BirdLife South Africa launched a strategy to study the Secretary bird species in 2011, after the bird's status was declared Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list. Since then, new data about the Secretary bird's biology were obtained by the researchers.
The Secretary bird can be spotted throughout the sub-saharan regions of Africa, however they do not appear in forested areas or true deserts. The specimen is threatened by a number of human activities. These include habitat fragmentation and degradation through agricultural and commercial forestry development, collisions with power lines and farm fences, and secondary poisoning. The continued survival of this species, easily identifiable by its long legs and erectile crest, is still under threat in South Africa.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust's Birds of Prey Programme (EWT-BoPP), BirdLife South Africa, and the University of the Witwatersrand initiated a collaborative project to gain a better understanding of the secretary bird's biology. They launched a collaborative satellite tracking project, which will provide detailed information on the species' movements and habits.
"The project will enable us to better understand the biology of the secretary bird, and should help determine why they are no longer doing well in the grasslands and other habitats in South Africa and enable us to make better informed decisions on appropriate conservation action to benefit the species." says André Botha, Manager of the EWT-BoPP. A preliminary analysis of information collected during the two bird atlas projects shows a considerable reduction in the areas this species previously occupied in South Africa.
The tracking device, using cell phone tracking with GPS technology, collects data every 15 minutes, is accurate to within 6-10 metres, and downloads the data via the GSM cellular network.
Devices are fitted in the back of chicks with teflon tape when they are between 7 - 8 weeks old and when it weighs more than 3kg. The harnesses were tested on captive Secretary Birds to make sure that they fit correctly and therefore to prevent any side-effects.
The first bird resided in at a nest in the Free State province for a month, after leaving the nest the bird moved 100 km towards an easterly direction. The second bird moved from its nest in Bela Bela, Limpopo to distance of 270 km in the Makgadikgadi pans. The third bird moved from its nest Warden, Limpopo to the KwaZulu-Natal coast. Thereafter, the third bird settled near Ixopo for a while and then made its way back an area 50 km from its nest site. The fourth and fith bird will fledge in December.
BirdLife South Africa will focus its efforts in the grasslands, while the EWT-BoPP will focus its efforts in the Kalahari region of the Northern Cape and the savannas of the Lowveld and the Kruger National Park. The combined data will allow comparisons to be made, and the research findings will lead to considered conservation action and ultimately contribute to countering the current decline in numbers and decrease in range of this species.
Dr Hanneline Smit, BirdLife South Africa conservation manager/Oppenheimer Fellow of Conservation, says: "In this short amount of time since fitting the device to Spyker, our knowledge on juvenile dispersal and behaviour has increased immensely."
She asked farmers and birders to let BirdLife South Africa and the EWT identify breeding sites in the target areas, to enable the conservation teams to fit further tracking devices to fledglings later this year.