Wattled Cranes – Counting eggs in nests

Jul 2, 2012

MISSION 11 of 2012

Name of Mission: Wattled Cranes – Counting eggs in nests
Date of Mission: 3 July 2012
Aircraft used: Cessna 172 Piper Tripacer
Pilot: Barry de Groot
Beneficiary: Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT)

Objective of the Flight 

To locate approximately 50 pairs of Wattled Cranes that breed in the KZN midlands and the Southern KZN Drakensberg, to determine their breeding status and to locate nests with two-egg clutches.

Pilot report by Barry de Groot

“We had a very successful two days of flying. Tanya and her assistant were both very happy with the result achieved. Some nesting sites were void of any Wattle Crane activity, possibly due to the low water levels, but others were very active. In all we found fourteen breeding pairs, and six of these had two eggs, which is what Tanya is actually searching for, so that she can remove each of the second eggs and incubate them artificially. Apparently seven eggs is the maximum that they can handle so, based on that fact, it was a very successful exercise. Many thanks for the opportunity – it was great flying a mission again.”

Beneficiary report by Tanya Smith

Wattled Cranes and Sheep Karkloof Ian Little compressed
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“Wattled Cranes are South Africa’s most endangered crane species, with fewer than 260 individuals remaining in the wild. Approximately 90% of the country’s population of Wattled Cranes is located in KwaZulu-Natal, with the majority of the 80 known breeding pairs being found in the KZN Midlands and Drakensberg. A few pairs are also found in the Highveld grasslands of Mpumalanga and the Drakensberg of the Eastern Cape. These birds are highly dependent on wetlands for foraging and breeding, but they tend to breed in winter, which limits the number and types of wetlands available for breeding purposes. These birds are very sensitive to disturbance and land use changes so everything possible needs to be done to protect and/or improve wetlands that are suitable for Wattled Cranes.

Monitoring the breeding status of each pair is vital to determine the health of the population and also to identify any threats to the active breeding sites; and the identification of nests with two eggs is vital to the national Wattled Crane Recovery Programme (WCRP) – which aims to prevent the extinction of Wattled Cranes in South Africa. One of the mechanisms to achieve this is a supplementation project which collects the second egg from each of the nests. The second egg will be abandoned by the adult pair as soon as the first egg hatches, so the WCRP collects these second eggs so that they can be incubated. The chicks are raised in captivity for eventual release into the wild.

The aerial survey provided by The Bateleurs enables us to prioritise which sites to visit and when. This is important not only to find nests with two eggs; it assists us also to locate any chicks seen during the survey which will alter be caught and colour-ringed. Consequently, we are able to make a significant impact with the few resources at our disposal

Our pilot for this mission was Barry De Groot and this was his second Wattled Crane mission. I met Barry at Oribi airport in Pietermaritzburg and we headed down to the Southern Drakensberg to start the 2012 aerial survey. We made a stop at the Himeville airstrip to collect an EWT colleague, Cobus Theron, who is managing the Southern Drakensberg Stewardship project. The aerial survey in his area provided a valuable perspective for his work in the area. Barry quickly got into the groove, again, of what was needed to successfully search for and locate breeding Wattled Cranes.

We ended the day after 3hrs 45mins of flying, having located a total of seven pairs of Wattled Cranes. Three of these pairs were nesting, and two of these pairs had a two-egg clutch. We also located a flock of 15 Wattled Cranes in East Griqualand. This was a great day spent flying close to the Drakensberg and over the stunning, Ntsikeni Vlei Nature Reserve (a RAMSAR site), Franklin Vlei, and the beautiful expansive grasslands of East Griqualand.

On the second day, we surveyed the KZN Midlands and central Drakensberg where we checked a total of 42 sites during nearly four hours of flying. The conditions proved extremely difficult for this sort of flying with winds reaching nearly 60km per hour. Barry demonstrated his excellent flying skills and we managed to complete the survey – but we managed to locate only 11 pairs of Wattled Cranes. Seven pairs were breeding and one of them had a small chick. Of the seven breeding pairs breeding, four nests had two-egg clutches.

The use of aerial surveys to monitor Wattled Crane breeding activity is of huge value as we are able, later, to target two-egg nests on the ground. This was done for all six of the nests with two eggs. We collected four of the six eggs available and two of these have hatched successfully. These chicks are now part of the captive breeding population managed by the Johannesburg Zoo, where they will be reared by hand-puppets. Puppet-rearing is an essential aspect of the Wattled Crane Recovery Programme and prevents the chicks from imprinting on humans. The WCRP hopes to release a number of Wattled Crane chicks in 2013, when the importance and role of aerial surveys will become even more significant.

A huge thanks to our pilot Barry De Groot for his professional flying and great attitude, and thanks also to The Bateleurs, for its willing support for these aerial surveys, which are proving invaluable to the conservation of one of South Africa’s most endangered birds, the Wattled Crane.”

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