Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Of starry Karoo nights and friendly sheep

An early start to the week was hampered somewhat by a car battery made lazy by the cold weather, but luckily that fail was in reach of a charger with extension. My target for the week was to survey three pentads for the Karoo BioGaps project around Beaufort West. The first pentad was close to the area currently targeted for Uranium mining, a farm managed by Buyisile and partners. They run Angora goats for their wool.

After navigating the labyrinth of unmarked dirt roads behind the dusty town of Rietbron, I made it to Tulpleegte. Buyisile made me welcome with a cup of tea, and allowed me to set up camp in an unused shearing shed on the property, as the wind-chill factor was running temperatures down into the blue end of the colour spectrum. The farm had had good rains earlier in the month: the first in over a year. Buyisile told me that the rain had been a make or break moment for them, as the goats had started dying. Now, 10 days or so after the rain the grey bushes were hinting at the green within. I'd spent some time watching tortoises in the mud a bit earlier, and commented on this to Buyusili, who said “Yes, there are so many tortoises sometimes I think this is a tortoise farm and not a goat farm!”

The afternoon survey turned up the usual suspects for a Karoo flat-lands survey, plus some nice sightings of Double-banded Courser. The last survey was near the shed, where a shallow dam added a bit of depth to the birdlist.

After setting up my tent in the shed, displacing a small flock of House Sparrows in the process (sorry okes!) I was able to spend some time enjoying the sunset, serenaded by distant jackals. This gradually gave way to reveal the depths of the universe above. It had been some time since I'd done some star photography, and here is a choice of my favourite pics (all captured with a macro lens made for photographing bugs no less!).

Windmills and Stars, with the glow of Beaufort West in the background

Windmill and Taurus

20 second timelapse of an aeroplane traversing the sky, traversed by satellite trails

Acacia with a starry sunset

A sisal reflection in the dam

Pale-chanting goshawk stares up at the star spangled sky

With the thermometer struggling to reach double digits the Wednesday morning, and with some concern about the battery, it made sense to do the first surveys by bicycle. Bird of the morning would have to be a pair of Secretarybirds, warming themselves on top of their Acacia tree roost.

20 point counts for a day, separated 1km apart, puts one on a tight schedule, so once temperatures were up it was back to the old Mazda Drifter to cover a bit of distance across the pentad. Great views of Greater Kestrel were followed by one of the surveys most memorable moments: coming into camp with a herd of Angora goats, upon spotting me they came running towards me. They then proceeded to climb onto and into the bakkie! Some of the more cheeky ones even started nibbling my clothes to see if I was edible! This would have been a great script for a comedy-horror movie. Eventually, realising I was not about to feed them or give them a shampoo (yes, Buyisile does this) coupled with fact I tasted terrible, they wondered grumpily on.

Help! I'm being hijacked by a sheep!

Are these the Tulps of Tulpleegte?

Wrapping up the morning surveys it was on to Beaufort West, for a rendezvous with atlasing addict Stefan Theron. Stefan works for 'landbou' but is a real expert on Karoo birds, having at one time held the record for the most birds in a pentad in the Western Cape. He provided a bunch of hints, tips and insights, and put me in touch with the farmer who owns most of the land for the next pentad I had to survey. As this is bisected by the N1 and public dirt road, I'd been just planning on using those for the survey. I'd later be very grateful for the contact as I'd underestimated the truck noise on the N1, which made the first counts along that route an absolute pain. But that was for the following morning: the afternoon was spent surveying the quiet, southern Hopewell road. While by this time very hot, it was an unforgettable section of road that I will forever remember as Bat-eared Fox alley. At almost every point somewhere in the distance I'd pick up one of these exquisitely cute little foxes X-raying the ground for insects with their enormous ears. They certainly outscored the Aardwolf sighting along that route.

I overnighted peacefully in the Karoo National Park at the campsite arriving late and leaving early, so with nothing to report for the park itself, as I had to hit the northern side of the pentad at sunrise. The quiet of the park contrasted enormously with the roar of the N1: the highway that never sleeps. Luckily for me Ian Murray, the farm owner was around. He very kindly allowed me access to the farm, and also provided one of his farm-hands (Marius) to act as guide and gate opener. Once onto the farm it became clear the rains that had fallen to the south had not made it here, apparently no rains >10mm have fallen here in 2 years. To record anything during counts I had to scan the far distance for Karoo Chats and other perching insectivores.

While the species tally for the pentad would prove to be lower than the 34 of the previous pentad, there was one birding highlight: while approaching one point count location which coincided with a reservoir, a pair of brown, chirping brown things approaching proved not to be Lark-like Buntings, but Sclater's Larks. This is an unmistakeable little lark with a tear-drop marking below the eye, but also one that is incredibly scarcely reported. The birder/photographer will ever begrudge the scientist needing to take distance and behaviour data, because by the time that was done the birds had finished drinking and flying off to be engulfed by the vastness of the Karoo.

Wrapping things up, and with a new battery providing a bit more confidence in the Drifter bakkie, it was off to Klein Waterval. This farm, in the shadow of the Swartberg mountains had just been purchased by Adriaan Nortjie of Caroluspoort Game Farm, and they were waiting for me. Armed with gate key, a cup of coffee and chilli-biltong, all kindly provided by Adriaan, it was into the rough and hilly terrain of Klein Waterval. The terrain was in stark contrast to the flat and almost featureless pentads of the previous days. By the following day I had to count it as a minor miracle that the sharp shale rock and spear-like Acacia thorns had not resulted in a puncture.

For the evening I'd booked into the Groot Waterval guest farm not too far away (although a glance the wrong way at the wrong time meant missing the sign and getting lost, negatting that particular benefit). Now, if you are considering a Karoo holiday I have to strongly recommend Groot Waterval, not too far from Prince Albert. The hospitality was exceptional: I was invited to have dinner with Danie and Narina Le Grange and their son Terblanche; after which I felt like part of the family. You can find them here: http://www.grootwaterval.co.za/.

Friday morning was the wrapping up of the Klein Waterval pentad. Despite also having received the good rains (that washed away the Swartberg Pass just past Prince Albert), I was surprised again by the low species count, this time the lowest of the three pentads for the week at 29. By contrast, surveys in the pentads from March had provided species lists generally over 60 species. In general, granivores were scarce, with another bird noteable by its absence being the Lark-like Bunting. Here, perhaps due to poor summer rains, there was an almost complete absence of grass across the pentads, which might partially explain this. So: its not only if you get the rain, but also when you get it, that appears to be important for determining species richness in the Karoo. It is also clear that in order to maintain the unique species community, that vast areas will need to be maintained in near-natural state in order to provide the resources to those species that have to track resources in space and time.

Again, thanks to Buyusili de Bruyn, Stefan Theron, Ian Murray, Adriaan and Janien Nortjie and the Le Grange family for another memorable week of Karoo Birds Surveys.

And lets wrap it up with some bird shots...

Greater Kestrel

Double-banded Courser

Karoo Chat

Karoo Chat with grasshopper lunch

Karoo Chat (you should know that by now)

Bat-eared Fox

Only possible selfie of the sections surveyed by bike...

The Drifter adrift in the Karoo

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Karoo Surveys part 2: Karoo National Park and Victoria West area

Tuesday evening, Victoria West: isolated thunderstorms march across the plains of the Karoo. Strong winds kick up dust everywhere. In the late afternoon, I had to abandon an extended count associated with the local dam in fear of a drenching. But the walls of rain are picky in where they choose to fall, and the afternoon was spent mostly in anticipation of what the dark skies would unleash. Visions of a flooded campsite and rescuing the contents of my tent did not materialise.

The week had started well though. For my birthday I’d booked a family cottage in Karoo National Park for the Saturday night to lure Anja away from Uniondale. The rest camp was used mostly just for exactly that – resting during the hot, dry afternoon. Sunday morning I snuck in the first point counts during a drive up the Klipspringer pass, while Anja enjoyed watching the Black Eagles launching themselves off of the edge of the canyon, swooping below us and down the valley, to return within minutes out of nowhere with a new stick for their nest. Right now this must be the most epic place to watch these birds in action.

It appears that it has been some time since a good rainfall has blessed the park. Despite the dry and dusty feel, bird life was good. The bird hide revealed a Little Bittern (or the eye at least), as well as several wildlife encounters: notably a Grey Mongoose sussing out a resting Hadeda. Little Swifts filled the air in their hurry to go nowhere particular, a task achieved a lot more sedately by the camps many giant Leopard Tortoises.

This is what must pass as a mermaid in the Karoo

With the family back on their way to civilization (as I know it), I started counting in earnest. With temperatures below 30 degrees, coupled with overcast skies, conditions were pleasant, and birds were active: each point taking an age to complete. There is plentiful tolerant wildlife in the park, which also provided many distractions between points. How can one ignore so many picture perfect occasions?

Monday morning and the counting continued on the escarpment plateau, where Sickle-winged Chats are at their most common. At 10.30 am the gravel plains were starting to get a bit reticent about revealing their occupants and I headed for the Bulkraal picnic spot. Here a pump and regular watering of the lawns mean a lot of semi-habituated birds, although the resident Namaqua Warblers proved too elusive for the lens. A particularly exciting rarity encountered there was a Faansie Peacock, author of Chamberlain’s LBJs and Waders books, and a species which can be accurately identified from the photograph on the back of the Wader’s book.

Familiar Chat

Sickle-winged Chat. These 2 will take up ours of my life trying to separate in the field.

Further distractions from my make-shift office under the Acacia trees included a curious Vervet Monkey, which forced me to temporarily abandon work as it perched in the branches above my laptop, forcing an evacuation due to fear of a drenching in monkey pee. Then it was bye-bye park as I headed to Molteno Pass, which forms the eastern boundary of the pentad I was surveying. By 6pm the survey line was complete and it was the 120km drive to Victoria West, the small Karoo town that services the N12 highway traffic to Kimberley.

It had been 6 years since I’d last passed that way, and I was pleased to see the Lesser Kestrels are still around (reading my last post on the visit, I really had been wondering). The Paradise campsite, where I’d stayed before, was still open and I pulled in to set up my tent for the week. Passing rain showers during the evening had me worried, but proved harmless.

Then it was yet another early morning start for more bird counting. This is Lark land to be sure, with Clapper, Thick-billed, Long-billed, Karoo and Spike-heeled all on the lists within a couple of hours. A point falling at the edge of a farmstead kept me busy for over half an hour with a prolific number of birds, including a flock of 48 Speckled Pigeon drinking from a water source. But as the morning advanced, so did the wind speed. It was clear another session would be needed in order to thoroughly survey this important pentad: one of the few Karoo pentads that has more than 10 lists for the SABAP2 project, and so a vital one for trying to understand the link between bird densities and reporting rates. But as you’ve read, the afternoon weather was not so accommodating.

Wednesday morning was better, and I chose a route that would keep my back to the sun for a bit of illustrative photography. The first curious encounter of the day was watching Lesser Kestrels eating pebbles from the road. Later on I'd watch Cape Wagtail, Three-banded Plover and Shelducks harassing a monitor lizard.

The New, Improved Lesser Kestrel: Version 2.0!

The afternoon would be my first surveys for the Biesiebult pentad. The farm owners, JR and Sandra, were well accustomed to the BioGaps research crews passing through, and were very welcoming and interested in the project. It is a sign of the size of the farms in the Karoo when the ‘driveway’ is 6km long! The farmhouse is completely off-grid, with solar panel arrays and giant Aga stove for keeping warm during winter.  While the dominant biomass in terms of birds were definitely farmyard geese (the down used for duvets), the local dam added most of the species richness to the atlas card. The rest of the farm is ‘egte plateland’ or Karoo as you’d imagine it. Still, Blue Cranes with chicks were scattered across the landscape, while further birding highlights included Secretarybird and Grey winged Francolin.

However, the main highlight was really just talking to the landowners and getting an insight into life off-grid in the Karoo and their relationship with nature. During winter, they need to put large pots of water on their wood stove, as pipes can stay frozen until 10 in the morning. And rain is always a topic of conversation. “Ons kyk vir die natuur: ons sien die miere werk, die voel bou nessies, die slange loop, dan weet ons dit gaan reen.” <We watch nature, we see the birds and ants begin to work, and the snakes becoming active, then we know it will rain>. Here for the first time I also realised that the large satellite project, SKA, was becoming an increasing annoyance to the people who live in its shadow… but more about that later.

Thursday saw me wrap up surveys on the farm, before heading to what I thought would be my next survey pentad. Unfortunately, as it is one of the ‘additional’ pentads of the BioGaps project, there had been no ground work yet, and the contact information associated with it was irrelevant. The day became a quest for access to the seemingly inaccessible pentad, made all the more difficult by a lack of cell phone reception in the landscape. However, it culminated in one of the most interesting and useful meetings of the day; one that would impress upon me my full naivety of what is going on in the Karoo.

By 5pm I’d all but given up, when I came upon another dusty road that headed in the right direction. A chance encounter earlier in the day had clued me in to the fact that a local farmers meeting was happening, so when I passed a farm with many white bakkies pulled up around it, I suspected it was a place I needed to be. After explaining my goal to farm owner Mr Hugo, I was invited in. As part of my life at Blue Hill, I attend the local farmer meetings from time to time, so the setting was familiar. Talks and conversations were about sheep, wool prices and the threat of ‘blue tongue’ sickness. But this was a meeting with a difference.

The final speaker at the group was the extraordinary Bonnie Schumann, field officer for the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s ‘Drylands Conservation Programme’. Bonnie is working closely with the farmers in the area, using the endangered Riverine Rabbit as the flagship species. Many of the farmers are part of the national conservancy program. Bonnie was an absolute goldmine of information on everything from fracking, to the impacts on people living in the Karoo of the SKA program, and perhaps most importantly for me: Uranium mining. While most of us have been aware of fracking, the threat to livelihoods and the environment posed by uranium mining have largely escaped media attention, and scale of this threat is truly, truly alarming. Read this very level-headed analysis of the problem hosted on karoospace to find out more.

For me, Bonnie’s talk before I had my 5 minutes was also very useful: one has to be very wary if one wants to be useful in effective conservation to avoid the ‘Groener’ label (Bunny-hugger), and it was great to see (ironically) Bonnie’s work with the Riverine Rabbit so well received by this farming community. I was thus a bit more confident about introducing myself and my work; and all the necessary farmers came forward to introduce themselves to me afterwards. Furthermore, I was invited to take part in dinner. There is a saying “You know you are in the Karoo when there is more meat on your plate than veggies” and that was so totally true: this was Karoo hospitality at its best.

With the diverted Thursday afternoon, it was clear to me I would not be able to undertake an effective survey of the target pentad on the Friday, faced with having to pack up my camp in Victoria West and the 5 hour journey home. I chose instead to consolidate contacts made the previous evening: I’d been especially captivated by a tale by one of the landowners of ‘living fossils’ in the high altitude pans on top of the mountains where he lived. The possibility of Drakensberg Rockjumper too sealed my interest and Abramskraal was my destination for the day.

Okkie Wiehahn and family were extraordinarily welcoming and hospitable, insisting I join them for home-baked lasagne. I’m very quickly starting to believe the Karoo is filled with the nicest people on the planet! It was interesting to hear Okkie’s concern about the growing number of Pied Crows (heard a number of times during the week), and particularly their impact on the small tortoises. Again, distances and time got the better of me, and it was clear an expedition to the escarpment would be beyond what the day would be able to handle: It’s been added to the growing list of things to do.

So, overall: while perhaps lower on point counts than desired, from an educational perspective, this was a very important week for me as I begin to unravel the issues at stake for landowners and the birds of the Karoo.

And we'll wrap it all up with a few more bird shots from the survey:

Karoo Long-billed Lark

Ant-eating Chat

A bird with 'nice personality'

Layard's Titbabbler

Lesser Swamp Warbler

Brandewyn drinking bulbul

The eye of a the Little Bittern

Rufous-eared Warbler

Damn, I hope that is a Karoo Lark

Life is good in the Karoo, even for porcupines.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Karoo BioGaps BioBlitz

So this will be my new life for the next two years: a conservation assessment of the birds of the Karoo biome. The aim is to obtain population estimates and trends; and identify threats to the 10 or so endemic birds of the biome. The project is sponsored by BirdLife South Africa.

In order to survey the birds in a scientifically rigorous manner, we have partnered with the Karoo BioGaps project, a SANBI initiative aiming to fill the biodiversity knowledge gaps of the Karoo region. The region targeted is that delimited by the shale gas concessions. Information on the presence and abundance of 12 taxon groups are collected by specialists. The taxa range from scorpions, butterflies, frogs etc to plants. Data are collected from randomly selected sampling blocks called pentads scattered across the vast area. Pentads are the core monitoring units of the great South African Bird Atlas Project SABAP2.

This week was the first field trip to test bird sampling protocols, and collect data. On Monday I drove from Blue Hill to Grahamstown to collect my atlasing partner for the trip: Professor Adrian Craig. After meetings with NISC (the publishing company that produces Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology), I was welcomed into the Craig’s home for a sumptuous dinner.

The rendezvous point for the Tuesday was a pentad on the Rockcliffe farm on the way to Somerset East. Here we were to rendezvous with Gigi Laider, Tony Rebelo and Dominic Henry representing the plants BioGaps team, and all major players in the BioGaps project: Gigi organises many aspects of the project, Tony manages iSpot, and Dom will be doing the data analysis.

Heavy rains had been falling and the dirt roads were very muddy. Water lay in every depression, but the veld looked brilliant and green: the drought of the previous year clearly relegated to history. Larks, Blue Cranes, Southern Black Korhaan and many other birds kept us distracted on our way to the rendezvous point once we’d entered the survey pentad.

On the way to 'somewhere and nowhere'

Karoo stream - not a typical sight

The farm owner was very welcoming, and very interested in the BioGaps project and what we were up to, giving us free run of the farm. Since it was already 10am by the time we were heading into the field Adrian and I decided to familiarise ourselves with the birds and building our atlas card by heading to the most southeastern corner of the pentad to a very large dam. We made our way through mixed Karoo veld to the Klein Fish River, where bird life along the Acacia lined stream proved rewarding. Chinspot Batis proved to be the default batis, and Red-eyed Bulbuls the resident bulbuls. Much other wildlife was also encountered along the way including Kudu, Duiker, Vervet Monkeys, Bushbuck, Warthog and Scrub Hare. Signs of Black-backed Jackal, Water Mongoose, Porcupine and Aardvark were also evident.

The dam itself was rather disappointing, with only a Goliath Heron: the water level was very high. The walk back was across typical mixed Karoo veld; open and fairly easy walking compared to fynbos although there was much rickety fence hopping to do along the way. A rather chilled Rock Monitor Lizard proved an interesting distraction. Much time was put into trying to separate the calls of Chestnut-vented and Layard’s Titbabblers, both of which were found, but with Chestnut-vented much more common.

Damn Dam

Due to the unseasonably cool temperatures, bird activity persisted throughout the day, and we got back to the vehicle after our 8km slog for a very late lunch. The Rustig Bed and Breakfast on a small farm on the outskirts of Somerset East would provide our beds for the night. Marlene and Sai Botha were very welcoming, as were their pack of collies. We were asked to check for dogs under the vehicle on departure: one of their dogs had only 3 legs due to a previous incident.

A typical just-after-5am departure saw us on site just before 6am, the sun yet to break over the horizon, but with a cacophony of bird calls to sort through on the first point count of the day. I set out for a walk through the veld, while Adrian continued to build the atlas list along the farm tracks. Much fun was had trying to spot Rufous-eared Warblers on their little shrubs, and trying to figure out distances to far off Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Acacia Pied Barbet and other vocal species. Guessing the flock sizes of Pied Starlings and Barn Swallows, and trying to spot displaying Clapper Larks in their aerial displays all proved part of the regular challenges at each point, while keeping a wary eye on the Boerbokke, springbok and other game.

The last points of the morning were close to large lucern pastures, where White Stork and Sacred Ibis prodded their way through the fields, while Greater Striped Swallows scooped up the insects attracted to the purple flowers.

By mid-morning it was time to wrap things up and head to the next pentad. This one was located about 20km east of Cradock on the road to Tarkastad: over a good hour drive away. The drive took us through scenery colourful both in its diversity and in its signs: Daggaboer farm being a particularly memorable one.

The plant team were already busy in the field by the time we arrived at Plankfontein, where again the farmer family was very welcoming and accommodating. While we waited for the farmer to arrive to open a gate to the southern sections where we’d seen a road to a mast, our pentad list accumulated species rapidly, with probably nearly a species per minute.

The large number of large rocks we had to move on our way up the mountain track pointed to how rarely that route was ever used. However, cool and overcast conditions meant there was still plenty of bird action: A beautiful male Short-toed Rock Thrush caused much excitement, being a bit unexpected. Meanwhile, African Rock Pipits called alluringly from higher up, but escaped good viewings, and a half-hearted attempt to capture one in a snap trap.

Summiting the peak required a short scramble, but the return on investment paid back in spectacular views was immense. Being eye-level with a Verreaux’s Eagle is always a memorable event. Pale-winged Starling also made its presence known. However, extensive scans over the plains below us yielded no bustards, storks or cranes; and we had to settle for a resting herd of Mountain Reedbuck.

Our accommodation in Cradock was the tastefully adorned Nietgenaamd BnB. Gigi and her team produced a sumptuous almost Banting dinner, except for the potatoes, bread-crumbed chicken and beer. The super friendly and accommodating bnb host Francois prepared us a lovely snack box for our early start breakfast. Soon we were point counting Karoo Scrub Robin, Scaly-feathered Finch and Spike-heed Lark on the Karoo plains. I then left Adrian to continue the atlas card while I prepared for a transect line over the mountains. Black-headed Canary and Lark-like Bunting as well as the expected Cape and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting featured regularly on the counts, with a Karoo Long-billed Lark at the end to wrap things up before the trudge past the Angora goats resting under the Acacia trees on the way back to the farmhouse.

We decided for lunch on the vacant farm next door, where Adrian picked up Dusky Sunbird: the nectarivores being notable by their scarcity up to this point, with no Aloes or much else in flower. A drive into the depths of the farm revealed Mountain Wheatear and a Scimitarbill, which we tracked down due its raptor-esque call.

As we’d encountered very poor water-bird life on the many muddy pans and dams, we decided to head to the Arthur Dam to the south of the pentad. A Hamerkop and Malachite Kingfisher at a stream en-route to the well concealed entrance to the dam were unexpected surprises, but the large dam yet again proved disappointing: it felt like a long-drive for a Cape Wagtail, although shoreline scans did eventually turn up Spotted Thick-knee and Common Sandpiper.

Red-billed Quelea with weird colours

Three-banded Plover

But the bird list for the end of the long day stood in the region of a very satisfying 80 species.

The next scheduled pentad was a 2 hour drive away, and as we had not yet recced it, together with the news that 4x4 was recommended (our non-4x4 Mazda Drifter had proved yet again during the day that getting stuck will be a feature of the adventurous aspect of forthcoming surveys), we decided that perhaps we’d skip that one and do another proper survey of the remaining pentad just outside Queenstown, as we’d be able to join the plant group again.

Our convey of 2 bakkies arrived in Queenstown just after 8am, where we had to wait for the man with the farm keys. Access to this survey site were far less straightforward, with multiple gates and mixed access permission. The farm we were heading to was another vacant farm. On our arrival, the wind had worked its way up to just below gale force, and rain clouds stalked the horizon. I was well equipped for rain as I headed into the mountains for point counts. However, the weather became forgiving, and the birds kept singing, so I kept counting right through until 5pm, the only unpleasant encounter being a dead baby kudu on the way. Wailing Cisticola’s provided a suitable background chorus, while rather subdued Ground Woodpeckers only let out a quick ‘Kia’ to let me know they were there.

Certainly, Karoo bird species were notable by their absence in this most eastern of the survey pentads, much better described as grassland: the regular encounters with Cloud and Wing-snapping Cisticolas as well as Cape Longclaws all testimony to that.

On Saturday morning we wrapped up our atlas list with point counts along the N6, where productive grassland provided a wealth of encounters with granivorous species including Black-throated Canary, Red Bishops, Common Waxbill and Cape and Southern Grey-headed Sparrows.

Then it was the 8.5 hour drive back to Blue Hill via Grahamstown, running the gauntlet of kamikaze Eastern Cape drivers.

Overall, a successful and enjoyable trip: looking forward to the next one!

Field biologists often find a positive correlation between the amount of mud on the vehicle and level of trip satisfaction

Mountain top habitat of the Queenstown pentad: clearly the end of the Karoo

African Rock Pipits

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