Tuesday, 30 July 2013

SABAP2 - mapping the future!

South African Bird Atlas Project 2 - (SABAP2: Species search)
We're rather proud of our Citizen Science projects in this country. One of the more, dare I say it, relevant projects & I say relevant for selfish reasons only, is the South African Bird Atlas Project 2 or by its acronym - SABAP2; a joint venture between Birdlife South Africa, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town.

SABAP2 aims to map the distribution & abundance of birds in the sub-region & follows on from, as you might have guessed, the recently dubbed SABAP1; the region's first atlas project which concluded in 1991.

The field-data is collected by volunteers or Citizen Scientists who gather data, in their own time & at their own expense and within strict parameters. The unit of collection is the PENTAD, a square of roughly 9 kilometers per side or 5 minutes each of latitude & longitude. Species recorded within the PENTAD are collated & submitted to the database. To date some 90000 of these checklists have been submitted by volunteers; something to crow about, no doubt..

I must admit we've been somewhat lax ourselves on submissions to SABAP2 for no particular reason other than complacency. Off the point & for what it's worth & in our defence, Alisha & I contribute more regularly to The South African Bird Ringing Unit or SAFRING, a bird-ringing (banding) project for qualified / trained banders (ringers) who collect & submit biometric (morphological) data to a database. We intend to be more diligent in our submissions to both projects & others, although almost certainly only after the conclusion of our 800 Challenge given current time constraints.
Greylingstad - A Rock Pipit's view
Bird feeders & nectar bottles = a 'bird-friendly' neighbourhood.

As we progress it becomes more difficult to add new species to our Challenge list, particularly during the periods when obligation keeps us at home. It's during these quiet periods & whenever possible, that we steal away for a few hours & attempt a 'mop-up' of the species we've yet to record.

One such species we hadn't recorded, until now, was the African Rock Pipit. Although we'd seen this pipit in years past, relatively close to home, we thought we'd stack the deck, improve our chances of success & sneak a peak at the SABAP2 database.

One of the PENTADS which records the African Rock Pipit fairly regularly (11.11% of cards / checklists submitted) is 2640_2845; a 9x9 square of hillside & grassland off the R23, behind Greylingstad, in South Africa's Mpumalanga province. Although a good hour's drive from home & a little further afield than some of the other PENTADS, which also recorded the bird, we thought we'd go where neither of us had been before... & why not? To pay for this service we'd atlas (record & submit a checklist) the PENTAD ourselves.
Interesting residents - Greylingstad's 'Mr Cool!'

Greylingstad is not, with respect to its many interesting residents, a town renown for its aesthetic appeal. This is beetle-brow country; folks are suspiciously tough & the dogs bite.. It was a surprise, therefore, to find a committed, bird-friendly resident who not only tends his / her garden in a manner conducive to attracting birds but who also tends the strip across the street with the same diligence & attention. Bird feeders hang in bunches.

For the record we submitted a winter checklist of well over 50 species, noted in a very short time; testament to the country's birding appeal & perhaps more so, the birding potential of the many off-beat & as yet unexplored parts of this country.

The pipit revealed itself not long after a short walk up the nearest text-book-like 'boulder-strewn hillside.' We enjoyed a successful morning aided & abetted, in no small measure, by the Citizen Scientists who had gone before & who, in giving of their time, had made our task less onerous than it might have been. It's also a tacit reminder to dig in pockets & give back whenever possible. Others may walk this way tomorrow.
Spring's a blossom around the corner

Orange River Francolin - one of the pentad's 2 Scleroptila francolin 

Monday, 22 July 2013

Diving for Franklin's Gull

South African Shark Conservancy - off Gansbaai [Western Cape]
Reports of a Franklin's Gull sighted & subsequently photographed off Dyer Island in the Western Cape decided this weekend's agenda. We packed for Cape Town. Our intentions were to join the Zest for Birds crew for some pelagic-birding on the Saturday & head off eastwards [two hours up-coast] on the Sunday for the gull.

Dyer Island is less famous for its birds, outside the birding community that is, than it is for its White Sharks, sublime creatures of the deep & South Africa's APEX predator. Whenever I get the chance I take to the frigid waters & reacquaint myself with these magnificent animals. We would kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, and make a play for both the gull & the sharks.  

Research Station - Dyer Island [5 miles offshore]
Renting gear & underwater photographic equipment in & or near Gansbaai is simple enough. Sifting good from bad & settling for the operator who genuinely considers & prioritizes the potential impact of shark-diving & the associated chumming* (* the pouring of fish oil & rotten fish into the water to attract sharks) on the sharks themselves, over simple commercial gain, is much more difficult. Shark-diving is big business & that's fair enough, within reason. Very little unencumbered research [ie: divorced from funding-bias] is in evidence. Whether the process of baiting for sharks, to service the trade, has had or will have a negative effect on shark behavior remains to be seen. 

Shark-cage anchored off Dyer Island [400 yards off]. 

In that context & in the interests of responsible tourism we opted for an experienced operator generally respected for its White Shark funding & its annual financial contribution to institutions & related organisations conducting White Shark research. The cynics would argue that it's in their best interests to do so & that's undoubtedly true. Even so, they put their money on the table rather than under the table & that's more than can be said for some of the others.

Strip the bull to its hooves & the informed generally refute the ecological benefits associated with the trade as a veneer over, what is, ostensibly a very profitable commercial business.
Classic 'Jaws' - Mindless bullsh$t! Benchley ignorance.
Above the water-line is hardly comparable with what lies below

Like a drunk preaching sobriety to the converted it's a touch hypocritical of me, perhaps, to point out the honesty flaws in the system from which I imbibed myself. The point is I love sharks & White Sharks in particular. If diving creates awareness then that must count for something, surely? After the Kruger National Park White Sharks attract more tourists to South Africa for a singular activity than any other; including Table Mountain.

What of the Franklin's Gull? Setting foot on Dyer Island is always preceded by weeks of red-tape & the haranguing of closed-minded officials, an activity I usually avoid under normal circumstances & almost always for occasions which arise at the last-minute. We were obliged, therefore, to glass the shores from the boat some two to 300 hundred yards offshore.

We were, rather unsurprisingly, unsuccessful. Finding a vagrant, albeit an obviously different bird in & amongst the multitudes, would be difficult under most circumstances. From 300 yards the task proved nigh impossible. That said we weren't too concerned. We'll return, shortly, with the necessary charters and permits & ceteris paribus (all things being equal), record the bird for our 800 Challenge. Either way we'll give it another bash.

22 meters of water - visibility good [Winter]
Up above - hot air & nothing much else
Back at the boat it was time to brave the 15 degree waters & learn some humility. Visibility in winter is particularly good; usually 6 - 8 meters. The clarity makes for some intriguing interaction & ensures eye-ball to eye-ball contact. It's easy viewing. Walking the idly flapping rope from the boat to the cage anchored some way away is, however, a touch more trying .. [I jest - the rope is usually quite tight..].

Once in the cage your notion of what's up and what's down depends on the bubble-flow, a function of the hot air expelled when clinging to a wire-mesh cage jowl to cheek with a 5 meter, 2000 kg White Shark. Pee not in the wetsuit..!

Weighed down, leaden-footed & out of our depth, usually in the act of sucking too diligently on artificial atmosphere, most recall the insignificance of mankind away from his machines & her weapons. Down in these depths we feature on the menu; albeit on the third-class platter, but we're edible (barely) fare nevertheless. As an aside isn't it nice to know most spit us out in bowel-churned disgust. We clearly leave a sour taste in the mouth.. 
Incredibly difficult to spot even in clear water [5 m shark] - 6 meters away
Shark? Where..? Oooooh f"*kkk!* [*dammit]

Native to South Africa our Whites display an extraordinary propensity to propel themselves clear out of the water in hot-pursuit of whatever's on the menu. Some do so purely for the hell of it too! Some 60000 Cape Fur Seals call the island home and it is ostensibly for this reason that many of the sharks call these waters their own. Turning the sharks away from porpoising pups & enticing them to the cage requires some skill. 
Pre-breach (only in South Africa) 22 meter water -Dyer Island
'Say hello to the nice fishy' is not becoming of the mantelpiece.
Churning rotten fish into scum takes a great deal of practice. Sharks appreciate the effort and come closer to pay their respects. It's during these visits that interpretation becomes a beast of the imagination. Breathing becomes a snarl and curiosity is expunged for violent intent, hell-bent on cold-blooded murder! It simply isn't true. 

After a short while this 5 meter female made multiple passes across the front of the cage. Reaching through the cage to rub her flanks as she past me by was a moment that will stay with me forever. Yes I was crouched on my side of the bar & yes she might not have cared but I swear, hand on heart, she looked me in the eye & I'm sure she was just as curious as I. 

We come from different worlds she & I but for the briefest time we traveled in the same circles & crossed ways. Society insists on an enmity which is ignorant & put simply, a bucket-load of chum! When I learn some manners & have a grip on the local etiquette I hope to spend some time in these depths without the mesh. Now that's walking on water!
Hanging over the 'abyss of doom' - cold & not so lonely...!
Down below lurks the beast - A Benchley fiction!

Thursday, 18 July 2013

2013: - 800 Challenge [2nd Quarter review - Stats, sundries & other.]

When you look at this map of Africa from up here, our efforts, down there, seem disappointingly insignificant! Then again, our adventure is, in fact, conducted from down there rather than from up here & down there we covered some ground this 2nd quarter .. a great deal of ground!

Africa [Southern Africa - 2nd quarter 'Look & Feel'] 

Here's our report card - 

A. - Result 698
  • 800 Challenge: Target by end of 2nd Quarter - 725 
  • Actual species seen year to date: end of 2nd Quarter - 698 
  • Remarks - could do better; lacks concentration - remedial work recommended
Southern Africa - 2nd quarter routes / road-map
B. - Outcomes based review
  • Successful twitches; rarities & vagrants - 2 [Greater Sheathbill & Green Tinkerbird]
  • Unsuccessful twitches; rarities & vagrants - 2 [Egyptian Vulture & Franklin's Gull]
  • Lifers - [Species we recorded for the first time, ever] - 6 
    • River Warbler
    • Wood Pipit
    • Green Tinkerbird
    • Olive-headed Weaver
    • Mascarene Martin
    • Greater Sheathbill
  • Potential lifers sought in the correct habitat - [unsuccessful]: 3
    • Malagasy Pond Heron
    • Souza's Shrike
    • Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah
  • Unusual sightings - aberrations: 3
    • Xanthochroic Black-collared Barbet - Johannesburg South Africa
    • Leucistic Karoo Thrush
    • Leucistic Cape Wagtail
  • Persistent dips ie: common species not recorded to date for the 800 Challenge
    • African Broadbill - 5 separate attempts across 2 countries.
    • Victorin's Warbler - 2 separate attempts
    • Knysna Woodpecker - 2 separate attempts
    • Hottentot Buttonquail - 2 separate attempts
C. - Excuses & other insignificant sundry moans & groans
  • Winter pelagic cruise - postponed to mid-July [Inclement weather]
  • Early departure of summer migrants - [Inclement weather]
  • Body Mass Index data suggests an increase in weight [Inclement weather] 
D. - Milestones - Lifetime [achieved during the 2nd Quarter]
  • 800th species photographed in the sub-region (June) - Schalow's Turaco
  • 830 species seen in the sub-region
E. - 800 Challenge year to date: a synopsis (Target: end of year)
  • Southern Africa 698 species recorded (seen) [Target: year-end 801]
  • South Africa 668 species recorded (seen) [Target: year-end 701]
  • 74% species seen year to date have been photographed [Target: year-end 85%]
3rd Quarter - Forward-looking statement

Three trips are planned for the quarter ending September 2013.
  • Continental-shelf pelagic cruise - South of Cape Town
  • Central & northern Namibia including western Caprivi
  • Pan-handle - Okavango Delta, Botswana

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Old-Africa's a cappella is soul music

Botswana's AIDS epidemic - 2nd only to Swaziland

Those of us who defy confinement & who acknowledge Old-Africa in our veins, even those of less fashionable hue, are compelled by the natural order. Thus inspired, modern nuance & material comfort blend with ancient custom.
Sedentary Botswana / Caprivi where wealth walks

Black & white become shades of grey & are neither simple nor singular in interpretation but we sing acapella*, in time ...

* harmony. Dusty shades of grey 

Sunset at the Chobe / Zambezi confluence 

Generations, however far removed, draw nourishment from this dust & from within the herds.

As the second quarter of our year draws to a close our attention turned north; far north: - to eastern Botswana & nearby Namibia's Caprivi Strip.

A shining beacon of hope for Africa Botswana plagiarises a perfect world. Fields of amber & ephemeral swamp blend seamlessly with salt-encrusted thirst-land.

World-class infrastructure; legislated tradition; unrivaled respect for the rule of law & an AIDS epidemic which threatens the fabric of Botswana's psyche, ensures a delicate contrast; uniquely managed by the people, for the people. Ancient & modern live in trust.

Home - Chobe

It was to these land-locked shores that we took our son to celebrate his 13th birthday; a traditional coming of age he'd have to carve off the back of the Zambezi Queen & from the papyrus-choked depths of the Chobe & Zambezi rivers in search of tigerfish & bream. If the 'remuneration committee' ie: Mom & Dad kept an eye out for the feathered fiends endemic to these parts, what harm....?
Like all teenagers; these bite
The old ways / nylon new -  modern tradition 

Ostensibly a fishing trip to Botswana's Chobe river & later to Namibia's Zambezi river near Kasane & Kilizo respectively, most of our time was spent on the water. Confined as we were, either on the house-boat or on one of the fishing skips, our birding was specific & focused.

In retrospect we had the latitude & the charter to come and go as we pleased which allowed for arm's-length encounters with many of Botswana's avian specials including White-backed Night Heron, African Finfoot, Western-banded Snake-Eagle, Rock Pratincole, African Skimmer, Slaty Egret & others.

From off the boats the birds are confiding - African Darter
Wattled Crane - in decline
Other specials seen from the boats on our Chobe leg included the rarely seen Sitatunga, the more common Red Lechwe, Puku and herds of Elephant, Sable & Buffalo. A road trip into the Chobe National Park yielded good sightings of lion & a myriad species of bird including Wood Pipit & Three-banded Courser.
White-backed Night Heron - common
Rufous-bellied Heron

The abiding avian memory from our Chobe leg was undeniably the large flock of African Skimmer & Rock Pratincole which vocally trawled the crepuscular waters in search of fish & insects respectively.

There are few evenings spent more honestly than those in Botswana from off the boat-deck; nodding quietly at anchor; condensation-wrapped sun-downers close at hand; family in tow & a wild Africa-cloaked sunset. It's pure.
African Skimmer - crepuscular feeders

The Katima special
Choking Chobe in our winter dust we headed further north & into Namibia's Caprivi, a striplet of land no wider than a piece of string and adjacent Botswana's northern watery borders.

Arbitrarily demarcated in the yesteryear for political / military convenience, many of its peoples share blood-ties with ancestral kin across the Zambezi river in Zambia. Namibians by decree, the Lozi-speaking people of eastern Caprivi are comfortably rural & largely reliant on subsistence.

Nearby Katima Mulilo, the region's capital, provides for some urban relief; services the domestic & transitory markets & is the gate-way further north into central Africa.

Winter pickings are good.... Middle-age spread?

Unlike the other, 'more discerning', members of my family I find Namibia's Caprivi quite compelling. I like & trust her people; refuse to accept the rumour that nocturnal raids on tourist spots, largely by makoro-bandits, are the workings of local fishermen and most importantly find its wilderness less orderly than the more manicured parks south of the river.

I was sad to hear that the poaching of migratory elephants for ivory through Namibia's Bwabwata region is becoming more prevalent. I wasn't surprised to learn that one of the (recently apprehended) poaching gangs were neither Namibian nor from Botswana but rather from the Congo & from China.
Hartlaub's Babbler - politician-like. Scratch mine first, mate....

African Skimmer - scrape (Locals revere these birds)
I was equally annoyed to learn that the Namibian fishing grounds were being extensively poached, if not wholly decimated, by foreign fishermen conducting nocturnal sorties from Zambia. Indiscriminate netting of fish, at night & not for own-use but rather for the US $ -based markets in faraway Congo, whose own fishing grounds have long-collapsed, will spell the end of Namibia's fresh-water fishery. From my own perspective, as a recreational catch & release angler specifically and an eco-tourist generally, this short-sighted indifference from Namibia's authorities makes little sense.

Schalow's Turaco - a 'primary' feather

One of the many birds in the region we'd yet to photograph successfully was the Schalow's Turaco. 

In four previous attempts we'd been unsuccessful. This time, however, we were fortunate to locate a briefly confiding bird.. Not only were we permitted a few record images in harsh midday-light, but the bird, rather unexpectedly, donated a wing-feather as it scorched over our heads, not too dissimilar from a wind-assisted, adrenaline-infused grouse in open season.

As it turned out the feather fluttered down to our feet as we watched, some might say somewhat trance-like & slack-jawed. At the very last instant a gust of wind blew the feather out of Mills & Boon & into the most diabolically thorn-infested shrub known to science.

Our son retrieved the memento & for his chivalry spilled a goblet-full of skin & claret.. No doubt the bird cackles from the tree-tops still..!

Notwithstanding, the image of the Schalow's is a milestone & our 800th species we've photographed in the sub-region. [This life-time photographic milestone is distinct from our 2013: - 800 Challenge where the Schalow's Turaco was species no. 698 seen in the sub-region since we initiated the 800 Challenge in January, earlier this year].

Dare I say it ... - it's a feather in our cap..!