Saturday, 30 November 2013

Prince Harry killed by an African Wildcat

It's been more than a month since the baptism of Prince Harry on 26 October 2013, where he was anointed with his red ring. By this time he may well have fledged and be learning how to surf gusty winds against the blue African sky. It was with a sense of excitement that I rode out with Robyn Milne to check the nest yesterday, with wispy heavens transitioning from sapphire to ruby in the late afternoon. Such trips are always filled  with action – and we were distracted from our bumpy ride to the slopes of Antoniesberg by the complaints of Southern Black Korhaan, ballerina Blue Cranes, and the baleful stares of Steenbok.

Our approach to the nest passed a favourite perch – a termite mound – where previously we had collected several regurgitated pellets (indigestible remains of micey meals). I felt a sense of unease after a quick search revealed no fresh pellets at all. On our approach to the nest, no harrier exploded from the reeds. A closer inspection of the nest revealed broken egg shell, and suspiciously, young reeds were poking through the nest. It was clear the nest had been abandoned for some time.

What would the camera show?

The first photo shows that only twenty minutes after Prince Harry was ringed, that the mother was back in the nest. Prince Harry looks dazed, but healthy.

Over the next four days, activity at the nest looks normal – with frequent food drops, and near constant presence of mommy. Prince Harry's primary feathers are starting to emerge quickly – their black contrasting with the chick down.

However, on the 30 October it is clear that mommy no longer likes to share her bed with her wriggling son. Prince Harry spends a night alone, with lots of shuffling, but passes the night safely.
She hasn't abandoned him completely – on the following night she is back with him.

Meanwhile, Prince Harry's growth has been astounding. The following photos show just how big he's grown over the week, and how the feathers are really developing fast.

By the 4 November, the young (but spotty) Prince is towering over mom as she tears up his breakfast. But it appears it was to be his last.

This is the last photo of Prince Harry alive, slumbering peacefully at the edge of the nest.

The camera did not reveal too much detail of Prince Harry's last moments – but the feline shape leaves us with no doubt as to who committed this crime. African Wild Cats are common across much of Africa, generally larger than domestic cats they have similar diets – rodents and birds.

The crumpled corpse lies to the left of the image, gory details hidden by reeds. For the next couple of days the mother returns to the empty nest, is seen bowed over the cold body, and even starts paying attention to the abandoned eggs.  

However, a visit from a Small Grey Mongoose ends all hope.

The mother pays one last visit to her empty nest.

The African Wildcat, with distinctive rufous ears, is seen passing the nest 10 days later.

RIP Prince Harry.

Camera sponsored by Kougaview Game Farm

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Amazing French girl catches Cape Rockjumper by hand

The last 2 months I have been spending a crazy amount of time out in the field trying to catch birds for a project which aims to determine just how much heat our Fynbos birds can take - and I'll have a complete post on that another day. For the last couple of weeks I've been lucky to have the assistance of Pauline, a trainee ringer from France, who is very talented with the birds. For the moment, and for my amusement as much as yours....

Innocent Cape Rockjumper sits all unaware on a rock
Pauline slowly creeps up on the unsuspecting bird...
... slowly extends her hand

... and then goes for the grab - quick as a flash


.. and then off to the lab
She's not always so lucky - this Familiar Chat was too quick and got away.
Actually, all I've done is upload a bird release sequence in reverse – it's more fun that way.  

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Savin Stalin

To Kill or Not to Kill: that was the question when a pair of Common Starlings (or European Starlings) made it clear they were moving into the eave of our house. The dusty pellet gun stirred from its long slumber in a dark, forgotten cupboard.

Up until this winter, Common Starlings were only infrequently sighted on Blue Hill Nature Reserve, preferring the warmer and more human disturbed landscapes of the Langkloof Valley to the south of us and the Kouga Mountains. I guess it was only a matter of time before the eaves of all the buildings of Avontuur were occupied and new breeding grounds would have to be found for broody individuals of this species, which has been expanding its range slowly but surely across South Africa ever since it was introduced from the European continent in 1897, anecdotally by Cecil John Rhodes. In the last ten years it has colonised much of Kwazulu-Natal, the Free State and Gauteng (see the red in the range change map below).

Common Starlings, along with Indian Mynahs, are among South Africa's least loved birds. Their latin name - Sturnus vulgaris - would suggest they have never really had many fans. Roughly concurrent with the arrival of the broody pair was an email to our local bird club seeking advice on how the hunting community could be enlisted to help eradicate or control 'invasive' bird species, such as these and other species like the House Crow. These species are seen as a threat to our own endemic bird life as they may compete for food and nesting sites. But are they?  Or are they not just filling the ecological niche created as man has converted much original habitat into one of artificial cliffs, with soft-lawned gardens with exotic food sources?

I have a soft spot for Common Starlings. While writing up my PhD from our third story apartment in Old Trafford (home to famous football team Manchester United), they would often visit our window ledge where we had placed a variety of seeds and feed balls to entice the birds away from the nearby park for our viewing pleasure. Back then (around 2009) there was much concern that this species appeared to be in decline across Great Britain. I often used to wonder if counts of this species used to include the entrance to our local ASDA superstore, which had a large population of starlings. These scrounged a living on the crumbs of crisps and white-bread sandwiches of the less-elite of the local human population.

I decided to let the pellet gun slumber. I was interested to see how much this new species would infringe upon the activities of our local bird community – many of which are ringed and well known to me personally. These include a small family of 'naturalized' House Sparrows, a species not considered with malice by the birding fraternity, although it to has origins on foreign shores.

After much activity nest-building in a corner of the eave not used by any other resident bird family, it was clear the chicks had hatched late in October when fragments of turquoise egg shell were discovered below the nesting site. Not much time later and the arrival of the adults carrying grasshoppers and other insects would be heralded by the irruption of soft chirping.

On the first weekend of November we were having a much relished lie in from our normal early starts to the day thanks to some cool, wet weather brought in by a late low pressure system. Elena, my daughter, and I had been watching the adult starlings forage on the lawn outside Elena's bedroom window. They made frequent trips to the nest with beaks full of a variety of insects. It was only after breakfast when we emerged outside that we saw the limp body of a starling chick lying on the cold, wet concrete 5 meters below the nest site. It appeared one unlucky starling had not made it through the night.

I picked up the cold, lifeless corpse for an unceremonious dumping on the compost heap, when zombie-like it opened its beak and stretched a leg. Was it still alive?! I had just finished brewing my morning cup of coffee and wrapped the chick starling in a cloth and placed it on the still-warm coffee machine. Within a few minutes a twitching beak and feeble movements suggested clear signs of life. I tried feeding it some left over Weetbix, but was worried I was going to drown it in milk.

After the weather had cleared up I placed the starling under the nest to see if the parents would find it. However, after several hours it was clear the weak, soft calls of the poor thing were being ignored. At the time we had Ben Smit as a visitor, an ornithologist with experience at hand-rearing wild birds. In the afternoon he pointed out the bird was hypothermic and fed it a meal worm. Our resident researcher, Robyn, was placed in charge of its care. She didn't care for the name I'd given the bird – Stalin, and called him Stan instead. Pronutro and mealworms were vanished down his throat at an astonishing rate.

So began a week where Stan Stalin endeared himself to us. He grew bigger and stronger and his feathers started to grow. Elena was intrigued by the new addition to the family, and after a week Stalin was hoping around and begging for food whenever he saw someone move. We thought he'd made it, until only just over a week since his miraculous recovery, his box fell silent and for no reason we could determine: Stalin had passed on to birdy heaven during the night. In all likelihood, the injuries sustained after his ejection from his nest had caught up with him.

Stalin was buried under a pepper tree, with a sprinkling of Pronutro for the after life. It was a day that left us sad – at the individual level its hard to hold something responsible for the actions of its species. Our families and friends of course being the best example of that ethical quandry. So RIP Stalin – we'd such hopes for you.

Common Starling arrives - the size of thrush these are stout and hardy birds

Under the right light, the plummage of the Common Starling is quite fetching

Starlings are agile fliers, zooming straight under the roof with no need to perch
Stalin - as we found him
Adopted mother Robyn tries to figure Stalin out

Elena was fascinated with feeding times
One wriggler down the hatch

The worm's eye view
Alien Invasion: the range of Common Starling, showing new occupations for the last 10 years or so in Red

Friday, 1 November 2013

Rob Simmons meets Prince Harry

The story of our unusual nesting record attracted the attention of one of the world's leading experts in harriers, and the recognised authority on Black Harrier's: Rob Simmons (a researcher associated with the FitzPatrick Institute). Appearing in the up-coming HomeBrew Films documentary “The Circler”, he has ringed around 300 harrier chicks during his long career.

Rob was between jobs monitoring birds to guide developers on the placement of wind turbine farms (there are many proposed wind farms for this part of the world and harriers are vulnerable to strikes), and popped in to see us with partner Marlei.

We headed into the nature reserve, collected pellets (the regurgitated remains of the bird's prey), looked for feathers, and finally headed towards the nest. The female sat very tight and protectively on her nest, but eventually gave way to allow Rob access to the still fluffy chick. The chick was very obliging as wing and tarsus were measured, and weight was taken. Rob suspects the chick is male based on the small size coupled with small tarsus (male raptors tend to be smaller than the females). This led to the naming of Prince Harry. A couple of eggs were also measured, although it was unsure whether or not they were still viable. Interesting, on the last nest check there were only 2 eggs, so a third egg had been laid somewhere along the line.

Finally the chick was placed back on the nest, allowing the family to reunite. This is the first chick with a red leg-band, so one day if you are lucky enough to spot a harrier soaring overhead, and you see the red on the leg, perhaps that is our little pride and joy from this remote part of the world.

Rob points out the unusual remains of a prey item from a favourite perch site on a termite hill - a frog
Mommy sits tight as we approach
Prince Harry - ready to fight

Prince Harry attempts to rip out Rob's heart with his tiny talons

Feeling sheepish - he finally realises we come in peace.

The ring is attached
Sporting the latest in Black Harrier bling, Prince Harry is placed gently back in the nest

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