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Possible environmental implications revealed during the rehab of one Amur Falcon

I released an adult female Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) today (21/12/2021) on Soysambu Conservancy in front of long awaited approaching rain clouds. She left the hand and didn’t look back, climbing up in large circles… her long hobby-like thin wings beating hard till she was above the hill. Only then did she turn to circle over me very high. I’m sure I was long forgotten though that hardened but still silly emotional part of me hoped she’d look down and recognise me kindly. She was never at ease at home though she had spent the first week in a make-shift kerosene brooder that lay in a big laundry basket at the head of my bed. She very nearly died in those first few days, lying unresponsive with glazed eyes that didn’t blink when I touched them. She required injections of fluid into her ulna, because her veins were too small to find and there was too little blood pressure. She was 75grm when she arrived and 165grm when she left. I’ve never seen a falcon put on weight so fast though it’s an obvious adaptation for so long a ranging migrant. They are gloriously fabulous looking falcons, prettier than any and tiny and delicate.

Above on the 4th Dec 2021…very ill and unresponsive. And standing and eating alone on 15th Dec 2021. Note her right wing is tapped, not because she has an injury, but to allow us to easily pick her up and give her medication by an ulna intra-osseous route.

I had got attached to her even if she hadn’t to me. It’s the rule with raptors…though sometimes pleasantly broken. Shaking off this emotion I relapsed briefly into the whimsical to offer her the best of luck on her journey down to South Africa, and her subsequent return in spring to eastern China, Manchuria or Korea where I hoped she’d meet up with her mate and nest again. Life these days isn’t easy for migratory falcons. Something big had happened this migration season and she had perhaps helped solve part of the riddle by eliminating a few possibilities.

I breathed a sigh of relief that she was flying so strong, now big and fat and walked back into the forest to the house to write this remembrance before I forgot and got called to some other emergency. I recalled the day 3 weeks ago on the 4th Dec 2021 she was brought in, a near death skeleton by one of our new technicians James Gathoni who had been on a walk on the hill to get better phone network. Two days before this I’d seen a group of about 150 Amur Falcons perch on ugly new pylons near Elementeita town and I was surprised to see about 20 sitting on the ground, many with their eyes closed and wings drooping. I approached in the car and one did not move until I was within 3 meters. He opened his eyes, pulled up his slouched wings and flew off only 30m or so, seemingly too tired to fly more. As I moved about the field of stricken falcons I was troubled by their exhaustion. I couldn’t pick them up, but it was close. A cat, genet or larger raptor could easily mop up a large number. I termed them in a report as “quiescent” and this we had been seeing all over Kenya in the last few weeks, with Eurasian Rollers especially. Others had seen “quite” Amur Falcons, and another south of Nairobi had picked up a dead one. The Eurasian Rollers were dying in a belt from Samburu, to the equator line…but not so much to the south of it. In trying to figure out how many, exactly where and why I ran into difficulty in getting much more than “Yeah, loads were dead and dying in such and such ranch…or such and such road”. On the other hand we got some very good records, photos and much concern as well as speculation as to the cause(s). Too little in the way of a representative number of the whole, or a good sample size of the dead to make a robust report however, and in thinking positively this only revealed areas for future improvement. For, should Kenya truly face a wide area, large scale mortality we could certainly improve our responses.

Above photos from Samburu circulated on social media…alerting us all to a wide reaching problem.

Something bad had happened on their respective southward passage. These Amur Falcons, unlike the tens of thousands of small migratory falcons such as Lesser, Common Kestrels, Red legged, Hobby, Eleonora’s, Sooty Falcons do not migrate across the Sahara, down either the Nile or Red Sea, across to the Horn of Africa and down into Kenya from Somalia and Ethiopia. The Eurasian Roller copies this normal movement, feeding as do the small falcons (and almost all migrant and resident raptors) on the patchily distributed sudden emergence of large insects (Locusts, grasshoppers, beetles, mole crickets, termite alates). While Rollers don’t kill and eat birds, the raptors do, and they utilize the explosive eruptions of seed-eating small birds (Red-billed quelea and about 40 other species that include widows and wydahs). Eurasian birds migrate into Africa precisely because of this temporary food profusion. It’s seasonal, and runs in multi-year cycles…like lemmings and snowshoe hares…

After running the desert gauntlet and the capricious chances of feast or famine these small falcons continue on south, some to the Cape and others to Madagascar where conditions are more predictable. In regard to pinpointing where this “bad” thing had happened it was instructive to note that the Amur is a little different for it undertakes a different migration path… the longest of all migrations done by a raptor (at some 10,000-12,000km). It flies across the Indian Ocean and hits the Somali Horn of Africa rapidly moving into southern Ethiopia and most of Somalia and Northern Kenya where it meets up with its south flying congeners, the rollers, the storks, all the other millions of migrating birds moving across the semi arid lands, to relative moister more productive land.

Soysambu Conservancy 23 March 2020. This swarm was being predated on by some 500 falcons and 60 buzzards, harriers and eagles. The total they must have consumed would have been significant to the entire swarm. In 4 days the swarm died out with thousands of dying locusts too cold to eat. It had no impact on grazing and farming.

Given that Eurasia Rollers (not any African Roller) and Amur Falcons seemed hard hit, where on earth would that one common place be? Their intersecting paths are The Horn of Africa… Ethiopia and Somalia and Northern Kenya. This gives us a broad spatial context…what of a temporal one? Something occurring during the migration period…in late Sept/Oct/early Nov in the Horn of Africa could affect both these birds in equatorial Kenya from an event that happened weeks previously, simply because it matches their rate of movement. Just like Sherlock Holmes we have to deduce from scant evidence, factor in what we know of their biology and logically work backwards. It isn’t “elementary” at all for unlike most crime cases there probably isn’t a single smoking gun, but a series of negative setbacks coming from different causes that ended in the death of a large number. It hints at an ecological problem. And ecological problems are the sum of many converging factors, today almost always man-made.

We tentatively ruled out diseases such as Avian Flu and Newcastle’s because their resident conspecifics were not dying, they recovered if cared for and fed (such as this Amur Falcon) and they died in a different way. It was good that we placated this concern early for there was a rapidly growing alarm, especially so during our heightened viral awareness era.

Over a few weeks we formed a WhatsApp group with some 47 people on it and about half of them had seen odd movement patterns, dead and “downed” Eurasian rollers and raptors. The others were on standby, others yet learning fast that we do not have an effective response to rapidly recover the dead and dying, analyse and save large volumes of lives or the processes to allow us to do so. It was good to see so many government authorities from Kenya and Tanzania being in the group, but as predicted the event was brief and Christmas intervened to tighten the lid on it.

When these birds were down a terrible drought ravaged Laikipia, Samburu and Turkana and it was a disaster for livestock, farming and many people died. Perhaps the land itself is now so impoverished it cannot support enough large edible insects…prey for the migrant millions that move through the land twice each year. The land impoverishment is all too obviously man-made from the unrelenting pressure on the land itself, but something more insidious is definitely also at play…a “secondary factor” ogre lurking over it and exacerbating the consequences of unsustainable land uses.

Climate change is real. The highest ever temperatures recorded are in the deserts of this world…Arizona, Australia and Namibia being the most studied…but the Middle East and North Africa were hard hit this last summer. Northern Kenya was especially hot too. Species living on the very edge of existence in arid lands only need a slight push to end them.

It was hard not to overlap this bird die off with the Locust Spraying that occurred in 2020 up to April 2021, the first time in our backyard for 70 years. To be followed in 5 months by an unprecedented die off of birds that like eating locusts is an unnerving co-incidence. Strapping a hypothesis together that links the two is not easy…because we have next to no information and resources to do it.

While the use of very toxic organophosphates is lethal to birds that eat locusts poisoned with it, and everyone accepts this, there is an extraordinary ingrained reticence to accept large scale raptor deaths, sufficient enough to cause declines. It defeats logic to be assured that these sprays are benign to these non-target birds because very few birds have been observed dead. So in questioning these results colleagues and I took time to see for ourselves the effects on the ground during and after Quelea sprays as early as 1981. What we saw was different from what they said they were doing. We opened a can of worms back then in the Quelea spraying industry. We saw serious impacts on entire raptor populations. It’s no coincidence that Nick Trent and myself…way back then saw massive die offs, that previous to that date had been overlooked. There was a brief interest, some investigation and oddly an acceptance of the problem…but no real changes made. The raptor world in South Africa took it more seriously yet when human food security is the core issue…birds (that control the problem) are swept aside.

But are we wrong to muddle up Locust spraying and Quelea spraying? Many raptor biologists do not think so, especially if “they” use fundamentally the same poisons. The question is who is “they”, for details such as the difficult to access EIAs by FAO during the 2020 operations typify elements of confidentiality unusual in any field. DLCO today operate separately and there are others sub-contracted too including defence forces as well as individual farmers. Getting a thorough understanding and estimate of the pesticides used, by whom and in what quantity is not possible, and yet it should be.

Throw into this a new bio-pesticide made from a fungus that kills only locusts and we find a lot of literature that extols its virtue while perhaps taking attention away from the continued use of very toxic-to-birds pesticides being sprayed by others elsewhere at the same time of which records are much less easy to find. The crux of the issue is that there is insufficient, very little, sometimes none at all, effort made on the ground during and after the spraying to enumerate losses and do a clean-up that will remove the threat of secondary poisoning for raptors. Effort is often confined to a few hundred metres in radius, whereas we have seen dying (Quelea in Sala 1984) 9km away from the spray site.

Have we drifted off topic? No. It’s these issues we helped originally identify when observing the loss of vultures in the 1980s that led us to investigate them. Now vulture conservation is big and we know the causes of their declines. We must do the same for all the other raptors too, Rollers included.


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Kenya Bird of Prey Trust

Understand - Protect - Restore

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