Number 1 twitcher notches up 400th sighting

Rietvlei where the squacco was found.

While dozens of birding enthusiasts recently celebrated the sighting of a squacco heron at Rietvlei, Southfield twitcher Karen Powell marked a very special moment in her birding career.

Following the sighting of this rarely-seen bird in the Western Cape, she posted on Facebook, “Today was a milestone in my birding hobby-life… drove the nightmare of early morning bumper-to-bumper traffic from the south to Operation Squacco.

“Upon my arrival in a quiet cul-de-sac, I meet Dana Hart Goldberg and Frieda Prinsloo and Jan Prinsloo… sigh of relief as they tell me they had just seen it fly over and settle in reeds.

“We go further along and investigate… something flies. I then exclaim Happy #400 out loud to my three friends. Thank you to all who have helped me get this far… too many to name… Today was a great day.”

While Ms Powell is not shy when snapping away at her feathered friends, she says she’s a little self-conscious when it comes to talking about herself. She’d rather be in a nature reserve talking about some of her finds.

“I am just an ordinary birder that has reached her 400th bird,” she says, before telling the Bulletin about how it all started.

The bug bit seven years ago when she celebrated her 40th birthday and decided that instead of getting something she didn’t really want, she’d ask her family to present her with a bird book and binoculars. “And for me, myself, and I, I bought a membership to Kirstenbosch and began… I haven’t looked back,” she says.

And so it was that last month, just a few days before her birthday, she managed with a lot of determination, the help of her patient husband and her family, to tick off number 400.

She says she was rather naive when she started birding. “I really didn’t realise the doors it would open and how many facets there are to the hobby … Twitching, listing, chasing.

“I just wanted to look at birds… Well I am captivated; the fun that goes with it. The challenges, the humour, the friendships, the networking, the camaraderie.”

She adds that all her out-of-town trips have revolved around birds since she got smitten. “I always have birds in my mind now. I am learning all the time, new sounds, new information and I am exposed to birds I never knew existed.”

She says her first “twitch” was in 2012 in nearby Clovelly, when she spotted a Little Crake. “I remember my new birder friend Michele encouraged me to meet her there… and there were the crowds all staring into the reeds trying to spot the bird. This was exciting and yet I felt quite shy but there was the friendliness and the strangers that push you forward and point and guide and asked ‘did you see it’.”

In the same year, there was the highlight of spotting the Pels Fishing Owl in Constantia at a foreign embassy. She says, “The bug had really bitten by now. I remember getting home after work, getting the email and Mr T (birding specialist Trevor Hardaker) told me drop everything. ‘Karen you will never see this bird easily’ … So I quickly threw food in the pot, rushed out the door passing my husband and said something fast about off to see a bird. They are beginning to understand.”

There have been dozens of others; many rare, or, out of range birds, she says. Her stories all make it clear that when you’re a birder there’s a conspiracy of fellow twitchers, and a very efficient “bush telegraph”. And judging from her tales it seems getting the sight of a “rarity” is for a birder, what a bidder will do for a highly-prized bottle of vintage wine or a petrolhead would do to procure a unique marque.

Except the message comes across here clear and loud: apart from the cost of cameras and binoculars, birding is free and the satisfaction of seeing a beautiful bird nestling in some reeds or perched on a tree is priceless.

She’s spotted the Pacific golden plover, and in Strandfontein in April last year a definite highlight was the citrine wagtail.

“This was another memorable story in my bird chasing. The alert came out that it was a yellow wagtail. Within five minutes I was on my way. We searched about four hours for it and as I was leaving a friend called who had originally spotted it.

“She said, ‘Don’t leave. It isn’t a yellow wagtail. It’s a citrine wagtail. It’s a mega rarity.’ Later that afternoon I saw the little bird flying over the pans but I returned a few times over the next days to get better sightings,” she says.

She adds, “Not only does one tick off and add birds to one’s list but I have realised I add friends to my list too. Some of them I know from my cyber bird world and we then finally meet in person or sometimes they are strangers, who then become friends.”

She says that over the years the lists she has made, divided into a range of categories, have simply not been enough. “As I have grown in my hobby I have now changed the rule that I must have a pic of the bird, even if it is a blurry one, it must be identifiable.”

Just before she spotted bird number 400, her husband drove her to the Wolseley/Breede River area to see the knob billed duck, bird
number 399. They found it on a farm.

On a final note she says her next target is trying to get the Terek Sandpiper that sometimes can be seen at Strandfontein. “And,” she adds, “a better sighting of the squacco at Rietvlei/Dolphin Beach.I am regularly teased about going back for more and more. I don’t just tick and move on. I like to enjoy seeing the bird more if I can.”