Thursday, 20 March 2014

To the Berg and back

Well, a week of being 40, and I still feel alright. The month's highlight was a long road trip through the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, combining the Birdlife South Africa meeting with a bit of a family holiday. The weather was rather wet and kids were a bit demanding, so awesome photo opportunities were few and far between. Below are some of the trip highlights.
Speckled Mousebird

With Anja in the front seat and Elena and Charlie squirming in the back of the Jimney, we set out on the 4 March for Groendal Nature Reserve, a 30 000 hectare reserve which marks the eastern end of the Baviaanskloof Megareserve. Its just outside Uitenhage and is above all else a hiking destination – apart from the road in to the campsite and out again, there is very little infrastructure. Apart from the wet weather, we also had to spend our one full day in the area sorting out kids papers in Port Elizabeth.

In the afternoon we thought we'd drive to the start of a hiking trail marked on the map. We drove through an open gate and winded our way through astounding scenery to the Groendal dam, to a locked gate. We couldn't find the trail. On our way out we met some people driving the other way – turns out we were on private property – there is a large private farm in the middle of the Nature Reserve! Normally the open gate is shut and locked and the hiking trail is no longer there. So be aware if you are planning a visit to Groendal for the first time!

Elena enjoyed feeding the peacocks that visited the campsite, which originated from the private property - so not technically wildlife.

We then followed the long road to Qunu – birth and now resting place of Nelson Mandela. There is a large museum on the outskirts of the rural town which documents much of the struggle against apartheid. However, we still had a long way to go – our destination was the campsite of Coffee Bay.  

Coffee Bay is a big surfing destination and backpacker destination. Just as with Groendal, we had the large forested campsite to ourselves. Anja spent much of her time there to avoid the harassment of peddlers and beggars on the beach, but Elena was very excited by the sea and all that went with it.

Buff spots of a Buff-spotted Flufftail - the highlight of my Coffee Bay stay

After a stop to visit family in Port Edwards, where thankfully we did not have to camp (starting with a dramatic thunderstorm at Coffee Bay it rained for four days consecutively), it was off to Sani Pass. For my birthday we had booked 'luxury' accommodation in the form of the 'Stone House' at Mkomazana Cottages. This historic location used to be the base of the first trading station from which journeys by donkey would be undertaken over the Sani Pass to Lesotho. My birthday present from Anja – a day free to explore the pass by myself while she looked after the kids, which I have to admit was very much appreciated.
Sani Pass - perhaps the most famous of the Drakensberg passes leading to Lesotho

I set myself the modest target of spotting 40 birds – although given the inclemental weather I was worried this would be a bit difficult to achieve. My target species were the Drakensberg specials: Drakensberg Prinia, Drakensberg Siskin, Drakensberg Rockjumper, Gurney's Sugarbird and Bush Black-cap. I dipped on the siskin (somewhat to my surprise) but got all the rest – the Rockjumper by only the skin of my teeth as I had just set off from a rain-washed Sani Pass summit having given up for the day, when I spotted a small family scurrying around next to the road right below the 'Highest bar in Africa' where I had spent a few hours hiding and waiting for the weather to clear.

Gurney's Sugarbird

Drakensberg Prinia singing in the rain

Drakensberg Prinia sitting in the rain

Drakensberg Rockjumper standing in the mud. The bird has a ring on from Mark Brown - placed about 4 years ago.

Sod's law of course, having navigated the conveys of 4x4 tourists on their way up the summit, by the time I reached the bottom the summit was in glowing sunshine. At least this meant I was able to go for a short walk and achieve my target bird list for the day.

If you are thinking of doing the Sani Pass, its well worth it – scenery is truly splendid. The South African border post is near the bottom of the pass, while the Lesotho border post is at the top. They are quite used to day trippers, so paperwork is a formality. There is a R30 'toll' at the Lesotho post if you are planning on stopping at the famous bar at the top. The road itself is not that challenging in terms of a 4x4 route – my dad likes to tell the story of a friend who drove up in an old MG, and there is a steady flow of passenger mini-buses ferrying people to and from the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

After Sani it was the backroutes of the Natal midlands, those green rolling hills below the buttress of the Dragon Mountains. We were blessed with a sighting of a Bearded Vulture – this species is listed as Critically Endangered in South Africa with fewer than 150 breeding pairs. The bird was in the company of a small flock of Cape Vultures (Endangered). Our destination for the day was the Royal Natal National Park – where we would be based while I attended the Birdlife South Africa LAB (conference associated with their annual get together). There I would learn that the population of Bearded Vultures is steadily declining (a legacy of poisoning and persecution), but that the species is facing further severe threats from wind farms planned for the highland areas. Modelling by Dr Tim Reid has shown that a single bird in these areas faces fatal strike threats up to 40 times a year.... not good news at all! Basically, vultures are very prone to strikes from wind turbines because they have evolved to look down and not overhead for danger. Birdlife South Africa are vehemently opposing wind-farms in these areas.

Cape Vulture

juvenile Bearded Vulture

Overall, the conference, hosted at Mont-aux-sources hotel, was very enlightening – there were talks by a wide variety of many of South Africa's top ornithologists as well as fascinating talks by guest speakers that included the likes of John Ledger on the history of research on vultures and powerlines – with photos of vultures literally exploding as they were electrocuted; Prof John Croxall spoke of the amazing work to save albatross and seabird populations around the globe; while Dr Ali Stattersfield gave an overview of the awesome conservation work undertaken around the globe by Birdlife International. Adrian Craig spoke on the colors of birds' eyes and legendary Warwick Tarboton presented the first data on the long journey made by Woodland Kingfishers as revealed by geolocators – the birds spend the South African winter in Savannas of Central African Republic or Southern Sudan.

While I was trying to deal with all the information coming in on current research on South Africa's birds, Anja was enjoying breathtaking views of the Amphitheatre from the comfort of the Tendele resort in Royal Natal. We extended our stay there for a night after the conference to spend some time hiking under sunny skies with the backdrop of the Tugela falls and the Drakensberg's Barrier of Spears.

Amphitheatre of the Royal Natal National Park at dawn. 

Golden-breasted Bunting

Helmeted Guineafowl

The original inhabitants of the Tendele camp - Chacma Baboons


Sunday, 9 February 2014

Jane Goodall: 80 years of Good and a message of hope for All.

I was very lucky to be in Cape Town for a special date: the FitzPatrick Institute had arranged for Jane Goodall (of chimpanzee research and conservation fame) for an open talk presented by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town on Thursday last week.

Jane Goodall: 80 years old this year

Those who work in conservation and the environment are usually heavily influenced from an early age by books of a few famous people: David Attenborough, Gerald Durrell – and Jane Goodall. As such, a chance to see Jane present live was not to be missed.

I arrived at the Baxter Theatre almost two hours early, heading straight there from a mind pounding full-day statistical course. The VC talks are free – and so the room was full of students and an air of anticipation. When the doors did open I was able to get one of the first rows of unreserved seats, with a great view of the podium, even though it would be another hour before events started.

The event was officially opened by Peter Ryan, acting Directory of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute, who gave a brief overview of the Fitz and how their contacts had made this night possible.

Peter Ryan

To set the African ambience a four piece traditional music group (whose name I can't remember) then presented three beautiful pieces of work. With their ostrich feather headdresses they were quite striking.

The Vice Chancellor (Dr Max Price) then brought Jane Goodall to the stage, accompanied to resounding welcome applause by the awed audience. Jane smiled and gave the audience an enthusiastic thumbs up. Max ran through a biography of Jane's principal achievements, including her overcoming obstacles of a post-war, post-Victorian conservative era, to the academic challenges of documenting chimpanzee behaviour in such detail for such time – which included the first use of tools and insights into family structure.

Max Price: University of Cape Town's Vice Chancellor

During this time, Jane rested peacefully on a chair – she had been busy all day talking to schools in the townships. To thank Max for the introduction, and highlight the similarity of human and chimpanzee behaviour, she demonstrated how a female chimpanzee would greet a dominant male chimpanzee – which apart from a pat on the head is basically a warm embrace.

How chimpanzees and famous people greet

Jane started her talk with tales from her childhood, many of which highlighted the supportive role her mother had played in her development, encouraging her to follow the path she was clearly so passionate about. The young Jane clearly had an inquiring mind –  demonstrated from her tale of the chicken and the egg. Not the question of which came first, but quite simply from where the egg came from, because there was clearly no hole in a chicken large enough for the egg to come out of. She was unsatisfied with the answers she had received from the adults and hid all afternoon in the chicken coop, causing much consternation to her family who were unaware of her whereabouts. But her caring nature was also demonstrated through a tale of taking a handful of earthworms to bed with her.

Jane Goodall's presentation was a rare thing: no powerpoint presentation, just words from the heart

Her passion for Africa was evident from one of her first book purchases – Tarzan of the Apes – which she read multiple times, with the only disappointment in the tale being that Tarzan had married the wrong Jane!

Jane's first trip to Kenya was by boat around Africa via Cape Town, although her first impressions of South Africa were not favourable due to the new apartheid regimes 'whites only' signs on so much infrastructure. In Kenya she impressed the famous archaeologist/palaeontologist Louis Leakey who assigned her to study the chimpanzees of Gombe, Tanzania (accompanied by her mother) and arranged for her to do a PhD through Cambridge.

Her work on the chimpanzees was made famous by her two books 'In the Shadow of Man' and 'Through a Window'. Much work on chimpanzees is still carried out through the Jane Goodall Institute. But as time progressed she realised that in order to save the chimpanzees she needed to do more than just research, and had to engage with the human communities whose populations had encroached to the edge of the reserve. This was the start of her 'Roots and Shoots' program, and a change in focus that got her so involved with education and development programs, especially in Asia. Her talks now keep her on the road 300 days a year, amazing considering her age.

While there are many reasons for conservationists and environmentalists to be bleak about the future, Jane did summarize several example of why she has hope for the future.... much of it inspired by the power of the human spirit. Her companion monkey for instance was a gift from a blind man who'd overcome phenomenal obstacles. Likewise, she reminded us of the extraordinary man Nelson Mandela.

At the end of her talk, she received a standing ovation from the crowd, one of the longest I've ever heard. It was a talk that was so positive and uplifting, and very emotional for some. My overall impression was just “Wow, what a beautiful person.”

Thanks again to Rob Little for keeping me a ticket, and to the Fitz for organising a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Coordinated Avifaunal Roadcount: the accounting of route WU08 of Summer 2014

Today's CAR route was most memorable from the least number Blue Cranes counted, but its been the trip with the most number of chicks seen, albeit only 3.

As Chris and I headed off to our monitoring route start point today, there was plenty of action which meant we nearly didn't arrive on the start point at the suggested time of one hour after sunrise. There was plenty of small game including duikers and hares on the route from Blue Hill to the Winterhoek turnoff, plus a dispersed flock of Amur Falcons and Lesser Kestrels.

We were so distracted looking up at the whirling raptors, that we were caught by surprise when a Blue Crane took off from the road in front of us. On the verge of the road, the partner slunk along rapidly, before climbing through a gate to get to the veld beyond. It was then that we noticed the chick next to us that the adults had obviously been trying to protect or distract us from.

Blue Crane climbing through a gate

But it was not long before that gangly pile of legs was freaked out by our proximity and to our surprise the Blue Crane colt wriggled its way through the jackal proof fence and into the field where mommy was. This sighting was at the same location where I recorded the display dance about a month earlier.

Blue Crane colt hiding

freaked out

through the wire unscathed and off to find mommy

Our route starts at the interface of renosterveld and Karoo, works its way through some thicket covered hills, and then into wide planes of karoo veld. Now that the ADU has us counting crows and selected raptors, one tends to be very busy.

Pale Chanting Goshawk

Not all Steppe Buzzards perch on poles

Not least because in the Western Cape one also counts a variety of antelope, of which Steenbok is Abundant. Although Kudu are not included on this list, we note them down anyway for ourselves, as this district is big game hunting country, and we feel its a species worth recording.

Four young male kudu know what's good for them and run for the hills

This female kudu looked very unhealthy

The most common animal along the route is the Angora goat, as this is Mohair producing country.

Unfortunately, many stock camps have an electrified wire very low down (ostensibly to keep out jackal). This wire is responsible for the deaths of many tortoises, which simply withdraw their legs when shocked and then suffer one of the most painful deaths imaginable drawn out over an extended period of time. We counted four dead tortoises along one particular stretch of fence.

Electrified to death Leopard Tortoise

For the first time actually on the route we recorded a pair of Secretary Birds. But our Blue Crane Count on route was only 2 – the lowest ever; and the case was the same for Karoo Korhaan – although detecting them is always at the mercy of how much they feel like calling on any particular day. At the end of the route we did spot another pair of cranes with a pair of chicks, a nice way to round off the count.

Previous Car Accountings:

This Leopard Tortoise was not amused by a Fast driver in the Slow lane

Thursday, 23 January 2014

When thunder gods fight: Lightning storm over Blue Hill

The Western and Northern Cape were in the throws of a heat wave yesterday, with the capital of the Klein Karoo – Oudtshoorn – registering 43C. Our kitchen, at 29C seemed cool compared to the 39 outside.

The consequence of the hot day was a convection thunder storm building up over the Swartberg. By late afternoon, black clouds ruled the sky to the north of us. The storms to the north normally pass us by on their tract eastwards over the country. This one was so big, we caught the edge of it.

As the sun disappeared westwards, I ventured outside to capture some shots of the regular lightning bolts coupled with the clouds glowing red from the reflected fires of a setting sun.

As the last daylight was washed from the sky, the storm edged ever closer, the lightning ever closer, distant rumblings of thunder ever closer – but the constant booming made it impossible to count seconds between strikes and thunder – the classic way to estimate storm distance. The first drops of rain fell, and we retreated inside.

By 8pm there were lightning strikes going on at a rate of at least one per second. It was light as much as it was dark. There was no single clash of thunder... the thunder was just a background concert, demons at the instruments of a discordent The Ride of the Valkyries – that classic Richard Wagner symphony. The occasional strike overhead would ring out like a rifle shot.

But it was the shapes and forms of the lightning that had Anja and I glued to the window. Streaks of jagged light were shooting from one side of the hillside to the other as though Thor and Zeus had decided now was the time for the final showdown, the battle to decide who was to reign as Lord of the Thunder Gods. Over the course of the next hour the battle raged further eastwards, with no sign that a victory would be assured for one or the other.

And all of that brought just 4mm of rain.

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