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South Africa: Rooi Els, Looking for Rockjumpers

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Asking around a bit, I figured out that the widespread wildfires that blew through the slopes in March and scorched the mountain flanks (started by lightning, and part of the natural cycle here) had sparked a robust bloom of wildflowers on the Cape. Everywhere were the charred stems of shrubs, many of them doubtless proteas. But these things have all evolved with wildfire, and it's necessary for some of their seedpods to open. 
I was so dazzled by the miniature show, and only wished I knew what some of them were. We got up early and headed out to find some special plants and birds. 

We drove on toward Rooi Els, famed for its population of Cape Rockjumper, a very special endemic bird.  The wind was so strong that it was blowing spindrift off small waves, and that spindrift was catching the sun and making rainbows that shimmered and moved! 

You can see one at the base of the mountain. This was a phenomenon better experienced than captured in an image. And better experienced from within the comfort of our van. Getting out in that gale was like being beaten over the head with a rolling pin.

I knew we were going someplace special when this hove on the horizon!

Once out at Rooi Els, we gathered our hopes for birds, despite the gale. The plants stepped in to dazzle us. 

What a show! Protea family...

This calla lily I recognized, growing out of a crack in a boulder. How does something that grows from a bulb get there?

It sure had its nitrophilous lichens in good order. These splashy red and orange lichens thrive on rocks where birds poop. Nitrogen-loving=nitrophilous.

We would have been fine if we couldn't find the Cape rockjumper. The Lilliputian landscapes, set against mountains of Brobdingnagian proportions, were blowing us away.

This one's a legume, that much I can say. Aren't I good?? But oh my gosh. This place.

We walked up and down the road, meeting the wind head on, watching birds. 
It was a surreal landscape, and we felt very small. 

Overhead, jackal buzzards circled. These gorgeous birds occupy quite a range of habitats from highlands and canyons to low marshy places. They're quite redtaily, except for the white wing panels and overall flashiness. They look like our hubba hubba Western race called Harlan's redtail, but with a bonus red tail! I love 'em.

Same bird, different angle.

Suddenly my bird began harrassing a huge Verreaux's eagle! Its mate materialized, and then the eagle's mate...oooh. Nesty nest nest.

Suspecting that the conflict arose from a territorial dispute, I scanned the backlit mountainside for a nest and boom! This may look like a bunch of Tillandsias on a small boulder, until you realize that there are two coal black, golden-eagle sized Verreaux's eagles perched atop a massive stick nest. So that makes those funny looking "bromeliads" probably giant aloes, the nest being perhaps 8' tall. Yow. Distance and unfamiliar vegetation forms can really play tricks on the eye.

That was satisfying. 

A Karoo prinia worked on its nest, patiently ferrying long strands of green grass or sedge into a thick shrub.

We stared long and hard for a couple of hours into the hard sun on the mountain slopes, and finally spotted the springy thrashery Rockjumpers doing what they do best. Better look desired, but we got 'em. My "best" shot at least shows the habitat, its alert military posture and a hint of its fabboness.

My early attempt at digiscoping in a gale, before I realized that I couldn't zoom my phone up without getting Impressionist bird art...still, you can see the bird's jaunty jumpy self.

I've borrowed a couple of shots from our guide Leon Marais, taken on other occasions, to show what it really looks like, and why the Cape Rockjumper is such a sexy beast to add to one's life list! Like a mockingbird at Mardi Gras! 

photo by Leon Marais

Cape Rockjumper is a superfun bird to look for, because the habitat is smashing, and the bird is beautiful, and it jumps up suddenly, shows itself, then jumps back down to grab an insect. Like Whack-a-Mole for birders. They're distant and skulky and ever so much fun to try to spot.

photo by Leon Marais

A lovely little butterfly, (Meadow White on a Senecio species) topped off our wind-whipped visit to Rooi Els by the sea. 

Thanks to Callan Cohen for bug/flower ID.


I am revealing in these posts--recalling our trip in December 2011 to S. Africa.
We weren't birding--but many of the scenes you describe are most familiar. I know we didn't visited Rooi Els as such, but we were along the southern coast--and where the two oceans meet, the weather has a blast. Or makes a blast.

As we drove along, everywhere I simply pointed my humble little Canon out the window and got shot after shot of breathtaking views. A true photographer in South Africa would absolutely feast on the beauty--as clearly you did.

I confess that growing up in then Southern Rhodesia, I didn't realize how privilege I was with wildlife, birdlife and flora. I remember things like protea, red-hot pokers, crown-of-thorns, fireballs, jacaranda trees, eucalyptus. And I saw animals and birds without thinking them special. Now, of course, I do. So, our trip to South Africa--brief as it was--stirred many many childhood emotions.

So glad your trip was wonderful. correct turned revelling into revealing.
(and it tried this time to turn it into rebelling.)

What in the world is going on in that last photo?

Hi, having just found your blog, I will be returning often. New Year greetings from N.W. Ohio, outside Toledo. Ellen

Thanks, Ellen from NW Ohio! I'll look forward to talking with you!
Unmitigated me, not sure what you're referring to...I am shooting into the light, so the beam of light coming down the middle of the picture is probably just sun hitting off the lens.
KG Mom, I'm glad I could awaken some memories and that gratitude. :)

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