Monday, July 30, 2012

Research Update #5

On the last day of July,  I am at the starting blocks and now quite prepared for the 2012 breeding cycle.

The first of the known nesting pairs for 2012 has just hatched two eaglets, while another six pairs have gone down on eggs in the last couple of weeks.   From Ballito on the north coast, to Umdoni on the south coast, and as far inland as Howick, there are about 30 nest sites (some of which still need to be confirmed as still or recently occupied).  Out and about I have also seen several displaying pairs, and heard of other from reliable residents, that don’t coincide with current known territories.   Finding these nest sites will require a serious investment of searching effort.

as she rolls out of another loop - the female catches the sunlight on her underwing

look closely - it is amazing how flat and concealed such a large eagle can be

Lately with a little bit of self-justified ‘extra time’ on my hands (more accurately - a misdirected procrastination from drafting my introductory chapter) I have been out and about trapping some of the fledged juveniles from the 2011 cohort.  And had success with two birds, one in industrial Pietermaritzburg, and one in a rural residential area in Hilton.  While the sexes of most raptors are dimorphic, some Crowned Eagles appear quite marginal in their size – and it remains to be seen whether there is overlap between the smallest females and the largest males.  DNA sexing tests will provide unequivocal results – though in the meantime I have laid my bets based on some biometric information, and the behavior of the individuals.

The first two seemed quite catatonic in the hands, while my guess is the most recently caught was a male and a lot more coherent while being ringed - he tried to bite even while hooded.  Indeed he succeeded at one point, and managed to give me a very painful nip’l.

the third juvenile ringed  © Niel Rasmussen 

I find this particular observation quite interesting.  I am estimating from the moult pattern that this bird is about 20-22 months - a male that has found its ‘grown-ups’ voice.  This call is often heard when adults are sky-dancing over their territories either as courtship or as a territorial display.  So what is this guy up to?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

SAFA Field Meet 2012

The South African Falconry Association hosted the 2012 field meet earlier this month.  One year has passed since I first stepped foot in South Africa (in order to attend the 2011 meet) and the best thing was returning to this event and catching up with all the friendly and familiar faces.  As well as familiar faces, there were plenty of new faces to meet – this was the highest attending gathering of active falconers in South African history.

Falconers and spectators at SAFA Field Meet and AGM July 2012
There was a noticeable difference in the environment from the 2011 meet. The season has been a lot drier, which was most noticeable in the lack of small dams to fly duck over. It was therefore the task of the experienced duck falcons to fly over big water. The peregrines were therefore mostly flown at francolin, which seemed to be as abundant as or better than last year. The result of the drier autumn was very prominent in the maize fields, with the majority of crops harvested and large fields of stubble. Francolin coveys were readily seen on the edges of road and field, pecking away at the remaining corn kernels. The long grasslands held some numbers of quail and buttonquail, pleasing for the austringers – walking the field provided plenty of opportunities. 

Attending the field meet were representatives of Birdlife South Africa, and the Endangered Wildlife Trust. It is great to see the conservation organizations making good of these invitations and having open discourse about the impacts of falconers and falconry, and the practicalities of sustainable use. At the AGM I also learned of the intention of falconers to participate in the Animal Ethics certification courses, a very thoughtful intention.

A falconer is often walking the edge of chaos, managing the hawks weight fitness and motivation, managing the land and the quarry (gamebirds or waterfowl), and trying to find a setup where the bird has a decent chance of success.  Though one is never sure what might flush out from under foot – or whether the dog has a false point.  Non-target and rare species are sometimes in the wrong place at the wrong time, ending up as by-catch.  The ‘let lie’ rule allows the hawk to be fed up on the site of the kill (a fair reward), before being taken up.  The prey is then left in situ, rather than bagged. This dramatic photo of Ashton’s Black Sparrowhawk bearing down on a Bokmakierie is such an example of an unintended quarry flushing under the nose of a keen hawk.  

big sky country

trying to spot Tim Wagners stratospheric falcon

Friday, July 20, 2012

Research Update #4 - July

New nest sites continue to emerge from the social web that has been cast.  Three more nesting sites added to my database in the last week.  A fortnight ago was the first of what will become regular whirlwind checks of the Durban nests – three days and a dozen of phone calls can pretty much sort most of them out.  I hope to get estimated egg laying dates, which are then followed up by more accurate hatch dates.  The next round is underway tomorrow.

From the historical records of nest sites observed by many of the interested residents and guardians of these eagles, I am beginning to develop a timeline for there breeding cycle.  In these seasonal latitudes of Natal, the birds appear to be quite synchronous in their egg laying time - and from a couple of anecdotal examples, it seems that when they are delayed or re-layed for whatever reason, young are too small and seldom survive when the summer rain and heat strikes.

So, July is a busy time of renovations, and the pairs that are preparing to breed this spring are flying in leafy twigs to their nests and creating a deep nest cup.  Good nests have high walls that conceal the incubating female from all but very elevated observation points.

elevated viewpoints are very valuable assets - a tiny gap in the canopy is enough

fresh leafy eucalypt sticks piling up on the nest

some seem to know they're being photographed and strike a 'model's pose'

an enormous high walled nest dwarfs the eagle sitting low and watchful

The nest sites are many a varied, the scale of the blue gums, both in number of available sites, and the sheer size of some of these trees, make for great solid nesting opportunities. 

Here are a few examples of where these urban eagles might chose to build a nest site … can you see them?

make the first one easy to find

exposed - you think the first one was exposed?!

getting cryptic, but still easy enough

umm, some zoom please - this nest is just 90 meters from an industrial site

good luck finding this one

Thursday, July 12, 2012

South African Falconry Association Supports Crowned Eagle Research

Invited article by
Dr. Adrian Lombard
Chairman, South African Falconry Association

The Crowned Eagle is certainly one of South Africa’s iconic raptors and is a source of awe and fascination to all raptor enthusiasts. There is limited interest in this bird from a Falconry perspective although all Falconers will share the appreciation for this species with other “raptophiles”. The South African Falconry Association recognizes the challenges related to flying this formidable eagle and limits its use to very experienced Falconers (or Austringers as practitioners of this branch of our Art are known). This said, there is a history of the use of this species for Falconry in Southern Africa. The renowned wildlife artist and Falconer, David Reid-Henry, flew a Crowned Eagle – Tiara - for many years and I include a painting by David of this bird. Other African Falconers have flown this species with significant success. Andre Groenewald of the Zimbabwe Falconry Association has flown and hunted with a most effective Crowned Eagle for many years. Similarly, Simon Thomset, in Kenya, has bred from a pair of these eagles and flown their offspring for a number of years. There have been several other Falconers who have had success with this species.

Artwork by David Ried-Henry

The South African Falconry Association supports the sustainable utilization of wild raptors and we believe that this encourages the conservation of raptors. Our belief is supported by the Convention on Biological Diversity which sees Sustainable Utilization as one of three main pillars of the conservation effort.

The importance of Sustainable Utilization is explained and its application elucidated in the Addis Ababa Principles, published in 2004, which state:

Sustainable use is a valuable tool to promote conservation of biological diversity, since in many instances it provides incentives for conservation and restoration because of the social, cultural and economic benefits that people derive from that use. In turn, sustainable use cannot be achieved without effective conservation measures.

Effective conservation measures require scientific data to ensure appropriate actions are taken.  Research, such as that being undertaken by Shane, is thus an essential component of the conservation effort.

It is the contention of the South African Falconry community that the Crowned Eagle is one of the raptors which has adapted to the altered environment which has resulted from human activity.  It has infiltrated the suburban environment and has benefited from alien forestation.  Indeed, its numbers would appear to be increasing as a result of adaptation to the altered environment rather than declining through human persecution.  Based on this perception, Falconers have challenged its inclusion in the list of Threatened or Protected Species (ToPS) and submitted the following to the Review of the Listing of ToPS species:
Submission by the South African Falconry Association regarding inclusion of the African Crowned Eagle – Stephanoaetus coronatus – in the revised species list with respect to Threatened or Protected Species
We note with concern the inclusion of the African Crowned Eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus) in the Draft ToPS list for Birds. It is our submission that this species does not satisfy the criteria for inclusion on this list as detailed in the Discussion Document
This species is included under the Protected Category. The criteria for inclusion are
1.   That it must be listed as Near Threatened according to the IUCN 2001 Red List, which is not the case, and it must also be threatened by direct use. This is not the case.
2.   That it is in need of regulation/management as current utilization may result in a significant decline in wild populations of the species. This is not the case.
The inclusion of this species is inappropriate and this will be discussed further below.

The African Crowned Eagle is listed as not globally threatened and has an extensive distribution through Africa where it may be locally common . In South Africa it is considered Near Threatened due to persecution by small stock farmers and loss of forest habitat, although this is off-set by the establishment of alien plantations . In fact, this species may have benefited by habitat change and there are relatively strong populations in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal and Mpumalanga. It has encroached on the suburbs of some towns including Grahamstown, Durban and Pietermaritzburg and can be a hazard to cats and small dogs. Falconers have been involved in programs to monitor this species in Natal and Mpumalanga.
   The African Crowned Eagle is not threatened by direct use. Falconers make very infrequent use of this species with no birds being harvested in the last 5 years. The occasional birds utilized for Falconry have been individuals trapped due to predation on cats and dogs. A limited harvest would certainly be sustainable, particularly as this species usually lays 2 eggs and siblicide appears obligate , so the harvesting of the second chick would have minimal impact. That said there is no current desire by Falconers to increase utilization of this species and the South African Falconry Association applies stringent controls to the use of eagles, and this species in particular, due to potential injury risk in inexperienced hands.This species is not targeted by the exotic pet trade or for muthi. It seldom if ever eats carrion so is not part of the by-kill in the poisoning of vultures for use in traditional medicines. This is not the case with other more vulnerable species such as the Tawny and Bateleur Eagles which are rightfully included in the ToPS listing.   This species nests in big trees and has benefited from the establishment of exotic plantations which it utilizes. The problem of nesting-tree loss due to increasing elephant populations which threatens other large tree nesting raptors, many of which are included in the ToPS listing, has much less impact on the African Crowned Eagle due to its habitat choice.   Persecution of this species by stock farmers and pet owners is a problem. This may be particularly significant for the population in the Southern Cape and for those nesting close to suburban areas. Mitigation of this would include education of farmers who may come to appreciate this Eagle for its predation on monkeys as well as the removal of problem individuals. The use of such individuals in Falconry provides an alternative to killing them as translocation is not an option for large Eagles. The ToPS regulations do not benefit the protection of this species and would, in fact, create bureaucratic obstruction to such mitigation.

It is the expert opinion of the South African Falconry Association that the African Crowned Eagle should be excluded from the list of species covered by the ToPS regulations. This species fails to meet the inclusion criteria. The African Crowned Eagle population is probably underestimated due to this bird’s unobtrusive behavior as well as the forest environment that it inhabits, rendering it less obvious than other large eagle species.   Other species are currently far more severely challenged. It is essential to identify these species and provide them with the necessary support and protection to ensure their survival. The threat of extinction is very real to a number of South Africa’s bird species. This threat must not be trivialized by providing blanket protection or by diverting resources to species whose current status does not warrant special protection.

Adrian LombardSouth African Falconry Association15th May 15, 2011.

The South African Falconry Association intends to provide both financial and practical assistance to Shane's project and will watch the outcomes with interest. This iconic and exciting bird deserves conservation support and protection. Never-the-less, the Crowned Eagle population may well sustain a limited harvest which can, in turn, benefit the conservation of the species.