Successful birding and wildflower field trip

Some interesting sightings over two days in late December 2019.

The group gets a really good sighting of a Yellow-breasted Pipit (Photograph: Susan Abell)

At the end of December, Susan Abell and Geoff Lockwood co-led an enthusiastic group on a guided visit to explore the diversity of this little-known gem of a reserve. Saturday was mainly devoted to the plant-life – particularly the flowering ground orchids for which Verloren Valei is renowned, while on Sunday we focused more specifically on the birdlife in the area. As always, however, we kept an eye open for anything else of interest during our drives and walks on the reserve.

The group was largely made up of members of the Succulent Society and, together, we combed the grasslands and rocky outcrops in search of the many special restricted range plant species found at these high altitudes. Although the reserve had experienced heavy rains two days earlier, and was heavily overcast for most of the day on Saturday, the late start to the rains meant that plant life was neither as prolific, nor as diverse, as it can be in late December. Nonetheless, the weekend brought a respectable total of flowering 11 orchid species, plus a number of other interesting plant sightings.

Views of a beautiful male Malachite Sunbird, with its feet covered in the bright golden yellow polina (pollen sacs) of the striking peach, orange and yellow flower spikes of Disa chrysostachya, provided confirmation of the highly unusual pollination strategy adopted by this eye-catching orchid. Like many in the orchid family, this species does not produce nectar to reward its’ pollinator. Instead, when a sunbird visits the flower in search of food, it clambers around on the flower, futilely probing away as more and more of the orchid’s paired pollen sacs stick to its feet. When the sunbird finally moves off to another orchid flower, some of the polina are successfully transferred and pollination is achieved. Sunbirds pollinate a large variety of flowers, but only rarely by carrying the pollen stuck to their feet!

Other orchid highlights included a wonderful cluster of Disa alticola plants flowering in shallow water on an exposed rock sheet, plus several flowering Holothrix scopularia that we found amongst the rocks near the main vlei on Sunday.

Although we started earlier on Sunday, meeting at the reserve at 08:00 (instead of at Milly’s at 09:00), it was clear that we had already missed much of the early dawn activities, such as birdsong and displays, and we suggest an earlier start for future birding groups

We still recorded a total of 66 birds in the reserve over the weekend – including a number of exceptional sightings of Yellow-breasted Pipits, plus sightings of other threatened bird species such as the Cape Vulture, the Secretary bird, Denham’s Bustard and Lanner Falcon.

Sightings of coveys of both Grey-, and Red-winged Francolins, and also of large numbers of Red-billed Queleas in full breeding plumages, were other birding highlights. The lack of any sightings of the three crane species was our only significant miss of the weekend.

Butterfly highlights included several sightings of Table Mountain Beauty (Aeropetes tulbaghia) butterflies – all flying rapidly past us, as well as a more co-operative Swanepoel’s Brown (Pseudonympha swanepoeli) that posed obligingly for photographs. Fortunately, the cool and overcast conditions on both days did suppress the activities of the biting horse flies that had plagued us during our reconnaissance of the reserve on the Friday.

Text Box:  Yellow-breasted Pipit                                                            © G. Lockwood
Yellow-breasted Pipit (Photograph: Geoff Lockwood)

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