Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Bonelli's eagle in France

The Bonelli’s eagle Aquila fasciata is considered to be one of Europe’s most threatened raptors. In the south of France 21 breeding pairs remain and these are monitored by a National Action Plan and a banding program. I have just visited the team led by Alain Ravayrol in the Ardèche region where 4 individuals were fitted with satellite GPS transmitters.

Major threats to the Bonelli’s eagle include electrocution (94% of observed deaths have been by electrocution), disturbance (which can cause reproduction failure) and shooting and trapping. The National Action Plan has been engaged with identification of the most dangerous pylons and their neutralization, outreach to hunters and recreational land users and research to increase our knowledge of population dynamics and habitat requirements. The GPS transmitters will help our understanding of the vital habitats for the Bonelli’s eagle and their interaction with possible threats.

Victor Garcia works for the Spanish environmental department and supports projects in many other countries. He was present to safely trap and tag the eagles (he has experience of tagging well over 1000 raptors). Harnesses were applied as backpacks with weak links that will ultimately break down and the harness and tag will fall off.

There are many similarities between this project and the Black Eagle Project and I am very grateful for having the chance to share in their experience. Thanks to Victor and all of the French team for hosting me. I hope that in 2012 we will be following in your footsteps.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Special Watch

SABAP2 - South African Bird Atlas Project

SABAP2 is the acronym for the second Southern African Bird Atlas Project and is the follow-up on SABAP1. The first atlas project took place from 1987-1991. The current project is a joint venture between the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town, BirdLife South Africa and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). The project wants to map the distribution and abundance of birds in Southern Africa and the atlas area includes South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. The second atlas project started on 1 July 2007 and will run to 2011.
The fieldwork for this project is done by hundreds of volunteer citizen scientists - they collect the data from the field at their own cost and in their own time and as such they make a huge contribution to the conservation of birds and their habitat. You can look at data collected and records for each species on the website.

Special Watch - The Verreaux’s eagle

Species are assigned to “Special Watch” due to a particular concern – usually a range contraction, shift or expansion of an invasive species. The Verreaux’s eagle has been added due to a decrease in reporting rate between SABAP1 and SABAP2. It will be important now to closely monitor this and to review the status of this species. All of your contributions are important. In addition, I will be using your data to examine the breeding extent and population size of the Verreaux’s eagle in the Western Cape.
Please report Verreaux's eagles observed anywhere within the SABAP2 regions (South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland). Please report birds repeatedly, even at the same locality. Note their behaviour, if you saw a pair or a single bird, if it was an adult or juvenile.. or if you known a nest location. Your data is important! If there is nothing particular to report, the suggested guideline for the interval between reports is five days.

Map showing the distribution changes between SABAP2 and SABAP1

Friday, 7 October 2011

Unexpected changes

Some days don’t go quite to plan. Occasionally days go so completely awry that by evening you are piecing together the events wondering how on earth you ended up hundreds of kilometers from home and with all plans for the foreseeable future completely reshaped.
I went for what was meant to be a long hike on Friday morning. I had high spirits and was looking forwards to getting onto the shale band and looking down on the valley below.  But events didn’t unfold as I had expected. Just ten minutes into the hike, on flat ground, I stepped across a stream and unexpectedly lost my footing and slipped. I heard my leg break before I even hit the ground.
I am extremely thankful that I had a satellite phone, thankful that I have wonderful neighbours who instantly came and found me, thankful that the doctor in Clanwilliam repositioned my bones so the blood supply wasn’t cut off, thankful to all the nurses and staff who looked after me during my stay in hospital and deeply indebt to the surgeon who has fixed me up again.
Although I didn’t get home as expected, nor complete my planned hike, I am on another journey now, of recovery and learning. The Black Eagle Project has taken a few knocks this year but I am no less excited about the project. I won’t complete the research I wanted to do on this years breeding success but I am no less determined to carry on next year. So there will probably not be many more eagle photos and updates this year, but I’m still here working away on what I can from the desk and I’m immensely excited about what next season will hold in store.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

School camp

Elizabeth Martins of the Cape Leopard Trust runs educational camps for school. She has been working with children from the local Eselbank school for the past few years, taking them out some afternoons. They are now on a three day camp that gives them the chance to get out in the field and see what is happening on this side of the mountains!
Today I joined them to look for Black eagles and check up on one of the nests I am monitoring. I explained a little of the breeding process and the shape of the nest – like a bowl so if the chick is in the center we won’t see it. Ek praat nie so goed Afrikaana nie which I think they found funny, if not slightly daunting. Nevertheless, we set off down the trail to look for the eagles. As I set up the telescope we were so lucky that the adult flew onto the nest and stood with the eaglet; which is now only around 2 weeks away from fledging.
I was a real reward for me to share my work with the kids and see their excitement at these magnificent birds. It’s days like today when I feel like the Black Eagle Project is more than just the research and is coming closer to fulfilling the aim of engaging and inspiring people.

Thanks Elizabeth and Eselbank children!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Sandveld

The Sandveld is rated as the second most threatened ecosystem in South Africa. Of the 12 vegetation types that occur there, nine are threatened by habitat loss (C.A.P.E. 2011). Fragmentation due to agriculture is widespread and potato fields now dominate the landscape.
A view from a Sandveld nest
Considering this, I was pleasantly surprised by the findings of my latest visit to the area. I went to 12 nests and can confirm 6 chicks, I suspect a further 3 nests also have chicks but due to bad weather it was very difficult to tell. Two nests have failed – one at chick stage and one did not complete incubation. One pair is not breeding this year but is building a new nest above the previous nest.

Nest spacing in the Sandveld is much wider apart than the Cederberg where spacing is ±3km. In some cases this is due to the lower availability of nesting habitat – i.e. less cliffs. However, this is not always the case and I have been looking for nests in suitable habitat 3km away from the nearest known and not found any.

The first GPS has just arrived and I will start testing it for suitability this week. This will be a really exciting step and will allow us to explore questions such as ‘do Black eagles in the Sandveld need to travel further to find prey than those in the Cederberg?’

Many thanks to Pierre at Wagenpad farm for providing accommodation for this trip and thanks to all the friendly and helpful landowners – your support makes this research possible.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Nest cam no.1

Today was the long awaited nest camera deployment day - The camera base station consists of two large batteries charged by a solar panel and an antenna with a transmitter that can hook up to the internet connection down in the valley. The antenna needs to be within line of sight to a particular point and the base station needs to be close enough to the nest for the camera wire to reach. So it was a weigh off in the end with the line of sight being necessary and the camera not being as close to the nest as hoped. Dr Andrew Jenkins came up for the abseil and patiently fixed the camera up to the best point possible. In terms of a diet analysis the camera is not yet in a good position but it was a learning curve and a step in the right direction to hike a mountain with a solar panel and get all the equipment in place. 
A massive thank you to David and Cisca Nieuwoudt of Cederberg Cellars for sponsoring the camera equipment and to Dawie Burger for his help, organisation, enthusiasm and man-power on the project! Will keep the updates coming as this part of the project progresses.
Dawie and volunteer Michele with the base station!

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

3's the magic number

I found a new nest today bringing the Cederberg total up to 20! I'm not sure yet if it's active but there was a pair of Black eagles circling around the area so hopefully there's something going on. More interestingly it fits perfectly on my maps... in areas where availability of a suitable cliff is not a limiting factor it seems that Black eagles in the Cederberg will nest approximately 3km apart... as I explore more I hope that this trend will continue.
Over the next while I will be looking at the overall status of Black eagles in the Western Cape. So if you know of any nests that we can 'put on the map' please get in contact.


Wednesday, 3 August 2011


 These incredible photos were taken by Quinton Martins (of the Cape Leopard Trust) on July 31st - it is a nest in the Cederberg - in fact the same nest which the adult can be seen incubating in the June section of the Photo Diary and the eggs were also photographed.  Fantastic! 
The second egg won't hatch now as it's not being incubated anymore so no Cain and Abel here...

Monday, 18 July 2011

Cederberg V Sandveld

I have just spent 3 days in the Sandveld during which time I visited 11 nests. The eagles there seem to be quite productive:
6 - incubating
1 - possibly incubating but not confirmed
2 - chick
2 - Black eagles present but not seen on the nest.
In comparison; in the Cederberg 5 out of 18 nests are being incubated and 2 have chicks.

There are lots of reason which could be played with - in the Sandveld I was mostly told where active nests are by Lucia Rodrigues. Whereas I found about half of the nests in the Cederberg by searching appropriate cliffs so perhaps in some cases I have found old nest structures. However, having said this, most of these sites normally have eagles in the nest vicinity, or in some cases standing on the nest or building it or even mating nearby.
In the Sandveld the nest spacing seems to be further apart than in the Cederberg... but this might change with more nest searches in both areas.
This is all preliminary, but there's some numbers, thought and questions...

A great view!

I took these photos on the 14th - there's still one egg and the chick must be around 3 days old. This is the first hatching of the nests I have been monitoring in the Cederberg. It's rare for me to be able to see into a nest like this - it was super rewarding to find a little spot on the mountains where I could properly see what was going on. There was fresh prey on both sides of the nest and while I watched the adult came in and incubated the chick. It was magic to be up there looking down at the nest and the valley - an entirely different perspective from hours of neck-straining binocular-wielding from below!!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

First arrival of the season!!

Today I hiked out into Matjiesrivier Nature Reserve with Colin. The reserve is owned by Cape Nature and managed by Rika du Plessis. Together they have a 5 year plan to monitor the breeding success of the Black eagle on and around the reserve. Colin has worked for Cape Nature for an inspiring 20 years and takes pride in monitoring the eagles. He has been monitoring this nest since incubation began in late May.
It’s a unique area of the Cederberg with a drier climate and succulent Karoo vegetation (as opposed to the Fynbos on the western side of the Cederberg). At his time of year there’s some water in the rivers and things are coming alive; pinks and yellows are blooming, rock pools are teaming with tiny tadpoles and bright green new growth is sprouting.
Colin visited this nest yesterday. From the bottom of the valley he could see that the adult was sitting on the edge of the nest rather than in the nest. Today’s mission was to hike to the peak on the opposite side of the valley and see down onto the nest. Although there’s no hiking path Colin knows the valley intricately and led us through a maze of boulders, along the river and up the steep slope to our vantage point.
We arrived and set up our telescopes and zoomed in across the valley. There are three Black eagle nests on this cliff – two of which are amongst the largest I have seen. Sure enough, on the far left nest there was an adult eagle sat on the edge. It had back to us and was looking into the nest. Once focused in we soon saw a movement of white fluff. Without a doubt there was a chick there. We watched the nest for three hours. We saw both adults; which actually spent more time off the nest and hunting than with the chick. When the adult left the nest we had a clear view of the chick. Although it is probably no more than a week old, it was walking (or falling) around on the nest using its small stubs of wings for balance. Looking through the scope at this sight made the whole area feel even more alive. Here was a stage of life which we normally don’t get to witness.
Thank you Colin for taking me to this nest today. I won’t forget my first ever view of a Black eagle chick!!
Adult on nest... there's a chick in there too!

Sunday, 10 July 2011

I wished I could fly...

On 5th June I went for a “Sunday stroll” towards Tafelberg.  I was soon distracted by a pair of Black eagles which I could see perched further along the valley. I headed towards them and kept following after repeatedly seeing them. They perched together on a rocky outcrop and then mated. Soon after this I saw one flying away with a green sprig – no doubt headed towards it’s nest. I became completely side-tracked from my walk and ended up following the eagles, or heading in the direction I thought they had gone for what turned into a 10hour hike! But it ended well and I finally found their nest!! I noted in my book “nest found – seriously tall!”.
Today I revisited this nest (which in a straight line ironically only took me 30minutes to get to). The sun was behind the nest cliff and it was difficult to see it properly. There was no way of telling if there was a bird on the nest or not and two hours had passed before I saw an eagle. It flew in front of the nest but didn’t land and didn’t give anything away to me. I started to wish I could fly… just so I could see if there was a bird on the nest. 
Another hour passed before I saw another eagle. This time it flew across the valley, did a pendulum-like display fight, and then circled back to the nest cliff. Then I could see two eagles. Finally the one I was following darted towards the nest… but flew straight past it… and onto another smaller nest which I hadn’t yet noticed. The pair are incubating! I’ll stick to walking…

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Year in the Wild - Scott Ramsay

Scott Ramsay has dedicated a year to explore and document the wild places of South Africa. Currently he is spending two weeks in the Cederberg. Yesterday he joined me for a hike - check out Scott's blog to see what he thought...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Counting down the days

Snowy mountain peaks have greeted me back in the Cederberg after two weeks away. Brrrr...
Today I visited three of the nests I am monitoring - they have been incubating for maximums of: 26 / 34 / 45 days. I normally visit nests around once a week. After recording incubation the actual laying date could be up to a week earlier depending on nest visit frequency. Incubation is 44-45days. So this basically means the nest which is on day 45 could hatch any day this week. But to add to the monitoring difficulties, most nests you cannot actually see into. So when the egg(s) (1 or 2) hatch I will depend on the behavior of the adults to find out. It won't be until the chick is larger that I will be able to see it on the nest. By this stage Canism* will have occurred and there will only be one chick.
 This nest has failed for the previous two years - 2009 there was a breeding attempt but it was unsuccessful. 2010 a chick was seen on the nest but it did not fledge. The reasons for failure are unknown, there has been speculation that the nest is too low and accessible  for baboons... but I don't think I believe this. Although the nest is relatively low, it is on a vertical face. I have my fingers crossed for these two and hope to put a nest camera up to monitor the chick if it hatches and shed some light...
*Canism: the first chick to hatch will out do their younger sibling for food and cause physical injury until death... 

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Teach yourself Afrikaans

It would be so useful to be able to speak Afrikaans... I thought because I hear it all the time I would just 'pick up' the language. But after a year in Afrikaans speaking areas my vocab is still limited to môre, lekker, arend, totsiens.... 
"Teach yourself Afrikaans" has just arrived in the post - Time to start learning!! Groete! :)

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Another incubator

One of the nest sites which I found I have spent 6 hours watching for the eagles and not seen any. So on the previous post it is one of the 3 nests with no eagles seen in the area. A nest cliff can have more than one nest structure (the most I have seen is five), each year the pair will build up one or two of their nests and then choose one of them to breed in. This cliff has four nests, although one of them is falling down.

This picture shows two of their closest nests. I have just heard from Lucia Rodrigues that she visited these nests and saw a Black eagle incubating on the lower nest. This is the furthest nest from my base which I know of in the Cederberg, luckily Cape Nature at Matjiesrivier will be monitoring their breeding progress this season -- Good news all round!

Monday, 20 June 2011


The breeding season is now well underway, of 19 nests in Cederberg :
4 pairs are incubating eggs
5 nests have a pair of eagles present which have been seen building the nest or mating
5 nests normally have a pair of eagles present but they have not been seen on the nest
3 nests I have not seen eagles in the area
2 nests I haven't been able to revisit yet

In the Sandveld I have visited 9 nests of which 1 pair was incubating, this area is due another visit.

Incubation takes 44-45 days. According to my nest visits the first chick will hatch between 5th-10th July....