Saturday, 26 March 2011

Awesome Autumn

Mornings are cooler now - perfect for walking! So I decided to take my time on the latest round of checking leopard cages (we've only caught and released a klipspringer recently). The walk up our Sugarbird Valley was amazing. Not only did I see our elusive Gemsbok, but I also flushed a Verreaux's Eagle (who had evidently been eating a dassie); and came across some very relaxed Ground Woodpeckers. Added to that the Suikerbossies (Protea repens) in full bloom and attracting every nectarivore for miles around; the discovery of another rock shelter with rock art; and it all adds up to a pretty good morning out.

Black Eagle - you know they are around when the Dassies are barking

A family of Ground Woodpeckers

Magnificent Malachite Sunbird, on a Protea repens

Rock Art - a 5cm high hunter (I've enhanced colour to make him stand out a bit)

A male Cape Sugarbird shows off his ultra-long tail

Friday, 18 March 2011

What to do with a Leopard once you've caught it

I was dawdling back along the N12 from the ringing conference on Tuesday, when my phone rang. Anja said: “Thank heavens you answered your phone: we've caught a leopard”. I made it home in record time.

For several months now we have had a walk-through cage on our property in an attempt to catch a male leopard whose satellite collar no longer works. It has to be checked on a daily basis, which is a bit of a chore after a while, especially when catching anything is few and far between. We have however caught baboon, porcupine, grysbok and aardvark (all of which are released unharmed). So when we can get volunteers to help, great. In this case, Basia, from Poland, was on a routine check, when she noticed the cage door was down, with a leopard inside!

Landmark Foundation, who conduct the Leopard research in the Baviaans area, were called and assembled their team for same day response. Jeannine McManus had to drive all the way from Heidelberg, collecting Glen (a vet from Oudtshoorn) on the way. In the meantime, Basia bravely had to put some blankets over the cage. By the time the team had arrived the Leopard, a young female without a collar, had pulled the blankets through the bars and into the cage.

The following shows a sequence of events from darting, to release:

Spot the Leopard - crouched in the corner of the cage. Not surprising they are so hard to see in the wild!

Glen, the vet, darting the Leopard with a tranquillizer gun

She didn't like that - she roared to show her displeasure

The tranquillizer takes about ten minutes to work. Here she is dreaming of dassies. 

Jeannine and Glen remove her from the cage onto our comfy blanket, ready for processing

Glen gave her eyedrops, checked her general condition (good) and heartbeat

Jeannine estimated her age as two years based on teeth length

The satellite collar was fitted

Weighing the leopard. Photo by Jeannine McManus.

Baboons kept watch towards the end, but ran away when she started to wake up.

After all the processing was complete (less than 1 hour), antibiotics and a wake-up jab were administered. After twenty minutes or so she started to look around.

Here she is back on her feet, but still a bit woozy. She eventually made her way into the bushes where we lost track of her. Hopefully we will see her on our cameras again soon.

Killing Kestrels

A week ago I was driving toward the Northern Cape town of Victoria West on my way toward the ringing conference at Barberspan. It was about 5pm and I began to notice increasing numbers of Lesser Kestrel sitting on the telephone lines along the road. With the sun beginning to set, I photographed a few just before coming into the town. As I drove into the town though, I couldn't believe my eyes as the skies above the town were a tornado of birds. There were so many they reminded me of a big flock of swifts. It was clear that they were about to descend to roost in the large pine and gum trees of the town. I pulled off onto a dirt road and got out to start taking photos. After a while I noticed that a small group of boys further up the road also seemed to be interested in the birds descending into some large pines. As I was partly blocking the road I was in, I decided to move towards them, as perhaps they knew of a particular roost tree.

As I drove up to them I noticed to my consternation that they had catapults and were shooting into the trees. I pulled over, took some photos and asked if the birds roosted in the large pines and they said yes. They ranged from maybe six to 14. I told them the birds were special, that they flew here all the way from Europe. That Victoria West was lucky to have so many; and that the birds were endangered. I was struggling a bit with my Afrikaans – its only my 3rd language. Struggling for the world Endangered in Afrikaans I had to pause, during which they left and went back to shooting at the birds. It was hard to contain my frustration that I had failed to convey the value of these birds. A passing Afrikaans lady scolded the kids from a distance, they ignored her. By then my anger had mounted.

Killing Kestrels

I got my wallet and told them that they were not allowed to shoot the birds, and that if I called the police they would be in trouble. I gave them R20 and told them to go away.

I stayed to photograph the birds, and then drove around a few blocks to make sure they had not simply moved somewhere else. I tried to find the police station, considering mentioning to the police that the birds were not to be persecuted. But I had to travel on. As I left I passed the RDP housing on the outskirts of town. I could smell the boredom from a distance.

I felt sad and disappointed in myself that I had not done more; taken out my birdbook and shown them the birds there, found the Afrikaans name for the birds; or even bought their catapults. Them or other bored boys are probably at it again now, injuring or killing an endangered species through boredom and ignorance.  

Female Lesser Kestrel

Male Lesser Kestrel
Large numbers of Lesser Kestrels can be observed on the telephone lines - here a group of females enjoy the last of the day's sun

As darkness sets, the swarms of birds head towards various large trees (usually gum and pine) to roost. Here they are vulnerable to bored people with catapults. They leave on-mass with the first rays of dawn.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Stunt Swallows

Two weeks ago massive winds associated with a hail storm broke a window of a store-room. Since we are not using the room much, we haven’t made an effort to repair it. Last week while in the room I noticed the makings of a swallow's nest on an old sliding door in the room. I presumed it was an abandoned nest from the summer breeding season. Imagine my surprise when a swallow flew into the room through the broken window, panicked, and flew out again.

I then noticed that a pair of Greater-striped Swallows were collecting mud from a bare patch of ground the sprinkler had been on and that they were still constructing the nest. That is unusual since it is really late into summer now – autumn is announcing itself in the cool morning breeze.

These photos show the bird flying in through the broken window in a show of aerial acrobatics that would have the bravest stuntman white at the knuckles.   

Collecting mud for the nest

Calling off a poor approach

Lining up for the entrance through the jagged glass

A successful entry

Another beak-full of mud into the nest 

and off again for some more

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Mystery Snake

Mystery Snake

A few days ago while clearing rubble, I found this snake under a large rock. I have been unable to identify it – if you know what it is please comment or let me know at bluehillescape

It was less than 30cm long, the belly is slightly yellow bordered by dotted black lines. I don't know if its venomous – it wouldn't bite me ;)


Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Which of these Gin traps are 'legal'?

This is a photo of some leg-hold traps that can be purchased in South Africa, and are frequently used by farmers to control 'pest' species, which include Black-backed Jackal and Caracal. By-catch includes anything unlucky enough to pass by a trap, and often includes endangered or protected species – in our area Leopards and Serval have been caught.

New legislation has been passed that classifies 2 of these traps as legal – ironically named 'soft traps'. Can you tell which is/are legal?

You are probably thinking 'That black one on the left is clearly illegal – huge, nasty looking thing. Not so sure about the one in the middle, but that one on the right is small and looks the least threatening'. You're probably also thinking 'I wouldn't want to have my foot stuck in any of them!'

The answer surprises most people – the smallest trap on the far right is the only trap that by legal definition is illegal. Why? 'Soft traps' are legal as long as there is a 'gap' in between the clamps. Clearly that is a sick joke – the gap in these traps is less than a centimeter. If you were caught in the big black trap you would be in severe trouble – I was unable to set it using my hands alone as the springs are so strong. It needs to be set by standing on the levers, while presumably someone else puts the latch in place.

In civilised countries these sorts of traps have been banned. Unfortunately, they are in common use in South Africa. Once they are set, they are often not checked for days. Anything unlucky enough to be caught will be in agony until such time they either starve or die of thirst, or are lucky enough to be dispatched by a rock (why spend a bullet when you can use a free rock?). Unfortunately it will be a while until legislation is reviewed again, and there is little public action against them.

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