Gurney’s Sugarbirds and the Paardeplaats Nature Reserve has become synonymous, mainly because of the clump of proteas on the slopes near the Sabie – Lydenburg road and the scattered protea sites all over the farm which provide a perfect habitat for these birds. During winter there is an influx of sugarbirds feeding on cultivated proteas (Western Cape species), aloes and other flowering plants. The influx to the town areas, however, is not like that observed in the 1980 and 1990’s, as fewer sugarbirds were observed in the suburban gardens during the past several years.
Sugarbirds (and in this case – Gurney’s) has formed a close relationship with the protea species. They nest in these plant species and use the old protea flower seeds to lay out their nests for their breeding season which lasts from November to March when abundant protea flowers are available. The protea flowers, in turn, attract insects and beetle species on which they foraged. A very beneficial relationship! The conservation of their protea grassland habitat remains a high priority.
Gurney’s Sugarbirds have a limited distribution range on the eastern escarpment of Southern Africa in association with protea species, mainly the Silver Proteas, and this habitat are also affected by fire regimes.
These proteas are killed by hot fires and regrowth only occurs from seeds in the ground or in canopies of the trees which escaped the fires. During winter months the sugarbirds will move down the ravines on Paardeplaats where they will forage on the winter flowering Krantz Aloes (Aloe arborescens), but will return to the protea clumps which have still have flowering protea flowers available to forage on.
Paardeplaats is a private nature reserve at the foot of the Long Tom Pass in the Kruger Lowveld. The closest town is Lydenburg.
Dawie de Swardt, who is the Head of the Ornithology Department at the National Museum in Bloemfontein, has initiated a ringing project in the Lydenburg area to study the seasonal movements of the sugarbirds as far back as 1986.
Regular revisits to the sites have been made over the years to obtain recapture data of the sugarbirds. Dawie and other interested bird ringers have covered the lower lying suburban and higher mountainous areas which included the Gustav Klingbiel Nature Reserve and surrounded farms such as Sterkspruit, Potloodspruit and Paardeplaats Nature Reserve on Long Tom Pass. There is one locality on the Steenkampsberg which is also monitored on an annual basis.
The Paardeplaats site is the only locality monitored since 1986 and data have been collected for more than 30 years. An amazing total of 317 sugarbirds have to date been ringed at Paardeplaats with 39 “recaptures” – birds found moving to lower town areas (and to surrounded protea clumps) and also again captured at the Paardeplaats site. A whopping total of 894 sugarbirds has already been ringed in the Lydenburg area!
Sugarbird ringing at Paardeplaats has always been a very popular annual event on the birding calendar. Local school children are given ringing demonstrations and registered SAFRING bird ringers have the opportunity to handle (and ring) sugarbirds and other bird species. This well-attended bird ringing trips also create lots of training opportunities for trainee bird ringers.
The way forward for the Gurney Sugarbirds of Paardeplaats Nature Reserve
Dawie de Swardt has played a pivotal role in the research project on sugarbirds (and SABAP2 bird atlassing project) at Paardeplaats and his interest and devotion to the Gurney Sugarbird have been the driving force behind the success of the project. However, he has assured that the project will continue even in his absence. The bird ringers of BirdLife Northern Gauteng in Pretoria have committed themselves to the Paardeplaats Project and they will monitor the bird populations annually in February, or any time of the year.
The Gurney Sugarbirds have come quite celebrities since nature photographers have discovered that they became quite tame visiting flowering aloes.
Credit: Dawie de Swardt