Sunday, 25 September 2011

Long time in the Langeberg

The title is a bit of a pun – lang is long - in case you don't speak Afrikaans. Still.... it was 5 days without a shower. The Langeberg Mountain Range is a 170km long range about half way between us (Blue Hill) and Cape Town. It stretches from around Swellendam to past Riversdale in the east. The open plains of the Little Karoo border the north of the mountain range, while to the south lie the rolling Agulhas plains.

Looking north over the Klein Karoo from the slopes of Sleeping Beauty, Langeberg

On Monday I set off to Wildcliff Nature Reserve north of Heidelberg ( This is just under 1000 ha of mostly mountain fynbos, managed by leopard researcher Jeannine McManus. I wasn't there to discuss leopard though... but instead to meet my supervisor Phoebe Barnard. She was accompanied by Nigerian fynbos avifaunal researcher Zingfa Wala.

Jeannine - guardian of the wildlife of Wildcliff

Zingfa and Phoebe - looking for rings on Orange-breasted Sunbirds
On Tuesday, after a bit of ringing, I had to shoot off to meet up with the Outramps CREW group. CREW standing for “Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers” and it's basically volunteer groups monitoring local plant species on the South African Red List of threatened species. Despite some sketchy directions, I managed to navigate the floral wonderland of the Rooiwaterspruit valley to make my first appointment with legendary Di Turner, hubby Bill and Ashleigh Harvey. Di Turner and her crew have discovered several new species, documented large tracts of the areas botany, and hiked many kilometers (on crutches!) to do so.

Watchers of the Wildflowers - Bill, Ashleigh and Di

The next day, concerned about my borrowed vehicle on the side of the road, I backtracked down again and drove to Outol on the Garcia pass – a monument converted into an overnight hiking hut. It was then a strenuous long hike to reunite with the botanical wizards. However, views at the top were worth it, and under Ashley's guidance I began to try and absorb the torrent of floral information coming my way. By the end of the day we had climbed the legendary Sleeping Beauty, collected some rare Erica specimens, and hiked for over 10 hours. To recover, we all went to bed very early and slept for 10 hours as Thursday held another long trek.

This time into Kristaalkloof. Weather was slightly better – the intermittent rain of the previous day replaced by intermittent sunshine, so it was time to take lots of flower shots.

Ashleigh mystified by a Mimetes

Amazing Mimetes cucculatus 
Sundew - Drosera sp

Erica c vestita 
Leucospermum calligerum

Protea eximia

What is quite amazing is that the Sleeping Beauty / Kristaalkloof hikes cost R10 a day. And I've been unable to find any useful information, maps etc on the internet. However, this lack of marketing of this spectacular hike shows as there is little trail maintenance. Bookings have to be made through the Riversdale information services.

Friday – the race home for preparations for the Karoo to Coast cycle race...   

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Henry Hacks the Hakea

What the Heck is Hakea?

First of all, we are not talking about a dance performed by the All-Black rugby team.

So what is Hakea? I'd forgive you for asking that question as I only found out over a year ago, when I stumbled across a patch of it on the Blue Hill Nature Reserve and wondered if it was endangered, endemic Willowmore Cedar! How wrong could I be.

Hakea blossoms
Hakea sericea is an aggressively invasive shrub native to south-eastern Australia and now a widespread invader in the Cape fynbos. It occurs mainly in rugged, inaccessible and fire-prone mountain areas. The species is ironically from the family Proteaceae – a family it now threatens by forming thick stands that squeeze out native Proteas. These thickets also result in intense heat when fires occur, which can kill off native species. Hakea has a canopy-stored seed bank and produces huge amounts of seed that are wind dispersed after fires. After its naturalization in 1883, Hakea spread to an area estimated to occupy about 500 000 hectares in the late 1970s. Control measures were introduced and included a combination of felling and burning, augmented by biological control and have been fairly successful.

It is now estimated to cover around 190 000 hectares. After our half a hectare that brings it down to 189 999.5 hectares :)

In an attempt to improve the ecological integrity of our landscape, I headed into the hills with French volunteer Henry Noel to deal with our Hakea thicket. With the help of a machete and 'bossie-cutter' we sweated our way through the spikey stuff. It didn't go without a fight!

Part of the Hakea Hedge

Before - drowning in Hakea

After - Victory! Henry triumphant before a pile of slain Hakea

Average Hakea Height was 3m

We also spent some time throwing rocks in dongas (erosion gulleys)

Monday, 5 September 2011

Caracal vs Leopard

The Cape Mountain Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) represents the southern-most population of leopards in Africa. It is considered a distinct population as males have an average body weight of 30.1 kg and females of 21.2 kg, which is considerably smaller than leopard populations elsewhere in Africa (Savanna leopard males can weigh up to 90kg and females 60kg). The Cape Mountain Leopard occupy massive home ranges (235-600 km sq) and occur at low densities – the 200,000ha Baviaanskloof is estimated to hold 30 leopards, i.e. 1 leopard per 66 square kilometers.

Caracal - cut from a camera trap photo on the reserve
The Caracal (Caracal caracal) is a slender, yet muscular, cat, with long legs and a short tail. Males typically weigh 13 to 18 kilograms, while females weigh about 11 kilograms. The word Caracal comes from the Turkish word "karakulak", meaning "black ear". The Caracal resembles a Eurasian Lynx, but is unrelated. The Caracal is 65 to 90 centimetres in length. However, those numbers are often hard to build a mental picture with, so I have assembled these comparative pictures with other wildlife from Blue Hill Nature Reserve.


Grey (Common) Duiker - females weigh from 16 - 21 kg and are larger than the males

Cape Grysbok - from 8 - 12 kg

Honey Badger


The Caracal is a reddish-brown colour, leading to the Afrikaans name 'Rooikat' or Red Cat. Rooikat are considered vermin by local farmers as they prey on goats and lambs. Last month 3 lambs were killed by Caracal on a neighbouring farm. At a farmer meeting we attended in August we also learnt that the farmers union, Agri Western Cape, had declared a motion of no-confidence in the management of Cape Nature (responsible for most protected areas here) due to their lack of action over the problem species baboon, bushpig, rooikat and jackal. The local Farmer's Weekly magazine states that 6400 head of livestock are lost a day across South Africa due to problem animals. They think the problem is worsening as there are fewer farmers on the land and so fewer people to control problem animals.

Female Caracal inhabit relatively small home ranges, varying from 5 to 57 square kilometres, depending on the local availability of prey. While the females actively defend their territory against other females, the males roam over much larger areas of 19 to 220 square kilometres with considerable overlap. It is known for its spectacular skill at hunting birds, able to snatch a bird in flight as it can jump and climb exceptionally well. This also enables it to catch Rock Hyraxes (dassies) better than probably any other carnivore. This would make it a direct competitor of the Cape Mountain Leopard, where dassies can account for 64% of their diet.

As the apex predator in the Western Cape region, the Cape Mountain Leopard is expected to experience little direct and indirect competition from other predators – lion and spotted hyaena are extinct in the area. The Black-backed Jackal and Caracal are the only relatively large carnivores that may be considered competition. However, it is thought their smaller body size in comparison to the Cape Leopard reduces their direct competitiveness. Leopards tend to occupy higher altitudes (> 600 m asl) in mountain fynbos vegetation, whereas Caracals reside in transitional habitat at lower altitudes (< 600 m asl).

Is this purely habitat preference or do leopard actively chase Caracal from their territories? This is a fact that is used by conservationists to stop leopard persecution i.e. if you have a leopard (which are less of a problem animal – only up to 2% of scat contain livestock) on your land you are less likely to have Caracal or Jackal.

Up until recently, we would have said this was true as we recorded leopard on our property, but never Jackal or Caracal. However, as of July we have obtained several Caracal photos, including this interesting sequence of a Caracal and Leopard at the same spot only 20 minutes apart. The leopard is the resident male – Butch – who is rarely on the property. He has been absent several months now, so will his return mean the Caracal will disappear? We wait eagerly for the end of this month where the next download from our camera traps may paint a clearer picture.

Caracal - note the time stamps between these photos

Cape Mountain Leopard - Butch

This article contains information from the respective species accounts on Wikipedia, as well as information available from the publications on the Cape Leopard Trust website.

Braving a Bushpig

The Bushpig (Potamochoerus larvatus) is a strong, stocky pig with powerful forequarters. Unlike 'farm' pigs, the tails are straight, and they do not hold them erect when they run like warthogs do. Their upper tusks are barely visible, but the lower tusks are razor sharp and grow to 7cm in length and so they are considered to be very dangerous when surprised in the bush or wounded during hunting. An adult boar measures up to a meter at the shoulder and can weigh from 50 to 150 kilograms. They have a reputation as being very vicious – so now think about how I felt this morning when I went to check the leopard cage and found a roaring Bushpig inside!

As I was on my bicycle and alone, I headed home for reinforcements. If I was to be torn apart by a wild pig, I wanted it to be documented. This time we made sure the camera settings were all good so we didn't miss the moment (see the story about catching the Clawless Otter). Approaching the cage, the Bushpig charged around like a mad thing, shaking the cage as it charged into the iron bars. Usually I open the cage from the side for things like Aardvark or bokkies, but today I thought it would be safest to undertake this procedure perched safely on the top of the cage. Luckily, on opening the door, the Bushpig simply ran away up the mountain.

Face-off with the Bushpig

Releasing the Bushpig from on top of the cage


The action was documented by Chris Lee from the safety of our Hilux bakkie.
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