21 September 2017

Help us save the White-winged Flufftail

The Rockjumper staff are dedicating our year end function efforts to raise some cash for the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail. We have divvied ourselves into teams to add a competitive edge to the drive and hopefully raise a good amount of money for the Middelpunt Wetland Trust which plays a massive role in habitat awareness and education. Any donations to my crowdfunding setup would be most appreciated, alternatively, please do share this link widely!

Click here to donate to the White-winged Fufftail crowd fund

Established in 1994, the Middelpunt Wetland Trust has done exceptional and groundbreaking work on the critically endangered White-winged Flufftail. The trust’s main objective entails securing and rehabilitating the Middelpunt Wetland between Dullstroom and Belfast in Mpumalanga, South Africa.
The very mysterious White-winged Flufftail’s highly fragmented habitat is severely threatened by continued destruction and it is therefore of utmost importance that their extremely commendable efforts to conserve these specific areas are well supported.
The Middelpunt Wetland Trust is also actively involved in monitoring, conservation and awareness programs in Ethiopia, the only known breeding area for this enigmatic species. The Trust has also decided to proceed with a captive breeding program, and discussions with the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria are far-advanced. Furthermore, a school has already been built for a community that adjoins one of the breeding sites in Ethiopia.
By enabling a wider circle of birders to be aware of the plight of the White-winged Flufftail and generating a greater sense of publicity of this secretive bird’s existence, the Middelpunt Wetlands Trust is playing a major role in its conservation.

14 May 2017

The Land Regeneration Project - Part 3

The impenetrable wall of Tickberry (Lantana camera)
Over the last few months, we have chipped away at the invasive shrubs and bushes, clearing Tickberry (Lantana camera) and chopping down the odd Bugweed (Solanum mauritianum) as well as planting a number of new indigenous trees in the valley.

An entire weekend was dedicated to assaulting the Lantana camara thicket obscuring our view. Late Friday afternoon saw me at my now customary equipment rental shop, Coastal Hire. With bladed brush cutter in hand, I was looking forward to giving the lantana a good wrecking. As it happened, laying into lantana is a little more difficult that anticipated. A bladed brush cutter is rather heavy when you are trying to wield it like a sword. It took less than 30 minutes to realise that I would not be destroying the Lantana this weekend, it would have to be done with a machete instead.
Kaily now has her own spade to help dig
Moving on, large thickets of herbaceous stemmed Black Jack (Bidens pilosa) would be taken out instead, thus increasing the cleared area twofold. Cutting Black Jacks was far more successful, as the spinning metal blade simply laced through them. By Saturday afternoon, I felt I had at least made some improvements, even if they were not as targeted.

The next weekend started off with an early morning session of bamboo barrier building. As the construction has now been somewhat simplified, I had 5 new barriers within a matter of a few hours. All that was left was to get 5 new trees planted. Despite not having cleared quite as much lantana as planned a week before, I had managed to push the invasive bank back far enough to fit in a line of new trees. With the ever helpful Kaily at my side to help clear the area, we managed to plant 4 new trees into the available space. The fifth tree made it into the newly cleared area, an area that will see a significant number of further specimens planted shortly.

The long easter weekend provided me with one last session in the valley, using a regular brush cutter to trim the grass down, whilst also creating a short path through the cleared area. I hope to maintain this section whilst also expanding it as the clearing continues.

With a number of recent commitments, an extended weekend in Cape Town preceding a week long cruise (Flock at Sea), and there has been precious little time to pay further attention to the valley. I should have a few more weekends coming up to hack away at more invasive vegetation, whilst also constructing more barriers for planting. Unfortunately, it has become apparent over the last vew months that an even worse invasive alien is starting to take over from the Bugweed and Tickberry. The Mauritius Thorn (Caesalpinia decapetala) seems to have spread down the Town Bush River, from heavy thickets on either side of the road to African Enterprise. Already this thorny shrub with a propensity for climbing has engulfed a 15metre high Pigeon Wood (Trema orientalis), which I need to attend to shortly. Unlike Lantana and Bugweed, this shrub has severe thorns and shall require much care when being removed.

Another Podocarpus latifolius successfully planted. 

Kaily getting a lift after all her hard work
Meg supervising our work from the safe confined of the wheel barrow

Trees planted to date

Tree 1 Planted    02 January 2017   Senegalia galpinii       Monkey Thorn
Tree 2 Planted    08 January 2017   Senegalia galpinii       Monkey Thorn
Tree 3 Planted    21 January 2017   Trichilia dregeana       Forest Mahogany
Tree 4 Planted    21 January 2017   Podocarpus latifolius  Real Yellowwood
Tree 5 Planted    21 January 2017   Podocarpus latifolius  Real Yellowwood
Tree 6 Planted    26 March 2017      Ficus lutea                  Giant Leaved Fig
Tree 7 Planted    26 March 2017      Rauvolfia caffra           Quinine Tree
Tree 8 Planted    26 March 2017      Senegalia sieberana   Paperbark Thorn
Tree 9 Planted    26 March 2017      Albizia adianthifolia     Flatcrown Albizia
Tree 10 Planted  09 April 2017         Podocarpus latifolius  Real Yellowwood
Tree 11 Planted  27 May 2017         Podocarpus latifolius   Real Yellowwood
Tree 12 Planted  27 May 2017         Podocarpus latifolius   Real Yellowwood
Tree 13 Planted  27 May 2017         Albizia adianthifolia      Flatcrown Albizia
Tree 14 Planted  27 May 2017         Senegalia galpinii        Monkey Thorn
Tree 15 Planted  27 May 2017         Trichilia dregeana        Forest Mahogany
Tree 16 Planted  27 May 2017         Trichilia dregeana        Forest Mahogany
Tree 17 Planted  27 May 2017         Strelitzia nicolai           Natal Wild Banana
Tree 18 Planted  27 May 2017         Strelitzia nicolai           Natal Wild Banana

31 January 2017

The Land Regeneration Project - Part 2

Brush cut and more trees added
With no birding planned for the weekend, it was decided to start phase two of the regeneration project. Down the road again to Coastal Hire, the local power tool hire shop. I’m fast becoming a regular customer - hiring chain saws and brush cutters on a fairly regular basis now. 

Brush cutter in hand, and no idea how to use it, I turned to my trusted teaching aid - YouTube for a 5 minute tutorial. [In case you wonder about the efficacy of using YouTube to learn anything, it took me no more than an 8 min video to learn how to ride a motorbike in Peru, before I tackled the Manu Road…] Despite a better understanding of how to deal with the brush pile across the road, I had slightly underestimated the size of some of the herbaceous shrubs, as well as the general resistance of Lantana camara, to a nylon headed brush cutter at least. I found myself spending as much time replacing the nylon cutting strips as I did laying into the 3ft tall morass. Persevere I did, thankful for the cool and overcast conditions. 

Wielding the brush cutter
After some trial and error, I figured out how to more productive - leaving the herbaceous shrubs and laying into the grass and Black Jacks Bidens pilosa, another horrid, pervasive weed from South America. No doubt the neighbours are getting used to 2 stroke engine noise every other weekend, but despite the racket - Meg and I got rather a few compliments from passing joggers and walkers. Having flattened large sections of brush, I had more scope for planting. With 3 bamboo barriers already assembled, I reckoned I had enough energy left to put in the trees, selecting some different species for the river bank edge. The 3rd tree to be planted was one of my favourites, the Forest Mahogany Trichilia dregeana, followed by two slow growing, but excellent montane species, Real Yellowwood Podocarpus latifolius. 

I spent some of Sunday afternoon wielding the brush cutter deeper into the scrub, exposing a few other indigenous trees planted some years before by another resident. Large tracts remain uncut, but the herbaceous nature and size of the shrubs requires a more dedicated effort with a bladed brush cutter.

With potential birding delayed by another weekend, I took advantage and rented the chainsaw again. The prime purpose was to obtain further bamboo to be used for tree barriers. So far, the resident Bushbuck have not made any noticeable attempt to browse the existing trees, but I would prefer not to tempt fate. Many more poles were cut before the chainsaw gave up the ghost on Sunday afternoon - but I certainly have a large reservoir of barrier material to get me through the next few months. No trees are due for planting in the next few weeks though - a trip to search for the elusive Striped Flufftail is this weekends agenda.

Tree 2 Planted    08 January 2017   Senegalia galpinii      Monkey Thorn
Tree 3 Planted    21 January 2017   Trichilia dregeana      Forest Mahogany
Tree 4 Planted    21 January 2017   Podocarpus latifolius  Real Yellowwood
Tree 5 Planted    21 January 2017   Podocarpus latifolius  Real Yellowwood
Tree 6 Planted    26 March 2017     Ficus lutea                  Giant Leaved Fig
Tree 7 Planted    26 March 2017     Rauvolfia caffra          Quinine Tree
Tree 8 Planted    26 March 2017     Senegalia sp.
Tree 9 Planted    26 March 2017     Albizia adianthifolia   Flatcrown Albizia

There is plenty of brush to get through - early days

Putting up the custom built bamboo barriers
Kai is always on hand to help!
Tree number 2
Happy team - 2 trees in, plenty to go
Lantana camara - a beautiful scourge
Sweaty labour this tree planting business - 35 more to go to finish phase 1...

6 January 2017

The Land Regeneration Project - Part 1

Kaily and I planting the first tree
Since I was old enough to know the difference, I’ve despised invasive aliens. Be it plants, trees, birds or mammals - I have been on a mission to cut, chop, shoot or poison, which ever option works the best. My parents yard in Durban full of desirable Garden or Variegated Crotons (Codiaeum variegatum) which naturally occur in  Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and the western Pacific Ocean islands all got the chop, as did the horrid Leopard Tree (Caesalpinnea ferrea) from Brazil. Replaced with far too many very large trees, it was not long before I realised I needed a little more space to plant quite so many trees. Having relocated, it was not long before the new occupants of our former house chopped most my hard work down anyway. 

Having relocated to a small holding near Bela-Bela, I had the scope with which I had always dreamed of. Except, the ground was awfully hard and I knew nothing of the local tree and plant species. In the interim, there was a far greater issue to be dealt with, for the entire area was engulfed by ‘Queen of the Night’ (Cereus jamacaru), a tough as nuts cactus from north eastern Brazil that grows up to 5m high and produces very attractive white flowers that last a single night. The local government was concerned enough about this pest that they provided free herbicide to anyone who agreed to clear their land. A few days later, all 50 hectares of our property had been dealt with. A few years later, it was all back - none of the neighbouring farmers had any interest in dealing with it.

I took a 12 year hiatus from murdering exotic plants while living in Europe and travelling the world, before returning to South Africa to wreak more havoc on my parents garden in Bela-Bela. Having settled in Pietermaritzburg, Meg discovered that I couldn’t help myself - even with only a tiny piece of land, I was intent on destroying the rubbish and replacing it with indigenous plants. Out went the aliens and in came a pile of native Aloes, Canary Creeper (Senecio tamoides), Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) and even a few Tree Fuschia’s (Halleria lucida). Requireing more space for all our camping stuff, we recently moved to a leafier part of Pietermaritzburg. Here we had a far larger garden, but one without anything but grass. Perfect I thought, I could get a small forest growing here. Unfortunately, the owner of the property rather liked his grass and so my proposed forest was put on hold. I did manage to insert some Canary Creeper (Senecio tamoides) and Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) along the fence lines, added a few smaller trees and put a few Aloes and grass species in plastic moveable buckets. I still had to wake up to the sight of two English Oaks (Quercus robur) every morning. As much as I’d like to chop them both down, the volume of neasting bird species made this impractical. This year alone has produced new families of African Wood Owl, Green Wood Hoopoe, Violet-backed Starling & Red-throated Wryneck. The bee nest is a favourite haunt of Lesser Honeyguide and numerous other species that seek shelter here. So the English Oaks would have to stay.
Balcooa Bamboo - far bigger than you think!

I soon learnt that the property along the small river valley opposite our fence line also belonged to the estate, and here there was far more potential - at least for me. Riddled with Tickberry (Lantana camera) from Central and South America, Bugweed (Solanum mauritianum) from South America, Black Wattle (Acacia mearnsii) from Australia, Balcooa Bamboo (Bambusa balcooa) from Indochina as well as various invasive species of Pine tree (Pinus sp) and Blue Gum (Eucalyptus grands). In fact, I am probably only brushing the surface of what other horrid invasives lie in this valley, there is sure to be Siam Weed (Chromolaena odorata) and Syringa (Melia azedarach) amongst others. Clearing this cornucopia of rubbish has already defeated a number of efforts, both by the estate and the council. It has also been partially defeated by a nesting pair of African Crowned Eagle that didn’t take kindly to bull dozers attempting to clear a section of Lantana.

Yours truly is not about to suggest that he is single handedly going to blaze a trail of destruction through this mess and replant it all with native indigenous trees, but I am going to try and make a dent in it. Having secured permission to try my hand at this, I resolved to start slowly and methodically…

Phase one - identify a reasonably sized patch of land and gain permission to plant trees. Permission obtained in late November 2016.

Phase two - obtain suitable trees for planting. Working on a tip off from our friend Rich Lindie, we paid a visit to Val-Lea Nursery in Lincoln Meade. The owner Granton showed me around and also announced that he had sold his property and would be shutting the nursery in a few months. So I filled the cruiser a few times and collected over 40 trees in two visits. 

Phase three - prepare the land. This phase was mandatory due to the presence of a number of Bushbuck, who would happily browse the new trees before they had a chance of growing. Thus a structure around the trees was required. Those bamboo clumps would now come in useful.
Chopping to size

Phase four - over the New Years weekend, I headed down to the local equipment store and rented a chainsaw for the long weekend. Until you have stood at the bottom of a giant bamboo clump, this project would have seemed rather straight forward. This bamboo is so large, that we have actually used pieces of it for a side project - a wine rack, where each bottle comfortably fits inside the hollow of a single internodal region. (I’ll blog about this project separately). After much noise making, pulling and pushing - I was able to retrieve only a small number of the stems that I had actually cut. The remainder are still there, held together 20 metres above by interlocking branches. Having chopped the pieces into manageable lengths, we transported what amounted to a boot full (cruiser that is) of stems back to the house. Ably assisted by Meg and Kaily, the pile had to be transported into the yard for the next session of chopping. More chopping was followed by cross sectioning and sub-dividing of the stems into slats. 

Phase five - build the barriers. The first one is always the most difficult as you attempt to put into action what amounted to a simple plan. When the first attempt failed, a second was devised and implemented to a much better standard.
Kaily bringing the ingredients

Phase six - the final stage was completing the purpose of all this effort. Planting a tree. Having successfully built the first barrier, we selected the first tree for planting and headed over the road, wheel barrow, spade and pickaxe all delivered by an excitable Kaily. Having chosen a suitable spot, I cleared a little vegetation before sinking the pick axe and spade into the ground. Kaily was again on hand to deliver the first tree to site before handing down instructions on just how things should be done. A little pushing and pulling on the bamboo barrier completed the job. Tree number 1, in the ground on January 2nd 2017.

To complete the first session of the project, we have another 39 barriers to construct and trees to plant! 

Tree 1 Planted    02 January 2017   Senegalia galpinii      Monkey Thorn

After a sweaty day, I needed a lift over the road

20 metres tall may be an underestimate

Even with multiple stems cut, the bamboo simply wouldn't fall

Eventually one stem came crashing down much to Kaily's dismay!

Kai helping load the truck

A good start to the project

Building the barrier to protect from the trees from Bushbuck browsing

Kai helping carry the first tree

Barrier and tree installed

Bamboo debris on our lawn, looking across to the first tree site