It wasn’t hard for Spyker the secretary bird chick to make avian history. At 3.5 kg, he was the perfect size, and all Ernst Retief had to do was carefully remove him from his parents’ nest – and give him his first “cellphone”.
Retief, joined by fellow conservationist Hanneline Smit, strapped the 80g satellite transmitter, made in the US, lightly to the body of the eight-week-old chick and watched as the coordinates were transmitted. These are sent to a datbase in the US, where they are downloaded to a database.
What makes all this significant is that it’s the first time that sophisticated tracking technology has been used successfully to reveal information about the charismatic secretary bird, whose daily movements have remained an enigma to conservationists, and which is fast disappearing.
“This is the first time that we are getting this kind of data from secretary birds,” explains an excited Retief, the regional conservation manager of Birdlife SA in Gauteng and North West.
“This week the chick left the nest and we will be able to get much more information about its movement. The locations are really accurate and we can see within 10m where it has moved or fed. We get about 30 to 40 of these locations a day.”
Birdlife SA is leading its pioneering project to glean valuable information about the regal species – where they go, where they sleep, feed and breed, where they die and whether they range on private or public land – which can be used to protect them more effectively.
Early this year, Retief received a call from the National Museum in Bloemfontein that a nest had been spotted on a private guest farm outside Bloemfontein.
“The farm owner was a keen birder and we started monitoring the nest. We need to put the tracker on when they are eight weeks old, otherwise they are too small and then after that they are old enough to leave the nest. So it’s only a small window of time,” explains Retief.
“When we went to fit the device on Spyker, he was lying on the nest on top of a small tree right in the middle of the grassland.
“If they are chicks, you can just climb on a ladder and take them out of the nest. They don’t kick and let you handle them. It’s quite easy to fit a tracker to them and then put them back on the nest. It took us 20 minutes and we’re getting good data.”
Free State radio station OFM sponsored the cost of the device and christened the young bird Spyker.
Smit, the conservation manager at Birdlife SA, explains that, now that the chick has fledged, the data received is becoming “more interesting and exciting”.
“The bird will still return to the nest site in the evenings for the next few weeks.”
After that, no-one knows.
“The GPS locality received is very accurate and is downloaded via satellites, whereas the actual data we receive are downloaded via the cellphone network. This will allow us to understand the bird’s daily movements and habitat use,” Smit explains.
The team tested the harness used on Spyker on a captive secretary bird held at the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve in Gauteng to ensure it interferes minimally with the bird’s daily activities.
Secretary birds, which feature prominently on SA’s coat of arms as a symbol of power and strength, were previously believed to be abundant in the wild, but last year the International Union for the Conservation of Nature updated their status from “least concern” to “vulnerable” globally.
In SA, more farms and commercial forestry plantations mean less space for the territorial bird, particularly in grasslands.
Until recently, explains Smit, no one saw any need to worry about the seemingly abundant secretary bird, famous for hunting snakes on foot, and which was a regular sight for birders.
But when they started to look at data from the South African Bird Atlas Project and its forerunner in the past decade, they saw huge declines in the numbers of secretary birds and had “real reason to get worried”, adds Smit.
The most drastic loss was in its grassland habitat.
“I was amazed at the start of the project because I thought there would be tons of information and scientific articles about the secretary bird, but there wasn’t,” adds Retief.
“It’s quite a conspicuous species and is easy to identify. But we didn’t have any data to tell us something might be wrong.
“The technology to fit these trackers must be small enough and light enough to fit on the birds, and it’s only in the last few years that this kind of technology has been developed.
“It’s exciting now to be able to learn about this bird. We want to know where the immature birds move. They are territorial and once they get larger, they start to make their own territories. In South Africa, we don’t really know where these young birds go to… it might be 1 000km or 30km.
“We want to find out what their territory size is and where they forage. The size of the territorty is important for conservation, because then we know which areas to protect.”
Secretary birds fall victim to secondary poisoning, collide with power lines and become entangled in barbed wire.
“We need to look at the role power lines, fences and roads play in their movement,” says Retief.
“Their territory in healthy grasslands is smaller, and in peri-urban areas there is less food and their territory is much larger.”
In the coming months, Birdlife SA plans to fit a tracking device to a secretary bird in Gauteng.
“We’re going to fit lots of these trackers on lots of birds and then compare them, and do it on birds in different habitats in the Kalahari and in the savannah areas to see if there are any other differences.”
The device, which is as big as a cellphone, is equipped with a solar panel, which charges its battery. But at about R10 000, it is costly, and Birdlife SA has campaigned for public support to help fund its project.
Retief envisions the project will run for five years. But to do this, its birds need to stay alive.
“The mortality rate is high. There are power-line collisions, and when they fly into barbed wire they get stuck. But the biggest issue for their decline is habitat loss. They need large areas to forage and that may be the biggest contributor to their declining numbers.
“It might be possible in the years to come that if we don’t conserve them, we might lose the species in total, that they could quickly move from vulnerable to extinct.”