Sunday, 16 September 2018

From -3 to 33


The week leading up to the Brandvlei atlasing bash started with another cold front that brought ice rain to some parts of the Bushmanland: one land owner showed a video of hail-like snow and family and friends were sending pictures of children playing in the snow in Uniondale. For me, surveying out of Kenhardt, I was lucky. I only had occasional sleet to deal with and an icy head wind. My turn on the bike, and certainly freezing to start off with. At times like these, the body is shouting ‘No, what are you doing, this isn’t good for you!’, but soon realises there is no get out clause and kicks into survival mode, and you get used to it. By the time Eric picked me up around lunch time, I was so used to it that getting into the bakkie my skin was tingling due to the unexpected warmth in the cab: 15 degrees.

Having seen the weather report the previous evening I’d decided to put a hot water bottle into my sleeping bag as I suspected I’d wake up with ice on the tent, and I went to bed with thermals and jacket. At around midnight I woke up, boiling to death, and had to toss out the hot water bottle and strip off my jacket. After this much time, Eric and I are apparently well cold acclimatized.

Brandvlei Birding Bash aka An absence of Sclater’s Lark

By the time we got to Oom Benna’s just outside Brandvlei, the first atlasers had arrived. Mel Trip, Otto Schmidt and Simon Fogarty, seasoned veterans of the Cape Bird Club, had driven up from Cape Town to fill some holes in the atlas coverage. Chris Cheetham from the Overberg Bird Club joined us too, in his quest for a Red Lark. Dale Wright turned up a bit late: rather worryingly with vehicle issues in the vehicle that we would be assigned for the rest of the survey. A rather strange eccentric character of the Mazda Drifter bakkies is that you cannot pop the hood if the key is not registered in the ignition: which can also happen if the battery is flat. In this case, a loose terminal meant that Dale had to call in the AA to jiggle open the bonnet. Last to arrive were Stefan and Madeleine Theron with their 3-year-old son Jacques. His favourite bird is an owl, which I think is a good choice, and Stefan would also be looking to twitch Red Lark.

There were three big reasons I’d wanted to spend some time based out of Brandvlei and had suggested the atlasing bash: firstly, to improve SABAP2 atlasing coverage and a wish for other people to share in the awful ORFS (out of range forms) that every single card that is submitted for the Karoo generates;  secondly, sightings of a Karoo Lark with Red Lark features south of Brandvlei needed to be verified; and thirdly, to try get some more Sclater’s Lark sightings for the survey.
A bonus reason was to get Dale Wright to join the survey to do some cooking for us: Eric and I are totally rubbish. As it was, the experienced Cape Bird Club members basically carved up the surrounding area between them to survey, and I had to do no organising in that regard. Chris would get his Red Larks in every pentad that he surveyed with Mel Tripp, who was clearly a lucky charm because he’d also organise a Red Lark sighting for Dale, rather pleasingly of a very heavily streaked Red Lark i.e. a Red Lark with Karoo Lark features. Stefan unfortunately would not be so lucky, choosing to head north of Brandvlei, where none of any of the rest of us would encounter Red Lark either. Basically, Red Lark is rare north of Brandvlei, with Mel’s encounters mostly west and south. Both brown and red forms were seen, on several occasions in the same pentad: certainly these are a form and not a subspecies as thought once upon a time.

But what about the Sclater’s? Up until now, with nearly 100 pentads covered over the last 2 years, and close to 2000 point counts conducted, I’d encountered Sclater’s Lark a total of 5 times. The road between Brandvlei and Kenhardt is a traditional twitch stop for those wishing to get Sclater’s Lark on the list, and I was relying on this area to provide the encounters that would be required to calculate density estimates, and from those, a population estimate for this southern African Karoo endemic bird species, which is currently listed as Near Threatened according to the Eskom Red Data book. Bird books describe the species as being sometimes the most numerous on the gravel plains of this region, and also indicate that they drink regularly. Not only were none seen during point counts over the five days, but none were seen by us hanging around hopefully at the various drinking troughs in the area, nor by any other member of the atlasing bash either. Raptors, except for Pale Chanting Goshawk, were also noticeable by their absence, a sentiment echoed by statements from farmers like ‘The Martial Eagles used to be here, but they are not anymore’. What were common were both Grey-backed and Black-eared Sparrowlarks; and Lark-like Buntings were exceedingly abundant.

Throughout the four days, count conditions were cold at first, but warmed up pleasantly during the day, allowing for comfortable counting and respectable lists. On the last day, it would be my turn on the bike again. Eric dropped me off at the edge of the pentad, and the plan was that I would rendezvous with him at the edge of his pentad, to try save on fuel. The day started with jacket on with temperatures around 6 degrees. A couple of hours later it was 16, then 26. By the time I hit midday it was touching 30, with the highest temperature 33 courtesy of a stiff berg wind. For the first time this year I was seeing birds taking behavioural action to reduce temperatures: a Chat Flycatcher wing drooping to aid air flow around the body; and Lark-like Buntings seeking the shaded bushes, embankments, and even hiding under a bridge.

My behaviour to deal with the heat involved stripping off my jacket, track suit pants and gloves. I didn’t want to carry these on my bag, so I’d tucked them behind the railings where the road to Granaatboskolk I was surveying crossed the Sishen railway line. There is little road traffic here: maybe a vehicle every half an hour. An hour or so later I was surveying about a kilometre away, when I noticed a truck stop on the bridge. Someone got out and headed down the embankment to take a dump: basically down where I’d stashed my cold weather gear. Of course he found my stuff, and must have thought it was his lucky day. I had to jump on my bike and sprint the 1km to the truck to claim my clothes. The dude must have wondered where the hell I’d come from… certainly he was rather surprised and apologetic, having not seen a soul anywhere in the barren, desolate landscape.

Overall, it was great to hang out with bird-head people for a few days, listen to their stories and perspectives on birds and birding. Certainly it was useful, as in this case many eyes make light work. While we did 30 plus virgin pentads, there are hundreds more in the Great Karoo that need doing: so head on out there and claim your own virgin pentad – SABAP2 never forgets a first.    

Lastly, A big thanks to all the landowners that let us visit remote areas of their farms to document the bird life.


The Kokerboom forest trail near Kenhardt is now sadly abandoned. These forests are a special experience.

Kori Bustard that was caught in a Gin Trap measures up to its rescuer.

Oom Benna's (and my tent)

Planning. Photo courtesy of Otto Schmidt

The team. Photo by Madeleine Theron, courtesy of Otto Schmidt



Prieska dogs poem


Woof woof woof. Bark bark bark.

Yap yap yap yap yap yap yap.

The dogs in Prieska bark.

Bark. Yap. Pause. Bark bark.

I’m awake in my tent and it is dark.

Yap yap, bark bark, HOWL,

I try to sleep, cover my head with a towel,

I hear no owls, I hear no frogs.

I just hear those Prieska dogs.

Their whining into my eardrum cuts.

How I hate those Prieska mutts.




Our dog (barking)
Photo not of a Prieska Dog by Wald-Burger8 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Where the Karoo meets the Free State


I had a feeling we’d come to the edge of the Karoo a little east of Prieska. It might have been that now we were seeing Kalahari birds like Pygmy Falcon, Red-crested Korhaan and Kalahari Scrub-Robin. Or it might have been that OFM had been added to RSG as an alternative radio station. Or the electric fences with monitoring cameras at the farm gates. 

Or it might have been the men with the balaclavas over their faces, military webbing, tapping their fingers on the triggers of their automatic weapons.

I walked over to the bearded, hard faced man getting out of the bakkie that had pulled up behind me, extending my hand in customary Karoo welcome, trying to appear nonchalant but at the same time making a concerted effort to control my sphincter as I eyed the armed men at the back of the bakkie. 
In Afrikaans: “What are you doing here? Who do you work for? Why are you stopped here?” 

You’d think I was trespassing on some private land, but actually I was on a public road to the west of Steynsburg that cuts through to Prieska. No more invitations for coffee and rusks here it would seem. Turns out that this was a reserve manager for a private reserve on high alert for poachers of our iconic one-horned mammal. Even after answering all the questions and explaining in minute detail what I was doing, there was still no invitation forthcoming to extend the survey onto their property, but rather a request to sms him when I’d finished, and to not post any picture with gps coordinates should I happen to see said iconic mammal.

So after that fun encounter: back west, through the near abandoned dorp of Marydale, past teaming nests of Sociable Weavers, through the abandoned dorp of Putsonderwater, to Kenhardt with its Camel Thorns, donkey carts and friendly people. 

Pygmy Falcon

Sabota Lark

Fawn-coloured Lark

Desert Cisticola

Unusual round Sociable Weaver nest suspended on a telephone line rather than the telephone pole

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Bushmanland winter surveys



The order of seasons so far since March has been: Autumn, followed by Spring, followed by Summer, followed by Winter. Following on from the winter that wasn’t we had our first taste of winter on leaving Port Nolloth, heading inland to a pentad near Steinkopf, on the escarpment and including the Anenous pass. The wind had been chilly as we packed camp, but by time we reached the base of the hills, it was clear it might well be a difficult day, as low cloud flowed around the mountain tops, shrouding the pass in mist. While the thermometer read 9 C, the icy west wind blowing off the Atlantic was making it feel sub-zero. The plan to split up and have one of us survey by bicycle was quickly abandoned: the sanctuary of the vehicle would be needed to survive the day. This was spent shivering our way through one long, 10 minute point count after another, until the early afternoon, when the sun burnt away the clouds and thoughts of finding refuge in a guest house: we would be able to camp after all.

Maybe because of the weather, the campsite at the Goegap Nature Reserve would be empty for the next three nights except for us. That at the start of the flower season too: although the expected carpets of Namaqualand daisies had already been seared away by the East wind. Between the strong winds, and freezing temperatures it is a miracle that any flowers were out at all, but some of the succulent species were displaying in all their glory, patchily, a burst of purple here and yellow there. Still 3 degrees in the morning meant good conditions in which to hike the trails to the north of the campsite, and cycle the ‘tourist route’, making for some very pleasant days. The post cold-front sunny days were very pleasant, allowing long and productive surveys as the birds enjoyed the mild conditions. We were counting displaying larks of all species all over the place, most exciting of course for this area being the Red Lark.    

But as one heads inland, away from the coast, gaining elevation, it gets colder and colder. The day we left Pofadder for the Bushmanland heartlands, frost lined the road for the first time since the surveys began 3 weeks ago. And that night, after over 15 days of uninterrupted survey time and camping, the first big cold front hit. We give thanks to the small god in charge of looking after bird surveyors that the arrival of the sub-zero damp conditions coincided with the first night with a roof over our heads since leaving Vanrhynsdorp, albeit one with no electricity or hot water. A big thanks to Klaas Louw from Loeriesfontein for the use of the empty farm-house.

The morning after the cold front has passed, it is my turn to cycle. At 7.30am, the mud is frozen to the tyres, the thermometers read -2 degrees celcius. I’m dressed in thermals and several layers, with 2 pairs of socks. With my gloves, beanie etc, I feel alright as I cycle off along the farm tracks to the get to my survey site. By the time I am there though, having passed through several gates with icicles on them, the cold has infiltrated my boots. The aching numbness will be a feature of the next few hours of surveying. A big bank of cloud means I won’t see the sun for a while yet. Still, the birds are active, as active as they were before the front: Black-eared Sparrowlark pairs dancing from grassy patch to grassy patch, Namaqua Sandgrouse racing low through the skies overhead, Karoo Long-billed Larks and Clapper Larks displaying to far away rivals. I type all into my phone as fast as I can while I still have feeling in my fingers. The short 1km bursts on the bike from point to point keeps my core warm enough, although when the wind starts to pick up later, I need to seek the seek shelter of the low bushes to keep warm. After 3 hours or so, eventually the sun appears, and although the thermometer never lifts above 13 degrees, the rays of sun do wonders at keeping me psychologically warmer.     
By the end of the week, my lips are peeling and fingers cracked. Its time to seek a warm shower and electric blanket in Louriesfontein. They say the Hantams region is colder still. 

Rocky II and the frozen lake

Dashboard temperature reading: these reflected what we were getting on our hand-held thermometers

Yes, most of the time was spent camping

We have been encountering a LOT of Red Larks. No, we have not been getting them confused with the bird below.


Karoo Lark

Very young Trac-trac Chat: evidence of breeding aplenty all over.
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