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.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Fynbos Birds: Conservation Status and impacts of Climate Change


A summary paper focusing on our six main endemic birds of the Fynbos came out in the journal Bird Conservation International earlier this year. I calculated bird densities, population sizes, identified preferred fire successional preference and examined ranges from SABAP2 data. I also used the atlas data to identify trends for the Fynbos birds and a suite of other endemic birds (simply reporting rate changes and range changes).

A bit of a concern is that the group of Fynbos endemic birds is generally the worst off, with Cape Rockjumper and Protea Seedeater fairing particularly badly comparing between atlas projects. While the degree of population change that this really represents is still an item of discussion, it was worthy to note that these changes were well explained by the species tolerance (or intolerance) to warm temperatures as calculated from a physiology project conducted in 2013 by Robyn Milne. In fact, in the absence of any other explanatory variables, climate change (particularly warming) seems to be the best reason for these changes at this time. After all, Mountain Fynbos is little modified by the usual host of problems associated with human land conversion. For Cape Rockjumper in particular, which stresses out at just over 30 degrees (the lowest of 12 species tested), it appears from various angles that range is limited by temperature. With an increase of between 0.5 and 1 degree, this translates to a vertical loss of space of around 100 meters, which isn't a good thing if you're already a species that prefers mountain tops – there is no where left to go, and a temperature increase of 4 degrees will mean there will no more comfortable living space left for this species.

How exactly hotter temperatures may influence behaviour and breeding is now the focus of the research of the Hot Fynbos Birds project team. Krista Oswald is just starting a Masters project on the topic and we're hoping for some good news from this in the next year or two.

The official paper can be downloaded from the publisher website here http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0959270914000537
and a copy is available here http://www.bluehillescape.co.za/Peru/aims.html

Too hot for his own good: A male Cape Rockjumper
Krista Oswald and Kate Beer monitoring Cape Rockjumpers. No easy task!




Monday, 22 December 2014

Mounting Mannetjiesberg

So – Anja wanted to do something special for her 35th and I'd already booked us in to the Lansrivier guesthouse on the edge of the Kammanassie as a break from catering and kids. Somewhere along the line someone suggests we climb Mannetjiesberg, the highest peak in the Kammanassie mountains and for most of the vicinity. Ok. Whey not, she's been doing lots on 'insanity' workouts and isn't in too bad shape.

We arrived at Lansrivier on Saturday afternoon after carbo-loading pizza at the Crackling Rosie in Uniondale. I'd chosen Lansrivier because at this time of year I knew it would be quiet despite the holiday madness unfolding around us, with SA on the move. The guesthouse is an off-grid old original farmhouse, and runs on gas and solar/battery lamps. It is very quaint, and isolated enough from the rest of the working farm to feel nice and secluded.

We took the first step of our 9-hour odyssey at around 8am. The first hour one climbs out of the Kammanassie river valley onto the oervlakte plateau, and its easy walking along the farm track towards the first quartzite hills of the mountains themselves. The Kammanassie is Table-mountain sandstone, an inselberg in the middle of the Klein Karoo, with a host of endemic flora as well as an endemic butterfly – the Kammanassie Blue.

After two hours one starts the zig-zag upwards into the fynbos covered foothills, leaving Aloes and Renosterbos behind as valleys become dominated by restios and proteas. The entire mountain burnt two years ago, and it was nice to see come of the Honeybush resprouting prolifically. We stopped frequently for water and snacks, using the flowers and views as an excuse to catch our breathe.

At 11am we headed off the jeep track for the start of the ascent to the top. Thankfully, with the vegetation still recovering from the fire, the going was relatively easy to what it would have been three years ago. Not long and we spotted our first Cape Rockjumpers. We were also lucky enough to see two Kammanassie endemic plants in flower: an orchid and Erica.

At precisely 1pm, after two hours of constant climbing we finally caught sight of the trig beacon marking the highest point of the Kammanassie mountain, Mannetjiesberg at 1956 meters above sea level. The views combined with altitude are breathtaking. Watching two Black Eagle's soaring below us was quite a change in perspective. The folded mountains were something else too – and made me realise god must be an origamist – he clearly had great fun folding these mountains. After half an hour on the top for snacks and sandwiches, it was time to for the cautious descent, and at 5pm we were back at the house and running a relaxing bath.

All in all it was a great day for the climb: sunny but with a fresh breeze.

Trip details: Lansrivier is run by Willie and Irene Woudberg and enquiries can be made at:

(s) 082 737 1883
(h) 044 745 1404
irenewoudberg at gmail.com

Mannetjiesberg is in the Kammanassie Nature Reserve and you should alert the staff of our intent to enter the reserve by sending an email to:
kammfieldrangers at capenature.co.za


We encountered a flock of >100 White Stork on the way


8AM fresh and ready to go

Anja looks down at the Lansrivier guesthouses, Mannetjiesberg is covered in cloud

Destination sighted!

Cows along the way were all friendly



That is where we are going!


"Oh my goodness its far!"

The 'Mannetjie' of Mannetjiesberg






At the top!

Amazing folded mountains

Endless views of the Klein Karoo

Damn, someone got there before us







Friday, 28 November 2014

Cape Rockjumper chicks

Wednesday was a big day for me. I’d been watching Cape Rockjumpers all morning with Christina (she who sends leopards scampering away in fear), and had noticed that the male was often running around with insects in his beak. He’d also disappear for extended periods of time in the vicinity of a certain pile of rocks. According to literature, breeding time is September/October, and last week we had seen a fledgling with a family group at another location. So although we’d expect breeding to be over, this all looked too much like something was up. I headed over the rocks and had a scout around, peering under boulders and into cracks and crevices. Nothing. I had practically given up when I gave one last brush against a tuft of grass next to an innocuous medium sized rock. And there it was! A typical cup shaped nest with two downy chicks and an unhatched egg! That is the first Rockjumper nest I have found ever.

Coincidentally, I had a camera trap with me I was going to install for wildlife monitoring. After watching the parents return to the nest from a respectable distance, I waited for a period when both had departed on foraging forays, and set up the camera on an abandoned fence pole to observe the comings and goings of the parents. Installing the camera to observe the chicks was impractical and would have been too intrusive. When the male return, he regarded the new ‘rock on a pole’ suspiciously for a couple of minutes, but was then back to being a daddy. As Christina put it: he decidedly had the air of someone doing his duty with the feeding but who couldn't wait to get outta there.

None of the three other colour ringed Cape Rockjumpers from the vicinity were helping out (these are meant to be cooperative breeders) and we are pretty confident it’s just mom and dad on duty here.

Today I changed the memory card and checked the nest was still alright. All good. There will be another check in a few days time (mostly because I’ll need to change the 8Gb memory card as I’ve set the camera to take a photo every minute as I don’t want to miss a thing).

Jump for Joy! It's great being a Dad!

Mom carrying a grub - this was what cued us in to the possibility of a nest

The nest! tucked away under a rock

Two balls of fluff, heads tucked down, probably trying to hide away.

This one must have mistaken me for his dad.

Camera installed, no problems, male back at the nest. I've since camouflaged the pole/camera with dead brush.

Photo from the camera trap, the view allows an idea of comings and goings (e.g. food delivery)
Just down the valley, Aspalathus hirta (pain in the ass bush)

Our morning view, Hoops Berg near Uniondale

This klipspringer spent hours just sitting on her rock admiring the view

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Wee Scottish Lass has Mountain Leopard running for its Life...


Its rare to encounter a leopard in the Cape Fold mountains. Even rarer to see one during the day. And rarer still to see one running for its life.

It was 10am, I was up in the mountains recording behavior of a family of Cape Rockjumpers. I'd been up since 3am. So I had to rub my eyes when suddenly on the opposite slope of the valley a sleek figure trotted up from out of the stream bed. It didn't take long for it to crest the rocky ridge – as it was trotting, basically going as fast as one can go through the low cover of spikey branches and loose rocks. Now and again it would stop to look over its shoulder. It looked all in the world like it was being pursued. And what in these parts could be chasing a leopard except a bigger leopard!

I waited with anticipation to see what would appear. And imagine my surprise when instead of a monster leopard or pack of howling hounds, who should appear but Christina – our volunteer out from Aberdeen helping with the bird study – who is very slight of frame and can't weigh more than 50kg! She must rank among the least scary people I know – but apparently leopards don't think so.

Run for your life!


Is she still after me?

She's so scary - gotta keep going!



Help! she's still after me!


Getting tired now... hope I'll have enough energy to get away...
Who could have the leopard on the run? Why, its oh so scary Christina


The Cape Rockjumpers didn't seem to notice anything



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