12 September 2011

Highway Steam

Hola! Apologies, I've been quiet again. Lots to update on!

Something minor I must quickly speak about first is my little weekend away at family friends' a few weeks ago. It's nothing that exciting or blog-worthy but I do need to emphasise what an amazing place the Cape Peninsula is. We did a little Peninsula tour, somehow we got a stunning day even though the forecast said there'd be rain. We stopped off at the Scratch Patch in Simon's Town where they sell semi-precious stones as well as some fossils. They had such amazing stuff. I'm a secret geology nerd and fossils are always exciting so I went mad at all these ammonite (I kid you not some were over a meter across), orthoceros, trilobite and fish fossils. I bought a few too, a trilobite for myself (like a mini version of the ones you see in BBC First Life, yes that was my reason behind buying) and a couple as presents including this tiny fish on a tile - amazing to look at with a hand lens, really great detail on it. I also got this fossilised shark tooth on a necklace but I'm still struggling to figure out what species it came from...After that we paid a quick visit to the penguins at Boulders beach. I've been there loads of times before but this time was great because it was the first time I've seen penguin chicks still moulting. There was also a ridiculous number of cormorants out on the beach, also apparently still nesting and moulting. 

sea of cormorants

perfect weather at Cape Point
Cape Girdled Lizard
Cape Point itself was beautiful as always. It's definitely one of my favourite places in the world, I'll grab any chance to go there. The best thing is it's stunning in any weather. I've gone before on cloudy rainy days and it just makes it look more dramatic. This time was perfect and sunny, without a cloud in the sky. I was in full dork mode, enjoying the outdoors, birding and trying to catch little Cape girdled lizards that were everywhere, basking in the sun. Always nice to get out of the suburbs! The highlight of Cape Point had to be the whales we happened to see a few hundred meters from the shore. It was such an amazing experience. Out of the few times I have seen whales, these guys were definitely the closest. Only in Cape Town can you have a bit of casual whale-watching on the weekend! On the way home from there we drove through Scarborough and Misty Cliffs which are just beautiful, and then stopped for lunch at Imhoff Farm which has a) amazing food, b) a stunning view and c) a snake park. Obviously I popped in for a visit while the others waited for food. I was so impressed with their collection. They have a massive black mamba chilling in the reception to welcome you, as well as this rather friendly green iguana. They've got one of the best exotic snake collections I've seen in SA - yellow anaconda, reticulated python, cottonmouth, western diamondback rattlesnake and other great ones. All that's missing is a king cobra and some Australian venomous snakes and they'd be set with all the most dangerous species. All in all, a very satisfying day out on the peninsula :)

Gaboon viper! My favourite!
most beautiful green mamba
amazing view of Noordhoek beach

Now for the real excitement - I just got back yesterday from the camp for our Life on Land: Animals course! I thought last semester's ecology camp was amazing but they just seem to get better and better. I thought we'd be going up to the proper Namaqualand but it was more in the Cederberg area, I'm actually still a bit confused about where we were exactly. It was called Traveller's Rest - somewhere past Clanwilliam, still very much in the Western Cape but on the Cape Town-Namibia route. It's a beautiful place with some really bizarre, diverse landscapes. The drive up there is stunning, we passed all these bright yellow canola fields, farmlands with orange groves, amazing mountains and rock formations, Clanwilliam Dam and the Olifants River. 

Throughout the 4 days of camp (just three full days technically), we did 6 little projects plus one ongoing one everyday which is the one we have to do the report on. That one's pretty simple, we laid out colour pan traps - blue, yellow and red - and filled them with water to catch pollinating insects and test their colour preference (I think?). Unexpectedly we didn't seem to get much in the red but anyway, that's still ongoing.. I'm not looking forward to the data analysis and using this program to map it all out :S The other projects were great though, even better because technically, they were just for fun, we aren't getting marked on them. 

On the first day we started out with the ecophysiology project where we basically went out and collected a whole bunch of insects and brought them back to test how they deal with water/heat stress by putting them in a desiccator. Rather cool stuff plus we collected a lot of cool stuff. Some of the other groups even got some scorpions which we got to handle - amazing, one tick off my to-do list of life :) The second project of the day was probably my favourite for obvious reasons - herpetology. We got briefed on reptiles, handling, venomous snakes etc. and then we went out and hiked around looking for reptiles. We didn't get much, all we found were agamas, skinks and geckos which we were unsuccessful at catching but even so, it was a really cool introduction to herping. Just holding a snake stick for the first time was amazing. The only way I can do it justice is comparing it to playing a guitar (or any other instrument) for the first time. It feels so foreign and strange at first but once you hold it for a while and walk around turning over rocks with it, you get a better feel for it. I can only imagine how it feels to actually handle a snake with one. You also learn to look around you more, check in crevasses and just generally take in more of your environment. The hiking around was actually quite intense, at many points we were rock climbing, edging along ledges on little cliff faces, crawling through caves filled with dassie droppings - all quite adventurous. It must take so much practice because in those kinds of terrains it's hard to multi-task. Figuring out how to get from one point to another is enough of a challenge, let alone trying to look for animals between the two points. Again, it was also awesome chatting to the demonstrators Stephen and Simon. Simon's actually working on bats (fascinating to hear about), but he did this reptile handling course for fun and is the same one who told me about it. I'm so keen to do it myself. Stephen's like this real-life version of all the herp guys you see on Animal Planet. Slight Donald Schultz/Austin Stevens vibes but American...although Austin Stevens is insane so that's probably an offensive comparison. He was staying in our house so one night we went on a walk looking for things. I can't describe how amazing the nights are up there. The moon was casting shadows, you hear frogs and the whole torchlight shining and looking for reptiles atmosphere reminded me so much of Mabula night drives. Again we didn't have much luck but Stephen did catch a frog (his Masters project is on frogs) and got us to hold it. I'm so glad he got me over my reluctance to handle it. I struggled for so long thinking I'd hold it too tight and it would slip out of my hand and fall badly but eventually I got it right. I don't know what it is about handling wild animals that's so rewarding but that's been one of the highlights of camp for me. That same day one of the other groups caught a Spotted Skaapsteker which we got to handle also. Luckily I'm good with snakes because these guys are mildly venomous. Fortunately even if something had happened the bite symptoms are only like a bee sting (as Stephen later found out when they caught another one). I'm quite chuffed because that and a vine snake in India are now the two venomous snakes I've handled :p

I missed the mammals project the next morning because I was sick so I missed out on checking the rodent traps and finding elephant shrews and other exciting things :( But in the afternoon was the bird project so naturally I refused to stay in bed. We essentially went out looking for birds to help out with the bird atlas project. So we drove around a certain area on the map and recorded what species we saw - heaven. At some points we'd stop and one of the guys, Owen, would whip out his old ipod mini filled with bird calls and connected to a (surprisingly amazing quality) speaker which he'd use to attract specific birds. He used it on the cisticolas and a Karoo Prinia and it was quite amazing seeing the male birds suddenly pop out and get all territorial and aggressive, flitting around us and frantically responding to the ipod calls. I've put down my bird list for the project as well as the rest of camp, I don't think I'd have been able to identify half of them without help - badly in need of practice/training.

Bird list for camp (*s are lifers, though there's definitely a few missing that I couldn't identify):
Little Grebe (not a lifer but first sighting in SA)
African Darter
Reed Cormorant
Little Bittern*
Sacred Ibis
Egyptian Goose
South African Shelduck*
Yellow-billed Duck
Yellow-billed Kite*
African Fish Eagle
Verraux's (Black) Eagle
Black Harrier
Pale Chanting Goshawk*
Rock Kestrel
Red-knobbed Coot*
Namaqua Dove*
Laughing Dove
Speckled Pigeon
White-backed Mousebird
Acacia Pied Barbet*
Cape Wagtail
Pied Crow (I hate them. Every time without fail I got excited about it possibly being a bird of prey until I saw the white markings)
Karoo Thrush
Cape Robin-chat
Karoo Scrub-robin*
Grey-backed Cisticola*
Levaillant's Cisticola*
Karoo Prinia
Fiscal Flycatcher
Common Fisal
Pied Starling
Red-winged Starling
Malachite Sunbird*
Cape White-eye
House Sparrow
Cape Sparrow
Cape Weaver
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
Cape Bunting*
Mountain Wheatear*

On the last day the first project was learning about different biocontrol methods used on invasive alien plant species in the area from the zoology Head of Department. First he told us about some projects undertaken on various acacias and prickly pears, how different beetle species have been used to control their spreading. Then we went out to look at the potential for such initiatives on mesquite trees by looking for seed pods that were infested with specific beetles as well as animal dung with seeds in it. The second project of the last day was to go out with Mike Picker (!!!) looking for insects to assess the diversity and also to raid some termite nests. One thing I've found on camp, on both the insect and herp project, was how for the first time my neck and back hurt from looking down and scouring the ground for creatures, as opposed to birding when you get aches from constantly looking up. I found that quite amusing :) I don't think I need to say again how much I love Mike Picker. He's so brilliant to learn from and also just seems like such a sweet man (not to mention how well he catered for us few vegetarians on camp). I think working with him for the afternoon also helped me man up with the insect fear as we went out trying to find whatever we could and catch a lot of them too. I'm so proud of myself for overcoming a bit of my phobia on camp and just learning to appreciate how amazing these little insects are. We caught some amazing stuff and they're just fascinating to learn about. While walking around we also stumbled across this carcass which we decided was a bat-eared fox, the skull of which is now in my possession. Quite exciting because they're one of my top mammals to see but I won't lie, it's a bit disgusting. All these carrion beetle worms came out of it and I'm pretty sure there's still some brain matter in there so it shall be soaking in  water and bleached for a few days before I can appreciate it :S

Anyway this post is long enough, I had to do justice to the most amazing field camp. I've pretty much decided that my future is in being a field biologist (sorry EGS). I can't think of any work more rewarding. Hopefully I can steal some pictures from people and put them up soon. I'm horrible at remembering to take pictures myself even if I do have my camera with me :S

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