In Search of Raptors

 

 

Banding raptors in the Breede Valley, Overberg, southern Western Cape, South Africa

 

The long-awaited call was unexpected when it did come and led to one of the most fulfilling days of my life. I was in a meeting to address the issue of fundraising for the local conservancy. I did not recognise the number and let it go, but the caller was persistent and on his 4th attempt I answered.

 

Call to Action

 

“Are you still keen to help with banding raptors? Can you be ready at 5 tomorrow morning?” Without waiting for an answer, the caller went on: “Be ready at 5, it’s gonna be a long day, bring lunch, something to drink, your binocs and a camera that goes rat-tat-tat; you know, one of those machine gun style jobs; so you can capture the release shots.”

I don’t have a rat-tat-tat camera; but I do have lots of enthusiasm and a pair of binoculars. My happy snapper on its ‘Kids and Pets’ setting would have to make up for the lack of a fancy camera.

 

The overused awesome really does become AWESOME when you get drawn onto an exercise of this nature. At first I observed, then thawed and became more and more involved in the exercise of the day.

 

In the presence of a pro who knows a good deal more than what’s written into “The Raptor Guide of Southern Africa”; I felt small, unworthy and could only admire one, who has in his lifetime banded in the region of 40 000 birds. I did not need the autographed book given to me by my son for my birthday and stuffed into my backpack at the last minute.  This pro, I might add, is a medical doctor from the UK, who returns annually to his roots and for weeks on end does his bit for the environment, for Africa and just because he cares.

 

Bouncing along the corrugated road in the pre-dawn glow in the back of the twin cab surrounded by binocs, cameras, spray bottles, cooler bags and of course our caged VIP helpers; the ladies-in-waiting – more about them and the listed equipment later- on our way to the Malagas Pont; I heard some jaw-dropping stories; interrupted at intervals by admonishments from our pro (who was driving and could not watch the tree tops as closely as we could) to concentrate; to focus and short turnoffs into farms in search of birds atop power lines or fence poles. At this point let me explain: it wasn’t our pro telling the stories, but an old-timer helper kindly putting me in the picture. Some of the stories deserve a good old South African “Ja. Well. No. Fine” and in that category, they’ll stay until I have a chance to verify.

Did you know that thanks to stainless steel rings that last a long time, the statistics get very interesting?

 

One bird lives 41 years and another flies 15 999 kms.

 

A Cape Robin Chat was re-captured 7 years after its first ringing 3 and a half kilometres from its origin. If you think that’s a long time, the record is 41 years, apparently, you can check it out on the SAFRING website. I haven’t, yet.

 

I heard with amazement that the Steppe Buzzards we catch today will be migrating more than 10 000 kilometres all the way to Siberia during our winter for breeding purposes. My raptor guide verifies that.

 

We were off to an inauspicious start, not being in a hurry to cross the pontoon which only opens for action at six; we took our time, spotting very few birds along the way and none interested in our ladies-in-waiting.

By the time, we got to the Malagas Pont: by the way quite a historic spot, being the last remaining human operated pontoon in South Africa and providing a vital link for farmers, locals and even tourists between the west and east banks of the Breede River; I was thoroughly disillusioned – no raptors – and hungry – who wants to eat at five in the morning. To add insult to injury, the pontoon was lying unmanned on the opposite bank, and as we laid into the hooter to attract the operator’s attention; a loud swoosh alerted us to a very flat tyre.

 

Things got better after that, very much better, wonderful in fact. The photos tell their story and hopefully go some way to portraying the awesomeness of our day.  Four hours into our foray we struck it lucky; in an area, we will forever from now on, refer to as the Vale of Crickets. Hundreds, literally hundreds of birds were foraging in a burn slashed wheat field, hopping, darting and pouncing on a billion crickets. We took our chances that bulging bellies would want some dessert.

 

Ladies-in-waiting

 

 Let me tell you a little about ladies-in-waiting. They are the rats used as lures to the traps for the birds. These rats are purchased from various suppliers and duly listed in our storyteller’s phone contacts as RAT Andre, RAT Johan, and RAT Walter. Believe me; the success of raptor capture is measured against the suppliers’ rats. Seems a bit unfair to me. But successful captures mean my hosts go back to that supplier for rats in the following season.

 

Fear not, in their many years of ringing birds, not one rat has succumbed to the onslaught of a hungry raptor. And neither did we lose any on this occasion. The rodents are well protected in their little home-made bal-chatri, they are soothed after each encounter with whispered sweet nothings, a gentle stroking and a soft mist of water sprayed to soothe them in the heat of the day. We had 5 for the day, who took it in turns of twos and threes to do duty for king and country.

It seems it is the norm for each rodent to earn its nickname based on its actions and idiosyncrasies.  The stories that flow from that would take a tome to tell, and although hilarious detract from my actual story.  I am sorry now that I did not make some notes, but there was so much to learn to absorb, I must leave it to your imagination.

 

Bal-chatri

 

I was not unfamiliar with the word bal-chatri, in association with ornithological research for the capture of raptors for banding but it sure is the first time I have been exposed to one.  

Ours was a little home-made contraption; a wire mesh cage with nooses made of what seemed to be fishing gut, to entangle the raptors’ feet, over the roof area. The bottom of the cage is weighted with lead to prevent the ensnared raptors from taking the rodents hostage, cage and all. The cage is double walled, to protect the rodents from the onslaught of the enemy and to prevent them from nibbling at and damaging the nooses intended to catch the birds. The handle is attached to the roof by a longish rope to facilitate the deployment of the trap from a moving vehicle.

 

There’s an art to deploying the trap close to likely candidates in such a way that temporary stress is minimised for both raptor and bait. Each time we sighted a likely candidate for capture and banding, we had to position the vehicle correctly; this usually meant maneuvering into position to avoid rousing the bird’s suspicions. Then we would drive slowly past where our target was perched, with the bal-chatri swaying gently from a rope on the outside of the vehicle on the far side… from the bird … of the vehicle. At a word from our pro we would set down the trap; and proceed nonchalantly on to a distance rendering us safe from suspicion, then we would turn and watch and wait from a safe distance.

 

 

What follows depends on the bird species. I was fascinated. The Steppe Buzzard Buteo vulpinus is suspicious in its hunting habits. Once it spots its quarry, it glides down to the ground and struts almost as if it is pretending it has not seen the quarry. Sometimes we were disappointed as the bird would feign disinterest for so long, we would get concerned about the welfare of our charges inside the cage and interrupt the inspection, especially as it was such a hot day. A long delay could for example mean that the poor creatures are plagued by ants. However, once the Steppe Buzzard makes its move and strikes, it struggles more than most birds and is then thoroughly ensnared. As soon as its head is covered the bird calms down and then begins the process of disentangling the nooses to work with the bird.

 

By contrast the Jackal Buzzard Buteo rufofuscus has a more direct approach to catching its prey. We were always happy to spot a Jackal Buzzard as we were guaranteed a catch and data recording. This bird pounces straight onto its prey, once spotted from its perch or if it is in soaring position it parachutes down onto the quarry. I am told they only rarely pounce on flying prey. These were the only two birds I made acquaintance with on this day. I shall never forget and will ever be able to identify either bird by its manner of hunch in perch position.  Other birds in the Breede Valley which could have been likely candidates but eluded us mainly because their feeding habits are not conducive to them being captured in this fashion are the Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk; African Goshawk; Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk; Black Harrier and Black-shouldered Kite. It would have been nice to tick off more species. I once witnessed from my upstairs lounge window a strike on a dove sharing a meal with other birds on the ground under the bird feeder by a Peregrine Falcon. I was on a high all day. Only someone who has seen such an attack will understand.

 

Data Collection

 

I digress; once the bird is captured, our pro’s bedside manner did him in good stead. The bird was covered with a towel; the nooses untied; and then the banding, measuring and weighing processes. All manner of data is recorded; the bird is gently prodded, stretched, measured, blindfolded; popped into a bag upside down and weighed.

 

 

 

All throughout the raptor maintains its dignity with haughty majesty and you cannot help but know that you are in the presence of one of our Creator’s masterpieces.

 

It was wonderful to observe the different capturing styles of these birds, the intimidating posturing with magnificent wings upheld, the pouncing, bouncing, diving until that awful moment of ensnarement. Then there was our momentary regret for having captured such a magnificent creature. Interesting was the stoical acceptance of fate and quiet submission to the indignities that went with being banded. After formalities are concluded; words cannot describe the bird’s moment of realisation of its release, that surge of power, the regal posturing before departure.

I can only ponder on how blessed I am to admire our Creator’s handiwork at such close quarters.

 

 

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We go by the names of Gogo and Buzz respectively. We collect rocks, pebbles actually. We travel. We skid in sideways, but do respect the present tense. We are grateful to our Maker for our many blessings.

 

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