An unprecedented voyage at an unprecedented time
As far as the eye can see, you are surrounded by vast, deep, blue ocean. There is nothing else in sight, except for hundreds of seabirds above, below and alongside you and 1500 other passionate birders and conservationists. It’s lunch time and an all-you-can-eat buffet awaits, promising every cuisine under the sun. Did I mention the seabirds?
Now, back on dry land and in landlocked Johannesburg, it seems like a dream. But Flock to Marion 2022, BirdLife South Africa’s once-in-a-lifetime voyage to the pristine waters of the Southern Ocean aboard the luxury MSC Orchestra, was very real – and a real success too.
On 24 January 2022 Captain Pinto started up the MSC Orchestra’s engines and we bade farewell to the South African coastline (and the ‘Cape Doctor’ winds) at last. The next morning we crossed the continental shelf and as we sailed further south the ocean got bluer, the stars brighter and the prospects more promising. And then it happened…
I can still hear Andrew de Blocq, the manager of BirdLife South Africa’s Avitourism Project, a Flock to Marion Organising Committee member and our resident bird sightings announcer, over the ship-wide PA system: ‘Bird Alert! Bird Alert! Wandering Albatross coming down the port side from bow to stern.’
With its 3m, snowy white wings, our first Wandering Albatross glided effortlessly over the ocean swells, mesmerising hundreds in its wake. Swarovski and ZEISS binoculars were drawn en masse, camera shutters went wild and gasps of excitement made their way, like dominoes, from bow to stern as the world’s largest flying bird graced us with its presence.
As we neared the border of the Prince Edward Islands Marine Protected Area, which provides a 12-nautical-mile sanctuary around Marion and Prince Edward islands, our species list kept growing and growing. Some of the more notable sightings included Wandering, Light-mantled and even Tristan albatrosses, Grey and Blue petrels, Little and Tropical shearwaters, King Penguins, Sooty Terns, Grey-backed Storm Petrels and Common Diving Petrels, as well as an incredible array of cetaceans such as rough-toothed and hourglass dolphins and beaked, pilot and blue whales, to name a few.
Our final Flock to Marion species list can be viewed in full here. Our thanks go to the experienced team of 40 professional guides and seabird and mammal experts who were on deck from 05h00, come wind, rain, shine or Southern Ocean shivers.
In fact, so spoilt were we that even Peter Harrison MBE, the world’s top seabird expert, felt that the day spent near the Prince Edward Islands was probably his top albatross day ever. ‘I think everybody who’s ever met me knows that albatrosses are my number one loved birds. And on this particular voyage, Flock to Marion, we have been so blessed,’ he said. ‘Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined that we would look out over Prince Edward Island and have something like 300, or even 400, albatrosses in the air together. I’ve been at sea for well over 50 years, but let me tell you, that morning at Prince Edward Island, looking out at those albatrosses – seven or eight species no less – was one of the high points of my entire life.’
But, of course, we didn’t voyage 2000km and into the Roaring Forties just to enjoy these incredible seabirds and mammals. We went to raise awareness and funds for one of the most important bird conservation projects BirdLife South Africa has ever undertaken: the Mouse-Free Marion Project.
The generosity shown during Flock to Marion really blew us away (more than a strong Cape Town south-easterly!), with more than R3-million raised for the Mouse-Free Marion Project. Thank you to our donors for contributing to this critically important conservation project and to ZEISS, Swarovski and Peter Harrison MBE for their support of our competition prizes. Together, you are helping to ensure that generations of future ‘Flockers’ can witness the majesty and diversity of the Southern Ocean’s seabirds and mammals, as we were so privileged to do.
In closing, there were many hardworking and extremely dedicated people behind the success that was Flock to Marion and we thank them. BirdLife South Africa would also like to express our thanks to our guests. Thank you for believing in our very ambitious dream from the beginning; for staying the course with us through the uncertainty of a global pandemic; and for keeping the faith right up to the moment when we finally set sail for the relatively uncharted waters of the Prince Edward Islands.
So, the only question we now have is: will you join us for the next Flock ‘At Sea’?
ANDY WASSUNG, COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
Sponsor a hectare for Mouse-Free Marion
The Mouse-Free Marion Project is a partnership between BirdLife South Africa and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment. The organisation’s mission is to conserve birds, their habitats and biodiversity through scientifically based programmes, by promoting the sustainable and equitable use of natural resources and by encouraging people to enjoy and value nature. Forty affiliated regional bird clubs around the country share this mission and by the end of 2021 16 of these clubs had supported the Mouse-Free Marion Project by sponsoring a total of 69 hectares (click here).
One of these 16 clubs is the Hermanus Bird Club, whose chairperson, Ronnie Hazell, wrote to Mouse-Free Marion News to explain what motivated his club to sponsor five hectares (at R1000 per hectare): ‘The first time we really took note of the devastating events taking place on Marion Island was when I was fortunate enough to take part in BirdLife South Africa’s Flock at Sea cruise in 2017 and heard Peter Harrison’s impassioned plea for donations to the Mouse-Free Marion Project. The images of young albatrosses being attacked by mice are not pretty, but they did the job of attracting the attention of many in the audience, who immediately went out and bought a hectare in order to sponsor the eradication. I was one of them.
‘More recently, our club has been in something of a decline because of the Covid pandemic and it occurred to me that while we were losing members, we still had some unallocated funds and that these could be put to better use than just accumulating in a savings account. I motivated the idea to the committee when we had our first meeting in a long time and it was accepted; hence our contribution. When we published something about the project on our blog, it was gratifying to hear that other members of the community, not even necessarily club members, have contributed by way of sponsoring a hectare. The Hermanus Bird Club is proud to support the Mouse-Free Marion Project’s excellent work and looks forward to ongoing reports on the progress achieved.’
BirdLife South Africa’s chief executive officer and chairperson of the Mouse-Free Marion Management Committee, Mark D. Anderson, has issued a New Year Challenge to the 24 clubs that have not yet sponsored a hectare. He writes, ‘There are few more important bird conservation projects in Africa, even globally, and the successful completion of this work will ultimately save the lives of millions of seabirds. BirdLife South Africa is pleased to be collaborating with the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment on the project. We are very grateful for the support we are receiving from a large number of donors, including many of our affiliated bird clubs. Bird clubs and other environment interest groups who are passionate about seabird conservation should consider supporting this important cause.’
The Mouse-Free Marion Project thanks the following South African bird clubs that gave their support in 2021: Cape Bird Club, BirdLife Ethekwini KZN, BirdLife Free State, Hermanus Bird Club, BirdLife Inkwazi, Lakes Bird Club, BirdLife Lowveld, BirdLife Northern Gauteng, BirdLife Plettenberg Bay, Rand Barbet Bird Club, BirdLife Sandton, Vaal Bird Club, Wakkerstroom Bird Club, Waterfall Bird Club, West Coast Bird Club and Witwatersrand Bird Club.
JOHN COOPER, NEWS CORRESPONDENT & MEMBER, SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNICAL ADVISORY GROUP, MOUSE-FREE MARION PROJECT
Citizens and the environment
Watching birds and recording the species seen can have an enormous impact, as revealed in a recently published article examining the use of data garnered by the Second Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2): ‘The SABAP2 legacy: A review of the history and use of data generated by a long-running citizen science project’. The article appeared in the South African Journal of Science and can be read and downloaded at https://sajs.co.za/article/view/12030
I partnered with Professor Les Underhill, the man responsible for so much of SABAP’s success, and Michael Brooks, who almost single-handedly manages this extremely complex project, to report on what it has achieved.
SABAP2 collects spatial and temporal data on birds, possibly provided by you or someone you know. These data are publicly available and used extensively by environmental impact assessment practitioners, conservationists, authors, managers of protected area and scientists, as well as by the general public. Since its initiation in 2007 there has been a three-fold increase in publications, with more than 150 papers attributable to the project. The contribution of citizen scientists to the published scientific domain has been enormous.
It is one of the region’s longest-running citizen science programmes and to have maintained such a project at such a scale is a massive achievement – one driven principally by contributors and a very small core staff. BirdLife South Africa is proud to be affiliated with this landmark project, in partnership with SANBI and the FitzPatrick Institute. SABAP2 is now used as a template for monitoring birds across the continent.
If you have not yet atlased, please consider giving it a try. It is easy to record birds using BirdLasser, which also manages the lists of species you have seen, by year and by region. To find out more, you can access a small collection of videos at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9K1EheBEeXSRqJZRP04XxA. Alternatively, go to https://sabap2.birdmap.africa/ to download data.
For more information, contact Ernst Retief at firstname.lastname@example.org
DR ALAN LEE, SCIENCE AND INNOVATION PROGRAMME MANAGER
Signed, sealed & delivered
What better way to celebrate a week-long cruise deep into the Southern Ocean than to acquire the latest revision of a best-selling seabird field guide? Birders on the Flock to Marion voyage queued in one of the lounges of MSC Orchestra to have their copies of Seabirds: The New Identification Guide signed by the book’s author and artist, Peter Harrison. Publisher Lynx Edicions kindly donated 10 copies of the book, which were used as prizes for the fundraising initiatives and as gifts to people who supported Flock to Marion and the Mouse-Free Marion Project.
MARK D. ANDERSON, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
Welcome, Shamiso and Nandi!
Shamiso Banda recently joined BirdLife South Africa’s Science and Innovation Programme to assist with tasks relating to the red-listing process. She will also be working closely with the Seabird Conservation Programme.
Shamiso won the Best Presentation Award at the Learn About Birds (LAB) Conference 2021 for her Honours work on the trophic ecology of Sooty Albatrosses at Marion Island. She has just completed her MSc at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, on the theme of the foraging behaviour of Sooty Albatrosses in relation to climatic variables and fisheries.
Passionate about conservation and science communication, Shamiso is looking forward to applying her skills and enthusiasm to her new role and developing them further. She will be working remotely, initially from Zimbabwe.
As the manager of the Empowering People Programme, Nandi Thobela will oversee the implementation of BirdLife South Africa’s community conservation project in northern KwaZulu-Natal and all other related projects within the programme. Hailing from KwaZulu-Natal, she has a social science background, having majored in Geography, Environmental Management and Rural Resource Management from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She has worked in the field of conservation for over a decade and spent the bulk of her career at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in various positions that involved community conservation, protected area management and environmental education. It was during this time that she developed a growing passion for community conservation and the management of natural resources. Until recently, Nandi was a trainer at the Southern African Wildlife College, focusing on conservation software and the development of learning materials.
We wish Shamiso and Nandi success and happiness in their new roles.
DR ALAN LEE, SCIENCE AND INNOVATION PROGRAMME MANAGER, AND DR HANNELINE SMIT-ROBINSON, HEAD OF CONSERVATION
Cape Gannet: an illustrator’s dream
For the past few weeks I have been absorbed in the fascinating world of the Cape Gannet. These birds are truly remarkable for their ability to dive at great speed into the ocean to forage for their favoured diet of sardines and anchovies. And for an artist they are a special treat to illustrate. Their plumage appears to be hand-painted: a creamy-white body with a golden-yellow wash on the head and striking black lines outlining the beak, extending down the throat to form a sharp gular stripe and finally circling the dramatic cobalt blue eye-ring and icy, silver-grey eye. What a stunning bird to paint!
The Bird of the Year 2022 is an exciting project to be working on. I am looking forward to sharing, through my illustrations, what I discover about the fascinating world and ways of the Cape Gannet, such as the fact that it breeds on only six islands off the coast of South Africa and Namibia and is therefore an endemic breeder in this region.
The first of the Cape Gannet infographic posters covers the identification and distribution of these handsome birds. A downloadable fact sheet accompanies this poster and can be used alongside upcoming lesson plans, which will be published during the year.
LEIGH WOLFAARDT, ILLUSTRATOR OF BIRD OF THE YEAR 2022
Making more vultures safe
Stretching over 200 000ha, from Pongola Game Reserve in the north to the Mun-ya-Wana Conservancy in the south, the Zululand Vulture Safe Zone has now entered its second year. Ukulweni Game Reserve, which may soon drop fences with the Mun-ya-Wana Conservancy (formerly known as Phinda Game Reserve), will make a welcome addition to the southern section of the Zululand Vulture Safe Zone. Near Empangeni, Thula Thula Private Game Reserve – made famous in Lawrence Anthony’s book The Elephant Whisperer – hosts more than 40 White-backed Vulture nests along the Nseleni River and is thus one of the most important vulture breeding nodes in the Zululand region. We would like to thank the managers of both these beautiful reserves for their willingness to safeguard our embattled vulture populations.
LINDA VAN DEN HEEVER, VULTURE PROJECT MANAGER
Conservation Conversations, season 3
Conservation Conversations with BirdLife South Africa is back to bring you yet another exciting year of weekly webinars that cover a range of bird-related topics. Join Andrew de Blocq, Christina Hagen and me as we host speakers from around the globe who will share their insights into birds and what is being done to conserve them and the natural landscapes they rely on.
The opening talk on 8 February about the Cape Gannet, BirdLife South Africa’s Bird of the Year for 2022 was followed by Lance Robinson’s Birding for Beginners on 15 February. The month’s line-up concludes with a webinar dedicated to birds of prey, with Prof. Johan Knobel and Niel Cillié discussing the identification of southern Africa’s large brown eagles, otherwise known as ‘big brown jobs’. The birding-themed first Tuesdays of the month will return, giving birdwatchers an overview of where to find birds in the big cities and towns of South Africa. Kicking off this series on 1 March 2022 will be Mike Buckham and Dave Winter, who will describe the birding hotspots of Cape Town, the Mother City.
The 2022 season of Conservation Conversations promises to be another spectacular year of learning about birds and their conservation. Be sure to join us every Tuesday at 19h00 via the regular Zoom link. If you are new to the webinars, you can find out more and register for your personal Zoom link at www.birdlife.org.za/blsa-conversations/.
We aim to keep these webinars free for all to learn and enjoy. If you are a regular attendee and would like to support the production of Conservation Conversations, please consider donating via the Quicket collections portal at https://www.quicket.co.za/fundraisers/164089-conservation-conversations-webinars/
DR MELISSA WHITECROSS, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION PROGRAMME MANAGER AND FOUNDER AND HOST OF CONSERVATION CONVERSATIONS
Check out the 2022 checklist
Each year the BirdLife South Africa List Committee produces an updated Checklist of Birds in South Africa and the 2022 edition can now be accessed in English or Afrikaans. Both versions are available in PDF and MS Excel formats at https://www.birdlife.org.za/media-and-resources/bird-checklists/. By standardising scientific and common names, the checklists aim to improve communication – whether in reports or on social media – among the birders, conservationists, researchers, authors and environmental impact specialists who download them each year.
Exciting news is that we recently launched Indigenous Names for South African Birds (INSAB), a group that is producing lists of bird names in South African languages other than English and Afrikaans. These names will be added to the checklists as soon as they are available. You can read about INSAB here.
By updating the checklists annually, the list committee enables anyone who is interested to stay abreast of developments on South Africa’s bird naming and listing scene. For the 2022 edition the updates include the addition of four new species – Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus, Sooty Gull Ichthyaetus hemprichii, Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica and Lesser Whitethroat Curruca curruca – bringing the species total for South Africa to 869 on the mainland and another eight on Marion and Prince Edward islands.
In addition, the global Red List status of several species has changed:
- Crowned Cormorant from Near Threatened to Least Concern
- Maccoa Duck from Vulnerable to Endangered
- Red-footed Falcon from Near Threatened to Vulnerable
- Chestnut-banded Plover from Near Threatened to Least Concern
- Madagascar Pratincole from Vulnerable to Near Threatened
- African Skimmer from Near Threatened to Least Concern
- Damara Tern from Vulnerable to Least Concern
- Spotted Ground Thrush from Endangered to Vulnerable
- Cape Vulture from Endangered to Vulnerable
The checklists that can be downloaded as an MS Excel document are a complete list of English and Afrikaans bird names for South Africa; species on the Red List; and South African endemics and near endemics. There are also two PDF checklists, one in English and one in Afrikaans.
BirdLife South Africa would like to thank all the volunteers who serve on the list committees and the chairpersons of these committees (Dr Chris Lotz and Trevor Hardaker) for their valuable contributions.
ERNST RETIEF, SPATIAL PLANNING AND DATA MANAGER
Celebrating wetlands and water
With the support of Toyota South Africa Motors and the Pick n Pay School Club, and in partnership with Water Wise (Rand Water) and Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo, BirdLife South Africa has created an activity booklet version of its Flufftail Festival. A social media campaign, which includes a competition for learners, is currently running to draw attention to the booklet, and printed copies will be delivered to 30 schools, reaching more than 3800 Grade 6 learners. The content of the booklet will also be available for download on the Pick n Pay website for the next year.
The objective of the Flufftail Festival is to raise awareness among learners of the importance of conserving water, wetlands and waterbirds, and over the years it has continued to grow, evolve and improve. The activity booklet represents the seventh edition of the festival and with it BirdLife South Africa has reached its biggest targeted audience yet. We encourage anyone who has friends or family looking for a fun activity they can do with children to download and share the activity booklet with them.
DR MELISSA WHITECROSS, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION PROGRAMME MANAGER
Staff challenge hits 700+
Members of BirdLife South Africa’s staff are not only passionate conservationists, but also keen birders. A few years ago we started an annual BirdLasser challenge to see, as a group, as many species as possible within the boundaries of South Africa (although there is also some friendly individual rivalry!). The end-of-year total was always in the high 600s, but we never managed to break the 700 barrier. At the beginning of 2021, however, we set ourselves a target of 700 species. During the year lots of birding trips were planned and some staff had the opportunity to chase a few rarities. A list of missing species egged us on for a final push to achieve the required total.
Happily, the team smashed the target and recorded 707 species. Andrew de Blocq was the only staff member to pass the 600-species mark, an amazing achievement! Of the 28-person team, three saw more than 500 species, one more than 400 and five more than 300. It is especially encouraging to report that some of our admin staff are now also keen birders.
Will we pass this total in 2022? Time will tell!
ERNST RETIEF, SPATIAL PLANNING AND DATA MANAGER
Protecting water and grasslands
BirdLife South Africa, with the support of the Ingula Partnership (a collaboration between Eskom Holdings (SOC) Ltd, Middelpunt Wetland Trust and BirdLife South Africa), has been working with the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the Department of Small Business Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (DESTEA) in the Free State to add 24 078ha to the network of land in the province that protects high-altitude grasslands and wetlands. Their efforts have culminated in the declaration of the Upper Wilge Protected Environment.
Only about 2% of South Africa’s grassland is formally protected and the rest is vulnerable to a range of threats that lead to increased overutilisation, destruction and transformation, so the addition of new protected areas in this biome is crucial.
Located between Harrismith, Van Reenen and Verkykerskop, the Upper Wilge Protected Environment will conserve natural high-altitude sourveld grassland and wetland ecosystems in the Eastern Free State. The wetland is included in the Northern Drakensberg Water Source Area, which in turn forms part of South Africa’s Strategic Water Source Areas. This means that the protected area makes a considerable contribution to conserving this critical water source, which is used by millions of people, including the residents of Gauteng’s major metropolitan areas.
The declaration of the Upper Wilge Protected Environment will greatly improve the conservation of these habitats, which are essential for endemic grassland specialist birds such as the Yellow-breasted Pipit, and will provide extensive corridors for species requiring large areas of suitable foraging habitat, including cranes, Secretarybird, Southern Bald Ibis, Denham’s Bustard and White-bellied Korhaan. ‘If we fail to conserve the natural habitats our threatened birds rely on, no amount of threat mitigation will save these species from extinction. Biodiversity Stewardship provides a critical mechanism to preserve these natural landscapes for all biodiversity and future generations of South Africans,’ says BirdLife South Africa’s Dr Melissa Whitecross, manager of the Landscape Conservation Programme.
‘All three crane species in South Africa – Blue, Grey Crowned and Wattled – are found in the natural grasslands and wetlands of the Upper Wilge Protected Environment,’ points out Bradley Gibbons, a senior field officer with the Endangered Wildlife Trust. ‘Since the majority of cranes occur on privately owned farms in South Africa, the conservation of these species is in the hands of landowners. The Upper Wilge is an example of how species such as these can benefit from the establishment of a protected environment.’
The Upper Wilge Protected Environment protects other critically important biodiversity too, including the Vulnerable sungazer lizard. Endemic to South Africa, the sungazer is found in the highland grasslands of the north-eastern Free State and, in a small population, in south-western Mpumalanga. It is the largest of the girdled lizards in South Africa and lives in burrows in short grassland, where it is often seen basking in the sun. A very low reproduction rate, habitat destruction due to the conversion of grassland to farmland, illegal collecting for the pet trade and collection for the muti industry have resulted in the sungazer being regarded as a threatened species. It apparently does not return to previously ploughed land.
The Upper Wilge Protected Environment also serves as a critical, well-managed buffer zone for Eskom’s Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme and the Ingula Nature Reserve, which has recently been designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. ‘Biodiversity conservation remains an integral part of the sustainable livelihoods of South Africa’s communities, ensuring that ecosystem services are maintained and enhanced over time. The declaration of the Upper Wilge Protected Environment will safeguard the long-term ecological integrity of Eskom’s Ingula Nature Reserve and Ramsar site, securing valuable ecosystem services for the region,’ says Kishaylin Chetty, a senior environmental advisor at the Biodiversity Centre of Excellence, Generation Division.
South Africa strives to protect areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas that are integrated into wider landscapes. Currently only 16% of grassland in South Africa is adequately protected. An additional 24 078ha of grassland and wetland habitat in the Upper Wilge Protected Environment helps to address this shortcoming and contributes to the South African government’s National Protected Areas Expansion Strategy (NPAES), therefore also meeting its obligations to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Biodiversity Target 11.
CARINA PIENAAR, INGULA AND GRASSLANDS CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
Conserving South Africa’s birds
Just flick through BirdLife South Africa’s Checklist of Birds in South Africa 2022 and you’ll see how many of the country’s birds are threatened to some degree. Our efforts to protect these species and conserve their habitats are immensely important – and we need your help. If you love birds and would like to leave a positive legacy to future generations of South Africans so that they too can enjoy the beauty and wonder of our birds, please consider supporting BirdLife South Africa. There are several ways in which you can do so:
Become a member
If you are not yet a member of BirdLife South Africa, perhaps you’d like to join? One of the benefits is receiving six issues of African Birdlife, our world-class magazine, each year. You can find out more at https://www.birdlife.org.za/support-us/join-us/join-birdlife-south-africa/ or by contacting Shireen Gould at email@example.com
Give a gift subscription
Take out a gift subscription to African Birdlife for someone special and they will be reminded of your generosity six times in the following year when they receive their copy of this excellent magazine. The details are at www.birdlife.org.za/support-us/give-a-green-gift/ or available from Shireen at firstname.lastname@example.org
Shop for the Birds!
Do you struggle to select a birthday, anniversary or Christmas gift for a loved one? You’ll find a solution at our online ‘Shop for the Birds!’, which provides a range of great gifts to choose from. Shopping could not be easier and the gifts will be delivered within a few days. Make your selection at www.shop.birdlife.org.za
A long-lasting legacy
If you have derived a lifetime’s pleasure from birds, why not return the favour by leaving a bequest to BirdLife South Africa in your will? Any amount, large or small, will be put to good use. Find out more at www.birdlife.org.za/support-us/leave-a-legacy/ or contact me at email@example.com or Dr Isabel Human at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for helping to secure a better future for South Africa’s birds.
MARK D. ANDERSON, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER