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

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