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 😉


By Keafon Jumbam


Serene, would be how I describe this desert atmosphere where I do research. We are far from the hustle and bustle of city life, surrounded only by a small and sparse community of farmers and workers. The nearest shop is almost 30km away and traffic is virtually non-existent. With no television and very little distraction, it can get so quiet that you hear a pin drop, and I revel in the many advantages that this peace brings. For starters, it’s a book lover’s paradise. There’s nothing like soaking up the Kalahari sunset with a good book in hand. And there’s more: this tranquility offers me room to reflect on my life’s journey, both academically and otherwise. Perhaps the best part of it all is that I’m exposed to a friendly, hardworking and accomplished research community that is very generous of their time and knowledge.

Kalahari sunsets to die for
Kalahari sunsets to die for

So what does my fieldwork entail? To recap, I’m collecting data to shed light on why female batties (aka bat-eared foxes) neglect their maternal duties. There’s a healthy population of batties in the reserve where I live, coupled with plenty of other wild life. The first task is habituation. This means getting batties familiar enough to your presence for you to follow them around without influencing their normal behaviour. They are notoriously shy animals and it takes plenty of patience (think months!), raisins (they absolutely love it) and skills to approach without startling them. After habituation, data collection begins in the form of recording behaviour on a tablet and collecting faecal samples for laboratory hormonal analysis. As you’ve probably figured out by now, we work individually and mostly at night since batties are mainly nocturnal animals. But working at night can be good, just ask diurnal researchers how hot it gets in the Kalahari during summer!

The breeding season, which runs from October to December, is a critical period for my research as I eagerly await surprises of new brood. Last December, despite drought setbacks, our project had its very first litter of pups by a vixen named

Bertha and her pups (photo credit: Samantha Renda)
Bertha and her pups (photo credit: Samantha Renda)

Bertha. Mother and pups took us on a roller coaster ride of frequent den changes, necessitating regular visits to keep track and onsite monitoring with the aid of cameras. These visits were also useful for pup habituation. On one such visit, things started out fine as I located all pups at a new den close to the previous one. I proceeded to habituate them, kneeling down for a close up view of their behaviour and interactions. Forty-five minutes into habituation, the hair on the back of my neck suddenly started to rise… I instinctively turned around and locked eyes with a lone wildebeest bull.

Frightened, I jumped up and the pups scurried down the den. The bull stood still and started snorting at me. I knew that was a bad sign. What to do?! In a panic, I picked up my backpack and started walking slowly backwards in a feeble attempt to escape. It snorted all the louder, shaking its head in the process. I mouthed a couple of expletives. The lack of tall trees within immediate vicinity didn’t help, nor did my bright orange T-shirt. Could this bright shirt be as provocative as those red flags used by Spanish matadors in bullfights?!! And then… of all the songs that could soothe me in this dire moment, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” came to mind. Great! So “No one’s gonna save me from the beast about to strike, ‘cause this is …THRILLER!”  MJ lost a fan in that dark moment. Finally, the bull started to stir and turn away from me. Maybe I didn’t look appetizing enough?

Just then I heard a rustling noise behind me. Imagining the worst, I spun around, only to find Bertha’s new beau at the top of a dune watching me, ears propped up like two mini fans. He appeared a bit more wary of me than the gigantic beast wandering slowly away. Bertha was making her way up the top too. I breathed a deep sigh of relief at my lucky escape. Many researchers have not been that fortunate, and the dangers of field work are not limited to the natural sciences. Mind you, it’s not only large mammals one has to watch out for, venomous creepy crawlies thrive here too, such as black widow spiders that hide beneath toilet seats, scorpions with shoe-addiction and snakes that slither into shower blocks at night.

A puff-adder at our shower block
A puff-adder at our shower block

You bet I never go out without my walkie talkie for emergency calls and bandages for first-aid, especially after I nearly stepped on an adder…