Get Ready to rock and roll(er)…

The migrant season is upon us! And there is not a more charismatic, colourful and easily recognisable migrant than the European Roller. Rollers are attractive and incredibly agile… as seen when performing their rolling aerial acrobatics during flight and courtship. Bronwyn Maree, East Atlantic Flyway Initiative (EAFI) Project Manager, shares more.

European Rollers are non-breeding migrants ranging from Morocco to south-western and central Europe, Asia Minor, and eastwards towards Siberia. They are the only rollers to breed in Europe and their entire non-breeding range is in Africa. Birds usually start to arrive around October/November and depart again in March/April. This species travels vast distances, often over 10 000km, from its breeding grounds in Europe to its wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa.

European Rollers are large, heavy rollers with a square tail and pale blue to green-blue plumage. They are slightly larger than the Lilac-breasted Roller and have a bigger head and bill. They are also generally silent in Africa, unless alarmed. Lilac-breasted Rollers have distinctive pointed tail streamers (except when moulting), with a turquoise crown and lilac breast. European Rollers are seen mainly on their own but can be found in small groups, perching in trees, on fences and powerlines and on the ground. Rollers perch in these high locations to hunt for their insect prey, which includes beetles, locusts, ants, and termites and such. They can be found in various habitats, provided there are trees in which they can nest in pre-existing holes (either natural cavities or abandoned burrows of other species, such as the Green Wood-hoopoe).

Unfortunately, European Roller populations are in decline, mainly due to concerns at the breeding sites. This includes the loss of suitable habitat, primarily linked with unsustainable agricultural practices, loss of nesting sites, use of pesticides and illegal killing along their migration routes. Much of the current research and conservation efforts have been focused on the European breeding grounds, and very little is known about the species in its wintering ground. Most importantly, the threats this species faces along its migration routes and wintering grounds are unclear.

A Flyway Action Plan for the European Roller was adopted in 2017 to address these concerns. Several gaps were highlighted, including a lack of monitoring of this species at the overwintering grounds and a lack of understanding of the habitat use of European Rollers along migration routes and overwintering sites. In 2021, BirdLife South Africa began addressing some of these gaps by implementing a monitoring project at three key locations in the eastern part of South Africa, one of which is the Kruger National Park. Rollers are logged along short pre-defined transects through the BirdLasser transect protocol app, collecting information on the number of individuals, location seen, activity (such as perching or feeding), and distance from the observer. If you plan to visit the Kruger National Park during October and March, please contact BirdLife South Africa (details below) and join in this vital citizen science project, providing valuable information on this special migrant.

World Migratory Bird Day, a global campaign, is celebrated in May and October each year, and aims to raise awareness of migratory birds and the need to conserve them across many countries’ borders. This year’s theme, “Dim the Lights for Birds at Night”, showcases the challenges migratory birds face with ever transforming landscapes. Every year the amount of artificial light pollution on the earth’s surface is increasing by at least two per cent, making it harder for these birds, and other migratory species, to navigate. This alters their migration and foraging patterns and impacts vocal communication. Solutions to light pollution are readily available. Why not play your part and dim/reduce light usage during migration periods to reduce disorientation and the risk posed by buildings, and ensure these birds arrive in South Africa safely?

So next time you see a European Roller, or long-distance migrant, consider the long distance they have travelled and the many challenges they have faced to reach southern Africa from their starting point. Try to make their journey easier or help us collect information on these species while they are in our beautiful country! Even better, challenge your friends and family and see who can spot the highest number of migrant species! Species you are likely to encounter (depending on where you join the challenge) include Barn Swallow, Yellow-billed Kite, Curlew Sandpiper, European Bee-eater and Red-chested Cuckoo.

*For more information or to get involved, contact Bronwyn Maree, East Atlantic Flyway Initiative Project Manager, BirdLife South Africa: bronwyn.maree@birdlife.org.za

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