Friday, 27 April 2012


And so it came to an end. No official date or ceremony, but more a progression. I was missing Anja and Elena a lot, especially since the week after Easter I had had no communication with home at all. Once Chris had picked me up, the speed of the survey undertaken by vehicle made sense to keep it going that way.

Over 2500km had been covered by bicycle, along with many tens of kilometres of hiking where no vehicle could go. Since the vehicle was on hand and needed to go home anyway, Chris decided to prolong his participation on the project as co-driver as we worked our way down the Western part of the Cederberg, The Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area, before wrapping it all up with a traverse across the Hottentots Holland from Stellenbosch to Nuwerust. This transect, 16km long, was the quietest of any I have done so far, a combination of young fynbos and a stiff south-easterly wind that was gusting at 60km/h as I crested the pass between the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve and Hottentots Holland.

It seems like a long time since those moments of trepidation and nervousness when I headed out on the bicycle from home for the first time, everything I needed on the trailer behind me. Now it is time to reflect on highlights and lessons learnt. The obvious lowlight was the theft of the bicycle in Cape Town and disruption of the planned family time there. Hard parts were the long periods alone, thinking of family and friends, especially when the weather was bitterly cold or wet. I also remember the sadness I felt looking across from the Swartberg to the Kammanassie and watching clouds of smoke rising from where I had been only a few days before, knowing that the beautiful mature fynbos and all its birds were no more.

But on the whole, highlights dominated these three months on the road. The kindness and support of strangers in remote parts of the country; breath-taking scenery: sunsets on the Swartberg, the colourful kloofs of the Kammanassie,  rugged gorges of the Rooiberg, sandstone statues of the Cederberg; the silence of the dusty back-roads of the Karoo and the din of a hundred Cape Sugarbirds and Orange-breasted Sunbirds feeding on the Proteas of Boosmansbos and Sleeping Beauty. I remember the excitement associated with each Cape Rockjumper and Protea Seedeater encounter. There were many moments of satisfaction after a long days ride, thrills on the downhill sections of the passes and the pleasure of a cool breeze during long uphill rides. There was a moment of great relief as I summited Seweweekspoortberg – the realisation that I can still do this, that I’m not old yet ;)   

I probably also started the survey with some preconceptions, arrived at mostly due my Fynbos experience limited to my backyard in Baviaanskloof; and to an initial analysis I did to compare the six Fynbos endemic bird species with six ecologically and morphologically similar species that occurred over a wider area using SABAP (Southern African Bird Atlas Project) data. Range maps at the quarter degree grid cell level (blocks of about 23x27km) suggested that Cape Sugarbirds, while reported less, are still widespread. I now see that their distribution is so closely tied to a subset of Proteas that their fate is intricately tied up with the fate of Proteas. And unfortunately with increasing fire frequency, the future of Proteas does not look rosy: coming across mature stands of Protea veld – burnt over 10 years ago – was not a common occurrence.

While I was initially a bit more worried about Orange-breasted Sunbirds, these colourful and cheerful fellows of the fynbos are not so tied to one type of Fynbos. While they were without a doubt common with any fynbos featuring Erica species with long, red flowers, they were also very common in certain types of Protea veld. I also recorded them in areas with large numbers of pine trees, albeit in lowernumbers.
I didn’t have many preconceptions about Cape Siskins – I simply knew too little - but these are common in almost any rocky fynbos, and persist in fynbos types that have been burnt up to four years ago and are dominated by restios. Their future seems secure for the time being, as their occasional forays into Karoo habitats suggest they are not as restricted by aridity gradients as perhaps some of the other species are.

Victorin’s Warbler is very common in the southern mountain ranges – Langeberg and Outeniquas and rare in the drier sections of the Cederberg and Swartberg. As such, they like moist and rank fynbos and will probably decline under drier climatic conditions.  

Cape Rockjumper I was initially very worried about as they showed an apparent contracted and fragmented range between SABAP surveys. I think I now understand what drives their occurrence – a combination of topographical and moisture gradients. They are found mainly on scree slopes at the base of eroding rock fronts e.g. cliffs, and probably at a rainfall level higher than 600 to 800mm, as this would explain why over most of the mountain ranges they are only found above 1000m except in the Kogelberg Mountains. On the other end of the spectrum, too much rain eg southern slopes of the Langeberg and the vegetation is too rank for their foraging habits. I suspect there is an element of their dietary habits which is not understood with may restrict their range. This may, for instance have to do with the need for the proximity of productive Protea or other mature Fynbos types that is conducive to insect life.

As for Protea Seedeaters, they are as much of a mystery to me now as when I started. With the exception of the Cederberg and Fynbos elements of the Baviaanskloof, encounters were infrequent, and no pattern of occurrence is apparent to me yet. I observed Protea Seedeater at a stream in the very hot and arid Die Hell valley, on the wet Prince Alfred’s pass in mature Protea veld, foraging on Kiggeleria seeds in Meiringspoort but also on Protea seeds in the Skurweberge, and sightings came from a range of elevation gradients.
I now have the task of entering into my laptop the scores of sheets of data I have taken in the field, and more concrete insights should emerge over the course of the next few months.

There will of course be winter survey – which like most sequels will not see much development in the plot, but should feature more action, new locations, but hopefully no special effects. As sponsorship recently has been thin on the ground, any assistance that can be offered will be most gratefully accepted. Tax deductible sponsorship can still be contributed via Birdlife South Africa – South Africa’s leading bird conservation charity organisation. Details are reproduced here from their website (
Account name: BirdLife South Africa
Physical address: 239 Barkston Drive, Blairgowrie 2194, Gauteng, South Arica
Account number: 620 675 062 81
Branch: First National Bank, Randburg
Branch code: 254 005
Swift code: FIRNZAJJ768
Reference: Your initials and surname followed by "Donation Fynbos”

Taking a bow: Thanks for your support and attention!


    Here I read about

    'old-growth chap­ar­ral, an envi­ron­ment so old and estab­lished that you can’t tell its age, mean­ing this area hasn’t burned intensely in many decades or even cen­turies. In old-growth chap­ar­ral you’ll find plants of all ages and stages of life, not just a uni­form cohort of seedlings start­ing over after a fire. See­ing how rich this area is, you can begin to under­stand how big a lie it is when peo­ple insist that fire is essen­tial to main­tain­ing the health envi­ron­ments like this'.

    Left me wondering about old-growth fynbos. You have answered some questions, but asked MANY more for me.

  2. Well done on finishing well... its a great achievement and I hope you will be derive great results from your hard work. Are you going to be using your data for any "official" report / article? Perhaps you can contribute it to the OO (Ornithological Observations), if not?
    Looking forward, as always, to reading more of your adventures in the future.


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