Day 209: Of Courser

Noah’s smartphone GPS helps locate a scarce bird.

July 28, 2015, Malnesbury, South Africa — The northern part of South Africa’s Western Province stretches into the Tankwa Karoo—literally, the “little Karoo,” a piece of a larger desert in the interior of South Africa and Namibia. The Karoo is different enough from surrounding habitats that it hosts a unique set of bird species, and Ethan and I allotted the whole day today to look for them.

Broad valleys are interspersed here with rocky mountain ranges and the landscape resembles parts of the North American Great Basin. Sagebrush-like plants recede into rimrock while the valleys are crisscrossed by long, straight dirt roads. It’s hot in summer, but this time of year there is a dusting of snow on the higher peaks and a sharp chill sets in after the sun goes down.

We had about a dozen birds to look for today, toughest among them the Burchell’s Courser, a type of strange, beautiful shorebird that prefers desolate gravel pans in the Karoo desert. Luckily we had a hot tip: Some birders from Texas stayed at our tent camp the previous night and left a handwritten GPS location in the “sightings” book where they had found a Burchell’s Courser just the day before. I punched the coordinates into an app on my phone and we used it to navigate to the spot.

The point turned out to be about 600 feet off a remote gravel road, so Ethan and I parked and walked into the desert until the GPS app said we were standing on top of it. There wasn’t anything particularly special about the spot. Barren lands stretched in every direction, and Ethan and I started joking about the idea of a rare Burchell’s Courser sitting exactly on a GPS point we copied out of some visitor’s logbook. Did we really expect it to be waiting for us like a geocache? 

Just then, we each heard a strange, single-syllable grating call and realized that the sound was floating down from above. Squinting into the sun, we picked out a funny-looking bird with white-tipped inner secondaries, dark outerwings, and a dark breast band high overhead—the Burchell’s Courser was flying over us! It kept moving and eventually disappeared toward the south while Ethan and I struggled to find suitable words for our disbelief. Whoever left those coordinates in the Sothemba Lodge sightings book yesterday, I owe you one.

New birds today: 12

Year list: 3748

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