Expeditions are often about learning by doing. Our work in South Africa is no different. Tuesday morning saw us head south on a mist-netting quest to catch a Hottentot buttonquail – an endangered, range-restricted fynbos endemic bird, urgently in need of a focussed study into its conservation status.
On route to our bird survey, we took the opportunity to service a few camera traps – change memory cards and batteries, and ensure they haven’t been redistributed by baboons! Camera traps are a vital tool for the project, giving us extra eyes in multiple locations and at all hours of the day and night. On later processing the images from one of these traps, we found out that the last image taken, less than 24 hrs before we serviced the camera was a Cape leopard. It is great to know our main target species is in the vicinity.
Having served our fast-track mist-net apprenticeship on Tuesday, we returned to the same location on Wednesday, and set the nets again. The idea is to then ‘flush’ the target birds in the direction of the nets, so they can be caught, documented and released. So four short flush transects walks later, what did we have in our nets – a Hottentot buttonquail! When your scientist starts dancing around, high-fiving everyone, you pretty much know you have achieved something special!
This was history. This species has never been caught before, ever. Our team had achieved a world first. The individual in question had her biometrics taken, was ringed, photographed and released. The information is vital on many levels, but importantly we now know its weight. So when another individual is caught the correct radio collar could be fitted so the bird can be ‘followed’ and we can learn much more about its ecology, which is vital to inform conservation efforts.
Our achievements have not just been limited to the Blue Hill area. Every day at least one of our volunteers has been helping Matt Macray (our resident Masters student) survey tortoises across the wider fynbos area (also helped by the kind loan of a vehicle from Ford). This not only helps advance knowledge of the distribution of at least four tortoise species, but the study will principally assess the impact of electric fences. These are the scourge of this mixed use landscape, and kill tortoises and other wildlife in unknown and un-necessary numbers. Data are vital to address this problem.
This year’s expedition may be in its early days, but the achievements are beginning to role in. Fingers crossed it continues…