The rainy season should have started already, but by early December there had been sporadic showers only, with no further downpours to sprout fresh grass. In anticipation of the rains, 27 Blue Cranes gathered in three places in Etosha National Park, where they breed. It is not known where the endangered blue-grey birds came from. Twenty-three of them were seen at the Andoni waterhole near the King Nehale Gate north of Namutoni and another two each at the Koinachab waterhole east of Namutoni and at the Charitsaub waterhole northwest of Halali.

Blue Cranes
The Andoni waterhole on the plain of the same name, north of Namutoni and the King Nehale entrance gate, seems to be a special place for Blue Cranes. Here the big birds gather when they return from their winter quarters and wait for the rains. Once it has rained sufficiently they move to various breeding grounds in the park.

Eight of the birds were ringed. Apart from alphanumeric metal rings they were also banded with green plastic rings with white letters when they were chicks in Etosha National Park. Some of them have returned as adult birds from their unknown winter quarters for the tenth and eleventh time. Next to unbanded cranes at the Andoni waterhole were birds with the rings NBN (ringed on 11 April 2008), NHD (12 April 2006), NCJ (25 March 2014), NER (2018) and NCK (25 March 2014). In the blistering heat they shared the waterhole with numerous blue wildebeest, springbok, warthog, gemsbok and Burchell’s zebra.

One of the two cranes at Koinachab wore the ring with the letters NBZ above its knee. I had ringed NBZ on 10 April 2008 when it was a chick on the northern edge of Fischer’s Pan near Namutoni.

NHH and NHF were spotted at Charitsaub. We gave an account of this pair in January last year after a tourist photographed them with a chick near Charitsaub and Salvadora. Apparently the two cranes want to breed again in the area as soon as it has rained sufficiently. NHF along with its sibling NHE was ringed as a chick on 26 April 2006 at Chudop by Holger Kolberg, a researcher at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. The crane with the ring NHH had been banded as a chick on 12 March 2007 near the Salvadora waterhole by Wilfred Versveld, then a nature conservation official.

Blue Cranes
Blue Crane NHD (left), now twelve years old, and its ten-year-old partner NBN, were seen at the Andoni waterhole in Etosha National Park along with another 21 Blue Cranes at the end of November 2018.

It is thought that the birds migrate to Angola after the breeding season, but there is not enough information to support that assumption. A satellite tracking device attached to one of the birds unfortunately stopped sending signals after less than three weeks. It is certain, however, that the small number of Blue Cranes in Namibia has no contact with the approximately 25,000 conspecifics in South Africa. Blue Cranes are endemic to southern Africa. But also in South Africa their numbers are declining, making them vulnerable to extinction as well. The Blue Crane population in Namibia is currently estimated at just over 30, after 32 were counted in Etosha National Park at the end of 2017. A few years ago there were still twice as many birds of this species. As yet no studies have been conducted to establish the cause for this decrease.

The Namibian Crane Working Group, a private initiative, in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment conducts bird counts at least twice a year – one in the rainy season and one in the dry season. This year, counts took place in March, August and November.

Anyone who sees and photographs Blue Cranes in Etosha National Park, or elsewhere in Namibia, can send their observations to holgerk@afol.com.na.

Author: Dirk Heinrich

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