Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 - from a personal perspective

After just having posted probably one of the most somber postings on my blog, I thought it would be appropriate to do a more personal review of the year that was 2009.

There is no doubt that the year has been a tough one, but it was also very rewarding in many ways and I have been able to realize and reach a couple of goals over the last 12 months. The year also produced a number of unforgettable memories, mostly associated with my work and travels within southern Africa and further a-field. Oh yes, in the process there were also many new friends made, some regained and, sadly, also a few lost.

Thea continues to be an inspiration and incredible support to me. How she manages to put up with all my nonsense, weird hours and obsessions is beyond me. Perhaps my frequent absences help to make them easier to digest and cope with! After more than 16 years together, we seem to have reached a solution which works for both of us, especially as far as finding fulfillment in our very divergent professional lives are concerned. This year, her dedication, perseverance and hard work in the tough corporate environment has continued to be an inspiration to me and other members of her family. It is great to see the satisfaction that she receives from supporting many members of her family in so many ways, both on an emotional and material level. That includes me, of course!

Although I was planning to travel a lot less in 2009, it turned out to be one of those years where I again spent more time on the road, and sometimes in the air, than previous years with more than 65000km traveled on southern African roads and including trips to East Africa, Botswana, Namibia and South America, some experiences which have been reported on in earlier blogs.

In fact, the year started off in the Northern Cape with a 10-day trip to the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Conservation Area which was part of our annual leave and saw Thea visiting the Kalahari for the first time. Although it was extremely hot on most days, we were rewarded by great sightings of most of the large game and great birds during our visit to the area. Two images from that trip will however stay with me for a long time, namely that of a magnificent male lion that we encountered just outside Nossob rest-camp in the late afternoon sun. It posed just perfectly for photographs and looked the way that most people expect lions to look like, in regal command of its entire territory. Quite something coming from someone that doesn’t really have a great affinity for these cats!

The beautiful male at Nossob Camp, January 2009

The second memory is of the 4 San-children that we encountered on the way to the Kgalagadi TFCA near Ashkam. They were quite used to tourists stopping to purchase trinkets, etc from the stall run by their mother and willingly posed for some images, at a price of course! We were quite surprised by all of them getting rid of most of their clothes to pose for the pictures though! However, their joy of life and excitement about the area they live in was quite contagious and I hope that they will not become too affected by the impacts of tourism in the longer term.

Khomani-San children, Askham, Kalahari - 1 January 2009

Next was a week-long trip to Kenya in the company of my colleague, Jon Smallie. The aim of the trip was to look at vulture and other raptor conservation and research work being conducted in that country and I’m very happy to report that we were able to get to visit some very special areas, including a Rüppell’s Vulture colony at Kwenia and the Lake Naivasha-area with our good friend, Dr. Munir Virani     who hosted us for the entire week. Munir and his family went out of their way to make the trip an interesting and productive one. There were a number of promising initiatives that emenated from this visit and it was also great to meet with and learn from other bird conservationists from that country, especially with Dr. Muchane Muchai, the Head of the National Museums of Kenya who I have worked with before when he did his PhD-study at Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga in 1999-2000.

Counting Ruppell's Vultures at Kwenia with Muni Virani and Jon Smallie, January 2009

In late February, I headed north by road via the Trans-Kalahari Highway and Ghanzi in Botswana to attend and chair the AGM of the Game Rangers Association of Africa at Shamvuri in the Caprivi-region of northern Namibia. Good rains had fallen throughout most of southern Africa and it was great to see the veld in such good condition. Of course, the AGM was good fun and it was good to meet with folks from further north. A surprising number of rangers from South Africa also made the pilgrimage up there and more than 80 people eventually attended. The event also included the wedding of ranger Jos Josling, but resulted in me having to miss that of my good friend André Agenbag and his good lady Angela. It was also the first time that the Africa Committee of the GRAA held a mobile meeting. We discussed GRAA matters floating on a large boat on the beautiful Kavango River one afternoon, certainly a first for the normally very terrestrial rangers that are on the Committee! This trip also produced my only southern Africa birding lifer in the form of Schalow’s Turaco which I was able to finally tick on a boat trip from Katima Mulilo with John Turner and Christine Jennings.

The mobile GRAA meeting on the Kavango River, February 2009

Another memory that will stay with me for a long time was the tree-platform on the Kwando River where I spent the Friday night after the AGM courtesy of the arrangements made by Simon Mays who works in the Caprivi National Park that this forms part of. I only pitched my mozzie-net tent and, after enjoying a basic meal of tinned rations, spent the night staring at the thousands of stars and the massive thunderstorms raging to the north over Angola and Zambia while listening to a range of owls, hippo, elephant and other creatures of the night 8m above the ground. Truly a magical experience!

The last out-of-country trip of the year was by far the most amazing experience of the year and included the fulfillment of a life-long dream to visit at least part of the Amazon in South America. If you are interested to find out more, you are welcome to read the blog titled “Birding and other Adventures on our South American Trip – October/November 2009”. This was done as part of a trip to attend the 6th World Congress of the International Rangers Federation that was held at Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia in early November. It certainly was great to meet with a large number of rangers from 47 countries to talk about the work we all are so lucky to be involved in and many a new friendship was made. As a South African, it was really great to receive great feedback on the Congress that was held here in 2000 and many people shared their memories of this experience with us.

Thea and 2 friendly local ladies, Cusco, Peru - October 2009

The field trip during the Congress was also a great experience, especially when the bus we were traveling in got stuck on one of the many log-bridges that traverses streams in this part of the tropical rainforests. Of course, this was not much of a problem and the rangers on board in no time extracted the bus and fixed the bridge before looking for a safer, alternative route to the Amboro National Park. It was here that we saw our first Toucan in the wild and also received more mosquito bites than I thought possible. Of course the itchy effect of these only became evident in the following days and these little buggers make the African version, except for the Anopheles of course, seem rather tame by comparison! The sighting of a magnificent Tarantula at Amboro also was a highlight. I was also honoured to be elected as African Representative to the International Executive of the IRF on the last day and we will be submitting a proposal to host the next Congress in East Africa in 2012/2013.

The Bus, the Bridge and resourceful Rangers on the way to Amboro National Park

Before heading back to South Africa, we also spent three days in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This is a city that I have very pleasant memories of resulting from a visit there in 2001 during a BirdLife International Building on Experience training session and it was good to share some of the sights with Thea. South America has not seen the last of us, I’m sure!

Although it was a difficult year at work due to the ever-present threat of limited financial resources and tough fundraising conditions, I am happy to say that the Birds of Prey Working Group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust has still made good progress on a number of fronts with regard to the conservation, research and monitoring of vultures, other raptors and large birds in the region. We once again hosted a successful Annual Conference at Hlalanathi in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg which was attended by more than 80 people form as far a-field as the UK, Australia and East Africa.

Another highlight of the year was the successful launch of the International Vulture Awareness Day which took place on the 5th of September and involved 155 organisations from 45 countries. The response to the suggestion of such a day, which originated from the annual National Vulture Awareness Day held in South Africa since 2005 and a similar event hosted by The Hawk Conservancy Trust in the UK, we were rather overwhelmed by the global response to such a day this year and look forward to the 4th of September 2010 when the 2nd International Vulture Awareness Day will be held. More information in this regard can be found in several postings on this blog under September 2009. I was also honoured when the EWT presented me with a special award acknowledging my contribution in this regard during its Fieldworkers Week at the end of October. This event also saw the best ever attendance by EWT-BoPWG fieldworkers since its inception and it was great to have a good number of colleagues attend during a time when most of them are very busy with fieldwork.

The Lowveld/Kruger National Park Large Bird Project continues making a significant contribution to the conservation, research and monitoring of a range of species in the Kruger National Park and adjacent Lowveld-region of South Africa. This is a project that was long overdue and that has been a personal goal for many years, finally reaching fruition in late 2007 with the approval of the first of several projects by SANParks enabling us to work in this important conservation area. Scott Ronaldson runs this project for us, but I maintain a very close personal involvement in this initiative, for obvious reasons! In fact, I have been fortunate to undertake at least 16 field trips to Kruger during the last 12 months to participate and, in some cases, lead fieldwork on a number of initiatives.

As usual, the Savanna Science Network Symposium held in April was a highlight and this coincided with the county’s general elections. Scott and I did a trip to the Shimuwini-area the day before the elections to ring a very late Southern Ground Hornbill in a large Baobab and also surveyed the power-line between the Olifants-river and Satara Rest Camp on our way back to Skukuza. Our findings during this survey has led to Eskom re-assessing that network of power-lines that traverse this National Park and will hopefully lead to substantial improvements from bird mortality-perspective. We also ringed 11 other Southern Ground Hornbills earlier in the season. On one of these days we were accompanied by Section Rangers Don English and Rob Thomson covering nests along the Mbiyamiti and Mlambane rivers in the south. It was great to spend time in the field with good mates doing something that we all enjoyed at a time when the veld was looking at its best. Of course, there was plenty of banter and stories to share. I’m happy to say that both these rangers have had substantial successes in apprehending poachers in their sections over the last 5 weeks or so and it was great to share the tales of their successes during my last visit just before Christmas.

Working with Scott and Don to ring a Ground Hornbill nestling

Our annual survey of the Luvhuvhu- and Olifants rivers in Kruger also went well this year and we received great support from SANParks, Wilderness Safaris and a number of volunteers during June. The Luvhuvhu survey saw two EWT staff members, Alison Janicke and Wendy Collinson as well as Honorary Ranger and good friend Ashraf Sayed participate in the 4 days of walking the river searching for sightings and signs of Pel’s Fishing Owl and other birds that share the riverine habitat. This survey will certainly be remembered for the close shave the team on the southern bank experienced on the last morning when they walked into a less-than-amused female leopard and her cub in the process of taking down a sub-adult waterbuck ewe that they had flushed in her direction! The lightning-fast reaction of one of the Field Rangers who fired a warning shot fortunately was enough to discourage the female from any further action against the team and she dashed off into the undergrowth not to be seen again. As for the waterbuck, she eventually staggered to her feet after a while and took off after the rest of her mates, seemingly none the worst for wear!

The Luvhuvhu River survey team, June 2009

Our Olifants River survey is generally a far bigger operation with two teams each covering one half of the river in Kruger, a distance of about 92kms. I once again led the team covering the western half, stretching from a place known as Wildevyeboom to Mamba Picket on the Parks western boundary. My team was accompanied by Richard Sowry, Section Ranger of the Kingfisherspruit Section in the Park and Colin Rowles, Warden of the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve that borders onto the Park. In addition Cobus Bester and Foeta Krige, friends I have met on the Conservation Outreach and similar trips previously also came along as well as three long-standing mates from my army days, André Agenbag, Johan Nel and Ben van Zijl. We were supported by Thea and her nephew Tim Horak who ensured that our camping equipment were moved daily to new campsites while we walked the river banks on both sides looking for and counting all the fish-eating birds encountered. Apart from stumbling across several large groups of elephant and the odd hippo dozing in the undergrowth, the survey thankfully went off without incident. Even the river crossings by zodiac became rather routine once we got the knack of it.

Crossing the Olifants using a human-propelled zodiac

Another incident worth sharing, albeit at my own cost, happened on my second trip to Kruger this year to do some Ground Hornbill fieldwork. After arriving pretty late on a Monday afternoon in February, I decided to go and have a look at the flow of the Sabie and Sand Rivers outside Skukuza which were flowing quite nicely after the good rains during the previous weeks. Upon arriving at the Sand River and traversing the low-water bridge crossing it, I saw an empty 2 litre cold drink bottle floating in the water right next to some rocks adjacent to the bridge. Some unthinking individual had clearly decided to dump the bottle in the river in the hope that it would be washed downstream by the fast-flowing water. The currents however kept on washing it back toward the rocks and I decided to try an recover it from the water, very conscious of the potential risks, but motivated by the fact that it was important enough to remove this annoying object from a river where it clearly didn’t belong. Getting out of my vehicle, I climbed down onto the rocks and bent down to retrieve the bottle, only to have my feet slip out under me and ending up to my neck in the water for a fraction of a second before recovering my composure and scrambling back onto the rocks and back onto the bridge, empty bottle in hand! Standing there, dripping wet and with copious amounts of adrenalin rushing through my veins, I reflected on the stupidity of my actions! Fortunately, there were no submerged crocs waiting for food at that spot or I would have been history.
Despite incidents like this, I am constantly aware of the immense privilege and responsibility involved in working in protected areas such as Kruger and several other reserves throughout South Africa and beyond on a regular basis. Other moments during the year that also stand out is the day we spent in the hide at Giant’s Castle as part of our attempts to capture Bearded Vultures to fit them with satellite tracking technology to follow their movements. On this day, we saw no less than 11 individual Bearded Vultures, but had no luck at catching them! The team led by Sonja Krüger has however persevered and are currently following the movements of at least 6 Bearded Vultures in the Ukuhlamba-Drakensberg. It is simply an amazing experience working with species like this in some of the most scenic areas of South Africa.

Thea and I also attended the Sunset Serenade event, hosted by the Honorary Rangers, and held at Letaba in June this year. It was quite an experience to sit in the African bush at sunset and listen to beautiful classical music being performed by an ensemble of musicians while looking at wildlife coming to drink in the river close to us. It is certainly an amazing event that also contributes to the good work done by rangers in the Kruger and other National Parks. Thanks again to John Turner for inviting us!

Sunset Serenade near Letaba, June 2009

Experiences such as these certainly make up for any lack of monetary compensation and have contributed to making the past year another memorable and enjoyable one. As my good friend Johann Oelofse always says, we get paid in sunrises and sunsets, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There certainly also isn’t any harm in having fun while you’re earning a living and loving what you are doing at the same time! From a birding perspective, I was once again happy to reach the 600 species-mark for southern Africa this year with a total of 641 species during the last 12 months, the third highest total for the region since I started keeping an annual tally. Globally, I managed to reach 997 species thanks to the East African and South American trips, something that I am very chuffed about. Just a pity that it falls short of the 1000-mark! Another milestone reached over the year was achieving more than 60 000 Cybertracker datapoints of birds recorded by reaching a total of 62361 points, something I didn’t quite believe possible when entering the first record on the morning of January 1st.
On a sadder note, I would also like to remember two colleagues and friends that passed away during the last year. The first of these is Prof. Steven Piper who has been a friend, mentor and colleague for more than 10 years and who passed away after a short illness in March. Steven’s guidance and support in the initial stages of the establishment of the EWT-BoPWG has been invaluable and I will certainly miss his eloquence, wit and love for the vultures he cared for so much. The other friend to have passed away this year is Ben de Boer who owned the Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge near Magoebaskloof and who was making a huge contribution to the development of avitourism and site-based bird guides in Limpopo until his death on the 1st of August. We miss you Ben.

All things considered, it has been a busy and tough year. However, it has also been rewarding in many ways and generally a lot of fun! If 2010 contains even half the experiences of 2009, it will be worthwhile.

Looking back.....and into the future

The last day of 2009 is here and many people are heaving a sigh of relief that the year is almost over. From a global perspective, it certainly seems as if this year threw everything bad at humanity. The Global Financial Crisis saw many people lose their livelihoods, jobs and security. The impacts of Global Climate Change were clearly illustrated during several occurrences of extreme and un-seasonal weather-events worldwide which caused loss of life and severe damage to infrastructure and property. The farcical events at Copenhagen underlined the lack of substantive leadership and humanity’s refusal to accept responsibility for and work towards adapting to this phenomenon. It was a sad day when we started quantifying natural resources to the extent where businesses and countries can “trade” their carbon emissions to mollify their conscience that what they are doing is not so bad. The hard-ass approach of developed countries thinking that you can approach this challenge on business principles to win the war by a degree Celsius or two is just as ludicrous as that of developing countries’ government delegates that saw this event as an opportunity to haul out the begging bowl, rather than to face the real challenge to the environment and humanity as we know it.

Society seems to continue on an ever-declining spiral of electing and supporting weak individuals as their leaders and provide media coverage to the lives of people famous for nothing but being famous. We seem to have become fascinated by the mundane and the outrageously boring and to be besotted by appearance rather than the substance and being of the people we are dealing with.

In South Africa, things weren’t any different and South Africans were entertained by the saga in the run-up to, and the events following the general elections in April. We certainly have elected the government that we deserve and the village idiots from both the left and the right’s ranting and raving have become part of the standard mainstream political fare that was South Africa in 2009. The only challenge is to separate the idiots in charge from the idiots in opposition as they all seem to be preaching from the same podiums and have the same focus, their own self-interest and careers rather than the needs of the electorate. The year also clearly illustrated that loyalty to an individual above all costs can pay handsome dividends with certain questionable individuals having been appointed to key positions in government and the private sector. Our legal system seems to be at a cross-road with questionable decisions on a number of cases characterizing the apparent regression of the independent judiciary to the point of judges prosecuting and contradicting each other in public.

Public services such as healthcare, safety and security, maintenance of infrastructure such as roads, water supply and electricity seem to have reached the point of breakdown in a number of areas. It was quite ironic to see people take to the streets in areas such as Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Free State to protest against the performance of the same politicians they voted into power only weeks or months before. The apparent aggression and hooliganism that accompanied protests and strikes in many cases have become the norm and, in some cases, brought back vivid images of the riots of the 1980’s. It was indeed a sad day to see the country’s Defence Force soldiers storm the main seat of political power, the Union Buildings in Pretoria (or Tshwane, depending on your angle of political correctness) in their demands for higher wages. It was the only bit of action that most of these soldiers had seen in many years. However, their mutinous actions paid off handsomely when they were awarded substantial pay increases in December!

The Eskom-saga also shows that the South African tax-payer will keep on carrying the brunt of the costs to fulfill the needs of the country whether these needs are realistic and sustainable or not. The lip-service that is currently being paid to finding more sustainable sources of energy while carbon-based energy sources continue to be exploited and expanded upon, is simply untenable and we are already starting to pay the price for this through the environmental impacts that are becoming more and more evident, but that are seemingly being ignored to curry political favour. We would rather prefer to address the crises as they happen than try and prevent them from happening in the first place.

In the field of conservation, South Africa continues to face an increasing threat of poaching of rhino and other wildlife that is characterized by a more sophisticated approach by the perpetrators that requires an adjustment in our approach to effectively curb it. Although the threat to rhino is the most obvious, issues such as large scale meat-poaching in certain areas and the illegal harvest of vultures, certain plants and other wildlife for the muthi trade is certainly cause for concern. Although we have excellent legislation in place, we need to start enforcing it effectively to ensure the continued existence of our natural heritage. I am however proud to report that rangers and other conservationists have already started making good progress in addressing some of these threats, but a wider approach is needed with better support from the judiciary and other law enforcement agencies.

Several protected areas are also under threat from human activities such as mining and agriculture and areas such as Mapungubwe face losing their character and value as natural and cultural heritage areas due to these. The challenge of conserving our natural heritage in South Africa from the above and other threats is increasingly resting on the shoulders of the NGO-sector. This is a massive challenge considering that most of these organisations depend on donor funding to do the work they are engaged in and that there in most cases are very limited resources to do what’s necessary. There are however still many hard-working and dedicated people in government conservation structures and I believe that greater cooperation between all sectors is the key to achieving success in future. This however needs to extend beyond making encouraging sounds in board rooms and at conferences and meetings and to start implementing effective action to address the various challenges facing conservation in South Africa today. Considering the vested interests and internal politics prevalent in this sector, this is a huge challenge in itself.

As true South Africans, we often try to find solace in sport and our achievements in this arena over the past year have been mixed to say the least. The Boks did us proud and I have to grudgingly admit that the Bulls also performed well and deserved to make a clean sweep of the competitions that they were involved in. We started the year as the number 1 in Test Cricket and ODI’s, but this has sadly changed during the year to the level where our last test was an embarrassment to say the least. Of course, being humiliated by the Poms on home soil is never an easy pill to swallow, but seemingly capitulating in the face of rather ordinary bowling is something completely unacceptable! Then there was the farcical Caster Semenya-saga – need I say more?

Of course, the 2010 World Cup is considered to be the saviour of us all and is the once-in-a-lifetime event that most Safricans think will solve all our problems and put us back in the global picture from a sporting perspective. Ignoring for a moment the less than encouraging performances of our pride and joy, Bafana-Bafana (why we keep on referring to them as boys when they are expected to play against the real men of world football is beyond me), in the international arena, I do think that this event will indeed be an opportunity for us to showcase South Africa to as large an audience as we had when we made the miraculous transition to democracy in 1994. I trust that the opportunists that have on a number of occasions tried to use the pressing deadlines associated with the event as blackmail to push their case for better wages and other reasons, will not negatively impact on the event in any way and that it will go smoothly.

Question is, what about South Africa after the event when the world’s attention will inevitably drift away from us again? Many people seem to only look at June/July 2010 and have not planned beyond that. What will happen to the many folk who have found employment in various sectors associated with the event, but that will lose their jobs once it has run its course? Will there be outlets where these individuals can apply their acquired skills beyond the World Cup? Will these be sustainable? Unlike a 90-minute football match, or a 6-week event that has a finite life, most of us will have to carry on with our lives afterward and continue to make ends meet. One can only trust that provision has been made for alternatives for these thousands of people.

Now, more than ever, is the time for humanity to look at itself in the mirror and accept responsibility for where we are, warts and all. Time is running out for all of us if we do not face the facts and start acting to address the global and local challenges in the coming months of what will be 2010 and beyond. Humans are wonderfully resilient creatures and I trust that we will start realizing and admitting our mistakes to act timeously to achieve a workable solution to the challenges that we face today. It is never too late…

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What's with birders and sewage?

The one activity that probably contributes more than any other to class the dedicated birder as a species somewhat bereft of the usual sensibilities that other human beings possess, is the proclivity to frequent spots which are generally avoided by the reasonable man (or woman). I’m not necessarily referring to areas that host life-threatening dangers such as malaria, aggressive animals or other inhabitants, but places found in or near most developed human settlements, the local town sewage works! The thought of visiting such a facility generally fills most people with a feeling of revulsion and it is not included on the itinerary of too many other leisure activities that I know off. That is, unless you are seriously looking for you know what…

However, the mention of a particular sewage plant to a birder will probably conjure up pleasant memories of time spent wandering between settling ponds looking at the array of birds that can be found there. I am often met with strange looks when arriving in an area and enquiring about the possibility of visiting the local sewage works. These facilities, by their very nature, does provide suitable habitat to a large variety of birds and, because they are generally avoided by people, present a fairly safe location at which birders can pursue their pastime. In fact, several regional rarities have over the years been recorded at just such facilities from the Cape to the Zambezi and beyond. Recent examples of such birds are the Elegant Tern that was discovered at the Strandfontein sewage works near Cape Town, the American Purple Gallinule found at Paarl as well as Lesser Jacana found near Pretoria in October 2007. It is for this very reason that I, just like most other birders, am familiar with the sewage works in a number of locations across the region. Apart from those mentioned above, I can think of at least 20 other facilities that I have regularly visited over the years.

The dam at the Kasane Sewage Works

One of these rank as one of my favourite birding spots in all of southern Africa, namely the Kasane Sewage works situated between the small towns of Kasane and Kazangula close to the Chobe River in northern Botswana. Although the Chobe-area is frequented by thousands of tourists from all over the world, the sewage works most certainly is not on any of the local lodges or outfitter’s lists of places not to be missed. I was introduced to the site quite a few years ago by a local lodge manager and keen birder, Rex Kelly, and have since spent many pleasurable hours there, constantly being rewarded with some very special sightings of birds and other wildlife.

The area is not fenced and the lower settlement dam which carries the purest water is frequented by good numbers of game. We have at times been surrounded by as many as 200 African elephant, a herd of buffalo and several antelope species including Sable coming to drink here in the late afternoon while a lone hippo bull has for the last few years taken up residence here. One often sees signs of predators such as leopard, lion and spotted hyaena that have visited the site, but it is the birds that make use of the area that certainly warrants the most attention.

Scenes like this are not uncommon at the Kasane Sewage Works Dam
On a recent visit to the site during December, we spent some time here whilst enjoying sundowners and seeing what interesting birds could be around. The first cause for excitement was a small flock of migratory Yellow Wagtails of at least three different races that were foraging in the short grass on an open area near the water. Apart from a range of the expected species of waterbirds and waders, we were initially entertained by the antics of an African Fish Eagle seemingly deriving a lot of pleasure out of taking off from a perch and sweeping low over the water to the consternation of all the shorebirds who would fly up and circle a few times before landing only to be chased up in the same manner a short while later. This game was cut short just before dark when the resident Osprey returned from its daily tour of the Chobe floodplain and, upon finding a potential fish-eating competitor on its home patch, summarily attacked the eagle by dive-bombing and harassing it in the air until it was forced to fly off towards the river. This bird has been using the dead trees in the lower dam as a roost for several years now and we have regularly encountered it on our visits here.

Our attention was soon drawn to a flock of more than a hundred Collared Pratincoles hunting insects on the wing over the water and the clearing among the trees. It is an awesome experience to have so many of these birds fly at great speed around you, at times within a few centimeters from your face. Whilst this was going on, they were joined by at least three Eurasian Hobby Falcons who were hunting swifts and other small birds over the woodland. These little falcons had arrived a week or two earlier on migration from their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia and seemed very keen on replenishing their resources after the strenuous journey south. This was followed up by the surprise appearance of a Bat Hawk that was far more adept at catching swifts as well as bats that started appearing in the growing darkness. The grand finale was provided by an adult male Pennant-winged Nightjar that started hawking insects over the water with its long streamers and largely white wing coverts creating the impression of a huge moth sweeping over the area. A few more of these very sought-after birds were seen on the drive back to camp through the Teak forest.

A drive along this same route by day often reveals species such as Racket-tailed Roller, Wood Pipit, Red-faced Crombec, Striped Kingfisher and quite a few Sunbird species, especially when the teak trees are in flower.

Racket-tailed Roller is fairly common in the woodlands surrounding the dam

A mere glance at the list of species above is enough to make any southern African birder’s mouth water. The fact that they would have to visit a place such as the Kasane sewerage works to get to see some of them will certainly not be a deterrent at all and probably adds weight to the saying that one has to tolerate a few caterpillars in order to see the butterflies.

I again visited the site in February 2009, but was saddened to see that development is starting to encroach on this magical place. Building of a large structure had commenced on the road leading to the site and it seems as if the dam is starting to show the effects of eutrophication with very little clear surface water remaining. The cantankerous hippo bull that was part of the scenery has also since abandoned the site, presumably to take up residence in the nearby Chobe River. I just hope that the development will not hve a negative impact and that carefull management will see the dam become the attracion to wildlife that it used to be.

Dashing and Endangered - Saddle-billed Stork

Adult male Saddle-billed Stork walking along a water course in Moremi, Botswana

Possibly one of the most striking birds occurring along the rivers and wetlands of sub-Saharan Africa is the Saddle-billed Stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis. In South Africa, this species is classified as “Endangered” and the population estimate for the species 10 years ago was less than 150 individuals. Most of these birds occur in the Kruger National Park with a handful of birds still being recorded in northern Zululand as far south as Lake St Lucia within the Isimangaliso Wetland Park (Barnes, 2000). Further north on the continent it is also never common as it is not a gregarious bird like other most other storks are and its territoriality limits the number of birds that can occur, even in large areas of suitable habitat.

Suitable habitat for this species consists of aquatic habitats in open country, where they favour large rivers, freshwater wetlands and floodplains. In Kruger these birds are found along the large river systems and a few large man-made water reservoirs for most of the year, but in years of good rainfall, are quick to exploit the numerous seasonal pans and seeps that form in many areas and where a host of aquatic prey species abound under these temporarily favourable conditions. As mentioned, they feed mostly on aquatic animals and are capable fishermen that can take fish-prey up to 2kg!

Unlike most other southern African stork species, it is fairly easy to separate the male from the female of a pair in the field. Adult females have a bright yellow eye while males have a dark red eye and two yellow wattles at the base of the bill. It is also possible to identify individual birds from each other by looking at the pattern on the bill where the red and black meet. This seems to be unique in each bird, similar to fingerprints in humans. One does however need to get really close to the birds to be able to do this.

Two male Saddle-billed Storks from the Kruger National Park clearly showing the unique patterning on their bills that facilitates individual identification of birds. The bird on the lft is one of a pair found near Manzinhlophe during the survey while the bird on the right was located on the Mbiyamiti two weeks later. No pair could be found at Mbiyamiti during the survey.

It is this technique which forms an important component of our population study of this species in the Kruger National Park, run by Marcelle van den Hoven, a BTech-student from the Tshwane University of Technology. The study will run from October 2009 – September 2010 and visitors to the Park are encouraged to assist in this study by contributing images and details of sightings of these birds to the database. Feedback and details of sightings can be e-mailed to

Copy of the flier that is available for information of visitors wishing to contribute to the survey. The initial response has been excellent.

The initial response from the public has been very good and a lot of data on sightings have been received, some with really good quality images that will assist in identifying individual birds. We also conducted a survey of the southern half of the Kruger National Park during early December 2009 using 5 teams of observers that covered over 3000km over the 3 days of the survey. Due to excessive rain in the area in the preceding 2 weeks, a multitude of little pans had formed in the veld making observations very difficult and initial results were rather poor due to the fact that the birds abandoned their usual haunts along the major rivers and were now concentrating their foraging on these pans. This made them rather tricky to find!

An interesting development regarding the survey was an e-mail sent to the SABirdNet by a Canadian birder that visited the Kruger Park during October 2009. He had seen pairs of Saddle-billed Storks on 4 occasions during his 3-day visit and had sent the information to the database. However, he questioned the accuracy of the figures of the population status of the species quoted on the posters and pamphlets of the survey that have been put up across the Park and are available at most reception areas, gates and shops. According to his calculations, that took into account the entire size of the Park and the road network that traverses it, he estimated that the population in Kruger alone should exceed 4000 birds! To add insult to wild assumption, he also accused the Project and the parties involved in it of dishonesty and blowing the status of the species out of proportion to suit their own needs.

After my initial reply to the individual quoting the Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland (Barnes, 2000) confirming the status and underlining the low density of this species throughout its range, I received a direct reply from the individual concerned that indicated his refusal to accept this and expanding on his theory that the species is far more numerous than what is believed. This was my second reply to the individual concerned:

“Dear XXX

Thanks for the reply.

I would be very interested to hear on what factual information you base your suggestion that there could be 4000+ individual SBS in Kruger. It is very difficult to base population estimates on a very small number of sightings from a limited number of individuals and on the incorrect assumption that the entire Kruger provides suitable habitat for this species. Hence our project which aims to obtain more extensive records on this species and ideally would like to reach a point where we can individually identify birds in the population. Considering that the majority of tourist routes in Kruger were developed in proximity to the river systems and larger drainage lines which could potentially provide habitat for this species, there could also be considerable bias towards the likelihood of seeing this species.

Please keep in mind that the population of SBS in Kruger and elsewhere is influenced by a range of factors which severely limits their distribution to a fraction of the entire Park, namely:

• Although this species occurs widely throughout sub-Saharan Africa (apart from the arid south-west), it is nowhere considered to be numerous.
• Even in extensive suitable habitat, its territoriality and solitary nesting habits contribute to the fact that they are nowhere abundant. They are very different to most other storks species due to the fact that they are not gregarious and sightings of more than 2 birds together are very likely that of a pair with their offspring.
• Available habitat in Kruger is restricted to riverine areas. Seasonal pans and seeps are only accessible in years of sufficient rainfall and does not provide suitable foraging areas throughout the year.
• The seasonal nature of the flow of most of the smaller rivers and streams in Kruger severely limits the accessible habitat for this species. This is especially important when it should be considered that such systems will need to function as foraging areas during the breeding season which mostly occurs during the dry season in Kruger when the demand for food with this species would possible be highest.
• Several of the larger rivers are also not flowing throughout the year anymore due to a number of factors, mostly induced by human activities further up-stream. This further reduces suitable habitat and feeding opportunities for breeding birds in this area. For example, one of the major rivers in the Park is the Olifants. Our annual surveys (2006-2009) of fish-eating birds along the 92kms of this river that runs through Kruger shows that there are at most 3 pairs that occur along it.
• If you extrapolate this figure to the available suitable habitat in Kruger, it is highly unlikely that you will get to the figure you have quoted.
• Alan Kemp and his team conducted an aerial census of the entire Kruger in 1993 that revealed a total of 40 adults and 17 juveniles and sub-adults (like the bird in your photograph). That’s a little less than 2% of your estimate. We do plan to repeat this census this coming dry season and, hopefully, for a number of years to come. Will keep you posted on results.
• Subsequent records and surveys have revealed at total of 20 active nesting sites of this species in Kruger in 1993 (Benn et al, 1995). We are hoping to acquire more current data in this regard during the coming months, but it is unlikely that there would have been a marked increase in the number of breeding sites in the Park, especially if you consider the current ecological status of rivers in the Kruger.

Based on the above, the estimate of a 100 individuals in Kruger is probably optimistic.

There are several references available to support the above, but I suggest that you work through the texts of the following for a start:

• Hancock, J.A., Kushlan, J.A. & Kahl, M.P. 1992, Storks, Ibises and Spoonbills of the World. Academic Press.
• Barnes, K.N. (ed.) 2000. The Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. BirdLife SA/ADU.
• Hockey, P.A.R., Dear W.R.J. & Ryan, P.G. (eds.) 2005. Roberts Birds of Southern Africa. 7th edition. John Voelcker Bird Book Fund.
• Renshaw, E. 1993. Modelling Biological Populations in Space and Time. Cambridge University Press.

Please let me know if you have any further queries on this matter.

André Botha”

Unfortunately, this misconception is not uncommon with species such as the Saddle-billed Stork and several more of the birds that we work with. Even experienced birders are sometimes lured into to the illusion that some species are more common than what they in reality are. Rarity and scale of threat cannot be attributed to a species based on a handful of sightings or the ease with which it is found.

An excellent example of this is the Taita Falcon Falco fasciinucha. Most birders in South Africa know that a pair of these birds breed just west of the Strijdom-tunnel on the way to the Lowveld, a site looked after by one of the BirdLife-trained guides, Michael Kumako. On most days, it is possible to have good views of these birds within about 30 minutes of your arrival and most birders that have visited this part of Africa and ticked this species off their lists, probably saw them here. What people don’t realize however is that this is one of only 7 breeding pairs of this bird in the country and that they are nowhere common throughout their very scattered range in Africa. In fact, this is easily the rarest of all breeding birds in South Africa!

Taita Falcon - one of the rarest breeding birds in South Africa
(Photo: Ron Hartley)

Further details on the activities and findings of the Saddle-billed Stork Survey of the Kruger National Park will be provided in due course.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

One farmers attitude can make a difference - Kempenfeldt Vulture Feeding Site

About 3½ years ago, I was approached by a farmer from the Dundee district in KwaZulu-Natal, Mynhardt Sadie. He was looking for information on how to establish a vulture feeding site on his farm, about 20km outside of town in the northern parts of this province in eastern South Africa. I duly sent him the appropriate information and, in answer to his question about the odds of birds making use of the site, was very conservative in my reply by saying that it is almost always worth trying to establish a site, but that there were no guarantees that birds may in fact make use of it. This was especially relevant considering the fact that, at the time, he had seen only a few birds flying over the area and, on a few occasions, had seen small numbers of vultures feeding on dead livestock carcasses in the district.

This approach seemed to be supported when colleague Sonja Krüger, other staff from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and I visited the site in April 2007 to assess the possible use of canon-nets in the capture of vultures as part of our colour-marking initiative in southern Africa. We spent two frustrating days at the site waiting at the comfortable chalet Mynhardt had built as weekend accommodation for visitors for very little to happen. The idea was that the vultures would come and feed at the food placed out for them and where the canon-nets were set up and ready to fire, thereby capturing them. The closest we ever got to this, was when two vultures lazily drifted by quite high not be seen again. Mynhardt’s reassurances that he had as many as 50 birds feeding at the site before, didn’t sound very convincing and we left the site with no luck and fixed thoughts of looking for other sites where we could attempt to capture birds in the province.

The interim period had seen attempts to construct capture enclosures at two more sites in the province, namely the Ithala Game Reserve in Zululand and at Monk’s Cowl in the Ukuhlamba-Drakensberg. The Ithala enclosure had to be dismantled after a few months due to the fact that the resident Bushpig Potamochoerus larvatus, Warthog Phacochoeros africanus and White Rhino Ceratotherium simum took more than a glancing interest in the structure and seemed hell-bent on creating as many holes in the diamond mesh fencing that it was covered with as possible. The hogs had of course quickly acquired a taste for the meat placed out for the vultures, but were to dim to find their way out of the enclosure once they have entered and fed. The Rhino more than likely just didn’t enjoy the presence of a man-made structure within its territory and tried its best to break it down!

The photograph rumoured to have led to the failure of one of our mass-capture attempts.
I just couldn't help myself!

At Monk’s Cowl there were no such problems, except that it was a very new feeding site and that the birds were very reluctant to come down and feed every time we had made preparations for a capture. I’m quite sure that Sonja still blames one failure on my camera shutter when I just couldn’t resist taking a picture of the only Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres to venture close enough to the site after three days of nothing happening! This site has up to now still not produced good numbers and the capture enclosure there has also been taken down.

It was therefore with some reluctance that I again accepted an invitation from Mynhardt to visit his farm in late July this year. He has been sending me records of tagged birds that he recorded feeding at the site since January this year and it included birds tagged in Swaziland and the Zululand reserves as well as two birds tagged by myself at Moholoholo in the Lowveld about two years earlier. He also mentioned that more than 200 birds at a time come to feed there and that a lot of these have started using the trees on his property as roosts, never moving too far away from the feeding site. Well, seeing is believing and I arranged to meet Mynhardt and Sonja at Kempenfeldt to have a look at whether the site did indeed have to potential to be used as a capture site.
Upon my arrival, the first obvious change that I could note was that a fairly substantial structure had been erected close to the feeding site. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was a hide that was completed since our last visit there more than a year before. Not being able to enter the hide, I had to be satisfied with a quick inspection from the outside during which I also noticed a small group of about 15 vultures relaxing in front of the hide where food is normally placed out for them. There was also a good number of rather vocal White-necked Ravens Corvus albicollis perched and flying about. Heading up the hill and arriving at the chalet, it was obvious that more hard work had gone into this structure to make it even more comfortable for visitors. It is quite impressive that Mynhardt had developed the site and made all of these improvements out of his own pocket and due to his love and respect for vultures!

The Rolls Royce of Vulture Hides in South Africa - Kempenfeldts pride and joy!

Here I also met Keith Roberts, a good friend of Sonja’s, for the first time. Keith used to work at EKZNW, but relocated to the Friedkin Conservation Fund’s project in Tanzania where he has been working for several years. We started talking about various issues related to conservation in East- and Southern Africa, but one of the main topics of discussion was the set of photographs that he had sent through to us a few months earlier of large numbers of vultures that had been poisoned in the Serengeti. This inevitably led to a discussion on the harvest of vultures for muthi and related issues and Keith agreed to be on the look-out for incidents and evidence that could possibly confirm that this was also happening in Tanzania. The subsequent evidence that he and his staff, together with other conservationists in East Africa have unearthed has been reported on earlier and sketches a rather bleak picture of the situation there.~
We agreed to get to the hide before first light the next morning to ensure that we get there before any of the birds would be there. Mynhardt had already placed fresh carcasses at the feeding site and things were looking rather good for us to see some birds at least. Even the sub-zero temperatures of the early July morning couldn’t dampen our spirits, especially when Mynhardt introduced us to the great facilities inside the hide that he had built with such care and consideration. Apart from the separate WC facilities that include a flushing toilet, the spacious hide also has a little kitchen where you can brew a decent pot of coffee to have with some rusks while waiting for the birds to arrive. In addition to comfortable seating in front of the viewing windows, there is also a cane lounge suite towards the back where one can sit and relax when viewing the birds becomes a bit of a chore. Three photographic ports also round off the facility and it was through any one of these which I spent the next 5 hours staring in amazement through my camera lenses at the scene in front of me.
It turns out that Mynhardt was rather modest in his estimate of the number of birds that visit the site and we were entertained by almost 350 birds on the day! Needless to say, my camera worked overtime and I was a little concerned that I may run out of either memory card or batteries at some stage! One of the photographs from that day was recently accepted for use on the Mazda Wildlife Fund 2010 calendar.

One of many pictures taken on the day. Sub-adult Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres landing
at the feeding site.

The outstanding feature of the site, apart from the fact that we saw no less than 3 species of vulture namely Cape-, African White-backed Gyps africanus and Lappet-faced Aegypus tracheliotus, was that the vast majority of the birds feeding there were juvenile and immature birds. This site probably plays a vital role in providing a safe and reliable source of food to birds from Zululand, the Drakensberg and even further afield in the first few years after fledging, a time when many of them succumb due to the lack of food and safe areas to forage. Mynhardt also manages the site very carefully and ensures that there is no excessive build-up of bones and other un-used parts from carcasses that are not used by the birds. Bones are either physically removed or stock-piled and then burnt to remove them. This is often a major challenge at other long-running sites and it is good to see that he has come up with a workable solution to this problem.

Bone-piles like this tend to rapidly grow at an active, well-supplied vulture feeding site
and needs to be carefully managed

Our discussions soon turned to the possibility of erecting a capture enclosure at the site to attempt a first successful mass-capture of vultures in Kwazulu-Natal. Mynhardt was happy to also take up the challenge to construct a suitable enclosure according to prescribed guidelines over the next few months to enable a first attempt at the capture of vultures in the early summer of 2009. I sent through several plans and designs already in use and left him to work out the best option for the site.
The next bit of feedback with regard to birds feeding at Kempenfeldt, came from supporters of the International Vulture Awareness Day that visited the site on the 5th of September 2009 to participate in the day’s activities by counting the birds that came to feed there. Once again, there were good numbers of birds present and the average estimate on the two days was in excess of 450 vultures! Of particular interest was the sighting of an African White-backed Vulture with tag number K374 observed feeding among the other vultures. This bird was tagged in the nest by Abrie Maritz near Vanzylsrus in the southern Kalahari of the Northern Cape, about 900km to the west of Kempenfeldt and is the first ever recorded movement of a vulture from there to Kwazulu-Natal! You can read more about this sighting and other experiences at Kempenfeldt over that weekend by clicking on Johan Janse van Rensburg’s blog:  

My next visit to Kempenfeldt was a quick overnight stop in mid-October on my way to Zululand to assist with the ringing and tagging of vulture nestlings. It was quite a novel experience staying in the chalet on my own for the first time, something which I celebrated by walking into a closed glass sliding door while talking to the missus on the phone. Ouch! Certainly a good thing that no one was there to witness my stupidity, or hear the rich language resulting from it afterwards… and I can’t even blame the beer for this one!

The aim of the visit was to have a look at the progress that was made with the capture enclosure and to see how the vultures reacted to it. Needless to say, my 5-hour wait in the hide the next morning didn’t yield a single vulture despite there being lots of food for them to feed on and several birds being seen circling above the site before heading off! It was obvious on my arrival the previous afternoon that some birds must be feeding on a carcass on the farm next door and it must have been this source of food that received priority on the day. However, the time spent there was not completely wasted as I was entertained by the antics of the 3 Yellow-billed Kites Milvus aegyptius and their altercations with the numerous Pied Crows Corvus albus around the carcasses. The stately manner of the 15-odd Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus looking for insect prey among the carcasses were also worth a second look and the perfect light for photography wasn’t entirely wasted. Mynhardt and I agreed to make a final decision on whether we would attempt a capture this year upon my return from the International Rangers Federation Congress in Bolivia.

The antics and interactions between Yellow-billed Kites Milvus aegyptius and Pied Crows
Corvus albus provid excellent entertainment in lieu of vultures!

The phone call to hear what conditions were like at the site was one of the first things I did as we were driving home from the airport on the 12th of November 2009. Mynhardt was fairly confident that we should go ahead with the effort as the birds apparently readily went into the enclosure to feed. We confirmed arrangements with Ben and Shannon Hoffman and other volunteers to meet us at Kempenfeldt on the 16th of November to attempt a capture the following morning. I left Johannesburg in sweltering conditions, but was a little bit worried about the forecast of cold and blustery conditions over the KZN Midlands for the week.

The forecast for once was accurate and, as soon as I descended the pass between Memel and Newcastle, low cloud and drizzle greeted me on the way to Dundee. I arrived at Kempenfeldt with most of the volunteers already there. Sonja Krüger was not able to be there for our effort this time around as she was still in Europe on her way back from the World Wilderness Congress in Mexico. Her colleague, Rickert van der Westhuizen, was however already there and we prepared the equipment for the next day. Also present was Rina Pretorius, her son and Sylva Francis from Newcastle. Both Rina and Sylva are qualified bird ringers and have expressed an interest in participating in a vulture ringing and tagging exercise for several months and this was probably the best opportunity they would have to achieve this. Phillip Lennon, a television producer from Gauteng who has been filming the work Sonja and some other EWT-BoPWG fieldworkers and associates have been doing over the last 2 years also made the trek with the aim of filming the capture and tagging process. Due to limited space in the chalet, some folks had to camp and several small tents were erected on the lawns outside and even the veranda was converted into a camping site!
The most promising sign of possible success however was the presence of 50-odd vultures at the feeding site when I arrived. Some birds were actually sitting on the cage, preening themselves! Mynhardt and I, together with some members of the team went down to the capture enclosure just before dark to place fresh meat inside and in front of it. We also tested the gate mechanism and I decided to walk to the hide before first light the next morning to ensure that no vehicles were parked close to the hide and that no human presence was obvious that could prevent the birds from coming to feed. Mynhardt agreed to drive from home and meet me there at 04:15 am the next morning. We also conducted a thorough briefing process about the capture protocol that evening to ensure that everyone was prepared and ready for the next day. The only factor not in our favour was the weather with a stiff breeze and intermittent rain occurring through the night.
Despite this, I woke at 3am and made final preparations to walk to the hide. One of the more important things to take along was a bottle of coffee as I did not want to use the stove in the hide to boil water as this could possibly scare the birds off. Rina’s son joined me and we walked down to the hide to get there well before first light. The overcast conditions worked in our favour and we were able to inspect the capture enclosure to make sure that most of the meat placed out for the vultures was still there. The local bushpig and Black-backed Jackal Canis mesomelas had however done the rounds the night before and we had to search the surrounding area to recover some of the pieces of meat and bring it back to the enclosure. After this was done, we retreated back to the hide for the expected long wait for the birds to arrive.
We had agreed the night before that the rest of the team could relax back at the chalet until we warned them by radio that vultures had started feeding and that the capture would go ahead. We didn’t have too long to wait as the first vulture flew from the roost trees to land close to the feeding site just as it got light at about 05:25 to be followed by several others over the next 10 minutes or so. It wasn’t long before the first bird, a recent fledgling African White-backed Vulture, landed at the meat and started to feed on a piece of meat placed right in front of the door of the enclosure. In no time, about 70 vultures had descended on the food and commenced feeding, rapidly finishing the meat placed outside the enclosure.

I frantically tried to reach the rest of the team by radio to warn them that the capture was likely to take place a lot earlier than what we initially anticipated, but struggled to reach them by radio. Fortunately cellular phone technology came to the rescue and I was able to make contact. I can just imagine the mad scramble back at the chalet as people jumped out of bed and rushed to get ready for the big moment. I also tried to phone Alex Wood, the EKZNW District Conservation Officer for Vryheid, who was very keen to participate and planned to bring some of his Field Rangers to lend a hand during the capture. He sounded quite alarmed when I told him that a capture was imminent and it wasn’t even 6 o’clock in the morning!

Once most of the meat outside of the enclosure had been depleted, the vultures started eyeing the food inside and a group of about 50 birds converged in front of the entrance, egging each other on to enter the enclosure and start feeding. One youngster at last couldn’t resist and gingerly entered and started to feed on the food closest to the entrance only to rush out at the slightest bit of disturbance. It eventually settled down to feed and moved deeper into the enclosure. It didn’t take long for the other birds to be convinced and within 5 minutes there was a good number of birds that had crossed the threshold and were now feeding inside.

Once we had determined that the rest of the team was ready and in position, we sprung the trap and a good number of vultures were successfully caught in the enclosure! After the trap was sprung, it required a mad dash down to the enclosure to secure it and prevent any of the captured birds to escape. After this was done, I entered the cage to remove the single African Sacred Ibis and about 9 Pied Crows that were also captured. These were released immediately, but not before the Ibis had a go at my face with its long bill and drew some blood. I suppose every sport has its injuries!

Gotcha!The first vultures to be caught successfully in KZN using a mass-capure facility

I counted 33 vultures in the capture enclosure and was relieved that we finally managed to successfully capture a good number of vultures in KZN. One of the captured birds carried tags with the number S023 which indicates that it was ringed and tagged in the nest in Swaziland in 2007. It was a good opportunity to inspect the tags and the bird’s condition before releasing it and I’m happy to say that it was in very good health. By this time, the rest of the team had arrived and erected a gazebo to provide some shelter from the elements while we were processing the birds. One of the main aims of this particular exercise was to train the volunteers in the capture, handling, ringing and tagging of vultures during a mass-capture and we spent the next three hours working on this. As with most training, it is a rather time-consuming process and we only managed to process 16 of the birds before the weather closed in and we decided to release the remainder of the birds before they got too wet and couldn’t get off the ground.

Despite the fact that we couldn’t finish the process, it was still great to finally have achieved what we have been working for so many months to achieve. Most rewarding for me was to see the quiet satisfaction, relief and joy on Mynhardt’s face once we had let the remainder of the birds go and could finally say that we had done it. It was the cherry on top of at least two years of hard work in setting up the feeding site and we cannot thank him enough for his perseverance and hard work in making this possible. He had certainly proved that one man can make a difference and I am sure that this site will prove to be an important staging area for immature vultures in years to come. It was agreed to attempt another capture early in 2010 and I look forward to getting back to Kempenfeldt in January, hopefully to capture and tag more birds.

Ben and Shannon decided to stay at the site one more night and spent most of that time in the hide to do observations of the vultures feeding on the new batch of food that Mynhardt provided after the capture. No less than 8 of the 16 newly tagged birds returned to feed at the site within 24 hours, two of whom went right into the enclosure to get to the food. It didn’t seem as if the capture process had deterred them from feeding at the site at all!

The team involved n the first successful mass-capture of vultures in KZN. Mynhardt Sadie
is kneeling second from the left

The development of the site was done with the primary aim of providing food to vultures foraging in the area. I do however believe that, with the excellent facilities that Mynhardt has created, it is probably one of the best sites in southern Africa where people can come to observe and photograph a good range of vulture species in a great setting. With a few minor adjustments, the hide can potentially become the best option for photographers who wish to acquire great photographs of vultures in a range of ages and plumages. The other birds at the site are also worth a second look and there is a good range of different habitats for the keen birder to explore. If you would like to book your visit to the site, please contact Mynhardt Sadie at or 079 877 5396.