Tracking aardwolfs and banding weavers

Last night I went out tracking aardwolfs with a fellow student (Josh) who is staying here at the research house. A little behind schedule, Josh needed to track as many of the 11 collard aardwolfs as he could, so we left for the field around 4pm. Each animal must be followed for at least one hour, and it takes nearly that long just to find the dang things, so the plan was to track five or so animals and (hopefully) return to the house before 3am. Unfortunately, these animals tend to be skittish around the vehicle and usually take off at first sight of us. Occasionally, however, one will behave and carry on with its own business as we track it, but this is typically only true of females. The males, on the other hand, spend the majority of the hour running. We started the day off by tracking one of the temperamental males, and boy did he live up to his reputation. It was a non-stop chase through the field – and to make matters worse we constantly had to turn off the truck and scan the field with the telemetry receiver, allowing the bugger to gain more distance.

After about twenty minutes, the aardwolf ran into a patch of thick grass where, not only was he impossible to see, but neither were the termite mounds or aardvark holes that littered the field. As we smashed termite mound after termite mound, continually taking two foot plunges into deep holes in the ground smashing both the car and our backs, we nearly gave up on the chase entirely. Just before calling it quits, the grass suddenly cleared and we saw the animal a couple hundred meters ahead. We continued to follow him as he ran for the remainder of the hour, then sighed with relief when the time was up. Surprised that the truck survived the wild chase, I suggested we follow a female next to give the vehicle some recovery time.

As the night went on, we were doing quite well. We had tracked four animals by midnight, and were going to try for two more. By this time, my eyes were already getting droopy and I all could think about was my nice cozy bed back at the house. We had to push on though, so we began the search for the fifth aardwolf of the night, another male. After finding him around 12:45, the real fun began. We began to track him through the thick grass we found him in, and although he wasn’t galloping full speed away from the vehicle (thankfully), he wasn’t exactly walking at a leisurely pace either. Things were going fine for the first thirty minutes as we swiftly chased after him in the field before we heard a terrible screeching sound of metal on metal come from underneath the truck.

I stepped out to look at what had happened, and somehow we had managed to drive through a massive coil of barbed wire that was, for some odd reason, simply left out in the middle of the field. Things didn’t look good as it had coiled around the drive shaft thing under the car, that long tube that spins as you rev the engine (pardon my lack of knowledge when it comes to car parts). In other words, it looked bad. Real bad. And of course neither of us had thought to bring wire cutters with us into the field, so we had a nice 6 kilometer walk though back to the house. At 2 am, I could have thought of a few other things I’d rather be doing that walking nearly four miles through the prickly long grass back home, but luckily it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting.

This morning we started up the ancient land cruiser that probably hasn’t been driven in ages (the thing doesn’t even have breaks for crying out loud!) to head back out to the truck and free it from the web of barbed wire. Armed with wire cutters, we snipped and snapped through the tangle of metal beneath the truck and finally managed to liberate it from the grasp of the barbed wire. We drove both cars back to the house, checked for any further damage that may have occurred underneath the truck from the treacherous terrain we had been driving through the night before, and finally prepped it for tonight’s tracking session. This time I’m leaving the sandals at home and bringing a pair of real shoes!

The old land-cruiser we drove to pick up the tangled up truck

The mess of barbed wire underneath the vehicle - note how it wrapped around the drive shaft
More barbed wire...
The clump of barbed wire we got stuck in the night before.
This is a view of the walk home. See those tall trees straight ahead, way in the distance? Yep...that's our camp...

On a separate note, a crew of French bird researchers came to the house for a few weeks to study sociable weavers. Our schedules didn’t match as I often stay in the field until 1am and they typically leave the house around 4am, but one afternoon I asked them if I could tag along with them the next day. Having done some bird-banding back in Ohio, I was familiar with the process and they told me it would be fine if I joined. Eager to gain as much experience as I can down here, I was excited to watch and help them net and band the birds.

The next morning we left the house at 4:30 and drove to the border of the farm where there are large weaver nests bundled up in the majority of trees. The particular nest that we would work on only had about twenty birds so it would be a relatively quick morning of banding. Even the kids came along (there were three kids with this group of researchers). We surrounded the tree with mist nets, a process that takes nearly an hour, then set up a little table where we ate our morning breakfast. After the meal we walked back to the nest in preparation to catch the birds. With about thirty minutes left before sunrise, we roused the birds with loud noises and a stick to shake the tree’s branches. This way we are sure that all the birds leave the nest rather than letting them exit on their own, in which case several may remain inside.
Once the birds fly out of their nest they get caught in the net and we go to work carefully removing each individual and placing them into little cloth sacks where we can keep them until we are ready to work on each bird. The process of removing a bird from the mist net can be daunting as these fragile creatures are so easily damaged, so it is imperative to be very gentle when handling them – a difficult task when they nip at your fingers and flap around, only tangling themselves further.
Only 17 birds were currently living in this nest, a small number compared to the 120 caught in a nearby nest the day before. Once all the birds were in their sacks, we took them back to the car where the crew kept their supplies for measuring various features of the birds, as well as the banding kit. Each bird takes about 10 minutes to work on, and once all the data is gathered from that individual we let it go and watch it fly away. We finished up around 10am, a very quick morning compared to most days they had spent in the field. It was a great experience; very neat to get to handle these African birds and I had fantastic time learning about the research they were conducting.

Pre-sunrise breakfast in the field

The mist nets set up around the tree - the big dark blob in the middle is the weaver nest

A red-headed finch that also managed to get stuck in the nets
Carefully removing the birds from the nets is a difficult task!
Sociable weaver in hand
Sociable weaver - not the bands on his legs
First time excitement of touching one of these birds