Saturday, 13 September 2014

Book Review: The Ultimate Companion for Birding in Southern Africa

This book is a masterpiece, but my initial reaction on hearing about this book for the first time was definitely “Not another birdbook!” as South Africa may be one of the most prodigious countries for producing bird books or updates to bird books, given the per capita number of bird watchers in the country.

In fact, I may never have purchased The Ultimate Companion (as I shall call it) if I wasn't pushed by a moral obligation to support local authors Peter Ginn and Geoff McIlleron, both sterling characters and veterans of the South African bird watching world. One could argue it isn't technically a new book at all – but rather an update to The Complete Book of Southern African Birds published when I was only 9 years old, and probably the most note worthy of Peter's many books. Also somewhat importantly, we aren't talking about one book – The Ultimate Companion is two volumes; the first dealing with Ostriches to Swifts, and the second Trogon to Buntings.

However, I am incredibly impressed with the result. The sleeve states “The most spectacular collection of southern African bird photographs ever assembled” and this is true. Geoff is an accomplished photographer and, together with his son Andrew,  they have selected the 1400 photos from 145 photographers that illustrate all 960 bird species ever recorded in the subregion. If ever there was a work celebrating the beauty and glory of birds, this is it.

Many bird book species' accounts start with descriptions, usually the bit you skip to get to stuff like habits, habitat use or other clues to identification. For the most part, the Ultimate Companion skips the useless description and gets straight into an interesting species account. These are conversational in style, full of interesting species-specific factoids and in so doing brings something new to the bird book scene. Each account is written by a species expert e.g. Peter Ryan for pelagics, Rob Little for game birds, and Richard Dean for arid-zone specialists. This leads to an interesting, almost conversational-style approach, but since there are no references, some information is expert opinion rather than established fact. It does make the reading of this book from cover to cover a potentially pleasurable option for anyone with the time, interest or inclination to do so.

The distribution maps have been prepared by Michael Brooks at the ADU, University of Cape Town, and are based on current information from the Southern African Bird Atlas Project. As such, they are as accurate as one can get and a great improvement from the subjective shading found in many historic field guides. However, rather annoyingly they are not provided for all species.

The only thing misleading about this book is the title: a 'companion for birding' when we think about books is something like a field guide that slips into a pocket or backpack. These books won't: they are huge – in size terms they are comparable to the definitive works on southern African ornithology – Roberts Birds of southern Africa 7th edition and The Atlas of Southern African Birds volumes one and two. This size does justice to the detailed photographs, but you'd never take a book of this size (and this price) into the field. To overcome this, the book also comes with a free ebook intended for use on portable devices while in the field. However, it is unlikely to replace the standard Sasol or Newman's field guides which offer better comparisons between tricky species, and which better illustrate juvenile or immature plumage. That places this book somewhere between the genre of coffee-table book (which it is) and field guide (which it is less).  

My subjective score: 9/10 and synopsis: this would be a much appreciated gift to anyone interested in birds or birding. If you are coming to South Africa to bird for the first time, there are other bird guides I'd recommend, but The Ultimate Companion is the prize I'd sneak into my hand-luggage from Duty-free on the way home to show off to friends back home.

The book's official website:

Front covers and box (to the right)

The Ultimate's back covers

Example of central illustration and text

Sunday, 7 September 2014

What are those sugarbird claws really used for ?

Ever since a sugarbird first drew my blood with its needle sharp talons, I've been convinced that these claws are lethal weapons that are clearly used for defence, but probably also for intraspecific  competition. The grip of males is much stronger than that of the  females and they need to defend their territories from intruding males.

 I suspect their tarsal strength is matched only by raptors gram for gram,  and that their ability to grip wind-blown flowers is a secondary benefit. The grip of sunbirds is nowhere near as vicious. Malachite sunbirds have nowhere near the same strength. In addition, while all sunbirds attempt to bite as part of their defence strategies, sugarbirds invariably never do (they don't have to is my take).

 However, as with most species, aggression is rarely observed and even more rarely would these culminate in lethal battles since posturing and displays are far less costly. On only one occasion have I observed an embraced battle when two sugarbirds tumbled through the vegetation to the path near me during a survey in the Langeberge. The event was over in seconds with both birds flying off seemingly unscathed, a more serious outcome perhaps interrupted due to my proximity.

 Downloading camera trap photos the other day, I found this photo....  which I am interpreting as an attack where the claws are involved. I think these are young males or males that have just arrived to the area, as most other birds at this site are color ringed.

Phoebe Barnard, my postdoc supervisor had this to say to the above: I have many times seen territorial males aggressively fly at younger presumed males (I could not always rule out young females) in the few months post-breeding season.  Sometimes they would supplant these birds aggressively and I am sure there is the option of clutching at opponents.    I've also seen at least three of the sort of brief tumbling/grasping interactions between birds that Alan describes, and yes, they are over in seconds.   But on none of these cases did I think that my proximity was the issue ending the fight (I was sitting unobtrusively doing time budgets or other observations).   Fundamentally, sugarbirds are noisy, scrappy, aggressive, socially intense birds (sometimes tolerant, sometimes intolerant).   So they do certainly fight briefly at frequent intervals.

While married and working on raptors, I observed several cartwheeling events between raptors, the more extreme of which would involve raptors plummeting for a while through the air with talons interlocked.

Mark Brown of Nature's Valley Trust, and a seasoned ringer had this to say: I have always assumed the "holding on to Protea heads in high wind" theory was the best fit. Have seen a few squabbles, but not many (2 I can recall?).

And just to support the blowing in the wind theory, I just downloaded this video where a male Sugarbird actually manages to feed despite hectic movement of the Protea upon which it is perched: Don't get dizzy watching!

Camera Traps have been very useful for capturing resightings of colour ringed Cape Sugarbirds.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Mt. Fuji from bottom to top and back for a Festival of Fire

Mount Fuji is Japan's highest mountain at 3776m, a volcano that last erupted in 1707 and which has long been sacred to the Japanese. They have been climbing it for centuries. I suspect it is the most climbed free standing mountain in the world.

I never had a view of Mt Fuji during my 12 day stay in Tokyo and Japan. That was despite climbing it and taking a trip up the Tokyo SkyTree (tallest communication tower in the world at 650m). Despite sweltering hot and humid days towards the end of August in Tokyo, the mountain was hidden by swathes of cloud each time I tried for a view. So, as an introduction, this is Mt Fuji as it could possibly be seen from the SkyTree (100km away) in Spring – at least this is the panaroma photo in the SkyTree:

One of the reasons it is accessible to young and old alike (I saw a 5 year old and 80+ year olds on the upper slopes) is that one can drive about halfway up: to the Fifth Station at 2300m. That removes any real glory in a summit of this impressive cone of solidified lava.

In order to do the mountain justice, one should, in my opinion, follow the old, original route – from the base of the mountain at the town of Fujiyoshida. The torii gate of Kanadorii, which marks the start of the sacred area of Mt Fuji, is roughly 800m above sea level. From here to the peak is just short of a 3km vertical ascent, a worthy climb.

This is the journey my hiking companion, Jules, suggested we take, and this is an account of our climb.

Day 1

Our journey started at the seaside town of Kamakura, and because the train ride had to boomerang via Yokohama it took us over 3 hours to get to Fujiyoshida, roughly the time it would take from central Tokyo. After picking up free, really good hiking information at the train station information centre, we checked into Pension Suwanomori, a lovely Japanese-style guest house at the Yoshida-Guchi trailhead.

The guest house is also very close to the beautiful and elaborate Kitagushi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine, the start of the Yoshida-Guchi climbing trail. Here one offers prayers for safe passage to the spirits, although this can also be done at the Memorial Stone to the fallen climbers of Mt Fuji just up the road.

Not a swastika

We then wondered into town, past the Kanadorii, in search of a meal of the traditional udon noodles eaten before the hike.

Day 2 

After a good nights rest and a hearty breakfast, we shouldered our  packs at 8am for the start of our 10 hour hike.

The first stop, after about 1.5 hours through Pine and Betula forests whistling with birds, is Nakanochaya tea house. The woods are meant to be home to Japanese Squirrel, Bears, Boars and Mountain Cats, but all we encountered was a frightened deer.

Still full of energy, with temperatures pleasant thanks to low lying cloud, we pressed on to Umagaeshi (1450m). The name of this station means something like 'horse turn-around' as horses were no longer allowed beyond this point. It was also the last place for free green-tea and water. Close by, an arch guarded by two cheeky stone-monkeys marks the route for every increasing prices for bottled water. Bottled water is about 120 yen from vending machines in town, costs 300 yen at the fifth station, and is 500 yen at the Fuji summit hut. Luckily, Jules was carrying kilograms of water.

We encountered our first hikers about fifteen minutes later at the 1st Station (or Ichi-gome 1530m). A veteran Japanese climber babbled away to us in Japanese, while another carrying the traditional walking stick with bells on to frighten bears took photos of the remnants of the shrine. By this time one has left the gentle incline of the lowlands, and every foot fall carries one skywards. In places the trail runs well below ground level, worn away by the millions of feet that have travelled this route through time. One passes the sites of many old tea-houses, which have become defunct with the road to the Fifth Station. The information signs include photos of a bustling route from a by-gone era.

One of these abandoned stations is the Second Station – Ni-gome – or the Women's Holy Ground. Up until the Edo Era (1832 ad) women were prohibited from climbing past this station and worshipped Mt Fuji from this point.

We emerged from the forests at the edge of the old Fifth Station at lunchtime. The squawk of a parrot led us to a station hut, where yummy Udon noodles were also on the Menu, which were a great supplement to the energy bars and other snack foods that had sustained us so far.

At the fifth station, things change dramatically from several points of view. There is a short transition zone from tropical woodlands to almost bare scree slopes of multi-coloured larva. But it is also where the crowds of people start, and they become the main source of entertainment for the rest of the journey upwards. The trail is clearly demarcated by erosion barriers or rope. Should you not have brought snacks or drinks, these are available at the many huts or sub-huts. Visits to pungent toilets now cost 200 yen.

At the sixth station is a mountain safety hut, where we were issued a pamphlet on the dangers of 'Bullet Climbing'. Those that head straight for the top are more likely to need first aid services, abandon the climb and generally get into trouble. However, the pace of the groups and the bottlenecks on the route mean that one is almost forced to climb at a healthy pace.

We arrived at the Goraikokan topmost mountain hut (3450m) with the last light of the day. These mountain huts pack over 100 people into a very tight space, and you don't really want to spend much time here, especially if you suffer from claustrophobia. One is literally shoulder-to-shoulder with one's neighbour. By comparison, the capsule I'd spent a week in Tokyo was spacious. In our case, we were in the 'attic' with less than 1 meter space between floor and ceiling – we literally had to crawl to our sleeping locations. An evening meal had been included in the price of our stay, and although it was presented t.v. Dinner style, it tasted good to our energy-deprived bodies.

Day 3 

Exhaustion eventually ensured I got to sleep. However, many people have issues sleeping at altitude, and poor Jules had not slept at all by the time people started waking up at 2am. From Goraikokan it is only 1 hour to the summit, but the hut staff had suggested 2 hours may be necessary due to the large number of people. With dawn starting at 4.30 am, we were packed and ready by 2.30am.

Although the last stretch was punishing in the dark, cold, wet and wind, the ascent did only take just over an hour. So we reached the mountain top before 4am – but within minutes the warmth generated by the last leg of the climb had been blown away by the freezing wind and fog. We sought solice in the canteens for some expensive tea and soup, happily paying the inflated price for the warmth more than anything. But by 4:30 it was still pitch black outside with no sign the weather was going to improve. By 5:00am it was light enough to see, suggesting the sun had risen beyond the clouds, and we decided it was best to start our descent.

An hour later and we broke through the clouds for the first signs of a sunrise, and our first views of the five lakes region below us. For the next hour we would stop at the end of each zig of the descending zig-zag trail to distract ourselves from the knee-jarring descent with views of hilltops-islands in lakes of mist. The descent trail is separate from the ascent trail until the Sixth Station, which we reached around 7am.

Since we still had a day to fill before the grand finale of the day, I decided I would return through the forest to Fujiyoshida, in order to try and spot some of the birds we'd only heard singing the day before. As Jules had not slept at all, he opted for the bus from the Fifth Station, and relaxing and refreshing hot-bath.

The grand finale for the day was the Yoshida No Himatsuri – or Fire Festival. This is held at the end of August and marks the end of the climbing season and the start of autumn.

The festival starts around 3.30pm at the Fuji Sengen Shrine, with crowds dressed mostly in white, loose fitting clothing with bells and head sashes. After a ceremony that transfers the spirits of the shrines to the elaborate arks, the procession sets off through the streets of town. For this ceremony, that happened to coincide with a thunder storm, and while the Japanese were well prepared with brollies and raincoats, Jules and I had left ours with our luggage in a locker at the train station, so had to seek shelter in the shrine for an hour or so while the rain wore itself out and had us seriously wondering how they would light the 70 or so three-meter tall pre-prepared bonfires that were the highlight of the evening.

Fortunately, the spirits were suitably appeased and by 5pm the streets were bustling with people examining the wares of the hundreds of street stalls, selling everything from gold-fish and turtles to octopus-on-a-stick. And by the time the last light of the day had died the first of the bonfires was on the go. The ceremony and festivals continue until midnight, and into the next day, but we'd had enough and it was time to head home to family and beds where one didn't feel the breathing of one's neighbour.

All in all, a most memorable expedition.

Notes on preparation. 

I'm normally quite fit, as my work involves lots of hiking and outdoor activity generally. However, 2014 had been proving to be a bit of a laptop year, and in order to get ready for Mt Fuji I regularly hiked to the top of Blue Hill about once a week. Since this was all between 1000 and 1500 meters, I did not have problems with altitude sickness, which afflicts many, and which I have felt before.

The equipment list for climbing Mt Fuji includes the following:

1. Hiking Boots (good idea, although I saw some people did it in trainers)
2. Warm, layered clothing, including fleece and rain jacket and pants.
3. Gloves – both for keeping hands warm at altitude and protecting ones fingers against the sharp lava rocks.
4. Headlamp – especially for the night climb
5. Water – as much as you can comfortably carry, at least 1 litre.
6. Snacks – we carried dried fruit, energy bars,  energy drinks and biscuits all bought locally in Japan at Familymart.
7. Cash – for water, tea and food at mountain huts (or using the toilet!)
8. Compass, Sunglasses and Sunblock were not needed by us – but could be useful.
9. Basic first aid kit (plasters, blister pads, headache tablets).
10. Tissues, toilet paper, toothbrush.

Remember, garbage in, garbage out – you need to carry all rubbish off the mountain – there are no bins.    

Mt Fuji is clearly visible at 100km up on Google Earth. Fujiyoshida, the trail head is the grey area to the north between the lakes. 

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