Saturday, 29 August 2015

African Wildcat kills all our chickens

Monday, 24 August 2015

The day started with thunder in the distance, an omen for events that would unfurl that day. I set up nets for the mornings bird capture session as lightning played on the hills to the south. It is August, still winter, but minimum temperature for the day would be 17 degrees – sometimes the maximum for a warm day. Eventually the berg winds bringing hot, compressed air from the arid interior dispersed the storm clouds. I'd caught a Cape Rockjumper and needed to head home.

Scanning the day's headlines I noticed ISIS had blown up another historic memorial; refugees were storming Europe; people were committing suicide due to the Ashley Madison data leak; and stock markets were plummeting. Echoes of a world on the brink.

On attempting to settle down to write the conservation assessment for Cape Rockjumpers, I heard Elena's shouts from the chicken coop. Heading to the kitchen window I saw Elena and Anja running back to the house.

“There's a wildcat in the chicken coop; all the chickens are dead!” was the news.

The wildcat had apparently climbed up some shade cloth we had over the main window of the coop and squeezed in through a narrow gap. The smooth window on the inside prevented it from escaping. It was very thin, with a lame back left leg. Clearly a desperate individual. During its time in the coop it had killed our four chickens and the rooster.

After the volunteers and researchers had had a look we opened the door and let it go. We placed the dead chickens near a camera trap to see if the cat or any other wildlife would return to feed.

These are the results after 5 nights.

The dead chickens laid out at the camera trap

A common duiker is the first to pass the scene

Then a Cape Grey Mongoose (look left)...

The mongoose drags the dark chicken away to the cover of bushes

A Hare passes by during the night

Then there is no activity for 3 nights until the return of the African Wildcat

The wildcat simply smells the chickens, perhaps too ripe by now, and moves on

The next day there is no evidence the wildcat has been feeding on the chickens, a common Duiker passes by

We will miss the fresh eggs from our free range chickens, but events like this are part of life if living on a nature reserve: we cannot complain.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Rockjumper Peace

While the rest of the team was out today catching more rockjumpers, I was keen to follow up on the male released that was featured in the WAR post. On approaching his territory, I encountered an unringed male in the no-mans land between two territories. Not long after entering blueblackorange territory, I heard an alarm and caught sight of the familiar gliding form down the hill. I had the camera at the ready, and snapped some pics. Very exciting to see that it was blueblackorange and even more exciting to see that he was carrying a beak full of nesting material!

As an aside, did you know this antelope is a Klipspringer, and that means rock jumper in Afrikaans.

Male Cape Rockjumper Blue Black Orange with a beak full of nesting material

Friday, 7 August 2015

Cape Rockjumper WAR!

In my previous post I documented a placid Cape Rockjumper release, in this one I document a rare fight sequence. This has been the only one we have observed to date. Mostly the birds are happy to call and display to each - I've never seen a full on fight before.

I had just released a male Cape Rockjumper back where we had caught him and he flew quickly out of sight. However, I heard him calling and decided to get a closer look. His calling was answered promptly by another male close to hand. The interloper was an unringed bird, and must have used the period of the resident males absence to attempt a territory take over. The recently released male was not going to put up with that and quickly flew over to the usurper. A lot of calling, displaying and posturing took place, and then a brief midair full on contact fight occurred.

A period of about 10 minutes of chasing and calling ensued, which took the birds over the valley and out of sight. Birds that we catch are fed up on meal worms and always gain weight - so I'm hoping this was to the residents advantage and things are now back to normal.

Photo quality is poor as these are cropped photos: the action took place a bit far away for nice crisp shots.

realising there is an intruder, the resident male flies in to defend his patch

resident male takes up a prominent display posture

a lot of call and displaying takes place

Aerial combat! the two males clash in mid-air

A more placid male from the neighbouring territory respected the boundaries

Cape Rockjumpers fan their tails to show off

On a more peaceful note, Malachite Sunbirds are back and feeding on the later winter/early spring flowers

Cape Rockjumper release

Krista Oswald's research into the Cape Rockjumper temperature tolerance testing has been going remarkably well, all considered. There have been several days with no bird captures, but then an amazing team of assistants - Gavin, Alacia and Audrey caught 3 on one day. Unlike previous experiments this time we are also testing the low end of what Cape Rockjumpers can handle - it looks like sub zero temperatures are no problem for this species.

Yesterday some radio transmitters were delivered which will enable Krista to continue the behavioural aspects of her work. Some of these results have already been presented at the BOU conference of birds in space and time earlier this year. Basically, there is a tight link between physiology and behavior - birds basically no longer forage once temperatures go beyond 30 degrees.

In the meantime, yesterday and today we had some of Krista's compatriots from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University visit with her supervisor Ben Smit. This sequence of photos is of the release of the female with the first deployed radio tag. The release went smoothly - she was soon joined by other members of her family group.

Audrey adeptly releases the female Cape Rockjumper

Jumping to freedom

she can't believe she's back home! Where is everyone?

Her boyfriend welcomes her home (and shows off his ringless legs to the researchers).

Another female (sister? mother?) looks on. 

Friday, 19 June 2015

For the Love of the Land (aka volunteers Rock)

Life on a CapeNature stewardship Nature Reserve is a bit different. At least it's hard to compare to other places I've lived across the world, which range from London to the Amazon.

Its beautiful, peaceful, healthy, invigorating. We live surrounded by the entertainment that nature has to offer, marking time by the state of bloom of the flowers on the hills. I wake each day with a feeling of purpose, excited about what the day has in store for me.

But being a custodian of the land is hard work, with few options for generating income. In effect, its a giant land-care hobby: we do it for the love of the land. We spend hours of time maintaining trails, attempting to maintain roads, mediate erosion, and controlling alien plants.

Thankfully, our lifestyle and location does appeal to the young and adventurous. We support a steady stream of volunteers from around the world, who come and help with various projects on a volunteer basis. Payment is food, accommodation, and a chance to explore a true wilderness area while contributing to conservation efforts. Here are some photos of volunteers and their activities.

Last year Jessie (Switzerland) and Adrian (France) got fit and healthy filling sandbags and planting vygies in an area that has not recovered from sheet erosion:

At least the alien black wattle trees are a consistent source of firewood, even if the light wood itself burns a bit fast. Getting the wood into firewood format is a big task:

Over the last month we've had three strong lads volunteering with us: Ivan (Ozzie); Augustin (France); and Brian (South African). We used their muscle power to move tons of rocks to change the route of a track to cross two deep erosion gulleys. These gulleys were the legacy of ploughing of sensitive soils decades ago. The track was routing over the head of these gulleys: sensitive areas where a road was merely exacerbating erosion. The new route now avoids this area, plus the rock bridges across the gulleys will slow down further erosion within the gulleys themselves. This is the culmination of a project that started years ago, where you can also get a better idea of how deep the erosion gulleys are.

photo courtesy of Augustin Calas

photo courtesy of Augustin Calas

On a buttonquail survey some weeks ago we found an isolated pine in a very remote section of the reserve. The three intrepid volunteers headed for the pine on their day off and chopped down another threat to our areas biodiversity.

Photo courtesy of Augustin Calas

The volunteers have also helped us with a variety of research and monitoring tasks. This past summer Christina van Midden, Dean Portelli, Marie Pascal, Ruby and Dan helped us with all day monitoring Cape Rockjumpers. Ruby and Dan transcribed pages of information stored in bird books into spreadsheet format for a meta analysis project that will explore life-history correlates of population declines. Over the last week we've digitized over 25000 photographs from our remote cameras monitoring visitation of nectarivores to proteas, and of a variety of bird species visiting drinking sites. Phoebe Barnard will be reporting on some aspects of these research project at this years Fynbos Forum, to be held in Montagu.

So... a big thank you to all the Blue Hill volunteers that have all helped our conservation and biodiversity actions in some small way, we are most grateful for you help (as are the voiceless species that represent the biodiversity of the Fynbos).   
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