Sunday, 24 March 2013

A million birds killed on South Africa's roads every year?

Two weeks ago while driving from Graaf Reinett to Beaufort West along one of South Africa's most featureless roads traversing the Great Karoo, I was awakened from my daze by the flash of a dark black and white tail floundering in a bush 50 meters from the road. It had to be a Black Harrier. I turned the car around.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a bird dealing with a prey item as I had hoped, it was an injured bird with a shattered wing. Despite that, it looked healthy. Looking into those brilliant yellow eyes, there was only one thing for it – try the best we could to help. To cut a very long story short on how we tried to track down someone to get help, involving a string of phonecalls and the acquisition of unneeded knowledge of the back roads of Beaufort West, we eventually got the bird to a vet.

Unfortunately, despite the best care and attention, it didn't survive the night. It was a cruel reminder of the carnage wrought upon our birds on roads across the planet every day. RIP Black Harrier.

Failing to Fly: the Black Harrier attempts to take off

The following is the original text for an article I wrote that appeared in the last edition of Africa Birds and Birding in 2012. Since this information disappears into obscurity, I'm putting it online, to try remind us to take care when we drive, if we need to drive at all.

If you speed, you’re a killer

Drivers along the N2 will have seen this fairly dramatic sign. Obviously designed to scare drivers into obeying the speed limit by making them think about knocking down old grannies and young children, there is in fact more truth to that statement than the average driver would care to admit.

Birds killed by collision with motor-vehicles are the most obvious impact of roads on birds. Birds are listed as killed more frequently than most other animals in road mortality studies. One estimate of bird mortalities from all causes lists vehicle deaths as the fourth highest at 80 million or more per year in the United States. The top three reasons for bird mortalities were collisions with buildings, high tension lines and cats, with bird fatalities due to wind turbines almost negligible at about 28 000 (<0.01%) - although these may be species of greater conservation concern. More insidiously, roads also cause fragmentation, habitat isolation, noise and light disturbance. Reduced breeding success has been correlated to road proximity or road density for species ranging from warblers to vultures.

I imagine it would be few readers who are also drivers that have not hit something during some journey across the country. So my question during a recent 3000km bicycle ride across the Western Cape was how many birds are killed a day, and under what conditions.

My journey took me along 2000 kilometres of gravel roads of various kinds, and along just under 1000 kilometres of paved road. While cycling, I recorded any fresh bird road-kill (I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere had I recorded all the Scrub Hares splattered across the road too). By fresh I quantified anything that I judged had been killed in the last 24 hours - after all, I was trying to figure out how many birds were killed a day – and recording each pancaked smudge of feathers would not have helped me answer this.
During my journey of three months I encountered 19 birds of 17 species that I thought had been killed on the day, or during the previous night. The species recorded most often was Cape Weaver, with 3 encounters. Most fatalities (16 of the 19) were recorded on tar roads – and two of the birds I encountered on unpaved roads may have been the victims of catapults, as they were located close together near a farm settlement. Studies indicate that roads with low to moderate traffic volume but high speeds incur a higher rate of vertebrate road-kills.

So how many birds a day is that? The CIA lists that South Africa has 73 506 km paved and 288 593 km unpaved roads. My encounter rate of freshly killed birds for these roads was 0.02 and 0.005 birds per kilometre respectively. This equates to 1176 and 144 birds killed per day on paved and unpaved roads, which is about 400 000 birds per year. I believe this is an underestimate for the following reasons: Firstly, all but one of the birds I recorded I picked up from the left hand side of the road – I was more inclined to pay attention to the side of the road I was cycling on to avoid broken glass and other road hazards. Based on this alone a more reasonable estimated figure for bird fatalities is closer to 1 million. Secondly, on busy roads I probably missed birds that were knocked into the road and then flattened by trucks of passing vehicle volume. Thirdly, a proportion of recently killed birds will have been carried off by scavengers. Forth, but mostly importantly, a bird hit by a vehicle travelling at 120km/h or more has a good chance of being batted far from the road into the grassy verge meaning that the numbers I encountered were only a fraction of what are likely killed by vehicle impact each day.

Some groups of birds are more at risk from road mortality than others – nocturnal birds, walking birds, water birds, ground nesters, scavengers, fruit-eating birds, winter ground seed eaters and migrants that make land fall after traversing long distances over open water. From the birds that I could inspect, several were juveniles.  Of the adults several showed primary or tail feather moult, slowing them down just enough for them to misjudge a flight across a road in traffic. On the brighter side, no endemics were found among the casualties.

Despite claims to the contrary, the condition of roads in the Western Cape is very good. Road works are encountered all over, from graders on gravel roads, to major gravel road upgrading, to work on the R62 and N2. While these are good things – improving our infrastructure while creating employment, they are not so good for wildlife when speed limits are not obeyed, and while different birds would have different evasive capabilities 120km/h is probably beyond the evasive capabilities of most birds.

Someone I know once conducted an inadvertent experiment on a Northern Cape road when following a truck that had spilled grain for kilometres, in turn attracting hundreds of seed eating species. At 120km/h he noticed he was hitting many of these birds. He slowed to 80, a speed at which no impacts occurred, and then gradually increased his speed. At 105km/h he started to hit birds again, suggesting that 100km/h was a reasonable speed to travel whereby distance could be achieved and bird mortality minimized.

Next time you are travelling to chase a lifer or mega rarity, keep your speed down: it improves your carbon footprint and it’s better for the wildlife.


Lee, A.T.K. 2012. Road Rage (If you speed, you're a killer). Africa Birds and Birding. 17(4): 8 - 10

Additional reading: 

Erickson, W. P., G.D. Johnson, and D. P. Young Jr. 2005. A summary and comparison of bird mortality from anthropogenic causes with an emphasis on collisions. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report PSW-GTR-191. 14 pp.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Horny Rhinos - for real!

And now there’s a blogger’s dream pun –and in this case I get to report on a real horny rhino in both senses of the word!

Karoo National Park was the last stop in our 3 SANParks holiday (see previous postings on Camdeboo and Mountain Zebra), all of which lie within a 3 hour drive of each other, and no more than 5 hours from Blue Hill. Karoo National Park is the largest of these three, at 90 000 hectares. And my preconceptions that it was the largest protected area of flat, featureless Great Karoo were very wrong. Karoo National Park lies just north of the N1 and the town of Beaufort West (population 40 000) and boasts the geologically diverse and visually captivating Nuweveldberge, the edge of the escarpment and the old African land surface. Volcanic basalts and dolerites overlay millions of years of history in the mudstones laid down when the area was part of an inland swamp or lake system of the prehistoric Gondwana continent – dating back over 300 million years. The park really invokes a sense of history, from the fossil trail with mammal-like therapsids, to dinosaurs, to stone-age man artefacts dating back nearly 2 million years, to more recent colonial history.

And nothing seems more prehistoric than the rhino with its sabre-like horns. Rumours of Black Rhino activity had reached us via the campsite grapevine, and we decided to try our luck on the Potlekkertjie Loop in the afternoon. This route winds through flat and dusty plains until reaching the Sandrivier, which cuts back into the Nuweveld mountains. Here Acacia thicket makes up the most of the riverine vegetation, and it is this ‘sweet thorn’ that is the main food of the Black Rhino, which is able to eat it thorns and all.

The rhino were not hard to spot, with the male and female munching from a bush only 50 meters from the road. We were ecstatic! As the female moved off in search of a private snack, the male lifted his head to the skies, scenting the sweet smell of rhino musk. We didn’t keep our eyes on him for too long as the trajectory of the female was taking her straight towards us. Anja was getting very anxious, as tales of the aggressive nature of this animal are legendary. More game rangers have had to climb trees to escape pursuing rhino than for any other member of the big five.  I was sure that their attention was on each other, but started the car and reversed into an escape position just in case someone needed to vent a bit of sexual frustration on us innocent by-standers.

The male rhino had used the female’s distraction to his advantage and had manoeuvred into a strategic position behind her. Extending his giant penis (his rear horn was longer than his front horn) he was just about to mount her when she wheeled around faster than a pirouetting ballerina and chased him off with a booming clash of horns. Clearly she was not an exhibitionist and was not prepared to do the deed with anyone watching. While he begged and pleaded for a good few minutes more (even getting down on his knees!), she was not going to change her mind. After all, she knew privacy would be forthcoming as the camp gate closed at 7pm and that we would soon have to be on our way.

Almost looks like this female Black Rhino is wearing lipstick!

The male catches the scent of some alluring perfume

"Ah, so how are You doing?"

"Can I buy you a drink?"

"How about a kiss then?"

The male rhino sneaks into position
"Not so fast, fatso!" The female rhino fends off the advances of the male

Looking hurt, from a pride point of view anyway

Playing coy

And that isn't even fully erect! When it was he could have scratched his belly.

Just past 6pm, the rhinos now in shadow, it was time to head the 25km back to camp. A Black-backed Jackal with a cataract over one eye distracted us for a bit, especially since he seemed to be chewing on an Aardvark’s arm. With the countdown clock ticking, we then had to speed past jousting Gemsbok, surprised Kudu, stately Eland, Klipspringer (finally!), a nursery herd of Haartebeest and Baboons to get to the camp gate on time. And just when we thought it was all over, just 25m from our tent in the road in front of us, bang on 7pm, was a female Caracal. I couldn’t have been more surprised, and despite the poor light managed to pull off the following sequence of photos of this most persecuted of Africa’s cats, before she disappeared into the bushes.

This is all a very brief summary of some of the highlights of our 3 nights in Karoo National Park. It would be a long post to list them all, but safe to say we will be back – we still need to see those Karoo Lions after all!

Rooikat - Caracal

Black-backed Jackal

Dusky Sunbird

White-throated Swallow


Friday, 8 March 2013

Camdeboo National Park

Camdeboo National Park (formerly the Karoo Nature Reserve) is all about the scenery and the birds. Most of the mammals on the parks checklist can be seen elsewhere, and only the Buffalo represents the big 5. The park is wrapped around the Karoo town of Graaf Reinet.

We arrived in Graaf Reinet after visiting the charming town of Nieu Bethesda, which is undergoing an artistic revival and has transformed from a back-end-of nowhere ghost-town to to a cultural and paleo-historical centre, most of this thanks to the amazing backyard of Miss Helen's Owl House. Best described as a heart-broken eccentric, this dame gave meaning to her life by creating a fantasy world of stone figures from cement and broken glass, before finally ending her life when her eye-sight started to fail. As the centre is not really for childen (due to large carpets of broken glass in some sections), I was put on guard duty outside with Elena, while Anja documented the figurines in the backyard.

I very much enjoyed the subsequent visit to the Kitching Dinosaur Museum, which included the usual educational panels accompanied by unpronounceable dinosaur names, but also a walk into the nearby river bed which is made of rock over 250 millions years old – in which can be seen fossils of the creatures that inhabited the earth back then.

We then turned our backs to Compassberg (the highest free standing mountain in the Eastern Cape) and headed to Graaf Reinet, where we arrived in a bit of a wind-storm that was showering the town, well, with litter. Not too nice. While the town is described in SANParks literature as “..a jewel within the bend of the Sunday's River” there has obviously been a burglary lately and someone's made off with the treasure. The truth is that the town is simply becoming swamped by a growing population, with few employment opportunities.

While there are many accommodation options in the town, including a Municipal campsite, we headed for the 'rustic' Nqweba campsite of the park itself. The facilities are modern, and include a kitchen and new bathrooms, and the sites are private, but better suited to caravans than tents. However, the sounds of nature have a bit of a job competing with the sounds of the nearby N9 and the very busy local airstrip. One may well sleep more peacefully in the town itself, and since the park is wrapped around the town, one would be centrally based too.

After setting up our tent on arrival we headed out for a late afternoon explore of the 'game-viewing section'. Our first stop was the bird hide, which to our disappointment we found offered almost no view as the record high levels of the Nqweba dam combined with the eutrophic waters of they Sunday's River which feeds it have created ideal growing conditions for Phragmites reeds. These now form a wall around the hide, although about a 25m section has been cleared by the parks to create a bit of a view. Several other viewpoints around the dam suffer the same condition. However, the one that does offer a reed-free view of the dam was an avian bonanza, which included varous ducks, Black-winged Stilts, Greenshank, Ruff, Avocet, Fish Eagle, Spoonbill and Kittlitz's Plover but to name a few.

Our first full day was a busy one. We started with a game drive that resulted in fantastic sightings of Karoo Korhaan, Ludwig's Bustard, Amur Falcon and Lanner Falcon. Then it was up the mountain to the Crag Lizard Hiking Trail and the Valley of Desolation. The Valley of Desolation is one of those sexy names that doesn't really describe the vibrant scenery one traverses to the dolomite ridges that are home to Verreaux's Eagle and Pale-winged Starlings. The views are truly magnificent, and thirsty for more the Jimney easily ascended the nearby grade-3 Koedoeskloof 4x4 trail to reward us with more. By the time we were down there was still enough time for some campsite birding and a braai.

On day 2 we had a relaxed start before navigating the 'eek! has that man got a gun' streets of Graaf Reinett to the seldom explored Driekoppe 4x4 trail. Game here was not quite as relaxed as those sections of the park that see a lot of game-drive traffic, but the scenery was rewarding, as was the peace and quiet.

We navigated the maze of back streets of the town to find the entrance gate to the Eerstefontein day walk. But by this time temperatures were high, and Elena was looking a bit heavy for a 5km stroll (the shortest walk option), so we returned to the empty picnic site in the game viewing area for a relaxed lunch instead.

Each South African National Park provides the visitor upon arrival with a colourful map which includes a checklist of the main mammals and the odd bird or reptile. By the afternoon we had checked off most of the mammals, including Buffalo, and found ourselves in the odd position of driving around searching for Steenbok, Dassie and Klipspringer. There is something frustrating about having unticked check-boxes! These ridiculously common species eluded us on this visit.

But, having explored most of the park to our satisfaction, it was time to move on to our next destination – Karoo National Park next to the town of Beaufort West.

The following are a selection of choice bird shots – scenery will follow in a subsequent post.

Black-shouldered Kite

Black-shouldered Kite on a windmill

Amur Falcon

Jackal Buzzard landing on an Acacia karoo thorn tree

Blacksmith Lapwing

Karoo Korhaan

Female Lesser Kestrel

If in doubt, its probably a Steppe Buzzard

Rock Monitor Lizard

White-bellied Korhaan (actually from the last day at Mountain Zebra National Park)

Jackal Buzzard

Black-headed Heron

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Mountain Zebra National Park

The nice thing about this park is that you are going to see wildlife. We had undertaken a bit of a mad cross Eastern Province dash to get to the gate on time, having left Blue Hill at 11.30. We zoomed past spectacular scenery demanding landscape photos, which we had to ignore with our eyes on the dashboard clock. Thanks to the new tyres on the Jimney, we made it to Cradock (the nearest town to MZNP) just after five, and to the gate by five thirty. No problem! The campsite is 12 km from the gate, and we had to be at reception at 6, No Problem! Except from the moment we drove into the park wildlife was just throwing itself into our path.

There were literally traffic jams of Red Hartebeest, Springbok and Black Wildebeest. If if the Cape Mountain Zebra is endangered, it definitely isn't in this 28 thousand hectare protected area, as they lined the roads to greet our arrival, like striped cheerleaders at fan parade.

And then – to top it all, a Black Rhino had emerged from impenetrable Acacia thicket to check out what all the commotion was about. Black Rhino are one of those species that, like leopard, are often on a park's species list, but that you learn to not to expect to actually see. Given that hundreds are being killed every year for their medicinally useless horns, a sighting of this huge, awesome animal is a privilege. We would later learn why these are still alive – its thanks to a very dedicated team of rhino protectors – but the details of their activities are of course not public information.

Black Rhino
Black Wildebeest

Red Hartebeest

Somehow we made it to reception on time, avoiding the euphemistic 'extra charge' for arrivals after 6. We were a bit surprised at how full the campsite was, but again, as if the word was out there were very special guests arriving, and the best campsite had not been taken – on the far side, away from everone – the best place when having to deal with a loud toddler. The next day nearly all the other campers left – we weren't sure if that because of Elena, or because it was Sunday and most were heading back home after the weekend.

Having spent the day in the car the previous day, Anja and I decided to stretch our legs along the 2.5km Black Eagle hike that is located within the fenced off camp area. The night had been surprisingly cold, and it was nice to get out and enjoy some late summer sun. The dassies (rock hyrax) were thinking the same thing. While there was no sign of Black Eagle, Anja got the prize for best spot of the day with an African Goshawk swooping off with a dove.

For our afternoon drive we took in the scenic Kranskop loop – partly also be cause we needed a relaxing hour drive during which Elena could take her afternoon nap. Views of the Camdeboo mountains from here are breath-taking. By the time Elena was awake we were onto the bustling plains of the Rooiplaat loop, which is like a buck supermarket, each species wondering around to pick out its favourite brand of grass. We were also excited by our first (of 11) Black-backed Jackal sighting.

A disagreement of Blesbok

Black Wildebeest on the run


Plain's Game

Young Mountain Zebra


After tucking Elena in for the night, I went for a stroll to find the campsite's genet. Every South African National Park campsite must have one.

For our second full day we braved the Sonnenrust 4x4 loop, and were yet again rewarded with great plain's game, including Gemsbok and Eland. While Cheetah had been spotted on the Link road the previous day, we weren't so lucky.

Instead, we decided to chill out at the unused Picnic Spots. These are lovely, and both have swimming facilities. The first one also has a resident troop of cheeky Vervet Monkeys.

All in all, three nights was probably just right for a stay at Mountain Zebra National Park. Camping facilities were good, birdlife was great, and another day may have been fun to explore the other 4x4 trails, but we had our next park to get to. Below a small selection of some of the sightings.

Ground Squirrel


Black-backed Jackal (number 7)

Both Burchell's Zebra (with the light brown intermediate stripes) and Mountain Zebra are found in the park

Mountain Zebra

White-browed Sparrow-weaver

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