On the weekend of November 22 and 23, 2008, a team of conservationists fitted two bearded vulture nestlings with satellite tracking devices. This is the first time that satellite tracking devices have been fitted to bearded vulture chicks in Africa.
This exercise is part of the work of the Bearded Vulture Task Force of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, and is an ongoing collaboration project between South Africa and Lesotho involving a range of role-players in the Maloti Drakensberg Mountains.
Researchers hope to determine the causes of mortality in young birds. “By knowing what their home range is, we can also mitigate potential threats within the home range. The aim is to reduce the mortality of young birds and halt the negative growth rate of the population and ultimately prevent extinction of this endangered bird,” says ecologist Sonja Krüger of KZN Wildlife and chairperson of the Bearded Vulture Task Force of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Birds of Prey Working Group.
The team consisted of the climbers David Allan of the Durban Museum and Charl Brummer, KZN Wildlife, a Swiss biologist who assisted in fitting the satellite transmitter, and raptor enthusiast Alan Howell, KZN Wildlife. The project is being coordinated by Krüger.
The team abseiled down to the nest, collected the chick and brought it to the top of the cliff. Several measurements were taken as well as blood samples for genetic analysis and gender determination.
Each satellite transmitter was then fitted before the climber lowered the chick back onto the nest. In both cases the chicks went straight to the back of the nest and rested whilst the adults circled the nest making sure all was well. Both chicks looked in very good condition and were slightly heavier than the average for wild juvenile birds.
Neither seemed perturbed about the satellite transmitter on their backs. These devices weigh 40 grams and transmit location information to satellites. This information is then downloaded to a website so that researchers can follow their movement patterns. These birds are expected to fledge in about two to three weeks time. The negative impact of the exercise is assumed negligible but researchers will keep an eye on the nests this year and during the next breeding season.
As part of a vulture awareness campaign, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is currently running a competition amongst schools in the Drakensberg area to come up with a name for these chicks. The most appropriate names will be chosen this month, before the birds launch into the sky for their first flight. The winning school or student will be given an opportunity to see bearded vultures in the wild.
The project is being sponsored by the Wildlands Conservation Trust and Sasol through the Sasol Vulture Monitoring Project of the Birds of Prey Working Group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.