Four of us visited Eston Ponds on a cool and overcast day with the odd drizzle. Not a great day for birding nor photography unfortunately.
Following Barry Swaddle’s example we checked in at the mill and then went down to the top ponds to the right of the mill entrance. This is private property. We were not aware of this until we met the farm owner – Derek Bennet – luckily a very friendly farmer. BLPN birders are welcome to visit but he asked that we call him first (tel: 082 953 7911) so he can advise his security.
Our morning was therefore in two parts – the first at Derek Bennet’s farm and then a drive round the ponds below the Eston Mill.
It was easier to view waterbirds at the farm ponds because you can get closer to the mud banks and water’s edge.
The lowest Eston mill pond was virtually dry. The large pond above it had one stretch of water close by next to the dam wall but most of the pond is covered in vegetation with the odd open area to view waterbirds from afar.
Perhaps the highlight of the day were the 2 pairs of African Snipes together on the mudbanks at one of the farm ponds. And we heard an African Rail in the large Mill pond.
A Lanner Falcon was very obliging for a photo shoot too. Other raptors seen included an African Marsh Harrier being bombed by Blacksmith Lapwings (Lapsmiths for short) and an overhead flypast of a Black Sparrowhawk.
Unfortunately no Orange-breasted Waxbills were seen – probably due to the weather. This was one of the species we came to find.
In all we saw some 52 species – mostly waterbirds.
A small band of seven enthusiastic birders headed out to the ponds below the Eston Sugar Mill on Sunday 10 November. That said I have yet to come across an apathetic birder! All the same, the lure was great photo opportunities of African Snipe (Gallinago nigripennis) emanating from a shot I had taken on a visit there the previous week end on a personal recce. As Murphy would have it, they were elusive to our group all day, despite Barry Swaddle sighting up to 8 birds on his wanderings around the ponds. Bumping into Barry and his friends was a blessing in disguise as he provided invaluable tips on being able to do a full loop around the wetlands without having to back track, as well as other places to visit in the general area. We parked our cars and proceeded along the eastern side and headed towards the dam wall. En route we picked up Wood Sandpiper, Ruff, Little Stint, Yellow-billed Duck and Hottentot Teal, along with the sounds of Burchell’s Coucal, Diderick Cuckoo and a plethora of Little-rush Warblers.
As we neared the dam wall we were treated to a fly past of a pair of Spotted Thick-knees who settled not far from us and gave good views – particularly rewarding as lifers for some. All the while we had distant views of three African Marsh-Harriers which we desperately tried to turn into Westerns, as well as trying to convince a few Wood Sandpipers to evolve to be of the Green variety! As we got to the end of the dam wall we observed a trio of Grey Crowned Cranes flyover close by and then settle in the shallow waters of the dam below among the Egyptian Geese. This was followed by a second trio of cranes, but this set included a single Wattled Crane (Bugeranus carunculatus). A truly privileged sighting for all of us, particularly so considering their listing as Critically Endangered in Southern Africa. Sadly, gloomy light hampered chances of getting decent photographs.
We proceeded along the western flanks of the ponds and were treated to brief views of a Common Cuckoo that flew out from cover of the reeds, landed briefly out in the open and then disappeared into the cane fields. Efforts to coax African Rail from within the reeds using playback only gave us a return call! Other good birds included Black-winged Stilt, Southern Pochard, Squacco Heron, African Purple Swamphen and Wahlberg’s Eagle. Nearing the upper ponds, we were treated to cracking views of six adult and two juvenile Black-crowned Night Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax).
A total of 61 species were recorded during the morning, with a full protocol card being submitted to the SABAP2 database – my first ever card!! We returned home with a detour to the Toyota Testing Centre as Barry had indicated prospects there were good for Penny to add Black-winged Lapwing to her life list –and right he was.