Thursday, 7 April 2022

Hofmeyr atlas bash with kids

 Although a formal report has been written on the atlassing bash at the small Karoo town of Hofmeyr, I have decided to also recall a few memories of the events here on my blog, partly because that weekend was also a weekend away for me and my children, Elena and Charlie.

 

The working week had been an eventful one. BirdLife South Africa had hosted an in-person staff meeting at the De Hoop nature reserve, in the Western Cape. The meeting had been called on short notice and I had already agreed to join my fellow birding enthusiasts in the Eastern Cape for the birding bash. That bash had been a dream of legendary Alan Collet for several years, however between pandemic lockdowns and increasing frailty, Alan had decided not to organise it. Another Karoo birding legend, Tino Herselman, decided to pick up the reins and the invite was sent to a select few atlassing stalwarts with Karoo birds experience. The staff meeting would mean that my journey to join the expedition would involve a much longer road trip than originally planned.

 

On the Friday I exited the gates of De Hoop at roughly 6:00 AM, arriving at Blue Hill Escape just after 11:00 AM. A few hours were required to pack the Suzuki Jimny with provisions and children’s entertainment for the weekend. My wife, who had been on babysitting duties all week, would not be joining us. Our adventure to Hofmeyr began shortly after lunch: after stopping for fuel in Willowmore, we encountered our first swarms of locusts. This past summer the Karoo has been plagued by immense swarms, partly the price of the good rains over the past year. Normally the N9 between Willowmore and Aberdeen can be driven at 120 plus, but this is not possible with locusts as the windscreen soon becomes smeared with yellow, sticky, stinky invertebrates’ entrails. A safe driving speed is 80 or below. Still, we had to stop and clear the mat of macabre heads, wings and spikey legs from the vehicle’s front grates. In both Aberdeen and Willowmore piles of locusts were associated with the petrol stations. The Engen at Willowmore had recruited extra hands for window washing duties.

Beyond Graaf Reinett the locust swarms diminished, and we were able to resume normal driving speed. However, we had to navigate the road from Cradock to Hofmeyr in the dark, an interesting stretch of road involving the dodging of trucks, potholes, and scrub-hares. Just past Hofmeyr, and our expected arrival time, Tino give us a call to check that we were alright. He had kindly left the remote guest house, without cell phone reception, to escort us through the maze of bumpy farm tracks. The group’s accommodation was a lovely old-style farmhouse guarded by turkeys and Great Danes. With Eli and Charlie soon in bed, it was time to review the poster size battle maps end booklets of pentads that Tino had prepared.

 






Eli and Charlie did not complain about their 4:30 AM wake up call, we would need the time to navigate the hellish road between Hofmeyr and Tarkastad. Although this is marked as a main road on all maps, it is a dirt road that has not seen maintenance for many years. Littered with potholes and trenches, it was hazardous driving. Nonetheless we reached our target pentad on time at the crack of dawn. Charlie and Eli would take turns assisting me spot birds and enter what we had seen into BirdLasser. On paper our four pentads formed a neat square with a loop through them that conveniently passed Tarkastad at the time required for a refuelling stop for humans and vehicle. Our journey until then had rewarded us with many interesting birds, many of which I knew would require photographic evidence to be believed. These included Dusky Indigobird, White-faced Whistling Ducks, Scimitarbill, House Martin and Willow Warbler.

Our afternoon took us along the back road to Commando Drift dam. This beautiful route winds through rocky mountains and savanna. However, our through route back home was blocked by locked gates, and so we would retrace our steps. This was not all bad, a landowner had given us permission to survey on his land, which included rivers and dams and owls. Despite rain and sticky roads, we would get back to the farmhouse well in time for our braai and observe Salome and Tino’s anxiety at the absence of Stefan Theron. Stefan’s day has been epic, including an ascent of some of the highest peaks to record Drakensberg Rockjumper and forest birds of the mountain slopes. He would get back only past 8 pm. His day would be rivalled by Henk Nel and Rudi Minnie, who had recorded two rarities: Icterine Warbler and Common Whitethroat. Round the fire, chit chat and gossip alert one to birds in the area not on one’s mental radar to keep an eye out for the following day.

On paper, the pentads I had chosen for Sunday looked easy to do. The first one was immediately adjacent to the home pentad, and I selected this so that certain members of my birding party could have just a little more sleep. This pentad had been abandoned by Chris and Felicity the day before as access was more difficult then indicated. It would be even more difficult on the day of the survey as the rains had turned normally hard red dirt into a mix of glue and quicksand. Charlie and I abandoned the Jimny to walk through the tiny section of pentad this side of a formidable game fence. Eli chose to stay in the car and read Harry Potter.

It would be leaving the pentad that would result in the day's biggest adventure: getting stuck in the mud. Our journey past a windmill had churned up mud which trapped us as we attempted to exit. It would be half an hour of wheel spinning, digging, stick and rock packing before we became unstuck. After coffee and wash at the farmhouse we attempted to enter the pentad via a farm track from the western side, again, a locked gate blocked our way. As we pondered hiking in, a beat him up bakkie approached. Despite our attempts to explain what we wanted to do, this was a landowner who would not grant us access. We would later discover the property was owned by an infamous right-wing group known as the Zuidelanders. The rest of our day was less eventful, thankfully. Our afternoon pentad was associated with grassy plains dotted with Blue Cranes and a Secretarybird. With only 3 pentads under the belt for the day, we would arrive back early enough to start the evening fire. Pearls of wisdom included Rudi’s explanation that you’ll only remember a bird after you’ve had a spiritual moment with it.

Monday was a public holiday, but there was no rest for any of us. Everyone was up early to wrap up the expedition and start the long, long journeys home: Chris, Felicity and Salome especially. Stefan and I selected a more leisurely start by building the home pentad. We got to enjoy the site of Scimitarbill pair feeding their chicks in a cavity of a Willow tree, and I was rewarded with an out-of-range Green winged Pytilia. Eventually though, our routes would have to take us through the locust swarms back home.

When Charlie was asked if he enjoyed it and what the highlight was: He did, and the highlight was the Rock Monitor on the road.










 

 

Tuesday, 28 December 2021

The Lee family summary of 2021

2021 will best be remembered for Delta and Omicron and the associated chaos. The year started sedately in our isolated paradise, and we did alright all considering. We seemed to spend a good deal of the year waiting for our chance to get vaccinated and were rather amazed that so many people would rather not. Anja continued to work her translation contracts, allowing a steady income as our guest house continued to stand empty. Her highlight may well have been a visit by her parents during one of the ‘waves’, with them getting back to Germany just before the heinous travel restrictions due to Omicron. Shania also made it out from the UK during the lull, showering us all with presents. Chris and Elaine continued to provide invaluable family support, although age continues to be a nuisance, and neither are very mobile anymore.

Elena started an online curriculum with a school based in George which follows the Cambridge curriculum, with fees sponsored by Chris. Rather than the ad hoc lessons I had provided during 2020, Rundle College provided a timetable and work material that we printed off and worked through during the day. Where possible Charlie also engaged in this schoolwork and was a willing classmate for group activities. Both continue to enjoy their dance classes, their only formal extra-mural activity as our karate group has folded.

Probably the biggest highlight of the year for me was receiving the news that the Ostrich journal had surpassed an impact factor of 1 for the first time in its 90 year history. This milestone was what I had been working towards since taking over the editorship in 2016.

Halfway through the year another momentous event occurred: I had applied for the Science and Innovation programme manager position at BirdLife South Africa and after a tough application process learned that I had obtained the position. The best part of this is I get to work from home: this may not have been possible prior to Covid-19 induced lockdowns.

Anja kindly agreed to take over the role of home tutor in addition to her work while I immersed myself in my new job. I have long been indirectly affiliated with BirdLife South Africa, having worked closely with the organisation during my postdoctoral years with the FitzPatrick Institute, and then contracted to survey the Karoo biome, and through the editorship of the organisation’s journal: Ostrich. However, it is an honour to be working for and with well respected names in South Africa’s avian conservation landscape: specifically, Hanneline Smit-Robinson and Ernst Retief. The position is sponsored by Ekapa Minerals, based out of Kimberley, and there were two epic road trips up there to meet stakeholders and team members.

The past 6 months with BLSA has been a whirlwind of activity: we have focused activities around redoing the Eskom Red Data Book of Birds. However, fundraising activities continue to be a major slice of time and source of uncertainty. Highlights have been that I have been able to initiate a ringing training group with stakeholders of the I Love Nature Gym. The Uniondale Fitness Club associated with that has sadly become inactive due to the various lockdown restrictions: only a few members still visit regularly.

Another major initiative is the creation of the Indigenous Names for South African Birds (INSAB). With Andrew de Blocq, we have organised a working group, the aim of which is to create unique names for all South Africa’s birds in all its languages. We aim to have workshops during 2022 in Zulu and Northern Sotho to complete these tasks, with groundwork by Adrian Koopman and his team, as well as Johan Meyer, the group’s chair.

I managed to do a bit of local travel: a SABAP2 bash to Britstown early in the year, and the epic hike up Mannetjiesberg for Charlie’s birthday. That hike was preceded by many hikes on Blue Hill Nature Reserve. Our family trip for the year was combined with work: we all headed to the Tankwa Karoo National Park for a recce for a student research project with Susie Cunningham. After that, we spent five days at Haarwegskloof in the Overberg, where Anja and the kids played games and went for walks in the Renosterveld, while I spent all day looking for Agulhas Long-billed Lark nests for MSc student Sanjo Rose. A day out to Potberg to see the Cape Vultures coming in to roost was memorable. Later in the year, I assisted with the Honorary Ranger’s birding weekend at Karoo National Park, where Eli won another recognition for her photography.  

Meanwhile, the last part of 2021 has also seen reasonable rains at Blue Hill and good rains across the Karoo. The year started too dry to keep honeybush seedlings we had planted alive, but late spring rains has seen a steady flowering, especially of the succulents, through the early summer. Surrounded by green hills and flowers certainly puts one in an optimistic mood for 2022. 


 


















 

 

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