Saturday, 26 December 2015

Bloupunt Attempt

Many people have driven the breath-taking Meiringspoort through the Swartberg Mountains; either as scenic destination, or part of their journey from Oudtshoorn to Beaufort West along the N12. Few people, however, have seen Meiringspoort from above.

It was Anja's birthday and time to do something memorable again; the benchmark set with our ascent of Mannetjiesberg last year.

At 2066 masl Bloupunt is the first >2000 m Swartberg Mountain peak to the west of Meiringspoort.

On showing Anja the photo of this peak, impressive from the northern side, she was a bit dubious as apart from the Besemfontein hike a month ago, she'd been doing a lot of laptop time.

Bloupunt from the north-east

But our base would be the luxury-rustic Stone House at Meijersrust, a special place in and of itself, and Anja's birthday treat. I'd camped at Meijersrust a couple of times before, and its a really beautiful property with great hostess and host in Vivian and Barry Meijer.

Our first challenge was to get to the Stone House in Anja's Mazda Etude, as a high clearance vehicle is needed to ascend the farm track. The Jimney battery needed replacing, but with nowhere open on a Sunday we were unable to use our little 4x4. Despite Anja's white knuckles, a few under-carriage scrapes and grinds, we made it. We got there early enough in the afternoon to wonder around the farm tracks to admire the eland, cute calves and many bird species in the mosaic landscape of dams, Acacia filled drainage lines and dams.

Mazda with Bloupunt from the south side in the distance

Our attempt on Bloupunt started the following day: Monday 21st. Our original plan was to drive to the campsite higher up in the mountains to shorten the distance and to gain some elevation for the hike, but that was out since a 4x4 is needed to get there. So we started off from the Stone House, which is 700 masl, early enough to be pleasantly distracted by Apalis, Duiker and Sugarbirds in the crisp morning air. By the time we reached the viewpoint over Meiringspoort (1200 masl) it was touch and go as to whether we'd make Bloupunt. We thought we'd give it a shot anyway, and headed off-trail and upwards.

By just before midday we'd walked 10 km and climbed 1000 meters, but we'd reached our turn around time. Our compromise was thus Bloupunt 'Junior' at just over 1700m, with great views north beyond Klaarstroom; south to the Kammanassie and Outeniquas; of Meiringspoort below us to the east, with Blesberg beyond; and Bloupunt so near and yet so far to our west. Starting from the campsite the ascent would be possible as a day hike.

Meiringspoort from above

On Bloupunt 'Junior' with Bloupunt behind

Anja proving that most mountain accidents happen on the way down.

Our descent was fairly quick as we b-lined our way straight down the mountain, cutting out the zig-zag of the Meiringspoort viewpoint and saving 3km on the way. This meant we had plenty of light time and were able to enjoy the huge outdoor bath to the max before having to escape indoors to escape the chill mountain breeze.

Overall, lovely time out (although I did sneak in a buttonquail survey and birdwatching) and a great escape from the Christmas mayhem.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Another Nature Tragedy

Since we have been living at Blue Hill, perhaps on alternate years Jackal Buzzards have nested in cliffs not far from us. Jackal Buzzard is one of the world's most strikingly beautiful buzzards, and a South African near endemic, where it is relatively common.

I was interested to see what prey items were being delivered to the chicks ever since one of the farmers in our community mentioned that Jackal Buzzard were killing their pigeons. Camera traps are allowing us insights into the most intimate of nature's secrets; and are frequently used by a range of researchers to document life histories at raptor nests: Black Sparrowhawk and Crowned Eagle recently the focus of two PhD students in South Africa.

I installed a Bushnell motion sensor camera on the nest at 10:30am on 14 October. There were two small fluffy white chicks, which I did not photograph as I wanted to minimise disturbance and leave the area as quickly as possible. I'd later regret this: an insight into the chicks health at this stage would have been useful for unraveling the mystery of what happened over the course of the next few days. Already at this early age it was clear that one was not going to make it, with one chick twice the size of the other. Cain and Abel-ism is a common, somewhat disturbing, aspect of the reproductive cycle of many raptors: the first born chick kills or out-compete younger siblings.

Within minutes of my departure the female had returned to the nest.

Over the course of the next few days several interesting prey items are observed including one small bird (possibly a chick), a large bird (possibly Red-winged Starling), several agamas and a sungazer lizard, two snakes, a small mammal and a Sengi.

Prey item: small bird. Also note the temperature is cold at 6 C

Prey item: large bird (possibly starling)

An unexpected visitor while mom is away

Southern Rock Agama feature several times


Sengi (Elephant Shrew)

The weather was extremely variable over the week of action captured, from below 5 C to over 35. Panting and wing-drooping, behaviour associated with heat-stress, are observed from temperatures starting in the mid- twenties. The brooding female has to endure hours of hot afternoon sun.

There are very few photos of the chicks due to the angle of the camera. 

On the second day the smaller chick is still alive, but the photo below looks like the mother disposing of the youngest chick (subsequent photos in the following seconds after this one show the adult flying away).

But all is not well. This photo reveals damage to the head of the remaining chick.

Damage to the face and head of this chick is reminiscent of recent photos of attacks on seabird chicks by rodents.

This is the last photo of the chick, which looks to be carried by an adult.

After this photo adult Jackal Buzzard visits are rare: in one an adult is carrying a stick – nesting material – but whether it is rebuilding or recycling is not clear.

Other species are quick to usurp what is left of the abandoned nest.

Greater-striped Swallow are seen collecting feathers for nesting material

Egyptian Goose frequently adopt abandoned raptor homes, but this individual did not stay long.

Monday, 14 December 2015

A near-death experience a day during the Baviaans Buttonquail survey

There can be very few things as frightening as realising that the car you've just been driving is on fire. Maybe there are, but I sure was not thinking about them as I saw the smoke and flashes of orange flame billow from beneath my Suzuki Jimny. I'd just gotten out to close a gate to a section of the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, where I'd been retrieving camera traps placed a few months earlier.

Run away before the car explodes or attempt to put it out? I had to act fast – I had a 5 litre water bottle easily accessible as part of camping equipment for the weekend's expedition, which I grabbed, I then had to slide myself under the car to the source of the flames and then squish the bottle to splash water onto the fire. Having extinguished the flames I then had to pull the smouldering grass and seeds that were the source of the blaze from out of the bump plate I'd had installed the previous week to protect the 4x4 engage equipment.

“Fit a bump plate and you'll have no more problems” had been the dealer's last words. So now I don't have to fear about breaking the 4x4, but I do have to live in perpetual fear of being blown up instead. Not sure I like the trade-off. Basically, the 6km off road drive I'd had to do to retrieve the cameras had packed dry plant material over the bump plate, which had then been set alight by the heat of the exhaust. Very luckily, I'd probably caught the fire just as it had started, and there was no damage to the vehicle.

However, it was a nervous further half hour drive until the first of multiple river crossings through the Baviaanskloof had me assured that any last smouldering bits were well and truly out.

5 hours of rough road later and I was rendezvousing with the survey team at the Bergplaas mountain hut. Brian Reeves, ECPTA ecologist for the wider Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve organized the accommodation and also recruited Tracey Potts and Hennie Swanevelder to help with the surveys. In addition, I'd persuaded Krista Oswald and her crack team of volunteers (those of the Kammanassie survey) to lend a hand. Brian warned us to keep an eye out for buffalo and had us all sign indemnity forms, following a couple of unpleasant encounters with these big beasts over the previous couple of years.

The team soon had the evening's fire and dinner on the go, while I pitched my tent on the other side of an old stone kraal about 100m from the hut. I generally pre-empt getting thrown out of communal sleeping areas due to my loud sleeping habits by setting myself up in isolation, even when dark clouds spell rain on the horizon. That night I would dream of herds of buffalo as Red Hartebeest snorted and chomped the grass around the tent.

After an early mug of coffee I wandered off into the bushes for a bit of early morning ablutions. It was with a bit of consternation that I then realised there were two large male buffalo between me and my tent. Caught with my pants down in the open so to speak, I had to make a dash to an old dam wall to get a shrub between me and the intruders. The dash attracted the attention of one of the bulls, which rather alarmingly started prancing towards me. It's amazing how something that weighs nearly a ton can look as light on its feet as a ballerina. Luckily for me, the attention of the other bull had been distracted by the people around the hut. Confused perhaps by the presence of so many people, the buffalo pair danced off and away.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I headed back to my tent. What I did not realise is that the big daddy bull, which I had not seen, was in the meantime sauntering down from the mountain hut towards me. Rounding the corner of the stone wall, I was greeted by the sight of a very large set of horns on a very large black body and Brian's warning shout stating the obvious: “There's a buffalo in front of you!”

I jumped onto the old stone wall, which got the bull very interested in my presence. Clearly this old man was not of the skittish nature of his two companions. A very lengthy face-off ensued as he perused me from all angles before settling under a bush and allowing me to leg it to the hut.

Krista Oswald captures how I managed the previous pictures

Somewhat incredibly, we managed to set off on our survey on time. Our numbers had been bolstered by two park rangers: Majali and Sino. It was going to be a long day; one Brian would later describe as a 'walk of death'. Our route would take us to the shadows of Mac Mountain, second highest peak of the Baviaanskloof Mountains, and then down a plateau to the reserve entrance gate, following old forest routes. Our ascent was a lively one, with Cape Eagle Owl, a dead zebra, Victorin's Warbler and Buttonquail to distract us from the damp, breezy weather.

As we neared the summit, we entered the cloud line which had been obscuring the high peaks. Surrounded by mist and with low visibility is always a nervous time for anyone in the mountains. We decided to break for an early lunch on the sheltered northern slopes with intermittent views of the Karoo plains beyond. We had finally reached Cape Rockjumper territory, and once the mists had cleared the first sighting of Krista's birds were obtained.

But we still had a long walk ahead of us, and as they say at every mountain club meet “Most accidents happen on the descent”. Sure enough, the first blood wound of the day occurred when Audrey tripped and landed unluckily on a sharp rock, grazing her hand. Audrey is a tough cookie though, and after a bit of attention we were on our way again.

By mid-afternoon we had been on our feet for close to 8 hours, and everyone was feeling the strain. But the worst was still to come. The old forestry road marked on our map did not exist. While it was easy enough walking through the 3 year old fynbos, Brian and I could see that this would end on the last section of the plateau, with unburnt fynbos 3-4 meters high an almost impenetrable wall. And beyond the vegetation wall with our destination in sight we then had to navigate a 100m cliff face covered in spiny forest for the final descent.

Hennie, our support man for the day, very luckily had realised where we were and was waiting for us as we emerged from the forest, whisking us off to a cool mountain pool for a much needed dip in a mountain pool with red-finned minnow. To crown off the tough day, Tracey had our evening meal all ready on our return to Bergplaas.

Third day of the expedition was clearly going to be a recovery day. Well, Krista and Kelly had other ideas: their plan was to head back to where we'd seen the Rockjumpers the day before. I'd singled out the flat plateau to the south of Berglaas as an easy, flat transect for the rest of us. As this was also buffalo territory, Tracey drove a support vehicle behind us in case we needed rescuing. About a kilometre into the hike and Tracey noticed Black Rhino dung in the road. Soon we also noticed browse signs on some acacia trees. Not wishing to tempt fate further, when the vegetation began to get thick, we abandoned the transect for the day. In the meantime, Krista and Kelly had also abandoned their mission, dogged by low cloud and wet weather.

A consolation for the day was an easy transect in the afternoon across the plateau close to the hut, where we were rewarded with Grysbok, Duiker, Red-winged Francolin and what felt like a Buttonquail at every second step. In fact, by the end of the two action-packed survey days we'd recorded over 20 Buttonquail.

Tracey provides vehicle support for the survey team, featuring Brian, Majali, Hennie and Audrey

The mystery of the missing sugarbirds: despite lots of flowering pincushion, sugarbirds were nearly absent. Sino and Kelly wonder where they are

Jenny is rather surprised by the size of a Mountain Zebra skull

Audrey does some in-field first aid after damaging some rocks

Alan, buttonquail, and Krista in action. Photo courtesy of Hennie Swanevelder

We are very grateful to Audrey and Jenny for Italian inspired cooking, as well as the ECPTA staff and managers (Sizwe, Nollie and Wayne) for allowing us to do this survey.   

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Cape Agulhas Heros

Both Dale Wright and myself had passed through the Agulhas region without finding buttonquails in past voyages. But the SABAP2 map for this area was lighting up with Buttonquail sightings and anecdotal reports were streaming in for this area seemingly near completely transformed by agriculture, where would we start looking for our elusive buttonquail? We needed a Cape Agulhas hero, and one found us: Wim de Klerk, MD.

I first heard from Wim when requesting information on Cape Rockjumper and Protea Seedeaters during a public call for information in 2013. Since then, he’d been following the progress of the buttonquail survey and suggested some sites to Dale, which eventually snowballed into an offer to use his house in Struisbaai as a base; then help on the surveys; he coordinated access to land with local landowners; and then played a crucial role in supporting the team with water and transport in some near marathon surveys across the Agulhas National Park.  For the past 5 years Wim has been working on a project to consolidate a bird list for the park, and knows the birds, the people and the area better than anyone.

Dale in the time running up to the survey had assembled a crack team of volunteers. We had two Stellenbosch biologists: Mike Leach and Philip Frenzel, Andrew de Blocq – masters student from UCT, Reason Nyengera from Zimbabwe, and our veteran volunteer Sege. While Dale, Wim and I discussed plans for the week at our rendezvous on Monday in Struisbaai at Wim’s house, the Mike and Philip took control of the evening’s braai.

Tuesday was to be our first full day survey, on private land close to De Mond Nature Reserve. Buttonquails had previously been reported from a strip of Limestone fynbos. Our initial survey line rewarded us with Denham’s Bustard and Black Harrier, both of which we’d come to learn are common in this region. It was on our return transect that we’d get our first buttonquail, when one erupted just a few meters away from Mike. The bird flew across us, rewarding everyone with a view. To crown the sighting, a buttonquail was then heard hooting from the vicinity of where the bird had initially been flushed! Dale had seen his first buttonquail, but was not quite satisfied; but was rewarded with another sighting toward the end of the transect line. I wondered if the bird had flushed from Reason’s feet due to the rusty machete he had found lying in the bush earlier in the day.

Just to show the volunteers that this was not all plain sailing, Wim had us survey through some old scrubby fynbos that turned into a real challenge to walk through, with every step requiring us to push through the bush. The rewards on the top of the hill we summited were worth the effort, with amazing views of the Agulhas plains to the north, and ocean to the south.

Wednesday started again in promising habitat, but the morning had us defeated, with 6km under the belt. Cloud Cisticolas and African Pipits taunted us from above. Again though, other sightings and encounters kept us on our toes, highlights being a Martial Eagle and Mole Snake. All credit to Mike for keeping his cool and letting the snake slither right over his feet.

In the afternoon we were again on private land, in beautiful golden fynbos roughly 5 years old. Two kilometres in and Dale and I were wondering if we were back into the habit of recording negative data, when Reason flushed another buttonquail. While Reason didn’t have a machete this time, he did find a pair of long-handled pruning shears once the survey had finished.

Thursday morning: when we pulled up to our first transect line and saw the Agulhas sand fynbos beyond, there was no doubt that it was not a question of whether we’d see buttonquail, but rather: how many? With the weather again brilliant and a breeze at our backs, the team decided that today would be a record breaking day in as many ways as possible. Sure enough, 7km in and Reason had flushed us 4 buttonquail: 2 pairs. All eyes were on Reason for another shout when it was Dale and Andrew that turned up the record fifth bird of the day: a female buttonquail that finally allowed Dale good enough sightings he was happy to add it to his life list.

But we had a second record to break: that for the single longest transect line. The record to this point was held by the Anysberg team, with a single straight line 11km transect. Fueled by a good supply of energy snacks, the team sailed over the 12km mark around lunchtime. Then we hit a snag: the sand fynbos had given way to an azonal vegetation type dominated by sedge and scrub. The firm, white sands gave way to gloopy mud.

We were lost in a swamp, we needed a hero, and this time Dale turned out to be the champion, using his experiences in the swamplands of Tanzania to push a path through the sharp sedge blocking our way to safety. At one point we nearly lost a team member when Sege, stepping onto what she thought was a puddle ended up totally stuck in gelatinous mud over her knees from which she needed to be hauled to safety. It was a very tired, dirty, but satisfied team that there finally rescued by Wim.

But the record breaking team had not finished yet. Wim and Andrew are both top contributors to SABAP2, and now the combined spotting power had at their fingertips the possibility of a record breaking atlas card for Struisbaai. Sure enough, a quick foray on the final morning had netted an amazing 121 species!

As per usual, our thanks to the expedition sponsors: BirdLife Overberg, Tygerberg Bird Club and Club 300. We would also like to thank Wim’s wife for letting us borrow her husband and house for the week.

Wim and Andrew consult on where to get more birds for their SABAP2 pentad list

African March Harrier were a highlight among the many raptor species seen.

Caspian Tern with fish, De Hoop Nature Reserve

Black-crowned Night Heron, De Hoop Nature Reserve

Bontebok: "If I hear one more word about buttonquails, I'm going to give someone the horn!"

Southern Tchagra

Allofeeding Cape Weavers

Phillip, Andrew and Alan on the Agulhas plains, photo courtesy of Selengemurun Dembereldagva

Survey line in action. Photo courtesy of Selengemurun Dembereldagva

A very satisfied Dale Wright

The best reason for spotting so many buttonquail was this man called Reason.

Andrew de Blocq and the team successfully navigated many obstacles on the way

Wim de Klerk points us on our way

A slightly different Buttonquail Proposal from Dale Wright. 

Sege happy to be alive: note the mud levels on her trousers from where she disappeared into the swamp.

Record Breaking Team at the southern-most tip of Africa. Photo courtesy of Dale Wright.

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