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

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