During bird migration seasons in Africa and additionally the palaearctic bird migration from Europe and Asia, we experience increase in bird species and numbers, naturally in Africa. This is between August and May of the following year. Technically it is a period that most of the world’s birds may be said to be on the African continent though distributed variously in different areas known as stopovers and/or wintering sites. Nonetheless every stopover (where birds break to eat and rest after flying many miles from their breeding grounds before proceeding on) and wintering site (where birds settle to eat until it is spring in their winter grounds in time for their return) on the continent is therefore vital for their preservation. And so we keep watch against bird poisoning at Bunyala Rice Scheme which is one of such stopovers for some species and a wintering site for others.
A mixed flock of resident egrets and palaearctic migrant waders at Bunyala Rice Scheme
The high prevalence of the problem of bird poisoning at Bunyala Rice Scheme over the years has my team always expectant that any bird death on site is as a result of poison-poaching. In the event that we come across a dead bird especially this season, we are then left wondering how we missed the poisoning and yet we still keep vigilant watch through our daily scouting!
In the past week, we walked on a drowning African Openbill on a flooded paddy plot. We quickly thought the disoriented bird may have been poisoned and while the ingested poison dose with bait may not have attained the lethal dose, the bird had dropped into the pool of water and we arrived just in time to find it struggling for its life in the pool. We were late to rescue the bird but even then some of us thought we could not especially if he had been poisoned and was now drowning. In the 1 minute or so that the bird was still alive I was able to examine it and establish that there were no signs of poisoning that we have ever observed of other victims. The eyes were not tearing and there was no foaming in the mouth. The wings were also not drooping; a state which many atimes for the poison used in Bunyala is coupled with stiffness at the wrist/wing joint. I checked for any stiffness in the wing and leg joints and these seemed to be folding and stretching normally. I proceeded to open the bird’s beak to check just in case there was a snail bait (Openbills feed on and are baited using snail bait in Bunyala) caught in its mouth or upper gut (usually the case for most cases of poisoning) but there was none.
I was skeptical that this was a case of poisoning! Another look at the likely indications of poisoning and I saw partially hidden in feather legging a tibial (of upper leg) tear on the bird’s left leg. The injury was reminiscent of a partially roasted strip of meat! The leg-bone was also exposed alongside a blood vessel taut like a guitar string!…a painful site to gaze at but nonetheless a revelation of the most probable reason that may have contributed to the Openbill’s death. The wound may have impaired the bird’s ability to successfully wade and fly from the rice field filled with water hence the death of the victim. I posit the bird may have had prior collision on an electric transmission cable as he flew in high speed just above and past the cable thereby ripping backwards his thigh muscles.
On 29/11/2012, I stumbled on 2 Collared Pratincoles on the ground in the rice cultivation fields while on a lone evening survey. I had spotted a flock of about 300 Collared Pratincoles roosting on one of the ploughed but still to be cultivated fields.
Collared Pratincoles on the ploughed ground just waking for the day at Bunyala Rice Scheme
I inched on the flock to have a good look and while I was counting the birds, I got distracted by some squeaking call about a meter from where I stood. Right there were the 2 seemingly limp birds.
One of the Collared Pratincoles on the ground
Seemingly limp bird when it was picked up
I picked up the 2 birds and found that one was energetic but for some reason would not successfully fly away. He would stand alright on the palm of my hand but when he attempted to fly away, he only dropped on the ground. I examined both birds as I had the Openbill and nothing seemed to point to poisoning. If anything both birds seemed alert but for their inability to fly! I held the stronger bird for a little longer on my palm in a manner a ringed bird would be in readiness for release and a few moments later he successfully took to the wing. The other bird, however also alert made attempts to fly away was unsuccessful.
One of the Collared Pratincoles seeming in perfect form
I was not yet done with the survey and therefore had to device a means of securely carrying my acquired baggage. My hat just did fine.
Myself with one of the recovered collared pratincoles
Collared Pratincole in my hat
An hour or so later, the bird was still not able to fly away and I had to return to camp with it. I was totally disturbed by what the matter with the bird was and what to do. The day time temperatures had been uncomfortably high with likewise high humidity; the night time did not seem any better. As a gamble, I decided to give the bird water, an exercise that required much patience. I was then gone for refreshing and supper. When I returned, my flash light startled the bird, prompting him to fly around my tent from his hat nest! I knew he had improved for whatever reason. I carefully captured him and put him back in the hat keeping conditions totally dark lest he became restless. In the morning, just before first light I took the Collared Pratincole and released him close to where the others were roosting.
The paranoia of bird poisoning in Bunyala dominates the minds of those of us who have witnessed for long the birds poison-poaching activities at the site. To find casualties or near casualties affected by other factors but poisoning is a breather and indication that other threats to birds in Bunyala are no longer totally masked by the threat of poisoning as must have been the case for many decades. This in essence suggests a reduced trend in the poisoning which is the very objective of our vigilance strategy this palaearctic bird migration season.
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