MISSION 10 of 2011
Name of Mission: Wattled Cranes Nest and Egg Count – 1 of 2011
Date of Mission: 20th and 21st June 2011
Aircraft used: Cessna 172
Pilot: Barry de Groot
Beneficiary: Tanya Smith – 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 the breeding status and to locate nests with two-egg clutches.
Beneficiary’s story of the mission By Tanya Smith
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 are located in KwaZulu-Natal, with the vast majority of the 80 known breeding pairs found in the KZN midlands and Drakensberg. A small number of pairs are found in the Highveld grasslands of Mpumalanga and the Drakensberg of the Eastern Cape. These birds are highly dependent on wetlands for breeding and foraging and breed in winter, thereby limiting the number and types of wetlands they depend on for breeding. These birds are usually very sensitive to disturbance and land use changes, and 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 in determining the health of the population and also to identify any threats to the active breeding sites. The identification of nests with two eggs is vital as part of the national Wattled Crane Recovery Programme which aims to prevent the extinction of Wattled Cranes in South Africa. One of the mechanisms used to achieve this is through a supplementation project, which relies on the collection of the second egg which is abandoned by the adult pair once the first egg hatches. Therefore the results of the survey can assist in prioritising which sites to visit and when, not only related to nests with two eggs but also related to catching and colour ringing the chicks seen during the survey, thereby allowing us to make the most impact with the few resources at our disposal
The flight was kindly sponsored by The Bateleurs and pilot member Barry De Groot volunteered for his first Wattled Crane mission. Prior to the lfight I sent him the GPS coordinates of the sites I hoped we could survey, and I must admit that Barry was more than organised! His professional planning and attitude was greatly appreciated by myself and Ann Burke,of the KZN Crane Foundation. On the first day of this two-day mission we met at Oribi airport in Pietermaritzburg, and then headed down to the Southern Drakensberg. Barry very quickly got into the groove of what was needed to successfully search for and locate breeding Wattled Cranes – from the air – which is no easy task. We ended the day after 3hrs 45mins of flying and we had located a total of 13 pairs of Wattled Cranes, of which five pairs had a chick and two pairs were nesting, both with a two-egg clutch. This was a great day spent flying close to the snow-capped Drakensberg and over stunningly beautiful areas such as the Ntsikeni Vlei Nature Reserve, which is a RAMSAR site. On the second day, we surveyed the KZN Midlands and central Drakensberg where we checked a total of 42 sites during nearly 4 hours of flying. We located a total of 24 pairs of Wattled Cranes, of which ten pairs were found nesting at the time of the survey. Four of these had two-egg clutches and four pairs had a chick with them. The survey took us over magnificent scenery, including the source of the Umgeni River, otherwise known as Umgeni Vlei Nature Reserve, a very important wetland not only Wattled Cranes but also for all who live in KwaZulu-Natal.
The use of aerial surveys in monitoring Wattled Crane breeding activity is of huge value and within the first two days following the aerial survey I visited four nests with two-egg clutches to measure and weigh the eggs, to determine their hatch date. The second laid eggs were successfully collected from all four nests and all four eggs have been successfully hatched and the chicks are doing well under the watchful eye of the Johannesburg Zoo staff. These chicks are puppet reared so as to prevent imprinting on humans and they will become part of the captive breeding population managed by the Johannesburg Zoo.
The Wattled Crane Recovery Programme hopes to rear Wattled Crane chicks for release from 2012 and the importance and role of aerial surveys will be even more significant.
A huge thanks to our pilot Barry De Groot for his extremely professional flying and great attitude. Also, our thanks to The Bateleurs for sponsoring the aerial survey, which is proving invaluable to the conservation of one of South Africa’s most endangered birds – the Wattled Crane.
This aerial survey proved hugely successful as a total of 37 pairs of Wattled Cranes were located, 12 of which were nesting and 9 pairs had a chick.