November 2023 Newsletter

Part of the BioSCape team with the NASA aircraft in Cape Town, late October 2023. Credit Otto Whitehead
NASA N95 tail section. Credit Otto Whitehead

Spills and thrills of BioSCape

There have been several moments during the BioSCape journey when we have wondered, ‘Is this going to happen?’

In case you’ve missed it, BioSCape is a collaborative mission between South Africa and the USA to survey the biodiversity of the Cape Floristic Kingdom, where we’ve spent the past few months collecting data – including doing bird surveys – on the ground. Now comes the pivotal part: pairing this information with remote sensed imagery gathered by equipment owned by NASA and flown on its aircraft. Given that BioSCape is funded primarily by NASA and involves many US partners, a major concern for us was the situation in the USA that looked like it would lead to a government shutdown, when basically no one gets paid and nothing happens. Luckily, the immediate shutdown was avoided and BioSCape was negotiated into the ‘essential services’ category. Eventually the aircraft arrived in South Africa, to be greeted by a jubilant organising team.

Leading up to the arrival of the aircraft, at the end of September a huge storm caused massive flooding over much of the Western Cape. Those who could, traded hiking boots for wellies, but many teams were left reeling from the chaos. Like aftershocks of the storm, front after front of wet, cloudy weather rolled across the region for weeks. Where were those clear skies needed to get the planes into the air to start their surveys? In what felt like desperation, the BioSCape team put out a call for weather watchers to try to find an elusive patch of blue sky.

Towards the end of October, I’d finished a deployment of acoustic recording devices in Anysberg Nature Reserve. Even this arid Karoo location had received 90mm of rain, resulting in water everywhere and necessitating the company of rangers to rebuild sections of the 4×4 track through the mountains. At the end of the first long and tiring day I was trying to sleep in my tent, but the chorus of frogs and birds was extraordinary to the point of annoying (try sleeping with a Rufous-cheeked Nightjar churring away metres from you or Spotted Eagle-Owls asking ‘Hoo are you?’ more often than is necessary). Nature was in full party mode; the rain that had caused us so much inconvenience was its social lubricant. It was great to know we were capturing some of this during our surveys. But could we connect this information to the remote sensed imagery, our reason for doing all this, I wondered one morning while enjoying a brilliant sunrise courtesy of the partly cloudy skies.

On 3 November I was back home on Blue Hill Nature Reserve at the edge of Baviaanskloof when Jasper Slingsby, a lead BioSCape scientist, called. ‘Any chance you’re in the Baviaans, or know someone who will be? We may fly the Kammanassie to Baviaans box tomorrow and I’m looking for an early morning cloud report.’

At 06h00 the following morning I was scrambling out of our valley under ominously cloudy skies up onto a ridge to get a better view of the flight path from the Kammanassie mountains in the west to over the mountains associated with the Baviaanskloof in the east. At 06h20, I couldn’t believe my eyes – it was as if a divine broom had swept the flight path clean, leaving just wisps of cloud. I sent photos to Jasper and a bit later I saw on the BioSCape’s broadcast group the message that it was all systems go for the two planes. What a thrill; at last, the piece of the puzzle for ‘my’ survey domain was about to be placed.

Just before 10h00 we got our first glimpse of the aircraft. I wonder if the flight crews heard us cheering? Over the next few hours they wove a tight pattern over us against unblemished blue skies, as we continued to do our bird stuff on the ground. By the time you read this we should have all the scattered pieces of our science puzzle. Now we just need to put them together to see what the big picture is.


The flight path of one of the aircraft surveying the Baviaanskloof.
A beautiful sunrise was the last thing we wanted to see…

Membership, the gift that gives…wings

A gift membership to BirdLife South Africa will be appreciated by clients, friends and loved ones on so many levels. It’s green. It lasts a whole year. It includes a subscription to African Birdlife magazine, a monthly newsletter, a digital membership certificate and two bird-call ring tones for their cell phone. And it will help BirdLife South Africa to ‘give conservation wings’.

For more information, please contact me at membership@birdlife.org.za


At the Crowned Crane hide.
Pupils of Hawkstone Primary School.
The youngsters were eager to watch the birds’ activities.

Birds of a feather, let’s learn together

‘Birding should not be reserved for the aged professional with lots of money to burn, who cruises the world in search of the rare Californian Condor,’ says Mike Spain of BirdLife KZN Midlands (BLKZNM). With this in mind, the bird club joined with One Planet SA, SAPPI and the Karkloof Conservancy to host 149 children from three Karkloof primary schools at the conservancy’s world-class bird hides.

Surrounded by pristine grassland and healthy wetlands, the Karkloof Conservation Centre is located in the valley of the same name and looks out onto ancient mist-belt forests along the mountain range. Karkloof Conservancy boasts more than 280 bird species, including the Blue, Wattled and Grey Crowned cranes.

To make the children’s visit happen, SAPPI kindly sponsored the travel, entrance fee, snack packs and goodie bags, the Karkloof Conservancy organised the event and catering, and BLKZNM and One Planet SA provided the knowledgeable volunteer guides. The overall intention was to connect each child to the joys of birding and the beauty of nature, so the outing began with a lesson on birds and how to identify them.

As it was early spring, the wetlands were a hotspot of birding activity, which the excited children enjoyed watching from the bird hides. Emerging from a long, cold Midlands winter, male widowbirds were in brilliant breeding plumage, complete with long tails, and using their elaborate dances to vie for a mate’s attention, while chattering flocks of weavers were working furiously to fashion their nests. A heron and various ducks turned up to be identified, then a first-time sighting for the children of a Pied Kingfisher snatching a fish was priceless. The volunteers were impressed by the questions the learners asked and by what they remembered from their bird lesson.

Reflecting on this successful day, the teachers from the schools were extremely grateful for our efforts. Asanda Ngobo, a Grade 6 teacher at Hawkstone Primary School, commented, ‘Children at our school often view birds as hapless prey they can hunt, shoot and often eat.’ By patiently observing birds in their natural environment, many have now come to respect creatures smaller than themselves for their own value and the role they play in a healthy ecosystem. Birding is not just a hobby, but a gateway anyone can enter to a profound love and understanding of the intricacies of nature. It’s a healthy form of escapism that takes you to places you have never been before, provides a point of connection with people you may not ordinarily speak to, and fosters a curiosity and lifelong learning in children outside the digital space. We hope this was the first of many such events and would like to thank Dave MacDonald and Sydney Baillion for capturing the day in photos.

If you would like to get involved in BLKZNM activities, please contact Sean Glynn (082 468 5805).

Visit the Karkloof Conservation Centre karkloofconservation.org.za or e-mail us conservancy@karkloof.co.za to find out more. Contact Jessica Gird on 076 147 6686.

FB & Instagram # Karkloof Conservancy

For those interested in birding or hiking as a family or a group of friends, Spekboom Tours can help organise a memorable experience in the Karkloof. spekboomtours.co.za

One Planet SA works to support local schools with its action-packed Sustainable Schools Programme. oneplanet.org.za FB & Instagram: Oneplanetsa


The boardwalk to the Crowned Crane hide.
Children from Yarrow Intermediate School keep watch on the pans.
Even as they left Karkloof Conservancy, the children were looking for birds along the avenue of plane trees.
Lapwings in flight.

A time for giving

Many people of puzzling over gifts at this time of year and we’d just like to remind you that we might have an answer. A gift of an artwork from the second edition of Roberts Field Guide not only brings pleasure forever, but also benefits the work of BirdLife South Africa and the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund.

A painting of dainty hovering storm petrels to please pelagic watchers, a selection of festive dazzling sunbirds or the striking decorative patterns of lapwings in flight; these are just some of the works available on the Roberts artwork website at robertsbirds.co.za/fieldguide-images/


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Shifting to unleaded…

BirdLife South Africa is pleased to welcome to the team Justin Henry, who joined us at the beginning of November as the new Vulture Conservation Officer. Justin’s interest in the natural world was nurtured from an early age, growing up on a farm in Gauteng. After completing an Honours degree in conservation ecology at Stellenbosch University, he worked in various conservation positions in South Africa.

In his new position, Justin’s job is to expand the reach of the lead advocacy project and increase the shift to lead-free ammunition. He will also be involved in maintaining and expanding Vulture Safe Zones under BirdLife South Africa’s management.

Against the stunning backdrop of the Kogelberg Nature Reserve, Yinhla Shihlomule, from the University of Pretoria, takes a break from installing the monitoring system. Credit Eleanor Weideman
Sand on the upgraded automated penguin monitoring system indicates that an African Penguin has waddled over it. Credit Eleanor Weideman

Weighing more … or less?

The African Penguin population has crashed since the turn of the century and each year continues on its downward trend. One of the main reasons for this is lack of food – adult birds just can’t find enough fish to feed their hungry chicks. The Coastal Seabird team at BirdLife South Africa has therefore installed automated penguin monitoring systems at four penguin breeding colonies in South Africa. These systems have weighing platforms that the penguins must step onto as they head out to forage, and again when they return. We thus gain insight into how much food the birds are finding, and this enables us to monitor conservation efforts, such as the implementation of protected areas around penguin colonies.

At the end of October, the team spent a week upgrading the system at Stony Point by installing a new platform that improves the accuracy of our algorithms and provides us with penguin weights that are even more precise. These data are vitally important for colony managers and conservationists, who are desperately trying to save this enigmatic species from extinction.

If you’d like to see the penguins crossing the system, head over to the livestream YouTube channel youtube.com/watch?v=N-aNRbAj6rc


The seabirds are returning … and the mice are waiting

As we head into summer, most of Marion Island’s seabirds are returning to their breeding grounds. But the island is no longer the safe haven it used to be. Invasive house mice, accidentally introduced by humans, are preying on seabird eggs and chicks, and even the adult birds.

To date, about 6500ha (a little over one-fifth of the 30 000ha target) have been sponsored. Individuals have contributed R1000 for a single hectare, although one extremely generous couple, Cathy and George Ledec, have sponsored a magnificent 500ha by contributing R500 000! And it’s not only the more than 1500 caring individuals who have been contributing. Hectares have been sponsored from collections made at birthday parties, from participants in a bicycle race, and by Romario Valentine, an 11-year-old environmental campaigner, via a successful online appeal.

Sponsorships have also come from NPOs such as bird clubs, an honorary ranger association, and from South African clubs of Rotary International. The South Africa-based Rotary Club of Knights Pendragon is currently the top-achieving non-profit contributor, having raised R100 000 over the course of a year from its members to sponsor 100ha, placing it in the prestigious ‘Wandering Albatross’ category.

You can also help by spreading the word and asking your relatives, friends and colleagues to sponsor their own hectares. With your support, we can safeguard the future of Marion Island and its globally important seabirds.

Help us celebrate a louder Marion Island with the return of its seabirds, including the iconic Wandering Albatross, to the island. Join the challenge today and help contribute to a more favourable future for Marion Island and its seabirds.

Please donate now to give seabirds a safe future: mousefreemarion.org/sponsor-now/


And the raffle winner is…

Peter Braat, the winner of BirdLife South Africa’s 2023 Raffle, will be jetting off to Morocco with a partner for an epic 13-day adventure with Rockjumper Birding Tours. This exciting trip will take Peter from the Atlas Mountains to low-lying woodlands and the Sahara’s dunes, and he can expect to see many special species and several North African endemics.

We are especially pleased to have sold all 1000 tickets and would like to express our gratitude to Rockjumper Birding Tours and to everyone who entered this year’s raffle, which raises important funds for our critical work to conserve South Africa’s magnificent birdlife.


Male Bateleurs differ from females in that they have all-black secondary and inner primary feathers, whereas the females have broad white bases to these feathers (the male is above the female in this image). Thank you to the immensely talented Ingrid Weiersbye for another incredible Bird of the Year artwork.

Introducing Bird of the Year 2024

BirdLife South Africa is thrilled to announce that the Bateleur is Bird of the Year 2024!

Also known as the Berghaan (Afrikaans), ingqungqulu (isiZulu) and ingqanga (isiXhosa), this magnificent raptor is easily recognised by its striking appearance and remarkable aerial behaviour. Unfortunately, it is also classified as Endangered, its estimated population having declined by more than 50% over the past three generations (40 years). Its regional population is believed to comprise fewer than 1000 mature individuals.

Visit our Bird of the Year 2024 web page here, especially from January 2024, as BirdLife South Africa will create awareness about the Bateleur with educational material such as posters, infographics and learning resources for schools that will be free to download; articles in African Birdlife magazine; social media posts; and presentations to interested groups. Bateleur merchandise, such as T-shirts, pin badges, socks and fluffy toys will also soon be sold through BirdLife South Africa’s Shop for the Birds!

We would like to thank our Bird of the Year sponsor, the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust, for once again making the Bird of the Year initiative possible.


African Birdlife out now!

The latest issue of African Birdlife is, as ever, full of birding and bird news and ideas, your observations and comments, and stunning photographs. You’ll find out about avian flu, travel to Madagascar to seek endemics and meet a special guide, and be given tips about photographing birds at high-altitude in the Drakensberg. You’ll also learn about key migration routes and read about the winners of BirdLife South Africa’s 2023 Photography Competition.

To ensure that you know where you can purchase your copy of African Birdlife, we have compiled a list of retail outlets that stock the magazine. To find your nearest retailer, please click here.

A message for our members and subscribers

We are facing a challenge to deliver the magazines to our subscribers due to the failure of the South African Post Office. In an effort to achieve deliveries, we have set up collection points in the following areas:

Centurion, Eshowe, George, Graaff-Reinet, Grahamstown (Mkhanda), Hermanus, Hoedspruit, Howick – Ambers, Howick – WESSA, Jeffrey’s Bay, Knysna, Ladysmith, Langebaan, Mossel Bay, Mount Edgecombe, Mtunzini, Plettenberg Bay, Port Alfred, Underberg, Umhlanga Rocks, Waterfall Estate (Johannesburg).

If you are a subscriber in any of these areas and would like to collect from one of these points, please contact Janine Goosen at subscriptions@birdlife.org.za

We are actively looking for champions in other areas who would be prepared to assist with setting up collection points. In this case, please also contact Janine.

Albatrosses are particularly prone to getting caught on baited hooks and drowning.
1) Schematic of the Hookpod-mini. 2) Schematic showing (A) a Hookpod attached to a branchline, and (B) the Hookpod’s pressure-release mechanism that releases the baited hook at a depth of 20m. Credit Hookpods Ltd
Members of the fishing crew with Andrea and Reason of the ATF team as the vessel prepares to depart on the first of the Hookpod trials.

Hookpod trials and tribulations

Globally, a third of all seabird species are under threat of extinction; approximately half of all seabird species are showing declines in their populations. One of the leading causes of seabird mortality is bycatch from longline fisheries. Seabirds – albatrosses and petrels in particular – are drawn to the bait used by fishers and in their efforts to get at it they end up swallowing the baited hooks and drowning. While albatrosses are primarily surface feeders, seldom venturing beyond a depth of 2–5m, some petrel and shearwater species are proficient divers and can pursue a morsel of tasty bait beyond 20m.

Measures to mitigate seabird mortalities on hooks have existed for close on two decades. Hooked lines can be set at night when few species forage. Bird-scaring lines can be deployed behind the fishing vessel to scare birds away from the ‘access window’ where hooks are being set and ideally keep them away for the first 100m, giving the hooks enough time to sink beyond the reach of the diving birds. Hooks can be made to sink more quickly, out of the reach of seabirds, when weights are added to the lines. If used in combination, these measures have proven to almost eliminate the mortality or bycatch of seabirds. The caveat is that fishermen often resist using them, perhaps because they have had a negative experience such as entanglement, or perhaps because they believe such measures impact their catch or endanger the crew.

Introducing the Hookpod, a novel device that is designed as a stand-alone mitigation measure, eliminating the need for night-setting and the use of a bird-scaring line. The Hookpod is a ‘hook-shielding’ device and works by enclosing the point and barb of a baited hook and only releasing it 20m or more below the surface by means of an internal pressure-release mechanism. This effectively eliminates almost all risk of seabirds swallowing or accessing the baited hooks until they have sunk out of reach.

The Albatross Task Force is currently engaged in trialling the Hookpod in South Africa, working hand in hand with a pelagic longline vessel owner to assess if the Hookpod is a viable option for our fleet.

When trialling mitigation measures, it is key that they have minimal impact on the fishing operation and don’t affect catch rates. Longline operations are complex, with a lot of moving parts: hooks need to be baited, fitted with light sticks and weights, or a Hookpod needs to be added, before being cast out – all at intervals of 8–9 seconds! Every few hooks, buoys and radio beacons are added to the 60km line so it can be found again a few hours later and hopefully bring in the sought-after tuna fish.

In March we joined the vessel in harbour as it prepared to leave for the first trial trip. We worked with the crew fitting the Hookpods for several hours before Reason Nyengera, our ATF instructor, left with the skipper and crew on the first research trip. A longline fishing trip lasts about 5–7 days, depending on the catch, which is best brought back to harbour as fresh as possible. It is hard work aboard a vessel: you are lucky if you don’t get sea-sick, sleeping quarters are inevitably small, and life and work routines at sea take getting used to. By now, Reason is an old hand at this and able to collect good data on the performance of the Hookpods, as well as recording the catch on both types of gear.

To date, five trips have been carried out and a total of just over 38 000 hooks set. However, no trials can be expected to go without a glitch or challenges, and these were no exception. One challenge was that many of the Hookpods did not open because, we think, strong currents may have prevented them from sinking to 20m. Another was entanglements, which we think result from the pods being so light and kept buoyant by the strong South African currents. For the skipper these are important concerns, as every hook that is not operating as it should means reduced returns. This is exactly why we carry out trials and why it is critical that we do so in cooperation with the fishers, as they are the best placed to come up with solutions. Fishermen are no more interested in catching birds than we are, gear is expensive and the cost of putting a vessel out to sea is considerable.

For now, the trials are on hold until next year while we work out how best to resolve the issues. In the meantime, the vessel is working during the high tuna season and using conventional gear so as to not risk catches and profits. Working with fishers requires understanding what matters to them and how to ensure that we can find win-win solutions and compromises. South Africa has mandatory night-setting regulations, which fishermen argue negatively impact them and they want to be able to fish during the day. The Hookpod would allow that and for us that would also be the best-case scenario. So while setbacks are inevitable when working in unpredictable ocean conditions, we are hopeful that Hookpods will have a future in South Africa.


A baited Hookpod just before it is deployed. Credit Reason Nyengera
A crew member watches Reason fitting a Hookpod to a branchline. Credit Andrea Angel

Watch the Mouse-Free Marion Project’s latest video!

Marion Island’s captivating beauty is the scene of a struggle for survival with global significance.

Accidentally introduced by humans in the 19th century, invasive house mice are preying on the Southern Ocean island’s globally important seabirds and invertebrates, adversely impacting the vegetation and undermining the integrity of the island’s entire ecosystem. With each passing moment, this dangerous intruder poses an ever-growing threat to the remarkable biodiversity of Marion Island, compelling an urgent response to protect this important site and its cherished seabirds.

The Conservation Campaign for Marion Island comprises visionary donors and partnerships between South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, BirdLife South Africa, the Mouse-Free Marion Non-Profit Company, NGOs, the research community and civil society.

To learn more about this epic struggle, watch the video at vimeo.com/869106953


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