When birds of a feather get together

A view of the Vaal Dam from Bronwyn's window.


Bronwyn Adams
On the weekend of Feb 11 we began celebrating Valentines early in
Deneysville, with a meeting of birders from across the country gathered
for the CWAC event – when birds of a feather get together, by boat, to
track the status, numbers and distribution of our feathered friends
along an impressive chunk of the 800km shoreline of the Vaal Dam.

The Vaal Dam has been under pressure; climactic; human encroachment;
invasive plants; the drought and more. This translated into a dive in
the biggest, inland water-bird count this year, just under 8 900 birds
counted as opposed to over 17 000 counted in 2015. On the species side
the count hovered a little below 2016’s number of 63, perched 57
water-bird species identified.

CWAC it may be called, which bears a phonetic match to the work defining
unqualified people sprouting medical knowledge, but here the unqualified
were paired with doctors, professors and experts in their fields
protecting bio-diversity.

That was the start of our ‘virtual valentines’ when novices got the
chance to work with bird-watchers and specialists and branched off into
‘Citizen Science’, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as; “Scientific work
undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with
or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific
institutions”, according to Henk Nel, speaker at the 2017 Sasol Vaaldam
Big Bird Count briefing.

He introduced ‘Birdlasser’, a tiny app which allows you to log a
bird-sighting, in real time, anywhere and be admitted straight into the
cloud to participate in the global Atlassering community, (the Southern
African Bird Atlas project is fast mapping the whole continent by
involving Citizen Scientist everywhere). Coordinated by the University
of the Western Cape’s ADU (Animal Demography Unit) all it takes to
participate is download the app and swift swipe across your cell phone

The model for Birdlasser is Face Book where every participant with an
interest in preserving anything natural, be they birds, beasts, lizards
or leopards, can be elevated to a Citizen Scientist by inputting their

Equipped with this new app. we set out on the count, boat 13, beginning
at the Oranjeville Bridge, skirting Weltina Bay and Riviera, back to the

Sunday saw brilliant, clear skies – even at six o’clock in the morning.
And Big Birds it was which we spotted; Goliath Heron; Yellow Billed
Stork; Pink Backed Pelican; Caspian Terns and around 400 Egyptian Geese,
including a gigantic single flock that we sailed past, delighted to see
blue waters pitted by flapping wings as the birds mustered the momentum
with movements akin to butterfly stroke in taking to the air.

Led by hawk-eyed Henk we were amazed when we were directed to spot and,
quite literally, count each and every bird! I have to admit that I had
assumed that we would extrapolate numbers from the spots, however, the
numbers recorded closely reflected the actual individual birds seen,
Henk through his binocs while the rest of us were allocated sections of
the water to scout and alert him. Birds were then identified and
recorded on paper and occasionally, when the water was not too rough, by
video! Then straight into the virtual cloud, via Birdlasser, while the
birds flocked by into the more terrestrial version – heady stuff.

Having been thrown into the deep end myself I was struck by a couple of
themes which emerged from our experience; ‘BIG’, the birds were,
‘monogamous’ and mostly do not; “obligate siblicide,” which, according
to Ian Sinclair & Peter Ryan’s latest Complete Photographic Field Guide
Birds of Southern Africa, means siblings (particularly the oldest and
biggest chicks) don’t generally kill one-another after hatching –
behaviour patterns reminiscent of ideal human interaction, especially on
the cusp of Valentines!

So, our Big 5 included the largest Stork, with spectacular, hefty,
piercing, yellow bill; Goliath Heron, its massive, dagger-shaped bill
with long legs matched in length by its shapely neck; a bunch of Caspian
Terns, easily identified by their blood red bills, (they are the largest
of the sea-gulls which migrate from St Lucia); a lone Pelican which we
thought was a Great White but it turned out to be a slightly smaller
Pink Backed Pelican – unusual for this neck of the woods as it’s
prolific in Botswana and KZN; and a horizon peppered by hundreds of
Egyptian Geese.

The experience was utterly rewarding and, of course, with Birdlasser we
received immediate acknowledgement. The app has a playful element
encouraging users to spot, plot and play a part within your community or
by yourself like so many electronic games but this time supporting
research and conservation in reality.
* Bronwyn Adams is a mapping vendor operating from the Vaal Dam, Deneysville, where
an accommodation node has been established at the waterfront. www.vaaldelta.com

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