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.

No comments:

Post a Comment