Scientific survey of francolin populations on Verloren Valei

South African Field Trial Club collaboration with MTPA steps up a gear as a new survey method is unveiled, writes Mike Zingel.

Survey member observing the feeding site of a Grey-winged Francolin covey found by pointers. The dog is standing steady to the flush. This high point on Verloren Valei is a Boer outlook from the Anglo-Boer war as evidenced by the remaining rock placement (Photograph: Mike Zingel)

For several years, Friends of Verloren Valei member the South African Field Trial Club (SAFTC) has collaborated with the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) in using highly trained pointing dogs to track the demographics of Verloren Valei’s population of Grey- and Red-winged Francolin. This programme has played a role in MTPA’s ongoing stewardship of this biodiversity hotspot.

Report backs on these surveys have been featured on this blog. Read the last report back.

Now, however, these regular bird counts are becoming more scientific under the leadership of the University of Pretoria’s Professor Raymond Janson. Professor Janson’s survey method is based on the research he did at Verloren Valei for his PhD.

Some species are more difficult to assess than others. For example, camera traps work effectively to monitor the populations of nocturnal predators and, of course, plants are relatively easy to track during daylight hours. However, Verloren Valei’s renowned populations of Red-and Grey-winged Francolin present more of a challenge because of their cryptic colouring and ability to hide when approached.

That’s where the pointers come in. These animals are able to scent francolin, hone in on where they are hiding and hold their point while their handlers catch up with them. The dogs thus make it easy for their less-gifted human colleagues to get close enough to identify the species, their sex ratios and age groups by number. The data are then logged, including the time of day and location, by MPTA officials on a computer app, CyberTracker.

Pointers are essential in finding Francolin in big country. Francolin covey territories are typically 4 to 5 hectares (Photograph: Mike Zingel)

The first of these scientific surveys was conducted on the Reserve from the 8th to 10th of August 2020. The group comprised nine SAFTC handlers with 12 pointers, plus senior MTPA officials Johan Eksteen, Head of Scientific Services, Jannie Coetzee, the regional ecologist, and Hein Nel, a member of the Ground Hornbill study group at Loskop Nature Reserve. These three men logged the data, while Professor Janson supervised the survey.

There were three survey teams, each with a transect of 10 to 15 km designed to provide a sample of the Reserve. It was important to survey the same transects on each of the three successive days to gain statistically useful data.

Over the three days, good numbers of both francolin species were noted. In addition, the study of the feeding signs at the locations of finds assisted in gaining a better understanding of the observations made. Analysis of the logged data will complement the impressions of the survey teams, and will hopefully generate comprehensive and accurate information on which MTPA can base its management of these species in the context of overall VVNR policy. The weather on the survey days was ideal and the early mornings crisp. The teams, MTPA officials, handlers and pointers were rewarded with happy days in the most beautiful surroundings on the top of the world.

A classic point by pointer Diana. No doubt about that find! (Photograph: Mike Zingel)

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