Citizens Contribute to Science During 2014 Cape Parrot Big Birding Day

Sep 16, 2014

Juvenile Cape Parrots feeding on pecan nuts near
Creighton, KwaZulu-Natal in May-June 2014.

Community involvement once again played a big part in the success of this year’s Cape Parrot Big Birding Day.

For the past 17 years Professor Colleen Downs from UKZN’s School of Life Sciences has co-ordinated the annual Cape Parrot Big Birding Day (CPBBD). This annual count of one of South Africa’s endangered birds is heavily reliant on community input and co-operation in terms of sighting and counting assistance, as the parrots are spread over a wide geographic area in the mistbelts of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

The Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) is the only parrot species endemic to South Africa.  In 1989 A.F. Boshoff estimated that there were less than 1 000 left in the wild. This dire calculation raised the alarm amongst researchers who set out to establish whether numbers were in fact declining, and what the real number of Cape parrots in the wild was.

But that is easier said than done, as Professor Downs explains: ‘Standard bird counting techniques are unsuitable for Cape Parrots as they are nomadic feeders with unpredictable movements. Parrots’ cryptic colouration combined with dense forest habitats often make them difficult to locate once perched; but their loud harsh calls whilst in-flight make their presence known.’ 

Downs said that parrots are most active during the first few hours after dawn and before sunset, when they leave and return to their roosts in forest patches (although during misty conditions these periods can be extended). ‘These characteristics allow for a “total count” of the parrots,’ said Downs.

The Cape Parrot Big Birding Day was initiated in 1998 and has since been held annually as part of the conservation effort of the Cape Parrot Working Group, which Professor Downs chairs. The aim is to determine their occurrence and obtain an accurate population estimate.

‘Over recent years less than 1 600 have been counted in the wild,’ said Downs.  Factors contributing to the parrots’ decline vary in their effects and extent at different locations and include the loss or change in the quality of their preferred forest habitat; food and/or nest-site shortages; illegal poaching for the pet trade; disease (especially psittacine beak and feather disease virus (PBFDV)); avian predators; and accelerated climate change.

‘The Cape Parrot, a forest specialist, is now mainly restricted to patches in a mosaic of afromontane southern mistbelt forests from Hogsback in the Eastern Cape through to the Balgowan and Karkloof areas of KwaZulu-Natal, with a disjunct population in the Magoeboeskloof region of Limpopo Province,’ said Downs.  She said parrots can be seen feeding on fruit in protea patches, gardens, orchards or coastal forests at certain times of the year. The absence of parrots in some forest patches during certain periods are not local extinctions, but are likely owing to the absence of food, as the fruiting of their preferred yellowwoods may be sporadic and absent in some years.

The annual Cape Parrot count usually starts on a Saturday morning, and is generally extended over the afternoon and Sunday morning of the following day (as the weather is often poor on one of the days). This counting pattern allows for an afternoon and a morning estimate. The higher of these for each province is then used to give the maximum number counted. 

In 2014 the areas of South Africa covered by the count included the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo Provinces. ‘This year at least 260 volunteers were posted at 98 localities in the three provinces,’ said Downs.

According to Downs, some localities had Cape Parrots feeding in flocks in pecan nut trees.  ‘Despite the poor weather on one of the days in some of the areas, at least 1 166 parrots were seen during the afternoon count while 1 176 were seen the following morning.’

The maximum number of Cape Parrots counted was 477 in KwaZulu-Natal, 491 in the former Transkei, 341 in the former Eastern Cape and 35 in Limpopo Province. ‘This suggests that there were at least 1 344 in the wild on the CPBBD in 2014, which is similar to the maximum count of 1 356 in 2013 when weather also had an impact. Consequently, both years are likely an underestimate,’ said Downs.

Of interest was how many juvenile flocks of Cape Parrots were observed in parts of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Two localities also reported Cape Parrots nesting. ‘This shows that there is some recruitment,’ explained Downs.  ‘Also, there was a report of Cape Parrots feeding on bugweed near Umtata which has not been previously documented. And several observers commented on how Pied and Cape/Black Crows were disturbing the Cape Parrots.’

Downs said the annual Parrot count highlighted the importance of South Africa’s Afromontane/temperate indigenous forest patches.  Furthermore, it allowed the sighting and recording of other endangered forest species or those found in the neighbouring grasslands, including Samango Monkeys and Southern Ground Hornbills. Several spotters also reported Cape Vulture, African Crowned Eagle and Martial Eagle at various localities. Sadly, several observers reported illegal logging and/or hunting of wildlife while doing their CPBBD observations.

Downs stressed the importance of community involvement in the annual Cape Parrot count.  ‘As in past years, there were numerous communities involved in the CPBBD. This highlights the importance of the CPBBD day in developing interest, knowledge and hopefully conservation awareness,’ she said. ‘It is an excellent way that citizens can contribute to science.’

Several school groups assisted observers in many of the rural areas. Some scholars from Sonyongwana, Newtonville and Ginyane schools near Creighton even camped out and assisted with observations. Observers in the Langeni/Matiwane region had a get-together and produced their 10th very detailed report for their area.  

‘We are grateful to all those who participated in the CPBBD, particularly the co-ordinators and those volunteers who have participated for many years,’ said Downs. ‘We continue to be extremely grateful for the effort, enthusiasm and continued support of the co-ordinators. We are also grateful for the contribution of Border Bird Club, DAFF, DEAT, Rance Timbers, Sappi and Mondi foresters, Indwe Security, and Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife officials (particularly those from Coleford Nature Reserve), and the Armours who host the UKZN students near Ingeli.’

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