6 Jul 2010

BirdLife Botswana Flamingo Research Update

By BirdLife.Botswana
Dr Graham McCulloch has been monitoring the globally threatened Lesser Flamingo in the Makgadikgadi Pans (Botswana) for over a decade, and one of the questions still unanswered is whether there is any link between the Southern and East African populations; if this were the case, it would have important implications for the conservation of the species. During 2005, satellite transmitters were deployed on eight Lesser Flamingos from Sua Pan, to find out more about their movements, and to determine whether they did indeed move as far as East Africa. These were battery-powered transmitters (without solar panels) and during the two years that they continued to function, Graham was able to determine that birds from Sua move all over Southern Africa, to the west coast of Namibia, Kamfers Dam in South Africa and even into southern Mocambique. Frustratingly however, none of these birds moved to East Africa! This does not mean that the Lesser Flamingos from Sua Pan don’t go to East Africa – only that these few individuals did not go there during the period of the study. Recently, Graham has been collaborating with the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and they have provided six of the latest solar-charged transmitters for fitting on Lesser Flamingos. This is easier said than done – just how does one catch a freeflying flamingo in the vastness of the Makgadikgadi Pans? In 2005 Graham caught the birds by setting hundreds of small noose-traps in the flamingos favoured feeding areas in the shallows of Sua Pan – once a bird’s foot becomes entangled in the noose, it can be captured without injury or undue stress. But there is more to this technique than betrayed by a simple sentence, as can be imagined! Firstly, it is important to identify the preferred feeding areas on a daily basis, and then set the snares at first light – thereafter, it is a question of waiting patiently at a distance until the birds eventually return and one gets caught! The first flamingo capture exercise this year took place during early May, just as a practice run, since it was apparent that suitable conditions for initiating this part of the project were returning. It is important to fit the transmitters just before Sua Pan dries up, so that the birds can be relatively easily caught, and will soon start moving away from the Pan – it is pointless paying for the expensive downloads of data from the satellite if the birds are not travelling more than a few hundred metres from one feeding area to another! Two adults were caught in the same number of days – and then late rains put paid to any further capture attempts as Sua Pan filled with water. By mid-June, the shallow, saline waters of Sua had evaporated sufficiently to permit a second capture attempt to be made. Alas, after a few days of setting the trap-lines early in the morning and retrieving them in the evening, no flamingos had been caught - round 1 to the researchers, round 2 to the flamingos… This is where the project stands at present – we are all looking forward to round 3 so that the real work can begin – that of unravelling the movements of these flambouyantly successful nomads. Future editions of this newsletter will provide regular updates, particularly once data become available showing where the birds are, so that the information on their movements can be used to better conserve the species.