June Newsletter 2024

E-Newsletter 2024
This photo of a Secretarybird pair on a large firethorn bush near Memel in the Free State was sent in by local farmer Danie Swanepoel.
Hanlie Michau, a local birder, captured this Secretarybird flushing from a possible nest tree near Marblehall on the Springbokvlakte in Limpopo.
A Secretarybird on a potential nest tree near Van Reenen in the Free State was photographed by Rick Dillon, a local farmer and keen birder.

Secretarybirds preparing to breed

Over the past few weeks, the Secretarybird Conservation Project’s WhatsApp channel has been hotting up. Every week, we get a message consisting of an image and a short bit of text that reads something like: ‘We might have found a new nest!’ The images of a Secretarybird or two on top of a large bush are usually taken with a Smartphone from the road and are accompanied by a GPS pin. Although short, these messages are worth their weight in gold and are frequently the first step in adding another nest to our growing database. The following steps are a trip to the area, some spying from a distance and then a close-up inspection of the bush to confirm the presence of a nest. Usually we are lucky and a new nest is observed! Sometimes the tree or bush is identified as a roost, although the presence of a pair does point to the potential of a nest nearby.

Do you know of any Secretarybird nests in your area? Please let us know at info@birdlife.org.za with details of the location.

Look out for Secretarybirds frequently seen on the same tree or large bush throughout the day. Individuals carrying branches or clumps of grass onto the bush are also a good sign, since Secretarybirds start breeding in late winter and their attempts generally start with nest building. So keep a lookout for Secretarybirds over the next few months. You might just spot a new nest!


Steven telling learners about biodiversity and its importance. Credit Kyle Pieterse
Learners at Umvulo Primary School during an activity on food webs. Credit Kyle Pieterse

International Day of Biological Diversity in schools

The International Day for Biological Diversity is commemorated annually on 22 May and aims to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues. Biological diversity is often understood in terms of the wide variety of plants, animals and microorganisms. The theme for the day this year was ‘Be part of the Plan’, which encourages action by all people, governments, businesses and communities to do their part to help stop and reverse the loss of biodiversity.

What does this mean for young learners at school? Just by looking around the schoolyard, they can relate to what they see, from small ants to a common bird or plant, and this helps them to understand the concept of biodiversity. Things already being done at schools, like planting trees, keeping the schoolyard clear of litter and using water wisely, are the small steps that contribute to the plan this year’s theme refers to.

Ingula environmental team members and I facilitated awareness activities at Umvulo, Brakwal and Kleinfontein primary schools and Mphophomo Combined School during May, with a focus on International Biological Diversity Day. More than 180 youngsters learned about different ecosystems and their functions, naming animals using cards and food webs to demonstrate how they are linked and how different species depend on one another and their environments. Our efforts are always welcomed by the learners and teachers as we continue building relationships with schools, instilling environmental messages and encouraging action.


Honouring their legacy

We have recently unveiled a special addition to Isdell House, our head office in Johannesburg. As you enter the reception area, you are greeted by the Legacy Board, our tribute to the generosity and vision of those who have left bequests to BirdLife South Africa since 1 January 2015. This heartfelt acknowledgement records the names of those who believed in our mission and chose to support us in their will. Each name on the board tells of a love for birds and South Africa’s natural environment, and a strong desire to help protect them.

If you have included a gift to BirdLife South Africa in your will, please feel free to let us know your preference regarding the inclusion of your name on the Legacy Board. For more information about including BirdLife South Africa in your will, please click here or contact me at Tarryn.McKechnie@birdlife.org.za


A SABAP2 map showing the gaps in surveyed pentads in Mpondoland.
David giving a presentation at the Wild Coast Sun’s World Environment Day celebration on the proposed atlas bash in Mpondoland. Credit Ziyanda Mpati

Community engagement is key for SABAP2

SABAP2 (the 2nd Southern African Bird Atlas Project) is an incredible resource that helps conservation planners and ornithologists to track the distribution and population status of the region’s birds. It was initiated in 2007 and since then 300 000 surveys have been completed, resulting in more than 17 million bird records. SABAP2 relies on citizen scientists to record as many species as they see over a period that can be as short as two hours or as long as five days and within a pentad (the 9×7 km2 grid system upon which SABAP2 is stratified). Some 2500 citizen scientists have now contributed to the project, and it has been utilised to produce more than 150 scientific research articles – clearly its ornithological and scientific importance can’t be overstated!

However, for citizen scientists to document the bird communities within a pentad effectively, SABAP2 relies heavily on the pentad being accessible. Mpondoland, formerly Transkei, is one of the most biodiverse regions of South Africa, but is also one of the least documented areas in terms of wildlife – and birds in particular. Indeed, this portion of the Eastern Cape, stretching from the Kei River to the KwaZulu-Natal border, contains as many as 70 pentads that have never been surveyed.

It was for this reason that I attended the Wild Coast Sun’s World Environment Day and spoke to the many stakeholders present about a plan to fill in these gaps of surveyed pentads by engaging with community leaders and members, conservation NGOs and government bodies. The Wild Coast Sun, situated at the edge of the Eastern Cape, hosted representatives of Conserving the Wild Coast, Conservation Exposure Education and Training, SANBI (South African National Biodiversity Institute), the Eastern Cape Department of Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Local Municipality. We also celebrated the wonderful achievements of young environmentalists taking part in the City Nature Challenge, a global initiative to document wildlife in urban centres.

While speaking, I emphasised the value of SABAP2 and the need to champion the under-surveyed region of Mpondoland to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the region’s birdlife. I also pointed out the need to engage with community leaders and members to ensure that a weekend atlas bash would be welcomed and valued. The enthusiasm of the stakeholders present and their willingness to be involved in the planned event and to share their invaluable knowledge of the region and its communities was gratifying. The atlas bash is scheduled for October, but I plan to hold a training session on SABAP2 methods and bird identification in the region over the winter, hoping to inspire local citizen scientists to continue atlasing long after the weekend bash is over.

If you would like to get involved in the Mpondoland Atlas Bash, please contact me at david.ehlers.smith@birdlife.org.za. If you would like to donate field guides or equipment to budding citizen scientists in the Mpondoland region, please get in touch with BirdLife South Africa.


Ester van der Westhuizen-Coetzer with rescued flamingo chicks ready for release. Credit Benny Coetzer
Monitoring water quality at Kamfers Dam, Kimberley. Credit Juanita Labuschagne
A dawn study of a flamingo bearing a tracking device. Credit Ester van der Westhuizen-Coetzer

Miners helping birds

Mining has long been seen as having a negative impact on biodiversity, fragmenting and destroying habitats that birds and other wildlife depend on. Birds can serve as invaluable indicator species, their presence, absence or abundance reflecting the health of ecosystems and the success of rehabilitation efforts. From the most adaptable generalists to species with highly specific niche requirements, birds provide mining companies with a powerful tool for assessing their environmental impact and guiding restoration work.

In Africa, where mining has a history stretching back over 150 years, the implementation of national environmental laws in the late 1990s marked a turning point. Mining companies now had to focus on the previously overlooked challenges of rehabilitation and biodiversity conservation. Ekapa Minerals, one of Africa’s oldest continuously operating mining companies, has emerged as a leader in this regard.

Since 2006, Ekapa has been involved in bird conservation and research, notably through the construction of the Lesser Flamingo breeding island at Kamfers Dam, near Kimberley. When the company took over De Beers operations in 2016, it strengthened its commitment to avian research and partnered with BirdLife South Africa to study not only Lesser Flamingos, but also regional bird biodiversity, vultures and Secretarybirds.

By supporting this research, Ekapa aims to develop a ‘toolbox’ of best practices for bird-friendly mining and rehabilitation that can be shared with other mining companies. The hope is that this will encourage new mining operations to adopt technology and strategies that minimise habitat destruction and maximise the potential for successful restoration, benefiting endangered bird species and biodiversity as a whole.

The work at Kamfers Dam highlights both the challenges and opportunities inherent in this approach. In January 2019, amid drought and issues with a local sewage plant, the Lesser Flamingo breeding site faced disaster as falling water levels left thousands of chicks stranded. Through the heroic efforts of Ekapa staff, volunteers and veterinarians, about 2000 chicks were rescued and relocated to rehabilitation centres across South Africa in an unprecedented operation that yielded valuable lessons for flamingo conservation.

Months later, hundreds of the rescued birds returned to Kamfers Dam, their survival and successful reintegration a testament to the dedication of their rescuers and the resilience of nature. Ringed, and in some cases fitted with tracking devices by university researchers, these flamingos now provide a wealth of data to guide future conservation efforts.

Stories like this underscore the vital importance of mining companies embracing their role as stewards of the habitats they impact. By investing in biodiversity research, habitat rehabilitation and collaborative conservation initiatives, the mining industry can become a powerful force for protecting threatened species and repairing damaged ecosystems. In an era of rapid environmental change, the fate of countless bird species may hinge on this shift towards more sustainable and ecologically informed mining practices. The birds, as always, are telling us something – it’s up to us to listen.

Special thanks go to Dr Donovan Smith and the Kimberley Veterinarian Clinic and to Debbie Smith and her group of volunteers for their dedication to the project over many months.


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An adult African Penguin watches over its small chicks while its partner is at sea.
Two African Penguins cross the Automated Penguin Monitoring System as they return from sea to feed their hungry chicks. The system will log their weights, enabling us to infer how much fish they were able to find.

Bird Island is buzzing!

It’s the peak of the African Penguin breeding season and Bird Island, near Gqeberha (formally Port Elizabeth), is currently abuzz with activity. Adult penguins scurry back and forth as they build new nests in anticipation of soon-to-be-laid eggs, while partners that laid eggs earlier in the season alternate between guarding their small chicks and going out to sea to find food. As part of an ongoing monitoring programme, our team recently spent a week on the island to deploy biologgers. These small devices record where the adult penguins go to find food, how deep they dive and how much fish they catch. These data are extremely valuable and help to inform marine spatial planning processes and management action. They will also be used to calibrate the recently upgraded Automated Penguin Monitoring System, which weighs the birds as they head out to forage and again when they return. In time, this passive monitoring system will give us even more insight into how much food the birds are finding and will therefore enable us to monitor conservation efforts, such as the implementation of protected areas around penguin colonies.


An exciting Bird Fair programme

Whether in person or via Zoom, be sure to join us on Saturday, 24 August 2024 for an unforgettable day immersed in all things birds and birding. If you can be at the Country Club Johannesburg (Woodmead), arrive in good time to enjoy the early morning bird walks, which will be followed by inspiring talks by guest speakers and engaging workshops designed for novice birders, garden bird enthusiasts and anyone eager to learn more about birds.

And this year we’re launching a specially tailored programme to introduce kids to the magical world of birds and birding.

Flock to Marion AGAIN! 2025

Embark on an unforgettable voyage to Marion Island (and Prince Edward) aboard MSC Musica, departing from Durban on 24 January 2025. Bookings for the public are now open, so be sure to secure your place before they’re all filled.

There will be so many highlights and experiences to cherish, from watching majestic Wandering Albatrosses fly past at sunrise to listening to expert Peter Harrison MBE talking about his life in pursuit of seabirds. For more details, visit birdlife.org.za/flock-to-marion-again-2025/

Join more than 1000 passionate adventurers on this extraordinary expedition. Act fast to secure your berth, as space is limited! Book by contacting MSC Cruises at +27 (0)11 844 6073 or by visiting our website.

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