Wakkerstroom flocks

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Typical habitat for flocks in winter, harvested lands “Picture taken by Glenn Ranke” 

As we approach mid-winter, Wakkerstroom – amazingly, has hardly felt any of the icy times it is renowned for. In fact, it sounds almost as though we have been warmer than Johannesburg and Pretoria! So who says there is no such thing as climate change!

Wind, we have had plenty of that, it just never seems to stop and has been ongoing since April. When you see the flocks of cranes with more than half sitting flat on the ground – and a huge Fish Eagle barely making forward progress through the air, you must know the wind is strong! I have to admit that it is probably my least favourite element and during the winter months when it takes with it particles of dust and dry grass to infiltrate every small crack around windows and doors, it becomes beyond a joke.

At the moment I am at a bit of a loss as to where the closest to Wakkerstroom flocks of cranes are. On the occasions, some weeks ago, that I went out looking for them, I saw a few Blue Cranes and the usual flock of around 60 – 80 Crownies but recently have not even seen those. But then, one of the farmers where the flocks spent a lot of their time, did not plant maize due to the high costs of seed and fuel and those lands have been left dormant. The next door farm where they are often seen and where they roost in a large pan has also been quiet on that front as has the other choice where there are maize fields that have still not been harvested. I suppose it will be interesting to see if they arrive there when the cutting starts. But in the meantime, where are they? Some of the farmers say they are around but moving quite a lot.

 What did interest me recently was seeing a single, young Blue Crane in those lands that have been left un- planted this season. First I find it unusual to see one crane on its own at this time and more importantly, that it was a young bird that I would have thought should have been safely in the body of the extended family!

Grey Crowned Crane

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Grey Crowned Crane -“Picture taken by Glenn Ramke” 

Today I was out looking for – yip – cranes and saw a single Grey Crowned Crane at a place where I had been seeing 2. This one then took off and it was calling and calling as it flew. It sounded quite distressed and that made me feel concerned as I wondered what could have happened to its partner. At one point I thought there was another call some way off but was not sure and this one was flying around calling and calling. Then I saw it – the other one on the ground and this one also saw it, lost height and landed near its pal then walked towards it as though it knew all the time where it was. On the other hand, the one that was “found” seemed delighted and spent quite a time jumping around walking, running and jumping some more before the two settled down to a normal day – probably of feeding.

I have often noticed something akin to happiness when a couple of cranes meet up – particularly Crownies – and wonder if this is just yet again a “human” perception or if it really does happen.

Its not all friendly though, at times a crane innocently walking along with its head down feeding suddenly does something that irritates a fellow crane who flaps its wings at it, runs at it or whatever and the “innocent” one has to move away fast. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps it is a “junior” bird intruding on one of the seniors stamping ground. Only they know I guess but one thing that is obvious amongst animals is the strict discipline which the young have to abide by – it is a matter of survival – do or die.

Crane rings

South African’s have always been known for their hospitality and this legacy still clings – thank goodness not everything has changed – and hopefully this never will!

In my travels around the areas I cover, I have only ever met with friendliness – sometimes perhaps a little more than others – and an interest in what I am doing.

A week before our trip to the eastern Free State, I went with Ursula Franke to visit a farmer near her stamping grounds – and within the first hour of being with them, we were invited to visit any time and to stay over even if they are not there!

This latest trip to Harrismith, we stayed with Phillip and Ashley Pattinson who farm just outside the town. It was my third stay-over with them. About 3 years ago after reading an article I had written for their local paper, Phillip ‘phoned to tell me of cranes and Bald Ibis and at that time, offered me accommodation any time, which I took them up on, and delightful it is.

This time, Ursula and I were offered accommodation at Memel as well as at three different homes in and around Harrismith! We decided we needed to go down there for a month to take up all the offers!

And the super thing is that these invites are so genuinely offered.

We left Harrismith feeling that we would be able to build up a valuable network through that area of people reporting cranes and Bald Ibis such as there is in the Luneberg district where all the farmers when travelling around their farms and areas, press the radio button and call up Horst Filter to report crane sightings. KZN are also building up such a network, what a help it would be to have this everywhere!

Now is the time of the year for any readers who may be going out birding – anywhere in the country, who see any flocks of cranes, to look hard for any birds with colour rings on their legs and report them back to Debbie in our office.

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Ringed chick – “Picture taken by Kirsten Oliver”

You are asked to note: the location, if possible a GPS reading and if not, the distance and direction from the nearest town.; the date and time and the type of habitat the birds are in i.e. stubble fields, grasslands, wetland, dam etc. and the numbers of the species (12 BC & 34 GCC).

And IF you see a ringed bird, it goes like this – one leg (i.e. the birds left leg) will have a large colour ring of green or blue, orange, white, red above the “knee” and the other leg will have a combination of colour rings (above that knee) i.e. (from top to bottom) red/green/white or perhaps just two colours  blue/yellow and in a few instances just one colour.

Resightings of ringed birds – except in the Western Cape – are few and far between, and extremely valuable and exciting to us. So keep us all thrilled by letting Debbie Thiart know of this wonderful news by calling her on 011 486 1102 ext 248 or [email protected]

Happy ring hunting and thanks in advance!

 PS:   Other bird species also have rings and it would be of help to report these too. The best place for this would be the ADU  021 650 3434 or [email protected] 

 ‘til next time.

Harrismith area

The week just past saw my colleague from the Ermelo area of the highveld, Ursula Franke and me visiting Harrismith.

When Bradley Gibbons left Memel, I visited that area here and there to keep in touch with farmers whose land hosted cranes. Then after an article in their local paper, I was told of very big flocks of cranes outside of Harrismith, so I enlarged my circle of friends and crane sightings with visits there as well. However, Ursula having never been there, expressed a wish to see that part of our country so that is where we went.

Those large flocks on the western side of the N3 were not around and it was somewhat distressing to hear locals say they have not seen them for a couple of seasons. Can not say why this is as there is still a lot of maize growing.

We spent a morning being shown around a few wonderful farms with magnificent wetlands where – yes, the owners want to do an inane development on them. 

The next day it was homeward bound and the thrill of seeing a large from of about 180 Grey Crowned Cranes in close proximity to some 40 Blue and 2 Wattled Cranes. At intervals we picked up on smaller numbers of cranes and on the entire trip, were amazed at how many Blue Korhaans we saw but rather distressed that in an area where on other occasions I have seen masses of Bald Ibis, we saw two single birds. Hopefully they were some place else.

Between Memel and Volksrust on a farm where cranes often are to be seen, we sat eating our lunch while observing about 45 Blue Cranes trying to keep their balance in high wind and a small number of Crownies paddling around in a dam! We were also amused by a Black Crow trying to fly but with the strong wind holding it back, making it look like a hovering Black Shouldered Kite.

Although short, the trip was a worthwhile exercise in that I caught up with a good number of farmers in both the Memel and Harrismith districts which enthused me to think about another trip down that way in the near future.

My feelings for that Harrismith area have always been happy ones – it really is a most beautiful place – and Ursula too, took a great liking to it and to the people we spent time with.

  ‘til next time.                                                      

Crane custodians

Something the EWT-Crane Conservation group (formerly the South African Crane Working Group) have done for many years, is to acknowledge farmers/landowners for taking an interest in the cranes that may grace their land. In various ways the owners have shown support – through contacting the field officer in their area about – sightings of flocks, pairs, problems with dead birds under powerlines, crop damage, sick, injured cranes, illegal taking of, usually, chicks from the wild, helping with ringing, returning birds to the wild and so on. I say “farmers or landowners” and this is because there are some people who do not own farms but perhaps smallholdings and some who do not actually have cranes on their land but who have become involved in helpful ways and they are also entitled to recognition.

We award a “Crane Custodian” board to such supporters and this they can erect at the entrance to their property or at their house entrance – or not at all as they see and think fit and generally the people who have received these boards are delighted with our means of saying “thank you” on behalf of the cranes and those working in this field, and are eager to help even more.

This month I have been so happy to present two boards to farmers, both families being supportive and enthusiastic.

The first was to Shua Joubert and his mother Lorna. Shua is running the family farms – his dad died when he was a young teenager and a manager took over until Shua had finished school, then helping him to take on the big responsibility facing him.

Shua has on many, many occasions phoned excitedly to tell me of flocks of cranes on the farms and to his great joy quite often all three species together. He is always thrilled to report interesting sightings –  a pair of Fish Eagles, Black Eagle pair and others. And they were both so delighted with the board.

The other board went to a family on the first meeting when my colleague Ursula and I went to visit them. On a number of occasions over the years they have reported flocks of cranes and sightings of other birds difficult to identify – these to Warwick Tarboton who forwarded this info. It was a full days’ trip to get there – they farm in the Devon area – for me a round trip of 2 km short of 600! But we both agreed, it was well worth the trip. What a splendid mum – Fay and youngest son Daniel who has just attained his majority -they are, and it was just a pity that we did not meet dad Richard Fickling.

They are thrilled about everything to do with the environment, both Fay and Richard having trained many years ago as zoologists at Natal University and are prepared to help with monitoring, observations etc. – and Fay was ecstatic about receiving a board.

We so badly need landowners such as these and although there does seem to be more support and awareness, there is still a long way to go before we can say the majority of landowners are environmentally friendly. We will just keep trying!

  ‘til next time.                                                      

NAMPHO

NAMPO is a term given to the largest agricultural show in the southern hemisphere, located near the Bothaville town in the Free State province of South Africa. It is called NAMPO Harvest Day as it is a celebration of the harvest of maize. This is where thousands of farmers – over 60 000 visit the show and can look at various equipment used on farms from Apparatus to Zinc. It is a wonderful opportunity for me to meet and see various farmers from across the country and speak to them about cranes and in some cases also give them more information about other working groups of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Many farmers were met during the show and contact details and information about cranes was obtained from farmers.  Many of them reported seeing cranes on their farms in areas where there are no field workers, which provided us with more information about cranes.  I enjoyed attending this show and it is always a lot of fun and worthwhile to see so many farmers in such a short time.

Its that time of the year again…….

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“Beautiful colours of an autumn wetland” -Picture taken by Glenn Ramke

Brrrrrr – oh wow, did the weather change suddenly or what! We were all wondering when winter was coming as days were beautifully mild with only early mornings and evenings being chilly. Then, wham, there it was. First came the most awful wind, usually more an August early September type wind mildly blowing all Saturday but building up until Saturday night made one wonder if any roofs would be on houses the next day. This went on for most of Sunday, lessening later in the day but being followed by really cold air creeping in every crack. Funny how one does not notice those gaps in windows and doors until cold wind is pushed through them!

At this time of winter the grasslands and wetlands are looking lovely – having shed their summer green for golden browns but before the fires begin turning the landscape into a rather dreary black and with winds coating everything with fine grey dust.

The cranes are a bit of an enigma at the moment, especially the Blue’s. The Crownie flocks are building up in numbers and always there is a chance to see youngsters amongst them and there are usually a few Blue Cranes with them. A report has come in of a nice flock in an area I have not heard from in previous years – it seems that more people are reporting sightings each year so perhaps we will find more places where the flocks spend winters.

We are very excited about the “Back a Buddy” fund raising campaign on the internet at the moment. This is to raise funds for the crane project in Wakkerstroom and within a short time almost the half- way mark of our target has been reached. Any readers who have not heard about it please go to  http://www.backabuddy.co.za/cranes  to find out more about this project and the campaign.

  ‘til nest time.

Run away fires

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“Ominous smoke near wetland”  Picture taken by Glenn Ramke

In my last contribution I said I had not been out to the Memel  area much this “winter” which should have read “summer” and could have been a bit confusing to readers in the northern hemisphere who know we are now heading out of summer and into winter – and cranes breed in summer! Another senior moment!

With winter comes the constant concern about fires – run away fires that over the past few years seem to cause more devastation each winter. It is still too early in the season to really worry yet – those days and nights usually come around late June through August when living right alongside the vast tall reed wetland of Wakkerstroom as I do, you find yourself constantly checking for smoke, especially on very windy days which seems to be the favourite time for fires to get going and keep going breaking all speed records as the flames race through grasslands and wetlands, devouring all before them.

So it came as quite a shock when after lunch on the 30th April I looked out to see smoke billowing in ever increasing volume across the wetland and with the howling gale blowing, visions of a blackened wetland rose in front of my eyes. I raced around to the BirdLife property and it appears that a spark from a tractor cutting grass must have started the fire. The fire engine from the nearest town 30 km away was on its way and once there, with a number of people beating the flames, it was controlled before getting to grips with the wetland proper. They managed to control it just as it started burning the reeds on the edge. Wow!

And winter proper has not even started!

‘til next time

Crane Cottage pair

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“Crownie with injured leg – Picture taken by Glenn Ramke” 

Quite often I have mentioned how rewarding it is to sit and watch animals – I may add, being of restless nature, that it is not something I have always done! And looking for birds, even big cranes needs a reasonably regular “stop to check” through binoculars, especially in the grasslands and especially in the later part of the morning when the light plays tricks of deception with shadows, sheep and tufts of grass!

An event that saddened me last week was finding the first Grey Crowned Crane chick to hatch and fledge on the Wakkerstroom wetland this season, with a badly injured leg. This pair is known to me as the “Crane Cottage” pair.

On my way elsewhere I had called past their site and saw them in the reeds seemingly fine but I did not see the pair across the wetland so on my return from a farm visit, I went back there and saw the other pair but to my distress this side pair with just 2 adults. They seemed very concerned about something and then I saw movement in long grass not far from them. Although some 700 meters from them , when I go out of the vehicle they both moved right up to that patch of grass and then I saw it was the chick lying down.

This is pretty unusual for such a large chick and as I watched it I realised it was injured or sick and decided to go to it as if it was very badly injured I could perhaps see what the cause was – this information we rarely get – but as I got closer, it took a short flight to the adults then as I went a bit further it took off with the adults following it to the edge of tall reeds so at least I knew it could fly.

On returning later that day – this site is just 4 km from my house – no birds were to be seen and the following evening just 1 adult which gave me hope as this pair appears to have one adult spending the night with the young in the reeds while the other one roost’s elsewhere. On two more visits I failed to find any birds and my spirits were at a low ebb.

Then today, Sunday, I went out there again seeing the pair across the wetland and thrilled to see the young one flying short distances – but not the Crane Cottage pair. However I decided to visit an area about 1 km as the crane flies from there and where I have seen them previously and after a lot of searching through the binoculars, I saw 3 heads amongst the short reeds of a small wetland. I was sure it was the pair with the injured chick when I saw the one close to 1 adult using its wings to help it move around to feed! I was overjoyed as we know of lots of 1 legged cranes particularly in the Western Cape, who survive in that state. Fortunately this little one’s wings are already strong and presumably its good leg will heal and possibly in time be able to support it a bit.

The one question that will never be answered is, how did the injury happen? Was it in a fence or caught in something else in the wetland or was it hit by a stick or stone being thrown at it?

‘til next time

  

Winter is here!

Today, winter has arrived on the South African Highveld!  The bright yellow and red autumn leaves are still clinging to the branches as a very cold wind blows them around and the clouds obscure all sunshine that could have warmed the day.  Fortunately the last couple of days had lovely weather, which was great for field work.  One farm visit in particular had me very excited… Mpumalanga’s ornithologist and I spent some time around the small towns of Carolina and Chrissiesmeer in search of interesting birds.  Our last stop for the day was on a beautiful farm north-east of Chrissiesmeer.   

With a refreshing glass of cold water and two dogs stretched over my feet, the farmer told us about the birdlife on his farm.  He had Barn Owls and several species of swallows nesting near the house, Secretarybirds, Blue Korhaan and Kori Bustards, and a pair of Grey Crowned Cranes that nest adjacent to a little pan near his house.  Oh yes and some Wattled Cranes.

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Crownies relaxing in the afternoon sun. (Photo: Ursula Franke)  

The last comment left me staring at him with wide eyes and a wildly beating heart.  In a very unsteady voice I asked him whether he was certain that it was, indeed, Wattled Cranes he saw… Oh yes, was his answer, every summer there are three Wattled Cranes that frequent his and the two adjacent farms.  Where they go to in winter he does not know but each summer they are back.  Whether it is three adults or (hopefully) a pair and their fledged chick we also do not know. Oh but the excitement!  With only about 260 of these majestic cranes left in South Africa and of those only a few pairs in Mpumalanga, this is very exciting news indeed!  There is a large wetland near these farms that had a historic Wattled Crane nest site – we are planning an expedition to this wetland within the near future in the hope of perhaps finding the three elusive Wattled Cranes there…