From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa

All good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, and so we must say our farewells and extend our gratitude to group 1. And also say goodbye and thank you to one of our cooks, Gurli. You’ll be missed, but your efforts not forgotten.

You have all left your mark at Blue Hill, in terms of your contribution to advancing our knowledge of this area of the fynbos. Alan (our scientist) neatly summed this up in his science review on the last evening.

The team have: assisted in finding at least nine Cape rockjumper nests, thus supporting ongoing doctoral research; completed two sets of small mammal trapping, resulting in two new species records for Blue Hill; established 200 (!) honey bush monitoring plots; mapped multiple mammal species and collected several leopard samples for DNA analysis; completed 60 bird point counts across the Karoo (clocking up 1,500 km!); undertaken multiple nights of bat monitoring and 8 km of bat transect walks; and lastly, completed many hours of bat sonogram analysis.

You’ll note that I have glossed over the camera trapping, simply because it deserves its own mention. Four new camera trapping stations have been established, but the most exciting news comes from the camera traps established previously at Blue Hill. These existing camera traps were serviced by the expedition team and revealed that ‘Strider’, a known male, has recently been on the reserve, as well as a new, unknown female. In the last month the cameras have recorded leopards both on the east road saddle and along the south road. Great news for us, Blue Hill and the Cape leopards.

The team has made a big contribution to all of the scientific aims of the project, set out at the start of the expedition. Alan already has his scientific eyes set on at least one research paper. Not a bad achievement for eleven days work!

So we wish group 1 safe travels, and extend a warm welcome to our new cook, Barbara, who will be working with Melda. We can rest assured we will be well fed and the research will continue to be fuelled on excellent desserts!

So the bar has been set, and the research baton now passes to group 2. Your first challenge will be the weather, which looks like being cold and wet for the first couple of days. Hopefully you are prepared and we look forward to meeting you all.


Alan and Karin – bird surveys in the Karoo (c) John Munthe
Cape leopard
Floral delights
Heading home
Honey bush plot
Looking for rockjumpers (c) Judy Bird
John and Lizzy working on Cape rockjumpers (c) Judy Bird
Looking for honey bush
Measuring honey bush
More honey bush
Mountain view
Plotting honey bush locations
Puff adder
Rockjumper observation
More flowers
More flowers
Spot the rockjumpers (c) Judy Bird
Strider – Cape leopard (c) Alan Lee
Sun shining
Mammal trapping
Group 1
Vegetation surveys
View over the east road

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa

The collective efforts of the team are beginning to bear fruit.

Bat surveys have been going both using ‘static’ detectors – stationed in set locations – and using detectors connected mobile phones for night time transect surveys. This will allow us to compare and contrast species richness between different habitats and ultimately build a bat map for Blue Hill.

This has also meant many hours of data processing and sonogram analysis. Judy and John and have been leading the charge in labelling bat calls, and identifying the differences between a Cape horsehoe and a Cape serotine bat.

The second array of small mammal trapping has also been completed and the results are intriguing. The recent fires do not seem to have negatively impacted the small mammals. And we appear to have trapped two species not previously recorded at Blue Hill – which of course needs expert verification. But could indicate a potential response to fire.

Understanding how fire drives this ecosystem and species respond to it is important. And current literature seems scarce on small mammals (based on the searches of our resident professor – thank you Peter). Typically, our field research is generating more questions than answers.

We have also made progress with one of our main target species – the Cape leopard. On one of the bat transect surveys, a set of large eyes were spotted in the rocks on the south road. This was followed, by hearing a low growling noise, whilst visiting some rock art locations on Sunday afternoon, during our day off. This might sound more speculative than scientific, however, on Monday morning leopard tracks were located only metres along the same track, and less than 1 km from the base – so they are in the area!

We’ve somehow also managed to complete yet more surveys at Blue Hill and across the wider Karoo, set out yet more vegetation monitoring plots, and find time for a geology talk (from Chris Lee).

A great job by all so far.

Above the south road

Cape leopard tracks
Data entry andsonogram analysis
Exploring above the south road
Geology talk
Leopard tortoise
More leopard tracks
Rock art
Static bat detector

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa

Our surveys are up and running. And our volunteer team have been deployed in all directions of the compass.

The first array of small mammal trapping has now been completed and all traps moved to a ‘new’ location. This is one we also surveyed in 2015, which too has recently been burnt. The charcoal-striped clothing at the end of each survey is a clear reminder. Hopefully the results will give further insight into how the small mammal responds to fire. These mammals are a vital component of a leopard’s diet!

Talking of which, additional camera traps have also been established at Blue Hill, Welbedacht and the Nuwekloof pass, in the Baviaanskloof. The latter took Peter and yours truly, twice as long as expected to deploy – taking a whole day to deploy four cameras. I think we only got lost three times, pushed the 4WD to its limits and managed to scale one dry waterfall. All worth the effort as the cameras will be left in situ for 45 days. Hopefully they will be less effort to retrieve!

Completing any survey in this part of the world requires some level of effort. Alan, Karin and John managed to cover some 600kms (with just one puncture) in one day, in order to complete bird surveys in the Karoo – supporting a wider study with BirdLife South Africa.

Closer to home, the team have also been establishing vegetation monitoring plots at Blue Hill. These will assist an ongoing study on the Honey Bush – indigenous and endemic plants of the Fynbos biome in South Africa, cultivated and harvested for tea production. Most tea currently comes from wild harvested populations. The plots (which will receive different harvest treatments) will hopefully improve our understanding the impact of wild harvesting.

The plots (marked with metal stakes) all need to be labelled – metal tags are the best option to survive the harsh conditions. Turns out aluminium drinks cans (e.g. beer) provide ideal raw material for the required tags. Our Australian and Swedish citizen scientists were more than happy to drink for conservation – obviously in moderation – well enough to make 300 tags!

In amongst all of this we have also been assisting surveys of Cape Rockjumpers – a passerine bird restricted to the Fynbos biome, and advancing our bats surveys. We’ll save the details on those until the next blog…

Burnt Protea flowers
Burnt Protea flowers
Burnt vs unburnt
Camera traps installed for leopards
Cape weaver
Installing small mammal traps
Installing traps on both sides of the valley
Mammal trapping team
Mammal trapping
Spot the expedition base
Vegetation tag production

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa

After an early start for the final pieces of preparation, we were finally able to welcome our first group of citizen scientists for 2017 to the ‘Carnivores of the Cape Floral Kingdom’ expedition.

The team all arrived safely, and if anything, slightly earlier than expected. We have a great mix in our team in terms age and experience; including a couple of Biosphere Expeditions newcomers (welcome Libby and Sandy) and several veterans.

After a little time to settle in and with initial introductions, risks assessments and briefings completed, we headed straight into the field. It was time for a crash course in mammal mapping and camera trapping. Alan (our scientist) was keen to get some additional cameras deployed – to monitor our target carnivore species – whilst also getting the team used to mammal mapping.

The mapping was completed from the back of the 4x4s whilst others in the team also got used to driving the 4x4s. Our two transport options on the project are either ‘by foot’ or ‘by 4WD’. All vehicles, drivers, and mammal mappers returned to base in one piece. And our top spotter was one of our newcomers – great work Libby.

Day two involved a lot of preparation work for the vegetation monitoring and mammal trapping. Large area of the research area was burnt earlier in the year, so our small mammal traps now need insulating from the cold and the heat – cue a morning of trap shade construction. The rest of the day was spent deploying the traps.

The burnt areas of the reserve (there was a large bush fire earlier in the year) offer a unique opportunity to compare this year’s data to previous (unburnt) years and hopefully better understand how the fynbos responds to, and recovers from, fire – after all it is a fire-driven ecosystem with many plants needing fire to germinate. Over the coming days we’ll all be breaking new ground in terms of understanding the ecology of this mountain fynbos environment.

4WD training
Burnt protea
Camera trapping
Deploying mammal traps
Double collared sunbird
Double collared sunbird
Heading back to base
Learning to camera trap
Making trap shades
Preparing stakes for vegetation plots
Small mammal traping