What’s the worst that could happen?

By Keafon Jumbam

Kea tracking

I stroll into the field, locate my target animal instantly, keep it company for two hours, collect data and move on to the pups at the den, collecting extensive data on maternal care. This is how things should work. In reality however, things get a little more interesting. On several occasions I have tracked down an individual, heard the loud beeps from my telemetry receiver signaling that this individual is nearby, “called” it for hours, and ended up throwing in the towel because, oh well, it didn’t show up. And the pups? Well, we’ve had only one breeding couple so far, and time’s ticking by: I have only one more breeding season left before I have to write up my thesis! Fieldwork demands quite a bit of determination and grit, because there are so many factors out of your control.

And fieldwork, theoretically, calls for emotional detachment. We are scientists, after all, and need to collect data without tainting it with our soppy sentimentality. But, like most ecologists, I get emotionally involved in the lives and personalities of the batties. This, in fact, keeps me going – it’s easier to spend long, dark nights in the field if you’re genuinely curious about the lives of these wild animals. Without a bit of passion for the batties, I’d never make it.

Luckily, it’s easy to get emotionally involved in the lives of batties. Take the couple Aristotle (or Ari) and Scruffy for instance – Ari is notably the most abusive husband we have come across in the field.

Scrawny but feisty -- Scruffy!
Scrawny but feisty — Scruffy!

His temper tantrums often lead him into nasty fights with Scruffy, be it over raisins or simply out of irritation at her presence. Interestingly, she never gave up on him – for better or worse, batty style! Named after her sick appearance (literally speaking), she was the scrawniest of all batties I had laid eyes on, with a large and rapidly expanding bald patch around her neck and shoulders. But boy oh boy, are looks deceiving! She was easily the feistiest of all female batties, leaving me completely drained of energy with her fast pace and quick disappearing acts behind thorn bushes. In fact, I secretly wished she would pass out for a while so I could catch my breath.

Ari about his business.
Ari about his business.

And this is where emotional detachment would have been helpful. I remember quite vividly the last evening I spent with her and for the first time ever, she took me on a stroll, limping and stopping ever so often to rest underneath bushes. She could barely forage for food and was in a lot of pain. Our normal two hour data session only lasted thirty minutes before she disappeared into a den for the rest of the night. I anxiously waited for the worse the following day and sure enough by midday, we received a panicked call from a meerkat-project volunteer that a very sick batty had been spotted around. That would be the last time I see Scruffy again.

It doesn’t get any worse than that, does it?

If you like it, put a ring on it…


By Davide Gaglio

Here we are again… I’m happy to let you know that I’ve survived my 3rd and final field season and I have plenty of photos to show you!

So, did you find it difficult to identify the prey in my last entry? The prey species were (2) Sole, (3) Pipefish (4) Anchovy (5) Squid and (6) Atlantic Saury If you have free time and feel like contributing to ecological research, I have tons of photographs that need identifying, and would love to use your help. Just email me (swift.terns ‘at’ gmail dot com) and we can chat about the possibilities. I believe that “Citizen Science” is an exciting way to bring people and wildlife together for conservation. Citizen-scientists can create the world’s largest research teams, gathering data on a scale that would be impossible to achieve otherwise, as these scientists are ordinary people all across the world, who are simply interested in helping researchers out. Trained scientists then analyse these data to understand how animals are affected by environmental change, including climate change, urbanization, pollution, and land use. Participants learn about their environment and have the opportunity to see their own data on maps along with those of thousands of other participants. Here’s an interesting example:


From my point of view, getting involved in swift tern citizen science is a brilliant way of spending your free time 😉 Taking photos of the adult terns can lead you to great surprises…and discoveries. For example look at this image… can you see anything special about it?

tern in flight

Well, look closely at his legs….

tern leg close-up

Yes! This swift tern has a metal ring on the right and a red colour ring on the left. As you may know, the ringing of wild birds for scientific purposes has provided a wealth of information, revealing the life histories and movements of many different species. Read more about it here.

The ringing of swift tern chicks started in South Africa in the late 1970s already. This individual was banded on Marcus Island in 1979. At age 34, this is a new record for this species, confirming that like most seabirds, swift terns have great longevity! What a coincidence… the oldest swift tern ever known was the same age as me 😀 Now, imagine discovering a tern of even greater age than that. You can be the one!

Ringing birds is a great way to study their survival and movement. It is crucial to ring birds to understand their population dynamics. As mentioned before, the difference between the terns and other local seabirds is that their population is increasing; another interesting dissimilarity is that they have extensive post-fledging care. Parents feed their chicks for several weeks after leaving the colony, during which time they can disperse long distances. So where are they going?? Here it’s my tu(e)rn again!!!…To better understand their dispersal; more than 1 500 chicks have been marked in Robben Island with engraved colour rings over the last three breeding seasons. Which means each individual has a unique code that can be seen from distance…and they look so cute! tern chick

I really had a lot of fun and great assistants over the last years during the ringing sessions. Thanks to all of you guys and girls!!

tern helpersHere some of my assistant’s projects:



So far there have been records of banded juvenile swift terns from Namibia to the Eastern Cape. Gathering dispersal records relies on the assistance from volunteers across southern Africa. And so here I need your help again… There are many immature/juvenile birds out there ready to be re-sighted by you! You can be the first to re-sight one of our banded birds in a new locality, just enjoy a walk on the beach and don’t forget your binoculars! Rings are orange, white or yellow (with black text) and green or blue (with white text). If you see any banded birds please record their location as accurately as possible (ideally GPS), the date and time of sighting, ring colour, letters on the ring (if legible) and age class (juvenile, immature or adults). tern teenagerIf a bird is found dead, please also record the number of the metal ring. Please send the information to me (swift.terns ‘at’ gmail dot com), and to SAFRING.

Your help is much appreciated!!!

Get inspired from this video.

I really hope to receive some exiting news from all over southern Africa…and I will be sure to update you soon 😉