Friday, 21 December 2012

Yay!! Striped Flufftail!!

I heard my first Striped Flufftail while camping in the Langeberg Mountains while on a CREW expedition. I didn’t know what it was at the time – I was hoping it was a Hottentot Buttonquail, but I recorded the call and Peter Ryan at the Percy FItzPatrick institute identified it for me. That was in October 2011 at the Helderfontein hut.

This year I’ve listened to the call of the Striped Flufftail maybe 800 times in various parts of the Fynbos. There are two distinct calls, the first a melodic, almost soothing, “hoot-hoot-hoot”; which is a contrast to the second call - a staccato “k-k-k-k-k whoop whoop whoop” rattle call. Sometimes, I’ve been answered with the rattle call as part of the territorial response of a resident skulking bird, but most of the time the playback has been met with silence, or just the sound of the wind through the Protea covered hill sides. On some occasions I’ve been wondering along a mountain trail and heard the hooting in what seems to be the far distance. But the calls are not that loud, and if you can hear one, it’s probably closer than you think. But during all that time I failed to catch a glimpse of an individual bird.

On one occasion on the Montagu Pass an answering call erupted from close behind me in low Erica dominated Fynbos that didn’t reach above the knee. The bird could not have been more than 15 metres away, but a dedicated search failed to reveal even the rustle of the bird through the undergrowth. But they don’t always answer, even if they are around – on returning to the Helderfontein hut, where I planned to get my first actual sighting of the bird, the playback elicited no response. Perhaps it was a time of year thing – it was a hot day at the start of spring.

Last week I reported an excellent week of ringing from the Kammanassie Mountains. What I did not report was that each evening and almost right through the night, the hooting call of a Striped Flufftail echoed down from the mountain slopes above our very basic campsite. We had chosen this spot to camp because of a very primitive shack, too small to sleep in, but big enough to provide shelter from the wind while cooking on our gas stove. But more luxuriously, there were two baths that served as drinking troughs for cattle. They also provided a very refreshing escape from the summer sun induced sweat. These baths were constantly fed by mountain water fed in by a black pipe that could not be turned off. The overflow from the baths had thus created an artificial permanent wetland on the slope below.

One afternoon this week while navigating the Ortholobium shrublets on the 50m or so section of slope from the baths to the hut, I heard the Flufftail hooting coming from my left. I realised the Flufftail was closer than I had presumed. Getting back to the camp, I set up my recorder with the call on the other side of an open track and put the call onto repeat playback. I then chose a spot in the bushes and proceeded to wait. After five minutes I heard the Flufftail rattle call a few meters away from me. I lifted my camera and made sure the dodgy focus was working. After another eternally long five minutes, eyes watering with attempts to focus on the spot between the call and the speaker, I lowered my gaze to peer into the bushes. Nothing. But on scanning back to the track a dark bump had appeared in the grass that had not been there a minute before. Sure enough! It was the Striped Flufftail! Unfortunately a branch obscured my view for a clean photo, and on leaning to the side to get a clearer view the bird spotted me, hunkered down, and within three seconds had fluttered back into the safety of the swamp, where any further views would be impossible.

I held my breath as I switched the camera to review mode – and felt triumphant as I reviewed the evidence of my encounter, not as sharp as I would wish, but clear enough all the same.
So, a lifer, and a day to remember.    

Ideal Striped Flufftail habitat

Other mountain denizens

Friday, 14 December 2012

Cool Karma in the Kammanassie

I love the Kammanassie mountains, that island of table mountain sandstone surrounded by the plains of the Klein Karoo and dissected plateaus of the ancient African landsurface.

On Monday David and I picked up the key from the CapeNature office in Uniondale to access the south-western section where we had been informed Protea eximia were in flower and hence that was where we should head to find Cape Sugarbirds. After a bit of shopping, we started into the mountains, first stopping off to inform the landowners of the southern slopes of our presence. Most of the lower sections of the mountain are privately owned and so permission has to be obtained both from CapeNature and private landowners to gain access. That combined with a lack of any facilities or infrastructure means it is rarely visited by anyone except the park-rangers, who visit once a month or so to check weather stations.

The weather was overcast and windy, and a ringing session on Blue Hill Nature reserve in the morning had been blown away. However, the weather forecast for the following days looked promising. Up in the mist of the upper slopes, over 1200m – higher than Table Mountain, but not quite at that sections maximum height of 1800m, the calls of Cape Sugarbirds alerted us to our first patch of Protea eximia that would otherwise have been invisible in the mist. Then, in the cold and wet, we set up camp in proximity to an old abandoned shepherds shack that would at least provide dry conditions for cooking. With not much else to do, we turned in early to brace ourselves for our alarm clocks set for 3.30am.

The morning was still misty, and we set up nets along the mountain track. Soon we were plucking out Cape Sugarbirds and Orange-breasted Sunbirds from the nets, mixed with the odd Yellow Bishop and Cape Grassbird. By close to midday, our fingers full of pin-prick puncture wounds from the strong, sharp claws of the Cape Sugarbirds, and with sun and breeze lowering capture rates comparable to our depleted energy levels, it was time to call it a day. It was clear the site had potential for a second days ringing, especially since the view now allowed us to examine the landscape more closely for better net locations. The target for the second day would be Victorin's Warbler. In the afternoon, after a much needed lunch and siesta, we set our nets.

With the nets already up on the Wednesday morning, we had our first birds in the hand by 4.30, with the skies still turning red above us. Then time blurred in an endless procession from ringing station, to nets, extracting, birds, back to the ringing station where we huddled in the shadow of Protea to escape the burning sun. Success for the day was marked with the capture of three Victorin's Warblers, and around 50 Cape Sugarbirds, which ranged from handsome long-tailed males, to small and scruffy immature birds.

How we had energy to continue our search for more Protea eximia in the afternoon I have no idea. We bounced our way slowly along the mountain trail the contours around the mountains until we found another extensive patch, only 7km away, but 45 minutes of driving time. With the new target acquired, it was back to camp to rest and psyche ourselves for a 3am start for the Thursday. With the skies now clear, and with daylight from the long summer to use, we hiked further up the Kammanassieberg in search of flowers and Cape Rockjumpers. The golden sunset reminded me of honey, a sensation enhanced by the smells of buchu and other Fynbos plants.

By 3.30am Thursday morning we were on the trail again, braking only for a Red-tailed Rock Rabbit. The Nescafe instant coffee kept me alert enough not to plummet off the narrow track and down into the rocky ravines, and perhaps luck kept the wheels intact from rocks hidden among the long vegetation that concealed much of the road. But we arrived in time to set up our nets, with before the break of the red dawn. With the light we found we had set up our nets in the wrong location! Instead of the wide valley we had been headed for, our nets were adjacent to a small patch of Protea on a ridge. Pushed on by a brisk morning breeze, we dismantled our nets and headed off to the more extensive patch of Proteas. However, they were not as extensive as we had first thought, and did not expect a big haul from the day, especially with our delayed start. But the weather turned in our favour – the wind dropped, and clouds covered the sky – ideal ringing conditions. Over the next six hours we netted close to 40 birds, which included our 95th Cape Sugarbird from the 3 days.

So how many is that really? Well, my background calculations are as follows: the Kammanassie range is about 50km long and 10km wide, so 500 sq kilometers. My research says that there is a background Sugarbird density close to 20 individuals per square kilometer for the Fynbos generally, so there are 10 000 Cape Sugarbirds in the Kammanassie. So we caught close to 1% of the Kammanassie Sugarbirds. Now to see how many I can respot during point counts, and how many we recapture in subsequent visits.

To finish off the story, close to exhaustion, we headed back to camp to take down the tents and head triumphantly for Uniondale and a well deserved break (but we did have to stop to identify a mystery bird that turned out to be a juvenile Sentinel Rock-thrush).

Tent with a view, the base camp in the Kammanassie

Protea grandiceps - although widespread in the Fynbos, it is classified as Near-threatened  as it recovers slowly after fire

Gladiolus c tristes - but it doesn't look sad to me (triste - sad in spanish)

Erica densifolia highlighted by the setting sun

Magical Sunset over the Outeniqua moutains

Protea eximia by the light of the dawn

Disa lugens  - classified as Endangered. The pollinator of this incredible orchid is unknown (maybe extinct?!)

Juvenile Sentinel Rock-Thrush

Another pretty sunset

a magical Watsonia - species of this beautiful geophyte are hard to tell apart (to an ornithologist), but many species are useful, albeit occasional, sources of nectar for most of the nectarivores, including Malachite Sunbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird and Cape Sugarbird

Monday, 10 December 2012

A sexy tale

Friday rounded off an eventful, and generally awesome week on the Prince Alfred's Pass. We did not manage to ring on Thursday because I left the ignition on the car and ran the battery flat over night – big DOH! But Friday we were back on the case. We set up some nets on Thursday afternoon, just up from Cloud Cottage (owned by the Dry family who also do great Goat's Cheese) and then camped out. We were treated to an awesome sunrise, and had an adequate haul of birds, but they were fairly scattered out around the Protea eximias while the sunbirds were all enjoying the full bloom of the Keurboom trees in the valley. During a quite period I hid in the bushes and recorded some of the action, including a sequence of a male Cape Sugarbird display.

Note how the tail is put to great visual effect. Tails have been proven to be very important for males, as an experiment that adjusted the size of male tales (by cutting them after they had found a mate) showed that females laid eggs with smaller volume in the nests of males with experimentally shortened tails but larger when the offspring were the result of extra-pair matings. Both these findings are consistent with the differential allocation hypothesis. Tail length may be used by females as a cue for mate quality, eliciting reduced female investment when breeding with social mates; and with males with shortened tails.

A big thanks to Naomi and Ingo from Outeniqua Trout Lodge, and to Katot Meyer from Pienaarsrivier for making the week a good one.

Glorious male Greater Double-collared Sunbird

Somewhat unusually, the Orange-breasted Sunbirds were also enjoying  the Virgilia divaricata, fiercely defending prime trees from one-another and from Southern Double-collared Sunbirds

Victorin's Warbler, with a spray-painted yellow ring - yellow is the colour for my Outeniqua birds, with other colours for the other mountain ranges around here.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

In search of Sugarbirds on the Prince Alfred's Pass

As part of the Fynbos Endemic Bird survey this past week we have been on the Prince Alfred's pass between Knysna and Uniondale, to ring birds along an altitudinal gradient (from high in the mountains to sea level, eventually). We've spent 4 of 5 eventful days, starting at the top of the pass in a stand of Leucospermum cuneiforme (pincushion), and then headed down to De Vlugt. Here we spent a night camping on the recently declared Pienaarsrivier contract nature reserve, owned by South African conservation legend Katot Meyer. He has done a remarkable job control alien vegetation and fixing up the place to make it really interesting and informative. The reserve is also the start of the famous Burchell's 4x4 trail, that follows part of the route undertaken by biologist William Burchell in his wagon trip around South Africa, for whom the Burchell's Zebra and Burchell's Coucal are named. The 4x4 trail proved fairly adventurous, especially since we undertook to do it in the dark using only our small Suzuki Jimney. We got through, but not without some scars to remind us of the rough conditions that are involved in getting over these mountains, as at one point we slid into a Waboom (Protea nitida), leaving a dent in the door.

With weather a bit wet and damp, for the last 2 days we took the gracious offer of accommodation from the Outeniqua Trout Lodge, where Naomi and Ingo treated us superbly. Today, after a quick stock up in Uniondale, we head back to the top of the pass to catch Cape Sugarbirds in a patch of Protea eximia.

For anyone travelling the Prince Alfred's pass, I'd be grateful for any information on any ringed birds sighted – especially location and color of the ring.

Here are some highlights from Pienaarsrivier:

African Dusky Flycatcher, common in forest environments

Coming into land - Cape Sugarbird alighting on a superbly flowering pincushion

Male Cape Sugarbirds always look great with those long tails, but also because their choice of perch

Although Greater Double-collared Sunbirds are common, I don't associate them with Fynbos much - so this was unusual for me

A female Cape Sugarbird (short tail) uses her long beak to probe the pincushion flower for nectar. She transfers golden pollen from flower to flower as she moves around in search of breakfast

I had to stop and to do a double take - was this horse really walking on water?!

Tempestuous weather was the order of the week

Sombre Greenbuls are very vocal denizens of the thickets and forests in this part of the world

Friday, 30 November 2012

Victorin's Warblers a bright spot in the week

Things have been a bit busy lately. The focus of most efforts has been the attempt to get rings on birds. 'Attempting' because the weather has not been playing ball – hours spent setting up nets just to see them to start billowing in the wind like the sails of a yacht – not even a seagull would be silly enough to fly into them. Average haul has been between 5 and 10 birds, when I need to be putting hundreds of rings on birds. Desperate measures have been resorted to, including select species playback (which did net two gorgeous Victorin's Warblers); and flushing of birds – but they soon wise up or move on. Luckily my frustration is not alone, I am in the company of a David Braun, a volunteer from Germany, who is keen to get 500 birds and 50 species – the minimum requirement for consideration for one to obtain one's ringing permit in South Africa. Other requirements include confidence in bird extraction from the nets, as well as good bird identification skills. Attention to detail during data entry, as well as competence in the handling of ringing equipment, as all part of the package.Our quest at the moment is to find out where the Cape Sugarbirds are. We know they are strongly affiliated with Protea species, but finding flowering Protea at the moment in the Kouga and surrounding area is proving challenging. This is because of the large fires in January, which burnt most of the upland Fynbos where Protea eximia flower – which is an important food source at this time of year when most other species have finished flowering.

There have been a few bright moments among the breezes. David and I were up a 3.30am during the week to set up nets on the Kougaview Game Farm to the north of us, in a patch of flowering Erica curviflora. While we did not catch an abundance of the targeted Orange-breasted Sunbirds, due to wind in the early morning, a second set of nets over a local stream netted many Yellow Canaries as well as beautiful Red-faced Mousebird and Layard's Tit-babbler (both new for me).

In addition, with the eternal battle between summer and winter, summer is gaining ground and warm days are starting to outnumber cold days. This in turn has seen an increase in reptile activity, which included a sunbathing Puffadder and Spotted Skaapsteker.

Victorin's Warblers

A heavy load of Protea mites on this Cape Sugarbird

Don't Bug Me!

Fledgling Protea Seedeater in an Aspalathus hirta

Ah bliss! A young Orange-breasted Sunbird  cools off during a hot spell

Protea Seedeater with an odd 'egg-tooth' on the bill

Beady-eyed Puffadder

David with Victorin's Warbler

Victorin's Warbler

Yellow Bishop

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Through Hills with Dale

Last weekend I had the pleasure of playing wing-man to Dale Wright on his travels to determine the conservation status of South Africa's Important Bird Areas (IBAs). Dale is Birdlife South Africa's area manager for the Western Cape. He has over 20 IBAs to keep tabs on – no small task in a province about the size of England. The IBAs range in size from small estuaries to massive mountain chains over 200km long in the case of the Swartberg.

According to Birdlife, sites are designated as Important Bird Areas based on the significant presence of bird species that fall into one or more of the following criteria: threatened, restricted-range, biome-restricted and congregatory species. More than 300 of South Africa’s bird species fall into one or more of these criteria, and they are then referred to as IBA trigger species.

Blue Hill Nature Reserve forms part of the Baviaans-Kouga IBA, but we are also nestled between the Swartberg and Outeniqua IBAs. The trigger species for all of these are predominantly the Fynbos endemic birds, grading into Karoo species for the Baviaans and Swartberg IBAs. Other trigger species include Black Harrier (associated with Renosterveld), Blue Crane, Ludwig's and Denham's Bustards and Southern-Black Korhaan. Or at least they will do after the site assessment, as several of the original trigger species were based on old information compiled by legendary Keith Barnes many years ago.

But IBAs aren't just about the birds. As Dale recently pointed out, they also conserve water. It is estimated that in the Western Cape, catchments with high densities of alien invasive vegetation or plantations supply 50 to 100 per cent less water than catchments comprising natural fynbos vegetation.

So – our plan was to drive through the Baviaanskloof and loop back via the Outeniquas and Swartberg. However, another cut off low pressure system brought more rain to the Eastern Cape, causing more flooding and road closures. Instead we headed into a mountain section I had not explored before. We found old mountain Fynbos over 40 years old – a rare thing in this climate of rampant wide-spread fires.

With more rain on the horizon we headed to George to the Garden Route Initiative, where we endured several hours of presentations – all with a positive upbeat message of active conservation projects in the area. Then to the Swartberg.

Despite the rain we decided to camp at De Hoek. Conversation and ideas kept us warm while the wind tried to keep us cool. Luckily, Saturday dawned dry and proved to be perfect for a summit of the Botha's hoek hiking trail. We recorded 5 out of 6 Fynbos endemics, the highlight for me was predicting the presence of Cape Rock-jumper and then being surrounded by them on arrival. This included my first clear views of a juvenile – with a black eye, not the red of the adult.

Sunday we headed up Perdeberg – and bagged our 6th – the elusive Protea Seedeater. All in all, a very exciting weekend – and that excludes tales of deep river water crossings and a pentad list of over 50 species along the way. Overall, our conclusion – Swartberg is a well maintained IBA, with brave battles being conducted by CapeNature to try and curb alien vegetation and other threats on the very very long boundary.

Here, a few highlight photos from the trip.

Cape Rock-thrush - male

Juvenile Cape Rockjumper

Female Cape Siskin

Male Cape Sugarbird flexing his muscles on a Protea nitida (Waboom)

Cape Bulbul - one of the few frugivores of the Fynbos

Cape Bunting

Cardinal Woodpecker (male)

a pair of Cardinal Woodpecker (female with black cap)

Dale pollinating a Protea eximia. He is going to be very busy doing this job if we loose Cape Sugarbirds!


Greater Striped Swallow "I caught a worm THIS big". 

a resting pair of Little Swifts

Speckled Pigeon

A view of the Swartberge

White-rumped Swift

Red-winged Starling harassing a White-necked Raven

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