Friday, January 6, 2012

Bigblackblushingchickens and the art of using a Ladder

Adult Male Southern Ground Hornbill - sometimes we
are the ones that get scrutinised!
As part of its activities, our Lowveld-Kruger National Large Bird project has focused on locating and monitoring as many groups and nesting sites of the Southern Ground Hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri in the Kruger National Park since its inception in 2007. Part of the activities also include the harvesting of a set quota of second chicks from selected nests to augment the captive breeding population that is used by the South African Southern Ground Hornbill Action Group (SASGHAG) to attempt to re-establish this species in its historical range in the country. The Southern Ground Hornbill is currently listed as Endangered according to the IUCN’s Red List and is now largely restricted to protected areas in South Africa with a few small groups still being found on private land in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and along the escarpment. Due to their generally shy nature (except for those few birds that have been seduced by the tidbits offered by unthinking tourists) and large patch of red skin on the face, I prefer to call them Bigblackblushingchickens.

Two eggs is the norm for this species
Southern Ground Hornbills mostly lay two eggs of which only one chick eventually survives to the fledging stage. The weaker chick does not survive the competition for food, etc in a Cain-and-Able-like situation similar to some large eagles, and it is therefore possible to harvest this chick for captive rearing to play an important role in terms of the overall conservation of the species in the country as part of the captive breeding population. The hand-rearing and captive breeding process is managed by our partners in the SASGHAG such as the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, Mpumalanga Parks (Delecia Gunn), Johannesburg Zoo and the NZG, Pretoria. However, before we even get to the stage where chicks can be harvested, there is a lot of work that must be done.
We encourage rangers, guides and tourists in the Kruger National Park to report any sightings of groups of birds or nesting activities to us and have so far identified over 150 individual groups of birds across the 2 million hectares of the Park. These range in size from two to as many as nine birds. In the Kruger National Park, these birds mostly nest in suitable cavities in large trees, often along drainage lines. A range of tree species are used. There are also two known sites where potholes in a cliff were used to nest in, but neither of these are currently active.
Female giving us a beady eye
while huddling over over her eggs
Finding the nests of these birds is not as easy as it sounds as they tend to be quite secretive about its location and the birds themselves can, despite their large size, disappear quite quickly in the bush, especially during the wet season. We therefore often go out very early in the morning to try and find the birds when they start calling at first light. This means that one gets up at about 02.30 in the morning to be at a site by 3.30-4am. Once the birds have been located, one hopes to either see the female move off in a particular direction to a nest after calling, or to quietly try and follow the group that will eventually make their way to the nest to provide food to the incubating female or, if the breeding attempt has advanced that far, to the fast-growing nestling. This is often the time of year when Ground Hornbills are most visible and when all members of the group can be seen carrying an array of food items to the nest.
Once the nest has been located, it is monitored throughout the season and, if it is used for more than a season, for as long as possible. One known nesting site on the Letaba river has been in use for almost 40 years! This requires a lot of time and effort and we travel lots of kilometres annually during the breeding season to check on nests and how the breeding season progresses at each site. In fact, the demands are such that we can realistically only focus on about 30-40 nests annually (See Google Earth image).
Nest sites currently monitored in KNP
The monitoring season starts in October when all known nests are visited and checked for activity. The commencement of breeding is often determined by the first decent rains. This is followed by another visit a few weeks later to check for eggs and, if those are present, to “candle” them to obtain an idea of when they are likely to hatch. Candling involves looking at the egg contents by shining a flashlight through them in a poorly-lit environment. This is quite a specialised process and we make use of the services of Mike Harman (Jhb Zoo) and Eugene Marais (NZG) to assist us in this regard. The poorly-lit area is created by covering the two observers with a thick, dark cloth and you can imagine the numerous curious stares we have encountered from passers-by over the years. One can only wonder what they made of two middle-aged men hunkering under a dark sheet in the bush during broad daylight!
Putting heads together? No, just candling an egg
A rather steep climb in this case
and the ladder just makes it
The nests are located in large trees of a range of species of all shapes and the height of the nest entrance and depth of cavity vary considerably between groups. Some cavities are fairly easy to access while other provide a particular challenge. This is often where the art of using a ladder comes in. Knowing the exact location and configuration of each nest does help, but it’s not as simple that. Placing the ladder against the tree at the suitable height, ensuring that it is stable before climbing up and other aspects are all standard considerations when using a ladder in the bush. The ladders often need to be carried for some distance to the nest tree and it always helps to have a volunteer or two to accompany you to assist with this.
Female leaving the nest
Cavities in trees in the African bush are however not just sought after by Ground Hornbills as nesting sites, but are also used by a range of other creatures ranging from diminutive rodents and bush-babies to slightly more tricky customers such as genets, the odd snake ranging from pythons to mambas and a number of other birds such as Barn Owls. So far, we have been fortunate to not encounter anything larger such as leopard. The ability to duck and dive and rapidly descend from a ladder should one of the more aggressive creatures be encountered is often another aspect of ladder use that is often underestimated, especially if it is leaning precariously against the slippery branches of a tree and you are about 12 metres above ground. It is however a skill that is rather quickly acquired should such a situation arise!
Genet hiding in an old SGH nest
Once the candling has been done, we keep an eye on specific nests that have been identified for harvesting to ensure that this can happen at the most opportune time. Harvesting generally takes place through December, but is mostly concentrated in the latter half of this month which can play havoc with any festive season plans and arrangements for those concerned! Both harvested and un-harvested nests are monitored thereafter until the nestlings are old enough to ring at about 60 days of age. This takes place from late January to mid-March, depending on when the chicks hatched.
Barn Owls flying out of an old SGH nest
We have to date fitted 17 chicks with colour-rings in the Kruger National Park and have been quite successful in obtaining reports of re-sightings of these birds from visitors to the Park. This number is set to increase considerably in the next three months when this season’s chicks will be ringed. Posters have been placed at a wide range of locations such as entrance gates, reception areas and at restaurants. Please look out for these when you next visit Kruger and please let us know if you do spot any of these birds. Re-sightings of these birds initially provide us with an idea of the home-range of individual groups and will over time hopefully also provide an indication of movement of ringed between groups, especially in the case of evicted females which often leave their natal group when approaching adulthood.
Colour-ringing a SGH nestling
The poster requesting reports of re-sightings
All of the information gathered will assist us in getting to know these birds better and to hopefully make better-informed decisions in terms of their conservation and the re-introduction into their former range in South Africa. Another exciting recent development with regard to our work in Kruger is the registration of a PhD-project which will look at a range of aspects related to this species such as spatial use and criteria for nest-site selection. Such information learnt from the wild population will further assist and inform a range of decisions with regards to suitable sites for the future re-introduction of the species.
Here’s to hoping that the Bigblackblushingchicken remains part of the South African savanna- and grassveld-landscape and that the efforts of the SASGHAG partners assist in the species successfully repopulating a significant part of its former range in the country.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 - from a personal perspective

After just having posted probably one of the most somber postings on my blog, I thought it would be appropriate to do a more personal review of the year that was 2009.

There is no doubt that the year has been a tough one, but it was also very rewarding in many ways and I have been able to realize and reach a couple of goals over the last 12 months. The year also produced a number of unforgettable memories, mostly associated with my work and travels within southern Africa and further a-field. Oh yes, in the process there were also many new friends made, some regained and, sadly, also a few lost.

Thea continues to be an inspiration and incredible support to me. How she manages to put up with all my nonsense, weird hours and obsessions is beyond me. Perhaps my frequent absences help to make them easier to digest and cope with! After more than 16 years together, we seem to have reached a solution which works for both of us, especially as far as finding fulfillment in our very divergent professional lives are concerned. This year, her dedication, perseverance and hard work in the tough corporate environment has continued to be an inspiration to me and other members of her family. It is great to see the satisfaction that she receives from supporting many members of her family in so many ways, both on an emotional and material level. That includes me, of course!

Although I was planning to travel a lot less in 2009, it turned out to be one of those years where I again spent more time on the road, and sometimes in the air, than previous years with more than 65000km traveled on southern African roads and including trips to East Africa, Botswana, Namibia and South America, some experiences which have been reported on in earlier blogs.

In fact, the year started off in the Northern Cape with a 10-day trip to the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Conservation Area which was part of our annual leave and saw Thea visiting the Kalahari for the first time. Although it was extremely hot on most days, we were rewarded by great sightings of most of the large game and great birds during our visit to the area. Two images from that trip will however stay with me for a long time, namely that of a magnificent male lion that we encountered just outside Nossob rest-camp in the late afternoon sun. It posed just perfectly for photographs and looked the way that most people expect lions to look like, in regal command of its entire territory. Quite something coming from someone that doesn’t really have a great affinity for these cats!

The beautiful male at Nossob Camp, January 2009

The second memory is of the 4 San-children that we encountered on the way to the Kgalagadi TFCA near Ashkam. They were quite used to tourists stopping to purchase trinkets, etc from the stall run by their mother and willingly posed for some images, at a price of course! We were quite surprised by all of them getting rid of most of their clothes to pose for the pictures though! However, their joy of life and excitement about the area they live in was quite contagious and I hope that they will not become too affected by the impacts of tourism in the longer term.

Khomani-San children, Askham, Kalahari - 1 January 2009

Next was a week-long trip to Kenya in the company of my colleague, Jon Smallie. The aim of the trip was to look at vulture and other raptor conservation and research work being conducted in that country and I’m very happy to report that we were able to get to visit some very special areas, including a Rüppell’s Vulture colony at Kwenia and the Lake Naivasha-area with our good friend, Dr. Munir Virani     who hosted us for the entire week. Munir and his family went out of their way to make the trip an interesting and productive one. There were a number of promising initiatives that emenated from this visit and it was also great to meet with and learn from other bird conservationists from that country, especially with Dr. Muchane Muchai, the Head of the National Museums of Kenya who I have worked with before when he did his PhD-study at Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga in 1999-2000.

Counting Ruppell's Vultures at Kwenia with Muni Virani and Jon Smallie, January 2009

In late February, I headed north by road via the Trans-Kalahari Highway and Ghanzi in Botswana to attend and chair the AGM of the Game Rangers Association of Africa at Shamvuri in the Caprivi-region of northern Namibia. Good rains had fallen throughout most of southern Africa and it was great to see the veld in such good condition. Of course, the AGM was good fun and it was good to meet with folks from further north. A surprising number of rangers from South Africa also made the pilgrimage up there and more than 80 people eventually attended. The event also included the wedding of ranger Jos Josling, but resulted in me having to miss that of my good friend André Agenbag and his good lady Angela. It was also the first time that the Africa Committee of the GRAA held a mobile meeting. We discussed GRAA matters floating on a large boat on the beautiful Kavango River one afternoon, certainly a first for the normally very terrestrial rangers that are on the Committee! This trip also produced my only southern Africa birding lifer in the form of Schalow’s Turaco which I was able to finally tick on a boat trip from Katima Mulilo with John Turner and Christine Jennings.

The mobile GRAA meeting on the Kavango River, February 2009

Another memory that will stay with me for a long time was the tree-platform on the Kwando River where I spent the Friday night after the AGM courtesy of the arrangements made by Simon Mays who works in the Caprivi National Park that this forms part of. I only pitched my mozzie-net tent and, after enjoying a basic meal of tinned rations, spent the night staring at the thousands of stars and the massive thunderstorms raging to the north over Angola and Zambia while listening to a range of owls, hippo, elephant and other creatures of the night 8m above the ground. Truly a magical experience!

The last out-of-country trip of the year was by far the most amazing experience of the year and included the fulfillment of a life-long dream to visit at least part of the Amazon in South America. If you are interested to find out more, you are welcome to read the blog titled “Birding and other Adventures on our South American Trip – October/November 2009”. This was done as part of a trip to attend the 6th World Congress of the International Rangers Federation that was held at Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia in early November. It certainly was great to meet with a large number of rangers from 47 countries to talk about the work we all are so lucky to be involved in and many a new friendship was made. As a South African, it was really great to receive great feedback on the Congress that was held here in 2000 and many people shared their memories of this experience with us.

Thea and 2 friendly local ladies, Cusco, Peru - October 2009

The field trip during the Congress was also a great experience, especially when the bus we were traveling in got stuck on one of the many log-bridges that traverses streams in this part of the tropical rainforests. Of course, this was not much of a problem and the rangers on board in no time extracted the bus and fixed the bridge before looking for a safer, alternative route to the Amboro National Park. It was here that we saw our first Toucan in the wild and also received more mosquito bites than I thought possible. Of course the itchy effect of these only became evident in the following days and these little buggers make the African version, except for the Anopheles of course, seem rather tame by comparison! The sighting of a magnificent Tarantula at Amboro also was a highlight. I was also honoured to be elected as African Representative to the International Executive of the IRF on the last day and we will be submitting a proposal to host the next Congress in East Africa in 2012/2013.

The Bus, the Bridge and resourceful Rangers on the way to Amboro National Park

Before heading back to South Africa, we also spent three days in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This is a city that I have very pleasant memories of resulting from a visit there in 2001 during a BirdLife International Building on Experience training session and it was good to share some of the sights with Thea. South America has not seen the last of us, I’m sure!

Although it was a difficult year at work due to the ever-present threat of limited financial resources and tough fundraising conditions, I am happy to say that the Birds of Prey Working Group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust has still made good progress on a number of fronts with regard to the conservation, research and monitoring of vultures, other raptors and large birds in the region. We once again hosted a successful Annual Conference at Hlalanathi in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg which was attended by more than 80 people form as far a-field as the UK, Australia and East Africa.

Another highlight of the year was the successful launch of the International Vulture Awareness Day which took place on the 5th of September and involved 155 organisations from 45 countries. The response to the suggestion of such a day, which originated from the annual National Vulture Awareness Day held in South Africa since 2005 and a similar event hosted by The Hawk Conservancy Trust in the UK, we were rather overwhelmed by the global response to such a day this year and look forward to the 4th of September 2010 when the 2nd International Vulture Awareness Day will be held. More information in this regard can be found in several postings on this blog under September 2009. I was also honoured when the EWT presented me with a special award acknowledging my contribution in this regard during its Fieldworkers Week at the end of October. This event also saw the best ever attendance by EWT-BoPWG fieldworkers since its inception and it was great to have a good number of colleagues attend during a time when most of them are very busy with fieldwork.

The Lowveld/Kruger National Park Large Bird Project continues making a significant contribution to the conservation, research and monitoring of a range of species in the Kruger National Park and adjacent Lowveld-region of South Africa. This is a project that was long overdue and that has been a personal goal for many years, finally reaching fruition in late 2007 with the approval of the first of several projects by SANParks enabling us to work in this important conservation area. Scott Ronaldson runs this project for us, but I maintain a very close personal involvement in this initiative, for obvious reasons! In fact, I have been fortunate to undertake at least 16 field trips to Kruger during the last 12 months to participate and, in some cases, lead fieldwork on a number of initiatives.

As usual, the Savanna Science Network Symposium held in April was a highlight and this coincided with the county’s general elections. Scott and I did a trip to the Shimuwini-area the day before the elections to ring a very late Southern Ground Hornbill in a large Baobab and also surveyed the power-line between the Olifants-river and Satara Rest Camp on our way back to Skukuza. Our findings during this survey has led to Eskom re-assessing that network of power-lines that traverse this National Park and will hopefully lead to substantial improvements from bird mortality-perspective. We also ringed 11 other Southern Ground Hornbills earlier in the season. On one of these days we were accompanied by Section Rangers Don English and Rob Thomson covering nests along the Mbiyamiti and Mlambane rivers in the south. It was great to spend time in the field with good mates doing something that we all enjoyed at a time when the veld was looking at its best. Of course, there was plenty of banter and stories to share. I’m happy to say that both these rangers have had substantial successes in apprehending poachers in their sections over the last 5 weeks or so and it was great to share the tales of their successes during my last visit just before Christmas.

Working with Scott and Don to ring a Ground Hornbill nestling

Our annual survey of the Luvhuvhu- and Olifants rivers in Kruger also went well this year and we received great support from SANParks, Wilderness Safaris and a number of volunteers during June. The Luvhuvhu survey saw two EWT staff members, Alison Janicke and Wendy Collinson as well as Honorary Ranger and good friend Ashraf Sayed participate in the 4 days of walking the river searching for sightings and signs of Pel’s Fishing Owl and other birds that share the riverine habitat. This survey will certainly be remembered for the close shave the team on the southern bank experienced on the last morning when they walked into a less-than-amused female leopard and her cub in the process of taking down a sub-adult waterbuck ewe that they had flushed in her direction! The lightning-fast reaction of one of the Field Rangers who fired a warning shot fortunately was enough to discourage the female from any further action against the team and she dashed off into the undergrowth not to be seen again. As for the waterbuck, she eventually staggered to her feet after a while and took off after the rest of her mates, seemingly none the worst for wear!

The Luvhuvhu River survey team, June 2009

Our Olifants River survey is generally a far bigger operation with two teams each covering one half of the river in Kruger, a distance of about 92kms. I once again led the team covering the western half, stretching from a place known as Wildevyeboom to Mamba Picket on the Parks western boundary. My team was accompanied by Richard Sowry, Section Ranger of the Kingfisherspruit Section in the Park and Colin Rowles, Warden of the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve that borders onto the Park. In addition Cobus Bester and Foeta Krige, friends I have met on the Conservation Outreach and similar trips previously also came along as well as three long-standing mates from my army days, André Agenbag, Johan Nel and Ben van Zijl. We were supported by Thea and her nephew Tim Horak who ensured that our camping equipment were moved daily to new campsites while we walked the river banks on both sides looking for and counting all the fish-eating birds encountered. Apart from stumbling across several large groups of elephant and the odd hippo dozing in the undergrowth, the survey thankfully went off without incident. Even the river crossings by zodiac became rather routine once we got the knack of it.

Crossing the Olifants using a human-propelled zodiac

Another incident worth sharing, albeit at my own cost, happened on my second trip to Kruger this year to do some Ground Hornbill fieldwork. After arriving pretty late on a Monday afternoon in February, I decided to go and have a look at the flow of the Sabie and Sand Rivers outside Skukuza which were flowing quite nicely after the good rains during the previous weeks. Upon arriving at the Sand River and traversing the low-water bridge crossing it, I saw an empty 2 litre cold drink bottle floating in the water right next to some rocks adjacent to the bridge. Some unthinking individual had clearly decided to dump the bottle in the river in the hope that it would be washed downstream by the fast-flowing water. The currents however kept on washing it back toward the rocks and I decided to try an recover it from the water, very conscious of the potential risks, but motivated by the fact that it was important enough to remove this annoying object from a river where it clearly didn’t belong. Getting out of my vehicle, I climbed down onto the rocks and bent down to retrieve the bottle, only to have my feet slip out under me and ending up to my neck in the water for a fraction of a second before recovering my composure and scrambling back onto the rocks and back onto the bridge, empty bottle in hand! Standing there, dripping wet and with copious amounts of adrenalin rushing through my veins, I reflected on the stupidity of my actions! Fortunately, there were no submerged crocs waiting for food at that spot or I would have been history.
Despite incidents like this, I am constantly aware of the immense privilege and responsibility involved in working in protected areas such as Kruger and several other reserves throughout South Africa and beyond on a regular basis. Other moments during the year that also stand out is the day we spent in the hide at Giant’s Castle as part of our attempts to capture Bearded Vultures to fit them with satellite tracking technology to follow their movements. On this day, we saw no less than 11 individual Bearded Vultures, but had no luck at catching them! The team led by Sonja Krüger has however persevered and are currently following the movements of at least 6 Bearded Vultures in the Ukuhlamba-Drakensberg. It is simply an amazing experience working with species like this in some of the most scenic areas of South Africa.

Thea and I also attended the Sunset Serenade event, hosted by the Honorary Rangers, and held at Letaba in June this year. It was quite an experience to sit in the African bush at sunset and listen to beautiful classical music being performed by an ensemble of musicians while looking at wildlife coming to drink in the river close to us. It is certainly an amazing event that also contributes to the good work done by rangers in the Kruger and other National Parks. Thanks again to John Turner for inviting us!

Sunset Serenade near Letaba, June 2009

Experiences such as these certainly make up for any lack of monetary compensation and have contributed to making the past year another memorable and enjoyable one. As my good friend Johann Oelofse always says, we get paid in sunrises and sunsets, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There certainly also isn’t any harm in having fun while you’re earning a living and loving what you are doing at the same time! From a birding perspective, I was once again happy to reach the 600 species-mark for southern Africa this year with a total of 641 species during the last 12 months, the third highest total for the region since I started keeping an annual tally. Globally, I managed to reach 997 species thanks to the East African and South American trips, something that I am very chuffed about. Just a pity that it falls short of the 1000-mark! Another milestone reached over the year was achieving more than 60 000 Cybertracker datapoints of birds recorded by reaching a total of 62361 points, something I didn’t quite believe possible when entering the first record on the morning of January 1st.
On a sadder note, I would also like to remember two colleagues and friends that passed away during the last year. The first of these is Prof. Steven Piper who has been a friend, mentor and colleague for more than 10 years and who passed away after a short illness in March. Steven’s guidance and support in the initial stages of the establishment of the EWT-BoPWG has been invaluable and I will certainly miss his eloquence, wit and love for the vultures he cared for so much. The other friend to have passed away this year is Ben de Boer who owned the Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge near Magoebaskloof and who was making a huge contribution to the development of avitourism and site-based bird guides in Limpopo until his death on the 1st of August. We miss you Ben.

All things considered, it has been a busy and tough year. However, it has also been rewarding in many ways and generally a lot of fun! If 2010 contains even half the experiences of 2009, it will be worthwhile.

Looking back.....and into the future

The last day of 2009 is here and many people are heaving a sigh of relief that the year is almost over. From a global perspective, it certainly seems as if this year threw everything bad at humanity. The Global Financial Crisis saw many people lose their livelihoods, jobs and security. The impacts of Global Climate Change were clearly illustrated during several occurrences of extreme and un-seasonal weather-events worldwide which caused loss of life and severe damage to infrastructure and property. The farcical events at Copenhagen underlined the lack of substantive leadership and humanity’s refusal to accept responsibility for and work towards adapting to this phenomenon. It was a sad day when we started quantifying natural resources to the extent where businesses and countries can “trade” their carbon emissions to mollify their conscience that what they are doing is not so bad. The hard-ass approach of developed countries thinking that you can approach this challenge on business principles to win the war by a degree Celsius or two is just as ludicrous as that of developing countries’ government delegates that saw this event as an opportunity to haul out the begging bowl, rather than to face the real challenge to the environment and humanity as we know it.

Society seems to continue on an ever-declining spiral of electing and supporting weak individuals as their leaders and provide media coverage to the lives of people famous for nothing but being famous. We seem to have become fascinated by the mundane and the outrageously boring and to be besotted by appearance rather than the substance and being of the people we are dealing with.

In South Africa, things weren’t any different and South Africans were entertained by the saga in the run-up to, and the events following the general elections in April. We certainly have elected the government that we deserve and the village idiots from both the left and the right’s ranting and raving have become part of the standard mainstream political fare that was South Africa in 2009. The only challenge is to separate the idiots in charge from the idiots in opposition as they all seem to be preaching from the same podiums and have the same focus, their own self-interest and careers rather than the needs of the electorate. The year also clearly illustrated that loyalty to an individual above all costs can pay handsome dividends with certain questionable individuals having been appointed to key positions in government and the private sector. Our legal system seems to be at a cross-road with questionable decisions on a number of cases characterizing the apparent regression of the independent judiciary to the point of judges prosecuting and contradicting each other in public.

Public services such as healthcare, safety and security, maintenance of infrastructure such as roads, water supply and electricity seem to have reached the point of breakdown in a number of areas. It was quite ironic to see people take to the streets in areas such as Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Free State to protest against the performance of the same politicians they voted into power only weeks or months before. The apparent aggression and hooliganism that accompanied protests and strikes in many cases have become the norm and, in some cases, brought back vivid images of the riots of the 1980’s. It was indeed a sad day to see the country’s Defence Force soldiers storm the main seat of political power, the Union Buildings in Pretoria (or Tshwane, depending on your angle of political correctness) in their demands for higher wages. It was the only bit of action that most of these soldiers had seen in many years. However, their mutinous actions paid off handsomely when they were awarded substantial pay increases in December!

The Eskom-saga also shows that the South African tax-payer will keep on carrying the brunt of the costs to fulfill the needs of the country whether these needs are realistic and sustainable or not. The lip-service that is currently being paid to finding more sustainable sources of energy while carbon-based energy sources continue to be exploited and expanded upon, is simply untenable and we are already starting to pay the price for this through the environmental impacts that are becoming more and more evident, but that are seemingly being ignored to curry political favour. We would rather prefer to address the crises as they happen than try and prevent them from happening in the first place.

In the field of conservation, South Africa continues to face an increasing threat of poaching of rhino and other wildlife that is characterized by a more sophisticated approach by the perpetrators that requires an adjustment in our approach to effectively curb it. Although the threat to rhino is the most obvious, issues such as large scale meat-poaching in certain areas and the illegal harvest of vultures, certain plants and other wildlife for the muthi trade is certainly cause for concern. Although we have excellent legislation in place, we need to start enforcing it effectively to ensure the continued existence of our natural heritage. I am however proud to report that rangers and other conservationists have already started making good progress in addressing some of these threats, but a wider approach is needed with better support from the judiciary and other law enforcement agencies.

Several protected areas are also under threat from human activities such as mining and agriculture and areas such as Mapungubwe face losing their character and value as natural and cultural heritage areas due to these. The challenge of conserving our natural heritage in South Africa from the above and other threats is increasingly resting on the shoulders of the NGO-sector. This is a massive challenge considering that most of these organisations depend on donor funding to do the work they are engaged in and that there in most cases are very limited resources to do what’s necessary. There are however still many hard-working and dedicated people in government conservation structures and I believe that greater cooperation between all sectors is the key to achieving success in future. This however needs to extend beyond making encouraging sounds in board rooms and at conferences and meetings and to start implementing effective action to address the various challenges facing conservation in South Africa today. Considering the vested interests and internal politics prevalent in this sector, this is a huge challenge in itself.

As true South Africans, we often try to find solace in sport and our achievements in this arena over the past year have been mixed to say the least. The Boks did us proud and I have to grudgingly admit that the Bulls also performed well and deserved to make a clean sweep of the competitions that they were involved in. We started the year as the number 1 in Test Cricket and ODI’s, but this has sadly changed during the year to the level where our last test was an embarrassment to say the least. Of course, being humiliated by the Poms on home soil is never an easy pill to swallow, but seemingly capitulating in the face of rather ordinary bowling is something completely unacceptable! Then there was the farcical Caster Semenya-saga – need I say more?

Of course, the 2010 World Cup is considered to be the saviour of us all and is the once-in-a-lifetime event that most Safricans think will solve all our problems and put us back in the global picture from a sporting perspective. Ignoring for a moment the less than encouraging performances of our pride and joy, Bafana-Bafana (why we keep on referring to them as boys when they are expected to play against the real men of world football is beyond me), in the international arena, I do think that this event will indeed be an opportunity for us to showcase South Africa to as large an audience as we had when we made the miraculous transition to democracy in 1994. I trust that the opportunists that have on a number of occasions tried to use the pressing deadlines associated with the event as blackmail to push their case for better wages and other reasons, will not negatively impact on the event in any way and that it will go smoothly.

Question is, what about South Africa after the event when the world’s attention will inevitably drift away from us again? Many people seem to only look at June/July 2010 and have not planned beyond that. What will happen to the many folk who have found employment in various sectors associated with the event, but that will lose their jobs once it has run its course? Will there be outlets where these individuals can apply their acquired skills beyond the World Cup? Will these be sustainable? Unlike a 90-minute football match, or a 6-week event that has a finite life, most of us will have to carry on with our lives afterward and continue to make ends meet. One can only trust that provision has been made for alternatives for these thousands of people.

Now, more than ever, is the time for humanity to look at itself in the mirror and accept responsibility for where we are, warts and all. Time is running out for all of us if we do not face the facts and start acting to address the global and local challenges in the coming months of what will be 2010 and beyond. Humans are wonderfully resilient creatures and I trust that we will start realizing and admitting our mistakes to act timeously to achieve a workable solution to the challenges that we face today. It is never too late…

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What's with birders and sewage?

The one activity that probably contributes more than any other to class the dedicated birder as a species somewhat bereft of the usual sensibilities that other human beings possess, is the proclivity to frequent spots which are generally avoided by the reasonable man (or woman). I’m not necessarily referring to areas that host life-threatening dangers such as malaria, aggressive animals or other inhabitants, but places found in or near most developed human settlements, the local town sewage works! The thought of visiting such a facility generally fills most people with a feeling of revulsion and it is not included on the itinerary of too many other leisure activities that I know off. That is, unless you are seriously looking for you know what…

However, the mention of a particular sewage plant to a birder will probably conjure up pleasant memories of time spent wandering between settling ponds looking at the array of birds that can be found there. I am often met with strange looks when arriving in an area and enquiring about the possibility of visiting the local sewage works. These facilities, by their very nature, does provide suitable habitat to a large variety of birds and, because they are generally avoided by people, present a fairly safe location at which birders can pursue their pastime. In fact, several regional rarities have over the years been recorded at just such facilities from the Cape to the Zambezi and beyond. Recent examples of such birds are the Elegant Tern that was discovered at the Strandfontein sewage works near Cape Town, the American Purple Gallinule found at Paarl as well as Lesser Jacana found near Pretoria in October 2007. It is for this very reason that I, just like most other birders, am familiar with the sewage works in a number of locations across the region. Apart from those mentioned above, I can think of at least 20 other facilities that I have regularly visited over the years.

The dam at the Kasane Sewage Works

One of these rank as one of my favourite birding spots in all of southern Africa, namely the Kasane Sewage works situated between the small towns of Kasane and Kazangula close to the Chobe River in northern Botswana. Although the Chobe-area is frequented by thousands of tourists from all over the world, the sewage works most certainly is not on any of the local lodges or outfitter’s lists of places not to be missed. I was introduced to the site quite a few years ago by a local lodge manager and keen birder, Rex Kelly, and have since spent many pleasurable hours there, constantly being rewarded with some very special sightings of birds and other wildlife.

The area is not fenced and the lower settlement dam which carries the purest water is frequented by good numbers of game. We have at times been surrounded by as many as 200 African elephant, a herd of buffalo and several antelope species including Sable coming to drink here in the late afternoon while a lone hippo bull has for the last few years taken up residence here. One often sees signs of predators such as leopard, lion and spotted hyaena that have visited the site, but it is the birds that make use of the area that certainly warrants the most attention.

Scenes like this are not uncommon at the Kasane Sewage Works Dam
On a recent visit to the site during December, we spent some time here whilst enjoying sundowners and seeing what interesting birds could be around. The first cause for excitement was a small flock of migratory Yellow Wagtails of at least three different races that were foraging in the short grass on an open area near the water. Apart from a range of the expected species of waterbirds and waders, we were initially entertained by the antics of an African Fish Eagle seemingly deriving a lot of pleasure out of taking off from a perch and sweeping low over the water to the consternation of all the shorebirds who would fly up and circle a few times before landing only to be chased up in the same manner a short while later. This game was cut short just before dark when the resident Osprey returned from its daily tour of the Chobe floodplain and, upon finding a potential fish-eating competitor on its home patch, summarily attacked the eagle by dive-bombing and harassing it in the air until it was forced to fly off towards the river. This bird has been using the dead trees in the lower dam as a roost for several years now and we have regularly encountered it on our visits here.

Our attention was soon drawn to a flock of more than a hundred Collared Pratincoles hunting insects on the wing over the water and the clearing among the trees. It is an awesome experience to have so many of these birds fly at great speed around you, at times within a few centimeters from your face. Whilst this was going on, they were joined by at least three Eurasian Hobby Falcons who were hunting swifts and other small birds over the woodland. These little falcons had arrived a week or two earlier on migration from their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia and seemed very keen on replenishing their resources after the strenuous journey south. This was followed up by the surprise appearance of a Bat Hawk that was far more adept at catching swifts as well as bats that started appearing in the growing darkness. The grand finale was provided by an adult male Pennant-winged Nightjar that started hawking insects over the water with its long streamers and largely white wing coverts creating the impression of a huge moth sweeping over the area. A few more of these very sought-after birds were seen on the drive back to camp through the Teak forest.

A drive along this same route by day often reveals species such as Racket-tailed Roller, Wood Pipit, Red-faced Crombec, Striped Kingfisher and quite a few Sunbird species, especially when the teak trees are in flower.

Racket-tailed Roller is fairly common in the woodlands surrounding the dam

A mere glance at the list of species above is enough to make any southern African birder’s mouth water. The fact that they would have to visit a place such as the Kasane sewerage works to get to see some of them will certainly not be a deterrent at all and probably adds weight to the saying that one has to tolerate a few caterpillars in order to see the butterflies.

I again visited the site in February 2009, but was saddened to see that development is starting to encroach on this magical place. Building of a large structure had commenced on the road leading to the site and it seems as if the dam is starting to show the effects of eutrophication with very little clear surface water remaining. The cantankerous hippo bull that was part of the scenery has also since abandoned the site, presumably to take up residence in the nearby Chobe River. I just hope that the development will not hve a negative impact and that carefull management will see the dam become the attracion to wildlife that it used to be.

Dashing and Endangered - Saddle-billed Stork

Adult male Saddle-billed Stork walking along a water course in Moremi, Botswana

Possibly one of the most striking birds occurring along the rivers and wetlands of sub-Saharan Africa is the Saddle-billed Stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis. In South Africa, this species is classified as “Endangered” and the population estimate for the species 10 years ago was less than 150 individuals. Most of these birds occur in the Kruger National Park with a handful of birds still being recorded in northern Zululand as far south as Lake St Lucia within the Isimangaliso Wetland Park (Barnes, 2000). Further north on the continent it is also never common as it is not a gregarious bird like other most other storks are and its territoriality limits the number of birds that can occur, even in large areas of suitable habitat.

Suitable habitat for this species consists of aquatic habitats in open country, where they favour large rivers, freshwater wetlands and floodplains. In Kruger these birds are found along the large river systems and a few large man-made water reservoirs for most of the year, but in years of good rainfall, are quick to exploit the numerous seasonal pans and seeps that form in many areas and where a host of aquatic prey species abound under these temporarily favourable conditions. As mentioned, they feed mostly on aquatic animals and are capable fishermen that can take fish-prey up to 2kg!

Unlike most other southern African stork species, it is fairly easy to separate the male from the female of a pair in the field. Adult females have a bright yellow eye while males have a dark red eye and two yellow wattles at the base of the bill. It is also possible to identify individual birds from each other by looking at the pattern on the bill where the red and black meet. This seems to be unique in each bird, similar to fingerprints in humans. One does however need to get really close to the birds to be able to do this.

Two male Saddle-billed Storks from the Kruger National Park clearly showing the unique patterning on their bills that facilitates individual identification of birds. The bird on the lft is one of a pair found near Manzinhlophe during the survey while the bird on the right was located on the Mbiyamiti two weeks later. No pair could be found at Mbiyamiti during the survey.

It is this technique which forms an important component of our population study of this species in the Kruger National Park, run by Marcelle van den Hoven, a BTech-student from the Tshwane University of Technology. The study will run from October 2009 – September 2010 and visitors to the Park are encouraged to assist in this study by contributing images and details of sightings of these birds to the database. Feedback and details of sightings can be e-mailed to

Copy of the flier that is available for information of visitors wishing to contribute to the survey. The initial response has been excellent.

The initial response from the public has been very good and a lot of data on sightings have been received, some with really good quality images that will assist in identifying individual birds. We also conducted a survey of the southern half of the Kruger National Park during early December 2009 using 5 teams of observers that covered over 3000km over the 3 days of the survey. Due to excessive rain in the area in the preceding 2 weeks, a multitude of little pans had formed in the veld making observations very difficult and initial results were rather poor due to the fact that the birds abandoned their usual haunts along the major rivers and were now concentrating their foraging on these pans. This made them rather tricky to find!

An interesting development regarding the survey was an e-mail sent to the SABirdNet by a Canadian birder that visited the Kruger Park during October 2009. He had seen pairs of Saddle-billed Storks on 4 occasions during his 3-day visit and had sent the information to the database. However, he questioned the accuracy of the figures of the population status of the species quoted on the posters and pamphlets of the survey that have been put up across the Park and are available at most reception areas, gates and shops. According to his calculations, that took into account the entire size of the Park and the road network that traverses it, he estimated that the population in Kruger alone should exceed 4000 birds! To add insult to wild assumption, he also accused the Project and the parties involved in it of dishonesty and blowing the status of the species out of proportion to suit their own needs.

After my initial reply to the individual quoting the Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland (Barnes, 2000) confirming the status and underlining the low density of this species throughout its range, I received a direct reply from the individual concerned that indicated his refusal to accept this and expanding on his theory that the species is far more numerous than what is believed. This was my second reply to the individual concerned:

“Dear XXX

Thanks for the reply.

I would be very interested to hear on what factual information you base your suggestion that there could be 4000+ individual SBS in Kruger. It is very difficult to base population estimates on a very small number of sightings from a limited number of individuals and on the incorrect assumption that the entire Kruger provides suitable habitat for this species. Hence our project which aims to obtain more extensive records on this species and ideally would like to reach a point where we can individually identify birds in the population. Considering that the majority of tourist routes in Kruger were developed in proximity to the river systems and larger drainage lines which could potentially provide habitat for this species, there could also be considerable bias towards the likelihood of seeing this species.

Please keep in mind that the population of SBS in Kruger and elsewhere is influenced by a range of factors which severely limits their distribution to a fraction of the entire Park, namely:

• Although this species occurs widely throughout sub-Saharan Africa (apart from the arid south-west), it is nowhere considered to be numerous.
• Even in extensive suitable habitat, its territoriality and solitary nesting habits contribute to the fact that they are nowhere abundant. They are very different to most other storks species due to the fact that they are not gregarious and sightings of more than 2 birds together are very likely that of a pair with their offspring.
• Available habitat in Kruger is restricted to riverine areas. Seasonal pans and seeps are only accessible in years of sufficient rainfall and does not provide suitable foraging areas throughout the year.
• The seasonal nature of the flow of most of the smaller rivers and streams in Kruger severely limits the accessible habitat for this species. This is especially important when it should be considered that such systems will need to function as foraging areas during the breeding season which mostly occurs during the dry season in Kruger when the demand for food with this species would possible be highest.
• Several of the larger rivers are also not flowing throughout the year anymore due to a number of factors, mostly induced by human activities further up-stream. This further reduces suitable habitat and feeding opportunities for breeding birds in this area. For example, one of the major rivers in the Park is the Olifants. Our annual surveys (2006-2009) of fish-eating birds along the 92kms of this river that runs through Kruger shows that there are at most 3 pairs that occur along it.
• If you extrapolate this figure to the available suitable habitat in Kruger, it is highly unlikely that you will get to the figure you have quoted.
• Alan Kemp and his team conducted an aerial census of the entire Kruger in 1993 that revealed a total of 40 adults and 17 juveniles and sub-adults (like the bird in your photograph). That’s a little less than 2% of your estimate. We do plan to repeat this census this coming dry season and, hopefully, for a number of years to come. Will keep you posted on results.
• Subsequent records and surveys have revealed at total of 20 active nesting sites of this species in Kruger in 1993 (Benn et al, 1995). We are hoping to acquire more current data in this regard during the coming months, but it is unlikely that there would have been a marked increase in the number of breeding sites in the Park, especially if you consider the current ecological status of rivers in the Kruger.

Based on the above, the estimate of a 100 individuals in Kruger is probably optimistic.

There are several references available to support the above, but I suggest that you work through the texts of the following for a start:

• Hancock, J.A., Kushlan, J.A. & Kahl, M.P. 1992, Storks, Ibises and Spoonbills of the World. Academic Press.
• Barnes, K.N. (ed.) 2000. The Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. BirdLife SA/ADU.
• Hockey, P.A.R., Dear W.R.J. & Ryan, P.G. (eds.) 2005. Roberts Birds of Southern Africa. 7th edition. John Voelcker Bird Book Fund.
• Renshaw, E. 1993. Modelling Biological Populations in Space and Time. Cambridge University Press.

Please let me know if you have any further queries on this matter.

André Botha”

Unfortunately, this misconception is not uncommon with species such as the Saddle-billed Stork and several more of the birds that we work with. Even experienced birders are sometimes lured into to the illusion that some species are more common than what they in reality are. Rarity and scale of threat cannot be attributed to a species based on a handful of sightings or the ease with which it is found.

An excellent example of this is the Taita Falcon Falco fasciinucha. Most birders in South Africa know that a pair of these birds breed just west of the Strijdom-tunnel on the way to the Lowveld, a site looked after by one of the BirdLife-trained guides, Michael Kumako. On most days, it is possible to have good views of these birds within about 30 minutes of your arrival and most birders that have visited this part of Africa and ticked this species off their lists, probably saw them here. What people don’t realize however is that this is one of only 7 breeding pairs of this bird in the country and that they are nowhere common throughout their very scattered range in Africa. In fact, this is easily the rarest of all breeding birds in South Africa!

Taita Falcon - one of the rarest breeding birds in South Africa
(Photo: Ron Hartley)

Further details on the activities and findings of the Saddle-billed Stork Survey of the Kruger National Park will be provided in due course.