In February this year I received an email from the GreenMatter Trust, saying I’d been awarded a postdoctoral fellowship to study Hooded Vultures. Three months later, I relocated from Pietermaritzburg to Hoedspruit, in my new study area: the Kruger-to-Canyons Biosphere Reserve. This reserve comprises 2.6 million ha, and travelling throughout this area would be a sharp contrast to how I had spent all of my working hours over the last three years; in a single building, studying the metabolic rate of Cape White-eyes for my PhD. I was thrilled at the prospect of doing fieldwork again, and in some of the most beautiful reserves in South Africa.
Hooded Vultures (Necrosyrtes monachus) are widespread throughout Africa, but are threatened by habitat loss, poisoning, and the illegal muthi trade. Their numbers have declined dramatically in the last 50 years and their global population is currently regarded as endangered. Yet, there are very few studies one can find about these birds, so there is a need to understand their basic biology if we are to protect and conserve them. The K2C Hooded Vulture Project will focus primarily on Hooded Vultures’ movements (i.e. where do juveniles disperse to, and how much of their time do adults and juveniles stay within protected areas?), as well as their nest site selection and breeding biology, and their feeding ecology (how do they interact with other scavengers at food sources, and is anthrax a threat to them?).
My collaborators in the K2C Hooded Vulture Project include André Botha, the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Birds of Prey Programme Manager, Dr Campbell Murn of the Hawk Conservancy Trust in the UK, Dr Keith Bildstein of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in the USA, and Prof Colleen Downs, my supervisor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
My first meeting with André Botha in May was cut short when he received a call that an elephant had been electrocuted on a fence in Phalaborwa. The reserve manager had dragged the carcass to a nearby vulture restaurant, and André and I spent the afternoon observing the White-backed, Hooded and Lappetfaced Vultures as they squabbled and jostled for food. The next day, André and I were continuing with our meeting, when he received another call, this time informing him of a poisoning at a farm near Hoedspruit. An hour later we were at the site, collecting dry wood to burn the carcasses and sterilise the site; 65 vultures and one Tawny Eagle had been killed in a single poisoning. Samples were taken to the state vet for toxicology analysis, and then we burned every single bird. There was only one Hooded Vulture at the site, a juvenile.
Since then, I have been incredibly lucky to access some truly stunning areas for my fieldwork. In June I joined a team of volunteers on the 5-day Pels Fishing Owl survey along the Olifants River in the Kruger National Park, where I paid special attention to the Hooded Vultures I saw along the way. In July I joined another group on their 3-day Pels Fishing Owl survey in the Grietjie/Olifants Game Reserves. Not only was I able to locate a number of Hooded Vultures and their nests, I was also fortunate to have 5 sightings of Pels Fishing Owls, something most birders only dream of. As you can probably tell, I am really enjoying my fieldwork, and the travelling and networking it involves. I am also extremely grateful to the managers and land owners who have granted me land access, some have even provided accommodation and staff to assist me on walks and/or drives while searching for Hooded Vulture nests. This project would not be possible without their help. So a big thank-you to the following for their assistance: the Agricultural Research Council; Cleveland Game Reserve; Grietjie Game Reserve; Hoedspruit Wildlife Estate; Kapama Private Game Reserve; Klaserie Private Game Reserve; Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris; Makalali Private Game Reserve; Ndlopfu Private Game Reserve; Ndlovumzi Nature Reserve; Nstiri Game Reserve; Olifants North Game Reserve; Umbabat Game Reserve; Pidwa Game Reserve; Selati Private Game Reserve; Timbavati Game Reserve; Tulloh Farm; Ukhozi Game Reserve; and UniFattoria Farm.
In the last 2 months, with the help of various landowners and volunteers, I have located 40 Hooded Vulture nests, 16 of which are active. Hooded Vultures generally breed along rivers in Jackalberries or Matumis, in stick nests positioned 15-20m above the ground. Despite various suggestions of how to reach the nest (including ‘let me just winch you up’), and to the amusement of some wardens, I decided to do a tree climbing course, to enable me to climb trees safely with ropes and a harness, to install cameras at nests. This will allow me to monitor the birds’ breeding with minimal disturbance, and the cameras can be removed after the chicks have fledged. In the coming weeks I hope to install camera traps at various Hooded Vulture nests and also at vulture restaurants, to monitor their feeding biology.
The project will continue until January 2018, when many of the questions we are asking will have been answered, and we will be able to provide information on Hooded Vulture movements and biology to all of the landowners in the study area, to inform species management plans within protected areas. In the meantime, if anyone has Hooded Vulture nests on their properties, please get in touch with me by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.