Thursday, May 24, 2012

Free State Falconry Club 2012 Meet

I am finding it hard pressed to come up with a post as great as the latest Crowned Eagle research update. I have been thoroughly encouraged by the wide audience that viewed the blog, so thank you all.  Recently we have failed to capture another juvenile with such ease as the first, but will continue to try.  And in the meantime two more youngsters from last summer’s nests have been located and incorporated into the study dataset.

Now though, having just returned from three days at the Free State Falconry field meet, something to write home about.  Unfortunately, with my project commitments I was unable to spare more time and will sadly be missing the spit-braai this weekend.  But in any case it was superb being amongst a group of falconers who share that insatiable passion for birds of prey; each of whom have their life revolve around the timing of their hawks, their quarry, and their hunting.  It was also an opportunity to participate and contribute to the meet by being an impromptu photo-journalist.  So I wont bore you with words, its photos you need.

weathering at field meet base, somewhere northwest of Dewetsdorp.

falcon shadowpuppets

Bandit,  Bayley and Jessie

from left to right : <photo bombing pointer>, Ross Kramm, klein Francois, Bruce Padbury, Alan Harvey, Francois Breedt

Bandit on point

*image from video* :  nice stoop for the first flight of the season Bertus!

*image from video*  :  very close to orange-river francolin, but it dumped and escaped

sunset on monday night

Lizette having bragging rights on bagging the first orange-river of the meet

Bertus and Tjup tjup

A caste of peregrines and a gyr-peregrine on the screen perches for the night

sub-zero dawn at the duck ponds

  *image from video*  the gyr-peregrine closing in on a yellow-bill in style

well deserved

*image from video*  the peregrine bringing its quarry to ground amongst white-faced ducks and red-billed teal

Lemon, ..., and Alan Harvey

Alans shaheen.

When its too windy for hawking its time to test our height estimates with this B2 windrider

all smiles on tuesday evening

tuesdays dusk at the big water

a pygmy falcon recovering from a serious eye infection
on its way to Raptor Rescue in KZN.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The First Research Update - May 2012

The Crowned Eagle research project has taken its first flight.  

So now one month in, here is an introduction to the research.  I have been settling in happily to the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.  My supervisors; Prof Colleen Downs, and Dr. Mark Brown have been great people to get to know.  It is exciting to be part of a larger gathering of urban ecology studies, three of us focusing on predators.  Craig Widdows is starting an MSc on Spotted Genets, and Erin Wreford is well underway with MSc research on Black Sparrowhawks.  The success of the Sparrowhawks as they become urban exploiters is demonstrated by the impressive 53 nests that make up Erins population.

The work on these eagles in the suburban areas puts a challenging aspect to my project.  Unlike research in ‘ the wilds’, there is a prominent necessity for me to relate to many and various residents in the neighborhoods.   Thankfully, I can say that I have met only remarkably welcoming and supportive people.

The members of the Natal Falconry Club have been so helpful, and particularly the chairman Bruce Padbury, who has undoubtedly started me off with a solid foundation of local raptor knowledge, social networking, and all-round fervor.  The first day of reconnaissance in the city I was shown seven nest sites!

Over the last couple of days I built a BelChatri trap from scratch, getting wire mesh from the Animal House on campus, and the remaining materials from the local hardware and fishing shops.  I finished the trap late last night, then set off with the mission early thismorning.  Having to sit out the rain and hail was a worrying start to the morning, but our early start was rewarded with the plaintive calls of the hungry eagle echoing up the valley.  We eventually pinpointed the bird, and were invited into a property only 30 meters from last summers nest, with the young bird sitting above us in a gum tree on the corner of the back yard.

Finding the young eagle in the morning, sunning and preening after a cold and wet start to the day

... a little closer.

A full spread of fresh young feathers.  Successive moults take about four years to achieve adult plumage.

In the presence of a Crowned eagle, both young and adults, I am in complete awe.  The kiwi/maori term that I can’t quite rival in any other language is mana.  It is a privilege to find myself here doing this research.

After a heart-stopping half hour of watching this eagle, not 20 meters away, being reticent around the trap and perching a few meters above it, and cautiously checking all around for the presence of dogs, and people.  Sitting at a table on the porch, Mark and I were side by side, me with binoculars and Mark with camera in hand.  We sat in full view of her - completely hyped on adrenaline but simultaneously having to suppress even the slightest movement or twitch.  Eventually, satisfied that the people were no threat and there were no large dogs around, the inquisitive side took over, and the eagle descended to the trap and was caught.  While handling the bird, one is mindful of the enormous foot mass, the powerful muscles in the legs, the grip, and those talons!  The hind talon was itself just shy of 60mm, and all the while the voice of Simon Thomsett echoes in my head “the Crowned Eagle has the largest killing implement of any predator in Africa”, the largest females may have a hind talon 100mm long.  I can’t give enough thanks to Mark and Bruce for the cool heads and steady hands (well, at least metaphorically) while we ringed, then measured this bird.

Obviously pleased!

Myself, Bruce, and Mark - working like we've done this for years.
Short but powerful toes amplify the power that this eagle can deliver through the points of the talons.

There are thoughts, hopes, and admittedly, some doubt.  Was this an unusually fortunate success, and will the others be extremely challenging, or is it the average behavior to expect from these juveniles.  No doubt the adults with years of experiences behind them will be extremely cautious.  And as capturing adults is a priority objective of the project, attaching GPS transmitters in order to examine their home range, then it will be largely irrelevant as to how easily the juveniles are caught.

The main goals of the project will be to investigate the urban and peri-urban distribution, and ecological aspects of nest site selection, diet, home range, and habitat use. We are ambitiously hoping to find all the nests and pairs within the D’MOSS (Durban Metropolitan Open Space System), reserves and private lands within the greater urban areas of Durban and Pietermaritzburg.  The diet of the eagles will be studied with the aid of motion activated cameras looking into the nest. While the home range and habitat use of breeding pairs will, as mentioned, be obtained from extraordinary developments in GPS technology: miniature 37 gram units with weekly GSM data transmission.

A sample GPS transmitter (pre potting and harness) we hope to use on the eagles.

For the meantime the project is developing nicely, though there is opportunity here for you to support the project.  Particularly there is need for financial sponsorship of camera and telemetry equipment, a stipend, and small donations.  In any case please subscribe to the blog, at the bottom of the page.

For now at least, there is one juvenile out there with a ring - and we hope that this will become many over the course of the next few years.  It is fantastic to think that in five, ten, even twenty years time, these ringed birds may be re-sighted in the urban population – providing us with much needed information about dispersal, recruitment, and lifespan.  That is – ultimately – the value of today’s exercise.

A quite acceptable handling time of 19 minutes, then released.

A rouse.  Shaking the feathers back into comfortable alignment after a unnerving experience.

I will monitor her and her parents over the winter, and into the next breeding season in August.

In this post, photo and film clip credits to Mark Brown.  
Credits to Mark Wynn for two photos (#5 and #6).

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Bird Ringing at Darvill

It’s a peculiar thing that the sewerage works of most cities are bird hotspots.  On my travels, including Cairns and various places around New Zealand there would inevitably be a mandatory visit to the treatment works.  One month in and I find myself at the Pietermaritzburg sewerage works - and loving it!

Darvill is dominated by about 85% of alien vegetation, but despite a paucity of indigenous flora, the accumulation and treatment of human waste enriches the area and the nutrient load produces fantastic diversity.  Plenty of waterfowl and waders on the ponds, and a menagerie of passerines in the shrubs and thickets.  Particularly impressive was the raptor count – 6 over the course of the morning (fish-eagle, black sparrowhawk, peregrine, long-crested eagle, jackal buzzard, and an unidentified hawk which might have been a snake-eagle).

Mark Brown kindly let me read through a presentation that summarised Darvill's achievements as of February 2011.  At that time Darvill has served as a ringing station for 30 years, making it the longest running monthly ringing station in South Africa.  It is also the most productive training centre, with 15 licensed SAFRINGers trained in the last 8 years.  There have been 36,251 birds of 187 species ringed during the 30 years, with 2,410 recaptures.

On Saturday morning, with four sets of mistnets around the place, the team caught 142 birds from approximately 22 species.  Minke is getting close to completing her SAFRING license, and processed the first 26 birds of the morning.  As the day warmed up the capturing and extracting of birds from the nets got hectic, particularly around a stream where bishops were flocking in to drink, and soon there was a backlog.  Mark and Karen had to power through about 100 birds, and then both Lindy and I finished up the last dozen or so between us.

This is an exciting opportunity to train for the SAFRING lisence.  The diversity and difficulty of the little passerines of Africa is turning new ground in my ringing experience.  Paying attention to minute details, of identifying species (particularly challenging will be the migrant warblers come summer), the nuances of moult and other features to age and sex individuals, and the opportunity to ring and measure hundreds of birds. 

The guideline for SAFRING is that one must be supervised and reliably process 500 individuals from 50 species.

Not including the New Zealand Falcons, Mauritius Parakeets, Kenyan raptors, and a handful of Wellington passerines so far.  My South African experience amounts to an afternoon ringing with Dieter in Cape Town in August last year, and the 7 birds from Saturday; the count sits at a mere 12 birds of 6 species.  

A misty dawn turned into a stunning sunny morning.

Mark and Lindy smashing through dozens of birds (in bags to the left of picture)

Yellow Weaver Ploceus subaureus

Golden-tailed Woodpecker Campethera abingoni

Monday, May 7, 2012

Cape Parrot Day

Last weekend was the 15th Cape Parrot Big Birding Day; an annual event to attempt a census and to highlight the plight of the Cape Parrot.  This species is the only endemic parrot of South Africa and with a total population estimate of 1300.  Restricted to the temprerate afro-montane mist forests, it is mostly dependant on old growth yellowwood trees.  The birds roost and breed in natural cavities formed from rotten snags of the oldest Yellowwoods, a scarcity now after many years of selective logging for railway construction and other demands on hardwood.  And Yellowwoods, showing a trait that Im familiar with from the Podocarps of New Zealand, have an irregular fruit masting cycle, one that the parrots require for a productive breeding year.  This year there was a particular focus on identifying the incidence of Psitticine Beack and Feather Disease, a (?Neotropical) virus that is spreading in the population – again something I am familiar with as the Mauritius Parakeet population has been severely impacted by PBFD.

Professor Colleen Downs (one of my research supervisors), heads the Cape Parrot Working Groups and coordinates the annual survey.  Naturally I leapt at the chance to help with the surveys.  A squadron of around 30 undergrad students were rallied together, and along with a half dozen post-grad assistants, we headed out in convoy to Ingeli Forest, Eastern Cape on the Saturday morning.  The most active part of the parrots’ day is gathering to roost at night, and setting out again in the morning.  Our surveys were to be conducted at dusk on Saturday, and dawn on Sunday, in small teams stationed along forest edge ridges with grand views overlooking the canopy.

But the weather had different plans for us this year.  Getting out to our evening posts in good time, I got to see a little of this beautiful forest, before minute by minute it was obscured as the cloud base descended, until it was steadily drizzling and visibility was down to 50 meters.  A consolation prize was finding a molted Crowned Eagle primary feather on the trail.  And then we packed up and headed back to camp.

Arriving at 'Forest View', Ingeli on the Saturday afternoon.

The morning fared worse.  While it wasn’t raining, its never pleasant to start the day with dry socks squelching into cold wet shoes.  The teams got together and as we drove up the hill, the beams of the headlights were swallowed up by the moisture in the air as we drove up and into the cloud, still looming on the hilltops.  For two hours our dedicated teams sat as the grey light of dawn, if you can call it that, emerged from behind the inky blackness.  Not a single break in the foggy gloom, and for me and many others, not a single parrot to be heard.  I am at this early stage able to identify just a few bird calls, so while I could be happy that there were plenty of Sombre Bulbuls, and some Southern Boubous in the forest, I was also very frustrated with many calls emanating from the forest that eluded a name.  The highlight of the trip would have to be sitting in a dense fog of dawn and hearing the throaty muffled thumping of a family of Ground Hornbills calling in synchrony.

Morning watching the shadows of the forest edge and listening for absentee parrots.

It comes as no consolation that, if we’d just stayed at the camp site, we would’ve seen three birds that descended from the mountain clouds to do their morning stretches in the Bluegum in the middle of our campsite.

Until next year you cheeky little parrots…

© Cyril Laubscher - harvested from CPWG website

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tick Bite Fever

Yes indeed.  Well it didn’t take long to get, and theres two reasons Im oddly happy.  Firstly it feels like it’s a sure sign Im here – the assurance of contracting a (mild) African illness.  But more importantly, Im chuffed that it was such a mild one.  I’d hear stories, oh yes.  A bogeyman to watch out for, especially after all those pepper-tick bites at Mkambati. Be careful, after a ten day incubation period, you could be in serious discomfort. 

 And so I woke on Sunday morning with a peculiar mosquito bite between the toes that was puffy but not too itchy, and the lymph gland in that side of the groin was tender… getting out of bed and vertical produced a searing headache for just one second, then the blood pressure change seemed to equalize. I made breakfast, and as I lay down to bed again the same instantaneous headache, it passed and I felt comfortable.  I read some journal papers and thought best to take it easy.  The ‘taste of a flu’ was in my mouth and I remembered to keep hydrated.  I’d heard that classic TBF signs are about a purple tick bite site, persistent gnarly headaches, high fevers, and lymph pains, so in typical fashion I thought to myself ‘well its nowhere that bad, lets just see how I feel tomorrow’. (Doctors are scary… they tell you you are diseased!)

So Tomorrow came and went much the same.  Then I got up cheerfully on Wednesday and rolled into university.  Noticing as I walked into the office that I was Lymp(h)ing on that leg, Colleen suggested to see the Student Health Clinic.  After consulting with a few other post-grads in the department who gave me a broader picture of the onset of TBF, particularly the one about ‘that’s how it starts, then it spreads all over and you get relapsing fevers’, I hurried over to the nurses clinic.  I had another laugh when I walked into the consult room, as the nurse sounded much sicker than me!  Having just suffered an asthma attack that morning she could barely speak to me, I thought to myself Im going to be better off keeping away from this cesspool of disease… But 15 minutes later and I walked out of there with some vivid green pills.  Twice a day for a week should limit the intensity and duration of the symptoms.  Later that day the little purple sign at the bite site came to say hello.

The black lesion at the bite is an eschar

Doxycycline destroys Rickettsia africae... bombs away

Today, except for the colour and swelling at the bite, I feel back to normal.  While abseiling and rock-climbing this afternoon, there was none of the feared pain of the harness tight on the groin lymph gland, and none of the headache or fever despite the unseasonal heat and humidity. Lush.  Maybe I’d been exposed a few years back in Kenya, but it could have been suppressed because we were taking Doxy for malaria at the time.  Tick Bite Fever is meant to get milder and milder at subsequent exposures. I’ll be sure to finish this course of antibiotics, now that I’ve just started.  

I learnt many new facts about TBF this week!