(This article originally appeared in 'The Kite' (No. 99 – Winter – May to July 2013), the e-newsletter of the Tygerberg Bird Club and is loaded with the permission of its editor. - Ed.)
On January 10, a migratory female Amur falcon, Falco amurensis, finally reached her winter home at Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal after an eventful 14500km journey from the falcon's breeding grounds in northern China and Mongolia which started in mid-October last year. The bird, weighing just 170g and with a wingspan of 65cm, was fitted with a satellite transmitter in January 2010 after being captured at the Newcastle roost by a team of raptor enthusiasts from South Africa and Germany The satellite tag has been transmitting information on the bird's movements to researchers on a regular basis ever since.
It is estimated that she has flown about 90000km on migration over the last three years between the wintering grounds in southern Africa and the species' breeding range in north-western Asia. The migratory route includes a 3000km flight across the Indian Ocean which relies on favourable tailwinds and is the longest non-stop migratory flight by any raptor known to man.
Bird enthusiasts in Gauteng - in fact anyone interested in seeing an extraordinary natural phenomenon - can witness the evening gathering of these tiny raptors in a grove of poplar trees in the heart of downtown Heidelberg, just 70km south of Sandton on the N3. They are enjoying the South African Highveld summer at one of many well-known roosting places around the province and in KwaZulu-Natal.
On a recent weekend my wife and I packed the trusty Nissan X-Trail and headed south for what turned out to be a memorable outing during which we witnessed one of the many miracles of nature. As the sun sinks in the west these little raptors gather in the sky by their thousands and just as darkness falls they suddenly descend and settle in a twittering mass.
Andre Botha, manager of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's birds of prey programme, estimated that there were close to 5000 of the birds, although it is extremely difficult for the untrained eye to make an accurate count. In some roosts, like the one in Newcastle, they can number up to 10000. The trust's programme conducted its annual national migratory falcon roost count at more than 50 roosts across South Africa.
Volunteers, like my wife and me, visited known roosts to count birds and the data collected from these counts will provide an estimate of the global population of the species and may also provide an indication of the impact of Indian massacres of the Amur falcon.
"Recent reports of large numbers of Amur falcons being slaughtered for food at their roosts in Nagaland in north-eastern India have caused concern for the long-term survival of this species. It was estimated that up to 145000 of these birds were caught and killed annually in the area."
An international outcry by conservation organisations against this practice, however, resulted in rapid action by Indian authorities and NGOs to bring the indiscriminate killing under control. A strategy is now being put in place to prevent future killings from happening and to encourage and support communities in Nagaland to find alternative sources of food. The tracked female is known to have been in the area when the massacres were taking place, but she was lucky enough to escape the hunt and resume her southward migration to reach the coast of east Africa in late November.
Ultimately she made her way to the winter roosts in the Kruger National Park and the Highveld of South Africa. Interested members of the public are encouraged to watch the daily roosting phenomenon in Heidelberg.
Take the Jacobs Street offramp from the N3 as you approach Heidelberg from the north. Less than 500m down Jacobs Street turn left into Voortrekker Street and turn left into an alley between a RFC outlet and a Spar, below a BP garage. There you will find a line of poplar trees behind the buildings. The birds start roosting between 7 and 7.30pm, soon after the sun has gone down. They start massing in the sky at around 6 to 6.30pm.
For more information about the Amur falcons contact Botha on 0829625725 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.