Friday, 12 October 2018

The mid-life crisis of an African ornithologist

 
“I hate birds”. 

I had to glance away from the birds of paradise I had been admiring in their glass cabinet, the first of many, and the first public gallery at the Natural History Museum of Tring to which I had made a special pilgrimage during a recent visit to the UK. This is, after all, one of the biggest (the biggest?) collection of birds ever collected during the Victorian era during which collecting and stuffing animals was a thing. The museum at Tring is the Legacy of Lionel Walter’s (Lord Baron Rothschild) skin collection fetish and it is a Mecca to any ornithologist. Here there are skins of almost all the birds of the world. So, who had made this sacrilegious statement pertaining to their hatred of birds? The dark haired, smartly dressed, dolled-up lady was making her way with similar make-up painted lady and their entourage of young children towards the mammal halls.

Mitchell from Modern Family suffers from Orniphobia: a fear of birds. Image from: https://thetvinspector.wordpress.com/
 
It is not the first time I have wondered why the hell I am an ornithologist. I grew up looking forward to safaris to Botswana or Pilanesburg National Park, where the box of reference material included Clive Walker’s ‘Signs of the Wild’, Keith Coates Palgrave’s ‘Trees of Southern Africa’, and Gordon Lindsay Maclean’s Roberts Birds of southern Africa (editions 5 and 6). I remember the excitement of a young teenager when one birthday I received one of the first photographic field guides to southern African birds compiled by Ian Sinclair. Later, these would be replaced by the Sasol field guides authored by Peter Ryan and Phil Hockey, both of whom would later be supervisors of mine during my post-doctoral years at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. These men were my idols, and it filled me with pride that I had struggled and pushed my way into their circle.

I’ve probably been surrounded by people that enjoy and love nature all my life. Perhaps the first time I wondered about whether my chosen occupation was really one filled with the glory I’d naively grown up thinking it was, was called into question last year when I was surveying on a farm north of Fraserburg. I’d been greeted politely in the morning by the farmer, who was interested in what I was doing and even showed me a nest made by an Acacia Pied Barbet, and where the local Pale Chanting Goshawk liked to roost. Later in the day though, I was doing a point count on the side of the road when his wife pulled up next to me after returning from town with their children. “Do you count birds for a living?” to which I replied in the affirmative. “You mean that is your job?” she replied with disbelief peppered with a hint of scorn, and on that note left me in her cloud of dust on the side of the road. Surely that scorn was only due to lawyers, bankers and marketing people for companies with dodgy environmental credentials?

From the cool reception of the farmer later in the day, I can only imagine what rant he had to endure from her for allowing such time wasters and non-productive members of society to grace their property, which naturally was providing a service to the world by keeping Checkers shelves stocked with lamb chops and mutton wors.

I have in recent years taken to asking random strangers what their favourite bird is. I’ll give a person on the side of the road a lift, basically in exchange for this piece of knowledge. People almost never have a bird at the tip of their tongues. One policeman to whom I posed the question said quite frankly ‘I don’t like animals’. Another young gentleman, with passing resemblance to a youthful Julius Malema, similarly responded ‘I don’t like birds’. To these and other struggling to answer this inordinately difficult question I normally jokingly respond: ‘Ah yes, but there is one bird that I know you love. Chicken’. And like most of my jokes, I’ll get a polite smile maybe 50% of the time. Certainly, a job as a comedian is not an option.

I’ve realised that I’m too old now to embark on the noble profession of the curer of cancer. I’d also be completely shit at being a social worker, and I’m certainly not patient enough to be a farmer, and I’m completely terrible at DIY, so anything mechanical is out. But I can recognise some bird calls and analyse data, so looks like I’ll have to stick with that.

And I’ll admit that I do what I do now for personal pleasure: holding a bird in the hand, wondering where it came from, how old it is, if its parents were good ones, if it had any affairs with the neighbours, and what its fate it will be when I release it with an aluminium ring on its leg with its measurements registered for posterity in a far-off database. My work is in happy, wild places, far from depressing news and far from the ill winds that blow with the dark political storms that cloud the horizon. Perhaps I’m not providing the world with sausages, but hopefully I’m providing information to someone one day who urgently needs to google the answer to a pub quiz question on how much a House Sparrow weighs.     

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

When species distribution models are validated: a case of a Hottentot Buttonquail

This was something I wrote toward the end of last year for African BirdLife magazine, but that was then never published...

We’ve come a long was regarding our state of knowledge regarding the Hottentot Buttonquail since Africa Birds&Birding published an article with one encountered in the Kouga Mountains: the Fynbos Enigma in 2013. The summary of our state of knowledge described in that article was picked up by BirdLife International, and resulted in the species being classified as Endangered. We now know a lot more about the species thanks to a biome wide survey sponsored by BirdLife South Africa, together with BirdLife Overberg, Tygerberg Birdclub and other sponsors, and involving many participants. The species was recorded in many locations, sometimes in fairly high numbers, although it was also not found on many more.

An article published recently in Ostrich showed the species was far less associated with restios than everybody thought. Moreover, species distribution modelling published in Bird Conservation International confirmed that fire age associated with the fynbos was important at predicting the species presence. The map we produced shows that the potential suitable habitat stretches quite far east, further than it has ever officially been recorded.

The location of the Hottentot Buttonquail encounters from Grahamstown are indicated by the red dot. Species distribution model for Hottentot Buttonquail, with yellow to red good probability of occurrence, and blue low probability of occurrence.


It was thus of great interest to hear anecdotal records of encounters of small, quail-like birds, descriptions of which sounded tantalizingly like buttonquail, from near to Grahamstown. While the area is more generally associated with the thicket biome, pockets of fynbos hide among the hills on many ridges or south facing slopes. Anthony Bernard, a marine scientist at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity was interested in getting some official identification after encountering two small ground birds on an evening walk. While the first bird, spotted running around a shrub, was flushed before they could note identification features, the second froze underneath the one pointer allowing Anthony time to catch the bird before it or the dog knew what was happening!

While a side or belly shot would have been needed to be conclusive that this is not Black-rumped Buttonquail, the face and eye from the photo here fit well with a Hottentot Buttonquail. Subsequent to this, Lynette Rudman and Daniel Dankwerts caught and ringed two buttonquail, confirming the presence of this species close to Grahamstown, as predicted.

Buttonquail identified as Hottentot. Photo by Anthony Bernard


For me this was vindication of our species distribution model, based on climate, habitat and various other environmental variables, but overall was a super exciting record for the Eastern Cape.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

From -3 to 33


The week leading up to the Brandvlei atlasing bash started with another cold front that brought ice rain to some parts of the Bushmanland: one land owner showed a video of hail-like snow and family and friends were sending pictures of children playing in the snow in Uniondale. For me, surveying out of Kenhardt, I was lucky. I only had occasional sleet to deal with and an icy head wind. My turn on the bike, and certainly freezing to start off with. At times like these, the body is shouting ‘No, what are you doing, this isn’t good for you!’, but soon realises there is no get out clause and kicks into survival mode, and you get used to it. By the time Eric picked me up around lunch time, I was so used to it that getting into the bakkie my skin was tingling due to the unexpected warmth in the cab: 15 degrees.

Having seen the weather report the previous evening I’d decided to put a hot water bottle into my sleeping bag as I suspected I’d wake up with ice on the tent, and I went to bed with thermals and jacket. At around midnight I woke up, boiling to death, and had to toss out the hot water bottle and strip off my jacket. After this much time, Eric and I are apparently well cold acclimatized.

Brandvlei Birding Bash aka An absence of Sclater’s Lark

By the time we got to Oom Benna’s just outside Brandvlei, the first atlasers had arrived. Mel Trip, Otto Schmidt and Simon Fogarty, seasoned veterans of the Cape Bird Club, had driven up from Cape Town to fill some holes in the atlas coverage. Chris Cheetham from the Overberg Bird Club joined us too, in his quest for a Red Lark. Dale Wright turned up a bit late: rather worryingly with vehicle issues in the vehicle that we would be assigned for the rest of the survey. A rather strange eccentric character of the Mazda Drifter bakkies is that you cannot pop the hood if the key is not registered in the ignition: which can also happen if the battery is flat. In this case, a loose terminal meant that Dale had to call in the AA to jiggle open the bonnet. Last to arrive were Stefan and Madeleine Theron with their 3-year-old son Jacques. His favourite bird is an owl, which I think is a good choice, and Stefan would also be looking to twitch Red Lark.

There were three big reasons I’d wanted to spend some time based out of Brandvlei and had suggested the atlasing bash: firstly, to improve SABAP2 atlasing coverage and a wish for other people to share in the awful ORFS (out of range forms) that every single card that is submitted for the Karoo generates;  secondly, sightings of a Karoo Lark with Red Lark features south of Brandvlei needed to be verified; and thirdly, to try get some more Sclater’s Lark sightings for the survey.
A bonus reason was to get Dale Wright to join the survey to do some cooking for us: Eric and I are totally rubbish. As it was, the experienced Cape Bird Club members basically carved up the surrounding area between them to survey, and I had to do no organising in that regard. Chris would get his Red Larks in every pentad that he surveyed with Mel Tripp, who was clearly a lucky charm because he’d also organise a Red Lark sighting for Dale, rather pleasingly of a very heavily streaked Red Lark i.e. a Red Lark with Karoo Lark features. Stefan unfortunately would not be so lucky, choosing to head north of Brandvlei, where none of any of the rest of us would encounter Red Lark either. Basically, Red Lark is rare north of Brandvlei, with Mel’s encounters mostly west and south. Both brown and red forms were seen, on several occasions in the same pentad: certainly these are a form and not a subspecies as thought once upon a time.

But what about the Sclater’s? Up until now, with nearly 100 pentads covered over the last 2 years, and close to 2000 point counts conducted, I’d encountered Sclater’s Lark a total of 5 times. The road between Brandvlei and Kenhardt is a traditional twitch stop for those wishing to get Sclater’s Lark on the list, and I was relying on this area to provide the encounters that would be required to calculate density estimates, and from those, a population estimate for this southern African Karoo endemic bird species, which is currently listed as Near Threatened according to the Eskom Red Data book. Bird books describe the species as being sometimes the most numerous on the gravel plains of this region, and also indicate that they drink regularly. Not only were none seen during point counts over the five days, but none were seen by us hanging around hopefully at the various drinking troughs in the area, nor by any other member of the atlasing bash either. Raptors, except for Pale Chanting Goshawk, were also noticeable by their absence, a sentiment echoed by statements from farmers like ‘The Martial Eagles used to be here, but they are not anymore’. What were common were both Grey-backed and Black-eared Sparrowlarks; and Lark-like Buntings were exceedingly abundant.

Throughout the four days, count conditions were cold at first, but warmed up pleasantly during the day, allowing for comfortable counting and respectable lists. On the last day, it would be my turn on the bike again. Eric dropped me off at the edge of the pentad, and the plan was that I would rendezvous with him at the edge of his pentad, to try save on fuel. The day started with jacket on with temperatures around 6 degrees. A couple of hours later it was 16, then 26. By the time I hit midday it was touching 30, with the highest temperature 33 courtesy of a stiff berg wind. For the first time this year I was seeing birds taking behavioural action to reduce temperatures: a Chat Flycatcher wing drooping to aid air flow around the body; and Lark-like Buntings seeking the shaded bushes, embankments, and even hiding under a bridge.

My behaviour to deal with the heat involved stripping off my jacket, track suit pants and gloves. I didn’t want to carry these on my bag, so I’d tucked them behind the railings where the road to Granaatboskolk I was surveying crossed the Sishen railway line. There is little road traffic here: maybe a vehicle every half an hour. An hour or so later I was surveying about a kilometre away, when I noticed a truck stop on the bridge. Someone got out and headed down the embankment to take a dump: basically down where I’d stashed my cold weather gear. Of course he found my stuff, and must have thought it was his lucky day. I had to jump on my bike and sprint the 1km to the truck to claim my clothes. The dude must have wondered where the hell I’d come from… certainly he was rather surprised and apologetic, having not seen a soul anywhere in the barren, desolate landscape.

Overall, it was great to hang out with bird-head people for a few days, listen to their stories and perspectives on birds and birding. Certainly it was useful, as in this case many eyes make light work. While we did 30 plus virgin pentads, there are hundreds more in the Great Karoo that need doing: so head on out there and claim your own virgin pentad – SABAP2 never forgets a first.    

Lastly, A big thanks to all the landowners that let us visit remote areas of their farms to document the bird life.


The Kokerboom forest trail near Kenhardt is now sadly abandoned. These forests are a special experience.

Kori Bustard that was caught in a Gin Trap measures up to its rescuer.

Oom Benna's (and my tent)

Planning. Photo courtesy of Otto Schmidt

The team. Photo by Madeleine Theron, courtesy of Otto Schmidt



Prieska dogs poem


Woof woof woof. Bark bark bark.

Yap yap yap yap yap yap yap.

The dogs in Prieska bark.

Bark. Yap. Pause. Bark bark.

I’m awake in my tent and it is dark.

Yap yap, bark bark, HOWL,

I try to sleep, cover my head with a towel,

I hear no owls, I hear no frogs.

I just hear those Prieska dogs.

Their whining into my eardrum cuts.

How I hate those Prieska mutts.




Our dog (barking)
Photo not of a Prieska Dog by Wald-Burger8 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Where the Karoo meets the Free State


I had a feeling we’d come to the edge of the Karoo a little east of Prieska. It might have been that now we were seeing Kalahari birds like Pygmy Falcon, Red-crested Korhaan and Kalahari Scrub-Robin. Or it might have been that OFM had been added to RSG as an alternative radio station. Or the electric fences with monitoring cameras at the farm gates. 

Or it might have been the men with the balaclavas over their faces, military webbing, tapping their fingers on the triggers of their automatic weapons.

I walked over to the bearded, hard faced man getting out of the bakkie that had pulled up behind me, extending my hand in customary Karoo welcome, trying to appear nonchalant but at the same time making a concerted effort to control my sphincter as I eyed the armed men at the back of the bakkie. 
In Afrikaans: “What are you doing here? Who do you work for? Why are you stopped here?” 

You’d think I was trespassing on some private land, but actually I was on a public road to the west of Steynsburg that cuts through to Prieska. No more invitations for coffee and rusks here it would seem. Turns out that this was a reserve manager for a private reserve on high alert for poachers of our iconic one-horned mammal. Even after answering all the questions and explaining in minute detail what I was doing, there was still no invitation forthcoming to extend the survey onto their property, but rather a request to sms him when I’d finished, and to not post any picture with gps coordinates should I happen to see said iconic mammal.

So after that fun encounter: back west, through the near abandoned dorp of Marydale, past teaming nests of Sociable Weavers, through the abandoned dorp of Putsonderwater, to Kenhardt with its Camel Thorns, donkey carts and friendly people. 

Pygmy Falcon

Sabota Lark

Fawn-coloured Lark

Desert Cisticola

Unusual round Sociable Weaver nest suspended on a telephone line rather than the telephone pole

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