Bird atlassers have just completed a mammoth citizen science project in Kruger National Park. Is Kgalagadi next? By Joël Roerig

Setting off from Shingwedzi with Joe Grosel, a professional ecologist and birding guide, we take a no-entry road towards the eastern boundary of the park, with permission from section ranger Rendani Nethengwe. Joe is about to log the final hours of the mammoth bird mapping project Turning Kruger Green.

Mapping involves tracking the distribution and affluence of birds in Southern Africa, from Lesotho to Namibia. Bird atlassers obtain a starter kit complete with an instruction manual, field data sheets and all other information needed to become an atlasser. They are then able to hit the field and begin conducting surveys concerning bird species in the area by tracking their numbers and location.

The project is part of the Second Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP2), the biggest citizen science programme of its kind in the world. The name Turning Kruger Green is derived from sections of the online map changing colour according to the number of times each has been mapped. Green is the colour for a section that has been mapped four times – believed to be the minimum requirement for meaningful insight into bird distribution.

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Image by Jerome Ainsley. The name Turning Kruger Green is derived from sections of the online map changing colour according to the number of times each has been mapped.

We drive a few hundred metres and stop when we get a fleeting glance of some golden-breasted buntings. We don’t need binoculars as Joe’s experience with the bird’s white outer tail feathers and its “dipping flight” are enough the clinch the ID.

Many birds prefer the safety of multi-species parties, especially in winter, and we’re lucky to come across a mixed foraging group of chinspot batis, southern black tit, fork-tailed drongo, blue waxbill, rattling cisticola and long-billed crombec. Joe also picks up the soft chirps of a group of cut-throat finches flying overhead and adds a white-browed scrub-robin to the list, which he can hear calling in the distance.

Comparisons with the first bird mapping project (SABAP1), which began in 1987, are extremely valuable. For Kruger, alarming decreases in reporting rates are noted for species like secretarybird (20.21% to 0.38%), southern ground hornbill (31.36% to 9.26%) and kori bustard (24.59% to 2.38%).

“These changes are probably related to the loss of large tracts of grassland habitat patches within the savanna woodland mosaic,” explains Peter Lawson, living legend of Lowveld birding, who coordinated Turning Kruger Green with the support of scientific services in the park. “Bush encroachment leads to increases in species that like denser woodland, like long‐billed crombec, sombre greenbul, green‐backed camaroptera and yellow‐breasted apalis.

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Joe Grosel, professional ecologist and birding guide, scans the veld during bird mapping.

The beauty of SABAP2 is that every observer contributes to new knowledge, while making his or her own discoveries. “I have noticed species like Cape sparrow, scaly-feathered finch and white-browed sparrow-weaver all the way up to the western fence of the park, in areas that are changed by humans, but not in the park,” says Joe. “Working with Derek Engelbrecht of the University of Limpopo, we have also learnt exactly where the fawn-coloured lark distribution runs and what the habitat of the sabota lark looks like.”

While this outing was supposed to mark the end of a project, Joe mainly talks about the future and how SABAP2 can contribute by targeting all pentads in each season, paying special attention to drainage lines and (closed down) waterholes and doing comparative studies of Kruger’s management zones – and what about Turning Kgalagadi Green? He grins enigmatically: “The Turning Kruger Green project is done, but it is just the start.”

Want to get involved?

The SABAP2 website has step by step instructions regarding contribution and participation in the project. By registering as an observer and receiving an observer number, one can obtain a SABAP2 starter kit and relevant maps for field surveys. Following this, it’s possible to conduct a field survey and submit captured data to the Animal Demography Unit. There are also opportunities to attend bird atlas workshops and presentations at various locations throughout the country. For more information on these events, refer to SABAP2’s website or Facebook group.

Read more about the Turning Kruger Green project in Wild 36 Spring 2016.