Monday, 31 January 2011

My first CAR!

I drove my first CAR on Saturday.

“What?” I hear you say. “Surely you've had your licence for years?”

Not a car – a C.A.R. - or Coordinated Avifaunal Roadcount. The CAR project is coordinated by the Avian Demography Unit at University of Cape Town. The aim is to count large terrestrial birds deemed to be of conservation significance. These include cranes, bustards, korhaans, storks and the Secretary Bird.

I was approached by Donella Young, who coordinates the whole project, to ask if I would be interested in doing a route. Of course! These routes are hot property amongst birders of the kind who like to be involved in citizen science. So she drew a line on a map, emailed it to us, and hey-presto, I suddenly find myself as the proud 'curator' of a 43.8km stretch of the Winterhoek road (that runs between the Baviaansberge and the Willowmore-Steytlerville road). It's Bustard Big 5 territory – Kori Bustard, Denham's Bustard, Ludwig's Bustard, Karoo Korhaan and Southern Black Korhaan are all possibilities here. Four were seen during our first count – as well as a bunch of other interesting birds. Here is a selection from the day out I did with my dad as chauffeur.

CAR poster boy - an adult Blue Crane

Karoo Korhaans calling. Just a token photo since they always seemed to be miles off.

Lark-like Bunting

Ludwig's Bustard. We encountered a small flock on the way back.

a remarkably obliging Steppe Buzzard. 

Steppe Buzzard taking off. 

Some had things other than birds on their minds...

For more information on the project, contact Donella at or go to

PS they were going to call the CAR Project – CARP – but a fish just isn't a good image for a large bird survey.

PPS I made that up.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Juvenile Pale Chanting Goshawk

I spent Thursday morning with the Lakes Bird Club at the Witfontein forest reserver, near George. The day dawned rainy, and although we saw a suite of forest birds, light was too poor for photography.

On the way home, I got to exercise my trigger finger on a pair of juvenile Chanting Goshawks that were scavenging a dead hare from the road. One sat on a telephone pole, calling a lot. The other spent all the time picking at the road-kill. What I presumed to be one of the parents took flight when we approached initially, but returned later. 

Adult and juvenile goshawks in flight

one of the parents in full adult plumage

The juvenile eating the hare

blinking - they look like zombies when they do

calling - but not to share

when one of the other family members approached this defensive posture was displayed

departing, clutching a talon-full of hare

Revegetation mini project

A week ago I spent the day with some volunteers planting over a hundred Sour Fig or Suurvy (Carpobrotus edulis and C. mellei) on a section of the property suffering from erosion due to previous over-grazing. I chose to plant Suur-vygies because these do very well on other parts of the property, forming big carpets of spongy, juicy leaves. One can also make jam out of the fruit.

We spent the morning digging up baby vygies from a lucerne field, before loading up a water tank and heading out. We then had to dig holes in the open ground (which could be very hard despite the fact we had chosen to do this on a day after a good rain) and put the plants in. In the evening, Peter and Viki were rewarded with a lovely pizza meal courtesy of Anja. 

If you are interested in helping out with similar projects, we would love to hear from you. Volunteers who spend 2 weeks or more stay free.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Lord of the Ringing

During the last week I had the honour of the company of experienced bird-ringer, Mike Ford, and his wife - Val. I invited Mike to visit to help me train towards my ringing certificate. Bird ringing is one of the only ways to tell how long birds live in the wild, and provides information on how far birds are moving (provided you can catch them again). There are only about 200 qualified ringers in South Africa.

Mike's first night brought 10mm of rain, which was an auspicious start. We then proceeded to catch birds. Mike's most common comment, was “Wow, that is smaller than average” for everything from Cape-Robin Chats to a Lesser Honeyguide. Lucky for him he also bagged a lifer – Protea Seedeater, which after the first capture turned out to be one of the more common species. Three and a half days of netting bagged us 130 birds. Here are a few samples of our haul:
Mike with his ringing lifer - Protea Seedeater

Close up of the Protea Seedeater

Victorin's Warbler - another good one

Amethyst Sunbird (male) - always a crowd pleaser

A fluttery Cape Bunting 

Cardinal Woodpecker, male. What a mad hairstyle.

Common Fiscal. Yes I bled.

Hairy Beetle. What do you mean I can't ring this one? It was in the net!

Juvenile Yellow Bishop. This guy was clueless - just sat in my hand calling for his mom.

Lesser Honeyguide. My, what big nostrils you have.

Long-billed Crombec. 

Friday, 7 January 2011

Rabbiting on about a Hare-y experience.

While picking up a volunteer at 1am in the morning the other day, we were lucky enough to not only see 3 young bat eared foxes, but also a Smith's Rock Rabbit (Pronolagus rupestris). This is only the second time we have seen one. Like most rabbits, it became dazzled by the headlights of the car. We of course slowed down to avoid it and I was lucky enough to have my camera and get this photo. Note the red tail, a distinctive feature of this group of rabbits (apparently they are indistinguishable in the field from the other types of Rock Rabbit, so we are saying it is a Smith's Rock Rabbit based on the range).

Normally along the roads one sees Cape Hares (Lepus capensis). One of the field characteristics to tell them apart from Scrub Hares (Lepus saxatillis), the dominant hare across the subregion, is that the Cape Hare runs around with it's ears up, while the Scrub Hare lays them across its back when it runs. Based on that criteria, we have not seen any Scrub Hare in the area, although the range maps in the books say they occur all across the southern African subregion. Apparently most but not all Scrub Hares have a white forehead spot and hair on their feet, but try spotting those features in the field.

A tale of two tortoises

As long as there has been a bit of rain, Summer is the time of the herps (reptiles and amphibians). These primeval creatures come out from wherever they have been chilling, and walk the streets like they own them.

The other day I was driving back from Uniondale when I passed a small tortoise on the road. On stopping to check it out I thought “Yay, a padlooper” as these are South Africa's smallest group of tortoises. Except back home the little thing didn't fit any padlooper description. Turns out its a baby Leopard Tortoise, the most common tortoise in these parts. I think tortoises are a bit of a reverse situation of the ugly duckling, shame for them.

So pretty, its as though its painted! Apparently shells of new born tortoises are soft.

Are those meant to be scarey eye markings on the shell?

Baby tortoises aren't the handful they are made out to be

Shame. This is what that cute thing is going to grow up to look like.

A lot rarer – in fact the only one I've seen so far – is the Angulate Tortoise. This is fairly common around Cape Point, Cape Town. Luckly, they are very easy to tell apart from any other tortoise given the triangular markings at the base of their shells.

Amazing Angulate Tortoise Fact: they can drink by sucking up water through their nostrils, according to A Guide to the Reptiles of Southern Africa

No animals were hurt or injured in the making of this blog.  
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