Monday, 29 October 2018

A bird in hand - Zaagkuildrift


Pearl-spotted Owl
We were pulled-over by an admin. account dressed in pimples & sailing at full-mast with an old bangerful of friends. Foregoing the usual how-de-dos & the other social subtleties that define good-breeding, we humoured the pseudo-intellectual & drilled down to sub-species for a Yellow Wagtail we'd 'seen' earlier.

Designed to put me in my place, the interrogation was accompanied by sniggers from the juvenile squad in-back; fun to anticipate... High in impudence & low on wit, this macher is symptomatic of SA twitching often feral & rancid.


Nobody gets a pass but if the middle-finger resides somewhere in the correct answer, then I guess we had the last laugh.



Ridiculous
I don't want to dwell on the riddikulus - (good people, bird) - but when I see "last seen at about 06h45 after which it disappeared and has not been seen since" [SA Rare Birds], I tend to revert to the mean of 'who dunnit?'. 

Don't kid yoursel'.     Some-dimwit-did.

One or two years ago, I pooh-poohed Birdlife SA's concerns on 'birding with a camera ' & ' the lost art of field-observation ' - fair bunkum, prima facie, or so I thought. Turns out I was wrong.

Endemic in the system is the inferred right of access covered in the Ts & Cs of "My Camera & I" - self-promotion that vindicates Birdlife's concern & more's the pity; a knob does not a photographer make.

Most laughable are the copyright watermarks splashed across photos that can only be described as once seen / forgotten. Why average point-&-shoot photography courts fame in emperor's new clothes, beats me.

That said, occasionally we get out far enough to see the birds; not having had the chance for much since autumn.


In the field 'learning'
Zaagkuilsdrift, on the Limpopo / North West border, is purity in a bottle & we took along a bib & spoon for as much as we could get. We doubled the calories and packed the nets. There are few joys, in-hand, better than a bird in full HD.


We stayed at Wolfhuiskraal, the area's grand old dame - and the holiday-home of rare birds & the not-so-secret jewel of the drift. Why anybody would stay anywhere else, boggles, to say the least. 

Complain bitterly if you're taken elsewhere! 


At Wolfhuis, punters have free access, functional facilities and an unrestricted view of peace & quiet. It's a moment of random joy. 

As these things go, the weather turned bitter. The wind was more than a zephyr and the rain lashed dust, then mud onto anything we cared to slip & show. We should have done a cool running in nix but nought - these plains hold that joy in early summer; but courage balks @peepers-in-de-bush and the thought of thorns & satellites. 'Another time' perhaps / never comes.


Bacon on the hoof
In the periods between squalls, however, we featured owls, finches, waxbills, shrikes, starlings et al and a Duroc / F1-cross. The birds we banded (ringed); the sow we coveted on a plate with eggs but left her to her own; the sternest of warnings notwithstanding.


Regrettably, the weather extended into the early evening and put a damper on the itinerary's 'starlit' fire-side hot chocolate & a tale. 

The same development voided front-seat tickets to the late night's owling session. Fortunately, the pitter patter, on old thatch, filled our cups to overflowing - treasure banked for when next we're ambushed by Sir Dancelot on a quest for status; but take heed, my friend - Motacilla flava flava is easier on the eye than it would be wedged in your craw.









Wednesday, 16 May 2018

A Northern Cape melange

Near Prieska - in April?
The Easter weekend is South Africa's traditional weekend for a pilgrimage to the coast or to family residing further afield. The ensuing chaos is a SANRAL [South African National Roads Agency ie: toll co.] bonanza. 

N, Far E & SE attract more than their fair share of traffic - we avoid those sharp-ends like we would one prick too many.
Pofadder - near [standing water in the thirstland]

With that in mind, we chose to meander through the eye of the storm & cover portions of South Africa where somnolent ideals are still pedalled by big-sky dreamers ie: we'd head W / then SW / turn NW & return home via the rising sun. We also thought we'd camp. 

Wet weather was forecast for the weekend & so it was; most of the country gloried in soaking rains. There are few spectres more arresting than standing water in the desert.

We stopped at Kambro Farmstall for the night; roughly half-way between Johannesburg & Cape Town. Sebastian loved the working-farm bits & bobs - we braved a rare hour spent alone.


We thought we'd go camping...
Our travel-preparations usually drill down to the minutia, particularly when we camp. We find that an oversight is almost always exploited by the vagaries of Chance. Our toiletries' had been overlooked in the 'I thought you packed it' last-minute QC check. 

This wasn't awfully good news... 

Neighbours detest a peculiarly flavoured camper on a downwind day - we'd have to replace the kit - & we did, at Kimberley's North Cape Mall. 

The hole that is Kimberley is best enjoyed, in a blur, from 30 000 ft & at a cruising speed of 500 mph. We weren't that lucky, unfortunately. A catatonic queue for toothpaste & a roll-on is a tooth-grinding affair in our books; a look we sustained, in silence, for some time - at least until the rains started somewhere near Prieska. Sungazers were lost in the moment & so were we.

We imagine country-folk are deeply rooted in the land. Cookery, we assume, is a cottage industry central to this culture - ie: befrocked magicians, in homespun, conjuring up 5-star culinary marvels from little more than a small bag of brown sugar, fermented cactus-juice & some elbow grit. Sadly it isn't (always) true... 

Alisha auctioned off an arm & bought a jumbo-sized bag of 'buttermilk' rusks. One powdery mouthful, post a brief, but truly moving, opening ceremony, was enough to consign the balance to the darkness under the table. The dogs aren't talking to me.
All fired-up

A crowing cockerel had me up & about, one or two groans before sunrise. It's the only thing for it really. Before that, however, I was reminded why the roof-tent keeps its own company; a mean-spirited misanthrope at the best of times.

The rain's drip-drip had provided a salubrious, earthy tang to the immediate surrounds - the harbinger of all that is beautiful in this part of the world. 

Descending the tent's ladder, in pitch black, in flops & jocks, is no small feat. Rain-water had collected on the tent's fly-sheet overnight; the same canvas I steadied-on to avoid plummeting to my death after stepping onto 'a rung' which turned out to be thin air... There are few things more rousing than icey water on one's visage [& more] at 4:30 in the morning. This unexpected immersion was especially tickety-boo... I might have used bad words & let go. It was a brisk plummet to a stoic bounce down below; an involuntary start but a beginning nevertheless. 
Fracking? Here...?

From so humble a beginning, a new day - a tarried day spent traversing a slice of South Africa that we had, until then, largely ignored. As it turned out we'd left the best for last but before that, these: - If conceptual thinking divides us, 'Travel' must be the panacea, surely? Would history read more gently if we spent less time in committee & more time in the open air? In reality, sadly, the futility of greed, deceit, ideology & self-aggrandisement is, & will always be, a quixotic quest. 

The next leg of our odyssey turned coastal ie: roughly westwards, via the Bushman's Kloof Wilderness Reserve. We spent the night at Jakama Organic Farm... Clanwilliam's 'highly-rated' Ode to Joy!     

Jakama is exotic ugliness unfurled in the foothills and shadows of the Cedarberg Mountains. Cape Town's hipsters & skinny jeans descended on this Glastonbury for some sleep & love under the stars; erecting a favela of faux yurts & 'living-naturally' on green happiness. The more physically useful ran or cycled their 'new way to be'... 

  ... and those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. [Friedrich Nietzsche]

Meanwhile, for those of us not lost in personal discovery, the glampsite boasted cold-water showers, dank sites and exotic pine, blue-gum & wattle; an arboreal 'convenience' for those having troubles with their bowels - every tree a lavatree.    

'Your body is a forest.. thick.. scented.. wild' [anon].    

We left before first light - of the happy broccoli that is - not the sun. 


Bushman's Kloof
Earlier that afternoon we'd stopped somewhere near the Botterkloof Pass - the Bushman's northern keeper. Meld the fragrance of a rainswept Karoo to these forbidding mountains & it's difficult to imagine YHWH is far away. We were, however, low on fuel, food & drink. That mud fell on me; my motley crew 'desperate' at the time. Retail-conveniences in the Karoo, on Good Friday, are fat-chance. Fortunately Clanwilliam offered some relief, if nothing else. 

Clanwilliam - so much potential: cheap & nasty everywhere; beggars belief..
Talking about relief - listen to this. Post falling out of the nest (see above), I'd availed myself of the  facilities for the day's 1st -wi. What used to be (in my 20s & 30s) a single poster headline & the good stuff scribbled above the trough, is now all the ads & some contemplation through the nearest open window. 

To amuse myself, whilst hanging about, I assessed the audible traverse time of vehicles on the freeway nearby. 34 seconds for a sedan outta the north [ave.] & 58 seconds for one headed north from the south - a function of the northerly wind methinks; the Karoo, Africa's pre-eminent sounding-board. It's a geographical pin-drop but a loud echo on the tin.

Velddrif on the Berg
Fast-track to Saturday - a full dance-card scratching the nether ends of the West Coast including whirls through the hamlets of Velddrif, Langebaan, St Helena Bay & to the West Coast National Park. Fish in tins might advance the common good, per the Omega 3 fad, but I find little romance in discarded fish-offal - a constant that permeates the West Coast. That said, the villages are quaint & the people quirky. 

Broad-bills @ 60x [close...]
Langebaan, & for our purposes here - the West Coast National Park - South Africa's only non-estuarine tidal lagoon - protects approximately 30% of the country's salt-marsh habitat. 


What you may not know, however, & please pay attention class, is this: - Over the last few decades there has been a 40% [approx.] decline in Zostera capensis, the local seagrass. That has had a cascading (-) effect on the invertebrate biomass - & the wading birds that eat them. There are fewer birds today than there were yesterday & probably more today than there will be tomorra - & a similar act plays out most everywhere else. 

Fortunately, in the intertidal zone [betwixt high & low tides], lurks a small gastropod  - the Assiminea globulus. This endearing operculate keeps a lid on the losses, & is the favoured prey of the Curlew Sandpiper - hence the prevalence of said sandpiper going about it's business on the sandy substrate. Unbelievably, the invertebrate biomass peaks in October & February which coincides exactly with the 'fattening comings & goings' of the annual shorebird migration. Clearly an evolutionary co-inky-dink... 

Langebaan - West Coast NP
As beguiling as the Curlew Sands are, & especially in aggregation before their impending departure - for the birding cognoscente, time is a thief; more is... better. More effort, however, isn't

Crawling on the meniscus of the littoral zone, to see shorebirds, is a dirty business & not considered pucker. Nobody likes a wackadoo.

To solve this conundrum, the authorities have appended three 'long-walk' bird-hides to the general offering. Armed with a map & an overnight survival kit, birders who complete the trek & who are still in good spirits, are rewarded with close-up (?) views of wading birds poking [in the sand]. At Geelbek ['the hide'] those views improve from 2-hours before the rising (semidiurnal) tide ie: the birds come to ya as the tide comes in

Hidden betwixt the Curlews were two avian chefs-d'œuvre - the Broad-billed Sandpiper & a Lesser Yellowlegs - aptronyms of their more endearing features & the raison d'etre for this, the most southerly leg of our journey to the ends of the earth. In attendance with us the very individual who first discovered the Legs some weeks before - her Pesach meal, a formal sit-down btw., cooling its heels, at home, in Cape Town. Rare birds tend to have an extraordinary impact on otherwise functional people. In our case we'd driven across the country for 'a glimpse will do'.   

Witsand Nature Reserve - late evening
We headed north one-up, not two - & miserable for it. Such are the vagaries of birding. I won't prattle on about the details; suffice to say we had a blast despite the 'something fishy'. We did, however, hand over hard-won loot to the proprietor of our scheduled stop in Citrusdal; a misnomer btw. - 'Detritusdal' the more appropriate handle. One look at the 'kampterrein' [a farmyard with roaming, defecating livestock] & we turned tail - I did, at least. Alisha is tougher than the eye suggests. I won the day, however, a rarity in itself. 

We left without so much as a by your leave & ended back at the point from where we had started earlier that morning: in Clanwilliam - fortunately not at HappyTown but at one of the local B&Bs. Unfortunately, the sun had set & holiday darkness, in the Cape, closes restaurant doors it seems... Perhaps there was something fishy in our demeanour? Either way, we snacked on a carb & sugar-induced nightmare of 'will tomorrow never come?'.   

Klein Pella - south of the Orange River near Pofadder
As it happens, the sun did rise & we tootled 'up-coast' as far as Springbok before turning further inland, to Pofadder, where we spent the night. 

There are few [seriously!], if any, more aesthetically appealing vistas in all of South Africa than those on offer in & around Pofadder; a backwater town servicing vagabonds & providing some religious succour to the local farming community. The birding is quintessential & the portions of peace & quiet, generous. A brief glimpse of a Black-footed Cat didn't hurt either. 

Imagine our chagrin, if you will, when we were confronted, early next, by a monstrosity that can only be described as a spit in the eye & an affront to Shangri-la. Before I get to that - a small taste of progress, further west, at Aggeneys; a mining town built to exploit the region's base metal riches. In its defence, & for what that's worth, it does as the tin threatens - mine. Even so, a mountain of overburden dumped adjacent ancient rock formations, as yet untarnished, is sad & an ice-block of pee in a crystal glass of spring-water, on a hot day - depreciating...
Aggeneys - (100t dump-truck on the top-left for scale. See it?)

The monstrosity, alluded to earlier, bears its fangs on the N14, nearer the western shores of Upington. Colloquially, this Decepticon is called the KSO Tower - or the Khi Solar One. This mega 'community-upliftment project' [a solar-power-tower-solar-thermal-plant (yessir)] focuses solar energy on a boiler some 200m overhead.  This pot-o-water superheats steam to a skin-wrinking 500-odd degrees Celsius - the energy which drives a turbine. The resultant 50 MW is sold to Eskom on a 20-year 'the public pays pay more for it' deal. For the purists, the plant covers 140 hectares, boasts a tower some 205m high, utilises 4000 heliostats covering 575 000 square meters of mirror surface & is a first for Africa. 

Hardly impressive, really. Kids have used similar technology [ie: the sun & a magnifying glass], for eons & with some success. Ask the ants.


KSO - Upington

KSO was developed by Abengoa, a Spanish company; the same company which initiated insolvency proceedings in 2015. 

Handed to & owned by Khi Solar One (PTY)Ltd in 2015, an entity, in turn, owned by Abengoa (*51%), the IDC (29%) and the local community in their Khi Community Trust (20%), KSO is the first tower plant in Africa to operate around the clock on solar energy only. It's a bold claim. 

Goodie-gumdrops & a boon for the Spanish Empire. 

BTW. in 2014 a crane 'accident' killed 2 & injured more; blood & tears the playthings of power-brokers. Unrelated, but equally snazzy, is a Johannesburg civils group nobody's ever heard of / from before. Here's the fun bit - this same entity utilises a gmail address for official business; a frugal exercise, ... obviously.  


Old-school
KaXu Solar One, situated 40 km NE of Pofadder & built away from the public eye, is owned by the same entities involved at KSO with one exception [a different community - ie: a different trust]. It's the largest solar plant of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. 100 MW [not really] of concentrated solar power [CSP] is 'on record' at the plant. KaXu's specs mirror those employed at KSO but are operated on a larger scale. There are, however, some interesting departures at KaXu. The mirror surfaces are parabolic ie: fancier, more expensive; and most obviously, there's no pot-o-water overhead. 

Are these plants long-lived? They don't appear to be. Muerto [deceased] by 2035 we're told.  Eviva España!

What of the price tag you say? KaXu sets interested consumers back an estimated $900m & was financed offshore, mostly; although some scraps were offered to local entities incl. Firstrand & Nedbank. Abeinsa, owned by Abengoa, was 'awarded' the construction of the plant. At $10m per MW Spain must be thrilled. For context, the South African renewable energy target for 2030 is 17800 MW...    [KaXu + KSO] = 150 MW. We're a little short, I think... 

On the plus side, the EIA was conducted by Savannah, a Johannesburg-based company - & wholly-owned by women. This then girl-power at its best [I know...]


Alisha's boy doing what Alisha does... [not really]
Once the shock had worn off, we continued eastwards & powered down for the night, under open skies, at the Witsand Nature Reserve - 'home of (the) ... Kalahari sands'.  

There are few, if any, more aesthetically appealing vistas in all of South Africa than those on offer in & around Witsand. Trust me.  

More in the next...




Saturday, 24 March 2018

Marion Island - the ugly truth

We possess the gift of imagination - the genesis of creativity; essentially the catch-all for an original idea with value. Replicated work has little value whereas rare & unique work is rewarded. Creativity & intelligence are homogeneous. An active intelligence adapts to stimulus, free of influence or context. 


"The path to least resistance leads to crooked rivers & crooked men" [Henry David Thoreau]


I picked up a copy of Peter Ryan's 'Guide to SEABIRDS of Southern Africa' & was struck by the recurring theme - '... high chick mortality due to mouse predation.' That tends to get annoying. 

Appended nearer the front of the publication are graphic images of partially devoured [still living] albatross chicks. The images were captured on Tristan da Cunha's Gough Island - the culprit - Mus musculus or the House Mouse.

Mice were brought to Gough Island [a World Heritage Site today] by 19th century seal-whackers &, since then, have evolved into creatures 50% larger & a good deal meaner than their greatest grand-daddies. 

Preferring a more balanced diet - today's mouse muscles sitting birds, often 300x heftier; & bites off as much as it can chew. Some 900 000+ seabirds, including the Atlantic Petrel & the Tristan Albatross, succumb to these supersized ghouls [nearly 2 million strong] each year. The Gough Bunting isn't faring any better. As a consequence, better late than incompetent, the Tristan Island Council [à la 'Lord of the Flies' if "Chief Islander" is anything to go by], working with the UK's RSPB, have developed their Gough Island Restoration Programme [mooted for 2019]. The intention is multi-faceted, yet simple - serve the Mus musculus community a poisoned apple & whilst the hunting party's out & about - eradicate an alien plant for being a touch too rowdy. 2 for the price of 1. The funders will be thrilled... 

Since I have the conch I have to ask - why has it taken so long? The standard one-size-fits-all defence either blames the sealers or amorphous funding. I don't think so...

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the hallowed halls of Academia - blinkered men & women often described as the uncontested champions of impotent communication, vacillation, & donor-dollar compliance. These luminaries, disconnected from the 'real' world, see no personal gain from public participation & focus exclusively on their own research community as a result. Academia is not the crucible of creativity once lauded as vocationally systemic. The cracks are there for all to see. 

Gough's carbon copy plays out, under similar circumstances, some 3800-odd kilometres to the south east. 

The Prince Edward Islands Group, including Marion Island, one of two volcanic spits of land (24km x 16km), is a sub-Antarctic archipelago in the Southern Ocean's 'Roaring 40s'. It's also front and centre in the 'Guide to Seabirds..' & a haven for supersized mice exploring their own Den of Shadows. Nobody likes them; the mice that is - not the islands. Here's more:

  • In 1803 seal-wackers & penguin-stickers landed on Marion Is. to pursue their trade in oil & gloves. Nearby Prince Edward Island [not to be confused with THE Prince Edward Islands] was too steep a climb to drag a pot; still is. Whilst on Marion, the gentry found signs of earlier habitation and history assumes Cpt. Cook & others had landed on the island a century or so before. 
  • In 1947/48 the South African government annexed the archipelago (ie: expropriated w/o compensation); & glued the islands onto that country's Western Cape province. A 2100-odd kilometre ocean-transect baffles pedestrians intent on hiking from Cape Town to Marion. I assume earlier trekkers suffered the same annoyance; waterproof boots notwithstanding. 
  • Before the annexation, whackers & stickers, hailing from all walks, incl. Cape Town, enjoyed free rein; unimpeded by hygiene or a care for tōmorgen. The Southern Elephant Seal was clubbed & blubbed until circa 1930 when populations were considered too low to pay the harbour-master. The sealers left in a bit of a huff, at a guess.  
  • After the annexation, meteorologists made island-life liveable & set up a Stevenson Screen - history tells us to establish de facto ownership & to 'study' the weather. Punters, on a free-ride, have been rotating out of Cape Town, ever since. The sealers returned, club-less & in white coats. Armed with clip-boards, telemetry & cheap dye, these doctrinaires continue to shake & stir the local wildlife, for science. 
  • In 1830 Richard Harris [not of Harry Potter fame - although who can be sure?] was the first person to have observed [ie: collected] seabirds on Marion Is. Why none of the others looked up, before Harris did, is proof enough that Harris is indeed a wizard. Other wizards still shake a stick at birds today. 
The seals settled back into some sort of routine, post their 1930 knock-about; but wait 'till you hear what happened to the birds AFTER the white-coats arrived. Listen to this:

In 1949, fed-up with holes in the oats bag, the weathermen brought cats to Marion. The island was infested - yessir indeed - Mus musculus ie: mice. Stuart Little & his descendants had jumped ship centuries before and had occupied the building. 5 cats: a ginger castrate - 1 b&w queen - & 3 kittens warmed their tuchis at Marion's hearth. Although Ginger's heart wasn't in it & what goes on tour, stays on tour; the evidence was overwhelming. The 1949 - (5) became the 1977 - (3405)... 

In 1975 one of the resident numpties tore himself away from the wind-sock & ventured outdoors. There he discovered that two tins & a fish wouldn't satisfy the feral mob, even if the fat-cats inside were carrying on regardless. Mice can be tricky - even for cats - better the burrow-nesting birds. The cats were catching & eating 450 000+ birds (est.) per annum. Nobody'd noticed; slap-happy & scrabble at the fire, much more fun. By 1977 the Common Diving Petrel, Grey Petrel and Soft-plumaged Petrel had all but disappeared from Marion [ie: they were locally extirpated]. 

In 1977 'it was agreed', by committee & after years of peer-reviewed debate, that the Marion Island Cat Eradication Programme would be a foot forward for Marion's remaining resident birds. Rather than get their hands mucky, however, even if their consciences were tainted, the white-coats introduced biological warfare to the island [ie: Feline panleucopenia (FPV)] - an infectious, highly-contagious cat-targeting pathogen which compromised the cats' immune system. They died in droves. 

The seals, meanwhile, watched for hakapiks but this fight wasn't theirs. By 1982 only 615 cats remained. The Feline Resistance was determined, however & with one hand on the exit knob, continued to procreate. In 1986 the white-coats rolled-out their Final-status plan. Eight '2-man teams' armed with buck-shot & a torch, jack-lit the remaining 800-odd cats & cancelled their membership one-by-one; until the teams got bored that is. One or two Top Cats remained unaccounted for. In 1989, traps tackled these Rambo-cats & in 1991, Marion was declared cat-free; even if, perhaps, idiot-free it was not.  


I put my heart & my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process. [Vincent van Gogh] 



Marion Is. - like many other isolated islands, is a sandpit without safety rails for academic playmates safeguarding one-dimensional theses. The ecological impact, however, falls on the collective & remains largely unacknowledged. No apology has been forthcoming - the cat faux pas an unmitigated disaster. Meanwhile, the mice remained largely forgotten, but in 2003/4 the first photographic evidence of mouse-predation, on albatross chicks, highlighted something more insidious at work on Marion

Marion Island (29 000 ha), a 'managed' sub-Antarctic ecosystem', is not only afflicted by barefoot-stereotypes, but continues to labour under various threats including invasive weeds. The parallels with Gough Island (6500 ha) are apparent. In 2006, Angel & Cooper published their review on the impacts of feral mice on Gough Island & in 2011 published a similarly-themed review for Marion Is. Appended to their review are two important nuggets / caveats:
  1. The first postscript recommended 'do nothing'. Wait; leave Marion be until mouse-eradication attempts were successful, elsewhere. 'Big Problems on Marion Is.', they said ... The island's geography is mountainous. They feared that at a height of 1242m, Mascarin Peak [Marion's highest point] might be a jump too far for the AS350s - the helicopter-model popular, then & now, for aerial baiting. In May 2005, the same model aircraft flew to & landed on the peak of Mt. Everest [8850m]...
  2. They also recommended that an invitation be extended to an international expert to research & compile a feasibility study [incl. risks, constraints & costs] for the eradication of Marion's mice. As expected, funding for this 'research' would be sought from the private sector rather than from the government who were, however, handed the report at the time. 
The South African government put the team's recommendations on ice, however, pending the release of a similar study being conducted by the British government for Gough. Birdlife South Africa's seabird manager, an experienced fieldsman & Angel's husband, 'fully supported' .. the mouse eradication initiative. In April 2015, Birdlife South Africa commissioned Kurahaupo Consulting to conduct the Marion Is. study.  

Kurahaupo's John Parkes, based in Christchurch, New Zealand, published his 'Eradication of House Mice(,) Mus musculus(,) from Marion Island: a review of feasibility, constraints and risks' in 2016. Read more here

The publication is the intellectual property of Birdlife South Africa which, I assume, paid for the study or at least its donors did. Apparently the publication was peer reviewed by two independent scientists and edited by Birdlife's Seabird Division. That's nice. What isn't too impressive is the fact that none of them could do a basic currency conversion & that's annoying. Either that or nobody actually read the report. It's an oversight, obviously, but when a project is dependent on external funding - from the 'real' world, that is, do the maths...  

A$930/ha is not R87 000/ha. At R87 000/ha x 29 000ha [Marion Island] - the aerial baiting component would cost R2 523 000 000 [It's actually A$930ha x 9.13 (cross) = R8490/ha]

The primary prey of mice, on Marion Is., is the larva of a flightless moth. The larvae take more than 2 years to mature & are detritivorous ie: they fragment, ingest and excrete leaf litter. 1500 tonnes [estimates] are processed by these larvae annually; a process that facilitates nutrient release and improves microbial decay. Since 1970, whilst everybody was darning socks or making shapes in the clouds, 90% of Marion's invertebrate biomass disappeared. It's estimated that mice eat 65g of these larvae / ha daily, predation which indirectly & perhaps more critically, has a detrimental effect on nutrient cycling & therefore, on Marion's ecosystem as a whole. 

Some evidence shows that mice are switching to weevils, which explains why mice are attacking birds - they've eaten the moths & who likes weevils?

When the 2011 review called for an 'international rodent eradication expert', to save time they should have said: - 'get somebody who has done this before' ie: get somebody from New Zealand. New Zealand are the clear leaders in fixing their own alien-invader problems. In fact, they developed, via state-owned Orillion, their own 'second generation' or 'superwarfarin' anticoagulant called Pestoff 20R / (or) 20M. Pestoff is Brodifacoum wrapped in a blue-dyed, palatable cereal. 

Brodifacoum is, we're told, 'highly lethal to mammals and birds, and extremely lethal to fish. It is a highly cumulative poison, ...... and extremely slow elimination'

'Highly lethal' & 'extremely lethal'... ie: derivatives of 'dead as a doornail'. 

In toxicology the median lethal dose [LD50is the dose required to kill half the (sample) population after a specified time. A lower LD50 = increased toxicity.


Brodifacoum LD50 values are as follows:  
    • rats               0.27 mg/kg b.w.
    • mice             0.40 mg/kg b.w.
    • cats               0.25 mg/kg — 25 mg/kg
    • dogs             0.25 — 3.6 mg/kg b.w.
    • birds             LD50 values for birds varies from about 1 mg/kg b.w. — 20 mg/kg b.w.
Brodifacoum is, therefore, classified as 'extremely toxic' for mammals & 'very toxic' for birds. 

"Brodifacoum is the most potent of the second generation anticoagulant toxins" [per the product specification]. In fact, Brodifacoum is absorbed in most soils, is insoluble in water & is active for >5 months out in the field. The rate at which Brodifacoum degrades in soil is related to the organic content of the soil... [see larvae (above)]. 

Brodifacoum is so toxic it's considered an environmental pollutant

Mice have been notoriously difficult to eradicate from islands, elsewhere. The Kurahaupo report includes evidence that concludes: (paraphrased) - a more toxic version of Pestoff might be more effective on mice ie: 25% more toxic that is. Is that so? The standard Brodifacoum content is 20 ppm or 20 mg per kg of food (0.002%). 

The 'more effective for mice' version is obviously also 'more effective for birds'. To mitigate these risks, Kurahaupo recommends a trial run. Fair enough... No point being Gung-ho, is there? 

Birds are exposed to Brodifacoum in two ways - by ingesting the pellets (primary poisoning) or from scavenging / ingesting mice or birds already poisoned (secondary poisoning). In the correct doses both activities "deplete the supply of vitamin Knecessary for the production of blood clotting... " ie: dead as a doornail. 

During the Macquarie Island eradication exercise, on which 305 tonnes of Pestoff 20R were dropped, birds killed by Brodifacoum included Southern Giant Petrel, Northern Giant Petrel, sub-Antarctic Skua and Kelp Gull. All of these species are represented on Marion. Add the Lesser Sheathbill & that's a fair crack at 'non-target species'. 

In prelim. trials, caged Lesser Sheathbill on Marion refused non-toxic Pestoff 20R baits but 'avidly ate dead mice', apparently. Giant Petrels, elsewhere & on similar trials, have been known to refuse both the *bait [*non-toxic] & *mice [dead / *non-toxic].

To mitigate non-target poisoning, Kurahaupo recommends:
  1. Timing the drop in such a way that birds at risk are off the island at the time. For some of the species at risk; that's in winter. Notwithstanding that trump - Brodifacoum is active in the field for >5 months. Birds return...
  2. Other species, including the Lesser Sheathbill, could / should be captured & fed tinned food & dead mice until such time the threat of poisoning has passed; & then released. Fair enough. Of 6 sheathbills caught some years ago and held in captivity for 4 days, [fed tinned pet food & mice] - 'most lost body mass & one was overly stressed and released'; and 
  3. Marion Is. could be repopulated from nearby Prince Edward or birds would return naturally.. Oki Doki, Doc. 
Kurahaupo introduces us to their 'Three Obligate Rules' - white-coat-speak for the 'Three Obvious Rules'. These are the three commandments for island success. 
  1. "Can all mice be placed at risk?" - ie: are we sure we can drop enough super-toxin, close-enough to every mouse, to make this a clean kill?  
  2. "Can the target population be killed quickly enough?" - ie: not applicable for schemes pursuing on aerial-baiting strategy & covering the island in a single one-hit session. All dead = no breeding.
  3. "Can reinvasions be prevented?" - Not if those pesky scientists have anything to do with it. I must admit I enjoyed the following titbit from Parkes' report. Here it is - "...what would the environmental inspectors do if a mouse or rat jumped out [ie: newly arrived cargo] and disappeared down the grating?"     What indeed...
The report reviews territory size, highlights suspected hidey-holes & scrutinises breeding activity. The weather also plays a part on Marion as most might have suspected for a sub-Antarctic archipelago. To comply with Obligate Rules 1 & 2, w.r.t Marion's size, it's volcanic terrain & ice-covered peak; a clean kill requires the coordinated distribution of an effective super-toxin over the entirety of the island. As we've seen, the super-toxin's in the bag & we know the island's a fixture; - ultimately the outcome is influenced by the distribution in the field. 

Accurate & even spreading, at the desired application rate, can be completed in one of two ways:
  1. 6 boatloads of hand-sowers [volunteers with bags] walking grids - destroying fragile flora & slipping on ice; or 
  2. 4 or more helicopters with high-load capacity, a fertiliser hopper & a GPS to cover the predetermined terrain with the precision expected of a trained pilot. 
Prudence favours the air.  Notwithstanding, helicopters are bockety in wind, rain and snow. Marion's extremes include all three; particularly in early winter. 

Per Obligate Rule no. 1 - juvenile mice, semi-dependent on mom & dad, might not be 'placed at risk' whilst confined to the communal nest. That won't do. To circumvent this annoyance, the efficacy of the bait-drop is determined by the breeding season. Ideally 'place at risk' would be post the breeding season ie: in winter. Winter's weather is mercurial in temperament, however - too choppy for the heli squad. Late summer [March] has a more reliable window but then there are the birds... This & much of everything else needs revisiting. 

The errors notwithstanding, the Kurahaupo report makes for compelling reading in bits & bobs. Was it necessary? No - & this is my challenge to Birdlife South Africa.

The idea that an international [ie: non-South African] expert carries more weight than one or more of many equally talented, locally-located men & women, is symptomatic of a top-down strategy that is universally irrelevant; relies on flawed risk-allocation; is both inward-facing & self-indulgent; and irrefutable evidence of a puritanical head-set that can only be described as totalitarian. Why go there? Where is the creativity?

It's impossible to argue against the overwhelming benefits of eradicating mice for the protection of seabirds, Marion Island included. Clearly a super-toxic WMD [weapon of mass destruction] is the one-hit wonder that has been successful on islands elsewhere. Any one of many second-generation anticoagulants are effective, even on mice. Those products are readily sourced locally. Distributing defined swaths of bait is simple technology and a common skill set; easily replicated locally. Cape Town boasts the world's most dynamic industrial-use charter company (w.r.t AS350s). Brodifacoum, an environmental pollutant, kills slowly; is active in the field for months / insoluble in water & because of those properties & others, is ingested in quantities greater than required for a lethal dose. The realities of secondary poisoning cannot be dismissed; mitigation notwithstanding.

Why we insist on an unrelated party to regurgitate / rehash a rendition of the stock-standard strategy, is irritating to say the least. What really irks me is the lack of innovation. It would be a sad day if we succumbed to the temptation of replicable / valueless work. That is undeniably the path of least resistance - & insults the local donor dollar - unless, of course, the Marion project resides in Cambridge - & the 'international' stipulation is a funding pre-requisite. That would make sense, perhaps, but then say so. Even so, we can make the argument, well-enough, here; in South Africa. It's in the name: Bird - Life - South - Africa. That's not too much to ask, surely? 

A final word on Marion. It's clear mice are substituting their primary prey (equally in need of help btw.) with other food, including the island's charismatic fauna. In truth, the mice are the unintended consequence of an inattention to detail. Restoring Marion, if our interpretation of pre-landing glory is correct & not imagined is, therefore, a value judgement - do we need to be there?