Two days before I flew home I sprang out of bed and bounced around my cottage, because today was the day I’d get to see my favourite species of vulture up close. Unfortunately, for almost three weeks Lindy and I had been stuck in Durban, as the somewhat decrepit project vehicle had ended up spending 2 weeks at the mechanic’s for some much-needed TLC. This meant that there was not enough time to do a final check of our nests before I was due to fly home. But, as luck would have it, Andre Botha − one of the country’s head honchos for birds of prey conservation and the man that put me in touch with Lindy − was organising the processing of a vulture nestling just down the road and invited us along.
I loved the project’s hooded vultures but my first vulture love was the lappet faced, and that was the species I’d be just feet from − if I could contain my excitement and stand still! We arrived at the reserve just a minute or so behind the others, and were soon joined by a cherry picker (a vertically extending work platform mounted on the back of a lorry) courtesy of the electricity company Eskom. We reduced the size of the convoy by ditching some of the 4x4s, and bundling onto the back of an open-backed truck before heading off-road and into the bush. Unlike hoodies, which nest under the canopy, lappets nest right at the top of trees and the pair that had made this nest had chosen a knobthorn tree, not a fun tree to attempt to climb, hence the cherry picker.
We parked a little way from the tree and the processing station was set up with all manner of things; from scales to pieces of equipment I’d never seen before. Quick as a flash, Andre and Lindy were in the yellow bucket of the cherry picker and moving swiftly to the top of the tree. As Andre leaned from the bucket to pick up the nestling, it swung at a precarious angle and for a few moments it looked as if he would be joining the bird in the nest. After a couple of tense seconds Andre had the bird safely in his arms, its head was covered to keep it calm and then they were back on the ground and ready to begin.
The nestling was a beast, absolutely huge! The bird’s size shouldn’t have come as such a surprise considering the adults can weigh up to 14kg, but when I think of nestlings I automatically think of the small birds back home that could fit in my hands. But, this bird was so big I would have barely been able to hold it in my arms. The bird was weighed and then almost every part of its body was measured from beak to feet. A large metal ring with an identifying number was fitted around the left leg with a large pair of pliers. Next, numbered plastic tags were attached to a section of the skin on the wings, essentially the elbow, just like piercing an ear. Although leg rings and wing tags are useful in finding out where an animal has been, they only work if someone sees the bird, writes down the numbers and reports it. A more reliable but, less long term, piece of equipment that can be fitted is a solar powered GPS backpack, and that is what was attached next. The straps of the backpack are made of a biodegradable material so after a few years the device just falls off. As unscientific as it sounds, it looked adorable. The last thing that needed doing was the taking of a blood sample to determine the sex, amongst other things. As the genitalia of vultures is internal, there is nigh on no visual difference between the sexes, so gender can only be determined non-invasively by looking at the genetics, therefore a few drops of blood were taken from the bird’s foot ― and it was a gigantic foot. Within 15 minutes it was all over and the bird was back in its nest waiting for its parents to return and feed it.
It was an enormous privilege being less than a metre away from such a captivating animal. I never dreamed I’d be able to see an animal that was so close to my heart within touching distance, let alone a wild one. It was great to see such a variety of interested people turn up to see vulture research in action. Hopefully they would tell others about what they saw, and this will stimulate interest and spread awareness about research into vulture conservation and how important it is.