My first field trip!

I’ve just started an M.Sc. project looking at genetic connectivity in fynbos endemic birds (starting with Cape sugarbird, Promerops cafer, and orange-breasted sunbird, Anthobaphes violacea). To do this, I will of course need DNA, for which I’ll need blood samples. This means I’ll have to go out and catch birds. Birds are normally caught using mist nets, usually by ringers (a bunch of people that fit numbered rings to birds and take all sorts of biometric measurements, building up a goldmine of useful information, especially through recaptures [check out SAFRING]).

Despite having attended as many ringing outings as possible over the past months, my ringing skills aren’t really on par yet, particularly not if I want to be able to catch birds in the field on my own (which was sort of the idea initially, though it’s looking less likely now). The biggest struggle for me is extracting birds from the tiny mesh of the mistnets, especially tiny birds like Cape white-eye (Zosterops capensis). Enter Alan Lee, a post-doc at the Fitz whose current research focusses on conservation of fynbos endemic birds, particularly in relation to climate change (click here and here). Alan played a major role in conceiving “my” project, and the bulk of the available blood samples were collected by him. He and his family live at Blue Hill Nature Reserve, a Cape Nature stewardship reserve bordering the renowned Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve. Alan kindly agreed to have me at Blue Hill to hone my bird ringing/handling skills and also organised a whole ringing road trip to collect samples from a variety of locations.

At the outset, I’d intended to do a whole detailed, blow-by-blow write-up of each day out in the field as a separate post, but in the end I guess we were just too busy and I was too lazy and didn’t take enough photographs. You’ll have to settle for a far briefer account with fewer photographs, though perhaps that’s best – I’m sure most folks would prefer a quick summary to a boring essay.



Alan was in Cape Town to deliver a talk at the Fitz AGM,  so it made sense to hitch a lift with him to Blue Hill. His talk was about his work (with Dale Wright)  on the Hottentot buttonquail, perhaps the most elusive and poorly known of the fynbos endemics. It was a really enjoyable talk – delivered as an episode of the TV show “Mythbusters” – and took the informal “best talk” award. Alan picked me up at 9AM on Saturday morning and we made a beeline east along the N2. We stopped on the Montagu pass just outside of George to scout potential mistnetting locations for the following week and booked accommodation in advance at Over The Mountain on the other side of the pass.

After the long, straight road through Langkloof and filling up at Uniondale, we arrived at Blue Hill, where I was introduced to Alan’s wife Anja and their children, Elena and Charlie. Alan and Anja have set up some very nice accommodation (including a well-equiped kitchen/lounge, bathroom and 3 bedrooms) for volunteers and visiting researchers in a loft room of their house. I had it all to myself for the moment and after settling in, I was treated to a delicious meal with the Lee family. So, full of good food and excitement, I headed off to bed eager for the next couple weeks.



Day 2

Elena’s 5th birthday was on Sunday, so we didn’t plan any ringing for the morning. Elena had apparently been looking forward to her birthday for ages, and she kept her promise to wake up really early (and loudly 🙂 ) and make the most of the day.

After a quick cup of coffee, I decided to go for a short stroll. This turned into a 4h+ hike along the south road toward Bloukop, the peak from which Blue Hill takes its name. The reason I ended up staying out so long was that I’d started a SABAP2 atlas card on Birdlasser… and the birding was just so good! Within 2h of setting out, I’d already had good views of all six fynbos-endemic passerines (Cape Rockjumper, Cape Siskin, Protea Seedeater, Victorin’s Warbler and, of course, Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird) and a whole bunch more besides.  The strangest sightings were a flyover South African Shelduck and a young Cape Clapper Lark, still with bits of fluffy down on its body (must have been a very late brood indeed!). My final tally came to 51 species, not bad for the pentad! I got back just in time for Ellie’s birthday braai, where I met a bunch of her friends and Alan’s parents, Elaine and Chris. Alan claims to not braai very often, but he cooks a pretty mean meal over the fire!

After recovering from post-prandial stupor, Alan gathered Elena and Charlie and we headed out along the east road to set up nets for the next morning. The valley was super-active though so once we had the nets up, rather than furling them and heading back, we decided to stick around for a bit and see what we could get. It was a good start, with blood samples from three orange-breasted Sunbirds and one Cape sugarbird.



Day 3

On Monday morning, we had our first real action of the trip. We made an early start, reaching the nets well before sunrise and I could already hear sugarbirds calling in the pre-dawn gloom. I guess since they don’t have to wait on insects to warm up, they can get started with foraging and all that pretty early.

After unfurling the nets, we didn’t have to wait long before for our first bird, a female southern double-collared sunbird. Things went pretty slowly for a while until around 07:30 when the birds started to move around a little more. By 11:30, we’d caught more than 30 birds almost all of which were nectarivores. Malachite sunbirds were everywhere, mostly young birds, and they made up the bulk of our day’s catch. All told, I collected blood from 14 target species (9 Cape sugarbirds and 5 orange-breasted sunbirds) and 8 others (7 malachite sunbirds and one southern double-collared sunbird.

After some lunch, we packed up and headed south to our next sampling locality – Nature’s Valley. Our route took us over the Prince Alfred pass which, at around 70km, is South Africa’s longest mountain pass. It’s really quite spectacular and was built with very basic equipment and convict labour under the guidance of Thomas Bain, the renowned road engineer who oversaw the construction of a whole bunch of other mountain passes throughout the Cape. Amazingly, besides tarring a bit of the southern section, the pass has remained practically unaltered since its completion in 1867!  While the scenery along the pass was undoubtedly beautiful, the amount of alien vegetation in the area was a little harrowing. Many of the slopes that would once have hosted pristine fynbos were now pine mono-cultures. Particularly scary were a few recently burned patches where the fynbos had completely burned down (as it should, of course), leaving scattered pine saplings that had somehow survived unscathed beyond a little scorched foliage. I reckon these same patches likely be “pine-barrens” in a couple decades if nothing is done to control them. Even the rivers were choked with black wattle (Acacia mearnsii). Further along, we passed Angie’s G-spot a biker’s pit-stop and bar with an amusing sign out front that reads something like: “Lousy food, warm beer, bad service”. It’s on a lovely spot next to the river and despite their slogan, the food’s not that bad – they make a great burger and Angie and Harold are an interesting bunch to talk to.

As evening settled in, we arrived at Wild Spirit Backpackers which was to be our home during our stay at Nature’s Valley. I’d been there once before for a drink with my mum, though I’d never stayed. After a pretty lengthy tour of the facilities, we met up with Carolynne Geary, a soon-to-be PhD student in the economics department at Stellenbosch University. Carolynne was volunteering at Blue Hill and with the extra pair of hands, our ringing activities went a great deal more smoothly!

We’d decided against preparing our own meal in the chaos of the communal kitchen and opted for a home-made dinner from the Wild Spirit kitchen. The menu for the evening was an absolutely amazing bobotie, complete with poppadoms (papadums?) and a salad. It was so delicious that both Alan and I went back for pretty generous second helpings. Carolynne unfortunately couldn’t share in our gastronomic bliss – she is allergic to chillies! The folks in the kitchen kindly prepared her a chilli-free meal though and with our bellies full, we headed off to bed.

Day 4

Our plan for the day was to combine our efforts with Mark Brown of Nature’s Valley Trust at one of his regular ringing sites, but Mark had cancelled the previous day due to the strong possibility of rain. We decided to chance it and made an early start (as usual) along the R102 toward Nature’s Valley. The road veers toward the coast, entering the de Vasselot section of the Tsitsikamma National Park. It’s a beautiful road, winding through thick, tall fynbos before descending down a steep valley looking out over some pretty gorgeous forest, complete with huge, ancient yellowwoods (Podocarpus sp.).

We turned off onto a dirt road, one of Mark’s sites, which makes a great netting lane through the thick fynbos. With three pairs of hands, we had the nets up in no time and beyond a brief smattering of rain early on, the weather held. Although we weren’t exactly flooded with target birds (only 2 sugarbirds and 4 orange-breasted sunbirds over the course of the morning), we still managed to net a pretty awesome bunch of birds. The highlight for me was a forest canary. Handling birds, you really get to appreciate some intricate details that you’d normally miss in the field, like the subtle grey wash on the forest canary’s face. I also got to handle and ring a black-headed oriole! How cool?! I even got to meet Mark – he popped in to check on us toward the end of the morning and invited us to watch him ring a flamingo!

Before the flamingo, we continued along into the actual village of Nature’s Valley and had lunch at the restaurant there amid some hikers who’d just completed the Otter trail. After that, it was time to go see the flamingo, which had been seen floundering in an estuary with suspected botulism and rescued by the staff at Tenikwa. They are pretty strange creatures. I couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of this gangly pink bird being carried out of its pen (hand on head, wings tucked under an arm, legs dangling).

Next on the agenda, Alan and I went off to try and locate some good netting sites for sugarbirds. Daniël Cloete, a PhD student working on fragmentation and pollination services in the area had suggested a few spots, so armed with my cellphone’s GPS, we went to check them out. It was hard work, and the fynbos was unbelievably tall and thick – almost forest-like! Not good at all for setting up mist-nets. It was also very, very wet and soon the promised rain started pouring down, so we were drenched by the time we made it back to the car. On the way back, we stopped to check out a very small stand of proteas in a “lane” between two pine plantations. Sure enough, we heard a couple sugarbirds calling. Within walking distance from the backpackers, the patch made a very appealing site, and we resolved to return there in the morning.

Day 5

Another day, another early start. Carolynne had kindly agreed to head off to Van Staden’s wildflower reserve where Ben Smit and student Jerry Mokgatla were ringing, targeting sugarbirds for a physiology experiment. Unfortunately, they only managed two sugarbirds that morning, but two blood samples is way better than none!

While Carolynne was out near Port Elizabeth, we were ringing just down the road from Wild Spirit. At dinner the previous evening, Luca, a German backpacker, had expressed an interest in our work and was keen to join us ringing despite the early hour. I was a bit dubious about his chances of waking up in time, but sure enough, he was there for the morning coffee and joined us in setting up the nets. We didn’t catch much, but with a little strategic use of playback, we managed to lure what must have been the only two sugarbirds in the small patch of proteas into the nets. Feeling that we’d be unlikely to catch many more target birds there, we packed up and moved on to another site along the R102, managing to catch another sugarbird and the highlight of the day, a female olive bush shrike.

We rendezvoused with Carolynne at Over the Mountain and I treated myself to a swim in the pool, a hot shower and a toasted cheese for dinner.


Olive bush shrike. Wow!

Day 6 – 7

Thursday was a pretty grim day. We got the nets up a bit late and didn’t get many birds. Three sugarbirds and four orange-breasted sunbirds made up our target-tally for the morning. We were joined by some Cape Nature students and rangers toward the end of the session and the silver lining was that they apparently could show us some really good sites for sugarbirds nearby. I was a little dubious of the potential site when they led us through a hop farm and pine plantation, but soon enough we came out at Camferskloof, a sheltered valley that was positively PUMPING with bird activity. The place was practically infested with sugarbirds and  the track crossed the stream several times, making perfect netting lanes. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay another night as we’d already organised to be at Gamkaberg that evening, but we’d be back at Camferskloof the following week.

Onward to Gamkaberg! We were staying in the research accommodation which was pretty nice – comfortable and well-equipped. After unpacking our things, we made our way up out of the acacia thicket around the streambed, the vegetation on the slopes gradually giving way to fynbos as we gained height. The road was a pretty hectic 4X4 track, but with Alan at the helm of his trusty Suzuki Jimny, we had no trouble, though the roughly 12km journey did take more than an hour. After scouting out some suitable netting lanes in a big stand of Protea repens and setting up the nets for the following morning, we still had to drive all the way back down before supper and bed. Sjoe!

Morning came and, rather than struggle up the 4X4 track in the dark, we opted to try and save time by taking the longer (but better) road out of the reserve and round to the south gate, from which it’s only a short ascent up to Oukraal. In the end, it probably took a little longer than the 4X4 route and we were at the nets a little late. In terms of target birds, the morning wasn’t much of a success: We only managed one each of Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird. The lack of target birds, though disappointing, did mean that I got a chance to ring some birds myself, something I’ll need to do pretty often if I’m to fulfill the minimum requirements for a ringing license: 500 birds and 50 different species. Nelly, a nature conservation student at NMMU George Campus, arrived towards the end of the morning with one of the Gamkaberg rangers and sped things up immensely as she tackled data entry. The highlight of the morning for me was ringing a Protea Seedeater (Critharga leucopterus) . Yes, they’re pretty nondescript birds, but they are also one of the more elusive and enigmatic of the fynbos endemics. I’d only seen them on a handful of occasions, so handling one was a pretty awesome experience. Handling and ringing birds also tends to expose you to aspects of birds that you wouldn’t otherwise notice, like subtleties of plumage, or, in the case of the Protea Seedeater, its cute little alarm call!

After packing up, we all bundled into the ranger’s Land Cruiser and headed further along the 4X4 track in search of better sites for the following week, when we’d planned to re-visit Gamkaberg. After passing through a few more stands of Protea repens, we came across a sheltered valley, blanketed in flowering Protea laurifolia. Perfect! Sure enough, there were plenty Cape Sugarbirds about and we marked the place down as a site to return to on our second visit.

After that, it was back into the Jimny, down the mountain, pack up and off to Blue Hill for some much needed rest.



Day 8 – 13

We took Saturday off and I spent my day marking undergraduate practical reports. They had to select a species and using locality data from GBIF, model its current distribution as well as its future distribution under various climate scenarios. It was tough work and, apart from a few real gems, the write-ups were pretty awful, making marking something of a painful experience (if any of you global change students ever read this, sorry guys!). All that marking did, however, teach me an important lesson: GBIF, while awesome, is definitely not a reliable source of locality data (at least not without intense and careful cleaning).

Sunday morning and we were off ringing again, this time a little further along the east road, over the saddle and into the next valley. Clear skies and a bit of a breeze meant it wasn’t the most productive  morning. Elena and Charlie had also come along. Elena is very inquisitive and was keen to help out with the whole process, from bringing birds from the nets to passing me tubes for blood collection. Unfortunately, in her eagerness to help out, Elena passed me a tube that already had blood in it, and without thinking, I added blood from the OBS I’d just bled! With blood from two different individuals, I’m pretty sure that sample is useless. Oh well, I’m pretty clumsy and used to “#FieldWorkFails”.

On Monday, we went ringing at Paardefontein, a farm neighbouring Blue Hill. Again, we didn’t catch a huge number of birds, but I got to add to my ringing experience and handle a Karoo Scrub-robin!

Tuesday, we were joined by Gert and Kotie Opperman, ringers from Pretoria who had arrived at Blue Hill the previous day and were keen to add a few fynbos endemics to their life lists. We started off the morning on the east road again, and with some tactical net placement and playback use by Alan, I got to extract my first Victorin’s Warbler from the nets! It was like meeting a celebrity, man! I took a few quick cellphone shots of the Victorin’s Warbler in my hand before handing it over to Gert to ring. We had pretty good luck with targets too, and ended the morning with perhaps the first Cape Sugarbird fledgling of the season. Once things slowed down, we packed up and moved further east to the “pond”, a damp little valley where Alan had had past success with Cape Siskin and Protea Seedeater. Sure enough, on returning the following morning, we not only managed to get the Siskin and Seedeater for Gert and Kotie, but an almost overwhelming 16 Orange-breasted Sunbirds! We also bolstered our Sugarbird numbers for Blue Hill. Unfortunately, Carolynne injured her back pretty badly while setting up clap/snap traps for Cape Rockjumpers. This led her to develop something of a strong dislike for these pretty little endemics (which I hope has worn off by now?) and meant that she had to head back to Cape Town for medical attention.

After having a look at some of our sugarbird blood smears on Chris’s (Alan’s father) geological microscope, we packed up and hit the road again. We headed back to the paradise-valley of Camferskloof. Very conveniently, we’d been given permission by CapeNature to stay at the Camferskloof hikers hut, only a minute or so from our planned ringing site, and after setting up the nets for the following morning, it was off to bed.

The next morning was great – we were inundated with birds! We even had to close the nets and had so many birds waiting to be processed that we had to “ring-and-fling”, forgoing the usual measurements in order to get birds released as quickly as possible. We added 13 Cape Sugarbird and 5 Orange-breasted Sunbird samples to our tally for the Montagu Pass area, making it one of our more productive sites thus far! Woohoo!

Day 14 – 17

After that, it was back to Gamkaberg Nature Reserve. This time, we were staying right on top of the mountain, at Oukraal, so wouldn’t have to start so early to get to the nets on time. In fact, we decided to set up our nets for the first morning right on Oukraal’s doorstep, so we didn’t have to drive at all. We were joined for the first night and the next morning’s ringing by nature conservation students Nelly (who had helped us out at Oukraal the previous week) and Kirsty.  Oukraal is an absolutely stunning place: four A-frame wooden “huts”, each sleeping two and an old shepherds hut that acts as a braai/kitchen and can also double as extra sleeping space.

The next morning’s ringing was pretty slow, adding only 1 Cape Sugarbird and three Orange-breasted Sunbirds to our tally. On Saturday though, we moved to the P. neriifolia –clothed valley we’d scouted out during our last visit and had much better luck – 16 Cape Sugarbirds and 10 Orange-breasted Sunbirds! The conditions were perfect, overcast and not a breath of wind. We could’ve carried on all day and probably got upwards of 60 birds, but alas, we had other plans and needed to reach the Garcia Pass near Riversdal that day.

In Riversdal, we stayed at the Takkieskloof municipal campsite which, although not very far from the N2, is quite tranquil and well-equipped, with an ablution block for each camp site. Zoe joined us on the second night and helped with data capture on the last day. We had planned two morning’s ringing and the first was extremely successful, so much so that we actually ran out of collection tubes! After exploring the local Spar for suitable vessels (of course, there were none), we begged 4 vacu-tainers off a nurse at the Riversdal hospital. That was all she could spare as she whispered that they were supposed to be “for the kids”. Eish. Four turned out to be just enough, as we moved our nets the following morning and only managed four targets: three Orange-breasted Sunbirds and a Cape Sugarbird. We had plenty of other birds, mainly Southern Double-collared Sunbirds as well as a real surprise, Half-collared Kinngfisher! The kingfisher was the first SABAP record of the species for the pentad, and we’d also generated ORF’s (Out-of-Range-Forms) for Red-chested and Striped Flufftail while out altassing the previous day. After packing up and bidding Alan farewell, it was back to Cape Town. I was very thankful to be getting a lift with Zoe rather than taking an intercape bus with all my field equipment. Being back in Cape Town was a little bitter-sweet. While it was nice to be home and all, sitting in front of a computer screen at University is just a whole lot more boring after you’ve been netting awesome birds on an epic road-trip for two weeks. I can’t thank Alan enough for the time, effort and money (the field trip was funded by a SANBI grant awarded to him) he put in to helping out on this.


One thought on “My first field trip!

  1. Pingback: Maps! | sugarbirds 'n stuff

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