Helicopters, birding telescopes, sunscreen and patience have all been deployed in a two-week long search for a "small dumpy bird that moves at breakneck speed" - South Africa's rarest breeding bird and one of the rarest raptors in the world, the Taita falcon. The search has focussed on the Limpopo/Mpumalanga Drakensberg escarpment between Mariepskop and Manutsa, where two pairs of this elusive raptor are known to breed.
Heading up the team of raptor specialists, Andrew Jenkins from the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town, says that the main focus of the search is to discover the size of the population in the area, and whether or not it is of consequence to the conservation of the species.
The search is split between scrutinising the cliffs from the best vantage points with binoculars and telescopes, and helicopter flights along the escarpment to look for any Taita activity and nesting sites. So far, a third suspected nest site has been confirmed, with another week to go in the search.
"Given the global context of less than 50 known nests in the world, if the escarpment holds between five and 10 pairs, the population is significant" comments Jenkins. The team is currently staying with renowned environmentalist Dave Rushworth, who has been keeping an eye on the birds for many years.
Being a resident in the area, Rushworth has been instrumental in helping coordinate the search. Other members of the crack birding team include Andre Botha, Anthony van Zyl, Alan Kemp, Alan Harvey, Alan Stephenson, David Allan, Lucia Rodrigues and Ara Monadjem.
Monadjem will be spending some time studying the known pairs of birds, as he has recently tentatively identified Taita falcons in an area of northern Mozambique where the birds were not previously thought to occur. By studying known birds, he will be able to confirm his Mozambican discovery with confidence.
The survey of the Mariepskop escarpment comes after a Taita falcon workshop held in January this year, which was triggered by an earlier removal of a young bird from its parents in one of the confirmed nesting areas. The bird later died.
The current search is being sponsored by the Peregrine Fund, the African Bird Club and Glen Dower Scotch Whiskey. It is coordinated by the Taita Falcon Interest Group together with the Endangered Wildlife Trust Birds of Prey Working Group (EWT-BOPWG).
Jenkins says that if the population in the escarpment is big enough to work with, he is keen to establish a pan-African Taita falcon research group which will carry out similar work in other areas where the bird is known or reputed to occur. He encourages people to look out for the little birds and report sightings, but warns that they are easy to confuse with lanner and peregrine falcons, as well as rock kestrels.
They are generally smaller than the other raptors and have smaller wings and a shorter tail. The most likely places in the lowveld to spot the birds are from the Lowveld and Three Rondavels lookouts on the escarpment. He advises birders to watch the bird's behaviour closely, as the more information they have, the better. Jenkins can be contacted on 082 959 9238, or call Andre Botha from the EWT-BOPWG on 082 962 5725.
By Melissa Wray