Blue Cranes Breeding on Welgevonden

By Phillipa Myram, Assistant Volunteer Research Co-ordinator

It is always a spectacular sight to see the Blue Crane (Anthropoides paradiseus) on Welgevonden Game Reserve however it is an extra special sighting when there are two chicks accompanying the parent birds.

These unassuming birds are near-endemic to South Africa, with small breeding populations also found in northern Namibia. Despite Blue Cranes being the national bird of South Africa the species is under threat, having rapidly declined in recent years and are consequently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. These birds remain relatively common in parts of the historic range, with an estimated population of about 25,000 within South Africa. The population seems to have stabilised since expanding into agricultural areas of the Western Cape after the conversion from Fynbos and Renosterveld vegetation. The overall population is presumed to have declined by 20-49% over the last 39 years. Only a small, about 100 birds, call the Waterberg their home and very little is known about this population with only sporadic regional research being done.

Primary forage is plant material, including the seeds, roots, tubers and bulbs, but they will also take animals including insects, worms, crabs, fish, frogs, reptiles and rodents. This varied diet originates from the natural grass and sedge-dominated habitats Blue Cranes prefer for breeding however they will occasionally breed in or near wetland areas. These preferred habitats are typical of the landscape in the southern part of Welgevonden Game Reserve with wetland sites nestled between the vast open plains surrounded by the Waterberg Mountains. Welgevonden Game Reserve is one of the sites where these birds do breed depending on the prevailing conditions. Some years they are not seen and during others Welgevonden has had up to 6 breeding pairs as well as the sub-adult group. Blue Cranes are altitudinal migrants for breeding purposes and breed between August and April with a peak in November.

The causes of the tragic decline of Blue Crane numbers is largely due to agricultural poisonings, power-line collisions and the loss of prime grassland breeding areas due to afforestation, mining, and agricultural and land development. Because the Blue Cranes are social birds, these incidences often involve multiple individuals and future declines will continue unless the correct conservation measures are implemented. Humans pose one of the greatest threats to the species through changes of agricultural crops and an increased human population in agricultural areas. Climate change could also dictate changes in agricultural practices and that may be detrimental to the species.

Since the mid-1980’s, conservation efforts have expanded to alleviate the difficulties Blue Cranes face, improving the efforts to better understand the species and it’s plight. This has included mitigating power-line collisions; addressing illegal trade and adopting stricter legal protection; implement surveys across South Africa to improve research and knowledge of the biology and ecology of Blue Cranes; protecting the habitat and organise management programmes; and establishing of local conservation organisations, and development of educational facilities, programmes and publications. Further conservation actions which are due to be implemented include preventing grassland conversions; discouraging the taking of fledglings from the wild; population monitoring and establishing research initiatives; and promoting responsible use of agrochemicals. Of these proposals, the introduction of more ecologically sensitive agrochemicals and stricter controls has already reduced the number of poisoning incidences. This is encouraging that a combination of these measures can assist with securing the future of the Blue Crane.

This special sighting gives promise that Welgevonden Game Reserve can provide the ideal breeding habitat for Blue Crane’s, and as a recently proclaimed protected area, will continue to do so for many decades to come. With future conservation actions in place we can be hopeful that they will continue to be seen on Welgevonden and that many more individuals return to breed.

 

Photos: Phillipa Myram and Andre Burger