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20 March, 2024
| Royal Malewane

Researchers from BirdLife South Africa Track European Rollers by Satellite

Written by: The Royal Portfolio Foundation
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Long-distance flights

European Rollers are a colourful summer visitor to South Africa, but their gorgeous plumage and dramatic aerial aerobatics during territorial flights are not the only remarkable thing about them.

These long-distance flyers travel around 10 000km per year as they migrate between sub-Saharan Africa (including Royal Malewane and the Greater Kruger) and parts of Asia and Europe. For a medium-sized bird, that’s a remarkable distance – and there are many potential hazards along the way.

So much so, in fact, that ornithologists began noticing a worrying trend from late 2022 onwards. Fewer of these birds seemed to be arriving in Africa at the start of each summer, with numbers having fallen by an estimated 35% in some areas. Further research is required to confirm and fully understand this decline, highlighting the importance of this research.

Unfortunately, we still don’t know the exact routes that European Rollers take on their journeys, so it’s hard to know where we need to focus our conservation efforts to protect the species. By identifying their preferred flyways and the most important stopover sites en route (where they rest and feed, to recharge their batteries before continuing), we can collaborate with overseas partners to help protect these special birds.

An iconic European Roller perches on a branch at Royal Malewane

An iconic European Roller perches on a branch at Royal Malewane

BirdLife South Africa is leading a pioneering study to learn more about European Roller migration from southern Africa in the hope that key locations can be identified and protected, thereby making migration a less risky undertaking for these epic flyers.

Given the distances involved, traditional birdwatching skills alone would not be enough to collect all the necessary data. Instead, BirdLife South Africa are using advanced satellite tracking technology.

Royal Malewane guides get involved

As we regularly see European Rollers at Royal Malewane, we were keen to assist with this important initiative. BirdLife South Africa researchers (including Jess Wilmot, BirdLife South Africa’s Flyway and Migrants Project Manager) were hosted at the Conservation and Research Centre in the Thornybush reserve.

Our Guides and Trackers were able to use their deep local knowledge to assist the BirdLife South Africa team in locating birds. This first-of-its-kind project in South Africa was only possible through creating a diverse team comprising scientists, vets and a specialist bird ringer, in addition to our Guides and Trackers.

Setting aside dedicated time and resources, plus access to the European Roller habitats in the reserve, were also invaluable in ensuring the success of this vital conservation initiative.

Learning more about our visitors

Using ethical techniques, two European Rollers were caught at Royal Malewane and fitted with satellite tags so that their every movement could be tracked. On such epic migration flights, survival can be determined by the finest of margins, so it was vital that that these tags be as small and light as possible.

Relying on solar power rather than batteries to power the tags reduces their weight to only around 3g, while a comfortable fit is ensured by relatively loose, backpack-style straps that have been specially designed to avoid any interference with flying.

We were given the honour of naming one of the two tagged European Rollers before they were both carefully released back into the reserve. Such a beautiful and intriguing bird deserves a special name, so our team chose ‘Royal Wasi’ as the name of ‘our’ European Roller.

‘Royal’, because of his regal plumage and for the fact that he was tagged here at Royal Malewane, and ‘Wasi’ as it means blue in the local Shangaan and Tsonga languages. Plus, the primary feathers are royal blue in colour.

BirdLife South Africa researchers after a successful capture
Measuring a Roller’s wingspan

Left: BirdLife South Africa researchers after a successful capture, right: Measuring a Roller’s wingspan

Gaining knowledge, making a difference

Catching the birds also provided an opportunity to measure them, attach a unique leg ring for future identification, and take DNA samples. This data is vital for determining the sex of each bird, and also determining which subspecies of European Roller it belongs to. The two subspecies are very hard to distinguish visually, but actually travel from different regions.

Knowing which subspecies has arrived at Royal Malewane will give us more information on the routes they may have taken to get here. Discomfort to each bird was minimised through very gentle handling, before they were launched back into the late summer breeze, perhaps to eat a few more beetles, lizards and frogs before heading north to avoid our winter.

The high-tech satellite tag
Releasing a Roller to continue its journey

Left: The high-tech satellite tag, Right: Releasing a Roller to continue its journey

How many Roller species have you seen?

During the year, up to four different species of Roller may be seen at Royal Malewane. Ask your Guide and Tracker to help you spot them all:

  • Broad-billed Roller
  • Lilac-breasted Roller
  • Purple Roller
  • And of course, the European Roller

To learn more about research and conservation programmes at Royal Malewane, Ask your Guide to include a visit to the CRC during one of your game drives.

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