Catching Amur falcons.

Amur hunting begins just after the call goes out for evening prayers at the Newcastle Mosque.
By then the sun has dipped below the horizon and the first Amur falcon tumbles into a high altitude mist net set up amongst the tall pine trees that line Allen street.

Members of BirdLife Northern Natal hoist the mist nets into pine trees. Picture Chris Collingridge

Preparations had began at least an hour before.

Mist nets are unravelled, then hoisted high into the air.
Rina Pretorius slides a CD into the car player and hits play. The CD contains a loop of Amur falcon calls- kew kew kew kew kew, over and over.

In bird ringing circles it is called play back, the idea is that it will draw the small raptors closer to the nets.

It is difficult to know if it works, because there are so many birds in the sky.
Today appearing in The Star newspaper is a follow up article I wrote on the amazing migration of these birds.

For two years scientists and bird enthusiasts have been monitoring the migrations of a handful of Amur falcons, as they move between South Africa and Mongolia.

This is what the satellite transmitters revealed-a journey of 14500 kilometres by a bird that weighs the same as a can of tuna

They have been allowed this peek because of tiny satellite GPS transmitters strapped to their backs.

Each of these birds were caught at the Newcastle roost.

But there is more reason to catch Amurs than to strap miniature transmitters to these pigeon sized birds.

While working on this story, photographer Chris Collingridge and myself joined a couple of bird ringers and academics from Wits University.

It was February on an overcast night and over 20000 birds had gathered above the roost, that is only about kilometre from the centre of  town.

As it drew darker, the birds got lower and lower and began dropping into the trees.

Most see and dodge the mist nets strung across their line of flight into the trees.
But the odd bird makes the mistake and the net snatches them out of mid air.

With each catch, the mist net is lowered and the bird untangled.

One of the Amur falcons fitted with the match box sized transmitters

Then the processing begins.

The bird is measured with callipers

Then Dr Craig Symes, an ornithologist at Wits draws blood.

The blood would later be used for DNA analysis.

PhD student Dewald du Plessis, is next, he scours the bird for “cargo”-lice.
The lice these falcons carry don’t suck blood, they feast on the carotene found in their feathers.

These are some of the oldest types of lice known to man.

“When lice first emerged they ate the carotene found on dinosaurs,” Dewald told us that night.

No one knows if the lice hitch a ride all the way to Mongolia.

The lice are just one of the many unknowns about this bird, that is so commonly seen across South Africa.

Another mystery is why 20000 of these birds cram themselves into a 400 metre line of pine trees.
“I think they come because they like us,” joked Rina, who is the driving force behind the Amur ringing project.
Some have suggested that by gathering like this the birds can communicate.

Possibly relaying information about food sources and other things.

A language we have yet to understand.
Before the bird is released an aluminium ring is placed around one of its feet.

With the ring secured, the Amur falcon is released to fly into the roost.

One day an Amur will be recaptured complete with ring. The information on that ring will help to unravel the mystery of this small bird with the big wanderlust.

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About Shaun Smillie

Journalist, with a love of bones, fossils and other things dug up. Fisherman and occasional beer maker.
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