Hornbill predation on sparrow

Figure 1: Doves drinking at Monamodi Pan. Photo: Julio de Castro.

de Castro J, Castro L, de Castro M and Rijnders F. 2018. Predation by Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill on adult Southern Grey-headed Sparrow. Biodiversity Observations 9.5:1-7

Biodiversity Observations is an open access electronic journal published by the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town. This HTML version of this manuscript is hosted by the Biodiversity and Development Institute. Further details for this manuscript can be found at the journal page, and the manuscript page, along with the original PDF.


Predation by Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill on adult Southern Grey-headed Sparrow

Julio de Castro

34 Hedsor Drive, Harare, Zimbabwe

Lola Castro

2102 Curzon Road, Bryanston, Johannesburg, South Africa

Mabel de Castro

34 Hedsor Drive, Harare, Zimbabwe

Frank Rijnders

2102 Curzon Road, Bryanston, Johannesburg, South Africa

July 08, 2018


On 17 October 2017 we camped at Camp No. 2 at Monamodi Pan (S 25° 03’ 16.3″ E 22° 06’ 21.3″) in the Mabusehube area of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Botswana, a very dry area where food and water were scarce at the time of the visit. Birds gathered in large numbers at the few watering points available (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Doves drinking at Monamodi Pan. Photo: Julio de Castro.
Figure 1: Doves drinking at Monamodi Pan. Photo: Julio de Castro.

The main bird visitors at our campsite were Southern Grey-headed Sparrows (Passer diffusus) but Cape Sparrows (Passer melanurus), Violet-eared Waxbills (Uraeginthus granatinus) and Sociable Weavers (Philetairus socius) were also present. Half a dozen Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills (Tockus leucomelas) were residents at the camp and were regularly seen on the ground. All bird species came to look for possible food items and water throughout the day.

On 18 November 2017 at about 10:20 am some small birds suddenly flew off where they were foraging in a response usually observed when there is (or it is perceived to be) an attack by a bird of prey. We then saw that a Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill had caught one of the adult Southern Grey-headed Sparrow and it was in the process of killing it by violently shaking it and thrashing it against the ground (Figures. 2 and 3).

Figure 2: A few seconds after the bird was caught. Photo: Frank Rijnders.
Figure 2: A few seconds after the bird was caught. Photo: Frank Rijnders.
Figure 3: The Hornbill thrashing the recently caught bird. Photo: Julio de Castro.
Figure 3: The Hornbill thrashing the recently caught bird. Photo: Julio de Castro.

The hornbill partially defeathered the victim on the ground before flying into a nearby tree. Here it continued to remove some more feathers by vigorously hitting and rubbing the sparrow against the tree (Figures 4 & 5).

Figure 4: The hornbill ‘plucking’ the sparrow. Photo: Julio de Castro.
Figure 4: The hornbill ‘plucking’ the sparrow. Photo: Julio de Castro.
Figure 5: Another view of the bird being plucked. Photo: Frank Rijnders.
Figure 5: Another view of the bird being plucked. Photo: Frank Rijnders.

It succeeded in removing most of the feathers and, at 10:53am the hornbill finally swallowed its prey (Figures. 6 & 7). The whole process lasted a little over thirty minutes.

Figure 6: The Hornbill starting to swallow the now defeathered prey. Photo: Frank Rijnders.
Figure 6: The Hornbill starting to swallow the now defeathered prey. Photo: Frank Rijnders.
Figure 7: The Hornbill swallowing its prey whole. Photo: Julio de Castro.
Figure 7: The Hornbill swallowing its prey whole. Photo: Julio de Castro.

At no time did the other sparrows or other birds attempt to mob the attacker and, after a few minutes, birds were seen again feeding on the ground at the place where the predation had taken place a few minutes earlier.

Hockey et al. (2005) cites that the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill’s diet includes “a wide range of invertebrates and small vertebrates”. Among the latter, nestlings of Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea) are mentioned, together with an extensive list of prey animals. However, the list does not mention predation on adult birds.

It is possible that the observed behaviour was fortuitous. However it appears more likely that Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills take advantage of the mayhem created when large numbers of birds gather at waterholes or are distracted when foraging together to catch their prey by surprise (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Birds crowded at a water source are easy prey to predatory birds. Photo: Frank Rijnders
Figure 8: Birds crowded at a water source are easy prey to predatory birds. Photo: Frank Rijnders

It could be argued that, as hornbills do not produce pellets or casts, the removal of the feathers could be connected to this fact. However, it is more likely that, together with the strong knocking of the victim against the tree, this behaviour aims at facilitating the swallowing of the prey.

References

Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts – Birds of Southern Africa. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund.

Cycad seed dispersal

Figure 1: Camera trap photographs of Purple-crested Turaco Gallirex porphyreolophus visiting Encephalartos villosus to feed on fruit, Nelspruit, October 2011 (Photos: Craig Symes).

Symes CT. 2018. Cycad seed dispersal – the importance of large
frugivorous birds. Biodiversity Observations 9.4:1-9

Biodiversity Observations is an open access electronic journal published by the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town. This HTML version of this manuscript is hosted by the Biodiversity and Development Institute. Further details for this manuscript can be found at the journal page, and the manuscript page, along with the original PDF.


Cycad seed dispersal – the importance of large frugivorous birds

Craig T. Symes

School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, Wits 2050, South Africa

July 06, 2018


Cycads are of conservation importance yet very little research has been done on the dispersal of their fruit, particularly in Africa (Dyer 1965; Howe 1986; Murray 1986). Indeed, in an attempt to read up on the topic I discovered that many of the published accounts are secondary, anecdotal, and descriptive. In this paper I report on some of these reports, as well as new records (pers. obs.; various pers. comm. – see acknowledgements). I furthermore highlight the role that large frugivorous birds play in the dispersal of large seeds like cycads.

At a site near Nelspruit (25°34’S, 31°11’E, altitude = 800 m a.s.l.), Mpumalanga Province, I monitored a fruiting Encephalartos villosus (family Zamiaceae) using two motion-sensitive camera traps (Bushnell). The cameras, mounted on tripods at a height of about 1 metre, were erected at c. 07h00 on 30 October 2011 and removed the following day at c. 09h00. They were set at high sensitivity to take three images with an interval between triggering of 15 seconds. The cycad plant was growing in a savanna thicket, with two other smaller cycad plants, and quite inconspicuous in the thick vegetation. The most commonly recorded species observed visiting the fruiting plant was Purple-crested Turaco Gallirex porphyreolophus (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Camera trap photographs of Purple-crested Turaco Gallirex porphyreolophus visiting Encephalartos villosus to feed on fruit, Nelspruit, October 2011 (Photos: Craig Symes).
Figure 1: Camera trap photographs of Purple-crested Turaco Gallirex porphyreolophus visiting Encephalartos villosus to feed on fruit, Nelspruit, October 2011 (Photos: Craig Symes).

In one image a bird can be seen with an entire fruit in the bill and it is not unreasonable to assume that they swallowed fruit whole (Figure 1). By combining the sequence of visitation events using the photographs I was able to deduce that two visits (< 2 minutes each, one in the morning and one in the afternoon) were made by a single bird on 30 October 2011, and on 31 October 2011 three visits (< 2 minutes each) were made by a single bird, and one further visit by two birds (c. 4 minutes). The visits can be summarized as follows:

  • 30 October 2011
    • 08:36:15 – single turaco arrives at plant, with images of the bird climbing on branches around the cone and on the ground nearby; departs c. 08:38:24.
    • 13:22:14 – a single baboon walks between the camera and the cycad.
    • 15:17:34 – a single Dark-capped Bulbul Pycnonotus tricolor arrives on the cone, at 15:19:27 two birds appear to be feeding on fruit.
    • 18:08:56 – single turaco arrives at plant, with images of the bird climbing on branches around the cone; flies off 18:10:29.
  • 31 October 2011
    • 06:56:58 – single turaco observed on plant near cone; departs c. 06:58:12.
    • 06:58:27 – single turaco observed perched next to cones, fruit observed in bill, departs c. 06:59:36.
    • 07:39:39 – single turaco on ground next to cycad, joined by second bird at 07:41:44, only one turaco on cycad at 07:42:05, two birds again observed at 07:43:04, these two depart at c. 07:44:02 and c. 07:44:40, respectively.
    • 08:41:26 – single turaco observed feeding on fruit, departs c. 08:42:39.

The most likely attractant for the birds is the starchy sarcotesta, a bright red fleshy covering to the seeds. This activity was similarly recorded by Warwick Tarboton, who recorded a Purple-crested Turaco feeding on the fruit of Encephalartos villosus (likely species) in Ithala Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, in September 2016 (Figure 2). Geoff Nichols has also recorded Knysna Turaco Tauraco corythaix swallowing whole fruit of E. villosus at Southport, KwaZulu-Natal South Coast (Geoff Nichols pers. comm.). Nearby at Oribi Gorge main camp (14-15 October 2010), I similarly photographed, using camera traps, Knysna Turacos visiting a fruiting cycad (possibly E. villosus), where the turacos were clearly seen eating the red cycad fruits. Furthermore, an early account (Jubb 1964, 1965) notes a Knysna Turaco feeding on the fruit of E. altensteinii and subsequently regurgitating the seed.

Figure 2: Purple-crested Turaco Gallirex porphyreolophus feeding on fruit of Encephalartos villosus (likely species) at Ithala Game Reserve, KZN in Sept 2016. (Photo: Warwick Tarboton).
Figure 2: Purple-crested Turaco Gallirex porphyreolophus feeding on fruit of Encephalartos villosus (likely species) at Ithala Game Reserve, KZN in Sept 2016. (Photo: Warwick Tarboton).

At the Nelspruit site, discarded fruit found beneath the fruit cone showed evidence of feeding by other animals, probably smaller birds or small mammals that are unable to swallow the fruit whole (Figure 3) and Dark-capped Bulbuls were also photographed at the fruiting cycads (Figure 4). Other birds may also be attracted to the bright red fruits and the following observations have been made; Sombre Greenbul Andropadus importunus and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird Pogoniulus bilineatus feeding on E. senticosus fruit (Geoff Nichols pers. comm.; Figure 4); and Yellow Weaver Ploceus subaureus on E. lebomboensis at Mtunzini (Hugh Chittenden pers. comm.; Figure 4). Also, an Olive Thrush Turdus olivaceus was observed feeding two chicks the cycad seed flesh (sarcotesta) at Kleinemonde in October 2004 (Williams 2005), and a Crested Barbet Trachyphonus vaillantii feeding “the soft flesh around the seed of a cycad to nestlings” (Hattingh 2012). Skead (1997) records a number of species feeding on the cycad species E. altensteinii, including Black-collared Barbet Lybius torquatus, Crowned Hornbill Tockus alboterminatus, Dark-capped Bulbul, European Starling Sturnus vulgaris, Amethyst Sunbird Chalcomitra amethystina (details of this record and what this species may have been feeding on are unclear) House Sparrow Passer domesticus, and Streaky-headed Seedeater Serinus gularis.

Figure 3: Purple-crested Turaco Gallirex porphyreolophus feeding on fruit of Encephalartos villosus (likely species) at Ithala Game Reserve, KZN in Sept 2016. (Photo: Warwick Tarboton).
Figure 3: Purple-crested Turaco Gallirex porphyreolophus feeding on fruit of Encephalartos villosus (likely species) at Ithala Game Reserve, KZN in Sept 2016. (Photo: Warwick Tarboton).
Figure 4: From left to right and top to bottom: Sombre Greenbul Andropadus importunus and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird Pogoniulus bilineatus feeding on Encephalartos senticosus fruit at Southport, KwaZulu-Natal South Coast (Photos: Geoff Nichols), Dark-capped Bulbul Pycnonotus tricolor feeding on Encephalartos villosus near Nelspruit, Mpumalanga (Photo: Craig Symes), and Yellow Weaver Ploceus subaureus on Encephalartos lebomboensis at Mtunzini, KwaZulu-Natal (Photo: Hugh Chittenden).
Figure 4: From left to right and top to bottom: Sombre Greenbul Andropadus importunus and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird Pogoniulus bilineatus feeding on Encephalartos senticosus fruit at Southport, KwaZulu-Natal South Coast (Photos: Geoff Nichols), Dark-capped Bulbul Pycnonotus tricolor feeding on Encephalartos villosus near Nelspruit, Mpumalanga (Photo: Craig Symes), and Yellow Weaver Ploceus subaureus on Encephalartos lebomboensis at Mtunzini, KwaZulu-Natal (Photo: Hugh Chittenden).

Large frugivores may be important long-distance seed dispersers for cycads. Crowned Hornbill, Trumpeter Hornbill Bycanistes bucinator, and Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus suahelicus are known to feed on cycad seeds (Grobbelaar 2004). In a recent review of cycads (Cousins and Witkowski 2017) these authors report that these species “carry cycad seeds over long distances to their nests where they consume the sarcotesta and drop the intact kernel (Grobbelaar 2004).” The statement that these birds carry cycad seeds to their nests is somewhat perplexing, especially for the Cape Parrot. While I have observed Greyheaded Parrot Poicephalus fuscicollis suahelicus flying with the fruit of five different species (including Mobola Plum Parinari curatellifolia) (Symes and Perrin 2003), I have not observed the same with Cape Parrot Poicephalus robustus, nor have I seen either species returning to the nest-cavity with fruit during breeding (Wirminghaus et al 2001; Symes and Perrin 2004). In these two parrot species food is regurgitated for the female (by the male) while she is incubating, and by both sexes for the nestlings (Wirminghaus et al 2001; Symes and Perrin 2004). However, this behaviour is not unlikely for hornbills because the two indicated species, Crowned Hornbill and Trumpeter Hornbill, are widely recorded to feed on cycad fruit (Kemp 2005). Trumpeter Hornbill has been reported feeding on E. villosus at Southport, KwaZulu-Natal South Coast (Geoff Nichols pers. comm.), and Crowned Hornbill has been observed feeding on E. ferox at Kosi Bay and Lake Sibaya (Geoff Nichols pers. obs.), and returning cycad fruit to a nest in Eshowe, KwaZulu-Natal (likely species E. lebomboensis; Hugh Chittenden pers. comm.; Figure 5). These latter observations support early accounts of regular feeding on cycad fruit by Crowned Hornbill in the Eastern Cape, and of returning fruit to the nest (Ranger 1950). Bill Howells (pers. comm.) has similarly reported Crowned Hornbill foraging on E. ferox fruit at a colony of c. 250 plants near Kosi Bay, KwaZulu-Natal north coast, and Ingrid Weiersbye (pers. comm.) has observed the same interaction at St. Lucia slightly further south. Fescura (2014) also reported a family group of Crowned Hornbill consuming “cycad seeds with great gusto”, swallowing the whole fruit (location not given).

Figure 5: Crowned Hornbill returning cycad fruit to a nest in Eshowe (likely species Encephalartos lebomboensis; Photo: Hugh Chittenden).
Figure 5: Crowned Hornbill returning cycad fruit to a nest in Eshowe (likely species Encephalartos lebomboensis; Photo: Hugh Chittenden).

Purple-crested Turaco (family Musophagidae) is almost entirely frugivorous, feeding on a wide selection of fruit that are usually swallowed whole (du Plessis and Dean 2005). Turacos are restricted to Africa and constitute an ancient lineage of Gondwana origin (Tuinen and Valentine 1986). The bird-fruit association may be a long one (Mustoe 2007) especially considering that cycads (Order Cycales) are an ancient plant group with over 300 extant species today. They have probably remained functionally unchanged since the Jurassic, and in that time constituted an important component of the diet of ancestral “turacos”. However, while the lineage is ancient it is estimated that most extant cycad species have evolved in the past 12 million years (Nagalingum et al. 2011).

While there are numerous accounts of cycad fruit forming an important component of the diet (despite evidence that cycads can be toxic, Tustin 1983, Schneider et al. 2002) of many other animals (Cousins and Witkowski 2017), including Chacma Baboon Papio hamadryas, Vervet Monkey Cercopithecus pygerythrus, African Elephant Loxodonta africana, Bush Pig Potamochoerus larvatus, Rock Hyrax Procavia capensis, and rodents (e.g. vlei rats Otomys spp.) (Melville 1957; Giddy 1984; Grobbelaar 2004; Donaldson 2008), it is more likely, because of their ability to move greater distances over a shorter period of time, that birds are more efficient seed dispersers (Burbidge and Whelan 1982; Tang 1989; Mueller et al. 2014; Baños-Villalba et al. 2017). Their role as important seed dispersers for effective ecosystem functioning, and the maintenance of interactions that contributes to the dispersal of cycads, a plant group of major conservation importance, certainly warrants further research.

Acknowledgements

De Wet Bösenberg, Hugh Chittenden, Stephen Cousins, Greg Davies, John Donaldson, Bill Howells, Geoff Nichols, Darren Pietersen, Warwick Tarboton, Ingrid Weiersbye, and Vivienne Williams are thanked for their respective contributions to assisting in the preparation of this paper.

References

Baños-Villalba A, Blanco G, Díaz-Luque JA, Dénes FV, Hiraldo F, Tella JL 2017. Seed dispersal by macaws shapes the landscape of an Amazonian ecosystem. Scientific Reports 7: 7373.

Burbidge AH, Whelan RJ 1982. Seed dispersal in a cycad, Macrozamia riedlei. Austral Ecology 7: 63-67.

Cousins S, Witkowski E 2017. African cycad ecology, ethnobotany and conservation: A synthesis. The Botanical Review 83: 152-194.

Donaldson JS 2008. South African Encephalartos species. NDF workshop case studies: Case study 4: Encephalartos. Mexico.

Du Plessis MA, Dean WRL 2005. Purple-crested Turaco Gallirex porphyreolopus. In: Hockey P, Dean R, Ryan P (eds) Roberts’ birds of southern Africa, 7th edition. John Voelcker Bird Book Fund. Cape Town: 248-249.

Dyer RA 1965. The cycads of southern Africa. Bothalia 8: 405-515.

Fescura L 2014. Chair’s Chirps – Birdlife Port Natal. KZN Birds 41: 3-6.

Giddy C 1984. Cycads of South Africa. 2nd edition. C. Struik (Pty) Ltd. Publishers, Cape Town.

Grobbelaar N 2004. Cycads: With special reference to the southern African species. Published by the author. Pretoria.

Hattingh K 2012. Crested Barbets nesting in our garden. Laniarius 122: 35-37.

Howe HF 1986. Seed dispersal by fruit-eating birds and mammals. In: Murray DR (ed) Seed Dispersal Academic Press: Sydney: 123-189.

Jubb RA 1964. A Christmas visitor. Bokmakierie 16(1): 8-9.

Jubb RA 1965. Knysna Loerie Turacus corythaix (Wagler) feeding on poisonous plants. Ostrich 36(1): 36-37.

Kemp AC 2005. Crowned Hornbill Tockus alboterminatus. In: Hockey P, Dean R, Ryan P (eds) Roberts’ birds of southern Africa, 7th edition. John Voelcker Bird Book Fund. Cape Town: 153-154.

Melville R 1957. Encephalartos in central Africa. Kew Bulletin 12: 237-257.

Mueller T, Lenz J, Caprano T, Fiedler W, Böhning-Gaese K 2014. Large frugivorous birds facilitate functional connectivity of fragmented landscapes. Journal of Applied Ecology 51(3): 684-692.

Mustoe GE 2007. Coevolution of cycads and dinosaurs. Cycad Newsletter 30:6-9.

Nagalingum NS, Marshall CR, Quental TB, Rai HS, Little DP, Mathews S 2011. Recent synchronous radiation of a living fossil. Science 334(6057): 796-799.

Murray DR (ed) 1986. Seed dispersal. Academic Press: Sydney.

Ranger G 1950. Life of the crowned Hornbill (Part III). Ostrich 21: 2-14.

Schneider D, Wink M, Sporer F, Lounibos P 2002. Cycads: their evolution, toxins, herbivores and insect pollinators. Naturwissenschaften 89: 281-294.

Skead C 1995. Life history notes on East Cape bird species (1940-1990) Vol 1. Algoa Regional Services Council, Port Elizabeth.

Skead C 1997. Life history notes on East Cape bird species (1940-1990) Vol 2. Bird biology and bird movement in the Eastern Cape. Western District Regional Services Council (Formerly Algoa Regional Services Council), Port Elizabeth.

Symes CT, Perrin MR 2003. Feeding biology of the Greyheaded Parrot, Poicephalus fuscicollis suahelicus (Reichenow), in Northern Province, South Africa. Emu 103: 49-58.

Symes CT, Perrin MR 2004. Breeding biology of the Greyheaded Parrot (Poicephalus fuscicollis suahelicus) in the wild. Emu 104: 45-57.

Tang W 1989. Seed dispersal in the cycad Zamia pumila in Florida. Canadian Journal of Botany 67: 2066-2070.

Tuinen P, Valentine M 1986. Phylogenetic relationships of turacos (Musophagidae; Cuculiformes) based on comparative chromosome banding analysis. Ibis 128: 364-381.

Tustin R 1983. Notes on the toxicity and carcinogenicity of some South African cycad species with special reference to that of Encephalartos lanatus. Journal of the South African Veterinary Association 54: 33-42.

Williams A 2005. Observations – breeding. Diaz Diary 33(1): 20.

Wirminghaus JO, Downs CT, Perrin MR, Symes CT 2001. Breeding biology of the Cape Parrot, Poicephalus robustus. Ostrich 72: 159-164.

The story of the snail and the gecko egg

Fig 1. A juvenile Afrorhytida knysnaensis extracting calcium form a gecko egg.

Conradie W and Herbert DG. 2018. The story of the snail and the gecko egg. Biodiversity Observations 9.3:1-2

Biodiversity Observations is an open access electronic journal published by the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town. This HTML version of this manuscript is hosted by the Biodiversity and Development Institute. Further details for this manuscript can be found at the journal page, and the manuscript page, along with the original PDF.


The story of the snail and the gecko egg

Werner Conradie

Port Elizabeth Museum (Bayworld), P. O. Box 13147, Humewood, Port Elizabeth, 6013, South Africa

David G. Herbert

School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, P. Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209, South Africa

July 05, 2018


During a recent fieldwork trip to the Cradock region the lead author came across what he thought was a snail actively predating on a gecko egg (Fig. 1). The observation was made at Farm Waaiplaatz south of Cradock, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa (32°28’04.4“S 25°40’34.0”E, 1290 m above sea level) on 3 May 2016. Upon breaking open the egg the dead embryo was positively identified as a Spotted Thick-toed Gecko (Pachydactylus maculatus) based on the characteristic dorsal spots (Branch 1998). The snail was later identified as juvenile Afrorhytida knysnaensis (Family Rhytididae) by the second author.

Fig 1. A juvenile Afrorhytida knysnaensis extracting calcium form a gecko egg.
Fig 1. A juvenile Afrorhytida knysnaensis extracting calcium from a gecko egg.

In the case of the juvenile Afrorhytida knysnaensis snail and the gecko egg it seems probable that the snail fortuitously encountered the gecko egg, and innately recognised it to be an object rich in calcium carbonate. It then proceeded to treat it, as it would a dead snail shell or a calcium carbonate nodule, as an exploitable source of a much-needed mineral. The image shows the snail with its foot extended and the sole wrapped around well over one third of the egg. Elsewhere the surface of the egg is clearly patchily eroded, indicating that the snail has been progressively moving around the egg, etching away at the surface, dissolving and absorbing its substance. Therefore, the gecko egg is a very unusual calcium carbonate source, as the usual source of calcium consists of other snail shells. The observed behaviour is thus well-known and typical of a rhytidid snail (Herbert & Moussalli 2010), but this is the first reported case of inter-species interaction we are aware of. It is also quite possible that the snail may have gone on to consume the dead gecko embryo inside the egg had the process been allowed to continue, but this would have been a bonus additional to the primary goal. Opportunism and adaptability are key to survival.

Except in areas where the underlying geology includes limestone deposits, environmental calcium in southern Africa is often in short supply. This mineral is needed by almost all animals for a multitude of physiological processes and is key to normal growth and reproduction. It is particularly important for snails, since they need it in relative abundance, in the form of calcium carbonate, for shell construction. As a result snails are known to take opportunistic advantage of any source of calcium carbonate that they encounter. This includes ingesting soil and by rasping soft calcareous rocks and the empty shells of dead snails. Calcium carbonate may also be obtained by means of acidic secretions from the sole of the foot that dissolve calcareous materials, such that these can be absorbed through the skin of the sole. This etching tactic is frequently used by cannibal snails of the family Rhytididae so that they can extract every bit of nutriment out of their prey, including its shell.

Acknowledgements

Fieldwork was conducted as part of the BioGaps project (https://www.sanbi.org/biogaps) funded by NRF FBIP.

References

Branch WR 1998. Field guide to the snakes and other reptiles of southern Africa. Third Edition. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.

Herbert DG, Moussalli A 2010. Revision of the larger cannibal snails (Natalina s. l.) of southern Africa – Natalina s. s., Afrorhytida and Capitina (Mollusca: Gastropoda: Rhytididae). African Invertebrates 51: 1-132.

No citizen science, no future … BDI interviews Tony Archer

BDI travels to Klerksdorp to talk to an outstanding citizen scientist, Tony Archer. Tony has been involved with the second bird atlas since it started, and it is rare for a month to go by without several checklists being submitted by him. By June 2018, he had also submitted 3,600 photographic records to the Virtual Museum, and this interview is interspersed with a selection of those images.

BDI: How did you become a citizen scientist? What was the catalyst that got you going?

I started birding just at the very end of SABAP1 in 1992. Sam de Beer was a mentor of mine. He was one of the top atlasers for SABAP1 and I was so sorry I had missed this exercise. I therefore could not wait to start SABAP2 when it was announced.

BDI: What has been the highlight for you?

This is extremely difficult to answer. I think there is not just one thing. Every time you go out, there is the possibility (very likely) of finding something new. Humans love collecting things. I collected number plate numbers at one stage – started at 1 and went on to about 900. Used to turn around and chase cars with a number that I thought I needed. So atlasing fills that need completely.

Long-tailed widow, http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BirdPix-1524
This exquisite Long-tailed Widow was one of Tony’s earliest submissions to the BirdPix section of the Virtual Museum. BirdPix itself was very new at the time; it is record 1524 in BirdPix which currently has more than 55,000 records (http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BirdPix-1524)

BDI: How has being a citizen scientist changed your view of the world?

I realise more and more how we are destroying it. There are just too many people on earth. In my lifetime I have seen such dramatic changes. I grew up in Cape Town and one could easily go to see “nature”. Now so many of those places are developed (or destroyed by development). The pressure on the Earth has become too much. I can see it in birds that have disappeared from areas where they were common.

BDI: What does the term “citizen scientist” mean to you?

Gives that good feeling, knowing I am doing something for future generations, even in a very small way.

Brown-veined whites, http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=LepiMAP-15162
Tony took this photo of a cluster of Brown-veined Whites on dung in Schweitzer-Reneicke in November 2010. These are the butterflies that undertake massive migrations mainly northeastwards in summers of years of high productivity. There has not been a strong passage of Brown-veined Whites for several summers. (http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=LepiMAP-15162)

BDI: What are you still hoping to achieve? This might be in terms of species, coverage, targets …

I have just achieved 2,000 SABAP2 cards which gives me so much pleasure. It has taken 11 years after a very slow start. I am now 70 and realise that by 80 I am most probably not going to be anywhere as active as now. In the ten years to come I want to reach at least 4,000 cards. And improve my ID capabilities to where I stop making those stupid ID mistakes!

2000th checklist
On 26 May this year, Tony submitted his 2000th checklist to the bird atlas project. There are only eight atlasers who have done more than this.

BDI: What resources have been the most helpful? (And how can they be made better?)

Obviously BirdLasser. And the tremendous feedback one can draw from the SABAP2 web site. Google earth is amazing. My low cost 4×4 GWM bakkie. It takes me anywhere and I don’t mind scratching it.

Blue emperor, http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=OdonataMAP-5656
Blue Emperors are a nightmare for OdonataMAPpers. This is a species of dragonflies that seldom settles on a perch. Tony has been successful in shooting them in flight, and getting in focus results. This Blue Emperor was flying over a slimes dam near Vaal Reefs (http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=OdonataMAP-5656)

BDI: How do you react to the statement that “Being a citizen scientist is good for my health, both physical and mental!”?

This is 100% the case. At 70 I wake up every morning with something to do. With passion and even at a cost to me. I have so many friends/clients who are bored to tears sitting in a chair watching TV. There is still so much I want to do from an atlasing point of view. It gets me out, I walk and am being forced to continuously learn. If I imagine myself without atlasing I see a dark, meaningless future.

BDI: What do you see as the role which citizen science plays in biodiversity conservation? What is the link?

Enabling the scientists working in biodiversity conservation to get raw information to work with. The cost for an organisation to have as many people as we are in the field would be astronomical. Now we are doing what we love and at our own cost, if one can call it cost. And getting the raw info for the scientists

Springhare, http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=MammalMAP-24717
It is horrible and disturbing to see animals, snakes and birds which have been killed on the roads. Sometimes, it is simply unsafe to stop and take a photo. Tony Archer has been a consistent recorder of animals killed by traffic. He submitted this photo to MammalMAP of a South African Spring Hare which he encountered in North West Province just a few days ago, on 23 June 2018. (http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=MammalMAP-24717)

Leopards get stressed. Here’s how we know – and why it matters

Leopard scat. Photo credit: Dieter Oschadleus

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The article below, written by Andrea Webster, from theUniversity of Pretoria, is republished from The Conversation Africa. It reports on a paper recently published in African Zoology that uses scats to evaluate stress levels in leopards. One of the co-authors of the paper was Pete Laver, one of the Directors of BDI.

Andrea Webster, University of Pretoria

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Leopards are versatile predators. These elusive cats can successfully occupy any habitat that supports sufficient numbers of prey species and which provides adequate cover for their ambush-style of hunting.

Leopards also adapt well to settled environments near human activity. But this often brings them into conflict with humans. In South Africa it’s been clear since the late 1980s that although protected areas play an important role in leopard conservation, most of the country’s suitable leopard habitat lies outside the boundaries of protected areas, often on private or community-owned land.

This means that leopards must navigate their way across land dedicated to human development, agriculture or mining practices. As a result, they are exposed to an array of physiological, environmental and psycho-social factors that could cause stress.

Acute stress is essential for vertebrate survival. For example, hunting an impala may be stressful in the short term, but a successful kill equates to survival. In contrast, successive or simultaneous stressors experienced over prolonged periods of time, such as constantly having to avoid human interaction, can result in chronic stress. This, in combination with other factors could affect this already vulnerable species’ long-term health and survival.

But how do you measure the stress levels within a leopard population without causing further distress? I set out to develop a method that would allow us to make a non-invasive assessment of stress levels in free-ranging leopards. It proved to be a useful approach.

My results indicate that although animals were relatively habituated at both sites, those living on the housing estate were more stressed than those in the game reserve. Pregnant females or those rearing cubs had the highest (617% higher) stress hormone levels of all the cats monitored. Overall, we found that wild male leopards showed less variation in their stress levels than females, regardless of whether they were in a protected area or not.

This method offers a new way for leopard biologists to monitor this elusive and iconic species. It can also inform the development of strategies to protect and conserve them.

Stress hormones

When we – leopards or humans – perceive a stressor, the central nervous system activates the release of hormones which act on the brain. Almost immediately, the pituitary gland releases hormones into the bloodstream and causes an almost instantaneous secretion of adrenalin. This mobilises energy which increases the heart rate and blood flow to the muscles so we have the physical means to confront the threat – or run away.

Over the next few hours, the adrenal glands release glucocorticoids – a type of steroid hormone – into the blood. These glucocorticoids (cortisol or corticosterone, depending on the species) are metabolised in the liver. After metabolism, they are then excreted via the bile into the gut and out of the body in the faeces. They can also travel via the kidneys to the bladder, to be excreted in the urine.

Previous studies have found that glucocorticoid concentrations are reliable indicators of disturbance experienced by an individual. That makes glucocorticoid metabolites very useful physiological indicators to measure stress. In this study we used scat to monitor the stress levels of free-ranging leopards.

We monitored two leopard populations. One consisted of seven known individuals living on a housing estate in Hoedspruit, a town located to the west of the Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest wildlife reserve. The other consisted of about 27 leopards living in a protected area adjoining the park.

Applying the science

We began the study by gathering faecal samples and observational data from leopards in two captive facilities. We used the faecal material to evaluate which of five chosen enzymeimmunoassays were best suited to pick up changes in the glucocorticoid concentrations in the faeces. Enzymeimmunoassays are widely accepted analytical tools for detecting particular antigens or antibodies in biological samples.

The captive leopards were monitored to determine how long food took to move through their systems, so we knew how long we needed to wait before getting a sample. It also enabled us to determine how long after defecation the hormones remained stable enough for measuring. We then used this information to compare the glucocorticoid concentrations in the faeces of our two groups of wild leopards.

The ConversationNow that the method has been validated, we hope to use it to further examine how pregnancy, persecution outside of protected areas, levels of tourist activity and environmental factors contribute to the stress levels of this iconic African species.

Andrea Webster, PhD Candidate Mammal Research Institute Dept. Zoology and Entomology, University of Pretoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Birding plus numbers! I absolutely love both … BDI interviews Lisl van Deventer

Lisl van Deventer has birded extensively at many exciting destinations. Before she travels, she invests a lot of time learning the key features of the birds she plans to see, and especially she tries to learn their calls. Here she is, armed with telescope and binoculars on a beach in Mozambique, close to Inhambane: “I ticked my Lesser Sand Plover lifer, in fact, there were gazillions of them amongst gazillions of other waders.” Photo credit: Anneke Vincent

BDI: Lisl, how did you become a citizen scientist? What was the catalyst that got you going?

Atlasing = Birding plus Numbers! I absolutely LOVE both!

BDI: What has been the highlight for you?

It has improved my birding skills. Because of the pentad system of the atlas atlas, I have visited off-the-beaten-track places in South Africa, seeing landscapes I would never have had a reason to go to.

BDI: How has being a citizen scientist changed your view of the world?

Meeting other atlasers and participating in the challenges (such as challenges in Greater Gauteng to turn all the pentads Green (7 checklists) and later on Blue (11 checklists)). Citizen science has taken me beyond my small world – you learn so much from other birders.

Atlasing in (poor) rural areas has been quite an eye-opener, and especially meeting some of the local people in these areas. They have a wealth of knowledge that is very useful for citizen scientists; sometimes it is simple information about the conditions of roads and at other times it is profound insights about the birds and how they are changing. It always amazes me how many locals can imitate bird calls and are curious to know the English bird names. Some locals understood details about the movement and migration of birds! It’s a huge pity some locals can’t be involved in citizen science to “tap” their knowledge. Sometimes one wishes that the voice recorder on the phone had been switched on to capture the insights. Many of these people lack their own transport and travel long distances to work means and have little time at home to do citizen science as we understand it.

The data for the very last pentad to achieve the “Four Degrees Blue” status for Greater Gauteng was submitted to the bird atlas website by Lisl on 29 June 2016

BDI: What does the term “citizen scientist” mean to you?

Volunteers collecting and contributing data for research purposes.

BDI: What are you still hoping to achieve? This might be in terms of species, coverage, targets …

I am not focusing on atlasing at the moment, but rather using the knowledge that I’ve gained with the atlasing towards the BirdPix database. I am enjoying being part of the “expert panel” for BirdPix; sometimes it is a real puzzle to work out the species in the photograph.

The members of the expert panels for each section of the Virtual Museum are the hub on which the section stands or falls. Lisl’s passion is to keep the number of records in BirdPix without confirmed identifications as small as possible, preferably less than 20!!. Since she became a member of BirdPix last year, Lisl has done 6,234 identifications, and has helped relieve the pressure on the other members of the panel, one of whom has done over 19,000 identifications!

BDI: What resources have been the most helpful? (And how can they be made better?)

BirdLasser has been awesome!! Would love to have the option of sorting the species alphabetically.

BDI: How do you react to the statement that “Being a citizen scientist is good for my health, both physical and mental!”?

Definitely! Atlasing is so rewarding! Being in nature reduces the work stress I’ve built up during the week, I get my dose of Vitamin D, it connects me with similar-minded people, mentally my thinking shifts beyond my little world to birding and to positive thinking (for example, I HAVE to find a House Sparrow for this pentad, I have to find five more species for this card).

Lisl did the confirmation of the identification in BirdPix. It had already been IDed as Yellow-billed Oxpecker by Ryan Tippet, who uploaded this photo to the Virtual Museum (see http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=BirdPix-53804). Many of the photos uploaded to all sections of the Virtual Museum do not even have tentative identifications. The expert panels do the best they can to either make the ID or confirm it. This expert-driven system enables everyone everywhere to be a citizen scientist and to contribute to biodiversity conservation.

BDI: What do you see as the role which citizen science plays in biodiversity conservation? What is the link?

Citizen science creates awareness, the volunteers spread the word and the public becomes aware and even involved. Data collecting provides an updated map of the distribution of a species, which revises knowledge about e.g. endangered species and in turn the focus of conservation can shift to those species. Volunteers assist by collecting and submitting data with their own finances and in turn saving money for the research project. With citizen scientist spread out in all corners of a country, the area of data collection spreads out as well and data can be collecting for species with a limited range.

 

Dispatches from Rwanda

On the 20th of May I travelled to Rwanda to attend the JRS Biodiversity Foundation’s annual Partners Symposium in Kigali. The symposium is a great opportunity for the various JRS project leaders from across Africa to meet, exchange ideas, tackle problems and find solutions for biodiversity conservation in Africa.

JRS Biodiversity Foundation’s Partners Symposium in Kigali, Rwanda

The JRS Biodiversity Foundation’s vision and mission is “a world in which biodiversity knowledge substantially contributes to conserving the Earth’s biodiversity for the benefit of society and to increase access to and use of information that will lead to greater biodiversity conservation and more sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa.” This aligns with the goals of the Animal Demography Unit. OdonataMAP, the Atlas of African Odonata, a citizen science project run by the ADU is a grantee of the JRS. We have been tasked with mainstreaming Odonata and mapping the distributions of these amazing water quality monitors across the African continent.

Title slide of my presentation for the JRS Biodiversity Foundation’s Partners Symposium

The symposium was a great opportunity for JRS trustees and grantees to come together and discuss ideas, challenges, and solutions for the various biodiversity conservation projects across Africa. These JRS funded projects cover everything from pollinator conservation to fisheries and water resource management, water quality monitoring, and how to build better partnerships between scientists, policy makers and local communities across Africa.

Listening to Michael Murray‐Hudson (Okavango Research Institute, Botswana) presenting on “Sensitizing Audiences to the Value and Use of Biodiversity Data”

There was lots of discussion on how to improve relationships and communication between scientists and policy makers (i.e. government), but for me the crucial link is that of the citizen scientist community, without whom none of what we are trying to achieve in terms of protecting Africa’s amazing biodiversity would be possible. The citizen scientists, I believe, are the ones that have the power in their hands to drive conservation in Africa, to be ambassadors for biodiversity, to be the voice for nature and speak up for its rights. We all have our part to play in protecting wild places and spaces, not just for us and future generations, but for all the plants and animals that we share this planet with.

Some of the key themes discussed at the symposium were:

  • How to optimize data platforms for the various users of the data (i.e. how to make it more accessible and relevant)
  • How to create better lines of communication between government (policy makers), scientists and the public (local communities, citizen scientists)
  • Scientific research needs to justify conservation policies just as policies need the backing of scientific research. Governments and scientists need to work together for nature conservation and sustainable resource utilization to work!
  • Citizen science is an amazing and powerful tool, not just for collecting biodiversity data, but for creating a “connectedness” to and an awareness of nature and wildlife.
Rwandan treats! Lady Finger bananas (a diploid cultivar of the seeded banana Musa acuminate)

One of the ways members of the public can contribute to biodiversity conservation and informatics is by uploading photos of plants and animals (everything from scorpions to elephants) to the ADU Virtual Museum at http://vmus.adu.org.za. The ADU Virtual Museum provides the platform for citizen scientists to contribute to biodiversity projects. This innovative concept was developed by the Animal Demography Unit. When people hear the word museum they often think of a building filled with dusty display cases and stuffed animals. But, the Animal Demography Unit’s Virtual Museum (VM) is not gathering dust. Our “specimens”, photographic records of Africa’s biodiversity, are being used to make a difference for conservation in Africa. The VM provides the platform for citizen scientists (members of the public), or BioMAPpers, to contribute to biodiversity mapping projects. We cannot conserve Africa’s wonderful biodiversity if we don’t know where species occur. Up to date distribution maps are key for species conservation. The realm of biodiversity conservation is no longer only the responsibility of professional scientists and game rangers; everybody has their part to play in conservation! It is up to all of us to make a difference, the future of Africa’s wildlife and natural ecosystems are in our hands. So what can you do? You can snap it and map it!

Citizen science in Nigeria: BDI interviews the founder of the South West Atlas Team

Adewale Awoyemi is a young citizen scientist, who lives with birds in the Sunbird Bush, about 7 km north of the city of Ibadan in southwestern Nigeria. He is currently the manager of the AG Leventis-funded Forest Center at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, Nigeria.

The campus of the AP Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI), University of Jos, is one of Africa’s most important ornithological treasures. APLORI runs an MSc course, each year training a cohort of Nigerians in conservation biology (Photo credit: Sam Ivande)

BDI: How did you become a citizen scientist? What was the catalyst that got you going?

I must confess that my one-year MSc course at the AP Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI), University of Jos, Nigeria, provided the turnaround in my life! Although I studied forestry and wildlife at the undergraduate level and had basic information about biodiversity conservation, my knowledge in applied conservation biology, especially citizen science was at the barest minimum, so APLORI was the eye-opener. Immediately after completing my MSc course in September 2015, I was employed at the IITA Forest Center, Ibadan in October 2015, to supervise the AG Leventis-funded bird and forest conservation projects – one of my main duties was to raise awareness about bird and forest conservation through the Ibadan Bird Club (IBC). After the club was re-launched in February 2016, I created a Facebook Group (https://www.facebook.com/ibadanbirdclub/) for the club in order to reach a wider audience. Between then and April 2018, over 300 people registered as members and an average of 30 members attend the club’s monthly meeting – the IBC is one of the best bird clubs in Africa and the initiative is now being replicated across Nigeria, to enhance citizen science – that’s just the catalyst!

The IITA Forest Center, Ibadan, invites you to the next meeting of the Ibadan Bird Club on Saturday 28 April at 4 pm. We will meet at the Botanical Nursery before proceeding for bird walk in the IITA Forest Reserve, Ibadan (see attached). New members, including children and beginners are always welcome. We lend binoculars and membership is free!

Dr Ulf Ottosson (APLORI) came to visit me at IITA, Ibadan, to introduce the Nigerian Bird Atlas Project (NiBAP). This was immediately after the project started in January 2016. Ulf told me he wanted me to be the Ambassador of NiBAP in southwestern Nigeria. I started introducing the atlas protocol to others. After developing an understanding of the atlas protocol and carrying out some trials, I thought we could set up a small group to support NiBAP in the area. I mentioned this thought first to Dr Jacob Orimaye of the Ekiti State University, as he really supported my conservation ideals, and Dr Taiye Adeyanju of the University of Ibadan, and we named the group South West Atlas Team (SWAT). This idea has produced remarkable results (check how shaded Nigeria map is around the south west region; laugh!), which is being replicated across Nigeria and some other African countries. The group now has over 50 volunteers and goes for monthly atlasing across different states in the area. Thanks to all members as I can’t keep mentioning individual names.

The red circle shows the SWAT area in southwestern Nigeria. Considering the difficulties of transport and access, this is remarkable coverage in little more than two years.

BDI: What has been the highlight for you?

Seeing the degree of turn-out and the dedication of members of IBC and SWAT is impressive. I led SWAT for about two years as the Team Leader and handed over to another person, Ademola Ajayi, who with the support of others has sustained this initiative. This is not always easy in this kind of setting and I am still a loyal member of the team – leaders should also try to be followers – I think this is another highlight!

This team atlased in Osun State in February 2017 (Photo credit: Babajide Agboola)

BDI: How has being a citizen scientist changed your view of the world?

Being a citizen science crusader has enabled me to understand how diverse the world is, especially understanding some aspects of the ecology of other taxa apart from birds, ecosystem inter-dependence, and of course knowing places of scenic values.

… and now for some landscapes in southern Nigeria
This is part of the forest reserve at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) (Photo credit: Adewale Awoyemi)

BDI: What does the term “citizen scientist” mean to you?

A citizen scientist is a member of the general public (specialist or non-specialist), who collect ecological data as part of scientific projects. So you can refer to all IBC and SWAT members as citizen scientists.

BDI: What are you still hoping to achieve? This might be in terms of species, coverage, targets …

Seeing the whole of south west Nigeria atlased by SWAT members, and shaded on the coverage map is one of my strongest desires. I test hypotheses and investigate bird ecology and behaviour, but to be honest with you, I love to see or hear birds – it is so interesting, especially when done in a group. Doing science while having fun such as going for atlasing and camping in remote places or in the field, is what I refer to as “not doing boring science”. Let me give you a brief statistics: I have recorded (seen/heard) over 400 species of birds out of the over 900 species reported for Nigeria. My teacher would give me 50% of the total mark but I would rather want something better as you would also want. As the day passes, I train my ears and eyes to hear and see more birds respectively!

Part of the town of Akure, capital of Ondo State in southwestern Nigeria (Photo credit: Sam Ivande)

BDI: What resources have been the most helpful? (And how can they be made better?)

From personal experience, I think social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp are a good hook on which to hang conservation messages among the youth of this generation. The BirdLasser App has been an incredible aid for me; it would be great if it covered not only birds but also other taxa, including plants.

BDI: How do you react to the statement that “Being a citizen scientist is good for my health, both physical and mental!”?

Citizen scientists are always curious about their environment, implying that they will exercise their body by moving from one place to the other, searching for information, which is good for their health – at least the fat ones will burn some calories but I don’t know what someone like me, who is very skinny, will burn – I still jump up and down, searching for birds (laugh). After observing incredible things in nature, citizen scientists will still get home and search literature to expand their understanding about what they observed in the field. This is good for their mental development.

… and finally, a bird or two. Yellow-mantled Weaver is an uncommon species in the forest at IITA. This one was recorded during a SWAT expedition (Photo credit: Bibitayo Owolabi)

BDI: What do you see as the role which citizen science plays in biodiversity conservation? What is the link?

If well verified, citizen science data are important for formulating conservation strategies. The IBC, for example, has contributed immense and constant data for bird and habitat monitoring within the IITA-Ibadan campus, which holds a 360-ha secondary rainforest which is designated an Important Bird Area.

BDI: What are the challenges you experience doing citizen science and being a citizen scientist?

Safety issues in the field, verification of data collected and lack of essential equipment are some of the challenges facing citizen science in Nigeria. We advise our citizen scientists that they should go to the field with proper identification card and at least a bird buddy. It is also better if a group contains at least one ornithologist, which is always the case with SWAT. The equipment challenge is being addressed by organizations such as the AG Leventis Foundation and NiBAP, which now provide equipment and guidebooks for members and organize how-to-get-started workshops.

Yellow-throated Longclaws are common in grassland and cultivated open areas, relishing grasshoppers and beetles (Photo credit: Olufemi Olubodun)

A citizen science champion in Vanrhynsdorp

Salome Willemse lives in Vanrhynsdorp in the northwestern corner of the Western Cape, just south of one of South Africa’s most important centres of plant endemism, the Knersvlakte. For many years, the chief characteristic of this area was that it was a gap in all citizen science projects. Salome has been the catalyst that is leading the charge in filling that gap.

We wanted to get to know Salome a little better, so we asked her a few questions. Here responses below provide great insight from this citizen science champion.

BDI: How did you become a citizen scientist? What got you going?

I attended a birding course done by Anton Odendaal in 2013. Soon afterwards I realised that there is little data available for the Namaqualand region and subsequently started the Namaqua Bird Club. As I ventured deeper into the world of birding, I learned about SABAP2. We held a Citizen Scientist Day in Vredendal in 2015 and that day I realised that one individual can make a difference.

The Citizen Scientist Day initiated a series of BioBashes – each one started with a social event in Salome’s home (Photo credit: Les Underhill)

BDI: What has been the highlight for you?

Turning Namaqualand “green”, in other words getting at least full protocol checklists for all the pentads in the northwestern corner of the Western Cape, and also beyond, into the adjacent part of the Northern Cape.

The left map shows the bird atlas coverage in 2015, and how much greener it became as a result of Salome’s initiatives

BDI: How has being a citizen scientist changed your view of the world?

The Namaqua BioBashes were the first bashes where data on other taxa were recorded via VMus. Doing other taxa like scorpions and spiders has changed my whole life. I use to be petrified of spiders and now I respect their place in this world. I guess what I want to say is that getting to learn other species makes you understand and respect them. It makes one realise that we are all part of a cycle.

On another level I have made friends with like-minded people whom I now call my best friends.

BDI: What does the term “citizen scientist” mean to you?

Observing nature and learning so much about species

In the Virtual Museum, there are only two records of dragonflies from quarter degree grid cell 2414BC in the Namib Desert. Both records are Salome’s. This is a Long Skimmer (see http://vmus.adu.org.za/?vm=OdonataMAP-22965). The nearest record of a Long Skimmer to this one is about 150 km inland! (Photo credit: Salome Willemse)

BDI: What are you still hoping to achieve? This might be in terms of species, coverage, targets …

Turning the whole of Namaqualand green … And the Northern Cape

BDI: What resources have been the most helpful? (And how can they be made better?)

BirdLasser has been a wonderful tool that has turned atlassing into fun. And then also a dedicated person like Prof Les Underhill who keeps the interest going with social media.

BDI: How do you react to the statement that “Being a citizen scientist is good for my health, both physical and mental!”?

Amen

Salome has just twitched the Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin at Zeekoeivlei (Photo credit: Zenobia van Dyk)

BDI: What do you see as the role which citizen science plays in biodiversity conservation? What is the link?

Scientists themselves cannot be everywhere. We as citizen scientists can take a picture of a species and submit it. Being in the field and observing nature you often get to see really strange behaviour. If you are able to capture these moments other people can learn from that.

Thank you, Salome, for your efforts in this precious part of South Africa – keep up the excellent work!

Why studying African birds’ varied migration patterns is so important

A white-throated swallow, one of several intra-African migratory birds. Photo credit: MartinMaritz/Shutterstock

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Les Underhill recently published this piece in The Conversation (the original article can be found here).

Les Underhill, University of Cape Town

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Bird migration comes in many flavours – and, as with ice cream, “vanilla” is the one people are most familiar with.

This is the process of flying from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere, leaving the northern autumn and entering the southern spring; then making the return journey from autumn to spring. That sounds like a lifestyle to be envied: perpetual summer. But it’s not easily achieved. Birds must make the trip of thousands of kilometres using their energy and muscles; they have to deal with headwinds and storms.

Each year on the second weekend of May scientists, conservationists and bird lovers mark World Migratory Bird Day. In 2018, there’s a change to the calendar: the event will be marked twice, now also on the second Saturday in October. The organisers hope this will draw attention to migratory bird habits beyond the more studied and better resourced northern hemisphere.

This is an important step in recognising that there are hundreds of variations on the basic “flavour” of migration. Judging from attendance at international conferences, about three-quarters of ornithologists live and do research in the areas which were under the ice sheets of Europe and North America tens of thousands of years ago. So birds’ search for perpetual summer is what’s been most intensely studied.

Our knowledge of migration between Europe and Africa, and between North and South America, then, is good – but nowhere near complete. In an era of global climate change and development, scientists have realised that this knowledge is not static. It’s dynamic, and constantly shifting. The weak link in understanding vanilla migration is a knowledge of where each species spends the non-breeding season at the southern end of migration.

Vanilla migrants

Most bird species have been around for a long time, and have been through many ice ages. The most recent, known as the Pleistocene Epoch, ended around 12 000 years ago.

At the worst of this epoch – about 20 000 years ago – most of Europe north of about Spain and Italy was so cold and miserable that it was uninhabitable by birds throughout the year. Then gradually Europe’s climate became better for birds, but only in spring and summer.

It was precisely this strong seasonality which made the new territory so attractive. For most bird species, breeding occurs when there is a spike in food abundance. In the new territory, the thaw in spring was accompanied by a burst in plant growth. This was quickly followed by an abundance of caterpillars and other insects to feed on the plants, and to provide a reliable source of food for nestlings.

So as the permanent ice sheets across Europe and elsewhere retreated, the areas left behind became attractive breeding places. Once they’d bred, birds would escape to warmer places further south. The pattern that is recognised so well today was established.

But what about other forms of bird migration?

Different patterns

There are many species that migrate within the continent of Africa, appropriately known as “intra-African migrants”.

For instance, there are species which breed in South Africa in the southern summer and then head north, to elsewhere on the continent, in winter. Most swallows are in this category, notably the white-throated swallow. They leave in March-April, and are away until August-September. My fellow bird researchers and I think they migrate to countries farther north like Angola and Zambia.

Some birds fall into a second category: they are partial migrants. For example, about 80% of the Cattle Egrets in South Africa’s Gauteng province leave for warmer countries to the north each December and January. But there are always at least some Cattle Egrets throughout the province during winter. Partial migration is challenging even to recognise, because the species is continuously present throughout the year – and even harder to study.

Then there’s altitudinal migration. This is the idea that birds move downhill in winter to warmer places where there is more food. South Africa is one of the best places in the world to study altitudinal migration.

Tanya Scott, who recently completed her MSc with the Animal Demography Unit which I head at the University of Cape Town, was the first to comprehensively examine all the province’s bird species to identify altitudinal migrants. She searched for patterns that would help provide explanations for why some species undertake altitudinal migration, and others don’t. She found none. A week after her MSc was submitted, the first ever global review of altitudinal migration was published – and reached the same conclusions.

Altitudinal migration is a big puzzle. Vanilla migration is easy; all the birds do it. But developing an understanding of why some birds of a species migrate downhill after breeding and the birds in the neighbouring territory do not, is key to understanding how migration in a population starts.

There are many hypotheses about how long-distance migration started in species in which every individual migrates. These ideas can only be tested in the context of partial migration.

Understanding migration for conservation

The populations of many long-distance bird migrants are getting smaller. It is obvious that researchers can only develop effective conservation strategies for these species if we understand their spatial needs throughout their annual cycle.

The ConversationAnd many partial migrants are categorised as being “threatened” with extinction. Understanding the where, the when and the how of their movements is key to their protection. Mountains are particularly impacted by climate change, and a study of altitudinal migrants might well reveal that a disproportionate number of them are threatened.

Les Underhill, Professor, Biodiversity Informatics, University of Cape Town

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.