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

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