Trip report: Birding at the Nuwejaarsrivier Wetland Special Management Area

This report was supplied by Hanneke Gagiano.

A birding trip (or any other trip, for that matter) that starts with a sighting of an African Fish Eagle, must be special – and the February visit to the Nuwejaarsrivier Wetlands SMA certainly was.

When it was announced that the January club outing would be to Nuwejaarsrivier, it was fully subscribed within seconds. A second one was then arranged, as the February outing, and the response was just as enthusiastic. On 24 February keen birders hastily swallowed hot drinks to ward off the cold morning air and nippy breeze. The overcast conditions that had been forecast did not materialise, but the wind was out in full force.

The group was guided by Eugene Hahndiek, the Conservation Manager of the Nuwejaarsrivier Wetlands SMA. Half the group was accommodated on an open game-viewing vehicle, with two other vehicles making up the rest of the convoy.

Eugene had scarcely unlocked the main gate when an African Fish Eagle flew about. What a start! The next sighting was of a Grey Heron that stood in a piece of burnt grassland, as if to say, “Yes, it did burn, but we are still here.”

Yellow-Billed Kites flew low overhead, while Blue Cranes – some with chicks – provided a typical Overberg scene. When a Denham’s Bustard was seen, camera shutters clicked frantically. 

We were incredibly privileged to see all the South African Grebes (Little, Black-necked and Great Crested) not only in one day, but in one dam! Eugene patiently explained that the Black-necked sits much higher in the water than the Greater Crested. The choppy water sometimes made it difficult to see that distinction, but it certainly is a handy diagnostic tool to remember.

At the upper end of the dam, White-breasted and Reed Cormorants, Darters, various ducks, and African Spoonbills entertained us while Black-winged Stilts and Pied Avocets fed side-by-side.

A highlight of the day was the Eurasian Hobby – a bird that Eugene said he had seen only once before at Nuwejaarsrivier. Not to be outdone by the Hobby, an African Marsh Harrier later put in an appearance.

The LBJs – including Red-capped and Large-billed Lark and two species of Cisticola – tested everybody’s bird-spotting skills, and a Capped Wheatear was seen on a pile of rocks. 

Barn Swallows were particularly numerous and performed their exquisite aerial manoeuvres throughout the day. Seeing huge numbers of Spur-winged Geese taking to the air, whirling around in black clouds, landing and then flying up again was spectacular.

Some birders were lucky enough to spot an African Snipe, while an African Swamphen also showed itself a couple of times, only to disappear into the reeds, leaving many disappointed at having missed these elusive birds.

Not only the birds were on show: we also saw steenbok, eland, blue wildebeest and tortoises and hippos.

Certain parts of the wetlands suffered fire damage, but the plants are starting to recover – and the sight of scorched restios waving in the wind had everybody in our vehicle gasping in delight.

The final tally may not be particularly impressive, but birding is more than lists and numbers, and this outing certainly proved that birding on a windy day certainly has its challenges – and charms.

Special thanks to Eugene for not only sharing his knowledge with us, but also patiently answering questions and correcting wrong bird ID and to Steve Peck and Johan van der Westhuizen for organising the outing.

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