Posted on the 2nd November 2014

(This article first appeared in the BirdLife South Africa e-newsletter of November 2014. - Ed.)
Birds do not know international boundaries. Herein lies the challenge of conserving migratory birds. They do not only face threats in one area, but face a variety of challenges as they fly across numerous nations and sovereign borders. Habitat loss at their breeding or over-wintering sites; direct persecution and hunting; everexpanding industrial development and multiple other threats along their long migration journeys, all impact on species survival.
Dale Wright, Western Cape Regional Conservation Manager for BirdLife South Africa’s Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBA) Programme, recently underwent a brief migration across the Atlantic Ocean to participate in a two-week course on the
Ecology and Conservation of Migratory Birds. The course was taught by members of the Migratory Bird Centre, a division within the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and hosted at the Institute’s training facility: The Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in Front Royal, Virginia, USA.
Each day began before sunrise with a mistnetting session, lessons on bird-banding best practice (bird ringing to those of us in South Africa), taking body size measurements and fitting tracking devices. Morning lectures covered topics such as basic migration ecology; life history evolution and physiology; bird breeding and moult strategies; tracking technologies; genetic techniques; isotope analysis and phenology. These jam-packed theoretical sessions were fortunately interspersed with outdoor practical sessions, to exercise our minds in a different way. The practical exercises taught point count and distance sampling methods, and using radio tracking equipment, while visits to an isotope and genetics laboratory and the ‘how to’ of museum study skin preparation added to the new experiences.
The intensive course exposed us to the latest, cutting-edge research approaches in migratory bird conservation, with a focus on providing a platform for the participants to follow-up and apply whichever of the tools and techniques learnt best suits their context back home. After some brief birding in the evening we also heard about each of the participant’s work programmes.
A total of 11 different countries were represented on the course and the diverse work experiences added more knowledge to our almost saturated minds. The instructors always ensured all participants were up to speed and the energy and enthusiasm from the course participants kept us going through the 15-hour days!
The experience was invaluable and I plan to provide a workshop for the BirdLife South Africa staff, and potentially members of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town, in order to share the lessons learnt. The nature of migration requires collaborative efforts and knowledge sharing between multiple partners and across borders. I must thank the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute for awarding me the scholarship that made it possible for me to experience this incredible opportunity, which also added many lifers to my personal bird list!
Dale Wright, Regional Conservation Manager, Western Cape


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