Monday 30 August 2010

Tswaing Crater, Johannesburg, JNB, South Africa

Astrobleme is a word derived from the Latin “star wound”. Tswaing Crater is just such a heavenly injury, caused by the impact of a stony meteorite of up to 50m across.
The impact left a crater over a kilometre across and 200m deep. At the bottom is a salty lake. The sides are covered with thorn scrub while the rim has developed a mixed broadleaf woodland.
Tswaing Crater and nature reserve is sited north of Soshonguve, a low-rise, high density town to the north-east of Pretoria. Two visits have been seamlessly woven to appear as one.
I started at the day-visitors picnic and parking site. There are offices and maintenance buildings here as well as shade trees and facilities for picnicking.
Birds around the offices today included Kalahari Scrub-robin, White-browed Scrub-robin, Blue Waxbill, Crested Barbet and Crimson-breasted Gonolek. Beyond the surrounding fence a few dis-used buildings are frequented by a Barn Owl.
The crater is about 1km from the picnic site and is reached on a well signed path. The hiker passes through an area of mixed thorn en-route to Shoemaker Viewpoint (named for Eugene Shoemaker, of crater study and comet (Shoemaker-Levi) finding fame) which affords a wonderful view of the lake in the crater floor.
On this section, I came across a bird party that included Cardinal Woodpecker, Southern Black Tit, Yellow-fronted Canary and Southern Masked Weaver.
It is possible to drive your car to the broad path leading up from the crater. The road is very quiet and bird-watching from the car would not cause any congestion.
Imagining the crater to be a clock with 12 o’clock being north, Shoemaker Viewpoint is at around 4 o’clock. A narrow, rocky path follows the rim, clockwise, as far as 12 o’clock before dropping in switchbacks towards the crater floor. The path leading out of the crater is broad and not very steep except for a short section at the top.
As I walked along the rim trail, occasional glimpses down into the crater revealed a couple of Kudu bulls browsing on the thorn bushes. An African Hawk-eagle soared up and over the rim above me. White-breasted Sunbirds squeaked from prominent perches overlooking the steep sloping walls of the crater.
The path down into the crater is slightly precarious, but not too rough even for this gammy-kneed, sciaticy-backed birder. Here were Jameson’s Firefinch, Black-chested Prinia and a great look at a Brown-crowned Tchagra. This is the first time I have had a clear, unhurried view of the eye stripe pattern on one of these birds.
The lake hosted a few Black-winged Stilts and just one Avocet. Dabchicks were very common and their whinnying could be heard constantly, even from the rim. A few Cape Teal floated gently out on the lake while a Red-knobbed Coot shared the emergent grasses with Common Moorhens and a Zitting (Fan-tailed) Cisticola.
In the adjacent acacia, Hadada Ibis, Grey Hornbill and Grey Lourie topped the trees.
The path back out of the crater is broad and only a bit steep as it approaches the rim (at about 5 o’clock using the clock analogy). I am sure that most people use this path both to get down into the crater as well as out of it. It would make sense if you were just picnicking there, but you would miss out on a delightful rim walk.
Talking of delightful, I enjoyed a life-affirming moment while in the crater. On this Sunday morning, what sounded like a church service was taking place, al fresco, high on the crater rim. Gospel singing accompanied by a single drum drifted down and across the water and made a moment so exquisite that I had to stop and bathe in it.
The path sloping out of the crater had been burned on either side which left the butterflies exposed. Lepidoptera are not my thing, but I can see their appeal and now that I know that Charlie is looking in, perhaps he can help me out with a few?
A Southern Boubou was calling from cover then surprised me by coming out into the open, just long enough for a picture.
The walk out produced Black-faced Waxbill, Arrow-marked Babbler and Yellow-fronted barbet.
There is a wetland area to the east which does not appear on the green hand out info sheet map that most visitors are given. I did not visit this area, but it is apparently the area of choice for the bird-watchers familiar with Tswaing and it is part of my plan for the next JNB visit. I am promised owls and flufftails by SA Birding through their link
A stream just inside the entrance gate held 3-banded Plover and Wattled Lapwing with a pair of Brown-headed Kingfisher close by.

A ticket for RSA 15 must be purchased before entry, which usually means that it is un-crowded and relatively secure. A further RSA10 buys the right to drive as far as the forward car park near Shoemaker Viewpoint.
The gates open at 07.30, but it is possible to arrange an early entry by calling ahead;
(076)945 5911, (083)505 2271
Or e-mailing tswaing@nfimuseum

Mammal species; 2

Black-faced Vervet Monkey 15, Kudu 2.

Bird species; 42

Little Grebe 25, Grey Heron 1, Hadada Ibis 1, Cape Teal 15, African Hawk Eagle 1, Common Moorhen 8, Red-knobbed Coot 1, Black-winged Stilt 18, Pied Avocet 1, Blacksmith Lapwing 4, Wattled Lapwing 1, Three-banded Plover 2, Red-eyed Dove 15, Ring-necked Dove 2, Laughing Dove 8, Grey Lourie 4, Barn Owl 1, African Palm Swift 12, Brown-hooded Kingfisher 2, Lilac-breasted Roller 1,Geen Wood-hoopoe 5, African Grey Hornbill 2, Crested Barbet 1, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird 1, Cardinal Woodpecker 1, Cape Wagtail 2, Olive Thrush 1, White-browed Scrub-robin 5, Kalahari Scrub-robin 3, Black-chested Prinia 1, Arrow-marked Babbler 5, Southern Black Tit 5, White-breasted Sunbird 1, Brown-crowned Tchagra 1, Crimson-breasted Gonolek 1, Fork-tailed Drongo 6, Pied Crow 8, Cape Glossy Starling 4, Southern Masked Weaver 18, Jameson’s Firefinch 1, Black-faced Waxbill 3, Yellow-fronted Canary 3.

Saturday 28 August 2010

Moreletakloof, Johannesburg, JNB

Moreletakloof is a small private nature reserve to the southeast of Pretoria, South Africa. The reserve claims some wonderful birds with Red-chested Flufftail and Ovambo Sparrowhawk on their list.
The guard on the gate let me in at 06.00 while it was still dark. It was cold too. I had 3 layers, gloves and a hat but found myself wishing I had more.
Through the gloom I could see a small herd of Blesbok to greet me by the car park and some Hadada Ibis flew noisily overhead. The large mammals are habituated and it is possible to approach quite closely on foot.
Today I felt in a clockwise mood and headed left from the car park towards Suikerbos trail. There was plenty of bird noise, but the sun was slow to rise and it was nearly 07.00 before the shadows of the night were chased away and the temperature began to rise.
In the low damp ground a few snags rise from the marsh. My first birds of the day were Grosbeak Weaver (Thick-billed if you prefer) in a flock of about 20.
Moreletakloof gave me 100 hectares of grassland, riverine woodland and protea slopes to explore during what turned out to be a beautiful morning. While the mammals were very approachable, the birds were aloof and camera shy.
Ostriches paraded through the grass and Common Bulbuls and Grey Louries perched up on top of the trees and bushes as is their custom. A Southern Boubou was calling strongly, but remained in deep cover.
I startled a Common Duiker which crashed off towards the spruit that runs through the reserve.
At the Southwest corner of the reserve, I met Jeannie, a Friend of the reserve. She walks here every day and was very pleased to see an international visitor.
Jeannie put me onto the website for the reserve. 
Sabirding also have a write up which gives more detail
The path re-entered the riverine woodland on the other side of Rademeyer Spruit. The trees were busy with Cape White-eye, For-tailed Drongo and Common Bulbul.
Jeannie went on ahead and left me to the birding which was starting to warm up at last. A Crested barbet shared a snag with what I thought were penduline tits, but I did not get a good enough look and there are no supporting sightings. Cape Robin Chats called from the bushes near the bridge. A break in the trees further on gave me a good view of a pair of Hadada Ibis.
The dam would make a wonderful site to go looking for dragonflies later in the southern season, but for now it was quiet with just a few Southern Masked Weavers. A few males had half-heartedly started to build nests, but none of the females were taking them seriously yet.
Beyond the dam, the trail skirts the moist area and follows on to the Duiker Route. The smart money start on the Duiker Route and move around the reserve anti-clockwise I hear. The south facing slope here was home to a Fiscal Flycatcher in the top of one of the bushes.
A Cape Grass bird was singing furiously in the wet area below the dam, making me think that spring must be on its way.
A herd of Zebra were by the car park to see me off and I couldn’t resist the traditional photo of superimposed heads.
Bird species; 34

Southern Ostrich 4, Hadada Ibis 15, Helmeted Guineafowl 30, Crowned Plover 2, Red-eyed Dove 18, Ring-necked Dove 12, Laughing Dove 8, Grey Lourie 8, African Palm Swift 6, Speckled Mousebird 4, Red-faced Mousebird 6, Crested Barbet 2, Black-collared Barbet 1, Cardinal Woodpecker 1, Common Bulbul 30, Olive Thrush 1, Cape Robin-chat 2, Tawny-flanked Prinia 3, Cape Grassbird 1, Fiscal Flycatcher 3, Arrow-marked Babbler 4, Amethyst Sunbird 3, White-breasted Sunbird 2, Cape White-eye 20, Common Fiscal 1, Black-backed Puff-back 1, Southern Boubou 2, Fork-tailed Drongo 4, Pied Crow 6, Cape Glossy Starling 6, Mossie 4, Southern Masked Weaver 12, Grosbeak Weaver 20, Yellow-fronted Canary 3.

Mammal species; 4

Zebra 12, Blesbok 14, Springbok 4, Common Duiker 1,

Moreletakloof, Johannesburg, JNB, South Africa, Birding in South Africa.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Do elephants grieve?

It may not be fashionable to credit animals with so called “higher” emotions, but there is a lot of evidence that has prompted even cynics to consider the possibility.
During a recent trip to Pilanesberg NP in South Africa, I witnessed a poignant scene that leads me to anthropomorphosize along with the best of them.
Do elephants grieve or mourn their dead?

My colleague, H, saw 2 bull elephants in the distance. They were striding along with some purpose and my hunch was that they were headed for Maletse Dam on Dithabaneng. The larger of the two appeared to be in an agitated state. We had just left the dam where we had been watching some hippos sunbathing on the bank. From our position on the opposite bank we had also noticed the carcass of an elephant about 30 meters along the bank from the hippos.
We returned to that spot and waited for the elephants to appear through the trees. The first one to arrive seemed unsure of what to do. He didn’t appear to want to approach the carcass. Instead he stood and swayed for a short while, swinging his back foot as if trying to pluck up courage. He moved close to the carcass and began touching it gently with his trunk. Then he began making frantic motions with his head and trunk that we could only interpret as, “Get up! Get up!”
Supporters of grieving theories claim that elephants can recognise their dead relatives long after the carcasses have rotted away to just tusks and bones. They visit the remains and appear to mourn their loss even turning the bones over and sometimes carrying one away with them. Most remarked upon is the special interest given to the tusks of the dead animal.
The head and tusks of the remains in Pilanesberg were hidden behind some bankside vegetation, so we cannot say if the first bull was paying them particular attention, but he did spend some time brushing his trunk in the area where the head would have been and the presumption would be fair.
He seemed confused when he got no response and vented his aggression on a nearby African White Ibis. He flapped his ears and then filled his trunk with water and sprayed the bird. We put this down as a deliberate action as he did it 4 times and appeared to take aim on each occasion.
He now turned his anger on the hippos who were still sunbathing along the bank. They tried to stare him down for a few moments before taking the wise option and retreating into the water.
Now the second elephant arrived. He too seemed unsure of what to do. After a while he moved up the bank away from his companion and the body as if not wanting to acknowledge the situation.
He returned a little later and approached the carcass stopping respectfully before reaching out his trunk to touch it. He moved around to the head end, gently touching as he passed and inclining his head towards the body. After a few moments, he moved away and stood quietly.
The first bull became upset with the ibis which had landed on the carcass and he tried to swat it away with his trunk.
A few more spectators had begun to arrive and we decided to leave before a scrum developed. As we pulled along the road, we found a lion which walked out onto the road and began moving back the way we had come. We hoped that he might go to the water to drink, but then realised that he was headed for the elephant carcass. There were about 12 vehicles jockeying for position to see the elephants, but a couple pulled away as we arrived back and our original position became vacant again as the lion arrived.
The larger elephant had moved on, but the first was still by the body. He did not want to see the lions feeding on his fallen comrade and tried to make a stand but was forced to retreat when he realised that he was alone and a second lion appeared.

Neither of them drank during the time that we watched (and we returned after an absence of only a few minutes) which provokes a question about the reason for their purposeful walk to the dam. Did they come specially to pay their respects to a dead relative, or were they thirsty, but became overwhelmed with existential angst after their grisly discovery and forgot that thirst?
I do not know how the elephant died. Possibilities include poachers, old age or predation, though it looked like a big carcass. If it died recently, perhaps this was the first time that the bulls had encountered it. As I look back on the incident now, I recall the bulls, still very distant from the dam, raising their trunks to test the air. The wind was blowing in their direction and it was clear even to my atrophied sense of smell that something was dead. Is it possible that elephants can distinguish between the smell of a dead relative and a rotting hippo for example? H and I theorised that they would have been able to smell the dead elephant from a long way off and had made a special journey.

Whatever the truth may be, it certainly provided a touching moment and confirmed in my mind that we humans are very arrogant in reserving “higher” emotions for themselves.

I have found 2 mentions of the carcass with pictures showing that it is the same elephant. The earlier one indicates that the elephant died before 29th June. We saw it on 24th August and the lions were still feeding from it.

For the full post on the visit to Pilanesberg, click on the link below;

Wednesday 4 August 2010

North Head, Sydney, Australia

The water from Sydney Harbour flushes in and out with each tide, passing through The Heads and mixing with the Pacific Ocean.
Looking from North Head across the harbour inlet is South Head and beyond that, the city of Sydney.
Sydney National Park is made up of fragments of coastal scrub, forest, cliff and beach. I had come to this part hoping to see whales, albatrosses and Little Penguins.
The bus dropped me off at the approach road to the Quarantine Station. From here, I walked into the preserve with my binoculars at the ready.
A Brush Wattlebird was first to pop its head up to be spotted. I could hear the Eastern Whipbird calling with its slow build up and emphatic finish.
The Pied Currawong also has a distinctive voice which is easy to recognize and the in-flight pattern of black and white is a reliable ID feature.
The most common bird in the brush either side of the road was the New England Honeyeater. They squeaked as they flew and chased each other around in what looked like fun, but probably had a more serious side with the southern summer approaching.
About 500m along the road, opposite the military museum, the right side of the road opens out and the observer is rewarded with a view of the harbour with Sydney in the distance.
The road ends in a circular drive with Fairfax Walk looping from it along the cliff top.
Looking east I could see nothing but ocean, but a puff of spume betrayed the presence of a whale. Another blow beside the first, then a few more further out showed that perhaps 8 or 10 whales were feeding close to shore.
The whale migration involves mostly Humpbacked Whales with lesser numbers of Southern Right Whales moving north during May and July, returning towards Antarctic from August.
The cliff top walk affords stunning views of Sydney as well as enabling the sea-watcher to gain an elevated vantage point with a huge expanse of ocean to watch.
 To my naked eye, there was nothing to be seen, but a scan with the binoculars revealed the outline of a Black-browed Albatross as it wheeled and glided on stiff wings. One stopped to look at something in the water while another younger bird approached and chased the first one away. Note the younger one has a dark, not yellow bill.
A flock of some 300 Silver Gulls drifted beyond the wave line at the base of the cliff. They were more restrained than when I usually see them outside McDonald’s at Circular Quay.
A single Australian Gannet passed below me, heading towards the city and some shearwaters surfed the wave fronts but were too distant to identify reliably.

Back in the bush the Eastern Whipbirds were raising a big noise with the female replying instantaneously following the male’s “ooooo ee WHIP”.
 I was able to mimic part of the call and one of the birds came up onto the rail to have a look. The female preferred to respond from cover.
An Australian (black-backed) Magpie with some damage or infection on its right eye was being escorted by two Noisy Miners. 
The miners were very confiding but left  me in order to follow the magpie as soon as it flew off.
A flock of Silvereye in the dead branches at the top of a spindly tree came down to feed in a fruiting tree. Some of them fed on the ground beneath the tree on fallen berries.
Given more time, I would have liked to explore some nearby beaches to find a good location for a stakeout. A few pairs of little Penguins breed near Manly. But are only likely to be seen at dusk when they return to their burrows. There are a few scattered burrows very close to Manly Wharf where the ferries from Sydney dock. It would almost be possible to watch for the penguins from the café on the pier.
I wanted to know if they still returned to the burrow each night outside of the breeding season and whether it would be worth hanging around on a cold, wet, late July evening (my only chance, last night, was washed out so my curiosity was in preparation for my next trip).
A local told me that he had seen some people waiting for the penguins one evening during the previous week. He couldn’t say whether they had seen any penguins, so the question remains open if anyone has any thoughts.
The penguins are protected and security is put in place each evening to ensure that they are able to return from the water to their burrows without being intimidated. It is important to keep a good distance from the water’s edge and the burrow and not to encroach on their passage from the water. They are sensitive to flash photography, so I am unlikely to get any shots to grace these posts, but they are delightful little characters and well worth laying the camera aside for a few moments to watch.
For other redgannet posts about Sydney follow the links below;
Bird species; 21

Black-browed Albatross 6, Australian Pelican 1, Australian Gannet 1, Great Cormorant 4, Pied Cormorant 1, Little Pied Cormorant 2, Silver Gull 300, Lesser Crested Tern 2, Laughing Kookaburra 1, Welcome Swallow 8, Eastern Whipbird 3, White-browed Scrubwren 2, Silver-eye 60, New Holland Honeyeater 20, Noisy Miner 4, Red Wattlebird 10, Brush Wattlebird 2, Magpie Lark 3, Black-backed Magpie 3, Pied Currawong 2, Australian Raven 4.

Also seen in a wet and miserable Sydney Botanical Gardens and bringing the running total to 27 were;

Little Pied Cormorant 4, Australian White Ibis 8, Pacific Black Duck 2, Buff-banded Rail 1, Dusky Moorhen 20, Silver Gull 6, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo 6, Rainbow Lorikeet 8, Welcome Swallow 6, Noisy Miner 2.

Having read the post, you may now be interested to witness a neurotic breakdown.
The provenance of the albatross is in question. My colleague, birdie buddy and self-appointed proof reader, GL, has pointed out that the hitherto forms of  the Black-browed Albatross have been split and awarded full species status. The original Black-browed Albatross retains the latin binomial, Thalassarche melanophris while the new Campbell Island Albatross goes by the olde Thalassarche (melanophris) impavida.
Before the split, they were known as Dark-eyed and Light-eyed forms respectively with the (then)T.m. impavida form sporting a honey coloured iris. Though.... the light-eyed form wears more black in the brow, giving the appearance of a darker eye. Looking for iris colour from any distance is strictly for the professionals. 
Perhaps a better field mark from range is the underwing pattern. My guides indicate a bird with a solid block of white within a black margin under the wings to be the Black-browed Albatross. One with a broken white pattern with streaks on the axillaries and at the base of the primaries would be the Campbell Island Albatross.
The individual above appears to have an underwing consistent with T.impavida, yet the black in the brow is restricted and the distance is too great to see any colour detail of the iris.
 Except for the young bully, all the pictures are of the same individual.
Take a look at this photo and the one from the post. Note the black of the back melts into the white on the neck. My guide shows a definite demarcation between the black and white in the T. melanophris
The Black-browed Albatross ranges across the Southern Ocean from the tip of South America to the Antipodes, Very occasionally one will stray north; as far as the Outer Hebrides in 2007.
The Campbell Island Albatross is more restricted in its range. It occurs from the Campbell Islands, and adjacent islands off the Southern tip of New Zealand and is fairly common in the waters of the Australian states of SA, Vic, NSW and Tas.
I have trawled through pictures on the internet of both types and I am struggling to come to a decision. The  honey coloured iris does not stand out until the bird comes very close. The broken underwing pattern is present on many of the photos titled "Black-browed", but many authors (who must have missed this taxanomic event, as I did) are still using the species and form, ie "Black-browed Albatross, Campbell Islands race"
To add to the dilemma, the IUCN notes the Black-browed on its Red List, but recognises a breeding population on Campbell Island.

So where does that leave us?
On balance, I am going to stick with my first impression that it is a Black-browed Albatross. The underwing pattern is not conclusive and indeed looks as if it could be half way between the two. The black brow is not so extensive to make me change to Campbell Island and even in super-duper full pge pixels, I can find no evidence of the honey-coloured iris.
If anyone with an experienced eye for this sort of thing would like to offer any help on this, both G and I would be pleased to hear from you.