09 September 2010

Update on the Secretaries

The latest update on the Secretarybirds that we tagged earlier in the year has some good and some not so good news. The bad news first. The smaller of the two chicks has died. Willem le Roux, the shepherd on the farm, found the dead bird in the veld and could retrieve the tags and ring. Unfortunately the reason for the death of the bird could not be established.

The other chick is alive and well and walks the veld with measured steps. With the last reportback from the veld, it still has not left the immidiate vicinity of the nesting site.

Apparently the adult birds are building a new nest in a Wild Olive tree (Olienhout Olea europaea africanus) not too far from the first site.

Another site not far from town (Aliwal North) is monitored as well. For the coming breeding season two nests in the Aliwal district are being monitored at this stage. Further reports of nesting sites will be followed up and I will report on the progress on this blog.

23 May 2010

International Biodiversity Day 2010

22 May is International Biodiversity Day – and we celebrated the day in a very special way in the veld. The day started early with chilly temperatures, but by 07:45 the mistnets were up and the ringing started in all seriousness. A good diversity of birds were caught and ringed. We had four retraps at a site where not that many birds had been ringed before – so the research project is paying off already with a good number of retraps. This shows that these species frequent that area and have not dispersed far beyond this piece of natural habitat along the banks of the Orange River. Species recaptured were: Orange River White-eye, Southern Red Bishop, Southern Masked Weaver and Karoo Thrush. Other species ringed included Karoo Prinia, Neddicky, a good number of Red Billed Quelea and Cape Robin-Chat. 61 species were totalled for the SABAP2 data sheet.

Burchell's Courser showing the blue-grey head

A farmer in the district alerted me about a pair of Blue Cranes that had settled on his farm. So in the afternoon we went to investigate. We atlased the pentad as well – and had a few very special sightings. On the way to the area where the Blue Cranes settled, ElsabĂ© had good luck to photograph (though a bit far off) Burchell's Coursers. There were 5 birds in the small flock and this observation was a first for the pentad. The Blue Cranes were nowhere to be found in their usual spot.

We moved to a lucerne field under pivot point irrigation – and here we got a few good surprises. The Blue Cranes were foraging in the newly established part of the field. We could get near enough to get a decent pic or 2. A little way off (out of camera range) a pair of Grey Crowned Cranes were feeding. These birds had been observed here more than once before. And to our surprise a single Ludwig's Bustard was patroling the short karroid shrubs just off the edge of the irrigation field. This was a very first for this area. Two korhaan species were seen as well in the shrub and grassland around the same pivot – Northern Black Korhaan and the endangered Blue Korhaan. The last special sighting of the day (with dusk setting in fast) was a single Lanner Falcon quartering the area for prey. Large numbers of Egyption Goose as well as Spurwinged Goose were observed as well. A total of 53 species were counted for the SABAP2 data sheet.

Blue cranes - national bird of South Africa

It is interesting to see the terrestrial living birds – large and small – re-establish themselves in areas where farming becomes more conservation and environmentally friendly. Where farmers do not allow hunting with dogs, even the small bird species like pipits and larks become more abundant as they are not disturbed too much by people moving through the veld with packs of hunting dogs.
Photo's: Elsabe van der Westhuizen

13 February 2010

Secretaries with numberplates

Recently we had been busy with a research project of the Birds of Prey Working Group (BoPWG) of the EWT (Endangered Wildlife Trust – www.ewt.org.za). We being Dawie de Swardt ornithologist of the National Museum in Bloemfontein and myself. The purpose of the project is to do research on the post-nestling dispersal of Secretarybird chicks. We were issued with 20 patagial tags by the BoPWG to fit to the wings of the chicks before they leave their nests. The patagial tag has a unique number engraved with laser on it – and the idea behind this tag is to spot the live bird at a greater distance rather than rely on the recovery of the standard metal ring when birds have died. Little is known about the movements of the young birds when they leave the nesting area. The numbers on this series of tags start with NM – denoting a project of the National Museum. The research project is controlled by the conservation authorities as well – they have to issue the necessary permits for the capture, ringing and tagging of the birds.

Obelix fitted with numberplates

The patagial tag is the same as the tags with which cattle are fitted to identify the different individuals – they are cut a little bit smaller than the cattle tags. In the case of the birds the tag is fitted in patagium – the skinfold between the body and the "shoulder" in the wing of the bird. Two tags are fitted to each bird – one in each of the wings – and people with keen eyes should be able to read the engraved numbers easily. With a pair of binoculars the reading should be a whole lot easier and can be accomplished at an even greater distance. And photos taken of the birds can help to identify them easily with the large numbers on the "numberplates".

Willem le Roux, shepherd and citizen scientist, with one of the chicks

The first 9 birds have been fitted with their unique numberplates in this season – seven of them in the surrounds of Bloemfontein and a pair of chicks in the North Eastern Cape (near Floukraal, Aliwal North). The birds are ringed with the standard SAFRING stainless steel ring – as is required by the regulations for all birds being captured and ringed for research purposes in Southern Africa. Added to the standard ring on the leg come the 2 tags in the wings. Strict procedures are followed and everything possible is done to minimise the discomfort for the birds. Hygeine is of utmost importance as well to prevent the spread of disease, therefore equipment is properly sterilized after each application of a tag.

The first young birds tagged with these tags were named Romeo and Juliet and the second pair Asterix and Obelix (the one chick being considerably smaller than the other when tagged). In a follow up visit to the nest two weeks after the tagging, Asterix had made up good ground and weighed a mere 100g lighter than Obelix. At first their weights differed more than a kilogram. Up to now the birds were still in the nests where they were fed by the parents, but the first of the chicks are starting to leave the nest now. They will roam the area around the nesting site for the next few months returning at night to roost in the nest. And after that they leave the nesting area ...

The next part of the research project requires the participation of our citizen scientists – the general public – as there can never be enough field workers employed to keep watch on the movement of the birds. Birders spotting the tagged birds are kindly requested to relay the following information to the researchers – number on the "numberplate", date and time of sighting, place where bird(s) are observed (GPS coordinates will be of great help if at all possible), habitat in which bird(s) is observed. Reports can be made directly to myself (vdwarnold@gmail.com or 083-262 1273) or Dawie de Swardt (083-638 1604), or on the SAFRING website where sightings of all ringed (tagged and colourmarked) birds can be reported (http://safring.adu.org.za/retrap.php). The BoPWG can be informed as well at telephone number 011-486-1102.
The tag in the patagium of the bird

Without the kind cooperation of farmers allowing researchers on their farms to monitor nests, do tagging and visits to follow up on the progress of the chicks this kind of research is not possible. We are grateful for their enormous contribution to the scientific knowledgebase in the quest to understand birdlife better and to ensure that future generations will have the benefit of seeing this stately princes and princesses of the veld in their natural habitat.

15 January 2010

More on the African Openbills

I went out to our local spot to stake out the African Openbill (Anastomus lamelligerus) that had been hanging around at the local golf course for the past few weeks. And in the last light of the day I was fortunate enough to find 2 of the birds - one foraging in a ditch and the other out in the "rough". The first bird afforded me good views and was posing obligingly for a pic or two.

Openbill near the ditch (ACvdW)

I inspected the ditch after it flew off - and found a number of freshly crushed shells of snails (Helix aspersa) - unfortunately it was already too dark to take proper photos of the crushed shells. The said snails are to small to feed the bird properly, so presumably there must be other sources of food as well. In literature it is mentioned that they feed on insects, beetles, frogs and especially on different snail species and fresh water mussels. The latter is not found locally.

Both the birds settled in a large tree to roost for the night.

13 January 2010

A very special bird on my doorstep

We currently experience an irruption of African Openbills (Anastomus lamelligerus) all over South Africa – the latest report being a rather bedraggled figure at Shelley Point on the West Coast. Birds had been observed at Durbanville in the Western Cape, along the southern coast (Arabella, Gansbaai, between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn, Plettenberg Bay, near PE and Gonubie), a whole lot of spots in KwaZulu-Natal. Even in the interior birds were reported – in the Karoo, near Barkly East and Elliot in the Eastern Cape, in Lesotho and the Free State. The first signs of the irruption had been a small flock of this species observed in Potchefstroom.

Early this morning a local birding friend stopped me in the street to inform me of a single Openbill at dam at our local golf course in Aliwal North. I had been on leave and missed out on the other sightings at the spots near my holiday places. After my return home I had been looking around in the district at the different farm dams and wetland areas to which I have access but to no avail. I just had the feeling one (or a couple) of these birds should be around if it had been spotted all over the country. Great was my surprise to discover one less than 500m (as the stork flies) from my home.

Unfortunately the lawn mowers were cutting grass at the golf course and the bird did not afford me decent pics – the only proper ones I got were of a soaring bird. Fortunately Hugo Brewis, who alerted me, sent me the photo below – I place it on the blog gratefully. Thanks, Hugo, and thanks for allowing us to share in the view of this magnificent bird.
African Openbill at Aliwal North (Photo: Hugo Brewis)

A few other interesting sightings the past week or two while out atlasing for SABAP2 in the district were: a single Black Stork (Ciconia nigra), two sightings of European Rollers (Coracias garrulus) to the north and south of town, a single Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus). We also spotted two Blue Cranes (Anthropoides paradiseus) in a pentad where they were a new addition to the species list of the pentad. In the same pentad a walk in the veld produced a Black Harrier (Circus maurus) flushed from the grass and a Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk (Accipiter rufiventris) that flew from a high tree – two more new species to a species list that counted more than 140 species already.

Local birding can certainly be just as exhilarating as travels to exotic destinations and bird atlasing certainly increases the awareness towards new species in the area that is being atlased.