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  • Writer's pictureEtienne Marais

Atlasing keeps on giving - or was I being delusional?

In late December 2018, I was trying to surpass the Eastern Cape Pentad record (for SABAP2 - a record I had set in 2015 and then lost again)...the 184 species on one atlas card turned out a lot tougher than I thought given the drought conditions. The five-day stint included preparing a Christmas eve dinner for visiting family, but I managed to reach 169 species on the 25th, with a day to go. The 26th proved to be tough, and the plan was to give the estuary a second big push in the afternoon towards high tide. Bonus birds such as Common Swift, Common Quail and Mountain Wagtail showed up to push the total to 184 by 15:50 when I headed to the ferry. Scanning around the waders looked bare...but there were a lot of terns and gulls at the estuary mouth - so I headed there.

I spent a good hour scanning through the terns and gulls and weeding out the odd suspects....not quite sure what I was hoping for....but Lesser Crested, Damara and Roseate Terns were all a possibility, and an odd gull suggested Lesser Black-backed. A lot of terns started coming in off the sea at around 17:10 and having scanned through the flock with my scope I started watching some of the incoming. I had just picked up what I thought was a Roseate Tern, when it happened. Out of the deep blue flew a bird I had never seen before....a pure white tern like bird with a jet black bill and black eye. It just casually came floating along something that might happen in a psychiatric ward!

I remembered the images of Fairy Tern that I had seen before, but of course that would be ridiculous? Right? I honestly thought Fairy Tern (now known as White Tern) was a small tern, wheras this was only slightly smaller than the Common Terns it was flying with. The thing looked like an albino Noddy with that weird shaped bill and I was scratching my eyes in disbelief. It seems to want to to land in the tern roost and flew casually back and forth, actually coming so close that my attempts to photograph it with my bridge camera were straight out of a Mr Bean movie. Then some terns flushed and the bird flew up the estuary and disappeared in the distance past the pont. I HAD NO PHOTO and a deep sense of dismay rose up my neck. But my luck was not yet up my desperate scanning of the river were rewarded as it appeared flying down river with some Common Terns. Using a bridge camera to photograph flying birds is not easy, but I have a bit of practise and I was hopeful I might have got something as the terns flew past the big wooded hill that overlooks the River Mouth. It then did another fly past just beyond the Roost and I was better prepared this time....It was hard tracking the bird with all the activity, and I was trying to get photos every time it came near. Then it came down into the roost right in front of me.......and promptly disappeared. Part of the roost was just behind a small rise in the sand-dune and it was invisible. I moved a little to the right......but I could still see nothing. In desperation I moved closer and flushed the terns - creating a huge mass of chaos! Desperately trying to find the one white bird in a mass of mostly white birds proved fruitless....and the only reward I got before 6pm was to confirm the Roseate as it drifted in and landed in amongst a group of Commons. I had to run to get back to the Ferry point, but luckily it was running first thought was to check to see if I had recognisable photos (I have seen too many birders miss birds while looking at a camera screen), and to consult with other birders. I did make the usual birders mistake of wanting to be sure what I was reporting before reporting anything, and got hold of Faansie Peacock to explain my confusion, as well as sending some pics to Garret Skead. However once I had Googled White Tern and confirmed the proportions, the usual doubts had departed and I phoned Lynette Knott Rudman, to get the word out on the E Cape Networks. In 2010 I found a Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Kei Mouth in the dying hours of an atlas Card and this was like deja vu on steroids!! This is my third lifer of the year for Southern Africa (Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Yellow-throated Leaflove)....but in truth the experience of finding something surprising and amazing is far more than a number on a list can ever be.

I have to admit to feeling a little empty at the idea of being the only person to have seen a bird in Southern Africa! But it was an amazing experience and there is a lot to reflect on!

Participation in SABAP2 has been the driver for so many special finds. Like most rarities one "finds" it comes as a result of patient birding in the habitat...waiting for something special.

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