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.

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