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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Learning more about Raptors

I tiptoed across the room and slid into the first empty seat found. Dr Toru Yamazaki was in the midst of describing the physical characteristics of raptors, birds that have developed weapons to kill — outstanding eyesight, hooked bills, powerful legs and feet, as well as sharp curved talons.
The Asian Raptor Research and Conservation Network (ARRCN) had organised the workshop in Kuching.
Registration for the event was from 8.30am till 9am. It was barely 9am, but enthusiasm had already driven the workshop well underway.
As my eyes got accustomed to the dim lighting, I saw that the Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch Bird Group was well represented. Some members had even occupied front row seats that were meant for the organisers!
In recent months, it had been impossible to get all these people together for a monthly lunch hour meeting due to our hectic schedules. Obviously, the full-day raptor workshop was held in the highest esteem among bird-watchers.
The idea for a symposium on Asian Raptors was hatched in Berlin in 1992. Six years later, in December 1998, raptor researchers and conservationists from across Asia gathered in Japan for the first Symposium on Asian Raptors.
It was at that inaugural symposium that the Asian Raptor Research and Conservation Network was established to promote and coordinate raptor research and conservation efforts. Quoting an old cliché - the rest is history.
Dr Lin Wen-Horn from Taiwan gave insights into the mechanism of raptor evolution. He said habitats play an important role in their evolution.
Prey species available within habitats determine the type of hunting skills
required of the raptors, which in turn will necessitate the evolution of body form and structure to relate to their prey.
Hence, the osprey has evolved talons to pick fish out of water; the hawk eagle has powerful legs to swoop down on scurrying rabbits; while the vulture does not need to develop swift flight nor a weapon to kill its prey since the carcasses it feeds on are not likely to run away.
Lin also spoke briefly on classification using modern biochemical methods involving DNA technology. The subject was way over my head and reminded me strangely of the biblical book of Numbers.
Classification is about grouping similarities and what belongs where; however, what is believed to be similar in the present may be totally quirky later on and so causes absolute confusion for all involved, so that a symposium has to be arranged to resolve the chaos. The ARRCN may beg to differ.
One of the objectives of the ARRCN is to share information concerning raptors such as research methodology, techniques for habitat restoration and protection, migratory routes, care for injured raptors, and methods of releasing rehabilitated ones.
Information exchange is
facilitated through symposiums, workshops, publications, the ARRCN mailing list and website. There is a database about the status of Asian raptors, including their distribution, population, habitat, ecology, breeding and other aspects pertinent to their conservation.
The ARRCN also provides resources such as experts and institutions as well as training programmes for participating countries to augment their research.
Dr Chaiyan Kasorndorkbua from Thailand shared his knowledge on raptor rehabilitation. Vagrant birds and raptors incapacitated by shot wounds, electrocution, object hits, or a predated wound, undergo rehabilitation.

Flight tests are then conducted to determine whether rehabilitated birds are ready to be released back into the wild. Care for injured raptors does not end with the release of the bird.
The ‘Fly the Vulture Home’ programme illustrated the laborious wing-tagging and satellite tracking techniques employed to ensure rehabilitated raptors are indeed truly independent. Kasorndorkbua’s colleague, Tatsuyoshi Murate, elaborated on radio tracking and bird handling. Chatuphon Sawasdee presented some informative data on migratory routes in Thailand. At the peak of migration, tens of thousands of a single species of raptor was recorded per day. The
numbers are impressive and have inspired birders to look harder at their local flyways.
ARRCN counterparts from Malaysia were equally enlightening in their presentations. Dr Jalila Abu, who heads a raptor rehabilitation programme, demonstrated techniques for handling and treatment of injured raptors. Lim Kim Chye, an MNS member from Taiping, gave excellent accounts of the migratory flyways in Malaysia.
For years, Indonesian raptor researchers have worked closely with MNS to monitor migratory raptors at Pulau Rupat in the Straits of Melaka and Tanjung Tuan, Port Dickson.
During a recent survey in West Kalimantan, Dr Zaini Rakhman reported Oriental Honey Buzzards flying towards Sarawak and is excited about possible collaboration on field surveys in Borneo.
The raptor workshop was a real treat. The small group offered ample opportunities for discussion while the tea breaks allowed participants and researchers to get to know one another on a more personal level.
The workshop wound up with an announcement of the 6th ARRCN Symposium in Mongolia to be held at the end of June 2010, the breeding period of Saker falcons, Steppe eagles, Amur falcons, and the like.
Despite the long day, we left with hope and renewed strength, soaring on wings like eagles; with a little travel bug tugging at our hearts.

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