxiously headed towards Vic Falls. We were all so nervous that the bird would have disappeared, or simply flitted over the roof of the terminal building and into the restricted area at the airport before we arrived.
My stomach was churning and my palms were sweaty as we approach the airport turn off. At 15:05, with overwhelming support from all the members of The Chirpers Chat group on whatsapp, we turned into the Vic Falls International Airport parking lot. My mouth was dry and my breathing laboured as I scanned the parking lot for any sign of fellow birders. Tony, who had driven like a champ for a full 10.5 hours remained composed (I think…. his driving wasn’t at the forefront of my focus at that point in time) as we drove toward the drop and go section. Then, to my relief I noticed one person with a mega camera lens on a tripod right in front of the terminal entrance. Not wanting to disturb the bird, we stopped just short of the camera man and as we came to a stop, Steve said “there it is…I got it first!!”. Sure enough, there was the Pied Wheatear perched on the terminal building behind the flag poles. A wave of euphoria and jubilation swept over us as we all clambered out of the car to get better visuals, leaving Tony to find a suitable parking. It had taken us less than a minute from entering the carpark to getting a visual of this little beauty. WHAT JOY!!! Over the course of the next 15 minutes we revelled in our sighting, amazed at how accommodating this little chap was, in the presence of our gradually increasing crowd of twitchers.
He was an absolute beauty even in his non-breeding plumage. His dark dusky face was slowly transitioning into the soot black breeding colour which was accentuated by his pale buff belly. He spent much of the time preening each feather affording the odd view of that striking white tail with the broad dark tail tip. Electrifying, to say the least! He would then see a poor unsuspecting moth below and take a plunge to rid himself of that hot African hunger…. after all he had flown a very long way. The dark face, dark back and stunning white tail flash reminded me of the Forktails in Asia which are like our wagtails just a lot more striking! He was very contented and ate a mountain of moths right in front of us. The Northern Grey-headed sparrows would flush insects from the grass and he would capitalise on this opportunity to indulge. He was joined by a Spotted flycatcher who seemed equally thrilled with this manna from heaven.
It was exceptionally hot and our euphoria meters were running at one hundred percent as was Tony’s car equipped with an Engel fridge brimming with bitterly cold beers. The combination of the Wheatear and the hops and barley was absolutely staggering…. Elation beyond belief!
After a couple of cold ones in the car park and some shared photos and conversation with the fellow twitchers, we headed into town to see if we could pick up a Schalow’s Turaco which my wife still needs. Steve made some calls and we popped in to one of his friends’ houses where they have been seen on the odd occasion. Sadly, we did not find a Turaco, but we did meet the loveliest and most hospitable Vic Falls locals who joined our excitement and opened their homes and their bar fridges to us. After being invited to stay at the beautiful, well located, well equipped, comfortable, upmarket and very reasonably priced Lorries B&B and now, under no pressure to get into the park and set up camp before the Park closed, we headed to the boat club for sundowners on the banks of the Mighty Zambezi. It was most important that I washed my face in the Zambezi…. you can’t be that close to the river and not touch it!
We tucked into a delicious dinner at the Boat Club then headed to our B&B for an early night. In the early hours of Sunday morning we were woken by rolling thunder, followed by a deluge. The heavens opened and it bucketed down. We were very grateful for the hospitality of Lorrie and Clive and even more grateful that we were not having to break camp in the rain. After a quick cup of coffee, we left Lorries B&B and headed out for one last failed attempt at getting the Schalows turaco before we were back on the road again, homeward bound.
The weather was still very grey and wet as we approached the airport. We decided to do one last drive by, hoping to get a final glimpse of the little beauty but he was nowhere to be seen and the security guard on site said that he had not made an appearance that morning yet. We headed on, relieved that we had secured such a fantastic sighting the day before.
There was still a lot of buzz about the bird on social media as we picked up signal along our way and we passed fellow birders heading to the Falls in the hope of catching a glimpse, but their quest did not bear the same fruits as ours. We managed to get a great sighting of two bull eles crossing the road just in front of us and we also got a glimpse of a rufous morph of a Steppe Buzzard which was a first for us.
We dropped off Steve in Bulawayo and stopped a couple of times to try in vain for the Barred-wren warbler and Melodious lark. The weather system was still all around us with ominous black clouds whichever way we looked. We arrived home safe and sound at around 6:30 only to learn that today’s twitchers, which included many South Africans who had flown up especially for the twitch had had a dismally unsuccessful day and the Wheatear had not been seen at all that day. We breathed a sigh of relief that we had made the call to strike while the iron was hot and had been blessed with such crippling views of the bird.
Today, less than 48 hours after our sighting, an announcement has been posted on social media that “The Bird Has Flown”! This news has made our merry team of twitchers even more elated that we had such a successful twitch and little did we know how close we had been to missing this fickle little feathered friend.
Thanks must go out to all those who made this twitch such a great one.
Gavin Ford for spotting the bird and making a call on its ID & Dave Carsons for getting the information out to the public
Tony Wood who drove like a legend on such a long journey
Steve Edwards who provided some great entertainment on the road trip and introduced us to his very special friends from The Falls
Lorrie and Clive from Lorries B&B who took us in and made us so comfortable and at home in their lovely establishment
My wife, Jen (Sausages) and my Baby Leo who accompanied me and held the reigns when the celebrations began
Jan Wood who was our number one supporter on The Chirpers Chat Whatsapp group throughout the journey
Darryl Tiran for keeping us updated of the whereabouts of the bird
All those who sent messages and shared our excitement remotely as our road trip progressed.
Thank you Jono. Well written