Boegoeberg Dam BioBash: Where Kalahari Meets Karoo

The interface of Kalahari and Karoo is a study in contrasts: red sands and blue skies; dry earth and flowing river; bustling weaver colonies and deserted towns. My first week of October was spent participating in a BioBash in this dynamic region of the world, collecting Virtual Museum (VM) records alongside a team led by Altha Liebenberg and Salome Willemse. (If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a BioBash, this blog post explains our previous trip to the Northern Cape.) Apart from our fearless leaders, the team was comprised of myself, Hardy and Joey Herbst, Alan Lee, Stefan Theron, and Les Underhill.

In April 2019, citizen scientist Altha Liebenberg hatched a plan for a BioBash at Boegoeberg dam, a campsite-turned-resort alongside the Orange River in the Northern Cape. Tucked away on a gravel road between Groblershoop to the North and Prieska to the South, Boegoeberg occupies a unique biological niche. A variety of ecosystems meet and merge here: Kalahari Scrub-Robin, towards the southern reaches of its range, forage alongside Karoo Scrub-robin, near the northern end of its range, and riparian species such as Goliath Heron glide along the river.

Goliath Heron on the Orange River. Record curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BirdPix-94118

The convergence of these three worlds creates a fascinating and complex playground of exploration for the curious biologist…and explore we did! Over the course of four days, Salome and I worked through seven quarter-degree grid cells (QDGCs) as well as our “home” grid cell.

A personal highlight for me occurred on our second full day, Oct. 2, when we stumbled upon Putsonderwater, an abandoned settlement 65 km southwest of Boegoeberg. Situated along a railway line between De Aar and Upington, the station-town formed in the 1800’s and enjoyed a brief but bustling history. Today, however, the settlement is devoid of life, eerie and beautiful.

Broken door in Putsonderwater.

Tentative trees poke branches through broken floorboards, and hallways display windblown carpets of red sand. It is deafeningly quiet; only a dusty wind, and the occasional rustle of feathers as a rock martin swoops past. Colourful cacti creep across the barren ground.

View through an old window in Putsonderwater.
Cacti surrounding Putsonderwater.

On the edges of the settlement, long-discontinued telephone poles wear heavy straw hats: massive nests, masterfully crafted by resident Sociable Weaver colonies. These remarkable birds are endemic to southern Africa and build the largest nests of any avian species. Their handiwork quickly became a familiar sight, whether draped over old trees or topping endless lines of poles.

Sociable Weaver nests top poles along the railway line.

After half an hour spent peering through windowless frames and wandering unroofed halls, we chose to explore a few of the surrounding buildings in search of more life. Our efforts yielded unexpected findings: a pair of Spotted Eagle-Owls peering down from a pine, and Red-veined Darters hovering above bone-dry perches. This Red-veined Darter was the first photographic record for the entire quarter-degree grid cell, 2921BD—for any VM project!

Red-veined Darter (Nomad). Record curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=OdonataMAP-76607

The surprises continued, as rusty sheets of metal and old bricks revealed Bibron’s Thick-toed Gecko and Spotted Sand Lizard.

Bibron’s Thick-toed Gecko. Record Curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=ReptileMAP-172311

Our afternoon in Putsonderwater ultimately concluded with fifteen species added to BirdPix, two for ReptileMAP, a Brown-Veined White for LepiMAP, and a new Steenbok record for MammalMAP–and we claimed the added satisfaction of acquainting ourselves with the mystery that is Putsonderwater.

Steenbok outside of Putsonderwater. Record curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=MammalMAP-29755
Putsonderwater

Though most days were spent working in the pentads and grid cells surrounding Boegoeberg, we did take time to explore our “home” grid cell as well. In addition to camping facilities, Boegoeberg Dam also offers canoes and kayaks for use on the dam. Early Thursday morning, Salome and I hoped to take a canoe out onto the water to search for a few more riparian species…blissfully unaware that Thursday had other plans. Before dawn, we awoke to the unique sensation of wind violently shaking our tent—wind strong enough, we surmised, to deposit us in Marydale, the next town along the Orange River! Needless to say, we avoided canoes for the day, instead lacing up our hiking boots and tackling two trails running alongside the dam. In spite of the wind, these trails were bursting with life.

Our birdwatching spot beside the river.

A short scramble and walk led us to a large patch of reeds beside the river. Along the route, we were treated to a beautiful sighting of this Pearl-spotted Owlet, whose mournful song carried across our campsite each night.

Pearl-spotted Owlet. Record curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BirdPix-94009

Once we reached the river, it was difficult to hear anything over the noisy gurgle of water pouring in from the canal to our left. Still, as is so often the case when in nature, a few minutes of patience paid off. We were soon rewarded with sightings of African Reed Warbler, White-rumped Swift, White-throated Swallow, Southern Masked-weaver, Reed Cormorant, White-breasted Cormorant, and Orange River White-eye.

African Reed Warbler. Record curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BirdPix-94022

We found treasures closer to the campsite, as well—as darkness settled over the tents, Altha set up a blacklight to attract moths and lacewings. This is one of her three resulting submissions to LacewingMAP, a beautiful female Nemopterella species.

A female Nemopterella species, photograph courtesy of Altha Liebenberg. Record curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=LacewingMAP-16224

During the day, dozens of Brown-veined Whites danced through the sunlight-speckled shade alongside the dam, clustering together to drink from shallow pools of water.

Brown-veined White. Record curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=LepiMAP-694072

It was the mammals, though, which undoubtedly left the strongest impression; in particular, the resident population of vervet monkeys. Endlessly curious and ever-resourceful, these clever critters ventured into our tents not once, but twice! This especially cheeky individual made off with a rusk, and perched atop one of our tents whilst polishing it off.

Vervet Monkey enjoying a stolen snack.

With the exception of the vervet monkeys, other mammals kept a wary distance. Slender mongoose and South African ground squirrel scurried across pathways, and though we spotted baboons a few times (and certainly heard them in the morning), they stayed clear of the campsite.

Slender Mongoose. Record curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=MammalMAP-29738

This trip is, in my mind, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of gratitude; my story is only one among many. Whether by foot, bike, canoe, or bakkie, Alan and Stefan worked as a team, tackling difficult pentads for the South African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2). Though their quest for birds (and penchant for 50 species per pentad) led them across some unusual terrain, it also saw them welcomed into homes for meals and conversation. Altha, Hardy, and Joey focussed their energies on Boegoeberg dam, taking route recommendations from Magda, the dynamic driving force behind much of the campsite’s restoration. Together, these three scoured walking and driving routes along the water’s edge and the canal in search of birds, butterflies, reptiles, and more to build the species list for the grid cell. Les visited some of the furthest locations from the campsite, following the river and adding valuable riparian species records to the grid cells.

Salome Willemse searches for birds along the railway line.

Beyond those of us immediately involved in data collection, the trip itself was made possible by dozens of generous sponsors in Danielskuil. Our sponsors supplied fresh fruit, cool drinks, and gear to fuel our journeys, and Boegoeberg Dam itself generously provided our tents and sleeping cots. And, of course, what BioBash would be complete without a large-scale “battle plan” map? Though unable to attend in person, Tino Herselman created beautiful, detailed maps of the region for each participant to use during the week.

Boegoeberg “battle plan” map, created by Tino Herselman. Pink, green, and orange dots represent pentads atlassed for SABAP2, and yellow dots represent QDGCs which received VM records. Photo courtesy of Salome Willemse.

Each individual contribution made our BioBash not only possible, but successful. We added Virtual Museum records to 10 QDGCs, and covered 23 pentads for SABAP2. Though ID’s for many of the Lepidopteran species and a few reptiles are still pending, one look at the BirdPix data speaks volumes.

Northern Cape BirdPix coverage maps from September 2019 (left) and October 2019 (right), before and after the Boegoeberg BioBash.

The map on the left shows BirdPix coverage in the Northern Cape prior to our trip, in number of species recorded per QDGC. Boegoeberg Dam is located at 2922AA, and contains 30 species. The map on the right was created on October 15th, and the increase in that grid cell alone is astounding—83 species records! The surrounding cells also show significant improvements.

Once again, I am amazed at the difference a few dedicated individuals can make within such a short period of time. Thank you to all of the sponsors, participants, and contributors who made Boegoeberg BioBash 2019 possible—we are so thankful to have you on our team! To readers and citizen scientists who may not have ventured into this part of the Northern Cape, I encourage considering a visit to Boegoeberg. There are few facilities in this region which offer accommodation alongside such a unique diversity of wildlife, and your stay will be made all the more memorable by the warm welcome you receive. I hope that you are able to experience Boegoeberg for yourselves, and find your own adventures in this remarkable part of the world.

Further reading for the curious mind. An interesting write-up on the history of Putsonderwater can be found here: https://mg.co.za/article/2009-08-05-putsonderwater-a-well-without-people

Keep exploring!

Ant-Eating Chat. Record Curated at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BirdPix-93835

 

 

Valuable, Vulnerable Vultures

There are two groups of vultures in the world.  The Old World vultures, with 16 species occurring in Africa, Europe and Asia; and the New World vultures with seven extant species, occurring in the Americas. Old World vultures are more closely related to eagles and hawks than to New World vultures; the similarities between them are due largely to convergent evolution. Convergent evolution is the process whereby species that are not closely related, independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environmental conditions or ecological niches. Among the Old World vultures, the Bearded Gypaetus barbatus, Egyptian Neophron percnopterus and Palm-nut Vultures Gypohierax angolensis are more closely related to each other than to other vultures. Strangely, no vultures occur in Australia, but several species of crow and raven fulfill the role of scavengers there.

White-headed Vulture (left) and Egyptian Vulture (right)

Vultures are often wrongly considered ugly and stinky, and given villainous roles in stories, movies and books. The thought of these birds feeding on dead and rotting things might not be a pleasant one, but, without them we would be in big trouble! Vultures are nature’s clean-up crew. They consume the remains of large mammals.  Some of these killed by lions or other large predators; some die of disease, old age, starvation or other reasons.  In all cases, vultures are the ones who end up cleaning the carcasses down to the bare bones – the Bearded Vulture or Lammergeyer Gypaetus barbatus consumes the bones too.  If vultures weren’t around, rotting carcasses would pile up.  Over days or weeks these piles of stinking, festering carrion will be wonderful incubators for all kinds of diseases and pollute water resources.  The carcasses will still get scavenged, but at a much slower rate, by animals like jackals, rats, stray dogs, and flies.  Some of these species are not always desirable to have around, and may, instead of limiting, contribute to the further spread of diseases, including to humans and domestic animals.

A study led by Anil Markandya looked at the impacts of the disappearance of vultures in India. Vultures die offs occurred because of a veterinary drug called diclofenac, used as a painkiller and anti-inflammatory for cattle. While it helped the cattle, it harmed the vultures.  Cattle in India are mostly considered sacred; they are not eaten, but when they die, are left for the vultures to consume. The vultures consumed many carcasses that had diclofenac in their systems; and only a small amount of it in a vulture’s system is enough to give it kidney failure. Vulture populations declined catastrophically!

White-backed Vultures coming in to scavenge in Bangweulu Wetlands, Zambia – photo by Megan Loftie-Eaton

What was the effect of the vultures vanishing?  The researchers concluded that the decline in vultures, which meant more and more carcasses, led to an increase in the stray dog population by as many as seven million individuals! As a result, there was a big increase in dog bites – Markandya and his team estimated an additional 40 million dog bites over a 14 year period. This meant an additional 40,000 human deaths due to rabies, India being particularly hard hit by this disease. Researchers estimated the cost to the Indian government and health services at 34 billion dollars!

The principle of this study illustrates is that the disappearance of vultures is something that costs us humans money. And this study looked at only one factor, namely, rabies. There are likely many other impacts, diseases that may affect humans as well as animals, that may increase if the amazing feathery “clean-up crew” are not there to do their job.

We humans tend to value money above all, it would seem, and sadly many people in power are hesitant to act on anything if it does not affect their bank account. But, there are many things on our wonderful planet that go beyond monetary value, many things that are priceless. It is not really possible to estimate the full value of something like vultures in terms of money.  Yes, they help limit diseases in various ways. There certainly would be many more indirect ways in which vultures are protecting us and saving us money. But, they are just one part of the amazing web of nature, where millions of species are all interacting with each other and with the environment to form a stable, whole, harmonious, living system or biosphere. For our own comfort, and survival, it is vital that the whole of this ecological web on Earth should be protected. Any species we lose leaves a ‘gap’ in the network. While one species may step up to take over a role left behind by another species that has vanished, there is certainly a limit to the knocks that any ecosystem can take.  And the same goes for the ecology of the Earth as a whole. We humans are dependent on the healthy functioning of the living Earth, the Earth is not dependent upon us. We need the Earth for our survival, but the Earth does not need us.

Beyond their value, there is the sheer wonder of vultures. They have amazing physiological adaptations suited to their role, some of which we have discovered only recently. They have very acidic gastric juices, helping to rapidly kill harmful bacteria in the meat they eat. Other bacteria they tolerate, these flourishing in their guts and even helping them digest their food.  They have very powerful immune systems, with copious anti-bodies in their blood. It is ironic that they can consume vast amounts of contaminated carrion with no ill effect, but are so vulnerable to the veterinary medications used to treat livestock.

Lappet-faced Vulture (left) and Hooded Vulture (right)

New World vultures have an extremely keen sense of smell, by which they find dead animals; Old World vultures rely mostly on their superlative sense of sight. Vultures, with long and broad wings, are perfectly adapted to soaring, using thermals and updrafts over hills and mountains to lift them high into the sky with almost no effort.  From up there, they can keep an eye out for carcasses. Once one vulture spots potential food, other vultures watching it will see it going down and follow, and so no carcass gets left alone for too long.

At a carcass, different vulture species fulfill different roles. In Africa, the powerful Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotos with its strong, hooked bill is able to tear through tough hides and open up intact carcasses so that it and other vultures can feed on the flesh and entrails inside. It also performs the final clean-up acts of eating the hides and sinews after the other vultures have consumed the softer bits. The Bearded Vulture specializes in eating bones, which it can swallow whole or, if too large, drop from a great height onto rocks to shatter.  Most other vultures prefer to feed on softer tissues. They rapidly gorge themselves, extending their crops, sometimes eating so much that they have to wait around for some time before they are able to fly off. If they suddenly have to fly, if, for instance a hungry hyena turns up, they will quickly vomit up some of their meal. A few vulture species have somewhat wider feeding strategies, including catching live prey, as the Lappet-faced Vulture does, or feeding on ostrich eggs, which the Egyptian Vulture does using rocks as a tool to crack their shells. The Palm-nut Vulture, while eating carrion occasionally, actually specializes in eating the oily fruit of raffia and oil palm trees.

Vultures are among the largest and most spectacular birds.  The Andean Vultur gryphus and Californian Gymnogyps californianus Condors, and several Old World vultures like the Lappet-faced Vulture, can reach body weights of more than 12 kg, and wingspans approaching or exceeding 3 m. The King Vulture Sarcoramphus papa of South America has one of the gaudiest faces in the bird kingdom, with colourful wattles and patches of bare skin. The Rüppell’s Vulture Gyps rueppelli has been recorded soaring at altitudes of 11,277 m, higher than any other bird. It would be interesting to know how they are able to tolerate both the extreme cold and lack of oxygen at that altitude.

King Vulture – photo by Olaf Oliviero Riemer
Andean Condor – photo by Michael Gäbler

In some parts of the world, vultures are seen in a very positive light.  In the East, cultures such as the Parsi see vultures as performing a vital spiritual cleansing function; the dead are left on platforms called ‘towers of silence’ for the vultures to consume. In Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian Vulture was sometimes portrayed in hieroglyphics; the Mayans of Central America did the same with the King and Black Vulture.

VULTURES IN TROUBLE

Vultures, with the amazing ecosystem services they provide, are in deep trouble worldwide.  The threats take different forms. The Californian Condor, almost went extinct because of eating the carcasses of animals that humans had shot; the lead bullets and shotgun pellets poisoned them. They were only saved by an intensive captive breeding effort. In India, the big threat is the drug diclofenac introduced to treat livestock.  In Africa, vultures are hit particularly hard.  They are poisoned, sometimes through poisoned carcasses left out by livestock farmers that want to kill jackals and other predators. Elephant and rhinos poachers worry that vultures circling and seeking out their kills, will draw anti-poaching units’ attention; so they poison the carcasses to intentionally kill vultures. In a recent incident, over 500 vultures comprising five different species died from scavenging poisoned elephant carcasses in Botswana.

In Africa, vultures are also considered to have medicinal value. Because of their keen eyesight, they are thought to be clairvoyant (able to predict the future), and vulture parts can sell for considerable prices at muti markets. Their carcasses also turn up at bush meat markets throughout Africa.

Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres – Blouberg Nature Reserve, Limpopo Province – photo by Megan Loftie-Eaton

Many vultures suffer fatal accidents in collisions with human-made structures.  They are prone to collisions with electricity pylons, and more recently, with the blades of wind turbines. The latter phenomenon is worrying. Wind farms kill not just vultures but also other species of birds, as well as bats. While wind power is often considered a ‘clean’ source of energy, it also has its own serious ecological repercussions. Furthermore, vultures face destruction of their habitats and food sources by humans. It is likely that several species of New World vultures went extinct when most of the megafauna (large mammals) such as mammoths, horses, camels and ground sloths were exterminated by humans entering these continents.  In Africa and Asia, natural habitats are threatened by the ever increasing expansion of human settlements and agriculture, and the numbers of large, wild mammals continue to dwindle too.

What makes vultures especially vulnerable is that they are long-lived, slow-reproducing birds. Even under the best conditions, they take a long time to recover from population losses. At present, more than half of the Old World vulture species are considered endangered in some way! The New World vultures seem to be somewhat safer, but not entirely out of danger.

HOW WE CAN HELP

To protect vultures, they need protected habitat and large animals to feed on. It is important that we eliminate chemicals such as diclofenac that poison them. There are veterinary drugs that do the same job without harming vultures. In Africa, we need ongoing efforts to combat elephant and rhino poaching, as well as the poisoning of other predators that lead to unwanted vulture deaths. One solution is the provision of safe livestock carcasses at ‘vulture restaurants’, which can serve a double role, first of all feeding the vultures, but secondly also attracting bird watchers and tourists. Most vulture restaurants have bird hides where people can sit and watch the vultures as they feed. This also helps to spread vulture awareness. In South Africa and Asia, there are now many such vulture restaurants. We certainly need to continue with our efforts to conserve these precious, feathered eco-hygienists. Fore more information see: http://www.vulpro.com/ and https://www.ewt.org.za/what-we-do/what-we-do-species/vultures-for-africa/

Bearded Vulture

 

 

 

 

BDInsight – September 2019

September flew by! Where is the year going? We hope you are all enjoying the Spring weather and getting ready for a great Summer of biodiversity explorations and mapping.

The Return of The Dragons

The Return of The Dragons saw OdonataMAPpers snap and map 646 dragonflies and damselflies from five African countries (Botswana, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia). Of the records submitted, 86% have been identified already, thanks to the amazing OdonataMAP expert panel.

The three species seen most often during the shoot the dragons week were Red-veined Darters Sympetrum fonscolombii (54 records), Tropical Bluetails Ischnura senegalensis (46) and Broad Scarlets Crocothemis erythraea (38). In the photo above we have a stunning Black-splashed Elf Tetrathemis polleni, mapped by Toby Esplin in St Lucia, KwaZulu-Natal.

Diana Russell took top honours for the week with 73 dragons OdonataMAPped. Followed by Toby Esplin (68) and Jean Hirons on 42 records. Well done. You are absolute stars! A big thank you goes to each and everyone of you that uploaded records to OdonataMAP during the Return of The Dragons Week – http://vmus.adu.org.za/ – please keep an eye out for any and all odonata this season.

News from the field

Les Underhill, Karis Daniel, Altha Liebenberg, Salome Wilemse, and a group of keen BioMAPpers were out in the boondocks on the Boegoeberg BioBASH collecting valuable biodiversity data. Les sent this wonderful photo (below) of the Boegoeberg Dam. The Boegoeberg Dam, completed in 1933, is the third largest dam in the Orange River. It is located near Groblershoop and Prieska in the Northern Cape, South Africa.

We look forward to hearing all about their trip. Watch this space!

Student Research Projects

A major expansion of the BDI website was undertaken in August. The information about the Research Projects for students is now live. Please go and have a look at http://thebdi.org/research-training/students-research-themes/

Our main research project themes are ecology, environmental sociology, ecological economics, and historical ecology. These themes overlap to a large degree, and our research projects often involve cross-disciplinary research involving several themes.

Although applications from anyone, anywhere in the world, will be considered, we anticipate most of our students will be from universities in Europe. Many universities encourage their students to undertake a project abroad, and the academic year in which this opportunity is permitted varies a lot. The duration of the project also varies, between weeks and months. The role of the BDI is to provide accommodation and supervision. We are geared up to undertake the formal contractual obligations needed by the sending university.

Field research in action – camera trapping

The Boom of The Bushveld!

Southern Ground Hornbills Bucorvus leadbeateri are large birds, sometimes weighing more than 6 kg and standing about a meter tall on tiptoe. With their glossy black bodies and bright red, bare facial skin, coupled with a bold and fearless demeanor, they are conspicuous wherever they occur. But many people who see them don’t know what they are, to the extent that in the Kruger National Park they now have an accepted secondary name, ‘Turkey Buzzards’. This comes from American tourists, ‘turkey buzzards’ is what many Americans call their Turkey Vulture Cathartes aurea, a species that does not occur in Africa.

Although related to other hornbills, Ground Hornbills belong to their own family, the Bucorvidae. Apart from the Southern Ground Hornbill, there’s a second species, the Northern Ground Hornbill Bucorvus abyssinicus, that replaces it in similar habitat north of the Equator. It has a large, open casque on top of its bill, a yellow patch on the side of its bill, and blue and red (male) or entirely blue (female) facial skin. Unique features of the ground hornbills include not having carotid (neck) arteries, and walking on their tippy toes. They have very long, dense, impressive eyelashes, used to screen their eyes from the bright African sun.

Ground hornbills, as their name suggests, spend most of their time on the ground, preferring open savanna and grassland regions. They can fly up into trees, in which case they display their beautiful white primary wing feathers, that are usually hidden beneath the overlying black feathers. Their legs are much longer than those of other hornbills and together with their long necks this enables them to peer over tall grass. They walk on their toes to boot, with the ‘sole’ of the foot lifted high off the ground. The result is a stately step, that gives an impression of justified pride.

They are formidable predators, going out in hunting parties of up to 11 birds. Their long, curved bills are very strong. Their prey varies from termites to big tortoises and even mammals like hares. They use their bills to dig around in the ground in search of invertebrates, frogs, or the honeycombs and larvae of ground-nesting bees and wasps. They also regularly probe around in dung, especially elephant dung, to look for dung beetles or their larvae. Sometimes ground hornbills eat carrion too.

Unlike many other hornbill species, the Southern Ground Hornbill does not have a large hollow casque on top of its bill, just a raised ridge. The function of amplifying its call, like a resonating sound box, is carried out by its big throat pouch instead. In the male, this is entirely red; in the female it has a deep blue central patch. These colours emerge only on maturity; in chicks and juveniles, the bare facial skin is grayish. The inflatable throat pouch enables the birds to give a particularly deep, booming ‘hoom hoom hoom hoom’ call, from which they get their Afrikaans name ‘Bromvoël’ (roughly translated as ‘Boom Bird’). Their call can carry up to five kilometers. From a distance, the call sounds rather like the roar of a lion. To mistake a hornbill for a lion is not as silly as one might think – as a bird lover realized to his shock when under the impression that he was approaching a hornbill, he stumbled upon a lioness!

Although they inhabit open habitats, these hornbills do need trees. They roost up in the branches at night, and also nest in big trees. The nest is a large, open cavity or hollow, often at the top of large trees like Baobabs. Thus these birds need ample open ground in addition to very large trees, a particular habitat requirement that makes them vulnerable to human disturbance, like the felling of trees for wood or bush clearing for agriculture. But they will adapt and can live in open farm fields provided there are big trees nearby. Indeed, ground hornbills can flourish in rural areas with traditional light farming and livestock herding.

Ground hornbills roost as well as hunt in pairs or small groups. To maintain group bonds, they call, exchange food items and preen each other. They start hunting at dawn, and cover about 11 km (7 miles) per day. Sometimes they make use of bush fires, catching small animals as they flee from the flames. They will also catch small creatures disturbed by large animals like elephants, buffaloes or rhinos, and can often be found foraging in close proximity to these large mammals.

Other interesting behaviours include sunbathing with spread wings, or bathing by rubbing themselves against wet leaves and grass after rains. Sometimes they accidentally step in thorns, which they pull out with the precision grasp of their bill tip. Immature birds will play with each other at the roosts, doing a kind of jousting with their bill-tips, chasing each other or jumping on each other. The birds typically fly to and from their roosts while it is still dark, so as to try and keep their roosting places secret from potential predators.

Other than baobabs, ground hornbills will also nest in other large trees like Marula, Boer-Bean, Thorn (the larger species), Yellowwood, Jackal-Berry, Sausage, Fig, Bushwillow or Star-Chestnut Trees. They rarely use cavities in rock faces or earth banks. The female incubates her eggs alone. But she has help! The male, as well as other members of the family group, regularly bring food to her while she incubates. This is the largest bird species in the world that breeds cooperatively. Sometimes the female leaves her nest briefly for the sake of personal hygiene, leg-stretching, and to find some food for herself.

Although ground hornbill mothers always lay two eggs, it almost always happens in nature that only one chick survives. The chick stays in the nest for about three months, after which it joins the group. It stays in the group until it reaches adulthood, at about the age of 4 to 6 years. We still don’t know how long they live, but everything indicates that it is potentially quite long. They proliferate slowly – aside from the fact that they take long to mature, and that there’s usually only one breeding male and female per group, raising only one chick per breeding attempt, groups don’t even necessarily breed every year. Chicks are threatened by a number of predators, including cat and snake species. On average it takes every group a bit over nine years to successfully raise a single chick to maturity!

Southern Ground Hornbills face many threats from humans, habitat destruction being one of the main threats. Many of these birds die from eating poisoned bait farmers put out for jackals, caracals or other predators. Some are electrocuted on power lines. In areas with buildings they are sometimes directly persecuted by humans because they attack house windows – they see their own reflections and peck the panes to pieces under the impression that it is another, strange bird. This behaviour can be prevented by painting the windows, or by putting wire netting in front of them. A lesser known threat faced by these amazing birds is that of forgotten landmines in African regions where civil wars wreaked havoc. Because they probe deep into the ground with their sturdy bills, they are at risk of being blown up by buried land mines. Landmines are still found in large numbers in countries like Angola and Mozambique, remnants of wars that are technically over, but are still killing people and wildlife.

Being big, prominent, active members of savanna ecosystems, ground hornbills are considered a flagship species. When they thrive, it is a sign that the environment is healthy. Luckily, there are some wonderful projects that aim to help Southern Ground Hornbill population numbers, such as the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project.

The Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project is working to slow the decline by:

  • Harvesting and assisting the hand-rearing of redundant second-hatched chicks that dies of starvation in the wild nests.
  • Re-wilding of the hand-reared chicks by established groups in ‘bush’ training schools.
  • Reintroduction of these ‘rescued’ birds back into areas where they have become locally extinct, once the original threats in those areas have been mitigated.
  • Augmentation of non-viable groups in the wild.
  • Provision of artificial nests for wild groups with no or inadequate nests.
  • Research on genetics, behaviour and other important unanswered questions necessary for successful re-establishment.
  • Coordination of Awareness Campaigns, to educate the general public to the threats facing this flagship indicator species and to reinstate the bird into collective   memory in areas where it has become locally extinct.

First draft of new generation maps for dragonflies and damselflies

The map below shows coverage for OdonataMAP. There are records for only 1,101 of the 2,014 grid cells of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. That’s a little over half, 54% to be exact. And the table above the map tells us that only 182 grid cells have 103 or more records of dragonflies and damselflies! It is no wonder that we have been so shrill in encouraging all the OdonataMAPpers to submit their records. We have worked hard encouraging everyone with a photo of a  dragonfly to submit it to the OdonataMAP section of the Virtual Museum. We have run monthly “Shoot the Dragons Weeks” through the summer months for the past couple  of years. But we have a long, long way to go before we can come anywhere close to complete coverage and can make accurate distribution maps for all species.

We can’t wait forever to get distribution maps for species. We need them NOW. Conservation managers need to know where species occur, and where the most valuable sites for the conservation of dragonflies and  damselflies are. Here is the Virtual Museum distribution map for a common dragonfly, the Orange-veined Dropwing Trithemis kirbyi.

The table above the map tells us that there are an incredible 1,476 photographic records of this species in the Virtual Museum, and that there are another 252 records that come out of the ADDO database. But the map is still pretty spotty. It is clearly full of what, in the biodiversity mapping trade, are called “false negatives”. These are all the places in which the species does occur, but which no OdonataMAPper has yet visited! What this map shows is the grid cells in which Orange-veined Dropwings have been reported. It is a presence-absence map. No attempt is made to show whether the species is common or rare. We cannot tell from this map whether or not a large proportion of the records at a site are Orange-veined Dropwings. So this map has lots of deficiencies, but the most important of these is that it is stuffed alarmingly with “false negatives”.

What are we going to do about this? This is the point at which some judicious statistical modelling comes to the rescue. There are dozens and dozens of “species distribution models” which have been invented to crack this problem. It is important to say this at the outset. Statisticians-in-training get taught: ALL MODELS ARE WRONG; SOME ARE USEFUL. In spite of this, lots of statisticians actually have a deep belief that their models show the truth. And many of the biologists who use statistical models have almost religious faith in their modelling.

So the map below is the output of a statistical model that purports to show the actual distribution map of the Orange-veined Dropwing. It is based on both the two maps above. The computer algorithm (ie the programme) makes use of the actual points at which Orange-veined Dropwings occur, but it also makes use of the overall database contained in the first map. So every single  record in the OdonataMAP database has influenced this map to a greater or lesser extent.

The first thing you have to note about this new distribution map for the Orange-veined Dropwing is that you have to imagine the coastline and the borders of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. This is a draft and tentative map. Secondly, it is a model, so it is definitely not right. It is over to you to assess whether it is a useful “model” of the overall distribution, i.e. a distribution without the false negatives.

This distribution map looks astonishingly different from the presence-absence map above. For example, it is now shown to occur all over the arid northwestern parts of South Africa, especially the Northern Cape. KwaZulu-Natal seems to get down-played. What is going on? Amazingly, the new maps seems to be getting it right. A bit of detective work discovers that although coverage of the northwestern areas of South Africa is poor (this can be seen in the top map), a large proportion of the Odonata that occur here are of this species. Examining the date for Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal reveals the opposite. The top map shows that there is lots of data for many grid cells in these provinces. And many grid cells have records of Orange-veined Dropwing. But they form quite a small proportion of the total. So they are down-played. Time will tell whether the modelled map comes close to the truth. It certainly provides new insights into the distribution of this species.

Why does the map for the Orange-veined Dropwing have three colours? There is lots and lots of orange. There is some light brown, and there is some dark brown. The clue to this is in the map below, called the “Baseline” map.

This is the computer algorithm’s version of the top map, showing overall coverage. In the grid cells in this map which have large circles, the new distribution maps are well-supported by the OdonataMAP data (and the circles in the species map are dark-brown and ought to be pretty reliable). Where the circles in this maps are tiny, the modelled distributions might be unreliable (and the grid cells are shown in orange),  and the light-brown circles are intermediate.

There is lots of orange in the new map for the Orange-veined Dropwing. So the distribution across the Northern Cape is acknowledged by the model to be speculative.

The strategy for getting rid of the orange, and the speculation, is simple. We need more data from these regions. Looking at the “Baseline” map, it is clear that, besides the northwest, there are areas within the northern provinces that need data too!! We’ll unpack this more over the next few weeks.

In the meantime (this is written on 19 September 2019), we are desperately waiting for rain across the summer-rainfall region of southern Africa. The drought is currently so bad that there are hardly any dragonflies (or for that matter butterflies) in evidence. The OdonataMAPpers, and the LepiMAPpers, are having a hard time.

And, finally, here is a photo of the species that has been the topic of this blog, the Orange-veined Dropwing.

It was photographed by Riette Griesel at the Garingboom Guest Farm in the Free State.  It is curated in OdonataMAP at http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=OdonataMAP-956.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There Be Dragons…

Dragons do exist, and they’ve been around for over 300 million years! They might not breathe fire, but they do have six legs, four wings, and extremely keen eyesight. These mini dragons are carnivorous insects known as dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera), belonging to the insect Order Odonata. In general, dragonflies are larger than damselflies, and perch with their wings held out to the sides; whereas damselflies have slender bodies and fold their wings over their body when at rest.

These beautiful insects are also important monitors of water quality. They are sensitive to environmental changes and play key roles in both terrestrial and aquatic habitats. They are predators as both nymphs (their larval stage) and as adults, feeding on a variety of prey including nuisance species such as mosquitoes and biting flies. Spending most of their lives underwater in rivers, streams, ponds, and lakes, their presence in aquatic environments is an excellent measure of water quality as they require clean water to thrive.

Platycypha caligata — Dancing Jewel — OdonataMAPped by Rob Dickinson in Kranzkloof Nature Reserve

As adults, dragonflies and damselflies are expert fliers. They can fly straight up and down, hover like a helicopter and even mate mid-air! They are true acrobats of the air. There are few species in the animal kingdom that can match the Odonata for spectacular flying ability. Dragonflies have two sets of wings with muscles in the thorax that can work each wing independently. This allows them to change the angle of each wing and practice superior agility in the air.

In their aquatic larval/nymph stage, which can last up to two years, they prey on just about anything — tadpoles, mosquitoes, fish fry, other insect larvae and even each other! Dragonflies and damselflies are great helpers when it comes to mosquito control. A single adult dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitoes per day. It surely pays to keep these natural helpers around and thriving.

Anax imperator — Blue Emperor — OdonataMAPped by Desire Darling in Van Staden’s Nature Reserve, Port Elizabeth

So how can you help to protect these amazing little dragons? Water is a scarce and valuable resource in southern Africa. With the recent droughts and climate change, this has become even more evident. We need to protect southern Africa’s water resources and manage them carefully for the benefit of people and wildlife. OdonataMAP, the Atlas of African Odonata, has the resources to help in this regard. One of the goals of OdonataMAP (and the other projects in the Virtual Museum) is to promote an appreciation of nature and biodiversity conservation throughout Africa. The Virtual Museum provides a platform for members of the public to contribute to biodiversity conservation projects by taking photographs of animals and plants in the wild and submitting them to the Virtual Museum. These very important records help us to understand the distributions of species in Africa, how they are being impacted by urbanization, pollution, agriculture, climate change, and what conservation actions are needed to protect Africa’s precious biodiversity.

The Animal Demography Unit has produced some of the most important and influential publications for the conservation of birds, frogs, reptiles, butterflies and other animals in the southern African region. The projects are all still growing, and we would like to extend the reach of these projects to as many people as possible.

A collage of ADU publications

OdonataMAP, a project funded by the JRS Biodiversity Foundation is the Atlas of African Dragonflies and Damselflies. OdonataMAP has a vast data resource available for all to use and we would love to collaborate with anyone in helping to protect and monitor South Africa (and Africa’s) water resources. For more information and to see how you can contribute, please visit http://vmus.adu.org.za and http://addo.adu.org.za.

And remember, we can, and should, all do our part to make our gardens and urban areas more wildlife friendly. Choose not to use poisons and pesticides in and around your home. Plant indigenous plants in your garden. Create a mini “forest” in your garden, by planting various layers of vegetation. Our wild neighbours have to continually adapt to the fluctuating conditions of human urban landscapes, but we humans can make better choices with the products we buy and what we flush down the drain, and to live more consciously so that we have minimal impact on the lives of the wildlife that we share habitats with. Together we can strive to live in harmony with nature and its incredible biodiversity. Plant trees, create natural ponds in your garden, avoid using poisons, put up owl boxes and bee hotels — — these are just a few simple things that we can all do to help our wild neighbours.

Palpopleura lucia — Lucia Widow — OdonataMAPped by Daina Russell in Richards Bay

Rabbits at The Riverside

When people think of threatened species, they tend to think of big and “spectacular” species like whales, tigers, rhinos, or pandas. It is true that many large mammal species, except us (we are quite large mammals too, after all), are threatened – we are pushing everything else out, as our population keeps growing. But there are also many smaller mammals that are threatened too. One such species is the Riverine Rabbit Bunolagus monticularis of South Africa. It is also known as a Bushman’s Hare, and in Afrikaans, Doekvoet (‘cloth foot’, after its soft and fluffy feet) or Pondhaas (‘pound hare’, because in the 1930’s farmers were rewarded for a specimen with a payment of one Pound).

Though it is called a rabbit, in some ways it is more like a hare. For those who don’t know, the primary differences between rabbits and hares in Britain and Europe are:

1) Hares are longer and lankier in body shape than rabbits, and they have longer ears.

2) Rabbits dive into shelters when threatened, whereas hares will usually freeze or run away.

3) Hares give birth in an open hollow called a ‘form’ to precocial young (called leverets), precocial species are those in which the young are relatively mature and mobile from the moment of birth. Rabbits give birth in burrows, to young (called kittens) that are blind and helpless, needing a few days before they become mobile and more independent (i.e. altricial).

These guidelines work for rabbits and hares in Europe, where only a couple of species of lagomorphs (the group to which Rabbits and Hares belong) occur. In the rest of the world, however, there are lagomorphs that can’t be clearly defined as either being a rabbit or a hare. The Riverine Rabbit is one of these. Unlike a rabbit, it has long ears, and unlike a hare, it gives birth to helpless kittens in an underground burrow dug by the female. In body build, it is not lanky like hares, having fairly short hind legs, and when fleeing it has a rather scurrying gait. There are a few other such rabbit-hares in the world. These are sometimes considered ‘relic species’ – evolutionary holdovers, similar to the early ancestors of both hares and rabbits, before they became distinct from each other.

Bunolagus monticularis — Riverine Rabbit — MammalMAPped by Trevor Hardaker in Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

The Riverine Rabbit is beautiful. It has a reddish brown coat with grey grizzling on its back and creamy yellow fur on its belly. Its eyes are outlined in white, and there are white lines along the front edges of its ears too. Most characteristically, it has a prominent black stripe along each cheek. The Riverine Rabbit is one of the most distinctively marked of all rabbits or hares. It is only trumped by the two southeast Asian species of Striped Rabbit comprising the genus Nesolagus (both extremely rare and threatened).

Sumatran Striped Rabbit

Riverine Rabbits are fairly small, weighing in at 1.4-1.9 kg. Females are a bit heavier than males. These little rabbits are nocturnal. They come out at night to feed on grass – when it’s available (only after good rains) – or the foliage of saltbush, buchu, honey thorn or ink bush shrubs. During the day, they rest in forms (scraped-out hollows) under bushes, keeping cool as the semi-desert heats up.

Like other rabbits, they eat their own droppings. And, did you know that they produce two different kinds of droppings? At night, they produce hard droppings, which they don’t eat. But he ones they produce during the day are soft, and these are the ones they eat. These droppings are rich in the minerals calcium and phosphorus, and B-vitamins. These vitamins are produced by bacteria that live in the rabbit’s hind-gut, a kind of mutually-beneficial symbiosis.

Riverine Rabbit distribution based on MammalMAP data – http://vmus.adu.org.za/

The Riverine Rabbit has a very localized distribution. It only occurs in the valleys of a number of non-perennial rivers in the Karoo region of South Africa, within the Renosterveld and Succulent Karoo vegetation biomes. The rivers in the Karoo only flow periodically, but when they do, they sometimes overflow their banks along broad alluvial plains, where they deposit fertile silty soil.There was an attempt to turn these fertile river valleys of the Karoo into farmland and unfortunately about 60% of this riverine habitat has been destroyed – converted into wheat fields. But this region is not really viable for crop agriculture, it is just too dry; plenty of irrigation is needed and in this forbidding area it is not practical.

The rabbits of course can’t easily find new homes. They are dependent on the dense shrubs that grow along the rivers – on the open plains they will be too exposed, and the soil is too rocky for them to dig their burrows in. They can only live along those narrow, densely vegetated strips with soft, silty soils – only one or two hundred meters wide – that fringe the rivers.

Even in areas where the river valleys haven’t yet been turned into farmland, the rabbits suffer from other threats. People still cut down bushes and trees along the river for firewood, and many areas are overgrazed by sheep and other livestock. This causes soil erosion with a further loss of food and shelter plants. Rabbits are sometimes hunted with dogs – or caught by stray dogs. They are also caught in traps set for small game or for predators. Also, some of the rivers have been dammed, causing reduced flow of water in the lower reaches, leading to die-off of the riverine vegetation. And fences, which the rabbits can’t easily navigate, also cause problems for gene flow among rabbit populations.

Although the saying goes “breeding like rabbits”, Riverine Rabbits don’t! In fact, a doe usually only gives birth to 1 or 2 young per year. This is a typical life history strategy of a species with limited available habitat/resources. Many species of mammals or birds that live on islands, where resources are also limited, are the same. They only have a few young at a time and breed infrequently. But, when threats from outside, like humans, enter their habitat it makes these species extremely vulnerable.

All these various threats have caused a serious decline in Riverine Rabbit numbers. Estimates suggest that originally its habitat could have supported about 1 500 individuals, but now its population has shrunk to perhaps only 500 or so individuals in the wild! This makes it one of the 50 rarest mammal species in the world (that we know of)!

Anysberg Nature Reserve — Western Cape Province

Fortunately, there have been projects over the past decade or two to inform farmers of this unique mammal. Several farms have been declared ‘conservancies’, with the farmers pledging to protect riverine vegetation, or actively working to re-vegetate denuded riverbanks, and to reduce other threats like overgrazing or hunting. The main project to coordinate all conservation efforts, is the Drylands Conservation Project of the Endangered Wildlife Trust. The main thrust is to promote a sense of ‘stewardship’ in land owners on whose property these rabbits occur. These little mammals are ecologically valuable, and are indicators of a healthy environment.

The rabbits themselves have proved to be resilient, and recently a few new populations have been discovered, such as at Anysberg Nature Reserve in 2014, and the Baviaanskloof in 2019. We still have much to learn about Riverine Rabbits. Without adequate knowledge, our conservation efforts are hamstrung. But new technology is helping, like camera traps that are being used to discover new populations and monitor existing ones. You can help too! By uploading any photos you might have to MammalMAP at http://vmus.adu.org.za/

Caught on camera trap! MammalMAP record by Jeremy Bolton

The BDI visits Roam Private Game Reserve

Five years ago, the Post family bought a 5000 ha property in the Karoo which had been used for hunting, turned it into a biodiversity conservation area, and renamed it Roam Private Game Reserve. The old hunters’ accommodation has been transformed into a Luxury Safari Lodge that resonates with the hospitality and peacefulness of the Karoo.

To satisfy the demands of hunters, what had originally been a sheep farm had been overstocked with large target animals. Veld degradation had been the result. This is steadily being repaired. Species that do not belong in the Karoo have gradually been removed. The overall population of large mammals has been reduced to levels that are sustainable.

The quarter degree grid cell into which Roam Private Game Reserve falls is 3222CD, south of the N1 between Laingsburg and Beaufort West, and west of the N12 on its way south to Meiringspoort, and north of the Groot Swartberg range of mountains that forms the southern boundary of the Great Karoo. It is a particularly inaccessible grid cell for citizen scientists. There is bird atlas data for only three of the nine pentads in the grid cell. Prior to our visit, there was only a handful of records in the Virtual Museum.

For most people, the caricature of the Karoo is a flat landscape dotted with “koppies” (i.e. hills). This is a rugged part of the Karoo, with deep tree-lined valleys giving rise to natural springs, that continue to flow even in the current deep drought. This is water that has probably not seen the light of day for centuries. It comes from geological formations far underground. This critical source of water is likely to be most at risk from fracking.

Roam Private Game Reserve would be a fabulous place to search for dragonflies and damselflies in the warm months of the year. OdonataMAP contains no records at all for this grid cell. Nor does either LacewingMAP or ScorpionMAP, and the Karoo is a known hotspot for these groups of species.

This collage shows the 26 records we added to the Virtual Museum during our short visit to Roam. Being deep in winter, these were mostly for BirdPix. However, these are the first records in the Virtual Museum for this gridcell for BirdPix, so they are especially valuable.

Fairy Flycatcher Stenostira scita

The managers on the reserve are Abigail and Donovan de Swardt. Soon after we arrived, Donovan loaded us onto the game-viewing vehicle and showed us some of the highlights. He had a stake-out where he regularly finds Fairy Flycatchers, but with us it didn’t deliver. Instead, the Fairy Flycatcher appeared the next morning in one of the shrubs at the lodge. This is probably the highlight record of the visit. Here is the record in the Virtual Museum: http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BirdPix-88594.

This is the first record of a moth from the grid cell and is now in LepiMAP (http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=LepiMAP-691619). It has been identified by Quartus Grobler as belonging to the genus Agrotis. Some of the members of this genus are one of crop agriculture’s most notorious pests, the cutworms.

There are 12 giraffes, with three having been born in the nature reserve era. They mostly spend their time in the riverine trees along the drainage lines, but regularly visit the waterhole at the lodge. This photo was taken by Abigail de Swardt.

We are grateful to Denis Post for enabling us to visit Roam Private Game Reserve, and Abigail and Donovan de Swardt for their hospitality and enthusiasm.

With enthusiasm, the BDI is hoping that the Roam Private Game Reserve will become an outstanding site for student research projects. It has massive potential. Watch this space.

BDInsight – August 2019

August has flown by! And soon the migrant birds will arrive back in South Africa. We look forward to welcoming them back in the southern hemisphere. August has also been a busy month for the BDI, including adventures to the Karoo and Europe, preparing for the “return of the dragons”, and testing out PanGoPod Alpha in the field.

Upcoming Event

21 September 2019: The Return of The Dragons — OdonataMAP data drive for the upcoming dragonfly and damselfly season

OdonataMAP is a Virtual Museum project aiming to: (1) map the current distributions of the Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) occurring in Africa; and (2) to serve as a repository of all existing distribution data for this group of important insects. To participate in OdonataMAP all you need to do is register as an observer through the Virtual Museum website. Close-up photographs of dragonflies or damselflies, along with date and locality information, including geographic coordinates are submitted to the VM in the data upload section. The Virtual Museum allows you to upload a maximum of three photos per record (one species = one record). Please take the GPS coordinates as accurately as possible; alternatively you can also find your position on the Google Map available in the upload page, but this may be difficult if you photographed your dragonfly/damselfly in an area with no good landmarks.

Student Research Projects

A major expansion of the BDI website was undertaken in August. The information about the Research Projects for students is now live. Please go and have a look at http://thebdi.org/research-training/students-research-themes/

Our main research project themes are ecology, environmental sociology, ecological economics, and historical ecology. These themes overlap to a large degree, and our research projects often involve cross-disciplinary research involving several themes.

Although applications from anyone, anywhere in the world, will be considered, we anticipate most of our students will be from universities in Europe. Many universities encourage their students to undertake a project abroad, and the academic year in which this opportunity is permitted varies a lot. The duration of the project also varies, between weeks and months. The role of the BDI is to provide accommodation and supervision. We are geared up to undertake the formal contractual obligations needed by the sending university.

Exciting News from the Karoo

A critical ingredient for the BDI’s goal of enabling students to undertake projects in Africa is the provision of comfortable accommodation. So, in partnership with the Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve, we are transforming an old building at the New Holme Guest Farm into an awesome living area. We are creating five double-rooms, a kitchen area and a study area. We aim to turn this into a high quality research centre.

Construction underway at New Holme Guest Farm

Over the busy summer period, these rooms will be used by the New Holme Guest Farm for travelers on their way between Gauteng and Cape Town. During the tourism off-season, the accommodation will be used by the BDI. There is a large array of fascinating student research projects on the Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve. Renovations are proceeding at speed, and the accommodation will be available at New Holme Guest Farm in the upcoming December-January period (2019/20).

From Across The Pond

Europe-Africa-Asia

This photo was taken at the European Ornithologists’ Union’s 12th Conference held at the Babes-Bolyai University in Romania during August. On the left, Professor Przemyslaw Busse represents Europe, Les Underhill represents Africa and, on the right, Professor Sergej Soloviev represents Asia! Professor Busse, University of Gdansk, started “Operation Baltic” in the early 1960s. Somehow, he got it right to get permission to start a bird ringing programme at sites along the coast of the Baltic Sea. This was a military zone in the era of communist rule of Poland. Here is a PowerPoint presentation made by Professor Busse for the 55th anniversary of Operation Baltic

Two things make Operation Baltic special: (1) the birds mistnetted here are on migration to northwestern Europe; (2) the methods have been tightly standardized from the start. So Operation Baltic has generated one of the best datasets on the planet to measure changes in the timing of migration in recent decades. Professor Magda Remisiewicz is now leader of Operation Baltic, incorporated into the Bird Migration Research Station at the University of Gdansk. Magda and Les presented a paper at the EOU conference on how the timing of the migration of Willow Warblers along the Baltic Sea coast has changed in the past four decades. Professor Busse has made a huge contribution to ornithology.

Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilusphoto by Gregg Darling

In a long story covering decades with many twists and turns, Professor Soloviev has kept biology alive at the Dostoevsky Omsk State University, Omsk, Russia. There is no biology department at this university; he is an ornithologist in the Department of Chemistry! Omsk is a largely industrial city, more than 2000 km east of Moscow, east of the Urals, and far into Asia. The Trans-Siberian Railway passes through Omsk. Professor Soloviev has set up a field research station here. From a South African perspective, what makes Professor Soloviev’s research on birds so interesting and important is that his research station is the only one in this huge area in which most of the migrant warblers breed.

Sergej and Les are co-authors on a new research paper, with Magda as lead author. The paper is about the primary moult in the Common Whitethroat. The whitethroats that breed in Poland and migrate to West Africa produce new wing feathers before they migrate. Those that breed around Omsk, and migrate to South Africa, do the opposite. They migrate first, and then moult in South Africa. Moult, along with breeding and migration, are the energetically challenging components of the annual cycle of whitethroats. The paper develops our understanding of the varying strategies that this species adopts in different parts of its range to get through the year.

Common Whitethroat Sylvia communisphoto by Andreas Trepte

Here is the full reference to the paper:

Remisiewicz M, Bernitz Z, Bernitz H, Burman MS, Raijmakers JMH, Raijmakers JH, Underhill LG, Rostkowska A, Barshep Y, Soloviov SA, Siwek I in press. Contrasting strategies for wing moult and pre-migratory fuelling in medium- and long-distance migrant populations of Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis. Ibis. You can read the abstract here

PanGoPod Alpha

PanGoPod Alpha has housed its first students in the field at the wonderful Fynbos Estate and it has been a great success. PanGoPods are off-grid eco-friendly mobile homes. They are bigger than a caravan but smaller than a Park Home. This sort of housing is common in the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where they are called Tiny Homes.

Want to find out how you can get your hands on your very own PanGoPod? All you need to do is contact us at director@thebdi.org. We’ll start the process of engaging with you about what you need and want from a PanGoPod.

Seychelles bird longevities

Seychelles Magpie Robin

During August 2019 bird ringing training courses were held on Aride and on Cousin Islands in the Seychelles. Some interesting longevity records were obtained.

Madagascar Turtle Dove

A Madagascar Turtle Dove was recaptured on Cousin Island on 19 August 2019. This individual had been ringed in the same area 7 years 11 months previously. This dove has a subspecies in Madagascar and one in the Seychelles, but these two subspecies interbreed in the Seychelles. No longevity records appear to have been published for any forms of this turtle dove, making this the oldest known record for the species.

Madagascar Turtle Dove
Madagascar Turtle Dove

 

Seychelles Fody

A Seychelles Fody was recaptured on Aride Island on 15 August 2019. It had been ringed as a juvenile on the same island nearly 14 years previously (ring FA41377)! While the oldest fody is 16 years, this is the oldest fody recorded on Aride.

Seychelles Fody
Seychelles Fody with pale bill

 

Seychelles Magpie Robin

A Seychelles Magpie Robin (4A51905) was recaptured about 9 years after it fledged. Currently the oldest Seychelles Magpie Robin in the SAFRING database is 12 years 3 months (ring 4A38425). However, there are many outstanding magpie-robin records, so there could be an even older bird.

Seychelles Magpie Robin
Seychelles Magpie Robin on bird table

 

Would you like to ring birds in the Seychelles? Book a trip with African Ringing Expeditions!