A large (6 x 4 km), permanent alkaline lake with a maximum depth of 11 m, Barberspan has its own small catchment of 30 km2. It is the largest of a series of pans in the fossil bed of the palaeo-Harts River. Over time, the upper reaches of the Harts River have been diverted into Barberspan’s fossil channel, probably changing its nature from a pan that used to dry up intermittently to one that is perennial.
The lake is fed by the Harts River and is situated in open grassland that forms a great undulating plain, much of which is cultivated for summer crops such as maize, sunflowers and groundnuts. The only topographical features of the surrounding nature reserve consist of high ground in the north-eastern corner, which has been formed by wind-blown soil from nearby Leeupan to the north, and high ground in the southern part, which is only 20 m above the average water level of the pan and has been formed by sand from Barberspan.
Connected to Barberspan by a narrow channel, Leeupan is included in the IBA. It has its own catchment but when Barberspan floods Leeupan does, on occasion, receive water from its neighbour. Leeupan is saline and shallow and dries up in most winters. Its water level is subject to considerable fluctuations, which result in many years when conditions are favourable for some species but have an adverse effect on others.
Barberspan is important as a drought refuge for waterfowl and as a stopover site for migrant species. It is particularly important for waterbirds, many of which moult here. It regularly supports in excess of 20 000 individual birds and, together with the nature reserve, holds more than 320 species. Waterbirds congregate in large numbers during the dry season (April–October) when all the small wetlands in the surrounding districts have dried up completely and the shallow Barberspan is the only suitable habitat remaining in the area. The birds disperse to breed in sheltered temporary pans and vleis once the summer rains arrive. Breeding species include Chestnut-banded Plover Charadrius pallidus and Caspian Tern Sterna caspia, which occur sporadically at low densities. Goliath Heron Ardea goliath, Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus, South African Shelduck Tadorna cana, Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata, Southern Pochard Netta erythrophthalma, Spur-winged Goose Plectropterus gambensis and many other waterbirds are resident in large numbers and occasionally breed. Red-knobbed Coot Fulica cristata almost always breeds in huge numbers. Summer visitors include Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus and Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens while the nomadic Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybridahas occurred sporadically in large numbers. The prevailing water level determines which species are present on the pans. When it is low, conditions are suitable for large numbers of waders such as Ruff Philomachus pugnax. Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor and Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseusare frequently present, but tend to be most abundant in drought years. In wet years, the shoreline consists of mainly inundated grassland, which results in large numbers of herons, egrets and Great Crested Grebe moving in to breed. Wet and dry years have a remarkable effect on the communities of birds that are attracted to the wetland. In extremely wet years, when the water is deep and the adjacent grassland floods, herons and waterfowl abound. During the austral summer, many migrant Lesser Kestrels Falco naumanni roost within the IBA.
As well as congregatory waterbirds, this IBA contains a large number of species of conservation concern. Globally threatened species are Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius, Lesser Flamingo, Black-winged Pratincole Glareola nordmanni (the number varies from season to season), White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus (attracted to the vulture feeding area in the reserve), Maccoa Duck Oxyura maccoa and Chestnut-banded Plover. Regionally threatened species are Pink-backed Pelican, African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus (its numbers are declining and its status in the IBA is uncertain), Caspian Tern, Great White Pelican, Greater Flamingo and African Grass Owl Tyto capensis. Kalahari Scrub Robin Erythropygia paean is the only restricted-range species in the IBA. Congregatory waterbirds include Great Crested Grebe, South African Shelduck Tadorna cana, Yellow-billed Duck, Southern Pochard, Red-knobbed Coot and White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus. Congregatory waterbirds that specifically pass the sub-regional IBA criteria are Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis, African Spoonbill Platalea alba, Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca, Red-billed Teal Anas erythrorhyncha, Cape Shoveler Anas smithii and Spur-winged Goose.
Southern African endemic reptiles in the vicinity that may be present in the IBA are leopard tortoise Geochelone pardalis, Kalahari tent tortoise Psammobates oculiferus, two-striped shovel-snout Prosymna bivittata, shield-nose snake Aspidelaps scutatus, Cape spade-snouted worm lizard Monopeltis capensis and thin-tailed legless skink Acontias gracilicauda. The southern African hedgehog Atelerix frontalis is found at the site and the spotted-necked otter Lutra maculicollis, striped weasel Poecilogale albinucha and African wild cat Felis lybica are known to occur but have not been confirmed. Black wildebeest Connochaetes gnou and blesbok Damaliscus dorcas phillipsi have been re-introduced to the reserve.
In Barnes (1998) the silting up of Barberspan was listed as a threat to this IBA and this is still the case, as sediments are deposited in Barberspan via the Harts River. If this is to continue, the ecological character of the site may change significantly. Farmers upstream in the Harts River make extensive use of pesticides and the run-off may also impact negatively on Barberspan. Similarly, the waste-water treatment works upstream, at the towns of Sannieshof, Ottosdal and Lichtenburg, pose a risk as sub-standard water sometimes flows into Barberspan, resulting in the high Escherichia coli levels that have been recorded in recent years. As certain tourism areas of the reserve are not managed by North West Parks, it is difficult to control fishing activities, especially fishing boats, which may impact on breeding birds. This situation needs to be carefully monitored.
In 1954, the Transvaal Provincial Administration (TPA) Nature Conservation Division purchased 452 ha of land around the strategic shallow northern end of Barberspan, where bird densities are highest. During the 1970s and 1980s, the TPA gradually acquired more land and converted it into a bird sanctuary and nature reserve, which included the entire shoreline of Barberspan. Leeupan is owned by five farmers and is, as yet, unprotected. The pan was designated a Ramsar site in 1975 and a Ramsar Management Plan was developed in 2012. A management plan also exists for the nature reserve, but it cannot be fully implemented because of a lack of resources and staff.
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