Sunday, 1 October 2017

Karoo surveys: a silent spring

I have to admit, this month turned into a bit of a blur akin to some crazy computer game. The levels were: wake up, navigate dark dirt roads with kamikaze bunnies and suicidal steenbok; try and find the farm associated with the survey block; then earn points trying to spot birds over a wide an area as possible. Apart from one workshop in Cape Town, this was the routine every single day this month.

But scanning over the map of areas surveyed, each survey block was also unique in some way or another. In the south east, there was a pentad where Knysna Turaco and Woodpecker and other forest birds were recorded. Near Colesburg, a pentad had suffered a recent fire, but Grey-backed Finchlarks and Pink-billed Larks were everywhere.  Access to another pentad on the way to Villierstad nearly had Dale and I defeated when a stroke of luck allowed us access to a track that wound its way up into the mountains with views north to the Gariep Dam. 

Again this month’s surveys were characterized by extreme hospitality. Take the case of Willie Jordaan: I’d needed a base in the Hofmeyr area. I’d written to Willie and he’d said no problem, we could stay at his home. Then a shuffle of dates meant that we’d arrive when he was away. Somewhat unbelievably, he said we could stay anyway. So he left us, people he’d never met before, keys to his house, which we were free to use for the next 3 days before he arrived back. Then we arrived back from another long day out to a huge pot of lamb stew he had cooked for us. At another site I was adopted for the evening by Ryan Black and family, despite have spent the previous night sleeping in the bakkie and looking rather dishevelled.

Despite it being spring, flowers tend to be scarce. Drought continues to affect most of the region; and appears to be getting worse! A few months ago at the start of the survey, I’d written that one farmer we’d visited said this was the worst drought for 40 years. Then we met a farmer who said it was the worst drought for 60 years…. And to trump that most recently in the Bedford area one farmer mentioned that this was the worst drought in 100 years! Imagine what a few months more of drought will mean….

Actually, overall, the eastern Karoo is a lot better off than the western Karoo: vast swathes of grass pointed to good summer rains in most places. However, the tradeoff with the dry winter and paucity of recent rains means the area is now prone to fire, as mentioned around Colesburg. Our last survey block for the month was just north of Nieu Bethesda, and happened to contain the highest free standing peak in the Eastern Cape: Compassberg. Dale and I thought it would be great to survey up the mountain. However, the day we headed out, within hours a berg wind had picked up, and winds were gusting well over 10 meters a second, blowing hot and dusty. Certainly not a day for being outdoors, and we abandoned surveys early to retreat indoors to catch up on admin. That night, we awoke to the sound of thunder, but morning would reveal that the storm had brought no rain – instead it had brought fire. The mountains close to us were aflame. Braving heat, wind and fire, we managed a few more counts before abandoning the area for safer pastures.

Pied Crow harassing a young Martial Eagle

Eastern Long-billed Lark

Angora goats

Looks like an African Rock Pipit

Village Weaver displaying on his nest

Crowned Eagle: this bird had a nest behind a farmer's house. The farmer was quite proud of his eagles.

Large-billed Lark

A dark-form Familiar Chat

Yellow-bellied Eremomela

Spotted Eagle-owl

Eatern Clapper Lark

Blue Korhaan

Pink-billed Lark

Female Grey-backed Finchlark

Male Grey-backed Finchlark

Another juvenile Martial Eagle

Northern Black Korhaan

African Stonechat

Klaas's Cuckoo

Monday, 4 September 2017

Karoo surveys August: all about Cinnamon-breasted Warblers

The month started out with 2 pentads covered near Murraysburg. My companion atlaser for one of the days was Stefan Theron, who has a fantastic eye and ear for birds, and works occasionally as a bird guide in the area. Stefan volunteered to drive us up the escarpment, where I was vaguely hoping for Drakensburg Rockjumpers, but we didn’t get quite high enough. Still, Ground Woodpeckers and Black Eagles were a bonus.

The second week of August I attended a Hot Bird conference near Prince Albert. Hot Birds is the research name for a behaviour and physiology project led by Andrew McKechnie and Susan Cunningham. There were interesting presentations by arid zone gurus Richard Dean and Sue Milton-Dean, followed by many other interesting presentations by the students and prospective students.

The third week I headed to Fraserburg, where I was joined by Salome Willemse, of the Namaqua Bird Club based out of Vanrhynsdorp. Salome is an avid contributor to SABAP2, and a great cook. We stayed at the Muggefontein Gasteplaas just south of the breath-taking Theewaterkloof pass. Salome prepared excellent meals every evening, and I covered 5 Biogaps pentads during the week from Fraserburg to LeeuGamka. Salome did many more atlas cards, including for some pentads never surveyed before. When Salome left on Friday, I had to stay on in Fraserburg for the Saturday morning to wrap up that pentad as a cold front had blown in during the middle of the week, bringing ice rain, strong wind and poor survey conditions.

Then I headed off slightly unprepared due to lack of internet/cell phone reception, to Droefontein, on the plains of the Great Karoo beyond Merweville. My destination was an optional pentad that no-one had either atlased or surveyed as part of the Biogaps project. I was a bit nervous about who or what I’d find, but luck was on my side. The owners of the farm were cousins of Stefan Therons! Andre and Susan Theron, together with their children Chrystal and OJ were also very interested in the project and offered to put me up for the evening. I’m very grateful to their wonderful hospitality and insights into life in this arid part of the world.

Despite the hectically dry conditions, the presence of the Dwkya River here with the occasional pool of water meant good bird life and healthy bird lists. Of the three pentads for which lists were submitted, about 20 Out-of-range forms would be generated, including for White-fronted Bee-eater, a Western Cape regional rarity. Luckily I’d photographed that one. On the Sunday I did part of the target pentad by bicycle, in the company of the Theron’s dog, who got a bit more of a ‘walk’ that she’d expected! Then Monday morning was an easy wrap to the pentad before heading down the N1 to Laingsburg to pick up my next atlasing companion, Campbell Fleming. The drive down the N1 was a stark contrast the dry conditions observed over the weekend: evidently enough rain had fallen to initiate something of a spring-time bloom along the road edge. The strips of yellow, white and orange was in stark contrast to the brown veld just beyond the road fence.

Campbell is a Masters student at UCT looking the genetics of Cape Sugarbirds, also an atlaser (his definition of a bad birder is someone who does not atlas), and a bird guide for Callan Cohen’s Birding Africa. Campbell had a somewhat eventful bus journey to Laingsburg, when the emergency exit ceiling door blew off. However, for me the delay was welcome, with the time with internet much needed to catch up with the world and try organise the rest of the week – including last minute booking for accommodation for that night! Verlatenkloof Gasteplaas at the start of the Verlatenkloof pass over the Roggeveld escarpment towards Sutherland would prove adequate accommodation for the next 2 nights, and a roof over our heads was much appreciated when the latest cold front brought rain and wind. Certainly I was glad to not be camping.

With a stiff breeze whipping away the latent warmth of our cosy beds, we headed off early to our survey pentad about 50 km west along the R356 that cuts across the southern Tankwa towards Ceres. The temperatures marginally above freezing certainly felt a lot colder with the wind. Never-the-less, we recorded birds at all points along the route, with Karoo Lark and flocks of Yellow Canary dominating. Probably a highlight sighting was a displaying Karoo Eremomela. However, finding each bird was generally a lot of work. We finished the day hunting Cinnamon-breasted Warbler on the pass: no good views were obtained, although we did have a Cape Robin chat responding to our playback efforts with a great imitation of our target species, which proved elusive on the rocky slope.

The following day, at a pentad closer to the Verlatenkloof, it was like another world. Although still cool, there was little wind or cloud, and the birds clearly thought it was spring, with several sightings of prospective parents carrying nesting material. Karoo Lark was recorded at almost every point, with a wide variety of birds from Karoo Eremomela to a dam with hundreds of ducks and martins. With lots of tracks across the farm and with Campbell assisting with data entry, the counts went pretty quickly: but we were also aware that we had a long journey ahead of us to our next destination pentad closer to Fraserburg.

As we headed east with the setting sun, the bakkie cab filled with the aroma of ham and mushroom pizza, some dolerite inselbergs caught my eye. Campbell did some playback for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, and almost immediately, one responded. I was able to get my first photos of the much sought after Karoo endemic. What an astounding little bird, with colours that make it look as though it has been carved from the red lichen-covered dolerite boulders.

Cinnamon-breasted Warbler

The journey then became rather interesting, with Google maps taking us across country through farmland with 15-20 gates. About 30 minutes was spent trying to find the road, when we accidently missed the main track and headed into a farm instead. We thus arrived a bit later than expected at the Eselfontein guest house, just south of Fraserburg. However, it was worth the effort: Eselfontein is a spectacularly restored farm house with lots of room and all mod-cons.

Leaving Campell behind to at Eselfontein to catch up on his thesis writing, I headed out to the targeted pentad. Although I’d written to the farmer to announce my intentions to survey the farm, the gate was locked. However, the ‘rante pad’ between Fraserburg and Sutherland traversed the pentad, allowing for initially easy surveying until I ran out of space. Then it was over the locked gate with my bicycle. However, an interesting koppie (small hill) had caught my attention. Perhaps there I would find more Cinnamon-breasted Warblers. So up I hiked. Although none of my now new favourite bird were around, I was most startled to see and hear an African Rock Pipit. This is Dawie de Swart’s favourite bird – he has been looking at behaviour and calls across their range. Dawie also adjudicates Out-of-Range forms for the Northern Cape, so I knew I’d have to be very certain of my record! With the help of some judicious playback, the bird perched close enough for me to snap a picture with my camera phone. Then, with thunder in the distance, it was time to get off the mountain.

The next pentad was associated with a farm called Fonteinplaas, between Sutherland and Williston. While on Google Earth the pentad looked close to the one we had just done, there was no direct route between them. So, at 5.30 we were on the road dodging kamikaze bunnies via Fraserburg. Here things proved tricky. While again we had permission to visit the farm, this time we could not even find any farm with the right name; and with more locked gates. Again, it was onto my bicycle and over the dusty farm tracks to try and complete the survey. Rather amazingly, there was a river bed with stagnant brack pools hidden away in the hills, with all sorts of water birds. And in the koppies behind the river I would record more Cinnamon-breasted Warbler among the dassie dominated dolerite boulders.

At this stage we were into no mans land: no cell phone reception, and few signs of life except for the dorper and merino sheep. Our next pentad was thankfully not too far away in terms of this survey: a mere 50km to the north, and thankfully located on one of the back roads between Sutherland and Williston. Our intel provided, by Karoo Biogaps coordinator Gigi Laidler, suggested that one of the farmers might be able to offer accommodation, and more or less unannounced we rocked up at Ottersgat, home to Hennie Visagie. Again, we were treated to the rather remarkable hospitality that defines the remote Karoo region. Having never met us before, Hennie invited us two shady and grubby characters to share his home for the night. It was quite an experience: Hennie was very chatty and we learnt loads about life in this barren, almost forsaken part of the world. His optimism and enthusiasm for farm life are almost certainly the most important ingredients keeping him on this land against the many challenges of a rather inhospitable farming environment.

Then it was off to Williston, where we managed to find a room at Annie’s Inn. Apparently we were a bit lucky to get some beds, as the town was preparing for its annual ‘Vleis Fees’ (Meat Festival). We did not attend, for us the big highlight would be the pentad on the farm Zakfontein, owned by Dr Koos Louw. For only the second time in the survey I got to record the diminutive Sclater’s Lark. Not just one or 2, but droves, with a flock of 20+ of this scarce Karoo endemic coming in to a water trough to drink. I’d spent most of the midday waiting here for photo opportunities, and the larks kept on coming in, but mostly in pairs or small groups. To round off a great day, Koos gave me directions to a hidden pan with some water in. At least 15 more species were added to the list at that location.

The diminutive Sclater's Lark

Next up: having been denied permission for the first time in the survey to access a pentad associated with a game farm, on a last minute whim Campbell and I headed off to another optional pentad further west. The farmer was amenable to our presence, and as the assigned pentad was pretty poor in terms of excitement, we also did an atlas card for the pentad next door, which had an annual river with some ponds, as well as the farmstead. A bit of water and a farm can mean the difference between a species list of 30 and 60 in this part of the world.

Leaving Williston behind, next stop was a pentad on the way to Loxton. Luckily, we managed to bag another Cinnamon-breasted Warbler before the wind picked up to 10m/s, at which time counts had to be abandoned. Perhaps not a bad thing, as there were still several tens of kilometres of back roads to navigate to Loxton.

In Loxton our sanctuary for the next 3 days would be the Four Season’s Guesthouse. Karoo Cottage, the accommodation of choice in the town was unfortunately full. Never-the-less, it was good to have some self-catering facilities after Annie’s Inn, where Campbell had to prepare a camp meal on the cadac stove on the stoep.

While Loxton has apparently had more rain the Williston, it was hard to see that in the veld, which still looked dry and suffering somewhat with the presence of scores of sheep. The dolerite koppies again revealed a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, and a water hole provided some photo opportunities during the midday head, after a day that had started at 2C with ice on the windscreen. Interesting for me was a Sabota Lark coming in to drink. A bridge with a colony of South African Cliff Swallows was another highlight.

The next morning Campbell and I set out to the farm Welgevonden, where we were gratiously met by Bob and Marian Meintjies. Dividing forces, Campbell and I managed to wrap up the pentad by lunchtime. My section of the pentad included a hike up a local mountain (again!), which was rewarded with no less than four encounters with Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. I would however fail in my mission to get a recording of the species. Both Campbell and I picked up African Rock Pipit, which generated ORFs, but luckily Campbell had managed to capture a short video of an individual in full song. While we had been planning to use the afternoon to catch up on laptop time, we got distracted by the Loxton dam, which while low, was providing resources to scores of species, from Black-throated Canary coming to drink, to Ludwig’s Bustards stalking off in the distance, to Ruffs and other waders at the water edge.

Easy access pentads over, our final destination for this first epic leg of the surveys of the western Great Karoo was a farm called Matiesfontein, which overlooks the Karoo National Park. Despite leaving Loxton at 5:15 we were lucky to make it to the farm by 7.30, after Google navigator took us down a road that was blocked by a locked farm gate. A second attempt ended in a road that had been washed away. Luckily, the owners of Matjiesfontein were welcome and accommodating. Rene Hoon also runs the MyKaroo butchery in Beaufort West, so we’d been luckily to catch them. To deal with more inevitable locked gates, I did my morning surveys by bicycle; an easy ride over sandstone plains.

Then finally… the drive back to Blue Hill for some much deserved, rest, family time, and inevitable catching up on emails and paperwork.

Muggefontein: a hike up the escarpment to get some views of the Great Karoo

Fiscal Flycatcher, male

... you'll need it.

Interesting: a fledgling Karoo Eremomela (right)

Karoo Long-billed Lark

Lark-like Bunting

Merweville Church

N1 - the only flower show

Sabota Lark coming in to drink

Sheep shearing is a major part of life in the Karoo

Spike-heeled Lark

Rock beacons overlooking Fraserburg

White-fronted Bee-eater, a Western Cape regional rarity

Yellow Canary, male

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Karoo Birds Winter Survey

It was only fitting that the day before we headed off for the 2 weeks of surveys of the birds of the Karoo, it should snow. Not enough snow to break the drought, just enough to remind us it is winter. Needless to say, the old Mazda Drifter did not appreciate the weather, and it was a slow start on the Monday. On the drive to the Karoo National Park, snow still lay on the higher reaches of the Swartberg Mountains. A lunch-time spot on the northern side of Meiringspoort would normally see one seeking the shade of one of the ragged Acacia trees: not this time. Anja and the kids and myself stood around the only picnic table in the sun, hopping up and down to stay warm.

The destination survey pentad in the park was just to the west of the Afsaal cottage, but we’d broken the journey with one night in the main camp so I could finish off some point counts on the Bulkraal loop. Snow also lay on the escarpment mountains, and also still under the bushes going over the Klipspringer pass. Never-the-less, the camp cottages have heaters and sufficient blankets to keep you warm: it was lions roaring near the campsite in the early hours that had me awake earlier than expected.

I’ll have to say that knowing the Afsaal cottage was off-grid had me a little bit nervous: certainly there would not be the luxury of plug in heaters. However, the quaint one room stone cottage had thick walls and a gas fridge, which kept the room very warm. Again, plenty of blankets and hot-water bottles meant one tended to wake up too warm rather than cold.

Mountain Chat female

Karoo Long-billed Lark

Watching Kudu drinking at the water hole next to the Afsaal cottage

Kori Bustard

Mountain Wheatear, Male

Several tracks (classed as 4x4 but not really) make their way over the ridges, plains, and drainage lines of the surrounding area, making for easy surveying. The generally dry conditions meant that bird densities were low, and none of the 4 pentad cards we finally submitted for the park would have more than 35 species. Anja did most of the atlasing while I drove. However, the Afsaal pentad provided some excitement with sightings of Kori and Ludwig’s Bustards, plentiful numbers of granivores drinking at the water-holes, and a skittish Black Rhino. Getting close and personal to the Mountain Chats at the cottage was pretty special too.

Next stop in the survey was a visit to Abraamskraal via Beaufort West, where some recently made friends had offered us a stay in their ‘jag-huisie’, which was really a fully kitted house. The presence of a farmstead in a pentad always has a major impact on bird species richness. After 2 nights, despite no dam for waterbirds, we’d tallied 50 species. To do the point counts, I’d hiked 18 km to include the local mountain, Perdeberg. Cool weather made for easy hiking, and cross country hiking through Karoo is hardly ever an issue with sparse vegetation cover.

The drought going on here is bad: it’s the worst rainfall year in around 40 years, and the worst of the current 3 year drought. The Karoo bossies are only just holding on and it’s a vasbyt year for everybody. Up until now, not a single pentad anywhere had recorded any nectarivores, and insect life was scarce, even on warm days.

I don’t think one can really know the Karoo unless one has spent the coldest time of year in what is generally recognised as one of the coldest places in South Africa: Sutherland. Despite being just a small ‘dorp’, with only a couple thousand inhabitants, it is a town everybody in South Africa knows by name and reputation: it is always the coldest place on the evening’s weather forecast. The previous Sunday, the maximum temperature for Sutherland and been 2 degrees.

Remnant snow from the previous weekend

'Land's end at Gunsfontein' - the edge of the Roggeveld escarpment

We had booked ourselves into the Gunsfontein gastehuis, being one of the few places that were able to offer 3 nights of accommodation at a very reasonable rate during the holiday season. This is a rather large historic house, with fantastic sunroom. However, it is pretty cold: week old snow was still all over in the shaded reaches. The hosts, Lynette and Andries Muller, were very friendly and accommodating: giving us a hand to start the car on the Sunday morning after another cold night. Glow plugs probably need replacing is the verdict.

With no cell phone reception anywhere for miles, it was a bit hard to make plans. With the morning gone, we headed south towards the escarpment to bird the pentad. A series of dams held interesting waterfowl: lots of Yellow-billed Ducks, Spur-winged Geese, and a Cape Teal. The escarpment views were amazing: views west over the Tankwa-Karoo to the Cederberg, and south to the Swartberg.

The Sunday afternoon I headed out with the kids to explore the Biogaps pentad I was supposed to be surveying. Luckily, a service road runs through the pentad, so we managed to make a start with the point counts. Bird life was noticeable by its absence, although weather conditions were perfect: warm and still. It was to be a trend that would continue, making it one of the quietest pentads to date, over the 3 days it would take to complete the surveys. Monday morning glow-plugs were replaced, resolving the slow start in the mornings issue for the Mazda.

Next stop Tankwa! I’d been hoping for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler on the Oudeberg Pass, but a howling icy wind meant no chance of getting out the vehicle without one’s pants blown off. We had to settle for the legendary spectacular views instead.

The next pentad was centred on the Tankwa Guesthouse, run by SANParks. Very nice, made all the more special that we had the place to ourselves. The pentad includes a massive dam, and two days here cracked 80 species: so much for the horror stories of some of the lowest atlas cards coming from the Tankwa! Tractrac chats and Thick-billed larks, with scattered flocks of Red-capped Lark and Yellow Canaries were the main fodder of the point counts. Two along the dam took about an hour apiece, with literally hundreds of waterfowl to scan through of virtually all species found in the bird book.

From the south of Tankwa, it was a good long, slow drive to the north of the park and the Elandsberg cottages. Again, rustic luxury might be one way of describing the accommodation here: cobb and stone walls, no electricity, gas showers, and a plunge pool. The cottages have great views of the escarpment, surrounded by thick succulent Karoo bushes. The birding had a slightly different feel to it: Karoo Larks and mountain birds making up the bulk of the counts.
Spotted Eagle Owl

Even Large-billed Lark get thirsty here

Pair of Cape Sparrow

Family of Cape Sparrow

Namaqua Warbler

At this stage it was time to head home, which we did with 2 nights in Anysberg Nature Reserve. As it was Charlie’s birthday I decided to not do any counts, but just atlas. That gave us a chance to do the Tapfontein 4x4 route as well as the hike to the waterfall. It was rather amazing to walk up a dry riverbed for over 1km and then come to a waterfall with natural plunge pool!

Of course, the fun never stops, and with the family safe at home I’m now in Murraysburg and point counting again.  

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