Thursday, 29 December 2011

Where was I when Climate Change happened?

In 2010, the global temperature was about 0.53°C (0.95°F) above the long-term average, according to the World Meteorological Organisation's estimates, putting 2010 in a tie with 2005 and 1998 as the warmest years on record.. For the most part I realise I was blissfully unaware of this and the consequences of my lifestyle.

I can't remember how old I was exactly when I first heard of the problem of increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and potential impacts on climate change. I suspect I was in high school, about 17, the year 1990. Evidence seemed to point one way, and then the other. Maybe a year or two before the headlines had been filled with information about the coming ice-age, that the cycle of warming and cooling made it look as if we were due for another cold spell. I lumped carbon dioxide and global warming into media sensation box and got on with my life. The melting ozone layer had me more concerned. That and the ending of apartheid.

Mandela was eventually freed, South Africa held free and fair elections, I went to university and life continued. But at the same time I was becoming aware that places that had been green and fair were now no longer so – urban creep and informal settlements had swallowed up grasslands where I used to ride my bike. Independent cities were now connected by endless urban sprawl and there was no longer a way to tell where one started and the next began. I'd spend a weekend a month at Pilanesberg National Park helping clear alien vegetation. As a kid the family had to drive hours over dirt roads to get to this isolated ancient volcano. Now we could get there in a couple of hours over good roads. Now houses were pushing up against the fences designed to keep rhino and lion in – but served more now to keep hungry poachers out. Trips to the Kruger National Park would similarly take us past factories who's chimney poured out smoke and fire, in a scene that closely resembles the scenes of Saruman's fires of Orthanc from the Lord of the Rings. My last year of school coincided with the Gulf War in 1991 – the first war that seemed to me more about controlling oil than liberating a nation.

I was diagnosed asthmatic at the age of 20. Nothing too severe, more annoying. Brought on perhaps by cycling 20km to university along dual carriageways choked with traffic. By then I had a car and was driving more anyway, the legacy of a middle class white South African. In 1999 I headed to London. Still on my bike, I explored much of southern England and cycled through western Europe. But I also became addicted to the pound, with its massive spending power that took me across the globe from Malaysia to Canada, places previously unaffordable. Climate scientists were gathering evidence, but struggling to be heard. Who wanted to hear them after all? I had money and there was a long list of exotic destinations to be ticked off.

On one of those journeys I went to Iceland and Greenland with a group of geologists. We walked over melting glaciers and watched an iceberg break apart like some prehistoric beast exploding from within. Our guide showed us where the glaciers used to reach to. In some instance we could not even see the retreating faces of some of them they had melted so far into the mountains. I was on a ship between Greenland and Iceland on 11 September 2001. I was glad it was the northern lights that lit up my skies rather than smoke and fire of distant war.

But by that time enough information was starting to get through to me that something was not right. I learnt that our modern oxygen rich atmosphere was created thanks to cyanobacteria (in stromatolites) that basically just farted oxygen over millions of years. It dawned on me – our atmosphere is limited and contained, so if air as we know it was made by such a simple life form, then us billion cell organisms with our massive carbon dioxide farting cars, planes and combustion engines must have some effect on the atmosphere. Kind of like burning a candle in a sealed jar – it soon turns its local atmosphere into a concoction unsuitable to continue.

As the mythical evidence for Iraq's 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' started to accumulate during 2002, I decided there were better places to be in the world than the UK – a country becoming the centre of attention of the ire of the Arab world, and started my cycle home. It would begin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and end in the Peruvian Amazon 3 months later where my bicycle was left discarded as I became hypnotized by the beauty of the Amazon Rainforest.

I was not there long before I realized that the litany of woe of rainforest destruction taught to me at school 15 years earlier had far from abated. At the end of the dry season forest cleared by slash-and-burn small scale agriculturalists blazed and the air was full of red-grey smoke. Areas of forests I had watched birds and monkeys in were an Armageddon-like wasteland within a matter of weeks. Trees a thousand years old or more were felled and turned into charcoal. It was no surprise to learn that carbon dioxide emissions from tropical rainforest destruction was second only to anthropogenic oil based emissions. The passion ignited by the nature around me first working on a project looking at the impact of tourism on wildlife, and then furthering my own academic credentials with a PhD on parrots kept me in and out of the forest for seven years.

I missed the 2006 premier of 'An Inconvenient Truth', Al Gore's perhaps too dramatic presentation of the state of our knowledge on the link between Carbon Dioxide and the Greenhouse effect. But by the time I did see it the evidence for climate change had become an avalanche of information, perhaps overwhelmingly so. Yet despite the fact that 95% of scientists are convinced by the evidence that climate change is happening and linked to human activity, so many people I have met have been sceptical about the link between climate change and human activity. While a degree of scepticism is always healthy, it is clear to me that the exceedingly rich oil related interest groups have done a dangerous job of disseminating misinformation and doubt when in reality there has hardly ever been a field where scientists have agreed more on a topic! Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists have grasped climate change as an easy target to attack, as it is easy to confuse weather and climate and so cloud the real issue that this serious subject is – to continued life on earth as we know it.

So now, coincidently or inevitably, I find myself working for the Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation group at the University of Cape Town. While I realise my story probably won't change any opinions, I think it's worthwhile reviewing where one's own view on the subject originate from. Are your sources good ones? Do you even care? After all, if each one of the 7 000 000 000 people on earth are ignorant, denialist, or selfish in their actions, then there is little hope for our future. So this is a subject that gets me hot under the collar these days!

And it may get me even hotter over the next few months – as I hike and cycle up and down the Cape's most famous passes, documenting the Fynbos bird life along the way. Watch this space as the story unfolds.   


Sunday, 25 December 2011

Big birding at Littlewood Garden

Taking a break in activity at Blue Hill Escape, Anja and I decided to celebrate her birthday by heading to Knysna for the Knysna Rocks festival to watch the godfather of South African musicians – Johnny Clegg. That was fun, but there were no big lens cameras allowed in the venue so I couldn't document the action.

For me, the highlight of the break was the stay at Littlewood Garden. The owners, Martina and Philipp, have worked for over ten years to develop the garden for birds. Now there are many of them, and most are habituated to human presence, allowing for fantastic shots of a variety of species in a range of settings. If you are ever planning a trip down the garden route, I can highly recommend a stay at this very comfortable guest house, with amazing d├ęcor and luxurious ambience – one feels like one is in a tropical rainforest.

All these photos were taken in just a few hours around the garden. While I also took a walk around the nearby Knysna estuary in the early morning, birds were few and far between (may have something to do with dog walkers) and it would have been time more worth my while to try capture a few of the other iconic species that escaped the lens – including Black-headed Oriole, Knysna Turaco and Brown-hooded Kingfisher.
The Leopard of Littlewood Garden – the owners have commissioned a range of beautiful African style artwork that adorns their home

A Cape White-eye awaits its turn on the feeder, while a male Amethyst Sunbird enjoys some sugar water

An immature Amethyst Sunbird enjoys some New Zealand flax. These plants are hot property among the nectarivorous birds – with Cape Sugarbirds top of the dominance order

A confused juvenile Amethyst Sunbird perched on my cap. Nice to have a bird in the hand that actually wants to be there!

A habituated Fork-tailed Drongo takes some cheese bits offered by Anja

King of the Castle. Male Cape Sugarbird on the New Zealand flax. The flax also attracts bees and we saw a few unlucky ones end up as Sugarbird lunch.

A Red-eyed Dove and a little fairy pose together for the camera

Forest Canary in a Pompon tree (Dais cotinifolia)

A colony of exceedingly relaxed Large Fruit Bats lives in the fronds near the swimming pool. At this time of year we glimpsed the occasional head of a youngster normally wrapped safely in the wings of their mothers.  

“Leave some for me!” this young Amethyst Sunbird seems to be saying to his dad.

The splendid breeding plummage of  a male Pintailed Whydah

Stop! And take a photo of me! says this Fork-tailed Drongo

Streaky-headed Canary thinking of heading home after a late night at the saloon bird feeder.

Luxurious accommodation for this Swee Waxbill – indoor plumming noggal!


A few night shots of the lovely evening lighting
  

Friday, 23 December 2011

Sai, Mikael and the Saimic Trail

For 2 weeks during December we played host to Sai and Mikael from Sweden, who came to help us finish a circular hiking trail through the mountains. The lads worked hard for 2 weeks with spades, machetes and blisters to complete a 2km section through the mountains that connects our Sugarbird Valley hike to our Pond. The section of trail was named Saimic in their honour.

The circular walk is around 8km long and takes 3 hours to complete. Highlights along the way include a dip in the pond, great views, crazy rock formations, and the feeling of total immersion in nature – no sight or sounds of other people nearly guaranteed.


Finished! Triumphant on the last section of the trail


Moving a sign into position

Murray and the Machete - friend Murray was drafted to help on the day we did the photo shoot. Other days we were too busy working to take photos.


Sai and Mikael also helped on a few days with mist-netting. One of Mikaels new experiences was "being bitten by a hummingbird"

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Ain't she sweet?

Just a quick update since the last depressing post – I am back at Blue Hill! Yay, have been for nearly 2 weeks, but a baboon, ate our internet cable again. Then I lost our 3g modem which is the key to getting us internet beamed from a hill to our house, and the new one is giving hassles. So this post is brought to you from the top of our hill – its a bit windy, the rock I'm sitting on is uncomfortable, but otherwise a nice office environment.

I thought I'd post these photos I took in my last days in Cape Town, where I visited a keep guardian of Elsie's Peak sugarbirds. Renee feeds these guys every day and they are very habituated to her. She also keeps a log book of all the tagged and ringed birds she sees. This has been very helpful – especially since it appears the local population is suffering severely from Avian Pox – see the swollen feet of some of the birds lower down. One poor chap could not even stand on his one foot.


Note the pollen load on this guy (or girl)

Colour banded bird on top




Tarsal thickening - we're attributing to Avian Pox

This poor bird's foot is so sore he can't stand on it - I only realised this looking through the shoot later and he was balanced on one foot for all 15 odd photos.
Her secret recipe is: 

6 tablespoons brown sugar
4 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons golden syrup
quarter teaspoon Bovril
½ teaspoon multi-vitamin syrup for birds
4 drops red food colouring (optional)
1.5 litres hot water

Sounds so tasty I want to drink it too. And all feeders get cleaned thoroughly every day, and once a week with Jik (disinfectant). Bird feeders of course can be a source of infection for birds.


Otherwise, we've had some volunteers helping open a new section of hiking trail at Blue Hill  – its taken 2 weeks to do 1.5km!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Kleinmond – my personal Punxsutawney

Or how Birdwatching cost me R12000.00

I have now been away from home for two and a half weeks and counting. Sounds like a holiday? Well, it hasn't quite been that way. I last saw my wife and daughter on 15 November in Knysna where we spent the night together before I headed off for a field trip with CREW, and Anja stayed in Knysna for a few days away from home. I was hoping to head home after an extention of my CREW trip to Cape Town to offer a defence of my project proposal. However, on the way to Cape Town on 20 November the water filter on my car broke, leading to a catastrophic chain of vehicle malfunctions which have yet to be resolved now December 1.

I had been taking the back roads westwards after my time at Grootvadersbosch. Stopping here and there to watch birds and search the mountains for access routes. Suddenly, as I was drifting back towards the N2, the car cut out. As I pushed the car off the road, the smell of burning rubber seared my nostrils. Opening the bonnet the heat was palpable. Water I poured on boiled instantly. A passing vehicle paused to offer assistance, and pointed me to a nearby creek. I made the most of the opportunity to have some lunch and wait for the engine to cool.

Pushing on again over an hour later, it was clear this wasn't going to be something temporary. The heat gauge shot up and the car lost power. I stopped again to let the engine cool, before stuttering into Botrivier. The folk at the local filling station did not know of any mechanic. It was clear this was not going to be a good place to seek assistance. No buses stopped here either on the way to Cape Town. At this stage I thought I had found a solution, whereby over filling the coolant tank I thought perhaps by stopping regularly I might be able to continue slowly by taking the coastal road. By the time I was perhaps 10km from Kleinmond, it was clear my solution was not going to get me much further.

I phoned someone I had met earlier in the month who lived in Kleinmond, a friend of my cousin, whom I had met at my uncle's memorial service earlier in the month. Gavin offered to come tow me into town and offered me a place to sleep until the Monday morning, when the car could be towed into the garage. There the news was bad as was to be expected, with Friday and R5000 being optimistic outcomes for a solution, dependent on pressure tests and all sorts. Gavin gave me a lift to Cape Town for my meeting and I spent the time usefully at the university, given shelter by my mom's cousin. An enddate was pushed back to Monday, on which day I headed back to Kleinmond. The car was not ready. Neither on Tuesday. By Tuesday afternoon I given the analogy of a sick person in a hospital who could not be allowed to leave until better – otherwise the hospital would be accountable. Wednesday and there was talk of sensors needing testing and further work needed. It has not been ready on any subsequent day – despite much attention to the vehicle – I have passed by to observe 'progress'.

So here, I sit – looking for Groundhogs. Haven't seen any, but here are a few bird pics from along the way.

Southern Rock Agama sunbathing at Rooi Els

Bee on Grewia occidentalis

Cape Rockjumper - Male - sniffing the flowers?

Orange-breasted Sunbird male on Leucospermum oleifolium 


Olive Woodpecker

Cape Rockjumper female


Southern Boubou

Swift and Arctic Terns take flight

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