Monday, 25 April 2016

2 weeks of ringing

Acacia Pied Barbet stops to smell the Cosmos in our garden

After the Fitz AGM at the beginning of the month (where Peter Ryan said I gave the best talk, yay!) it was back to Blue Hill with Campbell Fleming.

Campbell is just starting his MSc on the topic of the genetics of Cape Sugarbirds.

Basically, we've been interested for a long time on the connectivity of the populations of sugarbirds and other endemics across the biome. The fynbos is a fire driven ecosystem and the birds are very niche specific in what they like: sugarbirds can be abundant in old fynbos, but are absent from young fynbos where the proteas have not yet had a chance to flower. How do the birds deal with this and what are the consequences on their genetics? Are the birds on isolated fynbos mountains e.g. Kammanassie, different from other populations? Are populations being influenced by things we cannot see: e.g. parasites or genetic depression?

In order to answer these questions, we need DNA samples from all over the fynbos biome. Ideally, from several individuals from several sites. I've been collecting samples on an ad-hoc basis over the last year, but with rockjumper and buttonquail demanding a lot of attention, I've never had time to focus on this dynamic set of questions. I'd initially included this study direction in my last research proposal after conversations with Jaqui Bishop, a senior lecturer at UCT, in 2014.

Luckily for me, Phoebe Barnard secured some money to undertake this project at the masters level, and Jaqui Bishop found Campbell to do it. All of this is being supervised by Peter Ryan at the Fitz.

This kind-of relegates me to the role of bird catcher – but I'm fine with that! As you'll see, these 2 weeks took me to some pretty cool places, and I don't have to worry about lab work!

Our week started on the first Sunday of the month, 3 April, and although it was Elena's birthday she agreed to come out with us in the afternoon to help us set up nets. Campbell was after all pretty new at this and needed some help from someone who'd just turned 5! We got off to a good start, with our first birds netted. And so it went...

Monday morning saw a big haul in the Protea repens stands of a range of nectarivores dominated by young Malachite Sunbirds. But we could not stay... we were planning on joining Mark Brown for one of his regular sessions at Nature's Valley. So off we set to Wildspirit Backpackers! Here also we rendezvoused with Carolynne Geary who'd kindly agreed to help us with the setting up of nets, taking down of nets, entering data etc that all goes with the job.

Little did we know that due to an inclemental weather report Mark Brown's session had been cancelled! We found that out on arriving at the rather damp hippy resort that would be home for the next two nights.

Nevertheless, Tuesday morning we decided to get at it anyway, and were rewarded with an acceptable array of birds, this time dominated by Southern Double-Collared Sunbirds. But sugarbirds were few. Daniel Cloete, PhD student looking at pollination affiliations here, had given us some pointers as to where we might find more, and we went to scout out the locations that afternoon: only to be drenched in the process.

Female Olive Bush-shrike

On Wednesday Campbell and I decided to lure some sugarbirds from a patch of fynbos near the backpackers, joined by one of the least hippy backpacker lodgers – an accountant from Germany. Meanwhile, Carolynne had volunteered to mission out to van Staden's where Ben Smit and Jerry Mokgatla were ringing. But again we were low on samples! I think Mark Brown has been training them to be illusive around here :) and so he kindly offered to assist sampling for the rest of the year.

Campbell's team had to move on: I'd over optimistically arranged a ringing session on the Montagu Pass for the Thursday. At least we'd be staying at some up-market accommodation, which was sorely needed as the outdoor shower in the rain had not attracted many users at WildSpirit. Not only that, but Over-The-Mountain also has a cute little restaurant which allowed Carolynne to top up on chocolate cake.

But Thursday was a bit of a black day. The start was late, skies were clear and wind started early. By the time the CapeNature rangers joined us we were ready to close the nets. However, they would let us into a little secret: the wonders of Camferskloof – a paradise of fynbos hidden beyond the hops farms off the Montagu Pass. But... it would have to wait, because again Campbell and I had a scheduled visit: this time Gamkaberg, to see if there were Proteas in bloom and sugarbirds present.

So that afternoon we negotiated the 4x4 trail up the mountain, to find that the Protea repens were in bloom near Oukraal overnight hut, plus sugarbirds and other sunbirds were evident. However, our accommodation was at the base of the mountain, so after setting up some net locations we had to negotiate the rough 4x4 track back down! The researcher accommodation at Gamkaberg is pretty cool – but we'd only be able to catch a few hours sleep before yet again ascending the mountain. Shew. Exhausting. And it would turn out that all that for just 1 sugarbird!

Time to head back to Blue Hill! Although I'd envisaged a day of rest.... Campbell and Carolynne had other plans, and Sunday morning we were netting again! But again clear skies and a stiff breeze so now only 2 sugarbirds! We'd been planning on camping in Welbedacht over the next couple of days, but on the drive back from Gamkaberg we noticed the mountain was on fire. A later inspection would reveal no ancient fynbos left :(. We had to make alternative plans so...

Monday and we were trying our luck on our neighbours farm, but again low capture rates were the theme of the day. At this rate it would take Campbell 100 days of capture just to get his sample of sugarbirds!

Monday saw the arrival of ringers Gert and Koetie Opperman, and with them, a change in luck. They had come to Blue Hill to add the fynbos endemic species to their life lists. Two more mornings with them at locations on Blue Hill saw us reach our goals on Orange-breasted Sunbird. And then we were off to Camferskloof, again.

OT, Outeniqua CapeNature manager, had allowed us to stay at the hikers hut, which is in a state of reconstruction. But it was close to our netting site: and Thursday morning saw us inundated with birds: we had to release many more birds than we would be able to process, and certainly cracked our target for birds for this neck of the woods.
Cape Sugarbird with leucistic (white) feather

CapeNature ranger and interns getting to grips with birds

And as before, then it was Gamkaberg, where this time Tom Barry had helped us organise accommodation at Oukraal, so we would not have to drive the 4x4 route up and down. At Oukraal Tom had also organised for his interns to help out, and so we had company of Nelly and Kirsty in taking data and checking the nets. While our first morning was somewhat subdued as we had set up around the hikers hut, Saturday morning saw us again easily reach our targets with some well placed nets in Protea nerifolia.

But the week was not finished. Saturday night we spent at the Takkieskloof campsite in Riversdal, with a productive Sunday morning, called short by rain. And a shortage of equipment. Sunday afternoon we begged a few extra sample bottles from the Riversdal hospital, and filled those on the Monday morning, with the help of Zoe Woodgate for data entry (and Campbell's lift to Cape Town).

Susprise bird of the day on Garcia Pass: Half-collared Kingfisher

It's taken me most of the week to recover from that expedition: but all in all, we'll call it a success.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Happy Easter! with an R egg

This morning to entertain my daughter I thought I'd create a colourful egg using the R programming language. I was rather surprised to find that my google searches for any existing code did not reveal anything. Anyway, after a bit of playing around, herewith a token celebration of Easter.

R-easter egg
and the code that made it:

plot(c(1.5,8.5), c(0,10), type="n", main="Easter Egg", xlab="bunny", ylab="chocolate")

draw.ellipse(c(5), c(5), c(2),c(5.5),col=c(2))
draw.ellipse(c(5), c(4.9), c(2),c(5),col=c(4))
draw.ellipse(c(5), c(4.8), c(2),c(4.5),col=c(1))
draw.ellipse(c(5), c(4.5), c(2),c(4.5),col=c(1))
draw.ellipse(c(5), c(4.6), c(2),c(4),col=c(3))
draw.ellipse(c(5), c(4.4), c(1.9),c(3.5),col=c(5))
draw.ellipse(c(5), c(4.2), c(1.8),c(3),col=c(6))
draw.ellipse(c(5), c(4), c(1.7),c(2.5),col=c(7))
draw.ellipse(c(5), c(3.8), c(1.6),c(2),col=c(8))
draw.ellipse(c(5), c(3.5), c(1.5),c(1.5),col=c(9))
draw.ellipse(c(5), c(3.5), c(1.2),c(1.2),col=c(10))
draw.ellipse(c(5), c(3.3), c(.5),c(.5),col=c(6))

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Cederberg survey scenes

The Witteberge lie unobtrusively to the south of the N1 highway between the towns of Touws Rivier and Laingsberg. A gravel road that starts just south of Laingsberg runs through these mountains, taking one through some of the Western Capes more spectacular scenery. This 70km stretch of gravel is what I chose to explore on my way to the Cederberg two weeks ago. I had expected lucern fields and pasture, but the landscape is mostly wild upland Karoo, interfacing to Fynbos on the higher ridges. Cape Sugarbirds played amongst the giant Protea laurifolia, while the upper slopes looked perfect for Cape Rockjumpers. Driving into the sunset I made the most of the golden hour:

To break up the drive I spent the night in Touws Rivier, indulging in some atlasing in the morning before the drive north. Later in the day in Matjiesrivier I would rendezvous with the survey team for the week, including veterans Dale Wright, Krista Oswald, Audrey Miller, Michael Leach and Brian Haslett. New to the team was Campbell Fleming, who will be doing research into Cape Sugarbird dispersal and genetics over the next two years. I'd lured him to the Cederberg on promise of samples but had only seen one all day, in a garden in the town of Op-die-berg.

Campbell brings the cheese and wine... gums

CapeNature reserve manager Rika du Plessis had kindly offered us accommodation at her offices at Matjiesrivier, together with the use of rangers for the surveys. With the weather forecast a hot one, we started early in promising habitat near towards Uitkyk pass. While the vegetation had recently burnt and was rather open, within only a few hours in we hit a patch of older fynbos and flushed the first buttonquail to be recorded in the Cederberg (to the best of our knowledge). It was not to be the last.

Yay! Buttonquail! Big thanks to the CapeNature team: Jacques van Rooi, Nicolaas Hanekom, Willem Titus, Craig Bantom, Thomas Wynand Jakobus Veloen

On the Wednesday the survey team headed for old fynbos on the drier Rooi Cederberg, guided by Willem Titus. While we had no luck with our target bird we were able to enjoy some of the Cederberg's fabulous rock art along the way. Our afternoon survey would take us past the Stadsaal archaeological sites with one of the region's most famous rock art scenes: the elephants.

Willem shared incredible stories and added a real personal touch to our adventures in the Cederberg. We would not have seen these paintings without him.

Thursday was to be an epic hike day. We wanted to survey the upland areas, which we knew to be dominated by restios. That survey would take us over the Cederberg past one of South Africa's most spectacular rock formations: the Wolfberg arch. But the hike would be a good one, with a lovely view of a Hottentot Buttonquail on the way off the mountain.

Craig Bantom

Willem captures the scenery. He'd record tracks, spoor and all sorts of information along the route faithfully in his notebook.

Nicolaas took some time out to hack down an invading pine tree. Well Done!

Dale at the Arch

Thomas Wynand puts things in perspective

On Friday the team would split: Dale taking most of the volunteers to Winterhoek, with yet more buttonquails sighted. I would head north past Wuppertal to Heuningvlei after no luck surveying the Truitjieskraal area in the morning. On the way to Heuningvlei I gave a lift to Ryno Veloen, would helped to organise some men from the village and their dogs for a Saturday survey. We tallied 9km of surveys and 15km of hiking before lunch time, but without any luck.

From left to right: Eldrin, Gert, Curtis, Andreas and Ryno.

Eldrin had to take out the sheep before we could survey

While we did not find buttonquail, we did find this quagga-donkey.

All the time I had also been looking for Cape Sugarbirds, feeling guilty for promising some samples for Campbell. Luckily, I finally found a flowering Protea nitida, and spent a busy Sunday morning alone at the nets trapping birds attracted to the flowers. With the mission accomplished it was an overnight stay in Picketberg before Cape Town and meetings Monday morning.

But my week that started 2 Sundays ago is still not over. I drove the 7 hours back to Blue Hill Escape on the Monday evening, and have spent the week ringing with Eben Fourie. Shew.

Again, we are very grateful for the assistance of Rika and the Cederberg and Matjiesrivier rangers. Thank you CapeNature!

Sunday, 7 February 2016

5 Seasons in one week - Eastern Cape Buttonquail Surveys

I've never had my phone turn itself off with the warning message that it was not built to operate at such temperatures. This happened on Monday, when a heat-wave seared the greater Port Elizabeth area. Addo recorded 48 degrees; while our 'cool' fynbos site was 38. Its been a while since I've felt so uncomfortable, with a cold shower the only relief from the heat.

Jerry Mokgatla, Cape Sugarbird Masters student from Polokwane (up north), was happy that it was warmer. It also meant we caught no Cape Sugarbirds at his study site on Lady's Slipper, although we'd set the nets up relatively late, arriving on site at 7.30.

Ben Smit, Jerry's supervisor had joined us for the morning, and was also keen to help out with some Buttonquail surveys. There had been a fire in the area a few years earlier and the veld looked promising. However, our short mission did not result in any success, only the loss of copious amounts of sweat. Ben did find some chameleons to keep us entertained.

Jerry and Ben mimic the birds in their shade seeking behaviour to avoid the high temperatures

Tuesday morning Jerry and I were up on our way to Lady's Slipper at 4am, operating out of Van Staden's wildflower reserve. Weather was overcast, but by the time we got to our ringing site the wind was howling. Opening nets was out of the question. We sat in the car for 2 hours hoping for a break, but none was to be had. There was no sign of any sugarbirds either. We spent the rest of the morning scoping out the Longmore forest in the hope of finding more suitable buttonquail habitat, but without success. In the afternoon we conducted some behavioural observations on sugarbirds as part of Jerry's work to understand how Cape Sugarbird foraging is impacted by temperature. Protea mundii are just starting to put on a show at van Stadens and we had good views of the birds going about their busy social agendas.

Protea nerifolia with rainbow

Protea c susannae

Protea eximia

Wednesday we finally managed to net some sugarbirds – all females and subadults. Ben had been worried about a sex bias towards males, but this session definitely evened out the ratios. However, the session would end early with the arrival of some persistent rain that lasted the rest of the day. A couple of Victorin's Warbler were the highlight of the morning: 

Luckily for me I would not have to spend any more nights in my tent as ECPTA and the wonderful management and staff at Groendal Nature Reserve had laid on the Rooikrantz self-catering cottage. This has to be by far and away the most luxurious accommodation I've stayed in as part of the buttonquail surveys.

On Thursday morning we had the crack team of rangers assembled (and Brian) to help with an ambitious survey of the upland plateaus that form the foothills of the Groot Winterhoek mountains in these parts. We were optimistic since the habitat is basically an extension of what we had been surveying in Baviaanskloof, where we had been very successful with finding Hottentot Buttonquails. After our ascent of 10 Stop Hill (which I was told 3 times in one day is called that for a reason) we reached the plateau with the first veils of rain, which would keep us company for the rest of our 7 km survey.

The first birds up were Common Quail, but shortly after we had a potential buttonquail sighting. And then another buttonquail and another... but now our challenge was not so much if we were seeing buttonquail, but if we were seeing the right one! Hottentot Buttonquail have not been officially recorded this far east before, despite suitable habitat. According to range maps this is were Hottentot Buttonquails end and Black-rumped Buttonquails start. We were in perfect HB habitat: 3 year old, flat fynbos.

10 Stop Hill: you stop 10 times to take photos of the amazing views

Survey conditions were cold and wet

Charlie, Chewbs, Brian, Arthur and Fareni all smiles after a successful survey

It was time to call in the expertise of resident expert ornithologist Ben Smit. Ben is familiar with Black-rumped from KZN, but has yet to officially tick off a Hottentot Buttonquail.

Friday morning finally dawned with balmy weather: temperatures in the 20s and sunny. Ben together with two of his students Nick and Anthony joined us with the rangers (and Brian). Expectations were high as we were basically surveying the adjacent plateau to the one from the previous day. However, 4.5km later and all we'd registered was a Common Quail. Despite being superficially similar from a distance, the plateau had a higher grass component and resulting increased vegetation coverage, despite being the same age in terms of fire recovery time. Really, the habitat was perfect for Black-rumped Buttonquail, but without any.

With a 10 man strong field team, we were pretty confident that what we were looking for wasn't there.

We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to Khayelihle Ncube for use of the superb Rooikrantz cottage in the Groendal Nature Reserve, Brian Reeves and the ECPTA for organising and paying for everything, and of course the rangers who got their feet very wet during the long surveys across the fynbos plateaus. Also apologies to Ben Smit and the NMMU team for being called out under false promises of a guaranteed Hottentot Buttonquail sighting! Still, this site is very likely the end of suitable habitat and hence the range of our enigmatic endemic, and the data gathered will help us immensely in our modelling of range and habitat suitability.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

A CAR with kids

I really enjoy my CAR (co-ordinated avifaunal roadcount) route. WU08 follows a dirt road to the north of the Baviaanskloof mountains, starting in renosterveld, winding through guarriveld thicket, and ending on dry nama-karoo plains. I've been doing this route for several years now and I could not wait to take my daughter Elena (4) and son Charlie (2) on this route one day. This survey was to be it.  
Traditionally, I do this route with my dad, but he wasn't feeling well. Then the three volunteers I'd invited along couldn't make it either. Was this because of the kids or for other reasons?! Suddenly I was faced with having to do the count by myself AND look after the kids. I have to say on setting off on the Saturday morning, I was a bit anxious.

I'd spent the previous afternoon prepping the kids: letting them know we'd be out most of the day, but also showing them pictures of what we would be looking for via Google Image searches. They'd packed a bag of snacks as well as a few books and fluffy toys to keep them company.

When my alarm went off at 5.30am Elena was already awake and ready to go. Charlie took a bit more convincing that this was a reasonable time to be waking up.

Its nearly a one hour drive to the start of our route, during which time Eli was already making sure that I was recording the animals we were seeing. This included a family of giraffe next to the road on a nearby game farm.

Just after 7am we were at the start of the route, greeted by the cackles of a Southern Black Korhaan and eyed wearily by a Black-shouldered kite. But spirits were good. Eli's task would be to count off the stops every 2kilometers on her data sheet while I recorded the target animals on mine. We got off to a good start with a plethora of raptors showing themselves.

Elena fills out her datasheet

Of course, there were plenty of distractions to keep us happy, from cows to tortoises. Tortoises of course were the biggest hit.

One of the questions on the datasheet is: how many people in the car? I decided to fill this in at the end on the criteria that if either of them spotted a target species they would be included as an observer. I was also faced the task in the first few kilometers of figuring out if shouts of 'Jackal Buzzard!' from Elena were legitimate or not! Unfortunately, number of observers noted down on the end was 1. I also toyed with the possibility of extracting 0.5 due to distractions to that observer, but was pretty sure the ADU system wouldn't allow decimals (or negative numbers).

Actually, the first 20km or so were pretty good. Mostly this was because every 2km one of the Chomp chocolates or similar would be rationed out. Eli would also climb onto the car to look around for animals. If we'd been counting butterflies we'd have had a record sheet. 

Charlie: "there's a bird on the car daddy!"
After several chocolates someone decided she needed to jog down the road...

Eli also recorded some scenes with my smartphone camera.

20km and 3 hours in though the heat was getting a bit crazy – easily 30 degrees and only 10am! Within 10km I had the survey route to myself, with the kids asleep on the back seat. While the count was not very spectacular in terms of sightings, I'll put this down to the heat wave rather than the kids. Steenbok are a staple species on this route, but it was clear from early on that most were shade seeking to get respite from the searing heat.

Ewe with a View

Another dead tortoise due to low line electric fencing

Cape Crows are a staple species observed on this route

Steenbok ewe, flushed from the road verge.

Finally, route over we had a nice lunch in Willowmore and rode out the heat of the day next to a dam while I finished off some atlasing.

Les Underhill may be chuffed to know that one of Charlie's first words was 'CAR!' and he's happy to sit in one while doing one all day.  
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