As falcons feed their chicks, an onlooker observes their every move.
American Sara Kross is based in Blenheim for the next three years as she completes her doctorate on falcon conservation and their impact on pest birds.
A friend told her about the Falcons for Grapes project when she was considering which topic to study and she contacted those behind it. "They said they wanted more research done, but hadn't been able to pay for someone to do it all so I got on board."
Falcons for Grapes was set up by International Wildlife Consultants' Nick Fox in 2005 and is managed by Colin Wynn. It has been relocating wild chicks into nest boxes within the vineyards of Marlborough's Wairau Valley and releasing them as pairs in an attempt to raise a breeding population.
Miss Kross said though the vineyard population of falcons was managed and provided with some food, the birds were wild in the sense they could fly back to the wild population if they wished.
By December last year three pairs had successfully bred chicks.
The project's primary aim was to help falcons increase breeding population and life expectancy, but it also helped vineyards prevent grape damage from other birds.
Miss Kross uses a range of research methods including a nest camera, bird abundance counts, grape damage assessment and radiotracking.
Preliminary results showed the project was working with vineyards involved reporting less bird damage and falcons successfully breeding, but she would have comprehensive results at the end of her doctorate.
Pernod Ricard New Zealand donated radiotracking gear as well as the labour and electrical parts for the nest cameras. The University of Canterbury paid for the rest. Miss Kross also recently won a grant from Canon New Zealand for $5000 worth of equipment and binoculars and a digital video camera.
Part of her research involves looking at the difference between what wild falcons eat and what the vineyard-raised chicks are fed.
"Many people think falcons shouldn't be introduced into the Wairau Plains but they do belong there. They were there before we drove them away."
New Zealand's only remaining endemic diurnal raptor, the New Zealand falcon is known as a southern, bush or eastern form of falcon. The Department of Conservation classes the eastern form which Miss Kross is studying as under gradual decline, making it chronically threatened.
Miss Kross has a degree in Animal Science from New York University and a degree in Environmental Biology from a university in Scotland. She hopes her research will show falcons do belong on the plains and can successfully breed with a positive side effect on the wine industry.
- The Marlborough Express
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