Filling in the Gaps: Citizen Science on the Road

An early start at 5:45 a.m. enabled us to reach Matjiesfontein railway station just after first light. We were traveling from Cape Town to Hanover in the Northern Cape, a journey which would typically require seven hours transit time. Instead, we used nearly twelve!

Though our final destination was Karoo Gariep Nature Reserve, the journey itself provided a chance to contribute to the Virtual Museum, and in particular, BirdPix.

Road trips are golden opportunities to fill “holes” in Virtual Museum datasets; many grid cells along the national roads have either very few records or none at all. Currently, BirdPix data are being used to generate species distribution maps which will be compared to SABAP2 maps. If BirdPix-generated maps are able to closely replicate the SABAP2 distributions, we may be able to apply the same methods to other VM datasets, modelling the distributions of butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles, and more!

With this in mind, we decided to use our trip to improve the existing coverage of the BirdPix dataset. By planning ahead, we identified a few sparsely populated cells to target along the journey, the first of which was Matjiesfontein.

Matjiesfontein falls in quarter degree grid cell 3320BA, which previously contained only two records: Speckled Pigeon and Fiscal Flycatcher, both reported by Zenobia van Dyk in 2018. Following a brief twenty-minute exploration of the area, however, we added 28 records to the list! These include species such as Blacksmith Lapwing, Cape Weaver, Common Starling, Laughing Dove, and this White-backed Mousebird, one of several encountered.

White-backed mousebird in Matjiesfontein, record curated at

Our next target was Leeu-Gamka, another small railway station approximately 350km northeast of Cape Town. This grid cell contained no records. We stopped near fields and buildings, searching for ibises among irrigation systems and doves along rooftops, and were well-rewarded for our efforts. In under an hour, Leeu-Gamka’s grid cell was brought from 0-18 species! One of my favourite finds was a Pririt Batis, hunting for insects just outside a supermarket.

Pririt batis, record curated at

In addition to their important place in data collection, long-distance road trips also allow for interesting observations on species ranges. For instance, in Matjiesfontein, we encountered Cape Bulbuls, but in Leeu-Gamka, just 150km northeast, were greeted by these African Red-eyed Bulbuls.

African red-eyed bulbul, record curated at

The distributions of both species are closely linked with the landscape: Cape Bulbul occurs in fynbos and coastal scrub vegetation, whilst the African Red-eyed Bulbul is commonly found in arid savanna and riparian bush.

We stopped at a few other locations along the road to Hanover, including an abandoned cluster of buildings near Nelspoort in the Nuweveld Mountain Range. The disused structures are now colonised by a variety of avian species, including Red-headed Finch, House Sparrow, Cape Sparrow, Southern Grey-Headed Sparrow, and Familiar Chat.

Familiar chat, record curated at
Red-headed finch, record curated at

The “prize” finding of the day, though, came much closer to our destination, and was easily my favourite: a pair of secretary birds just outside of Hanover.

Secretary bird, record curated at

These beautiful birds typically avoid busy areas, so spotting these two just off the national road was a surprising treat.

At the end of the day, 59 records were added across 5 grid cells! Contributions like these show the sizeable impact that a few extra stops can have in unpopulated or remote regions. Paired with some cautious driving, roadsides become fantastic spots for birding and generating citizen science data.

The scope is by no means limited to birds–you can contribute on your next journey via any of the Virtual Museum’s collections, and share the species you encounter along the way!

Keep exploring!

Karis Daniel
Karis Daniel
Karis Daniel has been fascinated by birds since she was young, but while she was at university they became a passion. On a study abroad programme in South Africa, she was captivated by the diversity and abundance of bird life she encountered, and ultimately found herself drawn back to study them further. She completed her undergraduate studies at Wilson College in Pennsylvania. In 2017, she also received the opportunity to study wildlife ecology and conservation at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, where she completed her honours research and developed a focus on conservation science. Karis is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town.