She’s the pilot. The sole passenger. The navigator. The engine. The refueller. She’s Flight 95773.
She is the Amzing Amur Falcon.
Each year, around December/January thousands of these birds arrive in Newcastle, South Africa from Mongolia and Siberia. The largest Amur falcon Roost in the world estimated at 26000 birds is in Newcastle and that is where we were last weekend.
What makes this Amur Falcon special is that sitting on her back is a matchbox-sized GPS transmitter that will beam data to several satellites orbiting 850km above the earth.
Tracking 95773 will be expensive. The 5g transmitter on her back costs R26 000. Add another R26 000 to download the information from the satellites.
She is one of 10 falcons trapped in Newcastle in January 2010 and fitted with transmitters.
The people behind the venture don’t believe in giving birds names, but they give her, and nine other falcons, numbers. Each is the ID of the GPS Platform Terminal Transmitter (PTT) strapped to their backs.
Hers is PTT 95773.
The mystery is her route, not her destination: the breeding grounds of Mongolia.
For a long time ornithologists have debated the route that Amur Falcons take to Mongolia.
This is too early for the launch of her migration, but soon 95773 begins revealing part of the hidden life of an Amur Falcon.
“We found out that she moved a lot at night between roosts,” says Pretorius. “The Roberts book said that they hunt only 50km from their roost, but we found her travelling to Memel and Standerton.”
The first glitch comes soon after the 10 birds are released: three of the transmitters stop working.
No one knows why: it might be that there is a glitch with the transmitters, or it could be that three birds have died.
But not 95773.
Then, at 11am on Friday, March 21 2010, the satellite sends the team the data that they have been waiting for.
95773 has begun her migration to the breeding grounds in Mongolia.
In Kruger at this time of the year you can see groups of these birds north of Lower Sabie. We find the S128 to be particularly good for Amur Falcons.