In the weeks since the devastating fires in the Overberg, we have seen and read about the heroics of firefighters, the damage to properties and the way that fynbos is dependent on fire to regenerate, depending on the intervals between fires. We have read stories about little buck injured by the heat and smoke that were rescued and lovingly cared for, and we have seen vivid videos of a teen saving tortoises where he could.

Orange-breasted Sunbird

We know that many animals, especially the slow-moving ones don’t make it. We can hardly bear to think about the chameleons. But somehow we don’t think much about the fynbos birds. Surely they can just fly away? Yes, they can, but where is away? If the fires are extensive, as the recent ones have been, away might have to be far away to where they can find food and nesting sites. This is why it is so beneficial to plant fynbos plants in urban gardens, so that we provide forage and homes for birds and beasts until the fynbos regenerates.

However, many avid birders did not forget about the impact that fires have on birds – some positive, some negative. Pat Redford of the
Hermanus Bird Club wrote the following article on the club blog site:

Short-term benefits of fires for birds

Among the positive consequences of fynbos fires for birds are short-term food opportunities for some species, such as Raptors that are often attracted to fire and its charred results, moving in from adjacent habitats. This is particularly evident where predatory birds may flush out injured birds and animals or find other carrion. Jackal Buzzards, Steppe Buzzards and Spotted Eagle Owls are known to visit burnt areas immediately after smoke dissipates. After a relatively short time they move on.

Other species that may take advantage in the aftermath of fynbos fires include the Fork-Tailed Drongo, Fiscal Flycatcher, Fiscal Shrike and Cape Grassbird. They are known to take up the debris of insects, arthropods and the seeds of various Proteaceae which are exposed about two weeks post fire.

Increased Genetic Diversity
Nectar-eaters such as the Cape Sugarbird, Orange-Breasted Sunbird and Cape Bulbul will immediately move away to neighbouring areas. This dispersal to other areas may be advantageous to genetic diversity as they will breed with different groups, returning only once the area has recovered.

Negatives are longer-term
The time required for the fynbos habitat to recover varies. Usually, fire patterns are such that most fynbos bird species are able to simply re-
locate temporarily to unaffected areas of similar habitat, at least until the affected areas recover. Some fynbos species take longer to recover, hence food sources can be limited. Neighbouring suburban gardens often become a refuge for the nectar-eaters immediately post fire.

The frequency of fire impacts on the recovery of certain fynbos plant species, which in turn impacts on suitable nesting sites. For example, Orange-breasted Sunbirds prefer the upper branches of Protea neriifolia, which may take up to six years to become mature enough to provide nesting sites and to produce seeds. If the veld burns too frequently, many plants may not have a chance to seed and grow, leading to permanent loss of habitat, thus minimising preferred nesting sites for some fynbos bird species.

The intensity of fires can significantly alter the fynbos profile of an area. Some plant species may benefit from low-intensity fire heat to allow for seed dispersal and germination. However, a very hot fire can totally destroy the underground parts of plants and buried seeds. Again, this impacts on breeding, nesting and the food source of endemic birds and may also lead to fragmentation of breeding sites.

Breeding season versus fire season
Generally fires occur during the hot summer and autumn months, when breeding is finished. Most fynbos birds breed during late winter and early spring, so impact on breeding is mainly confined to loss of suitable nesting sites. However, if fires occur earlier in the breeding season, the fynbos bird species most affected would be those nesting in fynbos scrub, such as Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Neddicky, Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Sugarbird. Some birds like the Victorin’s Warbler concentrate in damp, south-facing stream-side kloofs where they are shielded from all but the fiercest fires.

The Hermanus Bird Club meets every third Wednesday at Fernkloof Nature Reserve.

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