This beautiful, orange-breasted ground thrush, with its bold white wingbars, is found in the under-story of middle and high elevation forests. They are diurnal and usually very shy, so observing and photographing them can be extremely challenging.
I would hazard to say that Benvie Garden in the Kaarkloof is possibly the best place in the world to find and photograph this special bird. I spent a number of days there in 2019 and have provided an account of my stay below. Thanks so much to John and Jen Robinson for their wonderful hospitality.
I have been dreaming about visiting Benvie Gardens for many moons, and finally got an opportunity to go this last weekend. The gardens have become renowned for being the best place in the world to see and photograph the elusive Orange Ground Thrush. I was first introduced to this special bird by David Letsoala in Woodbush Forest some 10 years back. I can still remember the moment as if it was yesterday and have my first record shot to remind me of it. David mimicked the bird’s contact call and within a few minutes it had crept up the valley and popped out in front of us. I was taken aback by its beautiful markings, large eyes and exquisite colors, and so began a long seated passion for this unique species.
Since that day I have spent many hours searching for them and trying to improve my photographs, but have never been truly satisfied. For those who have birded areas like Woodbush Forest for this species you will no doubt have experienced how tough a challenge this bird can be. And it is for this reason, that I was first introduced to Benvie Gardens, as the majority of top Orange Grpund Thrush photographs have been taken within its boundaries. Now that I have visited, I totally understand why! I am not a scientist and so don’t have any empirical evidence to back up my claim, but if I was a betting man I would put good money on the fact that the garden and its surround must have the highest density of Ground Thrush anywhere on the planet. Besides being a great host, John has incredible knowledge of these birds and shared so much about their habits and behaviour. On one specific walk he pointed out over 5 nests within a few hundred metres of each other and explained how the area was “thick” with breeding birds in the summer months. I had originally thought that the bird’s territories were always much further apart, but clearly Benvie Farm and its surrounds are different. On our first walk, on the afternoon we arrived, we bumped into 2 different birds on the network of paths that navigate their way through the maze of exotic and indigenous trees that make up this spectacular garden. The garden is 30 hectares in size and was planted over 100 years ago by Jen’s great grandfather, so if you don’t find ground Thrush fascinating you can’t help but be enamored by the size and diversity of the trees that surround them.
My main objective for the trip was not only to see and photograph Orange Ground Thrush but to try and do so in as much natural light as possible. This may seem like an easy task if you don’t know these birds, but is actually unbelievably challenging, as being crepuscular, they are only being active in the twilight hours (dusk and dawn) and thus have a real aversion to anything called sunlight. As John testifies to, after all the years he has spent observing them, he can only count on one hand the times he has seen them out of the forest shadows and in decent light. He puts this aversion down to their big eyes. After spending the first two days investigating the garden with John to try and find an area that could work for my photographic purposes, he showed me a spot on a secluded path where there was a regular feeding station and where the birds seemed to be active up until 09h30. At certain times of the morning, the path had a few patches of sunlight trickling onto it, and this gave me some hope that my objective could be achieved. Now all I had to do was be patient and persevere! This meant skulking in the shadows from 7am to 11am each morning. The area was visited by two Orange Ground Thrush, one which had been ringed and one which was free of any human intervention. The birds would come onto the path a maximum of 3 times in a morning, usually between 7am and 07h30 and then again between 9am and 09h30. Fortunately there was an array of other species that entertained me in between the nothingness from an OGT perspective. Birds included the bullies of the playground; the Olive thrushes as well as Forest Weaver, Yellow-throated Petronia. Chorister Robin-chat, Cape Robin-chat, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Cape White-eye, Village Weaver, Speckled Mousebird, Bronze Mannikin, Red-eyed Dove, Lemon Dove and Southern Boubou. Mrs Unringed was a lot less confiding than Mr Ringed, and would only appear for very brief moments at dawn. This was until the very last morning where she put in a brief visit at 08h30. Hooray! 15 hours of lying belly down later and I came away with a number of keepers of these remarkable birds. A dream fulfilled! .