Tuesday, October 30, 2012


The University of KwaZulu-Natal delegates

From 14-21 October the 13th Pan-African Ornithological Congress was held in Arusha, Tanzania.

As a technician, my task was to load all the presentations so that each would flow smoothly onto the next.  There were two plenary speakers each day, and then an array of shorter, 10 minute talks spread between the two halls. Besides multiple power cuts and tripped fuses, it all seemed to flow pretty smoothly.

Tuesday afternoon was a particularly rough time, as I was one of the first to come down with an intense 24 hour bout of gastro.  Initially I thought this was because, first thing arriving at our hostel on Sunday, I downed two glasses of tap water, and then for good measure found myself some nyama choma for morning tea.  What better way to start the day than to fill up on unidentifiable bits of braised meat and offal.  The dead flies on our table were maybe an ominous caution. 

Me and Rasta-Bobbie debating which will be the best bits

But this can’t be the whole story - in the following days about one third of the conference attendees got struck down as well. 

Thankfully, by Wednesday morning my stomach was settled enough to enjoy our excursion.  Our UKZN team got together and headed off to Tarangaire National Park.  Luckily we were all together as Lindy, Rin, and Amy were feeling delicate with the lurg as well.  The landscape was very dry and begging for the short rains to come, the shallow river running through the valley condensed the game.  Among the wildebeest, waterbuck, zebra and elephants, flocks of sandpipers zipping back and forth attracted the attention of a Grey Kestrel.  A few East African endemic birds were added to the list including Ashy Starling and the vivid Red and Yellow Barbet.

Back to the conference and Friday was the day for raptors. The day opened with Rob Davies introducing the African Raptor Databank, a continent-wide mapping and monitoring database. The following morning sessions highlighted the plight of vultures across Africa.  Robin Whytock presented an investigation into the bushmeat trade in Cameroon.  Going beyond the quantification of market meat on sale, the team looking at the remains left at hunting camps. Essentially, that the hunters carry in carbohydrates and to supplement with protein they eat a large portion of birds at their hunting camps.  Most of the mammal meat is then taken to the market for sale.  Large birds, particularly hornbills, Palm-nut vultures and Crowned Eagles must be severely impacted by these activities.

Later in the day, I moved into the parallel hall.  The session was primarily on owls.  Midway through the session Munir Virani presented work on Pemba Scops Owls, and bless him, added a slide of me sleeping on the concrete floor of the Manta Reef lodge.  Laid out on the job again – a reminder of the two week long bout of gastro that made the Pemba Island Scops Owl trip such a memorable experience!  The last slot of the day in the owl session had not been filled by a scheduled speaker, and so I had an opportunity to introduce the urban Crowned Eagle research.  With it being such early days still in the research there was little by way of results – but describing the number of pairs already known, and a few interesting nest camera slides was a nice touch.  Hopefully this project will have some enlightening results to present at the next conference.

PAOC14, Senegal, 2016

Mount Meru

The peak of Mt Kilimanjaro at sunrise. 22 October.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Highway Mail 19 October 2012

A note of critical importance is that journalists can often get it wrong... So wrong.

It should be an embarrassing realization to the Highway mail journalist, who spent some two hours with Mia during the morning, yet in the articles' captions describes "Zoologist Colleen Downs..."  Oh dear!

Friday, October 12, 2012

A bird in the hand

This post is two pronged.

The first sequence is of our oldest chick of the 2012 season.  For something different, I have shown here three photos per day of just a few days in early October.  With a focus on attempting to show a variety of behaviors and different times of day.

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pretending to still be a hapless chick, the eaglet still begs to be fed

evening exercises are frequent

the young eagle spends most of its days alone one the nest now

although salad greens come in less often then in earlier weeks, sanitary conditions are still vital

the morning feeding session was another delicate exchange between mum and chick

the evening session was self-serve

although mum still sleeps on the nest for protection, the eaglet is now entirely thermally independant

The second sequence is of ringing and collecting biometric data from this eaglet.  The eaglet is skeletally mature, which means when we measure the leg, we can apply the correct ring size that it will wear for the rest of its life.  Our DNA sample will confirm our prediction that it is a male. This individual will be known henceforth as 'E6', and the ring identification enables all of the local residents and birders to be part of this amazing project by sighting and submitting the details (date-time, GPS location, ring code, and hopefully photos) of each birds whereabouts. Either to me [shane.mcpherson@gmail.com] during the course of the research, or to the ADU in future years.

All birds of all species with identification marks are collated on a database that covers Southern Africa, and communicated with other regional and country ringing programs.  Re-sightings and ring recoveries need to be submitted.  To report SAFRING, colour ring combination, or colour rings with alpha-numeric codes please complete the online form.

Photo credits to Mark Brown, sadly, not represented in a photo here.  Hopefully the journalists that were present will have a photo in their article!  While it is heavily overcast, the photos are a little blurred in the dark forest floor, and the bird is damp, we were fortunate to have achieved all that needed to be done in a perfectly timed break in the weather.  The nest camera will continue to provide invaluable information on diet, as well as how the bird, and its parents, respond to the new jewelry.

starting the first climb at 07.34am to service the camera and collect the eaglet

hauling the precious cargo back to the nest

E6 safely back in the nest at 08.36 am

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The gravity of the situation...

Gravity plays a background role in most of our life.  We take it for granted.  But in some moments, gravity is a vivid force.

Me and gravity have been getting along fine, but sometimes our relationship is a bit strained (though I’m the only one doing the straining).  Roped ascents are a reasonably safe way to get high into trees.  A skill I learned while working for the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, on the recovery project for the endangered Echo Parakeet.  During the five months of the parakeet breeding season of ’06-’07, I had survived around 200 climbs.  Many of the natural tree-cavities, and artificial nesting boxes were scaled multiple times for various reasons; egg checks, hatching success, ringing, and end of season maintenance (bees, termites, anti-viral spraying, and fresh nesting woodchips).  This skill has been invaluable in recent years for putting up owl nesting boxes, and presently for the Crowned Eagle research.

some examples of climbing in Mauritius. central image by Mia Jessen
and recently at the Victoria Country Club. photos by James Walker

Since arriving here in April to start the research I have also become very keen on rock climbing.  Initially in order to improve flexibility and strength conditioning for the tree-climbing work, and well, it became great to be out on rock faces for fun and the wildlife.  The KZN climbers have produced an excellent route guide, and places like Monteseel, and Rumdoodle in the Kloof Gorge Nature Reserve are stunning areas. Often we are climbing in areas where a Lanner or Peregrine falcon will fly past, and at Umgeni Valley occasionally a Verreaux Eagle too.  When reaching high into a crack of rock the occasional thought of confronting a snake in its hideout creeps into my mind.  With a fascination for snakes, I am looking forward to seeing and identifying species, but face-to-face up a 20 meter wall with a skinny finger-hold – not so much.

Spotted Rock Snake   Lamprophis guttatus   a habitat specialist of rock flakes and crevices

I have attempted to manage the potential dangers of climbing to Crowned Eagle nests.  Of course the rope must be well maintained and checked for weak points.  Whilst climbing, old trees and particularly Eucalypts, create large brittle dead snags, which with a little shake or rope pressure, come crashing through the canopy.  Look up!

 And not least the eagles.  When it comes to eagles nesting - a good offense is the best defense.  There have been many cautionary tales told and I remembered from years back an image in Leslie Brown’s book of deep puncture wounds in his shoulder.  I didn’t know until recently that Ben Hoffman had been to that particular nest several times, but wasn’t there when Leslie was gripped below the ribs – the eagles talons missing his kidneys by a couple of centimeters.  Having spent time with Simon Thomsett also, he told of similar stories, including a Danish volunteer that was struck hard  “She had pushed his teeth through his gums and put a few deep holes in his head. On his way down the trees had broken his fall but had broken his arm too.”
Read the whole story here

Simon has been attacked several times, and on one occasions, remembering Leslies photo, took a similar self-portrait.

Brown, L. 1976. Birds of Prey: Their Biology and Ecology

Simon mimicking Leslie - follow the link in text to Simons blog 

With these tales, I prepared well to face the wrath of a protective mother, and decided on a foam filled backpack with waist straps to protect from attacks from the rear, and a police riot helmet with visor and neck guard.  Going so far as to paint big eyes on the back of my helmet – in the hopes that they will not be so bold as to attack while I’m watching.  There was one very recent incident that presented another danger that I didn't predict.  The wrath of a deeply passionate local who wasn't informed of the research we are doing.  Taking misperceptions to the extreme and not appreciating that our timing and disturbance on the eagles has been carefully considered, with the least disturbance possible, UKZN Animal Ethics approval, landowner permissions, and municipality permits.  Despite these details that we tried to explain, in the heat of the moment and with large pair of kitchen scissors, I found myself 20 meters up a tree with an irate local preparing to cut me down.  Thankfully, Mia saved what was potentially a fall to my death, or in the least, serious injury.  Yet the scissors still found their way to my rope anyhow, and our passionate resident cut off six meters from the free end of a R2,000 rope – as a warning.

Heated exchanges cooled, and over a lovely cup of sweet rooibos, it seems we ended the day on amicable terms.  It was a oversight on my part to not ensure the neighborhood was well informed with the details of the research, this is a lesson well learnt.