Vergelegen partners in bird of prey rescue

Staff at Vergelegen, the 316-year-old wine estate in Somerset West, were involved in an unexpected rescue operation last month (May) when a concussed Jackal Buzzard was discovered in the pastures.

The large bird of prey, estimated to be five to seven years old, was spotted by Vergelegen staff. They immediately alerted the environmental project manager, Jacques van Rensburg. Hank Chalmers, a director of Eagle Encounters (a wildlife rehabilitation and education organisation in Stellenbosch) then collected the Jackal Buzzard for treatment.

“The bird was slightly thin, but nothing was broken,” said Chalmers. “We fed it, checked it could fly, and released it after about two weeks in the vicinity of the farm. It’s probably sitting in a tree there now.”

The buzzard is just one of numerous feathered friends of the world-renowned estate, which has won awards not only for its superb wines, but also its pioneering conservation projects.

Vergelegen was the first local wine farm to receive championship status in the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, in recognition of its commitment to conserving Cape’s biodiversity for future generations. It is also the site of probably the largest private conservation project in South Africa.   Some 2000 hectares of land, previously covered in dense alien vegetation, have been restored to their natural habitat.

As alien vegetation uses up to 60% more water than fynbos, its clearing has boosted water flow. The farm’s environmental treasures now include 80 hectares of rehabilitated wetlands, a popular habitat for numerous bird species such as ducks and herons.

Van Rensburg says the estate has recorded 145 bird species in total, with new discoveries still being added. Bird lovers have also noted more regular sightings of fynbos-loving species such as Cape Sugarbirds and Orange-breasted Sunbirds.

A team of volunteers has been conducting a monthly count of the birds since 2000, when the estate’s former conservationist, Gerald Wright, introduced bird ringer Gordon Scholtz to the beautiful property.

Scholtz’s widow Marilyn continues to coordinate recording activities on the farm. “We use an App to identify the GPS point where we see a bird, so we can record where they are spotted,” she said. “Vergelegen has diverse habitats so it is a very rewarding place for us to visit – we see a wide variety of birds.”

The volunteers’ meticulous records shed light on the seasonal movement of birds in and out of the 3200 hectare estate. The total monthly counts vary from around 45 species in winter, up to 65 species during spring. The Grey-backed Cisticola, for example, has only been recorded on the estate in winter, says Marilyn Scholtz.

Vagrant species (seldom seen, or unusual in the area) include Secretary Birds, Lesser Honeyguides and Bourchell’s Coucals.

The records also reveal the arrival and departure of migratory birds such as the Yellow-billed Kite, Steppe (Common) Buzzard and African Paradise Flycatcher and cuckoos. Certain intra-African migrants such as the Black Saw-wing, winter in the area too.

The counting team has also noted an increase in populations of certain species such as the Swee Waxbill and African Olive Pigeon. The latter fly in large flocks over the farm, but are not readily viewed elsewhere in the Helderberg, said Scholtz.

Van Rensburg said the bird data, which spans 16 years, could provide interesting scientific research material. He noted that several pioneering scientific studies have already taken place on the farm, covering subjects as diverse as bontebok social interaction and water quality.

Vergelegen MD Don Tooth said the estate works closely with conservation bodies and universities.  Local and international scientific research is coordinated under Vergelegen’s Centre of Learning Excellence.

“Our achievements have been a team effort and we are happy to share our conservation research and learnings with other interested parties that could benefit.”

For more information: | Vergelegen environmental project manager Jacques van Rensburg, [email protected]