Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bling and colour season for southern Africa's vultures

At this time of year, vulture fieldworkers in southern Africa are preparing themselves to commence with the next season during which a considerable number of vulture nestlings will be fitted with metal rings and wing-tags before they are large enough to fly and leave the nest. This is part of the the colour-marking programme for these birds which is coordinated by the Birds of Prey Working Group of the EWT and has been running for the last 4 years. The main purpose of ringing and tagging vultures is to identify individual birds and to monitor their movements through the re-sighting of these birds as they forage throughout their range.

The implementation of the programme was preceded by an exhaustive assessment process during which the method was first tested on vultures in captivity to ensure that it is safe for the birds and does not cause any physical harm or impede their ability to fly and forage. After this was confirmed, we also fitted tags to a small sample of nestlings in the Kgalagadi and near Kimberley to see whether this process would cause abandonment of nests or rejection of chicks by their parents. To date, no such negative behaviour has been observed and the extensive number of re-sightings of tagged fledglings subsequently has also backed up our initial observations.

A great opportunity to also test the method on free-flying wild birds presented itself when 16 vultures were saved from a mass-poisoning event that occurred near Hoedspruit in the Lowveld in October 2005. After successful treatment at the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre for about two weeks, the 15 African White-backed Vultures and a single immature Hooded Vulture were tagged, ringed and released on the 5th of November 2005, all bearing tags with the alphabetical code A followed by three digits carrying a unique number for each bird. Some of these birds were re-sighted the very next day at the Moholoholo vulture restaurant and all of them were re-sighted somewhere in the Lowveld/Kruger National Park within the first 12 months after they were released. Some of these birds have been sighted more than 200 times over the last four years!

Based on our assessment and the recommendations from vulture researchers elsewhere in the world, the method was approved for general use in the colour-marking of vultures in southern Africa at our Annual Conference in 2006. This method has since been implemented at almost 20 sites across southern Africa, from the Etosha National Park in Namibia, to the Potberg Cape Vulture colony in the Western Cape and the Lowveld in the east. It also includes countries such as Swaziland and Botswana. Zambia is also currently considering the option to join the programme. Each site where tagging is done, has received its own alphabetical code, e.g. B = Magaliesberg-region, W = Kimberley and E = Etosha. It is thus fairly easy to find out where a bird was marked regardless of where it is seen subsequently.

To date, there are more than 1900 marked vultures on our database. Most of these birds were ringed and tagged in the nest at various sites. However, we have also been able to successfully capture and tag considerable numbers of free-flying vultures using a mass-capture technique that was first successfully introduced at the Rare and Endangered Species Trust in Namibia in 2004 and has subsequently been used to good effect at a number of sites in South Africa. At one such an event in February 2007, we were able to ring and tag almost 80 vultures in about 2.5 hours at Moholoholo! This method is however only used outside of the vultures' breeding season so as to minimize stress on breeding birds.

The implementation of this method was also accompanied by a concerted effort to promote the reporting of re-sighting of tagged birds by conservationists and the public over the last 4 years. This has worked extremely well and we currently have almost 7000 records on the re-sightings database with some exceptional information on vulture movements having been obtained. The map below (click on the image to enlarge) gives an idea of some of the records that have been obtained over the last 4 years and reflects the extensive areas that some of these birds cover and move in their search for food, especially in the first few years of their lives.

The longest distance moved by a single bird on record is that of a first-year African White-backed Vulture that was tagged in the nest by Abrie Maritz in the southern Kgalagadi and which was recorded in the South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia about 8 months after fledging. This represents a straight-line distance of almost 2000km! Several birds from the same area have also been seen in northern Botswana and the Caprivi in Namibia. On the recent International Vulture Awareness Day on the 5th of September 2009, another fledling from this region (K374) was recorded by a group of vulture enthusiasts at the Kempenfeldt Vulture restaurant near Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal, the first ever recorded movement of a vulture between these two areas!

What these recorded movements underline, is the incredible mobility of vultures and the extensive distances that they can cover in their search for food. This poses special challenges to conservationists who are working to protect these birds and has had a considerable impact on our approach in this regard. The only way to work effectively to conserve these birds in southern Africa and beyond, is to work cooperatively across provincial, national and even regional boundaries and to approach vulture conservation in Africa from a continental approach, involving as many partners and supporters from all the relevant range countries as possible to work towards a common goal: ensuring that vultures and other scavenging birds remain a regular feature of the African skies and landscapes for generations to come.

Other species have also subsequently been tagged, but on a far more limited basis related to specific studies in a particular area. Species that have been tagged in addition to vultures include: African Fish Eagles (Gariep and Breede River systems, N & WCape), Verraux's Eagles (WCape), Secretarybirds (Gauteng, NCape and Free State) and Marabou Storks (Swaziland and Lowveld).

I would like to wish all the fieldworkers well for this season and look forward to participating in some tagging in Zululand and elsewhere in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Two days of summer comes to the Western Cape in September

The last two days found me on my first trip to the Western Cape for this year, quite unusual as I normally get to come here a lot earlier. However, circumstances didn't allow for it and I'm quite happy that this opportunity seems to have over-lapped with apparently the first bit of decent weather with temperatures that resemble that of summer, that's if the comments from the locals is to be believed. The sunshine and warm temperatures with little wind is a pleasure compared to my experience at the Pan-African Ornithological Congress at the same time last year when we had a full week of strong winds, rain, snow and freezing temperatures! Fortunately, in the winelands of the Cape, that is all the excuse you need to gain strength from the fruit of the vine to see you through and we certainly gained strength a lot last year!

The main aim of this visit was to meet with some project executants and sponsors to plan activities for the next few months and to ensure that there is delivery on what we have committed to. I am also ken to extend funding from one donor and to transfer the funding to another, much larger project in future years. Sounds as if they are not unhappy with the suggestion, but a final decision will only come later.

The Breede River Fish Eagle Project work for the third season will commence in the next 10 days or so and this will wrap up the activities of this project by the end of February next year. All that will be left to do then is to obtain the results of the analysis of blood samples collected from Fish Eagle chicks in the project area that were sent to the Clemson University in the US for processing. Once this has been received, the project's final reports and papers can be drafted and the relevant information disseminated. Dr. Andrew Jenkins, who has been involved with this initiative from the start, will also be undertaking the bulk of the work this season. The sponsor of this project also seems happy with the plans for this season.

Apart from a variety of other meetings and discussions, I also had a quick opportunity yesterday morning to visit the Boulders African Penguin site near Simonstown where most of the birds are busy moulting. Not great for getting good pics, but at least this youngster provided an opportunity to get something that can at least be used for general entertainment. Of interest was a group of gentlemen from Egypt that also visited the birds, one of which considered it his mission to jump up and down and make as much noise as possible to try and get some reaction from the birds. He obviously did, but also got an earful about disturbing birds and the illegality of it. I would have liked to jump on him to see how he reacted!
In between all the work activity, I was also ble to add quite a few birds to my southern African yearlist. Species such as Cape Francolin, Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Southern Black Korhaan, Bank Cormorant and an un-expected White-chinned Petrel that ventured very close to land in quite a stiff south-easter were some of the species to boost the 2009 total for the region to well beyond 600 species.
All in all a fairly successful two days, but I look forward to getting back home and putting my feet up, for a day or so at least. Tomorrow we commemorate 'Heritage Day' in South Africa, but it is more widely known as 'National Braai Day' which is very likely what we will be doing at home once I get back. Up at 4am to catch the plane and try and work out how to get the rental car back to the airport with all of the road deviations around the airport. Should be interesting...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Unexpected piece of Paradise on the upper Olifants River

About a month ago, I was contacted by David Miles via e-mail, as a result of some of the publicity from the International Vulture Awareness Day, with an inquiry on whether I would be able to advise a friend of his on the establishment of a vulture feeding site on his game farm near Middelburg in Mpumalanga, South Africa. I agreed and an arrangement was made for us to meet at the Shell Ultra-City outside Middelburg at 08:00 on the 19th of September. This is where Dave introduced me to Eric Dorner, one of the co-owners of the farm Bezuidenhoutshoek and from where we proceeded to the farm to talk about vulture restaurants.

Having grown up on the eastern Highveld of South Africa and also working there for some time on various occasions, I must admit that it is not one of the areas that rates very highly on my personal scale of favourites from an environmental perspective, especially at this time of year when it seems mostly dull, windy and dusty and where veld-fires often turn large areas into blackened wastelands of soot and little else. The fact that huge tracts of land in this area have been transformed into either mealiefields or open-cast coal mines does in no way contribute positively to the picture of this area that comes to mind when the names Witbank, Middelburg, etc. are mentioned. It was with exactly such a picture in mind, that I followed Dave and Eric down the road to the entrance gate of the farm. The initial impression of the farm seemed to confirm my expectations as we drove through dull brown grassveld interspersed with the odd stand of exotic Black Wattle with a few obligatory Blesbok completing the picture of a highveld game farm.

However, we started to descend into a bit of a valley and here and there a few more indigenous trees started to appear. As we rounded a bend a short while later, I saw a large cliff in the distance that was very obviously part of a fairly deep river valley that in no way resembled anything that I could have expected. It was as if I was heading down into the Lowveld not more than 90 minutes' drive from Johannesburg! We eventually arrived at Eric's house and we had time to chat. I learnt that the farm is situated close to the confluence of the Olifants River and one of its major tributaries in the upper-catchment, the Little Olifants River. It is no secret that I have a long-standing relationship with the Olifants River and am currently involved in an annual survey of Pel's Fishing Owl along this river in the Kruger National Park which has this year been expanded to include a range of other fish-eating bird species too. The Olifants River is probably one of the river systems in South Africa that is experiencing the most impact from a range of anthropogenic factors of which extraction of water for a range of uses as well as pollution from mining and other activities are the most important. The project I am working on has already identified a decline of almost 40% in the populations of Pel's Fishing Owl and African Fish Eagles along this river in the Kruger National Park, whilst the numbers of other larger fish-eating birds are also quite low. It is also on this river where almost 200 Nile crocodiles have died from pansteatitis in the Bangu Gorge on the eastern border of Kruger.

It was therefore a great opportunity to get a look at a section of the upper-catchment of this river. Eric built a house that has a deck over-looking the river (see first photograph) where we finally were able to stand and chat about the farm and the primary reason I was there, to provide advise on the establishment of a vulture feeding site. While we were talking, Eric suddenly pointed down to the river and mentioned that he thought there may be an otter moving in the water below. We scanned the area and were very chuffed to locate the animal in question as soon as it surfaced. As it climbed out on a flat rock in the water, we noted another otter swimming towards the first, and then another, and then another until there were nine in total! What made the sighting even more special, was the fact that these were Spotted-necked Otters and not the more common and widespread Cape Clawless Otter.

After this excitement and completing our discussion, Eric suggested that we go for a drive to go and look at some sites on the farm that could be used as a feeding site for vultures. We used the farm's game-viewing vehicle and Eric And Dave pointed out certain places of interest as we moved along. They were particularly excited by the sightings of two leopard on the farm earlier in the week and we also found some spoor of one of these animals at one of the spots where we stopped. During the discussion, they mentioned that a neighbouring farm was called "Aasvoelkrans" (Vulture Cliff) and it was quite easy to identify the cliff in question which most likely contained a vulture roost or small breeding colony years ago (pic below). I still need to take a look at the Cape Vulture site directory to see if this site is listed there, but am quite sure that this site was used by vultures previously.

Another great feature of the area is the presence of two cycad species which are both specially protected. Encephalartos lanatus occurs in good numbers while E. middelburgensis is generally more rare. This farm is an important site providing protection for these plants which are often the target of illegal collectors. Although we didn't see a lot of game, there are good numbers of antelope such as Klipspringer, Eland, Kudu and others while wildebeest and zebra were also spotted.

From a birding perspective, the area provides an interesting range of species due to the diversity of habitats on the farm and the checklist currently stands at 227 species. During my short visit to the area, we spotted a breeding pair of Verraux's Eagles, African Fish Eagle on two occasions as well as a Secretarybird patrolling the veld, looking for food. There is a good chance that the latter is also breeding on the property. Dave also mentioned that they have previously recorded African Crowned Eagle in an area of montane forest on the farm and that Bateleur has also been recorded on two occasions over the last few years! Other birds of interest that we saw included Striped Pipit, Giant Kingfisher, Green-backed Heron, Mocking Cliff-chat and several others. African Finfoot is also regularly seen on the river and Southern Bald Ibis have bred on the cliffs along the river last year.

Although vultures are not regularly seen over the farm, I believe that, with a lot of patience and careful consideration of the management thereof, a feeding site could indeed attract vultures back to an area where they historically occurred and could fill a significant gap in the network of vulture restaurants. The fact that there is very little human activity or settlement in the immediate vicinity of the farm is also particularly encouraging. If Eric and his partner's approach to the management of the farm is anything to go by, the feeding site has every chance to succeed. At this stage, the farm does not facilitate visits by the general public, but there are plans to develop a small number of accommodation units that could be used in future. I am grateful for Dave and Eric inviting me and look forward to returning to the farm soon to discover even more of this little gem on the upper Olifants River.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Secretarybird ringing and tagging - Gauteng

Late in August, the ornithologist from Gauteng Nature Conservation, Craig Whittington-Jones, asked me to assist with the ringing and tagging of two Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius nestlings. The chicks were well-grown and about two weeks from fledging from their nest in the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve near Heidelberg. The purpose of fitting these birds with tags is very much the same as for the almost 1700 vultures that we have marked in the same manner in southern Africa over the last 3 seasons, namely to attempt to monitor the movements of the young birds once they have fledged and start foraging for themselves.

A rehabilitated Secretarybird that I fitted with tags at the FreeMe Rehabilitation Centre in Fourways, Johannesburg about 2 years ago was released in the Dinokeng-area north of Pretoria a few days later. This bird was spotted at the OR Thambo International Airport about 3 months later and approximately 70kms from where it was released! Fortunately, it didn't stay there long before moving off again. It clearly realised the threat of being sucked into an airliner engine and decided to make a hasty departure.

As raptors go, Secretarybirds are really a pleasure to work with as they are generally timid and not at all aggressive once you have them in hand. However, it is often quite a struggle to get to the birds in the nest as they prefer to build their large platform-nests on flat-topped thorny trees and shrubs that are quite a challenge to access. This nest was no exception, but we finally managed to get the chicks and bring them down to the ground where they could be ringed, tagged and measured before being returned to the nest. The entire process, once the chicks were on the ground, took no more than 10 minutes.

The two ladies in the group ooh-ed and aah-ed about the incredibly long eyelashes that these birds have. Rocky Horror Picture Show, eat your heart out!
Once the work was completed, I carefully returned the two chicks back to the nest. I was also able to collect quite a few pellets that these birds regurgitate and also found a large eggshell that was handed to Craig. Analysis of the pellets can provide valuable information on the food that the parents bring to the nest to feed the chicks with. We were back in Johannesburg in less than 2.5 hours, not a bad day-trip and a fantastic excuse to get out of the smoggy city!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Blowing Hot and Cold

The latter part of the week has been quite strange. I left Giant's Castle in temperatures close to 30 degrees C and headed to the Ongeluksnek Nature Reserve in the Eastern Cape via a quick visit to Andy Piper in Underberg. Andy is the wife of the late Prof. Steven Piper, one of the foremost vulture biologists/conservationists in the world, sadly and unexpectedly passed away in March this year. He was also a great friend, mentor and support to me over the last 10 years since I decided to make birds and bird conservation my main focus. Andy and I discussed the relocation of large volumes of material related to vultures and which Steven has meticulously collected over many years, to become part of the EWT-BoPWG archives. However, when we were done with our discussions, I noticed that the wind had turned and that temperatures had dropped considerably.

Travelling to Ongeluksnek via Matatiele, clouds starting moving in and I passed several veld-fires before reaching the reserve just before dark. Here I met Dean Peinke from EC Parks Board and we discussed the planned vulture feeding site to be established on the reserve. This discussion was continued the next morning with a group from the Parks Board, Conservation Department and a community based organisation which was very constructive and should see this site becoming a reality in the near future. A feeding site here is very improtant as it fills a considerable gap in the network of feeding sites which are strategically placed to benefit the endangered Bearded Vulture as well as a considerable number of Cape Vulture colonies. The weather however had by now changed dramatically and temperatures were hovering around freezing point, even when I finally headed off to Oribi Gorge by lunchtime. Low cloud and intermittent drizzle had by now wiped away any memories of the warm temperatures experienced earlier in the week.

The drive down to Oribi Gorge was marked by a sighting of 11 Denham's Bustard near Matatiele as they were foraging in a large burnt area, one of the fires that I passed the day before. I have not seen such a large number of birds before. Other birds seen along the route were both Blue and Southern Grey Crowned Crane and two sightings of the rare African Marsh Harrier.

Although temperatures were warmer at Oribi Gorge, the overcast and drizzly conditions were very similar to that experienced at higher altitudes. Next morning, I met with Mike Neethling, a farmer from the area that runs a feeding site and has for many years been monitoring the Umtamvuna Cape Vulture breeding colony with Steven Piper. Mike will be responsible for the future monitoring of this colony with some staff from KZN Wildlife and it was good to spend some time with him to discuss options and plans for the future. We also visited his feeding site, but due to the low mist, could not see any birds there or get any views of the colony. Because the weather did not look like changing any time soon, I left the area and travelled to link up with the Bearded Vulture capture team at Monk's Cowl in the Drakensberg again.

The weather here was also not the kindest with low cloud and an icy wind prevailing for most of the morning before I headed back to Johannesburg.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A day at Giant's Castle - BV's a-plenty!

Just had a great day in the Giant's Castle Reserve which forms part of the Ukuhlamba-Drakensberg Park working with one of our key projects, the Bearded Vulture Task Force, headed by Sonja Kruger from EKZN Wildlife, Ben and Shannon Hoffman and some volunteers attempting to catch and fit satellite transmitters to Bearded Vultures. A crew from the KykNet programme Groen were also present to film the activities to produce a programmeon the work of the BVTF.

We were already up at the capture site by 05:15 this morning getting traps and food ready in the hope that we would be able to catch some birds. Not surprisingly, we were joined by at least 3 Bearded Vultures circling above us by 05:40. These birds clearly don't follow the books that profess that they only take to the wing much later in the day!

Although we had several birds landing at or on traps, those that were ensnared unfortunately managed to wriggle free before we could get to them. However, it was still great to at times see as many as 8 Bearded's flying together and we estimate that there were at least 12 birds frequenting the site today. At times, we were observing as many as 8 birds of varying ages flying and circling the area! They were joined at various times by Cape Vultures, two Jackal Buzzards, the off Rock Kestrel and, of course, good numbers of White-necked Ravens who are ever-present. A lightning-fast appearance by a recently fledged Verraux's Eagle was later followed up by views of a single Peregrine and two Secretarybirds striding along a grassy slope.

We will be trying again for a while early tomorrow morning after which I will be heading to the Eastern Cape.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

IVAD09 event at Vulture Programme near Pretoria

The first International Vulture Awareness Day has come and gone and I am proud to have been associated with the event and to have worked with great friends and partners worldwide in making the event a success. Thanks to all involved who signed up, participated and arranged an event or media coverage in the run-up to and on the day. I already can't wait for next year's event which will take place on September, 4th 2010. Mark this date in your diary now!
Personally, I was involved in quite a bit of activity during the last six days or so related to this event. Our media release produced a considerable number of articles in local newspapers, radio and we also did an insert on the Afrikaans satellite network KykNet. The insert features a new star and ambassador for vulture conservation, Cody, a 7-week old cape Vulture chick incubated and hatched at the Pretoria Zoo and now hand-reared by Kerri Wolter as part of the activities of her vulture programme near the Hartbeespoort-dam near Pretoria.

On the 5th of September, an open day was held at the project's facilities which I attended and where Ipresented a lecture on vultures and vulture conservation issues worldwide. It was great to have the birds on hand to illustrate some of the points made in the talk in a practical manner and I trust that the good number of people that attended will have learnt and something of these fascinating creatures. The event was well-attended and also included a colouring-in competition for the children and it was great to see their fascination with the birds, especially came feeding time!

The Vulcha Helpers were also well-represented and assisted Kerri on the day with logistics, providing meals and drinks and also selling a range of items to raise funds. This group has been active for over a year now and aims to re-establish the principle of volunteer work to benefit vultures at sites in the Magaliesberg and Northwest, South Africa and are doing good work. It is certainly great to see the enthusiasm of people such as Jeff Newman, Robyn Craven and others to assist with this important work.

All-in-all a very enjoyable day! I did plan to go and have a look at the Scheerpoort Cape Vulture colony nearby, but the day was very hazy due to all the veld-fires burning in the area at the moment that views of the wild birds and their nesting sites would have been limited. Well, I'll just have to make up for the lack of wild birds during my fieldwork this coming week!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

International Vulture Awareness Day - September 5th, 2009

Well, the big day is finally here and it's amazing to think that so many people and organisations across the world will be participating in this event. Have a look at to see how many people are participating in this important event.

I will be joining the activities at Kerri Wolter's facility near the Hartbeespoort-dam near Pretoria, South Africa for a Public Day that sees her facilities open to the general public to come and view vultures and learn about the need to conserve them. I will do a talk or two about these birds on the day and also look forward to seeing the volunteers working for the "Vulcha Helpers" which was recently established.

Thereafter, I will be heading to the Scheerpoort Cape Vulture Colony to have a look at activities at this site which is the closest active breeding colony to the urban centres of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Heading south-east to the Maloti-Drakensberg tomorrow for a week of vulture-focused fieldwork, so I'll be celebrating International Vulture Awareness Day for the next week at least!