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

Hello everyone

With a week to go before the expeditions starts, it’s time for the initial introductions. I am Craig Turner and I’ll be your expedition leader in South Africa this year. It is fantastic to be going back to this part of the world to work on this project.

I am not on route yet, but I am in the midst of preparations. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce myself, and Dr. Alan Lee, our project scientist for the duration of the expedition. It’s great to be returning to work with Alan (and his family) for a third year. I’ll save the rest of the introductions until later next week, so they are fresh in your memory.

Craig (front) and Alan (back)

I am guessing many of you, like me, are in a whirl of preparation and beginning to think about packing your bags. So I hope you’ve all been eagerly reading your expedition materials and know to bring many layers of clothing. The weather can be a bit like four seasons in one day, so prepare for warm, cold, possibly wet and hopefully dry. Just like the weather in my adopted home – Scotland!

Hopefully you have also seen the recently published 2016 South Africa expedition report, so will have an idea of some of the planned activities. This also is my opportunity to flag up our expanding bat survey work. As this year, in the spirit of citizen science, we are hoping to turn your iPad or iPhone (if you are travelling with them) into a bat detector.

I’ll leave you to continue your preparations and will be in touch later this week from South Africa. I look forward to meeting group 1 next weekend.

Safe travels…

Craig
Expedition leader

Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Here’s a first report of the season by our expedition scientist Fabian Carrasco:

Fabian Carrasco

The leatherback season started on 26 February with the first nesting female. Unfortunately she was poached. Later we had a nest in situ on 1  March. Her tracks were hidden by the waves in a couple of hours and the eggs remained safe from poachers. Our patrols with local assistants and international research assistants have started and in the past 43 days we have recorded 52 successful nesting activities:

* 1 natural nest (in situ)

* 25 nest relocated in Styrofoam coolers

* 9 nest relocated higher up the beach between markers 95-104

* 19 poached nests

* 1 nest saved by the Coast Guard and Police O.I.J.

Among the nests relocated in styrofoam coolers is one of green turtle (from 2 April). The others nests are from leatherbacks. No hawksbill have been seen yet.

The fist hatchlings are due between 1 and 8 May at marker 79.

Green turtle returning to sea after nesting
Leatherback turtle returning to sea after nesting

Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Welcome to the Costa Rica 2017 expedition diary! My name is Ida Vincent and I will be your expedition leader. This will be my second year on this expedition and I look forward to being back at the Pacuare field station and working together with Latin America Sea Turtles (LAST).

Ida

The field station is located just behind the beach where the turtles nest and during our time in Pacuare we will work closely with the onsite biologist from LAST, Fabian Carrasco, who will be training us in sea turtle monitoring. Lucy Marcus, expedition leader in training, will be assisting me throughout the expedition and we all look forward to meeting you on 8 May.

Lucy

Lucy and I will already be in Pacuare helping to prepare the field station for you arrival, however, Nicki Wheeler from LAST will be meeting you at 09.00 in the lobby of Hotel Santo Tomas. Make sure to be on time as our first night of patrols starts that very evening and there is a lot to learn prior.

Have another look through your dossier and check your packing list, remember that your head lamp needs to have a red light mode.

Hopefully you will all have read the 2016 expedition report too, so you already know why we are there and do what we do. As you can read in the report, support from citizen scientists such as you is critical, so thank you for your support and see you in a couple of weeks!

Ida

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

Buttonquail steals the show

An international team of citizen scientists, working on a conservation project in South Africa recently completed a world first – capturing a Hottentot buttonquail (Turnix hottentottus). This is remarkable, because this species, considered to be endemic to the fynbos biome of South Africa, has never been caught before.

It is also a species of some mystery, with limited and variable knowledge regarding its ecology and conservation status. The Hottentot buttonquail is one of 18 species of Turnicidae; a group of cryptic, small, terrestrial birds probably best known for their polyandrous breeding systems.

There has been little consensus over the last 30 years as to the conservation status and taxonomy of the animal. Taxonomically the species was considered conspecific with the black-rumped Buttonquail, while now they are considered a separate species. From the conservation perspective, the species has variously been described as: ‘on the brink of extinction’; ‘possibly extinct’; ‘possibly critically endangered’, while at the same time it was classified as ‘Least Concern’ globally; and as of 2014 ‘Endangered’ both globally and nationally.

Clearly there is still much to learn about this species. Project scientist, Dr. Alan Lee is on a quest to advance the knowledge of this species. In addition to undertaking a range-wide population assessment of the species, Dr. Lee has been keen to mist-net and capture an individual so basic biometric information can be taken. This will permit telemetry collars to be fitted to this species so we can better understand their biology, ecology and inform conservation action.

On capturing the first individual at Blue Hill Nature Reserve, in the Western Cape, Dr. Lee said ‘I am delighted. I have been mist-netting and ringing birds since 2011, with over 7000 birds caught, and this was the first Hottentot buttonquail, not just caught by me, but by anyone. Clearly it wouldn’t have been possible without the collective efforts of the Biosphere Expeditions team’.

Biosphere Expeditions leader, Dr. Craig Turner stated ‘what a highlight for any expedition. Our volunteer teams want to contribute to worthwhile conservation science, but perhaps never imagined they could achieve a world first’.

Dr. Lee is soon to publish a range-wide study assessing the population and distribution of the Hottentot buttonquail, and then will pursue to use of telemetry collars to better understand this over-looked species.

Here are now also the highlights of the photos and videos you all shared (thank you).


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

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

That’s all folks. Our time on expedition has come to an end. Our volunteers have departed, the kit is packed and now Alan and I must head our separate ways. First we must convoy south to return our Ford Rangers (thank you again Ford South Africa!). I then have to make the migration north to Scotland, and Alan to Senegal to present some of his research. The science never stops!

I can hardly believe our second expedition in South Africa is already over. Let me start by thanking our team. First off, our volunteers; the joy of expeditions is working with a bunch of liked-minded people towards a common goal – we’ve had a fantastic group and you’ve all made a great contribution (which I’ll expand on in a moment). But firstly we owe a huge thank you to Melda and Gurli, for the continual provision of culinary delights, and their botanical wisdom! We would also like to thank the extended Lee family (Anja, Elli, Charlie, Chris & Elaine) for their boundless hospitality. And finally, our enormous collective thanks go to Alan, our leader in all things scientific. It has again been a fantastic privilege to share in your world and work with such a passionate scientist.

So what about that contribution I mentioned? Well, the stats are staggering, over 50 litres of wine drunk, in excess 130 chocolate bars eaten, and numerous cups of tea and coffee consumed, and we still managed to complete all the fieldwork. Of course data still need to be crunched from the various field surveys and just think of all those new camera traps still clicking and collecting data….long beyond our departure.

But in case you have forgotten, here are just some of our highlights:

Several new camera traps have been deployed across the Blue Hill area (and many others serviced) to monitor leopard, caracal and other mammal activity and movement patterns.

Nearly 3000 camera images from Blue Hill have be analysed, identified and catalogued, revealing activity of leopards, caracals and African wildcats across a number of locations.

Over 20 kms of flush transects surveys have been completed across the Blue Hill area.

Several mist netting surveys have been completed providing more data on several endemic and range-restricted bird species.

We completed yet another round of small mammal trapping surveys.

We identified the location of more Cape rockjumper nests (a bird endemic to the Fynbos).

We have identified at least another two new species of bat in the research area (bringing the total to seve) and additional cave roosts of the Cape horseshoe bat have been identified.

The team have contributed to pioneering and ongoing research of Matt Macray into the impact of electric fences on tortoise species. This is going to be a ground-breaking study highlighting the devastating impacts on a species, which poses no threat to any other animal.

And finally, the Hottentot buttonquail……

Alan has been catching and ringing birds at Blue Hill since 2011, and in that time he has caught over 7,000 birds but not a single Hottentot buttonquail. But neither has anyone else caught one, ever, anywhere. Biosphere Expeditions volunteers have been instrumental in changing that, and helping to influence our understanding of this endangered, range-restricted fynbos endemic bird.

 

 

No matter whether you are a volunteer, scientist or expedition leader, we all go on expeditions with a varying mix of nerves, hope and expectation. We never know what we will achieve and I certainly don’t expect a ‘world first’, but in the diminutive shape of the Hottentot buttonquail, that is exactly what this team has achieved. Who would have thought that was possible when you are just going away for a couple of weeks?

Be pleased, be proud and I look forward to being back next year.

Best wishes

Craig Turner
Expedition leader


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

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

With field science the devil is normally in the detail. We may be nearing the end of the expedition, but fieldwork continues apace. Entering the home straight, we still have to continue with camera trapping, mist netting, flush surveys and our programme of small mammal trapping has also commenced. As you may have realised by now, the small things in the fynbos really do matter, as part of understanding the bigger picture.

Assessing the small mammal fauna via the use of live (Sherman) traps enables us to better understand another part of the prey base for some of our resident predators. The various mice and shrew species in the area could form an important part of our feline predators’ diets.

However, we need to know what we have, where, and get a gauge on their relative numbers. Cue the need for yet more empirical science! The team set out 50 sherman traps up and over the ridge line of Signal Hill – so called as it is the nearest place to get a mobile phone signal. This not only gives a gradient of habitat types and aspects, it also means those craving a signal (Scott & Jim) are more than willing to climb the ridge – nothing like motivation!

Similar to our big mammal (leopard) trap, the small mammal traps are checked twice a day, and any captures are documented before being released. The trick is finding them again. The results blew our expectations, both in terms of numbers and variety in any single trapping session. The captures far exceeded those we achieved last year, but again focussed on Namaqua rock mice, striped field mice and Sengi (elephant shrew). Clearly there is still much to learn about the smaller fauna of this area of the fynbos.

The flush surveys are also proving useful for demonstrating the levels of diversity and abundance of other vertebrate (mammal and bird) species. As well as keeping our team relatively fit – you know when you have walked several kilometres through the fynbos. At least the teams get to ride out to the survey and/or collected courtesy of our Rangers from Ford South Africa.

With our final round of mist netting planned and camera trap collection still to complete, we are slowly beginning to pull together the results from the last couple of weeks. Suffice it to say that simple and well-tested techniques, combined with a bit of hard graft usually deliver results, adding more detailed ‘colour’ to our evolving scientific picture.


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

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

A key component of any expedition is focus. We focus on planning, fieldwork and research objectives, amongst many other things. We also focus on target species – often of the larger vertebrate variety.

But sometimes it is just as valuable to refocus, and not become blinkered by our obsession to find and document charismatic wildlife. Sunday saw an opportunity to do just this with a walking tour of local rock art sites, which was neatly combined with an evening presentation of the geology of our local landscape, by Chris Lee (Alan’s dad – a retired professional geologist). This of course gives us a wider focus, as we can marvel at the millions of years of geological history beneath our every step.

Marrying art and geologic science also helps give perspective on the historic people of this land, through the observation of ancient rock art, which seems to adorn every cave wall or rock overhang – showing people, antelopes and big cats. Clearly we are not alone in our interest in larger wildlife.

The start of the week also gave us an opportunity to appreciate the fynbos biome in another way. For we are not just blessed with two good cooks on this expedition; but Melda and Gurli are also great botanists. The fynbos may be a fire-driven ecosystem, but flower power prevails. There is no doubting we are working in a Floral Kingdom – the Cape Floral Kingdom to be precise.

We are surrounded by a wildflower wonderland. Whilst the lack of rain means the flowers may not be at their best, they are still ever present. There is always something in flower year round. And once you start looking at them, I mean really looking, in detail; they reveal all manner of shapes, sizes and colours.

Once you stop to look at the flowers and your immediate environment, you begin to discover a variety of other species, whether they are birds, insects or amphibians, and interactions between them. Observation of wildlife is such a simple pleasure but also vital for any fieldwork.

In many respects, flowers really do power the fynbos. Several small mammals (the subject of our trapping studies) are reliant on protea flowers for food. Many species of butterfly, moth and horseflies are specialised for extracting nectar from tubular flowers, and at the same time perform a pollination role. While orange-breasted sunbirds and Cape sugarbirds, which are endemic to the fynbos, not only act as pollinators, but the latter relies on proteas and pincushions for food and shelter. All of this is vital as it underpins the charismatic species that we seek.

So whilst our focus may be on Cape leopards, caracals and other target species, a broader understanding of our wider environment is key. After all the rocks and vegetation form the foundation of the fynbos on which our focal species depend.


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

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

Our quest for our target species has continued over the past couple of days, but seemingly, only with partial success.

Mist-netting has again been combined with flush surveys on consecutive mornings, but the Hottentot buttonquail are proving elusive. We have sighted at least two other individuals, but are yet to catch any more. It is becoming clear why no-one had done this prior to this Biosphere expedition! The work has confirmed locations of this species and enabled us to locate nest sites of Cape rockjumper – another bird species restricted to the fynbos biome.

Another part of our daily routine each morning and evening is to check the leopard trap – a large cage trap, which will hopefully tell us which of the cat species are moving through the local area. Any Cape leopard caught will be fitted with a telemetry collar so we can better understand their movements and habitat use. We’ll also get some interesting by-catch, and over the last few mornings we have trapped a grysbok – a small antelope almost entirely restricted to the fynbos vegetation; and a porcupine – the largest rodent in Africa. All are released to continue on their way.

A regular feature in our workload is camera trap servicing and deployment. This provides a great excuse to explore Blue Hill Nature Reserve to its geographic limits; ensuring cameras are deployed in all directions. Hopefully they will give up a few more secrets on our other target species (i.e. Cape leopard, Caracal and African wildcat).

Camera traps can also give you a few surprises. Our team retrieved one remote camera; that has been in the field since it was deployed by last year’s expedition group. Not only was the camera still taking pictures 12 months later (on its original set of batteries), it had also recorded black-backed jackal (another predator not frequently recorded in the area), been attacked by baboons and survived a wildfire! Well done both teams.

And our work is not just limited to the daytime. We have also been deploying bat detectors and using them on transect walks, to better understand what species are present in the area. The detectors are a bit like camera traps, but are triggered by ultrasonic sound, recording a sonogram, which can then be used to identify bat species. This also provides opportunities for face-to-face encounters with other larger wildlife which tends to be more active at night!


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

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

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…


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

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

After all the preparation of the past few months, weeks and days, we could finally get the expedition underway. Our team of volunteers arrived not only with bags of energy, enthusiasm and kit, but also boxes of wine! You sometimes get an instant feeling that you have a good group 😉

With initial introductions, orientations and risk assessments completed, we could get down to the real business of field research. This was kicked off by Matt Macray (a Masters student) who is working on the impact of electric fences on leopard tortoises. This was followed by our project scientist (Alan) giving an overview of field research to date at Blue Hill, and outlining the targets for this years expedition.

One of these is to trap a Cape leopard, so it can be fitted with a tracking collar, to better understand its movement patterns within the fynbos environment. Cue a field briefing on the cage traps used to trap leopards.

cage-trap-briefing-with-harry leopard-trap-relocation

We were also joined by Harry Lewes of the Landmark Foundation, who are working to protect leopards across much of this region of South Africa. Not only was he able to brief our team on leopard capture, but also give an overview on the plight they face in South Africa and the great work that is being undertaken to conserve them across their range. Much of this is reliant on current data, such as the information from Blue Hill.

landmark-foundation-presentation

With some additional practical sessions on field equipment and survey techniques completed, our group are now almost ready to begin the vital data collection, and we are hopeful of some positive early results!

practice-flucsh-survey site-orientation-with-alan


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