Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mkambati Vultures

Despite being in South Africa for just a fortnight, I was offered an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up.  A week down in the Eastern Cape to help Morgan Pfeiffer with her first Cape Vulture surveys.  This was to be the reconnaissance trip for the upcoming breeding season.  Probably the only chance I’d have to get out and about before starting my own research in earnest.

To help us we also recruited two 19 yr old guys from Durban… now that there were Shane, Shane, Dane and Morgan on this trip, well, any takers for a poem or Haiku?  Alas despite a week of internalizing the possibilities I am empty handed for you. All credit to Dane and Shane, they were energetic, and both had a sharp wit that endured, despite the very early starts.

It was a grueling eight hour drive to reach Mkambati Nature Reserve,  a little longer than expected on account of misleading roadsigns that directed us on a 2 hour dirt-road ‘shortcut’.  Arriving at the reserve sometime later in April, we had enough time to meet with the park rangers and settle into the lodging. The accommodation looked good from the outside… a house!  But it was under renovation, and stark on the inside.  A peculiar mix of camp-stove cooking by lantern in the kitchen, hot showers, of beds and crisp linen, and a distinct absence of a toilet seat.  I slipped into the role of camp chef [sic], cooking the team bacon and eggs at the early hours of pre-dawn, and rice and beans at night. A minor watch malfunction (praise you and curse you ‘world time’ function) and the breakfast one morning was hastily cooked and served well over an hour earlier than necessary.

Morgans research starts this month with a re-assessment of the numbers breeding at this colony. Surveys were conducted in 2010 and previous years, and apparently this colony is on the increase.  It is also the closest Cape Vulture colony to a coastline, which effectively reduces their available foraging area by half. 

Mid-morning on the first day - none of us knew quite what to expect

Rondavels on the way from coast to cliffs

The view back to the beach from the vulture colony

We needed to conduct early season counts of the colony cliffs, and to get there early in the morning before thermals allowed the vultures to leave on their foraging forays.  So out at 5.30am and starting the days work in the dark with a brisk walk along the beach,  a twilight kayak across the estuary, then into a solid two hour uphill hike to the viewpoint. The hike was mostly easy walking though grazed and burnt grasslands, but occasionally crossing small streams with boggy rank-grass verges filled with locusts and frogs, obviously ideal for snakes. Yet with mixed feelings, I am both dissatisfied and relieved we didn’t come upon any.

On all but the first morning, we made it to the viewpoint before 9 am to see the first vultures drop from their roosts into space above the river gorge.  The rising sun was welcomed against the cold sea-breeze, but squinting thought the sunny haze and into the shadowed cliffs made our surveys difficult.  Around 300 vultures would be variously coming or going, some were landing on the grassy banks below us and tearing off streamers of grass, returning to their nest site to fuss with the d├ęcor.

Gyps coprotheres  Latin for Dung-eating Vulture

Descent with landing-gear down

Gathering nesting material
A small section of cliff

What a view!

After the counts, we’d take half an hour to enjoy the peacefulness of the place, and doze in the shade while contemplating another 2 hour hike back to the beach.  Plenty of swifts and swallows buzzed around us.  Occasionally, a family of Rock Kestrels was seen, a pair of Lanner Falcon buzzed past a couple of times, and the clucking of a fish-eagle echoed up from the Msikaba river below.

Relaxing on the clifftop under the welcome shade of a tree

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Settling In

This post is about the sights and sounds of the first week in PMB.

Fly Emirates.  Airbus A380-800

Firstly, the Airbus A380-800 dreamliner. Oh yes. That made for one comfortable 19 hours from Auckland to Dubai, with a brief refueling stop at Sydney.  I managed to get a quick shower then steal an hour of sleep on the cold tile floor of the Dubai airport then another 10 hours down to Durban.

The local South African falconers and post graduate students have been so generous and have made settling in a breeze. Despite having to race around to secure a new flat on arrival; getting the place furnished is now mostly sorted, apart from the prospect of getting a bed that’s primary function isn’t a couch.  So this is my new ‘granny flat’ - a feature of South African houses, namely a small self contained unit tucked away somewhere on the larger property, where the parents or the maid could live onsite.

My first night in the flat I become acquainted with my live-in tenant, a solidly built house gecko (species unidentified).  Just tonight I had an invading moth, one that was quickly dealt to by my new favourite cold-blooded friend.

**ammend with species name here** suggestions welcomed

 The main house is rented out by five young professionals, nice folks, and you will be pleased to know that this property also has FIVE cats in residence.  Seems like after my last post/rant, karma is dealing a swift and decisive blow and insisting upon my tolerance of these critters.  Though I did offer to my cat loving flatmates that I could bring around an eagle to take care of their cat infestation, which got a few laughs. I think maybe they thought I was kidding.

There is a fenced, restricted access recreation park opposite the house, with a sports field and some nice dog-walking trails thru indigenous trees.  My own little semi-private birding paradise, I will try and get some cracking photos of the resident pair of hoopoe – for Noel.

The flat is only 10 minutes walk from my university postgrad office! Mostly across the university, and cutting across green space, where it seems is the hangout spot of a long-crested eagle, among other raptors seen cruising around, like this gymnogene on the walk home the other evening.

Gymnogene (or Harrier-Hawk)
The view from my office window

The familiarity of the African soundtrack puts a giddy smile on my face all day long.  Waking up to Bulbul song, and various doves cooing throughout the day.  Although not musical, the ubiquitous Hadada Ibis is still a novelty. From the University grounds, a morning at the PMB Botanical Gardens, and my backyard - the species list is climbing and already at 54.  Crowned Eagles are not yet on that list, but the field trip tomorrow with Bruce Padbury will change that - as we are out and about to GPS several nest sites.

Finally, bats have featured heavily in my wildlife excitement these first few days. Every evening I sit outside and watch microchiropterans flitter about the silhouetted trees against a twilight sky.  Meanwhile, there is a roost of fruit bats in a quiet spot against the Botany building next door.'

Fruit-bat roost against the Botany block

Wahlberg's Epauletted Fruit-bat  Epomophorus wahlbergi

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Raptors and People

You may find this particular blog delving into grandiose explorations of they way in which I perceive the world; about the global impact of people, the way in which our ecosystems are being shaped, and the perceptions of and impact upon wildlife – so sorry about that.  But more importantly it should help explain why I lead myself into this particular research project – over and above my fascination and reverence of the Crowned Eagle in particular.

Anthropogenic environments:  Ecosystems which are created or modified to various extent by human modifications.  In the broadest view, it seems the entire biosphere as increasingly anthropogenic.  The changing atmosphere is the case in point.  While the change in atmospheric composition is still modest, rising carbon concentrations are already having a measurable influence, one which will continue to accelerate.  If runaway climate change forces humanity to implement one or several geo-engineering concepts it will be a stunning demonstration of the both the immense influence, and utter lack of control we have.

Anthropogenic modification is varied in scale and intensity of alteration.  Take for instance here a GoogleEarth view of Denmark, a landscape which is almost entirely composed of three basic categories: agricultural, silvicultural, or human domiciles. The urbanization of Copenhagen is seen stretching out from the eastern coastal margin.  All of the wildlife diversity that lives here does so because it is able to exist or exploit some part of this anthropocentric landscape.  There is a respectable diversity of birdlife, but Denmark is one of a handful of countries to have no nationally endemic bird species.

The island of Sealland of Denmark.

A particularly fortunate example of a species’ exploitation of a changed landscape is the response of New Zealand falcon to a particular timber plantation in the central North Island.  I assisted Dr. Richard Seaton during his PhD research on this falcon population.  A research project which discovered that in this ecosystem dominated by a monoculture of an exotic timber tree, here lives the highest density of NZ falcon known in the country.   Why should they thrive here when they are far rarer in native forests in the mountain ranges up and down the country?

Kaingaroa Forest is extensive – approximately 140,000Ha, and is sustainably harvested because it is divided into small compartments of uniform aged stands.  Because of this mosaic effect (despite the monospecies canopy) there is good structural variation, with plenty of edges between various age stands.  These edges allow understory plants to establish rapidly in growing stands.  They allow birds which require mature pine stands for shelter and nesting to be nearby clearfell areas with booming populations of detritivorous insects.  The birdlife is surprisingly rich, including an abundance of some NZ endemics struggling in native forests; whitehead, tomtit, and their parasites; long-tailed koel and shining cuckoo are particularly thriving.  Clearcuts attract loads of insects and grasses seed in these first years, which inturn supports the most abundant birds in the forest, introduced finches like chaffinch, greenfinch and redpoll abound.  And because of this abundance of birdlife, falcons can thrive, preferring to nest on the ground in clearcut areas.  But why does it seem that populations of rodents and their mammal predators have a greater impact in native forests than they do here?

Kaingaroa Timberlands from microlite. Copyright Richard Seaton.

The NZ falcon in particular has the potential to be very adaptable to various anthropogenic habitats.  But despite all the prey available in the agricultural and urbanized areas, why have they so far been unsuccessful urban colonizers?  The Falcon for Grapes project in the Marlborough wine region provided some explanations.  Despite promising signs that falcons have a significant impact of reducing grape damage by frugivorous birds, of over 21 falcons to have died during the course of the release project, less than 5% died of 'natural' causes.  Most troubling is that 47% of the birds (and 80% of females) were electrocuted, particularly at transformer boxes, feral cats and hedgehogs were responsible for several nest failures, others succumbed to collisions with windows or cars, yet others were shot by dove or chicken keepers, and a few died horrible deaths from various poisoning incidents, from bathing in sheep dip to falling into open diesel barrels. (Fox, N. 2010. in Wingspan Journal Vol 14)

While New Zealanders try to nurture and promote the remarkable and often unique wildlife, arising from a long pre-history of isolation in the absence of mammals, a contradiction that this is also the nation with the highest per capita cat ownership rate presents a jarring realization.   There is a disconnect between the way academics value biodiversity, and the way the majority of the public connects with nature (patting Tibbles on their lap while watching the telly).  If a falcon should turn up at a chicken coop or dove cot, it is all too often shot.  Even a surprising proportion of birders dread the appearance of ‘damn sparrowhawks’ at their garden bird-feeder. 

There are plenty of contradictions to be seen here.  I know of several ecologist in NZ which dedicate their career to conservation projects, and yet they keep cats at home - choosing to overlook the fact that these cats are eating geckos, wetas, and plenty of native birds caught in the garden.

Getting To The Point...

I treasure the ten weeks of fantastic travelling through South Africa last winter, and was overwhelmed by the incredible hospitality of the falconers, conservationists, and wildlife researchers who we spent time with.  The mid-point of the trip was marked by a week-long staying with a Kiwi friend doing a post-doc at the Fitztitute

There was a day in Cape Town that I cherish evermore.  We had been invited by Dr. Andrew Jenkins to accompany him for a day around Cape Town for some pre-season monitoring of Peregrine Falcons.  The story of the Cape Peregrines and their expansion into the urban environment is fascinating, particularly as each individual is colour banded and the population dynamics can be traced through the entire urbanizing expansion.  The first urban peregrine pair started breeding on a cooling stack of the refuse station, and after many years of decay this tower was planned for implosion. The city council sponsored installing alternative nest sites for the peregrines and Andrew put up the first boxes on nearby chimney stacks in 2005.  Within an hour of the demolition, with the smell of chordite in the air and dust still settling, the peregrines were copulating on their new nest box. This was the catalyst for urban colonization and boxes were put up at other sites where the peregrines could be better placed.  Another pair attempted to breeding behind an air-conditioning vent of the Rondebosch Childrens Hospital.  With the worry that these chicks would get cooked behind the vent, a nest box was attached to the building also, and these birds have remained here and have been extremely productive ever since.  They have produced four raucous chicks every year for the past seven years, all the while showering the hospital entrance with plucked pigeon feathers and whining and screaming as the juveniles develop. Now the hospital pair has children, and grandchildren, breeding in other areas of the city. 

The tolerance, and even reverence of these tenants by the hospital staff, and the infectious nature of their appreciation to many of the visiting patients and families is an example that ought to be emulated.  It demonstrates that the appreciation of nature is innate, but there are many biases in the way we view wildlife.  Most importantly, those biases can be shaped by a little information, or by the social context in which we share that appreciation of nature with others.

Rondebosch Childrens Hospital. The main entrance, peregrine nest boxes can be seen to left and right of the central brick facade.

A Cape Town urban peregrine, this one photographed at the Centuary City Apartments.

Dr. Jenkins gave me the first whiff of this project.  As we talked about Cape Town peregrines, touched on the success of urban Black Sparrowhawks, and various other urban exploiting raptors.  This was striking a chord with my underlying tendencies for research interests.  Andrew suggested I speak with Dr. Mark Brown at the University of KwaZulu-Natal when we got to Durban.

Having been invited to stay with Bruce Padbury in Hillcrest, we sure had an eventful few days.  Bruce had already organized for a UKZN Masters student to come and capture some Black Sparrowhawk fledglings for her study, which led me into climbing a lofty Blue Gum in at the Pietermaritzburg Police Station to install one of her nest cameras.  I did get to UKZN and bailed Mark up in his office, my eyes lit up when the topic of a study on peri-urban Crowned Eagles came up.  Sure enough, back in Hillcrest the next evening while we were wandering around the back section, a Crowned Eagle turned up, perching atop a nearby tree and, very purposefully looked down her(?) nose upon us.  This was the first wild CE I had seen.  Spectacular!

Hillcrest Crowned Eagle on the Keep

Close up with a great view of those hallux talons!

Some months later and I have developed a research plan, secured enrollment and study visa and today I sit, all packed and waiting to fly out to Pietermaritzburg tomorrow!

Monday, April 2, 2012


How does this blog begin?  A question I have mulled over for several weeks now as I have built the webpage.  If I were to start by describing recent evens it would be solemn and slow.    A recount of the tiresome process of gathering the mountains of documents required for a South African study visa, of enrolling at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), and of attempting funding applications from New Zealand.

Rewind to a more fitting time to begin the story. April 2006.

I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya.  And at the airport are reunited with Mia (a born falconer and raptor enthusiast from Denmark, courtesy of the ‘Mongolian Dating Agency’ as Andrew Dixon describes the Saker Falcon project – but that’s another story entirely).  Collected from Jomo Kenyatta airport by Simon Thomsett and hastened out to his house, perched in the back corner of a conservancy and dispersal area for Nairobi National Park.  An ex-game ranch teeming with the wildlife that looked as I had always dreamed the African savannah would.

At that time Simon was supported by the Peregrine Fund, and ran a raptor conservation operation from his house.   A little dream of a self-built house of rocks and mortar, a papyrus thatched roof, and surrounded by aviaries built from local resources. 

Over the preceding months Mia had briefed me on some of Simons extensive contributions to the raptor world.  Of their first meeting on the Cape Verde Islands to capture the then unknown Cape Verde Kite, and a number of exploits prior and since including: attempts to re-introduce the Bearded Vulture to the Kenya, periodic road trips to the Masai Mara Reserve counting raptors, advocating vulture conservation, and much more besides.  In the aviaries and mews’ surrounding the house were a variety of advocacy and rehabilitating raptors; Fish Eagles, Augur Buzzards, Giant Eagle-owl, a Verraux Eagle, and a Bearded Vulture.  In the largest and most extravagant pen sat Rosy and Girl, a pair of Crowned Eagles that Simon has had successfully breeding for some 20 years.

Rosy and Girl with young Dutchess. (C) Simon Thomsett
Dutchess in April 2007.

The drive towards Simons house on the first day was overwhelming, through giraffe and crowned cranes, and herds of impala and eland.  I was almost immediately introduced to a juvenile Crowned Eagle sat on a bow perch.  Named Dutchess at the time, this was the twelfth offspring produced by Rosy and Girl, with all previous young having been released into the wild. 

Over the next ten weeks I slowly learned the nature of this Duchess, and we worked towards increasing her hunting prowess.  The fast-track to a successful release required her to prove her hunting success, and while this road to independence might take two years in natural circumstances, I had just ten weeks and needed to provide ample opportunities for her to gain confidence.

Nocturnal life on the farm was far more abundant and naive to the hunting eagle, and so she started out tackling hares and springhares by spotlight.  It was enlightening to read her reactions, initially she was all coy and hesitant.  Before long she was confident and proactive, proving herself by dispatching of a weaner Thomson’s Gazelle.  Ready to expand her options she was then out hunting in the afternoons where she was able to capture some young vervet monkeys – one of the Crowned Eagles more usual prey.

A successful hunt.

And with a Vervet Monkey.

I was immensely sad to leave Kenya at that time.  Simon was preparing to move on, security issues and economic viability forcing the move.  Those birds that could be released were, and over the next months that sadness was mediated by the progress reports of Dutchess successful release at Ol Donyo Laro.  A history of this release, of Rosy and Girls progress in subsequent years, and the fantastic cross-continent Raptor Expedition can be read on Simons blog.  Start here with Dutchess' release…