From left to right:
Back row: Kirsten Steytler (FreeMe KZN Clinic Manager), Kelsey O Connor (FreeMe KZN Wildlife Rehabilitator), Ben Hoffman (Director: Raptor Rescue), Wendy White (Bat Specialist), Wade Whitehead (FreeMe KZN CEO), Johan Whitehead (FreeMe KZN Volunteer), Heather Gero (Newcastle SPCA), Angus Burns (World Wide Fund for Nature)
Front row: Shannon Hoffman (CEO African Raptor Centre), Sylva Francis (Newcastle Wildlife Rehabilitator)
Written by Tammy Caine – Projects and Programmes Coordinator/Bird of Prey Specialist – FreeMe KZN Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (with photos supplied by the author)
Every year, tiny birds of prey known as Amur falcons undertake an arduous migration from their summer breeding grounds in Siberia, China and Mongolia to spend the summer with us in South Africa. This migration covers 22,000 kilometres and includes the longest sea-crossing of any migratory bird of prey.
The global population of these birds is estimated to be about one million, but not all of this population settles in South Africa for our summer. Their migration route takes them across Asia, with their first stopover being in Nagaland in India, where they refuel before crossing the Arabian Sea. Their trip across the Arabian Sea takes five days and is planned to coincide with a dragonfly migration, which keeps them fuelled for the crossing.
Their next stop is in Ethiopia before they head down the African continent to South Africa, where they’ll remain from November to March before flying back to their summer breeding grounds in the north.
On the 9th of March 2019, the Mooi River Amur falcon roost, which comprises between 5,000 and 8,000 birds, was hit by a hailstorm. Members from Nsele Emergency Services, Mooi River and District SPCA, as well as members of the public, rushed to the scene to discover that around 700 birds had been killed, and over 1,000 were alive but grounded, drenched and injured.
The rescue operation took most of the night, and the rescued birds were driven through to FreeMe KZN Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, where staff and volunteers were on standby to receive them. The team worked into the early hours of the morning of the 10th of March to stabilise each of the tiny patients.
By mid-morning, veterinarians and members of the public joined the FreeMe KZN staff and volunteers to assist with the treatment of the falcons. Those with with minor injuries that were showing strong signs of recovery were treated, rehydrated, given pain meds and transferred to the outside Raptor Flight Tunnel at FreeMe KZN. The more severely injured falcons continued receiving treatment under veterinary care in the clinic.
On the 11th of March, a team of registered SAFRING bird ringers arrived to ring and release those birds that had made a complete recovery in the Raptor Flight Tunnel. In total 1,090 falcons were safely released over the next three days, and 18 birds still remain under care at FreeMe KZN with breaks that will need several weeks to heal. These birds will have to remain with FreeMe KZN until their flock arrives again in November 2019.
Just as the team at FreeMe KZN were recovering, a second hailstorm hit the Amur falcon roost in Newcastle, KZN, on the 2nd of March. This larger roost can have 10,000+ falcons roosting there every summer. The hailstones that hit the roost were much larger than those that hit the Mooi River roost, and, sadly, 2,000 falcons died as a result.
The live birds were rescued and settled into the garage of local wildlife rehabilitator Sylva Francis, in Newcastle. Teams from FreeMe KZN and the African Raptor Centre joined the group in Newcastle and worked until late to ensure as many falcons as possible were treated, and if revived, uninjured and able, released again. A total of 800 birds from the Newcastle roost were released, with 27 returning with the FreeMe KZN team to join the Mooi River falcons needing over-winter care.
FreeMe KZN is incredibly proud of its staff and volunteers and very grateful to the organisations, vets, rehabilitators, bird ringers and members of the public who came to assist, and who supported us with donations and supplies.
For anyone wanting to donate towards the ongoing treatment costs of the birds still under our care, you can use this account specifically set up for the Amur falcons:
FNB – Howick Branch
Account number: 625 282 27433
Reference: Amur and your name
Any help we receive is gratefully accepted, thank you!
Here are some links to videos on the Facebook page:
For more information about FreeMe KZN Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, contact them on 033 330 3036, email either firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, visit www.freemekzn.co.za or follow them on Facebook.