Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Big daddy's forest and the Grumpy man's bush

That's a rough translation of where I have been since Wednesday last week – Grootvadersbosch and Boosmansbos. Big Daddy or Groot Vader was the title of a gentleman who owned the Grootvadersbosch area initially in 1723 and was a title handed down over the years until CapeNature took over in 1986. Today Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve is a 250ha piece of mostly indigenous forest – one of the few remnants in this part of the southern Cape. Boosmansbos is a 14 200 ha Wilderness Area adjacent and to the north of Grootvadersbosch and gets its name from a hermit who lived in the hills. The area is mostly mountain fynbos, encompassing the spine of the Langeberg mountains between Heidelberg and Barrydale.

A view from Grootberg with Erica vestita and views north to the Klein Karoo

I had the pleasure of exploring this area with legendary Di Turner's CREW group. Nine of us arrived on Wednesday, set up camp and then set out with field rangers Twakkie and Molly to explore the Grysbok trail, which contours through moist ericaceous fynbos. Several orchids and Erica xx were encountered. While the rest of the group showered and prepared dinner, I headed into the forests down the Melkhoutpad and up the Redwoods Road – where several huge Californian Redwoods can be observed. Olive thrush and Bar-throated apalis were plentiful along the way, with glimpses of Knysna Turaco and Paradise Flycatcher.

The main goal of the trip was to hike the 27 km circular route through the mountains with an overnight stop at the Helderfontein hiking hut. Six of us set off early on Thursday through Saagkuilkloof. Despite numerous stops to examine Ericas, orchids, restios and Proteas along the way, the endless uphill of the 13km route combined with high temperatures had us all worn out by the time we arrived in the misty mountains. However, we were rewarded with a stunning purple and yellow orchid, of species unknown, practically on the doorstep of the hiking hut. Along the river courses, Erica vestita was putting on one of the most prolific flowering displays seen by anyone in the group.

My aged tent survived a small rain shower during the night, so on Friday the main party started the 14km hike back out of the mountains while I added a 4km side hike up to the back of Grootberg (1637m) to collect a few more flower specimens. Of all the pretty flowers I collected, of course getting back to camp in the evening it was the most nondescript member of the Brunia family that turned out to be the exciting 'rare' collection. For me though, ornithologist at heart, flushing a buttonquail – most likely the endangered Hottentot Buttonquail – was the highlight. The beautifully flowering fynbos with views of the Klein Karoo breaking through the cloud from time to time were very captivating. And the mist seemed to breathe life to bizarre rock formations that that turned them into creatures out of a Tolkien novel.

The mystery orchid
Agathosma sp (Buchu)

Gladiolus cf carneus
an impressive Protea cynaroides (King Protea)

Bill Turner with an unusal pale form of Protea eximia

Drosanthera with an ant and a very small black frog

Looking north towards Barrydale

 On Saturday the group turned back towards George, and I spent the day exploring further sections of the forest in the hope of a sighting of a Narina Trogon. No luck there – but I was rewarded instead with my first sighting of a Knysna Warbler – an endemic warbler with conservation status 'Vulnerable'.

Contact details for the reserve are, but best to try phone on 028 7222412 or 0861 227 362 8873. Although my trip extended into the weekend, only three of the 10 or so campsites were occupied (we were the only party during the week). Self-catering cottages are also available. This is a bird and plant destination, so while bushbuck, baboons and dassies where seen, together with plenty of sign of bushpig and genet, there is no big game (apart from scarce mountain leopard).

Monday, 14 November 2011

Kammanassie uncovered

Sublimely Spectacular – the views of, from and within the Kammanassie mountains. Mannetjiesberg (the little man's mountain) is the beacon that greets us each time we drive the 40km from Blue Hill to Uniondale. The mountain has many moods and many personalities, but the pyramid form makes for a classic silhouette when viewed from the east.

Blue Cranes pay homage to the Kammanassie

But it is also a mountain range little known and little explored by the general public. The heart of it is a provincial nature reserve managed by Cape Nature. When I first arrived in the area two years ago I would look at these mountains and wonder about hiking opportunities, but found nothing on the internet. The reserve had no website, no reception gate, no advertised picnic spots or campsites. Eventually I found the Cape Nature offices in Uniondale and left my details to be contacted about accessing the reserve. I heard nothing. The extra hurdle with accessing these mountains is that not only does one need Cape Nature permission, but the nature reserve is essentially private-land locked – one has to obtain permission to traverse farmland in order to access the reserve, creating a double buffer to public access. No offence to the farmers around here – but there is a general air of paranoia. I have been stopped by a gun wielding, aggressive boerevrou before while taking photographs, and while bird watching regularly have the back of my bakkie inspected by suspicious farmers making sure I am not stealing their livestock. And this is on public roads! As such, I wasn't exactly keen to go banging on farmers' doors asking if I could trapse through their land.

"Where is Mannetjiesberg?" "Its behind you!"

A patchwork mosaic of agriculture - lucern fields, dams, and renosterveld with the Outeniqua mountains in the background
Earlier this year we found out about a public meeting with the rough title “Kammanassie:let it not be a secret anymore”. Apparently each nature reserve needs to have a community engagement program and this was part of Cape Nature showing they were doing that. I met the reserve manager, Philip Esau, and offered assistance with the bird monitoring program for the reserve. Specifically, the park rangers would make bird lists and submit them to the South African Bird Atlas Project but had not started using the software for automatic submission and so I offered to show them how this was done. Subsequent attempts to make a date to do the training fizzled out as the replies always allured to how busy they were. So the Kammanassie remained a secret to me.

Eventually through contacts with the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflower (CREW) program, I met a member of the South African Mountain Club, who forwarded me contact details of David Jones, who was organising a 'meet' in the Kammanassie. I was given access details and the contact details for an amenable farmer (Willie Woudberg) and on Saturday for the first time set foot on this amazing mountain. Anja, who had a baby shower to attend in Uniondale, dropped me off at the foot of the mountain and I started my hike along the jeep track that meandered through Renosterveld under clear blue skies. The veld was alive with flowers and insects – which made hiking progress very slow with camera in one hand and binoculars in the other. 

Gentle Giant - a scarab beetle feasts on Syncarpha milleflora

Charaxes sp on Osyris compressa (Cape Sumach)

Berkheya cruciata
After 5 kilometres covered in 2 hours Dave, his wife Fay, and Oasis Oudtshoorn owners Derek and Jacomi caught up with me in Dave's 4x4. The next 5 kilometres were covered in less than twenty minutes, where we stopped at a ridge in order to hunt Hakea. One of the main missions of the hike was to clear alien vegetation, after clearing exercises from previous Mountain Club meets. However, a good job had been done and we found only a few errant Hakea. Young sprouting Pine trees were our next target.
Derek and Dave - with folded sandstone behind

"Off with its head" one more victory for biodiversity
Then on we continued, riding the cloud line along the Protea and Erica avenue with beautiful vistas of the Klein Karoo hundreds of meters below us. Views across the valleys revealed massive bends and curves in the layers of the sandstone rocks, testimony to the relentless tectonic forces that have folded rock like a child can fold paper, pushing ancient oceanic sediments towards the stars. Late in the afternoon we arrived at a shelter, nestled in a sheltered valley with a tinkling mountain stream for water. Over a kilometre up from our start, the weather was distinctly chilly even hidden away in the heart of the mountains. Mist and clouds danced amongst the crags around us, driven by the mad music of the mountain winds.
Protea eximia with a view of the Swartberg to the north of the Kammanassie

"You looking at me?!" these Klipspringers seem to be saying
On Sunday I started my walk after the morning chill had abated to explore the route to the Perdevlakte (Horse plains) where in times past farmers would take their horses during outbreaks of Horse Fever, a disease transmitted by a midge that occurs after periods of heavy rain. The plain is a mini 'altiplano' – a surprisingly flat area given the general broken landscape of rocky ravines, cliffs and scree slopes that are most characteristic of the Kammanassie. But even here, at the frost line, flowers bloomed and provided food for sunbirds, sugarbirds and insects, in turn food for rockjumpers, perhaps in turn food for this beautiful animal – a Berg Adder.

Juvenile Orange-breasted Sunbird in a Psoralea

An adult male Orange-breasted Sunbird takes no grief from the youngster below him

Cape Sugarbird in display flight

Berg adder - don't step on this one!

Unfortunately, my time on the mountain was limited – I needed to return to Uniondale. But the magic of the mountains continued to unfurl around me. Hiking back down the lower slopes my eye lifted to the heavens where two avian angels soared – endemic, endangered Black Harriers surfed the mountain breeze.

Black Harrier

This article is dedicated to the loving memory of Donald Christoper Rowe, who spent his twilight years in Uniondale, in the shadow of the Kammanassie.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Classic Cape Sugarbirds

Today I went to a remote valley where about a week ago I banded around 50 Orange-breasted Sunbirds in a valley full of Protea eximia. Today, there were hardly any sunbirds, but the Cape Sugarbirds were abundant. The males were looking spectacular now that they have completed their post-breeding moult. While I waited for stray birds to wander into my nets, I did a quick walk around to get some of these iconic Sugarbird on Protea photographs.  During the breeding season, a pair will defend a patch of proteas from other Sugarbirds - but now I observed up to five male Sugarbirds within meters of each other. They were still doing their display flights - whipping their tails up and down over their body, but probably just practicing for next season. The reason they all have a similar posture is due to the wind, which was blowing from the north - i.e. right to left with the sun at my back.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Even Dassies stop to smell the flowers

I went to visit the Dassie Castle the other day and it looks like they have been busy in their garden. The rocks are glowing with these pink, purple and red flowers and the dassies (Rock Hyrax) really looked like they were enjoying them. If the flowers look familiar that is because they are Perlargonium zonale - 'The mother of all Geraniums'. Many geraniums found in gardens originate from this species.

Slightly more exotic is the Erica pectinifolia – the red flowers typical of a bird pollinated flower, which I captured being enjoyed by a female Malachite Sunbird.

All was peaceful and quiet until the dassies started getting jittery and barking alarm calls – Verreaux's Eagles find them quite tasty. However, all I saw was a Jackal Buzzard.



Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Is this the spider that bit Peter Parker?

I have occasionally longed for super powers – especially when slogging up a steep hill, or most recently – clambering around cliffs and crags looking for the Jackal Buzzard nest. Wouldn't it be nice just to cast a web and fling one's way to the top of a valley, Spiderman style? So the other day I was meandering back from a mission in the hills, when I see this spider intently scuttling towards me – well, probably not aiming to bite and maim me – but I could see how a na├»ve person might see it that way.

But it wasn't just any spider – this thing is very colorful with the beautiful contrasting red on black. It's a bit reminiscent of the hourglass of an upside down venomous black widow. Except, my spider book has not left me any the wiser as to what it could be. Apparently we have 2000 spider species in southern Africa – and we don't have a comprehensive field guide to species level. So, my best guess at this stage is that it is a type of burrowing spider – this would explain why I have never seen one before. It may have been fleeing for its life from marauding baboons wont to turn rocks over and eat the things they find beneath. Not that a super-spider would have to do such a thing – it would of course reduce a troop of baboons to liquified rotting remains in a few jumps and bites.

While I briefly toyed with the idea of picking up the spider for closer inspection and the chance for a bite, I concluded that Spiderman powers would not do me much good as we don't have anyone to wander around after me picking up the super strength webs I would leave behind. I also like my life as it is – with no power comes no responsibility; and a red and blue tight suit would just not fit in with our green and brown landscape. The nail in the coffin of my desires for super-powers was the realization that Peter Parker, despite being able to climb walls, just isn't all that good with the girls. As such, spider and I scuttled towards our separate destinations leaving each others lives physically untouched, but perhaps both wondering about the bizarre other creatures that inhabit this planet.

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