Anton van Niekerk of the Greater Kyalami Conservancy (Gekco) writes:
Grass owls are habitat specialists which means they require a very specific habitat in order to exist.
In the case of grass owls, they are only known to nest in a few types of grasses which are almost exclusively found in wetlands. Their main prey type, Angoni vlei rats, also predominantly occur in wetlands. Over the past few years Gekco, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and specialists have recorded sightings throughout the Kyalami area.
Last year, four nesting sites were monitored and two sets of fledglings were ringed and had coloured and numbered rings placed on their legs. As the grass owls fly with their legs often exposed this is the most efficient and least intrusive way of recording where each bird is seen and where.
Through a generous donation of a Gekco member, the organisation was able to purchase a trail camera which is activated by movement. This camera is also unique in that it uses a SIM card to send images to a server. These images can then be viewed almost live. The owls can now be monitored without any disturbance or impact on them in any way.
The camera was successfully installed at the end of March with a clear view into a grass owl nest where the mother is sitting on four eggs. The initial images have already started coming in and we are hoping to be able to see the eggs hatch.
[As] professional photographers, [me] and Tyrone Mckendry have been photographing the owls with top-of-the-range equipment sponsored by Canon, creating some incredible images of this elusive bird.
The owls are very elusive, and in order to have a minimum impact on them, they use some of the longest lenses available and the highest resolution cameras with very high frame rates. Each owl is then carefully studied to look for rings, colour tags and to assess age and identifying features.
The project has been honoured at the eighth Oppenheimer de Beers Group Research Conference. Through this research, we hope to highlight the need for protection of the wetlands and grasslands in the Kyalami area, not only for the Grass-Owls but the numerous other species that move through these wildlife corridors.
As the planet is going through massive climatic changes due to global warming it is imperative that we, as South Africans, preserve all wetlands in a natural state. They not only prevent flooding and help to filter the water before it reaches the rivers or settles into the groundwater, it is also water stores for the dry periods. It is illegal to build on a wetland or alter it in any way. Even making a dam is illegal and all of these activities require permits.
We encourage residents to retain natural grasses on their property as these not only feed a variety of wildlife but they also provide shelter. Grasses are also an excellent way to oxygenate and assist with trapping and processing atmospheric carbon, a term called carbon sequestration. Starting of veld fires is not only illegal, but it puts houses, fences and wildlife at risk. It also destroys the habitat these species need to survive and all the carbon sequestration comes to nought as the fire releases all that carbon back into the atmosphere. If needed, fire breaks should be cut in the veld and if required for security. However, these should never be done in, or on the edges of the wetland and protected grassland areas.
With the support of the community and conservation organisations, we could still see African grass owls in the conservancy for many years to come. With complete adherence to the land-use regulations and responsible land-use management, the owls could co-exist with us permanently.