Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Publication: Aspects of the ecology and morphology of the Protea Seedeater

Its probably four years since I saw my first Protea Seedeater – while on an exploratory walk shortly after first arriving to Blue Hill at the end of 2010. Anja and I were sitting in the shade of old growth Fynbos when a pair came to investigate us. I remember the occasion as the birds seemed rather relaxed and I was able to get this photo:

At the start of 2011 my interest in Fynbos endemic birds was fully developed, and in order to determine bird movement patters I was training to do my ringing licence. Mike Ford, one of South Africa's most experienced bird ringers, offered to come and stay for a few days at Blue Hill in order to train me. It was a drought year, and scores of canaries and siskins were coming to drink at our stream. After two days, Mike had been propelled into the second most experienced Protea Seedeater ringer, with 15 birds. This number also represented a 30% increase in the total number of Protea Seedeaters ever caught in South Africa.

By the end of the year I was a qualified ringer, and catching my first Protea Seedeaters alone. Then in 2012 came the 'big' fire. All our old growth Fynbos, some of which was over twenty years old went up in smoke. I remember going for a walk in the embers and seeing Protea Seedeater and thinking 'agh shame, all your food is gone'. Luckily we had good rain just after the fire, and on subsequent walks Protea Seedeaters were encountered in flocks! They were coming to feast on freshly released seeds from all those old proteas.

A ringing session in the burnt area saw me record a record number of captures - over 25 individuals!

I have since ringed 84 of these intriguing birds, with four recaptures. I decided it was time to record my observations, which were written up for the African Zoology journal and can be found here:

This is the abstract of the article:

The Protea Seedeater, Crithagra leucopterus, is one of six passerine birds endemic to the Fynbos Biome, South Africa. It is the least known of these, and there is very little information on breeding and habitat use. Through nest observations and a bird ringing scheme in the eastern sections of the Fynbos, we provide updated information on habitat use, breeding and population biometrics. We document changes in capture rates for a suite of birds in relation to a fire event and use of burnt and unburnt sites within Blue Hill Nature Reserve, South Africa. Protea seedeaters were recorded nesting in mature Fynbos, but feeding in recently burnt Fynbos on freshly released protea
seeds, suggesting the species benefits from smallscale burns that create a landscape of mixed veld
ages. Protea seedeaters weighed less and had shorter wings compared to those of the western Fynbos. Further habitat-use and life-history information on protea seedeaters is needed to help guide conservation management plans, especially in the light of changing fire regimes in the Fynbos.

One of 84 ringed Protea Seedeaters

Also known as Protea Canary and Witvlerk Kanarie, the black and white throat together with whitish wing bands and heavy bill distinguish it from the similar Streaky-headed Seedeater

Its a tough job getting Protea seeds out of senescent cones - the proteas don't want them eaten after all!

While Protea Seedeater sometimes has a white eyebrow, it is usually less distinct and not as long as Streaky-headed Seedeater
Streaky-headed Seedeater - not common in Fynbos, preferring Karoo and coastal habitats

Monday, 27 October 2014

Karoo National Park – Honorary Rangers Birding Weekend

I was honoured to be invited to be the guest speaker at the birding weekend of the Honorary Rangers at the Karoo National Park this past weekend. I really enjoyed my last visit to this beautiful park, and so decided it would be a great opportunity for a follow up visit.

After meeting some of the participants, and attending the group's meetings, my overall summary of the Honorary Ranger program is:

Good people doing Good work

And whenever I feel all is wrong with the world and there is no hope for humanity due to selfish and self-centred behaviour that is so often the focus of media attention, I will remember this group of 1300 volunteers that have contributed a combined R43 million in money, time and materials to augment the central SANParks staff and activities, and so remember that there is hope for our world.

Just a short list of what they have done:

Raised money and donated a vehicle to the rhino anti-poaching team.
Monitored and repaired the very long park fence – only a few weeks ago several hundred meters of fence were stolen and had to be replaced on very short notice before the park lions found the gap.
Contributed thousands of hours to overseeing tourist activities on the roads and at the campsites.

The focus of the weekend was a birding competition where participants were divided into teams and then had to see as many birds as possible during the day. Each team was accompanied by a guide who would confirm sightings, and each bird had to be seen by two team members. Although not officially part of the team, I went out with the Blue Hill volunteers. We managed the lowest score with only 35 birds compared to the winning team that spotted 76 birds in very windy conditions.

The event was superbly organised by Japie Claasen, chair of the Honorary Rangers. The collection of sponsors for awards for participants was like nothing I have ever seen before. Japie is one of South Africa's top birders and organizes bird watching expeditions all around South Africa, which are both affordable and highly recommended by participants. For more information on the SANParks Honorary Ranger program and to find out more about his birding trips, he can be contacted on karoobirding 'at'

Thanks to those who attended the talk on the Sunday morning when you could have been out on game drives or packing to head home!

Here are some wildlife highlights from the trip:

Ouch! Why you should never annoy a Gemsbok.

Burchell's Zebra and Mountain Zebra are common in Karoo National Park

Reed Surfing - Southern Masked Weaver coming in to land

White-backed Mousebirds are common at the campsite

African Pipit on the road

African Pipit in more conventional surroundings

Red Hartebeest are common. Here a lonely male meanders through the mountains.

A Southern Masked Weaver takes a drink between nest building and chasing females

Acacia Pied Barbet drinking

Cape Bunting with a remarkable parasite load - see the chin

Tortoises around camp are a constant source of amusement

Chestnut-vented Titbabbler - a superb mimic and beautiful songster - among the sharp spines of an Acacia karroo

Gemsbok are iconic creatures of the southern African arid environment
Alan and Japie - although I look like I am wearing some African-theme Halloween costume - that is a coincidence

Cameras from BirdLife SA to monitor Birds drinking in the Fynbos

A big thanks to Dale Wright and BirdLife South Africa for the loan of two Cuddeback Attack IR cameras which will be used to monitor drinking activity of birds at various water sources around Blue Hill Nature Reserve.

The following is a summary of the study proposal:

Temporal and environmental patterns of visitation at fresh water drinking sites by birds in a semi-arid Fynbos environment

Canaries and many other species of birds, especially granivores, need to modify their diets (Carrillo, Moreno et al. 2007) or supplement their water requirements in order to maintain body water balance (MacMillen 1990). Water supplementation may be from dew or residual rainfall, but in arid environments often birds need to drink from streams or other water supplies (Skead 1975). Global climate-change models suggests the Mediterranean climate of the Western Cape will become drier (Midgley, Hannah et al. 2002). There is also concern over the lowering of water tables due to ground water extraction, which may be influencing above ground water availability in the Western Cape (CapeNature pers comm). Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Siskin and Protea Seedeater have all been observed drinking water to some degree (Hockey, Dean et al. 2005), however, the reliance on water sources by the Fynbos endemic bird species has not been quantified. This project aims to determine temperature patterns and rainfall events influence the numbers of birds drinking at pre-identified drinking sites. The results have implications for the conservation of water supplies and Fynbos endemic birds across the Fynbos.


This project will take place in and around the Blue Hill Nature Reserve, Western Cape, an ideal location as it is juxtapositioned between arid Karoo environments and moister Fynbos. It thus experiences an extreme range of temperatures, from below freezing to 40 oC which will allow comparisons over a range of temperatures.

As observations need to be taken over a long period, through temperature extremes uncomfortable to human observers, we have chosen to undertake long-term monitoring via camera trapping. 

A number of regularly visited drinking sites have been identified. Cuddeback Attack camera traps have been installed at two of these. They have been set to take photos every 15 minutes automatically through the day. Photographs will be examined for the presence of drinking or bathing birds. The numbers of birds observed will form a relative index of water requirements for each species. Daily and seasonal trends can then be examined in relation to ambient and seasonal temperatures.

Example of camera installed on a drinking seep where various bird species have been observed drinking

We will initially model total drinking birds per day as a function of daily temperature (mean and maximum), daily temperature of previous day, time in days since last rainfall (by rainfall amount categories), mean daily wind, mean daily humidity, and month (season) using linear modelling or other appropriate modelling techniques.

We do wish to cross validate results for a selected period of time by having human observers undertake real time observations at these sites. This will help quantify the index in terms of real numbers of birds visiting drinking sites.

Literature cited

Carrillo, C. M., E. Moreno, F. Valera and A. Barbosa (2007). Seed selection by the trumpeter finch, Bucanetes githagineus. What currency does this arid-land species value? Annales Zoologici Fennici, Helsinki: Suomen Biologian Seura Vanamo, 1964-.

Hockey, P., W. R. J. Dean and P. Ryan, Eds. (2005). Roberts birds of southern Africa. Johannesburg, Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund.

MacMillen, R. E. (1990). "Water economy of granivorous birds: a predictive model." Condor: 379-392.

Midgley, G., L. Hannah, D. Millar, M. Rutherford and L. Powrie (2002). "Assessing the vulnerability of species richness to anthropogenic climate change in a biodiversity hotspot." Global Ecology and Biogeography 11(6): 445-451.

Skead, D. M. (1975). "Drinking habits of birds in the central Transvaal bushveld." Ostrich 46(2): 139-146.

Figure 1 Cape Siskin at a drinking site, Blue Hill Nature Reserve

Figure 2 Male Yellow Canary drinking, Blue Hill Nature Reserve


Sunday, 19 October 2014

Ringing at van Staden's wildflower reserve

On Thursday night the rain was coming down so hard I could hardly hear the speaker at our local farmer's meeting. In only a few hours time I would be waking up to head east towards Port Elizabeth, together with volunteers Jessy and Adrian to the van Staadens wildflower reserve to catch birds.

At 3.30am the windscreen wipers were still working, but they were also off as often as they were on. By 4.30, with the first glow of dawn on the horizon, it finally looked like our rendezvous with Ben Smit and Jerry Mokgatla would not be in vain after all. We pulled up at the locked gates at 5.30am. Now what!?

Ben arrived a bit later and we scouted around for someone to open the gate – no-one! Only thing to do was set the nets up close to the gate, as the Watsonia's were flowering prolifically and we could hear Cape Sugarbirds among the scattered pincushions.

The reason for our visit was to meet Jerry, who will be doing a Master's with Ben. The target species being Cape Sugarbirds, and the questions being whether there are differences between the sexes in terms of foraging behaviour and physiology.

Our first sugarbirds were in the net before we'd even finished tying down the last strings, and all in all it proved to be worth the drive, with 50 birds processed from a variety of species, including some I had never rung before.

Exhausted by lunchtime from our night drive, we headed to Falcon Rock campsite, where we set up tents and collapsed for a well deserved siesta.

In the late afternoon Adrian and I still had enough energy for the one-hour hike up Lady's Slipper – the hills overlooking van Staden's. We were interested to see if we would be able to spot Cape Rockjumpers, which were know to occur here until recently. We had to settle for lovely views instead.

Saturday morning we set up nets in a patch of pincushions to target the Sugarbirds. However, a stiff easterly wind had me concerned about safety of birds in the nets and we wrapped up the day by 10am. However, again, not a bad haul... below are some of the highlights...

Black Cuckoo-shrike, male. A ringing-lifer. Amazing orange gape.

Black Cuckoo-shrike, female

Black-headed Oriole

Common Waxbill

Forest Weaver

Ringing station, with Jessy, Adrian and Jerry

On top of Lady's Slipper

Lazy Cisticola, another lifer!

Red-faced Mousebird. 

Southern-masked Weaver

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