Biodiversity enthusiast! ….The BDI interviews citizen scientist Lucky Okpanachi Atabo

Please tell us a bit about yourself, your background and what you do:

My name is Lucky Okpanachi Atabo. I am a young Nigerian and an active volunteer and advocate for various contemporary societal issues like biodiversity and environmental conservation. I am an undergraduate in Biological Sciences and currently in my final year.

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

The term ‘citizen science’ was very much alien to me up until, when as an intern, I was privileged to listen to a scholar present the details of his research on what he titled “Citizen Science and Urban Ecology“. It was right there in that lecture room that I was able to see and comprehend how much good can be achieved from the work that citizen scientists do especially in species conservation. The passion for citizen science was ignited in me from that moment and this was precisely in the year 2019 while I was interning at A.P Leventis Ornithological Research Institute, Jos, Plateau State.

Common Themis Forester – Euphaedra themis – Photo by Lucky Okpanachi Atabo

What has been the highlight for you? 

Being out in the field putting in my effort to achieve the objectives of citizen science has helped to shape how I view and respond to environmental issues. Within this short time, I have come to see that real changes can be made practically and consistently. I began to use my photos and storytelling to drive a message into the minds of people closest to me and then spiralling up to larger audiences. This way, I’ve been able to spread the message of conservation and it gives me so much joy to see a change in the attitude of people towards these issues. Realizing that the people around me are becoming positively conscious of their decisions thrills me intensely.

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

Being a citizen scientist has taught me that every decision I make as a person will impact on the world one way or another. Being a citizen scientist has also shown me that with a bit of effort from everyone, we can achieve great changes.

Common Citril – Ceriagrion glabrum

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

Citizen science to me simply means everyone is needed. No matter who you are (Writer, photographer, physician, journalist, etc.) or where you are, you are important and your hands are needed on deck.

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

Recently, I started the ‘new species everyday’ challenge for myself. Knowing that I have a limited time to spend here on campus, I try to record as many new species as I can within my grid cell. So, I make sure to take a walk around and within the university’s small biological garden to catch any new species flying or walking around. So far I’ve been able to build a good species list including some very interesting sightings. Anywhere else I visit even on very short durations, I try to atlas as many species as I can.

I’m also hoping to help inspire more people with similar passions to join in the work that is needed to cover more ground in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.

Laughing Dove – Streptopelia senegalensis

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

Personally, I consider citizen science as the healthiest way to have fun. My happiest moments are times spent outside either watching birds or photographing these very cute and adorable species. This has improved me a lot physically and mentally. I always say that being out in natural places makes me feel reborn. I really wish more people will plug into this as a means to stay fit and sharp.

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

You can only go on to protect a species when you’re sure that it is there. I regard citizen scientists as the torch bearers of conservation; we light up the tunnel so everyone can see, and by everyone, I mean the ordinary people as well as powerful stakeholders like government bodies or NGO’s.

Common Dotted Border – Mylothris chloris chloris

What are the challenges you encounter as a citizen scientist?

Being out mostly in wild and isolated places exposes one to certain risks. I always try to use my sixth sense whenever I am out in the field or I make sure I have a good knowledge of any area I plan to visit. This has limited me in terms of data coverage but for now safety is key

The photos that I take are usually taken with my mobile phone and it is pretty challenging and disappointing, especially when there’s an interesting species either moving too fast or at a distance too far for cell phone photography. Hopefully, I’ll save up enough money to buy a good camera and continue to snap it and map it! 🙂

Aegocera rectilinea
Tigertail – Ictinogomphus ferox

Garden Ecology: Colonisation and Succession

Garden Ecology: Colonisation & Succession

Good afternoon, naturalists! Time for an update on Operation Feed the Birds, and a few new insights into garden ecology. 

Let’s begin with the birds. 

Since my first blog post, the two bird feeders have been kept busy, entertaining visitors around the clock. One of my neighbours has a very active feeder, and I suspected that the birds from his garden would locate this hot new local food source quickly. And yet, their speed still surprised me! Within exactly 1 hour and 5 minutes (yes, I did spend an entire day by the window with my binoculars), a male and female cape sparrow were furtively darting to and from the tree feeder. The first few birds were extremely wary; if a hinge creaked, or a dog barked, or if I so much as breathed, they were off like a flash. 

Cape Sparrows and a Cape Weaver vying for a spot at the feeder.
Cape Sparrows and a Cape Weaver vying for a spot at the feeder.

As the day wore on, though, the birds began to grow accustomed to the noises and sights of the garden, and by the end of the first week they barely flinched if I opened the door. My species list for the cottage slowly continued to climb—I began seeing birds at my feeder not previously observed in the garden. Southern Masked Weaver, Pin-tailed Whydah, and (miraculously) a single Southern Grey-headed Sparrow began to make regular appearances. (I have dubbed the sparrow “Jack.” He hangs around now, always on his own). 

Jack, the Southern Grey-headed Sparrow.
Jack, the Southern Grey-headed Sparrow.

Needless to say, since those first few days, the feeders have become a veritable hive of activity. Laughing Doves and Red-eyed Doves, chests puffed out, strut importantly below the feeders, collecting seeds and filling the air with their burbling coos. A hot-headed Cape Turtle Dove chases off Laughing Doves that come too close, and even the Cape Robin-Chat now makes regular appearances, perhaps sensing safety in the presence of so many birds.

Doves and sparrows feeding on seeds spilled from the feeders
Doves and sparrows feeding on seeds spilled from the feeders

Broadly, the sheltered feeder receives more visitors in a 10-minute period and experiences a faster overall decline in seed level than the open feeder.” 

Clearly, in terms of use, the feeders are a success. At least twice a day (and more often if I can), I sit by the window with a timer, a notebook, and a pencil, and record the birds arriving at each feeder in a 10-minute block. At the end of the day, I measure the level of seed in each feeder. Already, patterns are emerging! Broadly, the sheltered feeder receives more visitors in a 10-minute period and experiences a faster overall decline in seed level than the open feeder. 

Though the pattern of use for the tree-sheltered feeder versus the open feeder is intriguing (and we will explore it further in a future blog), my thoughts over the past few weeks have been equally preoccupied with the garden itself. And that brings us to our next set of ecological concepts in this blog series: colonisation and succession

What do these words (which sound like they belong in political history) have to do with birds in a garden? 

To answer that question, we first need to understand how a garden ecosystem forms. 

Let’s start with an example. 

Imagine that you are on a volcanic island. A volcano erupts, lava flows over the land and into the ocean, and as it cools, new, bare rock is formed. It has never had any plant life on it; it has never been inhabited by any species—it is new, untouched, and barren. As rain falls, and the wind blows, and the sun continues to shine, life slowly begins to arrive.

Pioneer species…are organisms with seeds or spores that can travel long distances by wind or water.”

These are pioneer species; organisms with seeds or spores than can travel long distances by wind or water. Things like algae, fungi, and lichen, which spread across the bare rock, slowly breaking it down. And as these species spread, some die off, and wind and water deposit more and more living material. Microorganisms continue to break down these layers of “stuff,” over time forming the rich, organic matter that makes up soil. 

Primary succession. Rock is colonised by pioneer species, which create soil for the growth of grasses and larger plants, ultimately creating a climax community.
Primary succession. Rock is colonised by pioneer species, which create soil for the growth of grasses and larger plants, ultimately creating a climax community.

Once soil is present, new species are able to move in. Grass, which takes in its nutrients from soil, spreads over the land, and displaces the pioneer species. As the grass grows, it continues adding material and nutrients back into the soil, making it deeper and richer, and paving the way for bigger plants, like shrubs.

Primary succession…describes the succession of species and events that build on one another to create an established, living community”

This pattern of moving in, enriching the soil, and making space for something new continues, eventually allowing massive organisms like trees to take root. And we have only considered the plants—imagine what else comes along with this growth! Insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, and more, all thriving on what once was empty rock.  

This process of moving from bare rock to a flourishing ecosystem is called primary succession. It describes the succession of species and events that build on one another to create an established, living community (in ecology, this is called a climax community). 

Now, imagine that a fire sweeps through our climax community, burning through all of the vegetation. You might think we are back to square one! But in reality, we have an advantage: the soil stays behind. And after the fire, it is thicker and richer than ever before.

Secondary succession…tells us which species colonise a landscape after a major natural disturbance, and the order in which those species arrive.”

Because of this, fast-growing plants are able to colonise the soil much more quickly than the first time around, and a climax community once again takes shape. This process, called secondary succession, is the one that is of interest to us. It tells us which species colonise a landscape after a major natural disturbance (in our example, fire), and the order in which those species arrive. 

Secondary succession. Climax community is disturbed, rich soil remains and nourishes new plant growth, climax community is re-established.
Secondary succession. Climax community is disturbed, rich soil remains and nourishes new plant growth, climax community is re-established.

Now that we understand the concepts of colonisation and succession, we are ready to take our ecological knowledge into the garden.

Most gardens are disturbed ecosystems, transformed by a series of human interventions.”

Though it may come as a surprise, my typical suburban garden is actually a disturbed ecosystem. The disturbance was not a fire, like in the previous example, but rather a series of human interventions. 300 years ago, this little patch of earth in the suburbs was not part of a “suburb” at all! Rather than fence lines and homes, this region was characterized by vast expanses of sandy soil, sparsely covered with native shrubs and trees. It sat in the heart of a biome called the Cape Flats Sand Fynbos. 

The Rondebosch Common, one of just a few dedicated areas of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos conservation.
The Rondebosch Common is one of just a few conservation areas for Cape Flats Sand Fynbos. Photo: Karis Daniel

The growing human population within the city of Cape Town took its toll on the land. Heavy ox wagons struggled to travel across the deep sand, and in the early 1800s, authorities introduced alien plant species from Australia in an attempt to stabilize the soil. Though the sand was effectively stabilized, it came at a heavy cost: the original Cape flats sand fynbos ecosystem was overrun with non-native species, and was pushed to the brink of extinction. 

A map of the Cape Peninsula from 1893, showing the vast “sand flats” expanse east of the city. High resolution image available here, from the University of Cape Town Libraries Digital Collections.

In Pinelands, where I stay, thousands of non-native pine trees were also introduced in the late 1800’s to control the shifting sands. Over the next 100 years, the area subsequently served as a brick-making business, a camp for the British army, a set of hostels for bubonic plague patients, and, eventually, a township. 

Who will colonise the land once fynbos is present?”

It isn’t hard to see how human influence has “disturbed” the area—in fact, disturbance seems a mild term for the radical change inflicted on the landscape! My little garden is not a true case of secondary succession; though it is primarily sandy soil, there is some plant growth. But as we slowly clear the alien trees and plants and begin to introduce native vegetation, it will be fascinating to see what non-plant species come back.

An Olive Thrush perched in a non-native Australian Brush-cherry tree (Syzygium paniculatum) in my garden.
An Olive Thrush perched in a non-native Australian Brush-cherry tree (Syzygium paniculatum) in my garden.

Who will colonise the land once fynbos is present? Will new birds arrive? New insects? Which will come first, and pave the way for others? Where will they come from, and what seeds will they carry with them? The questions are expansive and inviting, and for me, learning their answers is one of the most exciting prospects of “re-wilding” a garden. 

For those of you who also enjoy these sorts of questions, here are a few more to consider: 

  • Do you know the “disturbance history” of your garden or city? 
  • How have you witnessed landscapes changing over your lifetime?
  • Where can you see the principles of succession at work? 

If you have a succession story to share, leave a comment on this blog or send us an email—we would love to hear it!

Until next time, happy exploring!

Further reading 

History of Pinelands: The Garden City of Pinelands, South Africa

The Cape Flats Sand Fynbos

Primary & Secondary Succession explained

History of the Cape Flats

Cape Sparrow (Passer melanurus)

Cape Sparrow identification

Identification

Cape Sparrows are small, boldly patterned birds that are sexually dimorphic; in other words, males and females look different to one another. The key differences are in their heads: males have black heads with a broad white ‘c’ shape running from the eyes to the throat, and in females, the head is grey, and the white ‘c’ less distinct.

Male Cape Sparrow identification.
Male Cape Sparrow. Desire & Gregg Darling, Addo Elephant NP, Eastern Cape. 23 March 2014. BirdPix 7096.
Female Cape Sparrow identification.
Female Cape Sparrow. Fanie Rautenbach, West Beach, Western Cape. 26 August 2012. BirdPix 416.

Though facial colouration and pattern separate the two, both male and female sparrows have pale grey bellies, dark blackish bills, and a rich chestnut-brown rump and wings.

Male Cape Sparrow showing chestnut rump and wings.
Male Cape Sparrow showing off its chestnut-coloured rump and wings. Jorrie Jordaan, Redhouse, Eastern Cape. 8 May 2016. BirdPix 31189

Cape Sparrows are vocal, and as for many birds their repertoire consists of variations on three basic types of sound: song, contact call, and alarm.  

You can listen to each by clicking on the links above.

Habitat

Cape Sparrows eat a wide range of foods, and so are able to inhabit a variety of habitat types. They are common and often abundant in dry savanna, dry, shrubby woodland, agricultural land and orchards, as well as residential gardens and parks. These birds cope well in human environments and are often regular visitors to garden birdseed feeders. Within the Western Cape, Cape Sparrows may also be seen foraging in the intertidal zone along coastlines.

Examples of Cape Sparrow habitat.
Examples of Cape Sparrow habitat. Top L & R: urban/agricultural; lower L & R: dry, shrubby woodland.

Distribution

The SABAP2 distribution map for Cape Sparrow shows just how widespread these birds are!

Cape Sparrow distribution map.
SABAP2 distribution map for Cape Sparrow, downloaded 15 June 2021. Details for map interpretation here.

Though common across most of southern Africa, they are considered near-endemic. An endemic species is found only in southern Africa, and nowhere else in the world; a near-endemic species is almost confined to southern Africa, with a few populations along or just outside of border lines. The Cape Sparrow occurs sparsely in parts of Botswana and southern Zimbabwe, as well as the southwest of Angola.

Behaviour

Though sparrow behaviour and interactions are fascinating to explore, we will limit our scope to behaviours which are relevant to finding or identifying Cape Sparrows.

Cape Sparrows are gregarious, meaning that they are usually in pairs or groups.  

Flock of Cape Sparrows.
Small flock of Cape Sparrows. Jorrie Jordaan, Redhouse, Eastern Cape. 8 May 2016. BirdPix 31189

They often perch conspicuously on top of things—fence posts, bushes, trees, or rooftops. On the ground, rather than walking, they commonly use a “hopping” gait characteristic of many sparrows.

Cape Sparrow demonstrating "hopping" gait.
Female Cape Sparrow hopping in a garden. Karis Daniel, Alfalfa, Western Cape. 19 August 2020. BirdPix 126929

Cape Sparrows usually nest in colonies, with males and females working together to build messy, globe-shaped nests lined with feathers. Nest colonies are common in bushes and trees (often acacias), and within urban environments, individual nests may be built on infrastructure such as fence posts and gables.

Examples of Cape Sparrow nests.
Two examples of Cape Sparrow nests. L: nest behind a road signpost. Karis Daniel, Montagu, Western Cape. 14 September 2020. BirdPix 130732. R: nest in a residential garden. Dewald du Plessis, Bloemfontein, Free State. 4 August 2007. BirdPix 23794.

Further resources

Species text in the first bird atlas (1997)

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name)

More common names: Gewone Mossie (Afrikaans); Moineau mélanure (French); Kapsperling (German); Passero del Capo (Italian); Gorrión de El Cabo (Spanish)

Recommended citation format: Daniel KA 2021. Cape Sparrow Passer melanurus. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2021/06/17/cape-sparrow-passer-melanurus/

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Eurasian Oystercatcher

The Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus breeds in Europe and Asia. Most move south for the northern winter. Most remain in soutern Europe, some migrate to northern Africa, and tiny numbers reach the southern end of Africa.

Identification

This is the only black and white oystercatcher that occurs anywhere on the African continent. As its name implies, it breeds in Europe and Asia, and travels to Africa as a migrant.

All photographic credits at end

There are other species of black and white oystercatchers, but they occur in North and South America and in Australia and New Zealand.

This is the call.

Habitat

Whereas African Black Oystercatchers occur on both rocky and sandy shores, Eurasian Oystercatchers prefer soft, sandy or muddy substrates. So they are mostly found at lagoons and large sandy estuaries. This young Eurasian Oystercatcher, at the Gamtoos River Estuary in the Eastern Cape, is in classic habitat for the species.

Distribution

On the Atlantic Ocean coast of southern Africa, they have mostly been recorded at Walvis Bay Lagoon and Sandwich Harbour in Namibia, and at Langebaan Lagoon in South Africa. Along the Indian Ocean coast, there are many suitable estuaries and lagoons from about Plettenberg Bay, eastwards through the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and in Mozambique. But they can turn up anywhere along the coast.

SABAP2 distribution map, downloaded 11 June 2021

Two subspecies of the Eurasian Oystercatcher have African connections. The normal range of the western subspecies ostralegus is outlined in green in the map below, and that of the eastern subspecies longipedes in red. The difference between the two subspecies are subtle; longipedes has a slightly longer bill than ostralegus. On this map, breeding areas are shaded yellow, and non-breeding areas in blue. Neither subspecies normally reaches southern Africa. The western subspecies ostralesgus occurs along the coastline of northwest Africa. The eastern subspecies longipedes migrates as far south along the eastern coast of Africa to Tanzania. It is thought that the birds reaching southern Africa (including Namibia) are longipedes, arriving along the east coast of Africa. In reality, we don’t really know!

Page 46 in An atlas of wader populations in Africa and western Eurasia, published in 2009 by Wetlands International

Breeding

In broad brush terms there is a huge difference between the two subspecies; during the breeding season ostralegus is (traditionally) on saltwater coastlines of the oceans of western Europe, and longipedes on freshwater margins of lakes and large rivers of the interior of the eastern half of Europe. This is shown on the map below. But, from about the middle of the 20th century, ostralegus started breeding inland in agricultural landscapes, even 100 km from the sea, where they feed on earthworms, rather than on molluscs.

Gallery

The pictures below are selected from the BirdPix section of the Virtual Museum.

This is probably the largest flock of Eurasian Oystercatchers south if the “normal” nonbreeding range shown in the map above. This flock of about 20 birds was at San Sebastian, Vilanculos, Mozambique.

This is the experience you are on the lookout for; a Eurasian Oystercatcher in a flock of African Black Oystercatchers. Keep looking. This was at Walvis Bay Lagoon.

Further resources: A selection of papers

More common names: Bonttobie (Afrikaans), Huîtrier pie (French), Austernfischer (German), Ostraceiro (Portuguese), Ostrero Euroasiático (Spanish)

Photographic acknowledgements: Most of the photographs in this identification guide are in the BDI/FitzPatrick Institute Virtual Museum. They are used here with permission of the photographers, who continue to own the copyright on these images. Top image: Alan Collett, BirdPix 143367. Identification image: Dave Rimmer, BirdPix 58147. Habitat image: Gregg Darling, BirdPix 104255. First gallery image: Georg Jacobs BirdPix 99051. Second gallery image: Maans Booysen, BirdPix 102228. Third Gallery image: Les Underhill BirdPix 1415.

Recommended citation format: Underhill LG 2021. Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at http://thebdi.org/2021/06/14/eurasian-oystercatcher-haematopus-ostralegus/

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

The Little Egret Egretta garzetta belongs to a large family of birds called the Ardeidae, the herons, the egrets and the bitterns. The herons are, on average, larger than the egrets, but the two names are used confusingly. The “Little” Egret is not the smallest member of the family!

Identification

The yellow feet are the diagnostic.

Little Egret Egretta garzetta identification
All photographic credits at end

The only problem arises is when the feet are underwater, like this:

Littlr Egret Egret hiding yellow feet

Usually, if you wait a little while and watch, it will start to move. It usually walks with a crazy gait, and lifts its feet out of the water with each step, so you get a quick yellow flash which confirms the identification. With a little experience, then even without seeing the yellow feet, you will get to know that this is a Little Egret, from the relative size and shape of its bill, body and neck.

Young birds look essentially the same as adults, but they don’t have plumes, and the yellow of their feet is a bit muted.

Listen to the call.

Habitat

These photos give a feel for the kinds of places where you can anticipate encountering a Little Egret.

Little Egret Egretta garzetta in kelp
Little Egret Egretta garzetta on a rocky shore
Little Egret iEgretta garzetta in a dambo
Little Egret Egretta garzetta living dangerously at Boegoeberg Dam

Distribution

This is the SABAP2 distribution map for Little Egret. In the interior of southern Africa, this map is essentially tracking the places where there are wetlands with shallow edges. These wetlands can be natural, such as rivers, estuaries, pans (like the ones in the Free State) or artificial, such as sewage works, large reservoirs and small farm dams. Along the open coastline, it prefers sheltered rocky shores with rockpools at low tide.

Distribution map for Little Egret Egretta garzetta
SABAP2 distribution map for Little Egret, download 12/06/2021. Details of map interpretation are here

Little Egrets occur in most of Africa, southern Eurasia and Australia. It is steadily expanding its range northwards in western Europe. They have established a tiny breeding population on the west coast of North America.

Gallery

This is all you need to see to be 100% certain that it is a Little Egret:

Yellow feet, all you need for Little Egret

The yellow feet are the key diagnostic feature. This is not universal truth, if you travel to the Americas or to Australia there are other species of white egret with yellow feet!

Birding is not without humour. This Little Egret is pretending to be a new species, the Extra-long-legged Egret!

Little Egret with long legs

Further resource:

Species text in the first bird atlas (1997).

More common names: Kleinwitreier (Afrikaans), Aigrette garzette (French), Seidenreiher (German), Garça-branca-pequena (Portuguese), Garceta común (Spanish).

Photographic acknowledgements: Most of the photographs in this identification guide are in the BDI/FitzPatrick Institute Virtual Museum. They are used here with permission of the photographers, who continue to own the copyright on these images. Top image: Jorrie Jordaan, BirdPix 34978. First identification image: Les Underhill, BirdPix 2267. Second identification image: Johan and Estelle van Rooyen, BirdPix 115991; First habitat image: Les Underhill, BirdPix 48966. Second habitat image, Itxaso Quintana, BirdPix 116367. Third habitat image, Dave Kennedy BirdPix 11964. Fourth habitat image, Salome Willemse, BirdPix 105973. First gallery image, Les Underhill. Second gallery image: Dawie de Swardt, BirdPix 52412.

Recommended citation format: Underhill LG 2021. Little Egret Egretta garzetta. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at http://thebdi.org/2021/06/12/little-egret-egretta-garzetta/

Birds on the coastline of the Western Cape

The coastline

The focus here is on learning the really common birds you can expect to see on the coastline in the Western Cape. These are the species you are most likely to encounter on the beach, or along a section of rocky shore.

GULLS: Perhaps the birds which first come to mind when you say “seashore” are the gulls. 99.9% of the gulls of the Western Cape are either Hartlaub’s Gulls or Kelp Gulls. Adults are easy to tell apart. Kelp Gulls are much bigger than Hartlaub’s Gulls. When they are sitting, Kelp Gulls have black backs, and Hartlaub’s Gulls have grey backs.

The Hartlaub’s Gull is on the left, and the Kelp Gull on the right. It would be nice if it were that simple. You need to go the blog posts for each species to discover the complications caused by the age of the bird, i.e. the juvenile plumages. This is true for all the species presented here.

CORMORANTS: Next up are the cormorants (duikers in Afrikaans). There are four species, but one of these (the Bank Cormorant) is so rare that it is classified as Critically Endangered. That leaves three feasible species: White-breasted Cormorant (left), Cape Cormorant (middle) and Crowned Cormorant (right):

These three birds are dry, so you can see the intricate patterning of the feathers of their folded wings. When they are wet, they look black. The White-breasted Cormorant on the left is the largest, and has a blue eye. But so does the Cape Cormorant in the middle. The Crowned Cormorant on the right has a red eye. The Cape Cormorant has a notably short tail; the Crowned Cormorant has a long tail. If you see the crest feathers sticking up or you see the red eye, then it can only be Crowned Cormorant. The White-breasted Cormorant has a patch of yellow skin at the base of the bill. The other two species have orange, but in different patterns. These three cormorants are not that simple to distinguish. This is especially true when you add young birds into the mix. You need to look at the full texts for each species.

TERNS: Not every piece of shoreline has terns. Where they occur, they are often in large flocks. The tern species in the Western Cape all have grey wings, the same shade of grey as Hartlaub’s Gull. Essentially the terns look like sporty versions of the gulls. The terns are sleek and aerodynamic compared to the gulls. Most of the terns on the shoreline of the Western Cape belong to one of three species: Swift Tern (yellow bill), Sandwich Tern (black bill tipped yellow) and Common Tern (plain back bill). In reality it is not that simple. When you encounter a flock of terns, it may consist of one, or two or all three of these species. Often the flock of terns might have merged with a flock of gulls.

Except for rare vagrants, the Swift Tern is the only tern in the Western Cape with a yellow bill. The yellow-tipped black bill is globally unique to the Sandwich Tern (although there are a few species with black-tipped yellow bills). The legs and head of the Common Tern can vary between red and black, and all shades in-between. For all the species the head pattern is variable; it is not a useful identification feature. Size is useful. The photo below shows the Common Tern above in context:

The Common Tern is much smaller than the Swift Tern. The strange bird on the right is a young Swift Tern. The Sandwich Tern is intermediate in size between Common Tern and Swift Tern. Size is only useful if you are looking at a flock of terns.

OYSTERCATCHER: A plump black bird with a red dagger for a bill is African Black Oystercatcher.

Oystercatchers breed during summer, when they have to share the shore with holiday makers. If you are angling or picnicking on the shore, and a pair of oystercatchers is persistantly making a lot of noise, they are trying to communicate with you: “Please move along a 50 m or so; we are not comfortable having you so close to our nest.”

EGRET: A white bird with blackish legs which looks like it walked through spilt paint and got yellow feet is Little Egret. They are most conspicuous on the shore at low tide, when they feed in the rock pools.

There are other species in this family, the egrets and the herons, which are quite often on the coastline; Little Egret is the one that is most frequently encountered. Grey Heron comes second. Apart from the cormorants, these are the only birds on the shore that you would really consider taking a photograph of in portrait, rather than landscape, mode. They are all much taller than they are wide!

DUCKS & GEESE: One “duck-type” bird has added the coastline to its set of preferred habitats: Egyptian Goose:

If this blog had been written two decades ago, the Egyptian Goose would not have featured. Traditionally, they are birds of freshwater. Somehow, they discovered that the green sea lettuce (scientific name Ulva) was edible. The photo above for the Little Egret, the bird is hiding its right foot in the sea lettuce.

IBISES: There are two ibises on the shore. The noisy Hadeda Ibis (brown) and the silent African Sacred Ibis (white with black head).

Ibises have a uniquely distinctive shape.

SMALL BIRDS – WAGTAIL, STARLING, WADERS : As soon as you get into the vegetation behind the coastline, whether it is natural, alien or gardens, there are a lot of bird species which you can encounter. But there are only five small species that you are likely to encounter on the beach or in the rock pools of the inter-tidal zone: Cape Wagtails (grey and white with black bib), Common Starling (black), White-fronted Plover (mostly white and cream), Turnstone (black, white and brown) and Sanderling (white and grey).

Cape Wagtails (left) and Common Starlings (right) are two landbirds that feed in the intertidal zone right down to the edge of the sea:

Sanderlings (left) are mostly found on sheltered sandy beaches, feeding at the edge of the waves, running at speed to keep pace with the waves. White-fronted Plovers (centre) occur on both sandy and rocky shores, feeding from the edge of the sea to the back of the beach. Turnstones (right) are mostly on rocky shores, or feeding on piles of kelp washed up on sandy shores.

Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones breed in Siberia, and migrate to the Western Cape for the local summer (about September to April). White-fronted Plovers are residents, and breed on the shore just above the high tide level.

Of course, there are lots of other species of birds on the coastline. For example, if you go to the Boulders or Stony Point, you will certainly see African Penguins. If you visit Bird Island at Lambert’s Bay, you will see Cape Gannets in their thousands.

If you manage to take a photograph of any bird listed above, please submit it to the Virtual Museum. You can include your own identification, even if it is a bit tentative. The expert panel will confirm whether you have got it right. If you see a bird which is not listed above, do try to take a photograph and submit it to the Virtual Museum. You can leave the species field blank, and a member of the expert panel will do the identification. Every record is valuable as evidence that a species still occurs at a locality.

Recommended citation format: Underhill LG 2021. Birds on the coastline of the Wrestern Cape. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at http://thebdi.org/2021/06/11/birds-on-the-coastline-of-the-western-cape/

The Virtual Museum

The Virtual Museum (VM) provides the platform for citizen scientists to contribute to biodiversity projects. This innovative concept was originally developed by the Animal Demography Unit at UCT in 2005. It is now managed by the Biodiversity and Development Institute (an independent non-profit company) and the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology (UCT).

What is the Virtual Museum?

For many people, the word “museum” conjures up images of a place to see stuffed animals on display. But this museum is not like this. Every real museum does not only have displays; there is always a door labelled “Private: Staff Only.” Go through that door, and you get into the scientific part of the museum. If it is a biological museum, it consists of large collections of specimens. Frequently there are large numbers of specimens of the same species from different parts of the range. They are all carefully preserved and labelled with the date and place where they were collected, the name of the collector, and the associated number of the record in a catalogue, which until recently was on paper. This is a real museum below!

Natural history museum paris Michael Bates
This is a real museum; those are real snakes inside the bottles. Specimens carefully preserved in alcohol in bottles, everyone neatly labelled with collector, species and date. (Photo by Mike Bates, taken in the Natural History Museum, Paris)

The Virtual Museum is just like this part of the Real Museum, except that instead of specimens on shelves or in bottles, we have digital photographs in a database. The details of collector, date and place are also in the database. For example, there are 3,488 photographs of Painted Ladies Vanessa cardui in LepiMAP, and here are a handful of them:

Virtual Museum records of Painted Ladies. The real butterflies flew away, and continued with their lives. So this is a “virtual museum” in contrast to a “real museum”. One advantage of the “Virtual Museum” is that the specimens don’t lose their colour with time. The disadvantages are that you cannot handle the specimens, all you have (as Ringo Starr would say) is a photograph. And you can’t take a DNA sample from a photo!

One important use of all these photographs of the Painted Lady is to plot the locations where each record was observed, and to make distribution maps. One standard way of making maps is to put a grid over the region of interest, and to shade the grid cells in which the species has been recorded. In South Africa, Lesotho and eSwatini we often use a coarse grid, with lines at quarter degree intervals, about 27 km apart. When you realise that this coarse system generates 2,000 quarter degree grid cells for these three countries, then 3,488 records is not so impressive. If we go to a one minute grid (about 1.6 km), which would be nice, the three countries have 450,000 grid cells, nearly half a million!

A second use of all these Painted Lady records is to use them to work out the period of the year when the species is flying. This is called the “phenology”. When people talk about climate change, the first thought is that the future will be warmer. Another component of climate change is that the timing of the seasons will change. There is a real interest in seeing how biodiversity adapts to these changes. The statistical methods used to produce phenology plots need mountains of data. 3,488 Painted Ladies is not enough! And if we are going to be able to detect changes in phenology, we need vast numbers of new photos of Painted Ladies, made in 2021, 2022, 2023, …. and for ever. We will never have enough Painted Ladies. It is just as well this museum is “virtual” rather than “real”!

Members of the public are encouraged to submit digital photographs for the various sections of the Virtual Museum. Together with the photograph goes the same information as on the label of the specimen. Species identifications can be done by the observers, and these are confirmed by a panel of experts. If there is no identification, then these are done by the expert panel.

Currently the VM hosts 17 biodiversity projects: BirdPix (bird pictures archive); BOP (odd plumages of birds). PHOWN (photos of weaver nests), and 14 atlases: DungBeetleMAP (dung beetles, Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae). EchinoMAP (African Echinoderms: sea stars, sea urchins and brittle stars), FishMAP (freshwater fish in southern and eastern Africa), FrogMAP (African frogs), LacewingMAP (African Neuroptera and Megaloptera), MushroomMAP (South African mushrooms), OdonataMAP (African Odonata), OrchidMAP (African orchids), LepiMAP (African Lepidoptera), ReptileMAP (African reptiles), ScorpionMAP (African scorpions), SpiderMAP (African spiders), MammalMAP (African mammals), and TreeMAP (South African trees).

The databases in the Virtual Museum are used for multiple purposes. The most common use is to collate all the places where a species has been photographed, and to generate distribution maps for the species. These are available online and serve as conservation and education tools. These maps include Virtual Museum records and sometimes also other distributional records which are contained within the Virtual Museum database.

Virtual Museum records help expand the distribution databases for these taxa; they not only confirm the presence of a species at a particular point in time, but they also provide new distribution records for species and sometimes lead to extensions of the known range of a species. We try hard to “refresh” old records, so the maps are kept up to date.

Although the Virtual Museum database contains the exact localities of records, the only information made publicly available is the quarter-degree grid cell in which the record occurs. These are roughly square, with sides 27 km, about 700 square km. This is the scale at which information is published in atlases. For species that are subjected to poaching (e.g. rhinos, but a substantial list of other species as well), the records in the database appear to disappear as soon as they are identified. This is an unfortunate and important security feature of the Virtual Museum.

Your photos can make a difference for biodiversity conservation and information systems!

African Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus moquini)

The African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini is one of the iconic species of the coastline of the southwestern Africa.

Identification

African Black Oystercatchers, especially the adults, are one of the easiest bird species to identify. It is the only species along the African coast with a black body and a bright red bill. They are noisy birds; listen to them here.

Identification of adult African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini
David Kennedy, Kei Mouth, Eastern Cape. 29 September 2017. BirdPix 47729
Identification of juvenile African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini
Keir Lynch, Gansbaai, Western Cape. 27 February 2020. BirdPix 105606

Habitat

African Black Oystercatchers are essentially confined to the shoreline. They occur on both rocky and sandy shores. They tend to be most abundant on shorelines which are sheltered, they are rarer on exposed shores, and absent from sections of coastlines where the ocean’s waves pound directly onto the bases of cliffs. On rocky shores, their daily cycles are driven by the tide. They feed in the intertidal zone at low tide, and loaf on rocks at high tide, often getting together in roosting groups. They feed at low tides during the night as well as during the day.

Habitat for African Black Oystercatcher rocky shore
African Black Oystercatcher habitat on a rocky shore at Betty’s Bay, Western Cape, South Africa. What makes this especially attractive to oystercatchers is the width of the rocky area exposed at low tide. There are lots of places to feed in this intertidal zone! Les Underhill, 31 December 2017. BirdPix 48719
Habitat for African Black Oystercatcher sandyy shore
Typical habitat for oystercatchers on a sandy beach. The beach has a fairly flat profile, and there are lots of mussels buried in it for food. Oystercatchers avoid steeply sloping high-energy beaches where the sand is continously scoured, and mussels are unable to settle. This is near Sedgefield, Western Cape, South Africa. David Kennedy, 23 September 2008. BirdPix 3041

Distribution

This is the SABAP2 distribution map for the African Black Oystercatcher. It occurs only along the coastline. In reality, the width of the distribution is even narrower than that shown on the map. In most places the strip of coastline in which you can find oystercatchers is about 50 m wide, from the lowest level of spring low tide, to a few metres above the spring high tide level. It is steadily expanding its breeding range northeastwards across KwaZulu-Natal. Vagrants have been recorded along the Angolan coast in the west, and in Mozambique in the east.

Distribution map for African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini
SABAP2 distribution map for African Black Oystercatcher, download 06/06/2021. Details of map interpretation are here

Behaviour

African Black Oystercatchers are strongly territorial, and once they settle in a territory, they remain on it and defend it for the rest of the lives, up to 15 to 20 years. They are noisy birds, with lots of social interactions with their partners and their neighbours. Pairs do lots of ritualized ceremonies, as shown in the photo below.

Pair of African Black Oystercatchers displaying
Len de Beer, Gansbaai, Western Cape, 18 July 2005. BirdPix 8112

Breeding

The breeding season of African Black Oystercatchers coincides with the midsummer holiday period; most eggs are laid from November to February in South Africa, and about two months later in Namibia. The nests are just above the spring high tide level; the incubation period is about 30 days, so nests need to be high enough up the shore to avoid being washed away by two sets of spring tides. The nests cannot be made too far up the shore, because this would place them in the vegetation, and make the incubating bird vulnerable to predation by, for example, a mongoose.

Whether they are breeding on a rocky shore or a sandy beach, oystercatchers don’t go to lot of trouble building nests. They have a minimalist approach to nest architecture! It is best described as a scrape, and is sometimes lined with some seashells. Here are three examples.

Nest of for African Black Oystercatcher on rocky shore

The next nest, on a sandy beach, is in the dead centre of the photo, and contains two eggs:

Nest of African Black Oystercatcher on sandy shore

The nest has been placed in a bend in the kelp. There are small round stones scattered around, which look quite egg-like.

This “nest” illustrates the minimalist approach:

African Black Oystercatcher nest with three eggs

The parents take turns incubating the eggs. It is hard to believe how difficult it is to spot a black bird with a red dagger for a bill sitting on its eggs on a white sandy beach:

African Black Oystercatcher on its nest on sandy shore

… if you need a clue, the bird is near the right edge of the photo, and it is looking at the camera! Here it is close up:

close up of African Black Oystercatcher on its nest on sandy shore

Ultimately, two spring tides later, the eggs hatch, and a fluffball emerges. The second egg is pipped and the chick will emerge soon. The fluffball has dried off since it hatched. It’s a bit of packaging miracle how it could have squashed into an egg an hour or two earlier:

African Black Oystercatcher hatchlings

The chicks leave the nest within about 24 hours. They move up and down the shore with their parents, in rhythm with the tides. They are fed small pieces of mussels and limpets. They start to fly at about 40 days, when they reach 2/3rds of the adult mass. They hang around with their parents until they are about 100 days old. It is only then that their bills are strong to be able to prize shellfish off the rocks and feed themselves. It is a big commitment being an oystercatcher parent.

African Black Oystercatcher Gallery

Occasionally, and this happens in most bird species, the colouring goes completely haywire, and you have no idea what you are looking at. Like the bird on the left, gosh!

 Leucistic African Black Oystercatcher
Mark Booysen, Swartkops River estuary, Eastern Cape. 10 July 2013. Curated in both BirdPix 10392 and Birds with Odd Plumage BOP 180

Luckily, in this case, the aberrant bird is standing alongside an oystercatcher, so it is pretty obvious what it actually is. This bird did not produce normal amounts of melanin, the pigment that turns feathers black. So it ended up a motley brown. This condition is called leucism. (There is a section of the Virtual Museum that curates photographic records of Birds with Odd Plumage, BOP.)

If you are amazingly lucky you might encounter a flock of oystercatchers and have one that sticks out like a sore thumb. It clearly an oystercatcher, slightly smaller than the African Black Oystercatchers, but is white as well as black. It is clearly not a plumage aberration, it is too neatly patterned for that!

There is a Eurasian Oystercatcher in this flock
Les Underhill, Walvis Bay. 3 March 2007. BirdPix 1415

If you are in southern Africa, awesomely well done, you have found a vagrant, the Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. (If you are in Africa north of the equator, this is the only oystercatcher you will encounter.)

Further resources: A selection of papers and a video:

More common names: Swarttobie (Afrikaans), Huîtrier de Moquin (French), Kapausternfischer (German), Ostraceiro-preto (Portuguese), Ostrero Negro Africano (Spanish)

Recommended citation format: Underhill LG 2021. African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at http://thebdi.org/2021/06/07/african-black-oystercatcher-haematopus-moquini/

Impacts of Rhodes on Biodiversity 3 : Common Starling

This is the third and final blog in this series. The first blog talked about the Eastern Grey Squirrel. The second covered four of the five bird species that Cecil John Rhodes introduced so that his residence in Cape Town would have familiar English birds in the garden; of these four only the Common Chaffinch didn’t quickly go extinct. The fifth bird species he introduced was his big success story. Rhodes’s vision of building a railway line northwards from Cape Town through Africa to Cairo failed; but his starling has made a promising start in covering the distance!

Rhodes’s starlings were captured on his behalf by another rogue of the era, Colonel Richard J. Meinertzhagen (1878-1967). He was a soldier; in any squadron of soldiers he would have been regarded as the nastiest. When he wasn’t shooting people he was shooting birds for museum collections. But he couldn’t get enough birds of his own, so he stole skins of birds from museums, and then put his own labels on them, with completely different places and dates. Here’s a link to a paper in the journal Ibis called “Richard Meinertzhagen—a case of fraud examined“. It goes so far as to say: “Given the readiness with which Meinertzhagen falsified data on stolen specimens, one must question the authenticity of data on specimens he collected himself.” That is not what you expect to read in a scientific journal! There are endless stories of the harm this man has done to ornithology. The most horrid is the story of the Forest Owlet Athene blewetti in India. For decades this tiny owl was known to science from only six specimens, collected in India between 1873 and 1883. In 1961, Meinertzhagen all of a sudden claimed that he had collected a specimen in 1914 from another locality in India. He deposited the specimen in the British Museum. For decades after the 1960s, expeditions visited this part of India which had had the most recent sighting. They searched for the owlet, without success, and it was declared extinct. Then Dr Pamela Rasmussen did some forensic ornithology. She discovered that one of the six earlier specimens was missing from the museum collection. It had been stolen by Meinertzhagen and he had put a new label on it, with falsified date and place. His diary showed that he had not been in that part of India on that date! She went in search of the owlet in the area where the other specimens came from; on 25 November 1997, she rediscovered it in a degraded woodland. For a fuller version of this sleazy story, see this article in the Pune Mirror. Anyhow, that is a long detour to describe the kind of company that Cecil John Rhodes associated himself with!

Meinertzhagen supplied Rhodes with 18 starlings. He says (and can we trust him?) that he caught them in Britain in winter, which means that they are likely to have been migrants from continental Europe. There is a massive influx of starlings into Britain in late autumn, especially from northwestern Europe where it gets bitterly cold in winter. Britain is only cold.

The precise year that Rhodes set the starlings free at Groote Schuur is not certain, but it is most likely to have been 1897. They took off, both literally and figuratively. But it was not until 1954 that an attempt was made to put on record how it spread. There is a paper in Ostrich, unfortunately not open access, by Jack Winterbottom and Richard Liversidge, called “The European Starling in the south west Cape” (Ostrich 25: 89-96). Their detective work, to trace its spread, consisted of interviewing lots of people. They neatly summarized their findings in this awesome map:

From Winterbottom & Liversidge (1954) The European Starling in the south west Cape. Ostrich 25: 89-96

It was in the suburbs of Cape Town around Groote Schuur within a few years. It colonized Robben Island by 1907. It spread to the far side of the Cape Flats by 1910. The big mountains proved a barrier for a few years, but it got to the far side, to towns like Worcester and Elgin in the 1920s. Along the south coast, the map traces its eastwards spread, taking about three decades to cover the 450 km from Elgin to Plettenberg Bay. It moved northwards along the West Coast more slowly, reaching Clanwillian in 1950. This map effectively shows the distribution of the Common Starling in 1954.

The next snapshot of the distribution of the starling was made by the Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), which collected records mainly from the second half of the 1980s. Here is the map:

The Atlas of Southern African Birds, Volume 2, page 453

It had expanded far to the east, just into KwaZulu-Natal, and not quite as far to the north, reaching Namibia at the town of Oranjemund. Between the time that fieldwork ended and the atlas was published, it had snuck into Lesotho, and by the early 1990s was getting common in Maseru. The SABAP1 species text for the “European Starling” (as it was then known) is here.

The first bird atlas was followed up the the second bird atlas (SABAP2). This project started in July 2007, and the map below produced in June 2021, so it is a 14-year time exposure!

Distribution of the Common Starling, SABAP2 data, July 2007 to June 2021. The interpretation of this map is described here

Common Starlings have continued their march northeastwards. In the gridcells shaded yellow, they are far less frequently encountered than in those shaded dark blue. But they have clearly established themselves across KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and Gauteng. There is still a long way to go to reach Cairo.

The Virtual Museum has 501 photographic record of Common Starlings. Below is a collection of thumb-nails of some of them! In the future, say in 50 years, the photographs which are going to be the most valuable are going to be the ones in which the bird is quite small, and which show the habitat in which it occurred!

BDInsight – May 2021

Winter is around the corner here on the southern tip of Africa, in some areas winter has already arrived with a cold bang! We have some great BDI news to warm you up….

The online guide to the Neuroptera of southern Africa

We have been working on something very exciting over the past little while, the online guide to the Neuroptera (lacewings and antlions) of southern Africa. The insect order Neuroptera, or net-winged insects, includes the lacewings, mantidflies, antlions, and their relatives. The order consists of some 6,000 described species worldwide!

Neuroptera, and within this group especially the family Chrysopidae, are of interest to a large group of entomologists because of their role as predators of pest arthropods (aphids and spidermites) on agricultural plants. 

Chrysemosa jeanneli – Family Chrysopidae – LacewingMAP Record by Johan Heyns

Citizen Scientist Hours

We had some incredible talks during the month of May. If you missed out on any of the Citizen Scientist Hours (CSH), don’t despair, you can catch up on our YouTube Channel.

One of the many excellent talks during our CSH events was by Katy Williams. Katy is a researcher and the Conservation Director of the Cape Leopard Trust in South Africa. Katy will talked about the Leopards in the Western Cape of South Africa. Despite extensive habitat loss, direct persecution, and reduction in prey numbers, leopards have managed to persist in the greater Western Cape region, and now fill the role of apex predator in this ecosystem. Watch the talk to learn more about these survivors, the challenges they face, and the Cape Leopard Trust’s work to ensure their future…..

Virtual Museum

10,442 records have already been added to species distribution maps in May. Some of the records report the first occurrence of a species in a grid cell. Many of the records “refresh” old records, providing evidence that the species still persists in the grid cell. Asking which class of records is more important is like asking the question: “Is the left wing of the plane more important than the right wing?” We need both types. We only have one day in May left to push the RED dot (see the graph below) for May up to new and dizzying heights!!

Thank you for your support of the Virtual Museum!

In other news…..

The Cape kelp forests have been named one of the Seven Wonders of the World! Described as a shallow underwater jungle more than twice as wide as the Grand Canyon — and a home to millions of creatures, this wonderland beneath the waves lies approximately 17 km south of Cape Town.

Read more here…

You can also watch the following talk on the amazing biodiversity to be found off the coast of Cape Town. Itxaso gives an awesome presentation on her marine biobash adventure, with records from the coast and under the water….