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Dr. Mike McGrady, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Research Associate

13 Feb 2018

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An adult Egyptian vulture that was captured and fitted with a GPS transmitter in Oman.  Adult Egyptian vultures are mostly white from about 4 yreas of age, with black flight feathers.  Juveniles are brown, and subaduts are mottled, becoming ever whiter with age.  Photo: M. McGrady.

Like so many Old World vultures, the Egyptian vulture is globally endangered.  The threats to Egyptian vultures are pretty much the same as those that other Old World vultures face, and include electrocution, changes in food availability, direct and indirect persecution, targeted and inadvertent poisoning, and hunting for the black magic market.  Its endangered status and the threats notwithstanding, the Sultanate of Oman is a stronghold for Egyptian vultures, because it apparently has a healthy resident population and is a wintertime destination for a substantial number of migrants from farther north.

Since 2012, International Avian Research (IAR) has been working with the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) conducting research on Egyptian vultures in Oman.  That work has included surveys on Masirah Island (which was found to be home to the second densest breeding population in the world), monitoring numbers of vultures at landfills and satellite radiotracking of vultures.

Since 2015, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) has, through Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, supported the work of IAR.  Two vultures were fitted with GPS radiotags in both 2015 and 2016, and two steppe eagles were fitted with tags in 2017—steppe eagles are also endangered; they breed mostly in central Asia, but migrate south (including into Oman) in the winter.

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An adult Egyptian vulture fitted with a GPS transmitter and ready for release being held by an Environment Society of Oman staff member.  Photo: M. McGrady

In January 2018, with the continuing support of GLAZA and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, along with additional support from the Bernd Meyburg Foundation for Raptor Research and Conservation, IAR and its cooperators were able to capture 13 Egyptian vultures, 12 adults and one 2-year-old, and fit them with GPS tags.  Since then, the birds have been doing what vultures do.  Most of the vultures have spent their days ranging mostly in northeast Oman in the Hajar mountains and surrounding foothills. They have made regular visits to landfills, roosted in steep wadis in the mountains, and perched on high voltage electricity pylons. One bird has behaved a bit differently and has made at least two laps of the northern part of the country, seemingly always on the move.

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Adult Egyptian vulture in Oman in January 2018.  The GPS transmitter is fitted as a backpack and can be barely seen. Photo: M. McGrady

What do or will we learn from tracking, and how can this help conserve Egyptian vultures?  Well, the tracking of four vultures since 2015 has revealed that in Oman, Egyptian vultures suffer from electrocution and make regular use of landfills for feeding.  The data indicate that the vultures may move around in a way so as to keep tabs on the availability of food.  This, if you think about it, makes sense for a species that must find food that is not reliably available at all times.  The data further suggest that ongoing upgrades to waste management in Oman, reducing the number of dumps from over 300 to 12, may not have negative effects on vultures.  Indeed, improved waste management may make food resources safer for vultures and at the same time find benefits for human health, which is really good news.   IAR and ESO have also used the information to educate the public, including school children, about vultures and the important ecosystem services they provide as nature’s waste managers.

The data from these newly deployed tags should help the cooperating groups do more.  As we try to understand the ecology of the Egyptian vulture in order to conserve them, more data is important to the pursuit of science-based solutions.  From a public education standpoint, a complete “story” that includes more individuals over more years, provides a compelling case for conservation.  Also, with so many tagged adult birds, at least some are expected to be migrants, so new information on timing and routes of migration should be collected, and the location of breeding areas farther north can be determined. Such information is important in devising effective conservation strategies that span the huge range covered by migratory individuals, and it demonstrates the connectivity between breeding and wintering areas, which are sometimes separated by thousands of kilometers.

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Movements of 13 Egyptian vultures caught and fitted with GPS transmitters in Oman in January 2018.

 

If you want to keep up with this effort, IAR posts information every so often on the project at https://egyptianvultureoman.blogspot.co.at/ .  If you would like to support this project, please do so through an earmarked donation to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

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By Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D., Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

12 December 2016

We typically characterize vultures as gluttonous creatures, obligate scavenging birds of prey that engage in rough-and tumble feeding frenzies at large ungulate and pachyderm carcasses in the company of dozens of other “all consuming” vultures, scarfing up enough meat to last for several days.  And indeed, vultures sometimes eat so much food that they remain grounded for an hour or more after feeding for partial digestion to take place, before they are light enough to take off.  Having watched these birds feed for many years, I can tell you that all of this is true.  But watching vultures at so-called “vulture restaurants,” where humans routinely provide food, sheds light on an aspect of vulture feeding that goes largely unrecognized by the general public.

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The vulture restaurant at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre in northeastern South Africa after dinner is served. Note the Marabou Storks in the foreground and the ling-necked African White-backed Vultures in the background. Hoodies are nowhere to be seen in the initial scrum.

In fact, some vultures are “finicky” as well as “voracious,” feeders; especially at vulture restaurants where daily meals are typical.  The world’s first vulture restaurant, in the Drakensburg Mountains of South Africa opened in the 1960s to help supplement the diets of local Bearded Vultures.  Today, vultures restaurants (bird feeders for vultures, if you will) are used to provide “clean,” lead-free meat to recently released California Condors in the American West.  Many of the restaurants are associated with ecotourism, serving a useful purpose in bringing vultures and people together.  One such restaurant at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre near Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa has been feeding wild vultures and other scavenging birds for more than 30 years.  The restaurant works well at attracting handfuls of Pied Crows and Black Kites, dozens of Marabou Storks and Hooded Vultures, and hundreds of African White-backed Vultures, the latter two of which are now Critically Endangered.

Earlier this month, University of KwaZulu-Natal post-doctoral student and Hawk Mountain research associate, Dr. Lindy Thompson, and I spent four days at the Centre near Hoedspruit trying to catch Hooded Vultures.  During that time we learned a lot about the finicky feeding behavior of the birds.  Our goal was simple enough: catch as many as three of the Hooded Vultures visiting the restaurant, and fit them with satellite-tracking devices that would allow us to monitor the movement ecology of the species, including information on how dependent individuals were on vulture restaurants in the region versus how much time they spent in the nearby Kruger National Park feeding on native wildlife, and how they interacted with other species in the region.

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Dr. Lindy Thompson, releasing “Don King” after his capture in February. Note his downy top-knot and relatively thin bill.

We already had caught and fitted 10 Hooded Vultures with tracking devices in South Africa, and two of our previously tagged birds actually showed up at the restaurant during our four days of observation, even though neither has been tagged there.  One of the two, Don King, had been caught at a private nature reserve 45 miles north of the Hoedspruit restaurant in February of 2016.  Don looked healthy enough, although he had lost his downy top-knot that led to its name.  The second tagged bird, Mopane, had been caught in Kruger National Park about 60 miles northeast of the restaurant in August of 2014.   It, too, looked quite healthy.

The two marked birds were joined by about 30 unmarked individuals that visited the restaurant daily.  Unfortunately we were unable to capture any of them.  We did snare several of the far larger African White-backed Vultures that clearly dominated the smaller “hoodies” at the restaurant’s offerings.   Hooded Vultures, it turns out, are finicky feeders when feeding in the company of White-backed Vultures, pecking at and gleaning only tiny scraps of meat with their small, thin bills, after the meat had been torn apart by the larger white backs during feeding frenzies.  By the time the hoodies got close enough to our traps, the snares we had set already had been pulled closed by the white-backs, making capturing the former all-but-impossible.

Lindy Thompson and Andre Botha of the South African Endangered Wildlife Trust will try to capture the hoodies at other feeding sites that attract fewer white backs.   Older elephant carcasses work well for this purpose, as they often continue to be visited by the more fastidious hoodies for several days after larger vultures, hyenas, and jackals have stripped most of the flesh from carcass.

The finicky feeding behavior of hoodies is well known among those of us that study the birds.  It appears that hoodies have instituted their own specialized feeding niche, one that involves “cleaning up” after the larger and less finicky species.  Although this makes hoodies a bit more difficult to capture, it is somewhat endearing as well.  As I see it, a vulture that cleans up after other vultures can’t help but be appreciated.

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Ariel view of Dakar, Senegal, a city of 3.5 million people and no traffic lights

By Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D., Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

11 November 2016

I began my studies of the world Critically Endangered Hooded Vulture in The Gambia in September of 2013, when colleagues and I placed four tracking devices on individuals in the exurbs of Banjul, the capital of that country.  Almost immediately thereafter, I thought about investigating their populations in Senegal as well.  Senegal, the western most mainland country in Africa is a much larger nation that completely encircles The Gambia–except for the latter’s small Atlantic coastline– and is an ecological  transition zone between the humid tropics farther south, and the Saharan desert of Mauritania to the north.

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The country-side along our survey routes

This year’s meeting of the Pan African Ornithological Congress in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, gave me the perfect excuse to follow up on this.  After attending the Congress and the important Second Pan African Vulture Summit associated with it, my colleagues and I tried to capture several “hoodies” in hopes of placing satellite tracking devices on them.  We also conducted three roadside surveys of vultures to learn more about the distribution of Hoodies and other vultures in the country.

Two mornings of trapping attempts at the Dakar Zoo produced no captures, and our attention on Sunday, the 23rd of October turned to leaving Dakar and traveling north to the small city of Louga, where three of us, Drs. Lindy Thompson, Rien Van Wijk, and I, planned to meet with a group of other European and African vulture biologists who also planned to survey vultures populations.

All went quite smoothly until we reached the town of Thies, Senegal, where our low-cost rental car overheated, forcing us wait on the curb for 6 hours for a replacement, which arrived only after darkness fell.  Driving at night in Africa is never easy–livestock, pedestrians, aggressive drivers, and potholes, see to that–and it was past midnight when we reached Louga, long after our colleagues had gone to bed.

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A Hooded Vulture perched near a nesting of Ruppell’s Vultures

A breakfast meeting the next day resulted in a decision to head southwest to the village of Dars, and then southeast on to the city of Mbaké, slightly more than 200 kilometers away, while surveying vultures en route.  Our colleagues would survey other routes.  We saw 169 vultures along the way, including 17 hoodies, 47 Ruppell’s Vultures, 71 White-backed Vultures and 34 Gyps vultures that we could not identify to species.  The route took us through open habitats not unlike those we survey in South Africa, except for the fact that all of the ungulates we saw on the way were domestic livestock (i.e., sheep, goats and cattle), rather than wild antelopes and other native mammals.  We spent the night in a small, and somewhat questionable, hotel on the outskirts of Mbaké, where a small red light over our beds confirmed our suspicions concerning the facility’s hourly rates of stay.

The next day involved following a meandering survey route to the city of Kaolack, which our travel guide referred to as the “armpit of Senegal. ”  Unfortunately, Kaolack turned out to be aptly named.  Our approach to the city included skirting the edge of a primary sewage treatment facility, which quickly cleared our nasal passages of the dust they had accumulated over the course of the day.  Our hotel and the opposite side of town proved to be something of an oasis, even if the highlight of its view-shed was an enormous

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A Hooded Vulture perched at the gate to our hotel’s parking lot in Dakar, Senegal

mountain of salt excavated from the adjacent hypersaline estuary. The day’s route included good looks at 46 Hooded Vultures, together with lesser numbers of Ruppell’s, White-backed, and Lappet-faced Vultures, along with several impressive multi-thousand bird flocks of White Storks.  Our third and final survey route, which took us back to Dakar, produced an additional 69 Hooded Vultures, a number of which were sighted in Dakar itself, together with smaller numbers of African White-backed and Ruppell’s vultures.  Although we were not sure of what to expect, the numbers of hoodies, in particular, were more that I imagined, albeit much less than 10% the density of those we had seen on similar surveys in The Gambia in 2013 and 2015, in more moist wooded habitats, about a hundred kilometers farther south.

Although we collected our data in a traditional fashion using our odometer to indicate the locations of all birds we sighted, we later entered our counts into the newly developed African Raptor Databank (ARDB).  The brain child of my good friend Dr. Rob Davies, the ARDB aims to ascertain the conservation status of raptors and their habitats across Africa, and to help build the local expertise needed to monitor these species in the future and implement a sound strategy for their effective safeguarding.

The ARDB will be completed in two phases. The first involves building a database over a period of five years (2013 – 2018). The second involves distribution modelling of each species in relation to the availability of its habitat and production of a conservation atlas for African raptors, online and hard copy. The project which received initial support from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, is managed by habitat INFO, and is currently co-funded by The Peregrine Fund.

Given our initial experiences in Senegal, I plan to return early next year to conduct additional road surveys, as well as trap and affix tracking devices to two or more hoodies.

Importantly participants at the Second Pan African Vulture Summit I attended agreed to foster additional roadside surveys of African Vultures, the majority of which, including Hooded Vultures, are globally threatened or endangered.  Hawk Mountain plans to help in this effort every way possible, so that we can better assess vulture abundances and distributions, and, in so doing, formulate practical and effective conservation action plans.

Stay tuned as we continue to do so.

For information on how you can help, contact me at bildstein@hawkmtn.org.

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Hawk Mountain collaborator Kerri Wolter holding a tagged nestling Hooded Vulture in Olifants River Private Game Reserve, October 2013

By Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D., Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science
and Lindy Thompson, Ph.D., Hawk Mountain Research Associate
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

10 November 2016

Yes, I admit it. We name our satellite-tracked vultures.

Some of our colleagues disagree with this, arguing that naming one’s study animals “personalizes” them in ways that make our observations less scientific.  But primatologist Jane Goodall and Nobel Prize laureate Konrad Lorenz named their study animals, and I have never doubted the scientific rigor of their work.  Naming animals as individuals makes their individual behavior easier to remember.  With more than 75 vultures tracked by satellite so far, numbers or alpha-numeric codes simply do not work as well, as names help to separate and categorize the birds in question and keep the stories of their movements in mind.

“Homebody,” a South African Hooded Vulture, is a case in point.

As a nestling, Homebody was fitted with a GSM satellite tracking device by Walter Neser and Kerri Wolter at the Olifants River Private Game Reserve in northeastern South Africa just west of Kruger National Park on the 19th of October, 2013.  Unfortunately, the unit never worked, and we decided to try to re-trap and refit Homebody with a new unit in the summer of 2014.  Trapping a vulture once is relatively easy.  We have caught hundreds of them.  Trapping the same bird twice, however, is a different matter entirely.  In 2004 we caught and placed data loggers in the body cavities of six Turkey Vultures to record their heart rates and core body temperatures.  The following year the birds needed to be recaptured and their data loggers removed to retrieve the accumulated data.  It took then graduate student and now Dr. Jamie Mandel, hundreds of hours during much of the next spring and summer to recapture four of the birds.  The other two were never recaptured.

 

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Hawk Mountain trainee Nobuhle Mabhikwa holding the retagged Homebody in the Olifants River Private Game Reserve in June 2014

We had allotted a week of field time to recapture Homebody to replace its malfunctioning unit with a working one.  Three days unsuccessfully attempting to do so had us at wits end.  Hooded Vultures defer to larger African White-backed Vultures at carcasses, and Homebody, even though present at our trapping site, hardly ever got close to the carcass, let alone the snares that we had set around it.  But then something happened that one only dreams about.  We were late getting to our trap the fourth day of field work, and lo-and-behold Homebody and several other Hoodies were already at the site picking up small pieces of the bait that remained from the previous day.  Disappointed by their early arrival we drove our Land Rover toward the birds, flushing all of them into the air.  Miraculously, Homebody, after taking off to escape our approach, flew into a thorn bush and became entangled on one of the lower branches, which had slid between its body and the backpack harness we had used to attach the tracking device.  Within seconds we ran to the bush and hand-grabbed Homebody, disentangled it, and brought it back to base camp.  We then removed the malfunctioning unit and placed a new, fully functional unit on it.  Within 45 minutes of its miraculous recapture, we were celebrating our “lucky day” over a couple of beers.  A once-in-a-million event allowed us finally to satellite track the young vulture that had been tagged eight months earlier.

 

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Tracking device recovered from Homebody in October 2016

This alone makes for a great story.  But Homebody’s epic journey does not end there.  Last week–and more than two years later–we received an email from Colin Rowles, game warden at the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve.   Colin said a staff member on fence patrol had found Homebody dead at an impala carcass. When Colin went to collect the transmitter, he found that a Martial Eagle had consumed most of the Hooded Vulture.  Jackal tracks at the carcass lead him to believe that a jackal had killed Homebody.   We hope to place Homebody’s unit, which is still working, on another Hooded Vulture as early as this December.

 

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Homebody’s movements 2014-2016

Even though the story ended tragically for Homebody, we have placed similar units on other Hoodies, both in The Gambia and Ethiopia, as well as in South Africa.  Although several of these birds have died, most are still alive and transmitting important information.  The data we are now gathering will allow us to offer advice on how best to protect these birds, as well on the factors that most threaten them.  Costs associated in doing this are not inconsequential.  Homebody’s unit cost four thousand US dollars and download information from the unit cost us close to 600 dollars per year.  The information, however, is “priceless.”  Understanding the ecological neighborhoods of Critically Endangered Hooded Vultures is key to protecting them.

To learn more about our work with Hooded Vultures and other species of scavenging raptors, or want to support our field efforts financially, contact me at Bildstein@hawkmtn.org.

My next blog will describe our recent field work in Senegal, where Hooded Vultures remain very much in evidence.

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7 September is International Vulture Awareness Day.  Have a look at this link to learn more and show your support http://www.vultureday.org/2013/index.php

On other fronts we have a lot of news similar to that found in previous posts:

Assamo is still hanging around Adigala in Ethiopia…

http://egyptianvulturedjibouti.blogspot.co.at/

Vultures are being poisoned in large numbers in Africa…

http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/29/elephant-poachers-poison-hundreds-of-vultures-to-evade-authorities/

The Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds are doing a lot of good things…

http://bspb.org/show/2759-33

http://bspb.org/show/2756-33

http://lifeneophron.eu/en/news-view/187.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR1aAB6o974&feature=youtu.be

Also, newly published…

Angelov, I., Yotsova, T., Sarrouf, M. & McGrady, M. J. 2013. Large increase of the Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus population on Masirah island, Oman. Sandgrouse 33: 140-152.

Happy International Vulture Awareness Day!

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The Egyptian vulture we fitted with a satellite tag this past spring has been staying in Ethiopia during early July… near the town of Adigala.  All the movements are within about 30 km of one another, and the pattern suggests to me that the abattoir or rubbish dump must be located just east of the town.  Below is a map.

Assamo's movements in early July, 2013

Assamo’s movements in early July, 2013

Some other developments from various studies of Egyptian vultures include the sighting of a color marked Egyptian vulture from Greece:

http://lifeneophron.eu/en/news-view/179.html

and there are some photos of Egyptian vultures at their nest at this link:

http://www.lifeneophron.eu/en/news-view/178.html

 

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First the good news… Assamo, the Egyptian vulture we are tracking in Djibouti, is still on the move and doing some interesting things.  Here is a map of his/her recent movements (Click on the map to enlarge it into a new window).

Movements by Assamo during 5-18 April

Movements by Assamo during 5-18 April

About 2 weeks ago Assamo was moving around mostly just north of the Ethiopian border, though a foray into Ethiopia was made. On the 16th of April Assamo started heading north, spent about two days near Arta, then moved farther north into northern Djibouti.  As of 18 April Assamo was about 30 km NE of where we caught her/him.  Visit the Djibouti vulture blog for more informationhttp://egyptianvulturedjibouti.blogspot.co.at/.  I have also posted a link on that site to a Google Earth kml with which you can take a closer look at Assam’s movements earlier this month.

And now the bad news…  Egyptian vultures live in a perilous world.  They face threats due to targeted and accidental poisoning, use for bushmeat and traditional medicine and magic, electrocution, collision with wind turbines, and shooting, amongst other things.  Here are two pieces of bad news:  The poisoning of an Egyptian vulture in Greece http://lifeneophron.eu/en/news-view/150.html, and the shooting of an Egyptian vulture in Sudan http://lifeneophron.eu/en/news-view/151.html

Lazarus (HOS/L. Sidiropoulos)

Lazarus, an adult Egyptian vulture poisoned in Greece, spring 2013

Satellite-tagged Egyptian vulture shot at Al Kuraynik, Darfur

Radio-tagged Egyptian vulture shot at Al Kuraynik, Darfur

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