Monday, 9 January 2012

The How, Where, Why, When and ‘What on earth for’ questions of the cycle survey

An auto-interview

Why bother? Climate Change is a hoax!

I think it is quite easy for South Africans living in a world with little snow and no glaciers to wonder about this alarming environmental development. But scientists are at the stage where there is more discussion about the degree of change and the consequences of change, rather than whether there is change. Climate change per se has been going on since time immemorial for a variety of reasons (from sunspots to volcanoes), but never before has the rate of climate change as that observed over the last 100 years been so extreme. I am not a meteorologist, so I am not an expert of the finer details of the discussion. However, what I have seen and what I have read in research literature has convinced me (and 95% of other scientists according to one research article), that the leading explanation is the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – and we contribute more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every day as we go through our daily routine. A better source of information for questions related to climate change is:

Why bother survey birds? Surely they can just fly somewhere cooler?

Not all birds are the same – after all not all birds can fly! Studies to date have shown a range of effects of climate change on birds, with most studies coming from the northern hemisphere.  These range from changes in arrival dates for migrating birds, to analyses of how certain groups of birds are doing – those that are flexible in their life-history strategies are doing better for instance than those that are tied to a certain set of breeding locations or circumstances. A review of changes in distributions in southern Africa suggests that generalist bird species are able to adapt to the modification of the landscape through human activity (and possibly climate change), but that endemic (birds found only in a specific area) and specialist species have mostly declined. Overall, there are more losing species than there are winning species. Ornithologists (people who study birds) are thus concerned that further changes to the environment (for instance, food availability through changing flowering patterns) will be the final nail in the coffin for these species, as in the future the protected areas they currently live in may no longer contain the set of conditions these species are currently suited to.

So we already know all about our birds through the South African Bird Atlas Project?

Bird lists and information collected by birdwatchers from amongst the general public has created probably the best database of information on ranges, distribution and relative abundance of South African birds. Even better, anyone can access this information to see up to date range maps and compare distributions now with how they were during the early nineties at . This information has been used to investigate range changes, as well as model predicted range changes under climate change. I used the information to review range changes and reporting rates for the Fynbos endemic bird species – and found an alarming lack of reporting for Protea Seedeater and Cape Rockjumper between surveys in the Western Cape. However, the SABAP database is unable to provide real density estimates in terms of birds per square kilometre. This information is needed in order to calculate a rough population estimate. A population size is one of the criteria to determine whether or not a species is threatened (endangered). So far, this is not known for the Fynbos endemic species

So which are the Fynbos endemic bird species?

Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Siskin, Cape Rockjumper, Victorin’s Warbler and Protea Seedeater. There is debate as to whether Hottentot Buttonquail should be added to this list. And although Knysna Warbler is technically found in the greater extent of what is defined as the Cape Floral Kingdom (or Fynbos Biome), it is restricted to forest habitats – not typical Protea and Erica dominated habitats.

How are you recording birds?

I am using a protocol known simply as a Point Count survey. That is, I cycle to a location, stop for 5 minutes to record all the information about that location (point), such as the type of habitat, the height of the vegetation, height above sea level, and many more. Then I spend 10 minutes recording all the birds I can see or hear. After that, I pack up, cycle 500meters, and do it all again.

Why on a bicycle?

I realised while driving down the Outeniqua pass the other day that stopping a vehicle every so often along these passes would be hazardous. I also know that on rough terrain, at least on the down hills I am faster than a vehicle. So, survey time would be equivalent, the trade-off would be longer transit times between survey areas. Currently this stands at 20 days out of a total planned 90 for the survey (that includes rest days). But I plan to use that time to conduct a parallel study on bird mortality in relation to traffic and road types. In addition, I have a serious budget shortfall, and a bike would be cheaper than driving around in terms of petrol. So this also means I reduce my Carbon Footprint. I have to point out that the carbon footprint of this survey will not be zero, as my wife will be joining me for sections. However, this would have been done anyway, so there is no additional carbon footprint.

Why a bicycle and not a horse?

I’m allergic to horses.

How far will you be cycling?

At this stage in planning, the survey route covers 2300km over 3 months

Do you really think you will be able to complete that?

Ten years ago I cycled 6000km across South America from Buenas Aires to the coast of Peru in 3 months. While I might not be as young, or even fit, for this survey the distances are shorter and the roads and infrastructure are better. Having said that I am not sure driving standards are all that much better.

What will this study change?

This information should lead to a realistic conservation status for the species being surveyed. We will have a better idea of how the populations in the wetter areas of the Cape will fare in a drier future.

How can we follow your trip?

I will be attempting to update my blog on a daily basis (subject to cell-phone coverage and not being too tired) –

Where will you sleep?

As I have a limited budget, I will be camping wherever possible. Any offers for a bed and shower on route will be greatly appreciated!

What is the route?

Roughly as follows:
Stage 1: From Uniondale, over the Prince Alfred’s Pass, down to The Crags, back over the Tsitsikamma’s to the R62, then over the Kouga via the Rust en Vrede Trail to Baviaanskloof.
Stage 2: Kammanassie, through Meiringspoort to El Yolo (behind the Swartberg), then across to Prince Albert, a section of the Die Hel route, and south to the Montagu Pass via Oudtshoorn.
Stage 3: A section of the Outeniqua Hiking Trail, then to Robinson’s Pass, Gamkaberg, Rooiberg, over the Seweweekspoort and across to Buffelspoort, through Buffelspoort to Anysberg.
Stage 4: Across the Klein Karoo to Garcia Pass, skirting along the Langeberg to Swellendam, down to Cape Agulhas, along the Fynbos road to Hermanus.
Stage 5: Van der Stel’s pass to Villiersdorp, Worcester, Ceres, Op die Berg and then the eastern edge of the Cederberg to Wuppertal. Back down to Op die Berg on the western side – and that is where the route as planned at the moment ends. 
Yellow canary male and female

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