Saturday, 28 November 2015

Kammanassie: Buttonquail Jackpot

Like all good 4x4 expeditions, the trip to the Kammanassie Nature Reserve got off to a rocky start. I’d damaged the 4x4 transmission on my Suzuki Jimney the previous week’s expedition which meant that the car was out of action. You’ll not get into the Kammanassie mountains without a 4x4, so we’re very greatful to Chris Lee for the loan of his Toyota Landcruiser for this week’s survey.

The Kammanassie are a rugged, fynbos dominated mountain-island which emerges dramatically from the surrounding seas of the Klein Karoo. The mountains are home to several endemic plant species as well as the Kammanassie Blue Butterfly. But is it also home to our elusive fynbos endemic, the Hottentot Buttonquail?

Two years previously I’d been mist-netting sugarbirds on the western slopes of the Kammanassie when I’d heard Striped Flufftail, which I’d then been lucky enough to see and photograph. During the night when I’d recorded the hoots of the resident flufftail, on one evening I’d heard in the background some deeper hoots. I was not sure if that was another flufftail, or perhaps a buttonquail.  So on Monday the survey started where I’d heard that call two years previously.

On Monday morning I met up with volunteers Chrissie Cloete and Jenny Angoh in the backwater town of Uniondale. Chrissie had helped pioneer the protocol as an assistant on some of the very first buttonquail surveys at Blue Hill earlier in the year. I was very grateful to her for volunteering her time, which she could also easily give to her husband Daniel, a PhD student at the Fitz, or to her artwork. Jenny, our first ever volunteer from Mauritius, is a Conservation Biology masters student at the Fitz doing seed-set experiments on Ericas.

By lunchtime we’d worked our way up out of the succulent karoo plains to the foothills of Kammanassieberg. However, the site normally used for camping no longer had a water supply. Furthermore, it was clear that a large fire had swept through the shrublands of Protea eximia to the west were I was also hoping to collect more blood samples for the Cape Sugarbird database. Feeling a bit lost and homeless, our first mission would be to find somewhere on the near vertical mountain side where we could pitch our tents that also had a reliable water supply. We navigated an ancient, narrow, overgrown, Bosbou-road cut into the mountain side with a sheer drop into a deep gorge on our right hand side, skirting fallen boulders with our hearts in our mouths. I was really wondering what would happen if we came to a slip in the road… there was no way I would be able to turn around and it would be a long and scary reverse to safety.

Luckily we found a wide cutting in the road where a stone bridge had been built over a crystal-cold mountain stream. Deep in a valley, it was sheltered, had water, space for our tents and was also wide enough to turn the unwieldy landcruiser around. More importantly, some Buchu trees provided shade and shelter from the burning mid-day sun.

Later in the afternoon, once the tents were up, we headed higher into the mountains to conduct our first playback experiments to see if we could lure out the elusive buttonquail. At 7pm, with the sun caressing the Outeniqua mountains to our south in a symphony of orange and pastel colours, it was time to head home. As the last sunset photos were being snapped, from the mountain slopes I heard some hooting. Was it a buttonquail? I jumped out of the cruiser and dashed back up the slope, playing the call. But there was no response. Skipping over to the call of Striped Flufftail, I gave that a spin on our playback system, and not too far away on the soggy, grassy slopes, an answering rattle was heard. Well, we’d have to settle for that as second prize for the day, with first prize going to Jenny for an awesome Mauritian stir-fry inspired dinner.

The Victorin’s Warblers were awake before we were out of our tents at 5am on Tuesday morning. The plan was to rendezvous with the Kammanassie rangers Johnny and Jonas at 7am to start flush surveys of some targeted sites on the Platberg plateau. At 7.30 am, after more unsuccessful playback experiments, and a distinct lack of our survey partners arriving, we received the news that more vehicle trouble was afoot, their loyal landcruiser was out of action, but the rangers were still on their way with alternative transport.

To fill in the time, we decided to investigate whether any Protea eximia stands had survived the western fires. Luckily, after heaving our heavy ringing equipment through Psoralea dominated slopes, we located a patch of Protea eximia cackling with Cape Sugarbirds. Protea eximia together with a species of pincushion are the only preferred food source for the sugarbirds over the summer in this part of the world, and birds are present in flocks where stands of these flowers are found.

At 8:30 Johnny, Jonas, together with two Working-on-fire team members Edmond and Nikki, had made it up the mountain. It was already rather hot, promising to be a very steamy day. We got straight to it, and within 200 meters of the start of our first survey Jonas had found the first puffadder of our surveys. With that on everyone’s mind, the survey line stuttered erratically forward over the next two surveys until we had yet again to ascend the narrow, snaking mountain track further up to Platberg, where we’d called up the Striped Flufftail the previous evening.

After a further 2 kilometers of cross-country survey, it was clear our team was struggling, and by the time we’d summited the Platberg cliffs, it was already 12pm, with only some Grey Rhebok and Grey-winged Francolin on the record. The incredibly deep ravines of the southern slopes of the Kammanassie also limited further survey options, and together with the mounting heat, it was clearly time to call timeout and to instead enjoy the unbelievably clear skies that allowed us views of the Indian Ocean beyond the Outeniquas to the south.

The afternoon turned out to be more productive as Chrissie and Jenny ably helped set up a small line of nets through the protea stand. Despite breeze and clear skies, normally a ringer nightmare, the sheer quantity of Cape Sugarbirds squabbling for this prized nectar spot meant that we had 10 Cape Sugarbirds bagged before we were again forced to close up for the day with a sun seeming to be ever in more of a hurry to make way for the cold mountain breezes that come with the mountain nights.
The full moon threatening to shine into our tents and keep us awake was soon eclipsed by a curtain of clouds that was heavy mountain mist come coffee time at 4am. We would have to endure 3 hours of damp netting conditions until, like a stage curtain lifting, the views that had wowed us the day before were revealed. Chrissie proved to be an able ringing assistant, and our sugarbird mission was soon accomplished, leaving us plenty of time to pack and navigate down the mountain to Uniondale.

The weather report for Thursday looked ominous, but I’d already arranged with Phillip Esau, Kammanassie reserve manager, for use of an extended survey crew for the day. In addition, Krista Oswald, masters student at NMMU studying Cape Rockjumpers had been persuaded to join me for the day together with her three research assistants. It was Krista’s birthday, which she’d given up to help us (on condition we’d spot her a buttonquail).

This would be our largest survey team to date, with 14 participants. Part of the reason for the large search party was the site I was targeting for the day was a wide, upland plateau called the Perdevlakte. These high mountain meadows are in the heart of Kammanassie, a two and half hour 4x4 slog from Uniondale that passes under the shadows of the highest peak of Mannetjiesberg, just shy of 2000 masl. The name Perdevlakte either has its origins as a refuge for the Boer horses of the war 100 years ago, or due to the presence of Mountain Zebra, some small groups of which still wonder the mountains.

I’ll never forget summiting Blesberg of the Swartberg mountains to the north of the Kammanassie in 2012, looking south to see thick plumes of smoke arising from the mountains I’d been surveying by bicycle only a few days before. Now, three years later, the veld age and structure had me optimistic for the presence of buttonquails. But the weather had caught us up by the time we’d managed to grind our way to the top. Squalls of dancing clouds were now a thick blanket of driving mist.

But the assembled troops proved to be a crack squad, that would maintain a beautiful line and good spacing for the next 3km through damp and less than pleasant conditions, in a drive line around 60 meters long. After signalling the start, I could not believe it when 200 meters into the drive that from a few meters in front of me a Hottentot Buttonquail erupted! In true buttonquail style, it fluttered down about 40 meter off, but still on the edge of our survey line. Part of the squad marched off to flush it further off so that we would not have any double counting. Clapper Lark and Common Quail would also have their hiding places uncovered, and then another buttonquail! And then another, with the last one coming just before the end of the drive and just outside the line, with all of us soaking wet. The survey had lasted around an hour, and been one of the most productive to date.

But it was also clear that the weather was doing the best to protect this mountain sanctuary, and it would be a damp descent for the volunteers in the open back of the landcruiser down the muddy tracks. The taste of victory kept everyone warm for the long descent to Uniondale and well deserved victory meal. At least Krista had her birthday wish fulfilled!

Friday was a vehicle repair, catching up on emails and family day.

Next week: big hope for De Hoop and the Agulhas plain. Will Dale finally flush a buttonquail after coming up empty handed at a parallel survey at Rooi Els this week !?

Jenny does buttonquail playback in the slopes of Kammanassieberg. Photo by Chrissie Cloete.

Chrissie points out a puffadder.

Hard to see, easy to step on - making for nervous surveying.

Survey team on Platberg. Photo by Chrissie Cloete.

Cooling off in camp in a cattle drinking trough. Photo by Chrissie Cloete.

Jenny with Cape Sugarbird in a Protea eximia stand. Photo by Chrissie Cloete.

Jenny releases a Cape Sugarbird. Photo by Chrissie Cloete. 
Chrissie processing a Cape Robin-Chat. Photo courtesy of Chrissie.

Once the mists had cleared. Processing birds. Photo courtesy of Chrissie. 

The Perdevlakte survey team that flushed 4 buttonquails. The day was not conducive to photography however. 
Survey line. Photo by Krista Oswald

Johnny checks our distance covered by GPS. Photo by Krista Oswald.

Krista Oswald by Krista Oswald


  1. Great blog post Alan! It was great doing the survey with you. Now I have to join you again to see if I can see a buttonquail for myself.

  2. I enjoyed your narrative Alan. Who ever said that ringing birds was easy? You guys worked your socks off. Breaking a Jimny isn't easy.

  3. Well done and congrats to all. Here is is near 0C, so thinking about heat and hiking a distant memory

    Poor Jimmy, though, Sweet little vehicle. No longer sold here in the US

    1. Thanks for the comments - any reason Jimney is not sold in the US? Too small ;) ?


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