Saturday, 22 September 2012

Baviaanskloof Bird Atlas Adventure

“Eastern Cape: Adventure province" boasts the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency. And what an apt description for the Baviaanskloof Atlasing Weekend that took place from the 14th – 16th September. We're not talking about Disneyland style adventure either; this was Expedition Birding, with the focus not on a high pentad score but rather on pints of adrenaline exuded.

The adventure for Pat Nurse (chair of the Lakes Bird Club) and me started on Friday morning as we set off from Blue Hill Escape with a chill breeze at our backs and grey skies overhead. Heading to the rows of virgin pentads to the north of the Baviaans Mountains bordering succulent Karoo seemed like the option that would keep us driest, but it was touch and go as to whether the rain would abate sufficiently to allow the birds out of their hidey holes. We decided to stick together for the first pentad in order to get to grips with the local bird community; and the variety and activity was such that we drifted well into 3 hours before realising we needed to move on. Highlights included the suite of four Bunting species, as well as Karoo and Southern Black Korhaan. Dusky Sunbirds were collecting nest material, and Titbabblers were fiercely defending territories.

Pat and I split up to tackle a pentad each on what is known locally as the Baviaanskloof T2 route, which skirts the northern edge of the Baviaans Mountains mostly through a Spekboom Thicket mosaic. The route does have many gates, but that didn’t slow the birding down, and our lists easily topped 40 in the two hours we allowed ourselves there. But it was a long way to go to the rendezvous point with the rest of the team in the heart of the reserve as we had to back track on the road to Willowmore. Speeding along the otherwise good Winterhoek road, an unexpected gulley launched Pat’s Fortuner clear into the air. Despite temporarily joining her feathered targets for bird’s eye view of the pentad, this manoeuvre did not result in any addition to the checklist.

Our pace slowed only for a pair of Booted Eagles after the red cliffs of Nuwekloof pass, and to ford drifts. While these were initially shallow, they became deeper and deeper as we headed further east down the Baviaans River through the kloof. The river is still flowing high after a record wet winter for the Eastern Cape. After a while I was almost worried water would come through the open window of my little Jimney, never mind the door. However, we arrived at Juweeltjie camp with our feet dry, but with callouses developing on our hands from gripping the steering wheel so tight.

But where was everyone else? Only the Le Roux team from Limpopo had arrived. While we were setting up camp Lindi Elloff (who had coordinated most of the reserve logistics) arrived with Eran Dvin (some might recognise the name of the vet from Pretoria from other atlasing weekends). They brought the news that the Smitskraal river crossing was running too deep and fast for Ian Field (from East London), and Lynne and Sandra (from PE). Indeed, it is a good thing there are new ecological toilets at Smitskraal because anyone who views the seemingly endless stretch of fast flowing water that supposedly is the road generally has to grab the toilet paper and run for them.

Brian Reeves, the reserve ecologist, had decided to camp with them at Rooihoek campsite and they would all drive through together to the Grasnek Pass the following day. At Juweeltjie we divided ourselves into three groups to target what we could, given that the Baviaanskloof Trail Run was taking place on the route that we would normally have used to access the unatlased pentads away from the R332. That night was very cold and several jumpers were necessary to keep the chills at bay.

On Saturday, the Le Roux party set off with Lindi to atlas a virgin pentad south of Smitskraal, Pat set off with two reserve rangers to thoroughly cover the ‘home’ pentad centred on Juweeltjie and Geelhoutbos, and Eran and I set off to meet Brian with his entourage on the Grasnek Pass. This location offers amazing views east towards the upper reaches of the Kouga Dam, which we were able to admire while Brian dried out the air-filter of his Isuzu – which had ingested water during the crossing of Smitskraal.

Then it was off in convoy to the plateau of the ancient African landsurface. Thanks to Eran’s chatting I hardly realised that we were ascending a near vertical rocky 4x4 trail – although it did require all my concentration for the final summit. At the top, previously silent sceptics of the little Suzuki Jimney had been converted into fans – with Eran now more convinced than ever to get one. Birding in five-year old Kouga Fynbos is not the most exciting. By the end, everyone could confidently tell Grey-backed Cisticolas and Cape Grassbirds by call. The highlight was a distant (thankfully) herd of buffalo numbering around 50 individuals. On the descent, a pipit transformed from African, to Long-billed, to Rock before our very eyes. A playback experiment in the end scored it as a Rock. If the ascent to the plateau had been challenging, the over-grown route we chose to descend was something else. Luckily I had Eran to roll oversized boulders out of the way, and the Jimney was in its element sliding around hairpin bends on the final stretch. By the end of it all, we had taken all day to atlas just one pentad, for a grand total of about 20 species.

In the meantime, Pat had hit the jackpot in the home pentad – with a combined list of close to 80 species, including thicket species such as Yellow-breasted Apalis and forest species such as Knysna Turaco and all three Honeyguides. The rangers in her company had kept her safe from buffalo and that large species known for its valuable horn, which was not seen, but was evident from fresh scat and scrape marks at middens.

All teams reported Verreaux’s Eagle and Magriet from the Le Roux team had a sighting of a Black Stork flying overhead. Old reports of the descriptions of bird life in the Baviaans mention this species as occurring in the highlands, so it was nice to know at least one is left.   

Although the day had cleared up nicely, it was still nice to get together around the roaring fire in the evening to share stories, while Frans Le Roux took care of everyone’s braai needs.

Sunday morning Pat started east to target yellow pentads beyond Smitskraal to Komdomo camp, locating a Verreaux’s Eagle nest on route. Brian, back at Rooihoek, realised that the previous day’s adventures had been a bit heavy on the diesel. Lynne and Sandra volunteered to lighten the load and stick to the Rooihoek pentad, while Ian started birding his way back to East London. While the Le Roux’s had been thinking of joining us on the second adventure south beyond Geelhoutbos to more virgin pentads, they were distracted by good birding around Geelhoutbos, including nice views of Klaas’s Cuckoo and Collared Sunbirds foraging among the pink Pelargoniums. Brian, Melissa, Eran and I pushed on to the northern boundary of pentad 3340_2410, where we set out further on foot in order save diesel. A highlight for me was a distant encounter with Cape Rockjumper, while Eran unsuccessfully thrashed the undergrowth for a glimpse of a sneaky Victorin’s Warbler. Brian and Melissa meanwhile spent much time documenting the many flowering Fynbos plants.

On Monday the Le Roux team headed to virgin pentads in the Grootrivier mountains beyond Willowmore as part of their long trek back north, while I headed back to my Fynbos survey around Bergplaas, adding Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk to the weekend list, and Red-winged Francolin to the list on a survey north of Patensie.

While the weekend may have been low on total pentads covered, they do perhaps set the trend for the adventures that will unfold as we head ever deeper into unexplored and inaccessible territory across the country on the quest for 100% coverage for South Africa. There are still several virgin pentads in the Baviaans, and it makes for a good reason to repeat the exercise next year. Hopefully we’ll see you there!

Green Woodhoopoe. 
African Hoopoe

Sunrise over the Baviaans

Cycad and a view south over the old Africa land surface 

Black-headed Oriole 
Cape Sugarbird (female)

Cinnamon-breasted Bunting

Female Collared Sunbird

Greater Double-collared Sunbird

Female Dusky Sunbird with nest material

Male Dusky Sunbird

Forest Buzzard

Southern Grey-headed Sparrows

Some Angora goats trying to spot a Karoo Korhaan

Long-billed Pipt masquerading as Rock - thanks to Justin for pointing that out.


Swee Waxbill

A rough guide to Birding around Baviaanskloof.

From George to Port Elizabeth, from dusty Karoo to stormy coast, lies a diverse mix of landscapes containing a wealth of flora and birdlife, much neglected by the avitourist industry. This later fact makes birding peaceful and affordable. Around 300 species can be seen within a short period of time, many of which will be Cape, Karoo or Southern African endemics. The area is easily accessible from George or Port Elizabeth, and offers one of the most productive birding experiences anywhere in South Africa. In addition, wildlife and scenery are first class and a reason to do the trip all by itself. This route can be undertaken with a sedan vehicle. A 4x4 would open up the possibility of going through Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, but this is a route description that literally takes one 'around' the Baviaanskloof NR.

May: suggested destinations as a circular route from George (or Port Elizabeth).

A – George, B – Montagu Pass, C – Blue Hill Escape, D – Steytlerville, E – Addo, F – Nature’s Valley

George. Depending on flight arrival time visit the Garden Route Botanical Gardens for Black and rare Baillon's Crakes, Purple Swamphen and ‘garden birds’, including African Paradise Flycatcher, Cape Weaver, Olive Thrush and Cape Robin Chat. African Cuckoo Hawk has also been spotted here on rare occasions.

If you have more time, head west past MosselBay to the Voelvlei floodpan. Little Stint, Ruff, Black-winged Stilt and White-faced Duck are common, but even a Hudsonian Godwit has graced this large wetland although other waders are more common.

Witfontein Forest Reserve is about 2 km outside George on the start of the Montagu Pass. Walk east along the main forest trail for about 2 km to the indigenous forest stands. The focal species are forest specialists: Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Knysna and Olive Woodpecker, Yellow Woodland-Warbler, Knysna Warbler, Starred Robin, Knysna Turaco, Narina Trogon, Rameron Pigeon, Forest Buzzard and Forest Canary. I’d recommended 2 to 3 hours at almost anytime of the day since forest birds are active for longer.

Spend an hour or so driving up the Montagu Pass. The lower section of the road follows more indigenous forest along the Keur River. Olive-bush Shrike, Dusky Flycatcher, Cape Batis, Black Saw-wing Swallow and Swee Waxbill are all possibilities. Further up the pass one gets into Fynbos. Lesser and Greater Double-collared, Malachite, Orange-breasted and Amethyst Sunbirds are all probable. There is a chance for Cape Sugarbird. Jackal Buzzard is also likely towards the top of the pass, and in fact almost anywhere along the route. The road is narrow with few passing and overtaking places, to take care up this section.

Once one reaches the N9 between George and Uniondale one is into mixed agricultural land with several dams. The road is wide enough to pull over easily to set up a scope to scan for waders, including Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, 3-banded Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, South African Shelduck, Cape Shoveller and the more common waterfowl – Yellow-billed Duck and Egyptian Goose. Black-shouldered Kite, Rock Kestrels and Steppe Buzzards are frequent along the powerlines. Less frequently seen are Black Harrier hovering over the short scrub further east towards De Vlugt. Blue Cranes and White Storks occasionally prowl the fields. Summer migrants include Yellow-billed Kites with the chance for Black Kite, African Stonechat, Steppe Buzzard and various Swallows – Barn, White-throated, Greater Striped, and Black Sawwing.

Giant, Brown-hooded and Pied Kingfisher lurk along open, overgrown rivers and dams respectively. Helmeted Guineafowl are also plentiful in the fields around towns.

Passing the Uniondale heights one enters a type of Fynbos called Renosterveld, which grades into succulent Karoo further north. This is Korhaan and Bustard territory, but these can be hard to pick out among the grey Renosterbos, while Karoo Scrub-Robin is common. 15 km out of town, take the southern most of the access routes to Baviaanskloof (labelled Hartbeesrivier). From here it is a 30km drive to Blue Hill Escape. Denham's, Ludwig's and Kori Bustards, as well as Black Korhaan and large flocks of Blue Crane are all found here. Rarely, Spoonbill and Black Stork are seen around the dams en-route. Pale-chanting Goshawks and the occasional Jackal Buzzard, Black-chested Snake Eagle or Lesser Kestrel keep watch from the telephone lines along the road. Pied Starlings, Speckled Pigeon are common, but care needs to be taken to tell between the various Canary species that occur – Yellow, Brimstone, Streaky-headed, Cape and Black-headed.

At Blue Hill, a wonder along the short Baboon trail may reveal Red-necked Spurfowl, Grey-winged and Cape Francolin, Long-billed Crombec, Bar-throated Apalis, Bokmakierie, Karoo Prinia and Cape Bulbul. All fynbos specials can be seen along the 7 km Sugarbird Valley hike. Cape Rockjumper, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird, Protea Seedeater, Cape Siskin, Victorin's Warbler, Ground Woodpecker, Cape Grassbird, Cape Rock-thrush and Cape Bunting. A lucky stumble could flush a Hottentot Buttonquail, but more likely a Common Quail. There are good chances for Booted Eagle, Verreaux's Eagle and Jackal Buzzard. Martial Eagle and Fish Eagle have on rare occasion been seen moving through the area. The late night listener may be lucky enough to hear Cape Eagle Owl beyond the Reed Frogs and Fiery-necked Nightjars.

From Blue Hill a worthy day drive follows the Vaalwater road to Nuwekloof Pass, which offers amazing cliff scenery, another chance for Bustards and Korhaans, but also Red-chested Sparrowhawk. On the road between Nuwekloof and Willowmore one dips into Karoo birds including Karoo, Red-capped, Long-billed, Large-billed and Cape Clapper Larks, Lark-like Bunting, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Golden-breasted Buntin and Cape Bunting as well as Chestnut-vented and Layard’s Titbabblers, all three Mousebirds, Karoo Chat, Namaqua and Rufous-eared Warbler.

The long and dusty R329 through Steytlerville hides Kori Bustard and a sparse population of Secretary Birds. Grey-backed Sparrowlarks sometimes wonder this far south, as do Sentinel Rock Thrush. Towards Addo Elephant National Park (306km, 4 hour drive from Blue Hill) one has to pass through the orchards around Kirkwood where Spotted Eagle Owl hide among the Hadedas in the large exotic trees. Spectacled and Dark-backed Weavers will be a new ones for the list along with Cape, Southern Masked Weaver and Red Bishops. The Spekboom habitats integrate into woodland thickets preferred by Black-headed Oriole and White-browed Scrub-Robin.

From Addo the coastal route once again offers the chance to explore the forests of the Tsitsikamma. Natures Valley is the perfect place to spend some time looking for Knysna Turaco, Black Cuckoo, Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Chorister Robin-chat, Dark-backed Weaver and the beautiful Narina Trogon. If a walk along the estuary does not reveal Roseate, Swift, Sandwich, Common and Damara Terns, then a pelagic trip out of Plettenberg Bay or Knysna should.

Of the Wilderness Lakes, Rondevlei may well be one’s best bet for reed and lake specialities, such as Little Rush-Warbler or African Marsh-Harrier. There are several walks in the area along beaches and into forests, as well as around the estuary. The birdlist for Ebb and Flow campsite (managed by SANParks) is impressive, and warrants a few days here alone. And that more or less rounds off the trip, with George just a few kilometres up the road.   

World Anti Fracking Day

This is a letter I sent to our bird club group after the chair sent a request to sign a petition against fracking that set off a chain of opinions on the subject that got me a bit worried about how people view fracking – especially of the group I feel should know better! Anyway, as opposed to it being locked away in an inaccessible Yahoo group, I thought I'd share my feelings on the subject with the world at large since its World Anti-fracking Day. The response was aimed more at a posting by a member of the group who suggested that we should await the solution as determined by scientists.

Fracking. Should someone at our dinner table even suspect the word was said, verbal fireworks will ensue for anything up to an hour if one party in the debate doesn't leave before then. And this is a debate between 'scientists' – one an old school geologist ('Earth scientist'), and one – myself – an ornithologist ('Nature scientist'). If the world is to wait for scientists to resolve Fracking tradeoffs, the world will be waiting a very long time.

An example of the train of arguments that flowed last night were, from the earth scientist, that society needs gas and that there is a long history of technology that exists for removing gas from the earth, to the stage where in the Karoo wells of up to 5km depth (i.e. very deep even by mining standards) will be drilled. Furthermore, fracking in the United Kingdom shows that extraction can be conducted safely and securely.

If the Earth scientist was trying to reassure me that wells of this depth were a ''good' thing because they went well beyond the level of any water table that may be impacted upon, he failed – as 'extreme' mining merely conjured up the recent ecological MEGA-disaster of Deepwater Horizon, BP's fractured well-head in the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, in parallel with 'advances' in mining technology there is a litany of ecological mishaps that vary in scale from minor leaks to major leaks that for instance have compromised the health and life-styles of indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon. To say we have reached the level of technology now that will prevent such mishaps in the future is erroneous to say the least – such arguments have no doubt been used by natural resource extractors over the decades past. Lastly, the example of 'good' fracking seen in the UK, where drilling occurs to depths of only hundreds of meters and is closely scrutinised by one of the world's biggest armies of 'greenies' – cannot be transferred to the Karoo. Its like saying because it snows in the Karoo it will be a good place to have an ice-sculpture competition because they do that in Alaska where it also snows.

Ok – I'm not anti-fracking totally. Well, on a scale of 1 – 10, where 1 is totally against, and 10 is totally for, with 5 being neutral, I'll say I score 4. I would be 5 because I like nothing better than a stir-fry whipped up on a gas hot-plate, but knock a point off due to guilt for using a non-sustainable resource that is in addition contributing in some way to the clouds of green house gases building around us (I'm trying to ease my guilt for that by not using my gas-heater and using a wood-stove instead).

But Fracking in the Karoo? The Greenie in me is shouting – 1! - but the rational scientist in me can't ignore current societies need for gas, coupled with dubious economic benefits that would arise, even if it is just for maintaining the starving Mossgas facilities. Given those I'll score a 2.5 – so I'm subtracting a point because Fracking technology given its reliance on vast quantities of water is NOT suitable for the Karoo. I'm furthermore subtracting a half point due to Shell's appalling environmental track record, and the fact that they tried to bulldoze there way fast and furiously through the EIA process to get at that gas as fast as possible – a fact ably shown by the independent EIA consultant who checked the initial EIA. If it wasn't for Greenies, there would already be Fracking in Karoo. Ignore 'greenies' at your peril. They are the voice of your consciousness perhaps bought by the marketing machines of mega-rich companies with 20 pieces of silver for each of us.

Now onto controversial topic number 2 – wind farms. Any birder is going to be very surprised where this ornithologist stands on this one. Using the same scoring system as above, I score wind energy as 7. Yes, bird-strikes have been used as a major anti wind farm motivator – badly located wind-farms can be lethal for migratory birds, and certain species (vultures to be precise) are very vulnerable to wind turbines, but research has shown that wind-turbines fall several orders of magnitude below the leading cause of bird deaths – those being glass buildings, high tension wires, cats and cars. And that is even before the testing and implementation of bird scaring devices.

So anti wind-farm sentiments (as far as I can tell) appear to be aesthetically motivated more than anything else - “Not in my backyard!”. For me wind-turbines would be a powerful reminder not to take energy for granted. While I can only speak for myself, when I first saw wind-farms 20 years ago while on a cycle trip through western Europe, my impression was one of awe and amazement – giant statues a testament to modern technology and a sign of hope for a cleaner energy future. Isn't it perhaps time that that emblematic structure of the Karoo – the windmill - got a modern day make-over – perhaps we could call wind-turbines i-windmills?

Perhaps as birders we should be asking, which is more important – the loss of individuals of a few species, or total ecological collapse due to pollution of our most sacred building block of life in arid environments? But perhaps this is over simplying things. Importantly, just because one is pro-wind does not mean one should be anti-fracking or vice-versa. They are really 2 sides to the same coin. In my case, I don't like the coin, but need to best figure out how to use it wisely.

Me, I'm going to sign the petition, even though part of me feels it will be like lighting a match to stop a hurricane. Perhaps its my version of Aung San Suu Kyi putting flowers in a gun. There is a reason half of the population of USA does not believe in climate change – its because of the millions of dollars spent in sowing doubt by companies with vested interests in maintaining the status-quo in a supply chain that stretches from oil production to car sales. The same goes for fracking in the Karoo – I have no doubt that it will happen eventually, simply because of the economical value and buying power of the parties involved. Until we change our ways and subvert that market, by recognising the need for change and buying into green energy options, there is only one possible outcome. Since that is not going to happen anytime soon, the best we can do is ensure the job is done properly by letting concerns be aired. Most importantly attempt to bridge the gap between those that hold the economic power and those that will be influenced by that power – the landowners, those with emotional connection to the land, and anyone relying on water in the Karoo.

With that I end – with only a postscript note to say I won't enter a debate with anyone who has not watched Gasland, and has not read Collapse by Jared Diamond.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Spring into Life

I left winter for some time away in the Czech Republic, during which time, among other things, I dressed up as a pregnant gypsy, had to perform the New Zealand traditional powhiri (or haka), gave a speech at a good friend's wedding – but these are stories for a different blog and a different day. Before arriving back to Cape Town on the 4 September, someone had flipped the season switch. While snow still dusted the higher peaks of the Cederberg, a rainbow had melted on the lower slopes and valleys. Among carpets of green, nature was now giving birth to a bounty of beautiful blossoms (the consequence of a lengthy romance with the unusually wet winter).

Almost straight off the airplane, and it was back to work, with some admin in the afternoon, and then the long bumpy Baines kloof pass from Wellington to Ceres. The next day was straight into the mountains for a quick survey around the Christie Prins hiking trail. Since my last survey a few months ago, someone had worked their way around it with a useful can of spraypaint to highlight the route – especially useful as the route to replace the burnt bridge involves crawling through a tunnel of vegetation. Views of the Ceres valley were of blue, green and pink – with dams full and many orchards preparing their confetti loads of blossoms.

My next stops, after a bit of vehicle fine tuning, was Oppiberg in the Koue Bokkeveld. This was also looking beautiful – not because of any expanses of flowers, but because the local variety of conebush (Leucadendron) turns shades of yellow and red at this time of year. The Cape Rockjumpers were still around; and I was also entertained by a large flock of Cape Siskins warming themselves amongst the rocks in the early morning sunshine and foraging among the restios.

Cederberg Oasis, with cheerful hosts Gerrit and Shantal, was my base for the next three days of survey. Many of the succulent plants of the Rooi Cederberg were blooming, blushing the slopes with pinks and purples. Layard's Titbabblers were in full celebration. The Cape Rockjumpers of Sandrif were still protecting their territory, although my walk to the Wolfberg Cracks was so much quieter than my last experience in terms of human traffic to this landmark destination of the Cederberg. The threat of an approaching cold-front may have been the reason, as clouds and vangaurds of rain breached Uitkyk Pass in a fruitless quest to find the dusty Tankwa Karoo.

The rain meant a slight change of plan, and instead of camping at Algeria, I headed north to Clanwilliam and the Pakhuis Pass, hoping for better weather north and east. Heuningvlei Lodge was my target, and as before, I was welcomed by the cheerful van der Westhuizens, who made a plan to get me out of the pursuing rain. After a morning of rain enforced statistics the following day, I was able to get out to see if the Striped Flufftail I'd recorded in the summer survey was still around – alas all was quiet amongst the grassy Fynbos, although the reluctantly flowering Protea laurifolia was attracting the attention of many nectarivores, and many other birds were also happy to see the back of the rain. Then after a good nights rest it was up and over the Krakadouw Pass, where those Cape Rockjumpers were also still around, and I was surprised by sighting of a Brown-backed Honeybird.

Then it was a long drive (since I decided to go via the Tankwa Karoo) to Montagu, arriving late in the evening. That didn't stop me from setting off early for Bloupunkt peak, part of the municipal hiking trail. Apart from the usual suite of Fynbos endemics, hundreds of Red-winged Starlings were feeding on flowers of Sugarbush (Protea repens). That is a lovely hike, with other highlights including a mating pair of Booted Eagles (damn that I had pen and paper in hand and not my camera) and a male Peregrine flying into drop-feed a brooding female (with that encounter far too quick for even a speedy, camera ready photographer). Then another long drive back to Blue Hill Escape to get ready for the Baviaanskloof Atlasing Weekend.

Spring is about the flowers. So the following photos are mostly a celebration of flowers of the Cape Floristic Region.

An unusual Swellendam sentinel 

Frontal view of a White-backed Mousebird

That white-back is hard to see!

Leucadendrons of the Koue Bokkeveld

A flock of Cape Siskin

Karoo Chat

Layard's Titbabbler

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