Friday, 13 September 2013

The Beautiful Black Harrier

The Black Harrier (Circus maurus) is the most beautiful of the world's harriers, and one of the most striking of the world's raptors, most of which are shades of brown. Perhaps for this reason the species is the emblem of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology (see logo on the right).

According to Birdlife SA, Black Harriers  are southern Africa’s rarest endemic raptor and will be listed in South Africa this year as Endangered, due mostly to loss of breeding habitat (lowland Renosterveld). The species is also considered to be at risk from wind turbines.

Considered a Fynbos breeding near-endemic, encounters with this species are special whenever they occur. This year I've had a string of encounters on the western edge of Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve that led me to suspect the presence of a breeding pair.

Rob Simmons (the world's leading authorities on Black Harrier, having written the guide to the raptor group) suggested I try and locate the nest, since the species is still relatively poorly understood. Black Harrier's are the focus of his research, which has recently revealed incredible migrations and movements from breeding grounds of the Western Cape to Lesotho. You can read more about the travels of the satellite collared harriers here:

Today's survey started auspiciously as within a minute of my first point count, a harrier zoomed over the nearby ridge. It flew straight towards me, before veering off at about 50m distance and continuing a low foraging flight away over the dry renosterveld. This location is about 2 km from where I had seen the harriers on two previous surveys.

Following up on Rob Simmon's advice, I made an effort to locate the Black Harrier nest site – as there are no previous breeding records from this region.

At about 9am I approached a point about 500m away from where I expected the nest to be, and observed the male Black Harrier foraging for about 15 minutes. While I did not observe a food drop, some unusual behaviour, coupled with a sighting from last month gave me a good idea on where to start looking.

From the access track, I wondered down into the valley, which is dominated by the straggly shrub Stoebe burchellii and sedge. The site I initially investigated turned up blank, but while I was looking around, the male made a return to the area, and I heard a soft, rapid ke ke ke contact call. I was unsure if it was the male or a hidden female. I waited for a while, and the male came over again, and I heard the same call twice. Heading towards the noise I spotted an odd gap in a patch of sedge. Seconds later the female exploded from her hidden location. After locating the nest, I quickly left the area to observe them from a distance to check I had not caused them to abandon the site.

Female Black Harrier

Male Black Harrier

P..s off and leave me alone!

After a few minutes, they appeared to have settled. The day warmed up nicely, and the angulate tortoises were everywhere. To cap off a wonderful morning, a Karoo Tent Tortoise (rare) was also encountered.

Karoo Tent Tortoise (cousin of the endangered Geometric Tortoise)

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Top 10 blue hill blog posts

10 Sep 2010
2 Nov 2011
7 Jan 2011
8 Jul 2011, 4 comments
5 Sep 2011
7 Jan 2011
21 Dec 2012, 2 comments
17 Apr 2012, 2 comments
26 May 2012
9 Jul 2012, 2 comments
Yesterday marked 150 posts to the bluehillescape blog, which started carrying photos and stories of the Fynbos Endemic Bird Survey from beginning of 2012. The first post was in August 2010: 

Since then we’ve had 33 000 visits to the range of stories that have been posted. This table lists the most popular. 

It’s good to reread those old posts and reflect on what hopes and dreams have been realized and what has changed over the past three years. I must say I would never have guessed that some of these posts would generate that much traffic, most of which comes from America and South Africa, and most of which is generated from google searches.  Its a bit sad to see that although I notify all posts to my Facebook profile, few of my Peruvian friends visit – but that of course is a language thing.

Thanks also to my top 3 commentators:
Di -
Marty -
Robyn -

Bar-throated Apalis
Traffic sources: God Bless America. And from Russia with Love.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Tune into African Penguin research with Birdlife South Africa

African Penguin Satellite Tracking Project launched - a media release by Birdlife South Africa

BirdLife South Africa initiated the second phase of its African Penguin Satellite Tracking Project (APST Project), at Dassen Island, just of the west coast of Cape Town over the weekend. The project team was joined by media representatives and partner GreenMatter (championing biodiversity skills development).

Globally there are fewer than 30 000 breeding pairs of African Penguin (or Jackass Penguin as it was once called). One hundred years ago, Dassen Island was the largest African Penguin colony in the world, with an estimated one million breeding pairs. There are currently fewer than 4 000 breeding pairs at Dassen Island. This represents a loss of almost 200 pairs a week, over a period of 100 years! With that trend continuing, some colonies are shrinking by 20% each year.

"The APST Project responds firstly to the plight of the African Penguin as an endangered species that has exhibited a recent population collapse. Secondly, the African Penguin is an indicator to marine ecosystem health and their decrease is a warning signal for the economy, quality of life, jobs and other social impacts" says Dr Ross Wanless, Seabird Division Manager, BirdLife South Africa, and the African Coordinator for the Global Seabird Programme.

For this round of research, the project team will look at where adult penguins go after breeding; later they will follow birds once they've completed their annual moult. By knowing where they go, the project team can determine if they are likely to come into competition for food with the sardine and anchovy fishery and if implementing special management areas around islands, or elsewhere, will aid in supporting marine ecosystem health.

"Our marine environment is under enormous pressure and the African Penguin's collapse is largely the result of human activities. In response to these issues, BirdLife South Africa has prioritised the APST research. The research involves using small Geographical Positioning System (GPS) devices attached to breeding penguins to investigate foraging ranges (where they look for food) and constraints faced by penguins during breeding. They are similar to a car's GPS navigation system, but transmit positions to a network of satellites, which then transmit the positional information back to earth. These data are accessed daily, allowing the project team to track the birds' movements in real time.

Each small device costs R30,000. The Birdlife International African Penguin Species Champion, the Charl van der Merwe Trust, provided funds for 20 devices and covered the costs for satellite uplinks.

"In preparation for the upcoming Save our Seabirds (SOS) Festival that takes place every year during National Marine Week, BirdLife South Africa has developed a website to provide access to the real-time movements of the penguins for youth and those interested in learning more about this amazing seabird. BirdLife South Africa and GreenMatter will be developing a game, linked to the APST Project for high school and university students that will be launched at the upcoming SOS Festival. The game will provide experiential learning about a serious issue in a fun and interactive format, instilling environmental values in the next generation of leaders," states Wanless.

The penguin tracks can be viewed online at the BirdLife South Africa at SOS Festival website:

In 2010, the African Penguin was uplisted from Vulnerable to Endangered on the BirdLife International Red List of Threatened Birds, because of the rapid decrease in population numbers. The population in South Africa has decreased from about 141 000 pairs in the 1950s to around 20 000 pairs in 2012.

It is vital the these declines are halted as the African Penguin is the only penguin species found in Africa and lives nowhere else but along the coast of South Africa and Namibia. Several colonies have shrunk to almost nothing, and one colony, at Lambert’s Bay, went extinct when no pairs returned to breed in 2010.

The major threats to penguins include a lack of food, potential oiling from large-scale oil spills, predation by seals and egg and chick predation by gulls.

BirdLife South Africa is the only national, dedicated bird conservation non-governmental organisation and member of BirdLife International.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Rhino Horn. Legalise it?

With the increase in rhino poaching so too has there been an increase in public sentiment and anger. Now South Africa's decision to approach CITES for permission to sell of stock-piled rhino horn and ivory worth $1 billion (and pursue further avenues for legal trade) is dividing the conservation community. It has been greeted with alarm by hard core conservationists who say it will undermine conservation efforts and put the rhinos in further danger. What is clear though is that even with mounting arrests for poaching, rhino poaching is on the increase despite huge public support for a variety of conservation groups acting for rhinos coupled with action by the government. 

We need to realise that there comes a time when a product becomes worth so much, as in the case of rhino horn, that its becomes worthwhile to obtain under any circumstances. Even if a poaching/smuggling ring looses men and money to obtain the horn, it still only takes a few successful hauls to make it worthwhile and to recoup costs, pay off those who need it, and make a healthy profit on top of it all.

Predictions from South African state officials say that rhinos could be extinct in the wild by 2026 (they were declared extinct in Mozambique earlier this year) - that is given the current state of affairs of no trade and a loosing battle against poaching syndicates. Those concerned about a one off sale of rhino horn point to the 'unknown affects' this sale could have. The only unknown is where the extinction point will be – and it can't be that much worse than 2026. Will there be an increase in poaching post sale or legalisation? Probably – but will populations benefit over the longer term? I'd be willing to bet they would. 

It must be emphasized that a controlled legal trade does not advocate a ‘once-off sale’. This would be counter-productive and could fall into the hands of the illegal syndicates. The idea would be for a ‘Central Selling Organization’ to manage the legal stock on behalf of Government and the private sector (e.g. administered by TRAFFIC). Without this, it would mean that the private sector (and Government) would need to increasingly rely on donor funds for rhino conservation, which may not be sustainable in the long term due to ‘donor fatigue’ and a lack of political will.   

Those against regulated trade point to the problems caused by earlier one off ivory sales. It is argued that elephant poaching has increased Because of the one-off sale, but rhino horn poaching has increased Despite no one-off sale – so we can't conclude anything. Also, ivory and rhino horn are not the same thing – rhino horn is ornamentation and can be removed – repeatedly so if necessary i.e. it can be farmed. While it is argued this leaves rhino vulnerable as they can no longer defend themselves, they really only need their horns to defend themselves against other rhino – if all are dehorned in a certain project area then all are on the same footing. Another emotively controversial animal trade arena is the fur trade – and to my knowledge no animals have become extinct due as a result of legal trade in animal pelts. Fur trade requires the death of the target animals, including everything from minks to seals, while rhino would not have to be killed. Other trade in ‘wild’ animals includes ostrich, crocodile and vicuna (a formally endangered species from the Andes brought back from extinction by legalizing the sale of their wool). 

It is further argued that legitimising trade on one hand undermines attempts to dampen the market on the other. This is not true – the two tactics can work hand in hand, especially if you are telling people that what they are paying the price of gold for is worth nothing more than their hair or fingernail clippings. For instance, while health warnings on cigarette packets aim to dampen the market on an industry with severe human health consequences, high tax provides governments an income. There are many measures in place to reduce the social acceptability of the practise, but the tobacco market remains profitable. The problem at the moment is there is no precedent with endangered species – one is either for or against CITES regulations, so supporting CITES while asking for trade appears contradictory. 

The market for rhino horn in China is mainly for traditional medicines, while in Vietnam it is supposedly being used also as a status conferring gift among diplomats and as a hangover tonic. The book ‘Killing for Profit’ by Julian Rademeyer paints a picture of how serious the problem is. The big problem recently is that human populations are growing and so is the economy, so the demand is not going away in a hurry. However, some people make it sound like the whole of China is licking its lips trying to get hold of South Africa's rhinos. This is not the case – Rhino is “Xi Niu” in Pinyin (simple Chinese). A Google Trends search of this term does not yield enough data to provide information on who is searching for it – which suggests internet enabled China is not really that interested in Rhino generally. China also doesn't make the top ten list of countries conducting searches on “rhino” - South Africa leads the search on this list, and for “rhino horn”. Furthermore, if you do a search for Vietnamese for rhino - “con te giac” there are no links to people trying to sell rhino horn – most are for news items related to tourism or poaching. I'm not denying these countries are not the problem, but the magnitude can be exaggerated when the human population is compared to the rhino population.

From what I understand (and I'm not an expert) there are pretty much no rhino living outside protected areas or privately owned land with vested interests in rhino. Legalising the horn will thus only impact those already targeted within protected areas. Due to the crisis to date, most of the remaining populations have well funded protection and/or ongoing associated conservation projects (see this list 

Rael Loon (author of ‘A conceptual model for assessing the economic feasibility of harvesting African rhino horn’ in the South African Journal of Science) points out that one needs to distinguish between ‘intensive’ populations and ‘extensive’ populations. The argument for legalization is that controlled trade can potentially earn revenues which can be used in securing and growing more intensive populations. The stance the South African government takes will influence to what extent this can take place. Rael believes that intensive populations have the potential in helping to secure wild/extensive populations by cross-subsidizing a portion of the revenue to the protection of rhinos in the key and important populations (as per the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group). But this is still a long way off and would depend on the legalization proposal being passed. 

So why should South Africa be allowed to make this decision to sell and pursue legal trade in rhino horn? 

There are about 20 000 White Rhino and 5000 Black Rhino left in South Africa. 75% of these live in South Africa according to WWF (90% of all White Rhino), with further major populations in Zimbabwe and Zambia. It is argued that South Africa's activities will endanger populations of rhino in other countries – but with the majority of the rhino in South Africa, and this population now under indefinite siege, South Africa needs to act not only in its best interest, but for the interest of the white and black rhino populations as a whole. 

From a previous fence sitter on legalising trade, the current unsustainable scenario has pushed me to consider what at heart I find distasteful – the farming of rhino for their horns, or sale of products from natural mortality. There is no simple solution when it comes to stopping rhino poaching; it requires education, hard work, perhaps poisoning horns for certain rhino populations, and going where no conservationist has considered going before. So, I'm with the minister and her economist and scientific advisers on this one. Yes, lots needs to be done before legalisation can or will be allowed  - but it will be lose (rhinos) lose (conservation, biodiversity, protected areas, rhino owners) lose (consumers) if we don't. 

But legalisation won’t happen for many years, if at all. That is plenty of time for those working for rhino to show these powerful creatures can still be Africa’s emblems of the wild. So, in the meantime, please support the ‘Rhino Response Strategy’ (see which represents the main conservation NGOs and Government.

Official Rhino poaching statistics can be found here: 

It’s hard not to get emotional about these dopy looking creatures. With about 1000 rhino poached over the last few years in Kruger National Park of a population around 10 000 White Rhino, there is roughly a 10% chance this rhino has been killed by poachers since I took this photo in 2006 (not accounting for natural mortality).

The second largest member of the Big 5, Rhino sightings are a highlight of any safari experience.  

Disclaimer: these opinions are mine and mine alone – they do not represent those of SANBI, University of Cape Town, Birdlife South Africa or anyone else at Blue Hill Escape or affiliated organisations.

Thanks to Rael for comments on the draft version of this post. 

Saturday, 7 September 2013

And it was all yellow

Yellow Birds – or Birds on Yellow is what we’re all about today. Is this the ultimate yellow page?

This morning I was going to work, but it dawned too beautiful. Since I haven’t had a good photography session for ages, this seemed like the time to make up for it.

I was going to head for the Sutherlandia fields, where I’d captured the Malachite in action in my last post. But I got side-tracked on the way in the fields of Bobbejaankool. Here are some of the results my wayward internet connection would allow me to upload. 

African Firefinch
Common Waxbills... all together now.... "We all live in a Yellow Submarine..."

Protea Seedeater

Protea Seedeater... "yeah, they were all yellow..."

Southern Double-collared Sunbird

Southern Masked Weaver

Cape Bulbul does have a yellow vent

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Marvelous Malachite Sunbird makes my month

Since this has been becoming a bit of a blah blah-g recently I thought I better try get back to being a Photoblog. This August has been a bit challenging from several points of view, including the doubling of my parental duties, the extraction of a tooth, combined with freezing cold weather. While July was dramatically warmer than expected, August has more than made up for it with regular frost and some snow on the mountain tops. 

But – Spring is now here according to my diary, and some flowers seem to agree, putting on their finest to attract passing honey bees or birds. 

The combination of yellow Othonna parviflora (Bobbejaankool) and Sutherlandia frutescens (Kankerbos) in the valleys is just too stunning, and when decorated with South Africa’s finest Sunbirds, the world is just beautifully alive with colour and life. Aaaah, breathe it in. 

Yay! From here on out its going to get warmer!

Grey-winged Francolin

Protea Seedeater soaking in the Spring time

Suspicious Missus Malachite Sunbird

Cape Siskin (male)

Monday, 2 September 2013

Hottentot Buttonquails from Blue Hill

This is a summary of my article on Hottentot Buttonquail in the Kouga Mountains, which was published in the September edition of African Birdlife, the official magazine of Birdlife South Africa. I have taken the opportunity to provide additional photos of this poorly described species.

When it comes to Turnix hottentottus, an elusive South African endemic, no-one really seems to know what is going on taxonomically or from a conservation point of view. It is listed as the Black-rumped Buttonquail Turnix nanus by Birdlife International – and is a species of Least Concern. Birdlife South Africa's official checklists from 2011 to 2013 list the species as “Probably Critically Endangered”. 

All South Africa's prominent field guides give the Hottentot Buttonquail species status separate to Black-rumped Buttonquail. While it is described by Sinclair and Hockey's Birds of Southern Africa as “Locally Common”, it is described in Roberts 7 as “... rare and highly localised, but may be more common than previously thought”. This is based on a 1994 survey led by Peter Ryan and Phil Hockey at the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve which estimated a population of 310-480 birds for the reserve, with density in coastal renosterveld estimated at a bird per 28-44 ha, making it the third most common bird in this habitat type (more common than LeVaillant's Cisticola and Yellow Bishop). This is based on six hours of survey of an area covering 25 hectares. 

SABAP2 data reflect only two pentads from the peninsula with incidental records, from one of the most surveyed areas of the Western Cape. In fact – the SABAP2 distribution is one of the sparsest of any of South Africa's terrestrial bird species. At the very least, it may be the sparsest of South Africa's endemic species, with 4 pentads with ad-hoc records, and only listed for four full protocol pentads. In contrast to Ryan and Hockey's study, Mike Fraser's density estimate of 0.004 birds per hectare (data from his 1990 MSc) would mean there are no more 400 bird in the Fynbos biome.

I have encountered this species on or near Blue Hill Nature Reserve on at least 2 occasions which have resulted in the following photographs. However, I should point out that these are only 2 encounters in over a large area which I have walked at least weekly for the roughly the last 2 years. 

I would be very interested to hear about any encounters you may have had with the species: please email me at alan dot tk dot lee at gmail dot com. 

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