Bird community structure and convergence in Afromontane forest patches of the Karkloof/Balgowan range, KwaZulu-Natal.
Forest fragmentation is caused by the clearing of patches of indigenous vegetation for agriculture, urban development, and other human land uses. Such action results in patches of remnant natural vegetation being surrounded by altered vegetation. I investigate the effects of forest fragmentation and matrix type on avian diversity and assemblage structure in forest patches of the historically fragmented Karkloof / Balgowan forest range, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. This study compares the bird assemblage diversity and composition of indigenous forest patches surrounded by commercial forestry (Gilboa complex) with that surrounded by natural grassland matrix (Balgowan complex). Insularisation of Afromontane Mistbelt forest in KwaZulu-Natal has led to loss of species where forest fragments support fewer bird species than comparably sized patches of mainland forest. Small fragments within natural grassland have fewer bird species per unit area than larger fragments. Forest patch area-dependent density compensation is evident and bird assemblages appear saturated. Bird assemblages are characterised by a non-random species distribution pattern where area-dependent processes are dominant, and the loss of species from fragments follows a deterministic sequence. In forests in the plantation-dominated matrix no island-effect is detectable and it appears that forest patches are converging on the same bird species richness, regardless of forest size. No density compensation is evident and bird assemblages are not saturated. The sequence of species loss from forest patches is not as predictable, where a random yet prominent colonisation process exists. As commercial plantations provide suitable habitat cover for movement of forest birds, colonisation of both distant and small indigenous forest patches has been possible, reducing the effects of area-dependent extinction in the forest patches but also resulting in lower species richness in larger patches. Bird species of the Karkloof / Balgowan forest range appear to be fragmentation adapted, and most species are resilient to further landscape change. Certain species are however more prone to local extinction than others. The major predictors of extinction risk are body size, abundance status, and feeding guild. Patch area is the dominant force governing traits in the natural Balgowan complex where larger species with low natural abundance and an insectivorous diet are most prone to local extinction. In the Gilboa complex the nature of the plantation matrix appears to be masking the species natural responses to fragmentation making it difficult to predict which species are most at risk. In order to preserve maximum bird diversity, including high-risk species, the largest intact forest units (≥302ha) must be conserved. Evidently, the nature of the matrix affects avifaunal diversity and distribution in forest patches, and plantations have the capacity to significantly alter bird assemblage structure and composition in indigenous forest patches. Forest fragments must be considered as integrated parts of a complex landscape mosaic, and this study emphasises the importance of understanding landscape-scale processes. Knowledge of ecological and life history traits proves valuable for predicting community level response to landscape change.