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Wildlife Volunteering

What do students do after a Wildlfife course?  


The following text is an extract from a newsletter written by:

Frances Bell
A Wildlife Student
ACS Distance Education

Please note any opinions expressed in the document are solely those of the author and are therefore independent from ACS Distance Education, its employees or affiliates.

April 2014 
At least once I got to Jo’burg I found – oh joy! – there were not one, but two, buses going to Belfast at 6pm so I didn’t have to spend the night at Shoestrings, my usual backpackers.  The downside was that they didn’t care why I missed the earlier bus and I had to pay full fare again.  The airline didn’t provide me with a letter to say it wasn’t my fault and Citybug didn’t give me a receipt, so I can’t even claim this on my travel insurance.
It took us about half an hour to drive to Dullstroom.  Dullstroom seems like a dinky little town but it’s a mecca for fly fishermen, and boasts some of the most expensive rural real estate in the country.  The centre is on the way out of town and consists of a few lakes where fishermen can do their thing, as well as the aviaries where either birds of prey who can’t be released, or birds who are used in educational flight shows, are housed.  It being late and dark by the time I got there – close on 9pm – the most I could do was scrounge the cupboards for something to eat, and let everyone know I’d arrived in one piece and with sanity relatively intact.  My introduction to all the birds had to wait till the next day.
There is a volunteer house on the property but … I was grateful to share the owner’s house with Anna for all bar one night of my month there.  That’s misleading actually – Anna was often just plain not there so most of the sharing I was doing was with another volunteer, who arrived a few days after me.   I had a stipend for food so was able to cook for myself once more, and get my diet back to normal.

The morning after my arrival I met Jason, the existing volunteer, a beginner like me in terms of raptors but one who had a real affinity for the birds and who showed me the ropes.  Work was slow compared to everywhere else I’ve been – I don’t include the reserve in Limpopo in that broad comparison! – there were two feeding rounds a day, a bit of cleaning, involvement in the bird shows if we wanted it, and that was about it.  Anna went off somewhere for my first weekend, which left Jason and I virtually in charge.  Luckily one of the prospective buyers was getting involved in doing bird shows so it wasn’t up to us to conduct those, or to open the shop and cash up at the end of the day.  At least – not in the very beginning.

Jason and I split up the feeding round so we had roughly half each, and I also had charge of the breeding mice and rats, and 60-something day old chicks that had been rescued.  I have problems with the fact that in rehab centres here a lot of the animals get fed day old chicks that are the by-product of the whole egg/table chicken industry.  Sometimes the males, which don’t lay eggs so are considered “waste”, are simply thrown live into the equivalent of an industrial blender, but when they’re to be given to centres like Dullstroom they’re gassed.  It’s not a nice way to die and sometimes chicks survive the process.  In this particular instance, over 60 of them had been rescued from the plastic bags full of chicks that are collected, and were being raised under a heat lamp in one of the sheds.   We had one enclosure dedicated to adult rescued chickens, and I found it quite soothing to let them out from their night quarters and feed them at the end of my morning feeding round.  The rats had two lots of babies while I was there and they were so cute!

And then – I got a cold.  The first one in so long that I can’t even remember when I had the last one.  …

One of the birds used in flight shows was Colin, a pied crow who was incredibly smart and was a great income earner.  One of his party tricks was to take coins or notes offered to him by the public and put them into our donations bucket.  He became “mine” and since he was getting bored with his routine, I spent some time with him every day, training him to do a few more tasks.  As always I got very attached to him very quickly.  My aim was to teach him to count and I began with teaching him to pick up feathers and bring them back to me, but this ambitious undertaking was cut short.  A couple of weeks into my stay, Colin died.  We took him into the nearest vet in Lydenberg to have a post mortem conducted and it seems Colin simply starved to death.  I kick myself for not weighing him every day – every other bird used in flight demonstrations was weighed every morning but for some reason the rule wasn’t applied with Colin, which resulted in disaster.  ...  Sad to say I have no photos of Colin alive – I thought I had the whole month with him.  Having done rehab for so long, I should know that you can’t take anything for granted from one day to the next, and should have taken advantage of the opportunity for photos while I had them. 

There were no birds of prey to be rehabilitated so the month was spent learning about falconry and general care of raptors in captivity.  My only rehab experience there was to help raise a baby barn owl that came in a few days before I left.  Within two days of being at the centre I was learning how to tie falconers knots and handle and feed a little rock kestrel named Eric.   I also had basic lessons in lure swinging with the aim that by the end of the month I’d be competent enough to fly our Lanner falcon, Emily.  However, lure swinging didn’t exactly come naturally to me and though I’d mastered the basic swing, anything beyond that got quite ugly in very short order, and it’s fair to say that by the end of the month, I sucked at it!

I had somewhat of a crash course in handling the show birds.  I went down to the weighing room one morning after Jason had finished his volunteering stint with us, to find that Anna had not yet surfaced and hadn’t sorted out any of the birds used in the show.  I took a deep breath and rather nervously went and got every bird I thought I could handle – got all bar the lanner falcon and the peregrine falcon weighed and then made it a goal to be handling both of them by the end of my stay.  Lanner and peregrine falcons are stressy, nervous birds – particularly the peregrines – so must be hooded before they’re transported even as short a distance as the scales in the next room and for that reason I knew it would be a bad idea for me to attempt to weigh them.  There’s a knack to hooding a falcon so that it doesn’t become “hood-shy” or in other words, afraid of the hood, and I knew I had nowhere near enough training with the process to attempt it on my own.

The young lass who joined me shortly after my arrival, Emma, had been volunteering with a falconry centre in the UK for two years, so was able to teach me the basics of handling as well as a few other things.  I learnt to fly owls and the smaller falcons – something that would come in very handy as over the course of the month Anna disappeared more and more, leaving Emma and myself to run the centre, conduct shows and generally keep things on course.  As is always the case, I became very attached to all the birds.  Our flight display birds were:

Eric, the rock kestrel.  Eric was the smallest of our birds and he wasn’t regularly used in shows.  Towards the end of my stay I trained him every day, always flying from glove to glove and working with another person.  He got very wily on my last few days and took to flying off over the veld just when you least expected it.  By that stage Jason was back, and always volunteered to go and collect Eric from wherever he’d landed.  

Norman, the greater kestrel.  Norman was the first of the falcon family I was taught to fly so has a special place in my heart.  He was quite reliable and the awesome thing about him was that he loved to fly when it was windy; in those conditions he would also hover for me.  He was a pretty good hunter and during more than one show, surprised us all by hawking huge grasshoppers and still coming to the glove for his usual food.  Both Norman and Eric would start flapping enthusiastically whenever I went into their mews to collect them for whatever reason – not because they were glad to see me but because I ended up being the one who usually fed them!  Norman also began by landing on my shoulder during shows, parrot fashion, in an attempt to intimidate me for food but he soon figured out that tactic wasn’t going to work.

Emily, the Lanner falcon.  Emily was a young bird of about 8 months who was still building up her flight skills.  Some days it took her a while to warm up and other days she was really fast.  I never got to fly Emily since I needed to be a lot more competent with the lure – falcons always chase a lure when being flown in captivity, which simulates the way they would naturally hunt – but towards the end of my stay I did learn how to hood her so that I could weigh her and move her from night quarters to her mews.  I also got to feed her on the glove which was very cool.

Charlie, the Peregrine falcon.  Charlie was about 6 years old and the hope was that he would be rewilded, or “hacked back” as falconers say (it’s a whole other language!) in the fairly near future, to live out the rest of his days as nature intended.  Being a peregrine Charlie was much faster than Emily – the fastest recorded peregrine “stoop” is 412km per hour - and though he didn’t stoop from a great height to the lure as he would have done in the wild given adequate fitness, he was awe-inspiring to watch.  I loved to watch him buzz the audience and freak them out during a show!  I also got to handle and feed Charlie.  He needed very cautious handling as he was even more of a stress-head than Emily – well I guess when your eyes take in everything around you for miles in minute detail, you’re apt to be easily stressed.

Daffy and Landy, the spotted eagle owls.  They might be the same species but they were vastly different in personality!  Daffy had been raised from an abandoned egg so was completely imprinted.  She was a very laid back and affectionate bird and could be relied on to do anything asked of her during a bird show.  Landy, however, was a different matter entirely!  She took a dislike to me for some reason and would most often give me a threat display, which I could sometimes alleviate with the bribe of food.  Her behaviour during shows was unreliable … and at times she flatly refused to fly.  Well, you know what they say – never work with animals or children.

Barney and Heidi, the barn owls.  They were also vastly different in character.  Barney wasn’t often flown as he’d done more than his fair share of shows over the years and was only brought out on odd occasions. He was also a bit of a stress head and was sometimes difficult to get on the scales.  Heidi was flown more regularly and she was always very eager to come to the glove for me, as well as flying like a little champ.

Mojo the cape eagle owl.  Mojo was retired from shows and we’d been told he wouldn’t let anyone except the owner handle him – however I worked with him for the month and by the end of that time was getting him to fly to the glove in his mews for food.  Poor boy, while I was there it was officially breeding season for cape eagle owls and he desperately wanted a lady love to share the nest he scraped out of the corner of his mews.  I felt so bad for him – if I could have found him a suitable female I’d have put him with her.

Milo the European Hobby.  Milo had also temporarily been retired from shows, on account of his flying off and having to be retrieved from quite some distance during a show shortly before my arrival.  Milo had a reputation as being a bad boy so of course he became my special little guy!  I like to think we had a special bond, he was pretty nearly always very calm with me and would allow me to clean his beak after a feed – he was a very messy feeder!  He’d also look up at me with a certain expression in his eyes, and while I have no idea what was really going inside that birdie brain, I like to think it was something along the lines of “I love you, mummy….” .  By the end of the month I’d been taught to fly Milo on a lure so that he was getting some exercise every day.   Of course I cried to have to leave all the birds but walking away from little Milo completely broke my heart.

JB the Jackal Buzzard.  I didn’t get to do much with JB – he was in training so was still being flown on the creance or long line, but I did feed and handle him a couple of times.  I had intended to keep that up once Jason left but JB didn’t really take to me and would “bate”, or try to fly away from the perch, whenever I approached him.  I felt bad about that for about 5 minutes until I realized that he was like that with everyone, Jason included…. However Jason returned towards the end of my stay and JB once again got some flight time and some “manning” – which is not as bizarre as it sounds!  “Manning” simply means that one person spends time with the bird sitting on the glove – call it quality time, so that human and bird are able to bond.

Flight shows were based solely on the birds natural behaviours and this was why it was such a buzz to watch them or fly them every day.  Daffy and Landy would do their party tricks of swallowing whole day old chicks; Emily and Charlie astounded with their speed and accuracy, as well as the height they were beginning to gain when entering a stoop;  and I can’t describe the joy and wonder when Norman finally started hovering during shows. 

Aside from the show birds, there were secretary birds, yellow-billed kites, black-shouldered kites, African black eagles, fish eagles, Wahlbergs eagles, Bateleur eagles, tawny eagles, black breasted snake eagles, crowned eagles, a long crested eagle, an African hawk eagle, a fish eagle, Harris hawks, African goshawks, pale chanting goshawks, black sparrowhawks, peregrine and lanner falcons, a red-footed falcon, lizard buzzards, jackal buzzards, pearl spotted owlets, scops owls, southern white-faced owls, marsh owls, grass owls, wood owls – and cape vultures.

I know this will sound odd (you already know I’m weird, right?) but I got buzzed one night by some nesting swallows and it was so cool!

… I had an email from a friend at SANCCOB who let me know that they were advertising for permanent bird rehabbers.  I seriously considered applying until I remembered that the bird rehabber positions mean that you have to take it in rotation to manage the centre on weekends…. Which is absolutely not my cup of tea.  I don’t mind teaching people one on one, but I don’t want to manage, I just want to be at ground zero with the birds.

There were bonuses though – just being with the birds was a plus in itself, but then over the Easter weekend we had an “A” grade falconer come in to help us out.  I’d heard a lot about him and to be honest, was somewhat nervous.  He was mentoring a couple of very young volunteers who wanted to become falconers and was very strict in what they were and weren’t allowed to do, and any infringements or laziness was punished by taking away bird handling privileges – and after dealing with these kids for a couple of weeks I could see why!   But he turned out to be a really nice guy and taught me more in that one weekend than I’d learned in the weeks leading up to it.  He was also qualified, due to his “A” grade status, to handle the larger birds of prey like the eagles and sparrowhawks, and it was very satisfying to see them weathered outside an enclosure for a change.  I was shown how to “cope” a birds’ beak – in other words, trim it with a file to make sure any cracks or overgrowths were dealt with before it became a serious issue; was taught how to “cast up” or in other words, catch up and hold a bird of prey for examination, treatment, or fitting anklets; and discussed remedies for bumblefoot and replacing damaged feathers.  Ernest also taught me how to fly Milo on the lure and he was perfectly satisfied with the way I flew Norman and the owls.  Word is that he is to become the official falconer at Dullstroom and I sincerely hope that happens… his plan is to release all the birds that can be released, and for those that are too imprinted for release but can fly, to pass them on to reputable falconers so that they can spend the rest of their days being flown to catch their own food, yet still be safe with a handler who genuinely cares about them.  …  

One truly awesome task over the course of the Easter weekend was to fit anklets to one of our African black eagles, Ebony.  It took four of us, two to hold the feet, Ernest putting the anklets on and me at one point holding Ebony's breast to help stop her from getting up.  Thank goodness she had a jacket over her head so she couldn't see to snap at anyone - that would not have been fun!  I wanted to get photos of the whole process but you can't control a very strong, very pissed off black eagle AND take photos at the same time!

Disaster with one of our other African Black Eagles, Samantha, towards the end of my stay – she broke one of her legs whilst out on her “weathering” perch during the day over the Easter weekend.  We took her to the vet who performed surgery to pin the leg.  I have to say I really like the vets that we used in Lydenberg – they were all very caring and didn’t talk down to me when I asked questions about what was going on and what the prognosis was.  It was felt that Sam’s break was probably due to age – in effect she had osteoporosis, and we discussed amongst ourselves the possibility of getting quarters for her which had more light.  She was home from the vet by the time I left Dullstroom, in recovery in a large, dark box in the hospital room but I felt that she should have had access to at least a confined area with a broad spectrum UV light to aid her vitamin D uptake and thus, her healing.

By the end of the month I finally learned how to hood the bigger falcons, and managed with some success to get Emily and Charlie hooded, weighed, weathered outside, and then unhooded without too much stress either for them or for me.  …

And then that was it – it was the morning of my departure and I had to say final goodbyes to the birds.  Much as I love the majesty of all the bigger birds of prey, and awesome as all the raptor species are, it was the smaller birds who I developed a real soft spot for.  I still miss Milo and hope that someone is continuing to man him and fly him every day.  …

But I was now on my way back to CROW where more critters, and my South African “family”, were waiting.”


[26/01/2022 22:03:25]

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