The Last Bird

Ann, the African white-backed vulture preparing for her release
Ann, the African white-backed vulture preparing for her release

So with only a Tawny eagle to show for our efforts after three long days of trapping, we still had work to do. We had a test unit that needed to get deployed, so I could decide which units we would be using during our July trapping session. We really needed one more bird.

We had found the ultimate trapping spot – a quite cove surrounded by a small river with trees protecting it, making it difficult for mammalian scavenger to tell if a vulture was landing on a nest or on the ground. We had tried it a few times before and despite a great turn out of vultures had been unable to snag one. Today we would give it one last go before giving up and moving somewhere else.

At 8 o’clock we dropped the meat and set up the nooses. Then we waited. The first birds to arrive were more Tawny eagles. They stepped carefully around the nooses, aware they were there but unconcerned. Their feet are tiny compared to a vultures, so the nooses generally shouldn’t catch them, but in trapping there are no guarantees. My heart was racing as three African white-backed vultures came zooming onto the meat. They dropped from the sky with such speed that you could hear their wings against the wind, like tiny jet airplanes. The odds were slowly shifting in our favor. More African white-backed vultures landed and slowly the squabbling started. As birds jumped around I could see the black loops we had set out slip over and off their feet. We just needed one to stick. Then with an angry screech as one vulture attacked another, they all jumped off the meat. Everyone moved a few feet away except for one bird. He seemed confused, hadn’t he jumped just like the others. We got one!

We drove up and I nearly tripped as I came tumbling from the moving vehicle. The bird was quickly in hand and we put on the new unit, took some blood, and attached a wing tag. Kasine, who had joined us for the day, named the bird Ann after his girlfriend.

The bird was surprisingly mellow, especially for an African white-backed vulture, and only vomited slightly. Our scale showed the bird to be about 5.5 kg (nearly 11 lbs) – not bad for such a long distance mover. When all our work was through, the bird was ready for release. My heart was still in my throat from the adrenaline rush of the catch. I grasped the bird tightly around the neck and feet as I prepared for release. In my first vulture release, I had been terrified that the bird would turn around and come after me, but I knew better now. I set the bird down, releasing the feet first and then the head. With great effort (as always), the vulture ran forward and leapt into the air, wings flapping hard to lift its heavy body. Within moments the bird was airborne and off to its next adventure. Where would the bird go next? With the unit attached, we would know in a few hours.

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