Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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Unlikely home

ANN/THE STAR – In Terengganu, white-bellied sea eagles are choosing to land and nest on transmission towers erected by energy and telecommunications companies. Surprisingly, this behaviour persists despite the presence of ample trees.

Birdwatching enthusiast Anuar McAfee noticed the eagles opting for these man-made structures over trees when he first observed them nesting and raising chicks on the towers approximately seven to eight years ago.

McAfee, a Canadian, is married to a Malaysian and has lived in the state for over 30 years. He teaches English at Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin and is the director of its international centre. He’s also a Fellow of the university’s East Coast Environmental Research Institute.

His birdwatching hobby has led to other conservation connections: McAfee is a committee member of the Terengganu Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), and a member of its bird council.

McAfee regularly follows and observes several pairs of eagles in the areas of Kuala Terengganu, Setiu and Tasik Kenyir. He told the story of how eagles he has been watching have been moving to their unusual homes: A pair was nesting in a cengal tree on Pulau Duyung, an island in the Kuala Terengganu river estuary. The cengal is a tropical hardwood tree that can grow up to over 60m in height.

“One year, they shifted to another cengal tree on the same island, they used it for one year, then they switched back to their original nesting site. Then the next year, they moved to a nearby telecommunication tower,” he recalled.

The birds, he added, then started to use the nest in the tower more frequently before abandoning the tree altogether. “So it’s not an issue, in my view, of a loss of habitat and they don’t have a place to go anymore but rather, that these man-made structures are more suitable or preferred by the birds,” said McAfee at an interview in Putrajaya in November 2023.

This, he stressed, is an important point because the companies building towers need to be aware that their structures are, for some reason, attracting these birds.

A White-bellied Sea-eagle returning to its nest on a telecommunications tower. PHOTO: ANUAR MCAFEE
PHOTO: ANUAR MCAFEE
Photos show an eagle’s nest and a White-bellied Sea-eagle collecting material to build its nest. PHOTO: ANUAR MCAFEE

FLYING WITH THE EAGLES

Native to countries ranging from India to Australia, and including Malaysia, the white-bellied sea eagle, the Icthyophaga leucogaster, is commonly found along Malaysia’s coastlines, where it amazes fisherfolk and gawking tourists with its aerial swoops and dives for fish that makes up much of its diet.

Locally known as helang laut (sea eagle), the eagle is Malaysia’s largest native bird of prey and totally protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act.

It is also fiercely territorial and monogamous, and mates for life, which means that a pair may return to the same nesting site year after year to breed and raise its young.

In Terengganu, the eagle has been spotted nesting in, among other places, Tasik Kenyir, Setiu and even on casuarina trees that border the beaches right in the downtown area of the state capital, Kuala Terengganu.

“When the power and telecommunication companies remove the nests, I know the birds will rebuild them,” said McAfee.

In 2021, MNS issued a statement calling for a policy from these companies to address birds’ nests on electricity pylons or telecommunication towers.

This came after the destruction or removal of three nests by tower maintenance crews – one in Merang in 2021 and two in Hulu Terengganu and Kuala Nerus in 2022. According to MNS, there were hatchlings and eggs in the nests.

McAfee said that, from his observation, the nests tend to be removed at the peak of the breeding season; for these eagles here this is during the north-east monsoon months between December and February.

“It’s not two weeks before when there are only the eggs, it’s not two months before when there is only a nest and there are no birds, it’s not one month after.

“It’s always at that peak when the young hatch, and they are easy to get, that staff go in and remove the nests.

“If their policy is to simply to remove the nest, they should remove it outside the breeding season,” stressed McAfee, adding that during this time, the birds can get very aggressive. But Terengganu is hardly singular in facing this problem.

NO FOWL PLAY

As telecommunications networks expand and the hunger for power intensifies around the world, transmission towers are being built at a faster rate than ever.

According to the Telecom Tower Global Market Report 2023, the global telecommunications tower market alone is expected to grow from USD46.56 billion last year to USD52.60 billion this year. A 2018 survey put the number of cellular towers in Malaysia at 22,682; in comparison, the United States had 42,000 towers as at July 2021.

Whether it be crows, ospreys, storks, vultures or eagles, the problem of birds roosting or colliding with such infrastructure is acute enough worldwide for the International Union for Conservation of Nature to issue guidelines on the matter.

In 2022, the organisation noted “the rapid spread of such infrastructure worldwide and the fact that power lines can be one of the main causes of direct mortality for several species of birds and other wildlife, including mammals…”, adding that it was also “an issue for electricity companies and can be costly and disruptive, since they cause power outages, damage to equipment, and fires”.

Birds of prey, it added, are among the most affected.

Among the measures experts suggest to keep birds away are installing anti-roosting wire systems or netting on these towers, as well as providing supplemental structures.

McAfee sees this issue with the birds and towers as an opportunity for everyone.

“It is something we can all learn from – learn how to deal with the wildlife in a safe way for all, and maybe even try new designs of towers that provide a safe area for birds to use, or eliminate areas so that birds no longer use the towers.

“Maybe they need to modify their towers a little bit,” he said, adding that MNS hopes to raise awareness so that these companies will look at their overseas counterparts to see what measures they are taking, as well as work together with local wildlife authorities.

NESTED INTERESTS

According to McAfee, birdwatching as a hobby is on the rise in Terengganu, and is indirectly driving the conservation of forests.

Terengganu MNS has received two grants from Birdlife Inter-national through its headquarters to carry out surveys and identify areas where the rare helmeted hornbill might be located in the state.

It has so far located two nests and McAfee has an inkling where a third one may be found; it’s in an area he is hoping to propose be fully protected as a state park. – Sim Leoi Leoi

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