There are only about 1 000 Blue Swallow breeding pairs left in the world. The South African population is listed as Critically Endangered and its numbers are declining, with several local extinctions occurring in the past decade. Loss of suitable habitat due to land use change is the main reason for this decline. World Migratory Bird Day was initiated by the Secretariat of the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) in collaboration with the Secretariat of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) in 2006 and is a global awareness-raising initiative, highlighting the importance of and need for the protection of migratory birds and their habitats. This year’s theme is ‘Land Use Changes from a Bird’s-Eye View’.
The Blue Swallow Hirundo atrocaerulea, an intra-African migrant, is of particular interest to the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), as it breeds in South Africa’s mist-belt grasslands and is a flagship species for our Threatened Grassland Species Programme. The species is also of major interest to EWT partners such as the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, on account of the current lack of knowledge regarding its movements between breeding and wintering ranges. Grasslands are possibly the most threatened biome in the world, with a mere 1.4% being formally protected. Grasslands are also one of South Africa’s most threatened ecosystems with only 2.2% formally conserved and some 60% already irreversibly transformed. The major threats facing them are urban development, mining, forestry, agriculture, alien invasive plants, overgrazing and inappropriate fire management.
Blue Swallows rely on mistbelt grasslands in particular for their survival, both as foraging areas and for nesting throughout their summer breeding season. In South Africa, these grasslands are found at medium to high altitudes (750 – 1 900 metres above sea level) along the north-eastern escarpment formed by the Drakensberg, with high rainfall (> 1 000 mm per annum) and frequent advection fog. In these areas the swallows breed in existing holes such as Aardvark Orycteropus afer burrows, old mine shafts and sinkholes. They make their nests out of mud and grass and lay two to three eggs, which are incubated for about 14 days. The chicks then spend 22-26 days in the nest before fledging. Current numbers show fewer than half a dozen breeding pairs in Mpumalanga and fewer than 40 pairs in the country as a whole. It is therefore imperative that we act to ensure the protection of these areas.
In order to protect the Blue Swallow’s habitat, the Blue Swallow Natural Heritage Site, KwaZulu-Natal Mistbelt Grasslands and other areas have been declared by BirdLife South Africa as Important Bird Areas to protect the remnant populations of this attractive swallow.
The Blue Swallow’s breeding range is spread across eight countries: Zimbabwe, Malawi, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zambia, southern Tanzania, south-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa. The birds arrive in their breeding areas in early September and depart for warmer parts of Africa in early to mid-April. They spend the rest of the year in their non-breeding range spanning four countries: Kenya, Uganda, north-western Tanzania and north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Recent studies suggest that the Blue Swallows we see in South Africa actually fly all the way to Uganda during the non-breeding season. To confirm this, the EWT is planning an expedition in June 2011 to catch a few swallows in Uganda and collect feather samples. The feathers have regionally distinct stable isotope signatures, determined by the food that the bird was eating while the feather was growing. By analysing feather samples it is therefore possible for scientists to tell where the birds that are wintering in Uganda spend their summers. It is important to know where South Africa’s Blue Swallows spend their winter in order to conserve both their summer and winter habitat.
A team of researchers from the EWT, FitzPatrick Institute, University of Pretoria and CSIR is also currently using cutting-edge biochemical techniques to identify connections between the Blue Swallow’s breeding and wintering grounds. This project aims to identify the specific areas in Uganda and surrounding countries used by the Critically Endangered South African population during the non-breeding season. This information will allow conservation efforts to be coordinated across the breeding range, wintering range, and routes that the swallows follow when migrating.
The EWT’s Threatened Grassland Species Programme (EWT-TGSP) actively monitors the South African Blue Swallow population. It also works to recognise Blue Swallow friendly land management through a custodianship programme and more recently has begun moving towards conservation stewardship in order to secure current intact Blue Swallow habitat. Stewardship is the process whereby landowners can have their land proclaimed as a conservation area and in return receive various incentives depending on the level of agreement to which they commit. The EWT-TGSP is currently organising a workshop with representatives from all the relevant African countries to formalise an action plan regarding the conservation of this special species throughout its global range.
Other EWT programmes are also involved in the conservation of migratory birds. Our Birds of Prey Programme monitors the population of three migratory falcon species at roosts during their over-wintering period in southern Africa and our Wildlife and Energy Programme promotes the consideration of migratory routes in the placement and routing of energy infrastructure in the country.
For more Information
Contact: Leigh Potter
Endangered Wildlife Trust
Field Officer-Mpumalanga, Threatened Grassland Species Programme
Endangered Wildlife Trust
Manager, Threatened Grassland Species Programme
Tel: +27 (0)84 240 7341
Andrew E. McKechnie
Department of Zoology and Entomology
University of Pretoria
BirdLife South Africa
Tel. +27 (0) 11 789 1122
EWT media office
Tel: +27 (0)11 486 1102