Sunday, 31 January 2016

A CAR with kids

I really enjoy my CAR (co-ordinated avifaunal roadcount) route. WU08 follows a dirt road to the north of the Baviaanskloof mountains, starting in renosterveld, winding through guarriveld thicket, and ending on dry nama-karoo plains. I've been doing this route for several years now and I could not wait to take my daughter Elena (4) and son Charlie (2) on this route one day. This survey was to be it.  
Traditionally, I do this route with my dad, but he wasn't feeling well. Then the three volunteers I'd invited along couldn't make it either. Was this because of the kids or for other reasons?! Suddenly I was faced with having to do the count by myself AND look after the kids. I have to say on setting off on the Saturday morning, I was a bit anxious.

I'd spent the previous afternoon prepping the kids: letting them know we'd be out most of the day, but also showing them pictures of what we would be looking for via Google Image searches. They'd packed a bag of snacks as well as a few books and fluffy toys to keep them company.

When my alarm went off at 5.30am Elena was already awake and ready to go. Charlie took a bit more convincing that this was a reasonable time to be waking up.

Its nearly a one hour drive to the start of our route, during which time Eli was already making sure that I was recording the animals we were seeing. This included a family of giraffe next to the road on a nearby game farm.

Just after 7am we were at the start of the route, greeted by the cackles of a Southern Black Korhaan and eyed wearily by a Black-shouldered kite. But spirits were good. Eli's task would be to count off the stops every 2kilometers on her data sheet while I recorded the target animals on mine. We got off to a good start with a plethora of raptors showing themselves.

Elena fills out her datasheet

Of course, there were plenty of distractions to keep us happy, from cows to tortoises. Tortoises of course were the biggest hit.

One of the questions on the datasheet is: how many people in the car? I decided to fill this in at the end on the criteria that if either of them spotted a target species they would be included as an observer. I was also faced the task in the first few kilometers of figuring out if shouts of 'Jackal Buzzard!' from Elena were legitimate or not! Unfortunately, number of observers noted down on the end was 1. I also toyed with the possibility of extracting 0.5 due to distractions to that observer, but was pretty sure the ADU system wouldn't allow decimals (or negative numbers).

Actually, the first 20km or so were pretty good. Mostly this was because every 2km one of the Chomp chocolates or similar would be rationed out. Eli would also climb onto the car to look around for animals. If we'd been counting butterflies we'd have had a record sheet. 

Charlie: "there's a bird on the car daddy!"
After several chocolates someone decided she needed to jog down the road...

Eli also recorded some scenes with my smartphone camera.

20km and 3 hours in though the heat was getting a bit crazy – easily 30 degrees and only 10am! Within 10km I had the survey route to myself, with the kids asleep on the back seat. While the count was not very spectacular in terms of sightings, I'll put this down to the heat wave rather than the kids. Steenbok are a staple species on this route, but it was clear from early on that most were shade seeking to get respite from the searing heat.

Ewe with a View

Another dead tortoise due to low line electric fencing

Cape Crows are a staple species observed on this route

Steenbok ewe, flushed from the road verge.

Finally, route over we had a nice lunch in Willowmore and rode out the heat of the day next to a dam while I finished off some atlasing.

Les Underhill may be chuffed to know that one of Charlie's first words was 'CAR!' and he's happy to sit in one while doing one all day.  

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Wild West Coast Buttonfail surveys

Last week featured surveys at two sights: De Hoop Nature Reserve and various sites on the west coast including West Coast National Park and the Bokbaai Nature Reserve (part of the the Dassenberg Coastal Catchment Partnership). It meant a lot of driving for me, starting on the Monday with the 6 hour drive to De Hoop. De Hoop manager Adrian Fortuin had kindly agreed to host me in the researcher accommodation at the main camp, and make available his ranger team to assist in the surveys. That afternoon I met the team, and we perused some maps to plan the surveys for the following day. Our challenge was that the veld ages were either very old – 25 years since last fire, or very young, with fire having occurred during the course of 2015.

However, we were optimistic as there were concrete reports for Hottentot Buttonquail at De Hoop and our task was rather to see at what densities they occur. The troops, including volunteers Andrew and Brian, assembled at 7am on Tuesday morning for the start of the surveys. A practice run through the fallow lands close to the main camp went very smoothly, and allowed the team to get used to the pace. This was to be a useful exercise, since our next survey was to be what Andrew would call 'The Great Trek'. We chose a seemingly suitable restio dominated habitat to set out into, but by the time we were two kilometers in we were into some of the thickest vegetation of the surveys so far – but not just that we had to pass bands of spiny strandveld and restio stands so thick and tall they were all but impenetrable. And full of ticks, so many all we could do was brush them off periodically and get on with it.

We were very grateful that Wimpie, chief section ranger had a support vehicle on hand to rescue us from the sea of thorns and ticks after 5 kilometers, after which we had a stroll-in-the-park survey across 2km of recently burnt vegetation. While no buttonquail, several other species of interest were spotted courtesy of the hinter-land droughts, including Namaqua Sandgrouse and Lark-like Bunting, while Namaqua Dove were common.

Vegetation on the 'easy' part of the Great Trek at De Hoop

De Hoop ranger team pointing to buttonquail 

Brian, Andrew and myself rounded off the day with a further 4km through 6 year old fynbos, full of potential, but without success. On the up side, our SABAP2 bird lists were pretty good, with Andrew even pondering whether he'd push for 100.

Andrew had participated in the successful Agulhas plains surveys last month, so this was his first taste of buttonquail free surveys, which are a more familiar feeling for Dale and myself. Andrew gets the credit for the buttonfail survey title of this post. As a budding bird guide Andrew likes to come up with random bird facts that helped pass the time: I didn't realise that in a Fish Eagle duet the male has the higher pitched call for instance.

This time Andrew's random bird facts of the day: the average Western Cape bird list submitted to SABAP2 is 48 species.

Wednesday I had to drop by university for paperwork stuff, before hot-legging it up the coast to Langebaan north of the West Coast National Park. I'd missed this area in previous surveys and was anxious to have a poke around. I had a vague plan to stay at a backpackers and try recruit some more people for surveys – but was rather surprised to find out there isn't one in Langebaan. Instead there are ubiquitous guest houses that cater for the kite-surfing crowds. With a howling south-westerly wind conditions were ideal for those on the ocean. I ended up in the municipal camp-site, but was pretty sure I would not be able to recruit any of the beer and braai brigade to my cause.

Thursday morning and a rendezvous with Dale, Andrew and Brian in West Coast National Park. Dale and I did a rekkie trip with section ranger Pierre Nel. While there have been sightings from this part of the world, vegetation was far too dominated by strandveld. Pierre has not seen a buttonquail in over 20 years at the park.

Andrew: “What are our chances of seeing a buttonquail?”
Alan: “Right up there with spotting a Wandering Albatross.”

A bit later...
Dale: “What do you think of the habitat?”
Alan: “We'd have as much luck surveying in a forest.”

West Coast: spectacular birds and kite-surfing

Common Terns

Brian, Andrew and Dale collecting negative data with a positive attitude

We'd have been better off counting Yellow Canary

Just past lunchtime we'd wracked up more negative data, and decided that scouting missions to find more suitable habitat were in order. After wrapping up my SABAP2 lists, I headed south to explore habitat and accommodation options further south. Rather fortuitously I was turned away from a local municipal camp-ground, forcing me to explore a track with a CapeNature Conservation Area sign next door.

This was when I ran into Bill Boshoff, helping manage the BokBaai conservation area associated with Bokkerivier National Monument. Bokbaai is part of the Dassenberg Coastal Catchment Partnership, a complicated multi-stake owner conservation initiative involving all sorts of people. Bill filled me in on the history of the area, challenges faced by the conservation initiative and  then offered me a room to stay for the night in the historic building, an impressive Cape-Dutch building meters from the beach.

Part of the history of Bokbaai helps paint a picture of the landscape we'd be doing our Friday morning surveys in. One of the original owners, dating back to the 1700s, when returning from Cape Town from a supply run with his ox-wagon was over-taken by fog. In order to get back to the homestead he gave the reins to his wife while he proceeded to lead the oxen on foot. By the time they reached home his pants had literally been ripped from his body by the Asparagus and other thorny strandveld species. He was so fed up he sold up and left.

I'd kept an open mind on the presence of buttonquail given the fairly restio dominated sections of habitat together with recovering vegetation from a recent fire, but after several kilometers we all felt a fair degree of sympathy with that original land-owner! With ripped trousers, I certainly needed a new pair of pants after this round of surveys.

Survey team with Table Mountain in the background

To round off our surveys we headed up to the last vaguely promising section of land associated with Kwa Ttu project where we enjoyed an Eland burger in pleasant surroundings before our afternoon survey. Duiker and other wildlife kept us distracted from the traffic of the nearby R27, but no buttonquail. The transects took us over the 200 km mark in accumulated on-foot surveys.

Luckily, I still had enough energy for the 8 hour drive home, arriving back early Saturday morning.

White-throated Swallow

Monday, 11 January 2016

Fynbos alien insects

Who needs aliens when insects walk among us? I find invertebrates endlessly fascinating, although I know next to nothing about them: there are simply too many species and too few field guides. But insects (my non-scientific catch all term for terrestrial arthropods i.e. including spiders etc) are hugely important ecologically speaking: bees and butterflies as pollinators being obvious; and they are also classically beautiful (butterflies being the obvious example). They range from being hugely annoying (mosquitoes and flies) to having almost god-like status (praying mantids in some Khoi-san cultures). It is kind of bizarre that millions of dollars have been spent on the purposeless at least, dangerous at worst, quest for extra-terrestrial life (SETI project) when entomologists struggle to find money to classify and study the bizarre life forms on this planet we currently inhabit.

After 7 years in the Amazon, where things crawling, sucking, stinging and strident were ever present, with the sound of katydids and cicadas an eternal symphony, the mountain fynbos on a cold winter night was like living on the surface of the moon. While summer nights can result in spectacular insect irruptions, for the most part it is safe to sit outside and enjoy the stars in a pair of shorts without the fear of something cold-blooded injecting leishmaniasis, yellow fever or malaria into one’s exposed legs.

From my point of view as an ornithologist, insects are not just fascinating from the myriad of forms they take, but also because they are also food for birds. Some birds are fundamentally adapted to eating insects, while for a huge range of other species they are important during the nesting stage as supplemental protein for chicks. Most grain-eating, fruit-eating and nectar-eating species feed their chicks insects. During my fynbos bird survey of 2012 and 2013 I took data on insect presence to see if there was any relation to insect presence and insectivores (or other bird species).

For the most part, the answer to that is no: birds are still detectable even when insects are not. In fact, I realised I did not so much have an index of insect presence or abundance as insect activity: without actively searching bushes etc, almost certainly I was only detecting insects that were moving. But there were patterns here, and it was clear that temperature and wind were very important in determining insect activity. To this day I can tell the temperature from insect activity: bees are most active 15C and above, while you’re lucky if its 25 when the cicadas start to whine. A bit surprising was that there was not a linear relationship between temperature and activity: the activity plateaus out, and when it gets too warm it even starts to decrease!

Perhaps more obviously for the orders that feed on flowers my activity scores, partly a function of abundance, were predicted by the quantity of flowers present, more so than other spatial predictors such as rainfall and mean annual temperature.

More on the detailed patterns of insect activity (albeit at a near meaningless order level) can be found here:

In the meantime, here a celebration of insects of the fynbos I have encountered in my travels recently:

Especially cropped to add in those amazingly long antenna

Dragonfly putting up an aggressive posture towards an intruder

Pincushions don't just attract sugarbirds, but many insects too


My least favourite Blue Hill insect: biting horsefly

Monkey beetles are important pollinators for many Fynbos plant species

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