Saturday, 20 October 2018

Whats up with Vosburg

Whats up with Vosburg? Aka the secret of the Karoo’s municipal campsites.

Vosburg ‘Come enjoy our shady trees’. On the map it looks like all roads in the Karoo lead to Vosburg: you can get there from Victoria West, Britstown, Prieska and Carnarvon. But it’s a tiny town, and when we arrived it felt like no one was at home as we searched for someone to let us know if we could use the caravan/campsite. Some blokes in the hotel bar gave us a name and directions to a house, where the off duty municipal manager was a bit grumpy at first that we had not made a booking. Not that it is very clear how to make a booking: certainly, I’d tried to find out about who to contact on the web beforehand without success. Never-the-less, she soon turned friendly, and let us in, apologising for the lack of tiles in the basic bathroom. Still, the campsite is actually rather pleasant, with big pine, palm and willow trees around a small dam hidden just out of view. While like most Karoo town, plastic litter decorates the landscape, it’s not as bad as some places. Furthermore, on entering the town you are introduced to the pretty side first. The old settlement area is tucked away to the north of town between some koppies, and is rather small compared to the massive sprawling ghettoes around some towns. As such, Vosburg is alright by me.

I did a survey to the south east of town, and had time to put in an atlas card for the town itself through the afternoon. Surprisingly, it would be only the 5th list ever submitted, and it contained a record 51 species, including Gabar Goshawk and Spotted Eagle Owl. I even solicited a response from an African Rock Pipit in the koppies to the north, and found the first Blue Cranes for the pentad, as well as Southern Grey-headed Sparrows. In the end, when trying to pay for the campsite at the municipal offices, Eskom power was out, so they couldn’t charge me, and we enjoyed 2 nights on the town, quite literally.

Our next stop was Carnarvon municipal campsite, where we’d enjoyed a free night before. Again, for the unprepared, there are no instructions and no contact details to get permission to stay. Unlike Vosburg, the gates are open and you can just go in and camp. We went to the municipal offices to get permission this time, and the man we were directed to didn’t want to charge us either. Like anything free, don’t expect any frills, but there is an old ablution block that still provides hot and running water, and charge points around the campsite. The pine trees here serve as a roost for many bird species, Wattled Starling being the bird of the day on this occasion. Eric did a quick whip around town while I attempted to catch up on emails and chores.

It would be an early start the next day to the koppies between the SKA area and Williston. While Cinnamon-breasted Warbler remained hidden, vibrant plant growth and flowers were providing the basis of a feast for a host of birds, from Large-billed Larks to Sparrow-larks. Eric scored four Verreaux’s Eagles, while I’d have to settle for another hard-won African Rock Pipit.  

Every Karoo dorp is built around a church

Vosburg Municipal Campsite: not too shabby

An echo of dreams

Eric prepares for a cycle survey

Not everyday is a smooth one: a shredded tyre on the way to Calvinia

Friday, 12 October 2018

The mid-life crisis of an African ornithologist

“I hate birds”. 

I had to glance away from the birds of paradise I had been admiring in their glass cabinet, the first of many, and the first public gallery at the Natural History Museum of Tring to which I had made a special pilgrimage during a recent visit to the UK. This is, after all, one of the biggest (the biggest?) collection of birds ever collected during the Victorian era during which collecting and stuffing animals was a thing. The museum at Tring is the Legacy of Lionel Walter’s (Lord Baron Rothschild) skin collection fetish and it is a Mecca to any ornithologist. Here there are skins of almost all the birds of the world. So, who had made this sacrilegious statement pertaining to their hatred of birds? The dark haired, smartly dressed, dolled-up lady was making her way with similar make-up painted lady and their entourage of young children towards the mammal halls.

Mitchell from Modern Family suffers from Orniphobia: a fear of birds. Image from:
It is not the first time I have wondered why the hell I am an ornithologist. I grew up looking forward to safaris to Botswana or Pilanesburg National Park, where the box of reference material included Clive Walker’s ‘Signs of the Wild’, Keith Coates Palgrave’s ‘Trees of Southern Africa’, and Gordon Lindsay Maclean’s Roberts Birds of southern Africa (editions 5 and 6). I remember the excitement of a young teenager when one birthday I received one of the first photographic field guides to southern African birds compiled by Ian Sinclair. Later, these would be replaced by the Sasol field guides authored by Peter Ryan and Phil Hockey, both of whom would later be supervisors of mine during my post-doctoral years at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. These men were my idols, and it filled me with pride that I had struggled and pushed my way into their circle.

I’ve probably been surrounded by people that enjoy and love nature all my life. Perhaps the first time I wondered about whether my chosen occupation was really one filled with the glory I’d naively grown up thinking it was, was called into question last year when I was surveying on a farm north of Fraserburg. I’d been greeted politely in the morning by the farmer, who was interested in what I was doing and even showed me a nest made by an Acacia Pied Barbet, and where the local Pale Chanting Goshawk liked to roost. Later in the day though, I was doing a point count on the side of the road when his wife pulled up next to me after returning from town with their children. “Do you count birds for a living?” to which I replied in the affirmative. “You mean that is your job?” she replied with disbelief peppered with a hint of scorn, and on that note left me in her cloud of dust on the side of the road. Surely that scorn was only due to lawyers, bankers and marketing people for companies with dodgy environmental credentials?

From the cool reception of the farmer later in the day, I can only imagine what rant he had to endure from her for allowing such time wasters and non-productive members of society to grace their property, which naturally was providing a service to the world by keeping Checkers shelves stocked with lamb chops and mutton wors.

I have in recent years taken to asking random strangers what their favourite bird is. I’ll give a person on the side of the road a lift, basically in exchange for this piece of knowledge. People almost never have a bird at the tip of their tongues. One policeman to whom I posed the question said quite frankly ‘I don’t like animals’. Another young gentleman, with passing resemblance to a youthful Julius Malema, similarly responded ‘I don’t like birds’. To these and other struggling to answer this inordinately difficult question I normally jokingly respond: ‘Ah yes, but there is one bird that I know you love. Chicken’. And like most of my jokes, I’ll get a polite smile maybe 50% of the time. Certainly, a job as a comedian is not an option.

I’ve realised that I’m too old now to embark on the noble profession of the curer of cancer. I’d also be completely shit at being a social worker, and I’m certainly not patient enough to be a farmer, and I’m completely terrible at DIY, so anything mechanical is out. But I can recognise some bird calls and analyse data, so looks like I’ll have to stick with that.

And I’ll admit that I do what I do now for personal pleasure: holding a bird in the hand, wondering where it came from, how old it is, if its parents were good ones, if it had any affairs with the neighbours, and what its fate it will be when I release it with an aluminium ring on its leg with its measurements registered for posterity in a far-off database. My work is in happy, wild places, far from depressing news and far from the ill winds that blow with the dark political storms that cloud the horizon. Perhaps I’m not providing the world with sausages, but hopefully I’m providing information to someone one day who urgently needs to google the answer to a pub quiz question on how much a House Sparrow weighs.     

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

When species distribution models are validated: a case of a Hottentot Buttonquail

This was something I wrote toward the end of last year for African BirdLife magazine, but that was then never published...

We’ve come a long was regarding our state of knowledge regarding the Hottentot Buttonquail since Africa Birds&Birding published an article with one encountered in the Kouga Mountains: the Fynbos Enigma in 2013. The summary of our state of knowledge described in that article was picked up by BirdLife International, and resulted in the species being classified as Endangered. We now know a lot more about the species thanks to a biome wide survey sponsored by BirdLife South Africa, together with BirdLife Overberg, Tygerberg Birdclub and other sponsors, and involving many participants. The species was recorded in many locations, sometimes in fairly high numbers, although it was also not found on many more.

An article published recently in Ostrich showed the species was far less associated with restios than everybody thought. Moreover, species distribution modelling published in Bird Conservation International confirmed that fire age associated with the fynbos was important at predicting the species presence. The map we produced shows that the potential suitable habitat stretches quite far east, further than it has ever officially been recorded.

The location of the Hottentot Buttonquail encounters from Grahamstown are indicated by the red dot. Species distribution model for Hottentot Buttonquail, with yellow to red good probability of occurrence, and blue low probability of occurrence.

It was thus of great interest to hear anecdotal records of encounters of small, quail-like birds, descriptions of which sounded tantalizingly like buttonquail, from near to Grahamstown. While the area is more generally associated with the thicket biome, pockets of fynbos hide among the hills on many ridges or south facing slopes. Anthony Bernard, a marine scientist at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity was interested in getting some official identification after encountering two small ground birds on an evening walk. While the first bird, spotted running around a shrub, was flushed before they could note identification features, the second froze underneath the one pointer allowing Anthony time to catch the bird before it or the dog knew what was happening!

While a side or belly shot would have been needed to be conclusive that this is not Black-rumped Buttonquail, the face and eye from the photo here fit well with a Hottentot Buttonquail. Subsequent to this, Lynette Rudman and Daniel Dankwerts caught and ringed two buttonquail, confirming the presence of this species close to Grahamstown, as predicted.

Buttonquail identified as Hottentot. Photo by Anthony Bernard

For me this was vindication of our species distribution model, based on climate, habitat and various other environmental variables, but overall was a super exciting record for the Eastern Cape.

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