Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Through Hills with Dale

Last weekend I had the pleasure of playing wing-man to Dale Wright on his travels to determine the conservation status of South Africa's Important Bird Areas (IBAs). Dale is Birdlife South Africa's area manager for the Western Cape. He has over 20 IBAs to keep tabs on – no small task in a province about the size of England. The IBAs range in size from small estuaries to massive mountain chains over 200km long in the case of the Swartberg.

According to Birdlife, sites are designated as Important Bird Areas based on the significant presence of bird species that fall into one or more of the following criteria: threatened, restricted-range, biome-restricted and congregatory species. More than 300 of South Africa’s bird species fall into one or more of these criteria, and they are then referred to as IBA trigger species.

Blue Hill Nature Reserve forms part of the Baviaans-Kouga IBA, but we are also nestled between the Swartberg and Outeniqua IBAs. The trigger species for all of these are predominantly the Fynbos endemic birds, grading into Karoo species for the Baviaans and Swartberg IBAs. Other trigger species include Black Harrier (associated with Renosterveld), Blue Crane, Ludwig's and Denham's Bustards and Southern-Black Korhaan. Or at least they will do after the site assessment, as several of the original trigger species were based on old information compiled by legendary Keith Barnes many years ago.

But IBAs aren't just about the birds. As Dale recently pointed out, they also conserve water. It is estimated that in the Western Cape, catchments with high densities of alien invasive vegetation or plantations supply 50 to 100 per cent less water than catchments comprising natural fynbos vegetation.

So – our plan was to drive through the Baviaanskloof and loop back via the Outeniquas and Swartberg. However, another cut off low pressure system brought more rain to the Eastern Cape, causing more flooding and road closures. Instead we headed into a mountain section I had not explored before. We found old mountain Fynbos over 40 years old – a rare thing in this climate of rampant wide-spread fires.

With more rain on the horizon we headed to George to the Garden Route Initiative, where we endured several hours of presentations – all with a positive upbeat message of active conservation projects in the area. Then to the Swartberg.

Despite the rain we decided to camp at De Hoek. Conversation and ideas kept us warm while the wind tried to keep us cool. Luckily, Saturday dawned dry and proved to be perfect for a summit of the Botha's hoek hiking trail. We recorded 5 out of 6 Fynbos endemics, the highlight for me was predicting the presence of Cape Rock-jumper and then being surrounded by them on arrival. This included my first clear views of a juvenile – with a black eye, not the red of the adult.

Sunday we headed up Perdeberg – and bagged our 6th – the elusive Protea Seedeater. All in all, a very exciting weekend – and that excludes tales of deep river water crossings and a pentad list of over 50 species along the way. Overall, our conclusion – Swartberg is a well maintained IBA, with brave battles being conducted by CapeNature to try and curb alien vegetation and other threats on the very very long boundary.

Here, a few highlight photos from the trip.

Cape Rock-thrush - male

Juvenile Cape Rockjumper

Female Cape Siskin

Male Cape Sugarbird flexing his muscles on a Protea nitida (Waboom)

Cape Bulbul - one of the few frugivores of the Fynbos

Cape Bunting

Cardinal Woodpecker (male)

a pair of Cardinal Woodpecker (female with black cap)

Dale pollinating a Protea eximia. He is going to be very busy doing this job if we loose Cape Sugarbirds!


Greater Striped Swallow "I caught a worm THIS big". 

a resting pair of Little Swifts

Speckled Pigeon

A view of the Swartberge

White-rumped Swift

Red-winged Starling harassing a White-necked Raven

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