Raptor Quest, March 2012
Some casual birders probably have a romanticised view of birding for a living, in terms of being a birding tour leader anyway. It’s good fun for the most part, but does involve a lot of hard work. Try getting 12 individual birders onto each bird seen, explaining branch-by-branch how to move up the tree to find the bird – after explaining tree-by-tree how to find the right tree, that is. Then do that 990 times in 13 days… After doing birding safari upon birding safari, one doesn’t quite get bored or ‘gat vol’, or fed up, as our wonderful South African saying goes, but it’s still nice to set little challenges to keep things interesting.
On my last safari, from 4th to 16th March, I laid down the challenge of seeing more than 32 diurnal raptor species on the safari. This wasn’t an arbitrary figure, as Nic Squires (who was co-leader on this trip with me) and I had seen 32 raptors on a previous safari in March 2008, and in fact on a one-vehicle safari this February, of only seven days’ duration, I managed to see 31 raptors. So 32 seemed to be the figure to beat, and I informed my group of 12 UK birders at the start of the safari of my goal and soon had everyone keenly looking out for raptors.
On day one, on our way from Johannesburg to Dullstroom, we logged number one with a Black-shouldered Kite, a small rodent-hunting raptor common along the N4 Highway, where they hunt in the grassy verges and adjoining fields. Turning off the main road to Dullstroom onto a dirt road for some afternoon birding we saw two other common raptors, Steppe Buzzard and Amur Falcon, both visitors from Europe and Asia, with the Amur being the most abundant raptor of the trip. On day two, which we spent in the beautiful high-altitude grasslands of the Dullstroom region, we logged ten different raptors, including two endemics (Cape Vulture and Jackal Buzzard); the enigmatic Secretarybird; the ubiquitous African Fish Eagle, which has spread thanks to man’s damming of small rivers; Black-chested Snake-Eagle atop a electricity pylon near Tonteldoos; Long-crested Eagle, a hunter of the grassland / plantation edge; and the superb Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk with a fresh kill to finish off the day.
On day three, which took us from the highlands to the montane forest of the escarpment and on to the rocky crags of the Blyde River Canyon, we logged a further three species to take the total to 13, the highlight being a Black Sparrowhawk in flight over the canyon. On day four the list began to grow rapidly as we headed into the superb raptor country of the Kruger National Park. 7 new species were seen, the highlight of which was the Taita Falcon, South Africa’s rarest resident breeding bird. A pair of these bullet-like Falcons nest high above the road on the Abel Erasmus Pass, and on this occasion we got great in-flight views of one of the pair chasing Speckled Pigeons flying to and from their perches high on the iron-oxide stained cliffs. Day five took the list all the way up to 24 with five new species, including Martial Eagle, the Lion of the bird world; a massive ‘flock’ of several hundred eagles (most likely Steppe, Tawny and Lesser-spotted Eagles, though only the latter two were counted) circling over an enormous Red-billed Quealea nesting colony; both normal and melanistic forms of Gabar Goshawk; and Lesser Kestrels hovering over the Mavumbye Plains north-east of Satara Rest Camp. On day six we found all four savannah Vultures (White-backed, Hooded, Lappet-faced and White-headed Vultures) occupying the trees around a kill site, as well as African Hawk-Eagle (the Leopard of the bird world) and a superb male Montagu’s Harrier to take the list to within sight of the 30 species barrier. On day seven we recorded a sub-adult African Goshawk being mobbed by Bulbuls, Starlings and Puffbacks along the Sabie River and we saw the season’s last Yellow-billed Kite as we left Skukuza for Pretoriuskop. The Kite was the only new species for the day, showing the typical ‘decreasing marginal returns’ theory of birding. On day eight we bagged the two raptor specials for the broadleaf savannah around Pretoriuskop – Lizard Buzzard and Dark Chanting Goshawk, to level the score at 32, with five days still in hand. While sorting out luggage and getting settled into our chalets at Maguga Dam, Swaziland, in the late afternoon of day eight we recorded a couple of European Hobbies hawking insects overhead to push us into the lead at 33 species.
Day nine, a travelling day, didn’t bring any new species, while day 10, spent exploring Mkuze Game Reserve in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, delivered one of our ‘big three’ raptors in the form of an African Crowned Eagle in display high overhead. On the other end of the scale we had a brief view of a Little Sparrowhawk late in the afternoon to take us to 35 species, and at a marsh in the back country between Utrecht and Wakkerstroom we recorded African Marsh-Harrier to take us to a final total of 36 diurnal raptor species. Throw in the four Owl species (Pearl-spotted Owlet, African Scops-Owl, Verreaux’s and Spotted Eagle-Owls) and you have a sum total of 40 species of predatory birds seen on one safari!
All in all it was a very rewarding trip, with some superb bird species seen. The highlight for me was a massive flock of several thousand Amur Falcons gathering on the last afternoon of the trip in anticipation of their imminent departure for Asia via the Indian Sub-Continent. By any accounts 36 is a fantastic number of raptors, representing more than 10% of the total number of birds seen on the trip. I’m looking forward to my next late-summer safari to see if 36 can be beaten!
Below is a slideshow of a few of the species seen (though the photographs are from my archives, except the Amur Falcon, which was take in Wakkerstroom on the safari).
» 2 Comments
at Tuesday, 27 March 2012 15:51
wow, what a trip, Leon! I am seriously envious of this one, seeing and photographing raptors is just sooo thrilling, especially the species count and the huge flocks you spotted, super stuff!
at Monday, 16 April 2012 13:17
And then some say: "The dearth of Raptors"... Superbly done, Leon!
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