25 October 2022

How does a devastating wildfire impact birdlife in the affected area?

This is the question that Ekapa set out to answer after the destruction and loss that the fires caused in the Northern Cape, and parts of the Free State, in 2021.

The wildfires not only destroyed farmland but also devastated vast tracts of habitat for animals and birdlife.

This prompted Ekapa to undertake an extended research project to monitor how bird populations respond to a fire event in arid savanna areas. The project was launched by BirdLife South Africa with financial support from Ekapa.

From an agricultural perspective, the fires were devastating, as much of burned area was cattle rangeland. Farmers suffered livestock and game losses, and severe loss of infrastructure. However, the impacts of fire events in arid savannas are largely unknown from the ecological perspective, especially on bird communities.

“After the fires (in 2021), we went for a drive, and we sat in the veld and only heard deathly silence. No birds were chirping or flying around. Everything was gone,” explains Ester van der Westhuizen-Coetzer, of Ekapa, about the origin of the study. “We take the birds for granted and just accept that they will be there.”

The research project focuses on three aspects: Monitoring how the veld recovers using remote sensing products, a before and after comparison of bird communities using data, and long-term field surveys to monitor how bird populations recover over time.

BirdLife South Africa contracted Eric Herrmann to do the surveys using the BirdLasser Point Count Protocol.

“At Ekapa we believe in sustainable development. The fires caused great damage for our farmers, but people tend to forget about the impact on smaller things such as birds and insects,” says Van der Westhuizen-Coetzer.

The first survey to determine the impact of these fires on savanna bird life was undertaken in early December 2021 by Herrmann.  A second survey was undertaken in late February 2022, with some remaining points completed in early April.

All 75 identified points were surveyed, including the 40 points located in burnt areas and the 35 points in the unburnt veld.  The points are located on three main properties to the south of Kimberley, namely Benfontein and some neighbouring properties to the south (32 burnt points, 1 point with 40% burnt), Susanna (25 unburnt points), and Magersfontein Safaris (7 burnt, 9 unburnt, 1 point with 40% burnt).

Further counts will be done this year with the last counts in late 2022.

All the data will then be analysed with a report and scientific paper to be published.

“This is a great research opportunity. We want to see how the biodiversity recovers. You must care deeply about the environment,” Van der Westhuizen-Coetzer says.

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