Ludwig’s Bustards in the Eastern Karoo Count – 1 of 2011

Apr 3, 2011

MISSION  05 of  2011

Name of Mission: Ludwig’s  Bustards  in the Eastern Karoo  Count  – 1 of 2011
Date of Mission: 2nd and 3rd April 2011 
Aircraft used: PA28-236 (Piper Dakota)       
Pilot: Mark Rule    
Beneficiaries: Jessica Shaw, with Ben Dilley and Rosa Gleave

Objective of the Flight

To count all Ludwig’s Bustard seen on a route through their eastern Karoo range.

Beneficiary’s story of the mission         By Jessica Shaw

The Endangered Ludwig’s Bustard is a poorly known bird that is under threat from a main source of anthropogenic mortality – collision with overhead power lines. Over the past year the Ludwig’s Bustard Project at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute has been busy repeating a census last conducted 20 years ago, to try to quantify the anticipated population decline of this large bird. The census has involved many thousands of kilometres of road counts throughout the Karoo, with The Bateleurs stepping in to help with critical aerial surveys to calibrate the road count results, which will help us to generate current population estimates.

Bright and early on 2nd April we set off from Cape Town with Bateleurs pilot Mark Rule in his Lima Golf Golf, a Piper Dakota, to conduct an aerial count of Ludwig’s Bustards in the eastern Karoo. The weather was ideal, and we were soon descending to a counting height of 500ft at Beaufort West. We quickly saw several bustards as they flushed away from the plane, and we headed south-east to cover the eastern range of this bird via Willowmore, Somerset East, Graaff Reinet, and Cradock.

As the day wore on, we saw fewer bustards than expected but the survey was working perfectly, with bustards and all sorts of other birds and animals very easy to spot in the clear conditions. By mid afternoon we had reached Burgersdorp, our halfway stopover point. We had a great time in town, and found the people of Burgersdorp to be very accommodating – we were met at the airstrip, given a lift to town and were even lent a bakkie for the evening!

The next morning we took off for the second half of the count, north towards Bethulie and Edenburg, and then back toward Beaufort West via Philippolis, Hanover and Richmond. Again we were lucky with the weather, with great visibility. Several hours later we had a quick fuel stop in Beaufort West and then we headed back to Cape Town, exhausted from the weekend’s counting!

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We saw more bustards on the second day than the first, but overall numbers were very low, with 24 birds seen in total. Our March road count in the same area was also very low, with only a quarter of the numbers of bustards seen compared with other occasions. While we think the population has decreased, we expect there to be more birds than this, so it must be the recent weather playing a big part. There has been a huge amount of rain throughout the central and eastern Karoo in the past few months, which is very unusual.

We know that these birds are quite nomadic and follow rain and the food that comes with it, but because there has been rain everywhere they could be spread over a much wider area than they would normally be at this time of year. These results are fascinating, and show how much we still have to learn about this mysterious and unpredictable bird. Once all of the census results are in we will be able to explore such patterns in more detail, look for population decreases, and ultimately be better able to conserve this regionally endemic species. Many thanks to Mark for his expert flying and valuable time, and The Bateleurs for their much appreciated support in facilitating this important work.

Was the objective of the flight met?         
Despite the low wings of the survey aircraft and the slightly obscured view from the back seat, the survey technique worked well and I am confident that we took an accurate count of the birds present, so the objective of the flight to count bustards at low level was met.

Pilot’s story of the mission       By Mark Rule

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The conditions for our flights on 2nd and 3rd April were great, with light winds and hardly any cloud. Routing was Cape Town to Beaufort West at flight level 095, after which we descended to 500ft/150m AGL and headed south towards Willowmore.

We were lucky to spot two Ludwig’s Bustards in quick succession, leading me to believe that the mission was going to result in a high bird count; however this was not to be.  We routed west to Jansenville, north of the high ground near Willowmore, as the birds prefer to frequent the flat areas rather than mountains.  This was the strategy for this leg and the next two legs we flew, where we avoided high ground if we could easily route around it.  We continued to Somerset East and then Graaf Reinet where we landed after 4.2 hours, to refuel and stretch our legs.  We were refuelled here by Dan Davis, accompanied by his 22 year old parrot!  Our remaining leg via Cradock and Steynsburg to Burgersdorp took 2 hours, after which we landed at the FABD grass strip which was in good condition, apart from some mud at the runway edges, due to the recent rain.

The following day we flew over the Gariep Dam, via Bethulie and Edenburg.  On this leg we decided to follow the next Bustard we saw and shoot some photos.  This was the highlight of the trip for me as we gave chase and did two tight turns while Ben took pictures of the Bustard that we had spotted flying off left of track.  After routing for 3.9 hours via Jagersfontein, Philipolis, and Colesberg, we refuelled at Beaufort West.  The last leg to Cape Town took 2.4 hours in a headwind at flight level 100.

I appreciated the opportunity to fly low level for around 9.5 hours, at 100 knots, a worthwhile addition to my flying experience.  I was interested to observe that this height and speed is good for flushing the birds.  Apart from the Ludwig’s Bustards, we spotted crows, egrets, korhaans and blue cranes amongst others, leaving me with the impression that our success rate at spotting the Bustards was good. It was also fascinating to see the large amount of water lying on the ground in this normally arid area.

I was blown away by the dedication of the “twitcher team” on board the flight, who intently studied the ground for hours while I was flying, trying to maintain 150m AGL.  Jessica Shaw, Ben Dilly and Rosa Gleave are a really special bunch of scientists.  Jess and her team are usually out and about, travelling thousands of kilometres hunting these birds, and they also get around to trapping and fitting them with GPS trackers, primarily to understand the effect of power line-related deaths on the population of these birds, as well as many other factors.

It was also great to see the hospitality of the plattelandvolk in action. It was no problem for Curtis Nel from the municipality, who looks after the Burgersdorp Airfield, and his wife (in two cars nogal), to collect and drop us off from town without expecting any consideration in return.  The popular choice for dinner was a double dagwood burger – really good value!

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