Objective of the flight:

With only 240 individuals left in South Africa, the Wattled Crane is in eminent danger of local extinction. The Wattled Crane Recovery Programme is a conservation initiative made up of five partner organisations and the EWT is responsible for collecting abandoned eggs from the wild where the chicks are then raised in captivity for the eventual aim of reintroduction into suitable habitats. The objective of the flight is to locate Wattled Crane nests where there are two eggs in order to facilitate the collection of the eggs by EWT fieldworkers.  The aerial survey will also facilitate the collection of crucial data about the breeding status of the vast majority of South Africa’s Wattled Crane population.There are approximately 70 breeding pairs of Wattled Cranes in the province, with the vast majority of the pairs occurring in the KZN midlands and Southern KZN Drakensberg.  Wattled Cranes tend to breed between the months of May and August and nest in large permanent wetlands.  Therefore the most efficient method to check as many pairs as possible and to determine which nests to visit on the ground and when, thus maximizing our impact with limited resources. During the last 2 years that the Bateleurs have assisted with surveys, we have collected 11 abandoned second eggs, of which 7 fledged chicks have been added to the Wattled Crane Recovery Programmes captive breeding flock.  And a total of 16 wild Wattled Crane chicks have been fitted with unique ID colour rings, allowing us to identify these individuals over time. This fantastic achievement has been directly as a result of the aerial survey support received by the Bateleurs, as we are able to survey a large area in a short space of time, thereby directing field efforts with regards to egg collections or colour ring of chicks.

Report from the beneficiary:

What a bird’s eye view can reveal…

“At this time of the year when winter reaches its peak (or trough in terms of temperature), Wattled Crane breeding activity commences and this year it seems to be ‘full steam ahead’.  It seems that the good rainfall in summer has laid the foundation for what appears to be an early start to a breeding season rife with activity and movement.  The Bateleurs once again came to the table to assist with an early season aerial survey over two days to locate approximately 50 breeding pairs of Wattled Cranes in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands and Drakensberg.  To say conditions were ideal over the two days of flying on the 10th and 11th June, would be an understatement, because for two days we experienced crystal clear conditions, light breezes and spectacular scenes of snow on the high berg.  But the real successes of the survey lie in two great stories that I will share with you a bit later.  Firstly though, I have to provide you with a sneak preview of the great data collected over the two days.  We were able to locate 41 of the 50 breeding pairs we were searching for and in addition to the pairs, we managed to locate 29 Wattled Cranes in 3 separate flocks, therefore bringing the tally to 111 adult Wattled Cranes located.  Of the 41 pairs found, 21 of these were found on nests and a further 8 pairs were found with a small chick each. Therefore more than 70% of the pairs located, were found in a state of breeding making this a noticeably early season as usually the majority of pairs will start nesting towards the end of June to early July.

Now to the two great stories…

In the nick of time!

The first day of flying was focused on the Southern Drakensberg breeding sites and we checked approximately 25 sites.  The day started off great with several nests being found from the start and then we came overhead a large beautiful flood plain wetland, very characteristic of the Southern berg wetland systems, in search of two pairs of Wattled Cranes.   We quickly located a pair on the edge of the wetland and between the two adults was a tiny chick, possibly no more than 2 to 3 days old.

After we completed the survey for that day (about 2.5 hours after we saw this pair and chick), Cobus phoned the farmers to let them know the status of their Wattled Crane pairs.  When he chatted to the farmer with the pair and small chick, the farmer had said he was about to burn the wetland as part of his fire management.  Fortunately he was very concerned and willingly abandoned his plans to burn the wetland until the chick is a bit older.

When sacrifice is worth it?

In 2011 we partnered with Eastern Wetland Rehabilitation, a Section 21 company, to rehabilitate a wetland in the Nottingham Road area.  The wetland in question is home to a very productive pair of Wattled Cranes, and the nest site (and wetland as a whole) was threatened by a significant and very active head-cut that formed from an artificial drain within the wetland.

A head-cut is a backwards moving channel within a wetland that, if very active, can have a major impact on the functioning of a wetland by effectively draining it and removing water from the wetland at a faster rate than normal.  Head-cuts form usually as a result of a disturbance feature introduced to the wetland i.e. a road crossing or drain.  The unfortunate situation we found ourselves in was the head-cut in this wetland was very close to the active nest site (approximately 50m) and we faced a difficult decision:  Do we risk the nest site by causing major disturbance close to the nest site during the construction of concrete weirs that were needed in order to try and neutralise the head cut and fix the drains.  Also the main large structure at the headcut would be within 50m of the nest site for next 50 to 100 years (who knows) and this may cause enough of a deterrent to prevent the birds returning to nest.  Or do we risk the nest site by doing nothing?  Our research has shown that historic Wattled Crane nest sites/wetlands tend to be significantly drier than wetlands actively or currently used by Wattled Cranes for breeding.  Therefore the risk of the head-cut drying the wetland and possibly the open water area of the wetland, thereby making the wetland unsuitable for Wattled Crane breeding, was very real and significant.  Through many discussions with conservation officials and other experienced wetland scientists we decided to neutralise the head-cut in addition to the other weirs that were to be built along the drains.

All the activity around the wetland continued into the usual courtship period for Wattled Cranes (April) and therefore we knew there was little to no chance of the Wattled Cranes breeding here in the 2012 season….we sacrificed one season, and hoped that the birds would return to breed in 2013.

As we approached this site during this aerial survey on the second day, I held my breath, hoping and praying we would see Wattled Cranes in or near the wetland!  Well the birds did one better…they were nesting!  They were nesting in their usual site, within 50m of the structure that was completed nearly 18 months earlier!  I cannot describe the importance of this sighting and the feeling of… ‘It was worth it’! With the support of the National Lottery Fund, the Eastern Wetland Rehabilitation team, wetland scientists and more, we were able to prevent a significant threat to a breeding pair of Wattled Cranes, one pair of only 80 left in the country!  And thanks to the Bateleurs for allowing us the opportunity to document this achievement from the air.

To end off, I’d like to extend my deep thanks and gratitude to our pilot, Barry de Groot…as always Barry, it was a pleasure and I’d say hands down best survey yet!”

Report from the pilot:

“Flying conditions don’t get any better than this. A severe cold front had moved across KZN the day before and left in its wake snow on the Drakensberg Mountains and crystal clear air. Visibility went on forever allowing a clear spectacle of the snow-covered mountains.

Our surveillance area on the first day was South of Pietermaritzburg toward Underberg, Himeville, and as far South as Kokstad. In total we had 23 established nesting sites that had to be monitored for activity in the form of adult birds, eggs in the nest, or chicks walking around with their parents.

The birds have obviously been busy this year as almost all the nest sightings had either mommy bird sitting on at least one egg, or mom and dad foraging for food close to the nest site, with their new born baby chick in very close proximity.

After three hours of flying we landed at the airfield just outside Kokstad to break out the very welcome rations and coffee that Tanya always packs for the three of us.

Total flying time to cover the entire area was just over four hours which was the maximum endurance of the Cessna allowing 30 minutes fuel reserve.

The next day was much of the same except this time we covered the wetland areas north of Pietermaritzburg namely Nottingham Road and Mooi River areas, dropping in at Treverton school airstrip for more of Tanya’s catering.

In all we inspected 46 nesting sites and once again found positive activity in the form of eggs and chicks at almost all of them. Because of the closer proximity of the nests to each other we were able to cover more than double the number of nests of the first day in the same time of four hours.

Tanya from the Crane Foundation said at the end of the two days that this year was the most prolific breading she has ever seen, and that the survey was without a doubt an outstanding success.”