Thursday, March 21, 2013

Mkambati Revolutions

Recently back from a fourth trip to Mkambati.  This was set to be a very important one for Morgans [link] research on the Cape Vulture breeding colony at Mkambati Nature Reserve.  It was a fantastic achievement of coordination and collaboration as Morgan brought together twelve people to take part in this operation.  A thorough range of experts and assistants came together, including the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Vulture Working Group, EWT’s Wildlife & Energy Program, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Bearded Vulture Research, The African Bird of Prey Sanctuary, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency, and KZN bird ringers and University of KwaZulu-Natal researchers.

The goal was to achieve a successful ‘mass capture’ of vultures in a walk in trap.  With four satellite GPS trackers, and forty wing tags to attach, we were aiming to capture as many as the two teams could safely process without undue stress to the vultures. A hide is placed near the trap to observe and close the trap when a number of birds are inside.  There was just enough room for three people, who would set up before dawn and sit until the vultures were caught.  The remaining team was to sit a few minutes drive away, at a viewpoint over the ‘superbowl’ lookout, and wait patiently by for the call of all hands on deck.

Our previous capture back in November went surprisingly quickly.  With ten birds caught within the first half hour, and all done and dusted by 11am that day. So expectations were high…  “no we wont need to pack lunch” was one memorable quote uttered on the night of our briefing.  On the first morning while we all waited at the wonderful panoramic scene at the superbowl, Juan Morgan and Ben sat for almost ten hours in the hide without the least hint of enthusiasm from the vultures.  It was a long and frustrating day. By 4pm the vultures are less keen to feed as they are to get home to the roosting cliffs, and our stomachs lead us back to the lodge for supper.

Things got even more frustrating on the second day when, although vultures were feeding on parts of the carcass nearby, they were obviously very skittish, and never settled for long enough to be caught.  Long days at the superbowl were passed in various ways:  I was reading… a lot, Meyrick had a near run-in with a magnificent specimen of a Black Mamba while out walking, Kerin found a stunning diversity of wildflowers to identify, and Eva went off hunting for the Mamba that Meyrick was all too happy to never see again – only to return from a foray down the cliff with a picture of a porcupine, and a rather smelly skull of a red hartebeest.

 Another nine hour day on the third day and despondency was setting in, particularly because for most of the day several vultures sat perched on top of the trap!  The wind has been gusting for several days.  Some clear signs of cabin fever were becoming apparent and we had accumulated something to the order of 33 person days of effort and still not one vulture to show for it.  Something had to change.

That evening another carcass was procured, and the vulture restaurant was baited with fresher more enticing food.  Day four was my chance to be one of the three in the hide, and that night I packed books and entertainment to keep me occupied for a bum-numbing ten hour watch.  Arriving at the hide at dawn, the weather had changed, and the wind was barely whispering. I was hopeful, but nonetheless settled into the camp chair as best I could.

The dawn lifted, the wind had died to a whisper, white-naped ravens started amassing, and then a fish-eagle arrived.  Within 20 minutes the first vultures landed by the carcass and started feeding in and mobbing in their raucous manner.  The fish-eagle was first to be pushed off as dozens and dozens of vultures frenzied.  The first-eagle was the first to notice the other carcass and move off towards the trap, followed by the late coming vultures who couldn’t find a place at the table.

Twenty-five vultures and a fish-eagle were caught within the first 40 minutes of the forth day.  By 11am all the vultures were processed.  There are now an additional four GPS tagged birds, and 25 wing tagged birds.  These tagged birds will be invaluable additions to research on foraging behaviour, and nesting colony behaviour respectively.

arriving at Mkimbati Gate on the evening of the 13th

pre-dawn and ready to head out from riverside lodge

beautiful ocean sunrises each morning as we set out to the capture site

high spirits at the superbowl

our perspective of the trap from the superbowl lookout

the highlight of the day... LUNCHTIME!!!

frustration watching several hundred vultures pass by

on the dawn of the forth morning the fish-eagle takes the lead

25 vultures penned

the vulture team

ready to work.  Photo by Kerin Bowker

removing a vulture from the pen. Photo by Kerin Bowker

many hands make light work. Photo by Kerin Bowker

heading home on the 18th, we spotted this pre-migratory congregation of Amur Falcons

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