Thursday, 10 July 2014

Citizen Science in South Africa: iSpot and ADU's Virtual Museums

Over the last couple of years there has been a recognition that the general public can play a very important role in science, and wildlife monitoring in particular. Anyone from the librarian's daughter to the postman can now also be a 'citizen scientist'. In South Africa, probably the most rigorous in terms of raw data collection is the South(ern) African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2) where birdwatchers upload lists of birds to a central database. Due to the local focus on going 'wide and deep', as well as encouraging repeat surveys, this is an outstanding database. In some initial analysis I did on bird distribution of the fynbos, it proved way better than the global ebirds project, and even Birdlife International range maps. There is no ornithologist working on South Africa's birds that does not refer to this major database. Join the atlas efforts at

Citizen science projects cover a range of activities, from really specialized skill sets, like bird-ringing, to submitting photographs to online archives. The age of digital photography has been around for a while, and now almost everyone has a camera – ranging from built in cameras on mobile phones to fancy D-SLR cameras with massive lenses. Recording nature has never been easier. However, there is also now competition among citizen science programs to recruit people willing to record their observations. There are 2 major photo archive platforms in South Africa: iSpot and the Animal Demography Unit's Virtual Museum.

iSpot was launched in South Africa in 2011 and has an online community that boasts many expert members that has grown very rapidly through the institutional support of SANBI and a vast amount of time dedicated to the task by Dr Tony Rebelo. Tony's focus was initially to use the tool for documenting the plants of southern Africa and he has succeeded remarkably well – aiming to have 95% of South Africa's plant life documented by 2015. He describes iSpot first and foremost as a learning tool (i.e. you can upload photos and let others identify them). However, you can also contact them to obtain spatial and other information.

iSpot was developed through the Open University and they have brought incredible developmental power to play to create a slick interactive tool – iSpot allows multiple commenting streams which creates conversation and users are a tight knit community. The South African iSpot community can be found at (don't get confused with the UK site). Through a single portal it is easy to upload photos to a range of groups (Amphibians and Reptiles, Birds, Fungi and Lichens, Fish, Invertebrates, Mammals, Plants, Other Organisms). Members collect points through interactions (agreeing with ids). Apart from plants, birds and insects feature prominently in group interactions (see

The Cape Town University's Animal Demography Unit (ADU) Virtual Museum has been around for a few years more, but created their virtual museums from scratch. Despite constant financial constraints, the team led by Prof Les Underhill has done a remarkable job. Registered users number only a quarter of those of iSpot. A key difference is that identification is confirmed by an expert – as opposed to iSpot where the users agree or disagree on an identification. I prefer to do this than get involved with dialogue, but each to their own. I also prefer the mapping feature with the ADU's VM. There are several Virtual Museums (but only one data upload interface at – you then choose which museum your photo belongs in). Apart from trees, they don't do plants, but have more focus on the animal kingdom – including weavers (PHOWN) and Starfish (EchinoMAP). There flagship group is the MammalMap (, but their LepiMap (Butterflies and Moths) formed a major contribution to the recent “Conservation Assessment of Butterflies of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland”, part of their proven track record of doing something with the data submitted.

So which platform to use for documenting your wildlife in the most helpful manner? While both platforms would beg user loyalty, a simple answer is: Plants on iSpot and Animals on ADU Virtual Museums. In fact, iSpot has been courteous enough to link to the MammalMap and SABAP2 under their survey pages – so there is a tacit recognition of the broad domain of each of these.

Participating in citizen science programs is a really useful and rewarding exercise. Its a great way to do something useful with your photos collecting real or digital dust, and for recording your legacy – the information exists for as long as we can produce electricity to run servers, and in any scientific publications that result. By uploading photos with dates and locations you are contributing to a database that allows one to see where and when animals were documented at various locations, a valuable conservation and management tool – but their value will only be realised through sufficient participation – so register for both now!

Friday, 27 June 2014

Radical Raptors

So if you like the environment you can do various things – like take your litter home with you after a picnic – or dedicate your entire life to wildlife rehabilitation. It's the later path that Dennis and family have taken with Radical Raptors – a large-bird rehabilitation and education centre just outside Plettenberg Bay.

I was down that way to bolster a sample of Cape Sugarbird measurements courtesy of Mark Brown's research program near Natures Valley, assisted by Minke Witteveen. Their big news of the day was that a Forest Buzzard released from Radical Raptors two weeks prior had just been spotted in Nature's Valley, showing that the rehabilitation process works.

More excitingly for me – there was another Forest Buzzard due to be released that afternoon. Minke took us (me and a group of interns) along to show us the ropes with raptor ringing. This bird of mixed fortunes had been unlucky enough to be hit by a vehicle two weeks earlier, but lucky enough for this to happen right outside Radical Raptors. Dennis to the rescue... luckily there were no broken bones and it seemed to be a case of only severe concussion.

Super dooper exciting, once Minke had weighed and measured the bird I was allowed to release him. Strangely enough, given the sharp beak made for tearing flesh, these birds don't bite. They won't hesitate to sink their powerful talons into you given the chance though! With a gentle push into the air he took flight and made his way strongly to some nearby pine trees. Yay! Everyone safe and unscathed.

Dennis normally puts on 3 shows a day, but it being mid-winter and mid-week there was no-one around for the 1pm show. However, he insisted that he give us a demonstration. Pretty soon we had a Yellow-billed Kite, Spotted Eagle-owl and Jackal Buzzard whooshing over our heads, while Dennis narrated the special traits of each of these feathered beauties. The birds glide from perch to perch, enticed by juicy morsels of meat. We even had the birds alight upon us (should we wish to enjoy this privileged contact!).

For me, the most awesome display was put on by a young Cape Vulture. His begging display was really intimidating – wings hunched, head down, accompanied by a constant dragon-like roaring. But the shear size of this bird up close was something to behold – something you don't appreciate when you see them soaring in the thermals way overhead. Of course, very few of these birds remain as they have been all put poisoned out of our ecosystems by farmers targeting jackal and other predators using illegal methods.

The birds that are on display are all birds that would not be able to adjust to the wild. These range from Black Eagle Bella, with damaged wing, to Storm – the Bateleur with cataracts. There is also an owl that thinks it is a human and will woo you to share his nest box. Owls are disappearing from the woods around human environments due to the use of rodent baits, that poison the rats, and then the birds that eat them. To do something about that Dennis now offers an eco-friendly pest control service, using a squadron of Harris Hawks to frighten away flocks of European Starlings or Rock Doves. Definitely a service worth using if you have a pest problem.

Point is – Radical Raptors is much more than just a gimmicky tourist trap along the garden route, its an initiative that needs to be supported and a must-see attraction along the garden route, and you don't have to take my word for it has a 5 star rating with TripAdvisor.

Radical Raptors website:


Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Orange-breasted Sunbird: The Bold and the Beautiful

You know you're in the Fynbos once you hear the distinctive tseu tseu, a noise a bit like that a child would make to imitate the laser guns from Star Wars. And watching them darting around the proteas I can't help feeling they are playing, rather than engaged in the eternal fight for life.

The following is the text of a pro-bona article penned for the most recent issue of African Birdlife:

Its not hard to see why this bird is described as beautiful – the male is the most distinctive and gorgeous of the sunbirds in southern Africa. This bird has brought numerous tourists to South Africa, and so it has a pivotal role to play in supporting not just the multi-million rand avitourism industry, but tourism to South Africa in general. As such, it is important not only for biodiversity functioning (through its role as the key pollinator for numerous red and long-corolla erica species), but also for our economy.

So clearly the bird is beautiful from various view-points, but why is it also 'bold'? Field observations of flight initiation distances (a bird's 'comfort zone') show that this is the least skittish of all our Fynbos endemic bird species. Even birds in remote areas will let one approach to within a few meters before taking flight to safer distances. It is also very curious, and it is not uncommon for young birds to approach human observers to almost touching distance.

Perhaps for these two reasons this is the most uploaded of the six Fynbos endemic bird species onto the photo sharing website Flikr so far this year, although there is a clear sex bias, with photos of males outranking females over ten to one.

Ecologically, this seems to be a fairly resilient species – it can be abundant in certain Fynbos habitats, survives on tiny unburnt fragments after a fire, it breeds from very young, has an extended breeding period, can double brood and so recovers populations fairly quickly after fires. Mostly associated with erica plant species, it also feeds from several widespread proteas and a variety of other flower types, as well as insects and spiders. As such, it is difficult to pin down exactly why this species hasn't spread further afield across South Africa, and a combination of food suitability and suitable climate may be the answers.

Research published nearly a decade ago suggested this species would soon be loosing large areas of suitable bioclimatic space, and SABAP data shows moderate decreases in both range and reporting rate between atlas periods – in comparison to the Amethyst Sunbird happily expanding its range across the Western Cape. While there is no need to panic yet, we all need to do our bit in order to ensure that this energetic mascot of the Fynbos will be able to continue working hard for us all well into the future.   

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.
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