Cinnamon-breasted Warbler

My Best Bird Photography in the Tankwa Karoo

Welcome to issue 23 of The Flack’s Photography newsletters!

Having been away from home for a month it is such a blessing to be back in Balgowan and surrounded by wintering Cranes, breeding Kingfishers and misty, Midland’s dams.

I had initially decided to write this newsletter on Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda, but based on an exceptional and somewhat unexpected trip to the Tankwa Karoo I thought I would write on that first. Apologies to any Rwanda enthusiasts, but please don’t worry as that newsletter will be up next and out soon! Sometimes it is good to let a trip marinate a bit, especially when it is one like Rwanda, which was so long in the making and full of “dream come true” encounters.

As always, please write in to say hello or to provide any feedback that you feel may help me going forward.

The Destination Behind the Birds
My Best Bird Photography in the Tankwa Karoo

While searching online for a location in the Tankwa Karoo that would be fun for family and friends I came across Tierkloof Mountain Cottages. I selected the venue as their accommodation and surrounds looked beautiful and it was big enough to accommodate us and our friends. Given the focus of the trip, I didn’t research the venue from a birding or photography perspective. I knew it was near Ceres and on the Tankwa Karoo birding route but that was it!

Featured Image: A surprise encounter and the first recorded and photographed (to my knowledge) Cinnamon-breasted Warbler at Tierkloof Mountain Cottages; a guest farm on the R355 and approximately 2.5 hours from Cape Town in the Western Cape, South Africa. To have a pair of these incredible birds on a private farm with magnificent vistas and incredible granite formations was a dream come true! Cinnamon or Kopje Warblers are arguably the most sought after special in the “dry west” of South Africa and after spending three days with them I can definitely see why!
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600mm f4 mkiii
Settings: Manual mode | ISO 1250 | 1/1250s | f5.6 | Exp bias -0.3

As we approached Tierkloof from the town of Ceres; with around nine kilometres to go, I noticed that we passed the Karoopoort picnic spot; a well known location for some exciting Tankwa Karoo bird specials. It suddenly dawned on me that our accommodation was situated between this site and another key birding spot; Skitterykloof. As we drove through the 1200 hectare farm’s gates I could see that the topography and habitat looked perfect for a number of exciting bird species and specifically for the very sought after Cinnamon-breasted Warbler! While unpacking our car we were warmly greeted by Robin; one of the owners of Tierkloof, and after exchanging pleasantries and getting an overview of the hiking trails on the farm, I asked him if they had ever seen this spectacular endemic on their property. Although Robin knew of the bird he did not know whether it had been recorded on Tierkloof itself. He was certain, however, that it had been spotted recently at the nearby sites.

My favourite image of the trip; a full frame habitat shot of a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler (also known as a Kopje Warbler for obvious reasons as Kopje means small (usually rocky) hill in Afrikaans), in his beautiful red-and-orange washed, rock-strewn environment. I love how this image displays how his colouration is perfectly designed to provide camouflage in this unique “Kopje”’ habitat.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 100 to 400mm f5.6 mkii lens (at 120mm)
Settings: Manual mode | ISO 1600 | 1/2000s | f6.3 | Exp bias -0.3
These two images, taken with my cellphone (as I left my wide angle lens at home), show you the path up the Pothole trail to the location where I first saw the Cinnamon-breasted Warbler (first image), as well as the actual location; half way up the ridge, where I took the images in this newsletter (second image). I trust it gives you a good feel for this bird’s stunning habitat as well as the excellent photographic potential of the site.

Given this exciting and unexpected discovery, I decided to wake up early the next morning and do a quick recce, before meeting up with Eileen and Joshua for a family expedition up one of the three hiking trails on the farm. I almost considered popping out to Karoopoort to find the Warbler, as at least I knew for sure that these elusive birds had been found there, but my gut said to try the “Pothole” hiking trail on Tierkloof first.

Getting to spend some quality time with these stunning endemics (to Southern Africa) allowed me to learn so much more about their behaviour and environment. This image provides another example of their excellent camouflage and demonstrates how they move through the crevices in their rocky habitat to find a variety of food; including ants, weavils, termites and different types of bugs. Their foraging behaviour is more rodent-like than it is bird-like and in this image he has captured a tiny, almost undetectable insect.

The trail led to a gorge, which looked perfect for this shy and very tricky-to-find endemic; at least based on my previous experiences at Augraabies National Park and Skitterykloof, and I could not help think; “Just imagine if I could find a breeding pair on the farm and be given the opportunity to photograph them undistracted and in a secure and beautiful location”. This is every photographers dream and undoubtedly mine!

What struck me immediately about Tierkloof, as I made my way along the Pothole hiking trail, is that the habitat was not strictly Karoo scrub and that there were pockets of fynbos with beautiful flowering proteas along the route. The classic Karoo habitat meant that I soon bumped into a number of endemic and near endemic species that one would hope to find in the area; Karoo Scrub Robins, Bokmakieries, Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, White-throated Canaries, Mountain Wheatears, Grey-backed Cisticolas, Malachite Sunbirds and Familiar Chats to name a few.

This exquisite Bokmakierie gave me a fright when it suddenly popped up a few metres in front of me while waiting for a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler to appear at the top of a beautiful gorge. I had been watching its partner calling from behind me only to notice this striking bird as it burst into song. This endemic to Southern Africa is an absolute stunner!
The background colours in Tierkloof were beautiful; with shades of yellow, green and purple being commonplace. I cannot wait to see what the area will look like in mid August when the flowers are in full bloom. If you have time on your hands in the next month or two now is the time to visit the Tankwa Karoo.
These endemic Karoo Chats, together with an assortment of other endemics, were a common sighting in front of our accomodation; called The Fort. I loved being in such close proximity to these birds in what is one of two biodiversity hotspots in our country.

Moving up the gorge I found the first special I was after; a Layard’s Tit-babbler, calling to his friend on the opposite slope. The gorge was spectacular; covered in red speckled boulders, slowly being lit up by the morning sun. The photographic potential looked amazing! As I turned round a bend in the trail I caught a glimpse of a small bird moving quickly down the steep rock face. My immediate thoughts were Cinnamon-breasted Warbler!! Unfortunately I just couldn’t get my binoculars on the bird to confirm my suspicion (and I admittedly had the Warbler on my brain). My heart was racing as the beauty of the gorge, the excellent light conditions and the possibility that my first impressions were right, was just too exciting!

The endemic Layard’s Tit Babbler was a very common sighting at Tierkloof and could be found close to The Fort as well as along the Pothole and Leopard Trails. This is the best location I have found for them in my travels, especially from a photographic perspective.

I waited in silence hoping the little bird would make another appearance. Time passed slowly but there was no movement or telltale call. A pair of Layard’s Tit-babblers entertained me as I persevered, but after an hour or so I decided to move on and head further up the gorge. I stopped at the summit again and willed any sign of the warbler to present itself. Still nothing!

My favourite image of a Layard’s Tit-babbler photographed early in the morning while making my way up the Pothole Trail at Tierkloof. I just love the early morning colours and atmosphere!

While staring down the gorge I saw a small movement below me and picked up my binoculars to see what it was. A female Orange-breasted Sunbird popped up from her hiding place, with nesting material in her beak, and was soon joined by her male partner. What a suprize! My most cherished sunbird and a special fynbos endemic right here in the Tankwa Karoo!

A nest building, female Orange-breasted Sunbird and her male partner photographed in the same location as the Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. It was such a wonderful suprize to find this beautiful fynbos endemic amongst a host of Karoo endemics.
A moody image of another Orange-breasted Sunbird I found further along the Pothole Trail. The beautiful Karoo light and breathtaking backgrounds made for some unique photographic moments.

Although disappointed that I couldn’t relocate the mystery Warbler I eventually left my position and carried clambering up the “Pothole” trail. I had hiked an additional 400 odd metres when I heard a familiar sound coming from behind me. It sounded just like a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler!! I quickly turned around and scanned the Kopjes below, as these birds, also known as Kopje Warblers, tend to call from the top of boulders in their sparse, rocky terrain. I soon spotted a tiny bird standing tall on a relatively large granite iselberg in the valley below and this time speedily picked up my camera and took a record shot. I went to the back of my camera, zoomed in and there in all his glory was Tierkloof’s first confirmed and photographed Cinnamon-breasted Warbler!

A Cinnamon-breasted Warbler standing proud on top of his boulder rich embankment, which looked down onto a dry river course on the Pothole Trail at Tierkloof Mountain Cottages in the Tankwa Karoo. You can see the location where this image was taken on the hand drawn map of Tierkloof found further down in this newsletter.

If I had a singing voice I may well have broken into a rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, but alas I kept to my strengths and made a hasty retreat down the path to see if I could capture this bombshell of a bird. After approximately 2 hours of waiting I had found the Warbler. The next 30 to 45 minutes with it were truly awesome and way beyond my initial hopes.

I love spending quality time with special birds, especially when you are gifted with the opportunity to watch them go about their day unimpeded. You get to learn so much about them. In the case of this Warbler; I had always heard how shy and elusive they can be and during this time (and the proceeding couple of days) I really got to understand why. They are most often quiet and undetectable and even more so in cold and/or windy conditions. They move stealthily through their habitat using the crags and spaces between the rocks as footpaths. They are perfectly camouflaged for their rough, rocky terrain where the colours of the granite outcrops mirror their own. They arrive without notice and slip away quickly with the same level of secrecy. They look even smaller than they are; dwarfed by the huge boulders and epic landscapes that surround them, and occupy expansive territories that contradict their diminutive size. What an incredible species and what an unexpected find!

One for my first sightings and photographs of the local Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. I love how tiny they are in comparison to their rugged, big boulder habitat.

Having located a pair of these sought after Warblers, it soon occurred to me that Tierkloof is a very special location from a bird photography perspective. The morning I spent on the Pothole trail was one of the most exciting bird photography sessions I have had in South Africa and undoubtedly the Tankwa Karoo area (where good photographic opportunities can be few and far between). When I considered what made it standout, there were a number of factors that came to mind:

The exclusive nature of the sightings: Being alone with a special bird, such as this Warbler, is an amazing privilege and often enables “once in a lifetime” observations and photographic opportunities. I would much rather go on a private hike to find these stunning birds than visit a public picnic spot and not know what conditions may present themselves.

The beauty of the surrounding environment: The topography and diversity of habitats at Tierkloof make for excellent photography; better than I have experienced elsewhere in Tankwa. Every few hundred metres I walked, I couldn’t help but reach for my cellphone (as I had left my landscape lens at home) to take a photograph of one of the many incredible vistas, sunrises, sunsets or scenes. As flower season was approaching, Tierkloof’s open plains had begun to transform into fields of mesmerizing colours, which made for excellent background hues.

Endemic Karoo Scrub Robins could be found a short walk from our front door together with a number of other cracking species.
We had a pair of Cape Buntings that would take any opportunity to come inside and investigate the kitchen. They also made for great photographic models!

Diversity of the Karoo scrub and succulents (specifically from a height perspective): The farm hasn’t been grazed by livestock for over 20 years and this was notable in the quality and diversity of the Karoo succulents, flowers and shrubs. Unlike some other venues I have been to in the area, Tierkloof also has a mixture of low and medium sized Karoo scrub, which allows for a variety of images and backgrounds. Personally I prefer higher scrub as it provides birds, like the Karoo Lark and Rufous-eared Warbler, with adequate calling perches and photographers with wonderful eye level images and gorgeous backdrops.

Well maintained and well-marked hiking trails: The hiking paths are also well maintained and allow you to get into the right locations early in the morning, albeit that you need some level of fitness for then to be fun and enjoyable. This has not been my experience in other venues in the Tankwa Karoo area (but perhaps I just haven’t been to certain locations where these trails may exist). I just loved waking up and walking out the front door knowing that I could find a Karoo special within the first few metres of my saunter and that if I walked a few hundred metres more I might be staring at an endemic Warbler or Tit-babbler.

Beautiful backgrounds and light was the order of the day and these Southern Double-collared Sunbirds were always willing to pose for a photograph or two.
IN PRINTS

After such an auspicious start to exploring our home for 5 nights, I was excited to see what other specials the farm may hold and whether my thoughts on its potential as a photographic destination were as good as they initially seemed. So before the troops (our wonderful friends from Cradock had now arrived to join us) got up every morning, I would pop out and see what the different habitats on the farm had to offer. To say I was impressed by the easy access and opportunities that the farm provided would be an understatement!

The other standout moment for me, was finding a flock of Karoo Eremomelas a few hundred metres from the front door of our cottage. We stayed at The Fort, which housed us all, provided wonderful entertainment for the kids and enabled easy access to the plains and all the hiking trails.

Another very sought after endemic to Southern Africa; the Karoo Eremomela. I captured this image a few days before we arrived at Tierkloof in the Tankwa Karoo National Park.
I was delighted to bump into a flock of these Karoo Eremomelas on the open plains of Tierkloof and a few hundred metres from my front door.

If the Eremomelas were not enough I found a Fairy Flycatcher, Karoo Lark and Sickle-winged Chat in in the same general area as these exciting endemics. Previously I had travelled to an area called Eierkop (on the Tankwa Karoo birding route) to locate these charismatic Eremomelas, but having them right in front of our accommodation was a far better experience.

Undoubtedly one of my most cherished images of the trip; an exquisite Fairy Flycatcher, photographed a few hundred metres from The Fort on the road out of the farm.
IN PRINTS
I discovered a Karoo Lark right outside our accommodation at Tierkloof on our last morning, so while our friends were packing their vehicle I was taking a few moody, side-lit images. I even have a photograph of a Karoo Lark sitting on one of The Fort’s boundary rocks with Lisa and David’s car in the background.
A stunning Karoo Lark photographed on the seemingly desolate plains of the Tankwa Karoo National Park.

Although the best location for Karoo Eremomelas may well be the Tankwa Karoo National Park, the convenience of Tierkloof and the greater diversity of species is something to consider given the long distance one has to travel to get there. That said, the Park offered an abundance of Tractrac Chats, which I was unable to find on the farm. I think the same can be said of finding the tricky Burchell’s Courser and one or two of the other Tankwa specials.

I wasn’t able to locate any Tractrac Chats at Tierkloof, but fortunately there are some nearby locations that can be reached on a morning excursion from the farm, which should deliver this and other Tankwa specials. These specific birds were photographed in the Tankwa Karoo National Park, which is also renowned for Burchell’s Courser and Black-eared Sparrowlark.

Another highlight was seeing Verreaux’s Eagles circle above us while hiking the Leopard and Black Eagle trails. Although I didn’t manage any images I am convinced that some time in these mountains will produce some amazing sightings and images of this resident pair. I am also adamant that some further searching will discover Cape Eagle Owls, as the habitat is just perfect (and big Owls have been seen on the farm in recent times).

As much as the birding and bird photography on Tierkloof were fantastic and a reason to return in themselves, what stood out for our family and friends was how much love and thought had been poured into creating this wonderful, tranquil escape. Elsa and Robin Carpenter-frank; the owners, who left the corporate world to pursue their dreams, have created a space that is more than just a quest farm. It is a place where you feel welcome to be and to explore. Board games and boule for the kids. Beautiful sunrises right in front of your cottage. Fire places for winter and pools for summer. The hiking trails have been creatively and brilliantly marked with well-placed stones from the surrounding landscape. Although it is self-catering, there is a generosity in all that they provide; enough wood to sink the titanic, three bottle openers and a plethora of plates… to give just a couple of our examples. You can see that they had a beautiful, heartfelt vision, which they have been determined to fulfil and in my opinion have already done enough to leave a beautiful legacy behind them.

Another endemic and Karoo special; the Rufous-eared Warbler, was a common sighting outside our accommodation at Tierkloof. The petite and pink flowers of the Tortoise Berry (or in Afrikaans; Skilpadbessie) made for excellent perches!
The Succulent Karoo is the only arid region in the world to be recognised as a biodiversity hotspot, and consequently the Tankwa Karoo region is loaded with endemic species including this Karoo Prinia, which was a common sighting around the farm.

It was for all these reasons that I decided to write a newsletter dedicated to this venue. I hope for others to share in what we experienced and to be equally blessed.

Where to Find Birds at Tierkloof Mountain Cottages

The following hand drawn map of Tierkloof Mountain Cottages was provided by Robin and Elsa; the owners. I have added where to find some of the birds I encountered while staying on the farm for our five day visit, using letters U to Z. Although I definitely need to go back to Tierkloof to explore more of the farm and increase the species count (as I had limited time and there are undoubtedly many more species to discover), I thought that this map may be a helpful starting point for visiting birders looking to track down some of the Karoo and fynbos specials.

Point U: The Leopard Trail that leads to the old Gazebo and the start of the Black Eagle trail is a good place to find the resident pair of Verreaux’s Eagle. Although I only saw them flying some distance above us, they are known to fly low down through this valley, which could provide some excellent photographic opportunities. I also think that the river that follows the Leopard Trail could be an excellent location for Namaqua Warbler, which has been recorded on the farm by previous guests. Layard’s Tit-babblers, Mountain Wheatears, Malachite Sunbirds and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds are commonplace on this trail and Orange-breasted Sunbirds were seen at the first protea bushes as we set off. I also saw Alpine Swifts and Rock Martins whizzing past us as we completed the trail.

Point V: I found 3 pairs of Orange-breasted Sunbirds on the Pothole Trail, one around point X and 2 in the vicinity of V. Cape Buntings, Red-winged Starlings, Pale-winged Starlings, Familiar Chats and Mountain Wheatears were also encountered.

Point W: If you walk from The Fort to the Pothole Trail you will pass Point W. This area was a hotspot for Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, Karoo Chats, Karoo Larks and Karoo Scrub Robins. Previous guests have also found Black-headed Canaries on the farm and I imagine point W as well as Y and Z could be good places for this species.

Point X and 2X: The X (in the gorge) marks the spot where I got my first albeit brief sighting of a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. 2X was where I first heard it call and got my first photograph. This area is best reached by doing the Pothole Trail in a clockwise direction. After entering the gorge you start the accent to the top and the Warblers were first identified on the right hand side of the path about midway up. It is important to note that these birds have big territories and thus can be found some distance from this first location. I also photographed them at the top of the gorge and approximately 400 paces from the first X at 2X. Other birds found here included Pale-winged and Red-winged Starling, Layard’s Tit-babbler (this was a very reliable site for them), Bokmakierie, Orange-breasted Sunbird and Malachite Sunbird. Before you enter the gorge there are a few proteas, which attracted all the sunbirds mentioned above including Southern Double-collared Sunbird as well as Yellow and White-throated Canaries. This area also looks perfect for Cape Eagle Owls.

A Layard’s Tit-babbler photographed on a typical and beautiful boulder perch on the Pothole Trail at point X on the map.

Point Y: Point Y was a short (approximately 1 kilometre walk) from The Fort. This area was incredibly productive for bird photography and was where I encountered and photographed Karoo Eremomela, Sickle-winged Chat and Fairy Flycatcher. It was also where I heard Southern Black Korhaan calling nearby.

Point Z: Within 100 metres of The Fort’s front door I had some incredible sightings with some wonderful photographic opportunities to boot; including Karoo Lark, Rufous-eared Warbler, Cape Bunting, Yellow Canary, Malachite Sunbird, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, White-throated Canary, Karoo Lark, White-backed Mousebird and Familiar Chat. It was awesome to wake up and walk out the front door to this assembly of endemic and other species.

SPECIES LIST RECORDED ON TIERKLOOF TO DATE:
By myself: Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Layard’s tit babbler, Malachite Sunbird, White throated Canary, Karoo Prinia, Rufous-eared warbler, Karoo chat, Karoo Scrub Robin, Mountain Wheatear, Rock Martin, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Bokmakierie, Red-winged Starling, Pale-winged Starling, Cape Bunting, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Familiar Chat, White-backed Mousebird, Long-billed Crombec, Cape Sparrow, Cape Weaver, Karoo Eremomela, Southern Black Korhaan (heard), Fairy Flycatcher, Speckled Pigeon, Karoo Lark, Verreaux’s Eagle, Yellow Canary, South African Shelduck (heard), Cape Bulbul, Cape Turtle Dove, Cape White-eye, White-necked Raven, Alpine Swift, Sickle-winged Chat.
By other guests: Black-headed Canary, Namaqua Warbler, Namaqua Dove, Booted Eagle, Yellow-billed Duck, Egyptian Goose, Pale-chanting Goshawk, Little Grebe, Black Harrier, Three-banded Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Cape Teal, Red-billed Teal, Cape Wagtail.

It is always good to remember, however, that from a birding and bird photography perspective nothing is guaranteed and every trip is different.

Personally Eileen, Joshua and I cannot wait to return! We may, however, visit a little later in winter to see the flowers in full bloom or wait until summer to see what migrant birds the property may attract and to take advantage of the pool. I am excited to see what other species can be found on the farm, as my efforts were somewhat limited, and I could easily imagine finding Karoo Korhaan, Black-eared Sparrowlarks, Large-billed Larks, Black-headed Canaries and Namaqua Warblers (the latter two having been seen by other guests aready) on the property itself. The day before we departed I had already heard Southern Black Korhaan calling in front of our cottage and Robin had recently recorded a video of a Cape Leopard roaming the farm. There is undoubtedly lots of room for still more exciting discoveries!

Besides the birds there were endemic tortoises and shrews on offer as well as the very outside chance of bumping into a Cape Leopard. If I am not mistaken this is an endemic Karoo Rock Elephant Shrew. How awesome!

I hope you have enjoyed this short excursion into the wonders of the Tankwa Karoo and are suitably encouraged to visit the area for all its birding and scenic gems. For anyone wanting to contact Robin and Elsa at Tierkloof email info@tierkloofmountaincottages.co.za or call +27 (0)21 788 5169.

As per my introductory note, my next newsletter will be on my adventures in Rwanda and will include images of some truly iconic species such as Red-collared Mountain Babblers, Yellow-bellied Wattle-eyes, White-headed Wood-hoopoes, Dusky Crimsonwings and Barred Long-tailed Cuckoos. I really hope you will join me on this exciting journey and I look forward to writing to you then. I am also doing a live talk on Nyungwe National Park with Prints for Wildlife on the 12th of August so please watch my social media for further details should you want to register for it.

Yours in bird photography,

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