Saturday, 2 May 2015

Sweet and Sour: me and my Meerkat, Chutney

December 2013: it was my last bird survey of the year; over 900 counts conducted. I’d surveyed this route near a small section of the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve over ten times, found and documented the first Black Harrier nest in the region; and never seen a Meerkat.

It was just past Christmas, and I had spent some hours with a beautiful pair of Blue Cranes. Driving slowly on, I noticed something scampering rat-like down the track. I couldn’t believe it: a baby meerkat!

I got out the car and approached it. It stood its ground teeth bared and snarling ineffectively. Where had it come from? I pondered. The closest burrow I was aware of was more than 10km away. I’d been in the vicinity for hours and not seen a meerkat – and this was time spent searching for photographic opportunities. What was I to do? I didn’t have time or inclination to adopt orphaned animals: I am a hard biologist at heart. Or so I thought.

At that moment a pair of Black Crows took flight from a copse of gum trees not far off. The meerkat stopped snarling and limped towards me, looking more frightened by the circling of dark wings. I couldn’t believe it, and with that action he had decided his fate. I took off my jersey and picked him up.  He was limp in my hand, not-struggling. Exhausted and clearly on his last legs, and one other factor played a major decision to interfere with nature that day – Pauline Ruffenach.

Pauline was a volunteer helping me with my research. She had previously volunteered at an animal rescue sanctuary and mentioned that her favourite animals were meerkats. A meerkat asking for protection and someone to help it back onto its feet? Soon we were both on our way back to Blue Hill. Half an hour later and the baby meerkat was delivered into Pauline’s apricot covered hands. Anja and Pauline had been processing fruit in preparation for the next batch of home-made chutney.

“Here you go, a meerkat, look after it!” I said handing it over. And Pauline proceeded to do so adeptly, and we proceeded to learn a lot about meerkats. The first major hurdle was to see if we could get the meerkat through the night, the limp, feather-weight bundle didn’t inspire much hope, and I gave it 50-50 odds. Pauline was up all night with hot-water bottles, syringe and rehydration fluids. In the morning she greeted us with meerkat tucked between her bosoms.

Pauline decided to call it (it – because we didn’t know the sex yet) Chutney, because the meerkat had been delivered while she was making South Africa’s definitive curry accompaniment. Chutney soon showed that he had every intention of living. He would give his ‘nyeh nyeh  nyeh…’ begging call incessantly. He soon polished off my stock of meal-worms, taught us that he loved egg (but that gave him tummy problems), cucumber (but not tomato), apple (but not apricot), and grasshoppers and crickets (but not the red bugs that were rather prolific at the time). And that he hated being alone, from which we soon learnt his worry call, a high-pitched tremulous ‘mrr-mrr-mrr-mrr’. It’s that call I think that made the original folk who anointed these charismatic creatures their current common name.

The baby meerkat keeping warm and close to Pauline's heart
We never did get to toilet train Chutney. Poos in room corners were a feature of any time spent with us.

In an effort to learn more about meerkats, Anja and I watched Meerkat Manor. Both of us hated the artificial story pieced together from disjunt video clips, often featuring different meerkats as their ‘hero’ animals. Anyway, we learnt a bit: don’t bother with season 2. Okay, to be fair, we were reminded that meerkats are very social creatures and their family structures involved complicated hierarchies and coalitions of individuals. Their enigmatic smiles, big eyes and fascinating family interactions make them perfect human-adorable animals.

Chutney spent the first few months of his life as a girl. Baby meerkats do not have pronounced genitalia and boy-meerkat penis is rather negligible. Only at about six months did the first swelling of testes appear. The penis slowly became larger, and he began to take rather a fancy to girls with woolly socks, which were hugged rather suspiciously.

During the first months we had every intention of somehow releasing him back to the wild. So we spent a lot of time walking around with him, lifting stones so he could sniff out the creatures hidden beneath. We learnt that while we were good at catching grasshoppers, which Chutney loved eating, Chutney was not actually that good at finding them himself. Chutney also had no problem handling giant Rain Spiders. It was during one of our rock-turning exercises that we found our first big scorpion, a venomous Uroplectes. Just to be sure, for his first deadly snack we removed the sting – the poor scorpion never stood a chance.

Soon Chutney was finding food for himself. But not spiders and scorpions. With their long front claws and incredible sense of smell meerkats are equipped to find buried insects. We were impressed when Chutney dug up his first lawn caterpillar. We were less impressed that with his new found digging skills he proceeded to dig up our baby carrots, loose tiles on the patio, and expose every weakness in the house. Later on in life he was observed to dig up a mouse and a mole.

Not meerkat food: Some things we did not want Chutney to eat, like this downed bat. It would throw itself on its back in defensive mode.

Chutney learns that brightly coloured insects should be avoided. 

One day on a walk we heard a different noise from the little meerkat. A slow, steady ‘brrr, brrr, brr’ from a crouched stance. Chutney was looking up into the sky, moving his head back and forth, pointing. We looked into the sky. Nothing! But Chutney continued, now and again looking around worried.  We looked more carefully. Amazingly I finally spotted a speck hundreds of meters up – a bird of prey! It was too far up for me to even distinguish if it was a Black Eagle or Jackal Buzzard. During almost all our walks that summer Chutney would point out some bird of prey to us. We had no idea Black Eagle and Jackal Buzzard were as common as they were, or how high up they normally flew.

As the months rolled quickly by, and summer turned to autumn and winter, at night Chutney would be assigned to a cage with a hot water bottle by the fire. He didn’t like being put to bed, but if we did not do this he would follow us around until we turned lights out, not wanting to be separated from the pack. However, he’d be falling asleep all the time and clearly suffering. During the day, he would habitually jump onto someone’s lap and have a nap. Failing that, he’d sometimes just curl up into a head-over-heels ball and power nap wherever. However, he was also starting to dig himself a burrow, and in spring he started spending his first nights out. By summer 2014 this was his regular habit.

Over time, ideas of a forced reintroduction faded. After all, we live on a nature reserve, he had free run of the place and was free to wonder off whenever he wished. However, it became clear that the houses and areas around them were his territory. He would later on realise when we were going on long walks and he’d turn around and head back home once we got too far. He’d become an extension of the family and would greet us with little bounces and upright tail when we returned from a day out.
Baby Charlie (6 months) with Baby Chutney (about 1 month old)

Chutney does his talking through his teeth. His bites as a baby were gentle.

Chutney getting older, and his playfullness getting rougher.

Charlie (1.5 years) and Chutney (1 year): best of friends

Elena and Chutney warm themselves by the wood stove on a cold morning

Chutney was of course a big hit with most visitors, and he in return loved the attention. We’d realised early on that he needed to suss everyone out, he’d be friendly, but then try and assert his dominance, often during the course of play. Normally it required little effort to show him his place at the bottom of the hierarchy. However, his playful bites were becoming more serious, and he first drew blood from a visitor at about a year old. A sneaky bite to the ankle. We presumed it was a playful bite gone wrong, and we didn’t like the person anyway – so thought Chutney had sensed this in some way.

It was March 2015 that things all fell apart. Anja’s sister with her three kids had come over from Germany to visit. Samuel, the oldest, had been captivated by Chutney during previous skype sessions and was really looking forward to meeting the meerkat in real life. Chutney greeted them in his usual friendly manner, and the kids and meerkat started running around the garden. Next thing Samuel was screaming and Chutney was hanging from his thigh, teeth locked in and Anja had to detach Chutney from the 6 year olds leg. The damage was done, Samuel was now scared of Chutney, and Chutney could sense it. Later on, the kids were playing while Chutney was kept away and under supervision of the adults. His stance was aggressive, and suddenly he ran in and attacked the second oldest boy. It was horrifying, Chutney gripped the inside thigh and shook his head as though he was killing prey.

Both attacks left nasty wounds. Chutney spent the rest of their visit in his cage or in my office. 
That event was a big shock for us. We’d never thought he would be a problem with kids, since he was fine with Charlie and Elena. But Chutney had learnt now how he could climb the dominance ladder. Later in the month he effected another attack on my aunt in her bed, climbing into her bed and latching onto her thigh totally unprovoked.

Mid April, Elena’s birthday party. It had been our intention to shut Chutney away, but Chutney had gone for a walk with a volunteer when the families and kids arrived. All the kids were well settled and playing when the volunteer and Chutney returned. The kids immediately ran to him and we were ready to grab him. But all seemed fine and the playing continued, with Chutney handed from kid to kid. It was an hour later when we heard the screams. Anja and I looked at each other: Chutney. Chutney was again latched on and savaging the eldest boy. By the time we’d removed the meerkat he’d delivered three nasty bites.

That was the last straw for us; Chutney had become a serious liability. With the constant turn-over of people, Chutney faced a future with us restricted to a cage or office. I did not want that. The day of the party we sent Chutney off with one of the neighboring families who had meerkats on the farm, and he now resides peacefully on a farm without children.

He is greatly missed by all of us: Elena says we must bring him and back and just not have visitors. Charlie continues to look down from his chair during meals for a scavenging meerkat on the floor.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

RIP: the cascades male

We knew there was something odd going on pretty early on. The radio telemetry signal was not coming from anywhere near the Cape Rockjumpers I could see on the other side of the valley by the predawn glow. One of the birds was the female we knew from the cascades territory, female blue, named after the blue ring on her right foot. I presumed the male with her was her mate, the cascades male, and that we were dealing with a case of a dropped telemetry tag. The birds foraged actively among the rocks, and engaged in a bit of what appeared to be playful socialization. All seemed well. I lost sight of them when they flew to the west facing slope, as they headed for the early morning sunshine which would add some warmth to the morning that had started at 5 degrees Celsius. Krista got a view on them and carried on the observations, while I headed back to trying to find the dropped tag, always a mission when the signal bounces around the rocks, crags and valleys.

After about an hour Krista let me know that she’d lost sight of the pair of rockjumpers close to where I was looking for the tag. I tried to locate them, and tried and tried. They were nowhere to be seen. Eventually, we started a sweep search of the territory. Two hours later, and still nothing. That was when I started to get worried. We knew these birds, they were always here. Where were they now? Come to think of it, had there been any rings on the male bird? Krista didn’t recall seeing any.

Maybe we weren’t just looking for a tag, maybe we were looking for a tag with a dead bird attached. I headed back to where I had been looking, and project volunteer Brian brought up another telemetry set. With this equipment within half an hour I was picking up a strong signal, and narrowed down my search to a boulder. Putting down the equipment, I peered around it. There were feathers, lots of feathers, the outcome of the search now seemed inevitable. A bit more searching, and the red and green rings that the cascades male had worn were found lying in the dirt, with more feathers and some bones. Finally, stretching and grabbing blindly under the rock I pulled out the chewed radio telemetry tag.

Judging by the location under the boulder, together with the feathers and damaged tag, the cascades male had been killed by a mongoose, and probably several weeks earlier. It was a sad moment – this was the first male that I had deployed a tag on, in November of last year. We had followed him and female blue twice a month for four months. He had become rather relaxed in our company, often foraging unconcerned within meters of us.

The male we had seen in the company of female blue was most likely the rival male with whom we had seen the cascades male tussling on most mornings. One tragedy, another’s opportunity it would appear. We spent the rest of the day looking out for female blue, but our guess is she’s made herself a new friend. No time for mourning in nature – you’ve got to get on with life.

So here’s to you cascades male, male 206. Thanks to you we now know so much more about the secret life of Cape Rockjumpers.  He represents the first ever recovery of a ringed Cape Rockjumper in the SAFRING database. 

The following photo of the cascades male was taken by project volunteer Dr Dean Portelli:

Monday, 6 April 2015

What makes a good blog post? An analytical approach applied to the Blue Hill Escape blog

When I first started blogging, I remember googling the question: what makes a good blog post? Back then I wanted to set up a blog that was part diary, part marketing tool for the guest house. Of course it has evolved along the way and I've posted on a variety of topics with nature and fynbos as the central themes. However, its all just been winging it and I've never really known what makes a good blog post except from a personal perspective; except now I have data to look at.

So, I've been blogging ad-hoc for four years now, accumulating around 200 posts along the way. Finally, using my blog as the data I can can try and answer the following questions:

  1. Do longer posts (those with more words) get more hits?
  2. Do posts with more pictures get more hits?
  3. Do posts written on a particular day get more hits (from my facebook feed I know we're more social on the weekend for instance)?
  4. Is hit rate a function of time: i.e. are older posts getting more hits just because they have been around longer, or am I getting more hits now because I have more followers?
  5. Finally, and perhaps of greatest interest: does the sentiment of a post have an influence on hit-rate? By sentiment I mean are posts that are positive or negative in their overall tone impacting hit rate. This is an important question to a conservation biologist, where the fear is that the bad news that we are continually surrounded by may be putting people off. Sentiment is a difficult thing to measure, and I use the sentiment analysis tool Semantria to find out.
The short answer: ALL of these are important, but some were important in ways I did not expect.

  1. Do longer posts get more hits?

Generally, longer posts do get more hits, but this is almost certainly because they are more searchable over time. i.e. more words does not equal a good post, but is good for long-term exposure. So that answers question 4: clearly I have not been making inroads into gaining more readers, but I don't blog regularly enough and I don't advertise, so I can't complain.

  1. Do posts with more pictures get more hits?

Definitely. The more photos the better. Picture paints a thousand words bla bla. Since I hardly ever uploaded more than 20 photos, I cannot advise if too many pictures is a bad thing, but I'd guess that 10 or so pics is a good rule of thumb.

  1. Do posts written on a particular day get more hits?

The results here surprised me. For me: Wednesday is a good post day (mid-week hump?), Thursday is very bad, and surprisingly, so is Saturday. Maybe too much competition from other digital media on a Saturday? Overall, my Saturday posts have been shorter, so perhaps that is a confounder using these measures given the influence of time on hit rate as Friday is a good day.

  1. Does the tone of an article influence hit-rate?

Anyone who works in the conservation field knows that there are many depressing stories around: climate change, species in endanger of extinction, pollution, over-population etc etc. We also know that going on about these things doesn't exactly make one the life of the party. So I try not focus on the negative when I write.

Quantifying tone is pretty difficult to do objectively. To do this I used a cool analytical tool developed by the company Semantria You can try it out – they have a live-demo on their website where you can post an article and it analyses words, phrases, names and themes to come out with an overall score.

So while I was encouraged to see that on balance my writing is neutral to positive overall, the trend is towards negative articles having higher hit-rate. Overall, the Semantria score was a poor predictor of hit-rate though.

In summary, there are many factors to take into account when writing up a good blog post, and of course here I have only looked at trends from my blog – factors could be very different for other blogs in other situations!

The technical bits (of interest to data analysts only):

I used the R package rvest to scrape and summarise my posts. I then used the MuMIn package and the dredge function to choose the best model from these two starting models:

model <- glm(views~charactercount+semantria_score+photos+blogageDays+day, data=blogdata, family=poisson)
lmmodel <- lm(log(views)~charactercount+semantria_score+photos+blogageDays+fday, data=blogdata)

I ran both because the data followed a poisson distribution, but log transformed data were gaussian and I find linear models easier to interpret.

The best poisson model contained all variables in the final model, while the log transformed data model dropped the Semantria score. Code and data available on request.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

RIP: Butch the leopard

One of the first leopard photos our camera traps revealed was a male leopard that was collared by the Landmark Foundation deep in the Baviaanskloof. The collared fitted was a radio telemetry collar that stored gps points of the leopards movements. However, the data was never downloaded, partly because searches were being conducted in the Baviaanskloof and not on the periphery. Cape Mountain leopard territories are huge (some here are easily over 50 000ha) and so getting to the right place to download data can be an issue.

It became clear over time that he was the resident male leopard. Our last photo of him was obtained in 2013.

Earlier this year Landmark Foundation decided they would have another attempt at catching the leopard we had named Butch in order to remove the collar. However, just to the south of us it appears a leopard had been killed... and the remains were identified as Butch. The radio collar had been vandalized, suggesting human interference. This is the story from the Landmark Foundation perspective:

Our property forms just a very small part of a territory of any Cape Mountain Leopard, yet we are very sad to learn of his demise, its almost like loosing a friend. 

Friday, 27 February 2015

Van Stadens revisited

So far I have enjoyed every trip undertaken to the ever-in-bloom van Stadens Wildflower Nature Reserve, just outside Port Elizabeth. All the trips have been bird ringing trips, of which I've blogged about one visit before, and on each visit I've handled a new species of bird.

The last two nights I camped at Falcon Rock with Ruby and Dan (UK volunteers) and we headed to the reserve on two mornings to meet up with Ben and Jerry. Jerry is Ben's Master's student looking at differences in foraging strategy between male and female Cape Sugarbirds, to try and understand why females appear to be more stressed (they weigh less) in hot years.

Tuesday morning was cold and wet, but as it was overcast, we had a good haul for the morning, with over 50 birds dominated by sunbirds and sugarbirds. My new birds for the day were Yellow-eyed Canary and Green-spotted Wood-dove. We were assisted by Nick, another of Ben's students who will be starting a Master's on Rufous-eared Warbler (not found at Van Stadens but a bird of arid Karoo), and he was put to good use extracting birds from the widely dispersed nets.

Dan seeks shelter from the drizzle while Ruby and Jerry ring birds

Checking for wing molt and beautiful colours on this Emerald Spotted Wood-dove

Synchronized cataplexy tests (tonic immobility)

In their hands: A young Greater Double-collared Sunbird male doing tonic time before its release

Amethyst Sunbird males are gorgeous

as are King Proteas

Young Lesser Honey Guide

Wednesday dawned not much better, we'd been listening to rain from our tents all night, but it cleared enough to put up some nets. It was gratifying to get several recaptured Cape Sugarbirds during the morning – nice to know they are still around, and it gives a chance for Jerry to show he is getting independent samples for his research.

On each visit it has also been impressive to see the fruits of the labours of the Friend's of Van Stadens. This time recent work was very obvious: the large gum trees in the middle of the reserve had been felled. While raptorphiles might get uppity about this, I approve as exotic trees are the biggest current threat to Fynbos integrity. On a tangent, I don't believe that cutting down the large exotic trees that raptors like to nest in will impact raptor populations as the raptos are simply choosing the largest trees to nest, which happen to be exotics, but would then nest in the next best thing, albeit smaller stunted endemic tree species. I don't believe there is evidence they would simply not nest.

Also – I was very excited to see the first signs of a bird hide being built passing through the arboretum. Two thumbs up to Mr and Ms Goossens for their efforts! I for one can't wait to use the final product. If their energy and enthusiasm for the environment was virulently contagious we'd be living on a more beautiful and healthier planet.
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