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Farid drove through the desert to reach the foot of the mountain in his Toyota 4x4

Farid’s trek into the Sahara

Last week when I put out an appeal on the website and e-mailed some contacts in Morocco, it was more in hope than expectation that someone in Morocco may be able to go and find out what had happened to 09(98) on the edge of the Sahara. We were receiving transmissions from a remote ridge of the northern edge of the desert, well away from main roads and in some of the most inhospitable terrain Africa – or perhaps, more accurately, the world has to offer. Surely, 09’s fate would remain a mystery?

Well, not when you have Farid Lacroix to help you. Farid is an ex search and rescue helicopter pilot, originally from France but now living in Agadir, in the south of Morocco.  Farid’s career has taken him all over the world, and most significantly of all from our point of view, into the desert. When he saw our appeal for help on moroccanbirds.blogspot.com (kindly posted there by Mohamed Amezian of the University of Abdelmalek Essaadi) he immediately got in touch and offered to drive the 250km from Agadir to the spot where we had been receiving transmissions from 09’s satellite tag since 3pm on September 11th. The Sahara is not the sort of place you can take lightly – conditions can suddenly deteriorate in a matter of minutes – but Farid’s experience meant he was well-qualified to deal with the worst the desert could throw at him.

So, on Thursday morning last week, he left Agadir and drove south. Leaving the main roads behind he headed onto dirt tracks and into the desert. Using his Garmin GPS as a guide he eventually reached the foot of the mountain where the satellite data showed 09’s tag was lying.

Farid drove through the desert to reach the foot of the mountain in his Toyota 4×4

The view as Farid set out on foot to find the transmitter

In Farid’s own words, ‘climbing this mountain was very hard and maybe dangerous’. That was an understatement, but unperturbed he set off up the mountain with a 15kg rucksack containing 3 litres of water, some food, a survival blanket, a satellite phone in case of an emergency and his camera equipment. The photo below shows his route up the mountain, which involved more than 1000 feet of climbing on loose shale. This would be difficult enough on its own, but the searing desert temperatures made the climb even more demanding.

Farid’s routes up (red) and back down (green) the mountain

The accuracy of 09’s GPS transmitter and the fact all the fixes were from exactly the same position, meant that once Farid had scaled the steep scree slope, it did not take him long to find the transmitter. We had been hoping that the transmitter had fallen off and that 09 had continued his journey towards Senegal, but sadly Farid immediately found evidence that proved otherwise – a pile of feathers and bones and 09’s two leg rings, along with the transmitter.

All of 09’s GPS fixes had come from the same location since 3pm on 11th September

The view from the location where Farid found the transmitter and 09’s remains

After a search, Farid found 09’s remains and the transmitter

The transmitter, bones and feathers

09’s foot and ring

So, sadly we now knew 09’s fate, but what was it that killed him? A look at data from his transmitter’s activity meter suggests he was alive until the early hours of 12th September and, therefore, it seems likely the he was predated by either an Eagle Owl or a mammal,perhaps a Jackal, during the night or very early next morning. This theory is given more credence by the fact that Farid found 09’s remains a few feet from the branch where he would have been roosting; tell tale white excrement suggesting he had been perched there for some time. Perhaps conditions in the desert were poor for migrating on the afternoon of 11th September, forcing 09 to cut-short his day’s flight? Sadly it seems that it was this decision to roost on the ridge that resulted in his demise; an owl or mammal pouncing on him in the night and then eating him where Farid found the remains. It certainly seems very unlikely that he died of natural causes. Having flown more than 250 miles on each day of his seven-day flight to southern Morocco, he was clearly in good condition.

Of course we will never know exactly what happened, but whatever the case, it goes to show that even for an experienced Osprey, like 09, migration is a very hazardous time. The desert terrain means that migrating Ospreys have to roost on or very close to the ground, making predation a very real threat.

09’s roosting branch, with excrement below – suggesting he had been perched there for several hours

09’s remains, a few feet away from his roosting branch

We are incredibly grateful to Farid for going to such amazing lengths to find out what had happened. It is remarkable that someone we have never met offered to drive 500km and scale a 1000 foot mountain in the Sahara to help us solve the mystery. As I said in the previous post, migrating birds have a unique ability to link people and communities across the world, and this is a perfect example of this. We are currently setting-up a project that will link schools along the Osprey migration flyway and I hope that this will encourage young people in Europe, Africa and perhaps further a field to follow Farid’s example and to take an interest in the conservation of migratory birds. As 09’s sad demise shows, Ospreys and other migratory species face many natural hazards on their 3000 mile journey to Africa, and I feel it is vital that we do all we can to encourage international collaboration and partnerships to ensure that those threats do not include human ones.

If you are interested in becoming involved in our schools project, then please email me timmackrill@rutlandwater.org.uk for more informaton. Or, if you would like to support our work, you can donate here.

Thank you again, Farid.

Farid on the mountain

An aerial view of the location in southern Morocco where 09 was found

Our fears are confirmed

I was hoping I would have good news to report today, but sadly not. Late last night I received a text message from Farid Lacroix saying that he had found found 09’s body on the ridge in southern Morocco and retrieved the satellite transmitter. Mobile signal in the area is very limited and so we will have to wait until Farid returns to Agadir later today for the full story (including the cause of death).

This is really sad news, but it confirms what we had expected. It also demonstrates that even an experienced Osprey like 09 – who has migrated the equivalent of three times round the world in his lifetime – is not immune to the dangers of the 3000 mile flight to West Africa.  Migration is an incredibly demanding time for the birds, whether juveniles or adults, and our satellite-tracking studies are proving that.

The project is very grateful to Farid for his efforts in getting to what is clearly a very remote, inhospitable place. In his text message Farid said, ‘it was very hard to climb this mountain’ and you only have to look at the aerial photo below, to appreciate that. It will be very interesting to see his photos once he is back in Agadir.  As I said in the last update, the response we have had to our appeal for help has been remarkable – a second search team, led by wildlife film-maker Faouzi Lahoucine was due to set out today. Having prepared for the trip, they are still going to go in order to film the area for us. There are few things that have the potential to link communities across the world, like bird migration; and the efforts of people we have never met before, demonstrate that.

An aerial view of the location in southern Morocco where 09 was found

The recent advances in satellite-tracking have made it possible to follow the migrations of Ospreys and other migratory birds in unprecedented detail and in the past year thousands of people, from all over the world, have followed 09 on his remarkable journeys between Rutland and Senegal. Over the years he has become a real favourite at Rutland Water. Having been translocated to the reservoir in 1998, he returned two years later and then spent the next twelve summers attempting to attract a mate. So when he finally reared two chicks for the first time this summer, it was cause for real celebration. Let’s just hope that at least one of those chicks survives the rigours of migration and and makes it back to Rutland in a couple of years’ time.

Farid will be sending more detailed news and some photos once he is back in Agadir and so we’ll be sure to post them on the site as soon as we receive them – hopefully over the weekend.

09(98) and his first-ever family this summer

09's location on the edge of the Sahara

The search for 09

As expected we are still receving transmissions from 09’s radio in exactly the same location in the south of Morocco. This confirms that he has either died, or the transmitter has fallen off.

We have received an incredible response to our appeal for help. As luck would have it Frederic Lacroix, who lives in Agadir, was planning to travel to the south of Morocco tomorrow on a photographic trip and he has offered to go and look for 09. If he fails, then another team, led by wildlife film-maker Lahoucine Faouzi, have kindly agreed to travel to the area on Friday and look for 09 on Saturday. So either way, we should know what has happened by the end of the weekend. This really is a fantastic outcome and we are very grateful to Frederic and Lahoucine and his team for their help.

As we wait for news, myself and the team at Rutland have been discussing what may have happened. The most likely scenario, we think, is that poor weather – or perhaps sandstorms – forced 09 to land on the ridge on 11th September. As an experienced migrator, he would have known not to set out across the Sahara if conditions were poor for flying. Sadly, once there, he may have been predated by an Eagle Owl or even a Bonelli’s Eagle. Both species are capable of taking a bird as large as an Osprey and both occur in this southern part of Morocco. The alternative, of course, is that the transmitter fell off while 09 was perched there. Hopefully either Frederic or Lahoucine will be able to provide an answer. And let’s hope it is the latter.

Amazingly, whilst looking at the various land forms on Google Earth, we realised that we flew over the exact spot that we are receiving transmissions from, in January 2011 en route to West Arica. The photo below was taken by John Wright from the plane that day and I have marked on 09’s position. This shows what a remote, inhospitable place it is, so good luck to Frederic and Lahoucine in their search for 09. We’ll report any news as soon as we have it.

09’s location on the edge of the Sahara

Sad news

Sad news

Having reached the northern edge of the Sahara on Tuesday, we expected 09 to be well into his crossing of the desert by now. Instead, we have some bitterly disappointing news to report.

All of the GPS fixes we have received from 09’s satellite transmitter in the latest batch of data (from 12-15 Sept) are from exactly the same place. Furthermore, the activity meter on the transmitter is showing that it isn’t moving either. In other words, 09 – or his transmitter – hasn’t moved since 3pm on 11th September. 

So what has happened? Well, there are two options. The first, which obviously we hope isn’t the case, is that 09 has died. Although the transmitters are designed to fall off once the cotton holding the teflon harness in place has rotted, we wouldn’t expect that to have happened within two years – especially as Roy Dennis has tracked some birds for five years or more. Clearly, if the transmitter is still in place, then 09 must have died. But if that is the case, then the cause of death is a real mystery. As you’ll know if you have been following his migration, 09 has been making excellent progress south. It took him just seven days to reach southern Morocco – an average of over 250 miles per day. This suggests that he was in good condition and it seems unlikely that he would suddenly have died of natural causes. Likewise, the remote nature of the site, makes human intervention improbable too. When AW died in the Ivory Coast last winter, it was clear from the satellite data that humans were almost certainly to blame. However, 09’s position is two-and-a-half miles from the nearest habitation – a small village called Taskala – and on the top of a steep ridge some 1000 feet above the village.

So if 09 hasn’t come to grief, then what has happened? The only other explanation is that the transmitter has fallen off. When 06(01) returned to breed at Rutland Water in 2003, she had lost the satellite transmitter that had been fitted to her as a juvenile just two years previously. So, although the transmitters are designed to stay on for around five years, there is a prescedent for them falling off sooner than this. We certainly hope that this is the case with 09.

We have received a total of 14 GPS transmissions from 09’s radio since 3pm on 11th September. All are from the same location, with no local movements.

The transmitter is two-and-a-half miles from the nearest village and at the top of a steep ridge

Of course, the only way we will be able to solve the mystery in the short-term is to try and get someone to go and look for the transmitter. The fact that it is still providing good-quality data means that if someone can get to the area, then retrieving it is a possibility. The problem we are faced with is that this is a very remote area – and close to the disputed border with Western Sahara. However, I will be emailing some contacts in Morocco this afternoon to try and get the ball rolling.

Whatever the case, this is all desperately disappointing, especially as 09 was in the middle of such a superb migration. All we can hope is that the transmitter has dropped off and that we will be able to retrieve it. So, if you know anyone who may be able to help, please get in touch with me by email – timmackrill@rutlandwater.org.uk. I’ll post more news as soon as we have any.

Good luck Liz!

Good luck Liz!

We should receive the next batch of data from 09’s transmitter over the weekend, so keep an eye on the website for the next update  – most probably on Sunday. It will be really interesting to see how far he has flown. If he has maintained the pace he set during the first week of his migration, then he should be well into his crossing of the Sahara. Watch this space!

In the meantime, a special mention to Liz McCarthy. Liz is running the Great North Run on Sunday in order to raise money for our satellite-tracking work. As 09’s data demonstrates, the GPS satellite transmitters give a truly unique insight into the birds’ epic journeys to West Africa as well us providing us with a wealth of valuable information on their movements in and around Rutland. Each transmitter costs £2500 with an additional fee of £600 per year for the on-going data collection costs. So if you have enjoyed following 09’s journey so far and would like to support our work, then please consider sponsoring Liz for the Great North Run. You can do so via her online fund-raising page. Thanks in advance and GOOD LUCK to Liz for Sunday.

09 and his satellite transmitter