Friday, 30 August 2013

Fynbos Endemic Birds survey – the story so far

The following is an article I wrote for the Lakes Bird Club 'Malachite' magazine, August 2013:

Where do the Cape Sugarbirds go?

That was the question I was asking after my first year at Blue Hill Nature Reserve, having moved there in 2010. We had laid a trail through a picturesque valley, and there were Sugarbirds everywhere; so many that we called the walk Sugarbird Valley. A few months later, there wasn't a Sugarbird to be seen. None of the academics at the University of Cape Town could give me an adequate answer – 'They disappear up into the mountains' was Tony Rebelo's unsatisfying answer. 

I started to review the literature on the Cape Sugarbird and other Fynbos endemic bird species and was shocked to see very little was published on the life history of this bird, and practically nothing on any of the other endemic species apart from the Orange-breasted Sunbird. Both of these species attract attention due to their importance in pollination studies, but there are no major studies on Protea Seedeater, Cape Siskin, or Victorin's Warbler and only one on Cape Rockjumper. I realised we know next to nothing about the most important birds of the Fynbos. These birds are found nowhere else in the world, yet no one was paying any attention to them.

When I reviewed SABAP data to see how they were doing between the two major atlas projects, I was further shocked to see that there were major declines in reported ranges for three species, and for the endemics overall when compared to morphologically and ecologically similar species. In fact, two species, Protea Seedeater and Cape Rockjumper seemed to meet IUCN criteria to categorise them as vulnerable due to decreases in range sizes. However, comparisons between atlas projects are not straight forward, and it was clear more ground work needed to be done. The review was published in Ornithological Observations.

In 2011 Phoebe Barnard of SANBI found out about a research proposal I had submitted to the NRF  that had been turned down. Phoebe works for the Climate Change and Bioadaptation Division at SANBI with a focus on the Fynbos endemic birds. With Phoebe's monumental efforts, influence and a lot of hard work we managed to persuade a very cynical Phil Hockey that the study was worthwhile and I was offered a trial postdoctoral position at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town. For half the money and twice the work, they would see if I could produce the goods. 

And so began a year of intense fieldwork in 2012. With only half the budget secured to complete a survey of the entire Fynbos Biome, I was really wondering how I was going to manage. While driving into George one day down the Outeniqua Pass, I was also thinking stopping in a car to watch birds along these roads would be perilous to my health. In fact, it would be safer by bicycle. 

Bicycle! That was the answer – no petrol or vehicle maintenance costs. As Dan Marnewick at Birdlife South Africa (BLSA) is a keen cyclist, BLSA quickly came on board to help facilitate fundraising efforts for the 2500km cycle. Ultimately, hardly any money would be raised (the only donation coming from Rockjumper tours) but I did get a free cycling t-shirt from them, and established a valuable working partnership with Dale Wright, who got the BLSA trust to sponsor R6000. I just needed R 92 000 more in order to get the job done.  

But I had other things than raising money on my mind from February to May 2012, as I hiked, pedalled and pushed my way alone over most of the major passes and mountains of the Cape Fold Mountains. The journey took me from the burning mountains of Blue Hill Nature Reserve, to the eastern side of the Baviaanskloof, then westwards through all the major mountain ranges, to the northern section of the Cederberg. I counted birds from sea-level to the highest peaks of the Swartberg - in over 800 point counts I recorded 4329 groups of birds of 173 species. I saw more Cape Rockjumpers than I ever thought possible, and watched amazing encounters such as a Lanner Falcon attacking a Martial Eagle. My bike was also stolen along the way, but that's a story for another day.

After the cycle survey I had to spend some time getting all this information into a database, as well as work on another aspect of the study – trying to figure out how individual birds were moving through the landscape by catching and  ringing individual birds. So a typical day would see me up early, catch birds, then work on the laptop entering data, while wondering how I was going to do it all again during winter. 

Phoebe again was my saving grace as she donated her NRF field budget to the cause, and with the help of donation from my dad, Chris Lee, of a Suzuki Jimney (the smallest 4x4 by far) at least I would not have to pedal the whole way through freezing weather – the bike travelled on the roof and in the worst of the weather I didn't have to pitch my tent at the side of the road, but could afford the sanctuary of the occasional BnB. Snow and record rainfalls in the Eastern Cape severely hampered survey efforts, which was therefore not as comprehensive as the summer survey. On two occasions I was stranded at study sites due to local floods. Several Swartberg counts were conducted in the snow and in sub-zero temperatures. Shivering in icy winds and gazing up at the misty peaks of the Hottentots Holland mountains, I decided to go home with 693 surveys completed and 148 species on the list. Thankfully, the efforts had satisfied Phil Hockey and I was given his blessing to continue. 

Initial results from the survey have been presented at the Fynbos Forum, where a display on Cape Sugarbird and its reliance on mature Protea Fynbos netted me first prize for best poster. Further results on bird density in relation to the impact of fires was presented at the Pan-African Ornithological Conference by Phoebe Barnard, and at the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve quarterly meeting.  

It was clear that more money to complete remote monitoring of birds through Radio Frequency ID technology was not going to come through. So, for 2013 ringing of Cape Sugarbirds will now be with colour rings, and monitoring of their movements can be more cheaply done ('only' R3000 a pop as compared to R4000 a shot) through motion-sensor cameras and through repeat surveys on a smaller scale trying to spot the birds. Work is in the early stages, but results are promising. 

Please please please report any ringed birds you see to SAFRING, and especially to me if they are colour ringed Sugarbirds in the greater George to Knysna area. I need to know which leg the rings were on, and the colour combinations (if any), as well as the location of the sighting. With a bit of help, I may yet be able to answer that burning question... Where do the Cape Sugarbirds go?

Did you know?

1. There may be over a million Cape Sugarbirds in the Fynbos biome
2. Cape Sugarbirds are reported less frequently in ringing records now than they used to be possibly in part due to diminishing areas of old growth Protea forests which they prefer.
3. Cape Sugarbirds in urban environments have a higher frequency of avian pox.
4. Orange-breasted Sunbird is the most abundant of the Fynbos endemic species.
5. Victorin's Warbler and Protea Seedeater are more common than you may think!
6. Cape Siskin are most common in the Swartberg.
7. Weather stations from George top Cape Town show that the period  1997-2009 was 1 degree warmer than the period 1985-1996. Those stations also reported 25% less rainfall for that period. 
8. This is bad news for Cape Rockjumpers, which avoid areas with extreme daily maximums.
9. Blue Hill Escape offers free internships for volunteers who stay for more than 2 weeks which includes food and accommodation. Priority is give to those interested in birds and birding. For more info visit
10. You can Support the Fynbos Endemic Birds survey by making a donation to Birdlife South Africa, using keyword FYNBOS (see Birdlife SA link on the right).

Cape Sugarbird male on a Protea neriifolia in the Kammanassie mountains


  1. sugarbirds prefer old growth proteas.

    Now I appreciate even more the sugarbirds we used to watch in our Camps Bay garden, high up on the mountain, and making use of the handful of pincushions we saved when we built our house.

    1. Thanks Diana - yes - old growth Fynbos is really important for Cape Sugarbirds, and I think those remnants in gardens are a really important source of food for these birds!


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