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Long-crested Eagle study in Uganda
Munir Virani — in Pan Africa Conservation Program    Share

Note: The following was written by Nicholas Gardener MSc. Candidate, University of Exeter U.K. - To describe Uganda’s capital as a bustling, buzzing city would be an absurd understatement. Kampala is a truly fascinating place to be. I find myself incapable of adequately describing the melee of the streets, bursting at the seams with matatus (sardine-like jam-packed minivans for public transport), yet miraculously squeezing in swarms of boda-bodas (motorsycle-taxis), cyclists and pedestrians, all of them abiding by an unwritten set of rules, or otherwise following no rules whatsoever. One particularly earnest taxi driver told me with a grin: “if you can drive in Kampala, you can drive anywhere”. On top of all this is the inescapable ubiquitous presence of the almost comically large police force. With teargas trucks on most roundabouts, and hordes of armed officers crowding every major street corner, I’ve been advised that taking any pictures in Kampala itself is a no-no. It’s a pity because there has been ample opportunity for some unique and often humorous shots (today’s example being a sign reading: “development nose no boarders”). Needless to say, when I first arrived I was somewhat overwhelmed. Having only ever been to a very rural part of Africa once before, I attempted to prepare myself for the culture shock prior to my departure from the U.K, but still felt a certain sense of removal from reality, of being in a different dimension for the first few days of my stay. Luckily, I had a focus.

A Long-crested Eagle

I’ve come here under the direction of Dr. Munir Virani and the supervision of Professor Derek Pomeroy of Makerere University, in order to study the highly charismatic Long-Crested Eagle. Whilst this Afrotropical raptor is reported as common and relatively unthreatened across most of its range, much of its habitat in Uganda is subject to such rapid structural change, particularly in the form of tea and coffee plantations, that new studies of potentially affected populations could yield interesting results. To this end, the main focus of my research is to try and establish the population density of these raptors in the area surrounding Kampala, an area heavily affected by human-mediated habitat change, and to look for any trends of habitat preference within this area. The completed project report will form part of my MSc, and hopefully pave the way for future studies on the species.

The basic plan for the fieldwork is to perform road-counts, recording information such as the eagles’ distance from the road, their current activity, and the predominant habitat surrounding their location. Before I arrived, several such counts had already been conducted by Osman Mwebe, an intern at the university, and my invaluable guide for the duration of the project. The main challenge we face is using public transport for all data collection, which means a combination of matatus and boda-bodas. One report I’d read before coming out here said “no matter whether you’re religious or not, you’ll learn to pray on the back of a boda-boda”, so my first trip was a nervous one. After a few minutes though, the fear was gone and I was actually enjoying the experience! Things got even better when, only ten minutes into the journey, we saw our first eagle! It was perched on a telegraph pole adjacent to the road, just as I’d been told it would be. A naive part of my mind couldn’t help thinking “this is going to be easy...” Over the next five hours and one hundred kilometres of dusty, bumpy track we saw one more eagle.

Osman checking out a potential L.C.E. nest.

Having been in the country for around three weeks now, I have been out in the field on nine occasions, with inevitably varying success. However, hundreds of fairly uncomfortable kilometres, three separate burst tyres, and several of the most welcome showers of my life later, we have distance data on around sixty individual Long-crested Eagles, which I’m very pleased with! It should be enough to form an estimate of their population density in the Kampala region. In addition to this density measure and basic habitat information, I will be conducting an analysis of previous geo-referenced Long-crested Eagle data from the 1980s onwards, as well as putting my data in the context of several G.I.S. layers containing information about land-use type, human population density among others. Hopefully, this will give me a fairly good picture of the eagles’ population dynamics, and how they’ve changed over time in relation to several factors.

Boda-boda flat tyre number 3!

In the meantime, I’ll be going on a couple more counts (the more data the better!), and (with a bit of luck) observing a few reported nests in the area, to add a further behavioural aspect to the project. Surprisingly little is known about the breeding behaviour of the Long-crested Eagle in the Kampala region, with reports from elsewhere in Africa suggesting a great variation in breeding times. I’m excited about the prospect of being able to observe the eagles for longer than a few seconds by the side of a road! I’ll be posting more “Notes From The Field” soon, with updates on my progress in the coming weeks, as well as any emerging patterns I find in the data.

The long road ahead.

Note from Munir Virani: Nicholas Gardener is a Masters student at the University of Exeter and being supported by The Peregrine Fund via the Uganda Project. He is conducting a study entitled “The effects of changing land-use types on populations of Long-crested Eagles in southern Uganda”

Nicholas’s Project has three primary aims:

  • To ascertain an estimate of Long-Crested Eagle population size and density by conducting road counts through the Kampala region.
  • To establish which habitat parameters can best predict the presence and population density of the eagles by collecting habitat data for each road count sighting. To control for varying habitat frequencies, habitat type will be recorded at regular intervals along each road transect, thus enabling a calculation of expected population size (at chance-level) for each habitat category.
  • To ascertain from extensive previous road count data how the population size and density has changed over time, in relation to changing environmental conditions, habitat parameters and other raptor species’ (such as Eastern Chanting Goshawks) populations.

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