Friday, 27 December 2013

Blue Crane: South Africa's bird of paradise

The stately Blue Crane is South Africa's national bird, and a striking one at that. The latin name - Anthropoides paradiseus - reveals it is our bird of paradise in name as well as looks. The Fynbos is a seat of a major population of these birds – around 6000 of 21 000. However, the species is classified as Vulnerable, with retractions in the grassy northeast of its range, but populations are holding steady and even increasing in other parts. It is still considered endemic to southern Africa, with the main population in South Africa and a small population in northern Namibia.

It is a real head turner in this part of the world, with some flocks easily passing a hundred birds. It is more usual to catch sight of a pair, pacing across open fields occasionally with a short tailed youngster in tow. The bubbling call carries for kilometers, and they often call in flight. But it is their courtship displays, so typical of cranes, that really catch the attention. They leap and bound into the air with open wings, bubbling away all the time.

After a transect today near on the western edge of the Baviaanskloof, where Fynbos transitions to Karoo, I decided to spend some time with a pretty pair, and was well rewarded for my patience. 

While there is no way to tell them apart in the field, to me it is the male doing this extra ordinary jump to show off to his female companion. Both sexes jump and call.

The following demonstrates the stately symmetry that makes these birds so special:

Friday, 13 December 2013

Cape Sugarbird: the Phoenix of the Fynbos

The following was a contribution to the African Birdlife magazine Nov/Dec 2013 issue, the official publication of Birdlife South Africa: 

Cape SugarbirdThe Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer) is one of the most characteristic birds of the Fynbos – a male often evident perched upon a tall protea bush, tail streaming in the breeze; and occasionally bursting into the air with a staccato call while whipping his tail back and forth in a dramatic display flight. A glance at the second Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2) map shows a continuous range which accurately paints the map of that landscape dominated by proteas, ericas and restios that we call the Fynbos. Cape Sugarbirds are frequent visitors to gardens on the urban fringe, where they feed on a variety of exotic nectar-producing plants, suggesting they are fairly adaptable to a changing landscape.

When I set out on my bicycle to survey as much of the Fynbos as I could during 2012, the Cape Sugarbird was one endemic bird that I was least worried about. However, by the end of the marathon survey, I wasn't so sure. These nectar-loving birds show a clear linear increase in abundance with the age of the Fynbos, being practically absent from recently burnt areas and found in their highest densities in mature, protea dominated habitats -  most likely because of the larger numbers of flowers that are produced by older bushes. But – of the 715 counts I conducted where I could confidently estimate the time since the last fire, 76% of these had burnt within the last 15 years. While Cape Sugarbirds are found in acceptable numbers (a pair or more per hectare) in habitat ranging from 5 – 15 years, those habitats where they are most abundant (i.e. >15 years) are a minor component of the landscape. Recently published work by several researchers shows that time between fires is decreasing – partly human linked, but mostly due to climate changes that are resulting in warmer, drier weather with more lightning events.

Furthermore, fires are occurring over larger areas and this is of concern because Cape Sugarbirds need to move from one patch of flowering proteas to the next during the year, as most protea species have short peaks of flowering over just a few months. This creates bottlenecks in food availability, and should populations of the few species that flower in summer burn simultaneously, this will leave us with many hungry Cape Sugarbirds. And don't think they can just move to an unburnt site as the SAFRING database suggests that Cape Sugarbirds do not disperse very far – 98% of recaptures of Cape Sugarbirds have been within 10km of their site of initial capture (for comparison, this value for Western Cape's Malachite Sunbirds is 78%). In addition, this is the only one of the four common nectarivores of the Western Cape that shows a decline in numbers per ringing session over the last 30 years (but local ringer behaviour may also account for this). If that is not enough, Cape Sugarbirds have been reported from 15% fewer Quarter Degree Grid Cells between SABAP1 and SABAP2. However, it is robust, breeds quickly and is unlikely to go extinct this century.

Much like the Phoenix, the fate of the Cape Sugarbird is tied to fire – it just takes a lot longer to be reborn.

Female Cape Sugarbird: the Protea eximia pollen gives the birds a pinkish hue to the head

A male Cape Sugarbird chases a female from a flower

These sugarbird shots were taken during a ringing expedition to the Kammanassie Nature Reserve

Protea eximia is one of the few summer flowering protea species
and a vital food source for sugarbirds at this time of year

Thanks to contributions from DaleWright and Phoebe Barnard

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Nelson Mandela: A great life touched by birds

On the 6 December 2013, despite dry weather, rivers across South Africa swelled as they filled with the tears of a weeping nation. 6 December was the day that we woke to the news that the previous evening Nelson Mandela had passed away; we had lost one of the greatest people of our time, a man who led a liberation struggle and with victory then led a bitter and divided nation on a remarkable journey of reconciliation.

Three months previously the nation had been braced for the news of his death during a stint in intensive care in hospital. However, he was released home and we relaxed. So the headline news on BBC online at 5am on the Friday morning caught me, and probably many, by surprise. As I drove towards Uniondale, the radio presenter on Afrikaans radio station RSG was choking back tears as he relayed reactions from around the world. In Uniondale the local Working on Fire group held a minute of silence and flags were hung at half mast.  

For my own tribute to this great man I decided to scan his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, for references to birds. Hidden among his tale of the struggle against apartheid, his deeds and accomplishments I found a story of a life touched by birds.

Like many rural South Africans, during his early years birds were an unemotional resource to be utilized and hunted.

It was in the fields that I learned how to knock birds out of the sky with a slingshot, to gather wild honey and fruits and edible roots, to drink warm, sweet milk straight from the udder of a cow, to swim in the clear, cold streams, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire... We moulded animals and birds out of clay... From these days I date my love of the veld, of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon. P23

Then came an awakening – birds were living, beautiful creatures which through their lives give joy to others, and their deaths can be the cause of sorrow.

Winnie brought me an old air rifle that I had in Orlando and Arthur and I would use it for target practice or hunting doves on the farm. One day, I was on the front lawn of the property and aimed the gun at a sparrow perched high in a tree. Hazel Goldreich, Arthur’s wife, was watching me and jokingly remarked that I would never hit my target. But she had hardly finished the sentence when the sparrow fell to the ground. I turned to her and was about to boast, when the Goldreichs’ son Paul, then about five years old, turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “Why did you kill that bird? Its mother will be sad.” My mood immediately shifted from one of pride to shame; I felt that this small boy had far more humanity than I did. It was an odd sensation for a man who was the leader of a nascent guerrilla army. P 171

Later, during his incarceration on Robben Island, watching birds would be a way to spiritually escape the confines and drudgery of prison life.

The authorities never explained why we had been taken from the courtyard to the quarry... we assumed it was another way of enforcing discipline...  an attempt to crush our spirits. But those first few weeks at the quarry had the opposite effect on us... I much preferred being outside in nature, being able to see grass and trees, to observe birds flitting overhead, to feel the wind blowing in from the sea... we saw gulls spearing fish from the sea and seals cavorting on the waves; we laughed at the colony of penguins, which resembled a brigade of clumsy, flat-footed soldiers; p 276

Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus – men who have practised peace in the face of cruelty and hatred. Nelson Mandela – the face of the goodness that humankind is capable of achieving. Nelson Mandela – long may his life and demonstration of forgiveness touch our lives.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

White-winged Flufftail on brink of extinction – A media release by Birdlife South Africa

Flufftails are pretty but secretive birds associated with wetland areas, a bit like crakes. The White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi is the latest addition to the growing number of the world’s birds which are threatened with extinction. The tiny and secretive flufftail, one of nine flufftail species in Africa, is now listed as Critically Endangered, one thought to be one step away from disappearing off the planet. The White-winged Flufftail is only known to occur in South Africa and, nearly 4000 km away, in Ethiopia.
Fewer than 250 adult White-winged Flufftails remain in the wild and the South African population is estimated to number less than 50 birds. These estimates, combined with the emergent threats of habitat degradation and habitat loss, saw BirdLife South Africa and the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, two BirdLife International partners at the opposite ends of the continent, motivate for the uplisting of the White-winged Flufftail to globally Critically Endangered. This category represents the highest risk of extinction in the wild. White-winged Flufftail is the second South African bird species to be listed as globally Critically Endangered, with the other being the Tristan Albatross.

According to BirdLife International: “destruction and degradation of its high altitude wet grassland habitat, including wetland drainage, conversion for agriculture, water abstraction, overgrazing by livestock and cutting of marsh vegetation, have driven it to this precarious state. Urgent action is now needed in both Ethiopia and South Africa to better understand the species’ ecology and to address these threats and save it from extinction”. The preferred high altitude wetland habitat in South Africa, which is mostly limited to  Mpumalanga, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, is threatened by mining, pollution from industrial effluents, domestic and commercial sewage, acid mine drainage, agricultural runoff and litter. The three Ethiopian wetlands where the birds are known to occur and breed are threatened by overgrazing and grass-cutting. A survey of suitable wetland habitat in South Africa is currently underway and will contribute to a better understanding of the extent of its occurrence in South Africa. The analyses of blood and feather samples will shed light on whether the birds move between Ethiopia and South Africa or whether the two populations are in fact isolated.

The White-winged Flufftail is BirdLife South Africa’s 2013 Bird of the Year.
The aim of a recent trip to Ethiopia, undertaken by BirdLife South Africa and the Middelpunt Wetland Trust, was to obtain blood and feather samples for genetic and isotope analyses. Seven flufftails were caught and released back in the wetlands near Addis Ababa. The only South African samples to be used in the analyses are from two museum specimens. The full story is documented in the latest issue of African Birdlife magazine:

In South Africa the White-winged Flufftail has been recorded from no more than 15 wetland sites, and the species is probably only occasionally recorded at these sites. There are no SABAP2 records, this map shows SABAP distribution (from

Encounters with flufftails are special events - below a Striped Flufftail (thought to be Endangered) 

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Prince Harry killed by an African Wildcat

It's been more than a month since the baptism of Prince Harry on 26 October 2013, where he was anointed with his red ring. By this time he may well have fledged and be learning how to surf gusty winds against the blue African sky. It was with a sense of excitement that I rode out with Robyn Milne to check the nest yesterday, with wispy heavens transitioning from sapphire to ruby in the late afternoon. Such trips are always filled  with action – and we were distracted from our bumpy ride to the slopes of Antoniesberg by the complaints of Southern Black Korhaan, ballerina Blue Cranes, and the baleful stares of Steenbok.

Our approach to the nest passed a favourite perch – a termite mound – where previously we had collected several regurgitated pellets (indigestible remains of micey meals). I felt a sense of unease after a quick search revealed no fresh pellets at all. On our approach to the nest, no harrier exploded from the reeds. A closer inspection of the nest revealed broken egg shell, and suspiciously, young reeds were poking through the nest. It was clear the nest had been abandoned for some time.

What would the camera show?

The first photo shows that only twenty minutes after Prince Harry was ringed, that the mother was back in the nest. Prince Harry looks dazed, but healthy.

Over the next four days, activity at the nest looks normal – with frequent food drops, and near constant presence of mommy. Prince Harry's primary feathers are starting to emerge quickly – their black contrasting with the chick down.

However, on the 30 October it is clear that mommy no longer likes to share her bed with her wriggling son. Prince Harry spends a night alone, with lots of shuffling, but passes the night safely.
She hasn't abandoned him completely – on the following night she is back with him.

Meanwhile, Prince Harry's growth has been astounding. The following photos show just how big he's grown over the week, and how the feathers are really developing fast.

By the 4 November, the young (but spotty) Prince is towering over mom as she tears up his breakfast. But it appears it was to be his last.

This is the last photo of Prince Harry alive, slumbering peacefully at the edge of the nest.

The camera did not reveal too much detail of Prince Harry's last moments – but the feline shape leaves us with no doubt as to who committed this crime. African Wild Cats are common across much of Africa, generally larger than domestic cats they have similar diets – rodents and birds.

The crumpled corpse lies to the left of the image, gory details hidden by reeds. For the next couple of days the mother returns to the empty nest, is seen bowed over the cold body, and even starts paying attention to the abandoned eggs.  

However, a visit from a Small Grey Mongoose ends all hope.

The mother pays one last visit to her empty nest.

The African Wildcat, with distinctive rufous ears, is seen passing the nest 10 days later.

RIP Prince Harry.

Camera sponsored by Kougaview Game Farm

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Amazing French girl catches Cape Rockjumper by hand

The last 2 months I have been spending a crazy amount of time out in the field trying to catch birds for a project which aims to determine just how much heat our Fynbos birds can take - and I'll have a complete post on that another day. For the last couple of weeks I've been lucky to have the assistance of Pauline, a trainee ringer from France, who is very talented with the birds. For the moment, and for my amusement as much as yours....

Innocent Cape Rockjumper sits all unaware on a rock
Pauline slowly creeps up on the unsuspecting bird...
... slowly extends her hand

... and then goes for the grab - quick as a flash


.. and then off to the lab
She's not always so lucky - this Familiar Chat was too quick and got away.
Actually, all I've done is upload a bird release sequence in reverse – it's more fun that way.  

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Savin Stalin

To Kill or Not to Kill: that was the question when a pair of Common Starlings (or European Starlings) made it clear they were moving into the eave of our house. The dusty pellet gun stirred from its long slumber in a dark, forgotten cupboard.

Up until this winter, Common Starlings were only infrequently sighted on Blue Hill Nature Reserve, preferring the warmer and more human disturbed landscapes of the Langkloof Valley to the south of us and the Kouga Mountains. I guess it was only a matter of time before the eaves of all the buildings of Avontuur were occupied and new breeding grounds would have to be found for broody individuals of this species, which has been expanding its range slowly but surely across South Africa ever since it was introduced from the European continent in 1897, anecdotally by Cecil John Rhodes. In the last ten years it has colonised much of Kwazulu-Natal, the Free State and Gauteng (see the red in the range change map below).

Common Starlings, along with Indian Mynahs, are among South Africa's least loved birds. Their latin name - Sturnus vulgaris - would suggest they have never really had many fans. Roughly concurrent with the arrival of the broody pair was an email to our local bird club seeking advice on how the hunting community could be enlisted to help eradicate or control 'invasive' bird species, such as these and other species like the House Crow. These species are seen as a threat to our own endemic bird life as they may compete for food and nesting sites. But are they?  Or are they not just filling the ecological niche created as man has converted much original habitat into one of artificial cliffs, with soft-lawned gardens with exotic food sources?

I have a soft spot for Common Starlings. While writing up my PhD from our third story apartment in Old Trafford (home to famous football team Manchester United), they would often visit our window ledge where we had placed a variety of seeds and feed balls to entice the birds away from the nearby park for our viewing pleasure. Back then (around 2009) there was much concern that this species appeared to be in decline across Great Britain. I often used to wonder if counts of this species used to include the entrance to our local ASDA superstore, which had a large population of starlings. These scrounged a living on the crumbs of crisps and white-bread sandwiches of the less-elite of the local human population.

I decided to let the pellet gun slumber. I was interested to see how much this new species would infringe upon the activities of our local bird community – many of which are ringed and well known to me personally. These include a small family of 'naturalized' House Sparrows, a species not considered with malice by the birding fraternity, although it to has origins on foreign shores.

After much activity nest-building in a corner of the eave not used by any other resident bird family, it was clear the chicks had hatched late in October when fragments of turquoise egg shell were discovered below the nesting site. Not much time later and the arrival of the adults carrying grasshoppers and other insects would be heralded by the irruption of soft chirping.

On the first weekend of November we were having a much relished lie in from our normal early starts to the day thanks to some cool, wet weather brought in by a late low pressure system. Elena, my daughter, and I had been watching the adult starlings forage on the lawn outside Elena's bedroom window. They made frequent trips to the nest with beaks full of a variety of insects. It was only after breakfast when we emerged outside that we saw the limp body of a starling chick lying on the cold, wet concrete 5 meters below the nest site. It appeared one unlucky starling had not made it through the night.

I picked up the cold, lifeless corpse for an unceremonious dumping on the compost heap, when zombie-like it opened its beak and stretched a leg. Was it still alive?! I had just finished brewing my morning cup of coffee and wrapped the chick starling in a cloth and placed it on the still-warm coffee machine. Within a few minutes a twitching beak and feeble movements suggested clear signs of life. I tried feeding it some left over Weetbix, but was worried I was going to drown it in milk.

After the weather had cleared up I placed the starling under the nest to see if the parents would find it. However, after several hours it was clear the weak, soft calls of the poor thing were being ignored. At the time we had Ben Smit as a visitor, an ornithologist with experience at hand-rearing wild birds. In the afternoon he pointed out the bird was hypothermic and fed it a meal worm. Our resident researcher, Robyn, was placed in charge of its care. She didn't care for the name I'd given the bird – Stalin, and called him Stan instead. Pronutro and mealworms were vanished down his throat at an astonishing rate.

So began a week where Stan Stalin endeared himself to us. He grew bigger and stronger and his feathers started to grow. Elena was intrigued by the new addition to the family, and after a week Stalin was hoping around and begging for food whenever he saw someone move. We thought he'd made it, until only just over a week since his miraculous recovery, his box fell silent and for no reason we could determine: Stalin had passed on to birdy heaven during the night. In all likelihood, the injuries sustained after his ejection from his nest had caught up with him.

Stalin was buried under a pepper tree, with a sprinkling of Pronutro for the after life. It was a day that left us sad – at the individual level its hard to hold something responsible for the actions of its species. Our families and friends of course being the best example of that ethical quandry. So RIP Stalin – we'd such hopes for you.

Common Starling arrives - the size of thrush these are stout and hardy birds

Under the right light, the plummage of the Common Starling is quite fetching

Starlings are agile fliers, zooming straight under the roof with no need to perch
Stalin - as we found him
Adopted mother Robyn tries to figure Stalin out

Elena was fascinated with feeding times
One wriggler down the hatch

The worm's eye view
Alien Invasion: the range of Common Starling, showing new occupations for the last 10 years or so in Red

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