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GRASS-OWL SURVEYS PUT ON HOLD

Rebothile Rachuene, African Grass-owl Project Field Officer, EWT Birds of Prey Programme
TselaneR@ewt.org.za

The African Grass-owl Project has recently done its first pre-season nest check survey in the Mpumalanga province. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the project field officer, Rebotile Rachuene, was well prepared and took all the precautions to perform this much-needed survey at this time – the species’ peak breeding period. He was joined by the Wildlife and Transport Programme field officer, Innocent Buthelezi, who helped to look for the active nests in the thick, tall and dense grasses around the wetlands/vleis/water streams. A total of four key known breeding sites were targeted and searched intensively, looking for the nests. After a few hours of searching in these dense grasses, the team discovered two nests from two different territories. The first active nest to be discovered was from the 1km-long grass site which had one freshly laid egg of about four days old.  The second, 4-egg nest was discovered from a separate territory and was estimated to be about ten days old. This is a very good start for the project for this season, with most known breeding sites being in a suitable condition to support nesting requirements. Apart from these exciting results from the survey, the team also observed around 20 Marsh Owl individuals in total from all four Grass-owl breeding sites. These are indeed the most critical sites for these two ground nesting owl species within the fragmented landscape of Mpumalanga province.

For this season, the project is focusing on implementing its conservation measures which are driven by over a decade research data. Our main objective is to protect all the known breeding habitats against anthropogenic activities such farming, mining and development. A number of strategies to achieve this are planned, such as fire break maintenance around these habitats, offering protection against the fires which are often destroying over 60% of them. We are also aiming to trial the restoration of the African Grass-owl habitats which were lost through the land changes caused by opencast mining in the Mpumalanga province. For us to achieve most of these objectives, we will be engaging with lots of partners and stakeholders such as landowners and communities around these areas. While we will be working towards achieving this goal, we are monitoring approximately ten key breeding sites which have been secured for nesting for the past 3-6 years for the owls. We will also continue to monitor the breeding pairs, ring the fledglings for a dispersal study, and educate the communities about the importance of protecting these habitats for the benefit of the ecosystem and human beings. However, the current global COVID-19 situation and national lockdown has put our fieldwork on hold at this time, when the owls are actively nesting.

This work is made possible by the National Geographic Society and Mafube Coal Mine.