The Soshanguve Secretarybird – a bird with many lives!

In the March 2015 issue of the Eagle’s Eye, we reported on the rescue of a Secretarybird from Soshanguve, north of Pretoria by a resident, Mr Lukas Marima. Lukas discovered the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) contact number on the tracking unit fitted to the bird, and the details he provided when he phoned me made it clear that he had saved a recently-fledged Secretarybird, Sagittarius serpentarius which was fitted with a tracking unit on the Springbok Flats, north of where it was rescued, on 1 December 2014.

11.   Secretarybird_Juv_Post-release_Monate Lodge, Limpopo_19.7.2015.1

Photo: Secretarybird fitted with a tracking unit at Monate Game Lodge on the 1st of December 2014. The tracking unit contains a contact telephone number on the side which assisted in both instances to have the bird collected and taken in for treatment.

Rebotile Rachuene and Matt Pretorius from the EWT’s Bird of Prey Programme went to collect the rescued Secretarybird. It soon became clear that Lucas had intervened and saved the bird through understanding the value of wildlife and the need to conserve it, which he attributes to his daughter, who is currently undertaking an MSc degree at the University of Stellenbosch.

The bird was so weak it could not stand up, but there were no obvious signs of external injury. It appeared that after fledging and leaving the nest, the Secretarybird wandered into the veldt in search of food until it was attacked by the crowd. It is well known that fledged birds often struggle to find food and many do not survive their first year of life. Data retrieved from the rescued Secretarybird’s tracking unit indicated that it had moved more than 90km from its nest before it was rescued.

The fortunate bird was taken it to the FreeMe Rehabilitation Center where Nicci Wright, Senior Wildlife Manager, conducted a full physical examination and administered liquids to re-hydrate the bird. It had no fractures or wounds but had suffered an injury to its left eye. The bird was then taken to the Johannesburg Animal Eye Hospital for assessment by the ophthalmic veterinarians, who discovered that it had a corneal ulcer and a partly dysfunctional eye membrane.

After more than three months of care and treatment, the Secretarybird was ready to be released in the area where it originally fledged on the farm of the Monate Game Lodge in Limpopo on the 19th of July 2015. As the bird has been re-fitted with a tracking unit, we were again able to monitor its movement and progress after release. The bird seemed to be doing rather well after release and was also recorded moving southward from its area of release in its search for food.

However, after arriving back from the eastern Free State late afternoon on the 1st of August, I received a call from a lady near Vaalbank, on the provincial borders of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. She informed me that they had found a large bird stuck by the wings in some thorn bushes on the side of the road and wanted to know what to do. After providing her with instructions on extricating the bird and taking it into safe-keeping, I undertook to go and collect the bird from her the next morning.
The bird in question, of course, was the same female Secretarybird released at Monate Game Lodge two weeks earlier!
We set off to collect the bird in Siyabuswa at sparrows on the morning of the 2nd of August and was met at the SAPS station by Mr Thomas Mthombeni, who works as a bus driver for the Tshwane Metro, and his son, Samkelo, who is a pupil at the Derdepoort Laerskool in East Lynne, Pretoria. It appears that it was at Samkelo’s insistence that his parents stopped at the spot where the bird was stuck in the thorn-bushes and was rescued. I followed them home where I met Thomas’ wife, Violet, who phoned me first after they found my number on the tracking unit fitted on the bird. As instructed, the bird was kept in a dark, quiet room away from any possible disturbance overnight. Thomas handed the bird over and I placed it in a crate to transport back to the FreeMe rehabilitation centre for assessment and treatment if necessary.
Once the bird was loaded in my Ford Wildlife Foundation vehicle, we chatted with the Mthombeni’s and thanked them for rescuing and keeping the bird safe until I could collect it from them. They were also told of the importance of the Secretarybirds, the role they play in the environment and why it was important to conserve these birds. It is interactions like these that give me hope for the future of conservation in South Africa and Samkelo’s enthusiasm for animals was infectious. I see a potential future conservationist here!

12. The Mthombeni Family_Secretarybird Rescue_Siyabuswa, Mpumalanga_2.8.2015

Photo:The Mthombeni-family with the Secretarybird safely tucked into a transport crate ready to be transported to FreeMe.

After recording additional contact details, we set off back to Johannesburg to get the bird assessed and treated if necessary. We passed the area where the Mthombeni’s found the bird and it is easy to see how the bird could have become entangled in this type of veldt where bush-thickening is very obvious. Secretarybirds generally prefer more open savannah and grasslands and this is certainly not prime habitat for this species.
I eventually arrived back in Johannesburg and delivered the bird to FreeMe where it was given initial treatment and re-hydration and will be properly assessed for any physical injuries that may have resulted from its entanglement in the thicket. I will keep you posted on her progress and future prognosis.

The survival of this iconic bird would not have been possible firstly without Lucas Marima’s intervention, but also on the second occasion when it ran into difficulty, by being rescued by the Mthombeni family, which saved it from severe injury and possibly even death. In both instances, the individuals who contacted us to arrange for the collection and treatment of the bird are highly commended. What a wonderful example of what concerned citizens can do to contribute to the conservation of threatened species!

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