Conservation of the Black Harrier in the Western Cape: tracking birds through land transformation and across landscapes

4 Apr 2012 - 08:00

The Black Harrier Circus maurus is one of 16 species of harriers worldwide, with the most restricted range of any continental species. Endemic to the grasslands and fynbos of southern Africa, it has been the subject of only one breeding study, and is classified as globally `Vulnerable’. Its world population is estimated at 1000 - 2000 birds, of which fewer than 100 occur in protected areas. This 12-year study has investigated the breeding ecology and resource requirements of Black Harriers, with a view to improving management strategies to meet its conservation needs. Specifically, the project has compared the natural history of the species in different habitats, and analysed the effects of landscape characteristics on harrier distribution. This is of particular relevance given that large areas of the harrier’s range have been transformed by agriculture. Our data show that coastal birds are more productive than inland pairs and those breeding in the mountains are the least successful – and have more birds than small mammals in their diet. From surveys of the West Coast and Overberg regions we also know that harriers prefer intact patches of renosterveld exceeding 100 ha in which to breed.

More recently harriers have been followed outside the breeding season using (Argos) satellite tracking technology. The results from five birds show impressive movements eastwards across the continent to Lesotho for the summer. One bird has recently (2011) returned to its west coast breeding grounds after a 2500 km journey in 5 months. Future research will include assessments of the influence of climate change on the frequency and success of breeding.

The Black Harrier project was largely funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and is part of the C.A.P.E. (Cape Action Plan for People and the Environment) initiative and more recently it has been supported by the NRF. The Black Harrier can be used as a conservation flagship and an indicator of habitat health because of its dependence on pristine patches of indigenous vegetation.

Research team: Andrew Jenkins & Rob Simmons

A short video made by the team at Homebrew Films about Moraea, the Black Harrier, and how it all started way back in 2010...

For more information, follow the Black Harrier Blog ( or visit the Raptor Research page on the FitzPatrick Institute's website.