Tag Archives: Mist belt forest

The Last Stand for our Birds


One-third of the 112 most important sites for nature in South Africa are facing imminent danger of irreversible damage, according to a new South African IBA Status Report published today by BirdLife South Africa.

These sites – known as Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) – are threatened by invasive species, changes in habitats through incorrect burning practices, and agricultural expansion or mismanagement. Unprotected IBAs in particular are deteriorating at a concerning rate, most especially in grasslands, wetlands and fynbos, but habitats in protected IBAs are also showing signs of deterioration. Over 85% of all IBAs face high to very high levels of threats, and there is little distinction between protected and unprotected IBAs in this regard. The IBAs with the highest and most imminent threats will be included in BirdLife International’s list of IBAs in Danger, the global list of priority sites identified for urgent action.


This South African IBA Status Report is accompanied by a revised National IBA Directory, building on and up-dating the first such inventory published in 1998. It provides updated information of the most important aspect of each of these 112 IBAs, including the geography and climate of the area, the list of the bird species found at the IBA, the biggest threats to the site, and what conservation action is taking place to secure the IBA. This publication can be used by conservation practitioners and planners to prioritise their work, by developers who need to understand the sensitivity of an area, and can even be used by bird enthusiasts to plan a birding trip.

The 112 IBAs in South Africa are the last stand for bird conservation on a landscape level. Protecting these sites has benefits not only for South Africa’s birds, but also for other animals, plants and the vital ecological services these sites provide to people. These services include providing us with fresh water, managing floods, controlling disease, and providing grazing lands for livestock farming. Conserving IBAs is also important for attaining our government’s environmental commitments like the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Target 11 that calls for the expansion of terrestrial Protected Areas by at least 17%, and the Convention on Migratory Species. Therefore, their deteriorating status is a very high concern which requires immediate attention from government agencies and other stakeholders.


The main recommendations from the IBA Status Report to remedy this situation include that government needs to allocate more resources towards managing protected areas and expanding the protected areas network through biodiversity stewardship. That IBAs should be used as a first cut when identifying priority areas for conservation, including for protected area expansion. By following the published management guidelines, the agricultural sector is able to manage their lands for the parallel purposes of producing livestock, improving veld condition and conserving biodiversity. IBAs should be considered as red flags and often exclusion areas when other development options are being considered, such as mining.

While both these publications are milestones for bird conservation, they need to be seen as the spearhead which will now be used to lobby, plan and implement effective conservation for birds, their habitats and other biodiversity.

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Both the revised IBA Directory and IBA Status Report can be bought in hard copy from BirdLife South Africa’s IBA Programme (011 789 1122, daniel.marnewick@birdlife.org.za), or the electronic versions can be downloaded for free from: http://www.birdlife.org.za/conservation/important-bird-areas/documents-and-downloads.

For further information please contact Daniel Marnewick at daniel.marnewick@birdlife.org.za (011 789 1122).

Waterfalls and Wilderness

Standing under a waterfall is always a wonderful experience. When the waterfall suddenly shifts 10metres along the cliff to include those who thought they would avoid the experience, you know it is extra special.

This is the magic of Grey Mare’s Tail Falls in Karkloof. From the grasslands above, the stream plunges 101 m over the dolerite cliffs into the mist belt forest. It gets its name from the swishing action – the falls move constantly from one side to the other – just like the tail of a horse.

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For the 40 learners who spent a few days at Shawswood education centre last week, the 3 hour climb to Grey Mare’s Tail Falls was worth the effort. “I’m dying” puffed Nomfundo Mlotshwa when the falls were just visible through a gap in the canopy. She trudged on along the path through the forest, climbing a wooden ladder, crossing streams and rock hopping. Soaking wet after splashing in the pool, all tiredness forgotten, she beamed “This is wonderful!”.

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This excursion was part of the MCF Environmental Learning and Leadership (EL&L) project that organises wilderness experiences for young people, believing that in order to value and protect something you need to have experienced it. Time spent in natural environments is often life changing and certainly instils an appreciation of nature. MCF EL&L is funded by N3TC.

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In collaboration with the MMAEP, the Zenzane Enviro Club from Balgowan and the Mpophomeni Enviro Club were invited to make new friends, learn new things and taste clean, cold, fresh water straight from the stream.

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The morning began with introductions beneath the cliffs. MCF has found that bringing different groups together stimulates learning and sharing. Knowing that there are people in other parts of the Midlands as passionate about environmental issues as you are creates bonds that last for a long time.

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Then water bottles and lunch bags in hand, we set off on a hike. Through the surrounding homesteads, greeting cows with new born claves and crossing a stream into the plantations.

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Michael Keefer, education officer for Shawswood, pointed out the impoverished habitat, the low diversity of plants and animals and explained the differences between forest and plantations. The difference was clear to Sihle Ngcobo: “There are fewer types of trees in the plantation and bigger spaces between the trees. In the forest there are more worms and insects, there is not much sunlight and it is cooler.” he said.

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Shawswood is a great place to learn about ecology, biodiversity and human impact on the natural environment. They support the IUCN’s environmental education definition ‘The process of recognising values and clarifying concepts in order to develop skills and attitudes necessary to understand and appreciate the inter-relatedness among man, his culture and his bio-physical surroundings. Environmental education also entails practice in self-formulation of a code of behaviour about issues concerning environmental quality.’

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Once inside the forest, the air cooled and the biodiversity increased. The temperature in a forest is pretty much the same whatever the season. We observed the layers of plants, some with big leaves to absorb more light, others climbing through the canopy to get some sunshine, saplings simply waiting for a big tree to fall over and create a gap to let in light for them to grow. Philani Ngcobo was fascinated by the tall stems of uMsenge, the Cabbage tree reaching for the sunlight. “It was interesting that when the trees fall down, the insects go into them and help the tree to decompose.” he commented. We heard Samango monkeys but could not spot them.

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A gurgling stream provided a refreshing stop to drink from the river, fill our water bottles and have a snack. This stream is a tributary of the Karkloof River which flows into the uMngeni River. The group from Mpophomeni commented that the uMthinzima Stream through the township was also a tributary of the uMngeni.

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The trail mostly follows the old logging path created by early settlers to harvest the big trees – especially Yellowwoods. We came across many hollow Lemonwoods, an Ironwood that had its bark all nibbled at the base (porcupine perhaps?) and many giant Strangler Figs. Everyone was fascinated to learn how these trees can squeeze the life out of other trees.

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We learnt that the cure for the forest stinging nettle that created a bumpy rash on our skins when touched, grew right beside it – a member of the Plectranthus family. Forest Magic.

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We caught a glimpse of the Grey Mare’s Tail Falls through the trees. “How far?” became a constant refrain. Before the final ascent to the bottom of the falls, we sat on the rocks a while to catch our breath. Surrounded by fragrant Clausena anisata, large clumps of Scadoxus clinging to the rocks and Streptocarpus tucked in the shadows.

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The final stretch involved clamouring over huge rocks, the mist from the falls increasing with every step. The vegetation changed considerably in the constantly damp environment.

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Laughter ran around the cliffs as the youngsters slid on the rocks and splashed in the pools. “It’s so cold! It stings! I feel so good!”

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On the way back down for afternoon tea, we spent a while completely quiet. Listening to the sounds of the birds, the water, the horseflies buzzing; feeling the cool breeze on our skin and the damp leaves on the ground; surrounded by the sweet air and earthy fragrances so far removed from our usual lives. Asanda Ngubane loved the quiet time in the forest “It calmed me down and I felt so relaxed.” he commented.

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Free time to make new friends, play soccer and shower was a rowdy affair! The cosy dormitories are converted stables, a donkey boiler provides hot water and the views of the surrounding hills are stupendous. Sitting around the fire in the evening is ideal for imaginative storytelling. Altogether, this is a fabulous spot for a weekend in nature.

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The next morning, woken by birdsong, it was time to complete an obstacle course. Sisanda Hadebe really enjoyed this “It was fun and we learnt to work as a team. I made some new friends too.” An inspiring creative activity using waste materials, and games, brought the weekend to a close. “That was amazing. I imagine I can still feel the drops of water from the waterfall on my face.” Nomfundo said afterwards.

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Many of the photographs included in this story were taken by the learners.

hiking is a conversationres.crop.

Mist on Mount Gilboa

Yes, Yes!” a voice floated through the swirling mist on Mt Gilboa last week.  It was John Roff, delighted at finding Disa nervosa in bloom.

r disa nervosa gilboaThis plant mimics Watsonia and in the flower filled grassland certainly looked just like all the other Watsonias from a distance.  Apparently, the similar colour and size of the inflorescences on different plants in the same location increases chances of being pollinated.  “This is a pollination guild” John explained, pointing out the bright pink Cycnium racemosum near by too – all three plants the same colour and height, “Fooling the insects into thinking they are all the same plant.”  Fascinating.

gilboa 084The occasion was a Midlands CREW fieldtrip.  15 flower enthusiasts turned up to explore the Mount Gilboa Nature Reserve owned and managed by Mondi. Mount Gilboa is almost 1800m above sea level and on clear days, the views of the Midlands are magnificent.

gilboa 052Mt Gilboa is located at the headwaters of three of KZN’s important river systems, namely the Umvoti River, the Myamvubu River that flows into the Mooi River, and the Mholweni River that flows into the uMngeni River. It includes extensive functional peat wetlands, which provide significant ecosystem services such as water purification and flood attenuation, and has 283 hectares of ‘critically endangered’ midlands mistbelt grasslands that were the focus of our attention.

gilboa 177Driving up from our gathering spot at Mbona, we had stopped on the roadside to admire large clumps of Dierama luteoalbidium, lots of Silene sp,

gilboa 018Ledebouria, Wahlenbergia, Senecio, Helichrysum, Papaver aculeatum and delightful Littonia modesta.

gilboa 005We found our first orchid on the roadside too – Disa stachyoides

gilboa 022In the gorgeous grasslands on top of the hill we found the following (and more) in flower:  Psammotropha mucronata, Graderia scabra, Gladiolus longicollis,

gilboa 042Morea inclinata had just finished flowering, this little yellow Morea had us puzzled – Morea trifida perhaps?

gilboa 115Eriosema distinctum, Lobelia erinusGerbera ambigua, Albuca setosa, Crassula vaginata, Tulbaghia leucantha,  lots and lots of Rhodohypoxis baurii, Delospermum (the vibrant flowers of these succulents always seem incongruous in the mist!)

gilboa 081Diclis retans, Kouhoutia amatymbica, Vernonia hirsutea, Hebenstretia dura, Senecio oxyriifolius, Geranium wakkerstroomium, tiny dark blue Agapanthus (probably minima)

gilboa 168Lots of indigenous bramble, Rubus ludwigii and Hypericum lalandii

gilboa 173The rocks which many plants grow close to are all Dolerite. Keith Cooper told us that there are lenses or fissures of bauxite running through these rock formations. Fortunately not in quantities large enough to attract the mining companies!

gilboa 148Indigofera foliosa were stunning and the large clumps of Aloe boylei were obviously the site of a research experiment – probably on pollinators.

gilboa 158Jamebritennia breviflora, Lotononis sp, Dimorphotheca,

gilboa 190Aspidonepsis flava , Scabiosa, bright pink Senecio (probably macrocephalus), Nemesia, Dipcadi viride

gilboa 224Felix Middleton was very excited at the many different Proteas we saw and photographed the following:




DSCN2674After enjoying our picnics and paging through our guides trying to id some of our finds,

gilboa 205we drove down to the vlei near Mark’s dam to search for Disa scullyi.

CREW Marks dam

We didn’t have any luck, but were thrilled to see a pair of Blue Cranes with a tiny chick and this gorgeous little frog.

gilboa 258Masses of Dierama, Hesperantha and Gladiolus papillio in full bloom in the ‘Hydropholus Grassland’ (more Keith Cooper expertise.)

gilboa 277Standing tall in the wetland grasses, Kniphofia –  fluviatilis perhaps?

gilboa 268This plant had us all flummoxed – the flower was familiar, but none of us had seen the flat round leaves edged with red hairs before.  Thanks Isabel Johnson for identifying it as Berkheya speciosa subsp ovate.

gilboa 196After a spot of birdwatching , part of the group headed into the mist belt forest in search of Emplectranthus gerradii.  The Mvoti CREW had joined us with the specific  intention of  looking for this rare climber in the Karkloof forest.

Kathy Milford reports: We walked down a bright grassy bank into the soft light of the forest. In no time, John spotted the creeper with heart shaped leaves, but it wasn’t flowering. We walked down to the crystal clear stream flowing over rocks. A shout from Felix, who is like the proverbial sniffer dog, told us he had found flowering Emplectanthus, which had some teeny flowers for us to see.


We also spotted – Knowltonia, Begonia sutherlandii, Impatiens hochstetteri, Scadoxis sp not flowering and Streptocarpus fanniniae,

streptocarpus fainia

We then retraced our steps out of the forest and up the grassy slope  and saw Anthericum cooperi and  lots more Watsonia as we walked along the road towards Benvie.  The road winds between indigenous forest and a plantation where the forest plants are happily growing up the bank until they meet the plantation. On the banks we saw Heliophila rigidluscula, Geranium schlechteri, Polygala virgate and this Wahlenbergia that we think might be pallidiflora.

r wahlbergia (possible pallidiflora)

A real treat was finding the creeper Dioscorea sylvatica which is much collected as a muthi plant. It has a large flattened tuber (elephants foot) with divided heart shaped leaves.


We found Diaphananthe caffra low on the trunk of a tree. There are three little plants full of buds which are still not open.  A magnificent end to a really great day of flower hunting. Thank you Richard Booth for organising the field trip and everyone for participating so enthusiastically.

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