Aerial survey for SA Bird Atlassing Project

Sep 3, 2011

MISSION  21 of  2011

Name of Mission: Aerial survey for SA Bird Atlassing Project
Date of Mission: 3 and 4 September 2011
Aircraft used: Aeroprakt Foxbat A22
Pilot: Brett Hill 
Beneficiary: Mike Bartlett

Objective of the Flight

To conduct an aerial survey of un-atlassed pentads in the area south of Sodwana Bay

Beneficiary’s report             By Mike Bartlett

I am an observer for SABAP2 (South African Bird Atlassing Project 2), Observer No 10893. The object of SABAP2 is to use citizen scientists who are competent birdwatchers to go out into the field and record bird species in both space and time. Reports are then submitted to the ADU at UCT where they are building a database which may then be compared to the data set from SABAP1. Yet to be completed, SABAP2 has already shown both interesting and alarming changes in the distribution and population densities of a number of different bird species. This information, when analysed on the finest scale, should enable us to document the effects of climate change and habitat destruction/alteration, and to guide conservation strategies needed to slow, halt or reverse a decline in bird species and biodiversity in general.

The SABAP2 database is updated on a continual basis and one of the important objectives is to cover as much of the atlas area as possible. This is called ‘going wide’. A pentad is 1/16th of a quarter degree cell and is approximately 9 x 9 km square. On the coverage map on the SABAP2 website, pentads that are not coloured have not been atlassed during SABAP2. The differing colours of pentads indicate how many reports have been submitted for that pentad. When a pentad has many reports, this is called ‘going deep’. Maputaland, because of its distance from major centres, is in great need of atlas coverage. The other reason for poor coverage in the area is accessibility – the roads are poor with little or no directions.

View ENE to Lake Mgobezileni with plane on the deck at Sodwana  middle
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Pentads 2730_3235 (Lake Mgobezileni) and 2735_3235 (Lake Bhangazi) have not been covered yet in SABAP2 and my efforts to assess the feasibility using Google Earth and Dept of Land Affairs 1:50 000 raster image maps were inconclusive. Also, the topography makes it difficult to assess the area from the ground. Being able to fly over the area and view the terrain from approximately 500 feet would enable me to plan routes in and around the pentads, allowing coverage of as many different habitat types as possible within each pentad. Better still would have been able to land within the pentad, but on closer inspection this would not have been possible: there were too many burrows and other irregularities. The beach would have been fine but it is illegal to land an aircraft within the GWP. This part of the mission having been accomplished, to a degree, I will now be able, confidently, to take my 4X4 into the targeted pentads before the summer rains.

The second objective was to do an aerial survey of all the large water bodies including Lake St Lucia, Lake Bhangazi, Lake Sibaya and the Kosi Lakes System. As there are altitude restrictions I was able to spot and estimate numbers of the larger water birds only (Flamingos, Pelicans, Egrets, Ibis) and large raptors (African Fish-eagle, Palmnut Vulture).

I can confirm the presence of large numbers of Great White Pelicans and Greater Flamingos at Lake St. Lucia. The African Fish-eagle stands out like a beacon even from a great height. I have as yet to submit an incidental report for these sightings to SABAP2.

We played cat and mouse with the weather on the way up on the Saturday morning, having to divert back to Isithebe from Mtunzini because of a rain storm. Richards Bay gave us the green light after about an hour and we flew to Ezulwini Lodge and airstrip (27,9845S & 32,3262E) for brunch. After toasted sarmies we set off for Francois’ airstrip at Sodwana bay (27,5221S & 32,6406E). We had a braai and some beers and slept over in the hangar which is equipped with a neat kitchen, bathroom, 1 bedroom and plenty of beds in the hangar. We got to bed early as we wanted an early start, the craft having been refuelled that afternoon.

Kosi mouth looking in
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A quick wipe-down in the morning after the rain during the night and we set off northwards to Kosi mouth. The air was clear and light and bright. We kept to a loose formation with pilots alerting one another to pelicans thermalling. One flock had birds stacked from 300 to 2000 feet. This was as we approached and left Ezulwini where we again stopped for refreshment on the way back.

The return flight was relatively uneventful with the earlier tailwind changing to a snappy little south-wester over the Tugela. As we approached Ballito the wind had dropped considerably and we were all home by about three, totally unaware of the rugby results from the day before.

Pilot’s report                 By Brett Hill

Planes on the deck at Ezulweni
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The Flight Requestor, Mike Bartlett, explained that he needed to fly over Maputaland to find different birds and add their names and locations to the SA Bird Atlassing project.

On 3rd September we took off from Ballito but had to stop at Isithebe because of bad weather. When the weather cleared we took off for Lake St Lucia where we took lots of photos and then stopped for lunch. From there we flew to Lake Sibaya, took a lot more photos, and then landed at Sodwana where we slept over. We were up early the next day to fly to Kosi Mouth where we took more photos, then headed back to Lake Bhangazi, and then on to Lake St Lucia False Bay where we stopped for lunch. After a short break we were off again to St Lucia and then Richards Bay for more photos, and then home to Ballito.

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