MISSION  42  of  2010

Name of Mission: Wattled Crane Nests 2 of 2010   
Date of Mission: 8th December 2010
Aircraft used: Rainbow Cheetah         
Pilot: Steve McCurrach                  
Beneficiary: Tanya Smith

Objective of the Flight

Winter is the peak breeding period for Wattled Cranes; however they can nest all year round.  Therefore the main aim of this flight would be to locate chicks from this breeding season that we can catch and fit colour rings to, as these rings allow us to monitor each individual over time and provides us valuable information on a critically endangered species like age of first breeding, survival and movement.  Also any pairs that may be breeding outside of the peak season will be located during the survey and nests with two egg clutches will be visited on the ground in order to collect the abandoned second egg.  Another objective of the flight was to locate any breeding Grey Crowned Cranes, that will be monitored on the ground throughout the breeding season.

Beneficiary’s story of the mission        By  Tanya Smith

Wattled Cranes are generally winter breeders but they can breed all year round.  Therefore this flight allowed us to look for any breeding pairs of Wattled Cranes that may have been breeding out of season, as well as to locate any pairs that had chicks with them from the past winter season.  The chicks found on the survey would have been targeted on the ground to be caught and fitted with unique colour-ring combinations.  With this in mind, this flight was never going to be easy.  _WATT_Two_Cranes_on_the_ground_DSC8142As we all know birds are very mobile and could be several kilometres from where they nest, making it very difficult to locate them from the air.  However, both I and my pilot, Steve McCurrach, were up for the challenge.

The weather had been miserable for several days before the flight and on the morning of Wednesday 8 December Steve made his way to the Himeville airstrip where I was waiting in a shroud of mist.  By 08h30 the mist had burnt off and a beautiful day lay before us – or so we thought.  We took off and had excellent visibility and fairly soon into our flight we located a pair of Blue Cranes with a small chick of about 5-6 days old … a great sighting.

We made our way to each of the known Wattled Crane breeding territories looking for families, pairs or nests.  I also recorded any other cranes we saw as well as any Grey Crowned nests.  We managed to locate five pairs of Wattled Cranes, two of which had a fully-fledged chick each.  We also located 14 pairs of Grey Crowned Cranes, of which five pairs were nesting at the time of the flight.  And lastly we located four pairs of Blue Cranes, of which two pairs had chicks with them.  We also found and recorded a total of 168 Grey Crowned Cranes in three separate flocks.

_WATT_A_Crane_on_its_nest_DSC8182Even though locating the Wattled Crane pairs was very difficult, the survey was going perfectly until weather started closing in around us as we made our way south towards Franklin, Kokstad and Cedarville and we had to cut our survey short.  Unfortunately we were unable to check nine of the 20 known Wattled Crane pairs in Southern KZN due to the weather, but we were able to spend some extra time searching any new potential areas around Underberg where the weather was still good for flying.

Conclusion:    Was the objective of the flight met?          
I think this flight was very important as it allowed for the opportunity to look for Wattled Cranes nesting outside of the normal peak season.  Due to the fact that the Endangered Wildlife Trust does not have a field officer based permanently in Southern KZN, the flight in this area was even more valuable, as it allowed us to target areas on the ground quickly, instead of spending long periods of time on the ground, trying to find breeding pairs and flocks of Cranes.  The Grey Crowned Crane nests and pairs located in this survey will allow us to target these sites for monitoring and for colou- ringing efforts.  So all in all, this flight was not only successful but also hugely valuable.

A huge thank you must go to The Bateleurs for approving the flight and to my pilot Steve McCurrach, who was extremely professional and courteous.

_WATT_Pilot_Steve_McCurrach_and_crane_researcher_Tanya_Smith_SDSC8161Pilot’s story of the mission            By  Steve McCurrach

When I was first assigned to fly a wattled crane egg count, I really thought that The Bateleurs office were pulling my leg, as in “count birds eggs from the sky” – no ways!  But I quickly came to learn after several such missions that this is totally ‘do-able’. Now, after Wednesday’s work, I believe that photographing cranes from the air can also be accomplished and even whilst they are in flight. This was simply a case of do it  –  have a go and see what happens, and it worked.

It’s not easy to capture such a relatively small target and have it in sharp focus every time. Bear in mind that I’m trying to aim the focussing block in the camera’s viewfinder on something so small that (a) its hard just to  pick it up, and (b) the tripod (in this case the aeroplane) is moving at 120kph. As a result many of the images were re-shot, but this time using the ‘Delete’ button on my keyboard. Nevertheless here are a few images from the flight.

One thing I must say is that this will be the first time I see clear and descriptive images of a nesting crane. In fact this may not be do-able by any other method.