Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Friday, July 26, 2013

Raptors of Kruger

It was just three days, but feels like there is so much to say about Kruger. As the ZSSA symposium was at Kruger’s doorstep, 11 of the UKZN contingent arranged to take three days after the conference to do a top-to-bottom roadtrip through the Kruger National Park. That plan changed slightly when on the first night of the conference I met Rowan van Eeden.  On the second day, Rowan presented about the causes for widespread declines in the Martial Eagle populations - now uplisted to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

This has compelled Martial Eagle Conservation research to identify the causes of decline of the Martial in even such a vast natural area as Kruger.  I was ecstatic when Rowan suggested I might provide assistance with his project.  To capture and fit transmitters to the Martial Eagle … so called for its rapaciousness. The largest eagle in Africa and a very active and agile predator – that appears to prefer game birds, particularly guineafowl and francolins, as well as small buck and large monitors.

So with my humble apologies skipping out on our UKZN convoy, at 3am Rowan and I dashed straight to the south end of the park.  As we drove south the unseasonal gloom of a very wet raining front loomed.  Several hours of light rain drenched the southern park, and shortly after entering Orpen gate we stopped to check an active nest. Sighting were good when the rain cleared, as many raptors were perch-bound, and the little critters were seen drying out on the road verges.

Arriving mid-morning we set up at our digs in the N'Waswitshaka Research Camp adjacent to Skukuza, and set out again for the afternoon.  Aiming to drive around and between all the known Martial territories looking for a bird in a trappable position, all the while we would conduct game counts, tallying all potential Martial prey (Helmeted Guineafowl, Swainsons, Crested and Natal Francolin), and record the locations of all other raptors as well. Sparse, active, and covering enormous savannah home ranges, the martial sightings were few and far between, with all five birds seen on the wing. There were exactly Zero trapping opportunities.  However, travelling 550km over three days, collecting some great game count data and counting 111 raptors of 16 species was some consolation.

drenched immature bateleur

damp black sparrowhawk

sunny lizard buzzard

the typical sighting of a martial, a.e.v with full crop


Returning each night to the research camp, we'd braai and chat with other researchers and volunteers, occasionally glancing into the darkness over the meager fence, with lions, hyena, and hippo just outside the compound. In contrast, the public facilities and campsite areas at Skukuza must be the largest and most vulgar of the National Park ‘camps’. At dawn each morning queues of vehicles would line up for the 6am gate opening.  On the public roads traffic was obscene, and yet Rowan remarked that it was 80% better than during the busy school holiday season.  I’d never imagine how this research could be done on the public access roads.  Fortunately we didn’t have to, with permits and section clearance to travel the firebreak roads and utility service roads we got out and away from the mobile hoards – definitely the best time of the three days was travelling the remote and powerline between Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bride, not a car single car was seen for hours.

It is quite a familiar perspective - to be focused on the sky and tree tops for raptors while on safari, and I am sure we drove past many terrestrial mammals without a glimpse. All the while I was eavesdropping on the group messages of the UKZN convoy.  Five leopards had been sighted in three days… a major void that I have longed for so long to see.  On the last day, saying farewell to Rowan and regrouping with the UKZN crew, we set off for a last morning game drive.  With leopard in my hopes, I could search for other wildlife (“see that tower over there, …yes that’s a nice parade”). Then, taking a side road to a waterfall … low and behold, an incredibly confiding kitty.  We may have been about the third vehicle on the scene.  Before long though, totally blocked in by the masses of vehicles piling in to get their view and photos.

within a short while a complete traffic jam, that is just what was behind us, similar jam infront!

smiles homeward bound after a brilliant few days

some hours later

...and more hours later

The long drive back to Pietermaritzburg was challenging after such an eventful week, especially while my passengers filled the car with the aura of sleep.

ZSSA 2013

The Zoological Society of Southern Africa held its 2013 annual symposium at Tshipise, in the far north-east of South Africa… just shy of the Zimbabwean border and close to the top end of the magnificent Kruger National Park.  A UKZN contingent of 16 students set out at 4am to reach Tshipise after an 11 hour roadtrip.

what... no blue dotted line at the tropic of capricorn?  ... but its on every map

who filled out the registration form?

UKZN campsite

The Zoological Society symposium was hosted by the University of Venda and University of Limpopo, they revealed a wide range of topics and studies, with a particularly large proportion of student presentations this year.  On the third day I presented the results of the first year of Camera-trap nest data. Seemed to go well.

Certainly the highlights were to see some familiar faces including Prof. Ara Manadjem’s plenary talk on the fate of Africa’s Vultures (not good news by the way).  Prof Colleen Downs also presented a plenary talk, covering the ins and outs of physiology, and ecology of the Epaulatted fruit bat. Also of particular interest and relevance was the plenary talk by Dr. Franz Holker on the loss of the night.  How artificial light, especially urban light domes, have a dramatic effect on the biosphere.  This was relevant for two reasons; a) the Durban crowned eagles will likely be influenced by the urban light dome in some way, and b) way out at Tshipise, once the moon set in the early hours of the night, the milky way was so spectacularly smeared across the inky sky (funny how you realize just how fortunate being a kiwi is in a world of light pollution).

In between relevant talks, I would sneak out for an hour at a time and go hunting (with camera) on the Tshipise grounds.  The neighboring koppie was a magnet for soaring raptors, while the aloe gardens on the grounds attracted plenty of birds and butterflies. The resort grounds also home to two large businesses’ of banded mongoose, and these characters provided endless entertainment particularly when twice I watched drawn-out territorial disputes, where front lines were drawn within clouds of dust, behind which the trouble would lay their scent markings on the boarderlands.

Marico Sunbird

Common Orange Tip

Golden Piper

Bearded Scrub-Robin

A business of Banded Mongoose

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Jackal Buzzard

It was a pleasure to spend a Saturday out helping Dr. Jordaan with her research on the Jackal Buzzards of the higher altitude areas of southern KZN.  The primary goal was to try and retrieve a dysfunctional satellite transmitter from the back of one of the research birds.  We’d also move along the route hoping to ring and collect data from as many more buzzards as we could. Rin is gathering data on the dispersion, movements, genetics, biometrics, and colour morphology of this population.  

Stating at dawn at Fort Nottingham, we arrived on site at the last known hangout of ‘Solo’.  Solo had regularly been spending most of her time along a short section of road, and had become wise to the team, vehicle, and tactics.  Even so, despite spending most of the prime trapping hours –the first two hours of morning -  travelling back and fourth on a short section of road looking for her unfortunately she was to evade our searches. 

Early in the morning, also in her ‘territory’ we spotted another buzzard on a telephone pole and soon the day was off to a start.  This buzzard had a surprising amount of white on its mantle, and during the course of the day I paid more and more attention to the variability of the buzzards. These birds have a striking variation in the combination of the three colours that mix upon the breast; white, rufous and a dark chocolate brown.

Jackal Buzzards are endemic to southern Africa, with a very similar looking buzzard, the Augur, in Zimbabwe and north.  The apparently peculiar name is given because their call is eerily similar to the howl of the black-backed jackal.

While they seem to be lazy loafers, and in our area on of the more commonly sighted birds of roadside and agricultural areas, the Jackal Buzzard should not be under-appreciated.  They love rodents, and probably serve a huge service to agricultural crops by homing in on areas of high rodent numbers.  Its often commented that they have a surprising strength in their feet… I would know... yes, I've bled more than once because of this. Thankfully though I have not had the same experience that a friend of mine had, a talon right thru the thumb muscle, from the outside in, the point of the talon pushing at the skin like a miniature Alien wanting to erupt from his palm.

Maybe it’s the availability of telephone poles along the roads, or whether it’s the width of exposure that a rodent faces should it decide to cross a road, the jackal buzzards are very often seen perched up scanning the road verges for prey.  They seem pretty accustomed to traffic just as long as you don’t do anything out of the ordinary – like slow down or point a camera!  Long-creasted eagles, black-shouldered kites, and in summer steppe buzzards, are also frequent ‘roadside raptors’ to target.

My task was to be the designated driver for the day… and not an easy task at that.  While it can be the best place to spot birds on the road ahead, and to be in the prime view to the potential trapee’s actions - it demands all-round awareness, particularly to monitor the traffic and position the trap drops as best as possible without flushing a roadside bird.

The rest of the day was spent travelling the roads set against the foothills of the world heritage region of the Drakensberg mountains – and with the hawk-eyed Ben Hoffman in the shotgun seat, we were virtually guaranteed to spot plenty of birds today!

Travelling from Fort Nottingham across to Underberg and returning to Pietermaritzburg on dusk, we’d travelled over 300km.  Shortly after releasing the first buzzard of the day, Ben identified a female red-chested sparrowhawk displaying over a small copse of pines.  Not long after that the sight of several huge silhouettes had us skid to a stop.  Nothing is more unmistakable than the silhouette of a Bearded Vulture, or three, and with them a few Cape Griffons thermalling over some unseen farmland carcass a few hundred meters away.

The clouds burned off and the glare of the alpine sun warmed us as midday approached. There seemed a never ending occurrence of ‘jaybees’ as we racked up the miles.  Plenty of excitement and action as birds showed interest in the traps, and also plenty of disappointments as thru various means; lack of interests, and more frustratingly, traffic, caused us to abandon many a bird.  By the end of the day my concentration was sapped, and my eyes were raw with the effects of the glare, dust, and unblinking binocular use. 

But what a day! After 300km and 9 hours on the road, I have approximate counts of
32 Jackal Buzzard (4 ringed and released)
7 Cape Vulture
3 Bearded Vulture
3 Long-crested Eagle
3 Secreatry Bird
1 Red-chested Sparrowhawk
1 Verreaux Eagle
…and the day ended on a high with

1 Martial Eagle

Monday, July 1, 2013

A house of sticks

The three little pigs’ second attempt was a house of sticks, and the big bad wolf had no trouble blowing that house down. The wind of the wolf is the nemesis of many crowned eagle nests. As we move into the second spring it is clear just how necessary it is for crowned eagles to pile a large bulk of sticks onto whatever nest or fork they hope to use in the coming season.  Sticks decompose and decay quickly, and the nest structure all too often slump or collapses entirely from its accumulated weight.

The last two stick-based homes that the San Lameer crowned eagles built have been blown down by the big bad wolf of autumn.  The nest that collapsed at the end of the 2011 season had held strong for at least five years.  It sat atop a two pronged fork of lateral branches and provided a wonderfully clear profile view for a season of intensive observation and photography be Jacques Sellschop.  Last year the eagles had to start again – tabula rasa – and they chose a different fork in their same nest tree.  The fork was more secure, with a three-way fork of more vertical stems.  Unfortunately though, this site had more obstructions for the spectators.

the natural-eye view to the nest from the San Lameer management office.  Photo credit Jacques Sellschop

The 2011 (and prior) nest site - great aspect

The 2012 nest - well concealed.  Photo credit Jacques Sellschop

This year we have hoped to get a jump on the nest building attempt by providing a sturdy foundation for the stick-house version three.  This foundation is intentionally compact and tidy, but very solid. Built of treated timber planks and secured to the pine with 6” galvanised nails, it should hold for several years.  The hope now is that these unnaturally smooth and boxy shapes are more attractive than the site of last year’s nest, and they build atop this platform.

Lets hope so, because if they do then Jacques Sellschop, and all other interested visitors who come to photograph or view the nest, will be able to get a wonderfully clear profile view of the inner happenings of the pair and their future offspring.

Photo credit Jacques Sellschop

Photo credit Jacques Sellschop

completed platform from the entrance road.  Photo credit Jacques Sellschop

a room with a view

spot young Y8, still not far from the old nest site

Y8 being cryptic

wildlife aplenty at San Lameer.  Photo credit Jacques Sellschop