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Published: April 10th 2015
Ready for release
(We are ready to hit the long road again and to my surprise I find unpublished blogs waiting patiently for publication; that is what happens while life gets a grip on you) The long awaited call came suddenly, unexpectedly in the middle of a meeting addressing fundraising for the conservancy. I did not recognise the number and let it go, but the caller was persistent and on his 4th attempt I answered.
“Are you still keen to help with banding raptors? Can you be ready at 5 tomorrow morning?” And without waiting for an answer, the caller went on: “Be ready at 5, it’s gonna be a long day, bring lunch, something to drink, your binocs and a camera that goes rattattat; you know, one of those machine gun style jobs; so you can capture the release shots.”
I don’t have a rattattat camera, my happy snapper on its ‘Kids and Pets’ setting would have to do- but I do have lots of enthusiasm and a pair of binocs. I had the most awesome day at first observing and then helping in the Breede Valley yesterday. The overused awesome becomes AWESOME when you get drawn onto an exercise of
Prepping the cage for the next capture
In the presence of a pro who knows a good deal more than what’s written into “The Raptor Guide of Southern Africa”; which my son had given me for my birthday two years ago; stuffed into my backpack at the last minute; one feels small, unworthy and can only admire one, who has in his lifetime banded in the region of 40 000 birds. This pro I might add is a medical doctor from the UK, who almost annually comes back to his roots and for weeks on end does his bit for the environment, for Africa and just because he cares.
Bouncing along the corrugated road in the pre-dawn glow in the back of the twin cab surrounded by binocs, cameras, spray bottles, cooler bags and of course our VIP helpers; the ladies-in-waiting - more about them later- on our way to the Malagas Pont; I heard some stories interrupted at intervals by admonishments from our pro to concentrate; to focus and short turnoffs into farms in search of birds atop power lines or fence poles. At this point let me explain: it wasn’t our pro telling the stories, but an old-timer helper kindly putting
me in the picture. Some of the stories deserve a good old South African “Ja. Well. No. Fine” and in that category they’ll stay until I have a chance to verify.
Did you know that thanks to stainless steel rings – which last a long, long time - been used on the birds that the statistics get very interesting. A Cape Robin Chat was re-captured 7 years after its first ringing 3 and a half kilometres from its origin. If you think that’s a long time the record is 41 years, apparently you can check it out on the SAFRING website. I haven’t, yet. I heard with amazement that the Steppe Buzzards we catch today will be migrating more than 10 000 kilometres all the way to Siberia during our winter for breeding purposes. My raptor guide verifies that.
We were off to an inauspicious start, not being in a hurry to cross the pontoon which only opens for action at six; we took our time, spotting very few birds and none interested in our ladies-in-waiting.
Which brings me to our ladies-in-waiting, rats bought from various suppliers, duly listed in our story teller’s phone contacts as RAT
Andre, RAT Johan, RAT Wouter etc. Believe me; the success of captures gets measured against the suppliers. Fear not, in the many years of ringing, not one rat has succumbed to the onslaught of a hungry raptor. The rodents are well protected in their little home-made bal-chatri, they are soothed after each encounter with whispered sweet nothings, a gentle stroking and a soft mist of water sprayed to soothe them in the heat of the day. We had 5 for the day, taking it in turns of twos and threes to do duty for king and country. It seems it is the norm for each rodent to earn its nickname based on its actions and idiosyncrasies. The stories that flow from that would take a tome to tell, and although hilarious detract from my actual story. I leave it to your imagination.
I was not unfamiliar with the word bal-chatri, in association with ornithological research for the capture of raptors for banding but it sure is the first time I have been exposed to one.
Ours was a little home-made contraption; a wire mesh cage with nooses, to entangle the raptors’ feet, over the roof area made of
what seemed to be fishing gut. The bottom of the cage was weighted with lead to prevent the ensnared raptors from taking the rodents hostage, cage and all. The cage is double walled, to protect the rodents from the onslaught of the enemy and to prevent them from nibbling at and damaging the nooses. The handle attached to the roof by a longish rope makes it easier to deploy the trap from the slowly moving vehicle. There’s an art to deploying the trap close to likely candidates in such a way that temporary stress is minimised for both raptor and bait.
Our pro’s bedside manner did him in good stead when banding, measuring and weighing our captives. All manner of data is recorded; the bird is prodded, stretched, measured, blindfolded; popped into a bag upside down and weighed. All throughout it maintains its dignity with haughty majesty and you cannot help but know that you are in the presence of one of our Creator’s masterpieces.
By the time we got to the Malagas Pont: by the way quite a historic spot, being the last remaining human operated pontoon in South Africa and providing a vital link for farmers,
locals and even tourists between the west and east banks of the Breede River; I was thoroughly disillusioned – no raptors - and hungry – who wants to eat at five in the morning. To add insult to injury, the pontoon was lying unmanned on the opposite bank, and as we laid into the hooter to attract the operator’s attention; a loud swoosh alerted us to a very flat tyre.
Things got better after that, very much better, wonderful in fact. The photos tell their story and I hope to get some pics from another helper’s rattatatt camera to try and portray the awesomeness of our day. Four hours into our foray we struck it lucky; in an area we will forever refer to as the Vale of Crickets. Hundreds, literally hundreds of birds were foraging in a burn slashed wheat field, hopping, darting and pouncing on a billion crickets. We took our chances that bulging bellies would want some dessert.
It was wonderful to observe the different capturing styles of the birds, the intimidating posturing with magnificent wings upheld, the pouncing, bouncing, diving until that awful moment of ensnarement. Then our momentary regret for having captured such
a magnificent creature. Interesting was the stoical acceptance of fate and quiet submission to the indignities that went with being banded. Words cannot describe the moment of realisation of release, that surge of power, the regal posturing before departure.
I can only ponder on how blessed I am to admire our Creator’s handiwork at such close quarters.
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