Sunday, 12 August 2012

Overberg Underwater

Our attempt to leave Wildcliff on Wednesday was thwarted by a usually subdued stream swollen to a raging torrent by 80mm of rain on Tuesday that kept us indoors all day. Our rendezvous with Chris in George was just not going to happen. Later that day we learnt of an ambulance swept off a road by high waters near Montagu, for which the search for the missing driver is still going on as of today.

On Thursday Chris came through in the Landcruiser to pick up Matt who had been assigned house-sitting duties, while I managed to get out on foot to survey for the first time in 4 days. It was a lovely day, which included records of Red-winged Francolin, and quality views of the resident pair of Peregrine Falcon. In addition, I had several records of Protea Seedeater, which made me wonder why I was suddenly picking them up now in winter in the Langeberg – as I’d had them on Sunday on the Garcia Pass too.

Friday I surveyed out from Wildcliff, over the Langeberg via the Gysmanshoek Pass, as the road to Heidelberg was still cut off by risen waters of the Duiwenhoks River. I reached Swellendam again in lovely weather, and briefly popped into Bontebok National Park to see if I could complete my survey there by bicycle – and indeed one is able to explore Bontebok by bicycle. Meanwhile, the Canola Karnaval was enjoying a day of sunshine resulting in traffic havoc. Perhaps, like me, people had checked the weather report and realised that would be the only day to make the most of the stalls, shows and talent contests – as again Friday night the rain set in with strong winds, lasting most of Saturday. The Canola festival is held at this time of year as the fields of the Overberg are bright yellow with canola flowers.

I still ventured into Bontebok (not by bicycle) to brave swollen stream crossings, to complete a couple of points, which again were very productive as the birds were making the most of any break in the weather to snatch a meal – with much use of prolifically flowering Aloe ferox.   But my views of Agt-huurkop of Marloth Nature Reserve were of mist, snow and cascading streams. Since there are no Olympic medals on offer for daring attempts of dangerous mountains to count birds, there was no incentive to risk my life, so it looked like another route that would need to be postponed, as Grootvadersbos a few days earlier.

The reward for the day was my second sighting ever of a Caracal. Perhaps the poor thing was trying to avoid the inundations around us, or was out hunting after a washed out night. It trotted down the road for a while as I followed cautiously, but on attempting to close the gap for a closer view, the cat slunk off the road and vanished into the Renosterveld. Still – my first wild Caracal photo.

Despite a grey and cold start to the day, today turned out all right. I managed 2 survey lines near Bredasdorp and along the ‘Fynbos Road’ to Elim. This flat section of the Agulhas Plain was very inundated, and there were several flooded low bridges to cross. The birds were enjoying it, with Long-billed Lark calling until late in the afternoon, and many water birds enjoying the lakes, including a pan with perhaps 500 Greater Flamingo.

Thankfully, the next two days forecast look acceptable, but it looks like I’ll have to seek shelter again on Thursday if I wish to stay dry.

Three Blue Cranes in the Overberg

A view of Marloth Nature Reserve from Bontebok

Same view, with a Bontebok

Yay! My first Caracal photo. Poor wet moggy.

Sacred Ibis and Cattle Egrets were among the birds enjoying the flooded landscape.

A ray of sunshine lights up a Canola field and windmill, while rain clouds lurk behind.

A female Orange-breasted Sunbird feeds on Erica c coccinea at Wildcliff

Small mountain streams are now raging torrents - a bit dangerous for the surveys I have to hike.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Scenes from the winter survey so far

The last two weeks (concurrent with the heavy rains and bad weather) I have been on the road retracing the route I undertook by bicycle from February to May earlier this year. Due to a lack of sponsorship I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone by doing it all by bicycle a second time – so I’ve been cruising along in the Suzuki Jimney donated to the project by Chris Lee. This means road surveys have been completed quickly, and transit times are a matter of hours instead of days. In between toe-numbing temperatures during counts I’ve on occasion been able to get back into a nice warm cab. However, many sections of the survey can only be completed by bike and on foot.

I had a fun journey up and down Blesberg (northern Swartberg) by bicycle, from El Yolo, kindly supported by Willem Cilliers. Willem also suggested using whistles on wind-turbines to scare away birds – he uses dog-whistles on his car to scare off kudu.  Recently I hiked through snow on the Oom Stan se Liggies trail up the southern slopes of the Swartberg just north of Ladismith, and hiked half-way up Seweweekspoortberg and Sleeping Beauty in the last couple of days.

Matt Stritch joined me for some of the survey, taking care of some of the driving and packing up camp to move from one spot to the next. He has also been a star with the data entry, and thanks to Matt we are completely up to date with all sightings – I can’t spot birds fast enough for him to enter into the computer! He’s also braved some extreme weather – camping in the rain in Die Hel of all places, as well as camping in freezing temperatures at Seweweekspoortberg (he casually asked me if I’d also had icicles inside my tent on the one morning).

But, we’ve had shelter from cold and rain a couple of times – thanks to Di Turner in George, Tom Barry for letting us use the research facilities at Gamkaberg, and to the Landmark Foundation at the moment for letting us use facilities at Wildcliff Nature Reserve.

Overall, bird activity has not been too bad. Fynbos birds don’t seem to mind the cold, and this means I can survey all day long. They don’t like the wind though. Herewith a selection of my preferred shots.

Typical winter survey attire - here on the Prince Alfred's Pass

Gymnogene with Alpine Swifts

Alpine Swift

Black Harrier - Robinson's Pass, Kouma Trail

Cape White-eyes, Seweweekspoort

Grey-winged Francolin, Rooiberg

Icicles, Liggie's hiking trail

Klipspringer, Die Hel. Wondering about the rain. 

Leopard tracks next to my bicycle tracks on the Botha's Hoek Hiking trail, Swartberg Pass

Female Cape Rock Thrush on Aloe ferox in the Seweweekspoort

Male Cape Rock Thrush

Female Orange-breasted Sunbird, sipping nectar from Paranomus centaurioedes, northern side of the Swartberg

Red dawn from the Rooiberg

Matt and survey vehicles on the Swartberg Pass

An Inconvenient Storm

Time is going too fast! There are too many stories happening that are accumulating and may never be told! Since my last post I have been on the road – trying to get as much done to compensate for time lost due to participation at the Fynbos Forum, and to put time aside for an upcoming wedding. As such, surveys have been conducted dawn to dusk where possible over the last two weeks. Or dealing with storm damage - here is the story of Saturday 14 July and the arrival of the cut-off low pressure system, the closest we here in the central Cape region will experience to a hurricane.

Phoebe Barnard, my postdoc supervisor, and Dale Wright, Western Cape Birdlife South Africa regional manager, had been planning to rendezvous for a trip to the Baviaanskloof to tie in with my survey, to see first-hand what I was doing, to help out, and to do an Important Bird Area (IBA) site assessment of the Baviaans-Kouga IBA. Due to busy schedules on the part of all three of us, it had taken weeks to organise, and it finally made sense to tie it all in on a trip to one of the most important regional conservation conferences – the Fynbos Forum.

However, dire weather had been predicted for the weekend of our planned reunion all week. But we live in hope. So Phoebe and Dale still made the trip up from Cape Town to Blue Hill on Thursday, while I was surveying Prince Alfred’s Pass. As predicted on Friday the weather was overcast and drizzly. Due to a booking error by ECPTA we had not been able to book Bergplaas in Baviaanskloof for the Friday night. Not wanting to camp at Rooihoek (the alternative accommodation on offer) in the rain, I said I would rather stay at Blue Hill and see how things panned out on the Saturday. Dale decided to head to Graaf Reinett to visit his girlfriend doing her ‘Zuma year’ (general practitioner practise year).

During the night the rain started to pick up and by Saturday morning it was as if the sun had decided not to rise again it was so dark. The wind from the south blew stronger and stronger, driving rain horizontally down the valley. Gusts would bend the cypress trees nearly double. The rain sometimes starred the windows as sleet. By 9am I decided to see if Phoebe needed rescuing as she was sleeping a cottage across the stream. I went outside to be greeted by the site of massive branches from our giant Belumbra tree lying on the ground, literally one inch from where the Hilux was parked.

Driving to the cottage the water was already up over the weir, but Phoebe was comfortable in the cottage with a fire, blanket, hot-water bottle and laptop. However, with rain still coming in so much it was running down the chimney, we decided it was time to evacuate. We lit the fires in the main house and settled down to work on laptops. Volunteer Matt had entered all the data he could, and started to update his photos. After lunch he then decided to bring in his camera trap, which was at the top paddock by the pine trees. He came back to report that the normally dry east-road stream was flowing. Sure enough, a dam had formed in the upper lucern field. Water was pouring down the road, and Chris and I were worried about it all flowing down the steep embankment and eroding away the road. So I got the Kubota and started to reinforce diversions. Some had to be done by spade due to all the water also pouring off the mountain. After Matt had finished taking photos of the main stream, now at the highest levels we have ever seen it, full of wood and debris like an Amazon river after a storm, he and Phoebe also helped pitch in making temporary water diversions. All of this in non-stop rain.  Matt documented the day at his blog:

Water coming over the weir must have been raging across at about a meter deep – impossible to cross. Then as it crossed the area cleared of wattle was picking up a lot of branches. At the bridge just before our intersection with Pierre and Sonja’s road a massive tree trunk had been washed across the road. One by one we retired from the rain as wet and cold took its toll. That night we had a nice dinner at Chris’s house, while the rain abated. The rain gauge stood full at over 100mm – the biggest one day rainfall in our 4 years here. Our neighbours, who had been a bit more attentive about emptying their rain gauge, reported over 200mm. Rumours from the Langkloof, on the southern side of the Kougas where we are, were close to 400mm of rain. Our concern now was how long we were going to be trapped – the news told of people trapped on the N1 in the Karoo in snow, flooding in Port Elizabeth, and road closures all over. Perhaps surprisingly during all this there had been only one major powercut, which was fixed withing a matter of hours, and the telephones worked the whole time – so we were able to find out that Dale had managed to get out of Graaf Reinett to enjoy the snow, but that the route back south to us was still open.    

On Sunday it was still drizzling but we headed out to inspect damage. A small dam on our river on our neighbours farm had been washed away. The water was still flowing strongly over the bridge we needed to cross to get out. Plus there were now two large tree trunks on it! Otherwise, there were no road collapses, so our efforts in the rain on Saturday may have helped. However, Chris had forgotten to collect in the camera trap he had placed in the normally dry stream bed - so that looks like it is gone (I couldn’t see it when I went to look and the water was flowing strongly still!). It was clear we would not be able to get out in any vehicle that day, leaving us to wonder how long we would be trapped, and if we would make it to the Fynbos Forum. Overall, I was thankful I had made the decision not to go to Baviaanskloof, knowing that there would be no way in our out for some days.

By Monday the water had subsided enough that it looked we could attempt a crossing out of back route in the Hilux – we were worried that a crossing in the little Suzuki would simply result in it being floated away down the river. We rendezvoused with Dale on the main road, having navigated our dirt Hartbeesrivier road carefully – it had withstood the storms well, considering. It was in the Langloof, which had borne the brunt of the storm, that we got to scenes of real devastation. The Kouga River was roaring like I have never seen it before. The Krom River, which flows down the Langkloof to St Francis Bay, and is normally a placid stream, had burst its banks and we could see that the previous day the entire valley would have been filled with water. It was truly impressive.

The Krom River - this is normally a nearly insignificant stream

At the Fynbos Forum we met Baviaanskloof staff who informed us that indeed people were trapped in the kloof. The manager showed us an impressive picture of someone’s vehicle buried in mud up the roof. So we felt lucky to be there!

By the end of the busy week at the forum, with much meeting of people and learning news things about Fynbos, we headed back to Blue Hill. We were surprised that water levels were still high, and water still seeping out of the hills, despite a sunny week. The water logged ground through up one surprise – a Common Mole-rat – a subterranean mammal not often encountered above ground!

Common (African) Mole-rat

However, with water continuing to flow from all sorts of places, there was also lots of drama, including managing to get the Toyota Landcruiser bogged in mud – no mean feat given this is the pride of our 4x4 fleet! And just this week a fountain emerged from behind the main house, and appears to have caused havoc with our electrics.  Again, Matt documented me digging the cruiser out on his blog:

As I sit and write, more rain comes in waves across the mountains. What more fun are we in for I can only fear.
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