3 December 2013 - The project “South meets North, a partnership linking Sooty Falcon conservationists”, submitted by The Peregrine Fund, was approved in the 2012 round of the CMS Small Grant Programme. The project aims at building a partnership between experts from the species’ breeding (Oman) and wintering grounds (Madagascar) and developing a strategy for continued cooperative work between the two countries.
The Sooty Falcon Falco concolor is a medium-sized falcon with an elegant, slender silhouette, and the plumage varies with age. The adult is entirely mid-grey with darker primaries and tail-tip, whereas the head of an immature is dark brown with a broad moustachial stripe and the underparts are pale ochre-brown with heavy blackish streaking.
The ecology of this species is poorly known and Omani biologists believed that Oman holds 15 per cent of the global breeding population. Preliminary analyses suggest that there has been a drop of about 15 per cent in the Omani population between 1978 and 2007. The Sooty Falcon’s conservation status was recently downgraded by IUCN to “Near Threatened” in 2008. The Office for Conservation of the Environment (OCE) is studying this species by conducting two annual surveys, satellite tracking, pollutant analysis, DNA analysis, diet analysis and behavioural studies to add to the data deficiency of this falcon.
In Madagascar, the investigation showed that the level of knowledge about Sooty Falcons among the Malagasy people is extremely low. There is confusion with other kestrel species when the bird is in flight; many people do not know that it is migratory, and those that do know lack knowledge on where it breeds and when it arrives in and departs from Madagascar. Despite Madagascar being the main non-breeding wintering area, no studies have been conducted on this species there.
This migratory species breeds solely in the Middle East and northeastern Africa, and winters mainly in Madagascar with some going to south-east Africa. Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are important breeding areas. The breeding season starts in late July, and in November the migration period begins. The Sooty Falcon feeds mainly on small birds during the breeding season, while aerial insects are important prey during their winter in Madagascar. The Sooty Falcon is listed in Category I (Globally Threatened and Near Threatened species) of the CMS Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Birds of Prey in Africa and Eurasia (Raptors MOU). The Coordinating Unit of the Raptors MOU has established a Working Group and is overseeing the development of an International Single Species Action Plan for the Sooty Falcon. You can find more information here. The partnership study aims to collect information both in the breeding and non-breeding period and by so doing link researchers in both areas. The information will be used to support the drafting of a conservation action plan and to develop a clear picture of the birds’ year-round ecological needs. The initial project implementation focused on a field visit in Oman by two Malagasy biologists, and this has been completed.
Field work was carried out in Fahal Island (Oman) between 27 September 2013 and 9 October 2013. It was conducted by two Malagasy biologists from The Peregrine Fund’s Madagascar Project, five Omani biologists from the OCE, and Dr. Mike McGrady. Fahal Island is a spectacular limestone island which despite its small size holds a high concentration of nesting Sooty Falcons. Its steep limestone structure and poor landing opportunities makes access very difficult but provides good nesting opportunities for Sooty Falcon. Access to the island is restricted and permission to land must be sought with the Royal Oman Police. From the island’s summit, 400 metres high, one has good views of falcons hunting and returning with prey.
Proper fitting of satellite tags is important to ensure that the tag does not interfere with normal movement and behaviour. Field work on Fahal Island was conducted from 5:30-11 a.m. and from 3:00-5:30 p.m. We fitted five small backpack solar PTT (platform transmitter terminal=satellite tags) weighing 9.5 grams to young Sooty Falcons reared on Fahal Island.
Some accessible nests on the island were surveyed and the number of flying birds counted. During nest visits, all nestling were processed (weighed, ringed and a blood sample was taken for pollutant and DNA analyses). This field visit also provided the opportunity to see the Al Ansab wetlands, which are being managed by Haya Water, to observe other species of birds. Surveys started at 8.30 a.m. and ended around 10.30 a.m. All observed species were recorded and photographed. Two visits were made to the wetlands during this field work. The same techniques were used during two visits to the municipal rubbish dump, where vultures and other raptors were observed and attempts were made to count the avian scavengers utilizing the site.
Ninety-six individual Sooty Falcons occupying an estimated 40 nests were encountered on Fahal Island. There were 12 nestlings between five days and three weeks of age in 6 of the 40 nests; most of the young had already fledged. Nesting appeared to occur earlier this year than in previous years.
During the first visit on 29 September 2013, three young from two different nests were processed. The following day, two more nestlings from one nest were weighed. They appeared to be males based on their weight. On 1 October 2013, the fitting of satellite PTT tags and the first PTT satellite tag were fitted. Only one young was fitted because of the uncertainty of the time needed to handle each bird given that the fitting of the tag was also a training exercise in transmitter attachment.
On 2 October 2013, two representatives (the assistant Director General and the Financial Director) from OCE accompanied the falcon survey team to Fahal Island giving them a firsthand look at the research their organization supports. With the benefit of the previous day’s training, satellite transmitters could be fitted to two falcons during the afternoon. On 3-4 October a visit was made to areas where migratory and resident raptors congregate, primarily Egyptian vultures Neophron percnopterus and Steppe Eagles Aquila nipalensis.
On 5 October 2013, satellite tags were fitted to two young of Sooty Falcons from two different nests. A total of five young Sooty Falcons were radio tagged during our field work in Oman. In addition to the work on Sooty Falcons we observed and recorded other bird species. Forty bird species were recorded during visits to the Al Ansab wetland and to the Muscat Municipal Rubbish Dump at Al Multaqua. Those 40 species comprised four birds of prey, 14 terrestrial birds and 22 waterbird species.
About 300 Egyptian Vultures of different ages, mostly adults, and three Steppe Eagles were counted. Despite the limited time the first phase of this project was successfully completed. The research team gained firsthand experience on the breeding grounds, handled nestlings, learned how best tofit transmitters and most importantly, initiated collaborative work with Omani researchers at the OCE. The second phase of the project will occur in Madagascar during early 2014, the winter period for Sooty Falcons, when biologists from the OCE will come to Madagascar to participate in field work on the falcons. The partnership between Oman’s OCE and The Peregrine Fund’s Madagascar Project was successfully initiated thanks to CMS support.
Photographs courtesy of Lily Arison Rene de Roland
THE PROJECT OF THE MONTH
During the 2012 round of the Small Grant Programme a total of 75 applications was received and 12 projects were selected for funding. In the coming months each of these projects will be featured on the CMS website in a new “Project of the Month” series that will show the activities that are taking place within each project and the conservation impact on the species concerned.
The Small Grant Programme supports projects that are implemented on the ground with a strong focus on the conservation of species listed in the CMS Appendixes. It shows that CMS can really make a difference when it comes to improving the status of the species concerned working in close contact with the local communities.
During the period 2012-2014 the Programme is being generously funded by UNEP.