Monday, August 26, 2013

White Umfolozi Rocks

The progression from tree-climbing, a utilitarian need, to rock climbing as an adventure sport has now progressed to a dedicated long weekend trip.  I can see this developing into an institution!  Its just so damn good

I was offered to escape on a long weekend into the depths of Zululand.  The mountain club have been enjoying this beautiful spot on the White Umfolozi river for many years.  Nestled in a valley is a quaint little campsite just minutes walk from four large faces with untold sport and trad routes.  In passing Hallam mentioned that Crowned Eagles are occasionally seen flying over, many years ago there was a nest near the old hut – but perhaps we could trek to search for a new nest location

As it happens, before sunrise on the first morning, I saw a crowned eagle fly along the cliff face and get stooped on by a pair of lanner falcons - soon after the juvenile showed up.  Obviously still quite dependant on its parents for food, and obviously quite hungry, on following days the morning coffee was always accompanied by the incessant, piercing begging calls amplified and echoing through the chasms

A bird list of over 40 species on the three-day trip includes plenty of lapidarian names:
mocking cliff-chat, rock pigeon, rock-loving cisticola, cape rock-thrush and a few rock martins among the swarms of cliff loving swifts,.  The raptor list starts with rock kestrels, with a variety including lanner falcon, brown snake-eagle, white-backed vulture, gymnogene, gabar goshawk, and the crowned eagles.  Pretty impressive but lacking the hopeful expectation of a verreaux eagle


the power wall

klip kloof nestled in the valley

idyllic camping style

rock kestrels

insistent juvenile eagle

Rock climbers are imaginative with the names of their sport routes and trad lines. Puns aplenty and many unsubtle references. On the first day a lot of easy routes were tackled, almost completing the Bushy Buttress face
Aardvark (8) on sight
All Aboard (9) on sight
Adios Amigo (14) on sight
Abdominal Noman (13) on sight
Yeti (13) on sight
Little Honda (12) on sight
(16) Going on 17, **** an intimidating looking set of roofs that turns into a very pleasing ascent, top rope
Happy (13) on sight
Oink (15), on top rope and then busted for the day

Although the forecast predicted a 30 degree saturday, the chill of a fast moving cold front kept the temp shivering cool in the shade of the Warrior Wall.  So after a few quick ascents including
Bird Child (16) top rope
We headed back for coffee and to warm up.  As the sun arced high a plan for a duel-purpose eagle / geological adventure evolved.  It was straightforward to find the eagle nest in a kloof feeding a tributary to the main river.  Marveling at the rocks was all the more interesting by the aid of a small leaflet from recent university geology surveys highlighting the main points:

considering renaming Bird Child to Three-way

going on 17 (16)

the first four bolts looks... complex

eriosion patterns

banded iron formation

The area is apparently formed of a variety of rocks in the Pongola Supergroup. The basement strata are old pink and white granites.  On this, sandstones and shales are interrupted by basalt pillows formed in underwater eruptions of lava.  And on top of these layers lie sandstones and dolomite which are particularly famous.  The 3 billion year old rock includes some of the oldest fossils of life - stromatolites created by mats of algae in the shallow seas.  Then after this, the Banded Iron Formation, which forms in deep water as muds slowly settle to the seafloor.  Prior to 2 billion years ago the atmospheric oxygen was much lower, and fluctuating.  When the iron rich sea’s encountered peak oxygen levels, the iron precipitated and formed banded layers in the sediments.  Oxygen levels are too high for Banded Iron Formations to form anywhere on todays Earth.  The youngest rocks of the Pongola Supergroup are 2980-2870 m.y.old and at the river these form pavements of blue/grey rock with intricately preserves ripple marks

An unconformity then separates these famously old rocks from the tall walls of sandstones that are only millions of years old; these are the rocks that fulfil all of the climbers’ desires

The left bank of the river is cast in afternoon shade, and on The Promised Land two great climbs completed the day
Chicken Wing (13) on sight
Freckles (14)

During the afternoon Hallam managed to scope out a new route, so we returned Sunday morning to set it up.  After hours of drilling and bolting, the new route was opened by Hallam.  I dogged my way up at the limit of my ability, using a small tree and a skinned knee to ungainly beach myself onto a ledge.  The route is thus named Treason Knees (18)

starry nights and meteorites... a grand way to end a story about rocks

Monday, August 19, 2013

Its Spring !!

Year after year, yellow-billed kites arrive in the kzn region during the first week of August.  This year proved that rule yet again.  Although I heard of first-sighting from several friends for three days prior to mine on the 9th of August.  And then during the week of 12-17 August, spent surveying the Durban reserves and their eagle nests, the influx of yellow-billed kites has been notably frustrating.  With so many raptors in the sky I have glanced at each on incase of crowned eagles - this has been a bit of a traffic hazard perhaps!  As well as the abundant kites, this week has also been the first sightings for wahlbergs eagles and steppe buzzards.

The migrants have started to arrive, and the crowned eagles are already well underway with this years breeding attempts. 

even the best vantage points for most nests leave much of the detail obscured 

this enormous nest has been built onto for over a month, now lined with many leafy sprigs

the pair at the Kranzkloof gorge are also doing well with their construction. And last years juvenile is not far from home

this nest failed around hatching time last year, and now has been occupied by egyptian geese

thats what we like to see !

and another happily incubating her clutch

Spring comes early for crowned eagles.  In the southern limits of their range, this population may be taking seasonal cues such as the lengthening days to establish a breeding season.  Perhaps over the years they have also synchronized a breeding season to make use of hadeda nestlings and young dassies come November, when the chicks are most demanding for food.  In any case many nests are well prepared, built up large and lined with soft leafy sprigs, while others are already incubating.  As yet it seems none have hatched. 

Whilst surveying, I had a chance to test my camera’s abilities – and it have proven that my binoculars are pretty much obsolete.  In December last year the lastest Canon PowerShot hit the stores.  The SX50HS.  50x optical zoom and then 4x digital multipliers pulls distance objects in to 200x zoom… my 10x42 Shirstone binoculars pale in comparison.  Indeed on two occasions (photos below), I glassed the nests and didn’t see anything obvious there - only to take a photo and confirm the eagles head glancing over the lip of the nest!!!

no better way to get an accurate laying date than visiting the nest between 1st and 2nd egg laying !

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Country Life

Two months on, and the rural lifestyle has really settled into my heart.  So many reasons to move from the dingy (and cheap) granny flat I called home for the first year of living in South Africa.  Compensating for no longer being walking distance to varsity, there is now the attraction of a home out in the savannah.

The house and 10 Hectares of land provide enough fields for the horses, and a thoughtfully developed wildlife garden with indigenous trees, cycads, and plenty of aloes.  The aloes have been flowering vivid colours over the weeks of mid-winter and providing rich resources for the sunbirds.  Two beastly Rottweiler’s keep me company in the garden - ensuring a cat-free environment!

The dawn chorus of cape turtle and red eyed doves gives the sunrise a very African feel as it casts a fiery glow on the acacias’ flat crown.  Feeding the garden birds has attracted a rich diversity from the surrounding area.  Millet and crushed maize is favoured by village weavers, doves, sparrows, whydahs and mannikins.  Bulbuls, white-eyes, and mousebirds relish the fruit, and I have habituated cape robins, boubous, olive thrush, and blue-headed agama’s to take mealworms from the veranda. A recently finished project is the installation of a number of bamboo segments to attract cavity nesting birds - woodpeckers, barbets, scimitarbills, and honeyguides might all be attracted to these sites - and spring is just around the corner.

The property is connected to the Lower Mpushini Conservancy, comprised of many small holdings along the Mpushini river and surrounding savanna valley. Abound with duiker, impala, nyala and zebra – I’m looking forward to the day I brave getting in the saddle again and riding through the valley, apparently the nyala and zebra are very habituated to mounted horses. As dusk shifts into night the howling jackal chorus sometimes drifts up the valley, and fiery-necked nightjars give the night a distinctive ambiance.  Tonight, while writing this blog, the calls of a Barn Owl become the 100th species to be added to the garden bird list.

My bird list is expected to keep growing at a rapid pace now that the spring and summer migrants are arriving.  Snakes too may become plentiful -  judging from what Gael has had to remove from the house in previous summers (we don’t release black mamba’s, but all other species are happily returned to the wild).  The very plentiful termite mounds across the valley will no doubt provide some spectacles when the November rains soak the underground termitaria and the emergence of alates are harvested by all the wildlife around.

The raptor sightings have been fairly poor in comparison – with just the resident long-crested eagles in regular attendance of the horse fields.  Recently the yellow-billed kites have also become regular residents and will be part of the furniture until the autumn migration.  A goshawk or black sparrowhawk is rarely seen flashing through the bush, but often attested to by the chaos and panic around the bird feeders most mornings.

Bird List from 29 June to 18 August

Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca)
Yellow-billed Duck (Anas undulata)
Natal Francolin (Francolinus natalensis)
Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta)
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
Black-headed Heron (Ardea melanocephala)
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea)
Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus)
Hadada Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash)
Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus)
Long-crested Eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis)
African Marsh-Harrier (Circus ranivorus)
African Goshawk (Accipiter tachiro)
Black Goshawk (Accipiter melanoleucus)
Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
African Fish-Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer)
Crowned Lapwing (Vanellus coronatus)
Feral Pigeon (Columba livia (Domestic type))
Red-eyed Dove (Streptopelia semitorquata)
Ring-necked Dove (Streptopelia capicola)
Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis)
Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove (Turtur chalcospilos)
Purple-crested Turaco (Tauraco porphyreolophus)
Klaas's Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx klaas)
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
Fiery-necked Nightjar (Caprimulgus pectoralis)
White-rumped Swift (Apus caffer)
Speckled Mousebird (Colius striatus)
Brown-hooded Kingfisher (Halcyon albiventris)
Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops)
Green Woodhoopoe (Phoeniculus purpureus)
Common Scimitar-bill (Rhinopomastus cyanomelas)
Crowned Hornbill (Tockus alboterminatus)
Crested Barbet (Trachyphonus vaillantii)
Black-collared Barbet (Lybius torquatus)
Rufous-necked Wryneck (Jynx ruficollis)
Golden-tailed Woodpecker (Campethera abingoni)
Cardinal Woodpecker (Dendropicos fuscescens)
Cape Batis (Batis capensis)
Chinspot Batis (Batis molitor)
Brubru (Nilaus afer)
Black-crowned Tchagra (Tchagra senegalus)
Southern Boubou (Laniarius ferrugineus)
Sulphur-breasted Bushshrike (Telophorus sulfureopectus)
Grey-headed Bushshrike (Malaconotus blanchoti)
Southern Fiscal (Lanius collaris)
African Black-headed Oriole (Oriolus larvatus)
Fork-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis)
Pied Crow (Corvus albus)
White-necked Raven (Corvus albicollis)
Plain Martin (Riparia paludicola)
Lesser Striped-Swallow (Cecropis abyssinica)
Southern Black-Tit (Melaniparus niger)
Sombre Greenbul (Andropadus importunus)
Terrestrial Brownbul (Phyllastrephus terrestris)
Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus)
Cape Crombec (Sylvietta rufescens)
Bar-throated Apalis (Apalis thoracica)
Green-backed Camaroptera (Camaroptera brachyura)
Piping Cisticola (Cisticola fulvicapilla)
Tawny-flanked Prinia (Prinia subflava)
Cape White-eye (Zosterops pallidus)
Fiscal Flycatcher (Sigelus silens)
Dusky-brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa adusta)
Red-backed Scrub-Robin (Cercotrichas leucophrys)
Cape Robin-Chat (Cossypha caffra)
Kurrichane Thrush (Turdus libonyana)
Olive Thrush (Turdus olivaceus)
Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis)
Cape Glossy-Starling (Lamprotornis nitens)
Collared Sunbird (Hedydipna collaris)
Amethyst Sunbird (Chalcomitra amethystina)
White-breasted Sunbird (Cinnyris talatala)
Cape Wagtail (Motacilla capensis)
Golden-breasted Bunting (Emberiza flaviventris)
Yellow-fronted Canary (Serinus mozambicus)
Brimstone Canary (Serinus sulphuratus)
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Cape Sparrow (Passer melanurus)
Southern Grey-headed Sparrow (Passer diffusus)
Spectacled Weaver (Ploceus ocularis)
Village Weaver (Ploceus cucullatus)
Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea)
Grosbeak Weaver (Amblyospiza albifrons)
Common Waxbill (Estrilda astrild)
Blue-breasted Cordonbleu (Uraeginthus angolensis)
African Firefinch (Lagonosticta rubricata)
Bronze Mannikin (Spermestes cucullatus)
Pin-tailed Whydah (Vidua macroura)