Thursday, 16 August 2018

Bushmanland winter surveys

The order of seasons so far since March has been: Autumn, followed by Spring, followed by Summer, followed by Winter. Following on from the winter that wasn’t we had our first taste of winter on leaving Port Nolloth, heading inland to a pentad near Steinkopf, on the escarpment and including the Anenous pass. The wind had been chilly as we packed camp, but by time we reached the base of the hills, it was clear it might well be a difficult day, as low cloud flowed around the mountain tops, shrouding the pass in mist. While the thermometer read 9 C, the icy west wind blowing off the Atlantic was making it feel sub-zero. The plan to split up and have one of us survey by bicycle was quickly abandoned: the sanctuary of the vehicle would be needed to survive the day. This was spent shivering our way through one long, 10 minute point count after another, until the early afternoon, when the sun burnt away the clouds and thoughts of finding refuge in a guest house: we would be able to camp after all.

Maybe because of the weather, the campsite at the Goegap Nature Reserve would be empty for the next three nights except for us. That at the start of the flower season too: although the expected carpets of Namaqualand daisies had already been seared away by the East wind. Between the strong winds, and freezing temperatures it is a miracle that any flowers were out at all, but some of the succulent species were displaying in all their glory, patchily, a burst of purple here and yellow there. Still 3 degrees in the morning meant good conditions in which to hike the trails to the north of the campsite, and cycle the ‘tourist route’, making for some very pleasant days. The post cold-front sunny days were very pleasant, allowing long and productive surveys as the birds enjoyed the mild conditions. We were counting displaying larks of all species all over the place, most exciting of course for this area being the Red Lark.    

But as one heads inland, away from the coast, gaining elevation, it gets colder and colder. The day we left Pofadder for the Bushmanland heartlands, frost lined the road for the first time since the surveys began 3 weeks ago. And that night, after over 15 days of uninterrupted survey time and camping, the first big cold front hit. We give thanks to the small god in charge of looking after bird surveyors that the arrival of the sub-zero damp conditions coincided with the first night with a roof over our heads since leaving Vanrhynsdorp, albeit one with no electricity or hot water. A big thanks to Klaas Louw from Loeriesfontein for the use of the empty farm-house.

The morning after the cold front has passed, it is my turn to cycle. At 7.30am, the mud is frozen to the tyres, the thermometers read -2 degrees celcius. I’m dressed in thermals and several layers, with 2 pairs of socks. With my gloves, beanie etc, I feel alright as I cycle off along the farm tracks to the get to my survey site. By the time I am there though, having passed through several gates with icicles on them, the cold has infiltrated my boots. The aching numbness will be a feature of the next few hours of surveying. A big bank of cloud means I won’t see the sun for a while yet. Still, the birds are active, as active as they were before the front: Black-eared Sparrowlark pairs dancing from grassy patch to grassy patch, Namaqua Sandgrouse racing low through the skies overhead, Karoo Long-billed Larks and Clapper Larks displaying to far away rivals. I type all into my phone as fast as I can while I still have feeling in my fingers. The short 1km bursts on the bike from point to point keeps my core warm enough, although when the wind starts to pick up later, I need to seek the seek shelter of the low bushes to keep warm. After 3 hours or so, eventually the sun appears, and although the thermometer never lifts above 13 degrees, the rays of sun do wonders at keeping me psychologically warmer.     
By the end of the week, my lips are peeling and fingers cracked. Its time to seek a warm shower and electric blanket in Louriesfontein. They say the Hantams region is colder still. 

Rocky II and the frozen lake

Dashboard temperature reading: these reflected what we were getting on our hand-held thermometers

Yes, most of the time was spent camping

We have been encountering a LOT of Red Larks. No, we have not been getting them confused with the bird below.

Karoo Lark

Very young Trac-trac Chat: evidence of breeding aplenty all over.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Of Miracles and Misery in Bushmanland

Of Miracles and Misery; in die wye Boesmansland

There was moisture in the eyes of the grown men sitting around the table of the Uitkyk farm somewhere between Gamoep and Aggenys. Although we’d met Albert and Derek only that afternoon: we were complete strangers invited in for coffee after asking for directions; now we were hearing stories that sang to the soul. Stories that reminded me of what it is to be human, what it is to belong to a community.

Bushmanland, or the Thirstland, is a tough place to live. Sometimes the rain doesn’t fall for years. When the rain comes, it can bless one farm, but pass over the neighbour completely, causing soul searching: what have I done to annoy God this time? or is this another trial of the biblical kind sent to try Job? One year the veld is green, the sheep are fat, and you’re buying a new bakkie for you and another one for your wife. Now you can fix this fence, and repair that windmill that the East Wind has blown the blades off.

Then it is back to normal – baking dry: the veld is dusty and grey; and the rooi jakkals are becoming cheekier and more abundant, happily killing 10 sheep in a night because the sheep are too tired and too weak to run anymore. You’re digging into savings to buy food for the livestock, holding on with hope: maybe this year will be a good one. For many it isn’t, the debt builds up to levels greater than the value of the land and its assets. Many farms stand empty now in this part of the world, there is no longer a sympathetic government willing to come to the rescue: their drought relief comes reluctant and late, if it comes at all.

It has been a long drought in the Northern Cape, running to many years in some places. For Albert and Derek, cousins who have been farming the Thirstlands for generations, the end was in sight. Albert had literally R600 left in the bank. Then one day a stranger was doing the rounds, promising to help if he could, getting bank details, including those of Derek and Albert.

“I wonder what he will give?” they thought to themselves. “Even if it is R10 000 that won’t hold us over for very long”. Later that week Albert went to Aggenys to draw the last of what he had, his last R600. He couldn’t believe it, first the SMS from the bank: a deposit of R100 000. Surely, he was misreading and there was an extra 0 in there? But sure enough, getting to the bank, that was the amount that had been deposited, not just to him but also to about 5 farmers in the area. And who was the mystery donor? To this day nobody really knows, but it has kept these men on the land, a roof over the heads of their families, and food on their plates. We’d heard of similar stories when R3 million of feed had been sent to Kammieskroon district. Grown men literally were in tears of thanks.

Later in the week navigating the farm roads off the Luis 10 road, which cuts like a knife across the Bushmanland scrublands in the direction of Brandvlei, we come across a farmstead in the middle of nowhere. Sheep were eating green feed in a lot near an old reservoir, and an elderly farmhand waved us towards the house, saying the owner was home. Outside the house a massive black boerboel with wolf-like yellow eyes barked and pranced. Of course, opening the door of the BirdLife bakkie the threatening beast was really just an over-sized excited puppy. 

The farmer emerged from the house, thin, salt-and-pepper stubble, and although only a year or two older than me his leathery face was a weather-beaten road-map that showed a rough journey through time. He is a far cry from the EFF effigy of the red-faced boep-pens boer. After accepting the customary invitation for a cup of coffee, our cursory question equivalent of ‘how goes it’ was greeted with a disgusted ‘No man, I must sell: the rain just doesn’t want to fall on me. Come in, but please excuse the mess: my wife’s mother has had a stroke and she is trying to organise her a place to stay in the old-age home, but it is difficult’. With 9000 ha, he is a ‘klein’ boer, a small farmer, in this part of the world. He grew up on these dusty plains that stretch eastwards from Springbok, the northern boundary the N14 through Pofadder towards Upington. He went to school with Derek, but unlike him didn’t receive the life-line of a passing angel.

Once the coffee is on the table in the cold room, he adds ‘Last week jackal killed 8 of my sheep in one night’. He glances heavenwards, cheeks stiff, offering a brief glimpse into a world of pain that we are ever likely to know or understand. I’ve seen that look before; a few weeks earlier at the kitchen table with an elderly boer-vrou. Talk had been of rain, how the previous year they’d received less than 40mm for the entire year. In an attempt to joke I’d said, “with these changes in the weather, its hard to know if one needs to be more worried about climate change, jackal or Malema”. She too had glanced skywards, “Our future is in the hands of the Lord; only he knows what he has in store for us”. Certainly, skywards is the only place many have to look now, in hope.   

Friday, 10 August 2018

The Winter That Wasn’t

I’ll have to admit, I was a bit nervous starting the big Karoo surveys in the middle of July, and thus theoretically the middle of winter. Certainly, cold was on my mind as I passed the snow-capped Swartberge on my way to Cape Town, especially since much of the trip is camping in remote locations; but my other concern was that I would be too early for the birds. But it’s a big area to cover with an ambitious target of point counts to complete, thus needing lots of time, so an early start was needed. Turns out so far, I’ve been wrong on both accounts: temperatures have been mild to hot, hitting 30C at Vanrhynsdorp; and birds have been prolifically active and showing many signs of making the most of the ‘early’ spring. Cape Weavers defending nests, Red and Yellow Bishops in full breeding plumage, and some migrants are already here: Common Quails calling from the pastures, a Klaas’s Cuckoo, and Alpine Swifts dancing in the hills. Lark calls have filled the air all day all month, making every 10-minute point count a flurry of activity from start to finish. At some stage during the winter survey the temperature may have fallen to 9 degrees, but certainly not much less. 

The target is to conduct 20 point counts across 60+ pentads (survey blocks of roughly 80 square kilometers), stretching across the range of the major Karoo endemics, with a focus at the moment being Cape Long-billed Lark and Karoo Larks. Both were certainly plentiful in our first coastal pentad towards the south of Namaqua National Park. To do the 20 counts in a pentad in a day, I share the load with field assistant Eric Herrmann, each of us do 10 counts on different routes, one in the vehicle and one on the bicycle or on foot. Points are ideally 1km apart. The afternoon is for travelling to the next pentad to do it all over again. 

Birding highlights so far have been a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler in the Taaiboschkraal campsite near Kamieskroon, and birds feeding in Kruidjie-roer-my-nie flowers. Other wildlife has included Meerkats among other game, but certainly the highlight was an African Wildcat. I was cycling through the white sand dunes (or rather pushing the bike through them), when I noticed fresh cat tracks over our vehicle tracks from earlier in the morning. Shortly after I had to stop for a count. I climbed to a dune top for a view; and noticed Karoo Larks and Chat Flycatchers paying a certain bush a lot of attention, which was attracting a lot of other birds too. After my 10 minutes of recording the hectic activity (the spot seemed to be visited by every bird in the vicinity), I approached the bush, and sure enough, an African Wildcat burst from cover and disappeared in a few bounds over the dunes and out of sight. 

Certainly, part of the bird activity has to do with the rains this year, together with the temperatures. The region experienced some late summer rains, and then good early winter rains in June. Compared to surveys in the drought-stricken regions last year, the veld is fresh and green this year. So, the flowers were out starting early July: but then came the strong north-easterly winds. These are the hot winds in this area. As such, many of the people we spoke to were concerned that the early flower show would also come to an early end, and certainly there were signs of some of the plants showing stress: wilting and missing petals. The main tourist season for the flowers here is August to September, which could mean some people will be too late: unless some follow up rains occur.

By the time we hit the old mining town of Kleinsee, the winds had died down and weather was cooler again. Some were heard to comment that they were glad winter was back!

Then, leaving Port Nolloth at the end of July, suddenly winter, very definitely, WAS. 

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