(This report first appeared in the August 2013 newsletter of BirdLife Plettenberg Bay and is duplicated here with the permission of the Editor. - Ed.)
Fynbos Endemic Bird ringing: Dr Alan Lee
Cape Sugarbirds are one of the most emblematic birds of the Fynbos. While perhaps striking the novice observer as simply a large, drab sunbird, as soon as one spends time around them it soon becomes clear with their whistling calls and dramatic tail whipping display flights that these birds have personality. Simply looking pretty we can leave to the male Orange-breasted Sunbird, one of the world’s most striking beauties. Both of these species are endemic to the Fynbos, which makes them special. Being nectarivores, from a ringing perspective it can be relatively easy to catch large numbers of these birds in areas with the right flowers at the right times. In fact, both species rank in the top 10% of South Africa’s most ringed birds – with over 6000 Cape Sugarbirds ringed during the 1985 to 2010 period.
Despite this, it may come as a surprise that scientists have not yet actually identified any patterns in these movements – and understanding movements is one of the key reasons why we ring birds. It is important to know how far or when birds move, as we can then make habitat management plans in order to ensure the survival of these species – as in indeed we must as they are very much part of our South African biodiversity heritage.
What we do know is that Orange-breasted Sunbirds don’t move very far if they don’t have to – a fire event will of course result in forced migrations. But Cape Sugarbirds have put in some interesting relatively long distance recoveries, and due to these there exists a paradigm that they are capable of dispersing long distances. However, is this part of their life cycle or are these handful of long distance dispersals freak events comparable to a South American Black Skimmer rocking up on our shoreline?
A publication analysing ringing data from the Western Cape suggests that there are a high number of ‘transients’ i.e. non-resident birds, at the key ringing sites around Cape Town and nearby Boland mountains. However, no-one has been able to pin down where these birds come from or go to, or if there is any pattern to these movements. Are these juveniles looking for new territories, or were these researchers picking up part of a more delicate migration that tracks flowering Protea species through the mountains? What are the barriers to these movements? Can they cross the large area of modified landscapes, or areas that have experienced frequent fires that may be threatening local Protea populations?
These are some of the questions that the Fynbos Endemic Bird survey is attempting to answer. This survey is really just one person, Alan Lee, supported by Phoebe Barnard at SANBI and the FitzPatrick Institute. The work is being carried out at 2 levels – the population level (counting the number of birds present in key sites in the Fynbos habitat mosaic of the Klein Karoo/Baviaanskloof); and at the individual level, and traditionally this has been done through bird ringing.
But let me try to paint a picture of the scale of the task of tracking birds at the individual level. In any mature patch of Fynbos we can get up to 1000 individuals of a variety of species of birds (less in younger/recently burnt Fynbos). So in order to see if we have east west or north south movements, I have been trying to contain my ringing to an area about 100km wide (from the Langkloof to Kammanassie) and 50km deep (Baviaans mountains to the coast). This is 50 000km2, so the bird population is around 50 000 000 at the upper level. And up until recently I have been the only one attempting to put rings on all these birds in the mountain regions, and praying that they may turn up in my nets somewhere else.
So imagine my excitement when I heard that Mark Brown, one of South Africa’s most dedicated and experienced bird ringers had taken up residence in Plett. While Mark’s work extends to monitoring of birds beyond the Fynbos, his activities form a vital link in the chain of ringing activities that may help us identify north-south movements of birds from the gentle habitats of the coasts, to the harsh mountain environments which experience extremes in temperatures on sometimes a daily basis. For the first time for me it feels like we may actually have a chance of getting to grips with understanding the bird movements in this very special part of the world.
Please aid us in our quest to understand our iconic birds, by joining us on ringing expeditions, or by reporting any ringed birds you have seen to us. If you manage to take a photo of a bird where part of the ring number is visible, or recover a bird with a ring, the information needs to be sent to SAFRING (email@example.com), who will in turn give you information on that bird – where it came from and how old it was. Mark uses unique color engraved rings, while Alan uses aluminium rings, but with color rings combinations on Cape Sugarbirds. Your observations will play a pivotal role in providing the answers to the questions which need to be answered to ensure the survival of our birds in a rapidly changing world.