Mission: Grey Crowned Cranes-Belfast
Date: 24 March 2009
Requesting organisation: South African Crane Working Group (SACWG) at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT)
Location: Belfast, Mpumalanga
Pilot: Kevin Phillips

Report from pilot Kevin Phillips
A fantastic flight experience, by Ursula Francke of EWT
Aerial view over farms in the Tonteldoos area


Late last year we were contacted by Ursula Francke of the South African Crane Working Group (SACWG) at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).  Ursula needed assistance to search for cranes and their nests in two identified sites in Mpumalanga.  The flight in and around Chrissiesmeer took place in mid-December, while the flight near Belfast was deferred until the 24th of March 2009.  Here is a report from our volunteer pilot Kevin Phillips, also flying his first mission for The Bateleurs, followed by a report from Ursula.


Report from pilot Kevin Phillips

Bateleurs pilot Kevin Phillips with his 2-seater Jora, now classifed as a Light Sport Aircraft (formerly known as a microlight), at the Middleburg airfield.

“This was my first mission for The Bateleurs and I must say that I enjoyed it immensely.  With the interesting weather conditions over the previous couple of weeks, and Ursula’s need to do the survey of the Grey Crowned Cranes before the end of March, we were on short notice as to when exactly we were going to fly.  The initial request was to fly from Ermelo to Belfast and then on to a list of GPS co-ordinates in the area as far away as Dullstroom, and then back to Ermelo.  After a few discussions and changes of plan, we decided to meet at the Middelburg airfield and fly from there, as we could be in the area much earlier and have a better chance of calm air in the morning, so the flight was scheduled for Tuesday 24th March.

The early morning proved to be calm and beautiful and a phone call to Ursula in Ermelo, at 06h00, confirmed that weather was good there too.  I took off from Ingwe for Middelburg at around 07h00 and landed at a calm, fog-free Middelburg, where Ursula was waiting, just after 08h00.  After discussing the plan and route, Ursula and I took off in the general direction of north of Belfast.  The cosmos was in full flower and the landscape was dotted with huge patches of pink and white in amongst the green fields of agriculture and grass – with, of course, the completely black areas where coal is being mined.  Beauty and the unfortunately necessary beast.

Within about 25 minutes we were at the first of 27 waypoints.  This was a fairly large wetland in the Tonteldoos area, where we had our first and only view of (four) Grey Crowned Cranes.  From here we moved on towards Dullstroom and Belfast and 2 hours 22 minutes after taking off, we touched down back at Middelburg.  After a much needed leg stretch and some lunch I took off back to Ingwe at 12h00, landing soon after 13h00.

What a perfect day for flying it was – there was hardly a bump until my flight back from Middelburg to Ingwe.  The visibility was perfect without any fog or mist at any time. The only clouds of any significance were covering the escarpment quite far to the east.  Total flying time for me was 4 hours 48 minutes and I used 67 litres of unleaded 95 octane petrol.

It makes a huge difference flying with someone like Ursula with her knowledge of the area, and the habitats of the cranes, and how the birds are affected by the activities and changes to their environment.  In the Dullstroom area, for example, many dams have been created out of the wetlands for trout fishing.  As beautiful as these dams may look to us humans, the cranes think differently.  The Wattled Cranes are especially fussy about where they nest and don’t appreciate the efforts by farmers who dam the wetlands.  If they don’t like this, I can only imagine what they will think of open cast coal mines destroying the area.  What a pity we don’t have access to a good viable alternative to coal for our energy needs – or do we?”

A fantastic flight experience, by Ursula Francke of EWT

Grey_crowned_cranes2_24032009A view over Lakenvlei and forests in the area.

“The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) Crane Conservation aims to ensure the survival of South Africa’s three crane species, the Wattled Crane Grus carunculatus, Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus, and the Grey-Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum, and their natural habitats.  This is achieved by improving our understanding of crane biology, identifying and mitigating human induced threats, and encouraging participation and cooperation of communities and institutions, to the benefit of cranes and people.

Towards this goal EWT Crane Conservation field workers are based in all key crane regions in South Africa, including Mpumalanga.  One of the important crane locations within Mpumalanga is Dullstroom and the surrounding areas.  Since cranes prefer as little disturbance as possible when they are breeding, almost all the nesting sites are far from public roads and areas frequented by people, so locating them by vehicle or on foot can be quite a challenge.  Fortunately, Grey Crowned Cranes can easily be seen from the air.  They are large birds with conspicuous white markings on their wings, making aerial observation quite easy.

The 27 points covered during the flight consisted of 24 historic Grey Crowned Crane nest sites plus three more recent sightings.  Although some of the older nest sites have been encroached upon by human activities, several of the sites seemed relatively undisturbed.  While no cranes were seen at any of the fixed points, four Grey Crowned Cranes were spotted near one of the points in the Tonteldoos area, probably a pair with two fledged chicks.  Of concern were two prospecting rigs seen nearby.  This sighting will also be followed up by a physical visit to the land owner to enquire about the situation.


grey_crowned_cranes3_24032009Aerial view over farms in the Tonteldoos area

Two of the historic Wattled Crane nest sites were located within Verloren Vallei Nature Reserve, outside Dullstroom.  Although Wattled Cranes have not been seen there for a while, from the air the habitat seemed ideal for cranes.  The third historic site was located on the western side of Lakenvlei, which has been enclosed by plantations.  No breeding pairs or nest sites were found, although a family group of two adults and two juveniles was seen close to one of the historic breeding sites.  We could find no evidence of recent nesting activity in the nearby wetlands but this may be due to breeding pairs having already fledged their young and moved further away from their breeding areas.

The flight was very helpful in terms of habit monitoring of the fixed points.  Several of the historic nest sites are now affected by damming, afforestation, or other human activities.  Those sites where the habitat looked suitable for Grey Crowned Cranes were noted and will be followed up by physical visits to the landowners for further information regarding possible crane activity.  No Grey Crowned Crane floater flocks were located during the flight.  Also, the findings at the three historic Wattled Crane nest sites confirmed reports received during the past couple of years in terms of habitat and crane presence (or the lack thereof).    

A special thank you goes to Kevin Phillips who volunteered for the mission at short notice.  It was a pleasure working with him throughout, from planning to completion of the flight.  And a special thank you to The Bateleurs – your service is great and it is a pleasure to work with your pilots!”