Spring has arrived! It’s a very exciting time for us all here at Londolozi; we’ve made it through a cold winter, and I know most of us are looking forward to some warm African sun on our skins again. I am so looking forward to summer, but I also know that when you check in with me in two months time – when summer is at its peak – I will probably be looking forward to winter again. With the warmer weather and changing of seasons – one of our traditions is about to begin. The Guiding Team has many great traditions; one of these is an annual competition to spot the returning migrants.
There are absolutely no prizes and one’s only reward is usually a strong line of questioning on exactly what else the bird could have been.
But the birds really have no interest in our competitions and they arrive despite all the fuss. One that I can’t wait to see is the Amur falcon, purely because I find the migration that this bird is involved in fascinating. And I use that wording on purpose, this bird is only one part of a temporary but complete migratory ecosystem in the sky that forms above the Indian Ocean twice a year. This ecosystem should in fact be fully formed at this exact moment with millions upon millions of species en route back to the African sub-continent; all of them taking the more direct oceanic line rather than, as in most bird species, the continental pathway.
It all starts with the formation of the Indian Ocean Flyway that forms as the Indian landmass cools, building a pressure system that forces strong winds out into the ocean and toward warming Southern Africa. This is the taxi that everybody catches. It’s an Uber-Black that wastes no time in getting its passengers where they need to go, taking roughly only a week to cover the 4000km bridge between southern India and eastern Africa! Can you believe it – one week?
Now the Amur falcon, recently re-named for its breeding grounds in Amurland, the border between far eastern Russia and north-eastern China, is one of the most incredible migratory birds on the planet, traveling a total circuit of 22 000km each year! They leave their breeding grounds around July and cover a whopping 6000km over Asia to hit southern India, just in time to hitch a ride on the Indian Ocean Flyway.
As we speak, this Flyway is busy whipping hundreds of thousands of falcons across to Kenya before they make their way further south to us here in South Africa. But what is sustaining these birds over this gruelling weeklong, 4000km stretch? Most migrants are able to rest at night, but the falcons don’t have that luxury. The fuel burn must be immense, despite the bonus of having a strong tailwind carrying you along.
The answer lies in a small and unassuming dragonfly, the Wandering Glider. Although unassuming in looks, this little creature holds the world record for longest insect migration, a whopping 18 000km over 4 generations! Now they are also making use of the Flyway, but what is sustaining them? The answer is millions of smaller insects, some with purpose – also trying to make the crossing – and others more unfortunate – just swept up in the strong winds.
But then what sustains them? The final piece of the puzzle is the aeroplankton that feeds only on sweet sunshine, taking that energy and sending it all the way up the chain to the Amur Falcon. And thus, the ecosystem in the sky is fully formed.
And that is all happening right now, the whole system is functioning and operational and helping to return two notable species back to Londolozi as the entire region comes awake after a dry, sleepy winter. The trees and grass will flush green again, the flowers are soon to bloom, insects and all their accompanying colours will pour out of the eggs and various cavities, the returning migrants are arriving, and summer will finally be here again!