Deployment of Satellite Transmitters on Red-footed Falcons in Kazahstan

We started to deploy satellite transmitters (PTTs) purchased within the framework of the Red-Footed Falcon LIFE+ Programme (LIFE11/NAT/HU/000926 www.falcoproject.eu). First we attached tags on three adult birds, in a far-away and very special place, in the protected parts of the fabulous Naurzum steppe in Kazakhstan. Earlier data suggest that Red-footed Falcons breeding here join the Eastern European populations of the species at the end of the summer, before they start their migration towards Southern Africa.

We hope that the journey of “Aisha”, “Dana” and “Adai” can be followed on the satellitetracking.eu webpage (click on the map for updates).

 

 

Who heard of such thing, steppe mosquitoes only attack in the daytime!?

The two strong Hungarian group Péter Palatitz/BirdLife Hungary (MME), Red-Footed Falcon Protection Group (MME KvVMCS) and Attila Nagy/Milvus Group was accompanied by the local expert team headed by Evgeny Bragin Alexandrovich, a researcher based in Naurzum, and his students Igor and Richat.

The Naurzum is located in the northern steppe region of the country. It covers approximately 3000 square kilometres.

Most of the protected area is covered by various grass associations, scattered by alkali soda lakes, and we saw a several meter high limestone boulder.

On the dry steppe soil very few woody plants can grow, and hence the forest patches growing on the sandy areas and in the loess depressions are extremely valuable (Photos: Dr. Péter Palatitz/MME KvVMCS).

 

Evgeny has worked for more than 40 years in the Naurzum, and what he can not show us is probably not worth seeing anyway. There are many curiosities in these Kazakh steppes: from the Bobak marmots through the Saiga antelopes to Black-winged pratincoles. Let us show some snapshots of our most interesting observations.

For the Red-footed Falcons (Falco vespertinus) humans (Homo sapiens), due to the fact that they place artificial nest boxes for them, became nest constructing species, just like the Magpie (Pica pica) and Rook (Corvus frugilegus). Maybe this is the reason that they do not fear so much the ornithologists (Homo sapiens vespertinusiensis) checking the nest boxes.

Female Red-footed Falcons just like in Hungary lay 4 eggs in good years, but they are happy with three in poor years. Birds return from the wintering areas from the beginning of April, and start nesting in the second half of May.

This second calendar year Red-footed Falcon male can be easily recognised by the patchy fledgling pattern of its primaries. We were informed that their main food source is Common voles (Microtus arvalis), just like in Hungary, but they also consume Common Spade-foot Toads (Pelobates fuscus), Orthopterans and just any insects that is present in large numbers either in the air on the ground (Photos: Dr.  Péter Palatitz/MME KvVMCS).

The first amazing fact: here on the Red-footed Falcon colonies every year a pair of Merlins (Falco columbarius) … (Photo: Attila Nagy/Milvus Group) ...

… in this pair’s nest there was a just hatched nestling and an egg in the process of hatching.

In Hungary Eurasian Hobbies very rarely breed in Red-footed Falcon colonies, while here it is a common phenomenon …

From the earlier set up nest boxes with small entrance holes many times we could take out the incubating Eurasian Scops Owl (Otusscops) with our hands. Several specimens ringed in earlier years were recaught this way.

Another interesting observation: Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) nest right next to Red-footed Falcons!

An Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca) breeding in a nest built above the artificial nest box placed for Red-footed falcon …

… with three handsome nestlings …

… and the older representatives of the species were hunting in small groups in the area. The largest observed group contained 30 individuals, but according to Evgeny this is an exceptional year, in this period there are always larger groups around (Photos: Dr. Péter Palatitz/MME KvVMCS).

The pictured White-tailed Eagle (Heliaetus albicilla) and Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) nest very near each-other, and behind the moose (Alcesalces) grazing under them thanks to their excellent eyesight they can even see Saiga antelopes (Saiga tatarica) on the open steppe.

And if there are so many large birds of prey around that actively build nests, the Saker (Falco cherrug) must be also present (Photos: Attila Nagy/Milvus Group).

It is not surprising, that harriers are the most numerous of the raptors. This photo shows a Montagu's harrier (Circus pygargus), but we also saw a lot of Pallid Harriers (Circus macrourus). Here nor predation due to the loss of habitats, neither the mechanical mowing is a serious threatening factor. …

 

What can explain the outstanding of diversity of birds in a place, where winter lasts till April, the productivity of grasslands is quite low, and besides the snow melt there is scarcely 300 mm of precipitation per year?

Several species of mammals adapted very well to these special biotic habitat characteristics that share some interesting features: they all hibernate through the harsh winter, and due to their size and high abundance constitute a fantastic food source for birds of prey. Three Souslik species live here: Yellow groundsquirrel (Spermophilus fulvus), Russett ground squirrel (Spermophilus major), Little ground squirrel (Spermophilus pygmaeus), but other rodent species are also present in high abundance, such as the endemic Eversmann’s hamster (Allocricetulus eversmanni).

The Bobak Marmot (Marmota bobak) can grow to a length of half a meter. They prance on their hind legs to check the environments for enemies, and gives a harsh whistle to warn conspecifics to the danger. (There is no question that such nice servings as the big, fat Marmots play an important role in the fattening up process of the eagle chicks ...)

Sand lizards (Lacerta agilis) are just everywhere.

The insects forming aerial-plankton are also very abundant. And this fact is proven by the presence of high number of aerial hunters, such as this damsel fly ( (Photos: Dr. Péter Palatitz/MME KvVMCS).


Plague of locusts is not a rare phenomenon here. We got in to a several hundred
square meters large Short-horned grasshopper (Calliptamus italicus) group,
but two years ago their dense clouds darkened the sky here
(Video: Dr. Péter Palatitz/MME KvVMCS).

Black-winged pratincoles (Glareola nordmanni) perform an enormous migration to and from Africa, to breed on these steppes …

And the reason is clear: their breeding colonies in drying up lake beds teem with insects. When the chicks hatch they surely do not have to venture far to find food …

Several insect eater birds is living in the steppes of the Naurzum: for example Northern wheatears breed in souslik holes (Oenanthe oenanthe), …(Photos: Dr. Péter Palatitz/MME KvVMCS).

…the Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) …

… the Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix) …

…the Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax) …  (Photos:  Attila Nagy/Milvus Group).

… the oriental subspecies of Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata orientalis) … (Photo: Dr. Péter Palatitz/MME KvVMCS).

… and a large number of other species, such as the White-winged Lark (Melanocorypha leucoptera) one of the ornithological highlights of this area (Photo: Attila Nagy/Milvus Group).

 

We did not catch any picture of the tiny bloodsuckers (we devised a scientific name for them: Culicidotypia), but we suffered countless bites on our ankles and arms. An interesting observation: the mosquitoes of this area are attacking humans in clouds even in broad daylight and intense wind. But contrary to the Hungarian daily activity pattern they disappear as night falls on the steppe, and do not invade the houses with wide open doors. The Naurzum is an amazing place!

 

Attaching radio transmitters á la falcoproject.eu

From the 8 caught birds we choose the three in best condition. The two females “Aisha” and “Dana” were given Kazakh girlnames, while the male, “Adai” was named after a fierce local tribe by Evgeny. All of the tagged birds breed in artificial “closed type” nest boxes, well-known from our project areas. The attachment of the miniature transmitters weighing 5 gramms are shown on the following pictures.

We measure the biometric data of birds (femur length, length of half wing, length of tail feathers and body weight) and attach a ring to their legs.

If the bird is suitable, we attach a transmitter sewn to the harness.

The Teflon ribbon is led through the chest of the bird.

We thoroughly arrange the feathers around and under the harness.

The harness is only attached temporarily, and then we remove the cap from the bird, in order to let the bird see again, and allow it to move so the feathers are rearranged under the tag.

Then we cut the Teflon ribbon to the right size, and start sewing the harness with dental floss and surgical needles.

Lastly we carefully check if the harness strings meet at the right place on the chest of the bird ...

... and finally the crucial step requiring precision and a lot of patience: to knot the harnesses and fix the knots with superglue (Photos: Igor Alexeyev).

If everything goes well from capture to release the process lasts for about 60 minutes. Meanwhile the other group members observe the nest and make sure that the other member of the pair returned to the nest while we fix the transmitter (Photo: Attila Nagy/Milvus Group).

Last thing to perform: a professional release (Photo: Dr. Péter Palatitz/MME KvVMCS).

The transmitter should not restrict the movement and other behaviour of the tagged bird.

“Aisha” with a transmitter on the 8th June 2014 (Photos: Attila Nagy/Milvus Groupt).

“Dana” with a transmitter on the 8th June 2014.

“Adai” with a transmitter on the 13th June 2014 (Photo: Igor Alexeyev).

 

After release we checked upon the tagged birds, and monitored their behaviour. Toour greatest pleasure they were all seen at their nests, so we can hope that after they finish raising their chicks they will visit us here in Europe.

And finally the Godfather of the transmitter equipped birds, our helper in the Naurzum: Evgeny Bragin, with whom it was a pleasure to work with. Thank you! (Photo: Attila Nagy/Milvus Group)

 

Péter Palatitz